Friday, May 30, 2003
Jaws — I haven't seen this movie since its release in 1975. What's most notable is how clean and direct the storytelling is. Even though its clocks in at more than two hours, there is no padding at all. Any hint of subplot has been stripped away in favor of moving the story briskly along. There is also none of the saccharine emotion that Spielberg loaded up his later movies with. This is easily Spielberg's best, perhaps matched only by Schindler's List. It's hard to recreate how scary this movie was on release both because it's been parodied so much and also because the standard of what's scary has risen so much over the years. The level of tension is never really all that high. Nevertheless, everything in the movie works well together especially the three main actors. Robert Shaw is especially good. John Williams's music is also about as good as anything he's come up with, except for possibly the Star Wars music.
Thursday, May 29, 2003
All the Vermeers in New York — Slow-paced, and barely there plot-wise, but not bad at all. It ends with what I think is a Proust quote about mortality and a Vermeer painting, and that's a pretty good summation of what it's about. It wants to be critical of the late '80's in New York, but the touch is light and almost (but not quite) sympathetic to the characters. By the end, I was enjoying the time it took to evolve.
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Sunrise — Generally hailed as one of the greatest of all silent films, especially notable for its cinematography. The camerawork really is impressive, but everything is really first-rate here, including the acting and the Expressionist set design. May of the scenes are almost Vermeer-like in the way the light glows from a window or candle. It's very much like some of the town scenes in the original Beauty and the Beast. The set design reminds one of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the way the houses seem to be built on angles and the amusement park piles one attraction on another and another. There are all sorts of subthemes here, for example the identification of the city with sin and evil while the countryside (on the other side of the river) is good and sweet and pure. The city is licentious, while the countryside is honest. It's hardly subtle, but it's also not condescending: the hero knows how silly he looks to the cityfolk, and doesn't want to be forced to parade his "peasant" dancing. It also gives the hero a chance to discover that he's not really made for the place that sounded so alluring when he was chatting with his "sophisticated" girlfriend.
Monday, May 26, 2003
Irma la Douce — Not one of Billy Wilder's best, not by a long shot. While the plot is all right, the seams are definitely showing in the way the jokes spool out. It lacks the spark of fun and spontaneity that makes it fun to watch. As profssional as everyone is, it all seems forced and unpleasant. The one interesting thing about it is the photography. Wilder puts to use the same wide frame that he uses in his great black and whites and fills it with great splashes of color. Wilder's visual sense sometimes gets lost in the acclaim over his scripts and acid tongue. It shouldn't though, its easily the best thing about this movie.
Sunday, May 25, 2003
Glengarry Glen Ross — A couple of manly movies today. This one is not so much about the law of the jungle but the absence of any law whatsoever. It deserves its reputation as a showcase for great male parts, even though it doesn't quite escape its dramatic roots. I'm glad I watched it, but you can't say it's fun watching this group of desperate people, whose entire self-worth is tied to their ability to sell. Decency doesn't stand a chance, except for the random guy whom you sense will never be the office leader. It's a bleak picture, even more frightening because of how much it resembles the existence of the real-life characters in Salesman. In a small role, Alec Baldwin reminds me of how good he can be when he really cares, a habit he's apparently broken.
Deliverance — After all the hype around this movie, it's probably hard to approach without preconceptions. Nevertheless, what impresses is how tight the movie is; how quickly and directly it drives to its conclusion. There is precious little time wasted by worrying about what it all means and what anyone feels about it. It's clean without an ounce of fat. What happens to Ned Beatty is still shocking, although it is unfair to the movie to be laden with such overwhelming cultural baggage. Unfortunately, its message of the romance of the wilderness and its approach to the questions of "manhood" are a bit dated. It's still bears viewing though, as the script, the acting, the camera, and the direction work flawlessly together to make their point.
Saturday, May 24, 2003
Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy — Over the 14 years covered by this anthology we see a lot fo development in the way Disney made its cartoons. The early ones from 1939 and the early 1940s are filled with the rich watercolor backgrounds and detail that disney was famous for. As time goes by, the backgrounds lose that richness for flat pastel color and even Goofy loses some of his detail. By the end, the cartoon style matches that of 101 Dalmations with its xeroxes and colored-in cels. The quality of the cartoons themselves come and go, but much of the pleasure and originality are gone by the end.
The role of Goofy is interesting as well. While Mickey and Donald are pretty much the same character in every cartoon, Goofy seems to change with every role. Also many of the background characters are also Goofy-like, so that he becomes more universal than the other two. In many ways this adds to his appeal as an "everyman". (2 disks)
Sanjuro — A sequel of sorts to Yojimbo, this one has Toshiro Mifune as the same masterless samurai out to fix some wrongs. While his moral compass is not clear to the other characters, he ends up doing the right thing. This is a bit of a minor effort, but still the clear work of a camera and mise-en-scene master. The placement of people in the frame, in particular, is wonderful to watch.
Hard Eight — Paul Thomas Anderson's movies seem focussed on characters who cannot escape some horrible past. That's certainly the case in this movie. This one is clearly an early effort, lacking in the rich layering of his follow-up movies. It still has the same smooth extended camera moves which are so good in all his movies and the elegant poses of loneliness, but it is not up to his later work.
Friday, May 23, 2003
Faraway, So Close — A continuation of the story of the characters in Wings of Desire. It's quite interesting and the movie seems to be a very personal effort for Wenders. At the same time thre are a lot of holes: the acting by the key figure of Willem Defoe is not up to the job, and the story doesn't really make much sense especially when we get to the circus tricks at the end. Making up for some of this is the great camera work as well as the excellent work of the two main ex-angels.
How Green Was My Valley — This is the movie that beat Citizen Kane for best picture. While certainly not as good as that movie, it has something Kane lacks: subtlety. Every shot and every little gesture add to the complex characters on the screen and build on the theme of societal dissolution. Much like another John Ford masterpiece, The Searchers, this movie doesn't club you over the head with its intent. Rather it hides its message in a long story spanning many years. It's got a few flaws: Walter Pigeon has a good voice but little else to recommend him for one, but a great movie nevertheless.
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Miller's Crossing — This really is one of the best of the Coen brothers' movies, if not the very best. It has a drum-tight plot (rare for a double-crossing gangster flick) and doesn't treat its characters with the condescension so common in their other movies. It has a very strong female role, which is almost a hallmark of their films. The movie also looks great, with excellent cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld. Extra points for a super moody score. An individual's moral code is a theme runnng through many of the Coen films, but it is rarely so tragic and pained as in this one.
Now, Voyager — So much better than last night's Bette Davis. This one has strong supporting performances, a much more realistic character (with problems that could actually exist outside the movies), and not nearly so simplistic a message. Very enjoyable stuff. Bette Davis certainly deserved her nominatin for this one as the performance is fantastic.
Monday, May 19, 2003
Dark Victory — If one decent performance can save a movie from a morass of mediocrity this is it. Humphrey Bogart has an occasionally disappearing Irish accent; Ronald Reagan is a constantly tottering drunk; the direction is so bad it looks as though they went out of their way to make Bette Davis look bad; and George Brent is a too earnest doctor with no sense of honesty for his patients. Yet, Bette Davis manages to shine through this sappy, idiotic story with phenomenal presence and wonderful line readings. If anything her performance is only enhanced by the fact she manages to be so good while everyone around her is so bad. She single-handedly makes this movie part of the legend of 1939 when so many good movies were made. It certainly isn't the rest of the movie. One small bonus is the score, which is the only thing that comes close to Davis in quality. It is remarkably subtle and refined.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — I didn't like this one much when it came out, and I'm still not that impressed. One certainly can't argue with the craft: this is one extremely well put together movie. The problem is that everything is incredibly obvious and overdone. Subtlety has no place here. A perfect example is the John Williams score. Some great stuff, no doubt, but it is all hammered home so earnestly and so often that it not only snuffs out the magic but stamps on it over and over just to make sure.
Friday, May 16, 2003
The Long Goodbye — An awfully interesting movie, with a great performance by Elliot Gould (an event not repeated for a long time). In the extras they kept talking about how Gould was supposed to be a man apart, with narrow ties and a forties look compared to everyone else. The strange thing is that now it is everyone else who looks weird and goofy while Gould looks the most modern. This makes the impact of the movie a bit weaker on a more modern audience I think. An amusing bit is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a non-speaking, but very muscular, role.
Thursday, May 15, 2003
Far from Heaven — Perhaps the most exquisitely crafted movie I've seen all year. I say that because every frame is clearly manipulated to produce a certain definite, and knowingly artificial, impact. It's just extraordinary. Everything works beautifully well here. The camera work and set design are as impressive as the acting, and even the dialogue is absolutely pitch-perfect. An astonishing movie. One of the very few movies that has reflected the real beauty of fall foliage.
Sunday, May 11, 2003
Mulholland Dr. — Originally made as a pilot for a television series and then expanded to a movie when the series fell through. This abbreviated schedule really shows, because as good as the first half is, it loses coherence near the end, with too many loose threads. Or perhaps I just didn't get it. It's got all the standard David Lynch weirdness as well as the trademark gorgeous photography, and it all works together pretty well, at least through the first hour and a half. One problem may be that I watched this one over two nights which killed some of the dramatic impact. Naomi Watts does a great job in a double role. The neat trick is that the first role seems overblown until you realize it's all supposed to be fake. This one probably deserves a second viewing.
Spirited Away — I really like this movie and it gets better every time I see it (this is the third time). The richness of character as well as the stunning, just stunning, artwork are extraordinary. That said, the pacing is a bit odd. The last half hour of the movie are really slow compared to the first bit. As imaginative as the spirit world is, I imagine it the movie has more resonance for a Japanese audience whch can understand many of the references. Even so, the heart of the story—a young girl learning to depend on herself—comes through strongly. As good as this is, I still think Princess Mononoke is the best yet from Miyazaki.
Saturday, May 10, 2003
Welcome to the Dollhouse — A pained look at life in Junior High, pitched somewhere between the comedy of Sixteen Candles and the horror of Gummo. The unloved star slowly realizes that she's not the only one who is suffering and becomes more aware of the world around her in a series of awkward episodes. It's all done very nicely with good sound and excellent direction. In many ways, one of the most realistic "teen" movies I've seen.
Speed Racer — Still a great series (this is only the first eleven episodes), even after more than 30 years. As cheesy as the animation sometimes is and as goofy as the antics of Chim-chim and Sprytle are, the mystery of Racer X and the much of the tension in the races is still effective. Quality entertainment!
Friday, May 9, 2003
Sling Blade — It starts out with small town stereotypes and a bemused condescension towards its stock characters. By the end, it's redeemed by the way it builds its mood of the effect of past evil, impending doom, biblical retribution, and the power of love. The script and Billy Bob's weird affected speaking style are not the strong points here. However, the supporting actors, most surprisingly John Ritter, and the astonishingly good score by Daniel Lanois, as well as Thornton's solid and assured direction, make up for most of the flaws.
Monday, May 5, 2003
The Blank Generation/Dancing Barefoot — Two documentaries about the '70s punk scene in New York. The first is pretty raw with black and white footage of CBGB/OMFUG shows backed up with unsynced sound. It was directed by Ivan Kral, the subejct of the second movie, along with lots of other characters. This second one is a bit more traditional, but is interesting in that it shows some of the strains in the commuity along with the obvious love the people have for each other.
Sunday, May 4, 2003
Terms of Endearment — Only some weird fetish for completism could have induced me to watch this weepie. It's almost embarassing. James Brooks clearly has a gift for characters, especially strong women's roles. If one thinks of the Holly Hunter part in Broadcast News as the mother of the news operation, one could even narrow the description further to strong, conflicted, mothers-in-crisis, women's roles. Just about everything in the movie is top flight. Why is it that a guy known for TV programs manages to be so good at movies? At the same time there is something about the movie that dates it, that keeps it from sttaying fresh. Even as I was watching it, I kept thinking that it was very much an early '80s movie. Why this is so is hard to explain, but it limited the appeal of the movie a bit.
Friday, May 2, 2003
The Singing Detective — There is so much going on in this series that one doesn't really get a handle on it until the very end. Luckily it seems to end on a slightly positive note as it appears the hero might finally be getting a handle on the demons which are threatening him. What it really is trying to get at is the pain that people put themselves through as a result of horrible expreiences. It also addresses how people can cut themselves off from genuine interaction as a protective mechanism. The old tunes featured throughout offer cheap and banal sentiment which are oddly comforting as they can bring back brief memories of happiness. In the same way, a hideous illness offers an easy way to become embittered and seal oneself off from the rest of humanity. The upbeat part, though, is that something inside forces the hero to eventually foresake these influences and try to connect again with other people. It is astonishing how Potter manages to weave together the musice, four different realities, and a host of characters into a seamless whole. One also comes away with the sense that Potter had a pretty hideous childhood and is still trying to figure a way to escape that history. (2 disks)
Madadayo — A very strange movie. It's about as low-key as one can get and nothing really happens except the five main characters get drunk and a cat gets lost. Ostensibly about a teacher who inspires great affection among his students we see nothing of the teacher actually teaching. Eventually it becomes more about how to keep one's vitality and enthusiastic outlook as one ages. Even when old, the professor still is able to fall in love with a cat and mourns its departure. The alst scene where the profesor is dreaming shows him as a child, implying that he is still young at heart despite being seventy-seven and suffering from heart trouble. It's this youthfulness which has inspired all around him. One wonders how much of this Kurosawa was trying to say about his own outlook on life.
Despite the fact that nothing seems to happen in the movie, it is still quite interesting. With none of the big action sequences he is so famous for, except perhaps a parody of one when eveyone gets drunk at a birthday party, Kurosawa's genius for framng and pacing still makes everything fascinating. There is never a false move for the camera and the many times the camera is still only emphasizes how fantastic the compositions are. This was Kurosawa's final film and seems to be much more "Japanese" than many of his other classics. Certainly it is very different from Red Beard, the other "great teacher movie.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Detour — Long considered a classic and now I know why. It's got some great writing ("a ten spot—what is that but a piece of paper with a lot of germs on it") and crazy acting, especially from Ann Savage as Vera. It's short, to the point, and a quick dead end for all the characters. The camera angles are awesome with weird eye shots sprinkled throughout.
Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Sorry, Wrong Number — It's got all the classic noir tropes: bad characters, bad luck, and a convoluted plot. What's so good about this one is that even though there are overlapping flashbacks it never seems to overwhelm the viewer or cause one to lose track of where it's going. Yes, there are certain elements that don't make sense if you think too much about them, but it all really works. Also nice is the growing unsease and terror which comes crashing down at the end with no chance to recover before it all finishes up.
Friday, April 25, 2003
The Stranger — It isn't the stongest story ever, but the acting and the direction are fantastic. This is an Orson Welles film from start to finish and it really shows. The camera work is much of what gives it away: lots of dutch angles and reveals that really ramp up the tension. We see lots of ladder shots, but only near the end do we see that the ladder is immensely long and dnagerous. Every little shot has some larger meaning to it, from the views of the ancient clock to activity in the general store. This one suffers a bit from the Welles disease of being almost too smart for its own good. Its too obvious intelligence makes it feel a bit like a play frather than a realistic movie. It detracts from the horror of watching the Welles character, and lessens, a bit at least, the impact of the story. There is so much richness here though, especially in the acting, that it is tough to criticize it too much.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Purple Noon — This is the first filmed version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It doesn't have the ambience, scenery, or even much of the plot of the sercond version, nor does it have much of the excitement. Alain Delon, who looks oddly like Jude Law in the second version, is not bad. While the sense of longing for wealth is pretty accurately portrayed, the loneliness and amorality of Ripley, which was emphasized in Matt Damon's characterization, is much less in evidence here.
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Meantime — This is one of the worst DVD transfers I've ever seen. The video is bad and the sound is atrocious, although the video might be bad because it was originally done for TV. Yet, despite not being able to understand much of what was going on, it is still a very effective character piece. It's also interesting for an early look at the acting of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, as well as Mike Leigh's extremely effective style. Exploring the pathologies of the unemployed in Britain is certainly not pretty, but Leigh deals with his characters straight on and never looks down on them or demeans them. A bit slow compared to works like Secrets and Lies, but quite good.
Castle in the Sky — In this Miyazaki wonderfest there is plenty of plot and action. In fact the first fifteen minutes are an amazing tour de force of chase scenes and action bits. The movie slows down a bit from there, but the imagery and action are amazing. It's a little lacking in the character department, but still quite impressive.
Sunday, April 20, 2003
Sayonara — It's a serious "message" movie that's a little slow and a bit long. However, it does have good supporting acting, which anchors an amazing Marlon Brando. His character isn't from anywhere recognizable, or even necessarily from Earth. However, his delivery and readings are so good and so riveting that you don't mind. You can almost forgive Ricardo Montalban's bizarre Kabuki star as long as Brando is around to confirm that logic isn't necessary.
Saturday, April 19, 2003
Kiki's Delivery Service — Most movies tend to mirror big character developments with big plot developments. This one, like My Neighbor Totoro, does not. It's a very friendly universe that these movies take palce in, but that doesn't make the stresses or worries of the main characters any less important or serious. Kiki is trying to become an adult and the movie doesn't need to drive that point home with some fake crisis. The crisis she does face, that of confidence, is more internal than anything and is resolved well before the big action scene at the end. It's also significant that as nice as everyone around Kiki is, it is Kiki herself that resolves her problems. It's a mark of the power and confidence Miyazaki has in his own story-telling skills that he can rely on the maturation of his heroine to carry the story along, rather than on constructed and unrealistic peril.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
Midnight Express — Pretty well done, although hardly subtle. Much of the impact depends on feeling sorry for the main character. Unfortunately, that was not an easy task for me. Much more interesting were the other prisoners, rather than the self-pitying and self-righteous Billy Hayes. There is probably an interesting story here about how some prisoners managed to work together while others lost hope and their humanity under appalling conditions, not to mention how someone can become so angry they are capable of biting off someone else's tongue. While engaging, this movie is not that story.
Sunday, April 13, 2003
The Wild One — Marlon Brando is okay, but hardly riveting in this fairly bad biker movie. His line readings are not bad, but he has an unexpectedly high voice which hardly adds to the anxiety factor and everything is emphasized to make it clear that this "rebel" is suffering from all sorts of inner turmoil. By the end, it's just silly. The real surprise is Lee Marvin, who is quite good (and much more lively) in his role as stooge and chief troublemaker.
Saturday, April 12, 2003
All About Eve — A second viewing. I'd remembered the great cattiness in this movie, but what really shone through again this time was the performance of Bette Davis. Her line readings are amazing. The rest of the cast is good, but really pales in comparison to Davis. The script is near perfect, although not exactly natural. It's theatrical, but it works.
Friday, April 11, 2003
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — Quite a bit better than the first installment. Especially good are the bad guys Lucius Malfoy and Gilderoy Lockhart, with the extra bonus of Dobby. As in the first one, the price of being extremely faithful to the book is overly long bits and some unnecessary exposition. What makes up for it in this one is the thrilling end, which packs a solid dramatic punch.
Andrei Rublev — Hard to know what to say about this movie. Much of the point is to ignore logic and straightforward storytelling, but rely on emotion and artistic "feel" to get the message across. It's not an easy movie, but a deeply engaging one. At the end I have to say it is highly successful. It is pretty astonishing in its scope and reach. From the small touches of splashing milk to the grand battle scenes to the Felliniesque opening shot of a flying peasant, it is a pretty amazing movie.
Thursday, April 10, 2003
Good Morning — This movie deals mostly with the quotidian trials of raising kids in a very crowded housing block. In a larger sense though, it lays out the challenges facing three generations of Japanese as they work through what modernization is doing to them. It's a comedy (with lots of fart jokes) that deals seriously with it subjects. Despite the generally light tone, there is a sense that danger always lurks near: misunderstandings cause problems among the ladies of the neighborhood; the kids narrowly avoid eating rat poison; and, later, the kids make their parents worry they have disappeared somewhere. It's gently disquieting. Director Ozu never moves his camera but keeps its motionless from a low and off-center perspective. The framing within each setup is fantastic, and the low angle tends to make one feel more connected and relaxed with the actors. No one would think this is a fast-paced movie, but its gentle rhythms are pretty seductive.
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — Misfits finding happiness seems to be a theme running through all sorts of Australian movies. Strictly Ballroom and Muriel's Wedding spring immediately to mind. The movies are awfully well made, with real characters. This one has some incredible acting talent; Terence Stamp is a genuine pleasure to listen to and to watch. At the end though, you wonder what the purpose of the drag queen act is. It seems superfluous and gimmicky against the real human stories in the movie.
Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Goin' South — A fairly goofball movie that's got a nice message in there somewhere about people trying to get along with each other despite their foibles. The acting is good, although Nicholson doesn't quite strike the perfect balance between being smarter than the idiots around him and yet still stupid enough to act like such a yo-yo. Perhaps he was distracted by his directing chores. He has a nice touch with his actors, especially the way he manages to catch the quick glances and funny looks coming from his band of misfits. Christopher Lloyd is at his best. The real find is Mary Steenburgen. For her first movie she more than carries her weight against Nicholson.
It's interesting that for his first directing job, Nicholson chose a Western. Having been involved in two of the best (and darkest) oaters ever made (The Shooting and Ride In the Whirlwind), his sojourn into this territory is marked by broad, gentle, almost loving, comedy. Perhaps he was trying to balance the karma out a bit.
Monday, April 7, 2003
The House of Yes — A wannabe dark comedy trying to expose the pampered rich as twisted and depraved. Apart from a serious lack of decent story, it has some notable strengths including occasionally clever dialogue and the expected superlative acting from Parker Posey. The real surprise is Tori Spelling, who does a pretty decent job of acting like an earnest ditz (going against type might be the secret). Freddie Rinze, Jr. is also not too bad (for similar reasons). Don't misunderstand me though, it's not really worth the trouble.
Sunday, April 6, 2003
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — Very solid and entertaining movie. There's some nice subtlety between Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney which makes the whole thing quite satisfying. George Sanders is an extra special bonus. Bernard Herrmann does the score and I still can't say I like his scores at all; they seem heavy-handed and obvious. I'm almost to the point with his music that I don't really need to see the credits. Unfortunately, in this case, that's not a good thing.
Saturday, April 5, 2003
Femme Fatale — In some strange parallel world where there's no one to annoy the reveries of the beautiful and the rich, there is occasionally one or two people who can make a really cool movie. Not that there is much relation to the world we actually live in, the whole point is simply the coolness of it all. Simply through pure movie-making talent, this movie manages to work despite the incredible unreality of almost everyting about it, including the ridiculous twist at the end. Brian De Palma really manages to pull off a fun little heist/blackmail movie despite the silliest of conceits. The best part is that De Palma really knows how to move his camera around; it's fancy, but it doesn't draw attention to itself except as a way to help the story along.
Friday, April 4, 2003
Children of Paradise — This movie creates a weird and excellent spell around itself. It allows you to suspend disbelief and enjoy all the characters, even the more unsavory ones. Even though it's in French the beauty of the language comes through, it was apparently written by a fairly famous poet. The characters are the amazing part, there is a huge range of them from the tragic to the farcical and they all interrelate smoothly and naturally. I'm not quite sure about the ending since it's pointedly too ambiguous for real comment, but the spell of it lingers for quite a while after its over. Pretty much at the other end of the spectrum from that other film featuring mimes: Shakes the Clown.
Monday, March 31, 2003
The Big Knife — Wonderfully overwritten and overwrought play brought to life by some great performances by Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, and Rod Steiger (all courtesy of Cliffored Odets). It's big time tragedy that really doesn't work as a movie mostly because the language is so arch and clever. Like The Sweet Smell of Success, this language is the reason why its so much fun. And the message is much the same: true salvation comes only at the expense of everything you've got. Director Robert Aldrich brings a lot to the story as well, with the sensitivity to moral turmoil and anguish that he brought to many of his other movies.
Sunday, March 30, 2003
The Draughtsman's Contract — Awfully interesting and fascinating movie. It takes some of its cinematographic stylings, that of static, posed, painting-like settings, from Barry Lyndon. This one is a smaller movie, but darker (hard to believe) and more arcane. One of the themes is the impossibility of art ever really representing reality. This is especially true for the draughtsman, who makes perfect representations but misses out on what is actually going on around him and gets killed for his trouble. Even the weird speech patterns emphasize the subterfuge and confusion which seems to reign throughout this movie. Almost everything in the movie is false and dangerous. It's very effective and very good.
Futurama, Season 1 — It doesn't have the all-around brilliance of the The Simpsons, but it also doesn't try to paint such a large canvas either. This allows a smaller cast and smaller (and often sharper) satire. This means that it is often incredibly satisfying despite not reaching the heights of the other show. As in many great shows, it takes a while to really find its footing; several of the first season's episodes are notably underwritten. The best ones though are the ones that deal directly with the science fiction legacy through the character of Zapp Branagan. Anytime he is in an episode it is almost certain to be excellent. (3 disks)
Saturday, March 29, 2003
Moby Dick — Having just reread the book it is a bit disappointing to see a movie which has so little of the book in it, even the final speech of Ahab is truncated (not to mention barely audible). While it tries to keep the main theme of revenge, Gregory Peck is badly miscast. While he musters a little anger near the end, he just can't help but be Gregory Peck, far too nice for a man consumed with anger. The characters are the barest of figures, we barely get to know any of their personalities except for maybe a glimmer from Starbuck. One highlight is Royal Dano as Elijah near the beginning. He offers the right amount of creepiness and doom, and that great voice, to put a bit of fright into Ishmael.
Friday, March 28, 2003
Floundering — A Richard Linklater-esque, twenty-something angst film set in the aftermath of the LA riots. Some bits of the movie work better than others, but it all holds together pretty well. As in Scotland, PA, James LeGros is a serious standout here. What he manages to acomplish with just his eyebrows is amazing. Particularly funny is the spoof of the fascist self-absorbed police chief.
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
Urotsukidoji III: Return of the Overfiend — More perverse and incomprehensible Japanese mythology. This one is better than the second installment, but as the series moves on the animation declines in quality. The story is as bizarre as ever, but the dialogue is pretty bad. Might be a problem with the translation.
Sunday, March 23, 2003
The Day the Earth Stood Still — It's not a speedy movie by any means, but the direction is almost perfect as the tension slowly grows to the exciting end. The story is awfully simple, with only the barest hint of a subplot. At the time of its release it was a strong warning against runaway self-righteousness and unreasonable fear. However, by the end a different message reverberates today. We learn that the aliens have subordinated themselves to a group of supercops who cannot be stopped. These robots are peaceful, but it is creepy to think that even the supersmart aliens had to find a superpower to control their impulses to violence.
Saturday, March 22, 2003
Scotland, PA — Equal parts spoof of Macbeth, the 1970s, and small town living. It's light but enjoyable, mostly because the acting is so good. James LeGros is very, very good as a near half-wit led to destruction. It looks as though everyone must have had a really fun time making this movie. There isn't much to the Shakespeare references, and it's really only mildly clever, but it is still fun to watch.
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Sleuth — While it's a different genre, the themes are very similar to the contemporary The Ruling Class. This is pretty good, and Michael Caine even manages to outact Lawrence Olivier. At the same time, it's a bit dated, the mystery at the center isn't really all that mysterious. Perhaps too many final twists have soured me on the device, but this one doesn't have much of an impact at the end. The direction is pretty stagey, which might be part of the problem. It feels artificial.
Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Dancer in the Dark — It is a strange world created by Lars von Trier in this movie. Much like Breaking the Waves there are logical gaps and unaccountable actions that propel the story forward but are clearly not part of the real world. At the same time, the drama is notably compelling and realistic. The incredible sacrifice at the heart of this story is so tragic and emotional it is painful to watch. The acting and the technical craft are so good that it sells the story as truly reflective of reality. The surreal aspect is heightened here because of the weird color work and the musical pieces, which in their apparent artlessness reflect a handheld quality of movie making. It's all artifice though and it draws attention to itself. This is not so much a bad thing as part of the style and it makes you more willing to buy into the unreality. Much of the reason it all works in this piece is the amazng performance of Bjork.
Saturday, March 15, 2003
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp — Not quite in the same league as Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes, but nevertheless an extremely dense film filled with Archer trademarks like rich characters, wonderful writing, and lots of humor along with the seriousness. It also has the benefit of three-strip technicolor, which is great to look at under almost any conditions (although the colors in this one cannot be compared to the other two movies). The interesting thing is how the many themes of war tactics, aging, lost love, honor, friendship, and others all work together seamlessly. It's an amazing story-telling tour-de-force.
Friday, March 14, 2003
Thursday, March 13, 2003
Following — A really well-done first film effort by Memento-meister Christopher Nolan. A lot of the mixed-up time structure from that mainstream movie is evident here. This one, however, has a very London feel to it. The sense of desperation and loneliness in the main character reminded me a lot of Croupier (and more than just because the two protagonists are both wannabe writers). Very nicely done, in black and white no less.
Fantastic Planet — This is a pretty weird French animated "artsy" movie. It has a pretty simple message about peace and love across species and planets and all the rest. It's real strength is that it looks great. The animation is crude, but the design and delicate line drawings are amazing. This is one I've been trying to see for a long time. With the quality of the art, and an interesting "eurosynth" soundtrack, it has help up pretty well over the more than 30 years since it was first released.
Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Day of Wrath — With a name like this, you're not really going to get an uplifting happy kind of movie. Yes, it is a tragedy, one that addresses the fact that often the worst hells are the ones we create for ourselves. Anne and the other characters are all unhappy because of what they have done to and created for themselves. It's a very powerful message, delivered in slow and stately moves that make the sudden eruption of emotion all that more expressive.
As in The Passion of Joan of Arc, this movie has near flawless cinematography. Dreyer manages to do amazing things with the faces and eyes of his actors. The pace is certainly slow, but it all works together to emphasize the horror of what is going on. There is also the fact that the harsh tones of Danish seem to underscore the harsh and highly judgmental society which the film describes.
Monday, March 10, 2003
Evangelion: Death and Rebirth — What happens when you take a nearly unintelligible multi-hour series and condense it into a two-hour movie? Complete and utter confusion. There are some wonderful images taken from the series, but even the bits I could dimly remember from the few episodes I saw were barely recognizable in this (rudimentary) compilation of plot points. Unfortunately, incomprehension also leads to dullness, despite the fancy eye candy. Despite truly being one of the most talked about and admired anime movies ever (just read some of the reviews), I just can't say it's much of a winner.
Saturday, March 8, 2003
Indochine — A big sprawling story that manages to feel intimate despite its huge scope. It looks absolutely fantastic, with gorgeous cinematography around the incredible landscape. Catherine Deneuve is as good as advertised, but Jean Yanne as the chief of police really stole the show for me. His character made watching the whole thing much more worthwhile, because too often the other characters' pained looks and anguished sighs stand in for real meaning. Particularly interesting was the information about the Vietnamese royalty and the elite who ran the country prior to the Communist insurgency. There are lots of references in this movie to things of which I have no knowledge. Nevertheless, it never feels like a travelogue or history lesson. A bit long, especially in the escape sequence, but overall quite interesting to watch.
Friday, March 7, 2003
Apocalypse Now Redux — The added footage particularizes the movie, places it much more in Vietnam rather than simply some hellish place where a war is taking place. This is especially true of the French plantation scene where we get a long discourse on the history of the country. We also get a better sense of the way the crew of the PBR boat works together and builds a sense of camaraderie. Neither of these changes really strengthens the movie. As good as the scenes are, much of the emotional impact of the original movie relied on the gradual movement of Martin Sheen's solo voyage away from the particular towards the mythic, totemic, internal horror represented by Brando. The new stuff dilutes the power of the original cut by making it less universal.
Sunday, March 2, 2003
Breathless — Being cool is the important thing. Even if you are only copying what you think American movie stars are doing, cool is the thing. Even when things are about as everyday as can be, like the endless, idiotic, conversations about love, the characters are blissfully unaware how silly they are. The movie seems very much a product of its time, even the much-vaunted fast cutting is pretty tame compared to today. At the same time, the highly mobile camera with its frequent long twisting tracking shots is still very effective, and perhaps one of the more impressive elements of the movie. I can't imagine a French director today being so enamored of U.S. culture. This movie's idolatry of U.S. movies and their myths is astonishing.
Saturday, March 1, 2003
My Neighbor Totoro — A plot that is as light as air, and yet there is an emotional quality to this movie, like the other Miyazaki's that transcends the story. Of course, there is the astonishingly pretty scenery and color work as well as the life-affirming end result. The strange thing is that the reassuring elements somehow manage to sneak up on you, without drawing attention to themselves. It's a magical sleight-of-hand that bears repeated viewing.
The Killers — This is the 1964 version with a much bleaker sense of reality, despite its bright, bright colors. What's better in this one is the across-the-board better acting, highlighted by a tremendous Lee Marvin. Even Ronald Reagan is convincing as the chief hood.The change in perspective means that this version lacks the redeeming sense that we are only looking at lives gone wrong. In this one the world has gone wrong and we're forced to live in it. Everything is a trap in this movie. Hard to say which movie is better, each is awfully good in its own way. I think overall the early version is more interesting because of the lighting and camera work. Also, the second one is a bit long in places. Lee Marvin is such a draw though, that this later one will always be a classic.
Friday, February 28, 2003
The Killers — This is the 1946 version and an awfully good black-and-white film noir with lots of dark shadows and a doomed protagonist. Edmond O'Brien is the real star here, although it is Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner who get top billing. There is also a small part by William Conrad who was working on a serious waistline long before Jake and the Fatman. Ava Gardner is particularly disappointing as she never really sells the part except in one scene where she doesn't speak. It doesn't quite have the tragic resonance of the best noirs, Lancaster might be part of the problem here, but it does keep one wondering where it is all going. The dialogue, especially in the beginning (which apparently is the only part borrowed from the Hemingway source), is a real highpoint.
Thursday, February 27, 2003
Crooklyn — More an anthology of stories rather than a coherent plot. Nevertheless, it has the the usual Spike Lee trademarks of good acting and super-smooth direction. It's a bit slow, but the effect of a family with all sorts of normal tensions, disagreements, and love grows, by the end, into a pretty moving experience.
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
October Sky — A gripping true story about escaping from a mining town via rocketry. It follows all the tried and true steps of these kinds of movies: an inspiring teacher, angry parents, stubborn kids, and a dream which conquers all. It all works here though because the acting is great (especially Chris Cooper), the writing is solid, and the story is really, really good.
La Femme Nikita — Having just seen The Transporter (not on DVD), I can see how little it takes to push Luc Besson's successful style right over the edge. This one is not bad, and it anticipates the stylings of The Professional. In all three cases, everything takes place in a weird unreal world where folks are asked to do ludicrously violent things while suffering from ridiculously maudlin emotions. What makes it work is the terrific cinematography and editing. There's a limit to how far all this can go, and that limit was probably passed about two-thirds of the way through The Fifth Element. After the initial thrill of these kind of movies (long since gone for me), they are useful only as technical primers. Beyond that there is not much to recommend them.
Wednesday, February 5, 2003
Mountains of the Moon — Thrilling, almost unbelievable story, very well-told. One couldn't really make up a character like Richard Burton. He spoke 23 languages, translated numerous books, visited Mecca disguised as a Muslim, among other daring exploits, and, once in Africa, suffered horrible diseases and punishment, including taking a spear through the mouth. On top of this is the tragedy of his relationship with Speke, who also survived incredible challenges. The acting is great in what is a thrilling movie.
Monday, February 3, 2003
Quills — Philip Kaufman tends to make cold films, almost clinical in their study of emotion and drama. This made Henry and June nearly unwatchable and The Unbearable Lightness of Being slow and unsatisfying. In this one, however, he's saved by several excellent performances: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, and lots of excellent supporting players. The actors save this meditation on the power of the written word from being too preachy or too dull, and make it something quite special. It looks and feels staged, but the actors make one really care about the characters, and that's why it works.
Sunday, February 2, 2003
In the Company of Men — Yes, it's shocking and all. The Chad character is pure evil and that somehow is supposed to mean a lot to us. But it is also quite dated. I can't imagine a movie expressing "male rage" would ever get much play in this time of war and danger. At the same time, without the shock value, it's a pretty boring movie. The direction is sparse and lean, which I think is a good idea if you are new at the job and don't want to make a misstep. Yet, it's also very slow in getting to the point. The commentary track is very specific about lots of technical things, which is very interesting, perhaps even better than the movie itself.
Monday, January 27, 2003
The Lord of the Rings — This is the animated version that came out in 1978. It is an interesting comparison with the recent live-action version because so much of the events and even dialogue are exactly the same. However, this version is a flop. Part of the problem is that it couldn't be completely animated, so a lot of the orc scenes are done by rotoscoping live action performers. The technical abilities of the time weren't really up to this scale of movie. Even the painted backgrounds don't really express the wonderment of what is supposed to be Middle Earth. With a few exceptions, everything is strangely flat and not very eye-catching. The bigger problem is that the direction is awful. The scenes don't build on each other, there is no sense of foreboding or drama, and even the bad guys are just not all that scary. It is the difference between simply describing events and actually telling a story cinematically. Peter Jackson can do it, but Ralph Bakshi most assuredly cannot, at least not here. It also provides a clear answer to those people who criticize Jackson for changing the story a bit. The needs of a movie are different than a novel and the movie must concentrate on its strengths if it is to work. That said, there are parts of the animated version which are very good, for example some of the bits with Galadriel. Another standout is the voice work of John Hurt as Aragorn.
Friday, January 24, 2003
Bringing Out the Dead — There is so much that is right about this movie, and yet, somehow, it doesn't come out quite right. The acting is good, the direction is bold, but it doesn't really work. The problem could be in the story, perhaps it is just a bit too literary from the novel. The voiceover is not real effective, and that is part of the problem, but, in the end, you just don't care too much about Frank. The other characters are also quite thin. We see nothing other than caricatures, nothing of their background, except a little of the Ving Rhaymes guy, and his part is a highlight. Technically a standout, this is a minor stuff from Scorsese.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
Last Year at Marienbad — At first it plays like a bad spoof of a perfume ad, and then it keeps repeating itself! Actually, the amazing thing about it is the framing of all the characters, especially given the wide, wide frame. They are often completely motionless, so looking at them solely as a picture is hardly a stretch, but over time it all works together and builds an incredible mood. This is one of the great movies of the "nouvelle vague". As entertainment it barely works at all. As a thinking piece about film and time and memory, it is quite amazing. Extra special high marks for the gorgeous print on this disk. As photography, this one is spell-binding.
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Summer of Sam — Jimmy Breslin opens this movie talking about how he loves and hates New York in equal measure. Spike Lee appears to be saying the same thing about himself. It's this kind of self-examination that sets Spike Lee apart. He even puts in a scene where someone accuses him of hating blacks, an obvious challenge to many of his critics. The courage of that move applies to the whole movie: it boldly faces the chaotic and self-destructive energies of its characters. The movie has its share of faults; Mira Sorvino is unfortunately miscast, Spike Lee's own role as newsman/commentator is strangely lifeless, among other problems. At the same time, it's a gripping story with John Leguiziamo doing a great job among many other standouts. It definitely holds you spellbound throughout its more than two hour running time. Well worth the time. As is usual for Spike Lee, it is serious, quality filmmaking.
Monday, January 20, 2003
Buena Vista Social Club — An interesting movie, although on its own, as a documentary, it is not one of the greater ones. What is phenomenal is the music. The stories of these people are quite compelling and it is interesting to see how they react to success after so many years of being ignored. In this movie at least, Cuba looks very run down and decrepit, although filled with music. It actually looks very much like the image of Havana in Before Night Falls.
Sunday, January 19, 2003
The Stendhal Syndrome — Up there with Ms. 45 in the "revenge-exploitation flic" genre. This one is not nearly as good as that other epic, but it has some interesting touches, mostly the von Sternberg-like lighting of director Dario Argento. Overall though, it's a mess, especially since the titular syndrome appears to be there just to get some art into the movie and has very little connection with the villain. Nice Ennio Morricone score, but lousy acting (the dubbing certainly doesn't help).
Thursday, January 16, 2003
Trouble in Paradise — A really fun little bon-bon with bits of fun scattered all around with nary a whisper of danger. Even the two disappointed suitors seem almost happier to have lost. Also a treat is Edward Everett Horton, who's voice was so distinctive in Fractured Fairy Tales, and other cartoons.
Monday, January 13, 2003
Fooly Cooly (Vol. 1) — Almost as weird and whacked out as I Married a Strange Person. This one doesn't have the same humor, in fact I'm not sure what it does have except exceptional color and an amazing musical track to go along with all the strangeness. Really interesting stuff.
Barcelona — Pretty well done comedy of conversation that nicely keeps things light and wraps it ups essentially happily at the end, with he full knowledge that these people will continue to argue and bicker over their petty annoyances for years to come. Of the Seinfeld/Swingers school of conversations about nothing, this one is quite pleasant and ultimately winning. Like the others it succeeds only to the extent the actors are able to make it believable without too much archness or self-realization. In this one they do so extremely well.
Saturday, January 11, 2003
The Scarlet Empress — This is the second viewing for this movie. This time around I can understand why the movie didn't do so well, it's actually a bit slow. The story is pretty linear, without too much tension about what is really going to happen. At the same time, the acting is all that more impressive because it is so stylized and expressive. Just watching the eyes is enough to keep one involved in many scenes. As impressive as Dietrich's transformation over time is, and she sells it perfectly, the other characters are equally expressive if not quite as impressive because they don't change in the same way as Catherine does. Rather than crediting Dietrich for her work so much, since there is such uniformity of quality (as well as sly humor), I have to give von Sternberg the nod for the incredible attention to detail and effect of almost every move his actors make. On top of the lighting and set direction, it makes it an astonishing, if sedate, production.
Friday, January 10, 2003
The Big Kahuna — Originally written for the stage, and it shows. The acting is awfully good, however, specially Danny DeVito. While Kevin Spacey is is usual talkative, energetic self, DeVito is really quite amazing.
Thursday, January 9, 2003
Labyrinth — Right from the start the movie is asking for a lot by showing some classics of children's literature like The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are. Unfortunately the promise is unredeemed. The characters and set design look great, but the story is just not up to the job. David Bowie is awful and Jennifer Connelly has pretty much one expression of concern for the whole movie. What little tension is there is quickly sucked away by the boredom. It looks like a very '80's production, with lots of big hair and the like. Apart from the great Jim Henson puppets there is very little here.
Tuesday, January 7, 2003
M. Hulot's Holiday — Very accurately described as a "gentle" comedy. Inaccurately described in its tagline as a "madcap romp." It's actually a slow sedate, fairly humorous movie that is more notable for its pleasant mood than anything especially hilarious. I think this is one movie that probably grows better in memory than while actually watching it.
Monday, January 6, 2003
Jacob's Ladder — Tim Robbins is in almost every frame of this movie and does a good job of keeping it interesting throughout. The pacing is a little slow and the ending is a bit predictable. The allegation of a psychotic drug experiment as the cause of the whole experience pushes the limits of real credibility and mars what otherwise is a pretty well-told story. Overall, nothing very special.
Saturday, January 4, 2003
Singin' in the Rain — One of the greatest opening bits of all time where Gene Kelly narrates his clumsy ride to the top of filmdom. The movie lags a bit in the middle and the "Gotta Dance" number is a bit long. Nevertheless, it's deservedly one of the greatest musicals ever. The color on this restoration is particularly good. Wonderfully fun.
Friday, January 3, 2003
Ulee's Gold — Wow, a movie with a real plot that stays true to its story and delivers a big payoff at the end! Imagine that! in fact, the plot is fairly simple and the story unfolds at a pretty slow pace, but for some reason it is thoroughly gripping for the entire time. the amazing alchemy behind this movie is the incredible acting job by Peter Fonda. He is so good, that the others on screen really have a tough time keeping up. The ones that manage it best are the two kids. The really nice thing is that the Fonda character is thoroughly true to life and to himself from beginning to end. Extremely solid.
Thursday, January 2, 2003
Gummo — Like Kids this one was written by Harmony Korine, who also directed. The sketchy plot of Kids is abandoned for a more poetic mix of images and vignettes. Unfortunately the depression, ennui, hopelessness, extreme self-destruction, and total lack of moral environment remain. This one is more interesting than Kids though, as there seems to be a real feeling for some of strange characters that inhabit the movie. It's certainly not intended to be a true portrait, for some of the characters, like the bunny boy, are just too goofy to be real, but there is some resonance in the vacant soundless stares of the character. One amazing thing is the fact that these people have so little going for them and yet they are still desperately social animals, seemingly drawn to each other, friendly and extremely affectionate with each other, although the relationships are mostly pathologic. The message seems to be at the very height of despair and self-destruction, humans till have to seek each other out. It's a slender thread, but at least it's at least one small note of optimism. Even the hopelessly inept mother works to provide a meal and a shampoo for her son. There's all sorts of genial acceptance of weird behavior from all the characters. Although some folks express fairly repellent attitudes, there is very little hate and disagreement among the people. The only real anger is expressed towards a chair. The cat killers even spare one animal because it is obviously a "house cat". Of particular note is the set direction, which does an amazing job of filling out the houses with years of detritus. The people exist in a world that has been decaying for years and years. Also, in this one, there is a historical reason for the hopelessness presented—the arrival of a tornado which destroyed much of the town. Much more than Kids, the more I think about this movie, the better I think it is.
Monday, January 1, 2003
Kids — One very bleak and depressing movie. There isn't much hope for the future if things are as bad as portrayed here. Apart from the arty nihilism though, there are some nice directorial touches, including extra long shots of the kids hanging out and playing together. It's well done and holds together well, but it seems designed for shock value more than anything else. It was made in 1995, so to some extent the news about HIV is a shade dated.