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Screening Log



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April 2004 Screening Log - click for reviews, when applicable. Titles of short films listed in bold.

01. Scenes From a Marriage [miniseries] (Ingmar Bergman, 1973) 79 [Episode Five is a flat-out masterpiece, though it wouldn't have the same impact without the preceding four chapters. Chapter six is something of a dud, it seems, though I appreciate how its developments keep this from becoming a simple female empowerment story. Liv Ullman gives a flawless performance, partially because her character is given a wider range of responses than Erland Josephson's (not surprisingly, considering Bergman's predilection for female characters in his later films). The way that the sheer proximity to the characters turns a mundane situation into a revelatory one is impressive, as are the consistently fresh shot compositions. I can't think of many films that have done more with the close-up.]


02. Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988) 74 [It combines film noir mood with Tarr's distinct brand of mannered realism resulting in a truly unique tone. The style not only asks us to lessen the attention we place on the plot, but also seems to downplay human concern in general. In this nightmarish context of rainy city streets and windswept plains, people don't seem to have much impact on the environment, so it's tough to assign greater importance to them than it. There are several bravado moments here, including a long sequence shot though a cabaret act and a harrowing account of a suicide, that hint at the masterpieces Tarr would go on to make.]


03. Daddy and Them (Billy Bob Thornton, 2001) 56 [This southern comedy is likeable and pleasingly paced, but only sporadically successful. It's such a rambling, shaggy dog of a movie that it's tough to imagine it being a commercial success. Miramax's decision to release it directly to video is almost understandable. I especially liked the sustained romantic mood of the final ten minutes (though that last shot is a bit forced), but it's obvious that's partially due to the goodwill that had been building up throughout the movie. The most heartfelt relationship here, not surprisingly, is between Thornton & Laura Dern's characters.]

The Onion Field (Harold Becker, 1979) 48 [James Woods has a heck of a role here, but its impact is lessened as it's cast into a mired mess of subplots, many of which don't pay off at all. Somewhere along the way, as it shifts from police procedural to indictment of the legal system, it bites off more than it can chew. I found it terribly hard to be outraged, or moved at all, as the events unfolded. Like most films based on a true story, an air of exploitation haunts many scenes (most specifically here, those set on death row).]


04. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Pedro Almodovar, 1984) 42 [Almodovar's frequent mixture of immoral characters and his generosity toward them doesn't really work for me, which probably makes me some kind of knee-jerk moralist. Oh well. Frequently, I found this movie funny, but it's way too scattered, both in theme and tone, to be considered a real success. I can certainly appreciate the anarchy that he manages to create, but it leaves me cold at the same time.]

Johnny Handsome (Walter Hill, 1989) 62 [There's a lot to like here. The symbolism of the titular character is relevant and poignant in a story about a man challenged with the prospect of starting a new life. The performances are all either very good or very interesting. There's a thankful dearth of unnecessary subplots getting in the way of the movie's action (naturally, since Hill directed). Really, the difference between this and a truly great genre film is hard to articulate, even if it's quite discernable. It's the difference between having all of the necessary elements and being able to blend them together flawlessly.]

Show Me Love (Lucas Moodysson, 1998) 62


05. Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) 71


06. Porn Theater (Jacques Nolot, 2002) 64 [This felt like a playful version of Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn to me, which is pretty much a good thing. It's much more verbose than Tsai's movie (though still primarily visual), and that's not really a bad thing. I like how it establishes the rules of this microcosmic society mainly through gestures and confrontations. The instances where the real world's politics entered the scenario were generally jarring (especially when the Arab assaults a patron!), but maybe the point is that one can't fully divorce themselves from reality. The subplot involving the ticket taker and the projectionist feels like a nod toward audiences who might have a hard time getting into this material, and would probably be best left excised from the film or at least cut down.]


07. Jersey Girl (Kevin Smith, 2004) 33 [Dismal and inept. Smith's stabs at maturity reek of cliché (e.g. the father races to catch his daughter's school play) to the degree where sincerity is completely diffused. The presentation of the P.R. world is facile, even considering the way Smith tries to use it. Still, it's kind of watchable, since three of the actors (Lopez, Affleck, and Tyler) exhibit the sort of screen charisma that would make anything, even this, almost worthwhile.]

The Ladykillers (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2004) 56 [There's a lot to like here, but I barely like this movie. The look of it is unique (or at least unique to the Coen Brothers), the performances (especially Hanks) are very enjoyable, and the film is an improvement on the original. That said, by the time the movie starts earning its title, things turn ugly, and the Coens' moralizing begins to make watching the movie a thoroughly sour experience. It gets so heavy-handed that "black comedy" barely seems to fit any longer. If it didn't seem to align the evil actions of the bumbling bad guys with their modernity, I might have found it an easier, if still bitter, pill to swallow.]   


08. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) 69 [Expansive, and quite excellent on a scene-by-scene basis, but it doesn't really build momentum as one might hope it would. Some major caveats exist, such as Spike Lee's casting of himself, the niggling annoyances caused by the half of his ostentatious directorial touches that don't work, and the tone, which is reverential to a fault (the movie never seems to place us in the shoes of its questioning protagonist... even the early scenes have the promise of something greater built into them). Washington is nothing less than amazing in the lead role, though, and through his transformations, he manages to push the movie through transformations that the script doesn't quite seem to recognize.]


09. Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963) 66 [There's one scene here, in which the lovers/gamblers waltz into a casino, and proceed to lose everything they've gained, that is peerlessly tense and insanely romantic. It's such a strong sequence that its presence in the movie (most of which strives for, but never quite reaches such heights) sort of makes the rest of the movie a moot point. Of course, without context, namely the understanding of how far Jean has come on this whirlwind dream and how far Jackie is willing to sink to convincer herself she can maintain hers, the meaning is lost, and that context, and the subsequent resolution, is what the rest of the movie is for. The black and white cinematography is incredibly sharp.]


10. My Life Without Me (Isabel Coixet, 2003) 51 [Mostly thanks to Sarah Polley this works. The script is smart enough to let its protagonist be selfish at the same time she's being generous, though, which is something of a gift to an actor. For all of the restraint that it shows in the scenes regarding her cancer, you'd hope for half as much those detailing her romance. It often deals with poverty and crushed dreams in the same breath, which is an oversimplification, but at least it deals with either.]


11. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988) 53 [A fun mash-up of horror films that gets through its rough spots with the sheer amount of content it throws at you. Though the acting is hilariously bad (and, unlike its superior sequel, this isn't really a comedy), it doesn't really detract from the scare quotient. This is a surprisingly gory, consistently inventive series that's due for a revival.] 

Decasia: The State of Decay (Bill Morrison, 2002) 62 [It's a must-see, but I wouldn't blame you if you shut it off halfway through. Afterwards, there lingers the question of whether this was too much to take in one viewing of the film, or too much for Morrison to force upon the viewer during one sitting. It's a question of semantics, I suppose, but it's probably central to one's appraisal of just how good this movie is. Certainly just when you start to think Morrison has exhausted his ruminations on the subject at hand, he pulls out another dazzling visual metaphor to comment on most of what's come before. The way that themes of death and rebirth, history and time play off of one another are compelling, but not quite endlessly so. Morrison does more than you would have any right to expect with decaying film stock, but sometimes when he recycles his images, the results are less than overwhelming (the whirling dervish at the start and stop just reminds me of  the circle of life). Surely a second viewing will give me much more to ponder... if I ever get myself to watch it again.]

This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955) 53

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) 79


12. Selma, Lord Selma (Charles Burnett, 1999) 60

O Fantasma (Joao Pedro Rodrigues, 2000) 49


13. Un Chant D'amour (Jean Genet, 1950) 96

Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004) 58


14. Empire Records: Remix! Special Fan Edition (Allan Moyle, 1995) 69

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004) 83


15. Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001) 37


16. Ivansxtc. (Bernard Rose, 2000) 66


17. Q & A (Sidney Lumet, 1990) 58 [Perhaps this is best viewed as a dry run for Lumet's later, superior Night Falls on Manhattan, which similarly traces the gradual corruption of an idealistic New York City District Attorney. As the movie moves into its third act, and the focus shifts from shady municipal dealings to overt mafia hit-making, it loses both its focus and its mood. When it leaves the city, you can barely tell the difference. That being said, there are numerous exciting scenes here, and several flashes of greatness, usually as a result of the sparks that are shed as any two of Lumet's script's stereotypes rub up against one another. Nick Notle delivers at least the first half of a great performance, but the material becomes something of a let down when it matters most.]

The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson, 1972) 57 [Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces might be the best-ever shaggy dog drama, so it's not without too-high expectations that I approach this movie. Even without them, I can't feel that I'd be a bit letdown, however. It's got a lot of the feel that Rafelson managed in Pieces, but the nervous energy, here courtesy of Ellen Burstyn, feels like the imposition of a screenplay in a way that Karen Black never did. The casting-against-type of Nicholson and Dern ends up working well enough, but it's nearly impossible not to imagine each playing the other's role at the same time. The backhanded compliment on the back of the DVD case might say it more succinctly than I could: "A daring attempt at originality."]


18. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955) 73 

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) 89

Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) 70


19. The Undefeated (Andrew McLaglen, 1969) 52 [Quite enjoyable, with a few scenes that seem tailor made to reference some of Wayne's classic pictures (notably the Walter Brennan character from Rio Bravo or Red River, and the much different attitude toward interracial relations than The Searchers). It's not as good as it might have been, or as the opening scenes suggest it might be, however. Starting as an examination of antebellum North/South tensions, it trades pathos in for a story that asks us to root for those who overcome adversity, which is fine, but not quite as complex. At the end of it all, it's about as resonant as the ding the spit makes when it hits the spittoon.]

The Big Picture (Christopher Guest, 1989) 34 


20. The Boost (Harold Becker, 1988) 61

The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 1998) 60


21. Martin (George Romero, 1977) 73

Il Mare (Hyung-seung Lee, 2000) 44


22. Call Me Madam (Walter Lang, 1953) 41


23. Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, 2001) 77


24. The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943) 80


25. Night Falls on Manhattan (Sidnet Lumet, 1997) 69


26. In a Year of 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978) 92

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968) 75


27. Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961) 82


28. King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990) 68 [The dreamy tracking shots, artificial lighting and strategic restraint of dialogue move this into the rarefied territory of the auteur. For those expecting more superficial pleasures, though, it might be a mild disappointment. Walken's motivation, which is frankly bizarre, isn't explained until the penultimate sequence, which undercuts our ability to identify with him. Similarly, Ferrara keeps the police that pursue him at arm's length, by making their scenes much less dynamic than those of the gangsters. This results in a shift in morality, that's interesting, but at odds with the seeming intent of the director. The final tragedy here is a questionable one.]


29. Connie and Carla (Michael Lembeck, 2004) 32 [Some Like It Hot gets a half-assed "Queer Eye" makeover here, with decidedly mixed results. The script admittedly feels less like a television sitcom than Greek Wedding, mostly thanks to the numerous, if unimpressive, musical numbers. Oftentimes, it threatens to build on its pleasingly goofy moments, but the frequent injections of Oprah-ready feel-good "wisdom" (about thinks like positive body image and the acceptance of others' differences) screw up the tone. To call the plot resolution perfunctory would be a gross exaggeration. Like many of the unfulfilled gag setups, it feels as if it were the victim of overzealous focus groups.]

Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004) 38 [This disappointingly routine serial killer thriller has little other than an intense performance by Jolie to recommend it for most of its running time. The predictable third-act twist, however, brings with it some unexpectedly complicated emotional high points. Even if it is ultimately a less intelligent, more naive (!) version of In The Cut, it should be commended for flirting with such uncomfortable territory.] 

Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004) 57 


30. Laws of Attraction (Peter Howitt, 2004) 37 [This would-be screwball comedy keeps flip-flopping between the sophisticated and the immature (e.g. the casual sex feels genuinely casual, until it suddenly becomes a neurotic bone of contention). This leaves a mess in which the only pleasure that can be gleaned comes from watching the actors elevate material that is far, far beneath them, or wondering if the frequent drunken stupors count as billable hours. At least half of the witty repartee lands with a thud, and as a result you find yourself focusing far too much on the lopsided, hilariously outmoded sexual politics at play. Brosnan barely flexes an acting muscle, but that's to be expected by now, I suppose, and I am sort of okay with it. Moore looks great, even as she's chowing down product-placed snack foods. I just wish they had a competent script to work with.]

Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro, 2004) 29 [I found myself completely apathetic to this flashy, but morose, CGI thingie. One or two visual tricks perked me up (blue fire + orange fire = cool), but as soon as they left the screen, so did my interest. The Hellboy character seems somewhat undercooked, since we're never really made to understand why he loves the girl he does (or why she loves him, really). His decidedly non-witty fight banter ("Oh crap.") and generally gruff demeanor don't exactly suggest much of an interior life, and the actor that portrays him has little ability to relay one through the astonishing amount of makeup he has to wear. It's not inept, or anything... just pretty damn boring.]



January 2004 - February 2004 - March 2004 - April 2004 - May 2004