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?

Friday, October 14, 2005


Time of the Wolf

Michael Haneke, 2003 (Issabelle Huppert)
October 14, 2005
Comcast on demand

Score: 5

Great opening scene. As the film developed a plot, I got a bit confused and a bit bored. Some really beautiful shots, I suspect I'd have liked the film a bit more in a theatre. Occasionally a shot or a moment would grab me, but the social dynamic of post-apolocalypic life at the train station generally failed to engage me. And while Huppert's two children were well written roles, Huppert's character seemed underwritten and underdeveloped. Reading Manohla Dargis on this film, and the degree to which I was impressed with the previous Haneke/Huppert film, The Piano Teacher, makes me feel like a bit of Philistine, especially since I was sleepy enough to start to lose focus in the second half. In theory, I like that Haneke didn't feel the need to offer much of an explanation for the grand catastrophe that's led to this situation, but in practice, as the film wore on and more and more characters became involved, I became a bit frustrated at the complete lack of explication.

Another reason to see films in the theatre. I'd have enjoyed it more, I expect, and be in a better position to evaluate it as a whole. There's much to admire, and I may need a second viewing to come to terms with how I feel about it, but at this point I just can't recommend it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


What should I see?

Tell me what to see. I have limited opportunities to go to the movies for the next couple weeks. What should I make a point of not missing? Some candidates--

Broken Flowers
Corpse Bride
Good Night, and Good Luck
Wallace and Gromit
Games of Love and Chance
Lord of War
Oliver Twist
Innocent Voices

Also, two classics which I've never seen will be available for a theatrical screening in Seattle shortly: His Girl Friday (Hawks) and Pickpocket (Bresson).

Monday, October 10, 2005


Memories of Murder

Jung-ho Bong, 2003

Viewed August 2005, Comcast on-demand

Score: 9

A stunningly unique film that has apparently been considered for a distribution deal in the US for quite some time. It's a shame that never happened; it deserves a wider audience.

It purports to be loosely based on a case in rural South Korea involving "South Korea's first serial killer." The crimes are macabre and disturbing; women are abducted, sexually abused, and ritually killed. The most impressive accomplishment of this film is the extent to which the deeply depressing and incomprehensibly senseless and tragic death and violence are portrayed with touching, respectful compassion. At the same time, the movie is damned funny throughout. The investigation of the local homicide detectives is a disaster from the incompetent compromising of the crime scenes to the cruelty with which they beat a confession out of a local idiot who had a habit of staring at the victim a little too lustfully, to their deeply inept and dangerous sting operation. One of the two detectives savagely beats any suspect and the slightest provocation, without any sense of what might be gained--or lost--through such actions (he's very proud of his kicking technique). They want to do well, but they simply don't know how; they're in so far over their heads, you can't help but feel sympathy for them, as little as they deserve it. They try very hard to maintain a simple dignity as they incompetently go about their jobs and personal lives. This could have been maintained, has a crime of incomprehensible proportions not disrupted their lives.

Much to the consternation of the local detectives (and their equally clueless police chief) a big city detective. This cliched setup works to a significant degree due to the poker-faced, passive aggressive take on the conflict between them.

If you have comcast on demand, check and see if it's still there for free. It's under the broad category of "Palm pictures" or "Palm festival" or something. It's a uniquely satisfying crime story on several levels.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Black Robe

1991, Bruce Beresford

Score: 7

Nice counterpoint to the atrocious Dances with Wolves. Uneven, but picks up nicely in the final act.

Friday, October 07, 2005


The History of Violence

Oct 8, Metro Theatre (private screening room)

David Cronenberg

Score: 9

I'm always surprised when I look up Cronenberg; I have a higher opinion of him as a filmmaker than I do of his actual films (and I'm one of six people who actually stayed to the very end of Crash, and I didn't even hate it!). I find Dead Ringers overrated, and while Existenz and Naked Lunch are enjoyable, they're not anything terribly special. I found the Fly boring. Yet, I've always considered myself a Cronenberg fan, for the reason anyone does; his signature creepiness works for me on some level, even when it's being executed in otherwise unnoteworthy contexts.

So this film, the best Cronenberg film I've seen by a wide margin, is a bit of surprise. There's a great deal of tension in the film, and a host of scenes in which both the behavior and motives of the characters are in question, to great effect, but the tradition forms of Cronenberg creepiness are largely absent (one marvelous exception is the glorious, Lynchian opening sequence). But it's not a "standard thriller" as it's been described, either. It's a beautifully executed, meticulously composed mediation on the ever-present simmering threat of violence in even the most placid lives.

Among the numerous virtues of this film is it's vision of small town America; the details of the life Tom Stall leads almost seem to hokey to not be a joke, an exaggerated stereotype of the stultifying dullness and lameness of small town America. Gangsters and gangster life are also presented in cliches. Both of the sex scenes are cliches. Indeed, while most of the movie is composed of cliches of various sorts, it works because they're arranged with such precision and purpose. A number of scenes of normal family life are repeated; once with violence in it's 'proper' place, and again later when violence is beginning to emerge and seep into the daily lives of the Stalls. The details of the staid family life of the Stalls are pretty much objectively dull and banal. But in this film, dull and banal are infinitely preferable to exciting and dangerous. The violent presence within the family is both terrifying and exhilerating for Tom/Joey's wife and son, but more the former than the latter. This is ambiguity done exceedingly well.

I have a few trivial complaints; some things that were clear enough without actually stated them were written into Richie Cusack's dialogue, for example. Viggo was excellent as Tom Stall, but his Joey moments probably should have been a bit more restrained. I expect some will find Cronenberg's precision and meticulous focus off-putting, but for those anywhere near his wave-length, he's made a hell of a film. I haven't yet seen the Ozon of the Jarmusch, but I'd say this is my favorite 2005 release so far.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Batman Begins

Majestic Bay, July 2005

Christopher Nolan, 2005

Score: 8

As strong of superhero movie as I can recall, with the exception of Spiderman II. As an added bonus, this version of Batman exceedingly conservative (in the Burkean sense). He is Gotham's true natural aristocracy; they're his people to take care of, and the imperialists who think they can and should run the world can go to hell. It came out at precisely the correct time for my Burke lecture in my Summer course. Aside from such conveniences, what I like most about Nolan's film is his knowledge about which genre conventions of the comic book film to remain faithful to and which to jettison. Nolan and Bale make the psychological dimension of this film work very well, and the gadgetry and action are all secondary to that, which makes all that stuff more satisfying than they otherwise would be. A pleasant surprise for Nolan after his pointless, dreary remake of Insomnia.


Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles, 2005

Majestic Bay, late September 2005

Score: 6

Major reservations with several capital M's. I can't quite drop it below recommended because of the craft, care, and exquisite beauty that goes into much of the first 3/4 of this film--not that the early sections of the film aren't a bit uneven; they certainly are, but there's enough here to make this worth your time. I liked City of God, but I couldn't help but think Meirelles' eye was a bit ahead of his head. That gap has widened considerably here. I'm drawn to his visual representations of poverty in both Brazil and Kenya.

One annoying thing about The response to the Constant Gardener is the notion that it represents a cutting edge insight or sophisticated commentary on global politics. The generally sensible A.O. Scott:

If what it says provokes some indignant rebuttal (be on the lookout for op-ed columns and public relations bulletins challenging its dire view of big pharmaceutical companies), so much the better. In pointedly applying President Bush's phrase "axis of evil" to multinational corporations rather than to rogue states, the movie shows a willingness to risk didacticism in the service of encouraging discussion. This strikes me as noble, but it would also strike me as annoying if Mr. Meirelles were not such a skilled and subtle filmmaker, and if his cast were not so sensitive and sly.

I'll say it: The politics of The Constant Gardener are naive and implausible. But not for the reason Scott and so many others seem to think: the seemingly outrageous accusation Le Carre has leveled against the global pharmaceutical companies is banal and ordinary. (I'll outsource any further explanation of this to Marcia Angell. What's preposterous is the notion that an activist who exposes this truth-in-plain-sight is in any danger of being killed by corporate assassins. Tessa would hardly be a blip on the radar.

Le Carre and Meirelles try to tell us about a globalization tragedy through a cold war frame of covert operatives, espionage, and spies. But the real globalization tragedy isn't Bad People Treating Powerless impoverished Africans Terribly, it's the complete and utter indifference to this from the rest of the world. That's both a tragedy and a travesty, but not one that fits into a cold war frame. The domestic equivalent of this film would be have K street lobbyists assassinating intrepid reporters who discovered that they've been meeting with and perhaps even making campaign contributions to the Senator who chairs the subcommittee that's reviewing a bill of interest to one of their clients.

This makes the final act of the movie, a deeply embarrassing parade of preposterous cliches, all the harder to watch. A core conceit of the movie is that if only the British press and public knew about these ways in which poor, desperate Africans were treated as though their lives are near worthless, heads would role and Things Would Change, and bad guys would be punished. This, of course, absolves the general public and the audience for any responsibility. It's both cinematically disastrous and politically cowardly. I almost wish Meirelles didn't have such a good eye; then I might not be drawn to his next film.


recently viewed films that require posts

they come back
brief encounters (Muratova, 1967)

films to see, hopefully:

broken flowers
corpse bride
wallace and gromit?


Women of Tokyo

Ozu, 1933.

Screened October 2nd at the NWFF, with a live score performed by the Wayne Horvitz Jazz Ensemble.


A nice little melodrama, but my least favorite Ozu so far by a fair margin. At 47 minutes, things move at a steady clip. Actually, the arc of the story is spare enough that the story itself moves at a slow to moderate pace. It's the quickness of the camera I object to. Shots that normally would linger thoughtfully are over in a couple seconds. This is less than satisfying for those accostumed to Ozu's pacing. I was utterly baffled by the non-sequitor final scene with the annoying reporters walking down the street.

I'd rate my experience well higher than a 6, however due to the marvelous live score, written specifically for the film by the performing musicians. NWFF rocks.



Joss Wheedon, 2005
Screened October 2, Meridian 16

Score: 6

Good, solid space opera. I liked the show more than Rob did, so 7 could be translated as a mild disapointment, which would be correct. I think Wheedon's strengths are best explored in the series format; one of the things that makes his work so interesting is his simultaneous submission to and subversion of genre conventions. Here, we see more of the former and less of the latter. In fact, some elements of character construction from the show are sacrificed at the alter of action movie convention. Shepard Book's relationship to the crew is completely altered, there's no way the Captain Reynolds of Firefly would say to Book, "You know I've always turned to you for council" or whatever, but Book's relationship with Reynolds and the crew is too unorthodox and weird for an action movie, so he's turned into Obi-wan. Not surprising, but annoying. The nature of the sexual tension between Reynolds and Annara is also altered to require less explanation and backstory. (The Simon-Kaylee interactions I thought were better).

The most dissapointing feature is that Wheedon's narrative and structure is completely conventional. It's done well, which counts for a lot, but it became so clear for so long before it actually happened that (here comes the serious spoiler) River would save them all by killing lots of bad people with her fancy bad-ass skillz, that it was actually rather tiresome to watch. The killing off of Wash also seemed unnecessary and conventional for someone who has gotten such great dramatic milage out of killing off characters (especially Ms. Calandar and Doyle) in the past.

I'm ambivelent about the Alliance moving from ambiguous kinda-bad-but-we-don't-know-the-whole-story in the show to cartoonish supervilliany, although the new explanation for reavers is more satisfying than the silly new-agey line we were given in the show.

The genre subversion here is relegated to the sphere of dialogue, the quirks and general tenor of which I really like, and form the core of my recommendation. I'm also still interested enough in the universe to want to know what happens to these people, but I'd probably tilt toward a weak recommendation even if I wasn't, but Wheedon's vast talents are displayed only sparingly here.


Story of Floating Weeds

Yasujiro Ozu, 1934
Criterion DVD
September 29th

Score: 8

My first Ozu silent. Marvelous. A great story for Ozu; I can't wait to watch the 50's remake. The story contains a deviously subversive message about family; that it's created by vicious cruelty as well as love, which doesn't make it any less meaningful; perhaps even moreso. The leader of the travelling troupe of actors takes his troupe to a town where he has an old mistress and a teenage son. The son, who believes his father was a deceased civil servant, is a good student with a promising future. Both mother and father (who have a convivial platonic friendship, but no burning flames) agree that the truth of his father's identity should remain a secret. The problem begins when the current mistress of the father becomes jealous of the time he's spending with his former mistress and son. It's both a personal resentment and a class resentment; she doesn't like that he thinks his son should be something better than him (and, of course, her). Her vengeful scheme is the undoing of the troupe, but has other unintended consequences as well. The portrayal of the ex-mistress/mother is wonderful, and the interactions of the acting troupe (who form a surrogate family) is a marvel of very subtle comedy and cozy familial comfort. Of course, it all has to change, and as is his wont, Ozu doesn't attempt to draw conclusions about the change, but instead keenly observes what is lost and what is created. In conclusion, I love Ozu. The act of writing about his films makes me appreciate them more, and I'm seriously tempted to change that 8 to a 9.


Lost in La Mancha

Viewed October 1st
recorded from IFC


It's pretty good, I don't have much to say. I think it would have been fine as a short feature, 30-45 minutes would have sufficed to tell the story. Gilliam comes across as particularly clueless, makes you wonder how he ever got any movies made. Must've had good luck. Some of the scenes from the lost movie look pretty nice. Filmmakers' style does little to add or detract. If the story sounds interesting to you, you'll probably enjoy it, but wish it were a fair bit shorter.


Rating system

Don't know if I'll use this consistently, but if I do, here it is:

10 masterpiece (average, 2ish per year)
9 great (in a strong year, they round out the top 10)
8 near great
7 recommended with minor reservations
6 recommended with major reservations
5 neither recommended nor not recommended
4 a failure that is neither particularly painful, nor particularly interesting
3 I'm mildly bitter about the time I'll never get back
2 I'm very bitter about the time I'll never get back
1 Eat your gun before you see this movie

Monday, October 03, 2005


Cold Water

Olivier Assayas, 1994.

Screened Friday, September 30th, at the Northwest Film Forum.

Score: 10

The NWFF originally screened this movie at the now defunct Little Theatre, where Scott and I saw it about five years ago. We were both pretty blown away, and Scott put it on his top 10 for the decade list. I haven't hashed out the details of my 90's list yet, and I'm not certain it would make it, but I'm quite certain it would make a top 20. On a second viewing, I can confirm that it is, indeed, a masterpiece. It's an ill-fated teen romance film that somehow manages to avoid the twin dangers of sentimentalism and condescention about its subjects. Gilles is by any objective standard a spoiled little rich boy, a fact that Assayas quite wisely refuses to a)moralize about or b)philosophize in any way. I love Catcher in the Rye, but its approach to its protaganist has spawned some less than satifying results over the ensuing decades. Christine's mother and her boyfriend are obviously deficient as parental authorities, but they're by no means monsters. Her mother's selfishness and frustration ring true.

Come to think of it,the primary parent of both Gilles and Christine each only get one scene--Gilles father confronting him about his behavior in school, and Christine's mother searching for her runaway daughter at a party. Each of these scenes are economical gems. They establish the frustrating distance between parent and child in a way that seeks not to aportion blame for the situation, but rather to sketch the particular contours of the size and shape of the gulf that lies between them.

The camerawork is mostly handheld (before it was a cliche) and it works to great effect. There are a lot of tight shots, as if the camera was another restless teenager anxiously standing around with the subjects. As paradoxical as it sounds I can't help but describe the camera work as "listless prowling"--there's energy to burn, destructive impulses to channel, and no direction whatsoever, and the camera helps us get it. Come to think of it, this sense fits nicely with the the time (1972) as well; the impatience and frustration of 1968 without the illusions of historic meaning or the hope of social change to give it context and direction.

The centerpiece of the film, beggining at around the half-way point, is an all-night party at an abandoned house in the forest, complete with teenagers dancing, getting high, making out, and burning anything they can find in a bonfire. This scene is, I think, what propells this movie from a noteworthy success to a truly great film, among the best of the decade. The party is the scene of Gilles and Christine's reconnection, after a period of involuntary separation. The status quo of their lives appears to be shattering, as she is now a runaway and he is about to be sent to boarding school. The camera in the party scene takes us around the house, prowling listlessly (just as we'd probably be doing if we were 16 and attending the party) and watches the various participants react to the music (the film is set in 1972; we're treated to Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and best of all CCR). The music directs them aimlessly; Getting high to Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door," making out to Cohen's "Avalanche", but when that record is interrupted mid-song for CCR's "Up Around the Bend" the opening guitar riff sends them bounding into the air, looking for something to burn. I never attended any parties like this as a teenager, nor was I ever particularly angsty or prone to meaningless destruction, but this scene makes me feel like I did, and was. One of my co-attendees was disturbed by the nihilism and destructive energy of this scene (and the film as a whole) and while I can understand I can't agree, at least not entirely. Assayas and his roaming camera are keen observers of the insular, listless, disconnected and frustrating world of his subjects. What we make of this world is up to us, but the film doesn't inspire me to try to make anything of it at all, but to simply observe it, and admire how artfully and compellingly it has been crafted.

There are at least half a dozen other scenes worthy of exigesis (the final scene is delicately and perfectly executed, and it's absolutely heartbreaking), but I've said enough. Aside from the deeply flawed and ill-conceived Demonlover (the failure of this film even extends to the Sonic Youth soundtrack, and I say this as someone who often finds himself defending that band's most thorough descents into wankery), everything Assayas has done is well worth watching, but this is his masterpiece. It's not available on VHS or DVD, so if your local arthouse theatre ever screens it, go see it, thank them, and then thank me.


David's Film Journal

Recently, I've been keeping a journal of the films I see--where, what format, and my initial response to it. I'm not sure why, other than an increasing desire to have some sort of record of various aspects of my life to complement my increasingly unreliable memory. At any rate, I seem to have lost the journal, which is frustrating. I'm going to move it online, here. I'm not writing for an audience, but if people care what films I see or what I think of them, or just like to point out how dense I am or what terrible taste I have, I'll open comments for them to do so. If I suspect my thoughts are actually interesting, I'll cross-post them at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

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