M. Fritz Lang, 1931. 111 min.
Irving Thalberg once collected his writers and told them, "I'm going to show you a film!" He screened M. Afterwards, everyone gave their approval; words like "wonderful," "fascinating," "fantastic" filled the air. Then a pause and one writer got up the gumption to ask, "What would you have said if one of us brought you a script about a mentally unstable child murderer?" Thalberg played with the gold coins in his pocket for a moment and said, "I'd probably tell you to go to hell." That said, M is an amazing film for what it expresses through suggestion and how it similarly plays with sound. From the opening scenes edited to show the murder through symbolic references, the film carefully examines police procedure, and criminal procedure, in their efforts to track the murderer. The sound, too, is carefully controlled--the film could almost play as a silent film, the sound used to heighten the film and provide what the audience might feel it might otherwise miss (at one point the film seems to comment upon this, as a tramp is seen holding his hands over his ears while an out of tune accordion plays. When he holds his hands over his ears we hear nothing. When he takes them off, the sound returns). Chillingly evocative (when cornered, Lorre is, in fact, shown cornered in confined spaces), M draws you closer, as a man with candy, poised to strike. 04.03.2000
MABOROSI NO HIKARI. Hirokazu Koreeda, 1996. 110min.
The first (?) feature film by Kore-eda (whose AFTER LIFE (1999) was my favorite film of 1999), this beautifully composed lament calls to mind Kzeilovski's BLUE. And yet, while this very personal film keeps the viewer always at a distance. There are no closeups, and for the vast majority of the film I was wondering what the characters looked like (although that may be also a fault of my tiny TV screen). The film is available letterbox; watching the scenes follow one after another, I was surprised to find that almost any frame could be cut, blown up, and mounted upon the wall as an exceptional still photograph. It made me want to own a plasma screen and a DVD player. While emotionally muted (throughout all the characters wear black as if in constant mourning even before tragedy strikes), the film lingers, and I find my mind casting itself back to this film, wishing I could see it again for the first time, wanting to see it again to delve the emotional depths that seem to be just hidden under the surface sheen. 03.03.01
MANHUNTER. Michael Mann, 1986. 119min.
The precurser to Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter is a suspense thriller equal to the latter (some say better), doing a great job of introducing the character of Hannibal Lecktor. William Petersen is a retired FBI agent lured back on the job to capture a serial killer that seems to be killing at random. His last case (capturing Hannibal Lecktor) almost destroyed him, and the film mines his obsessions as he gets deeper and deeper into the case and psyche of the killer with the help of Lecktor. As Lecktor, Brian Cox's performance is less mannered than that of Anthony Hopkins', but is all the more eerie in his seemingly normalcy. And while Lecktor is in merely three scenes of the film, his presence pervades it. The soundtrack, unfortunately, has not dated as well, as 80s synth chords provide ominous backdrop to the proceedings. The violence is surprisingly minimal as well, as the characters stumble upon scenes after the fact and the film recreates the action that has happened with words and brief flashbacks. A solid thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat. 10.04
THE MERRY WIDOW. Ernst Lubitsch, 1934. 99min.
In his day, "The Lubitsch Touch" was as noted a moniker as Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense" years later. Lubitsch's films are celebrations of life, with humorous witty touches. A lightness pervades this film as if the characters are walking on air, playing out a fantasy--and to a large extent they are. A musical, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald THE MERRY WIDOW covers more or less the same ground as the Astaire-Rodgers RKO pictures of the same time, but there's a magical glow to the film that seems lacking in the RKO's whenever Astaire isn't gracing the screen. While melodramatic and fanciful and, to some extent, ridiculous, at the end I was won over. And as the bubbly began to pour, I swooned. After his funeral, Billy Wilder and William Wyler walked quietly away. Then, to break the silence Wilder spoke, "No more Lubitsch." "Worse yet," came the reply, "no more Lubitsch films. Peter Bogdonovich writes, "There are no "old" movies. There are only movies you have already seen and ones you haven't." I will certainly be searching out new Lubitsch's. 4.9.00
MODERN TIMES. Charles Chaplin, 1936. 87min.
He talks! Well, not exactly, but the Tramp does sing towards the end of this masterful study of technology, society, and the political workings of the world before [d]evolving into a love story. Incorporating sound--though almost always as represented through a mechanical reproduction thereof (a record player, a radio)--the film comments upon the advent of sound in film even as it comments on technological advancements in general. Featuring Chaplin's last performance as the Tramp, the film follows his adventures as he is fired from his job, jailed for being a (mistaken) communist, and then his love affair with a street waif. By never allowing his commentary to overcome his storytelling, MODERN TIMES is able to move seamlessly from story to story as events happen around the Tramp and he attempts to make the most of them. Throughout the film, I marveled at Chaplin's physical ability, at once silly and sublime. Watching him on roller skates put me in the mind of Fred Astaire in (I think) SHALL WE DANCE (1937, Mark Sandrich) for all his grace. And then at the same time it has all the comedy of . . . well, of a Chaplin flim. 04.19.00
MON-RAK trANSISTOR. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2001. 90min.
What's the point of a film where bad things keep happening to good people? From a very entertaining and off-kilter opening that almost borrows from the French new wave and movie musicals, the film reneges on the promise of its first twenty minutes and becomes a somewhat heavy story of the difficulty people from the country have in moving to the city or other, less poorer areas of the country in order to make money. Had the film stuck to its earlier perspective, this story of a young boy's desire to become a Thai country singer could have been a very entertaining and inventive parable. This film was offered as the Thai entry for the 2002 Academy Awards for the best foreign film category. 04.04.03
MOHABBATEIN. Aditya Chopra, 2000. 216min.
A Bollywood Dead Poet's Society [Peter Weir, 1989] turned into a love story, this railing against the establishment film boasts such effective structuring that its four hour runtime flies by without need of side car chases and special effects. By separating the love stories into three, Mohabbatein manages to cover more emotional ground without stepping outside of its college setting, making good use of the small town in which the university is located (with a side trip to what appear to be the Swiss alps at one point). Beautiful dance sequences (especially one centered around Holi) round out this battle between fear and love, supported by the great Amitabh Bachchan and a very good Shahrukh Khan. 9.03
MONSOON WEDDING. Mira Nair, 2001. 114min.
Mira Nair deftly weaves five stories of love around one Punjabi wedding in an almost documentary style. Filmed almost entirely with a hand-held camera, the film owes as much to Declan Quinn's cinematography as to Nair's ability to keep the stories moving. The editing is also first rate, as the first hour introduces the cast of 68 and their relationships in a manner that is never confusing, loading scenes with subtext that hint at the revelations to come. Nair's documentary past fuels the proceedings as the roving camera captures what seem like spontaneous exchanges, and in vigniettes that make Bombay a behind the scenes character. Shot in 30 days as an experiment, Nair gathered her extremely talented cast for weeks before the actual shoot to rehearse and workshop them. Throughout, they lived together, ate together, did yoga together. The camraderie shows. Would that all wedding videos could be so vibrant. 01.03.03
MUSICALS GREAT MUSICALS: THE ARTHUR FREED UNIT AT MGM. David Thompson, 1996.
In the 50s, the Arthur Freed unit was responsible for some of the greatest movie musicals ever made, including SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), THE BAND WAGON (Vincente Minnelli, 1953), AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (Vincente Minnelli, 1951), ON THE TOWN (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949), SHOWBOAT (George Sidney, 1951), and GIGI (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)among many others. This documentary includes interviews with Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Cyd Charisse, and a host other luminaries who worked with Freed and his group to produce the films they did, illuminating the process by which they worked and how it all came to be. It was, perhaps, the most talented group ever assembled. During the filming of GIGI, someone asked what it was that Arthur Freed did exactly. One of the crew looked around at the talent working both before and behind the camera and said, "Well, we're all here aren't we?" 02.26.03
THE MAtrIX RELOADED. Andy and Larry Wachowski, 2003. 138 min.
Proof that more is decidedly not better, this sequel offers more action in the service of less plot and fewer thrills. In truth, the entire film could be condensed into under 45 minutes, and The Matrix Revolutions added to make one potentially satisfying sequel rather than a marketing ploy to convince people to shell out another ten bucks to see the end. The plot points are spelled out in three separate 8 minute monologues which stop what little momentum the film builds in its tracks. And the action sequences exist merely to excite viewers for the game version they can play at home (and look about as realistic). Repeatedly, Neo is reminded that there is no spoon. Would that The Matrix  had had no sequel. Or at least didn't have this drawn-out dreck as a sequel.
MEMENTO. Christopher Nolan, 2000. 118min.
Beginning with a great conceit and an exceedingly interesting premise, this film unfortunately falters with a story that can't quite match the gimmick. The unfortunate result is that while the film retains interest during the two hours of its runtime, afterwards it's about as quickly forgotten as those memories of the main character, struck with a disability that robs him of his sort-term memory. As he tells it, he can no longer make new memories. While adhering to the rules of noir, the film seems a little too loose, culminating a little too quickly in a confession that seals the fate of the confessor. The backwards telling of the story gets a little old after a while, and the most interesting part is the end, which really is the beginning in the end. 3.22.01
MEN OF HONOR. George Tillman, Jr, 2000. 128min.
A fairly run of the mill biopic of the first African American diver to make Master Seargent in the U.S. Navy, this film holds no new surprises, in the end showing the triumph of will in the face of almost any and every obstacle, even going so far as to reunite family and make friends of disbelievers. There's really little to recommend in a movie like this; it plays with all the grandeur of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. It makes me wonder that scripts such as these don't go direct to video. Or an HBO original presentation. 03.15.01
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: 2. John Woo, 2000. 123min.
Taken away from the hype, this is a decent Hollywood action film. However, with John Woo's name attached to it, the expectations run rampant. It's hard to say whether Woo's become more restrained as a result of having done it for so long, or if it was Cruise who kept too tight a hand on the proceedings. Personally, I'd love to see Woo direct a musical. In a set-up that calls GOLDENEYE (1995, Martin Campbell) to mind, the film sets up what could have been an archtypeal Woo film a la FACE/OFF (1997, Woo). A rogue IMF agent who was used to double as Cruise goes to the dark side and Cruise must find him, determine what he's actually done in the service of evil, and then destroy him. How good could this have been?! Unfortunately, the film becomes another Cruise vehicle, again disregarding the teamwork that made Mission: Impossible such a great television series. Maybe they'll get it right on the next one. Somehow, with Cruise as the producer for this series, I tend to think not.
MONSTER. Patty Jenkins, 2003. 111min.
Aside from the fact that the film tells only one side of the story, it's difficult to understand the purpose behind the film. At once it strives to be a lesbian coming of age story, a serious story of a female serial killer driven to violence, and a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the same. While Theron looks amazing, the acting is somewhat skin deep as she goes through the motions of her character. Rarely was I moved by a performance, although musical queues indicated where emotional depth was to be felt. A voiceover undermines the main character's "true" character, and I was left wondering how the audience was supposed read her motivations when the narration is so glib. It's somewhat difficult to buy fully into the central relationship. Dramatic movement stalls halfway through, and then I was just waiting for her to be caught so the movie could draw to a close. In the end, it's somewhat disingenuous to bring all the trappings of a Hollywood film to bear on a film of this nature without appearing somewhat kitsch, and the film suffers. The story is tragic; the film, in all the wrong ways, is too. 02.01.04
THE MUMMY RETURNS. Stephen Sommers, 2001. 129min.
I must be getting old. Leaving the theatre, my head spinning, I felt slightly ill from the swarm of obviously computer generated special effects. It was that or the buttered popcorn. It is movies like this, with slim plot and cardboard characters that make me realize just how good RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was. The film commences with a quickly narrated backstory to explain the introduction of a new major character played by the Rock (who will later no longer need to appear in person as a computer will graft his computer game likeness to a huge scorpion). From there, it is one long chase scene as Brenden Frasier and Rachel Weiss race to foil the plot to takeover the world of the resurrected Mummy of the first film and save their son. It's not so much that this is a bad movie--there's nothing really to grasp hold of since the characters exist only as a reason for more slam bang special effects--it's just stupid. While there is an interesting bit about reincarnated people from ancient Egypt redoing battle, it's lost in the swarm of ones and zeros. As for the question of whether the world will be saved or not, it's a foregone conclusion from the start; as a result there's very little suspense. The only question is how they will move from one moment of semi-danger to another and what glib line of dialogue they might toss to one another. 05.19.01