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Posted by martinteller on April 25, 2015

I want to start with this: I am not a Nolan hater.  Granted, I am not a big fan like so many others are, and I thought The Dark Knight Rises was pretty damn weak, but most of his movies I’ve enjoyed on some level.  I even think The Prestige and Memento are quite good.  But this… this is just awful.  I mean laughably bad.  I liked the stuff about relativity, I found that rather intriguing (and I joked to my lady that 3 hours of this movie was like 26 years, though I’m sure I’m not the first to make that crack).  And some of the visuals are very striking.  But otherwise I’m at a loss for anything nice to say.  So much terrible dialogue, so much bad exposition, SO MUCH CRYING.  Nolan can be great with ideas but he’s utterly inept with emotion.  This movie tries so hard to make you feel something and fails every single time.  I don’t know if I should blame the writing or the performance, not a one of which was any good.  And oh yeah, Hans Zimmer’s music is really annoying and bombastic too.

I went into this film with somewhat low expectations, but it was far worse than I’d imagined.  If it wasn’t reaching so much for poignancy it might have worked, but even the basic storytelling is riddled with cliché and nonsense.  Heck, even the scientific aspects are sketchy.  And oh lord, I never thought I could despise Dylan Thomas so much.  Rating: Crap (32)


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Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still)

Posted by martinteller on April 25, 2015

High in the Italian Alps, a dam is being constructed.  The conditions are too harsh to work in the winter, when the only crew is a pair of caretakers: Salvetti (Paolo Guadrubbi) and Venerocolo (Natale Rossi).  But Salvetti’s wife gives birth, and his replacement is Roberto (Roberto Seveso), a college student hoping to use the isolation to study for upcoming exam.  Robert and Venerocolo have a distrustful tension between them, but their bond grows, especially when a storm knocks out the power.

This is Ermanno Olmi’s first feature film, from 1959.  But he was hardly new to the camera.  During the previous eight years, he had directed some two dozen documentary shorts.  Two years later, after another batch of short documentaries, he came out with the widely-acclaimed Il Posto and then I Fidanzati (one of my top 100 films).  The latter was nominated for the Palme d’Or, a prize he would win in 1978 with The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  Even then he was still making documentary shorts, mostly for television, but at this point he shifts more and more towards dramatic features.  He’s still working today, at age 82.

It’s a long and interesting career.  I confess I’ve never seen any of his vast documentary work, but his features have never let me down.  Even at this first outing, he shows a lovely grace and sensitivity.  And talent for gentle comedy, as Venerocolo and Robert view each other with subtle suspicion, as the newcomer gets on the older veteran’s nerves, as the young man tries to find his place in a situation where he knows he’s the foreign element.  Robert wears a sweater emblazoned with a giant “R”… along with the puffy head of hair he sports, he evokes Archie Andrews, a symbol of an emerging youth culture that is completely alien to Venerocolo.

What’s most appealing about the film is how much restraint Olmi shows.  Never one for big moments, he underplays the rift between them.  It’s not some wacky “odd couple” situation.  He takes it to a level that feels authentic, so that he doesn’t have to make huge leaps to get to the other side.  We fully believe every stage of this relationship and never feel that we’ve had to suspend disbelief to get from one to the next.  The result is a beautiful expression of male bonding, of friendship, of a developing father-son like connection.  The performances by Rossi and Seveso are very endearing, Rossi especially has a terrific face.  Unfortunately, this is the only place to see it, as he never made another film (Seveso had a small role in 1963’s Il terrorista and then seems to have found his vocation as a camera operator).

With wonderful music by Pier Emilio Bassi (including the hilarious “King of Rock” song Roberto plays on his phonograph) and excellent use of the “Totalscope” widescreen frame by Carlo Bellero, it’s a funny and sweet picture.  Both sides of this generation gap are presented with sympathy and understanding… sympathy and understanding that the characters themselves take on.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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two shorts by Jorge Furtado

Posted by martinteller on April 24, 2015

After being very amused and impressed with Ilha das Flores, I wanted to check out more by this Brazilian director.  Neither of these are as impactful, but they’re still good. In O Dia em Que Dorival Encarou a Guarda, Dorival (João Acaiabe) is a military prisoner in solitary confinement.  He wants to take a shower, but there are “orders” against it.  Dorival keeps threatening and insulting his way up the ranks in order to achieve his goal.  This is early in Furtado’s career (his second film) but he makes crafty use of footage from King Kong and Casablanca (and also a scene based on the Italian comic book character Tex Willer, but I can’t tell if Furtado shot it or if it’s from an existing western).  Particularly when the voices of Dorival and a guard are coming out of the mouths of Bogart and Dooley Wilson!  The film tries to balance humor and social criticism — on issues of both power and race — and doesn’t quite succeed, but there are strong elements and a solid ending.  Rating: Very Good (81)

In O Sanduíche (The Sandwich) we see a couple going through a break-up.  The man (Felipe Mônaco) is moving out and having a parting conversation with the woman (Janaína Kremer Motta).  Suddenly we learn they’re a pair of actors rehearsing for a play.  The woman makes the man a sandwich and the two start talking about their own past break-ups.  And then…. well, it gets meta.  In an almost annoyingly predictable way at first, but it keeps escalating until it becomes pretty clever.  I think Mohsen Makhmalbaf would dig this.  It doesn’t have a lot of heft to it but it works on a lot of different levels.  And it’s fun.  Rating: Good (79)

In looking for more Furtado to explore, I discovered he directed The Man Who Copied, a film I started watching a couple years ago and got bored with.  I may have to give that a second chance.

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Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat)

Posted by martinteller on April 22, 2015

A tidy whirlwind of everyday activity as a family gathers and prepares for a large dinner.  First-time writer/director Ramon Zürcher employs a minimalist narrative that’s remarkably casual.  The action and conversation couldn’t be more mundane, and yet tiny bits of chaos flutter around the edges.  A light bulb is broken.  A sausage defiantly squirts its juices when cut.  Someone has vomited in front of the house.  No less than three shirts are damaged.  It’s all perfectly ordinary stuff but the absence of broad, dramatic obvious conflict gives the confluence of these minor occurrences just a hint of unease.  And with little prompting from Zürcher.  He rarely points to anything and says: “Isn’t this weird?  What do you make of that, huh?”  A couple of times the camera seems to pause on a character, an ellipsis that lasts just long enough to arouse suspicion.

And it’s also a wonderful little family portrait.  The parents and siblings have utterly authentic chemistry, developing in-jokes and making little jabs of playful passive-aggression.  Rarely are films where “nothing happens” so enjoyable.  And there are these captivating monologues.  Again, the content itself is far from exciting.  The mother relates an incident in a movie theater where a stranger sitting next to her accidentally put his foot on hers.  The father talks about traffic.  A daughter describes how orange peels always fall with the white side up.  A son talks about a drunk woman at a party who made people uncomfortable.  And yet these prosaic speeches, delivered in an emotionless (but not robotic or monotone) fashion, connect with the viewer.  They have a universality, you get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes and recognize it.  And they seem to point to an anxious alienation.  Except the orange peel.  What’s up with the orange peel?

Zürcher isn’t telling.  It’s a puzzler of a film, but done with so little pretense or willful obfuscation that I never felt like I was being kept at arm’s length.  I felt invited in.  Come in, look around, explore.  Breathe in the air.  Is it red or green?  Be a spectator for the purring cat.  Oh yes, the titular cat.  There’s a dog too.  Neither seems to be especially significant, although the cat does appear to have his own soundtrack.  Zürcher was reportedly inspired by “The Metamorphosis” (how curiously coincidental that the last movie I watched was Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life).  Is the cat Gregor Samsa, the creature in the bedroom no one wants to acknowledge?  But they talk about it, pick it up.  Nope, it’s just a cat.  Or is it?  Is the title just a flirtatious tease?

The film draws comparison to both Tati and Akerman.  There’s some of that in there.  It was also conceived during a Bela Tarr workshop.  There’s some of that in there, too.  But these comparisons are too easy.  It’s domestic minutiae, so it’s Akerman.  It’s slow, so it’s Tarr.  It has light comedy featuring people confounded by objects, so it’s Tati.  Influences, yes, but it’s neither a copy of their styles nor some kind of hybrid soup of them.  It’s something familiar and yet different.  It’s warm and it’s cold.  It’s mildly comforting and vaguely sinister.  It’s a slippery little mother of a movie, one that gets better the longer it sits with me.  I want to see this again.  Rating: Great (90)


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Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life

Posted by martinteller on April 21, 2015

Because “Franz Kafka” kinda sounds like “Frank Capra”, get it?  This 24-minute short finds Kafka himself (Richard E. Grant) agonizing over the first line of “The Metamorphosis”, trying to decide what Gregor Samsa will turn into.  He’s frustrated with writer’s block, distracted by music coming from the downstairs tenant (Elaine Collins), and creeped out by a knife sharpener (Ken Stott) lingering in the stairwell.  It’s a whole lot more Kafka than Capra, although finally at the end it starts to resemble the Xmas classic.  But regardless of how faithful it is to the concept, it’s still somewhat amusing.  The cutaways to Samsa waking up as a banana and a kangaroo are pretty funny.  I generally don’t care much for Grant, but I must say he fits the role.  The short is generally true to the spirit of Kafka, conveying that sense that everyone is — almost deliberately, maliciously — talking on different wavelengths.  It’s an entertaining lark.  Written and directed by Peter Capaldi, the foul-mouthed “Malcolm Tucker” of “The Thick of It” and In the Loop (oh, and also he plays someone named “Doctor Who”).  Rating: Good (74)


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Tamako in Moratorium

Posted by martinteller on April 20, 2015

Tamako (Atsuko Maeda) is 23 years old, recently graduated from college.  She lives with her divorced father (Suon Kan) in the back of his sporting goods store.  She spends her days sleeping, looking at her phone, eating, reading manga, watching TV and playing videogames.  The closest thing she has to a friend is the young boy who buys his basketball gear at the store.  Her father pressures her to get a job — any job — but all she has to say on the subject is “Soon. Not now.”

So, yeah, this is a 75-minute movie about a young woman doing nothing.  The only thing that motivates Tamako is her disapproval of her father’s dating life.  The film is short on lessons and explanations (though perhaps it didn’t help that the subtitles weren’t that good).  Why doesn’t she want her father dating?  Because she has hopes her mother will return?  Or will it simply upset her comfortable state of inertia?  And what got her into that state in the first place?  Perhaps what she’s watching on the television (not subtitled) is a clue, but we get a glimpse of one of her peers who seems far more chipper.  And yet later, another glimpse tells us that maybe things aren’t going so well for the chipper gal, either.

Like the philosophy behind “Seinfeld”, the movie examines the minutiae of life and features “no hugging, no learning”.  You are left to make of Tamako what you will.  She’s a frustrating character, but Maeda’s (a Japanese pop star) performance is endearing and funny.  She embodies that post-graduate ennui that many experience, turning lack of ambition into an art form.  Ultimately the movie is certainly slight, and not as immediately lovable as Yamashita’s earlier Linda Linda Linda, but what sounds like a boring premise comes off as a very watchable character study, and a frequently amusing one.  Rating: Good (75)


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Cries and Whispers (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on April 18, 2015

I’ll be honest (I don’t know why I feel the need to preface with that… aren’t I always honest?), I don’t really know what to say about this movie, or even quite how I feel about it.  Perhaps it’s too bleak to properly process on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Although it ends on a moment of happiness, the rest of it is a painful cry for comfort.  The video essay on Criterion’s new Blu-Ray release helped open up the film a little for me, especially in pointing out how essential touching is as a conveyance of affection.  Agnes begs to be touched, Karin does it reluctantly while Maria recoils in horror… although Maria also caresses Karin when she’s begging not to be touched.  Only Anna, the servant, provides the sensual, maternal relief of touch that Agnes so desperately craves.

It’s a movie that I respect immensely for its artistic expression — the musical structure, the bold use of the color, the expert performances — and I continue to find new depths in it.  But it’s not a film I hold close to my heart, it’s not one I relish watching.  Especially not the glass scene, my vote for the most disturbing thing Bergman ever shot.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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Sense and Sensibility

Posted by martinteller on April 17, 2015

Here’s a fun game to play when watching any movie from the past 30 years with a largely British cast: count the Harry Potter actors.  In this one, we’ve got six.  Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), and Elizabeth Spriggs (the Fat Lady in the painting).  Amazing how many people have passed through that series at one time or another.

Anyway, I knew absolutely nothing about Jane Austen’s story going into this.  But being a period picture representing a certain time in British history, there are certain expectations.  It’s going to be largely about the damages of emotional repression and the barriers of class.  People will suppress their desires for the sake of propriety (and at least once everyone will be quietly shocked when someone does something improper).  There will be a ball with an impossibly complicated dance.  Lots of absurdly fussy costumes.  Someone will get deathly ill.

S&S delivers on all these counts, and in some ways it’s frustrating… but mainly because the times themselves are so frustrating.  There are moments when they make it clear that Elinor and Marianne have nothing to look forward to in life except for someone to come along and marry them.  The brief lines of dialogue that lament this situation feel like they come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay — reminding the viewer that things were different back then — rather than Austen, but I am not sure.  It can be difficult for a modern viewer to readily accept that these women have virtually no choice but to pin all their hopes on a man and wait for him to propose.

But within these narrow confines (confines made more evident by Ang Lee’s more than capable direction, often framing the characters in tight boundaries, or withdrawing the camera to make the walls close in on them) there is an enjoyable, engaging tale.  In a very strong cast, Rickman and Thompson stand tall.  Thompson carries over plenty of that British repression from her marvelous turn in The Remains of the Day, and Rickman plays one of his most sympathetic roles.  Kate Winslet is always reliable, though her character gives her little room to shine.  I also enjoyed the comic relief of the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton couple.  Hugh Grant’s signature stammering gets old fast, but I guess it suits the role.

There are ways in which this film seems to transcend the costume drama trappings.  Michael Coulter’s lush cinematography certainly helps (hardly surprising considering his previous credits include The Long Day Closes).  As do the fine performances.  Overall, the movie entertains and even moves, despite a certain feeling of familiarity… and a nagging desire to take the likable characters and transport them to a more sensible time.  Rating: Good (77)


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Posted by martinteller on April 15, 2015

Well, this was certainly clever, and clever in an enjoyable way.  I liked seeing all the pieces and clues come together.  It’s a complicated narrative, but unlike Primer (the most obvious comparison) I didn’t feel like the movie was trying to make me do a bunch of homework to figure it out.  It’s a solid, “Twilight Zone”-esque premise with some nice twists.  But the performances are pitched too hysterical.  I’m sure the jumpy, out-of-focus cinematography and abrupt edits were deliberately done to put the audience on edge, but combined with the way everyone is getting far too upset far too quickly, it became tiresome to watch.  In the end I felt like I’d experienced a nifty construction, but one without any real substance.  What do we learn about these people after spending so much time with them?  And what do we learn about ourselves?  Not a lot.  Rating: Fair (66)


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Imitation of Life (1934)

Posted by martinteller on April 11, 2015

There’s a nagging voice inside my head telling me that I should review/judge this film on its merits and not make comparisons.  But that’s not gonna happen.  Sirk’s 1959 remake (or more accurately, re-adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel) is one of my favorite movies.  Of course I’m going to look at this earlier version through that prism.  So let’s just accept that and move on.  This review will probably not be very helpful if you haven’t seen the 1959 film, but oh well.

John M. Stahl’s version measures up well in some areas, not so well in others.  Sirk’s flair for melodrama is more affecting.  While I still shed a few tears for this one, it wasn’t as much of an emotional punch in the gut.  This may be largely due to the structuring.  Stahl’s version feels oddly paced, and hits you with a bunch of stuff at once.  The love interest (Warren William as Steve Archer, the only character with the same name in both versions) doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the movie, and that relationship is less complex.  Also, Stahl wraps up the wrong storyline first, giving us a coda that should have come before the big emotional scene.  This one ends on the line “I want my quack quack”…. no, really, it does.  The movie just doesn’t flow as well as Sirk’s does.

As far as casting, I’d call it a wash.  I like Claudette Colbert (Bea) more than Lana Turner (Lora) in general, but I’d call their performances roughly equal.  Perhaps the greatest asset of Sirk’s film is Juanita Moore (Annie) and it would take a lot to top her, but Louise Beavers (Delilah) does a pretty good job considering the role.  We can ignore the children, but I will say that Sirk’s young Susie (Terry Burnham) and Stahl’s young Jessie (Juanita Quigley) are both pretty damn annoying.  For the adolescent actresses, I might have to give the edge to Stahl.  Rochelle Hudson (Jessie) is less grating than Sandra Dee (Susie).  And as much as I love Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane), Fredi Washington (Peola) gives her a run for her money.  They’re both great, I just wish Washington had as many scenes as Kohner did (it may be worth noting that Washington was actually a light-skinned black woman like the character, while Kohner was half-Latina).  As for the Steve Archers, William is fine but I like John Gavin a little more.  Each version also has a kind of mentor/manager character… Ned Sparks (Elmer) in Stahl’s, Robert Alda (Allen) in Sirk’s.  Sparks stands out more, for better and for worse.  He’s got some funny bits but he can also be a little irritating.

Understandably, the 1934 version is more uncomfortable in its racial depictions.  If you thought Annie was too obsequious, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  You can’t help cringing at Delilah’s eagerness to rub Bea’s feet, or her getting horrified at the thought of having her own house and not being able to look after white people any more.  You don’t get as much of a sense of her dignity and intelligence as you do from Annie.  Still… this may be the more progressive film.  1934 was before there was a civil rights movement, and few films of that time cared about black characters, much less tried to deal with complex racial issues.  It’s also more progressive from a feminist angle.  Lora is an actress… Bea starts a business (one of the film’s finest sequences) and grows it into a pancake empire.

Sirk’s film is more cinematically accomplished, more moving, better crafted, and has the incredible Juanita Moore going for it.  There are scenes I wanted to see that don’t show up here.  But Stahl’s has much to recommend it as well, and is even more daring for its time.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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