Thursday, January 05, 2006


The General

Buster Keaton, 1926

Grand Illusion, just moments ago


Wow. The opening recruitment office sequence, the middle section (hiding under the table, rescuing Annabelle Lee) and the final accidental war hero act are a bit uneven but the two sustained train chase sequences are among the funniest 45 minutes of film I've ever seen.

This (shown with the glorious short "Cops" which would have been well worth the price of admission on its own) are the first Buster Keaton I've ever seen. While it'll require further research to confirm, I wonder if there's not a chance the American kid in The Dreamers was correct that Keaton is better than Chaplin. I count Modern Times among my favorite films, and City Lights not far behind. I'm not prepared to say Keaton is a better physical comedian, although I'd call that pretty close, but Keaton gets a greater range of emotion out of his facial expressions, and does a much better "exasperated" than Chaplin, which is crucial for several moments in this film.

It's always hard to pin down what makes the funniest stuff so damn funny, but I'd say a crucial ingredient to the train sequences is the quick shifts between Johnnie's moments of competence and incompetence (he's a flake and a klutz, but he knows his train) that produce, and then extricate him from the situations. His interaction with Annabelle during the second train chase is marvelous; sweetness and patience in struggle with exasperation at her ill-concieved efforts to help.

This is on my mind since Scott's post today that had me reading the internet's silliest source of right-wing Stalinist film criticism (This dimwit actually thought "welcome to the suck" on a Jarhead poster was left-wing Hollywood trying to tell us the Marines suck. You just can't make that shit up.), but man am I glad I don't view aesthetic objects like that. Imagine watching a brilliant comedy like this and finding it necessary to furrow your brow and blather on about "Keaton's disturbing pro-Confederacy message." What a miserable existence.


Harry Potter 4

This was at least six weeks ago. I remember very little. It seemed better than the first two but not by much. Clunky pacing, again. Everything else was set aside for the extended sequence on the big dance, rather than integrating several distinct (but thematically related) storylines. Or so I seem to recall.



King Kong

1933, Cooper/Schoedsack

DVD, a few weeks ago

2005, Peter Jackson

Neptune, a few days ago

1933: 9
2005: 6

Peter Jackson's got a hell of a filmmaking machine down there in NZ. I think this movie might have been better had his budget and special effects skills been a bit less. The middle section of the film involved him doing things because he can and not because he should. The spiders, running along the shattering cliff, the running of the brontosauri, etc--neither nor effective. One of the great things about the fight between Kong and the T-Rex in the original is that they seemed quite evenly matched and (if you suspend your disbelief) you feel like you don't know who's going to win. In Jackson's version there are about six T-rex's. It's jaw-dropping technically, but that doesn't make it great filmmaking.

I *did* like that Jackson used the available technology to create a reciprical emotional bond between Ann and Kong. And, he rewrote the NY stuff to fit nicely with this development. I deeply love Jack Black the comic actor, but he's not up to this role. Naomi Watts, on the other hand, really is. Brody is fine, but the role isn't challenging for him. While they deliberately show how hokey the 1933 version of the Driscoll/Darrow romance was when they film the scene of it, the 2005 romance is just as hokey by modern standards, but that's OK because it's just not that important. (My major complaint plot-wise was the goofy Hayes/stowaway thing. Not a netism I use often, but...WTF?)

I wouldn't recommend missing this in a theatre, and for a three hour movie that, I think everyone can agree, desperately needed an editor, there was never really a time I was bored. Just frustrated. Jackson's a smart filmmaker, and he makes a number of smart choices in this film. Unfortunately those choices don't extend to the realm of special effects (and Jack Black).

I might not have been this critical had I not just screened the original.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


The Passenger

Varsity, a couple of weeks ago


Given that my only previous experience with Antonioni is L'Avventura (which I would give a 10) and his segment in Eros (which is just monstrous, probably a low 2), I guess this is "middling Antonioni". I knew I was watching the work of a master, two actually (Nicholson) but I felt a bit alienated from the whole experience. The midsection seemed a bit flabby--maybe it's the new footage in the current release? Maria Schneider's character seemed dated (she's great, but the way her character's written...). Like Pickpocket, it was worth it for me most in the moments when it becomes clear I'm watching someone who really, really knows what to do with a camera--about a half dozen of these moments throughout the film. My favorite was the long, unbroken shot at the end that begins by peeking out Nicholson's window and proceeds from there.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Things I've seen I need to post about

So the whole "immediate thoughts shortly after seeing it" isn't really working out....

The Squid and the Whale 9
Intolerable Cruelty 8
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs 10
Repast 7
Late Chrysanthemums 8
Mother 9
Nightly Dreams 5
Brokeback Mountain 8
Imitation of Life 8
Munich 4
The new World 8
Dreamlife of Angels 10
Rashomon 10
Born Into Brothels 7
Capote 7
Cache 8
The Maltese Falcon 8
American Splendor 8
Oldboy 7
Bringing Up Baby 10
They Come Back 7
Brief Encounters 8
2046 8
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 5

NEED TO SEE: Match Point, 3 Burials....

Monday, November 21, 2005



Meridian 16, November 18
Sam Mendes, 2005


As with all his films, well made but unsatisfying. I this case, a rationale is lacking; this has all been done before. Rewatch Full Metal Jacket. A few assorted obervations: I like Gyllenhal, but he's not convincing in this role. Mendes and/or the writers don't seem to have decided what they want to do with Swofford--is he the archetypal empty vessel or the existentialist soul who goes along to get along? The key supporting roles--Foxx, Saarsgard, and in only two scenes the glorious Chris Cooper--are much more convincing. Foxx is turning out to be a hell of an actor.

The final scenes aren't bad, but they don't offer any insights that didn't already occur to the viewer. While I enjoyed my two hours in the theatre, I have the distinct sense that this film will fade from my mind quickly, as Road to Perdition did.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Good Night, and Good Luck

Clooney, October 2005, Uptown


Difficult film to rate. An efficient, well executed, absorbing bit of work. At a variety of different points, Clooney makes some excellent choices. Giving the lead to Straithern is an important move. Using McCarthy footage rather than an actor is another (any plausibly accurate portrayal would seem cartoonishly evil). The following point is apparently somewhat controversial, but I thought the sermonizing was kept at an appropriate level. Clooney knows how to balance politics and aesthetics.

Still....the whole enterprise seems a bit slight. Dialog crackles, direction is confident and focused, but in the end, it's a minor film.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Philadelphia Story

George Cukor, 1940

TCM Comcast on Demand, Oct. 29


For someone whose all time favorite movie as a child and teen was "Bringing Up Baby" I'm shamefully behind on the screwball comedies. I should've seen this ages ago. Thanks to the glories of the on demand system, this was in impromptu screening.

First and foremost, this is a comedy, of course, and it's often very funny. But the screenplay is so good, and the cast is so talented, that it can't help but work on several different levels. The conflicts, fears, inhibitions, and motivations of the characters, in addition to setting up some marvelous comic moments, invoke real moments of sympathy and empathy from the viewers. While all the performances here work well, I have to single out the great Jimmy Stewart in particular for some praise. His portrayal of an over-intellectual, underfed, bitter, clueless writer is wonderfully spot-on. Of course, like most people, I'd enjoy watching Hepburn act in just about any situation, and this is no exception. I didn't think that Grant and Hepburn had the love/hate chemistry thing going quite as well as Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and the pacing wasn't quite as strong here as it was there, but this also had a bit more substance to it. Golly good.


Games of Love and Chance

NW Film Forum, mid October

Abdellatif Kechiche, 2005


If this film is any evidence, French Oscar (Cesar) bait is better than American Oscar bait. This was apparently the big winner in France last year, and while I doubt it was the best choice, it's an excellent piece of work and a confident and intruiging debut feature. Kechiche takes us deep into the social world and inner lives of teenagers in a poor Paris suburb, primarily of North African descent. Their friendships, rivalries, crushes, and posturing have a quite universal feel about them; we've seen it all before, but it seems fresh in this film, in no small part because of Kechiche's pacing; he gives his scenes time to breathe and develop--conflicts simmer for a while before they explode, lending them an authentic feel. As boastful and foul-mouthed as these kids are, there's an undertone of sweetness to them.

The plot and the comedy are both driven by the same narrative device--a staging of an 18th century (Mariveax) comic play on class manners. The theme of the play--about rich people pretending to be poor and vice-versa--could have easily degenerated into overwrought analogies, but it didn't. The best scene is when our male protagonist, who has no interest in acting (or, indeed, emoting at all) has schemed his way into the play to be close to the female lead, who is the object of his affections as well. The baffled, patient, immensely frustrated drama teacher trying to get him to read the lines with something other than his trademark flat monotone. (Later, when she rehearses with him alone, he finally is able to put a hint of emotion into his line readings, and for this character, that's a sign of true devotion).

It's not a great film, and it's not terribly consequential, and it doesn't have any great insights into the class and race divisions in modern France. But the filmmakers know that, and it's a patient, smart, and deeply entertaining and satisfying film.



Robert Bresson, 1959

NW Film Forum, October 24


Not, to my mind, quite the equal of Au Hazard Balthazzar or Diary of a Country Priest (my entire previous Bresson viewing experience). The title character's crude Nietzschean ramblings struck me as a bit dated. Other than that, I admired the way the clues to his character and motivation were strewn about for us to try to put together. The very last scene didn't really work for me, but it didn't bother me terribly either.

Balthazzar and Country Priest should be seen by all people serious about film because they're works of near-perfection--everything comes together conceptually, visually, and emotionally to make those films work so well. Pickpocket, also, should be on a must see list as well, but for different reasons: the scenes of the pickpockets at work contain several moments of jaw-dropping technical prowess. Three pickpockets work in tandem--one manages to open a button to prepare the way for the next; one lifts a wallet out of a breast pocket and drops it, while other catches it walking the other way; and so on. The work of the pickpocket is momentarily elevated to high art, and the swirling, swooping, always knowing where to look camera is just as skilled as they are, making us the only one if the crowd with a clue. These scenes are the product of a near-complete mastery of rhythm, camera placement, and editing.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Human Nature

DVD, Oct. 14 2005
Michel Gondry, 2001
Score: 7

Generally regarded as a failure. Uneven, often preposterous. It's Rousseauian premise (the screenplay appears to be loosely based on The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality is hit-you-over-the head obvious. It Doesn't compare at all well to the later Gondry/Kaufman collaboration, but man, does it make for some good absurdist comedy. Rhys Ifans playes the duplicity of civilization with scene-chewing perspective. A discriminating viewer would be more irritated with the plotty contrivances ("But first, go testify before congress about everything that's wrong with humanity.") but the screenplay so clearly doesn't care, and neither do I. Lesser Kaufman is still a whole lot of fun.


His Girl Friday

October 15, 2005, Central Cinema
Howard Hawks, 1939
Score: 9

What's wrong with me that I'd never seen before?

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