Saturday, May 30, 2009

"Year of the Dog" (2007, Dir: Mike White)

Involving flick suffers from being a bit too self-conscious with its gags at first, but becomes more comfortable in its own skin as it crosses the line from "quirky indie comedy" to poignant drama. Takes great pains not to judge its lead character's behavior, but Molly Shannon's painfully honest performance largely guarantees that our vision of her character isn't going to be spun by any of the script's manipulations.

Grade: B-

"Duel in the Sun" (1946, Dir: King Vidor)

Grade: C-

"Red Road" (2006, Dir: Andrea Arnold)

Grade: B

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Mondays in the Sun" (2002, Dir: Fernando Léon de Aranoa)

Grade: B

"Angela" (2002, Dir: Roberta Torre)

Maudlin Italian drama is bereft of any real appeal save for Donatella Finocchario's nuanced perf. Roberta Torre is an observant director, but she has no sense of flow or rhythm, and her episodic treatment of the film's potentially steamy plot makes it drag on and on... All in all, horribly boring but proficient enough on a craft and acting scale to keep this from sliding any lower on the grade scale.

Grade: D

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Torremolinos 73" (Dir: Pablo Berger)

Spanish comedy juggles multiple themes and moods and ends up dropping all of them in the final act. Well-acted, especially by my newest cinematic woman-crush Candela Pena, who brings a bit of grace to the maudlin proceedings.

Grade: C

"Backstage" (2005, Dir: Emmanuelle Bercot)

Bercot's debut film showcases some hella good acting (Le Besco, Seigner, Lvovsky etc) but the intense, almost operatic emotional tone of the film is sustained for so long that it begins to become seriously overbearing.

Grade: B

"The Cuckoo" (2002, Dir: Aleksandr Rogozhkin)

Interesting historical exercise benefits from some excellent tech work but a lack of driving force and a ludicrous third-act plot insert make this little more than a curio.

Grade: C+

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"The Cranes Are Flying" (1957, Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov)

Sweeping Russian war/romance manages to provide big, filling, old-Hollywood-style entertainment while cutting to the core emotionally multiple times. Camerawork is brilliant, with some great use of light and shadow and magnificent tracking shots.

Grade: A+

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"The Earrings of Madame de..." (1953, Dir: Max Ophüls)

Visually sumptuous and well-acted, but I'm not sure I buy the humanity beneath all that sheen. There are moments of vapidity and moments of stunning dramatic power (the end, for instance) but altogether I'm not sure it coheres. Not completely to my taste, but a worthwhile work to check out.

Grade: B

"Au Hasard Balthazar" (1966, Dir: Robert Bresson)

Transcendent cinematic parable satisfies on both an emotional and spiritual level, using a deceptively simple story to put forward some potent truths about human nature and the lives of the faithful. It's enough to make one born again!

Grade: A+

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Merci pour le Chocolat" (2000, Dir: Claude Chabrol)

Enjoyable but unsettling thriller showcases Chabrol's unique grasp of mystery - here he unravels the layers of the narrative's central conceit like someone husking corn - and excellent talent with actors (all of whom, but especially Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Catillon, are brilliant), but we never really get a feel for the characters' motivations and the overly-expository dialogue is pretty heavy-handed.

Grade: C+

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" (1927, Dir: Walter Ruttmann)

Dazzling montage is more restrained than Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera but, in some ways, more impressive. Ruttmann uses less techniques than Vertov did, but it is no less innovative - the composition and editing here are far more creative than the madcap, joyful but unfocused camerawork & cutting in Man with a Movie Camera. Also interesting is that Berlin predates the Vertov film by two years, and it clearly influenced it.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Clean" (2004, Olivier Assayas)

Well-acted, written and edited. Its rather clinical directorial approach can both benefit the film and hurt it (we can never feel really connected to the characters, even the [miscast] Maggie Cheung's pivotal lead). I don't know how I feel about Maggie Cheung as an actress. She has her moments here (her teary scene with Beatrice Dalle is impressive but seems spliced in from another point in the film) but in this, as in In the Mood for Love, the mechanics of her performance are really clear. She never really seems comfortable or credible in this character, and I'd like to have seen a less poised, more earthy, intuitive actress (like, perhaps, Yang Kuei-mei, or Bai Ling [who is a good actress, actually]) in the part.

Grade: B

"Look Both Ways" (2005, Dir: Sarah Watt)

Sweet little romance has a likeable cast (save for the obnoxious Anthony Hayes) and some funny moments, but leans altogether too much on dramatic irony to push its plot along. However, this is a promising debut, and I'm excited to see what else Sarah Watt (perhaps a little bit too assured in her directorial ability here) has up her sleeve.

Grade: C+

"Room" (2005, Dir: Kyle Henry)

An intriguing but incredibly oblique premise and a disappointing, cop-out ending could make this a tough sit for some viewers, but I found myself bewitched thanks to some coolly creepy soundwork and an impressive, lived-in performance from the lead Cyndi Williams (a voice and stage actress who works mostly in her hometown of Austin, TX). The director is interesting and could do something really cool with a bigger budget ($$ constraints really show here), and he definitely has a good hand with actors, but he needs to really refine his vision if he wants to make more films.

Grade: C+

Monday, May 18, 2009

"The Spirit of the Beehive" (1973, Dir: Victor Erice)

A absolutely magnificently directed and shot exploration of a young girl's yearning to understand the nature of life and death. A must-see for fans of mid-century Spanish-language cinema. (I can't believe Victor Erice has only made, what, three feature films?)

Grade: A+

"Common Wealth" (2000, Álex de la Iglesia)

Enjoyably corny Spanish thrill-omedy starts off awkwardly but gets funnier as the subject matter gets darker. Worth a look if you just want some entertainment.

Grade: C

MY NEW CRUSH Luis Tosar is in this film in a small role!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Beautifully-shot drama (and companion piece to Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Haynes's later Far from Heaven) deals with its subject in a refreshingly simple, straightforward way - which leaves more room for the script and actors to explore the emotional possibilities of the premise. Very well done. My first Fassbinder - and I look forward to seeing a lot more!

Grade: A+

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Take My Eyes" (2003, Dir: Icíar Bollaín)

Brilliantly written and acted drama about spousal abuse is genuinely wrenching and very discussable with a keen, perceptive eye fixed on male-female relationships.

Grade: A-

"Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959, Dir: Alain Resnais)

A beautiful, beautiful film. Lost in Translation has nothing on this.

An interesting note: in An Affair of Love, Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez's characters were revealed in the credits to be named "Elle" and "Lui" - which are Emmanuelle Riva's and Eiji Okada's characters' names in this film.

Grade: A

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Common Ground" (2002, Dir: Adolfo Aristarain)

Talky Argentinian drama that explores the marriage of an older couple and their lives after the husband is forced to retire from his post as literature professor at a university. Verbose as it is, and despite the slow pace, it is a consistently enjoyable watch, well-acted and very well-written with a real emotional core.

Grade: B+

"Rana's Wedding" (2002, Dir: Hany Abu-Assad)

A very well-directed Palestinian dramedy with a great lead performance by the hawk-eyed, often scarily intense actress Clara Khoury.

Grade: B+

"Spring Subway" (2002, Dir: Zhang Yibai)

A magnificently shot and breezily enjoyable Chinese melodrama that is nevertheless dramatically episodic and stiled, the director's past as a music video coordinator really shows. Still, sometimes all you are hungry for is corn, and this wouldn't be a bad choice if you are up for something entertaining and sappy, it is at the very least gorgeous to look at. I enjoyed the stories about the peripheral characters more than the leads - the burn victim, the baker, the health-food saleswoman (who was very good and very funny in her subway scenes), the photo girl and the roller-skating young man. The "reveal" about the young man's reasons for never talking to the girl was unexpectedly emotional and the closest the film gets to genuine feeling.

Grade: C-

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Claire Dolan" (1998, Dir: Lodge Kerrigan)

Cerebral psychological study showcases Lodge Kerrigan's talents as a director - an uncanny eye for composition and a knack for amping up audience unease all the way to 11 - but he takes some gambles with the acting and pacing that don't pay off (although they make sense as directorial choices).

Grade: C

"Solas" (1999, Dir: Benito Zambrano)

Grade: B-

"Obsessed" (2009, Dir: Steve Shill)

Grade: F

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Maelstrom" (2000, Dir: Denis Villeneuve)

An effective, charismatically directed thriller with a tour-de-force lead performance from Naomi Watts lookalike Marie-Josee Croze. The directorial "quirks" - the rapid-fire editing, 'mood' photography, symbolism and the fact that the film itself is narrated by a fish - might turn off some viewers, but I thought it was great fun and, ultimately, unexpectedly moving.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Humanité" (1999, Dir: Bruno Dumont)

Grade: A

"The Closed Doors" (1999, Dir: Atef Hetata)

Subtle but powerful psychological portrait of a boy whose involvement with an Islamic fundamentalist group leads to tragedy. Examines themes encompassing class, gender, the mother-son relationship, sex and desire, masculinity, the treatment of women in Islamic society and the role of religion in general in peoples' lives. It's an interesting juggling act that showcases an diamond-in-the-rough neophyte director - unfortunately, this has so far been Hetata's only feature film.

Grade: A-