The Morning After: March 14, 2011

Getting behind always creates problems and this is one of them. I keep getting behind, but hope to catch up with some of the writing this week even if I don’t get all of my Feed the Queue entries watched. I have not written full reviews of two of these films as they are being reserved for a special article I’m working on for late this year, early 2012.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

LA DOLCE VITA


Coming out of his Neorealist period, director Federico Fellini began shifting into the realm of art. La Dolce Vita, while heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism, is also an undeniably potent art film. The story takes place over seven days across which its protagonist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) moves from event to event barely realizing the flaws in his life that threaten to tear him down. One of the questions the film leaves up to the audience is whether Rubini is trying to find himself or escape himself.

From the opening scene, the audience is left to interpret each scene on their own. Fellini doesn’t come right out and tell the viewer what they should be thinking. And while it’s difficult not to try and react as others would, hoping to find a way to relate to this film like many others they have seen and share a common perception. But art is entirely subjective. One person can find a single image that symbolizes the whole while others find the whole symbolic of something larger. Each interpretation is no less valid than another, which is how I feel about this film. I’ve read a couple of other thoughts on the film, but none of them really leaped out at me as a definitive examination of the film. For me, La Dolce Vita begins by lashing out at the church and then examines human faults through the prism of the ten commandments.

Rubini is a reporter, tracking celebrities in hopes of writing that one important story that will bring him more success and fame. He pursues those important personages who readers want to know more about and whose lives are lived in public and seldomly in private. And, it’s in this character’s actions that you begin to suspect that he, and vicariously Fellini, have become disillusioned with the church. The film opens as a statue of Christ is being flown across the Italian country side towards St. Peter’s Basilica. The helicopter porting the statue is being pursued by another containing Rubini and his photographer Paparazzo (the term was coined by Fellini comparing aggressive photographers to tiny, annoying mosquitos). They are following Christ like he were one of Rubini’s many celebrity targets. He is a larger-than-life person whose presence elicits waves and salutes of respect as he’s being flown through the city. On top of this, in a later scene where two children have claimed to have seen the Madonna who has tasked them with ordering a church be built, we are given the impression that even if these children are lying about their vision, it brings out spectators including a number of invalids by the droves, each in hopes of seeing the Madonna and earning her favor. Religion is treated as a type of celebrity fixation.

But religion isn’t Fellini’s only target. While not directly speaking in favor of each of the commandments, he shows in great detail how reckless these ideas can be if not obeyed. The opening statue of Christ is an embodiment of the first commandment. The statute may be a representation of the core of the Catholic faith, but it is an idol that is worshipped much like the celebrities that the public lays down their attention and money in front of. Holding up an image or an idea speaks against the first commandment. The film doesn’t display the violation of every commandment. One set of scenes where Rubini entertains his visiting father and goes out of his way to care for him when he becomes ill and assure his safe return shows that Fellini isn’t trying to break each one. There is theft, adultery, lies, murder and desire. It’s a film about a lack of virtue in society. Yet, the film is about Rubini and his attempts to justify his action and discover who and what he should be.

For Rubini, his sweet life (the literal interpretation of the film’s title) is to live freely and without confines. Despite being married, he sleeps around on his wife and attends one frivolous party after another. He cheats, lies and steals in an effort to find out not only who he is, but who he wants to be. Is he satisfied with his life or merely enthralled by it. Can he be happy moving from one woman to the next, one celebrity to the next or one story to the next. Every action seems guided by his past, by a desire not to turn out like his father, a satisfied man whose experiences in life are confined to his wife and his job and little else. Rubini wants to explore, to understand and to experience, but does he do it because he enjoys it or because the idea of settling down frightens him. Both theories are valid and each play a large part in Rubini’s decisions.

There are shades of surrealism in La Dolce Vita that would eventually be embellished and relished in Fellini’s later works. One might even say that the creative tenacity of Dolce Vita and the public outrage at his truth, but claimed immoral depictions allowed Fellini to escape his own burdens to provide entertainment to his audiences and allow him to shift into the artistic mode that he seemed to be clamoring for. La Dolce Vita is at once a rebuke of all that had come before and a celebration of all that would be to come. It’s a film that speaks of itself and its history without worrying about the consequences and, like his protagonist, Felllini explores himself and who he is as a director and begins to escape who he was in an effort to be who he should or wants to be.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION


This is my second viewing of the film and while it doesn’t stick out in my mind nearly as well as it should have, this is a strong entry in Billy Wilder’s oeuvre of great films. It is the standard by which all court room dramas should be compared with sublime performances by Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, solid support by Elsa Lanchester and Una O’Connor, and a good, but not great, lead performance by Tyrone Power.

LOVE FROM A STRANGER


Film preservers need to get to this film soon. It looks heavily washed out and, despite being available on DVD in this format, it could use some restoration to bring it to its former brilliance. After all, this is a 1937 film, so it’s not like other films of that era have the same problem as this. As for the film, it’s an engaging little noir-light thriller that features a nice performance by Ann Harding, but an overzealous one by Basil Rathbone.

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES


You can’t sit down to a movie like Battle: Los Angeles and expect art. Matter of fact, anticipating anything short of pure, unadulterated banality would likely leave you disappointed. The only new release of any appeal to me led me to the cineplex to discover a movie that I expected to be awful and wasn’t nearly.

The story of a band of Marines called to active duty when an alien force begins invading earth and its major coastal cities. The key focus of this film is the city of Los Angeles. It’s a huge city with plenty of potential for destruction and, unlike New York City, has no major landmarks to blow up or destroy in an effort to point out how cool its visual effects are.

Aaron Eckhart plays Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, an experienced Marine who came back from Iraq with a dead platoon, a commendation and some major resentment among those who heard of his purported actions on the front line. He’s decided to retire and is ready to leave the Marine Corps behind, but is stopped short by this terrible invasion that threatens civilization. A recent Officer Training School graduate played by Ramon Rodriguez is assigned to lead Nantz’ unit as they are sent down Santa Monica Blvd. to try to rescue a group of civilians trapped in that area’s police station.

Every possible action and sci-fi cliche is present. From the inexperienced commander shown up by his battle-weary brigade to the precocious children thrust into the middle of tragedy, it’s a smorgasbord of weak moments tied together by ludicrous screenwriting techniques and situations culminating in a predictable conclusion. The body count is expectedly high and anyone who lacks a personality is quickly disposed of. Even those without one still manage to stick around for much of the film. You have people you root for, but mostly, you’re just counting down the minutes until the next character dies. It’s almost like a combination of an action film, horror film and disaster flick combined.

Yet, despite all of its multitude of flaws, it was an entertaining brain-off kind of film. On top of that, unlike the ludicrous invasion in Signs where the aliens, who were allergic to water, invaded a planet where over two-thirds of the surface is covered by water; or the last-minute collapse of believability in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds where the aliens had been hiding for some years, yet neglected to detect that some pathogens in the air were fatally toxic to them? No matter what invasion film, Indepednence Day, the new Day the Earth Stood Still or Skyline, the implausibility of the attack, the utter lack of foresight in the battle plan or the utter lack of research lead to highly questionable situations. And that’s where Battle: Los Angeles does one of the best jobs with the genre that I’ve seen in some time.

Here is a group of aliens who have come to earth for its most abundant resource: water. They land and attack major metropolitan areas, taking no prisoners and using their advanced technology to pinpoint and eradicate its enemies. They don’t wait for the enemy to attack back. They use their formidable strength to launch the attack and press it forward without stopping. These are not idiot aliens, they are advanced and know they can win. And in spite of this, there are ways around them, but not many and it takes human perseverance and intelligence to formulate a way to take back their city.

Sure, the film plays like a recruitment film for the U.S. Marine Corps, but once you recognize just how limited its scope is, ignore the preachiness of the dialogue and entertain yourself with the pure visceral thrill of it all, you find yourself enjoying it more than expected. The performances aren’t great, but they aren’t at the level of awfulness on display in Independence Day or Signs. Battle: Los Angeles is a diverting film that allows you to spend a couple of hours without having to think about all of your real world problems. As escapism, this one does a passable job.

GREEK, season 3

As the penultimate season comes to a close, it’s clear the writers are looking for ways to tie up loose plot ends. They’ve had to deal with a number of cast departures and generate ways to keep their cast looking fresh and stories interesting. The season still works for the most part, though it sets the final season up for likely disappointments. The show is still quite enjoyable with a likable cast who do their damnedest to engage the audience. Good for a few nights of youth-minded soapiness, Greek‘s third season is about on par with its prior seasons.

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