Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008). in the realm of computer animated features, there is Pixar and then there’s everyone else. Others have reaped box office success, but there’s an broad, enduring gap when it comes to artistry. Dreamworks Animation is arguably the outfit working most diligently to cross the divide. Kung Fu Panda doesn’t accomplish that, in part because the storytelling is as by-the-numbers as it gets, but it does boast a visual sense that is smoothly well-realized, generally engaging, and, at times, very striking. In particular, the sequences involving the elaborate prison created for the villainous Tai Lung (voiced with appropriate menace by Ian McShane) and his escape from his incarceration are things of dark beauty. The plentiful action sequences are handled skillfully by Osborne and Stevenson. The film still feels like partially fulfilled possibility than something that truly takes advantage of the open frontier of the animation form, but that doesn’t mean it’s not plainly entertaining.
Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995). While I already notified the world about my recent viewing of Verhoeven’s classic disaster, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get a little attention here. Not that it was ever anticipated as a potential work of art, but it’s worth remembering that this was Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhaus’s collaborative follow-up to Basic Instinct, which was hugely smutty, but was also a great big hit. One of the stated goals of the filmmakers was a film so financially successful that it effectively legitimized the fairly new NC-17 rating. So their dreams were as big and pointless and fruitless as those of protagonist Nomi Malone, who hits Las Vegas with full intentions of being a star. What follows mistakes raunchiness for risque sexiness, gleefully piling on lurid set pieces so that it quickly becomes wonderful unintentional comedy. There are actually a few moments that genuinely work, or at least have the potential to–I’m especially fond of the offhand way it’s established that the producer’s dressing down of a casino employee who tried to pimp Nomi out at a boat show was just a bit of theater to appease her–but they’re drowned out by the terrible acting and dialogue so detached from how people really talk that it seems like it was written by a visiting extraterrestrial. Elizabeth Berkley’s lead performance is really a thing to behold: wrong-footed at every emotional step. Her Nomi can go from sedate to fully enraged at the drop of a G-string, and is so relentlessly physical that you expect her to play the last scene with an Olympic gold medal around her neck. It’s not sexy, but it’s rigorous–a scene involving sex in a swimming pool resembles the inside of an especially robust washing machine more than any act that could be described as sensual. Make no mistake, Berkley’s performance is brutally bad, but it also inspires a weird sort of admiration for her fearlessness and foolhardy dedication.
The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenabar, 2004). Based on a true story, Amenabar’s follow-up to his beautifully moody horror film The Others follows Spaniard Ramon Sampedro as he fights for the right to end his own life, thereby ending the misery of being paralyzed from the neck down, the result of a diving accident decades earlier. Amenabar is extraordinarily delicate in his approach, which leads to a few moments of almost startling beauty, particularly as he allows for visualization of Sampedro’s imagined wanderings. It also means that the film, though smart and elegant, feels a little too distant. Euthanasia is a major issue, especially in country like Spain which is dominated by a culture shaped by Catholicism. What should be a gripping intellectual debate becomes mere background. The different relationships Sampedro has help to flesh out this element, especially when the film addresses Sampedro’s brother’s mixture of guilt and resentment with disarming honesty.
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). It’s always striking to be reminded of the fluidity of Hitchcock’s camerawork and how effectively he explored the psychology of his characters. His mastery of the technical and the emotional is a splendid convergence that marks his best works, including the one film of his that claimed the Academy Award for Best Picture. Hitchcock lost the Best Director prize to The Grapes of Wrath‘s John Ford. Rebecca is beautifully simple. A young woman marries a wealthy man, only to find herself intimidated by the memory of his first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. Hitchcock makes the increasing paranoia fully understandable, largely thanks to the marvelous performances he draws from his actors, notably Joan Fontaine as the worried bride and Laurence Olivier, oozing intimidating imperiousness as the husband. There’s also a splendidly droll supporting performance by George Sanders, which serves as a nice precursor to Addison DeWitt.
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957). Has any other director used space as effectively as Stanley Kubrick. In this, his fourth feature film, Kubrick moves his camera around high-ranking French military officials as they debate strategy in an enormous mansion room that’s been converted to a command center office. He never does anything particularly innovative or shows off in an overt way, but he makes the scene feel dynamic is a way that would elude just about any other director. The same effect is achieved as the camera backpedals through the trenches where soldiers toil and die, or shifts carefully within those soldiers’ confined quarters. Kubrick’s real skill is making this serve the story. It’s not a distraction. Instead, it draws us in as a disastrous World War I military advance leads to the prosecution of several randomly selected enlisted men for cowardice, essentially to cover up the ineptitude of the distant generals calling the shots. Kubrick refrains from heavily hammering home points. Instead, he lingers on the unfairly persecuted soldiers as the await their punishment, capturing the range of their reactions with devastating effect.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)