Sunday, December 28, 2003
L’Avventura — Watching this 22 years ago in film class I thought this movie was dull. On a repeat viewing nothing could be further from the truth. not much happens, but it is always interesting and fascinating the way it all holds together. The view of the life of the leisure class is dark and cynical, but the characters are redeemed somewhat by what looks to be a sad cry for companionship at the end. Amazing framing for the scenes and the way the mise-en-scene underscores the anomie and isolation the characters are experiencing.
Saturday, December 27, 2003
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring-Extended Edition — Now that I know how it all ends, this movie is even more impressive. Since the scale is smaller and more intimate without the impersonal huge battles of the second and third installments, it’s more enjoyable. It’s also impressive for the achievement of the actor who played Boromir. He’s very good.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers-Extended Edition — Watching again, it was interesting how the longer version seems so much fuller the first time you see it, but sitting through it solid, it really is a long drawn out thing. It might be interesting to watch the theatrical version again to see if it moves faster.
Monday, December 22, 2003
The Marriage of Maria Braun — A dark, cynical take on the reconstruction of Germany after the war. This is my first Fassbinder film and it was pretty stunning. The camera movement and actor placement are extraordinary. The film also looks just great. Hanna Schygulla is astonishing as the central character. Her descent into amorality is completely believable and entirely chilling.
Friday, December 19, 2003
Casino — In the first half of this Vegas extravaganza there is a tracking shot which circles through the casino and all around Robert De Niro. It is a fantastic moment as it sums up the way the total mastery of the character over his domain. Whatever other faults the film has, the terrific direction is not among them: Scorsese can move a camera like few others.
Thursday, December 18, 2003
Metropolis — A repeat viewing for this amazing visual anime extravaganza. The story still makes precious little sense, but I am more and more impressed by how good everything looks. One of the best collapse of a building scenes ever, including even the big tower collapse in a very famous recent trilogy. Worth seeing repeatedly for the color sense and the design.
On another note, this is the 200th disk I've watched this year. This seems like an enormous amount, but given that the average American watches five hours of TV a night, I'm still way behind the curve. I'm also aware of how inaccurate initial impressions of a movie are. Often it takes several days for the full impact of a movie (a good one that is) to really sink in. I'm also struck by how many bad movies there really are, but when I see a good one it really restores my faith in the art form. I'm also aware more and more of how good certain elements of a movie can be and yet still deliver such an unfulfilling experience. Acting and technical skills are really at a high point now. Almost anything can be done with imagery and color. At the same time, a compelling and moving story is as hard, if not harder, to deliver than ever before. The waste of effort on some really bad movies is especially dispiriting.
Monday, December 15, 2003
Donnie Darko — A dark, dark teen angst movie that has the advantage of being really, really well-made. It doesn't quite transcend the genre of teen angst, but it raises the bar quite a bit. No John Hughes-style levity here, that's for sure. Life is so bad for Jake Gyllenhaal, who looks and acts like Tobey Maguire, that he manages to go back in time to sacrifice himself for his girlfriend. The acting throughout is uniformly superb, with special mention for Jake and his mother, played by Mary McDonnell.
Saturday, December 13, 2003
The Thin Man — Among its many pleasures is watching how much fun Dick Powell and Myrna Loy have with each other delivering really well-written dialogue. Apart from the main two stars (and the dog) the acting is a bit spotty, but it doesn't really matter. The only real mystery is how anybody could get any work done while drinking so much. Lots of fun.
Friday, December 12, 2003
Tokyo Story — An exquisite film. It has the same slow pace of last night's movie, but it is much more interesting, even though much less happens. The way the most simple of daily activities manages to be both interesting and dramatic is tribute to the special alchemy that Ozu brings to bear on this sad, sad story of generational disappointment and inability to communicate. Each of the characters, no matter how little on screen, is wonderfully rich and detailed. Really, really good. Once again, it redeems movie watching in the face of so many other bad flicks.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
The American Friend — This is a really annoying movie. There is an awful lot to like, but it is also deadly slow. On the good side the acting by Hopper and Ganz is first-rate. The theme of corruption by America is also interestingly done if fairly obvious. However, once again, it's so drawn out that it is not much fun.
Monday, December 8, 2003
Arsenic and Old Lace — Clearly shows its roots as a stage play. It also probably depends on the stage to maintain real interest. Despite the energetic work of Cary Grant and a good supporting cast, this is nearly unwatchable. It is painfully unfunny and dull.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Extended Edition — As in The Fellowship of the Ring, the extended edition is a significantly richer experience, although many of the problems of this middle piece remain. There really is precious little reason to watch the theatrical version when this one is clearly the way the movie should have been. One thing is for sure is that this one definitely raises the bar on what to hope for in the closing chapter. Peter Jackson really needs to deliver on the promise of this one.
Friday, December 5, 2003
Once Upon a Time in the West — It doesn't have Clint Eastwood or Eli Wallach or quite the same shootout at the end to make it as much of a crowd pleaser, but it is much more consistent thematically and that makes it probably Leone's best. Of course, it also is a dazzling display of Leone's camera and storytelling mastery. Everybody makes a big deal about Fonda's bad boy role, but that distracts from the serious weakness of Claudia Cardinale, who can't provide the gravitas needed for her meaty role. Faces, dirty, unshaven faces, are always a standout in these films and Leone makes the most of long tracking shots and extreme close ups to emphasize all the little details. The pace is often funereally slow, but never dull. Tension is incredibly well developed. Few films, even today, are as well edited to build steadily for over two hours to a classic denouement. Even after the story fades a bit, specific scenes and images form a powerful memory. Iconic filmmaking at its very best.
Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Looney Tunes: The Golden Collection — After watching 56 of these cartoons, Daffy is still the best of all of the characters. The other thing that is amazing is how much purely spiteful violence is endured by many of the characters. In some of the cartoons punishments are meted out to bad guys and for bad actions, but in a surprisingly large number, it's the innocent who gets beaten, mauled, and blown up. The perpetrators just get to sit back and enjoy their fun. It's okay and fun in smallish doses, but when packed all together the effect is rather disorienting. (4 disks)
Finding Nemo — Another sparkler from Pixar. Of course, it's more than just funny and the clever touches make the experience all that much more fun. But it doesn't quite maintain the same high level as previous Pixar efforts. The story seems a bit flat. While each plot development is good, they don't hang together or build as completely as in previous movies. Part of the problem may be with Albert Brooks as Nemo's father. He's really too whiny a guy to carry a whole picture. This is really true when compared to the fun that Ellen deGeneres brings to her role. It's certainly not bad, but I want to see Pixar do something better than their earlier efforts as soon as possible. For me at least, A Bug's Life is still their finest effort, and they should be able to do better.
Monday, November 24, 2003
Laugh, Clown, Laugh — A sad, essentially throw-away, silent movie from the late 1920s. A youthful, 15-year old, Loretta Young is interesting, but Lon Chaney steals every scene. He's really remarkable to watch, the way he manages to make even the most dramatic moves realistic and natural for his character. Slight, but fun.
Elmer Gantry — This too long movie is steeped in earnestness as it strives to be a "serious" movie. Burt Lancaster throws lots of energy around, but Jean Simmons is overmatched and it never really comes together. The characters are great, but not well served here.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
The Man Who Wasn't There — A loser keeps trying to figure out if there's any meaning at all to his life, only to discover there isn't. There's a lot to like about this movie, especially the acting by Billy Bob Thornton and the cinematography. The story is good, but the mood and feel are ruined by touches of Coen irony that fall flat. For example, the speech about dry cleaning being the future not only doesn't ring true, but jerks one out of the rest of the mood of the movie. Much better than many other movies, but not one of the Coen's best.
This is written close to three weeks after the previous paragraph and the more I think about it, the more I like this movie. At the least it has had an impact that has kept me thinking about it. On reflection, the Coens did a really good job of describing the desperation of a really average Joe stuck in a meaningless rut. The weird touches of off-beat humor are still probably not necessary, but the basic point of the movie remains and is pretty powerful. What I really mean to say is that I liked it a lot more than the first paragraph might imply.
Down By Law — Roberto Benigni is so very good in this movie; he is a spark of vital exuberance to the two other characters for whom prison is barely any different from their life outside. The movie takes its sweet gentle time getting to the what little action there is, but the pace is well worth it and there's barely a wrong move in the whole thing.
Friday, November 21, 2003
Pelle the Conqueror — Life in Norway for an itinerant Swede is no fun at all. Yet an appalling life was never so transcendent as it is here. Max von Sydow has always been a favorite, but the way he plays the weak and desperate father to Pelle is incredible. Absolutely top notch movie with tons of great characters, each one as rich as the next.
The Unknown — A gypsy thief, who acts as if he has no arms, falls in love with a woman afraid of hands. This leads him to, among other things, have his arms cut off. And that barely scratches the surface of how twisted this movie is. It’s just wonderful. Joan Crawford is pretty amazing even as a nineteen-year old. This movie is lots of fun. The ending is a bit too pat and neat; there should have been evil tragedy all around. But except for that small copout it’s great.
To Kill a Mockingbird — Gregory Peck’s character is about as close to saintliness as has been seen. It's also interesting that for a famous courtroom drama, the courtroom scenes are short and a relatively small part of the movie.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Family Guy, Volume 2 — Much of the clever creative spark that was in the first few shows of the series is gone by the start of the third season. The jokes rely far too much on cheap crudities rather than genuinely funny stuff. Interestingly, the last 10 or so episodes get much better, with some actual laugh out loud bits. It’s not nearly as solid as the first shows, but enough is there to keep it from being just an embarrassment. The voice talent is really good, and it’s fantastic every time Adam West manages a cameo. Patrick Warburton is especially good as well. (3 disks)
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Don’t Look Now — I remember seeing this film in high school and being totally creeped out by it. Amazingly, it still has the same effect. It’s not a fast moving film, but it’s got the Roeg trademark style all over it, particularly the strong sense of mood which pervades the movie. It’s not quite as dramatic as Walkabout, but it is really interesting in the way the camera moves and picks the best shots to emphasize certain elements. I think if one tried to copy the style it would probably appear too obvious and stilted. But in Roeg’s hands it works really well. This is also perhaps one of Donald Sutherland’s best performances—extremely natural, with none of his usual annoying affectations.
Umberto D — Desperately sad movie that could be called “An Old Man and His Dog”. As sad as it is, it is also really beautiful with lots of love in even the most dire of situations. The dog, the young maid in the house, and at the end, even the man, seem to survive despite their appalling circumstances. it does a good job of revealing the casual evil that people can do to each other. The landlady is particularly despicable. Yet there are also wonderful characters who seem fully realized despite scant screen time. The nun in the hospital, for example, is almost Felliniesque with her warm smiles, round shape and malleable sense of the rules. This is the kind of movie that reinspires my effort in spending the time to watch all these movies. With the sparest of stories it makes
Sunday, November 9, 2003
The Lion King — An easy contender for the best of all of Disney's animated epics. On watching this one again, it is really a pleasure to realize how good the writing is and how good the support from the cast. This is in addition to an color palette which makes it very easy on the eyes. What probably makes this one stand so much above the rest is the ferocious evil villain, Scar. Jeremy Irons is exquisite in the way his venom drips slowly out of every syllable.
To Have and Have Not — As close as a movie probably will ever come to knocking Casablanca off its perch as the romance/intrigue masterwork. Of course it helps also having Bogart, clever witty writing, and a supporting cast only slightly less fantastic than in Rick's Cafe. The real secret is the fantastic chemistry with Bogart and Bacall. Walter Brennan's solid support as the drunk friend is hardly a new character, but it's great nonetheless.
Saturday, November 8, 2003
I Know Where I'm Going — Another fantastic Powell-Pressburger effort. Despite it being black and white, the camera work is still amazing and the story has lots of humor and good drama in it. You know where it's going from the start, but it's fresh all the way there.
D.O.A. — A really fine noir that starts bleak and goes down from there. Edmund O'Brien is always fun to watch and he doesn't disappoint here. The direction is weird with lots of close-ups and goofy shots, but well-done for all that. There is a cool scene in the hotel where I think Blade Runner did some work as well. The jazz scene in the bar is really off-the wall.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
Talk to Her — A really fine, gentle effort by Almodovar. He shows a quiet sensitivity here that is a bit of a departure from his more frenetic and fantastic early stuff. There's a bit of weirdness, but it all works smoothly. It is suffused with lots of real caring for the characters, despite, or more likely because of, their various failures and successes at connecting with each other.
Monday, November 3, 2003
Full Contact — A mid-90s Chow Yun-fat effort that apparently made quite a splash on its initial release. Unfortunately, it's really bad. Lots of hackneyed dialogue and stupid plot twists. Chow himself is not bad, and there is a little bit of cleverness in the way a few of the fight scenes are shot, but this is no Hard Boiled. It's just not very good.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
The Pillow Book — Easily the most upbeat of Peter Greenaway's movies that I've seen. Not that it isn't creepy and strange, but there is a core of real love to the story. The movie compares physical love to the love of literature and makes all sorts of weird links between the kinds of passions both loves inspire, not to mention how both loves connect on a multitude of levels. At the same time, the movie is a visual feast of calligraphy, naked bodies, and really interesting cinematography. Greenaway's great sense of placement and design is combined with the positioning of smaller inset frames of different scenes or different angles of the same scene on top of the main frame. This movie also has lots of humor which helps leaven some of the darker moments. Very enjoyable.
Sunday, October 26, 2003
The Trial — This is an early 60s Orson Welles movie where he apparently had almost complete control over the thing, including writing it, acting in it, as well as directing it. It's very theatrical, with artificial language and lots of strange scenes. It's also a bit slow. However, as the thing progresses the impact grows. Anthony Perkins and the rest of the cast are just about perfect for their parts. What really impresses are the visuals. The camera work is extraordinary, making full use of the Zagreb outdoors sets and an abandoned train station in Paris. The way it is shot really accentuates the disorientation and claustrophobia of Joseph K. and the rest of the characters. Definitely a bit of an overwrought art movie, but very interesting to watch.
Friday, October 24, 2003
Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy — I guess the best thing about this story of a really weird guy is how it evenly balances the good things in his life and the truly sad parts. It's not so much about the porn industry as it is about Ron's fame and how the drive for it, while outwardly successful, has cost Jeremy so much while still denying him the "mainstream" success that he still desperately wants. The story is so strange that it would be hard to make a bad documentary of it, and this one is not bad. However, the low production values and handheld shakiness of the camera work definitely detracts from the overall impact.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Thirteen Days — Historical drama ain't easy, but this one does an awfully good job. The tension builds like it should and all the elements are held in check nicely by the director. Kevin Costner deserves a lot of credit, not for his weird Boston accent, but for staying in character where he needs to be. No dramatic speeches to ruin the moment here. Very well done, and educational to boot.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Road to Perdition — There is so much going on in this movie that it's tough to summarize in only a paragraph or two. Suffice it to say that thematically and plotwise it's an awfully complex story delineating a very American tragedy. However, some of the most interesting stuff is in the staging, direction, and camera work. The original story is based on a graphic novel and the look of the movie follows the highly stylized and iconic nature of many graphic novels. The framing and lighting are really, really good and are enough to carry the movie along on its own, even if the rest of it weren't as good as it is.
The movie isn't perfect though. It is almost too earnest. Jude Law is a tremendous spark of vital evil that enlivens some of the movie. I can see why some might think the casting of Tom Hanks is good, but I think he was wrong for the part. Despite the evilness of his deeds, he just seems too good and honorable throughout the whole thing. Not once do we see him letting up on his earnest, man-trapped-by-his-destiny pose. More humanity would have made the movie a bit richer. The music is almost uniformly good except for the weird portion in the middle where the bank robberies are played almost as farce—a tone which is wildly inappropriate.
Compared to many of the awful movies around now though, these are minor errors. The skill and dexterity with which this critique of American business and money culture is pulled off is certainly worth many kudos.
Monday, October 20, 2003
Kingpin — I'd always heard this was an underappreciated classic, like Quick Change or Shakes the Clown. Well, it isn't either one of those, but it does have a few funny bits (although many of the jokes are too strained and obvious). The real surprise is that it has a warm heart along with the infantile humor. This leavens the humor a bit, certainly sets a pattern for the Farrelly's future successes, and makes it a little easier to watch than it otherwise would be.
Friday, October 17, 2003
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — One of the great movies of the forties, which took me a long time to watch because there is something oddly unsatisfying about it. The individual scenes are almost uniformly superb, especially the acting by almost everyone involved: Bogart, Walter Huston (not to mention a little bit by a young Robert Blake) pretty much provide career highs. Nevertheless, the plot covers so much ground and the individual scenes are so good that the problem seems to be that it is almost overwhelming. There not as much ebb and flow as there really should be to carry the movie along. Yes, there's plenty of foreshadowing and the breakdown of Fred C. Dobbs is well done, but it doesn't give the oomph it really ought to have. It's too bad, because the individual bits are so good. Hopefully on reviewing, these pacing problems will fade in favor of appreciation of the fine details John Huston did so well at.
Sunday, October 5, 2003
The Adventures of Robin Hood — Just lots of fun all the way around. Not much real character building, although Olivia deHavilland is fantastic. The colors are wonderful and just sparkle in this early three-strip technicolor tour de force. In addition to Olivia, the rest of the cast shines as well, especially the bad guys.
Thursday, October 2, 2003
Wings of Desire — A lyrical telling of the search for love in a crowded anonymous city. The best part of this movie is the first half where the inner lives of many lonely Berliners become part of the experience of the two angels. The build-up to the happiness of genuine connection is excellent. The finale almost makes the mistake of becoming overwrought and silly, but the simple shot of the trapeze artist swinging on her rope saves it. A lovely movie with great pictures and great, great faces, especially on the two lead roles. The faces seem to carry the weight of eons on them and yet, Bruno Ganz, the angel become human, manages to turn that weight into lots of joy at the end.
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Casablanca — Mmmm, what can you say. Sue noted it was "absolutely satisfying" and that's about as close as it gets on this, one of the truly best ever. One thing that's easy to forget is how good all the supporting performances are and how well written it all is. Everyone is perfectly cast and pitch perfect.
Monday, September 29, 2003
Shadow of a Doubt — Family life has rarely been as disturbing. This one, although made in 1943 reminded me very much of Blue Velvet, in the way a young naif slowly realizes the evil that exists around her. Joseph Cotten seems to be channeling Harry Lime in his cool, ghastly, brilliant dissection of greed and desire.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams — Simple moviemaking exuberance. The plot has a few holes, but it is still a whole lot of fun. The visual imagination of Robert Rodriguez is just amazing. On this disk the commentary track is almost as fun as the regular movie. Rodriguez has so much to say about his methods and how he puts movies together as well as his whole creative process that he talks really quickly and still doesn't get it all in. There is an incredible amount of information on this disk, and Rodriguez is obviously just delighted to tell you all about it.
Monday, September 22, 2003
The Simpsons, Season Two — It seems to have taken an enormous amount of time for me to watch this whole season. However, it was worth it. Especially in the last few episodes, the show really hits its stride. The characters are looking good and the chemistry is perfect. Also, the characters are taken seriously as people rather than as types. Homer is a stupid guy, yes, but he means well and actually saves the day on a couple of occasions. The satire is more character-generated than specific to a movie or cultural event, such as we see in later seasons. Amazing stuff. (Four Disks)
Friday, September 18, 2003
Chicken Run — I know this is the second time I've seen this movie, but I apparently made no record of the fact. What I do remember is that the last time, more than a year ago, the kids were too scared to watch the part in the pie machine. This time they were able to handle it okay. The movie is just as delightful the second time around, if not more so, because you can spend the time to look at all the little clever and hilarious details in the backgrounds.
Shrek — A second viewing. What impressed me this time was how good the colors and backgrounds were of this movie. I'm still disappointed the filmmakers felt the need for so many fart and poop jokes, they are just not necessary in what is an otherwise pretty good-natured movie.
Thursday, September 17, 2003
Batman — This is the 1966 version based on the TV series. I really like the TV series and I really like this movie. The sense of the absurd and ridiculous is rarely matched these days either in movies or on television. The earnestness with which Adam West and Burt Ward manage to say their lines is just about perfect. In addition there are the fantastic villains. My favorite is Frank Gorshin as The Riddler with his wacked-out phrasings, but each of the villains has his or her merits.
The Land Before Time — Don Bluth is obviously a talented guy. This movie has much of his usual richly saturated palette, and the backgrounds are interestingly styled, although sometimes repetitive. The problem is that it looks as though he doesn't really have the resources or time to spend the time necessary to do a really good job. The characters are drawn simply and they all essentially have the same expression and eyes. It's a bit wearisome after a while. Not to mention the story, which is pretty treacly, although the kids seemed to like it.
Monday, September 15, 2003
Sleeping Beauty — One of the most pleasant and least time-worn of the classic Disney movies. The art direction and the color in particular are extraordinary. There are all sorts of various shades of blue-gray and green that work together almost magically. Who knew gray could be so full of life and work so well in the dress of a princess? The music, based mostly on Tchaikovsky is also a cut above. The rivalry between the fairies is good, as is the fact the animals don't talk and don't weigh things down with too much cuteness. The weird angular shapes and forms of the forest and castle are interesting and just great to watch. It is also great to watch the way the full 2.35:1 screen is used so well and to such good effect.
Sunday, September 14, 2003
The Little Foxes — Bile, laced with acid and evil. The young girl gets to escape at the end, but that's clearly only a diversion from the fun of studying the all-pervasive evil that permeates this Southern family. Watching Bette Davis is great as she jumps into the role of chief malcontent. More than real characters though, the main point seems to be for Lillian Hellman to exorcise some serious ghosts from her past.
Saturday, September 13, 2003
Bowling for Columbine — Some funny and incisive bits near the beginning, but essentially more of a Rorschach test for political attitudes than a cohesive argument. Near the end it really falls apart into silliness and posturing. The best parts are those dealing with the question of why Americans are so afraid and the forces that profit from that fear. It doesn't quite get to an answer, and the distortions added along the way end up sapping much of the credibility and impact.
Pepe le Moko — A fine atmospheric piece about gangsters hiding out in the Casbah in Algiers. The mood of mystery and lawlessness is good, accented by excellent direction. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but the character of Pepe is definitely a classic. The mood certainly sets the stage for the real masterpiece set in North Africa: Casablanca.
Friday, September 12, 2003
Monster's Ball — Slow, pained, and obviously heartfelt, with a strong message of the redemptive possibility of love. It's good, often quite good, but it's not quite there. Perhaps it is that the message is just a bit too obvious. Billy Bob Thornton (at least in the beginning) and Peter Boyle (excellent in full Joe mode) are simply too evil to be believed. The characters are also not really rich enough for us to care that much about them, or perhaps to forgive them, especially in the case of Billy Bob Thornton for their evil.
Wednesday, September 11, 2003
Futurama, Volume Two — Lots of very funny things in these nineteen episodes. It's not as consistently funny or biting as The Simpsons, but it has a gentler, kinder side to it, so it isn't as wearing when watching several episodes in a row. However, it also isn't quite as interesting. The best parts are the episodes with Zap Brannigan and the aliens from Omicron Persei (who feature in the best episode of the season: The Problem with Popplers. (Four Disks)
The Hitch-Hiker — A very nice, compact, film noir that makes excellent use of a small cast and a script that builds tension and fear from the very first frame. It's pretty much nothing but action here, and it all works very well.
Sunday, September 7, 2003
Bob le Flambeur — Getting old and watching the world decay around you is no fun at all. Especially if you are a gambler with a few morals, but little luck. This is a moody movie, which although can be code for slow, is kind of nice here. The pace picks up gradually throughout the movie, ending in some quick dashing around which ends badly. The style is really good, with some interesting camera angles and lots going on in each frame. Certainly worth going over several times.
Tuesday, September 2, 2003
Exotica — Another movie about death, grief, and sex. What are the chances of that happening twice in a row? Anyway, this one has little of the charm or interest of the previous movie, with one exception: the performance of Elias Koteas. Koteas brings the same intensity and weirdness to his role that he did in Crash. Otherwise, the movie is extremely slow and just not very interesting. Yes, the characters do have links to each other in interesting ways, but there seems little reason for it, and it is not enough to make up for the dropped plotlines and molasses-slow explication.
Sunday, August 31, 2003
8-1/2 Women — Another Peter Greenaway festival of death, grief, and sex. There's redemption at the end of the story, and on the way there we have lots of twisted humor and weird activities, but it doesn't quite have the ring of conviction of Greenaway's other movies. It feels a bit worn out from all the activity. The scenes also don't have the richness of detail that is present in so many other of Greenaway's movies, nor is the score as interesting. It's like this one has been tossed off without the same effort as the others.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — Definitely has the curse of being the middle movie: the story is moved along, but nothing is resolved. I didn't find the Helm's Deep battle all that interesting, nor were the Ents particularly convincing. However, the real treat here was how good Gollum was. He's the best and most interesting part of this movie.
Friday, August 29, 2003
Spy Kids — A second viewing and it certainly holds up. The visual inventiveness and the playful family dynamics still shine. Another good opportunity to enjoy two great supporting performances by Tony Shalhoub and Alan Cummings. Lots of fun.
Thursday, August 28, 2003
Fooly Cooly, Volumes 2 and 3 — A fever dream of adolescent angst as a young high school student struggles with a beautiful alien who's living in his bedroom and occasionally pulls robots out of his head. It's enough to make one feel confused and remote! It's also an beautiful mix of drawing styles and really incredible soundtrack. As as twisted as the plot is, it actually manages to come together coherently at the end. This is one of the very best animes I've ever seen. (2 disks)
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
A Zed and Two Noughts — Another Peter Greenaway excursion into the extreme. This time it's all about grief and wondering about our place in the universe. When the loved ones of two separated Siamese twins die in a freak car accident, emotion seems a waste of time and physical love is simply a step on the way to eventual decay. It's an amazing movie, once again marked by exquisite camera work and soundtrack. The depth of each scene and setup is incredible. In many frames there are at least three separate things going on at once, all in crystal clear focus. Dark and depressing, but also amazing in its wit and construction.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Nine Queens — Beautiful acting with a story that moves smoothly and elegantly, if a little slowly. The faces are really superb, and the direction makes the most of them. This isn't a great movie, but in the wasteland of recent releases, this stands out as well above average.
Saturday, August 23, 2003
Secretary — Another technically excellent movie that is more than a bit weak in story and other areas. The acting is not bad, and the real star is the smooth camera work and the lush, rich, saturated color palette. That is really good. Unfortunately, the story is so slow as to be quite boring, and it isn't really fleshed out enough to make one care. After some thought it seems the heroine conquers all by developing the strength of will to demand what she wants, rather than simply "submitting" to the will of others. Certainly not a bad message, but hardly unique and, in this presentation, simply dressed up in a dumb story.
Saturday, August 16, 2003
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover — The visual imagination of Peter Greenaway is jaw-dropping. This movie is beautiful in ways that are rarely equaled in other areas. The interesting thing is that this isn't just framing or setting beauty, but totally created beauty: it's all artificial sets, costumes, and staging. It's extraordinary. The acting is also good: Helen Mirren is great, but it is Michael Gambon as a horrifically evil gangster that really steals the show. His line readings are mesmerizing.
The movie itself, beyond the amazing visual talent is a bit baffling. It provides a pretty grim view of the world and the way things end up. The only decent love in the story is horribly mutilated. The movie is eminently watchable, but off-putting as well. What is really neat is Greenaway's obvious love of formalism and structure. The music is excellent, but very precise, almost mathematical. Most of the shots are carefully symmetric or posed. It's an amazing effect he pulls off. This is a beautiful movie, that, despite its grim outlook, bears repeated viewing.
Saturday, July 26, 2003
The Shooting -- This is the second time around for this Monte Hellman classic. What struck me this time was how quick and economical the editing was. Maybe this was forced as a result of the very small budget and fast shooting schedule. Nevertheless, it's very effective. Also notable, and not really on the good side is how stilted the language is, especially in the first part of the movie. By the later stages it settles down into spare effective patter, but at the beginning it's unnecessarily wordy and arch. Jack Nicholson is certainly a presence on the screen, but offers precious little hint of the goodies to come. This is Warren Oates' show and he uses it to the max. Millie Perkins is sort of squeaky and thin in her role, and perhaps might have been more effective played as someone with a little more undercurrent of seriousness of purpose. It's not that she's bad as much as the role leaves one looking for something more. One gets the sense of missed opportunities.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Lumiere and Company — The footage with the ancient camera is really thrilling. It makes one realize how big an impact the actual texture of the film has on the movie experience. It also gives one a better way to understand how to view old black and white movies: the most modern person of today looks just like an old silent performer in these short films. Some of the interviews with the directors are interesting, but most are just dull. Nevertheless, an interesting experiment.
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
The Hudsucker Proxy — Another visually stunning movie that is an awful, painful misfire. Roger Deakins, the long-time Coen brothers cinematographer, is the only thing that's good about this movie. That's not quite fair, because he probably didn't come up with the clever shots and visual imagery, but his work is a rare bright spot. The acting, the story, the bizarre choice to have Jennifer Jason Leigh speak in accent are all horrible. So much money and talent, all out the window just like Hudsucker himself.
Saturday, July 12, 2003
The General — This is the first full-length Buster Keaton movie I've seen and it is delightful how a movie so rich with characters and special effects (that look awfully real) could also be so funny. The laugh out loud moments only barely eclipse the number of times you are dumbstruck by what the camera shows us. From a veritable ballet of trains to Keaton himself jumping through holes in a bridge, this is pure enjoyment.
The White Sheik — An early Fellini effort with lots of his classic trademarks: the wonder of Rome and highly memorable faces and characters. It's a bit simple and seems long, but the gentle good-naturedness of it and the near perfection of the plot make up for a lot.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Clockers — The interesting part of this movie is that the blame for the bad things that happen lies squarely on the people most affected by it. These characters know what they are doing and that makes it all the worse. There is certainly racism among the police and others, but that is secondary to the complicity of the people engaged in the drug-dealing and murder. It's shot in bright, contrasty style, deliberately stripping any romance from the images. It's not the most subtle of Spike Lee's work, but it's always interesting. As usual, Lee is unafraid to to follow where his camera leads him. The acting is also uniformly good down to the smallest parts both black and white.
Monday, July 7, 2003
Trees Lounge — A nice, engaging effort from first-time director Buscemi. It's very character oriented with little or no plot. That's not really a bad thing though and the time spent with these genial losers is certainly enjoyable. The acting is better than the directing, but that's probably to be expected.
Saturday, July 5, 2003
Iris — I know it's all earnest and sad, but it often plays like a bad scene from Satan's Department of Ironic Punishments: noted wordsmith loses the ability to form...words! Adding to the agony is a terribly treacly score. The acting is good, but my guess is the movie might really only be interesting to people who know something about Iris Murdoch. For the rest of us, if she was really that extraordinary, she deserves better than this.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
Adaptation — On the first viewing this movie allows you to revel in its brazen originality and sense of play. The second viewing reveals additional layers, especially in the wordplay. Unfortunately, the second viewing also reveals the plot holes in the final act. As good as the joke is about using both the dos and the don't's of the "Mckee System," it doesn't hold up as well as the first part of the movie. Although disappointing, this is a minor quibble about what is truly a first-rate comedy about identity and personal development. The acting is frightfully good and is reason enough on its own to see this movie. I don't think lesser actors could have made the contradictions of the script as clear and as painful as they are. The masterful direction of Spike Jones only makes it even better.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003
The Rules of Attraction — There is so much visual imagination and dexterity in this movie, and to so little end. It's all super clever, especially the tour de force opening bit, but too disjointed and disorganized to really make an impact. Awfully nice job of filming; if only the story and direction were remotely close in quality. The disk does have one astonishingly good feature going for it: a commentary track by Carrot Top. As hard as it might be to believe, the track is hilarious and worth watching by itself. Just skip the regular movie dialogue. One other plus is that the movie has a pretty good soundtrack.
Monday, June 30, 2003
Citizen Ruth — An obsessively carefully-made movie. All the little details, down to a band-aid on some pavement are very artfully done. The performances are equally well-studied and well-done; each of the characters has their own little quirks which set them apart. The actors, even down to the smallest role, are fantastic, or at least very well-cast. The script shows the same attention to detail in that both sides of the abortion issue are satirized in almost equal measure. And yet there is something missing, there's a certain lifelessness to it, which is depressing since everything else about the movie is so very right. It perhaps is due to the fact that at the end, the story wimps out and avoids making any really tough calls. After showing everybody to be vain and manipulative, there is still a happy ending, which seems a bit of a cheat.
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
Living in Oblivion — A reasonably literate script helps things along, but the real pleasure here is watching actors just having a great time with their roles. Nothing too special, except everyone is obviously having a really, really good time. More evidence that Steve Buscemi is one of the best character actors around.
Monday, June 23, 2003
Sexy Beast — Very much in the Get Carter and The Long Good Friday tradition of British gangster movies, with a bit of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels camera work and loud bass line. It's very good at setting up the mood of desperately trying to relax while doom approaches. The particular doom that's on its way is what sets this movie a cut above the rest. The doom is played brilliantly and evilly by Ben Kingsley, who is fantastic. Drilling the hole in the bank safe underwater is a nice touch, but it is Kingsley that makes this movie.
Sunday, June 22, 2003
Seconds — The folks who put this together clearly had a lot of talent and wanted to put something "meaningful" together. Unfortunately they came up with this howlingly bad, self-indulgent, snoozefest. The acting, especially a few of the bit parts is good; the camera work, by James Wong Howe, is fantastic. Unfortunately, the story and writing are deadly dull and obvious, enlivened only by embarrassing excesses like the overlong grape-squishing orgy in the middle. Really bad.
Saturday, June 21, 2003
The Castle of Cagliostro — Now that I've seen a lot of the other Miyzaki movies it's interesting to go back to this, his first. This one has very little of the complexity of the later works. Part of the issue may be that Miyazaki was hired to deliver something very specific. However, even within the limits of the rakish thief genre, the characters and plot are unusually rich. The artwork is also quite good, especially the texture of the old castle and the foliage that seems to cover everything. Miyazaki also seems to specialize in realistic clouds. They just look great. This one is not deep, but it is a lot of fun.
Friday, June 20, 2003
Written on the Wind — Never have wind machines and lots of bright paint seemed so important to a film. Not that this amazing film doesn't have lots more going for it, but you can't deny that thousands of leaves took to the air to make this movie what it is. Dorothy Malone gets a lot of attention for her Oscar role here, and she over-emotes very nicely. For my part though, the real standout is Robert Stack. This is the best acting of his I've ever seen. After years of The Untouchables and lots of TV ads, I'm amazed he has this kind of range in him. Plenty of plot in this one and some great lighting and direction. It certainly deserves its reputation as a classic.
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Melvin and Howard — Paul Lemat gives a great performance of inspired innocence and flakiness. Mary Sternberg is also quite good, although I can't say it deserved an Academy award. There's precious little Howard and a whole lot of Melvin in this movie, but it works out pretty well, despite some slow bit in the middle of the movie. Melvin managed to become famous through some strange quirk, but the movie leads to the question of how many other people are out there who manage to scrape by day to day, but still manage to be optimistic and hopeful at the same time.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
Once Upon a Time in America — This movie is a pretty incredible achievement, the way it all works and fits together. So many things are good about it, from the sets to the interlocking parts of the plot, that it seems a bit churlish to ask to what end. The point is very complex and I'm afraid that after one viewing I am just not getting it completely. There is also so much going on here and so much that is right that it seems picky to point out the things that aren't so good. Elizabeth McGovern is very odd here, although Jennifer Connolly as her younger self is spectacular. Tuesday Weld is okay, but in an embarrassing and demeaning role. Robert DeNiro and James Woods are the anchors and quite a few of the bit parts are solid (like Burt Young in a great short-lived bit). However, it seems as though too many people were cast because of their look rather than their acting talent. These are minor nits though. This one is so rich it deserves multiple viewings.
Saturday, June 14, 2003
Princess Mononoke — Even after seeing the movie before, the depth of character and richness of the story is amazing. As good as Miyazaki's other movies are, this one is simply better, richer, and more complex. There are no good and bad people in this movie, only characters who hate and love in varying degrees. This one reaches very high and succeeds.
Friday, June 13, 2003
The Family Guy: Seasons One and Two — It certainly took more than a day to get through all the episodes on these disks, but it was all worth it. The jokes aren't all hits, but the series takes some serious risks with what it considers funny. There are a few awkward pauses and several more points where the jokes don't work at all. Overall though there is some frightfully funny stuff. The series really has no interest in being realistic, and uses that unrealism to become the king of free association comedy. Overall it works really well and is incredibly funny. (Four Disks)
Thursday, June12, 2003
Heavenly Creatures — Wow. Quite the movie. It really does a great job of evoking the special world and friendship created by the two girls, as well as the twisted logic that leads them to murder. Peter Jackson manages to blend the genres of horror and psychological study with amazing ease, although it isn't perfect. It was a masterstroke to start off with the fact of a murder, because the audience probably knows about it anyway and it focuses attention on the budding friendship rather than its end. However, Jackson is awfully fond of the scare tactics, if not downright voyeurism, of horror. He perhaps pushes it a little more over the top than necessary. When the girls find they are to be separated, one should feel more of the pain of their sorrow, rather than relief at the imminent end of a truly creepy dependency. It is still frighteningly well done and very effective. One especially good thing is that it is not turned into a movie about the possible sex between the girls. Rather you understand that the world they create is about romance and genuine love, although the physical side is certainly there. A final treat is the hint one gets of Jackson's ability to show off the gorgeous new Zealand countryside—a talent he's put to good use in two or three later movies.
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Throne of Blood — I actually thought this was a very early Kurosawa movie because it used a smaller frame and had a very formal structure. Apparently this was all an experiment and it was actually around the same time as The Seven Samurai and other greats. The movie is set up very much like a Noh play, with spare sets and rigid, formalized actions. This doesn't detract from the movie, although it certainly doesn't move as quickly as some of Kurosawa's others. The mood and sense of impending doom work really well here, capped by the amazing scene of the Macbeth character getting shot over and over again with arrows. It's a pretty thrilling movie, completely translating the action of the play into a cinematic context: a feat almost never repeated by most Shakespeare adaptations. My favorite bits are the beautiful formal frames with the frozen grimaces and frightened stares of the many different members of the cast.
Monday, June 9, 2003
Lone Star — It certainly isn't subtle. The message of shared history, love, and tragedy is driven home about as hard as it could possibly be. You don't really mind, though, because it is done so darn well. The writing is direct, but certainly not overbearing, and the direction is much more sophisticated than the last John Sayles movie I saw many years ago. The real coup is the acting from every bit of the cast. Chris Cooper is a craggy, troubled rock and everyone around him is just as good. The achievement is even more remarkable given the large number of people involved. Despite the cliches, there are no cardboard characters here; everyone has got at least a little spark of originality in them. Clifton James, the awesome character actor, has had too many roles where he is simply a caricature of a southern good ol' boy. This movie gives him a chance to show he can really act. Despite the overall earnestness, it's gripping enough and well-paced enough to make that a minor quibble.
Saturday, June 7, 2003
Artificial Intelligence: A.I. — There's actually more Stanley Kubrick in this movie than Steven Spielberg. The first section is quite effective in the way it builds sympathy for the robot David and then reveals the horror of what being not quite human really means. Unfortunately the message gets confused as the line between rejection by humans and sympathy gets muddled. People can't handle David being around, but they also don't want to see him killed at the Flesh Fair. It becomes a little clearer with the character of Professor Hobby. While the character is not well developed, and seems to serve primarily as an explanatory device, it is clear that even he doesn't really understand what he has managed to create in David. He still treats David as a machine, even while patronizing his feelings as a "real" person. A lot of reviews keep mentioning the aliens at the end, but it seems they are not aliens but much more advanced robots. It is they, as fellow robots, who understand David's need for love from his mother. They understand David's uniqueness, and are prepared to accept his needs on his own terms. In the end, its not as incisive discussion of what being real really means as I think it would like to be. It's too drawn out and sloppy around the edges. However, it is a real stretch from the usual Spielberg pabulum (thankfully avoiding much of his standard treacle), and shows a welcome seriousness of purpose.
There are lots of good things about this movie, especially the astounding performance by Haley Joel Osmont as the unblinking, innocent David, supported by the great Jude Law. John Williams delivers one of his best scores in a long time. The most annoying part is the camera work The high contrast look and saturated, blown-out colors are just distracting. It's as if Spielberg couldn't decide if he wanted to make a moody European film, or a bright American one and so decided on a blurry combination of the two.
Friday, June 6, 2003
Sunset Blvd. — Quite possibly my favorite movie ever. Everything is just about perfect from the amazing Gloria Swanson performance through the use of C. B. DeMille and others, down to the supporting cast of Nancy Olson, Jack Webb, and, most importantly, Erich von Stroheim. The message of inescapable doom is emphasized in almost every frame even while glorifying the cinematic tools which lead to the destruction. Even the archness of the dialogue is a joke on the cliches of the movie industry. And the best part is that the joke goes both ways, not only is Hollywood history dispatched with, but the audience as well is implicated in a system which ruins young and old alike.
Sunday, June 1, 2003
3:10 to Yuma — Modestly good acting and surprisingly decent direction (great shot selection!) can't save this awful High Noon ripoff. It's just too darn boring and the setup too awfully obvious to make us care in the least. Elmore Leonard is the story source for this, but all that he really brings is a couple of clever lines. It's a good title, but one lousy movie.
Storytelling — A very good movie by Todd Solondz. He has a great way of revealing the appalling self-centeredness of his characters. The first part of the movie skewers all sorts of politically correct conventions on the handicapped and race, while the second destroys just about everything else. The murder by the maid at the end is a shade too convenient, but it sure is satisfying. John Goodman gives one of his best movie performances yet, as do many of the other performers. The documentarian who works in a shoestore but hasn't lost his dignity is a special treat.
Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White — Several things struck me after watching these eight highly enjoyable years worth of original Mickey cartoons. First, it's clear how much music and songs are not just an addition to the cartoons but a central part of the Disney DNA. Many of these cartoons are simply a series of gags to follow along with a musical piece. Characterization or a story-line are simply nonexistent in many of these bits. The music is the only thing holding them together. Another thing is that from the very first short there is a clear setting of a "Disney-style" in terms of the backgrounds and the way things are drawn. The background detail has a strong rounded look. The gray washes and gradients are just as pretty in back and white as they are later in color, especially for instance in the way wooden houses are shaded. While the characters do develop over time, the rounded look is also very clear, and instantly recognizable, in all of them.
The commentary notes that Disney tried to make each cartoon better than the last. He succeeded to a remarkable extent. All parts of the cartoons get better, including the stories, the animation, the sound synching, and the detail in the pictures. By the final 1935 cartoons, Disney hasn't completely moved beyond "rubber hose" arms and legs, but the realism is much more impressive than the earlier shorts. Peg Leg Pete for instance gets more and more weighty as time goes by. Full stretch and squash has yet to be achieved, but you can see it coming. One final note is that in the early shorts Ub Iwerks gets drawing credit. I wish credits had continued being offered (as they were in later cartoons) so that one could track exactly who was in on each cartoon in order to better track drawing styles. (2 disks)