Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2004) 78
A whole lot smarter than I would've given it credit for, and consequently a whole lot better. The problem with social commentary is its propensity to glorify one side of an argument while demonizing the other, but while The Edukators clearly allies with its trio of protagonists, it also does a very good job of humanizing the opposition. This is important, because despite having an interesting and creative storyline (a couple of young activists break into rich people's homes, but instead of stealing anything, they just rearrange furniture and leave cryptic notes as wake-up calls), this is very much a dialogue-driven film. Many of its most lucid, perceptive moments come during the scenes where the characters just sit around and talk to one another. Some might be tempted to call this verbose and preachy, but I found it fascinating. It delves maturely and honestly into socioeconomic topics that, frankly, are very rarely handled with such care, all the while developing a cast of characters I actually cared about (even Hardenberg, who is probably the most well-defined of the bunch). There are a few shortcomings here and there, but for the most part this is an excellent film. It's deliberately paced, but never boring, with an intriguing idea and a payoff that I found very satisfying. No, really: the final shot -- a simple note pinned to a wall -- is one that will stick with you for a while. I promise.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) 81
Lynch has gotta be the biggest love-him-or-hate-him affair in contemporary cinema. Those who love him (myself included) are guilty of a rabid, almost cultish following, while those who hate him will dismiss his work as pretentious bullshit without even the slightest hesitation. It's just the sort of material that provokes these kinds of reactions. Even though I'm enamored of what Lynch can accomplish, it's easy for me to see how he could seriously rub someone the wrong way. It was kind of fun in a perverse way watching Eraserhead (Lynch's first, and in some ways still his most challenging) for Movie Night and collecting responses: some admired it, some were bored to tears by it, some were terrified. None of these are unexpected. I love Eraserhead just because it's so unlike any other film in existence, but even I draw the line at saying I enjoy watching it. I doubt such a thing is possible. It merits appreciation, and from me it gets quite a lot of it. But it's still not the sort of thing I'd turn on just to kick back and watch something. There needs to be a purpose. Breaking it out for Movie Night to share with others was a good, strong purpose. Now I have no problem returning it to the shelf for a while.

Eternal Summer (Leste Chen, 2006) 83
This gets better and better the more I think about it. This is a beautiful, understated gem that is, I think, doomed to be misunderstood due to the way it's been marketed. Far from being exclusively the "gay film" the case makes it out to be, this is really more a poignant examination of human relationships, platonic, sexual, or otherwise. Sure, one of the protagonists is gay, but the other isn't. Therein lies a large portion of the film's conflict (which proves itself to have far more depth than one might expect from such a setup), but it also takes care to explore hugely credible themes of loneliness, longing, jealousy, and intimacy. Shane's reasons for doing what he does are entirely believable (though steeped in a certain melancholy desperation), while Jonathan's gradual realization of the impossibility of what he wants is very effective. Yes, the film does have its flaws, and it's certainly not for all tastes, but I found it both engaging and incredibly moving.

Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994) 89
Holy shit. And here I was, absolutely sure I would not be seeing a more rewarding film than Drugstore Cowboy for months to come. That I had the pure luck of watching Exotica just a few hours later adds up to the single most satisfying movie-watching day in longer than I care to think about. This is an incredible achievement, more assured and affecting than I ever would have expected, even granted its barrage of glowing reviews. I've fallen prey to critical overhype plenty of times before, but this time the accolades are just fucking true. Exotica is a tour de force of human emotion, slithering deftly from isolation and loss to hopefulness, and back again. I can't even begin to express my scorn for the person who thought it'd be a good idea to market this as a sultry, sexy, erotic thriller. Despite occurring largely within the walls of a strip club, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a film about pain and suffering, about the richness and three-dimensionality of its characters; sex is the last thing on anyone's mind. The puzzle-like narrative is constructed somewhat out of linear order not as a means by which to fool or one-up the audience, but as a way to slowly develop its characters and shine light on the connections between them. As more and more details come into focus, the better we understand these people, and the better we're able to relate to them. It is not until the very last scene that the film has divulged everything, and even then it doesn't condescend to spell everything out; there's plenty of ambiguity and mystery left over, as well there should be. This is brilliant stuff: Egoyan's script is exhilaratingly unconventional, but impressively accomplished. The way he translates it to the screen shows the same caliber of talent. The cinematography is lush and dark and gorgeous, the performances he draws from his actors are top-notch, and the emotional impact of the film as a whole far surpasses anything I can reasonably put into words. It's a damn masterpiece. That's all there is to it.

The Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2001) 35
An extremely unpleasant film. I don't mean to imply it's unwatchable or it isn't well-made, but it's a hell of a chore to sit through. Look, I'm a psych student. I know about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I know about the procedure, the findings, how it very quickly got out of control, and so forth. I really don't need to sit through two torturous hours of a fictionalized, exaggerated version of the same set-up. This is especially true if it doesn't go anywhere. It just kind of haphazardly wallows in some of the darker pools of human depravity. It's unrelenting, grim, and predictable. The only way I can imagine deriving entertainment value out of this would be if the viewer is as sadistic as the film's sociopathic antagonist. And with the entertainment element factored out, the only way a film like this can get by is on message alone. When the credits finally rolled, I didn't feel enlightened. I didn't feel any grand revelation. I just felt sickened by the human condition. If that was the filmmakers' agenda (and, yeah, it probably was), then bravo, but I'd like them to know this much: I didn't have to watch their film to get that feeling. There are plenty of opportunities every day, and at least I'm off the couch for those.

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) 75
You've got to understand that I'm a big Kubrick fan. I'm willing to defend the guy well past the point where many others would give up in frustation. That being said, I'll admit Eyes Wide Shut is far from his best film (it wouldn't even make my top five), but it's still a very solid and assured piece of filmmaking. There's also a certain air of finality about it that makes me not dissatisfied that it was his last film. Still, its flaws are very apparent: first of all, at 159 minutes, it's way damn too long. Even at his best, Kubrick was always deliberately paced (go back and revisit 2001 or The Shining -- you'll see what I mean), but rarely has his work seemed as unnecessarily protracted as it does in some of these scenes. Also: the story is appallingly thin. Taken one scene at a time, the film is positively mesmerizing. Taken as a whole, it really does not add up to much. So I suppose that's the secret to the enjoyment of the film: just lose yourself, and when it comes time to reflect on the film as a whole, simply regard it on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Kubrick was a master stylist, and he creates a strange, surreal, potent atmosphere with Eyes Wide Shut that, frankly, I don't think could have been pulled off by anyone else. The very tripped-out gothic orgy scene in particular should go somewhere in the pantheon of cinematic brilliance, and for my money there are enough moments like this and enough of a sexually-charged undercurrent to make the film incredibly compelling despite all of its flaws. Whether or not you agree depends entirely on the amount of goodwill you're willing to grant its creator.

Fear(s) of the Dark (A Bunch of French Dudes, 2008) 71
A very cool, stylish collection of French animated shorts. The overarching concept, as I understand it, is to tap into and -- to a certain extent -- exploit some of our primal fears: creepy crawlies, mad scientists, swamp monsters, Republicans (is that redundant?). And while none of these films are genuinely scary or even a little bit creepy, they are all shades of Highly Entertaining and Satisfyingly Badass. My personal favorite is the final vignette, in which a man suspects he may be at the tender mercies of a murderous housewife, but truly all of these are quite cool in their own ways. The film falters a bit with its short, female-voiced interludes, but even so, these banal middle-class "fears" provide an interesting contrast to the darker and more legitimate affairs of the full-length stories. So, all in all, a very worthwhile venture. It's different (which is always a plus), it's not "French" in the pejorative film-snob sense of the word, and it's honestly a lot of fun. Definitely recommended.

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008) 75
Yup, the central historical/political film of this particular Oscar season actually managed to make it onto my end-of-year Top 10 List. And if you scroll down to #6 in the next-most recent entry I posted here, you can read all about what I thought of it! (Except now you know the numerical score, too.)

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) 58
I did the appropriate backtracking. The one and only time I saw this, I was in 9th grade. So that's, like, 2003-2004 territory. Much has changed in the last five-to-six years. More, really, than my little freshman self could ever have comprehended. When I saw Ghost World then, I loved it; its bratty, anti-establishment snarkiness struck a note with the rebellious adolescent. Now, though, actually being in the post-high school position held by Enid and Rebecca, I found this kind of difficult to sit through. Its derisive sarcasm has, for the most part, ceased to be endearing; instead, its portrayal of directionlessness and alienation hits a little too close to home for me to be able to fully embrace it like I once did. Does this mean it's a bad film? No. It just means it's not a terribly pleasant one. Terry Zwigoff's world is uniformly pessimistic: despite the characters' efforts, nobody really wins, and malaise is more or less a constant in life. Maybe that's true, but in a film designed to make us laugh, it's not a message that goes down easily. Still, there are some good things: Steve Buscemi is always welcome in any film, and the presence of a pre-glamorized-to-death Scarlett Johansson occasionally makes the screen a little easier to look at. Maybe in another five-to-six years I'll be able to return to this and find greatness in it again. I certainly hope so. For right now, though, Chris The Ennui-Stricken College Student does not need to be reminded of these all-too-obvious aspects of his life.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 99
Yep, it's still that good. I have this fear -- sometimes justified, sometimes not -- of rewatching favorite films and finding that something has been lost between viewings; that I don't care for it quite as much as I did before. In the end, with The Godfather, I probably never had anything to worry about. This is filmmaking at its finest. Very few films can purport to working flawlessly on every level, but it happens here: the gold-hued cinematography is gorgeous; Nino Rota's mournful music has become iconic; there's tons of both implicit and explicit symbolism; there's a tremendous message about the corruptive influence of money and power (the once-virtuous, "that's my family, Kay, not me" Michael Corleone is, in my view, one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema); and, for the more straightforward audiences who just want an entertaining story well-told, the one on display here is as nuanced, multifaceted, and air-tight as can be hoped for. The first time I ever saw this, I was wary. I was thinking there was no way it could ever stand up to its one-of-the-best-ever hype. It does. It is one of the best. Second only to The Shawshank Redemption, of course.

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) 96
An astoundingly wonderful film that just seems to get better and better, both as I age and it does. No movie has ever taken the boredom, confusion, and society-instilled claustrophobia of twentysomething masculinity and handled it as pitch-perfectly as it is handled here. That its final scene is one of the most excellent endings in all of cinema is merely one of the reasons that this one of the best movies ever made.

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