Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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Never Cry Wolf

Posted by martinteller on May 20, 2015

In between The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home, Carroll Ballard again explores developing relationships between humans and wild animals.  In this case, it’s Tyler (Charles Martin Smith, probably best known for American Graffiti and The Untouchables) getting dropped into the Arctic wilderness to study wolves… specifically to see if they’re eating all the caribou.  The film is loosely based on Farley Womat’s autobiographical book.  I don’t know how much was changed from the true story.  Wikipedia tells me that the Brian Dennehy character (or perhaps just certain things that he does) is an invention, which isn’t hard to believe.  He introduces some conflict late in the film that feels a little trumped-up and phony.  It’s the worst part of the movie.

The rest of it, however, is pretty good.  I never quite got the transcendent rush that I do from Stallion, perhaps because I don’t find the material as emotionally affecting.  Or perhaps because Hiro Nirata’s cinematography — although very good — isn’t as exhilarating as Caleb Deschanel’s (Mark Isham’s score is quite nice, however).  But there’s some wonderful bits of adventure here, as well as some intriguing study of the wolves.  It’s certainly not hard to feel a connection to both Tyler, learning to navigate the harsh wilderness, and the wolves “George” and “Angelina”, providing for their young pups.  The details of how Tyler goes about his difficult task are often fascinating, complemented by voiceover that sometimes contradicts — or is interrupted by — the onscreen action.

I could harp on the negatives, but the truth is none of them are terribly egregious.  It’s a lovely, consistently engaging nature/adventure movie with a solid central performance by Smith… and solid supporting performances by the wolves, as well.  Rating: Good (79)


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L’Age d’Or (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 18, 2015

I had an hour to kill, and this is one of those in my collection that I haven’t watched in over 5 years, so I threw it in the player.  This is my fourth time watching it, and I think I’m done with it.  I still like it, but it’s not getting better on revisits and the fact that I kind of had to push myself into watching it again is a bad sign.  It’s one of those movies where I feel like I should enjoy it more than I actually do.  There are some good bits, but most of them are in the second half.  That first half hour is sort of blah, without as many of the kinky subversions or jarring juxtapositions that are the highlights of Buñuel’s brief pre-Mexico career.  An “important” film, perhaps, but like a lot of surrealist work, it’s thrilling at first but then you’re ready to move on.  Rating: Good (77)


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The Wizard of Oz (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 16, 2015

I plucked this off the shelf tonight for several reasons.  One, it’s a movie I love and have loved as long as I can remember.  Two, I wanted to see something familiar and comforting, something I didn’t have to think about much.  And three, I didn’t feel like writing a review, and hasn’t enough been said about this movie already?  It’s gotta be one of most discussed and documented films of all time.  I do wanna talk about one thing, though.  In my previous two write-ups, I complained about the “King of the Forest” scene and how it seems to be a speed bump in the movie.  Not to keep harping one of the few negatives, but I figured out something else I don’t like about it.  Why does Cowardly Lion get his own song?  Not counting the “If I Only Had a…” bits (which they all get), he’s the only one of Dorothy’s companions to get a moment in the spotlight like that, and a kind of lengthy one too.  And he’s my least favorite of the three.  I like Lahr, but I like Haley and Bolger more.  Okay, I got that off my chest.  Peace out.  Rating: Great (94)

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Times Square

Posted by martinteller on May 16, 2015

Homeless teenager Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) gets arrested and feigns a neurological disorder to get out of jail.  While the hospital runs tests on her, she shares a room with the quiet Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado).  Pamela’s there because she gets the “shakes”… most likely caused by anxiety about her phony dad (Peter Coffield), a city commissioner who wants to clean up Times Square.  They can’t find anything wrong with Nicky, so it’s off to juvy for her… except she escapes, and entices Pamela to run away with her.  With the police looking for them, the two hide out in the streets, and their cause is taken up by DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), who brands them the “Sleez Sisters” and helps promote Nicky’s aspirations to be a punk singer.

I’m having a difficult time organizing my thoughts on this movie.  My thoughts — like the movie — are all over the place.  But I’ll try.  It was written and directed by Allan Moyle.  Moyle later did Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records.  The first is merely lousy but the latter might get my vote for the worst movie ever made.  Both would lead you to believe that Moyle’s secret plan is to make you hate teenagers, because even though the films appear to hold them up as heroes, they’re all so annoying and self-satisfied, and “edgy” in only the safest ways.

And at first, I thought this movie was also trying to make me hate teenagers, with Nicky’s pointless, idiotic brand of rebellion, basically just making a nuisance of herself and being a brat.  And Pamela just seems like a foil for Nicky’s streetwise shenanigans.  And Johnny LaGuardia (oh god that name) is perhaps a prototype for PUtV‘s “Hard Harry”, a smug, pompous voice dropping little turds of would-be wisdom on the airwaves, and patting himself on the back for breaking all the rules.  When Pamela’s dad calls him a “self-righteous, obnoxious little son of a bitch”, I was right there with him.  Oh and speaking of Mr. Pearl, he seems like such an easy target, the authority figure we’re all supposed to instantly sneer at.

But then, well… the movie lets the characters out of their boxes.  Nicky isn’t just a rebel hero, she’s angry and suicidal.  And Pamela comes into her own, and calls Nicky on her bullshit.  David Pearl is gradually portrayed as sympathetic, a father rightfully and reasonably concerned about his daughter.  Even LaGuardia manages to drop the smugness for a while and come off like a nuanced character.  And for a while you’re dealing with something that feels like honest teenage drama with real people.  But then now and then the characters slip back into shallow archetypes.

The disjointed, schizophrenic nature of the film no doubt has much to do with the fact that Moyle was kicked off the movie before it was done.  You see, the producer was Robert Stigwood, the man behind Jesus Christ SuperstarGrease and Saturday Night Fever.  These were bajillion-selling soundtracks, and Stigwood wanted more music in the film so he could sell a double album.  So he fired Moyle and added more scenes where he could stick some songs.  In the process, he also completely removed everything that referred to the lesbian relationship between Nicky and Pamela.  You can tell it’s there, though.  There’s no way you can come away from this movie without thinking that the girls were romantically connected.

As for that soundtrack, Stigwood and/or Moyle doesn’t really understand punk.  It ends with a Robin Gibb song, for fuck’s sake (after a climax that includes, like Empire Records, a concert on top of a marquee).  There’s a Patti Smith song and prominent use of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, but it’s mostly new wave.  I’m not complaining.  Talking Heads, The Cars, The Pretenders, Gary Numan, Joe Jackson, XTC, The Cure, Roxy Music.  It’s a really great soundtrack.  But there’s a good movie hiding in here, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been if Stigwood wasn’t intent on cramming more songs into it.  I should also mention the two songs performed by the “Sleez Sisters”.  “Damn Dog” is pretty good, kind of a lite version of The Stooges.  “Your Daughter Is One”, on the other hand, is pretty terrible.  It’s another example of how this movie is good and bad at the same time.

Johnson is bad in a few scenes, but most of the time, she’s good.  Like, really good.  Two years earlier, another Brooklyn teenager made an impressive debut: Linda Manz in Days of Heaven.  Neither one ended up with the rich careers that their promising starts hinted at.  But Johnson’s perfomance here is excellent, often well above the material she has to work with.  The movie is sometimes very fake (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I mean when I cite Pamela’s “stripping” career as an example) but Johnson almost never is.  In the moments when I wanted to walk away from this messy film, it was usually Johnson who got me to stick around.  Rating: Good (70)


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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Posted by martinteller on May 15, 2015

It’s been a night of animation, and what a good night it’s been.  Going into this, I had forgotten that it was based on the same folktale that Kon Ichikawa adapted in 1987 for Princess from the Moon.  I recognized the story within the first few minutes, and for the most part the plots are very similar.  But this is a textbook example of how different approaches to the same material can have wildly different results.  Ichikawa’s film is a lifeless, empty affair that borrows heavily (and poorly) from Spielberg.  It squanders both its oddball premise and Toshiro Mifune, and is one of the worst films I’ve seen by Ichikawa.

Kaguya, on the other hand, is Takahata’s finest work (even finer than the touching Only Yesterday), and Studio Ghibli’s best in over a decade.  It’s charming and funny and delightful, it’s sorrowful and meaningful, it’s magical but not simply weird.  And most of all, it’s absolutely stunning.  “Like a storybook come to life” is kind of a cliché when talking about animation, but this truly looks like a storybook come to life, down to the way the edges of the frame tend to fade into white.  It’s simply gorgeous artwork… such delicate lines and gentle motion, tasteful use of color, subtlety of expression, attention to detail.  Talking about Watership Down, I said it doesn’t dazzle you with technique.  This movie does.  It dazzles and exhilarates and creates an astonishingly beautiful environment.  Just lovely.

And it’s done in service of a story that resonates.  Although the plot points were all familiar to me, Takahata breathes new life into it and gives it meaning.  Kaguya’s journey is not simple and linear, it takes on different shades.  She’s a character you connect with because she’s figuring out her attitudes and desires while you watch.  And the film doesn’t culminate in the easy ending with all the emotional threads tied up in pretty bows.  It makes you feel good by not trying so damn hard to make you feel good.

I will say the movie feels a bit drawn out (no pun intended).  It’s a long film, and hits certain notes a few too many times (and while Kaguya develops, her father remains dumb-headed for far too long).  I’m not a big fan of speculating about what I would cut from a movie that feels lengthy, but if I watched it again I could probably come up with a few scenes I could do without.  Or maybe not, because even the superfluous bits feature that incredible artwork.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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Watership Down

Posted by martinteller on May 15, 2015

I was in my 20’s when I read Richard Adams’s novel.  That was some time ago, and although the particulars had been forgotten, I recalled it as an excellent, beautiful and intense book.  It is adapted into an excellent, beautiful and intense movie.  I’ve heard tales of people traumatized by this film in their youth, exposed to it by parents who assumed that an animated movie about animals would naturally be acceptable children’s fare.  The level of violence — and perhaps more importantly, the frank display of suffering — makes it unsuitable for little kids.  However, there is an attitude towards death that I think would be valuable for slightly older children, perhaps 10 or 11.  Death is something to fear, yes, but it’s also something to be incorporated into your worldview, embraced as an inevitable part of life.  The film handles death in a way that makes it both terrifying and poignant, haunting and lovely.  The portrayal of death is touching, in a way that many films strive for and many fail at.

And because death is established early on as a part of this world, it raises the stakes for the adventure.  At any point, a major character could meet his or her demise.  It makes for a truly thrilling tale, where the outcome of any perilous situation is not a foregone conclusion.  It’s a mood that puts you in the mindset of a rabbit: danger is everywhere.  Which in turn makes the peaceful, bucolic scenes more comforting, and the brief moments of comedy more enjoyable.  The more I think about it, the more remarkable the tone of this movie is to me, an unusual sort of melancholic fable.  And it’s wrapped up in a story that remains engaging, with suspenseful (and plausible) action, clever cunning and genuine pathos.

It does it all without anthropomorphizing the hell out of the animals, too.  At all times they look and move like the creatures they are meant to be.  There isn’t like a “rabbit supermarket” they all shop at, or rabbit television or a rabbit baseball team.  There are given the gift of language and they have a mythology, but that’s about as far as it goes in terms of making them human.  And that makes the allegorical elements less heavy-handed.  The issues the rabbits face are not directly analogous to issues we face, but there is a recognition there.  Perhaps we don’t feel the pressure of constantly being on the lookout for predators… but we can know what it means when one group turns a blind eye to danger, or another builds a totalitarian society.  We can appreciate the values of compassion and daring and sacrifice, even when we’re not being told that we should, that what they’re going through is just like what we’re going through.  It’s one of those films that has as much allegory as you care to bring to it.

The animation is in some ways, at some times, crude.  It’s not a picture that dazzles with its technique.  But after a while you don’t notice the flaws.  You get pulled into this world of the English countryside from the rabbit’s point of view, a world both warm and menacing.  Some of the most astonishing moments are when it suddenly spins into abstraction, a visual poetry that animation is particularly well-suited for.  These moments never feel like they’re breaking the style, they arise quite naturally.  Even when Art Garfunkel pipes in with “Bright Eyes”, it doesn’t feel out of place.  In fact, it’s one of the picture’s most memorable, artful scenes.  If Disney’s songs were as gracefully incorporated, I might enjoy their product more.  The score by Angela Morley (like Wendy Carlos, a transgendered composer) is also splendid and effective, all the more impressive for being a rush job when the original composer fell ill.

I shall have to see this again.  I did not expect to be this taken with it.  Perhaps it’s time to give that novel another read-through as well.  Rating: Great (90)


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Tin shui wai dik yat yu ye (The Way We Are)

Posted by martinteller on May 14, 2015

The widow Kwai Cheung (Hee Ching Paw) works at a supermarket, providing for her teenage son On (Chun-lung Leung).  On is about to graduate high school, but seems generally apathetic about pretty much everything.  Kwai befriends the elderly “Granny” Leung (Lai-wun Chan), who comes to the supermarket looking for work.  They discover they live in the same building.  Granny is alone, her daughter deceased, and her grandson living in far away Shitan with his father and new mother.  Kwai notices how Granny struggles to make ends meet and tries to help out.

The literal translation of the title is “Days and Nights of Tin Shui Wai”.  Tin Shui Wai is an area of Hong Kong dominated by the massive “New Town” public housing buildings, holding some 270,000 people.  It’s known as the “City of Sadness”, plagued by social issues from crime to mental illness to domestic violence to suicide.  On the surface, you can’t really tell from this movie.  It’s largely a film about nice people being nice to each other.  But there are tragedies and conflicts.  Granny’s frustrated attempts to connect to her only family are the most overtly heartbreaking, but there’s also the discomfort Kwai feels around her own family, who appear to be in better financial shape.  Kwai would rather spend her time tending to “Granny” than her own ailing mother.  And On’s lack of interest and ambition perhaps hints at a larger concern about today’s aimless youth.

Or not.  Director Ann Hui might simply be trying to put a pleasant face on an urban problem.  She portrays these as very decent people dealing with ordinary life problems, perhaps trying to humanize a common perception of the Tin Shui Wai area as a dangerous place overrun by hoodlums.  I don’t know enough about the situation to know what she’s driving at, if anything.  The end result, for me at least, is a film that is easy to watch with likable characters, but doesn’t have a lot to say.  And doesn’t leave me with much to say about it.  At times it seems a bit too sentimental, with people staring out of windows while some precious music plays on the soundtrack.

Of the three movies I’ve seen by Hui, they seem to improve over time.  Ordinary People was the weakest, A Simple Life the best, this one right in the middle.  Whether or not this indicates a development of her talent or is simply coincidence, I’m not sure.  I would say there’s a grace and subtlety in the latter film that seems to be lacking in the others.  This one is a pleasant 3-character study, but the studies feel inconclusive.  Rating: Good (78)


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Posted by martinteller on May 13, 2015

In Algiers, Pepe Le Moko (Tony Martin) is the Casbah’s most notorious thief.  And as Inspector Slimane (Peter Lorre) knows, he’s also the most beloved, which makes him impossible to arrest because everyone comes to his aid before the police can get him out of there.  Chief Louvain (Thomas Gomez) wants results, and coerces Moko’s old friend Carlo (Douglas Dick) into being an informer.  But Pepe’s true downfall might come from the women in his life: a beautiful tourist named Gaby (Märta Torén), and the jealous Inez (Yvonne de Carlo).

The most well-known adaptation of Henri La Barthe’s novel Pepe le Moko is the 1937 Julien Duvivier film of the same name, starring Jean Gabin.  It was remade a year later by John Cromwell as Algiers, and although I haven’t seen the whole thing, what I’ve seen of it makes it look like a straight copy.  This 1948 version by John Berry (He Ran All the WayTension) is a musical.  Well, sort of.  It has four songs by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin (sung by Martin & De Carlo) and a couple of dance numbers by Katherine Dunham’s African-American troupe (including Eartha Kitt)… but some of them are pretty brief.  It’s more of a musical than, say, Casablanca… but not much.  Nonetheless, the song and dance are pretty good, and Martin is a fine crooner.

Unfortunately, he’s also the weakest part of the film.  He’s not a bad actor really, he just doesn’t feel right for Pepe le Moko.  He doesn’t dazzle, he doesn’t have the easy-going charm you expect from the character.  You want a Jean Gabin, but Martin comes off more like a brooding thug.  He’s not a disaster or anything, but this movie needs a stronger lead to elevate it above the standard Hollywood product.  Which is what this is.  Nothing about it is excellent, but it’s all decent-to-good.  Nice sets, good tunes, some okay comedy and some reasonably convincing romance.  The story keeps moving along.  There’s some dialogue that snaps, and it ends on a nice pair of lines.

The supporting cast is solid.  Torén is exotic and seductive, De Carlo is fiery, Gomez is amusing and Hugo Haas makes an appearance that’s more satisfying than any of the ones in the movies where he directed himself.  Lorre, as one would expect, is the obvious highlight.  Slimane’s relationship with Moko is the most entertaining facet of the film, adversarial but friendly and respectful.  If you can’t get enough of Peter Lorre, you should check this movie out.  For everyone else, it’s nonessential but fun.  Rating: Good (74)


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Posted by martinteller on May 11, 2015

Still got some catching up to do on last year’s movies.  I’m glad I finally got around to this one.  Gripping neo-noir with roots in Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success, though such comparisons don’t feel apt.  This movie has its own vibe going on… though I would also say I kept thinking about The King of Comedy.  The character of Lou Bloom has the earnest, unstoppable drive of Rupert Pupkin.  But with an utter absence of morality.  It’s a spellbinding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor I used to be ambivalent about but he keeps surprising me.  You can’t wait to see what this sociopath will do next.  The film is a commentary on the bloodthirsty (and fear-mongering) media, but it’s also a metaphor for capitalism run amok, it’s a lament for youths facing a tough job market, and it casts a cautious glance at a culture raised on the internet.  Not condemning, but cautious.  There’s a lot you can chew on, but none of it is really rammed down your throat.  It’s quite engaging just as an intense thriller, watching Bloom’s behavior escalate with no regard for right or wrong.  The movie does strain plausibility at times, but never to the breaking point.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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Pitch Perfect

Posted by martinteller on May 10, 2015

We spent the weekend at a house on the Oregon coast rented out by Carrie’s parents.  In the house is a small collection of DVDs for the guests to enjoy, most of which are the usual Disney dreck and bland blockbusters.  But Carrie had enjoyed Pitch Perfect and thought I would too, so we gave it a spin.  And yeah, it was pretty fun.  There’s something about a cappella renditions of familiar songs that activates a particular pleasure center in the brain.  It’s the reason I managed to get through a season and a half of “Glee” before that show’s shortcomings became too much to ignore.  This movie follows the “underdog team” formula pretty closely, but what it lacks in narrative originality it mostly makes up for with a lot of energy and good, solid jokes.  And smart ones, too.  Okay, the script reinforces some stereotypes (black girl does the rapping) but it shakes up others (fat girl as a sexual being with multiple boyfriends).  Even a potentially painful projectile vomiting gag is forgiven because of a funny (though revolting) twist.  And the film overcomes its ho-hum leads.  Anna Kendrick is as boring as ever, and I don’t buy her as an “alt girl” for a damn second.  Her romance with Skylar Astin is just going through the motions and has no sizzle at all.  But the movie gets by with really enjoyable supporting work, especially by Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Adam DeVine and Hana Mae Lee.  And honestly, as uninteresting as I find Kendrick, at least she never annoys me.  And I wouldn’t call her a bad actress.  I’m down for the sequel.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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