Saturday, April 5, 2014

Short Takes: Pi, The Past, and more

L.A. Confidential (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Even on multiple viewings, it can be difficult to untangle the knotty plots and twisted morality of L.A. Confidential. But when the film is this good, those viewings are never short of rewarding. It's 1950s Los Angeles, and by-the-book Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), brutish Bud White (Russell Crowe), and showboating Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) find themselves entangled in a diner shooting that goes much deeper than any of them know. The Oscar-winning script - written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland - masterfully balances the whodunnit plotting with sharp characterization, carefully pulling back the glossy layers of Hollywood life to expose its seedy underbelly. It's a story about how corruption is like a virus, and the film is at it's best when it focuses on this aspect. It's odd, then, that Kim Basinger's Oscar-winning performance is one of the film's weakest aspects. Her performance is solid, but her character is never given all that much to do. The rest of the film, though, works like gangbusters. (Best Shot discussed here) A-

The Letter (dir. William Wyler, 1940)

Based on the play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter tells the sordid tale of Leslie (Bette Davis), the wife of a Singapore plantation owner who shoots a man in her home. She claims it's self-defense, and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) fully stands by her, but her lawyer (James Stephenson) questions her story when an incriminating letter surfaces. The draw here, of course, is Davis, who does a terrific job at playing a woman who's far too confident in her ability to pull of a "perfect murder," and she manages to make Leslie sympathetic despite her crimes. Wyler's direction isn't flashy, but it is dependable and story-focused, and he succeeds in conveying the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. The only major problem with the film is the third act: it was changed from the original to satisfy the censors, but it comes at the cost of the characterizations and plot development that the film had been building up to that point. It's the only thing holding it back from being a true classic. (Best Shot post coming April 15) 

Pi (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

Pi, Aronofsky's feature film debut, feels very much like the first feature by a talent who's confident in their voice. The film concerns a mathematician (Sean Gullette) who's obsessed with discovering a number that will be key to understanding all of the underlying patterns of existence, only to be slowly driven to madness by his quest. Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis appears as a fellow mathematician who has long since given up on the same endeavor. The film, shot in black-and-white, is a taut psychological thriller that plays like an unholy union of Dostoevsky, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, and Aronofsky showcases his penchant for stories of destructive obsession with visual flair. At a brisk 84 minutes, it has difficulty culminating to a coherent ending. But it set the stage for a career that has never been short of fascinating. B

The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2013)

At first, I intended to write a full-length review of The Past, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to his acclaimed masterpiece A Separation. However, I decided against that for two reasons. First, it's very hard to discuss this film without spoiling its many twists, and it works so much better when the viewer goes in blind. The most I'll say is that film involves Marie (Berenice Bejo), a French woman living in Paris who is in the process of finalizing her divorce with her Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), who is confronted with secrets from the past that threatens her current relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim). The second is that this is a film that needs to sit for a while, viewed again, and re-analyzed to grasp everything that it's accomplishing. Bejo - who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year for this role - and Mossafa give especially great performances, as does Elyes Aguis as Samir's young son Fouad. The only slight demerit for the film is that it may have one twist too many, slightly robbing the film of potential emotional power. But more than anything, this is a film that demands to be seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out. A

Can't Stop the Music (dir. Nancy Walker, 1980)

As a pseudo-biopic about the formation of popular disco group Village People, Can't Stop the Music rightfully is kitschy and goofy. The film is perhaps today best known as the inspiration for the Razzie Awards (it was the first "Worst Picture" "winner") and as a cult favorite, but at the time it was a major flop. To be fair, this isn't a particularly great movie. The acting talent of Village People is serviceable at best, while Steve Guttenberg mugs for the camera and Valerie Perrine sometimes seems pained to even be involved in this mess. Similarly, Walker - in her only feature-film directing credit - often seems confused as how frame a scene, leading to a lot of shambling action. Yet all of that comes together in a way that's silly fun, and the musical sequences - especially "YMCA" and "Can't Stop the Music" - are energetic blasts. In many ways, the film is like Village People themselves: ridiculous, over-the-top, and highly entertaining. (Best Shot discussed hereB

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