Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #50-60

Oz the Great and Powerful

#50. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013, Raimi):


#51. Dreamscape (1984, Ruben)

There’s a reason Dennis Quaid was a star. Every time I see him in a film from the 70’s or 80’s (or hell, even The Parent Trap), I always manage to fall for the guy. He’s a boyish Jack Nicholson without the hard edge or long-range versatility but he can always sell the hell out of smarmy charm. Dreamscape predates the basic idea of Inception by over 25 years. It starts out strong but runs out of steam quickly. It’s got an overreaching conflict, but the screenwriters don’t know how to fill it out, so they make mildly interesting episodes in the meantime. With a nauseating romantic subplot and a pale central through line, the reason to see Dreamscape is the cast and seeing how dreamscapes are interpreted with the 80’s palette at hand. In addition to Quaid you’ve got the legends that are Max Von Sydow AND Christopher Plummer. And as a bonus treat, David Patrick Kelly, the go-to skeevy character actor playing a psychotic dreamlink rival of Quaid’s. He turns into a freaky-deaky stop-motion snake at the end. There’s a short scene where he’s mid-transmutation and it will haunt my nightmares. Kate Capshaw continues to be the worst.

Random Observations:
George Wendt with sinister music; never going to work


#52. Hopscotch (1980, Neame):

Strips away the gadgetry, paranoia and flash of the spy genre, opting for a playfully sly comedy about governmental incompetence and getting even by using secrets as a weapon, not guns. In fact, Walter Matthau’s self-retiring spy never carries one. Really adored this; memorable characters, smart script and Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson’s lived-in, natural repartee.

Random Observations:
Such a memorable introductory scene for Glenda Jackson
“You remind me of my Dad”
“That’s always been my problem”
Sam Waterston added so much to his character too.

Ivan's Childhood Birch Trees
#53. Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Tarkovsky)

A poetically stark debut that unifies nature and the destruction of war as one desolate mass of landscape. Tarkovsky uses the idyllic happier times of Ivan as spatial dream sequences to inform the whole of the narrative. He could have depicted these memories as simply memories, but smartly filtering them through the subconscious makes the journey between the two fluid and makes the linkage further bonded. It also sets the stage for Tarkovsky’s future output, where his penchant for both linking images and exploring and sustaining a metaphysical dreamlike state becomes fundamental. The cinematography is hauntingly carved-out with Yusov’s use of shadow and soft beams of light within angled architecture and his outdoor ruins (and who will ever forget those birch trees). But the sound design really impressed me too, especially the dripping water that uses aural evocation to link back to Ivan’s mother and his childhood. I’m seriously lacking in other Soviet war films that came before and after that similarly highlight the ordeal of the individual; The Cranes Are Flying (Tarkovsky told Yadim Yusov to recreate Sergey Urusevsky’s camerawork) and Ballad of a Soldier being the obvious examples.

Random Observations:
– Even though I’m not sold on the Kholin/Masha subplot being necessary, it’s more than worth it for the visual structure of that scene.
– Loved how subtly off-kilter the dream sequences are, like the vertical level of Ivan moves up and down seamlessly.

Three Kings

#54. Three Kings (1999, Russell)

An original anti-war film that thought-provokingly surprised me. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War during the ceasefire, Three Kings starts as a war comedy but continuously scrapes away until it becomes a war drama. Accompanying the transition is stylistic spectrum that starts kinetically and gradually sobers up. The more conventional final third is supported by what came before to make it successful. Russell employs a ton of different filmmaking techniques to give the film a bleached out high contrast look; an environment with no easy answers but lots and lots of bloodshed.

Random Observations:
– Judy Greer and a very young Alia Shawkat. Arrested Development people!
– Also Judy Greer and George Clooney, who would appear in The Descendants together 12 years later.
– Spike Jonze in a major role is both surreal to see but so welcome.


#55. Time After Time (1979, Meyer)

I’m so happy this is in my life now as it’s one of the best times I’ve had watching a film in a while. See Dark Shadows? This is how you get humor out of time-travel. That’s not to say the film is a comedy, but Malcolm McDowell as H.G Wells is not only adorable but knows how to make his time displacement funny in the first half. The character is scientific and curious, so McDowell never overplays.

Time After Time takes a very silly premise and makes it work by taking turns I didn’t quite expect, establishing a former friendship between Wells and Jack the Ripper (David Warner is, as always, very reliable as a creepy villain) and building a central romance that I was actually invested in, wholesale. This is a rarity folks.

The film gets it right on so many levels. Nicholas Meyer uses the camera to view 1979 San Francisco as Wells sees it. Wells’ first car ride is a great example. I also love how it plays off of Wells and his confident vision of utopia against how he really finds the future and the idea that Jack feels he belongs there. My only complaint is that the climax isn’t quite as interesting as everything that came before.

Oh, and Mary Steenburgen is serving fierce Kate Bush realness.
It’s a new film for me to cherish.

Eta: I’ve just been reminded that Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen fell in love and were married for ten years as a result of working together on this film, something I knew at one point but completely forgot about. That makes it even better!

Monkey Business

56. Monkey Business (1952, Hawks)

A 50’s screwball comedy by Howard Hawks that didn’t quite work for me. Hawks said he never found the premise believable and I have to agree. The film never convincingly establishes its own reality and it nagged at me the whole time. Other films have gotten away with much more outlandish stories, but the effect the formula has on Grant and Rogers is a misstep and played too broadly to boot. It needed to come up with more imaginative and/or interesting ways to depict the de-aging process. Instead, we’ve got Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers acting like they are on drugs. The film comes to a halt each time the formula is taken. At times it’s fun and it starts out strong to be sure, but Monkey Business either needed to commit to anarchy or come up with a less distracting conceit.

Random Observations:
– I still enjoyed quite a bit of this despite large chunks that got on my nerves.
– Little dispiriting George Winslow pops up again, making him one of the three recurring cast members from Hawks’ next film for 20th Century Fox, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The other two are of course Marilyn Monroe and Charles Coburn.
– Watching Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers act like toddlers just put me in the mood for the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy Fakes Illness”. “ON MY TRICYCLE ON MY TRICYCLE”

Ariel 2

#57. Ariel (1988, Kaurismaki)

This shot says it all. Taisto (Turo Pajala, resembling Nick Cave to the point of distraction) and company, part of the proletariat class that makes up Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Proletariat Trilogy’, are having a picnic on a bed of rocks in Helsinki. Uncomfortable looking to us, but they are perfectly content. Just cover the rocks with a blanket. The first half of Ariel shows Taisto as passive, acclimated to accept every curve-ball that gets thrown his way. There’s no shortage; in the opening minutes, the mine he works at shuts down, his father kills himself and he loses all his money. In other hands this would be miserablist, but the Finnish filmmaker has embedded a droll and wry sense of humor into everything. It’s a world where major decisions are made at the drop of a hat, where one trudges along leaving behind the pointlessness of dwelling. This attitude allows Kaurismaki to get through a lot of material in 76 minutes.

The second half shows Taisto as active; desperate times call for desperate measures. Lined with variable tunes, Ariel is modest and fine if a bit forgettable. The second half wasn’t as interesting as the first, taking a broad shape. But it did have Matti Pellonpää, so points for his memorable presence.This is only the second film by Aki Kaurismaki I’ve seen, and The Match Factory Girl is a personal favorite of mine.

three outlaw samurai 2

#58. Three Outlaw Samurai (1964, Gosha)

Three Outlaw Samurai depicts a world where double-crosses are everyday, loyalty is untenable and there’s compromise and consequence no matter which side of the fence you land on. An impressive debut and a solid film overall, Hideo Gosha shows us relatable archetypes and has them engage in swordplay and side-switching. Gosha and Tadashi Sakai really know how to use and show space and there’s a lot of pay-off in the black-and-white widescreen photography. There’s a kinetic hard-to-keep-up energy to the swordplay scenes. I loved the diagonal tilt the camera would flow into at times, taking on the direction of a sword through movement. Not in my top-tier of chanbara I’ve seen but still well worth checking out. Sword of the Beast, Goyokin and Hitokiri are all on my watch list now.


#59. Bedlam (1946, Robson)

The last in Val Lewton’s run at RKO is a message picture disguised as a horror film. It captures the world of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, with slate 8 featuring the infamous asylum serving as the inspiration for the film. Nell Bowen starts as a superficial jester and ends as a caregiver in desperate circumstances. Boris Karloff, playing the sadistic apothecary general, treats his patients appallingly and gets his justified comeuppance. Definitely not the genre picture I was expecting but still decent, with an effective exploratory focus on human cruelty.

#60. Housewife (1934, Green)


Reintroductions #24-27: The Others, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Barbarella and An American in Paris

This year I’m devoting more time to revisiting films I’ve seen only once, a practice I’ve shamefully neglected. My Reintroduction posts are a place for me to jot down some thoughts and observations.

The Others

#24. The Others (2001, Amenábar)
First Seen in: 2002

Alejandro Amenábar’s Gothic psychological mood piece is mostly a transfixing spell of sustained atmosphere built by contained pools of light, isolated existence, Nicole Kidman’s high-strung, barely repressed frenzy and a general feeling of constant indefinable foggy dislodge. It may lead up to a transparently inevitable twist ending, but it smartly doesn’t put all its eggs in that basket. It satisfyingly inverts the ghost story whilst indulging in it old-school. More importantly, while we concentrate on Grace and her children facing ghostly intruders and shady servants, The Others tells its real story simultaneously, behind the curtains and the sounds of things that go bump in the night. It’s elegant storytelling; you’re being told the whys and the how’s the whole time and you don’t even know it. And even if you do, it makes you aware of the endgame but doesn’t ruin the journey. I remembered it being more about low-key scares, but it was even lower-key than I remembered. I wish Amenábar had fought the urge to give us a peek into the purpose of the servants. I didn’t feel it was needed. One of Nicole Kidman’s best performances. I’d even take it over her also-excellent work in Moulin Rouge! and The Hours, both within the same two-year period.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

#26. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Hawks)
First Seen in: 2005

One of the great musicals of the 50’s. It may not feature dancing prowess or technical innovation but what it lacks in ambition it more than makes up for with the contagious escapism the studio system excelled at and an unabashed female perspective that a girl like me gravitates towards full force. What I had remembered most was the “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love” number, the best in the film. Its got Jane Russell in a black pantsuit and phallic art deco earrings sauntering in a room full of barely clad buff Olympians. It’s iconic, homoerotic and flaunts the male body on a scale rarely seen. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may star two sexpots, but this number is a giant fuck-you to the male gaze.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes features two women who are best friends, always defending each other even when they disapprove of the others actions (I love when Dorothy tells Malone she’s the only one allowed to gripe about Lorelei). They are both upfront about what they want in life and they know how to get it. The film never chastises them for this and remains firmly planted on their gold-digging, hunk-craving side from start to finish.

Random Observations:
– As enjoyable as it is to see Marilyn Monroe pushing her ditzy but lovable persona as far as it can go even as she simultaneously cements it in place, it’s Jane Russell’s Dorothy who I love. All she wants is a hobo-hunk.
– Another thing I remembered was Henry Spofford III. HILARIOUS
– I love that Lorelei can calculate exactly how much time it would take to get what she wants from a man.
– For my money, “When Love Goes Wrong” is an underrated number

Barbarella 6

#26. Barbarella (1968, Vadim)
First Seen in: best guess, 2001-2002

Roger Vadim took the women in his life and created a celluloid shrine for their bodies. Barbarella is a camped-up celebration of the ideal female form; soft-core objectification shrouded in trippy sci-fi goofiness. It’s a counter-cultural product of the time, full of hippie idealism and free love baby, free love. Jane Fonda, Vadim’s then-wife, fashions an epic blonde mane and a sex-kitten silhouette that recalls Vadim’s former-muse Brigitte Bardot. She brings a wide-eyed matter-of-fact innocence to her newly rediscovered sexuality and lends a self-aware comic quality to her role that she alone can lay claim to. Outside of a few amusing lines, both intentional and unintentional, (“I hear screaming. A good many dramatic situations begins with screaming”) Terry Southern and Roger Vadim aren’t able to liven up their script at all. For a film where the plot is this inconsequential (it’s structured around Jane Fonda’s costume changes and various states of undress), most of the dialogue is concerned directly with its meaningless story.

I first saw Barbarella at, my best guess is, fifteen. All I remembered were a handful of images; spacesuit striptease, furs, bubbles and a buff blonde angel. That’s mainly what you take from the film. Roger Vadim doesn’t have a hand at taking advantage of its inventively tacky low-budget sets. He shoots apathetically and flatly, laying the soundtrack on top in similar fashion, a fun and schizophrenic score that alternates between daytime- kiddie-show, sunshine-pop and groove-tunes in the blink of another costume change.

Barbarella is about creating scenarios where we can gaze upon Fonda’s body, her pain, her pleasure, and her outfits. Vadim gives us plenty of opportunities and this is when the film excels; after all, she is the ‘object’ of our focus.

To see which shot I chose for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot edition, to go Cinema Enthusiast:

The Film Experience’s entry, which also includes links to everybody’s posts:

Random Observations:
– I wonder just how many times Jane Fonda says “Pygar!”
– Skiing scene is probably my favorite along with Barbarella’s first ‘old-fashioned’ love-making session. The chest hair reveal is legitimately hilarious.
– I like the way sex and music are linked on the ‘Excessive Machine’
– Milo ‘Eyebrows!’ O’Shea!

An American in Paris

#27. An American in Paris (1951, Minnelli)
First Seen in: 2001-2002

My God, talk about using Technicolor for its fullest possible potential. Leslie Caron’s introduction to the screen can’t really be beat. And the 18-minute ballet at the end is a slice of spectacle porn to end all spectacle porn; sets inspired by various French painters, various styles of dance, costumes to obsess over, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, a ballet troupe, and the most sensuous and sumptuous use of color and lighting of the era. How was this John Alton’s first time working with color photography? How is this possible? That there is only a wisp of a plot is mostly forgiven. Mostly.

My memory of An American in Paris was similar to my take on it this second time around. I liked it very much, loved the ballet and enjoyed most of the Gershwin musical numbers, but something was missing. Something that prevented it from being one of my favorites. And that’s the story or lack thereof. There’s a lot of ends that needed to be met. First, how to structure an entire film around George Gershwin songs? That’s the first priority. Second; with Oscar Levant and Georges Guétary, time needs to be afforded for their mastery of craft to shine. Somehow, a thin plot gets dragged out a little far over its inherent elasticity.

Opening with three separate voiceover narrations is a nice idea if the film were about three artists living in France, but it’s really about one artist living in France. I also had a major problem with how much time is spent on the Milo character. She’s in so much of the film, and personally I feel bad for her. This is a woman with lots of money and time on her hands. So she gets mixed up with male artists by offering to sponsor them and she doesn’t seem to learn her lesson. But the film, Kelly and Milo herself seems uncomfortable with her hobby, and it shows. Her last line is “I think I need some champagne” and she’s not heard of again. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

Even though the story isn’t quite engaging, it’s a film I can see myself watching every time I catch it on TCM. It’s still a film I’d like to own. Because so much of it is glorious. I love Leslie Caron’s fresh gamine face, her fish-out-of-water movie debut. It drowns itself in a romanticized vision of Paris, playing on the Americans finding themselves in the City of Love cliche.

Random Observations:
– “I Got Rhythm” is my favorite number; Kelly is so good with kids and its playfulness of infectious.
– This put me in the mood for The Band Wagon, a Freed/Minnelli production I prefer.
– Um…Gene Kelly’s looking might fine in that Toulouse Lautrec section.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Barbarella (1968)

Of course the shot I choose from Barbarella is going to feature Jane Fonda. The question is which one?

Roger Vadim took the women in his life and created a celluloid shrine for their bodies. Barbarella is a camped-up celebration of the ideal female form; soft-core objectification shrouded in trippy sci-fi goofiness. It’s a counter-cultural product of the time, full of hippie idealism and free love baby, free love. Jane Fonda, Vadim’s then-wife, fashions an epic blonde mane and a sex-kitten silhouette that recalls Vadim’s former-muse Brigitte Bardot. She brings a wide-eyed matter-of-fact innocence to her newly rediscovered sexuality and tries to lend a self-aware comic quality to her role that she alone can lay claim to.  Outside of a few amusing lines, both intentional and unintentional, (“I hear screaming. A good many dramatic situations begins with screaming”) Terry Southern and Roger Vadim aren’t able to liven up their script. For a film where the plot is this inconsequential (it’s structured around Jane Fonda’s costume changes and various states of undress), most of the dialogue is concerned directly with its meaningless story.

I first saw Barbarella at, my best guess is, fifteen. All I remembered were a handful of images; spacesuit striptease, furs, bubbles and a buff blonde angel. That’s mainly what you take from the film. Roger Vadim doesn’t have a hand at taking advantage of its inventively tacky low-budget sets. He shoots apathetically and flatly, laying the soundtrack on top in similar fashion, a fun and schizophrenic score that alternates between daytime- kiddie-show, sunshine-pop and groove-tunes in the blink of another costume change. The flatness removes most wide shots out of consideration for ‘best shot’.

Which brings us back to Jane Fonda. Barbarella is about creating scenarios where we can gaze upon Fonda’s body, her pain, her pleasure, and her outfits. Vadim gives us plenty of opportunities and this is when the film excels; after all, she is the ‘object’ of our focus.

My shot of choice:

Barbarella 5
Death by parakeets? Sure; why not? Jane Fonda is trapped in a cage, slowly being pecked to death by small birds of various colors. She is, as always, in soft focus, unfixed shades of purple behind her and a plethora of blurry blue birds fluttering around the frame both in and out of focus. The color scheme, with the silvery armored costume serving as a centerpiece, is perfect. The entire sequence photographs Fonda in both pain and ambiguous pleasure, but in circumstances so absurd that it becomes comically digestible. She moves about as if she’s the participant of a really uncomfortable photoshoot, which she pretty much is.

With that little sprinkle of blood, the scene walks up to the edge of sex and violence, backing away lest it becomes gruesome. It mirrors an earlier scene where some sharp-toothed dolls chomp away at Fonda’s clothes (time for another costume change!) It also recalls a far more traumatic assault (in this case punishment) on a woman via birds; the famous climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. This shot illustrates the height of the kind of light-hearted casual sadism sprinkled throughout Barbarella and the outside-of-the-box thinking Vadim employed so he could capture his wife in precariously barmy predicaments. It’s a ridiculous but beautiful portrait of in-peril silliness.


Barbarella 1800__barbarella_blu-ray_02_Barbarella 3Barbarella 6

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013, Raimi)

One of the shots that made an impression
One of the shots that made an impression

Oz hath no fury like a woman scorned. Disney teamed up with Sam Raimi in the hopes of reigniting the magic of Oz, a la 2010’s decidedly unmagical Alice in Wonderland. Said film made over a billion dollars worldwide, so it makes sense why they’d go back to the formula for a second round. The ingeniously strategic March release is the only inspired thing about this formula. In both cases, money and talent are in abundance, but the results are flatly forgettable.

In a full-screen black-and-white prologue that could have stood to be trimmed, we establish the life and cons of Oscar aka Oz (James Franco), a small-time magician working for a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. He’s always got a duplicitous smile plastered on his face as he manages to cheat everyone around him. His act is made up of illusions but so is he. He treats his partner Frank (Zach Braff) like a servant, never appreciating him and taking his loyalty for granted. He gives the old one-two routine music box spiel to a pretty but dim lady who is to be his assistant; once again, it’s all an act. After a particularly bad performance, he gets chased by a Strong Man into a hot air balloon at the exact moment a twister arrives. He is then swept off, as the screen expands and the color seeps in, to the Land of Oz.

In Oz, he quickly meets Theodora, the first of three witches in the film, a gullible and naive young woman who quickly falls for him. Oscar is grateful for a second chance at life but still selfish and scheming as ever. He accepts Theodora’s proclamation that he is the Wizard in a foretold prophecy (of course there’s a prophecy) which states that a wizard will come and defeat the Wicked Witch. His incentive is all the gold that waits for this ‘wizard’ at the Emerald City, provided the witch is defeated.

Along the way we meet our cast of characters including the other two witches, Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). There are also two characters that have counterparts from the prologue. Finley (voiced by Braff), a monkey who devotes his services to Oscar and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a sprightly little, you guessed it, china doll.

Oz the Great and Powerful Franco Kunis

The main problem I have with films like Oz the Great and Powerful is the lack of visual spectacle in a film all about visual spectacle. There are very few companies who know how to oversee this much CGI and make it work. When Sony Pictures Imageworks takes on films of this scale, the result is remote, transparent and featureless. With CGI, the possibilities are endless and there’s infinite potential. Ideally, there should be a mix of techniques and endeavors like this have got to be about looking at all the options, digital and practical, to figure out how to truly wow us. That’s a tall order these days; audiences have been indoctrinated to take everything we see onscreen for granted. It has had a similar effect on a lot of studios like Disney who automatically only see one solution for every challenge.

Because of this, Oz the Great and Powerful has a respect for the purpose of wonder whilst lacking it itself. I want visual proof; without it, there’s a wall standing between me and a pretty screensaver. The film has a nice enough spirit and you can feel the desire to entertain, to enchant, but it gets lost on not just its visuals but its overwrought script.

The film feels about an hour longer than it is, at least it did to me, and there are some solid story elements that never take off. The forward motion of the plot is upended by the stasis of Franco constantly pretending to be someone he’s not. The point, I know, but it needed to be more interesting. He needs to find himself amidst the shams, the cons, and the illusion; it all takes a long time. Of the three witches one is expected, one is a cipher and one is a wasted opportunity. It gives an origin story to the Wicked Witch of the West, and there could have been something there, but the critical scenes needed to be sturdier.

I’m going to attribute some of the lack of feeling to miscasting. The right casting choices can make plain material come alive and this just doesn’t happen. James Franco is in theory good casting. He fits the bill with his conman smile and his opportunistic boasting. I’m not sure if he just doesn’t take these projects seriously enough to bring his A-game, or if he genuinely is unable to convincingly appear in a blockbuster. He goes through the motions, but it never feels sincere. Luckily, a lot of the performance is about insincerity, but he doesn’t come through when it counts. Unfortunately, the same can be said for Mila Kunis, who just cannot pull off naiveté to save her life. She fares better in the final half, but her arc doesn’t have the necessary dose of innocence to it, which would have made us care more about her transformation.  Rachel Weisz does what she can with very little and Michelle Williams rehashes her breathy Marilyn for the task of Glinda, which thankfully works.

Oz the Great and Powerful

When I went into the film I was already dreading the idea of Zach Braff voicing a monkey. And yet, much to my pleasant surprise, I was more attached to Finley than to any other character. Sure, he’s got some dumb lines, but he’s got some good ones too. Franco and Braff do a fine job establishing their at-odds partnership in the prologue, and it carries over to Oz nicely.

For all the negatives about the visual effects, I can give credit where credit is due, and the effects work of China Girl is spectacular. It’s an example of a smaller-scale but equally challenging effects piece (she’s in a lot of the film) that gets it right. In the trailer, it didn’t look so hot, but in context, she’s a wondrous, shiny and fragile concoction. It makes up for her cloyingly irritating character.

There’s a one mold fits all trend going on in these revisionist fantasy films; jacking up the stakes as high as they can go and a full-scale battle climax. Oz the Great and Powerful fits this mold, but there’s an inventively clever spin on it that calls upon the power of illusion. Despite everything, Sam Raimi and company have a respect and fascination with old-school illusion that they are able to articulate, especially towards the end.

The costumes and makeup work are on-point and the film consistently succeeds in being for all ages, a task that isn’t as easy as it seems.

Oz the Great and Powerful is certainly better than Alice in Wonderland; not an impressive feat but an important one.  It self-extends its mythology more successfully without completely gluing itself to its inspiration (thanks to dense copyright issues). But you should at least be able to remind us why we’re so attached to the Land of Oz and make us glad we have a chance to go back.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #43-49


#43. The Long Goodbye (1973, Altman): A


#44. Foxy Brown (1974, Hill): B-

My first blaxploitation movie! I’d appreciate any recs anyone wants to throw my way. I know this was originally supposed to be a sequel to Coffy and that the two films are apparently almost identical. This has everything I’d come to expect from the subgenre; rough around the edges, reveling in depicting part of a (still) underrepresented culture using a barely there framework of sex, brawls, crime and funky beats.

But Foxy Brown is just an excuse to showcase the incandescent Pam Grier, both her body and beauty, her general physical presence and her no-nonsense demeanor. Grier can’t really act, and yet, she’s just to die for. I could watch her for eons and the film’s appeal hinges mostly on her. Foxy Brown is entertaining, boring, sleazy, offensive, well-paced, outrageous, exploitative and kitschy in equal measure. Grier’s wardrobe is 70’s print-heaven.

Random Observations:
– The cartoonish villain’s massive owl necklace
– The nurse’s reaction to Michael’s erection
– Foxy pulling a gun out of her hair


#45. Timecrimes (2007, Vigalando): B+

Snappy time-travel film that distills the concept by making it as small-scale as possible. Ordinary schmo gets thrown into a revolving series of mishaps even though he only travels back 90 minutes. The small-scale vibe is what I like most about Timecrimes. There’s also a streak of sick humor as Hector gradually evolves through physical facial damage. The middle act is rough stuff though; once you get into the rhythm of Hector filling in the spaces, it gets predictable and tiresome. In a Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban climax kind of a way. At least there you had Harry and Hermione interacting with each other. With Timecrimes you have to muddle through with only Hector to entertain. Thankfully it bounces back by throwing a couple of surprising wrenches into the mix for its final act. A worthy and involving debut from Nacho Vigalondo (who also appears in the film) that deserves to be seen. It’s on Instant Netflix so check it out.

Random Observations:
-Using “Picture This” as a time-tracker
– Hector is kind of an idiot. Constantly having to play catch-up with himself.

The Magician Bergman

#46. The Magician (1958, Bergman): B

A story of versus; the illusion of truth versus scientific explanation, acknowledging transparency versus willful submission. It’s pretty clear which side Ingmar Bergman is on in this case of absolutes. Bergman asks to what end humiliating the creator serves. In The Magician, stuffy authoritative detractors, led by Gunnar Björnstrand, clinically dissect a form of illusion for being the very thing that it is; illusion. Thus, they are seen as useless, seeing only facade without bothering to think on why the facade exists. Those that submit know they are doing so, whether to be seduced like the sex-starved maids downstairs, or to extract a source of faith or entertainment.

The Magician has a curiously hodgepodge structure. Starting with an enchanted trek through in unforgettably fairy-tale forest as photographed by the great Gunnar Fischer, we then devote whole sections to bawdy sex comedy, elusive two-person conversations and horror. Stringing these sections together is a series of humiliations committed by the stingy non-believers onto Bergman’s alter-ego, the worn-out masked Vogler (Max von Sydow). The Magician is in part about how we mask ourselves and the protection that it provides us. What affected me most about the film was how Vogler reveals himself in the final half (pretending to be mute he finally speaks and sheds his physical disguise), only to be rejected by nearly everybody.

Max von Sydow has never been better. He grounds the film with a penetrating inner torment that reveals itself in harrowing facial expression and body language that conveys a barely contained sorrowful rage.

There’s a clenching factor missing from The Magician. Bergman, excavator of the human condition, funnels his usual themes of faith, truth, suffering and the theater into a narrow resolve for denigrating his critics. Which is all fine and dandy, but this means it makes for a film that fascinates as part of Bergman’s filmography more than a story that stands on its own. And yet, The Magician has stuck with me these past twenty-four hours and I find myself thinking about it more after the fact than I was while watching.

Random Observations:
– Ingrid Thulin looks hot in drag
– Shot of waning light visually activating drowsiness
– The shot above stood out for me most in a film filled with memorable images
– Bergman can creep the pants off you when he wants to

torn curtain

#47. Torn Curtain (1966, Hitchcock): C

With dull characters, flat performances, an undeveloped center and a stop-and-go-stop-and-go pacing, Torn Curtain never fully gets off the ground. There’s a lot that doesn’t come together; being saddled with a script Hitchcock was unsatisfied with, actors he didn’t choose, a rushed production start to fit Julie Andrews schedule, firing Bernard Herrmann and the death of two regular collaborators during prep, etc.The most it achieves is a truly gripping sequence; the arduous slipshod killing of Gromek that remains the apex of Torn Curtain. There are other aspects I enjoyed a lot. Supporting characters like Gromek, Lindt, Koska and Jacobi, the scene between Michael and Lindt, the ballerina payoff, the bus ride from Leipzig to Berlin. That’s really about it though.

The characters simply do not make their mark, making it difficult to care. Paul Newman seems like he doesn’t want to be there (he could never get past the script issues and we know that Hitchcock just wants his actors to do their damn job). Julie Andrews never registers at all; she’s just broadly worried the whole time. That’s it. The section from Sarah’s perspective is drawn out far too long, which is unfortunate because the ‘what about the spy’s wife’ idea is where the whole root of the film stems from.

A fundamental issue is that the central conflict between Michael and Sarah is that she doesn’t know he’s a spy. Once that’s cleared up, there’s no conflict between them, and what there was quickly became tedious.

The second half fares better overall, but when Lila Kedrova steps onto the scene, ready to ACT! fresh off her Zorba the Greek acclaim, the film comes to a screeching sponsor-begging halt. Torn Curtain isn’t bad-bad but it’s not very good, and for Hitchcock, well, that’s bad.

Random Observations:
– The triple-take moment from the ballerina on stage = really effective.
– No music during big Gromek scene is perfect

Theatre of Blood

#48. Theatre of Blood (1973, Hickox): B

Vincent Price has some fish to fry. His victims?  A group of critics, Anton Ego’s if you will, who didn’t appreciate his Shakespearean performances enough to give him a major award. These folks aren’t the fleshy young things we’re used to seeing cut up. Theater of Blood is fun 70’s schlock, using the wide variety of grisly murders found in the Bard’s work and re-serving them on a delectably lowbrow, albeit one-note, platter. The film is boiled down to a series of stacked kill scenes, one after the other, each more different from the next in method, but with the same ingredients of madness; victim unawares, Price performing Shakespearean dialogue, reveal, victim’s face a-tremor and….well, you know the rest.

Vincent Price is simultaneously petrifying and campy as a jilted and delusional actor in what was reportedly his favorite role; he clearly has such a good time with this part. Vincent Price was strapped into a narrow margin of projects throughout his career, never getting to do things like Shakespeare. Edward Lionheart never wanted to do anything else. They meet in an ideally compromised middle; no wonder it was his favorite role. He pops up in ludicrous get-up after ludicrous get-up, some Bard-inspired, some not. My favorite? His fey Afro-accessorized hairdresser Butch. Groovy, baby. Most of his dialogue comes from Shakespeare, and Price makes his character come alive through the very criticisms heaped upon Lionheart; he hams it up!

There are streaks of macabre humor, little detailed touches that make the movie. A couple of standout examples are the surgical killing set to music normally found in a swoony love scene, or when the homeless swarm around Price in the mud to groom and comfort him, feeling like an supervillain’s inexplicably strange origin story. Theatre of Blood is baroquely peppered, that hammy kind of giallo-influenced horror, and one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen.

Random Observations:
– In the oddest of ways, Theater of Blood feels like the kind of scenario that could turn up in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”; in fact I believe there are a couple of stories with vague similarities. Except this isn’t Batman, it’s horror.
– Such wonderful British character actors in this; Robert Coote, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, etc.

The Narrow Margin

#49. The Narrow Margin (1952, Fleischer): A

The Narrow Margin (1952, Fleischer)

The Narrow Margin

From the word go, credits careen towards yo, setting the pace for this bracingly economical, twisty b-noir that knocked my socks off. Not only one of my personal favorite noirs, but now one of my personal favorite films. The majority takes place on a train, from Chicago to Los Angeles, that moving transport full of confined spaces, trapping all major players and conflicts aboard. It’s a pressure-cooker setting that ignites an already dynamite set-up. The train is full of one-trait caricatures we repeatedly run into as Charles McGraw plays musical compartments.

McGraw plays an LAPD officer, has been assigned to protect and escort a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) who plans to testify before a grand jury. They must take a long windy train ride together, and outsmart the men onboard who are there to get a payoff list and murder her. But hours earlier McGraw’s partner Forbes was murdered while escorting Mrs. Neall out of the building and while he mourns and she scoffs, it is clear the two are going to have to work together if they want to get off the train alive.

The tension between the two leads lends to the claustrophobia of the situation. He resents this wholly unpleasant woman for being alive instead of his partner, and she hurls that resentment right back in his face. And that goes double.

Marie Windsor, who I always enjoy seeing, is like a proto-Illeana Douglas. Her Mrs. Neall is a brassy high-wired dame who has no time for ‘weepers’. She tells is straight, expects you to do the same. She has no sympathy for you and she wants bacon, eggs, toast, a bucket of coffee and some cigarettes. Oh, and she likes her bacon crispy. Charles McGraw has a super-serious demeanor that can get some surprising laughs at just the right moments, whether intentional or not.

If you think you know what The Narrow Margin will be, guess again. It moves along at such a snappy pace that you can hardly keep up with the run-ins and it throws in some plot developments that genuinely threw me. It completely overturns gender conventions already implicit within noir that are, additionally, covertly set-up at the beginning of the picture.

Its formal make-up thoroughly impresses. There’s no score, no non-diegetic sounds in The Narrow Margin. This allows the sound design work to be in the forefront; the chug-chug of the train, the scratch-scratch of a nail file. The tension of the tight hallways and corridors is amplified by consistently inventive techniques. There’s some handheld, clever use of reflection that even plays into the plot and a camera that kinetically follows action, not afraid to gets its lens dirty. Clocking in at 71 minutes, this is a vastly underrated blast from the gritty world of 50’s B-noir. A must-see. Who doesn’t love a film mostly set on a train?

Random Observations:
“All robbers carry guns madam”


The Long Goodbye (1973, Altman)


Altman revamps film-noir one year after his revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But instead of turning everything we know about genre presentation upside down, as in McCabe, The Long Goodbye takes film noir and uses contrast to examine displacement. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (whose credits include 1946’s The Big Sleep), take all the tropes and show how they warp when you drop them into 1970’s California. The threat of women in the 1940’s dissipates; the femme fatale doesn’t romance Phillip Marlowe and a pack of free women casually linger nude across from his apartment, eating pot brownies and doing yoga. It’s one of countless examples.

There’s no voiceover of a tough-edged detective waxing poetic. Instead, Marlowe mumbles and grumbles to himself, sounding like a man riffing lover-speak on an R&B track. But he’s not riffing lover-speak; he’s talking to his cat or inanely commenting on a throwaway moment to nobody in particular.

Altman’s wandering camera style mirrors this new world. At the end of the film a character tells Marlowe he’s the only one that cares. And he’s right. Not even the camera can stay focused.

Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe makes this film more than anything else. It’s one of the boldest and ingenious pieces of atypical casting. His Marlowe is a loser. Naively loyal. Able to put only a few pieces together. Sauntering through his assignments. Always chain-smoking in health conscious Cal. His suit-and-tie are outdated but even this holdover from the past is rumpled and unkempt. The first ten minutes show him getting food for his cat at three in the morning, only to try fooling the cat that it’s his favorite brand and failing. The cat runs off. Betrayed even by his cat. First and foremost, Philip is a smart-ass. Gould gives him comedic timing for the ages, never missing a beat to throw a piece of dialogue back in someone’s face.

The Long Goodbye 2

I get why it wasn’t well-received upon release. Altman relishes defying expectations in a way that may be understandably off-putting to some, and for noir and Raymond Chandler purists this must have been vaguely insulting. Most neo-noirs update, rework and shift for the times to be sure, but this is a whole different ball-game.

The last scene is just about one of the best I’ve ever seen because it is the ultimate example of Altman gleefully thwarting expectations. We expect moral consequences, for severe actions to weigh heavily on characters. But Altman’s aesthetic lends to another crucial hollowing out of noir tropes; here, Crime is Casual. Crime is never casual in film noir because noir is usually so plot-driven. Since Altman and Brackett don’t care too much about the plot, crime feels equivalent to a shrug. And at the very moment you expect it to matter, it matters that much less than it ever did. “Hooray for Hollywood”.

Random Observations: 
– Being surprised that I was actually tense during a few scenes.
– The Ernest Hemingwayesque performance by Sterling Hayden which predates Nick Nolte by a mile.
– The always off-putting Henry Gibson is scarily unflappable as a shady psychiatrist.
– Phillip is honored to be followed by Harry.
– The stunning shot that slowly focuses in on the ocean outside the window as someone walks into it.
– “The Long Goodbye” being the only music in the film, arranged in various styles throughout. A perversely amusing touch.

Reintroductions #21-23. Knife in the Water, The Earrings of Madame De… & Marnie

This year I’m devoting more time to revisiting films I’ve seen only once, a practice I’ve shamefully neglected. My Reintroduction posts are a place for me to jot down some thoughts and observations after revisiting and reading up on each film.

Knife in the Water

#21. Knife in the Water (1962, Polanski)
First Seen in: 2008

I’ve got an alphabetical list of the films I want to revisit. I have a system for picking films at random. I keep going until I land on one I have access to and am in the mood for. So I’m happy to have stumbled on Knife in the Water not so long after revisiting Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Polanski forgoes dealing with WWII, unlike fellow Polish filmmakers of the time, instead enclosing a trio of characters in an open space of endless pale grays.

People call this a thriller, but I don’t really see it like that. I see it more as a claustrophobic chamber drama of underhanded class competition and male pomposity. I don’t feel a lot of suspense or tension, but more of the feeling of entrapment which I’d say is different than suspense. Petty competition rules the day. The audience is always aware of the body both as a physical form and a sexual one. Pretty much all of the sexual tension here comes from framing and cutting, very rarely from anything actually happening in this regard.

Polanski allows his framing, dialogue, characterization, blocking, movements and changing weather conditions to contribute equally to the overall effect. For a chamber drama, there’s not a lot of talking and there’s no plot. But you get the intended effect when you take everything in especially in the visual sense (this is FILM ya know!). The claustrophobic aspect really comes into play when you consider how difficult it was to film Knife in the Water.

I’m in love with Polanski’s framing; he stretches out and plays with all his possibilities in some really memorable ways. He favors high contrasting the distance between characters in the frame. He’ll often have one character really close in the foreground, hogging a good portion of what we see, with another character(s) comparatively miniscule, visually trumped. It closes us in more, makes us feel the palpable presence of their close proximity through great distance. There are other shots, like the one above that display a single character, often against the dark gray sea and light gray sky (or in this case, the yacht) which emphasizes the body through silhouette. Finally, there are the shots that put all three characters on the same wavelength, like the jackstraws scene.

Polanski’s debut introduces a lot of elements that will pop up again and again in his films. The outsider, non-conformity, chamber pieces, psychological claustrophobia and characters who can be manipulative, cruel and underhanded. It’s a nice touch at the end to realize that either way Andrzej loses. It’s up to us to decide which he’d rather believe.

Earrings of Madame De

#22. The Earrings of Madame De… (1953, Ophuls)
First Seen in: 2010

The Earrings of Madame De… is an example of a film that I admire and glean from as a piece of immaculate filmmaking over anything else. While I enjoyed it more the second time around, the story simply doesn’t grab or engage me the way I want it to. Just one of those things. But as always with the opulent Ophuls, there’s much to focus on even if I merely like it.

Set in that favorite period of the director’s, late 19th century Vienna, rococo decadence is a prison where a world of debts, money and materialism allow no room for actual emotion or depth. All of our characters are caught up in this world even as it is the thing that eventually destroys them.

With Ophuls, it’s always about elaborately naturalistic camera movement (which must have always been supremely difficult but it appears effortless onscreen). The camera is ruled by where the characters move, tracking where they look and where they go, always making sure to keep enough distance in order to capture the over-decorated surroundings. The mere feat of his tracking shots wow to this day. The camera also makes sure that Louise and Donato are intertwined, crossing paths by meeting at the middle. His repeated theme of what becomes of us when love and desire take hold is certainly present here. Suffering for love becomes its own art form.

The earrings of the title at first carry a lot of symbolic importance but little meaning to Louise. By the end, they carry multiple strands of symbolic importance and mean everything to Louise. A symbol first of her marriage, then of her love for Donato. For Andre they represent control and a way to damage and inflict pain if used at the right moment. In fact, the earrings are over-symbolized by these characters. It’s as if they don’t know how to let emotions exist as they are. They must infuse meaning into a shiny material inanimate object.

Danielle Darrieux is nuanced elegance. Charles Boyer is underrated in this as a general whose occupation has trained him to never show his hand and to plan his moves strategically. Vittorio De Sica is the one I attach myself to most. He is gentle and easily lovable, bursting with humanity even while caught up in a somewhat trifling triangle.

Random Observations/Things I Want to Remember:
– The dance montage stands out. Communication can only exist in this world while engaging in public ritual. Even then it takes time to peel away the layers of artifice as we see the barriers drop between the two.
– Louise throwing out the ripped paper

Marnie 2

#23. Marnie (1964, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: 2008

Marnie plays out like Hitchcock’s wet dream, even perhaps over Vertigo, both of which fixate on identity and obsession. His visual arsenal is in peak working condition, creating a brazenly filmic representation of Marnie’s psyche. All the clues to Marnie’s repressed trauma are explicitly depicted, but that’s what’s so voluptuously addictive about it; there’s nothing like Hitch indulging in his artificial but incomparable ‘pure cinema’.

For all the love I have towards Marnie, Hitch bit off more than he could chew in certain regards. He slaps some stirringly dauntless ideas up onscreen without doing anything with them. What I mean of course is the character of Mark, the virile fetishist who gets off on the fact that Marnie is a compulsive thief. Marnie correctly calls him out, accusing him of trapping her like something he’s caught. Sure, he wants to help, but Mark has flaws that Hitchcock thinks his audience will overlook simply because he’s got Sean Connery in the role. This is Marnie’s film to be sure, and the focus needs to be on her, but the master’s need to shine everything through a grotesquely romantic prism goes further to ignore the psychosexual realm that he explores so minutely in Vertigo. Instead, you’ve got a character that rapes Tippi Hedren without us ever dealing with the implications of the assault. And since Mark really does want to help her in his own misguided way, all of his actions by the end feel absolved. Because of his interference, Marnie can start to heal. It dismisses his actions instead of exploring Mark’s delve-worthy characteristics. Hitchcock sets up all the pieces for an equally layered character, only for the layers to lie limp in the aftermath of Mark’s sexual assault.

Tippi Hedren is awe-inspiring in what was only her second film. Marnie is brittle and stunted, covering her frigidity with ‘decent’ manners, a woman who has no identity for herself.  She goes to some exhausting places for this role and the sympathy she arouses makes us desperate for her to have a breakthrough as we inch towards the conclusion. Louise Latham is walking rigidity as Bernice, embodying self-inflicted mental confinement. It’s a theatrical performance, Latham was much younger than Bessie, but since Marnie is in its nature manifest, she fits in like a haunted washed-out glove.

Even with its shortcomings (dropping Diane Baker’s character like a hot pancake and a climax that mostly works despite its touch of falsity are others) Marnie remains one of Hitchcock’s most hypnotic works. He drowns us in signifiers, the color red being the flashiest. But there’s some graceful character work that is easy to miss amidst the flamboyance. So much of Marnie works not just because we care so deeply for her, but because beneath the sheen of formalism, there’s a considerate and layered character study of a woman without an identity to call her own save a love of horses.

Random Observations:
-Bruce Dern as the sailor!
-“Well, I just swan”
– The pivotal sequence with Forio is impossibly expert
– Edith Head’s costumes, particularly for Diane Baker, are great. Always high necklines for Tippi. Always.
– That crane shot at the party that mirrors Notorious
– The only two conventionally suspenseful scenarios Hitchcock has in Marnie is the robbery at Rutland’s and Strutt’s appearance at the party.
– Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (she was hired after Evan Hunter felt too uncomfortable with the rape scene) says that she doesn’t consider the scene a rape. Just some marital trials. So basically, Jay Presson Allen is fucking out of her mind. Noted.
– Now that I’ve revisited Marnie, I’m finally ready to embark on Hitchcock’s final four films, none of which I’ve ever seen before. How exciting!
– Bernard Herrmann’s score reminds me so much of Leonard Rosenman’s work for Rebel without a Cause that I can’t think of anything else.
– Funnily enough, I placed Marnie and Mark on my list of  Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen. I admit I find nothing really romantic between the two. So why did I put them on my list? Click the link to find out!
Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen:

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Bear with me. This the first time I’m doing one of these and I found it more difficult than I anticipated. How do you choose a favorite shot from The Wizard of Oz?! I’ll likely end up reading everyone’s and wishing I had chosen different shots. But I’ve been admiring this ongoing feature from The Film Experience for a while and really want to participate when I can!

It’s weird that The Wizard of Oz exists. For so many of us it feels embedded; I can’t remember a time without it. When you sit and watch it after seeing the film so many times you begin to gaze with fresh eyes. It’s still one of the most eye-popping uses of Technicolor I can think of and Oz is riddled with details and effects that bring the world to life, from the costumes to the matte paintings to the makeup to the horse of a different color. I was tempted to choose that first color shot, the slow sweeping pan over Oz, but I know it’ll be chosen and written about by many. What I love about that shot is that it still stands out today. I can’t imagine what the effect must have been in 1939. You get to soak in the world, breathe in it. And the camera gives us an advantage point over Dorothy. We get a better view than her! You can almost feel what it must have been like to have stepped onto that set.

I was tempted to pick a shot of the ruby slippers sparkling as Dorothy models them for the camera or of Judy Garland’s fresh cherubic face, particularly that close-up when she first hears the Scarecrow talk. Or something that showed off the watery reflectiveness or the monochromatic overdose of Emerald City. The shot of the quartet dwarfed in the frame as they walk down that intimidating arched hallway to the Great and Powerful Oz. The two I settled on admittedly don’t capitalize  on the eye-popping color the film has to offer, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I have a few of those shots below.

Screencaps courtesy of

For my sepia-toned shot I chose:

Wizard of Oz 1

As Dorothy sings “Over the Rainbow”, she lightly sinks into the hay behind her. What has always stuck out about this shot is that it mirrors the way one lies in the grass and looks up at the sky, us daydreaming youngsters. She leans back vertically but rotate the frame and she could be lying down in grass. Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland would be heavily influenced by this scene 12 years later. In the opening minutes, Alice lies down (again, in grass) and dreamily sings “A World of My Own”. Both songs are about escaping. I love the soft focus of the background, allowing only Dorothy and the hay to be in clear view, her outside reality lost amidst the song.

And for my color shot:

Wizard of Oz 5

Everything near the Wicked Witch’s castle takes on a oppositional gloomy atmosphere from everything we’ve seen before. The stormy blue sky is a big part of that. It’s a dark but beautiful color. On the one hand, there’s the close proximity of the black shadow of veiny woods monopolizing the frame. On the other hand, there’s the very distant sky, far far off with Dorothy dangling above and moving swiftly towards the edge of the frame out of reach. The camera is trapped in overrun foliage. For the first time we are truly separated from Dorothy, if only for a brief moment.

Other shots in the running:

Wizard of Oz 3 Wizard of Oz 4 Wizard of Oz 6 Wizard of Oz 7

Films Seen in 2013 Round-up: #38-42

Pleasures of the Flesh

#38. Pleasures of the Flesh (1965, Oshima): B-/C+

Taking the “pink film” and transforming it to his own needs, Nagisa Oshima’s first film at his company Sozosha after leaving Shochiku is a nihilistic look at pitiless self-destruction through giving oneself up to lust. But it’s more than that. The lust is always bought, one-sided, at times barely consensual. It’s an ugly kind of lust Oshima depicts. And it comes from an entirely unsympathetic protagonist, an average man who’s so distraught by his love marrying someone else that he just gives up on life altogether. This was a hard film to turn myself over to and what I mainly got out of it were some of its images from Oshima’s use of Cinemascope. A lot of the images, use of dissolves and sound will stay with me indefinitely.

citizen ruth

#39. Citizen Ruth (1996, Payne): B-

A satire that looks at both sides of the abortion issue. It isn’t about the issue; it’s about how agenda drives people to cartoonishly manipulative lengths. Laura Dern is pretty insane here; it’s a committed performance of the first order. No apologies. The opposing camps are way more invested in the fate of her baby then she is. She’s barely listening except when it matters to her, a good indicator of her character is to notice what catches her ear. She breaks down a lot, but you can see it’s so routine, that it will never lead to a life change. She’s very stupid, very selfish, and unapologetically childish. Everyone understandably treats her like a child. Children are better behaved then her. Payne uses a lot of point-of-view shots to emphasize that everyone talks at her and not to her.

I love that Ruth doesn’t change. About twenty minutes in, I was wondering if she had an arc, and if she did, I didn’t see how they could convince me that this character would ever change. Thankfully, Payne and Taylor take the same route.

The plot hits a dead end an hour in though, only moving forward to raise the same stakes, and it loses a lot of steam. As the stakes rise, the jokes get broader and thus less interesting. So the final half didn’t measure up for me. Perfect final shot though.

The House of the Spirits

#40. House of the Spirits (1993, August): D+

I’m not sure how one of the most impressive casts ever assembled just happens to be in one of the wholly miscast films I’ve ever seen. Ever. And it’s not just because they cast mostly Anglo actors for Latino roles.Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas and Vincent Gallo get it done. Everyone else (Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder) is woefully lost. And the film falls into the pack of big screen adaptations that just can’t capture anything about the source material. Now, I haven’t read Isabel Allende’s novel but I know how revered it is and have read her Daughter of Fortune. I was so intrigued by the potential underneath what I saw onscreen. At least now I really want to read the book. But this is stodgy, inept, lifeless stuff. It has so much time to pass through and does it without ever building to anything. Things happen but we never feel them. The film is just sort of there.

Man Who Knew Too Much pic 1

#41. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Hitchcock): B+

Hitchcock’s 1934 version has Peter Lorre and the raw material of a quirky as-yet unformed master, but this is superior, a slick and surprisingly engaging thriller.  I say surprisingly because I wasn’t really expecting to love this; I had an unjustified prejudice against it. Not for any real reason, except maybe the presence of Doris Day (whom I don’t dislike but…) and an assumption it would be too wholesome to carry any of Hitch’s necessary bite. OK, so it still doesn’t have bite. But Day is actually really fantastic here and though it may be stretched a bit thin and ends on a note of misfired humor, it has the advantage of Hitchcock’s reliable precision at every frame, every second. The taxidermist scene doesn’t really come off even if its placement makes sense in theory. I enjoyed the easiness and embedded discord between Stewart and Day’s marriage, the subtly omniscient character work and the pacing of the first half.

Police Story 3

#42. Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992, Tong): B-

Takes quite a while to get going and Dimension’s release made for some intrusive song choices and of course rough dubbing. Despite a rushed and flimsy plot even for a martial arts flick, this boasts two things that make it more than worth watching. First, the playful buddy cop dynamic between Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh (then Khan). Seeing Yeoh work her fast-footed magic at the same level as the slapstick-tipped Chan is a lot of fun. Second; the last twenty minutes which features some stunt work that your eyes will have trouble believing even by Jackie Chan standards. We’re talking Chan hanging from a moving helicopter’s ladder crashing into things. Fights on moving trains. Michelle Yeoh hanging off the side of a truck and performing a motorcycle jump over a train! Even keeping in mind the caliber of stunt work martial-arts actors take on in the Hong Kong film industry doesn’t lessen the wow factor.  I wish the bloopers lasted as long as the film. Bonus Maggie Cheung in a supporting role!