For Reel

Meantime (1984)
July 7, 2017, 12:38 pm
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Director: Mike Leigh
3.5 Stars
MeantimeDirector Mike Leigh first came into the spotlight with Meantime, a brutal, aimless slice of social realism set in Thatcher’s England. In the film, two brothers (Phil Daniels and Tim Roth) navigate life in an unemployed, government-supported household. Colin (Roth) seems to have something mentally wrong with him, with his disaffected, open maw serving as a mask against the abuse that he takes, whereas Mark (Phil Daniels) is arrogant and mean-spirited, often picking fights with both his brother and parents. The leader of this chain of abuse, however, is Coxy (Gary Oldman), a skinhead grifter whose anarchist disposition resonates with the embittered Mark. In this world, not only are the lower class living in absolute squalor, but it seems as if everyone is using somebody else as a vessel for their anger—only by belittling each other can they let their pain out into the world. Colin, whose seeming ambivalence sometimes seems ideal considering the alternatives, is the physical manifestation of his world, burrowing deeper into a sofa with no hope of escaping.

Antonio Gaudí (1984)
January 3, 2017, 3:36 pm
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Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
3 Stars
antonio-gaudiThis 1984 documentary about the Spanish architect mostly plays as a travelogue, often staying at a street-level perspective with camera movements limited mainly to simple dollies and pans (more often than not, director Hiroshi Teshigahara favors the still image). Just as a tourist might find themselves fixated on small details, so too does the documentary not seek to frame a comprehensive portrait of the structures, rather some of the idiosyncrasies in the design structure—the clash between the straight lines and the curvaceous spires that resemble stalagmites, the complex patterns in the tiles, and so on. The best scenes show how Gaudí’s work interacts with the society around it, whether that be children playing among the structures or a long shot of the Sagrada Familia looming above Barcelona. Gaudi’s work is in itself so delightfully unusual that one wishes Teshigahara took a less impersonal approach—the hyper-stylization of a film like Koyaanisqatsi would have suited the ethereal score by Toru Takemitsu more effectively. Instead, if the score sounds determined to elicit a dreamy mood, Teshigahara’s images rarely make an argument that the film couldn’t have been a coffee table book.

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
December 11, 2016, 8:14 pm
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Director: Jim Jarmusch
5 Stars
stranger-than-paradiseJim Jarmusch’s second film lays the groundwork for much of his career to come. Three characters try to keep themselves from boredom, traveling the country only to discover that just about anywhere they go looks the same as anywhere else. The new lives are the same as the old ones. But to call Jarmusch a cynic is a misunderstanding—there is a sweetness to his friendships, typified most beautifully by the persistently optimistic, cheery Eddie (Richard Edson). Although he seems a strange match for Hungarian emigrant Willie (John Lurie) due to the latter’s depressed, cheerless demeanor, Edson’s performance suggests a hopeful resilience in the face of monotony. Or, at the very least, he handles his boredom well. In Stranger Than Paradise, much like all of Jarmusch’s films, the characters take reprieve from their isolation through art—here, 16-year-old Eva (Eszter Balint) idolizes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins while the two men park themselves in front of the television and discuss what movie they will see next. When they discuss the merits of Tokyo Story, a film which is similarly uneventful on the surface, Jarmusch seems to be arguing that cinema is not necessarily only means for escape, but rather a way of capturing and rendering poetic a sense of listlessness.

Under the Volcano (1984)
February 29, 2016, 3:39 pm
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Director: John Huston
3 Stars
Under the VolcanoDirector John Huston had a pesky desire to film the unfilmable, struggling throughout his career to adapt works of literary fiction that, for one reason or another, were not thought of as being the kinds of stories that would adapt well to film. In the case of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s writing was praised for articulating the complex interior world of a drunken, broken man. On film, Albert Finney plays the consul extraordinarily well, but regardless it is a performance that plays out the external tragedies without getting to the core of the interior–it is clear that he is deteriorating, but not how he got there or why the relationships with those around him play out in the way that they do. If Huston’s adaptation is not particularly satisfying as a character drama, it has a remarkable sense of place, with Huston returning to Mexico for the third time after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Night of the Iguana. Small, dingy bars comprise much of the film, with the locales detailed in scenes such as a nearly slapstick diversion in which Finney rides a fairground ride with a drink in his hand. The way that children wait to collect (and eventually return) the change that falls from his pockets is one of the great small touches Huston details as a means of adding character to the world. This dizzying ride sequence, coupled the opening titles in which Dia de los Muertos puppets seem to come to life in hallucinatory montage, shows Huston relying on external symbols as a means of articulating the consul’s disorientation. Finney, however, is completely adept at getting across his character’s daze, and Huston doesn’t have an answer for where to take the character from there. Regardless, Finney’s performance is one of the great portrayals of a drunk, not relying on slurring but on trying a little too hard to enunciate, and the location shooting provides a compelling atmosphere.

Love Streams (1984)
October 10, 2015, 12:50 pm
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Director: John Cassavetes
4.5 Stars
Love StreamsAn argument against the sentiment that director John Cassavetes made films that were merely interested in social realism, Love Streams is the culmination of a career following damaged, hopelessly alone people who are trying to connect. From the very beginning, there is a lack of exposition regarding the parade of women in Robert Harmon’s (Cassavetes) home–so, too, is the fact that he and Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) are siblings withheld. A recurrent question asked throughout the film is whether love is a continuous stream, which the detached Harmon has a hard time swallowing. The stream is an apt metaphor for the construction of this narrative, which ambles its way through a number of episodes that gradually begin to devolve into surreal territory, a boiling over of the intensity of the feeling. Just as well as Cassavetes captures these bizarre moments, so too does he exceed in photographing the supposedly mundane–the custody hearings are brilliantly photographed, displaying a sophisticated use of blocking and camera placement. These shots emphasize both close-ups with an excess of blank space (where the actor will occupy only a third or so of the frame) and shots in which the case workers are photographed as barriers between the dissolved family.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
July 16, 2012, 9:40 pm
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Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Following the success of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, producer Toshio Suzuki and directors Miyazaki and Isao Takahata would found Studio Ghibli, the studio credited with producing many of the Japanese animation masterpieces of the last thirty years. Nausicaä, then, can be seen as the launching pad for Miyazaki’s directorial career (though he had been working in the animation field for two decades previous) and, while it features a number of the key themes and ideas that he continues to explore in his work – environmentalism, optimism, and a particular fondness for female protagonists – it is uncharacteristically convoluted and hectically paced. That is not to say that it isn’t spectacular. The climactic images of a glowing army of stalled trilobite-like creatures is awe-inspiring, working as a sort of primer for the visual mastery of his truly great epic, Princess Mononoke. Still, Nausicaä herself is not quite as captivating as Miyazaki’s best characters, such as Kiki or Chihiro, and as a Dune-like science fiction epic, its lack of subtlety compromises the potential thematic resonance. Lesser Miyazaki, on the other hand, is about on par with the best work of most other directors – though the animation is not as smooth as Ghibli’s later efforts, there are a number of stunning images with a memorable score to accompany them (a minimalist vocal theme proves irresistibly catchy).

Shanghai Blues (1984)
April 19, 2012, 9:22 pm
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Director: Tsui Hark

In its opening moments, Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues recalls the best of Wong Kar-Wai – a happenstance romance, a palette of bright primary colors, and more than a tinge of longing sadness. A love blossoms under the shelter of a bridge as bombs echo overhead. The couple must separate, but they have intentions of reuniting down the line. Ten years later, the man returns to the bridge to find not his lover, but vagabonds, discarded veterans of the war. But it is not long before these touching fragments of post-war Hong Kong are lost under the weight of the most vile of rampant sexism. A young homeless girl, who is eventually taken in by the leading woman, is meant to offer comedic pleasures, but her unfailing stupidity wears quickly – a running gag, for example, sees her whine in horror at the sight of mice. Perhaps the low-brow Cantonese humor doesn’t translate well cross-culturally, but a Western audience will not find it merely abrasive, but mean-spirited. Late in the picture, a woman is drugged and nearly raped (this being the basis for a comedic set piece), just before Hark transitions to a supposedly heartfelt moment between the reunited lovers. As much as the love story works in its developing moments, the ensuing comedy is vile and inexcusable. The women are not merely treated with condescension, but with a shocking hostility. As illegitimate as it might be to dwell on a fact that could be passed off as either dated humor or a failure in translation, it is the most blatant of distractions, weakening every minor pleasure that the film offers.

The Terminator (1984)
March 16, 2011, 1:07 am
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Director: James Cameron

Beyond the technical wizardry that one has come to associate with James Cameron, The Terminator is also representative of him at his most blandly sentimental through an undercooked romance. Narratively speaking, the film’s central conceit is cute – the time travel device is nicely accomplished through a repetition of telling motifs (the picture that Reese carries, for instance) – and the beginning of the film is memorable in that the intentions of the time travelers are revealed methodically before the formal exposition, thus elevating the tension of the early chases. Despite a few nice suspense sequences, however, the laughable, on-the-nose dialogue, as well as the forgettable performance of Michael Biehn, restrict the film from becoming either a philosophically complex dystopian epic or a wholly satisfying action romp. While the sequel is noteworthy due to its surprisingly effective use of pathos and the matured performances (arguably the finest use of Scwarzenegger in his career), its direct predecessor doesn’t create a convincing argument that it deserves to have a life outside of its sequel’s shadow.