Monday, December 31, 2007

Taxi Driver - Reaction

A movie about a lonely man in a lonely city. The focus of the movie is on a haunted, somewhat crazy Vietnam vet who has trouble connecting with people. He complains much about the dirtiness of city (in multiple senses of the word) until he eventually explodes, causing bloody violence.

I found the movie generally slow. Perhaps the first five minutes, which have a lot of tension through music and cutting, gave me the wrong expectation of the rest of the film. Watching the movie was interesting as a study of a famous film, but it didn't excite me much.

Has Robert De Niro's famous "You talkin' to me?" line.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Runaway Jury - Reaction

A breathless thriller, more about jury tampering and cons than anything having to do with the law itself. Brisk and entertaining, it's well plotted, skillfully acted (with multiple big name stars), nicely cut, and smoothly shot. In short, it delivers what it intended.

The movie doesn't make much of a statement about law or justice.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Driving Miss Daisy - Reaction

Enthralling and affecting. Although one might think an unhurried movie solely about a growing relationship between two people might be boring, I found I couldn't rip my eyes from it for the last hour. The movie deals with aging, prejudice, and friendship at a very personal level. Beautifully done, it rightly won the best picture Academy Award and Golden Globe. Because the poignant, intimate story takes central stage, I only realized in retrospect how great the acting was and how good the cinematography was. The latter includes many pleasant scenes of Atlanta.

I like the musical theme, though it generally only appears at the beginning and the end. It matches the feel of the movie well.

The only thing I didn't understand is why the Jewish son married a Christian. It's not discussed. Nevertheless, this didn't bother me much.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) - Reaction


A well done telling of the timeless tale of two opposing groups of soldiers fraternizing on the front lines: in this case, the Scots/French and the Germans during Christmas in World War I. In this case, the men bond over singing, playing soccer, drinking, praying, and arguing about the nationality of a cat. Similar to all such tales, it's sentimental (though not overly so), about finding humanity and nobility in the hardest of situations. (The horror of the setting was most conveyed to me by the single scene of no-man's-land covered with graves and crosses.) The film has a magical feel, much like most Christmas stories.

Screened in the basement of a club in San Francisco. (No tag seems appropriate.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Killer of Sheep - Reaction

A boring, black and white, low budget film from the 1970s with little dialog and no apparent plot. I thus found it hard to follow. If I were in a theater, I'd have walked. At home, I left it on in the background. The soundtrack is rather pleasant.

From listening to the commentary track and reading reviews, I can see and understand why critics appreciate this film: it's a realistic portrayal of the life of an African-American family in a poor neighborhood (apparently in Los Angeles). Nevertheless, it's not for me.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Children of Men - Reaction

A pretty decent movie, more to be watched for its setting and its cinematography than for its plot or its characters.

Children of Men portrays a dystopian vision of a world in which women stopped given birth, people lost hope for the future, civil unrest arose, countries became xenophobic and closed their borders, terrorists and police states appeared, and, in short, everything's gone to hell. Yet, the world Children of Men reveals, with no new capital investments or technologies, feels close enough to the modern world--simply aged and run-down--that it hits home as (uncomfortably?) plausible.

The movie conveys this world through great attention to detail. For instance, old newspaper headlines appear throughout the film, especially in one shot of a room where the walls are covered with them. IMDB collected a list of these headlines (scroll down). Although I couldn't read most of these headlines while watching the film, I cite this as an example of the movie's meticulous nature.

Indeed, the Washington Post reported that the director, Alfonso Cuaron, said,

"Chivo [the cinematographer] used to say all the time, 'We cannot afford one single frame without a comment on the state of things.' The story of this movie is just the coat hanger. What's important is the fabric that you're going to hang."

However, while I found the setting--the fabric--interesting, I'm surprised they didn't seem to hang a message on it. Although the film strongly involves repression of immigrants, it doesn't make much of a statement about it.

The quote is also unintentionally revealing about what they didn't pay attention to. I thought the plot lacked cohesion. I also thought the acting was pretty poor. Only the main character was decent, and that's because he's a man of few words.

In addition to deserving commendation for its setting, the movie the movie also exhibits some extraordinary cinematography. For instance, near the end of the movie is an impressive seven minute long continuous shot action scene, encompassing a tunnel, two city blocks, and multiple levels inside a building. It includes gunfights, major explosions, deaths, and many extras. It's amazing they got it to work fairly well. The blood on the lens is a nice touch, likely unplanned. (How many takes would they film in an attempt to get the scene?) There are other technically sophisticated, difficult, and long takes elsewhere in the movie as well; I focus on this one merely because it stood out more for me.

Although it's definitely an action movie, there wasn't as much action as I expected. In retrospect, I realize there was a lot of action, as the scenes cited above support, but it's just that the action isn't flashy. The hero is reluctant. He has no amazing abilities. All the action and the world feel of desperation, nothing like action in, say, the style of James Bond.

Incidentally, I learned from reading reviews two features I never consciously noticed while watching the film: one, the hero never carries a gun; two, there are no close-ups.

Spoiler: it'd be interesting in a number of ways if the movie ended as Kee sat waiting for the boat.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) - Reaction

An experimental film with no actors and no dialog, only images of man-made constructs and nature, all accompanied by music by Philip Glass. The simple music, slightly new age, sounds mostly synthesized and feels modern for the 80s.

At first, I didn't get the hang of the movie. I started to enjoy it more with the sped-up scenes of nature (e.g., clouds) and the man-made scenes: the series of buildings being detonated, and the sped-up recordings of cars driving, people walking, and items being assembled in a factory.

Most people think the movie is strongly pro-environment ("hippie"). Yet, I didn't get that same reaction. I didn't feel as if the world was out of balance. Indeed, I saw parallels between nature and mankind in the visuals of cloud flow, waves, and traffic when played at the appropriate speed. Likewise, one might think dams, with their dramatic differences from one side to the other, would demonstrate the world's imbalance. Yet, I saw the majesty in them. There's a certain appeal to their size, scope, and design.

I felt only two parts may have had a strong political or economic statement behind them: one was the scenes of rubbish and abandoned buildings; the other was the slow motion street scenes, mostly of sad, alienated people. Those two scenes hit hard on the "what are we doing to the earth" front.

Perhaps my general lack of a negative reaction to the contrasts presented was natural--the director says he didn't have strong intentions about how people should react to the film. I felt this neutrality most clearly in images of the sky reflected in the glass windows of skyscrapers. I couldn't determine what message I was supposed get. The director, in describing the film's agnosticism, said the film is about "awesome beauty, terrible beauty, or the beauty of the beast."

In the ultimate scene, a rocket climbs for the heavens. Then it explodes violently. The pieces descend, flaming, like a fallen angel. Interpret it as you will.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Grand Hotel - Reaction

A slow, black and white movie from 1932 about some events that happen in a hotel. The events are almost like separate stories. It's hard to call the movie boring because the characters and situations are interesting, yet somehow the film didn't hold my interest. There's not much forward movement, and no cohesive plot that you can feel propelling the action.

The movie is framed by someone saying nothing ever happen at the Grand Hotel, a statement neither true nor philosophically insightful.

There's a great prologue ("Nothing Ever Happens") in the special features section of DVD. It's too bad it's not part of the movie itself--it has songs and is cut much faster than the movie. (It kept my interest.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Housekeeper - Reaction


A mildly interesting movie profiling women who serve as housekeepers in various parts of Turkey. The movie was audio interviews with the women overlaid onto images of them living and working. It's sad to see the struggle they've had to overcome, whether deadbeat husbands, abusive husbands, raising kids alone, and medical conditions resulting from repetitive stress. They express various levels of amusement with and resentment toward their employers, whether anger at snobby families who won't proffer an invitation to join them at dinner, or befuddlement at women who leave jewelry and money scattered about, and toward the government, which doesn't supply social security or a pension to housekeepers. Although each woman is unique, I found my attention wandering. Perhaps it's because my mind extracted the (sad) similarities in the stories and I got the idea--I didn't need to hear additional depressing information.

Forsaken Paths - Reaction


A fairly boring twenty-minute film about how a village in Turkey has changed over time: traditions have been abandoned and the young people have left. Narrated by some of people remaining in the village, and one woman who's moved away and misses it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kiki's Delivery Service - Reaction


An adorable, quirky, fun Japanese animated film about a thirteen year old witch trying to find her place in the world. She and her witty cat travel together to an unnamed seaside European city; the movie is her coming of age story as she tries to live on her own and overcome her self-doubts. Like other Miyazaki films, it has no antagonist.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Great Dictator - Reaction

A satire of Germany ("Tomainia") and Hitler ("Hynkel"). The story of a Jewish barber who returns home to Germany in the late 1930s, but, due to amnesia, doesn't know what has happened since WWI.

As a Chaplin movie (indeed, his first speaking one), it's a mildly entertaining film filled with much old-style humor. Chaplin show his great skill as a body actor. Some memorable scenes:

  • running around the battlefield. humorous mistakes that can happen in a battle.
  • flying upside down.
  • German speech. Chaplin improvises hilarious fake German, tossing in words such as schnitzel, sauerkraut, liverwurst, and even banana. The main scene that does this was my favorite scene in the movie.
  • the incredibly brief scenes in which Hynkel runs into another room to pose for a painter and sculptor for ten seconds (during which time they paint and sculpt furiously) before rushing back to work.
  • the ballet with a balloon of the world. Memorable simply because it's so odd.
  • the coin in the pudding scene. The resistance decided to choose who to give the job of assassinating Hynkel, losing his life in the process, by hiding a coin in pudding. This scene is classic, as each person finds a coin in his pudding and tries to hide it, secretly passing it. Great body acting.
  • the shaving scene, in which the barber cuts a man's hair in time to Brahm's Hungarian Dance No. 5. Pretty cool.
  • the scene in which the barber attempts to escape Germans while his head is in a bucket. Classic, old-style slapstick humor.
  • secretary taking oration. Hynkel makes long speeches; she write one word. Hynkel uses a short word; she types for ages.
    * the barber shop seat height contest, as each dictator tries to get in the higher position, the position of implicit power.
The Great Dictator, made in 1940, was controversial in its time because the U.S. wasn't yet involved in WWII and many people weren't that comfortable criticizing German so heavily. The film's message, as exemplified by the passionate, populist political speech at the end which encourages brotherly love, kindness, and humanity for all people, is classic and timeless. The movie also stands out for another reason--one doesn't see modern movies make such strong political statements.

From the movie, I learned Italy and Germany fought over Austria. I wasn't aware of this event from WWII.

Incidentally, I thought the term storm trooper was coined in Star Wars. Nope. Apparently the term originally applied to Nazi soldiers.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Big Night - Reaction

A not bad, often lethargic movie about two Italian brothers who have one last big night in an attempt to save their restaurant. The movie is about the inspired food and about the characters' relationships. Although the situations are melodramatic, there's little dramatic tension; the film is not tightly paced. I particularly enjoyed the twenty minute segment near the end, in which everyone ate and partied, but that may simply be because the characters' energy and excitement (including regarding the food) was infectious. At the end of movie, I was disappointed that many relationships were left unresolved.

While reading reviews later, I realized in some sense it's about art versus commercialization, old country values versus integration, and more. The film doesn't make much, if any, motion to make a statement about these general themes, instead sticking tightly to its particular setting.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wild Strawberries - Reaction

Ingmar Bergman's thoughtful film about an old man's meditation on loneliness, selfishness, emotional unavailability, and death. Basically, it's what one old professor sees, thinks, remembers, and dreams (yes, it has Bergman's typical weird dream sequences) while packing for and going on a road trip (a trip down memory lane?). Although it mostly deals with regrets about living a solitary life, it also has a number of other themes:

  • the relationship between youth, spontaneity, age, and maturity
  • rationality and the question of the existence of god
  • family relationships and marriage, including marriages without love, and caring without marriage
  • the fear one will be discovered to not know anything / be a fraud
The somewhat redeeming ending is happier than one might expected, especially for a foreign film.

The audio commentary, done by a film critic, is great, putting the film in the context of Bergman's life and his other films, and commenting on the symbolism. It's better than 95% of the commentary tracks done by directors.

The DVD also contains an interesting interview with Bergman done by another film critic. I particularly liked the discussion of Bergman's writing process, of the symbolism in this movie (and Bergman's others), and of Bergman's life, sorrows, rituals, and personal demons and how Wild Strawberries reflects them. Bergman's a solitary man: "generally speaking, chatter is an abomination." Perhaps this movie foreshadows his later experiences?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dial M For Murder - Reaction

A very good mystery with a clever, complex plot and smart characters. Despite being almost entirely produced on a single set with only a few characters, the film maintains its tension throughout. Made by Alfred Hitchcock, it includes Grace Kelly. My favorite actor was the inspector: the way he phrases his hmmms and asks his questions is great. The palette includes lively, vibrant colors at the beginning and gets darker, appropriately, as the film progresses.

Although the language doesn't have the wittiness or repartee of a movie like The Thin Man, some lines do stand out, such as "It's [a] delayed reaction, darling. In a few days you're going to have the most wonderful breakdown."

The film includes a quote about bridge: "No, I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me."

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Birth of a Nation - Reaction

A fairly boring, three-hour, silent film from 1915 that shows, in a positive light, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. Being silent made it worse than most boring movies because one can't look away from the screen lest one miss the dialog and transitions expressed on title cards. Also, I didn't care much about the characters. But, the movie isn't all bad: I liked the music and the epic feel it gave the movie. And perhaps it's notable that I'm not complaining about the cinematography. One may imagine that a movie made during these early days of film-making would seem clumsy. Yet, it does not not. It uses many now standard film-making techniques.

The first part of the film is pretty innocuous in terms of racism. There are effectively no blacks. Rather, this segment is about the horrors of the civil war, with friend fighting friend. The main objectionable line in this segment starts the movie proper: "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion."

The latter half of the film is much more propagandistic. Covering the reconstruction, it shows the racial conflict that results as Northern carpetbaggers encouraged/manipulated Southern blacks, portrayed as uneducated and child-like, to seek power and to oppress Southern whites. It shows Southern whites being disenfranchised as Southern blacks vote, sometimes multiple times. It shows innocent Southern whites being tried by Black juries and found guilty. It claims the Southern blacks had majorities in the state legislatures and passed laws requiring whites to salute black officers (but no mention of vice versa) and allowing intermarriage (oh, the horror, the movie implies!).

The Klan forms to rescue ("save") the people from black oppression. It "tries" (yes, that's the word used on the title card) a predatory black man and summarily hangs him. Whereas blacks form mobs, whites do not. Rather, the movie seems to say, they form a rescue operation / cavalry / group of knights and ride to the rescue of the populace. They "protect" by disarming blacks at gunpoint. It's as if the director is entirely oblivious to the fact that these actions of both sides are forms of mob violence. By the end of the movie, it's clear, especially due to the music, who one is supposed to be cheering for.

Apparently the movie functioned as a recruiting tool: allegedly, the Klan's ranks and power increased soon after its release.

The film was the first true blockbuster, setting records which were only broken decades later. Partially, it got money and attention because it was so controversial. But apparently many of the cinematic techniques used were new at the time, revealing for the first time, some say, what a movie could be. For instance, the movie has epic battles (using many extras and intelligent placement of smoke bombs to make the fields seem more filled than they were), rapidly cuts between the actions of two distant characters to build tension (will he catch up in time?), uses circular framing of a close-up to really focus on a character's emotional state, and uses filters to color a scene (e.g., tint a scene red to make it feel hellish).

Based off the book and play The Clansman.

Interestingly, the movie had no script. All the scenes and dialog came from the director's head without being plotted on paper.

[I watched the movie in two sitting. The second was on the date of this posting. The first was on July 31, 2007.]

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Only Human - Reaction


A pretty decent, generally amusing, light comedy about what happens when a Palestinian man meets his Jewish girlfriend's parents. It's mostly funny because of the crazy/eccentric characters. Although there's a little about culture, religion, and politics, it's mostly a situational comedy about the trouble and improbable events that ensue after the man drops a container of frozen soup on someone.

The movie ends fairly abruptly with some issues unresolved (e.g., what happens to the duck?).

It's funny I saw this movie so soon after watching Bad Faith, a French movie with a similar setup.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Reaction

A decent enough movie, not as epic or magical as the earlier ones. For example, the Hogwart's main hall was amazing in the first movie; here it seemed mundane. Also, the final Dumbledore-Voldemort scene went by too fast. I always imagined it being more epic and exciting. Sure, some shots are spectacular, such as the broom and thestral rides along the Thames by the houses of parliament, but the movie as a whole was missing something. Nonetheless, it does a serviceable job of moving the series forward.

I also felt like there wasn't as much going on as in the other movies. Perhaps that means they ceased trying to put every episode from the books into the movies. Perhaps that means less happened in the book. The imdb reviews claim (usually negatively) that it's the former. Many characters make only perfunctory appearances.

The kids' acting isn't very good. The adults' acting is fine. But then, we're not really at the movie for the acting. Still, some acting stood out: Snape (as always), Dolores Umbridge, and Luna Lovegood.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bad Faith - Reaction


A very good film with everything -drama, romance, and comedy- about a nonpracticing Muslim and a nonpracticing Jew in love. Trouble starts when they have to introduce their significant other to the their more traditional parents. It not entirely upbeat, though it's upbeat enough for an American audience. If one removes the final scene, one would have a more traditional foreign film ending (and perhaps a better movie?).

A Kiss Is a Kiss Is a Kiss - Reaction


A short flick in which drastically mismatched people are put in pairs on a couch and asked to kiss. (Or so it seems -- the setup is not clear.) Funny due to everyone's awkwardness. That's it -- there's no deeper themes about love or intimacy or religion because there's no time to deal with them.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler - Reaction


A good comedy ridiculing Hitler. Some jokes are physical (e.g., barking like a dog); others are psychological (e.g., bed wetting); still others are situational (e.g., piles of bureaucratic forms, a great opening scene with many heil hitlers). It's laugh-at-loud funny at times, making it a good movie to see with a large crowd (as I did).

The plot, a Jewish acting professor is assigned to help a depressed Hitler get back his charisma, is merely an excuse for the jokes. The film makers attempt, in a minor way, to use the setting for a morality tale but this isn't explored in any real depth. Also, the ending doesn't match the plot or the feel of the rest of the movie.

With the credits played clips of people on the street being asked who Hitler was. Many young people didn't know! Many older people didn't want to talk about him. Some responses were funny. It's interesting how people's reactions depended on the decade in which they were born.

The movie felt like it was a little longer than it could have been. There were a few extraneous sub-plots.

This is apparently the first German movie criticizing Hitler with humor. As such, it's a watershed. I'm told even a decade ago the culture wouldn't have been ready for it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Godless Girl - Reaction

A fine film, though lacking all subtlety, about atheist evangelism, fundamentalist Christian zealotry, redemption, and the hard, abusive life at juvenile lockup. Part of the reason for the latter was to show how horrible these places are and thereby spur reform. Both the evangelic atheists and the juvenile lockup themes were stolen from stories making news at the time. One even sees a few echoes from the Scopes trial, which happened a year or two before the movie was made. The theme about tolerance is timeless.

The music really makes the show. The performance I saw mostly used an organ, but nicely threw in some unusual instruments like bells and whistles as needed.

The final scenes involving fire are amazing, especially when one realizes that they didn't have special effects when this movie was made. They wouldn't be allowed to film much of it nowadays due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns are appropriate -- apparently some serious injuries happened while shooting.

The title cards, often with backgrounds of flowers, are pretty. They're sometimes (unintentionally?) funny with their comments about fanaticism and atheism.

The third character, Bozo, used for comic relief, seems out of place and unnecessary.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Candidate - Reaction

A decent movie about a straight shooter running in California for the Senate. Or at least he starts out being direct, then becomes more of a politician as the race becomes closer. Deals with conflicting interests pulling on a candidate, how disorienting the campaign trail can be, the frustrations of running of office (e.g., giving speeches in sparsely attended halls, microphones providing feedback, answering the same questions repeatedly), and the length of the campaign trail and how exhausting running for office is. Although made in the 1970s, the movie still applies today. In fact, it feels real, like it could've been a documentary.

My main complaint is that the movie could've used some cutting. There's a speech that felt as if it was the night before the election -it wasn't-, and then there was thirty more minutes of film before the election itself. Also, most people smiled funny. I'm not sure if it was intentional. Perhaps the director is making a statement about how one isn't ever sure if smiles are real, faked but supposed to be real, faked but the audience is supposed to know they're faked, or what.

*Spoiler:* The best scene is the last. After Robert Redford gets elected, he asks, "What now?" It's an issue that neither he nor anyone else had considered... It reflects the gap between running a campaign and governing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Life + Debt - Reaction

A simplistic documentary about the effect of globalization on Jamaica. Although it purports to cover the evils of the IMF, all it really shows is some of the negative effects of reducing barriers to trade on some of Jamaica's industries like bananas and dairy. This documentary feels naive to me, as it mentions clothing giants starting outsourcing to Jamaica, fast food restaurants opening stores, and increasing tourism but doesn't mention the effects of these on Jamaica's economy. How many people do they employ? Very one-sided, emotional, and anecdotal, and, as such, not very persuasive to me.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

West Bank Story - Reaction

A terrific, tongue in cheek, short musical comedy about forbidden love in the context of the Middle East conflict. At times, a spoof of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. Filled with catchy tunes and great costumes, it feels like an over-the-top Hollywood movie with high production values (even though it was apparently made on the cheap). A web page for the film describes how much work the director and writers went to in order to keep the entire film (plot, costumes, jokes, actors' backgrounds, etc.) balanced. Includes political commentary on the effectiveness of building a wall.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Roxanne - Reaction

Steve Martin's retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac turns out to be an enjoyable romantic comedy. That one sentence expresses both the features and flaws of the film. Steve Martin is good in his role as C.D. Bales, playing it with the appropriate flair of Cyrano. But, because I know the story of the play, many aspects where the script deviated bothered me:

  • The movie is more comedic than the play. While this could have been fine, much of this comedy came in the form of slapstick humor from the troop of incompetent firemen who Bales leads. I don't appreciate this type of humor much and also felt it besmirched Cyrano's aura. After all, he led a perfectly respectable military troop. Still, both the play and this movie have some features of humor that I did enjoy.
  • The movie had the typical American ending, omitting from the play the death, the nunnery, and the years of silence. As such, it lacked the deep tragic nature of the play and any themes about honor and memory. Still, while I can complain about this significant difference, I can appreciate Roxanne as light fare and as a movie that's great for a date.
  • C.D. Bales isn't as sharp as Cyrano. Cyrano's an eloquent renaissance man. While Bales is at times good with words, at other times he's inexpressive or not that bright. (How many objects are in the universe/sky? "More than fifty.") Martin's Bales is clearly intended to be more identifiable to the average American than Cyrano. (Bales doesn't, for instance, fight off fifty people in an alley.)
Although some of the best scenes in the movie came from the play, I think I would've appreciated it more had I not previously seen Cyrano de Bergerac. Instead, I kept thinking about the discrepancies between the two.

Incidentally, the costumes (e.g., hair), setting, and especially the opening credits have a very 80s feel. However, I quickly ceased noticing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

My Neighbor Totoro - Reaction


A lovely, creative, magical animated film about two sisters moving to a new house in the countryside near a forest, and the fantastic, extraordinary creatures they meet. With such a strong imagination and sense of wonder pervading the film, it's good for kids or anyone like me with a childlike curiosity about the world. Although it's a simple story playing out in a benign, innocent world with no bad guys -everyone, even the strange creatures, in this film is both good and cute-, it still captures the heart. Especially noteworthy is the fun musical theme and the good drawings of the countryside and sunset.

Although the copy I had (made in 1994) included a dubbing into English, I watched it mostly in Japanese with English subtitles. I tried switching to the English audio track a few times but found the English voices whiney or just plain wrong. I did, however, listen to the two songs (opening and closing credits) in English. These were done well.

Di Yin tells me all Asian children grow up watching this movie (and others by this director in this style). Recently, he's also done Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Souvenirs - Reaction


A tender, charming, lovely documentary about a father and son bonding on a road trip. The father, who fought with the jewish brigade in the second world war, inadvertently reveals that he may have left some "souvenirs" (kids) in Holland or Denmark from his time there during the war, sixty years ago. The father shows little interest in this aspect of his past. As the father heads to his brigade's reunion, the son, an aspiring film maker, pretends to begin making a documentary about them and begins manipulating his father as they head toward other places his father visited in WWII. The son plots to / hopes to find a sibling.

The father is a lovable, fun to watch, jewish wit. Wry at times, he brings humor to the film.

I enjoyed watching the father and son grow closer on the trip, finding secret similarities such as both of them had trouble being soldiers.

Amusingly and perhaps a little disturbingly, the son wrote the outline of a script beforehand, plotting how he'd manipulate his father to get to the places and to get the scenes he desired.

The underlying theme considers how one thinks about and connects to the past (or declines to do those things).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Reprise - Reaction


A decent movie, simultaneously dramatic and comedic, and with substantial emotional depth. About two hopeful authors who are friends, one of whom has a psychosis, as they deal with their success (or lack thereof), romantic issues, and writer's block. As such, an underlying theme to the film is how people seek creativity and inspiration. It's also, to a lesser degree, a movie about male bonding, friendship, and growth, as we watch how the group of five friends in their twenties interact and mature.

The story is presented in an unusual manner. Mostly it's told through an omniscient narrator who sometimes proposes hypothetical futures. These segments, generally introduced using the conditional "would have" or "could have," work well, partially due to their quickly cut scenes. Each truly feels like the compressed mosaic of a life. This structure leads to a sense that what actually happened could have easily not happened or could've happened and turned out differently.

Also, the movie acquires a dry, quirky, often ironic sense of humor from narrator's tone.

There's another feature besides the narrative structure that's uncommon: some scenes between characters (especially romantic partners) are made by adding sound to cuts of real scenes of the characters in which they don't move their lips. In addition to putting more emphasis on the acting, it contributes to the question of what really happened and what only happened in a character's mind. This alludes again to main characters' professions: as authors, they translate things they think into words, regardless of whether those words actually came out of someone's mouth.

Due to its depth, slightly experimental structure, and difficult to categorize nature, I think it certainly qualifies as an art house movie.

It's good work done with a sure hand. I wouldn't have guessed this is the director's first film.

Monday, May 7, 2007

How Is Your Fish Today? - Reaction


A decent enough I suppose cross between a piece of fiction and a documentary on Mohe, a remote, oft romanticized town in the north of China. It's about a screenwriter and his invented character. They're both on journeys: the character to escape the police (though they don't appear to be pursuing him) and the screenwriter to escape the monotony of his life in Beijing. It's told in a very literary manner, not simply caused by the narrator speaking often (i.e., many words) but rather in the tone. One can tell the people that wrote the film are writers. The section of the movie focusing on the screenwriter further supports this belief; those scenes do a good job exemplifying the solitary life-of-the-mind of a writer.

The film has at least two levels of reality: the screenwriter and the character. For most of the film, these levels are kept separate. The beautiful music contributes to the distinction by changing mood to indicate which parts are story and which are real life. Near the end of the film, this demarcation blurs. And then the situation is further complicated by some documentary-style scenes of Mohe, in a few of which one can feel the film-makers' presence. (This occurs earlier in the movie as well, though not as often or visibly.) This felt odd, like the film acquired yet another level.

Before the showing, the director revealed she was originally intending to do a documentary on Mohe. However, after visiting, they realized it was a small, boring, impoverished town -- nothing to make a movie out of. So they combined a script with the documentary footage and ended up with this oddity.

I found my attention wandering not infrequently. I didn't miss parts of the movie -- it's simply that I had time to lose focus before the narrator said more lines or the scene changed. This occurred more often after the narrator arrives in Mohe and the movie acquires a documentary feel and loses much of its narrative momentum.

Fish imagery comes out repeatedly. I'm not sure what it means. Spottings include:

  • the fish in the writer's studio (that usually don't survive the week, yet he recently bought another because a professional told him he needed to buy one to balance the energies in his studio);
  • the fish in the frozen river, perhaps representing the commonality between Mohe and Russia. (The fisherman shout the question asked in the title to their foreign compatriots.)
  • the fish as a dish eaten in a long, slow scene by a couple in Mohe;
  • the fish caught by the crew from the frozen river as part of the documentary section of the film;
  • the fish hanging from the line in the southern town from which the fictional character escapes.
The director/co-writer, co-writer/actor (who played the screenwriter), and composer answered questions after the screening. The director had some interesting comments on the film and how they made it:
  • The striking, and strikingly long, nearly silent fish eating scene near the end exemplifies the relationship between man and wife in rural China.
  • The film was made on a small budget. That fact wasn't obvious: it looked fine to me.
  • They had difficulty filming in Mohe because, at negative thirty degrees Celsius, the camera batteries would drain within twenty minutes. Thus, they could shoot very little outdoors each day.
  • The people on the train to Mohe and in Mohe itself were very open around the camera. They talked and behaved as if it wasn't there. It's amazing to watch -- one doesn't see this type of openness in the western world. The director believes it's because most media, especially reality shows, hasn't made it there yet. They have no preconceptions about how people on camera should act or how the camera can distort things.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Zolykha's Secret - Reaction


Some movies attempt to portray that war is hell. Zolykha's Secret portrays that life in rural Afghanistan is nasty, brutal, and short. This thesis is reiterated throughout this long movie, as seen through errant fields of land mines, gender inequality (arranging marriages, beating women, prohibiting doctors from treating women, denying education to women), cultural oppression by the Taliban (even disallowing kite flying), and the difficulties of depending on nature (e.g., drought). It's as if there always is something bad lurking around the corner. Since the movie gives this feeling, it's suspenseful for (uncomfortably) long periods.

Fundamentally, it's a bleak tragedy of film, portraying the forbidding, inhospitable, and harrowing life in rural Afghanistan. It's like the land itself is cursed. I tried to determine when things start to go wrong but could not. Perhaps they're always wrong.

In all these ways, the film successfully reminds the viewers how privileged we are and how hard and unfair life can be. It's good to know, but it's certainly not fun to watch. I felt as if the movie could've been much shorter while still making the point as successfully. Indeed, I got the message before the film was half over. Had I left then, I would've saved myself over an hour of being uncomfortable.

Notably, the film ignores the current political situation. That, and its inclusion of the ghost of previous warriors, makes the film and its message feel timeless.

The director answered questions after the screening. He filmed using non-professional actors. One of his hardest jobs was to get permission from the entire family to use each actor, an especially difficult task for the actresses given the cultural and gender attitudes. Also, he filmed an hour outside of Kabul. To do so, he needed to get permission from various tribal chiefs, guaranteeing he would neither do anything obscene nor make fun of Muslims. In short, this involved building trust over time. Apparently, this area has gotten worse in the last two years -- he would not be able to film there today.

Minor note: the opening sequence was cut poorly. In between each clip was a few seconds of a blank screen and silence. This was very irritating; if it continued for more than five minutes, I probably would've walked out.

The music (Arabic/Afghani/Middle Eastern) fit well.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Third Monday in October - Reaction

A well crafted documentary focusing on student-council president elections, covering four schools with differing amounts of resources. Although it may sound like keeping track of candidates in four separate races is a lot, I found the documentary and the differing personalities made it easy. The structure revealed the similarity of adolescents throughout the country. All these wanna-be leaders, just at the cusp of adulthood, are earnest, passionate, awkward and surprisingly mature in some ways and immature in others. I was surprised to realize I cared about the students and the outcomes of the elections.

Thematically, the movie's about how we choose leaders. Even in junior high, despite popular belief, it's not just a popularity contest; passion, qualifications, and speaking ability count. A secondary topic is how political ideology comes into play. In some campaigns, it was mentioned; in others, not. And, in any case, we see how an adolescent's ideology and attitude toward politics is strongly shaped by his/her parents' views.

The music, energetic and notably well chosen, and good cutting help maintain the film's forward momentum.

The director, a camera-man, a principal of one of the schools, and one San Francisco student who lost his race answered questions after the screening.

In the first question, the principal had to defend himself and the actions of one of his teachers to an incident in the film that made all us moviegoers gasp. A teacher had approved a speech. Later, the candidate was disqualified for giving the speech, told it offended a member of the staff and was never approved. The teacher did not stand up for her decision. In answering the question, the principal defended the teacher, saying the movie did not see everything that happened and that the permission was rescinded later, not on camera.

Apparently the cameraman actually had a strong influence on selecting who to follow and film for the movie. Mostly the decision was opportunistic but it still showed he had a significant amount of autonomy.

Even though the student present at the Q&A was one of the more mature candidates, I could still tell how he'd grown in the two years since the movie was filmed. He presented himself well.

The director said the students to whom she's shown the film all commented on what geeks they were back then and how now, at fifteen, they were so much cooler and more mature.

Incidentally, the movie's web site includes profiles of the students, presented exactly like one would see in a real election. Cute.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Bunny Chow - Reaction

[South Africa]

A chill, low budget, meandering, black and white indie flick about three comedians who go on a road trip to perform at a rock festival. It's the story of their adventures and their attempts to pick up / keep / not alienate women along their way. As such, although it has funny moments, it's fairly pointless and random, making many scenes simply feel like weird sketch routines.

One neat fact: the people playing the comedians are actually comedians, in effect playing characters not far from themselves. Their real-life camaraderie comes off well in the film.

I initially found watching the movie difficult due to the motion caused by the use of a hand-held camera. However, I got used to it relatively quickly.

While the press literature suggests that the name bunny chow, a South African meal of hollowed-out bread filled with vegetables, meats, and curries, symbolizes the "melting pot that is the city of Johannesburg," I disagree. I claim that it symbolizes how random the movie is and how it lacks much overarching structure.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Vanaja - Reaction


A movie that's worth watching if only for the beautiful Kuchipudi dancing and for the interesting display of South Indian culture. This film does an excellent job at capturing the atmosphere in South India through the characters, costumes, and setting.

It begins with a girl who decides she wants to be a dancer, joins a household ruled by an old dancer, gets lessons, and picks up dancing (almost impossibly) fast. It seems as if it would be a heart-lifting tale. But then the story splits. The main path follows her through a dark tale that begins with problems relating to inappropriate sexual conduct, problems that get exacerbated by her low station (caste) in life. This tale didn't appeal to me because it included very few positive relationships and implied all men, or at least all men depicted, are evil. Thus, I found I didn't care much about the characters.

Meanwhile, the other path is simply the girl learning to dance better. While I enjoyed watching it, I felt it had little substance and certainly couldn't hold up the movie on its own.

The film speaks about the caste system in India, the strength of family ties, and how one particular woman comes of age.

The director spoke after the showing. He was so eloquent and charismatic in speaking about the movie and the decisions he made that my assessment of the movie instantly increased. He described how he recruited some actors with elder-care help wanted ads, another with a posting in a gym, and the children by going to a school. For the former, he interviewed them and gradually changed the conversation to acting -- in effect, a bait and switch. Hence, all the actors were non-professionals and in effect were type-cast, playing a similar role to their real station in life. This worked really well: I couldn't tell the actors were amateurs because they all seemed so natural. This page includes some of these great stories about recruiting the cast members and filming. The cast page which gives the background of the actors, is interesting as well. The girl who played Vanaja didn't know how to dance before being recruited for the movie. She apparently picked up all her skills from extensive lessons over the course of a year. I imagine that's why the director thought he could portray Vanaja as learning as fast as she did -- because his actress learned impressively fast as well.

The director also described his ongoing adventures with the Indian censor board. He planned ahead a bit by filming alternative cuts of some scenes, but the board still has some quibbles that he's working on resolving.

This film was submitted as part of his MFA at Columbia. He should be proud -- it's pretty good for a first work.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Emma's Bliss - Reaction


An excellently done, bittersweet tale about dying well and the fear of death. It's about a woman who cares for her pigs until the very end, when she has to cut their throat to send them to the butcher, and what happens when she meets a man who knows he has inoperable cancer and a short time to live. It hits all the right notes: good acting, good soundtrack (with especially good use of surround sound to give the feel of a farm), and good direction. A movie like this could easily feel manipulative or heavy-handed; that's not the case here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Strange Culture - Reaction

The events portrayed in this documentary are worth knowing. An artist is preparing an installation about genetically modified foods when he wakes up one morning to find his wife died in her sleep. He calls 911. They come and see some petri dishes in his apartment -these bacteria are harmless- and report him to the FBI out of concern about bioterrorism. The government confiscates everything including his wife's body and begins prosecution against him. Although all tests come out clean, the government still has never admitted it made a mistake. Now, three years after these events, the date for a trial relating to mail fraud regarding how he acquired the bacteria is still pending, not even yet scheduled.

Thus, the tale serves as an example of government over-reaction / the absurdity of some of the government's anti-terror actions in this post-9/11 world. It's sad that such a bizarre tale is so easily believed and accepted in our current situation/culture. It speaks about the trampling of civil liberties and infringing on free speech. And, because the trial hasn't yet taken place, the movie serves as a snapshot of our time.

All that said, while it's a good incident to be aware of, I think this documentary could've easily been much better. The structure was odd, using a mixture of actors and real people. It's as if the director couldn't decide between three choices: a documentary, a dramatization, or a documentary on the process of / importance of dramatizing the events in the movie. She (the director) included many interviews with the artist but also had an actor playing him in some scenes. Weirder yet, she included some footage of the actors explaining why they think playing their roles is important. Also, some of the secondary actors were amateurs, making a few dramatization scenes sub-par.

The director answered questions after the screening. Apparently the film was made in the bay area with a mostly local cast and crew. One thing I learned from this Q&A period is that she didn't have a clue about the experimental structure of the film. She hadn't thought about it! I find that striking given how integral the structure is to how the film seems like it's supposed to work.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders - Reaction

A decent movie decrying the consumer credit industry as Super Size Me did for the fast food industry. Like Super Size Me, it is a brutal, emotional critique and, as such, feels like it makes everything simple. I could have this opinion because I already know a lot about this area. But it really feels like it ought to be a more complex situation than the movie makes it out to be. We only see one side.

Not surprisingly, no solutions are offered. The movie shows the government agency that is supposed to regulate the industry is actually on the side of businesses, not consumers.

Of note:
* The film used highly recognizable songs. I enjoyed them.
* It interspersed neat old clips (1940s and 1950s) teaching teenagers about the importance of credit.
* A segment of the film dealt with the national debt. Since it didn't have the emotional tone or personal nature of the rest of the film, it felt out of place.

If you don't know much about predatory lending practices, you should see this film. One might think a movie about lending would be boring but I didn't think it was -note that I'm interested in the area so I may be biased- and nor did many reviewers.

The director/producer, who is surprisingly young, answered questions after the screening.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Brother From Another Planet - Reaction

You might think an early 1980s movie about a black man who escapes to earth from slavery on another planet would be full of racist stereotypes and bad, offensive humor. You'd be wrong.

Rather, it's a decent social commentary on a number of topics, especially immigration and assimilation. Because the alien can't speak, the movie is quiet, almost like a silent film. The silence makes the whole picture more tender. It also shows how much people can connect without actually speaking.

In addition to dealing with assimilation, The Brother comments on the connection between race and social status, what people read into silence, and how our preconceptions alter our perceptions. It also deals with drug abuse. Fundamentally, all these themes tie together in the undercurrent that every person should be treated with respect and dignity.

Despite all the deep themes, the film is low-key.

My only real complaints are that the last half an hour gets a bit weird and that many plot elements seem unnecessary in retrospect, even though during the course of the movie they helped build character and so didn't feel out of place.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Brother - Reaction


An immensely violent movie about about a Japanese gangster who moves to America and starts another gang. It's not much fun to watch. Thematically, the movie deals with resignment to and inevitability of violence, in this case in gang wars. The framing in violent scenes sometimes excludes heads, making the violence impersonal and somehow universal. It's an interesting technique.

I found myself uninvolved with the movie. Possibly, it's because the main character -I feel it'd be inappropriate to use the term hero or protagonist- is too inscrutable and impassive. He doesn't seem to care much about what happens. This also makes it difficult to see how relationships in the film grow. Further, the status of the relationship between rival gangs is occasionally hard to follow. Finally, I feel like the movie could've made its point much more compactly.

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Closet - Reaction


A good, quirky, cute, amusing, lightweight situational comedy of a movie. An accountant get others to believe he is gay in order to avoid being fired. Adventures ensue.

Although it sounds like it's about homosexuality, the movie is really about how our perception of/preconceptions about someone color how we treat them. To a second degree, it's also about office politics. It raises a few questions, including can pretending make one change, do women want more what they can't have, and does appearing to have secret side make someone more interesting, but fundamentally it's not a deep movie.

The New York Times review describes the movie quite accurately.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Something the Lord Made - Reaction

A very good, heartfelt, inspiring movie about racism and African-American empowerment as told through the story of two doctors, one white, one black, who work collaboratively to develop a revolutionary surgical procedure for babies. Based on a true story. I was surprised to discover it's a made for TV movie (by HBO) -- it surpasses the quality of many movies in the theaters. In fact, the movie isn't entirely positive: it presents a nuanced view of the social structure and climate of the time, showing more complexity than most movies. Thus, it makes sense that it won multiple Emmy awards and a Peabody. Mos Def is superb.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blackout - Reaction


A disturbing, warped, haunting, suspenseful thriller (almost a horror) about an alcoholic single father who often fails to remember events and, one morning, finds blood on his car's bumper. It's a psychological movie played by a scary lead set in a dirty house on a run-down street. One's not quite sure what's real. I found the movie traumatic. I'd give twenty hours of my life just to have not watched it. Involves issues alcoholism, children, and longing for a family life one cannot have.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief - Reaction


An excellent documentary about the Japanese phenomenon of host clubs. Women enter the club, select a male host from a menu, and pay to be entertained, "healed," and made to feel wanted through conversation, compliments, and flirtation, but generally not sex. With interviews from both clients and hosts, the film paints a spellbinding story that explores the ease with which one can fake love, whether money can buy happiness (apparently yes), and whether one can play a role so long as to become that character and lose track of oneself. It's scary how callous and manipulative the men get, as demonstrated by how they approach women on the street and how they talk to their customers to make them feel as if they have a special relationship. Yet, the women become manipulative as well, throwing around money for affection and visiting multiple host clubs.

Spoiler: Halfway through the film, it's revealed that most clients are prostitutes. One reason they continue to do it is to earn enough money to continue going to host clubs, to feel better about themselves. In effect, it's a vicious capitalist cycle. Who is exploiting whom? As each woman pays her host for his affection, in some sense the hosts are nice pimps.

Woman on the Beach - Reaction

[South Korea]

A thoroughly engaging film with tremendous acting. About a love triangle, but not the one you think it is. And even when you know the true love triangle, it doesn't turn out how you expect it. The movie feels like a study of characters; they and the story feel real, authentic. It tugs at the heartstrings. I guess I'd call it a drama, but dramas often feel too contrived, overacted, and manipulative; this was none of those. But it also has funny moments too: not funny in the traditional comic sense but funny as in the I-can't-believe-he/she-said-that sense. The setting's overcast sky and empty beach contribute well to the mood.

It might be worth watching more movies by this director, Hang Sang-soo.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The President's Last Bang - Reaction

[South Korea]

A decent action flick based on the true story of the assassination of the South Korean president in 1979. It has a vibrant, polished look, partially caused by all the ornate shiny wooden fixtures in the president's palace. The cinematography is nicely done: the framing is often consciously chosen, and many scenes have camera motion that smoothly spans multiple rooms. The latter is very cool, though sadly doesn't seem to appear in the latter half of the movie.

Although some reviewers call it "comic" or "almost satirical," I don't see it as anything more than an action flick. I only caught a little sarcasm (e.g., with the narrator at the end who nicely summarizes the consequences of the events), but what I spotted was so infrequent as to seem out of place. It's simply a fun-to-watch action movie and, like most action movies, one doesn't care much about the characters. I felt I should care more. Maybe I didn't care because I sometimes found it hard to recognize people, or because the movie was hard to follow near the end, or because the "conspirators" (quoted because there really wasn't a conspiracy) weren't very bright and didn't plan ahead.

The film originally included some real footage from that time. However, the court ruled it had to be removed. The directors chose to leave the screen blank during those segments; that's the version I watched. Later, the court rescinded its ruling.

Thematically, the movie is mostly about political hierarchies and how no one really wins in politics, especially during regime change.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Persona - Reaction


Ingmar Bergman's existential film about an actress who decides to be silent and her nurse who talks to fill up the silences. The actress refuses to act, so to speak (pun unintentional), in the theater or in the real world. The film focuses on the doctor-patient relationship and psychological transference, a la Freud. Switching psyches. Maybe the doctor is really the patient and vice versa? A deep and deeply enigmatic film open to lots of interpretation. Deals with issues of love, silence, guilt, motherhood, loneliness / estrangement / inability to reach another, and the evils people can inflict on each another. I can imagine (and know there are) countless essays written about this film.

Visually, this black and white movie feels clinical and sterile. (This is apropos to the theme as well.) The cinematographer relies heavily and rightly on close-ups of the two main actresses.

Parts of the movie feel almost experimental, especially the inexplicable opening sequence containing a crucifixion, a boy waking up, a morgue, a weird movie projector, and a boy facing a large screen showing a woman's face. A few frames appear throughout the film reminding viewers the film is an artificial construct. Many labels may be appropriate to the film: experimental, post-modern (an odd label to apply to a 1960s film), surreal, bizarre, and abstract. Don't let these labels put you off too much; it does have a plot, even if the theme and, at times, the visuals are unconventional.

This movie includes some great lines:

But you can refuse to move and be silent. Then, at least, you're not lying. You can shut yourself in, shut out the world. Then you don't have to play any roles, show any faces, make false gestures. You'd think so... but reality is diabolical. Your hiding-place isn't watertight. Life trickles in everywhere. You're forced to react. Nobody asks if it's real or not, if you're honest or a liar. That's only important at the theater, perhaps not even there.
The anxiety we carry with us, all our broken dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, the fear of death, the painful insight into our earthly condition ... have worn out our hope of a divine salvation. The cries of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence are terrible proof of our loneliness and fear.
I'll conclude with a great remark by John Hardy, a reviewer posting his comments on IMDB:
How this pretentious movie manages to not be pretentious at all is one of the great accomplishments of `Persona.'

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Murder on a Sunday Morning - Reaction

A neat documentary about a black teenager accused of killing a white tourist in Florida. It's clear the police arrested and charged the first black guy they found. It's a case of bad police work and a mis-carriage of justice. What's amazing is the filmmakers must have decided to make this film within days of his arrest, as they have conversations with the characters well before jury selection.

While I wouldn't call it mesmerizing or enthralling, I was anxious to know how the trial turned out. The storytelling technique is straightforward. Even the characters are surprisingly simple -- if this were a movie I'd complain, but it's real life. It's striking how the characters, both good and bad, are so stereotyped -- they fit their molds. Maybe this is because we don't get know some characters very well (e.g., the accused teenager, the prosecutor, and, to some extent, the parents of the teenager as well as the victim's husband). It's not clear whether this is good or bad, keeping the focus on the trial itself, and whether this is intentional or unintentional. The film mostly focuses on the public defender and his assistant. It's a great reminder of the importance of public defenders, especially good ones.

Soap-opera-type music is used to help dramatize the film.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Perfect Candidate - Reaction

An okay documentary about Oliver North's senate campaign in Virginia in 1994. Worth watching if you're interested in the campaigning process. Explores the use of negative ads without appearing negative, flip flopping, and the failure of politicians to state platforms or opinions on any issues. It even explores political alliances of necessity, as exemplified by Wilder's endorsement of Robb. The movie to some extent was more about North's campaign manager and a Washington Post reporter and their involvement with / reactions to the campaign than North or Robb themselves. In fact, we don't see into North or Robb much. Roger Ebert remarks on this lack of platforms and seeing the candidates only as much as they put themselves forward: "Personalities are being sold, not parties or philosophies, and `A Perfect Candidate' makes that process even more interesting because one candidate, Robb, apparently has no personality at all, while the other, North, has two."

I didn't think the documentary gave that great a background on North and the Iran-Contra affair at the beginning of the film, but the friend I watched it with thought it did okay. I would've preferred more about the lying to congress and the perjury, as this significantly affected how adults I knew voted in the race. In retrospect the movie covered the issue as well as it was dealt with in the race itself. Overall, the film felt reasonably balanced.

It's interesting to watch in 2007 for observations on how Virginia was in the 1990s (e.g., confederate flags, religious right, gun owners). Also interesting: the movie briefly talked about how North's campaign manager was involved with a dirty memo alleging Marc Foley's homosexuality, an issue that was in the news quite a bit last year (2006). It's even amusing to see how much 1994, with haircuts, mustaches, and fashion, looked like the 1980s.

Also striking is the contrast between how good the men involved are at politics. North is charismatic. Robb is not; he's awkward. Clinton, in his brief appearance to arrange Wilder's endorsement of Robb, is even a bit better than North.

The commentary reveals the directors cheated somewhat in editing, distributing some clips throughout the movie (rather placing them at temporally appropriate places) simply to generate the structure, plot, and character growth the directors desired. It worked.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Batman Begins - Reaction

Fantastic. A fast moving, action packed film with very good cutting, framing. and visuals. But, with good acting and an engaging story, it's so much more than a typical action flick -- it's dark and brooding and deeply psychological as well. In terms of the atmospheric city it portrays, it reminds me of Sin City.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Ushpizin (translates as "Guests" or "Visitors") - Reaction


A decent, cute drama about a poor orthodox Jewish couple who pray for a miracle and soon get given money, a sukkah, and two visiting ex-cons. Since the story feels light and uncomplicated, one can easily imagine that it is an age-old religious parable about asking for miracles and being tested. The movie starts slow and speeds up a little though not much. Don't be mislead by the reviews that call this a comedy; it's only a comedy in the same way America's Funniest Home Videos is funny -- watching something bad happen in slow motion.

The movie's background is interesting. The actor who plays the main character (who actually also co-wrote the script) had retired, became religious, and came out of retirement for this film. The movie was approved by rabbis and shot according to religious law and policies, one of which required the actor's real wife to play his wife in the film. Also, apparently the movie was lauded for its rare glimpse into ultra-orthodox life (setting, how they live, etc.).

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Brick - Reaction

One of the most unusual/odd movies I've ever seen. It's effectively a film noir played with high school students. (Of course, the actors are really college students or twenty-somethings.) As convoluted as the very best noirs. (Pay attention!) And paced the same. Still, it's weird watching a film which has typical noir-style dialog (though updated a bit for the modern day) said in parking lots and school yards by people in jeans and t-shirts, all set in pretty, sunny suburbia. While I could suspend disbelief for much of the film, a few aspects brought me out of it: the brief hobbit conversation, the Pin's mother offering her guests cookies and juice, and the fact that no one ever goes to class and parents generally don't exist.

Brick is also commendable for its camera work. In a few scenes, the way they changed depth of field or film speed to great effect made me gasp.

A must-see for a noir fan, if only to see the contrast between this vision of a noir film and ones made half a century ago.

The film's also a testimony for what one can do with a small budget. The writer/director raised money for six years (mostly from relatives and friends), eventually making the film for one million dollars.

The commentary track claims the movie deals with cliches and manipulation in high school, and how everyone in high school is so earnest, thinking everything that happens there is so important. I don't think these aspects play an important thematic role in the film.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Abandoned - Reaction

Noir. A decent, fairly straightforward thriller about a baby-selling criminal group. The male lead, a journalist, is an okay, somewhat flat character; the female lead, a woman looking for her sister, is a much better actress. The movie is punctuated with odd, infrequent voiceovers that are definitely out of place.

Cry Danger - Reaction

A good noir film filled with many snappy wisecracks. About a framed man who gets out of jail due to the (false) testimony of a marine and goes on to hunt the people who framed him. Filled with classic noir-style crosses and double-crosses (a good thing).

After the film, there was an on-stage conversation with the screenwriter's son and the actor (who happens to be a friend of the screenwriter) who played the drunk marine. They told some very entertaining stories that demonstrated what a funny guy William Bowers, the screenwriter, was. The best involved no-seepage caskets, a prank phone call, and even the completion of the joke with Bower's ashes after his death.

Incidentally, the festival director said the place where they originally intended to get the 35mm movie reels, which assured him the reels were in good condition, called him at the last minute to say they were unwatchable. (I read into his comments that place in question was Harvard.) He managed to get a 16mm print from UCLA's film archive to show instead.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Touch of Evil - Reaction

[watched the cut inspired by director's comments / memo]

A good Orson Welles noir-style film focusing on the conflict between a straight cop and a crooked cop. It starts a little slow, but it could just feel that way because we're not sure where things are going; after it gets going, it's pretty straightforward. Welles (the bad cop) acts very well; Charlton Heston (the good cop) is pretty good as well.

Has some good cinematography and cutting. The opening shot is several minutes long, following the characters as they travel several blocks in a town while many other events are happening. Later, there's another impressive continuous shot in which the camera follows the characters into a building and up an elevator. Regarding cutting, the film cuts well between the the parallel husband and wife story lines, keeping our interest in both. Occasionally the visuals take second seat to the rationality of the plot. The best example of this is the final scene in which Vargas, equipped with a radio receiver, needs to follow Quinlan. A tape recorder would've made much more sense, but then we would've missed this visually appealing scene.

Explores the theme of what a person can do in the name of the "justice". If you "know" someone is guilty, can you plant evidence to ensure he/she is punished? Also deals slightly with race relations and stereotypes, though this takes a trivial note when watched in the modern day.

This film has a great quote:
Quinlan (played by Welles): Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya (played by Marlene Dietrich): You haven't got any.
Quinlan: What do you mean?
Tanya: Your future is all used up.

Welles's memo commenting on the studio's cut of the film provides detailed, interesting insights into a director's thought process and all the aspects of the film he must consider.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wholetrain - Reaction


A good movie about graffiti art and the artists that create it. Used real artists as actors. The best features of the movie were the art itself and the hip-hop soundtrack (created by the writer/director). Amazingly good film for a first-time director.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Clerks II - Reaction

Mediocre. Some scenes succeed well, with witty repartees like one finds in a play, exploring themes such as romantic love, racial slurs, and what people want out of life. But others are low-brow, like the Star Wars versus Lord of the Rings debate or the whole goatsex plot, and don't fit very well with the high-brow ones. And some scenes, like the go-cart montage, feel entirely unnecessary. Others, like most with Jay and Silent Bob, feel inexplicable, like there's an inside joke I don't get. Further, Brian O'Halloran, who plays the main character, Dante, acts so poorly and woodenly he drags down the movie. Even Rosario Dawson's terrific acting, bringing a heart to the movie, can't entirely counter his effect.

This Houston Chronicle review roughly expresses my reaction to the movie and Kevin Smith's work in general. I answered B to nearly every question.

The commentary tracks are surprisingly interesting. One is technical and goes into great depth about types of cameras, film, and lighting. The other includes most of the cast and is fun to listen to because it so gossip-y and at times even soap opera-y. A neat fact that goes unmentioned: every scene in the movie is named after a book.

Friday, January 5, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion - Reaction

A well done though, frankly, slow movie in which not much happens. The slowness could be intentional, as the movie has the similar lazy, unhurried feel as the radio show. It feels like a visual reflection of the radio show, putting a face to the previously only imagined. Sadly, it misses the story component of the show, the segments of the show I like the most. It keeps the same sweet, eulogistic, nostalgic feel as the radio program. People who don't listen to the show will probably not like the movie; some people that do (like me) may only consider it decent, nothing more. Incidentally, the commentary from Altman, the director, makes him seem senile and as if he didn't do much directing.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Thank You For Smoking - Reaction

A decent satirical film about a tobacco lobbyist. Eckhart, who plays the lead character, does it with such earnestness, persuasiveness, and charisma that he makes the movie. Deals with issues of moral flexibility and ethics at work (i.e., what are you willing to do for your mortgage?), the meaning of spin and truth in the modern world (i.e., does the latter exist? is everyone spinning to some degree or another to make a point?), and the implications of political correctness (i.e., do companies have equal rights as people? should they? do both "sides" of the "truth" really need to be heard?).

The commentary and deleted scenes are interesting, showing aspects of the movie they decided detracted from the main points. I agree with all these cuts, including the scene with the skull and crossbones advertisement (too much straight comedy), the scene with memos of death threats (lessens the later on-air death threat), the post-kidnapping smoking fainting scene (too much of a direct statement about smoking and peer pressure and makes the hero appear stupid), and the final scene in which the son smokes at the press conference (makes it appear he missed the point of everything). Still, parts of the movie seemed flat or inexplicable, like the kidnapping subplot that basically went nowhere. Also, it's neat to observe no smoking is seen in the movie.