Weekly Film Log: February 16-22

Check it out! This week I actually watched more feature-length films than I did animated shorts. I also cleared out my watchlist a bit of films that I’ve been putting off watching for a long, long time, and also ended my week on a fantastic note. Keep on reading!

The Station Agent (2003) – dir. Thomas McCarthy

  • Watched on 16 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Not very much happens in The Station Agent, but it is, nonetheless, quite a memorable viewing experience. I’ve only ever known Peter Dinklage for his role in Game of Thrones prior to this film, but his breakout effort here truly shows his talent. Moving at such a naturalistic, meditative pace, the film slowly but surely peels back the layers of this character study. In doing so, it shows that even the loneliest individuals possess a beautiful personality all their own, which is delicately revealed through the company of good friends. Of course, this is further aided with the strong supporting performances by Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, and Michelle Williams(!!!). Even in the darker moments of the narrative, there remains this ever-present sense of support, a back-up vertebrae that continues to sustain itself, a place to lay one’s head at night. For a film that possesses a relatively minimal frame of suspense, writer-director Thomas McCarthy succeeds in having it embody traits of coziness and a laid-back sensibility; I’m definitely looking forward to revisiting this one in the future.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) – dir. Terry Gilliam

  • Watched on 17 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 6/10

In case it hasn’t been said before, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is, well, rather silly. Unfortunately, it’s not the brand of dark, dry humor he successfully incorporated in Brazil and later Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Rather, the sense of humor found here is extravagant, farcical – and, frankly, a bit low-brow, often annoying. Robin Williams is surely the most agonizing part about it, and I was tempted to just fully skip past his dreadful bits. What the film does demonstrate, however, is that Gilliam possesses a truly imaginative thought process and isn’t afraid to think far outside the box (making him a true former Python). The costumes are absolutely breathtaking, as are many of the set designs. And while this film definitely borders on predictability, it’s hard to say that I wasn’t at least a little amazed the whole way through, if only due to its aesthetics. Overall, while Munchausen does feel like Gilliam bites off more than he can chew – well, at least it looks nice.


Eastern Promises (2007) – dir. David Cronenberg

  • Watched on 18 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Much like his earlier film A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises presents a slow-moving, tense narrative that sporadically and unexpectedly explodes with graphic brutality. While it certainly is a performance-driven piece – with special nods given to Viggo Mortensen – that’s certainly not to say that the story itself isn’t interesting as all hell. Despite the language barrier (I can definitely understand the issues that native Russians would have with this flick), this, to me, feels like a very authentic encapsulating of the Russian mobster lifestyle. Yet the possible glorification of films like Casino is lost here, as the dark subject matter of this movie feels disturbingly rooted into reality. It tears the viewer away from the sense of escapism that such movies promise, reminding viewers that it is very possible that these horrifying events could very well be occurring somewhere on this planet. Sure its violent moments are jarringly graphic (how about that Turkish bath scene?), but it takes special care to not be exploitative, taking a careful approach to teasing out the complexities of its character. Eastern Promises a twisted, stomach-churning morality tale in all the best ways possible, and further proves that Cronenberg, while inconsistent, is still one of the more perfectly nuanced modern storytellers.

Men in Black (1997) – dir. Barry Sonnenfeld

  • Watched on 18 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Men in Black is one of the many films that I somehow missed out on when I was younger. So while I don’t have the embedded sense of nostalgia for this film that many of my peers do, I’ve found that I still can appreciate it for what it truly is: a fun, nonsensical sci-fi/action flick that succeeds at not taking itself too seriously. What interested me in particular was how this film slightly meandered from sci-fi convention, in that the aliens here are living among human beings, rather than being seen as a threat to humankind. I’m sure it’s far from the first film to take this approach, but it’s refreshing nonetheless. One of the most entertaining aspect, however, was Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance, which feels less like a throwaway gag part and more like a truly splendid slapstick performance of ingenious measure. I mean, the dude felt exactly like what a human body invaded by an extraterrestrial being would act like. While the film is far from perfect (the special effects being particularly dated), this hardly takes away from the genuine sense of heart and humor that it embodies. I’ll be showing this one to my (probably never-existing) kids.

Targets (1968) – dir. Peter Bogdanovich

  • Watched on 20 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 9/10

Where has this film been all my life?!? While I’m hardly a Bogdanovich fan (althoughPaper Moon is marvelous), practically everything about Targets was calling out for me. Boris Karloff, Roger Corman, László Kovács – I’m game! Thankfully, its promises are certainly delivered, as I found the film truly sensational. Karloff essentially plays himself, as an aging horror icon whose retirement is motivated by the observed desensitization of modern day society. Meanwhile, a Vietnam War veteran (who one could say has been “desensitized”) goes on a killing spree. Sure it moves slowly and not much goes on with the bulk of its time, but it does work carefully with its meticulous character building. This is accomplished by the hand-in-hand accomplishments of the disjunct yet parallel narrative arcs of our two characters, as well as some really interesting cinematography and editing choices. By the final third, the wait is very well worth it, as it suddenly bubbles over with intensity and panic-ridden emotion. As low as its budget it, it certainly delivers a fair share of thrills and then some. This is not to be missed.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) – dir. Taylor Hackford

  • Watched on 20 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 5/10

An Officer and a Gentlemen looks and feels very much like a compelling character drama that’s got the life sucked out of it. I often see it praised for its captivating character arc – particularly of our protagonist, played by Richard Gere – but I personally found this sense of development practically non-existent. We get a sense of his family issues in the beginning moments of the film… but then we don’t hear much from that again, save for an emotional breakdown or two later on. I don’t think forcing conventional opening exposition onto the audience is a great way to expose the depth of the character; perhaps this may have been a better film if it were more nuanced. But alas, these characters are very much underdeveloped, as are the romantic relationships that ensue. Therefore, I spent much of the film not really giving much of a damn what happens to anyone. Sure we’re introduced to some strong female characters, but their purposes in the film are little more than boring love interests. Its one saving grace is Lou Gossett Jr., who plays the kind of rough-and-tumble sergeant only matched later by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. But overall, it’s little more than a safe, predictable, play-by-numbers character drama/romance. And I’m sorry, but “Up Where We Belong” is so annoying.

You know how it is – Feb. 21, seven films, History of Animation class, Little Coppola Theater. This week was focused on the animation of Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Rudolf Ising – outro’d by contemporary films by Joanna Quinn.

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1) The Office Boy (1932) – dir. Ub Iwerks

  • Rating: 8/10

Huzzah! The Office Boy marks my introduction to Ub Iwerks’ character Flip the Frog – and boy what an introduction it is! The interesting thing about this animation is that, like the Fleischers’ cartoons, the characters seem to move and bounce in a kind of rhythm. With Iwerks, however, it has a sort of inexplicable dance-along beat to it all, as if everyone moves to the beat of the same jazz number. The character of Flip himself is pretty much everything that was great about early Mickey Mouse – clever, personable, smartass. And The Office Boy is everything great about Pre-Code animation – risqué and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Indeed, there were moments in this short alone that I’d confidently declare were funnier than most anything from Disney or Fleischer (how about that laugh??). It’s a bit sad that it seems that Flip the Frog has faded into relative obscurity over the more popular (marketable?) characters. From the looks of this ‘toon alone, he’s got a whole personality of his own, and I can’t wait to watch more! Watch it here!

2) Merry Mannequins (1937) – dir. Ub Iwerks

  • Rating: 7/10

Merry Mannequins is a very different effort from Ub Iwerks, not quite like anything I’ve seen from him previously. For one thing, the animation here is much more lush and vibrant, really closely resembling the flowering detail of art deco. The story is simple: two mannequins get shot by Cupid, fall in love, and hold a wedding attended by… every piece of furniture in the store, which have come to life for some reason. Well, okay, the highlight of the film is definitely the very beginning, when the two mannequins perform a little song and dance a lá Astaire and Rogers. The animation is smooth and lovely, making this certainly more a display of its exuberant aesthetic than its story. It’s not as humorous as what I’m used to seeing from Iwerks, but that’s hardly a complaint as his true talent for the field of animation, as well as his eclecticism, is absolutely apparent here.

3) One More Time (1931) – dir. Rudolf Ising & Hugh Harman

  • Rating: 6/10

One More Time is an animated film from Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, the third and final short to feature the character of Foxy. Foxy himself has quite an interesting history: Harman and Ising, who worked with Walt Disney in the 20s, felt that he had plagiarized their sketches of what would become Mickey Mouse. Consequently, they went ahead and created Foxy, who shares… well, a lot of similar characteristics as Mickey. While this style of animation is almost identical to Fleischer’s films of the same era, it does possess significantly less charm and likability as these cartoons. It may be because I just wasn’t as infatuated with this character as others, but I just didn’t find it very funny, clever, or entertaining as some of the better gems of Pre-Code animation. Thus in a way, I’m glad that Foxy’s series was as short-lived as it was, as Harman and Ising thankfully continued to move onto bigger and better things in the future. Watch it here!

4) Peace on Earth (1939) – dir. Hugh Harman, Joseph Barbera, & William Hanna

  • Rating: 9/10

A masterpiece in short animation. I could never get sick of this one. It professes a message that (tragically) still holds true to this very day and age. As we are brought into the coziness and spiritual warmth of Christmastime, Grandpa Squirrel explains how the downfall and extinction of mankind came to be. The terror of war time only brings death and destruction, even upon the innocent. But the negativity and depression of dark times can also breed valiant efforts to reconstruct what has been taken away. And this is the message that is truly the most heart-warming of all. I think the dark, post-apocalyptic undertones of this piece coupled with the fluffiness of the animation and characters is what really makes this film as wonderful as it is. It’s whimsical and friendly, yet carries a strong, profound message that transcends generations and remains relevant. It’s sensitive and kinda sad, but also nowhere near the cloying disaster it very well could have been. All in all, it’s tremendous. I love this film. Watch it here!

5) The Milky Way (1940) – dir. Rudolf Ising

  • Rating: 7/10

The Milky Way is of what I like to call the “cutesy” stage of Rudolf Ising’s repertoire of animation. The narrative involves three tiny kittens who, after being sent to their rooms, embark on an adventure to the Milky Way, where they drink all the milk their heart desires. I’m pretty sure that around this time, animators were starting to discover that cartoons primarily appealed to children and created films geared toward that demographic. It wasn’t until a few years later when the likes of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones broke the trend with more “adult” cartoons. The Milky Way, however, moves at a fairy tale-like pace, with vibrant Technicolor and innocent characters that work to move it along. There are a few amusing puns to keep things interesting – e.g. ‘milk of magnesia’ – but for the most part, it suffers from being a bit too saccharine, silly, and shamelessly predictable. For what it is, however, this short is rather gorgeous, and best serves as a reminder of the times when the field of animation was genuinely coy and sentimental. Watch it here!

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6) Body Beautiful (1990) – dir. Joanna Quinn

  • Rating: 8/10

Joanna Quinn is not a name that is very well-known, yet her Charmin bear commercials have been seen by millions. Body Beautiful is an earlier short of hers that turns fat-shaming on its head in probably the most bizarre ways possible. The animation could probably be best described as Plympton-esque, with its sketchy quality and almost hallucinogenic matter of atypical shapeshifting as a method of storytelling. Upon its first minutes, I was worried about how crude and hateful it was being to its subject matter, but after I gave it some time I realized the approaches it was going with it and really warmed up to the style quite a bit. As strange as Body Beautiful is and as train-wrecky as it could have potentially been (particularly a few moments in its climax, oh lord), I really enjoyed it. Quinn projects a really distinct voice through her aesthetic alone, and Beryl makes for a rather unique, powerful feminist figure. I can’t wait to watch many more of her work. Watch it here!

7) Dreams and Desires: Family Ties (2006) – dir. Joanna Quinn

  • Rating: 6/10

Dreams and Desires is my second time delving into the weird, wacky mind of Joanna Quinn. Given to us in a refreshing hand-drawn style that is wildly expressionistic and isn’t very detail-specific at all, Quinn offers a response to “camcorder culture” and plays with our desires to act as voyeurs. It authentically attempts a kind of found-footage animation film, and pulls off this aesthetic rather well, especially considering how dreadfully wrong everything goes for the filmed wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, what causes this film to falter the most is its crude, rather low-brow sense of humor, that tends to work when implemented the first few times but, frankly, drags on for far too long. It also just seemed a bit disjunct as a whole; I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the completely bizarre beginning and end scenes. Regardless, this is completely worth it for Quinn’s strange, billowy style of animation which, while mirroring that of Bill Plympton, still continues to possess a voice of its own. Watch it here!

Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – dir. Adrian Lyne

  • Watched on 21 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

It’s been over 24 hours and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Jacob’s Ladder. While I’m not of any place to debate the realism of its portrayal of PTSD, I can be quite certain that it’s one of the more intense depictions I’ve seen. It’s bleak and disturbing from its first few moments, but through its sleek and meditating progression, it becomes more and more hallucinatory, to the point of incomprehension. Although, this is hardly a complaint. As it truly demonstrates the power of filmmaking and its ability to transport viewers into the deranged, disturbed mind of an individual. With some reading on my part, I might be able to actually get the biblical interpretations (which I can say for certain are intended) and, thus, appreciate the film to its fullest potential. For now, however, I can positively say that its killer vibes and jarring atmosphere make this film into a complete, utter head-trip experience that refuses to unleash itself so easily.

Toki wo Kakeru Shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) (2006) – dir. Mamoru Hosoda

  • Watched on 22 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

The most unusual thing about The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is that – unlike works like Primer and Looper – its time travel method is strangely disconnected from any of the pretenses of science fiction. It’s more like Groundhog Day in that it plays more like a charming coming-of-age drama with the additional complexities of time travel. It remains relatively humble with presenting its subject matter, and for the most part the emotional intensity of its most touching scenes feel totally genuine and do their job well. However, the film does suffer in being a bit inconsistent in its storytelling, preferring to linger on the less interesting parts of the narrative when it could do much more with developing its characters emotionally. By the end, I was left feeling like I didn’t gain much from the viewing experience; most importantly, I was left wanting more. While the film could have certainly been improved with a tighter, trimmer narrative arc, it’s surely fun and heartfelt for what it is, and definitely the type of film that calls for my eventual revisiting.

The Lost Weekend (1945) – dir. Billy Wilder

  • Watched on 22 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 10/10

I feel so ashamed to have called myself a Billy Wilder fan for so long without ever having seen The Lost Weekend. It portrays one of the roughest, rawest depictions of alcoholism I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s amazing how a film like this had come out almost two decades before Days of Wine and Roses, which I had felt to be really ahead of its time. The Lost Weekend further affirms what I had already known – the fact that Wilder was a remarkable genius writer-director. Yet by gracefully applying his talents to such a sensitive topic and effectively teasing out the emotional and psychological elements of the disease – this further proves that the man could do just about anything. Ray Milland drives this story along with a powerhouse performance that intensifies as the protagonist’s story grows more and more chaotic. It’s a really frustrating watch, and I think that makes it all the more rewarding. I can be truly confident in stating that this is one of the most well-deserved Best Picture winners of all time. Long live Wilder.

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