On to the new additions to my Favourites list over the course of last year:
I wrote about The Pawnbroker last January when I was keeping up with the blogging – this didn’t last long. It’s still on Netflix UK, so what are you waiting for? Other favourites that I covered are The Fireman’s Ball (one of the best and most memorable of the year, looking back), Keaton’s The Boat and One Week, Don Hertzfeldt’s latest animated short World of Tomorrow (brilliant as always), Bottle Rocket, and of course The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, which I went into in detail here. Later, my Halloween night Netflix pick The Skull surprised and delighted me enough to break a long blogging silence with a post all to itself.
Let’s start with some razzle-dazzle: All That Jazz had been a while coming. I love Fosse’s Cabaret (though it took a three viewings to sufficiently grow on me) so I was looking forward to this, although wondering how it could possibly live up to its predecessor. This is basically Bob Fosse’s 8 ½, his autobiographical musings on a life, and a death. As you’d imagine it all gets quite meta and Fosse structures the film brilliantly, cutting between reality, fantasy and somewhere in-between. It made me want to be less linear in my own work, but I can never quite figure out how, my brain doesn’t work that way. I shouldn’t force it, I should work with what comes naturally to me just as Fosse developed a distinctive, hunched dancing style to suit his own body. But at least for a couple of hours I felt inspired and/or jealous. I preferred the first half, the ‘life’, to the second half, the ‘death’, where it sometimes feels too derivative of 8 ½ and other autobiographical works to do with show business (Chaplin’s Limelight?). Before it gets to all that it has a lot more in common with Cabaret – the bad living, the sex, the adultery, the cynicism. It’s beautiful and horrible and terribly enjoyable. It’s got that debauched energy, the sexy/weird musical numbers. The editing is fantastic too, lots of exhilarating elliptical cuts between scenes, and if it wasn’t already meta enough, the character is editing a film as well as putting on a show. He thinks he’s doing a terrible job at both but we come to realise he’s actually a big name, critically acclaimed. Even success doesn’t bring satisfaction with the work. There’s something oddly comforting in that.
I’m usually pretty lazy in structuring these blogs, listing films in irrelevant chronology of watching. This time I wanted to do better, to segue between films in clever or, at least, coherent ways. Not having watched any Fellini lately, I seem to have painted myself into a corner with All That Jazz. How about going from a choreographer to a court jester? It’ll have to do. I hadn’t heard of The Court Jester before it popped up on Netflix. Apparently it’s considered something of a minor classic, although I must say that the oversaturated image of a grinning Danny Kaye in medieval jester garb didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. But I was impressed with Kaye in the original adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, so I thought I’d give it a go. A banal song by Kaye accompanying the opening credits did little to encourage my expectations. A toothless children’s film? Thankfully not. Things improve rapidly as we leap in to find not a damp family musical but a sharp Robin Hood parody. Essentially this is a vehicle for Danny Kaye’s comedic, musical and dramatic talents, but it’s one that he drives remarkably well. He’s a broad and traditional performer, but he’s quick, charismatic and very funny. The excellent supporting cast (including a game Angela Lansbury) mean it’s not a one-man-show, and remarkably for a half-forgotten musical comedy, the songs aren’t bad either. Even some of the most famous musicals of this period fill an inordinate amount of screen time with weak songs between the showstoppers. The Court Jester may not have any real showstoppers, but once we’re past the cringeworthy opening, the tunes are solid and entertaining. There’s also an alarming amount of sexual innuendo for a 50s family film. Towards the beginning, Kaye and his female captain Glynis Johns shelter from the rain in a leaky shed. Lying down to sleep in the straw together, the sexual tension is palpable. ’Wet’, he observes in the awkward silence.’ “Very”, comes her casual reply. The subtext is crystal clear, but it’s judged perfectly: something for the adults to enjoy that’ll go straight over kid’s heads. Even in its bawdiness, the humour is imbued with something familiar and warm, the sort of jokes that Shakespeare made. If I was feeling picky I’d complain about the low resolution of this presentation, but this isn’t Netflix’s fault – Paramount needs to make a shiny new remaster. Still, they’ve done a decent job considering, and the Technicolors pop. I may have been sceptical going in, but I found a real joyful film, in that rare way that the best of classical Hollywood cinema achieves. The Court Jester deserves to be better remembered.
Now I might as well stick to the comedy vibe. In my last post I mentioned Christopher Guest’s new film for Netflix, Mascots, and how it tries hard to recreate the success of Best in Show, without quite managing. That’s only because Best in Show is very good indeed, especially considering that it doesn’t have the same kind of reputation as This is Spinal Tap, but it would deserve it. There’s some extremely funny stuff here, especially the competition commentators, and Eugene Levy’s two left feet. And Christopher Guest attempting ventriloquism. If that wasn’t enough, the competition segments are genuinely suspenseful. I was actually emotionally involved in who was going to win, which is no mean feat for a very silly mocumentary. And he can name all the nuts.
Anomalisa is a somewhat different type of comedy. Because its short running time flies by, I wasn’t expecting it to end where it did, thinking something ‘more’ was going to happen. In retrospect it was a great place to end it, I just needed to recalibrate my expectations. This is not the kind of film where things happen; it’s about the details. For a stop-motion puppet film it’s ironic how realistic it is. That’s the point really. It’s odd to call it realistic, when there are so many surreal stylistic touches, like the brilliantly inventive/lazy voice-work than underpins the whole film. The stylistic flourishes are there to better reveal truthful things, the surreal touches to throw real life into sharp focus. It’s definitely a comedy, though some might call it a bleak one, but it’s as touching as it is funny, a combination that peaks in one brilliant hotel-bedroom scene. I won’t say too much, but if you’re struggling to imagine how a film can be surreal and realistic at the same time, you’ll understand what I’m on about after this scene. Anomalisa is esentially about the simultaneous anxiety and monotony of real life, something that underpins most of Kaufman’s films, including his debut as director of his own script Synecdoche, New York, which was sort of a horror film where the horror stems from daily life – illness, ageing, interacting with other people, creative dissatisfaction. Does Anomalisa feel kind of lightweight next to that sprawling magnum opus about a sprawling magnum opus? Maybe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he probably felt a need to simplify after all that, and with puppet animation he has found his perfect medium. He and co-director Duke Johnson (he did the stop-motion episode of Community) understand how to make the medium work for the story. The cracks in the puppets’ faces are not hidden, becoming cracks in the characters. Sometimes like wrinkles or scars, sometimes more abstract and metaphorical. Most vitally, by using animation Kaufman can pursue his realism of details without it becoming boring. Real life in animation is a novelty, still. Too much, of course, and the charm would fade, so 90 minutes is about right, to prevent us from becoming as disillusioned as the character. Speaking of which, I watched this on Netflix but was pretty disappointed by the streaming quality, especially for a recent release. Its a subtle film of dimly lit rooms, and the image doesn’t really hold up to Netflix’s compression. If you’re the kind of person who is going to be bothered by image artefacts and general mush (you’re probably not, there don’t seem to be many of us left in the wild) then I’d recommend getting hold of the blu ray instead. Or sitting further away from your TV than I do.
Moving swiftly on to another brilliant stop-motion animation means I must be getting better at these segues. It probably doesn’t need saying, but Aardman’s original Creature Comforts is short but very sweet. I grew up with with rebooted series, but this original is sort of perfect. The real interviews are fantastic, the claymation is superb – put together some sort of magic happens.
See, I told you this would be a nice, happy, positive blog. The next one might be gorier.