Film Journal 2002
ROOM AT THE TOP (Jack Clayton) - viewed 10-24-02 on dvd
Grade A 1959
Bitter look at corporate world, reminded me a bit of Sweet Smell of Success in it’s arsenic-laced tone. I was surprised by the frankness in the dialogue and the film's attitude towards sex, although the dialogue isn’t of the caliber of Sweet Smell. Lawrence Harvey’s performance was wonderful, even while his character was thoroughly repellent.
SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (Bryan Forbes) – viewed 10-24-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1964
The second British film dealing with kidnapping I’ve seen in as many days (the other being William Wyler’s The Collector), both featuring kidnappers who were fairly sympathetic. In Séance, the relationship between Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough was by far the most interesting thing in the piece. It is fairly obvious that she is mad, but he is completely incapable of going against her. She keeps bringing up her son who (SPOILER) doesn’t exist (a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf) and he refuses to even set her straight about the son. It’s a very complex relationship, in the middle of a kidnapping plot, which has a few surprises and some effective suspense. The ransom drop off scene is shot in a way that resembles the street-smart look of some Seventies films. This was originally a play and it retains the claustrophobic feel that the play probably had, and it scenes opening it up are important additions not obvious distractions (which is something that annoys me).
LOLA MONTES (Max Ophüls) – viewed 10-25-02 on dvd
Grade A 1955
Despite a weak lead performance Martine Carol, this film manages to be one of the best pre-1960’s French films I’ve seen. Ophüls uses intricate crane shots and an incredibly busy mise-en-scene to show Lola’s rise as a courtesan and decent as a circus attraction in the twilight of her life. The circus scenes are quite brilliant, with blue filtered lights to hint at the madness and torment felt by Lola and circus tricks at the edges of the frame keeping everything off-balanced. The plot resembles Citizen Kane, but the style is truly original and bears a passing resemblance (especially in the circus scenes) to Fellini’s latter films. The last image is just about perfect - giving us a poignant tragic image of a woman once so refined and desired.
BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks) – viewed 10-25-02 on video
Grade A- 1938
I’m admittedly not a fan of the screwball genre; I prefer subtle verbal humor or sight gags to pratfalls and lunacy. However, with this film I was quite taken with the lunacy. As soon as Baby the Leopard is introduced the prat falls are limited and the lunacy is perfectly timed and often very funny. My favorite gag (although not the most original) is Cary Grant parading around in a frilly woman’s robe. Not up to the level of His Girl Friday, but I’ll take it over The Lady Eve any day.
THE THIN MAN (W.S. Van Dyke) – viewed 10-25-02 on video
Grade B+ 1934
Mostly enjoyed the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, which often gets a laugh when their jokes aren’t up to the task. The jokes are often first rate, but the mystery didn’t really seem to matter to me. I didn’t care how it ended up but I had fun watching it get there.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (George Romero) Viewed 10-25-02 on dvd (seen aprox. 8 times before)
Grade A+ 1978
One of my favorite horror movies, seen for the first time in a few years. It begins with everything in chaos - news is providing false and dangerous information, police aren’t able to control the citizens and people are still unable to separate the zombies from their loved ones. At about the half-hour point the location is changed to the shopping mall, where it will remain for the rest of the film. The mall gives Romero the opportunity to satirize consumerism shots of zombies staring at the shiny objects in the display windows and wandering dazed. It is also interesting to observe the way the zombies are treated in the narrative of the film. At first they are the main concern, then they become gradually less important and at one point (when the mall inhabitants have cleared them out) they are forgotten. They drive the narrative forward to the mall, but eventually at the films climax they aren’t even the antagonists any more. The humans end up fighting each other over the mall, ignoring the zombie threat that surrounds them. The film has a vibrant color scheme that suggests comic books, and the gore is purposely cartoonish (often hues between orange and red – a distancing technique also used in the Evil Dead movies). The score, by Goblin and Dario Argento, is one of their best works.
ICHI THE KILLER (Takashi Miike) Viewed 10-25-02 on dvd (edited version, fourth viewing)
Grade B+ 2002
Ultra violent film is more amusing with each viewing and the images still retain their impact. Kakihara catching a punch in his mouth is one of the most striking images I’ve seen, as is The Old Man stripping off his overcoat to reveal his true self. Probably only enjoyable to those who see it as a midnight cult movie – and then only to jaded movie-goers. I don’t think it’s the best Miike is capable of (see Audition), and I think he will continue to get better as he hones his craft (like the similarly prolific Fassbinder got better with each year).
SMILES ON A SUMMER NIGHT (Ingmar Bergman) viewed 10-26-02 on video
Grade B+ 1955
The only Bergman comedy I’ve seen and it still has many of the themes and elements that fill his more depressing films.
SPIRITED AWAY (Hayao Miyazaki) viewed 10-26-02 in theater (second viewing)
Grade B+ 2002
Liked it even more on the second viewing, noticing all the smaller details that got by me on the first viewing. Basically a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, with story just an excuse for creator Hayao Miyazaki to show us wondrous visions from different worlds. In Miazaki’s world a radish spirit makes a squishing sound when it walks, three green heads bounce around like basketballs, black soot balls are feed rainbow-colored stars and grownups become pigs when they are greedy. The whole film has a dream logic to it that reminded me of the thought process of a child.
There is a train ride about ¾ into the film that is shown in surprisingly lavish detail and feels quiet and reflective. It feels disconected with the pace of the rest of the movie and suggests that its protagonist is more accepting of change. This scene wouldn’t be possible in an American cartoon because they would be hurrying to the next plot point, not to be bothered by looking out the window at the unseen world.
I look forward to seeing the original Japanese version of the film without the dubbing added by Disney. I have a suspicion that a few things were added to the dialogue to make the story go down easier for American audiences. The last two lines of dialogue, which basically give the moral of the story seemed especially unsubtle compared to the way themes were expressed up to that point. I also wonder if the hair-tie paid off better in the original version than it did here, because here it seems mostly to be in service of the sight gag of No Face unspooling thread. A gag which, along with the miniature reenactment are the two biggest laughs in the movie.
HORROR OF DRACULA (Terence Fisher) viewed 10-26-02 on dvd
Grade B 1958
Rather standard Hammer Horror film with Christopher Lee, playing Dracula for the first time, acting opposite other Hammer star Peter Cushing. Not much to say here, a good example of the genre but nothing more.
I WANT TO LIVE! (Robert Wise) viewed 10-27-02 on dvd
Grade C+ 1958
First scene sets up for a movie we don’t get, full of dutch-tilt shots and jazzy riffs. Then the film settles down into a rather routine death row picture, where the (innocent?) Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward in an academy award winning performance) awaits her death. There are a lot of false starts and last minute stays of execution in this film, by the second one I started to resent it. By the third stay of execution I realized that the film didn’t have anything more to say about the character but was simply ringing out all possible emotion from the ending. That the film skirts over the details of the crime being punished for and Graham’s involvement in it is unforgivable. Liked the jazz score and Hayward’s performance but not enough to recommend it.
SECRETARY (Steven Shainberg) viewed 10-27-02 in theater
Grade B- 2002
A film about S&M the same way Bound was about lesbianism, basically unnecessary to the film (their mutual interest could have been anything) which is essentially just a love story. What’s good here are the two lead performances by Spader and Gyllenhaal, who attack their roles with such relish you’d wish it was supporting a movie with something profound or interesting to say. Spader has made a career out of playing characters similar to E. Edward Grey and always makes them compulsively interesting. He has a way of breaking up his dialogue that draws to into what he’s saying, as if you are being hypnotized. Maggie Gyllenhaal is rather new to me and I thought her performance here as Lee was quite phenomenal, making herself start small and naïve and then grow into a strong woman through subtle changes in her mannerisms and posture. Both performances are among the most fully realized that I’ve seen this year. The story is not up to the acting, Lee’s hunger strike seems like a cop-out from the screenwriters and it never really resolved to any satisfaction. The climactic sex scene also didn’t seem to work, as shot it looks remarkably like a scene from Red Shoe Diaries not like the scene that the film had been working up to. Recommended, mostly for the performances and for the scene where Spader imitates a ringing telephone.
LIVE FLESH (Pedro Almodóvar) viewed 10-27-02 on video
Grade B 1998
I’m usually not a big fan of this type of chamber piece, where a few characters occupy a world within the film where they only seem to effect each other. I didn’t much like last years Lantana, which resembles this film and had every critic fawning over it. This film worked for me mostly because I liked a lot of the smaller details of the story. I liked the fact that the injured Medem played wheelchair basketball, and that it had helped him find a niche. I liked that Medem’s wife told him the truth right after she had an affair, while he could only tell her the truth when he had given her a joint first. I also loved the scene where two characters are fighting and stop because a goal is scored on TV. These small elements may not be enough for you but they did it for me.
THRONE OF BLOOD (Akira Kurosawa) viewed 10-27-02 on dvd (second viewing)
Grade A 1957
This film moved a lot faster for me on the first viewing, but the overall effect of the movie is still the same. The images that Kurosawa achieves here are amazing, often cloaked in fog which envelopes the characters. The final scene of Mifune and the arrows is justly famous, and just as noteworthy is the moment before when he looks out to see the forest has reached the castle. I also liked the nightmarish sequence where the two men ride their horses out of the forest but can’t find their way, and so it looks like they keep coming in and out of the fog.
RED RIVER (Howard Hawks) viewed 10-28-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1948
Begins weakly with awkward dialogue and overacting, prologue seems largely unnecessary. Really only gets going with the cattle drive, when we start to get some interesting character dimension in John Wayne’s character. It is interesting how Wayne’s star power here is used to distract us from the way he is behaving, when the mutiny occurs it is a little bit surprising that they would dare contradict Wayne. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, leading up to a confrontation that the film doesn’t really believe in. Another confrontation between two young gunfighters (Montgomery Clift and John Ireland) is promised before the cattle drive but never develops into anything significant. Ireland’s character staring out strong and enigmatic but never really pays off as we expect he will, falling into the background of many scenes. The best scenes deal with the father-son dynamic between Wayne and Clift, as they face their first major conflict with each other.
THE BIG RED ONE (Samuel Fuller) viewed 10-28-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1980
An episodic war movie with an equal amount of coverage on the battles and the defining moments outside of battles. For example, a scene of attempted ambush is followed immediately with a soldier delivering a baby. The rhythm being cathartic violence followed by scenes that are surprisingly touching. Soldiers of both sides argue amongst themselves over the difference between murder and killing. Blurring the line between the soldiers fighting on different sides, like they are the united thoughts of the collected mass of soldiers (a la Thin Red Line). The film is especially interesting to watch in comparison to the gory “realist” war movies we are getting lately, which are all battle re-enactment without real people to care about. Films like We Were Soldiers or Black Hawk Down, which understand the dynamic of war only in the most shallow way.
MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Roger Corman) viewed 10-29-02 on dvd
Grade B 1964
Wonderful atmosphere evoked by production design and Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography makes this film worthwhile even when the story isn’t terribly compelling. I liked the relish Vincent Price brought to his character, playing sinister with both guns blazing. The climactic scene, which plays like an orgy of red death, is especially memorable (stylistically similar to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and made me forget how little I had invested in the film and its characters.
POTEMKIN (Sergei M. Eisenstein) viewed 10-29-02 on dvd
Grade C+ 1925
The 1925 version of Armageddon, with rapid (soviet montage) cuts from one strenuous close up to another. Interesting to note the action clichés that date back to this film, for instance the good guys kill the doctor and Eisenstein cuts away to rotting meat to remind us that the doctor was really a bad dude. The score (of the version I saw) was thoughtless overdrive, with even mundane scenes given the pitch of a climax. The inter-titles treat the audience condescendingly, showing boiling soup and then telling us “Soup is Boiling!” The whole film is exhausting, so fast paced it starts to numb the mind. Which makes it message mongering (in this case on the camaraderie of socialism VS. the capitalist pigs who want to rub the workers faces in shit) somewhat more tolerable than it was in other film school standard Birth of a Nation.
THE DECAMERON (Pier Paulo Pasolini) viewed 10-29-02 on dvd
Grade B- 1970
Definitely the lightest of the Pasolini films I’ve seen (the others being The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Salo) and the most easily forgotten. The most interesting thing about it is the use of strongly heterosexual themes by an openly homosexual director. Film is in eight passages, some amusing, with almost all about sex and deceit. My favorite was the deaf-mute with the horny nuns, which is the most consistently funny episode and one of the few with a decent conclusion. Overall, the film doesn’t have much more depth than a common sex comedy but is somewhat enjoyable all the same.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Otto Preminger) viewed 10-29-02 on dvd
Grade A 1959
The courtroom drama is a perfect genre for film. There is a structure that everybody is used to, emotions run high and it’s hard to climax in an unexciting way. There are few great courtroom films; most fall into the realm of fair to good, Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best courtroom films I’ve ever seen. It works on a sublime level of entertainment, consistently amusing and brilliantly told.
The cast is brilliant and very impressive, with Jimmy Stewart tapping into his every man qualities making his character likable and believable. He has a few asides about fishing that really made him concrete for me, reminding me of quietly respectable people I’ve known. Joseph N. Welch also brings a similar immediacy to his character, he was a real attorney and judge in his lifetime and the experience shows through. He plays with his pocket watch in scenes of subtle suspense and it makes him feel like a human judge weighing an important decision.
I also liked the character dynamic of the man on trial, who probably beat his wife the night after she was raped and isn’t completely likable. Some courtroom dramas fall into the trap of making the character on trial too innocent or too likable, and it makes everything too predictable. It is also quite possible the man’s wife sleeps around or flirts with men to get attention, both of which are not likable traits for a sympathetic wife.
There is also a sense of humor to this movie that is lacking in other films of the genre. The humor is not joke orientated, but comes out of quirks of the characters and law strategy. Similar to Witness for the Prosecution but without the concentration on the precise wording of the law. The judge is probably given the best lines in the film; I liked best when he said (something like) “Save the wisecracks for the lawyers.”
Some may complain that the film is too long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, but I can honestly say that the film didn’t play too long or have any stretches of slack in the narrative drive. The film doesn’t feel epic in length, it just goes by with such confidence and intensity that I never second guessed the length. I’ll see how I feel on the second viewing, which won’t be far off from now.
FIRE (Deepa Mehta) viewed 10-30-02 on dvd
Grade C- 1997
Perhaps Late Marriage is still too fresh on my mind for this overblown film to have much impact on me. The theme here is breaking away from tradition and embracing change, in this case sexual awakening and giving into temptation. Hard light is used often to blow out the mise-en-scene and express the characters transcending their surrounding world. The men are all submissive and impotent, unable to please their wives or even attempt to understand them. Traditional love is set up with stories of the past, but isn’t expressed anywhere in the film. There are three speeches about how tradition is bad and the old-world must be overcome, speeches that take away any possible subtle meaning in the film. A muted woman symbolizes the old-world with a bell, which sounds off at things that are unacceptable to her world; usually the expression of sexuality in any means (masturbation, provocative clothing or lesbianism). The threat of the old-world tradition isn’t really felt all that much here, as it was in the far superior Late Marriage, so I didn’t feel as if the lesbian relationship was in much danger. I would have been much more interested if the characters were struggling with their traditions more or maybe embracing the old-world more nostalgically, anything that would complicate the character a bit. I also can’t think of another lesbian sexual awakening film that is as mannered and unerotic as this film.
THE RING (Gore Verbinski)
Grade B- 2002
Not a great horror movie, but in some ways an improvement over the original Japanese version. There are a lot of cheap scares here and a lot of cuts on loud noises to keep the audience on edge, while the film develops some of the creepy images of the original. The all-important video is a bit too produced here, less the work of a sinister ghost and more the work of a Nine Inch Nails rip-off. The scene on the ferry with the horse that goes mad is one of the most effective scenes in the film, with a good use of sound - especially the screech of the horse. The ending scare is as effective here as it was in the original film, but it would have worked better without the filler scenes falling after it. My favorite scene is a throwaway with Watt’s watching the adjacent apartments, suggesting things that never develop keeping the film off-balance.
8 WOMEN (François Ozon)
Grade A- 2002
One of the most purely enjoyable films of the year, probably best viewed by people who love the French New Wave. Musical sequences are similar to Jacques Demy’s 60s musicals, while the genre bending of classical Hollywood genres reflects Godard and Truffaut’s earliest efforts. The homosexuality is an extra element thrown in by François Ozon, every woman overcome by lesbian urges and unable to relate in a reasonable way to the one man in the plot. The only woman with any decency to the man is the tomboyish girl, who’s pure because she hasn’t yet been deflowered. The staging is often theatrical, the setting confined to one house. Ozon often sets his characters into the mise-en-scene symmetrically (as he did in Water Drops on Burning Rocks), and keeps the compositions interesting when they could grow boring or repetitive.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (Whit Stillman) viewed 10-30-02 on video
Grade B+ 1998
Whit Stillman and Quentin Tarantino are missing! Both were last seen in 1998 writing brilliant and distinctive dialogue for their third films. Both have a growing repertoire of actors willing to work for them at the drop of the hat. What is taking them so fucking long to get their next films out? Did they go into hibernation to write ten scripts at a time?
The Last Days of Disco was Stillman’s last film, and although it doesn’t seem as fresh as his previous two films (the brilliant Metropolitan and wonderful Barcelona) it is marked by his considerable skill. The dialogue is smart and funny, and it is in service of characters dancing around the idea of love in the early eighties. His films are, at best, like the 1970’s films of Eric Rohmer – confident and full of insight but very talky. Talky is not bad when written this well. The scene where Lady and the Tramp is dissected; as a message to nice girls in sheltered homes to go after the bad boy, is much funnier than other similar scenes that have followed in the years. It is also nice to see some of the characters from Barcelona and Metropolitan return here to bring an end to the yuppie trilogy. If only Stillman would come back and make films again …
FORCE OF EVIL (Abraham Polonsky) viewed 10-30-02 on video
Grade B+ 1948
Wonderful dialogue and an interesting relationship between the two brothers make this film well worth seeing. Not as visually interesting as some of the other film noir of this period (Out of the Past was the year before and The Third Man the following year), but that’s probably due to Polonsky’s relative inexperience making films. He wouldn’t make another film until the late sixties due to being blacklisted, and this is one of the saddest waste of talent from this period.
TRUE STORIES (David Byrne) viewed 10-31-02 on video
Grade B+ 1986
Very strange and truly unique slice of Americana, which has a similar feel as the second half of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (without the tragedy). David Byrne is the onscreen narrator, guiding us through the flat landscapes and commercial buildings. John Goodman lays a struggling musician/technician looking for love. We are introduced to a fair amount of other oddities, some of which is very funny. The dinner scene speech by Spalding Gray is probably the movie at its best; optimistic yet crazy. The Talking Heads’ songs here aren’t of the caliber as their early works, but the film doesn’t really suffer because of it. The songs here add to the surrealism of the imagery, where in Stop Making Sense the songs created became a narrative.
BALLET MECHANIQUE (Ferdinand Leger) viewed 10-31-02 on video
No Grade 1924
Short silent film with emphasis on movement and traditional shapes (square, triangle or circle). Many of the images of the first part are seen through a kaleidoscope, distortions of images based on the traditional shapes. Next part has mechanical parts in motion, and finally looped footage of people moving. Grows a bit tiresome after awhile, but one of the first images (of a girl on a swing) is incredibly similar to a shot in The Thin Red Line and certain other shots had a similarity to the short works of David Lynch.
A MOVIE (Bruce Connor) viewed 10-31-02 on video
No Grade 1958
Another experimental short film, this one getting a wider range of emotion. Starts out very playful, with credits and countdown, then a long take of a nude woman taking off her stocking followed by “The End.” Second part repeats that format a bit but has a chase and crash instead of nudity, followed by “The End.” It starts again and has many shots of things being destroyed or people being hurt, played for laughs. Then it has another sequence of destruction, this time the images and music are more unsettling. Film is probably a commentary on what people find entertaining in movies, or why we go to the movies.
MAGIC (Richard Attenborough) viewed 10-31-02 video
Grade C+ 1978
Wanted a horror thriller and got a psychological thriller with very little insight. I haven’t seen the critically acclaimed ventriloquist film Dead of Night, and so I have no frame of comparison on how well ventriloquist’s can work as an element of terror in a feature film. However anyone familiar with “The Dummy” episode of The Twilight Zone will know it works well in small stretches. The best scene here is the one where Anthony Hopkins is given five minutes not to use his ventriloquist. The suspense builds in this scene because we aren’t quite sure how far Hopkins’ sickness stretches. That scene works where so many other scenes of possibility are flatly delivered. The performances can’t be faulted, Hopkins is acceptably disturbed and Ann-Margret plays her part with a surprising lack of elegance. The direction is probably too realistic to work towards building terror, and the music lacks sufficient tension.
PAPERHOUSE (Bernard Rose) viewed 10-31-02 on video
Grade A- 1988
Very original fantasy thriller, which delves deep into the dream world of an adolescent girl. Dreams, and the way they relate to reality, is actually one of my favorite themes in films (see The Fourth Man). That a drawing in reality can spur another world in dream, is reverse logic of most movies about dreams. The main theme with this film is fear of isolation, the girl keeps going back to the boy in her dream because he is crippled and needs her. The girl’s father is the bad guy in the piece simply because he doesn’t spend enough time with his daughter, an action she interprets as child abuse in her dreams. A key scene early has the girl playing hide-and-seek and being left, which also shows her being left alone when she is trying to make a connection. When she is left she faints into her dreams again, which actually drives forward the main part of the narrative. The film gets steadily more creepy as it goes on, building into a climactic dream sequence which reminded me that Bernard Rose was also the director of Candyman, and can drift into a frightening dark side. I liked the way the dream world and reality overlapped (i.e. she hears her alarm clock beeping in her dreams), just like they do in real life. Bernard Rose, by the way, is perhaps the best director that no one ever talks about. This film confirms him as a major original talent, who may never be fully mainstream because he sticks too closely to his fascinations even when making a genre picture.
DEEP RED (Dario Argento) viewed on 10-31-02 on dvd
Grade A+ 1975
Dario Argento’s best film, is one of his few to successfully integrate plot with style. The style is very impressive here, shying away from the color filters he uses later on Suspiria, instead controlling the mise-en-scene carefully through framing. In scenes of tension he chooses to place the characters at the edge of the frame, letting the eye watch the rest of the frame in suspense – implying something will come from the offscreen space to balance the frame. Argento also tends to go for close ups to keep the audience on guard, in fact he often cuts from a close up to an extreme close up of the same object. The score by Goblin is probably their best, sounding a bit like fusion jazz from the seventies and heavy on percussion.
The scene with the dummy-toy suddenly sprinting into a room, in a dutch shot, is incredibly terrifying even on repeated viewing. The subsequent murder is probably the hardest one for me to watch, painfully finding every sharp corner in the room. The ending also works incredibly well, giving a surprise ending that was honestly set up and plays fair with the audience. An ending that works with visuals in a way that hasn’t really been repeated or ripped off, except by Argento in his much inferior film Trauma. Perhaps the only other film by Argento as successful as Deep Red is Tenebre, both of which contain the best elements of Argento the writer.
LIFE IS SWEET (Mike Leigh) viewed 11-01-02 on video
Grade A- 1991
A film of humor and sadness, sometimes both at the same time. It’s rare to see a movie that combines these emotions in such a human way, that you get less feeling of watching a movie and more a feeling of watching human behavior. Every scene near the end plays at a perfect pitch, especially a confrontation between mother and daughter about the significance of the shack. A scene that reveals details about the characters and why they behave the way they do towards each other, without the slightest hint of being a written plot point.
THE LAST HURRAH (John Ford) viewed 11-01-02 on dvd
Grade B- 1958
Cynical political film with old-timer politician losing the sympathies of the people, who instead go for a dense younger man. This film is flat and sluggish for most of the way but has some good scenes sprinkled throughout. Film is probably best when dealing with the smoothness of the old-time politicians, and the surprising integrity they have when facing the job. The shot of Tracy walking home shrugged over with the victory march behind him has a startling amount of power to it, and gives a hint at a better film that could be made out of this material.
HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Terrence Fisher) viewed 11-01-02 on dvd
Grade B- 1959
Basically only noteworthy for the way Peter Cushing plays Sherlock Holmes, and for the horror atmosphere brought to some of the scenes by Fisher and the Hammer Company.
SORCERER (William Fredkin) viewed 11-01-02 on video
Grade B+ 1977
Not as good as Wages of Fear, but still very effective work of suspense that had me catching my breath - even when I knew how a scene would play out. How well this film works is mostly due to the strength of the story for creating suspense. Fredkin is tailor made for this material, and gives it a surprising amount of credibility by using actual locations and real foreign languages - by people in foreign countries (how novel). The score by Tangerine Dream is perfect for this movie, with the synthesizer rhythms adding tension to scenes that wouldn’t otherwise have it. They did a lot of good work in the seventies and eighties but have unfortunately disappeared since then. Too bad because they can give a movie like this (or Michael Mann’s Thief for example) an extra layer that most of the best modern movie composers cannot.
HEAVEN (Tom Tykwer) viewed 11-02-02 in theater
Grade B 2002
Impossible to prophecies what this might have been if Kieslowski had lived to direct it, like it was to for A.I. last year. Tykwer, a pupil of Kieslowski, is actually ideal to material like this. He tells the simple story by relying on powerful images and wonderful acting. After the bomb is placed at the beginning there is a terrific shot of Cate Blanchett descending an escalator, like she is descending into purgatory. Some of the final shots are also spectacular; like the couple running hand in hand over the countryside in a crane shot, or their silhouetted bodies making love against the darkening sky. Perhaps the best shot is the last one with the helicopter ascending the sky, juxtaposed by the aforementioned descent. The symbolism isn’t overplayed as it might have been in another director’s hands. When the couple shaves their heads we don’t necessarily have to buy it as a symbol of two people being born again, instead there is the explicit meaning that they are changing their identity because they are on the run. It is also worth noting how the five deaths that occur in this film are given proper weight. When Blanchett hears of the four deaths she caused, she breaks down. Even later, a bad guy’s death is given a similar levity by its effect on the maid who found the body. Kieslowski and Tykwer’s sense of the irony of fate are also very present in this film; Ribisi’s brother is in Blanchett’s class, and the lovers have the same birthday (albeit in different years). It will be interesting to see how this film plays in the context of the trilogy, the rest of which I hope is forthcoming.
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Anthony Mann) viewed 11-02-02 on dvd
Grade A 1955
Save for the terrible theme song, this is another exceptional western from director Anthony Mann. His themes of obsession and revenge are here as Stewart rides into town to find the man responsible for his brother’s death. All the characters are morally gray; our hero is driven by revenge and the villains are both calling for love from a disapproving father figure. It’s interesting how the plot unfolds in this picture, drawing your sympathies with Stewart and then uncovering a sinister (albeit understandable) side to his personality that is actually controlling his actions. I also liked how understated the romantic relationships were handled in this film, never softening the plot with unnecessary too many side plots.
DON’T LOOK NOW (Nicholas Roeg) viewed 11-02-02 on dvd (fourth viewing)
Grade A 1973
The opening sequence is an amazing bit of film making, with cross cutting from inside to the developing tragedy outside. It sets up the main visual motifs of the film; breaking glass, water and the color red (specifically a red raincoat). After the tragedy there is an audio transition from a scream to a drill being used on a wall in Venice, which tells that not enough time has passed for this couple to get over the tragedy.
The next major sequence of note is an amazing sex scene that is intercut with the couple getting dressed to go out later. The editing of that sequence shows how familiar this couple is to each other, sex is equated with intimacy rather than titillation. This scene plays as more voyeuristic than even a sex scene in a porno movie because we are getting to see a major dose of what this couple does behind closed doors.
The final act of the movie changes tonally from the preceding film, everything grows very cold and pasty. The buildings look to be sinking and the streets are deserted and mazelike. Disembodied footsteps fill the soundtrack, and the wide-angle lens is used to make everything distorted. Everyone encountered is uninviting, speaking in a foreign language and staring coldly out from their windows.
Then there is that ending, which packs a surprise although it has been led up to all along. Sutherland is shown possessing psychic powers throughout the film, although they are unacknowledged by him or the film. The murders have been set up, and the mysterious red coated figure has been introduced with screams from the locals. In fact the first scene bluntly predicts the ending, but it still haunts me on the fourth viewing. Last time I saw this movie, it was at my friend’s house and I left after midnight holding my keys like a weapon. This time I handled it like a man, but I still turned all the lights on in my apartment just to make sure.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (PT Anderson) viewed 11-03-02 in theater (second viewing)
Grade A- (upgraded from B+) 2002
Opens in direct opposition to Anderson’s previous two films, with a long shot of Sandler on the telephone at the side of the frame. A pretty economic opening, especially considering Magnolia’s opening minutes covered several hundred years and a dozen central characters in an orgasmic rush. This opening shows the isolation and loneliness of Sandler’s character, while setting up a subplot of frequent flier miles. We are introduced to his love interest a few minutes latter in a similarly lackadaisical manner, she simply drops off her car.
The only thing introduced with any punctuation is a harmonium, which gets dropped off following a non-sequiturs, loud car crash. The harmonium works as a symbol of Sandler’s quirkiness, and finally as a gesture of intimacy. It is basically a bit of a throwaway though, because it never really pays off in any conventional way.
The film is full of little tangents and details that work really well, basically holding together a paper-thin plot. I liked how the phone booth lit up when Watson’s voice finally came over the receiver, or Sandler’s joyous dance when Guzman fills the shopping cart with pudding. Sandler is dressed in a ridiculous blue suit for the length of the movie, even though his sisters constantly harass him about it.
The film’s music is very effective in this film, with Jon Brion’s score that’s very heavy on percussion and drives the tension up. A standout scene where Sandler is confronted by his sister and threatening phone calls, is given a more frantic feeling because of the weird saw noises and drumming on the soundtrack. Sandler also uses “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s film Popeye, during a surprising naïve and tender sequence of the film. No longer content to simply borrow from Altman, Anderson is now overtly taking things from his movies.
My first viewing of this film was about a month ago, and I was forced into the extreme left of the second row. With the second viewing, in a much better seat, I found the film less funny but more touching. One of the most important scenes is also one of the funniest, where they share very violent terms of endearment with each other. They are able to connect with each other, in a way they have never been able to do so with anyone else. They were both very isolated in their family life, which is an important theme in Anderson’s films. Now they both have found someone that they need, a similar catharsis to Anderson’s other films and it didn’t take a rain of frogs to do it.
LAURA (Otto Preminger) viewed 11-4-02 on video
Grade B+ 1944
Mostly engrossing mystery film about obsessive unrequited love. The title character seems to attract every man in the movie, including the detective investigating her murder, without really giving much of a follow-through. Her character dynamic is most interesting, yet mysteriously untapped by the film. Also the film’s setup is a bit labored, keeping too many of the characters around at once to be very believable. However I liked the twist about a third of the way in, with a certain character turning up unexpectedly. It made up for the revealed killer being a bit telegraphed and any other logical problems with the plot.
HALLOWEEN (John Carpenter) viewed 11-4-02 on dvd (fifth viewing)
Grade A 1978
Second viewing in widescreen, and it really makes all the difference with this film. So much of its inventiveness is in the use of the technical qualities to get scares. The premise of a killer being on the loose hunting baby-sitters isn’t all that brilliant or original. Carpenter places things carefully in the mise-en-scene to scare the audience. He keeps the mad killer at the edge of the frame, or in the distant background, forcing the audience to share the paranoia of the characters. Carpenter also wisely keeps trick-or-treaters to a minimum, knowing that the more people outside the less suspense and less believable the plot. The music is also very effective and it’s one of the most imitated scores in the horror genre. It is very simple but also unnerving in its insistent repetition and driving force. Hitchcock seems to be Carpenter’s biggest influence here, Carpenter inheriting the preternatural sense for creating suspense that Hitchcock showed in his films. The opening bravura is probably a reference/rip off of the opening scene in Deep Red, with a murder following the shocking revealing of the killer. Carpenter also repeats the theme of a safe environment being acted upon by an unstoppable outside force, which was prevalent in Assault on Precinct 13 and latter in The Thing.
THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola) viewed 11-5-02 on dvd (fourth viewing)
Grade A+ 1974
Amazing character study of a man who is lonely, paranoid and meticulous. A melancholy piano score works well to sum up the character of Harry Caul, intricate but isolated and running in circles. There are a lot of subtle character details that really add up in this film. Every time Harry passes trash on the ground he picks it up, his door has four locks and an alarm, and he plays his saxophone along with jazz recordings. It is interesting how Coppola is able to introduce surveillance into the cinematic techniques of the film. The camera often pans towards the characters after their movements as if keeping up with them surprised by their movements. Also interesting how Coppola is able to repeat the conversation to add depth to other things we see onscreen; when she talks about the vagrant we are shown Caul and thus we ponder his family. Biggest flaw here (and it’s relatively minor) is a dream sequence which is a little too on the nose, and gives exposition about Caul in too easy a manner. The ending sequence is haunting, giving us the deterioration of Caul as a reflection of his own tragic flaws.
THE MAGICIAN (Ingmar Bergman) viewed 11-5-02 on video
Grade B+ 1958
A bit underrated I suppose, a lot of essential Bergman things sprinkled throughout this film. Visually impressive, probably most similar to Wild Strawberries or Hour of the Wolf. With the main magician Voglar playing a tortured genius whom is starting to disintegrate, as the police tests him on his abilities. Interesting to see what Bergaman does in his comparison to the magician with a troupe of actors, test of effectiveness of Voglar’s ability is really like a performance critique. There is a scene with glaringly bad expository dialogue, I think it begins “Remember when we got all that money,” that sinks a pivotal scene. The film rebounds with a frightening climactic showdown, with some of the most effective dream logic he has ever shown.
BAMBOOZLED (Spike Lee) viewed 11-5-02 on dvd
Grade D- 2000
The best satires tend to attack a trend at hand or one on the near horizon. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled attack network television using black face and minstrel shows, it is the wrong approach from the word go. Lee has said in interviews that he thinks Gangster Rap is the new minstrel show and that would have been an interesting target for satire (although not altogether fresh since most rap is close to self-parody already anyway). Instead Lee hedges his bets and fights against an opponent so outdated he has to give us a history lesson while doing it. A target that already gets a negative gut reaction because it is so viscerally repulsive that we hardly need any argument to go against it. Then Lee precedes to hit his targets with such anger everyone watching begins to resent it. The film is not helped by terrible looking visuals, shot not surprisingly on Digital Video. The performances are also very poor here, especially the one note lead performance by Damon Wayans. Wayans talks is such an offensively nasally pseudo-white voice, that I was reminded that Lee (a crusader for honest racial portrayal) also made Summer Of Sam which had stunning Italian stereotypes displayed. The in-jokes here are lame, and the references distract by reminding of better films. If Lee was really angered by his thesis that white audiences are only interested in blacks if they are making them laugh, then why did he follow Bamboozled with The Original Kings of Comedy.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Stanley Kubrick) viewed 11-07-02 on dvd (third viewing)
Grade A 1968
One of the most daring films ever made. Works as a spectacle film as well as a deep philosophical film, which seriously deals with ideas usually glossed over in lesser science fiction film. Mostly without dialogue, relying on the classical music score to complement the visuals in a way that probably most resembles the silent movie spectacle. The images are very powerful in this film; often the space scenes are so beautiful you forget that they are a special effect. The story is also quite wonderful, but it always gets second billing to everything Kubrick was doing with the non-narrative elements. The villain Hal, is one of the best villains in the history of film. His even tone of voice and intimidating intelligence makes him very scary, an obvious influence on Hannibal Lector as played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (Ingmar Bergman) viewed 11-07-02 on video
Grade A- 1960
A relatively simple story of revenge and redemption told using some of the most powerful images Bergman ever created. The shot of Van Sydow pushing over a tree after learning of his daughter’s ravaging, for example, tell the character’s struggle in purely visual terms. The rape and its buildup are terribly hard to watch, being that the victim is presented as being hopelessly naïve and pure. The closest film to this in Bergman’s catalogue is The Seventh Seal, which also has bold imagery in service of an allegorical tale.
FEMME FATALE (Brian De Palma) viewed 11-08-02 in theater
Grade B+ 2002
Plot isn’t the deal with this film. Instead the point is to enthrall the audience on a minute by minute basis. The plot is twisted and surprising, but probably mostly to people who aren’t hip with De Palma’s films. De Palma has always riffed on ideas from other directors’ films, especially Hitchcock’s thrillers. However, with Body Double and Raising Cain he has become interested in riffing on his own films as well, as a postmodern statement of sorts. So in Femme Fatale, the experienced De Palma scholar will pick up on clues that others would not. Some people may find the plot twists cheap or cheesy, but they are no more so than say John Woo’s world of endless bullets. They are set up as legit contrivances that De Palma can play with as a variation of a theme he has been building his entire career. Femme Fatal shares many things with other De Palma film, especially the thrillers he seems most taken with. Most specifically in this film is his use of dreams, twins and voyeurism as major themes. Similar to Body Double, this film has a lot of plot to solve a simple problem for the main character. De Palma’s use of sex in this film is also a singular vision, not employed often in American films. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has the sexiest performance of any I’ve seen in 2002. Her lesbian make-out and seductive strip tease, had every eye in the theater riveted to the screen. Her sexuality also made a giant leap for the audience in terms of plot, keeping key characters around when they should logically be gone. It also taps into a general angst in men, where a smart woman uses her sexuality to turn you into her tool. An angst I seem to respond to, given my love for The Last Seduction and Double Indemnity. I won’t be the least bit surprised if this film plays even better the second time around.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (Sydney Pollack) viewed 11-09-02 on video
Grade B+ 1969
Harrowing and downbeat drama of desperate character torturing themselves trying to make ends meet. The performances are all top notch, especially in the supporting roles that anchor the movie. The first derby race is a frantic masterpiece, with dizzying camerawork and fast editing. It manages to be grueling, exciting and sad all at once, and it shows the length to which the contest will go to break the players. The film is told with a series of flash-forwards to the aftermath of a crime, and it is the most significant flaw with this picture. It cheapens the unfolding drama by focusing our attention on something that isn’t as significant, and forces strained readings of character motivations. The film is best when seeing the main characters decline into sickness and degradation. Susannah York decline from a glamorous, would-be actress is especially painful because we have witnessed her dehumanization step-by-step.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Herbert Ross) viewed 11-10-02 on video
Grade B 1981
Like Woody Allen’s Purple Rose Of Cairo, this is people during the depression clinging onto entertainment to escape from their reality. The musical sequences are choreographed with the flare of the musicals in the 30’s contrasted to drably shot, downbeat reality. Steve Martin’s performance here is very effective, especially considering the films he had done previously were strictly comedic. The stand out sequence is Christopher Walken’s barroom striptease dance, and it takes some of the sour out of the scenes surrounding it – basically summing up the films point.
HIGH NOON (Fred Zinnemann) viewed 11-11-02 on dvd
Grade B+ 1952
Fairly standard western of an anticipated showdown told more or less in real time. Very minimalist in style, stripped down to the bare essentials that could make this story work. There are few characters of any depth and even fewer big scenes with much impact. Only through considerable technical skill from director Zinnemann do we begin to care about these proceedings. What tension can be wracked out of this story is done so effectively, making its short running time often very intense. Clocks are ticking away in almost every scene giving the suspense a good sense of continuity. When the climactic gunfight occurs it is a welcomed release from the tension that has been building for some 70 minutes. Cooper’s performance is a major asset to the film, underlining the likable qualities of a marshal stuck in his ways. However I prefer the justly popular Rio Bravo, with its developed characters in a similar storyline.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Alfred Hitchcock)
Grade A 1959
Probably the most entertaining Hitchcock film and the one I prefer most out of his classic period. Often referred to as the ultimate Hitchcock picture, since all his favorite themes are in place. The crop-dusting sequence is justly famous as being one of the best set pieces he ever filmed. That’s not to say that the sequence makes a bit of logical sense. For instance: Why does the crop duster shoot at him? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to drive up and shoot him since he is on his own? Why kill him at all if you know he’s not a spy at this point? Wouldn’t his death arouse more suspicion than wanted from the police? These questions (and others) don’t really matter with this film, which is designed more for entertainment and excitement then for logic or cohesion. The humor is deft and witty (reminding that Ernest Lehman wrote that script for The Sweet Smell of Success two years previous), and Cary Grant is at his suave best. An obvious precursor to the subsequent James Bond films, though none reach this level of serendipity.
THE THIN BLUE LINE (Errol Morris) viewed 11-12-02 on video
Grade B 1988
A talking heads true-crime documentary, showing how a drifter was convicted of killing a cop in Texas. Morris does some interesting things to open this film up; especially including highly stylized reenactments. The result is often compelling but also fairly slim, leaving out the court proceedings and speculation of motive. Some of my favorite true-crime documentaries (Paradise Lost and Murder on a Sunday Morning) play a bit more fair with both sides, and have more access to what happened inside the courtroom. I would have liked to see or hear the DA’s speech (which provides the title), to see if it was the persuasion of a great lawyer who tipped the scales of justice his way.
SHOOT THE MOON (Alan Parker) viewed 11-12-02 on video
Grade C+ 1982
Some scenes of power and good performances from both leads hold this one afloat for much of the screen time. The script is shallow and at times illogical, which hurts the film’s credibility. The ending rings patently false, with characters behaving in ways they wouldn’t under that circumstance. Too bad because it follows one of the most heart-tugging scenes in the movie, and seriously undermines its impact. The character insights aren’t very revealing or insightful, and feel too often like they are simple being put through the motions of the plot. A rare miss from director Alan Parker, who is an under appreciated director.
FORBIDDEN GAMES (Rene Clement) viewed 11-12-02 on video
Grade A- 1951
Heartbreaking and unsentimental tale of youth during set during World War II. The children treat the dead animals better than the adults are treating the victims of the war, providing them with crosses and individual graves, while the adults are being buried together like animals. The dehumanizing effect of the war, which is ignored by the adults, is protested by the children’s stealing of the crosses from the cemetery. The film is about remembering the victims of war, and is also a surprisingly touching tale of young love. The film’s ending is especially haunting and open-ended, reminding me a bit of the neorealist works from Italy around this time.
FAREWELL, CHINA (Clara Law) viewed 11-13-02 on vcd
Grade B+ 1990
Probably best read as an allegorical tale on how immigrants are corrupted in the United States. Those who try to merge with US customs end up selling themselves, being sucked into consumerism. Sexual corruption is a big theme in this film, being one of the only things that immigrants have to offer in a different land. Flashbacks are used effectively to suggest the change in a character that stays off screen for much of the runtime. Also Law uses the American Flag to bookend the film, and a ragged American flag at the moment of greatest corruption. The ending is a violent climax that actually adds to the depth of the film, which is rare for left-field violent endings. A good companion piece to Stroszek, which is also a sad ballad of American dreams lost.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING – EXTENDED CUT (Peter Jackson) viewed 11-13-02 on dvd (First viewing this cut, third of film)
Grade A- 2001
The extended cut adds more wonder and explanatory detail, but loses some of the narrative thrust. Still the same film, this new version won’t win any new fans or new detractors. An exciting telling of Tolkien’s book, which I haven’t read since I was younger, with stylish direction by Jackson and convincing visual effects. It will be very interesting to see how this film works within the context of a trilogy, I suspect it will only be enhanced.
MOULIN ROUGE (John Houston) viewed 11-14-02 on video
Grade B+ 1952
Went in thinking that the 2001 film of the same title was a remake, and so I was a little apprehensive at first. When this turned out to be a portrait of a self-destructive artist, I was relieved and mostly enthralled. Very beautiful Technicolor opening gives way to a somber second half, which actually works better as it goes along. A surprisingly unpretentious and moving film.
CONQUEROR WORM (Michael Reeves) viewed 11-14-02 on video
Grade B- 1968
Wasn’t much engaged in this film, although it is admittedly well done for its type. The torture scenes are surprisingly explicit for the year the film was made, and the tone is much nastier than I expected. Vincent Price gives an effective performance as the antagonist General torturing witches, but much of the other cast members give bland performances.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (Chris Columbus) viewed 11-15-02 in theater
Grade B- 2002
Slightly less successful than the previous film, but still a franchise I will be happy to see continue. This film gets a lot of mileage out of the good performances, especially a showy one by Kenneth Branagh and continuing good work from the child actors. Once again, Alan Rickman is able to get big laughs with the smallest gestures. However, this film doesn’t have the magic or wonder of the first film. You don’t get the sense of constant surprises every few minutes, and the plot is a bit too schematic this time. The resolutions to situations of danger are often very cheesy and cheap, relying on last minutes saves by things that arrive by coincidence. Also, the big spider sequence doesn’t really pay off in any meaningful way, instead just gives a few jolts in the middle of a flurry of exposition. It will be interesting to see how Alfonso Cuaron handles the next film.
THE SHOUT (Jerzy Skolimowski) viewed 11-15-02 on video
Grade B- 1978
When I heard the premise I knew this would be a film I would want to see. A man, who has the aboriginal ability to kill with his shout, moves into the life of a couple. The film doesn’t really live up to the craziness that premise might suggest, and has a surprisingly firm grasp on reality. Instead the film turns into a sexual power struggle between the two men, which is a bit of a letdown considering the setup. The director’s other 70’s film Deep End is much better, and deserves a following.
THE KILLERS (Donald Siegel) viewed 11-15-02 on video
Grade C 1964
Two hit men piece together the motive for a killing they’ve just completed, the victim of which just stood still as he was gunned down. The present plot thread involving the two hit men is very good, but the flashbacks they get on their quest for the truth (and a million dollars) is pretty lackluster. The flashbacks lose their credibility and go one for too long, ruining the momentum for either plot thread. Too bad because some of the performances, especially Lee Marvin, are really good. Marvin’s character is sort of a dry run for the one he would play three years later in the far superior Point Blank. It’s a bit of a cheap thrill to see Ronald Reagan play a crime heavy, and to watch him bitch-slap Angie Dickinson.
THE LAST LAUGH (F.W. Murnau) viewed 11-16-02 on video
Grade A- 1924
One of the best dramatic silent films I’ve seen, and a surprisingly modern one at that. Emotions are conveyed with technique and performance, showing that expressive camera work can work as effectively as other traditional narrative elements. Murnau doesn’t use title cards to punctuate or tell his story, but instead has confidence in the power of the images he creates. The story is relatively simple, telling of a hotel doorman who is humiliatingly demoted to bathroom attendant. The emotions Murnau is able to extract from this simple premise is similar to those in the Italian neorealist films.
MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (Alan Rudolph) viewed 11-16-02 on video
Grade B- 1994
At its best when examining the complex relationship between Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and showing the vicious circle at work. The script is suitably witty and smart and the performances are right on the mark, especially the measured performances by Leigh and Scott. The biggest complaint I have about the film is how little I felt about it as I was watching it. I hardly ever felt engaged with the characters, and I never loved any moment of the film. That’s too bad because I’m a fan of the cast, director and subject. I can quote my favorite Parker witticisms with a big smile on my face, yet hardly smiled at this film.
THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR (François Truffaut) viewed 11-17-02 on video
Grade A- 1981
Belongs with the other Truffaut films about doomed relationships (Jules and Jim, Two English Girls, The Story of Adele H., etc.) rather than to his charming light films. The two lead performances are very good, playing the first half deceptively warm and then gradually more flawed. It’s interesting how the flaws in each character keep the film relatively unpredictable. It never feels like the plot is going through the motions, instead the characters dictate the plot twists in unexpected ways.
ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (Michael Curtiz) viewed 11-18-02 on video
Grade A- 1938
Starts roughly with heavy-handed exposition and nails-on-chalkboard performances from the Dead End Boys. Gets better as it goes along, especially with the melodramatic friendship between gangster and priest taking center stage. The climactic gunfight is well handled, coercing mixed emotions about the way it will conclude. The final execution scene is especially poignant and heart wrenching. An obvious influence on John Woo’s Hong Kong films, especially on A Better Tomorrow, with the themes of loyalty stretched by morality and lawfulness.
GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (Isao Takahata) viewed 11-18-02 on dvd
Grade A 1988
The most moving anime film I’ve seen, like a memorial for the dead innocents of war. The film could easily have been made live action with real actors, and with not much concession. The animation does distance it a bit making it more allegorical than strictly realistic, and the same time making it more universal with less specific racial backgrounds. The firefly scenes add a good deal of release to the growing tension and sadness, and they add a lyrical beauty. The beginning works better if you rewatch it after watching the entire film, to pickup how the story is being told. Oddly enough, a great companion piece to Come And See.
SUDDENLY (Lewis Allen) viewed 11-18-02 on dvd
Grade B 1954
Good little suspense film, with fast pace and faster running time (75 minutes). Very talky and claustrophobic, both of which help it build tension along the way. Not as compelling as that other Sinatra assassination picture, which is in a league of its own.
KING OF HEARTS (Philippe De Broca) viewed 11-18-02 on dvd
Grade C 1966
Starts as a fairly amusing trifle and ends as statement about the insanity of war, but doesn’t really work either way. The comedic tone undermines any message it may have, and the message undermines the tone. Since this film has such little understanding of human behavior, any message comes across as simple-minded. The sort of film where the insane people are really just eccentric, and the sane people are meant to look loony by comparison. Bates holds up surprisingly well with his frantic comedic performance, which would work better if this film were a screwball comedy.
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (Tay Garnett) viewed 11-18-02 on video
Grade A- 1946
A bit tighter than Ossessione, but a whole lot looser than say Double Indemnity. With character meandering and bumbling in circles a good deal, while the hard-boiled plotting continues despite them. The sense of all the characters being doomed by their weaknesses and twisted fate is pretty explicit here, more so than most film noir of this time. The ending seems a bit weak, probably a production code concession, with the characters being tied up in a way that seems too cruel a coincidence. Perhaps a better ending would have had snipped the last few scenes, leaving the couple floating in the ocean asking “What now?”
GHOST DOG – WAY OF THE SAMURAI (Jim Jarmusch) viewed 11-19-02 on dvd
Grade C+ 2000
Jarmusch does a lot of work to cover how thin his material is here, twisting the simple story into a gangster revisionist piece. Jarmusch mixes together the conventions of Italian gangster films, Urban (black) gangster films together with a healthy dose of the Japanese Samurai film. Not only does he use the conventions of those genres; he also uses those respective ethnic types in painting the characters. Introducing Japanese into the story with the much-passed around book Rashomon, which links Ghost Dog to the female characters – the only ones who attempt to understand him. Also a bird lands on an assassin’s weapon referencing Branded to Kill, in which a butterfly lands on the gun of a Japanese professional hitman. Jarmusch’s character details about the Italian mobsters are post-Tarantino: the knowledge of rap, or their sweaters, etc. They don’t go far in creating interesting characters, and without characters the whole effort comes across as phony and wasted. Not a terrible movie by any means, just jokey and too concerned about tapping into something cool.
PAPER MOON (Peter Bogdanovich) viewed 11-19-02 on video
Grade A 1973
More resonant than most con man movies, with characters conning out of desperation rather than just greed. The depression setting is a great idea here, painting the central character’s actions as despicable but still somewhat likable. His little companion acts as his accomplice to win his love and approval rather than his financial self-interest. Even the femme fatale, is seen as a blameless opportunist, simply latching onto potential happiness as it enters in any form. She uses sex as her tool, taking men for dupes as long as she can ride with them. The con victims are not seen as buffoons but are simply rather trying to do the right thing, and are not able to turn away the bible in this time of weakness. Films in which a hard person slowly succumbs to a needy character seem to hit a soft spot with me (see also Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and this film is no exception. It is funny and warm, while staying relatively true to its place and time, which shields it in a sad desperation. Also a surprisingly small amount of child-as-superior-being moments, which would have hurt the credibility of this film.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS (Michael Lehmann)
Grade A- 1996
Not terrible original, to be sure, basically another mistaken identity plot with all the characters saying the wrong things at the wrong time to keep the charade going. However some films can overcome typical genre clichés with careful tweaking of our expectations, and confidence in execution. The film visualizes the differences between the two female characters in casting: Thurman as the blonde who towers over Garofalo, the comparatively plain brunette. There are minimal scenes of character fumbling to maintain the identity facade, instead keeping the problem as background to the self-doubt and emotions of the female characters. The scene where the girls take turn getting photographed by Chaplin neatly sums up the dilemma in visual terms, Thurman projects radiance and Garofalo awkwardly shrinks in her seat feeling defeated. Garofalo isn’t so much ignored as forgotten by the beauty of Thurman, who doesn’t need to insist upon it. All the big, emotional showdowns feel honest and build upon the themes and characters in a way that feels convincing. When Chaplin expresses his rage at being mislead by the girls, it feels earned by his character who was generalized by the women in the same way they feared he would generalize them. The ending is a bit trite and feel good, but I didn’t mind much because I wanted the characters to find some happiness, sometimes it’s nice to feel good if the film has earned it. One of the best romantic comedies of the nineties, overshadowed only by Before Sunrise which is smart enough to avoid the strickening modern conventions.
VERA CRUZ (Robert Aldrich) viewed 11-21-02 on video
Grade B+ 1954
Damn good western, driven mostly by the strange bond between Cooper’s good guy and Lancaster’s black-clad bad guy. Most of the early scenes developing the characters have a good deal of wit: Lancaster when told he will die when the song ends tells the guitarist it will have to be a very long song, or Cooper’s sly put down of an insulting officer. When the film moves onto its mission it becomes a more straightforward action film, with set pieces at regular intervals to keep things interesting. The central relationship is strained a bit as the plot works overdrive to give romantic interests for both of the leads, and there is a bit too much plotting down the last stretch which weakens the pace. Still a very entertaining movie, with two very good lead performances – though especially from Lancaster.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) viewed 11-21-02 on video
Grade A 1946
Another visually stunning film from Powell and Pressburger, with Earth scenes in lush Technicolor and heaven scenes in black-and-white – an inspired choice. As with Black Narcissus there is elaborate use of stages to create a world of enchantment, sets that seem to go on forever and suggest offscreen magic. My favorite is the first weighting station, which overlooks the files of every living being on Earth. The story has the simplicity of a fairy tale but is still grounded by logic and it is moving without feeling cloying, and always very original in setting up its ground rules. The camera movements are usually very precise, only showy during a game of table tennis: here the camera tracks back and forth with the ball, probably suggesting the two forces fighting over the body of the central character. The operating room is ideal for the Earth setting during the climactic trial, providing a visual link to the courtroom in heaven. The court showdown is probably the weakest link of the film, a bit of wartime propaganda suggesting the alliance of England with the United States – the only thing that really dates the film. The film was probably a major inspiration for Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, maybe even a starting off point for that film, but Stairway still feels fresh and imaginative today.
SHANE (George Stevens) viewed 11-22-02 on dvd
Grade C 1954
Shane is a western shot with all the grit and color of a Hollywood musical. It also has the lumbering technique and self-importance that I thought was reserved strictly for biblical epic. The character motivations often ring false, and the young kid’s hero worship of Shane is almost obsessive (the moment he sees Shane ride up his eyes are agape). One of the least interesting classic films I’ve seen, and one of the least entertaining westerns.
RABID (David Cronenberg) viewed 11-22-02 on dvd
Grade B 1977
Continuing off his 1975 film Shivers, Cronenberg creates a horror film focusing on the human body and passing of disease. These are the monsters of the film, rather than a killer on the loose. There’s also a hint of the technological horror that Cronenberg would integrate into much of his later work. Rabid is a personal horror film for Cronenberg: with the brilliant scientist perverting his craft trying to do good, his characters with two sides – one dangerous, and character perversions driving the narrative. It doesn’t feel like much more than an interesting genre exercise, but that’s good enough for me.
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (Phil Karlson) viewed 11-22-02 on dvd
Grade B+ 1952
A heist film, but much less concerned with the setup and heist than with the payoff after the crime, with at least one person who is not what they appear to the others. An interesting twist on the genre, and definite influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, that develops in an increasingly original way. The plot compensates for the utter lack of interesting characters, making it basically an exercise in story construction that’s well directed, but somewhat cold and distancing.
FAR FROM HEAVEN (Todd Haynes) viewed 11-23-02 in theater
Grade A- 2002
A critique of 1950’s society, in the form of a loving homage to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the same period. Contrasting the artificial visual splendor of the surface to the darker themes of racism, homophobia and sexism. Haynes conveyed a modern sensibility without betraying his material by condescending to the time or adding hip campy injokes, just by telling a story that couldn’t have been told by Sirk in his melodramas of that time.
The layers of visuals work in a very complicated way in this film. The time period is set visually by the cars, clothes and hairstyles. The film is highly stylized to suggest Sirk’s films: with beautiful autumn day shots, day for night evening shots, blue light used to suggest nighttime exterior, green to suggest interior, and driving composite shots. By stylizing the real world in the trapping of Sirk’s visual elements, Haynes shows the way an artificial positive outlook can be pulled as a mask over social trappings. “It’s all smoke and mirrors” as Dennis Quaid says at one point of the film summing up Haynes’ thesis.
Not to say that Far From Heaven is just an academic exercise, in fact it reached me emotionally even at the distance of its stylization. The film shows how people are forced to change themselves to not be ostracized from society - a theme still very relevant today. I found the ending especially moving, with two characters departing from each other without words.
RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa) viewed 11-23-02 on dvd (third viewing)
Grade A- 1950
Film shows a rape and death through the eyes of four people: the bandit (who’s telling most resembles the way it would be told in most movies), the raped woman, her husband and a woodcutter who came upon the scene. All the narrators are unreliable and all the stories are variations on what really happened, which we never find out. The structure is brilliant and often imitated, using the narrators’ lies to reflect a cynical and negative social commentary. The beginning scene setting up the story is a bit stilted, with the characters repeatedly telling us that this is a terrible story – a horrible story – a terrible, horrible story, when they should be telling us the fucking story already. The final baby appearance has also always bothered me: it seems like too easy a plot contrivance for them to find the body at that particular moment, blurring the meaning of the two plot threads and giving a hopeful ending. Doesn’t detract much, but keeps it from being as great as some of Kurosawa’s other great films.
THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (Sam Pekinpah) viewed 11-24-02 on video
Grade B+ 1970
Charming and lighthearted most of the way, which is rather surprising since it was made by Pekinpah between The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. A bit scattershot and uneven, losing momentum at times especially in the second half. The performances keep the film together: Stella Stevens as the love interest is very charming and sensual, David Warner is a wonderfully eccentric horny priest (one of the best unheralded performers of the 60s and 70s) and Jason Robards is in top form playing Cable as stubborn and stingy in a theatrical performance. The last scenes have all the main characters coming back for a last hurrah, including Warner on a black motorcycle, feels like a curtain call. A change of pace for Pekinpah that deserves to be seen more.
THE STEPFATHER (Joesph Ruben) viewed 11-24-02 on video
Grade B- 1987
More psychological thriller than horror, with few horrific scenes instead opting for slow building tension. The film basically takes a child’s fear of a new stepparent to the most extreme. Good writing and performances for the most part, although the daughter is miscast: she’s too old and too cheery for the troubled girl role. Little character moments give this film life and make the characters work. The scene where the stepfather talks about finally understanding the meaning of Thanksgiving actually struck an emotion note with me, like he’s less of a psycho killer than someone disturbed searching for a loving family, a nice and unexpected character detail. Then he turns into the expected psycho killer for the last third, and most conventional, section of the film. The final climactic showdown is a letdown, turning into a thriller-by-numbers: scene with the girl undressing for a shower and characters showing up with guns at convenient moments. Not a film that breaks out of the genre, just smarter and more effective than most of the films in the genre.
E.T. (Steven Speilberg) viewed 11-25-02 on video (second viewing – first in ten years)
Grade B 1982
Weird seeing it again after all these years, I think I was six when I last saw it and I remember certain scenes as if I had actually experienced them before. The constant reminder of Star Wars helps make the children seem more realistic, as I remember having the same feeling for Star Wars, playing obsessively with the toys and imitating the characters, when I was the same age as Elliot is here. Nostalgia aside, this film works as a dream fulfillment for children: E.T. brings Elliot closer to his older brother, provides him with the healing presence of a missing parent, and at the same time his friend – Elliot shows him his toys and feeds him junk food. The cross cutting used to show E.T. and Elliot become one doesn’t really work: E.T. scared by umbrella Elliot jumps and breaks something, E.T. drinks a beer and Elliot burps loudly in class. It would be better if E.T. just served as the friend Elliot never had, rather than sharing his body. The last chase scene seems largely unnecessary, as they drive away from the house just to ride by it again on bicycle keeping the Feds right behind them. The last scene works so well on an emotional level that you can hardly question the presence of the dog, and all the sympathetic characters to watch on economically. I prefer the Speilberg who made Jaws to the one who made E.T., although E.T. is probably much more personal filmmaking.
THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH (Hal Hartley) viewed 11-25-02 on video
Grade C 1990
Never really engaged with this film in any way. The characters seem jokey and one-dimensional and the recurring jokes are mostly unfunny: character repeatedly mistaken for a priest or the ex-boyfriend who shoves anyone who looks at his chick. Quirky and offbeat to be sure, I usually seem to like those traits if the film really lets loose (a la Ruling Class or Repo Man) rather that staying within a realm of eccentric character, each with a major hang-up. Film was shot in 11 days and feels pretty damn insubstantial, but Hartley would go on to better things.
SENORITA EXTRAVIADA (Lourdes Potillo) viewed 11-26-02 on video
Grade B 2001
Stunning documentary film about the hundreds of girls who have gone missing in Juarez, Mexico, only to turn up buried in the desert. The material is so strong that anything technical thing Potillo does: shots of innocent girls in slow-motion with their hair blowing, time lapse photography, or melodramatic music; hurts the effectiveness of the film. The film is best when showing the outlines of conspiracy surrounding the murders, and the carelessness of the investigators.
SOLARIS (Steven Soderbergh) viewed 11-30-02 in theater
Grade B 2002
I was so annoyed by the interviews I was reading where Clooney would say that Solaris wasn’t one of Tarkovsky’s film and that at least their film wouldn’t be four hours long, almost to the point where I was going to avoid this film as an act of film snobbery. I’m glad however that I caught it, just to see the different spin Soderbergh brings to the material. Soderbergh accentuates the backstory and shows it in flashbacks, this makes it seem like a fairly personal film for Soderbergh. There are some thematic similarities with Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Limey, in the way the films deal with memory and our past flaws being relived. What this obviously film lacks is Tarkovsky’s eye for finding visual beauty in things that would appear mundane in another director’s hands. For example the extended car scene in the 1972 Solaris were hypnotic and unforgettable, and made for an easy transition to the scenes in space. Well worth seeing, especially for those who have already seen Tarkovsky’s film. The original is now out on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and with that company’s track record it is a must have.
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (Robert Hamer) viewed 12-01-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1949
Probably most similar in tone to the lighter films of Hitchcock, like The Trouble With Harry which had a similar underwhelmed feeling about murder. Dennis Price gives a deliciously wicked performance as a distant heir to the Duke, who must murder eight relatives to put himself next in line for the inheritance. Alec Guinness plays all eight heirs, which could have easily become a gimmick; instead it becomes an acting showcase. Guinness plays all eight roles, including old and female, without going over the top or winking – instead investing each with subtle differences to make them unique. The dialogue is wonderfully witty and the social commentary is nicely offset by the dark humor. The first Ealing Studio film I’ve seen, part of a new Guinness DVD Box Set, and a very good start.
THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (Charles Crichton) viewed 12-02-02 on dvd
Grade A 1951
One of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen in quite some time. A heist film that builds its laughs as it gains momentum, rather than giving cheap jokes early to let you know you are seeing a comedy. This film builds its characters for the heist and then pays everything off with the heist aftermath, a textbook example of narrative construction and highly influential on the genre. There are a lot of laughs in the second half, and climaxes in a car chase that actually works both as comedy and excitement. Guinness is very good here playing a character quite different than any of the eight in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Stanley Holloway shares the screen very well.
THE LADYKILLERS (Alexander Mackendrick) viewed 12-4-02 on dvd
Grade B+ 1955
Funny and clever, but not all the memorable and not on par with the previous two Ealing Comedies I’ve seen recently. Criminals plan and execute a heist that goes well, until it is foiled at every turn by a sweet old lady. Good cast including (once again) Alec Guinness, who looks like a cartoon character, and Peter Sellers in an early role as another member of the heist crew.
PUNISHMENT PARK (Peter Watkins) viewed 12-5-02 on dvd
Grade B- 1971
Semi-documentary film follows war-criminals through tribunal and perverse boot camp/marathon. It plays like investigative reporting with occasional narration from a British journalist, and sticks with the techniques closely: with lots of zooms and handheld footage. I guess how well the film works for you is if you buy the premise, thinking the United States would opt to put war criminals in a game rather than a simple concentration camp, which would seem more logical. The film makes its points well in the first half and then becomes repetitive, with the footage getting increasingly improbable. Worth a viewing for how well certain scenes play, and a definite influence on The Blair Witch Project.
ADAPTATION (Spike Jonze) viewed 12-6-02 in theater
Grade A 2002
Charles Kaufman was hired to write a screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief,” and instead wrote a screenplay about Charlie Kaufman struggling to write the screenplay. Charlie has an identical twin brother named Donald, who is his antithesis. Donald is smooth with the ladies, has confidence, writes a by-the-numbers serial killer script which yearns to sell, and attends a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee.
Donald, who is the co-screenwriter and to whom the film is dedicated, is actually a fictional creation in the film. He is part of the film’s self-criticism; showing the worst (Hollywood) screenwriting trends before they pay off in the films plot. His script “The 3” is about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder, which Charlie dismisses as a cliché. Thinking back on the film later, it becomes clear that Donald is another part of Charlie’s personality, and both characters are probably closer to the real Charlie Kaufman than just the Charlie Kaufman in the film. In fact most screenwriter will tell you that almost all of their characters are part of their personality.
Donald is also a mask for the problems that Kaufman had adapting “The Orchid Thief” to the screen. When Donald is brought in to help Charlie with the script it becomes everything Charlie was trying to avoid. If you pay attention in an early scene where Charlie is talking to the studio representative, you will notice he predicts most of the third act of the film dismissively. That the third act works on an emotional level while being a witty and clever comment on itself is one of the credits of the screenplay.
Credit must also be given to Spike Jonze, who directed Being John Malkovich and many of my favorite music videos. His direction of Being John Malkovich was underappreciated by many critics who chose to champion the script (although both were nominated for Oscars). Here Jonze creates as clever a world of images that is a perfect match for the narrative, paying each joke its right respect. The montage of where Kaufman came from is a perfect joke that wouldn’t work as well on paper, and the film’s final image is one of the best of the year at encapsulating a theme of the film.
Nicholas Cage’s performance is also something of a tour de force, the kind that will get recognized at Oscar time. He is able to play the subtlest nuances of each twin brother, so that you are never aware of the special effects or makeup involved, although both are superb. He is able to be very funny at the same time he is suggesting a world of sadness and self-loathing beneath the surface. A scene late in the film, in which Cage talks about asking a girl out in high school is as moving as any scene in any film this year, and it manages to surprise us with character details that are still being revealed in the third act of the film. Also it gives pathos to a character that could easily become a narrative device, and had often been an object of ridicule.
Adaptation is the best film I’ve seen so far this year and confirms the talent of the director and screenwriter as being unique and uncompromising. They are possibly the best writer/director team since Scorsese and Schrader. If this film is not met with a heap of Oscar nominations, my heart will be broken.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch) viewed 12-6-02 on video
Grade A 1932
The second Lubitsch film I’ve seen and I’m starting to understand why he is so well respected. This comedy is first rate, with characters we grow to care about in situations that are funny and sometimes even touching. The dialogue is very clever and sly, but never seems overwritten. I look forward to seeing this film a second time.
THE BIG CARNIVAL (Billy Wilder) viewed 12-6-02 on video
Grade A 1951
A precursor to Network and probably no where near as shocking now as it was in 1951: now the idea of media manipulating events to their benefit is somewhat commonplace. That doesn’t stop the film from stinging a bit, especially in not copping out and making the man in danger an asshole like a modern film probably would, just to make the situation easier to swallow. Kirk Douglas gives a surprisingly sleazy performance with his charisma working in aid of the character, seducing you while he repels you.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (John Ford) viewed 12-6-02 on video
Grade A 1946
Wyatt Earp films are fairly commonplace but this is the best one I’ve seen. It treats the characters as real people rather than historical legend. It’s a little touching when Clementine talks about Doc Holiday’s strength as a surgeon, or when Earp nervously approaches the dance floor with Clementine. The film’s setup is surprisingly sweet and it makes the final climax at the OK Corral more affecting because we have become invested in the characters. Fonda is just right as Wyatt Earp, and Victor Mature is only overshadowed by Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance in Tombstone.
Four A films in one day - that's pretty damn good.
COUNT OF MONTY CRISTO (Kevin Reynolds) viewed 12-7-02 on dvd
Grade B- 2002
Nothing great here but there are sure a lot of small pleasures to keep the mind diverted for two hours. The cast is filled with many of my favorite actors including: Luis Guzman as the sidekick, Richard Harris as the old wise one and Guy Pearce, who can fill in nicely in the villain niche usually occupied by Tim Roth or James Woods. The end showdown is a bit of a letdown, choreographed without much care (although thankfully no one flew through the air defying gravity).
THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (Frank Tashlin) viewed 12-8-02 on video
Grade A- 1956
Some less sophisticated chaps may call this film a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel the least bit guilty when I proclaim it some kind of goofy masterpiece. The story is silly, the look is colorful (in widescreen as Tom Ewell tells us in the enthusiastic opening), and filled with the rock stars from the 1950’s. The satire of fifties culture and success is often very funny, as is Mansfield playing the sex kitten who would rather be a domestic housewife. That the film is able to achieve and maintain the same level of madness for the entire running time is due to some kind of genius from director Frank Tashlin.
DAY OF WRATH (Carl Dreyer) viewed 12-9-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1943
Similar impact to Dreyer’s earlier film The Passion of Joan of Arc, although greatly different stylistically in achieving this effect. Joan of Arc was filled with tight facial close ups that battered the emotions down on the audience during the inquisition. Instead Day of Wrath has a much moodier mise-en-scene, shadows and framing to give meaning rather than relying on the emotions of the close up. The result is rather draining and hard to watch, building in intensity because of the inherent dishonesty in the character’s behavior.
MEN IN BLACK 2 (Barry Sonnenfeld) viewed 12-9-02 on dvd
Grade C- 2002
An unnecessary sequel that has nothing new to add to the first film and surprisingly thin characterizations. Minor points added for Rosario Dawson making a non-character so -likable and Lara Flynn Boyle playing many of her scenes in her underwear.
WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (Frank Tashlin) viewed 12-09-02 on video
Grade A- 1957
As likable as The Girl Can’t Help It, with the same satiric edge and distaste for fame in favor of the simplicity of normal life. Attack on television, about half way through the film, is very funny and typical in its skewing of societal norms and comforts. The film also makes fun of itself wonderfully: as when a fan tells Mansfield she is going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again and an agent muses “Poor girl,” and delightful opening introduction by Randal. As for Tashlin, it was said best by critic/ wizard Dave Kehr: “As Ernst Lubitsch was to the 30s and Preston Sturges to the 40s, so was Tashlin to the 50s: a filmmaker gifted with an uncanny insight into the ruling delusions of his day.”
HUMAN NATURE (Michel Gondry) viewed 12-10-02 on dvd
Grade C+ 2002
Some funny possibilities early on, and then it just keeps going and going without really gaining much ground in terms of character or narrative drive. There isn’t much sense of the surprises that were so wonderful in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but that could be due to the direction by first-time director Michel Gondry, who never gets the handle on the material that Spike Jonze (producer here) got in those other films. Probably something Charlie Kaufmann wrote during his days as a writer on “The Dana Carvey Show” or “Get a Life,” as its sensibilities lie closer to TV than to feature film. Some stuff to be cherished: the Arquette’s song in the forest and Ifans continual attacking of the nudie picture, but too uneven to recommend.
THE TALL T (Budd Boetticher) viewed 12-10-02 on video
Grade A 1957
Boetticher takes a simple abduction plot and twists it into an unexpected character study, focusing on a wise hero’s relationship with an outlaw - one of his kidnappers. Both men are lonely and independent natured, but have been forced into a situation that defies these main character traits. The outlaw Frank Usher (Richard Boone) is stuck with a group of kids who are stealing and killing instinctively and he has no way of relating to them. Where as Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a drifting cowboy who hopes to raise a good house for himself soon, but his house is one of loneliness. The scenes when these two characters are together is the greatest strength of the film, as they quietly bond as the plot unravels, deepening our relationship to them. A great forgotten film, that deserves a wider audience as one of the peak westerns ever made.
KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (Nicholas Ray) viewed 12-11-02 on video
Grade C 1949
Fairly bad message mongering film, with its theme of society creating criminals through a tainted justice system played out for all its worth. The film begins as a courtroom drama, and then tells us in lengthy flashback (more than half of the film) of John Derek’s decline into the criminal life path. The flashbacks do nothing more than illustrate the clichés engrained in the film and Derek’s performance leaves much to be desired in a very crucial role. The moody black and white photography helps keep interest in the film but Ray would use them to much better effect in his later films, even a year later in In a Lonely Place.
SOME CAME RUNNING (Vincente Minnelli) viewed 12-13-02 on video
Grade B 1959
Liked a lot of this film with some scenes playing at a brilliant pitch, but the running time prevents me from giving it a higher rating. Most of the late scenes with Shirley MacLaine, worked so well they deserve another movie and a better character than the one played by Frank Sinatra. The climax in the fair is a brilliant piece of directing by Minnelli, using expressive blasts of color to suggest things unreality.
A HARD DAYS NIGHT (Richard Lester) viewed 12-14-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1964
Actually liked this film a bit less than I thought I would, being a fan of both The Beatles and director Lester. There is a joyous rush to pretty much every scene, the music is integrated well into the film (although I prefer the later period Beatles) and the film is often very funny (although I prefer the earlier Lester film The Knack). About the biggest criticism I have is that this simply isn’t the best rock movie ever made (that’s Stop Making Sense) or even my favorite Beatles movie (that’s Yellow Submarine).
IMITATION OF LIFE (Douglas Sirk) viewed 12-15-02 on video
Grade B+ 1959
Title is a reference to the various facades presented in the film’s theme: from acting to photography and finally to a black girl who pretends to be white. Each façade represents a way out for the characters struggling to succeed. As usual Sirk is able to get his messages across without bludgeoning them upon the audience, and is still able to make his film work on an emotional level.
ROGER DODGER (Dylan Kidd) viewed 12-15-02 in theater
Grade B 2002
Campbell Scott gives a tour de force performance in this film, creating a repellent character and playing him with equal parts wit and smarminess. The film is a dialogue piece and it is very strong in its middle section, so strong that I was fairly sure it would be on my top ten list for this year. However, the middle section is let down by the last third of the film in which Kidd doesn’t really know what to do with his characters. The last sequence in particular (although it could be in Roger’s mind) is amusing but seriously undermines the rest of the film. Kidd’s directing style is not as strong as the dialogue, but quite interesting in its own way. He directs with a perceptive camera that is often noticing the hands and props of the characters, observing the characters much as Roger is observing those around him. I look forward to Kidd’s next film, which I hope to have a compelling beginning, middle and ending.
LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONIAL BLIMP (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) viewed 12-16-02 on dvd
Grade A+ 1943
The best Powell & Pressburger film I’ve seen yet, with their typical visual grandeur met with epic storytelling of the highest quality. The achievement it something to behold: as the film manages to create complex characters, a complete feeling for it’s time and place and a surreal, almost mythic romance that matches Vertigo.
The film is told nonlinearly, with “Colonial Blimp” Clive Candy introduced as a fat, bald general in a Turkish bath. The film then tells of Candy as a young solider with a slight rebellious streak, to his involvement in The Great War and the second World War. In the course of the story he falls in love with three characters played by Deborah Kerr, and makes a life long friend in Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), a German that Candy fought in a duel.
The character relationships develop in a way that isn’t predictable: Candy doesn’t fall in love with the first character played by Kerr until he has left her in the hands of Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a more traditional film would play up a love triangle to test the friendship. Also Candy’s relationship with Kretschmar-Schuldorff is unpredictable, as all their scenes during the aftermath of The Great War are played with a hostile undertone. When Kretschmar-Schuldorff returns to Candy during WWII, it is possible that he is a spy trying to help the Nazis by getting close to General Candy.
The timeline of the film is handled in a brilliantly concise way. The makeup effects are very good, aging Roger Livesey from a handsome redhead into the bald, fat man of the opening scene. Also the years between the major wars are shown in a montage of hunted animal heads mounted on Candy’s wall in rapid-montage, a brilliant device that shows us where we are in the timeline, and telling us roughly what Candy has been up to in the interim.
The acting should also be mentioned as being wonderful, with Livesey creating a completely unique character, miles from the ones he would play in the two following Powell & Pressburger films. The scenes late in the film, where he plays the older general, seem utterly authentic. Walbrook is also very good in this film and he is given a standout acting scene where he tells of his wife’s death as he tries to stay in England. The scene is played in a one take close-up, and is a bit of genius in a film full of them.
I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) viewed 12-17-02 on dvd
Grade B+ 1945
I wasn’t ever really emotionally engaged in this film and found the female protagonist irritating, yet I was still finally won over by this film. Story is simple and predictable, but tonal changes keep things interesting and highly watchable. Probably the least successful Powell & Pressburger film I’ve seen, and overshadowed by brilliant Colonial Blimp which I saw the previous day and haven’t nearly forgotten.
BEND OF THE RIVER (Anthony Mann) viewed 12-18-02 on video
Grade A- 1952
Another superb Anthony Mann Western with every character flawed in some way, even everyman James Stewart. Mann’s specialty is the moral breakdown of a group when faced with greed, and his main characters are hardly the moral center: usually running away from their past and having weaknesses that are revealed over the course of the film.
UNFAITHFUL (Adrian Lyne) viewed 12-19-02 on dvd
Grade C 2002
Probably worth seeing only for Diane Lane’s performance, proving her to be one of the best actresses in consistently mediocre or bad films. The title action is unimportant, the film just wants to wallow in the aftermath and emotional turmoil that results. I long for films like Brief Encounter, that try to understand why someone would want to cheat rather than punish them for their indiscretions – I mean isn’t sex supposed to be fun?
PARTY GIRL (Nicholas Ray) viewed 12-19-02 on video
Grade B+ 1958
Nothing new plot wise: basically just a variation on the “criminal person tries to go straight” genre, just invested with a lot of interesting touches by Ray. The mix of color and violent nastiness, combined with a surprisingly affecting romantic relationship between Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse. The relationship between Taylor’s lawyer and Cobb’s mobster is also interesting, a mixture of mutual respect and dislike
GANGS OF NEW YORK (Martin Scorsese) viewed 12-20-02 in theater
Grade B+ 2002
Fairly engrossing and entertaining but still a disappointment from director Scorsese, just because it fails to ignite and become a classic. The biggest problem here is the lack of characters that we can relate to or even care about, DiCaprio’s character is too blank and Diaz’s character is more a narrative element than someone to believe. Daniel Day-Lewis walks away with the picture, overacting so skillfully that his performance is the most artful thing in the film. The scenes between Day-Lewis and DiCaprio are the heart of the movie and probably the closet Scorsese will ever come to making a Western. Everything after they part ways to war on each other is a letdown, leading to a climax that may be true to what Scorsese intended to say about that time in history but not true to the nature of the film.
MORVERN CALLAR (Lynne Ramsay) viewed 12-21-02 in theater
Grade B+ 2002
It’s significant that the main character here is accompanied most often by her walkman and a mix tape that her boyfriend made her before killing himself. The film feels like an extension of the music: moving episodically rather than telling a straightforward story, and including passages just for tempo and mood. Morton’s performance is very good: which led me to think the film was a character study at first, then concluding about halfway through that Ramsay wasn’t really all that interested in exploring the way the character ticks or giving us insight into her mind, instead she allows us to join her escape from her reality.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (Stanley Kramer) viewed 12-22-02 on video
Grade B- 1961
Too long and static: with Kramer’s covering all the characters in a similar and repetitive way, that distances us from the characters and makes the film feel longer than its three hour running time. The actors are all very good especially Tracy and Lancaster, underplaying their roles giving their characters implied dignity and power. Probably had more impact in 1961 before the wave of Holocaust films (both fictional and documentary), that said more important things in a less grandstanding way.
THE LUSTY MEN (Nicholas Ray) viewed 12-23-02 on video
Grade A- 1952
This film is probably closest related to Gambling pictures in which the characters are so obsessed with winning at cards that they will put their safety at great risk. Robert Michum is a washed up rodeo star who has taken a young man under his wing, and Michum’s dislocated character allows Ray to include some of his favorite themes and obsessions the surface carelessness distracting from the inner fear of not having anything to show for a life of temporary triumph.
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (Alexander Mackendrick) viewed 12-23-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1951
Funny and smart social satire: with Guinness inventing a fabric which stays clean and new forever and everybody else works to suppress it. Not much to say on this film, it is well directed by Mackendrick and acted by all, and especially by the ever inventing Guinness.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (Douglas Sirk) viewed 12-23-02 on video
Grade A 1955
First rate melodrama and social commentary with a strong message about going against the wave of society and being your own person: no wonder this film has become such a staple with gay filmmakers from Fassbinder and Haynes who have reworked it or John Waters who has it in his top ten favorite films list in the recent Sight And Sound Poll. The film holds a strong contempt for a society that would oppress people who live their lives the way they want, even cruelly punishing the heroine when she succumbs to the outside pressures. The middle section of the film is particularly strong, climaxing in a Christmas gift that is heartbreakingly sad. The film after that Christmas scene feels like the tacked on concession to the studio and audience that it was, but somehow doesn’t hurt the film’s credibility – it just shows that even outsider directors have to make amends to those that can’t understand.
THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (William A. Wellman) viewed 12-24-02 on video
Grade B+ 1943
Very good morality play set after the US Civil War, with a mob taking revenge for a murder on three men who they happen across. The film works well while the mob is split in half deciding what to do with the three men, but after the conflict is over very little resolution is given. The third act feels especially hollow, not really able to summons up anything new to say it retreads over things that should be obvious to the audience in the form of a dead man’s letter read aloud about the danger of a mob taking justice into their own hands (albeit in a nicely composed bit of mise-en-scene), when he should be using his last mom
LADY IN WHITE (Frank LaLoggia) viewed 12-25-02 on dvd
Grade D+ 1988
Checked out early on this one since it seemed destined to piss me off more with every new scene. The first scene at the graveyard was bad enough, but when followed by the colorful Italian Grandfather and some truly awful dialogue on the way to school: it was too much for me to stand. This film has a good reputation as a critically loved but audience ignored horror film, but I suspect the high praise this film received was due to its decidedly PG approach to horror in the midst of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm St. slasher films. The film plays like an episode of “Goosebumps” with few scares and no suspense.
LISA AND THE DEVIL (Mario Bava) viewed 12-25-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1972
Eerie and dreamlike film that looks beautiful as directed by Italian horror master Mario Bava. The plot doesn’t really matter with this film; instead the film is a visual mood piece with the horror suggested by Bava’s technique rather than scary set pieces. The scene with Lisa walking lost through the Spain, seen at a low angle with the buildings pressed up behind her is a good example of Bava creating dislocation and suggesting terror with his mise-en-scene. The film was re-edited as THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM to cash in on The Exorcist’s success in America, and that version is to be avoided.
UNTITLED – ALMOST FAMOUS (Cameron Crowe) viewed 12-26-02 on dvd (second viewing of this cut, fifth of film)
Grade A 2000
A very pleasing film, especially in this longer director’s cut which takes more time in the charming first half to build character and thus pays off better in the second half. The scenes with Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester Bangs have enough life in them that a follow up film on Bangs would be a wonderful treat, and those scenes are given more room to breathe in this longer cut. This film, like Crowe’s Say Anything and Jerry Maguire (to a lesser degree), really works me over emotionally from extreme joyous highs to bittersweet sadness.
LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONIAL BLIMP (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) viewed 12-27-02 on dvd (second viewing)
Grade A+ 1943
Even better the second time, with Candy’s character becoming even more tragic and moving, and the clever plot bookends work even better this time. Probably the best new film I saw in 2002 and I look forward to further viewings.
THE FAR COUNTRY (Anthony Mann) viewed 12-29-02 on video
Grade A 1955
Another great Anthony Mann-James Stewart western film, with great psychological depth. Stewart’s character is very complicated, with a moral code on par with the bloodthirsty villains pushing everyone around. The final showdown is completely engrossing, putting even most classic western showdowns to shame.
9 ½ WEEKS (Adrian Lyne) viewed 12-29-02 on dvd (second viewing)
Grade B 1986
More interesting than Last Tango in Paris, flawed only by its repetitiveness and final moralizing about the center relationship. Most of the sex scenes are erotic minor masterpieces, actually working with the plot to develop the characters and not just for stimulation: most of them involve Bassinger losing herself in some way (eyesight, femininity or self-respect) in order for Rourke to dominate her. The film is told from Bassinger’s point of view aligning it with 2002’s Unfaithful, which also deals with a doomed relationship with a woman without control of herself.
GASLIGHT (George Cukor) viewed 12-30-02 on video
Grade B 1944
A surprisingly unmemorable film, despite cast and very moody direction by Cukor. I’m not sure if the plot failed to compel me because of the lack of interest in the characters, or if it was the other way around. The middle section of the film is creepy and fascinating, but then the mystery plot kicks in ruining the film’s momentum and atmosphere.
XXX (Rob Cohen) viewed 12-31-02 on dvd
Grade C 2002
Tame and silly and pretty fun for a while, but it goes on forever growing more tiresome as it veers towards totally traditional action ground. There are some interesting touches in early scenes: like XXX bonding with the villain over The Vandals’ “Anarchy Burger” or the zither playing The Third Man Theme in the street, but these details are lost in the overloaded second half which features a good amount of impressive stunts but very little wit or imagination. Closer to a real film than The Fast and the Furious of Skulls so I guess Cohen is improving.