I got the idea (actually, I stole it, I think from Jeff Pike) of making suggestions for movies you might want to watch that match up with whatever I’m writing about. So, of course, the first movie of the week is, in my experience, one of a kind. Other than saying “watch other movies by these directors, even though I’ve never seen any of them”, I’m at a loss. It picks up with the second movie, though, so I’ll give the experiment a try.
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1968). Hard to describe. That’s not enough for me to call it a masterpiece … it may be one of a kind, but I’m not sure we need more. Still, all credit to Straub and Huillet for having a vision and sticking to it. (I am unfamiliar with their work, although they made a couple of dozen movies together.) The Chronicle offers a chronological progression of Johann Sebastian Bach’s movie, presented through the (apparently fictional) diary of his second wife. The structure offers an interesting way for the invisible woman of such great-man stories to be seen, and the presentation hints at what their lives must have been like (a lot of their kids died). But the large majority of the 93 minutes is taken up with simple presentations of performances of Bach’s work, played in period costume on period instruments. I’m not enough of an expert of Bach to know how good the performances are … they seem fine to me. I also have no idea what is an excerpt and what is a full piece (I assume they are all excerpts). It’s not a bad way to listen to a bunch of Bach, and I suppose the way the film is made would lead to interesting post-mortem discussions. I found myself looking for visual distractions, turning the movie into background music, which I’m sure isn’t the point and which certainly shows what a cretin I am. #585 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 6/10.
Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000). Even the best Brian De Palma films are problematic, and Mission to Mars is not one of his best. Ironically, I think I enjoyed the movie more than expected because the almost universally negative reviews had convinced me it would be pure crap. If had been expecting a masterpiece, I would have been disappointed. Instead, I found myself rooting for it. Even so, I spent the first several minutes hooting at the screen for doing the kinds of things I hate in bad movies, establishing cardboard characters with a line or two of dialogue, making sure we got to know everyone before they actually went on a mission to Mars. None of the characters made an impression, so I fell back on “that’s Tim Robbins, that’s Don Cheadle, that’s Connie Nielsen”. And the first two scenes made me wonder exactly where the $100 million budget went. First, Tim Robbins drives a “classic” car so they don’t have to create a 2020 model. Then, the movie jumps from BBQ to Mars, without letting us see any of the flight. At that point, I would have guessed the budget to be more like $100. The money eventually turns up … the movie looks nice, there are some OK effects, the space ships are believable. But the dialogue stinks throughout … not sure I can blame that on De Palma, his name didn’t show up in the writing credits. I’m not entirely sure how much of this is a Brian De Palma movie … he was not the original director. But there are recognizably De Palma moments, only they don’t work very often. He’s well known for borrowing from classic movies and directors of the past, and you could spend your time watching Mission to Mars just making a list of all the movies he is ripping off: 2001, Close Encounters, even The Mummy. But as I said earlier, I felt protective towards Mission to Mars, which was crap, but not nearly as crappy as I’d been led to believe. It was a lot like a cheapo 50s sci-fi flick, with stereotypes instead of real people and lots of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Except those movies cost pennies, and were over in 80 minutes. Maybe the best way to describe my reaction to Mission to Mars is by pointing out that I like a lot of those 50s sci-fi flicks. 6/10. (For a De Palma movie I actually liked, try The Untouchables. For a De Palma movie that had a huge influence on hip-hop, check out Scarface. For a 50s sci-fi movie that didn’t suck, see Forbidden Planet.)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013). It’s nine years later, and there are Jesse and Céline, talking away once again. It’s a comfortable fit from the start … I think if this was a weekly series, I’d still never tire of Julie Delpy. But this time, bigger demands are made of romance … there is an extra edge to their conversations. There’s also a long scene of them enjoying a meal with friends. I haven’t watched the earlier movies in the series for a while, so I may be forgetting something, but I think this is the first time we’ve had an extended scene with more characters than just Jesse and Céline. We see them in a different environment, among people, most of them also couples, who have their own stories to tell about traversing the rocky road of relationships. Everything is charming, as was true in the first two movies, but there’s something a bit sour that is a bit disturbing for those of us who want these two to talk happily for the rest of their lives. Then, in a half-hour scene in a hotel room, it all explodes, with Delpy and Ethan Hawke turning their raw emotions on each other. It’s unbearable to watch … it’s also the reason this movie is even better than its predecessors. It shows us the price people pay to live in a romantic fantasy. I’ve never rooted so hard for a couple to get back together, and I’ve never felt so unsure about what might happen. The dialogue and acting (and directing) do such a great job of imitating real life, which is unpredictable. 10/10. (If the first film on this list was impossible to fit into my experiment, this one is too easy. Watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Or watch Waking Life, which is made using rotoscoping, and which features a scene of Jesse and Céline. Linklater’s best “non-Before” movies are Dazed and Confused and A Scanner Darkly.)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948). 8/10.