Friday, August 22, 2014

The Last 13 Movies I Watched

Angel Face (Otto Preminger, USA, 1952, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
In many respects, Angle Face is a standard issue film noir.  A gruff male protagonist (Robert Mitchum, laconic as ever) is ensnared in the duplicitous schemes of an icy femme fatale (Jean Simmons) against a shadowy black-and-white backdrop.  The broad outlines are strictly generic, but the tropes of the genre have rarely been executed as fluidly as they are under the exacting direction of Otto Preminger, who brings an amazingly visceral charge to the pivotal car wreck sequences.  B

 Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014, 165 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Richard Linklater’s grand experiment was filmed gradually over a period of twelve years, allowing viewers the unique experience of watching the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) age before our eyes for real.  The film wisely avoids conventionally dramatic “coming of age” moments and instead largely focuses on the kinds of low-key personal interactions that tend to stick in one’s mind years later.  The sweep of a fictional character’s childhood has never been so convincingly captured on film before, and the most prominent supporting players (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater) are so vividly realized that it’s not hard to imagine equally satisfying alternate edits titled Fatherhood, Motherhood, or Girlhood.  There are a few pacing issues in the last hour, as the film piles on a few too many climaxes (even though the one that Linklater ultimately lands on is just about perfect), but the overall experience is so distinct that the handful of rough edges are forgivable.  A-

The Clock (Christian Marclay, UK, 2010, 1440 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Christian Marclay’s mammoth art installation deserves credit simply for its insane level of ambition and ingenuity.  The project is a 24-hour montage of various clips from films and television, meticulously edited together in “real time” so that the movie can function as an actual clock.  Nearly every clip contains some sort of indication of time, and if a character says that it’s 11:15, it is actually 11:15; if a clock in the background of the next shot says that’s it’s 11:16, that is also the time in real life.  Judging from the three hours of this that I saw (roughly 2:00pm-5:00 pm), I’m not convinced that there’s any point to the experiment beyond gimmickry, but it’s a damned impressive gimmick, and never less than watchable.  The range of sources is mesmerizing, drawing on everything from Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy Safety Last! (1923) to Tsai Ming-liang’s minimal arthouse film What Time Is It There? (2001) and everything in between.  (Marclay is evidently also a big X-Files fan – I counted at least three appearances by Mulder and Scully, and I only caught 1/8th of the project).  I’m not going to grade this since I only saw a portion of it, but suffice to say that it’s a must see if it comes to a museum in your area.

The Conjuring (James Wan, USA, 2013, 112 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
This atmospheric horror film tells a fairly generic possessed house tale, but refreshingly achieves its effects through old-school creeping dread rather than graphic violence or “found footage” gimmickry.  There’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen in countless other ghost films, but the finesse on display is rare in the genre.  Director James Wan has certainly come a long way since Saw (2004).  B-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA, 2014, 130 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The latest installment of the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise is the most impressive since the 1968 original.  The filmmakers manage to wring an impressive amount of excitement and poignancy out of what would seem to be an inherently silly premise.  For a movie that prominently features gun-toting, horse-riding simians, this is surprisingly emotionally grounded and politically nuanced.  The plot revolves around the tension between the hyper-intelligent apes that rule the film’s future Earth and a small band of humans who need resources on the apes’ land.  A series of misunderstandings cause the tenuous alliance between the two groups to shatter, leading to an all-out war.  Exceptional CGI work and terrific performances (from the likes of Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis) make the scenario feel convincing, and the screenplay allows even the warmongers understandable and sympathetic motivations.  Like all modern blockbusters, the film overstays its welcome a bit, but in this case the overlength is the result of an excess of ambition.  B+

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1995, 121 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 Sixth or Seventh Viewing
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Possibly the greatest film of the 1990s, Jim Jarmusch’s psychedelic western is one of the rare works of art that can legitimately be called poetic, visionary and profound.  The film’s warped vision of the Old West is disconcertingly detailed and vivid, like a continuous hallucination that allows the viewer to see the reality of the weird old America for the first time.  After taking a bullet to the chest, a meek Cleveland-born accountant (Johnny Depp) is cared for by a jovial Native American (Gary Farmer), who becomes his tour guide through an otherworldly, yet frighteningly convincing western countryside.  In an extraordinary ensemble cast that also includes Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, and Robert Mitchum, it’s Farmer’s character who is allowed the greatest amount of charisma and dignity.  This may be the only western in history that presumes a Native American audience – there are even un-subtitled jokes made at the white protagonist’s expense – and that fair treatment of cinema’s most misrepresented race may be the film’s most unique aspect.  A

The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal, USA, 2000, 78 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Though the title would seem to allude to the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, this Disney film sets itself apart from most of the studio’s animated works by being an original story, told in a (mostly) non-musical style.  Even the traditional sappy ballad (this time courtesy of Sting) is thankfully confined to the end credits, and seems incongruous in this fun and fast paced comedy.  The titular Emperor, an 18-year-old egomaniac, is transformed into a llama after a botched magical assassination attempt.  The Emperor is forced to learn humility when the only person willing to help him is a kindly village leader whose land is threatened by the Empire’s plans to pave over it and add a swimming pool.  Thankfully the film doesn't lay its obvious moral on too thick, and instead concentrates its energy on goofy humor, vivid action sequences, and cool hieroglyphic-style animation.  It’s lightweight and inconsequential but also a lot of fun.  B

God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, USA, 1976, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Shlock peddler Larry Cohen’s outré police procedural finds people all over New York City inexplicably going on killing sprees that they calmly insist are the handiwork of God.  Cohen’s enjoyably grungy style has as much in common with George Kuchar’s perverse no-budget experimental home movies as it does with classic Roger Corman exploitation flicks, and he makes great use of grimy pre-Giuliani New York location shooting.  Unfortunately he seems less interested in exploiting the social satire inherent in the premise than in slowly turning the plot into an incoherent soup of sci-fi, Blaxploitation, and crime movie elements.  C+

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA, 2014, 121 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Yet another in the endless parade of Marvel movies, though this one distinguishes itself by being an old-fashioned space adventure (like a wittier, funkier version of the original Star Wars films) rather than another superhero origin story.  The film’s occasional attempts at pathos don’t quite come off – the pacing is too hectic and the plot is too convoluted for the stakes to ever be entirely clear – but thankfully co-writer/director James Gunn mostly sticks to broad comedy and zippy action, making this one of the more fun action blockbusters of recent memory.  B-

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927, 153 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            Latest of Many Viewings
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s unwieldy epic is the most influential science-fiction film ever made.  Every subsequent futuristic city in cinema history owes an unmistakable debt to this film’s brilliant set designs, and the excellent model and matte painting work remains impressive to this day.  The script’s confused ideology (a peculiar jumble of Christianity, Communism, Capitalism, and paranoid German Expressionism) seems oddly appropriate for a film that’s all about the terrors and pleasures of the modern city.  The plotting is clunky and episodic, but Lang’s formal mastery assures that the many expensive set pieces are unforgettable.  Ultimately this is more scatterbrained and less intense than Lang’s best films, but it’s still an indispensable piece of film history and a highly entertaining example of silent-era blockbuster filmmaking.  A-

The Purge (James DeMonaco, USA, 2013, 85 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Last year’s surprise horror sensation brings a dystopian twist to the home invasion subgenre.  In the near future, crime and unemployment are down in the United States due to a new holiday called the Purge, wherein all crime (including murder) is legal for a 12-hour period.  The premise is absurdly implausible on all levels, though it’s not hard to imagine someone like George Romero or John Carpenter making it work in their ‘70s and ‘80s heydays by exploiting the plot’s satirical potential.  Unfortunately writer-director James DeMonaco maintains a deadly serious tone that prevents the outlandish scenario from being as fun as it could be, and his lead villain (Rhys Wakefield) is too busy underlining (and italicizing and highlighting) the movie’s themes to actually be menacing.  The film’s willingness to deal with issues like class disparity is admirable and distinctive, but it’s hard to imagine them being addressed in a more clumsy or less nuanced way.  C+

The Purge:  Anarchy (James DeMonaco, USA, 2014, 103 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
James DeMonaco’s quickie sequel to his surprise horror hit is more ambitious, imaginative, and action-packed than the original, which makes it all the more disappointing that it’s even more heavy-handed and illogical than the original.  The scenario offers non-stop opportunities for entertaining high camp, but DeMonaco treats everything with a grim solemnity that suggests that he thinks he’s teaching the audience valuable lessons about institutionalized violence and classism.  Even a climactic sequence where the ragtag group of heroes is rescued from a Most Dangerous Game situation by a neo-Black Panther group doesn’t feel nearly as fun as it ought to, because the filmmakers don’t seem to have a clue how ridiculous this all is.  C

Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, China, 1991, 125 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Zhang Yimou’s third film pushes his early style to its ultimate extreme, juxtaposing flamboyantly vivid color with a grim narrative of oppression.  Gong Li stars as a young woman who becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man (Ma Jingwu, pointedly only filmed from a distance or at odd angles).  Though she initially enjoys the pampered treatment that she receives, Gong gradually becomes stifled by both her husband’s inscrutable house rules and by the in-fighting amongst her sister wives.  Whether the film was truly intended as a veiled critique of Chinese authoritarianism (as many claim but Zhang denies), it was clearly made by filmmakers with a deep personal understanding of life in a totalitarian society.  The story isn’t as gripping as in Zhang’s previous film, Ju Dou (1990), but the filmmaking is undeniably masterful, and the tragic ending is hard to shake.  B+

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