This Week in Film: November 3-9

The Tales of Beatrix Potter
I went into Reginald Mills’s The Tales of Beatrix Potter expecting a tedious and dry bit of “ballet on film,” so I was almost taken aback by how charming and delightful I found the entire endeavor. Narrative concerns take a backseat to the skill and technical proficiency of dancers from The Royal Ballet Company, the stunning costumes, and the pitch-perfect combination of elaborate set mixed with outdoor photography and painterly backdrops. The overall effect brings the world Beatrix Potter dreamed up to vivid life in a series of vignettes that delight in their simplicity and playfulness. There are few things more joyous than watching squirrels, pigs, mice, and frogs performing traditional ballet dances with such grace. The camera unobtrusively glides along with the dancers, consistently capturing the perfect angle or vantage for each sequence, and the editing never breaks up the movement or ruins the continuity of the dances. But above all, the most delightful part the film is seeing the impeccable physicality of the dancers on display and the way in which they’re able to convey – without benefit of dialogue or even facial expressions – so much emotion and comedy.


This was my third viewing of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, and every time I watch it, I’m struck by the film’s overwhelming sadness. Yes, it’s a great piece of cautionary filmmaking, a morality tale for the atomic age. And yes, the special effects hold up surprisingly well – the blend of miniatures, rear projection, optical printing, and practical, on-set  effects all work  together to convincingly bring Godzilla to life. The performances are all solid – aided by the gravitas of Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura – and the score is one of the most memorable in film history. But more than anything, it’s the sadness I’m left with after each viewing – the sadness of a mother embracing her children and telling them that they’ll all be joining their deceased father soon, the sadness of a child weeping over the body of its mother, the sadness of a people so used to death and tragedy that evacuations become commonplace, the sadness of a city’s ruins that remind us of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Honda never shies away from showing us the loss of life, the human toll that Godzilla’s rampages cause. And in the end, Godzilla’s death is just as tragic as all of the other lives lost. It’s this sadness, this burden of fresh grief weighing on the narrative, that makes Godzilla an absolute masterpiece of cinematic history.


Meet Me in St. Louis
I wasn’t at all prepared for the beautiful, moving, and astonishing film that is Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis. Full of wit and charm, the cast is an absolute delight, and the comic timing of each and every beat is impeccable. Each character is so distinctive and the film is filled with such warmth and good-natured humor, that what could have become mawkish and emotionally manipulative is instead an honest and keenly observed look into the joys and pains of family relationships. Minnelli manages to capture both the thrill and the insecurity of newly bourgeoning romance, and the film never patronizes its young protagonists. Refreshingly, all patriarchal bluster is undercut and all petty misunderstandings easily resolved. The final act is among the most moving of any movie musical – a tender moment of compromise and understanding that still brings tears to my eyes – and Minnelli knows how capture these simple, grace-filled moments without overplaying his hand. Meet Me in St. Louis was a tremendous discovery for me – this is a film that I will love and cherish for the rest of my life.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby
An adaptation of Charles Dickens by Britain’s Ealing Studios seems like such a natural fit, that I’m surprised it didn’t happen before Alberto Cavalcanti’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby. The author’s exaggerated characterizations, scathing wit, and warm humanity dovetail quite nicely into the studio’s own brand of acerbic humor and broad (if accurate) caricatures. The film’s narrative hews closely to the novel, a Dickensian tale of rags-to-riches that takes us from a run-down boarding school to a lively theatre troupe to a charming countryside village to a debtor’s prison. Nicholas becomes the hero we wish were present in every Dickens novel – there’s something tremendously satisfying in seeing him thrash an abusive schoolmaster with his own stick. If you know any of Dickens’s work, there are few surprises here, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s many charms. Cavalcanti finds intriguing, impressionistic images throughout, creating an atmosphere of gloom and dread at the beginning that contrasts with the joy and light we find by the end. As with many of Dickens’s narratives, there’s much here to do with class disparity, and the plight of women in Victorian society. It’s thoroughly entertaining, though it is distressing to see just how relevant Dickens feels in Trump’s America.


The Decline of Western Civilization
Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization is an absolutely riveting look into the punk subculture of the late-’70s, early-’80s.  Capturing live performances of some of the scene’s most important bands, Spheeris also manages to capture the sense of physical danger present in these early punk concerts as well as the deep sense of community for young people who felt completely shut out of society. The interviews with band members are fascinating, it not always illuminating. I do wish Spheeris had taken the time to dig into the fascistic, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic undertones within the community, but the pseudo-vérité approach doesn’t allow for much digging into the scene’s underlying beliefs. The block of interviews with fans toward the end of the film is incredibly compelling, revealing the raw pain, neglect, and abuse that many of them have suffered. It was the punk scene that gave them a place of community and safety – even in the midst of the violence that threatened to erupt at nearly every concert. And the energy with which Spheeris shoots and edits these concerts is stunning. It’s an important window into the fringes of American society.


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