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

 

01. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrera, 1981) 62 [On paper it's a cheap exploitation movie. In practice it's something more, nearing movies like Taxi Driver and Spider at times in its ability to take us into the perspective of its alienated protagonist. It's certainly not bogged down by misplaced sympathies or narrative excess, but during those scenes where the technique wasn't absolutely riveting (which were fewer than I might have expected), I found myself longing for more substance. Frequently, the aggressive male sex drive on display here leaves believability and, more importantly, most relevance to reality behind. Nonetheless, it's far better than the average genre flick and Ferrera's use of New York feels like more than just a random urban backdrop.]

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) 76 [What should be a brainless propaganda piece becomes something more under Hawks' supervision. There are a few elements here, namely an exploration of poverty and an explicit spiritual search, that don't seem very common topics for the director, but he incorporates them into his worldview anyhow. As always, the ability of a man to do his job, and do it well, is vindication of the other things he believes in. The movie spends so much time establishing York at each turning point in his life that his final heroic behavior ends up feeling like a complicated betrayal, or at least extension, of who he once was.]

Praise (John Curran, 1998) 57 [Admirable for the level of disgusting comfort that it finds for its lead characters, but still somewhat disgusting and uncomfortable viewing. Even worse, it feels self-consciously dirty too often (probably worsened by the awareness implied by the voiceover), resulting a mood that's more shot for than achieved. The third act is more an evaporation of the first two than an expansion. There are two fiercely committed performances here, and they make the film worthwhile, whatever its faults.] 

The Hawks and the Sparrows (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966) 75 [Considering the source, this hilarious comic fable about common man's blissful ignorance in the face of social change could only end on a downbeat note, but the director carries it off here without making the film feel like a lecture. It's a disorganized film in many ways (or am I just not getting it all...?), but the chaotic spirit it creates calls to mind The Marx Bros. as much as Marx. Like many of Pasolini's movies, there's a slightly slapdash construction to it that is completely forgivable thanks to the multitude of ideas. Also, the opening credits rule.]

 

02. Public Toilet (Fruit Chan, 2002) 35 [No execratory taboo goes unbroken here, for better or worse, resulting in a movie that seems to function entirely outside of the realms of good taste (e.g. the closing scatological rap song). The narrative steadfastly refuses to commit itself to any particular thread, but somehow it sinks into a morass of ugly DV sameness anyhow. It would be easier to write off as a folly though if it weren't for a few engaging segments and a genuinely rare feeling that there are things to be discovered yet in the world.] 

The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956) 72 [Not quite as stylized as Ichikawa's Fire on the Planes, which results in a movie that feels stodgier and more didactic. Still, it's quite moving at times. The search for personal enlightenment presented here is convincing, the camaraderie of the troops stirring, and the weight of unfortunate realities obvious. It's mostly problematic in the ways that its themes of intense self-sacrifice and compassion seem unlikely in the face of the atrocities that have transpired.]

 

03. Read My Lips (Jacques Audiard, 2001) 58 [Fares better than most explicitly Hitchcockian thrillers, since it doesn't work overtime in establishing that it is, indeed, a Hitchcockian thriller. The director pays homage to the master in ways that are mostly painless, though the central plot device, borrowed from Rear Window, is unfortunately the one that strains the hardest. Once it's introduced, the movie pretty much sputters to a finish. I was hoping the psychological undertones of the lead characters' relationship might develop in a more interesting way than they did (especially after the promising set-up), but despite the happy, uncomplicated ending, Cassel and Devos make it worthwhile.]

The Lady With the Dog (Josif Hejfits, 1960) 81 [This drama about adulterous lovers turns out to be dazzlingly romantic, even though the well-observed, but not exactly astonishing first act wouldn't alone suggest that. When the leading male (beautifully played by Aleksei Batalov) shifts from downplaying the importance of the affair to being reminded of it everywhere he looks, it becomes nearly overwhelming. Based on a story by Chekhov, it's filled with small gestures of great importance with a style that's reigned in enough to make those moments really count.]

 

04. Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001) 61 [Though it's not the most-well made of movies, and not much more than a portrait of a somewhat unique figure, the level of intimacy achieved by Davis makes it both pleasant to watch and sort of touching. The most telling moment occurs when one of the characters says on camera that she should be recording the moment. That sort of complete invisibility is rare in documentaries, and it seems as if Davis and her small crew are telling this story for all of the "right" reasons. It thankfully doesn't ever turn into a moralizing statement bigger than it needs to be, despite a third act that greatly expands its horizons.]

Two Can Play That Game (Mark Brown, 2001) 66 [After seeing this, it's easy see why Tarantino was inspired to write a plum role for Vivica A. Fox in Kill Bill. Her role here is filled with monologues delivered directly to the camera, and at every moment she exhibits razor-sharp wit and colorful verbiage. The plot that the movie follows is mostly an excuse for a series of hilarious star turns. Complaints might be raised about the movie's lack of political correctness, I suppose, but none of them hold any water for me in light of the consistently high energy level.]

JLG/JLG (Jean-Luc Godard, 1995) 40 [Now I guess I know what people who don't like late Godard feel when they watch his movies (even if I can't deny the obvious strengths here). This dreary exercise is self-contained and kind of flawless from an outsider's perspective, but I couldn't really find the insider's perspective I wanted. Perfectly composed and perfectly sterile, I probably will get the most from it by looking at it as a dry run for In Praise of Love. Then again, it probably warrants another look someday...]

Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) 78 [So wonderful, except when it comes to the plot, which is a bit inane (why on earth does Grant's character hide his ridiculous vacation plans?, etc.). The deck is so clearly stacked against conformity that it hardly seems fair. It scarcely matters though. The cast is unparalleled, the pace snappy enough to alleviate the feelings of staginess, and the moments where the lightness solidifies into something weightier perfectly timed.]

 

05. Up, Down, Fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995) 84 [It really captures the feeling that Paris is a city filled with mysteries and possibility. Around every corner there's a secret society, a nagging song half-remembered, or a past conspiracy. The characters here move through the film mostly as projections of what they imagine themselves to be. They always seem to be putting on a performance, and when the confrontations between two of them reach a peak, a musical number breaks out. This movie transforms the ordinary into the opposite merely by including it. It's cinema that's thrilled by its own existence.]

 

06. Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, 1998) 69 [An unfortunate member of a thankless genre (dying old man meets young scamp) that nearly transcends it with sheer stylistic power and formal rigor. It's both a breathtaking and suffocating movie. It has the feel and prowess of a masterpiece, but sometimes the ideas of the most inane of self-important crud. It's sort of shameless at times and astounding at others. Filled with images that compelled me and mawkish sentimentality that made me annoyed that I took the bait, it was a consistently vexing viewing experience, but one I was glad I had.]

Zouzou (Marc Allegret, 1934) 59 [A showcase for star Josephine Baker, who presents herself here as a bundle of twitchy energy (Jean Gabin seems positively reserved in comparison), the likes of which have been rarely seen before or since. The plot is allowed to be a bit more rough and tumble than the average backstage drama, which helps enliven things. If it weren't for the performances, it would be a fairly anonymous movie, but that can be said of most films in this genre.]

 

07. No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990) 57 [It doesn't quite achieve the dreamy atmosphere of so many of Denis' other movies, and instead settles for a more mundane realistic approximation of its setting (this time it's a cockfighting racket) and the routine that defines it. Like any Denis movie, it is concerned with the psychological motivations of outsiders, but I'm not sure that the feelings dredged up here are terribly insightful. Madness and alienation are common themes in her films, but here they feel less arrived at than usual. It's got some nice passages, but it doesn't cast much of a spell.]  

Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003) 63 [Somewhere along the way it loses some of its savage attitude. As a result, itís less powerful than clever. Still, thereís plenty to like about this surprisingly funny, unusually accessible Chinese con-man drama. Even the presence of an almost obligatory, thoroughly lovable, morally impeccable kid is bearable here because the movie isnít afraid to demonstrate his naivetť in a way that makes him the butt of jokes. It presents a system in which callousness against the system canít be judged too harshly, since the system is just as insensitive and self-centered.]

Wuthering Heights (Luis BuŮuel, 1954) 59 [BuŮuel drops the first half of the novel and transfers the action to Mexico, but what remains is still more faithful in spirit to Bronte's novel than Wyler's supposedly classic version. The romance between Heathcliff & Cathy (or Alejandro and Catalina, as they are called here) is truly frenzied, and since this is BuŮuel, it represents some kind of nonconformist ideal. Catalina's husband, repressed and capable of oppressing others is probably the central figure here, and is a typically BuŮuellian leading man.]

Undisputed (Walter Hill, 2002) 71 [Hereís an action movie thatís been stripped down to bare knuckles, with only the faintest suggestions of subplots and enough narrative drive to make the arrival of its final face-off feel completely like the main event itís touted as. Flawless performances (of varying levels of subtlety), intelligent direction, and a script that never dawdles all serve the story here. Itís not an important movie, but itís a terribly effective one that almost perfectly fulfills its genreís requirements, and that might be a rarer sort of animal.]

 

08. Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000) 67 [A hilarious, consistently inventive comedy marred only by its final twenty minutes (emotional resonance? No thanks!). Korean people obviously have different standards about whatís acceptable in a film (thereís sure a lot of vomiting in the countryís recent cinema), so I wonder how much of this stuff is shocking and how much of my reaction is culture shock. In any case, itís a highly recommended work from a talent whoís clearly worth watching.]

Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) 56

Jeepers Creepers 2 (Victor Salva, 2003) 60 [The DVD special features shockingly reveal that the urination sequence was longer in the original cut!]

 

09. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002) 53 [Charming, but a bit insubstantial. Whereas Spirited Away made its ďAlice in WonderlandĒ-inspired world feel like a genuinely unique creation, Cat is as fresh as used kitty litter. Of course since it comes from Studio Ghibli, the animation is simple, yet enchanting, and the character designs are cute, but not too cute. Itís not going to reinvent your life or make you rediscover your lost childhood impulses in the way a Miyazaki movie might, but itís diverting and sure-handed.]

 

10. Kill Me Later (Dana Lustig, 2001) 34 [Direct to video nonsense, redeemed to an extent by Selma Blairís presence. She can only do so much, however, when sheís working against a script this facile and a director this shockingly inept (never has someone gotten by with so few establishing shots!). Not really worth seeing, even for fans of Ms. Blair, but it does has a bit of slacker charm to make it bearable.]

 

11. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943) 62 [Itís inordinately talky, especially for an action film, and filled with the kind of Hollywood corn thatís easy to scorn, but the cast, and especially Cooper, more than hold it together. It has a claustrophobic feel that seems at odds with its epic runtime and it manages to hold at least some of the sentiments from Hemmingway. In a way, this feels almost like a Hawks movie without the things that make Hawks a distinctive filmmaker, which makes it sound worse than it is.]

 

12. I Can't Sleep (Claire Denis, 1994) 65 [Typical Denis, this time focusing on a serial killer who terrorizes reclusive women, immigrants who have to work under the table, and a couple of covertly gay dudes. It's chock full of mood and the imagery is pretty arresting, but perhaps it's spread a little too thin for its own good. The strands of the story are all tenuously connected, but Denis somehow makes that a non-issue.]

 

13. All Tomorrow's Parties (Yu Lik-wai, 2003) 47 [Actually, I wrote a review for this... I will try to transcribe it shortly.]

No Rest for the Brave (Alain Guiraudie, 2003) 35 [Guiraudie mostly lacks the formal power of David Lynch, so when he shoots for that director's brand of dreamy intensity, he comes up short. Its storyline leaves logic behind, which results in the feeling you're watching a new film every twenty minutes. This has its pros and cons, I suppose, but I was finally frustrated by the simple conclusion.]

The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003) 68 

 

14. The World's Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey, 1962) 23 [A heck of an idea, done poorly... very poorly! Apparently, this monstrosity took six years to complete. It pretty much shows. Technical ineptitude of this magnitude is pretty much inexcusable, no matter how anti-establishment a statement Carey is making.]

Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003) 30 [These Kiyoshi Kurosawa movies just aren't my bag, it seems. There's an internal logic at work here, I suppose, but it's all in the service of a really silly metaphor. The incandescent jellyfish at the center of this movie apparently are the conduit through which for two frustrated young kids to funnel all of their frustrations about their lot in life. That's well and good, I suppose, but Kurosawa treats this idea with such utter seriousness that it becomes hard to take seriously. I could also do without the all-purpose father figure, the randomly (or too obscurely) motivated murder, and the DV (which varies greatly in quality from shot to shot... is Kurosawa switching from a DV cam to an HD one?).]

Strayed (Andre Techine, 2003) 61 [Perfectly respectable filmmaking, which is to say kind of predictable and prestigious in subject matter, but done with a lot of intelligence and efficiency. For example, the horror of the opening sequence is made tangible quickly, but somehow has an effect that lingers for the rest of the runtime. Also of note is a truly spontaneous sex scene all done in one close-up sequence shot. The final act didn't turn out to be as melodramatic as I feared it might, which only cemented my regard for the movie. Beart is super, naturally.]

 

15. Scarlet Diva (Asia Argento, 2000) 50 [Not really a great movie, but it's certainly one that makes me want to see Asia's next movie. To these eyes, it seems a more heartfelt fictionalized account of the life of the daughter of an esteemed director than Lost in Translation. By spanning the world as vigorously as it does, it makes literal its heroine's sense of emotional dislocation, just as the frequent attempts to rape or assualt her make her alienation feel more real.] 

The Magic Gloves (Martin Rejtman, 2003) 46 [Kind of amusing, but droll to a fault, this quirky comedy didn't do much for me. I was annoyed by its editorial structure, which left out huge swaths of exposition, resulting in the feeling that the wildly different characters were befriending one another mostly because the script wanted them to pair off. As it moved along, it never really built on its ability to identify with the characters, leaving me still a bit sour about how Rejtman used their depression and other unattractive qualities as punchlines.]

Playing "In the Company of Men" (Arnaud Desplechin, 2003) 52 [Not much is gained from the behind the scenes looks that this filmed play adaptation uses at seemingly random times. The drama in this corporate drama is rather boldly conceived. Everything has an inflated, Shakespearean quality, which is fine, but somewhat redundant after Almeryda's Hamlet. Desplechin's decision to insert a female character adds nothing and clumsily recycles dialogue directly lifted from Shakespeare's plays.]

 

16. Gambling, Gods and LSD (Peter Mettler, 2002) 53 [Set at a pace that really does allow for meditation, this documentary is one of the least organized movies that I've ever had the pleasure of watching. There's a theme here, for sure (the director states it explicitly a few minutes before the end), but really the pleasures that exist are more tied in with places and people visited than the man behind the camera. A few of the scenes, like the one where a man pulls his cremated wife's bones out at a poker game, are pretty much unlike anything I've seen before. One would have to be incredibly impatient to have a bad time watching this, even though it's three hours long, since every forty minutes finds a new environ to explore.]

Shanghai Panic (Andrew Cheng, 2001) 47 [A decent debut film, especially considering there's obviously no budget here. The characters are sketched well and really do seem to reflect the mindset of current youth, and not just some hip director's idea of what current youth might be like. It's so up to date that it might date itself quickly, but it certainly manages to be a relevant political statement just by presenting a jaundiced view of the state of affairs.]

Welcome to Destination Shanghai (Andrew Cheng, 2003) 49

 

17. Tristana (Luis Bunuel, 1970) 66

Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmabaf, 1996) 48

Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002) 80

 

18. The Transporter (Corey Yuen, 2002) 34

 

19. 50 First Dates (Peter Segal, 2004) 41

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 2000) 53

 

20. Against the Ropes (Charles S. Dutton, 2004) 44

The Old Place (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Mieville, 1998) 63

 

21. White Wedding (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1989) 51

The Black Angel (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1994) 70

 

22. Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1963) 46

Julie (Andrew L. Stone, 1956) 42

A Brutal Game (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983) 62

Celine (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992) 58

Workers for the Good Lord (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2000) 58

Sound and Fury (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988) 76

 

23. Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966) 13

 

24. Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassy, 1999) 71 [I've seen Peter Tscherkassy's Outer Space before, on the big screen, and it loses a bit in the transition to DVD. Still, this truly cinematic conception of horror (it's a stuttering attack by the soundtrack and the frame itself) is impressive in any format.]

Ursula (Lloyd Michael Williams, 1961) 51 [This moody horror short uses familiar avant-garde techniques like superimposition, slow-motion, and sound distortion to create a sustained venture into a child's increasing madness. It's a bit simplistic, but it's executed well.]

Journey Into The Unknown (Kerry Laitala, 2002) 57 [Journey Into The Unknown isn't relevatory either in its central metaphor (cinema as mysterious journey into the subconscious) or its technique (which uses hand-printed negative images, extreme close-ups and sound fragments to create abstraction), but it effectively establishes a mood that's almost hypnotic. It's too short for its own good though.]

The Virgin Sacrifice (J.X. Williams, 1969) 54 [The Virgin Sacrifice is a fragment of a lost, longer film, but what survives is pretty interesting on its own terms. The opening suggests camp with the line of dialogue, "Devil worship, it's the 'in' thing to do," but the display that follows doesn't seem to be intentionally funny. The effects are wildly different from each other, and even if it doesn't exactly demonstrate mastery of technique, it's always great to look at.]

Tuning the Sleeping Machine (David Sherman, 1996) 67 [Through its rephotographed cinematic images, it seems to comment on the way that the spectator of a film fundamentally changes what he's seen. The pulsating editing scheme used here ensures that the impression of the clips used is subliminal, at best, lending to the film an eerie feel that also suggests our response to the movies we see is not entirely one that we're aware of. When it begins to recycle and intensify its footage, it manages to find true excitement in its melding of ideas and images.]

Dawn of an Evil Millennium (Damon Packard, 1988) 33 [This slapdash, madcap experimental Super-8 demo reel about a Lovecraftian demon is initially more disgusting, and more fun, than most art films. Most of the kicks are found in watching the telekinetic monster explode, compress, and otherwise assault puny humans. It's rare to see a narrative film use these avant-garde techniques, but I imagine that's as much a budgetary concession as it is a stylistic one. Nonetheless, it's ability to make an intergalactic special effects epic using these techniques, and a twenty minute runtime, is impressive. Somewhere around the middle, though, it stops making much sense at all.]

The Haunted Mouth (?, 1974) 26 [Made by the American Dental Association (!), this unlikely film features the invisible specter of plaque (played by Cesar Romero!) terrorizing children with tales of dental decay.]

Buffalo Soldiers (Gregor Jordan, 2001) 56

Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001) 17

 

25. The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937) 70

Happy Times (Zhang Yimou, 2001) 66 [A lame concept executed almost to perfection makes for an experience that's something of a mixed bag. The plot here is rather lame, and it relies on too many improbable lies and half-truths to work, but the director takes that weakness and spins it into the film's emotional core. Soon, the subject becomes the willingness to lie to spare feelings, and Zhang finds real depth, despite his melodramatics. Scenes, like the ones in which the group of retired citizens debate the pros and cons of their ruse work wonderfully to add to our attachment to them and really get at the issues that are at hand.] 

 

26. Signs of Life (Werner Herzog, 1968) 62

Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) 74 [Sort of astonishing in its use of star Louise Brooks. She is precisely Pabst needs her to be at any given moment, and he makes her run the gamut. Predators, both sexual and otherwise, seem to dominate the vividly realized urban landscape that Pabst puts his powerless heroine in. It's filled with moments that make the final scene's blatant moralizing seem suspect.]

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Stephen Frears, 1987) 52 [This over-ambitious, yet somewhat accomplished mess almost defines the term "biting off more than you can chew". Someone shouts somewhere along the way that some situation is "liberalism gone mad!", which pretty much sums up what the film is trying to demonstrate. It throws race riots, gender clashes, and generational gaps into the mix for starters, and there's barely a moment to catch your breath amid the endless, breathless explanations of the characters' positions on the Issues That Matter To Them. Considering the movie's flirtatious attitude toward its subject matter, it has some truly rankling conservative moments. The ending, for example, is too eager to point out the price paid for the hedonism that's come before, and the musical sequence, which culminates in a split-screen orgy, disturbingly leaves out the lesbian couple. Still, there's a theatrical quality to it, even in its most ambitious sequences, that is consistent and allows for some of its gaffes.]

Thomas Jefferson (Ken Burns, 1997) 38 [In light of Jefferson's stature as a Great American, this doc seems way too concerned with examining the hypocrisies inherent in his slave ownership. Obviously, it's an issue that needs to be raised, but to devote half of the running time to it seems a decision that's more fashionable than factual. Even the choice to have Ossie Davis narrate seems like a loaded one. Otherwise, there's not much to take note of here. Burns' style is fairly nondescript, if glossy.]  

The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) 20 [Under Mel Gibson's eye, the Passion Play becomes a fetish object. If this sort of Catholic suffering porn is what gets you off, by all means, have at it. Personally, it seemed a thankless, rather disgusting experience. Christ himself comes off as passive aggressive. The movie is so obsessed with assigning blame that it's almost impossible to extract the positive messages that this story is supposed to send. The filmmaking doesn't help matters. Gibson uses slow motion to such extremes (e.g. every time Jesus stumbles) that it practically becomes a parody of itself. Caleb Deschanel shot it, but it barely shows (even the opening sequence, set in the moonlight, resorts to a lame fog effect). A resolutely stupid movie that steadfastly refuses to question, though that will be its prime charm for many. At the end of the day, though, it's neither the best Jesus movie I've seen, nor the worst.] 

 

27. Blue Gate Crossing (Chin-yen Yee, 2002) 55

 

28. Osama (Siddiq Barmak, 2003) 50

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003) 57

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Guy Ferland, 2004) 30

 

29. Daybreak Express (D. A. Pennebaker, 1958) 41

Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassy, 1999) 71

Journey Into The Unknown (Kerry Laitala, 2002) 57 

Simone (Andrew Niccol, 2002) 43

 

 

January 2004 - February 2004 - March 2004