January Films and DVDs

In the reverse chronology of my watching-order (or, less pompously, the most recently watched films first):

  • "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988, Japan) dir. Isao Takahata ***1/2
    • [For the Filmspotting Animation Marathon] This is the last of the films from the marathon that I have left to watch, since those that remain ("Spirited Away" and "The Iron Giant") I have already seen. I dreaded "Grave of the Fireflies," which Adam and Sam of Filmspotting warned me was one of the most depressing movies of all time, and when I finally was ready to confront it, I was impressed by the delicacy and unsentimentality of it. In part it speaks to a ubiquitous childhood fantasy (the stuff of a long tradition of Narnia-genre children's fiction) turned nightmare: what if, in a world of adventure and peril, children had to make a life on their own terms, apart from adult supervision. The answer of "Grave of the Fireflies," set amidst the constant bombing of Japan in WWII, is grim, to say the least. Amidst, this admiration, however, I felt a creeping annoyance, both with the social structures that failed these children (the same roiling irritation I feel when I read naturalist novels in which the heroine is ground down by economic hardship until she is forced into prostitution and/or suicide) but also (horrifyingly) with the childlike dependence and complaints of the younger sister. What kind of a curmudgeon am I??? I will sooth my conscience by blaming the English dubbing (with absolutely no proof that the Japanese version is less grating) - I almost never listen to English version of anime, which tend to be somewhat more saccharine, but on this occasion I did. Foolhardy!
  • "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2003, USA) dir. Don Coscarelli **
    • What a delightfully weird premise, and how poorly, even irritatingly, executed it is: two men join forces to combat a soul-sucking mummy that is preying on their "retirement community": a man who is convinced that he is JFK, dyed black, and a man who maintains that he is Elvis, having switched lives years before with one of his own impersonators in his haste to escape the pressures of fame. Unfortunately, this film was too broad, too simple, for its own realm of possibilities.
  • "Infernal Affairs" (2004, Hong Kong) dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak ****
    • This ode to the double-cross was the inspiration ("original" might be a better word) for Scorcese's "The Departed," and I look forward to making a comparison of the two when I have seen both. "Infernal Affairs" was compelling. Its complexities crept up on you, woven slowly into the two sympathetic characterizations: the gangster who is embedded in the police force by a ruthless Triad boss (Andy Lau) and the cop who goes so deep undercover with the Triads that he finds it hard to distance himself from his own criminality (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Both struggle to reclaim a moral stance from their Triad associations, and the freedom to mold your own life becomes the central issue of the film. The only misstep is in the romantic plot lines, which are incomplete and even supernumerary, when what really interests us is the relationship of the two men to one another. Perhaps these plots are expanded, complicated and justified in "Infernal Affairs 2" and "Infernal Affairs 3" - we'll see.
  • "Ivan the Terrible, Part II" (1944, Russia) dir. Sergei Eisenstein ***1/2
    • Several months ago, I watched "Ivan the Terrible, Part I," and felt like all of my skin had been grated off. I used many reviewer's assurances that Parts I and II stand perfectly well alone as an excuse to leave Part II in TiVo purgatory until the New Year, when I finally faced it again. This tale of Stalin (by which I of course mean Ivan the Terrible, the tsar who unified Russia in the sixteenth century), is set to a famous score by Sergei Prokofiev and is best viewed (I finally discovered in the more lively Part II) in an operatic mode. The acting is broad (largely marked by long exchanges of bulging-eyed stares) and the mise-en-scene spectacular. Brilliant settings in thick-walled crypts filled with religious frescos mean that God and angels are constantly looming over the paranoid, conniving Muscovite court. By contrast, the decadent, Europe-coddling Polish court is filled with glassy checkerboard tiles, enormous Elizabethan ruffs and sleeves that transform their wearers into dandyish butterflies. This part is much less straightforwardly propagandistic (which is why Stalin cast a baleful eye on it after embracing the first part), less stiff, and more filled with bizarre pageantry: a public beheading, an odd sort of mystery play in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burn in a miniature fiery furnace while Ivan suspects that he in fact is Nebuchadnezzar (and of course, Stalin is the true Claudius in this dumbshow), a cryptic song about a wonderful beaver sung by a power-hungry mother to her innocent fool of a next-in-line-to-the-throne son. So, in the end, the abundant strangeness of the film and its cryptic (ha ha! punnery!) settings, won me over.
  • "Sharpe 8: Sharpe's Sword" (1995, UK) ***1/2
  • "Ghost in the Shell" (1995, Japan) dir. Mamoru Oshii ***
  • "That Touch of Mink" (1962, USA) dir. Delbert Mann **
    • Insubstantial, and inconceivable that Cary Grant would ever be interested in the gratingly irritating and only nominally chaste Doris Day. Oh, Cary Grant, you are so like the little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. Oh, Doris Day, what IS the deal with your hair?
  • "Quinceanera" (2005, USA) dir. Glatzer and Westmoreland ***1/2
    • Creaky in its opening, but ultimately engrossing. A fourteen-year-old finds out that she is pregnant as she is preparing for her quinceanera, and (despite her repeated assertions that she has never had sex) is thrown out of her house by her strict preacher father. She goes to live with an ancient, abundantly tolerant uncle and her cousin Carlos, who has himself been thrown out of his parents' house for being gay. It is Carlos (played by Jesse Garcia) who (enraged and sullen) draws you in to this movie, and forms the most profound and supportive relationship with our pregnant heroine, a utopia of youthful self-reliance. The film's ending (about which I will say no more) is the major false note, supporting values which you cannot imagine the rest of the film would endorse, and gliding merrily over Carlos's struggles.
  • "The Office: Season 1" (2005, USA) ****
    • My favorite television comedy since "Arrested Development" (which was my favorite television comedy of all time). I have come to this slightly belatedly, because of my discomfort with the (admittedly more scathingly satirical) British version, but the American office is both gentler and more realistic. In fact, it is this aching realism that makes the central (the only?) plot line, a repressed romance between a salesman (Jim) and the receptionist, Pam, the most beautiful love story on television. The rest is pure character, with almost no plot in slight. Dwight (Rainn Wilson, also brilliant in "Six Feet Under") provides excruciatingly delicious departures from this realism as the power-mad Assistant (to the) Regional Manager.
  • "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986, USA) dir. Woody Allen ***1/2
    • I must admit that I find Allen's movies, particularly of this sepia-apartments-and-infidelities genre to be amusing but unimpressive. For me the only striking aspect of "Hannah and her Sisters" was that it was filmed in Mia Farrow's apartment.
  • "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954, USA) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz ***1/2
    • Again, Bogart is charming here, and (refreshingly) is not condemned to be a woodenly amorous romantic interest. This is sentimental, overwrought stuff, however, and I found Ava Gardner as cold and fishlike as in "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman." There are some catchy lines, however, including a description from sweaty publicist Oscar Muldoon of the parasitic quality of the French Riviera set. Would that I could still remember that line, but I am left with nothing but the memory of Gardner pretentious speeches about freedom and miraculous inability to emote.
  • "The Bigamist" (1953, USA) dir. Ida Lupino **1/2
  • "Sharpe 7: Sharpe's Battle" (1995, UK) ***1/2
    • The addition of the caddish Lord Kiely and his bizarre attitude towards fatherhood and pregnancy lends some spice to this episode in the long-running but not wholly engrossing series of TV movies. The most recent installments are languishing on my TiVo, so I am in the midst of a long slog (leavened by the charms of Sean Bean) through the series.
  • "Beat the Devil" (1953, USA) dir. John Huston ***1/2
    • This is supposedly a biting satire on the genre that gave us "Casablanca," starring Bogart himself, but the wit is neither sharp nor mean enough to lift the film out of a broad imitativeness. The cast, however, is phenomenal, featuring not only the always endearing (if dubiously amorous, here, faced with an impossibly batty mistress) Bogart, but also a portly Peter Lorre and the prolific Robert Morley (of "The African Queen" and "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?").
  • "Wordplay" (2006, USA) dir. Patrick Creadon ***1/2
  • "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955, USA) dir. John Sturges ***1/2
  • "Tokyo Story" (1953, Japan) dir. Yasujiro Ozu ****1/2
  • "Akira" (1988, Japan) dir. Katsuhiro Otomo ***
  • "Only Human" (2004, Spain) dir. Pelegri and Harari ***
  • "Volver" (2006, Spain) dir. Pedro Almodovar *** 1/2
  • "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006, USA) dir. David Frankel **1/2
    • A fluffy movie, filled with not-entirely-palatable lessons about friendship, love, and materialism (is demeaning yourself worthwhile for nice swag and proximity to cool people who exploit you? Ask Ugly Betty.). On the other hand, Meryl Streep is something to behold, and not merely because she looks absolutely stunning with her silver hair. Some reviews (many of them, in fact) have criticized the breadth of her characterization here, but I found it surprisingly subtle. Anyone who finds her cutthroat demean0r implausibly villainous needs to spend some time in certain New York industries (show business, publishing, fashion).

Animation - 3
Foreign language/Foreign (i.e. not Anglo-American) - 8
  • Gold medalist: Japan, Silver medalist: Spain, Bronze medalist: Russia
New (to me) directors - 11
Films from the "1001 Movies you must see before you die" list - 9

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