Friday, July 6, 2012

June Screening Log

I saw a lot in June I wanted to comment on but didn't have time to write about it all. Rather than just doing nothing, though, I thought it'd be nice to put together a few capsule reviews. These are some of the last movies I watched in June. Disagree with anything? Feel free to leave a comment if the spirit moves you.

Disney-Pixar's Brave is just one of several movies (including Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man) that I went into with low expectations, thanks to review headlines, and came out of enjoying. I could even see it ending up on my year-end list. It's familiar one sense, but it's also got a mind and heart of its own. Part of what I admire about it is the simplicity of its story. A complicated movie and a complex movie aren't the same. You don't make something complex by adding to it; you do it by giving simple elements the room and tender care they need to bloom. Brave falls short of being a Pixar masterpiece, but it has a firm understanding of human relationships. It knows that people who love each other can also hurt each other, and that all of that comes from wounded pride or a limited perspective. It also knows how important forgiveness is, and how saying "I'm sorry" can sometimes have magical results.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Over the past month I've seen Spielberg's classic adventure film on the big screen twice, after years without seeing it. The first time was at the Denton Movie Tavern, which screened it as part of their summer retro series. This was fun, but they screened a DVD copy, so the picture was horrible. The second time was at The Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, and instead of using a DVD they screened a brand new 35mm print. I don't think I have to tell you how much better this was. But in either case, I had fun. Belloq grew up with his family label, and I grew up with Raiders of the Lost Ark, except I've finally reached a point now where I can fully appreciate all of its nuances and its importance to American cinema. It relies on standard tropes, but it transcends them with a seriousness that's only laughable when it's supposed to be. But more than, I also appreciate it for its formal qualities. The kind of filmmaking you see here has largely disappeared. The action in today's adventure movies has to be jumpy and chaotic, but Raiders is grounded in clarity. Spielberg only cuts when he has to, or when he has something to emphasize, and he doesn't saturate the screen in close-ups, something I've really come to hate. I want directors to ground their images in space, not give me talking heads, and that's one of the great things that Spielberg, still a young director at the time, brings to Raiders.

The Searchers
This is another one I saw recently on the big screen, but at a nearby Cinemark, not the skeezy Movie Tavern two minutes away, and with a DCP, not a DVD or Blu-Ray. There's a lot of hand-wringing going on among movie buffs today about the rise of DCPs and the rapid disappearance of 35mm. I share their concern, but I'm also in favor of whatever gets classic movies like this one into more venues. I mean honestly, if you had to choose between seeing a DCP of The Searchers or only seeing it on your TV, is there really any choice? If the quality's there, absolutely not, which was the case here. The colors were rich and the images sharp. I can't imagine it looking better, but then again, I wasn't around when it first came out. Still, a great looking picture won't iron out a movie's thorny issues, and The Searchers has a few, but I enjoyed John Wayne's performance more than ever. This is another one I grew up watching, but I'm only now seeing the dark undercurrents that feed its narrative. In general, old westerns turn me off because there's just a little too much starch in those jeans and not enough mud. The Searchers is that way a little, but there's also a dangerous adult world up there, and the more you can see it, the more you can appreciate what a movie Ford's masterpiece is.

Take Shelter
I think I'll file Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter under the "don't get me started" category. Last year, many critics hailed it as one of 2011's best, and maybe if I'd seen it then, instead of about a week ago on DVD, I'd feel differently, but I don't. Instead, it joins a very small list of movies that make me angry. The primary reason is that it spends over two hours teasing us with a mystery that, once solved, isn't carried any further. I suppose that looks artsy, but it's not terribly brave. Anyone can end a movie just when it's getting good; it takes guts to explore the consequences of it all. For example, consider M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, which also spends a lot of time raising tension and dancing around a few mysteries. But it doesn't stop there, with the invasion of earth, or Mel Gibson and his family staring into the eyes an alien. Instead, it deftly draws together all its threads into a moment of urgency and consequence. Take Shelter avoids this route. Instead of showing us why his story matters, Nichols drops the ball and runs away. Of course, it could be that the marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is what's really important, but even there I can't go along with it. If Nichols wanted to explore the tenuous bond between his two leads, why didn't he do more to put Chastain front and center. After all, she's the one who has to make a decision. Shannon's character is largely passive, and passive characters are rarely interesting. Still, I can't deny the power of Shannon's performance. It was enough to keep me riveted until about halfway though, when it became obvious that Nichols' movie was just running on fumes.

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