This is a few weeks behind schedule, but better late than never. There’s not much here in the way of detailed analysis, just some quick thoughts:
Last Seduction, The: This one got bumped up to the top of my Netflix queue thanks to the forum, and I agree with the general consensus. It’s a solid and sexy modern noir, with a deliciously evil central performance from Linda Florentino. Peter Berg (recently behind the camera for Battleship) is an effective love interest and everyman, while Bill Pullman gets to go over the top as the nasty ex that Florentino screws over. Like many of the classic noirs, the plot takes some interesting turns, but unlike many of the classic noirs, you can actually follow the plot fairly easily, and everything ties together in the end in a satisfying way, in large part due to the smart script and the sure-handed direction of John Dahl. Whatever happened to that guy? Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, Rounders. Those are some strong films to have on your resume, but he never seemed to rise to become a director of more prominence. Oh well. Like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, Dahl’s film will stand the test of time as one of the better modern noirs.
Letter Never Sent: This is one of three new films I watched during the month that I’m giving a 10 rating. Like many of Werner Herzog’s films or even the recent The Grey, Letter Never Sent is a film about the relationship between man and nature, and how people react to the inevitability of death. The first half of the film follows four people on an expedition into the wilderness to hunt for diamonds. During this time, we get to know the characters and the feelings they have for each other. At around the halfway point, the morning after finally uncovering diamonds, the expedition members wake up to find themselves in the middle of an enormous forest fire, with little hope for escape. In many ways, the film has a very similar feel as the recent Liam Neeson drama, but I found this one to be infinitely more satisfying. Maybe this has to do with the amazing cinematography, some of the best I’ve ever seen, or maybe it’s because the characters were better-drawn and more relatable, but the film got to me in a way that similar films of this nature haven’t before. It’s something of a lost classic, and it’s absolutely worth taking the time to see.
Missing: Costa-Gavras, director of the masterpiece Z, helms this based-on-a-true-story mystery/drama about the disappearance of an American in a violence-infested Chile during the middle of a coup. The American’s disappearance prompts his wife (Sissy Spacek) and father (Jack Lemmon) to investigate, only to find the process difficult due to various bureaucratic and political barriers. Missing contains all the angry energy that was present in Z, while also adding a strong emotional undercurrent thanks to the Spacek and Lemmon characters. They feel like real people, and we feel just as much exasperation as they do when they are thwarted at every turn. Jack Lemmon in particular is absolutely heartbreaking as he gradually realizes that he had more in common with his son than he ever realized. It’s a film that is more about small details; the audience is never given a definite answer to the ultimate fate of the kidnapped American, but that doesn’t stop the ending from having a real emotional punch. While Missing doesn’t may not have the haymaker ending and overall political impact of Z, the small-scale tragedy of the conclusion is no less effective.
Mirror, The: Another Andrei Tarkovsky film, this one released in 1975. I’ve seen it compared to Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, which is definitely an appropriate comparison. Going into the film expecting any kind of narrative structure will inevitably end in disappointment. Instead, Tarkovsky jumps around in time as the narrator recalls various childhood memories, and also includes newsreel footage talking about Russian history during the time period. After my first time through it, I remember certain striking images (the burning cabin is a standout), but other parts of the film have already faded somewhat from my memory. It’s one of Tarkovsky’s more impenetrable films, and without any kind of narrative momentum it requires a more intense concentration. It’s definitely the kind of film that I could see growing to appreciate more after repeated viewings; one time through is certainly not enough. Still, at this moment, it’s probably my least favorite Tarkovsky, although this opinion could change in the future.
Night To Remember, A: Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 dramatization of the sinking of the Titanic. This is an interesting film to watch in 2012, especially if you have seen the much more popular James Cameron film, which looms large in the background. The two films share many of the same moments and emotions, most notably the poignant scenes where the musicians continue to play their instruments as the ship continues to sink into the water. A Night To Remember, however, manages to rise above the 1997 Titanic in a number of key areas. The most important one is that the melodrama is kept to a minimum. There are no big love stories, no tales of intrigue, no villains. The film features a large cast of characters, but the focus is always on the bigger picture, the dire situation in which everyone finds themselves. This cuts down significantly on the running time, making for a leaner and more effective experience. Overall, while it will probably never be as recognized and ingrained into the public consciousness as the James Cameron film, it is at this present time the best and most accurate dramatization of the Titanic tragedy available.
Outrage: The latest Yakuza/gangster film from Takashi Kitano, after a significant amount of time away from the genre. The plot centers around the volatile relations between two rival crime families, and the efforts of a select few caught in the middle to make sure that violence does not escalate. However, this being a Takashi Kitano film, the violence starts to escalate almost immediately. The director’s excellent sense of style and shot composition are on full display, but the film doesn’t quite come together in a way that is entirely satisfying. There are memorable moments, most notably a ridiculously graphic scene involving a mouth and inappropriate uses of dental equipment, but there’s less depth here than in Kitano’s previous works, particularly Sonatine. Worth watching if you’re a Takashi Kitano fan, but otherwise nothing all that special.
Pitfall: Strange film, this one. It’s something of a mix between ghost story and police procedural, with a recently-murdered man watching over the efforts of the police to find the culprit. There’s also some sort of political commentary going on, with the murderer pitting rival unions against each other. I’m struggling somewhat to put some of my thoughts into words as to why this film is great, so I’ll just say that it contains a very interesting blend of horror, mystery, comedy, tragedy, and political commentary. The end result is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it’s prompted me to put more films from director Hiroshi Teshigahara into my Netflix queue.
Pirates, The: A Band Of Misfits: The latest stop-motion work from Aardman Animations, the creators of Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. This one, as the title suggests, follows a band of pirate misfits as their captain (named Pirate Captain, and voiced by Hugh Grant) attempts to win the coveted Pirate Of The Year award. The trademark dry British sense of humor is present as always, and it has a strong voice cast, which, along with Grant, includes Martin Freeman, David Tennant, Brandon Gleeson, and Imelda Staunton. You also really have to admire the audacity of the filmmakers for making the Queen of England and Charles Darwin the primary antagonists. I’m not sure that the film rises to the greatness of some of the previous Aardman films, or this year’s excellent animated offerings Chico & Rita and The Secret World Of Arrietty, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and lovingly-crafted piece of animation.
Quiet Man, The: John Ford’s 1952 Best Picture winner. The film follows John Wayne as he returns home to Ireland from America, in the hopes of starting a new life in the quiet countryside. The environment in which he finds himself living, however, is very rarely quiet, as he continually has to deal with the townspeople’s quirky customs and the confusing affections of a fiery redhead, played by Maureen O’Hara. As is sometimes the case with classic melodramas like these, you have to get past some of the genre’s overbearing elements. Still, there’s plenty to admire here. The performances are solid, the shots of the Irish countryside are lovely, and the fight that ends the film is epic, to say the least. I’m not sure I’d call the film great, but unlike many Best Picture winners, it has stood the test of time as a solid piece of entertainment.
Red Road: The debut feature from British director Andrea Arnold, perhaps better known for her sophomore film Fish Tank. For the majority of the running length, the film plays out as a gritty psychological thriller, as an introverted surveillance monitor (Kate Dickie, giving a very strong and courageous performance) tracks down the man responsible for the deaths of her husband and son. Like Fish Tank, the film is notable for its strong sense of location; both films highlight a British culture that is the opposite of idyllic. The atmosphere in the film is so strong that it’s a big disappointment when the film descends into ridiculous plot contrivances, leading to an ending that feels like a cop-out. This is a film that needed a dark conclusion; what we get is an optimistic ending that stands apart from the darkness that comes before it. For the first three-quarters of the film, I thought I was watching a truly great piece of work. But the final quarter doesn’t live up to the rest, and so the film stands as a relatively interesting and daring first work that gives hints to potential greatness down the road.
Raven, The: Apologies in advance for this terribly reductive comparison, but this is essentially Sherlock Holmes meets Se7en. It’s a fairly standard serial killer story, with the hook being that our primary hero and detective is Edgar Allen Poe. This had the potential to be a lot of fun, but the end results are mixed. John Cusack frequently goes over-the-top as Poe; sometimes it works, and other times it feels out of place. The police detective in charge of investigating the murders is played by Luke Evans, who looks like the guy you get when Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t available. The atmosphere of the film is appropriately gloomy, although there are some annoying editing issues. Mainly, there’s a scene inspired by Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death that seems to be building to something substantial. When something does happen, I wasn’t aware of what exactly happened until the film had moved on to the next scene. Additionally, the plot isn’t exactly watertight, with the killer orchestrating an elaborate scheme that relies on him narrowly avoiding capture on multiple occasions. It’s all certainly passable, and I suppose if this were on TV at some point and you had nothing better to do, you might find it enjoyable enough. But it’s really nothing more than passable.
Spirit Of The Beehive, The: The second 10/10 film of the month. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, in which a young girl living in post-Civil War Spain is exposed to the horrors of the real world. James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein plays a key role in the proceedings, as the film leaves a profound impact on the mind of the girl. There is somewhat of a fairytale vibe to the film, and there were certain times where I was reminded of the tone of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, albeit with less fantasy elements. Director Victor Elice really pulls off the sense of time and place, and the cinematography is incredible. But on top of everything else, the film boasts one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen from Ana Torrent. It’s her actions and emotions that give the film true moments of power. I can’t recommend this film highly enough.
Square, The: Another forum recommendation. Similar to The Last Seduction, this is a thriller with noir influences that brings to mind films like Double Indemnity and Blood Simple. At the center of the film is a good man who makes a terrible decision, and in the classic noir fashion this causes his life and the lives of those around him to spiral out of control. It’s perhaps best not to go into any more specific plot details, but I will say that it all builds to an moment near the end that is literally jaw-dropping. The film is directed by Nash Edgerton and co-written by him and his brother Josh, who has a solid supporting role and who has since gone on to wider recognition in other films. Judging on the strength of The Square, here’s hoping that the two continue to collaborate on more interesting projects in the future.
Three Outlaw Samurai: My final 10/10 film of the month, and my favorite new discovery. Directed by Hideo Gosha in 1964, the film begins as a drifting samurai (Tetsuro Tamba, of Harakiri and You Only Live Twice fame) wanders upon a group of peasants, who have kidnapped a magistrate’s daughter. Rather than releasing her, however, the samurai listens to the plight of the peasants, and decides to help them instead. What follows is a series of twists and turns, with two more samurai eventually joining the cause. I went into the film not expecting all that much, but when the film finished, it immediately joined the ranks of my favorite samurai films, standing up to even Kurosawa’s masterworks in the genre. The black-and-white cinematography is outstanding, the character are well-rounded and interesting, and the fight scenes are artfully choreographed and always comprehensible. It also has a great downbeat ending that genuinely hits home. Finding a copy might be difficult (it was recently released by Criterion, but is unavailable on Netflix), but trust me, you won’t regret tracking it down.
Trouble In Paradise: Another Lubitsch comedy, and basically the same things I said for Design For Living earlier apply to this one as well. The dialogue is witty and loaded with innuendos, and Miriam Hopkins is as always a terrific screen presence. Out of the three Lubitsch comedies that I’ve seen, this one is probably the most unmemorable (I still haven’t seen To Be Or Not To Be, which seems to be the general pick for best Lubitsch). I would still recommend The Smiling Lieutenant the most, but all the Lubitsch films I’ve seen, including this one, are charming and accessible entertainment.
Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic ghost story/morality play. Out of all the films I watched this month, this one might have the strongest reputation. Because of this, my expectations were very high going in, and fortunately they were mostly met. Mizoguchi’s compositions are frequently stunning, and he makes excellent use of camera movements throughout the film. The narrative follows two peasants, each with higher aspirations. The two eventually branch out on their own separate paths: one cheats his way into becoming a samurai, while the other falls in love with a ghost. They eventually learn the error of their ways, only to discover that their time away has brought grief and despair to their families. The film is surprisingly simple and at the end quietly touching. Everyone at some point should take the time to watch it.
On a side note, from my experiences watching Japanese films, if a woman who looks like this ever shows up,
she will always one of these:
b) a ghost
c) an evil ghost
You have been warned.
Viridiana: Luis Bunuel’s vicious 1961 satire. If you’ve seen a few of Bunuel’s films, you kind of already know what you’re in for when approaching a new one. He frequently likes to poke fun at religion and religious institutions, as well as the behaviors of the upper class. Still, even knowing this beforehand did not prepare me for the scabrous and audacious nature of Viridiana. This is a film that opens with an old man attempting to corrupt his pious niece by asking her to marry him, features along the way a recreation of The Last Supper populated by criminals and vagrants, and ends with a very unsubtle suggestion of a ménage à trois (capped off with one of the best final lines ever: “You know, the first time I saw you, I thought, ‘My cousin and I will end up shuffling the deck together’.”) If I had to rank the Bunuel films that I’ve seen, this one would be near the top.
Wise Blood: John Huston’s film adaptation of Flannery O’Conner’s classic novel. It stars Brad Dourif as the central character Hazel Motes, which signals right at the outset that the film will be erratic and offbeat. I read the novel way back in high school, and I remember finding it interesting for its strangeness and dark sense of humor, as well as for its pointed satire of evangelicalism. As far as I can tell, the film is a fairly literal adaptation of the novel, but while the book had an odd, slightly creepy tone, the film is more comical than disturbing. Other than a scene near the end that is genuinely horrifying, most of the film seems to be played mainly for laughs, with a ridiculous banjo score accompanying all the events. The performances are all fine and the message comes across well enough, but the end result is a film that’s never as satisfying as it should be.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine: To say that this was the worst film I saw during the month is almost a given. Truthfully, I didn’t dislike it as much as I thought I would. Actually, in certain sections, it’s reasonably entertaining, in a shallow kind of way. The problem is that these individual sections don’t add up to a completely satisfying whole. Jackman is always entertaining to watch as Wolverine, and Liev Schreiber is suitably menacing, even though it’s tough to determine his motivations for his evil actions. Ryan Reynolds also shows up for a very small part in the beginning, before returning right at the end in one of the film’s more interesting and disturbing reveals. Apparently this has ties into the comics, and that this character is eventually called Deadpool. I didn’t know this when watching the film, and in a way this made the reveal at the end more effective and chilling; knowing that he goes on to establish his own personality and presence somewhat dilutes the impact. Anyway, the action set-pieces are involving enough, but it is a big problem when you have a main character that is incapable of dying. Wolverine gets shot in the head twice during this film, and all that happens is he loses his memory (conveniently erasing the relevance of all the previous events). In the end, while the film isn’t ever really terrible, it’s too middle-of-the-road to be anything significant and memorable.
Year Of The Horse: Jim Jarmusch’s concert film about Neil Young & Crazy Horse. This one got some incredibly harsh reviews when it was first released. After watching the film myself, I couldn’t help but think that the critics overreacted a little. It’s not the greatest concert film ever made, but neither is it unwatchable. In terms of approach and technique, the film is the anti-Stop Making Sense. Much like the band itself, Jarmusch’s direction is intentionally raw and sloppy, filming interviews on digital video and forgoing any kind of concert choreography in favor of grainy 16mm footage. This decision does make watching the film a little hard-going, but it is an appropriate choice. Like most concert films that integrate interviews into the production, the band members rarely have anything interesting to say. Still, that doesn’t matter all that much if the on-stage performances are compelling, and other than one uncomfortable moment where the band closes out a song with a seemingly-endless repetition of one note, Neil and the band put on a generally good show. I have a feeling that your appreciation of the film would come down to this: if you’re not a fan of Neil Young, you’re likely going to find Year Of The Horse insufferably irritating, but if you are a fan of Neil Young, you’re likely to forgive some of the film’s shortcomings and enjoy the experience.
Zulu: This film accounts the true story of a battle between a small group of British soldiers and an army of Zulu warriors during the late 1800s. There are standout performances from Jack Hawkins and a young Michael Caine, but the real reason to watch this one is for the tremendous battle sequences, which take up the majority of the film. The sense of scope here in this film is something you very rarely see nowadays; the amount of action and participants in certain shots is really impressive, especially when you know that nothing onscreen is faked or added later, as is so often the case in today’s digital filmmaking world. Admittedly, my attention did start to waver around the middle (the film is a little lengthy at 138 minutes), but the film redeems itself with an absolutely gripping final stretch. The part where the British soldiers join together in song, and the final moments, where there is a quiet moment of admiration between the two forces, are genuinely emotional. While the film is worth seeing for the battle scenes alone, these closing moments added some real emotional heft, and elevated my appreciation of the film considerably.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!