Monday, February 03, 2014


Movies/TV I saw last month...

The Act of Killing (2012)—As sickening as you could want, and thus on some level a kind of porn—I fear we are entering Faces of Death territory with this documentary, which carries the imprimatur of executive producer credits for Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, among others (and one of its three co-directors going by ANONYMOUS). It's brave and complex, yes, that's very true, inviting the hit men and murderers of the death squads operating in the service of the Indonesian government in the '60s and after to reenact their crimes for the film. It's amazing and appalling that they do—"documentary gold," as someone once said in another context. But the heart of what's most sickening about The Act of Killing is that it's too late now. These monsters are old men, and have lived long full lives. Also—and I know this will sound like complaining that the portions are too small at the restaurant where the food is not good—the subtitles on the DVD that Netflix is circulating are of the ridiculous variety I thought was extinct now, too small in the first place, and way too often allowed to get lost in the background. Maybe I'd like it better if I understood what people were saying, but I think I got the gist, so maybe I'd like it less.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Another Year (2010)
Before Midnight (2013)—Worthy entry to what is now a very impressive trilogy. I still find the first movie to be the weakest, because necessarily the most callow, but in the broad scope I think all three now certainly rank together as one of the great epic romances in all movies. This one has some of the fearsome dynamics of Certified Copy, even as it continues to probe the realities and pressure points of a very convincing love story. Are they going to take it out again in 2022? Wow, can you imagine? An American 56 Up (below)!
The Class (2008)—I was pleasantly surprised by this 2008 Cannes winner directed and co-written by French director Laurent Cantet. It stars novelist and former teacher Francois Begaudeau playing himself, based on a book he wrote about his experiences teaching in a Parisian school. The students are of mixed ethnicities, classes, and income levels, and citizenship status among their parents is not always clear. Begaudeau teaches language arts classes for high school freshmen and sophomores. They can involve a lot of managing volatile classroom atmospheres, but more often it is about nagging shy adolescents to learn, trying to guide them into the skills of teaching themselves. The classroom scenes felt immediate and real and so did much of the film, which basically covers an academic year beginning to end, episodically, almost documentary style.

Easy Rider (1969)—A lot more psychedelic experimental than I remembered, but then I always forget it was co-written and directed by Dennis Hopper. It's really a blueprint for a type of soundtrack movie that has since become ubiquitous (looking at you, Goodfellas) and for that alone it's a big deal. It's also dated and can be a cringe-fest in places, but I still like the punch of the finale. Nearly as brutal that way as Night of the Living Dead.
Fellini Satyricon (1969)—Gorgeous to look at, unnervingly so in multiple places, but how much it has to tell us about Roman times and ways is I think signaled by the fact that "Fellini" is included in the title. Have a Fellini time!
56 Up (2012)—Yes, great. This latest edition stands with the rest, at least on my first look. Truly one of cinema's monuments. Start here.
Gertrud (1964)—Severe and austere, Carl Dreyer's last film is as always concerned with transgressions of the flesh and of the immortal soul, this time involving adultery explicitly. Somewhat abstracted perhaps, but the realities and the costs of human behavior are no less familiar and no less dear than in any other of his films.
Gravity (2013)—I liked this quite a bit. It has a wonderful use of 3D, the best I think I've seen, a wonderful sense for effects, and a terrific premise, conceptually taking one or two brief scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey and spinning them out for 90-odd minutes in truly spectacular fashion. It is flawed in some ways. It tries to be a movie about coming home when all it needs to be is a movie about coming down to earth. My friend and fellow traveler Steven Rubio made an interesting case for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, for the importance of the roles being played by familiar stars, and I'm almost convinced. But I think the built-in personas ultimately came with too much baggage for me—I like something about Bullock, I don't like something about Clooney, so split the difference. I suspect nobodies would have worked better, as they did in 2001. Still, I think anyone would agree that director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) has put together something special again with this. Recommended—in fact, don't miss it in 3D if you can. Inspirational line (from Bullock): "I hate space."
Her (2013)—This struck me as a reasonably conventional romantic comedy, and as a fan of the genre I liked it very much overall. High praise for the performances of Amy Adams (yet again) and Joaquin Phoenix (also yet again). The near-future vision of Los Angeles alienation is as convincing as anything I've seen since They Live, the ways the exteriors are populated with isolated individuals wearing earpieces strolling and murmuring. But conceptually I have to say it's no better or more interesting than three or four of the Black Mirror episodes (which is by way of recommending Black Mirror). Director and writer Spike Jonze has worked in the past with Charlie Kaufman on Adaptation. (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999), and even without Kaufman Her suffers from some of the precious fancies of those movies, as with the ridiculous job that we are intended to believe our hero, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), holds. Or the overthought production design in general, the muted palette and fastidious costumes. But definitely worth a look.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)—Skillful—because the Coens are always skillful—rendering of a lost soul, but ultimately underwhelming to me because I'm not sure I understand what it's doing in the middle of a 1960s Greenwich Village period piece. Oscar Isaac as the title character, a singer / songwriter out of the school of Jack Johnson who is at loose ends in his life, reminded me a lot of Mark Ruffalo's Terry Prescott in You Can Count on Me (who, recall, had suffered a similar recent trauma), which is hardly a bad thing—but, again, advances it in history considerably beyond early-'60s downtown Manhattan. By design or not (pretty sure I saw some "light" cigarettes in there, as intentional a time shift perhaps as the Santana in A Serious Man, which is the better movie)—as a statement about "authenticity" or not—it's phony. The tell is the smug surprise at the end.
Lenny (1974)
Looney Tunes—"A-Haunting We Will Go" (1966, again, these later Speedy Gonzales just not that good), "The Aristo-Cat" (1943), "Cannery Woe" (1961), "Cat Feud" (1958, there are too few of these involving the love affair between the brutish bulldog Marc Anthony and the adorable kitty Pussyfoot, one of my favorite), "Chili Weather" (1963), "Conrad the Sailor" (1942), "Go Fly a Kit" (1957), "Dough Ray Me-ow" (1948), "Kiddin' the Kitten" (1952), "Kiss Me Cat" (1953), "A Message to Gracias" (1964), "Mexican Boarders" (1962), "The Night Watchman" (1938), "Nuts and Volts" (1964), "Pancho's Hideaway" (1964), "A Peck o' Trouble" (1953), "The Pied Piper of Guadalupe" (1961), "Pizzicato Pussycat" (1955), "The Sour Puss" (1940), "The Unexpected Pest" (1956), "The Wild Chase" (1965, particularly lame)
The Lords of Salem (2012)—Surprisingly excellent, this joint from director and writer Rob Zombie is not so much scary but rather out of that controlled frenzy Lovecraft / Argento strain of goth, ancient things, immutabilities, so on so forth. Set in Salem, Mass., but with a cool inexplicable talk-radio story and a single-woman jock in the foreground. It's modern and ancient at once, that winning combo. The witches were real, maybe needless to say. Lots of great touches every step of the way.
Masculin Feminin (1966)—Good one.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)—Masterpiece.
Mean Streets (1973)—Normally I pay attention to the coiling windup of the narrative in this one, but I've seen it enough now that other things are becoming more apparent, such as how much this owes explicitly to French New Wave movies by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. It's just razor sharp.
Metropolis (1927)—Even in a very poor public domain print with random (and repetitious) public domain classical music serving as score, I certainly see some impressive images go flashing by through the haze and shadow of the film decay, but the execrable print is a continual distraction. Therefore, next up: the Moroder version and the more recent restored version, adding additional footage that was discovered in a print in Brazil circa 2009. In the stacks. On the way. In the future.
Modern Times (1936)
My Darling Clementine (1946)—Starting to think Henry Fonda was the best actor that ever worked with John Ford, but I know that's more likely me being passive aggressive about John Wayne. But damn, man: Fort Apache, The Grapes of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln. Two of those are in my top-5 list for Ford, and My Darling Clementine is #1.
Nashville (1975)
Nebraska (2013)—I liked this a lot. It has familiar elements for director Alexander Payne—the lure of the road, the estrangements from family, the arcs of self-destruction—but they fit nicely into the glove of today's bad times in Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska, shot in black and white. It reminded me a little bit of The Last Picture Show, but with vastly more humor, and harsher human wreckage. The screenplay by Bob Nelson is excellent, and it's got a very nice cast, headed up by Bruce Dern with a wonderful assortment of supporting characters, and a story that's both very sad and very funny. Recommended.
No (2012)—Not bad, not bad. I thought Chilean director Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero was more interesting, if not necessarily the better movie. This story of the 1988 Pinochet referendum in Chile comes with all kinds of built-in advantages, not least the upbeat story. Gale Garcia Bernal, Latin America's Jean-Pierre Leaud, is a welcome presence as always. The Mad Men plotline, involving two people in one ad agency working on opposing sides, is not only ridiculous, but "not true." And other points of importance have also been exposed as "not true," including the existence in reality at all of the main character, Rene Saavedra (Bernal). Well, nobody's perfect. Truthiness on display, at multiple levels.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)—I always seem to have lots of Bob Dylan dreams after I see this.
Philomena (2013)—I know this is Oscar-bait of the most rank type, with a role written for a star to distort at will, but I still enjoyed it. I thought Judi Dench and Steve Coogan had some good anti-chemistry working, for one thing, and the story with clear heroes and villains is satisfying enough, which probably says something about my own disinclinations toward organized religion.
Short Cuts (1993)—So big there is always more to see in it, despite flaws, one of those. There's a scene between Jack Lemmon and Bruce Davison in a hospital that is both devastating and a real tour de force of movie performance. The thread with Jennifer Jason Leigh as the home-based phone sex worker gets more creepy every time.
Silent Light (2007)—Set in the Mennonite community of northern Mexico (and using the language / dialect Plautdietsch, also known as Mennonite Low German), Mexican director and writer Carlos Reygadas's molecular-slow meditation on an adulterous affair has many gorgeous frames, but proceeds so slowly that it feels like the thread continually eludes one. I was also distracted by the obvious Ordet references. I think it's not really about Mexico, or Mennonites, or adultery either, or even Ordet, but something rather much larger, which ultimately makes it rewarding. But it's a bit of work to get there.
Slap Shot (1977)—Nice Paul Newman vehicle, reuniting him with director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting) for a comic sports movie about a failing minor league hockey team in a failing town in the '70s, victims of stagflation. The picture features a silver-haired silver-tongued devil Newman as an aging player/coach, the sheriff from Twin Peaks (Michael Ontkean) as the team's best player and a hockey purist, and the Hanson brothers, two of whom are actually played by brothers, who sneak in and take over the movie as surely as they do hockey games. At first they seem to be nerds beyond redemption, but when they get the chance to play they prove they understand the fundamentals, certainly for that day and age in case it has changed, which didn't have much to do with hockey. Their rowdy episodes of shouting alone, scene to scene, are brilliantly improvised moments and often very funny. The whole picture has a surprising headlong momentum. Worth a look.
The Sopranos (s6, 2006-2007)—I was spotty on everything so I started from the beginning and slow-walked this one in once I knew it was really finished in 2007. Partly I didn't want it to be over and partly, as a result of times with and without cable-TV, I had missed most of this very long last season and significant parts of others and wanted to see it all in order. The Sopranos always had a lot of problems to contend with— perhaps most notably, being yet another Italian mafia gangsters story, plus all the natural aimlessness, mechanical swells, and character invulnerabilities of series television. Some tendency toward art film pretensions, arguably. Middlebrow entertainment for the NPR middle class, OK, maybe. Yet I think all that was overcome, from the first minute of the first show to the last minute of the last, by its many virtues. It's a great sprawling story with great sprawling characters and complexity, with much of substance about good and evil and human frailty, a nonpareil cast headed by the amazing James Gandolfini, and for a bonus almost always great surprises on the soundtrack. Every episode made me tense and ill even as it went straight to the familiar heart of the American Dream over and over again. Maybe the biggest surprise? Especially in the first two seasons, it has one of the absolute best depictions of psychotherapy anywhere, ever—the kind you and I get, when our health insurance covers it.
3 Women (1977)—This is more or less director and writer Robert Altman's flier at a portentous European art film and as such he does a pretty good job of it, creating a very unsettling character in Pinky (Sissy Spacek) and by and large maintaining an air of ominous atmospherics in the California desert. But he's Robert Altman and he can't seem to help hitting broad warm notes, as in the tragic vacuous chattering of Millie (Shelley Duvall), who can never get her skirts all the way into the car and has a recipe for every occasion and never says die. She'll get along. This gives it a folksy charm that I like too, but I'm not sure it fits well with the tony air of cinema also going on here. Well, I suppose maybe it's not supposed to.
Trouble the Water (2008)—Interesting indie documentary with a compelling air of urgency. It includes footage shot in New Orleans as Katrina hit, before and after, with some scenes and stories of horrific privations and perils, such as people trapped in their attics as the water rose. And an aspiring hip-hop artist, Black Kold Madina (Kimberly Roberts), who shot some of the most affecting footage here and brings a lot of spirit and pathos to the project. Worth seeing.
12 Years a Slave (2013)—I had many worries about this, based on the unpleasant subject matter, the unpleasant Oscar-bait status, and the fact that I was so unimpressed with director Steve McQueen's universally beloved Hunger that I did not even bother with his only slightly less universally beloved follow-up, Shame. For all that, I have to say this is undeniable, a fine picture, well done, as brutal as last year's Django Unchained on the realities of slavery, but infinitely more true to the soul, with gravitas and foundational power in our shared history. The joke is that this is a movie about one slave who got away the same way Schindler's List is a movie about 600 Jews who didn't die. In this case, I have to say, by the time I reached it, I was grateful for the feel-good ending. Recommended.
Wagon Master (1950)—Good stuff, though I did notice, watching it on a double bill with My Darling Clementine (above), that a certain narrative resolution was virtually identical between the two, a cowardly turn of character by a bad guy once overpowered. What the hell, if it ain't broke don't fix it. In other news: "Yes, we'll gather at the river, / The beautiful, beautiful river."


  1. I liked seeing so many movies where I agree with you. If you like The Class, I'd check out the director's earlier Time Out, which I apparently overrate (10/10).

  2. We're in the middle of a complete Godard series here (part one, up to Weekend; the remainder plays in the fall), so I was at Masculin Feminin last night. I'll tentatively call it my favourite, having seen it three times now. I was really tired, as I always am at Friday night screenings, so I drifted for about half an hour. Léaud is so funny; his long, deadpan stare when Chantal Goya says "Does 'go out' mean 'go to bed'?" is my favourite moment (sort of half-blank, half-panicked). Because of him and for other reasons, easily Godard's most Truffaut-like film.