Movie Diary 3/31/2020

When You’re Strange (Tom DiCillo, 2009). A bunch of little-seen Doors footage, including some remarkable color stuff shot with Jim Morrison driving on a road to nowhere, makes an excuse for another run-through of the band’s trajectory. Given that new wrinkle, it would be nice to know what it is we are looking at.

Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009). Deadpan account of a young woman (Sylvie Testud) in a wheelchair, tagging along on her religious group’s tour of the shrine. As the movie makes no bones about the status of Lourdes as a Las Vegas for the pious, you wonder how they got permission to film there. (full review 4/2)

Movie Diary 3/30/2010

Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969). Some fragrant locations and period trappings, although Demy’s lack of “touch” with American speech and behavior paralyzes the movie. Can’t entirely dismiss a film that has many sequences of driving in a car with music playing, however, which this movie does, as Gary Lockwood drives his MG around the L.A. haze with classical tunes or Spirit (the band also appears in the film) on the soundtrack.

Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010). Hate to say it, but better on most counts than the original (Harryhausen’s eerie Medusa sequence aside), with a truly bizarre cast; Worthington’s still a cipher, though. (full review 4/2)

The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray, 2009). Oblique artlessness a la Wendy and Lucy is one thing (and a lovely thing, in that case), but you gotta give us something more than this. Zoe Kazan stars, although “stars” is not a relevant word in this context. (full review 4/2)

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (Felix Moeller, 2009). A curious approach on the director of the most notorious anti-Semitic film of the Third Reich: a smattering of history (but not so much that you’d know anything about the postwar legal cases against Veit Harlan), a but a lot about how Jew Suss has affected Harlan’s family, including his grandchildren – and his niece, who happened to be married to Stanley Kubrick. Interviews with them constitute the bulk of the picture; an intriguing take, though not the last word on the subject.

Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia, 2009). An awfully good cast doing awfully good things in one of those multiple-vectors-crossing movies; Garcia did the interesting Nine Lives. Strange sub-theme: actors from 1980s TV classics (Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Michael Warren).

Dancing Across Borders (Anne Bass, 2009). Straight-ahead dance documentary about a traditional Cambodian dancer uprooted in his teens to learn ballet in the U.S. (full review 4/9)

The Last Song (Julie Anne Robinson, 2010). Miley Cyrus, angry at the world, but saving sea turtle eggs. It’s a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, so one of the characters had better be putting his accounts in order. (full review 4/2)

1953 Ten Best Movies

Danielle Darrieux, Madame de...

At the top of this year’s best-movie list are three quiet, elegant, completely assured masterpieces, arrangements in light and time that make a strong case for film as art. If you needed a case. All three look, with a fiercely penetrating gaze, on a domestic situation; the circumstances are very different (fin-de-siecle Paris, 16th-century Japan, modern Tokyo), but in each of them time is slipping away and humans are being terribly, mortally human.

The nod goes to Max Ophuls’ Madame de…, a movie all the more impressive because it surveys the apparently minor affairs of a superficially superficial group of people. Life is flesh and blood but it is also an act, Ophuls suggests, and one can admire those actors who maintain their performance throughout the play. As for the plain truths of (by comparison, stylistically deadpan) Tokyo Story, the moment when two people face each other and calmly conclude that “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” is one of those times you realize that movie conversation can be as devastating as any epic special-effects battle. The third movie at the top, Ugetsu, is merely a consensus choice for short list of Greatest Foreign Films, and deservedly so.

But it’s a good year. And the quietly elegant stuff stops with Samuel Fuller and Luis Bunuel taking up their spots on the list. The ten best movies of 1953:

1. Madame de… (Max Ophuls)

2. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)

3. Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi)

4. Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)

5. El (Luis Bunuel)

6. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)

7. From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)

8. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) and 99 River Street (Phil Karlson)

9. Shane (George Stevens)

10. Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman)

El is one of my favorite Bunuel films; I hope to post something longer about it later in the week. From Here to Eternity, the big Oscar-winner that year, is a childhood favorite for a lot of reasons, and interesting for the way its soap-opera passions are held in check by Zinnemann’s scrupulous care (and Clift and the Hawaiian locations lift it to another level). The Big Heat is A-list noir, rendered superbly by a master filmmaker, while 99 River Street is inspired B-moviemaking by a quirky director. Sawdust and Tinsel is an early example of Bergman’s mercilessly lucid take on theater and real life, and the places they diverge.

Just missing the cut: M. Hulot’s Holiday, that mighty bleak adventure film The Wages of Fear, Astaire and Co. in The Bandwagon, Hawks’s Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Renoir’s Golden Coach, and John Huston’s weird put-on, Beat the Devil. Equally weird, but fascinating, is Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan, one of the most completely artificial movies ever made (ditto Invaders from Mars, an amazing sci-fi dream directed by the legendary designer-director William Cameron Menzies). Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess are lesser works by large filmmakers (but at least Stalag 17 is entertaining). Fellini’s I Vitelloni came out this year, and a lot of people like it a lot, for reasons I could never quite fathom. And then there’s Glen or Glenda?, by Edward D. Wood, Jr., a movie not quite like anything else you’ve seen in your life, unless your life is a very special place indeed.

Chloe Greenberg’s Sweetgrass (Weekly Links)

Gerwig/Ifans/Stiller: Greenberg

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.


by Robert Horton

Before he got sidetracked into multiplex stardom, Ben Stiller earned a reputation for biting, satirical work that had a distinctly darkish tone: his sketch comedy show, his performance in “Permanent Midnight,” his directing of “The Cable Guy.”

So his role in the new movie “Greenberg” is not a change in his career, but a return. This small-scaled picture is the kind that sometimes gets called bittersweet, except in this case it’s mostly just bitter.

Fortunately — in no small part because of Stiller’s instinct for comedy — it’s also funny.

“Greenberg” is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose movies “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” established his ability to make you cringe and laugh at the same time. “Greenberg” is much in that vein, although the locale has shifted from East Coast to West. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, who’s come to L.A. to house-sit at his brother’s place for a few weeks. Roger’s had some sort of breakdown, and maybe taking care of the dog and relaxing by the pool will help him get it together.

A variety of pitfalls lie in his way: his attraction to his brother’s housekeeper (Greta Gerwig), for one, but also the old wounds carried around by his friends, who felt abandoned when he walked out on their band many years earlier.

Rhys Ifans is especially good as Roger’s closest friend, who puts up with his manchild buddy despite Roger’s thoughtlessness. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also co-wrote the film’s story, contributes a short but tart role as an ex-girlfriend with zero interest in revisiting old times.

But most of the movie takes place between Stiller and Gerwig. You might not have heard of her; this is Gerwig’s first mainstream picture, after appearing in a series of ultra-low-budget movies dubbed “mumblecore.” Gerwig was obviously a movie star from the moment she came onscreen in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” so Baumbach is shrewd in putting her here as a fresh new face. Seeing her naturalistic style next to Stiller’s practiced comic timing is a nicely unpredictable spectacle.

Stiller is terrific, by the way. Roger isn’t particularly likable, and Stiller has to find a way to keep us curious about him — which, with the help of Baumbach’s sharp script and eye for hazy California afternoons, he does.

Given what people said about “Margot,” which I thought was excellent, Baumbach’s acerbic, unsparing style is not for everybody. Fair enough. But this guy is a real “noticer” of human behavior, a job we allot to artists and writers. And sometimes that job ain’t pretty.

Sweetgrass. “Instantly joins the list of great Western images in movies.”

Hot Tub Time Machine. “Get to the next genitalia reference.”


by Robert Horton

Maternal love, or at least maternal energy, has rarely been as pointed as it is in “Mother,” a bizarre new offering from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The movie’s a study in parental willpower.

The mother here does not seem to have a name; she’s just Mother, like Anthony Perkins’ mom in “Psycho.” Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) must constantly watch out for her grown son (Won Bin), who is not quite right in the head. (The casting apparently has more impact in Korea: Kim is known for her beloved maternal roles on Korean television, while Won is something of a Robert Pattinson-style heartthrob in Asia.)

She runs an extra-legal business in medicinal herbs and acupuncture — none of which can help her son, who keeps getting in trouble because of his simple-mindedness. At the center of the film is an incident in which a local girl is murdered, her body left hanging over the roof of a small building. The idiot son was seen talking to her shortly before her death and his inability to answer basic questions about the incident makes him the perfect suspect for the crime.

Which is where Mother goes into gear. The protective instincts are fully engaged and the film almost threatens to become a detective story, with Mother barreling around town trying to find out information.

The movie is pitched somewhere between David Lynch-like depths of perversity (this is a strange little town) and out-and-out comedy. Which I guess could describe a David Lynch movie, too.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the international monster-movie hit “The Host,” a decidedly original take on the subject of giant things that slither from rivers. Like that movie, “Mother” has a tendency to meander, browsing outside its plot and losing its forward motion at times.

If you’re taken by the film’s ferociously twisted main character, this might not matter too much. Bong is illustrating an exaggerated version of motherly devotion, and Kim Hye-ja’s Mother is so wildly determined in her quest that you’ll probably have to sign on just to see what she’s capable of doing next.

Chloe. “A cerebral exercise.”

How to Train Your Dragon. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Think of it as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Viking Years.” The new movie “How to Train Your Dragon” proves that being an undersized lad was no easier back in the days of horn helmets and fur vests than it is today.

“Dragon” is based on a kiddie book, but the story has been changed to fit the needs of a 3D animated extravaganza. Given the pizzazz of this fun picture, the changes were probably apt.

We are in some pre-historic Nordic place, where Vikings have thick Scottish brogues and even thicker chests. The exception is young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a scrawny lad unlikely to follow in the warrior footsteps of his manly-man father (Gerard Butler).

Ah, but can Hiccup surprise everybody by discovering the secret behind the frequent dragon attacks, even to the point of befriending the most feared dragon of all?

Of course he can, especially if the movie is toting a message about the virtues of kindness and generosity over fear and endless warfare. The movie reaches back to the tale of Androcles removing a thorn from a lion’s paw, and the advantages that might result from such an act.

Although “Dragon” will show in 3D in many theaters, it doesn’t Mickey Mouse the technique; not all that many spears and fire-breathing dragon come flying at your face. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who also did “Lilo & Stitch,” emphasize character over effect. Not that there’s any shortage of effects: when the movie wants to swoop and crash and conjure up a few hundred dragons, it does so on a positively “Avatar”-esque scale.

But mostly we hang out with Hiccup and his new dragon pal, or follow Hiccup as he goes to dragon-slaying school with his tomboy rival Astrid (America Ferrara) and other guys who seem much more like future Vikings than Hiccup. And even though this comes from the DreamWorks folks (the “Shrek” studio), there are virtually no pop-culture jokes or topical references, for which I give thanks. In fact, the film gets a nice balance between smart-funny and big-hearted, and it passes the big test of kid-oriented films, which is that it will entertain adults as much as small fry.

The only remaining question is why the Vikings speak with Scottish accents. Keep in mind that it worked for an ogre named Shrek, and if the historical basis seems flimsy, well, you probably don’t even believe in dragons.

The Art of the Steal. “Raises questions that go far beyond the world of art.”

Plus an interview with Dean DeBlois, co-director of Dragon.

And I talk with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about Akira Kurosawa: here. The movie bit begins at 14 minutes in.

Movie Diary 3/24/2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink, 2010). I never thought I’d hear myself saying that a movie needed more Eighties jokes – and I never want to say it again. (full review 3/26)

Vincere (Marco Bellochio, 2009). Il Duce as seen by Mussolini’s mistress, and as filtered through images on screens; the amply-named Giovanna Mezzogiorno, from Facing Windows and Last Kiss, plays the woman in question. (full review 4/2)

Micmacs (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2009). This will be very popular with the furrin film goer. (full review 5/??)

Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010). Big able cast, plus Holofcener’s willingness to create truly mortifying situations and jokes, which at times is downright Baumbach-like.

Movie Diary 3/22/2010

The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009). Movie about the chicanery surrounding the – what’s the right word – appropriation of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, but also a movie about the world we live in today. (full review 3/26)

Chloe (Atom Egoyan, 2010). Remake of Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie. The true-north instincts of Julianne Moore help some in Egoyan’s chamber piece, although the chambers are made of glass and steel. (full review 3/26)

The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958). Haven’t watched a Stanley Kramer picture in a long time, by golly. Despite the corny moments, this is one of the K-man’s better efforts, and it must have been electrifying to see Sidney Poitier spit in redneck Claude Akins’ face in 1958. At times it looks like a Bunuel movie in English. Unusual folk keep turning up as the movie goes along: Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw as the main lawmen, Lon Chaney Jr. rousing himself for a couple of big scenes, Cara Williams, Whit Bissell, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer in his last role.

1926 Ten Best Movies

If the Internet Movie Database says that The General opened at the end of 1926 and belongs to that year instead of its often-cited release year of 1927, who am I to argue? It gives us a towering #1 for the year, whereas The General would need to play second fiddle to Sunrise in a 1927 accounting.

Buster Keaton’s most acclaimed feature looks as though it might have been made much earlier – not because of a lack of sophistication, but because the sets, costumes, and locations are convincingly tuned to the Civil War. It’s all so marvelously balanced, the comedy, suspense, romance, historiana; balanced like a man sitting on a locomotive gear that slowly begins to move.

1926 offers up Murnau’s ambitious Faust, an imaginative spectacle that nearly sustains its high level of invention throughout; he was certainly setting the bar for young pups like Alfred Hitchcock, who’d earlier hung around the set of Murnau’s Last Laugh and learned his lessons – Hitchcock’s third finished feature The Lodger indicated a future master stepping up. There was also an auteur waiting to emerge from spud-faced Harry Langdon’s hit comedy The Strong Man, as Frank Capra debuted with a film that in some ways weirdly looks forward to It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile, Garbo was doing her thing (Flesh and the Devil was one of her defining early successes), the Soviets were doing their thing (Mother is out of the playbook on every level), and Leni Riefenstahl was kicking off her career with a death-defying role in a jaw-dropping German “mountain film” (The Holy Mountain). The ten best of 1926:

1. The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

2. Faust (F.W. Murnau)

3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom)

4. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

5. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)

6. Mother (V.I. Pudovkin)

7. The Holy Mountain (Arnold Fanck)

8. Moana (Robert Flaherty)

9. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

10. Secrets of a Soul (G.W. Pabst)

The last one sneaks in because of its zany Expressionist approach to psychoanalysis; not a great movie, but a great look at what ambitious movie-makers were interested in trying out.  It nips out some very enjoyable star vehicles: Son of the Sheik (Valentino), The Black Pirate (Fairbanks), The Temptress (Garbo). There’s much more of 1926 I have yet to see, but the #1 should be solid.

Dragon Hunter Runaways (Weekly Links)


Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

The Bounty Hunter. “Who is that edgy PG-13-bordering-on-R movie for?”

The Runaways.

by Robert Horton

As an all-female, pre-punk rock band in the 1970s, The Runaways present a particularly colorful opportunity for a filmmaker. Surely this story can become a cool movie.

Maybe it can, but not in “The Runaways,” a clumsy excuse for a biopic. Too bad, too, because it wastes the apt casting of two of Hollywood’s most interesting young actresses.

Those actresses are Kristen Stewart, who plays future solo sensation Joan Jett, and Dakota Fanning, as Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie. Jett and Currie were brought together as teenagers by the bizarre rock impresario/producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who was looking for a female band he could exploit.

The best scene in the picture is a staple of the music movie: The band (and Fowley) cooped up in a small room — actually it’s a trailer — discovering their unique sound by process of trial-and-error. Fowley leaps around the small room, spitting out the lyrics to what will become a signature Runaways tune, “Cherry Bomb,” an exhilarating song that defined the snarling image of these teenagers: rock stars as brats.

Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) brings his looming, Frankenstein-monster presence to Fowley and makes a meal of the role. His gusto is so arresting you find yourself wondering what Fowley is up to when we’re concentrating on the story of Jett and Currie. And those two are what the movie’s all about: The other band members barely register, even though one of them became ’80s power-singer Lita Ford. The script is based on Currie’s memoir of the late ’70s and the band’s brief notoriety, which explains the focus but can’t excuse the vagueness of the story line.

“The Runaways” grazes from one incident to the next, never quite deciding to commit itself. Sexuality, for instance: We see Joan Jett bestowing a tentative kiss on a girlfriend, and Jett and Currie indulging in some sort of closeness, but the movie tiptoes away from letting us know exactly what’s going on.

The customary ups and downs and flame-outs occur, seemingly without setup or explanation. Maybe director Floria Sigismondi assumes we’ve seen this kind of movie so many times we can fill in the blanks ourselves. Sigismondi, an artist and music-video director, doesn’t exhibit much feel for the long-form rhythms of a feature film. She can’t even get the film in gear as a showcase for Stewart and Fanning.

Stewart’s ride on the “Twilight” franchise has obscured how good this actress really is, and although she mimics Joan Jett and bears a strong resemblance to her, there isn’t much room for character development.

Now that Fanning is no longer a child actress but an in-betweener, she can’t depend on the novelty of being so astonishing for her age. She gets Currie’s dazed quality just right, but a better role will give a more accurate measurement of her talent as a grown-up.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The whodunit mechanism of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is so sure-fire, it can survive a brutal movie version and still work. And this particular movie version (there may be more coming) is brutal.

An adaptation of the first installment in the late novelist Stieg Larsson’s wildly successful “Millennium” trilogy, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a Swedish-language production, as befits the nationality of the author. But be assured that plans are afoot for a Hollywood re-do.

Larsson’s novel was originally released in Europe as “Men Who Hate Women,” which is a much more apt and intriguing title for a story that involves various levels and generations of misogynistic violence.

The hook is this: a super-wealthy industrialist hires a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomqvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) to look into an unsolved disappearance that happened 40 years earlier. The man’s niece vanished and is presumed dead, but no proof or motive has ever been found. Blomqvist takes the job, which quickly brings him to the attention of a punky, androgynous computer hacker, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace). Her own experiences of abuse at the hands of powerful men contribute to her ferocity in looking for the lost girl.

The plot relies on some pretty hokey mystery clichés—there are even enigmatic biblical verses that must be deciphered, a staple of serial-killer tales. But let’s give the movie a pass on that; after all, the pleasure of reading or watching mysteries has a lot to do with those kinds of conventions.

What makes the movie tough to watch is director Niels Arden Oplev’s blunt approach to everything, whether it’s the scattering of clues to the protracted scenes of sexual violence. Granted, there is some payback in store for the perpetrators of said violence, but I wonder if that justifies the extended attention given to scenes of rape and murder. Other than to create sensation, that is. Which “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” certainly does—effectively enough that it became the biggest-grossing film in Europe last year.

Along with its bruising momentum, it boasts two striking actors in the lead roles: Nyqvist has the weary manner and beat-up face of a Scandinavian Tommy Lee Jones, and Rapace is an intense, unusual presence. You can already imagine the Hollywood remake: Russell Crowe and Keira Knightley? We’ll find out soon.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “A tragically erroneous idea of where he fits in the pecking order.”

And I talk about booze and movies on KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher, here. The drinking bit comes in at 16:00 in.

Movie Diary 3/17/2010

The Bounty Hunter (Andy Tennant, 2010). Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, insisting on a script that couldn’t be held aloft by Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The spray-on bronzer isn’t doing anybody any favors, either. Of course, if you just can’t resist a good bounty hunter comedy, have at it. (full review 3/19)

Say Anything… (Cameron Crowe, 1989). Got more on this here. Best Seattle movie? You got a better nomination?

Movie Diary 3/15/2010

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937). A great film on a rare subject, and a splendid choice for the Criterion Collection to turn their attention to. Among other things, a demonstration of how conversation can be a revealingly cinematic spectacle.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Thor Freudenthal, 2010). Based on a web comic. Greasy kid stuff. One wants to root for a director with that name. (full review 3/19)

Antonio Gaudi (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1984). The director of Woman in the Dunes glides his camera around Barcelona, taking in the Gaudi landmarks and bathing it all in music by Toru Takemitsu. It’s almost exactly what it should be, even if those buildings threaten to get over-exposed in movies.