Saturday, April 30, 2011

Beat Down

Film: The Wrestler
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Darren Aronofsky’s films are not happy. I’m not saying that he’s untalented; on the contrary, I think he’s one of the most talented filmmakers currently working, and the buzz about last year’s Black Swan would suggest I’m not alone in that opinion. But he does make films that are difficult to enjoy. I respect his work, I even get excited seeing he’s the director of something, since I know I’m going to see something remarkable. But I don’t know if I can truly say that I’ve ever enjoyed watching one of his films. This was true of Pi, it was incredibly true of Requiem for a Dream, and it’s true of The Wrestler.

It would be a stretch to say that Mickey Rourke was born to play the title character in the film, but it certainly appears that he’s been in training for it the last 20 years or so—he looks like 10 miles of hard road. Our character is Robin Ramzinski, better known to wrestling fans the world over as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Randy was one of the true superstars of professional wrestling in its 80s heyday in the world of the film, and now, in 2008, he’s still wrestling. That hasn’t changed.

Everything else has, though. For one thing, he’s 20 years older. And he’s no longer selling out Madison Square Garden. Instead, he’s wrestling in front of crowds of a couple hundred in Podunk arenas, and getting paid so little that he has a day job at a grocery store and frequently gets locked out of his trailer because he can’t make the rent.

What he wants, obviously, is back on top, even if he knows he can’t get there due to his failing body. In the ring, even going against newbies and wannabees, he’s still Randy the Ram. Outside the ring, he wears a hearing aid and glasses. Still, wrestling is the only thing he’s good at, and he always wants to put on a show. He does so every match, putting himself through incredible torture and physical pain to give the dwindling crowds the show that they paid for.

After matches, Randy frequents a stripclub called Cheeques, where he favors a dancer named Pam, stage name Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who evidently did not use a body double for the stripping scenes). Like Randy, Pam/Cassidy has some miles on her, and not all of these are hidden by the lights of the club. We are introduced to her attempting to sell a dance to some guys who aren’t interested in her, since she’s evidently old enough to be their mother.

Randy also has a daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), from whom he is estranged. He’d like to reconnect with her, but he’s not sure how to do it.

And that’s the movie in a nutshell, sort of. Since this is an Aronofsky movie, you can expect that things will sometimes bump up a bit, but will mostly be on a rocket ride straight down to the basement.

What really gets the plot moving here is when Randy is reminded that the 20th anniversary of his classic match with an old foe named The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) is coming up. His promoter would like to stage a rematch, because the gate might be massive, and Randy could really use the payday. Unfortunately, the Ayatollah has been out of the wrestling game for years and now owns a car dealership in Arizona. It’s possible he’ll agree to do it anyway, though, and Randy could really use the payday. However, he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match, has an emergency bypass, and is told that he should never wrestle again.

And so he retires and attempts to make something of what is left of his life. He really attempts to reconcile with Stephanie, tries to get something going with Pam/Cassidy, and asks for more hours at his day job so that he can do something other than take beatings in the ring every week. And, this being an Aronofsky movie, everything he attempts is eventually doomed because Randy can’t get it through his brain that his glory days are long gone and that maybe wrestling should stay in the past for him.

I’m not a wrestling fan by any stretch, but it is the wrestling scenes in this film that are the most memorable. The matches are brutal. The first, with a wrestler named Tommy Rotten (Tommy Farra), involves Randy using a small piece of razor blade to slice open his own forehead because the crowd responds to the blood (and allegedly, Rourke actually cut his forehead with a razor blade for realism). Things get far worse in his battle against a wrestler who calls himself Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers). This is a hardcore match, which means that it involves a number of props for the wrestlers to use on each other. Necro Butcher, for instance, favors a staple gun, which he uses on himself and on Randy. Randy gets gouged with barbed wire, gets glass ground into his back, and his stapled what seems like a few hundred times all over his body.

This scene is the most difficult to watch, and is also the most Aronofsky-esque moment of the film. After this match, Randy is seen to by a doctor and has the staples removed from his body and the pieces of glass dug out of his back. Once finished, Randy slowly stands up and walks to the shower, and his body looks like a battlefield, covered in pits, holes, gashes, and scars. It is a testament to what Randy has done for his fans and his craft, as well as an indication of how violent and thrill obsessed his audience is.

Another telling scene for me comes a bit before this—we see Randy’s training regimen. This includes getting his hair dyed surfer boy blonde, stints in the tanning bed, and massive amounts of steroids and other supplements in both pill and injectable forms. He’s sold these, and offered half an additional pharmacy, by a man who is powered-by-anabol huge.

I’m not a Mickey Rourke fan. I think the guy had talent way back when and pissed it away trying to have a boxing career and prove that he was a tough guy rather than just being a really good actor and finding good roles for himself. Sometime after Barfly, he started taking worse and worse roles in poorer and poorer scripts. That The Wrestler might be the best thing he’s ever done doesn’t say much, sadly, since so much of his history is so bad.

That may be true, but it’s also true that his performance in this film is one of the great performances of the last decade. Randy the Ram is a real person, a guy who you’d really like to root for, a guy you want to see something go right for. He’s a modern, steroid powered version of Rocky Balboa in a lot of ways. He’s a loser, and despite once being famous enough to have action figures in his likeness and starring in video games, there’s a real sense of him being an Everyman who has been kicked around by the system.

I still can’t say I enjoyed watching an Aronofsky movie, but I grow more and more impressed with the man’s work the more I see it. The Wrestler is not just the best movie about wrestling you’re likely to see (although you should also hunt for the documentary Beyond the Mat), it’s one of the best sports movies ever made.

Why to watch The Wrestler: The strength of Mickey Rourke’s performance.
Why not to watch: There are moments of this film that are brutally difficult to watch.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Romance Vs. Romantic Comedy

Films: Queen Christina, Love Me Tonight
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Often, these films are nothing more than names on a list to me until I actually watch them. Such is the case with Queen Christina. I had no idea this film concerned the reign of the historical Swedish queen of the 17th Century. As it happens, I recently read a book on the life, philosophy, and strange fate of the remains of philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes died in Sweden after being summoned there by Christina herself. A strange little coincidence for me (and it was a personal joy for me to hear a Descartes mention early in the film).

The historical Christina (according to “Descartes’ Bones”) was an unusual monarch. She had been essentially raised as a boy, and comported herself as a man, so much so that there are a few historians who believe she may have been one. The historical Christina abdicated her throne eventually because of her conversion to Catholicism—a scandal in the almost exclusively Protestant Sweden. We won’t have to worry about any of this here—Christina is played by the entirely feminine Greta Garbo, and this film is a romance.

There are a few nods toward the real Christina here—Garbo tends to go clad in men’s clothing, and successfully passes herself off as a man at one point in the film. While this film hardly purports itself to be anything like historical truth, it’s nice that there’s at least something of a wink toward the reality.

Anyway, Christina is named Queen of Sweden at the age of six when her father, Gustavus Adolphus, is killed in the middle of the 30 Years War. She proclaims that she will lead her forces to victory, bringing Sweden to its rightful place as the foremost country in Europe. Jump cut, and suddenly the 30 Years War has been going on for about 30 years, and Christina is an adult. The court clamors for her to marry her cousin, Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), a hero of the war. However, Christina has dedicated herself to ruling her people as well as she can, and has thus avoided any romances and romantic entanglements.

She also wants peace, and a little time to herself. After a day of being in council and being berated by everyone in her court, she longs for some time to herself. She heads off for a ride in the country and happens to come across a carriage that has become mired in some heavy loose snow. As it turns out, the carriage holds the Spanish ambassador to her court. He has about 17 names, but goes by Antonio (and is played by one-time Garbo fiancé, John Gilbert). She helps them out of the snow, and by virtue of her clothing, she is assumed to be a man.

Christina and her servant, Aage (C. Aubrey Smith), end up at a country inn. So too does the Spanish ambassador. Because of the weather, the innkeeper has run out of rooms, and the “young lord” who is actually Christina and Antonio must not only share a room, but a bed. And it isn’t too long after this happens that Antonio discovers that the “young lord” is in fact a young woman (and played by Garbo, no less). And so romance blooms, him unaware that she is the queen.

The problem happens when the people of Sweden react badly the fact that their queen is being romanced by a foreigner, since they wish for only a purely Swedish heir to sit on the throne. They wish nothing to do with the Spaniard, and want him removed. Christina must decide between what is best for her country and what is best for her, and the decision is not an easy one.

This is quite an impressive film in a number of respects, not the least of which is Garbo’s performance. In many moments, the film almost appears like a stage play, complete with overacting and shouted dialogue. In the quieter moments, though, it is quite subdued. Director Rouben Mamoulian features a number of extreme close-ups of Garbo’s face throughout the film, almost as if to prove he’s actually working with Garbo. They come across very well; Garbo’s star rose because she was so extremely photogenic.

What I find especially interesting here is the gender bending throughout the film. Except in a couple of scenes where Garbo is in elaborate dresses because of affairs of state, she dresses in men’s clothing. The scenes in which she is taken for a man are perhaps not entirely believable (after all, she’s one of the greatest screen beauties in history), but anyone not looking too carefully at her face would be fooled by the pants. And then there’s her relationship with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young). It’s slightly implied that the two might be a little more than friends; again, an interesting idea for a film from 1933.

This film also features some truly horrible rear projection work, among the worst I’ve seen. I know the technology was rudimentary in the early 30s, but it’s hard to ignore when people riding in carriages appear unnaturally large against the scenery behind them. I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t have been able to tell—even good rear projection work is obvious—but this was really wretched. However, it’s a tiny piece of the film, and easily overlooked.

That’s good, because it should be overlooked. Queen Christina is a true romance from start to finish, with performances that, while over the top, are still worth watching today.

Sticking with the same director, we jump back a year to Love Me Tonight, a musical that features the dubious talents of Jeanette MacDonald. Okay, that’s not really fair.

Just as Queen Christina is a true romance, Love Me Tonight is a true romantic comedy, and a screwball comedy at that. We start with, and I mean this sincerely, one of the great opening sequences of its time. The city of Paris wakes up, and everything happens in a rhythm that slowly and steadily grows, each new person or thing entering the scene adding to the overall music. It slowly builds and builds until we meet Maurice (Maurice Chevalier), who good naturedly complains that the city is too loud for him. Maurice is a tailor, and a good one. He also likes to sing

It’s his bad luck to create a great deal of clothing for Viscount Gilbert de Vareze (Charles Ruggles). Gilbert has a habit of not paying any of his debts, and now Maurice wants his money, and he wants to be able to pay off those who also made clothes for the Viscount—the shirtmaker, the hatmaker, and the rest. So he heads off to the chateau.

On the way, the car breaks down, and he encounters Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who is naturally singing when he sees her. He’s immediately smitten with her, and sings to her as well, and when he makes a play for her, she spurns him. Undaunted, Maurice heads to the chateau. If you guessed that Jeanette lives at the chateau, it’s because you’ve seen either a musical or a romantic comedy before.

We learn a number of important things at this time, too. First, Jeanette is just 22, but has been a widow for three years. Her husband was in his 70s, and she was married to him because there seems to be a paucity of eligible nobility in the area. Her doctor recommends that she be married soon, and to someone her own age. Second, Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth) is making a play for Jeanette despite being something of a wimp and not really of high enough nobility to properly court her. Third, the Duke D’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith) is more than tired of all of the craziness around him, particularly Gilbert’s massive debts. Finally, de Savignac has a niece named Valentine (Myrna Loy) who is man crazy.

To save himself, Gilbert introduces Maurice as Baron Courtelin, Of course, there is no title of Baron Courtelin, which is soon discovered, and anyway, Maurice can’t help but be obsessed with clothing, which outs him as a tailor. And he continues to court Jeanette, who resists, doesn’t resist, and then resists again.

This is a fun movie, and it is absolutely a movie. The characters here are the sort of extreme characters that only exist in Hollywood, and more specifically only exist in screwball comedies from this era. Everyone is just a shade too wacky to be a real person, but it’s okay. This is what we should expect from a film of this genre and this era.

You might not be familiar with Maurice Chevalier, but you’re probably familiar with Pepe le Pew, who was modeled on him. Chevalier is the guy you think of when you think of the extreme French stereotype—the “Hauw hauw hauw” laugh and goofy accent and all. While he’s a stereotype, or became one, he’s still pretty charming. And he can sing.

Jeanette MacDonald, of course, made her name as a singer with Nelson Eddy. Her style was particularly operatic, which grates on me. I like her quite a bit when she’s not singing, though. She has good comic timing, and she’s fun when she’s not warbling somewhere north of high C. She can also pull off a non-operatic style, and in those songs, she’s quite a bit more bearable.

Where this movie really sings (pun intended) is in the filming of a number of the musical numbers. The opening piece is a real show-stopper, and starts things off tremendously. “Isn’t it Romantic” is sung in parts, moving from person to person across a great deal of Paris in a truly inventive sequence. “Lover,” a romantic song, is played her for comedy, since Princess Jeanette sings it to her horse. This is fun stuff.

There are other fun bits, too. Jeanette has a trio of aunts who move and talk in unison. During a fainting spell, the three aunts run down the stairs of the chateau clucking like mother hens, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed at this genuinely, backed up, watched it again, and laughed just as hard the second time.

All in all, musicals are not my thing, but this one goes down pretty easily thanks to a fun script and story, a very good cast, and some inventive work in staging by Mamoulian. It was better and much less painful than I could have hoped, and that says a lot.

Why to watch Queen Christina: The romance is quite sweet and tragic, the way good romance should be.
Why not to watch: It’s a romance, not a romantic comedy. The difference is significant.

Why to watch Love My Tonight: Some truly inventive filming in the musical numbers.
Why not to watch: It’s a musical, and it conforms to musical “sensibilities.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

He'll Rip Your Lungs Out, Jim

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

Horror films have come a long way. In the early days of film, horror movies either didn’t or couldn’t show much in the way of anything truly terrifying or gory. Everything had to be implied, which in many ways is more effective than just showing everything to the audience. Still, for a modern horror fan, many of the old films leave a lot to be desired because they seem so tame. When you’ve seen a guy have his intestines bitten out by zombies or watched someone cut through his own ankle with a hacksaw, seeing someone recoil in horror at an off-screen nasty feels like the kiddie ride at the amusement park.

And yet there’s still some real value in some of these old classics. The Wolf Man is a case in point. Like many of the old classic monster films, there’s a certain level of goofy here that’s hard to overcome. For instance, there’s no sane reason that a guy who turns into a wolf should kill people by strangling them rather than tearing out their throats, save that strangulation involves a lot less blood and gore, and in 1941, that was pretty important.

The Wolf Man contains a level of tragedy that most horror films do not, at least for the time. Back then, in movies, the good guys won and the bad guys lost. Oh, the heroes might go through some real trials or have the odds stacked up against them, but you knew going in that they’d eventually prevail. Take a look at a film like Dracula. You know going in that Count Dracula is going to end up staked or exposed to sunlight, or something and that the heroes you’ve rooted for the entire time will be on the other end and will walk into clean, clear daylight when all is wrapped up.

That’s where this film differs from most of the genre. Our hero is Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who has returned home to Wales on the death of his brother in a hunting accident. Larry is estranged from his father (Claude Rains), but is using this family tragedy to make an effort to reconcile. While there, he becomes interested in a local girl named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and buys a walking stick with a wolf-shaped head on it from her shop.

Later, Larry rescues Gwen’s friend Jenny from an attack by a wolf, but is bitten in the process. Of course, the wolf was not merely a wolf, but a werewolf, and now Larry has been afflicted with lycanthropy. He meets an old gypsy woman named Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who tells him that her son Bela (Bela Lugosi) was the wolf he killed—the same fortune teller he visited on the night of the attack.

Larry struggles with his new affliction and does what he can to prevent himself from turning into a two-legged wolf prowling the Welsh countryside looking for victims. But like any wild beast, the countryside rises up against him and he soon becomes a hunted creature.

And this is what makes this film such a tragedy. Larry Talbot is a really nice guy. He doesn’t do anything to deserve his fate, and yet this is his fate nonetheless. His affliction comes because he tries to save poor Jenny from an attack (and fails—Jenny is horribly killed by the werewolf), and for this deed, he is rewarded with a terrible curse, although he certainly had enough warning. Everyone he meets seems to recite the same poem to him about the dangers of werewolves, and that even those pure in heart can be afflicted by the curse.

Ultimately, because it is so tragic, The Wolf Man is a sad film, less horrific than it is a sad story. Chaney’s performance is sympathetic in the extreme. The audience can’t help but feel sorry for him the same way that people feel sorry for cancer patients and accident victims. If Larry has a classic tragic flaw, it’s that he’s too compassionate and too nice. He does what any of us would have done in the same situation, and for that, his fate is sealed.

The film is beautifully filmed, even if the effects don’t always hold up. The transformation from man to wolf is fun, but other scenes don’t work. The rear projection work, for instance, is pretty rudimentary. It’s also never explained how Bela could turn into an actual wolf while Larry only seems to be able to pull off the human-wolf hybrid critter.

A longer film might address these issues, but this one has a sadly brief running time. Right when a typical horror film would kick into high gear, this one is over. I’d love another 20 minutes of it, considering how entertaining these 70 minutes are.

Why to watch The Wolf Man: A very human and sympathetic portrayal of a monster.
Why not to watch: It’s running time means it’s over just when you expect it to start ramping up the scary.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Man's Inhumanity

Film: Shoah
Format: DVDs from Plainfield Public Library on multiple viewing platforms.

We’re heading into uncharted territory here. There are long films and there are really long films, and then there is Shoah. This film comes on 4 DVDs, and there are virtually no extras here—this is not a case where two of the DVDs are filled with outtakes and behind-the-scenes information. All four of the DVDs are the film, which clocks in at just under nine-and-a-half hours.

If it were 570 minutes of puppies and unicorns, that would be one thing, but Shoah consists of testimony about the Holocaust, “shoah” being the Hebrew word for “calamity.” As such, this is a brutal film, and I cannot say that I sat through it in one sitting. Instead, I watched it in bits and pieces—an hour here and there—over the course of several weeks. The film does not suffer from this sort of treatment, although the experience is different. Seen over a length of time like this, Shoah is digestible, and it is a film that benefits greatly from careful and serious thought throughout.

This is not a documentary as most people would call it. It does not contain reenactments of historical events. Instead, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann interviews people connected with the systematic elimination of an entire people in Europe in the 1940s. He speaks with survivors, with people who lived in the area, and in some cases, with men who worked for the Third Reich as part of the moving cogs of the Final Solution.

As the film is essentially not narrated, there is no buffer between the people who experienced this horror and the viewer. Their emotions are laid completely bare, and so too are the viewers’ in response. There is no way to shield oneself from the onslaught of pain, suffering, humiliation, and human tragedy exposed here. Stories of the Holocaust are one thing; stories from the people who lived them and are reliving them again are something that cannot be ignored.

What is most disturbing about this film is not the enormity of the crimes committed, but how ordinary so much of it all is. I mean this not as a term of disrespect, but to highlight how many of the people who speak of what they saw in those terrible days speak of how systematic the entire process was. Those sent to the concentration camps like Sobibor and Treblinka were, to the minds of those perpetrating the crimes, less than human, and thus were treated this way. Killing off these millions of people was nothing more than moving freight and disposing of something unwanted. It’s frequently commented that many times, those forced to work for the Nazi regime (many of them inmates themselves) were not allowed to speak of the bodies they transported as people, or as bodies. Instead, they were called “rags” or “puppets” or worse, completely dehumanizing the victims. There is a particular shutting off of the emotions common to many of these eyewitnesses, something that is undoubtedly being done because it was the only way to survive mentally and emotionally.

Heartbreaking doesn’t describe this, nor does stomach-turning. Shoah, for being a film that consists essentially of 540+ minutes of people talking and footage of fields and buildings that have been ravaged by time, is absolutely emotionally raw. Made 40 years after the events recounted here, there is a sense of a dredging up of memories not forgotten, but pushed down as a survival mechanism.

How do you react to someone saying that he was forced to unload bodies from gas vans, and one day found his family? How do you react to a man saying that he was forced to dig up the bodies in the mass graves and send them to burning, and that in the most recent graves he found his mother and sisters? What can you do but wonder at the level of hatred, fear, stupidity, and pure evil that the human race is capable of?

Josef Stalin is reported to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million people is a statistic. There’s something to that—when the numbers get so big and so awful, our mind loses the ability to comprehend the enormity of the situation. And yet we see this happen throughout the film. A barber discusses working in the gas chambers themselves, cutting hair to help the condemned continue to believe that they were going for delousing and eventual work. The haircuts were a part of this, and evidently the Wehrmacht needed the hair for some purpose. He discusses giving these haircuts to people who would be literally smoke and ashes in a couple of hours calmly and rationally. And then he recalls seeing the wife and sister of a friend from his home town, and suddenly, he can no longer speak for several minutes. This is not an uncommon event through this film.

What we see, over and over, are the lives and faces of the survivors, often speaking over film of the camps as they stood during the creation of this film. In many cases, nothing is left but fields disguising what used to be death factories. Also appearing are several of the German officials and personnel who worked on what the Nazis called The Final Solution to the Jewish Question. One man was a prison guard, and he speaks calmly and in a matter-of-fact manner about the devastation that he participated in to some small extent. Another man helped route the trains that carried human cargo to the gas chambers and ovens, claiming that he never knew what was to become of the passengers that he was shipping from place to place.

It is sobering when a historian picks up a memo of train schedules, stating that it may represent the deaths of 15,000 people. Fifteen thousand people destroyed, with the only physical document displaying the carnage fitting on a single typewritten page.

Shoah is a true historical document. This is not a simple film to watch, and not a film to specifically watch in a single day. I spent slightly over two weeks going through it, because this is the rate at which I could take these terrible stories coming from those who lived through them. It is worth noting that as terrible as the mental anguish of watching this film is, those on camera lived it for real, and couldn’t turn it off or walk away.

The motto “Never again” has a real meaning, and as survivors of World War II and the last remaining survivors of the mass extermination of the European Jews finally die of old age, it is critical to remind ourselves time and time again of the terrible past that has shaped our world. One person denying the reality of the Holocaust is one person too many. Shoah exists as a way to remind ourselves over and over again what our species is capable of, as well as what our species is capable of overcoming.

Why to watch Shoah: Perhaps the most important historical record ever made.
Why not to watch: It’s brutal. Like nothing else, it strips you emotionally naked.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Greatest Fear

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

As a father of two daughters, I’d say that one of my biggest fears is having one of them announce a pregnancy some time long before I’m ready to be a grandfather. That would be 15-20 years in the future, for reference. Hal Hartley’s Trust explores this fear rather dramatically. In the opening couple of minutes, 17-year-old high school dropout Maria Coughlin (Adrienne Shelly) drops the pregnancy bombshell on her parents. Her father calls her a slut, she slaps him, and he falls dead of a heart attack.

Maria’s boyfriend Tony (Gary Sauer) dumps her when she tells him of the pregnancy, and when she returns home, her mother (Merritt Nelson) kicks her out, rounding out the single worst day of her life. At the same time, we are introduced to Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan). Matthew is educated and skilled, but unhappy and sometimes violent. His job involves fixing mediocre computer equipment, and he’s tired of fixing the same lousy machines over and over. He complains, gets yelled at in return, and he responds by sticking his boss’s head in a vise and walking out.

Matthew’s relationship with his father (John MacKay) is similar to Maria’s with her mother. His father is emotionally and mentally abusive. He’s passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, and demanding. Nothing Matthew ever does is good enough, a lesson we learn with Matthew’s endless cleaning of the spotless white bathroom.

Now, to make a movie, we need to put these two screwed-up people in the same place and see what happens, which is exactly what Hartley does.

What Hartley has done here (he also wrote the film) is present us with real characters who are more than just a collection of quirks. Oh, make no mistake—there are plenty of quirks here, but these are not Wes Anderson-level quirk collections. Matthew, for instance, is smart and tends to use large words. These confuse Maria, who constantly questions him about his vocabulary. Matthew’s biggest quirk is the hand grenade his father brought back from Korea. Matthew carries this with him just in case he feels like using it some day.

As the film progresses, it becomes evident that only Maria and Matthew are real people; everyone else in their lives, while technically human, is nothing more than an outlet for aggression and control. Both Maria’s mother and Matthew’s father spend the film attempting to exert control over their children through guilt, browbeating, and naked aggression. They are filled with a petty evil, a complete and utter selfishness that desires not its own happiness, but equivalent misery in everyone else in their lives.

The relationship between our two principle characters grows as they realize that they have a great deal of respect for each other. It might not be love, but it’s definitely something. Matthew proposes marriage despite their age difference and the disapproval of his father and especially her mother, who would rather he pursue Peg (Edie Falco), her other daughter. Maria goes back and forth between wanting to have the baby and wanting an abortion instead, and Matthew struggles with the idea of needing to return to a job he hated to support what will be his new family.

These are real decisions and real struggles, which is what makes this film work as well as it does. Rather than giving us a ridiculous situation as many comedies do, or pushing the outer edges of believability, we’re given a real situation to observe, and real people trying their best to make their way through it, and perhaps find a little happiness and companionship along the way.

The film is Maria’s from the very start, and of all the characters, it is she who changes the most. In the opening few moments, she looks like a stereotypical early-90s high school hootchie. Her face is coated in cosmetics and her hair is huge. By the end of the film, the cosmetics are gone, the hair is pulled into a low, sensible ponytail, and she’s even started wearing her glasses that she complained made her look like a librarian.

Where Trust loses me is the last 15 minutes. While the ending is fitting and makes sense with the rest of the film, I didn’t like what happened, and I would have preferred something a little more uplifting, at least for some of the characters. But that’s life, isn’t it? Not everything turns out for the positive, and not every story ends up on the uptick.

Why to watch Trust: Comedy that’s so black it’s navy blue.
Why not to watch: It won’t give you the ending you want.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fiddle-Dee-Dee

Film: Gone with the Wind
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

Let’s talk movie event, shall we? While there were certainly great movies before Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, there had never really been a film that anyone could call “must see” other than people like me who follow lists made by other people. Other films had spectacle, great casts, epic length, sweeping stories, but until Gone with the Wind, no one put them all in one big shiny package. This film has it all plus a bag of chips, the chips being the fact that it’s in color.

Based on Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name, the story covers the years immediately prior to the American Civil War, the years during, and the dark years that follow. We concern ourselves mostly with Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), a headstrong woman who has never been denied a thing she wanted in her entire life, with one exception. Scarlett wants anything that is possessed by someone else. She wants all of the attention, all of the men, and everything else as well. But what she really wants is Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Sadly for her, Ashley is engaged to her cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).

What follows, then is one of the great unrequited love stories ever put to film. Scarlett does everything but hump Ashley’s leg every time she sees him, and while Melanie appears to notice this, she doesn’t do anything to discourage it. Melanie, it turns out, is one of those genuinely nice and decent people who look for the best in everybody.

Scarlett marries and is immediately widowed by the war, leaving her free to continue pursuing Ashley. At the same time, she is pursued by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a wealthy ne’er-do-well, smuggler, and otherwise shady individual. Scarlett first dislikes and then comes to appreciate the attention of Mr. Butler, mostly because of the “wealthy” part. War eventually comes to the South, Sherman marches to the sea, and Atlanta is burned in Technicolor. And during all of this, Scarlett’s home plantation, Tara, is virtually destroyed, her mother (Barbara O’Neill) dies, and her father (the always great Thomas Mitchell) loses his mind. These are the tough years, during which Scarlett must learn to work the farm herself and not depend on her servants. And just before the intermission, she famously declares that she’ll never go hungry again.

Things are looking up financially in the second half of the film. Scarlett marries again, this time stealing the fiancée of her own sister to get the money to pay the new taxes on Tara. She continues to expand her husband’s new business, operating a sawmill with her beloved Ashley, until her husband is killed while enacting some Klan-style retribution. Widowed again, she is successfully wooed (again, mostly thanks to the money) by Rhett Butler, setting of the stormiest relationship to that point in film history. This involves the birth of a child, the death of the child in a horse riding accident (just like Barry Lyndon. Authors note: keep young children away from horses), a miscarriage, fights, reconciliation, public embarrassment, attempted reconciliation, and, eventually, Clark Gable saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

Wow!

So let’s talk about a few of the specifics here. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk at least a little about Hattie McDaniel, who plays the house slave/servant Mammy. McDaniel is both the first African-American nominated for an Oscar and the first to win one, which is quite an achievement. She also earned it. Mammy is one of the more memorable characters from this film. She’s simultaneously protective of the women in her house as concerns outsiders and a harridan around those people for whom she believes a little moral ass-whipping is needed—Scarlett more often than not. While the role itself didn’t do much to advance minority rights or better minority roles in Hollywood, McDaniel made the role hers and sold it so completely that the character has become as legendary as Scarlett and Rhett.

As for the other main players, I may differ from the opinions of a number of people. I don’t really like Scarlett that much. I don’t see her as a figure of feminism or a powerful woman. Instead, she is patently manipulative, scheming, and except when times are very bad, spoiled rotten. Sure, there is evident strength in her when it needs to be there, but when her world is fine financially, she turns into the moral equivalent of a Jell-o mold. She is the stereotype of the fainting Southern belle, always looking for assistance to do any minor task and repaying any and every kindness shown to her by a man with fawning flattery. And except for those poor saps under her spell, it’s immediately obvious what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. She’s an attention whore.

Melanie is a far more interesting character because, while she is physically frail through most of the film, she is morally strong and exhibits a sort of true kindness that someone like Scarlett can see and benefit from, but can emulate only in its most pathetic and saddest form. Melanie is almost purely good, which is of course why Ashley loves her.

And Ashley…Jeez, what a mush. Seriously, he’s perhaps the most unappealing romantic male character ever conceived. The man exhibits one strong opinion in the film at one time, and does so after a decade of stringing Scarlett along by the nose. He’s so concerned with being a nice guy to everyone that he ends up being sort of an asshole.

Finally, we come to Rhett Butler. He’s impossible not to like. He’s morally corrupt, says and does what he pleases, and cares little about the opinions of others, but he looks good doing it. Butler has style. He has panache. He’s the reason women love bad boys.

All told, this is a film you have to watch. It’s not my particular cup of tea, honestly, but it is great and grand in a way that few films are. No other film screams “old Hollywood” the way this one does, and there are perhaps half a dozen scenes in this film that rank among the greatest ever filmed—I can think of three or four right now without even trying. There’s a reason the phrase “must see” exists, and Gone with the Wind was tailor-made for that phrase.

Why to watch Gone with the Wind: The first, best, and greatest definition of Hollywood blockbuster.
Why not to watch: Some of the remarks are cringe-worthy with modern sensibilities.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Price is Right

Film: The Masque of the Red Death
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

There are a few names that are natural to the idea of horror. Edgar Allan Poe is one of those names. Another is Vincent Price, who made a career for himself for a number of years by being really creepy in low-budget horror films. There’s something particular about a Vincent Price performance. Much of this came from his distinctive voice; Price had an untraceable accent, which is quite a feat for a guy born in St. Louis.

Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death is based on the Poe short story of the same name. In Poe’s story, a wicked, dissolute prince holds a masquerade ball during a time when his lands are ravaged by a terrible illness called the red death. As penance for his terrible crime, a figure appears at his ball disguised as a red death victim, who then proceeds to infect the entire party, killing them all horribly. It’s a great story, one of my favorites from Poe’s pen.

The operative word in “short story” is “short” in this case. What this means for us as the audience is that Corman had two choices—make a really short movie or add a whole bunch of new stuff to make the tale even more lurid. Fortunately for us, Corman went with option two. In addition to putting his own stuff into this already fairly lurid tale, he included elements of another of Poe’s tales: “Hop-Frog.”

Wicked Prince Prospero (Price) rules an unnamed land cruelly. While driving through one of his towns, his cart nearly tramples a young child, who is saved at the last moment by a peasant named Gino (David Weston). Gino confronts the wicked prince, and is thus taken prisoner to the castle along with Ludovico (Nigel Green). Prospero is swayed from killing them both outright by Francesca (Jane Asher), who happens to be Ludovico’s daughter and Gino’s love. It’s at this time that a prophecy that happens at the start of the film seems to come true—an old woman who was told that deliverance from Prospero was at hand. Well, her deliverance comes painfully—she is stricken with the red death.

Segue to the castle, where we discover just how degraded Prospero and his people have become. In particular we meet Alfredo (Patrick Magee), who appears as interested in death, pain, and killing as Prospero. We also met Juliana (Hazel Court), who will do anything to possess Prospero for herself. It’s at this time we learn that Prospero is not a man of God, but worships Satan. Juliana gives herself over to a ceremony to become one of Satan’s handmaids. Gino and Ludovico will be forced to fight each other to the death by way of entertainment. Oh, and there are a couple of dwarf entertainers in the court—Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw) and Hop-Toad (Skip Martin, who is sadly underrated). During the entertainment, Alfredo slaps Esmerelda, which sets this secondary plot from Poe’s other story in motion.

Of course, since this is a mid-60s horror film, a number of things should be known going in . First, anyone who professes his or her evil or allegiance to Satan is not going to walk out of this film alive. That’s a given. Since this is a low-budget horror movie, and a film by Roger Corman, we should also expect that much of what will be depicted here will be 1960s-style lurid.

There are some really exciting things here. If you were ever a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, you’ve seen more than your share of Roger Corman’s oeuvre already. While still low-budget in general, it’s very high budget for Corman. It also came with a much longer film schedule, which allowed (one presumes) for reshoots for shots that didn’t work. The costuming here is quite good for a Corman production, and the sets might actually be described as “sumptuous.”

But the great sets and impressive costumes are just a small part of the sell here. What really sells this film is some of the most impressive scenery chewing of Vincent Price’s long and storied career. Prince Prospero is evil incarnate, and Price appears to absolutely revel in a role that allows him to be as evil as he can set his mind to being. And he is here—Prospero is cartoon villain evil, and he makes it work like few other actors could. For instance, when Prospero announces to Francesca who his master is, he intones a series of names by which Satan goes, and says them with such relish that it’s a joy to behold, and follows this with a wonderful act of cruelty that he enjoys just as much.

I also greatly appreciate the fact that Corman added most of the elements of the story “Hop-Frog” to this film. It’s a lesser-known Poe work, but one that I happen to like quite a bit. Like a lot of Poe, it’s disturbing, involves terrible revenge, and ends with a horrible death (in the original story, it was eight or nine horrible deaths). I love seeing it here, and seeing the skill with which Skip Martin handled this role makes me want to find other movies he appeared in.

This is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s far too extreme, far too weird, too garish, too Roger Corman-y to ever be considered as one of the greatest films ever made. But boy is it fun! There’s nothing like watching people getting their freaky-deak on, and this one brings it. I’m not in love with the last fifteen minutes, which play like bad musical theater in a way, but even this can’t stop this movie from being the kind of entertainment that made Svengoolie and similar late-night “scare” mavens so much damn fun.

Why to watch The Masque of the Red Death: Vincent Price at his evil, scenery-chewing best.
Why not to watch: The fact that it’s Roger Corman’s best doesn’t really say much.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

South Central

Film: Boyz N the Hood
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

There are certain movies that fit me like a comfortable pair of shoes, and then there are movies that make me feel so far out of my element that I’m not sure where to look. John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood didn’t make me feel whiter than some other movies I’ve seen, but I’ve never felt more sheltered or suburban than I did while watching this film. I can’t help the fact that I grew up in a white bread town and I don’t apologize for moving to a hick little burg in the middle of cornfields, and Boyz N the Hood is one reason why.

This is a story of open, urban warfare. The film begins with the statement that nearly 5% of all black men will be murdered, and that the majority of these deaths will be at the hands of other black men. The story that follows depicts this world in as much graphic and painful detail as possible to get this simple point across. It was true in 1991 when the film was made, and I’m guessing that it’s still true today in many of the tougher neighborhoods in this world. In fact, based on what a number of my students tell me, Boyz N the Hood is fairly tame.

We start in the mid-80s in South Central Los Angeles. Tre Styles (played at this age by Desi Arnez Hines II) is a bright young man with a temper and a penchant for getting into fights in school. His mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) in the hope that his hard-nosed father will teach him how to be a man and not just a thug.

At his father’s house, Tre meets up with some friends: Doughboy (Baha Jackson), Doughboy’s half-brother Ricky (Donovan McCrary) and Chris (Kenneth A. Brown). These four boys adapt to life in a rough and crime-ridden neighborhood as best they can, with Tre having the benefit of a father present. Tre manages to avoid most of the problems of his friends, and in fact witnesses Doughboy and Chris being dragged off by the police after being caught stealing.

Flash forward seven years. Tre (now played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is still bright, and does well in school. He also has a regular job and college plans. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has also stayed close to the straight-and-narrow. He’s a football star at the local high school and is hoping for a scholarship at USC. He’s also a new father. Chris (Redge Green) is now in a wheelchair after some misfortune—possibly a gunshot wound—and Doughboy (Ice Cube) has been released from prison.

What happens is, essentially, days in the life of these young men. Ricky interviews with USC and is told that his grades are good enough, but he needs a 700 on his SAT. Should he get that, he’ll get a scholarship. Furious Styles tries to educate not only his own son, but the other boys as best he can. He works in real estate, and gives them lessons on the ideas (and resultant problems for the black community) on gentrification. It’s perhaps a little conspiratorial (don’t look at me—the bank still owns most of my house), but relevant and interesting.

Of course, in this world, not everything can go easily for too long. Ricky is forced into a fight with an unnamed thug from a different neighborhood, and Doughboy moves to protect him. This results in gunfire, revenge, and more revenge as these men attempt to, essentially, define their own manhood with weaponry in the only way they know how and in the only way they’ve been taught.

Ultimately, though, the film is not so much about the terrible violence or even the terrible cost in lives in these urban neighborhoods. Instead, it is about the choices that are made by those who live in this places and how these decisions affect them and those around them. Tre’s reaction to the shooting that affects him personally is natural and understandable, and also terrible. His ultimate reaction to this is perhaps a greater lesson here, a sense that what he has learned from his father is more than just the handling of a firearm.

This is more than likely the message that Singleton wants to get across in this film. The presence of and lessons from the father figure—a real father figure and not just a male—make a great deal of difference in the outcomes of the young men depicted here.

But of course, there are other themes here, too. This was Singleton’s first film as a director and as a writer, and like many young directors, he was filled with ideas he wanted to see on the screen. This is the reason for Furious Styles’s speech on gentrification. This is the purpose behind the importance of the SAT and the resultant complaints of cultural bias. This is the function of the self-loathing black cop who seems to plague Tre Styles at several different points in his life. This cop plays into another of Singleton’s themes: that of the ineffectiveness of the police in these neighborhoods, and thus the desire of many young men to seek justice on their own. They know that justice at the hands of society will be slow in coming, if it ever comes at all.

This is an amazing first effort from a director, and remains a powerful and moving film. It also proves that actors like Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ice Cube started strong, even if they started taking lousy projects later in their career. Singleton needs to get back to this type of filmmaking instead of exploitative garbage, remakes, and sequels. Singleton is better than his later output—he’s Boyz N the Hood good, and that’s better than most.

Why to watch Boyz N the Hood: A true and tragic story of urban life.
Why not to watch: The reality has only gotten worse.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whence Comes Art?

Film: Andrei Rublyov (Andrei Rublev)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Russian filmmakers don’t do things by halves, it seems. Maybe it’s a feature of being from such a large, expansive country, but it seems like Russian novels and Russian films are always of epic length. Even stories about Russians go on forever. There’s a particular fatalism to Russian stories as well—the peasants learned long ago that their lives were pretty much worth only the work they could produce. One gathered what happiness he or she could when it was available, knowing that most of life was back-breaking work, hunger, and pain. Mmmm…fatalism. Tastes like borscht.

Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyov (spelled Andrei Rublev in English-speaking countries, not that it makes a hell of a lot of difference) has that particular Russian flavor to it. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 hours long. This film is a slow meditation on the nature of art, inspiration, and faith. As such, the 3+ hour running time is probably justified. Most things called a “meditation” don’t go too fast as a rule, and there’s a lot of story to tell here.

The film concerns the life of the eponymous character, a painter of religious icons in 15th-Century Russia. Rublyov is also a monk, with everything that entails. Rublyov’s struggle is in reconciling his beliefs with the reality of not only his life, but the life he witnesses around him. In his mind, faith is absolutely necessary for an artist; without it, he would not have the inspiration to create anything.

The disconnect for Rublyov (and through association, for Tarkovsky as well) is that he is frequently forced to create his art for those who hold political power, which in this story, and in this period, and in Russia in general, means he is creating art for people who not only hold power, but use it abusively. In short, Rublyov must pour his heart and faith out for people who seem to embody its opposite—a theme that Tarkovsky certainly knew well, as this film was banned after a single screening in his homeland.

The film takes place in nine parts—a prologue, seven chapters, and an epilogue. In each, questions of art, creation, and faith are explored both in terms of Rublyov’s life and his work. Over the course of the film, Rublyov has his talent praised, encounters a great artist who appears to have a vastly different faith—one that Rublyov believes should make him unable to create, encounters Pagans, goes through bouts of self-doubt, creative slumps, periods of self-imposed silence, and a rekindling of his faith and his art.

For me, the most interesting parts of the film come in the middle. The sequence with the Pagans seems to give the best indication of the extent and nature of Rublyov’s intense faith. He is captured by a group of Pagans, who have been cavorting naked in a field. Because he is a spiritual outsider in this place, the Pagans have plans for him that involve tying him to a cross and then drowning him in a nearby river on the following morning. Rublyov is saved by a Pagan woman named Marfa, who releases him. The next day, when Marfa’s life is in danger, Rublyov sails on a boat past her, refusing to look at her because of her Pagan wickedness and the facd that her nudity shames him.

In the following sequence, Rublyov’s faith is shaken. Charged with painting the Final Judgment as a fresco, he balks. He does not want to paint such terrible scenes, which will no doubt terrify the people who see them. He has no desire for his art to be something terrible, but wishes it instead to be beautiful and to inspire. During this moment of doubt and trial, he recalls a time from his past when the Grand Prince made a habit of putting out the eyes of his artisans, preventing them from duplicating their work (or doing better) for someone else.

This, which is the central section of the film, is fascinating to me, because it seems to strike at the heart of Rublyov’s dilemma as well as the problem of Tarkovsky. As the director, Tarkovsky is driven to create, just as Andrei Rublyov is compelled to create. And yet he recognizes that the reward for such great creation could well be a terrible, unbearable punishment. He must create, but creating also puts his mind, life, body, and soul in terrible jeopardy. Tarkovsky must have known that certain aspects of this film (the touting of faith, for instance) would immediately get him in trouble with those in power in communist (and officially atheist) Russia. But he did it anyway, compelled to create.

The film closes with a number of views of Rublyov’s work. I have a particular fondness for Russian Orthodox iconography. I’m not sure what about it appeals to me so much, but I find it frequently moving and beautiful, and Rublyov’s work is still very powerful.

Andrei Rublyov moves very slowly at times, but this pace is fitting the contemplative nature of much of the film. This film works internally more than externally. It is marvelous in places and worth watching, but you should prepare yourself for a slow time, although not a slow time without substantial rewards.

Why to watch Andrei Rublyov: A meditation on the source of art, inspiration, and belief.
Why not to watch: So slow, it sometimes moves in reverse.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Grapefruit is in Season

Film: The Public Enemy
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s always been a fascination with the prurient. I was working in the video game industry when the advent of CD-ROM happened, and I remember the first trade show I went to at which DVDs were a part of the mix in computer software. There was a handful of games on CD at that show, and an entire hotel devoted to the porn industry, which had hundreds of titles available for viewing on a computer. The porn folks are always early adopters with new technology.

The same is also true of the shock merchants, and the early days of film are certainly rife with films intended not simply to entertain, but also to shock and scare the public. This is the era of the birth of the gangster film, and most of the conventions that are still with us today started in films like Littrle Caesar and especially today’s offering, The Public Enemy.

This film tells the story of Tom Powers (James Cagney), a small-time hood who becomes a captain of crime by virtue of his ruthlessness and complete lack of regard for safety and his life and the lives of others. Tom wants all of the trappings that go with the criminal lifestyle despite the intense disapproval from his brother, Mike (Donald Cook). He and his childhood friend Matt (Edward Woods) start off as petty thieves and slowly work their way up the ladder to some real serious crimes and the attendant serious money.

Things change during a botched robbery that results in both a dead thief and a dead cop, courtesy of Tom. Desperate for help, Tom and Matt head to their fence, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who has skipped town. The two next fall in with Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a bootlegger and speakeasy owner who convinces the boys that they should work for him.

Life is good for Tom, but in the world of 1931, no one wanted to see crime pay, which means we’re going to have the same, long, precipitous drop from the heights that Tom reaches to as far down as he can possibly go. Without this moral lesson, it’s a good bet that the film wouldn’t have been made.

What’s noteworthy about this film is a one scene in particular as well as the career of its star. The Public Enemy made Cagney who he was, and in many ways created the legacy of roles that required him to act as a tough, Napoleonic thug. It’s hard to say if this film is the source for at least part of the classic Cagney impersonation, but I suspect it is.

The most famous moment in the film is the picture above—Cagney squashing half a grapefruit into the face of his moll. It’s a much quicker scene than you might expect, or at least that moment is. It comes and goes in a couple of seconds.

I honestly don’t have a lot to say about this film. It’s a classic for several reasons, but it’s also pretty standard. Young boys see crime as an answer to the lives that they want and pursue it, and learn very painfully and harshly that crime doesn’t pay. It is not a film that has aged very well, and that’s simply the truth of it.

Why to watch The Public Enemy: Cagney being Cagney.
Why not to watch: It moves fast and ends quickly.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What a Woman Won't Do for a Pair of Shoes

Film: The Wizard of Oz
Format: The Egyptian Theater

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz was on television once a year. If you were like my family, you planned your week around it. When The Wizard of Oz was on, you stayed home and you watched it. Of course, this was in the days before DVRs, DVDs, and even VCRs, so things like The Wizard of Oz appearing on television was an event. Everyone had that one year when he or she missed it, and it really felt like something missed.

I’m not going to discuss much of the plot here. You’ve seen this movie, or you’re a communist. Of course, my wife had never seen this movie until a few years after she and I were married, so your mileage may vary in terms of your political outlook. Seriously, there’s no question of whether or not this film belongs in the hearts and minds of…everyone. Few films have the sort of cultural relevance of this one, and my guess is that should The List be reduced to 100, or to 10, this film would still make the cut.

So, since you’ve undoubtedly already seen this film, let’s talk about some of the details rather than the plot. And if you haven’t seen this film, go watch it and come back. Seriously. If you’re old enough to use the Internet and find this site and you’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, only breathing could be more important for your cultural and mental future at this moment. Go watch it.

It always surprises me when I see this movie how long we stay in sepia-toned Kansas. A lot happens in Kansas, really. We meet all of the major players who will come back in Oz. Of course, we’re introduced to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto (who is played by a dog named Toto. Go figure). We encounter the farmhands who work on the Gale family farm: Hunk (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley), and Zeke (Bert Lahr), who will show up in Oz as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion respectively.

We also meet Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), who shows up later as the Witch. And of course, there’s also Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who is the Wizard and about half a dozen minor characters once we reach the Emerald City. But really, there’s a lot to Kansas—the whole plot with Toto being destroyed by the police, and Dorothy running away, and the twister, and of course “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is the first we get to hear the angelic voice of Judy Garland.

The moment when Dorothy opens the door into Oz is still one of the most magical moments ever captured on film. I don’t have anything else to say about that.

Like many a good children’s movie, there are some genuinely scary parts of this film. The flying monkeys are really pretty terrifying, especially for little kids. When I was a little kid, the scariest part of the film for me was seeing the Witch’s face appear in the crystal ball when she’s trying to kill off Dorothy in the castle. That moment still gets to me.

As with the length of time in Kansas, I’m always a little surprised at how short this film is. Things happen very quickly. I remember as a kid thinking that it took forever for the Lion to show up, but he’s actually a part of the group relatively quickly. And if you really think about the film, those scenes that you remember don’t have much filler between them. They come one right after the other in pretty rapid succession.

It’s also somewhat in vogue to pick out all of the weird little inconsistencies or problems in this film, and there are a number of them. Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) could have sent Dorothy home right away—but instead she enlisted the girl in her own private war against the Witch of the West, putting Dorothy in harm’s way and forcing her to kill. Yeah, okay. Seen it. But there is one unresolved plot point that bears some thought. Once back in Kansas, Dorothy seems to have forgotten that Miss Gulch has a police order out for the destruction of Toto, which means the little dog should have probably stayed over the rainbow with the Tin Man.

But so what? Sure, it’s a silly movie in many places. It’s overly simplistic, moves too quickly in spots, and even the advice learned by Dorothy at the end of her journey is not only simplistic but possibly dangerously narrow-minded. And I don’t care. It’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s nostalgia and warmth, it’s a cozy blanket on a cold night, it’s home and happiness, and seeing kids smile when Toto escapes from a basket and runs for help. It’s childhood, and it’s special, for all of its faults.

I hadn’t planned on watching this film for quite a few months, but when the opportunity to see it in a classic old movie theater with an interior of pyramids and Egyptian statues arose, how could I not? And how could I not take my girls? And how could I not fall in love with it all over again in that environment?

Why to watch The Wizard of Oz: Don’t be stupid—it’s The Wizard of Oz.
Why not to watch: Because your inner child is dead.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Compare and Contrast

Film: Fast Cheap & Out of Control
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s an old saying in business that you can have things done fast, right, and cheaply. You can only have two of those three things, though, so pick the two you want. If you want it fast and cheap, it isn’t going to be right. Engineers have a similar saying, substituting “safe” for “right.” This is the source of the name of Errol Morris’s documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. More specifically, it’s also from the name of a paper written by one of the subjects of this odd documentary.

This film explores a variety of concepts over its short running time. On its surface, the film is a look at four very different men (in increasing order of weirdness): a topiary designer (George Mendonca), a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), an expert in robotics (Rodney Brooks), and an expert on naked mole rats (Ray Mendez). On the surface, these four men would appear to have only the fact that their jobs and interests are incredibly specialized in common. After all, how many lion tamers can there be world-wide? Or mole rat experts?

Once Morris turns the camera on these men and lets them talk, though, it becomes evident that not only do they have a great deal in common, so too do their various interests and areas of expertise. Mendez, for instance, first became interested in mole rats because of the similarity of their behavior to that of communal insect colonies. Brooks first began creating robots by tweaking the notion of stability, and created small robots that tended to stumble, and behaved quite a bit like ants. Both Mendonca and Hoover consider what they do to be a form of taming nature into the desired behavior.

All four of the men view the world through their own particular eccentric lens, which lends a particular view to the world depicted by the film. Each of them deals with his particular specialty as a way of determining his own purpose in life, and each of these fields gives these men a particular outlook and philosophy.

Morris ups the connection between the men by playing fast and loose with his editing. Frequently, one of the men will be discussing his specific field of interest while we watch footage of another of the men. Brooks speaks in his odd, unplaceable accent about his idea for sending hundreds of tiny robots into space rather than one large probe while we watch footage of hairless mole rats chug through their tunnels. Mendonca talks about how he keeps his topiary animals in check while Hoover’s lions perform tricks.

It’s surprising how often the men speak about similar concepts and ideas. The name of the film, for instance, comes from a paper written by Brooks. His idea is that sending up hundreds of small probes into space essentially makes each one expendable. We could have these probes attempt riskier things, because losing one wouldn’t scrap the mission, and there would be a much higher chance of getting more valid and useful data from hundreds of possible sources. Similarly, Mendez discusses how mole rats will often sacrifice one of their number for the good of the entire colony, not rushing to save each other, but acting instead to preserve the colony’s integrity. The two concepts, while not quite parallel, are similar enough that they run side-by-side in the film. Similarly, Brooks discusses the creation of artificial life while Mendonca and Hoover talk about the differences between human and animal life, and Mendez discusses the possible connection between human and animal.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is made of heady stuff, the very stuff of big ideas and concepts that could change the world. Or at least they could change the world if everyone took the time to think like these four unusual men. There are a number of times when the editing becomes a distraction, though, and several parts of the film are difficult to concentrate on because of this.

I enjoyed this movie, and it’s given me a lot to think about. However, like many films that attempt to do a lot with their running time, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is so filled with ideas that it comes off like a film with ADHD. While I found it interesting and worth watching, I can easily see how many people would be frankly turned off by it and not want to bother getting through it.

I tell my composition students that pretty much any two things can be compared, and the more diverse those things are, the more interesting the comparison is. This film is ample proof of that statement.

Why to watch Fast, Cheap & Out of Control: Fascinating lives on display.
Why not to watch: In an effort to unite four unique stories, things get muddled.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sodom and...

Film: Gomorra
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

One of the complaints about films like The Godfather Trilogy, Goodfellas and Scarface is the glorification of crime. Many times, the people who perpetrate terrible crimes are portrayed as noble, honorable, even worthy of emulation. Yes, I’m including Scarface in this list; I’ve had too many students tell me how much they like that movie, and even admire the life of Tony Montana for me to think otherwise. The old noir element of crime always coming back to haunt those who commit it doesn’t always come true in the more modern gangster film. What a particular element of society sees instead is that for a few, crime pays, at least for a time. No one thinks of himself as the guy getting hacked up with a chainsaw in the bathtub—everybody sees himself as Tony Montana or Don Corleone.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (sometimes spelled Gomorrah) takes a different, much more realistic look at the world of organized crime, a world that extends from the lowest slums to high fashion. Five individual stories, only loosely connected due to their connection to the criminal world, are told here. Each of the stories is brutal and despairing in its own way.

Because the stories are only loosely connected and don’t really unite at any point, it’s easier to discuss them individually. So in no real order, here are the five stories:

Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a young boy who delivers groceries for his mother. He witnesses a mass bust by the police, and takes the opportunity to pick up a stash of drugs and a pistol and return it to the gang. He’s initiated in a terrifying ceremony and starts running with this gang, who are threatened by another criminal enterprise. After a drive-by takes out one of his comrades, Toto is used to help extract vengeance on the others. The lesson that Toto learns through all of this is that he doesn’t have a right to think—only a right to do as he’s told and hope he survives.

Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) works in waste removal. His boss (Toni Servillo), who has mob connections, cuts corners by dumping toxic waste illegally in quarries that are no longer being used. An accident involving toxic waste causes a truck driver to be doused in toxic chemicals. The other truck drivers refuse to keep working, so the boss brings in kids to drive the trucks instead, which causes a great deal of stress to Roberto, who can’t condone putting young children in the path of such danger.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) works for the main crime family as a go-between and a distributor of money to those loyal families who have people in prison. He’s assaulted by members of a rival gang faction, and he agrees to defect to their side and help them by betraying his former comrades in return for his life, knowing that this new gang doesn’t need a man to transport money. Like Roberto, Don Ciro is faced with the decision of determining what he can life with.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a fashion designer working for a man who has ties to the local mob family. Pasquale also takes a night job training Chinese workers who are competing with the mob, which requires that he be transported secretly to and from their factory. The mob finds out that something is up, and assassinates the Chinese bosses, leaving Pasquale in the position of losing one employer and wondering if his other employer knows of his duplicity.

The fifth story is perhaps the most tragic. Two young men named Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) want to be gangsters, and want to run the show themselves rather than start out at the bottom of a gang; they essentially pretend to be Tony Montana, doing a lot of youthful posturing to each other. They start their careers by ripping off some local drug dealers, then manage to find out where one of the large gangs stashes weapons. They steal some of these to further their criminal career, but are eventually caught and must decide if they will do what they are told or fight back.

Gomorra is incredibly bleak. It’s evident within the first five minutes of each story that there will be no happy endings here. In this world, life is the cheapest thing around—it has no value. Each person’s life is worth only what he or she can do, and it can be taken in an instant for no reason. Of all the stories, it is the one of Marco and Ciro that (to me) appeared to be the one most likely to end as badly as possible. Toto’s story also seemed particularly tragic because of all of our main characters, he is the one who still seems to have the ability to opt out of the life he sees, at least to a certain point.

Where the film is most effective is in the use of violence. It happens suddenly and without warning, just as it does in the real world. There is no gearing up for battle, no strapping on of weapons. Instead, people die from assaults out of the blue, in the middle of conversation. Throughout the film, there is no warning for when something truly terrible is going to happen, which makes the violence consistently shocking from the first time it happens to the very end.

Gomorra is a sobering film, the sort that the people who admire Tony Montana and Don Corleone should watch as a more realistic depiction of this criminal life they seem to idolize. But I know from experience that most of the people who truly should watch a film like Gomorra are the same ones who would dismiss it or ignore the lessons it teaches. This is not a glorification of organized crime, but a pointed expose, a film that induces remorse and anger more than anything else.

This is a moving film, and a powerful one. Fantastic.

Why to watch Gomorra: Real organized crime.
Why not to watch: Real organized crime is not pretty.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Return to Kubrick

Film: Barry Lyndon
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

When I started this a little more than a year ago, I watched several Kubrick films right away. I realized soon enough that if I kept it up, I’d be through all of the Kubrick-y goodness in a few months and have no Kubrick to look forward to over the long months and years to come. So I stopped watching them, despite the fact that I had ample opportunity to watch more of them. I figured if I was doing the same thing with Hitchcock, I could do the same with Kubrick.

Well, it’s been more than a year since I screened a Kubrick film, so I figured I’d waited long enough. I’m not entirely certain why I selected Barry Lyndon save for the fact that it was immediately available to me, and I’ve made it a goal to continue watching a few long films every month so that I’m not buried by them at the end.

Barry Lyndon is the tale of a man born Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as he stalks through the various courts of Europe in the mid- to late-18th century. His goal is to live the life of a gentleman, something taken from him at a very early age when his father is slain in a duel over some horses. Barry is raised in the home of his relatives, where he falls in love with Nora (Gay Hamilton), his cousin. This is made complicated by the fact that the family is in dire straits for money, and thus wants to marry Nora off to a wealthy British officer named John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter). Barry engages to fight a duel with the man and slays him (he thinks), and is thus forced to go on the lam to avoid imprisonment. He’s immediately robbed, and forced into the British Army as a way to survive.

As it turns out, the duel was a sham, and Nora did marry Quinn after all. Now in the service, Barry gets his first taste of battle and decides he’s had enough. At the first opportunity, he steals the uniform of a courier and deserts only to be eventually pressed into service by the Prussian Army. It is here that his life changes again; Barry is assigned the task of playing servant to the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). The Prussians believe the man to be a spy, but he’s really just a card cheat. Barry throws in with him immediately, and the two work out a scheme to keep them in money. Barry helps the Chevalier cheat at cards, and does the dirty work of dueling those who refuse to pay.

Barry’s life changes again when he meets the lovely Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Her husband, the sick Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass) confronts Barry, and then is so enraged by the young man that he immediately has a heart attack and dies. Barry marries the widow and officially tacks her family name onto his own, becoming Barry Lyndon.

So now we’ve seen the rise; it’s time for the fall, because no good epic story about a complete bastard can ever be without a fall of at least the same length as the rise. The newly named Barry Lyndon begins indulging himself at every possible opportunity. The two have a son named Bryan, but the heir to the estate and the Lyndon name is young Lord Bullingdon (played as a child by Dominic Savage, and as a young adult by Leon Vitali), Lady Lyndon’s son from her previous marriage. Lord Bullingdon and Lyndon take an immediate dislike to each other, one that continues to grow through the years.

A large part of this enmity is that Bullingdon holds the title, and should anything happen to Lady Lyndon, Barry, his mother, and his son will all be turned out without a penny between them. Lyndon, realizing this, spends a great deal of the Lyndon fortune in an effort to get himself a title. It all goes for naught when Bullingdon insults him publically and Lyndon beats his stepson severely. While this manages to get rid of the stepson, it also gives Lyndon a reputation for merciless cruelty, and he is abandoned by his society peers.

To pile tragedy on top of problems, Lyndon’s young son is killed in an accident, sending Lyndon into a spiraling depression of grief and alcohol. It all comes to a head when Bullingdon returns and challenges his stepfather to a duel. The results of said duel are better kept as a spoiler.

*** HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN ***

Bullingdon gets to shoot first, but his nerves cause the gun to go off prematurely. With his shot, Lyndon fires into the ground instead of at his stepson, essentially granting the boy his life. Whether this is from pity, or because he realizes that killing the lad will make him all the more hated isn’t clear. What is clear is that given a clear chance, he refuses to kill Bullingdon.

For this mercy, Bullingdon’s response is especially cold. Declaring that he has not yet had satisfaction, he takes another pistol and fires, wounding Lyndon in the leg. As a result, Lyndon has his left leg amputated below the knee. To finish him off, Bullingdon grants him an annual income of 500 guineas if he leaves England and never returns. Given that his only other option is jail, Lyndon takes it and returns to Ireland with his mother. He returns to his gambling ways, but never with any success.

*** BANG BANG, SHOOT SHOOT ***

The question here is one of crime and punishment as well as redemption. Is Lyndon redeemed by his actions at the end? I don’t know. I think it more likely that his redemption comes instead from the punishment he receives. But again, I don’t really know.

I also don’t know if I like it. Evidently, a great many people feel that this is one of Kubrick’s best films, and while it’s certainly pretty, I found very little here that got me excited. One man’s social climb and fall isn’t a story that excites me too much, and while everything here is beautifully filmed and appears to be exquisitely authentic, I sometimes found my mind wandering.

Where the film excels is the overall look. Kubrick is often at his most interesting when it comes to the visual style and appeal of his films, and Barry Lyndon does not disappoint. Many of the scenes are lit by candlelight, not just in appearance on screen, but in actuality; Kubrick used electric lighting only when absolutely necessary. This gives the look of the film another level of authenticity the really does play. It looks like 18th century paintings, which is almost certainly what Kubrick was after.

But this authentic look comes in the service of a very slow-moving plot in which the few points of actual action are the punctuation in some long sentences in which not much happens. As always, I’m impressed by Kubrick’s visual artistry. I just wish that for this film I were more impressed with the actual story taking place.

Why to watch Barry Lyndon: A great period piece with Kubrick at the helm.
Why not to watch: No one to root for.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Old Stone Face, Part 2

Films: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr.
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Who is the greatest early screen comedian? Fatty Arbuckle, scandalized, is all but forgotten. W.C. Fields is revered by some, but how many people who aren’t really serious about film have seen any of his films? Harold Lloyd was one of the greats, of course, but he’s less well-known than Fields. Which leaves us with Chaplin and Keaton.

I love Chaplin, but my money’s on Keaton here. His films tend to be much less complicated and tend to serve as a platform for tremendous sight gags. No doubt Chaplin pulled a lot of great gags, too, but his tend to be more in the service of story than Keaton’s. Keaton’s gags are almost pure in that they don’t really matter to the plot; instead, they’re simply as funny as possible. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Our Hospitality.

As tends to be the case, the plot here is simple. Young Willy McKay (Keaton) learns that he has inherited an estate somewhere in the antebellum South, so he heads there to claim it. What he doesn’t know until setting out is that his family is half of a legendary feud between the McKay family and the Canfields. In fact, his father killed the brother of Joe Canfield (Joe Roberts) while simultaneously being slain by him. What this means is that Willy is going to find himself on the business end of the revolvers of Joe Canfield and his two sons (Ralph Bushman and Craig Ward). That’s really it.

To add a little spice to the narrative, Willy rides down on the train next to a pretty young lady (Natalie Talmadge), and the two become acquainted. Naturally, she turns out to be the daughter of Joe Canfield, and when she invites Willy to dinner, all hell breaks loose. The Canfields want nothing more than to kill him, but killing him while he is their guest breaks their code of honor, so they must wait until he leaves their house.

This culminates in his desperate flight from the house, a series of misadventures, a long dunking in a river, and a climactic scene involving a huge log, a boat, and a waterfall that really must be seen to be believed. Throughout, there are characteristically tremendous stunts and some screamingly funny gags.

It’s the train ride that I find the most interesting. It lasts for a considerable amount of time, and nothing important happens save that Willy meets the girl, something that could have been handled in a couple of minutes. Instead, we are treated to a series of brilliant jokes, pratfalls, sight gags, and comedic bits. Essentially, this entire episode in the film exists for no reason than to give Keaton a chance to be really, really funny. And he is. No possibility is left unexplored, and he mines everything for its comedic possibility.

What I particularly like about Willy McKay is that he is a quintessential Buster Keaton character. Terrible things and bad luck strike him almost constantly, but he is smart, talented, and resourceful. It’s easy to root for him because his problems are not cause by him, but by other people or simple misfortune.

There are some additionally excellent visual jokes here as well. One of the most entertaining is the fact that Keaton is a good six inches shorter than all of the other men in the film, which puts him at an obvious physical disadvantage. Physically, he’s essentially the same height as the girl, so the two of them are constantly being loomed over by everyone else.

Sherlock, Jr. might now be my favorite Buster Keaton film, eclipsing even the epic The General. While much shorter, there’s so much going on in this film that it almost feels like he had so many ideas that he wanted to put them all in one place.

Our hero (Keaton) is a film projectionist, but he’d like to be more. He’s studying to become a detective. He’s also wooing a young lady (Kathryn McGuire), and finds himself in competition with the local rake and thief (Ward Crane). While he visits the girl, the rake shows up and steals her father’s pocket watch, pawning it to buy the girl a gift. He then slips the pawn receipt into our hero’s pocket, causing him to be booted out of the house and the girl’s life. He returns to his job at the movie theater and falls asleep while screening a movie called “Hearts and Pearls.”

And here’s where the magic really happens. While sleeping, he dreams himself into the film, which has a plot concerning a missing string of pearls, a plot that is disturbingly like what he’s experiencing himself. In his dream, the characters on screen are replaced by the players of his real life drama.

After a series of tremendous gags involving a series of jump cuts on the screen, he enters the screen narrative as the great Sherlock Jr., the greatest living detective. Again, a series of sight gags follow including the most tremendously funny game of billiards ever filmed. Of course, the great Sherlock Jr. solves the crime at hand and saves the fair maiden. Our hero wakes up to discover that in the real world, things are a bit different than they were when he went to sleep.

Again, Keaton uses the basic plot of the film here to include as many gags as he can regardless of how closely these gags track with the rest of the plot. The sequence when he first encounters the film world is a prime example of this. The series of jump cuts have nothing to do with the film being shown in the theater—this set of jokes is there simply because they’re really funny. It’s great to watch him walking down a busy street only to have it change to the edge of a cliff, or see him attempt to sit on a bench only to have it vanish from beneath him a moment later.

It’s the pool game that slays me, though. The two bad guys in the movie within the movie have placed a trick #13 ball on the table. The moment it is jostled, it will explode. What follows is a sequence in which Keaton completely clears the table of all of the other balls without the 13 ball moving an inch. Other balls come within in hair’s breadth of hitting it, but they never do. He pulls off complicated trick shots to sink the other balls without the 13 being struck. Throughout, the bad guys watch him from a safe distance. I can’t comment on how the scene ends without spoiling it, though, and it’s a moment that really needs to be experienced. Surrounding this is a series of additional gags about assassinating the great detective, all of which backfire amusingly.

Sherlock, Jr. never stops once it gets going. Keaton is like a comedy Energizer Bunny, throwing everything he can think of at the audience in the hope that something he does will get them to laugh. The gamble pays off, because there are plenty of things here that virtually anyone would laugh at. When watching comedies, even things that are really funny don’t typically make me laugh out loud, but Sherlock, Jr. does.

More to the point, Keaton makes me laugh. He makes me laugh a lot. A great deal of his oeuvre plays just as well now as it did back then, and there are a number of jokes in these films that still defy description. No one pratfalls like Keaton, and very few film comedians ever went as far as he did for a joke.

If I have a complaint about Sherlock, Jr., it’s the music on the copy I watched. The score for this version was created by a group called the Club Foot Orchestra. While some of it is quite good, a lot of it seemed not to match the action on screen. I found it distracting for about half the film, and almost would have rather watched in complete silence. Someone needs to create a score that not only matches this film, but that complements it.

Why to watch Our Hospitality: Plenty of quality Keaton stunts and bits.
Why not to watch: The plot takes forever to start.

Why to watch Sherlock Jr.: More ideas per minute than almost any other film.
Why not to watch: The hero actually doesn’t do anything.