The movie that Federico Fellini made because he would've gone stark raving mad if he hadn't, 8 1/2 stars Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi, an Italian film director struggling (to say the least) to work on his new science fiction film amidst a flurry of personal and artistic challenges; fantasy and reality collide, bob and weave in a series of increasingly surreal and startling visual and musical flourishes as the director attempts to get his groove back and make sense of his life in general. A masterpiece of avant-garde cinema, 8 1/2 surprisingly doesn't come across as a self-congratulatory indulgence on Fellini's part; rather, it humbles the award-winning filmmaker as it paints a portrait of a man at the mercy of an artistic process he has no idea how to hone or tame. The film also benefits immeasurably from a genuine sense of self-parody; indeed, at the start of principal photography, Fellini wrote the term "Ricordati che un film comico" ("Remember that this is a comic film") on a piece of paper and taped it near the viewfinder of the camera. A great movie about a man making a movie -- and about a movie making a man.
A case of "Too Soon" if there ever was one, this meta-examination of Arnold Schwarzenegger as both man and myth probably would've been a huge hit if it had been made today; seeing the now-disgraced former governor make a huge comeback by playing what's essentially a funhouse mirror version of himself in a flip career retrospective/homage would be both poignant and marvelously entertaining, doing for Arnold what the excellent JCVD did for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Alas, Last Action Hero was made not now but back in 1993, when Schwarzenegger was still in his prime, and the result is an awkward, bloated mess about a kid whose magical movie ticket transports him to a parallel universe inhabited by his favorite action movie character, Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger); things get more complicated (and universe-threatening) when the real world is invaded by the movie characters, including -- get this -- the Grim Reaper himself (Ian McKellen!). John McTiernan proved himself a great action director with Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October but, alas, it was not an emphasis on shootings and explosions that this movie needed to make it work; a much more coherent script probably would've helped, too.
Director Olivier Assayas asks, "Wouldn't it be great if making movies was really like this?" in this playful and somewhat sinister ode to the craft that chronicles the various disasters that occur when a French film director (Jean-Pierre Leaud) attempts to remake Louis Feuillade's classic 1915 serial, Les vampires. The lead actress in this folly is Maggie Cheung (playing herself), a Hong Kong woman lost on a French-speaking set -- and the object of the affections of both the director and the costume designer (Nathalie Richard). Cheung looks great in her black latex catsuit, traversing this strange cinematic landscape as the increasingly bizarre filmmaking experience takes its disorienting toll on the director and his crew -- and, eventually, the audience as well. It's been argued that Assayas owes a lot to Francois Truffaut's equally brazen Day For Night (some scenes are lifted directly from that New Wave classic), though the director has said that he considers Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore to be a much greater influence (admittedly, Assayas gets more auteur cred by saying he stole from a German rather than another Frenchman); the film's strange meta-powers leaked into the real world, too, as the director went on to marry (and then divorce) his leading lady.
And so Christopher Guest closed the door on his series of increasingly mean-spirited pseudo-documentaries with For Your Consideration, a predictably (and sometimes embarrassingly) embittered deconstruction of the politics and hypocrisy of Hollywood's obsession with congratulating itself with various award ceremonies. Actually, Guest deserves credit for abandoning his trademark mocumentary style with this one, though the entire thing still seems completely improvised -- unfortunately, the more formal narrative structure doesn't make Guest's cruel brand of satire any more tolerable, even if "the industry" is an easier target to take for his constant poking and prodding than, say, simple townsfolk and their ridiculous theatre dreams (Waiting For Guffman) or uber-passionate owners of celebrity canines (Best in Show). You definitely get a sense that Guest and his Scooby gang of Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, etc. realize that the party's over with this one‚ and that they maybe should've just stopped with A Mighty Wind, the one that makes fun of silly folk artists and their silly folk music.
A sometimes fascinating fictional account of the investigation of the death of George Reeves, Hollywoodland features Adrien Brody as Louis Simo, a private investigator in 1950s L.A. whose aimless life suddenly finds a sharp focus when Adventures of Superman actor Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead from a gunshot wound outside his Beverly Hills home. As this is a movie about the movies, much of Simo's investigation involves several cinematic "What if?" dream scenarios in which he imagines vivid recreations of the many ways Reeves could've been killed -- was his death an act of retribution by MGM mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) upon the end of Reeves' long-term affair with his wife, Toni (Diane Lane); the unfortunate outcome of an argument with Reeves' new lover, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney); or, indeed, an act of suicide, as (almost) everyone says it is? The point is not the answer (we never really know for sure) but the journey on which the private eye embarks in search of it, a journey that ultimately changes -- and, perhaps, even saves -- his own life. Brody does well as a sad-sack private dick during the heydays of Hollywood, and Affleck is quite good as the melancholy, enigmatic Reeves, a man ashamed of what his career -- and life -- had become in his final years.