amanda knox (rod blackhurst and brian mcginn)

It played the Toronto International Film Festival, but was released on Netflix. Does that mean it’s eligible for an Oscar, an Emmy, or both? It’s not good enough for either, to be honest, but it sits well among the current fascination people seem to have for true crime tales. Amanda Knox was the American who spent four years in an Italian prison after being convicted of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Knox has been in and out of the headlines since 2007, so there’s a readymade audience for her story.

Blackhurst and McGinn take a fairly straightforward, chronological approach, using archival footage, interspersed with interviews of the primary characters, to tell the story. This gives the documentary a feeling of legitimacy ... as with so many well-made popular documentaries, it’s hard to figure what is being left out. The point of view in the film is, perhaps inevitably, that of Knox (she’s the title character for a reason). Her then-boyfriend and co-defendant, Italian Raffaele Sollecito, is equally victimized, but in the movie, he seems relevant mostly as he relates to Amanda. Both Knox and Sollecito come across very well in their interviews, although again, Knox is featured more often, because she’s American, because her emotional reactions are powered by a strong sense of injustice.

Two other characters get significant screen time. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini calmly details his approach to the case, and he sounds quite reasonable throughout, unless you pay attention to some of his “logic”. At one point, noting the murder victim had been found naked but covered by a blanket, he proclaims the murder was committed by a woman, because only a woman would cover up the body. In fairness, there isn’t a lot about Mignini that differs from other cases where the prosecution travels down the wrong path. Once Knox is a suspect, Mignini interprets all subsequent evidence as proof of her guilt. Sollecito gets off a bit lightly under this scenario, as it is suggested Knox used her feminine wiles to get Sollecito and a third suspect (Rudy Guede, who it is strongly argued was the actual murderer) to rape Kercher while Knox did the murder.

In addition to the two defendants and Mignini, English journalist Nick Pisa appears several times in interviews. Pisa comes off the worst of everyone. Mignini is stubborn, he can’t see how he’s gone astray, but his commitment is to justice, even if in this case, he’s misguided. But Pisa is solely interested in the tabloid angles. He shows little interest in Kercher ... for that matter, he shows little interest in Sollecito. He loves Amanda Knox because she is the perfect tabloid subject. And, speaking in his defense regarding his questionable journalistic ethics, he gives one of the more disturbing speeches in the film:

What are we supposed to do? We are journalists and we are reporting what we are being told. It's not as if I can say “Hold on a minute, I just want to double check that myself in some other way, who knows how, and I'll let my rival get in there first before me, and then, hey, I've lost a scoop.” It doesn't work like that, not in the news game.

This film is the first with Knox's participation (she did write a memoir), and it is powerful that she tells her own story. You come away convinced that she suffered for being a pretty American who liked sex. But the methods used by Blackhurst and McGinn are designed to lead us to specific conclusions. It’s not that those conclusions are wrong, but as viewers we need to be vigilant against the misuse of the tools of the documentarian. 8/10.

"There’s no trace of me in the room where Meredith was murdered…But you’re trying to find the answer in my eyes when the answer is right over there. You’re looking at me, why? These are my eyes, they’re not objective evidence." -- Amanda Knox


film fatales #20: paju (chan-ok park, 2009)

After seeing so many Korean horror films (most of them quite good, of course), it was an interesting pleasure to take in a Korean movie whose horrors are implicit. Paju is many things, but at its heart, it is a character study, and while I assume I am missing some of the more local Korean reference points, it works fine in the simplified world of character.

Which isn’t to say that Paju is simple. Park draws on complex film techniques, most notably in her use of flashbacks, which are rarely identified precisely. The placement of those flashbacks leads more to uncertainty than to confusion, and throughout, Park is building a story for her characters that may be told out of order but which make an emotional sense. The relationship between the primary characters, Joong-sik and Eun-mo, is the heart of Paju, but external events drive the story ... in the “present”, Joong-sik is part of a team of activists fighting developers with something resembling guerilla warfare, while in the “past”, he is a horny young man who experiences something tragic. The key to the relationship between Joong-sik and Eun-mo lies in her sister, Eun-soo, who is married to Joong-sik (thus, Joong-sik is Eun-mo’s brother-in-law). Eun-soo does not exist in the primary “past” (Joong-sik hasn’t met the sisters yet) or in the present (Eun-soo is dead). We see her in the period between the two main periods, but we don’t know until the end why she disappeared. All of this leads Eun-mo to mistrust her brother-in-law ... she wonders if he was responsible for her sister’s death ... but their close relation gradually leads to love, which is a problem since she is still young.

Or so I think. As is often the case, I lost track of the plot on several occasions. But it mattered less than usual, because I was taken with the stories of the characters. And Seo Woo (or Woo Soo ... I am not aided by the fact that various sources list Korean names in different order, so she is Seo Woo on Wikipedia but Woo Seo on the IMDB) does wonders with the young Eun-mo, capturing the screen every time she appears. Also, I never got the feeling Park was using a fractured time frame just so she could show off or obscure. While at times confusing, the various flashbacks deepen our understanding of the characters, and so feel central to the film in ways that are not simply annoying. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched last week

Advise & Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962). Story involves a president trying to get his nominee for Secretary of State through the Senate. It’s fascinating to look at Congress as it might have been so many years ago. Every senator is a white male, with the exception of one man from Hawaii, and one woman, played by Betty White in her feature film debut. The Republicans and Democrats get along quite nicely in comparison to how it is today. The two worst things you can be are a Communist or a homosexual. The Commie is played by Henry Fonda, and we’re so used to seeing him as the moral center that it’s disconcerting. His character wasn’t a real Commie, of course, just someone who had a brief fling in his college years, but in 1962 that’s enough (plus, he believes in peace, of all things). The gay senator commits suicide rather than reveal his secret. Most of the cast underplays, leaving the hammy stuff to Charles Laughton as a good old Southern boy. Laughton makes the most of his final film. Most of the key players are based on real-life politicians, which might have been easier to spot when the film came out. It’s all a bit silly, and I’m not sure how accurate is its representation of the Senate, but it moves along, never boring through its 139 minutes. Preminger even finds room for Burgess Meredith and Will Geer, two victims of the blacklist. 7/10.

Arrival (Denis Villenueve, 2016). I’ve liked the previous movies I’ve seen from Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners, and especially Incendies). I wrote of Incendies, “It’s the individual scenes, and the growing sense of discovery, that makes Incendies special. The acting by female leads Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin adds immensely to the film’s power. The ending doesn’t make a lot of sense on a logical scale, but it delivers an honest emotional punch just the same.” I felt the same about Arrival, which benefits from Amy Adams’ controlled, inquisitive performance as a linguist asked to communicate with aliens. Arrival is another film in the category of “Praised for What It Isn’t”. It’s a story about aliens coming to Earth, but there is hardly any action. The special effects are mostly limited to the alien ships, which are lovely and look like flying saucers turned on their side. Most of the lead actors avoid overdoing it. All of this helps, but there isn’t enough here to warrant excessive praise. Still, Adams may be looking at another Oscar nomination (she already has five). At one point, she tries to communicate with the aliens by holding up a sign that reads “HUMAN” and pointing to herself. And you think, yes, this person is a human, and it’s good to see something so basic in what could easily turn into a cheesy sci-fi flick. I’ve avoided discussing the plot, which is of the “Must See It More Than Once” school of inscrutability. I’m sure there are already websites devoted to explaining Arrival, but I’m not much more interested than I was about the 2001 theories. But thanks to Adams, it was easy enough to just roll with Arrival, even if for me, it was much ado about not much. 7/10.

late spring (yasujirô ozu, 1949)

This was the first movie I watched on a new streaming service, FilmStruck. The service is a combined effort from TCM and Criterion, which means it focuses on older movies. I joined as soon as the service went live, and cancelled my Hulu account ... there are some good things on Hulu, but the only reason I had a subscription is because that’s where the Criterion films were. Now that they have moved to FilmStruck, I moved my money to the new site.

I feel like I need to catch up on my Ozu. This is only the third of his movies I have seen. I gave my highest 10/10 rating to Tokyo Story. And I gave 8/10 to his final film, An Autumn Afternoon. Now here’s Late Spring, which is also excellent.

Ozu takes his time in these movies. I can be impatient with that kind of style ... perhaps the Slow TV genre of shows like Rectify have gotten me to take it as it comes. It’s impossible to give spoilers for Late Spring, even if I told you every key point in the plot, because the movie is about the characters and their relationships to each other and to their environment. (For the record: a woman in her 20s lives her father in post-war Japan. They are content with their lives, but there is pressure for her to marry. Ultimately, she does participate in an arranged marriage, although it appears neither father nor daughter actually wants this to happen.) As has been true with the other Ozu films I’ve seen, I’m constantly feeling like I’m missing some important cultural aspect of Japanese life. (It helps in this case that the Wikipedia page for Late Spring is as long as I’ve seen.) To some extent, this is instructional ... I don’t know much about post-war Japan, for instance. When the movie was being made, it was subject to the Allied Power’s Occupation of Japan, and the American censors impacted the final product. Much of this revolved around the censors’ desire to remove any positive reflections related to the Japanese culture of the past, but there were also changes to make the Allies look better (in the script, Tokyo is referred to filled with ruins, but in the final product, “ruins” becomes “dust”). There is some disagreement about Ozu’s intended politics here, and this is one of the many places where my lack of knowledge prevents a deeper understanding.

Nothing Ozu does is obvious. His camera style is usually static, and you notice, because it is unusual, but you quickly adjust to the calm nature of what you see. The characters exhibit a resignation about life, at times even happiness at their lives, but there is nothing ostentatious. The legendary Setsuko Hara conveys so much with the expressions on her face. Her smiles are captivating, but subtle movement suggest something behind the happiness. It is disconcerting, in fact, when what she says seems at odds with her smile ... at those times, she no longer seems happy but rather seems polite, as if the smiles are expected of her. For most of the movie, she rejects the idea of marriage because she thinks her father needs her, so he lies about preparing for his own marriage so she will be able to move out on her own. So she marries, though she doesn’t want to, because her father pretends to be getting married, which he doesn’t, and he is left alone, which he didn’t want. Because the relationship between father and daughter in Late Spring is extremely close (not incestuous, but emotionally), we, like they, want them to be together.

These characters are what matter to Ozu, which is shown by the absence of scenes of the marriage (in fact, we never see the groom-to-be). Ozu uses what I might call “casual jump cuts” that remove “action” so he can get to the conversations that ensue. Even here, the cuts aren’t obvious, such as Godard might use. And while at times Godard’s jump cuts often feel like part and parcel of the accelerated lives of the characters, Ozu uses them calmly, simply to extract the characters from mundane actions. Godard uses jump cuts because he’s in a hurry ... Ozu uses them because he doesn’t care about the events he omits.

The detailed first half of the film establishes a connection to the characters that helps us understand them better during the events of the latter half. It’s hard to say where it starts, but the combination of Ozu and Hara (this was the first of their six films together) is the match for any match of director and star in all of the movies. #65 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(I have not mentioned Hara's co-star, Chishû Ryû, which is very unfair. He is a crucial component in the film's success. I just can't quit thinking about Hara.)



shawn levy, dolce vita confidential: fellini, loren, pucci, paparazzi, and the swinging high life of 1950s rome

I’ve read several of Shawn Levy’s books, and I like every one I’ve gotten to, especially his first, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. He has written about the Rat Pack ... he did one book on the Swinging Sixties in London. He doesn’t always choose topics I am passionate about, but he makes me interested, so I’ll start one of his books no matter the subject, knowing it will be worth it. Thus, I happily pre-ordered his latest, on Rome in the 1950s.

I expected to find good stories about the big film names of the period, placed in a larger cultural context, and that is exactly what Levy delivers. Once again, he burrows into areas I hadn’t cared much about ... I should have been warned when Pucci’s name appeared in the subtitle. But you can trust Levy to make that larger context something you want to learn about, and so I read more than I ever thought I would about post-war fashion, in Italy and in Europe as a whole. And it was indeed educational, since I knew so little about the fashion world. The book convinces us that the big fashion names were integral to the creation of Italian culture after World War II.

As for the dolce vita, it’s all here. Fellini and Loren make the subtitle, but Anita Ekberg deserves special mention. She comes across as much more interesting than her public image ... in fact, we learn that she was more than her image, which seems like a small point until you realize that image is pretty much all we ever knew, or cared about.

Levy devotes a lot of time to Fellini, and rightly so ... La Dolce Vita is his movie, after all. I don’t think I needed convincing about the importance of Fellini to Italian film and culture. I’m not his biggest fan, and I would have enjoyed a more detailed description of the making of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, my favorite Italian film of all time. But the truth is, Antonioni’s film speaks to a general malaise ... it isn’t specific to its time, which is why the story of upper-middle class people speaks to us, no matter our own class position. Fellini, though, in films like La Dolce Vita, managed to make movies that were intensely personal yet also very much of their moment. If you want to see a great film, L’Avventura is the choice. But if you want to see Rome in the 50s, filtered through the lens of Fellini the showman, La Dolce Vita is where you’d look. Which is why it’s a great place for Levy to spend time.

(I suppose this is where I admit to a fondness for “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead. I’m not sure it’s representative of its time, but the title character feels like he would belong in the dolce vita, Fellini is at his most Fellini-esque, and it is over in 37 minutes.)

Levy’s writing is easy to read. You think you’re just taking in a history of the scandals. But when you finish the book, you realize you’ve actually gotten a clear vision of a specific time and place. By blending movies and fashion and celebrity and paparazzi, Levy makes all of the aspects of that life more interesting. Dolce Vita Confidential is another success for Shawn Levy.


by request: east side sushi (anthony lucero, 2014)

East Side Sushi is a feel-good movie on the screen, and behind the scenes. Made on a tiny budget by local filmmakers, it’s the kind of solidly professional indie picture you want to succeed. Writer-director Anthony Lucero might have been directing his first feature, his resume includes a lot of movies you’ve heard of: a couple of Star Wars movies, Men in Black II, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Iron Man, The Hunger Games, The Avengers ... you get the idea. Lucero’s work, his day job if you will, is in Visual Effects. Meanwhile, he got the idea for a movie about a Latina woman, a single mom who decides to be a sushi chef. The production is almost entirely from the East Bay (outside of the two leads), and the location shooting will be familiar to everyone who knows about Lake Merritt and the Grand Lake Theatre and Fruitvale. The locations, and Lucero’s own time spent living in the area, lend an honesty to the film that is refreshing.

You’ve seen movies like East Side Sushi before, and you’ll see them again. The Latina sushi cook angle is new, but the essence of the film is the meeting of two cultures told in an uplifting fashion. That will be enough for most people. The hardest part for them will be finding a small film like this. And there is something to be said for a small indie like this that isn’t amateurish in the slightest. I don’t think it breaks new ground, but not every movie needs to accomplish that. Telling a common story in a slightly different way works when you have the talent on display in East Side Sushi.

Perhaps it even speaks to the quality of this movie that I liked it this much, considering it’s not quite up my alley. I usually respect a movie like East Side Sushi more than I love it. I wish there was more to it. But if you are the type who likes small stories well told, with unique settings and pleasing performances, you will enjoy East Side Sushi. 7/10.

blue is the warmest color (abdellatif kechiche, 2013)

It’s the movie with explicit lesbian sex, simulated but close enough to cause an uproar and to forever mark the film, no matter its other qualities. It won multiple awards, including two at Cannes. It got almost universal good reviews (“a masterpiece ... and the most emotionally moving film to come along in years”). One of the two leads, Léa Seydoux, was a future Bond Girl. It’s three hours long, and only 15 minutes or so constitute the famous sex scenes. It almost seems that there’s no need to see a film like this ... you may feel you know it just based on the hype.

But you would be missing at least one great performance if you passed, and acting always needs to be experienced ... you can’t just read about it. The actress in question is Adèle Exarchopoulos, and she was 18 when the movie was filmed. Her character, also named Adèle, is in every scene. She is a marvel. Kechiche works hard to disguise the fairly ordinary basic plot of Blue Is the Warmest Color: girl meets woman, girl and woman fall in love, girl and woman fall apart, life goes on. The explicit sex makes the movie seem more extraordinary than it is, but Adèle Exarchopoulos is what really raises the picture above clichés. She is completely believable in a naturalistic way ... she carries the film. This is not to take away from the work of Léa Seydoux, who is also very good as Emma. But what makes Blue Is the Warmest Color compulsively watchable is Exarchopoulos.

And it’s a good thing, because, besides the rather mundane plot, there is a problem, and it lies in those sex scenes. Kechiche may want to normalize lesbian sex by giving us a detailed, honest representation of it, but even at its most erotic, there is a feeling that Kechiche’s idea of the erotic is too driven by the male gaze. We are essentially invited to enjoy these two women having sex, and it’s a fine line between the voyeurism that suggests and the ways sex helps the women discover who they are. It’s Adèle’s coming of age story. Her growth as a person, which comes in part from her sexual relationship with Emma, is the key to the film. But too often the sex we see on the screen has an element of “Woo Hoo!” to it that is distracting at best.

Early in the film, Adèle describes a book she is reading for a class, The Life of Marianne by Pierre de Marivaux. “He explores sentiments but gets under her skin.” This could describe Kechiche in Blue Is the Warmest Color. He is interested enough in his characters and their “sentiments” to spend three hours presenting them to us. But his way of getting under their skin, as if we need the man to explain the women, feels off. And there are enough stories about the discomfort Seydoux and Exarchopoulos felt while making the movie to make us question the methods for making the film. (In fairness, both actresses say they formed a great friendship during the making of the movie.)

Then again, directors demanding greatness from their actors is nothing new. And perhaps I make too much of this, since the result on the screen, despite my misgivings, is strong. Right now, I could watch three hours of Exarchopoulos in anything, and if she rightfully deserves credit for her great performance, at least a little credit must go to the director who elicited that performance. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.


beauty and the beast (jean cocteau, 1946)

I had mixed memories about this fantasy classic. I have never thought of myself as a Cocteau aficionado ... I tend to prefer more concrete narratives, if nothing else. I may have confused this with The Blood of a Poet, which is far more surreal. I had given Beauty and the Beast 7/10 at some point in the past, which I don’t recall. The point is, I wasn’t in the best frame for enjoying the movie.

Happily, my concerns were unfounded. The film begins with a brief prologue inviting us to approach the film as a child would. “I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: ‘Once upon a time...’”. For whatever reason, I was able to pull a little of that childlike simplicity into my viewing, and it is an effective summons that allows an adult to experience this magical film on something resembling its own terms. It works because the magic world of The Beast is created out of technically simple but artistically profound elements. It isn’t just adults calling upon their childlike selves that can love the movie ... children as well are captivated by it.

Kids can latch onto the simplest aspects of the premise: the lowly sister who becomes a princess, the beast who loves on the inside, the magic that takes place whenever we are in The Beast’s realm. But the film is simultaneously for adults, who are entranced by the interplay between Beast and Belle. The Beast is outwardly monstrous, and at first he seems intent on verifying our first perception of him. Belle is virginal and giving, and at first she sees only the monster in The Beast. But she gradually sees what is inside The Beast. And, more importantly, she never gives in to who she is. Beauty and the Beast is not the story of a woman controlled by a man/beast. Belle is a living, breathing human character, who always tries to be the best person possible. She will act for others ... her plight comes because she wants to help her father ... but she makes her own decisions, with a clarity of mind that is impressive.

There is so much going on in Beauty and the Beast. The real world and the “beast” world look and feel different in surprisingly subtle ways. Jean Marais shows his personality in all his roles, making the connection between rogue and beast long before he turns into a prince. Josette Day blooms when wearing the gown The Beast gives her, but she maintains her individuality throughout. Everything, including the Beast World, is just close enough to reality to seem both familiar and magical.

Between the fairly standard narrative and the way magic is always close to reality, Beauty and the Beast connects with me in ways Blood of a Poet does not. I’m glad I re-evaluated this classic. #250 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

the great escape (john sturges, 1963)

A perfect title for a movie that excels as escapist entertainment without offering anything more.

I feel like The Great Escape is remembered fondly by those who saw it on its release. It did well at the box office, and we watched it again mostly because both my wife and I recalled liking it long ago. It is very straightforward, constructed in an easy-to-understand manner, with an effective slow build until the actual escape (the film is too long at almost three hours, but once it gets there, it delivers). Whatever liberties are taken with the actual events, the downbeat ending is very much in tune with those events, and perhaps give The Great Escape slightly more resonance than other blockbusters. But it is a stretch to make too much of that resonance.

Bruce Eder thinks highly of The Great Escape:

John Sturges' The Great Escape could easily be the most under-appreciated movie of its genre and decade ... Beneath the fact-based heroics, the humor of many of the portrayals and Elmer Bernstein's rich, rousing score lay the elements of a classic tragedy. While ordinary viewers responded to the driving dramatic forces among the characters ... critics and scholars viewed the movie as an artless, empty blockbuster. They were looking for self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches in a story that required only a straightforward, unpretentious telling. The Great Escape expresses its depth and drama through action rather than ponderous dialogue, and in that sense, was probably too true to its subject for its own good, at least in terms of achieving critical respect.

Eder’s description of the film is accurate, but he concocts a straw-man critic that I don’t think exists. The Great Escape is far from artless, but who exactly needed “self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches”? Movies that emphasize action are not rejected by critics, who, as far as I know, hate “ponderous dialogue” as much as the next person. The Great Escape is what it wants and needs to be, and audiences respond to that. There is no need to “elevate” it beyond its clear virtues.

The “based on a true story” angle is about as close to real as it ever is. There was an escape. Americans were not an important part of that escape, but for box-office purposes, Steve McQueen and James Garner were signed up and given big parts. The most iconic scene in the film, McQueen’s chase on a motorcycle, never happened. McQueen asked for a motorcycle scene because he liked to ride. That no American tried to escape on a motorcycle is irrelevant ... it’s the best scene in the movie, the one people remember fifty years later.

The Great Escape is a fine adventure that holds your attention for nearly three hours. That is good enough. #807 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

the phantom carriage (victor sjöström, 1921)

I spent a lot of time in my formative years as a film major watching silent movies, and while I don’t see that many any longer, I don’t go running in the other direction when one turns up. Silent movies are often lovely to look at. The one thing that I usually find bothersome is the acting style that was prevalent at the time.

The Phantom Carriage was my first Swedish silent film, and that makes for a pretty small sample size. I can’t make any pronouncements about silent Swedes. But based on this example, not everyone was utilizing exaggerated body language and expressions. The acting in The Phantom Carriage is fairly naturalistic, not at all distracting to the modern audience. Sjöström also utilizes a variety of narrative tricks, most notably flashbacks piled on flashbacks, so of course I was confused part of the time. But, given the supernatural nature of the story, that was appropriate.

The phantom carriage of the title is driven by a servant of Death, and both the servant and the carriage are see-through, not of this world. If the special effects seem a bit amateurish today, they were likely quite impressive in 1921, and again, when the effects are a bit clunky, it merely adds to the supernatural feel. Since the cinematography is stellar, the look of the film never disappoints, even when the effects are lacking. “Lacking” is the wrong word ... it’s only lacking when compared to modern CGI, but The Phantom Carriage isn’t a highly-regarded film because of its special effects, it is highly-regarded because of its artful look at existence and morality.

You can easily see why Ingmar Bergman loved this film. Its influence is all over Bergman’s work. This is a good thing when it comes to the use of symbolism and stark photography. But I admit I thought The Phantom Carriage bogged down as it addressed the hoped-for rehabilitation of a drunk. It felt too much like a Message Picture, which is rarely my kind of movie.

Still, The Phantom Carriage works. Victor Sjöström not only directed, but also starred and wrote the screenplay. There is a confidence here that pushes aside most complaints.

#957 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.