Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Paper Wedding

Quebec   Genevieve Bujold

This was the same story as The Green Card but with a better cast and a more realistic setting. She brought great credibility to her role, as always. 

I had two problems with this film: the immigration cop was too cartoonishly written and played and the subject of illegal immigration was treated as if it were really about people getting together and finding love. It's actually a serious issue and the morality around it is much more complicated than is depicted here. 

While I found the story and its resolution satisfying on an emotional level, I was left with nagging reservations about the underlying message.


The Bridesmaid

France   Claude Chabrol

For some reason French filmmakers are fascinated by attractive young women who are crazy. Not just eccentric but homicidally/suicidally crazy. If you encountered one of these in life you'd quickly try to edge your way out of the room but that wouldn't make much of a movie, would it?

Here, a nice young guy who at first seems to be a common sense type, holds a decent job, is devoted to his family, etc.,  meets a woman who lives in a basement, tells him immediately that she loves him and wants to bond with him forever, reveals her past as a lapdancer, says he needs to kill someone to prove his devotion to her and instead of running he says he loves her too and wants to marry her. This is the day after he met her. Huh? Did I miss something here? Does anyone find this credible?

Well, doncha know, things go really badly for him. 




Thursday, January 29, 2009

La Roue

France  1923   Abel Gance

The title means The Wheel and is used in the sense here of the wheel of life turning, rolling on indifferent to the needs or wants of individuals.

The film started with a bang...a train wreck heightened by quick cutting, stunning close ups, an overwhelming sense of dynamism and energy. Unfortunately it soon dissolved into victorian melodrama which centered on incest and focused intently on the dynamic between three people. This guy was a better filmmaker than a storyteller. Far too much bug-eyed "acting" sunk this to a modern sensibility.

Some slight historical value only.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Linda, Linda Linda


Four high school girls form a pop cover band and rehearse three songs for their school's annual festival.

Despite minimal plotting this was a sleeper that worked. The director captured the complex dynamic that is high school life in all its mundane emotional boredom and turmoil. Framing and camera work were neutral and avoided the hysterical overdoneness that usually sinks stories like this. These kids seemed real and undramatic. It also helped that the songs they played were catchy and their stage movements were clumsy and unpolished.

This one was fun.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


France   Jeunet/Caro

Wonderfully innovative film by the team that has gone on to give us Amelie, The City of Lost Children and others. 

Great looking and lots of fun to watch...again.



Japan  1960

The title means "hell" and they aren't kidding or being metaphorical here. The entire focus of the film is death and the last half hour is an attempt to depict what hell would actually look and feel like to those poor sinners (essentially everybody) unlucky enough to end up there. This means folks burning, being torn apart by monsters, sliced apart with sharp knives eternally, etc. The usual propaganda offered up these last 16 centuries by "christians" looking to keep the populace in tight control. 

Whew!  Seems to me that this guy needed a hug or something. I can't imagine what the shoot was like. Not my idea of a swell time.

At this point, this is just an oddball curiousity piece. Also shows the opening up of Japanese cinema during this period which led to such fine work as Onibaba, Kwaidan, The Face of Another, etc.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Roman Holiday

Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn   d/ William Wyler

A wonderful fairy tale from 1953. The set up was pretty hokey, in fact the entire premise was preposterous but she was so appealing in every scene that you just couldn't help but love this film. I don't think there ever has been an actor who has been so immediately beloved in the history of film. She won her first oscar as best actress although it was clear that although she was quite skilled in her line readings it was her personality that enchanted everyone. 

There were many other factors which make this film an enduring treasure...Dalton Trumbo's script, Wyler's fine direction, the fabulous use of Rome as a third character...but she was the show and what a show she was.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Rebels With a Cause


A beautifully done history of the SDS, the ideals that launched it, the dedication of the early members who grew it, the increasing influence it had on national dialogue and the bitter disillusionment that followed when folks realized that the leadership didn't care a fig for what the people wanted. There was serious money to be made by the MIC and the people were so much rabble to be swept aside when they became troublesome.

One of the saddest parts of this story is that the leadership used the working class (police) to defeat the middle class kids who were struggling for their collective interests, when, if they had joined forces, they could actually have easily defeated the greedy pigs who were calling the shots and remade the country along humanitarian lines.

Very moving. Watta shame.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

It Happened Here

w/d   Kevin Brownlow

This was begun when he was 18 years old and was astonishingly accomplished.

The premise was simple: what if England had been invaded by Germany in 1940 after Dunkirk? This picks up the story three years later when the resistance,  supported by the US was picking up steam. We follow a nurse evacuated to London as she enters the belly of the beast and gradually comes to see what fascism really means.

Remarkably engaging and effective. More intelligent and perceptive that I expected.

Brownlow has since become one of the world's premier film historians. This is a very impressive piece of work for such a young man besotted with film at an early age.


Bad Boy Bubby


Odd, often offensive film. They took the same idea as Being There and changed the tone from funny and satirical to coarse and scatological. 

Bubby is a thirty year old innocent/naif who ventures out into the mean streets of Sidney after having been kept closeted by his trashy mother. His signature schtick is to repeat whatever anyone says to him in another context which leads to violence, misunderstanding, etc. He hooks up with a punk band where his meaningless non sequiturs are taken for profound.

Some funny moments here but a lot of asinine ones too. Said to be a cult film but mainly suitable for twelve year olds.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Michele Williams   d/Kathy Reichardt

Like Old Joy, her previous effort, this was an exercise in minimalist filmmaking. Wendy is running to or from something...probably both. She has her dog and a car and she's headed for a better life in Alaska but this isn't her day. She loses both of them and we watch as she gradually
comes to realize that she's sinking to the bottom, without a net to catch her.

The film is easily supported by MW's performance who is on screen in every scene. She seems on the brink of collapse but has reserves of inner strength which carry her through, even after a deeply harrowing experience with a psycho in the park after dark.

This is what it's like to be out there struggling to survive, alone without  friend in a cold, indifferent world. Not mainstream fare, this is the kind film I think of when I hear the term indie. Most welcome.


Le Cercle Rouge

France   Alain Delon, Yves Montand   d/ Jean-Pierre Melville

This was the culmination of his career making French gangster films. All of the elements gathered from his past work show up here polished and in their final form. Cold, unemotional criminals, corrupt officials, crackling good heist sequence carried out in almost complete silence, betrayal and death at the end of the road. 

This form was born in post-war America, honed by people like John Huston and Jules Dassin. They moved on but Melville kept working the field. With this film and Le Samurai he surpassed them all.

Fine, fine work.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sweet Land

This film was ostensibly about the American immigrant experience but the people here were portrayed as slightly retarded ninnies and were so irritating that I had to turn it off. It may have redeemed itself later on but I couldn't get past the initial idiocy.

I'd like to suggest that this filmmaker watch Jan Troell's The Emigrants and The New Land for clues on how to make an adult film on this theme. Or even Stroszek for a funny take. Or Picture Bride or Heartland etc., etc. This idea has been done many times...most of them better than this mess.


Green for Danger

Britain   Trevor Howard

From 1946. Old-fashioned, wonderfully done Agatha Christie-type murder mystery set in a provincial hospital during the war. V-1's going overhead. Extremely complicated plot. Luscious B/W studio-bound photography. Comic, perceptive Scotland Yard inspector who doesn't quite outfox everybody.

This film raced along lickety split and was great fun to watch...made me wonder why no one makes films like this anymore.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Southland Tales

This was a mishmash of satire, sarcasm, transgressive themes and scatological ideas stuffed into a video blender and spewed at the viewer.

Mildly amusing even though the time frame chosen for the story already dates it. This needed more focus and discipline to work for me.


The Fall

d/ Tamsen

Visually spectacular fairy tale. The little Iranian girl who played the lead was adorable. The real life story was troubling and established a tone which infected the whole film.

Some echoes of Baraka

A unique film which was dazzling to look at but unengaging.


Constantine's Sword


Generic historical survey of the interaction between Christianity and Judaism through the centuries. Well done but there was no real insight here. Mainstream pablum which didn't go far enough into the nature or veracity of either of these belief systems.

My imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend. And if you don't believe me, I'll rip out your fingernails.


Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go


This was an unnarrated piece on a school in England which attempts to socialize some very badly behaving children between the ages of 6 and 15 or so. It quickly became excruciating watching very kindly adults trying to reason calmly with outrageous brats throwing temper tantrums.

This seemed like a nightmare job. Very aggravating to watch.


Ask Not


This is a documentary about how unfair it is that openly gay people can't get into the American military. While I could sort of see their point-you know, equal rights and all-this struck me as a really stupid thing to be upset about. One of the biggest problems facing this country is the slide toward militarism since 1941 and whining because you can't take part in this national atrocity misses my sympathy buttons.

This film should be allowed to fade quietly into obscurity.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wonderful Town


Elegiac telling of a love story between a Bangkok architect and a provincial hotelier set in a town devastated by the 2005 tsunami.

Haunting, thought-provoking. Similar to the work of early Wong Kar-Wai. Filled with a sense of unexpressed longing. Moving.



American Monster flick

This was a fresh take on the monster-loose-in-the-city genre. The extreme hand-held camera technique was annoying but it did help create the you-are-there feeling that made this work for me.

The first twenty minutes was too much like being trapped in someone else's home movie but once the monster stuff kicked in the film took off. Annoying characters hurt some. But this film blew away Godzilla and all its recent ilk and achieved an exciting picture of urban chaos and breakdown in only 84 minutes. The handling of the monster was first rate.

Nice job.


Momma's Man


This was an embarrassing  bit of navel-gazing by a thirty-something. He used his own parents, their Brooklyn loft apartment and his childhood friends to shoot a film about his own mini (fictional?) emotional breakdown.

Very solipsistic. His poor parents came across as decent people and I had to wonder how they felt about their son's "project." Maybe if they hadn't been so kindly and accommodating he would have grown up a little earlier and a little better.



Saturn in Opposition


Hodgepodge "family" in Rome come together to schmooze and face the death of one of their members.

This one didn't work for me at all. All the characters seemed like movie contrivances more than real people. It ended with a stupid ping pong game at a ruined outside table and, appropriately, none of the actors could really play.

Not worth it.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Antonio Gaudi

documentary   d/Teshigahara

Japanese made piece on all the major buildings Gaudi was able to accomplish in Barcelona before his death. Lovingly made, with long slow pans on the details.

This man was a stunning genius and no matter how many times I see his work I find myself in awe of his vision and talent. He was, and is, unique...his work is one of the great treasures of world architecture. 

This film did it justice.


Brute Force

Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn    d/ Jules Dassin

Gritty, realistic prison drama from 1947. Powerful acting all the way through. This was early in Lancaster's career and it's easy to see his star presence. Lots of solid character actors who later became familiar faces in the last days of studio-controlled Hollywood helped carry this drama forward.

The only creaky scenes were those shot "outside," usually backstory material with the women in the inmates' lives.

Glorious B/W photography. By this time they really had the lighting down pat. Too bad it isn't used more these days.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Neither Memory Nor Magic


Very fine piece on Jewish/Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti who was murdered by the Nazis in 1945.


Days and Clouds


This was the middle class nightmare-husband/breadwinner loses his job and the family slowly slides down the social ladder. Shown here in excruciating detail.

A very intelligent film. Well cast and acted. Believable. Nicely paced and staged.

Good work.


Fears of the Dark


Six animated shorts, all of which depicted people being mean to each other. What exactly was the point here?

All were done in B/W and several looked great. But I found the whole thing unengaging and couldn't wait until it was over.


Must Read After My Death


This one was really awful. Home movies/recordings of a family in the 50's and 60's having a really hard time of it. We get to witness all their problems of 40 years ago.

Very uncomfortable watching this. Made me feel voyeuristic, intrusive. Even their best friends don't want to know this stuff. And for all the filmmaker put us through I didn't get any moral or practical lesson or insight which would have justified spend so much time wallowing in some else's misery.


When We Were Kings

documentary   Leon Gast

The Rumble in the Jungle in all its sprawling wondrousness. 

1974. Muhammed Ali takes on George Foreman for the heavyweight championship of the world in the Kinshasa of Mobutu Seke-Seke, monster extraordinaire and tinpot dictator.

The focus is Ali, his extraordinary personality, presence, grit, courage, and skill. He lit up a room with his antics and left those he encountered with a sense of his fundamental decency. Certainly one of the most remarkable men of my time.

This film worked as long as the focus stayed on Ali. Whenever it strayed to other topics it lagged badly. The whole center section seemed to me like filler, inserted to extend the film to the requisite 90 minutes.

Still, this was the best film on Ali I've seen and well worth the time.


The Mystery of Rampo


This was the third time I've seen this. I still consider it a modern masterpiece.

The film is an examination of the creative process. A novelist escapes everyday reality by conjuring a rich imaginary landscape in which he lives while writing the story. It's unclear where the line between real and fiction lies, which is one of the central delights of this film.

Uncommonly beautiful to look at.  Every shot could be framed as a still. Even the opening animation sequence stands out in look and tone.

Outstanding music soundtrack. This is an example of cross-cultural fertilization at its very best.  A welcome entry into the front rank of great world cinema.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Grocer's Son


Sweet sort of fairy tale about a neer-do-well 20something who is forced to take over the family grocery business for a time. He is shown to be a jerk, unable to hold a job who alienates everyone with whom he comes in contact. But the influence of a saintly woman transforms him to a sweetie in just an hour and a half.

This was filmed in the mountains of rural France and the locations were beautiful. While I thought the plot and its resolution strained credibility I found myself liking it in spite of my reservations.


Moving Midway


Competent piece about moving an old plantation house outside Raleigh, NC from its newly slurbed neighborhood to a more appropriate location.

This film took a feelgood approach to the project...the filmmaker was a member of the family that had owned it since ante bellum days...but there was an unavoidable whiff of racism in the building's history here exemplified by the introduction of some black relatives in the celebrations shown. There was also one bozo who just had to say that the civil war was really about states' rahts, which made my blood curdle. 


Jar City


Modern policier with all the usual trappings that one has come to expect: confusing structure, pasty-faced people, unpleasant locations and overall sordid, depressing atmosphere.

This was competently done but for me its chief value was to present us with a view of Iceland which is much grittier and unappealing than we've seen in films so far.


Encounters at the End of the World

documentary  d/ Werner Herzog

Not as spectacular as I had hoped. Still, there was some fine footage of the white continent but I thought he failed to give a comprehensive sense of this extraordinary place.

The film was most interesting for the interviews of the interesting types of people who end up working and spending time there.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Woman on the Beach


Oddball film. A film director travels to a seaside community in the off season and has dealings with two women, both of which end badly.

Many scenes jarred with me which made me wonder if I was missing some cultural references. Do Korean people really act this way? Some of this stuff just seemed to me like ignorant, boorish behavior.

Not worth it.


Patti Smith


Very artsy, loving portrait of the singer/poet. Shot over a period of ten years, this presents her in a wide variety of places...performing, traveling, visiting friends, family. 

I'm afraid her appeal completely escaped me. She seemed completely without talent, grace, stage presence. She's tall, thin, physically awkward. I thought she looked for all the world like Iggy Pop and found myself baffled by the reaction her fans displayed. What exactly were they cheering?

I thought her music was grating, her "poetry" juvenile, simple-minded. 

Oh well, matter of taste, I guess.


Teddy Bear


Sharp, knowing take on contemporary relationships. It's pretty much a wide open mess out there and this film did a fine job...mixing humor with pathos...of pointing out the futility of it all.

Very few humorous satires from Eastern Europe work for a western audience. This is one that did. 


Torn From the Flag


Moving, meticulously assembled piece on the attempt by the Hungarian people to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Russian bear in 1956. They failed and had to endure another 35 years of cruelty and domination before world events rescued them.

This tapped nicely into the American instinct to root for the underdog.


Made in Jamaica


Reggae music. There's the slow, sinuous, sensual type favored by Marley, Tosh, Gregory Isaacs which is about half this film.

Then there's the modern type-dancehall... hyperkinetic, intense, loud, usually shouted by some motor-mouthed rabble rouser trying desperately to get people on their feet and dancing.

I love the old style and celebrate its entry into the musical canon. For the new style I'm glad I had a mute button ready.

This film is interspersed with interviews of the various practitioners and it was fun watching some of these folks trying to formulate thoughts through a druggy fog.



Clara Bow   d/ William Wellman

from 1927. The winner of the first Best Picture Oscar. The melodrama and acting styles used here are hopelessly dated at this point. 

The flying sequences were justly celebrated at the time and even today they impress. They weren't rear projection shots or bluescreen. They were shot in flight and look it.

The film has historical interest at this point but no more.


The Snow Walker

Barry Pepper  d/ Charles Martin Smith

1953  A tubercular Inuit woman and a hotshot Canadian bush pilot crash land in the high arctic. This film is an account of their mutual struggle for survival. It evolves into an Ada Blackjack story as it becomes clear to both of them that her skills and knowledge are more valuable than his. 

The film works wonderfully, in part because of the harrowing location shooting, native casting and the obvious care taken with verisimilitude. The two leads played beautifully against each other; their mutual respect and affection grew organically from the steps they took to secure food, clothing, etc. The caribou hunt was a highlight.

Adapted from a novel by Farley Mowat. Financed by the Canadian Film Board.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Let the Right One In


A Swedish vampire movie !

Slow starting and occasionally quite violent, this turned out to be a nifty little thriller. Our protagonist is a bullied teen who befriends the new girl next door and finds her...well, not like the other girls.

The coldness of the mise-en-scene contrasted nicely with the hot-blooded passion we normally associate with vampires. Red blood...white snow. 

The characters were sympathetic and the emerging love story worked. I thought the final scene of extreme violence, while well staged and shot, was gratuitous and gave the film a nasty end note. Overall, though, this was a pleasant surprise.


Pete Seeger: The Power of Song


This one blew me away. Such a fine man. Such a fine life spent in the cause of justice and decency. He faced hatred and anger with song and his basic goodness and stands in my mind as the closest example we have of a real American hero.

Even though he, like the rest of us, has suffered through the monstrousness of Reagan/Bush/Bush and the seeming triumph of corporate militarism, his light shines through these dark times giving us some sense of hope.

A great man. He has made the world a better place for his presence.


The Earrings of Madame De...

Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica   d/ Max Ophuls

Extremely beautiful film...lovingly shot in B/W with striking camera movement and intricately worked out segways. On a superficial level this was an unchallenged masterpiece. On a substantive level, however, it didn't work for me at all.

We follow some privileged elite around as they play their little games and deceptions in gilded age Vienna. Spoiled and self-absorbed, with their expensive clothes, jewels, carriages, etc., they brought out the Robespierre in me. To Ophuls credit he did insert a few digs at this class here and there-eg. gatekeepers complaining about being served beans yet again while serving people who live in opulence.

There was a justly celebrated segway where DD tears up a letter and flings it out the window of a moving train where the pieces merge into snowflakes, thereby marking the passage of time. While I recognized the artistry I found myself thinking she was an insensitive twit littering. And the vaunted ballroom/dance sequence struck me as artificial, contrived solely for its cinematic effect.

This film is often celebrated as one of the greats. I was disappointed that it didn't work as such for me.


Army of Shadows

Jean-Pierre Melville

Masterful evocation of the French resistance movement during the bleak years of 1940-1942. The film was filled with shadows, both real and psychic, from the ugly reality of the planned execution of a turncoat/collaborator to an escape from a darkened tunnel with SS machine gunners filling the air with death. 

This was the story of heroism displayed by ordinary people facing, opposing a hated enemy, an invader who was utterly ruthless and at the time seemingly invincible.

Strong characters, script, beautifully done in all respects. His finest work, which is saying something.


Finding Our Voices


Well-meaning piece on protesting Bush/Cheney, their wars, their ways, their very selves. This was OK as far as it went but I mostly saw the prescription offered in this film for the current monstrousness in America's national policy and direction as naive and an expression of collective powerlessness in the face of a crushing, determined militarism.

Gathering together and singing Kumbaya isn't going to fix this mess. The bad guys are too entrenched. There is no justice. The people do not rule...their needs and desires aren't even considered. 

Everybody knows that the system is rotten, and old black joe's still picking cotton for your buttons and bows...and everybody knows...(Leonard Cohen). Except these filmmakers.


Skills Like This

This was an attempted farce which fell completely flat for me.

Let's see...if you rob a bank in broad daylight with no attempt at disguise you'll suddenly become cool and desirable to the cashier whose life you just threatened. The words that come to mind here are...sophomoric, asinine, irritating, preposterous.

Maybe just stupid. Yeah, that's it. Stupid.


Frozen River

Melissa Leo

Stark low-budget indie about human smuggling at the New York/Canadian border. This was a painful portrayal of life at the bottom of the food chain...the grim choices and daily humiliations forced on those struggling just to survive.

Amazingly, this managed to end on something of a positive note with the recognition between white and a Mohawk mothers of their common plight and shared humanity.

Very effective mise-en-scene. Typically strong performance by Melissa Leo. Lean and tight all the way through with not a wasted scene.

Good stuff.


Friday, January 2, 2009


Animated  France

Stunning looking anime set in 2054. This suffered from the same problem as the best Japanese work-you just don't care about drawn characters.

The plot here was interesting but without any possibility of identifying with the plight of the characters or the perils they face, it gradually goes mego.

I don't know how they're going to get around that. Anime is developing nicely as a form but if it's just going to be interesting pictures moving on the wall it'll never achieve the status of art film has.


The 39 Steps

d/Alfred Hitchcock

This was the last film he made in England before coming to the US and Rebecca.  

I thought it was pretty bad. Set firmly in movie reality, it was impossible for me to care about anything these so-called people were going through.

By the time he got to the two people handcuffed together he had lost me completely. That sequence was so irritating I had to turn it off. I had the same reaction years ago when I attempted it. 

The only British film he made that worked for me was The Lodger.  


Gone Baby Gone

d/ Ben Affleck

Another examination of Boston's lower class underbelly taken from a novel by Dennis Lehane.

Well-acted but I found the whole thing movieish...periodic violence which seemed gratuitous...very complex plot which stretched credibility past the breaking point...too much button-pushing generally.

It ended on a sour note which helped some but not enough to redeem it. The best of these Boston films is still Monument Avenue


The End of Suburbia

documentary  Barrie Zwicker

Solid piece on the madness of the burbs with an emphasis on the phenomenon of peak oil. Lots of historical footage showed the high hopes and ideals of post war America which take on a sad cast when seen through contemporary eyes. 

It turned out that everyone owning his little piece of paradise in the "country" didn't bring us happiness but instead brought us isolation, enhanced alienation and led to the self-centered republicanism that has defined us since 1981 and also brought us the pathetic attempt at finding meaning in the megachurches that have blossomed.

This is a good example of the law of unintended consequences. We may not survive this one.


Music is Perfume


doc on Maria Bethania, Brazilian singer/songwriter. 

I liked her music-bossa nova derived pop/jazz-and she seemed to be a good, caring woman but after 40 minutes or so the film began to seem like an infomercial and I found my attention wandering.

This will be manna for her fans. For the rest of us it serves as a nice introduction but could have been shorter.