|Film Journal January 2004|
|S.W.A.T. (Clark Johnson) viewed 1-1-04 on dvd
Grade 56 2003
A slight recommendation because, within the confines of a routine premise, the film managed to surprise me a few times with twists to the normal expectations of an action or chase scene. I also thought the characters were better sketched than some of the other action films of the year (The Italian Job and Return of the King come to mind). Director Clark Johnson acted and directed some episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets (one of the best TV shows of the 90s) and although he doesn’t inject as much energy or imagination as that show had into SWAT, he does have a knack for taking routine elements into more interesting directions. Frustrating to note that the villain is an arrogant French guy who deals with the terrorists, and cop Samuel L. Jackson repeatedly refers to him as “frog.” Can you imagine that reversed with the French cop calling Jackson’s villain a “nigger”?
SECRET THINGS (Jean-Claude Brisseau) viewed 1-2-04 in theater
Grade 66 2004
Sharp and funny look at sexual politics in the post-feminized work setting takes an odd tonal shift to dark fairy tale in the last minutes and never quite recovers. Still fascinating and frightening how the film views sexuality often only in shades of manipulation and mind games; even the masturbation, which the film offers as the only fulfilling sexual release, is tied with mind games and being exposed to others. The secret things of the title are pulled out through sex or sexual manipulation and then widens into the secret things at a corporate level, with sex and success becoming more interchangeable as the film continues. The film also incorporates the title as a visual motif: from the first shot where a girl struts around naked only to reveal the audience watching her to the later shots of men discovering a secret sex act happening, at three key points of the film.
THE SON (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) viewed 1-3-04 on video (screener)
Grade 43 2003
Once you get passed the obtrusive style that the Dardenne brothers employ in The Son, the film really doesn’t have much to it. The film depends on carefully concealed narrative surprises and orchestrated blocking to suggest tension surrounding Oliver, but the directors’ attempts at tricking the viewer into forming opinions about the characters given incomplete information doesn’t have much baring on the true plot of the film when it reveals itself. When the full picture of the film was finally in place I felt like I had been taken for a ride by the Dardenne brothers without it serving any real purpose to the underlining plot and theme of forgiveness. The manipulation of the audience by the filmmakers seems to contradict the hand-held, dizzying shooting style that weighs down the film, and although it seems through the visual language that we are going to be invited to come close to Oliver and see the way his character ticks, it becomes evident early in the film that character insights will be as limited in The Son as dolly shots or graceful compositions. Oddly, the stuff that works best for me in the film are the scenes of Oliver teaching the boys the skill of the carpenter because that at least gives us a glimpse of a world rarely explored on film, whereas the world of (spoiler) a father grieving over the death of his son has become increasing routine and obvious.
MY LIFE WITHOUT ME (Isabel Coixet) viewed 1-5-04 on video (screener)
Grade 38 2003
Some nice moments are scattered about but everything else seems to be either heavy-handed or sitcom silliness, with wacky character sketches like the braided hairdresser who loves Milli Vanilli and the endlessly dieting janitor. Coixet also doesn’t seem to have much of an eye for compositions and allows her camera to wander to little avail. However, Sarah Polley continues to be one of the best young actresses working currently and together with Mark Ruffalo manage to keep the film from the total self-destruction it seems to be striving towards. I certainly liked this film much better when it was called (just) My Life and had Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman.
LE PETIT SOLDAT (Jean-luc Godard) viewed 1-5-04 on dvd (projected)
Grade 41 1963
Le Petit Soldat was shot right after Breathless but was banned in France because of its inclusion of a lengthy sequence of torture. The film represents an odd mixture of styles that drove Godard’s early and late periods. The use of noirish narration and different elements of the thriller to undercut more realistic (non-genre) elements can be traced easily to the films that surrounded this film’s production, while the steady stream of political soliloquies that protrude throughout the film are emblematic of Godard’s later radical political stances in his films. Whereas Breathless and A Woman is a Woman seem fairly sure of themselves and cinematically confident, Le Petit Soldat seems to work against itself building much momentum. The scenes on the street that seem so fresh and look so visually vibrant in Breathless, look and feel drab and confused here. It also doesn’t help that very little concessions are made to the viewer as far as narrative coherence is concerned: which may tie into the films theme of surfaces and images to dilute and hide meanings, but such theorizing hardly seems worthwhile with a film so unconcerned with helping the viewer draw conclusions.
ONG-BAK MUAY: THAI WARRIOR (Pranchya Pinkaew) viewed 1-5-04 on dvd
Grade 52 2003
Some exciting fight scenes and amazing stunt work but there is pretty much nothing of interest outside of the action scenes: attempts at humor are lame, what there is of a plot is weak and the running time is incredibly bloated considering the material. Phanom Yeerum does seem to be an engaging fighter and his Thai boxing is very dynamic onscreen and as a calling card for his talent the film is pretty successful (there is even a message to Steven Spielberg painted onto a wall). However, the film never rises above being a series of stunts and the director has the annoying tendency to edit any remotely noteworthy stunt so that we see it from all the angles of coverage. I now don't feel quite so bad for missing this film at TIFF last year, in fact DVD is somewhat ideal for this film since most repeated viewings will probably skip straight past the first 40 minutes or so.
TWISTED NERVE (Roy Boulting) viewed 1-7-04 on dvdr
Grade 51 1968
A bunch of interesting elements here to talk about with Twisted Nerve, despite it not really working for long stretches. The link between innocence and sexuality is really interestingly evoked in the film: with the sounds of overheard sex turning out to be Georgie feverishly rocking a wooden horse, playful swimming turns into confrontational nudity and motherly aid of a cut hand turning into bizarre foreplay. All of this paying off in the way we understand Georgie’s behavior, but the film continues to pile on the exposition and medical posturing to explain Georgie’s ailment. The inclusion of the brother subplot brings the film to a halt when it seems like it is starting to get interesting. A lot of good stuff here and I will have to re-evaluate the film when I can locate a better print (this was a video dub with [Chinese?] subtitles running across the bottom). Bernard Herrmann's score, the whistling theme that plays in Kill Bill: Volume 1, is one of his best adding tension and class to the whole precedings (the opening credits sequence are a highlight although they just build to the superfluous medical theme).
ON DANGEROUS GROUND (Nicholas Ray) viewed 1-8-04 on video
Grade 54 1951
Nicholas Ray does a good job of visualizing the contrast of between the harsh city and the countryside: with the snow cover suggesting the rebirth or washing clean the sins of Robert Ryan’s protagonist. The film also fits very well thematically and stylistically with Ray’s other films and so I enjoyed the film on an auteurist level, but I never really felt all that involved with the story as it unfolded and found some of the message elements were handled with too heavy a hand. It's odd that I have been so unreceptive to the early Nicholas Ray films I've seen but have been totally taken with all his later films.
IVANSXTC. (Bernard Rose) viewed 1-8-04 on dvd
Grade 67 2000
The film makes a good use of Digital Video, realizing the technical limitations and exploiting them to suggest a visual style as decayed as the characters inhabiting the story. Rose uses classical pieces of music that add resonance to the images he is creating, as if he is suggesting the wasted possibility of all these floundering souls. Still it feels as though something is missing from this film and I can’t quite put my finger on it, and I can say for sure that everything after the (beautifully long) opening credits and before Ivan’s introduction felt unnecessary. I think I will read Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and give the film a second viewing in the next few months or so. Danny Huston’s performance was rightfully praised and he will hopefully continue to impress me this year in John Sayles’ Silver City and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.
BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (Brian Yunza) viewed 1-9-04 on dvd
Grade 28 2003
This failed to live up to my already extremely low expectations, nevermind not being able to live up to the classic Re-Animator this film can’t even live up to the fairly lousy Bride of the Re-Animator (also Yunza, please stop Yunza). I really hope that Jeffery Combs gets that career revitalization, that he should have gotten with The Frighteners, soon because he must be so bored in stupid horrors films like this. I guess Spain is the place to go to make a horror film now if you were involved with Re-Animator (see also Stuart Gordon’s much better film Dagon.
MONSTER (Patty Jenkins) viewed 1-9-04 in theater
Grade 57 2003
It’s nice to see Charlize Theron finally getting the recognition she deserves as an actress, I just don’t know why all the critics seem so surprised by this revelation. I first saw her in 2 Days From the Valley, a trashy but fun crime film, and she made an impression (even if it was only along the lines of: Holy crap she is very hot!). Then she continued to turn up in mediocre or underrated films: she gave her best performances to date in Trial & Error and The Devil’s Advocate, both of which were far from critical darlings. Now she has gained weight and changed her appearance, through body language more than the make-up that nay-sayers are citing, all in the effort of creating a very vivid character. However, once again the film doesn’t seem to be running on the same level of excellence as Theron, and the script has the annoying tendency to reduce the complex emotions to more cut and dry love story stuff. Still the film and performances are able to achieve some emotional impact along the way, even if Jenkins direction doesn’t feel as down and dirty as it should: the film probably should be closer to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Normal Life – basically John McNaughton should have directed it.
THEY LIVE (John Carpenter) viewed 1-9-04 on dvd (second viewing - first in ten + years)
Grade 78 1988
This is probably Carpenter at his most confident, taking his time to set up the film properly in the first third with some talky scenes that recall Clouzot’s similarly laid back opening to Wages of Fear and nicely established mystery that could really pay off into many different genres. The film develops into an intriguing sci-fi premise, with sudden bursts of violence and one of the most extended and painful fight scenes in cinema history. The wrap up to the film isn’t quite as fulfilling as the rest of the film but this is certainly a gem of the genre and Carpenter’s score is typically strong.
PAYCHECK (John Woo) viewed 1-10-04 in theater
Grade 65 2003
John Woo is still not in top form and it is beginning to look doubtful he will ever make anything as exciting as his best Hong Kong work again, but it isn’t hard to settle with his new film Paycheck. The film is based upon a short story by Phillip K. Dick and based upon what I’ve seen of his themes in this film and Minority Report it seems he is very cautious about the use of technological advancement to gain foresight. Unlike Minority Report, Paycheck ponders this issue with a bit more serious mindedness (and includes one topical news headline in post-“Operation Iraqi Freedom” times), even though it is basically overshadowed by the mystery and action elements of the story.
BIG FISH (Tim Burton) viewed 1-10-04 in theater
Grade 70 2003
RILO KILEY (acoustic with Blake and Jenny) at The Bottom of the Hill, SF
With Let's Go Sailing and Future Pigeon.
TOKYO DRIFTER (Seijun Suzuki) viewed 1-12-04 on dvd (projected)
Grade 74 1966
Tokyo Drifter is a typically bizarre Suzuki yakuza film with plot de-emphasized in favor of hyper-stylization. Thematically the film seems to be fall in line very close to the samurai film, with a yakuza separated from his boss (master) and forced to wander looking for work (Ronin). Suzuki uses this as a jumping off point for some outlandish set design: vibrant colors for each different setting, emphasizing white after the violence and red during (although this is not a bloody film). Also Suzuki seems to look for ways to bring frames into his mise-en-scene or separate his characters symmetrically in the frame. Tonally the film offers enough variation to keep the viewer on their toes at all times, often interrupting violence with comedy or introducing musical sequences that don’t pay off. Basically the film is just an exercise in style when it comes down to it, but it is the Suzuki film that I prefer of the ones that I’ve seen.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT! (Monte Hellman) viewed 1-12-04 on video
Grade 41 1989
Cool opening dream sequence got my hopes up: with white hospital walls and long-winding corridors used in a way that is genuinely creepy. Then the film settles down into a more routine slasher film, albeit with some very weird touches like the fiberglass brain-case donned by the killer. Most of Hellman’s interesting touches are reserved for the first half of the film and the film is (of course) a far cry from his great films from the 60s and 70s. Laura Herring (latter of Mulholland Drive) is one of the victims, although her accent is harder and her body isn’t yet surgically enhanced.
HIGH SIERRA (Raoul Walsh) viewed 1-13-04 on dvd
Grade 36 1941
Bland crime film with little to distinguish it from any other heist film, except for endless mugging by a cute dog and some laughable scenes of dialogue between Bogart and the crippled girl he wants to marry. This films status as a classic is bewildering to me, perhaps those who love it respond to it in relation to other Raoul Walsh films.
AMERICAN WEDDING (Jacob Dylan) viewed 1-15-04 on dvd
Grade 41 2003
Easily the least of the American Pie films, this time with most of the comic set-pieces falling totally flat. Probably the most successful sequence of the film is the bachelor party farce, which keeps building and escalating in fun ways, but even that sequence reminiscent of other scenes in the series that worked better (for instance the lesbians in part two). As usual, Levy is pretty much the standout here but the fun has pretty much run out of the series.
GROUNDHOG DAY (Harold Ramis) viewed 1-17-04 on TV (seen 10+ times)
Grade 85 1993
Classy high-concept comedy that really exploits its simple premise in ways that never grow tiring or overly repetitive. Also this is one of Murray’s best performances, stretching his comic persona in interesting ways (see also Mad Dog and Glory of the same year) and surprisingly solid work from the rest of the cast. There are not a lot of huge laughs in this film for me, so it isn’t really a comic masterpiece in my mind, but with about a dozen viewings of it under my belt I can attest that its charm and wit seem to be aging very well.
KILLER ME (Zachary Hansen) viewed 1-17-04 in dvd
Grade 46 2001
Clean, Shaven seems to be the starting point here and that excited me a good deal near the beginning of the film, showing the killer move through his environment somewhat subjectively. However, the film builds too much needless filler around the central character: the school stuff seems especially mishandled, like it has been introduced to explain why the character’s chemical imbalance (itself too clever a bit of screenwriting for me) and then is completely discarded of any agency in the film. The ending is a letdown too, just underlining how shallow the preceding have been. Shot on 16mm that looks pretty good, it is nice to see indie cheapies opting for 16 over DV.
THE DECEMBERISTS at Porter College, UCSC
With Corinna Repp.
NOT WANTED (Elmer Clifton / Ida Lupino) viewed 1-20-04 on video
Grade 38 1949
Fairly ridiculous social message film that views premarital sex with about the same even-handed glance that Reefer Madness gave smoking dope, which is to say there is nothing even-handed evident here. She has premarital sex and because of this action: she loses her family, her home, her lover, she is unable to be taken in by a new lover, she has to give the baby up for adoption and eventually turns to a life of crime. I do like the way that the film positions the guy she sleeps with as being rather aloof and distant, while she is falling in love with him in the way much younger women usually fall for older men just to be discarded. The other love interest is so awe-shucks decent that he somehow projected creepiness unlike which I have ever seen, with the scene of him showing off his rail-road miniature reaching new heights in its ridiculousness. Probably the only really stand-out scene is the baby delivery which plays like a twisted nightmare, but it feels foreign to the rest of the film. Isn’t leaving a baby outside a store while you are shopping itself illegal?
OUTRAGE (Ida Lupino) viewed 1-23-04 on video
Grade 49 1950
Outrage is a very similar film to Not Wanted basically just replacing the premarital sex with rape and producing much the same effects. In fact so much is carried over from the plot of that film that you could call it a more compassionate remake, this time with less creepy subplots and supporting characters. A lot of impact is probably lost because of concessions to the production code: rape is only implied and later it is referred to blankly as an assault. Déjà vu from Not Wanted hurts the impact of the film but it is certainly a step in the right direction for Lupino (who is the film author of my Film Authors class – so you will be seeing more of her in my screening log from this point on).
SPELLBOUND (Jeffery Blitz) viewed 1-23-04 on dvd
Grade 70 2003
More entertaining than it is insightful probably because it chooses to show 8 competing kids instead of a smaller number, which would have yielded more closeness to the characters are more insight into why they compete in the spelling bee in the first place (which is handled but very much in a surface level way). However, as a sports film it is pretty solid: showing us just enough to get an idea of the players and then thrusting them into the thick of the spelling bee, which occupies the last half of the film. There are some cheap suspense building moments that seem pretty standard for this type of film and it is heartbreaking watching some of the kids agonize over what the next letter should be. The two kids I wanted to win most were among the first to be knocked out and the one I was sure would lose ended up winning, so much for me judging character.
THE DOG HOUSE (Joseph Barbera and William Hanna) viewed 1-24-04 on TV
Me before watching Tom and Jerry in THE DOG HOUSE: “Oh man, I haven’t watched Tom and Jerry for so long. This should be really cool, maybe as much so as those Looney Toons shorts I watched last month.”
Me after watching Tom and Jerry in THE DOG HOUSE: “Hmm, I remembered liking that show before when I was very young. Why now is it so repetitive, lazy and predictable?”
KEN PARK (Larry Clark) viewed 1-24-04 on dvdr
Grade 86 2002
NEW GUY (Bilge Ebiri) viewed 1-25-04 on dvd
No Grade 2003
ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) viewed 1-26-04 on dvd (projected)
Grade 73 1974
TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS at The Bottom of the Hill, SF
With The Yellow Press and Fiery Furnaces.
A BETTER PLACE (Vincent Pereira) viewed 1-29-04 on TV
Grade 18 1997
HEROES FOR SALE (William A. Wellman) viewed 1-29-04 on TV
Grade 69 1933
WARLOCK (Edward Dmytryk) viewed 1-29-04 on TV
Grade 75 1959
JUST A CLOWN (Andrew Jarecki) viewed 1-30-04 on dvd
IN AMERICA (Jim Sheridan) viewed 1-30-04 in theater
Grade 63 2003
HOUSE OF THE DEAD (Uwe Boll) viewed 1-30-04 on dvd
Grade 21 2003
IRON MONKEY (Woo-ping Yuen) viewed 1-31-04 on dvd
Grade 51 1993