Sunday, September 25, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Lola (1961), Safety Last!, Parks and Recreation—Season 1

Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)

If character dramas unfold in arcs, the lines of the people in Jacques Demy's debut form asymptotes. Demy's New Wave-cum-classical style creates a self-contained world that gives a softly lift haze to reality as characters constantly aim for each other and miss, sometimes passing within mere inches of each other before carrying on or being redirected. The linking of characters—the ennui-ridden Roland and the American sailor looking to stay outside his homeland, the titular dancer and the sweet but equally restless teenager Cécile—only serves to compound and make mutually perpetuating cycles of the sense of missed chances and empty dreams that cool the film's fits of aspirational jauntiness. Roland is the Ghost of Christmas Future of Frankie's desire to stay in France, whose quixotic quest to win Lola's spoken-for heart suggests the endpoint of Roland's own courtship. A spoken-word film has never wanted so badly to be a musical, but everyone's too confused and sad to dance around and sing. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is deftly composed but as antsy and fidgety as the characters, creating a balance between formalism and rawness worthy of the title card's dedication to another master of technical, grim melodrama, Max Ophüls. The camera certainly moves enough to betray aspirations to Ophüls, but Demy accomplishes similar acts of formal rigor on real port city streets, replacing Max's almost clinical touch with more deeply felt longing and obliviousness. Grade: A

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)

From the opening misdirect—threatening bars and a hanging noose revealed to be a harmless train station—Safety Last! advertises a keen sense of cheek that makes use of Harold Lloyd's perpetual look of having been forced into a situation that, despite his undiluted confidence, exists wholly outside his understanding and, unless you pay attention, his physical capacity. Yet Lloyd, with his anti-Keaton arsenal of beguiling smiles, also demonstrates the hucksterism implanted by his father, and his perpetually unassuming nature masks a capacity to play at levels no less minutely planned and vast as his contemporaries. Lloyd knew how to cater to an audience without letting it come off as condescension, and his eager young worker makes for a more identifiable and empathetic character than Chaplin's pitiable, idealistic Tramp. He'll find a way to push through any moment, turning a pratfall into a desperate rep of push-ups in a flash as if to convince an onlooking crowd that he meant to do that, demonstrating the indefatigable nature of the American spirit, even if he made it look ridiculous.

Lloyd also knew how to set up a gag as well as anyone: that wry open is merely the first of many jokes that call for physical dexterity but work best for their staging and the mad logic of their comic crescendos and expectation-shattering fakeouts. The best of these, of course, is the legendary sequence in which Lloyd, an amateur forced to double for an expert climber, scales a building façade as everything goes wrong to impede him, most famously him falling on a clock hand that then pulls the whole face of it out of the building. And even when he recovers, he gets caught in a damn spring. It's always something. But even the scenes of working life in a department store, with its two-pronged assault of employee-dehumanizing surveillance and rampaging customers engaged into open war for the best deals, show off Lloyd's body language and his ability to frame big scenes with coherent economy. Lloyd may not mine the same thematic depth as Chaplin, nor the technical brilliance of Keaton's setpieces and innovative camera techniques, but he had the purest laughs, and this is one of the few silents where intertitles are almost as funny as the sight gags. Not a hair out of place. Grade: A+

Parks and Recreation—Season 1 (2009)

Granted, the American version of The Office started off weakly too, but it's amazing the Parks and Rec we know and love emerged from this six-episode mid-season replacement. If the first six episodes of The Office's own truncated season felt too tethered to the original, Parks and Recreation feels downright chained to the American Office, an exhibition of Plato's argument against art as being thrice removed from reality, only this is thrice removed from yet more art. The show does manage to ground itself in the intriguing setting of small-town government, and some characters—chiefly Tom and Ron Swanson—are winners from the start. But the rest of its considerably talented cast is largely wasted, and Leslie Knope's laminated Michael Scott copy is too clueless even as Poehler uncomfortably draws on Hillary Clinton-esque ambition that should (and eventually would) come across as bucking gender norms but here plays into the most aggravating types of career-driven women. The last episode represents a notable uptick in quality, but not until the writers came back that fall, armed with feedback they wisely did not ignore, the show soon found its feet and became one of the best shows on TV. Say what you will about NBC (I have), but you've got to admire their confidence in letting not one but three major creative investments pay off despite initially poor results (see also The Office and 30 Rock). Grade: C

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