Friday, September 15, 2006

September Archives #1

September 14th Log

2006, Paul McGuigan, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Lucky Number Slevin begins with a flashy and developing style that twists and turns while never really letting up. The film opens with what seems to be three prologues before things start. It quickly works everything together more and more, but you almost have to wonder if it’s too late. The film nearly, as the term goes “bites off more then it can chew”. I guess there is some sort of narrative as well as characters and dialogue that attempt to evoke elements of noir. Really the strength of the film is that the characters are well developed by a pretty strong ensemble cast (Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci), although the chemistry between Liu and Hartnett is a little dull. Another strong point to the film is the visuals, particularly the interior locations which seem to heighten the mysterious nature of the mood. The film really packs in the twists and turns throughout, many of which work and are rather clever. However, at the same you have to question whether the films overdoes it twists with the treatment of the Lindsay character ate the end of the film. Overall the film has its visual qualities and does have enough cleverness to make it watchable, even if soon forgettable.

1976, Volker Schlondorff, France / West Germany

1st Viewing, DVD

1976’s Coup de Grace is the 12th feature film by German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff. Of his work, I’ve only seen two other films (Young Torless, and The Tin Drum). While powerful films with strong intentions and a passionately made vision, Schlondorff’s work has never really connected with me on a lasting level. Coup de Grace left me with similar feelings, but I will say this is my favorite Schlondorff film to date. The story is a moving one which puts a romance within the contrast of politics and war (in this case the end of the Russian civil war). The performances are very good, particularly by Margarethe von Trotta who plays the woman passionately in love with a sexually repressed soldier. The film is powerful and even tragic, but Schlondorff leaves the emotional impact in a more reflective way for the viewer. It is left and open and mysterious and I applaud Schlondorff for challenging his audience. I think over time and with repeat viewings, this film can become appreciated on a deeper level.

September 13th Log

1994, Nicholas Hytner, United Kingdom
1st Viewing, DVD

“It was something he ate”, says Queen Charlotte to a crowd of on-lookers as her husband King George III is on the verge of an unknown madness/disease. The Queen is loyal and sympathetic towards the King during this illness and it is this stance that the film takes as well. Overall, The Madness of King George has a rather light-hearted tone, mostly in because of its witty and playful dialogue (capped off with a clever moment in which King George acts out Shakespeare’s King Lear). However there is a darkness and tragic tale to this look into the very essence of disease and of power, and of family (particularly the royal family). The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner who is a highly acclaimed theater director. His background in theater is evident as the film is setup and even performed very much as though it were on stage. The performances are excellent, but of course it is Nigel Hawthorne who is standout as King George. The always reliable Helen Mirren is also solid as Queen Charlotte. The performances and dialogue, as well as some insightful history give this film an appealing edge. It may not be the most cinematic experience, but it is very enjoyable and involving.

2005, Daniel Geller / Dayna Goldfine, United States

1st Viewing, DVD

Ballets Russes is a beautifully made documentary. I missed the opportunity to seee this play in the theater a couple months ago and after viewing the film I regret it more. This film does the most with some of it’s limited footage in that it beautifully blends together rare clips, still images, and insightful interviews. One of the films greatest strengths is that a complex thematic narrative emerges from all this, but the what it beautiful is that the filmmakers do not force this narrative, it simply comes about. If anything this film makes the viewer easily fascinated and interested in the art of ballet. Even those with little knowledge (such as myself) become deeply involved in both the historic aspects of the art form, the dancers, the choreography, and the Ballets Russes companies. This is a passionately made film and the passion is clearly represented on screen by a wide range of interview guests both old and young (and time is certainly a critical aspect to this film). Ballets Russes is a passionate film of reflection. It is an insightfully and in much the same way Michael Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes is, Ballets Russes is an incredibly enchanting film to experience.

September 12th Log

1966, Alian Resnais, France/Sweden
Repeat Viewing, DVD

The second half of this month I plan on rewatching some films from French auteur (and key contributor to the ‘Left Bank’ of the French New Wave movment), Alain Resnais. His 1966 film La Guerre Est Finie is a fascinating, complex, and philosophical experience that centers on Resnais' trademark subjects: memory and time. Following the story of an aging revolutionary searching for hope, Resnais adds his artistic and intellectual vision to create a truly involving, psychological, and political combination of suspense, drama, and romance. The performances are all incredible, particularly that of the great Ingrid Thulin. The final imposed image shot is absolutely brilliant and powerful, as the ending is left open. Really, much of the film is left open, as Resnais avoids unnecessary explanations or answers. Resnais always plays with linear narrative, and La Guerre Est Finie is no exception. Here Resnais effectively uses flashbacks as well as quick flashes of the future. This not only adds to the poetic themes, depth, and atmosphere, but also creates a haunting sense of doom to the film and it's characters. Also, as with most Resnais films, La Guerre Est Finie is certainly complex. It may even take several viewings to truly absorb it's meanings and impact. Ultimately, this is a film of the emotional and psychological results of a passionate and determined belief, which results in isolation. Even with it's complexities and philosophical examinations, the cinematic presence is undeniably engaging. The imagery is beautiful and Resnais' camera feels as though it's floating on air. Simply put, La Guerre Est Finie is an artistic masterpiece of the wonderful French New Wave era.

2005, Shane Black, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Featuring a highly energetic style, tough-guy dialogue, and shades of noir and dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film that oozes with cool. The film is the directorial debut of Shane Black (who wrote the Lethal Weapon films and the underrated action parody Last Action Hero). Similarly to Last Action Hero, one of the films essential themes in examining a contrast between fiction and reality (heighten by a narrator, Robert Downey Jr, who seems to be mocking his own narration). The performances are all likeable (notably Downey, Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan) but the film seems so content on it’s hyper-style and wit that any emotional connection is lost. However, there are some nice twists and clever laughs within the chaos and snappy dialogue and you can’t help but enjoy all the Hollywood references and parodies. Overall Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is clever if nothing inventive. It’s sort of a mess, but an energetic and lively mess. It certainly is a lot of fun.

September 9th Log

1945, David Lean, United Kingdom
Repeat Viewing, Turner Classic Movies

I love this film beyond description!! My personal dream is someday make a movie and if I ever do, I’m sure I will borrow (or should I say steal) from this perfect masterpiece. I seen this many times, but when I saw it on the Turner Classic Movies schedule, I had to give it another viewing. It's a breathtakingly poetic meditation of longing, guilt, and love. Brief Encounter is truly flawless in every aspect of filmmaking. The technical direction, the incredible acting, the profound voice narration and dialogue, the glorious black and white cinematography, and the sweeping musical score are all perfect. It's a film that dares the viewer to dream, through it's powerful nonlinear structure and romantic longing visual and emotional atmosphere. It's a film of touching and heartbreaking romance, and emotional involvement, particularly the ending, which is wonderfully moving ("Thank you for coming back to me"). This is simply one of the most moving and romantic films I've ever experienced. Brief Encounter is a timeless classic from one of cinema's truly great filmmakers. It is a film that connects on a transcendent level for me personally. This film is absolute perfection and undoubtedly among my personal all-time favorites!!

September 8th Log

2006, Allen Coulter, United States

1st Viewing, Theater

Hollywoodland is a finely crafted film which depicts the mysterious death of George Reeves, the actor who played the original Superman on television. Through flashbacks and non-linear narrative the film details various possibilities, and theories of the suicide death (among them is the possibility of murder). The films strength is in it’s cinematic achievement. Featuring a talented cast (lead by the perfectly casted Adrian Brody as the investigating detective, the always under-appreciated Ben Affleck as Reeves, Diane Lane as the obsessive femme fatale, and a particularly exceptional performance by Bon Hoskins as MGM executive Eddie Mannix). The period details and wonderful sense of atmosphere and location (obviously!) give this the look and feel of a neo-noir. Thoughts of Chinatown certainly come to mind especially at the moment Brody continues his investigation with a bloody face. One of the films other greatest asset is the depth of the character development as well as the always enjoyable Hollywood references and chatter. Also a great use of noir-style dialogue (tough and sexy). There is a mysteriousness and complexity to these characters and the film as a whole that make this such an intriguing film, and one that will hold up on repeat viewings. This is the directorial debut of Television veteran Allen Coulter and together with his cast and crew he has collaborated on an excellent film.

2004, Bahman Ghobadi, Iran / Iraq / France

1st Viewing, DVD

Turtles Can Fly (the first film to be made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein) is a film with undeniable force and emotional impact. The subject message alone (a village at the Turkish-Iraqi border just a few days away from the American invasion) is a deeply powerful one. The village is surrounded in land mines, from which many have suffered including one of the films critical characters. The film does a fine job of building tension, suspense, and despair. The performances by the entire non-professional cast (most of which are young children) are very solid. At times director comes close to forcing the emotional power on the viewer but the overall result is never really overly done. The film deals with innocence and war (as well as suicide) with honesty over a motivated political agenda.

1951, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan
Repeat Viewing, DVD

With Early Summer, Yasujiro Ozu uses a common theme of a young middle-class woman who rebels against her parents by choosing her own husband. Once again Setsuko Hara is radiant and Ozu's simplistic approach is transcendent. Here Ozu again flawlessly works with composition, as well as ensemble in observing the details of everyday living and family. Even for it simplicity Early Summer is endlessly complex and emotional in examining the lives of three generations of family. Ultimately Early Summer is a film of separation. It is beautiful and moving right up to its final sad and bittersweet moments as the camera moves away from the village (with a rare Ozu tracking shot which works with the opening shot of waves to represent the change and the cycle of life). This film holds a special place to me personally as it was the first Ozu film I ever saw. Early Summer remains among my favorite Ozu films and this belongs mention in the class of his greatest masterworks (Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon, Tokyo Twilight, Early Spring, Tokyo Story).

September 7th Log

2006, Neil Burger, United States / Czech Republic

1st Viewing, Theater

This appears to be the year of the magician. With Woody Allen’s Scoop prior and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige coming, here is another film dealing with magic. It is written and directed by Neil Burger, who follows up his acclaimed feature film debut (Interview with the Assassin), which I’ve yet to see. I really enjoyed this film (set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century. The focus and tricky of the filmmaking easily recalls the work of legendary filmmaker Orson Welles. The film is always deceiving us, and not just for a couple twists and turns or a big surprise. The overall storytelling is complex and ambitious. There is a twist, but it’s one left for the imagination and ultimately for the viewers own interpretation (very much like the that of the subject of magic throughout the film). There performances are solid by the entire cast. Ed Norton, Jessica Biel give the film an involving sense of romance. Paul Giamatti is especially terrific in a performance that rates among his best (and he has provided many memorable performances). Maybe the films greatest strength is the layers it provides through scenery, sets, costumes, and most particularly musical score (provided by Philip Glass). This is elegant, classic filmmaking that is both magical and romantic (as well as very entertaining). The films title is The Illusionist and in a sense every thing we see can be viewed as an illusion. The film is always playing with the viewer, yet if you are able to be captivated by it’s magical spell, it can be a very enthralling experience. I know I enjoyed it!

September 6th Log

2006, Paul Greengrass, United States / United Kingdom

1st Viewing, DVD

Directed by talented writer-director Paul Greengrass, this is made in his typical documentary-like style of hyper editing, information, atmosphere, and hand-held camera. The film tries to be as informative as it can as it begins with cross-cutting scenes of United 93 before takeoff with scenes from various air-traffic control centers monitoring the events taking place (of which include the attack on the Trade Center). When United 93 reaches the air, the film pretty much remains inside the plane. Wisely Greengrass keeps the sentimental feelings minimal with full focus on the details. How much of this is accurate remains a question, but Greengrass makes it believable without manipulating the emotional content of the film. The film does not really “introduce” us to the characters on an intimate level rather letting you view them as a whole. The film never really exploits the viewers emotions, but if there is a flaw you have to wonder if it exploits the event or more specifically the families. That is indeed a more complicated question, but one I certainly consider when debating whether I’d even watch this film again.

1967, Jacques Tati, France
Repeat Viewing, DVD

Criterion has re-released this DVD with a much improved. Not only more features but a much better print (including the original 70m mm version), plus the official full version of the film. I have seen this several times and with this terrific DVD, I plan on viewing the film many many more times. To me, it is easily one of the most endlessly watchable films of all-time. A personal favorite in every way! Though he made just six features film, French filmmaker Jacques Tati is one of the very greatest comedians in the history of film. A master of visual comedy that rates alongside the legendary figures of the silent cinema (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd). Tati was an artist in every sense. A perfectionist who controlled every detail without compromise. After his hysterical satire of modernized obsession (1958’s Mon Oncle) Tati grew tired of the Mr. Hulot character he was most known for, and as a result in Playtime he becomes more the observant and the film centers around “everybody”. The film took nearly ten years to complete and its production nearly put Tati in bankruptcy as well as giving the film public criticism upon and before it’s release. Needing a set to control every detail to perfection, Tati created the expensive creation that became known as “Tativille”. Ultimately Playtime is Tati’s great achievement and one of the very best in film history (particularly for Tati’s mastery of visual compositions and use of sound). Shot on 70mm film, Playtime is nearly without plot, dialogue or even close-ups, yet the comic inventions make it one of the most endlessly watchable films. Tati’s cinema blends charming and inventive visual gags, social satire, and a mastery of emotional expression through visual composition and sound. He stands as one of the worlds all-time greatest and most artistically expressive comedians. Thank you Criterion for this beautiful re-release. I will be revisiting this film again in the very near future!! If you’ve never seen a Tati film before, I would suggest starting with Mon Oncle or Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, but be sure to eventually check out Playtime, his finest masterpiece!

September 5th Log

1951, John Farrow / Richard Fleischer, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

What a bizarre yet strangely appealing film this is! An odd mix of film noir, classy romantic comedy, and farce, His Kind of Woman is truly unique. The film is essentially two parts both of which blend together elements of noir and farce. During the first half nothing relevant really happens or at least that the viewer is aware of. We are left like the main character (played by the great Robert Mitchum) left with uncertainly as to what he is exactly doing. In is these earlier moments that the film sets it tone, atmosphere, and of course it’s star-power. Mitchum is terrific and he is the perfect co-star to the ravishing Jane Russell. Both command screen attention, and together they have top-notch chemistry (the following year they collaborated again in Josef von Sternberg’s Macao). A pre-horror Vincent Price also makes a charming, scene-stealing appearance, and ultimately becomes the films real hero. The film features outstanding dialogue and an elegantly noir use of lighting and shadows (especially with walls and particularly low angle shots of ceilings). His Kind of Woman is produced by Howard Hughes and he clearly makes his presence with undertones of sex and aviation (he even includes an homage to his one of his own films). The undertones are nicely hidden as the film fought with the Production Code (mostly because of Hughes’ problems on The Outlaw and Scarface) with its use of violence and sex (notably Jane Russell’s curves). Hughes presence becomes most evident during the films bizarre third act. Not liking the ending by director John Farrow, Hughes hired Richard Fleischer to re-shoot and add scenes to the end which he wrote. The result is very Hughes evident in it’s extravagance and is actually strangely appealing. In a way the film becomes an interesting study into Howard Hughes, simply because as you are watching you can sense his presence creeping into the film more and more as it goes, and by the time it reaches the yacht, he has taken over (the film is much less Farrow’s or Fleischer’s then it is Hughes’). His Kind of Woman ends on a perfectly fitting note, as the scene blends together its star chemistry, with shades of noir contrasted by sudden strange moments of humor and romance, as well as hints of sex. I can’t say this film is not without it’s flaws, but I can’t deny the absolute enjoyment of watching yet.

1949, Anthony Mann, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Continuing with the Warner Brothers Film Noir Vol 3 collection is this very good film from the always interesting Anthony Mann. During the 1940s, Mann was one of the great B-noir filmmakers of Hollywood (in the 1950s he became more known and highly acclaimed for his unique Westerns). Border Incident is very much in the mold of Mann’s previous (and perhaps most well respected) 1940s noir, T-Men in that is features a similar artificial reality (or as some say a pseudo-documentary). It is Mann’s mastery of this artificial reality that makes the true expressiveness reveal itself. Particularly through the visual compositions which Mann controls every detail as a form of quintessential noir. Like T-Men, Mann uses complex visual imagery particularly in the use of camera angles to create a atmosphere and style of raw emotion and mixed genres. It also got that tough gritty look, feel, and dialogue as well as on-location scenery. Dealing with subjects of illegal immigration and through a highly stylish and expressive unique cinematic vision disguised as realism, Border Incident is trademark 1940s Anthony Mann.

September 4th Log

1947, Robert Montgomery, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Lady in the Lake is written by renowned novelist Raymond Chandler, and features his most famous character Phillip Marlowe. The film begins as Marlowe introduces himself and sets up the case. Then we literally see everything literally through Marlowe, as his eyes represent the camera. Robert Montgomery is the camera both as director and as actor (he is playing Marlowe). It is an interesting and different technique that is mostly attempting to take the viewer inside the case with Marlowe. The film incorporates several tricky methods including Marlowe in front of mirrors, getting kissed, driving, or getting punched in the face and blacking out. Ultimately it is nothing more then a gimmick and the effect becomes a bit dull after some time. The method was used far more effectively (and a lot less gimmicky later that year, in Delmer Daves Dark Passage). The interest level of the mystery is not on the level of many of Chandler film adaptations (which include Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, and The Big Sleep). The Big Sleep, which was made just a year prior, was a much more interesting Marlowe film because director Howard Hawks put the plot on its head and placed an emphasis on narrative flow, atmosphere, and performances instead of the who did what (the result is a film far more enjoyable and complex on repeat viewings). Of course, The Big Sleep was also aided by the great star chemistry of Bogart and Bacall as well as the sheer mastery of one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. Lady in the Lake is not in the class of The Big Sleep, and essentially it is just a gimmick film. I would recommended Dark Passage as the more impressive use of a subjective camera, but Lady in the Lake is still a worthy film to see mostly as an experimental noir.

1951, John Cromwell, United States

1st Viewing, DVD

This is a remake of Producer Howard Hughes 1928 silent film (directed by Lewis Milestone and nominated for Best Picture at the first ever Academy Awards). The film is part of a recent DVD noir set from Warner Brothers, but this is more a standard gangster/police genre film then anything else. Defining true noir is rather complex, but noir is more a style then it is a genre (though I guess it could be within or even part of a genre). However The Racket, is a standard genre film. I guess being a remake of a 1920s film is evident as this seems to be reminiscent of the gangster films from the early 1930s/late 1920s. Starring a talented cast of noir veterans (lead by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan) the film is well acted. Mitchum plays the old-fashioned cop who squares off with the old-fashioned crime boss (played by Ryan). The films focus is on the two characters inner battle with each other against a world and system of corruption. Both men are violent and act violently to get what they want (in Ryan’s case it is power, while for Mitchum is to get Ryan). The Racket is certainly a flawed and dated film. The cast is effective, but you have to think it would have been better off if Mitchum and Ryan had reversed their roles. A worthy cast (which also includes Lizabeth Scott), and overall a decent but rather forgettable film. If anything this encourages me to at least seek out the 1928 original.

2003, David Gordon Green, United States

Repeat Viewing, DVD

I have seen this film many many times. I absolutely love the feeling this film leaves me with: Breathless with joy and hope!! It’s beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, and absolutely lovely. David Gordon Green is a genius in my eyes. He is the next generations Terrence Malick: a poet of filmmaking. Green has made three films (all of which I believe to be great) and I think he will continue making great films, but I don’t know if he’ll ever surpass All the Real Girls. I love this filmmaker, I love this cast, I love this film. “You have my heart”

September 3rd Log

2002, Takeshi Kitano, Japan
1st Viewing, DVD

Directed by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (began as a standup comedian before moving to actor and eventually directing (of course he now also does the writing and editing for his films- which are mostly commonly known for stylish gangster bloodfest content) Dolls is a film that seems to be underrated or overlooked. The film was not a box office success either here or in Japan and it was not well received throughout the film festival circuit. As a narrative film this is pretty much a mess in that it lacks a traditional form of storytelling. However, to me the narrative works simply as a form of visuals. Dolls is style over substance. A beautifully made film that relies on its breathtaking scenery and expressive use of symbolism and colors. The film begins with a scene of early Japanese theater art (Bunraku), before transitioning into real life as we see a couple walking while tied together (they are referred to as the “bound beggars”). The film then moves on to detail how they became tied and then involves two other occasionally intertwined though unconnected stories. The stores are each connected thematically in that they ultimately detail a sacrifice for love. Through the use of highly stylized editing and visual compositions, Dolls is definitely an original film. It is overly “arty” at times, but the scenery, locations, and beautiful colors of the visual composition heighten the overall effectiveness of the film. There are Japanese rituals and traditions, as well as an overall homage to the artistic culture of the Bunraku theatre. Dolls is an ambitious film from a filmmaker never shy of ambition. There is a lot he wants to say here and Kitano does so in his own unique way. If you’ve never seen a film from Kitano, you may want to begin elsewhere, but this should be one to eventually check out.

2001, Wayne Wang, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Most known for his family-focused and sentiment melodramas, Wayne Wang has also mixed in some of his own “arty” films. To me his melodramas and family-fare (like Joy Luck Club, Because of Winn Dixie, Anywhere But Here, or even Made in Manhattan) surpass his attempts to be an artistic filmmaker. Like his previous attempt (1997’s Chinese Box), Wang co-wrote this film and I applaud the personal passion of the work. However, like the 1997 film this suffers from being so forceful in it’s metaphoric messages that the film ultimately becomes a dull experience. If you can find away to absorb into the film, I imagine it can be effective, as it is beautiful shot and well structured. The film is very erotic but certainly not sexy (the grainy, low budget digital video makes it look and feel closer to softcore porn). There are all types of metaphoric messages the film tries to force the audience and though they are less obvious and more open then Wang’s Chinese Box, the film is equally dull and even less interesting. This is not a horrible film, but I personally much more prefer Wang’s studio work.

2000, Kenneth Lonergan, United States
Repeat Viewing, DVD

“Why do they always put braces on teenage girls at the exact moment they are most self-conscious about their appearance?”, says a wife to her husband as they are driving at night. It is the simple and quiet little moment that opens the film where we can immediately identify with the truth and intelligence it has to offer. Despite being such a small and simple film, it's amazing how truly powerful and effective You Can Count On Me is. The script is an absolute work of brilliance! Writer-Director Kenneth Lonergan (in his directorial debut) has found the depth and truth of human experience as few films can capture. The pains, sadness, joy, guilt, and hope that makeup the realities of living. Not once does Lonergan disrespect the audience or the films characters with unmotivated actions. You Can Count On Me is also a film of morals. The films title essentially represents the brother and sister relation of the main characters. But whos it related to: Sammy? Terry? Probably both, as each needs each other. The performances are not to go without mentioning, because they're truly special by all involved in the film (especially the brother-sister leads played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo). You Can Count On Me is a smart and touching film with a script and characters audiences can relate to and care for.

September 1st Log

2006, Albert Brooks, United States
1st Viewing, DVD

Written and directed by Albert Brooks, this is an insightful and entertaining film. Brooks has definitely made some great films (Defending Your Life being my favorite) and this would have to be considered among them. As he seems to in many of his films, Brooks examine and even ridicule himself, most notably his own comedic persona as here he plays himself. The film is both a self-expression of Brooks as a fading or even doubtable comedian while also looking into the ignorance Americans have towards other cultures. Looking For Comedy in a Muslim World is a film that challenges the way we view cultures, comedy, and even Albert Brooks (as early as the open scene where Brooks meets Penny Marshall to get the role for the remake of Harvey). Looking For Comedy in a Muslim World is an intelligent, humorous, bold and compassionate film that is made at a perfect time.


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