Weekly Film Log: January 26 – February 1

Contrary to what I predicted last week, I was still able to get a lot of film-watching done last week, despite me embarking on the chaos that is my last semester of college (!!!!!). The catch? LOTS of short animated films, especially since Friday was the first day of my History of Animation course. Super excited for all the goodies that’ll come out of that one. However, since I am going to be busier with school, my reviews for these films will be about 50% short; a paragraph long instead of two. Hopefully y’all won’t be too sad about that.

But without further hesitation, here’s what I watched!

Waiting For Guffman (1996) – dir. Christopher Guest

  • Watched on 26 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

As my first Christopher Guest film (This is Spinal Tap only half-counts), I was pleasantly satisfied with Waiting For Guffman. It works successfully as a dry-of-wit satire of the middlest of the middle class, with writing that practically took me off guard with how clever it was. I loved how each individual character – despite what contribution he or she makes to the picture – has their own unique personality, but one that forms them into a mere caricature, rather than fully-formed human beings. This is hardly a complaint in this case, though. Its faux documentary style of storytelling feigns realism, and when it clashes with the absurdity of these personalities, that’s where the fun really begins. It’s almost as if I was watching people who lived on a completely different universe, oblivious to all that wasn’t their little hometown (some of them quite literally). And having them all participate in an absolutely bizarre talent show – well, that absolutely takes the cake. This film was consistently funny, unforgettably fun, and makes me all-too-eager to check out more of Guest’s films in the very near future.

Away From Her (2006) – dir. Sarah Polley

  • Watched on 27 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Although I really enjoyed her Stories We Tell from earlier last year, Away From Herstands as the one film that proves that I really need to check out Sarah Polley’s work. It is an aching, heart-breaking tale that deals with the issue of a spouse’s affliction with Alzheimer’s with the utmost sensitivity. But this film deviates from the normal, formulaic narrative arcs of similar stories by really fleshing out the issue with the level of complexity and emotion that such subject matter truly deserves. No amount of contrived, forced, artificial feeling is present here; the sheer motions of these instances passing by truly hurts to watch. Most of this is due to Julie Christie’s gem of a performance, giving her all to present her character with sense of realism that is tragically beautiful. It’s so tempting for a filmmaker to fall into the typical wavelength of situations and predictable outcomes with a narrative like this (for we all know what eventually happens to individuals with the disease). However, the magic of Polley’s writing keeps the journey an unpredictable one, swelling with loveliness as it progresses. It takes its opportunity to be more deep, compelling, complex, and charming, and runs with it to the very end.

The Lion in Winter (1968) – dir. Anthony Harvey

  • Watched on 27 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 9/10

Before The Lion in Winter, I never would’ve guessed that Hepburn and O’Toole would be an absolute match made in heaven! Here, I feel their performances totally mirror Taylor and Burton a lá Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with equal measures of bitterness and razor-sharp wit to go around. Every moment either or both of them are on screen is completely magical, which is nothing new for either of them, since they’re essentially perfect. Frankly, for me, when a film is this well-acted, well-produced, and well-written, historical accuracy can temporary fix itself on backburner. The complexity of the relationships present in this conflict of convoluted royalty is brought to their pinnacle through some excellent dialogue and emotional performances emitted by all involved. Moreover, the medieval settings truly work themselves to their fullest potential, with gorgeous cinematography to match. This is the kind of film that I think could definitely benefit with a Criterion restoration and release. It’s a bonafide classic that I really don’t see being talked about too often – and for shame.

Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro) (1980) – dir. François Truffaut

  • Watched on 28 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 6/10

I’m really disappointed with my disappointment over Truffaut’s The Last Metro. In many ways, it felt like a heavily-diluted Day For Night, only from within a theater, not a movie set, and set in WWII-era France. The drama is subdued, but to the point where it was just completely tensionless, emotionless, and, well, boring. Being set in Nazi-occupied Paris – a fact that is spoon-fed rather annoyingly at the very start of the film – I was hoping that some of the interesting narrative would derive from this vital point in history. Instead, we get one main story and a collection of other irrelevant plot arcs that, by the end, are just left hanging and unresolved, contributing nothing to the main narrative – which, by the way, resolves itself in the flimsiest manner possible. It seems that there is really no point in this taking place in WWII, besides for the chance to implicated snazzy period outfits. As a whole, The Last Metro is well-produced, well-acted, and looks lovely as a whole, but the payoff is practically non-existent and the story unwinds itself simply to result in a whole lot of nothing.

Moonstruck (1987) – dir. Norman Jewison

  • Watched on 28 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Moonstruck is not, by any stroke of the imagination, successful at being innovative or breathing new life into the tried and tested genre of romantic-comedy. What it does succeed at, however, is being a genuinely enjoyable addition to the genre, with compelling characters and a plot that, while predictable, is brought to life by the vibrant subplots that mesh wonderfully. The writing here isn’t exceptional, but hell, it’s good enough! While I don’t see anything rather Oscar-worthy about Cher’s performance, I thought she was quirky and likable to really get behind her as a strong protagonist. Altogether, it certainly is a film that captures the Italian-American experience particularly well, and I think that’s why it didn’t resonate with me so exceedingly well – it’s just something I’ve had zero experience with, on a personal experience at least. I still had a lot of fun with it though, mostly due to its intertwining plot lines and useful implementation of both Dean Martin and Italian opera numbers. Moonstruck, altogether, is a very sweet, idiosyncratic kinda film that is well worth the watch.

Topsy-Turvy (1999) – dir. Mike Leigh

  • Watched on 30 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

After my viewing of Topsy-Turvy, I realized that I’m particularly favorable toward Mike Leigh’s more bleaker, cynical films. It was a nice change of pace with this film, probably the most Luhrmann-esque of his works I’ve seen. The costumes and settings where absolutely splendid, truly capturing the Victorian age in the most flamboyant, lovely way possible. It is, of course, kept grounded in reality by the writing and performances given by the actors, who also did all their own singing. While there are a few rather sketchy, rusty performances given, they are all rather pleasant for the most part, and every scene of musical splendor certainly feels like a true-to-life, ambitious stage production. It’s definitely a bit out of left field for Leigh, and despite the grandiose aesthetic and sprawling material, this felt a little more colder to me than, say, Secrets & Lies, which is more subdued but contains a greater amount of warmth and humanism. I appreciate everything about Topsy-Turvy, but it may be a bit too tedious and calculated for my own personal tastes. Nonetheless, another fine addition to my journey through the Leighs!

The following fourteen animated short films were watched entirely in one sitting on January 31st, during my History of Animation class. They were all watched in the Coppola Theater at SFSU. None of these reviews will have associating screencaps because 1) some of them are rare enough where I wouldn’t be able to find any online, 2) there are a couple whose identity remain a bit dubious to me and I need clarification from my instructor who showed them to us, and 3) I’m really anal: it’s all or nothing!

1) Sisyphus (1974) – dir. Marcell Jankovics

  • Rating: 6/10

This is a rather interesting short animated film from Hungary that depicts, in its own way, a retelling of the myth of its titular figure. What’s interesting here is the stark disregard for physical detail and color, with more of an emphasis on lines and shadows. It’s an interesting sort of style, and the film is paced well enough for it to remain effective through its entirety. The character is given next to no personality, with the exception of a few rather realistic grunts and pants, adding much weight to the plight of the tale. While it doesn’t offer much of anything new to the table, it’s nonetheless a rather interesting retelling of the myth and a fine – albeit plain – work of art. Watch it here!

2) The Crows (1967)  – dir. Eliot Noyes(?)

  • Rating: 7/10

There’s a bit of confusion regarding this short that I’d like to clarify with my professor, so I’ll probably be updating this space in a bit. Basically, it’s a film that is very similar to Sisyphus, but with the inverse – that is, there is a profound lack of detail like the first film, but this time the dark shadows completely fill in the empty spaces. We only see a few black figures and shapes – some static, some frenetic – but through the implication of sound, we could infer which are human and which are not. It’s a pretty cool form of animation, actually; it almost draws back to the cave drawings of the olden times. But here, we have a bit of a story, involving a man entering foreign territory and getting punished for it. It’s a bit of a dark tale, ending with the man’s dead body being devoured by the titular crows. It’s nothing profoundly special, but pretty interesting from an artistic perspective.

3) [unknown title] (maybe Kamako?) [unknown year] – dir. Yoji Curi

  • Rating: 5/10

Once again, I’m going to have to clarify with my professor on the title of this one. This is my introduction to legendary Japanese animator Yoji Curi, and boy was this a doozy. It’s essentially a kooky, overly-quirky “love” story between a guy and a girl who just won’t leave him the heck alone. And the whole tale is told through song, kinda like a music video. While the animation itself is colorful and fine (VERY much a precursor for the weird anime of today), I found the music annoying in a childish, merciless earworm kind of way. Plus the story itself was tinged with sexism that made me not the least bit uncomfortable. It’s not a short that I particularly hate, but it certainly doesn’t leave me anticipating more of Curi’s stuff.

4) Possessions (2013) – dir. Shuhei Morita

  • Rating: 8/10

Possessions is the beautifully-animated, wonderfully spooky short that has recently been nominated for an Oscar. It follows a man who has become held captive by a slew of spirits when he has invaded upon their seclusion. It takes from much philosophy of Japanese folklore, particularly in the belief that livings spirits dwell in everything, even inanimate objects. Much of the surreal, kinda goofy type of imagery brings to mind the ambitious vision of Satoshi Kon, who would have been absolutely proud of the art direction present here. Every frame is composed with the utmost skill and eye for beauty, even in the most mundane and broken things. The plot propels itself wonderfully and even offers a few twists and turns along the way. Though I haven’t seen many of the other nominated shorts, and I’m pretty sure this one won’t be getting the award, it’s definitely my personal pick thus far. It’s lovely at times and deranged in others, definitely showcasing some of the best traits that Japanese animation has to offer.

5) Dollar Dance (1943) – dir. Norman McLaren

  • Rating: 6/10

Having seen quite a lot of McLaren’s work, I consider him one of my very favorite animators; I don’t think he gets quite enough credit for how eclectic he is. Dollar Dance, though not exactly a favorite of mine, serves to further prove this point. It’s essentially a School House Rock-esque musical film, where a singing and dancing dollar sign instructs the audience on wartime inflation and price control. Its vibrant colors and super-catchy tune are notable, but also how many of the points that our character makes still ring true to this day. This film isn’t particularly funny or clever in ways that we would expect, but I think it’s a fine relic of Canadian animation nonetheless. Watch it here!

6) Betty’s Blues (2013) – dir. Rémi Vandenitte

  • Rating: 6/10

This film is pretty cool in the ways that it uses different animation techniques to imply the passage of time, combining clay animation (to imply the present) with hand-drawn animation (during flashback scenes). It tells of how a black guitar player loved, lost, and prevailed, reflecting this all in the music he plays for casual bars and restaurants. The film probably would have been more profound and lovelier if not for the awkward tonal shifts it made along the way. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or sneer in disgust over certain events that went on. Either way, it’s a perfectly decent film; perhaps just not my cup of tea.

7) Summer Dream (2013) – dir. Peter Parr

  • Rating: 5/10

I didn’t get very much out of this film, but it certainly looked lovely. It combined frames of paintings that weren’t exactly “animated” as much as they faded in and out within each other. Many close-ups of these paintings were also implemented, often in ways that the images themselves would disperse from themselves; a naked human body, close up, would be as indecipherable as a Monet painting from a similar angle. Watching this was a rather calming experience, and I praise the talent at composing something so lovely-looking, but it felt rather empty to me altogether. I couldn’t for the life of me tease out any sort of message from this film, other than the fact that I admired what I was looking at and that it was certainly pleasing in a superficial sense.

8) Fantasmagorie (1908) – dir. Émile Cohl

  • Rating: 8/10

Wow! How have I just now barely seen this? Émile Cohl was an absolute genius. Fantasmagorie is widely considered to be the very first cartoon short, and boy did it set the bar for many things to come. I wasn’t even aware that they made animation this surreal, this weird, this convoluted back in the day. Sure it’s not very detailed and it’s essentially a bunch of stick sketches put together to make a weird hodgepodge of unrelated imagery. But the way they all merge together in such smooth, coherent incoherence kind of boggles the mind. By watching this, it’s clear to see that the animation of Fleischer and Avery was inevitable. It’s one of those rare kind of “important” turn-of-the-century shorts that’s actually quite fun to watch. Watch it here!

9) Mobilier Fidèle (The Automatic Moving Company) (1910) – dir. Émile Cohl

  • Rating: 6/10

Like many films of this era, this is one of those types of films where the craft of the methods at work – especially from so early in film history – is worth more admiration than any content of the narrative itself. In this Emile Cohl film, a moving van arrives at a house, where the furniture exits from the van and rearranges itself inside the place. Here, the method of stop-motion animation is used, the likes of which I’d previously seen in films as early as Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge. Here, however, there’s even less of a story and personality behind the objects that are animated. Therefore, this isn’t a film that isn’t particularly enjoyable to watch, but works as a rather intriguing look at this now-perfected method in its infant stages. Watch it here!

10) Le songe d’un garçon de café (The Hasher’s Delirium) (1910) – dir. Émile Cohl

  • Rating: 7/10

While not quite so weirdly memorable as Fantasmagorie, this Cohl film is notable in that it takes much of former’s renown surreal imagery and plugs it into an actual narrative. In this film, a man falls asleep at a cafe, with his dream being adapted in the form of strangely animated faces, words, and images. It’s once again rather simple, thus not incredibly mind-blowing. But for what it is, it’s rather interesting; yet another of the more impressive fiction shorts to come out of the early silent era.

11) Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) – dir. Winsor McCay

  • Rewatch
  • Rating: 8/10

I was able to rewatch this film (among others) during the first day of my History of Animation class, and I found it just as delightful as I had the first time. While it’s certainly not the very first cartoon ever made (as its often mistakenly credited for),Gertie the Dinosaur is notable for featuring a character with a discernible personality. Here, Gertie is presented more like a pet than anything else, but the film still offers a fair bit of funny parts in regards to her dog-like demeanor. I would kill to be one of the audience members at the very first screening of this film, as I’m certain many minds must have been blown with the presentation of this innovative method of filmmaking. Certainly it’s important for setting these bars, but it also succeeds at being rather cute and humorous as well. McCay was truly a mind to revel at. Watch it here!

12) Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House (1921) – dir. Winsor McCay

  • Rating: 8/10

Another great short from Winsor McCay. This one is just as innovative as his more famous Gertie the Dinosaur, notably for its use of cel animation technique; now, the movement looks smoother, less jumpier than that in Gertie. This also gave the artist more agency over how to develop his story, and boy what a story it is! The Flying House was adapted from a comic series – also penned by McCay – definitely has that sort of feel to it. It’s fun, quirky, and exciting in many ways. I find it amusing how some of the most eccentric early animation involves dreams, and this one is certainly no exception. Well worth a watch. Watch it here!

13) Flim Flam Films (1927) – dir. Otto Messmer

  • Rating: 7/10

This is a pretty funny short starring early animation star Felix the Cat. Through a series of gags, Felix and his three children unsuccessfully attempt to break into a movie theater. As a last resort, they make their own movie – leading in to some rather disastrous (and hilarious) results. This film is perfectly enjoyable in every way, but I’d personally prefer the hijinks of early Mickey Mouse over Felix. This particular film, while fun, lacks a bit of the personality that made the best silent animation so damn entertaining. Still, some of the witticisms shown are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the payoff we get at the end of it all is especially satisfying. Watch it here!

14) Astronomeous (1928) – dir. Otto Messmer

  • Rating: 6/10

Sad to say I wasn’t especially fond of this one. It’s got some fun stuff involving Felix running for cat president (I think?) and Felix in space getting captured by space people and stuff. But this is probably one of the more boring additions to the Felix the Cat filmography, at least from what I have seen. I do think that this film and others like it – including some later Fleischer films – bring up the important theme that I see in a lot of classic animation: outer space. It brings to light the budding fascination that people had (and still have) with space travel, alternate planets, and extraterrestrial beings. I’ll probably bring this more to light on a different post, but overall, that’s all I think Astronomeous has going for it. Maybe I’m just not as fond with Felix as I am with Mickey. Watch it here!

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) (2009) – dir. Pedro Almodóvar

  • Watched on 31 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

Like many of his other films, the plot of Broken Embraces encapsulates themes of memory and passion to work on fleshing out its characters and moving the story along. For the most part, it does a pretty good job at this, telling a tale of forbidden love affair tinged with tragedy and unforeseeable mistakes. In just about every film I’ve seen with Penelope Cruz, she steals the film in some way or another; here lies no exception, as her acting is probably the most interesting thing about it. Using his tradition of vibrant color palettes and stylish cinematography, this film is a compelling watch in all respects. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a rustier progressing film than some of his other earlier works. There are noticeable gaps in the storytelling process, and the characters would certainly benefit from a wider range of development and complexity. Furthermore, the way the film resolves itself isn’t as satisfying as Almodóvar’s endings tend to be; frankly, it felt rather tacked on and lazy. Despite these shortcomings, it’s worth a watch, offer much of what makes his films so engrossing.

Passing Strange (2009) – dir. Spike Lee

  • Watched on 1 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

While I certainly question how this exactly qualifies as a “Spike Lee joint” (as the DVD cover so confidently proclaims), I really enjoyed Passing Strange. As a documentary, it isn’t anything special; point the camera here, edit there, no subtextual commentary (explicit or implicit), etc. But as a musical production, it’s magnificent. I think if I really tried, I could totally get into musical theater. Seeing these talented performers give their all on stage – transcending genres, narrative convention, even going a bit meta – makes this certainly worth a watch all on its own. I would kill to see something so vibrant in real life, but the wonderful thing about this production is that it translates so beautifully in cinematic format. Despite the minimalistic setting structure of the play, simply watching this concert permits realism to subdue itself and give way to delicious escapism – while still being rooted in reality in its own way, of course. I didn’t realize until afterward that this was meant to be a TV episode of a series of performances. Frankly, I think it works rather well as a film of its own. It’s fun, engrossing, and has some unbelievably catchy, memorable music. Passing Strange is completely worth a watch – watch it now!

I’m Here (2010) – dir. Spike Jonze

  • Watched on 1 February
  • Format: YouTube
  • Rewatch
  • Rating: 7/10

I rewatched this film with Jeff (who watched it for the first time) and I think that kind of heightened the experience for me. The lovey-dovey moments felt more personal and true-to-life, and the “awww” moments felt more touching, in a kind of bittersweet way. Watching this again, I saw it more as a precursor to Her than I had before. Nonetheless, I still hold the same problems with it that I had before. I can definitely see the message that Jonze was going with here: giving up parts of yourself for the one you love, for the sake of that wonderful personal connection. But it still felt very incomplete, almost simplistic. While it is the kind of film that could only be a short film (I sure as hell wouldn’t want to follow these characters around for 90 minutes), its characters never reached that full-fledged level of emotion that would give me the incentive to, I dunno, actually see them as living, breathing things and care about them very much?

Also, I can’t help but be pissed off with the notion that this was all done as an advertisement for Absolut vodka. Dumb capitalistic sham film. But so pretty-looking.

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