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Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray (1982)
Lengthy documentary featuring clips by and interviews with the great filmmaker. It covers a lot of ground and all aspects of his work, with generous clips from many of his films (newcomers might take note that there are a few minor spoilers, but nothing to get too upset about). Perhaps not as in-depth as it could be, but a good overview to his career with some interesting insights. It renewed and confirmed my excitement for his films. The long sequence at the beginning, featuring Ray working on the set of GHARE BAIRE, is not as compelling you would hope for, though.



The Bandit
After 35 years in prison, a mountain bandit goes to Istanbul to find the man who betrayed him and stole his lady. Nothing much new here, dredging up a lot of the usual gangster/revenge/fish out of water motifs, but it does a decent job of pulling you in and manages a certain freshness despite the familiarity of the material. Some of the larger dramatic scenes are painfully clichéd, but it's pieced together nicely and has some pretty good character moments. I get the feeling Turgul is a more talented director than a writer. Sener Sem (who I just realized was also in that lousy "Rascals" movie I recently watched) is a likable fellow, and his rapport with Ugur Yucel works well. Overall it's a somewhat mediocre film, but quite watchable with flashes of potential.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
I am a little bummed that this series doesn't thrill me like it used to, especially since it was once one of the few blockbusters of the past 20 years that I truly loved. The level of spectacle in the third installment is impressive indeed... although the Blu-Ray does highlight how dated some of the effects are already (just about any scene where hobbits are composited with full-size humans leaps out at you). And I don't even mind the lengthy coda, and am frankly grateful that the entire "Scouring of the Shire" episode was excised. It's a great part of the book, but in the film it would have been absurdly anticlimactic, and would have extended an already bloated ending. And this film contains some of the best emotional moments in the series -- even the "you bow to no one" scene, which could have been painfully corny, works well in context.

But one does get a bit weary of watching battle after battle after battle, CGI armies clashing in constant frenzies of murder and dismemberment (speaking of which, I could go into a lengthy tirade here about the insanity of the MPAA ratings board, but I suppose I shouldn't go down that road). Sometimes too much spectacle just makes your eyes gloss over after a while. Oh, and Gimli's one-liners are still a source of annoyance, although thankfully he gets fewer chances to utter them. I'm ranking this as the second best of trilogy... more engaging than FELLOWSHIP, but not as tight as TWO TOWERS. I wonder how I'll feel about these movies in another 10 years.


Tango (1998)
Much like his flamenco films, Carlos Saura blends reality and fantasy in this story of a film director trying to make a musical, and torn between two women he can't have. Definite shades of 8 1/2 here, with a little bit ALL THAT JAZZ, although I'm not sure if any of it is Saura speaking autobiographically. He is a master at filming dance, though, and he captures all the graceful physicality in exciting ways. And with Storaro on hand, the movie explodes with vivid colors and dazzling lights. Not all of it is great (as in All That Jazz, I didn't care for the same number that the financiers didn't care for) but it's mostly very captivating and intriguing. Great dance, great music.

The Verdict

The Verdict (1982)
I enjoy courtroom dramas, but they're never among my favorites. Especially when they follow the formula so closely. David vs. Goliath, David is a folksy, flawed character with a small practice, Goliath is a team of smarmy attorneys, David fighting a losing battle, David pulls out a clever trick but it's combated by some piece of legalese (damn these lawyers and their sneaky practice of law!!), David's on the ropes, SUDDEN REVELATION, SURPRISE WITNESS, happy ending. They're usually more about being detectives (which is why I kinda like them) and having an impassioned closing argument than actually trying a case. This film deviates in small ways from the template, but it's mostly the standard routine. However, Newman is pretty good and the details are intriguing.


Bullitt (1968)
Fun, tight detective thriller with the Cooler King being the King of Cool, Steve McQueen. While it doesn't add up to much more than the sum of its parts, its parts are plenty fine. You can hardly avoid mentioning the iconic car chase, and a fantastic car chase it is, too. It draws inspiration from THE LINEUP, and really the movie as a whole would be right at home among some of the better police procedural films noir. There's more to the movie than just the chase, though, and I can't think of a scene that felt superfluous or boring. It also avoids a lot of the "rogue cop" clichés and doesn't feel too predictable. Good times.


Antonieta (1982)
A rare dud by Saura. A French psychologist (Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla) is researching female suicide and travels to Mexico to study the life of Antonieta Rivas Mercado (Isabella Adjani), a writer and political activist who shot herself in Notre Dame. This wasn't Saura's project, he basically did it as a director-for-hire, and there's little to no passion in it. Very uneventful and dull, a lot of political information but not much insight into Antonieta's interior life. We get a sense of why she's important to Mexican culture, but not why she's a character worth spending time with. The few interesting moments (particularly when Schygulla "meets" Adjani) are overwhelmed by dry biographical data, with Adjani pretty much sleepwalking through the role. It didn't help that the DVD was wretched, clearly transferred from a VHS source, and a poor one at that.

Storie di ordinaria follia

Tales of Ordinary Madness
I don't care much for Charles Bukowski. All that romanticizing of depravity just seems like an attempt to excuse his misogyny, laziness, alcoholism, cruelty and vulgarity. Sometimes I do enjoy a film that delves into that world, but not so much in this case. Ferreri doesn't bring anything very interesting to the material, and basically leaves Ben Gazzara (as obvious Bukowski stand-in "Charles Berking") to stumble around and wax poetic about death, souls, and dying souls. There's some hilariously bad lines ("Take my soul with your cock") that I assume come from the author himself. But the funny thing is the movie actually gets worse as Berking tries to become a more decent person. Seeing him get into and create awful situations is at least mildly entertaining at times, but once he starts falling in love with and trying to rescue a prostitute (the lovely but not especially talented Ornella Muti, of FLASH GORDON among others) things get boring. Gazzara is very good, though, except his boyish face has a tendency to look too smug. I just don't think there would have been a way for me to really enjoy this film.

Le fils

The Son
We're thrown into a situation loaded with mystery. Olivier, a carpentry tutor of some sort (like everything else, we learn more about that later), is anxious about something. He's moving around nervously, furtively, and appears to be stalking one of the boys at his institution. Is he afraid? Curious? Depraved? It's not until half an hour into the film that we learn the nature of his interest in this boy. Even then, his intentions are unclear. At one point, he looks in the mirror and he appears to be inscrutable even to himself. We spend every moment with him, but we don't know what he's planning or thinking, but he always seems to be measuring the situation. The tension is always present, thanks to the restrained but very physical performance of Gourmet, the deliberate pacing of story information, and the tight, menacing camera-work as conceived by the Dardennes. The action is gripping because we long to get inside Olivier's head, a character who is some balance of wounded, sympathetic and dangerous, and we don't know where the balance will fall. Perhaps at the end we don't know much more, but we know enough. A satisfying and engaging film from the Dardennes, who always seem to make so much out of so little.


Tetro (2009)
I went into this one essentially blind. I knew nothing about it except it was a Francis Ford Coppola film and it came and went without much fanfare. The only other post-70's Coppola movies I've seen are RUMBLE FISH and GODFATHER III so I really didn't even have the slightest idea of what I might be in for. But I pretty much liked it. A little cliché, a little self-important, but nonetheless a reasonably compelling family drama. I thought the three main performers -- Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich and Maribel Verdu -- were quite good, especially Verdu. Gallo's brooding gets rather tiresome, but he varies it enough to keep the character interesting. As in RUMBLE FISH, Coppola shoots in black and white with occasional bits of color, and the photography is really quite stunning at times. Although it is funny that the effects in the TALES OF HOFFMANN sequences are less convincing than the film that inspired them, nearly 60 years earlier. The themes of rivalry and daddy issues aren't the most original thing in the world, but there are one or two surprises to be had. Not a great film, but you can feel the passion in it.

All the Real Girls

All the Real Girls (2003)
I feel like on a different day I might have liked this a lot more. I just felt like it was trying too hard to be "honest" or something. Too much buzzy, gentle, ambient music and too many instances of people inarticulately saying something that's accidentally profound, know what I mean? David Gordon Green is doing everything he can not to get too big, but there's a transparency to to the quietude that annoyed me. I liked the sentiments being expressed, there's some lovely touches, and Zooey Deschanel is surprisingly not that bad. I just didn't care enough about these characters to be more than mildly interested.


Visions of Light

Visions of Light (1992)
I often praise the visuals of a film, but I generally do it in very vague terms without being able to express why I think the photography looks great. I just know what looks good or interesting or striking to me. So I had hopes that this documentary would shed some light (ho ho!) on the art and craft of cinematography. Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of it. It's mostly very basic, surface stuff, more of an exercise in Appreciation 101 than detailed technical analysis. I also wished for a few more esoteric examples. Most of the films discussed are the really obvious ones, especially as the discussion gets closer and closer to contemporary times. The first half of the film is the best part, getting into some of the history, and I particularly enjoyed the look at John Alton and film noir. As a whole, it's a nice compendium and there are a few interesting insights, but it really lacks the depth I was hoping for. I also found it odd that a movie about cinematography would occasionally show clips in the wrong aspect ratio.

Das Schloß

The Castle
I'm crazy about Kafka. THE TRIAL is my favorite by Welles, and Juracek's homage Joseph KILLIAN is brilliant as well. So the thought of Haneke directing The Castle seemed like a promising idea. And he gets some of it right. The story is very faithful... obviously certain omissions are necessary, but the gist of it is there, and the scenes generally play out as they do in the novel. The long scenes juxtaposed with abrupt time cuts do a good job of evoking the unusual rhythms of Kafka. And Haneke knows better than to try to make K. an entirely sympathetic character. But it doesn't feel quite right. I have mixed feelings about the aesthetic. The drab palette is appropriate, but I couldn't help thinking that black and white would have suited the material better. And the voice-over felt entirely unnecessary to me. The novel is told in the third person voice, but it feels first person. Having some narrator chime in every few minutes didn't add anything. And it just didn't seem absurd enough. Perhaps it's a book that doesn't condense well, because you don't get the sense of K.'s epic, labyrinthine struggle. But it's a good effort.

Old Joy

Old Joy (2006)
Kelly Reichardt's film prior to WENDY AND LUCY isn't as engaging or moving, but it has some fine qualities. Kind of a MY ROAD TRIP WITH ANDRE, it's about two somewhat estranged friends going in search of a hot springs. Mark is married with a baby on the way, and listens to political talk radio. Kurt is more of a free spirit, bouncing around and living something of a drifter lifestyle. The film explores the relationship between these two guys in subtle touches, and I could relate. I have and have had friends like Kurt, guys who smoke a little too much weed and talk a lot of vague nonsense (including one coincidentally named Kurt). And the film explores the gentle sorrow that comes with a friendship slowly disintegrate, but even though your pals may bore you or exasperate you, they're still your friends. Reichardt really captures the beauty of Oregon as the two get further away from the city and go to more meditative places. Although I have to point out a minor gaffe that only an Oregonian would notice: you can't pump your own gas in this state. I mean, you probably could if there's no one around to yell at you about it, but you're not supposed to. Anyway, I wasn't exactly enamored with the movie but I did enjoy its quiet rhythms.

The Seventh Victim

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Director Mark Robson and producer Val Lewton have consistently delivered good noir and good horror respectively, and this film is a fantastic blending of the two. Kim Hunter makes her debut as a young woman searching for her older sister, and stumbling across a strange secret. This is an eerie, creepy film which delights with Gothic atmosphere and chills with its somber messages. I'm not sure if I've seen a Hollywood film from this era, including film noir, with such a dark ending. It's really a stunner. There are some inconsistencies in tonality, especially when characters seem to take things far less seriously than they should. But the boldness of the material, stunning high contrast photography and downright weird scenes help ameliorate the obstacles. I'm tempted to rate this a little higher, but perhaps I'll wait until a future rewatch.

The Window

The Window (1949)
Opening with a quote from Aesop, this movie is about a little lad who tells so many stories that no one believes him when he witnesses a real murder. It takes an awful lot for me to forgive a film that centers around a child, especially an obnoxious one like this. The very similar TALK ABOUT A STRANGER couldn't do it, despite the talents of John Alton. I hated young Bobby Driscoll throughout the picture and he's undoubtedly its weakest link. His pouting and whining and "golly gee" demeanor are very grating. But director Ted Tetzlaff otherwise delivers a stunning noir. The photography is amazing, capturing the grittiness, desperation and danger of the urban setting beautifully. The script is solid, building tension at a steady pace, culminating in a lengthy and gripping chase sequence through a decrepit abandoned building. Tetzlaff clearly learned something about suspense as the cinematographer on NOTORIOUS. A great film with a lousy protagonist.

The Woman on the Beach

The Woman on the Beach (1947)
The Woman on the Beach

A coast guard lieutenant gets caught in the middle of a tempestuous marriage. The film has a lot of psychological angles and is anchored by three strong characters with fine performances by Ryan, Bennett and Bickford. However, the story just never takes off and seems to float around without a destination. The emotions bubbling under the surface rarely materialize into compelling plot material and I was fighting boredom a lot of the time. I also found the cinematography uninspired (except for Ryan's surreal nightmare) and the score far too oppressive.


Woman on the Run

Woman on the Run (1950)
A man witnesses a gang hit and goes on the lam, and it's up to his wife to find him. A bit low-key and Ann Sheridan's motivations in avoiding the police are too cloudy to be an effective plot device. But this movie has a lot going for it. Sheridan gives a terrific, brassy performance and her character transformation is wholly believable. I also really enjoyed Robert Keith as the crusty, frustrated cop. The dialogue is witty as heck, some very amusing banter going on. The tension is sparse, but it all pays off in an amazing, frenzied climax set in an amusement park. Comedy and noir don't often blend together well, but Foster pulls it off nicely.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I was rather surprised and saddened to see that some of the lustre has worn off. Too much of it silly, overwrought, tedious or logically inconsistent. The Nazgul and Uruk-hai that we're constantly being told are the most fearful, awful things ever are laughably ineffective and incompetent. And the less said about Gimli's comic relief, the better. But I won't dwell too much on the negatives. It remains possibly the most impressive production ever, and the very definition of "epic". Some of the casting choices are drop-dead perfect, and the characters of Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel and the four hobbits still resonate. The visuals are stunning and there are moments that still produce thrills. Nonetheless, I couldn't help being a bit disappointed that the film didn't enchant the way it did on that midnight screening 10 years ago.

Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

Rembrandt's J'Accuse...! (2008)
Greenaway's documentary companion piece to NIGHTWATCHING, and it shares the same problems. Some parts are very interesting, others throw far too much information at you at once, making it exceedingly hard to follow what Greenaway is getting at. There are also several inferences and leaps of logic that seem like "stretching it" to say the least, but I suppose that's part of critical analysis. While it's extremely impressive that Greenaway has put so much thought, time and effort into interpreting a single work of art, he doesn't succeed in making his obsession contagious.


The Atomic Cafe

The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Completely free of narration, commentary, or intertitles, this documentary presents archival footage from the Cold War era expressing all the facets of nuclear paranoia and the government's feeble attempts to pacify it. Mostly comprised of bits from newsreels and education films (with occasional nuclear-related songs of the time on the soundtrack), the material is alternately hilarious and horrifying, preying on the public's gullibility and need for a voice of authority, no matter how absurd the message. Thirty years after its release, the film is still relevant (everyone got their duct tape ready?).


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The second film has its own set of problems. It includes some of the most worrisome changes to the original text... I don't get too defensive about Tolkien, but I do hate how Treebeard gets turned into a moron. Gimli's attempts at comedy are still terrible, and let's not forget about Surfin' Legolas and Indestructible Aragorn. However, this one endures better than the first. Switching between the multiple plot threads cuts down on the tedium, and excitement level is way up. You've got the introduction of Gollum as a real character, the development of the Frodo/Sam dynamic, and despite their dumbing down, the Ents are way friggin' cool. The most fun and probably the best-paced part of the trilogy.

The Trip

"The Trip" (2010)
What we've really got is two series. One is the comedy of "Steve Coogan" and "Rob Brydon" exchanging barbs and doing impressions and making witty observations. These parts generally occur over the six meals they share, and I really enjoyed them. Some of their banter is hilarious... I had already seen the Michael Caine routine several times on YouTube and yet I still laughed at it. The other film involves the contrast between these people/characters: Steve, trying to bolster his acting career and struggling with a relationship that's starting to crack, and Rob the less successful but content family man. And I really enjoyed this part as well. Rob's calls home to his wife are amusing but also quite touching. Steve's existential midlife crisis is engaging and insightful as well. The two halves of the film do bleed into each other a bit, but I genuinely appreciated the separation between them. Winterbottom knows that it's okay to just let these two guys play off each other with their natural comedic chemistry and not worry about whether or not it's pushing the "plot" forward. The photography is mostly functional, concentrating on the personalities, but quite lovely when capturing all that gorgeous English countryside. While the film isn't as post-modern as the previous collaborations (24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE and TRISTRAM SHANDY, both of which seem to get minor callbacks in the first episode, though it may be merely coincidence) it still maintains an unconventionality.

La casa del sorriso

The House of Smiles
A man and woman meet at the hospice they both inhabit, and fall in love... but find their amorous exploits frowned upon by their families, the staff, and even some of their peers. Like MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW and its descendant TOKYO STORY, this movie touches on how we treat our elderly. But it adds an element that neither of those films could address: sexuality. Marco Ferreri (himself in his mid-60's at the time and surely starting to think about these issues) makes a stand for a senior citizen's right to intimacy, privacy, dignity and vanity. It's a warm and funny film, done with great sensitivity and sharp humor. Occasionally the comedy gets a little broad, but I loved touches like the contrast provided by the silly, lurid soap opera on the television. Ingrid Thulin (in her final on screen role, and what an inspired bit of casting) and Dado Ruspoli make a charming couple, Thulin especially is an absolute joy to watch. I also loved the African immigrants who provide our protagonists with their only safe haven. And such a bittersweet melancholy to the ending. Another win for Ferreri.

Treasure of Monte Cristo

Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949)
You wouldn't guess it from the title, but this is a film noir about an elaborate frame-up job. A seaman gets off his ship, rescues a damsel in distress, and finds himself on the hook for murder. The plot is fairly predictable but still engaging enough for a good time. However, don't go looking for classic noir. Bland characters, including an annoying ethnic stereotype. Glenn Langan is okay but rather generic, and a lot more could have been done with the Adele Jurgens character. Only Steve Brodie stands out as the sleazy attorney. Except for a terrific POV shot at the climax, the photography is serviceable but nothing special. The film clips along at a reasonable pace and is mildly entertaining -- nothing more.

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