picnic at hanging rock (peter weir, 1975)

Reminiscent of L’Avventura in both the mysterious disappearance of a character(s) and the ambiguous non-resolution of the mystery at film’s end. The similarities don’t reach too far, though. By the end of L’Avventura, everyone has given up wondering about the missing woman, while in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the mystery still matters after you leave the theater. Both disappearances serve as MacGuffins, in that the movies aren’t really “about” the mysteries. In Antonioni’s film, the disappearance is just a way to introduce the main characters, whose alienation is the central theme of the movie. In Hanging Rock, the disappearances distract us, at least a little, from the subtext that drives the picture. Weir relies on cinematography and the soundtrack to create an almost other-worldly ambience, such that the mystery feels ominous, and there is always the possibility that something extra-ordinary is behind the events. But what is truly unsettling is the undercurrent of sexual repression, between the schoolgirls, but also between the girls and the school’s headmistress. There are a couple of young men who also have their eyes on the schoolgirls, but you never get the feeling they’ve got a chance. Nothing is overt ... it’s like watching These Three, the Children’s Hour adaptation from the 30s where lesbianism is transformed into heterosexual infidelity. Meanwhile, Anne-Louise Lambert, as one of the missing girls, Miranda, is nearly angelic. Part of this is Lambert’s performance (and, to be honest, her looks), but just as important is the way she is photographed, as if she is simultaneously of this world and outside of it. You can see why people would obsess about her. #586 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

 


what i watched last week

L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). This movie, like many others, benefits from the intelligent guidance of someone who “gets” the movie. You could say this is always true, but for many/most films, the pleasures are available from the start. It’s not that we wouldn’t benefit from watching, say, Goldfinger alongside an expert on Bond movies, and some films (the best Bonds among them) retain a lot of their pleasures on multiple viewings. But a movie like L’Eclisse has a built-in inscrutable surface, and that surface makes the movie a candidate for further viewings, perhaps especially after reading through some of the best criticism of the film. One of my flaws as a critic is that I resist works that don’t make themselves immediately apparent. When I hear that a movie must be seen more than once, I get cranky, thinking if that is the case, the movie hasn’t done right to begin with. I don’t think an inscrutable surface is evidence of depth. But I can go too far. You will get more out of L’Eclisse, the more you put into it. Antonioni doesn’t do all the work for you. Having said that, I remain puzzled why I find L’Avventura one of the greatest of all movies, yet find the rest of his word admirable at best, and barely watchable at worst. I find Blow-Up fun, if silly, and Red Desert only worth a single viewing, if that. #106 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Revisiting a classic film from a classic director. One problem is that I think Kubrick is overrated, and I think 2001, rather than marking his peak, marks the beginning of his decline. My favorite Kubrick films are Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), with Spartacus (1960) after that. I intended to write about this movie in a separate post, but I think it slides right in to my comments on L’Eclisse. 2001 has a built-in inscrutable surface, which makes it a candidate for multiple viewings. I think the cosmic themes of the movie are perfect if Kubrick wanted to seem deep ... there is no explanation, Kubrick resists explanations, but in a true cult-film pattern, the vagueness only increases the interest of its fans. I don’t like this, but perhaps 2001 is the kind of movie where the absence of explanations is the proper approach.

I was a big fan of 2001 when it came out. We all watched it more than once, usually when high. We didn’t see the “Star Gate” sequence as needing explanation ... we just laid back and let it wash over it. There is something to be said for that kind of response, and it’s true, I never liked 2001 as much as I did when I was young and high.

The special effects hold up remarkably well (not talking about the Star Gate). The enormity of the space vehicles is impressive, and everything moves slow ... I think if they zipped around, we’d see the effects as primitive in comparison to what is possible today. Instead, they are lovely and elegant. The Star Gate stuff is less impressive, but at the time, we were blown away.

I can’t say too much about the importance of the music. Most of us owned the soundtrack album, which we played far more frequently than we did any other music-only soundtrack. (I mean, we played A Hard Day’s Night more, but that was a Beatles album, not a soundtrack.) We’d hear the music, and see the scenes in our heads. Kubrick’s use of music was remarkably on target ... everything fit perfectly with what was on the screen. So when we listened to the soundtrack, we felt fond feelings about the movie, which led us to go watch the movie again.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s disdain for actors seems to being here. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

If you had asked me in the late-60s, I’d have given 2001 10/10. In more recent years, I’ve decided on 6/10. But, for whatever reason, I felt more kind this time around. #3 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 of all time, above, just to list the next three, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, and The Godfather. Honestly, I’m feeling generous to 2001, but it is not in the league of those other three. I wouldn’t place it in the top five of 1968. (Monterey Pop, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead come to mind.) 7/10.


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.