Pilgrim: So, a power dropped on a power.
Pilgrim: Power killed a power.
Walker: It is what we do.
Pilgrim: I know. But it would be nice if we got ourselves, I don’t know, a dead pirate or something once in a while, just something to break it up a little bit.
“The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all of his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. […] I’m a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.” — Akira Kurosawa
“He is an artist, and he is demanding; a man more full, more whole, both more self-willed and more compassionate than most men are. It is from this understanding, this tact with life, that he draws his films, just as he draws from us, his actors, our best. I know. I have never as an actor done anything that I am proud of other than with him.” — Toshiro Mifune
Okay, okay, this pictures is creepier than it is awesome, but holy crap, just look at the cast for this. I heart you, Steve McQueen.
Woody Allen (1980)
A reimagining of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Stardust Memories is replete with all the classic Woody-isms— a man who can’t fully commit to the woman he’s with, a supporting cast of mundane and obnoxious but benign people, lots of self-reference and self-awareness of the film as a film and as a construct, and gobs of neurosis.
Now, I’m not an enormous Woody Allen fan. I’d actually say I’m not a Woody Allen fan at all. I usually find his movies entirely too fascinated with neurosis and witty self-reference and not fascinated enough with anything else. I’ve been trying to slowly watch more of his films over the last year or so in an attempt to at least make sure I’m making an informed judgment, but it’s been a slog through a lot of 2.5/5-caliber movies.
Which is what makes Stardust Memories such a pleasant surprise for me. Everything that Allen usually does is done here, but to a different effect. Fellini created a story that is intensely true and profoundly and lovingly human. By using that story as the framework for his trademark self-examination, Allen manages to escape the triviality and shrugging pessimism that undermines so many of his other films. The substance and tenderness of 8 1/2 prop up Allen’s humor and lend weight to the acuity with which Allen paints people and their imperfections.
One in the win column for Woody Allen.
Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson
Sam Raimi (2013)
Truly beautiful, Maxfield Parrish-y CG scenery, a welcome supporting cast of not all white people, and imaginative hairstyling (very a la Whoville in Jim Carrey’s 2000 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas).
And that is every nice thing I can say about Oz. The lead cast of well-paid big names puts in performances that range from dull to dreadful. Their facial expressions, their vocal intonations, their line delivery—- awful. James Franco’s eyes are red, and his reactions are so off as to occasionally feel absurdist. The script is drivel. The makeup is terrible. How is it that I can see the texture of Michelle Williams’ eyeshadow in a film with a budget like this? And why do they insist on leaving that one long tendril of hair hanging out of her let’s-play-princess tiara like she was a twelve year-old girl in her first experiment with looking cool? Even the costuming is unexciting. I kept being distracted by the plasticized faux leather stretchy stuff in Mila Kunis’ pants.
When someone like Disney undertakes a big-budget fantasy project like this, I only ask for a short list of things to be made very happy: beautiful visuals with average acting and writing. I just don’t want the substance of the film to be so bad that it distracts me from enjoying the pretty colors. With that as the only bar I set for this film, it’s still very, very disappointing.
(Peter Nelson, 1963)
A wandering black handyman (Sydney Poitier, handsome as all get-out) is yoked into building a chapel for a group of East German nuns in the middle of the American desert.
The high points include the language lessons, the relationship between Poitier’s character and the owner of the gas station/diner, and the subtleties of the scenes of Poitier and the nuns getting into and and out of the car throughout the film. It’s ultimately a little flat and lacking, though, with strange, sometimes exaggerated performances all around. The only character who is made out to be patently ungenerous is also the only white man in the cast. It’s strange that it was nominated for a Best Film Oscar, since it’s really not that great, but it was pretty far outside the comfort zone of its time. And hey, who has ever thought the Oscars made any sense, anyway.
Poiteir’s performance imbues a less-than-subtle character with a great deal of quirk and nuance, and rescues quite a lot of the film in the process. It looks like it might have informed quite a lot of Denzel Washington’s work—a solid lesson in how to play a proud, don’t-tie-me-down man without making him distant or unlikable (a la about half of Washington’s roles).
(Dziga Vertov, 1929)
A plotless montage of footage of daily life in Soviet Russia. I particularly enjoyed the refreshingly unromanticized appreciation of femininity— women playing basketball, girls laughing while they performed industrial tasks with incredible speed and efficiency, the track and field athlete jumping and throwing alongside the men with an enormous smile on her face. I also loved the moment when the young man sleeping outside wakes up and reacts to the presence of the cameraman with a grin.
The film becomes increasingly abstract as it goes, and plays a lot with the meta: scenes of the Cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) filming, setting up shots or wandering the beach with his tripod (Gleb Troyanski is the uncredited second cinematographer), shots of the editor categorizing and organizing the scenes we’re watching, and then, later, scenes of people in a theater watching what we then watch. For a film that purports to break down film’s connection to literature and narrative, there are plenty of contrived narrative segments— for example, when shots of a street performer are mixed with shots of children’s faces seeming to react to the performance. There is a lot of tender humanity, some now-rote appreciation of the poetry of industry and technology, and balances struck between art and documentary and seriousness and lightheartedness that remain constant undercurrents throughout.
Excellent soundtrack by Michael Nyman.
(Frederico Fellini, 1963)
Scattered and abstract, albeit deliberately so, but the characters are developed subtly and lovingly enough that it holds together.
In trademark Fellini fashion, a stellar cast and subtle scriptwriting and direction create a world in which everyone is tenderly viewed as a part of the delicious patchwork of society, from the quasi-senile cardinal to the childish mistress of the fat, barking producer. Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Alghieri, a fictionalized Fellini struggling to make a fictionalized version of 8 1/2. Even at his most lost, Alghieri is compelled by his open-armed appreciation of the diversity of humanity. I appreciate that he is equally subject to Fellini’s recognition and forgiveness of flaws— his self-indulgent way of dressing like he’s an old man, his juvenile fantasy about a world in which all of the women of his life live in harmonious unity, acknowledging and indulging every whim of his vanity and pride. We see both the good and tender parts of him and the ways in which he wreaks havoc on the people in his life.
While every character of the film is loved, the women are loved particularly, by Alghieri and by Fellini, both for what they represent and for what they are. The scenes with Claudia Cardinale at the end are the perfect conclusion— Alghieri seeking hope and redemption by reflecting on his sins while still clutching to them, Cardinale being both kind and honest, muse and gentle critic. Alghieri sees her simultaneously as she is in his mind and as she is beside him, and the skin between reality and his interior life is strained tight. It’s the balance between seeing the beauty in our craving for perfection and recognizing the way in which the real world is incomparably beautiful that creates the wonderfully frustrating tension that holds Fellini’s abstractions and meanderings together.
My only complaint is that it’s all a little slower and self-indulgent than it needs to be. It would have been the same film with twenty minutes shaved off.