Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.

There Will Be Blood

2007 USA. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dylan Freasier, Ciaran Hinds.

A beautiful looking but otherwise empty movie experience that has nothing much to say about anything, and this, irrespective of the glowing praise by the likes of Tarantino. Everything goes down just as one would expect, without much of a fight, just aimlessly going through the motions of belittling Church and Commerce, and guess what, money doesn’t buy you happiness. I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson but frankly the two stars I am giving this have more to do with Johnny Greenwood’s killer score and Daniel Day-Lewis’ grizzled performance. Everything else is as plain as the desert landscape this story is set against. Scholarly papers have been written about the choice use of camp in the final scene, to me it still just feels like a movie desperate to do something, anything to seem special.

A Separation

2011 Iran. Director: Asghar Farhadi. Starring: Leila Hatami, Kimia Hosseini, Merila Zarei.

Ego. Shame. Fear. Guilt. All are underscored here insofar as problems can spiral out of control when people push each other to the limit. Even moreso, A Separation shows the true ineffectualness of any bureaucratic legal body to sort out problems that are best suited to dramatization. Thus, we are armed with the God’s Eye view, and A SEPARATION appeals to logic, empathy, and yes, judgement. It’s the Iranian version of THE SWEET HEREAFTER, in its own way, and damn if that isn’t a compliment of the highest order. I had a plethora of reactions to the film and all of them, I believe, were earned. That is to say: the film doesn’t ‘cheat’ (sorry for opening a can of worms) by going all Lars Von Trier with its plot points. And that ending is perfect.

Murder, My Sweet

1944 USA. Director: Edward Dmytryk. Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley.

It is somewhat difficult to explain what sets Murder, My Sweet apart from the run-of-the-mill Noir of the 1940s, as it fell prey to many of the trappings of the era. The plot is all over the place, and oftentimes as difficult to follow as the director’s surname is to spell. With the exception of Dick Powell and (to an extent) Anne Shirley, the characters are entirely one-dimensional and somewhat uninteresting. And, for about seventy-five percent of the film, the cinematography and general feel of the characters and settings are decidedly generic. From there, however, there are two tremendous leaps to be taken forward. Powell is, to me, the single best example of the private eye archetype that I have ever enjoyed – sorry, Mr. Bogart. He is a very complex character, blending humor, cynicism, morality, and general badassery into what may be my favorite Noir character … ever. Beyond Powell’s brilliance lay the other distinguishing factor, on the strength of Dmytryk and cinematographer Harry Wild. While the majority of the film may not be groundbreaking in terms of visuals, the remainder plunges the viewer into the dark and gritty feel of L.A. at night in an almost unprecedented manner. The viewer is rarely granted a glimpse of daylight, and is instead relegated in dark corners, gloomy bars, and dingy homes. It is almost heartbreaking how close Murder, My Sweet is to being my absolute favorite Noir…

The Sunset Limited

2011 USA. Director: Tommy Lee Jones. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones.

A great one room drama taking place over the course of 90 minutes (real time), but with enough religious/social debate to last for days. Truly not a whole lot in here that I haven’t pondered or discussed with others before, but the characters made the questions and answers that much more intriguing understanding their back stories. For a tiny one room set, Jones and set designer are really able to open up the space to movement and depth. Equally interesting was all of the ambient sounds and makeshift score coming through the walls at opportune moments. On top of this, you’d think that the lighting would be one note and stagnant. Nothing could be further from the truth, lighting changes and textures abound… subtly. My only beef would be some of the poetic/wrote dialogue near the end and the constant, “I should leave” garbage. But that’s pretty nit-picky stuff. Two actors at the top of their game here in an incredibly compelling and easy watch. 90 minutes seems to go by in about 15. Mesmerizing and amazing.

Dark Days

2000 USA. Director: Mark Singer.

An interesting, rough around the edges look at a small group of people living on the edge. Specifically, the a small homeless that have built their own small community inside a Subway tunnel in Harlem. You get a sporadic snapshot of what they do with their days above ground and how they manage their privacy, cooking and other human necessities down below in the dark. The films subject is handled with taste and dignity. The film is a bit of hands-on activism, as well. The filmmakers got several of the people into subsidized housing, while the subjects of the film did the lighting and the camera work during production. The most curious thing is that it was made in 1999-2000, but since it uses a peculiar Kodak B&W stock, it feels like NYC in the early 1970s, but the underground stuff has a rough poetry to both the visual look and the rough dialogue.

Netflix Instant (USA)

Le Quattro Volte (a.k.a. The Four Times)

2010 Italy/Germany/Switzerland. Director: Michelangelo Frammartino. Starring: Giuseppe Fuda, Bruno Timpano and Nazareno Timpano.

Kind of like Tree of Life meets The Artist (only a little better than both perhaps), Le Quattro Volte (a.k.a. The Four Times) is a transcendental cinematic poem. It first follows an elderly shepherd as he goes about his business despite his ill-health, then moves on to track the kid of one of his goats, then a great tree we come across and finally the charcoal and smoke which results from it’s destruction. At first glances, this dialogue and narrative-free film looks to be pretentious cinematic wankery, but if you’re willing to let it wash over you it is astounding. It’s not necessarily ‘telling’ the audience anything, but merely observing it’s subjects and letting those watching fill in the gaps and take from it what they will in terms of man’s link to nature and spirituality. Very little happens and there is no music, but I couldn’t tear my eyes or ears away from it. It looks stunning (it demands to be seen on Blu-Ray or at a theatre) and the subtle, quiet soundtrack is curiously spellbinding. It’s also surprisingly funny and poignant at times. High Art with a capital ‘A’ it may seem to be, but I found it refreshingly simple, beautiful and transcendent.

Netflix Instant (USA)

49th Parallel

1941 USA. Director: Michael Powell. Starring: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey.

At its core, 49th Parallel a propagandist’s wet dream. Powell and frequent collaborator/writer Emeric Pressberger crafted a film that decries the doctrine of Nazism and touts the merits of Western Democracy (or, perhaps, non-Nazism in general) … yet managed to present such clear-cut messages with subtlety and nuance. Much of this assuredly rests in the charm of the heavyweight cast, who manage to solicit a great deal of sympathy without quite earning the viewer’s support, but it is difficult to deflect praise away from the director and writer without feeling a bit disingenuous. The camaraderie of the marooned Nazi submariners meandering through the Canadian countryside is palpable and believable, the caricatures of the ‘native’ Canadians are delightful, and the ambiguous portrayal of American sensibilities is simply masterful. In the ephemera, the editing of David Lean and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ atmospheric score are equal parts integral and understated. And in the end, and for the life of me, I will never understand how the duo of Powell and Pressberger managed to present such a masterful film with an unambiguous message, without the heavy-handedness one would expect.

A Chorus Line

1985 USA. Director: Richard Attenborough. Starring: Michael Douglas, Audrey Landers, Janet Jones.

I quite enjoyed the documentary from a few years ago called Every Little Step that focused on the casting process for a revival of A Chorus Line. Not only did the stories of the dancers keep me interested, but so did the stories of the characters within the play. The songs seemed catchy, the dance pieces looked creative and I liked the concept of building the play around the dancers’ individual stories. I finally got around to watching the film version from 25 years ago and within 30 minutes or so was checking IMDB to make sure that I hadn’t slipped a memory disc and picked the wrong musical. The characters were annoying, the songs dull and inept (except for the two obvious standouts “At The Ballet” and “One” – how the hell did “Surprise, Surprise” get an Oscar Nomination?) and everything was completely forced. Granted, filming something meant for the stage is tricky business – what comes across as forced on film can be far more successful on stage as the performers project in broad terms to the audience. There are a few scattered numbers where Attenborough brings some needed flair with lighting, staging and framing, but otherwise the whole thing became quite grating. It’s hampered by lackluster casting – good dancers, but hammy actors for the most part – dragged further down by the sub plot of the director’s (Michael Douglas) old flame showing up for the auditions and then totally sinks when the emotional group-bonding disaster strikes one of the dancers. I’m feeling less fondness for that documentary due to having watched this.


  1. I don’t quite understand how one can like Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview but not enjoy the movie. The movie is a character portrait more than it is anything else.

    • I like the performance and I like some bits of dialogue but there is absolutely nothing about what the character does that interests me in this movie, so I guess what I am saying is I like a lot of the superficial aspects of Plainview, as an idea and as an actor applying interesting mannerisms but not in the larger story this performance is encased in. If anything it makes me more disappointed that there is such potential squandered.

  2. I loathe ‘There Will Be Blood’. If I hadn’t gone to see the movie in theaters with a friend, I would’ve gotten up and left. Ironically, he said the same thing when we walked out of the cinema.

    Preach it, Rot.

  3. I don’t know why I love There Will Be Blood, but I do love it. The look, the performance, the general eeriness of it work for me.

    That said, I can understand why someone would find it “empty” in the same sense that someone could find a film like The Shining empty — it is slow, it is plodding, the main character is unlikeable; however, I think Mr. Rot’s dislike is geared more toward the fans of the film than the film itself.

    It’s certainly a complex and ambitious movie, and I recommend screenwriter Todd Alcott’s analysis of it, if for nothing else, to introduce you to Todd Alcott, whose breakdown of Spielberg is brilliant.

  4. I watched TWBB opening weekend and had big expectations, if anything part of my dislike has to do with my expectations for PTA. When it first came out there was a lengthy thread on R3 where we went into detail about it. I was not a fan long before Tarantino and the Slate article surfaced but yeah, their hyperbloic praise did further incite my sense that the Emperor Has No Clothes.

    Slow is my kind of movie, it is not just slow it is surprisingly vacant of anything but superficial representations of archtype behavior… It is like an art house Marvel movie. It doesn’t linger in anyway to pleasure in psychology or play against expectation, it is well-crafted and seems to let the craft suffice for content. There is about a minute of real agitation and conflict to witness, in the Baptism scene and the response to being bought out and have to confront the emptiness of his existence outside of drilling. Everything else may as well be done by a cartoon wolf in a suit (the poster image with Daniel leering seems to reinforce this image). It is a procedural of greed with nothing more to say then money does not buy you happiness. Slow or fast that kind of insight does little for me ( I am also not much of a fan of Wall Street)

    • The weird thing is that I can easily imagine yourself, Jandy, Andrew, whomever, raving about a film for its craft, when the craft is the content, be it Tarantino, Kubrick, Hitchcock, what have you.

      The rest of your criticisms, I don’t really understand; arguing that the characters are not deep enough seems like a very subjective point. Or at least something that should be substantiated.

      Again, it seems to be more of a dislike for the fans than the actual film.

      • then you don’t know me Nat, I am pretty consistent with my view that when craft is the content I am less interested, at most, the upper-end of that is 4/5 for me. I would rather content be the content, and craft be in service of it.

        Would you agree the Gordon Gecko from Wall Street is a caricature? If so, show me where Daniel Plainview distinguishes himself in character from Gecko. if the point is purely to show this character is greedy and selfish and obsessed well that ain’t all that deep, especially when the point being made in the film pertains to the oil industry and the mutual ambitions of Church and Commerce. I don’t think that is a matter of subjectivity, if such a thing can be a cliche in a Saturday morning cartoon, it ain’t that deep. Daniel Day Lewis does his damnedest to eek out something more through his inhabiting of the role but the story doesn’t leave him with much to do or say outside of the cliche.

        Take Rio Bravo, I love Rio Bravo, not so much because of the craft, but because of the escapist pleasure of it, it is not trying to say anything, just entertain. And for me, subjectively, it does succeed. Entertaining me is different than craft, entertaining me is drawing off of my emotions, or my imagination and craft is just one aspect of getting me there, I am just as likely to fall for the accidentals or incidentals of the film. Craft alone does not impress me much if it is not in service of something that does impress me, some pure enjoyment value or, if aiming for a pensive character study, some kind of dimensional aspect worth contemplating, an arc even, a reason for focusing two hours on, beyond the archetype. if you are going to just celebrate archetypes, fine, than be fun about it, for the only thing they can do is entertain not enlighten.

        • The character is the intensity and the bottomless well of vitriol and hate he is powered by. The joy of the film is the reactions of the world to this singular force of will. The Religion/Commerce stuff isn’t what the movie is about it is the decorations on top of the real conflict that just boils down to being about two men. Sunday and Plainview are in constant conflict after that dinner scene even if they are not together. The film is minimalism taken to such a pure level that it works to magnify the rage and hate that Daniel personifies.

          • He is clearly a misanthropist and states it with an almost Agent Smith chagrin, and I totally identify with that, and of everything in the movie I enjoy most his speech about not liking people. Minimalist is right. I desperately needed something more.

        • Fair enough, I think Plainview’s concern and familial love for his “brother” distinguishes him from Gordon Gecko; I wouldn’t expect that tenderness from Gecko.

          But I still don’t see what you dislike about this movie; I don’t mean to be obtuse, but is it the theme you dislike? If you disagree with the point Anderson’s making, okay (I think greed is overplayed as a theme, too), but I imagine that you would like a film without agreeing with every point it makes.

          Nevertheless, I think you’re making a straw-man argument here, “if the point is purely to show this character is greedy and selfish and obsessed well that ain’t all that deep,” again, are you attacking the theme?

          This is going to sound really dickish (and I really don’t mean it to be, rereading my last comment, I really sounded like a dick there, and I appreciate the politeness in your response), but it seems like you’re just stating something the movie does and then saying it’s bad.

          • I guess for me it works like this: either the film has something serious to say or it is a lark, and if it is a lark at least I want it to be fun, to revel in its inanity, and unless you can show me otherwise, I believe Anderson made TWBB because he had something serious to say, he had a character study that aspires beyond the type to flesh out a character. There are themes of greed and religion thinly played as well, but I think we would agree, it is a character study. My chief complaint is it is not a particularly illuminating one. I would be fine if as a character study it stirred up emotion in me or made me reconsider what it is to be greedy or even on a tacit level struck a chord existentially, hitting the unspoken truths of human behavior. I don’t see much of that in TWBB. There is so little conflict in Plainview, which I guess is in some respect kind of interesting, how unperturbed he is in his ambition but then that gets parodied in the end scene, which than make it kind of a lark, but not working much as either. As I said before I can enjoy Daniel Day Lewis’ performance for its bristling bravado but still feel the ‘study’ is pretty flat and goes nowhere that hasn’t been recycled in pop culture to death, the cliche of the ruthless oil tycoon (hell the recent Muppets movie did that).

          • Cool, so it comes down to the characterization of Plainview? I think he’s more complex than you give the film credit for.

            I agree his drive is constant, and that’s what I like about the film; Plainview is an unstoppable force, and Anderson throws everything possible in front of him. He makes a person who defines himself by his dislike of humanity, then forces every sort of relationship on him (save an important exception for sexuality) — that alone is pretty interesting, but then there’s an additional element of Daniel Plainview as Christ, which I think is another intentional theme, as TWBB is a total reversal of the story of Christ, with Paul *ahem* Sunday as the holy ghost, Daniel as the father, and HW as the son, his half-“brother” is, of course Judas, and those three are, of course the most important relationships Daniel has in the movie.

            Whatever, could go on about that theory, but the point is, I think Daniel is a pretty goddamn complex character.

      • Nat, I will definitely admit to liking many movies based on craft alone. However, for me to be swayed by craft alone, there are other things that have to be true. I have to not hate all the characters. I pretty much didn’t like anybody in TWBB. And/or I have to have fun watching it. There is nothing fun about watching TWBB. It felt like I was being locked in a room with self-absorbed, annoying jerks for ten hours (yes, that’s how long the movie felt).

        I don’t always have to have likable characters, nor do I always think “entertaining” is the top-level criteria, but if a film is not going to give me a theme more interesting than “greed is bad” to chew on, then it better either have people I want to watch, or be entertaining. TWBB was neither. Responding to your question to rot, it’s not so much that I don’t like the theme (obviously I agree that greed is bad), it’s that I don’t think the theme was handled with any subtlety or interest. That character and that theme could’ve been gotten across in a twenty-minute short. I did not want or need to be around these people for two hours and forty minutes.

        • I think you can accuse TWBB of a lot of things, but self-absorbtion isn’t one of them.

          To a larger extent, I actually disagree with the theme, but enjoy the movie regardless, I find Plainview utterly fascinating. Maybe that’s just me, but this movie comes close to No Country for Old Men in my 2007 rankings, and I think there’s a good parallel with Plainview and Chigurh, and who doesn’t find Chigurh fascinating?

          Though that’s kind of a copout. To me, this film is all Daniel Plainview, if you don’t like him, you don’t like the movie. I like him, hence I like the movie. I like that Anderson took on Kubrick in making a bizarre and unlikeable protagonist, and delivered some iconic scenes of cinema, with the first 15 minutes, with Day-Lewis’s performance, with the baptism, with the oil rig catching fire, with “I drink your milkshake!”

          • Chigurh is fascinating…as a side character. I would not want to watch a movie where he’s the only character. No Country for Old Men is an immensely richer film, pitting many different and well-drawn characters against each other – the amoral angel of death, the old-fashioned sheriff faced with a brave new world, the in-over-his-head ordinary guy, etc. It’s much more subtle in its themes, it’s much more interesting (and fun!) to watch.

            You’re probably right about not liking the movie if you don’t like Plainview. I can’t stand him. I think he’s a despicable character.

          • So if you dislike the main character the film is bad? The main character in the greatest film ever made Anatomy of a Murder is intensely dislikeable, which is why the most likeable actor on the planet was cast as him.

          • Nat, no. If I dislike the main character AND there are no other characters to care about AND the film has no humor and no fun, THEN I’m very unlikely to like the film. All of those things are true in this case.

    • Amen to that. I love it more for the direction and visuals though. It’s a gorgeous film and it has so many scenes like the practically silent opening 15 mins that are spellbinding. I can understand being underwhelmed by the film, in fact I always thought it was a little overrated, but hate it? Surely not?

        • I absolutely love, every single minute of TWBB. For me it works as much as a tone piece, and acting and mood showcase, as it does a hammer-blunt treatise on capitalism and psyche of America. S’all good. It’s fuckin’ PURE CINEMA, in my book.

  5. I’m also on board the TWBB hate train. Or at least, greatly dislike. It doesn’t help that I also don’t really like Daniel Day-Lewis. I liked him all right in A Room With a View (which I think was one of his first films). Since then he’s just been too much for me. I don’t get the great actor thing at all – he always, ALWAYS feels like he’s acting to me. It’s not like he gets lost in a role, but like he steamrolls over it. For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about Jack Nicholson.

    On happier notes, great to see some love for Murder My Sweet, Domenic! It’s not my favorite noir, but I do love noir in general so much – and Claire Trevor’s always fun to watch. I’m also looking forward to checking out 49th Parallel at some point.

    • I can’t completely agree with DDL comment Jandy – because his characters are all so unique.

      Jack on the other hand…

      I just wrote some quick thoughts on The Departed over at LetterBoxd and my only real complaint is fucking Jack Nicholson. He is annoying and far too flashy for that movie. Sometimes he works, but for the most part, he’s Jack Nicholson. As opposed to Wahlberg, DiCaprio, Damon, Farmiga et. al. – I really believe they are the characters they are playing. With the mob boss, I always think, “oh look! It’s the guy who played The Joker in Burton’s Batman film.”

      • I don’t remember minding Nicholson too much in The Departed – and in general, I don’t mind that kind of “persona” on top of roles. Heck, that’s almost a given in the classic Hollywood cinema I love.

        What bothers me about DDL is not that he has a persona that overshadows roles; you’re right, he doesn’t really. Not like recent Nicholson, or back in the day Bogart or Grant or Monroe. It’s that I can FEEL him acting. It’s like I can see the “acting” gears turning while he’s on-screen, and it’s distracting. It feels very calculated.


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