music friday: pete seeger
beats music, part two

what i watched last week

Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013). Informative documentary about the American presence in covert wars across the globe. It’s a story that needs to be told, and the persistence of journalist Jeremy Scahill in following that story is inspirational, even though what he finds is bad news piled on bad news. When the film was first put together, it was fairly straightforward, but a decision was made to place Scahill in the center of the story. The result is a film that is as much about the intrepid journalist as it is about American foreign policy. This might be the right move in terms of grabbing the attention of the audience, but in truth, Scahill isn’t the story here, and it’s a mistake to give him such a strong presence in the film. Nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar. 7/10. Two other nominees up against Dirty Wars are better: The Art of Killing, and The Square.

The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944). Early noir is a good one. The pacing is deliberate, which only increases the tension as we wait to see what will go wrong next. There is a bit of implausibility in the plot that somehow also works to ratchet up the tension … you never know precisely what will be thrown in the path of Edward G. Robinson as a professor and Joan Bennett’s femme fatale. The twist at the end seemed like a cheat at first, but it has stuck in my mind, and I find myself recreating the scenes in the context of that twist. It would be worth a second viewing for that alone. #981 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. Best companion film would be Scarlet Street, another Lang film from a year later that also starred Robinson, Bennett, and Dan Duryea (a blackmailer in Woman in the Window).

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012). The sad news about Philip Seymour Hoffman inspired me to check this out, which had been sitting on my DVR for a couple of months. I run hot and cold when it comes to Anderson, and The Master is no different. Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams all do terrific jobs and deserved their Oscar nominations. But this is one time where I think Oscar got it right: The Master got no other nominations beyond those three. The film is indeed a master class in acting, with each of the stars offering a different style. But after that, Anderson and I part ways, because I found the movie to be mostly a muddle. I’m willing to grant that Anderson intended his obscurities, but they aren’t for me. I’m glad I saw this movie, and it made an honorable tribute to Hoffman’s work. But when I posted a YouTube video of Hoffman, it was from Almost Famous, not The Master. #96 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10, which is probably too generous. My favorite Hoffman performances are in Almost Famous and Capote, and Magnolia, also directed by Anderson, is also good. And let’s not forget Boogie Nights, a film for which I have great affection.

The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). 10/10.

I’d like to include a quote here from Mick LaSalle’s most recent column, since it comes very close to my New Year’s resolution to not watch crappy movies:

Why watch anything that's not at least very good? Even film critics aren't obligated to see absolutely everything. There are 100 years of feature films out there from all over the world. There are enough great or almost-great movies available that you need never see a bad or even mediocre movie for the rest of your life. So don't. Your home video experience should be a nonstop parade of the great and near-great, a succession of enriching and transformative experiences.