Movie Diary 6/30/2009

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007). Accessible arthouse number with a mainstream soul, agreeably assembled by Jordanian-American Matalqa. Main character is an airport janitor, mistaken by children for a much-adventured airline pilot; he’s pulled into a protective situation, Slingblade-style. (full review 7/3)

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Sam Rockwell tour-de-forces his way through this slight but sturdy variation on an old sci-fi situation: he’s an astronaut stationed alone on the moon, who begins to notice some extremely odd things about his mission. (full review 7/3)

Movie Diary 6/29/2009

Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927). Known for its influence on later gangster pictures, this film is alive in many different ways. The production design carries the Sternberg stamp, but so does the precise sense of gesture and facial expression, especially in Clive Brook’s performance. This screening at Port Townsend’s Rose Theatre featured live-music accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, who came through with a splendidly moody score.

Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927). Luminous performances by Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in Borzage’s stirring love story, one of those films in which each moment seems thought-through and totally committed. 1927 was a pretty awesome year – and then sound had to come in.

Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1937). This one wears well, so clear and light you barely notice the skill that oozes out of it. One of Hitch’s most “acted” cameos, too.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Carlos Saldanha, Mike Thurmeier, 2009). Number Three rarely improves the series, but Scrat is here. (full review 7/1)

1961 Ten Best Movies

marienbadThe granddaddy of modern-day puzzle films, an influence on Kubrick, Greenaway, and Roger Corman, and famous cause celebre in its time: Last Year at Marienbad has gotten around. And while the movie was once a great conversation piece, and at some point began looking dated, it has now slipped into a realm of timelessness. At this point along the way you can worry less about What It All Means and instead see it as a rich many-corridored experience. The conventional satisfactions of story will never be delivered anyway, and without that, we may be left with only our own reflections in one of the film’s countless mirrors.

Close upon the heels of Marienbad is Luis Bunuel’s mighty return to European filmmaking, a very different kind of movie but an even more direct personal statement. The best of 1961:

1. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)

2. Viridiana (Luis Bunuel)

3. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

4. Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller)

5. La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni)

6. Lola (Jacques Demy)

7. A Woman is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard)

8. Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)

9. The Misfits (John Huston)

10. The Hustler (Robert Rossen)

Just missing: Accattone, Pasolini’s feature debut, Satyajit Ray’s Two Daughters, et aussi The Ladies Man, un film de Jerry Lewis. Also have strong feelings for Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, and the dance numbers in West Side Story.

Last week I said I’d do 1962 this week. Oops.

Transformers Adoration (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.


Is that a giant robot in the distance, or the inexorable tread of time?

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “From one stupefying situation to the next.”

Cheri. “A lurking empathy for their foolishness.”

Adoration. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Canadian director Atom Egoyan is fond of pondering situations from multiple perspectives, and when he’s in the groove (“The Sweet Hereafter,” for instance), this method can be a way of opening up the world in a bigger way.

With his new film “Adoration,” Egoyan’s approach misfires, I think. An interesting central situation dissipates in the fragmented storytelling.

That central situation involves a Toronto high-school kid named Simon (Devon Bostick), who reads a speech to his classroom one day. A narrative of Simon’s (now dead) parents, the tale involves terrorism. When the story gets out on the Internet, both Simon and his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian), who strongly encouraged him to share the story, come under scrutiny. There are some (rather mild) surprises in the aftermath of this, but the most important thing is that Simon’s tale raises the hackles of friends and strangers alike. It also upsets Simon’s uncle Tom (Scott Speedman), who’s been raising Simon since the death of the parents. Most of this information comes to us in bits and pieces, and we can’t be quite sure who’s telling the truth.

The film keeps returning, for instance, to Simon interviewing his hospital-bound grandfather. The elder man bears a grudge against Simon’s father, who was Lebanese, blaming him for a family catastrophe. Egoyan sets up a series of issues that need to be addressed, and a set of prejudices that need to be dealt with. Unfortunately, these mostly resolve just about exactly the way you’d expect them to, based on the first 20 minutes of the film.

Since the beginning of his career, Egoyan has taken an interest in the way the new media fractures reality and sometimes muddies the truth. In this film, those devices include cell phones, cameras, and Internet chat rooms abuzz with opinions. None of this is quite enough to energize the static atmosphere “Adoration” creates. At times it’s as though this movie is suffering from depression.

The film’s best performance comes from Scott Speedman (“Underworld”), who always seems like a determined actor trapped in a leading man’s body. He breathes physical life into the somewhat airless spaces of Egoyan’s world.

Tulpan. “A wry, funny intelligence guiding us.”

Treeless Mountain. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Films about children usually need to rise above the level of their young heroes, the better to give perspective on the world at large. But not “Treeless Mountain.” This is one of those rare movies that stay right at the level of the kids in question—almost to a claustrophobic degree.

A Korean-American director, So Yong Kim, shot “Treeless Mountain” in her native South Korea. It follows the travails of two very young girls whose mother takes them to live with her cranky sister-in-law. The kids are 6 and 4 years old, and are played by the utterly naturalistic Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim. Even though their age difference is slight, the two girls express distinct personalities: the older one watchful and solemn before her time, the younger one still innocent and cheery.

Something unpleasant has happened with the girls’ father, an unnamed issue the mother seems to be attending to. Perhaps because the two girls don’t know the details of this, we don’t need to either. Eventually the aunt gets tired of tending the children, so she drives them out to the country and deposits them with their grandparents. Since the film is basically one detail after another about what a child sees, the shift from city to country is huge. The change to the countryside is almost like a release of tension, a loosening of the tight world of pavement and small rooms. The colors change, and birdsong enters the scene.

This is all skillfully done, but it would be misrepresenting the movie to suggest that it adds up to anything like a traditional story. So Yong Kim, whose previous film was “In Between Days,” is not interested in building suspense or providing the usual rise and fall of drama. Don’t expect a big resolution. Perhaps this film is just about adapting on the fly: the kids adapting to the new environments they find themselves thrown into along the way, and the audience adapting to a different kind of movie-watching experience. None of which is academic. When “Treeless Mountain” comes to its logical but sudden ending, the emotional effect is sneaky. But strong.

Plus a Rotten link: Mark Rahner and I interviewed by KPTK’s Jacques Pugh about the comic book: here. Our bit starts about halfway through.

Movie Diary 6/25/2009

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009). A true Dantean circle of hell — not the movie, the preview screening. Dear god in heaven, there must be a different way to distribute movie passes. (At the very least, instead of giving away free T-shirts at these things, they might supply some bath soap.) The movie? That Michael Mann sure knows surfaces. (full review 7/1)

Life is Hot in Cracktown (Buddy Giovinazzi, 2009). Watched the DVD for Amazon. Urban brutality, with junkies and hookers and thugs. I’m not sure it’s forgivable to cast Kerry Washington as a character who was once supposed to have been a man.

Movie Diary 6/24/2009

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim, 2009). Interesting idea – put three generations of rock guitarists in a room for a summit meeting – although we spend less time in the room than we do tracking some conventional how-they-got-here background material. The three are Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White; the most human of the bunch is The Edge.

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009). It sounds like the same old thing: aging kvetch (this time played by Larry David), worried about germs and death, irresistible to very young women. Right? But Allen’s timing is back, and if this were a movie by a young unknown filmmaker I think it would look pretty good. (full review 7/3)

Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, 2008). From the first minute you can see that a crafty filmmaker is at work; not content to lean on the spectacularly empty Kazakh steppes, Dvortsevoy shows a talent for deadpan humor and a touch with actors. (full review 6/26)

Movie Diary 6/22/2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009). Giant robots, living on Earth, unable to arrange themselves in a visually coherent series of cuts. This movie has possibly the worst reaction-shot one-liners since the Roger Moore era of James Bond. (full review 6/24)

The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973/74). After not seeing these movies for 25 years, the thing that stands out amidst the swordplay and glancing, muttered jokes: the depiction of the aristocracy’s cruelty and absurdity. The guy who stands chest-deep in water as he releases the birds for the royals to shoot — the movies are full of things like that.

Cheri (Stephen Frears, 2009). Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan, battling the realities of time and giant robots come to Earth. (full review 6/26)

Frisco Jenny (William Wellman, 1932). Ruth Chatterton as a madame and bootlegger, charting a successful business plan through earthquake, jail time, and Prohibition. Weird,  soap-sudsy storyline expertly done — and that looked like Wellman in a telephone-booth cameo.

1982 Ten Best Movies

fanny3If I hadn’t seen the full 312-minute version of Fanny and Alexander, my #1 and #2 for 1982 might have been flipped, but the Criterion DVD set was the convincer here. Bergman’s epic memory-film is amazing for its blend of exactly-remembered realistic detail and its slightly fantastical sense of fairy tale come to life. The longer cut goes more deeply into the world of theater, but its single most vital “new” scene involves Fanny and Alexander with their father at night, as he gives the childen an entire lifetime’s worth of education about storytelling magic by spinning an impromptu piece of fiction about a single chair.

The runner-up is also largely about children: E.T., which has so much wonder and delight in it that people often don’t realize how rigorously, scrupulously directed it is. Spielberg had a big summer in ’82: Poltergeist also came out, directed by Tobe Hooper but largely credited to Spielberg even at the time. Those movies were big for me at the time (Fanny wouldn’t be out in the U.S. until ’83) but I was also in thrall to the tactile urgency of Robert Towne’s first film as director, Personal Best, a hugely unusual story involving that sure-fire Hollywood box-office formula, lesbian track stars who are denied the Olympics because of the 1980 boycott. It’s a tender, cheerfully randy, even-handed film. Love the pop-music soundtrack, too. Patrice Donnelly, a real-life athlete, owns the movie in the way only a screen natural can.

The time-space continuum keeps messing with movie-memory; just as F&A is in the personal memory bank for ’83, so 1982 includes fond memories of The Road Warrior, one of the movies of the summer. But IMDb reveals it was released in 1981 in Australia, so damn.

The ten best of 1982:

1. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)

2. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg)

3. Le Beau Mariage (Eric Rohmer)

4. Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski)

5. Personal Best (Robert Towne)

6. Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth)

7. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper)

8. Diner (Barry Levinson)

9. Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards)

10. The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway)

Le Beau Mariage is “just another Rohmer,” except that it’s very quietly one of his best, with the ability to devastate in a single moment of forgetfulness. And Moonlighting is a classic that not enough people know about, very Polish despite being in English, with a terrific Jeremy Irons performance.

Missing in action: Blade Runner, a movie I never bought. I know it ‘s influential, and the power of the art direction and Rutger Hauer’s big speech are undeniable, but it’s muddle-headed. Someday Carpenter’s The Thing will climb up on the top ten, but I haven’t seen it in a while and never got over my initial disappointment. Some really good mainstream pictures that year: The World According to Garp, The Verdict, Tootsie, Star Trek II. Fassbinder ended his career with a couple of movies (Veronika Voss, Querelle) that indicated exhaustion, however interesting they were. Underrated: Jan Troell’s Flight of the Eagle, a really fine arctic-exploration saga. That year’s Oscar-winner was Gandhi. And, of course, there was Summer Lovers.

My Amazon editorial review of the Criterion F&A here.

Next week: 1962.

Culture Notes: Underworld, Cable Nausea

The Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, Washington, is one of the pleasantest, coziest places to see a movie, period. On June 28 the Rose hosts the much-huzzahed Alloy Orchestra for two live performances of their original score for Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 classic Underworld, which despite being a classic is all too rarely screened. More info:

If you live in Western Washington, you may be experiencing a horror show with cable reception this week — at least that’s what the recorded message on Comcast’s phone line said. (They didn’t describe it as a horror show, they said the problem was widespread through the area. So it’s not just my ten-year-old non-digital TV.) Notably, the cable news stations are gurgling, splooging, and pixillating all over themselves in a near-unwatchable St. Vitus Dance of Abstract Expressionism. Nice: all those years of preparation for the big digital changeover were obviously well spent.

Oddly enough, the failure of my cable-news stations during the week of Iran’s riveting protest news unintentionally underscores the fact that the images from Iran  now are not being generated by TV cameras but by people on the street.  One more tolling of the bell for traditional journalism? Will Twitter bring down Kim Jong-Il? If so, I take back all the insulting things I ever said about it.

Every Little Merry Proposal (Weekly Links)


Let nothing ye dismay.

Reviews I did for the Herald this week.

The Proposal. “An eagle carrying off a small dog.”

Year One. “Can a visit to Sodom be far behind?”

Tetro. “Begins to jump its tracks about halfway through.”

The Merry Gentleman. “Calm, stately, and alive to changing weather and mood.”

Food, Inc. “The news ain’t pretty.”

Every Little Step. “Every callback is another lease on hope.”

O’Horten. “What is it about this title that strikes my ear so pleasingly?”

Easy Virtue. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

How many degrees of separation are there between the British wit Noel Coward and the disco song “Car Wash”?

In case you were sitting around wondering, the answer now is one. The movie “Easy Virtue,” based on a Coward play and set in the 1920s, boasts a new recording of “Car Wash” done in a Twenties jazz-band style. I mention this because the retro “Car Wash” one of the few genuinely fresh ideas about this movie. Otherwise, this drawing-room comedy is a slog.

The plot hinges on a rich young twit (Ben Barnes from the “Narnia” movies) returning to his family’s vast country estate with a new bride, Larita (Jessica Biel). Not only did he fail to consult his parents about the marriage, but his wife is—shudder—American. She’s also been married before. In the eyes of Larita’s new mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas in raging harridan mode), this is one more unacceptable thing about this dreadful barbarian. The dissolute family patriarch (Colin Firth), who’s never been the same since service in the First World War, thinks Larita is just marvelous. The movie thinks so too, as the stuffy old British mansion needs a good whiff of fresh American air.

“Easy Virtue” is directed by Stephan Elliott, the Australian filmmaker who had a hit with “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but hasn’t been heard from much since. There’s nothing glaringly wrong about his approach: the costumes and sets are well-chosen, the lines are sometimes dry, the potshots at the British upper crust are earned. Yet the film feels off. Some of Elliott’s original touches don’t work as planned; the way the young husband breaks out into snippets of popular song once in a while (not “Car Wash,” but Cole Porter) becomes annoying rather than charming.

And Jessica Biel, who’s been improving her movie choices of late, is game to the challenge but not quite right, either. She’s got the beauty part down, and it’s not her fault that the lone American accent sounds especially clanging amongst all these English performers. But she’s more spirited than skillful. The rest of the movie bumbles along, sympathetic to Larita but not quite sure how to handle her. It all ends with a retro take on the 1980s hit “When the Going Gets Tough,” at which point the non sequitur fits the strange approach.

On KUOW, I talk with Jeannie Yandel about three oddly relevant Depression films: Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale, and Black Legion: here.