Saturday, October 2, 2010

Screening Log: September 2010

Back on track...

Ditrict 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009) (v) *** - Not as strong as the first District 13, but still quite good: better than any American action movie this side of Crank. The kung-fu choreography is inventive and Luc Besson’s Gallic, un-PC sense of humor is in full effect.

Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010) ** - I agree with Jim Emerson: this is an action movie stripped down to abstraction - violence/running through the wilderness/repeat - where the point is all in how it looks and feels. A bit of a disappointment in that Marshall is moving farther away from making the kind of movie The Descent (his best) was. I was disappointed with Doomsday, too, for the same reason, but now I want to go back and give it a second look. I’m not so sure its fair to judge a director based on where you’d like him to go: it’s better to try to figure out where he wants to go, first.

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) (v) *** - I think working in color, on-location really brings out Hathaway’s strengths (or maybe de-emphasizes his weaknesses). He has an unfussy eye for detail (like the little pools of water that show up in shot after shot) and lets the action determine the composition instead of doing it the other way around (like he does in his black and white work, which sometimes feels contorted to me).

Escape from Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979) (v) ***** - Like Jean-Pierre Melville, Don Siegel wrote his spiritual autobiography in genre pictures, like this one and Charley Varrick. Like Melville, Siegel was a transitional figure: one foot firmly planted in the classical system, but most of his work occurring the in context of a younger generation’s “New Wave”. When I brought this comparison up on Twitter, Dan Sallitt responded that it didn’t work for him because Melville was a low-key analytic modernist making White Elephant art and Siegel was a romantic making termite art, an observation with which I agree. And that helps explain that while both were transitional figures, Melville has his heirs (Walter Hill, Michael Mann), while Siegel turned out to be a terminal figure. Clint Eastwood’s movies come closest to Siegel’s, but Eastwood is cagier, overall, and much more prone to making “big statement” movies. Siegel would never make something as self-consciously important as Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby. Speaking of Eastwood, he’s great here: this is one of his best performances. It’s a perfect match of actor and character: everything is external, it’s all about how he moves, how he’s constantly sizing things up, looking for opportunity or weakness. What Eastwood does here gets closer to the spirit of Richard Stark’s Parker than any of the performances of the actors in any of the movies in actual Parker adaptations. Siegel’s filmmaking here matches the performance: we’re constantly, but unobtrusively, tuned into the space the characters are trapped in and the obstacles they’ll have to overcome. There’s very little extraneous bullshit weighing things down, which gives the movie a sense of efficiency, but its not passionless - that’s where the spiritual autobiography part comes in. This is what it takes, says Siegel: stay professional, be perceptive, keep an eye out for opportunities; start within the system, within its constraints, and work your way out.

Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, 2009) (v) * - First, Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdu are really quite good here. Second, Coppola, the director, is as good as he’s been in years. Third, unfortunately, Coppola the writer has come up with a very compromised, seemingly self-serving piece of work. It presents easy, self-help style answers to problems that arise from thwarted artistic ambition and twisted father-son rivalries. Everyone seems to get off too easily: the characters, the audience, and - especially - the author.

The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951) (v) ***

Alexander the Last (Joe Swanberg, 2009) (v) ***

Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009) (v) ****

The Tiger’s Tail (John Boorman, 2006) (v) ** - For other directors, this might have played like a thriller, but for Boorman it’s a parable: a chamber version of his magisterial Where the Heart Is. Like most Boorman movies, he paints with broad strokes, and like most Boorman scripts, the dialogue is often over-explicit and clunky, but his sense of form and of morality make up for those small deficiencies. Still, this isn’t as tonally rich as his best work.

Everybody Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) (r) (v) **** - When I first saw this (during its original release, back when I was in college) I was disappointed by how slight it felt. Now, seeing it again (when I happen to be back to being a student), its tossed-off, casualness seems like its greatest virtue.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Woody Allen, 1982) (r) (v) * - I like the idea behind the meshing and mushing of anachronistic ways of talking. Doesn’t come together though, for reasons which require further reflection.

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) (v) *** - Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” plus “What a Shame About Me”.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989) (r) (v) **** - This reminded me of Mon oncle d’Amerique: a dramatized lecture, but “lecture” not in the sense of hectoring but of drawing out and exploring a series of ideas about human nature. The way Allen plays the counterpoint between the two stories leads to some thrilling moments.

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2007) (v) **** - I like Richard Brody’s phrase: ”a vision of life as a swift and desperate plummet through pain into oblivion”. Very, very bracing. Now I’m trying to think of all the murders in Woody Allen movies... There’s more than I would have thought at first.


(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