Saturday, September 24, 2005

Antonia('s Line)

1996 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Marleen Gorris (Mrs. Dalloway)

Dutch film examining generations of strong women in a small village. Bit of a controversy on the title. The DVD lists it as "Antonia's Line," but the movie itself says just one word, "Antonia." So I equivocate. I don't speak Dutch.

This movie is Europe in a nutshell. The good and the bad. "Antonia" is all about secularism, anti-chauvinism, and tolerance. It is also about crushing pessimism and a stultifying sense of its own genius. Antonia returns home and refuses to be hemmed in by her provincial town. Her daughter and subsequent "line" assert their own independence and explore their apparently limitless intellects. Feminism is supposed to be countering existentialism here, but I think it might be a draw.

I can't say the movie particularly moved me. But it is clearly not intended for me. Can one flourish in a world without God, without the Father (both the deity and the worldy male?) Sure, says Marcus! I never had the former, and American individualism let's me take for granted the latter. Europe has centuries of history to deal with, and this film is wrapped in that context. I kept wondering if it was fighting a battle long since won.

I don't mean to say that the movie is depressing (although both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are quoted extensively). Some parts are rather funny. But the issues this movie deals with, comedically or no, are not my own.

Ethnocentrism rears its ugly head. I did not dig the film, through no fault of its own.


Friday, September 23, 2005

They Were Expendable


Dir: John Ford (See this blog)

Warm slice of war WWII propaganda, served with all the trimmings. We at
"I Just Saw" have been feeling the John Ford love lately, and the man certainly brings the expert knowledge for this film. He served in the Navy, and was ordered to make this film (so says Robert Osborn). The battle scenes certainly seem authentic, and a deep empathy for the solidier is palpable in the film. It tells the story of PT boats in the early part of the war.

Ok, so the genre limits the movie. Bob Montgomery and John Wayne are gonna' get dem Japs, no matter what. Donna Reed comes off like a woman from . . .well, the Donna Reed Show . . . a convenient object for our hero to sacrifice his love for in deference to country. Hero worhsip all around.

But it's 1945. And it's a war film. So we forgive that stuff. Wayne's genius (yes I said it) is on display again; America's most casual and natural actor, ever. This is pretty dark for the time. Ford dwells on the casualites and the hopelessness of war more so than other films, and the ending is not a triumphant victory but the promise of further success at the nadir of American strength during the war.

Ford has limited range to explore artistically since the plot is pretty formulaic. But the lighting during an early hospital dance, case entirely in shadows, does stand out as a welcome touch.

The movie is fine, nothing more. I think it is overrated. Nothing wrong with it, but it's still stuck within its own self-imposed limits.


In the Bedroom


Dir: Todd Field (Nonnie and Alex; accomplished character actor)

God Damn. This movie is like a kidney punch. I had heard great things about it, was hoping I would love it, and the film delivered way beyond my lofty expectations. It is an extraordinary movie, an essential entry in decade's most probing explorations of what it means to be human. A truly special achievment.


The death of their son causes a couple in small town Maine to reckon with their deepest emotions and overcome the most difficult obstacles. The script adopts an episodic approach to grief, letting minor moments speak volumes about how one event can completely rearrange one's entire worldview. The script is unbelievably sensitive and intelligent, illuminating the emotional journey's of each character with unparalleled depth and honesty. Everything seems real, nothing contrived. Nothing melodramatic or histrionic; just raw believable sadness and hurt that anyone can relate to. Easily one of the best scripts I have seen in many years (Although, I would expect these parents to be more savvy about the law. Minor point that rung sour in only one scene).

The acting is brilliant as well. Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei do a lot of sobbing and but never drop into caricature. But it is Tom Wilkinson's performance as the agrieved father that most deeply resonates. His character is restrained, uncomfortable with emotion and insecure. As such, his moments of grief and his personal transformation are doubly powerful for the cost they exact from him. I went through every single emotion of that character, at no point did I find his repsonses out of place. Wilkinson embodies that grief so deftly that he became real, for me at least.

The direction too is lovely. Why isn't Todd Field doing more movies ?!? Gorgeous shots of Maine, and the ending scenes with a harbour bathed in morning glow are a particular standout. A metaphor between music and life dominates the editing. I paraphrase Spacek"The grief comes in waves, unexpectedly. Like rests in music. The silence says so much." The use of fades to black in this film are the best I have ever seen.

Jesus, this is why I like movies. I continually say a good movie puts characters I care about in situations that challenge them. This film is reminsicent of Atom Egoyan's masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter in forcing its characters to reckon with deep grief. Only movies made with true intelligence and emotional understanding can pull that off. In the Bedroom is such a film. I am a better person for having seen it.

My absolute highest recommendation.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

My Darling Clementine

Dir: John Ford (some of the best movies ever made)


When we get into discussions about the greatest director-actor tandems ever, I always seem to default to the standards: Scorsese and DeNiro, Kurosawa and Mifune, Coppola and Brando, etc. But Ford and Fonda deserve to be in that conversation. I guess it is because Ford has made so many phenomenal films with different great actors (Stewart, Wayne, Fonda). Clementine is Ford's retelling of Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Many other films have attempted to tell this story to varying levels of success, but this is by far the most intimate (and best).

Of all the Ford films, this might be the best shot. Ford is a master of composition; he knows where to put the camera to create balanced frames rich with meaning. The lead-up to the shoot-out might be the best in cinema history. Obscure camera angles, no score, the sense of isolation and danger; it's pure genius.

Interestingly, Ford did not see the project to its completion. Apparently, Darryl Zanuck did not like Ford first cut and took over editing duties while ordering some reshoots. Ford walked off the project. The version that has been in circulation since then has been Zanuck's cut. However in 1995, UCLA film students noticed that the cut they were watching in a film criticism class was different than the standard cut. Turns out, this version that came from the UCLA archive vault was Ford's preview cut. This is the version available on the DVD. Unfortunately, some of the stock was damaged, therefore some of the splicing and continuity editing is noticeably rough. I got all this information from the DVD extra in which the UCLA film restorer walked us through the changes. He was very hesitant to call this a "director's cut" because it was not Ford's final version, plus he had to take some editing liberties to compensate for some lost frames. Might add a wrinkle to this director's cut discussion (or dialogue since it is just two of us conversing [veiled admonishment to all the non-participants]).

Loved it, must see. Ford is clearly a top five director of all time.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Belle Epoque

1994 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Fernando Trueba (Year of Enlightenment)

Spanish sex romp. A young soldier deserts the army near the end of the Royalist reign and happens upon an old man and his four daughters. While Spain is gaining her Republic, the soldier is gaining his young ladies.

The movie is very sweet. And very smart. The freedom with which this artistic family approaches sex makes for a quite welcome turning of the tables, where the woman toy with the handsome young man's emotions for a change. The film clearly marks the characters' actions as products of the time, a product of revolution everywhere. That context allows us to grant actions to the characters that we might find, umm irresponsible(?), in other times and from other people.

There is some surprisingly well done historical/political things as well. An oppressive church and underserving aristocracy are sent up for ridicule by the bohemian main characters. A few touches of tradegy (including two suicides that bracket the story rather suprisingly) remind us that there is more going on here than a farce.

Just enough political commentary to keep things interesting, and some truly unique things to say about human relationships, make this movie very enjoyable. Refreshing may be the best word; something new, light but not empty, interesting, sexy but not sleazy. I applaude the Academy for recognizing a film like this.

And you get to see Penelope Cruz before she got hot.


Born into Brothels

Dir: Zana Briski

2004 Academy Award Winner, Best Documentary

I just returned from a screening of this film, followed by a Q & A with the director (CNU is sponsoring a really cool documentary film series with award winning directors). Briski, a professional photographer, headed to Calcutta with the original intent to photograph brothel workers in India. However, she became quickly enamored with their kids and gave a group of 8 children photography lessons to nurture their creative expression. The film documents these kids' experiences with photography from their initial interest in the art to their successful selling of the prints to pay for ways out of the brothels. Briski has taken the film on the festival circuit, winning numerous awards and generating exposure for her non-profit, Kids with Cameras.

The film definitely won the Oscar based on its social convictions and not necessarily on its artistic merit. It's good, but as far as a documentary "film," it falls a bit flat. What troubled me the most was that the mothers were depicted as rather uncaring and uninterested, often abusing the children verbally. While I am certain that was the case to some extent, it was pointedly juxtaposed to Briski's tireless efforts to teach the kids under dire circumstances and to get them into safe boarding schools. I have a hard time believing these parents, as desperate as they are, were that unsupportive. Two questions that troubled me were raised separately during the Q & A: How supportive and loving were the mothers? and How did academics respond to the film?

Her answer to the former question belies what was depicted on-screen: disinterested and abusive mothers. She suggested that almost all the parents were welcoming and quite supportive of sending the kids to school. Which, I think, sheds a great deal of light on her answer to the latter. She notes that academics were critical of her effort (white woman going into save the poor, helpless Indian kids); she retorts, rightly, that she is trying to make a real, substantive difference so critique be damned. I give her all the credit in the world, her foundation is sticking with these kids and all the money they raise goes directly to the kids' education (so I think the broader critique is stupid). But, I must admit the seemingly unsympathetic depiction of the prostitute mothers is troublesome, especially juxtaposed to Briski's unselfish and dogged efforts to get these kids into schools.

One last aside. I found it odd that she proudly proclaimed that she just received American citizenship last Friday (formerly British). Without sounding too jingoistic, it is nice to see people who wish to make the world a better place actually believe they could do that without fleeing to Canada. I guess living six months a year for six years in the brothels of Calcutta will do that to you.

Man, do I use a lot of parenthetical statements (I guess it is my penchant for asides).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Short Cuts

Dir: Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville)


I have to admit, I find Altman a bit overrated (mind you, I still think he is often good and sometimes great). But "Short Cuts" is worthy of all its praise (may be the source material has something to do with it; it's an adaptation of Raymond Carver's novel). The film is a series of stories that all interrelate, even if tangentially. I am a sucker for large ensemble casts with individual narratives tied together thematically (Magnolia, Crash); and Altman's ethos as an actor's director allows him to get an all-star ensemble cast (I believe Julianne Moore is in every ensemble film from the past 15 years).

Like most of Carver's work (and Altman's) most of the characters are simple folk facing common problems, be it cheating husbands, rocky marriages, or trouble with children. Although few of the characters face true redemption, none of the characters are treated with an air of condescension or caricature. Few characters are likable; there always seems to be a disconnect between the characters within the film and that translates into our relationship with them. The film is set in Los Angeles, a broader metaphor for the isolation among the masses and the attempt to find dignity in a world beyond control. The film ends with an earthquake, like Magnolia's frog shower, that punctuates these themes: the earth shaking realization of one's own emotional limitations. The film is not nihilistic or trite, but understanding of the hardships that many experience, even if they are self-inflicted.

Smart film, a must see. Altman's best.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Dir: Nicholas Meyer (The Day After, Star Trek VI)


I was going to watch a Robert Wise film tonight, tonight. But, I figure I'd leave West Side Story to Marcus and the other ones I own (Sound of Music, Day the Earth Stood Still), I've seen recently. So, next best thing; watch the sequel to a film he directed (a bit of a stretch, I know).

This is the best Star Trek film of the entire series. The extension of a plot that is rooted in the original TV series is part of the brilliance of this film. Not many TV-to-big screen adaptation have that much reverence and respect for the actual TV show. There really isnt much to wax philosophical about (unless we want to discuss the various tensions between passions and logic that are problematized in this film). But, I digress.

Watch it, its fun. But first, enjoy a real Robert Wise film (as I see Marcus has done--although I think you do not give Wise enough credit on WWS; I do wish co-directions were more acceptable).

In Memoriam: West Side Story

1962 Oscar Winner for Best Pitcure, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound

Dir: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

Marcus Award Winner for BME

This is my favorite movie ever made. Ron planted the seed of a rememberance of the departed Robert Wise through viewing this film. Tonight, I revisted an old friend. Check that, I looked up an old lover, the woman who broke me in to the world and whom I hold a place for in my heart.

Let us all agree without discussion that WSS has the best songs, score, costumes and choreography in movie history. I could write books on each of those subjects, but tonight we celebrate the direction.

Credit rightly went to Robbins. Since the contemporary rules prohibit it, it is a rare thing that dual directing credits are offered. But the genius of Robbins is a giant element of this movie's greatness. But tonight we celebrate Wise.

Wise made this vision of a text come to life. He took WSS off of the stage and put it on location, staging the beautiful first twenty minutes on the true West Side. After that, the movie moves on set, but loses none of its scope, beauty, or importance. Each set is perfect, each color striking, each light perfectly placed, each camera shot exactly where it should be. Wise, blisfully, refuses to compromise the essence of the play, retaining its operatic and balletic soul.

Sure, the songs are indelibly etched into pop culture (America; Maria; Tonight, Tonight; There's A Place for Us: Cool; When You're a Jet; Gee, Officer Krupke). This is the greatest play ever produced by Americans. Hands down. But Wise elevates even this text.

Robert Wise. He opened my eyes to a genre. He produced something that will live forever. God love him.


Saturday, September 17, 2005

Apocalypse Now

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola


Truly, BME.

This a movie that every successive viewing reveals wholly new information. For example, I never knew the graffiti that announced the Kurtz compound motto reads: Apocalypse Now (this could also be a product of watching it on a bigger screen). I revisited this movie as a result of Marcus's conversation about studio vs. Director's cut, and without question, the original is much better. Which got me thinking. Apocalypse Now is a BIG movie; I would argue that it might even be bigger than Lawrence. We know that filming and directing this monster was notoriously cumbersome, but it never really struck me the extent of the Herculean task Coppola undertook. In order to really capture the theater of the absurd, there had to be a great deal of chaos that finds its way on screen, not just with close-ups and intimate character interaction but the chaotic battle scenes that fills the rest of the space.

A movie like this would never be made today. During the 1970s, the great directors pretty much had complete say on their projects (with virtually unlimited budgets). That came to an end with Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a way over budget meandering disaster that broke a studio and ruined a career (however, I have heard a true directors cut is actually quite good). But, Apocalypse Now, also heavily criticized for cost overages and difficulties on the set, was the pentultimate punctuation to that period of directorial freedom (Coppola had his own disaster, One for the Heart). Directors, if they want "freedom" go to indie films, but the money is not there for anything beyond an intimate character film. If they want a more spectacular film, it must be CGI. Which only means we will never see another Apocalypse Now. I guess I am just lamenting the good old days.

I wonder how the generations after ours will see this film. There are some stylistic choices that do date it, but I am curious as to how the subject matter will be processed years from now.

Like the film, meandering thoughts.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Burnt By the Sun

1995 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love; Dark Eyes)

Enigmatic Franco-Russian co-production exploring the tragic effects of Stalinism. This is the first time that I have ever started a post and then had to abandon it in favor of more thought (you could say it was the first time I thought before I posted). But last night I was not sure what to make of this movie.

First, what is good about it. The acting is simply extraordinary. Oleg Menshikov strikes me as Kevin Kline at his best as Mitya, the long lost love returning home under mysterious circumstances. The director, a famous actor himself, is super as revolutionary hero Col. Kotov. But his daughter, Nadezhda Mikhalkova, is the real revelation as an Anna Paquin-esque inquisitve little girl. Does she ever hit the right notes in every scene! The movie is also gorgeous visually, especially the last twenty minutes. Some stunning shots of a wheat field really enhance the ending.

Now, what is hard to figure out. The movie is loosely a "Deer Hunter" split narrative, with over an hour examining an idyllic community of artists and scholars who sing songs and go to picnics and have fun with each other all day long. Everyone is happy and loves each other. It is straight up Checkov (the first act ofCherry Orchard, at least, which gets a reference in the script). Then, Mitya returns after years away. While he seems to fit right in, we gradually learn that he has ulterior motives. This leads to a briefer dark half that explores the negative effects of being too close to Stalin.

I woke up and liked the movie better than before. What I hadn't given the movie is that the bohemian mad tea party in the first half is supposedly the early days of the Russian revolution under Lenin and then Stalin comes along and destroys that happiness. I am not used to a movie singing the praises of any stage of that history aside from the initial overthrow of the Czars. But if I grant the Soviet worldview, the narrative makes sense. By 1995, you would think a movie about the Soviet government would do more than just dump on Stalin. But Mikhalkov was apparently not a progressive artist, but more of a populist. He later was an MP in Victor Chernomyrdin's party. Not the worst choice possible, but he's not exactly Solzhenitsyn either.

Lots of talent on this film; but it still holds an ideological baggage that makes it hard for this Western liberal to fully endorse it.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ju-On: The Grudge 3


Dir: Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge 1-6, The Grudge [US version])

Something is seriously scaring some Japanese people. Not sure why, but it sure is scary. This entry into the Ju-On sextet was remade into the American release, another in long line of recent Japanese horror remakes. I can't help but think that there is something I am missing by jumping in at this point, but this is one that was on Showtime, so there you go.

Apparently when folks are horribly murdered, their spirit hangs around and torments anyone that happens to pass by. Normally, we expect horror movie spooks to be haunting for some purpose. "Give me a proper burial!" "Joe was the one who cut off my head!" "Grandpappy's gold is buried in the backyard!" But here, near as I can tell, good sweet innocent people like schoolchildren and well meaning social workers are indiscriminately haunted and killed. If that's the case, and I am not missing hidden reason for the actions of the ghosts from the series, then what a depressing, nihilistic view of the world that is!

The movie is very low budget, which is good for this sort of story. Acting has to replace special effects, and all of the actors seem genuinely afraid. The extent of the special effects is some past-white make-up, and I enjoy that sort of aesthetic. Editing has to provide the tension. While I can't say I was ever genuinely frightened, there are some memorable images, especially a scene near the end with a ghost crawling down the stairs.

I see where this Japanese genre is going, but I bet there are better entries in it.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005


1993 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Regis Wargnier (East-West, A French Woman)

Catherine Deneuve is a wealthy plantation owner in French occupied Vietnam. When she and her adopted native daughter fall for the same mysterious Navy officer, the family becomes drawn into the revolutionary movement and must reckon with its own colonial status.

What a beautiful movie. The operatic love story, set against the crumbling French empire, is grand and moving and deep. The ruminations on colonialism and resistance are fresh and complex. And the actors are all electric; the passion and power of the storyline is conveyed in every single scene.

A big budget movie, the sets and locations are equally stunning. Lots of careful attention to the local culture and the ways it works around the dominance of the occupiers. The feel of it is very "Hollywood Epic." Sort of like The English Patient (yes, I know, not Hollywood) or Doctor Zhivago. But the writing is right out of EM Forster. Call it "A Passage to Vietnam." All of these comparisons are compliments, as the film stands tall in the proud tradition of the romantic epic.

The ending is entirely satisfying and heartbreaking. Throughout the entire film I found it believable and insightful. I highly recommend the film. I really loved it.


Sunday, September 11, 2005


This guy walks into a talent agency and says to the agent, "Have I got a movie for you." He proceeds to tell the agent about a film that begins to explore the craft of comedy. Like great jazz musicians who perform wonderful improvisation to impress other jazz musicians, this film examines how comedians take a simple legendary joke within the comic community and interpret it to fit their own style. This film interviews a number of famous comedians, notably comedians recognized as exemplars of the craft by their peer, about their interpretations of the joke and how such variations reflect distinctive comedic styles. The film's more shocking moments are not all that offensive because they are used to make transparent how comics envision the joke telling art. The tools of rhetoric, in particular kairos, are so clearly evident in the art of comedy it is not even funny.

The agent says, "Sounds like an interesting act. What do you call it?"

The guy smiles wryly as he leaves the office and says, "The Aristocrats."


Dir: Peter Provenza and Penn Gillette

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Official Story

1986 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Langauge Film

Dir: Luis Puenzo (Old Gringo)

Yet another Oscar winner exploring a country's complicity in its own atrocities, this time in Argentina. The wife of a government official suspects that her adopted daughter may by the result of the notorious "disappearances" of that country. The political story is told through its impact on this family, as the wife sheds her willful ignorance and confronts the truth.

The script in this film is really well put together. The pace is slow, and much is left for the audience to discover along the way at well timed moments. Through passing comments and brief encounters, the characters come to the conclusion we all know is inevitable. That allows the writers to be more subtle, and the result is a very intelligent and engaging narrative.

And yet the most important part of this story, the emotional punch of the mother-daughter relationship, I found slightly lacking. And I mean slightly; I did feel for these characters. But I was never moved to the extent that I would consider this a brilliant film. I wonder if there was a trade-off between making the script sparse and making the characters powerful.

I do not mean to imply that the film is bad by any means. It is very technically sound and important in its subject matter. But it falls just short in the most impotant element.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Raging Bull


Dir: Martin Scorsese


Intentionally viewed after On the Waterfront. If Brando is a man who could have been a contender, De Niro was one and lost it through his own inner demons. Brando was a simpleton caught in a bad situation by people who should have been looking out for him. De Niro brought it on himself. Jake La Motta had everything and gave it away.

Bull is more tragic and bleak, and I think the slightly lesser story as a result. Brando's eventual redemption makes for a more complex narrative, even if the character development in Bull is superior. And of course, judged from a technical level, Scorsese wins hands down.

Dumb to compare the two, I know. But the ability of Waterfront to tell a timeless story in a fresh and compelling way fits my personal aesthetic preferences for a movie narrative just a touch better than Bull.

Still, Raging Bull, BME


Sunday, September 04, 2005

On the Waterfront


Dir: Elia Kazan


Being a new member of a union, and with the troubles of labor this last summer (union split, NW airlines, steroids) I thought quite a bit about the labor movement this time around. If one was to make a union picture today, what would it look like? Cesar Chavez, immigrant labor I reckon. The Grapes of Wrath but with foreign nationals.

Someone please make that movie.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Wagon Master


Dir: John Ford

Ford and Western, so I watched. The story involves a group of Mormon colonists who hire two cowboys to get them across the San Juan Valley and to the Promised Land. Along the way, they are hijacked by a gang of fugitives. The film's predominant tone is light, almost sweet. The bad guys really aren't all that bad and the good guys are rather comtemplative and flawed (the wagon master's actually get lost once). Most of the tension of the film arises from the anticipation of how the pious Mormons will cohabitate with the bandits, as well as some hucksters that they pick along the way. I can't say the movie left a major impression; it was a slight little story that was more diversionary than revelatory, with lots of wide vista shots and river fording scenes to hold the eye.

The most interesting thing about the film was the subject of vice and virtue in the wagon train. The Mormons are escaping liscentiousness, and it is indeed women and liquor and violence that come to haunt them through their additions. Purging these elements from the wagon train (by reforming or killing them) permits arrival at the Promised Land. I don't know what Ford's religion/morals were, but this was a a pretty big defence of group religious morality.

Not recommending. But I have done less interesting things with an hour and half in my life. On TCM On Demand now.