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My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rohmer's late The Green Ray is one if his great films of conversation

Eric Rohmer's 1986 film The Green Ray (his last? one of his last?) is not nearly as well known as his earlier major works, e.g., Clare's Knee or My Night at Maud's, but it's in the same general style though maybe even more distilled: Rohmer was perhaps the greatest filmmaker of conversation, the ancestor of "mumblecore" but so much finer and more intelligent. Green Ray is a movie that can break your heart, a simple tale of a young woman, Delphine, living in Paris who just can't connect with people. At the outset her plans for summer vacation go awry as she receives a call from a friend cancelling their plans for trip together. This information upends Delphine: She cannot endure spending her four weeks of vacation in Paris, nor can she endure the idea of traveling alone. It seems as if she has a lot of friends and resources, and she's very attractive and well spoken, but nothing seems to go right for her: One friend offers her an apartment in the Alps, she goes there, but returns to Paris the same day, in tears. Everywhere she goes she sees others happily engaged in conversation and in life, and she just continues to feel like an outside. Guys try to hit on her in various ways - and she's intelligent and sensible enough to walk away from these lewd or blunt overtures, but that leaves her even more alone. I can't "diagnose" her, but she certainly seems clinically depressed and at times perhaps on the spectrum - not quite knowing how to modulate her conversation to fit in w/ the lighter banter around a dinner table. We follow her through various encounters over a month-long span, each filmed in a manner that prefigures "reality TV" - a documentary look, with many long takes, sometimes with two Delphine and another character held for along time in the same frame. There's simple musical score at only a few moments; generally, the background is just the ambient noise of street  life in Paris or elsewhere on her travels (in one sequence, passers by look into the camera during a series of long takes - a flaw that makes the film seem even more authentic). I won't give anything away, but the film does rise to an emotional crescendo - an excellent work by one of the great filmmakers.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The 10 best miniseries I watched in 2017

Like so many, I have gradually shifted my movie-watching habits: from theater to cassettte to Blu Ray disc and now to streaming - so much so that we finally dropped Netflix dvd subscription (and added Filmstruck, for access to the Criterion Collection). The greatest thing about streaming of course is the opportunity to watch a miniseries at one's own pace and convenience. As the year ends, we bid adieu to Last Chance U, we welcome the new arrival of The Crown 2, and we wonder: Can House of Cards and Transparent survive without their stars? Can Stranger Things survive as the kids grow older? Will Godless resurrect? That said, here are notes on the 10 best miniseries I watched in 2017:

American Crime 3
As in each season, #3 was not about a single “American Crime” but about several crimes; the plot strands - death and murder in migrant labor camp, runaway teen addicted to Rx, mistreatment of a Haitian nanny - coincide in time and place but have only slight overlaps until the final episode, when all the main characters enter a courtroom where some will confess, others begin a trial. It's as if one were to look at everyone in a courtroom on the same day and ask: What are your stories? What brought such different people to the same place?

The Fall
One of the best police procedurals about a serial killer, this one on the loose in Belfast; in an unusual twist, there’s no mystery (to us) about the killer’s ID. The 3-season series holds our interest throughout with a nice balance of nuance, conflict (between devious killer and shrewd, super-cool though flawed police detective Jillian Anderson), analysis, and action.

Fargo 3
Season 3 of Fargo, a comic romp in the darkest manner that plays out among the seemingly kindly and innocent people of great Midwest, maintains its quirkiness right to the end. The characters, except for the lead, detective Gloria played by the excellent Carrie Coon, are cartoonish versions of, by turns, evil incarnate and bumbling naivete. The plot, though the gears click, is ludicrous - a blood-bath of brutal killings and finance schemes - yet it keeps us involved all the way, alternately laughing and hiding our eyes.

This 12-part Israeli series maintains its pace, tension, and moral ambiguity right up to the end - a great ensemble piece with strong writing and plot and character development, good acting by all the leads - Israeli and Palestinian both - good production values, including the haunting score and the use of street locations, and a story line that offers some insight on the complexity of combating terrorism while trying, against the odds, to remain ethically superior to one’s antagonists.

This NatGeo 10-parter does a great job in examining Einstein’s personality without undue hagiography: We see his intellectual genius of course and we see his thoughts emerging through the early years of disgrace and disappointment (still incredible that he could not get a university job and wrote his breakthrough papers on relativity while he was a clerk in the patent office!), his struggles against anti-Semitism, particularly in Germany but also in the scientific community at large, and mostly his troubled relationships with family, with women, and especially w/ his first wife.

This fact-based Netflix series about a small team of FBI agents and outside experts who interview some of the most notorious killers in custody picks up in intensity and the stakes are raised as the season progresses. The interviews - in which Agent Holden pushes his subjects to the breaking point - are incredibly intense and highly consequential, as the team gradually learns more about how to use the info they’re compiling in order to try to solve on-going cases - not all of which turn out perfectly, to the great credit of the series.

The Night Of
This terrific 8-part HBO series is about a young man accused of a murder and held throughout his lengthy trial on Riker’s Island, an experience that transforms him into a thug, whether he was guilty of the murder or not (though the 1st episode depicts the events of “the night of” the killing, there is much ambiguity about what actually occurred). This series seems to be a loosely based on the experience of the wrongly imprisoned Kalief Browder, subject of another mini-series, Time.

A smart, taut, and frighteningly realistic Norwegian series, Occupied is about a Russian occupation of Norway and the rise of a resistance force within the country. The characters are complex and multidimensional, the villains are suitably loathsome yet somehow also human and vulnerable, the alliances are ever-shifting and tricky, and the action scenes keep you always on edge

The Vietnam War
Whether you lived through the Vietnam era or not, it’s still powerful and moving to see the many news clips, war photography, plus contemporary interviews with those involved in many facets of the Vietnam War, including several North Vietnamese veterans. Ken Burns has outdone himself; there is nothing in this series of the saccharine tone in his famous Civil War series; this series is much more dynamic, nuanced, and provocative, worth anyone's time - everyone's.

The Netflix (via Australia) two-season series Wanted has flown completely under the radar, but we found it completely entertaining and engaging right through the end of Season 2: The two women on the run, initially because they witnessed a botched mob hit involving drugs and a crooked cop, are a great pair, very different, both odd, each smart and brave in her own way. We like them both from the outset, and they’re not superheroes, just wily and courageous and all their decisions seem to work out, at least up to a point.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The 10 Best Films I Saw in 2017

Some comedies, some dramas, some adaptations; some from the U.S., some European, one Korean, one Iranian; one documentary and one musical; a few new films and a few 2016 catch-ups - here's a report on the 10 best films I saw in 2017:

Certain Women (2016)
Kelly Reichardt’s smart, introspective, and moving film is a series of three short narratives, based on stories by Maile Meloy, about female protagonists (played really well in turn by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart) linked only by their shared setting (contemporary South Central Montana), time, and mood. If any filmmaker could tackle Chekhov, I think Reichardt could do great adaptations of a series of his stories.

Fireworks Wednesday (2006) In Iranian
An early work from Iranian writer-director Asghar Fahradi, whose films are as thoughtful and dynamic as great stage dramas - Ibsen or Pinter come to mind - with tremendous family antagonisms against a background of life in a complex urban community. It’s a difficult and sometimes challenging movie that comes together and builds in power and impact as it moves inexorably toward a difficult conclusion (not a resolution).

Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s fantastically inventive and surprising film takes on all the black male cliches and stereotypes directly in a way that no white writer-director could possibly have done. All of us in our anxiety about race can see elements of ourselves in this film, in these bizarre or beleaguered characters - clearly one of the best films of the year.

The Handmaiden (2016) In Korean
Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s film centers on a country estate in which the manor is built half in traditional Japanese style and the other half as an English manor house with Victorian-era furnishings and décor – a metaphor for the overall theme. We think we’re embarked on one of the many servant-governess stories so common in English literature (and film) - Jane Eyre, Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, et al. - but suddenly the movie takes a dramatic shift and we’re in a completely different film, in which the characters are underworld figures plotting and scheming, with and against one another.

La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle's Hollywood musical draws heavily and consciously on Hollywood musical traditions and makes out of these  something contemporary and lively and entertaining. I'd thought maybe this movie was being over-hyped; it's not - the hype was justified.

Life, Animated (2016)
Roger Ross Williams's documentary is a powerful, emotional, and honest account of the struggles of one young man, Owen Suskind, and his family to help him overcome the severe autism that transformed him into near silence at age 3. The movie is based on the book by Owen’s father, Ronald Suskind; Williams does a great job letting the story tell itself, staying in the background, never intervening in the scenes he's recording, keeping interviews with experts to a bare minimum.

Julieta (2016) In Spanish
This film is another great work with Pedro Almadovar’s signature style and his favorite issues: examining the life of a woman in crisis, and in particular the relationships among women and how they support one another, told in a crisp and stylish narrative style with a sparkling view of life in contemporary, largely well-to-do contemporary Madrid and filmed with extraordinary beauty of color composition (just looking at the backdrops of most of Almadovar's shots and the exciting color combinations is like a trip to a gallery or museum) and  with an unobtrusive yet emotive score.

The Silence (2016)
Based on a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, Martin Scorsese’s film is completely engaging start to finish: a smart, disturbing narrative with haunting cinematography and a subtle, mysterious pseudo-Asiatic score. In essence, it’s a spiritual adventure story, as two Portuguese missionary priests working in 17th-century Japan, together and later separated, endure a series of hardships and dangers; it's also an examination of the nature of faith and morality - Scoraese's best film in years.

The Silence of the Sea (1949) In French
Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film is a simple, austere, tour de force. Based on a pseudonymous novel or short story published in France during the Occupation, the story concerns an elderly man and his 20-something niece who are forced to billet a German officer. Amazingly, the German is pretty much the only one who speaks (other than voice-over narration) throughout most of the film, as he is met with a wall of silence – a metaphor for the French resistance.

Toni Erdmann (2016) In German
This nearly 3-hour "eccentric father-uptight daughter film" is totally entertaining, engaging, and, in the end, moving without ever being sentimental or soporific. It would have been so easy to make this movie dogmatic or schematic - the daughter completely changing her ways, for example, and leaving corporate life behind or providing a new “option” for her client under which nobody gets laid off, etc. But director Maren Ade will have none of that, and the movie ends on a poignant, but still somewhat unsettling, note. Can an English-language remake be far behind?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dark feels like a ripoff of Stranger Things - only w/out the charm

I know copyright law can be nuanced when it comes to purloined ideas, images, and general themes, but I think that The Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, could make a good case against the German team that developed the Netflix series Dark. Let's see: Part of the series set in the 80s? Check. Group of teenagers from a small town hike in the woods. Check. One goes missing, sending town into a search frenzy. Check. There's a nearby industrial plant sealed off for high security. Check. there may be some kind of chemical or poison leakage from the plant? Check. A police officer leading the search makes his way through a dark underground passage - stupidly, alone and poorly prepared - and comes upon doors that seem to lead to an underground entry to the mysterious plant. Check. Cut to the management of the plant, which we see is in some kind of collusion w/ local officials to keep things quiet. Check. The gang of friends includes a red-headed girl whose presence causes rivalries among the boys - check - and one member who disappeared for some time but has returned. Check. The search for the missing child leads the boys to find an obscure map that may help them find their way to the "crossing." Check. I could go on - but why bother? Dark is amazingly, suspiciously like Stranger Things, but with a shift to a slightly older generation (h.s. v middle school) and more focus on the adult relationships, some adulterous, pushing the story from PG to R. All OK I guess if Dark were ... any good. It was promising at first, despite the extremely complex plot that involves something like a warp in time, juxtaposing contemporary scenes w/ episodes from 33 years back. But instead of becoming more clear and focused as the season progresses, the series to my mind has become a tangle of plot lines, almost impossible to follow, and why bother anyway? None of the adult characters is interesting or even particularly likable, and the kids are basically blanks. What made ST work is the charm of the young kids finding their way in life - plus some very appealing adult characters as well. Dark has none of the charm of ST so we're left with the plot, which is not enough, or maybe too much.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Melville's first film is simple, austere, and a tour de force

Jean-Pierre Melville's first film, The Silence of the Sea (1949) is simple, austere, and a tour de force. Based on a pseudonymous novel or short story published in France during the war - an incredible act of bravery in itself - the story concerns an elderly man and his 20-something niece living in a small town in an unnamed province, during the Occupation, who are forced to billet a German lieutenant. Throughout the movie the man speaks almost entirely in voice-over narration and the niece, as far as I can recollect, says only one work. Almost all of the movie takes place in their parlor, and the German officer is the only speaker. But Melville does so much with this material: The German tells them about his love of France, about his hopes that the Occupation will build a beautiful relationship between their 2 great countries; he's cosmopolitan, cultured, well-traveled, and well educated, a man of feelings and sensitivity. He seems interested in the niece. But the man and his niece never say a word to the German; in every scene the man puffs on his pipe, the niece works on some embroidery - they refuse to offer him the least civility - a great political statement! I won't give much away, but at one point the German gets a two-week leave and heads to Paris, which has been lifelong ambition. These scenes are amazing; he visits the various sites, and we often catch, just against the margin of the frame, the Nazi flag or a group of German soldiers. The officer spends time in a club w/ other German officers - another fantastic scene, with one of the men singing a mournful ballad and as others watch there's the hint of homo-eroticism. Eventually, a political discussion ensues, and the German officer seems to begin a transformation (the political argument is the one possibly heavy-handed moment in the film). The three lead actors are all great, w/ special props to Nicole Stephane as the niece - her facial expressions are  as restrained yet powerful and emotive as those of Jeanne d'Arc in Dreyer's great silent film. Silence of the Sea is a great report on the agonies that many good French people (silently) endured during the occupation.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Godless holds up well across 7 episodes

The 7-part Netflix series Godless is entertaining right through to the end - and it truly does seem like the end, rather than an entree to a expected season 2 - in fact the only dud was the first episode, which introduced a welter of characters and plot elements and was hard to follow; I definitely would watch at least through episode 2 before deciding whether to go on. On some level it's just a typical shoot-em Western with gunslingers galore (Jeff Daniels playing a particularly weird and complex one) and a lot of frontier life in and around the saloons and the corrals of the post Civil War SW, but there are some "modern" Western elements, too, notably the inclusion of an isolated black community made up of retired Buffalo Soldiers now trying to farm the arid land. Most of all, the series is notable for it's feminist stance, with at the center a community called La Belle, N.M., in which virtually all of the men had died in a mining disaster and the women now run the show. That's a great concept, and the heroic stance of the women in the final episode is great, but it was a little disappointing, after seeing the series promoted as a series about women running a town in the west, that most of the major roles - w/ only 2 exceptions - are still given to the "menfolk." The two women w/ strong roles, though - Michele Dockery as a widow running remote ranch and raising her half-native American son - and Merrit Wever (had to look up her name) playing the de facto mayor of La Belle - are both really good, and there are some pretty funny moments as well egarding the town's former leading prostitute who, in the absence of clientele, has become the school marm. All told, a good, entertaining dramatic series that holds up well across 7 hour-long episodes.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bresson's last film is his worst, sadly

Bresson's last film, L'Argent (1983) does not do justice to his career; it's a sad example of a very old filmmaker - he was probably about 80 at the time and, based on video of a Cannes news conference included in the Criterion Collection he looked frail and sounded almost doddering - who's locked in his ways to the point of mannerism and self-parody. Yes, Breton is well known for his unusual narrative pacing, in particular for lingering on the after-effect of an action; when a character leaves a room, for example, he lets the camera linger at some length on the door the character closes behind her. We get many, many long shots of closed doors (including some cell doors and gates in a prison), empty hallways, empty offices - and to what end? These do not advance the story in the least. Bresson is also well known for working entirely w/ amateur actors. Great, if you can get a fresh and insightful performance from them, but he did not do so in this weak movie: All of the characters are wooden in their body movements and their dialogue, and the very few action sequences, such as a prison riot, are embarrassingly bad (the protagonist threatens a guard with a soup ladle!). Worst of all, the plot is difficult to follow and ultimately makes no sense, as we watch a young man railroaded into prison after he's caught w/ some fake bills who descends deeper into criminality and eventually into mass murder, and we never believe it for a second: We don't know enough about his life, background, needs, drives, anything to help us understand him or care about him - completely unlike the great Bresson films such as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, or Diary of a Country Priest. Of course I understand and sympathize with the desire to continue to create works of art, but sometimes it's better - like Roth, like Munro, to name two recently retired writers - to know when to stop (and maybe focus on teaching, criticism, or some other artistic endeavor).