Ten recent reviews

Chichi Ariki (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1942)

A father and son (mother deceased from before the movie starts) move around over a period of 20 years, with father trying to make a good life for his son but limiting their personal relationship in the process by making choices that keep them apart and unable to form familial bonds. It's really that simple, but as always with Ozu the beauty is in the details - the stunning framing and cinematography choices, the superb acting (Chishu Ryu especially, but also Shûji Sano as the older son), the dialogue that cuts right through the melodrama that drenches 98% of films and gets to the heart of human interaction. Really a beautiful thing by someone I'm starting to think may end up as my all-time favorite director. Well, top 3 anyway.

Hulk (dir. Ang Lee, 2003)

Another Ang Lee exploration of a love that's not just unrequited, but can never happen. He's all about tragic romance like that. But also like most Lee films, there's a conflict between parents and children - a disconnect really, that keeps them apart, ultimately resulting in conflicts when they're forced by circumstance to confront each other. Do I like it as much as Crouching Tiger? As much as The Ice Storm? Brokeback Mountain? No, not quite, but it's right in there with his basic thematic material and a solidly made film to boot (especially love those very comic-y transitions between scenes contained in comic book frames, better even than Lucas's use of classic adventure serial wipes in Star Wars). Those going in because their favorite catchphrase from their comic book days was "Hulk Smash!" are sure to be disappointed. Those looking for a way for an artist like Ang Lee to insert his ideas into the Marvel Universe will find a lot worth seeing.

The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)

And speaking of adult adaptations of comic book material... Like Hulk this one also takes comic book situations that can be read as absurd or totally unreal and then invests the intelligence in saying "OK, but what if this really happened to you?" and showing the results on screen. What would a flashy comic villain like the Joker be like in the real world? What happens when people get menaced by costumed villains? - they die. They get shot, blown up, etc. And Nolan, like a lot of people making comic movies these days, wants to know how that would impact on real people in the real world. This may be the best comic book movie yet in terms of placing things in a real-world situation, even while retaining a comic-booky feel - how, for example, could The Joker possibly have planted all the bombs in the hospital? But those questions don't come into play when you're watching because it's not the point of the film - once that does happen, what are the choices people will be forced to make as a consequence? And ultimately that's what the film is about from beginning to end. In the first scene there are fake Batmen all around, trying to thwart a drug deal. It's the first step in suggesting that until average citizens feel empowered to take on crime on their own, there will be a need for vigilante justice like The Batman represents. That's the central thrust of the film and Bruce Wayne's dilemma throughout - can the person whose genesis as Batman in Batman Begins find it in himself to give it up? The movie doesn't really make him answer it - it lets him off the hook, I think - but it's the point of the final scenes that could've been edited out for brevity's sake, but would have disrupted the logic of the central idea running through the film. I think it's the right length myself, and right on the money. For what it's worth, I think the political allegory people are drawing from the film right now doesn't hold a lot of water, except that like any film it reflects its time and thus the idea of terrorist action and public response to it are in the air.

Powaqqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio, 1988)

A little more pointed than its predecessor and much more focused on people rather than spaces, buildings, and whatnot - though not so much that it actually endorses a strict point of view or course of action, mind you. But it's probably the equal of the first film overall. And musically Philip Glass steps it up a notch, warming up a little from the austerity of Koyaanisqatsi. Altogether it's a worthy sequel, if that's even the right word, taking the ideas of the first film and running with them, showing a real warmth and feel for the people it's portraying on screen, never losing touch with the beauty of either the filmmaking or the subjects in front of the camera. A great one.

Time of the Wolf (dir. Michael Haneke, 2003)

Haneke is quickly moving up the ranks of contemporary filmmakers whose work I love. This one's probably his least harsh film that I've seen, despite some very brutal moments (like the startling first scene of the film), mainly because the severity is undercut by the humanism on display here. In a post-apocalyptic world, what kind of society would emerge? In this particular unspecified post-apocalpyse, we first find something almost exactly like our current world - the people with the weapons and the supplies control the fate of everyone around them, until a different group of people with different ideas of how to do things move in. It's pretty basic as a film idea, but pretty powerful in how it plays out. Onward to Code: Unknown.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (dir. John Ford, 1949)

My least favorite of the cavalry trilogy. I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Mr. John Wayne that the film should've ended before its final coda, with him checking his watch and saying he'd been a civilian for two minutes. Much more ambiguous about his future, much more intriguing if you ask me. But it is Hollywood, and wrapping things in bows is the specialty of the studio system, and Ford knew how to navigate the studios to get what he wanted. So the ending could've been less mushy, but overall the film provides a really great look at a man about to retire and what to do with his life after giving up what he's invested decades doing. I don't find the story as compelling as Fort Apache or the interpersonal relations as interesting as Rio Grande, but it's still a fine film in the Ford catalog, well worth seeing.
Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper, 1942)

Bette Davis turns in a great performance, yes, but my main memory of the film is how absolutely horrid Gladys Cooper is as her mother (I mean, she's great, not horrid, but the character is horrid). I love the basic trajectory of the Davis character, though the transformation from ugly duckling into Cinderella is awfully quick and complete. But still you're rooting for her, want her to not fall back into old patterns, to fall under her mother's thumb once again. The pivotal scene where she finally stands up to mom is pretty much the best thing here, certainly more affecting for me than the perfunctory romances - one of which is (amusingly) severed with a "thank you" and a handshake, the other more profound but doomed from the start. Anyway, a fine model of a strong woman's drama from the classic Hollywood period.

Once (dir. John Carney, 2006)

I'll say this - it's charming. It's hard not to like these two musicians and hard also not to see that the music they end up making together is so much the focus of this story that hardly anything else matters. Romantic angle is underplayed and good - it's not what makes the film go, though chemistry between the two is necessary to make things work. I'm glad that when they went for the montage of things coming together in the studio I didn't feel like fast-forwarding. A movie about making music that's worth seeing, unlike... well, most of them. Is it great? No, but again, it's charming.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (dir. Dusan Makavejev, 1971)
Wacko stuff, drawing explicit lines between Freud's sexuality studies and Marx's political studies via Wilhelm Reich, about whom I know nothing aside from the perfunctory "documentary" this film offers in its first portion. But overall, the film seems to be saying (over and over) that the sexual revolution equals a political revolution, which apparently upset Reich's admirers enough to have them denounce the film. Still - interesting viewing if not exactly the revolutionary critique I had hoped, with the recurring thread of the revolutionary rhetoric interspersed with real and simulated sex, Stalin, the pseudo-documentary and other stuff to make sure it's not too linear, too programmatic. The overall effect is exhilarating, but still I found myself looking for a little more cohesion.

Rio Grande (dir. John Ford, 1950)
Ford's final Calvary trilogy film might actually run the deepest, even if I prefer Fort Apache. I love the sharply drawn family relationships here and action is kept pretty minimal in favor of the personal stuff - which I'm also usually in favor of. Ensemble is great yet again, and if more time is spent on manly camaraderie than on heavy plotting, I'm down with it - the film gives a great sense of what it at least could have been like in the situation given. Only a conflict between the son and the father who hadn't seen him in 15 years feels like it's missing from the film to me.

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