Thriller! A Cruel Picture -
I wish I knew what they were getting at here. The version I saw did not have the notorious penetration scenes, but I doubt they would've changed the idea of the film, in which a young girl is raped, falls mute, and then as a young woman is kidnapped, forcibly addicted to drugs and forced to serve as a prostitute until she gains enough experience in hand to hand combat, firearms, and driving skills to exact her revenge. I've told you everything that happens here, and I wish that as an exploitation picture it had played a little more on something - the film is as clinical as that description, giving you very little to take from it, to think about during or after it. It just comes up on screen with little fanfare, so-so acting, direction, and camerawork, bad writing and some OK special effects (convincing gunshot wounds) alongside some really dumb ones (exploding cars, a'la the Pinto in Top Secret). I guess it's a tabula rasa - there's so little to it, so little invested in it emotionally or intellectually that you can project just about anything you want about sex and violence and find parts of the film to support that reading. I think it's unreadable, if not exactly unwatchable. Weird.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -
Not too far from the previous film, actually, in terms of me wondering exactly why I'm watching it, though there's a lot more invested in making it a "good" picture. It's hard to care about the people here as their lives spiral further and further out of control. They've created the bad places they're in and as they get worse off - supported of course by tight direction by Sidney Lumet, a crafty script, and some good acting - you just watch it happen without getting invested in anybody. It can get better or worse for Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character and it's no sweat off my back. Same goes for everyone else here. I kind of enjoyed it in a gritty, pulp/crime-filmy way, but if I'd felt more invested in the people here I think it could've been riveting instead of just neat.
Charming omnibus from Ken Loach, Ermanno Ormi, and Abbas Kiarostami. Loach's set was my favorite, though I wouldn't definitively say that it's in any way "better" than the contributions of the other two, just that Kiarostami hasn't yet made a real mark on me (I've only seen A Taste of Cherry), never seen anything by Ormi (though he's far and away the most prolific of the three) and I really liked Loach's Sweet Sixteen (from which several actors reappear here). A train trip to Italy provides the foundation for several stories that don't exactly intertwine but more happen in proximity to each other and Loach's beats out the unresolved arguments between the young man and cranky old lady (who never really gains my sympathy for treating him as she does) and the reflections of missed opportunities that the professor of the first segment gives us. Loach's take is warmer and more vibrant than either and more fun and more involving for me in the end. Definitely worth seeing if you like the directors involved, but not necessarily a major statement by anybody, and in that it's like every other omnibus film I've ever seen.
Yuck. I don't think I've ever seen a less humorous "comedy" of such high regard since Dr. Strangelove paraded out a bunch of footage of Peter Sellers working hard to make stale lines (written by the mostly dreary and humorless Stanley Kubrick) come to life. Here Altman and his cast throw down a bunch of ideas (or "plot" if you will) loosely around a medical camp in the Korean War and while I'm supposed to side with the young renegade doctors Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, I just feel like they're assholes. Sutherland kind of gives me some things to grab onto, but mostly this made me think of a frat party - some smart ass guys of some privelege talk about sex and tits, get drunk a lot, try to get laid a lot, and worry about being homosexual but not about being racist, all the while feeling like they're bearing the flag of the counterculture beceause they stick it to "the man" at every opportunity. Forget that every figure of authority here is written like a one-note dickhead or uptight bitch rather than being given a fair shake at any point. Forget that his "Last Supper" here has no meaning in the context of the film, just another "fuck you" to whoever, unlike, say, Bunuel's in Viridiana. To me this is the 60's at its most self-congratulatory and most aggravating. And guess what came on my TV right afterward? Why, Dr. Strangelove, of course. Sigh....
Standard Operating Procedure -
Worth seeing, but as an Errol Morris film - where I'm used to him really getting below the surface of things - something of a disappointment. I mean, sure, if you thought that these kids were really a bunch of really bad people who operated in a vacuum and did truly horrible things to the people in the photographs, then yes, it will open your eyes. But if, as the title suggests and as I believe, you think that they worked within a culture where such behavior as the humiliation of their prisoners was par for the course - and more ominously suggested that it was completely mild by comparison - it will pretty much read out to the choir. I wish it took on higher targets, but probably it's pretty damn difficult to get that kind of information from high-level military while an operation is still underway. Even so, it's interesting, there's some enlightening stuff on screen, and it's made with Morris's usual panache and attention to detail. My only complaint with the filmmaking itself would be Danny Elfman's sometimes melodramatic score. Kinda makes you take things less seriously than you might otherwise be inclined to.
The Strangers -
A weird little film. Taken solely as something to really creep you out, it's really effective and well made. Keeps enough grounding in reality to make it seem plausible and really scary, yet uses enough cinematic technique to also amp it up and play around with you and make it really scary. Unfortunately, that's all it does. Not only does it not give you a reason why the tormentors did anything beyond "you were home," it gives you no real reason why you would get anything out of it beyond a few good scares and the creepy feeling that if you were in a similar location, this could happen to you too. I dunno, maybe now that I know what's gonna happen I can see how (or if) the failed engagement of the primary charcters plays into the rest of the film, what that frantic 911 call early on signifies, etc. I guess I just wanted more from it intellectually, and maybe even as a shocker. Once the scary stuff starts, it quickly escalates then kind of plateaus until the inevitable confrontations at the end of the film. It stays tense, but a little more dramatic ebb and flow might have made it even better. Not bad, but I was left a little wanting.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen -
If all Frank Capra's name means to you is sentimental Americana, you need to check this love story set in 1932 China. Political turmoil abounds and two American missionaries on the eve of their wedding go to a provincial town to save a group of orphans. Husband and wife (Barbara Stanwyck) are separated and the notorious General Yen (played brilliantly by the Denmark-born Nils Asther) saves the wife from turmoil and proceeds to hold her (somewhat) against her will, fascinated by her and her attraction to him, seemingly confident that she'll fall in love with him given time. You can call it melodrama if you want, but I never think that's a bad thing. Interracial love between a strong woman taken directly from her wedding day to a tradition-minded Chinese general set and shot in 1932 directed by the so-called tradition-minded Frank Capra? I'll take it. Excellent stuff all around in writing and acting, but I'd especially want to single out major props for the set design.
The Outrage -
Martin Ritt directs a film written by Michael Kanin that is adapted from Kanin's play (written with Fay Kanin) that's adapted from Kurosawa's screenplay that was in turn an adaptation of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Too much lost in translation then for this film to possibly be good? I'd say that it ain't necessarily so, but in this case it surely is. Could be that someone could've made a good western version of Rashomon, but this isn't it. It's too stagy across the board for me and owes everything from cinematographic details to pacing to Kurosawa's version, which itself had some theatrical touches but managed to couch them in a naturalistic style when the principals got into their recollection of the events. Edward G. Robinson (especially) and Paul Newman fight hard against the tides to try and make something of this, but when you're bound to a film that owes everything down to nuances of dialogue, camera shots, and of course story to another film, how can it possibly work? And as pretty and James Wong Howe's work is here, I wish Ritt had taken a stronger position to shape the material more. It feels like Kanin's script didn't get changed and Ritt either stuck Howe with copying Kazuo Miyagawa's original camerawork or let Howe run the show as far as setting up all the cameras. Either way, this film just didn't work for me. I'd rather see Rashomon for the thousandth time.
Last House on the Left -
Once upon a time I thought this was among the most difficult of films to watch. I still find the experience unpleasant but well-done and quite affecting. I'll admit that I watched it again because David Hess, who stars here as the leader of the group of killers, is touring with the production of Sweeney Todd that just came to town. But I also wanted to see if it still hit me the way it used to, and for the most part, it did. The comic bumblings of the police feels out of place in a film that really hits it nightmarish stride pretty quickly and stays really fucking intense for the bulk of its running time. Craven is on record saying that while the film doesn't exactly draw an explicit parallel to Vietnam, the accounts of what was happening there gave them the sense of outrage to make the film as graphic and brutal as it is and that it was a cathartic experience for both cast and crew. So one could view it - as friends I respect have - as a cheesy, low budget slasher flick. Or you could view it as a complement to Winter Soldier, something that illuminates the horrific behavior the soldiers are describing, something that takes place within the world of the "Standard Operating Procedure" of dehumanization of other human beings and the offences ranging from humiliation to torture to rape and murder that can follow out from that. It's probably easy to guess where I sit within those thoughts.
The Piano Teacher -
Really fucking intense film about a masochist played to the hilt by Isabelle Huppert. Haneke seems to revel in placing you in the center of scenes of brutal and messed up situations that you feel like you shouldn't be witnessing. I have friends who call him cold, and I understand that though I'd call it "unflinching." This reminded me of some of the more intense moments of Bergman - Cries and Whispers for example - where you're privileged and also embarrassed to be watching scenes that feel so realistic and raw while touching on emotional turmoil that you hope never to experience in your own life. I find this kind of filmmaking very brave and very fascinating, but also something I really need to build myself up to watching. I'm up for watching more, just not right this second.