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Upper class and underworld meet confusion ...
14 June 2015
As noted in the specs, the restored version of this film is 84 min long. I had trouble keeping track of the characters. It didn't help that in the very beginning one character we are introduced to almost immediately puts on a disguise, while another arrives just off a boat and once he shaves his beard looks identical to his brother (played by the same actor). And somehow I didn't catch on that the diamond exchange takes place in the backroom of a seedy bar, so I didn't realize the character called Old Upton (The Jeweler) was the rough-hewn bar owner (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). At least everyone buying and selling jewelry has a beer in front of them. Finally I realized it was a "diamond exchange" -- meaning everyone is fencing stolen or fake merchandise.

Later to add more confusion there is a character the sometimes-disguised husband confesses something to who immediately heads off to blackmail the guy's wife and try to lech on her. Once I figured out who everyone was and what was going on, it wasn't terribly interesting. The twin brother mistaken identity plot is largely just a misdirection to keep things moving and pad out the story. I guess the bad guy gets punished, but getting shot for some mild attempted blackmail seems rather harsh. And it only concerns reputation since the husband knows already, and it seems like it was going to fail since the wife tells the blackmailer to get lost.

It's also a little unclear why a successful broker goes to a seedy underworld bar to buy jewelry for his wife. Or why he's so obsessed with an incident that happened years before.

The seedy/underworld characters are interesting -- a Lang specialty. And there were some rather 1920's touches -- wild hats for the ladies, a big worry about reputation and keeping up appearances (something which has completely gone out the window this millennium after being whittled down for decades), plus casual child labor, and the only black character used as comic relief, making wide rolling eyes and such.

It seems rather minor Lang, but the idea of false appearances, corrupt upper class, a seedy underworld which beckons if you know where to look for it, are themes typical of early Lang films.
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Ugly clichéd look at family life.
25 June 2013
It's rare when I watch a film and almost every choice made by the writer and director and cinematographer annoys me.

I thought this was extremely clichéd in its characters, plot, style. I thought it had a rather ugly look with a very flat look and harsh lighting. Then they kept going through movie-of-the-week tropes, such as having characters move as blurry figures in the background, or filming someone through a window holding their head in their hands. The music cues were far too intrusive and loud, except when it is quiet and clichéd, especially the annoying light piano tinkling to denote a serious moment of death.

Otherwise, dialogue sounds straight from the writer and overly scripted. I also think it is a mistake for a young writer-director to have several characters be actors, so that you have actors portraying actors. And the addition of hip popular topics such as lesbianism and tattoos felt rather artificial and unnecessary.

If you could punch a film ... well, I had a clenched fist for most of the duration. Really the first hour felt like 2 hours. I thought it was a lengthy film even though it actually is under 90 minutes. maybe just much more of a chick and family film than I care for. The Father and husbands/boyfriends were very marginal characters. I don't care about that, but the focus on the mother and three daughters just unspooled in ways which made me cringe.
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World on a Wire (1973– )
18 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Part 1 of Fassbinder's sci-fi foray, World on a Wire is quite good. I always like his direct, theatrical style. He opens with some references to 2001 -- white plastic futuristic decor, space opera music -- to set the tone. Then there's a whole lot of Alphaville -- hosts of blank expressions held artificially long -- and early Godard. And sure enough Eddie Constantine even has a small role near the end of Part 2.

It's a very Matrixy premise, from way back in 1973, of a world of people, termed identity units, created artificially in a supercomputer as an experimental control group, with the goal of predicting future human behavior and learning what to avoid/promote. There is an element of Big Gov't social engineering, and then companies move in to try to learn future demand (Big Steel is the baddie here, which is a little dated). In other words, it's just like today's world, with all of us trying to become identity units for Google to track ... or somesuch. The Thirteenth Floor (1999) is also based on the same novel "Simulacron 3" by Daniel F. Galouye.

Fassbinder uses lots of mirror shots to disorient and question the reality of identity and the nature of reality. With the camera often tracking over to mirrors, or starting with mirror images which only become apparent when the camera tracks a person's movement away from and out of a mirror. The room housing the supercomputer has a couple of fully mirrored walls, which gives it a sleek futuristic look, and acts as a visual metaphor for the layers of reality/unreality.

I especially liked seeing Fassbinder regulars pop up. El Hedi ben Salem plays a bodyguard/security agent; Barbara Valentin a sexy secretary/ corporate spy. This was originally done for German television, and Fassbinder uses some of these actors for his later TV opus Berlin Alexanderplatz. There is a weird sequence in World on a Wire, where Gottfried John's character takes over Gunter Lamprecht's body (which in BA terms is Reinhold taking over Franz Biberkopf, which has eerie resonance).

I was a bit underwhelmed with the extra: Fassbinder's World On A Wire: Looking Ahead To Today, but it did shed light on the casting. The fearless 27 year old Fassbinder used many older ex-stars for the project, an interesting decision to go retro to obtain a slightly futuristic feel -- similar to Godard's choice of Eddie Constantine in Alphaville. Fassbinder wants something to be a little off and odd about the characters, and so he uses past-their-prime actors, has them stare blankly unnaturally long, and dresses them up in costumes, distinctly retro, which they wear like costumes. This style creates a unique look and feel to the whole proceedings, distinctly off and slightly phony, accordant with the artificial reality theme.

The second half of World on a Wire is a little weaker. Part 2 becomes a paranoid thriller, as Fassbinder mostly focuses on the psychological aspects and the chase/hunt for the man who knows too much about the different levels of reality. And actually that's a joke Fassbinder tosses in. The focus is on a lone man wrongfully accused and caught up in a vast conspiracy. Less than one minute after I said to myself, Gee, this is becoming rather Hitchcockian, Fassbinder has a character refer to another's death by saying, "poor Franz Holm, a man who knew too much." Wink.

Part 2 is similar to such political/corporate conspiracy films as Parallax View, but now I see that Wire came out the year before Parallax. And Soylent Green came out just a few months earlier. Interesting. Altogether World on a Wire is nearly 3' 20", and it probably could have used a bit of trimming and tightening in the second half. But this is really an interesting addition to the Fassbinder legacy. Quite a treat for Fassbinder fans.
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Kobe Doin' Work (2009 TV Movie)
Kobe's a Great Guy; He Told Me So
21 December 2009
I watched Kobe Doin' Work last night. Probably wouldn't have bothered except for Spike Lee's involvement. There's some interesting stuff and comes close to a basketball insight once or twice.

But far too many problems: First off, Kobe tries real hard to be likable and clearly he sees his voice-over comments as a PR exercise in image control. He's just too spotlighted and media-aware to really seem genuine. He also tends to talk down to the viewer, apparently assuming casual fans are watching, and so when he gets close to providing details he stops short (ie he talks about options and execution but almost never gets into specifics). Lastly, Kobe does want you to think that he co-runs the team with Phil Jackson (Kobe inserts himself back into the game in the 2nd Q of this game), mostly joshing about how he and Phil often share the same thoughts and understanding of the game. But why not add extra commentaries on the DVD. Would be nice to have a Phil Jackson track, a Hubie Brown track, maybe even a Bruce Bowen track as well, etc.

Secondly, it's just one game with a zillion cameras on Kobe. I really think he loved all this attention but it distracted him and hurt his play. He seems really self-conscious on the court and especially on the bench.

Third, since it's just one game, they chose an important late season clash with the Spurs. But Ginobili was out and the Lakes blowout the Spurs in the 3rd Q, so Kobe sits the whole 4th Q. Ooooops. Also, with Bowen defending him, Kobe mainly acts as a decoy. And as a final insult, Kobe turns out to have a bad game, with uncharacteristic turnovers, fouls, and missed shots -- with a handful of Kobe moments sprinkled in.

Another problem is that it is the second to last game from two seasons ago (April 2008)-- the year the Lakes lost to the Celts, instead of the championship season last year -- so it's much less immediate now and the personnel is fairly different. You've got Kurt and Bowen, Sasha and Vlad. No Ariza nor Artest. At least Fish and Pau are there. But I'd much rather see an early season game from last season, which would seem more immediate and relevant than Game 81 from two seasons back.

And since the camera focuses on Kobe in isolation or only with the defenders/offenders nearby, we rarely see plays develop, the ball, scores, etc. Actually the context including the score is largely missing. Sometimes I watch a game and will just focus on one matchup for a few plays or keep an eye on say interior D or whatnot. You learn stuff that way, but you also miss other parts of the game. For a whole game, iso-ed on one player is wearisome. A more interesting approach might have been to show perhaps the entire 3rd Q as broadcast on TV, and then re-show the 3rd Q as seen by isolating Kobe.

So as luck would have it, Spike picked the wrong game, against the wrong opponent, in the wrong season, and the approach wasn't creative enough. I'd rec watching When the Levees Broke instead. And the next time you see the Lakers on TV, sit close, and set your eyes on Kobe only on both ends as much as possible and you've probably got a better game and better understanding, since you can shift your focus to the action as you choose.
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An excellent selection which doesn't short you.
12 November 2007
Cinema 16 is a series of short film collections. Besides the disc of 16 American films, there's a British and European collection as well.

This disc offers up an interesting mix of film genres -- from classic revered short films to new offerings, experimental and traditional narratives, first films by now famous directors (van Sant, Burton, Payne), documentaries and animation. A strong selection featuring some very good stuff.

Terry Tate Office Linebacker is simple but hilarious.

Alexander Payne's first film, re-imagines Carmen at a roadstop gas station. Very quirky and reminded me a lot of Guy Maddin if Maddin were into recreating early 70's films (it's mostly silent, with intertitles, and made to look from an earlier period ... plus wacky characters and warped humor). Gas, ding-dongs and taco sauce, baby.

Tim Burton's early animated film Vincent (1982) is great. About a good little boy who imagines he's Vincent Price and conjures up horrors. Narrated by Vincent Price in rhymed couplets.

Peter Sollett's Five Feet High and Rising (2000), is a 25 minute film of young Latino youth trying to come to terms with sexuality and growing up. Later developed into the feature film Raising Victor Vargas (2002). Not sure what he's been doing since (and he's only 31 now), but he has a new film in production.

Gus van Sant's first film The Discipline of D.E. (1982) is quirky and interesting, and based on a William Burroughs story. Not great, but has me looking forward to watching Mala Noche, which is in one of my to-watch piles.

DA Pennebaker's famous Daylight Express is included. As is Maya Deren's much lauded art film Meshes of the Afternoon.

Highly recommended.
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a reflection of that which is inside of us
3 January 2007
I just want to toss out an interpretation or two that I didn't see elsewhere.

Balthasar is a donkey and is presented as a blank slate. This allows others to interpret and decide on his role. For Marie, he is a companion offering comfort. For Marie's father, Balthasar is an embarrassment, representing backwardness. For Gerard, the donkey is a sort of antagonist and offers a chance to vent his anger. At the circus, Balthasar becomes a source of entertainment and mystery to the spectators. For most of his other owners, Balthasar is merely a beast of burden designed for work and given little thought. Arnold seems to have more sympathy for B-, perhaps seeing him as a fellow outcast. Maybe the message to take from this is that the world we see is a reflection of that which is inside of us.

Another idea I had is that Balthasar can be thought of as a stand-in for the viewer. We are passively watching the film and have no control over the events unfolding. If the director wants to make us suffer through watching a donkey's tail set on fire, we have little choice but to endure it. For the duration of the film, the director is the unseen god of the world we are immersed in.

Otherwise, I was at times bothered by the zombified acting and listless line readings. The lack of emotion and response from the people in the film made their lives appear similar to that of an animal. In the big picture, circumstance, chance and ultimately death serve to undermine human illusions of free will. Being meek and passive didn't work out so well for either Balthasar or Marie. There is a lot of religious allegory throughout, but it seemed rather jumbled. While the story itself is intentionally choppy and missing chunks of explication. A tale told by a donkey, full of stolidness and farming, signifying something?
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Life as a Mexican Bus Ride
1 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Ascent to Heaven (aka Mexican Bus Ride) is a sweet little gem of a film. The movie deals with issues of life and death and marriage in a straightforward realistic manner. Oliviero gets married, and goes away on his "honeymoon" (local tradition has the newlyweds spend a night on a nearby deserted island). While still rowing out to the island, he is called back by his brother informing him that his mother has become worse and is on her deathbed. There's a nice moment to illustrate his new bride being (understandably) abandoned, as we see Oliviera and his brother talking in the motorboat, and then, after a pause, see the bride behind them being towed in the rowboat.

As it turns out, the Mother controls a sizable inheritance which Oliviera's two brothers have designs upon. The Mother wants to make a final will leaving the choice property to her deceased daughter's young son. But the scheming brothers are drinking buddies with the local gov't official, who declares himself unwilling to get involved in a family matter. So it's up to Oliviera to travel to the nearest city and get a real lawyer to secure the Mother's final wishes.

So, along with Oliviera, we take a Mexican bus ride. Just as Oliviera's family life has ups and downs (a new wife and a dying mother), villains and innocents (his brothers and his nephew), and tough choices (abandoning his mother's deathbed to ensure her wishes), the bus journey will replicate and expand upon the difficulties of doing the right thing in an unpredictable world. The Mexican Bus Ride -- Bunuel's amusing metaphor for life's journey -- is a protracted and messy affair, filled with many distractions, temptations, frustrations, and goals hard to reach, alternating with moments of happiness. It provides us with a child's birth, another child's death, and a child who shall lead us. One of the nice aspects is how everyone has their own story and attendant desires, hopes and dreams. The bus driver is able to make his mother's birthday special by bringing along a busload of celebrants (and customers to their café), which delays our hero's quest to help his own mother on her deathday. So Oliviera borrows a vehicle and continues on alone ... well, alone except for the town vixen who decides to hitch along.

"Ascent to Heaven" is the name of the treacherous mountain that Oliviera must cross to get to the city and try to set things right. While trying to stay on the straight and narrow, Oliviera is faced with a twisting perilous path. And just when he reaches the peak, he meets his downfall, allowing himself to be seduced. Reluctantly, almost accidentally, he veers off the righteous path of fidelity both to his mother's wishes and to his wife. (And since this is Bunuel, feel free to note the parallels to Christ being tempted by Satan on a lofty peak, and Eve leading Adam astray). Oliviera's weaknesses will lead to his failure. And Bunuel throws in a concluding irony. Although Oliviera's motives are pure and he acts not in self-interest, circumstances lead Oliviera to use fairly shameless deceit and dishonesty, much in the same manner as his brothers, to resolve his mother's estate. The final scene brings the story full circle ... despite whatever happens, life goes on.

The woman who plays the town temptress does an excellent job. Sexy and alluring, definitely dangerous. The dream sequence(s) are quite good and well-integrated into the storyline. The fiesta with its lovely song and typical Mexican band makes for a lovely interlude in the film. I don't really agree with the charges of poor editing others complain of, with one exception. Just for the record, we do see the bus begin to back up on the mountain pass for a second or two, though the cut at that point is rather abrupt. It should be noted that there is both a 74 minute US version (which I have seen) and the original 85 minute Mexican version, which probably explains any choppiness observed.

The film offers an interesting glimpse at daily life in Mexico of the era, and speaks to some of the transitions occurring. There's an impromptu contest between tractor and oxen. Election campaigning nearly turns into a riot/lynching, but instead the idea of a free franchise is upheld by both candidates and followers. The political candidate is probably my favorite character in the film, as he is a local peasant trying to improve his station by entering modern society. As an aspiring politician, he's a man of action, but mostly gets things done by recklessly waving a gun around and bullying people. He also likes to drink and is forever trying to get the vixen, so it's not hard to see the path of corruption that will befall Mexico if his kind make up the elected officials. Yet, as is common throughout Bunuel, the candidate has a good side as well, and is just a flawed human being, like all of us.

Just remember that when you scale the ascent to heaven, there's nowhere to go but down.
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American Masters: James Brown: Soul Survivor (2003)
Season 18, Episode 2
Makes Me Want to Jump Back ... Kiss Myself
31 December 2006
This is a pretty good overview of The Godfather's career, and gives a fine idea of what shaped the man and his music. They interview the right people, including Marva Whitney, Lyn Collins, Bobby Byrd, Afrika Bambaata, Fred Wesley, Al Sharpton, and of course Mr. Dynamite himself. The file footage from the segregation era, and the brief recreations are worked in well around the interviews and concert footage.

I only wished that some of the interviews were a bit longer and more in-depth. Bobby Byrd and Lyn Collins give some tantalizing glimpses into the controlling, dominating side of James Brown. It would also have been nice if the film was longer and discussed more of his bands, sidemen and personnel changes. Certainly a shame that Maceo's name is never even mentioned throughout. But this is a fairly short career overview, more a bio of the man than any real examination of the music, and should serve as an interesting introduction to the world of James Brown.

The bonus features are recommended: part of JB's set recorded at the House of Blues in 2002; Soul Brother No. 1 singing It's A Man's World with Luciano Pavarotti at a 2002 fundraiser for Angola; some rehearsal footage.
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The Technicolor is Pretty Spiffy
14 October 2006
I'm mostly commenting just to double the number of comments on this film. The film has a nice brisk pace and attractive leads. It's mostly a fun light-hearted piece of escapist entertainment, with the only problems being that the sets, costumes, and Andy Devine all keep reminding us that it is a Hollywood film being staged for the cameras. The sets often look horribly fake, the costumes look brand new and freshly dry-cleaned, in order to look good in Technicolor one supposes. The back projections are just awful, and absurdly fake.

There's one scene when the 40 thieves are riding off furiously in a cloud of dust, as seen from a distance. Then we get a close up of the three leaders, each in turn, wearing bright clean clothes, and apparently sitting on coin-operated horses in front of some grainy back projection. It's unintentionally funny. And Andy Devine is the least convincing Arab thief ever. He's supposed to be comic relief, akin to Friar Tuck in many versions of Robin Hood. However, his line readings are awful, with his voice cracking most of the time, apparently in an attempt at humor. It's as if he strolled on to the wrong set, grabbed a freshly laundered costume and misguidedly decided to join in.

If you watch Ali Baba today, it can be viewed as a commentary on the US presence in Iraq. An outside invader (here the Mongols) has sacked and overtaken Baghdad. A popular insurrection boils in the countryside, but is dismissed by the invaders as merely the work of thieves and troublemakers. The occupier goes in for torture and bullying of the opposition, etc. The film does date from the middle of WWII, so it is unsurprising if some references to war and then-current events seeps through.

If you want to see a better film on this theme, I'd recommend Douglass Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad. (I haven't seen the 1940 Sabu re-make yet). Or for those more adventurous in their cinematic tastes, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an amazing silhouette animation film from 1926, which is stunningly beautiful.
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Yi Yi (2000)
Overlong, dull, obvious
2 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The biggest problem with YiYi is that it lasts for at least an hour too long, without saying much in the process. Another major flaw was the way that it spells everything out, without trusting to the audience to pick up subtly expressed connections and motivations. Two examples readily come to mind. When the characters one at a time talk to the comatose, but off-screen grandmother, I realized that this was akin to a form of traditional ancestor worship. Then the main character, the businessman, says directly that this talking is like praying. A more blatant example was the inter-cutting and overly obvious parallels between the father's past as discussed in Tokyo and his daughters present back in Taipei. This is where good editing could have made the film more thought-provoking, less obvious and more interesting.

Another problem for me was the fact that I couldn't connect or care about any of the characters. Possibly this was because they had trouble expressing emotion and interacting with each other, but I felt uninvolved with all of them. A pretty disappointing feat for a nearly 3 hour family character study. The camera work was also very static and dispassionate. At first, views through empty doorways, awaiting characters to walk through them, and long shots of couples seemed interesting. But their repetition and lack of variation made these distancing techniques become stultifying. This was especially true of the many long takes that occurred towards the end of the film.

I also thought the main character showed a fairly limited acting range, while some of the crying scenes were given over to poor acting. Overall, I was left mostly bored and wishing I had chosen a better and shorter film for the evening.
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Fearless (1993)
Contrived, clichéd, and crappy
27 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I was very disappointed in this film. There were so many moments in this movie that reminded me that I was watching a movie. I largely blame the dialog which was banal, clichéd and contrived. But also the direction and camera-work seemed to be straight out of a TV movie. Really this seemed to be a low-budget production.

** SPOILERS ** Two of the crucial scenes didn't work at all for me. When Carla visits Klein in the hospital and tells him that they must part, it seemed out of character for her. Not to mention unlikely and uninteresting. Of course it seemed implausible that both were basically unhurt, and that Carla appreciated the lesson in physics. And when Bridges has a severe reaction to eating a strawberry at the end, I found myself (inappropraitely) laughing at the scene. It just struck me as so much hokum. But really it was just another obvious and clichéd moment in a film that strung clichéd scenes together. ** END SPOILAGE **

Almost all of the secondary characters were useless and under-utilized. The psychologist and the lawyer were both embarrassingly handled. And get a load of of how awful all of the extras are, especially delivering their one line of false-sounding dialog.
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