what i watched last week

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015). A low-fi movie (shot on iPhones) that makes the most of its budgetary limitations. The acting is strong, from the excellent leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, to cult actor James Ransone, to old-school Clu Gulager, in his 80s, who turns up in one scene. Baker is more interested in slice-of-life than telling a story ... there are a lot of shots of characters walking and walking and walking (interesting in itself since how often do we see people walking in L.A.?). There’s a new way to enjoy a carwash that I hadn’t seen before, which gets to the main selling point of Tangerine: we see a sub-culture that rarely turns up in movies, treated with open-ended honesty and no condescension. What makes it all work is Rodriguez and Taylor ... even when nothing is really happening (which is often), it’s a pleasure to listen to them jabber away. It’s reminiscent of New Wave Godard. #351 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014). Perhaps it says something that when I heard there was a character named “Gamora”, I convinced myself I’d misheard the name and a giant turtle was somehow going to be in the movie. And when I realized I was wrong, I was disappointed. James Gunn piles on the entertainment value ... for the first half of the movie, if not longer, the movie is a combination of non-stop action and clever dialogue. It’s exhausting. Gunn steadfastly refuses to pause for any kind of reflection, but the action scenes aren’t good enough to carry an entire film, and the dialogue isn’t exactly Whedon-esque. Most of the snarkiest lines are given to a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper that is only marginally less annoying than George Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox. When Gunn tries to elicit emotion from the audience at the last minute, it’s far too late, although Vin Diesel does what he can playing Hodor, er, Groot, a tree that says the same thing over and over (“I am Groot”, with which Diesel does some interesting things). I can think of so many things I liked better than Guardians of the Galaxy, including most of the other items in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have seen (including the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Firefly/Serenity, which does a much better job of giving us entertaining characters with depth who toss around snappy dialogue. #955 on the 21st century list, which is just pathetic. 5/10.


film fatales #16: citizenfour (laura poitras, 2014)

This Oscar-winning documentary is a confident piece of work. Not in its subject matter ... Laura Poitras is necessarily paranoid, as is her featured “character”, Ed Snowden. But Poitras assumes she has right on her side. She doesn’t hide her point of view. This is just as well ... the bias is built in.

This is especially important because Poitras is essentially working with Snowden, helping him make his information public. I’m reminded of Under Fire, where a news photographer played by Nick Nolte agrees to falsify a photo to help a revolution in Nicaragua. He knows he has crossed a journalistic line; he does it anyway, although not without some soul searching.

Poitras is inclined to be on Snowden’s “side”. For that matter, so am I. While she is always present, she is never on camera, so it’s possible to forget her role in Snowden’s “crime”. But even if you think Snowden is a hero, and Poitras a champion of the public’s right to know, you have to wonder what parts of the story Poitras is leaving out.

Again, I am one who thinks Snowden’s actions were good. I just wish I trusted Citizenfour more.

On the other hand, just before writing this, I saw a preview for an upcoming film, Snowden, written and directed by Oliver Stone. It is safe to say I am not a fan of Stone’s work. I expect he, like Poitras, will wear his biases on his sleeve. I don’t expect he’ll recognize them as biases, though, and I bet he uses “based on a true story” as an easy way to make that story fit what he wants to say. Which I suppose isn’t that far from Poitras, but if I am a bit mistrustful of Citizenfour, I am over-the-top suspicious of anything with Oliver Stone attached to it. #427 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: the last five years (richard lagravenese, 2014)

My friend Diana made three requests for musicals. If memory serves, the impetus was a discussion of non-singing actors taking on roles that required singing. I fear I’ve failed this assignment, probably due more to taste preferences than anything else. It took me three tries to get through Guys and Dolls (Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons), and I couldn’t finish Into the Woods (Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and a bunch of others). The latter had actors who could sing, that is, it’s a bit inaccurate to call them non-singers (like, say, Marlon Brando was). When writing about Guys and Dolls, I tried to figure out just how far out of my preference zone such movies were. “It’s not that I don’t like musicals ... It’s not that I don’t like 50s musicals, although we’re getting closer ... But I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals from the 50s that made it to the big screen.”

Like Into the Woods, The Last Five Years is not a 50s musical. But, also like Into the Woods, it’s a stage musical that was made into a movie. And stage musicals just don’t interest me. I’ve been to one, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and that was in the early-80s. The music is not my cup of tea. I know I often stress how much our taste preferences guide our opinions, but it’s especially true here, because I’m not sure I would recognize a good stage musical if I saw it. Let’s put it this way: I can’t imagine listening to the soundtrack to any of them.

So I don’t know what to make of The Last Five Years, at least in any kind of evaluation that is fair. The gimmick, whereby the two people in a relationship take turns singing songs, with one (Anna Kendrick again, as Cathy) working chronologically backwards from the final breakup, and the other (Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan as Jamie) working chronologically in a “normal” fashion, is interesting, although it barely makes sense if you don’t already know that’s what is happening. Kendrick is a fine singer, and I suppose Jordan is good, too. And that’s the extent of what I liked.

I knew I was in for trouble when it became apparent early on that almost the entire movie is sung, rather than spoken. That’s not a killer on its own ... I liked The Umbrellas of Cherbourg quite a lot. But ... and again, I can’t say the songs were bad ... but they were not anything I would choose to listen to. A day after watching the movie, I can’t recall a single one of the songs.

So I’m put off by the decision to sing songs I don’t care for, and while I liked Kendrick, I found Jordan about as bland as Richard Beymer in West Side Story. I had a hard time paying attention to Kendrick’s songs, but Jordan’s just about put me to sleep.

By the time we got to the end of the movie, which showed the power of the chronological gimmick, I was too worn out to appreciate it. Jamie, who has come to the end of the relationship, sings about that end, while Cathy, who is now beginning the relationship, sings about possibilities. I could tell it was touching, deservedly so, but I was long past being touched, myself.

On the other hand, it only ran for 94 minutes.

I’m looking forward to Diana’s non-musical request, Fiorile, a Taviani Brothers film that has no singing, as far as I know. She has steered me in the right direction more than once on television series, and I liked the one Taviani film I’ve seen, so the future looks bright. 5/10.


what i watched last week

The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950). This the movie where Gregory Peck plays a “bad guy”. Except, of course, he’s Gregory Peck, so he can’t help but let some decency slip in. Plus, he’s a gunslinger at the end of his career, wanting to be left alone, so he has turned his back on what made him “bad” in the first place. This plot has been done so many times ... I don’t know when the first example occurred, for all I know it’s The Gunfighter, but watching it in 2016, you need something more to go on than that same old plot. There’s nothing particularly wrong here, and it falls into that category of Movies That Are Praised for What They Don’t Do. In this case, there isn’t much action, it’s more a character study than anything else, the gunplay is minimal, so it feels “adult” compared to, say, Hopalong Cassidy. But if you’re looking for better Gregory Peck, try Roman Holiday or the ultimate Peck role in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you just want a decent Western with a hint of noir, though, The Gunfighter will do. 7/10.

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921). Avoids most of what I find annoying about Chaplin ... the sentiment is hard-edged. It belongs with his classic films. More than any other Chaplin film I can think of, The Kid relies not just on Chaplin but on his co-star, Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid. He is both feisty and adorable, never cloying. The affection between the two stars is evident. It’s hard to realize that The Kid eventually became Uncle Fester. Chaplin reworked the film in 1971, adding a new musical score and deleting a few scenes. That’s the version I saw. The picture ends with a short dream sequence which feels unnecessary. Without it, I’d give this my highest rating. #342 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. My own favorite Chaplins, in no particular order, are Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush.


favorites expanded

A little more than five years ago, I participated in a Facebook group devoted to our 50 favorite movies. I figure by now, I’d have a different idea of what my 50 favorites were, but I’m not going that far today. I did exercise my obsessive-compulsive behavior a bit, though, and looked back at the movies I’ve seen over the past five years, since we did that group. The following list contains the seven movies I saw for the first time, since the original project, that I gave my top 10/10 rating to. I’m not including films I revisited ... these are the ones I hadn’t seen back in early 2011. (In four cases, the movies hadn't been released yet.) Think of them as candidates for any future Fave 50 I might do. (I’ve added links to my posts on the movies, which I’ve listed in chronological order by release year.)

  • The Navigator (1924). “The most important thing that separates The Navigator from the pack is Kathryn McGuire.... Her physicality and willingness to participate in Keaton’s intricate slapstick make her more of an equal than is usual in Keaton’s films, and this also adds a bit of a sexual charge to their relationship, again not usual for Keaton.”
  • Children of Paradise (1945). “When it’s over, you already want to watch a sequel, or a prequel, or just watch the same movie once again.”
  • A Man Escaped (1956).A Man Escaped doesn’t need flamboyant action scenes. The tension the movie creates is entirely down to the nuts and bolts of the escape attempt.”
  • A Separation (2011). “There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable.”
  • Before Midnight (2013). “I’ve never rooted so hard for a couple to get back together, and I’ve never felt so unsure about what might happen.”
  • The Square (2013). “A documentary about recent events in Egypt, shot and edited with such immediacy that it forces us right into the battles.”
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). “Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is like checking out an old silent Buster Keaton feature or a Jackie Chan HK film. Real people are actually doing these things.”

what i watched last week

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Due to some confusing marketing in the home video field, some call this movie “Live Die Repeat”, which was an advertising tag line and which admittedly is a better and more appropriate title for this one. Edge of Tomorrow is easy to describe, like the movie pitches parodied in The Player: “It’s Starship Troopers crossed with Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise in the Bill Murray role!” (My choice for a more obscure movie that could fit into this scenario is The Americanization of Emily.) The comparisons aren’t quite fair. It’s not as good as Groundhog Day, which isn’t really a criticism, and while it is better than Starship Troopers, it lacks the lunacy Paul Verhoeven brought to that project which makes it so endlessly watchable to this day. Making those comparisons also emphasizes the ways Edge of Tomorrow lacks newness. But it does some of the same old things with panache, it is never boring and not bloated (in this day and age, to bring in a big-budget action movie that runs under two hours is remarkable). Cruise is fine in his action mode, with a pleasing underpinning of cowardice (as mentioned, see James Garner in Americanization of Emily). Speaking of Emily, Emily Blunt makes a terrific action hero, and for the most part, the film avoids the pitfall of making her Cruise’s sidekick. Add the always reliable Bill Paxton as a bad-ass, and some aliens that look far more inventive than the norm, and you have a solid movie. #791 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is stretching it a bit. 7/10.

Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa and Kôji Morimoto, 2004). I am not knowledgeable about anime ... to take a list at random, of the 92 films on a “Guide to Anime Movies”, I have only seen 12. Mind Game seemed seriously out there to me, but for all I know, it’s standard fare in the genre. Yuasa and Morimoto (Robin Nishi should also be mentioned, as the author of the original comic) take a kitchen sink approach, so you never know what is coming from one moment to the next. There is a “plot”, but to me, it was irrelevant. It’s just a dazzling movie, in spite of (because of?) its incoherence. The colors, in particular, are jarringly gorgeous, and occasionally, an animated face will be replaced on the screen with the face of the voice actor for that character, like Clutch Cargo only for an entire face. A scene near the end where the four heroes swim for their lives is stunning (and here, I’ll mention Fayray and Seiichi Yamamoto and Shinichiro Watanabe ... I can’t figure out who did what ... for the music, which is brilliantly integrated into the action, particularly in that long swimming scene). I liked Mind Game ... it’s not a movie for me, but I saw elements of the French New Wave, and The Road Warrior, so maybe I don’t know my own taste. #758 on the TSPDT 21st century list. 8/10.

Mother (Joon-ho Bong, 2009). I revisited this one after six years. I’ve watched more contemporary Korean films than I had back then, including several by Bong, who has yet to make one I didn’t like. Mother might be my favorite ... that or the English-language film Snowpiercer. What is clear is that Bong is more than willing to take on a variety of subjects. Of the ones I’ve seen, Memories of Murder is a brutal movie about a serial killer, The Host is a monster movie, Mother is a psychological thriller, and Snowpiercer is a science-fiction picture with an international cast. To some extent, it doesn’t matter that Bong moves from genre to genre, since he likes to turn them on their heads, anyway. But they always work. Watching Mother this time, I felt a connection to some of Hitchcock’s sicker movies. I also don’t think I realized the first time that Hye-ja Kim, who plays the titular mother, was a star of Korean television very well-known for playing wholesome, loving moms. Mother was surely a revelation on its release, as if Barbara Billingsley had followed Leave It to Beaver by playing Norman Bates’ mom. #280 on the 21st-century list. 8/10.

Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012). 6/10.


by request: quartet (dustin hoffman, 2012)

I come to a lot of the movies I watch cold, or close to it. Mostly this comes because I keep endless lists of movies to watch, and by the time I get around to something, I’ve long forgotten why it ended up on the list. Requests are also like this ... someone recommends a movie, I put it on my Requests List. When I watch it, it’s brand new to me, no matter how old it is.

Quartet was recommended just a couple of weeks ago, though, so I didn’t have time to forget it. “Forget” may be the wrong word, though, because until it was recommended, I had never heard of it. Since I like being “spoiler-free” to a certain extent, when someone recommends a movie, I instantly start ignoring their descriptions ... eventually I’ll watch it, until then, details are pointless.

Despite all of this, I found, as I watched Quartet, that I knew all about it, no matter my efforts to remain clueless. Because Quartet is completely lacking in any surprises. When a brief summary tells you everything you need to know, surprises are pretty much impossible.

A who’s who of aging British actors (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon) live in a home for retired musicians. A gala benefit is planned to keep the home from going bankrupt, and the highlight is intended to be a famous quartet of opera singers (see the first four listed above) reprising their greatest hit. But two of the four are still stewing over a relationship from the past, so it looks like the reprise will not happen. Guess what? Everyone makes up, and the quartet get back together.

Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s first film as a director, and here again, there are no surprises. Quartet was originally a play, and Hoffman dispenses with the kind of “opening up” film makers often use to disguise theatre roots. Such a move would just be a lot of work for a neophyte, I guess. It’s irrelevant, since, like many actors-turned-directors, Hoffman proves himself adept at highlighting the work of the actors. None of my complaints really matter, since Maggie Smith et al get to show off their chops.

It all comes across like a reunion show of an old rock band. No one can sing or play as well as they used to, but it’s nice to see they are still trying. In every actor’s case, you can think of several better performances they have given in better movies or television shows. You would never start an examination of their career with Quartet, any more than you would start a study of The Who by looking at the post-Moon/Entwhistle era. Which doesn’t deny the pleasure of seeing these fine actors. It just means everyone, actors and audience alike, can settle for “good enough”. Surprises just get in the way.

You don’t watch Quartet to learn about opera, or about aging. You watch it for the heavy whiff of nostalgia. If this sounds like a good way to spend two hours, you will like Quartet, I assure you. 6/10.

(As many have noted, the best alternative to this film is Amour. Amour, of course, is excruciating to watch.)


what i watched last week

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). A series of ghost stories so gorgeous it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective on the quality of those stories. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966 (it lost to The Shop on Main Street), Kwaidan demands our awareness not just of Kobayashi, but also of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and art director Shigemasa Toda. I don’t pretend to know who did what, but the result is stunning. Smartly, considering these are ghost stories, Kobayashi et al do not worry about an exact representation of the real. Instead, they use every available trick to augment the film canvas. The colors are brighter than those worn by circus performers, with the screen often particularly awash in the most dazzling reds. Often, I’ll see a movie like this and think of it as what I call a “coffee table movie”, something that looks so pretty you want to put it out on a coffee table for a friend to browse. But those movies are stagnant ... still photos as demo material. Kwaidan moves too much for a still to fully serve as an example. The format also works in its favor. As beautiful as it is to see, I might eventually get bored with 183 minutes of beauty. (There are alternate versions, including the original U.S. release, which simply removed one of the stories.) But the episodic nature of the film breaks those three hours into more manageable periods. And while this movie is slower, more patient, than the usual horror film, nonetheless the growing tension of each ghost story does mean you always want to know what is coming next (even though the plots don’t always make sense ... not sure they should, to be honest). It’s not easy for me to think of any movie that compares to Kwaidan ... at times I thought of Mario Bava’s anthology, Black Sabbath, but Bava’s style is nothing like Kobayashi’s here. Kwaidan is simply one of a kind, at least until someone points me in the direction of something similar. And I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is frequently so abstract I thought my Bluetooth earphones were broken. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

Pride (Matthew Warchhus, 2014). 7/10.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). 7/10.


film fatales #15: we need to talk about kevin (lynne ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is only Lynne Ramsay’s third feature as a director. This should not imply that the film has the feel of someone still on their learner’s permit, for Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals. Writing about her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote that it was “an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films.” Kevin is equally impressive, but for me, something is still missing. Ramsay is efficient and vague at the same time, leaving movies that are easy to admire but not so easy to like. (I pointed out about Ratcatcher that I didn’t think that was necessarily what she wanted, anyway.) We Need To Talk About Kevin is, in fact, very unlikeable, purposely so, which serves the purpose of forcing the audience to experience the fearful grating of the relationship between mother and son.

Kevin does need to be talked about, although ironically, no one in the movie ever actually does this. He is another one of those troubled teens who wipe out their schoolmates. On the one hand, we never get an explanation of why Kevin is a psychopath, yet even as the film seems to leave such analysis to the viewer, it points towards Kevin’s mother (Tilda Swinton) as somehow being the cause of the craziness. Whether Kevin is just a bad seed or a product of an unloving mother isn’t made clear, but both possibilities lay at least part of the blame on Mom (from what we can see, Kevin takes after his mother more than he does his father, leaving her responsible for his bad genetics).

Kevin is relatively sympathetic to Mom’s plight. Kevin is a truly monstrous kid, as a baby who never quits crying, as a youngster who refuses to be potty-trained, and as a teenage who regularly performs dastardly deeds. Mom is also burdened by Kevin’s ability to charm others into thinking he’s a fine fellow (Dad, in particular, falls for this, telling Mom “he’s just being a boy”). Ramsay pulls no punches: Kevin is sick.

But from the start, Mom is ambivalent about having a kid. If it takes her a long time to really hate Kevin (some might argue she never reaches that point), she can only pretend to love him ... all of her good intentions are constructed, not “natural”, and you get the feeling even Toddler Kevin knows that his mother doesn’t much like him.

The film seems like a mess, but it’s a studied mess, which is to say, it is no mess at all. As noted above, Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing, and the chaos of the splintered chronology of the movie reflects the inner turmoil of Mom. It also means the film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative as much as she wants to show us how Mom experiences her wretched life, an experience that isn’t any clearer to Mom than it is to the audience.

In my earlier review, I cited an excellent video essay by Tony Zhou, “Lynne Ramsay: The Poetry of Details”, which does a great job of showing one way to approach Ramsay’s movies. I remain intrigued by her work, I haven’t yet seen a movie of hers that seems a complete success. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: pride (matthew warchus, 2014)

If you are going to make a feel-good movie, might as well go all-in. Pride features a boatload of fine British actors, some veterans you have heard of (Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West) and others newcomers, to me at least, who more than hold their own. Based on a true story of a group of gay activists who travel to Wales to support workers during the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5, Pride milks its material in rousing ways, encouraging the audience to identify with the strikers and their gay supporters against the evil power of the state (represented by Margaret Thatcher).

Some of us resist this kind of shameless audience manipulation, but admittedly, Warchus is so good here that resistance is largely futile. You might feel like a heartless fuddy-duddy if you don’t leave the movie with the titular pride in your heart, listening to Billy Bragg remind us that there is power in a union, followed by Jimmy Somerville’s ballad for his friend Mark, a major character in the film.

It’s a bit odd, though, making a feel-good movie about a strike that failed. Which may be why the film is less about labor issues and more about getting together, Kumbaya fashion, in a celebration of the commonalities among all humans. The film offers a powerful statement about the importance of pride in the gay community, emphasized when it concludes with the Lesbian and Gay Pride 85 parade.

The miners and their strike fall by the wayside. The miners themselves are used more as props to further the story of people coming together than they are presented as complicated workers involved in a complicated strike. I don’t pretend to be an expert on that strike, but I know there’s much more to it than what we see in Pride. Whether it’s the strike’s failure, or the decline of the coal industry, or the resulting victory for Evil Thatcher that changed the UK forever, the strike deserves to be more than a backdrop for a story about emergent gay pride. And it’s no surprise that the actual political affiliation of LGSM co-founder Mark Ashton is buried (he was a Communist).

Having said all of this, there is still no denying the way Pride makes us feel good, and does so without resorting to many cheap tricks to wring emotion from the audience. 7/10.