Saturday, June 14, 2008

Things People Told Me to Watch

The Animaniacs

(Recommended after I was baffled by a reference in comments.) I probably missed my window of opportunity on these 1990s-era cartoons. I can see their slapstick merit, and I appreciate the way that much adult humor, in both senses of the term, has been artfully inserted so as to not register on children's radars. Still, it's kid stuff at its core, and (because of that? despite that?) couldn't hold my interest for long.

Talk to Her

(Recommended by Austin after I talked up Volver, another film by the Spanish oddball Almodovar.) Talk to Her is another movie that you'll love if you love Almodovar, and hate if you hate him. I kind of like him. This one initially veers toward mediocrity with a long and ultimately pointless first reel about a female bullfighter, but once that bit is wrapped up we move on to a far more interesting tale about the creepy side of love. The director's trademark garish visuals and flat emotional affect create a feel that is part lowbrow soap opera, part high surrealism.

Anatomy of a Murder

(Recommended by an article in the New Yorker.) The most modern-feeling of any black and white "old movie" I've yet seen, Anatomy of a Murder stars Jimmy Stewart, usually an icon of earnest wholesomeness, in a cynical, irreverent critique of the legal process. The setting initially seems to place us in pure Perry Mason territory. Paul Biegler (Stewart) is an independant attorney with a smart, sassy secretary who faces a mediocre public prosecutor in a fabulously appointed courthouse packed with well-dressed spectators. But whereas ol' Perry only seemed to attract the innocent to his practice -- a deep flaw in his business plan, I've always thought -- in Anatomy the client is only too happy to admit having shot the local barkeep five times with his pistol, whereupon the unfortunate guy, as one character deadpans, "died very quickly of lead poisoning."

The late barkeeper may have: a) raped the client's wife, and been killed in revenge, or b) got lucky with the client's wife, and been killed in a jealous rage. The wife's bruises may have been put there by a) her rapist, or b) her enraged husband. It's left ambiguous. Biegler doesn't care anyway; his job is to defend his client, so he professes the first scenario with apparent absolute conviction. While Preminger obscures the crime itself, he dwells on the strategies, tactics, and dirty tricks used by both sides in the trial. The implicit critique comes through the portrayal of an elaborate criminal justice process in which no one is especially concerned about determining the truth about how or why the murder happened.

For "courtroom drama" you don't neccessarily think "small town Upper Penninsula Michigan," and for neither of the above would you think "steamy Duke Ellington soundtrack!" Yet these are the ingredients, and they actually sit quite well together. The movie is surprisingly frank about the adult aspects of its subject matter, albeit in a special 1950s code (a medical examiner: "Violation is sufficient for establishing rape. It does not require a... completion"). Stewart is surprisingly effective as a small-time, slightly seedy small town lawyer with more enthuiasm for jazz and fishing than the law. A sentimental male-bonding sub-plot is the only disappointment in this otherwise sharp, smart legal procedural.

The Last King of Scotland

(Recommened by Mrs. ChuckDaddy.) You have to salute any producer willing to put together the budget for a movie shot in Africa. Movies shot in Africa have a head start towards excellence, being able to draw on the magnificent natural and cultural imagery and the unhappily abundant human drama of that badly misunderstood continent. However, Africa is widely seen to be box office poison, so we only get a movie on African subjects every couple of years.

The Last King of Scotland is best understood as a biopic on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and in that respect it is terrific. It manages to explore how an unstable charismatic figure can sieze power when civil institutions are weak, how that person might be driven towards excess and paranoia, and the horrific brutality that can result when the guy on top has no checks on his power and his whims.

Amin is seen from the point of view of a young Scottish doctor who through random circumstance becomes his personal physician and closest confidant. This doctor is a very fully realized character in the movie, and we develop a strong sense of his family background, his significance on the fringe of Ugandan power politics, and his probable future after the events of the movie. Given this, it is a little unsettling to learn that this doctor is a purely fictional creation. He was made up simply to have a character from whose perspective Amin could be witnessed.

The Last King of Scotland is a grimly entertaining film. It is as dark as history usually is, but rooting for the young doctor through his midadventures is exciting and fun. As historical fiction, it likely exposed many people who had never even heard of Idi Amin to the strange and tragic career of the prototypical African dictator. At the same time, since the film is likely to become one of the most important historical documents about Amin for all practical purposes, it is a shame that it blends a historical falsehood into the way it tells its story at such a fundamental level. For many people, now, Idi Amin will always be that disturbing Ugandan dictator who had the Scottish doctor.


d said...

forestt whittaker definitely deserved the oscar he won for that film.

i don't understand your hating on the animaniacs.

Anonymous said...

I have not seen Anatomy of a Murder but I am putting it on my queue now.

And The Last King Of Scotland has been one I pass up in the video store so often and forget to take. I'll likely get it tomorrow.

I understand what you mean about the blending and how it can taint the history. Many times kids will tell me "facts" they learned from historical movies and are dismayed when I have them search for the truth.

I have never seen an Alvomodar film. Sheesh! I have some watching to do.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I hear you on old movies being a little slower and less cool. I've always argued that the first REALLY funny old movie is The Odd Couple, but some asshole will probably tell you Duck Soup, which I'm sure is quite lame.

Anonymous said...

I would note for the sake of accuracy that is it "Almodovar".

The 'Last King' is interesting, but they should have gone with a more accurate representation of Robert Astles, on whom the doctor is loosely based. It could have added a level of surrealism to the film. Perhaps instead they are saving the portrayal of his life for another film, as there would be sufficient material.

Michael5000 said...

@d: No hate! No hate! I just missed my window, that's all.

@Dr. Ken: "Duck Soup" is indeed quite lame. You can read about how lame it is here.

@Gus: "Almodovar." Noted and corrected. My fact checker must have been drinking again.