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Movie Journal 8/10/2015

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“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This, surprisingly enough, has been one of them.” (Source)

Tuesday, 8/4 – I put on Lawrence of Arabia while doing other things and waiting for dinner to be done. I wasn’t giving it a dedicated watch, but even seeing just a few scenes, it’s amazing how much greatness there is in this film beyond just the iconic moments. Take Lawrence’s sojourn into the desert to ponder the “miracle” Feisal requires–it features some of the film’s most stunning cinematography and does a fine job of fleshing out Lawrence’s idiosyncratic way of operating. There’s not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said already, but as often as I say a given classic film isn’t quite as good as everyone says, this is one case where I absolutely agree with the consensus. It really is one of the greatest films ever made, with one of the best scores ever composed for a film. I’m sticking with my 97/100 rating for now, but when my All-Time Film Awards v. 1.0 come out, you’ll be hearing more.

Thursday, 8/6 – I finally saw Ant-Man. As with Magic Mike XXL and Mr. Holmes, I want to discuss it at greater length elsewhere, but suffice to say, the generally good critical reception seems rooted in the film not being a trainwreck. Which it isn’t, but it’s not all that great, either. A lot of the comic moments clearly required a touch like Edgar Wright’s to pull off, and Peyton Reed just doesn’t quite get there (particularly Michael Peña’s character, who’s such an overwrought stereotype I’m surprised there hasn’t been more backlash). After a rough start, it does get better–though the reason for keeping Hope (Evangeline Lilly) out of the Ant-suit is pretty weak–and some fun is had with the shrinking-enlarging gimmick. It balances out as entirely watchable, but a shadow of what might have been. Marvel really needs to stop homogenizing their films (and the attempts at integrating Ant-Man into the Avengers-verse didn’t work for me at all). I’ll say 68/100, which might be on the generous side, but live and let live, you know?

A buddy movie? Not far off. (Source)

A buddy movie? Not far off. (Source)

Friday, 8/7 – The new Fantastic Four has been getting slammed pretty heavily, and somewhat reluctantly I took it in with my friends Maggie and Anna–and to my surprise, it wasn’t quite as bad as all that. I’ll expand on that when I write my full review, but I’m willing to cut the film some slack because it was so obviously mutilated by the studio. There are moments that really do work, especially those which suggest Josh Trank was originally intending to make something like an homage to 50s science fiction, but they’re adrift in a sea of badly edited, often generic footage which bridges gaps that should never have been opened. It does enough right for…let’s say 56/100. That’s still not good, mind you, but given the beating it’s been taking, I think it’s necessary to redress the balance.

Saturday, 8/8 – I had been quite anxious to see Tangerine and got the chance today; I saw it with a family friend, who was put off by the rawness of the material, but admired the heart and the skill with which it was made. I didn’t mind the rawness.

It’s the story of two transgender prostitutes in L.A., Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and how Sin-Dee spends Christmas Eve trying to track down her pimp/faithless lover Chester (James Ransone), while Alexandra meets with customers, promotes her nightclub performance, and tries to keep Sin-Dee out of trouble. There’s a seemingly unrelated subplot which ties into this quite satisfyingly, but I’ll get into that when I write a full review.

"Merry Christmas Eve, bitch." (Source)

“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.” (Source)

And I will. I was surprised just how much I liked this film. It may be raw, the characters may be vulgar (and Sin-Dee may be hard to like at times), but there’s a genuine heart to it (there’s one scene which I won’t spoil which is one of the most quietly beautiful scenes of the year), and it’s gratifying to see how the denouement of the film takes the mounting hijinks of the film so far (which have been incredibly funny) and shows just how sad the fallout from such madness can be, before reminding us at the very end how enduring human connections really are. It’s energetic, it’s engaging, and it’s the best film I’ve ever seen that was shot on an iPhone. Highly, highly recommended. 88/100

Sunday, 8/9 – I have a stack of vintage films from the library, and decided to start on that stack today (well, technically about 1 in the morning) with Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. A seminal film, this, in its combination of a semi-documentary portrait of NYC (with a great deal of footage of city life shot covertly) with a relatively (for the time) grounded portrait of police work, as homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) search for the killer of a young woman who seemed to have a number of suitors–one of whom, Frank Niles (Howard Duff), is clearly the key to solving the mystery, but his penchant for lying makes Muldoon and Halloran’s job that much harder.

In some respects, this film still holds up very well. The scenes of city life are historically valuable and feel fresh and immediate, the suspense is genuine (since we don’t know a great deal more than Muldoon and Halloran know at any given point), and producer Mark Hellinger provides a fascinating narration, often talking to the characters or remarking wryly on their predicaments; elsewhere, we often get the thoughts of people on the street via voiceover. It’s a choice which makes the film feel distinctive; even as the story proves to be a fairly average procedural, the manner of its telling is what makes it memorable.

These policeman must not only investigate and interrogate...they must also console. (Source)

These policeman must not only investigate and interrogate…they must also console. (Source)

The acting, however, is a decidedly mixed bag. Fitzgerald is great as the wily old Irish cop, alternately using folksy charm and no-nonsense determination to get the answers he needs, and Duff is properly pathetic as the faux-playboy who lies repeatedly, admits to it, but continues to maintain his essential decency. And Ted de Corsia is surprisingly unsensational as the slimy Garzah. Besides them, however, the acting is too often wooden or overwrought in a manner at odds with the otherwise grounded material. Taylor, as the chipper, clean-cut Halloran, is the former; Adelaide Klein, as the victim’s mother, is the latter, despite having a fine monologue where she initially condemns her daughter, then breaks down on seeing her body and laments that her beautiful daughter was not born ugly.

Despite these issues, The Naked City is certainly worth it for any serious student of film. William H. Daniels’ Oscar-winning cinematography and Paul Weatherwax’s Oscar-winning editing remain impressive. And it ends on a powerful note, as the murder begins to fade from the public eye (we see newspapers dealing with the crime being gathered by a trash collector), with only the involved parties to keep it alive in their memories, and the narrator saying that great final line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” 81/100

This evening, I took in Aardman’s critically acclaimed Shaun the Sheep Movie, which has oddly met with indifferent box-office. While not the best Aardman film to date (it’s not as good as Chicken Run, and I’m sure it’s not as good as Curse of the Were-Rabbit), it’s a thoroughly sweet and charming film, a simple tale which should delight children and adults alike.

The story: a bunch of sheep, led by the titular Shaun, want to take the day off from being herded around, and so contrive to trick their farmer (who’s just called The Farmer) into thinking it’s night, then sequestering him in a trailer so they can party in the farmer’s house. The farmer’s dog isn’t having it, but when they attempt to awaken the farmer, they send the trailer careening down the road to The Big City, and set off in pursuit. The farmer sustains a blow to the head and loses his memory, and the dog and sheep struggle to survive in the city while evading the clutches of an evil Animal Control officer.

Oh, and then the farmer inadvertently becomes a celebrity barber.

From the opening moments, Shaun is a charming film, showing the farmer playing with Shaun as a lamb (we see the dog as a puppy), and generally setting up a happy if monotonous situation on the farm (in the bucolic region of Mossy Bottom). Once the sheeps’ plot kicks into action, the charm is leavened with a great deal of ingenious humor, the details of which I won’t spoil now–but suffice to say I was laughing quite a bit. The claymation is lovely, there’s a good score, and there’s some very agreeable original songs to boot.

There's also this guy. (Source)

There’s also this guy. (Source)

I only have two real complaints about the film. First is that the story is really not that original. That in itself isn’t necessarily so bad, but given the level of acclaim and the ingenuity shown in most individual scenes, the predictability of the overall framework is a bit of a letdown. The villain in particular feels a bit stale; it seems as if every film with animal protagonists must have an antagonist who despises animals–yet works with them.

The second is that the lack of dialogue (except for garbled gibberish) feels a little contrived at times. It makes sense for the animals, but I’m not sure what was really gained by making the humans mute as well. It makes a few plot points unnecessarily vague, and while the film isn’t that hard to follow, it may make viewing a greater challenge for very young children than it needed to be.

But given how lovely the film is as a whole, these weaknesses can be overlooked. I haven’t settled on a score (I suppose I will when I write a full review), but right now I’m thinking somewhere in the high **** range. I’ll decide later. I’m tired.

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