2013 First-Time Viewings: January Week 2

Ted

I’m going to be honest: I’m not a Seth MacFarlane fan. So I’m not sure what even compelled me to watch this. There was a brief moment in time when I gave Family Guy a chance, because there was a brief moment in time when that was what everybody was doing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the amount of times I laughed per episode was disproportionate to the times when I just sat there stone-faced, so I stopped tuning in. And because MacFarlane’s humor relies too extensively on pop culture references, almost none of the material from the episodes I saw has stuck with me over the years. I mention all this because what you end up getting with MacFarlane’s first feature-length directorial effort is for all intents and purposes the same exact thing. There are the references to obscure pop-culture artifacts from the past, best represented here by the use of the theme song from the James Bond film Octopussy and an extended cameo from Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones. There are the extraneous plot strands that inflate the running length. There are the individual one-liners and oddball associations that do occasionally crack a smile, but only when they aren’t drawn out past the point of no return. It’s not a bad film, and I will say I did laugh several times, something I didn’t expect after enduring the constant barrage of obnoxious promotional material. But it’s not a film that’s going to stick with me; even a week after watching it, I’m struggling to remember many of the standout moments. Which doesn’t bode well for it achieving any kind of long-term classic status. 5/10.

Monsieur Verdoux

In a week mostly devoted to releases from the past year, I decided to throw in something different with this Charlie Chaplin film from 1947. This is the first Chaplin film I’ve seen that is not a silent film, and I wondered just how well Chaplin would be able to handle the transition from silent to sound. Turns out he handles it superbly. In the film, Chaplin plays a variation on the classic Bluebeard fairytale character, a polygamist who dispatches with his multiples wives when he needs to collect on the insurance money. The defining image of the film is of train wheels chugging along, something that happens often as Chaplin bounces around the country between his various wives. It’s dark material for a comedy, especially considering the era when it was made, and it reminded me distinctly of the Ealing Studios classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. What really makes the film work is Chaplin’s flamboyant yet strangely charming central performance. He’s essentially the villain of the film, but in part because of how Chaplin plays the character, it’s tough not to sympathize with his situation. The film carries with it a strong sociopolitical context: Chaplin and the film go to great lengths to make the point that his evil actions are a result of a society that no longer has any use for him. It’s this implication that elevates the material from standard black comedy to something that feels significantly more timeless. 9/10.

Zero Dark Thirty

There has been plenty written about this film in the past month, both positive and negative. To get it quickly out of the way, I think the torture issue has been overblown, to the point where someone unfamiliar with the specifics would assume the film was about nothing but torture. The film presents a dramatized recreation of a decade-long manhunt that includes the use of torture to gain information, but it in no way presents the act of torture as anything but ugly and despicable. I think the film raises the issue of the legitimacy of torture and intelligently asks whether or not the ends justified the means. And much like the way the characters in The Hurt Locker never let politics get in the way of their jobs, so too do the characters of Zero Dark Thirty. Moving away from all that, what you’re left with is an absolutely terrific thriller, one that at times reminded me of films like All The President’s Men and Zodiac, films where the thrills come from the untangling of convoluted webs of information. As someone who always felt The Hurt Locker was too episodic and dragged along in certain moments, Zero Dark Thirty feels stripped down and efficient, consistently engaging and provoking, despite its equally long running length and uneasy subject matter. Finally, and for me importantly, the film ends with a strong element of ambiguity and mixed emotions. Much like Jessica Chastain’s central character, you come out of the theater both with a sense of satisfaction at seeing such a fine piece of entertainment and a sense of dissatisfaction at whether the places we had to go to get to the end of this manhunt were ultimately worth it. 9/10.

The Turin Horse

This is apparently the last film from Hungarian director Béla Tarr. Admittedly, I was previously unfamiliar with his work, but now I might have to go back and look at his earlier material based on the strength of this one. The film opens with a narration against a black screen, detailing an incident where Nietzsche saved a horse from being beaten. Apparently after this incident, Nietzsche succumbed to an illness from which he never recovered. The film doesn’t follow Nietzsche though; it follows the horse, as it returns with its aging owner to an isolated farm. What follows is six days detailing the lives of the horse, the farmer, and his daughter, as some sort of pending apocalyptic event lurks off in the distance. There isn’t a whole lot of what could be called plot or action here; instead, most of the interest comes from Tarr’s unique methods of filmmaking and the atmosphere he creates. To offer up an overly simplistic comparison, the film presents a bleak, almost Bergman-esque sense of environment with the deliberate pacing of Tarkovsky. The film runs for 156 minutes, but consists of only 30 shots. So the entire film features less cuts than what you’d traditionally see in 30 seconds of a Michael Bay film. And most of the time these aren’t stationary shots either; extensive steady-cam work is used to follow the farmers all around the wasteland landscape. The experience of watching the film reminded me of the experiences I have listening to the quieter moments on Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums. Much in the same way as those albums could be called heavy experiences, this film also has the ability to really weigh you down. Tarr himself has described the film as being about “the heaviness of human existence.” Admittedly, not everyone would consider that a worthwhile endeavor, but as far as those types of experiences go, Béla Tarr’s last film is one of the better ones. 9/10.

Amour

I have limited experience with Michael Haneke films, having only previously seen Funny Games, Cache, and The White Ribbon. His films have a clear directorial voice and vision, almost to the point where they could be viewed primarily as intellectual exercises, with the methods and intentions of the director holding the greatest importance and attention. One of the more remarkable things about Haneke’s latest film Amour is just how much his presence takes a backseat to the central performances. Which is not to say that the film isn’t recognizable as a Haneke film. As with his work in the past, his filmmaking style is distinct yet unobtrusive, he never sentimentalizes or plays for big emotions in any obvious way, and in an era when film violence is oftentimes tossed onto the screen in a completely casual manner, he is one of the very few filmmakers out there who can make even simple and small acts of violence feel incredibly impactful (There’s a slap that occurs near the end of this film that drew gasps from the entire audience). And yet, the foremost impression I had when exiting the theater was that I  had just seen a master class in screen acting. Emmanuelle Riva is tremendous and was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but equally impressive is Jean Louis Trintignant, if not more so, which makes his lack of a nomination a little unfortunate. It’s something of a package deal; you can’t really acknowledge one without the other. The film unfolds in a mostly traditional manner with little ambiguity, presenting the final stages of a love-filled marriage. It’s probably Haneke’s most straightforward work, and consequently it might not warrant repeated viewings in the same way as his past films. I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism though; this is one of his best films, in large part because the more personal material allows for a different side of Michael Haneke than what we’ve seen before. 9/10.

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

This is a wonderful little documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef renowned around the world for being the best in the business. He’s a man who has lived and breathed sushi for nearly his entire life, a perfectionist who has devoted his life to becoming the best in his craft. Despite being in the later stages of his life, he still works in his restaurant every day every week, still perfecting his craft and passing on his knowledge to his apprentices and sons, who will continue on with his business after he is gone. The film goes into great detail about the operations of the restaurant, which is fascinating just by itself, especially a trip to the fish market where the best fish are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The actual restaurant only sits 10 people, customers have to book reservations at the restaurant months in advance, the meal itself costs somewhere around $300, and it’s over in something like 20 minutes. But everyone who eats there calls it one of the best dining experiences they’ve ever had. The details of the restaurant are endlessly fascinating, but the heart of the film is really this central sushi chef and the relationships he has with his sons and with his work. I’ve already used this description, but it really is a wonderful little documentary, and as long as you don’t have an aversion to the sight of people chopping up and preparing raw fish, it’s something I would recommend to everyone. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and, as an added bonus, it’s a film that made me realize it’s been way too long since I’ve last had sushi. 8/10.

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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