Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Very Short Marathon

Film: Lola Rennt (Run, Lola, Run)
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library projected on screen.

Lola Rennt (Run, Lola, Run) is a film with which I have a strange history. Several years ago, I was called in to substitute for a film study class. The movie that had been selected for that night was Lola Rennt. Tonight, essentially the same thing happened. I needed to find a film that would create a good discussion, that wasn’t too long, and that was immediately available in my school library. Naturally enough, I selected the same film. So I’ve seen this film twice, both times in a classroom that I wouldn’t normally have been in charge of.

Tom Tykwer’s film is an interesting one, and as I predicted, it made for a good discussion after we had watched it. There were, in fact, some excellent observations from the students, some of which I will almost certainly mention in the next several hundred words.

Anyway, we start with Lola (Franka Potente), who receives a phone call from her boyfriend, Manni (Mortiz Bleibtrau). Manni has been entrusted with a vast sum of money—100,000DM—but due to circumstances, left it behind on a commuter train where the sack of cash was picked up by a hobo. Now, he needs to replace that money in 20 minutes or his criminal boss will kill him, no questions asked. And so, Lola, who has her own problems, must run to help him.

From this point on, Lola Rennt becomes a sort of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, with the next 20 minutes played out three times, each one with minor changes at the start that create major changes in the ending. In each case, the changes that occur cause the timing of events to be slightly off, causing massive changes. A car accident is avoided by a sudden tap on the brakes, caused by Lola’s appearance a second sooner or later. Lives change and are changed, and in some cases lost, because of Lola’s position on the street at a given moment.

Really, this is the entire point of the film. Tykwer seems to be arguing that we are all merely puppets in the vast scheme of things, that our lives are entirely at the whim of forces that appear to be beyond our control. We see this not only in the cases of Lola and Manni, but also Lola’s father (Herbert Knaup), the woman he is having an affair with (Nina Petri), and even a few people who bump into Lola on her run through the city. We’re told these stories in a quick series of still photographs. In one case, for instance, a woman pushing a baby carriage experiences a series of events that cause her to lose her child and steal another. Another time through, her encounter with Lola is different, and she wins a lottery.

The visual style is fascinating. Lola’s run through her apartment is told with animation each time, while her run through the streets of her unnamed German city are exercises in editing, pacing, and rhythm. Often, our view of Lola changes in time with the music, happening rhythmically as she progresses. We get flash cuts of her from different angles, see her from far above running through an open plaza, always moving toward someone or something that can help her save Manni. Visually, Lola is always the center of attention because of the severe color of her hair, a shocking red. Her clothing is relatively neutral in color, making her face the constant draw, and since she is almost always on screen, she is always where we look.

The runs are, as mentioned, heavily edited. Between, we are treated to slow, almost dreamy passages of Lola and Manni lying in bed talking. These moments slow the film down, but are necessary breaks from the overwhelming pace of the 20-minute segments. These segments are red, reminiscent of Lola’s hair color despite the fact that at these times, she is evidently a bleach blonde (or at least has a much lighter hair color).

I like this film. I think it’s entirely possible for people to dislike this film, mostly from being overwhelmed by it, but I think it’s frenetic pace works really well. More importantly for me tonight, the class seemed to enjoy it quite a bit, which made discussing it much more fun. One of the better observations in the class was that much like a video game with save positions, Lola appears to learn from her past experiences. She’s given a gun in the first run but isn’t sure how to use it and must be instructed. On the second run, she takes a gun from someone and is familiar with it immediately. It’s possible that the other characters learn as well; the guard at her father’s bank seems to understand at some level that Lola is going through the same thing over and over again until she gets it right.

Lola Rennt is an inventive and interesting film as well as an exciting one. Normally, when I watch something this short (it’s about 75 minutes without the end credits), I wish it would go a touch longer. Not in this case. The length is perfect. Any more would be unnecessary and completely overwhelming.

Why to watch Lola Rennt: A nearly unique take on narrative style.
Why not to watch: Lola runs…a lot.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Boo Radley

Film: To Kill a Mockingbird
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on portable DVD player.

I don’t know when filmmakers really first took a long look at the idea of racism as a topic ready for film. Griffiths touched on it back in the silent era, albeit not very sensitively. But it took a very long time for Hollywood to actually really address ideas of racism and racial equality, a topic still being addressed to this day. In many ways, today’s results are just as uneven as they have ever been. We’ve gone from a culture which depicted non-whites as negative stereotypes to one that has a tendency to depict non-whites as positive stereotypes.

To Kill a Mockingbird goes for something in the middle, attempting to depict something much closer to reality. The main black character in the film, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is truly neither negative nor positive, but is merely innocent. He’s nothing more than a man accused wrongfully of a crime, and as a black man, is unable to get anything like a fair trial in Depression-era Alabama.

Ah, but I’ve gotten far ahead of myself here. This film is an accurate depiction of the book of the same name by Harper Lee. Our main character here is Scout (Mary Badham), a young girl of allegedly six, despite the fact that she comes off much more as either eight or nine. She and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live with their father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who is a lawyer in this small Alabama town. Over the summers, they gain a playmate in Dill (John Megna), a startlingly ugly little kid who spends summers with his aunt.

It is generally through the eyes of these children, particularly Scout, that we see the film. When Tom Robinson is accused of assaulting and raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox Paxton), we learn almost nothing of the crime or the preparations of the trial until mid-way through the film. While these events are central to the story, they aren’t central to the kids, and are thus glossed over until they become central to them.

Much of the film deals with the identity and nature of Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall in his first real screen role), the allegedly insane son of the Finchs’ neighbor. Boo Radley is a figure of fascination and fear to the young kids. They are fascinated with his insanity and his evident social reticence, and terrified of the story that he once attacked his own father with a pair of scissors.

The reason this film works, and work it does, is in no small part because of the kids, Scout in particular. While she absolutely does not pass for the age she is supposed to be, she is incredibly natural in the role, and completely believable. She comes off as both wise and innocent, which is the perfect and necessary combination for the role. There is a sense that, for instance, when she prevents a lynch mob from stringing up Tom Robinson before the trial, that she may know precisely what she is doing.

While the film comes from Scout’s point of view, and from a lesser extent from Jem’s (particularly at the trial), it is Atticus who is the real center of the film. As the defense attorney, he is obviously central to the trial, but he is also the moral center of the film as well. He decides to defend Tom regardless of the personal cost to him. He knows that in this small Alabama town that his case is a loser no matter what. He demonstrates clearly the man’s innocence—the fact that Tom had no use of his left hand is a clear indicator of that—but Atticus knows that the case is lost from the first moments. His pleading with the jury is evidence of this as well. And yet, he goes through with the case because it is right to do it. One of the best and most moving moments of the film comes after the conclusion of the trial. Tom has been led out and the white spectators have left. Atticus stands alone on the courtroom floor packing his briefcase while the black spectators stand in the balcony above him. As he turns to leave, the black reverend tells Scout to stand as her father walks past, a gesture of respect for this man who has sacrificed his own reputation simply because it was the right thing to do.

There is a sweetness to this film despite its subject matter. There is a sense of nostalgia, of childhood in the games the kids play, the mystery they create around Boo Radley, and the loss of innocence as the trial comes to its inevitable conclusion. In many ways, the kids grow up through the film because they are forced to do so by the events that surround them. They, after all, are the children of the man who defended Tom, making the school playground a suddenly dangerous environment.

This is a truly great film, rewarding and deep and intelligent. Don’t let the fact that the book is regularly assigned to junior high students prevent you from finding this and watching it. You will not be disappointed.

Why to watch To Kill a Mockingbird: A bona fide American classic for a reason. Why not to watch: Robert Duvall looks weird with hair.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winnipeg vs. San Jose

Film: West Side Story
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Before I started this journey, I had a track record with musicals. I don’t like them much, although there are some exceptions. If we disregard those exceptions, though, I had basically two opinions on musicals. First, if I’d seen it, I didn’t like it. Second, if I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t want to. Those few others were held up as the exceptions proving the rule that musicals leave me cold. I don’t like something that purports itself to be the real world, but contains choreography and orchestras evidently hidden around every corner. Of the musicals that inspired my wrath, one of the chief ones was West Side Story.

Oh, I know its long and storied history. I know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, and that it won a shit-ton of Oscars. I know that the songs are generally regarded as some of the finest in the history of musical theater (and by analogy, film). But I hated it, admittedly more on the general principle that it’s a musical rather than for any concrete reason.

So I’ve watched it again. I still don’t love it, but now I have reasons more sound than just it’s a musical and therefore icky.

Let’s start with the ending, and yes, I’m going full-bore into spoilers here. West Side Story has been around for 50 years, is highly acclaimed, and based on a story that’s been told for 400 years and was itself reminiscent of ancient Greek tales (Pyramus and Thisbe come to mind). If you don’t know how Romeo and Juliet ends (or for that matter how West Side Story ends), it’s your own fault at this point.

Bluntly, they mess with the ending. The whole point of Romeo and Juliet is that the star-crossed, tragic lovers both die, and do so from a misunderstanding. Maria (Natalie Wood) survives the film. She threatens to kill herself, but doesn’t. So this major theme, this significant part of the ending, is simply ignored. I’m not saying I want Maria to die; I’m just saying that her death is sort of an important part of the tale being told here.

Next, let’s deal with the fact that our characters here are, essentially, punks. These are not heroic characters except in their own minds. They are juvenile delinquents bent on fighting to protect a little patch of ground. And, of course, they seem to spend a lot of time practicing their choreography and singing as opposed to, y’know, doing gang stuff.

Sorry. But they are delinquents, with the exception of Tony (Richard Beymer), who has a job and has done his best to get out of the gang world. His gang, the Jets, is run by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and is made up of American mutts of various ethnic backgrounds, but all born in New York. The rival gang, the Sharks, is entirely Puerto Rican, and run by Bernardo (George Chakiris), who happens to be Maria’s brother. Of course, he is overprotective of his sister and most especially wants her to have nothing to do with the white kids, Tony in particular.

And there are some pretty good fights, and a bunch of songs that go around them. The Jets suggest one big rumble with the Sharks to decide who gets to go where, and Tony convinces them that it should be fists only, and only one member from each gang. Why? Because he is immediately enamored of Maria and she of him, and so he’d like there to be some measure of peace between the two gangs. Of course, everything goes wrong. Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills Bernardo, and then all of the Sharks want to kill Tony, who only wants to run away with Maria.

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the songs aren’t good, or that the dancing isn’t good, or even that it is poorly staged. It simply comes down to the fact that I don’t like it very much. I’m not a tremendous fan of the story, and that’s a big part of this. I don’t love Romeo and Juliet in terms of Shakespeare’s canon—there are a number of his plays I like a hell of a lot more. And that really damages my opinion here.

It’s also long, and could probably stand with a little chopping here and there. Perhaps a song here or there to get us to something a bit under 150 minutes. It could do with some trimming, although in all honesty, we could shave off a good 8-10 minutes by getting rid of the essentially pointless overture and unnecessary intermission.

Would I like it if I liked the story? Well, probably. The songs really are good, and it is beautifully filmed. In fact, the story is really the only place I can find real fault here. And that’s something that no film can overcome.

Why to watch West Side Story: It’s a classic musical for a reason, and it’s based on Billy the Shake.
Why not to watch: There’s that whole “it’s a musical” thing.

Songs About Rainbows

Film: The Muppets
Format: Sycamore Theater.

We’re going to go off script for a day. Sue and I took the girls to a matinee showing of The Muppets yesterday. There really isn’t a chance in hell that this film will ever be place on The List. There are already enough corny and sappy kids’ movies here and too many films from 2010 that will be added in the next edition (in my opinion) to make room for a film that is reminiscent of sappy Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals from yesteryear. But I still want to talk about this film. I see things in the theater so rarely, that when I see something I really like, I’m compelled to comment.

We’re introduced to Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who is a Muppet living in a human world with his brother, Gary (Jason Segel). Gary has been dating Mary (Amy Adams) for ten years and plans a big, romantic dinner in Los Angeles with her. They go, and Gary insists on bringing Walter, who has spent his entire life watching old Muppet Show reruns. All Walter wants is to see Muppet Studios. However, the studio has fallen on hard times. The Muppets have all gone their separate ways, and wealthy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to buy the studio and drill for oil underneath it. Of course, the only way to save the studio is for the Muppets to join up again and put on a huge show/telethon to raise the $10 million needed to buy the studio back.

Really, that’s it. Along the way, we get a few songs (some of which are disturbingly short) and a lot of Muppet-style hijinks, the sort of stuff those of us old enough to remember The Muppet Show can recite by heart. All, or at least many of the Muppets show up at times—we spend a great deal of time with Animal and the rest of the Electric Mayhem (still a great band name), Fozzie, Scooter, and of course Kermit and Miss Piggy. Many of the other Muppets are tangential to the film—I’d have liked a lot more Rowlf the Dog, for instance.

This is a film that has its heart in the right place, though, but it tries to show it far too quickly. The film feels a little short. There’s room here for another 10 minutes of sight gags and bad jokes. That is what I’d have liked to see.

I love how self-aware the film is, though. Throughout there are a number of jokes made specifically referring to the fact that this is a film. There are also plenty of callbacks to the original series of Muppet films, the television show, and those Garland/Rooney musicals of yore, and many of these things are done consciously as well. For instance, when the gang goes to collect Gonzo, we discover that (much like Mr. Fabulous in The Blues Brothers), Gonzo is sitting pretty and has no real reason to give up his life. But, of course, he does.

And it’s here that there’s a real plot hole. Gonzo runs a huge plumbing company, and to join the rest of the team, he literally blows it up. One wonders why he couldn’t have simply sold the company, thus giving the Muppets a great deal of the money (if not all) that they’d need for the studio. But, of course, if he did that, there’d be no movie. Still, it’s the first thing I thought of.

The greatest level of self-awareness of this film, though, is the fact that the Muppets live in the real world and have real problems and real lives. Kermit, who has always been a beacon of hope and self-reliance, has doubts as well as relationship problems (real ones) with his love interest. Kermit having doubts wouldn’t have happened in an earlier time. That, more than anything is what brings this film into the modern day.

The writers of this film love the Muppets as characters. That is evident. And, fortunately, that’s enough. This film is fun and heartwarming and sweet. Go see it and take the kids. This is a “feel good” film of the highest order; it will make you feel good. And if you don’t get a little misty when Kermit sings “Rainbow Connection,” there’s something off with you.

Why to watch The Muppets: Because it’s charming and sweet, and reminds us that cynicism isn’t always right.
Why not to watch: Plot holes, Y U NO get fixed?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Establishing the Costner Rule

Film: Dances with Wolves
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

There’s a rule for Kevin Costner films, or at least something of a guideline. Essentially, Kevin Costner films that are Westerns or films about athletes are pretty good, and anything else in his film catalog is essentially crap. Thus, Silverado, Field of Dreams and Bull Durham are excellent films and worth watching. On the other side, Waterworld and The Postman suck. There are exceptions, of course. There are those who will tell you that Dances with Wolves is one of those exceptions. We’ll be discussing two noteworthy exceptions soon enough.

In fact, Dances with Wolves is one of those “Oscar mistakes” that happen every now and then. For many, it’s especially galling that this film won Best Picture and Costner won Best Director over Scorsese and Goodfellas. I’m not going to comment on that. That all boils down to opinion, and truthfully, Goodfellas probably is a better movie and will have a longer and more meaningful impact on film. But I’ve already written about that film, so I’m going to leave off talking about it now.

What surprised me most about putting Dances with Wolves in the spinner was the length. I remember this being a long movie, and I had assumed it would be a touch over three hours. Instead, it’s a touch short of four. For all that length, it doesn’t drag terribly, although it could easily be cut down to something much closer to three hours without losing much.

Anyway, this is the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Costner), who starts the film as a Union officer badly wounded and moments away from losing his leg to a surgeon’s knife. He manages to squeeze his boot back on and drag himself outside to the battle line, where the North and South are in an uneasy ceasefire. Looking to end his own life, Dunbar rides out toward the Southern lines, inviting fire, and giving the Union the opportunity to charge and overwhelm the Confederates. As a reward, he gets some quality medical care, keeps his leg, and gets his choice of post. He selects Fort Sedgwick, which is as far out on the frontier as he can get.

When he gets there, he discovers the fort completely abandoned, and takes it upon himself to rebuild it. He soon encounters the local tribe of Lakota Sioux, and the bulk of the film deals with his relationship with these people. The most important of these to Dunbar are Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), and Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman captured by the Lakota at a young age. Because she can still speak a little English, she serves as interpreter for the meetings between Dunbar and Kicking Bird, and also as Dunbar’s instructor in Lakota. And (naturally) romance blossoms.

And then the white men come and ruin everything as only true melodramatic villains can. Really, the entire point of the film is to demonstrate for about three hours the essential nobility of the native people and then hammer home the essential recklessness and evil of the white invaders. Just as the pendulum swung far one way with Westerns back in the day painting the natives as savages, Dances with Wolves kicked it to the opposite extreme, positing that the Lakota maintained an essential human nobility and dignity that we white people could never match.

The truth? It’s probably somewhere in between.

But in truth, Dances with Wolves is an excellent film, one that has suffered from the backlash of being seen as better in the moment than a film that has and will have a much more lasting impact on film. It’s the same thing that happened to Titanic. This film gets the beat down from people who think that Goodfellas should have won more awards, and to make the case, are happy to bring up every possible negative of Costner’s film.

The melodrama is overdone; the Union officers who arrive at the end, for instance, lack only Snidely Whiplash mustaches and train tracks to tie a virgin to. The romance between Dunbar (who is given the Sioux name Dances with Wolves because of his relationship with a wolf he names Two Socks) and Stands with a Fist is telegraphed a full hour ahead of it becoming reality. Evidently, this is the main addition of the version that I watched, and while this isn’t bad, it doesn’t really add much of importance to the film itself.

Dances with Wolves isn’t going to make anyone a Western fan. It’s also not going to turn anyone into a Kevin Costner fan. But, it is pretty good. But I heartily recommend the shorter, 3-hour version rather than the much beefier one. And really, you should be prepared for a giant guilt buffet, particularly if you are a white American.

Why to watch Dances with Wolves: It’s better than you remember.
Why not to watch: It plays the guilt card with reckless abandon.

Friday, November 25, 2011

No Shoes, Full Service

Film: The Barefoot Contessa
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When people talk about movies about the movies, one that rarely gets mentioned, at least within earshot of me, is The Barefoot Contessa. Having watched the film, I think this may be simply because people haven’t seen it, not because it doesn’t rank with films like 8 ½ or The Player. It’s one hell of a film, and it’s one hell of a meta-film. There’s quite a bit more here than just a story.

Movies about movies require a particular level of self-awareness, and this film has that in spades. We start at the end, at the funeral of the eponymous Contessa. The bulk of the film is told from the point of view of Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a screenwriter and director hitting difficult and desperate times. At the start of the story he tells, Dawes is starting to claw his way back in Hollywood as much as he can. To get there, he’s hooked up with Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), a man far too wealthy for his own good with a yen to stroke his own ego by making a movie. To do this, he wants a new face, and has gone to Madrid with Harry, his publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), and a fading drunk actress named Myrna (Mari Aldon).

They meet a dancer named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), and despite her immediate dislike of Kirk Edwards, she agrees to a screen test. In part, this is because she trusts Harry. In part, this is because her terrible, hateful mother wishes her not to. And then, well, then the film becomes something very different than one might expect. It goes in directions different and unusual for a film that is at least in part a skewering of the Hollywood system and the movie industry. Fortunately, this makes it a better film, because it makes it a less predictable film.

In truth, the plot here isn’t particularly difficult to explain or understand, but it is staggering, and worth discovering on one’s own without having it much spoiled. There’s a lot here I’d much rather talk about than a plot summary, anyway, because this is a film with a number of levels, and it clicks on all of them.

Bogart plays his role with a degree of world weariness that seems to suit him. He looks world weary. His face was made for black-and-white photography, and in color, as in this film, he looks old and worn, but has lost none of his power as an actor. Bogart plays this role as it should be played—a man who has been beaten down and defeated by life, but who has emerged on the other side of it with a measure of happiness and self-respect. Having given up the bottle and (one imagines) any number of other vices, he is content with his scripts, the films he directs, and the love of Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars), a script girl who loves him back just as intensely. O’Brien’s Oscar Muldoon is the quintessential Hollywood press agent; he’s sleazy and dirty, and would feel right at home in a film like Sweet Smell of Success, but like Bogart, has a certain world-weariness to him that suits both his own hangdog expression and the role. Oscar has seen everything, covered everything up, and made amends on someone else’s behalf for anything imaginable, and he’s acquired the 1000-yard stare to go with it. And he still does it, but he’s also wised up to exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

There are three men in the film who vie for Maria’s romantic attention, and all three have some particular similarities. The trio is made up of fabulously wealthy men who all have a particular vulnerability. Kirk Edwards is the first, although he truly never has a shot with Maria. He’s far too controlling, a little boy in a man’s body, demanding his own way and using both his money and threats to force others into compliance. When, halfway through the film he is essentially rendered impotent, he reacts in the only way he knows how. Second is Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) has all of the foibles of Edwards without the self-righteousness but with a disturbing shamelessness that makes him particularly unappealing. Third is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), who eventually wins her and marries her, but is physically impotent, which for Maria may be the biggest crime.

And then there is Maria, around whom the entire film revolves. It is, after all, her funeral that we start at and her funeral that we return to at the end of the film. I’ve never been a big fan of Ava Gardner, but that may only be because I didn’t like the first several of her films that I saw. Had this been my first exposure to her, I’d have been a fan from the start. She inhabits this role perfectly, as if born to play it. Maria Vargas is a poor girl made good, and a poor girl unable to live in that world. I don't know if that's true of Ava Gardner, but she makes it work here.

I watched this one on a whim tonight, just scrolling through what was available streaming and what still needed to be seen from the list. It was one hell of a good choice, because this one is one hell of a great film. This one I will watch again.

Why to watch The Barefoot Contessa: It’s a better film than you think for a film you probably haven’t heard of.
Why not to watch: Looking for this film is likely to turn up a bunch of cookbooks and cooking shows. Bite me, Ina Garten!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bildungsroman

Film: American Graffiti
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Let’s talk soundtrack for a moment. Plenty of films have great soundtracks. Personally, I think the high point of the film score came with the release of Super Fly and the incredible work by Curtis Mayfield. For a soundtrack of found music, most people look to films by Tarantino and his ability to select the right song for the right mood. As much as I am ambivalent to Tarantino’s work in general, I do have to credit him with a good ear. But the soundtrack for American Graffiti is impossible to top. If I remember correctly, it was a two-record set, and every song was a hit in the early days of rock and roll.

This is completely appropriate for a film that is more or less a love letter to those days when rock records were about teen love and drag races, because that’s really what American Graffiti is. It tells of a much simpler, easier time, when juvenile delinquents caused a little property damage instead of running around armed. Kids showed up to school with a hickey, not pregnant. Okay, I don’t really believe any of that, either. However, it is the position that the film takes, because the film is looking at this time through the lens of 10 years worth of nostalgia.

The film takes place on the last night of the summer of 1962, and concerns the fate of a number of kids, specifically four young men. It’s a pretty standard formula, and one that has been repeated a number of times (the first American Pie film comes to mind). Our quartet consists of Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), who is not sure he wants to go to college on the East Coast. Going with him is Steve (Ron Howard), who is currently dating Curt’s kid sister, Laurie (Cindy Williams), but wants to see other people while he’s away. Staying in town are John (Paul Le Mat), the current king of the dragstrip, and Terry (Charles Martin Smith), a semi-nerd with the unfortunate nickname of Toad. Toad’s biggest problem isn’t his horn-rimmed glasses or his pink shirt, but his lack of a car.

On this final evening of the summer, the four meet, separate, and have their own adventures as the cruise the town for girls and, essentially, look for meaning in their lives. Each one of them is looking for something, and none of them is really sure what the goal is. They’re just doing what they’ve always done, but on this night, there seems to be a little more at stake.

Curt ends up on his own and runs afoul of the local gang of car-crazy juvenile delinquents, the Pharoahs. To save himself from being pummeled, he performs his own acts of delinquency. He also spends the evening chasing a blonde vision in a white T-bird (Suzanne Sommers), going so far as to contact the local radio station to send out a dedication to her in one of the sweetest scenes in the film. Curt doesn’t know what he wants—he doesn’t want anything to change, but comes to realize that life is what he makes it, and the life he wants isn’t here.

Steve, on the other hand, does seem to know what he wants, and knows it’s not here. He cares very much for Laurie, but wants to be set free to experience the world, something that Laurie resists strongly. After all, they’ve been together for a long time and seem like a perfect couple. Their break-up in the middle of the film is a real break in Steve’s life, causing him to reevaluate everything he thinks he wants and needs.

John feels stuck in the town, but doesn’t really seem to consciously want anything more. At least, on the surface, he appears to be content, but there is a sense of ennui in him that runs pretty deep. He cruises the strip and, after offering an invitation to a car full of girls, ends up cruising with the 12-year-old sister of someone else. Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) is at first a nuisance, but eventually, John comes to feel about her like a little sister. Also, since John is the equivalent of the fastest gun, he’s being pursued by another drag racer (Harrison Ford) through the town.

And then there’s Terry, a sort of loveable loser. Terry the Toad is essentially the group’s Ringo. Steve, who is going to college, gives Terry the use of his car, and Terry uses this to pick up Debbie (Candy Clark), and has a series of misadventures with her. All Terry wants is a girl to like him, and will go to any length to convince a girl that he’s worth being with.

And really, that’s the whole movie. Each of the four storylines bounce into each other, and the film is essentially told in order, switching between the four characters throughout as they go through this final evening. In their own way, each of them grows up. Curt discovers that he needs to let go, Steve finds what he wants out of his life, and Terry realizes that he’s not necessarily the loser he thought he was. And then there’s John, who seems to come away from the night with the realization that he won’t always be the fastest gunslinger behind the wheel and needs to discover something to do.

All of this is great. American Graffiti is charming and fun and wildly entertaining. And then there’s the final moment of the film before the credits roll, and we learn about the lives of these four guys after this night. That makes sense with a film like this, and while I’ve seen this film before, it had been a long time and I had forgotten this was there. And these “whatever happened to” bios were ridiculously depressing. It was a huge downer after such a sweet and tender film.

It’s good. Surprise, surprise, it actually had some pretty decent dialogue, which has always been the Achilles heel of George Lucas. Just be warned that when you see the shot of the airplane flying off into the big blue, you may want to stop the film and consider that the end.

Incidentally, you can almost certainly cite this film as the source of the television show Happy Days, and thus Laverne and Shirley as well as the casting of Ron Howard in the first and Cindy Williams in the second. Who knew Richie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney went steady?

Why to watch American Graffiti: Nostalgia done the way it should be.
Why not to watch: The “what happened to” graphics are a let-down.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rebuilding the Old West

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

It always strikes me as strange when directors I like do remakes, because the remake often strikes me as the lowest form of movie making. Oh, I know that’s not really true, but it does feel that way. It’s how I reacted when Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as The Departed. So when the Coens remade True Grit, I was sort of nonplussed. And I was even more of that opinion when I remembered that this was the second time this had happened; the Coens remade The Ladykillers a few years ago.

Anyway, True Grit is a story of revenge. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) sees her father killed and wishes the man brought to justice. Specifically, she wants to see the man hang. To see this come to pass, she hires Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a marshal who seems to be the exact opposite of young Mattie in every respect. Mattie has a head for business and numbers, brooks no backtalk, and always attempts to deal from a position of strength. She isn’t shy about dropping the name of the family lawyer at every opportunity if she thinks it will get her what she wants, and she isn’t shy about making moral judgments on others. Cogburn, on the other hand, is a hard-drinking, vicious lawman who is really a lawman only in name. In truth, he’s little more than a talented gunslinger who sometimes shoots malefactors.

Cogburn attempts to go on the hunt without Mattie, but she has none of it. They are joined on the trail by LaBouef (Matt Damon) a proud Texas Ranger who is coincidentally searching for the same man, albeit under a different name. It seems that the man who shot Mattie’s pappy is a wanted man in Texas because he also managed to shoot and kill a senator. The trio rides together and splits up multiple times over the course of the movie, generally with LaBouef (pronounced as “lu-BEEF” throughout; my friends of the same last name in spelling say it differently) riding one way and Mattie and Cogburn riding another.

Finally, there is the confrontation, which is a big one. Mattie finally catches up with Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who is now riding with notorious outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who was possibly cast for the awesome reason that his last name is the same as that of the character), who also happens to be wanted. This means a bigger bounty for Cogburn, who seems to want little more than just enough money for his next meal. He doesn’t worry about whiskey—as a marshal, he just confiscates what he wants to drink.

And really, that’s it. True Grit is a pretty straightforward tale of a young girl looking for revenge for her father, and finding it in some unexpected places. The title, I think, refers not to Cogburn, although he certainly proves his mettle in the course of the film. Similarly, it could but does not refer to LaBouef. Mattie is the one with real grit here, and she demonstrates this at every possible turn.

For me, one of the real joys of the Coen brothers is the dialogue. No Country for Old Men is my personal favorite of their films, and one of the main reasons I like it so much is because the dialogue is so precisely and carefully written. Here, there are a number of times that the writing is more of a distraction than it is an aid in telling the story. The characters generally speak without contractions, making everything they say sound artificial and forced. It would be easy to ignore if it popped up here and there, but it’s through almost the entire movie. In that respect, this film reminded by quite a bit of the same issue I had with Guys and Dolls. The forced artificiality bothers me because it seems so unnecessary.

I like this film pretty well, but I do have to question what all the fuss was about, and this is coming from the perspective of someone who really likes the Coens. I at least like all of their films that I’ve seen, and some I genuinely love. This one, though, while good and enjoyable, doesn’t seem to be a film that rises to the level of required viewing. Well filmed, yes. Well acted, yes. Necessary? I’m not so sure.

It would, however, make a dandy double feature with Unforgiven.

Why to watch True Grit: A classic reborn modern.
Why not to watch: It’s reborn, but really, so what?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Road to Nowhere

Film: Stranger than Paradise
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Since the first moment someone unconnected to a studio got access to a movie camera, indie cinema existed, or at least had the potential to exist. To the minds of many, though, indie cinema really started, or at least became something significant, when Jim Jarmusch made Stranger than Paradise, a virtually plotless piece of Americana that explores one of the great questions of any age: boredom.

We deal initially with Willie (John Lurie), who is formerly from Hungary and is actually named Bela. But he’s become fully Americanized and identifies as American, and doesn’t even really like to hear Hungarian being spoken. His aunt (Cecillia Stark) calls him to remind him of the arrival of his cousin, and that now, instead of her staying for a day or two at his New York apartment, she’ll be staying with him for 10 days.

The cousin is Eva (Eszter Balint), who is young and pretty, and completely unadjusted to life in the States. We also meet Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson), who immediately finds Eva attractive, but who is essentially pushed away from her by Willie. Eva and Willie don’t like each other too much at first, but eventually grow to a level of acclimation with each other, particularly when Eva steals food and gives it to him. He reciprocates by buying her a dress that he likes (and she doesn’t) and by deliberately misteaching her American idioms. And then, the 10 days are up and Eva heads off to Cleveland.

A year later, after scamming a bunch of money in a poker game, Eddie and Willie borrow a car and go to visit Eva. What they discover is that life in Cleveland is just as boring as their lives in New York, and after a few days, they’re just as bored. Everything looks the same to them, and the television is exactly the same. So they decide to go somewhere really different, heading to Florida. But before they go, they “rescue” Eva from her job at a hot dog restaurant. And in Florida, everything changes, but remains strangely exactly the same for all three characters.

There are three parts to the film—New York, Cleveland, and Florida, and each one is about half an hour long. In each, we see variations of the same story. In its own way, it sort of presages a film like Lola Rennt, although without specifically repeating itself each time.

Jarmusch’s style in this film is interesting. He doesn’t ever cut from one scene to the next—each scene is a take of varying length followed by a second or two of a black screen. What this means is that the film feels choppy at first, but this rhythm soon becomes normal, and moving from one shot to the next feels natural.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the fact that nothing really happens in this film until the last 15 minutes or so is entirely the point of the film. Our characters are aimless in the absolute meaning of the word—they have no direction. Even when they appear to have a direction, as when Willie and Eddie decide to go to Cleveland or to Florida, they aren’t going there with any specific reason in mind. Instead, it’s merely an excuse to get away from where they are and an attempt to get rid of the crushing boredom of their everyday lives. The fact that they are continually unsuccessful in this is also the point. Their lives have no direction, and no real meaning, and no real point.

Again, nothing really happens until the very end. At the end, we get all sorts of events at the same time, a complete opposite of what the first hour and change has been. That there is no plot for the bulk of the film is what makes it so compelling in its own way. At least that’s what makes it so important as an indie film. Jarmusch essentially took everything that we expect to see in a film—like a story that makes us want to keep watching—and did away with it completely. We’d get much the same story if the first hour were compressed into 10 minutes, and that would very much seem more palatable to many movie watchers.

Is it good? That’s a difficult call. I can understand the film’s importance, but I have a much harder time judging it on whether or not I’d want to see it again or really have much to do with it beyond what I have already. It’s certainly a noteworthy film and critical for understanding independent filmmaking…but ultimately it leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

EDIT: The more I think about this film, the more I see what Jarmusch was trying to do with it, and the more I appreciate it. There is a sense of disaffection in this film that is impossible to avoid, and that's sort of the point. Our characters want things handed to them, essentially, and no one hands them things (except at the end), and when it does happen, they manage to screw it up. You can see this same desire, lack of movement, and essential screwing up even more in today's world. So maybe I'm not so unsatisfied. Stranger than Paradise is a cinematic time bomb. A day later, I'm left pretty impressed.

Why to watch Stranger than Paradise: The birth of modern indie.
Why not to watch: Despite traveling across the country, it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Haunted

Films: Rebecca; Vertigo
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Rebecca); DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Vertigo).

If you’ve watched the Hitchcock that everybody watches, it’s easy for him to fool you. The truth is that virtually all of Hitchcock’s movies have a similar thread running through them. He only had a couple of basic stories he liked to tell, and most of them involved murder in one respect or another. But Rebecca, the first film he made in the U.S., has the feel of a romance, at least at the start. There are certainly romantic elements that run through the entire film, but this is not a real romance.

A young woman who is never named for us (Joan Fontaine) is vacationing in Monte Carlo with the overly-wealthy Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates). The younger woman is a paid companion, there to keep the older woman entertained. It is here that they counter George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who goes by Maxim. He’s in Monte Carlo as a sort of recovery. See, a year earlier, his wife died in a mysterious boating accident. Mrs. Van Hopper tries to ingratiate herself with the rich, young man, but he’s having none of it. He does, however, appreciate the pretty young thing at her side. They have a whirlwind romance, and when it’s time for Mrs. van Hopper to go away, the young woman instead marries Maxim.

And then the fun starts. The two return to Manderley, the ancestral home of the de Winter family, and the new Mrs. de Winter is suddenly confronted with a few important facts. First, Rebecca, at least according to a lot of people, was pretty damn near perfect. Second, she (our main character) has no real idea of how to run a large manor house like Manderley. Third, and most importantly, Rebecca’s former servant and current housemistress Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) worshipped Rebecca, and thus hates everything about the new Mrs. de Winter.

Like I said a the start, Hitchcock really only had a couple of stories he liked to tell. One of them was about mistaken identity, and he got a lot of mileage out of that basic idea. The second of his major themes was insanity, and that’s the role that Mrs. Danvers is going to play for us here.

Anyway, Mrs. de Winter tries her best to fit in, and seems to be thwarted at every turn by Mrs. Danvers, who hates her passionately. Regardless of how evident it is that this hatred exists, Mrs. de Winter attempts to trust her, going so far as to use Danvers’s suggestion for a costume party with disastrous results. And then, the unthinkable happens. The boat in which Rebecca foundered is discovered and it still has Rebecca’s body inside—a problem since Maxim identified a body as hers a year earlier. And, it seems that Maxim has a few skeletons of his own that need to be revealed before we get to the end.

It’s an interesting story all the way around. There is a sense of doomed romance about our main couple that would seem to be very much at home in the Victorian period. While the film is modern in the sense that it essentially takes place in the time it is filmed, it does have that sort of antique feel to it. The story feels older, like it should be playing out a century or so before it actually is, and it would play in that time as well.

It’s also too long. The run time is just over 130 minutes, and a good half hour or so could be easily trimmed from this film to speed up the process and tighten up the suspense a bit. It feels far too roomy for the story it wants to tell, almost as if Hitchcock wanted to explore something new and wasn’t quite yet sure of how to do it. While the story never really gets boring, there are too many scenes that don’t have much impact. For instance, in one scene, the new Mrs. de Winter breaks something. This comes up later when Danvers accuses another servant of stealing it and threatens to have him fired. It doesn’t establish much—perhaps that Maxim becomes aware of his wife’s discomfort with Danvers, but that can be easily established elsewhere and get rid of a good five minutes between the two scenes. There’s too much of one thing in a scene being set up and a lot more call for efficiency in the way the story is told.

That said, it’s a good film and one worth watching. It goes to some pretty lurid places for the time, and I imagine it may have had a difficult time skating past the Hays Code. It’s also quite interesting to me that when Hitchcock first decides to film in America, he films a story set in his own country.

Much the same ground is covered in Vertigo, a film that comes nearly two decades later in Hitchcock’s career. There are some real similarities in that the main character in this film is haunted by the spirit of a dead woman. This time, though, the plot is far more intricate and far closer to what most people think of when they think of Hitchcock. There are twists and plots within plots, precisely what we expect.

Policeman John “Scottie” Ferguson discovers that he has acrophobia when the chase of a criminal leaves him hanging off the edge of a building and leads to the falling death of an officer. Essentially unfit for duty now, Scottie retires from the force and looks for something else to do. That something else comes in the form of Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old college acquaintance. Gavin tells Scottie an incredible story; he wants Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because he thinks she is slowly going crazy. More specifically, he believes that Madeleine is being possessed by the spirit of her grandmother, Carlotta Valdez.

It’s at this point that I heartily recommend that you go listen to the Harvey Danger song “Carlotta Valdez” while reading the rest of this review. Anyway…

Scottie decides to take the job to help out his old pal and because he gets a good look at Madeleine, who is quite the Hitchcockian cool blonde. He tails her for awhile, and it does seem that she is acting in very strange ways. But Scottie is entranced by the woman, and appears to develop feelings for her, so it comes as a terrible shock when she takes a swan dive off the top of a bell tower, killing herself on the rocks below. Because of this, it comes as an even greater shock to his system when he starts seeing a woman around town who looks exactly like Madeleine in every detail. It’s strange enough, in fact, that he starts to get suspicious and launches his own investigation.

This is where the film starts to get really strange. I won’t spoil it or even get too close, but essentially, Scottie is so taken with this new woman that he attempts to turn her into Madeleine, bleaching her hair to blonde, and forcing her to dress exactly like Madeleine did in an effort to recreate the relationship with the dead woman. He takes it to an obsessive, nearly psychotic extreme, attempting to convince her that she really is the dead woman. It’s a dark fantasy, one that borders on the taboo of necrophilia, and while it’s fascinating, it’s also pretty creepy.

I’d be remiss at this point if I failed to mention Scottie’s former fiancĂ©e, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). She acts as a sort of conscience throughout the film, giving Scottie someone to talk to and bounce ideas with. Midgs is a really fun character, the kind of a girl who is the protagonist’s best friend despite their failed romance. I like Midge, and sort of wish there was more of an excuse for her to be on screen more.

It’s worth saying here that Hitchcock was a smart director in that he liked very much to keep his audience guessing. Sometimes he gave his audience the standard Hollywood happy ending with the bad guys dead or captured and the good guys triumphant. He also sometimes went the other direction and ended the films on a down note. Vertigo is extremely dark in its ending, about as dark as Hitchcock ever got, and it’s something that very much makes the film work the way it should. This one probably couldn’t end on an up note and be even remotely palatable. That, and like many a film in Hitch’s repertoire, the conclusion comes a few moments before the end of the film—there’s almost no denouement to give the audience a moment to recover from the final shock.

It will ruffle a few feathers when I suggest that of Hitchcock’s great films, Vertigo is probably the least. His five great films are Rear Window and then the incredible four consecutive Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. All are great and worthwhile, but this one in many ways has aged the worst. The surreal elements, certainly some of the highlights of the film when it was made, come off a bit silly now despite the fact that they are still pretty stylish and have that unique Saul Bass-y feel to them. But Hitchcock’s desperate need to control every aspect of every shot led him to use a lot of in-studio shots with a lot of rear projection, and rear projection never looks as good as it should to a modern audience.

Why to watch Rebecca: Hitchcock branching out a bit.
Why not to watch: It’s too long for its story.

Why to watch Vertigo: It’s essential Hitchcock.
Why not to watch: It hasn’t held up as well as it could have.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Fought the Law

Film: Papillon
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s always interesting to go back to a movie you haven’t seen in awhile. It’s been years since I’ve seen Papillon, decades even. Yet there are things about this film that I recalled at least in part. I remember, for instance, the guy with the disturbing facial tattoos. I remember the scene in the leper colony. I remember Dustin Hoffman’s glasses, and Steve McQueen’s ruined teeth.

The film is the roughly autobiographical story of Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Steve McQueen), falsely (according to him) accused of killing a pimp and sent to the French penal colony of Guiana. Called “Papillon” because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, he spends his time in the hellish, nightmare conditions of the colony attempting to escape by any means possible. His sentence was life, essentially giving him nothing to lose—although escaping and being caught three times means the guillotine.

On the long boat ride from France, Papillon befriends Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a renowned counterfeiter. Papillon wants some of Dega’s money, and suggests a mutually beneficial arrangement. Dega, figuring that money will be useful in Guiana, has swallowed or otherwise hidden money on his person. Every other prisoner on the ship would happily kill him for his money, so Papillon agrees to protect him in exchange for enough money to purchase a boat in Guiana.

Guiana proves to be as terrible as could be expected, and Papillon’s escape attempts are confounded at every turn, landing him in solitary for two years, and because of food smuggled to him, he spends a great deal of that time on half rations. This only fuels his desire to escape even more, and leads to one of the more interesting extended parts of the film, leading to the guy with the disturbing facial tattoos, the leper colony, and eventual recapture and five more years in solitary.

And still, he wants nothing more than to get away. He ends up on an island considered unescapable, reuniting with Dega, and still convinced that he can escape back to the South American mainland and desperate to get away.

There are any number of things I could suggest that this film is about. It may well be about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Certainly this is a quality that Papillon exhibits throughout the film. When Dega smuggles him coconuts in solitary, Papillon holds out, never divulging the name of his friend, and survives for months on half rations, and for six months in an almost completely darkened cell.

It may also be about the strength of friendship shared between these two men and several other men—Julot (Don Gordon), Maturette (Robert Deman), and Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey) in particular. These men frequently make sacrifices, sometimes dangerous sacrifices that may add years onto their sentences, for each other. There is a unique bond of suffering between these mean—they become drawn to each other because of their ordeal.

It’s also entirely possible that this film’s purpose is to act as something like an expose on the prison system and legal system abuse of this sort is far more common. Papillon is granted two years in solitary and six (presumably after using someone else’s fake id), and the conditions that he, Louis, and all of the other men sent to Guiana experience are as terrible and dehumanizing as any prison shown on film.

So which is it? I think it’s all three. Papillon is a big enough film to encompass all of these possibilities and more. McQueen gives a memorable ad the title character, always looking to cut a deal that will put him back on the way to the mainland and his freedom. Hoffman is equally good as Louis, who by the end o the film is is a mental and emotional cripple, a shadow of his former self.

I remember Papillon for the simple fact that it is worth remembering. It doesn’t hurt that Steve McQueen is one of the all-time great film stars and arguably the most relevant for the year in which this was filmed. The relationships between the two men is subtle and touching without getting sappy or maudlin. Despite all of this, Papillon is in many ways a tragedy. And it’s a damn good one.

Why to watch Papillon: A movie about the triumph of one man.
Why not to watch: There's a limit to how much one man can take.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It Dares Speak Its Name

Film: Tongues Untied
Format: Internet video on laptop.

One thing I’ve learned in the nearly two years that I’ve done this site is that often you take films when, where, and how you can get them. If that means that the only way to watch something is a grainy version on the internet complete with Greek subtitles and interspersed with advertisements for Kashi cereal, well, that’s what I have to deal with. With Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, that’s exactly what I had. Grainy footage, Greek subtitles, wonky sound, and Kashi and antiperspirant ads every five minutes. The crap I put up with…

And yet, this film was worth it. This is an hour of anger, rage, pain, pride, and power. I knew the very, very basics of this film going in—that it’s a documentary about gay black men—and really nothing else. And I didn’t expect the reality of this film.

The title of the film, Tongues Untied has a variety of meanings in the context of the film. It’s a chance in many ways for the men in this film, particularly the poet Essex Hemphill, to express the reality of their own lives. As black men, they feel denied a voice in American society. As gay men, they are equally denied a voice in the black community, which does not in general have a positive track record in dealing with gay issues. And so, these men are doubly denied the right to speak. It’s also an interesting play on the idea that homosexuality is the love that “dare not speak its name.”

The film is unabashedly and unashamedly sexual in its content and its delivery. I’ll admit that I was completely unprepared for the naked black men jumping around, flaccid penii a-flopping at the start of the film, and while this is a blatantly sexual segment of the film, it’s not in any way the most sexually charged moment.

Frankly, I’m pretty gobsmacked by this film. I’m neither black nor gay, and honestly didn’t think that I would find anything in this film that I would find much to latch onto. And yet I did. This is a film of real power simply because it is so openly sexual and open in its claim of power. Riggs and his film don’t ask for society—heterosexual and/or black society—to accept them, but instead proclaims its presence and demands not acceptance, not tolerance, but simple recognition. The film demands that its subjects be seen as men, as black men, and as people.

It’s a short film; it runs just under an hour. Much of it comes in the form of the poetry of the aforementioned Hemphill, whose words are powerful, sexual, and demanding. Much also comes from Riggs himself. There are also moments of humor here—the group of men offering and participating in a class on Snap!thology, learning how to best snap their fingers for effect is fun and charming.

But there’s some real eye-opening issues here. Riggs includes snippets from black preachers railing against the gay community, condemning all gay men. He also includes pieces of Eddie Murphy performances that bash the gay community in general and gay men in the specific. There’s an undercurrent of awfulness here. There is a sense that these men have been marginalized in the black community in many ways because the black community itself has been marginalized. These men become outcasts and scapegoats because it is a way for those already cast down by society to see and ridicule and hate something even further below them—those experiencing prejudice for one thing expressing their superiority over those who experience it for two. Riggs never comments directly on this, allowing instead the poetry, the faces of the men in the film, and his film itself to respond for him.

I really didn’t know what to think going into this film, and I wasn’t really prepared for it in all the ways I should have been. But really that doesn’t matter. This film is raw and open and angry, and works not despite this, but because of it.

If nothing else, I understand fully why it ended up on The List.

Why to watch Tongues Untied: It’s extremely powerful.
Why not to watch: You may not be prepared for this film.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Family that Slays Together...

Film: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Ealing comedies are their own thing. They aren’t laugh-out-loud funny the way that we tend to think of comedies. Oh, they might well have been that funny 60 years ago, but today, there’s a quaintness to them that they can’t quite shake. They’re more cute than hysterical, more sweet than biting. The exception to this rule is Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The big sell for this film is that Alec Guinness plays eight different members of the D’Ascoyne family ranging in age from 24 to something north of eighty-ish, and one of the character he plays is a woman. But Guinness isn’t considered the star of the film by any stretch, despite being the main attraction. It’s a testament to the man’s skill in front of the camera that he manages to give many of these divergent people very different and distinct personalities.

The plot, for all its loops and switches, is pretty simple. The daughter of the D’Ascoyne family (Audrey Fildes) runs away with a commoner, an opera singer, and is immediately disowned by the family at large. Her husband dies of a heart attack the moment he sets eyes on his infant son, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price, who also plays the father for the couple of minutes he is in the film). Throughout his young life, his mother attempts to reconcile with the family, but is rebuffed at every turn, causing Louis to develop a large grudge against his relatives. When is mother dies and is refused burial in the family plot, his grudge turns murderous.

See, through a quirk in the title, the Dukedom of Chalfont can transfer through the mother’s line as well, making Louis very distant in the line for the title. Forced into the trades and working in a shop, Louis begins to scheme. His plan is to slowly kill his way up the ranks until he can achieve the dukedom, acquiring the title (and specifically the riches) that are, in his mind, rightfully his. A chance encounter with one of the D’Ascoynes sets the plan in motion, and he starts killing his way through the ranks, needing to knock off eight people until he inherits (all eight of the D’Ascoynes are played by Guinness).

Complicating matters is a rather strange love trapezoid. Louis is, he thinks at first, desperately in love with Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a childhood friend. But Sibella is flighty, kind of stupid, and most importantly, something of a gold digger. She’ll have nothing to do with Louis, opting instead to marry Lionel (John Penrose), another childhood friend. Sibella toys with Louis until the eve of her marriage and then almost immediately starts an affair with him.

As for Louis, the more he sees Sibella, the more he believes that she simply doesn’t deserve to be a duchess. Instead, he begins courting Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the wife of the late Henry D’Ascoyne, who was second on Louis’s list of murders. And so with two women essentially pursuing him, a number of murders on his hands, and a mysterious death that points a finger at him, Louis is now in serious trouble. In fact, the film starts with him writing his memoirs in prison on the eve of his execution.

This film is dark. Really dark. Pitch black in terms of comedy, and most of it still works perfectly. Louis is a complete bastard and shows no compunction at killing anyone who gets in his way. The irony here is that beyond the first murder (a highly entertaining affair, actually), he doesn’t have a lot of excuse to continue doing what he does. Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the first victim, is a complete bastard, and while murder is never really conscionable, he sort of gets what he deserves. Of the other seven victims (and truth be told, a couple die without assistance), six are elderly and won’t live terribly long. The last is Henry, who genuinely seems to like Louis, and would almost certainly welcome him back into the family, if not specifically giving him the title and the lands. It almost seems like he could have simply killed off Ascoyne and then waited patiently.

More to the point, there is virtually no one likeable in this film, and in this case, that works perfectly. Louis is callous, vain, and vicious in his revenge. Lionel is spoiled, stupid, arrogant, and possessed of few social graces. Edith, who becomes the mountain that Louis must climb, is a self-righteous prig. In fact, the death of her husband happens in the way it does because he is forced to keep alcohol in the shed out back, lest she see him drinking it. Finally, there is Sibella. She deserves her own paragraph.

Sibella is, for lack of a better way to put it, the cheerleader/captain of the football team who wouldn’t deign to look at someone not of her social standing. She initially proposes to marry Lionel simply because Lionel has a lot more money than Louis, and the prospect for a great deal more. When Louis begins to move up in the world, she immediately transfers her affections to him. In many ways, she is the femme fatale of the film, and acts in a way very much befitting the coldest and most callous of what film noir has to offer. It’s insanely easy to dislike Sibella, which is naturally exactly what you are supposed to do with her. She’s awful, and even when he decides that she’s not duchess material, Louis is helpless against her.

But, it’s this natural dislike of these people that make the film work as well as it does. We don’t want good things to happen to these people at all, and they don’t.

All this aside, there’s really one main reason to watch this film, and that’s for the work of the great Alec Guinness. He is excellent throughout the film in all of the different roles he plays. The comedy is midnight black, and Sibella is a shade over the top, but Guinness manages to be entertaining at every moment he is on screen. If for no other reason, he’s why Kind Hearts and Coronets remains an important film, and a funny one. Just realize going in that the laughs come from a place that most of us don’t like to admit we have.

Why to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets: Alec Guinness + Alec Guinness + Alec Guinness….
Why not to watch: Any character worth cheering for is on the hit list.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Use All the Cliches!

Film: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Let’s start with this: there’s not an ounce of historical accuracy in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp showed up in Tombstone with essentially no legal authority except that given him by his brother, Virgil. He never had a torrid affair with a female gambler around this time, and he already had a common-law wife who was an opiate fiend. Whatever. We’re not judging this film based on its historical value, but on its value as a film, right?

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is about the famous gunfight, and this is the reason that Surges threw history out the window when it came to the story. The real story isn’t that interesting, really. The gunfight lasted about 30 seconds, and there’s some controversy as to whether or not the “bad guys” were trying to surrender to the Earps when they were shot. That would make for kind of a crappy mid-50s Western, though, so again, we’re not going to worry about accuracy here.

Much of the opening of the film concerns the nascent friendship between upright lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and the degraded, tubercular dentist Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Initially, they don’t think much of each other. But then Earp saves Holliday’s life and quite a bit later, Holliday saves Earp, so they at least gain a great deal of mutual respect for one another. It’s a bromance as only could happen in a macho Western.

As we might also expect in a typical Western, there’s some frontier-style romance. For Holliday, the woman he shacks up with and abuses is Kate (Jo van Fleet). She spends part of her time with Holliday and the rest with Johnny Ringo (John Ireland). Earp discovers a woman named Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a professional gambler. It’s evident in the first two minutes they’re on screen together that they’re going to end up sexing it up eventually, so when they do, it comes as no surprise.

There’s plenty that goes on with these two men getting a lot of people angry at them, although they seem to stand mostly on the side of good and law. And eventually, Earp decides to hang up his badge, marry Laura, and open up a store in California. But that’s when he gets an urgent telegram from his brother Virgil (John Hudson) in Tombstone. Trouble is brewing, and he’s a dead man without some considerable help. So Earp goes, despite the fact that Laura says she won’t live this way for him.

And so finally, after about an hour and a half of movie, we get the two sides lined up for the big confrontation. On the one side, we have the Earps—Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan (DeForest Kelly), and Holliday. Jimmy Earp (Martin Milner) is left out of this exclusive group because he gets capped earlier. On the other side is the Clantons—Ike (Lyle Bettger), Billy (Dennis Hopper at about age 6), Johnny Ringo, and a few others. And it takes us the whole film to get there.

Really, that’s the problem here. The film is a touch over two hours long, and the eponymous gunfight happens in the final 15 minutes of the film. The whole movie builds up to this, but almost none of it does much but set up the characters a bit and give them a reason over and over to go and shoot at each other. In short, it could have been handled faster and in ways that were even a touch more interesting to get us to that point. What we get instead is virtually every single western trope and many a movie trope besides to give us a false sense of wanting to continue to watch what happens. And I do mean every trope. Billy Clanton gets pulled aside by Wyatt and told not to follow in his brothers’ footsteps, but Billy rides with them, because they’re his brothers—essentially the same reason Wyatt arrived in Tombstone. There’s even a drunk tossed through a saloon door at one point, and there's a railing kill, when someone is shot and tumbles over a balcony.

Anyway, the gunfight itself is pretty good, even if it’s as predictable as the rest of the film.

What strikes me most odd here is the theme song, which pops up now and again to narrate on what has happened and what will happen. When Wyatt rides off to Tombstone, for instance, We get a verse or two about how he’s riding off to Tombstone and leaving behind the woman who loves him. See, I knew all of that already because I’d been watching the movie. I didn’t really need the Western equivalent of a Greek chorus.

You want the truth here? While it’s fun to see Dennis Hopper at this young age and DeForest Kelly wearing a tin star instead of a Star Fleet badge, there are far better and more engaging Westerns out there. Frankly, Tombstone is a better movie.

Why to watch Gunfight at O.K. Corral: Westerns don’t get any more western.
Why not to watch: Every trope you’ve ever heard of is here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just an Ordinary Average Guy

Film: Il Conformista (The Conformist)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

We expect certain thing from spy movies in general. The standard spy movie follows a path like Three Days of the Condor or the Jason Bourne films. In these, a spy gets put into a strange or terrible or bad situation and needs to fight his way out of it. We root for the spy in these cases. James Bond is probably the most classic example of good guy spy. Even when Bond is a bastard, we still kind of like him and expect him to come out on top. The other end of the spy thriller holds stories like The Eye of the Needle, where the spy is the bad guy and needs to be stopped by the film’s heroes.

So it’s a touch ironic that a film called Il Conformista (The Conformist) doesn’t conform to either of these two possibilities. The spy, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is our main character, but he’s almost impossible to root for. The first part of this is that he’s really not a spy, but a government-paid assassin. That isn’t enough to stop most people from still rooting for him though. What does is that the government he works for is Mussolini’s fascist government in the 1930s.

Our character is interesting in a way, though. The film has this name, and is named after him, because he wants nothing more than to fit in wherever he is. We take up the story as he is planning to get married to the very sexy and evidently sex-starved Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). We learn a lot of his past when he is essentially forced to go to confession before the wedding, since the priest will not marry the pair until both have confessed.

What we learn is that he was excluded from other children as a child, and thus was often badly abused by his schoolmates. He was also evidently abused sexually by his family’s chauffer. It’s also worth noting that at this point, the chauffer has a pistol that Marcello takes and shoots randomly. He manages to shoot the chauffer at this point, too, and this murder is one of the things that he confesses to.

Marcello’s government contact, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) tells Marcello that he is to head to Paris and contact a man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Quadri is a retired professor who left Italy because he was staunchly anti-fascist, which in the parlance of the time means he is a communist. To make everything work, Marcello marries Giulia and takes her to Paris on their honeymoon. And it’s there that Manganiello tells Marcello that Quadri needs to be eliminated. This is complicated by the fact that Marcello, despite his recent marriage, wants to get humpy with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor’s sexy wife who may have been a prostitute and may have a history with him. Oh, and it turns out that Quadri was once one of Marcello’s professors.

This is an odd movie, and it struck me oddly. I just watched the film and have almost no memory of it and almost no opinion on it. It is pretty stylish and nice to look at, but this desire of Marcello to simply fit in, to create the perfect life for himself, isn’t nearly explored enough. It’s brought up a number of times, but it didn’t really go anywhere for me. Certainly the ending gets to the same place and shows us exactly how far Marcello will go to fit in, but there’s not enough of why he is the way he is.

I don’t really know. I’m continuing to write on this, but I don’t have anything much more to say. Ultimately, that’s how I felt about Il Conformista; it keeps going, but doesn’t say much.

Why to watch Il Conformista: A spy thriller with a very odd resolution.
Why not to watch: It’s sort of hard to care.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Miscegenation

Film: The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Format: Internet video on laptop.

While I like plenty of movies that are a generation or more older than I am, but there are many things about these films that strike me the wrong way. One of these things is the rather substantial racism present in many films of the era. Often, the racism is blatant; non-whites are portrayed as lazy, treacherous, shifty, evil, cheating, and any number of other derogatory adjectives. A more subtle racism is the casting of white actors in non-white roles. This continued for years. Charlton Heston played a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, after all. But it still bothers me. So when I learn that Swedish actor Nils Asther plays the title role in The Bitter Tears of General Yen, well, I react badly. Inclined as I am to word play, I might call this the bitter taste of General Yen.

We have a missionary named Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) working in China. His childhood sweetheart, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) has arrived in China to marry him. The wedding is to take place immediately, but is postponed when Bob decides he needs to act immediately to rescue orphans trapped in a war zone. Megan goes with him. He gets a pass from bandit leader General Yen (Asther) and heads off, but runs into trouble. His car is stolen by one army or another, and the pair run off with the children, trying to find rickshaws. Both Bob and Megan are knocked unconscious.

Megan is rescued by General Yen, who she met on her arrival; Yen’s car sideswiped her rickshaw, injuring her driver. She goes back to his rather palatial estate with him, at first as a sort of lost lamb, then as a sort of captive, and finally as something of a spoil of war. See, back in the “civilized” world, everyone things Megan is dead. And there’s the fact that Yen is quickly becoming infatuated with the pretty young American.

We meet a few other people as well. First is Jones (Walter Connolly), Yens’ financial advisor. Also important are Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s concubine, and Captain Li (Richard Loo), one of his military commanders. It’s evident that Mah-Li and Captain Li have something going on between them. It’s also refreshing to see these roles actually played by Asian actors, even if Toshia Mori is actually Japanese, and is thus evidence of the “they all look alike” stereotype.

Regardless, the real controversial part of this film happens a touch before the middle. It’s not the implied nudity of Stanwyck in the bathing sequence, but the dream sequence before this. She falls asleep and imagines a gross stereotype of Yen breaking into her room to ravage her—in this he looks very much like a demon or the traditional Chinese hopping vampire. In a comic book sequence of her dream, a masked man breaks jumps in through her window and fights off the terrible invader. He then removes his mask and reveals not Bob Strike, but a much more genteel and civilized version of Yen, who she finds rather appealing.

Ah, miscegenation. That was the problem with the film back in the ‘30s. It was expected that anyone and everyone would be attracted to a pretty, young white woman. After all, even King Kong was fatally attracted to Faye Wray. The issue was that pure, virginal, all-American and missionary (and thus Christian) Megan Davis was in turn attracted to General Yen. That was something that middle America (and quite a bit of the coasts as well) were simply not ready to see. It didn’t matter that these were actors, nor did it matter that underneath the makeup General Yen was just as white as Barbara Stanwyck. The fact that the character could see someone non-white as desirable was, in a word, problematic.

However this (and the casting of the lovely, lovely Barbara Stanwyck) is really one of the few things to make this film interesting. It is otherwise a fairly standard story of forbidden romance during a time of war, the sort of thing that crops up all the time in various guises at least once a year. I suppose it’s worth adding that the war scenes are really well filmed and pretty intense, especially for the time.

The film ends strangely, and might well be evidence of a bit more racism against the Chinese. The only Asian who proves to be true to anything like his or her word is the one played by the white actor. I suppose that shouldn’t be too much of a shock, really. The “sneaky Oriental” stereotype ran pretty deep.

A strange film, but Barbara Stanwyck cures a lot of ills. It says a lot that my grandparents could have (and frankly may have) seen this film in the theater when it was new. My grandfather was born in 1910, and his wife a few years later. While this film was banned in any number of places, it may well have played in Des Moines. And they may well have been shocked by the romance between East and West as depicted. And I, two generations later, see this most controversial thing as a non-issue. There’s still a distance to go, but we’ve come a long way.

Why to watch The Bitter Tea of General Yen: While still racist, less racist than you might expect.
Why not to watch: Because the Chinese General Yen is played by a guy from Sweden.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Love Story

Film: Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Movie blogging is something of an incestuous pastime. What I mean is that several times a week, I put my ramblings up on this site and every month I get something like 4000 hits of people reading, or at least glancing at what I’ve written. The bulk of these people (like you reading this now) are fellow movie bloggers. Or, at least the bulk of my commenters are bloggers. Additionally, the vast majority of blogs that I read are movie blogs, and most of my comments are on such blogs. I can’t say we are a tight community, but we are a fanatical one.

I say this because today’s film is for them. Today’s film was created by a man who loves film dearly and desperately like a parent loves a child and was made for people who feel the same way. Cinema Paradiso (sometimes called Nuovo Cinema Paradiso) is about the magic of film, the joy and pain and heartache of movies. It is about why we love them and why they are so important to us. They matter, and they matter in a way that we can’t quite fathom or fully express in words. And so, Cinema Paradiso is there to say these things for us.

Essentially, a boy named Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio as a child, Marco Leonardi as a teen, and Jacques Perrin as an adult), called Toto by everyone, becomes entranced with movies at a young age. He pesters Alfredo (Philippe Noriet) who runs the projector at the local movie house, the Cinema Paradiso, to teach him everything. And Alfredo does. When the theater catches fire, it is Toto who saves the old man, but not in time to rescue his eyesight. Now blind, Alfredo gives over his job to Toto, who runs the projector in the newly remodeled theater. Toto grows up, and eventually leaves, pursuing a career as a director. He never returns to his home town for 30 years until he hears that Alfredo has died, and he goes back for the funeral, and in many ways relives these early days and his early infatuation with movies.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback—it opens with the death of Alfredo, and doesn’t return to this for quite a long time. I don’t want to get more involved in the plot here; this is a movie that should not be spoiled for anyone.

Cinema Paradiso is to film as Tampopo is to food—a love poem. For Toto, and for us in the film, the movies are everything. They are our source of wisdom, our hopes, and our dreams fulfilled. They are joy and life, pain and sadness, loss and discovery and everything else. The teach us all of life’s lessons and instruct us. They give us meaning, enlighten us, and provide us with a reason to go on.

So here’s what I want to know: why the hell didn’t I see this 20 years ago? Why did I wait this long? Why didn’t anyone tell me how beautiful and magical this film is, and if they did, why didn’t I listen to them?

Obviously, I like this film a lot.

Films about film aren’t that rare. Plenty of films tread the ground of self-reference in this way, and a lot of them are worth watching. A rare few are enchanting and special and beautiful and will entertain anyone, but offer something more, something hidden for those who have a connection to it. Film lovers have that connection with this film in a way that those who don’t live and die with the flickering light of a movie projector do not. It is a charming and beautiful film for anyone, but most especially for those who feel that same connection to film as Toto does.

The ending of this film is one of the most emotionally perfect moments I have ever seen. It is also one of the most moving things I have experienced in a film, and I am not ashamed to admit that I got pretty misty-eyed at it.

Cinema Paradiso is a wonder. If you haven’t seen this, go watch it now. Find a copy—rent it, borrow it, steal it if you have to, and take it home and watch it. This is a film that will make you fall in love with movies all over again.

Why to watch Cinema Paradiso: If you love film, this will be one of your favorite films.
Why not to watch: Someone has removed all semblance of intelligence, taste, and reason from your brain.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Those Ukraine Girls Really Knock Me Out

Film: Viy (Vij; Spirit of Evil)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Horror is very much what you make of it. What scares me may well not scare you and vice versa. For instance, I watched The Exorcist as a part of this countdown, and found that it didn’t do much for me in the “boo” department. Real-world terrors tend to be the things that cause me to lay awake at night or sleep with the lights on, and I don’t believe in demonic possession, mainly because I don’t believe in demons. So let’s see if a Russian horror movie from the year of my birth can do much, shall we?

The film in question is Viy, also known as Vij, or Spirit of Evil. The plot is one of deceptive simplicity. A young seminary student named Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) has been asked to preside over the wake of a young woman in a remote village. It should be a pretty simple assignment. However, he soon discovers that the woman is no ordinary young lady. She is a witch, and an emissary from Hell itself. Armed only with his faith, he must survive three nights of torment at the hands of her spirit and anything else she can conjure up if he is to put her to rest.

See, deceptively simple. The tale is a traditional Ukrainian folktale (evidently) and written by Nikolai Gogol. Based on what I have seen and read, the film is pretty close to the original tale, or at least the tale as written by Gogol.

There is a strange quality to this film; it has a made-for-television feel to it, in part because it was made with almost no budget. In many cases, this would be cause for alarm, laughter, or at least MST3K-style merriment. But here, it comes off as sort of charming. Khoma’s initial encounter with a witch is silly taken on its face, and there’s certainly at least a little humor intended there. But in its own way, it’s fun. It’s very early Doctor Who, but in Russian.

While there’s certainly plenty of weirdness in the start of the film, tings don’t really get strange until the second half, when Khoma begins his three-night vigil at the side of the body and, as we would expect from a film of this type, the body sits up. This is surprisingly effective, really. While not scary except for those who are easily terrified, it is decidedly disturbing. Khoma keeps himself safe by drawing a chalk circle around himself, which effectively keeps the witch (Nikolai Kutuzov) unable to approach him too closely. This is where the film really starts to sing.

Another aspect of this film that gets it right is the character of Khoma. It is pretty well established that the only thing that Khoma has to protect him from the very real danger that his soul is in and the very real temptation from the witch is his faith. Faith is something that he has. But he is also a weak man in many ways, and a man with a number of vices that leave him all the more vulnerable to the temptations that are presented to him. This weakness and predilection for sin is what leaves his fate in doubt for the entire film.

This is very much a strange film, one that might take a little while to really understand fully. It’s also a film for which the viewer needs to give a certain level of willing suspension disbelief since many of the effects are no-budget rudimentary. Some of it is surprisingly good, and some of the costuming is excellent, while some is ludicrously silly and amateurish. The costume of the title demon, for instance, is almost children’s television show silly. And yet, our witch is disturbing and sort of terrible in the original sense.

It’s a hard film to figure, really. It has a particular charm to it, a sort of horror film made for children to give them nightmares. It still might, if the children are very young or very impressionable.

EDIT: I want to be clear on this, considering I've said that this horror movie has goofy effects and is sort of silly at times. If you look this up on NetFlix, it classifies the film as horror. IMDB, however, calls it a comedy. The effects are laughable at times (again, particularly the title demon), but this is no comedy. However, I see how that impression could be left.

Why to watch Viy: A folktale from another culture respectfully told.
Why not to watch: It’s hard at times to get past the silly.