NANOOK OF THE NORTH. 1922, Robert J. Flaherty. 79min.
An affecting portrait of eskimos made more impressive by the year in which it was made, Nanook of the North is the result of Robert (the father of documentary filmmaking) Flaherty's following an eskimo family for a year before he set about editing the footage together. A silent film, the activities are brought to life through musical soundtrack (which is in stark contrast to The Forbidden Quest (Peter Delpeut, 1993), where for stretches at a time the images of ice and ice floes are allowed to sink into the consciousness completely silently), and intertitles that might seem quaint by today's standards, but the film that Flaherty manages to record in the early days of cinema remains a remarkable achievement, documenting a way of life with respect not only for his subject, but for his art. Incidentally, one of the best scenes is of igloo building. And just when you think Nanook is done... 02.20.03
NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Oliver Stone, 1994. 118min.
The first act of this film is a stylistic tour de force, as Stone uses every trick in the book, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. His editing (intercutting moments within moments), use of projection, dutch shots, special effects, and appropriation of other visual mediums is astounding to the point of almost inducing nausea. And to a certain extent, that's the point. It's not the violence, it's the way he presents it and the contexts within which he places that violence on the screen. Unfortunately, it's a style that he can't keep up, and the second act drags, falling into cliche portrayals of prison riots and Geraldo-type media sendups (note Tommy Lee Jones in a particularly over-the-top role as the prison warden, looking oddly like Bob Dylan). 01.19.02
NEVER BEEN KISSED. 1999, Raja Gosnell. 107min.
Searching for a 90s Pretty in Pink (1986, Howard Deutch), I came across this fantasy, which mixes nostalgia to a pop rock soundtrack, resurrecting the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" in the process (and though the song over the closing scene reaches back to the sixties for the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" it could easily have borrowed again from the eighties, using OMD's "If You Leave"). While the pacing is uneven and the comedy slightly hit or miss, film nevertheless delivers on the romance that becomes its true heart. Exploring the emotional turmoils of perhaps one of the more formative experiences of growing up by revisiting them, Drew Barrymore plays the geek who is sent back to high school to become popular. And from there, from the perspective of the future, she realizes what it means to be herself. I laughed and I cried, surprisingly, and it made me want to visit again the high school of my past, something I had the all too brief opportunity to do at my tenth year high school reunion. It's strange that those four years, which were at once so terrible and so fantastic so fascinatingly become you. While it has (more than?) its share of flaws (and a somewhat manipulative ending), I was in the end won over. Completely. 04.02.01
NINE QUEENS (aka Nueve Reinas). Fabian Bielinsky, 2000. 114min
An enjoyable film about con games, Nine Queens plays as a less mannered and somewhat more naturally acted version of David Mamet's House of Games, on which it relies heavily plotwise (so warning to those who have seen the latter, it's easy to spot the mark with knowledge of that film). The film follows two con men, one just starting out and one who's been around the block a few times, as they team up for one day. Amazingly, the biggest score of their lives gets dropped in their lap as a sick old associate offers them a chance to get in on a con centered around the "Nine Queens," a sheet of rare stamps from the Weimar Republic. The twists and turns come fast and furious towards the end, as people increasingly seem less than they appear, and seemingly random acts reveal themselves as an intricately orchestrated series of events. (Incidentally, perhaps the best film in this sub-genre that I've seen is Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, which kept me guessing until the end.) 10.04
NINOTCHKA. 1939, Ernst Lubitsch. 110min.
Lubitsch is quoted as once saying, "I've been to Paris, France and I've been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount." It is this sublime illusion that he upholds and gives breath to in his films. And Ninotchka is a prime example. Written by Billy Wilder, the story revolves around a Russian countess, her jewels, and a special envoy sent from Russia to Paris to sort it all out. But that's mere MacGuffin, the thread upon which to hang the romantic comedy. Greta Garbo stars and, indeed, the tagline reads "Garbo laughs", as I did in this enchanting film. To see Garbo to great effect otherwise, definitely see Camille (1937, George Cuckor), a retelling of La Boheme. But be prepared to laugh for this film. [Technical notes: watch the dolly shot when Douglas enters the cafe where Garbo has gone to eat with the people. Astounding. Also watch the scene for the character of Ninotchka as she becomes entranced with Paris and dismisses the other Russian envoys to be alone. She quickly locks the doors and reaches into a cabinet where she removes a hat, places it upon her head, and then sits in a mirror regarding herself. Exquisite. Incidentally, the dissolves look like the film was burned to black, instead of faded. But that is neither here nor there. Watch the film and enjoy it.]
NOBODY KNOWS. Kore-Eda Hirokazu, 2004. 141min.
There's more than a passing reference to Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988) in Kore-Eda's new film. About a mother who abandons her four children for a happier life, the film is notably absent of adult figures. Even the mother is childish in her desire for happiness at the expense of her responsibilities. Those responsibilities fall on the shoulders of her eldest son, Akira. At first, he proves capable of keeping the family together, but as money runs out and his twelve year old need for friends his own age become more prominent, the household slowly falls apart. Adults offer tacit help as they slowly learn about the situation, allowing them to stay in their apartment and offering them handouts, but refrain from direct intervention. The children seem to exist outside of society, or maybe Kore-Eda is commenting on the society in which they live. The film, though fiction, is based on an actual event. However, even after the inevitable tragedies that befall them, their lives continue, and Akira continues to shoulder the burden of his family because he has to even as we watch their lives waste away. 03.05
NOWHERE TO HIDE. 1999, Lee Myung-Se. 110 min.
A triumph (funny word, that) of style over substance. Ten minutes into the film I didn't care anymore. Ostensibly following a chase story of a cop who will do anything to catch the criminal, the film lacks a moral base, a good mcguffin, and, lacking that, any interest. In some fight scenes the director shows that live action manga-style fighting is almost possible, but so what? A lot of neat tricks and techniques in the opening but by then the director has tipped his hand. he best part by far is a 1-2min editing sequence shortly following the opening title sequence which covers the scene of the crime. Those minutes are brilliant. But two minutes do not a feature length movie make.