The second quarter's films, showing my exquisite taste and shameful lapses thereof


In theaters:

The Station Agent (2003): We went to see an interview with the writer/director as part of the San Francisco Film Festival (our neighbor got us in free). We hadn't seen the movie since it was brand new (though we haven't stopped talking about Peter Dinklage since) and I've been talking about us rewatching it for several years now. So it was nice to finally watch it again. It's a great movie. It captures so well simply being human. Quiet moments, glimpses of pain, loneliness, connection. Plus, movies watched with an audience have an advantage---I doubt we would have laughed as much at the funny parts had we not had a couple hundred other people to laugh with.

Finding Dory (2016): I cried a lot, but let's face it: it last that spark of original genius that was delivered by Finding Nemo.

Love & Friendship (2016): Very funny. Never having read Lady Susan I can't comment on it as an "adaptation" but a lot to like here. But then, I like Will Stillman (the little I've seen of him). The writing and acting and images are superb.

At home:

Ant-Man (2015): This was fun to watch with the kids, but after a single viewing, the cleverness and fun can't overcome the sort of dopey silliness that pervades the heist elements. But they enjoyed their first Marvel movie and now I've agreed to let them watch the first Captain America movie. We'll see if that one holds up any better....

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Although, sure, superpowered superheroes are inherently silly, this film holds up better, I think. With its period / WWII / buddy / Dirty Dozen elements, there's too many genres balanced together to NOT work, strangely enough. Balance is a marvelous thing.

The Tree of Life (2011): One of the most astonishing pieces of art I've experienced in some time. It's like . . . a gallery show, with a film against one wall. It is truly epic; it is truly small. Probably the most moving exploration of Job I've ever watched. It made me want to be a better father, a better person. It might me want to renounce my ambitions. It humbled me. It changed me. Remind me remind me remind me to watch this again. Its vastness did more to capture time than Boyhood did---at least for me. It did a better job capturing the chaos of childhood than either Boyhood or Moonrise Kingdom. And I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that captured both the highs and lows of parenting. Or, in other words, parenthood's moments of wonder . . . and its constant failures. Oh, how I saw myself. And it's the most faithbuilding film I've seen in some time as well. It recognizes that it is neither areligious nor antireligious to ask who God is or if God loves us or if God is---those aren't areligious or antireligious questions, those are religious questions. In fact, that's meditating on Job is all about. Again!

Ex Machina (2015): I didn't anticipate how beautiful this film would be. Nor how much it would mess with my expectations. From the moment we reached the house, I knew what fairy tale this would be---then I completely forgot until near the end as this is one of the most startlingly new takes on that fairy tale I've seen. (And I'm an aficionado of this particular fairy tale.) It also does new things with AI while staying very much in the tradition. Loved it.

Extract (2009): Well, it's no Office Space. It certainly has its moments, but it never quite comes together. In short, Mike Judge made a more working class Office Space or Silicon Valley---which sounds like it match up with King of the Hill, but doesn't. Still. I'm glad we finally watched it.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013): A little bit like Zelig and a lot like Forrest Gump and really nothing like either of those movies at all, this is a story told by the eponymous old man of his history of blowing things up through history. He's an unusual example of a munitions expert / double agent because he has no testicles. Generally, I got the historical references in this film, but this wasn't universally true. I'm sure there were elements too European for me. My favorite parts in terms of hahaha were those involving Albert Einstein's idiot brother. One thing: the trailer for this film is delightful and will make you want to watch it immediately. But you might want to pause before doing so because the trailer has no respect for your desire to have certain elements of the plot reveal themselves in due time rather than preemptively.

While We're Young (2014): First, I haven't seen a bad film from A24 yet. Granted, I've only seen three of them, but so far so good! I never have high expectations from Noah Baumbach, which isn't really fair since I've at least kinda liked everything he's done, but we gave this a chance having forgotten it was his and on the advice of our neighbor whose taste is impeccable. And she was right. Although some of the jokes were broad, they were never unfair. This look at people a bit older than us hanging out with people a generation below us had a lot of truth to it. A good use of its actors, as well.

Chi-Raq (2015): I've never read/seen Lysistrata, so I can't say how much this follows/diverges, but it's a striking film regardless. It has some powerful emotional moments, notably the climax. It's visually interesting. It also features some failed ambitions, such as Wesley Snipes's performance and some of the hyperstylized moments. Hyperstylization is key Spike Lee (and I certainly have nothing against it, cf Coens, Wes Anderson), but it has to work in context. The rhyming dialogue works. The colors work (usually, sometimes their purpose was pretty tough to fathom). The chorus (Samuel L. Jackson) mostly works. But a lot of things didn't work. Although the worldwide sex strike helped accomplish the resolution, it never really rang true. The black-people-in-position-of-civic-authority issue was left hanging in a troubling way. I never did figure out why John Cusack needed to play his role (he did fine but . . . why him?). So a lot of things didn't work. But I'm all for rewarding ambitious failures with attention. And maybe it'll grow on me in memory. (ADDITION: I keep having more I want to say, such as some of the filler scenes worked great and some were head-scratchers. One of the former might be my favorite scene in the film: the insurance salemsman. But that just reminds me how disappointed I am that the film never really adressed black-on-black abuse outside of bullets.)

Playtime (1967): This fascinating, monochromatic, plotless comedy has about as much regard for dialogue as The Meaning of Life or for structure as Eraserhead. The elaborate sets are astonishing and beautiful and cold and soulless. This is much more what the future is supposed to feel like---the future you know from The Double or the first twenty minutes of Joe Versus the Volcano---that future, only benign and a little more charming. If there is a main character here, it's Monsieur Hulot, played by the director. I was wondering if he was old enough to have been a holdover from the silent era. The answer is no, but none other than Keaton himself called Tati (the director/actor) the inheritor of the silent tradition. And "silent" is, metaphorically, right. Very little dialogue (and what dialogue there is hardly matters). One entire, lengthy, sequence is shot from outside the building wherein it takes place, the only audible dialogue an irrelevant line from a passerby. I would love to know what the modern American version of Platime might be. Three parts Wes Anderson, one part David Fincher, and a whole lot of I'm just not sure.

Gone Girl (2014): The book was supposed to be a ride. The movie was supposed to be terrific. I've reached a point where I feel like some stories I'm just fine consuming the more bite-size version, and this was one. And holy crap! That was amazing. One of the wildest rides I've been on in some time. And although I have no problem, still, not having read the book, and although I think the movie was terrifically satisfying alone, I certainly see why there are sequels. And they certainly are tempting.


The Big Lebowski (1998): This was a seen-once-and-never-again Coens experience that has never deserved mention as among my favorites. In part it was the language (Lady Steed is greatly bothered by language and we watched it together) but largely it just didn't stick with me. But it's become the most cultish of all their films and so I've been meaning to go back. Now I have and, well, it's a great Coens film. I laughed a lot, for one things. And it has an elegance and beauty developed through its mix of realism and artificiality that is very Coensy. So I guess, like every critic in the world, I've changed my mind about The Big Lebowski.

Casablanca (1942): I find it incredibly gratifying to turn on the lights to a classroom filled with red-eyed teenagers. Also, Claude Rains.

The Great Dictator (1940): This is a first for me. Although I've always wanted to see it (or, more accurately, for ten years I've meant to finish it), I did not expect that Chaplin's final speech actually would be as moving as advertised. Although I certainly do not regret the films immediately proceeding this one, he transitioned so nicely to talkies, I wonder why he didn't do it earlier.

Horse Feathers (1932): One student told me that the final football game was the first sports she's ever enjoyed. And everyone laughed. A lot. Even though they took some moments to believe what they were seeing and thought the musical interludes went a bit long. Can't wait to see what happens when I make them write about it. (Incidentally, I'm all depressed having learned that the original pre-Code version of this film has been lost.)

Young Frankenstein (1974): Ends up this is a pretty great one for teaching film. By being self-consciously old-fashioned, the techniques (irises, that final zoom) become even more easy to note and discuss. Plus. It's funny. This is the only Mel Brooks film I like and I like it a lot. Like, a lot.

Citizen Kane (1941): I'm still not sold on it as a story, but it is unquestionably beautiful. Someone give me some film and a wide-angle lens!

Do the Right Thing (1989): I'm not totally sold on the story of this one either, but it's remarkable to watch alongside Citizen Kane: similar disregard for reality, similarly ambiguous characters, similar gameplaying with the audience. Do the Right Thing is in deep conversation with films past. And boy does it have fun with the camera.

Rope (1948): I get why some people say this is a failed experiment, but without unbroken takes, you can't build suspense quite in the way Hitch does as Mrs Wilson cleans off the chest if you don't do it with one take.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): I've never shown this to students before---a little afraid, I guess, that they would reject it and of what that might mean. Well. I'm happy to say they loved it. Couldn't stop talking about it. This might have even been a pivotal moment for some of these fourteen-year-olds. Right now they're all researching some of California's senate candidates, so perhaps this will provide some synergy in terms of lasting civic sense. (Note: Yes it has its maudlin moments, but it's strong in honesty and weak in cynicism, and so that's totally okay. Really, there's not much of that anyway, especially when you consider p-o-v.)

Vertigo (1958): Funny that, unintentionally, I showed three Jimmy Stewart movies simultaneously to three different classes. It just worked out that way. It's the first time I've seen Vertigo since moving to the Bay Area and that extra frisson was very nice indeed. What a movie.

His Girl Friday (1940): Did you know this film disappeared and was forgotten for some decades before being reenthroned as one of the great screwballs? How about that. Rosalind Russell, by the way, does a great Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Fargo (1996): It's been a long time since the only previous time I saw this movie. (I can still see why I instantly became fans of William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi and started following them.) For such a violent movie, it's impressively quiet and unhurried. The escalation of disaster is still moving. The utter patheticness of evil is clear on display.

Spirited Away (2001): This is a remarkably beautiful film. When I use it in my writing-about-film unit, one of our readings is Roger Ebert's description of Miyazaki's generosity and love for his film and its viewers. It's true. No matter how many times I see this film, there are more details and joys to be discovered. I also think it's telling that my favorite sequence is the train ride---a bit that might have been done with a cut by another director. My favorite moment is when the mouse and a soot reenact the bad-luck-begoning. Something else most directors would never bother to include.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004): This film's less known than Spirited Away but I can now tell you that it is officially lit and that Howl can really pull off those pants. It's a pretty terrific movie, even if it wasn't what the people wanted after Spirited Away. Those people should give it another chance. I watched it focused on character transformations, which is fascinating thing to focus on.

Rushmore (1998): This movie guaranteed to delight teenagers. I've tested it three years running.

Duck Soup (1933): Perhaps I didn't set this up as well as usual, but this one didn't have the top-notch effect for the full cadre as it usually does. Certainly it was a flop compared to Horse Feathers. But . . . it really might have been circumstances. I wish the same class had watched this as had watched The Great Dictator. I need to manipulate that better sometime in the future, and then get their thoughts on a comparison. . . .

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): It's strange, rather, this film and the next one---long enough ago now that, to high school seniors, they're old classics, about the age the first Star Wars is to me. The good news is, they hold up. Although some of the kids couldn't handle the flying, they dug the emotional resonances.

Ocean's Eleven (2001): A lot of the kids already know this film, but for those who didn't, what a thrill for me, the collective gasp, when Brad Pitt lifted his visor! Then we discussed the use of music in film. So much to analyze in film, we can't possibly fit it all into four weeks. A shame. I'll never learn enough to direct my own at this rate. . . .

The Iron Giant (1999): This film approximates perfection. Humor and tears. Even the most jaded can be caught offguard and weep at the word Superman. But don't take MY word for it!

A Hard Day's Night (1964): There are a lot of contextual reasons that may account for this (bad sound, for one), and we haven't had time to talk about it yet, but I was a bit underwhlemed by the class's underwhelming response to "one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies". . . .

The World's End (2013): I always intended to watch these three films in order someday, but this one ended up being hotel-friendly, and Lady Steed's uninterested in Shaun, so backwards is looking likely. Not that it matters. The good news is that this movie was marvelous---all I hoped it would be. One could certainly argue that the ending dragged on a bit, but I suspect it would hold up to rewatching. Anyway, if you know nothing about it, just know it's about a pub crawl, find out nothing else, and want to laugh.

Previous films watched





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