Monday, June 03, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Accident (1967)—Chilly Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter exercise that played a lot for me like a vaguely campy "stay calm and carry on" version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's an extremely handsome production, tight and oddly toned, but overall I wasn't much affected by it.
Blow Out (1981)
Bound for Glory (1976)—This lengthy Woody Guthrie biopic from Hal Ashby never did interest me in the day. I have long thought Ashby is solid but a bit overrated, have a tentative relation to Guthrie's music (mostly I didn't know it for a long time), and wasn't enough of a David Carradine fan, so honestly I never even considered it. I appreciate it now, but mostly for incidentals, such as the obvious influence it had on Todd Haynes for I'm Not There., or for the interesting tension (did they notice when they were making it?) between Guthrie's stated values and his steady capitalistic successes, or for Carradine's performance, which reminds me I still want to get back to that Kung Fu series one of these days.
La Chienne (1931)—Jean Renoir got the first cinematic bite at the literary property that would also produce Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (below), which I like better overall for a mix of sentimental and objective reasons. But this is Renoir, and it's an interesting treatment of the story, with many alternating emphases and inclusions and exclusions. The two of them together make a pretty good double feature.

An Education (2009)—More or less predictable coming of age tale about a bright adolescent girl in early '60s London. Many narrative problems but utterly buoyed by its sense of time and place and by a really great performance from Carey Mulligan. Suddenly I understand why people have been so excited about her. Worth seeing.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)—One more out of the Annie Hall mill, and a decent one at that, with warmth filling in the gaps where funny (often) does not work. There's a whiff of the smug about this with its cute number-in-parens conceit, which enables it to attempt a lot of time-hopping. But I think the chemistry between the principals, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, carries it.
4 Little Girls (1997)—Spike Lee's first documentary would be hard for him to go wrong with, focusing on the victims in the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Time and history are on the side of topics (and projects) like this.
The Howling (1981)—In all the hullaballoo about The Evil Dead and classic slashers we sometimes forget there was another great horror movie from 1981: Joe Dante's witty riff on werewolves. It's only scare once in a while, and then not very much, preoccupied with its own ideas. And that's fine. So is the titanic, colossal, monumental transformation scene at about the halfway point, which goes on for nearly 10 minutes. And there's actually a lot more laughs here than you would expect.
Invasion (1966)—British low-budget black and white science fiction with a lot of interesting narrative points and details. It's sort of clumsy about how it puts them over (most people behave unbelievably), and I didn't get the sense that the most interesting thread was ever resolved—that being what we are intended to make of the two sets of aliens evidently hunting one another—or whether it is intended to be heavy and ambiguous. But overall it's still pretty cool.
Iraq in Fragments (2006)—Some obviously very brave documentary work in the service of a now more common understanding of Iraq as a nation divided between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. Feels tentative about taking a position, but then why shouldn't it? We haven't even begun to get our heads around the enormity and it's already seven years or more later.
Killer of Sheep (1979)—This was my first time seeing Charles Burnett's legendary micro-budget black and white story of the African-American underclass of postwar / mid-century Los Angeles. The narrative is hard to follow, which I suspect has more to do with lack of money than arty pretensions, but it often stumbles on interesting moments: arresting images, lovely sequences organically evolved, putting its main character at work in an infamous slaughterhouse (hence the title), and brilliant use of mid-century rhythm and blues music, before stuttering off again into confusion. I didn't know exactly what to make of it but hope to see it again.
Last Night (1998)—This end-of-the-world pastiche was way better than I thought it had any right to be. The performances are only OK to decent—Sandra Oh and Sarah Polley were the most familiar to me, with David Cronenberg taking a cameo—and the tangle of stories more or less pro forma. Maybe because I identified with the guy who just wants to be left alone (director / writer Don McKellar),it felt weirdly authentic somehow, and hit many surprising notes of dread that kept it compelling.
The Last Wave (1977)—Beautiful and mysterious, but I'm not convinced that anyone knows exactly what the hell is going on from scene to scene, including director and co-writer Peter Weir. That's OK now, but reminds again that, as with insanity, mysticism as excuse for incoherence comes with very short use-by dates.
Life Is Beautiful (1997)—Glad I waited 16 years to see this. For one thing, it afforded me the useful perspective that Roberto Benigni has turned out to be no classic comedy player of cinema after all, as seemed to be widely believed (or hoped, or hyped) at the time this came out. Great Dictator, etc. Once this movie has arrived at the concentration camp (and it does take some time to get there) I found it possible to imagine it as some kind of psychotic break, particularly the way the father was able to hide his kid, seemingly. So that was interesting, but no, ultimately not sustained. On the other hand, for all its cloying air, it does not cheat. It neither minimizes nor grotesquely distorts the Nazis, it's reasonably good on fog of war, and it has a moment that shocked me. So you could do a lot worse with a war movie. I fully expected to hate it, so respecting it a little might reflect only that I found it better than mortifyingly awful.
Martin (1976)—Moderately interesting George A. Romero vampire tale set in Western Pennsylvania with a pimple-scarred ancient one trying to kick the habit, and oh by the way debunk a few things about vampires too. Funny in places, dull in many more, with a strange unsatisfying story and a handful of stark images.
Melancholia (2011)
The Omen (1976)—Richard Donner directed this interesting horror done in a classic subdued style, which is not unwilling to shock in post-Exorcist style. Its portrait of the Catholic Church is utterly withering though it is also quiet about that. Gregory Peck is excellent as a wealthy cultured manikin of the world. Usually interesting, sometimes scary.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)—First time seeing this and I loved it, the ambling way it tells its story, the interesting piece of the West it finds to dwell in, just after the Civil War, in Missouri, Texas, and eventually the Southwest. A great story (and obvious source for Unforgiven). Starting to maybe figure out this westerns thing after all this time.
Perfect Sense (2011)—A somewhat mannered high-concept take on the end of the world, or something. Well, anyway, people lose their five senses en masse, one at a time. First is smell, then taste, etc., preceded by ominously bizarre behavior. Almost doesn't not work. Proceed with caution.
Photographing Fairies (1997)—Surprisingly good fantasy qua steampunk picture with a neatly layered screenplay, a number of moving parts including a dramatic thread that explains the obsessiveness and expands the story, and decent special effects as needed. Worth a look.
The Power of Nightmares (2004)—More from the BBC on the rise in parallel and vast inter-entanglements of U.S. neocons and Muslim extremists across the latter decades of the last century, conspiring together to produce ... today. Arguably a bit strident, but I don't know why it wouldn't be with this kind of information. Chilling, withering, and infuriating.
Random Quest (2006)—High-concept 58-minute BBC TV movie that harks to the tried and true Twilight Zone formula of awaking in another life, this one more or less explained by string theory, and with a totally soppy happy ending.
The Rapture (1991)—Not sure how this one eluded me so long. Trying to reverse-engineer what it was over the years from the weird range of often strong reaction among friends and reviewers was impossible. None of my guesses matched up in the end to what I took away, an almost passive-aggressive denial of Christianity and some of its deepest precepts by way of an overt embrace of them. This is Christianity. This is what I think Christianity is. This is what Christianity says it is, I think. This is what it looks like. It feels very true and sincere, though one suspects director Michael Tolkin of some agenda, on some level. Something is not quite square here, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. (Tolkin also has a writing credit for Short Cuts, though not much else.) Among the very great touches is the day job as a directory assistance operator, which plays like something out of Sartre. I really loved this, and the more I think about it, the more I look forward to seeing it again. Thanks to Steven Rubio for prompting me to finally take a look. His 2005 review and the comments thread that resulted (all of it) at Steven Rubio's Online Life are not to be missed.
Red Beard (1965)—Toshiro Mifune's last collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, who was on the brink of multiple crises in his personal life, is an arguably overlong, dreary affair, at three hours on a battle of wills between doctors in a charity ward. But I liked it and suspect I will be happy to see it again.
Reichenbach Falls (2007)—This BBC TV movie carries the burden of a familiar and somewhat tired old trope about authors and characters and existence, and really starts slow too. But eventually it gets a head of steam going and even comes up with a few surprises.
The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman (1912)—A wonderfully bizarre Russian stop-motion animation silent picture from 1912 about love lost and found among the beetles, which I found out about by reading the blog Lost in the Movies. See it here.
Scarlet Street (1945)—A very fine version by Fritz Lang of Georges de la Fouchardiere's novel and play, La Chienne, which Jean Renoir got to first, in 1931 (above). It's only 14 years, but there's a Great Depression and a world war in between them. Lang's version was made in America and among other things is a great example of the noir style. Edward G. Robinson could not be better, and Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea are great too. (Not to be confused with The Woman in the Window, which came out the year before, has the same core of director and players, and is good, but not as good as Scarlet Street.)
Sebastian (1968)—Kooky, frothy '60s spy yarn set in Swinging London overfull with brainless charm. I was distracted by how insane the concept was, with its notably weird take on cryptography, and a job I could not begin to understand, which apparently only women can fill.
Seinfeld (s8, 1996-1997)—Swinging wild, often funny, but there are misses. But the highs are very high, as in the complicated episode in which Kramer adopts a stretch of highway and converts it from a four-lane to a two-lane.
Skeleton Dance (1929)—A lovely little black and white Walt Disney cartoon that is surprisingly dark (to me) and highly charming. See it here.
Static (2008)—Evils of telepathy via some sort of cellular phone type of implant, which the kids in the lab brew up and try out on themselves. Oops, one of them is a psychopath, a point that this picture particularly likes about itself. Also released as Glitch and Brain Code. Marginal but maybe good with low expectations.
30 Rock (s4, 2009-2010)—Some things working, some things not, and easier as always to complain. So: way too much attention on Kenneth (though some hijinks still work), Liz Lemon too pathological, and too many outbursts of random development from minor characters. But then something will happen like Jenna in a duet with her abusive trailer trash mother on "Do That to Me One More Time" and all is forgiven. Or Tracy Morgan riffing on his South Bronx upbringing. So it goes.
Yojimbo (1961)—I still get lost in the machinations of Kurosawa's elaborate tale of a cunning bandit who pits corrupt forces in a small village against one another, but the style of it is irresistible, all swagger and broad gesture that builds to explosive moments. A role built to order for the great Toshiro Mifune, and a terrific soundtrack. As one critical touch point, Sergio Leone borrowed heavily from Yojimbo for Fistful of Dollars.

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