Even though the last week was a bit hectic at work – what with needing to make preparations to be away from the office for two weeks – I was still able to get in a decent number of films this past week. It was a surprisingly consistent set of films – only two stinkers in the bunch. The biggest surprise was To Dust – a really moving film about grief and loss. As always, I’ve included links to help you find out where to watch the films.
With Ingmar Bergman’s Summer Interlude, we start to see the still developing filmmaker refining his cinematic technique and narrative obsessions with memory, loss, and the passage of time. There are some stunning shots throughout the film (especially the ways in which Bergman films the dance sequences) and some striking compositions – the use of mirrors and closeups on half of the lead actress’ face especially conveys her fractured psyche. I love the tenderness and honesty with which Bergman explores young love, and the menacing presence of lecherous old men is never minimized or written off as cute or quaint. Maj-Britt Nilsson gives a stellar performance, capturing the innocence of youth and the hardness that can come after trauma and suffering. I do wish the ending was stronger – the final moments feel rushed and the petulant boyfriend she ends up with doesn’t leave us with the feeling of hope that Bergman seems to be aiming toward. Still, it’s a confident, gripping work.
Stanley Donen’s Charade is an utter delight from beginning to end. Yes, it feels a little like Hitchcock-lite, but the charms of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant cannot be underestimated. A murder mystery and espionage thriller that never takes itself too seriously, the film relies heavily on the chemistry between Grant and Hepburn – not to mention a razor-sharp banter and whip-smart wit that never slows down for a minute. The twists and turns are fairly standard – and if you’re really paying attention you can see them coming from a mile away – but Donen’s crisp direction keeps things moving along so effectively that it doesn’t really matter. And in this story of a woman at the whims of potentially violent men, it’s nice to see Hepburn’s character given such strength and determination. It’s a light confection of a film, and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed with each and every viewing.
Legend of the Demon Cat
Kaige Chen’s Legend of the Demon Cat has some magnificent visuals throughout its more than two-hour visit to China’s Tang Dynasty, but visuals alone can’t make up for the film’s convoluted plot and excessive spectacle. Skipping past the establishment of important story points in favor of lavish set pieces, the narrative continually feels disjoined and choppy, lurching from one moment to the next. This has the added consequence of truncating important character motivations which keeps us from emotionally investing in what is supposed to be a deeply moving story of love, sacrifice, and vengeance. Chen attempts to make up for these omissions of plot and character by never allowing his camera to stay in one place – it’s constantly swooping, circling, pushing in on characters, or whooshing about the set. Add to that the often gluttonous use of subpar computer generated effects, and you end up with a jumbled mess. At least it’s good to know that America isn’t the only country producing bloated and empty blockbusters.
I had know idea what to expect from Shawn Snyder’s To Dust, but I found it to be one of those delightful surprises you get every once in a while as a moviegoer – a unique film with a singular voice that moved me quite unexpectedly. The film follows a Hasidic cantor whose wife has just died. He begins to agonize about the fate of her soul while her body decomposes, so he enlists the help of a community college biology professor (played brilliantly by Matthew Broderick) to understand the process of decomposition. It’s ostensibly a comedy – with some very funny and very dark bits throughout – but it’s also a lovely meditation on the insufficiency of religion and science when faced with grief and loss. The muted colors perfectly reflect the main character’s grief, but in the midst of this frame that seems to have been drained of all color, Snyder finds some incredibly beautiful and striking composition. By the film’s end, the unity of faith and reason provides a deeply moving (anti)resolution. Things may not be all right, but we can still lift our voices in song and cry out in the midst of our pain and loss.
Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows may be more commercially mainstream and a more blatant thriller than his earlier works, but it still has the same long-simmering tensions and deep interest in dysfunctional masculinity that typify his filmography. The basic plot follows a standard kidnapping storyline, but while there are the obligatory twists and red herrings, Farhadi’s focus isn’t on the mystery or the suspense. He’s interested in the secrets and resentments that have remained buried beneath the surface of a seemingly happy community – and the class divisions which remain even when fortunes have shifted to make such distinctions all but nonexistent, at least on a monetary level. Both Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem give fantastic performances and Farhadi’s long takes gives this magnificent cast time and space to really respond to one another in the moment, creating more depth and resonance in what could have been a standard thriller.
There are a handful of pleasant moments in Sing, a visually frenetic and mindlessly insipid bit of children’s entertainment that continues the trend of lowering the bar for family cinema further and further into the abyss. I appreciated the touching father/son moment towards the end of the film and there are a couple of very funny gags. But like so many non-Disney animated features, Sing seems bound and determined to teach children all the wrong lessons – from romanticizing the approval of an abusive parent and refusing to communicate with an unappreciative partner, to condoning lies and manipulations (as long as it’s in the service of your dreams!) and giving a pass to selfishness and ruthless competition. While a few of the musical numbers are fun to watch (and I am a sucker for characters singing on screen), nearly all of the songs are bland pop songs that are as empty and shallow as the rest of the film. The film is a visual and sonic cacophony, training our children in selfishness and assaulting their attention spans with flashing colors, quick cuts, and total sensory overload.