Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
The lone screwball comedy to be helmed by Alfred Hitchcock is not much more than a trifle for either genre fans or auterist critics. The film is about a harried husband and his shrew of a wife who discover that their three-year-old marriage is null and void due to a mix-up in zoning laws. Furious that he did not rectify the situation immediately, the wife kicks the husband out and quickly begins seeing other men. Meanwhile the husband pursues her with impassioned intensity (insanity?) in an effort to win her back. Capably made but only intermittently funny, Mr. and Mrs. Smith depends on its leads to get the goofy antics across and unfortunately it is only half successful. Robert Montgomery does a solid job of playing the husband. He can handle the wackier bits as well as play the straight man when required. However, Carole Lombard fizzles as the wife. She plays it all a bit too broadly, even for the genre to which she is known. This is only the second Lombard film I've seen, after Twentieth Century, my least favorite Howard Hawks film, and in both instances I found her performance to be shrill and unpleasant. Throughout Mr. and Mrs. Smith I was constantly asking myself why Montgomery would even want to reconcile this relationship. Lombard gives us no indication of her charms despite the fact that every man in the film swoons for her. Her emotional outbursts and erratic behavior are the hallmarks of a psychotic, not a lover.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Even a second viewing on a scratchy print at a discount theatre cannot diminish the power of The Cabin in the Woods. It is still easily my favorite film of the last half year. Unfortunately, the film screened once in Texas at the ass pimple end of 2011 so it will not qualify for end-of-the-year accolades. Them's the breaks. Director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon have co-written the horror film to end all horror films, while simultaneously deconstructing and taking the piss out of the entire genre at the same time. Five college kids head off for a pleasurable weekend retreat to the titular location but they quickly discover that nothing is at it seems. If I say anything more it will ruin the surprises of one of the most inventive, witty, gory, and hilariously freaky films I have ever seen. The cast is a real hoot as well, and it is great to see some Whedon regulars (Amy Acker! Tom Lenk!) sprinkled throughout. The Avengers may be raking in all of the dough and finally making Joss a household name, but The Cabin in the Woods is the purer, more idiosyncratic, and satisfying work. Grr Arrgh!
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
A ruminative exploration into the internal lives of a Castilian family in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is a poetic piece of filmmaking superbly constructed. Every shot in the film is an expertly framed composition. A series of subtle dissolves are eminently effective. At the film's heart is a revelatory performance by the sad-eyed child Ana Torrent who plays the younger daughter, a girl obsessed with befriending the spirit of Frankenstein's monster after attending a screening of James Whale's 1931 film. The alternately compassionate, competitive and cruel interplay between Torrent and her sister (played by Isabel Telleria) is achingly real. The Spirit of the Beehive at times feels like Fanny and Alexander starring a prepubescent Celine and Julie. The film effortlessly achieves the oft-attempted but rarely successful feat of tapping into the quiet curiosity of childhood.
La Luna (2011)
Pixar's latest animated short, currently playing theatrically in front of Brave, is a resolute charmer. The adorable story of three generations of star sweepers out on their nightly shift features some of the most stunning images the famed studio has yet released. Director Enrico Casarosa tells the simple, fantastical tale with a deft touch. The film has an old world charm which coming from Pixar feels fresh and invigorating. The shorts division is responsible for the studio's most exciting work of late, specifically when they're working on original story lines and characters as opposed to the bland brand-reinforcements starring the Toy Story or Cars creations. With prequels and sequels becoming an increasingly large part of the company's slate, the recently announced Finding Nemo 2 being the most egregious of them all, the shorts are the place to see the creativity and wonder that defined Pixar.
Into the Abyss (2011)
It is staggering to think of Werner Herzog's far-flung travels over the last decade as he continues to pursue the ecstatic truth. From the Alaskan wilderness to centuries-sealed caves in France, from Buddhist ceremonies in India to Antarctic science stations, Herzog now journeys down to death row in small town Texas with his fascinating documentary, Into the Abyss. Herzog has never claimed to be objective in his documentaries and here his anti-execution stance is firmly defined at the outset. His presence as filmmaker and interrogator is felt in every scene as he inquisitively guides his interview subjects down a series of off-beaten paths. He once again shows us that he is the master of the long take, getting onscreen subjects to do or say the most outlandish, contradictory, or beautiful things. One leaves the film, which pivots deftly from harrowing to hilarious, not with images of grisly homicide or even a better understanding of the death row experience, but animals. Always animals. The moments that linger, tantalizing and tenacious, are anecdotes from preachers, prisoners, and wardens about squirrels, monkeys, and hummingbirds, all creatures unconcerned with the plight of us foolish humans.
Straw Dogs (1971)
A Peckinpah horror film. Dustin Hoffman plays a cultured egghead, basically the antithesis of a usual Peckinpah protagonist, who moves with his wife, played by Susan George, to the English countryside where they are soon harassed by local hooligans. The film charts Hoffman's attempts to remain rational and civilized in spite of the atrocities committed against him and his wife. Peckinpah's take paints Hoffman as an ineffectual coward, who cannot stand up to the bullying taunts and does not see the extent of the damage the villains are perpetrating upon him and in particular, his wife. A sense of dread permeates the film from the very first frame and it does not let up until the typically bloody finale. Despite the contemporary setting and the foreign country, the movie is a Peckinpah flick through and through, meaning it is at once depraved, nauseating, violent, challenging, and a true work of art. Straw Dogs is a fascinating, nightmarish statement about society that one wrestles with long after the credits roll.