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

 

01. Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (Robert Fuest, 1972) *** [Much campier than the first, this sequel is also much more incoherent, and lacks the fun gimmick that ties together the elaborate murders that was present in the original, though there are certainly plenty of inventive murders here. Also of note is one of the zaniest product placements that I've ever seen in a film (see picture).]

 

02. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998) **1/2 [I still find this satire on all things American, most of all rebellion against all things American, nearly unwatchable in spots, but it's much more bearable on DVD than it was for me in the theater, since the small screen minimizes the visceral impact of the garish colors, flashing lights, and queasy camerawork. I'd be hard pressed to name a film with a bigger budget that was as uncompromising as this one though, and for its determined vision, it's definitely noteworthy. Still, I couldn't help but wish that the source material was smart enough so that all of the hedonism took its characters closer to something that made it all worthwhile.]

 

03. Bringing Down the House (Adam Shankman, 2002) ***

The Fire Fighters (Burt Gillett, 1930) ***, The Chain Gang (Burt Gillett, 1930) ***1/2, The Gorilla Mystery (Burt Gillett,1930) ***, Pioneer Days (Burt Gillett, 1930) **1/2 [These early Disney shorts are so resoundingly uneven that it's surprising that the Mouse became the icon that he is today.]

 

04. Wildflower (Diane Keaton, 1991) **1/2 [Technically a TV movie, but with the sort of talent usually reserved for features, this Southern melodrama seemed worth consideration. Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as it is, it can't help but feel like a knock off of the wonderful Man in the Moon. Witherspoon is almost as good here, despite inferior material, but the supporting cast is all over the map. Janusz Kaminski shoots the picture like he's trying to sell lemonade.]

The Birthday Party (Burt Gillett, 1931) **, Mickey Steps Out (Burt Gillett, 1931) **1/2, Blue Rhythm (Burt Gillett, 1931) *1/2, Mickey Cuts Up (Burt Gillett, 1931) **1/2, Mickey's Orphans (Burt Gillett, 1931) ***

 

05. The Duck Hunt (Burt Gillett, 1932) ***, Mickey's Revue (Wilfred Jackson, 1932) **, Mickey's Nightmare (Burt Gillett, 1932) ***

Ash Wednesday (Edward Burns, 2002) *** [Unfortunately, Ash sits in the tall shadow of the similar, far superior 25th Hour, but it's still a relatively solid redemption drama. Obvious, club-footed religious symbolism is everywhere (the girlfriend is even named Grace), and Elijah Wood isn't half the actor that Burns is, but the surprisingly talky script starts to pay dividends by the time the action kicks in with genuine investment in the characters.]

 

06. Private Benjamin (Howard Zieff, 1980) *** [This feminist comedy doesn't do anything in halves, but taken as a whole it's pretty good, even if it loses any chance it had at classic status with an insanely repetitive third act. Hawn is wonderful here, as usual, and her journey to a point where she can understand the ending of An Unmarried Woman is made infinitely more bearable by her willingness to be the self-effacing butt of jokes.]

The Whoopee Party (1932) ****, Touchdown Mickey (1932) ***1/2, The Klondike Kid (1932) *** [... And in the eighteenth short, Walt created Goofy, and it was Good...]

 

07. Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1992) ****

 

08. Building a Building (David Hand, 1933) ***1/2, The Mad Doctor (David Hand, 1933) ****, Ye Olden Days (Burt Gillett, 1933) ***, The Mail Pilot (David Hand, 1933) ***, Mickey's Gala Premier (Burt Gillett, 1933) ***,  Puppy Love (Wilfred Jackson, 1933) ***, The Pet Store (Wilfred Jackson, 1933) **1/2 [Major points to The Mad Doctor, which is the most inventive of these thus far (even if it's no Bimbo's Initiation).]

Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1986) ***1/2 [A wild trip through Argento's obsessions. He has his own rhythms and his own rules, and it pays off here better than in any other film of his that I've seen. The oddball plot features a chimpanzee, a horse fly, and a fifteen year old Jennifer Connelly on a quest for revenge as they hunt down a serial killer. Seriously.]

 

09. Austin Powers in Goldmember (Jay Roach, 2002) ** [Once Quincy Jones shows up, about three minutes in, the fun's just about over with this one (though there's a funny bit involving subtitles later on...). I found this installment less offensively bad than the last one, but the series' incessant repeating of the same jokes just can't continue to make me laugh.]

My Sex Life... or, How I Got Into an Argument (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996) ** [Interminably long and insanely talky, I found this movie a bear to get though, even though I thoroughly enjoyed Jeanne Balibar's off-kilter performance. There are several lovely sequences here, but the sheer number of peripheral characters is hard to keep a hold on. Even by the end of the film, the point of including a few of them (notably the protagonist's brother) was somewhat lost on me. Then again, I could have just dozed off...]

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985) ** [Probably the worst in the series because it trades in the formula that fuels most of the others for a rather lame psycho-thriller premise. Still, there are several inspired bits here that make it worth slogging through.]

 

10. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) **** Masterpiece

Star 80 (Bob Fosse, 1983) ***1/2 [Perfectly made, but on some levels, no good at all, this is a tough film to rate because it lacks a firmer statement of morality. As many times as Fosse might have cut to the inevitable carnage in bedroom, when the confrontation finally arrived, the level of tension was through the roof.]

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) **** [First thing's first... The DVD of this film, available from http://www.davidlynch.com, is just stunning. I can scarcely believe that this film is 25 years old. I loved what I saw, but honestly nodded off once or twice during this particular viewing. It was a not entirely unwelcome happening, that resulted in a natural flow in and out of the dream logic that's created here. I'll try harder to stay awake next time, and give more detailed comments.]

 

11. Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989) ** [I would definitely go lower here if it wasn't for Sally Field's meltdown at the end of the flick. That scene is a perfect example of the sort of acting histrionics that can make you think a movie has something worth saying. Neat trick, there, because in no other scene did that thought cross my mind.]

The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) ***1/2 [This Deep South melodrama isn't very deep itself, but the excellent performances and astonishing amount of nastiness makes it more than watchable.]

 

12. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002) ***1/2 [Still a fun ride... Still can't think of it as more than an exploitation flick...]

 

13. My Beautiful Girl, Mari (Lee Seong-kang, 2002) ***1/2 [What a pleasant surprise to find Miyazaki's sensibility so completely intact in a non-Ghibli film. The aesthetic here looks like a cross between my 3-D Aquarium screensaver, those Flash animations from the web, and the lovely little Shockwave games over at http://www.orisinal.com/, which is to say it's lovely. The "Alice in Wonderland"-influenced coming-of-age plot isn't the most original in the world, but the relative lack of incident allowed the mood to easily overcome me.]

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) **** [Some small changes were made from the cut I reviewed, but they aren't too major. The film is still visually ravishing, even if a DVD viewing reduces it a good deal, and I have to go on record to say that I don't find it very distant emotionally at all just because the actors aren't flipping out like Sally Field in Steel Magnolias.]

 

14. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952) **** 

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) **** [Bizarre, (intentionally?) campy, gender-bending western that throws so much at the audience that it's tough to understand where its truest intentions lay. Is it a "Crucible"-tinged rally against McCarthyism, a cautionary tale about repressed sexuality, an examination of loneliness in a capitalist vacuum, an upending of the macho myths of the Wild West, or all of them at once? Most likely, it's intended to be the latter, but even without a deeper reading, it manages to an entertaining flick.]

 

15. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951) ***1/2 [Perhaps the clearest statement of intent I've seen thus far in Ray's films, this film noir presents a work-obsessed police detective that is driven to vigilante violence by his emotional alienation. The second half, which challenges this mindset, does so at the expense of the fractured idealism that existed in the first half of the film. By rejecting his quest to save the world, the "hero", played by Robert Ryan, might save himself, but there's no mistaking the fact that the world still needs saving after his retreat into personal happiness.]

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949) *** [I found it difficult to sympathize entirely with Farley Granger's spineless protagonist here, who Ray seems to think has been railroaded by the system into a life of crime. Worse yet, the movie's reason for being, which is to show that the close proximity necessitated by being on the lam isn't that bad when it's with someone you love, is hampered by Ray's inability to show more explicit sensuality. That being said, it's an interesting, surprisingly affectionate film, and an especially interesting watch if you've seen Altman's treatment of the same novel in Thieves Like Us.]

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) ***1/2 [At its best when telling its story visually (such as with the heavily symbolic gesture that plays out behind the opening credits), this popular tale of kids from the right side of the tracks gone bad is a bit less convincing when characters open their yaps. Especially awful is the scene early on in which James Dean's iconic Jimmy psychoanalyzes himself while talking with a police officer. The motivations offered up for the teen angst here seem entirely too pat, but they don't ruin the film, especially when it contains memorable sequences such as the chicky-run.]

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957) ***1/2 [Even Ray's powerful anti-war statements fade into the background when sexual jealousy enters the fray here, and the mostly unspoken enmity that exists between the two leads in this film always threatens to surface, adding even more tension during the extended, botched military operation that takes up the bulk of the running time. With his superb black-and-white 'scope compositions, the director creates a landscape in which the contradictions and convictions of his characters are alternately dwarfed by their situation and made to define it.]

 

16. Summer of '42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971) *** [This simple, but potent, coming of age drama brings nothing to the genre except for its modesty, which will surely be enough for many to write it off. Though wildly nostalgic and insanely predictable, Mulligan's decision to take things slowly and not introduce any major subplots pays off wonderfully with a feel that might not be contemplative, exactly, but certainly feels observative. There are some unexpectedly effortless moments of beauty to be found here.]

Selena (Gregory Nava, 1997) *** [The likeability of Jennifer Lopez's star performance seems a bit less startling now that she's established herself as a multi-hyphenate entertainer, but along with co-star Edward James Olmos, she elevates what could be a trashy expose into something that's focused on the positive (and fun) side of this story. Major bonus points need to be given here for managing to present the tragedy that befell the singer as a shock out of left field.]

 

17. The Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951) ***1/2 

Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949) *** [A series of exceptionally melodramatic flashbacks keep this courtroom drama from being great, but there are certainly some great elements here. The frantic camerawork of the action scenes, the thinly veiled jealousy of the accused's potency, and Bogart's performance all are worthwhile. Ray overstates his case a little in an attempt to convince the audience of society's ills, but his passion is admirable.]

 

18. Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) **** [This seeming antecedent to Tokyo Story holds up surprisingly well in comparison. My biggest complaint would be that it didn't make me cry despite trying its damnedest. The reserve shown in illustrating the love of the old couple is admirable though, and the two actors playing them work beautifully together. It's tough to imagine someone who wouldn't enjoy this.]

 

19. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) **** [It's even tougher to imagine someone who'd hate this one... Top notch screwball here, with an atypical amount of grace notes courtesy of McCarey. Especially cute when the dog, Mr. Smith, is on screen, the movie manages to effortlessly create an atmosphere in which all silliness becomes easy to accept. Best moment: when Mr. Smith is escorted from the courtroom for being a "naughty dog".]

All The Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003) **** [The second time through, I identified more with the male protagonist, was less bothered by the woozy dialogue, and was just as taken with the emotional grace of the thing.]

 

20. Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) **** Masterpiece [Certainly saw more of Cronenberg's humor in the film this time, but felt just as drawn into it nonetheless. I'm stupefied by those who call its psychology simple. Spider's essential unknowability makes it impossible to definitively read the symbols, and the wealth of possibilities for the audience to play with puts them one step closer to his attempts to puzzle out his own past.]

 

21. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963) ** 

A Woman's Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949) **1/2 [Atypical Ray film that never finds much of a groove. It's stuck somewhere between a crime film, a women's picture, and a screwball comedy, but never really satisfies on any of those levels, leaving an odd mix. Nonsensical dialogue is given decent delivery throughout, but one would have to be in a coma not to predict the film's ending within the first reel.]

Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956) **** [A riotous ethnic comedy. Jane Russell is near her best here, and the film's juxtapositions of sex and violence make every clash exciting. It's so immersed in its own little world that when a blonde is trotted out, only one guy responds to her as a sexual object and it subverts Hollywood morality by disguising its transgressions with cute gypsy customs.]

 

22. Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray, 1955) **** [One of the most complex of Ray's films, Run for Cover presents a cynical, circular world in which a lack of ideals repeatedly leads to lapses that are downright deadly. John Derek, the pretty-boy martyr from Ray's inferior Knock on Any Door shows up in a similar, but far more complex role here. As an examination of masculine repression (a chess game between a father and his prospective son-in-law is possibly the most tense scene of the film), the nonsensical cruelty of the world, and the dangers of vigilantism the movie goes farther in presenting both sides of each equation than any other Ray film I've seen.]

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) *** [This ho-hum melodrama isn't nearly as exciting as its title might suggest. For one thing, the villain is too coolly calculating to ever make her nastiness any fun. There's nothing really wrong with it, I suppose, and some of the dialogue is killer, but that's about as extensive as I can let my praise get.]

Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958) *** [The most wonderfully photographed Ray film I've seen thus far, but the fancy mise-en-scene is about all this has going for it. The wooden performances and clunky pacing keep the occasional chuckle from having much lasting impact. Still, the film deserves props for having an actual sense of danger (unmanned Tommy guns appear from the edges of the widescreen compositions to blow characters away) and a solid, consistently assaulting visual sensibility.]

 

23. Stealing Home (Steven Kampmann & William Porter, 1988) **1/2 [A truly heinous score undercuts more scenes than I could count here. It's bad on a level that few films outside of Gallipoli can touch. Jodie Foster is pretty wonderful in her role as a free-spirited babysitter and most of the moments that work do so because of her. If the Jonathan Silverman subplot was excised here, there might be a little more tonal consistency, but all things considered, it's not too bad a film even with it.]

 

24. My Life as McDull (Toe Yuen, 2001) ***1/2 [This surprisingly melancholy animated feature about losing gracefully combines multiple types of animation (predominantly Hello Kitty-type animals) and live action to tell the story of a fat little pig who has to come to terms with his mediocrity. It's much better than it sounds, with a whimsical tone that makes it endearing, adorable songs, and a habit of launching off on wonderful tangents that have almost nothing to do with anything.]

Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002) **1/2 [I suppose the recurring themes of single parenthood and faceless ghosts make this a refinement of Ring, but who wants that? The great thing about Nakata's big hit was that it was constantly throwing stuff out from left field, keeping the viewer off balance. Dark Water is certainly more focused, and has a more concrete human story, but that's not really what anyone goes to see these things for, is it? There seems to be a thesis lurking around in there about the evils of bureaucracy as well, but again, it's subsidiary to the scares, which are a bit too infrequent for my tastes . Not exactly disappointing, since there are a few great money shots, but it feels unnecessarily protracted.]

 

25. Fulltime Killer (Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2001) *** [I'm not exactly sure about who was shooting at who here, but I enjoyed watching nonetheless. The playful references to myriad action films, the sexy conversational interludes, and Andy Lau's star performance all conspire to make complaints of unoriginality float away. Writing this two days later, I can scarcely remember any specifics, but that's probably a testament to how easy this one was to digest.]

 

26. Trapped (Luis Mandoki, 2002) *** [Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love have loads of fun in their roles as audacious villains in this no-nonsense kidnap drama. Somewhere along the line it flies off the rails, leading to an ending that makes the parodic final twenty minutes of Adaptation look like the pinnacle of human drama in comparison, but it's either rare to see genre filmmaking this slick or I don't watch enough genre flicks.]

 

27. The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray, 1957) **1/2 [This somewhat bizarre take on the Jesse James story attempts to suggest the guy's biggest problem was immaturity. In Ray's hands, you can be damn sure he becomes a "real" man by the final reel, though, and that puts the viewer in an odd position where they're supposed to root for his (probably fictional) change of heart. Pictorially, it's about as good as anything Ray has made, but it's tough to muster up much praise besides that, especially given the wooden acting.]

Wind Over the Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958) *** [This exotic, Florida-set Western is a bit of a freak show, to be honest. The scenes between the members of Cottonmouth's gang of feather rustlers seem like something out of John Waters' Desperate Living. The ecological crisis is treated with an almost disconcerting amount of sincerity, but it provides an adequate MacGuffin for Ray to conduct his explorations of male power relationships around. Through it all, there's a genuine sense of danger in the swampy settings, and when Cottonmouth's hat blew off in the final scene, I was surprisingly touched.]

 

28. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998) ***1/2 

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957) **** [Improving with a second viewing, but not quiet an unmistakably great film, this one seems strongest because Ray's anti-war sentiments are made apparent through the stupid actions of the bureaucracy and not through the words of a character that serves as a mouthpiece. The tactile desert environment created here really felt more convincing to me the second time as well. I only wish there was a smoother transition between the talky first half of the film and the action packed second.]

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) **** Masterpiece [This wild melodrama is the strongest Ray picture I've seen as well as one of the strongest attacks on middle class conventionality that seems to exist in '50s Hollywood cinema. James Mason seemingly reprises his role as monstrous addict from A Star is Born with brilliant results. The movie kept going farther than I expected it to, and I was repeatedly shocked as it twisted through it's funny/horrible set pieces.]

 

29. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945) **** [One of the rare examples of a seemingly Code-imposed ending improving the film, this film noir becomes doubly heartbreaking in its final reel. Expressionistic times ten, the filmmaking takes us into the mind of Edward G. Robinson's character's quiet suffering as much as his brilliant performance does. I really wish I saw this in the theater instead of on DVD, but the next time it plays, you better believe I'll correct that.]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943) ***1/2 [More grudging admiration than genuine enjoyment here, it seems. I can't discount the technical brilliance on display in Blimp, but I found its message to be badly dated propaganda. The inconsistent attitude toward the titular character seems to fluctuate as the script sees fit, and that makes it difficult to understand where it stands on much until it begins sledgehammering a message in its final third. Maybe another viewing would help a bit, but I'm none to eager to find out. This certainly isn't a bad film by any means, but it seemed more a chore than it should have been.]

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) **** [Perhaps a bit too loosely strung together, this series of conceptually brilliant dance numbers represents some of the finest musical moments that I've seen. Hepburn's two wildly different solos (one melancholy and wistful, the other a spirited Beatnik jam) were my personal favorites, but I'd be hard-pressed to name a clunker. Donen's direction is exceptional throughout, thrillingly using split-screens, freeze frames, and graphic effects to enhance the energy level and the bits of location shooting add immeasurably to the ambiance.]

 

30. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954) **** [Cheerfully chauvinistic, this musical might have the best dancing I've seen in any film in the genre and Donen's widescreen compositions never let us forget that there are, indeed, seven brothers. If there's a more astonishing dance sequence out there than "The Barn Raising", someone, please let me know. The music is incredibly catchy, the simple plot surprisingly efficient, and the studio sets rather charming. For consistency of quality, this one is hard to beat.]

Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952) **** [I feel like a scoundrel, but I can't really dub this wildly enjoyable film a masterpiece (I'm sure Donen won't be able to sleep tonight). The first reason is the mostly superfluous "Beautiful Girl" number. The second is the momentum-killing "Broadway Melody" number. Taken by themselves, these two sequences are wholly enjoyable, but both of them hurt the flow of energy that the rest of Singin' has. I've seen the film several times, of course, and these two bits always feel problematic to me. I love the meta-moments throughout and I love the astonishing athleticism of the cast, but I simply can't jump on the greatest American musical bandwagon with this one.]

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) ***1/2 [After the first half hour, I was gripped, but I have to admit that as the focus drifted here from murder mystery to tempestuous romance, my interest slightly flagged. Bogart is unusually creepy here and Grahame convinces us that he's sexy, against all odds, but there seemed to be reticence here that kept things from ever growing truly ugly (or insightful).]

 

31. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976) **** [The specter of Howard Hawks looms large over this siege drama, and that's undoubtedly a good thing. Nearly a modernization of Rio Bravo, Carpenter's technically accomplished film features a cast that demonstrates genuinely moving bravery under impossible odds, whatever their race, gender, or position in society. The shot of the three shell-shocked heroes near the end - fully ready to sacrifice themselves to see justice served -  put a lump in my throat.]

 

56 Features, 24 Shorts

January 2003 - February 2003 - March 2003 - April 2003