Thursday, March 12, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 4

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2015)
Fury (David Ayer, 2014)
Finding Fela! (Alex Gibney, 2014)
Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992)
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2014)

5 Thoughts:

1. What I loved about Fury is that I never felt like it was encouraging a point of view. A few weeks ago I excoriated American Sniper for having no clue what the hell it was trying to say, with the implication being that a war movie needs to say something. Of course the assembly line of John Wayne WWII movies didn't conform to this, but for the most part, the major war movies have all had  A Point about war. Saving Private Ryan is a hero story, Apocalypse Now is about the pure insanity of war, Platoon is about the way war ruins the soldiers who fight it, The Thin Red Line is about the wastefulness of war on the world, War Horse is about how World War I was fought to reunite a boy and his horse, et cetera. It's like an unwritten rule that there must be a message. But Fury willfully ignores that, and I loved it for doing so. There's a bit of heroism, a bit of insanity, a bit of life-ruining, and a bit of wastefulness, but it all feels like it's there not as preaching, but as an implicit "this is here because of course it was." After the failure of American Sniper to figure out what ulterior motive it was trying (and failing) to schlep on us, it was nice to see a war film without the ambition of a greater point. Just five guys in a tank, doing their best. 

2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the latest film from Studio Ghibli (kind of the Disney of Japan), and by the same distinguished gentleman who made the wonderful Grave of the Fireflies almost thirty years ago. Like most Ghibli films, it's adorable, and it looks great. Actually, Kaguya isn't even like most Ghibli films in that regard, because it's the best looking one there is, notably more visually poetic than anything before, with stunning charcoal-like drawing that the digital age could sorely use more of. Also like several other Ghibli films, there are no villain, which is so different than American children's films that it's difficult to wrap your head around no matter how many Ghibli films you see. But therein lies the (huge) flaw--this is an animated children's film with no antagonist, and it's 138 minutes. Holy crap, does this mutha drag. I wanted to love it. I really did. Some of the scenes are so visually striking, that it almost worked. The ending is beautiful. But getting there takes soooooo looooong. 

3. Fela Kuti is totally amazing. I kind of knew this before seeing Finding Fela!, and now I know it even more so. Director Alex Gibney is one of four or five people who could legitimately be called the greatest documentarian currently working, and he takes an interesting structural strategy here, as the film partially focuses on the creation of the broadway show Fela!, with both the show and the film going on a deep dive into who the man was. He doesn't always come across like the greatest guy--27 wives, what??--but as the show's choreographer says at one point in the film, "He was an original artist; he made a form where there was no form." As docu-biopics go, this is a very good one.  

4. Chaplin, the 1992 biopic by the maker of 1982's Best Picture Winner, Gandhi, is one of the greatest examples that Howard Hawks was wrong. Hawks famously said that, "A good movie is three good scenes, no bad ones." Chaplin does that--it even has far more than just three good scenes. But the result feels somehow less than the sum of the parts. For as many good scenes as there are here, they're all juxtaposed poorly in a way that minimizes their impact. The structure never quite helps you enough in piecing together when events are taking place, and what effect they're having on the larger picture. But that said, so many of the scenes are great. If anything, the major problem is that the movie's too short. It may be 135 minutes long already, but Attenborough's Gandhi was a full hour longer than that, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Chaplin ensures that the film never grows dull, so adding to its runtime shouldn't have hurt the overall product, and might have helped clean up the narrative a bit. Still, it's heavily worth watching, both for the way it celebrates Chaplin's visual inventiveness in wonderful ways, and how unflinchingly it shows the way Hollywood (and America) chewed him up and spit him out. 

5. I wrote a full review of What We Do in the Shadows last week, check it out!

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