Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Manhattan Murder Mystery


The first time I saw this movie, it was revolutionary to me -- I had just discovered Woody Allen, and for some reason was able to recognize a number of the brilliant use of directorial conventions that he utilizes in this film -- long takes of overlapping conversation, long takes that sumptuously celebrate the New York locations just as much as the story, the thematic parallelism between the various couples on screen, the allusions to so many classic noir thrillers in the theatre set, the use of intertextuality from Double Indemnity. What a disappointment, to, upon second viewing, realize that this was warmed over Woody Allen at its most tepid: Allen never commits to the genre and to solving the storytelling problems enough, instead choosing to take refuge in his own pre-fab genre as a kind of auto-critique of the genre in which he dabbles; the result? storylines left dangling, long passages of tedious exposition, a laborious and awkward denoument and an embarrassingly Deus Ex Machina revelation / twist in the final moments.

+++ (still! nostalgia counts for something!)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead



While the story drags you violently into and through its chaos, the most the viewer can hope to say is that they see and recognize (narrative and moral) truth amongst all the wreckage, because there's nothing and no one to actually like. While the tight structure of the screenplay, editing and direction are admirable, moments of excess in each threaten the viability of the whole: the IRS audit? really? just *so* happens to be right now? and *must* we see Ethan Hawke do morose *again*? as PSHoffman chews the familiar scenery around him at the bar? (God Bless Them Both Though! Two of my favorite working actors! And generally very heartfelt performances - regardless of how winning they sometimes failed to be...)

+++1/2

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gloomy Sunday



On its surface a film about a delicately balanced successful love triangle, the film opens up into a much more rewarding and tangled story about persistence in the face of great sorrow. The dark, almost comically exaggerated storyline about the potency of the title song buoys the film along at an accessible, melodrama pitch, and ultimately, the final twist (unfortunately?) rewards that broadest audience's expectations in a way that undermines some of the most noble sentiments that Laszlo offers Weick during his send-off at the train station.

+++1/2

Monday, January 21, 2008

Grease



Since my kids have loved High School Musical, the sequel and Hairspray so much, we decided to let them in on this "classic" expecting it to be as earnest as a Disney product and as saccharine. So the artfulness of the direction happily surprised me as did the ironic tone of whole enterprise and the ribald sexual energy eminating from the script and the performers; Grease is still no Hairspray -- individual sexual liberation is a much less ambitious reach than the confrontation of racial and gender discrimination that Hairspray addresses directly and indirectly respectively.

+++

Gabbeh



A rich beautiful small story whose self-conscious storytelling masterfully weaves the formal elements of the telling with the beauty of the gabbeh itself (a traditional rug). The colors, music, repetition of plot points, and gradual revelation of the characters feels both beautiful, but sometimes too performatively exotic and self-conscious, but that feeling may well emit from the position of this viewer more than from the film or its context.

+++1/2

Fiddler on the Roof



A story about globalization, fundamentalism, and xenophobia packaged in a simple story about love and rural Russian Jewish life before the revolution -- what amazes is me is the way that this story manages to articulate a kind of transcendence available both to the traditional and to the revolutionary, through the synthesis of of faithful love. Returning to this classic surprisingly delights with great direction, set design and camera work.

++++

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Walk the Line


This biopic chooses to focus on the relatively modest ten(ish) year time frame of Johnny Cash's life during which he rose to fame and fell in love with June Carter. I developed a real emotional connection to these characters, found the direction and camerawork to be artfully conventional in a way that both pushed the story forward and made me regularly gasp with the beauty captured on the screen; I suppose that my (regularly) waning affection for Johnny Cash (and Joaquim Phoneix?) flows out of the character flaw - his inability to establish an internal locus of control and, in fact, walk-the-line, but everytime he recovered enough of his will to start singing again, my love returned, at least mostly intact.

+++1/2

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Amazing Grace


While the execution of this film was competent at every level, one hopes for more than confidence when watching a movie (*any* movie) especially a movie about the epic battle to end the slave trade. The title reveals the most significant fault line in the movie -- the song "Amazing Grace" juxtaposes divine grace with the profound spiritual (and material) failure of its author, John Newton, the former slave trader; but this story is about the question of whether faithful careful work within an institution is a legitimate spiritual (and material) vocation and whether it might actually produce meaningful social change -- but these two themes are worlds apart and the power of the song to breach this gap in the film is as potent as each instance in which it is sung or played (which is embarrassingly not potent at all)

++1/2

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Juno




I know, I know, too many parts of this film are too self-conscious, too just-so-indie, too cue the superhip music at exactly the moment that will cue exactly the right type of slightly jaded, slightly senstive angst in we, the we-get-it-hipster-few. But I don't care: I loved too much about this coming of age movie: I loved the performances, the writing, the music, the direction, the mise en scene: I knew long before the plot revelation what it would be, but I could not have predicted how much i would SOB (seriously, sob) when it happened.

++++1/2

(so you can not trust me, I am clearly too involved. And the last thing you need is a critic who actually becomes too involved by the stories they see.)

Affliction


I think that I wish I hadn't seen this Paul Schrader film after seeing so many others, because too many elements felt too hackneyed to me, though I'm confident that my eyes were too weary to see things that so many award-offering (very competent) peers saw. While I loved the slow classic tragic plot arc, found the performances and music to be beautifully disconcerting, but found the on-the-nose-narrative to be both offputtting and underwhelming.

+++

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Chungking Express


In these two stories, only whimsically related, characters mourn the loss of old love and lean toward what they think might be new love; the dramatic tension that Wong Kar Wai mines from waitress Faye's secret trips to clean and enjoy Badge 663's apartment testifies to the amazing power of simple storytelling. Kar Wai's ability to mine the most dreary of locations and moments for heart-rending cinematic beauty renews my eyes and offers me the same kind of hopeful vision that Happy Together did.

+++++

Friday, January 04, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


While the lush visuals of this installment of the franchise were far and away my favorite, I can't say the same of the translation process. For me, too much of the relationships between Harry and all his pals was obscured by (oddly) the message: "You can't do it on your own, Harry; you've got to depend on your friends," and the strange focus on Harry's connection to Luna Lovegood (a character I loved in the book and was very ambivalent about in the movie.

+++

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Clockwork Orange


Alex's delinquency escalates from thieving and robbery to rape and murder before the system captures him and subjects him to a mind control therapy that ends up ruining beauty for him and ultimately ruining him for the world. Kubrick's surreal direction sometimes feels as bizzare as a reprogramming for the viewer, too -- the highly stylized sets, the heavily synthesized music, the offputting lingo juxtaposed with the warm familiar first person narrator -- but ultimately the story makes us willing to stay on board for the long haul.

+++