Movie Diary 3/31/2009

mposter2 M (Fritz Lang, 1931). What a way to round off a three-month program at the Frye Art Museum — with one of my favorite movies. Thanks to "Film Odyssey," a PBS showcase for foreign films back in the 1970s (hosted by Charles Champlin), this has been near the top of my personal list for decades. And it hasn’t lost a step.

Absurdistan (Veit Helmer, 2008). A lot of whimsy goes a long, long way — but what a cast of actors. It’s as though Borat had never happened. (full review 4/10)

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). An art movie, and a respectable one at that. If nothing else, this movie reminds us that two people sitting in a room, seen at middle distance, can be enthrallingly cinematic. (full review 4/10)

Movie Diary 3/30/2009

Shall We Kiss? (Emmanuel Moret, 2007). Say what you want — this is one French film. And sometimes that’s enough. (full review 4/24)

The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, 2008). Down Under with an autistic older brother (Luke Ford, the kid from the last Mummy movie) and Toni Collette. (full review 4/3)

Tokyo! (Gondry/Carax/Bong, 2008). Three stories from surreally-minded directors. Most notably, this is the first movie directing Leos Carax has done since the 1999 Pola X, which is a welcome sign. His segment comes on in roaring form, with customary leading man Denis Lavant emerging from a Tokyo sewer and strolling along a sidewalk bent for mayhem. (full review 4/3)

1951 Ten Best Movies

river3“But that’s not the end…it’s endless,” someone says in The River. This beautiful film, from Rumer Godden’s novel about an English girl’s experience growing up in India, epitomizes the style and subject of Jean Renoir’s work. The end is another beginning, everything that happens has happened before, and the overall flow matters more than the occasional eddy or rapids.

There is something wonderfully matter-of-fact about The River. While full of color and splendid locations, it also has a plunka-dunk travelogue quality, the look of something that might have been shown in the church basement during grade school with a title like “India – Land of Contrasts.” But there’s also the relaxed hand of a master at work, as though Renoir knew he was looking for a deeper truth than, say, the lustrous vistas of a David Lean super-production. (In any case he lacked the budget for such a thing – this movie came along at a delicate juncture for Renoir, after his imposed exile in Hollywood and before his return to European filmmaking.)

This year’s survey represents something of a breakthrough for Asia on the world movie scene, in fact. Along with a Westerner’s view of India, two Japanese masters weigh in, including the movie that brought Japanese filmmaking to international attention in a major way: Rashomon. I have gone back and forth on this film — it’s easy to take for granted, it has a certain patness in its conception and its ideas. Yet watch it again and you’ll see how enthralling it is, moment for moment (and almost nobody does weather like Kurosawa does weather). In short, the best films of 1951:

1. The River (Jean Renoir)

2. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)

3. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)

4. Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu)

5. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)

6. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

7. The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller)

8. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)

9. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)

10. The Thing (Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks)

The Thing is an endlessly repeatable pleasure; Strangers provides an array of teaching opportunities (one textbook scene after another); Diary is one of those movies that expand in your mind for years after seeing them. And the Ray and Losey films share a noir vision of what lies beyond the city, although the results differ. This list misses two terrific John Huston films, The Red Badge of Courage and The African Queen, as well as Powell-Pressburger’s eye-popping Tales of Hoffman. I like A Streetcar Named Desire (so much so that I sometimes remember it as the Oscar-winner for Best Picture, as in my initial post, which it wasn’t), but not quite enough, apparently.

Next week: 1972.

Culture Notes: Vanishing Reviewers

kane22In March two longtime — very longtime — movie reviewers for local newspapers ended their runs. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gave up the ghost earlier this month (going to a stripped-down online-only version), it marked the end of a 35-year-plus tenure for William Arnold. (A group of longtime freelance reviewers, including Sean Axmaker and Paula Nechak, also saw a regular gig end; Axmaker, at least, will continue to write for other outlets, including the Parallax View site.) Yesterday marked the last day for Soren Anderson, who spent more than two decades in the Tacoma News Tribune‘s movie-reviewing perch. Soren opted for a severance package in the paper’s third round of layoffs.

The News Tribune is a McClatchy paper. You might recall that in 2006 McClatchy bought the larger Knight Ridder chain in a disastrous multi-billion dollar deal that plunged McClatchy into debt and sent their stock price on its way through the cellar. Ah yes, 2006: the days when the stock market just kept going up and everybody just kept making money and the rivers ran with chocolate sauce and lollipops grew on trees, because that’s the way the world is. The days when an otherwise responsible newspaper company would make such a wrong-headed deal.

Along with its dire implications about the future, this round of layoffs marks the definitive end of an era as far as newspapers and movie reviewers is concerned. Seattle in particular had two long-serving reviewers at the Times and the P-I from the early 1970s until recently; which is to say, writers who were hired to write about movies, not newspaper guys shifted over from another desk (which had been the custom before 1970 or so). The Times‘s John Hartl, whose first Times piece ran in 1966, ended his run in 2001, although he still freelances for the paper, and Arnold came a little later to the P-I. There will never be another era of such long-serving movie reviewers at newspapers (just as such a thing never really existed before 1970 or so, except at the New York Times and a few very big-city newspapers). That chapter exists only in the bubble of the late 20th century, and won’t ever come again. Defining what will come, not merely for people who write about film but for the function of newspapers, is a task people have been thinking about, and failing to solve, for at least the last ten years. Nobody has a clue.

Silent Light vs. 12 Aliens

silent2Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week:

Silent Light. “Like no dawn you’ve ever seen.”

Monsters vs. Aliens. “A 50-ft. woman is sure-fire entertainment.”

Tokyo Sonata. “Tick-tick-tick.”

The Haunting in Connecticut. “Amityville isn’t in Connecticut, right?”

12. “Plenty of room to roam around and gesticulate.”

The Cake Eaters. “Broody little number geared toward actors.”

Movie Diary 3/25/2009

The Haunting in Connecticut (Peter Cornwell, 2009). I know, right? Because Connecticut is scarier than other states, yes? Just want to point out that the movie’s screenwriting pedigree involves Adam Simon, creator of the wacky Roger Corman Jurassic Park knock-off, Carnosaur, and Tim Metcalfe, of Revenge of the Nerds fame. And it is “based on the true story,” not “a true story,” so if you aren’t already au courant enough to know what the true story is, you’re going to feel like an idiot. And finally: The Haunting in Connecticut comes a week after The Last House on the Left. When did the definitive article become acceptable again in movie titles? (full review: 3/27)

Movie Diary 3/24/2009

crime2Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957). There is no bad Stanwyck, and Crime of Passion has even more going for it: some good noir photography by Joseph LaShelle, Raymond Burr in excellent purring form, and a straight-on critique of Fifties social conventions. Stanwyck plays a newspaperwoman, all wisecracky edges and ambition, who falls hard for honest L.A. cop Sterling Hayden; stultified at playing wifey with his Eisenhower-infused friends, she plots his rise through the LAPD. Interestingly enough, you’re with her all the way — the movie barely bothers to note that this might not be quite right. Hayden’s on autopilot, like a good offensive lineman clearing the way for Babs, but he’s still Hayden, blowing smoke through his nostrils and taking up half the space in whatever room he’s in. Stanwyck is on point, and you know the movie isn’t going to domesticate her character; she’s too hardcore for that.

Skills Like This (Monty Miranda, 2007). Won the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival in 2007, and that should tell you something. (full review 4/3)

Movie Diary 3/23/2009

Starlift (Roy Del Ruth, 1951) and Tea for Two (David Butler, 1950). Two more from the new Doris Day box set; Tea is a goony backstage thingie, Starlift a long out-of-print parade of guest stars in a let’s-put-on-a-show-for-the-soldiers premise. Along with some good songs and antiseptic style, both give a swell showcase to a strong dancer whose career fell short of the top rung, Gene Nelson.

The Cake Eaters (Mary Stuart Masterson, 2007). Indie with a lot of actors, and a lot of acting. Cast is led by the newly warm Kristen Stewart; the interesting possibility of matching Bruce Dern and Elizabeth Ashley, who wear their miles and their damage proudly, is toyed with.

12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007). A Russian adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, pumped up with very Russian exapansiveness, and maybe more interesting as a cultural artifact than a movie. (full review 3/27)

1994 Ten Best Movies

It would be a good year to have a counterintuitive pick as Number One, just to avoid a movie that commands so much fanboy love, and inspired so many feeble imitations. Sorry, folks: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is an American classic, a movie that — having shed any lingering flavor-of-the month quality — looks better today than it did when it came out.


Allow me to retort.

My introduction to the film was a bang: covering the New York Film Festival for Film Comment magazine, I missed the press screening of Pulp Fiction (that year’s big opening-night event), and thus saw the movie with a bunch of swells at the gala. In the middle of the hypodermic sequence, a man in the audience had some kind of medical event, and the movie was halted as doctors descended on the scene. He was fine, but it was as though the film itself had the ability to agitate audiences in a very, very direct way.

Pulp Fiction outpoints another fave of the 90s, Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool, which contains Paul Newman’s greatest film performance, as well as the splendid Heavenly Creatures. I haven’t seen The Kingdom since all five hours’ worth played in theaters in 1995, but I love its ability to sustain satirical storytelling for that long as it spreads itself out over many different characters, which it does with a Godfather-like facility. Here’s the full list of the best of 1994:

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)

2. Nobody’s Fool (Robert Benton)

3. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson)

4. The Kingdom (Lars von Trier)

5. Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)

6. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)

7. Wild Reeds (Andre Techine)

8. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Michael Haneke)

9. Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

10. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)

Through the Olive Trees was my introduction to Kiarostami’s world, and it still seems like the ideal way in, especially when you get to the final sequence. Chungking Express I didn’t love right away, but it’s a movie that, when the penny drops, becomes pretty much adorable. And Hoop Dreams is an unexpected epic, as well as a modern turning point in the way people think about documentaries.

Pretty good year for also-rans. I have a soft spot for Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, and of course Ed Wood. And the pop-culture status of Clerks has somewhat obscured what a smart, finely-structured movie it is. Decent year for sheer pleasure, too: Quiz Show (Redford’s best film as director), Speed, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. Oh, and The Shawshank Redemption was released that year, which some future race, sifting through the remnants of our civilization, is apparently going to think was the best film of all time.

Next week: 1951.

Movie Diary 3/21/2009

Moscow, Belgium (Christophe van Rompaey, 2008). Fine performance by Barbara Sarafian in a really pretty strange Belgian comedy, drama, whatever. (full review 4/3)

The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973). Mr. Z is perfectly suited for the dry, clockwork approach of this assassination fantasy, and its lean-procedural style is why it holds up so nicely.

Tunnel of Love (Gene Kelly, 1958); It’s a Great Feeling (David Butler, 1949). Two from a new Doris Day box. Tunnel is a leering stage play with the interesting wrinkle of Richard Widmark playing farce; Feeling is a very meta property with Doris as a young unknown trying to break into movies — cameos by film stars galore, including directors such as Raoul Walsh and King Vidor.