The Week That Was, Issue 9

The Week That Was

December 21, 2015 – December 27, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

1) The Passenger (1975)

Why I watched: In Empire’s list of the top 500 films of all time.

Impression: Wanting a chance to start a new life, British-American journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) assumes the identity of the deceased Mr. Robertson, only to discover Robertson was a notorious arms dealer.

Locke’s wife feels guilty and tries to track him down, while he explores life in another man’s shoes and has an affair with an unnamed architectural student (Maria Schneider).

This is one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s most accessible and straightforward films (alongside Blow Up), Nicholson was at his peak (this was released the same year as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the ending features one of the most well composed tracking shots in Hollywood history.

It’s a fine examination of our innate curiosity of the lives of others and a warning to be careful what you wish for.

3 stars.

2) Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Why I watched: In Empire’s list of the top 500 films of all time.

Impression: A false report from a private investigator leads world-famous conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) to believe his wife is cheating on him.

During his next performance, he fantasizes about various ways to extract revenge. In the first fantasy, he murders his wife and frames her lover, in the next he takes it in stride and wishes her well, and in the final fantasy he engages his rival in an ill-advised game of Russian Roulette.

After the performance, he returns home determined to murder his wife, but it isn’t as easy as he anticipated.

Harrison is hysterical in this darkly comic film from comic genius Preston Sturges. It reminds me of Danny Devito’s work in the late 80s and early 90s (War of the RosesThrow Momma from the Train). Sadly, US audiences in the late 1940s weren’t ready for this strain of black comedy. Despite critical praise, it flopped at the box office and signaled the decline of Sturges’s career.

4 stars.

3)  It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)

Why I watched: I loved it when I was a kid and wanted to show it to my little boy.

Impression: Fifty years later, it holds up well and includes many of the iconic Peanuts moments which have entered into our collective consciousness. Lucy pulling the football away, Snoopy’s fight against the Red Baron, Charlie Brown’s lovable ineptitude.

Linus’s steadfast faith in spite of the ridicule of everyone he knows is commendable, but, sadly, his belief is misguided; there is no Great Pumpkin.

Charles Schultz created a rich world from the innocence of childhood, but miraculously refrained from becoming pandering or too saccharine. Many have tried, but few have successfully followed in his footsteps.

3 stars.

4) You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972)

Why I watched: It aired immediately after The Great Pumpkin.

Impression: Despite his lack of qualifications, Lines he wins an election to become student body president only to learn it’s a largely honorary position.

Debuting just before Nixon was re-elected, the cynical short presciently predicted the US mood in the coming months, but feels too adult and dark for Peanuts.

2 stars.

5) Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

Why I watched: In a list of the top grossing films of all time.

Impression:  Several years after the events of the first film, vampire Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) live an idyllic life at the hotel raising their young son, Dennis.

According to an old tradition, if a child doesn’t have his fangs by his fifth birthday, he’s not a vampire. As Dennis’s birthday approaches, his grandfather Dracula (Adam Sandler) takes proactive measures to ensure his transformation.

I enjoyed the first film in the series and thought its take on the classic horror monsters was fresh and energetic, but this film is tired and predictable. There were a few laughs, but it took too long to develop and ended too quickly. I’m not sure why Dracula’s father was added, except to wedge Mel Brooks into a hammy part unworthy of his legacy.

Many of the best characters were lost in the bloated cast of Sandler’s friends.

I like the concept, I like the characters, but this is a poorly executed sequel.

1 ½ stars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

6) Touching the Void (2006)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the 1000 best reviewed films of the 21st century.

Impression: In 1985, British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to climb Silua Granda in the Peruvian Andres.

After a series of unexpected snafus, Joe was severely injured. Simon attempted to lower him, but the rope was caught on a rock. Unable to communicate with his partner and fearing for his own well-being, Simon cut the rope.

Miraculously, Joe survived the fall, found refuge in a crevasse, and crawled to the base camp just before Simon left.

Based on Joe’s autobiography, director Kevin Macdonald weaves contemporary interviews of the two climbers with a series of spectacular reenactments to create an impressive tale of survival and tough choices.

3 ½ stars.

7) Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: The first film in Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy is a purely visual film juxtaposing fantastic rural and natural landscapes against urban backgrounds of huge buildings and massive moving lights of traffic.

Reggio equates the magnificence of modern architecture to a beautiful sunset, reminding us that man-made wonders are still wonders.

2½ stars.

8) Adua and Her Friends (1960)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: After new laws targeting prostitution force a brothel to shut its doors, four former prostitutes start a restaurant on the condition that after two months of legitimate business, it will serve as a front to resume their prostitution.

Simone Signoret (who won an Oscar the previous year) stars as Adua. Emmanuelle Riva is one of her fellow prostitutes, and Marcello Mastroianni is a potential suitor for Adua.

Antonio Pietrangeli’s film contains moments of farce, and moments of genuine pathos, existing somewhere between the Italian neorealist films of the 1950s and the commedia d’altiana films of the 1960s.

3 stars.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

9) The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: High school senior Audry (Adrienne Shelley) struggles with her parent’s expectations, dissatisfaction with her boyfriend, existential angst, and infatuation with a mysterious ex-convict.

Hal Hartley’s examination of the pressure of adolescence feels like a comedy, has the rhythm of a comedy, but there’s very little funny about it.

3 stars.

10) The Law (1959)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: When an engineer (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives to drain the marshes in a small fishing town, he falls in love with Marietta (Gina Lollobrigida) and helps free the villagers from the control of crooked Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand).

Jules Dassin’s two heist films: Riffifi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) are fun and well-made. This is well-made, but not very fun.

I like Mastroianni, but he’s at his best when he’s rakish, possessing a hint of danger in his performance.

This film never captured my attention and has already slipped through the fog of memory to anonymity.

1 star.

11) Youth (2015)

Why I watched: I love Michael Caine and director Paolo Sorrentino, and Jane Fonda was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Impression: Both in the twilight of their careers, composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) vacation together in a luxury resort.

The Queen of England requests Fred perform his most famous piece at her husband’s upcoming birthday, but he turns down the opportunity because the song reminds him of his ill wife. Their long relationship is fractured and messy, but possesses the kind of tender affection which can only come from a lifetime spent together.

Mick works with a group of writers developing one last magnificent film for his frequent star and muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda).

Fred’s daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz) has a crisis when her husband (Mick’s son) leaves her for a younger pop star, Paloma Faith.

Among the other guests: an overweight former soccer star, Miss Universe, and frustrated actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Tree became very famous and made a lot of money playing a robot in a series of action films, but he’s afraid of being remembered for a product he thinks is inferior.

Fonda is excellent as the pragmatist Morel, who, despite years of friendship, is willing to tell Mick the harsh, bitter truth. Fonda’s too brief performance brilliantly plays on her legacy and our long memory of her.

As Ballinger and Boyle navigate the murky waters of their closing years, Paulo Sorrentino’s film becomes a poignant rumination on the fragility of life and the fleeting years of utility.

4 ½ stars.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

12) Brooklyn (2015)

Why I watched: Saorise Ronan was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Impression: In the 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to the US from Ireland. Despite living in Brooklyn’s sizable Irish community, she’s wracked with homesickness and guilt for leaving her sister and mother behind, until she fall in love with an Italian boy.

When her sister dies, she returns home and must decide if she wants to return to her old life or embrace her new one.

Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, and Domhnall Gleeson are good, but this film based on a novel by Col Tóibín is one long cliché about the plight of immigrants.

3 stars.

13) Everest (2015)

Why I watched: In a list of the top grossing films of all time.

Impression: This account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is beautifully shot and its all-star cast (including Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, and Jake Gyllenhaal) are excellent.

But by now we understand climbing the world’s highest peaks is a dangerous business. The more interesting aspect is what motivates these men and women to risk their lives. The film comes close to exploring this in a scene where Brolin’s Beck Weathers explains how meaningless and empty his life feels at home away from the adrenaline of a climb.

Instead of showing us what makes people want to do dangerous things, the film defaults to hero-worship, but fails to explain why standing on an arbitrary spot makes someone a hero.

It’s a beautifully shot, empty movie.

3 stars.

14) Spotlight (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Dramatic Picture.

Impression: In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) was hired as the editor of The Boston Globe. During one of his initial staff meetings, he suggested the paper’s investigative team, Spotlight, look into allegations the Roman Catholic leadership in Boston knew about the activities of pedophile priest John Geoghan and covered them up.

The team’s meticulous research revealed the highest members of church leadership had been actively covering up the activity of nearly one hundred pedophile priests for years. In heavily Catholic Boston, their attempts to expose the truth were met with strong resistance.

The cast, including Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci are excellent.

The film is not an indictment of the Catholic Church, although it certainly exposes it as callous and unChristian in its treatment of its most helpless parishioners.

Rather the film is an important reminder that institutions (even religious ones) have one purpose: to stay alive. No institution is moral or immoral; their only guiding principle is self-preservation. To drive this point home, the film goes out of its way to demonstrate The Boston Globe’s own self-protective instincts. One of the chief investigators on the Spotlight team, Robby Robinson (Keaton) received a tip about thirty pedophile priests twenty years earlier, but failed to follow-up.

Last year, Tom McCarthy directed the Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, a film labeled by many among the worst of the year. To follow it up with such a resounding success, is an amazing achievement.

4 ½ stars.

Friday, December 25, 2015

15) The Hateful Eight (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film.

Impression: Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) escorts outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she’ll be hanged.

Joining them on their stagecoach is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bounty hunter, former major in the Union Army, and possible pen pal of Abraham Lincoln.

Soon the coach picks up one last passenger, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Confederate sympathizer and the incoming sheriff of Red Rock.

When the coach arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the quartet take shelter from the upcoming blizzard and meet the rest of the titular octet, Bob (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).

None of the group trusts each other, with good reason. As they feel each other out, there’s lots of snappy dialogue, and plenty of racial epithets hurled at Warren, including a particularly nasty exchange with Smithers.

As everyone’s back story and hidden agenda are slowly revealed, there are fights, bloodshed, and death.

Ironically for a film where most of the action takes place in a small cabin, Tarantino filmed in expansive 70 mm, which somehow makes the film feel huge and claustrophobic at the same time.

I love Goggins and this is his best work since The Shield. Leigh’s performance is her best in a decade. Jackson is the film’s emotional centerpiece and carries the weight well. Russell trades in on his iconic and beloved performances of the 1980s, but doesn’t do anything new. Bruce Dern was disappointingly pedestrian.

I enjoyed most of the film, but the Tatum ex Machina felt contrived (even by Tarantino standards). Perhaps the original ending would have been more satisfying, but after the first draft of the script leaked online, Quentin defiantly refused to film that version.

The characters and dialogue will stick with me, but my memory will be clouded by my dislike of the ending.

3 ½ stars.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

16) A Town Called Panic (2009)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Based on a French language TV series of the same name, this stop-motion animated film follows the adventures of three plastic toys: Cowboy, Indian and Horse.

Cowboy and Indian forgot it was Horse’s birthday and their last-minute attempt to build a barbeque for him goes awry. They order fifty bricks, but a typographical error sends them fifty thousand. This mix-up inexplicably leads them on an adventure to the center of the earth and a parallel underwater universe.

It’s bizarre and funny and feels like it belongs on Adult Swim. It won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.

4 ½ stars.

17) Carol (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Film.

Impression: In 1950s New York, closeted lesbian Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) meets a temporary shopgirl, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Carol (purposefully?) leaves her gloves at the counter, and Therese mails them to her. When Carol receives them, she calls the department store to thank Therese and invites her to lunch. And so begins a torrid love affair.

I understand non-heterosexuality was a clandestine business in the 1950s, but the central relationship feels too convenient. The film argues Carol’s reluctance to embrace her sexuality is out of a desire to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Rindy. Her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), threatens to use a morality clause to gain full custody.

If the film wanted me to believe this was a real threat, it would have shown more of the relationship between Carol and her daughter. I didn’t believe she was a good mother because I never saw her with her daughter. This makes Carol’s motivation for ending her affair and returning to New York seem hollow.

Its message is timely, which explains why it’s so beloved, but it’s a slight story. Todd Haynes has made a few wonderful films, SafeFar from Heaven, and I’m Not There; this is not one of them.

1 ½ stars.

18) Joy (2015)

Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced mother of two with a lifelong penchant for making things.

After she cuts her hand wringing a mop, Joy designs the Miracle Mop and convinces her father (Robert DeNiro) and his girlfriend (Isabella Rosselinni) to bankroll a company to make it.

After a series of blunders and roadblocks, Joy meets with an executive at fledgling QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who agrees to sell her product. Once Joy becomes the mop’s on air pitchman, sales spike and she becomes a wildly successful businesswoman.

The latest collaboration of David O. Russell and his super trio (Lawrence, DeNiro, and Cooper) isn’t as dynamic as their previous films.

The script is all over the place. The relationship between Joy and her half-sister seems forced and unnecessary. Her ex-husband is her biggest early supporter, but disappears after his vindication in a key business decision. Cooper’s role is a glorified cameo, and Deniro’s part shows promise, but gets lost half-way through the film. Joy’s transition from hopeful, downtrodden businesswoman to Oprah level force of nature is too abrupt.

There’s a good story, but it’s buried under too much style. It feels like Russell desperately wanted to get the band back together and created roles for his friends instead of letting the film develop naturally. It’s entertaining enough because Lawrence is immensely charismatic, but it left me a little frustrated.

3 stars.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

19) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

Why I watched: One of the highest grossing films of all time.

Impression: Now that the Hunger Games are over, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the middle of a war between the Capitol and the rebels and begins to understand her role in the larger political game played in Panem.

After a brainwashed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) unsuccessfully attempts to murder Katniss, her obsession with killing President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) grows. But she’s also increasingly suspicious of the motives of rebel leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).

Fans almost universally agree the third book is the weakest, but the movie version was a vast improvement. Katniss’s final decision made more sense the way it was presented here. It felt organic and real, while in the book it felt forced.

After the lackluster previous film, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would.

3½ stars.

20) Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Gay reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is writing an article about the current whereabouts of bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose career ended after he faked his murder as a publicity stunt. As Stuart interviews those associated with the former rocker, flashbacks show Slade’s marriage to Mandy (Toni Collette) and his long affair with fellow rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).

Loosely based on the life of David Bowie, Todd Haynes echoes the framework of Citizen Kane, but without the central phenomenal performance of Welles, the film feels light and small, although I liked the beginning vignette tying the development of glam rock to Oscar Wilde.

It captures the aesthetic of the rock lifestyle of the 1970s well, in spite of occasionally feeling like it was trying to mimic Pink Floyd’s The Wall. However, in the end, it bounced around too much.

Haynes would revisit many of the same techniques in his biography of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. Forgoing the unnecessary homage, the latter film was more successful at capturing the essence of an iconic enigma.

2½ stars.

One hundred trips around the sun: a look back at 1915

In 1915:

The First World War raged in Europe,

Harry Houdini was escaping from straitjackets to the amazement of audiences,

The first transcontinental telephone call took place,

The Rocky Mountain National Park was established,

The US Congress declared that the US Coast Guard was a military branch,

Typhoid Mary was placed in a quarantine which would last until her death in 1938,

Pluto was photographed for the first time,

The Vancouver Millionaires defeated the Ottawa Senators to win the Stanley Cup,

The Armenian Genocide began,

Babe Ruth hit his first career home run,

William Jennings Bryan resigned as US Secretary of State,

Leo Frank was lynched for the alleged murder of a 13 year old girl,

The Raggedy Ann doll was patented,

Frank Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis was published,

William Joseph Simmons founded the 2nd Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain Georgia,

Einstein published his theory of general relativity,

The Ford Motor Company produced its one millionth car,

US President Woodrow Wilson married his second wife, Edith Wilson,

The first stop sign appeared on US roads,

Zero Mostel, Billie Holiday, Anthony Quinn, Orson Welles, Les Paul, Ring Lardner Jr., Arthur Miller, Bob Kane, Sargent Shriver, Augusto Pinochet, Roland Barthes, Eli Wallach, Frank Sinatra, and Edith Piaf were born,

While outlaw Frank James and Booker T. Washington died.

These are my ten favorite films released in 1915:

Continue reading “One hundred trips around the sun: a look back at 1915”

The Week That Was, Issue 8

The Week That Was

December 14, 2015 – December 20, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

1) Swords and Hearts (1911)

Why I watched: Attempting to watch at least 15 movies released in every year of the twentieth century.

Impression: D.W. Griffith loved the Civil War era. He was born in 1875 in Kentucky, and you get the impression he grew up hearing stories of the war from his parents and grandparents. He paints the era in nostalgic tones as if it was an idyllic time in American’s recent past and often used the war as a backdrop for a melodramatic love story.

Here, a young girl is in love with a rich planter who’s in love with someone else. After the war, he returns home to discover he’s lost his wealth. The girl helps him escape from the Union soldiers and confesses her love.

It’s starkly different from our current view and impression of the war, but in Griffith’s time the historical record was still in flux, which makes you realize how difficult it is to place events in context.

1 star.

2) Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Why I watched: Jamie Porter’s Pick of the Week

Impression: When truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) goes with his friend Wang Chi to pick up his fiancée Miao Yin at the airport, he’s inadvertently dragged into a plot by the evil Chinese wizard Lo Pan (James Wong) to marry and sacrifice Miao Yin to break a longstanding curse placed on him by Quin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

The film does a great job playing with ignorance about Chinese customs and practices, using a hybrid of western medieval traditions and eastern mysticism to create its own version of Chinese mythology.

Russell is awesome, James Wong is great as the evil Lo Pan, and it cracks me up to think fifteen years before she played the lascivious Samantha Jones, Kim Cattrall was in this campy film.

Director John Carpenter is best known for horror films (particularly the slasher genre), but his collaborations with Kurt Russell in Escape from New YorkThe Thing, and this film are great examples of 1980s aesthetic: cheesy dialogue, macho action, over the top special effects, and a driving rock / synthesized score; an amalgam of Sam Fuller, Russ Meyer, and Jack Arnold.

Carpenter’s films were moderately successful at the box office, but they premiered when the home video market was in its infancy and found a beloved place in the hearts of many Generation Xers as they wore out VHS copies of his films. As a child of the 1980s, I have a fondness for his work, but I like it better as a representative memory of my childhood than as a movie I’d watch over and over again.

2 ½ stars.

3) Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

Why I watched: Mark Ruffalo was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Impression: Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) suffers from manic-depressive disorder which causes immense strain on his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their two young children which reaches a crisis point when Maggie leaves to study for an MBA at Columbia University.

For this fictionalized account of her childhood, director Maya Forbes took the additional step of casting her own daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky as her fictional avatar.

The film captures the competing priorities of dealing with the mentally ill, but Ruffalo’s performance is too overwhelming. While I understood Maggie’s motivation to leave her family for such an extended period of time, I couldn’t help but think she would rather abandon the situation than find a workable solution.

I’m not sure this self-congratulatory film does enough to highlight the immense pain and sacrifice typical of families suffering with mental illness.

1 ½ stars.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

4) Seconds (1966)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You See Before You Die.

Impression: As listless and depressed Arthur Hamilton muddles his way through a midlife crisis, he’s approached by a man he thought was dead and told about the “Company,” a secretive group conducting illicit surgeries to give people second chances in life by placing them in younger, more virile bodies.

Hamilton is given a new body and renamed Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). At first, he’s enamored with the experiences this affords him, but soon yearns for the relationships of his previous life. After he checks in on his wife, pretending to be an old friend of her deceased husband, he’s visited by a member of the “Company” and foolishly asks for his old life back.

John Frankenheimer’s paranoia filled films of the 1960s, including this, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, foresaw the rampant paranoia of the 1970s.

This is a brilliant rendering of our arrogant assumptions about the possibilities of scientific progress and the limits of science as religion. We’ve been led to believe all problems can be solved by science, if we are patient, but Frankenheimer points us in a different direction. His argument is twofold: 1) scientific progress may solve a problem, but there will inevitably be additional problems as a result and 2) without an underlying ethical and moral principle, the result may look different than what we anticipate.

Frankenheimer suggests science is a tool, not an end in itself and laments what the elevation of science has done to our human experience.

4 stars.

5) That Touch of Mink (1962)

Why I watched: One of the highest grossing films from 1962.

Impression: When committed bachelor Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) splashes Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) with mud on her way to a job interview, the two are drawn into a tangled romantic web.

Phillip sees Cathy as his next conquest. She sees Philip as a potential future husband.

I enjoy Day’s banter with Rock Hudson in a similarly themed series of films from the era and I thought I would enjoy Cary Grant stepping into the Hudson role, but I didn’t. It felt like Grant was annoyed. His delivery was flat and perfunctory and not as animated or engaging as his work in the zany screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday or even his later work in Charade.

It was a nice surprise to see Yogi Bera, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris cameo as themselves. I was happy to see Audrey Meadows (Alice from The Honeymooners). Gig Young and John Astin do a very good job. However, the film is generic and has absolutely no energy.

2 ½ stars.

6) There Once Was a Dog (1982)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the top 50 short films.

Impression: As the family dog ages, his usefulness fades. Unable to smell as well as he once could or defend the family and their livestock, he makes a deal with a wolf. The wolf will make it look like the dog is still able to fend off an attack, and the dog will provide food for the wolf during the leaner, winter months.

This short Soviet cartoon plays like a modern-day fable. It’s cute and provides a little insight, but not particularly original.

1 ½ stars.

7) Winnie Pooh (1969)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the top 50 shorts.

Impression: This Russian adaptation of the beloved story from A.A. Milne is similar to the cute Disney short released a couple of years earlier (Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree), but this version seems a little more anarchic and has more edge to it.

Director Fyodor Khitruk removed Christopher Robin and all human elements from the story. While this seems like a sacrilege, it actually helps Pooh Bear become a more well-rounded and independent character instead of merely Christopher Robin’s toy.

It’s not as sentimental or sweet as the Disney version, but it’s funnier.

3 stars.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

8) Suspiria (1977)

Why I watched: Included in Empire‘s top 500 films of all time.

Impression: Suzy Bannon arrives in Munich to attend a prestigious dance academy, but discovers it’s a front for a coven of witches.

It sounds a lot cooler than it was. The film bounces around from one scene to the next with no attempt to develop a flow or rhythm. The actors didn’t speak the same language and all of their work was later dubbed, creating an obvious distance in their performances.

Director Dario Argento is well-known and his films have been highly influential in the horror genre. While the mood is effective and score is eerie, it’s too uneven and wooden. American Horror Story: Coven (which I’m sure was at least partially inspired by the film) did a better job with the material.

2 ½ stars.

9) Iraq in Fragments (2006)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the top 1000 films released in the 21st century.

Impression: James Longley went to Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion and documented the effect on the Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish communities in the war-torn nation.

Some of the footage is harrowing. Someone (I’m not sure it was Longley) filmed as terrorists accosted and threatened people, and as angry riots whirled around them. There were a few times I could have sworn the scenes were staged, but I have no reason to believe they’re not legitimate.

It’s chilling to hear the Iraqi people discuss the situation in their country, lamenting the lack of humanitarian aid and complaining because US forces seem keen to protect oil-reach areas despite public declarations it’s not about oil.

3 ½ stars.

10) Fantastic Planet (1973)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: In the future, huge blue aliens, Draags, have brought humans to their planet as pets.

One of the humans, Terr, surreptitiously receives an education alongside his owner, Tiva, then escapes and teaches other humans in the wilderness. Their new-found knowledge allows them to avoid extinction and fight back against their captors. Eventually, realizing their antagonism will lead to mutual destruction, the two species come to an understanding and lead a peaceful coexistence.

The cut-out animation and the trippy design make this film a perfect representative of early 1970s aesthetic, and its naive politics (a rejection of the real politik of Kissinger and Nixon) are a knee jerk reaction to the Vietnam War and the growing military-industrial complex.

This hopeful film and its message of peace are important, even if it seems antiquated.

3 stars.

11) Skin Game (1971)

Why I watched: I love James Garner.

Impression: In the pre-Civil War south, con men Quincy Drew (James Garner) and Jason O’Rourke (Louis Gossett Jr.) crisscross the American South playing an elaborate con: Drew sells O’Rourke as a slave, then helps him escape.

The plan works until they meet a particularly nasty slave owner and the well-educated O’Rourke begins to question the morality of perpetuating the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

There are echoes of the film in Django Unchained, but this film’s use of racism as the foundation for humor leads to some very awkward scenes. The casual and supposedly humorous way characters use racial epithets seems radical now.

It’s a fascinating marker for where race relations were in 1971, but it doesn’t quite hold up.

2 ½ stars.

12) In the Fog (2012)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Set in Belarus during WWII, this film explores the moral dilemma facing people in the area during the conflict. If you opposed the occupying Germans, they would most likely kill you. If you collaborated with them, your fellow citizens, resentful and hurt, would ostracize or kill you.

It’s a fascinating look at the moral relativism which accompanies war and the competing desires to do the right thing and survive. The only problem with the film is its glacial pace.

3 stars.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

13) Kate & Leopold (2001)

Why I watched: Hugh Jackman was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.

Impression:  A 19th century British duke (Hugh Jackman) is transported to present day New York where he meets advertising executive Kate McKay (Meg Ryan). Although she doesn’t believe his tale of time traveling wonder, the two fall in love.

This was the tale end of Ryan’s run as America’s sweetheart. It’s predictable, and Ryan, perhaps bored with the limitations of the romantic comedy genre, appears to be phoning it in, but Jackman is immensely charismatic.

The time travel aspect is not explained well. Liev Schreiber and Brecklin Meyer are a little too enthusiastic. Bradley Whitford is fine in a small role. It’s amusing seeing Kristen Schaal and Viola Davis in early cameo roles. However, there are better romantic comedies available, including several starring Ryan.

2 ½ stars.

14) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Why I watched: It’s freaking Star Wars.

Impression: Thirty years after the events in Return of the Jedi, not much has changed. The First Order, a splinter group from the evil empire, is terrorizing the galaxy. Leia still leads the resistance. Han has returned to smuggling. C-3PO is still annoying.

Both sides are desperately searching for Luke Skywalker, the last surviving Jedi. After one of his trainees went berserk, Luke went into a self-imposed exile.

The Resistance has located a map to his location and send their best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to retrieve it. The First Order, led by Vader disciple Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) arrives as he receives the map; Poe places the map in his droid, BB-8, just before he’s captured.

In the desert, BB-8 befriends scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley); while a disgruntled storm trooper FN-2187 (nicknamed Finn) (John Boyega), helps Poe escape back to Jakku to locate BB-8.

The first act capably introduces a new crop of characters to carry the series forward through a third trilogy, but when Han and Chewie show up at the beginning of the second act, the film kicks into another gear.

In many ways, it feels more like a remake than a sequel. There are callbacks to every film in the original trilogy: a major confrontation on a catwalk, a Yoda stand-in (Lupita Nyongo’s Maz Kanata), a semi-dream sequence in a cave, a massive weapon designed to destroy planets. There’s even a subtle reference to Ford’s role as Indiana Jones.

My experience watching the film with a packed house undoubtedly influenced my impression of the film. Every time a returning character appeared, there was a loud cheer and applause, reminding me the Star Wars films are one of the last vestiges of a dying breed of cultural event films.

I have a few minor complaints, the great Max von Sydow was wasted, there was no need to introduce Captain Phasma in this film, there were too many cameos given to JJ Abrams’s friends. However, I loved the movie, I loved the nostalgia, and I loved the new characters. It was a fantastic experience and feels like a well-deserved victory lap for Harrison Ford.

The best thing: for the first time in thirty years, we don’t know what happens next. The prequels are often trashed and ridiculed, but the main problem with those films was we knew where we were headed, barreling to the day when Anakin would find his destiny as Darth Vader.

This film ends as Rey approaches the long hidden master Jedi Luke and asks him to rejoin the fight against his former student. We don’t know his answer. We don’t know Rey’s or Finn’s heritage, although we suspect it will be important. We don’t know much about the leader of the First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke. Until the still unnamed Episode VIII arrives in 2017, we get to engage in every fanboy’s favorite pastime, rampant speculation and formulation of elaborate theories.

4 ½ stars.

Friday, December 18, 2015

15) Blonde Cobra (1963)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Must See Movies.

Impression: This weird, hodgepodge of eclectic moments revolves around famed NY underground filmmaker Jack Smith who wears dresses, plays with dolls, and rants wildly.

Most people will have no experience with Smith, director Ken Jacobs, or this film. Their lives will not be worse for the lack of experience.

½ star.

16) The Ridiculous 6 (2015)

Why I watched: I’ve seen almost everything else Adam Sandler was in.

Impression: Tommy Stockburn (Adam Sandler) is raised by Native Americans after his mom dies and his dad leaves. Years later, his bank robber father, Frank Stockburn (Nick Nolte), returns with a story about a large amount of money he hid next to a pine tree.

When Frank is kidnapped by Cicero (Danny Trejo), Tommy decides to retrieve the buried money to use as ransom. Along the way, he meets several other men fathered by the philandering Frank, Chico (Terry Crews), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Lil’ Pete (Taylor Lautner), Ramon (Rob Schneider), and Danny (Luke Wilson). Together, they form an outlaw gang, The Ridiculous Six.

A rival gang (led by Will Forte) wears eye patches and claims to have removed their right eyes. Lil’ Pete and Herma are horribly offensive parodies of mental illness. There are a pair of disgusting scenes involving a barber (played by Steve Buscemi) and the removal of an eye as an act of initiation.

I’ve defended Sandler in the recent past. I didn’t think Pixels was as bad as most critics, but this is lazy, sloppy, gross, and pointless.

Sandler is to be commended for the loyalty he shows his friends. The cast is littered with costars from his previous films, Terry Crews, Nick Swardson, Will Forte, Harvey Keitel, Jon Lovitz, Norm Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Dan Patrick, David Spade, etc. I wish this admirable loyalty translated to a better film.

When the highlight of your film is Vanilla Ice as a rapping Mark Twain, it’s unlikely to be a rich cinematic experience.

1 ½ stars.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

17) Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back  (1973)

Why I watched: I like Sinatra and this aired on TCM to commemorate his 100th birthday.

Impression: Frank Sinatra announced his retirement from show business in 1971. In 1973, he staged this comeback concert. It’s occasionally entertaining, but nothing spectacular, except for the lively ten minute sequence featuring Sinatra and his old friend / frequent costar Gene Kelley.

2 ½ stars.

18) Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature.

Impression: Bored with the routine of life on the farm, Shaun the Sheep spices things up by putting the farmer to sleep and locking him in a trailer for a day. This plan goes awry when the trailer rolls into the city and the farmer is involved in an accident, developing amnesia.

While leading a group of his fellow sheep on a rescue mission, Shaun must deal with the nefarious Trumper who works for animal control.

Too many kid’s films feel they have to either placate adult audience members by making as many sly adult themed jokes as possible or assume kid’s film equals lowest common denominator requiring no creativity (I’m looking at you Cats vs. Dogs).

This mostly silent film belongs to an increasingly rare breed of earnest and genuine children’s films. There’s no trick, no edge, no product placement, or toys to sell.

Aardman Animation is a poor man’s Pixar, a place where making films which elevate the tone and quality of films aimed at children is the primary goal, and their latest offering is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon with your family.

3 ½ stars.

19) Tabu (2012)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Octogenarian Aurora, asks her friends Santa and Pilar to help locate Gian-Luca Ventura. Years earlier, Aurora and Gian-Luca were involved in a sordid love affair in Portuguese Africa.

As Aurora looks back on her life, a wave of nostalgia washes over her. She longs for the simple days of her youth, which are intimately linked with Portuguese colonialist efforts.

The film reminds me of the work of William Faulkner in the early twentieth century. Faulkner was occasionally interested in deconstructing the romanticized myth of the antebellum South, but mostly he was focused on how this myth impacted and influenced contemporary actions.

Filmmaker Miguel Gomes attempts to do the same thing with mid twentieth century European colonialism of Africa. He’s interested in how the natural tendency to remember things better than they were has impacted our understanding and appreciation of the past.

3 ½ stars.

20) Election (2005)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Every two years, the Wo Shing Society (one of the oldest organized crime groups in Hong Kong) elects a new leader.

When Lok wins a close election, his chief rival Big D plots his revenge. Like players on opposite ends of a chess board, the two men send their pawns in waves to kill each other, angering many of the older members of the group, who see theirs as an honorable profession.

The film reminds me of one of my favorite television quotes, Omar Little from The Wire explaining why he doesn’t consider what he does morally wrong, “A man gotta have a code.”

Eventually, Lok and Big D agree to a tentative truce: Big D will support Lok in exchange for Lok’s support for Big D as his successor.

This is an okay film, but would have worked better in a longer format with more time to get to know the characters.

2 ½ stars.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

21) The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: When heroin addict Hyo-jeong steals drugs from a powerful crime syndicate, they retaliate by kidnapping her and her young daughter, So-mi.

Their next door neighbor, Cha Tae-sik runs a pawn shop and has befriended So-mi. When he realizes what’s happened to them, he embarks on a vengeful quest against their captors.

The crime bosses don’t anticipate he’ll be difficult to deal with, but Tae-sik was a special operative for the Korean government who resigned after an attack by an assassin left him widowed and wounded.

It’s a solid film about impromptu families and the ways violence effects and impacts the lives of children, but there are better films which cover the same material.

3 stars.

22) The Revenant (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture.

Impression: During a fur hunting expedition, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. His party tries to bring him with them to their encampment, but their leader is convinced he won’t survive the journey and asks a small party, including Glass’s son, to stay behind, wait for Glass to die, and give him a proper burial.

One of the men entrusted with the task, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), kills Glass’s son and convinces everyone else to abandon their responsibility because of the threat of eminent attack by Native Americans.

Glass, an apparent 18th century MacGyver, survives and slowly makes his way back to the base to extract his revenge, crawling 200 miles over a six-week period to reach his destination.

Much has already been written about the infamous mauling scene. It’s as intense a scene as I’ve seen in a while, and Glass lasts longer against the bear than Ronda Rousey against Holly Holm.

The rest of the film is a probing tale about the depths people will go for revenge and the limits of vengeance to provide closure, but the most striking aspect is the cinematography. This is to snow-covered forests what Lawrence of Arabia was to the desert.

Between this, Ex Machina, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Domhnall Gleeson has had a helluva year. He’s excellent as Andrew Henry, the leader of the expedition.

Leo may not win the elusive Oscar for his work in the film, but it will be one of the first roles mentioned in his obituary. It’s a demanding physical performance and an astounding transformation for an actor frequently thought to be a matinee idol.

I slightly prefer Iñárritu’s previous film (and Best Picture winner) Birdman, but this is an impressive achievement.

4 ½ stars.

23) High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

Why I watched: In a list of the highest grossing films of all time.

Impression: The further adventures of high schoolers Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriela (Vanessa Hudgens).

The singing and dancing are top-notch. The stuff in between, including the angst of Julliard vs. Berkeley, all I can muster is: who cares?

Efron has proven he has staying power and should be taken seriously as a legitimate talent. The rest: not so much.

2 ½ stars.

24) Summer with Monika (1953)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and I love Ingmar Bergman.

Impression: Unsatisfied with their monotonous lives, lovers Harry and Monika (Harriet Anderson) steal her father’s boat and spend an idyllic summer in the archipelagos of Stockholm. By the time they return home in the fall, Monika is pregnant.

Harry gets a job to support his family, but when the baby is born, Monika abandons them to seek more adventure.

Scandalous in the conservative 1950s for its brief depiction of nudity, this is a minor Bergman film. It’s a whiny examination of infatuation and expectation, but it’s fodder to psychoanalyze Bergman who was in a relationship with Anderson and frequently struggled with the constricting demands of family life.

3 stars.

25) Room (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Dramatic Picture.

Impression: When Joy (Brie Larson) was seventeen, a stranger kidnapped her and imprisoned her in a garden shed in his backyard. Seven years later, Joy still lives in the small room with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the product of repeated rape by her unnamed captor, whom she calls Old Nick.

Just after Jack’s 5th birthday, Joy concocts an escape plan. Jack will play dead and, when Old Nick takes his body outside, run for help.

The plan works and the pair are released from their imprisonment, but find adjusting to life in the outside world difficult. Joy’s parents have long ago divorced and her mother (Joan Allen) is with another man, while her father (William H. Macy) is emotionally distant and unsupportive.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, the story is sensational and the performances of Larson and Tremblay are heartbreaking. Their chemistry and skill make the reality of imprisonment in “Room” a harrowing experience.

This simple film is among my favorite of 2015 because of the deep resonance of its emotions. It’s a call to appreciate the life we’ve been given and never give up hope.

4 ½ stars.

Best movie I saw this weekRoom (2015)

Worst movie I saw this weekBlonde Cobra (1963)

The Week That Was, Issue 7

The Week That Was

December 7, 2015 – December 13, 2015

Monday, December 7, 2015

1) Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Why I watched: In Empire‘s list of the top 500 films.

Impression: Recently released from prison, Corey (Antoine Delon) meets escaped prisoner Vogel in the countryside as he avoids mafia hit men. Eventually, the pair meet Jansen (Yves Montand) an ex-cop fighting an alcoholic addiction. Armed with information Corey learned in prison, the trio plan a spectacular heist of an impenetrable jewelry store.

Jean-Pierre Melville is a master of silence, his characters let their actions speak for them, eschewing dialogue and explanation. In the riveting heist scene, this is a daring, original choice, but, in other areas, it hinders our ability to empathize and understand his characters.

I will remember the robbery scene as a paradigm of the genre, but the characters will fade from memory.

2 ½ stars.

2) The Abyss (1989)

Why I watched: In the top 1000 films according to IMDB.

Impression: The US government sends a Seal team to a private drilling facility (Deep Core) to determine the nature of an unidentified object thought to be a part of a Soviet plot which turns out to be a previously unknown intelligent life form.

The leader of the Seal group plans to use a nuclear explosive to destroy the threat, but the foreman of Deep Core, Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) thwarts his efforts, winning the respect of the alien life form hidden in the bottom of the sea.

This is decent film from James Cameron with some cool special effects. Unfortunately, there’s too much going on. In addition to the discovery of alien life in the ocean, there’s a love story between Bud and his estranged wife, Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and elements of a Cold War thriller. If the film were simpler, it would have been more effective.

2 ½ stars.

Continue reading “The Week That Was, Issue 7”

The Week That Was, Issue 6

The Week That Was

November 30, 2015 – December 6, 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015

1) Odd Man Out (1947)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: I’m a huge James Mason fan, and I like Carol Reed, particularly The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. However, this film about the criminal underworld in Northern Ireland, never really grabbed me.  It’s dripping in atmosphere, but outside of the central performance from Mason, there’s not much else going on.

3 stars.

2) People, Places, Things (2015)

Why I watched: Jamie Porter’s pick of the week.

Impression: Jemaine Clement is hysterical and his dry, off kilter humor, combined with his goofy persona are my cup of tea. However, he’s not really romantic comedy leading man material. There were some funny scenes, and he had a few nice lines, but he was miscast. Compare this to the delightful Love Birds starring fellow Flight of the Conchords alum Rhys Darby. Darby was able to integrate his style of humor into the romcom template. Clement seems content to occasionally pepper in a few scenes.

I did appreciate the biracial romance at the center of the film, and I appreciated it even more because the film didn’t make an issue or statement out of it. Michael Chernus (best known as Piper’s brother and partner in the dirty underwear business from Orange is the New Black) is very funny in a limited role. His argument with Jemaine about whether the ear is a part of the face or not was a highlight.

The end of the film is a bit lackluster. Clement’s graphic novelist has grown as a person and is more attentive to the needs of others, but we don’t know the status of his relationship with Diane. His relationship with his children could have been better explored as well.

I like Jemaine, and this was not a bad movie, but I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone.

3 stars.

Continue reading “The Week That Was, Issue 6”

While the twenties roared, the films were silent: a look back at the films of 1925

In 1925:

Nellie Tayloe Ross became the governor of Wyoming, the first female governor in the United States,

The New Yorker was first published,

Calvin Coolidge was inaugurated as US President,

Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools which led directly to the Scopes Trial,

F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby,

The Butcher of Hanover was beheaded,

Percy and Florence Arrowsmith were married,

The Chrysler corporation was founded,

Adolf Hitler published volume one of Mein Kampf,

Meher Baba began a 44 year self-imposed silence,

40,000 people attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Washington D.C.,

Mount Rushmore was dedicated,

The first Surrealist art exhibition opened in Paris,

The Grand Ole Opry debuted,

New York City passed London to become the most populous city in the world,

and John DeLorean, Lee Van Cleef, Paul Newman, Dorothy Malone, Elaine Stritch, Jack Lemmon, Hal Holbrook, George Kennedy, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Flannery O’Connor, Rod Steiger, Yogi Berra, Malcolm X, Pol Pot, Tony Curtis, Barbara Bush, William Styron, Maureen Stapleton, Audie Murphy, Farley Granger, Medgar Evers, Merv Griffin, Bill Haley, Mike Douglas, Donald O’Connor, Peter Sellers, Mel Tormé, B.B. King, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Thatcher, Lenny Bruce, Angela Lansbury, Johnny Carson, Richard Burton, Doris Roberts, Jonathan Winters, Rock Hudson, Robert F. Kennedy, William F. Buckley Jr., Julie Harris, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dick Van Dyke were born.

The following is a list of my top ten films released in 1925:

Continue reading “While the twenties roared, the films were silent: a look back at the films of 1925”