see:s SAFE. Todd Haynes, 1995. 119min.
A beautifully composed and carefully controlled film, Safe details a suburban's housewife's struggle with environmental illness. Julianne Moore brilliantly plays the housewife who's own self-loathing may or may not be at the heart of her illness (for the role, she dropped ten pounds, and we can actually see her wasting away on celluloid). Haynes never rushes the story, letting it unfold during masterful takes where the frame alienates the characters from each other, and from their surroundings. The film defies an easy reading, as our allegiances sway away and then towards the main character as we watch her environment, and then watch as she slowly reacts with greater and greater vehemence against it. 02.04
SAFETY LAST. Fred C. Newmeyer + Sam Taylor, 1923. 70min.
Quite the aptly named film as it climaxes in Harold Lloyd climbing a 12 story building, apparently without a net! This is the film from which the oft-reproduced image of Lloyd hanging from a clock comes. An inventive, thrilling, and very funny film, there are no major lessons learned other than that of love, and the lengths one will go to keep true to it. But as far as suspense--I don't think my heart left my throat for the entire last third of the film! 4.18.00
SCARFACE. Howard Hawks, 1932. 93 min.
Perhaps the most violent film to come out in its time, this portrayal of a gangerster's rise and eventual fall contain the elements now seen again and again. The troubled (almost incestuous) relationship between brother and sister that lead to trouble, the coin flipping man, the rein of terror sequence. Muni, as Scarface does a bit of scenery chewing, sometimes to great effect (upon discovering the machine gun, he shouts to those around him "Get out of the way Johnny, I'm gonna spit"--one of the best lines of the film). Hawks assembles some virtuoso shots, most famously the long dolly shot that opens the film. Watch also for the "X's" Hawks plants on the screen just prior to any death. A very good gangster flick, but bear in mind it holds the trappings of just that: a gangster flick. I'm told that Pacino, in Brian de Palma's 1983 remake, did his own bit of scene-chewing. Maybe that's just the part.
THE SEARCHERS. John Ford, 1956. 116 min.
An exquisitely filmed and composed film staring John Wayne as the marginalized hero searching for his abuducted neice. The story makes odd twists, and Natalie Wood as the woman in question makes a sudden rather strange character change near the end, but the Monument Valley setting and amazing cinematography are almost enough alone to ensure this as a must see. Still, the question of whether this is a revisionist western or a whole heartedly felt western beg comment, and if does fall into the category of the former, it is to be praised for depicting a much less glorified west, long before Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood).
SEVEN SAMURAI. Akira Kurosawa, 1954. 203min.
Kurosawa's classic western, THE SEVEN SAMURAI is as notable for its battle sequences (which far outstrip those in RAN) as for the humanity that runs through it. When a small village decides to fight off the bandits who repeatedly pillage it, they must find hungry samurai willing to take on the job for three square meals a day. So begins an oft-imitated sequence as the samurai are enlisted through various associations and agree for various reasons. The relationships between the samurai, the villagers, and themselves is complex, and it is this that gives the film its texture; there are no innocent people, really, and while the samurai agree to fight for the farmers who is it that wins in the end? 01.21.02
SHADOWS IN PARADISE (aka Varjoja Paratiisissa). 1986, Aki Kaurismäki. 76min.
A Jim Jarmusch film with David Mamet direction, Shadows in Paradise is a surprisingly funny Finnish film delivered with deadpan humor. The film observes the quiet lives of a garbage man and the people around him as they dream small dreams and lead lives of unspoken desires. Shot in glorious color, the cinematographer and set designer were obviously working well with the directoras the mise-en-scene perfectly embodies the world in which the characters reside. With characters and situations reminiscent of Stranger Than Paradise (1984, Jim Jarmusch), I wondered how the characters might react if one wandered into the other's film (I think they would have taken it in stride). I laughed out loud. 10.08
THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET aka OBCHOD NA KORZE. Jan Kadar + Elmar Klos, 1965. 128min.
Winner of the 1965 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, The Shop on Main Street details the life in a small town in Slovakia under Nazi domination. Tono, a down-and-out carpenter, is offered the opportunity to become the Aryan manager of a Jewish sewing shop by his hated brother-in-law. His wife eagerly pushes him towards it, dreaming of riches, but when he befriends the elderly, almost deaf, woman who owns the shop, he is forced to confront his own sense of morality as the Nazi's increase their persecution. At times surprisingly comic, the film builds sympathy for Tono as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion and the final choice that Tono must make. Evocative both of the time and the place, the film works in ways only dreamed of in La Vita E Belle (Roberto Benigni, 1997), to which it bear a passing resemblance in theme, depicting how difficult it really is to protect another, and to protect one from himself. 1.5.02
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952. 103min.
One of the greatest films of all time, this magical movie musical cobbles together a series of pre-existing songs written by Arthur Freed into a celebration. Set during the transition from silent films to talkies in the 20s, the film uses the musical numbers to brilliant effect, both echoing the trend at that time of using sound to create musical films and underscoring the events in the film itself. This is probably the film I have seen the greatest number of times in my life. What a glorious feeling, indeed. A classic and a masterpiece. 02.26.03
THE SIXTH SENSE. M. Night Shyamalan, 1999. 106min.
A film that knows how to take its time to build suspense, this eerily creepy film tells the flipside story to Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker). Substitute Haley Joel Osment for Whoopi Goldberg and Bruce Willis for Patrick Swayze and play it for chills instead of laughs and you get the idea. While not incredibly inventive or groundbreaking, the film is very affecting and effective with accomplished cinematography courtesy Tak Fujimoto (who filmed, among other things, Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme) and Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick). And speaking of Badlands, if you've not seen it, you must. One of the most beautifully photographed films I've ever seen.). The ending is still something of a cheat even if the film is true to its rules and clues.
SO CLOSE TO PARADISE. Xiaoshuai Wang, 1998. 93min.
A film by sixth generation filmmaker Wang, So Close to Paradise tells the story of two workers from the country who come to the city to make their fortunes. One turns to criminal acts in the hopes of fast and easy money while the other slowly makes his way as a "shoulder-pole"--one of a number of porters scurrying for work on the ferry as it crosses back and forth across the river. Shot in a naturalistic style, the film opens a small window on contemporary China, and uses brief intrusions of the media in the form of radio broadcasts and television news shows to indicate how the influx of outsiders into the city is perceived or mis-perceived. An interesting film not only for the story that it tells, but also for the larger story of how the economy is shifting in rapidly modernizing China. And while the ending is somewhat telegraphed and contrived, I must admit that I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
SOUTH PARK, BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT. Trey Parker, 1999. 80min.
Surprisingly, a very accomplished musical. While the merits (or demerits) of its subject matter and humor have oft-been debated, it's not as bad as people may say it is. It's a fast-food movie where almost everything (at least for me) was forgotten by the next day. Still, the supposed sendups of such movie musicals as West Side Story (1961) and the opening scenes of Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) are so well done that they end up tending more towards homage. 4.15.00
SPIRITED AWAY. Hayao Miyazaki, 2002. 124 min. [US Version]
In recent memory, this is only the second film I have seen with such high expectations and had it deliver on them and then some (the other was In the Mood for Love). It is easily the best film of the year thus far. And it is an animated feature. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki who, in his sixties, personally draws thousands of the frames himself, the film tells the story of a girl who reluctantly follows her parents into the spirit world, and is then left with the task of saving them. But the film proves to be about much more than this as it meanders about, delving into its themes of identity, the environment, and redemption through love. It is most expressive in its quiet moments, and revels in small details and throwaway bits that expand the world Miyazaki has created, giving it a depth and breadth missing in most films. At two hours, the film takes its time to come to its conclusion, but I almost wish it continued on longer. I didn't want to leave. Spirited Away seems a culmination fo Miyazaki's talent and his work, melding the environmental message of Princess Monoke (1997), the magic and charm of My Neighbor Totoro (1998), and the coming of age of Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) into what may be his best film. Miyazaki has been called the best animation filmmaker in history. With Spirited Away, he proves to be one of the best directors as well. 09.20.02
STEP INTO LIQUID. Dana Brown, 2002. 88min.
Featuring the highly anticipated footage from Cortes Banks, Step Into Liquid picks up where Endless Summer II [Bruce Brown, 1994] left off, picking up with various surf crews around the world as they search for the perfect wave in some of the most unlikely places. From oil tanker wake surfing off the coast of Texas to surfing the breaks on the Great Lakes, from Laird Hamilton's advances in surf technology to Taj Burrow's advances in style and technique, the film boasts amazing cinematography as it delves into the essence of surfing. And after watching such surfers as Keala Kennelly or Rochelle Ballard, I'd be more than thrilled to be able to surf like a girl. 8.03
THE STORY OF QUI JU. Zhang Yimou, 1992. 100min.
This deceptively simple, though ultimately engaging, film follows one woman's quest for justice, leading the viewer through various levels of Chinese bureaucracy to an ambiguous end, echoing that of Truffaut's 400 Blows. With a style and story that hints at Not One Less, to follow, Zhang Yimou trains his camera upon Gong Li as the village woman out to right a personal wrong. The singlemindedness of the character is brought to bear upon the camera, which almost never leaves Li as she travels first to the district head, then the city head, and finally brings her case to court. While comparing the simpleness of the country with the more sophisticated city, Yimou never patronizes his characters and the attentive camera belies the careful cinematography that seems to present the story with the preparation of a lawyer bringing his case to bear. Surprisingly, this apparent lack of complexity draws you in until you are no longer as interested in the outcome as to what this quest is doing to the characters themselves; and in the end it's less about the Chinese system than what's right, what's wrong, and just how far to push it. 02.24.01
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957. 96min.
It's a dog eat dog world out there and this gritty New York story follows top dog Burt Lancaster and his cur Tony Curtis as they cover the waterfront. Lancaster is columnist J.J. Hunsecker; Curtis a press agent who serves his master in hopes of one day filling his shoes. Featuring the Chico Hamilton quintet and music conducted by Elmer Bernstein, comparisons can be made in feeling with Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), but cinematographer James Wong Howe takes a page from noir, filling the streets with water and the screen with high contrast black and white images that leap into the imagination. The characters are scoundrels and the air is tight with their bitingly brilliant dialogue as each tries to outdo the other until in the end . . . well, even the end is a bit noirish. I'll let you see it to find out.
skip:s SHAFT. Gordon Parks, 1971.
Here's where my idiosyncracies lay. While I can recommend Drunken Master (1979) knowing that it's really a film only for kung-fu and Jackie Chan fans, I can't really recommend this except for blaxpoitation fans. All the elements are there--the violence, the sex, and the capitalization of black power--but it all seems dated. I think the action films from the 70's suffer worse than others because in the 70's they started down the road to the present day--where they have since become bigger, longer, and uncut. As a cultural icon, I enjoyed seeing where Shaft was born but I'm not sure I'd be interested in seeing where he's going; unfortunately I already have. 4.18.00
SHAFT RETURNS. John Singleton, 2000. ? min.
It seems like a perfect set up to reinvestigate the blaxpoitation films of the 70s. Samuel L. Jackson, tailor made as the "private dick who gets all the chicks" and John Singleton, a filmmaker noted for his films featuring strong black characters and exploring themes of racism (Boyz N the Hood, 1991; Poetic Justice, 1993; Higher Learning, 1995). So, how terribly sad that this muddle is the result. What is the problem with this film? That it's plotless? That it's slow and poorly edited--are they the same thing? That the bad guy suddenly switches midway and then switches back again? That the characters have so little motivation it's unbelieveable that they would go to such extremes? That the ending undermines the whole film? That the film doesn't know whether to play up the blaxpoitation aspect for laughs or tone it down to make serious commentary upon it? I could go on and on but I'll spare you. About the only good thing in the film is Jackson--well, that and the soundtrack which was also in a working state and borrowed many songs from "Get Shorty". Pity he has so little to work with or work from. Suffice to say that in this version, we all--and I know, but I can't resist--feel shafted. 04.03.2000
SHANE. George Stevens, 1953. 118min.
A classic western, Shane tells the story of a gunfighter who's ready to hang up his guns and settle down to work the land. Unfortunately, a cattle rancher who's trying to run the homesteaders off the land in order to raise beef all but forces him to pick up his six shooters to defend the people who have all but adopted him as family. The film is straightforward, but its simplicity and the way in which its story has become so ubiquitous in westerns that it becomes rather dull. After a while, I was just waiting for the final shootout. A spiritual ancestor to Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN (1992), the film has been quoted in a number of films.
SHAOLIN SOCCER [aka SIU LAM JUK KAU]. Stephen Chow, 2001. 111min.
An amusing premise. In order to spread the word about kung-fu in hopes to open schools, a down and out student enlists his friends as fellow soccer players, using their martial arts training to win tournaments against an evil team owner. Winner of a number of Hong Kong film awards for special effects, the film contains some very funny bits in the beginning, but soon the comedy becomes too broad, and the special effects overdone and tired. In the end, the idea, a brief passing chuckle, becomes funnier than an entire movie can support.
SHIRI. Je-gyu Kang, 1999. 124min.
Notable as the film that outgrossed Titanic [James Cameron, 1997] in its native Korea, and also for its groundbreaking treatment of the conflict between the north and the south, the film ultimately proves unsatisfying. It's unfortunate, because there is a great film buried beneath the slipshod screenplay (which has shades of La Femme Nikita [1990, Luc Besson]) and almost indifferent direction. The potential is so great that it makes the final film all the more disappointing, as the themes of love and betrayal and duty that John Woo manages at times to play off each other to great effect are here given rudimentary treatments the better to set up lackluster action sequences at the end that are barely coherent enough to keep one interested let alone entertained. If only they would remake poor films with potential into better ones rather than merely reproducing known hits.
SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN. Zhuangzhuang Tian, 2002. 116min.
In the hands of Zhang Yimou in his prime, Springtime in a Small Town could have become an epic tragedy (a little Gong Li would have gone a long way as well). But Zhuangzhuang Tian can't raise the film above a slightly melodramatic made for tv feeling. At times, the production takes on the look and feel of a summer stock performance, as the camera stands back, allowing the characters equal space on the screen with their surroundings. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult for the audience to be emotionally involved as well, and the acting is too stilted to draw us in. More interesting are the politics of the film, as a woman finds herself caught between the traditional (in the person of her husband) and the modern (in the person of a former beau returned from Shanghai) in post-World War 2 China. Unfortunately, the film remains ultimately unsatisifying. 12.04
STAR WARS EPSIODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES. George Lucas, 2002. 143min.
Somehow, in the transition from film to digital, the fun seems to have left the Star Wars series. In some ways, the limitations seemed to heighten the effects that were acheived; now, where anything that can be imagined can be digitally created, everything seems oddly flat. Even the acting can barely be called that as leaden lines are delivered merely to forward the plot, such as it is. Even the central mysteries loose their suspense as jedi and space ships chase each other in imagined pursuit of the truth. In the end, the plot serves merely as a contrivance upon which to hang the special effects. And the truth is, we've seen it all before, done with less splash but far greater effect. From the asteroid fields to the battles and betrayals, the plot is a rehash of the Empire STrikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) set a few decades earlier, with an earlier generation substituting for the one to come. 11.16.02
STARTUP.COM. Chris Hegedus + Jehane Noujaim, 2001. 103min.
Less a story about the internet boom and bust, this documentary tells the story of two friends who start a company that happens to be govWorks.com. Throughout, the camera follows the two as they secure financing and start building, watching then as their baby starts to bottom out. But those looking to see how an actual internet company works will be sorely disappointed as very little of the actual building the company is shown. Instead we watch the two bicker and compromise as money (or the lack of it) slowly pushes them apart. Interviews with the employees and their reactions to the various changes within and without the company would have provided counterpoint to the story of two boys playing at being men in this, in the end, very surface study of how it all comes together (or doesn't). Perhaps the only glimpse of the startup life is the suggested late nights and long weekends spent trying to make it all work, and the somewhat forced excitement and camraderie built through cheers and retreats. 05.28.01
SUPERSIZE ME. Mogan Spurlock, 2004. 96min.
In lieu of teenagers suing MacDonalds for damages done them through endless Big Mac's and Happy Meals, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decides to use his own body for scientific experiment. He puts himself of a diet of only over-the-counter-meals at MacDonald's and films the month that follows. The result is predictably grotesque (though the lowest depths to which he sinks are a surprise not only to himself but also the medical team he has assembled to watch over him) as Spurlock basically destroys his health. The film is moderately informative, though the main reason to watch is the stunt Spurlock performs. Unfortunately it's not enough to really recommend the film (and at 96 minutes, it wears out it's welcome somewhat). For a more informative and measured evaluation of the fast food industry (and what it has done not only to the citizens of America but America itself), one would be better off reading Fast Food Nation.
SWIMMING POOL. Francois Ozon, 2003. 103min.
What a dissapointment! After the glorious Under the Sand I had expected more. Charlottle Rampling plays a mystery writer with a block who uses her publisher's house in the south of France to rejuvenate her creative juices. The film lags, until it trys to interject some conflict with the appearance of Ludivine Sagnier as the publisher's daughter. The initial shock doesn't last long however, and the story slowly winds its way to Rampling's return to London, where the final shots force you to reconsider everything that's come before. Unfortunately, the film ends up proving somewhat disingenuous. 02.04
SWORDFISH. Dominic Sena, 2001. 99min.
There's nothing wrong with this film, there's just not that much to recommend it (save for the end, which I found oddly refreshing--there are some alternate endings on the DVD that would have shattered what little appreciation I have). Travolta brings back the persona he's been playing since Tarantino resurrected him, this time as the head of what may be a super-secret division of the government seeking to re-appropriate funds for their operating budget. It's easier than going through Congress, I suppose. He enlists the services of super-hacker Hugh Jackson to break into the account and redistribute the funds, but for all the usefulness of his skills are concerned, it seems as though they might as well break into the bank. Which they do, incidentally. It seems a lot of trouble for, well, a lot of gain, but does a plan *have* to be this convoluted? Is a Dog Day Afternoon [Sidney Lumet, 1975] showdown necessary when it seems as though the best hacker in the world should be able to transfer funds all through the magic of the internet rather than having to deal with actually breaking into a bank? Halle Berry offers gratuitous nudity and then disappears for large swaths of time until her beauty is necessary as set dressing as Jackson struggles to do the right thing by his kid. A lot of flash as misdirection, making you think that maybe this isn't such a bad action film after all. And yet . . . 9.13.03