Film Reviews

In case you haven't noticed by now, there's a lot of writing about movies on the internet! Anyone who's waded into it knows it runs the gamut. Below is a collection of often informal (but hopefully well considered) reviews I've penned over the past few years--those I've deemed worth reproducing here anyway. Not all of these are in-depth reviews with a synopsis of each film's plot and a detailed list of its intricate innerworkings and so on; instead, these are sometimes just my stray thoughts post-viewing, usually right after though at times a good deal later. This is an effort to put them all in one place. Overall the emphasis here tends to be more on films I've liked or at least thought I would, as discussing films I've disliked at length tends to be less fun and productive. Soon this page and the whole site will be optimized for mobile devices. New reviews will be added from time to time and noted as such.


Anyway, here's the rating system:

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
An almost impossibly well done cinematic feat, original, ahead of its time,
and never bettered by those who attempted films in a similar vein.

★ ★ ★ ★ ½
A masterpiece of sorts.

★ ★ ★ ★
A great film and enjoyable sit, but my feelings toward it could be colored more than usual by subjective reasons.

★ ★ ★ ½
A film to be celebrated, worth owning a copy of and revisiting from time to time.

★ ★ ★
A film that falls short of the mark, has several good elements, but doesn't quite work formally or as a composite narrative.

★ ★ ½
A mediocre film that is somewhat watchable, but something I wouldn't likely care to revisit.

★ ★
An unsuccessful film bordering on irritating.

★ ½
A bad film with only one or two redeeming qualities, if that.


A film that people should avoid unless they're masochists.

½
A crime against cinema.

Unratable
A film harboring such a strange mixture of qualities that it defies normal categories of good and bad,
or maybe it is genuinely bad but also throbs with life in a humorous fashion.


And here's the index of films:

Bad Lieutenant
Bernadette Lafont, and God Created The Free Woman
Big Joys, Small Sorrows
Blast of Silence
Blue Collar
The Cheaters
Classic Albums: Steely Dan - Aja
Crimson Gold
The Cry
David Golder
Deep Cover
Déjà Vu
Duelle
Eagle vs. Shark
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
First Name: Carmen
Freejack
Gabbeh
Godard Mon Amour
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
The Hero
I Hired A Contract Killer
The Image You Missed
India Song
The Last Boy Scout
Love Is Colder Than Death
Mac and Me
Manhunter
The Mob
Montparnasse 19
Muriel or The Time of Return
October In Madrid
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Police
Robert on his Lunch Break
Say Amen, Somebody
Sophie's Ways
Sound of Metal
True West
Twelve Monkeys
Unsolved Mysteries: A Death in Oslo
The Widow Couderc
Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration





Bad Lieutenant
(1992, Directed by Abel Ferrara)

★ ★ ★ ★

Bad Lieutenant, a film that often works best when it assumes an almost neutral, fly-on-the-wall stance toward its doomed, spiraling-out-of-control anti-hero. A lesser actor would run the risk of turning it into a B movie, but Harvey Keitel raises the stakes here, rendering Abel Ferrara's gritty crooked-cop tale a strangely endearing character study that feels lived-in whenever he's on screen. For this reason any formal shortcomings or unpleasant turns in the narrative are forgiven.

In the final shot, Keitel's bad lieutenant is killed in his car while parked alongside a large advertisement for...Trump Plaza.

The ad declares, "It all happens here."

Beneath these words, from right to left, there are pictures of what looks like a hotel room, plates of food, a slot machine, boxer Evander Holyfield, and a roulette wheel.

Then, at the very left of the frame, one can just make out a picture of Bill Cosby.

"It all happens here," huh?

I'll bet.

Hindsight being 20-20, Ferrara couldn't have ended the film with a more appropriate image unless it also happened to include a crucifix, an MLB logo, a police badge, a smoking pistol, and/or a little uncut mound of the white stuff folded in cheap paper.





Bernadette Lafont, and God Created The Free Woman
(2016, Directed by Esther Hoffenberg)

★ ★ ★ ★

Had the good fortune to see Esther Hoffenberg's Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman and I must say, it was tres fantastique! It should be noted that being a fan of Bernadette Lafont both during and after her lifetime, and having enjoyed several of the films she had roles in, I was predisposed to like this 65-minute documentary. But to be in the target market for a film hasn't always meant I've taken a shine to it--in other words, there's never been a guarantee that just because the subject matter is of interest a movie will be handled well. However Hoffenberg did such a fine job weaving together so many different moments from the late French actor's life and career that her film grabbed me from the start and by time it was over I was left with a sense of peace and was utterly charmed. As one of Lafont's granddaughters said toward the end of the film, "She's gone but for us she's still here." That's how Hoffenberg's documentary made me feel, without it ever coming across as hagiography.

Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman traced the actor's evolution from pin-up girl, to Nouvelle Vague (and post-Nouvelle Vague) model of feminist liberation, to mother and wife (as well as provider), to septuagenarian actor who found a late-period break-out hit as a drug dealing grandmother in the comedy Paulette. Along the way, the constellation of filmmakers she worked with was like a Who's Who's of French Cinema, featuring such luminaries as Jean Eustache, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Philippe Garrel, Anne-Marie Miéville, and on and on. In the press release for the film, Hoffenberg mentions that Lafont also acted in more comparatively mainstream fare, from time to time, and in her view these films are also of note and worth tracking down. An interesting moment for me was seeing Lafont passionately defend Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore before an unsympathetic critic at Cannes who foolishly described it as a "non-film" (Mon dieu!). Other stand-outs were the unearthed interviews with Moshé Mizrahi and Christiane Rochefort talking about some of the finer anti-patriarchal aspects of Sophie's Ways.

Hoffenberg's documentary featured many snippets of archived interviews with and movie clips and photographs of Lafont dating back to the fifties, as well as a more recent voice-over from Lafont that was occasionally tempered by a voice-over from Hoffenberg herself. Recent interviews with Lafont's granddaughters and close friend and collaborator Bulle Ogier, among others, helped paint a more nuanced picture of Lafont's life and career, which truth be told had its ups and downs. A pleasant surprise was the documentary's transitional music, by Dario Rudy, which was first rate and very cool. Ultimately Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman was a life affirming film about a figure on the cinematic landscape who forged a singular path. And like Bertrand Tavernier's excellent My Journey Through French Cinema, it should be considered a must for those interested in francophone films and would likely inspire its viewers to seek out some of the more obscure titles covered within it.





Big Joys, Small Sorrows
(1986, Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita)

★ ★ ★ ★

The second to last film in the diverse and prolific career of director Keisuke Kinoshita, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is not to be missed! A colorful, underrated Eighties Shochiku film, it lends credence to Alexander Jacoby's assertion in A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors that Kinoshita was "one of the leading postwar exponents of the studio's bittersweet, subtly sentimental 'Ōfuna flavor'"--a kind of melodrama centered around domestic concerns, often geared toward women. In Big Joys, Small Sorrows the setting for the familial activity is not one dwelling or town but a steady succession of enchanting lighthouses and related peripheries up and down coastal Japan. The film's cinematography boasts a wealth of charming helicopter-assisted establishing shots showing each toudai and its surrounding scenery in their seasonable seaside glory. In this sense Big Joys, Small Sorrows could be said to possess a secondary function as a travelogue, and coupled with the beautiful melancholic score these shots serve as a welcome refrain throughout its 130-minute duration.

If Big Joys, Small Sorrows sounds a little familiar that might be because it's a remake of Kinoshita's 1957 feature Times of Joy and Sorrow, which also follows a stoic and resilient lighthouse keeper employed by Japan's Maritime Safety Agency. In contrast to some of his colleagues, the lighthouse keeper here has a cute, supportive, but sometimes disapproving wife, with whom he maintains a mixture of deep affection and humorous low-level irritability, which often yields entertaining dialogue. Along with their children, as the years wear on, the couple relocates from one lighthouse to the next, each time being visited by the lighthouse keeper's widower father, who's on in years. Sometimes characterized as a burden when he visits, the grandfather is enthusiastic to see his family--partially, it seems, because he misses them and is otherwise rather listless and lonely, but also because making such jaunts seems to be an indicator that he's not quite ready to be placed in a nursing home. In typical tourist fashion, the grandfather eagerly snaps pictures of himself and other family members in front of the lighthouses and various landmarks of note, though it's not altogether clear what he intends to do with the photos.

Like a lot of films, one thing that seems to make Big Joys, Small Sorrows work is that it presents an appealing amalgam of emotions. Here the mixture of moods and sensibilities isn't far removed from, say, a Late Fifties Ozu staple like Equinox Flower, though Kinoshita's film has occasional camera movement and a more pronounced sense of humor that may or may not be the result of the characters' less guarded behavior. The poetics in Big Joys, Small Sorrows feel looser and less disciplined but overall the film might exhibit more of a joy for living. There is one scene that feels a little clumsy and out of place, a mini-disaster sequence in which one of the lighthouse keeper's younger associates has a life threatening experience, prompting him to finally forego his bachelorhood and pursue getting married to a woman he'd half-heartedly courted. And it should be noted that in the midst of its narrative Big Joys, Small Sorrows does put forth an uncritically patriotic emphasis on Japan's equivalent to the Coast Guard and Navy, to the extent that if the viewer isn't paying attention to the story the film might look in parts like a high-budget recruiting reel. Nonetheless this ship stays afloat! Big Joys, Small Sorrows is a nicely shot, well acted film devised from a screenplay that feels like it took decades of accrued wisdom to write.





Blast of Silence
(1961, Directed by Allen Baron)

★ ★ ★ ★

A jazz-infused early sixties hitman tale, Blast of Silence is a must see. Its black-and-white cinematography is surprisingly well composed for a film that often employs guerilla tactics to capture its tight-lipped anti-hero in the wild, as he stalks his crime-boss prey around Manhattan and runs various errands related to the hit in the greater New York area. Cowriter-director Allen Baron stars as Frankie Bono, an inconspicuously dressed former orphan, now based in Cleveland, whose lack of strong emotional bonds with others makes him more adept perhaps at carrying out his cold-blooded assignments. But despite an absence of interpersonal attachments, the raspy second-person voice-over by Lionel Stander conveys the anxieties Bono feels, sometimes minute-by-minute, inside his own head, as he trudges from one node to another, trying to maintain his composure and stay on target. It's Christmastime. Yuletide displays, holiday music, and clumps of people gathered around storefronts dredge up bittersweet feelings from Bono's childhood, but he tries to shake them off and remain focused. This is a film with a good amount of visual detail and character psychology, but all told, not much flab in the narrative sense, as the editing keeps it moving. There is a sub-plot of sorts in which Bono goes to a Christmas party held by an old friend, also a former orphan, who he bumps into by chance at a restaurant, and Bono lets his guard down enough to engage in a peanut race and develop a potential romantic bond with a young woman he once knew. But try as he might to outrun his nature, a killer Frankie Bono remains, and an emotionally isolated one at that. Things get complicated when a low-life, Big Ralph, who Bono relies on earlier in the film to supply him with a .38 and silencer, spots the hitman at a jazz bar observing his mark. When Big Ralph puts two and two together as to who Bono intends to kill, he hatches a plan to extort money out of him, and Bono must find a way to resolve this before things get well out of hand. After dealing with this situation, in the heat of the moment, Bono hesitates about the hit itself and tries to back out of it, but this only further complicates things with the gangsters who put him up to it, hastening his potential demise. Will Frankie Bono carry out his assignment, and if he goes through with it, will he collect his money from the rankled men who instigated it, leaving New York unscathed? The best way to find out is to watch Blast of Silence yourself, if you haven't seen it yet, as it rewards a closer look.





Blue Collar
(1978, Directed by Paul Schrader)

★ ★ ½

A film with no shortage of promise (stacked cast, interesting writer-director, and a compelling enough premise) that doesn't quite do it for me in its scripting and execution. Blue Collar works well as a showcase for the talents of its three leads (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and especially Yaphet Kotto) who are surrounded by a more than capable supporting cast. It also has appeal as a curiosity piece depicting some of the ephemeral aspects of the working class milieu in a late seventies Detroit automotive plant, albiet with cinematography that can have a tendency to be a bit drab at times. Viewed as a statement about labor relations, unions, corruption, and capitalism, however, the film feels rather slipshod if not irresponsible. From the onset Blue Collar establishes the frustrations an average worker might face day to day on the factory floor, but when the three main characters get in over their heads after robbing the union headquarters, discovering a book detailing shady lending practices, and decide to give blackmail a try, the workplace malfeasance directed back at them starts to feel more and more hyperbolic. This may not have been Schrader's intention at all, but in the end I couldn't help but feel that labor unions, as institutions, are demonized here or at the very least rendered inherently suspect. No doubt such corruption has existed before, but here it's treated as almost inevitable, regardless of who's calling the shots, and this being enmeshed with more grounded, universal gripes about toil and worker exploitation muddies Blue Collar's apparent ideological waters too much. Since the film has a foot in comedic territory at times and also veers into seventies exploitation sensibilities at others, overall it can feel uncentered. As it assumes a bit more of a thriller edge during the car chase near the end, before the former friends, now enemies end up coming to blows at the factory, ending the narrative on a freeze frame with no resolution, the film feels too inconsistent to culminate into something much grander than the sum of its parts. I like Schrader on the whole, but while not at all absent of interest, this debut feature isn't his finest hour.





The Cheaters
(1958, Directed by Marcel Carné)

★ ★ ★ ★

A pretty great "post-peak" Carné film in which he seems to exact revenge on the sort of young cavalier Parisians quick to point out his waning relevance. Here Carné often characterizes the younger generation of French beats and students as rather shallow and fickle, always looking for the next big thrill and, in general, hiding from their true feelings toward encroaching adulthood as well as each other. But The Cheaters (more commonly known by its original French title Les Tricheurs) isn't a mere send-up of those delinquents and bourgeois intellectuals who would soon disavow le cinéma du papa. Carné instead seems to treat this younger generation and their concerns with ample empathy. To me, he seems to frame them in a manner suggesting they have more power than they themselves understand. And he does right by them by including the sort of music they would be into at the time (notice a cameo of a Fats Domino record sleeve). That Carné was "out of vogue" by 1958 and The Cheaters was made on the eve of the New Wave seems to explain its rather neglected status in historical assessments of francophone cinema. Nonetheless it's an important film in his oeuvre and probably his last big success. It features a supporting role from the soon-to-be-a-star Jean-Paul Belmondo. And though the film is ultimately tragic it's consistently watchable and never dull. A rather laudable effort for a once-prized director hoping to reinvent himself. The Criterion Collection, or somebody out there in home viewing distribution land, should definitely reissue The Cheaters with an optimal transfer, as it's too fine a film not to deserve a new lease on life.





Classic Albums: Steely Dan - Aja
(1999, Directed by Alan Lewens)

★ ★ ★ ★

Growing up, I failed to gravitate toward the music of Steely Dan. Before the eighties drew to a close I'd undoubtedly heard some of the bigger hits from Can't Buy A Thrill in the car while my parents listened to Milwaukee's definitive classic rock station, the boomer-favorite 96.5 WKLH. And at the very least, I'd probably heard "Peg" while shopping at a Walgreens or Kohl's. But at the time, "The Dan," as they're sometimes known, didn't make a huge impression. And as time went on, hearing them largely in passing, their work sometimes struck me as residing uncomfortably close to smooth jazz and "blues lawyer" territory. In the punk-influenced "alternative" and indie rock heyday of the nineties, of which I took part as a listener (before branching out into other styles of music), Steely Dan weren't often the first older band the younger generations reached for. It was only much later in life, about a year into the ongoing pandemic in fact, that the charms of this peculiar band finally clicked for me. Better late than never, as they say. Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker's merging of catchy, mostly disarming sounding music with dark, sometimes twisted or bitterly sarcastic lyrics is, even to this day, an odd cocktail that some find engrossing while others feel it's off-putting and a non-starter. They are the type of band that, despite having sold over 40 million albums worldwide, one can't really foist on the uninitiated, unlike, say, Kraftwerk or The Zombies, whose value is more straightforward and often less up for debate.

Steely Dan's best selling album, 1977's Aja, is profiled a little over twenty years later in this amusing documentary shot on video. In addition to boasting a suite of several enduring songs (chief among them "Josie," the aforementioned "Peg," "Deacon Blues," and "Black Cow"), Aja stands as a definitive "proof of concept" for the duo's obsession with technical and aesthetic studio mastery. As they say, hearing is believing. One need only listen to these highly involved but graceful songs that still sound fresh to know that whatever these cool nerds were driving at, they and the army of top-shelf sessions musicians at their disposal managed to somehow get onto tape the music in their heads. Though as this movie shows, it didn't all just fall into place without a good deal of trial and error and finessing. Most amusing for me is seeing Fagan and Becker at the recording console, singling out various tracks from the Aja master tapes, sometimes, for instance, playing guitar solos that didn't make the cut. You can tell just by the strained expressions on their faces that they're thinking the same thing, that it would've bummed them out immensely to have had to settle for less than the best. The duo discuss some of the lyrical conceits behind these famous songs, going so far as to admit that the faded hipster tale of "Deacon Blues" is more autobiographical of their mindset at the time than they may have initially let on. Interviews with head engineer Roger Nichols and the other musicians who played on the album such as vocalist Michael McDonald, drummers Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta, bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Larry Carlton, etc. provide context for how the sessions went down. It's telling that many of said musicians can't help but remark that they regard these as some of the best tracks they ever played on. Occasionally some of the musicians are shown assembled together in the same room with Fagen and Becker, as they play the songs informally, just for kicks. All in all, this is a worthwhile primer if you're looking to get deeper into Steely Dan, and if you're already a big fan, then you've probably already watched it several times this week.





Crimson Gold
(2003, Directed by Jafar Panahi)

★ ★ ★ ★ ½

"It's a way of being free in an increasingly un-free world." That's what I would tell someone if they happened to ask me why I would sink years of my life into writing a book that perhaps not that many people will ever read. Another way of putting it would be, "It's a way of creating a home for myself in a world in which I might otherwise feel lost." A lot of other creative people are the same way, regardless of whatever medium they happen to be working in. Unfortunately for Hussein, the anti-hero of Crimson Gold, he doesn't have such an outlet. And while the ex-soldier does have a wife and a job, and at least one good friend, he's had trouble assimilating back into Iranian society following his military service, least of all because he's afflicted with some form of schizophrenia. The film shows him somewhat adrift as he rides through traffic, often silent and foiled by a string of customers he delivers pizzas to via motorcycle, most of them vaguely unpleasant and some of them condescending. When he gets a window into a stratum of society in which he doesn't apparently belong, the nouveau riche at a jewelry store, and the store's owner sizes him up as not worthy of being shown the most luxurious merchandise on display, Hussein takes it as an affront and gets a stick in his craw about the whole matter. Of films that explore class resentment, I think this is one of the very best out there, as opposed to efforts like Parasite and La Ceremonie that I don't care for much at all. From the opening shot of this Panahi effort, one knows that Hussein takes things too far here, but the film then cuts to the events leading up to it before showing the rest of that unfortunate scene at the end. Formally, these bookends feel more than a little Tarkovsky-esque despite the violence within them. Or perhaps they resemble the very end of Antonioni's The Passenger, even if the camera stops short of moving through the barred entrance. I saw Crimson Gold in the theater when it came out and think it's time it made its way to blu-ray with a new transfer as it's a really well shot film. And as screenwriter here, Kiarostami stretches out a bit, putting forth a scenario for Panahi more closely allied with "genre cinema"--in this case the vague "crime film"--than the vast majority of his other efforts, which almost belong in a category of their own, even today.





The Cry
(1957, Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)

★ ★ ★ ★

"Objectively," The Cry (known in Italy as Il Grido) might be deserving of three and a half stars, but I've given it four here simply because I enjoyed my last viewing of it without reservations. Aldo's string of tenuous relationships with the women he meets along the road as he tries in vain to shake the memory of Irma does start to feel repetitive toward the end, but the film as a whole is well paced and the scenes are structured gracefully. The Cry might always be overshadowed by Antonioni's sixties work, which it looks a little rougher and feels considerably grittier than, if we don't count the industrial settings in Red Dessert with their unusual mixture of colorfulness and toxicity. But this late fifties work is perfectly good in its own right. Because the film was made in Italy and the milieu is working class and the narrative has a tragic bent, it will probably always earn some comparisons to Italian neorealism. But it seems on a different tack to me--this is very much "an Antonioni film," first and foremost, even if the art house lyricism he would later become known for is more dormant. Perhaps where The Cry excels most, for me anyway, is in the way it establishes and maintains a languid tone that casts a pallor over the proceedings without the film ever feeling boring and putting the viewer to sleep. This is a film that might be too dour for a few viewers, but I find it an easy sit.





David Golder
(1931, Directed by Julien Duvivier)

★ ★ ★ ★

A superbly well shot and well directed Julien Duvivier film centered on a largely unlikable, greedy cast of characters. David Golder is a successful businessman who's warded off financial ruin several times. Emotionally he's cold and unempathetic to the suffering of others, as an early scene in the film shows. But he has a soft spot for his sweet yet manipulative young daughter, a head-in-the-clouds party girl who's grown accustomed to spending his money without thinking much of where it comes from or how hard it might have been to earn it. When Golder's unloving wife and the man she's been seeing behind his back fleece him for most of what he owns, his now-destitute daughter is tempted to break things off with the man she loves and instead marry a seedy older well-to-do man who Golder despises. Golder can't bare to see this happen. With his health rapidly declining, he has the chance to make one last deal with oil magnates in Russia, so that his daughter can be financially secure and marry the man she really loves.

David Golder is an often overlooked classic from the Golden Age of French Cinema. It is a must if you don't mind films with far fewer likable characters than usual. In fact not that many people here comes off particularly well. The film is notable for having a tight pace and sporting a lively array of compositions that elevate the proceedings far above most literary adaptations of the silent and early sound era.





Deep Cover
(1992, Directed by Bill Duke)

★ ★ ★ ★

A fine film with no lulls, Bill Duke's Deep Cover has aged better than any other mainstream thriller about the so-called War on Drugs that I can think of. I saw Deep Cover when it first came out, along with a good friend whose mom would often accompany us to the theater so that we--a couple of naive middle school kids in suburbia--could see R rated movies. Thinking of the myriad new films I consumed at the time, in the theater as well as on cable TV, during an era when I was blissfully unaware of the likes of Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Fassbinder, Varda, etc., Deep Cover remains one of the few titles gleefully consumed then that I can appreciate without reservations as an adult.

For one, the casting, top to bottom, is perfect: Larry Fishburne shines as the moody, reluctant undercover cop who finally comes into his own when he crosses the line and disobeys orders; Jeff Goldblum is strangely charming as the quirky philandering lawyer moonlighting as a drug dealer, and the screenplay gives him many witty quips; Victoria Dillard has a foxy demure and is well suited to play the high class money launderer who gets in too deep; Clarence Williams III is great as the earnest, goodnatured cop who's just as interested in Christian values as he is social justice and collaring hard drug purveyors; Charles Martin Smith plays a good dorky "suit" who "knows everything" but loses control of the undercover operation he masterminds; nearly all of the drug pushers, from street corner kids to kingpins with diplomatic ties to the U.S. government are unique.

Deep Cover works because it's both a slick/well edited L.A. action movie, with early nineties hip-hop touches, and a condensed serious statement about the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs, given the murky relationship between the criminal underworld and the corrupt cops and politicians with secretive links to it. When Fishburne's character starts getting to the bottom of things, his world begins unravelling as he embodies the schizoid duality of being a cop pretending to be a criminal on the one hand and being a criminal pretending to be a cop on the other. Add to that crisp cinematography and an often enticing urban atmosphere, and I think we have a winner...not to mention a great candidate for a new transfer and upgrade to blu-ray. [Update: In April of 2021, it was announced that Deep Cover will finally be reissued on blu-ray, on Criterion and via a 4k transfer no less. Well done!]





Déjà Vu
(2006, Directed by Tony Scott)

★ ★ ★

An okay sit for a big-budget effort, better than Interstellar at least, but a bit too much like a CSI show when everyone is staked out in front of the monitors. Watching Déjà Vu is of course a better use of time than watching most Netflix original movies, in my experience, but the wonky, somewhat belabored exposition related to time travel makes it feel less plausible than if this had somehow been taken as more of a given and left more to the imagination. Yes, parts of the script suffer too much from mainstream-itis. Sometimes the mix of different genres (action movie, procedural, love story, time travel tale, etc.) works, but other times it feels like the film needs to either stretch out a little more or do away with a couple of these impulses.





Duelle
(1976, Directed by Jacques Rivette)

★ ★ ★ ½

One of the few "proper" films I watched at the onset of COVID-19-phobic self-isolation, I neglected to notice until after it was over that this Rivette effort's alternate title is Duelle (Une Quarantaine). Rather fitting. This well shot mid-seventies outing boasts a playful expressive universe not unlike that of Céline and Julie Go Boating, but as it wears on its plotting feels more coherent and disciplined as its less of a shaggy dog story. This, along with everything being played straight and cool as a cucumber (for the most part) gives the sinister ulterior motives of the Daughter of the Sun and the Daughter of the Moon a little more oomph. But any film featuring Juliet Berto and an inspired premise is bound to be watchable (see: La Gai Savoir, one of Godard's best, in my view), especially when she's foiled with Bulle Ogier. Rivette capitalizes on the refined seductiveness of both women in having them play extraterrestrial opportunists whose dueling machinations might result in the victor between them being granted earthly corporeality, if only she can thwart a few pesky "naive" mortals and obtain a magical diamond. In this sense, they're a bit like a deviously corrupting, sexy precursor to the angels in Wings of Desire, sporting an inversion of their empathetic vigilance in which humans are to be manipulated and are ultimately expendable. What can I say? Duelle has a lot going for it, on paper, and it never really drops the ball. But I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars instead of 4 simply because I think there's a little lag or "cloudiness" somewhere around roughly three quarters into the film. But that's a minor criticism of an otherwise well done movie that I'm glad I made time for.





Eagle vs. Shark
(2007, Directed by Taika Waititi)

★ ★ ★ ½

Eagle vs. Shark is an amusing film. Those who pan it might hold some of its more derivative (or quasi-derivative) elements against it while complaining that this or that scene is handled clumsily. And while it's true that Eagle vs. Shark does employ a well-treaded trope or two, and the writing and directing are uneven at times, it has enough going for it in other departments to override these drawbacks. For one, Loren Horsley is a great actor who lends her nerdy character a lot of grace and even a little coolness to offset the selfishness and immaturity of Jemaine Clement's raging misunderstood geek. This is a film that works best if you don't think about it too hard and just let the humor and at-times-corny love story work its magic. I would not hold it against someone for not liking it, and I must admit it's not the kind of fare I'm usually drawn to. But all in all Eagle vs. Shark is a pretty great lark in which some deeper insights into failure, unhappiness, revenge fantasies, and not being accepted by one's peers bubble to the surface in just the right places.





El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
(2019, Directed by Vince Gilligan)

★ ★ ½

Whereas I really dug Season 4 of Better Call Saul, and burned through the blu-rays in no time flat, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is more toward the middle, as far as informal ratings go. Somehow I was expecting more thrills, or laughs, or...something. Instead it has a tendency to be kind of sad, for the most part. There's just a heavy component of reliving past trauma looming over the proceedings, and the flashbacks, which don't always tell us something we don't already know, eat up a lot of space. The stint with Jack's gang toward the end of Breaking Bad was my least favorite part of the show, so to get a retread of it here, and see more and more examples of Jesse's suffering at their hands, pushes this epilogue's luck a bit.

It's still reasonably entertaining. Robert Forster is cool, and I like the reference to Appleton, WI. Most people who enjoyed Breaking Bad probably won't mind it, if I had to guess. But El Camino still could've been more gripping somehow. And as far as movies go, it's not quite necessary, given the minimal character development put forth, and the fact that this ends on a similar note to the final episode, minus the more explosive climax and ensuing ambiguity (which this movie more or less puts to rest).





First Name: Carmen
(1983, Directed by Jean-Luc Godard)

★ ★ ★

More than any other movie I can think of, I had the distinct sensation while watching First Name: Carmen for the first time that it would have been a very good if not great movie if only it had drawn to a close roughly forty-five or fifty minutes in. Everything was going swimmingly up to that point, especially for a nonlinear or quasi-nonlinear movie, but when it soldiered on past then, despite some amusing moments, it began to wear out its welcome and become tedious. Had this late-period Godard film exhibited a running time closer to Straub-Huillet's Not Reconciled or Eustache's Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, I think it could've ended on a high note instead of it seeming to run out of ideas and becoming rather chore-like by the end.





Freejack
(1992, Directed by Geoff Murphy)

Unratable

Though taken as a whole it's pretty dumb and lacking the consistent vision and production values of genuinely good sci-fi action fare like Total Recall and The Running Man, much less an even better film like the original Blade Runner--all of which it seems somewhat influenced by--Freejack, ham-fisted as it may be, is still entertaining. Or to put it another way, it's the type of film that will likely make a person feel worse if she's depressed, but better if she's already in a goofy mood and up for something hard to take all that seriously. Fine cinema it is not, but where schlock is concerned, it has a pulse.

Mostly the film is a protracted series of chases, from one set of mid-budget set pieces through another, as the "freejack" Alex Furlong (played by Emilio Estevez, who seems miscast) is pursued by the chief "bonejacker" known simply as Vacendak (played with wooden inconsistency by The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, who wears an an odd helmet from time to time and would later regret starring in this). Vacendak has an army of expendable foot soldiers behind him and has to track down Furlong while warding off a band of insurgents whose motives are unclear. All of this takes place in a 2009 brimming with poverty and social and environmental decay for those not sequestered away from the downtrodden majority in the ultra-clean financial sector, which mostly seems distinguished by the presence of sunlight, mirror-surfaced buildings, and smooth, mushroom-shaped cars.

In the decade prior, Furlong was a Forumla 1 racecar driver, the boyfriend of Julie Redlund (played by Rene Russo, who really seems to be phoning it in here at times). During a tightly locked decisive race, as Furlong tried to pull ahead while moving at high speed, one of the front wheels of his racecar momentarily brushed up against the back wheel of the car in front of him, causing his car to shoot upwards and fly smack into an inconveniently placed overpass slash Nissan advertisement, producing a fiery impact in which Furlong died instantly. As a credit to the makers of this film, the orchestration of this particular stunt is pulled off flawlessly and this is one of the most captivating moments in its duration. In the original timeline, it seems, Furlong died; his girlfriend Redlund mourned his loss, but eventually moved on and ascended the ranks to become one of the city's top business people, working alongside Faberge Egg enthusiast Michelette (a pre-Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul Jonathan Banks) and her ultra-rich boss McCandless (played by Anthony Hopkins, who as Wikipedia notes, later described Freejack as "a terrible film" while being interviewed on The Late Show with David Letterman). While working together the much older McCandless became infatuated with Redlund, but sensed she wasn't physically interested in him so he never made a move and kept things cordial. Just before dying though he took the initiative of temporarily having his mind uploaded to a computer while his crack team of bonejackers would use mysterious cutting edge technology to zap Redlund's old flame Furlong into the future, a split second before his fatal accident, and then lobotomize him so that he, McCandless, could transfer his mind to Furlong's youngish body and Redlund would finally be impelled to fall in love with him.

If this sounds like a fumbling, somewhat convoluted psycho-sexual premise for a movie, that's because it largely is. But on paper at least, it could have made more sense. In execution, however, Freejack's hodge-podge of narrative and stylistic impulses plays out like those of a film unsure of itself and destined to flop among mass audiences. It is sometimes funny on purpose, with a few well chosen one-liners, but just as often it's unintentionally so. The film features some questionable looking matte work here and there, and the early nineties screensaver-esque mind-transfer montage at the end is so half-baked, it has to be seen to be believed. The film does sport notable performances from Frankie Faison (playing a rat-eating homeless man who gives Furlong a much needed pep talk), and Amanda Plummer (as a gun-toting nun), and ex-New York Doll David Johansen--all of whom bring their A game. And as the end credits roll, the viewer is treated to a jukebox-ready metal song ("Hit Between the Eyes") by German band Scorpions. But roughly speaking Freejack deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as a film like Hudson Hawk. And yet, however much of a misfire it may be, it's not exactly dull!





Gabbeh
(1996, Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

★ ★ ★ ½

More like a mystical fable than the epic it's sometimes billed as, about twenty-five years later, what is likely Mohsen Makhmalbaf's most well known film in the West still holds up. Parts of it could seem a bit overly "staged" to some, but like The Color of Pomegranates--which it would pair well with--Gabbeh is the kind of film that works best if the audience submits to its charms and allows it to wash over them, like spring water over the kind of rug it derives its name from. Gabbeh's colorful depiction of rural Iranian life feels unencumbered by political realities. In addition to the lack of modern day accoutrements, as well as the universal familial themes expressed, this only adds to its aura of timelessness. Gabbeh's narrative logic is unusually inventive and lyrical for a film that doesn't feel surreal with a capital "s." Overall, in terms of tone, this vibrant film has the gentleness of a bedtime story whispered into one's ear. It's a charming sit.





Godard Mon Amour
(2017, Directed by Michel Hazanavicius)

★ ½

Being a fan of several of Jean-Luc Godard's films old and new, as well as something of a French cinema buff, I approached Godard Mon Amour wanting to like it. And while it's not a tough sit, after it's over it leaves the feeling of being a rather phony exercise, a trollish cartoon caricature of one of the more complex figures to have emerged on the cinematic landscape.

Clearly there are humorous aspects to Godard's persona and apparent contradictions that could lend themselves to a comedy setting, and yet this movie mostly hovers around the "mildly amusing" range of the humor spectrum, offering few belly laughs. Most real Godard fans worth their salt probably know better than to buy into Hazanavicius's creative vision here, which plays like a light-hearted romp, at Godard's expense, with many sour notes supposedly plucked from his public life and marriage with Anne Wiazemsky.

Curiously Godard Mon Amour makes no reference to Wiazemsky's rise to prominence as the star of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, nor does it mention that she acted in Pasolini's Teorema during this period. Instead she is largely portrayed as a naive young person without much autonomy beyond her relationship with her husband. The only film she is shown acting in aside from La Chinoise is a quasi-middling Italian film (Marco Ferreri's The Seed of a Man) likely destined for obscurity. None of the actors in this short-of-the-mark biopic are bad, and the film looks very nice and employs the right color scheme and enough period-specific detail to pass for believable. But ultimately Godard Mon Amour comes off as being an unnecessary film, and inappropriately shallow given the territory.

Viewers interested in films about Godard, would do better to watch something like the excellent JLG/JLG: Self-portrait in December or many of his other later-period films in which he had cameos. There's also a couple of documentaries, as well as many interviews with the director that can be found on YouTube or in the special features sections of various DVDs and blu-ray discs. And if viewers are looking for Godardian takes on the "doomed romance" motif, they can always just revisit Contempt and Pierrot Le Fou and get a pure dose, not a watered-down hodge-podge like this.





Goodbye, Dragon Inn
(2003, Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang)

★ ★ ★ ★ ½

A favorite of aughts cinema, made when I was a bit more in step with what the film world had to offer, as I saw a lot then and happened to like many features from disparate filmmakers, mostly outside the U.S., who seemed to be hitting their stride. (This might sound like a flip statement, but I think the aughts were probably a better decade for new cinema than the 2010s.) Anyway, I'm very happy that Second Run in the U.K. has released Goodbye, Dragon Inn on blu-ray with a new 4k transfer. It's a colorful, at times painfully slow film, but "slow" in a manner that seems to wring humor from its unhurriedness. This pace, the stretching out of time, events, or non-events, perhaps, is an appropriate tenor for a downbeat portrait of a movie theater on its last legs--one which, at the point in the film, is more likely to be frequented by men trying to pick each other up than genuine moviegoers. And because the TRT isn't overly long, the film doesn't overstay its welcome. There is a potential rainy-day romance at play in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, between the handicapped woman who works the lobby and the taciturn, chain-smoking projectionist, but on this night at least, it doesn't transpire. The film is peppered with many a sardonic moment, chief among them when the antsy Japanese guy in the audience of barely a dozen or so people freaks out a bit upon spotting one of the stars of King Hu's titular action movie in attendance. My only complaint here is that the "ghost story" aspect briefly put forth in the film feels rather tenuous, or at least under-explored. But nonetheless, this is essential viewing.





The Hero
(1966, Directed by Satyajit Ray)

★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Damn near perfect. Written with a mastery of wit by the director himself. Nearly everything takes place on one train ride and yet the narrative progression is consistently engaging. Here Satyajit Ray puts forth a character study of a well-regarded actor about to experience a "long dark night of the soul" after being interviewed by an inquisitive journalist who exposes cracks in his unflappable persona. The actor is a household name in India but on the verge of his first real flop. The journalist is tempted to capitalize on his vulnerability after he reveals his past regrets and inner torments. But as the questions draw to a close the following morning, the journalist has come to like and respect "The Hero" for all his flaws, and she thinks better of publishing the piece in one last gesture of kindness before they part ways forever. This is a rare bird of a movie that gets everything right. And the main characters sport some chic Sixties eyewear.





I Hired A Contract Killer
(1990, Directed by Aki Kaurismäki)

★ ★ ★ ★

I Hired a Contract Killer is a rewarding film that has aged well. It's not as resoundingly awesome as The Man Without a Past, but it's still among Aki Kaurismäki's better films. Since it was shot in London, in areas that have since been gentrified and "updated" (as I understand it), the film serves as nice little time capsule for those interested in the city and its not too distant history.

In the film Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a laid-off office drone who doesn't care much for his rootless, post-employment life, so he decides to kill himself. But his suicide attempts keep getting thwarted so he takes a cab to a shady neighborhood and hires a hit man to do the job for him. Then he returns home and waits for the killer to show up at his house, but eventually he grows restless and heads to the bar across the street. There, while getting drunk--probably for the first time in his life--he falls in love with a cute blonde woman selling roses. Then, in the midst of his amorous euphoria, he realizes he doesn't wanna die, BUT THE HIT MAN IS STILL AFTER HIM!!!

It's an interesting movie because Léaud's acting style is very awkward and taciturn. If you were to see this movie and, say, Philippe Garrel's The Birth of Love (which came out only a few years later), you might have trouble believing he's the same person.

The film also features a poetic musical scene with Joe Strummer (in which the director plays a sunglasses salesman), and a cameo from the guy who played The Jackal in the pleasantly nerve-wracking Day of the Jackal. Oh and Serge Reggiani has a cameo as well, so there's that.





The Image You Missed
(2018, Directed by Donal Foreman)

★ ★ ★ ★

Full disclosure: I know Donal Foreman, the writer-director of this curious documentary, but there's a high likelihood I would like it just the same if he were a stranger. The Image You Missed posits itself as a film "between" the Irish-born Foreman, who now splits his time between New York City and Dublin, and his estranged deceased father, Arthur MacCaig, also a filmmaker, originally from the U.S., who moved to Europe and spent a large chunk of his time documenting the Troubles in Ireland, with professional films and videos as well as informal footage and photographs. As The Image You Missed notes, over the years Foreman had only spent time with his father on a small handful of occasions, and lamentably, when MacCaig passed away in 2008, he didn't possess a single photo of his son. But he did leave behind a large cache of film reels, video footage, and photographs in his apartment in Paris, a lot of which intimately documented the IRA, with whom MacCaig had forged closed ties. A good amount of this footage hadn't likely seen the light of day for some time before this film was put together.

Without even delving into thematic concerns, instead looking at this documentary simply on the grounds of it being a dense (though by no means exhausting) assemblage of images and sounds, Foreman's film is fascinating. Those expecting a formal exegesis of the infamous Northern Ireland conflict, an explanation of its almost thirty-year history from various perspectives, will probably be disappointed. This is not a documentary with the usual gaggle of talking heads and a sharply drawn narrative progression building to "an electrifying conclusion." It is, however, shrewdly put together, and it does create a rich series of impressions, of the IRA's guerrilla tactics, of Irish street scenes (captured then and now), of the some of the circumstances that eventually led to a peaceful resolution, and of the parallels between the elder filmmaker's career and that of his son. I especially enjoyed the suggestive aspect of some of the image associations via the editing, the juxtaposing, for instance, of balaclava'd IRA fighters brandishing real loaded automatic rifles with an intent to kill and then a snippet of a roughly-hewn childhood movie Foreman shot of him and some friends messing around with a toy gun, no doubt insulated from much of the real-world terror that had transpired to the north of them. At one point Foreman notes a contrast between the surety of his father's convictions with regard to the Troubles and the more murky condition of the contemporary political climate (hinted at with footage of Occupy Wall Street), in which "a clear way forward" feels less evident. Though Foreman doesn't draw excessive attention to himself, in his voice-over he often addresses his father directly, sometimes wondering why he was so absent from his life and yet almost ceaselessly motivated to press on with his career, even working on a project or two not that far from where Foreman and his mother lived, but never bothering to visit. Though it's never maudlin, and overall a refreshing audio-visual experience, The Image You Missed ends on a melancholic note before the credits roll, at which point some of MacCaig's street photographs are shown as if to suggest that in spite of some unresolved feelings, this particular chapter has ended, as all chapters do, but life itself will persist.





India Song
(1975, Directed by Marguerite Duras)

★ ★ ★ ½

Novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, best known in America for having written the script for Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour, puts forth a film set in India that deals with colonialist ennui, as experienced by the wife of a French diplomat and the rotating men in her orbit. Though set in the thirties, replete with appropriate (or reasonably appropriate) props and attire, the film, despite the absence of anachronisms, feels like it takes place much closer to the mid-seventies in which it was shot. The always-luminous Delphine Seyrig plays Anne-Marie Stretter, the ambassador's wife who lives in an isolated, somewhat rundown manor in which she tries to quell the ever-present boredom at hand by taking on affairs with men other than her husband, who doesn't seem to mind. Michael Lonsdale's Vice-Consul of Lahore, who looms around Stretter, would like very much to be among said men, but to his increasing torment--which eventually becomes palpable through cries in the night--he is denied.

Unlike the studies of upperclass malaise famously laid down by Antonioni in the sixties, the story here is told less through visual means and dramatic moments (however subdued) than it is through a persistent voice-over that does a lot of the India Song's heavy lifting, providing much of its more lyrical content. Indeed, the visuals, though never substandard, tend to keep the viewer at arm's length, offering few close-ups and not a lot of variation to make the two-hour runtime more pleasing. It's as if the entire look is filtered through some sort of vaguely foggy summertime torpor, though seeing it in 35mm or via a better transfer (I watched this via a decent but not great Korean DVD) would likely throw this in a more flattering light. Still, at times, India Song does put one in a bit of a trance, inevitably drawing vague parallels between it and the also effective though more formally ambitious Jeanne Dielman, released the same year and also a key film for Seyrig.





The Last Boy Scout
(1991, Directed by Tony Scott)

Unratable

The Last Boy Scout is what the kids call a "good bad movie," and as such I will shy away from giving it a star rating here. I do own it on blu-ray. The "Friday night's a great night for football" sequence is such a silly way to start things off that from the onset it's pretty hard to take this film all that seriously. In this sense The Last Boy Scout pairs well with another humorous West Coast nineties curiosity, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, as neither movie's toxic male comedic bravado can be digested without some sort of suspension of one's critical faculties. If Scott's film's stabs at "serious" drama sometimes ring hollow, this only serves to underscore The Last Boy Scout's primary purpose: to be a vehicle for snarky one-liners penned by Shane Black, likely aimed at the Thursday Night Prime/Lethal Weapon/NFL crowd. Bruce Willis is well suited to play a washed up alcoholic P.I. and Damon Wayans's character is washed up as well, being an ex-quarterback whose hankering for pain pills cost him his career. One of them prefers Pat Boone while the other prefers Prince. Together the two of them are a dysfunctional interracial odd couple who must join forces to get to the bottom of a series of scandals related to sports gambling that implicate a shady football team owner and congressman. I don't think this film could have been rendered all that much better given its parameters, target audience, and what it set out to accomplish. Sure, some of the jokes, often raunchy, could've landed better, but the end result, while not a favorite among critics at the time, is about what one would expect it to be. The film is watchable, especially Taylor Negron's against-type turn as the lead henchman and young Halle Barry's turn as a stripper in too deep, but this has about as many genuinely touching moments as a Steven Segal movie (also in my wheelhouse, as a preteen, though I don't own/watch any of Segal's movies now and haven't for some time).





Love Is Colder Than Death
(1969, Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

★ ★ ★ ★

Love this film, its sinister tone and stark black-and-white visuals, the general reluctance to move the camera except when it serves the narrative, Schygulla's young behind, The Syndicate's not taking "no" for an answer, the lived-in bond between Franz and Bruno, the eerie grocery store music, the stilted violence, the Psycho-traffic-cop-like sunglasses (even though I dislike Hitchcock), the tracking shot of real working girls holding their umbrellas on an underlit German street. Not a feel-good romp, and far removed from my own world, but an auspicious debut feature, better than most.





Mac and Me
(1988, Directed by Stewart Raffill)

★ ½

I remember crying, hopefully tears of joy, when I watched this as a child alone on VHS in the kitchen in the eighties, after we rented it from some local video hut at my behest. It's not quite as shameless a feature-length advertisement as The Wizard would later be, but Mac and Me is definitely up there. At this very moment I'm wondering how much Spewey from Get A Life was inspired by this guy, the also-ran off-brand E.T. with a Mickey Dee's hankering. They look vaguely similar.





Manhunter
(1986, Directed by Michael Mann)

★ ★ ½

Recently saw To Live and Die in L.A. for the first time ever (yeah, I know), and I really dug it for what it was and thought William Peterson shined as the uncharacteristically loose Secret Service agent with a score to settle. So I was curious to revisit Manhunter to see if my lukewarm impression of it from almost twenty years ago happened to be off the mark (I was probably less predisposed to action movies and thrillers at the time, being a budding/awkward young "film snob" looking to distance himself somewhat from the sort of cinema he grew up on). But unfortunately, Manhunter didn't quite work this time either, or rather I found it inspired here and there but overall less than the sum of its parts.

I think the main culprit here is that Mann's screenplay sometimes borders on being scattershot. In terms of creating tension and fright it can't really compete with that of Demme's more popular iteration of this story world. When it comes to his more subdued tone and mannerisms, I think I might prefer Brian Cox's Lecktor to that of Anthony Hopkins, but, to a fault, Cox isn't given enough to work with here. His character is introduced, with the implication that he'll play a formative part in Manhunter's progression, but after that his presence is more alluded to than genuinely felt. And while Peterson has proven himself elsewhere, his acting here is a little uneven and Mann's direction doesn't always attenuate it well to the somewhat somber tone of the film--the actor and director aren't exactly an ideal match for each other, on this outing at least. Tom Noonan, whose films What Happened Was... and The Wife I have a high opinion of, has fun with his role as the demented killer Dollarhyde, but in showing his love life somewhat, Manhunter makes him seem more pathetic in the end than full-on menacing. So as much as I appreciate Noonan's acting efforts here and elsewhere, his turn as the serial killer on the loose is no where near as menacing as Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill. If the film were more tightly plotted and written with a bit more wit, I think it could have made a more lasting impression, but as it is, Manhunter is watchable but more "okay" than as gripping as some would have you believe.





The Mob
(1951, Directed by Robert Parrish)

★ ★ ★ ½

A lesser known but solid early fifties crime film from Columbia Pictures sporting its share of sardonic one-liners and plot twists that thankfully never feel forced. Not the most atmospheric of noirs, nor the most morally complex, but it gets the job done and does so with just enough panache and heart to keep the viewer interested. The Mob features a host of familiar faces (e.g. a young Charles Bronson, in a bit part; Neville Brand, who played the maniacal henchman in D.O.A.; Ernest Borgnine and Richard Kiley; and John Marley, better known as the horsehead recipient in The Godfather and the male protagonist of Faces, before Seymour Cassel shows up). Broderick Crawford plays a doughy detective who goes undercover after getting into a jam, when he fails to collar a murderer who briefly poses as another cop before slipping away into the rainy night. While pretending to be a drifter from New Orleans, Broderick's Johnny Damico attempts to infiltrate a racketeering ring down by the docks, with his special brand of wisecracks and forwardness, and get to the bottom of the mob's closely guarded operations there. Meanwhile his doting fiancée, played by the very capable Betty Buehler (who unfortunately didn't act in many other films) remains somewhat aloof as to what's happening, though she might gradually get roped into the illicit web of corruption before the film's end. This is a largely successful film, from the standpoint of composition, in part because it knows what it wants to be and doesn't deviate too much from its intended target.





Montparnasse 19
(1958, Directed by Jacques Becker)

★ ★ ★ ½

As of press time I have only seen four Jacques Becker films--this one, as well as Casque D'or, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, and Le Trou. Given that the latter three are masterpieces, and the films Becker is likely most known for outside of France, a film like Montparnasse 19 is bound to seem slight by comparison. Indeed, as per the high bar Becker set for himself, this film doesn't enjoy as great a stature, and isn't as resoundingly effective as the work he's regularly been championed for (which might account for why the film in question has yet to be reissued here in the States). But nonetheless this artist biopic is still quite rewarding and worth seeing. I get the feeling that, most likely, some of painter Amdeo Modigliani's rougher edges are sanded down a bit for the purposes of making a commercially viable film in the late 1950s. If the film were made today his more incorrigible attributes would probably be underscored much more--par for the course for today's often-unpleasant cinema. But Montparnasse 19 doesn't sugar coat this troubled artist's plight, as much as the film could be said to cast him and the women in his orbit in a somewhat seductive light. And there is something both eerie and all too familiar about the art dealer played by Lino Ventura's stance toward Modigliani's work during his last days (and hours and minutes) versus just after he's died. I won't give away the end but will say that it could be painful to behold for any artist struggling for recognition.





Muriel or The Time of Return
(1963, Directed by Alain Resnais)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Delphine Seyrig in the early sixties playing an older woman rebuffing the advances of a two-timing ex-flame/has-been-that-never-was warms my cockles. A masterpiece that would be a full-on comedy if the Algerian War hadn't factored into it, though of course it was wise of Resnais and company to confront France's then-recent past. And the setting itself, Boulonge-sur-Mer, a once-bombed-out town (in WWII) newly rebuilt, has a distinct allure. Perhaps unpleasant at times but all in all a film that really draws you in if you're on its atypical wavelength.





October In Madrid
(1965, Directed By Marcel Hanoun)

★ ★ ★

It's the mid-sixties. Marcel Hanoun is visiting Spain and trying to get a film off the ground amid various setbacks, hesitations, and dwindling resources--he is not a world-renowned director of great means. Hanoun has a 16mm camera, some lights, the means to record sounds, and some reels of film, but instead of using them to proceed with his production (which he's still trying to find the right actors for), he largely uses them to document the world around him. This includes...the people he knows and meets; various social gatherings (a bullfight, a wedding, young people dancing to rock music at a ball, some sort of somber outdoor procession with a brass band, a flamenco party he hosts); street scenes at different times of the day; Spanish architecture; various inanimate objects that strike his eye; and the houses and flats he finds himself crashing in. These images are tempered with a persistent voice-over and periodic music, bookended by an actress putting on her make-up (at the beginning) and taking it off (at the end). Though somewhat densely edited together, with many shots that are short in duration, on paper, it's a simple enough idea for a movie.

October in Madrid is not unlike a Chris Marker film that leans heavily on its use of voice-over to tie its mélange of images together, but it's a bit more self-reflexive, documenting its maker's doubts about the film he'd like to create. Formally, it's a little shaky here and there, sporting images that can be somewhat rushed, no doubt owing to them being captured in in a low-budget guerrilla style. Overall the visual feel is more fuzzy than crisp, either from the passage of time, or from the off-the-cuff manner in which many shots were composed. I largely enjoyed this film, though, and found its observational style (which many a filmmaker has employed in auto-biographical essay films), but it's not the sort of vaguely avant-garde film that will knock an unsuspecting viewer's socks off. And, it should be said, the voice-over dominates the proceedings, to a fault at times, and I found the recurring piano music on the score rather grating after a while. I'm often fond of solo piano (Schubert, Satie, Debussy, Chopin, Gonzales's Solo Piano album, the John Cage record with the screws inside the instrument, maybe something like Solo Monk, etc.), but the piano here sounds like amateur parlor music at times and doesn't always gel well with the visuals. When about a half-hour into October in Madrid, the film's score finally features something different (nice chamber music comprised of classical guitar, cello, and violin), it's an unmistakable breath of fresh air. All in all, this is a film worth seeing, but not quite essential.





Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
(1985, Directed by Tim Burton)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

One of my earliest formative cinema experiences involved Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Sometime, in probably about 1986, my grandma on my dad's side was babysitting my older brother and me, and that afternoon she took us to a multiplex somewhere in the suburbs of Milwaukee. I distinctly remember choosing this film, on something of a whim, over the jock favorite Top Gun. This is one of the better decisions I've made in my life. I of course loved the film, and it remains close to my informal top ten to this day. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is one of the best "man-children movies" ever. In this case, several adults with speaking roles behave and live like they're literally about seven years old, complete with the occasional "girls have cooties" mindset, and Elizabeth Daily being quite foxy only makes this all the more funny. As the film progresses, from scene to scene it shifts from one genre or sub-genre to the next, and in doing so it functions as catalog of sorts of then-prominent pop culture, much of which (say, Twister Sister rock videos, Chips-like cop shows, Milton Berle ubiquity, dinosaur fascination, and Mr. T. Cereal) might seldom crop up today. Reubens and Phil Hartman's screenplay here is top-notch. It really doesn't matter to me how many Depp-Carter vehicles Tim Burton might have had a hand in in more recent years and how watchable they are, because he still goes to Cinema Heaven for having made this.





Police
(1985, Directed by Maurice Pialat)

★ ★ ★ ½

If you adore establishing shots, lots of cutaways to the world around the characters, and breathing room in general, this isn't the ideal police film for you. I love the way this Pialat effort is lit, as visually it has a consistent unsunny starkness that mirrors the often-barebones nature of the milieu itself (mostly an austere police station with a lot of dodgy leather-jacket-clad cops and guileless criminals to match). To put it one way, this is not the kind of film a person watches to get swept off her feet. Police is nonetheless a better sit than most contemporary procedurals, despite or perhaps because of its at-times-"problematic" workaday frankness (some of it penned by Catherine Breillat), which only periodically takes a backseat to the fumbling, roughly hewn romance between the mismatched Mangin and Noria, a detective and crook of shifting relations. I'd been wanting to see this curious entry in Pialat's oeuvre for a while now, and even had an unwatched rip of it on my computer, so when it showed up on the Criterion Channel, the timing was right and I gave it a go. Have only seen four of his films so far (I know, I know), but I've liked all of them to varying degrees and intend to see everything at some point.





Robert on his Lunch Break
(2010, Directed by Dave Andrae)

★ ★ ★ ★

An obscure film, vaguely about concern trolling, geared for adventurous viewers with long attention spans. Internet poison, in other words. The anti-Netflix. Robert on his Lunch Break, which you can see on Vimeo here, was largely well received in my tiny social circle when it was completed eleven years ago, after I'd spent about four and half years on it (with some stops and stars in between). And the film did garner a couple of nice screenings and nods from the likes of Peter Watkins and Jon Jost. But in hindsight I think it's still a tough proposition. Even among enlightened lefties, people tend to gravitate toward films that match the rhythms of life, films that are generous in providing them with a tapestry of the familiar but transmuted in some way that provides them a heightened experience from reality. The viewer wants to be herself while escaping herself, as if in a dream. Robert on his Lunch Break, by contrast, is a film that deals with stripping things away and artifice, creating a kind of rigid "anti-context" (as one friend put it), in which each of the four characters is consigned to his or her own subjective reality, aesthetically different from those of the others, and there isn't a lot of spatial or psychological wiggle room. This is a colorful but stark feel-bad comedy in the vein of Samuel Beckett perhaps; too long for most shorts programs, so is it really a mystery this 24-minute film didn't take the world by storm?

At the time I was very interested in opening up different expressive possibilities. I found a lot of the independent American films that were getting attention then to be formally sloppy, and, rather insipid in terms of themes. It wasn't so much that I needed a film to be cutting (ROHLB isn't a cynical film), but I felt the stakes for my own work should be higher than those of a middle class love triangle. And I've often found a lot of experimental films that have acting in them to be too campy and half-baked to buy into on a sincere level. In terms of form and feel, I was more interested in a film like Love is Colder Than Death, or something by Robert Bresson, than a polite post-collegiate hangout movie with too much dialogue. I had acted in a film at the time, John C. Koch's Je Ne Sais Quoi, which capitalized on and drew humor from my occasional loquaciousness, so with ROHLB I sought to do a 180 and create more space within the dialogue, lots of carefully calibrated gaps. This was done by recording the dialogue first, in professional studios, and then spending hours and hours listening to it on my laptop and carefully adjusting the spaces between what was being said. The bulk of the visuals were created after the fact, in Super 8 and digital video. All these years later, the thing I like most about the film is its idiosyncratic pacing, which forces the audience to confront the uncomfortable scene before them, one in which the antagonist (Bradley) sees fit to attack the protagonist (Robert) with insults veiled as "good advice" supposedly meant to help him. This makes the film at once meditative and unnerving, tending to produce an odd mixture of emotions if one locks into it. ROHLB is an at times humorous film about resentment that's largely fallen on deaf ears. It's probably inordinate for many viewers in that it might require more than one viewing to get a proper handle on. At this point the film is ancient history, having been made in what seems like another lifetime, but I don't at all regret having created it and arranging it in just the way it happened to turn out.

Note: There was an earlier cut of the film, with different shots of Robert when he spoke opposite Nika. In Spring of 2011, these parts of the film were redone/improved upon and added to what is now the final, definitive cut of the film, which is the one available on Vimeo, and the one that played at the Wisconsin Film Festival and every showing since then. For a little more info on what these changes entailed, and the rationale behind them, view the blog post here.





Say Amen, Somebody
(1982, Directed by George T. Nierenberg)

★ ★ ★ ½

A film that builds strength as it progresses, George T. Nierenberg's Say Amen, Somebody is an essential document if one has an affinity for gospel music specifically or vintage black music in general. One doesn't need to be an adherent to Christianity or theism in order to see the virtues and talent on display here. The gospel music featured in the film, usually though not always sung and played in church, presents an avenue for joyous exaltations and reverence for a higher power; it has the effect of elevating the consciousness of the vast majority of people (including the film's viewers) who come into contact with it.

I personally enjoyed the more uptempo, full-band-with-chorus-singers performances by the likes of The Barrett Sisters and The O'Neal Twins. You know, there are people who can "sing" (lowercase), and then there are people who can really SING--that is, those who've got the pipes and can belt it and harmonize with one another with ease, at the drop of a hat. I did not watch Say Amen, Somebody with a pair of headphones on, but even so, there's some impressive audio mixing in the film, in which a song will be underway and the camera will cut to different people in the room, far apart from each other, and their individual voices singing along to it will by heard on the audio track in a seamless manner. Very nice.

But rather than presenting a more glamorized, music video-like take on gospel music, Nierenberg's documentary shows the world around the music as well, one in which minor spats can arise between musicians, or in which the history and direction of the art form are discussed (and even questioned sometimes), or in which the role of being a devout Christian for a true, dyed-in-the-wool gospel singer is delved into. The film has kind of a fly-on-the-wall stance toward its subjects a lot of the time, but is still pursued with a good amount of sensitivity and enough attention to detail. There is religious proselytizing here and there, from some of its subjects, but that's par for the course. Notably things like politics and racism aren't really addressed in Say Amen, Somebody, likely because the filmmakers wanted to emphasize the rich creative lives of the people within it, who've managed to carve out a good niche for themselves, despite the much larger world around them. Not a bad movie at all.





Sophie's Ways
(1971, Directed by Moshe Mizrahi)

★ ★ ★ ★

In her long and charmed career, actor Bernadette Lafont had the effect of elevating the films she came into contact with. The post-Nouvelle Vague obscurity Sophie's Ways is no exception. A lot of people's entry point to Israeli director Moshe Mizrahi's second feature would be the fact that The Art Ensemble of Chicago do the soundtrack, and enjoy a nice cameo in the film, which was likely the main reason Sophie's Ways found its way onto a DVD in the first place (put out by the Soul Jazz Records no less). Enticing as that might be, it was learning that Lafont played the lead (with a supporting role by fellow Out 1 alumnus Bulle Ogier) that snagged me!

Fortunately the film holds up on its own merits. Lafont is very much in her element here as Céline, a principled and liberated, but somewhat dilettantish and irresponsible feminist still in a bit of a hippy daze, possibly a hangover of May of '68. After he nearly hits her with his car at a crosswalk, straight-laced yuppy businessman Philippe feels drawn to her and soon a classic case of opposites attract arises. But Céline is less sold on the relationship than Philippe. Her head is full of women's lib and artistic ambitions. Even after they exchange wedding vows, it seems she is more playing along in her new role as bourgeois housewife than fully committed to it. She doesn't want to be constrained by her new husband and has the tendency to test the boundaries of their relationship and seek fulfillment elsewhere. Being comparatively uptight, this only makes Philippe more exasperated and controlling, though he insists he's only being practical.

Written for the screen and based on a book by Christiane Rochefort, Sophie's Ways sets in motion several scenes that get to the heart of a lot of feminist ideals and reasons why men and women haven't always gotten along well in domestic partnerships. But this is no garden variety modern day rom-com. It's a tart francophone film rife with quotable quips and, at times, progressive politics and insights into sexuality as seen through a woman's eyes. The only surviving print from which the DVD was derived looks a little faded, but the film is still colorful and blocked and directed like one of the better films by Eric Rohmer. The plot does eventually take a tragic turn, at which point the "doomed romance" theme, previously hovering in the background, becomes so pronounced one can hear it from a mile away. But all in all this is a pleasurable sit that doesn't disappoint.





Sound of Metal
(2020, Directed by Darius Marder)

★ ★ ★ ½

An effective film just in terms of showing the discrepancy between the main character's perception of the world--while in the throes of hearing loss, deafness, and then a strident digitally augmented approximation of aural reality--and that of those around him. There are several abrupt (though not always unpleasant) cuts between what noise rock drummer Ruben hears or doesn't hear and what's going on outside his head, but I especially like the scene during the piano duet in Paris in which the sound design slowly fades from "normal," unfettered music to the stifled sound of his implants, a sound which, in his case at least*, is only nominally better than silence. (* = As I undestand it, the results of cochlear implants can vary and aren't always this unsatisfactory for those who use them.) Sound of Metal is a well considered portrait of someone losing a faculty he's built his whole existence around and then grappling with the fallout in the wake of it, taking desperate measures, but then thinking better of trying to outrun his circumstances. In the end, it's a film about acceptance.





True West
(1984, Directed by Allan A. Goldstein)

★ ★ ★ ★

An invigorating taping of a now-classic Sam Shepard stage play that unfortunately has the production values and technical quality of a Small Wonder episode. Still, highly recommended! Sinise and Malkovich very much in their element, and the dialog and characterization are tops.





Twelve Monkeys
(1995, Directed by Terry Gilliam)

★ ★ ★

An inspired and layered mainstream extrapolation of La Jetée that falters mostly in terms of tone, and perhaps pacing (it is a bit of a meal that occasionally threatens to run away from itself). The last time I had seen Twelve Monkeys was on VHS in high school at a good friend's house, maybe about a year after it was released in theaters. In all of the time that passed since then, I'd somehow forgotten what a goofy film this can be. It's no coincidence that cartoons on television are woven into several scenes in the diegesis because tonally that seems to be what Gilliam was aiming for with his direction at various junctures. Sometimes this works, and other times it feels at odds with the gravity of the subject matter. At the very least it takes some getting used to and after refreshing my faint memories of the film with a few online discussions of its plot (which were fascinating in and of themselves), once the film began and its tenor became pronounced, part of me was longing for more or less the same narrative but played straight, without any distracting quirks or the film nodding its figurative head at the audience. I guess a man-made pandemic and various Brazil-isms are rather awkward bedfellows. Especially in COVID times. Still, the film isn't without its charms, and I could see other viewers rating Twelve Monkeys higher. This is at times a very shrewd movie, something that might get lost in its manic tonal shifts and occasional steampunk-adjacent stylization. Often times the beginning or end of a given scene or shot is peppered with a curious detail or two that would be easy to overlook if one weren't paying close attention. Witness, for instance, a poster for Nas's then-current masterpiece Illmatic, only on screen for the blink of an eye. Or the brilliant line at the end of the book signing where a somewhat pompous man utters, "Dr. Railly, I wonder if you're aware of my own studies," which is all too fitting.





Unsolved Mysteries: A Death in Oslo
(2020, Directed by Robert M. Wise)

★ ★ ★ ½

Been thinking about this Unsolved Mysteries episode, A Death in Oslo, the strongest installment of the reboot I've caught so far. It covers the case of one "Jennifer Fairgate," who died somewhat conspicuously of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted, possibly not, at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel, Oslo. She left behind few clues as to her true identity--strangely enough, even the tags of her clothing had been ripped off prior to the discovery of her body in Room 2805. Had the hotel staff member/security guard stayed put after hearing the gunshot behind the hotel room door, this might be less of a mystery today. Meaning, while we might not have ever learned the true identity of Ms. Fairgate, had the hotel employee stayed in place and seen whether someone emerged from the room afterwards, we might know for certain whether this was suicide or foul play. So while the staff member leaving the site of the incident for back-up is an understandable response, it may have unfortunately allowed a killer to slip out of the room and hotel undetected. But then again, even if it turned out to be suicide, it could've been impelled by coercion, by someone, a person or more likely an organization, we don't know. So even so, the case wouldn't necessarily be all that cut and dry, as is often the case in life. My guess is that the mysterious woman in question was indeed a spy or "agent" of some sort, one who somehow got in over her head or found herself between a rock and a hard place, but without hard facts, that's just armchair-internet-sleuth conjecture. Interesting TV either way.





The Widow Couderc
(1971, Directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre)

★ ★ ½

The Widow Couderc hovers somewhere below three stars for me, not quite clinching the coveted three and half stars or above rating that seems to be the line of demarcation for personal favorites. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, this is a lesser known entry in the well established tradition of older rural-set French films, many of which feature underdog protagonists at odds with the provincial people in their midst. The film draws a lot of its strength from the unlikely pairing of Simone Signoret's aging black-sheep widow at war with her in-laws and Alain Delon's well mannered drifter turned handyman with a checkered past. The acting from these two titans of French cinema, as well as the other players (a couple of whom you can also spot in Le Cercle Rouge), is characteristically strong. But the film, though decently shot, suffers from visual plainess during several stretches. And in an odd turn, whether intentional or not, the gunshots and occasional running water noises on the soundtrack are tempered with a phasing effect, which is a little hard to get used to. During at least a few points, the film draws attention to the spreading current of fascism in thirties France, but these allusions feel more like incidental references than fuel for the film's vision of the world. The dialogue often exhibits wit, but the plot itself takes kind of a predictable path by the end, so Pierre Granier-Deferre's film isn't quite the gripping "countryside noir" that some have made it out to be. The Widow Couderc is still an okay film, worth seeing if one is a Signoret and/or Delon buff, and/or interested in French obscurities (by American standards anyway). But it's not the half-forgotten cinematic gold that I hoped it would be.





Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration
(1987, Directed by Will Vinton)

★ ★ ★ ★

An annual viewing around Christmastime, ever since I snatched up the DVD several years back. I saw the original broadcast of this back in the day and taped it off the TV onto VHS. Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration was kind of a big deal then, if you were a certain age, as were the California Raisins, and "dinosaurs" as a broad field of interest (shrewdly reflected here in the two hosts, the rather "fruity" Herb and the straight-laced Rex). In this sense, this half-hour special is a product of its time. I would say claymation itself was novel then as well, and is now a bit dated, but all of these years later it still feels cool to behold, even if it's far less in vogue than computer-generated fare or animated illustrations.

As for the celebration itself, the various vignettes centered on Christmas, all of them are reasonably worthwhile, as far as family-friendly entertainment goes. The "Joy to the World" animated video is almost psychedelic in places, a bit of a drug-induced fever dream with its stream-of-consciousness imagery. The most potentially deviant piece would be the "Carol of the Bells" bit, I think; I grin every time the lackey anthropomorphized bell utters, "I lost mine" in a sheepish tone of voice. "O Christmas Tree" is a little quaint and doesn't provide any laughs but ends up being very heartwarming. The California Raisins doing a late eighties "Motown" avec drum machine version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a good final bit, and I just about choke up every time the baritoned raisin sings, "Come on, come on, come on, and ride my sleigh tonight." Overall, the special's wit is much more likely to draw light, occasional guffaws than genuine laughter, but they made a goodnatured, visually appealing Christmas special, with some charm, and it's still worth revisiting.






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