Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #112-117

Though I’ve also seen Behind the Candelabra, The Boat That Rocked, Point Break and Blood but I’m going to shift those into this upcoming week’s entry.

The Easiest Way
#112. The Easiest Way (1931, Conway)

My quest to see pretty much every Pre-Code continues. This viewing was also inspired by a resurgence of love for Robert Montgomery. I found myself falling for him many years ago, back when I first started watching classic films. It subsided for years until I saw him in When Ladies Meet this year. It all came flowing back. The dapper obliviousness. The drunken cavorting. The boyish charm.

The Easiest Way disappointed me quite a bit, though an ambitiously mobile camera and a couple of outdoors scenes lend a little to grasp on from a formal point of view. The story didn’t bring the progressive aspects of women claiming their own desires, even under the guise of a compromised message film. Instead, we see Constance Bennett exhibiting inertia as subdued dignity. Her lack of character kills the film in its tracks. Many people love Bennett; stunner though she is, color me unimpressed with her acting abilities (at least here). Watching a non-entity of a character make poor choices and become a pity-case for Depression-era women about what not to do in the face of easy opportunity isn’t very fun. Furthermore, Robert Montgomery gets a pitiful fifteen minutes of screen time. Slightly making up for this is his perfect entrance.

Anita Page as Bennett’s sister, and Clark Gable in his first sizable role as her husband, are a parallel instructional couple of how to live life as a woman in the 30’s. Honestly and dutifully of course!

There are a few notables here. Though the final scene plays into my inherent issues with the film, it strikes an effectively complex and bittersweet cord. Marjorie Rambeau has a palpable desperate quality to her speeches which also mark the most astute and empowering material in the film.

Side Effects
#113. Side Effects (2013, Soderbergh)

Much more satisfying than the slim pickin’ offerings of Haywire, Side Effects is another yet another Steven Soderbergh genre exercise, this time working within a third generation Hitchockian springboard. It’s a meticulous Jenga tower of a pharmaceutical potboiler fronted by Scott Z. Burns’ precision and Soderbergh’s reliably yellow-hued stasis. It’s a satisfying old-fashioned romp that plays around with manipulation through perspective.

Its final act veers into somewhat uncomfortable territory. I’m not sure if we’re ready to have gleeful throwbacks to the archaic sexual politics of 80’s/early 90’s thrillers with no repercussions. Even more importantly, it simply doesn’t come off, landing between preposterous yet not preposterous enough to retain the necessary guffaw factor. Other unfortunate elements include Vinessa Shaw’s shrill one-note wife.

The trailers worked too hard to cover up its halfway point event, making the very thing they were trying to hide obvious. However, I appreciate that the marketing had the intended effect of not knowing where the film was going after the halfway point. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent, particularly Mara who paints a realistic picture of crippling depression with her doe-eyed fragility as well as her other layered nuances of character.

Soderbergh’s cinematography under pseudonym Peter Andrews presents some of the best, and at the very least some of my personal favorite, digital cinematography I’ve seen, utilizing shallow focus and deep sensual lighting amidst a clinical backdrop.

Night Must Fall

#114. Night Must Fall (1937, Thorpe)

I’m a big ball of giddiness when it comes to Night Must Fall. It features a career-best performance from Robert Montgomery, playing against type as an Irish homicidal maniac with equal parts charm, vulnerability and psychosis. Opposite him is Rosalind Russell as a repressed quiet niece torn between her fascination for morbid visceral excitement and recognizing her fright as a dangerous reality and that her inaction is paved with potential consequence. There’s an atypically interesting and rich dichotomy between the two characters; it almost feels like a plot line from “Dexter”; except actually good. No, great.

Night Must Fall is severely underrated and filled with character-driven tension. I basically spent the entire time lustily swooning over Montgomery, getting lost in his ‘baby-faced’ Irish lilt and trickster charm tactics. This is a memorable yarn based on an acclaimed play of the time and featuring Robert Montgomery’s only Academy Award nominated performance (and his own favorite performance as well). That introductory shot with the nonchalant swinging door is one of the best first character glimpses in film. I’d count this film among my many favorites.

#115. Pieta (2013, Kim)

“To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclamation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.”

Full Review:


#116. Sightseers (2013, Wheatley)

Rising out of the same kind of mundane death-related British humor from films like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Trouble with Harry, Sightseers is sprinkled with moments of scathing clarity but is too often bogged down in one-note transparency. We get it. It’s funny because Tina and Chris treat murder like light-hearted shenanigans.

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram created these characters and wrote the film, which Ben Wheatley then directed. Tina and Chris are both pretty pitiful individuals with Chris lacking for creativity and swamped in resentful class issues and Tina a repressed dog psychology obsessive whose life has passed by taking care of her deeply unpleasant mother. Though it boasts two fantastic lead performances, my main problem with Sightseers is that they are seen as pathetic creatures. They are not depicted with an adoptive get-on-board-the-murder-train sympathetic glee, even if Wheatley and co do a good job of entrenching us into their mindsets. They are depicted with one-note pity, as sad adults in arrested development. You don’t root for them and I wanted to be rooting for them.

The trajectory of their road trip, and the film, is a lovingly crafted smaller sights of Northern England tour (the Pencil Museum!) There are shots, like the one above, that Wheatley employs that have either Oram or Lowe staring straight into the camera that are involving instigating moments. And that final scene is tops; truly tops and the kind of biting jab the rest of the film was trying to execute with intermittent success. Basically, Scott Tobias’ NPR review perfectly sums up how I felt about it. He articulated it way better than I ever could.

The Big House
#117. The Big House (1930, Hill)

Known as pretty much the first prison film, The Big House establishes a well-known prototype whilst stretching out the boundaries of its own blueprint. Basically, it tweaks its own formula while simultaneously establishing it. Writer Frances Marion became the first female to win a non-acting Oscar for her screenplay and a lot of prison visits and research went into her preparation. So the film is on one level a critique of the prison system, namely the indoctrination process and life within a microcosm society. Overcrowding, poor care, conformity, discipline and the authorial rot are all addressed.

We expect to sympathize with Robert Montgomery’s Kent, a Tobias Beecher-lite audience surrogate, with the touted up big-shots of Chester Morris and Wallace Beery as our troublemakers. In fact, Montgomery’s shifty snitch-fish out of water is seen as the enemy. Morris and Beery, united by loyalty and an inside-out pattern of established friendship are actually the ones with which we sympathize. Chester Morris, who had yet to impress me in a film, is fantastic here. And Beery, in a role that brought him back on top elicits the perfect dangerous but soft lovable aura, even as he talks about his murder rap and knocking dames teeth in. A rare gift that. The two have such memorable chemistry and you become very attached to their camaraderie.

George W. Hill gets around the stilted blocking of early talkies by mixing it up where he can. He creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of sweat and brawn, using boxed-in framing and dark strips and towering architectural structure which threatens to weigh down on the prisoners. There is also a lot of panning and effective use of close-up. Montgomery’s darting eyes are so well-captured in the second half. You are just waiting for him to explode with quaking fear. And finally, the climax of the film is a thrillingly-mounted event of smoky chaos and uncontrollable gunfire. In short, this ranks up among my favorite Pre-Code films.


Review: Pietà (2013, Kim)


To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclomation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is an unfeeling loan shark who spends his days sadistically crippling his industrial citizens after they can’t pay up on unreasonable interest rates. He has no friends, he barely speaks and his life is generally soulless wasteland. One day, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) shows up claiming to be Kang-do’s mother who abandoned him at birth. He dismisses her claims, becoming more and more irate as she insists on coming into his apartment, washing his dishes and following him everywhere he goes. Kang-do finally concedes to acknowledge her presence, and humiliates her in various ways including slapping her, making her eat a part of his cut off thigh (seriously) and finally raping her. From there, the film veers into a lazy uncommitted land of revenge, redemption and dysfunctional familial bonding.

Reading interviews with Kim Ki-duk makes it clear that his idea of dealing with criminals isn’t necessarily to punish, but to remember compassion as a virtue and that redemption is within reach if one is willing to open themselves up to feeling and remorse. Kang-do is not so much seen as a monster, but as an unfeeling child-robot victim who is the way he is because his mother abandoned him. This kind of distorted naivete is everywhere in Pietà and the misplaced empathy that Kim so kindly and unjustifiably heaps onto his typical loner character Kang-do is nowhere to be found amongst his other characters.

For those who have claimed ‘it’s more complicated than that’ in regards to Kim’s recurrent misogyny; if this isn’t misogyny, what is? When it comes to Pietà, the word complicated is as antithetical to its petty affectations. I generally call myself a fan of Kim Ki-duk’s, at least from the films of his I have seen and yes, that includes The Isle. 3-Iron in particular struck an indelible spiritual chord of offbeat human connectivity. But the women in his films are almost always relentlessly victimized, complete with crumbling upper lip and guttural anguish. They rarely register as actual characters and are usually punching-bag substitutes.

In Pietà, the absent mother is directly blamed for Kang-do’s lack of empathy or maturity. And it is only when she is punished via rape that reconciling is possible between them because the act is disgustingly seen as putting them on equal footing. Later narrative developments may put this causal argument into question, but at that point in the story all information points to this reasoning. Kim stated that he purposefully cuts away from violent acts in the film so the audience is left to fill in the blanks of cruelty. It says a lot about how he defines violence because rape apparently doesn’t qualify for him; that act gets the distinction of being shown unlike the cutaways to other kinds of physical harm.

There is also zero sympathy for the drowned-in-debt industrial workers. Kang-do consistently asks why they borrowed the money in the first place. Basically, the viewpoint is that they dug their own hole so now they deserve to lie in it. All of this oversimplified cause-and-effect not only makes the film rudimentary, but it makes non-entity of an antihero Kang-do a misguidedly sympathetic savior.

Kim Ki-duk’s films usually provoke extreme responses, but the prodding here is entirely superficial and not in service of any thought-provoking idea or layered whole. There is a line between challenging provocation with intent and empty provocation borne out of malignant rage. The ugliness of the film capsizes all, especially since it is unsupported by thoughtfulness or purpose. It all goes back to him using his reputation in the title credits as a carte blanche, a get-out-of-jail-free card where all offensive and brutal content is used as a false prompt to read into supposed depth. And it can conveniently be backed up with ignorant claims of ‘well it’s not supposed to be pleasant to watch’ and a misperceived truth that in the arthouse world, unpleasantness equates meaningful truth. With Pietà; look closer – there’s nothing there.

Most of its length consists of repetitive name-calling exchanges and abuse, with slapping every which way and suicide and crippling abound. Pietà comes out of Kim’s charred disappointment at how money and loan sharks have affected South Korea as a contributing factor of monetary obsession and a high suicide rate. The filming of the Cheonggyecheon’s area of industrial labyrinth certainly leaves an impression as does that final image. Kim Ki-duk’s raw inner turmoil at the world he observes are the material with which Pietà exists; he just forgot to mold those emotions into an actual film. The result is truly artless and repugnant with zero return value adding up to the oh-so-grand statement that, ya know, money is bad. Revelatory stuff Kim; truly.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #106-111

It’s been over a week since seeing two Russian animated Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) and John Dies at the End, so I won’t really write about them. The Snow Queen was appropriately fragile but too flat. The thirty-minute The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) brings you into its hair-flowing, cross-netted arms. The animation is memorably illustrative , using a cardboard-like effect to emphasize its stand-out artistry. The honeycomb netting used on top of the water creates a nice touch of  prison-like connotations. Beautiful stuff. John Dies at the End was stoner-cult overkill. Intermittently creative and completely obnoxious. Not my cup of tea even with its few inspired bits.

Gate of Hell
#106. Gate of Hell (1953, Kinugasa)

Samurai goes Sirk. That’s what Gate of Hell is at its core. The title fools you into expecting lots of samurai slashing and pillaging. In fact, it gets all that out of the way in the first 20 minutes, which are used to set up common themes like duty and loyalty to be seen through a melodramatic kaleidoscope of vibrant rainbows. As the film proceeds, its pacing gradually halts and hiccups along. Shifting perspective onto Machiko Kyō’s Lady Kesa nicely spotlights her domestic dilemma. This is a Japanese film, meaning the ladies have it the worst. She gets put in an impossible situation, one where stoicism, dignity and loyalty are simply not enough, not when a man has decided what he wants. Though her husband Wataru is probably one of the kindest men I’ve ever seen in a historical Japanese film, even he has never bothered to really see Kesa as a human being, instead choosing to see her as a vision of idealistic piety. His comfort, though well-intentioned, is rendered meaningless for his own obliviousness of the situation’s validity. Only after it’s too late do you have both men regretting and contemplating their actions, recognizing that maybe this woman had a heart and an inner conflict all her own.

Daiei Film’s first color production, the first Japanese color film released outside Japan, winner of the 1954 Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Language Film at the 1954 Oscars. Despite all its praise, Gate of Hell isn’t nearly as well known as other Golden Era ‘masterworks’. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa (director of silent masterpiece A Page of Madness), wasn’t thrilled with the film, citing pacing issues, an underdeveloped script and rushed production. I have to agree with his misgivings though they by no means ruin the picture, but it standardizes it on a level far below its visual worth.

Gate of Hell is, point blank, one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous Technicolor films ever made. Think all the period flair and color of Adventures of Robin Hood having a child with the texture and intricacy of Jack Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus. It’s a spoil of riches; truly and the restoration job must be seen to be believed.

Under Capricorn
#107. Under Capricorn (1949, Hitchcock)

Forever praised by the French, pretty much dismissed by everyone else, Under Capricorn is a Hitchcock film nobody talks about or even acknowledges as existing. Shrugged off as a last mishap before embarking on his winning streak that would come of the fifties, Under Capricorn takes the experimentation of the long take further, this time in a historical love triangle set in New South Wales.

Under Capricorn is absolutely worth seeing, even if it’s brought down by Hitchcock’s inability to shed the intentionally static stuffiness of the first act or to feel any sense of investment on his end as a filmmaker. His problem is that his penchant for technical wizardry and innovation never quite corroborates with the story itself; it’s flair for flair’s sake.

That being said, I liked the film for its undeniably bizarre qualities, its triumphant victory over the past and for Jack Cardiff’s game camerawork. That shot when Michael Wilding arrives at the Flusky’s for dinner still feels magical. Before we know it, we’re newly transported, the short journey from room to room somehow truncated before our eyes. With Ingrid Bergman as an alcoholic half-mad Irish noblewoman (!), clearly Under Capricorn shouldn’t be as easily dismissed as it has in the past.

#108. The Great Gatsby (2013, Luhrmann)
Full Review:

The Snow Queen
109. The Snow Queen (1957, Atamanov, Fyodorov)

rusalochka 1968
110. The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) (1968, Aksenchuk)

John Dies at the End
#111. John Dies at the End (2013, Coscarelli)

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999, Minghella)

I don’t have a ton of time today as I’m preparing for a weekend trip and want to get a couple of films in tonight. However! I found time to re-watch one of my favorite films from the 90’s; The Talented Mr. Ripley. Gearing up the old brain cogs, I tried to pick a focus. A shot that showcases some career-best work from either Matt Damon, Jude Law (I’ll never get over how impossibly good-looking he is here) or Gwyneth Paltrow? Or maybe a shot that reflects the source material and the way each depicts the duality of Ripley and his co-existing narcissism and identity-shedding self-loathing. Or maybe a shot that focuses on the homoeroticism between Ripley and Dickie? Or possibly a shot that allows me to talk about Walter Murch’s editing and thoughts on the mind-staggeringly genius book of conversations with between him and Michael Ondaatje?

Alas,  this is to be a short entry and when it comes to task the shot that has always stuck out to me more than any other is one that doesn’t represent the larger fabric of the film. Instead, it is the embodiment of boorish slime as portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Freddie Miles. Hoffman is my favorite actor working today and here, in the same year he played compassionate nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia, he takes a role like Freddie and embodies him, reflecting back all of Ripley’s self-disgust; wholesale. In a typical supporting sleaze-threat role he pushes every facial expression and gesture further, hand perpetually resting in mid-air, threatening to actually rest on something.

Chosen Shot:

Ripley 6
I’ve never seen this face from Hoffman in any other performance. Every time I see this shot, his jazz-swerving body and that unyielding cold-stone pucker, there’s a visceral pull-back reaction; like I just witnessed something very very gross. It’s like one of his facial tics gets momentarily transplanted onto my face. Freddie doesn’t know Ripley, but he’s already got the intuitive fix on him; he sees a mooch, a counterfeit outcast in sheep’s corduroy clothing.  This shot is the first indication. Below is a tribute to the gestures and airs of Freddie and Hoffman’s performance, all conveyed in a handful of scenes, most of which cannot be fully appreciated with screenshots.

Freddie 2 Freddie 3 Freddie 4 Freddie 5 Freddie 6 Freddie

Some other non-Freddie favorites:

Ripley 1 Ripley 4 Ripley 9 Ripley 10 Ripley 11 Ripley 13 Ripley 14

Review: The Great Gatsby (2013, Luhrmann)


The Great Gatsby is beloved by countless, a tale about the selfish emptiness within decadence and the upper class, a nation on the cusp of change and the increasingly unattainable American dream. It’s a book we’ve all had to read in our respective high school classes. Reigning personal memories include a horrid group project called ‘MTV Gatsby’ set up by an overcompensating student teacher. Yes, folks. We were assigned to create a music video about The Great Gatsby which clearly would provide endless layers of novelistic insight and comprehension. If only my student teacher knew that Aussie extravaganza Baz Luhrmann would release something similar eight years later.

I went into The Great Gatsby with a lot of skepticism. The book has never been a personal favorite, the trailers unimpressed and it was impossible to ignore the lukewarm reception. Much to my surprise, I walked out a moderate fan, so much so that I’m almost tempted to go back and see it again.

Baz Luhrmann’s indulgent theatricality of excess, the out-of-place soundtrack and the marriage of retro pastime and modernity are where he gets it right. These hyper-stylized ADD-like trademarks are on full display, especially in the first half as Nick (Tobey Maguire) becomes indoctrinated into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Is Baz repeating himself here? Absolutely, and I think he will for the rest of his career. But those heightened moments of celebration and the way he detonates the viewer and audience surrogate, in this case Nick, into a world defined by fresh resurrection has the inescapable touch of a fantasy.


This comes across through Luhrmann’s near-obsessive focus with what I like to call the ‘gaze of astonishment’. It’s in most of his films, only occuring on either the smallest of scales (the fish tank scene in Romeo + Juliet) or the biggest (Nick entering his first Gatsby party). It is equivalent to the obligatory moment in fantasy where our protagonist first encounters another world; a land they never dreamed could exist. Luhrmann monopolizes this moment, morphing stylized fantasy into an Old Hollywood kind of realization. The ‘gaze of astonishment’ populates the first half of his films, when pacing is at its most breakneck. It’s often the only time Luhrmann consciously slows down, just for a moment mind you, to pull focus on the reactive wonder of spectacle.

Baz Luhrmann concocts within the realm of ‘pure cinema’, constantly working towards an otherwise untapped wavelength. A major stumbling point for him in regards to ‘Gatsby’ is that he squeezes his adaptation into this state of heightened cinema while simultaneously straining to keep his adaptation ‘literary’. The two don’t merge and this, far more often than Luhrmann’s garish posturing, is what distracts. And boy oh boy does he really hammer home the iconic imagery of the incorrigible green light and the gold specs of T.J Eckleburg.

There are certain showcase scenes that shimmer, fusing the novel seamlessly within Luhrmann’s universe. That first day between Gatsby and Daisy appropriately feels like Cloud Nine. The climactic hotel scene is allowed to breathe and scorches with wishy-washy intention and bracing tautness. There are great scenes sprinkled throughout The Great Gatsby, but that second half strikes an inert chord too often. For Luhrmann, slowing down usually means he’s still functioning at time-and-a-half, but he’s bogged down by his sense of loyalty to the novel and the film stiflingly gets away from him at certain intervals. Thankfully, the parts he gets right are mostly big moments, the ones that needed to stick the landing.

Great Gatsby

Gatsby and Daisy are erroneously presented as one of Luhrmann’s grand romances even though they don’t fit the bill. We’re meant to buy into Gatsby and Daisy with the impossible hope with which Gatsby urgently clings. This stance undermines the point of their dynamic and fate, asking for contradictory feelings from the audience. Nick’s gradual focus with which he sees most of this morally corrupt and selfish group needed to be the key focal point.

Luhrmann’s perpetual weakness for playing emotions on too grand a scale can work against him, zooming past the individual and occupying an irretrievable space we can only look up at from afar. As a result, Leonardo DiCaprio ends up being responsible for the majority of my emotional response to The Great Gatsby. This, quite frankly, surprised me. When I first heard he was cast, it felt too easy, a solid idea in theory, but not the best fit when you actually put some thought into the choice. Sure there’s initial stagnancy and I struggled with his dialect (an issue I usually have with him). DiCaprio comes through mainly because he’s always been good at bridging an emotional contact with his audience. He plays Gatsby as a boy playing dress-up, someone who pours everything into an unreachable dream. Once he gets past the stiltedness of those introductory scenes, I found myself truly feeling for the man; for how close he was to making that life for himself and the puckish nervousness that comes through his face at the right moments.

Even though Baz Luhrmann has made his whole career playing with love on a mythological scale, ‘Gatsby’ somehow becomes a distracting scene-by-scene recreation of Moulin Rouge! Except Moulin Rouge! is considerably better. While others scrutinized the film as adaptation, I couldn’t help constantly recalling his 2001 musical. For starters, I despise the first fifteen minutes of both for their cartoonish punctuation and put upon silliness. The misguided framing device in ‘Gatsby’ transfers the opening visual cues of post-tragic misery seen in Moulin Rouge!

Here are some more, just for kicks: Nick’s foray into drunkenness and Christian’s foray into absinthe; the first Gatsby party and the first excursion at the Moulin Rouge; the screwball tone and schoolboy shuffling when Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke and when Gatsby awaits his first reunion with Daisy; the ‘honeymoon’ period of Satine and Christian working on ‘Spectacular Spectacular’ and Daisy’s secret summertime paradise visits at Gatsby’s.

Jordan Baker Debicki

The list goes on and on. All of these scenes and much more, line up in overall parallels of structure, scene placement, tone and purpose. It goes past similarity, uncomfortably settling into carbon copy territory. At least in The Great Gatsby, Jay’s hopeful persistence serves its purpose, providing important characterization and an aggravating naïve edge to the doomed lover. Elsewhere in idealistic la-la land, Christian’s incessant non-stop talk of love had me mourning his survival over Satine’s death.

Through the uncharacteristically watered-down and contradictory components in The Great Gatsby, I still find myself doting on the film with an unexpected fondness. Though it can be difficult for me to grasp onto the bigness of Baz Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic romances, his singular audacity is also his greatest strength. Take Romeo + Juliet, a film that largely grates, but unlike ‘Gatsby’, goes for broke every step of the way. There’s an admiration and respect I have for its incomparably original streak. It broke ground you didn’t know was even there as Luhrmann reached out to cinema as a state of being, and in the mainstream sector no less! The Great Gatsby is often at odds with itself, but Luhrmann’s single-minded cinematic state of being comes across enough to tip the scales.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #98-105 & Reintroduction #32

Witchfinder General

#98. Witchfinder General (1968, Reeves)
Depicting violence without key trade-offs for the audience i.e titillation, a focus on the build-up to and the inevitable ‘pay-off’ was a bold and hard-to-swallow conceit in 1968 (especially by those expecting a ‘Vincent Price’ movie). Hell, it still is. Michael Reeves, who died at age 25 shortly after this film’s release, took some chances with his scummy trek through an inescapably bleak world where power yields a blank check of unimaginable suffering. It’s all doled out in matter-of-fact fashion by Vincent Price, in a chilling atypical depiction of collected subtlety. There’s really nothing inherently or traditionally enjoyable about Witchfinder General but that doesn’t take away from it being a good film. Perhaps the most admirable thing about it is that it while its depiction of 17th century England is likely not a paragon of accuracy, it feels so dirty, so lived in, so meager. It steps beyond forced recreations of time periods with its low-budget expenditure and a washed out glow of pales and whistling winds. It’s not a pretty film in either content or aesthetic and Reeves makes good by sticking to his guns in this way.

Hoop Dreams

99. Hoop Dreams (1994, James, etc)
Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones where the finished product is entirely different from its original conception (ex. The Up Series, Capturing the Friedmans). Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute special, only to morph into an ambitious 4-year project, collecting 250 hours worth of footage. Examining the American Dream via two African-American teenagers in inner-city Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA, Hoop Dreams develops far beyond its subject. I don’t like basketball. Hell, I don’t really care for sports. But this isn’t about basketball. It’s about the make-it-or-break-it years for William Gates and Arthur Agee, both extremely talented players. In the world of basketball, adolscence is where the stakes are highest both professionally and personally. This is more than just a dream for Agee and Gates. In an urban enviornment such as this, surviving and graduating high school are considered not give-ins but achievements that not everyone gets to experience. Success means getting out of their ‘inherited incarceration’ and making a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on them from themselves, family members, professional mentors, coaches, etc. is incaluculable and palpable. The stakes literally become life-or-death for these kids and we as an audience get wholly caught up in their victories and their strife.

The running time and the way Steve James and company assemble the film, which follows the two boys throughout their high school career, lets everything breathe. We are so used to super-structured documentaries and reality TV, that to see Hoop Dreams both construct a narrative, and acknowledge that it’s not the narrative feels revelatory. The filmmakers always take care to remind us that we are getting a sliver of a peek into their lives. Events unfold naturally and often surprisingly, being careful never to anticipate the directions the boys lives will take. We get our information presumably when the filmmakers do.

In constant periphery are the inherent and complex social and economic problems that pervade all without it ever feeling condescending to its subjects. Hoop Dreams is on-the-level and some people could learn a lesson on how to represent African-American inner-city life almost two decades later.

Included is the life-and-money-sucking meat market of the sports world where coaches, schools, recruiting agents and the like fall over each other for a taste of these kids, promising riches and waiting to suck them dry before their lives have even started. St. Joseph’s witholding of Arthur’s scholarship is devastating as is any other number of things in Hoop Dreams. This is a rousing and at times overwhelmingly emotional and involving experience that stands at the tippity-top of the best documentaries out there.


#100. Lady for a Day (1933, Capra)
Whoever haughtily dismisses this early Frank Capra is off their rocker. Because I’ll say it outright; I prefer this to It Happened One Night. That has just as much to do with how lukewarm I am towards It Happened One Night as it represents how much I loved Lady for a Day.

It’s the earliest Capra film that oozes his trademark sentimentalist formula. It’s yanks at your insides but provides just as many belly-laughs. It’s populated with character actors, mostly from the Warner Brothers lot, giving everyone a chance to shine. It’s bookended by estranged family schmaltz and is a delicious comedy of errors at its center. Warren Willam, May Robson, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks are all memorable, even if Robson is dropped in the middle section.

Lady for a Day encapsulates what I love about Old Hollywood and the singular spell it can cast. It’s a world where a superstitious gangster won’t make any shady deals until he buys an apple from ‘Apple Annie’. The film is unabashedly sentimental, completely preposterous, and a result, summarily charming.


#101. Dead Man’s Burden (2013, Moshe)
Full Review:


#102. Summertime (1955, Lean)
A limply dated love story can’t stop Katherine Hepburn’s poignant portrait of a spinster daring to hope for love or David Lean’s touristy love of Venice from shining through.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot post

Bad Timing

#103. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980, Roeg)
Nicolas Roeg uses his elliptical memory-based editing to great effect here as past and present reminisce, contradict, and reveal the troubled layers beneath a turbulent relationship based on conflicting interests in desires for possession and freedom. Roeg uses Art Garfunkel’s persona to swerve expectation. We presume to encounter wordly kindness from him. Instead he’s a cold demeaning asshole. Garfunkel’s lack of acting ability damages the film in some ways, but also has its advantage in the streak of indifferent cruelty he unintentionally exudes.

Theresa Russell is fiery and damaged and a force to be reckoned with. The film works against her, invalidating her claim to independence by giving her a self-destructive weakness, and by being so invested in the way Garfunkel’s obsession with her is undone by old-time masculine arrogance. It’s also got a misogynistic streak. But I think Russell’s performance saves the film from being accusingly dismissive of her perspective on life. She gets Melina. She gets that she dares to want her own life, to not be defined or owned by a man. She presents this with a conviction shakeable only in her inability to reconcile when it gets down to brass tacks. And so I got Melina and sympathized with her plight even when Bad Timing seems to want to dismiss her as an alcoholic emotional wreck. In a sense she saves the film and I mostly loved it as a result. It’s an obsessive, delusional work of in-sync connections giving way to an unresolvable avalanche. It demands more attention, as much as Roeg’s most famous works.

Three Strangers

#104. Three Strangers (1946, Negulesco)
I’ve been wanting to see all of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet collaborations for years now. Last month I saw that both Three Strangers and The Verdict were going to air on TCM, and so I commanded my DVR to finally trap them for me. I had heard both are overlooked films to seek out and after seeing them I have to agree.

We meet the three strangers just as they converge, without context, brought together by Geraldine Fitzgerald’s frank pretend-dalliance into prostitution. Greenstreet’s expression when he sees Lorre in the apartment is priceless. Placing a ritualistic gamble on Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, each go their seperate way and we see all three (with the partial exception to sympathetic loser Lorre) knee deep in their own criminal activity, manipulation and scheming.

Three Strangers is about fate and asks whether or not destiny already had it out for these three characters. Only Lorre realizes that fate is an excuse, that you have a choice and that this choice stems from the soul of your own person. Greenstreet and Fitzgerald never had a chance because they mistook destiny for their own greedy gait which only left one path for their ends.

The film’s middle section gets away from the main three and there are troublingly less engaging times to be had when ten minutes pass and we haven’t seen Lorre, Greenstreet or Fitzgerald. But when it concentrates on any or all of them, each gets their chance to play the hell out of their parts. The film is a study of nefarious deeds and the relentlessness that comes with unknowingly digging one’s own fateful grave. Negulesco gives the film a dreamlike connective tissue which feels like an upper hand moving the chess pieces of fate into place.

The Verdict

#105. The Verdict (1946, Siegel)
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara and much more in future decades, gets off to a formidable start with this fog-strewn whodunit set in London starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Its twist ending is relatively evident but that in no way takes away from The Verdict and the revelation still lands. In another film, the plot set-up would lay the cobblestones for a shot at redemption. Here, it sets up a suicide run.

Lorre, playing another man who loves to dilly-dally with alcohol, is tops as usual. Really, the whole thing is a great yarn. At this point, it’s become a grand ambition in my life to be a Lorre/Greenstreet afficianado. Films with Lorre and Greenstreet headlining are more than worth seeking out, first for their existence and second because they are wonderful fare. I fear I’ve seen the best of them, although I hear great things about The Mask of Dimitrios.


Reintroduction #32:
Alice (1988, Svankmajer)
First Seen in: 2009
While fairy tales and unrelated cousins, such as Lewis Carroll’s works, inaccurately get categorized as fairy tales and continue to be trendily bastardized into lazy old forms, I went back to visit what is easily my favorite adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. This is another film I’d love to write about at length someday. For now, a quick basic gathering of thoughts will suffice.

To be clear, Alice isn’t a full-on adaptation and the credits even state ‘inspired by…’. It’s amusing that the most artistically rewarding take on Carroll’s work is really a decayed skeletal recreation, nothing like the dainty fantasy of the book. For Svankmajer, there is no Wonderland; only shavings, nails, wood, bones, endless clutter, keys, pebbles and the like within a decomposing house. There’s nothing wondrous or magical here in the traditional sense. The world of Alice is constructed out of a fascination with found objects, and with Svankmajer’s bizarrely unforgettable and literally eye-popping stop-motion mastery. The sound design is as crucial to Alice as the visuals are, calling attention to itself in an out-of-step way, purposely existing on a different plane.

The magic of Alice is undoubtedly in Svankmajer’s stop-motion work,which brings sawdust-stuffed rabbits, socks, skeletons, cards, leaves and dolls to unsettling life. It makes the power of Alice what we discover through sight and sound. There’s little-to-no dialogue, which is all told in narration and purposely dubbed over in English. The story is stripped to its abstract subconscious guts and thrown at us in dreamlike image after dreamlike image.

It comes back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being inaccurately categorized as a fairy tale. Sure, a connection can be drawn to fairy tales in that there is a lesson to be learned, a parable at its fantasy-laced heart. Jan Svankmajer forgoes all of this for his first feature film, focusing instead on the dream state. Alice’s curiosity and the art of nonsense is distilled into pure uncut image and sound, and as an audience our understanding of the possible is newly awakened.

Review: Dead Man’s Burden (2013, Moshe)



Strikingly shot on 35mm in the no-man’s-land vistas of New Mexico, indie western Dead Man’s Burden takes a simmering familial conflict and sets it aflame under overexposed sunlight. Classical in its constant callbacks to the likes of John Ford, and Anthony Mann and authentic in its period art direction, despite a meager budget and single location, producer-turned-writer/director Jared Moshe knows his stuff, but has trouble fleshing out and distinguishing his undercooked vision.

Set in 1870 and still reeling from the end of the Civil War, married couple Martha (Clare Bowen) and Heck (David Call) attend the funeral of her father Joe who supposedly died falling from his horse. The official cause of death, is immediately contradicted by the opening scene, but surrounded by the graves of her war-slain siblings, its one more death than Martha can stand. Dreaming of re-locating to San Francisco, shedding her farming skin and starting anew in the hotel business, Martha can make this happen so long as she and Heck can successfully broker a deal with mining company representative E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and sell her late father’s plot of land. There’s only one problem. Days before the deal goes through, Martha’s older brother Wade (Barlow Jones) returns after a long absence, prompted by his estranged father’s deathbed letter urging him to return home. Unexpectedly walking back into his ‘little sunshine’s’ life, Wade’s ears are pricked and guns cocked, with Lane in his sights as an opportunistic swindler.

Tensions brew but nothing quite hits its target in Dead Man’s Burden, landing just shy of the mark. It’s a decent ensemble, especially considering how the material embraces genre tropes a little too eagerly, something each performer struggles with at times. Barlow Jones’ repetitious ‘I reckons’ and continual talk of the never-present law, recalls a low-rent version of Seth Bullock.

Despite the odd stumble into pastiche, Clare Bowen manages to craft a more complex character in Martha, driven by a palpable, desperation to flee the homestead. The act of comprehending character motivations tends to rely on an audience’s ability to relate to broad stroke emotions like desire, anger and fear, and the success of Bowen’s performance is that we can actually feel the fire of all three, a fire specific to her that burns both sympathetically and selfishly. As her physically exhausted but toughened body hunches over, white-gold hair perpetually windswept across her face, Bowen displays true grit as a female fronting a western. Beyond the novelty value she’s a heroine we can root for, somebody we want to make the best of her only chance of escape.

Jared Moshe does a commendable job of presenting Western iconography within a minimalist palette but is thwarted by his story’s conventionality, clunky dialogue and a lack of compelling character development. Wade’s fumbling awkwardness when it comes to ritual is a much-appreciated character beat in sharp relief to the nuance sorely lacking elsewhere. With such a svelte running time, Dead Man’s Burden could have been pithily charged. When tackling big, explicitly stated themes of familial bonds and betrayal on such an intimate, self-contained playing field, the fury of those feelings ought to be apparent in every aspect. Character introductions and stand-offs should feel like third act revelations, but the film never ascends to the level of Greek tragedy as in Anthony Mann’s The Furies, surely a source of inspiration for Moshe as the most famous example of a western with a female lead.

Even with a confined setting, the special dynamics are a little off. Wade’s introductory scene, ending in a shoot-out between him and two men is shot at too great a distance, failing to build tension, invest the audience or lend the intended atmosphere. Sure, the cinematography has considerable mileage, but it can only take Dead Man’s Burden so far. The film eventually finds surer footing, engaging more and more as it goes along, though low-impact exposition and verbal excursions into the past don’t ruffle the film’s fabric in quite the way they should.

Moseying when it needs to gallop, the opening scene is an example of Moshe lacking confidence in his abilities as a storyteller. It’s supposed to start us off with a bookended bang, giving the audience more information than Wade has at the outset and theoretically lending suspense and intrigue to everything that follows. It’s a solid in media res idea, and with stronger writing the notion might have worked. In execution it ends up hindering the film, unintentionally revealing that Moshe’s characters are not engaging enough on their own terms.

Again, there’s that fail safe of the undeniable beauty of Moshe’s debut, which captures the golden-streaked sunlight and sandy curvatures of desolation in the desert – and in truth, Robert Hauer’s photography, is the star of the show. Dead Man’s Burden is worth seeing, especially since its slim pickings for Westerns these days, but as a character-driven drama, character is where it comes up short.

Posted on Cine Outsider on May 10th, 2013: