jsmog

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Reviews

High-Rise
(2015)

Hews almost too close to the book
No spoilers...none are necessary. If you've read the book, you might find it hard to imagine a better adaptation. The poor reviews of the film would probably be just as confused by the book, a classic Ballard which takes an ordinary situation (although relatively new when he wrote it in the early 1970s), a self-contained skyscraper, and allows it to degenerate into a modern jungle. Those who know Ballard well and admire him as I do might be apprehensive about any film version of his work, but so far the three I've seen are spot-on, the perverse hilarity of "Crash", Spielberg's maudlin but effective "Empire of the Sun", and now this. The decision to set the story back in an alternative, dystopian '70s is a good one, because it is hard to imagine this story set in our future...even though the brilliant thing about the book (less the film) is the way Ballard made this strange descent into primitive madness seem not merely interesting, but inevitable.

Maigret
(1991)

Great Psychological Exploration of Georges Simenon
There are two great Maigret adaptations available online or in DVDs from the 1990s, the British version done by Granada for two seasons in 1992, starring Michael Gambon, and the Dune French version that lasted from 1991 until 2005 with Bruno Cremer. Both have strong qualities, although in many ways they are completely opposite. Gambon's Maigret is affable, poetic, emotional, sympathetic, and works in close concert with his men; his Paris (Budapest) is sunny and bright. Cremer's Maigret is taciturn and intense, preferring to wait silently while people reveal themselves, riding his men hard at times, especially the often incompetent officers he encounters outside of Paris; and his Paris (Prague) is always gray or pitch black, dark wet streets, his pipe glowing. In many ways the visual look of the shows are opposite, with the British series relying more on the romance and nostalgia of Paris, while the French series is a showcase for the dark psychological mysteries of Simenon. The French series hews more closely to the original stories, and also has the advantage of the episodes being 30 minutes longer; it is also a more complete canon, with nearly 5 times as many stories. In the Gambon series, Gambon is more pleasant, his men work with him as a clever team, and we see much more of Mme. Maigret, who appears in nearly every episode, but the humor and the characterizations are typically British, which can be somewhat disconcerting. The Cremer Maigret varies in quality with the directors, but he is almost always brilliant, playing his hunches and guiding his investigations with a deep psychology that truly honors the original Simenon novels. And it goes almost without saying, the French version pulls no punches and has a much darker way of exploring aspects of the French character that the heart of Simenon; Cremer spends a lot of time listening to people and asks questions which seem strange but reveal hidden truths. Gambon's Maigret does more of the talking and seems to succeed more through luck and teamwork, which may be failings of the shorter format and the transition from French to English storytelling. I'm fond of them both, but the Cremer Maigret is one of my favorite television programs, with plenty to love, at over 75 hours. It is also possible to watch the Cremer Maigret's over and over, picking out new clues and details, but there is no such depth to Gambon's Maigret.

Maigret
(1992)

One of the two great Maigret adaptations of the 1990s
There are two great Maigret adaptations available online or in DVDs from the 1990s, the British version done by Granada for two seasons in 1992, starring Michael Gambon, and the Dune French version that lasted from 1991 until 2005 with Bruno Cremer. Both have strong qualities, although in many ways they are completely opposite. Gambon's Maigret is affable, poetic, emotional, sympathetic, and works in close concert with his men; his Paris (Budapest) is sunny and bright. Cremer's Maigret is taciturn and intense, preferring to wait silently while people reveal themselves, riding his men hard at times, especially the often incompetent officers he encounters outside of Paris; and his Paris (Prague) is always gray or pitch black, dark wet streets, his pipe glowing. In many ways the visual look of the shows are opposite, with the British series relying more on the romance and nostalgia of Paris, while the French series is a showcase for the dark psychological mysteries of Simenon. The French series hews more closely to the original stories, and also has the advantage of the episodes being 30 minutes longer; it is also a more complete canon, with nearly 5 times as many stories. In the Gambon series, Gambon is more pleasant, his men work with him as a clever team, and we see much more of Mme. Maigret, who appears in nearly every episode, but the humor and the characterizations are typically British, which can be somewhat disconcerting. The Cremer Maigret varies in quality with the directors, but he is almost always brilliant, playing his hunches and guiding his investigations with a deep psychology that truly honors the original Simenon novels. And it goes almost without saying, the French version pulls no punches and has a much darker way of exploring aspects of the French character that the heart of Simenon; Cremer spends a lot of time listening to people and asks questions which seem strange but reveal hidden truths. Gambon's Maigret does more of the talking and seems to succeed more through luck and teamwork, which may be failings of the shorter format and the transition from French to English storytelling. I'm fond of them both, but the Cremer Maigret is one of my favorite television programs, with plenty to love, at over 75 hours. It is also possible to watch the Cremer Maigret's over and over, picking out new clues and details, but there is no such depth to Gambon's Maigret.

Decko koji obecava
(1981)

One of the great hidden gems of post-punk in film
Many of the things that I love about this film are personal - the characters were my age in 1981, the music is the music I listened to, and two of my best friends in high school were Serbian. When we saw this film at a UCLA festival in 1988 with their parents, I'll never forget after the credits rolled, and their mom stood up and slapped them. It hit a bit too close to home for her.

A medical student gets hit in the head by his girlfriend, a blow that unleashes his inner punk rocker. Like other films of this era, this one perfectly captures this unbottled angst. The film itself is thrown in your face gently, with a lo-fi background of old phones, tape players and late '70s tech that seems nostalgic now, but at the time was groundbreaking in exploring how music was liberating young people around the world, even in Yugoslavia. It hints at subjects like gender-identity and sexual equality that did not really surface until a decade later.

It's also, incidentally, an excellent compendium of music from the New Wave/post-punk scene in Yugoslavia at this time.

Apocalypto
(2006)

Pretty but rather unbelievable
I was surprised at the number of strong reviews for this film...it contains two errors that rendered it ridiculous for me.

First of all, the film is full of "deus ex machina" moments, like most adventure movies, where the hero is saved in the nick of time, but I've always found them ridiculous and uncomfortable. I like seeing people get by on their wits and skills, not some silly coincidence. And two of them in this film are doozies.

First, the hero is about to be sacrificed when he is saved by an eclipse of the sun, which terrifies the Mayans. This is an old yarn in European-meets-savage stories going back hundreds of years. It is especially galling when used against the Mayans, who at their peak could have predicted an eclipse better than any European culture.

Second, the hero is again saved when his last two pursuers are stunned into silence, and let him go (even though he has killed several of their friends) by the sight of Spanish ships on the horizon. The Spanish did not arrive in Mesoamerica until several hundred years after the Mayan empires where memories, and they did not explore the Yucatan until many years after they had successfully conquered the Aztecs.

The film is fascinating to look at, but these kinds of errors (and many others which seem to conflate the Mayans with the later Aztec Empire) make it a one-screening film for me. A more interesting film along similar lines is the Mexican "Cabeza de Vaca", which strives to tell a true story with some accuracy about the Mesoamericans.

Cosi fan tutte: O, la escuela de los amantes
(1996)

One of the strangest adaptations of an opera imaginable
Pretty much a direct performance of "Cosi Fan Tutte" by Mozart and Da Ponte, it is the visuals of this Mexican adaptation that will blow your mind. Much of it appears to be shot with very cheap green screens, setting the story in contemporary Acapulco. Instead of being disguised as Albanians, for example, the men in the story disguise themselves as luchadores (Mexican wrestlers) and during many of the arias the singers are doing typical Acapulco things, cliff diving, water skiing, etc. Many of the backgrounds projected on the green screens are vintage films or Mexican commercials from the 1960s, giving this version of the opera an almost hilarious aspect.

Hickey & Boggs
(1972)

Kill, kill, kill; dead, dead, dead
The early '70s was a goldmine for Los Angeles noir, as the city matured and the independent film came along for the ride. On the surface, this film is a great example: a complex, almost viscerally intuitive plot, excellent cinematography, decent and often interesting direction and editing, and like so many films shot during this period in Los Angeles, a kind of pre-nostalgia for the often-dark place that was disappearing, and turning into something even worse, a place of mindless, impersonal violence, with the bland corporate character of the late 20th century.

That said, the film suffers from perhaps being too understated, and certainly too nihilistic. Fans of Walter Hill might take issue, but this is a problem I have with most of his films; while they might be visually interesting and often brilliant, they are so hopeless as to make one wonder, as the characters in this film do aloud, what the point is. In this film there are two survivors, the title characters; nearly every other character is killed or so one-dimensionally hateful that it renders the conclusion quite unsatisfying. I especially felt the lack of character permitted to Cosby and Culp; while they were certainly playing against their debonair banter in "I Spy" on purpose, Hill's screenplay renders them so oppressed and silent that they are almost outside the story, like some existential Pinter characters dropped in to intentionally find the rock-bottom. It was a valiant effort, but after the final carnage, I found it so pointless and yet a clear sign where Hill was going, into a glamorous, beautiful world of violence for its own sake.

Donnie Darko
(2001)

A Wonderfully Made Film with a Flawed Premise
I want to say first that I really enjoyed this film...for the first 100 minutes, I thought it was the best I'd seen in years. My problem came with the ending. Although there is more explanation in the director's cut of "Donnie Darko", it does nothing to change the fact that this is three different films, but the ending picks one (science fiction) and renders the other two possibilities (a religious parable or a film about teenage angst) moot. That said, the acting is great, the writing is sharp, the editing is crisp...one of the best movies I've ever seen, and I understand why many younger people feel so passionately about it. I am a few years older than the director (I graduated high school in 1983) so I also appreciate the generational quality of the film.

My problem is, for the first 90 minutes of the film, I thought I was watching a really fantastic film about a young man who might be schizophrenic, with all that entailed for his family and friends. I began to wonder if the religious allegories might be more appropriate. Then, with the ending, it suddenly became nothing more than "Groundhog Day" or "Memento"...a better-than-average Twilight Zone "alternate universe story". I might have suspected this at the very beginning (when the jet engine should have killed Donnie) but thought this was a leading to something grander than the old "you have a month to get your life in order" scenario. I really did like it, but I have to give a strong negative for this cheated feeling I had after. This is what always results from a "deux ex machina", which Donnie actually mumbles at the end, his tormentor's knife at his throat. "What the f**k did you say?" the bully responds, and I groaned to Mr. Kelly, the director, "thanks for telling me NOW." Too bad. My complaints are much more eloquent detailed by Lawrence Person, who reviewed the film for Locus: http://www.locusmag.com/2003/Reviews/Person04_Darko.html

Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte
(1971)

An Interesting If Obscure Film About Fassbinder and His Friends
The disparity in the comments for this film really speaks to how much Fassbinder is a matter of taste, although a lot of the complaints might be due to all the references within the film to other films and to Fassbinder's own life. I'll just add that I loved this film, but I enjoy all of Fassbinder's work, even to the point where they make you dizzy or despise the man and all he wants to say. He is definitely NOT for most people...especially those who don't appreciate dry German humor. I was laughing through this whole thing...especially the way he mocks the way the traveling film company treats the local Italians (the film was set in Spain, but I believe it was actually shot in Ischia.)

You might enjoy it more if you understand a few things I noticed about it: 1) No one really pointed out how autobiographical it is...to an extreme. Since Fassbinder is using many of the friends he worked with in experimental theatre, they are essentially all playing each other, and obviously enjoying it. This makes the movie essential for Fassbinder fans. 2) There's Eddie Constantine, so this, technically, is Fassbinder's contribution to the Lemmy Caution series, much as Godard did with "Alphaville". 3) Another cinephile noted the reference to "Last Year at Marienbad"; the entire broken style of the end of the film seems to me a gentle mocking of all the Nouvelle Roman and experimental film coming out of Europe at the end of the 1960s. 4) This makes an interesting comparison not just with "Day for Night", but also "The State of Things", Wim Wenders film-within-a-film. I've also seen this film called boring, and it certainly could be seen as such; making movies IS boring. Fassbinder's interpretation is actually racing along compared to Wenders', but Wenders always has his exquisite cinematography to fall back upon. If you call it "boring", it is only because you've failed to accommodate the intent of the film. If it was trying to tell an exciting story, yeah, you would see it as a failure. But as a character study of a film company on location (I believe they were actually filming "Whity" at the same time in Ischia), this is relatively quick, to the point (less!) and a great opportunity to see how the earliest Fassbinder envisioned his own early success.

The Removers
(2001)

Humans battle aliens for the survival of the Earth
When a group of us worked as extras on this film, we had no idea of the final product, a high-velocity tear through the streets of Hollywood and Jon Schnepp's incredible computer-generated landscapes. Agent Silver, a "remover" assigned to expel Orlontix invaders from our planet, discovers an alien artifact which may hold the power to destroy them all. With the help of Agent Pink, he holds them off at a strange nightclub, only to be "removed" himself. But after eliminating their "hive", Agent Pink activates the artifact, where a tiny alien emerges to do battle with the Orlontix. In an amazing sequence, the Orlontix create a doppelganger Earth and set it on a collision course; the two doppelganger moons collide first in a shower of rocks. But as Agent Silver and the captive Dr. Garvin attack the Orlontix from within, their alien ally transforms to neutralize the double Earth from without.

The Cross and the Switchblade
(1970)

The best psychedelic 1960s Christian "West Side Story"...may contain spoilers
Without a doubt, Erik Estrada's first role was his greatest, and why Pat Boone didn't collect any prizes just blows my mind. Preacher Pat comes to New York City and steps into a gang war between the Maus Maus and the Bishops...an alternate universe where a conglomerate white/Latino gang is named for Kenyan freedom fighters and Estrada sweats out a Broadway performance as real-life reformed gangster Nicky Cruz. When Pat decides to hold a youth rally in a hall "big enough for all the gangs and junkies in New York", one of his local converts snickers, "that won't fit any hall, that'll fill the Grand Canyon." Yeah, but even the Big Apple is tamed by the power of Jesus in this bizarre Afterschool Special, such as when Pat and his friends pray away the withdrawals of Estrada's junky girlfriend, sent by the gang leader with a switchblade to kill the meddling man of God for a mere $10 fix. Not a soul can resist Boone's exhortation, "Come on with all your hang-ups, and let Jesus clean you up." The camp in this 1960s Christian masterpiece rarely wavers; the price of admission, however, is definitely a two bong-hit minimum. Enjoy.

Fire in the Water
(1977)

Yet another ode to that decade, the 1960s...
A man decides to edit a documentary on the 1960s at a remote cabin in the Scottish Highlands. His girlfriend wanders through the bracken, looking for a waterfall, and has encounters with various dead and live animals. If you really, really like the Highlands or you like archival footage from the 1960s, there is plenty of both in this simple, personal film. It even has a soundtrack with Pink Floyd and the Doors' "The End" (the year before "Apocalypse Now"). Some of the archival recordings are unique; such as David Hockney shooting off his mouth, Allen Ginsberg reading at a large hall, an anti-war "living theatre" spin off in London, and a man beating a chicken to death against a piano (seriously). What this film is really about or how it resolves itself is up to you to decide; the last film Whitehead directed.

Daddy
(1973)

A beautiful train-wreck...may contain a spoiler
I've long been a fan of the sculpture of Niki de Saint Phalle, so I really looked forward to seeing her speak and move in the flesh. Whitehead is a very personal director, and along with her intensely personal story, it is almost hard to watch this film. Apparently Whitehead wanted to do a biographical story about St. Phalle, but instead she wrote a 90-minute rant about her father, and acts out his sexual abuse of her while she tortures him, first by sexualizing her mother, then by bringing in a "young girl from the convent". The nutty piano repeating over and over in the background emphasizes the insanity of the whole film. St. Phalle is in her early forties and still very attractive here, but her therapeutic and ritualized dissection of her father doesn't feel successful, and I came away from this film feeling sad for her. Recommended only to people with a strong interest in the artist. The direction and cinematography are merely competent.

Cord
(2000)

Right between awful and terrible
It's hard to criticize this movie, because I dislike the story itself, and no amount of good acting would have saved it. Think "Raising Arizona" with a mean streak. The acting is passable, but Jennifer Tilly is way over the top (yet not enough to make this a nice camp film) as usual, coming in somewhere between "Misery" and a sarcastic DMV employee. The rest of the cast have their brows perpetually knitted in consternation, either from the stress of their parts or the stress of the whole futile exercise. A real degrading few hours of film. Darryl Hannah spends most of the movie weeping too hard to be understood. I wish I could tell you how it ended but I walked out, sorry.

Pearl Harbor
(2001)

One of the silliest war films ever made
If you can't say something nice... What tripe, full of historical inaccuracies and weak special effects (such as the Oklahoma turning turtle). It tries to capture the horror of Pearl Harbor with "Saving Private Ryan" intensity, but only mocks itself. For the real story, get "Tora Tora Tora" or Ford's documentary. For the real feeling, go visit the Arizona in Oahu.

Der Stand der Dinge
(1982)

A masterpiece of early Wenders and 1980s Los Angeles
From the first time I saw it, this film resonated strongly on two levels; first, it is an excellent example of Wenders at his best: an almost dreamy progression of exactingly composed images, mysterious characters, a "story" which comes as close as film can to "truth", and for the cineastes in the audience, a complex dialogue with films of the past. But my second reason for loving this film is far more personal. As a teenager growing up in Hollywood during the early 1980s, I knew nothing about Wim Wenders or film history, but friends guided me to this film because of the soundtrack and the images at the end, inside an RV wandering aimlessly in Hollywood. This is, as far as I know, the first film to use either X or Joe Ely in the soundtrack. It also captures a lost city with amazing precision; almost every shot at the end contains some nostalgic element, from Tiny Naylor's drive-in to the Parisian Room, from Schwab's Pharmacy to the white smog in Laurel Canyon. This is a great film, but for Los Angelenos of my generation, it's a treasure-trove.

Muscle Beach
(1948)

A post-war LA classic
I agree with the previous comments...this is a classic. You often see snippets of this film, with the graceful weightlifters and acrobats of Muscle Beach, in documentaries about LA during this period. But I was delighted to see the whole film, with its goofy singing narration, shot at the old Muscle Beach between the Santa Monica Pier and the now-demolished pier at Ocean Park.

Interviews with My Lai Veterans
(1971)

The best Vietnam documentary around
Recently seeing this short documentary again, its relevance was amazing. This film includes interviews with about five veterans of the My Lai massacre in 1968, when under the apparent orders of their superiors they killed every man, woman and child in this village. Each interview was done in a different place, nicely photographed by Haskell Wexler, but it is the men themselves, dryly describing how they destroyed the village of My Lai, that makes this one of the most intense films of the 1960s.

The Savage Eye
(1959)

The best film about LA street life ever made
That sounds like a heady comment, "best film about LA street life ever made," but I stick by it. Encapsulated in the rather thin plot, about a divorcee wandering the city, this is really a documentary on Los Angeles in 1959, and an amazing one at that. No one who lives here should feel they really know what it was like until they see this film, which includes footage of a New Year's celebration, the roller derby, a wrestling match, a strip club, and yes, the Second Street Tunnel again.

The Pianist
(2002)

Great exposition on the horrors of war.
This film was not what I expected...not really a film about the Holocaust, instead it shows in terrible detail the struggle of one man, obviously privileged and famous, who for all his talent and renown barely survives the occupation of Warsaw by the Germans. The first movie I've seen which shows something of the Polish resistance.

Pearl Harbor
(2001)

One of the silliest war films ever made
If you can't say something nice... What tripe, full of historical inaccuracies and weak special effects (such as the Oklahoma turning turtle). It tries to capture the horror of Pearl Harbor with "Saving Private Ryan" intensity, but only mocks itself. For the real story, get "Tora Tora Tora" or Ford's documentary. For the real feeling, go visit the Arizona in Oahu.

The Blair Witch Project
(1999)

If you're scared of the woods, this is the film for you.
I saw this film long after the hype had passed, in December of 2000. As someone who does quite a bit of hiking, this film hit home. It has the problems of any low-budget film, but the overriding fear of the strange things that happen in the woods (and every hiker has such a story) really hit home. Highly recommended.

Candy
(1968)

Not exactly what you were expecting
Utterly bizarre, but a wonderful trip into 1968 which really catches the feeling of cultural change in the air. A lot of Hollywood stars do cameos of varying success; Burton and Brando are undoubtedly the best. If you expect narrative continuity, forget it, but if (like some of my friends), you think it's fun to get stoned and sit through Tarkofsky's "Solaris", you will enjoy this romp.

The Outsider
(1967)

The strangest detective film you'll ever see...
Living in a rattling house beside the Hollywood Freeway, McGavin plays a hard-luck detective, who resembles the character he played later in the "Night Stalker". He pursues a missing girl through the underbelly of 1967 Los Angeles, going from some Hollywood Hills decadence with a wild gay couple (think "Vanishing Point"), down to a go-go on the Sunset Strip, and eventually find her tripping on LSD in the Malibu shack of a part-time "guru", while the man's mother watches a game show in the other room with headphones. This scene, with McGavin waiting on the couch, both the mother and the girl on LSD laughing hysterically, is one of the weirdest. I hope this one gets released someday--it definitely stands on its own and is a a fun vehicle for McGavin, although the later show apparently failed miserably. As a noirish late 1960s portrayal of Los Angeles, this one is right up there with "The Long Goodbye" and "Marlowe". Indeed, as the writer moved on to "The Rockford Files", this is very closely linked to the stylish "Marlowe".

Los caifanes
(1967)

The first of a great genre
The first and the best of a small genre, "Los Caifanes" preceded "After Hours", "Something Wild" and other films by a decade. Two middle class people find themselves caught up in a whirlwind of mysterious Downtown nightlife. Sound familiar? This film did it first, and if you know about the turmoil in Mexico City during this time, took full advantage of the statement.

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