Weekly Film Log: December 1-7

This is something that I want to try doing so I can more frequently update my blog.

Lately I’ve been getting back into writing mini-reviews for each movie I watch. I used to post little write-ups to my Letterboxd for every film I watch for the first time, until a few months ago when I became bombarded with school, work, and my internship. Starting this months, I’ve been getting back in the habit, and I hope to try to continue it to the unforeseen future. I try to make them at least 200-300 words, but if I have more to say, I will write more! I thought it would be fitting to restart my mini-reviews on a month that starts on the 1st. By chance, December happened to be the pick! So each week, I plan on inserting in a post the mini-reviews I write for each new-to-me film. Hope you enjoy!

Rio Bravo (1959) – dir. Howard Hawks

  • Watched on 2 December.
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo has often been called one of the greatest westerns of all time. While I myself can’t agree (Leone’s Dollars Trilogy places rather high in my book), it’s undoubtedly solid. This has to be Dean Martin’s greatest acting performance, proving that Sinatra isn’t the only member of the Rat Pack to take on serious roles convincingly. I felt that John Wayne wasn’t quite on par here; I’m not his biggest fan, but his acting here felt even more wooden and forced than normally. Walter Brennan’s character is funny and charismatic enough, but unnecessary for the most part. Angie Dickinson was rather fun here as well, and Ricky Nelson did alright, though I can’t help feeling he was casted for the sole purpose of sharing a duet with Dean Martin. Overall, it’s a solid, entertaining western, although the action and pacing didn’t quite reach a level of exceptionality or nail-biting tension that would call for a higher rating.

Marty

Marty (1955) – dir. Delbert Mann

  • Watched on 3 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 9/10

Marty is the winner of both the 1955 Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or, and it is certainly brimming with a unique kind of humanity that would make it befit for both titles. It effectively (and sympathetically) tells a story of a lonely man who isn’t exactly lucky with love – that is, until one pivotal night with a similarly ill-fated woman who captivates him with her charm and charisma. Despite this, however, Marty’s friends and family remain skeptical and unimpressed, causing he himself to possess doubts of his own.

Ernest Borgnine’s titular role is one of the most humble, likable characters to ever grace the silver screen. It’s nearly impossible not to love the guy, and his Best Actor win for this year is completely deserved. Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, and Augusta Ciolli also give fine supporting performances, but Borgnine steals the show. And the film itself is also as simple as Marty the character. While it certainly is a work of its time, I was surprised by just how straight-forward and lacking in melodrama it truly is. The film progresses smoothly, with dialogue that is genuine and tinged with just the right amount of natural cynicism. It is a film about the quest toward real love, the boundaries and barriers that are inevitable, and the strength it takes to overcome them for the sake of fulfillment and all its virtues. It is wonderful.

Born in East L.A. (1987) – dir. Cheech Marin

  • Watched on 4 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 5/10

The bulk of substantial clever content in Born in East L.A. can be found within the first 10-15 minutes of the film. It initially promises a biting critique about the American perception of illegal immigration from Mexico. Cheech Marin (who also wrote and directed the film) plays a Mexican-American who is mistaken for an undocumented immigrant and deported to Mexico. Unfortunately, the film never quite reaches its full potential. The bulk of the narrative relies on cheap humor that ultimately falls flat. There is even a love story that is forcibly thrown in there for good measure. It simply felt like the film was going for exactly the wrong kind of tone that its subject matter would call for. It has its sweet moments and instances of good-natured humor, but a more critical, even satirical style of comedy would probably make it more resonating and ultimately more satisfying. Alas, it’s rather disposable. One would probably be better off watching the very funny music video by which this film is inspired.

Blancanieves (2012) – dir. Pablo Berger

  • Watched on 4 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Spanish origin; silent
  • Rating: 7/10

It seems that one of the more distinct trends of contemporary art cinema is a harking back to classic styles and standards of the silent film era. One of the more famous examples, of course, is 2011’s Best Picture winner The Artist, although this harking back to the retro has certainly existed quite a few years before. What’s perplexing, however, is that often such films don’t quite take the extra step in capturing just what makes silent cinema so alluring to cinephiles. It’s as if (and The Artist is especially guilty of this, even though I enjoyed it) it’s assumed that all it takes is black-and-white visuals and title cards in place of sound and dialogue. The films of Guy Maddin – namely Brand Upon the Brain! and his short film The Heart of the World – seem to be most successful at capturing the true *feel* of silent movies, since he makes the additional effort in adding montage-style editing and an intentionally gritty aesthetic, much like what these old films demonstrate. The end results are often quite charming, and I do wish more filmmakers who seek to pay homage to silent cinema take a page from his handbook.

Blancanieves, though quite lovely, is just the type of film that isn’t quite so successfulas a silent film. While it isn’t exactly a setback, watching it makes me wonder whether this particular style ever transcended mere gimmick. The B&W cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, but really presents itself and progresses just like any other modern narrative film (minus the sound). If it offers anything new to the table, it allows me to pay more attention to the musical soundtrack, which for the most part is outstanding, often traced with lovely, exotic undertones.

Besides all of these nitpicks, however, Blancanieves is quite a wonderful film. It’s a fascinating, unique retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, set in 1920s Spain amidst an environment of bullfighting. There’s a really entrancing fantasy element to the whole thing that I can’t exactly put into words, but I owe it mainly to the lovely cinematography. It’s almost as if it’s all set on an entirely different planet; the sets and costumes are all so lavish and brilliant, and the emotional arc is absolutely compelling. The acting is all so great too, particularly the actress who plays the protagonist, our “Snow White”. I’ll always love films with a strong, well-developed female leads, to some extent at least. While the narrative does have its shortcomings, there are moments where it’s often quite mystifying, even tense and gripping. All in all, it’s quite a good film enveloped in a magical, old-timey vibe. It can be inconsistent and a tad rusty, but at the very least it looks so, so gorgeous.

Kurenai no Buta (Porco Rosso) (1992) – dir. Hayao Miyazaki

  • Watched on 5 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Japanese w/ English subtitles
  • Rating: 8/10

Miyazaki has built up quite a reputation for creating some of the finest, most gorgeous-looking animated films of the contemporary ago. As I journey onward to complete his filmography, I’ve found out that Porco Rosso is no exception. The scenery is all completely lovely, from the trees to the shots in the endless skies. And like much from Studio Ghibli, there’s that fantasy element that is ingeniously thrown in. Here, we have a famous fighter pilot who has become cursed and turned into a pig. This invites us to gain more insight into the character of Marco/Porco. There’s a lot of World War I military references scattered throughout the narrative, making me feel as if the film is much deeper and complex than its main story would suggest. Besides all this, it’s a rather beautiful film in its own regard, much aided by its themes of love and self-fulfillment, as well as its gorgeous musical score. Porco Rosso seems to be rather underrated, or at least underappreciated, but I believe it’s just as fine and lovely as anything else in Miyazaki’s repertoire.

Good Night, Good Morning (2011) – dir. Sudhish Kamath

  • Watched on 5 December
  • Format: YouTube (no word on a DVD/Blu-Ray release)
  • Rating: 8/10

About a third of the way into this obscure indie flick, one of the characters mentions how the situation at hand is a lot like Linklater’s Before Sunrise. The funny thing is that this moment happened right when I was thinking the exact thing about this film, Good Night, Good Morning. It takes place completely in one night, focusing on a phone conversation between two characters who had met very briefly at a bar earlier that night. What starts off as an innocent, spontaneous drunk-dial progressively turns into a meaningful heart-to-heart conversation. The journey is enthralling the whole way through.

I don’t think I would love the film nearly as much if not for the clever, thoughtful ways the narrative utilizes its simplicity. Slowly and slowly, we begin to learn more about these two people, and the connection that viewers form with the two coincide with the closeness that grows amongst them both. It really is a magical experience that really took me by surprise. The dialogue felt completely natural and realistic. It even hit kinda close to home for me in a few ways. But while it isn’t an absolute masterpiece in any sense of the phrase, it really is a sweet unique kind of romance film that is well worth the watch.

At Berkeley (2013) – dir. Frederick Wiseman

  • Watched on 6 December
  • Format: on screen – Roxie Theater @ SF
  • Rating: 9/10

Boy, there’s a lot to take in with this one. At Berkeley is documentary film veteran Frederick Wiseman’s latest effort, taking a multi-dimensional look at the famous Berkeley campus in Northern California. What impressed me the most about this film is just how much access the filmmaker was able to attain in his attempts to paint a full portrait of the university’s rich cultural history. From classroom lectures to administrative meetings, virtually every angle is covered here, with the hot button topics of budget cuts and college education particularly held under the spotlight. In traditional Wiseman fashion, he takes on a strictly fly-on-the-wall approach to his filmmaking, devoid of his own personal commentary, letting the camera show it how it is. Peppered within these lengthy monologues are shots of the beautiful Berkeley campus and student extracurricular activities.

The documentary runs at about four hours long and while it certainly feel like every minute of that, there is rarely a dull moment. It’s amazing how engrossing some of these lengthy discussions can be. I also didn’t expect them to enlightening on the nature of the country’s public education system. The pinnacle, of course, is in the final third, where we get a few lengthy scenes of student protests regarding tuition hikes and the overall degradation of their college. Since filming was done in 2009, the even larger Occupy revolts that are to come a couple years later aren’t covered; with this context, however, the images become even more fruitful. The concern that these individuals place toward their education highlight a system that is on the cusp of full-out collapse. It’s exciting yet scary, and Wiseman handles these issues with the utmost empathy and integrity.

Although the density of At Berkeley is intimidating, I think it’s fully worth the effort to make time for. It’s compelling, beautifully-shot, and although it may drag at bits, it’s an experience that is sure to stay in one’s mind for quite some time.

Clueless (1995) – dir. Amy Heckerling

  • Watched on 7 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Sharp, funny, and satirical, it’s no wonder how Amy Heckerling’s Clueless became one of the forerunners of the breakout of teen comedies in the 90’s. It is essentially based upon a Jane Austen novel, yet uses its structure loosely enough where it can flourish on its own originality. I’m always a fan of ladies excelling in comedy, and the three leads in this film are especially great at that. I’m especially partial to Brittany Murphy, whose breakout role is truly adorkable. The script, also written by Heckerling, contains some of the most infectious, absurd one-liners and phrases out there. It’s truly one-of-a-kind; like the Valley Girl of its generation. All in all, it’s good, indulgent, girly fun. And I want to raid Alicia Silverstone’s closet soooo badly!

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4 Responses to Weekly Film Log: December 1-7

  1. Glad you liked Good Night Good Morning! 🙂 I love being surprised by thoughtful reviews.

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