Damn, I only have time to watch movies on weekends part 16: so long, learner's permit!

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  • 1. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
  • This film holds the record for most Oscars won (5) for a film that was not even nominated for Best Picture, which may make you think that this is a film that has a lot of talent behind its individual elements but one that fails to have much of an impact. Which is partially true, but really things aren't that bad. This is a good film, and one that may have deserved to beat the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, which I haven't seen but is notorious for being one of the weakest winners of the award. [The greatest film of 1952 is, obviously, Singin' in the Rain.] But yeah. Everything is just too structured and orderly in the film, and by about five minutes in, you can more or less predict exactly how the film is going to go - aside from the ending, which is terrific. There is some good dialogue and some of the scenes are interesting enough in how they play out, so it's a pretty well-made movie, but it doesn't add up to greatness.

  • 2. The Crowd (1928)
  • A silent film about real people. It's surprising, but this concept is actually a new one on me. Pretty much every other silent film I've seen has either been grand and epic, comical and optimistic, or a modern morality play. Aside from maybe one scene that pushes this material into melodrama, this film is not epic, moralistic, bleak, or optimistic. It's just real people living a real life. Some may find this film depressing, and I suppose the hardships of the story are pretty significant, but it's not a film that leaves you miserable. It's a film where the characters feel free to appreciate the little victories in life, while doing their best to get through their struggles as well. So I found it not only even-handed, but also extremely well-made, and I was surprised at how much I loved it. I would say my first exposure to King Vidor was a great success.

  • 3. Viaggio in Italia (1954)
  • Now here is another film about real people that I had a few more problems with. To be fair, there actually was a lot that I liked about this film; the moments of subtle reflection for this couple affected with deep ennui actually work pretty well here, better than in an Antonioni film IMHO. There are times where the film seems more like a documentary of Italian art and historical exhibits, but I can forgive that. What really left me with a sour taste in my mouth early on was the fact that the married couple starts talking very bluntly in the first five minutes of the film about how they never realized how their relationship is based on nothing substantial. We haven't seen anything put a strain on their relationship, and it really hurts the film's attempt at subtle realism to have them be so direct about having a sham marriage. Really, if you were married, would you jump on the chance to very plainly point out that your marriage is strained and boring at the first opportunity where you and your spouse seem distant? Yeah, the whole film is an internal journey through the characters' emotions, but to have them speaking so unrealistically while giving us so little exposure to how the two characters interact as a couple just put a damper on the whole proceedings for me. Still a good film though.

  • 4. Hamlet 2 (2008)
  • I was not really interested in this movie from the previews, but some of my friends wanted to see it, so I tagged along. I was actually pleasantly surprised. It's not a great movie, and a fair number of jokes fall flat, but it's definitely funny and charming enough for me to recommend. A few people in the theater were in hysterics throughout, and many were silent the entire time, so I'm thinking maybe there's a certain style of humor that you have to get into here. The cast shines, particularly Catherine Keener and Elizabeth Shue, but everyone is very likable. I'm out of things to say, because this film did not really inspire strong emotions in me, but it is pretty funny and worth seeing.

  • 5. The Office: Season Two (2005-2006)
  • The Office has a knack for being very structurally similar to actually working at an office, and I mean that in the best way. In creating this very funny show, the minds behind it have crafted a series where nearly episode is about the same quality. Sure, some episodes are funnier, and some episodes are better-liked because they contain a plot development that affects the character arcs, but basically most of these episodes are pretty similar. This extends to the deleted scenes on the DVD, which rather than feeling like collections of weaker scenes, just feel like extensions of each episode's content that are as strong as anything in the episode. The tone is a little monotonous, but I mean that in a good way; it helps you really feel like you're working at the office. And the fact that they've managed to hang hilarious characters and great writing on a setting that is a little bit tedious just underscores the idea that there is indeed humor to be found in our everyday lives. But I think ultimately the show just works because as absurd as Michael Scott is, we all know people a lot like him. We know people who are oblivious to what others actually think of them, we know people who make jokes no one ever laughs at but they just keep trying, we know people who manipulate the truth to save their own asses so much that you start to wonder if they actually believe the stuff they're saying. Dwight is even more absurd yet still totally recognizable. And the show sticks it to these characters in ways we've always wanted to do, yet still finds the humanity behind them.

  • In spite of what I said about the episodes blending together, I do have some favorites. The Client and Performance Review create a nice story arc while also being hilarious. The Secret is terrific and another situation we can all probably relate to. The Dundies, the first episode of the 2nd season, was a great way to get introduced to the characters. I also loved Valentine's Day, Conflict Resolution, and The Injury. My least favorite episode was The Carpet.

  • By the way, the deleted scenes really are just as good as anything in the episodes. Particularly notable was a deleted scene from Performance Review where Jim asks Michael about a sexual encounter with increasingly obscure baseball metaphors, and Michael pretends to know what he's talking about. That's one of my favorite episodes, but nothing in it is as funny as this scene. Sometimes it's baffling why some scenes were cut. There were scenes cut from Booze Cruise that explain what the hell Michael is doing during that episode. I was definitely not able to tell without watching the deleted scenes.

  • Anyway, great show, and here we go:
  • Michael: You can consider this my retirement from comedy. And in the future if I want to say something funny, or witty, or do an impression I will no longer, ever, do any of those things.
  • Jim: Does that include "That's what she said?"
  • Michael: Mmm-hmm. Yes.
  • Jim: Wow. That is really hard. (pause) You really think you can go all day long? (pause) Well, you always left me satisfied and smiling.
  • Michael: THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!

  • 6. Timecode (2000)
  • A split-screen follows four different perspectives in four continuous, unbroken shots. The actors improvised all their dialogue, and the sound mix tries to focus on the most important thing at any given time. It's an interesting concept for a film, but this technique which works so well at establishing tension in certain moments of the TV show 24 seems very distancing here. Scenes that could have been dramatic or sexy or provoked some sort of reaction have their impact undermined by having 3/4 of the screen taken up by mindless wandering and having the sound underscored by idle chatter. The end result is that the split-screen is cool to look at but ultimately makes the film pretty one-note and uninvolving on a personal level. The ending is an exception, but it seems like cheating, because instead of going about their daily lives, two of the screens are taken up by people singing a song that perfectly sets the tone for what's happening in a third panel. Worse, to get to that ending, we have to sit through about ten minutes of a character speaking as the director's mouthpiece, explaining and justifying the ideas behind this film. Still, given how much Timecode held my attention on the little details, I would call it a good movie. I think a great film could be made using this stylistic device, but it would have to be more deliberately structured so that the four screens work in tandem rather than against each other. I would have dropped the improv and the lack of cutting.

  • 7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  • Part 10 of my epic odyssey through epic film, this one was recently voted the 8th greatest American epic film by the AFI. All of Spielberg's positive and negative qualities are on full display here. On the positive side, he knows how to move a fucking camera. He's an old pro at this stuff by this point, and he directs the hell out of this film, making the material as compelling as he can. Now, is it a little hokey to introduce us to the film with thirty minutes of the most brutal combat footage in any film, and then take the audience through a mission that's awfully sentimental for WWII, a mission intended to ease one mother's suffering? Sure, but what were you expecting? It's a great film, one with strong characters and made by a director/cinematographer team with a real eye for the craft.

  • 8. Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
  • Postwar Italian cinema is not particularly known for being particularly amusing. If you were hanging out with the greats of the era - Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini - you might have some interesting philosophical conversations, but it would probably be kinda depressing. Yet somehow this heist comedy got made, and it manages to be hilarious in a time and place that didn't seem to have much humor most of the time. The characters strike a nice balance of being realistic enough to make the story itself interesting yet caricature-y enough to be funny. The tone is high-energy, the writing is very clever, and I actually found it surprisingly easy to follow even with all those characters. Not as masterful as Fellini, of course, but highly enjoyable.

  • 9. Gandhi (1982)
  • This is the 11th installment in the now very lengthy saga in which AJ watched some epic films he hadn't seen before. Gandhi, however, is really more of a biopic than an epic, and subject to my usual complaints about biopics, where good storytelling is tossed out the window in favor of a formulaic assembly of scenes that pack some sort of emotional punch. Add to that the fact that most of the characters here are not really characters as much as people who are here to question Gandhi and/or prompt him to say something interesting, or people who are here to react unfavorably to what Gandhi is doing while still seeming like reasonable, level-headed human beings. These facts are annoying, yes, but these complaints are outshined by the portrayal of Gandhi himself. The script reveals just enough backstory to explain Gandhi's actions somewhat while keeping an essential air of mysteriousness, and Ben Kingsley not only looks just like Mohandas Gandhi, but his performance is pitch-perfect (no surprise considering he is one of the greatest actors still living). That's the other problem with biopics - I can complain and complain about certain elements of them, but when they've got as compelling a lead character as Mahatma Gandhi, they're still hard not to like.

  • Everyone else probably vehemently disagrees, but I like ending my reviews with random side notes about certain details. There is one brief scene that took me completely out of the film and prevented me from paying attention to anything that was going on with the story. A man who looks exactly like Cliff Clavin is driving someone around while speaking with a voice that sounds nothing like Cliff Clavin. I was wondering if it was John Ratzenberger doing a really good character voice or some other actor who looked exactly like John Ratzenberger, but the IMDB trivia section told me that I was right on both counts: it was John Ratzenberger with a dubbed voice. Why they chose to do this, I'll never know. It's pretty much the most distracting thing ever for a Cheers fan.

  • 10. Mysterious Skin (2004)
  • A film about the ultimate effects of child molestation on its victims could easily hit all the wrong notes, but luckily Mysterious Skin stays away from all the cheese and melodrama in favor of a more interesting character study. It's intensely dramatic, but most of it seems incisive enough that it feels completely genuine rather than manufactured. Now, I'm no expert on the side effects of trauma (although randomly I did take a class on this topic in college), but I'll admit it did very occasionally ring false to me, particularly the "alien in baseball cleats" moment. In general, I think the Joseph Gordon-Levitt storyline worked a bit better than the Brady Corbet one, although that may just be a matter of personal preference. Make no mistake, though; the movie is compelling throughout, and for the most part, I thought Mysterious Skin was great.

  • 11. The Big Parade (1925)
  • So I realized when I said The Crowd was my first exposure to King Vidor, I was wrong. I completely forgot that Vidor directed the silent comedy Show People, which I saw a long time ago. In any case, my third exposure to King Vidor was just as successful as The Crowd, and while they tackle different topics, in a way they are somewhat similar. While The Crowd painted a picture of ordinary characters struggling under the pressure of ordinary circumstances, The Big Parade is about ordinary characters struggling under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances - specifically, WWI. The early character development is enjoyable in each film, and the way that everything plays out is done with heart and humanity. Vidor is not usually mentioned in the same sentence as Griffith and Chaplin, but to me he is up there with the greatest silent film directors.

  • 12. Burn After Reading (2008)
  • I think this film was designed as the Coens' statement to follow up No Country For Old Men. It's saying, "Don't worry, Coen Brothers fans! Even though we finally won those Best Picture and Best Directing Oscars, and even though we finally seemed to make a serious film without our tongues in our cheeks, we haven't sold out! Here we are still doing what we ultimately love best: making bizarre comedies where all the characters are idiots who exist only to poke fun at themselves!"

  • Indeed, this film has even less humanity than usual for the Coens, and considering the silly buffoonery that constitutes the film's humor, it takes a jarring turn for black comedy that's even darker than the Coens usually go. It seems to be skewering political thrillers by reminding us that government agencies are usually woefully inefficient, or skewering spy comedies like Get Smart by reminding us that when governments seriously screw up, the fallout is usually pretty catastrophic. It's a good movie, but be sure to brace yourself for more of a mindfuck than you're probably expecting from the first half-hour of it.

  • 13. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
  • Another excellent Astaire/Rogers film. You may have heard me earlier yearning for a Fred Astaire film with a coherent plot, so the scenes of dialogue are actually interesting in their own right rather than just clotheslines to hang dance numbers on, and this is actually originally based on a play, so no problems there. Even the secondary characters are particularly strong here, and the film didn't drag when attention focused away from Astaire and Rogers. It was top-notch entertainment in 1934, and it's just as much fun today.

  • 14. Nanook of the North (1922)
  • Some people call this film the first feature-length documentary. Others call it barely a documentary. Indeed, while the film purports to portray eskimo culture, director Robert Flaherty took many liberties with reality. Nearly every scene was staged, the film alters the truth about how these people actually lived, the main Innuit is not actually named Nanook nor married to the woman said to be his wife, and the whole film was actually shot in Jamaica. Okay, I made the last one up. Anyway, I knew all this going into it, and I was hoping it would be interesting anyway. It's not. I mean, it's basically trying to teach everyone about the way the Innuits live, and if you have a nature documentary that's presenting fake nature, what do you have left? This is all an exaggeration, of course, since some of the scenes are probably accurate, and some of them are visually interesting. But this one didn't really work for me, especially the scenes that seemed particularly stagey, such as the ones played for goofy laughs.

  • 15. Ordet (1955)
  • The funniest part of this talky, philosophical melodrama is when Daddy Borgen talks to Peter Peterson the tailor and explains how the Borgens feel that Christianity should be all about the joy and celebration of life whereas the Petersons think Christianity is all about death and ruin. This was funny to me because both Borgens and Petersons were so immensely somber, so identically austere, you would never think that these two men's differences would have anything to do with the level of joy in their lives. For someone whose religion is fundamentally about celebrating every moment of existence, Daddy Borgen is a pretty big downer. Ultimately, this is a movie that pulls off a decent number of awesome moments, but all that is strung together by a lot of scenes of boring people boringly talking about boring things. The movie hammers you over the head with its message, and while I could see how the amazing scenes in this movie could overpower the monotony for many critics (thus generating this film's wild acclaim), it didn't for me.

  • 16. The Office: Season 4 (2007-2008)
  • Since I've already established The Office's remarkable consistency, I was tempted to just tell you to see my review of season 2. However, that would cheat you all out of another spellbinding review, and to be fair, there were some more ambitious elements explored in this season of The Office than I'd seen previously. I've heard they intentionally made relationships a theme of this season, and indeed, the changing relationships created the opportunity to explore new character dynamics, particularly Dwight and the way that Jim and Pam react to him. The second half of the season also finds some episodes veering away from the normal method of deriving occasionally awkward humor from the characters' quirks and exploring a much darker, incredibly uncomfortable side of the show. I'm not convinced this really works; The Deposition, Dinner Party, and Did I Stutter? all have some funny moments but are so tremendously awkward that they become too unpleasant to really laugh at.

  • Luckily, most of the episodes here are still the same old Office that I've quickly grown to love. Fun Run, Local Ad, Survivor Man, and Goodbye Toby in particular are my favorites of the season. It's really hard to beat this moment from Chair Model though:

  • (Michael has gotten everyone in The Office to set him up with their friends by having them write names on cards.)
  • Michael: (reading Kevin's card) Okay, Wendy. "Hot and juicy redhead." I'll give this a try. (dials number)
  • Woman: Wendy's.
  • Michael: Hello, Wendy. This is Kevin's friend, Michael.
  • Woman: This... isn't Wendy.
  • Michael: Oh, I'm sorry, could you put her on please?
  • Woman: Dude, this is a Wendy's restaurant.
  • Michael: Dammit, Kevin... Okay, could I just have a Frosty and a baked potato please?
  • Woman: You have to come to the restaurant to order food.
  • Michael: Well, I'll send someone to pick it up. Just have it ready.
  • Woman: It's ready now.
  • Michael: Well, put it aside.

  • 17. The New World (2005)
  • I think that ultimately the most important thing a film should do is hold my interest. Everything else is just secondary. That may sound obvious, but think about what that means. How a movie holds my interest is not as important as the fact that it is indeed interesting. So for example, if I've ever said that a comedy would be better if the characters were stronger or it had more heart, what I really mean is that the humor isn't fast and furious enough to be engaging non-stop, that it should develop its characters better so that even when the jokes aren't up to par, we still care about the other elements of the film. Few movies can maintain interest throughout just by being hilarious (although the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, Bob Hope, and Sacha Baron Cohen have all pulled this off at least once).

  • So what am I doing talking about comedies when I'm reviewing The New World? You may have heard me talk about how important the story is to my liking of a film. Ultimately, what I'm saying by that is, most films can't maintain interest through the various elements of production if the story is weak, in my opinion. It takes a very unique film to be a masterpiece with very little narrative, and The New World is almost that film. If you were to say that some of the scenes in The New World were among the most beautiful shots ever filmed, I would not disagree with you. I didn't expect to like this film, yet I was amazed at how captivated I was by its simple elegance.

  • Like I said, though, I don't think The New World is a masterpiece. Sometimes the film just lost me. I'm not sure why, but this happened mostly after Christian Bale showed up. There, the simple elegance decomposed into some moments that seemed pretty hokey to me (such as dialogue like, "Who are you? What do you dream of?" / "I like grass. Are you kind?"). Even so, I was surprised at how much I liked the film as a whole. Not usually a fan of Mr. Malick's, I liked how his trademark subtlety worked here, because in large part it seemed believable, rather than having characters seem unrealistically understated. I'm afraid no film may really sell me on Malick's work as a holistic experience, although The New World comes close. If he were a photographer, I would declare him a genius.

  • 18. Le Samourai (1967)
  • I remember virtually nothing about the last Jean-Pierre Melville film I saw (Bob le Flambeur), and I hate to say it, but as much as I loved Le Samourai, it hasn't really stuck in my mind. Is that a testament to my poor memory? Probably, but I also think that as great as Le Samourai's visuals are and as gripping as I remember the film being throughout, it all may add up to something without a whole lot of weight. I did really enjoy this film while I was watching it though. It's minimalistic, reducing the gangster film to its essence and then supplying that essence with a heaping helping with French existentialism. If anything will linger in my memory, it will be that amazing ending. You just have to see it.

  • 19. Frozen River (2008)
  • I'm not sure why, but I've sort of been avoiding the indie films of 2008. It might be because few indies have really been inspiring me lately; most of the acclaim for the year has been focused on some wildly popular blockbusters like The Dark Knight and WALL•E, not to mention Iron Man. Frozen River marks my triumphant return to the art house, and it really reminded me why I love independent film. It's an intelligent film with terrific, sympathetic characters. The cinematography is rather ugly, but appropriately so, as it emphasizes the bleak, chilly atmosphere surrounding the film's events. Melissa Leo is great as always, and comparative newcomer Misty Upham is just as good, believable in every second of her character arc. I'll really have to frequent the art house more often.

  • 20. Black Book (2006)
  • This has got to be the strangest Holocaust film I've ever seen. In some ways it seems like a trashy Jewxploitation film set during World War II. It's a Holocaust film about one badass chick who uses her sexuality to take advantage of the enemy, where we root for the empowered female to come up with clever solutions to triumph over all the corrupt men in her life. Some scenes could be straight out of Kill Bill. Character development is generally sacrificed in favor of a twisting plot and pulpy visuals. Make no mistake, this is a thrill ride.

  • Yet in other ways the film seems like a mature, complex examination of history. Many have pointed out that the fact that the film features some good Nazis and evil Dutchmen represents a refusal to paint history in black and white. Indeed, note also how some of Rachel's greatest tragedy results not from the war, but from the war ending. In fact, she is treated like the enemy by nearly everyone, blurring the lines between friend and foe throughout the film.

  • I wondered how a film could have these two different sides to it. Then I remembered who the director was and I wondered how it could not. I think this is Paul Verhoeven combining his early Dutch historical films with his Hollywood trashy entertainment films into one strange smorgasbord. The end result is a film that is, on the whole, pretty damn captivating.

  • 21. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
  • I'm going to do my best to give you a good sense of what watching this film is like. Picnic at Hanging Rock is about some repressed Victorian-era boarding school girls who go in a picnic. They find themselves communing with the flora and fauna of their natural world. Four of them go off exploring and get lost. While they're exploring, they discover a strange phenomenon that replaces all dialogue with stilted philosophical statements like "Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place" and all direction with the suggestion "act like slow-motion ghosts." This all is probably a metaphor for sexual exploration. Also, there may be something supernatural that happens, but people might only think that because of this silly excised chapter from the original novel. Most of the movie is about how the school deals with these people being lost, and this section of the film is actually compelling, although thankfully, just in case we forget about how annoying the exploration scenes are, the film is spiced up with a few scenes of over-the-top, slow-motion melodrama. Also, in case you forget which location looks like which, the guy who wrote the score has helped you out with a simple code: if you're hearing normal classical music, you're at the school; if you're hearing strange, earthy-sounding pan pipe music, you're at Hanging Rock. I did like this film for the most part, but only when it diverges from the silly Hanging Rock scenes from the first half-hour. Maybe I just didn't get it. Or maybe the emperor has no clothes.

  • 22. Love and Death (1975) (watched again)
  • These next three reviews are for lukeprog since he said he liked when I rewatched movies, and then I apparently stopped rewatching movies. But this was one I've wanted to revisit for a while, since this was on the syllabus for the Woody Allen class I took this past spring but then removed last-minute. For me this is probably the best of Allen's earlier pure-humor films. I used to think Sleeper was the best, but Love and Death is just a cut above. It's not only packed full of top-notch verbal and visual humor, it's also more anarchic, and filled with lovingly constructed parodies of historical epics and classic art films (particularly Bergman). It's just so perfect to see Allen's self-deprecating one-liners set against an extravagant scenic design invoking Russian architecture and landscapes. The whole thing is a wonderfully subversive, a hilarious romp through czarist Russia.

  • 23. Raging Bull (1980) (watched again)
  • This is a better film than I remember, but still an overrated one in my book. It's a real directorial triumph, and De Niro's performance is just perfect, but in the end, I have the same problem with the film that I had last time. It just insists on beating you over the head with the fact that Jake La Motta is a violently jealous husband. There's an entire hour in the middle of the film where pretty much every scene that doesn't portray boxing is just about convincing us that La Motta is jealous. The script is fairly one-note in that sense, and it's too bad because there are other aspects of La Motta's character that are hinted at but barely explored. At one point Joey mentions that Jake has trouble performing in the bedroom, but that seems like the only time this is even mentioned; why couldn't that aspect of his character been developed a little more? I also read a review that argued Jake's behavior can be explained by his romantic feelings for Joey, which would be very interesting, but the hints at this subtext lurk so far beneath the surface that I'm not sure it's not just someone reading a homosexual undercurrent that isn't there. Well anyway, I'm going to stop criticizing this beloved classic now and probably go watch The Office.

  • 24. The Awful Truth (1937) (watched again)
  • Funnier than I had remembered, and another step towards satisfying my craving for Cary Grant rewatches that I mention in my His Girl Friday review here. Not much plot, but it works well as a series of hilarious setpieces, and some of the humor even seems ahead of its time. I was just reading an article about how today's generation finds uncomfortable awkwardness-based humor (such as The Office) funniest, and the scene where Dixie Belle Lee sings could fit right into an Office episode. None of this would be as funny without the terrific cast, and Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are both highly adept at being comical while creating sympathetic, likable potential divorcees. Along with the supporting characters, a great script, and Leo McCarey's eye for comic timing, they have created a film that is surely up there with the best romantic comedies ever made.

  • 25. Cheers: The Complete 5th Season (1986-1987)
  • I knew that this was Diane's last season, and I was wondering how they would address the issue of her leaving the show seeing as she was pretty central to everything Cheers did in its first five years. It surprised me to see her leave with a whimper rather than a bang; the notion isn't even addressed until the last episode of the season, and even then one would never know until the final moments. It's probably for the better, as her tender final moments on the show are really quite touching. Anyway, I've heard (and would imagine) that Cheers really isn't the same without her, so this may be the last season of Cheers I watch unless anyone has a strong opinion otherwise.

  • This season seems more focused on romantic relationships than Cheers ever has before. In addition to what's going on with Sam and Diane, this season brings us Frasier finding love, Carla finding love, and several engagements (many ephemeral). Even Cliff comes close to getting laid this season. It's a fine season of Cheers, perhaps vying with the first season for my favorite one. Where the fourth season left me yearning for Coach's presence, I think the fifth season had Woody really come into his own, and he usually has some of the funniest lines in each episode. Frasier's relationship with Lilith is bizarrely hilarious, and a lot of the episodes evoke some really top-notch sitcom humor (particularly Cape Cad, which may have been my favorite of the season). My only complaint? Not enough Norm. I feel like he was underused this season, although Norm's First Hurrah presents some really defining moments for him.

  • This was also one of my favorite moments of the season:
  • (Woody is whistling while sweeping up the bar. The radio is on.)
  • Radio: Tired of your old job? Looking for something new and exciting? Then how about a career as a court stenographer? Through a simple six-week course at the Emory School of Court Stenography, you'll learn all the skills required to become part of this exciting profession.
  • (Woody stops sweeping and starts pondering, staring at the radio.)
  • Radio: Meet great people. Work flexible hours. Earn top money. All it takes is a good ear, accuracy, and speed. Contact the Emory School of Court Stenography for your free aptitude test...
  • (Woody picks up a pad and a pen.)
  • Radio: By calling 5-double-5-6119. That number again? 5-double-5-6119.
  • Woody: Five... (struggles to remember the rest)
  • Radio: Don't delay! To have an exciting career in court stenography, just call 5-double-5-6119 now.
  • Woody: Five... five... five... six... (struggles to remember)
  • Radio: You're listening to the rockin' sounds of J.J. Mikes. But first, let's take a look at tomorrow's weather.
  • (Woody puts down his pad and resumes whistling while sweeping up the bar.)

  • Nota bene: I'm afraid these reviews are quickly going to become thinner. For the past few months I've been enjoying an extended summer break as I looked for a job. Now I've found an internship at a film company, so I'm going to be busier. I'll still have time to watch some films, but part of my job entails viewing some new projects that come in, and so much of my movie-viewing time will be taken up by watching submissions for work. Unfortunately, I shouldn't review them here for confidentiality reasons. Of course, I'm sure I'll do some viewing outside of work. It may be more TV-on-DVD-focused as I'll tend to have time in smaller segments.

  • I did, however, just watch Fantasia for the first time, and I wanted to bring it up here because it's a momentous film for me. We all have a mild obsession with lists here, right? After all, my efforts to see every film on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs list were what first got me into classic film, and I count on other lists to introduce me to more films that I really need to see. I have a number of movie lists I've been working on, and this summer has given me more time to make some major headway. My series of epic film reviews helped somewhat, since those three-hour-plus films were a big chunk of the classics I hadn't seen. Anyway, seeing Fantasia means I have now seen all films on another AFI list: specifically, the original AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies list.

  • In case you were wondering, to see every film on the 2007 revised AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list, I would need to see Titanic, which probably won't happen for a while (I'm avoiding it; it's the principle of the thing). To see all of the top 100 movies on www.filmsite.org, I just need to see The Quiet Man. To see all of the top 100 movies on www.theyshootpictures.com, I need to see Viridiana, The Earrings of Madame de..., and Sansho the Bailiff. So I'm in the home stretch for a few of them, but since Listology has found a savior, I'm sure once those are over with, I'll move on to something else and keep on obsessing over lists for years to come. :-)

  • 26. Fantasia (1940)
  • See my note above for more background info. I suppose it's somewhat appropriate that this is the last one I watch on that list of great American films, as it's the least conventional film on the list, the most abstract (and thereby un-American) of all of those cinematic works, with the possible exception of 2001. To be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure if this is the first time I'm watching Fantasia. I know that I was a Disney film nut as a kid and that I've seen the Sorceror's Apprentice bit hundreds of times, but I don't think I ever watched Fantasia all the way through until now. I'm glad I did though, because it's awesome. If Snow White was Walt Disney telling the world, "Look what animation can do!", Fantasia is him saying, "Wait, wait - look what else animation can do!" Having proven that he could make a compelling feature-length animated fairy tale, Disney dabbles with purely music-inspired bits of spectacle, from the wondrously abstract (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) to the spellbinding narrative (Sorceror's Apprentice) to everywhere in between. The tone and quality of the film shift wildly, even consecutively, such as the jump from the weaker Dance of the Hours which at best is silly fun, to the brilliant, powerful Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria. The overall experience, however, is truly unique, creating a really wonderful film.

  • 27. Pinky and the Brain: Volume 2 (1997)
  • This show continues to both delight me and spark fond memories of the entertainment I enjoyed as a kid. It also continues to simultaneously appeal to the kiddies and insert jokes that they couldn't possibly get (and which I of course didn't get as a young'un), including the wide array of washed-up celebrity caricatures in Hoop Schemes, the parody of 70s counterculture films in Brinky, the Beatles jokes in All You Need Is Narf, and the countless references to world leaders of the time. Sure, some episodes are incredibly boring and repetitive, like Brain Storm, but to balance that out, you get episodes that ask questions about the nature of fate and predestination, like This Old Mouse. And then there's just the great comedy and storytelling, such as childhood favorite Pinky and the Brain... and Larry (which hilariously inserts Larry into the opening credits) and A Pinky and the Brain Halloween, which I had never actually seen before. Top notch family entertainment!

  • 28. The Office: Season 3 (2006-2007)
  • A terrific season for The Office, especially in terms of the overall story arc. Not only did these DVDs answer some questions I had from seeing the 2nd and 4th seasons (as well as some late 3rd season reruns), the story-arc-heavy episodes like Branch Closing, Traveling Salesman, The Return, and The Job are very strong here. I don't really have a whole lot else to say, except that one of my favorite Office moments ever was unfortunately cut from its episode but preserved in these deleted scenes. It's the very last deleted scene for the episode Initiation, having to do with how much Stanley enjoys Pretzel Day. It's heartwarming in its twistedly hilarious way.

  • Andy: Beer me!
  • Jim: What's that?
  • Andy: Hand me that water. I always say "Beer me." It gets a laugh, like, a quarter of the time.
  • Jim: (as they get out of the car) Lord, beer me strength.

  • 29. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
  • I am convinced that this could've been a huge cult hit along the lines of The Usual Suspects or Fight Club if it had been released in the 90s. It does, after all, have a great, well-known cast; a director with indie cred who infuses it with a brilliant visual style; a twist ending that makes you rethink much of what you've experienced in the film; and a mindfuck mentality to the whole proceedings. I think there came a point, though, where people gave up on that sort of film, and so A Scanner Darkly was released with little fanfare and maintains an IMDB rating in the low 7's. Those movies were more plot-focused, though, and perhaps Linklater wanted to distance himself from them by making a film that is definitely more about a group of drug-addicted friends hanging out. I think Linklater may be a little too in love with the dialogue, though, and watching some drug addicts hang out can only maintain so much interest. Still, I really liked this movie, and after turning off Waking Life a few years ago, I am glad to finally see a film that both has an actual story and is rotoscoped in its entirety. This is really some of the best-looking animation ever.

  • 30. Hud (1963)
  • Well, by now I'm a little late to be honoring Paul Newman's memory, but he really is the main reason why I saw this film about a disaffected, amoral man who has no respect for the values of his rancher father. He's a real asshole, yet one can't help liking and sympathizing with him, and I think that was part of Newman's gift: he makes you want to give his characters the benefit of the doubt and see all shades of their personalities. Actually, the whole cast is really terrific here, which is good because the script is fairly standard counterculture stuff. It needed to be saved by great performances, and the actors were definitely up to the task.

  • 31. Fail-Safe (1964)
  • Early on, I was afraid this was going to become White Men Philosophize About War for Two Hours, but at some point this film really grabbed me and didn't let go. Sometimes known as Dr. Strangelove's more serious and less successful cousin, Fail-Safe can hold its own in my book. It's a terrific, suspenseful thriller that had my eyes completely glued to the screen for the last hour. Sidney Lumet's stark direction and Henry Fonda's masterful performance (along with many other great elements) come together to really give this "Dr. Strangelove minus the humor" a lot of life. Too bad I didn't save this for Halloween, because this is a damn scary film.

  • 32. Everything Is Illuminated (2005)
  • Much has been made of Robert Redford and Kevin Costner winning Oscars for their respective directorial debuts, but from a directorial style perspective, I think Everything Is Illuminated might be one of the most impressive "famous actor turns director" films of the past 30 years. It's just a very well-directed movie. It looks great, it maintains a good pace throughout, and the tone just works the whole time. I'll be keeping my eye on Liev Schreiber. Anyway, this is a very sweet, charming comedy-drama about a guy looking for a woman who helped his family during the Holocaust. If it has a flaw, the script is a little too obsessed with its "check out this wacky foreign people and watch Elijah Wood awkwardly react to them" moments which ultimately felt a bit tired, partially because they seemed lifted from Lost in Translation or Borat (the sketches, not the film). Still, the film certainly establishes that its substance goes far beyond Ukrainian gags, and the end result is a film that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

  • 33. Lola Montes (1955)
  • A biography (of sorts) of a woman with a scandalous life, told in flashback by a ringleader because she has become a circus attraction. Don't get me wrong, because I do think all biopics should be told with a dancing freakshow, but I wasn't a big fan. It's a lot of style without much substance, a pretty slow film with some hokey scenes and a really boring lead performance. I'll take Letter From an Unknown Woman over this any day.

  • 34. Role Models (2008)
  • And so Role Models joins the ranks with a good number of solid comedies from this year. The movie contents itself by having pretty much all of its humor derive from Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott making hilariously dry remarks in response to the inanity around them, yet for the most part this actually really works. Of course, the other hilarious element of this film is the joyously nerdy real-life role-playing game that McLovin engages in, which is so generally delightful (and takes the last chunk of the film into new swords-and-sandals epic-spoofing territory) that I wish it had been even more developed, especially his relationship to the girl. Unfortunately, Jane Lynch, whom I normally like, tries very hard to be so lame she's funny but ends up just coming across as lame. That and some other misfires prevent this from being a great comedy, but it certainly is a good one.

  • 35. Man on Wire (2008)
  • You may have noticed that I don't tend to watch too many contemporary documentaries. The reason why is I feel like the market is so hypersaturated with documentaries that anyone with a unique idea can make one, and it will be praised because of that unique idea. Have an interesting hobby? Let's make a documentary about it. Know an interesting part of history? Make a documentary. Have a political opinion? Documentary. I may enjoy these films too, but how many of these films will even be remembered a few years from now? Anyway, Man on Wire is one that cracked through even my cynical exterior, seeing as Metacritic lists it as the second-most-acclaimed film of the year so far (after WALL-E). Like many of these wildly praised documentaries, Man on Wire is overrated, but it is a good film. In the end, its quality honestly owes more to the fact that the event itself was interesting than on the basis of the filmmaking. But listening to the team go through the details of the "heist" was more interesting than one might expect. The visuals of the performance are awesome, and we do get a good, pretty well-developed sense of Philippe Petit in this loving portrait to the man.

  • 36. W. (2008)
  • Part 3 in my series on good-not-great films of 2008. Honestly I think the critical response to this film is more interesting than the film itself. I feel like after Oliver Stone made a number of failed films, many critics just think of Stone as their punch boy and were ready to pounce on his film no matter what it was like, whereas other critics pounced on the politically liberal Stone for making a film whose portrayal of Bush wasn't biting or timely enough (like being president doesn't make you important enough to have a movie made about your life even if it's at the end of your term). Is this biopic really any better or worse in quality than any other Oscar bait biopic from the past few years (The Aviator, Capote, Walk the Line, etc.)? Can you really criticize Stone's film for having a wide enough scope to become episodic while also praising other biopics that do the same thing?

  • The truth is, if you're looking for a scathing film that skewers the president, W. will leave you disappointed. What Stone has made is a good if conventional film that tries to show us some shades of the president that we don't normally see. We see his "want to have a drink with him" appeal that many credit as his saving grace in the elections, we see his gutsy attitude stemming partially from the hurt when his father lost his reelection, and we see a lot of scenes that make us laugh out of familiarity but which are just intended as accurate (he did choke on a pretzel, after all, and Dick Cheney does look and sound a lot like Richard Dreyfuss). With the exception of Thandie Newton as Condi, the performances present deeper layers behind these larger-than-life, instantly recognizable political figures, and the script may have been episodic, but it kept me pretty interested. I imagine there's too much baggage that comes with both Stone and Bush for most people to go into this film with a fully open mind, but if you do, you might see a pretty good movie.

  • 37. Topsy-Turvy (1999)
  • And so from the mind of a director known for making stark, bitter working class dramas comes a celebration of the whimsy of Gilbert and Sullivan, a film that not only revels in G&S's silly humor but also, in title cards at the end, thumbs its nose at the idea of grander, more serious art. Hats off to Leigh for letting the tone fit the subject... and the punishment fit the crime. I was in The Mikado as well as a handful of other G&S shows, and as a G&S fan, I found it immensely fascinating to watch Gilbert nitpick every iota of every line in rehearsal and to watch the numbers staged as they were originally intended. I don't know if non-G&S-fetishists would really enjoy this, but I suspect that it's a great film even beyond my personal biases towards it. It is certainly a very well-made period piece; it looks gorgeous; Leigh as always is great at constructing the drama; and its themes about art and the relatability of it to human existance are interesting, all of which make for good arguments that other people could like it? Me? I loved it mostly because G&S captivate me.

  • 38. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
  • I've heard an argument that Obama's presidential victory is a good sign that this dazzlingly brilliant film is well on its way to Oscar glory. Indeed, Slumdog Millionaire is more or less the cinematic equivalent of Barack Obama: it makes familiar ideas seem fresh and new, and it talks frankly about the problems in life, but it still makes us feel good about ourselves.

  • More than that, though, Slumdog Millionaire is every bit as awesome as I was hoping it would be, which is astounding because I had very high hopes. People will criticize it for being unrealistic in order to entertain, but really, that is the point. Slumdog is so entrenched in the culture of India and its people that it functions as escapism while also showing us just what these people are trying to escape from. To its credit, I think, the highs are never too sentimental nor the lows too extremely brutal, and Danny Boyle's camera work is really a tour de force. I've had conversations with people who didn't care for the film, and even they admitted the cinematography is stunning.

  • In any case, now that I've built up your expectations to unbelievable highs to the point where you have no choice but to be disappointed, see this film.

  • 39. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
  • Kaufman, Hoffman, and every indie actress of the past ten years put together an ambitious film and the critics say "meh"? I had to weigh in. Indeed, if you're looking for a film with a twisted look at reality but which is ultimately grounded and palatable, like Eternal Sunshine, you're probably going to be disappointed, because Synecdoche is a fully fledged art film. Think David Lynch or Alain Resnais in nature and you won't be too far off, but Kaufman establishes right away a directorial style all his own that never seems plagiarized from his past collaborators. I can also understand disliking this film because it's an overly ambitious mess. If Adaptation was too many layers of reality for you, then stay the hell away from Synecdoche. It's like Adaptation times a thousand.

  • Like I said, I can see why some would be disappointed. However, I loved it. It's bursting with ideas and originality, and ultimately the whole might be a little less than the sum of its parts, but there are so many interesting parts to this film that that's barely a criticism. And if the object of real art is to entertain, to evoke emotion, and to make one think, then this is certainly one of the most successful films of the year. It's a film written by a guy with the most original ideas in Hollywood, about a man who's dealing out cards to his actors containing all the unoriginal story ideas that Kaufman doesn't write about. It's a film that explores the impact that can be created by every decision we make, and it's a film about actors who learn to take more and more comfort in having a director tell them exactly what to do at every stage of their lives. It's a film in which a man creates an entire Manhattan in his warehouse yet can't use the bathroom without bleeding profusely. It's a film that recognizes that in order to tell stories one must simplify the way the world works, and it's a film about the struggle to avoid that. And for good measure, it's a film in which one character is living in a house that is perpetually on fire.

  • Of course, I've barely scratched the surface here. The tepid critical response may have given you pause, but this is really a film that ought to be seen and talked about, and I suspect it may be more appreciated a few years down the road. I can't promise you'll like it, but I doubt you'll be bored.

  • 40. Vampyr (1932)
  • An open letter from Carl Theodor Dreyer to his audience, and an open letter from me to Carl Theodor Dreyer.

  • Carl Theodor Dreyer: "Dear audience, Let's be honest here. In this film, I'm not going to bother trying to create interesting characters or a coherent plot. Who really gives a shit about that stuff when you're making a horror film anyway? Besides, talkies have just been invented, and they still sound kinda crappy, so fuck dialogue. All I want to do is use this sweet camera in cool ways and create some kickass creepy atmosphere. I'm not even going to pretend I'm trying to do anything else. If that sounds good to you, watch Vampyr. Love, Carl Theodor Dreyer."
  • AJ: "Mr. Dreyer, I admire your honesty. Your atmosphere is pretty cool. However, why do you insist on spending so much time shooting the text of a book about vampires? I don't get it. That's not creepy at all. Love, AJDaGreat."

  • 41. Futurama: Bender's Game (2008)
  • Hey, Futurama fans, remember the previews of this straight-to-DVD release that made it look like the film was entirely fantasy? And remember the Futurama creators saying this is the first thing they've done that is in the fantasy realm rather than the scifi realm? If you're like me, you probably had your doubts that the majority of the film would actually be fantasy, thinking that it would take a lot of time in the scifi realm to set things up, and you would be right. I didn't expect, however, for the fantasy segment to be as disjoint as it is here. The film basically spends 50 minutes going through an actual scifi plot, then it gets to the fantasy segment and is basically like, "Hey, here's that same story, but if that story was a Lord of the Rings parody." We get that for 30 minutes, and then it takes a few minutes to wrap up the actual story. The 30-minute fantasy segment ties into the main plotline hardly at all, closes with an anticlimax, and doesn't seem to have any real reason for transitioning back to scifi anyway. It's basically like they took a one-hour scifi story, a half-hour fantasy story, didn't bother writing an ending for the latter, and then combined them awkwardly.

  • Aside from the poor story structure, this movie is pretty good. Not as funny as the first two straight-to-DVD movies, but there are still a lot of clever moments in here. Still, this is easily the worst of the three so far.

  • 42. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
  • A truly beautiful Japanese epic expertly directed by the highly underrated Kenji Mizoguchi. It was hard to imagine Mizoguchi topping the beauty and power of Ugetsu for me, and I'm not sure that he has, but Sansho the Bailiff stands on its own as a real masterpiece of Japanese cinema. I saw the film weeks ago by now, and many images still haunt me, particularly the ending. I realize that sometimes when I write boring reviews like this one, it seems like I'm just talking out of my ass and don't really care about the film, but I did love this movie and it is definitely worth your time. I'm just not that inspired.

  • 43. Marty (1955)
  • So here we have it, the only time in film history when a film has gone on to win both the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Picture. One of the very few times when a film is celebrated by both the conventional Hollywood crowd and the pretentious French festival circuit. The cheapest Best Picture winner, the shortest Best Picture winner, the only movie ever to have more money spend on its awards campaign than its production. What is this small indie film to have dazzled both the Academy and the avant-garde?

  • Well... it's a great film helped by a weak year and by the fact that no one realized the brilliance of Night of the Hunter in its time. It may be one of the first times when Hollywood let its hero and heroine be so vulnerable, insecure, and conventionally unattractive. In an age when Hollywood still loved the larger-than-life, strikingly gorgeous heroes accomplishing world-shaking things, it must have seemed fascinating to Cannes that Hollywood would make a film about a simple, un-confident Bronx butcher going on a date. As for the Academy, the film is certainly a film with its heart on its sleeve, not to mention too profitable to ignore. They eat that shit up.

  • As for me, well, Marty isn't a complex film, but I'll be damned if it didn't charm the pants off of me. Even today it is pretty rare to see a romance built around awkward, not particularly attractive people, and it was refreshing to see it work so well. A lot of it rings very true, even today, and as someone who isn't particularly attractive who has been rejected a number of times, I should know. Just look at how Ernest Borgnine plays the scene in which he calls the first woman to ask her out on a date, and see how much wistfulness he communicates with just one half of a phone conversation. Marty's friends' reaction to the date also seems painfully true to life. Amidst all this meanness and rejection though, is a truly sweet love story that I really enjoyed watching. I love how much Marty and Clara identified with each other, how Marty spends so much time saying the wrong things and how Clara seems to like him not in spite of the fact that he says the wrong things but because he says the wrong things. It's probably not the best film of 1955, but it's close.

  • 44. 30 Rock: Season 2 (2007-2008)
  • This season picks up the mayhem where the first season left off, and although some may find the second season's move in a wackier direction distasteful, I think it totally works. It works because amidst all the madness is some really sharp writing that refuses to abide by sitcom convention and constantly surprises us, and it works because of its really terrific cast which can totally sell the material. Liz and Jack continue to (comparatively) ground the show, but all the characters contribute to 30 Rock's sheer hilarity.

  • Such as this moment:
  • Liz: (who has bought a wedding dress and decided to wear it around) I don't need society's permission to buy a white dress. Who says this is a wedding dress anyway? In Korea they wear white to funerals.
  • (Later, Tracy walks in and sees her.)
  • Tracy: Oh no! Did a Korean person die?

  • 45. The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
  • A fascinating romance-drama about a pair of earrings that travel the world, taking on different connotations and meanings whenever they exchange hands. The dialogue sparkles, and Ophuls's tight, captivating direction here makes me wonder if the bombastic, messy Lola Montes was directed by a different person. Maybe he just needs a strong story to work with, and here, he certainly has one. A terrific film that was unfortunately not on DVD for ever so long, but now that Criterion has finally released a great mastering of it, it's definitely worth checking out.

  • 46. Doubt (2008)
  • I really liked this movie, but I think it's worth noting what you are really seeing here, which is some of the best actors working today putting on a fine adaptation of a compelling, complex play. Is this film better than watching a production of the play Doubt starring this cast? Probably not. John Patrick Shanley has a few good ideas in here (the feathers scene is pretty cool), but too often his direction is obvious and heavy-handed. It is nice to see the play's events in full context of where they take place, though, and Streep, Hoffman, and Adams dazzle. I wonder if they intentionally cast such fair-skinned actors in these parts; it sort of gives them all ghostly qualities, as well as setting them further apart from the African-Americans in the play. Speaking of which, I avoided mentioning Viola Davis earlier not because she doesn't keep up with those fine actors, but quite the opposite: she deserves singling out as one of the best things about this film. In her few scenes, she does so much with so little, and may even given the best performance in the film (sorry, Phil and Meryl). Anyway, my point is that this may not be the best filmmaking, but it is a very good film.

  • 47. Milk (2008)
  • I'm thinking of changing the name of these lists to Bitchin' About Biopics. I really liked Milk, but what is disappointing is that it could've been a real masterpiece if not for the need to adhere to biopic conventions that work in documentary filmmaking but ultimately clutter up this movie, making it more disjoint than it ought to be. Most of Milk is fantastic, creating a very involved portrait of 1970s San Francisco and one passionate man with political dreams, partially driven by a need for his own civil rights. It's timely, it made me think of homosexuality and coming out of the closet in a new light (and I considered myself pretty enlightened before), and the performances are spectacular. Gus van Sant's direction of these scenes, particularly his recreation of the San Francisco counterculture and of Harvey Milk's personal life, is terrific, and he made a biopic with a more focused story than most as well as one that delves into its subject's life on a more intimate level. I really wish this wasn't an Oscar-baiting biopic, though, because I could really have done without so much Harvey Milk narrating into a tape recorder, without so much archive footage, without so many subtitles telling us when and where we are, and without so much inspirational preaching at the end. Ultimately, I think Milk feels like a very good film that had greatness in its grasp but just barely missed.

Author Comments: 

Comments are always welcome, always have been, and always will be.

I think we had very similar reactions to Hamlet 2.

Will there be a third one?

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

That would be overkill. I would, however, like to see a sequel to King Lear.

Lear: The King Strikes Back

Order up one time machine!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

LEAR II for the love of Cordelia

(reflexive Cordelia's Dad citation)

Thanks for throwing me a bone! I feel so special. :)

Love your Raging Bull review. That's exactly how I felt last time I watched it but I couldn't figure out how to put my feelings into words.

Wow, I'm so glad to find someone who feels the same way about Raging Bull! I can still see how some would love it based on the direction or De Niro, but it definitely has its flaws.

I've been really interested to see your film-watching shift to only films you think you'll really like and how that plays out. Good luck finding films you enjoy!

I don't know if non-G&S-fetishists would really enjoy this

I love it - it might be my favourite Mike Leigh film - and I have practically no interest in Gilbert & Sullivan at all.

Very glad to hear that! Like I said, I suspected it was a good film in addition to particularly appealing to me, but it's good to hear more evidence that that guess is correct.

Dear AJ,

I had to watch Vampyr three times before it truly clicked. Now it is one of the masterpieces of the cinema in my opinion. Do try it again some time.

Love,
SC

:-) You have intrigued me, sir. I will have to watch it again at some point.