2014 First-Time Viewings: January Week 1

A Woman Under The InfluenceA Woman Under The Influence

I’m starting to wonder if I’m ever going to “get” John Cassavetes. The little experience I’ve had with this very highly-regarded and enormously influential  filmmaker hasn’t exactly inspired the most passionate of reactions, but I wanted to hold off on any premature judgments until I saw this 1974 film, which many consider his best. Well, now I’ve seen A Woman Under The Influence, and now I have a dilemma: it did almost nothing for me. The drama centers around the fracturing marriage between blue-collar  Nick (Peter Falk) and his unstable wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands), and how the people around them react to her deteriorating mental state. Essentially it’s an examination of how mental illness (and probably alcoholism, although there seems to be a conscious decision within the film to work around any moments of actual drinking) can affect a family and how they are perceived by the community around them. In the right hands, that’s certainly a subject ripe for great drama. The problem with A Woman Under The Influence is that it isn’t great drama. Hell, I’d argue it isn’t even particularly good drama.

Throughout the course of the film’s 155-minute running length, I couldn’t escape a feeling of artificiality hanging over the whole production, for a couple big reasons. Firstly, despite the acclaim heaped upon her over the years, I found Gena Rowlands’ overcranked histrionics here had an overly-calculated quality that made it impossible for me to view her performance as anything other than that, a performance. Secondly, the film is awkwardly built around a series of increasingly uncomfortable scenarios, and as these scenarios escalate they start to  feel increasingly more fabricated. While I appreciate that Falk’s beleaguered husband has his own set of character flaws, why he feels compelled to constantly push his awkward wife into crowds of people is a complete mystery to me. There’s actually a point late in the film when he gathers together a large group of people to welcome his wife as she returns home from the mental hospital, only to be convinced to break it all up at the very last minute, and it’s almost as if the filmmakers themselves suddenly realized how ridiculous the situations were getting. This material was first envisioned for the stage, and I think in the end it would have been a better fit there. As a piece of filmmaking, I’m struggling to understand what makes this so remarkable. Maybe Cassavetes just isn’t for me.  4/10.

The Great BeautyThe Great Beauty

Where to even start here? Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film is such a fierce whirlwind of energy and ideas, to attempt to decipher everything going on over the course of its 150 minutes is quite the tall order. There are meditations on art and religion and the search for transcendence. There are self-deprecating takedowns of intellectual lifestyles and scathing critiques on the manufactured personas of people desperately seeking fame. There are musings on life and death, and on finding oneself with feelings of regret in the twilight years and wishing to eradicate those feelings. And all that is really just extra embellishing to what is at heart an unabashed love letter to Rome. In the center of all this busyness you have the great screen presence of Toni Servillo, as the witty but world-weary  Jep Gambardella. Once an author and now an easygoing column writer, Jep devotes most of his time either to wandering the streets of Rome in casual introspection and throwing lavish parties with his eccentric, intellectual friends. But there is a detachment to Jep’s everyday routine, and as he continues to get older, he continues to think more and more about his life and his still-ongoing search for meaning.

Sorrentino’s  freewheeling approach is both a blessing and a curse for this film. Jep Gambardella searches around Rome for “the great beauty,” and there’s the feeling that the film itself is doing the exact same thing, searching. There are scenes that palpitate with an undeniable energy, but there are other scenes that just come across as aimless. Because the material so frequently bounces around every which way with little interest in offering any kind of consistent narrative path, it’s easy to lose your center and find yourself off-balance. I remember sitting in the theater and getting the feeling the end was drawing near, only to look down at my phone to discover there was still an hour left to go. So, despite the fact that the film contains moments of memorably absurd and wry comedy and sequences of surprisingly poignant drama, and despite the exuberant direction and the loving allusions to the great Italian filmmakers of cinema’s past (specifically Fellini and Antonioni, The Great Beauty ends up falling short of the greatness for which it strives. There is so much to admire here, but less to truly love. 7/10.

Zatoichi And The Chest Of GoldZatoichi And The Chest Of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series. Especially coming after what I felt to be the most workmanlike entry in the series, Zatoichi On The Road, I was hoping for something with a bit more bravado. Fortunately, bravado is something Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold has in spades. The film opens with the blind swordsman making a pilgrimage to a small village, where he will pay respects at the grave of a man he wrongly killed in the recent past. When he arrives, he is drawn to the sounds of a celebration. The villagers reveal they’ve just saved up enough to pay off the large tax demanded by the local governor. After Zatoichi briefly joins in the frivolities (and displays an aptitude for the drums), the villagers pack up the funds and leave to deliver their payment. On the way, however, they fall victim to an ambush, and the money is stolen. Suspicious of the sudden appearance of Zatoichi, the villagers demand that he retrieve the stolen chest of gold from the thieves.

The first thing that strikes you about Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold is just how stylistically adventurous it is, especially when comparing to the previous films in the series. This is apparent right from the opening title sequence, which plays out over a minimalist montage of Zatoichi showing off his sword-fighting skills in front of a black backdrop. Kazuo Ikehiro, making his first of three turns in the director’s chair for the series, continues with the light experimentation throughout the rest of the film, throwing in slow-motion  flashback sequences,  more pronounced instances of bloody violence, and even a little bit of skin in a light-hearted bathing sequence. The pacing is also much faster compared to the more stately rhythms of what came before, and the result is a film that really moves. The film isn’t without its shortcomings, chief among them an extended detour into the mountains, where Zatoichi meets with an old mentor and convinces him and his band of dislocated warriors to abandon their lofty retreat and return to the real world. It’s a strange excursion, stopping the main narrative dead in its tracks and exiting without much in the way of a payoff (one wonders if a future entry will provide a more satisfying conclusion). This relatively aimless stretch can be forgiven though because of the high quality of everything around it (including a thrilling climactic duel where Zatoichi’s opponent decides to play against the rules). Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold is missing the emotional weight of the best entries in the series, but it compensates for that absence through its wild energy and keen sense of adventure. 7/10.

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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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