The description of SECRET HONOR tells you right away that this is the kind of movie that can either triumph or fail. Phillip Baker Hall plays a recently resigned President Richard Nixon, who delivers a 90 minute monologue into a microphone, surrounded by portraits, whiskey, and a gun. And that’s it. With the wrong actor or director, this could have been a pretty painful 90 minutes. But Phillip Baker Hall is incredible, careering between depression, rage, joy, shame, and manic bouts of paranoia that are constantly engaging, even if it’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. (My very limited knowledge of politics meant that I was furiously Googling everything as he spoke.) Robert Altman’s deft direction doesn’t hurt either, and he makes full use of his single actor and set. Particularly memorable are the row of television screens that sometimes display security footage, but more often are trained on Nixon’s face. It’s fear and ego wrapped up into a nice little visual, just as Nixon’s complexities are wrapped up into this deceptively simple film.

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If you want to see my reaction as a comic, check out my cameo on Jordan Jeffries’ blog, where he’s chronicling everything he sees in theaters.

I was pretty excited when I went to see this French coming of age film, since there are few quality lesbian films in the world, and hardly any that I would consider Criterion caliber. Unfortunately, I found BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR to be a disappointment. The script seemed to confuse meaningful looks and beautiful close-ups with actual character development; I felt like I sat through the entire three-hour epic without learning anything substantial about either protagonist, other than the fact of their being in love. (This is through no fault of the wonderful actors.) The motifs I found interesting—self discovery, the minefield of high school opinion, the clash of differing backgrounds and professional goals, the insufferable side of the art world—were usually dropped without deeper exploration or even resolution. And what was left felt more like a romanticized fantasy than an actual comment on relationships. Despite my flippant drawing below, one thing I actually quite enjoyed was the controversial and very explicit portrayal of sex. Regardless of its accuracy, it was nice to see lesbian sex shown as rough and passionate, not just gentle and fluffy all the time.

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I first watched this some years ago and recently had the chance to watch it again, and Agnès Varda’s CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 is just as good, if not better, as I remembered. As the title suggests, the film follows its protagonist in real-time, from the hours of 5 to 7 o’clock. She tries on hats, meets with a lover, sings some songs, drives around with a friend. But her activities are just distractions as she waits to hear possibly devastating news from a doctor. It’s this duality between her exterior and interior experiences that creates the conflict of the story. On the surface, Cléo is shallow and girlish, and to be fair she’s a bit shallow under the surface as well. But only the audience is privy to the very real fears that manifest as superstitions and upsets, and get dismissed by the other characters as mood swings. It’s a nuanced exploration of the kind of person—frivolous for one, female for another—who is rarely taken seriously, let alone laid bare in all her flaws and strengths and contradictions. Character study aside, the film is also steeped in French New Wave style, but the kind of playful camera rule-breaking that’s fun and surprising, and never tedious. With all of that being said, in case you can’t tell, I love this film. I feel pretty confident in calling it my favorite New Wave film, full stop.

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Akira Kurosawa’s first color film is a collection of stories set in a slum. Bookended by a young man who thinks he drives a trolley through the squalor, it’s full of characters who find ways of getting by. The stories range from light and humorous (I adored the two color-coded couples who swap husbands) to the macabre. The most memorable, and certainly most grotesquely theatrical, imagery comes from a homeless father and son who dream of their ideal home while things fall apart. Some of the plots are more engaging than others, but most of it I enjoyed. And though the stylistic combination of realism and fantasy can be disorienting, it mirrors the duality of the characters’ lives. Sometimes they live in grime and decay. Sometimes they live in exuberantly painted backdrops that are like the bright children’s drawings in the “trolley” conductor’s home. Kurosawa’s first use of color may be over the top at times, but you won’t hear me complain.

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519. Close-Up

21Feb14

Documentaries aren’t always my cup of tea, but then, there aren’t many documentaries like Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP. Combining real events and fiction, the film chronicles the trial of Hossain Sabzian, who has been charged with impersonating the popular director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But why? The family that invites him into their home, thinking they will star in his next film, assumes he intended to rob them. Yet it soon becomes clear that the reasons for his deception are much more complex, and speak to themes of identity, creativity, self-worth, and the transcendent power of film. At one point, I found myself identifying so strongly with Sabzian, that I had to step back and make sure I wasn’t projecting my own motives. The most fascinating scenes are when the film’s subjects actually reenact their own events, adding another layer of cinematic distance that somehow manages to reveal more truth. Moving and engrossing, I really can’t recommend it enough.

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First of all, a shout out to my dad for buying this one for me. Thanks, Dad!

Harold Lloyd, the other-other silent comedy film star, plays an everyman trying to make it in the big city so he can marry his sweetheart. The first half of the movie pokes fun at his low-wage retail job, his snooty boss, his trusting girlfriend, and other such clichés. But the film doesn’t come alive until the second half, when Harold Lloyd (for reasons that don’t really matter) must scale a building. I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious during a stunt sequence. I could literally feel my heart pounding as he encounters every obstacle one can fathom meeting on the side of a building, with the distant ground level frequently in frame. The highlight, of course, is the iconic hanging-from-a-clock scene, which has been copied and referenced in countless other films and—I swear I didn’t imagine this—a recent makeup commercial. It’s a memorable image that deserves its legendary status, but it’s the entire nail-biting climb from sidewalk to rooftop that makes SAFETY LAST! such an enjoyable classic.

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314. Pickpocket

26Dec13

Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET tells the story of a young petty thief who believes himself above the law. He tries to live outside of society and away from the law’s grasp, and doesn’t realize that what he actually seeks is redemption. If that premise sounds familiar to you, then perhaps you’ve also recently read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It happens that I finished the novel only months before seeing this film, and was not expecting the two to be related. But Bresson’s film unfolds like a loose adaptation, working with a very different setup but trading in the same themes of isolation, sin, and eventual grace. The style is sparse and unsentimental, almost as disconnected as the protagonist himself. But the shining moments are the actual scenes of pickpocketing, beautifully filmed and choreographed like a particularly suspenseful ballet.

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Years after the war, concentration camp survivor Lucia happens upon the hotel where former Nazi officer Max is now working and hiding. They are launched into memories of their prior sadomasochistic relationship, then rekindle it over themes of repression, passion, shame, and shamelessness. Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER refuses to meet expectation—I spent most of the film trying to understand the characters and being wrong. That’s partially due to the writing, which gives very little background to the two lovers or insight into what they’re feeling at any given moment. But it’s also the innate complexity of sexual power dynamics intersecting with historical power dynamics, and a film that’s more interested in provoking than analyzing. Weeks later, I’m still not sure I’ve formed any definite opinions on it. But the story is absorbing, the performances are electric, and the iconic half-nude-half-SS-uniform cabaret scene is worth it alone.

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Halloween really is the perfect holiday for a film blog. Last year I paid tribute with ROSEMARY’S BABY, and this year I sat down with Andy Warhol’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA, a film by Paul Morrissey that has nothing to do with Andy Warhol beyond his name. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen its sister film, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, and I don’t remember much about it other than disliking it. So it’s difficult for me to make comparisons. But either BLOOD FOR DRACULA is the much better film, or my expectations have changed over the years. Possibly the latter. I went into this ready for something painfully bad, and was surprised to discover a cohesive narrative and passable acting, with some beautiful sets and lighting, and of course a lot of delightful gore, nudity, and humor. Udo Kier makes for an otherworldly and oddly sympathetic Dracula, who needs virgin blood to stay alive but can’t seem to find any virgins. His rival, played by Joe Dallesandro, is a working class and sexually liberated upstart, which would make him the protagonist in any other film except that he’s also an asshole (and can’t really act). The result is some convoluted and heavy-handed political themes, but that only adds to the camp, which finds its fullest expression in the never-ending sequences of projectile-vomited blood.

So, what do you think I should watch next year?

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LE CERCLE ROUGE is the second Melville film I’ve seen, and like LE SAMOURAÏ, it’s a stylish crime drama with ultra-cool antiheroes and very little dialog. It follows the paths of a recently released thief, an escaped criminal, and a tortured ex-cop who team up to execute a carefully crafted jewelry heist. At their heels is an equally adept and determined detective. The progression of chance events that bring the four characters together slowly unfold with a strong sense of fatalism. And the mood is set with dreary colors, simple and effective camerawork, and understated acting. It all culminates in an extended robbery scene, definitely the highlight of the film, carried out in dead silence and completely absorbing. Oh, and special mention goes to the star of the film, Alain Delon’s mustache.

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