New York Stories (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, 1989). I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review of this anthology film and thinking he cheated by giving individual star ratings to each of its three segments. After all, no one going to movie theater had the option of just paying for a third of a ticket to see the one part of the film he recommended. Now that I’ve seen it, however, I completely get why he chose to take that approach: one part of the film is significantly better than the others. Woody Allen’s segment is amusing but clearly a slip on an idea that he’s casually tossed off, and Francis Ford Coppola’s piece (written with his daughter Sofia, a teenager at the time) is absolutely atrocious. On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s opener, “Life Lessons,” is a pure stunner. It’s the story of a brilliant painter struggling as the romantic relationship with his gorgeous, hand-picked protégée is crashing towards an ignoble ending. Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette are the principal actors and both are very strong (it’s far and away the best acting I’ve ever seen from her), but it’s the incredible dynamic directing of Scorsese that makes it mesmerizing.
Super (James Gunn, 2011). I certainly wasn’t expecting the director of Slither to suddenly embrace subtlety with his superhero-themed follow-up, but Super is so relentlessly brash that it eventually devolves into pure obnoxiousness. Rainn Wilson plays a set-upon sad sack who deals with the defection of his girlfriend by becoming a costumed vigilante, taking to the crime-ridden streets with a heavy monkey wrench and a foolish fearlessness about confronting thugs. Gunn is interested in crunching bones and spattering blood, ostensibly to show the real world consequences of confusing fantasy and reality, but the whole film is pitched somewhere between satiric and cartoonish, making the director come across as little more than a more sadistic Zack Snyder. There are some funny bits here and there, and Ellen Page is admirably gung ho as the unbalanced comic shop employee who volunteers to become his sidekick, but the film is ultimately steeped in too much mindless clamor.
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2011). Weighing this as a film experience begins with acknowledging that it’s actually a six episode British series that was edited and condensed into feature length. The cause of the occasionally fragmented, skipping stone quality of the storytelling, then, isn’t hard to discern. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, touring the countryside, reviewing restaurant and alternating between bantering and bickering. The absolute highlights of the film involve the engaging in the equivalent of Wild West showdowns with celebrity impressions in place of pistols. Many of the best of them made the viral video rounds before the film was even released stateside. In a sense, director Michael Winterbottom decided to inflate the brilliantly funny couple of minutes that played with the closing credits to his loony, meta film adaptation of the unfilmable novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The result is an amusing if episodic film that is also a surprisingly dark character study of Coogan’s character, played as an arrogant, egotistical actor who’s festering a hard self-hatred over the stagnant state of his career.
Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011). There is the matter of the subtitled dog. It’s one small element of writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical film about a man finding love while considering the recent death of his father who finally came out as a gay man late in life. But it’s also a very telling element, equal parts clever and cloying. Significantly, it’s endemic of the film’s problematic tendency to undercut the emotions of the storytelling with distancing devices. I think the intent is to draft playful cinematic technique into the service of heightening the poignancy, but the opposite is often the result, at times because there’s a lack of consistency to the implementation of the narrative sleight of hand. Sometimes the subtitles on the pooch seem to represent the thoughts and inclinations his new owner is projecting onto him, but sometimes they’re just silly little jokes. Despite the best of intentions all around, the film never gets its bearings. If I had the sole vote, I wouldn’t have given Christopher Plummer an Oscar for his work her, but it is lovely, gracious work.
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944). The first of Ingrid Bergman’s three Oscars came for her inspired, quietly ferocious turn in this twisty, twisted pyschodrama. Bergman plays Paula, a young woman traumatized by terrible family events early in her life whose training to be an opera singer is sacrificed so she can become the wife of a suave gentleman played by Charles Boyer. He has a dark secret, of course, and he works his way towards his insidious goal in part by convincing Paula that she’s quite mad. George Cukor embraces the the floridness of the story, pushing his actors towards peaks of gleaming ingenuity. Bergman benefits enormously from this, subsuming some of the stalwart classiness that typifies her most famous work to an enormously appealing fire and power, especially when the character finally gets the chance to take command.