Weekly Film Log: December 15-21 & December 22-28

Due to all the usual hectic chaos of the holidays, I’ve been a little bit behind on updating my blog with what I’ve seen recently. Nonetheless, I aim to get back on track right after this post. Here, I’ll cover what I’ve watched in the past TWO weeks. Be prepared for lots of movie goodies!

Nebraska (2013) – dir. Alexander Payne

  • Watched on 15 December
  • Format: Theater – Landmark, Embarcadero @ SF
  • Rating: 8/10

My history with writer-director Alexander Payne hasn’t been the greatest. While I did like Election, I couldn’t quite get into About Schmidt and I kind of hated Sideways. With that being said, I really enjoyed Nebraska, making me feel that it’s Payne as a writer that I can’t quite get behind. Nonetheless, this film is really rewarding, character-driven drama/dark comedy. Bruce Dern gives one of the most amazing performances in any film I’ve seen all year, successfully portraying an individual who is stubborn and one-track-minded, yet broken and filled with inner desolation. Additionally, June Squibb steals damn near every scene she’s in, giving one of the funniest performances of 2013 that is also surprisingly heartfelt. The substance of the film really does pay the utmost respect to the talented performers behind the screen. The writing is compelling and well-paced, but also weirdly bleak, this being emphasized by the flat B&W cinematography that permeates the film. I expect this to be a strong contender at the Academy Awards, and I feel it would be completely worth it.

The Ruling Class (1972) – dir. Peter Medak

  • Watched on 16 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

I decided to watch this film in honor of the great Peter O’Toole who had just recently passed away.

Dear lord. If anyone had told me that this was a film where O’Toole plays a noble earl who thinks he’s Jesus Christ AND Jack the Ripper, I would have watched this years ago.

Basically, it plays off as a madcap critique of the noble classes (I think?) through a series of really strange moments, led by O’Toole who plays a comically unstable rich man. From what I’ve heard, this is possibly his most off-the-wall performance he has ever done; I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most flat-out insane performances I’ve ever watched. His line-reading is just on key, which is amazing considering the material he has to work with. He even spontaneously breaks into song at more than a few instances, though I would hesitate to call this film a musical. Having seen this film, Lawrence of Arabia, and (admittedly) little else, it’s led me to truly believe that he may be one of the most versatile actors to have ever lived.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn’t nearly as great as this performance. At over two-and-a-half hours long, it felt quite overlong; at the very least, not very well-paced, as there’s only so much of this type of material to stretch out before it really feels tedious. It does wear thin after the first half, and the way it ends doesn’t feel very rewarding, after having to endure such madness for the bulk of the film. Nonetheless, I am very happy to have finally watched it. I’d say that Peter O’Toole’s performance being the shining gem of The Ruling Class makes the experience at least somewhat satisfying. Recommended for any of all fans of this late, great actor/individual.

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) (1974) – dir. Werner Herzog

  • Watched on 16 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

Leave it to Werner Herzog, master of dreary narrative and slow-paced tension, to conjure a story like this. Specifically, our titular character is a man who had spent the first seventeen years of his life devoid of any and all contact with other humans and society. The first half of the film resents the pain-staking efforts many individuals take in attempting to “civilize” him. Through these moments, the monotony and sameness of everyday culture is revealed. In some ways it becomes a sort of a dark, dark comedy; specifically in moments where he cannot work within the harsh constrictions of etiquette or thinks outside supposedly complex modes of philosophy. In particular, his “tree-frog” response to a question of logic given to him by a member of the elite is a highlight of the film.

Despite such insight, it never quite reaches the level of intrigue and potential for mesmerizing audiences that Herzog’s best films accomplish. Its story still feels very much like an incomplete work; by the final third, it’s almost as if all that’s possible for a film of this nature has been said, and it does feel like it drags for the rest of its duration. Still, it’s very much an atmosphere-driven film – as with much of his work – with Bruno S. giving quite a worthwhile, compelling performance as this under-developed, deranged, somewhat brilliant individual. Even if Kaspar Hauser isn’t quite as amazing and insightful as I would have wanted, it’s still very clear that Herzog is a master of narrative, this fact ever-present in even his not-so-great works.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003) – dir. Guy Maddin

  • Watched on 17 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

In the late Roger Ebert’s review of The Saddest Music in the World, he states, “You have never seen a film like this before, unless you have seen other films by Guy Maddin”. Needless to say, I agree. Maddin is probably one of the more relentlessly inventive filmmakers of the modern era, and The Saddest Music in the World. Is one of his greats. Anyone familiar with his films like Brand Upon the Brain! or My Winnipegknows that he has a fascination for the silent film aesthetic – particularly Soviet montage editing and Expressionist imagery – and implements them seamlessly in his films. Notable in this film is the intentionally grainy way it is shot, as well as the slight mismatching in vocal dubbing.

This movie is wonderful. It is essentially a love story/tragedy set during the Great Depression, but the stylization and truly bizarre material makes it feel like it’s on an entirely different planet. And thus is the flair of Guy Maddin. You never quite know what to expect with his films, except for pure, unadulterated weirdness. It helps that the entire cast is on par with their performances, making the film more than just an experiment in cool retro effects. It is often brimming in melodrama, which is a risky move, but it totally works here. In a strange way, the film felt oddly nostalgic; as if I had seen it a million times over, yet only for the first time. Though this is hardly a complaint – rather, it is Maddin’s uniquely crafty sensibility at full play. I can tell he had a lot of fun with this one. I did as well.

Breakin’ (1984) – dir. Joel Silberg

  • Watched on 19 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

This film isn’t well-acted or well-written by any conventional definition of the phrases. The story is laughably unrealistic and lazily hangs around a variety of dance montages that make up the bulk of the film. So why did I enjoy this film? Easy: the film sought out to be nothing more than a glorification of the breakdancing culture, and it did exactly that. When it isn’t granting us access to its fun, campy narrative, it is presenting a troupe of truly talented dancers showing their stuff. It may be because I have a thing for musicals, but I found myself really entranced by these dance montages, as they were never boring. But on terms of its narrative, I personally loved how its blanket message was essentially anti- rich white men. A message that is buried underneath all that fun and dancing, of course. It’s mostly enjoyable as a fascinating time capsule of a very specific time and place in culture. The music is great and the dancing is fun as heck. And really, what more could you ask for in a film like this?

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

  • Watched on 19 December
  • Format: Theater – Landmark, Embarcadero @ SF
  • Rating: 9/10

Perhaps I’m a bit biased about my love for this film. For one thing, the Coen brothers are two of my favorite filmmakers working today. Secondly, I love folk music and the whole U.S. in the 1960s atmosphere, and this film is largely driven by both of those. Thirdly, character studies are my Achille’s heel (well, one of many). Finally, I like cats. Enough said.

I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t been extremely fond of the output of the filmmaking team the past few years. Which is one reason why I think I found Inside Llewyn Davis so completely invigorating. The titular character felt completely realistic and tragically relatable, due in a huge part to Oscar Isaac, who definitely owns every moment of his screen time. Another huge driving force is the music, which captures the corresponding moods absolutely perfectly. From the beautiful, melancholic “Fare Thee Well” to the infectious “Please Mr. Kennedy”, this soundtrack is among the best to come out all year and really moves the film along at a relaxing, steady pace.

I guess if I had any complaints, it would be that I wished some of the supporting performances had a little more time than they were granted. In particular, the film needed much more Carey Mulligan, whose brief appearances were biting and hilarious in all the best ways. Also, I think the flick wandered aimlessly a bit around the final third, when it felt like it wasn’t sure how to build a resolution. As a whole, however, it’s a wonderful final product, and one of the best musical-related films to have come out recently. It’s so glad to see the Coens dwelling in mind-blowing territory once again.

Splendor in the Grass (1961) – dir. Elia Kazan

  • Watched on 24 December
  • Format: TCM showing
  • Rating: 7/10

Nothing could have prepared me for how unrelentingly dark Splendor in the Grass is. Covering a story of sex and insanity between two teenaged lovers, it is a film that certainly isn’t afraid to deal with ghastly subjects. Its depth is pretty amazing for its time, considering that it came out the same year that West Side Story (also starring Natalie Wood) captivated audiences with its very different tale of romance. I can’t exactly say the story was very realistic, but it is impressive with its willingness to dive into its depressing subject matter mercilessly.

This is possibly Wood’s greatest performance. It’s the role that truly expanded her versatility beyond the “child actor” range. Her range of character and emotion is spectacular, and she totally steals the show. While none of the other performances were quite her level, what really stood out for me was the level of hypocrisy and double-standard regarding sex, much of which is relevant today. The truly constricting advice that the teenagers’ parents really displays the cultural background that motivates the 1960’s rebelliousness that defines the Baby Boomer generation. For that, I appreciate the significance of such a film, as well as the risky content that is to be repeated in later teen sex dramas and comedies.

I love Elia Kazan as a director, but frankly I don’t find this to be one of his better works. The second half isn’t quite on par with how great the film starts off. With the exception of Wood, the acting performances are a bit rusty. And honestly, I found the film to be rather spiteful, especially with regards to the fate of the two protagonists. I felt that there was a contextual message to be found in the lot, regarding the aforementioned conservative atmosphere of the drama, but it may have been hidden underneath the misfortune and depressing circumstances of our characters. Nonetheless, the content is worthwhile for the most part, and its status as a classic of its era is deserving.

Call Me Kuchu (2013) – dir. Malika Zouhali-Worrall & Katherine Fairfax Wright

  • Watched on 26 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

I don’t see many documentaries about homophobia and social justice overseas floating around (unless I’m just not looking in the right places). Nonetheless, I’m glad I stumbled across Call Me Kuchu, which documents the fight against an Ugandan bill set to make homosexuality punishable by law. While misguided at points and not quite instilled in the overall history of the nation, it offers a personal portrait into this struggle through numerous individuals deeply affected by the bill. There are also moments where we get intimate looks at the pro side of the bill, those of which are often deeply disturbing.

There’s something I find fascinating about documentaries that progress despite unforeseen circumstances while filming; last years Queen of Versailles is a good example of this. With Call Me Kuchu, it is the murder of the documentary’s subject that holds production at a standstill. The unpredictability of such a dreadful occurrence not only makes the narrative eerier, but also makes the film’s overall message far more profound. It is a film that fights for greater worldwide advocacy of social and personal justice. While it isn’t mind-blowing or even all that education, I really don’t think it needs to be. It captures the dismal corners of the world that allow for such things to happen, and announces that, even in this day and age, progression is merely a flash in the pan for many. It calls for action, doing so passionately and leaving quite a lasting impression.

In the Name of the Father (1993) – dir. Jim Sheridan

  • Watched on 27 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 9/10

Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father seems to be one of the more underappreciated Best Picture nominees, at least of the past two decades. I’m sure that he’s more appreciated in his home country of Ireland, but it seems that Sheridan is also one of the more underrated modern directors. This film is proof alone that the general public should recognize his work more often. It offers the tale of a true crime against humanity; the themes dealt with here being false accusations and imprisonment. Yet another film about the injustices of the judicial system, but this one having more meat on its bones. If there was one word to describe it, that word would be fuckinginfuriating.

This film proved to me just how multifaceted of a performer Daniel Day-Lewis is. As our protagonist, the falsely accused Gerry Conlon, he is absolutely genuine, well-rounded, and full of humanity. Even in these early days, he offers signs of exceptionality; personally, this may be my favorite performance of his. But that’s not to say anything less of anyone else here. Pete Postlethwaite offers a terrific supporting performance here, as Gerry’s father. The scenes between him and Day-Lewis are among the best in the whole movie, as their chemistry practically floats through the screen. These two performances alone act as a powerful driving force through the tense gripping narrative. There were multiple times where I found myself clinging to the edge of my seat, due to my being completely concerned with the outcomes of these characters’ trials. Only great acting can make one care so deeply about such people.

As I’d said before, this film is pretty anger-inducing. Based on the true stories of the Guildford Four, the idea that such travesties had occurred at the hands of those in power is inconceivable. A film that could make me so angry at such numerous moments is worthy of my utmost praise. Besides all of this, it is also well-paced and truly, truly passionate in its portrayal of its subjects. It goes to show that Jim Sheridan is a master at his talent of filmmaking. I’m really glad to have decided to get around to In the Name of the Father, and I do think it’s one of the better prison dramas out there. This should not be missed.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967) – dir. Jacques Demy

  • Watched on 27 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 5/10

I’m really saddened by my discontent for The Young Girls of Rochefort. Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has quickly become one of my very favorite musicals, and I’ve had pretty high hopes for this one. From the start, the aesthetic even seemed similar: lush scenery, vivid colors, dazzling widescreen cinematography, and beautiful costume designs. But alas, not even the inclusion of the always-superb Catherine Deneuve could save this one.

The music and dancing, though pleasant enough, didn’t quite add benefit the film in ways that the best musicals often do. It really did feel like this movie was simply riding on the coattails of Cherbourg, with a similar sing-song narrative progression, but much blander content. While Cherbourg had be completely enthralled by its intense melodrama, the characters of Rochefort had absolutely nothing that would entitle me to care about their “plights”. The story is rather boring, which makes its whimsical mood seem superficial, when it would otherwise be quite delightful.

The song and dance numbers are easy to hum along to, but don’t really add too much. I was also expecting Gene Kelly’s character to be more vital to the narrative, but tragically he proves to be one of the most uninteresting parts of the film, not to mention that his character enters the picture in one of the laziest, most clichéd ways imaginable. But while I did have my share of problems with the film, I didn’t quite hate it. It has its fair share of fun moments, particularly scattered through the first two thirds. Demy’s noticeable wane in quality, however, just plain disappointed me. I’d take Umbrellas over this flimsy flick any day.

Top Gun (1986) – dir. Tony Scott

  • Watched on 28 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 5/10

Maybe it’s because I’m not exactly in its target audience, but I don’t get the appeal of Top Gun. Nowadays, the attractiveness of the film seems to dwell on little more than camp value. Iconic scenes and lines of dialogue from the movie have been burned into mainstream society. Jokes have been built around the homoerotic subtext involving the many male characters of the film. In addition to this, we have fast planes, a ridiculous neon-laced sex scene, and a young Tom Cruise frequently flashing his pearly whites.

However, with exception of its novelty appeal, I didn’t find Top Gun very enjoyable. The story was flimsy and predictable, offering very little to a table than a conventional narrative arc and individuals that were mere husks of real characters. Its extravagance came off as annoyingly narcissistic; overall, just not a very enjoyable film. I think this may be the kind of flick that I would enjoy in a group or theater setting, where laughing at its unintentional humor feels more welcoming. For now, however, I’ve concluded that it’s just a bland film, and I cannot join in its love.

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984) – dir. Sam Firstenberg

  • Watched on 28 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

In contention for the most fun name for a sequel of all time, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, surprisingly, delivers rather well. It follows the general layout of the first film: hip breakdancing street kids vs. the old, rich, white men who want to interfere in their fun. And just like the first film, the actual narrative is thinly laid through the generous portions of music and dance montages, making it not so much about the story than about the importance and pleasure of dancing.

With a higher budget, however, this film brings a bit more to the table. A wider variety of locations and larger numbers of extras offer some pretty inventive dance sequences. A couple of my favorites are the scene at the hospital and the one where Turbo dances on the walls and ceilings. Overall, it’s all good fun. Once again, the characters and story are a bit too bland and one-dimensional to be incredibly profound. But with great music and talented dancers, this film, like its predecessor, proves to be entertaining in a time capsule sort of way; too fun to be wholly disposable.

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One Response to Weekly Film Log: December 15-21 & December 22-28

  1. Pingback: Films Like Dreams’ One Year Anniversary!!! | Films Like Dreams

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