Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Mouse that Roared (1959) ****

Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg
Written by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley

Years ago, my father recommended this film to me on several different occasions.  I was finally able to see it thanks to Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago and I fell for it.  So, on this occasion of the sixth anniversary of his death, I put forward my review of the film.  Six years ago, just after he died, I posted a review of his favorite film, The Magnificent Seven that can be seen here (along with some other reviews I made at the same time).

This film is absolutely hilarious.  Peter Sellers is on full display here, in his first multiple-part role as the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy and Tully Bascombe.  The script is smart and the look is a bit ahead of it's time.  Though made in 1959, the color employed makes it look like it was made in the mid-'60s.

The plot centers around the smallest country in the world, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.  The film is set in 1959 but the country is interminably set in Elizabethan times, using bows and arrows, chain mail armor and the like, yet being fully aware of the times and issues of the world at the time.  Grand Fenwick is broke.  The Prime Minister (Sellers) decides the best way to get money is through war relief from the U.S., so the country declares war on the United States to surrender and collect the aid money.

The task of surrendering is put upon Tully Bascombe (Sellers again), a well meaning but more or less simple man.  He lands upon the shores of the United States and somehow manages to steal the Q-bomb, a bomb so powerful an  H-bomb is used to detonate it, and taking hostage the scientist who built it, his daughter, and a U.S. General thereby winning the war.  This is bad news for Grand Fenwick.

Eventually all the world's powers want to hold on to the bomb.  The U.S. shows up to bargain a surrender...the U.S.' surrender.  The Prime Minister tries to salvage his plan of losing the war by stealing off with the bomb, the girl and the general in an old car from the early '20s which is probably the most advanced bit of technology in the entire country.  This sets up a laugh-out-loud race with the car in the lead and Tully Bascombe trying to keep up.

The subplot is that Tully Bascombe has fallen in love with the scientist's daughter, Helen (Seberg).  As soon as he sees her, he is smitten.  She tries hard, but eventually realizes she's in love with him...just before the Prime Minister pulls her out the window and places her in the car with the bomb...leading to Tully Bascombe to chase the car.  "My girl, my bomb" he says.

I have heretofore not mentioned Sellers as the Grand Duchess of Grand Fenwick.  He as she is the funniest part of the film.  She is aloof and entirely unaware of much what is going on.  She knows they are going to war with the US and thinks it's a charming idea.  If none of this sounds funny to you, please watch for Sellers as the Grand Duchess.  That alone is worth the price of admission.

The film wraps up with Grand Fenwick keeping the bomb safe from the larger countries who may use it.  Part of the peace treaty was that the small countries keep an eye on it to prevent it from ever being used.  This is a grand statement, not only for 1959 but now as well.  The general idea of disarmament is sometimes thought of as a weakening of a country, but in reality it would be a strengthening of humanity.  Enough of that I suppose. See this film, you won't regret it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) **1/2

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
Starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner
Written by Terry Hayes and George Miller

I hadn't seen this film in years, so I recorded it on the DVR from Encore Action last week.  I was struck by the design and look of the film.  When I saw it the first time, I had not seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior, so I didn't really know what was going on (I was also about 6 and only watched it because Tina Turner was in it).  Now having seen the first two films in the series, I can look at this in a new light.  Bartertown, the opening set-piece is pretty spectacular.  We are still in the post-apocalyptic future where mutually assured destruction (MAD, get it?  Mad Max?)  has occurred probably about 15-20 years previously.  Max is car-less and driving a herd of camel to sell.  He's robbed and decides to try to get his car back in Bartertown.  He is quickly recruited by Auntie Entity (Turner) to do some dirty work.  She wants him to kill Blaster, the other half of the symbiotic Master Blaster who runs the power station (the town is powered by methane produced by lots and lots of pigs). She wishes to keep Master, a little person who is "the brains" and defeat Blaster, the brawn.  Without Blaster, Master has no power and must do Auntie's bidding.  This leads us to the titular Thunderdome.

Thunderdome is the cage where the people of Bartertown settle their disputes.  "Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves" is what is chanted all throughout the match between Max and Blaster.  There are weapons hidden in the upper rafters of the cage (where the townspeople are on the outside, perched on the sides, all the way up to the top) and the combatants are placed in harnesses that allow for springing around.  This makes it a bit more interesting than just a hand-to-hand fight.  What struck me most about Thunderdome is not how it is done in the film.  It was that, if a network executive should happen to dust off their VHS copy of the film and put it in, part way through the fight he would be on the phone saying "Yeah, Thunderdome!  Two men enter, one man leaves.  Can we get this done for Fall '11?"  I thought of this during the film, when Auntie says before the combat "Are you ready for another edition of Thunderdome?" as though it was only entertainment, not demanded by law that this occur when a fight ensues.  In fact, the reason for this Thunderdome Law is to prevent war.  Two people have a grievance and those two people solve it, instead of it escalating to war.  This law is of course broken later, but I'll get to that.

After Max fails to kill Blaster because he is a mentally disabled man and Max apparently still has some heart (which shocked me, having been made in '85...but it was made in Australia), he is banished from Bartertown in conjunction with another law, "Break a deal, spin the wheel".  The wheel is simply a roulette wheel with punishments on it.  Sort of a Wheel of Misfortune.  It lands on Gulag (it is '85 and the Russians were still scary) and Max is sent out into the desert.

He is found by some kind of scout and taken back to a colony of children, mostly between the ages of 9 and 18 (no, it's not a castle and it's not just girls).  They are believers in a pseudo-Messiah in the form of a jet pilot who said "he'd come back to fly them all away".  It's kind of eerie.  This is where the plot gives out and kind of runs on fumes for the rest of the film.  Unfortunately, we're only about 1/3-1/2 of the way through the film.  The eldest girl (aged between 16-19) relates the tale of their Messiah through cave paintings.  This is when we find out that after the "pockyplics" this pilot makes his pledge.  Thing is, they think Max is this pilot.  He pretty much tries to shatter their beliefs, but because these kids are so innocent their faith is not easily shaken.  Some believe him and decide to strike out and look for the pilot (who is likely long dead) and other stay behind.  Max has to go rescue them and they end up back in:

Bartertown.  Here, they work to get Max's car back (the reason he went to Bartertown in the first place) and free Master in the process (Blaster was killed in Thunderdome, just not by Max).  Confused yet?  Well I sort of was too.  But anyway...after they get Master, they get out of town, and then Auntie breaks her whole "no war" law (told you this would come up again).  She gathers a posse and goes after Max and the gang.  They find a man who flies an airplane (incidentally it's the same actor who played the guy who flew the gyro-copter in The Road Warrior, but not the same character...though nothing is actually stated to differentiate between the two).  He ends up helping and this leads to a very unsatisfactory ending.

This isn't really a bad movie, and for the opening third alone, I'd say check it out.  It's a bit confusing, because it seems the writers didn't really know what they wanted to do with this.  Still, the set design is pretty spectacular, giving the world a truly lived-in, desperate feeling.  There is some clever action and the end chase is very exciting...but like I said, the ending is very flat.  I understand George Miller is trying to make a fourth Mad Max film.  With the trouble Mel Gibson is having lately, and the fact that Miller cannot get any funding for it, I wouldn't hold my breath.  It could work, but Max would probably be so tired by now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Black Swan (2010) ****

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey.
Written by Mark Hayman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin.

I just saw this last night and it actually made me want to start this blog so I could write about it.  This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.  Don't get me wrong, I've seen some great films in the past six years (when I last had a movie blog) like There Will Be Blood, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Avatar, and several others, but they did not quite inspire me like this one.

The story is rather simple.  Nina (Portman) longs to be Prima Ballerina in the New York Ballet.  She is a technically perfect but cold dancer.  This becomes an issue when she is cast as the Swan Queen in the season opener of Swan Lake.  The director's (Vincent Cassel) new take on the story is that Nina will play both the white and black swans.  This leads her into her descent into madness as she attempts to inhabit the role and finds this very difficult.  There is, of course, much more to it, but to reveal more would be a crime.  Suffice it to say Aronofsky and Portman make you feel like you are going mad with Nina.

Every aspect of Black Swan was done to perfection.  First I'll talk about some of the technical aspects, starting with the sound design.  Normally, this is not a noticeable part of a film.  You hear what you hear booming out of 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound and don't notice much more than the fact you can hear the movie.  This, however, was nuanced.  If something was occurring behind Nina (Portman), it was heard from the rear speakers.  This drew my attention, because it was a wonderful element that drew you into the film and took you along Nina's decent into madness.

Second, direction and cinematography.  The film was shot on film, not digitally.  I saw the film projected digitally which beautifully enhanced the grain of the film.  I say this because this is not a film that would look right pristine and clear.  The grain in the film shows us right away that Nina is not seeing her life clearly.  Aronofsky uses a hand-held camera to show her hurry and her instability, instead of following her with a steady-cam.  When Nina is dancing, the camera whirls around her, she spins left, the camera goes right.  One shot even simulates what a dancer sees when spinning.  Aronofsky utilizes all the Indie tricks he learned when doing Pi and Requiem for a Dream (like the sound and the film to indicate mental status) and the sophisticated special effects he used in The Fountain (which I and about 4 other people loved).  The effects are amazing.  He shows flashes of people or objects as they appear in Nina's head while alternately showing what they really are, so the audience is never really sure if what Nina perceives is really happening or not.  The effects take you inside Nina's head, seeing what she sees (or thinks she sees).

Which brings me to the performances.  Natalie Portman will be nominated for an Oscar (again) for this role and she will likely win.  I hope, anyway.  Her quest for perfection in the role of the Swan Queen is what drives her mad.  Portman drives this film with a quiet intensity that slowly but surly destroys her.  She is very uptight, only knowing or caring about her dancing, which is really her mother's (Barbara Hershey) dream.  Nina still sleeps in the same room, with the same decor, as when she was twelve years old and that is how she is treated.  She does not understand that Nina is a grown woman now and has never truly lived as one.  The other driving force in Nina's life is the company's director, Thomas (Cassel).  He is all at once trying to make her a better dancer by pushing her to be less technical and feel the movements and at the same time trying to sleep with her (which he is notorious for).  Enter Lily (Kunis).  She is a good dancer that is new to the company.  She moves with the flow and grace Thomas is trying to draw out of Nina.  There becomes a rivalry between the two, sort of.  Lily wants to be friends, but Nina believes that Lily just wants to destroy her.  Nina is not popular in the company because of her stand-offish behavior.  Kunis plays Lily very casually which really benefits the role.  She is better than I ever thought she could be.  Barbara Hershey, best known for her work in Hanna and her Sisters, Hoosiers and as Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ,  plays Nina's mother like someone who fails to realize the passage of time, but only in terms of her daughter.  She knows full well that she was never the dancer she wanted to be because she got pregnant with Nina (as the film infers, by the company director).  She is living vicariously through her daughter and Nina suffers the consequences of it.

Over all, the film is absolutely mesmerizing.  The story itself is a riff on Swan Lake.  Everything about the film rings true.  Other films have depicted the descent into madness, very notably Anatol Litvak's The Snake Pit from 1948 with Olivia de Havilland and Robert Aldrich's 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but never quite like this.  This is a very insular film.  Everything that happens either happens to or as a result of Nina.  We are never without her.  As innovative as Aronosky is, he owes a great debt to Stanley Kubrick for this film.  Kubrick was the only person, I thought, that could make a film that was nearly exclusively about one person's reality vs. their perceived reality.  Until I saw Black Swan, that is.

This film is not going to elicit the same feelings from everyone.  Those without the patience to allow a film to unfold quietly in front of you to one shattering conclusion without a bunch of loud noises and lots of property damage are not going to like this.  The film builds from very little to quite a lot over the course of it's 120 minute run time.  Some will feel this time more than others.  If you have the patience for a snow-ball effect of a plot/performance/film, you should enjoy this immensely.