Monday, October 31, 2011

Month 22 Status Report

I posted 31 reviews in October--27 days with a single film, 2 days without a film, and 2 days with two films. Not bad, really. If I can keep up the same pace through November, I'll hit the halfway point right around the end of the month, and that's not at all a bad thing. I'll probably hit that mythical halfway point sometime in early December, though.

So what's ahead? Rarities, I think. There will be some familiar faces in November, but I'm going to try to focus more on films that are harder to locate, difficult to find, or that have otherwise eluded me. After all, I have to watch them sometime, and a couple of years from now, I'd rather be tracking down something easily available than one of these films that exists only on ancient media and only in one or two places in the world.

The current tally, by the way, is 516 films out of 1089, leaving me with 573 to go. It's at a time like this that I think of all I've seen so far (I've logged more than 1000 hours of filmwatching since I started) only to have the finish line still so far away. That's one reason hitting the halfway point is so meaningful to me.

Behind the Mask

Film: Scream; Halloween
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen (Scream); DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Halloween).

It’s Halloween! Last year, that meant my favorite films, because this also happens to be my birthday—the 9th anniversary of my 35th birthday in this case. This year, we’re going traditional, and I’m watching the sorts of films most people watch on this day. Today, it’s two of the best slasher films ever made: Sceam and Halloween.

The first 10 minutes of Scream are arguably the most famous 10 minutes in slasher movie history. It’s pure genius, and it’s proof that Wes Craven is one of the smartest horror film directors in the business. High school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) gets a series of increasingly disturbing phone calls only to discover that the calls are coming from a homicidal maniac. He kills her boyfriend in front of her, then kills her brutally before running off. What makes this so good is that in this scene, Craven is playing with our expectations. When Scream was released, almost none of its stars were known for anything. A few, like Henry Winkler and David Arquette were known, but Barrymore was by far the biggest name in the film. No one expected her to die off at all, let alone right at the start.

Scream is a film plays with the slasher subgenre of horror movies by both following the standard tropes and flouting them in intelligent ways. The biggest and smartest flouting of the slasher convention is the film’s budget. Typically, slashers are low-budget affairs with plenty of nudity and gore to distract from the minimal budget, bad acting, and grainy footage. Not so with Scream, which is slick and glossy and made with obvious money behind it.

Wes Craven is one of the most important directors in the subgenre and for very good reason—a lot of his movies helped create the genre and a lot of his movies similarly played with the ideas of the slasher film and the crazed killer. In fact, at one point in Scream, one of the characters lists off some of the more important ways to avoid dying (like don’t have sex and don’t take drugs or drink), and then going as far as possible to break them. What’s more important, though, is that Craven doesn’t simply break the rules; he breaks them in ways that make sense in the film.

I’m not going to get too involved in the plot here, because for the genre, this one is pretty involved and convoluted, and takes a number of interesting twists before it eventually all makes sense at the end. Suffice to say that at each stage in the film, the current theory makes perfect sense, and ultimately the way the film wraps up fits in with everything we’ve seen as well.

I like that the film is kept in the realm of the possible. Too often, the slasher genre involves a killer who is possessed of supernatural or demonic powers (more on that type of killer in a moment) and can take huge amounts of physical punishment because he is essentially immortal or at least undead. Not so in this film. Repeatedly, when victims (or potential victims) are attacked and fight back, the killer, typically known as “Ghostface,” takes actual punishment. It’s a nice thing to see, when we typically see the killer shrug off blows that would sideline anyone else. In many ways, this makes the action scarier, because it also makes the action more real. I’m not too worried about Jason Voorhees because I don’t believe in the possibility of a thunderingly badass undead machete killer. A guy in a mask? Yeah, that’s possible.

The other reason I’m not going to tap into the plot here is that this is either a movie that you’ve already seen because it’s critical for the subgenre of slasher as well as the main genre of horror or because you’ve never seen it, and I don’t want to be the one who spoils it for you. This is a film to go into cold if you haven’t seen it, because it plays so intelligently with everything that has come before it. Craven, thanks to movies like this one, remains one of the players in horror and one of the most important directors to watch. A good director gives a wink and a nod to a knowing audience. A great director gives a wink, a nod, and then moves in for the kill.

As a final note on this one, Scream matches many other films of the genre in having a score that truly helps it sell the scares.

John Carpenter is the director of a number of shorts in his early student career. His first full-length film is a science fiction comedy and his second is essentially an action film. His third film, though, was Halloween, and it was here that Carpenter made his greatest mark. Carpenter, thanks in no small part to this film, has been pigeonholed as a horror director despite the fact that a number of his movies are not straight horror, or even horror at all. If nothing else, that’s in indicator of how good this film is and how influential it has been for the last 30-plus years.

Many of the standard tropes of slasher movies come from this film—virginity being the way to prevent death (according to Carpenter, this was because the kids having sex were so focused on sex that they couldn’t pay attention to anything else), never saying “I’ll be right back,” the concept of the final girl, the vanishing killer at the end, teens in peril, quick flashes of nudity, fake shocks, a minimalist but effective soundtrack, the killer who walks at a slow pace but still catches up, even the idea of each death being its own unique set piece. It’s also one of the first films with a masked killer, although there were others before it, notably Blood and Black Lace.

The story, as with many slashers, is straightforward. Fifteen years ago, a young boy named Michael Myers (Will Sandin at this point) kills his sister just after she has sex with her boyfriend. Michael is institutionalized, and at the start of the film, has broken out and returned to the scene of his grisly crime. Rather than a clown mask, he steals a completely blank white mask (actually a William Shatner mask painted white) and sets about killing anyone and everyone around the house he once lived in. Pitted against him is Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role, and one that would define her early film career), and his doctor (Donald Pleasance).

Like many a great scary movie, most of the good shocks in this one are tricks of timing, camera, and pacing. Halloween is thought of as a gory and gruesome film, but there is almost nothing here in terms of blood or gore. The film is virtually bloodless, a fact that indicates precisely how powerful the suggestion in Carpenter’s film really is. Just as important is the idea that aside from the disturbing opening, the really good scares, the ones that people really remember all come in the last half hour of the film, and the best ones come in the last 10 minutes. The bulk of the film, essentially, is set up and getting the mood correct. It’s an old lesson of horror—scare everyone in the first 15 minutes and you don’t need a great scare again until the final reel.

Halloween was made on the cheap, the entire film start to finish cost about $320,000 and the actors had to supply their own wardrobes. That’s a budget that wouldn’t cover a catering bill these days. It goes to prove that low budgets can bring out the best in creative and intelligent filmmakers, and that not having millions of dollars means that smart directors find new ways to do things that both save on money and, in the case of this film, heighten the scare factor.

I don’t want to go too far into the plot of this film. If you haven’t seen it before, you should see it immediately. If you are even mildly a fan of scary film, though, this is one you’ve seen and loved. Halloween is one of those rare litmus test films—horror fans are essentially required to like it. Fortunately for all horror fans, there is very little here not to like. Halloween provides plenty of scares, jumps, and boo moments (my favorite being Michael Myers sitting up after the closet fight) to last anyone through the Halloween season. While a great many films followed in the genre, only a scant few have come anywhere close to this level of all around quality. Horror fans love it because it’s awesome; film students love it because it’s purely great.

Quick piece of fun trivia—Michael Myers is referred to in the script of the film not by his name, but as “The Shape.”

Why to watch Scream: You can test your knowledge of slasher movie tropes.
Why not to watch: The real life relationship between Courtney Cox and David Arquette bleeds into the film to the film’s detriment.

Why to watch Halloween: It is the gold standard by which all other slashers are judged.
Why not to watch: If you’re a gorehound, there’s not that much blood here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

No Michael Vick Jokes

Film: Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

My podcasting partner, Nick Jobe, has a tendency to make me watch movies that don’t make any sense until the very end. One of these days, based on the fact that he’s done that to me more than once, I’m going to make him watch Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) just to get him back. I’ve no doubt that Nick would enjoy this movie, or at least parts of it, although he’d likely object to the 150-minute plus running time. But Nick seems to like movies in which a random series of events conspire to bring a divergent group of people together in the same place at the same time.

We start with the event, which in this film is a massive car accident. The stories we see are of the people in one car leading up to the accident, the story of another in the days after the accident, and the story of a bystander, which starts before the accident and changes dramatically because of the accident.

Our first story concerns Ramiro (Marco Perez), who works in a grocery store and also commits robberies with a friend. He is married to Susana (Vanessa Bauche), with whom he has a child. Susana is pregnant again and is terrified to tell Ramiro, who is brutal and abusive. Ramiro’s brother Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) lives with them, and he is desperately in love with Susana. To convince her to run away with him, he needs money, and to get money, he gets involved in the underworld of dog fighting with his dog Cofi. As it turns out, Cofi is a natural and kills every dog he comes across, particularly those of dog trainer and incredibly violent human Jarocho (Gustavo Sanchez Parra). It would be too spoilerific to indicate precisely how the accident happens, but it’s Octavio in the car with his dog and his friend Jorge (Humberto Busto).

We move on to the story of supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo), who is in the other car. Valeria is on the top of the world when we begin her story. She has a great modeling career and, more important for her, her boyfriend Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) has left his family and gotten them an apartment together. But the accident is serious and has caused a great deal of damage to her leg, and may permanently end her modeling career. Worse, the apartment is in bad shape, and Valeria’s dog Richie disappears under the floorboards. The accident and the disappearance of the dog create a great deal of tension in the relationship, and expose the problems of the couple.

The final story concerns a vagrant named El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) who pushes a cart down the street followed by a pack of mongrel dogs. In reality, El Chivo is an accomplished hitman, who is hired to kill a businessman’s partner. El Chivo witnesses the accident at the start of the film, and finds the wounded dog in the backseat of the car, and carries it off, not realizing that Cofi the dog is a trained killer. And, of course, he has to deal with the fact that he’s been hired to kill someone despite trying to go straight. He also has to deal with his estranged daughter, who he abandoned when she was two.

Throughout the film, we get small pieces of the other stories. For instance, we see what happens with Ramiro and a failed bank robbery during the third story as well as the resolution of the relationship of Susana and Octavio. However, each portion of the film deals primarily with the story of the moment.

This is a difficult film, and it’s difficult in no small part because so much of it deals with dog-on-dog violence. Dog fighting is ugly and unpleasant, and it’s the kind of thing that as an animal lover in general and a dog lover in particular that I find completely repugnant. Movies often depict the ugly and unpleasant, and so the depiction itself is ugly and unpleasant. I understand that and even agree with it, but it doesn’t make seeing brutally ravaged dogs any easier to stomach.

None of these stories is happy or pleasant, but it’s worth noting that each of them takes place in a different socioeconomic level. Each of them contains a certain level of violence or at least physical pain, and each contains unpleasantness as regards the canine companions of our main characters. Two of the stories ultimately end on a down note, the third ends ambiguously. Love, whether romantic love or the love of a parent for a child, truly is a bitch.

I am glad to have watched this film, but I would be hard pressed to say I enjoyed it. This is an unrelenting movie that only rarely offers a respite for the watcher from someone’s real physical or emotional pain (or both), and at a length of well over two hours, when the movie does finally end, you’ll be ready for it. It’s something of an emotional wringer, but it’s one worth going through.

Why to watch Amores Perros: All three stories could be their own film.
Why not to watch: Dog fighting is ugly.

Friday, October 28, 2011

D-d-d...Diction Lessons

Film: The King’s Speech
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s a well-known Hollywood trope that the quickest way to an Oscar nomination or win is to portray someone with a significant flaw or defect, especially one that is obvious or measurable in some way. In fact, I accused the makers of Shine of this about a week ago on this very blog. You can’t go too many years in a row without finding someone winning a gold statue for portraying someone with a severe mental disability or significant physical handicap. This makes The King’s Speech rather interesting, because it both follows this formula and flaunts it.

Albert (Colin Firth) has a speaking problem. Normally, this wouldn’t be noteworthy except for the fact that in this case, Albert is the Prince of Wales, son of King George V of England, and is thus forced to speak in public on many occasions. His crippling stutter, though, makes this a difficult proposition at best, and the source of incredible fear at worst.

We see such a speech at the beginning of the film, and it is painful. As he gets through his address word by painful word, the level of discomfort of the audience becomes palpable, particularly that of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). He has attempted every speech teacher available, all with no results; his stutter essentially keeps him silent in many situations. That is, until Elizabeth encounters Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unorthodox teacher who may be able to help.

This really is the essential plot of the film—one man overcoming a crippling stutter to become a beacon of hope and strength for the nation during World War II. We learn a great deal of what may have caused the stutter—painful corrective measures when he was a child (such as forcing him to use his right hand instead of his natural left, leg braces to correct knock knees, etc.), a brutal nanny, and an overly stern father appear to be the main culprits. And for the most part, this wouldn’t even be a story of anything other than a man with a stutter except for actual historic events.

You see, Albert’s older brother was King Edward VII (Guy Pearce), the king who abdicated the throne so that he could marry two-time American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). And, with no heir, Albert is suddenly thrust into the position of being King George VI of England, stutter and all.

The various speech exercises are fascinating, and they bring out interesting ideas. For instance, early in his sessions, he has music played over headphones while he reads aloud from Hamlet, and discovers that he doesn’t stutter when he can’t hear himself or isn’t concentrating on his speaking. We learn that he can speak without stammering when he is angry or swearing, or when he is singing what he says to a familiar tune.

Firth plays Albert/George VI with humility, warmth, humor, and tremendous dignity. He is, of course, embarrassed by his stutter, but he is also a king, and has had a royal upbringing. He is stiff and formal, and thus balks when Logue insists on calling him Bertie and being referred to in turn as Lionel. But there is great candor in the man, and a true wit that often turns itself back on Albert himself. Firth’s performance, Oscar bait or no, is the heart of the film, and pitch-perfect. Too familiar, and we wouldn’t believe him as the king. Too stiff, and we wouldn’t care about the trouble he faces.

And, of course, a lot eventually rides on that speech. The speech in the title of the film is the address given by King George VI at the beginning of World War II. And it is pure propaganda, and I mean that not derogatorily, but as a simple fact. Royalty in England hasn’t really had an official function in centuries other than symbolic. George VI wasn’t the true head of the government, nor was he anything more than the figurehead of the Church of England. He wasn’t the brains or the muscle behind the government.

Instead, he is in many ways the soul of his people. If the speech does not inspire confidence and great will, in many ways, the war is being lost. It is, in all manner of speaking, a moment of truth.

Overall, this movie is excellent. I haven’t seen every major release from last year, but I do see why this was nominated for the number of Oscars it was. Many people tell me that there were other, more deserving films--The Social Network and True Grit being the ones most frequently named. I haven’t seen either one, so I can’t comment at this point, but this certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a good film won out over a couple of great ones.

If I have a complaint, it’s in the casting. Guy Pearce is seven years younger than Colin Firth and looks 15 years younger, but is playing the older brother here. I flat out don’t buy it. I wouldn’t change the casting of Firth simply because he was so good at the role. But Pearce’s part is far smaller, and an actor who looked the role a bit, or at least looked the same age as Firth would have been a more solid choice.

Still, this is a worthy watch. I liked it, and would watch it again if only to see a king go on a short rant of profanity.

Why to watch The King’s Speech: For all the hype, it really is very good.
Why not to watch: In years to come, we’ll wonder why it won Best Picture over other contenders.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ghost of Sweden Past

Films Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

As we get older, our memories get longer. That’s simple fact, and one that I’m reminded of, since my birthday is around the corner. Every day, we have more memories, and every day because of that, there are new possibilities in the world around us to bring up old memories and return them to the fronts of our brains. Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries) explores this idea in depth in the guise of a drive taken by an elderly gentlemen, his daughter-in-law, and some hitchhikers.

Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, who directed the interesting Korkarlen) is about to be honored by his university for 50 years of service. It’s a big moment in Borg’s life, but he’s having trouble finding someone to share the moment with. His wife is dead as are all his siblings, and his mother, while still alive, is ancient. His housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) would like to accompany him, but does not want to drive all the way to the ceremony, and is thus crabby.

However, he won’t take the drive alone. His daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who is visiting him, and experiencing some level of trouble at home, has decided to accompany him to his ceremony and to return at least temporarily to her husband. And so the two set off. It’s evident to Isak that Marianne is not too fond of him in part because his son, her husband, and he are far too much alike.

The pair stop at a place where Isak lived when he was much younger, and he slips into a reverie in which he essentially floats back to an important day in his past. While everyone in his memory is has he remembers them, he is still the old man of his present day. It is here that he discovers his first love, Sara (Bibi Andersson) was truly in love with his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjostrand), and that she will eventually run off with this younger brother. Returned to the present, Isak discovers a trio of travelers headed to Italy, and he offers them a lift for as far as they are going. As a reminder of his past, the girl in the group is named Sara (and is also played by Bibi Andersson).

Such reveries happen multiple times. We meet a quarreling couple who remind Isak of his own failed marriage and his wife’s infidelity. We also discover the truth behind what is going on with Marianne; she is pregnant and going to leave her husband because he does not want the child. Through all of this, Isak attempts to make sense of his current life, his loneliness, and the events of his past.

In a way, the film is sort of like a Swedish version of A Christmas Carol, or at least the parts featuring the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Isak learns of his own past crimes, of his guilt that he carries through life as well as the effects his own life has had on the people around him. In part, the reason his son’s marriage is breaking up is because his son does not want his life to mimic that of his parents. In one of the more interesting sequences, Isak’s subconscious puts himself on trial in which he is accused of guilt. The results of the trial never really come out, because he is awakened.

Bergman’s work often skirts into territory normally reserved for horror. While there are no slashers or bugaboos or things jumping out of cupboards, there is a sense of despair in his work, of the intense and constant pressure of existence in the world. Bergman’s films, at least in my experience, plunge the characters into places of despair and deep existential pain. Isak Borg is no different from these characters going through a crisis of the soul—in this late stage in his life, he is reaching the same point. Essentially, Borg has not yet come to terms with either his life as he has lived it or with his eventual death.

It’s a strange film, and one worth exploring. I’m not sure I groked the whole thing, and I probably need to watch it again after I’ve had some time to let it settle. Right now, I don’t think I can call it a film I’ve either loved or hated. I appreciate it, and for the moment, that’s going to have to do. I think I like it, but I’m not sure if I actually like it or if I simply feel obligated to like a film that has such an impeccable pedigree.

Why to watch Smultronstallet: Well, it’s normally considered one of Bergman’s great films.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to tell whether it’s actually enjoyable or not.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oh My God, They Killed Kyle Reese!

Films: The Terminator; Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Format: VHSs from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In the mid-1970s, Star Wars made science fiction not only cool, but socially acceptable. So, in the decades that have followed it, big-budget science fiction films have become a staple of the summer. At times, it feels like not a week goes by from May through late August that doesn’t feature a special effects extravaganza, and every year is littered with the metaphorical corpses of robots and aliens. We can be angry at George Lucas for what he’s subsequently done to the Star Wars franchise, but he deserves a lot of credit for allowing many of us to wear our geek badge proudly.

Of all of the 1980s science fiction films, perhaps none is more important than The Terminator, an ode to man-versus-machine warfare, time travel, and more. Okay, you could argue Aliens, and I wouldn’t fight that, but The Terminator is (and should be) mentioned in the same breath. The basic story is simple, but the execution is nearly flawless. There’s a reason that Schwarzenegger is still associated with this role more than 25 years and a political career later. It is arguably his best work, and that includes his governorship.

If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Now—like you should go rent it or move it to the top of your NetFlix queue right now. Seriously. Open up a new tab, move this to the top and drop everything and watch it when it shows up. Actually, it’s streaming at the moment, so put your reading on hold, watch it, and then come back.

Here’s the back story: in the future, a war for the survival of humanity occurs because a machine put in charge of national defense becomes self aware and determines that all of humanity is a threat. The machines are winning the war until a human named John Connor steps up and leads the humans to the brink of victory. However, the machines have an alternative plan; they send one of their human-like cyborgs, a machine covered in living tissue, back through time to kill the mother of John Connor before he is born. The humans send an agent of their own to stop it.

So, what we get is that battle that starts in the future and occurs in the film’s present. The machine, called a Terminator (and played convincingly by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is essentially an unstoppable force of killing and destruction. It arrives, steals some clothing and weaponry, and starts going through the phone book, killing everyone named Sarah Connor it can find. The Sarah Connor of importance here (Linda Hamilton) is a waitress and knows nothing of this until she is essentially kidnapped by her rescuer, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). The two then do everything they can to get away from the Terminator while battling cops because of the massive amounts of destruction caused.

The Terminator skirts the line between science fiction and horror. As a character, the Terminator is something straight out of a nightmare. While he tends to favor guns over things with blades, there are a lot of similarities between him and the classic slasher movie villains of the same era. He’s unstoppable, bent on killing and destruction, remorseless, brutal, and without mercy. And to most of the cast, he kills without a reason other than killing.

We spend a good amount of time in this film away from our three principle characters, and much of that time is spent in the company of the police trying to make sense of everything. The cops are led by Lt. Traxler (the vastly underappreciated Paul Winfield), who is assisted by Detective Vukovich (the equally underappreciated Lance Henriksen). We also get Dr. Silberman (that-guy Earl Boen) who gets involved as the criminal psychologist trying to understand the insane-sounding story of Kyle Reese.

Really, though, the three principle characters are the reason to watch here along with the inventive and entertaining story. Biehn is completely believable as a guy who goes back in time to rescue this name from the past, sacrificing everything to keep her safe. Linda Hamilton, who in future films became buff almost beyond recognition, works here as a plainly pretty, not-too-exceptional woman. But ultimately, this is Arnold’s movie, and while he has almost no lines, he makes a meal of this role.

What’s sad here is that The Terminator trades in a large part on its special effects, and the effects really haven’t aged well. There are moments, for instance, when we get an animatronic Terminator head, and it’s pretty obviously an effect. Late in the film when we see the fully unfleshed machine, the stop-motion work looks, well, like stop-motion work. It’s not terrible, it’s just obvious. Additionally, the score is awful. It’s not the iconic “Terminator” soundtrack you’re thinking of. Instead, it sounds like one guy with a midi keyboard rockin’ out with his feathered hair and parachute pants.

But none of this matters. The Terminator has entered into movie and cultural mythology for a good reason. Despite the effects looking their age, Cameron’s film is a dark fantasy that still resonates. We are, point of fact, in many ways controlled by the machines around us, and many of us (myself included) wouldn’t last too long without them. And, in addition to all of the allegory and meaning we can dig out of this, in the final analysis, The Terminator is a flat-out, kick-ass action film.

Many, if not most fans of Cameron’s mythos will claim that the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the superior film. Having just watched both, I’m not sure I agree. Certainly the effects are worlds better, and many of them still look as good and clean today as they did 20 years ago. But this is a bigger film, with a larger budget and a larger core cast, and because of this, it doesn’t have the intensity of the original film. This isn’t to say it’s not worth watching (it is, absolutely worth watching), but seeing both right in a row, I seem to favor the more streamlined, compact original film over the more florid, explosion-heavy sequel.

Anyway, I’ve jumped ahead of myself. We flash forward from the end of the original film to a few years in the future. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is a misdirected youth of (allegedly) 10, although he certainly looks more like 13. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton again) has gotten rid of the baby fat and replaced it with solid buffitude, and has also gotten herself institutionalized for constantly waxing philosophic about the coming war against the machines. And once again, there’s trouble from the future.

This time, though, rather than send back a frail human being to protect himself, the future John Connor sends back a reprogrammed pet Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) to keep his past self safe. This is necessary, because this time, the machines aren’t playing around. Rather than send back a simple Terminator, they’ve sent back a T-1000 (lop-eared Robert Patrick), a machine made of liquid metal, able to duplicate anything it touches and any person it encounters. The Terminator’s job is to protect the young John Connor so that he can grow up to lead the human revolution in the future. The machines, naturally, would like to prevent this, and so we get all sorts of funky time paradox just like last time.

See, last time, the company that eventually creates SkyNet, which destroys humanity, discovered the remains of the first Terminator. Specifically, they found a hand and a highly advanced cybernetic chip. And, unbeknownst to pretty much everyone in the world, the company is working on developing anything they can from this found technology. Essentially, SkyNet and the nasty machines are created because the nasty machines planted evidence of themselves for their creators, who built them capable of planting evidence of themselves in the past…yeah, you know what? Let’s forget about the time paradox and just enjoy the damn film.

Anyway, the film revolves initially around getting Sarah out of the institution and keeping John safe from the deadly T-1000. We learn a little of the past few years. John, for instance, has become something of a budding delinquent, able to scam ATMs, build pipe bombs, and reload pistols without having to think too much about it. We learn that Sarah essentially became sort of a knowledge gold digger, hooking up with any survivalist or former military wingnut who could teach her anything about weaponry, survival, or similar topics. We also learn that the project to create the machine that creates the chaos is underway and is headed by a guy named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton).

In many ways, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a genre shift from the original, much like Cameron’s Aliens moved genres from its original film. Both The Terminator and its sequel are smack in the heart of science fiction, but the first has a number of horror elements, while the second film is almost pure special effects and big budget romp. This is not a bad thing—as big budget action films go, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the best ever made, a statement that remains true after 20 years. Much of the horror is lost, though, in favor of pushing the science fiction envelope.

And the effects really are still cool. Most of them center around the T-1000 and his morphing capabilities. We see him impaled, for instance, only to pull the offending implement through his side and immediately heal up. A fist to his head causes his body to shift, turning an arm into a new head and his former head into a grasping hand. Slammed face first into a wall, the T-1000 simply reverses itself, the face coming out the back rather than turning around. The best effect, though, is seeing the machine spread itself out over a tile floor and then slowly rise up behind a potential victim, reforming as the victim’s doppelganger. Regardless of age, this still works and still looks fantastic.

But (and you could sense that, couldn’t you?) this is not a perfect film. The larger budget allows for some fantastic explosions and effects, but it also allows the story to grow more expansively. While this does give us additional insights into things, some of the effects—like the dream of nuclear war—are really there for no other reason than to spend the budget. This film is a good half hour longer than its predecessor, and not all of that half hour is really needed. The film feels a bit less focused than the original in the series, and what it gains in exposition it loses in flat-out intensity.

And then there’s John Connor. I’m certain that Edward Furlong was told to play John like the world’s most annoying individual, and if that is the case, the kid deserved an Oscar. John Connor is kid that, if you met him in real life, you’d want to punch repeatedly in the face. There are times when I think that maybe trading him for the survival of humanity is a fair trade—if he’s the best and brightest of the future, then we are Planet of the Apes-level degraded as a species. John is a self-centered, smug little prick, and whatever “cool” Cameron thought he was giving the character by making him a rebellious youth he lost ten times over by making the character a whiny little bastard.

But again, so what? This is an incredibly entertaining film, and a spectacle that remains fresh today despite the years and the dependence on special effects. It’s further proof that good science fiction is possible and that great science fiction is special. This film has held up in part because of those effects, in part because of Schwarzenegger’s relatively nuanced performance, and in part because, at its heart, it’s a great story.

Why to watch The Terminator: If you need me to tell you why to watch this, you’re not allowed to read this site anymore.
Why not to watch: Cheesy ‘80s music.

Why to watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Ridiculous special effects and bad-ass Ahhnold.
Why not to watch: At times, saving John Connor (and thus all of humanity) seems like a really bad idea.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Houdini's Golden Ticket

Daniel Stephens at Top 10 Films has a new meme, and it's a doozy. I don't typically participate in memes because that's not the focus of this blog at the moment, but this one is too much fun to ignore.

Essentially, the idea is this--in the film Last Action Hero, the plot revolves in part around a magical movie ticket that allows the wielder to enter into a movie and become a part of the movie world. However, rather than simply use the ticket to jump into a favorite movie, Dan has asked a series of questions regarding the use of the ticket. Here are my answers.

Which character would I most like to enjoy a passionate romance with?
Oh, so many options. I do love the screwball dames of the '30s and '40s, and I have not been silent about my deep and abiding love of Barbara Stanwyck. And then there are the femmes fatale of the classic films noir. Yeah, those would all end badly, but you know that the crazy sex would be off the hook. However, in the end, there was really only one answer. I could never resist the charms of Amelie Poulain.

If I were a cop, who would I want as my partner?
Is there really any other answer than this one? I mean, the dude goes by the handle of "Supercop," after all.

What movie gadget would I most like to try out (or steal)?
No question about it--with my commute, the idea of being able to move from one place to another virtually instantly has real appeal. I almost went with a lightsaber, because that would be awesome as well, but ultimately, the ability to move from place to place instantly wins out over something cool that I would probably end up using to slice ham.

What film's plot would I alter and how would I do it?
I would enter every film I could and rescue as many killed animals as possible, starting with Old Yeller. Bambi's mother? Safe. Mufasa? Safe. The bunny in Fatal Attraction? Out of the stew pot. But if I can only pick one, I'm picking Old Yeller, dammit.

Which character would I most like to be sat next to on a plane?
Absolutely Buckaroo Banzai. He is arguably the coolest mofo to every walk around in a film. And anyway, if I'm sitting next to him on a plane, I'm probably a part of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, which means I'm part of his team and on a private jet.

What animated feature would I love to walk around in?
I love the look of the animated Hellboy films. Plus, there's all sorts of crazy stuff going on. But mostly, it's because they look so different from everything else. And really, making me a bit more angular and less doughy would only improve me.

What adventure based on Earth would I most like to go on?
Well, I know they don't really go anywhere in the film, but the plot of The Sting is so cool and so much fun that it's impossible to resist. There's not a thing out of place in this, and I find that irresistible.

What adventure based in an otherworldly, fantasy-based location would I most like to go on?
Well, the film isn't out yet, but I don't really care. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars books, and the movie is coming out early next year. So I'm headed to Barsoom, even if I have to wait a few months to go there. Hell, I've waited since I was 10 to see the movies realized in a legitimate way, so a couple more months is nothing.

What one film would I most want to be transported into simply to be a part of that world?

This is the hardest question, and it's the one that I've put the most thought into. There are so many options and possibilities that the mind boggles. As much as I didn't like Avatar, the beauty of the world is pretty tempting. Ultimately, though, there is no movie with more beautiful scenery than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I can't resist it.

Cool Your (Gas) Jets

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

It’s currently in vogue (it’s actually always in vogue) to complain about remakes these days. It’s especially egregious when remakes happen almost immediately. This is something that happens in Hollywood these days—a foreign film grabs an audience, so the film is repackaged immediately with an American cast. For a few years, this was the thing to do with Japanese horror films like The Ring, The Eye, The Grudge and Pulse. For the last couple of years, it’s been Sweden, with Let the Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The most egregious example is the 2010 African-American reimagining of 2007 Caucasian-dominated Death at a Funeral.

The funny thing is that this is not a current problem. It has existed for years. When someone says The Maltese Falcon, you almost certainly think of the one with Bogart made in 1941. You probably don’t think of the earlier film of the same name (1931) or Satan Met a Lady based on the same story from 1936. Hitchcock made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and De Mille made The Ten Commandments twice. So it’s not too shocking that 1944’s Gaslight is a remake of a film from just a few years earlier.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this film. I knew from the start that Gaslight is a costume drama set in the Victorian era, which meant a lot of petticoats, giant ruffles, and posh dudes with elaborate coats. I don’t dislike period drama as a rule, but Victorian stuff seems to wash over me for some reason. It’s still oldish and a bit goofy, but desperately wants to be seen as modern. Victorian stories are sort of the awkward teens of literature, and so I tend to feel the same way about movies set in the period.

Gaslight is a period piece, but it seems to fall directly into the heart of film noir. Interestingly, I also seem to be experiencing a bit of a theme related to insanity lately, since that’s what I’ve been watching lately. Gaslight digs deeply into this idea of insanity in its characters, although it does so in a way very different from other films from the past few weeks.

Anyway, a famous singer named Alice Alquist is murdered, and the case goes completely unsolved. Her niece is sent away from London and packed off to the continent to receive vocal training. All of this happens in a few moments. As the film starts, we see the grown niece, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), leaving her lessons and taking up with a man named Gregory (Charles Boyer). The two marry, and as a part of Paula’s inheritance, they take up in the house of her aunt, revitalizing it as soon as possible.

And then the strange things start happening. Paula begins losing things and forgetting things. At night, when Gregory leaves to go to his studio to work on his composing, she hears voices in the blocked off rooms above her, and the flames in the gas lights dim as if someone is turning them on elsewhere. Worse, no one else seems to notice—not her hard-of-hearing servant Elizabeth (Barbara Everest, and yes, her hearing difficulty is important) and not her personal servant, the cheeky Nancy (played by a very young, still baby-fat faced Angela Lansbury). And then there is the mysterious man (Joseph Cotten) lurking about. All of this seems to be conspiring to drive Paula mad.

I’ll be honest—I expected going in that this was going to be just another in the list of films that are decent but forgettable from the earlier days. Imagine my surprise when I found myself actually personally involved in how the film played out. It’s extremely engaging as a film, and Paula is a compelling character. So too is Gregory, who seems a devious mix between caring, compassionate husband and angry tyrant. I’m a huge fan of Joseph Cotten in anything he appears in, and he’s great here, too. When I say that his character (Brian Cameron) is actually a detective working for Scotland Yard wanting to reopen the original case, I’m not really spoiling anything—we find this out early enough. But, of course, Paula doesn’t know this.

If I have a complaint, it’s the comic relief character of Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty), the stereotypically prim, nosy neighbor who can’t seem to get enough of her neighbor’s dirt. She’s supposed to be an injection of wacky fun and silliness in an otherwise pretty dark and heavy film, but I can’t help but think that in general it would have been better without her. She does become plot important once or twice, but only in minor ways that could have been left out with little loss.

Still, disregard her. Gaslight is great fun, and Bergman’s speech at the end is truly incredible.

Why to watch Gaslight: Far more compelling than you would believe.
Why not to watch: Miss Thwaites is really annoying.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Film: The Lion King
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

Okay, get your knives out.

I watched The Lion King with my girls. I didn’t hate it. I also didn’t love it. Please wait with the knives and let me get to the end of this. After all, the condemned does get a last word.

I’ll gloss the story quickly. Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub, Matthew Broderick as an adult) is the son of the current lion king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Simba gets shown off to all of the animals in the area as their eventual ruler, and all of the animals are there except Scar (Jeremy Irons), Simba’s uncle and Mufasa’s brother. Scar wants to be king, and plots to eliminate both Simba and Mufasa. He succeeds in killing off Mufasa, but Simba flees.

Simba winds up befriending a couple of jokers from the Island of Misfit Animals. Timon (Nathan Lane), a meerkat and Pumba (Ernie Sabella), a warthog, survive by eating insects and espousing a no-worries philosophy. Simba takes to this and eventually grows up, managing to become quite the buff lion despite his all-insect diet. Eventually, he is reunited with childhood sweetheart Nala (Moira Kelly) to get back at Scar and reclaim his lands. Oh, and there are hyenas.

Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that and there are plenty of songs, including the everyone-knows-these “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata.” I knew both of those songs before I’d seen this film, just like everyone.

The Lion King borrows liberally from an old Japanese anime series called Kimba the White Lion. It also borrows liberally from Hamlet. This isn’t specifically good or bad, but simply commented on as something that exists in the film.

I know that this film is formative for an entire generation. People who are 15-20 years younger than I am grew up on this movie, and it is very close and dear to them. They feel about it the way that I feel about the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a part of their childhood, and instantly reverts them to this place in their past. The songs are familiar and fun, the jokes still work, and it’s still horrible when Mufasa gets trampled by wildebeest. I get all that, because I have that same relationship with some movies myself.

But, and this is important, I can’t have that with The Lion King simply because I can’t. It’s a film that was built up for me to an insane degree for one thing. And while it is beautiful to look at, the story feels kind of thin. Simba runs away and then returns. There aren’t the sorts of complications or pitfalls I remember seeing in other Disney films. Frankly, it feels a bit two-dimensional to me. It also feels both slow and rushed. We don’t get the significant plot point of Mufasa’s death until nearly halfway through the film. The comic relief characters of Timon and Pumba don’t show up until after that, and they don’t do much but eat some bugs. Really, I expected Mufasa to kack it in the first 15 minutes and there’d be a lot more of Simba struggling to grow up. Instead, it happens in an instant at the end of Hakuna Matata. It’s also worth noting that in general, I dislike Disney comic relief characters intensely.

I do understand the love for this film, and like I said at the start, I didn’t hate it. It’s not a terrible movie, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all of Disney animation, either. There are plenty of Disney films I like a hell of a lot more, and that’s not even including Pixar into the mix.

Disney films have a feel to them. They follow a set trajectory. The Lion King follows that trajectory from start to finish without deviation. So, as an adult watching the film for the first time, there were no real surprises.

Finally, a caveat. While this was the first time I saw the film, I did know the story going in. I saw this performed on stage in London with a Broadway-caliber cast. And, frankly, I hated it. I may be soulless, and perhaps you’ll now get rid of your link to my page if you are a fellow blogger, but I stand by it. I didn’t like this story live, and seeing the animated film didn’t change my life in any meaningful fashion. Sorry about that, but not really.

Why to watch The Lion King: It’s a cultural touchstone for an entire generation.
Why not to watch: If you didn’t see this as a tyke, it’s probably not as good as you’d hope.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Film: A Woman Under the Influence
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Insanity always makes for good fare in a movie. There’s something inherently lurid about mental illness, even though there shouldn’t be. There is a tremendous stigma attached to mental illness; people don’t like to talk about it and are often embarrassed by it. People aren’t embarrassed about heart disease or a stroke, but a little schizophrenia or schizoid personality disorder, and out come the jokes, the snickering, and the little white lies.

A Woman Under the Influence is John Cassavetes’s take on insanity. And it’s terrifying. In another context, the slide into insanity suffered by Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) would be comical. She is manic, talks to herself, acts inappropriately, mouths words, and is generally unnerving; in a lot of ways, she acts similarly to David Helfgott in Shine, which I watched just yesterday.

The issue is that her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), has no way to react to her bubbling insanity. He can’t control his own reactions to her and can’t control anything about what she is doing. He does love her, and loves her desperately. He just can’t figure out what he is supposed to be doing, or any way to help her. When she finally breaks down completely he has her institutionalized, and discovers that he also has no real way to relate to his own children without the buffering influence of Mabel.

Eventually, Mabel returns home, and again, no one knows how to react to her, and her return home is just as painful as her departure was. She has no coping mechanism for her world, and no one in her world has a coping mechanism for her. It’s harrowing to watch. Cassavetes does give us an emotional upturn at the end, but the path to get to that upturn is absolutely laden with emotional pain.

While there is a very large cast in this film, the only two that we are really concerned with are Mabel and Nick Longhetti. And these are incredible performances throughout. Falk is as good as he has ever been as a man torn by his deep love for his wife and his complete inability to relate to her on any level. That said, this film belongs entirely to Gena Rowlands. This is the sort of performance that is typically called “career making,” and in this case, that phrase has teeth. She shifts into various stages of mania back and forth naturally and seamlessly. It is one of the greatest film performances I have ever seen.

But, it’s really difficult to watch. It’s not an easy thing to see someone essentially self-destruct on camera, or to see the distress that this causes in everyone around her. This is not a pleasant film to get through, and with a length extending well over two hours, it is not over quickly. This is not simply in Gena Rowlands’s scenes. After she is committed to an asylum, Nick takes the kids out of school for the day and takes them to the beach. On the way home, he rides in the back of a friend’s pickup truck and feeds the kids (who are ranging in age from probably 5 to 8) a steady diet of beer to essentially knock them out and get them to sleep once they get home. It’s tragi-comic. He literally has no other way to deal with his kids because he’s never had to before.

I’m glad I watched this film, but this is another in the list that I don’t want to see again. It’s absolutely worth watching for the two performances—I could argue in fact that it should almost be considered required viewing for this reason. But it is a harrowing ride and painful to get through. Watch it once, and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

Why to watch A Woman Under the Influence: How many people live like this? How many would admit to it? I’m guessing the first number is high and the second is low.
Why not to watch: It is monumentally painful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rach 3

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

David Helfgott had talent. At a young age, he was a musical prodigy taught by his father. But, according to most accounts, his father was tyrannical, allowing for no deviation from a set path and no ability to walk away from his own particular view of the world. David Helfgott rebelled from his father, pursued his own genius, and was crushed by it, becoming a broken shell of a man lost in his own world until others rediscovered his genius and worked to bring him back. Or, at least that’s the story that we see in Shine.

And that’s really the story. There isn’t a massive amount of plot here—talented young man is broken and the shattered pieces are slowly formed back together into broken man who finds a way to continue forward. Instead, this is a character study of Helfgott and his life, and in the adult years, his mania and his manic personality. The real man has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, sort of like bipolar with breaks from reality.

Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush, in his first major film performance), according to the film (and presumably in life), cannot help but speak nearly constantly, rambling on with word associations leading down winding paths. He is, perhaps, his own unique position on the autism spectrum, his mind and mouth going a mile a minute.

We get the full story, starting in Australia, seeing young David (played initially as a child by Alex Rafalowicz) losing a music competition, but being discovered by a local piano teacher named Rosen (Nicholas Bell). As he continues to play and improve, David is offered the chance to attend school in the U.S., but this is stopped by his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl), but rescued emotionally by co-founder of the Australian Communist Party, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers). When David is invited to study at the Royal College of Music in London, he goes against his father’s wishes, and his father disowns him.

Once there, David (played as an adolescent by Noah Taylor) competes with Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, a piece known for its brutal difficulty. He owns the piece, lives it, but the performance breaks him completely, sending him to a mental institution and shock therapy. Eventually back in Australia, he is institutionalized again in part because he has nowhere to go—his family essentially doesn’t recognize him due to pressure from his father. He is rediscovered by a worker at the institution, and slowly comes back to playing, eventually marrying an astrologer named Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) and performing in concert again. Yeah, that’s a spoiler, but it’s not much of one.

What’s fascinating here is that the real story is actually more unbelievable than the film—he was actually rediscovered in a bar by his own brother. But no matter.

There are a couple of important points that need to be made here. First is that the real reason to see this film is not for the story, but for the performances. They are truly astounding. Geoffrey Rush speaks a mile a minute through the film, constantly mumbling and muttering, off in his own world and his own place. It’s a great performance, and one that won Rush a number of awards including an Oscar and a Golden Globe. It seems, though, that the performance of Noah Taylor got lost in the shuffle here. Rush is asked to portray the broken man on his journey back, which is admittedly impressive. Taylor, though had the unenviable task of portraying the man as he breaks, which I think is much more difficult. Taylor seems forgotten here, which is a damn shame, because what he brings to the film is easily as much as what Rush brings.

The other thing is this--Shine is a film that seems naturally made to win awards. It’s the same sort of film as A Beautiful Mind and a couple hundred others about individuals broken by life and talent and madness who find a way back to something by the end of the film. I can’t say that it’s boring, but I can say that it wasn’t too long into the film that I was pretty sure where we were headed.

Is it good? It is, but it’s good strictly because of the performances here. While the story is interesting, it’s a story you’ve almost certainly seen before with a different cast of players and a slightly different mental defect. Other than that, this film, while not forgettable, doesn’t specifically distinguish itself from other films that tread essentially the same ground.

Why to watch Shine: The music, the performances, and the musical performances.
Why not to watch: How many movies about broken geniuses do you need to see?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

She Done Us All Wrong

Film: She Done Him Wrong
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Mae West was a Hollywood icon in the early days of talking pictures. Despite the fact that I haven’t seen a lot (or any) of West’s films before today, but even I knew what the stereotypical Mae West performance looked like, and most especially sounded like. What’s fascinating here is that West didn’t have a huge career in the films. She acted in only 13 films, and only 11 during those golden early years.

She Done Him Wrong was her second film, and her first major film. It was also the first major break for Cary Grant, which makes it pretty interesting. However, the most interesting thing about the film is that it’s one of the last films to appear before the Hays Code, and was one of the movies that proved to be instrumental in the creation of the Code. In many ways, the Hays Code and the years of censorship happened as a reaction to this film and similar ones. Oh, there were others, of course, but the far more open sexuality of this film certainly raised a lot of eyebrows.

In She Done Him Wrong, West plays Diamond Lou, or perhaps Lady Lou, who is the epitome of the character that she was known for. Lou is called “Diamond Lou” because she more or less collects diamonds, and more importantly collects the men that come with them. When the film comes, Lou has a metric ton of diamonds, and a metric ton of men she’s keeping on the string, but true to form, she doesn’t feel like she’s got enough of either of them.

There are plenty of guys to talk about here. Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) runs the mission next door to the bar where Lou sings, and he’s persona non grata at the bar for everyone but Lou. Also in the running is Chick Clark (Owen Moore), who starts the film in prison for stealing diamonds to give to Lou. He’s the jealous type, and threatens Lou with danger should she run around with other men, which she does, and which is why he breaks out of prison in the middle of the film. We’ve also got Serge Stanieff (Gilbert Roland), who is a criminal in the employ of Lou’s current flame Gus (Noah Beery), who runs her club as well as thievery, counterfeiting, and prostitution rings. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also Lou’s bodyguard Spider (Dewey Robinson), who says more than once that he’ll do anything for Lou. There’s at least one more, but I can’t be arsed to care at this point.

If we want to peg the title here, the man she (Lou) is doing wrong is Chick, but since he’s a wild-eyed criminal, it’s hard to care.

So let’s talk about the real point of this movie. The entire point is to put Mae West and as much sex as possible on the screen. West wears a series of form-fitting dresses that emphasize her figure, her cleavage, and do as much as possible to force her to walk with itty bitty steps and swing her generous hips back and forth. The problem is that, really, she’s not very appealing. Every guy in the film is wild about her, but I spent the bulk of the film with a sort of confused expression on my face, wondering where the sex appeal was supposed to come from.

More importantly, the entire film is a loosely connected series of vague plot points that are supposed to add up to a whole, and don’t. Nothing in the film ties together well, and a big part of this more than likely comes from the extremely short running time of just over an hour. While I’m not trying to add to my own pain here, this is a story that could use either about half the number of characters or another 50% in the running time. There’s too much to try to fit into this small package, and the conclusion feels rushed and unsatisfying because of it. Lou literally gets away with murder and no one really cares too much about it—another no-no after the Hays Code showed up.

In many ways, this film is a tremendous disappointment. West belts out a couple of songs, and she does this unsatisfyingly each time. The exaggerated walk looks less sexy and more like parody the more she does it. Even Grant’s unique speaking style comes off less like his trademark accent and more like affectation. Seriously, for a film that caused the Hays Code to be enacted, or at least was a significant part of it, I expected a hell of a lot more than this mildly saucy film and a couple of tight dresses.

In short, this is a big “so what.” It’s shocking to me that evidently this was such a thin year for films that this thing was nominated for Best Picture. I never thought I’d be bored by Cary Grant, but this film has proven me wrong. In a short list of things done right in this, the ultra-short running time is, ultimately, the best simply because it reduces the amount of suffering.

Why to watch She Done Him Wrong: Everyone should be at least a little familiar with the Mae West stereotype.
Why not to watch: It’s shocking that this is the best of Mae West’s career.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Expressionism's Greatest Expression

Film: Metropolis
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Metropolis is, like Nosferatu and some Chaplin films, the silent film that non-silent fans may have actually seen. While not the first science fiction film, it is perhaps the first great one, and one of the first (if not the first) to have a fully-fleshed plot and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. Metropolis, despite its age, still has the ability to wow an audience with the size and scope of the sets if for no other reason.

It is, however, right in the heart of the German Expressionist movement, which means that you can expect that very little of this story will be specifically dropped into your lap for the understanding. No, it’s all going to be veiled by bizarre sets, heavy symbolism, unusual lighting, and all other sorts of weirdness. Much of what happens here will be melodramatic in the extreme, not the least of which are the facial expressions and movements of the actors. What you may not expect is how interestingly this film resonates with the current day.

In the city of Metropolis, the vast majority of people are workers, and they work far below the ground tending machines, keeping a brutal, inhuman pace to maintain the running of the mechanical works that keep the city going. Most of this is done for the benefit of the managers, especially Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the original architect of the city. The children of the managers enjoy a life of pastoral bliss, sport, and intellectual pleasures far above the madding crowd. Of these, our interest will be the most taken with Fredersen’s son, the unimaginatively named Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich).

Early in the film, Freder meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), who lives in the Worker’s City and has brought a small group of children up to see the top levels. Freder is immediately captivated by the girl’s beauty and wishes to follow her. He does, and discovers the hell that the workers below the city live in. He witnesses the explosion of a giant machine that causes the deaths of a number of workers, but finds that his pleas to his father for better treatment for the workers go unheeded. Around this time, we also discover that Freder’s mother died in childbirth, and that she was loved not only by his father, but by the mysterious inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Rotwang is a mad genius, and has created a mechanical man (also played by Brigitte Helm) that he wishes to use to recreate his lost love. But Fredersen convinces him to give the machine Maria’s face, since she is a leader of the workers. In this way, they will sow dissention among the workers and maintain their hold over the populace and their own comfortable lifestyle.

Of course, it’s all quite a bit more complicated than this, because this covers about the first half of the film. It also doesn’t cover Josaphat (Theodor Loos), fired by Fredersen and immediately rehired by Freder. It neglects The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), sent to spy on Freder. The Thin Man is actually a pretty terrifying screen creation. He looks tailor-made for German Expressionism, because his head is made up of a number of strange angles.

Metropolis is most noteworthy not for the story it tells, but the style with which it tells the story. While not a case of style over substance (since there’s plenty of substance here), it’s the style that is in many ways the most interesting. The story itself is hardly anything new—privileged youth becomes enamored of poor girl and seeks to right social wrongs to win her love. But the strange look of the backgrounds, the huge and impressive sets, and the strange technologies that run through the film are what make it something fascinating to see on the screen. In today’s world, Metropolis lives and dies by its appearance, and if the message gets through, so much the better. Beyond the Machine Man, there are plenty of fascinating set pieces. The explosion of the giant machine, for instance, looks to Freder like people being marched endlessly into the mouth of Moloch. Later, when Freder takes a turn at a machine, he hallucinates himself strapped (almost crucified) on a relentlessly whirring clock.

Of course, the message is no secret here. We’re shown it in the first few moments of the film when a title card saying that between the hands and the brain, the heart must be the mediator appears. This is reinforced around the middle of the film when Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel to the workers, claiming that while thousands worked on it, the work went awry because only the planners knew the ultimate purpose of the structure. The parallel here, of course, is to the workers and the managers. The managers neither know nor care about the difficult, painful lives of the workers, and the workers have no idea of the ultimate purpose of what they do.

Are there parallels to today? Of course there are. This will undoubtedly date this review in future months, but it’s impossible to watch this film today and not see a cognate in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. So much goes to so few, and the hands no longer know the reason for their labors.

But is it good? Yes, it is. I watched the restored version, which adds a good half hour to the original film. It’s quickly evident where footage was added in, because this footage is of relatively poor quality, but it’s nice to see the film in a more complete state, regardless of how that footage looks. Metropolis may have lost most of its power to cause awe and shock, but it still works, the effects are still good, and the Machine Man is still impressive as a piece of costuming. Additionally, the first time it moves is one of the most iconic moments in film history, akin to Al Jolson singing.

Why to watch Metropolis: A formative film both for science fiction as a genre and film as a medium.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty weird, even for science fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Painting Worth 1,000 Sighs

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

While anyone who knows anything about film noir will tell you that it’s not really a genre and more of a style, it is a handy way to classify films. For me, it’s a good way to tell if I’m going to like something, since I have a tendency to really enjoy film noir. Laura is an unusual film, and an unusual film noir. It doesn’t have the lurid title or anything on the surface that would seem to indicate noir goodness, but there’s a lot going on in its relatively short running time.

We start with the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who went out violently—a face full of buckshot. Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is set to investigate the murder, and he’s got a few prime suspects lined up. First is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a vain, pompous, and mildly effeminate newspaper columnist who met Laura years before. He helped her get her start in the advertising business and was instrumental in her early success. Also on the chopping block is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s somewhat estranged fiancé. While engaged to Laura, Shelby has a reputation for carrying on with other women, including Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).

As McPherson digs deeper into the case, we learn some other interesting tidbits. It’s evident right away, for instance, that Lydecker is enamored of Laura and jealous of Shelby Carpenter. He indicates that he’s used his influence in the past to push suitors away from Laura since those suitors weren’t good enough for her. He dislikes Carpenter to a nearly insane degree, and would love nothing more than to hand him over to McPherson, indicating that the man has a sketchy past, and was seen stepping out with one of the models from the advertising agency where he works with Laura.

What also becomes clear is that McPherson is rapidly becoming obsessed with the dead woman, offering to buy the portrait of her, and sleeping in her apartment. Imagine his shock, and the shock of the audience, when mid-way through the film, Laura Hunt turns up alive. This means naturally that the body with the head full of buckshot was somebody else, and now there’s more than enough motive to go around for the dead woman caught wearing Laura’s nightgown.

This is a clever film all the way through. While it lacks a true femme fatale in Laura Hunt, it has all of the other aspects of a film noir, including shady characters hiding the truth, and a plot that takes a number of intricate twists and turns until it reaches its inevitable conclusion with the true murderer (who I won’t reveal here) getting caught in the end. What’s more impressive is that the various twists and turns all make perfect sense. There isn’t a one that feels forced or inappropriate to the story. Each time we learn something new along with McPherson, the result is a new direction for the story, but one that follows naturally with the story as presented to this point.

If the film is a disappointment anywhere, it’s in the two leads. Gene Tierney is a fine leading lady, but sort of bland here. She’s beautiful enough to make at least three men fall in love with here, but not specifically interesting enough as presented here to make them stay that way, at least in my opinion. As for Dana Andrews, his McPherson is a tough cop gone inexplicably mushy over the painting of a good looking woman. Really, while we don't get a lot of his character, it seems out of place. This guy feels like he should be more hard-boiled than getting wobble-kneed over a painting, especially when the body has been pretty much left sans face.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the presences of both Vincent Price and Clifton Webb. Webb’s Lydecker is a weasel, a preening little peacock who is convinced of nothing so much as his own greatness and importance. He’s instantly dislikable, and he’s intended to be so. As for Price, this role comes before his move into the more horrific side of the film spectrum, but there’s still a touch of the creepy about him here. He’s an interesting choice for a pseudo leading man, but that may simply be my knowledge of his later roles creeping back in.

This is something of an oddball film, but an entertaining one. The ending is tense, and it’s not until the last few minutes that the actual criminal becomes evident. The fact that there are multiple possibilities up to that point indicates good screenwriting. I just wish I liked the characters more.

Why to watch Laura: Vincent Price before he went full-on creepy and a shocking plot packed into less than 90 minutes.
Why not to watch: Remembering that Gene is a woman and Dana is a man.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kick 'Em When They're Down

Film: The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

Unless you stick to one or two genres of film, after awhile, you see a little bit of everything. Over the last 22 months, I’ve reviewed more than 500 films for this site, watched more, and have 40+ years of previous movie watching experience. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of movies in my lifetime. I’ve seen good, I’ve seen bad, and I’ve seen films that make me despair for the human condition. But in all of that time, I’ve never seen a film as cynical as The Big Carnival (frequently billed as Ace in the Hole).

A lot of Billy Wilder’s films have a deep cynical streak. The Apartment, Stalag 17, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Blvd. all run cynical as well, and until the uplift at the end of The Lost Weekend, that film is as brutal to human nature as any film that came before it. But The Big Carnival tops them all for pure spite, evil, and the brutality of man against his fellow man.

Chuck Tatum (a manly guy with a manly name played by Kirk Douglas) is the greatest newspaper man in the country, at least in his own mind. But he’s offering the owner and publisher of an Albuquerque newspaper a huge discount on his services, because he’s also been fired from 11 straight newspapers for a variety of reasons including drinking, an affair with the editor’s wife, and a libel suit. The publisher, Jacob Boot (Porter Hall) hires Chuck on regardless of his reputation. Chuck is hoping for a big story, a big break, and a big ticket out of Podunk, New Mexico.

The story takes a year to show up. Out on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt with cub reporter/photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), Chuck stumbles onto the biggest human interest story of the year. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become trapped inside an ancient cliff dwelling, looking for native artifacts to sell at his roadside stand. Tatum crawls in to check on him, and finds the man pinned under a rockfall. Finally, the story he’s been looking for.

What happens next is the cynicism of Wilder’s script. Tatum realizes that a quick rescue will do nothing for him—the only way to get himself out of Albuquerque and back to the big time is to turn this event into a huge, nationwide story. The only way to do that is to create a media circus around the event, and that means that Minosa will have to stay trapped longer than the day or so that the contractor (Frank Jaquet) tells him shoring up the cave and digging the man out will take.

To do all this, Chuck starts enlisting support for his plan. He convinces the local sheriff (Ray Teal) to pressure the contractor to go through the top of the mountain, a process that will take a week to reach the trapped Leo. This, Tatum assures the sheriff, will virtually guarantee his constant re-election for the near future, and will make the contractor the biggest name in the state. He also convinces Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to stay for the duration despite the fact that she wants nothing more than to leave Leo behind. Why stay? Because as it turns out, the sudden publicity has made her roadside restaurant/store a big hit, and she’s raking in cash hand over fist. Even the idealistic Herbie turns cynical, thinking about turning his photography into a spread for Look or Life magazine.

And so it goes. Tatum does everything he can to be the only source of information on Leo Minosa, trying to leverage the greatest human interest story in the country as a way to get out of the dead end he is in. The suffering of Leo doesn’t matter. Neither does the fact that Lorraine Minosa is a classic femme fatale, looking out only for herself, even to the point of making a play for Tatum’s affections if it will get her to New York and out of her roadside stand. Only Leo and his parents are anything like sympathetic characters here, with the possibly inclusion of Jacob Boot, who wants nothing more than to run an honest newspaper.

The ending is pure film noir, and it really is the only ending that would satisfy this story. Anything less, anything milder, anything easier on the character of Tatum as arch-cynic would shortchange everything that Wilder established through the first two acts of the film.

Is this Wilder’s best movie as well as his most cynical? Probably not. It would be difficult to say the least to surpass Double Indemnity. But make no mistake--The Big Carnival is every bit as brutal and unflinching it exposing the dark heart of many a human animal and every bit as smirkingly sardonic as any film ever made. Wilder was a master of converting any genre he got hold of into something that reflected his world view of romanticism turned cheap and vulgar. Wilder was in many ways the dark mirror reflection of Frank Capra, and this film is the ugliness hiding inside everyone.

What’s truly noteworthy is that like many films that try to peel back the surface layer and show the corruption and evil beneath, this indictment of journalism and sensationalism has only grown more relevant, save that a modern story would keep Chuck Tatum cynical through to the very last frame instead of attempting to redeem him.

Why to watch The Big Carnival: Wilder at his most cynical, Kirk Douglas at his most ruthless.
Why not to watch: It’s tame compared with modern media.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sarah, Can You Hear Me?

Film: Children of a Lesser God
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop and rockin’ flatscreen.

What’s up with all the romance lately? Honestly, I don’t know. I choose movies based on a variety of things—availability, mood, time, phase of the moon perhaps, and possibly bio-rhythms. Regardless, I have evidently been on a bit of a romance kick lately. Children of a Lesser God is a film I’ve almost started a couple of times and just haven’t, so it was time to finally sit down and watch it.

The story is pretty simple. James Leeds (William Hurt) is a speech teacher specializing in training deaf students to speak. He begins at a new school and initially has some success with the students, but for him, the challenge isn’t the kids, but the janitor, Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin). A former student at the school, Sarah refuses to lip read and refuses to talk. But James wants to help her. More on this in a bit. Sarah is what can only be described as aggressively deaf.

But really, that’s the whole story. Their relationship starts rocky and stays rocky, even when she moves in with him. He would like her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk. They fight a lot, and there is a great deal of angry sign language.

Honestly, that’s the whole movie. It’s a pretty standard romance with the difference being that the woman is deaf and that the man is a teacher of deaf students. Remove that particular angle, and this is little more than a standard romance between two people who fall in love with each other but have some differences that they need to resolve. The main difference here is her identity has a deaf person. She wants him to accept her for who and what she is, but it’s pretty evident through the bulk of the film that she has no idea what she wants. She wants him to come into her world, but she won’t enter his—won’t even budge.

Matlin won an Oscar for this role, which was her first role of any kind in a film. I can’t say she didn’t deserve it, but a part of me wonders. Considering that she beat out Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, which has become an iconic role for women, one has to wonder if the award went to Matlin for that old Oscar thing of playing someone with a disability. The fact that Matlin didn’t have to act that part of the role doesn’t matter. Physical handicaps win awards in Hollywood.

So let’s get back to this idea of the caring James wanting to help the aggressive and angry Sarah. James, naturally, is portrayed as a wonderful teacher, the kind of teacher that seems to exist only in movies and is there mainly to inspire his students to become something greater than they are. If you’ve ever seen a movie that involves a teacher, you know the kind I’m talking about. And as a member of the audience here, I have no reason to disbelieve either the quality of his teaching or his desire to truly help Sarah communicate with the outside world. But, let’s be honest about this for a moment. A big part of the reason that James wants to help Sarah is that Sarah looks like Marlee Matlin. If she looked like Bella Abzug, we’d have a different movie on our hands.

I’m not sure if the deaf angle is actually that important here, which is a very smart move. In essence, deafness is simply what they fight about. It’s no different from anything else that couples fight about. What I mean is that couples fight, and this couple simply fights about her deafness. It could just as easily be his career or anything else. Sarah’s deafness is not so much a plot point as just a part of her character, and this is a smart decision.

Regardless of this, there’s not enough here to really get me excited about this film. It plays like a big budget After School Special in a lot of respects. Everyone should be able to be the person they want to be and each of us is special in our own way. I’m not sure I needed Marlee Matlin and William Hurt to tell me this.

Why to watch Children of a Lesser God: It’s interesting to see deafness brought to the big screen.
Why not to watch: You learned the moral of this story in first grade.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Some Singing, More Rain

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

One of the more fascinating cultural experiences I’ve had in the past several years is attending a Hindu wedding. I don’t know how traditional it was—it may very well have been Westernized in some ways, and the reception was very Western in a lot of ways. As for the ceremony itself, I don’t remember a lot. This isn’t because I wasn’t paying attention, but almost because I couldn’t. The bride, my older daughter’s first grade teacher, recommended to us that we bring a deck of cards for the actual ceremony. We weren’t seated close (not being family), and it was quiet and extremely long. I remember we were served ice cream in the middle.

Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding offers in some ways a very similar experience. In one important way, this film is badly misnamed—we never see the actual wedding. We get the build up to the wedding, we get the family insanity that goes around the wedding, we get infidelity, family secrets, random almost-couplings, fights, tears, a lot of singing, and what looks like one hell of a great reception, but no wedding.

This is a film with almost too many plots to get into, so I’ll stick with a couple of the major ones. Young Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) has been promised in marriage to Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), a man she has never met. This is problematic, since she is currently involved in an affair with a married television personality named Vikram (Sameer Arya). Now the whole family is gathering in Delhi for the big event, and tempers, past insults and crimes, and a few current crimes surface. Along the way we discover that Aditi’s father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) is having cash problems because of the wedding. There’s additional turmoil in the family better left unspoiled here. And the wedding planner, P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) has fallen madly in love with the Vermas’ servant, Alice (Tilotama Shome), and is thus unable to concentrate.

Nair doesn’t show us the wedding, because ultimately, the wedding is unimportant. It’s everything else that truly is important here. This film isn’t about the value of an arranged marriage over the sort of relationship Aditi had with Vikram. It’s not about the power of marriage or the importance of marriage. Rather, this film is about family, about love and about the strength and power of tradition even in the face of an ever-changing world.

For me, there are three real emotional centers to this film. First is Lalit Verma. While it is his daughter who is being married, the film is much more about him than it is Aditi. For him, as well as for his wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), this marriage means not so much gaining a son as truly losing a daughter. Hemant lives in Houston, which means that after the wedding, Aditi will leave Delhi, leave India, and live on the other side of the planet. For Lalit, this wedding is both everything and a loss of everything—money included, but mainly his daughter. His resistance through much of the film is there to cover this deeper fear of losing his little girl.

Second is the relationship between Dubey and Alice. Their romance is unarranged and happens naturally in the course of the film. It is sweet, almost naïve, and ultimately charming. When Alice, alone in the course of her duties, tries on the wedding jewelry, Dubey’s men accuse her of stealing. It’s only Dubey, who is watching her with the eyes of a man newly and wholly infatuated, who understands the truth of her game of dress up.

Finally, there is Ria (Shefali Shetty), the daughter of Lalit’s deceased brother, essentially adopted into the household. Without giving too much away, Ria guards a dark family secret that eventually comes boiling out the night before the wedding. Her role is a thankless one in the family—she’s a sort of spinster cousin—but she is in many ways the emotional core of the entire clan. Her scene with Lalit at the end of the film as well as the one that follows it, are the two moments in Monsoon Wedding that turn a well-made movie into cinema.

What surprised me here was a general lack of humor. I expected this to be very much a Hindi-language version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and it is anything but. There is some humor here, but the humor is there simply to temper the drama. While the film ends on a massive uplift, overall, this is not the laughfest you might expect.

But it is good. It is very, very good. It is beautifully filmed and nicely paced, and despite the massive cast, it does not become confusing or difficult to follow. I’ve checked this film out from the library before and simply never got around to it. Now I wonder why.

Why to watch Monsoon Wedding: A slice of real life that cuts deeper than its surface topic.
Why not to watch: Family dramas have a way of being more painful than others.