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Friday, June 26, 2009

Screening Log: June

Just to make sure I keep posting on a regular basis, I've decided to start recording the movies I've seen. I'm borrowing the format/idea from Forager Blog, who, if I remember it correctly, borrowed it from someone else (though I can't find the post). None of this is a comprehensive discussion of the movies I've seen, just things that struck me. Unlike him, I'm using a A through F grading scale. A is amazing (i.e. I'd put this on my list of favorite films), B is well-done (worthwhile viewing, no matter what your specific preferences), C is acceptable, with noteworthy elements, D is poorly done and boring, F is awful (but occasionally awful in a redeeming way).

So:
The Comfort of Strangers (d. Paul Schrader, 1990, DVD) - Adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Ian McEwan. Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson are English tourists visiting Venice, who run across a mysterious and charming couple played by Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. Wonderful script that plays up the terrifying elements of the most banal, normal things, and the Venetian shooting locations really add both a menace and a thrill to everything. The cast is uniformly wonderful (between this and Cemetery Man, I really wish Rupert Everett did more horror). However, it's a sweet spot of Schrader and Pinter's hobby horses, and neither of them are doing everything that original, even though they do it well. Climax doesn't measure up the menace and weirdness established before. B-

The Man from Laramie (d. Anthony Mann, 1955, TV) Jimmy Stewart is hunting down the man who sold Apaches the rifles that killed his brother, and Donald Crisp is an aging cattle baron who might be responsible. It's the Duke of Gloucester plot from King Lear, set in the old West. Arthur Kennedy is particularly good as Crisp's hired hand and would-be adopted son, all competence and reason with an undercurrent of desperation. Beautifully shot, most of the violence is speedy and fascinatingly one-sided. As soon as things come to blows, the issue is usually decided. The tacked-on happy ending lets some of the air out of the balloon. And Stewart's romance with Cathy O'Donnell has no chemistry. A-

Punisher: War Zone (d. Lexi Alexander, 2008, DVD) - Third Punisher movie, third reboot, probably the one that comes closest to working. The Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is on a hunt for criminals, specifically Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his brother (Doug Hutchinson). No plot really beyond that. The screenwriter and director seem to understand that Punisher stories are about people doing nasty things to each other, in occasionally comic ways. Someone's face is literally pummeled into his skull. Another criminal is shot out of the sky with a rocket launcher as he jumps from building to building. The actors are mostly flailing around between cypher, hammy and wooden, with the exception of Stevenson and West. The plot doesn't even make sense. But the cinematography is both painstaking and hilariously over-the-top. The film's final shot is the best summation of the character I have ever seen. C -

The Tales of Hoffman (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1951, DVD) - Fairy tale writer ETA Hoffman (Robert Rounsenville) finds his attempts at romance blocked at every turn by the bureaucrat Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) or one of his stand-ins. A movie version of the Offenbach opera, but not a filmed opera performance. The libretto is okay, the music not to my taste. But all the actors are marvelous with great physical presence (Moira Shearer and Helpmann are the stand-outs) and the mise-en-scene in this film is a fore-runner to both the OCD perfection of P.T Anderson and the over-the-top fantastic of Frank Miller/Zach Snyder/Robert Rodriguez. Every fantasy/sci-fi/comic book artist in the world must wish they were that good. An optimistic fantasy-romance with one of the most brutal endings I've ever seen. A -

Death Walks at Midnight (d. Luciano Ercoli, 1972, DVD) - Nieves Navarro is a fashion model who remembers witnessing a murder while on drugs. Problem is, the murder was already solved by the police, but the crime doesn't fit her memories. Like most gialli, the acting is unconvincing (though better in Italian than in the English dub). Beautiful camera-work, with special attention paid to what is occurring in the edges of the frame. Extra credit to the screenwriters, who take what seems like a shaggy dog story and show that there is a rhyme and reason to what is happening. You will not be able to predict what happens next, but you don't feel as if the film-makers cheated. C+

Ransom (d. Ron Howard, 1996, Netflix Instant Viewing) - Mel Gibson and Rene Russo's kid is kidnapped, and the kidnapper's ringleader is a cop (Gary Sinise). This is the one where Gibson makes the ransom money into the bounty, remember? Ron Howard's direction is only competent, but the script and performances ground it and add tension up through the third act. At that point, the action movie cliches finally overwhelm careful detail and specifics. Gary Sinise deserves special credit for constructing such a perversely evil character which he never apologizes for. Case in point: an amazing monologue delivered over a voice-scrambled walkie talkie as he leads Gibson to the money-drop. Also the one sequence where Howard shines, as he uses shadows and lights on a NY expressway for all they are worth. B- for first 3 quarters, C- for the whole

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