Sunday, October 31, 2010

Month 10 Status Report

At this point, one film a day for the rest of the year will get me to exactly 300 by year's end. That's substantially less than I originally hoped (my original goal was two years for the whole project), but with a full-time job and two kids, I'd say I'm doing pretty well. Three hundred films is not an unreasonable goal, honestly.

More reasonable and more attainable is 270, which is roughly 25% of the total. This is because the latest edition of "The Book" has been released with about ten new films (and I was right about Avatar being added). This brings the total up to 1080 or so. That number is a film every other day, which I can certainly do.

At this rate, I'll finish around the end of 2013, and I can live with that. I'll probably be ready to be done at that point.

So what's ahead? My biggest need is to challenge myself. I tend to fall back on things I know and am comfortable with when work gets stressful, which leaves those problem films as the ones I keep avoiding. There are still too many movies longer than four hours for me to be complacent, and still a whole ton of foreign movies hanging over my head, not to mention musicals and silent films.

Still, I am pushing forward. Not as fast as I'd like, not as varied as I'd like, but each film I watch brings me that much closer to finishing completely.

Here are the new movies in the 7th Edition:
The Hurt Locker
The Hangover
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Precious
Inglorious Basterds
Lat den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In)
Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschicte (The White Ribbon)
Fish Tank
An Education
Paranormal Activity
Avatar

Happy Birthday to Me

Films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tampopo, North by Northwest
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop (Raiders, Tampopo), and on middlin'-sized living room television (Northwest).


It would be natural to assume that, what with today being Halloween, that I spent the day watching things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and (of course) Halloween. That would be a natural assumption, but an incorrect one. As it happens, today is my birthday. Instead of watching scary films, I watched my three favorite films on the list. These are Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tampopo, and North by Northwest, which is my favorite movie of all time.

I was 13 when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (I refuse to call it by its reissued name) in the theater. This is still one of the greatest theater experiences I have ever had, and likely ever will have. Sometimes, everything simply falls together precisely and an extended moment becomes an event remembered forever. That was Raiders for me on that first viewing.

Raiders was made at a time when Spielberg could do no wrong, and a big part of the reason was that he was making films for his inner child. This was modern pulp cinema, the sort of thing that was serialized weekly in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s filled with evil, adventure, buried treasure, bad guys, and a two-fisted hero who steps a little over the line when the situation warrants. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) is essentially Doc Savage with a fedora and a whip, and that’s what he’s supposed to be. That he’s also a respected professor of archaeology matters not at all (Doc Savage was a scholar, too). We true believers know that professor is just his day job. Dr. Jones is a professional adventurer, an “obtainer of rare antiquities.”

So there I was, 13 years old, popcorn and soda clutched in my teenaged fists. I’d heard a little about the film at this point, and I’m excited. After all, it’s not that many years since I had my geekdom defined and solidified by Star Wars. I knew enough about the tradition of pulps to expect some of what was coming—I’d read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs at this point, so I knew there’d be crazy action and battling against great evil.

And then the film, the glorious film. In the first 15 minutes, our hero whips the gun out of a guy’s hand, breaks through diabolical traps with his doomed companion Satipo (Alfred Molina), recovers an ancient artifact, survives a double-cross, narrowly escapes certain death, is chased by a huge round boulder, gets the artifact stolen by his French adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman), is chased through the South American jungle by a tribe of natives, and escapes. This is what a geek boner looks like.

And then, it gets better.

The film centers around the Ark of the Covenant, the box that Moses put the pieces of the Ten Commandments in after he came down from Mount Horeb. American authorities have gotten wind that Hitler has designs on the Ark, since an army that marches behind it is invincible. Indy is the guy to get it, though, because his old mentor is named specifically in the cable as having a piece necessary for the Ark’s recovery.

What follows is the chase. Indy locates where his mentor was last seen and discovers instead his mentor’s daughter Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). She’s also an old flame, and the source of the falling out between Indy and his mentor, and this complicates matters. After a run-in with the Nazis, led by creepy Nazi sadist Toht (Ronald Lacey), she accompanies Jones to Egypt and the site of the dig. Here they meet Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Jones’s friend. They discover the true resting place of the Ark, have massive fights in the Cairo market, and generally tear the place up before they are captured again, put into terrible situations, and more. Jones and Marion are trapped in a pit with snakes, and then there’s a fist fight around a burning airplane.

Eventually, the Nazis drive off with the Ark, and Jones pursues, leading to one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. Jones battles a group of Nazis, gets thrown off the front of the truck, crawls underneath, and ultimately drives off with the Ark in his possession. He and Marion sail off on a pirate freighter hired by Sallah, the Ark safely in the hold.

At this point, my 13-year-old self literally stood up and prepared to leave. I was completely unprepared for there to be another 20 minutes of movie that was easily as awesome as the first hour and a half. The first 90 minutes are so good that I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

That’s the magic of this film—all of the action here fits into a package just under two hours long. That epic chase scene that I would have guessed lasts about 15 minutes is actually about seven or eight. Every part of that sequence is so good and so memorable, that my mind naturally expands it out to the length it would be in another film.

This is why I love it. It’s a giant rollercoaster and the hills never get smaller. Raiders is indelibly a part of American mythology and world culture. The soundtrack, the iconic look, the giant rolling stone, the guy in the market with the huge sword, even the warehouse at the end are all a part of the collective world consciousness and forever will be. Raiders is what an action movie ought to be, and every time I see it, I’m a 13-year-old kid having the best time he ever did in a movie theater.


On the other end of the film landscape is Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. As American as Raiders is, Tampopo is entirely Japanese. No one from another culture could make Tampopo, nor could the film be accurately remade without it changing drastically. It is a perfect marriage of time and culture, a unique artifact that would be much less made a year or two earlier or later, or from another cultural standpoint.

All cultures, of course, have a relationship with food, and this relationship varies from place to place and people to people. This relationship is what the film explores, both in the main story and in the short vignettes that pop up throughout the running time. Food plays a role in every scene in the movie. In this film, food is life, love, family, death, friendship, sex, and desire. Food is celebration and work. It is all consuming and all consumed.

Perhaps to demonstrate how food affects all things, Itami creates a cinematic onion for us. We first hear from a gangster (Koji Yakusho) who acknowledges that he is watching a movie just as we are watching him in a movie. Our scene then shifts to two men eating noodles. The old teacher instructs the young pupil on the proper technique for eating and enjoying a bowl of ramen. Then we discover that this is actually a book being read by a pair of truck drivers. They are made hungry by the story, so the stop at a little restaurant for a bite. The driver, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his assistant Gun (Ken Watanabe) just want a quiet bowl of noodles, but they get more than they bargain for. The owner of the place is Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is being harassed by Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka). Pisken eventually starts a fight with Goro, who sleeps off the aftermath in the restaurant.

The next morning over breakfast, Goro and Gun inform Tampopo that her noodles are bad. The genius here is that they speak of the noodles as if they are pieces of art—they have a basic integrity, but lack guts. Tampopo begs the pair to help her. All she wants is to be a great noodle cook. Goro finally agrees, and this is the main plot of the film.

As the film goes on, we add more characters to Tampopo’s quest. Goro enlists an old doctor (Yoshi Kato), now a derelict. He leads a troupe of gourmet hobos, and is himself an expert in all things in the kitchen. The rescue of an old wealthy man in a restaurant adds Shohei (Kinzoh Sakura), who is both chauffer and noodle professional. Pisken, who is a building contractor, jumps in as well, after another fight with Goro.

Each man add his own part to the whole. While Goro helps Tampopo build herself into a great chef, the old doctor works on the soup. Shohei helps her figure out the best recipe for her noodles. Pisken handles the redesign of the shop into something that fits her smaller frame. Gun takes on her physical transformation from mousy widow into true noodle chef.

Through all of this, scenes that relate to Japan’s unique food culture appear and play out like little comic intermissions. Our gangster friend figures frequently, but many have no particular connection to the main story, except that food is always a central theme. Witness the group of executives ordering from a fancy restaurant, only to be upstaged by the most junior member. Witness the spaghetti eating lesson in which Japanese girls learn how to properly eat Italian noodles. They are copied incorrectly by the American businessman, and then copy him incorrectly in turn. Witness the dying mother rising one last time to cook food for her children before expiring.

In addition to celebrating food in all of its endless varieties, Tampopo has great fun with other film styles as well, gently and lovingly spoofing them. Tampopo’s reverie is clipped from virtually every classic Western, for instance, complete with the little kid running in and telling the homesteaders (Tampopo and Goro in this case) that the bad guys have arrived. The vignette with the money swindle is straight out of film noir, with little pancakes taking the role of femme fatale. The rice omelet cooking scene is silent comedy, and could have been done by Chaplin. These are loving and sweet spoofs, though, done with a wink and paying homage as much as they tease.

Tampopo is a love letter to food, but it’s also much more. It is a uniquely Japanese expression of what food means to all of us, from the rich to the poor. People die for a dinner, risk their lives for a special treat. They make a fetish of the textures and smells of food, and use it for both gastronomic and sexual pleasure. They risk offending their superiors, job loss, international incident, and loss of freedom for just one bite of a delicacy. Food is our first thought once we are born and our last thought before we die. Food is life. It is love, survival, meaning, and society. It is through food that we interact with others and the world. Food is everything.

I have watched this film over and over, and it never becomes old. It also never fails to make me ravenously hungry, particularly the rice omelet and the little pancake scene.

It’s also worth noting that even if this weren’t a completely engaging and lovable film, it would still be worth watching. Visually, it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. The camera work is stunning throughout. Even with a static camera, Itami always gets the audience to look exactly where he wants through the blocking of the actors and color. Watch the scene in the train station, where your eye moves precisely where Itami tells it to go with Tampopo’s movement combined with the color of her dress and the banner. Note the scene at the start in Tampopo’s restaurant where Pisken and Goro are perfectly framed by Pisken’s thugs. These shots are things of beauty, just like the food.


For our third and final film in today’s triple feature, we get my favorite movie ever, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I dearly love this movie. It is, I think the perfect film. It contains virtually every element I want in a film, and all as good as I could want them.

Our main player is Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive with a couple of failed marriages. He’s out for a drink with a few colleagues when he realizes he’s made a mistake. He’s got plans to meet his mother, but needs to contact her, so he pages a worker in the hotel bar to place his call. Unfortunately for him, that worker is looking for a man named Kaplan at the behest of a couple of shady characters. When Thornhill stands up, they assume he’s Kaplan, and they kidnap him.

They take him to the home of a man named Lester Townsend, who threatens Thornhill. Evidently, Townsend and his group of thugs believe that Thornhill is a spy sent to stop them in some nefarious dealings. Thornhill, of course, has no clue as to what is going on, and can’t help them. Townsend decides that since he won’t help, Thornhill needs to be disposed of, and he leaves the job to his associate, Leonard (Martin Landau). Leonard pumps our ad exec full of booze and sends him down the road to a fatal crash, but Thornhill takes the wheel instead and drives into a police car. A good amount of the humor in the film comes in this scene, where the blasted-out-of-his-mind Thornhill calls his mother and sings about being hammered on bourbon to the police.

Protesting his innocence, Thornhill discovers that things at the Townsend house are not what he thought. Everyone there seems to recognize him, and Lester Townsend is addressing the United Nations that morning. However, when Thornhill goes to find out what happened, he discovers a few important things. First, Lester Townsend at the UN is not the man he met the night before. Second, the real Lester Townsend is killed by a thrown knife, and now Thornhill is on the run, since it appears that he was the killer.

We also discover a few important clues that Thornhill doesn’t know. Kaplan isn’t real. He’s a fake secret agent following on the trail of a man named Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who masqueraded as Townsend. Additionally, the government has an agent in place very near Vandamm, and nothing can be done for poor Mr. Thornhill.

What does happen, though, is that while escaping from New York on the train, Thornhill meets the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). She’s traveling alone…or is she? She’s the agent placed near Vandamm, and while she knows Thornhill is innocent, she also can’t blow her own cover. There’s a connection between Eve and Roger, which gives us a romantic element to our mistaken identity thriller. There’s a chemistry between them, and a lot of good innuendo.

And on and on it goes. We learn that Vandamm is a smuggler, and what he’s smuggling is microfilm to enemy governments. All Thornhill wants is to survive, and to run away with Eve if he can, but Eve is in mortal danger.

North by Northwest is filled with wonderful set pieces and scenes that will be around as things to study for as long as films are being made. Hitchcock could pull off long scenes where nothing happens, but tension increases constantly. The bus sequence is absolutely this. Told he will meet Kaplan at a country bus stop, Thornhill waits. Cars drive past and don’t stop. People show up and ignore him. A car pulls up and a man gets out, but he’s not Kaplan, either. Eventually, the bus comes and Kaplan still doesn’t arrive. All of this takes a long time, and while nothing really happens, by the end of the scene, the tension is palpable. The payoff is an attack from men armed with a machine gun attacking from a crop duster.

There are scenes like this throughout the film, and each one is a set piece of how to make a movie. The conclusion, which takes place on the faces of Mount Rushmore, is one of the great final scenes in history.

In my mind, North by Northwest is the perfect film. It’s exciting, interesting, and a little bit sexy. It’s also got a great plot, and was directed by one of the greatest stylists ever to touch a movie camera. Hitchcock made a lot of great films, and while I know that Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo get a lot more praise, this one stands as the top of the heap in my world. It has all of the elements I want in a movie. Even the soundtrack is great.

I’m not doing it justice, but I’m also not really trying. This is not a film to have spoiled on an Internet blog. You should go rent this and watch it, and you should do this in the next few days. Put it on your NetFlix queue, and when it shows up, make some popcorn and enjoy it.

If you can’t watch a Hitchcock movie without looking for the director’s cameo, he’s the guy who misses getting on the bus right at the end of the opening credits.

Why to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark: It’s one of the most culturally important American films of the last 50 years, and it’s awesome.
Why not to watch: You no longer are in touch with your inner child.

Why to watch Tampopo: It’s made of perfection.
Why not to watch: If you’re hungry when it starts, you’ll end up ravenous.

Why to watch North by Northwest: Because it’s the greatest movie ever made.
Why not to watch: Because you want to spoil my birthday.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sex and Death

Film: The Big Chill
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.


There are movies that define a generation, I suppose. My generation, those who came into their own through the 1980s, are best defined by the Brat Pack films. We early Gen-Exers tend to find a certain comfort in these movies—they spoke to us when we were still trying to figure out who we were. Of all of them, The Breakfast Club is probably the most complete and the best; we’ll get to that one on this list eventually.

The Baby Boomers have their own sets of movies. I’m not a Boomer, so I can’t say which film is the one most attuned to their particular sensibilities, but The Big Chill probably ranks as one of the top three. As a non-Boomer, I have a definite opinion on this movie as it relates to our aging Baby Boomer population. It fits them. In all deference to my Boomer siblings, everything there is for me to dislike about the generation before mine reaches its greatest flowering in the 105 minutes of this film.

Essentially, the story is this. A guy kills himself. All of his college friends come to the place where he died, which happens to be owned by one of his college friends, and they spend a weekend together reminding themselves of what they used to be and what they are now, and how much they all miss each other.

In typical movie fashion, all of these people are fabulously successful and wealthy. One is a former radio psychiatrist, one has a popular television show, one writes for People Magazine, and on and on. And of course they all show up with their emotional baggage and hang ups, which are thoroughly expressed over the course of the weekend.

Sarah (Glenn Close) and Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) own the South Carolina resort where their friend killed himself. He’s trying to get everyone to invest in a deal that will make them all fabulously wealthy, but no one is buying, and she wants him to shut up about it. Sam Weber (Tom Berenger) has a popular Magnum P.I.-esque television show, as well as a busted marriage. Karen Bowens (JoBeth Williams) has a marriage that is failing, and wants to re-hook up with Sam. She’s given up her writing to be a mother to her children. Nick Carlton (William Hurt) is a drug addict who gave up on his psychiatry career because he felt like he couldn’t help anyone. Oh, and he’s now impotent. Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum) writes for People, and really just wants to start a nightclub. Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place) wants a baby, but can’t find a guy to commit—so she’s looking for someone at the current gathering…except for Michael (and yes, this includes the married guys, with their wives’ approval). And then there’s Chloe, who’s the girlfriend of our stiff, and just as self-absorbed as the rest of them.

And so all of these things come out over the course of the weekend and the principle characters cook big meals, watch football games, and have sex in various configurations. Hey, what the hell, right?

Y’know what? I’m not going to go through all of the permutations of what these people talk about, because this movie is essentially plotless. It’s about the characters in it far more than it is about the events on the film.

And for the sake of brevity (something readers of this blog will note that I am not very good at), I’ll make this quick and dirty. I don’t like these people. They are all self-absorbed assholes. Each one of them spends the entire movie gazing at his or her navel, wondering why he or she isn’t ridiculously happy all of the time and why life is hard. Each one is a special snowflake who should have the world on a damn string, and when things aren’t perfect, they act like little kids told they can’t have a new toy every time they go to the supermarket. These people are jerks; they treat each other like jerks, they talk like jerks, and they act like jerks. They say things that we’re supposed to take as deeply meaningful and important, but these things they say are nothing more than a further expression of their evident belief that the world does and should revolve around their lives.

In short, the constant unspoken refrain of every conversation in this film is a drawn out whine of “What about MY needs?” And with that, the unspoken reality is that each of these people can’t differentiate between what they need and what they want; interestingly, the song played during the funeral scene is the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It’s entirely possible that Kasdan meant this as irony, but having watched the film, I’d need a signed affidavit from him to believe that.

I fully expect to catch grief from people who find this film deep and meaningful.

EDIT: I woke up this morning still mulling aspects of this film over in my head, and something else occurred to me to further fuel my irritation. However, there are some people who may want to (or be forced to) watch this film, and so I'll put this under a spoiler tag.

*** A SELF-INDULGENT SPOILER ***

The culmination of the film comes when Sarah offers her husband to Meg to solve her "I want a baby" problem. I'm certain that this scene was fully intended to be an expression of true friendship and love, but it fills me with nothing but revulsion. Shame on all three of these characters: Sarah for treating her husband like a stud horse, Meg for thinking that having sex with her friend's husband will solve her problems, and Harold for essentially being willing to stud himself out.

This isn't an expression of friendship--this is just another instance of these people reverting back to the "it feels good, so do it" mentality they apparently exhibited in the 1960s. Despite the good deeds they appeared to be filled with in their college days, the only people they really think about is themselves and fulfilling their own desires. And in typical "written by Boomers for Boomers" fashion, most of them get exactly what they want and assume that it was fulfilling a deep-seated need.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is not a jigsaw puzzle. It fits one way, but you sure as hell wouldn't know it from these narcissistic bastards.

*** SELF INDULGENCE IS OVER ***

View at your own risk.

Why to watch The Big Chill: Death causes re-evaluation.
Why not to watch: You’re not a self-absorbed chode.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dogs Like Us

Film: Marty
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Times have changed. There was a time in the world when the stated, or at least understood goal of every young man and young woman was marriage. “Do you know a nice girl he can marry” was every mother’s constant refrain for her bachelor sons. For Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine), he hears it every day. Every customer he gets in his butcher shop tells him he should be ashamed of himself, what with all of his younger siblings married off and him still living at home with his mother at the too-old-to-be-a-bachelor age of 34.


Marty is a sweet guy, perhaps a bit homely (he’s Ernest Borgnine, after all), but a sweet guy. He wants to buy the butcher shop he works at, and he’d like to get married, but he’s decided that whatever women want in a man, it’s something that he doesn’t have. His mother (Esther Minciotti) convinces him to go out to a dance hall despite his reservations, and he goes with his best friend, Angie (Joe Mantell). He’s rejected right away, but this changes when Clara (Betsy Blair) enters with a date who doesn’t much like her, and proves this by ditching her almost immediately. In fact, he offers Marty $5 to take Clara home.

As it turns out, Marty and Clara hit it off. He’s perhaps homelier than most guys, and Clara is plainer than most. But, in true Hollywood style, they’re made for each other. They’re both genuinely nice people. Marty perhaps asks Clara to dance because he feels sorry for her. He’s a sweet guy, and Clara deserves better than her jerk of a date. She deserves Marty.

If that were the whole movie, though, we’d be done after 30 minutes, and there’d never be a reason to watch it. Life for Marty gets complicated immediately after he meets Clara, because it appears that no one else in his life thinks that she’s good enough for him. She’s too plain; she’s not good enough for him. All they see are her faults, which is pretty much what her whole life has been, and what his life has been, too. It’s obvious right away that the two of them are absolutely smitten with each other.

The brilliance of the story is that it’s that old, old story that we all know: “She’s not good enough for my son.” Sure, everyone wants Marty to get married, but nobody really wants him to. His mother doesn’t want to end up on her own like her sister is. Angie doesn’t want to lose his best friend to marriage when he’s still without a girl. It’s very much a case that misery loves company, and Marty is such good company that everyone wants him to stay.

And so, the last third of the movie is Marty trying to justify the fact that he really likes this girl and that she isn’t, as he tells her, so much of a dog as she thinks she is. It’s almost as if the two of them are scared of their own potential happiness, and while the disappointment of being alone is that disappointment, at least it’s something entirely familiar, a known quantity.

I don’t do heartwarming. It’s not really my style of film, or my type of story, but this film is irresistible. I love the fact that the dance hall looks like a junior high dance. The men stand on one side. I love the fact that Marty can’t shut himself up when he talks to Clara, or that Clara can’t help smiling when he does. I love how important it is to both of them that each of them is Catholic.

What can I tell you? This movie is endearing. I can’t help but smile while watching. I like these people and I want them to be happy. Chances are, unless you’re heartless, you will, too.

As an added bonus, this is the only film to every win the Oscar for Best Picture and also win the Palm d’or at Cannes.

Why to watch Marty: Because everyone needs love.
Why not to watch: You’re jaded.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Time Flies Like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana

Film: The Fly
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.


Way back in January, I made the comment that movie remakes suck as a rule, and I stand by that comment. Most of the time, if something is a remake, it’s going to suck. Even if it doesn’t suck, the chances are extremely good that it will not be up to par with the original. Most of the time, something gets lost in the translation. Even a well-made, intelligent remake usually pales in comparison with what came first. The remake of The Manchurian Candidate, for instance, had a great cast and was nicely realized…but the original was better.

There are those celluloid genetic freaks that shine out above their predecessors, though. What everyone thinks of as the definitive version of The Maltese Falcon is actually the third time that story was adapted for the screen, and the second time under that name. It’s possible for a film to improve with a remake. They just usually don’t.

One of those improved films is David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. A campy B-movie when originally made, the 1986 version is streamlined, aggressive, frightening, and pulls no punches in terms of genuine scare and gross-out effects. It’s also a film right in Cronenberg’s wheelhouse; he has a favorite theme, and this one falls right into that theme’s sweet spot.

We start at a science conference where reporter Veronica (Geena Davis) is interviewing a socially backward, slightly maladjusted scientist named Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). He tells her that what he is working on is going to change the world in a very real way, and that she should come and see it, forgetting about the rest of her appointments. She relents after a little struggle, and he takes her back to his lab.

His invention truly does have the ability to change the world. He’s created teleportation. He can move things from one pod to the other—a distance of 15 feet—with a lot of energy and a computer running the system. The one flaw he has is that he can’t move living material, which he demonstrates to a messy conclusion with a baboon. Desperate to keep his work a secret and give Veronica a reason not to publish yet, Brundle invites her to observe his work and write a book on the discovery. She agrees, and the two quickly become an item.

All of this seems to irritate Veronica’s boss, Stathis Borans (John Getz). He’s the editor of the magazine she writes for, and the two of them used to be an item of the friends-with-benefits variety. Borans is nicely named in the sense that he’s boorish, a lout, and a pig. In the real world, he’d be guilty of multiple counts of sexual harassment, but we’re in movie world now, so we’ll let that slide as simply defining the man’s character.

In the way that science seems to work in films, Brundle has a breakthrough and figures out how to teach the computer to understand the nuances of living tissue. He sends through another baboon, this time successfully, meaning that not only has he put FedEx out of business, he’s also managed to put airlines into the homeless shelter as well. He’s not ready to celebrate until he takes the jump, and he wants to wait to make sure the baboon is okay. However, when he believes that Veronica has gone back to the smarmy arms of Stathis, he gets drunk and teleports himself. Unfortunately for him, when he got into the pod, there was a fly with him—but the fly isn’t there when he gets out.

Brundle immediately starts to change. These changes are good initially. He is filled with energy and life, new strength and agility, and (we discover shortly thereafter) superhuman sexual stamina. The changes continue, though, and he slowly starts to deteriorate physically, a process that we witness in the audience in stages. Everything gets even more complicated when Veronica discovers that she is pregnant with Brundle’s child, and she isn’t sure if she got pregnant before or after he fused with the invading insect.

There’s a lot that works here, even if the premise is a little goofy. The chemistry between real-life (at the time) couple Davis and Goldblum is real, and this plays very much as one of the strengths of the film. They’re a cute couple together here, and entirely believable. Goldblum plays characters that are vaguely off in one direction or another very well, and Seth Brundle is off center in most directions, making this one of his best screen roles. Initially, he is what my wife calls “a-dork-able,” and that’s all well and good. It’s under the pounds of prosthetic makeup in the middle and late parts of the film, though, that his performance really shines. Spastic movements and eye rolling that should play as overacting at the very least instead come off as realistic and true under the circumstances.

Cronenberg, as mentioned above, is completely in his element here. Over and over, his films probe the idea of the betrayal of people by their bodies. Crash (based on the Ballard novel, not the film of the same name that won a metric ton of Oscars a few years ago), Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, and on and on in the man’s catalog, this basic idea pops up again and again, here no less than anywhere else. He took it in a different direction in Videodrome and went a lot further in Naked Lunch, but here, the betrayal of the human body by something terribly other is one of the most central ideas. Brundle tampers with the natural world, and the natural world tampers back, and a lot more efficiently.

Despite the age of the film, the makeup effects still hold up. The complete transformation of Brundle to critter perhaps doesn’t work as well as it once did, but for the entire time that Goldblum is under the makeup, it still looks great. This is one of the better features of the film; each time we return to his lab, he has gone through additional physical transformations, almost teasing us with what he will look like next. The only thing guaranteed is that each time we see him, it’s going to be worse, more extreme, and more horrible.

There are certainly some shock moments here, and the film is not for the faint of heart. Three scenes stand out—the arm wrestling scene, the birth of the Brundle baby, and the battle between Stathis and Brundle at the end (notice how I did that without spoilers?). These take the film from its roots as a B-movie with silly costumes and push it toward that horror title it really wants. While nasty, this isn’t what makes this a horror film, though. What does is the battle between Brundle and his fading humanity.

It helps that we care about the characters, even though most of the people in the film are walk-ons with a couple of screen minutes. We learn to like Seth Brundle; we learn that Veronica is a good person who cares deeply for this strange scientist. Even Stathis gets both penance for his wicked ways and redemption by the end of the film. It ends the right way, with the characters where they should be.

All in all, it’s a film not to be missed. Even if you have a weak stomach for film gross-out, The Fly is worth watching. You’ll just need to do it through your fingers a few times.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that while I watched this from NetFlix, I do own a copy. My copy is on VHS, though, and I didn’t feel like digging it out, especially when the streaming version was so darn convenient.

Why to watch The Fly: Cronenberg’s major theme knocked out of the stadium, let alone the playing field.
Why not to watch: More entomology than you care to know.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Make Room for Satan!

Films: Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

It’s October, which is uniquely associated with horror. This, naturally, is because of the presence of Halloween at the tail end. Well, Halloween happens to be my birthday, and it’s been awhile since I’ve had a good scare. That being the case, I’m going to look at some scary stuff today. I’m in that kind of a mood.


Roman Polanski is, or at least was at one point in his career, associated with horror of a sort. Repulsion, which I viewed earlier this year, is a slow descent into madness—an existential horror. This was the first in a loose trilogy of films recounting the horrors of living in the city, and of the three, the most believable. His second is Rosemary’s Baby, famous for any number of reasons, and most of them warranted. The third film in the trilogy is The Tenant, and while plenty weird, is the weakest of the three.

But let’s talk about Rosemary’s Baby, shall we? We have a delightful young couple named Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) apartment shopping. The find a nicely furnished place in an old New York building (shown to them by character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and Rosemary falls in love with it. The price is high, but Guy, who works as an actor, thinks they can handle it, and the two move out of their old place and into the new one. However, before they go, their former landlord Hutch (Maurice Evans) warns them that their new building has something of a morbid history, the most gruesome being a former tenant named Adrian Marcato. Yes, that will be important.

Once in the apartment, Guy throws himself into his work, in part to afford the new place. Rosemary is lonely; we discover that she married the Jewish/Protestant Guy against the wishes of her Catholic parents. While she does have friends, she is alone much of the time, and soon strikes up an acquaintance with Terry (Victoria Vetri). Terry is a former addict rescued by the Castevets, who live on the same floor as the Woodhouses.

Shortly after their first meeting, though, things go south for Terry in a big way. She is discovered having committed suicide by leaping from the seventh floor of the building. Her guardians, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), now bring the Woodhouses into their lives and quickly become surrogate parents for the young couple. Shortly thereafter, Guy’s career gets a huge boost when his main rival for an important role is suddenly struck blind. He throws himself into his work even more, further isolating Rosemary. Despite this, the couple decide that they are ready to start a family. On the night they plan to start, Mrs. Castevet gives them a chocolate mousse (which she pronounces as “mouse”), which may well have something wrong with it. We’re certainly led to believe that it might be drugged. This is presaged by some strange chanting the couple here early in their tenancy.

What follows is one of the two most famous sequences from the film. Rosemary finds herself at the center of what appears to be a Satanic ritual, and disturbingly, she is the real attraction. Essentially, this is a supernatural rape scene, and Guy is not the rapist. Instead, the man in the center of the ring is the Prince of Darkness himself. She thinks it might be a dream, and she awakens with scratches, which Guy attributes to himself being a little wild the night before while she was passed out.

Shortly after this sequence, delusional or not (and despite her protesting), Rosemary discovers that she is pregnant. And everything in her world starts to fall apart. Much like in Repulsion before it and The Tenant after it, paranoia becomes the watchword. Rosemary begins to suspect that her delusion of being raped by Satan is not so much a delusion, but a fact. Things start happening around her and to her. She loses weight and is stricken by terrible pains. The doctor everyone tells her to see, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) prescribes bizarre treatments. She becomes more and more convinced that everyone in the building is a Satan worshipper, and even begins to suspect her husband. This is reinforced by the fact as the film continues, Rosemary looks more and more like she is wasting away.

While the initial set-up of the film is good, it really takes off after the rape sequence. Before this, especially in the opening, it’s a domestic drama. It might just as well be about Rosemary’s boredom and seeking a soulmate, looking in the apartment for someone to have an affair with. But slowly edges into weird, and then takes that hard left turn, and it never comes back. Rosemary slips in and out of paranoid delusions, and as the film continues, we’re led to believe that they aren’t so much delusions or altered reality as they are evidence that her world has slipped entirely into another, much darker and despairing reality. It’s no coincidence that Rosemary’s severe haircut happens just when she begins to feel more vulnerable; it’s almost as if she’s lost a piece of the armor that protects her.

Mia Farrow is also the perfect choice for the role, despite not being originally desired for the part. In this film, particularly with that little haircut, she is elfin and tiny, and always looks so frail and ready to snap. Her perceived frailty is just another thing for the audience to worry about as her paranoia deepens.

Say what you’d like about Polanski. The man can direct a hell of a film. Chinatown might be my personal favorite of his, but Rosemary’s Baby is in many ways a more effective (and affecting) film. What’s most impressive about it is that it so effectively scares the hell out of the audience without showing a single thing, other than a few flashes during the rape. We never get to see the baby, and so we never learn which of several possibilities is the reality. Instead, we only learn Rosemary’s reality. It’s genius.


On the other end of the scare spectrum is Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Where Polanski holds back everything from our vision and leaves the scare entirely in our minds, Argento gives us blood, guts, and some of the most creative murders ever filmed, and these are shown from stem to stern, with nothing left to the imagination. Often, it seems like filmmakers show us the blood and guts when they don’t trust themselves to do a good enough job of scaring us without it. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Argento, who uses it to push the scares over the edge into true creepsville.

I can vaguely remember this film coming out. Vaguely in the sense that I remember seeing a trailer for it on television. The trailer shows a woman from the back in a luridly colored sweater brushing her hair as a lullaby plays. Then the figure turns around, and we see that it’s a skeleton with luxurious black hair. Weird. Totally Argento. That trailer always intrigued me, but I forgot about the film for a long time until I came across it while Internet surfing. That intrigued me even more, and I hunted it down. While I was interested because of that memory of the trailer, it was hearing that Argento’s goal was to make a film that looked like a horror film made by Walt Disney. That I had to see.

The story takes place in Germany, although that’s not terribly important—it’s just sort of vaguely Europe-y. Our heroine, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, who is very Karen Allen-y) is a young dancer, who has chosen to come to Europe to an exclusive conservatory of dance. She arrives late at night and during a rainstorm just as another girl is leaving. This girl is Pat Hingle (Eva Axen, who looks nothing like Pat Hingle, the actor), and she’s leaving because the conservatory has expelled her. She’s convinced that something terrible is happening at the school, but she lives long enough only to tell (and doom) a friend. Pat is killed in one of the most gruesome screen deaths I’ve ever seen. She is attacked through a window, repeatedly stabbed, and then a rope is thrown around her neck. Her body is then placed on a stained glass skylight. She breaks through, and when her body falls, the rope tightens around her neck, finishing the job. Her friend, meanwhile, is diced by the falling shards of stained glass.

Mysterious and terrible happenings continue at the school. Suzy suffers a swooning spell after a servant at the school bewitches her, and that night, all of the girls are attacked by a horde of maggots falling from the ceiling. The next day, the school’s blind piano player’s dog attacks a child and the pianist is released. That night, the dog attacks him brutally, killing him.

Following this, Suzy and her friend Sara (Stefania Casini) begin to investigate the school, but still under the spell, Suzy cannot awaken at night. Sara goes on her own and gets her own brutal death involving a room filled with razor wire, and yes, this is exactly as brutal as you’re imagining, and Argento shows it in gruesome detail. Her disappearance is simply explained away, leaving Suzy on her own to discover the terrible secret of the school.

Originally, Argento conceived of this film as taking place in a school for young girls, but realized (or was told) that with the brutality contained within, no one would release or show it. The killings are horrific, and seeing this done to children would immediately squash any distribution. So he changed the ages of the girls, but changed nothing else. What that means is that much of the dialogue appears geared for pre-teens, and listening to the girls bicker with each other like junior high school kids requires a mental leap. Argento also rearranged the set so that things like doorknobs were set higher, making the girls appear smaller, and more childlike. Additionally, the film is shot with huge blocks of primary and secondary colors. There are huge blocks of blue, red, and green light. Everything is hyper-colorized. The blood looks not like blood, but a thick, red syrup, almost like strawberry ice cream topping or unset Jell-O. It creates a strange non-reality for the film that, to me, adds to the experience even as it makes the film less scary. It’s unsettling and disturbing, though.

The most frightening part of the film is the soundtrack created by Italian prog-rock band Goblin. At times childish, like a music box, at other times the soundtrack pounds with a demonic intensity with wild drums and howling, incoherent vocals. This, almost as much as the bizarre and unsettling visuals, is the driving force behind the film. Listen for yourself—this is the international trailer for the film, and it features Goblin’s work: Suspiria International trailer(This is not safe for kids or those with tender tummies.)

Suspiria is an aggressive film. The shots are intended to be visually unsettling, and they are. A few minutes into the film, there is really no safe harbor for the audience because the world constantly skews further and further away from typical reality. Because of this, there is a haunted quality here, but not a romantic one. There’s nothing romantic about this film. Argento’s demons and witches are hungry ones, rampant, aggressive, and terrible, and stop at nothing to get what they want, both on screen and from the audience watching.

While not the scariest film I’ve seen, or even the most disturbing of this year, Suspiria is absolutely worth watching. There is no other film like it, and few that went this far to be visually innovative. That, and the soundtrack, is what will haunt you, not the action on the screen.

Why to watch Rosemary’s Baby: Terrifyingly scary and showing virtually nothing.
Why not to watch: It’s nightmare fuel.

Why to watch Suspiria: Horror, Disney-style.
Why not to watch: The characters don’t always fit the dialogue.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Good, Bad, Other

Films: Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (The Good the Bad and the Ugly), Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (The Good the Bad the Weird)
Format: DVD from personal collection on middlin’-sized living room television (Ugly), DVD from NetFlix on laptop (Weird).


Say the words “spaghetti Western” to someone and I can virtually guarantee that the first film they will think of is Sergio Leone’s classic Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Start talking about great film soundtracks, it won’t be too long before someone howls “Ah-ee-ah-ee-ah, wah-wah-wah” in imitation of the great Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack—one of the greatest ever, and certainly the most memorable soundtrack for a Western ever done.

For such a long movie, the story is incredibly simple. Three men, the eponymous title characters, discover that hidden somewhere in a graveyard is $200,000 in gold coin. Two of them have one piece of the information while the third has the other piece of information. They fight with each other, team up, chase each other, and eventually all end up at the right spot at the same time for a three-way battle over who ends up dead and who ends up rich.

There are dozens of characters in the film, of course, but only three really matter—the three in the title. The Good (Clint Eastwood) is essentially the Man With No Name from Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Here, he still has no name, but everyone calls him Blondie. He’s good only in the sense that he isn’t one of the other two characters. He’s not a complete bastard or completely evil.

The second important character is the Bad (Lee van Cleef), typically called Angel Eyes but also known as Sentenza. He’s a hired killer and supremely nasty, but he does live by a particular moral code. If he’s paid for a job, he finishes the job. He has no compunctions with killing, hurting, maiming, or otherwise messing with people just because he wants to. At the opening, he learns the name of the man who stole the $200,000, kills the man who told him, and then kills the man who hired the hit—because he was paid to do so.

Our third and final character is the Ugly (the vastly underrated Eli Wallach), the only character who has a name we’re sure of: Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez. Tuco spares himself from being the Bad not because he’s any better. If anything, he has fewer compunctions about killing than Angel Eyes does. He’s also completely ill-mannered, dirty, and brutish.

When our film starts, Blondie and Tuco are pulling a scam on various towns. Tuco has a large price on his head ($2,000 as the film starts). Blondie captures him, drags him into town for the reward, and then shoots the rope on his noose before he can hang. Then, as the bounty goes up, they head to the next town and repeat the scam. When Tuco complains that he deserves more than half because it’s his neck at the end of the rope, Blondie severs the partnership, leaving Tuco with his hands tied in the middle of nowhere.

And so, a large part of the beginning of the film is this rivalry between Blondie and Tuco. Eventually, Tuco catches up and exacts his revenge on Blondie, forcing him to walk across the desert without the benefit of a hat or water. Part way across, though, they run into the man who stole the gold, who is dying. He tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where the gold is hidden, and while Tuco runs to get him water, Blondie crawls up. The dying man gives the name of the grave to him—and now Tuco and Blondie are partners again.

Eventually, they encounter Angel Eyes, who is masquerading as an officer in the Union Army. He beats the name of the cemetery out of Tuco, then teams up with Blondie and a gang of thugs to find the money. But Tuco chases them, reteams up with Blondie, and eventually, the three wind up in the correct place. Before this happens, though, Blondie and Tuco join the Union Army and blow up a bridge.

I was young the first time I watched this film, and I didn’t understand a lot of what Leone was doing. The final showdown, for instance, I thought went on far too long. Watching it now, though, I see Leone’s goal, and this scene is brilliant and I wouldn’t cut a single frame from it. I do think it could be a little shorter, though. The scene where Blondie and Tuco blow the bridge, for instance, isn’t that important. All that happens is Tuco tells Blondie the name of the cemetery and Blondie tells Tuco the name on the grave. It could be cut without much loss.

While this film is a Western in every sense of the word, it may be shocking to many people to realize that it’s not that far west. The film takes place during the American Civil War, and crosses path with the war over and over. It all takes place east of the Mississippi—the cemetery at the end is in Illinois.

Is it the greatest spaghetti Western ever made? If not, it’s second only to Once Upon a Time in the West.


The influence of Leone’s film crosses all boundaries and nationalities, as evidenced by Ji-woon Kim’s Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (The Good, the Bad, the Weird). Unquestionably influenced heavily by Leone’s film, this is a much more modern take in every sense of the word. The themes are a little different, but the plot is very much the same. Three men look for buried treasure while a war (or something like it) happens around their private battle.

The setting is very different, though. Instead of the 1860s in the American Midwest, this story takes place in Manchuria during the 1930s, after the Japanese invasion. The plot centers around an ancient map that allegedly shows the way to a massive treasure buried during the Qing Dynasty.

Initially, the map is sold by the employer of our bad character, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee). Suave, good-looking, and ruthless, Chang-yi always fulfills his contracts. Once the map is delivered, his job is to steal it back. Rather than take the easy way of boarding the train, he hires a gang and stops the train.

What he doesn’t know is that on the train looking to rob the passengers is Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song, who I immediately recognized as the blonde main character in Gwoemul). He’s an evidently simple, goofy (the Weird) train robber, but as it turns out, he has quite a significant past, and ties to Chang-yi. He steals the priceless map before Chang-yi and his thugs can get it.

Also on the train is a bounty hunter named Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) who is our good character. He’s looking to capture Chang-yi for the bounty, and wouldn’t mind grabbing Tae-goo as well. Chang-yi is the prize, though; Do-won is convinced that he is the Finger Chopper, a notorious criminal from Korea who has come to Manchuria. Each of the three is on the road for the treasure, each wants to get rid of the other two, and a gang of criminals as well as the entire Japanese Army want the map as well. Everyone pursues everyone else, lots of people get killed in interesting ways, and eventually, the only three who make it to the correct place on the map are our title characters who duplicate a version of the three-way shoot out.

This is a wonderfully inventive film despite the fact that it is essentially an homage to Leone’s film. There are a number of other sly jokes and references as well—my favorite being Tae-goo dragged by a Jeep like Indiana Jones. No matter the various films being lovingly referenced here, and no matter the 1930s time frame, this is a tribute to Leone’s great work. The characters, the set-up, the ending—everything is a modernized Korean version of Leone. Even the soundtrack is a modernized version of Morricone’s brilliant work, and the camera work during the three-way fight is a shorter, stylized version of the same scene—close-ups of the eyes and the guns and a spinning camera.

Despite this, as I say, this film is wonderfully inventive. The action sequences are tremendous, like very few other films, or at least like no other films made outside of Korea. There’s bloodletting a-plenty and great stunts throughout. Despite the incredible number of deaths and the callousness with which these are often treated, this film is incredibly fun to watch. I almost want to watch it again immediately.

*** THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE SPOILER ***

At the end our heroes duke it out. Unlike Leone’s movie, there are no guns unloaded here. Instead, the trio shoot the hell out of each other, and as they lay dying, a gusher starts up where the treasure was supposed to be. The treasure is oil.

However, after the credits start to roll, we see a wanted poster for Tae-goo, and a figure with a scarf over his face sees it and rides away. The implication is certainly that Tae-goo and Do-won have survived, just like in the original. Do-won is pursuing him because, as it turns out, Tae-goo is the nefarious Finger Chopper who cut off Chang-yi’s left index finger.

*** THE END, THE SPOILER IS OVER ***

The biggest surprise to me isn’t how much I enjoyed this movie. If you’d asked me at the start of the year what I thought of Korean films, I wouldn’t have had much of an opinion. But based on this and a few others, I’m willing to say that Korean cinema is more than up-and-coming. It’s here, and it’s worth watching.

Why to watch Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo: A Western the way it should be done.
Why not to watch: Too long by 20 minutes.

Why to watch Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom: A brilliant homage, and a unique film in its own right.
Why not to watch: The ending is pretty cryptic.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wilkommen, Stranger

Films: Cabaret, The Stranger
Format: DVDs from DeKalb Public Library on laptop


While it’s only been a couple of days since I updated this blog, it feels like weeks. Since it feels like weeks since I’ve watched a movie, jumping right into a style that is generally anathema to me seems like a strange choice. However, it’s been awhile since I’ve watched a musical, and they aren’t going away from the list, so Cabaret it is.

Our story in general centers on Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a performer at The Kit Kat Club in Weimar-era Berlin. It’s a decadent time, in part because of rampant economic depression. Times are difficult for everyone, and to counteract this, places like the sexy, sordid Kit Kat have a booming business as people attempt to hide from their many worries and problems. Sally is a singer in the club, not one of the dancers/strippers, but her act is racy nonetheless.

A great deal of this raciness comes from the emcee (Joel Grey), who invites the patrons (and the audience) to observe the cabaret and enjoy themselves. After a couple of quick musical numbers, we get a much better introduction to our main cast. Sally, we learn, is an American in Berlin. She’d like to be a movie star, and is willing to do anything to get there. If this means she needs to sleep her way to the top, she’s more than willing to do so with anyone who even hints at being able to help her. Morality is slippery in Weimar Berlin, and that seems to suit Sally just fine.

We’re also introduced to Brian Roberts (Michael York), a poor student who has come to Berlin to give lessons in English to make enough money to finish his schooling. He ends up living in the same boarding house as Sally and the odd crew of German citizens, and while he appears to be initially attracted to Sally, he is also wary of her.

One of Brian’s first students is Fritz (Fritz Wepper), a poor gigolo who wants nothing more than to marry into money. Conveniently, another of Brian’s early clients is Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), an heir to a great fortune. That she’s also attractive and young is bonus for Fritz, who immediately begins to woo her.

Meanwhile, Sally and Brian begin a mild (in Sally’s opinion) affair. Things change when she meets Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), a millionaire and a Baron. In short, Maximilian is the man of Sally’s dreams. He’s young, good-looking, and wealthy as all hell. The fact that he’s married isn’t much of an impediment. He has an agreement with his wife that the two of them will stay married but will allow each other to have any sexual escapades they wish. Sally and Brian both spend a great deal of time with him until he eventually ditches them.

At this time, Sally discovers that she is pregnant, and isn’t sure of who the father might be. She considers an abortion, but is convinced out of it by Brian, who intends to marry her. At this point, the real crux of the story shows up, and would require a spoiler—and I don’t really have the wherewithal for it tonight.

I know that this film is based on a play, but I’ve never seen Cabaret staged, so I’m not sure how much of the more lurid and shocking elements in the movie are in the staged drama. We discover right around the time Sally starts considering an abortion that Brian is bisexual, having slept with Maximilian a number of times, just as Sally has. Pretty racy stuff for 1972, although right in the wheelhouse of director Bob Fosse.

At the risk of significantly troubling any Liza Minnelli fans, theater people, or flamboyant gay men in the audience, I really dislike Sally Bowles as a character. She’s annoying. She talks constantly and always about herself and is constantly extreme in her actions and opinions. She needs a good slap across the face to bring her back into a world that isn’t focused directly on her. Brian loses his patience with her at some point, and I almost cheered.

Despite this, and believe me this surprises me entirely, I found this movie extremely watchable. Sally is terribly annoying, and yet she’s also pitiable. She’s so desperate to do anything to get to where she wants to go that she’s immediately degraded. He world and life are so terrible and she is so desperate for that world and that life to be extraordinary that I feel for her despite the fact that I dislike her.

Of course the real show-stopper number is the title song, which comes at the end, and Liza belts it out with real heart. The lyrics here are worth listening to, since they give over the whole story of the film. Also of interest is the role of the emcee. We never see him off the stage, but we do see the progression of Weimar Germany’s descent into national socialism with his act on stage, and eventually the rise of the fascist party, all through what he does on stage.

Surprised that I liked it? I was. It seems to be as real a portrait of Weimar as we can hope to have, or at least as good of one as we’re likely to get with musical numbers. We know from history that Sally is doomed, that much of the world is doomed. It’s likely that Sally knows this deep in her heart as well, but there she is on stage, reaching for that elusive dream anyway.


Cabaret deals with the beginnings of the Nazi takeover in Germany; The Stranger, directed by Orson Welles, deals at least in some respects with the aftermath. Here, the premise is that Nazi war criminals have escaped from Germany and made their way in secret to the United States where they keep their secrets as close as they possibly can, fearful of detection. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is the early version of a Nazi hunter, pursuing a man named Franz Kindler. Kindler was one of the masterminds of the Holocaust, so the capture of him is of intense interest to the American authorities.

To capture Kindler, the authorities release a man named Konrad Meinike with the hopes that he will head directly to Kindler. They arrange for him to escape confinement and he heads to Connecticut, where Kindler is hiding. Kindler lives in a small town where he has taken the name of Charles Rankin (Orson Welles). Rankin teaches at the local school and speaks English with a perfectly decent American accent. In short, his cover is nearly perfect and he is above suspicion.

That is, until Meinike shows up. Meinike has converted to Christianity, and unknown to Rankin, has stopped by the house of Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice and Rankin’s fiancĂ©. Rankin, realizing that Meinike has been released to help the authorities track him down, kills Meinike and buries the body in the woods.

Wilson, however, is a much more implacable foe than the little German man. He begins to suspect Rankin almost immediately, and works to force him to implicate himself. There’s the body in the woods, of course, and Rankin’s history. Additionally, there’s a comment that Rankin makes about Germany that starts Wilson’s mind working. His problem is that he has no proof, and certainly no admission from the man himself. He recruits Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) to help him trap Rankin and force an admission from him. And thus is set in motion a cat-and-mouse game with a number of fascinating twists and turns.

A great deal of the plot centers on a large town clock that is several centuries old. Rankin is fascinated with such things and is working all hours at restoring it, or at least claims this. Much of his time in the clock tower isn’t really spent there at all, but covering his own tracks regarding Meinike and his own past, as well as trying to outwit Wilson. He’s lost none of his cold, calculating nature, which becomes evident about half an hour in when he poisons his wife’s dog to prevent the dog from digging up the body he’s hidden in the woods.

The Stranger is a difficult film to comment on. Of the Welles films I have seen (and I haven’t seen them all by a long shot), it’s the weakest. This isn’t to suggest that the film is not worth watching or that it doesn’t belong on the list, only that I tend to expect a lot more from Orson Welles back when his career was in bloom and he was still more than merely a good filmmaker, but was a great one, and a relevant one.

There’s also nothing specifically disappointing here. The cast is as good as one could find at the time. Edward G. Robinson is stellar in his role, as always, and since he was so easily typecast as a gangster in Little Caesar, it’s great to see him play the role of the good guy here and in other films. Welles himself is dark and brooding, a role he took to pretty naturally, it seems. The film is well-written and directed, and contains any number of memorable speeches. It’s also one of the first post-World War II films to show actual Holocaust footage, even if most of what is shown is actually off-camera.

Is it worth watching? Does it belong on the list? Sure. I think it does. Even a mediocre Welles film from the mid-1940s is as good or better than a great film from most directors. There’s a real intensity to this film that was difficult to find in war pictures of the same era. There’s a feeling throughout not only that Kindler/Rankin is a terrible man who deserves his fate, but a sense of needing to cleanse the world of him. But it’s also realistic. Few people are completely evil or have no positive character traits. Kindler/Rankin, for instance appears to genuinely love Mary and want the best for her. It certainly doesn’t redeem him, but it does humanize him in a way that would be easy to skip, since he’s also a Nazi war criminal who helped conceive of one of the greatest evils in history.

It’s worth a watch, even if Welles made other, better films.

Why to watch Cabaret: A tremendous, gutsy story.
Why not to watch: Sally Bowles is damnably annoying.

Why to watch The Stranger: Film noir at the top of the form.
Why not to watch: Welles made better movies.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shaken, Stirred, and Shiny

Film: Goldfinger
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.


James Bond is a legend, and icon, and an institution. There really is nothing else like James Bond. He’s gone through multiple lead actors, weird phases, smarmy periods, returned to hip, and survived as a franchise for nearly 50 years. It didn’t surprise me that there would be a James Bond film in this list. In fact, I’m kind of surprised there’s only one. There are some pretty bad ones (Octopussy, Moonraker) and some underrated ones (Thunderball, You Only Live Twice), and while there are some disagreements, it’s generally considered fact that the sun rises and sets on the Sean Connery version of 007.

Bond has become such a staple of film history that his personal habits are known. Even casual fans can identify his pistol of choice (Walther PPK), his drink (vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and the line women all over the world seem to want to say to him (Oh, James!).

Is Goldfinger the best of the Bond films? I think so. It does have everything that a Bond film should have—hot babes with names that double as sexual innuendo, cool gadgets that all get used once, and a British secret agent saving the world. That’s the basis for most of 007’s work in film, and that’s what we get here.

This is classic Bond, so we get the classic characters in the important roles. In addition to Connery as 007, we have Desmond Llewelyn as Q (the first time he's called this, short for "quartermaster," in a Bond movie), Bernard Lee as M, and Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary Miss Moneypenny. This film also includes American CIA agent Felix Leiter, who’s actually had more actors play him than Bond has—there have been almost 10 different versions—even the race is inconsistent on Felix from film to film. Here, he’s played by Cec Linder.

Bond is ordered to investigate a man named Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), who has one of the largest private stockpiles of gold in the world. Goldfinger loves to win everything he attempts, and demonstrates this by cheating at gin rummy at a resort where Bond finds him. Bond also finds the woman helping him cheat, a young, attractive woman named Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton). Naturally, Bond lures her away, is attacked after confronting Goldfinger, and awakes to find Jill on his bed nude, dead, and covered in gold paint. (Also, contrary to rumor, Shirley Eaton didn’t die as a result of this makeup. She’s still alive as of this writing.)

Bond pursues and is eventually confronted by Goldfinger and his mute Asian sidekick, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who uses his bowler hat as a weapon. This leads to perhaps the most famous James Bond scene ever filmed—Bond strapped to a table with a giant laser inching toward his groin. Bond talks his way out of this, and then plays cat and mouse with Goldfinger and his private pilot, the wonderfully named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).

Ultimately, both we the audience and Bond the character learn of Goldfinger’s plot. His goal is to hit Fort Knox and the gold reserves there, but there’s no way possible for him to remove the gold. Instead, his plan is to detonate a very dirty nuclear device in the vault, making the gold untouchable for more than half a century, and thus increasing the value of his own gold supply exponentially. It’s actually a pretty cool plan.

There’s no surprises here in terms of how this will all turn out, of course. Bond never loses, and he certainly doesn’t lose here. In any James Bond film, the good guys win and the bad guys lose eventually, and usually get killed in interesting and inventive ways.

What makes this James Bond film so interesting and so worth watching is not the sexual innuendo. It’s not a villainess-turned-hero thanks to the magic of Bond’s sexual prowess, or even the fact that her name is Pussy Galore. It’s not the plot, although it’s a good’un. What makes this film so interesting is that Bond often seems so fallible in it. He barely bluffs his way out of the giant laser, makes wrong choices, is caught off guard at times (notably at the beginning when he is blindsided and Jill Masterson ends up as a statue), and nearly botches the job time and time again. He’s still the greatest secret agent in the world, but he’s not perfect, and this film shows us that in spades.

It doesn’t hurt that Goldfinger himself is a completely loathsome individual worthy of inspiring our hatred, or that Honor Blackman manages to live up to (and help create) the “Bond Girl” stereotype. And there are fun gadgets, like the car with the ejector seat and machine guns that James Bond is known for.

Sure, this film falls into stereotype. Every gadget placed in Bond’s Aston Martin, for instance, gets used once and only once, but we get to see them all. Everything he gets from Q gets its couple seconds of screen time. Every woman he meets ends up in his bed eventually as well—it’s the nature of the beast. It’s important to remember, though, that this film didn’t follow these trends in James Bond films; instead it helped start these tropes that have survived for 40+ years.

Goldfinger is campy and fun, the way classic James Bond should be. The more recent films have taken a darker turn, and it’s good to remember a time when James Bond meant scantily clad women, whiz-bang toys, and an agent with a Scots accent.

Why to watch Goldfinger: The best Bond, bar none.
Why not to watch: It is a little smarmy after all.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How Much is One Man Worth?

Film: Saving Private Ryan
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.


There was a time in cinematic history when war movies followed a particular formula. The bad guys were very, very bad and the good guys were very, very good. In fact, in American war movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Americans were generally heroic, never faltering in their unwavering ability to fulfill their duty against overwhelming and terrible odds. The good guys came out on top, and when they died, they died like men, fulfilling an objective, saving their fellow troops, or perhaps even turning the tide in a battle. In movies about World War II, there’d always be a guy from Brooklyn who wondered how the Dodgers were doing, and the minute a guy showed someone a picture of his girlfriend back home, he’d be killed.

Modern war movies have become far more realistic in that sense. In modern war films, people often die without it advancing the plot in a particular way. People die because they’re in a war, and that’s what happens in a war. People break down, cry, fall apart, and want their mothers. It may not be the sort of Boy’s Own adventure that war had always been depicted as, but it certainly seems much more believable.

This shift started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I think, when films started to be made about the Vietnam War. Films like The Deerhunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon took the romance out of war films and made them into something terrible to behold. While these films started he trend, perhaps no film displays it more effectively than Saving Private Ryan, a film that in many ways remade the war film.

What people who have seen this film remember most about it is the long, terrible scene of the D-Day invasion. It is a scene impossible to describe in any detail save that it is all horrific. Men dying, limbs blown off, intestines on the ground next to them, carnage, blood. The most striking image is probably the man, his arm blown off at the elbow, picking up his missing hand and walking away with it, but the one that stays with me is of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) picking up his helmet off the beach and pouring blood out of it before putting it back on. A number of combat veterans had flashbacks caused by this opening scene according to reports, and I believe it. It’s that intense and terrible. I’ve seen this film before, and it was this part that I was dreading.

From here we learn that in the D-Day invasion and previously, three young men named Ryan were killed. All three are brothers, and the fourth, Private James F. Ryan (Matt Damon) is at least potentially alive somewhere in France. It is imperative in the minds of the men running the American side of the war that Private Ryan be returned home, his family already having given so much to the cause.

To do this, Capt. Miller is rounded up and sent in search of Private Ryan, who dropped with the 101st Airborne, who were scattered over hill and yon in the French countryside. Going with Miller are his sergeant, Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and privates Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Reiben (Edward Burns), and Caparzo (Vin Diesel). Additionally, since both of the translators in his squad were KIA in the invasion, accompanying the group is Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), who has never been in combat, but speaks both French and German.

And this is your movie. After the short introduction of an old gentleman at the Arlington National Cemetery, we flashback to D-Day, and then it’s a manhunt in the French countryside. Of course, since much of this countryside is controlled by the Germans at this point, this is not a happy romp in the park. We learn a bit about the men as they search, and they encounter several pockets of German resistance along the way. At one point, Caparzo is killed attempting to rescue a child, and Wade is killed when the group attacks an enemy machine gun nest.

This is one of the key scenes. Reiben attempts to turn around and leave, since it wasn’t necessary for the squad to take out the machine gun nest, and it cost them their medic. Up to this point, one of the continuing threads is that no one knows much about Capt. Miller. To defuse the situation, he tells everyone where he’s from and what he did in civilian life. It’s also a key scene because it involves the capture of a German combatant, who pleads for his life. The entire squad wants to kill him because of the loss of Wade, adding to the tension in the scene.

Eventually (with a good hour left in the film, actually), the squad finds Ryan as part of a small group of under-manned and under-equipped soldiers holding one of two critical bridges. The Germans are mounting a counteroffensive to take the bridge and halt the Allied advance. Knowing this, Ryan refuses to leave, preferring instead to stay with his comrades who have fought alongside him up to this point. This sets up the counterpoint to the D-Day invasion, as the Germans roll in with several dozen infantry and a set of tanks.

It’s interesting to me to see the number of well-known actors who show up here for just a couple of minutes of screen time. For instance, Dennis Farina is in the film for a couple of minutes as the Lieutenant Colonel who gives Miller his mission. Paul Giamatti is in a couple of scenes as a sergeant in an advanced position (right around where Caparzo gets picked off). The Captain leading that group, Captain Hamill, is played by Ted Danson. Finally, and most amusing to me, is that when the squad finds the wrong Private Ryan (James Frederick Ryan from Minnesota instead of James Francis Ryan from Iowa), it’s Nathan Fillion from Firefly. Additionally, a glider pilot encountered by the squad is played by Leland Orser, who’s a “that guy” from a lot of films (most memorable to me as the guy wrapped in a blanket from the lust murder in Se7en). I like Leland Orser, and I’m a little smug that I can identify him.

Ultimately, the brutality of war is truly depicted here. There are plenty of senseless deaths, and every life is constantly on the line. We see men in combat as they truly are, and while there are heroics here, most of what we see in the combat sequences is men simply trying to stay alive by killing the other guys first. Upham, it turns out, acts like many of us probably would in combat and like none of us would want to—he breaks down completely—something we wouldn’t have seen in a film like this from three or four decades previous. Some of the deaths we witness close-up. Wade’s death is particularly terrible. He realizes where he’s been shot, asks for more morphine, and then asks for his mother before expiring. It’s wrenching, as are a few of the other deaths that happen on screen. These are probably best handled as spoilers.

***SAVING YOUR MOVIE EXPERIENCE***

We do see some deaths up close and personal, like Wade’s, and near the end, like Capt. Miller’s. He actually gets a death scene, grabbing Ryan and telling him to earn what has been done for him with the rest of his life. Other deaths are only implied. Jackson, in a bell tower acting as a sniper, is blown up by one of the German tanks. We see only the explosion, not him dying.

Of all of the deaths, the most terrible is Mellish’s. Fighting hand to hand with a German soldier, the German slowly inches a knife into Mellish’s chest.

The film ends with the return to Arlington, and we probably don’t really need to morph from Matt Damon’s face into the older version of Ryan at the end. We know at this point it’s Ryan. The only other survivors from the squad are the cowardly Upham and Reiben, who tried to leave earlier.

***RETURN TO COMBAT***

Despite the carnage and brutality here, there is certainly a nod to those earlier, propaganda-filled war pictures of yesteryear. When Ryan determines that he will not return until the bridge is reinforced, it’s Sgt. Horvath who essentially sums up the film, saying, “Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess.” Even in this terrible place, there’s still a sense of honor and nobility. And that’s something special.

Why to watch Saving Private Ryan: The most influential war movie of the last 20 years.
Why not to watch: Carnage, pure and simple. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Charge of the Light (Horse) Brigade

Film: Gallipoli
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.


World War I isn’t a big seller in American films. I think there are a few reasons for this. For one, we weren’t in the war that long. The U.S. didn’t enter until 1917, and the war ended in November of 1918. Unlike cinematic war favorites like World War II and the Vietnam War, our troops were there for a cup of coffee before the whole thing ended (and no, I’m not diminishing the sacrifices made. All wars are terrible, and almost all deaths in war are tragic). Essentially, if the war is looked at as a story, we showed up in Chapter 20. From an American perspective, there’s not enough there.

The other reason that World War I shows up rarely in American films is the nature of the war itself. The wars that followed the Great War were mobile affairs, with troop movements, air battles, naval engagements, tanks, pushes against enemy strongholds, and shifting fronts in all theaters. Certainly WWI had the beginnings of aerial combat, the first tanks, and its share of naval battles, but the bulk of the ground war was static. Men sat in trenches and rushed up over the side. The front didn’t move more than a few miles for months at a time. There’s only so much you can do with guys holding machine guns and staring at each other.

This is less true for other countries, who were more involved in the war, and thus we have Gallipoli, an Australian film about the soundest military defeat suffered by the Aussies in the First World War. As in most war films, the scope of the battle at hand or the war in general is far too big for us to concentrate on that. Instead, we focus on a small group of potential soldiers and follow their path as they go from joining up to the battlefield.

First among these is Archy (Mark Lee), who lives on a farm in the west of Australia. Archy is a sprinter, and a good one, trained by his grandfather, Jack (Bill Kerr). In preparation for his first major race, Archy takes a bet and damages his feet badly, but still goes on to compete, against the wishes of his father. It’s evident that Archy wants to join up despite being too young. Jack wants him to concentrate on his running instead.

We also encounter a quartet of youths, also in the western part of Australia. These are Dunne (Mel Gibson), Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue). All but Dunne are keen to join up as well—women love a man in uniform, and the Australians are currently in the war fighting against the German ally Turkey. With such glowing press, the three are ready to fight. Dunne, however, is a sprinter like Archy, and has other plans for himself.

Archy and Dunne face off at a race in which Dunne bets on himself and loses, leaving him without a cent to his name. He and Archy attempt to reach Perth when Archy is prevented from joining up. Archy wants to get in, and will fake his identification to do so. Dunne still has no real desire—his goal was to win his bet and open up a bike shop. However, down on prospects and hoping perhaps to impress a few saucy farmer’s daughters the pair meet along the way, Dunne attempts to join the light horse cavalry like Archy. Archy gets in, and Dunne, since he doesn’t know his way around a horse, does not.

Instead, he meets his three mates from back home, who drag him along into the infantry. We get a rush through boot camp, a quick reunion of Archy and Dunne, and a transfer of Dunne to the light horse at this late stage. And then all of them are shipped off to the Gallipoli peninsula to fight for real.

And here’s where the film takes a hard left turn. Up to this point, this film is fun, carefree, silly, even joyous. And then we get to the war, and the proposed landing of British troops on the peninsula. The Australians’ job will be to force the Turks to turn away from the beaches. They’ll do this by shelling the Turkish positions, and then charging the trenches. At this point in the film, we’re most of the way through. We get through the first hour and a half or so without anyone really being in danger of anything more than a venereal disease from an Egyptian prostitute during training. But suddenly, the war gets very, very real.

As the film tells the story, a British commander adamantly sends the Australian forces over the top and into the face of Turkish machine gun fire over and over, despite the fact that the Aussies are being almost completely wiped out on every assault. Most of them don’t get more than a few feet before being cut down, and yet the orders continue to come to essentially commit suicide in the face of the Turkish guns. I don’t know if this is historically accurate or not; frankly it seems far too “movie” to be anything less than an exaggeration at best. However, it is very powerful and moving here.

Eventually, it comes down to a foot race, like the start of the film. Dunne is working as a runner at this point, looking for a way to prevent the troops from being forced over the top to certain death again. As the time comes nearer and nearer for Archy’s turn up and over, Dunne races against time to get word back to halt the attacks. It’s a tense moment.

Is this an anti-war film? I’m not sure. Like many films that are ostensibly anti-war, it appears to me to be much more anti-stupidity. As such, it has a message that has not lost any of its value. If I do have a complaint, it’s the soundtrack. Gallipoli was filmed in 1981, long before Mel Gibson was anything like a true international star (and long before he became so publically anti-Semitic and weird). As a film of that era, it has a very 1981 synthesizer soundtrack that clashes (for me) with the time period of the film. The cheese factor on the music is very, very high.

Why to watch Gallipoli: It’s good to be reminded that stupidity and obstinacy are bad.
Why not to watch: The grating soundtrack.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

Film: The Birds
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.


Alfred Hitchcock really made only two films that can be classified as horror. Certainly he had scares a-plenty in a lot of his work, and almost everything he did had a touch of the morbid, but only twice did he really delve into horror. The first time was Psycho, which was part psychological horror film and part thriller. His next film was The Birds, which was straight out scare.

Horror movies tend to be either ridiculously complex or are able to be summed up in a sentence or two. The Birds is the second variety. Essentially, a number of flocks of birds attack a coastal town in California. There is no explanation for this. The birds attack; the birds fly away and come back to attack again.

Our main character here is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who is sort of the low-end Paris Hilton of her day. She’s the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher in San Francisco, and she raises hell for fun, pulling practical jokes on people because she knows she can get away with it. Our introduction to her, though, is in a pet store that specializes in birds. She’s looking for a myna bird that she has ordered, and we learn that it will be a gift to her strait-laced aunt, after Melanie teaches it a couple of choice phrases, naturally.

While in the store, she is approached by Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor, who is sort of Robin Williams-y). Looking to play a joke on him, she pretends to be an employee, but it’s quickly obvious that she knows nothing about birds. He calls her on it, and claims to know her, or at least be familiar with her various stunts. Sparks fly between the two. He claims to have wanted a pair of lovebirds, and after he leaves, Melanie orders a pair. She also tracks him down through her connections at her father’s newspaper.

As it turns out, Mitch Brenner spends his weekends in Bodega Bay with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and his much younger sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). It’s his sister he wanted the lovebirds for, so Melanie follows him to the city and discovers where he lives. She also verifies the name of the sister with the town’s school teacher, Annie Hayworth (the wonderful and often underrated Suzanne Pleshette). Anne, it turns out, has a bit of thing for Mitch Brenner.

Melanie plays her joke on Mitch, but as she sails back across the bay, she is attacked by a seagull. And then things start to get interesting. She and Annie find a dead bird on Annie’s front porch, evidently crashing itself into the house, and at Mitch’s place, his mother Lydia complains that her chickens have stopped eating. Suddenly all of the birds in town are acting strangely. The next day, Lydia heads out to talk to a local farmer and finds a gruesome sight—the birds have attacked in the night, broken into his bedroom, and killed him, pecking out his eyes.

The birds next attack the school where Cathy is, then outside a diner where they cause a pretty cool explosion. And then, they attack the Brenner home, attempting to peck their way in against all of the defenses that Mitch has nailed up. Poor Anne gets brutally pecked to death at one point. And again, there is absolutely no explanation for any of this. The birds attack, fly away, and attack again, and no one knows or discovers why.

This lack of a reason, for some films, would be a detriment, but here it works. This is terror that happens just because it does. There aren’t years of abuse in the birds’ childhoods, none of them were neglected by mommy bird. They just start to attack, and because of sheer numbers and surprise, are incredibly effective at causing havoc in Bodega Bay, and as we hear on the radio at the end, in a few other places as well.

What I didn’t realize until this viewing of the film, though, is that The Birds is actually a zombie film. Sure, it came out half a dozen years or so before Romero’s film, but that doesn’t change the fact that these two films have a great deal in common, enough that I can virtually guarantee that Romero watched the last 20 minutes of this film over and over while writing his own. So this is another thing we can thank Hitchcock for—he rewrote the idea of the thriller through the bulk of his career, he helped invent the slasher film with Psycho, and he did the same thing with zombie films here.

Really, the boarding up of the house, the scene of the bird attack, with birds coming through the windows and Mitch fighting them back, then them attempting to come in from another part of the house is almost certainly what Romero studied for his film. He just lengthened the scene dramatically and changed the foes from birds to undead ghouls. This may be one of the reasons I like this film so much: its influence on the horror genre is palpable and obvious.

It’s true that many of the visual effects don’t work as well now as they did 40+ years ago. It’s not that difficult in most places to tell what’s a real bird and what’s not, but that doesn’t change the effectiveness of the scare. The rest is best covered in spoilers.

*** BIRD ATTACK! ***
This is a very dark and troubling film throughout, with no real hope of a positive resolution at the end. Instead, the film simply ends with our characters driving away. We get no sense that this is an isolated incident or that the Brenners and Melanie will get to San Francisco safely, only that they’ve managed to get away for now, and only because the birds let them. One of the better established facts here is that the car they are in is a ragtop convertible, which means if the birds do attempt to go for them, our heroes have little if any protection from beaks and claws.

However, before this scene is the one where Melanie is attacked in the upstairs room. She goes up and looks in to what is almost certainly Cathy’s room and sees that the birds have managed to tear open a part of the wall and ceiling, and have roosted inside. Melanie strangely but believably gets caught in the room with the birds and is attacked, pulled out at the end by Mitch. It’s at this moment that I really fell in love with the film. When Mitch tries to bandage her, Melanie panics and flails, and following this, for the next few minutes at least, her eyes are completely dead. It’s fantastic. She’s completely broken from the woman she was at the start of the film.

Additionally, there’s a nice counterpoint between her and Lydia. In the middle of the film after Lydia finds the farmer with his eyes pecked out, Melanie acts as nurse for her, and in fact goes to rescue Cathy while Lydia complains of not being strong enough to cope without others. At the end, Melanie is driven away from the house with her head on Lydia’s shoulder. Now Lydia is the strong one.
*** THE BIRDS FLY AWAY ***

I love this film. It’s obvious to me that the guys who did Mystery Science Theater 3000 loved this film, too, because they referenced it constantly. They especially liked the diner scene, and referenced the woman screaming at Melanie and the drunk Irish guy saying “It’s the end of the world” frequently. And really, who can blame them?

Why to watch The Birds: Because Hitchcock is freakin’ awesome.
Why not to watch: You’ll never look at a chicken dinner the same way again.