Movies watched in July-August 2011

rated and ordered according to my affection for them
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La Cucaracha (1998)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.4/10 X  
A desperate writer fights for survival when the Mexican mob involves him in murder. (95 mins.)
Director: Jack Perez
“ 9/10
It said "Mexican noir", and that's why I wanted to see it, and boy was it what I expected and so much more, seeing how (metaphorically) magical realism is the ultimatesh!t. Well I'm not sure that a "Mexican noir" can stray too far away from magical realism anyway.
What I understand by "metaphorically magical realism" can somehow be equated to the type of magic exuded by Julio Cortazar's House Taken Over: Not so much a feeling of actual magic happening in our world, but more something like walking on a street at night, and passing by a forest behind a fence on the side of the road. You take a long look at the forest. You don't jump the fence and check to see whether it contains strange things, you don't even wonder about it, maybe not yet, you just slow down your step and take a long look at it, maybe with all these in the back of your mind, but at most in a blurry cloud of future thoughts. Just a touch of fascination, a hint of mystery, a tiny, barely seen, maybe imagined fissure in the wall of your mundane reality. It's the tiny moment between mundane and - more mundane, or between mundane and wildly magical. It's a moment I love, when truly everything seems possible, and that moment is the metaphorically magical realism I meant, and that's what we get in this movie. To illustrate further, I also felt a touch of that in Dark Passage (1947), Detour (1945) or Ride the Pink Horse (1947).
Well this flick is the story of a broken character who thinks he finally caught his big chance to shine, is of course mistaken about it, betrayed, discovers a new reason to live (or as he carelessly approximates, "raison bleugh") within himself under the guise of revenge, which revenge takes a few very odd twists and turns, only to leave him about just as clueless about Everything in the end; but this time, unlike his attire in the beginning of the movie, he looks a bit like an archetypal cowboy riding into the sunset. The concrete details of the story reminded me of Gabriele Salvatores' Puerto Escondido (1992) (and many other such stories) - the gringo come to "get away from it all" in some small Latin American town, not fitting in, not understanding the rhythm and sound of the local life and feeling alienated, having everything stolen from him, and being like a leaf in the strangest winds of chance. One of the first interesting things about La Cucaracha is that we don't get to hear about the past of the gringo until we have to, in a moment when he (somewhat forcefully) blows open his mystery for the ears of a woman he loved.
Another interesting thing is Eric Roberts playing really well (but then I caught him at it another time before, in Raggedy Man (1981)). Then we have very interesting dialogue, characters suddenly throwing logical reasoning at each other that never feels silly or out of place, at most surprising, and a bit unbelievable, but in a way that only contributes to the magic of the movie (like Walter Pool, the gringo, rationalizing at one moment that he can't be dreaming because he's questioning it, and that doesn't happen in dreams; in more elevated words, and in Latin, this happens to be precisely Descartes' "dubito" axiom ). We also have bad guys committing bad things while saying that they regret it thoroughly, and us believing them, we have the main character coming back to life and out of his grave in a perfectly improbable plot twist, waking up just as improbably in the house of the woman he loves, and a final confrontation that goes in a completely different way than what we'd expect - if we haven't already learned that we're one step in wonderland, so we should stop expecting stuff.
And this whole thing is soaked in the Mexican dry heat, the confused struggle and post-archetypal characters of the post-noir, and the crickety hum of the summer night. Yep, I loved it. ” - dark_frances
House of Games (1987)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  
A psychiatrist comes to the aid of a compulsive gambler and is led by a smooth-talking grifter into the shadowy but compelling world of stings, scams, and con men. (102 mins.)
Director: David Mamet
“ 9/10
The story: This movie was a con. The sting was to make us believe it was neo-noir, about a protagonist who falls in a pit of manipulation and loss, drawn in by circumstances overwhelming her powers of anticipation, seduced out of money and love and left stranded in a deserted corner of the universe, all complete with moody music, shady bars of the criminal underworld, shadow play and mirrors, homme fatal and cigarette smoke. When, in fact, it was an almost clinical study on the evolution of a distorted mind. And I am so happy about it, because by god I was disappointed by the way in which Margaret, the protagonist, was tricked, it was so predictable; turns out that this predictability was also intentional, and that the focus had always been on her behaviour, not on the plot.

The main character: Margaret was not just the main character of the movie, she was pretty much the only character of the movie, the others were just pretexts, like the paper and the ink spot which a psychologist uses to read their patient. But she was totally unrelatable, there was a wall of ice between her and us the whole time, mostly generated by her lack of expressiveness; because we were not meant to be in her shoes (like many stories want us to be), we were simply observing her. Not to mention that she was an ugly protagonist - not the actress, the character was ugly, it felt like she was meant to make us recoil a little, even at her warmest and inlovest. And I am pretty sure that this was intentional. And in spite of this, the movie was sexy, tricky, and haunting through and through. Brilliant, I want more.

The ending: about the ending - I think she did kill Mike, although it is possible that he didn't quite say what she heard him say while she was shooting him. I do understand now that she must have been abused by her father, which is why in the end she accuses Mike of rape, and why she wants so much for him to beg - at that point she was already deep within her own mind, taking revenge not on Mike but on her own father (Mike's abuse must have reactivated other things in her mind). But I am pretty sure that she did kill him; apart from the lack of contradicting evidence, and for the fact that she could get off with the crime (nobody knew about her connection with the criminal circle, the gun was not hers), something quite relevant must have happened to change her from "victim of a con" to the way in which she presents herself in the end, and I don't think that a murder fantasy could have cut the deal. Besides, if she didn't kill Mike, her character in the end would be much less haunting - she'd be just a good girl in a good mood with a touch of mischievousness. ” - dark_frances
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.1/10 X  
Hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses a somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders. (78 mins.)
Director: Robert Wiene
“ 8/10
Apart from the visual alarming beauty of the expressionism, the movie had a level of narrative maturity that surprised me very pleasantly; well after more Pabst, Murnau and Lang maybe I'll finally stop being surprised by narratively aware silents... ” - dark_frances
Destry Rides Again (1939)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  
When a tough western town needs taming, the mild-mannered son of a hard-nosed sheriff gets the job. (94 mins.)
Director: George Marshall
“ 8/10
The flick managed to stay on that strange verge between comedy and something else, with an unexpected and interesting result. James Stewart's Destry was very convincing, and quite powerful for a James Stewart character - he's not "silly on the outside, strong deep inside" here, his very silliness is controlled, partially because he knows he's the king of his castle so doesn't need to prove it to himself every ten seconds (the typical James Stewart is at most a model citizen of his republic), partially because he honestly believes in law above violence, partially because it sets his enemies off guard. He never seems to acknowledge the latter himself, but the audience is unable to avoid an avalanche of glee when the bad guys get to see how wrong they were about Destry. Aside from that, Marlene's histrionics were in a strange harmony with Stewart's matter-of-factly attitude, in fact I'd even say that they had chemistry (even though it's a word I use very seldom). Sure, the story of the incorruptible sheriff vs dangerous bar singer is nothing unheard of, but these two made the air tingle a little, desire seemed to actually be there, behind both the "I seduce men to use them" and the "ma'am you're guilty and I won't be seduced out of the idea". And the final kiss, even though obviously melodramatic, did not fall into camp; it felt like it burned to be there, on Tom's lips,.
The movie had other charms as well, particularly from the female cast, namely a truly delightful catfight, almost as nicely choreographed as a Hideo Gosha fights, with the females actually going at it, not just grabbing each other's hair and screaming (the violence was on a strong comedic note), a hilarious ending with the bad guys getting defeated by a tidal wave of annoyed housewives armed with brooms and napkins. There was also a mighty odd character named Stavrogin, whose being Russian seemed to generate not only mutterings in Russian, but also words in other European languages (French for sure, maybe Italian too), plus a very flamboyant manner of speech, consisting of tons of metaphors, at times he was almost talking like a minstrel or court jester ("I'm a mummy, I'm a sphinx!", or "I am a courier, / fast as lightning, / silent as the night itself!").
All in all, this movie was a little offbeat, in a very good way. It felt more nimble than other movies of its age. ” - dark_frances
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 5.8/10 X  
When the annual fair comes to town, murder, madness and mayhem creep in its shadows. Dr. Caligari, a mysterious hypnotist, appears to control every move of his bizarre, clairvoyant sleepwalker, but does he? (76 mins.)
“ 8/10
I have seen both this and the remake, and liked them both, for slightly different reasons. The original had indeed wonderful, hallucinatory set design, and a very interesting and coherent story line - not to mention its historical significance. This one had very eerie sound effects, well-written dialogue (the talk feels natural and modern, without historical or over-dramatic affectation, yet the words stay a-temporal, allowing us to place the story in the same time and place as the silent original), and really good lights and camera work - the shadow play was on a par with the original. I even liked the direction and the acting, and found Alan's murder better in the 2005 movie (in one moment we see Alan's actual body stabbed by Cesare's shadow!). If nothing else, this movie felt like a declaration of respect and love to the original, in the vein of some modern interpretations of Shakespeare, so even if we deny it any merits by itself, it's still no affront to Wiene's groundbreaking film. ” - dark_frances
The World of Apu (1959)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.2/10 X  
This final installment in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, follows Apu's life as an orphaned adult aspiring to be a writer as he lives through poverty, and the unforeseen turn of events. (105 mins.)
Director: Satyajit Ray
“ 7/10
One of the very few serious Indian movies I've seen. Smooth and warm in the first half, too dramatic in the second half. Nice images. Random thought - the protagonist was handsome when serious, and suddenly ugly with a touch of freaky when smiling. ” - dark_frances
Dead of Night (1977 TV Movie)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.4/10 X  
This anthology tells three stories: one of time travel, one of vampires, and one of a mother wishing her drowned son back to life. (76 mins.)
Director: Dan Curtis
“ 7/10
The first story was surprisingly poetic (old cars poetry!). The second one fell a bit flat. And the last one was mostly puzzling and tense, with an unexpectedly terrifying ending (I did sleep with the lights turned on afterwards). The movie has no connection to the Cavalcanti / Crichton / Dearden / Hamer Dead of Night anthology from 1945 (whose segments were all very good, and wrapped together in a haunting narrative). ” - dark_frances
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.4/10 X  
A nurse, a policeman, a young married couple, a salesman, and other survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, take refuge in a mega Midwestern shopping mall. (101 mins.)
Director: Zack Snyder
“ 7/10
Suited my mood for bloody fluff. ” - dark_frances
Three Colors: White (1994)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  
Second of a trilogy of films dealing with contemporary French society shows a Polish immigrant who wants to get even with his former wife. (91 mins.)
“ 7/10
Sort of cute. ” - dark_frances
Blood on the Moon (1948)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.9/10 X  
Unemployed cowhand Jim Garry is hired by his dishonest friend Tate Riling as muscle in a dispute between homesteaders and cattleman John Lufton. (88 mins.)
Director: Robert Wise
“ 6/10
There's always something sad about a good thriller that reverts to pure action story in the end; probably because the questions looming over us until that point were not "who's gonna win the gun/fist/car fight??" (which is not even really a question at that point in the movie), but rather "what is the master plan? who is morally justified? how will X react to the news that P? does she love him or not? everything seems lost, how will they go on from here?" etc. So, when the thriller reveals all these cards before the climax, the climax can only become awfully uninteresting, no matter how many gunshots and dead extras we get. Exemplary for what I'm talking about are the detective movies that don't end when the criminal is being revealed, but get on afterwards with the criminal running away from the police, car chases, "put the gun down!!" scenes and other such zombie thrills, forcing the movie to go on even though it has already ended. Dunno, maybe some people appreciate this, and maybe sometimes it's done right. ...But not this movie viewer, and not in this movie. A pity, because until time started to drag during action scenes, the movie had some very interesting spots, like Mitchum's character winning a fight but being down and broken after that, which happens seldom in either westerns or noirs, where the victor of a good guy / bad guy fistfight usually looks like a victor, not like the loser who can still stand. Well his whole character was very interesting while he was still pondering which side to take, and even a little after having made up his mind, because he felt for a while like those Dashiell Hammett counsellors or bodyguards who take sides or feign taking sides for some "kind disguised as mean disguised as kind disguised..." agenda. The story was, up to that point, quite complex, including a disoriented and bitter Walter Brennan character - who simply reverted to a character like Skimpy from Rio Bravo in the unfortunate action-oriented end of the movie. A pity, I say. ” - dark_frances
“ 6/10
Bored Hatamoto: The Mystery of the Exotic Acrobats / Hatamoto taikutsu otoko: Nazo no nanban taiko
A common jidai-geki. Saotome Mondonosuke is the "cynical tough swordsman with a peculiarity" - like Ogami Itto who had his little son, Zatoichi who was blind, Nemuri Kyoshiro who was pretty uninterested in stuff, Mondonosuke has a scar on his forehead (and a haircut carefully designed to show it). Like Kyoshiro, Mondonosuke is also professing boredom, but in his case it's more a rhetoric device than actual bored attire.
So the story has Mondonosuke (constantly in annoyed big samurai mode) investigating a series of murders in a city and fighting bad guys; the bad guys are a group of "exotic" entertainers working together with the local daimyo who, of course, plots to take over Japan. Everything flows as straight as it could towards the "good guys win" conclusion; in fact I was wrong to compare Mondonosuke with the other post-modern ronin (resp. masseur) heroes: what he really looks like is an American classical hero, without either the intense ethical burdens of the Japanese traditional characters, or the required amount of shadiness of the "new" Japanese heroes.
The interesting part of the movie concerned the "exotic" entertainers, which were a very odd combination of Chinese and Western European style (imagine an old Chinese guy, dressed in Chinese rich clothes and speaking Japanese with a thick accent, performing a "devil's torture chamber" trick, while a guy with Eastern Asian features and clown makeup pretends to be exaggeratedly terrified by the fate of the lady in the cabinet, a bunch of pretty girls in Chinese clothing execute a dance around the box, and a Caucasian guy with another type of thick accent is outside, trying to temp people in Japanese working clothes to buy tickets to the show. All the while with a funny mixture of Chinese happy song and American musical on the soundtrack. Not sure how much of this was intentional, and how much was just awkwardly trying to look as exotic as it could, but the effect was pretty colourful.
The strategy ostensibly employed by Mondonosuke to catch the bad guys would also not have been bad. He hired a whole bunch of skilled petty criminals with good ears and noses, quick hands and honey-coated manipulation techniques to discover the plot and defeat it. Unfortunately the band of bad guys only ends up spying a thing or two and then vanishes from the plot, which was a pity because I would really have liked to see them pitted against the entertainers - but the latter are only defeated by Mondonosuke and his young assistant's totally skilled swords, in a series of awfully uninteresting mass fights (mass of bad guys against those two). And, by that point, the soundtrack was already drenched in excessively loud operatic Western dull themes.
Dunno, in conclusion, maybe I'd have regarded some of the details of the story with better eyes, had Mondonosuke not been so boring and the soundtrack so loud... ” - dark_frances
Three Colors: Red (1994)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.1/10 X  
Final entry in a trilogy of films dealing with contemporary French society concerns a model who discovers her neighbour is keen on invading people's privacy. (99 mins.)
“ 6/10
Various narrative lines came together nicely, although a bit too nicely; movie seemed to have something to say about life, humanity and other such, but most of its musings were blurry, while the more clear bits denoted superficial thinking (such as: we are all egoists, because whenever we do something out of pity, we're actually doing it for ourselves, not for the recipient of our pity; the whole movie seemed to suck "depth" out of such easy existentialism). On the whole, I was not very impressed by White and Red - the images were pretty but I've seen prettier, and the content just didn't hit significant spots. ” - dark_frances
Pale Rider (1985)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  
A mysterious preacher protects a humble prospector village from a greedy mining company trying to encroach on their land. (115 mins.)
Director: Clint Eastwood
“ 5.5/10
Decent and perfectly unremarkable, like the usual Clint movie. ” - dark_frances
Raising Arizona (1987)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.4/10 X  
When a childless couple of an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to help themselves to one of another family's quintupelets, their lives get more complicated than they anticipated. (94 mins.)
Director: Joel Coen
“ 5/10
Very flat and forgettable. ” - dark_frances
Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Express (1985)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  
Two kittens go on a metaphysical journey on a magical railroad train. (113 mins.)
“ 4/10
A big part of the imagery and the main idea were eerie and unexpected (= compliment), but there was also too much Christian symbolism, of the kind that doesn't just talk about a religion, but is actually trying to convert. Additionally, there was way too much staring into unblinking eyes of anthropomorphic cats. ” - dark_frances
Franklyn (2008)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.2/10 X  
A portrait of the broken lives of four people (a vigilante detective, a worried parent, an awkward man looking for love and a suicidal artist) as they all struggle to cope in their religiously-dystopian city. (98 mins.)
Director: Gerald McMorrow
“ 2/10
Ew. Heap of sad cinematic cliches piles up together and imagining that they are a deep 'un. ” - dark_frances