Flick Clique: May 8-14
Flesh and the Devil (1926). My exploration of the Greta Garbo DVD set continues with one of her best-regarded silents. This was originally conceived as a star vehicle for John Gilbert (see poster), but the tangible chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo upped her cachet considerably, sparking a romantic screen pairing for the ages in the process. Gilbert and Lars Hanson play military school cadets, best friends since childhood, whose blood-brother bond is tested when the alluring (and married) Garbo enters their lives. This is one of the most well-mounted silents I’ve ever seen — Clarence Brown’s direction is pitch-perfect and lovely to behold (especially scenes with falling snow). The panache on display certainly makes up for the hokey script. The film actually has a lot of surprisingly adult elements: Gilbert and Hanson’s bonding has a bit of a homo-vibe to it, and some of Garbo’s suggestive looks and movements (seductively drinking from a communion cup, for instance) have the power to shock, even today. I can also see why Garbo was such an in-demand actress at this time — she’s totally magnetic, something that can’t quite be said of Gilbert (handsome and charismatic in some shots, strangely ugly in others) or Hanson (horse-faced and somewhat bland). If you’ve never seen a silent before, make this your introduction.
For All Mankind (1989). Absorbing, critically acclaimed documentary on the early missions to the moon. This film uses copious amounts of footage NASA shot in the ’60s and ’70s, along with current voice-overs from the astronauts involved, to recount early moon landings and space walks in a dreamlike, fragmentary manner. The unique presentation takes some getting used to, but the film really captures the awe and wonder of those early missions — and I think most of it is due to that dynamite footage. Brian Eno’s understated score also helps enhance the mood. The astronauts and technicians at NASA seem humbled at being involved in the space program at such an important time. Watching this today makes the film somewhat melancholy, however, now that NASA is prepping the last Space Shuttle mission.
The Illusionist (2010). Beautiful hand-drawn animation from the same director of the weird and wonderful Triplets of Belleville (2003). What I didn’t know was that The Illusionist was made from a previously unfilmed script by the great Jacques Tati — the title character is modeled on Tati’s Monseur Hulot character, and a live action clip from Tati’s hilarious Mon Oncle is even seen at one point. In this 1959-set film, a washed-up French magician journeys to Scotland to perform at a dingy pub. He attracts the curiosity of a young girl who helps clean the pub, and when it’s time for the magician to return to Paris she secretly tags along. The two learn to adapt to each other in the man’s apartment complex filled with eccentric entertainers. We both found this enchanting and totally charming, with a level of craftsmanship on par with Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff. The character of the girl seemed needy and disappointing to me, but maybe that was the filmmaker’s intention? The magician needed to grow (same with the girl, actually), and perhaps they were each others’ perfect catalyst. On a more superficial note, the film has some ravishing visuals of the Paris streets and the character designs (not quite as bizarre as Belleville) are charmingly lifelike. The bunny was our favorite.
Repulsion (1965). Roman Polanski’s first English language feature concerns a damaged young beautician (Catherine Deneuve, willowy and cool) whose fragile psyche comes undone when her sister/London flatmate goes off on holiday. Left alone, the woman has nightmares of being raped and begins to hallucinate that her apartment’s walls are crumbling (a simple yet effective trick). The thought of men leaves her queasy, agitated and even violent. Weird, creepy flick employs a lot of stuff that has since become terror film clichés — but Polanski’s direction is assured and Deneuve is a marvel. I had a slightly more positive reception to Polanski’s previous film Knife in the Water, but this was a good psychological thriller with several elements that are shocking in their bluntness (the sounds of a woman making love on the soundtrack, for instance). The whole film has a startling “off” quality, befitting of a collaboration between a Polish director and a French actress in England.
State of Play (2009). Underwhelming thriller about a U.S. senator (Ben Affleck, out of his league) who is under investigation by a pair of journalists (Russel Crowe and Rachel McAdams) when his mistress dies under mysterious circumstances. I wasn’t sure why I added this to my Netflix queue, honestly, until a scene came up with McAdams and Crowe tramping through the Westin Bonaventure substituting for a Washington DC locale (I added a bunch of Bonaventure-set flicks to my queue, on a whim). The film is convoluted and miscast and really not worth a thinking person’s time. Helen Mirren is also in it, but she’s wasted. Oddly enough, the newspaper printing sequence shown during the end credits beats everything else it preceded in sheer entertainment value.