Screening Log: 2/3 – 2/10

The House of the Devil (West, 2009) – The slow burn of Horror, every shot precisely retrograded to brilliantly reference a menacing slice of voyeuristic nostalgia. West uses silence  like a knife, peeling away his protagonist’s safety one layer at a time. The stalking credit sequence is not only a throwback usage of freeze frames, but a stunning photo album of one woman’s grey, empty, and conflicted universe. It provides a wonderfully diverse parallel to the film’s bonkers ending, a scattered and messy piece de resistance against the devil himself. Guess who wins?

The Bicycle Thief (De Sica, 1948) – For my money the best way to introduce Italian Neorealism to a group of non-film majors. Maybe it’s De Sica’s masterful use of the roving medium shot, but I’m always drawn to Bruno and his crumbling facade of strength. Also, one of the most depressing endings in film history, and rightfully so.

Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – Hadn’t seen this in years, but decided to show it to my students for Hitchcock night. Still might be my favorite Hitch, the way his meticulously meandering camera scales walls and window panes like a thief in the night, subverting POV at every turn until we can’t trust anything we’ve seen. Basically a greatest/worst hits of martial bliss, with all the quiet and lovely moments in between. Still think each window represents a different future path Jefferies could take, as his reality slowly gets consumed by his perception of guilt, love, and responsibility. And has there been anyone more classically striking than Grace Kelly? Maybe the best American film of the 1950’s.

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942) – The best Screwball Comedy ever? Count me in. Sturges at his most charming and sublime, existing simply to hear wit seamlessly bounce back and forth like a tennis match in the clouds. Here’s another credit sequence that freezes, but this time to excentuate complex romantic history in all its zany glory. Sturges decides to end the film with another whimsical twist of fate, layering our perception of character times three. Brilliant in every sense.

Screening Log: 1/26 – 2/2 (Part II)

Vengeance (To, 2009) –  Striking and exciting, besides the lame “Memento” plot twist late in the film. Nobody directs the movement of actors and guns better, and the scene between two factions of hit men in a dimly lit park perfectly captures To’s bullet-time grace and mystery, as smoke, gun powder, blood, and tree bark spray across the frame.  The joys of each violent set-piece thankfully overwhelm To’s inability to create a convincing mythology, making the film a vibrantly hued and fractured vision on revenge even during it’s most ridiculously melodramatic moments.

Brothers (Sheridan, 2009) – Had me hooked for a while, especially with Tobey Maguire’s strangely enigmatic performance. His seamless fluctuations between kind Dad and brutal soldier masks the film’s many flaws during the opening act. But ultimately Sheridan can’t help himself with the sentiment, and his film remains too glossy, punctuated, and fleeting to be anything poignantly memorable.

Full Battle Rattle (Gerber, Moss, 2008) – A case of interesting subject matter lacking the proper cinematic execution. The conflict of this doc is spread thin between far too many subjects who never develop beyond the surface. The “simulation” scenes are especially anti-climactic through the lens of the camera, and provide little insight into the psychology of the soldier. However, by the end, as the soldiers are heading back to war, and the Middle Eastern actors return home, the film achieves a deep sense of fractured identity on both sides, asking who we are, and what are we fighting for?

The September Issue (Cutler, 2009) – Ironically, the fashion elements are the most interesting thing about this poorly constructed doc on Anna Wintour, inspiration for Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead of a calculating piece on the pitfalls and realities of magazine/journalism business, we get meandering fluff, simply conceived to highlight a few moments of bickering between uninterested subjects. No cinematic style to match the fashion world, and no heart to take the story through and through.

Screening Log: 1/26 – 2/2

Bright Star (Campion, 2009) – Wonderfully romantic and tender, with certain passages so lovely that Keats’ words and Campion’s visuals seem to merge together. The contours of clothing and textures of nature parallel Abbie Cornish’s hauntingly nuanced turn, the finest female performance of 2009. She breathes a genuine devotion into a woman combatting social limitations and interior emotional bursts. A masterpiece.

An Education (Scherfig, 2009) – Oscar came calling today, so I had to catch up with this critical darling. Perfectly banal and predictable melodrama with a fine lead performance and little else. The conflict has no edge, no complexity, and leads to the only obvious coming-of-age conclusion. A fine turn by Olivia Williams, who gives the film some life in key scenes, has been predictably overlooked.

Julie and Julia (Ephron, 2009) – Maybe it was my foul mood, but Ephron’s breezy, satisfying slice of culinary whimsey hit the spot. Even though she was nominated for an Oscar, this film proves most critics take Meryl Streep for granted. As Julia Child, she gives just another one of her countless great performances, transcending the mediocre and plodding narrative with a revelatory passion for scene-chewing joy.

The Escapist (Wyatt, 2009) – Potent British grit and grime, with not a single exterior shot to alleviate the cramped, compounding pressure of the story. The fine cast compliments a strange flashback structure, yet the singular trajectory lacks the needed punch and conflict to make this a classic genre film.

Collapse (Smith, 2009) – Purposefully alarming and striking, freely spraying bullets of damning material at countless worthy subjects. But this film’s explosive ordinance only takes us so far, and by the end credits the slew of conspiracy theories and projections dissipative into the either. Philip Glass’ musical stylings seems to have influenced every modern documentary score, and it’s getting old fast.