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4 January, 2008

Catching up with the flow, IV

In March 2005, I joined Amazon DVD Rental.  Four months later, I commented on those I'd seen, and repeated the exercise in December 2005 and 2006.  In 2007, I rented:

Paths Of Glory – Reviewed here.

The Sea Inside – Excellent, humanising the difficult issue of euthanasia.

Psycho – The 1960 original, obviously, not the bizarrely pointless 1999 remake. Nowadays it's obviously impossible to watch this without preknowledge of the central event, but I rather wish I could have done. I hadn't realised that the film begins with an entirely different plot; the events at the motel must have been genuinely surprising to the 1960 audience.

Vertigo – Very impressive writing and execution, if a little disturbing in places.

Manhattan – I'd always thought Woody Allen's screen persona was something of a caricature, but at one point I had to stop the DVD and watch the scene three times. The man can act. More generally, the film dragged, and I kept glancing at the clock, but it's stayed with me, and would reward a second viewing.

La Belle Noiseuse – Very slow (a four-hour character study) and a little depressing, but if you are inclined to brave it, be aware that the film is spread over two DVDs – rent both!

Death In Venice – I rented this simply because I had a holiday in Venice booked, and I wanted a little background viewing. Ugh. Stultifying. The content was rather good, but could have been conveyed just as effectively in half, even a third, of the time. Much might be made of the sumptuous costumes & settings and overall lush visuals, but Visconti's direction lingered on these elements for far, far too long. And Venice itself was barely shown – most of the film takes place in the Lido.

The Piano Teacher – As soon became apparent, this was another film by Michael Haneke, director of 'Caché' ('Hidden') – the visual and narrative styles were very similar, and similarly the audience was expected to work hard to interpret the characters and even key plot details. I hadn't realised any of this when I rented the DVD; I'd heard of 'La Pianiste' as an examination of power-transfer and psychological domination in relationships, though I'd better stress that it couldn't be further from vacuous bdsm p*rn! There were a couple of graphic, frankly grotesque, moments, but they were the exception in an otherwise extremely internalised, thought-provoking film.

The Insider – Very good. This is what I'd hoped for and expected from 'All the President's Men': a dramatisation of specific events, but with wider applicability to general themes of moral integrity. Well-told, too.

La Dolce Vita – Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but I couldn't get past the perception of this supposed classic as a sequence of barely-linked set pieces; it totally failed to hold my attention, and I gave up after about an hour. I rather regret that now.

Love And Human Remains – Certain people will understand why I rented this, but it's not great: moderately interesting characters and a certain darkness elevate it from the mere farce it superficially seems to be, but not far.

Wings Of Desire – The Anglicised title's awful; a direct translation of 'Der Himmel über Berlin' as 'The Skies (or Heavens) over Berlin' is far more apt. It would be accurate to say it's about an angel, one of many dispassionately watching humanity, who wishes to experience rather than merely observe. However, that summary doesn't adequately describe a film which itself needs to be experienced. Incidentally, apart from the central concept, it's entirely dissimilar to the US 'remake', 'City of Angels' – direct comparison flatters neither film.

All About Eve – Far better than I'd expected: my expectations, that it was a light, frothy film, were entirely incorrect. Recommended.

The Thirteenth Floor – Reviewed here.

Fanny And Alexander – I hadn't expected a TV mini-series filling two DVDs, and may have missed some of the subtilties of 19th Century Swedish society, but extended insight into characters and family life transcended the specific setting, and was very compelling.

Chinatown – I wasn't entirely sure about this initially, as I haven't liked some of Roman Polanski's films and think Jack Nicholson has been dangerously close to self-parody at several points in his career. However, those preconceptions were misplaced here, and I enjoyed this noir-ish film. I particularly appreciated the nature of the ending, though I can't state why, obviously.

Ran – Visually stunning, not only for the famous burning castle but also for the general cinematography and stylised structure; it was like watching a very mannered stage play or succession of narrated paintings. However, my overwhelming impression was that the middle of film was drastically too long; I thought it had to be drawing to a close after about 1hr40' of the 2½-hour film.
Incidentally, this is sold/offered for rental on two discs, but it's safe to rent just the first if one only wants to see the film.

Saw II – The original was an excellent, self-contained film, but this seemed to be a classic 'we-didn't-think-we'd-need-to-write-a' sequel lacking the tight focus and strong, rules-based internal logic which had sustained the first film. The acting, or perhaps characterisation, was clichéd and the plot was weak until the very end, when it suddenly did match the earlier standard. It's almost as if that was written first and everything else was filler leading to the twist.

On The Waterfront – Excellent, particularly the electrifying and justifiably famous 'contender' scene. Afterwards I found it interesting to read about the context in which the film was made; it would probably be possible to do that research beforehand without ruining the story, and hence perhaps gain greater appreciation whilst watching.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 – The 13-episode series (very good, though not as good as the first series) was provided on five discs of the 6-DVD set; in hindsight I could have omitted the sixth, which merely contained justifiably deleted scenes.

Eros – Three short films on the theme of erotic love by three prominent directors. The first, by Wong Kar Wai, was as good as I expected and very much in the style of 'In The Mood For Love' and '2046'. The second, by Steven Soderbergh, was a noirish tale which didn't really grab me. The third, by Michelangelo Antonioni, was merely embarrassing: an old man's self-indulgence.

Dekalog – I had problems renting part of this 4-DVD set and enjoyed one of the ten films, so decided to buy my own copy. Which I haven't got round to watching yet....

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance – Heart-rending: the first of Park Chan-wook's 'Sympathy' trilogy certainly inspires sympathy for pretty much every reluctant participant in the novel, convoluted sequence of events.

Casanova – This TV mini-series featured attractive costumes. Unfortunately, I can't think of much else in its favour, and it certainly didn't earn three full hours of my attention.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand – Yawn. A sequel too far. Plenty of shouting and explosions, and as forgettable as that implies.

The Incredibles – Pretty good story and interesting technically.

Volver – Few other directors could elevate this story from farce, but Almodovar managed to provide a touching insight into the lives of four (no, five) women.

Killing Me Softly – I'm not entirely sure why I rented this.

The Bridge On The River Kwai – Very good, particularly showcasing Alec Guinness's acting. I hadn't realised that his was a supporting character, so was slightly disappointed by the focus on the American escapee/saboteur, particularly the slightly comedic subplots, but that's a very minor criticism.

As Tears Go By – An entertaining example of Wong Kar Wai's earlier writing & direction. Recommended.

The Manchurian Candidate – For once, I can't decide whether I prefer this, the 1962 Frank Sinatra original, or the 2004 Denzel Washington remake. Both are good.

Days Of Being Wild – What could be better than existentialism and compelling characters, performed well, in an excellent production with excellent direction (from Wong Kar Wai)? It's not quite so 'heavy' or pretentious as that suggests; the pace is... contemplative and the interlinked plots initially obscure, but I did enjoy it, and once one spots the narrative structure, the artistry is clear.

All Quiet On The Western Front – It took me a while to become accustomed to the dated, very American colloquial manner of the characters (which would presumably have been naturalistic to the 1930 audience, adding impact) and the plot development seemed very obvious, even heavy-handed, by modern standards but for all that, the quality and message were no less poignant.

Smokin' Aces – Initially, this looked like an Americanised cash-in on Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock...' subgenre, but it failed in every respect – a bit of a mess.

Million Dollar Baby – I rented this expecting a retelling of the 'Rocky' story with overlaid gender issues, and wondering why that'd have attracted such critical acclaim. I was totally mistaken: this wasn't what it seemed, and the twist was genuinely affecting. Excellent.

Seven Samurai – It's a credit to the storytelling (visual, too) that this rather long film didn't feel long. I haven't been able to say that for many Kurosawa films.

The Crow - Salvation – 'Rent, don't buy' might seem to be faint praise, but if you liked the original film, give this, the third, a chance. It's not not great art (so what?) and not radical progression of the concept, but it's a huge improvement on the second film.

Babel – Stunning: the interlinked (and intercut) stories of four families in as many countries and languages were fascinating, leaving me eager to see Alejandro González Iñárritu's other films.
Great music, too – I added the soundtrack album to my Amazon wishlist immediately.

Metropolis – I'd expected this to be hard work, more of an education into the history of film than real entertainment. Wrong! The image quality was also far better than I'd expected, being the result of a painstaking renovation project, itself explained on the 'bonus' DVD.

Casino Royale – My observation about the opening credits applied to the rest of the film: many of the standard elements of Bond films from past decades, particularly the casual sexism and OTT gadgets/locations were toned down in this 'back to basics' return to the original Bond story, yet it was markedly more physically violent. It was still very much a Bond film, though, occupying an affluent world bordering on decadence, and product placements similarly bordering on laughable. Attempts were made to develop the James Bond character, but mainly through exposition – a better screenplay would have shown, not told. Perhaps that was expecting too much; on a shallower level, I did enjoy the film, though the parkour sequence towards the start was the highlight.

Great Expectations – Very pretty (and very green), with an excellent cast and soundtrack, but I'm not sure whether this loose translation of Dickens' classic story to modern Florida and Manhattan really captured the full emotion of the novel; I enjoyed it, but somehow wanted slightly more. I suppose if it drives a viewer back to the book, that's a good thing.

The Passenger – A journalist, bored with his life, swaps identities with the dead man in the hotel room next door, who happens to have been an arms dealer. The beginning of a Hollywood thiller? Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, no. Very contemplative and internalised (and hence slow-paced), but also rather beautiful. It was also good to see Spain (particularly the parts of Barcelona I've visited) in 1973, before mass-tourism.

State Of Play (2 discs) – This political detective thriller was entertaining and fully held my attention through the six hour-long episodes. It was certainly a case of excellent storytelling, acting and production, as in hindsight the story itself wasn't that memorable.

City of Industry – According to the DVD extras and the IMDb, this shows a 'real' – mundane – Los Angeles rarely seen in films. As such, perhaps the hackneyed 'heist-betrayal-revenge' plot was merely a carrying medium. That, and the fact that I've never had a fascination with a city I perceive as soulless and lacking in history, meant I abandoned the film after an hour, bored and slightly irritated.

The Black Dahlia – It was good to see a modern interpretation of the classic noir production style (over-elaborate plot and all), but it felt a little self-conscious, and having not heard of "the most notorious murder in Hollywood history" before renting the DVD, it had no especial cultural resonance for me. Ultimately, sumptuousness and a mass of detail were no substitute for real substance: I wanted more.

Neverwhere – The complete BBC series on one DVD, with a couple of... 'okay' extras. I'm more than a little familiar with the story and production history (cut-price TV series then excellent novel, with a graphic novel adaptation later) and knew this was the weakest version, but it was still worth seeing; dodgy acting, wobbly sets, bull-with-prostheses (really) and all.

Cronos – Slightly disappointing, this felt more like an episode of a TV series than a substantive feature film. One for Guillermo del Toro fans; those interested in the point from which his international career developed.

Fellini's 8½ – Whilst watching, I thought this was very shallow, even trite, but it left me thinking, which can't be bad. I'm not certain I fully understood it, though.

8½ Women – I suppose it helped that I watched the Peter Greenaway film immediately after the Fellini film which supposedly inspired it, but I still couldn't quite grasp the entertainment or artistic value of what seemed to be a feeble comedy. That said, there were a few interesting concepts and powerful moments; Polly Walker's acting was particularly admirable.

Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus – I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. I suppose it was entertaining enough, but I wouldn't rush to see it again, nor particularly recommend it to others.

The Fountain – Excellent sci-fi/fantasy from the director of 'Pi' and 'Requiem For A Dream' – if you've seen those, you'll be anticipating original writing and presentation, and won't be disappointed. The overall message was particularly disturbing. Recommended.

The Prestige – A dark film which demands a second viewing. Not because it's remotely difficult to follow – it's an extremely accessible Hollywood film – but because once one has spotted the twists (or seen the end of the film, which clarifies them), watching it again one sees an entirely different film. For this reason, I strongly recommend seeing it before reading any review containing a hint of a synopsis.

The Libertine – Visually evocative of late 17th Century England, with lots of mud, naturalistic lighting (filmed by candlelight/daylight) and of-its-time makeup/clothing, this was far less sanitised than the average BBC costume drama (which is a reason I find the BBC's efforts unwatchable). However, I'm not sure whether the plot, direction or acting matched that standard of production....

Hotel Rwanda – I'd been expecting something Americanised (sanitised and with a certain socio-political stance) or deeply worthy, and in hindsight the former criticism does rather apply, but it did offer at least some insight into a monstrous situation which should have received greater attention at the time (and I certainly don't exclude myself from the complacent ignorance).

300 – Technically and visually stunning. One could criticise the hyper-macho story (totally plot-led and with two-dimensional characters) as too like a comic strip, but that's kind of the point.

La Haine – Excellent. Very tightly focussed on a brief episode in the lives of three youths from a Parisian sink estate, this covered topics of importance to the characters in a way the characters themselves would appreciate (i.e. it's a very male film: visually-impressive with limited externalised emotion). This made for a powerful, rather immersive experience.

The Departed – Reviewed here.

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