Movie Diary 7/31/2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (David Bowers, 2012). It doesn’t matter in the vast scheme of things, but the three movies in this series have all been pretty darned good. So, notice taken. (full review 8/3)

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012). A creepy-sounding Sundance picture (about the real-life fast-food-restaurant hoax that led to employees obeying authority to a devastating degree) turns out to be truly creepy. Maybe the proposed subtext, about people following orders too easily, is secondary to the idea of an enormous absence of critical thinking in this country. (full review 8/24)

At What a Feeling!, get the jitters with James Woods in a vintage review of Harold Becker’s The Boost.

Movie Diary 7/30/2012

Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey, 1956). The blacklisted filmmaker does a movie about the movie business, in a direct line from his American film noirs, but pointing the way toward…

Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967). …ten years later, when Losey has become a European filmmaker. And here, the tendencies of the mid-Sixties arthouse cinema coincide exactly with the material – you wonder whether Losey felt, “Finally, the right place at the right time.”

Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012). One authentic goal – to physicalize and therefore acknowledge the existence of sexuality in people over 60 – plus a great deal of other stuff. (full review 8/10)

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012). A stirring model for the artist-as-activist. (full review 8/3)

2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, 2012). Jeez, and you really want the French to succeed if they come to America and try to do an American sort of NYC movie, too. But it’s not that easy. (full review, 8/31)

At What a Feeling!, it’s time to look back at the Batman movie, Tim Burton’s 1989 opus that (we now see) set this whole ball rolling.

Watch Step Journeys (Weekly Links)

Step Up Revolution: multiplex time-killer, or story of my life?

Links to reviews I wrote this week for the Herald, and etc.

The Watch. “The effect wears you down instead of pumping you up.”

Step Up Revolution. “You must become the change you seek, and then everyone will be dancing.”

Neil Young Journeys. “One of those great ideas that don’t turn out to be all that great.”

Farewell, My Queen. “Fine-tuned character studies.”

Alps. (Link dead; review below:)

By Robert Horton

The Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos is a welcome presence on the international movie scene, an original thinker whose two most successful features are not quite like anything else out there. “Dogtooth,” from 2009, portrayed a family unit operating in an extremely bizarre manner, completely sealed off from the rest of the world. It was a sun-washed, modern story with a placid surface, but somehow reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. Now comes “Alps,” an equally strange tale that seems to take place in our world, yet suggests a completely alternate activity for at least a handful of folks.

We begin with apparently unconnected incidents: a gymnast complaining that the music for her routine is too heavy (she’d like a pop song), and then a quick flash of an accident victim being rushed to the hospital. This young woman, a tennis player, won’t survive. The nurse on duty certainly seems sympathetic. She is played by Aggeliki Papoulia, a striking, poker-faced presence who also played one of the sisters in “Dogtooth.” As we piece together what might be going on in “Alps,” we begin to understand what the nurse means when she sits with the tennis player’s grieving parents, and offers to take the girl’s place—come to their home, wear the daughter’s clothes, speak some scripted lines. Would two or three times a week be sufficient?

The nurse, and three others (including the gymnast), apparently work in this business, the business of “replacing” the departed. This is an odd subject for a movie, to be sure, but just as odd is the tension within the group; they are dominated by a man who announces one day that they will be known as the “Alps,” because no other mountains in the world can replace the Alps, but the Alps can replace any other mountain. Well, of course. And if that bit of sideways logic makes any sense, then perhaps the rest of “Alps” will, too.

It’s an unnerving movie. Based on a kooky idea, it has a sinister undertone throughout, and although the nurse appears to be the most normal of the Alps at first, she gets shakier as the movie goes on. Lanthimos won’t tell the audience what his meanings are, but the movie suggests some interesting ideas about how the denial of death might have a distorting effect on people, and how acting out a role is no replacement for authenticity. But boiling it down into meanings doesn’t work either: this is a movie to experience and to ponder, in all its weirdness.


On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about The Dark Knight Rises. The talk is archived here; slide the cursor to the 19-minute mark for the movie part.

At What a Feeling!, catch up with new entries to the repository of 1980s reviews, with vintage takes on Jeffrey Bloom’s Flowers in the Attic and Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club.

Movie Diary 7/25/2012

The Watch (Akiva Schaffer, 2012). A film formerly known as Neighborhood Watch, until events transpired. Many funny intentions here, and a few unnerving ones, but maybe these guys need to mix it up a little. (full review 7/27)

Galileo (Joseph Losey, 1975). One of those odd American Film Theatre productions, this one the Brecht play that Losey had directed onstage decades before. It sounds interesting to put Topol in the lead role, although the staginess of the play suggests a crafty technician like Charles Laughton for the part.

Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2011). Follow-up from the guy who did Dogtooth. Not quite the same as that film, but similar enough to be plenty sinister. (full review 7/27)

At What a Feeling!, tread through the films of the 1980s, with reviews of K-9 and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence.

Movie Diary 7/23/2012

Step Up Revolution (Scott Speer, 2012). Sometimes the gulf between the profound and the ridiculous is not just dramatic but dispiriting. Anyway, this movie is bad. I think the credit “Cinematography by Crash” (evidently a nom de l’oeil for director of photography Karsten Gopinath) tells us a lot about where the movies are today. (full review 7/27)

Farewell, My Queen (Benoit Jacquot, 2011). True to Jacquot’s mode of operations, this is a French Revolution movie with a discreet, non-melodramatic approach. Anchored by a strong set of actresses. (full review 7/27)

Time Without Pity (Joseph Losey, 1957). Time for another look at blacklistee Losey’s Brit-noir outing, which gives Michael Redgrave such a great workout. In the movie’s portrait of systems working against the desperate protagonist, a sharp glint of the exile’s experience shines through. And that final sequence is a classic.

Eva (Joseph Losey, 1962). The first time I saw this movie, I thought it was key to understanding Losey’s style, as it contains all the things that sometimes look mannered in his work; this time it looked like it had moved firmly into the mannered part of the spectrum. So it’s very busy, but interesting.

At What a Feeling!, an Eighties review of Martin Ritt’s Murphy’s Romance, a movie the author admits to liking quite a bit.

The Well Rises (Weekly Links)

Bale and Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and etc.

The Dark Knight Rises. “Muscular and sometimes dazzling.”

The Well Digger’s Daughter.

By Robert Horton

The sun is strong and the grass is tall as it waves in a gentle breeze: the opening shot of “The Well Digger’s Daughter” grounds us firmly in the countryside of southern France, a location we are not allowed to forget about for the rest of the movie.

Nor would we want to. This is an idealized place, a lovingly-remembered countryside out of the past—if it ever existed at all.

The story comes from Marcel Pagnol, the celebrated French novelist-filmmaker who made the original version of this film in 1940. His great setting was his childhood home of Provence, a connection he shares with Daniel Auteuil, the French actor who makes his directing debut here.

The central situation might have come from folklore: the well-digger’s daughter, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), is quickly romanced by the well-to-do son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) of a wealthy merchant. The lingering aftermath of their single night together is the movie’s central issue, as Patricia’s father (Daniel Auteuil), a hard-working, old-fashioned widower with five daughters, is shocked by his perfect angel’s affair of the heart. There might not be anything especially surprising or new about the drama that follows, but there is much to savor, including the well-observed codes of honor and behavior that these foolish mortals stubbornly follow.

Auteuil is earthy and subtly humorous as the proud father, and Jean-Pierre Daroussin and Sabine Azema, both veterans of French cinema, are exactly right as the merchant and his melodramatic wife. Even better is Kad Merad, as the well-digger’s bald, amiable co-worker, whose essential decency allows him to gracefully recover from Patricia’s polite rejection of his romantic overtures.

The Second World War comes along to touch the lives of these rural folk, yet it never overshadows the important topics of family and responsibility—the war is another dramatic complication, not the main point of all this. Auteuil resists the urge to add edge to the tale, or to try to bring modern techniques to bear. Not a lot of hand-held camerawork here. Instead, we get a calm, squared-off appreciation of very specific types—and a very specific, eye-filling landscape.

Trishna. (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

The idea of importing a 19th-century novel to a 21st-century setting has all sorts of issues attached to it, but one of the big ones is how a modern audience is going to handle a female protagonist whose behavior feels rooted in a different time.

This is something “Trishna,” Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the great Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” gets a little stuck on. The setting may help explain the passive nature of its heroine, and there’s something to be said about how the treatment of women remains unjust, but the movie itself is a tough slog.

That setting is present-day India, where Trishna (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Freida Pinto) labors for her poverty-blighted family. Coincidence—and her beauty—brings her into the world of Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), son of a wealthy hotel-owner (Roshan Seth, nailing a brief performance). Trishna’s path leads from her small-town home to the stately hotel to the modern bustle of Mumbai, a city where she actually, somewhat surprisingly, thrives. But not for long, as readers of Hardy’s tragedy will anticipate.

The most radical change from the book is not necessarily the shift in locale (Winterbottom sensed the class system in India today might approximate the social structures and prejudices of 19th-century Britain). No, the most interesting alteration is the movie’s combining the two main male characters into the single person of Jay. Maybe this picks up on the sense in Hardy’s novel that the two apparently different men aren’t so different when it comes to how they treat women, or it reinforces the idea that the men in Trishna’s life tend to see her as something less than a complete human being.

That might be a valid point. Dramatically, it makes the movie monotonous. Add that to a style that feels casual, almost accidental, and a tendency for actors to improvise their lines in a way that makes scenes tend to dribble off into nothing, and you’ve got a flat experience.

Casting Riz Ahmed, who starred in the scathingly funny “Four Lions,” works reasonably well: he comes across as completely modern, a shallow son of privilege who has the luxury of chasing dreams of Bollywood and keeping a mistress.

Freida Pinto is more problematic; an actress can fill in the soul of a passive character, but Pinto hasn’t developed that much as an actress yet. The exception in her performance is her dancing: Trishna harbors secret dreams of being a dancer, and the sequences when she loses herself in movement are touchingly liberated.

Perhaps the dancing is meant to stand out in an otherwise dreary existence. That doesn’t excuse the lifelessness of so much of the rest of the movie.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the two very different approaches to literary adaptation seen in Trishna and The Well Digger’s Daughter. The talk is archived here; the movie section begins at the 20:45 mark.

At What a Feeling!, another week of Eighties reviews rounds out with a problem film, Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift.

Sunday July 22, I’ll present “Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Movies and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s,” a free talk in the Humanities Washington speakers series, at the Woodinville Library, in Woodinville, WA, at 2 p.m. Details here.

Movie Diary 7/19/2012

Blind Date (Joseph Losey, 1959). Dead woman in an apartment, suspect Hardy Kruger going ’round and ’round with cop Stanley Baker – a situation that, especially in the Kafkaesque opening reel, seems to anticipate Losey’s collaborations with Harold Pinter.

Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012). Richard Gere as a high-rolling, moneyed monster whose life crashes down around his ears. Give Gere credit for getting better with age. (full review 9/14)

For a Good Time, Call… (Jamie Travis, 2012). It must be observed, there are some foul-mouthed ladies all up in here. (full review 9/?)

At What a Feeling!, we establish that Jon Voight likes a good cry more than most, with a review of Table for Five.

Movie Diary 7/18/2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012). Big on the myth part, short on the story part, and certainly screen-filling. A cooling-off from part two of the saga, and maybe that had to happen; you can’t go there again. (full review 7/20)

At What a Feeling!, the vintage Eighties review on display is Philippe Mora’s Howling III, a bad but weirdly memorable Aussie horror pic.

Movie Diary 7/17/2012

The Well-Digger’s Daughter (Daniel Auteuil, 2011). It is a Tradition of Quality picture, but sometimes that tradition of quality results in pleasing quality. Auteuil is also one of an impeccable ensemble. (full review 7/20)

The Sleeping Tiger (Joseph Losey, 1954). Coming out of the blacklist and landing in England, Losey made this rather good entry in his European career, and found an ideal actor in Dirk Bogarde, too. It projects backward to The Prowler and forward to The Servant, if not reaching those heights.

At What a Feeling!, we find a vintage Eighties review of Morons from Outer Space, a movie of British extraction.

Movie Diary 7/16/2012

Trishna (Michael Winterbottom, 2012). The director’s second (correction: third – how could I have forgotten The Claim? and Jude is the other) Thomas Hardy adaptation proves a tough transplant, especially when Hardy is such an authoritative storyteller while Winterbottom appears to be against story, or at least the comforting aspects of an ancient kind of storytelling. (full review 7/20)

At What a Feeling!, Neil Simon goes to basic training, but Mike Nichols saves the day: a 1988 review of Biloxi Blues.