Monday, February 28, 2011

Aguirre, The Wrath of God

There's something a bit odd about a movie where Spanish people speak German, but I guess the same can be said about any number of movies where people speak English when they shouldn't. Aguirre tells the story of a man who leads a group of explorers as they search for El Dorado in South America. Their mission is only supposed to last a week when they leave the main group, but Aguirre rebels against the chosen leader, believing greatness can sometimes only be found if certain orders are disobeyed, and elects a new leader, even declaring him the new king, and they continue looking for the city of gold. Of course they never find it, and the rest of the film consists of them all becoming increasingly desperate and deluded as they slowly get picked off by natives while their supplies dwindle to nothing. It's a pretty harsh movie, though there's a certain watchability to seeing the whole crew succumb to madness and starvation.

I've seen the name Werner Herzog come up a lot, and this being his first film I've seen, I have to say I'm fairly impressed. He obviously didn't have a very large budget to work with, given how the quality of the picture and the costumes definitely comes off a bit cheap. But he still makes the story work, and somehow pulled a really compelling and interesting story out of a bunch of guys riding a raft for an hour and a half. Watching Aguirre bully his compatriots into following him to their collective doom becomes very unnerving, and there's a constant noticeable trend to the feel of the atmosphere as things go from adventurous to worrying and then far, far worse. It's also an oddly funny movie too at times, notably with all the dialogue that pops up whenever a delirious person gets hit by an arrow from an unseen assailant in the jungle. A solid film that far outshines its limited production value.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff plays a lot like a classic Shakespearean tragedy, and there's definitely a sadness and poignancy to the film. I can't say it really drew me into its story too much, but that's partly my fault for not giving it my full attention. I just don't always go for this kind of story, which seems to be trying a little too hard at times to be depressing for its own sake. Not that trying to get any sort of particular emotion out of the viewer is wrong, it's just not generally my cup of tea. It's still an obviously well done film, made perhaps a bit early to have some of the real stylistic touches that get me interested, but still good.

I wasn't really sure why it was called what it was. Sansho is a major character, but the movie is really about two siblings that get captured after their noble father is ousted and sold into slavery. They spend years toiling and trying to get back to their family, but as can be expected nothing goes as well as the protagonists hope it will. There are some solid melodramatic performances, and truly bitter moments of sadness. I just didn't find myself caring as much as director Kenji Mizoguchi wanted me to. There's not much more I can say than that.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Gods of the Arena is a prequel miniseries to last year's Spartacus: Blood and Sand that only exists because star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer and unable to play the part in season two. Based on that sentence you might think that it was doomed to be terrible, but I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. It had all the qualities that the regular series had found in its second half with none of the horrible growing pains from the first, and managed to tell an interesting swords-and-sandals tale while also filling in some unasked for yet still intriguing details about the lives of many of the show's characters years before they met its titular character. Maybe it didn't strictly need to exist, since they ended up having to recast Spartacus despite taking the year hiatus, but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun.

Five years before Spartacus showed up, the arena was ruled by another man named Gannicus. Batiatus still controlled the gladiators, but was watched by his overbearing father, and still trying to prove himself in the arena, long before he had political ambitions. Lucretia was less of a party girl, Doctore wasn't Doctore yet, and Ashur and Crixus were just untested recruits. Watching everybody slowly turn into the people they would be later is fairly compelling, and a lot of times the real explanation for something is more surprising than you might guess. It all fits together a bit too cleanly to feel like a truly organic story, but there's nothing wrong with tightly plotted action and intrigue. Also, there's lots of extremely bloody and stylish fight scenes and needlessly explicit nudity, which is just as fun to watch as it was before.

Not every little plot thread is as interesting as the others. A few characters feel a bit wasted, and a few things we probably didn't really need to know. But the writers and crew have honed the show's formula to a well oiled machine by this point, which actually makes me almost disappointed that that formula's probably going to be gone by the time the show comes back considering what has happened. Still, I'm definitely looking forward to what comes next. That's something I honestly wouldn't have guessed when the show started a year ago.

Also, here are my recaps for all the episodes of the show:
Past Transgressions
Beneath the Mask
The Bitter End

Friday, February 25, 2011


This is one of the hardest movies I've ever had to try to have an opinion on. Satantango is seven hours long, which makes it the seventh longest non-experimental film of the last 20 years according to Wikipedia. It is composed entirely of long takes, and not just regular long takes, long takes that last for minutes at a time regularly. Not a whole lot happens in those seven hours, despite the fact that several events take place off screen and are described by a narrator or just implied. The story has an obvious ambition to it, although to be honest I'd have a hard time describing to you what it actually is about. It's easy to lose focus when the characters are speaking Hungarian, or not at all for minutes on end. This all sounds like a painfully boring experience, but somehow it wasn't. Part of it might be that I watched it in three chunks thanks to getting the discs separately from Netflix instead of one seven hour long sitting.

But there really is something about the movie that makes it compelling despite everything I've described, maybe even partially because of it. It probably could have even lasted longer. Long takes can be used effectively to make a movie seem more real. We can grasp and be entertained by quicker editing techniques, but there are no cuts and camera angles in real life, and watching something happen in real time can be captivating and even hypnotic. There's also just an undeniable artistry to the way director Béla Tarr and his crew painstakingly set up and shoot all of these scenes, somehow finding new ways to show people walking somewhere or sitting in a room that don't get tiring before the film ends. Maybe I'm just searching for a way to explain why I wasn't really bored by an epically long movie about Hungarian farmers screwing each other over, but I really wasn't. Well, maybe I was at times, and I helped stave off those feelings by doing some other stuff during particularly long and wordless moments. But it is pretty amazing how watchable it still ended up being.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc

In some ways this is one of the most remarkable silent films I've ever seen, though I didn't actually enjoy watching it that much. It tries to accurately portray the last days of Joan's life, as she is tried, tortured, and executed, so you can imagine that it's not that fun to watch. It has a pretty quick running time, although with it consisting mostly of the actress playing Joan crying and staring intensely while people try to force her to confess to some holy crime, it doesn't exactly fly by. It's a bit different from most other silent movies I've seen, having no accompanying musical score, which adds to the starkly cold and bleak spirit of the story, and featuring a lot more subtitled dialogue than usual. It probably would have benefited from actually being a sound picture more than other movies of the era, though I guess it's possible the performance might not have played so hauntingly.

What's really the most impressive thing about the movie is the very advanced filming techniques used to make it. There are lots of close ups and rapidly edited moments, which is pretty unlike the style of the time and contributes heavily to its unique feel. It's also by far the earliest film I've seen to feature some of its more graphic content. I guess it deserves a lot of credit for how watchable it ends up being despite being an 80 year old French silent film, but I still found myself continuing on because it was important and not because I liked anything about it. It's really the ultimate example of a movie that people should see but probably don't want to. I don't want to seem harsh on it - it really is a noteworthy, important, often powerful film. It's just the kind of thing I doubt I'll ever want to see again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear starts off pretty humbly, setting the stage and slowly introducing the characters in a small town in the middle of nowhere in South America. Everybody needs work but nobody's hiring, except for the American oil company nearby, but the work is hard and the pay is bad. People end up getting stuck there with no way to leave, either because they don't have the right paperwork, they can't afford it, or both. An opportunity arises though, when an accident causes one of the oil company's fields to burst into flames, and to extinguish it they hire four of the locals to transport two trucks full of nitroglycerin to the site. After an extended opening, the protagonists set off on the mission and the film transforms into one of the most intriguing and tense thrillers I have ever seen. Also, two of them are named Mario and Luigi which is somewhat interesting.

The going is pretty slow, which is understandable considering the volatile nature of the cargo they're hauling. Any errant bump could set off a massive explosion, and the film does a great job of establishing the stakes and danger early on, letting the troubles they come across be the focus with the knowledge of what failure means always in the back of the viewer's mind. You might not expect a movie about driving trucks slowly over unpaved roads to be more exciting and suspenseful than most action movies ever made, but it can be if you let it. The danger is all the more palpable because they do such a good job of establishing the men, both in what they're good at and who they are as people. There are lots of unexpected obstacles along the way, and the heroes' solutions for overcoming them are unique and clever in their conception and memorable in their execution.

The movie is two and a half hours long, and I could see how it might end up boring for someone who really doesn't care about the details of this sort of dangerous work. But it really is just a brilliant piece of work from beginning to end, weaving together all the different languages and backgrounds of the characters and putting them in perilous situations while you dare to hope they'll make it past this one too. You might have a guess about whether things ends up going well for everybody, but even if you have an idea of what happens you might still be surprised by the particulars. I was a bit put off by the ending at first, but looking back it kind of makes a lot of sense. It's a suitable conclusion to a pretty grim and unflinching story.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Persona is one of the best examples of film as art that I can think of, and it's for this reason that I found it interesting while at the same not becoming terribly connected to it. I can appreciate what a lot of different kinds of movies do, but all of my very favorites attach themselves to me emotionally in some way or at least make me excited to be watching them, and while Persona might be one of the most skillful displays of filmmaking I've ever seen, it never hit me in that personal way, not like Wild Strawberries did. Still, it's probably something every dedicated fan of cinema should see.

It begins with some very jumbled and often disturbing imagery, ranging from a sheep being slaughtered to a nail being pounded into someone's hand, but while this stuff pops up again later, most of the rest of the movie is much more approachable, if not still oddly distant and somewhat confusing. An actress named Elisabet suffers some sort of break and refuses to do anything or even speak, and she gets assigned a nurse named Alma (and played by Bibi Andersson, the same woman who portrayed both Saras in Strawberries), who at first tries to connect with her in the hospital and later stays with her in a house by the sea owned by the doctor.

What follows is a lot of talking by Alma and not-talking by Elisabet, as the former tries to get the latter to come out of her shell and grows increasingly frustrated. It's a pretty amazing performance by Andersson, who has to carry almost the entire film by herself and does it with great intensity. But the story at times seems aimless, or worse doesn't make any sense, like the scenes where Elizabet's husband (played by our old pal Jöns) shows up and can't seem to tell the two apart somehow. Still, despite being a bit put off by some of the film's aspects, it cemented my respect for Bergman as one of the best foreign filmmakers that this whole watch-a-lot-of-classic-movies kick has introduced me to.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The King's Speech

The King's Speech seems like it might be prestige-for-its-own-sake Oscar-bait, but sometimes movies like that are actually really good. Such is the case with The King's Speech, which tells the story of King George VI's troubles with his speech impediment and how an Australian therapist named Lionel Logue helped him overcome it, as well as how they became friends in the process. The script nudges history around here and there to make the story fit a traditional narrative structure a bit better, making the time of his therapy cover a broader period of history and ignoring some of the less-noble aspects of some of its characters, but much like in the film's main rival in the Oscar race, The Social Network, some adjustments to the true account of what happened are acceptable if it makes for a more entertaining film. And The King's Speech does damn well at that.

The script is quite good, keeping a nice pace as it sets the characters up and then ramps up both the intensity of the training and the political circumstances Prince Albert has to worry about on parallel tracks, always building up to the climactic scene where the two come together. It was a surprisingly funny movie, with some pretty snappy banter between the two men, with some of the dialogue taken directly from Logue's journals. Despite the humor, there's also plenty of more dramatic material where required, exploring what caused the king to develop a stammer in the first place and also selling the grave situation of Hitler's rise looming in the background. The direction is also noteworthy, as Tom Hooper filmed the movie with a lot more verve than was necessarily required with this kind of movie. Nothing about is exactly mind-blowing or unique, but it helped keep the movie from ever seeming dull.

And of course, the performances are all generally brilliant as well. Despite having to stammer his way through the whole movie, Colin Firth gives a pretty commanding lead performance as the king, and he does so well with the impediment that you almost forget he's acting. He also convincingly pulls off struggling under the weight of his growing responsibility - there are a lot of aspects to the role, and he nails all of them. Geoffrey Rush is also great as Logue. It's not nearly as difficult a part, but without good work by both men then the interesting dynamic between the two would never have worked. Helena Bonham Carter is good as the king's very supportive wife, and Michael Gambon and guy Pearce are both regal and menacing as his somewhat less supportive father and brother. It's not that they don't believe in his ability, it's just that they don't understand the difficulty of his situation, and it's a delicate balance that they get right. So The King's Speech manages to be a fairly uplifting underdog story while still having the weight of something darker, due to the terrible things that we all know are waiting for the characters just a few years after it ends. The formula is pretty easy to see, but formulas can be fine when they're pulled off so well by everyone involved. I certainly wouldn't have any qualms about it winning Best Picture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Walking Dead, Volumes 7-13

Partly thanks to actually having an income, I have read more of The Walking Dead than I have in the last couple months than I did in the last couple years. Having 42 issues to talk about rather than only six doesn't actually leave me with that much more to talk about, because I'd rather avoid going to much into the details of the plot as usual. Suffice it to say that zombies are still everywhere, and people die just as quickly as they are introduced. Part of what I like about this rotating cast is that that it allows the dynamic of the group to change greatly over time. I'm currently working my way through the British TV series MI-5, and while I appreciate how they're willing to change up the cast frequently, it's pretty obvious when a new character is dropped into an old one's basic niche without it actually changing the show's formula too much. But the new blood in The Walking Dead definitely changes the story, and it's interesting to watch relationships evolve with time. Also, these volumes really dug deep into the idea of humanity being the real danger in a world where society has been destroyed, even more than the earlier stories, and that stuff tends to be much more chilling and depressing than any regular horror story can. But while the series works well as a study of humanity in an extreme setting, I don't think I'll ever count it among my favorite comics because there just isn't enough of a plot for me to really get invested in. Live goes on for these people until they die, and the book seems like it will go on in much the same way until it ends. I'll stick with it for a while though, at least.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Some Like It Hot

After seeing just a couple minutes of Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve, I was pretty interested in seeing Some Like It Hot even if it wasn't any good. Of course it's a Billy Wilder movie so it was good anyway, and it also stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, two solid comic actors of the era who play off each other really well. Some Like It Hot is a cross-dressing movie, which is an idea that usually spells disaster in the modern film world but works well here, as two musicians witness a mob execution in Chicago and then go on the run as women so they can join an all-girl band and get a free trip to Florida. On the way though they both become attached to Monroe's Sugar, the band's singer who has problems with drinking and throwing herself at men. There are some wacky scenarios and a bit of competition between the two friends, but Lemmon's Jerry sort of falls in the running when all his attentions turn toward the overly forward and notably wealthy Osgood, who takes a liking to him.

So while he's stringing Osgood along since he likes being treated nicely, Curtis' Joe balances multiple personas as he plays a woman in the band and a wealthy heir to try to seduce Sugar. Of course he develops deeper feelings for her, and things get even messier when the mob shows up in their hotel for a party and figures out what's going on. It's all pretty over the top, but it works because it's just witty and likable enough to skirt over issues like the unbelievability of Sugar not noticing Josephine and Junior are the same person and the likelihood of the bad guys just happening to show up right where the heroes are. Really, the whole organized crime subplot could have totally flopped, but it ends up working both as a way to set up the extraordinary circumstances that force the cross-dressing in the first place and because of the goofy bad-guy banter that happens whenever they show up. It's a funny madcap adventure, with a bit of heart as well in all the right places. Monroe looks stunning through the whole movie, and of course the final line is an undeniable classic. Not my favorite Billy Wilder movie, but certainly a very good one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch is another of 1969's famous westerns, and while I didn't like it as much as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is arguably the more important film considering the direction the medium has taken since then. It's a brutally violent film that asks you to root for guys who are by no means anywhere close to good. Butch and Sundance were criminal outlaws, sure, but they avoided bloodshed where possible. The members of the wild bunch care about each other a lot, and that camaraderie is built effectively over the course of the story. But they're very hard, very bad men, and director Sam Peckinpah doesn't white wash anything they do.

An aging-but-not-quite-old William Holden and Ernest Borgnine lead the bunch, crooks who rob banks and shoot anyone who gets in their way. After they're set up on a big job by a posse led by an old acquaintance of Holden's, they're forced to stay in the game and deal with someone they'd rather not, a Mexican general who wants a shipment of guns. It proves to be a pretty fateful final mission. What's interesting about comparing The Wild Bunch to Butch Cassidy is how their endings are so similar yet so different. The content is essentially the same, but The Wild Bunch is much more explicit, reveling in violence rather than implying it. The movie would be notable for its bloody shooting even if that's all there was to it, but the way it's shot is important too - quickly editing between various angles and maintaining a deranged coherence among all the mayhem and gore makes it extremely influential over the future of action filmmaking.

It's not just violent though. They do a good job of developing and explaining the history among the gang members and also their main pursuer ended up on their trail, making it a more complicated and interesting story than a lot of older westerns despite appearing a lot less classy due to the explicit content. A lot of the plot is actually pretty clever - the train robbery is one of the best early heists I can think of. It's just a great example of how well constructed an otherwise simple adventure movie can be, and probably more important to the development of this kind of movie than I can really fully grasp. Solid acting, good direction, fun movie.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I've seen a number of films by Akira Kurosawa before, although this is actually the first one that took place during the time it was filmed. It's not as flashy and exciting as some of his other work, thought it was probably the most emotionally moving then he's made that I've seen. It's about a lonely, bored bureaucrat in City Hall who learns that he has terminal stomach cancer and realizes that he's wasted his whole life since his wife died over twenty years earlier. All he has are a position as an unheralded section chief at work and a son who's more interested in his inheritance than him at home, and he goes through a crisis, skipping work and going out to drink. He befriends a couple people who help him try to recapture the spark of life before trying to make the most of the time he has left.

There's a lot of interesting touches in the film. The narrator is one of the most unusually written of the era, talking frankly about the protagonist as a character in a story rather than a person. There's also some inspired sequences like one near the beginning where we see the runaround some women are given when they try to get the government to help on something, being passed from department to department with no one actually considering helping them. The film is probably longer than it needed to be, a common issue I have with some of Kurosawa's work, as the movie sometimes continues to throw in scenes showing the protagonist spending time with people long after the important points those characters bring are made. I was never really bored, I just thought it could have been trimmed a bit.

I think the movie really shines though in the last fifty minutes or so, when the structure shifts and a great deal of time is spent in a single location. For some reason the way they turned the story into a puzzle that some people are trying to decipher while going over the key to the main character's whole story arc seemed to work really well. There's also some pretty brilliant imagery here, most memorably the iconic scene at a swing set in the snow. I'm not sure I'll ever love Kurosawa like some other people due, but this film is a great example of the talent and creativity he had when the rest of the world was still figuring a lot of basic stuff out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Along with creator Blake Masters, Brotherhood was largely written and produced by Henry Bromell, who ran the underrated Rubicon for the too-brief time it was on the air. The show also co-stars Jason Clarke, who now plays the male lead on Shawn Ryan's new FOX cop drama The Chicago Code. These were reasons enough to check out Brotherhood, as if it didn't seem interesting enough on its own.

The show tells the story of two Irish brothers in Providence, Rhode Island; Tommy is a prominent member of the state's legislature, and Michael is a particularly unhinged member of the city's organized crime underground. The two are held together despite their very different worlds by their common upbringing and their amazingly bitchy mother, who came over from Ireland in her youth but blames pretty much everything she sees wrong in the world on illegal immigrants. Other significant characters include Tommy's wife Eileen, who hides a self-destructive side under he perfect politician's wife exterior, the brothers' Irish cousin Colin who becomes Michael's right hand, and Declan, an old friend of Tom's who is turned against him by his career as a detective. Although the show has a definite plot with plenty of twists and turns, it is primarily character driven, painting a rich tapestry of their messed up and interwoven lives while also offering up scathing critiques of how broken many of our country's institutions are.

It's hard to say who you're supposed to root for, because none of the characters are innocent, but none are truly beyond redemption either. Sure, Michael extorts from people and sometimes even kills him, but Tommy ruins plenty of people himself making deals to ensure his own prominence in the government. It's not a very pretty picture, especially with how often the series shows that the two systems that are theoretically completely dissonant, crime and politics, are actually permanently linked together. You can just enjoy the show for the graphic violence and its often hilariously bumbling criminals, but there's a lot more to it if you care to look. The way the show handles gaps between seasons is interesting; many shows take a similar strategy of assuming that a certain amount of time has passed, but few allow so many apparently significant events and developments happen off-screen, as if there's just some chunk of the show missing. Similarly, though the show was canceled after its third season, the finale works well enough as a conclusion to the story. Sure, there are places they could have gone with all of the characters, but there's something of a finality to the way the brutality of the violence peaks in the last episode, and being a show about the lives of the people in it, I don't really see a more conclusive end point that would have been better. People live for a while, and then they stop. Brotherhood is a show that explores that in a really interesting way.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Thing

I wasn't a big fan of the two other John Carpenter/Kurt Russell collaborations I've seen, but this turned out to be quite good. People call it a remake, but much like the recent True Grit, it's more of another adaptation of the same source material. It combines elements of science fiction and horror in a pretty recognizable way, having done poorly on its initial release but since becoming a cult classic and obvious inspiration for a number of other attempts with similar subject matter. It begins with some Norwegians shooting at a dog from a helicopter in Antarctica (the movie specifically mentions that it's winter, so shouldn't it be night the whole time?) before crashing near an American research base and getting killed. That's odd enough to the men stationed there, but things get way worse when they realize that the dog is actually some sort of alien that was recently thawed from the ice that can take other forms. Also, it wants to murder and assimilate all of them.

What follows is a very interesting combination of visceral and cerebral horror as the men constantly worry about whether those around them have already been taking over, while occasionally exposing the monster and fighting off its tentacles and mandibles with flamethrowers and dynamite. The practical creature effects look remarkably good almost thirty years later, and are pretty effective at setting the mood and looking crazily grotesque even if they don't provoke a real physical reaction anymore. But the paranoia of the story is what really works the best about the movie, especially once the survivors' numbers have really dwindled and the possibility that the whole world is at risk looms large. Pretty outstanding apocalyptic ending, too. Russell is pretty bad ass as the station's chopper pilot and de facto leader once things get hairy, and Keith David is good too as possibly Russell's biggest skeptic. You also get to see Wilford Brimley first as a perplexed doctor and then running around like a lunatic smashing things, so that's fun. The Thing is certainly an early example of what can be a lot of fun about R-rated science fiction.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Social Network

It's not actually my favorite movie of 2010, but The Social Network represents, possibly by far, the best coming together of writing, directing, and acting that I've seen from last year. There's just immense skill on display through the entire thing.  Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is so great that you could be justified in posting the entire thing on a webpage for memorable quotes. The structure is clever in doling out information while leaving you anticipating the next scene, and the dialogue is just unbelievable. And while the negative connotation of that word could be applied, it doesn't matter because the point isn't for the characters to sound real, but just to be constantly entertaining to listen to. It's the same thing with the inaccuracies in the story - the broad strokes of Facebook's creation seem to be mostly correct, so who cares if things that happen between characters are changed for dramatic effect? It's a movie.

Meanwhile, David Fincher's direction is excellent as well. He's not the most consistent filmmaker I can think of, but with the right project he can knock one out of the park, and even the lesser movies he's directed still have his style, which makes most things more interesting. He gets great collaborations out of his cinematographer and composers, including Trent Reznor, who provide a memorably and unsettling score. Even with the script, the movie might not have worked without the sinister mood all these people worked to create, and seems key to making a film hinging on something as pop culture-focused as Facebook still work.

And the cast is great from top to bottom. Jesse Eisenberg finally and definitively casts aside the Michael Cera comparisons with his depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, a brilliant programmer and wordsmith but someone who doesn't really know how to act around people. His relationship with friend and site co-founder Eduardo Saverin is key to the story have any emotional resonance, and Andrew Garfield more than holds up his side of that in the role. There's something odd about the film's version of Sean Parker, the guy behind the business side of Napster who impresses Zuckerberg with his business ideas and eventually becomes a partner. The movie seems to conflate him with the more famous Shawn Fanning, and it's also strange how he seems more like a rock star than a young, bright business man, which is further encouraged by him being played by Justin Timberlake. But it somehow works for the film's purposes, and Timberlake does a fine job. Fincher's use of technology to enhance a movie without using obvious, overbearing effects has always been intriguing, and having Armie Hammer play both of the Winklevoss twins because he was right for the part instead of just picking two real twins pays off. Women aren't really a big part of Zuckerberg's life after he gets the Facebook idea, even leading to some accusations of misogyny in the film, but Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones are both good in supporting roles as the ex-girlfriend who sets the whole thing in motion and a junior lawyer who sympathizes with his position.

So the movie is pretty brilliant from start to finish, with all of the elements I've described thrown together and allowed to thrive for two hours. There aren't really any particularly special moments that stood out to me and made me exclaim at how good the movie was, but consistently excellent filmmaking is worth applauding too. I'm not sure if it will quite earn too many of the incredibly talented people involved the academy awards they might deserve with The King's Speech (another film I hope to see soon) kind of looking to me like an unstoppable juggernaut at this point, but whatever the case it's still a great movie just absolutely packed with killer dialogue and great performances. There's just so many quotes running through my head right now. It would be a shame to settle for just one, so I'll instead just say you should see this movie if you haven't yet.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I'm glad I saw this, because I was almost starting to forget how awesome Paul Newman and Robert Redford were together in The Sting, another movie directed by George Roy Hill. This one was released a few years earlier, when tastes were really changing in Hollywood and the old kind of Western was dying out if not already dead. Newman and Redford are Butch and Sundance respectively (Did you know the film festival was created by Redford and named after this character? I didn't.), the latter with a fast gun and the former with an even quicker tongue. They lead a gang of bank and train robbers, going around merrily like Robin Hood, stealing from those who can afford it and keeping it mostly for themselves, but generous enough with handouts that they aren't sitting on a fortune. These early scenes are a lot of fun, establishing the friendship and collaboration between the two leads, as well as their relationship with Sundance's girlfriend.

Things change though, when a man with the train company that they've been repeatedly robbing hires an expert posse to chase after them until they're caught or killed, featuring a couple people they know by reputation. They get separated from the gang and go on the run, eventually resorting to relocating to Bolivia for the rest of the movie. They can't give up their lives of crime though, culminating in an extremely memorable and well made scene. There's a lot of interesting things about this movie, besides the fact that it's just entertaining and funny and Newman and Redford are fantastic in it. The tone varies significantly over the course of the movie, but it never feels out of character with itself. The song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" was written for it, winning one of it's handful of Oscars for best song and featuring in an odd, cute scene featuring a bicycle. And it's sort of unique how the characters never actually come face to face with any of their real antagonists in the story, but they still manage to drive them towards the ending. Sundance Kid was one of at least three significant Westerns to come out in 1969, and I'll be watching one of the others pretty soon. I'll be interested in how they compare.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting didn't really work for me until Robin Williams was introduced. The opening scenes have an almost amateur vibe to them, hinting at talent from the performers and the production crew but not working quite right. Too much of that stuff has been parodied and referenced endlessly, and some scenes just flat out look terrible, like the ill-advised slow motion fight scene. It just feels like it's of a time and that I missed the boat on enjoying it while it was fresh.

But then Williams comes along and suddenly the whole movie gets a lot better. His performance is totally outstanding, and that's part of it. But everything else seems better too, like a switch has been turned on. It seemed like the script by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck was trying too hard at first to establish their story about Will Hunting, the genius from a broken home who could do anything if he got over his personal troubles. But after the fight, Will's only way to avoid jail time is to do math work at MIT where he was a janitor and see a therapist. Williams is the one who sticks, and from there they develop an interesting rapport at the same time that Will gets involved with a Harvard student played by Minnie Driver. The two storylines work well in tandem, as Williams tries to help Damon push through his barriers at the same time that he's attempting to do the same on his own.

The super-genius stuff almost feels tacked-on actually. It provides a reason for why Will's crippling personal issues are particularly devastating, not just to him but to the good he could do for the world, and also a couple opportunities for memorable, intricate monologues. But I didn't find it as compelling as the therapy or relationship stuff, or even just the scenes where he's hanging out with his regular Joe friends. Apparently the script started out as a thriller about the government trying to recruit a genius before it turned into what it is in the movie, so that part is actually the original seed of the whole thing. Still, it's not why I liked the movie. Williams deserved his Oscar, Damon is generally good as well, and while I had issues with some of what Gus Van Sant did, it's not a bad effort. I definitely liked it more than I thought I would after the first twenty or so minutes.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Elephant Man

David Lynch is best known for making bizarre films, and that sneaks into The Elephant Man just a bit, with some dreamlike imagery involving the death of the titular character's mother. But for the most part he plays things straight, telling the simple human story of an extremely deformed man who grew up in Victorian England. You can see why Lynch would be attracted to the project, though he doesn't go too wild with it; the appearance of John Merrick is close to but actually slightly less grotesque than that of the real Joseph Merrick, partially due to the limits of what makeup can do. Still, it's an accurate enough depiction of his story, not intended to disturb but more to inspire. Merrick's story is ultimately a sad one, but it's told with grace and skill that seems honest without being exploitative.

Anthony Hopkins is a doctor who discovers Merrick being shown as the elephant man in a carnival freak show and brings him back to his hospital for study. At first he seems only interested in the scientific advancements and attention that can be gotten from such an unheard of collection of deformities, but he soon learns that Merrick is more intelligent than initially assumed and develops a friendship with him. There are a couple barriers that get thrown in their way - others at the hospital are not keen on having an incurable case taking up a room, and other people aren't quite so kind to someone with such an appearance. There's ultimately a peaceful resolution for the characters, and the film ends with a particularly beautiful and well-considered sequence. The black and white works well for the story, making it easier to buy Merrick's appearance and generally the cinematography sells the setting smartly. Hopkins is very good, and John Hurt does an excellent job of humanizing Merrick despite working in pretty difficult conditions. There are only a few glimpses of what makes Lynch a unique filmmaker, but the movie doesn't really need his brand of weirdness to be good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I have finally seen every full length Pixar film that people actually seem to like. Ratatouille was one of the better ones, sliding nicely into my favorites with The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Toy Story 3. Like the first one it was directed by Brad Bird, who also did the excellent The Iron Giant before joining America's best animation studio. He's moving on now to live action with the next Mission: Impossible, and it will be interesting to see how his great storytelling talents survive the transition to huge budgets and name brand actors. Ratatouille does everything that Pixar is good at extremely well, and except for a couple hiccups here and there is really just a great movie from start to finish.

A lot of Pixar stories can be boiled down to "The Secret Lives of _____", and it's not inaccurate to use that formula here by filling in the blank with rats. The movie portrays them as more or less the creatures we know them, except with intelligence enough to fully understand English and grasp how they're regarded by humans. They're still mostly content to eat garbage and avoid direct contact, but due to an advanced sense of smell and taste Remy, played by Patton Oswalt, has developed an appreciation for human cooking, and the food of a famed French chef who claims that "anyone can cook" in particular. After his family is forced to leave their home he winds up in Paris, in the kitchen of the very same chef he admires, two years after his death. Through an unlikely but entertaining series of events he ends up helping a hapless but likable garbage boy become a successful cook in the restaurant, and even more unlikely he turns out to be the cook's heir, and that's where the real story begins.

The highlight of the film is the animation, which is both technically impeccable and marvelously kinetic and fun to look at. The animation of the rats is lifelike, to a creepy extent when there are swarms of them on the screen, and the humans are wonderfully characterized through unique mannerisms as well. The absolute best bits are whenever Remy is tugging on the garbage boy's hair to trigger his muscles and perform the steps of cooking without being seen, an idea that is hilariously absurd and even more hilariously animated. It's just the essence of pure physical comedy, perfect in how it doesn't need dialogue even while the boy's meek excuses for his awkward actions accentuate the humor. The relationship between them is a really interesting one, Remy unable to actually speak to humans but able to get his points across with squeaks and gestures. There's plenty of talent to go around with the voices, including well-known comedians, great actors like Ian Holm and Peter O'Toole, and some solid work by people you've never heard of.

If I had an issue with the movie, it's that a large part of the conflict that makes up the meat of the plot in the later stages isn't really justified in the movie. A rift forms between the human and rat leads, and there's no real reason for it, especially since the apparent cause is in complete opposition with what they seemed to want only a few scenes earlier. The movie needed something to happen, and they just sort of swept the need of actually having it make sense under the rug. It doesn't do to much to damage the rest of the movie though, which while not as deeply emotional as the most recent Pixar outfit, is still incredibly entertaining work. It's amazing how an action sequence featuring a rodent trying to get through a window in a busy kitchen can be more exciting than live action stuff that can cost millions to film. I guess I'll watch Cars some time and hope it's at least a fraction as compelling as stuff like this.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Woman in the Dunes

One of the best parts about this whole watch-a-ton-of-classic-films project is getting to see the work of some Japanese filmmakers who aren't Akira Kurosawa. This movie actually got nominated for the Best Director Oscar when it eventually came out in America, which shows how captivating it can be despite its simple story and slow pace. I'm wondering whether I should actually explain what the premise is, because I'm not sure whether the tension of the opening scenes would be greater if you were wondering along with the protagonist about what was happening or just waiting for him to figure it out. Suffice it to say, a teacher visits an area rich in sand to study its bugs, but misses the bus home and ends up stuck in a house surrounded by walls of sand on all sides with a widowed woman.

He struggles with his captivity at first, but over time becomes torn between his desire to return home and his growing feelings towards the woman. It's a remarkably sensual film for 1964, but in a weird way; the two never seem to really fully understand what they are to each other, and lots of time is spent with weird images like close-ups of skin covered in grains of sand. But while it's a very stately film completely filled with existentialist ideas, it's a lot more watchable than it seems like it might be. They really pull off quite a bit with two actors, a house, and a ton of sand. Eventually the story shifts away from the romantic aspect, as the main character finds more things than just the woman keeping him in the house, constantly digging to prevent the house from getting buried. I found the ending odd, because it concluded the man's story in an unsettling and appropriate way for the movie's tone, but it raises other questions to get there that it doesn't bother getting to. Still, the film accomplishes what it intends, and never compromises itself for any reason.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Come and See

Come and See is the ultimate horrors of war film. Without being overly bloody or explicit in general about its content, it paints an absolutely devastating and harrowing picture of the Nazi invasion of the Byelorussian part of the Soviet Union during World War II. It stars a young man, barely out of his preteen years, who joins an army unit after finding a rifle buried in the ground near his home. He is left behind after they march out, and after losing his hearing in a bombing, he returns home with a strange girl only to find his village has been wiped out. They find some survivors of various raids, and he goes off with some men for supplies before eventually coming face to face with the soldiers that have been ravaging his country.

Come and See was the last film director Elem Klimov made, and you can see how it would be someone's final statement as an artist. It at times seems sensationalistic, with many scenes of the young main actor just gaping or cringing in absolute horror as the worst stuff he's ever seen constantly happens around him. But no single moment is over the top - it's just that's he's constantly being exposed to the worst things that can happen when your homeland is overrun by an unsympathetic force. There's eventually a point where some of the Russians finally have an upper hand on some Nazis, and you've just been so beaten down by the preceding hours of the movie that you don't even want to see them take revenge. It's very powerful film making. Long takes are used extensively to increase the sense of reality, and some of the images are unforgettable despite the seeming lack of budget for extravagant set ups. The spectacular climactic sequence is made up almost entirely of well-edited found footage, and it's effective as anything that could have been done with original work. It's hard to say I loved a movie that's so difficult at times to look at, but as I said before, it's the best example I've seen of portraying the truth about war's worst elements.