Movie Diary 8/31/2009

9 (Shane Acker, 2009). Animation with yarn and zippers and stuff like that, post apocalypse, machines rising, famous voice actors not saying very much (so why hire famous voice actors)? (full review 9/9)

Extract (Mike Judge, 2009). If you liked Office Space…yeah, probably. Full of accurate Judge insights, strung together and adding up in a small, modest way. (full review 8/4)

1928 Ten Best Movies

spione3A banner year for the big guns of silent cinema, and a duke-out for the #1 slot. It’s a close call between Carl Theodore Dreyer’s intense depiction of the spaces and faces involved in a martyr’s death, and Fritz Lang’s awesome cataloging of a master criminal’s incredible reach. While The Passion of Joan of Arc deserves its secure place as a classic, Spies is even more alive on screen, boasting the prototype for many James Bondian adventures to come and one of the great endings in movies. (Joan will be one of the main topics in an upcoming lecture of mine; see details here.)

One caveat to the list: I ran out of time to watch Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York, even though it’s been sitting in my stack for months. So I may have to amend the ten. But for the moment, here are the best of 1928:

1. Spies (Fritz Lang)

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer)

3. The Circus (Charlie Chaplin)

4. The Wind (Victor Sjostrom)

5. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner)

6. The Crowd (King Vidor)

7. The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim)

8. Oktober (Sergei Eisenstein)

9. Speedy (Ted Wilde)

10. Street Angel (Frank Borzage)

Directing credits don’t always tell the whole story, and just because Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd didn’t take credit on Steamboat Bill and Speedy doesn’t mean they weren’t the actual guiding forces behind those wonderful films. Chaplin was never shy about taking credit, and The Circus, while not attempting the emotional heft of The Gold Rush or City Lights, contains a series of blissful sight gags. You know it’s a strong year for movies when a masterpiece such as The Crowd falls to #6; this movie is at least as influential as any other on the list. And while Falconetti is rightly famous for her concentrated performance in Joan, she’s matched by Lillian Gish giving her all in The Wind, a stunning work that has been growing in reputation for the last 20 years or so.

Some terrific movies barely missed the tally: White Shadows of the South Seas, a gorgeous shot-on-location picture; The Cameraman, another Keaton film, not always mentioned in his best work but hilarious nevertheless (and featuring one of the great movie monkeys of all time); nice early efforts by future Hollywood giants, Submarine (Capra) and A Girl in Every Port (Hawks); Vidor’s Show People and Sternberg’s Last Command; Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs; and a fascinating Martin and Osa Johnson travelogue, Simba.

Next week: 1966.

Movie Diary 8/29/2009

The Boys are Back (Scott Hicks, 2009). Clive Owen in Australia, being a parent with an eccentric set of rules. This is certainly a typical Scott Hicks movie.

The Mayor of Hell (Archie Mayo, 1933). James Cagney appears in about half of this Warners bleeding-heart offering, with Frankie Darro leading the group of reform-school miscreants; the effective opening reel gives a good account of how the decent kids got here (drunk and/or clueless parents being the most common reason). Some of the action is pretty far-fetched but the sympathy for the boys is still remarkable. Kind of a warm-up for Boys Town.

It Might Get Woodstock (Weekly Links)


Avoiding the brown acid, Taking Woodstock.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week. No press screenings for Halloween II or The Final Destination.

Taking Woodstock. “Good vibes prevail.”

It Might Get Loud. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Ah, it sounds like a great idea: hold a guitar-god summit with virtuosos from three generations of rock, and put them in a room with an amp.

That’s the notion behind “It Might Get Loud,” but the face-to-face meeting between the maestros is awkward. Maybe when music is your first language, conversation is a distant second—or maybe you have to be a little cracked, a little warped, to be this good at the mystery of making music. The three are Jimmy Page, the legendary lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin; The Edge, of U2; and Jack White, of the White Stripes. Thankfully, the documentary includes more than just the three of them facing each other in a room.

Director Davis Guggenheim, who won a rather generous Oscar for the illustrated global-warming lecture “An Inconvenient Truth,” delves into the backstories of each musician. The common thread is that each began by wanting to create something new—something different from the prevailing rock sound of his time. Page comes across as a still-childlike absentminded professor—but you have to love the guy for his continued devotion to an old 45 of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” which he plays as an example of a guitar sound he reached for in youth. The movie doesn’t do Page any favors by including a film clip from “This is Spinal Tap,” a parody that drew quite a bit from Led Zep-style excess. He does sound like he might wander over and tune his amp to 11, but the guy can still make “Whole Lotta Love” sound like a wall of noise.

The Edge comes across as the most human of the three, a real person who thinks deeply about social concerns. He also talks about his use of technological gimmickry to create giant sonic canvases, demonstrating what a tiny U2 riff sounds like without gonzo amplification.

Jack White is full of youthful, back-to-basics brio; in the beginning of the film we see him thumbtack together a guitar out of plywood. His oddball persona is one reason the three-way summit seems stilted, but he sure does fascinating things with music. Even if that conversation doesn’t come off (maybe it needs a skilled moderator—the Jack Black character from “School of Rock”?), “It Might Get Loud” has undeniable appeal for guitar freaks. And arriving just a few days after the death of electric guitar fountainhead Les Paul, it stands as a tribute to the signature sound of the plugged-in era in music.

Lorna’s Silence. “No escape from past actions.”

The Answer Man. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In the world of “The Answer Man,” the name Arlen Faber has a magic, forbidden ring to it, like J.D. Salinger: he’s a famous, zillion-selling author who dropped completely off the map after early success. In Arlen Faber’s case, that success is intensified by the religious nature of his book, an opus titled “Me and God.” In it he recounted a conversation he had with god in which much wisdom was imparted.

That was 20 years ago, and Arlen, played by Jeff Daniels, hasn’t written anything since. In fact, he’s a cranky recluse, refusing to do interviews or readings—he won’t even identify himself to his postman. This disappearing act is difficult to maintain, because his book is still selling like hotcakes. But the embittered writer is driven out of his Philadelphia townhouse by persistent back pain. When the chiropractor turns out to be a chipper single mom (Lauren Graham), well, you can kind of write the rest of the movie yourself. For a subplot, toss in a used-bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci) trying to stay sober, who needs the advice of the great writer.

“The Answer Man,” which was known as “Arlen Faber” when it played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is written and directed by a first-timer, John Hindman. You want to root for this movie, just because its subject isn’t common. But Hindman doesn’t find a way to keep it fresh.

Jeff Daniels is an actor who deserves bigger roles than he generally gets, and he can flourish when he goes against his regular-Joe looks (as he proved as the shifty father in “The Squid and the Whale”). And Arlen should be a meaty part, affording many loud opportunities (and a few quiet ones) for an actor: The guy must have some wisdom in him, but most of the time he’s an irritable jerk.

But by the time Arlen reveals his closet full of old monster models, it was clear the movie had a more cut-and-dried concept of him. Hmm, perhaps keeping his monsters in hiding is a way of demonstrating Arlen’s refusal to acknowledge his own fears and demons? The movie, well meaning as it is, plays like that, a literal-minded talkfest. Even the big chance for Daniels can’t save it.

Burma VJ. “A gripping documentary.”

Arid Lands. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

At first “Arid Lands” comes on like a standard history of an interesting event: the moment when an area on the Columbia River near the town of Hanford, Washington, was abruptly commandeered for a gigantic government project. The nature of the project was secret, but it turned out to be the development of plutonium for an atomic bomb. That’s a great story, but the film gets even better after this history lesson. It explores the way the Hanford area has mutated through different phases in the years since the Manhattan Project changed everything.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation displaced a couple of local towns and quite a few Native Americans; it also brought thousands of workers to the area, to say nothing of massive quantities of nuclear waste. In fact, the waste left behind is responsible for the current boom around Hanford and the Tri-Cities area. The U.S. government is spending 2 billion dollars a year on the toxic clean-up, and new settlements have been creeping out into once-uninhabited land. Not that such makeovers are new: as the film points out, ever since the dams of the 1930s began to harness the rivers, these vast stretches of brown sagebrush have been transformed.

And so have the once-wild rivers, of course. An entire eco-system of salmon is now changed, and so you have the bizarre spectacle of the trucking and barging of salmon downriver to hasten their journey around the dams. Irrigation created room for farmers, and lately it has created room for vintners—the warm weather and stable water supply is ideal for grapes. The farmers seem to regard these Merlot-sipping newcomers with skepticism, but hey, they all drink from the same well.

Filmmakers Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert collected dozens of interviews with experts and locals, all with different points of view. Among the anecdotes is a man describing what it’s like to be on the controlled Columbia at night when it rises two feet in a few hours, the better to supply Portland with more electricity. Another observer notes that the area itself is teeming with folks who regularly espouse anti-government views—without seeming to realize that the entire desert region owes its habitable existence to giant government projects, from the dams to the nuclear plant.

“Arid Lands” won the Best Film award at last year’s Local Sightings Film Festival at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. It’s a valuable and (thanks in part to a cool song soundtrack) evocative addition to Northwest storytelling.

And I’ll be on KUOW-FM this afternoon talking about Woodstockian liberation movies (and again with the KUOW on Monday morning at 10 for a back-to-school special).

Movie Diary 8/27/2009

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009). The Sundance success, featuring a powerhouse performance by Mo’Nique and a couple of eerily serene ones by Paula Patton and Mariah Carey. (full review 11/20)

World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009). A rather original take on the costs of maintaining a fiction even when it gets you what you want. Robin Williams plays the title role, with a bunch of really good people supporting, notably Daryl Sabara as the world’s worst kid and Alexie Gilmore as Williams’ fellow high-school teacher. (full review 9/4)

Movie Diary 8/26/2009

hmanThe H-Man (Ishiro Honda, 1958). Possibly my favorite title of recent memory, except for O’Horten. An atomic green slime gets loose in Japan, triumphing over dull plotting and eating its way through some great color design. Two awesome nightclub sequences, heavy on the kitsch factor, and a bunch of yakuza stuff brought in to bolster the horror angles.

Arid Lands (Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert, 2007). Winning documentary about the Hanford area in Eastern Washington, which has passed through many bizarre mutations in the last 100 years thanks to dams, nuclear reactors, and wine. (full review 8/28)

Movie Diary 8/25/2009

Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009). The romance of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, with much of Campion’s attention focused on the performances of Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish in those roles. Most intriguing element: Paul Schneider, that unusual actor, as Keats’s conflicted friend Charles Armitage Brown. (full review 9/18)

Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2008). How the Dardennes come up with their knotty ethical tales is a mystery, and this is another tough slice of contemporary life – yet it tips into something like fable toward the end. (full review 8/28)

Movie 8/24/2009

breakingthewaves2Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996). Another one I’m revisiting for this event. I suspected this was some kind of great movie when I first saw it, and a second viewing clinches it. The central idea is very interesting – not so much about faith in god as about committing completely to something – but above all else this movie is alive in every moment. It separates viewers the way Inglourious Basterds does: you either recognize that the film’s exaggerated world is a fable along near-biblical lines, or you find the characters psychopathic and beneath interest. Also, in some ways this movie isn’t about the people played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard, but about the skeptical sister-in-law played by the late Katrin Cartlidge.

Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949). I don’t know why I remembered so little about this movie, except for the blur of the robbery sequence and how cool the final shots are. Dan Duryea’s multi-roomed club alone makes it worth seeing, and Yvonne De Carlo is exactly right as a bad girl. Burt Lancaster is a complete sap here – his voiceover narration keeps hinting at fate and bad timing as the cause of his misfortunes, but by the end of the picture you realize he’s just making excuses for himself.

Horror of Spider Island (Fritz Bottger, 1960). German exploitation, with mutant monsters, quicksand, and a man hanging in a giant spider web. I didn’t see the Mystery Science Theater version of this, but it sounds like a good fit.

The Answer Man (John Hindman, 2009). Jeff Daniels as a famous self-help author, in a tidy indie effort featuring a series of pretty unbelievable situations. (full review 8/28)

1985 Ten Best Movies

Not what you’d call a strong year, 1985 is central (chronologically and spiritually) to summing up the 1980s in film, a weird combination of bloat, aggression, and the studios losing the ability to turn out respectable and competent audience movies. This was just before Disney woke up from decades-long doldrums, for instance, and their idea of family fare was The Black Cauldron and Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend, the latter as clueless a studio exercise as any that decade (note pitiful attempt to conjure up Raiders mojo in the subtitle). It was the year the normal-enough First Blood franchise morphed into the steroid-saturated Rambo: First Blood II (again the title shift is telling) and Stallone went to the well again with Rocky IV, which brought down the Soviet Union.

ran2Back to the Future was the top-grossing movie and Out of Africa won the Best Picture Oscar, and while those are not bad movies, they describe the year, too. So do The Goonies, Spies Like Us, and The Jewel of the Nile, all substantial hits. Feh. So we turn to the good stuff that emerged, and happily (just like 1982) an Old Master decided to make an Old Masterpiece. Behold the many sensory marvels of Ran, my #1 for 1985.

Other entries require explanation: Blood Simple sometimes has a 1984 date, but it only showed at festivals as far as I can tell, and opened in ’85, so here it is. The documentary Up series of course sprawls across many release dates over the decades, but 28 Up was the first to get really widespread notice outside Britain, and I think it might be the best, most powerful installment of that grandaddy-of-reality-shows saga.

The best movies of 1985:

1. Ran (Akira Kurosawa)

2. 28 Up (Michael Apted)

3. Vagabond (Agnes Varda)

4. Blood Simple (Joel Coen)

5. When Father Was Away on Business (Emir Kusturica)

6. The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg)

7. Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)

8. A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

9. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton) and Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

10. My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallstom)

The most overrated of that bunch is probably Brazil; most underrated is The Color Purple, which among its other attractions is a remarkable formal exercise and an improvement over the novel. Some good films missing the list: obscurities such as Alpine Fire (by Swiss mystery man Fredi Murer) and Michael Dinner’s Heaven Help Us, as well as big titles such as Silverado, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Witness. Godard had Hail Mary and Romero had Day of the Dead and Albert Brooks had Lost in America, two-thirds of a great movie.

The high European titles up there, by Varda and Kusturica, are devastating pictures. Vagabond might be the clearest, toughest movie of the year, the story of a wanderer who drops off the map – a tonic to the year’s other fantasies.

Inglourious Cold Pease (Weekly Links)


Inglourious Maximus

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Inglourious Basterds. “Demolishing our expectations of how a movie plays out.”

Shorts. “Giddy.”

The Marc Pease Experience. “One of Stiller’s razor-sharp portraits of an awful person.”

Cold Souls. “Even sad-sackier than usual.”

Afghan Star. “Images that go beyond the headlines.”

Tony Manero. “Difficult to shake.”

Post Grad. “Too few opportunities per pound of comic talent.”