Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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catching up: Birdman and Whiplash

Posted by martinteller on March 28, 2015

Birdman is one of those movies I felt like I should see, even though — despite praise from many corners — I wasn’t terribly interested.  Iñárritu has been on a steady decline since his powerful debut Amores Perros, and besides that, I generally don’t get too excited for movies about acting and actors (although I guess my #1, Fanny and Alexander, is about actors, but only to a small degree).  The director has previously toyed with parallel narrative threads, now he goes for a continuous take thing which didn’t do a whole lot for me but it was interesting how he used it to present a non-real-time chronology.  There are a couple of clever things but then a lot of stuff that was glaringly not clever, or original (Riggan’s casual displays of telekinesis were so reminiscent of Time of the Gypsies I had to wonder if it was an influence).  The script has a lot of overly writer-ish stuff in it.  And just plain lazy writing too.  Why do screenwriters love the “Why did we break up?” bit so much?  No one ever actually has a conversation like that.  Couples tend to remember why they broke up.  It’s a cheap shortcut to fill the audience in on some backstory.  And then the whole thing just reeks of Hollywood congratulating itself (Oscar or no Oscar) for being so self-aware.  I dunno, there was a lot that bugged me about this movie but I recognize some virtue (ugh virtue… don’t get started on the movie’s pompous subtitle).  I always like seeing Keaton and yeah, he’s pretty good here.  I liked Norton too, perhaps even because one wonders how close this character is to his true personality.  Overall, though, the movie doesn’t live up to its ambitions and doesn’t really say anything new.  Rating: Fair (68)

Whiplash, on the other hand, was both a breath of fresh air and a shot in the arm.  It’s a movie that sometimes goes big, but remains unassuming.  The relationship between Miles Teller (no relation that I’m aware of) and J.K. Simmons is maybe something we’ve seen before, but has an edgy energy to it, an unpredictability that kept me transfixed.  It’s a captivating rollercoaster of pride, ego, ambition, drive and power.  It leads you down a path where this mesmerizing dynamic develops and doesn’t try to tell you what it’s saying about these people (unlike Birdman, which is often way too on-the-nose).  It’s not all great… the family dinner scene feels too easy, and I’m not convinced that the climax gets to the truest honesty.  But I was transfixed by the movie’s bare vitality, its rawness.  Rating: Very Good (88)

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 27, 2015

After a second run through the series made me more fond of the movie when it came time to revisit it.  I appreciated even more how the film recreates the feel of the best moments of the show, but taking the nightmare darkness to a new level.  I appreciated even the prologue scenes with Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland… not strictly necessary (except for the stuff about the ring) but starting things off with a lighter tone (but not as goofy as the series got) before plunging deeper and deeper into the troubled life of Laura Palmer.  The humor helps draw the viewer in, and then gradually gives way to material that’s more and more disturbing.  The build-up is slow, but masterfully handled in a way that leads us to very dark places indeed.

Lynch’s vision of good and evil is realized here with gripping intensity.  There is an evil like the kind seen in the heart-pounding “Power and the Glory” scene, as Laura and Donna are pawed and taken advantage of and treated like less than objects.  It’s harrowing, chilling, the dreadful atmosphere aided by nerve-shattering strobe lights and music that sounds like doom itself.  Then there’s the evil of incestuous child abuse, an evil so horrifying that it’s like the product of another world.  Lynch’s worldview seems to posit that good and evil are always at war, have been always been at war, and will always be at war.  No one wins, but in a sense good always loses… because as long as evil exists, good is never truly good.  It’s a bleak, unsettling vision.  Lynch’s earnest rooting for good is small comfort when such horrors exist.

The new Blu-Ray edition includes the long-awaited deleted and extended scenes, an hour and a half of them.  While there’s some interesting material here, most of it is the stuff that separates the movie from the TV show.  There are a number of throwaway bits involving secondary characters, including almost every season 1 cast member (with the notable exceptions of Catherine Martell and the Hornes).  If you imagine Fire Walk With Me as a 4-episode “prequel” run of the show, these scenes are the things you’d be mildly interested in or amused by while waiting for the good bits.  Does anyone really need to see Pete and Josie bicker with the bank manager about a piece of lumber?  I think not.

Other scenes are not especially missed in the context of the movie but are still a good watch, like Isaak’s final confrontation with the sheriff.  Most valuable are the last few deleted scenes, which provide some tantalizing bits of epilogue for the “Twin Peaks” universe, including more of the beloved Agent Cooper.  These would have been out of place after the film’s climax, but serve as excellent supplementary material.  What the deleted scenes don’t do is shed much light on the mysteries of the film.  A few tidbits are explained a little more, but mostly the film retains its wonderful inscrutability.  I don’t believe that Lynch ever does “weird for the sake of being weird”.  The one scene I might level that charge against is the one pictured above: the appearance of “Lil”.  It doesn’t have enough weight to come off as much more than kooky affectation (especially because Isaak explains it all in the next scene).  But the other unexplained moments of the film resonate on a gut level, even while the head tries to make sense of them.  Lynch is often at his best when he’s working purely from the unconscious.  Some kinds of evil are best expressed with images not meant to be comprehended… the facts of them are too awful to be measured in objective facts.  Rating: Very Good (88)

IMDb

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The October Man

Posted by martinteller on March 25, 2015

Jim Ackland (John Mills) is taking his friend’s young daughter home on the bus one dark and stormy night when one of the wheels comes off.  The little girl dies, and Jim suffers from a fractured skull… and a feeling of guilt.  The experience has aroused suicidal impulses, and he spends a year in the hospital.  Upon release, he takes up residence at a hotel.  Among the other residents are a judgmental gossip (Joyce Carey), a bookish man rumored to be wealthy (Edward Chapman), an elderly woman who is constantly cold (Esme Beringer), and Jim’s neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), a model who is struggling to pay her rent.  Jim gets a job as a chemist, and falls in love with his colleague’s sister Jenny (Joan Greenwood).  Just when his life is starting to look bright again, Molly borrows money from him and that same evening is strangled in the commons.  With his check found crumpled in a ball near her body, and his history of mental illness, Jim is hounded by Inspector Godby (Frederick Piper).

Roy Ward Baker’s debut feature is a solid Britnoir.  It’s much in the vein of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” pictures (and the opening sequence is loaded with Hitchcockian suspense and dread), but with less humor and more psychological drama.  It’s not humorless — there’s comedy in the interactions among the hotel residents — but for the most part it’s a gloomy, moody affair.  As Ackland butts heads with the stubborn Godby (does he only seem shockingly poor as a detective because we know Ackland is innocent, or is it reasonable to ask our law enforcement not to single-mindedly focus on a single suspect while ignoring all other possibilities?), he begins to doubt his own sanity.  It’s a theme similar to Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall, from the same year.  How do you reconcile your knowledge of innocence with everyone else so certain of your guilt, especially when your mind has worked against you before?

Mills is great, as he pretty much always is.  Greenwood has a haunting elegance to her.  Piper and Carey are appropriately loathsome.  The real star of the film may be cinematographer Erwin Hiller.  Hiller has previously shot two films with the Archers (A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going!).  Here he displays a strong sense of atmosphere, with enveloping shadows and ethereal clouds of smoke and fog.  The hotel takes on claustrophobic closeness with canted angles and tight framing.

The movie is occasionally sluggish, especially in the first third.  After that it becomes more “slow burn” than “sluggish”, although one punctuated with a couple of thrilling moments.  It’s also all too easy to guess who the killer is, but it’s revealed quite a while before the end anyway so it’s not that big a deal.  In general, it’s a satisfying picture without any nagging flaws.  Rating: Very Good (83)

IMDb

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The Telephone Book

Posted by martinteller on March 24, 2015

Free-spirited Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is bored in her Manhattan apartment one afternoon when she gets an obscene phone call.  The greatest obscene phone call in the world.  When he calls again, he reveals that his name is John Smith, and he’s in the book.  She frantically goes on a search for the right John Smith (Norman Rose), and has some unusual encounters along the way.

There was a time (and it may still be going on) where you could find these softcore comedies on late night cable, movies like H.O.T.S. or The First Nudie Musical.  Although they were clearly vehicles for cheap thrills via flashes of nudity, there’d be some semblance of a story to them.  This is like the experimental version of that.  This film is to the softcore comedy what Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is to monster movies.  It’s got absurdist humor, fragmented editing and ends with an insane (and very profane) animated sequence.  It’s hard to dismiss as mere spank material when it has such an outlaw sensibility.

However, like a lot of counter-culture films of the early 70’s, it’s also pretty stupid.  There’s a palpable smugness to the characterizations of “normal” folks as secret deviants, an annoying “yeah, we’re really stickin’ it to the man” attitude.  Even in 1971 I doubt anyone was as shocked by this as the filmmakers imagined everyone would be.  Most of the humor comes off as pretty lame and adolescent, raunchy jokes for 13-year-old boys who just learned what the word “pussy” means.  Kennedy has an appealing presence (both despite and because of her helium voice) and it’s somewhat amusing to hear Rose’s authoritarian, silver voice speaking filthy nonsense.  Also, I must admit I chortled at the phrase “dick-a-lick”.  But most of the gags aren’t that good, or are dragged on too long.  The experimental ambitions are overshadowed by the dumb comedy and undercooked satire.  Rating: Fair (60)

IMDb

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Star Trek: Nemesis (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 23, 2015

I’m giving this the same score as Insurrection because I can’t decide which is worse.  Insurrection was more annoying and this one was more boring, but both were pretty annoying and pretty boring.  Any good points?  Well, it was nice to see Guinan for about 40 seconds.  Tom Hardy does fairly well with such poorly-written material.  The special effects hold up (although the onscreen images clearly influenced by The Matrix made me roll my eyes).  Otherwise, just ugh.  At least a dozen times Carrie or I would pause the movie to complain about or question what was happening.  A tedious jumble of tired tropes, nonsense science, confusing character actions and motivations.  And Troi getting mind-raped again.  And then Picard tells her it would super helpful if she were willing to subject herself to that again.  Um, how about no to that particular request?  Rating: Crap (22)

IMDb

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Gone to Earth

Posted by martinteller on March 22, 2015

In 1897, the earthy, animal-loving Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) lives in the Shropshire countryside with her father Abel (Esmond Knight), a coffin-maker and harpist, and her beloved pet fox Foxy.  Her mother has passed away, but not without passing along a belief in pagan superstition.  One night while walking home, fearing the “Dark Huntsmen”, she is startled by the carriage of squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar).  Reddin takes her to his estate and makes advances on her.  She escapes and Reddin spends days searching for her.  Meanwhile, she’s captured the attention of the gentle minister Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), who is captivated by her angelic singing at a local fair.  Marston, swearing an oath to God to protect her, proposes.  Hazel, having sworn her own oath to marry the first one that asks, accepts.  But when Reddin finally catches up with her, he has his own ideas.

This film came at the end of Powell and Pressburger’s peak period, a string of films that included A Matter of Life and DeathBlack Narcissus, and The Red Shoes.  For this one, they worked with producer David O. Selznick (Jones’s husband), who was unsatisfied with the results and ultimately butchered the movie and released it as The Wild Heart in the U.S.  Fortunately, I watched the original version, which is a somewhat routine melodrama but retains the mysterious charm of the Archers.  The quiet eeriness mixed with the rustic country life gives it the air of a fairy tale.  The analogy of Hazel and the fox — an untamed but innocent creature — is perhaps a bit obvious, but is handled with gorgeous grace.

Innocents are dogged and persecuted by social mores (especially in a Victorian era)… the expectation that lower classes should submit to the wealthy and powerful, the wagging tongues of those who would make private affairs public gossip, the double-standard when it comes to women and their desires.  It’s interesting that each of the three principals in the story has an older figure in their lives, each serving a different role.  Marston’s mother (Sybil Thorndike) is protective… not of her son or his wishes, but protective of the family reputation, prudishly attempting to shield it from any hint of impropriety.  Hazel’s father is a bit of a scamp and has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with her, but he clings to a sort of folksy set of ethics that show a true fatherly concern.  And Reddin’s manservant Vessons (Hugh Griffith) seems mostly concerned with protecting the world from his master’s lechery.  These figures are, no matter what their intentions, ultimately unsuccessful at controlling their wards, as one generation gives way to the next.  Nature — human and animal — wins out.

The technicolor photography is not done by Jack Cardiff this time, but cinematographer Christopher Challis is up to the task, presenting some stunning images.  The bold colors help lend the film its faintly surreal aura, an otherworldly patina.  One particular memorable scene features Jones standing on a hill, as Farrar’s shadow slowly engulfs her.  The score by Brain Easdale is lovely as well.  Jones delivers one of better performances, although her attempts at a local accent are shaky and unconvincing.  Farrar and Cusack both handle their opposing parts nicely as well, occupying what amounts to “villain” and “hero” roles without reducing them to simplicity.  However, Griffith and Knight are somewhat overbearing in their hamminess.  Foxy makes up for them, though.  Rating: Very Good (85)

IMDb

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True Crime Double Feature: The Jinx/The Staircase II

Posted by martinteller on March 21, 2015

Chances are you’ve heard the buzz about HBO’s documentary mini-series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.  It’s also likely that you’ve seen Durst’s name pop up in recent headlines.  As in most situations like this, I would encourage the viewer to go in with as little prior knowledge as possible.  I knew only the barest of information, but I still found it colored my perception of Durst while watching.  Nonetheless, it didn’t decrease my appreciation for this work at all.  This is edge-of-your-seat viewing.  I think each of the six episodes includes at least one “holy shit!” moment, the final one being the holy-shit-iest of them all.  Andrew Jarecki struck documentarian gold previously with the stunning Capturing the Friedmans, and here he does it again.  As the story takes one bizarre and shocking turn after another, Jarecki and his team become entwined in it.  At first Jarecki’s insistence on including himself in the documentary feels like unnecessary meta-commentary, but by the final episode it justifies itself in the best way possible.  I know I’ve said nothing about the actual content of the story, but take my word for it, it’s remarkable stuff.  Rating: Great (93)

Another true crime documentary mini-series, The Staircase, gets an update.  In The Staircase II: Last Chance, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade returns to the story of Michael Peterson, who had spent the last 8 years in prison for the murder of his wife Kathleen.  The original 8-part miniseries was also riveting with many twists and turns, although the film seemed biased in Michael’s favor.  Now a new piece of information has arisen that seems to justify that bias, at least to some degree.  The information surrounding this new development is interesting, and — like The Jinx — raises questions about the effectiveness of our systems of criminal investigation and jurisprudence, regardless of whether you think Peterson is guilty or innocent.  However, the 2-hour film spends a lot of time focusing on Peterson’s family and while some of this provides a valuable human element, it gets repetitive and frankly dull.  We know his kids (except Caitlin, who is conspicuously not much of a participant here) love him and support him.  We don’t need to see it over and over again.  I was also surprised that there was no mention at all of the “owl theory”, which has a lot of merits.  I’m guessing Lestrade thought it could potentially be more damaging to Peterson’s case than helpful.  I can’t imagine a less biased filmmaker not wanting to explore such an unusual avenue.  Rating: Good (71)

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Blissfully Yours (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 17, 2015

Memory plays tricks on you.  In the years since I first saw this movie, it had been reduced to two things: the surprising mid-movie opening credits, and a bucolic, meditative look at young lovers basking in the forest.  I’d forgotten the undercurrent of dread and sadness, the character conflicts.  It’s all so gentle and dreamlike, but when you watch it, there’s an uneasiness.  The story concerns Min (Min Oo), an illegal Burmese immigrant in Thailand.  He is being looked after by his lover, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), who paints Disney-esque figurines in a factory.  Roong has hired an older woman named Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) to help Min illicitly obtain the papers he needs to work, as well as do something about his nagging skin condition.  Orn, we discover, has lost a child and hopes for another… she is also possibly having an affair with one of her husband’s co-workers.

That is the “plot”, mostly revealed in dribs and drabs during the 45 minutes preceding the opening credits.  The rest of the film occurs during a lazy picnic in the forest, as Roong and Min try to get away from it all.  Orn and her lover either follow them, or end up in the same place by coincidence.  Both couples share sexual moments, delivered with an honest sensuality.  But underneath are the distances, as well as some rivalry between the women over Min.  Min, meanwhile, gives Roong the requisite amount of attention but his mind is elsewhere.  He’s already planning the next stages of his life, the next country even.  As much as the film’s aesthetic tries to tell us these people are sharing a magic moment of quietude, none of them are truly together.

Weerasethakul breaks the rules of cinema, but it’s never with a cocky or defiant attitude.  It’s as if he’s not even aware of the rules, or he’s saying “I can do this, so why shouldn’t I?”  It makes him one of the most playful and exciting directors working today.  What to make of the scene where Orn concocts a mix of skin creams and chopped vegetables, feeds her husband a spoonful, and he dreamily stares at the camera for a moment, looking as if he’s eaten something magical?  I don’t know what to make of it, but I friggin’ love it.  And then there are the white superimpositions of Min’s child-like sketches.  Or that unexpected pop song and title sequence.  Or the fact that the movie leisurely goes where it wants to, evoking both bliss and unease.

I don’t get as much out of this as I do from Syndromes or Boonmee, but I’m definitely glad I revisited it.  I can imagine it growing on me more.  Rating: Very Good (85)

IMDb

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Star Trek: Insurrection

Posted by martinteller on March 15, 2015

The only ST:TNG film I hadn’t seen before, and one I kept putting off and putting off until finally it was overdue at the library and we had to watch it.  No one seems to have any kind words to say about it, and no wonder: this movie stinks.  Never mind the lame jokes and terrible special effects (I mean, really terrible).  Never mind even the cloying subplot involving Data connecting with a child… or the joystick that Riker uses in a tight situation, a prop that was clearly obtained by sending a production assistant to Circuit City with ten dollars.  These would be forgivable if the story was decent, but it isn’t.  It’s confusing and full of holes and people saying utter nonsense and acting ridiculous.  Logic was entirely thrown out the window.  What’s left is a pile of clichés, a clumsy analogy for the treatment of Native Americans/slaves, and characters we just don’t give a damn about… including our beloved favorites from the series.  Even F. Murray Abraham can’t fix this mess.  It’s not exciting, it’s not intelligent, it’s not fun.

The one great thing is that just before we started watching it, Carrie tried to get me excited about this endeavor by saying “Maybe Picard will sing!”  And whaddayaknow… Picard sang!  Unfortunately, he sang Gilbert & Sullivan, and I friggin’ hate Gilbert & Sullivan.  Figures.  I would love to step through a subspace rift or something and return to a dimension where I hadn’t seen this movie.  Rating: Crap (22)

IMDb

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When We Were Kings

Posted by martinteller on March 15, 2015

I don’t have many “brush with fame” stories, but please indulge me while I share one of the few.  I grew up in the neighborhood of Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago (yes, it’s the neighborhood where our President lives, but this isn’t about him).  My first job was when I was in high school, at a little computer shop on the corner of 53rd and Harper.  One day, I think it was a warm afternoon sometime in 1987, a crowd started to gather outside the store.  We all went to the window and saw Muhammad Ali standing on the corner, right in front of our store.  He did some sleight-of-hand tricks, shook some hands, and left.  In my memory, he never spoke a word to anyone but maybe that’s myth-building that happened in my mind over the years.

I knew who Ali was, of course.  You couldn’t be a child of the 1970’s and not be aware of him.  And to some degree I idolized him, not because I knew anything about boxing but just because he was a larger-than-life figure who was everywhere in pop culture.  “Float like a butterly, sting like a bee” was as ubiquitous as “May the force be with you”.  I watched his short-lived cartoon, because kids will watch anything animated on a Saturday morning.  But I never really knew much about him.  I had heard of the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Africa, but I couldn’t have told you which country (Zaire) or even who won (I’ll keep this under wraps, although any sports fan surely knows).

I also don’t know much about boxing in general — except what I’ve seen in the movies, of course — but this fight was riveting.  A dramatic, edge-of-your-seat display of cunning strategy and brute force.  But the fight is not the whole story.  Director Leon Gast spends an hour building up to it, covering a lot of ground while still holding everything together beautifully.  Another thing I didn’t know is that the match was packaged with a music festival, including James Brown, B.B. King and The Spinners.  The music is used throughout the film and it’s fantastic (except the terribly hokey title song by Brian McKnight and Diana King).  Perhaps the film’s best sequence is a brilliantly edited montage of Brown performing “Funky Good Time”, intercut with images of the boxers in training, other performers, and the local culture.

The documentary is constructed very nicely, feeding you new information and opinions at a satisfying clip.  Every facet of the event that the film touches upon is interesting, with testimonials from many who were there, including Norman Mailer and George Plimpton.  How the fight came to be in Zaire, the formidable leader Mobutu lacking the smackdown on criminals in the city, Ali’s political leanings and how they made him the local favorite, the training sessions, the trash talk, Don King, the unfortunate six-week delay, the looming threat of rainy season.  And the aftermath, as an aging, addled Ali moves out of the boxing limelight and adjusts his public persona.  He is a true legend.  I stood five feet away from him once.  Rating: Very Good (84)

IMDb

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