Friday, October 30, 2009

Screening Log: October

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008) (v) *** - An exploration of the nuances and biases of viewer identification, in stripped-down B-movie drag. It would all be a bit too clinical, academic, and even pedantic, if it weren't for Himli Sözer's performance, which gives the movie an emotional depth to match its intellectual ambitions.

Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008) (v) *** - If I had more free time for writing, I'd try to turn my thoughts on this and on 35 Shots of Rum into a longer post. For now though, all I have is a question: is there any other major director who had as narrow focus in terms of themes and subject matter as Yasujiro Ozu?

Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952) (v) **

Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, 2008) **** - My thoughts on this movie still are nowhere near fully-formed: I've been mulling it over since I saw it earlier this week and moments from it are haunting my waking life. Right now second only to Two Lovers as my film of the year.

Europa (Lars von Trier, 1991) (v) *** - I'm glad I finally caught up with this movie, which would make an interesting double bill with Inglourious Basterds. I've liked every von Trier movie I've seen, but, until now, I've managed to miss most of the "major" ones.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, 1975) (v) (r) *****

Spectres of the Spectrum (Craig Baldwin, 1999) (v) (r) **

E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982) (v) (r) *** - I used to say I preferred this to Spielberg's "later, stodgier, darker" work, but, on revisitation, the movie (or at least the first half) was creakier and stiffer than I remembered. Too often good, lively business - like the kids playing Dungeons & Dragons - stops dead for poetry-of-suburbia image-making. The young actors are all good - they're very cute and funny - but they seem to be trapped by Spielberg's compositions in a way that the more seasoned actors in Close Encounters and Jaws aren't. It isn't until everything is in place and things start to move that the movie starts working. (I had a similar problem with Ratatouille, and, watching E.T. this time I kept thinking "Pixar avant la lettre" - sharing Pixar's movies' usual problem of having a strong half and a weak half). I don't mean it as (much of) a dig to say that Spielberg makes a better action filmmaker than he does a poet. The chase on the bicycles at the end of the film is a masterful sequence: built off of a particular kind of suburban sub-development geography, it's rousing, suspenseful, and expressive of the characters (exactly how great action movies should work). The kids on bikes riding down those terraced hills? That's real poetry.

The Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) (v) ****

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) (v) ***** - To my shame as a cinephile, this is the first time I've watched City Lights from start to finish, though I've seen numerous excerpts from it over the years. I'm now inspired to come with a aphorism along the lines of: "An excerpt from a truly great movie will only mislead you as to the nature of its greatness."

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008) ****

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) (v) (r) ***** - 50 years later, Rear Window is still more audacious, more formally daring than just about any of the "entertainments" that have come out of Hollywood since.

Year One (Harold Ramis, 2009) (v) ** - Everything here feels tossed off (some scenes just end, there's very little in the way of elaborate gag-building), which is a little disappointing coming from the director of Groundhog Day and vacation, but turns out to be the perfect approach to this kind of movie. I generally don't like to praise movies (especially comedies) for their low ambitions, but I thought this was enjoyably old fashioned and down to earth in its approach to its "high concept".

The Signal (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry , 2007) (v) * - Neat idea, hobbled by inconsistent/uneven execution.

High School Confidential (Jack Arnold, 1958) (v) *** - There's a mini-genre of movies that I like to think of as "The Kids Aren't Alright" movies that includes, well, Kids, River's Edge, and, going somewhat farther afield All About Lily Chou Chou and Afterschool. High School Confidential is, if not the "best" of them, then, at least, my favorite.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009) * - Not a "real scary" movie, but, rather, a "fun scary" movie that is clever enough to get you to do most of its work for it. The ending is a misjudgment and the movie overall is no big deal, but it is made with thought and is a more than worthy diversion. The subtext - about finding out about the true extent of your romantic partner's psychological/emotional baggage only after you move in with them - gives the movie a little more substance, but it isn't explored or developed as similar material is in movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Brood.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005) (v) ** - I'm sure someone has already written an article/essay explaining exactly why we shouldn't lump these "New Romanian Cinema" movies together, because each director has their own style, concerns, but, from where I'm standing, they have enough in common in terms of what questions they're interested in (namely those about how personal life is shaped political systems) and how they go about answering those questions (through a symbol-heavy, realist approach to dramatic "everyday" events) that I'm comfortable talking about them as a group and comparing one against the others. In this case, though I liked Lazarescu, it's my least favorite of the RNC movies I've seen so far, because the symbolism here feels just a bit too generic - the specificity dissolves as the movie goes on and it turns into a more general anti-bureaucratic satire, rather than one that is rooted to its time and place.

Genesis of a Meal (Luc Moullet, 1978) (v) **** - Funny and insightful throughout, but the last movement - where he engages in self-reflection/analysis - really takes the movie to a deeper level: complicating what we've seen, but also clarifying the dilemma of what it means to be a good global citizen.

Anatomy of a Relationship (Luc Moullet, 1976) (v) **** - Moullet continues to impress. I described this to a friend as a Woody Allen movie for grown-ups, which really isn't fair to Woody. Maybe a better way to put it would have been: a Woody Allen movie that doesn't have to play by the rules of American commercial cinema.

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955) (v) *** - I thought it was somewhat appropriate that I watched this right after Capitalism.

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) * - The first half of the movie is as good as anything Moore has done, with many black comic WTF? moments. Not coincidentally, Moore stays in the background during this part. He steps to the fore in the second half, and the movie takes a turn for the worse. His schtick is simply uninspired: he seems to be going through the motions (and the low level employees he's dealing with also seem to be going through the motions), which takes the edge off the righteous anger that has been building up. There are other problems, too (deliberately obscuring the difference between an economic system and a political system, glossing over Obama's role in the push for the bank bailouts), but it's the half-assed nature of his stunt that does the movie in.

Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, 2009) *** - A work of a master: not a masterpiece, but a statement or summing up, not unlike A Prairie Home Companion.

Afterschool (Antonio Campos, 2008) (v) ** - When a film is this well made and this thoughtful, does it matter that it isn't very "likable"? That it keeps its distance and discourages the usual kind of emotional connection/response to its characters? I'd say that it probably shouldn't. Still, this works better when Campas seems to be observing (all the stuff with the kids) than when he seems to be making a point (a lot of the stuff with the adults). And speaking of making a point: I think reading the movie purely for its "message" does it a disservice. Moment-to-moment what's onscreen is too complicated, too unresolved, to be reduced in that way.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) (v) *** - More on the theme "the personal is political" from the "New Romanian Cinema". For some reason, watching this movie - which I really loved - reminded me of a movie I don't much care for: Y Tu Mama Tambien. Maybe because I imagine that the relationship between the two friends here will fall apart like that of the two friends in Mama (even though there's really no other similarities between the pairs)? My favorite scene here is her conversation with her boyfriend following the extremely awkward dinner party.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) *** - Truly magical.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

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