Reviews written by registered user

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132 reviews in total 
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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Interesting but flawed, 27 December 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In his long review of The Forgotten Space, Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions that he learned a lot more from this film than any other film he saw that year. This is a statement I'd have to agree with, yet at the same time the film's oddly unorganized structure makes it an essay film without a really coherent point. It's mostly about shipping and globalization but it's sometimes hard to really connect that to some of the individual sections, though I suppose that a long sequence about a boarding school, to name just one example, is there to emphasize the human dimension of the globalization of shipping. This doesn't always work and it often detracts from some of the film's more general points. However, even without a strong focus this film touches on a lot of interesting points, starting with the incredible volume of freight that moves all over the world everyday, especially in the sea. The film also turns a critical eye on labor practices and industrial culture, especially with a sequence that suggests that even a museum can become a tool of imperialism. Overall, The Forgotten Space is consistently interesting and it is aesthetically interesting in that it features a lot of images that I probably never would have seen otherwise, though they are never handled in a way that really emphasizes their uniqueness.

The Grudge (2004)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A muddled mess, 13 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Grudge is rather a mess of a film. Most obviously, the chronology and perspective constantly changes but the film is written in such a way that most of the flashbacks and perspective shifts primarily exist to give detail to information that has already been conveyed through exposition, or that is obvious through inference. As a result, most of the storytelling falls flat and the film lacks suspense since the viewer already knows what's going to happen most of the time. At the same time, none of the characters are really fleshed out so it's hard to care about them to begin with. Amusingly for an American version of this most of the principal characters just happen to be Americans living in Japan and mostly speaking English. If the film did anything at all with this cultural conflict it might be fun to ponder whether the apparitions just really hate Americans but alas, even this bit of fun is absent, and this is just another missed opportunity for some relatively obvious and easy character development that just doesn't show up.

The other major problem with this film is that the actual spirit that is killing people is barely seen for the majority of the film and when it does show up it just comes across as an inferior version of the malevolent entity from The Ring, an obvious influence. Instead, most of the film uses the spirit of a young boy in a muddled way. The boy is somewhat creepy because of his appearance, which provides all the menace that can be summoned from black eye makeup and a generous slathering of corpse paint. At the same time, he still looks like a very young boy and, for me at least, this inspired the usual sympathetic feelings I have towards a young child. The juxtaposition between his appearance and this sympathy almost becomes something interesting but once the film seemed to imply that he might be responsible for the deaths of some adults the situation took a turn for the absurd because there really isn't that much menace to be had from any child unless there's something obvious to the menace beyond appearance.

In any case, Shimizu overuses the child character and underuses the actual malevolent entity, not that she's all that threatening except in comparison to the boy. She's just a ghost with a "grudge" because she died in terrible pain and now she just kills people that come to her old house, because...well, the film certainly doesn't do anything to explain why she would want to kill people or why she mostly just haunts the house but sometimes leaves it to go after people that have been there before. Especially in comparison to The Ring, The Grudge fails to establish the power or motivation of its malevolent spirit at any point and in fact it's hard to imagine why she would be so powerful. All in all, this story simply isn't told very well and several aspects of it fail. It's hard to believe that this is actually the third or fourth time the director tried to tell this story given how poorly he tells it.

Qiu yue (1992)
Law finds the beauty in urban alienation, 26 August 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Clara Law's Autumn Moon explores modern urban alienation in a suitably sterile and lifeless Hong Kong. Law's shots of Hong Kong (and the surrounding areas) are the highlight here as she creates an appropriately otherworldly mood and imbues her cityscapes with a strange beauty. She also succeeds in creating some interesting characters, particularly with the film's central duo, Tokio, a burnt out Japanese tourist who seduces women out of habit but is unable to satisfy his urges and Li, a fifteen year old student preparing to move with her brother and parents to Canada. Law emphasizes the transiency of these characters whose shared culture consists of only the English language and the cuisine of McDonalds, which a naive Li holds forth as the height of Chinese traditional fare and a world-weary Tokio insists is the same in Hong Kong as it is in London and Toronto. Ultimately the two characters find a measure of satisfaction as Tokio discovers the Chinese tradition he seeks and confronts his own past while Li gets her first taste of romance and begins to accept her own inevitable departure. The film ends with the characters triumphantly shooting fireworks as they have learned to find joy in small measures, much as Law herself finds beauty in the very urban desolation she critiques.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Class warfare in the industrial age, 14 June 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

GW Pabst's The 3 Penny Opera is ostensibly the story of a the conflict that arises when master burglar (and leader of a burglar guild) Mack the Knife marries Polly, the daughter of Peachum, the head of the guild of beggars. Though he prides himself in being the "Poorest man in London," Peachum is actually a very wealthy man who exploits the poor and and perpetuates their misery with his brutally efficient and dehumanizing industrial methods. Yet at the same time, Peachum deludes himself into thinking that he's a respectable man and this gives him a sort of bourgeois dislike for the more straightforward criminal activities of Mack the Knife and his cohorts.

Almost from the beginning, however, it's clear that the film isn't really about romance or even a feud between rival guilds. Rather, this is a film about a deeply flawed society and the way it sustains itself. Pabst glosses over the romance between Mack and Polly while simultaneously emphasizing the artificiality of the proceedings, specifically with interludes from the type of narrator familiar from stage plays. This serves to accentuate the artificiality of the behavior of Peachum and police chief Tiger Brown, the two authority figures of the narrative, both who only pretend to have the best interests of the common people at heart. In reality, Tiger Brown is happy to pay his respects at obvious criminal Mack's wedding and easily cowed into doing the bidding of Peachum, who plans to use his army of poor beggars to embarrass the chief if he doesn't join Peachum's cause. At the same time, the burglar's guild uses their ill-gotten gains to purchase a bank with the implication that it's more efficient to rob people this way than by breaking into their homes.

Beset on all sides with enemies, the poor are left with very little outlet and jump at the chance to strike out against their oppressors, though they fail to realize just how close those most responsible for their plight are and are thus led by Peachum and not against him. At the end they fail to make any progress and it seems things will continue as usual, with very little chance for the poor to better themselves. At the same time, their oppressors end the film with more solidarity than ever.

Pabst is more than equal to his task as director here and he manages to create some striking images, particularly when he pulls into artfully composed close-ups of individuals or small groups, as when Peachum masterfully stirs up his followers or helplessly attempts to stem their tide. Further, he's clever enough to use the fact that this is adapted from a stage play to his advantage as turns the artificiality to his own purposes. In his use of artificiality to suggest the deterministic nature of industrial society, the film reminds me of Joe Wright's recent adaptation of Anna Karenina, though this film is a bit more subtle and much less stylistically over the top.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Engaging satire on police bureaucracy, 20 April 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Based on a true story, Gordon Parks' 1974 film Super Cops is a loose collection of episodes about a couple of honest and determined rookie cops that gradually changes tone. The opening is satirical as titular pair Greenberg and Hantz encounter a police-training program notably for its absurdity. The opening scene is emblematic of the issues the film handles as the head trainer insists that the recruits should form two lines, with the front line composed of the tall men and the back line composed of the shorter men. When told quite logically that this is opposite of the way such things are usually conducted, the head trainer responds that this is just the way things have always been done in this course. The police departments consistently asserts its backwards priorities throughout training, as when a senior officer insists that the rookies mind their post directing traffic while an unopposed gunman takes shots at civilians from a high window a couple of blocks away. This section, which points out the absurdity of a bureaucracy that keeps things from being done instead of aiding them as it should, gets the film off to a particularly good start as it makes its point economically and convincingly while simultaneously displaying a sharp biting wit and establishing the characters and their goals.

Greenberg and Hantz quickly make a name for themselves as they take on real police work when they are off duty, arresting drug dealers and other small time crooks who flaunt their crimes before an undefended public. Here again, the police department comes off as the main antagonist as the veterans view these rookies with suspicion and assume their hard work is part of a grift. As the film progresses, the men encounter laziness, corruption, and stupidity at every level of the department and are generally punished for their hard work until they become famous for some of their wilder antics. One such antic has one partner commandeering a city bus and another jumping off a fire escape to get the drop on some out of town hired killers. The humor in such scenes is a bit on the zany side, though not overbearingly so; rather, this complements the more sophisticated jabs at bureaucracy surprisingly well.

After the mostly comedic first part, Greenberg and Hantz end up stationed at an undesirable precinct in a particularly dangerous neighborhood and the tone gradually becomes more serious, especially when they work against some well-connected drug distributors who use the department's flaws to their own advantage. Director Parks conveys a sense of tenseness in certain scenes quite well, an especially impressive feat given the comedic sections preceding them. In fact, Parks work is impressive overall, as all aspects of the film are more than competent, though there aren't many moments that really stick out on a technical level. This is an engaging, well-made police film that highlights some of the problems of bureaucracy in general and police bureaucracy particularly with a combination of satirical wit, zany humor, and a few scenes that are a bit more serious.

Anna Karenina (2012/I)
17 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Brilliant adaptation, 17 March 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is one of the most acclaimed novels of all time, not least of all because of the excellence of the book's themes. These themes of Tolstoy's are expressed extremely well in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina. First and foremost and the area that really sets the film apart is the theatricality of certain settings in the film. Many scenes take place on sets made to resemble the stage, especially early on. I was initially baffled by this choice but I slowly came to realize that it functions as a way to make visual the artificiality of the world inhabited by Anna Karenina, specifically its outdated values. It's extremely clear that Russia was undergoing a major transition during the time in which the narrative is set. Trains and railways play a major role in the film and of course trains are a common symbol of technological progress. There's more than passing reference to the freeing of the serfs and the radical ideology even of some aristocrats, which echoes the life of Tolstoy himself. Much is also made of the cultural shifts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the former of which had apparently become rather old-fashioned compared to the relatively progressive Petersburg at the time. The film suggests that the reaction of the country's upper class was to ignore the major changes that were occurring and cling all the harder to the past, especially with regards to social institutions. Thus the eponymous heroine finds it impossible to escape her loveless marriage with any social standing intact, which eventually drives her mad.

This isn't just a plainly literal translation of the source, however, as Wright's clever use of the stage is just one of many visual techniques he uses to make this material cinematic. Wright's use of landscape is unusually strong, particularly in the surreal final shot. His use of mirrors made me think of some of the works of RW Fassbinder, another supreme visual stylist. Another neat touch is having background characters freeze and fade into the background to suggest the heightened emotional state of the main characters, particularly in the scene where Anna has her first dance with the rakish Vronsky. Overall, another excellent movie from one of the most promising English language directors of his generation and the best 2012 film I've seen so far.

Blindness (2008)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Misanthropic trash, ugly aesthetically, 2 March 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Fernando Meirelles' Blindness is about an infectious disease that makes people go blind. It's divided fairly evenly into three sections, the first of which concerns the beginning of the disease and its spread, the second of which concerns initial efforts to slow the spread of the disease, and the third of which concerns efforts of a group making their way through a city stricken by the disease. The first section is fairly engaging, if somewhat disjointed. The second section is infuriating as it presents some unrealistically evil characters who have a very easy time taking over the internment camp and oppressing the majority of the inmates, who refuse to resist for laughable reasons. Here, Mereilles exhibits a ghoulish willingness to wallow in the mire of the inhumanity on display as he focuses on the sordid details in a sickening fashion. Compared to the stifling second section, the third is quite a relief and things become somewhat more bearable as the main group travels through the city and manages to form a desirable community, although it's hardly one that appears to be sustainable.


Blindness strikes me as a film that may be allegorical, specifically as it features a character who is born blind and is among the most evil of all the characters and ends with a character learning to find the good in people and regaining his sight. Perhaps the idea is that a general lack of empathy or "blindness" toward the plight of other people becomes literal blindness and people can learn to see by building beneficial relationships with others. Another idea I thought of while watching this film has to do with the one character who is never stricken with the disease. I thought that perhaps it's suggesting that a leader with "vision" can help others improve their lives but they must be receptive and open to that leader's ideas. In either case, I don't think this themes are really enough to make the film worthwhile-in fact, they're a bit obvious and trite. I realize it's rather ungenerous to create this sort of interpretation and then criticize it, however nothing about this film puts me in a generous mood.

Aesthetically, this film's ugliness is a match for its subject matter. All of the colors here look blown out and faded and Meirelles overuses close-ups frequently, not that his sense of composition is strong with medium shots or long shots either. The direction and storytelling are also poor, which is what I expected from Meirelles based on the other film of his I've seen. On the positive side, the actors all do a very good job. Overall, this is not a film with many redeeming features and I definitely count it among the worst I've ever seen.

Szamanka (1996)
10 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Zulawski explores shamans and sexuality, 6 January 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Like most Zulawski films, Szamanka is most notable for the camera-work. As usual, the camera moves around fluidly and Zulawski, working with his usual DP Andrzej Jaroszewicz, frequently employs some unusual angles that greatly complement the film's off-kilter tone. Also as usual for this Polish director, the acting style is stylized in a rather unique way as the principle characters behavior is always extreme, or at the very least exaggerated. While the film is in many ways typical of Zulawski, I was surprised to see that most of his directorial characteristics, while present, were relatively subdued, almost as if he was attempting to make his films more accessible to a mainstream audience, not that there's anything mainstream about the film's narrative.

The plot of Szamanka focuses on the very physical relationship between Michal, an anthropology professor, and a nameless psychotic woman who claims to be a student and works at a meat packing plant. As the film opens, Michal has discovered the corpse of a shaman preserved in the ground for thousands of years. Michal, whose own brother is Catholic priest, becomes obsessed with the shaman and the girl in equal measure. It's difficult not to draw a parallel between modern priests and ancient shamans here, as Michal's mystical communion with the shaman's corpse eventually leads him to consider becoming a priest himself. Michal also appears to be somewhat torn in his love life as he must choose between his fiancée, the cultured daughter of his employer, and the diametrically opposite student, whose own inability to conform to the rules of society is apparent in her proclivity for petty theft and her difficulty dealing with her mother and young children. So it seems that the central question of the film is whether Michal should embrace man's primal nature and continue his relationship with the shamanastic mad woman or return to modern civilization, either with his fiancée or through the priesthood. Yet all these thematic concerns are oddly de- emphasized as the film is too often composed of repetitive sex scenes. Typically of Zulawski, the film ends with some rather insane acts and what appears to be a rather large explosion.

All in all, this was a rather uneven film which raised some interesting themes but didn't explore them with much depth, instead focusing overmuch on an odd sexual relationship. Still, Zulawski's style is interesting enough on its own to make up for some of the film's flaws.

Vlci bouda (1987)
6 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
"B" horror meets political allegory with middling success, 29 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The premise of this film from Czech avant garde director Vera Chytilova resembles that of many "B" horror movies of the time. A large group of teenagers head to an isolated camp with relatively little adult supervision. In this case, it's clear from the start that there is something peculiar about the camp counselors, who claim that there is an extra camper who doesn't belong. The counselors consistently work to undermine the relationship between the various campers, which isn't difficult given the isolation, extreme cold of the mountain location, and lack of good food. It seems that one of Chytilova's aims here is to build a tense atmosphere for psychological horror, yet this is not altogether successful, mostly because of the goofiness of the campers and the absurdity of the eventual reveal of the nature of the counselors and their goals. Chytilova's direction isn't as successful as it could have been either - though she attempts to spice things up with some creative camera work and transitional close-ups of spreading ice, she fails to infuse the proceedings with much tension.

Like many films from major Eastern European directors of the era, Wolf's Chalet contains elements of political allegory that are hard to ignore. The inhuman behavior of the counselors resembles that of an oppressive regime that demands sacrifices from its people for no good reason. At the same time, the campers mostly fail to band together to combat the obvious malevolence of their captors, which suggests the lack of useful action undertaken by the people. It is only when the campers work together that they have any chance of withstanding the counselors, although they find it impossible to offer opposition without making sacrifices of their own.

While Wolf's Chalet has an interesting premise and it avoids most of the pitfalls of the "B" horror movies it resembles, the narrative still doesn't work all that well when taken literally. While it's a little more successful as a political statement, it's a bit hard to swallow serious themes from such silly goings-on. The best part of this film overall is the camera work, which at least attempts something interesting and original. Nevertheless, while it's easy to see why this is not a very well known film, it kept my attention and was fairly engaging throughout.

Greed (1924)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Von Stroheim elevates source material, 15 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague is one of the key works in American literary naturalism, featuring several hallmarks of the literary movement, which flourished around the turn of the century. Erich Von Stroheim's adaptation, retitled Greed, strictly adhered to the novel and the original nine hour cut must have been a scene for scene translation. This closeness of the film to the source material means that Greed carries over some of naturalism's key themes. Specifically, the film is about John McTeague, a miner's son who attempts to better himself by becoming an apprentice in a trade—dentistry—but ultimately finds himself doomed to failure as mining is what he was meant to do. This combination of determinism and social Darwinism is typical of naturalism's focus on the lack of autonomy of individual humans. Another characteristic of naturalism evident in Greed is a sort of primitivization of human beings as both John McTeague and his father are constantly dirty and covered in masses of unkempt hair. Similarly, in one of Von Stroheim's most inspired scenes, some clever editing compares McTeague's rival Marcus to a cat preparing to prey on a couple of helpless caged canaries.

Another key theme of Greed is…greed, which wrecks the lives of the three principal characters. McTeague's love interest Trina is a hard working, thrifty girl who remains relatively happy until she wins a substantial sum in a lottery, after which she becomes a miserable miser as she strives to increase her small fortune. This infuriates the formerly happy-go-lucky Marcus, who gracefully bowed out of a semi-engagement with Trina to make his friend McTeague happy. His opportunism is amplified into psychosis as he realizes he's missed his chance to share a part of Trina's fortune. The money even ruins McTeague himself, who finds it impossible to work for menial wages when his household possesses enough wealth to allow him a relatively leisurely life if only he could convince his wife to use it.

The other important characters in Greed are two diametrically opposed couples: there is the greedy couple Zerkow and Maria, who dream of fabulous wealth and the elderly couple Grannis and Miss Baker, who are too busy working to notice each other. Zerkow suspects Maria is hiding money from him and it drives him mad while Grannis sells his business (for the same amount Trina won in the lottery) and settles down to retirement with Miss Baker. The never subtle Norris uses these subplots to posit two possible future future paths for McTeague and Trina.

Contrary to my focus on themes common to the novel and film, Greed is not merely an extension of Norris's novel. Von Stroheim makes the film his own as he sets the proper tone with colored filters, carefully controlled zooms, and some reasonably well put together editing. In fact, his filmmaking is considerably more adept than Norris's workmanlike prose. The climactic scenes in Death Valley, which Von Stroheim shoots through a yellow filter, are particularly impressive and are easily among the best of the silent era.

In spite of the carefully realized themes of McTeague, I did not enjoy the novel when I read it a few years ago. Like many works of naturalism, some of the character behavior seems stilted—probably to reinforce the idea that humans lack autonomy. Further, Norris's lack of style and his heavy-handedness in slathering on miserable situations make for a rather unpleasant reading experience, which to be fair is not atypical of my experiences with literary naturalism. The most problematic aspect of McTeague, though, is one I've already mentioned: the social Darwinism. It's always difficult to establish intent, even with a writer as heavy- handed as Norris, but it's tempting to see the novel as a snobby dismissal of an irredeemable lower class represented by the buffoonish and reprehensible McTeague. Yet, in spite of my dislike for McTeague, which caused me to stay away from this film for years, I found Greed quite impressive even with its often languid runtime, which is padded out with uncinematic production stills and expository title cards. Von Stroheim has a better sense of characterization and he manages to build some sympathy even for the mostly unlikeable characters here and he infuses the goings on with an epic quality mostly absent from the book. Somehow, Von Stroheim stayed true to a book I didn't like and made a film I found above average nonetheless.

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