Here are some two sentence reviews of the movies I watched in November.
- Movies watched – 27
- Movies that were new to me – 23
- Movies that featured an abusive relationship as a plot element – 14
- Monthly Masterpieces – Killer of Sheep, The Red Shoes, It’s a Gift
- The Piano Teacher (2001) – This walks a thin line between intriguing and excessive in its portrayal of a seriously repressed (and unwell) woman, but I think the ends justify the means (just barely). There really are some interesting things at play here as Haneke riffs on his usual themes of emotional disconnect and the power struggles constantly at play in human interactions.
- The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – The stop motion animation is very nice, and when combined with the art design, it really gives the film a unique look that matches the feel of Roald Dahl’s work. While the father/son stuff is superfluous (and beginning to seem a bit rote from Anderson by now), overall this is quite an entertaining film that seems to have less of the affected self-awareness that annoys me about much of Anderson’s work (or perhaps I find it more forgivable here because it was ”just a cartoon”).
- The Girlfriend Experience (2009) – Typically creative editing and construction from Soderberg, this nonetheless comes off as rather boring. This fails not so much because the lead actress fails to convince that she could make anyone feel like she actually cares what they had to say (though the self deception of her “Johns” could have been the point), but rather because the commentary on her career and personal life is so banal that it provides no real insight past what one would assume a “high class” escort has to deal with.
- No Man’s Land (2001) – This is the old “soldiers from opposite sides take shelter in a shell hole” story fleshed out to feature length format. The script develops nicely and manages to handle the Bosnian/Serbian commentary with a [mostly] light hand–both of which make it at least worth checking out.
- Fat Girl (2001) – A cruel, frank, insightful and brilliantly filmed account of teenage sexuality. However, while I can see the reasoning, I question whether or not resorting to a certain plot point was necessary since the film is quite powerful enough without it.
- Ninja Assassin (2009) – This failure of an attempt to revive the ninja craze in Hollywood is at least helped a great deal by the charismatic presence of the lead (who is apparently in some Korean boy band) and a whole shit ton of throwing stars. The story of ninja who leaves his clan and then is subjected to wave after wave of “Ninjas ATTACK!” is passably entertaining, however, the side story of the “Europol” agency that is trying to figure out the secrets behind the ninja clan is very poorly executed on all fronts and turns a mediocre movie into something “fairly crappy”.
- Road Trip (2000) – A gang of college buddies hit the road for a bit of Todd Philip’s signature brand of male bonding and immaturity while Tom Green stays home and orgiastically tries to feed a mouse to a snake. None of the scenes have any real connection to each other, but many of them are quite hilarious–add in the undeniable charm of everyone’s favorite asshole Stiffler and you have a minor college comedy masterpiece on your hands.
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Though he raids the fairytale archetype playbook to good effect and the whole thing is mounted quite well, the film still fails to impress. I can’t put my finger on exactly where Del Toro missteps, but I suspect the problem is really just that it is a decent film made by a decent director, but it is no masterpiece.
- Let the Right One In (2008) – A masterfully made, sweet story that provides all the primal delights of Twilight without shying from the horrific implications of its central relationship. The child actors are amazing, the gore restrained and the storytelling superb–you’ll never feel so comfortable rooting for such a monster.
- Antichrist (2009) – One of the few movies of the last decade that actually distinguishes itself as something unique and cinematic, yet by the time the cringe inducing the horrors of the final act play out, you’ll find yourself wondering if it was more shock than substance. There is an interesting message buried beneath the brutality, but it is far too thinly sketched out and poorly developed to really justify the unpleasantness of the experience, no matter how well filmed and acted that experience is.
- Rachel Getting Married (2008) – Though the central character is a bit much, the seemingly improvised, almost verite style with which it was filmed (though I have a feeling it was all scripted) delights anyway. For all the overblown dramatics of the plot it is still a remarkably restrained portrait of a family dealing with their problems as they try to get through a wedding.
- Twilight (2008) – On the debit side the dialog is occasionally wince inducing, the bad guys are underdeveloped, the climax is fumbled, you’ll hear the “jizz in my pants” song every time Edward “glowers”/“makes funny faces at” Bella, as a commentary on teen sex it goes a bit far in the direction of fetishizing it into something dangerously forbidden (in addition to being an unsettling depiction of the ease with which teenagers can be taken advantage of–even to the point of throwing their lives away) and, finally, no self-respecting vampire blow dries and mousses their hair that much. That said, the introduction into a world of super powered protectors provides the expected fantasy entertainment and, as a plot device, “unending state of coitus interruptus” remains as intoxicating as ever.
- Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Basically three long set pieces (mutiny of the ship, Odessa steps, confrontation with the navy), this is every bit the masterpiece you have always heard, but also a bit too cold to really stay in the highest ranks of silent film. The Odessa steps sequence might be one of the greatest scenes ever filmed (even more amazing considering how the over the top dramatics should normally be laughed off the screen but Eisenstein somehow pulls it off anyway), it’s just too bad there isn’t more of a movie behind it.
- Ossessione (1943) – Interesting to compare this to the American version (The Postman Always Rings Twice) where the lack of Hollywood gloss creates a much different (and quite Italian) movie from basically the same story (albeit with significant plot changes in the second half). The drifter seems a much more sympathetic character (more helpless prey than knowing creator of his own demise), while the lack of production code restrictions on the sex scenes are a plus as well.
- Barbie Fairytopia (2005) – All the elements of pre-teen straight to DVD trash are there: the requisite cute baby-talking side kick, the affected obnoxious teenage attitudes that only serve to reinforce such behavior at a later age, computer animation that is a bit too close to the uncanny valley for comfort and a shit ton of fairies and rainbows. While barbie is not rewarded at the end of her quest with the obligatory prince to complete her life, she is instead given wings to make her “just like everyone else” in fairytopia (thus giving kids everywhere the message that being different is something to be overcome)–this is in no way recommended and I will not be watching the Mermaidia sequel.
- It’s a Gift (1934) – More a series of set pieces than a real movie, this is nonetheless mounted with a master’s touch by McCleod, and the routines are among Field’s best. It is also the most pure example of the central Fields concept of a man ground beneath the heel of the world at every step who carries on despite it all–this may well be W.C. Field’s best film and you will never feel so forlornly hopeless being amused.
- The Old Fashioned Way (1934) – Probably the closet thing to a “real movie” I’ve seen from Fields yet. Of course that means that there are more boring parts than normal in this one, but the gags are still great, and overall this is one of his best films (with some amazing juggling at the end too!)
- Diner (1982) – The performances are all quite good and it is put together well, but the underlying current of misogyny seems even more worrisome than Porky’s (perhaps because here the characters are not “just teenagers”). Sometimes I don’t give a director enough credit for being subversive, but I think the viewer is supposed to come away finding these characters mostly lovable in this one–which they most assuredly are not.
- The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) – This would would be a pretty minor comedy were the material not so great. Fields is in top henpecked, booze soaked form in a film full of very funny scenes.
- Black Orpheus (1959) – This film transports the Orpheus myth to a magical place called “Brazil” where everyone is constantly dancing to non-stop bossa nova music. The atmosphere is brilliantly infectious, but I have some nagging suspicions that there isn’t a lot of movie beyond that.
- International House (1933) – There are pluses (every scene WC Fields was in, Cab Calloway, the “you’re sitting on a pussy” joke, boobies) and minuses (every scene WC Fields wasn’t in, George and Gracie, lazy script, lazy film making). When the final score is tallied it is pretty much a wash.
- The Red Shoes (1948) – This film is like an American “let’s put on a show” movie crossed with a European art film and it manages to combine the best of both in a delirious technicolor stream of images. Not the least of its wonders is that the central wordless dance number that is even better than Minelli’s superb final sequence in An American in Paris.
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Hitchcock is in “ripping good yarn” mode here, and even if we’ve seen it all before, it is still a ripping good yarn that starts slow and builds the tension until the great concert hall climax (after which, the obligatory stair scene seemed lacking). There are also some interesting things going on with the strain placed on Stewart and Day’s marriage, but that aspect is fairly minor when compared to Hitchcock’s best psychological work.
- The Big Heat (1953) – Lang’s direction is usually a bit cold for me, but this no-punch-pulled film delivers in all areas anyway. I would accuse it of manufacturing drama, but the tragedies aren’t played for drama, but rather to paint the portrait of a world that is a few shades darker than the average noir film.
- You’re Telling Me (1934) – Sporadically funny, but overall this Fields film feels rather labored. It could be the recycled and sometimes weak gags, but it also doesn’t help that Fields isn’t really as much of a glorious bastard as he normally is in this one.
- Killer of Sheep (1977) – A laid back rambling movie full of beautiful black and white photography and a bleakly good-natured depiction of poverty and social troubles in the ghettos of LA. The whole ends up being even greater than the sum of its parts–this film stays with you long after you watch it.
- Great Train Robbery (1903) – There may be earlier examples of many of the modern techniques seen here (though not much earlier), but, this really does feel leaps and bounds ahead of even such early narrative greats like the previous year’s The Trip to the Moon. Quite a lot of excitement is packed into this film, with the location shooting a superb stylistic choice.
You liked Road Trip better than Pan’s Labyrinth??? You’re a jerk, Isley!
But if you liked Killer of Sheep, may I please recommend Killer Sheep?
And if you liked Fairytopia, may I please recommend another supergood movie?