Sunday, August 06, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine, Lemming, A Face in the Crowd

Little Miss Sunshine is Wes Anderson lite. No, in a good way. You've got the dysfunctional family with dark themes--one family member is suicidal--and, interestingly, the male characters are pretty screwed up whereas the mother character seems pretty healthy (if annoyed) while the daughter is merely confused by the bizarrebeauty/body values of our society. She wants in the worst way to compete in a girl beauty contest. In California. Yeah, that's not a good idea. The cast is excellent--no surprise given Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell and Alan Arkin. Paul Dano (good in the awful The King) lives up to others. The movie has just enough to jokes to be consistently funny, if barely. Just see it. You'll enjoy it. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Lemming is ultimately just too logical to be an effective nightmare. Once you understand the surreal game of spiritual possession, it's a simple matter of switcheroo. The presence of the lemming is simply a marker of a time of trouble. Watching it I was often too distracted by its inspirations: Kubrick (esp. in the soundtrack, reminiscent of the single-note piano in Eyes Wide Shut and the use of Lygeti 2001), Lynch (the structure of Lost Highway) and Hitchcock (the lemmings are like The Birds, and of course there's Vertigo, an influence on Lost Highway). The comparisons don't serve it well. In Lynch's best work, you feel the powerful tow of the subconscious, imagery and ideas that feel urgent but can't be explained. Hitchcock's The Birds doesn't necessarily prompt a search for meaning in its metaphors, but there's plenty there to think about, and I didn't feel there was much here. Ultimately the choice of a lemming as a symbol (such a cute critter) is just strange, not very powerful, verging on ridiculous. I've decided that I'm not a fan of Charlotte Gainsbourg. She's a tepid actress, a weak presence, though she's been in some very good films (La Bûche, 21 Grams). Laurent Lucas is okay, but I wasn't terribly impressed. He spends a lot of time with his mouth agape. André Dussollier is much better, and Charlotte Rampling is quite good as one would expect--plus she gets the showiest, juiciest (most nonsensical) part. I enjoyed but wasn't wowed by Dominik Moll's With a Friend Like Harry.... His direction is smooth and elegant (typically Gallic), but esp. in his writing he lacks originality of vision. He's obviously studied the best, but he hasn't shown any signs of joining their ranks. Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars.

Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd has the feel of a very important film, and it's made with some electrifying skill, but it tries to do way too much. A dark satire about the cult of personality, it follows the discovery, rise and fall of a charming southerner from bum to tv kingmaker as played by Andy Griffiths with manic energy and an irritating laugh. It reminded me a lot of All the King's Men. In a way, it's as relevant now as ever, with our contemporary political divides and populist, mediagenic southern presidents (Clinton and Dubya), our influential yet agenda-driven radio and tv talk show hosts. It also feels like it's about McCarthy, which given Kazan's history is an unavoidable speculation. Then there's also the subtext of the film industry's rivalry with television. A Face in the Crowd questions the motives of the mass media yet is itself a product of mass media. It's more serious and somewhat more thoughtful than most mass entertainment films, but I didn't trust the way it portrayed audiences as trusting simpletons. Is Lonesome's behavior ever explained? He comes from oblivion and the script clearly wants to send him back. Is this a straw man argument as drama? I'm not sure how else Griffiths could have played his part, but I didn't like the performance. Patricia Neal was excellent until her character hit a monotonous stretch. Walter Matthau was a breath of much-needed fresh air, and Lee Remick is enjoyable as a sexy young bimbette. Overall, I found the film too cruel, with an unexplainable spirit of anger. (Neither here nor there: the way Jeffries exposes Lonesome oddly reminded me of the way the bully is exposed at the end of Singin' in the Rain, another 50s film I'd just watched.) Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.



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