Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

I watch movies, I write some crap

  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Meta

The Thick-Walled Room

Posted by martinteller on December 20, 2014

A look inside Sugamo, a prison where low-ranking war criminals are incarcerated.  These men have all the time in the world to ponder their crimes, what led them to commit them, when they might someday be released, and the fates of their superiors who often got off scot-free.  Some, like Kawanishi (Kinzo Shin), are haunted, and some follow through on their suicidal impulses.  Kyo is a Korean imprisoned due to sheer bad luck, disturbed by news of war breaking out at home.  Yokota (Kô Mishima) was a translator, forced to participate in the beating of an American P.O.W. to death.  The only thing keeping him going is his love for Yoshiko (Keiko Kishi), but she’s no longer the sweet girl he briefly knew.  Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada) carries a boiling bitterness inside him… the same officer who ordered him to murder an innocent islander and then lied at his trial is now exploiting his family.

I had a $10 credit to use at the Criterion store, so I decided to pick up their Kobayashi set, even though all but Black River were blind buys for me.  I don’t usually take that kind of risk, but I’ve yet to see a bad — or even mediocre — film by him.  The streak continues, and at this point I’d have to say Kobayashi is one of the most consistently great directors I can think of, even if none of his movies rank among my very favorites.  I should also note that the screenplay (based on the memoirs of real “B- and C-class” war criminals) was written by Kôbô Abe, whose collaborations with Teshigahara are so fantastic.

This is an early work by Kobayashi, and as such it feels a little unpolished in places (the American actors are, predictably, terrible).  But the material is strong, and presented using interesting techniques that incorporate both flashbacks and nightmarish fantasies.  It’s a bleak story that in some ways acts as an introduction to Kobayashi’s massive Human Condition trilogy, addressing some of the same concerns about the brutalities of war and lack of culpability for those responsible.  Any small redemptions or rays of hope are overshadowed by cynicism.

Many reviews say that Kobayashi does not excuse these men, but I disagree.  At least to some degree, the film points fingers elsewhere and implies that war criminals on this level were simply “following orders”.  Doubtlessly many of them were, but as much as I admire Kobayashi’s efforts to humanize these people, I felt a more even-handed approach would have included at least one character who was more responsible for his atrocities.  I think again of Nanking, and the accounts of Japanese soldiers raping and killing to their hearts’ content.  Yes, the higher-ups should pay for their crimes, but that doesn’t mean the foot soldiers shouldn’t.

But, I don’t want to make the film sound so didactic… it’s more concerned with the human aspects than the political (although Communism is discussed quite a bit) and on that front, it succeeds with compassion.  The artfulness of the director is clear even at this early stage in his career.  Rating: Very Good (85)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

couple of quickies

Posted by martinteller on December 20, 2014

Madagascar didn’t annoy me as much as Shrek.  The characters aren’t too irritating, there’s some pretty decent gags, and I really enjoyed the penguins.  Nothing about the movie made me hate watching it.  But, as you can probably tell, I wasn’t all that fond of it either.  The DreamWorks over-reliance on pop culture references and familiar songs is tiresome, blatant and uneffective grabs for the adult audience’s approval.  Okay, the Cast Away gag was good enough for a chuckle, but the rest of them left me cold.  Also, it seems like the studio would rather use familiar voices than talented voice actors… the leads are all okay but they’re not really bringing anything to the table as far as voice work.  Lastly, the film’s themes are muddled.  It raises the issue of Alex being a predator without resolving it in any meaningful way (good thing fish don’t have cute personalities!) and it’s hard to tell if the movie is pro- or anti-zoo.  Rating: Fair (61)

After my third viewing of Play Time, I said “the movie grows on me more and more each time I see it”.  And yet on my fourth viewing I was rather disappointed.  While I still think it’s the most brilliant (and obviously, ambitious) film of Tati’s career, the novelty of it appears to have worn off.  Perhaps now that I’ve discovered all the film’s gags (I think), the space between them feels so much wider.  I used to think the first half was the superior portion of the film, but I’ve completed flipped on that.  The building chaos of the nightclub is now more satisfying to me than the deadpan — and sometimes tedious — observations of the preceding hour.  I’m shaking this movie out of my top 100, and in fact I’d even call Mon Oncle my favorite Tati now.  Rating: Very Good (86)

Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

a flurry of mini-reviews

Posted by martinteller on December 16, 2014

Todd Haynes recently rediscovered his long-lost first short, The Suicide, and Criterion included it on their new edition of Safe.  Made when Haynes was only 17, the film concerns a boy contemplating suicide after failing to fit in at a new school.  It has the amateurishness you would expect, as well as an adolescent tendency to overdramatize… but for a first effort, it’s got a nice sense of style.  It’s not good enough to watch as more than a curiosity, but it’s not as bad as you might think.  Rating: Good (71)

While not as impressive as Mother or Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a pretty enjoyable flick for the most part.  As a really specific post-apocalyptic scenario, it works.  It’s heavy-handed and the brutality often feels gratuitous, but it’s a lot of fun and (despite some plot holes and things that don’t quite make sense) not too dumb.  Certain influences are evident, with a character named “Gilliam” and a musical reference to The Shining.  Performances are rather mixed, but Tilda Swinton brings something interesting, as usual.  Rating: Very Good (82)

A third of watch of The Conformist confirmed what I felt on my second viewing: it’s a brilliant film that I find captivating, but I have problems thinking of it as a “favorite”.  Yes, it has incredible cinematography (certainly one of the best-looking movies I can think of), it’s constructed elegantly, it’s thematically rich and psychologically complex.  But there isn’t that special something to push it over the top for me, it lacks the emotional impact or unique, compelling aspects to truly connect with me.  Rating: Great (93)

Even though I’ve griped about how it’s the worst, the most childish, the most poorly-adapted and poorly-developed of the series, nonetheless I decided to sit through Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone for a fourth time.  That’s more frequently than I’ve seen several films in my top 100.  The completist in me just can’t resist… I bought the whole box set and by golly, I’m going to watch all of them.  But let’s be honest, I wouldn’t keep coming back if there wasn’t something to it.  My quibbles (which I outlined in an earlier, longer review) are real and not all of them are minor, but damned if I don’t love being sucked into this universe.  There are numerous flaws to be sure, but except for the sometimes awful CGI, most of them exist in the source material.  Columbus’s biggest sin was adhering too closely to it, but the absolutely perfect casting and accomplished sense of wonder go a long way to offset the shortcomings of the story.  Rating: Good (71)

Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

All My Sons

Posted by martinteller on December 13, 2014

Chris Keller (Burt Lancaster) wants to marry girl-next-door Annie Deever (Louisa Horton).  There are a couple of issues with this union, however.  The first is that Annie was engaged to Chris’s brother Larry, who went missing during the war three years ago and is presumed dead.  But Chris’s mother Kate (Mady Christians) hasn’t accepted it yet and refuses to believe that Larry won’t come home one day.  The other issue is a rift that lingers between the two families: a scandal that put Annie’s father Herbert (Frank Conroy) in prison while Chris’s father Joe (Edward G. Robinson) — Herbert’s business partner — walked free.  And a scandal that cost the lives of many airmen.  Joe throws his support behind Chris and Annie, but Kate resists… and Annie’s brother George (Howard Duff) shows up with a chip on his shoulder.

This was originally one of my Noir-vember picks, but someone warned me there was little noir about it so I postponed it.  And he was right: despite the “film noir” genre tag on IMDb and the inclusion on TSPDT’s “More American Noir” list, this doesn’t have the sizzling tension of a true film noir, though there is some thematic common ground.  Adapted from a play by Arthur Miller (written just before “Death of a Salesman”, with which it has some similarities), it addresses a number of postwar anxieties, conflicts and unresolved feelings… loose ends that will be forever be loose ends, frayed and damaged.

It’s powerful stuff, that unfolds in beautifully arranged layers.  The story is consistently kept interesting by introducing new elements every few steps along the way.  I haven’t read the original play, but the treatment by Chester Erskine (Split Second, Angel Face, Witness to Murder) seems well adapted to the screen, enhanced by the excellent cinematography of Russell Metty (a number of great noirs, most notably Touch of Evil, and some of Sirk’s best-looking films as well).  The script does contain a little too much preachy speechifying and lacks a sense of raw realism, but the dialogue is well-written for the most part and the plot construction is very satisfying.  What seems like a simple domestic drama takes on different dimensions, and you want to see how it unfolds.

Can we talk about how underrated Edward G. Robinson is?  To those in the know, he’s a legend, but in popular culture he’s just the guy with the nasally voice who plays gangsters and says “see?” a lot.  He really ought to be up there with Bogart.  With the possible exception of his painful dialect work in House of Strangers, I can’t think of a bad Robinson performance.  He’s always terrific.  And this might be some of his best acting, full of that phony righteous indignation that comes with a guilty conscience.  Although the rest of the cast is very good (Lancaster not exactly at his finest, but solid) it’s Robinson who gives the film its power, especially in its final moments.  Rating: Very Good (83)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Tati shorts

Posted by martinteller on December 12, 2014

I decided to skip revisiting Trafic and Parade for now, but I did want to tackle the shorts included in the Tati box set.  First up is On demande une brute (Brute Wanted), directed by Charles Barrois, written by Tati and Alfred Sauvy.  Tati stars as a hen-pecked would-be actor who unwittingly gets roped into a wrestling match against the formidable “Krakov”.  The most interesting thing about this is that you can already see how Tati doesn’t make everything about him.  Tati has his share of business to do, but it’s Enrico Sprocani (also known as the clown “Rhum”) who bails Tati’s character out of his predicament.  There are a few decent gags here, reminiscent of Harold Lloyd, but overall it’s not that entertaining.  Rating: Fair (65)

Rhum returns for Gai dimanche, directed by Jacques Berr, co-written by Tati and Rhum.  They play a pair of drifters who concoct a half-baked money-making scheme to give tours of the countryside.  The gag with the car doors is a sign of things to come with Tati and his attention to modern “conveniences” that never work the way they’re meant to.  Otherwise, some okay bits, but nothing that’s going to knock your socks off.  It’s a fine slapstick short, but the characters don’t feel defined enough.  Rating: Fair (65)

These next three are all revisits for me, though it’s been a number of years.  Soigne ton gauche, in which Tati plays a farmhand who gets recruited as a boxer’s sparring partner, is a big improvement… unlike the first two, this one elicited a few chuckles.  Tati is given a lot more room to use his physicality, and although the gags are a little sparse, they hit their mark.  The film also benefits from a more talented director, René Clément, who knows how to use framing and movement to make the shots more interesting.  Rating: Good (74)

It’s been nine years since I last watched L’école des facteurs in its entirety, but it’s featured so heavily in the box set supplements that I felt like I’d seen it a dozen times already this week.  This is, of course, the short that introduces the postman character who would later be showcased in Jour de fête.  It’s also Tati’s first movie as the sole director.  I thought I’d be a little tired of the gags after seeing them so many times in the bonus features, but actually I enjoyed this a lot more than the feature-length film that followed it.  I think probably because it’s too short to get as tiresome.  Nice and compact, with some funny and inventive bits.  The beginning of Tati’s critique of modernization, and the ways we cope with it.  Rating: Good (75)

Cours du soir was written by Tati (and partially shot on his magnificent PlayTime set) but it was directed by Nicolas Ribowski.  We first see Tati in his traditional Hulot garb, but after he enters a classroom and removes the iconic hat and coat, we learn that he’s an acting teacher.  Which is really just a showcase for Tati’s mime talents.  There’s a tennis sequence that brings M. Hulot’s Holiday to mind, and a scene that’s designed to look like an outtake from L’école des facteurs… even switching to black and white for effect.  Tati’s skills are evident and his routines are polished, but it’s also kind of tedious.  A little bit sad, too, like he’s clinging to a past glory (even though he was in the middle of his creative peak).  It just doesn’t work that well.  Rating: Fair (62)

Dégustation maison doesn’t directly have anything to do with Tati.  But it was directed by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff (Jacques shortened his name for showbiz) and was shot in the same small town as Jour de fête (I also wonder if the dachshund is a tribute to Mon Oncle).  The short involves a bakery where the locals gather… like a bar, because we gradually learn that all the pastries contain liquor.  It’s pleasant and it builds nicely, but it’s still pretty much one joke.  Rating: Fair (69)

Forza Bastia features footage shot by Tati in 1978 in the town of Bastia, Corsica.  It was the first time that Bastia’s soccer (sorry, FOOTBALL) team had reached the finals of the European Cup, playing against the Dutch Eindhoven team.  Tati never finished editing it, but his daughter gathered all the footage and cut into this 27 minute film.  Soccer (sorry, FOOTBALL) is the most boring sport in the universe, as evidenced by the fact that the match featured here ends in a score of zero to zero.  So the movie wisely focuses more on the collective madness of the fans who, hailing from a culturally and economically insignificant hunk of rock in the Mediterranean, treat the event as if it was the most important thing that ever happened and proof of their superior standing in the world.  They eventually lost to Eindhoven, at which point I can only presume that the entire city of Bastia committed mass suicide, Jonestown style.  Now that I’ve had some fun being a dick, I will say it was somewhat interesting to watch them deal with a waterlogged field, charmingly attempting to sweep the water into buckets using ordinary brooms.  Otherwise, this final effort in Tati’s career is mainly just a curiosity.  Rating: Fair (60)

Posted in Movie Reviews | 1 Comment »

two revisits

Posted by martinteller on December 7, 2014

After showing Witness to Murder to my sweetie, we got into a debate over the quality of the writing.  I realized later that I was mostly making excuses for the film, one because I had spent money on the Blu-Ray and two because I had previously included it in my top 100 noirs.  I have to admit, both were mistakes.  It’s simply not a great script.  It’s fun, largely because Barbara Stanwyck is always fun, even in dud roles like this.  And I like the gaslighting elements and some of the turns the story takes.  But the real star is the glorious cinematography by John Alton.  The implausible ending sequence is raised to stellar heights by the crisp contrast of shadow and light in that half-finished structure.  However, the movie was eclipsed in every other way a month later by Rear Window, which does so much more with a similar premise.  I won’t be keeping the movie in my collection, and Split Second takes its place on my noir list.  Rating: Good (78)

I feel a little better about buying the Tati set after my third viewing of Mon Oncle (I opted not to go for the English-language version, though it’s nice to have the option).  It holds up better than M. Hulot’s Holiday, and the occasional dead space between gags isn’t as troublesome because there’s always something to look at or ponder.  Tati’s vision is more realized, his outlook on the world is more pronounced in this work.  It’s not just a series of gags, but a statement… one that’s simultaneously warm and cynical.  I love all the bits of design that at are odds with functionality, and the way people let their movements be dictated by their arbitrary environments (even Hulot, though of course his idiosyncratic physicality always causes him to bungle it).  Rating: Very Good (87)

Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Little Man, What Now?

Posted by martinteller on December 6, 2014

Hans Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) learns that his girlfriend Emma (Margaret Sullavan), a.k.a. Lammchen, is expecting a baby.  The two quickly get married, but this poses an unusual problem for Hans.  You see, he works as a clerk for Mr. Kleinholz (DeWitt Jennings) who wanted only eligible bachelors on his staff, to give his daughter Marie (Muriel Kirkland) plenty of options for a potential husband… and Marie has her sights set on Hans.  Despite his efforts to keep his marriage a secret, Hans is found out and dismissed.  The couple moves to Berlin to stay with Hans’s step-mother (Catherine Doucet).  But troubles keep mounting as Hans struggles to hold on to a salesman job, and his step-mother has some shady business going on with the ebullient Mr. Jachman (Alan Hale).

This is the 8th film I’ve seen by Frank Borzage and except for some mild disappointment with Three Comrades, they’ve all been pretty great.  This continues the streak, a sweet and tender film.  Two scenes in particular choked me up: the first is when Hans crumples into Lammchen’s arms, begging her, “Take care me of me, please!”  Although the movie touches on a number of issues, the overriding theme is that it’s love that props us up and keeps us going through hard times.  Borzage has such a lovely romantic touch in his work, a poetry that gilds material that could be laughably cheesy in other hands.  It’s not just in his visual language, although there are some stunning shots to be seen here… it’s the way he brings people to life.  Even the “bad” characters here have a sense of humanity to them, and rarely feel like trumped-up obstacles for our heroes.  And as for the “good” characters (in truth, most are somewhere in between), they are wonderfully endearing.  The other scene that brought a tear to my eye was the ending.  The very last moment is a bit too convenient, perhaps (almost literally a deus ex machina in how it’s staged) but the heartfelt dialogue that precedes it is gorgeous.

The story takes place when the Depression was still very much an issue, and Hans tries to find a balance between keeping his dignity and keeping his job.  Recurring ancillary characters played by Fred Kohler and Mae Marsh show what happens to those who are even less fortunate… perhaps they make bad decisions or have a bad attitude, but their problems are no less real.  The film also highlights the political turmoil in Germany, with the Nazi Party in ascendance.  Borzage would address the concern more directly in The Mortal Storm but even at this early date you can sense that he saw the storm clouds on the horizon.  The timing of this film is also significant it came just a couple of months before the establishment of the Breen office to enforce the production code.  Just a short time later and he couldn’t have gotten away with such overt references to premarital sex, prostitution and nudism.

This is a beautiful, lively film with terrific performances (I didn’t even mention Christian Rub… a great face to go with that great name) and a story that delivers warmth and sadness in balanced, satisfying measures.  It shines a spotlight on the troubles that we face, and also the goodness in us that helps us cope with them.  It’s hard not to like a movie like this.  Rating: Very Good (86)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

trio of quick shots

Posted by martinteller on December 6, 2014

Sorry about the mini-reviews.  I don’t want to use the word “lazy” so let’s say I haven’t been motivated to spend the extra time it takes to do more fleshed-out write-ups.  I don’t want to stop writing about movies, but it has become less important to me.  Or maybe this is just a phase and eventually I’ll go back to the longer reviews, or do one when the spirit moves me.  I don’t know, don’t wanna overanalyze it.

Under the Skin is an intriguing work but comes up a little short for me.  There’s some great imagery — I love the barren black rooms where “she” takes her victims, and the intro is pure Kubrick.  I also thought the music was terrific, and Johansson is perfect casting because she always seems a little dead inside to me anyway.  It’s actually a nice, nuanced performance as she has this emotional awakening.  The film does achieve some measure of profundity about what it means to be human but ultimately it’s too sparse and detached to dig very deep.  There’s something there, but it didn’t seem like a whole lot.  Still, it’s one of the more unusual movies I’ve seen this year.  Rating: Good (76)

It is impossible to watch Begin Again without comparing it to Once.  John Carney is clearly attempting a repeat of the successful formula: a man and a woman, both in somewhat unstable situations and both experiencing difficulties in their most recent relationships, develop a connection through musical collaboration.  The comparison doesn’t do this film many favors.  The music is good but not as memorable (and Gretta’s songs often sound just as overproduced as the music she complains about).  This movie also seems to be trying just a little bit harder to convince the audience how great the music is.  And most importantly, you can’t ever forget that you’re watching Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.  They’re not as natural as the raw appeal of Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, and they don’t really have the acting chops to fake it.  There’s always something a bit phony about them, from Knightley’s “Okay okay… okay, we need to dance” to Ruffalo’s bullshit “producer-y” gestures.  They’re a little bit fake, and when Knightley performs you can tell she doesn’t have any real connection to the songs.  This sounds like a lot of griping, and I guess it is, but that’s only because I love Once so much that this can’t help but feel like a pale imitation to me.  However, it captures the same spirit, it has the same essence.  It doesn’t get as much right as its predecessor does, but it doesn’t truly get anything wrong either.  Rating: Good (79)

Jacques Tati shot his first feature, Jour de fête, with two different cameras: one color, one black & white.  The color process was experimental and he couldn’t get a successful print, so he was forced to release the film in monochrome.  In the 60’s he re-released it with certain elements colorized, and in 1995 much of the color negative was restored and a new version was printed.  Criterion’s exhaustive Tati box set offers all three versions.  Having seen the original version already, I opted to go for the newest, full color edition.  It didn’t help my appreciation much.  Although there are some good gags, I still think it’s one of his weaker movies and frankly I lost interest after a while.  It bugs me how everyone in the town picks on Francois, making him not just a bungler but a boob.  And the old woman “narrator” is a mistake.  After my disappointing revisit with M. Hulot’s Holiday, I’m starting to regret buying this box set.  I think I may like Tati more in theory than in practice, and I’m wondering if Play Time might not actually drop off my top 100 list.  We shall see.  Rating: Fair (68)

Posted in Movie Reviews | 2 Comments »

Eraserhead (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on December 3, 2014

Sometimes I feel guilty about doing a “laundry list” style write-up rather than trying to craft a “proper” review.  But in this case, it seems appropriate.  So here’s a partial list of things I absolutely love about Eraserhead:

* The sound design.  There is barely a moment that isn’t underscored by an unsettling noise… a mechanical hum, pouring rain, something grinding, the hiss of a radiator.

* Speaking of sound design, how about when Henry enter Mary’s home and there’s a few disturbing minutes before you find out where that infernal squeaking is coming from… a litter of puppies nursing in the corner.

* And speaking of that, the way the film handles fear of parenthood.  Although Lynch has said that no one has ever interpreted the film the way he meant it, it’s impossible to write off fear of parenthood as a dominant theme.  Fear of not caring enough for your children, and fear of doing the wrong thing and destroying them.  We are supposed to have a biological imperative to reproduce, but I think most people could relate to these fears.

* And that makes me think of the way Lynch reacts to human biology in general.  There’s a fascinated repulsion to it, an emphasis on how… well, gross we all are, once you really start thinking about it.  Perhaps what’s most unsettling about the “baby” is not how different it is from us, but how alike it is.

* Oh, that baby!  What a marvel of production design and special effects!

* The use of the music, namely the incongruous Fats Waller organ ditties and the memorable “In Heaven” serenade.

* The comedy.  For a film that’s so bizarre and gloomy, it sure is funny.  There’s just a handful of lines spoken, but most of them are quotable gems.  “OKAY, Paul!”  “Look at my knees!”  “Oh, you ARE sick!”  And that silly grin on Allen Joseph’s face during the hilarious dinner scene.  Pure gold.

* The decrepitude of the surroundings and masterful set design.  Everything is just the right amount of dirty and falling apart and fucked up.  The insane plant on Henry’s nightstand or the pile of what appear to be pine needles around his radiator.  The peeling wallpaper.  The desolate landscapes.  The grimy window at Mary’s house.

* That part where Mary is tugging on the bed and you don’t know what the hell she’s doing.

* Trying to figure out what’s real and what’s a nightmare, or if there’s a difference.  Puzzling out the meaning of the Man in the Planet (Henry’s lifeforce?) or the titular sequence or the little worm he finds in his mailbox.  Sometimes I think I have a grasp on these things, sometimes I feel the significance of them without understanding them, sometimes they just come off as dreamlike imagery.  But always they are fascinating and add to the grand experience of it.

* Which is what it all boils down to: Eraserhead is not a story as much as it’s an experience.  An experience that utterly enthralls me, delights me, haunts me every time.  It’s amazing that with his first feature film, Lynch was able to build such powerful atmosphere, crafting an enduring cult classic that is the iconic example of the “Midnight Movie”.  Rating: Masterpiece (98)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

To the Ends of the Earth

Posted by martinteller on December 2, 2014

I watched half of this before my vacation and the rest of it just now… not the ideal viewing situation, so perhaps you should take this mini-review with a grain of salt.  It’s just as well this didn’t end up being a Noir-vember review, since it’s not particularly noir.  More of a globe-trotting adventure as a government agent (Dick Powell) tracks down an opium ring from San Francisco to Shanghai to Egypt to Cuba to New York.  It’s pretty lively and entertaining, but Powell’s vibe is too smug and there’s some lingering postwar anti-Japanese sentiment involved… perhaps indicating a conservative streak in director Robert Stevenson, who would do the Communist panic picture The Woman on Pier 13 the following year.  Also some clunky speeches and no standout performances.  But the bones of the film are solid, with some fun twists and turns if you don’t mind the somewhat hard-to-follow plot.  Rating: Fair (67)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 356 other followers