Ten recent reviews

Lilith -
Robert Rossen really had a way in his later films with portraying people with mental and emotional problems. Between this and The Hustler, there's a real interest in and affinity for women in serious distress, and he's got a stark visual aspect that corresponds to it. I don't know what the mental health care system was like at the time, but early on in the film it feels just out of wack that Beatty's character could just walk into the job like he does when it's clear that despite being a nice guy, he doesn't have the skills to really do the job. That's probably the chief failing of the film, but in telling his story it's a disbelief I just suspend to see how the story plays out, which is of course tragically and emotionally right on the money, if not 100% accurate in adhering to how things might work in reality (then again, maybe it was a case like his that brought about background checks). Anyway, a really interesting portrayal of people with deep-rooted problems and worth seeing again. Also makes me interested in checking out Rossen's ouevre as it develops from All the President's Men to this, despite the bad reviews abounding on IMDB.

Jamaica Inn -
Hitchcock not exactly in top form though I wouldn't place the blame on him for the film not quite working. In fact, I wouldn't even say the film doesn't work, just that it's not great and that it's not a typical Hitch film. Problems begin and end with the script, I think. We're not given a heroine (or hero) that we can really latch on to - you only like her because she stays strong in the face of some very effective and strongly played villains, from the brutish uncle Joss to the sinister gang leader Thomas to (especially) the utterly repuslive Sir Humphrey Pengallan (played with slavering relish by Charles Laughton). In this, it's not unlike a ton of films where our lead is stiff and wooden and the villains have all the color and remain the center of interest in the films. But it does tend to undercut the plight of our central characters - and thus our interest as viewers - when we don't care as much what happens to them as we care what dastardly things our villains might be up to. Enjoyable in spite of its flaws, I'm glad I wasn't scared off by the bad rep the film has because of it being sandwiched between two far more brilliant works.

Electra Glide in Blue -
A really captivating vision of the fallout of the 1960's and the conflict between the underground youth movement and the establishment, here represented by a few motorcycle cops and detectives caught up investigating the murder of a loner. Robert Blake plays the ambitious cop who comes across the body and wants to use it to springboard his career into homicide but he's checked at every side by his naivety, by an establishment that's far more rigid than he imagined, and by an underground that doesn't want him, no matter how sympathetic he may be to their ideals. It's like the film takes "the Man" and draws him from the point of view of the underground, while not really taking either side. Only Blake is a truly sympathetic character - his associates range from arrogant to mean-spirited to engaging in real abuses of power while the hippies and other normal folks he comes into contact with lie, steal, and murder or are simply crazy. Filmmaking is really stylistically dynamic, with one of the greatest closing sequences I've ever seen - major props to cinematographer Conrad Hall for his work here. It's a shame that James William Guercio never made another film - this is a remarkably strong and assured directorial debut, but I guess that managing the group Chicago just as they were taking off commercially (singer Peter Cetera is great here in a small role as a drug-dealing hippie) had to swallow up a lot of time and probably didn't allow for the rigors of filmmaking. Anyway, really interesting, especially in its immediately post-Woodstock (and more importantly, post-Altamont) look at the counter culture. Helps give a possible (and plausible) explanation to Peter Fonda's enigmatic "We blew it" from Easy Rider.

Memories of Murder -
What I enjoyed most about The Host is that it took a genre pic and took off from it in its own unique way, and this earlier (and better) film from director Joon-ho Bong does the same, upending conventions of the serial killer/police procedural film until it becomes something entirely different. As I've heard Zodiac does and as Spike Lee's Summer of Sam tangentially does, this concentrates not on suspenseful rendering of fact-based, scary murders but rather on how those murders affect those involved in the killings and a recreation of the atmosphere in which those killings happened. As that it's a masterpiece, showing us two provincial cops and their boss stymied by a puzzling rape/murder. They're later joined by a big city investigator in from Seoul who's more used to this type of crime but proves equally unable to solve the increasing number of murders. Things begin to unravel for the investigators as their efforts and those by the government (at the time a military dictatorship) fail to produce proof of an individual responsible for the crimes or to stop more from occurring. Really good stuff all around with tension, humor and drama taking about an equal amount of time in the spotlight.

Fort Apache -
One of the best of the Ford westerns I've seen and possibly the clearest view in his films of the tension stemming from the conflict between the "civilizing" frontiermen and the "savage" natives; or if you prefer, between the call of order and the call of chaos. Those who think that westerns are intrinsically racist would do well to start seeing the error of their ways here - at no point does the film (as opposed to certain characters within it) see Cochise as anything less than a leader worthy of great respect and at no point does it offer a full endorsement of Fonda's tactics - he's mainly portrayed as an arrogant and rigid interloper from the East who has no understanding of the subtleties of cultural interaction necessary for survival on the frontier. I've always liked the way that some directors of the classic Hollywood period use mainstream films to portray and undercut these sorts of social and cultural conflicts, and Ford (along with Hitchcock and Sirk) is one of the best at offering up a situation not to celebrate it, but to analyze and sometimes critique it. Lastly, the entire ensemble is brilliant, with Fonda's rigidly militaristic Lt. Thursday and John Wayne's Capt. York taking the top honors as complex people, but even the small side players giving their all and providing the realistic and illuminating details that make the characters feel real and giving you reason to sympathize with every one (even Fonda). A masterful work.

Encounters at the End of the World -
A friend I saw this with had complaints that this went for poetic moods rather than scientific analysis, but I have to wonder what he was expecting. After all, it is a film by Werner Herzog, very possibly the most quixotic romantic in film history. And here rather than seeking out scientific data about Antarctica he's looking for the "encounters" of the title, finding the kindred spirits who choose to live or work there and talk to them about what drew them there, what makes them tick. If there's a problem with the film for me, it's that he doesn't give them the space to let us meet them fully - cutting off one interview with a rudely abrupt "Her story goes on forever," for example. But it still paints a portrait of the type of person who - like Herzog himself - is drawn to Antarctica not to see cuddly penguins, but to find a way out of the perceived constraints of "normal" society. He also shows enough of Antarctica itself to give the viewer an understanding of why some of them choose to come to "the end of the world." Like most Herzog documentaries it's gorgeously made, it's impressionistic rather than building a strict argument, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Broken Blossoms -
Having only seen Griffith's massive spectacles, this came as something of a surprise with its intimate tenderness and sensitivity. Lillian Gish is fantastic, as is Richard Barthelmess. Story is a fine little tragic love story, and seeing this on the heels of The Bitter Tea of General Yen offers a nice comparison for an Asian/Caucasian love story and the slightly differing attitudes that 13 years makes in the way it can be portrayed (more openly in the latter, though no less tragically). More than anything this shows me the diversity that Griffith can bring to the table and brings his talent alive more than the historical lens I've always watched his other stuff through. Now it's time for me to start exploring his catalog more fully.

Sons of the Desert -
Something light and silly to take my mind off a shitty day at work. Laurel & Hardy are in good form here, with their slapstick working better for me than Laurel's perpetual misunderstanding of words but the situational comedy working perhaps best of all. As soon as the conventioneer they've grown chummy with gets on the phone I knew there was gonna be trouble and I love the way it played out. For that matter, as soon as they started planning out their trip to the convention I knew trouble would ensue and it came through about as humorously as I would hope. Good stuff.

Series 7 -
I wanted so much more from this than the promising idea ended up actually giving me that I was pretty disappointed. But when I take a step back I realize that it did offer up its premise and follow through with it, just that instead of watching some meta-narrative about a reality TV show as expected, I was watching a reality TV show. And I like Survivor a lot better. If this is a comment on anything in particular I must have missed it, but I think that it's more likely writer/director Daniel Minahan missed the part about putting it in the film, allowing the audience to simply extrapolate their own feelings about reality TV onto the film. Disappointing for a film that uses such a potentially rich premise.

La Notte -
Much ado about nothing, like most Antonioni I've seen. Two people who've been married for years find that they don't love each other anymore and Antonioni uses some expert camerawork, a great cast, and 122 minutes to express that (supposedly) shattering revelation. There is a way to express ennui and boredom in a film without making your audience bored and restless themselves. Maybe that's why the camerawork and cinematography are so good, because he knows that at the core, his film isn't saying very much? Lovely to look at, less so to listen to, and probably a tedious bore to discuss later.

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