Tuesday, August 15, 2006

August Archives #1

August 15th Log

2005, Woody Allen, United Kingdom / United States

Repeat Viewing, DVD

Match Point opens with a shot of a tennis ball going over the net and we hear a voice over narration: “The man who said "I'd rather be lucky than good" saw deeply into life. People are often afraid to realize how much of an impact luck plays. There are moments in a tennis match where the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, remains in mid-air. With a little luck, the ball goes over, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.” The philosophy of this opening is prominently examined throughout the film and the open shot is again reflected towards the end except that it is a shot of a ring that stands as critical evidence in a murder/burglary case. What Woody Allen does with this development is fascinatingly clever and adds another dimension to the complex philosophy of this film. I’ve seen this film quite a few times and must say it belongs mention among Annie Hall and Purple Rose of Cairo as Allen’s best work. The tone here is much more serious (and British) then Allen is known for, making Match Point at the surface unlike anything he has ever done. While it is a different, Match Point still evokes Allen auteur themes and style. Much of this recalls Crimes and Misdemeanors, as well as nods to George Stevens 1951 A Place in the Sun. However, this is a film that surpasses both of those because of the metaphysical depth as well as the sheer mastery of narrative plotting. Blending suspense and sexy eroticism, Match Point is flawlessly made in the traditions of classic genre filmmaking. The performances by the entire ensemble (Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox) is top notch and Allen’s films never lack great cinematography and music. There is certainly a cynical tone, yet Allen absorbs us into the philosophical layers of the themes and characters as well as the elegant and sophisticated atmosphere.

August 14th Log

1991, Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong
Repeat Viewing, DVD

"The one minute before 3pm on April the 16th, 1960, you're together with me. Because of you, I'll remember that one minute. From now on, we're friends for one minute. This is a fact you can't retreat. It's accomplished." And so begins the brilliant multi-layered film of romantic longing and loneliness. Wong Kar-Wai's 1991 Days of Being Wild is a beautiful masterpiece. Featuring Wong's usual image and sound repetition, the film examines chance, loneliness, fate, and unresolved longing of the human soul. Days of Being Wild also features Wong regulars Leslie Cheung and the beautiful Maggie Cheung, who are outstanding again. It's a film of the lives of five individuals who are connected and affected by the careless and directionless life of one (Yuddy). Each character feels incomplete and are in search of longing: Yuddy's biological mother; Su-Lizhen and Mimi's passion for the thoughtless Yuddy; the police officers fondness for Su-Lizhen; Zeb's "motherly" care for Yuddy. The film's cinematography (by the great Christopher Doyle) and poetic dialogue is a flawlessly brilliant achievement. The ending (featuring another Wong regular Tony Leung) is the type of surreal and creative touches Wong masters. It will have you scratching your head, yet smiling at the same time. Days of Being Wild is a true artistic masterpiece from an artist at the forefront of Hong Kong cinema. Wong is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers and to me this rates among his very finest achievements (perhaps only surpassed by his masterpiece In the Mood For Love). I absolutely love this film!!

August 13th Log

2005, Marcos Siega, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Pretty Persuasion is liked a forced or rushed attempt at making a High School Neil Labute film. It lacks any satirical edge and certainly the minimalism of Labute’s best work (The Shape of Things, In the Company of Men). Pretty Persuasion is not without some insight but the peachiness and “taboo” of the films message and cruelty drags as the film enters the last act. I think the films biggest problem is a lack of focus and depth for the tone and for the characters of the film. The performances however are very strong, especially by the young Evan Rachel Wood, who has already established herself as a future leading actress that will be great for a long time.

1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot, France

Repeat Viewing, DVD

Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece Wages of Fear, is a tense adventure thriller, as well as a graphic drama with true emotional impact. The impact is generated from the film's first half, which slowly builds up the characters and their poor, dead-end town. This setup helps establish the films second half, making it that much more gut-wrenching. The script is smart and has an intellectual idea behind it, but Clouzot's ultimate goal is to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. There's very few twists or turns, as the tension builds and all the elements combine in juts the right way to create an unforgettable experience. The final scene is very disturbing and unlike almost anything that would be seen in typical, modern-day Hollywood thrillers. Wages of Fear is a French classic, and easily among the great thrillers of all-time.

August 12th Log

2006, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, United States
1st Viewing, Theater

Here is an appealing film for all audiences. It’s an independent film from debut filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (who began working as music videos directors), but you have to wonder why films like this are not seen more often in the mainstream studios. Clearly audiences enjoy these types of films (the slice of life comedies with characters we can truly care about). Characters that are flawed, but are deeply human. We can relate to them in ways are that sincere and truthful. Little Miss Sunshine is essentially like a sitcom, yet this film beautifully mixes humor, drama, and a little sentiment in the most effective way. There is an underdog story here that makes it easier to admire this family. Above all it is a film that speaks of individuality (even if through suffering). Little Miss Sunshine is easy to admire and enjoy. There are plenty of laughs, feel-good warmth, and compassionate characters. This may not be a cinematic masterwork of artistic filmmaking, but it’s top-notch filmmaking as a crowd pleaser and recommended to all audiences.

1956, Douglas Sirk, United States
Repeat Viewing, Turner Classic Movies

Written on the Wind opens like a Technicolor noir as we see a car racing home to a tragic death, followed by a flashback in time (which details the story leading up to that point). However, the film quickly changes in tone into a classic melodrama and ultimately the quintessential film of director Douglas Sirk (the definitive master of 1950s Hollywood melodramas). This is less a film of plot then it is of cinematic expression through imagery. The brilliance lies not so much within the dramatic elements of the narrative, but more so in the emotions captured through the visual expression of the films artistic creation and direction. Every detail within the composition is carefully and richly textured with depth and meaning. Through shadows, lighting, and especially colors, the films symbolisms and characterizations are developed. Russell Metty's (who worked with Sirk on 10 films) Technicolor cinematography is stunningly displayed with a beautiful deep focus. The performances are all very strong from the four leads, but it is Dorothy Malone who really shines in the best performance of her career. Written on the Wind is simply a masterpiece ahead of it's time. Ultimately the film is one of personal frustration and failure (most notably through sexuality). There are some flawlessly executed moments (the montage of the fathers death is especially masterful) and the film effectively end with a telling visual sequence in which we see Mitch and Lucy together and Mary Lee alone (with a contrasting shot of her father holding the oil well). Written on the Wind is a rare achievement of filmmaking at its most artistic. It remains a masterpiece and one of Sirk's most expressive and greatest films.

August 11th Log

2006, Adam McKay, United States
1st Viewing, Theater

Using the same director (Adam McKay) and star (Will Ferrell) of Anchorman, Talladega Nights shares many of the same qualities. If you like the previous film, chances are you’ll like this one as well. Again the film uses endlessly silly comedy with characters that are arrogant, obnoxious, and dumb, yet it is funny because of the exaggerated sarcasm. Much like news anchors in Anchorman, Talladega Nights uses Nascar racing as a parody for the comedy. As ridiculous as much of it is you still have to admire the cleverness and of course the chemistry and energy of the performances. Ferrell makes a great comedic team with John C. Reilly as both are extremely gifted improv comedians. The film also has a very strong supporting cast (most notably Sacha Baron Cohen as the hilarious French racing champion and rival to Ferrell). Also making a nice appearance is the terrific Amy Adams, who manages to shine in the little depth she is given (as Ferrell’s assistant).Talladega Nights is the kind of comedy that doesn’t require much of it’s audience but at the same time it doesn’t discredit those looking to have a fun time. I don’t think this has quite as many laughs as McKay and Ferrell’s Anchorman, but I’d say it is just as entertaining overall.

2006, Spike Lee, United States
Repeat Viewing, DVD

“Let’s keep the real bad guys off the streets” says Denzel Washington near the end of the film, which seems to be making political statements with the standard conventions of genre filmmaking. With his latest film, The Inside Man, Spike Lee is doing something much different then he has ever done: a standard Hollywood genre heist film. While Inside Man is full of conventions and standard cliches it remains top-notch genre filmmaking. Lee manages to gives genre standards some complexities and the result is a deeply involving and rewarding film from start to finish. The film is not packed with an overload of twists (particularly towards the final act) as would be expected with this type of heist film. Lee structures the film with skill, also blending in some non-linear flashbacks to keep the audience thinking and interpreting their own conclusions. The film manages to be both fully engaging and entertaining while Lee still is able to subtly express his more traditional political and human elements all without ever losing focus or control of the direction. Inside Man is beautifully made and shot and also features some interesting music and outstanding dialogue and performances by the star-studded cast (lead by Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jodie Foster). Denzel is especially good in a Bogart-esque detective role (clothes, hat, and tough fast-talking dialogue included!) Maybe not on the masterpiece of its filmmakers greatest work (Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour), but Inside Man is an excellent film on many different levels.

August 10th Log

2001, Brian Helgeland, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

The version I watched of this 2001 film is the extended one, which runs almost 15 minutes longer then the original theatrical version. To date, this stands as the only version of the film I’ve seen so I can not really make any comparisons. Anyway, this is a whole lot of fun. The playful tone is set from the start as during the opening titles we are shown a medieval setting with modernized twists (a crowd singing “We Rock You” in unison). The technique of modern music and tone is refreshing and gives the film a wide range of appeal without ever felling gimmicky. It also works with the film parallels to the world of medieval and modern sports, but above all it works to parallel the human spirit, which this film very vividly celebrates. There is really a lot to admire about this film, be it the refreshing originality, youthful energy, and outstanding characters. Lead by Heath Ledger (who proves here he was a talented actor well before his terrific performance in Brokeback Mountain), A Knight’s Tale features a cast of characters that is irresistibly likable. Each is given equal time to shine in the supporting roles, but Paul Bettany is especially solid as the writer/gambler named Chaucer. If there was a flaw with the cast I must say I found Shannyn Sossamon a bit dull (although she is cute, something just seemed a little off to make the romance as magical or charming as it could have been). However, this is really a deeply entertaining film throughout. A strong mix of comedy, adventure, action, and romance. Those looking for historic accuracies may not be happy, but anyone looking for a fun time or more importantly looking for accuracies of the human spirit will enjoy every moment of this film (and will probably even get up and start dancing along when David Bowie kicks in with “Golden Years”).

August 9th Log

2006, Woody Allen, United Kingdom / United States

1st Viewing, Theater

Woody Allen follows up one his very best films (Match Point) with this light-hearted comedy. The setting is once again London and again Scarlett Johansson stars, but the tone is much different then the serious philosophy of Match Point. Is the film flawed? Probably. Is it anything different then we’ve seen from Woody Allen? No. Is it effective? Absolutely! Especially for those who have admired Allen’s films. There is nothing new here (he seems to be borrowing from many of his own movies- notably Manhattan Murder Mystery, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). However there really is a whole lot of laughs and charm that make it an unmistakably endearing film. The chemistry amongst the cast is pitch-perfect. Woody Allen gives one of his best screen performances and he shines with Johansson in a way he did with Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton. Together they have such a likable comic connection, and Johansson carries a stunning presence of beauty with the littlest of effort (here she plays a much different role then the femme fatale of Match Point, yet is just as sexy). There are certainly little flaws and holes to this film that give it the impression Allen whipped it up in no time. However, the intention of the film is laid back fun (Allen even steers clear of making overt references to European cinema) and mostly relies on the witty chemistry among the cast. For this Scoop works and is nowhere near being among Allen’s worst comedies (of which I’d consider to be Hollywood Ending). Scoop will probably annoy those who don’t like Allen, but fans of his films will appreciate this for what it is.

2006, Rian Johnson, United States

1st Viewing, DVD

The film is pretty much a straight forward neo-noir detective film, but the setting is a suburban High School. Rather then used as a gimmick, this gives the film a new post-modern and refreshing perspective on the detective genre that has rarely been seen. Not only seen, but in the case of this film, heard- as the use of dialogue fits the unique and modernized setting. All kinds of catch phrases are used here and even if they are difficult to comprehend at times it all flows within the well executed plot of the film. Brick is a film that could easily become contrived, yet credit to first-time filmmaker Rian Johnson (who wrote and directed) as well as his talented cast of young actors: lead by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who follows ups his outstanding performance in last years Mysterious Skin with another terrific performance as Brendan, a student looking to discover the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. The supporting cast is also well represented and they do a fine job (Lukas Haas as “The Pin”, Nora Zehetner in the femme fatale role, Matt O'Leary as Brendan friend, and always sexy Meagan Good as Kara). There is no sense of consequence, doom, or shadowy visuals that are most evident in the quintessential noirs, but this film is well made and daring to be original. Obvious comparisons can be made to its influences (most notably The Maltese Falcon), Brick is made with respect and intelligence. It’s a refreshing film that oozes with coolness. It is the type of film that can easily capture a generation of cult status with it’s unique use of dialogue and of the detective genre. The title is one of the many unusual catch-phrases of the film and perhaps it’s meaning can be referred to as “The stuff dreams are not made of.”

August 8th Log

2006, Richard Linklater, United States

1st Viewing, Theater

The great American filmmaker Richard Linklater takes his most trademark elements of slacker youth into a complex and ambitious future world based on Philip Dick’s novel. The novel takes place in 1991 (it was published in 1977), but Linklater’s film is set in California “seven years from now”. Taking combinations of neo-noir, science fiction, and Linklater's usual liberal-minded and free youthful approach, A Scanner Darkly becomes a deeply fascinating, bizarre, and thought-provoking cinematic experience. It is a film that challenges the audience with it’s intelligence, ambition, depth, and wide range of tones and genres. Ultimately the film centers on the very essence of reality and identity, as well as dreams and memories or human connections and personal truth. The films mood is captured through the use of animation (which is the same effects used on Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life). Here the animation is more controlled and focused on the characters rather then psychological ideas. The animation adds an extra layer of depth but so does the outstanding musical score provided by Graham Reynolds. And of course, Linkater’s dialogue is always evident and here he has a cast of well-known actors delivering (Keanu Reeves gives one of his very best performances in this film). A Scanner Darkly is also a political film but one in which the filmmakers leave for intellectual and spiritual thought rather then judgment. Linklater is a filmmaker I greatly admire. He’s had success working in-between both the Hollywood mainstream and the personal independents, as well as finding a middle ground. I do believe Linklater reached his peak with the 2004 masterpiece Before Sunset, which to me is among the most perfect films ever made!! Linklater may never top that film, but he is capable of making great films and A Scanner Darkly is certainly that. This is a film I look forward to viewing again in the near future and one first viewing I rate it among the best films I’ve seen in 2006.

1934, Norman McLeod, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

I have only seen a couple W.C. Fields comedies, but It’s a Gift is often considered among his most acclaimed. This is a pretty funny film, held together mostly by the gifted comedic presence of Fields. Even at 70 minutes, I think the film works better as sequences then as a whole. However there are some truly wonderful comedic moments (none more then the forever memorable Carl LaFong insurance man sequence). Director Norman McLeod was one of the most respected comedy directors of the era (most known for his work with the legendary comedians The Marx Brothers). It’s a Gift was voted among the AFI’s Funniest 100 Movies (#58) and you can certainly see the appeal that Fields has, particularly in the verbal delivery of the comedy. I still need to see more Fields films but his Harry Bissonette is one to remember even if only for it’s hilarious sequences as opposed to a narrative whole.

August 7th Log

2000, Olivier Assayas, France / Switzerland
1st Viewing, DVD

Usually known for his smaller-scaled, original indie films, Olivier Assayas directs this sweeping period epic based off a source novel. The film is a beautifully crafted one in which Assayas seems to have found something deeply personal within the story and his passion is evident on screen. The film is rich with depth and texture, and the 3-hour running time never feels too long. One of Assayas great skills as a filmmaker is his use of sounds (notably off-screen, like the great French master Robert Bresson) and the impact is evident again here. Like many of the great New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s, Assayas began in the French film critic magazine Cahiers du cinema. Today he is one of French cinemas finest filmmakers. Les Destinees displays Assayas versatile gifts as an artist. This is a sweeping film that slowly builds and absorbs the viewer into it’s story (which centers around the life of Jean, a Protestant pastor who leaves his wife and moves to Switzerland for a simpler life with a younger woman. However, longing, fate, and guilt leave Jean emotionally torn). Nothing is rushed or forced and all the emotion is expressed with the most subtle approach, which ultimately results in a more affecting result. Assayas also has a wonderful ability at making his films energetic and fresh, and even with Les Destinees (a slowly absorbing period epic), he again brings out a refreshing sense of energy. This is also aided by the stunning presence of Emmanuelle Beart who plays the young woman Jean falls in love with. Les Destinees is a deeply absorbing and unique film from Assayas, who is one of the most intriguing filmmakers of contemporary French cinema.

August 6th Log

1974, Francis Ford Coppola, United States
Repeat Viewing, Turner Classic Movies

Part of Turner Classic Movies ‘Summer Under the Stars’ Month in which they feature a new star each day. Today was Robert Duvall and on the schedule was one of the great American films of the 1970s, The Conversation. Borrowing a bit from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blowup, Francis Ford Coppola makes what may be his finest achievement as a filmmaker. The Conversation was made in-between the first two Godfather films, but as far as I’m concerned it equals and in many respects surpasses those legendary films. The Conversation is so technically flawless and deeply involving from it’s masterful opening sequence through it’s tense climax and into the beautiful final shots. The film is a complex character study and a superbly intense thriller that never shifts it’s focus and tone. It’s simply a masterfully crafted film. The music and sound perfect capture and heighten the emotional connection with the film (while obviously playing a crucial factor in it’s success). And of course the performance of Gene Hackman as the memorable Harry Caul is one of the great performances in American film. The Conversation is an essential classic of American cinema from one of the great innovators of the groundbreaking 1970s.

August 5th Log

2006, Michael Mann, United States
1st Viewing, Theater

With the feature film, Michael Mann takes the Miami Vice television series (a show he co-created and produced) into a new level. For starters it takes place in a different time period, one that lives within a world of globalization. Mann also stretches the ambition and that both improves and slightly affects the result of the film. I really liked this film, but if there is a flaw it is that is tied down to the plot (which is sometimes confusing- particularly in the beginning of the film). However, when everything begins to settle the film becomes much more involving and really it becomes much more of a definitive Michael Mann movie. Mann is at his best when working in genre and creating feeling, and atmosphere through his use of location (generally the city at night). Miami Vice really begins to settle in with the emergence of legendary Chinese actress Gong Li (who seems to be making a regular transition into Hollywood these days). Gong is a beautiful screen presence and her scenes with Colin Farrell captured a blend of energy, sexiness, and style that give Mann such a commanding atmospheric ability. The visual style (hand held cameras, close-ups, jumpy editing, scenes on rooftops) are also Mann trademarks that become evident. As are the characters: rebellious men working by their own rules, and the women who represent a chance of change and possibility for a “simpler” life. All the elements that have defined Mann as a great filmmaker, become evident again here in Miami Vice. I would not include it among Mann’s greatest genre achievements simply because it doesn’t express the feeling of place and time as effortlessly as Heat or Collateral. Yet this is a very good and exceptionally made film from a filmmaker with obvious gifts.

2005, Mark Waters, United States

1st Viewing, DVD

This film just didn’t work for me. I’ll always embrace a film that tries to recapture the old-fashioned joy of star-driven films but this was just a mess. I generally really like Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, and I think they are certainly capable of carrying this film, yet this is a very forgettable film. The formulaic nature of the script (as well as the one-dimensional characters and over use of montages) just made the whole experience a bit dull and dried out. This film has been made many times before. Fans of Witherspoon and Ruffalo will probably enjoy the film for the most part, as they do a capable job in the star-driven romantic roles. Maybe it takes a certain mood, but this film just left me bored and uninterested to see it again.

1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot, France

Repeat Viewing, DVD

This month I will be watching (or rewatching) many of the films from Henri-Georges Clouzot. Today I began by watching the film that brought Clouzot attention, 1943’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), which is his second feature. Made during the German occupation of France the film was inaccurately viewed as anti-French after the liberation and Clouzot was banned from work for a couple years. Clouzot didn’t make another film until 1947’s crime thriller Quai des Orfevres. His ban from filmmaking after Le Corbeau marked one of the many misunderstandings Clouzot faced (he was often unfairly classified with the tag ‘The French Hitchcock’, which certainly is a compliment but also unjust since he is clearly an original artists of his own). Clouzot was a master of atmosphere and mood and Le Corbeau displays his wonderful ability with contrasting lightness and darkness. Though the term became classified much later, Le Corbeau would certainly classify as a film noir and it definitely has a cruel and sarcastic edge that defines Clouzot’s work. Beautifully made, Le Corbeau is not Clouzot’s greatest masterwork, yet this is a deep absorbing thriller with a mood and philosophical depth that makes repeat viewings more exciting.

August 2nd Log

1999, Paul Thomas Anderson, United States
Repeat Viewing, DVD

I lost my gun today when I left you and I'm the laughingstock of a lot of people. I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to know and it's on my mind. And it makes me look like a fool. And I feel like a fool. And you asked that we should say things - that we should say what we're thinking and not lie about things. Well, I can tell you that, this, that I lost my gun today - and I am not a good cop. And I'm looked down at. And I know that. And I'm scared that once you find that out you may not like me” says Officer Jim Kurring (played by John C Reilly) in a moment that defines not only one of the many emotional layers of the film, but also the essence of it’s filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s one of the many beautiful moments of a masterpiece that remains among my personal favorites and a film I’ve revisit frequently. Some films have a transcendent power and beauty to connect on a deeply personal level and Magnolia as well as Anderson’s followup Punch-Drunk Love, would certainly classify as such films to me. Without question an all-time favorite!!!

August 1st Log

1992, Peter Jackson, New Zealand
1st Viewing, DVD

Before being the reigning master of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking (as he is today with such modern classics as Lord of the Rings and King Kong) Peter Jackson made some bizarre, low-budget independent gore films in his native New Zealand. The film starts off as an adventure (with early nods to Jackson’s beloved King Kong) before shifting into a romance and the turning into a horror gore fest of blood, guts, and anything you can think of. This is actually where the film gets most enjoyable simply because of the exaggeration of it all. Jackson captures a blend of George Romero zombie gore with a simple plot and love story (while also throwing in some little film homages such as King Kong and Psycho). The film is made with such a playful exaggeration and a wonderful sense of energy to keep the viewer highly entertained no matter how disgusting the content. Really the sense of silly fun is made very obvious to the viewer and the result is an inventive and energetic film that has the likeable cult-quality of Jackson‘s first film (Bad Taste).


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