Saturday, November 5, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Head, His Girl Friday, Elite Squad

Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)

If you ever wanted to know what A Hard Day's Night might have resembled had Richard Lester teamed up with the Beatles post-Revolver, Head is the film for you. The Monkees, sick of their (not inaccurate) image as a gimmick, attack the issue directly, presenting a plotless skewering of their own image and the various capitalist forces that shaped them. The stream-of-consciousness, self-reflexive movie runs through genres that reinforce cheap ideals (Westerns, war films, '50s Americana), all of it filled with product placement—there's even a Coca-Cola machine in the middle of the desert. Cut with acid-tinged whimsy, Head is nevertheless as much a critique of the late '60s as it is a gonzo embodiment of its creative possibilities. Rafelson uses rapid, overlapping images and false-color to create psychedelic effects, and in the chaos are pointed attacks on the Vietnam War, police brutality and various other topics of the day. Not a lick of this movie makes sense, but it's still one of the best rock movies I've ever seen. Grade: A

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

Even faster than Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday doesn't reach the same heights but nevertheless displays Cary Grant at his comic best as a paper editor who speaks like a comic strip and wants nothing more than to undermine his ex-wife's planned second marriage. Rosalind Russell is no less fantastic as the woman who wants everything Walter represents but can't stand to be around him; the speed with which she falls into journalist mode undermines any pretense she has for leaving her old life. Hawks' gift for well-composed but unfussy compositions makes for perfectly staged but hands-off scenes that cede total control to the actors. Everything goes absolutely batty in the last act, but my favorite moment will always be the total aside of the mayor's dealings with a messenger from the governor, a ludicrous verbal run-around that hinges beautifully on the vaudeville chops of Billy Gilbert. Admittedly, the gags don't feel as timeless and physically huge as those of Baby or Twentieth Century, but comedy isn't about timelessness but moment-to-moment pleasures, and few films contain as many of those as His Girl Friday. Its last half hour is simply aces. Grade: A-

Elite Squad (José Padilha, 2007)

An artless piece of trash that stylistically rips off City of God and glorifies police brutality to boot, Elite Squad is so bad it's actually saved from outright offensiveness by how poorly constructed it is. Just as it nears the tipping point of fascism as cops viciously clear out Rio's crime-ridden favelas, the film gets sidetracked into a lengthy aside that makes light of police corruption after already showing some of its dark side. Take a page from GoodFellas: go from light to dark, not the other way around. But don't worry, soon it gets back to tearing apart the slums to prove that civil rights are impeding cops from doing the right thing and bashing in brains. The use of handheld cameras is some of the worst I've ever seen, so disoriented that even when a shot holds you can't make out anything. In some ways, that's a blessing. Grade: D


  1. HIS GIRL FRIDAY has some of my favorite dialogue, it's the epitome of "snappy". And oh man HEAD is so crazy, I'm glad you liked it! It doesn't make any sense but all of it is crazy entertaining. I am not ashamed to say I love the Monkees.

  2. I haven't seen Elite Squad but it's interesting that you describe it as glorifying police brutality (which apparently quite a few critics have also said), cos Padilha co-directed the documentary Bus 174, which was to some extent about that very brutality; the hostage taker in that film survived an infamous police massacre and was probably killed by the police after he was taken into custody. Interesting to note he's apparently also been picked to direct the Robocop remake too.

  3. This flick was to be Russell's last story before marriage and retirement, and Grant pulls out all the stops trying to mess things up for her, even to giving her counterfeit money. He made her life hell. In a good way:) Thanks for the post!