Saturday, February 28, 2009

It Always Rains on Sunday

England 1947   Googie Withers

Pretty creaky artifact from Ealing which nonetheless provided an interesting portrait of an idealized East End neighborhood right after the war. This made London seem more like a series of small villages than a major metropolitan city. Everybody knew everyone else, their quirks, faults, problems. It was all very charming even though the film didn't shy away from the negative facets of these peoples' lives.

I found Ms Withers' character to be a repulsive harridan and I couldn't understand why no one called her on her behavior. This alone kept me from caring about the plot and its resolution. But as a window into a world presumably long gone the film was worth two hours of my time.



w/d John Patrick Shanley   Meryl Streep, Phillip Hoffman, Amy Adams

Shanley adapted his own play and managed to keep it from seeming stagebound without losing the tight focus of the original. The Catholic school experience circa 1964. 

Head nun/dictator is absolutely certain about the validity of all the traditional rules and values of the church and her school and is willing to crush anyone to maintain them intact. The winds of change are coming...literally depicted here...but she seeth not.

Well acted by all hands. Unfortunately Streep's tremulous meltdown at the very end confessing existential doubt clunked badly for me and ruined everything we had just sat through. For me it was a "huh?" moment. Too bad.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Edge of Heaven

Germany   d/Fatih Akin 

A modern masterpiece that elevates this guy to the front rank of world cinema. His previous effort...Head-On...showed promise and here he delivers with a rich, complex, deeply satisfying roundelay showing the interconnectedness of life. His characters come to life before our eyes, their strivings, their motivations and their fates matter to us in ways rare in most films. 

The first time we see a casket being loaded onto a plane it's sad. The second time it's unbearable.

There's not a false move here. The players are excellent, with a special bow due Hannah Schygulla, 70's sexpot turned 65ish matron who enters late but becomes the emotional anchor as the story moves to an ambiguous resolution.

This one was a real pleasure.


This is England

w/d   Shane Meadows

This is England? 

Sub-moronic skinheads beating, stealing, wrecking, hating everyone with whom they come in contact, including each other, all in the name of taking back the country from the "niggers and pakis?" Tattooed troglodytes incapable of saying two words without one of them being fuck? Meadows might want to get out a little more. 

Unrelentingly grim, ugly, negative, violent portrait of a time(1983). Maybe the problem is the title. How about...This is the Skinhead Subculture? Or ...This is British Society's Ugly Underbelly? Or...This is the Scuzziest Possible Take On Britain I Could Think Of?

Just doesn't have the same marquis value, I guess. I need a bromo seltzer after this one.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Soylent Green

Charlton Heston    d/ Richard Fleischer

Pretty creaky artifact from 1973. Not as bad as I remembered though. The exteriors were a good evocation of futuristic urban blight although the overpopulation theme was a little too heavily played. Heston was a bit too macho. The interiors were a scream, especially the jetson-like decor of the rich apartment.

It was all very bleak and overcooked(pun) but raced along fast enough to distract for 90 minutes. Best thing here was the furniture which was striking to look at and seemed quite cosy.


A Secret

France   d/Claude Miller

Another in the seemingly endless series of films from France dealing with the Occupation and the mistreatment of Jews. It's hard to be critical about this film since, except for the unfortunate rapid-fire editing technique which plagues so many modern films, the story was beautifully structured, acted, composed. And, except for some brief newsreel clips there were no jack-booted Nazi thugs. The focus was entirely on the personal dynamics of a Jewish family confronted with monsters both within and outside of themselves.

But I've been reading about and watching this story for fifty years now, ever since the first memoirs began being published in the 50's. I saw Night and Fog in college. There's nothing a writer or a filmmaker can say to me that I haven't mulled over too many times. These were the lower reaches of inhumanity. I got it. Enough.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Deep Water


The sad, sad story of Donald Crowhurst, hero wannabee who entered the 1968 round-the-world single-handed sailing race, lost his moral bearings and ended up stepping off the back of his boat when fate decided that he would be the "winner" thereby subjecting his faked logs to a scrutiny they wouldn't survive and subjecting him to national ridicule. 

He wanted to be special and so he is...the Rosie Ruiz of sailing lore. He left behind a widow and four small children. Watta shame.



Poland  d/ Andrzej wajda 

Poland's preeminent filmmaker takes on one of the great atrocities in that country's history...the murder of 18,000 Polish officers by the Russians in 1940. He focuses on a few individuals, showing the effect on friends and family as well as re-enacting the killing and exhumation. All were shot once in the back of the head and buried in mass graves. 

There doesn't seem to be any limit to how low human behavior can go.

Given the extreme emotional impact of such an event, Wajda gets credit here for keeping the film low key and factual. Even with this restraint the audience is likely to exit the theater reeling from the monstrousness of the story. The Russians denied responsibility for decades and, of course, never atoned.

So it goes.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Good Old Naughty Days

Silent Porn

Well, this was interesting. A French company restored a half dozen porn films from the 1920's which it said were originally made to be shown in the waiting rooms of brothels throughout Europe. Priming the pump, so to speak.

Even by the marginal standards of the porn industry these were terrible. Unattractive performers filmed in ludicrous situations. They might have been exciting to the 14 year olds who were being initiated into adulthood by the helpful uncles cited in an intertitle but not to anyone else.

Some things are best left to the imagination.


High and Outside


Loving, respectful tribute to Bill Spaceman Lee, erstwhile pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. This guy was unique, funny, perceptive and far more interesting than 99% of the guys who make their living playing a child's game.

Unfortunately, the film was badly marred by MTV-style cutting, music and camera trickery. I found it very annoying. Didn't they realize that they had a guy who easily held the interest of the audience without all the editing bullshit? Too bad.


The Bothersome Man


This one tickled me. In the opening scene a man jumps in front of a subway car. Next we see him in the desert somewhere where he's escorted to his new home and job in a modern, sterile nameless city. Everything and everyone here is clean, shallow and bland. He finds himself hungering for...well, we're not really sure. Zest, brio, life.

Wickedly dry, a sarcastic take on modern existence. The plot line reminded me of the New Zealand film The Quiet Earth done with a nordic flavor.

The resolution was pretty dark but getting there was engrossing. I wish films like this drew a bigger audience.


The Unforeseen


Average folks versus developers in Austin Texas. This was anti-developer big-time (funded by Robert Redford) and while I agreed with all their arguments and support efforts like this to stop the madness of suburban sprawl, this desecration of the American landscape won't stop until economic forces make it unprofitable. 

So there's a tinge of sadness watching a story like this. Like watching someone trying to stop a devastating flood with a shovel. It's heartening to see the effort but hopelessly futile in the long run.


Midnight Movies


Solid piece on six trashy movies that made a big splash on the midnight circuit, becoming social events for transgressive misanthropes and moving the goal lines on what it's permissible to show in an American film. 

They were: El Topo, Pink Flamingos, Rocky Horror, The Harder They Come, Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead.

Video killed the midnight movie phenomenon but it was great fun while it lasted. 


Monday, February 16, 2009


Hungary   w/d  Bela Tarr

This is the film that put him on the world map and it is extraordinary. Outstanding lighting, camera movement, sound design, tone and pace gave it an unforgettable impact. This takes the work of Tarkovsky, Jansco and maybe David Lynch and raises it to another level. This is film as art. I thought the chanteuse sequence was brilliant. That's the good part.

On the minus side, the film was bleak. Filled with despair, the sheer hopelessness of existence, pain, pointlessness. Minimal plot. Enigmatic philosophizing by an old woman who shows up from time to time. Constant rain. The least erotic sex scene in all of film. People dancing and acting like fools in a mud-filled night club. In the final scene the "hero" out-barks a dog.

 A great filmmaker with a very twisted view on it all.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Flickering Lights


Very black comedy. 

Four criminals steal a bundle from their even sleazier boss and on the way to Barcelona end up living in an old restaurant which they fix up and open. Lots of twists and false starts along the way and lots of violence, some of which was harrowing and some played for laughs.

Each man's backstory was shown, it turned out that all were traumatized in childhood so when they found each other at ten or so they bonded deeply. Or something like that. It was well acted, nice set design and a couple of fine supporting characters but the tone was too negative and the violence was too much for my taste.

One laugh, a couple of subliminal chuckles...not much to get for two hours investment. 


Friday, February 13, 2009

The Dead Girl

Toni Colette, Marcia Gay Hardin   d/ Karen Moncrieff

Powerful film told in five chapters. Each chapter is independent from the others and each shows the effect of a young woman's murder on various people her life touched. The last gives us the last night of her sad life.

Remarkable cast which included Mary Steenbergen, Giovanni Ribisi, Piper Laurie and many others. Episodic format gave the viewer a full picture of the emotional ripples such a cruel event has. Many of the performances here were wrenching and painful to watch but all were true to life and easily worth the effort it took to get through it.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen

This was pretty silly. More like an after school special than a movie for adults, complete with greeting card moral/message. 

That being said it was beautifully shot...mostly during magic hour...and as a contemporary fairy tale it wasn't bad. It required a huge suspension of disbelief but once granted it was fun watching it unravel. There were even some minor surprises but, of course, it dutifully marched (lurched?) to a happy ending,  just not in a straight line. Billy Bob(is that really his name?) gave the film an air of solidity which made it work.

Included a product placement ad that was as glaring as any I've ever seen. Loved seeing Richard Edson in a small role.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days


Extremely powerful film. It took me two tries to get through this one. A college-age woman helps a friend get an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania. We follow her closely during the entire process and the aftermath. 

Gritty, sordid locations...tight, focused camera work (wonderful framing throughout), no music at all...superb acting by all hands...compelling dialogue. The birthday party sequence was a brilliant display of repressed emotion by our protagonist in a superficially festive setting followed by a dialogue scene with her boyfriend where he is bewildered by behavior he can't understand, she can't bring herself to explain to him what she has just gone through and we watch their relationship crumble before our eyes.

An unforgettable film and proof that you don't need money to create something memorable...just talent, vision...and courage.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ten Canoes


This was a combination ethnographic/drama piece. Told in the form of an ancient cultural story handed down for generations intended to carry messages for contemporary aboriginal people, it also worked as entertainment for the rest of us.

Shot on location with naked native players this quickly came to seem like a you-are-there account. The sheer differentness easily held my attention. Worth it.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Flesh and the Devil

US 1927  Greta Garbo, John Gilbert   d/Clarence Brown

An early, lush star vehicle by the newly-formed MGM. The star was Gilbert but he was easily out-shined by Garbo, who presented herself as a mature, sexually aggressive female at a time when this simply wasn't done. In this film she was a transgressor and, so, paid a nasty price but made other female film stars of her day seem like silly teenagers in comparison. It's no wonder that she captured male imaginations and held them for decades. The scene where she seduces Gilbert was electrifying...few men could have resisted her.

The sets and production design were outstanding. It's hard to believe that these exteriors were shot on a Hollywood back lot. And the theme...the strength of a male bond through time and life's vicissitudes...was well handled. The accompanying music score also excelled. Several nice director's touches...a silhouetted dueling sequence, POV shots...gave the film a contemporary feel.

But the film was badly hurt by the bug-eyed acting technique used by the two male leads. It made them look demented. Never in the history of the world has anyone really acted like that. This alone distanced a modern viewer from the film.

Still, this was a revelation. A "silent" that held a modern audience for two hours and made them care about the resolution. Watta surprise.


Kitchen Stories


This film was a hoot. Swedish "scientists" go into Norway to observe people in their home kitchens. They sit up in a big high chair and watch their volunteer hosts move about preparing meals and note their movement patterns. All this is to perfect kitchen designs.

Very deadpan in tone. The concept/practice of rationalism was being parodied. Normal human feelings/interactions emerged and eventually triumphed. The resolution reminded me of King of Hearts. 

Scandinavian comedy, with all that implies. This one tickled me.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Talk to Her

Spain   d/Pedro Almodovar

I'm not a fan of this guy's fact most of his films have aggravated me...but this one worked. The plot line was very convoluted but the characters were engaging and, as usual, his set design and fine use of color stood out. Even though half the cast was either comatose or dead there was nothing grim or morbid about the film.

There was a fantasy sequence about a novel way for a man to pleasure his swain that was original and fun. It also was nice to see Geraldine Chaplin in a supporting role.

Perhaps Almodovar is maturing. This is two in a row that I've liked.  Or maybe I'm devolving...


Friday, February 6, 2009


India   d/ Deepa Mehta

Here we're confronted with an unusually stupid social practice...the sequestration of "widows" from society for life after the death of their husbands even if they're only seven years old and don't remember ever having met him. It's not hard conjuring up a scenario which exposes the unfairness of this barbarism done in the name of religion, and so they have. In this film we even learn that the young, attractive women are pimped out sotto voce so the community can get enough money to survive. Good idea.

Mehta incorporated a conventional love story into this screenplay which , to me was like throwing a silken horse blanket over a scabrous, broken nag and hoping that'll make it beautiful. It didn't.

The film was great looking, rich with color and incessant, imaginative water imagery but no filmic technique, no matter how inspired, could wash the underlying premise from my mind.


Passion Fish

Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodward   d/ John Sayles

Sayles has, for nearly thirty years, stood as a model for how an independent filmmaker can work in the US by raising his own money and maintaining complete artistic freedom. He has never produced a bad film, has had a number of mediocre ones (Silver City, City of Hope), several a notch or two below excellent (Lianna, Men With Guns, Baby its You) and three which stand among the very best films made here...Matewan, Lone Star and this one.

Passion Fish is a intelligent, well-written film in which the two main characters are women. Each is burdened with serious problems which are faced and dealt with during the course of their developing relationship. The delta landscape and culture of Louisiana add some nice spice to this gumbo. In particular, David Straithairn's swamp cajun and Curtis Vondie-Hall's southern cowboy character tickled me with their exotic appeal.

The pace here was unhurried but after two hours I realized just how far Sayles had taken us. It's a good example of what can be done with intelligence, maturity and not much money.

I didn't ask for the anal probe. 



Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Man On Wire


Philippe Petit 1974. The wire walk between the twin towers. This was a mix of vintage footage/stills and contemporary recreations.

This remains a remarkable feat which took a very singular individual. Unfortunately the qualities that brought him there and allowed him to do such a thing...ego, solipsism, self-aggrandizement...make him a very aggravating person to be around. I had difficulty putting up with him for 90 minutes. I pity his associates.

It also troubled me that the film tapped into the emotional aura cast by 9/11...the greatest crime ever committed against the American people, whose perpetrators have never even been sought out. 

Still, nothing can take away this achievement from this man. He is entitled to his fame.


Tell No One


Thriller. Taken from a novel by Harlen Coben. This film had all the elements which have become standard...quick-cutting, tight close-ups, car chase...and could have been an entertaining two hours except the plot line was so convoluted and hard-to-follow that I gave up trying to understand what was going on and just waited for it to end.

There was a long exposition scene at the end which wrapped it all up (a la Maltese Falcon) but if you need to do this there's something wrong with your story in the first place.

This came across to me as product.


Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling

Nice little film. 

Jr. high teacher has a drug problem and he gets busted by one of his students. The story goes in unexpected directions and overall has a grubby, lived-in look which works well. The characters seem real, the drama is understated, sometimes poignant, sometimes insightful.

I found the jittery camera work annoying. The resolution didn't resolve anything, a nice touch. Life just went on, like it does. 

Intelligent and satisfying.




This was a bleak, stark portrait of venture capitalism melded bizarrely with a reprise of Herk Harvey's indie classic Carnival of Souls.

Styling the former as contemporary horror is an inspired its heart savage capitalism is as cold and heartless as any boogie man a scriptwriter can dream up. And it's real. And so are its victims.

I doubt if many viewers will recognize the Harvey reference but it doesn't matter. The film stands on its own and gets its point across in a clean, sterile way.




Fascinating piece on Harold Doc Humes, a polymath, the founder of the Paris Review, who later in life became a roaming professor without portfolio dazzling college students with his brilliance up and down the East coast. He was also insane.

His daughter, whose project this is, relates how at the end of his life, when Doc was dying of cancer, he took prescription drugs which chased away his daemons and allowed him to have normal conversations instead of the hyper-fueled monologues which had been his trademark for thirty years.

Too bad. He really did have something to say. But no one heeds a raging madman.


The Orphanage

Spain   d/ Guillermo del Toro

A pretty typical effort by this Mexican-born director who said at the beginning of his career that he wanted to produce horror films. And so he has. This one was a little easier on the viewer's psyche than Pan's Labyrinth, his last, too-violent film

This one had his trademark features: beautiful lighting and camera work, music which telegraphed the frightening moments, not-quite preposterous storyline and good acting from all hands.

I've never found his films as good as I wanted them to be but he's a careful craftsman who takes great pride in his work and it pleases me that he continues to get funding for his projects which don't make a lot of money but always entertain. 


Monday, February 2, 2009


Sean Penn   d/ Gus Van Sant

Another superlative performance by Penn makes this worth watching. He conveys Harvey Milk's exuberance, caring, gayness, gregariousness, determination and intelligence with subtle gestures and body language. It's a prize-worthy turn.

The supporting cast were all good, the staging, especially the crowd scenes, were solid and exciting...the film just raced along for two hours.

For me there were two minor drawbacks. Because of the Oscar-winning 1982 documentary which I've seen several times, the story was a bit overly familiar. And I wish more had been done here to bring the character of Dan White to life.  He's a little too one dimensional here-just an up-tight reactionary who hates all the loving, fun people we've been shown in the gay movement. This one-sidedness makes the film a polemic and less a full-fledged human drama.

But overall, this film worked and serves as an excellent reminder of how far we've advanced as a society in such a short time.


The Assassination of Jesse James...

Brad Pitt,  Casey Affleck   d/ Andrew Dominik

For years now I've thought the Western was a dead form. Enormously popular from film's inception (The Great Train Robbery) to the 50's, they used and re-used every plot contrivance imaginable and finally just ran out of ideas. The end-of-an-era films of the 60's-The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, etc-seemed to mark the end of Westerns as a viable form. Sad efforts like Silverado came across as kicking a corpse trying to make it rise again, unsuccessfully.

But maybe it isn't dead after all, just sleeping. 

This is a damn fine film. Dominik took a familiar story, gave it an intelligent, contemplative tone, shot it beautifully (with Roger Deakins) in stunning locations all over the west and created one of the best American films of recent years. Pitt ably conveys a mix of tired, suspicious menace. This man has had enough of running, hiding, fearing.  Affleck steals the film with his whining, obsequious portrayal of the "coward" Bob Ford. The shifting dynamic between these two characters gives the film a subtle, electric tension that easily carries the viewer along.

The final 20 minutes is an elaborate coda to the shooting which provides perspective, insight and depth.