29 December 2009

Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back

I thought I really liked these movies. I mean, I loved them when I was a child. They're okay now. But the dialogue is funny and the acting is funny and Mark Hamill's accent is funny. I still feel like R2D2 is the most compelling character. Maybe Princess Leia, who knows? Watching it, I can't tell which silly looking bits were silly from way back or are silly because of revisionist tinkering. C

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco

My boyfriend put this on last night. It was sort of interesting but not what I'd call a great documentary. It wasn't satisfying on a narrative level and it seemed not so well constructed and it had too many shots with fisheye lenses and so forth. I was surprised how sort of unremarkable the music seemed. C

22 October 2009

Chicago International Film Festival recap

Saturday, 10/10
Raging Sun, Raging Sky, Mexico, A

Sunday, 10/11
A Frozen Flower, South Korea, A-
Mother, South Korea, B+

Monday, 10/12
Vincere, Italy, B
Case Unknown, Poland, C-

Tuesday, 10/13
Police, Adjective, Romania, B
Eastern Plays, Bulgaria, B-

Thursday, 10/15
Hidden Diary, France/Canada, C

Friday, 10/16
Who's Afraid of the Wolf?, Czech Republic, A
Women in Trouble, USA, B+
The Rapture of Fe, Philippines, B

Saturday, 10/17
Made in Hungaria, Hungary, B
Backyard, Mexico, A
A Woman's Way, Greece, A+

Sunday, 10/18
Eyes Wide Open, Israel, B
The Thank You Girls, The Phillipines, C

Monday, 10/19
Will Not Stop There, Serbia, B
A Single Man, USA, D

Tuesday, 10/20
Ricky, France, B+
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, B-

Wednesday, 10/21, Best of the Festival
Fish Tank, UK, A-
Hipsters, Russia, A

20 March 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

I'm watching this movie for the fourth time now. I'm kind of ambivalent about it now. I loved it the first time but it can be kind of self-indulgent. Like Being John Malkovich it can be kind of oppressively greasy feeling and like Magnolia, but more so, it can sometimes seem to wander and ramble a bit.

There are moments of grace in the film, particularly toward the end but the more I watch it it can seem that much of the movie seems to possess the same failing as the protagonist: self-indulgently pessimistic. It reminds me of what Erich Fromm talked about as "necrophilia," which is not sex with corpses but rather a preoccupation with death and decay. It is contrasted with his concept "biophilia," the love of life or living systems.

Unfortunately the moments of grace, wonder, and/or insight are often overwhelmed by greasy clunk.

Dianne Wiest is great. So are Samantha Morton and the little girl.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is kind of irritating though.

I don't get the whole things about Ellen and Eric.

Initially I took this as a call to vigilance but in a way I think it's more of an elegy about not being able to seize life.
Where is my little girl?

It has its moments but I think I identified with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation more.

His movies can be so exhilarating but often want focus.
Like Mother Angelica said this morning: "Enjoy the sunshine. Don't pay attention to the people who are always looking for the rain."

03 March 2009

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Whoa! Call me sentimental but this movie is like little I've seen before. It reminded me of Capturing the Friedmans in its intensity but where that film shows you the dark, this one is more on the light. A young filmmaker learns that his close friend Andrew has been murdered by his psychotic ex-girlfriend. He wants to show the ripples that his friend has left behind and goes about capturing as many of the memories of the people that he knew before the memories fade. When it is discovered that the murderer, in Canada facing a lengthy extradition process, is pregnant with Andrew's son, the film takes on new poignancy, particularly as Andrew's parents head up to Newfoundland to be a part of the child's life. The movie is moving throughout and rarely does it seem cloying. It's also quite raw and intermittently shocking. I'm not sure it's like anything I've ever seen before. A powerful documentary. I loved it.

I strongly recommend it to everyone. A

Sheer Madness (Heller Wahn) - 1983

I think this is the first movie I've seen by Magarethe von Trotta other than 2005's schmaltzy but appealing Rosenstrasse. And, well, of course she codirected The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum with her then husband Volker Schlondorff. This film stars Hanna Schygulla and Angela Winkler, who played Katharina Blum, and it centers on their friendship. It's typical of German movies of its time. It's spare, less flashy than American films. The template for these movies seems to be a few minimal threads that move along, slowly reach a climactic union and unravel. One thing you notice is that while these German movies tend to be more political in nature, they also tend to have a less omniscient voice. If Sigmund Kracauer argued that Expressionist film paved the way for the Nazi uprising, a claim I think is pretty dubious anyway, I can certainly suggest that the cocksure attitude of American films, with their lack of ambiguity or loose ends, has done its part in creating a nation of American fascists. The cinematographer on this film was Michael Ballhaus, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator, and here and there are touches that remind you of Fassbinder. However, I think that it has more in common with other directors of the time, like Schlondorff.

The scene where Hanna Schygulla sings "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (an hour and nine minutes into the film) is definitely the highlight. I found myself eventually sucked into this movie but found the ending somehow unsatisfying. Of course, given that it's a German movie from pre-1990, you have at least a 90% chance of being dissatisfied with the ending. It's not terrible but it dropped the movie from a B to a C+.

Hanna Sings. And yes, I think it is somewhat more interesting in the context of the film, now that I've seen it.

28 February 2009


I was just looking at more stuff on metacritic.com and decided that stratifying film critics to suit my own needs would be more valid if it were undertaken in a more longitudinal fashion so I'm looking at the top 10 lists from 2007 now. JR Jones, who fared the best on my seven circles of hell for this year's lists, placed one very bad movie at number ten (Things We Lost in the Fire) and then a couple of mediocre movies appear higher on the list (My Kid Could Paint That, Reservation Road). Roger Ebert's list is unsurprisingly pukey. There's a lot of love on these lists for Across the Universe, which was so bad I couldn't even finish it.

The lists from 2007 seem more textured than this last year. I think it looks like 2007 was probably a better year in film. In any event. I guess I liked the big favorites of 2007 better than I liked those of 2008. Something strange is afoot.

I guess because these lists don't inspire the same wrath in me that those of 2008 did, I'm lacking the drive to follow through and do this.

Looking at the lists though, some of the movies that give me pause are: Superbad, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Eastern Promises, Grindhouse, Starting Out in the Evening, Breach, The Assassination of Jesse James, Dan in Real Life, Beowulf, Knocked Up, The Great Debaters, La vie en rose, Hairspray, Interview... ... ... ...

I guess they were lapping up plenty of lousy and mediocre movies last year, there was just less consensus on which lousy movies they were going to latch onto to reach out to the little people.

27 February 2009

I Served the King of England (2006)

I Served the King of England is a whimsical Czech film about a busboy who works his way up the ladder until he ends up a millionaire with his own hotel. The story begins as he's released from a 15 year prison sentence and he's essentially remembering his life from the secluded house in the Sudetenland that the authorities have relegated him to. It had a lot of potential and with a few tweaks could have been a great movie, I think, but as it stands it's an entertaining, unique, engaging, humorous film. I enjoyed it. There are moments that treat history in a surprising, irreverent way. He also deals with issues of class and consumption. There are elements of this movie that leave me ambivalent. I know I thought the very end was unexpectedly pat and disappointing. B-

The world is a dangerous place and you can't trust anyone!

I feel like I'm in a horror movie or a psychological thriller. I was just over at metacritic.com looking over the Top 10 lists and I have to say that, with a few exceptions, it's a chilling indictment on the state of film criticism. There are a few decent lists but even those leave me hesitant. The world suddenly feels like a very dangerous place. As though I couldn't be sure enough to trust anyone!
I'll accept for the sake of argument that my failure to understand why every single critic on the planet was in love in Man on Wire is attributable to some deficiency on my part but, I'm sorry, if you seriously think that Tropic Thunder or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were among the best movies of the year you've clearly been lobotomized and have no business writing for anything other than the New York Post (or any Rupert Murdoch publication, really [*see note at the bottom])! It's a sad state of affairs when Roger Ebert's list is among the more respectable.

For the sake of future reference I am dividing these jokers up into categories so I'll KNOW next time I'm in need of or confronted with their dumb opinions. Of course, this exercise just recalls to my mind that it is often the case that film writers have no special knowledge in film and are just journalists (as if America produced such things anymore) on an assignment that may as well be about the new stop light they're placing downtown.

Also, can you tell me why all these critics are so in love with A Christmas Tale? I mean, it was OKAY. What am I missing here?

Michael Sragow (Baltimore Sun)- The list would have been acceptable, if misguided, but placing Benjamin Button at number one is grounds for BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE as far as I'm concerned.
Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter)
Frank Scheck (Hollywood Reporter)
Elizabeth Weitzman (New York Daily News)
Lou Lumenick (New York Post)
Kyle Smith (New York Post)
Premiere Magazine
James Berardinelli (ReelViews)
Peter Hartlaub (San Francisco Chronicle)
William Arnold (Seattle PI)
Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal)

Second Ring of Hell
Ray Bennett (Hollywood Reporter)- Brideshead Revisited? Is that a joke?
Rene Rodriguez (MIami Herald)
Anthony Lane (The New Yorker)
Marc Mohan (Portland Oregonian)
Mike Russell (Portland Oregonian)
Stephanie Zacharek (Salon)
Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
Richard Corliss (Time Magazine)

Third Ring of Hell
Lawrence Toppman (Charlotte Observer)
Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)
Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)
Sheri Linden (Hollywood Reporter)
Stephen Farber (Hollywood Reporter)
David Ansen (Newsweek)
Scott Tobias (The Onion AV Club)

Fourth Ring of Hell
Mark Savlov (Austin Chronicle)
Josh Rosenblatt (Austin Chronicle)
Ty Burr (Boston Globe)
Wesley Morris (Boston Globe)
Andrea Gronvall (Chicago Reader)
Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)
Peter Rainer (Christian Science Monitor)
Liam Lacy (The Globe & Mail)
Michael Rechtschaffen (Hollywood Reporter)
Mark Doyle (metacritic.com)
Robert Mondello (NPR)
joe Neumaier (New York Daily News)
David Edelstein (New York Magazine)
A.O. Scott (New York Times)
Noel Murray (The Onion AV Club)
Keith Phipps (The Onion AV Club)
Nathan Rabin (The Onion AV Club)
Tasha Robinson (The Onion AV Club)- Belongs in the 3rd ring but I like that she liked The Fall
Scott Tobias (The Onion AV Club)
Stephen Rea (Philadelphia Enquirer)
Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Enquirer)
Peter Travers (Rolling Stone)
Sean Axmaker (Seattle Post)
Dana Stevens (Slate)
Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)

Ring Five
Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle)
Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)
Peter Vonder Haar (Film Threat)
Scott Foundas (LA Weekly)
Ella Taylor (LA Weekly)
Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)
Stephen Holden (New York Times)
Manohla Dargis (New York Times)
David Denby (The New Yorker)
Shawn Levy (Portland Oregonian)
Andrew O'Hehir (Salon)

Ring Six
Rick Groen (The Globe & Mail)
VA Musetto (New York Post)
Bill White (Seattle Post)
Dennis Harvey (Variety)
J. Hoberman (Village Voice)

Ring Seven
J.R. Jones (Chicago Reader)

*Here I am just making a generic quip about Rupert Murdoch and his yellow presses and then he ends up having one of the better critics, on staff at the New York Post. Of course, he also has a real stinker up there too. If you like, you can fill in Hollywood Reporter for New York Post, etc.

The list isn't perfect, I'm sure, but it should serve as a useful reference for future endeavors. It's funny, sometimes I hate JR Jones but, as I had long suspected, he appears to be one of the best games in town! Crazy stuff, man!

26 February 2009

Still Life (2006)

I watched this at work today. I may have to watch it again because I kept having to pause it because it got busy despite the deluge outside. It's a Chinese movie about a man looking for his wife who left him sixteen years ago and it's about a woman whose husband abandoned her two years ago. And they're doing this searching in the city of Fengjie, which is in this process of being flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. It's visually striking and it's moving in this sort of spare way which ended up creating a rather haunting effect. I really liked it. I seem to be more and more interested in Asia and Africa every day. What had I been afraid of? A-

EDIT- The short and sweet of this movie, now that I've had more time to let it marinate, is that it's an unusually gorgeous film that beautifully and understatedly tells a lovely story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

2008. Top Ten Films.

I can't entirely be sure but this might be my final list of the top ten films of 2008.
It wasn't a bad year in movies. It was just a good year for movies that were pretty good but not quite great.
I mean, I still have quite a list of movies to see yet from 2008. And it's so hard to decide what should be classified as 2008 anyway since release dates and production dates and Oscar eligibility can all be very conflicted and a lot of movies with 2008 release dates won't make it to the real world (Not even my beloved Music Box Theatre in Chicago!) until well into 2009.
In any event here are several movies I really liked:

Frozen River
Rachel Getting Married
Let the Right One In
Mister Lonely
Boy A
Tell No One
Up the Yangtze
The Counterfeiters

Close calls: The Reader, Yella, Waltz with Bashir, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Revolutionary Road, Flow, The Visitor

I don't watch enough comedies. Do they make good comedies anymore?

25 February 2009

Flow: For the Love of Water (2008) / Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

This morning, I watched Flow: For the Love of Water. It was informative but it could have had just a little more information and just a little less agitating. Not that I have a problem with the political quality of the film, I just was hungry for more information. Of course such info may have been in the bonus features but our lack of remote control inhibits me from watching special features at work and I sent it back right after work so I'll never know. I think it's important for you and everyone you know to watch this movie. It's about the privatization of the water supply in third world nation and the role in that of the World Bank and the IMF, the safety of our water supply, the downside of big dams, the environmental impact of water and soft drink bottling plants, and a few suggestions for the future. It's engaging, informative, intermittently chilling, and often infuriating. A.

Then I watched that Roman Polanski documentary I heard so much about on NPR last spring/summer. It was engaging. It talked a little bit about the Sharon Tate murder but it was mostly about the case several years later where he was charged with having sex with a 13 year old girl. The film seems generally sympathetic to Polanski. There seems to have been a fair amount of judicial misconduct in the case. And there also seems to be some attempt to explain away his crimes because he's creative and European and survived the Holocaust, though the film isn't entirely uncritical of him. My problem is that for the most part it is lost in the film that if he hadn't been a celebrity he would have faced a far different fate. He had nude photos of a thirteen year old girl whom he plied with alcohol and drugs and raped. His defense was essentially that he was too fucked up to remember her telling him no. He's desired in Europe and WANTED in the United States. Sure, there may have been shady dealings by a publicity hungry judge and so forth but what is lost here is any perspective of the class inequality of the justice system. As someone who has seen firsthand the classism of the justice system, I was a little turned off by this attitude that he was almost treated like a real person. And that kind of burned me up. The American justice system is a scandal and most people don't even realize it. Anyway, while I found this movie engaging, I also found it to be from a rather privileged perspective which I found counterrevolutionary. C.

23 February 2009

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

Somehow just what I expected and then not quite what I expected. I feared it would be as harrowing as a Lars von Trier movie and I thought it might be more overtly political. It's just a slight, 80-minute story. I think the reviews I read blew it up a little bit.
It reminds me of a down-and-out place I've been, doing what you can while more well-situated people sneer at you.
You're left with a lot of questions at the end of the movie. And you're left with a few days of this girl's life floating in ether.
I wonder what you're meant to make of it.

spoiler alert
She's left Indiana. Ostensibly has no friends to call but only a sister and brother or someone who aren't really too concerned with her and seem not want to be bothered with her. She's going to Alaska because she wants to earn money. Does she want to start a new life there? Does she need the money for some particular goal? Why does her sister think she's calling for money? Is she a deadbeat? A recovered drug addict? There's something about the end that seemed a little off. I guess even if she had left a note or something it would have made more sense somehow. How does a girl end up so alone in the world? She didn't seem fresh from a loony bin and seemed to have adequate, if not shining, social skills. She didn't seem to have spent much money on her trip. One wonders why she was shoplifting in the first place. And why she didn't take a bus to Alaska instead of hopping a train.

22 February 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This movie is worse than I thought it would be.
Apparently the screenwriter wrote this screenplay BEFORE writing Forrest Gump, which explains why it's even worse than that. The whole thing seems amateurish. Like a bunch of kids playing make-believe.
I'm not surprised that neither the director nor the writer read the seven page story before adapting the premise (said the director).
It almost seems like a rough draft for Forrest Gump. Which is sad.

Two hours and twenty minutes into this movie there is no redeeming quality that I have discovered.
It's poorly written and manipulative and plays like a parody of itself. Like a spoof that nobody's laughing at.
I even think the acting is bad. Even that woman nominated for best supporting actress gives a kind of silly performance.
Even Cate Blanchett gives an unfortunate performance.

God, this writing is dreadful. There is no character development. The plot just goes from one manipulation to another, without any transition. F-

Werckmeister Harmonies - Milk - Frost/Nixon

I finally after months got around to watching Werckmeister Harmonies, at work today. I'm not sure I know what it's about and suspect that if I understood what he was getting on about I'd probably roll my eyes or something. But it's a lovely movie to experience on a sense level. It looks beautiful. Sounds beautiful. The camera work and music are bewitching. The acting is good. Once I was able to overcome my impatience, it really charmed. It's a masterwork in tone, I might say. "You've gotta see it for the tone, man!" ;-)

Then tonight I got hijacked by A--, despite my own plans to go see Ballast at UWM and then watch the Benjamin Button movie...

She subjected me to two of my least favorite critically-acclaimed mainstream movies of last year: Milk and Frost/Nixon. I can't believe that Milk was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar because the writing in both movies is generally clunky and, at best, uneven. One is adolescent, the other is glib. Watching them both for the second time, I decided that Frost/Nixon was worse than I thought it was the first time I saw it but that Milk was a little more complicated: It seemed like they shot two movies about Harvey Milk (a good one and a bad one) and then mashed them up together. The acting in Milk was definitely better than in the other film. I also thought that the adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon to the movie was horrible. I mean, maybe it's a Brechtian device but it seemed like half of the actors were under the impression they were performing a play in front of a live audience and I thought a lot of the dialogue might have worked better on the stage but it stunk up the movie house. Then, the efforts to open the play up for the screen were laughable. A-- said she thought it was nice, RETRO! Ha! I thought it was kitsch. Ron Howard is such a douchebag.
Why didn't anyone making Milk realize what a mess that damned script was? (Edit 11/9/12: A better question might be why audiences ate it up. The answer probably has something to do with the fact that the most popular review of Mission: Impossible on Netflix describes it as a thinking man's action film...)

Also, what's with all these movies jockeying for the Silliest-Misuse-of-Puccini's-Tosca-in-a-poorly-scripted-film-of-2008 award? I didn't even know such a thing existed but I can't think of any other reason why Milk, Quantum of Solace, and whatever other movie that was all decided to try to steal the crown from Philadelphia for most nauseating use of opera in an overheated movie...

31 January 2009

Towelhead: Nothing Is Private (Alan Ball, 2007, USA)

A friend and I watched Towelhead tonight.
I'd give it a C but in a good way, if that makes sense.
It's engaging but it's kind of lurid.
Sometimes it feels like a quirky indie film but it often feels like a soap opera or a reality show.
I like the questions it prompted in me.
I'm intrigued by the way it made me feel awkward. I suppose child sex abuse should make me uncomfortable; it's not like it's supposed to be a romantic comedy.

12 January 2009

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008, USA)

I thought the acting was good and the story was compelling but the direction was glaringly off-key. I don't think it's about untethering oneself, I think it's about how some people can make the best of the life decisions they make and others just feel like they're trapped in a killing jar. The film has a few pitch problems, so to speak, but Kate Winslet's performance is exquisite and her character is compelling. I think Michael Shannon's performance is a little overrated, but I'm happy for the man.


11/9/12: It's funny looking back at this entry because of what I'm not talking about here, which is how much I sometimes identify with these characters. I feel like I should watch this again some time.

07 January 2009

Harriet Craig (Vincent Sherman, 1950)

Joan Crawford movie about a woman from humble beginnings, abandoned by her father as a child. Her mother ended up in a nuthatch. Starting out as a laundress she's worked her way up to being a successful career woman and given it up for marriage to a successful man, a big house, and, she hopes, security. The only thing is she's so gun-shy that she runs her household like a tyrant.
Crawford's character is so monstrous that it's hard to watch sometimes. Kind of like in Queen Bee but this movie isn't quite as good as that. It's campy but there's something sort of offensive about it so you can't really enjoy it. You almost feel like the filmmakers are being unfair to her character. It seems like it should have been handled as a tragedy but it comes across more as a tract against women who fail to toe the line as expected by American men in the 1950s, come hell or high water. I don't see why they even bothered to give her a backstory. Maybe they meant well but floundered in the execution. The movie seems mean. I mean, she's so terrible you want to see her get her comeuppance in the end and the comeuppance isn't even so bad but there was just this sour note in there. She's cold and she's conniving but there is no credible alternative on offer. Only sexism, classism, and moralizing. A bourgeois invective against damaged persons everywhere. ;-)

05 January 2009

Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

I'm watching this thing again because the first time I saw it I thought it it seemed like everyone in it was irritating, melodramatic, and a little stupid. Also, these people filmed all of this practice and preparation but nobody thought to film the actual event. I was not surprised when one of the guys started talking about how much pot he used to smoke. They all talk like people that have spent a little too much time hitting the weed. Lunatics are often compelling and I wanted to find beauty here but in an effort to overinflate all of this the filmmakers only served to obscure whatever value may be inherent in the story. I like that they don't mention the WTC attack though. The one thing I found effective was the silent ghost of September 11th which sort of suggests something that was probably lost before 2001 but that the events of 2001 probably rendered irretrievable. C-