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January 2003 Screening Log - click for reviews, when applicable. Titles of short films listed in bold.


01. Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983) **** [This restrained soap opera for sensitive guys hit me in the right spot (but this genre in this milieu is my weak spot). It's so modest that I stopped looking for the screenwriter's manipulations, at least until the last half hour. Duvall won an Oscar here, and I can't argue with the logic that gave it to him. When he's on his game, as he clearly is here, he's one of the very best actors we've got. The attention to detail exhibited throughout here must be what critics of About Schmidt were yearning for when they complained about that film's smugness toward the Midwest.]

Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) ***1/2 [Just because it's done more for the motion picture industry's bottom line than it has to advance the state of cinema is no reason to hold a grudge against the genuinely timeless spectacle. The first half of this epic beats nearly every Hollywood film at this game, but the second half is a bit too moralistic and simplistically symmetrical to be much good to anyone. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this is still quite an achievement. The superb set design, Vivien Leigh's vamping, and Clark Gable's immorality keep the film procession far more fresh than one might imagine possible.]


02. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Ang Lee, 1994) ***1/2 [Slight, but too darned pleasurable to deride, this is one of the rare Taiwanese films distributed in the U.S. that actually manages to have tempos recognizable to American audiences. The father/daughter relationships in Tortilla Soup, the inferior but still okay American remake (which swaps in Hispanic characters for some reason) had far less resonance than they do here, and Lee's film is more interesting from a sociological perspective since it depicts a nation more obviously in flux.]

Night Falls on Manhattan (Sidney Lumet, 1997) **** 


03. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002) * [This astonishingly over-directed joke on the audience was a wholly unpleasant sit. I can't scrounge up much praise at all except to note that Drew Barrymore was given more a character than usual.]


04. Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973) ***1/2 [This highly original, very American comedy only really suffers when it gets to its third act and begins unduly punishing its gentle clown. The shift in tone keeps the film from becoming the great statement about the nation that the film clearly wants to be because it grounds things in the specific. Still, there's not many films quite like this, and the two superb lead performances, courtesy of Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, make this well worth seeing.]

Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) **** Masterpiece [This majestic film never gets old, and a chance to see it on the big screen probably shouldn't be passed up. Malick is one of the few directors who can make the presence of Americana feel like an attack without belaboring the point, and here he tackles the roots of the country by taking on both urbanity and the heartland. The plot, which transposes Henry James' The Wings of the Dove to the farm, is moving, but still secondary to the mood and brilliant, surprisingly sad narration.]

Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957) ***


05. Where is the Friend's Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987) *** [There's nothing really wrong here, except that I've seen plenty of similar films that had more of an effect on me (e.g. Children of Heaven, A Summer at Grandpa's, or even The White Balloon, which Kiarostami himself wrote). Also bothersome is that Life and Nothing More..., this movie's masterful pseudo-sequel follow-up, essentially recapitulates the plot here with a more interesting pair of lead characters. Still, the performances by the young actors are superb.]

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994) **1/2 [Like Where is the Friend's Home?, this film suffers by association with Kiarostami's Life and Nothing More... (his best work, in my estimation). Since that movie had so much to say about the inadequacy of film to capture the miraculous nature of life, this one's meditations on the same subject matter feel rather redundant. The central relationship, between two of the actors in Life..., isn't exactly boring, but the film's rapt attention to it is disappointing since they were just bit players in the epic landscape of the previous film.  Nonetheless, the superb final shot, which does more to damn Kiarostami's switch to digital than any critic could, almost makes the trek worth it.]


06. Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) **1/2 [This one loses a lot when watched on television. My gripes (Zeta-Jones is the only worthwhile cast member, the film begs us to identify with creeps, the editing either masks some embarrassing performances or ruins everything it touches) still persist.]


07. A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954) **** Masterpiece [If it wasn't for the severely compromised state of this film's restored version (several lost scenes are played out with pictures and dialogue), I would have no hesitation in calling this my favorite Hollywood musical. As is, I have to let is share the crown with Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Judy Garland's towering performance is probably one of the best ever put on screen because it never lets us forget her character's pain, even as she's giving us nothing but pleasure. The amazing 'scope compositions and elaborate production numbers similarly work us over in both ways.]


08. The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977) ** [The Duellists : Barry Lyndon :: Gladiator : Spartacus


09. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) **** [Doesn't lose or gain anything the third time out really, but that's probably saying more than usual in a film that tries to get away with as much as 25th Hour does.]

The Rocking-Horse Winner (Anthony Pelissier, 1950) ***1/2 [There's surprisingly little filler here in this adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence short story. The mother is more sympathetic than I remembered here, but that only adds some complexity to the anti-materialism critique.]

The Rocking-Horse Winner (Michael Almereyda, 1997) **1/2 [Almereyda's attempt to ground this story in the lower-class dregs is admirable, I suppose, but it essentially defeats the purpose of the story.]


10. Frailty  (Bill Paxton, 2002) * [Horribly made, this one... I can't really say I was offended by it in any particular way, but it seems like a direct-to-video affair. The script's expositional ineptitude reaches critical mass early on when it sloppily delivers a dream sequence within a flashback within a flashback. I'm frankly surprised I made it to the end.]


11. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) *** [Not nearly as politically acute as Hill's Southern Comfort, but a refreshingly stripped down action film anyway. The New York locales made this more fun for me than it might be for those from out of town, but the slim plot and garish use of fluorescent lights seemed real assets too.]

Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, 2000) ***1/2


12. The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, 1980) ***1/2 [In a lot of ways, this is the sort of Hollywood satire that I wanted Adaptation to turn into. The lines between reality and clichéd artifice are marvelously blurry here. Clearly this is uneven stuff, but its failures are almost indistinguishable from its moments of brilliance, at least until the final reel. The superb performance from Peter O’Toole as a director with a God complex and a miraculous crane is the highlight here, but the considerable visual wit on display here is almost as rewarding.]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) ** [Ford almost undermines his entire career here, apologizing for a vision of the West that really needed no such defense. The John Wayne character is so satisfyingly complex that the movie’s need to “update” his world with the anachronistic, more outmoded Jimmy Stewart character can’t help but feel misplaced. Then, after finally recognizing its nostalgia as something that’s misplaced, it mourns what was lost anyhow. Huh?]

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) ***1/2 [There are some brilliantly stupid comic bits here combined with some vaguely clever political attacks. The movie thinks it’s more shocking than it is, though, and that keeps it from truly soaring, even as the episodic structure makes the misfires sting less than they should.]

Enough (Michael Apted, 2002) *** [As far as exploitation flicks go, this one is better than average, but I wish it went even farther than it does in creating inhuman characters for us to root for and hate. The slack sentimental scenes get in the way of the mildly offensive, majorly-fun ass-kicking scenes, and Apted’s direction is annoyingly pretentious, given the situation.]


13. Town & Country (Peter Chelsom, 2001) *1/2 [There is a half-hour or so of truly funny stuff in the middle of this movie, which seems oddly appropriate because it seems easier to comprehend this as a sitcom than a feature film. Unfortunately, bulk of the scenes are completely aimless and devoid of laughs or even much charisma from the impressively assembled cast. The first half hour or so is especially dire. Even those with morbid curiosity fueling them should think twice before devoting time to this one.]

Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001) ***1/2 [Carpenter’s filmmaking and set-up are pretty familiar here, but the impressive use of multiple perspectives, lap dissolves, and editorial wipes that exist to alert the viewer instead of cover up mistakes makes this worthwhile. I’m a sucker for the “raging hordes” genre (mostly made up of zombie films). Something about the desperate situation and the inevitability that major characters will die keeps filmmakers from cranking up the heroic moments until they become embarrassing.]


14. King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983) **** [Few films inspire as squirming in me, even when I know what’s going to happen. The first hour here, which lasts until the kidnapping, is essentially perfect. After that however, even if things don’t derail I lose a bit of interest. The movie becomes safer, and starts building to a Big Statement, to its detriment.]

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001) ** [The horribly telegraphed dramatic moments here kept me from ever being really taken with the joyous ones. Because the movie didn't click for me, it felt like a big, fat, clichéd chore. I mean, is it too much to ask that the jokes actually be funny?]


15. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983) **** [This personal nightmare posing as techno-sleaze mystery is certainly a lot more fascinating to me now that I'm all grown up... Watching it as a kid, unarmed with any sort of auteurist understanding of the director, was a pretty befuddling (if not entirely unrewarding) experience, but now it seems downright brilliant for long stretches.]


16. Chloe in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, 1972) ****


17. Alice's Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969) ***1/2 ["You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant..." the song goes, and so it is here. Among other things, this film, which is a bit vague in the best possible ways, can be looked at as a simple slice of hippie life, an overreaching statement about the state of America in the Sixties, a paean to making the best of a situation, or perhaps most endearingly as a probing look at the ways that gaps form and sometimes close between generations. The scenes often feel simultaneously funny and sad, and depending on your point of view, the protagonist could either be a sensitive type in a world that doesn't quite get him or a frustrating non-starter. Perhaps not surprisingly, the best scenes here are those detailed explicitly in the song that served as the source material, but maybe that's because they come in the second half of the film, after I was able to get accustomed to the lurching episodic narrative and oddball use of reaction shots.]

Bad Company  (Robert Benton, 1972) ***1/2 [Much funnier than the average revisionist Western, this one is an easy sit. It's from the writers of Bonnie & Clyde, but it doesn't try to be that film. There aren't really any grand proclamations made here about the West (at least not explicitly - the realization that the boys who were up for the draft are actually boys is probably meant to be one), and that allows the comedy to come about pretty naturally.  I found several of the characters to be almost innately funny, and I found myself giggling at their reactions to things even as I knew a joke wasn't exactly intended. That's a good thing though, I think...]


18. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002) *** [This one was only ever-so-slightly better the second time, and that might be because viewing it at home kept me from feeling so burdened by its tone. There are still tons of impressive things here, but the major stumbling blocks (e.g. the shallowly developed romance) still keep me from getting really irked when the art direction takes over (and at the same time keep the movie from achieving anything resembling greatness).]

Mrs. Brown (John Madden, 1997) *** [The slightly shoddy production values here didn't help draw me in, but the performances picked up a lot of the slack. There's more that's obvious than sublime here, and that's a shame since the early scenes which show a developing friendship have a lot of promise. The latter half, in which obligation and duty rear their head feel... well, obligatory.]

White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) **1/2 [Some super-creepy set design can't really save this one, though fans of the classic horror genre would surely enjoy it. Bela Lugosi's demonic scowl gets used a lot, and it never runs out of its power, but the targets that he's given to terrorize are pretty thin. It's also pretty shameful that there's nothing in the conception of the film that seems to really get at the erotic subtext. I think von Sternberg would have made a superb film with this subject matter.]

I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996) ***1/2 [Lili Taylor's superb performance, which never has to resort to likeability, carries this mod romp through any rough spots. The period detail seems dead-on and the movie's seemingly random construction does a good job of establishing why a raving psychotic like the protagonist could get her fifteen minutes.]

Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) ***1/2 [If the Academy campaigners were as nefarious as they were made out to be, they'd be circulating copies of this movie to sink Greek Wedding's Oscar chances. Obviously, it's no secret that that film is highly derivative from this one, but watching it again, I was reminded how far great performances and snappy writing can go in selling this sort of Cinderella story. The ethnic quirks here are integrated with so much more aplomb that the newer film almost looks offensive in comparison.]


19. The Quick and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995) **** [This comic-book western is one of the more convincing arguments for style over substance that I've seen. Raimi's tremendously stylized work here is nearly his best (ranking only behind his serious work in A Simple Plan in my book). Casting Sharon Stone in the Clint Eastwood role seems like a chance to give us the best of both worlds, the supporting cast is loaded with talent, and the threadbare plot keeps the set pieces coming.]

Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960) **** [Tensely unfolding in what feels like real time, this exceptional French prison escape drama is to its genre what Rififi is to the heist film. Its use of sound and quiet to build suspense is brilliant. The nonstop thrills only escalate as salvation grows nearer, and the bothersome notion that you're rooting for bad guys is thankfully not left unexamined. The claustrophobic sets, narrow focus of the plot, and extremely long takes seem as if they might dilute tension, but they have the opposite effect.]


20. Miami Blues (George Armitage, 1990) ***1/2 [A second viewing here caused me to be less annoyed by the Breathless allusions, even though there are still quirks that just don't work here. Still, as an excuse for three great performances and an excellent sense of location, this one has it all over most crime dramas.]

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) **** [The lead actors might not exactly be convincing thieves, but since so little is taken seriously here it barely matters. I can think of few screwball comedies as light on their feet as this one. I'm fast becoming a fan of the sexy, sophisticated Miriam Hopkins. Lubitsch's use of sound and montage are very deft and enhance the material.]


21. Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985) ***1/2 [Often silly, but never stupid, this uneven comedy wavers between good and brilliant. Its flights of fancy take turns amazing, shocking, amusing, and frustrating, but I'm reluctant to complain when a film seems as drunk on narrative as this one does.]

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) **** [Finally a second viewing... It wasn't revelatory, but it certainly was pleasurable.]

The River Wild (Curtis Hanson, 1994) **1/2 [Dumbed down Deliverance with a waste of Streep to boot, this is a frustrating squandering of talent, but once I got over that, I was able to sink into it and enjoy myself a bit.]

The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) **** 


22. Ma Vie en Rose (Alain Berliner, 1997) *** [Is this too inoffensive? Probably, but it could have been made to be more compelling even if it was fluffier I think. The movie's lack of an explanation or a real solution to the boy's problems seems to dodge the issues at hand here, and while I understand the movie's willingness to admit it doesn't have all of the answers, that also keeps me from embracing it.]

World Traveler (Bart Freundlich, 2001) ***


23. Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982) *** [This film grew more enjoyable as I grew more comfortable with the characters. I wonder if a second viewing would improve my opinion of the first half, which I found clever, but not too emotionally engaging. I was really surprised, then, by the intelligence of the second half, which avoids falling into almost every one of the melodramatic traps that so often sabotage coming of age dramas.]

The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) ****


24. Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) **1/2 [The third time's the chore in this case... Ugh.]


25. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998) **** Masterpiece [In comparison, this never gets old. Ever.]


26. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000) **** Masterpiece [Finally a chance to see this a second time presented itself, and upon a repeat viewing, I am even more impressed. Knowing what I was in for stylistically allowed me to better focus on the plot, the political themes, and perhaps most importantly, the fear that provide the film's dominant emotion.] 


27. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) ****


28. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969) ****


29. About a Boy (Chris & Paul Weitz, 2002) **1/2


30. Final Destination (James Wong, 2000) **1/2 [Allows more pleasure in graphic teen death than most of its ilk, and for that it stands out a bit. I certainly was entertained, and plan on checking out the sequel one of these days, but there's not really an argument to be made here that this is great cinema in any way shape or form.]


31. The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972) **** [This feels like an older, wiser version of Roger Dodger to me with Charles Grodin's character, who's a salesman in  everything he does, standing in for Campbell Scott. Some of the scenes were amazing because they inspire such squirms for having the audacity to suggest still-radical sentiments such as "marriage might not bring happiness".]


55 features, 1 short


December 2002 - January 2003 - February 2003