Weekly Film Log: January 12-18

No work and no school makes Lyzette an over-caffeinated movie-crazed gal.

Working Girl (1988) – dir. Mike Nichols

  • Watched on 12 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

Working Girl is a pleasant sort of film, though undoubtedly one of the weirdest Best Picture nominees out there. I wasn’t expecting it to be too much, and with that being said, it fulfilled my expectations completely. Melanie Griffith plays her role here with dignity and grace, though I suppose she could have been a bit less flat at bits, specifically at the parts that required her to exert more emotion than normal. I was surprised to see Sigourney Weaver nail her wildly comedic role, as I’m only familiar with her in more serious, straight-faced roles. She was exactly what her role called for, and then some; I just loved her biting humor.

Harrison Ford was probably the hottest thing in 1988, so of course he’s in this film. And he was alright, playing handsome, successful, often conveniently-shirtless businessman pretty well. Apart from everything else, this is just what one would expect from a romantic comedy from the 80s. It is, however, worth watching, as it has its own kind of charm, and a pleasant, satisfying script to match. I’m a bit biased with these kinds of flicks, but it definitely seems to possess a flair of rewatchability all its own. Formulaic, yet fun.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – dir. David Lowery

  • Watched on 13 January
  • Format: Blu-Ray
  • Rating: 6/10

There’s so much to admire about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, especially as David Lowery doesn’t have much other feature-length directions under his belt. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the acting is all done marvelously. Particular praise from me goes toward Casey Affleck and Keith Carradine. It’s slow, dreamy pace at times gets jarred by the intense realistic violence at its core that bubbles up in quite shocking ways. In such respects, it succeeds greatly.

However, the film is unfortunately held back by a sadly conventional plot that rarely makes the story of the key couple very interesting. It very much wants to be a Malick film, especially taking notes from Badlands in mood and substance. But apart from a few aforementioned moments of trauma and violence, the emotional center of this film isn’t exactly demonstrated in the most meaningful ways. It’s beautiful on an aesthetic level, but without that certain special element of humanity, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels rather superficial and, ultimately, empty and cold.

Museum Hours (2013) – dir. Jem Cohen

  • Watched on 13 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

In terms of its plot, nothing much happens in Museum Hours. Essentially, two people meet at a museum and commence in a friendship, with discussion about their lives, reflections, and meditations on art. Beyond this, however, it is a film that is brimming with more life and vivacity than may be apparent at its surface. It brings up questions and reflections on the relationship between art and life, particularly the art of the big-name dead guys whose works fill prestigious galleries all around the world. It reminds us that these works of art did not just appear out of thin air; rather, the working hands behind them were attached to real, living, breathing human beings with genuine inspirations. And their inspirations were life itself.

Thus, it progresses to show just how meaningful to modern society these artworks – and, moreover, art as a whole – really is. As day-to-day living and personal perspective was reembodied in unique ways then, so it continues now. I loved the slow pace this film gave off, presenting muted images of notable pieces of art in ways that help to illuminate the fine beauty of their existence. Its minimalist cinematography and acting really worked to its benefit as well. There were moments where it seemed the message of the film was annoyingly spoon-fed to its audience, rather than allowing itself the means of expression in much more subtler ways. But I digress. Museum Hours may not affect every viewer in nearly the same ways, but it is its own unique thread of narrative that remains fascinating – to me, at least – from beginning to end.

La mala educación (Bad Education) (2004) – dir. Pedro Almodóvar

  • Watched on 13 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Who knew that Almodóvar could do sexy crime drama so well? Bad Education tells a tale of a murder mystery that is highlighted by transsexuality, love, and abuse – topics that aren’t quite so foreign to Almodóvar’s style of writing. What makes this film so unique from this repertoire is just how complex the story is. While works likeAll About My Mother and Talk to Her introduced well-written, flesh-out characters and personalities, Bad Education demonstrates this through its story, which frankly can be a bit hard to follow once its twists are introduced. After some time, however, I was obliged to just ease along with the film; eventually, it all fell into place, and I was able to appreciate it for the well-executed piece of art it is.

It goes without saying that Gael García Bernal gives an outstanding performance with his multi-faceted role, but the other major performers – particularly Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, and Francisco Boira – all go above and beyond their parts. I guess what turned me off a bit were some of the awkward tonal shifts that went on through the film. At bits, I wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a sensual art flick or a crime narrative. Although this is hardly the fault of the film itself, as it was paced nicely and offered a fair amount of satisfying surprises along the way. Its meta-commentary compliments such aforementioned mood changes in ways that make it seem almost completely natural. Talk to Her still remains my very favorite Almodóvar film, and while I was slightly disappointed that this film didn’t “click” with me the way the former did, it certainly is well-devised, sensitively-treated, and a fine member of his dense filmography.

Jagten (The Hunt) (2013) – dir. Thomas Vinterberg

  • Watched on 14 January
  • Format: iTunes rental
  • Rating: 8/10

Knowing next to nothing about The Hunt before going in, I had been told beforehand that it would infuriate me. And infuriate me it did. I’m not familiar with Festen, but I was struck by the level of intensity that the film takes with its narrative, while also handling its subject matter very sensitively. The cinematography of this film is great, showing things in ways to make them seem as realistic as possible. And I probably wouldn’t be the first to praise the talents of Mads Mikkelsen, who drives the film along with his frustrating, unfair plight. I’d also like to point out that the young Annika Wedderkopp also does a tremendous job. Although most scenes require her to be little else than a catalyst for all events that follow, she has moments of quiet intensity that cause everything else around her to tense up in ambiguous enigma.

Overall, the film painfully and accurately teases out the downsides of a society that values a “guilty until proven innocent” system of discipline. We see our protagonist make the gradual downfall from charismatic everyman to hated perpetrator, all via a progression of false accusations that are beyond his control. It’s a frustrating experience – but rewardingly so. Although the ending isn’t quite as strong as I would have preferred – especially given the consistent potency of the rest of the film – it certainly shows some fine craft at work, from both the hands of the filmmaker and the talents of the performers.

The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut) (2013) – dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, & Anonymous

  • Watched on 15 January
  • Format: iTunes rental
  • Rating: 10/10

There are very few instances (if any?) that I could safely describe a documentary film as “surreal”. The Act of Killing, however, is one that is most deserving of such a definition. It left me shocked, bewildered, infuriated, and speechless. It’s a starling reminder of the truly dreadful, inhumane parts of the world that still still prescribes its injustice as the norm. The ridiculousness and bizarreness of it all – along with the fact that such a film could even exist in the first place – hits us like a slap to the face. As I’m writing this, the painful sting is still apparent.

The premise seems almost made up. Here we have the closest, most vivid account of a real-life group of mass murderers than we’re probably ever going to get. While the film refuses to glorify this all, the fact that the country praises such mass extermination of communists so freely and openly makes it hard to escape. The country seems trapped inside a bubble, an alternate reality where such injustices not only go unpunished, but are encouraged and instilled into everyday life.

Anwar Congo is the head of this narrative, seeming to possess a messiah-like public and self-image that is highlighted by his charisma, his charm, that infectious twinkle in his eye. Yet it is with this nonchalant demeanor that he openly tells of the brutal executions he had accomplished in his heyday. This, I think, is where the most disturbing contrasts of the film come into play. It’s absurd to the Western imagination just how someone could directly and actively contribute to the slaughtering of hundreds of his own people, yet also sees himself as Sidney Poitier. Our views of such brutality are connoted by images of mean-looking, powerful white men, extermination camps, mass graves… yet, here’s a man who looks like he could be anyone’s sweet grandfather. It’s a thin line that the film intentionally blurs, making the reality of the whole work all the more discomforting.

The amazing thing about this film is how the subject matter is implemented in such ways that it is never sensationalized. The crucial detail that THIS IS REALITY is subtle in the context of the film, yet forever burning in the back of our skulls. The substance is surreal, hallucinogenic, and further illuminated by the cinematography, which is often rather breathtaking and beautiful. The final third, however, is where all the weight sets in, and while I won’t speak any details, I will say that it is one of the most powerful, shocking endings I’ve seen in any documentary. It’s hard to say that this is my favorite film of 2013 (I’m still partial to the cuddly bittersweetness of Her), but it’s certainly the most profound viewing experience I’ve had from the year. It’s one of the most important films to come out in quite a while, and it earns my highest of recommendations.

Blood Simple (1984) – dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

  • Watched on 15 January
  • Format: Blu-Ray
  • Rating: 8/10

Blood Simple has got to be one of the most solid debut efforts of any filmmaker that went on to consistent greatness. Presented in a dense package of delicious slow-burn neo-noir, it fully takes advantage of the “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling. It’s sleek and stylish, though not without a generous share of its crime narrative strung together by a serious of misunderstandings and significant cynicism. There are no pretenses, no wild twists, no over-the-top action sequences; just good old-fashioned, hard-boiled, pulpy, immersive thrills. And it all works out so very, very perfectly.

What I find most impressive, I think, is just how trim and tight a lot of the technical aspects are. Some of the editing choices felt a bit unusual to me, but I think the way it’s all held together by its very splendid sound design, which pulses as the plot moves forward and makes such cuts meaningful. Even the dialogue has its fair share of classic Coen wit, the most notable of which can be found in its tremendous closing line. It’s a bleak, grim kind of film, which great performances and an unmistakably polished aesthetic that, coupled with its prominent pessimism and formidable narrative, makes for a genuinely terrific, traditional neo-noir. Glad to see more good things have come from this stunning debut.

The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (1993) – dir. Richard Williams

  • Watched on 15 January
  • Format: YouTube
  • Alternate cut complied by Garrett Gilchrist
  • Rating: 8/10

Pardon my French, but this is bullshit. As a lover of animation, the fact that someone’s artistic vision – one that they toiled over for a good part of their adult life – was seized away from them for selfish monetary reasons, leaving behind only a husk of what their original ambitions would have developed into – this makes my blood boil. Fortunately, within the past decade, Garrett Gilchrist has put together an unofficial reconstruction of what Williams’ original premise would have ripened into – thus, the Recobbled Cut. This “final” product isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it does give us a rough idea of what could have been had the unfortunate circumstances surrounding this ambitious idea not come into play.

For one thing (and probably the most obvious thing), the animation here is absolutely fantastic. The backgrounds alone often resemble some ungodly combination of Persian decor and M.C. Escher works of art. And it doesn’t stop there. A lot of the fast-moving action and chase sequences simply boggle the mind with their complexity. My ignorance couldn’t even begin to fathom how one even imagines some of these sequences, let alone put it on paper in such an effective manner. The plot even resolves itself through what is essentially a lengthy, drawn-out Rube Goldberg sequence – what more could you want??

However, it is the plot itself where I had the most problems. Unfortunately, due to the unfinished status of the material, much of the narrative felt very clumsy, with a storyline that sometimes felt that it wasn’t really going anywhere. Moreover, I thought the relationship between the Cobbler and Princess Yum-Yum was seriously underdeveloped. However, I hold these complaints at an utmost minority, since I’m sure that much of it isn’t at the fault of the film itself. But once again, since we could never really know how things could have been, the best we could do is work with the material that’s accessible at the moment. It was a very frustrating watch for this reason.

But regardless of this disconnect, the voice acting was still very well-done, with special regards to Vincent Price, who was just a delight. The character of the Cobbler is very reminiscent of Chaplin’s Tramp character, and the personalities of him and the Thief were given a delightful quirkiness, replete with an almost unexpected sense of humor. As a whole and in spite of its unforeseen incompleteness, it’s a wonderful work of art. A kind soul has made all parts of the Recobbled Cut available on YouTube, so I urge everyone to watch this gem of a film. Artistically, it’s truly one-of-a-kind.

The Croods (2013) – dir. Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders

  • Watched on 15 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 5/10

I only really watched The Croods to up the level of animation on my 2013 viewings and frankly, I can’t say I didn’t get what I was expecting. Every now and then, Dreamworks Animation surprises me with something that is relatively pleasant and non-disposable. Unfortunately, this rarely happens, and while The Croods has some inkling of a spiritual/existential background to it – the likes of which can really only be found in the more “mature” works of Pixar – it still suffers immensely from its debunked humor in attempts to appeal to the younger demographic of viewers. Essentially, the punchlines of the vast majority of its jokes can be summed up by the mere fact that our characters are cavepeople; of COURSE they can’t fathom the idea of fire or shoes or pets or photography – they’re CAVEPEOPLE! Funny!

The story is also vastly formulaic, with forced third-act development of characters we never found interesting in the first place. The writing is vapid to the point where the characters come off as mind-bogglingly ignorant, rather than realistically naive. Once again, this is all for the sake of its humor, which gets old really, really quickly. Nonetheless, this isn’t a terrible film; just completely forgettable in terms of its story and writing. Its possible saving graces come in the form of its beautiful animation – which makes me really wish I had seen this in a theater – and the voice acting by Nicolas Cage who… well, of course he can make a stubborn caveman somewhat intriguing. He’s Nicolas Cage!

Secrets & Lies (1996) – dir. Mike Leigh

  • Watched on 16 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 9/10

As I watch more and more of the films of Mike Leigh, one fact becomes increasingly certain: he has a real knack and talent for directing actors. Secrets & Lies is, so far, probably the most evident of this, as his characters here are emitted by way of a group of absolutely splendid, realistic performances. Seriously, it’s as if “one-dimensional” is a term that means absolutely nothing to Leigh. Every one of these individuals are wonderfully complex, wrapped up in a whirlwind of hidden secrets that, as their lives progress, have had a profound effect on the foundation of their familial bonds. And as the film moves forward and ties and rediscovered, these pressures seep through, resulting into the explosion of emotion in the final third’s climax. It’s all paced so wonderfully, and every facet of it – from the acting and direction to the writing, brimming with emotion – is just so perfect.

One of the more spectacular things about this film is that while the issues and complexities that come up are undoubtably serious and human, there is not a moment where the film attempts to be manipulative about its material. It’s through the various revelations and teasing-out of its characteristics that we come to confide in the rawness of its substance, as subtle as it is at times. There’s a particular moment where one of the characters broke down in tears and, while not completely revealing what’s on her mind, you just know. The way these people’s stories just feels absolutely personal is something that I think few directors could accomplish so effectively. Fortunately, Leigh handles it with the utmost sensitivity, resulting in a league of truly fine cinema.

The Wild Bunch (1969) – dir. Sam Peckinpah

  • Watched on 16 January
  • Format: Blu-Ray
  • Rating: 8/10

I’m not a very huge fan of westerns, but in regards to them, I usually prefer the gritty stylishness of spaghetti westerns over the more subtle flair of John Ford. Nothing against the latter; it’s just what I seem to go for. With that being said, The WIld Bunch was my first Peckinpah western and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. For some reason, I’m partial to stories of aging individuals in a particular fields, trying to cope with the changing world around them. The Wild Bunch is exactly this, and while it’s certainly not perfect, there is still quite a lot to admire.

One thing I noticed right away was how noticeably more violent than other westerns of this era I have seen. Sure there were shoot-outs and killings in older westerns, but it was in this one where the violent moments felt more raw and – despite the stylishness of it all – kind of realistic. I’ve heard that this film is a huge influence to a lot of the less-polished films of the genre that are to come, and it’s certainly apparent. Also noticeable was quite a number of interesting technical and stylistic choices. A lot of the more quicker, fast-paced action scenes were accompanied by very quick editing, similar to Soviet montage, where some shots only last a couple of frames. Overall, however, it’s quite a solid western, and while I don’t seem to love it as much as most seem to, I truly admire its craft and appreciate its influence.

Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco (a.k.a. Pixote) (1981) – dir. Hector Babenco

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

Pixote first came to my attention when, earlier this year, Harmony Korine named it as his “favorite film of all time”. After I finally got my hands on a copy and watched it, I could certainly see how it could be. It paints a disturbingly vivid portrait of the devastating amount of corruption going on in Brazil at the time, much of which reverberates to the present day. It follows a group of young boys and a trans-girl during their stay in an oppressive, dangerous juvenile reformatory. Yet even after their escape around the middle of the film, the outside world gives them little option to better their lives. They are doomed to a world of corruption and depravity due to forces far beyond their control.

This is certainly not an easy film, and I’d say it truly succeeds as a fierce criticism of the tangled society of Brazilian culture. The level of violence and grittiness portrayed on screen is shocking and certainly not for the squeamish. Nonetheless, the amazing how well these actors – all under the age of 18 – were able to handle their heavy material, especially considering that almost none of them had previous experience. Even more harrowing is how, in result of their criminal lifestyles, many of them died at very young ages; further demonstrating just how closely life imitates art. Though the film is rather harrowing in its own respects, both in its valiant realism and its unrelenting cynicism. Although it’s gotten its fair share of positive reception, it seems to be relatively forgotten, which is a shame. Pixote further reminds me that I desperately need to check out more from Brazil’s unique brand of rebellious cinema.

Ordinary People (1980) – dir. Robert Redford

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

The level of emotion that was just so ever-present in Ordinary People absolutely blew me out of the water. It’s a poignant look at how a tragedy could so deeply affect the very foundation of what ties every member of the family together. It’s a rather ordinary movie with an ordinary plot, but what makes this stand out especially are the powerhouse performances given by every individual involved. Mary Tyler Moore’s performance as the painfully distraught mother was what initially impressed me, as this fully presented the level of range she could truly possess. Donald Sutherland does quite a fine job here as well, in a role that brims with desperation, pain, and hopelessness over keeping everything around him secure and insurmountable.

But as the film progressed at its slow pace and the character of Conrad was steadily teased out, I found myself becoming more and more amazed at Timothy Hutton. He truly demonstrated his skills as a young talent, playing a character who held the weight of his inner and outer issues upon his shoulders. His anguish is what drove the film along, and it is what made the film consistently intriguing and engrossing. It’s a narrative that peels backs its many emotional layers to reveal an inescapable situational core. It is a dismantling of the nuclear family, breathing life into the superficial images we see in less proficient family films. Although to me it felt a bit too stagey for my liking at points, it wouldn’t be fair at all to call this a “flawed” film. It’s one of the most emotionally-charged Best Picture winners I’ve seen, and certainly quite a draining – yet rewarding – experience.

Pariah (2011) – dir. Dee Rees

  • Watched on 17 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 9/10

Here’s a coming-of-age tale that I think needs to be seen more in mainstream cinema: one that follows a young, gay female of color. Truly, I think this is a brave tale to tell, especially considering the stigma that is placed on black women exploring their sexuality (usually represented as dirty, immoral, and generally lacking the same mobility that white women and especially white men have in movies). Nonetheless, the story of our protagonist here is presented with an utmost sensitivity and sympathy for her daily issues that hit her at multiple angles. The narrative very genuinely deals with her sexuality in rather realistic ways. Although she is out to her friends, she expresses very real doubts about her presentation from time to time. It really subverts the hypersexualization of black women that I see all-too often in cinema; here, she is low-maintenance and bit shy – in other words, she is human.

Of course, one of the biggest issues surrounding Alike is her already-rocky family, whose foundation slowly deteriorates as her sexuality becomes an ever-increasing complication. Once again, it’s remarkable how sensitively this was all treated, never dehumanizing the subject. Since her family is religious, the aggressive push-and-pull of these elements are apparent, yet never shoved in our face so obviously. The conflicts simply continue to build and build, resulting in a tragic conclusion that, sadly, isn’t all too uncommon with queer individuals. It’s definitely a heartbreaking watch, but it never sucks the life out of the characters or turns into an artifice of melodrama. It simply feels all too real

Adepero Oduye completely blew me away with her performance here. Her plights felt completely genuine, and her mere presence engrossed me with every scene of the film. Her sheer magnetism is apparent and I hope she does more great things in the near future. The film as a whole, however, is unique in the sense that it feels absolutely personal and honest. Every interaction is believable and the emotional arcs moved at a natural pace. It’s clear that director Dee Rees poured her heart and soul into this work, and the results are beautiful. More than anything, I’d like to see more characters like Alike and more films like Pariah. I think contemporary cinema could really learn a lot from something like this.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) – dir. David France

  • Watched on 17 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

The courage of the individuals who, as outlined in How to Surivive a Plague, keep up an ongoing two-and-a-half-decade-long fight for accessible AIDS treatment, is insurmountable. This documentary combines talking heads interviews with archival footage to tell the history of ACT UP’s struggles, and the results are marvelous. The rallies and demonstrations shown are headed by hundreds of individuals who probably possess more courage than I could ever hope to attain. The fact that a good deal of them are infected with the HIV virus makes their pain incredibly hard to imagine – yet we’re with them the whole way.

The message this documentary emits is powerful and unrelenting, exposing the wrongs and disappointments that have been presented by a number of systems responsible for helping these stricken individuals. The many speakers we hear and interesting and offer a truly compelling look at the crisis and issues surrounding it. My one quibble is that we only really hear from the gay white male perspective of the issue, not so much the wider demographic that the virus undoubtably affects. After all, black men and women are probably suffering from AIDS at much higher percentages. The opportunity for a wider perspective on the issue was lost; however, it still remains a rather compelling, very well-edited documentary that should be mandatory viewing for anyone intrigued or affected by the issue of the AIDS epidemic.

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