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October 2014 Recap

Posted by martinteller on October 31, 2014

17 new viewings
11 rewatches

1. Death by Hanging
2. Ballad of Orin
3. Black River
4. Ballad of Narayama
5. A Touch of Sin
6. Deprisa, deprisa
7. Places in the Heart
8. One True Thing

9. Odd Obsession
10. Gone Girl
11. The Contender
12. Here’s to the Young Lady
13. Bitter Rice

14. Yearning
15. Always
16. The Hitcher

17. Freaky Friday

Quality over quantity this month.  The big thing was tackling my watchlist movies that are in Criterion’s selection on Hulu Plus.  This paid off quite nicely, especially with regard to Japanese cinema.  The other big thing was revisiting Cassavetes through the Blu-Ray box set and finding new affection for the ones I previously wasn’t that keen on.  And I have one more quickie review from yesterday: Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin.  Jia’s in a very cynical more here, presenting four stories (loosely connected) that explore violence.  The second tale offers little to chew on, but the other three are somber reflections on life in contemporary China and how it drives people to the brink.  Beautifully photographed as well, gorgeous use of light and color.  Fine performances all around, especially Wu Jiang (a dead ringer for older brother Wen).  Rating: Very Good (86)

November is of course Noir-vember, and I’ve got a dozen titles lined up so far… none of them especially promising, but we shall see.  It will also be a short month for me, as I’m spending Thanksgiving week in Hawaii with my fiancée and her family.

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Faces (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on October 29, 2014

There couldn’t be a better title for this film.  Simple, elegant, powerful and highly appropriate.  I don’t think there’s anything that matters more to John Cassavetes than an actor’s face.  Whether it’s the creases in John Marley’s cheeks as he busts himself up with another corny joke, or coy but cautious eyes of Gena Rowlands as she juggles potentially dangerous strangers in her home, or the boyish grins of Seymour Cassel pouring on the charm, or the watchful gaze of Lynn Carlin as she stoically keeps her feelings to herself, the camera is right up in those faces.  Drinking it all in, pouring it all out.  The possessive leers of Fred Draper, the desperation of Dorothy Gulliver, the devious bravado of Val Avery.

But more than that, it’s a movie about the faces we wear, the masks we’re constantly swapping out.  We try different ones out when they’re not getting our needs met.  We put on a face to save face.  We don a persona to seem like the life of the party, the unflappable top dog, the available companion.  When a little alcohol enters the picture, the faces fly around more recklessly.  It’s hard to keep up, we forget who we really are.  Sometimes the mask slips and there is a moment of genuine human contact.  Sometimes there are dire consequences.  Someone is suddenly put on the spot, and they have to decide whether to lower their mask.  Something awkward is said, something more real than anyone else was prepared for.  Or we reveal the bitterness brewing inside us, it’s not all fun and games goddammit.  There’s a person under here, can’t you see that?  “I think we’re making fools of ourselves.”

But sometimes those real moments are our saving grace.  Our vulnerability is reciprocated with kindness and understanding.  And Cassavetes knows, he knows… that is the deepest beauty there is.  Amid the crazy, shambling dance of social interaction, a dance we’re all making up as we go along, nothing is more right than when — even if only for an instant — two people find their step together, naked and open.  The face under the face sees the face under the face, and feels love for it.  True, deep, powerful joy.  Rating: Great (92)

IMDb

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Death By Hanging

Posted by martinteller on October 27, 2014

A young man known only as “R” (Yu Do-yun), the son of Korean immigrants, has been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two girls.  However, he manages to survive his hanging, which only knocks him unconscious.  More than that, he wakes up with amnesia and cannot remember who he is or the crimes he committed.  The prison officials determine that he must be mentally capable before he can be punished (again).  And so it is up to the warden (Kei Satô), the education officer (Fumio Watanabe), the priest (Toshirô Ishidô), the chief of security (Masao Adachi) and the doctor (Rokko Toura) to jog R’s memory, and debate the methodology they use and the implications of what they’re doing.

Earlier this year I watched Nagisa Oshima’s Shonen and considered it the finest work I’d seen by him.  There is a new champion in town.  This film combines the satire of Luis Buñuel and the poetry of Alain Resnais to create a work that is both a somber meditation on capital punishment and a very funny black comedy.  Literally, gallows humor.  The efforts of the prison staff are often hilarious as they gleefully recreate vicious crimes in front of the stone-faced R.  As the story progresses, the events become more and more absurd, eventually plunging deeper into the realm of surrealism.  As reality slips away, R’s self-discovery becomes a form of rebirth, and in a sense he is resurrected as the voice of Korea itself.

Oshima pulls few punches… the film is more than a little didactic as it clearly lays out its point of view.  The voiceover narration for the film’s intro — done by Oshima himself — sadly laments the popular support for executions in Japan.  Sometimes his arguments are on the simplistic side, and sometimes they are obscured a little too much by the surrealism, but nonetheless his passionate views on the topic are clear.  He also righteously tackles Japanese xenophobia, and the racist attitudes towards Koreans are beautifully skewered.  And he doesn’t stop there, also taking shots at how the country let many of its war criminals off the hook.

The shots are always framed artfully and the sound design carries some extra punch to it.  The cast of flustered officials is terrific, everyone bringing a different form of comic energy.  I really loved the film’s novel premise, increasingly absurd plotting, palpable anger and thoughtful approach.  It’s a movie that would reward multiple viewings, as it takes on many different layers and philosophies (I haven’t even mentioned the discussion of the religious implications, which are fascinating).  A stunning — and funny — cry for dignity.  Rating: Great (89)

IMDb

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another pair of quickies

Posted by martinteller on October 26, 2014

[WARNING: This contains a rather large spoiler for Crooklyn]

Last night it was my fiancée’s turn to pick a movie, and she chose One True Thing.  She didn’t think about the fact that it was about a woman dying of cancer, and how that mirrored my own recent loss.  Keep in mind that I wasn’t that close to my aunt and I wasn’t in deep mourning, nor did the film dredge up a lot of painful associations (not that I’m not saddened by the loss of my aunt, I’m just saying it wasn’t this thoughtless oversight on my lady’s part).  As for the film, I thought it was quite well done.  It avoids grandiose scenes in favor of subtle character moments, with excellent performances by Meryl Streep and William Hurt (playing an unappealing character who he manages to keep human) and even Renée Zellweger.  The framing device isn’t all that effective, and in my opinion the ending would have been much better if it had gone a different way, but there are some revealing insights into strained family dynamics.  Rating: Very Good (81)

Today it was my turn to pick, and I chose Crooklyn because I’d recently bought the DVD… completely forgetting that the mother in the film also dies of cancer.  What an odd and haunting coincidence.  Both films also showcase a tight-knit community, although it’s more front and center in Lee’s movie (and I didn’t think of this either, but both are also by African-American directors).  There are conflicts on the block, but they’re handled with a sort of nostalgic affection.  I would say it’s the warmest of Lee’s films, you just love everyone in it.  The performances by the child actors are exceptionally good, especially Zelda Harris in the lead.  I do think the movie is too unfair to Aunt Song (Frances Foster) and her dog, and the “squeezed” camera in the suburban Virginia section makes its point very well but is ultimately too distracting.  But for the most part I really have a lot of love for this movie, a beautiful portrait of childhood in the city and the fun and trouble that goes along with it.  Plus the surreal touches (that scene with RuPaul is bananas) and unbelievably killer music.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a film with a better soundtrack.  Rating: Very Good (86)

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Opening Night (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on October 25, 2014

I was thinking recently about all the movies I used to love that I no longer do.  Movies that, 20 years ago, would have appeared on my top 100 list but now I’m not as fond of.  Sid & Nancy, This Is Spinal Tap, Die Hard, Yellow Submarine, Harold & Maude, both Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Planet.  The list goes on.  Tastes change over time and I wonder what my list of favorites will look like in 2034 (three-quarters of the movies on my current list are ones I hadn’t even seen — or didn’t exist yet — when I was in my 20’s).  There are also a few movies that rubbed me the wrong way the first time that opened themselves up to me on a second viewing.  The Apartment and The Lady Eve come to mind.  But these cases are less numerous, and it’s rare for a film to win me over when I had previously reacted negatively to it.

I’m really not sure why I gave Opening Night a 4 out of 10 (lately I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to the old 10-point scale, but I’ve changed my rating system too many times already) when I first saw it nearly ten years ago.  The charges I leveled against it don’t make sense to me… they sound like a different person seeing a different movie.  “A good dramatic premise gone to waste”?  What did I think was supposed to happen?  Perhaps the “ghost” of the dead girl (Laura Johnson) gets a proper exorcism?  I’m not even sure which dramatic premise I was referring to.  What I see now is an actress struggling with aging, her reputation and her craft.  An actress who can’t figure out if she’s too far from reality or too close to it.  It’s not gone to waste… it’s dealt with in a nuanced, multi-faceted fashion.

“The conclusion is quite unsatisfying”?  I think I remember where this gripe came from, a feeling that the “improvisation” that Myrtle (Gena Rowlands) and Maurice (John Cassavetes) perform is lame.  Which is somewhat fair, but I don’t think it’s meant to be brilliant ad-libbing.  It lets the film end on a message of hope… a message that early on Myrtle complains is missing from the play.  Rather than be a dour meditation on aging and the loss of “the first woman”, Myrtle shows the love and life still burning inside both her and her character.  The author (a terrific performance by veteran Joan Blondell) may be disgusted, but the audience is appreciative.  Cassavetes’s stories always seem to end on a note of hope, I think, even Chinese Bookie.  As much as he showcases the unlikable characteristics of people, he truly loves them and wants them to flourish.  It’s a very satisfying conclusion indeed.

“Even Rowlands is disappointing in this one”?  What was I thinking?  I’m baffled.  Okay, so Myrtle Gordon is not quite as electrifying as Mabel Longhetti, but it’s still a riveting performance.  One of my biggest pet peeves is bad drunk acting, but here Rowlands does drunk acting as authentically as I’ve ever seen it.  And she does fear and frustration and nervous breakdown as real and touching as they could be.  In loving close-ups, Cassavetes invites us to share her emotional turmoil, to see the world through her eyes.

Granted, the movie still isn’t one of my favorites… it doesn’t gut-punch me like the best of Cassavetes does.  But it’s a frequently beautiful piece of work, with surreal, ambiguous touches and a lot of thoughtful insights on both aging and acting.  Perhaps one difference between the me of today and the me of a decade ago is my understanding of what the craft of acting meant to Cassavetes and how this film connects to his other works on many different levels.  And if you ever want to program a triple feature with intriguing connections, I suggest All About Eve, Opening Night and All About My Mother.  Rating: Very Good (82)

IMDb

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catch-up quick shots

Posted by martinteller on October 25, 2014

It’s been a week since my last post.  Sorry for the absence.  I’ve been in Kansas for a funeral, my aunt Nikki passed away earlier this week.  I must confess I wasn’t especially close to her, but I was very fond of her and she will be missed.  It was a lovely ceremony.  At any rate, there were a couple of movies I revisited before all that happened that I didn’t feel like doing long write-ups for.

It’s a bit disingenuous of me to call The Fox and the Hound a “rewatch” since the last time I saw it was when it came out and my memories were dim at best.  As I would expect from Disney, the movie is unbearably cutesy at times, with a lot of groan-worthy stuff (and forgettable songs).  Then it gets crazy dark and horrifying.  It didn’t thrill me in either mode, but I admit I got kinda choked up when Widow Tweed left Tod in the forest.  Rating: Fair (61)

I’ve written at length (well, lengthy for me) about American Movie before and don’t have anything to say that wouldn’t be repeating myself.  It’s the only documentary in my top 100 (unless you count Stop Making Sense) because it’s so rewatchable, probably because the film is more about personalities than information.  I just love spending time with these folks, some of them remind me of people I grew up with in the Midwest.  Rating: Masterpiece (97)

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A Woman Under the Influence (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on October 18, 2014

As it’s one of my top 5, I really ought to have a thorough, thoughtful review of this movie.  But I’ve been sitting here at my computer, trying to find the words that encapsulate everything about this movie, and everything I feel about it (and also feeling like a schmuck for falling back on that old cliché, writing about not being able to write).  Like Mabel and Nick, I’m having a communication problem.  I don’t know how to express my love.  But I’m just going to spill it out, and whatever happens, happens.  I’m going to improvise.

No performance moves me like Gena Rowland’s shattering portrayal of Mabel Longhetti.  She works wonders with an incredibly nuanced, complex performance, making every gesture and look and verbal stutter pack a punch.  Mabel wants desperately to please.  She’s willing to be whatever Nick wants her to be.  She also knows that she should just be herself, and that battle inside her has frazzled her nerves.  She’s out of touch with polite social graces, unaware (and paradoxically, all too aware) that her eccentricity makes others feel awkward.  Sometimes she doesn’t communicate properly… and sometimes no one listens properly.  “Will you stand up for me?” is one of the most heartbreaking lines I know of.  None of her “crazy” behavior is actually harmful… it’s just inappropriate.  It looks funny.  Adults aren’t supposed to act like that.  They’re supposed to have “conversation, normal conversation”.  The weather.  How are you?  Whatcha been doing?

At least, that’s what Nick thinks.  Nick is just as fucked up as Mabel, if not more so… it’s just that his craziness looks more socially acceptable.  He loves Mabel.  He clearly, sincerely loves Mabel and her kookiness.  But he feels a need to control every situation, especially when others are looking on.  Anything awkward that Mabel does is made ten times worse by Nick’s reaction to it.  The “influence” that the woman is under is not drugs or alcohol (although we see that when Mabel drinks, she does it irresponsibly).  The influence is Nick.  Nick wants one thing (the “real” Mabel) when they’re alone and another thing (the “normal” wife he can beam proudly about) when others are around.  Nick’s embarrassment over Mabel makes him lash out and try to control her… and if he can’t control her with stern looks and scolding condemnation, then he resorts to violence.

It’s one of the miracles of this film — and Peter Falk’s performance, which is also brilliant — that he can strike Mabel and you can understand it.  Let me be perfectly clear: understand it, not condone it or accept it or forgive it.  Nick isn’t a hero.  If you see Nick as the long-suffering husband who rightfully smacks his wife to keep her under control, then you’re reading it wrong or you have your own issues to deal with.  But you can understand how a person with Nick’s overwhelming need to control everyone around him (even dictating how his children will enjoy themselves at the beach) would snap.  And you can understand how a person so desperate to be loved and accepted would forgive him.  He’s a human being, she’s a human being.  They love each other.

And yet it’s not that simple and it’s never that simple and that’s one of the things that make this movie so rewarding, besides its raw, searing emotional power.  Sometimes a person is terrible to you one minute and loving the next, and who isn’t a little bit crazy, and who doesn’t want to dance on a couch sometimes, and who doesn’t sometimes cringe when someone else is dancing on the couch?  How do we love each other?  How do we juggle being what we want to be and being what others want us to be and being what we think others want us to be and at the same time love another human being?  It’s messy and complicated and so goddamn real it rips your guts out.  Life is mighty stormy in the Longhetti house, but their dysfunction is the way they function, and isn’t so far off from anyone else’s dysfunction.  In the end, Nick and Mabel get ready for bed, and jaunty kazoo music plays on the soundtrack, and the phone is ringing and it’s probably Nick’s mother and for once Nick isn’t going to answer it.  Does this mean everything’s okay?  That’s too easy, but I do think that they’ve come a little closer to learning how to properly love each other.  There is hope.  Rating: Masterpiece (100)

IMDb

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two quickies

Posted by martinteller on October 18, 2014

I wish I had more to say about Odd Obsession, an unusual film by Kon Ichikawa.  It has some intriguing avant-garde flourishes, plays a lot with what characters know and don’t know, and features terrific performances by Machiko Kyô and Ganjiro Nakamura (surprisingly, Tatsuya Nakadai gets overshadowed by these two).  It’s a twisted look at aberrant desire and extremely dysfunctional family dynamics.  But it never quite grabbed hold of me, and seemed to occasionally be spinning its wheels.  Rating: Very Good (80)

Gone Girl is very entertaining, excellently crafted as a thriller and with a fine sense of humor.  The performances are all good, especially Coon and Dickens.  It’s sharp in its observations on the media, and complex in its treatment of gender and persona.  I was tossing the movie around in my head for hours afterward, and any film that can do that is doing something right.  I did have some issues, but I can’t get into them without spoiling the movie.  I will instead post them in this Gone Girl thread at the Filmspotting forum.  Rating: Very Good (80)

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Black River

Posted by martinteller on October 17, 2014

Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) is an engineering student, looking for a room in Tokyo.  He finds one in a run-down tenement managed by an unpleasant landlady (Isuzu Yamada).  The other occupants are the poor and infirm, drunkards and prostitutes and thieves.  Nishida settles in, and develops a fancy for Shizuko (Ineko Arima), a girl he often sees passing by.  But someone else has his eye on Shizuko: a sadistic thug named Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai), also known as “Joe the killer”.  Joe concocts a cruel plan to make Shizuko his girl, and that’s not all he has up his sleeve.  The landlady, having made a deal to sell her property to be used as a sex hotel, hires Joe to evict all of her tenants.

This is a dark and seedy film.  In fact, I wish I’d held off on it until Noir-vember, but I didn’t realize it would be so noir.  Corruption and degradation overruns everything, and the winner is always the one who’s willing to take the most drastic action.  It’s a world of ramshackle hovels, neon-tinged nightclubs and thieves’ dens.  Nothing pure survives, everyone is brought down to the lowest level.  Joe and his band of hoods play rough, and they take what they want.  Nishida’s fellow occupants cheat and lie to get out of paying their share of utilities… and also to get out of saving a man’s life.

The photography is high-contrast, especially in the night scenes where American G.I. transports rumble through the streets like deadly predators.  The jazzy score by Chûji Kinoshita (Keisuke’s brother) is wonderfully appropriate, particularly the loping, bump n’ grind theme that winds its way around snatches of hard-edged, cynical dialogue.  Nakadai is at his slimiest, a real dangerous character you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.  Arima does an especially good job with a tricky performance, a character who drastically transforms over the course of the film.  Watanabe is fine, without overdoing the righteous indignation, but he’s the least interesting among such a well-cast bunch of desperate souls and low-lifes.  Yamada’s deformed teeth may be a touch over-the-top, but her performance is memorable.

It all adds up to a tasty noir morsel that looks at both economic and moral decay.  If the other films in the “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System” set are anywhere near this good, it’ll be going on my shelf.  I have yet to see a Kobayashi movie I didn’t like, and it’s kind of crazy that I don’t have any of them in my collection.  I’ll have to rectify that when the next Criterion sale comes around, and pick up Harakiri at the very least.  Rating: Very Good (88)

IMDb

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Always

Posted by martinteller on October 14, 2014

The overwhelming consensus on this movie seems to be that it’s one of Spielberg’s worst, and it’s certainly not one of his best.  But I really didn’t think it was that bad.  I didn’t know it was a remake of a 1943 Victor Fleming film called A Guy Named Joe, but while watching I was struck by the 40’s vibe of it.  It’s got the snappy patter and camaraderie of a Hawks film, not to mention a setting that instantly brings Only Angels Have Wings to mind.  Bits of Capra schmaltz and Sturges screwball and Lubitsch magic seem to be floating around in the air.  It’s a fun exercise in throwbackism.

The real problem with the film is that it doesn’t do the work in building character.  Take, for instance, the central relationship between Pete (Richard Dreyfus) and Dorinda (Holly Hunter).  When we first meet them, they appear to be oil and water, having one of those classic antagonistic pairings.  A few minutes later, and apparently they’ve been dating?  By the next scene they seem to be longtime lovers, enjoying a deep, enduring romance.  It’s a confusing and muddled relationship, as Spielberg wants to have it every way he can.  They’re cute together, but maybe I’d rather trade those earlier “oil and water” scenes for something that sold me more on their love.  The movie takes a lot of narrative shortcuts that leave us with character development and relationship dynamics that aren’t wholly convincing.

The consequence of this is a movie that’s not as moving as it clearly aims to be (lousy lines like “I’m moving out of your heart” don’t help).  But it is enjoyable as a lark.  Maybe the early scenes of Pete and Dorinda could do a better job of defining their relationship, but at least they’re entertaining.  John Goodman is entertaining, too.  The movie also takes a zero like Brad Johnson (Ted) and makes you like him, when you thought you never would.  And the aviation scenes are beautifully done, with some genuine tension.  I think the film, for the most part, achieves the feel of a 1940’s Hollywood production, with a reasonably satisfying blend of fantasy, romance, comedy and action.  It’s not that great at any of them, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as its reputation suggests.  Rating: Good (70)

IMDb

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