The Blog


  • Volcano (1997, Mick Jackson)

    Volcano (1997, Mick Jackson)

    I’m trying to remember why I queued Volcano. I’ve recently been on a “rediscovering the mid-to-late 1990s” kick, so that reason is possible, but I’m pretty sure it was because Anne Heche was in it and I wanted to go back to when she was going to have a great career. Heche is incredibly good and the lack of her presence in modern cinema is going on my (new, creating it right now in Excel or something) list of what’s wrong with modern film.

    Volcano is from that wonderful era when CGI wasn’t as “good” as it is now, but still expensive enough to prohibit network TV from using it in excess (which is why the disaster genre is now all network mini-series). And Volcano has some terrible CGI, it has some terrible dialogue, it has some awful moments when people realize that skin color doesn’t matter and that everyone is the same….

    It also has a great cast. Besides Heche, firstly, there’s Don Cheadle. This Cheadle is the pre-(semi)fame Cheadle who pops up in all Brett Ratner’s films. This Cheadle just acts and does it well, makes you like him too. It’s the wonderful 1990s Cheadle. I don’t know if he’s lost it with his notoriety, but he certainly picks a lot worse projects (his latest LA film, Crash, isn’t fit to scrub Volcano‘s toilet). Jacqueline Kim and Keith David make up the rest of the main supporting cast, playing a doctor and a cop, respectively (I think David was also a cop in Crash). David’s practically always good and Kim is–it’s just that she’s in almost no films. Gaby Hoffmann, who’s one of those child actors who shouldn’t have disappeared, shows up as Tommy Lee Jones’s kid and occasionally spouts off terrible dialogue.

    Jones is fine (this film’s still from the era when Jones couldn’t be bad), but it’s one of those roles I kept wishing David Strathairn was playing. If you’ve never seen The River Wild, you wouldn’t understand, but Strathairn as an action hero is a wonderful thing.

    (I keep forgetting about City of Hope, I really need a good widescreen City of Hope).

    Volcano is nicely paced–it must run around one hundred minutes and there’s about forty of setup, then an hour of disaster. I’m not so much a sucker for disaster movies–the Irwin Allen variety, with the big casts, are all right I suppose–but I do like films with a limited storytelling span, especially if they are trying to “entertain” me. I was going to say that Mick Jackson is a fine enough director and should do TV, but he already does. It’s really sad when a movie like Volcano is more interesting than 99% of films coming out today.


  • Triple Cross (1966, Terence Young)

    Triple Cross (1966, Terence Young)

    Looking up Triple Cross on IMDb (I look up everything on IMDb to fill out my little film-viewing record), I noticed the user comment. IMDb user comment’s are almost always terrible and, since I usually check a record after watching a film, amusing. This comment read, “Plummer’s no Connery.”

    Well, obviously not. Christopher Plummer can act.

    There are some comparisons to a James Bond film, of course–Plummer is constantly insubordinate and constantly bedding the ladies (though, much like the first three Connery Bond films, only three). I guess Terence Young also directed the first two Bonds as well. Triple Cross is not a Bond film simply because the supporting cast matters. You like them. You feel for them. I don’t know of a Bond film except (maybe) Goldeneye that succeeds in that regard.

    Still, Triple Cross has a lot of problems. Young is a rather mediocre director and, for the first twenty minutes, I kept thinking that the British deserve not having a significant film contribution if Young is their idea of a “premier” filmmaker. Plummer is charming in the role, but there are few moments of actual depth. The most effective scene–between him and a Nazi general, played by Yul Brynner–is soon diminished–someone felt it necessary to bring Brynner back. Probably to fulfill his screen-time requirement….

    Romy Schneider, who I know is famous, is good as one of Plummer’s romantic interests. There’s a lot of good acting in Triple Cross, but it’s usually for naught. I don’t know if the film is too honest in its historical portrayal or not enough. Probably the former. Films rarely suffer for taking dramatic license with history. The guy from Goldfinger, Goldfinger himself, is in it and does a good job too. World War II movies of Triple Cross‘s era peak with The Great Escape, but there are some other reasonable ones in there. They just weren’t made by Terence Young, apparently.

    Still, I got the R2 DVD for like six dollars on eBay (from the UK, including shipping, which is quite a feat), so I’m happy enough. I don’t think Christopher Plummer has ever been bad and it’s nice to find a film where he’s the lead.


  • Japón (2002, Carlos Reygadas)

    Japón (2002, Carlos Reygadas)

    I am so glad I didn’t see this film in the theater. From what I can tell, it was well reviewed, and I imagine my uncontrollable laughter at the end would have offended a few folks. Japón is long. It’s only 132 minutes, but you feel every one of them.

    It was shot 16mm and blown-up to 2.35:1, which is at times successful, at times not. Reygadas knows how to shoot some scenes and doesn’t know how to shoot others. Imagine if Terrence Malick knew how to take pretty pictures, but not how to take pretty pictures that meant something. Reygadas also is a fairly terrible writer–a man, apparently shallow enough to want to kill himself because he limps, goes to the middle of nowhere to do it. There, he meets an old woman and decides life’s worth living–so long as she gets jiggy with him.

    Japón is incredibly serious, so much so I think Reygadas is daring people to say it’s a pretentious piece of shit (Carlos, it’s a pretentious piece of shit), and he seems to keep the critics at bay. Or maybe critics are stupider than I thought (just got done reading someone making fun of Woody Allen again. An Entertainment Weekly “contributor”). Reygadas also self-indulges a lot (no, not just showing us the naked old lady and the dude playing with himself), he forces us to sit and watch the all amateur cast sit around. In one scene, one guy starts bitching about the movie crew, only to be shushed by someone.

    The film was all right for a while, maybe the first forty minutes, and I was planning on a reasonably nice review about how people who aren’t Terrence Malick shouldn’t pretend to be Terrence Malick (like that George Washington nitwit). Terrence Malick can write. Carlos Reygadas cannot (neither can that GW nitwit). Either GW nitwit, actually.

    Wow, this film has really put me in a bad mood. I’ve got to stop thinking Guillermo Del Toro is indicative of Mexican filmmakers.


  • Matewan (1987, John Sayles)

    Matewan (1987, John Sayles)

    What was that? Did anyone else see that? (Probably not, I’m watching the Canadian widescreen DVD).

    Sayles actually ripped off the looking at the camera bit from The 400 Blows. He actually did it–while having the character’s future self narrate the epilogue. I’ve been dreading watching Matewan for over a year, since April 2004 in fact. I thought the dread came from my having only seen Matewan in school, but I guess I was just being smart. Matewan is easily Sayles’ worst film. It’s also one of his only “bad” ones. Matewan isn’t that bad, of course (get to that in a second), it’s just propaganda. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but it’s also propaganda. Management abusing labor is a fact and it’s a crime and Matewan is accurate in its depiction of it. But. Sayles presents one agent of management as a human being. The rest are not. The rest are villains. So, if there’s a shoot out with the villains, it’s impossible to care about them, impossible to think their deaths are at all a tragedy. Their deaths are weightless. Even Lethal Weapon 2 made excuses about its level of violence. It’s a disappointment, but Matewan is also Sayles’ first “big” film and it obviously got away from him.

    There are signs of the Sayles goodness, of course. There are lots of interesting characters, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s still too much of a story, instead of all the little stories that usually propel his films. There’s the Sayles cast, Chris Cooper and David Straithairn and Mary McDonnell are all excellent, Cooper the most. It’s hard to believe he didn’t become a vanilla leading man after Matewan.

    I’m incredibly upset about this film… I was off movies because Stripes was so shitty, because an Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray picture was so painfully mediocre (and unfunny). What is a bad John Sayles movie going to do to me?


  • The Spies (1957, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

    The Spies (1957, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

    I’m not all that familiar with Clouzot, or maybe I am. I’ve seen Wages of Fear and Diabolique. I didn’t even know The Spies was one of his, I was just queuing a Peter Ustinov spy movie. Apparently, Topkapi didn’t teach me anything.

    I’m kidding. About The Spies, not about Topkapi. Topkapi is pretty shitty. The Spies is not.

    It’s actually one of the lowest 3.5s I’ve ever given. Usually, I score throughout the film, just after the first act, I keep an active count (invariably, my internal dialogue questions itself about the rating and it just pops in–wow, we’re really getting Castaneda about film ratings tonight, must be the lack of sleep). I’ve been thinking about integrating star ratings into the Stop Button experience, but it’ll have to wait. The Spies final rating actually rings in and out in the last scene.

    Problematically, Clouzot sets up The Spies as a comedy. If you’ve seen Les Diaboliques (which I remember being okay, nothing more), you know Clouzot likes to mess with the viewer. He likes to trick you, even more than Hitchcock, because Hitch never really messed with you. He messed with his characters and let you watch. Clouzot does both. It’s frustrating in The Spies because he wants the viewer to appreciate how much he’s messing with the characters, but he’s also messing with the viewer.

    When you finally figure out what’s going on in The Spies–which takes a while, because Clouzot structures every conversation, every glance between characters, to mislead… or inform–you can begin to appreciate how good the film really is. It’s beautifully shot, of course. Clouzot’s a fabulous director. There’s also not a bad performance in the entire film and the lead is quite good, but I can’t name him because of all the accent marks. It’s 11:45 and I’m really lazy.

    What I’ve seen of French New Wave never impressed me and a lot of Truffaut’s stuff embarrassed me (there’s a digital record I rented The Story of Adele H. out there somewhere), but between Renoir, Cocteau, and Clouzot, there appears to be a good thirty years of French cinema I need to check out.


  • Clean (2004, Olivier Assayas)

    Clean (2004, Olivier Assayas)

    Clean answers a number of burning questions. Burning to someone, just not me.

    • Olivier Assayas is an excellent director.
    • Olivier Assayas is a terrible writer.
    • Maggie Cheung cannot act in English.
    • Maggie Cheung cannot sing in English.
    • Nick Nolte can survive anything.

    I was surprised by numbers 1 and 3. Not so much by the rest.

    After creating such a beautiful visual experience, you’d think Assayas would know something about directing actors. He does not. His direction, specifically, of the little kid in the film is astounding. It’s the worst performance of a child actor I’ve witnessed as a reasoning human being. Watching the film, you can see the kid getting direction like: be precocious. It’s awful.

    I’ve seen another Assayas film, also starring Cheung (his wife), Irma Vep, but she doesn’t speak English in that one. Assayas seems obsessed with the idea of his wife in a lesbian relationship, introducing the possibility in both these films, but never following through. It’s peculiar, nothing else, and the relationship’s introduced in this film as another of its tangents.

    Clean runs about 110 minutes and is filled with needless fade outs (read my recent review of Olga’s Chignon for how transitions ought to be done) and these title cards, telling us the location and the time past. There’s actually one that says “London. A few days later.” Like we couldn’t figure it out.

    As a film about someone overcoming drug addiction, Clean is probably the worst. Comparing it to the standards, Clean and Sober and Trainspotting, it’s so ineffective, the drug addiction aspect could be removed and replaced by something and it wouldn’t change a thing. The lead is not a flake because she’s a drug addict. She’s a flake because she’s a flake. The drugs are wholly incidental–my favorite scene, actually, is when she explains why people need to do drugs to her five-year old son.

    Cheung actually won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film and… well, it makes me wonder. What the kind of drugs do the voters at Cannes get? I want some.


  • Versus (2000, Kitamura Ryuhei)

    Versus (2000, Kitamura Ryuhei)

    So, watching Versus, I realized a few things. First, Kitamura is probably the best action director… ever. Second, he can’t write his way out of a hat. Third, he’s also a great director of actors. Versus, for the superior first forty minutes, has a lot of characters in frame, doing a lot of things, not just action, but also just exuding personality. Kitamura does a great job with it.

    It’s not just his shot construction, of course. It’s the way he moves the camera. He only does it in the first forty, but it’s a fantastic system for informing the viewer of what’s going on–where people are standing, where they’re moving. There’s so much good in Versus, which is incredibly hard to believe considering it’s described as Evil Dead meets The Matrix. Unfortunately, like I said, all that goodness is technical (some of the performances are excellent, however).

    The writing falls apart, but then it breaks down more and more. Whenever Kitamura feels the pace slowing, he introduces more characters. We start with eight, which quickly becomes six, then he introduces three more, then another, then another two. The last additions are these asshole cops who are supposed to be funny, and to some degree they are–and it’s really interesting that one makes the (intentionally) geographically incorrect remark that he grew up in Yellowstone National Park in Minnesota, but the American DVD company subtitled it to Canada. Not surprising, that Japanese people have a better awareness of U.S. geography than American DVD aficionados.

    Kitamura, as a writer and somewhat as a director (he keeps twirling the lead’s leather trench coat), is seemingly obsessed with “cool.” Versus is a film dictated by “wouldn’t it be cool if…” which is no way to tell a good story, but there wasn’t one anywhere in Versus, thankfully. It just got worse than it needed to get.

    Had I seen Versus before Azumi, I might have shut it off (though probably not, as the opening forty are incredibly well-directed), but I certainly would never have found Azumi. Azumi is a good movie.

    All Kitamura needs is a good script–which means he shouldn’t touch it.


  • Olga’s Chignon (2002, Jérôme Bonnell)

    Olga’s Chignon (2002, Jérôme Bonnell)

    I think this film is the one of the best films Woody Allen never made.

    I don’t talk about it much, or ever, since I watched all of Allen’s films long before The Stop Button, but there are some distinct Allen formats and he never seems to mix them. Olga’s Chignon mixes them a little–it’s never as depressing as Allen’s depressing films–and it’s never as playful as his most playful entries get.

    Except for the end, which sort of stops, leaving a number of characters unresolved simply because the third act concentrated on two of the four main characters. The conclusion is well-handled enough, however, that I can forgive some of it. It’s just when you introduce your thesis at the last minute, it makes a lot of the previous story setting instead of important.

    Bonnell’s young, twenty-eight, and Olga’s Chignon is an impressive debut for someone that age. As much as he concentrates on the writing, his directing is the most important part of the film. He holds scenes a few seconds longer than you except, giving the viewer time to reflect on what he or she has just seen. It’s a literary equivalent to ‘white space’ in short stories, expect ‘white space’ is sometimes used to display change in time, and fade outs are the traditional film device. Except fade outs don’t let you reflect. The only other film I can think of that does this is Horse Thief.

    Olga’s Chignon is also my first French family drama and it’s set an incredible standard. Bonnell’s got a new film this year, but Olga never made it to the US (thankfully Nicheflix has it), so I’ll have to track that down somehow. Based on this film, of course, getting slaughtered with a UK exchange rate would likely be worth it.


  • Sea of Love (1989, Harold Becker)

    Sea of Love (1989, Harold Becker)

    So, I was worried about Sea of Love. After all, the last movie Richard Price is credited with writing is Shaft (though I realize it was changed from what he wrote by Singleton, who’s just a screenwriting dynamo). So, I was worried. Sea of Love was a film I loved–absolutely loved–when I first got into film, when I finally decided I needed to sit and watch a film, not read at the same time, not sit in the room while it played. Frighteningly, this evolution was late in life–it was 1994 or so, when I was sixteen, the Robocop Criterion laserdisc. I sat and watched it.

    I’ve seen Sea of Love since, of course. Universal was a great laserdisc company in the 1990s and I had the Sea of Love laserdisc (I still might, in storage, since I never got around to selling M-Z). The first DVD release was pan and scan, so I missed that, but Universal did a widescreen edition and I rented it from Blockbuster–Netflix is no good if there are two versions.

    Sea of Love is a great film. Richard Price’s writing is beautiful. For the first three quarters of the film, until the mystery takes over for a half hour, the nuance is unbelievable. Characters saying things, the meanings involved, just beautiful. Sea of Love is, I think, the last film written by the novelist Richard Price, everything after was by screenwriter Richard Price, who was still good, but reserved the good stuff for his novels (Clockers, incidentally, came from the research he did for Sea of Love).

    It’s one of Pacino’s two or three best performances. I actually don’t know, off the top of my head, what I’d assign to the other two slots, because you have to decide between Pacino the star (as much as he is–Pacino is a star in The Godfather, Part II and Heat) and Pacino the regular guy. Pacino’s a regular guy in Sea of Love, when he’s in a fight, there’s a chance he might not make it. Sea of Love is from the era before the happy ending… Though Price would argue otherwise (sorry, I’ve read his collected screenplays and the studios always changed his downer endings).

    It’s Ellen Barkin–I never realized how much I miss Ellen Barkin. I’m aware of how much I miss actors like Madeleine Stowe and (good) Elisabeth Shue, but Ellen Barkin’s from before that era of recognition. Barkin’s someone who should have transitioned to some great TV in the early 1990s, she should have gone to “Homicide” or something (damn you, Barry Levinson, you know her!).

    I really need to see Night and the City now. I actually probably ought to see both of them, but I was thinking the DeNiro/Lange version.

    Anyway, if you haven’t or if you haven’t for awhile, see Sea of Love. It’s New York City when that actually meant something, when it was actually a place that changed people, when the city was still alive. I went to New York City, the first time, in 1987 and it was scary. I didn’t leave Manhattan, so it wasn’t quite Fort Apache, the Bronx, but it was ominous. The second-to-last time I went there, maybe third to last, actually, was in 1999, to see a Broadway Show (“The Wild Party”). It wasn’t scary anymore, it was Disneyland. It doesn’t change people anymore….