Film Journal

Nov 24-Dec 02

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THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (Sam Pekinpah) viewed 11-24-02 on video
Grade B+ 1970
Charming and lighthearted most of the way, which is rather surprising since it was made by Pekinpah between The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. A bit scattershot and uneven, losing momentum at times especially in the second half. The performances keep the film together: Stella Stevens as the love interest is very charming and sensual, David Warner is a wonderfully eccentric horny priest (one of the best unheralded performers of the 60s and 70s) and Jason Robards is in top form playing Cable as stubborn and stingy in a theatrical performance. The last scenes have all the main characters coming back for a last hurrah, including Warner on a black motorcycle, feels like a curtain call. A change of pace for Pekinpah that deserves to be seen more.

THE STEPFATHER (Joesph Ruben) viewed 11-24-02 on video
Grade B- 1987
More psychological thriller than horror, with few horrific scenes instead opting for slow building tension. The film basically takes a child’s fear of a new stepparent to the most extreme. Good writing and performances for the most part, although the daughter is miscast: she’s too old and too cheery for the troubled girl role. Little character moments give this film life and make the characters work. The scene where the stepfather talks about finally understanding the meaning of Thanksgiving actually struck an emotion note with me, like he’s less of a psycho killer than someone disturbed searching for a loving family, a nice and unexpected character detail. Then he turns into the expected psycho killer for the last third, and most conventional, section of the film. The final climactic showdown is a letdown, turning into a thriller-by-numbers: scene with the girl undressing for a shower and characters showing up with guns at convenient moments. Not a film that breaks out of the genre, just smarter and more effective than most of the films in the genre.

E.T. (Steven Speilberg) viewed 11-25-02 on video (second viewing – first in ten years)
Grade B 1982
Weird seeing it again after all these years, I think I was six when I last saw it and I remember certain scenes as if I had actually experienced them before. The constant reminder of Star Wars helps make the children seem more realistic, as I remember having the same feeling for Star Wars, playing obsessively with the toys and imitating the characters, when I was the same age as Elliot is here. Nostalgia aside, this film works as a dream fulfillment for children: E.T. brings Elliot closer to his older brother, provides him with the healing presence of a missing parent, and at the same time his friend – Elliot shows him his toys and feeds him junk food. The cross cutting used to show E.T. and Elliot become one doesn’t really work: E.T. scared by umbrella Elliot jumps and breaks something, E.T. drinks a beer and Elliot burps loudly in class. It would be better if E.T. just served as the friend Elliot never had, rather than sharing his body. The last chase scene seems largely unnecessary, as they drive away from the house just to ride by it again on bicycle keeping the Feds right behind them. The last scene works so well on an emotional level that you can hardly question the presence of the dog, and all the sympathetic characters to watch on economically. I prefer the Speilberg who made Jaws to the one who made E.T., although E.T. is probably much more personal filmmaking.

THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH (Hal Hartley) viewed 11-25-02 on video
Grade C 1990
Never really engaged with this film in any way. The characters seem jokey and one-dimensional and the recurring jokes are mostly unfunny: character repeatedly mistaken for a priest or the ex-boyfriend who shoves anyone who looks at his chick. Quirky and offbeat to be sure, I usually seem to like those traits if the film really lets loose (a la Ruling Class or Repo Man) rather that staying within a realm of eccentric character, each with a major hang-up. Film was shot in 11 days and feels pretty damn insubstantial, but Hartley would go on to better things.

SENORITA EXTRAVIADA (Lourdes Potillo) viewed 11-26-02 on video
Grade B 2001
Stunning documentary film about the hundreds of girls who have gone missing in Juarez, Mexico, only to turn up buried in the desert. The material is so strong that anything technical thing Potillo does: shots of innocent girls in slow-motion with their hair blowing, time lapse photography, or melodramatic music; hurts the effectiveness of the film. The film is best when showing the outlines of conspiracy surrounding the murders, and the carelessness of the investigators.

SOLARIS (Steven Soderbergh) viewed 11-30-02 in theater
Grade B 2002
I was so annoyed by the interviews I was reading where Clooney would say that Solaris wasn’t one of Tarkovsky’s film and that at least their film wouldn’t be four hours long, almost to the point where I was going to avoid this film as an act of film snobbery. I’m glad however that I caught it, just to see the different spin Soderbergh brings to the material. Soderbergh accentuates the backstory and shows it in flashbacks, this makes it seem like a fairly personal film for Soderbergh. There are some thematic similarities with Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Limey, in the way the films deal with memory and our past flaws being relived. What this obviously film lacks is Tarkovsky’s eye for finding visual beauty in things that would appear mundane in another director’s hands. For example the extended car scene in the 1972 Solaris were hypnotic and unforgettable, and made for an easy transition to the scenes in space. Well worth seeing, especially for those who have already seen Tarkovsky’s film. The original is now out on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and with that company’s track record it is a must have.

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (Robert Hamer) viewed 12-01-02 on dvd
Grade A- 1949
Probably most similar in tone to the lighter films of Hitchcock, like The Trouble With Harry which had a similar underwhelmed feeling about murder. Dennis Price gives a deliciously wicked performance as a distant heir to the Duke, who must murder eight relatives to put himself next in line for the inheritance. Alec Guinness plays all eight heirs, which could have easily become a gimmick; instead it becomes an acting showcase. Guinness plays all eight roles, including old and female, without going over the top or winking – instead investing each with subtle differences to make them unique. The dialogue is wonderfully witty and the social commentary is nicely offset by the dark humor. The first Ealing Studio film I’ve seen, part of a new Guinness DVD Box Set, and a very good start.

THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (Charles Crichton) viewed 12-02-02 on dvd
Grade A 1951
One of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen in quite some time. A heist film that builds its laughs as it gains momentum, rather than giving cheap jokes early to let you know you are seeing a comedy. This film builds its characters for the heist and then pays everything off with the heist aftermath, a textbook example of narrative construction and highly influential on the genre. There are a lot of laughs in the second half, and climaxes in a car chase that actually works both as comedy and excitement. Guinness is very good here playing a character quite different than any of the eight in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Stanley Holloway shares the screen very well.

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