Monday, April 30, 2012

A Pirate's Life for Me

Film: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Format: Market Square Cinema.

Sue and Gail went to a dance performance yesterday, and I was left at home with my younger daughter, Maxine. Mack was bored and the day was rainy, which left out gokarting, so I took her to see The Pirates! Band of Misfits rather than taking her bowling. I’m a fan of Aardman Animation; I love Wallace and Gromit in their many iterations, and I’ve been of the opinion that Chicken Run should be on this list. So, while she wanted to see it, I have to admit that I wanted to see it, too.

We’re introduced early to our main characters. Leading this particular ship of crusty pirates is (and yes, this is his name) The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). He is nobly assisted by The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), who also goes by Number Two. Our other pirates are similarly named: The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashely Jensen—the character wears a false orange beard made of carpet), and The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker). They aren’t very good pirates, and tend to be most excited about Ham Nite on the ship. But they all agree that the best thing about being a pirate is Polly, the ship’s mascot.

The Pirate Captain wants nothing more than to win the Pirate of the Year contest. Sadly, he isn’t a successful pirate, and the bounty on his head is a mere 12 doubloons. Standing in his way of the honor are Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). Despite the fact that he’s out of his depth, The Pirate Captain goes back to sea and a-raiding, but never has any success.

On his last attempt, he raids The Beagle, Charles Darwin’s ship. Darwin (David Tennant) is depressed because girls don’t like him, and while he doesn’t like being raided, he makes an incredible discovery. The Pirate Captain’s mascot isn’t a parrot, but a dodo, a bird thought to be extinct for hundreds of years. Darwin convinces The Pirate Captain to take Polly to London for the Scientific Discovery of the Year contest, which comes with untold riches. The problems here are two-fold. First, it’s soon evident that Darwin wants to steal Polly for himself. Second, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates pirates. Hates them.

That’s our set-up, and the film follows from that. There are a couple of twists along the way which are better left to the film to reveal instead of me, because they’re pretty entertaining. That said, the actual events of the film are not really that surprising. This is a film that doesn’t quite telegraph itself, but that doesn’t do anything that is completely out of the norm. That’s expected, since this is a family film. I wasn’t honestly expecting this to go somewhere different. I knew everything would end up happily, and I’m okay with that.

The character of Charles Darwin is where I take issue with the film. I don’t have a problem with poking fun at Darwin or portraying him as something of a spineless nerd. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, but it works for the film. I love the fact that when we return to London and enter his home, we discover that he has a monkey butler named Mr. Bobo. Darwin tells us that his original theory was that if he put clothing and a monocle on a monkey, it would turn him into something like a “man-panzee.” It’s cute, and Mr. Bobo is a great character.

No, where I have a problem is how Darwin works in the film. He’s comic relief, and that’s fine, but he’s also a criminal. Darwin is a scientific hero; the man is unarguably one of the most important scientists in the history of the world. Did we need to make him a criminal? Was it necessary to essentially equate Darwin with evil? There’s already a culture of anti-science in the United States and elsewhere, and we already live in a world where kids (and many, many adults) distrust science because it doesn’t agree with their multi-centuries-old holy book. Making this incredibly important figure a weak-minded criminal isn’t going to help.

Beyond that, I enjoyed the film. The animation is beautiful and seamless, and proof that Aardman has continually learned from its past films and gotten better and better. So, the story is intentionally silly and fun, and the visuals are as good as you have seen from this style of animation. You could do a lot worse than to take your kids to this, but do me the favor of explaining the importance of Darwin to them when you leave the theater.

As a final note, I saw the 3D version. I typically hate 3D, but it was well done here.

Why to watch The Pirates! Band of Misfits: Great claymation is a rarity, and wonderful to behold.
Why not to watch: Do we really have to make one of science’s greatest heroes a villain?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Blown Away

Film: Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I don’t always get along well with films that are about artistic expression rather than a story, but I’m learning. Films like Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind) help. This is an odd little film, one that doesn’t really even attempt a plot or much of a narrative, but it is surprisingly beautiful and startling. While the film tends to be classified as a documentary, it is much less and much more than this. There is a strong pulse of magical realism to this film, a sense that the world in which our filmmaker lives is both physical and deeply touched by the spiritual.

In this film, the last of Joris Ivens’s 60 year career, is an attempt to film the wind, something patently impossible, of course. In essence, Ivens travels to China to film the effects of the wind, both as a thing itself and as a sort of metaphor for the constancy of change in the world. Once in China, Ivens spends time in the Gobi Desert, discovering that the wind has not yet arrived.

It is here that things begin to move into the realm of surrealism and magical realism. While Ivens visits an old Tai Chi master, a character from traditional Chinese theater arrives and observers their conversation. It appears that Ivens’s fascination with the wind has a physical basis—he is a lifelong asthmatic, and tells the old master that he has only half a lung with which to breathe. The old master shows him some of his forms, and the Chinese character tosses a banana peel on the ground, causing the master to slip.

While waiting for the wind to arrive, Ivens collapses and is take to the hospital. In the hospital, the old man (he was 90 when the film was made, and I can only hope to look half as good at that age) has a sort of fever dream that transports him into the film La Voyage dans la Lune, taking him to the moon where he meets Chang’e, a sort of Chinese goddess. She tells him that on the moon, there is no wind, a reality that Ivens finds especially disheartening. Back on Earth, there is a staged and stylized marriage taking place while a representative of the Chinese government makes a speech about the prosperity of the local district. There are also characters of traditional theater here, particularly the same ones that appear in the bulk of Farewell, My Concubine as well as the panther-faced man from earlier. He unplugs the speaker’s microphone and plays rock music, and suddenly Ivens appears in the same make-up.

Ivens is taken to a cavern that contains a mask from which a constant powerful wind blows. He meets the man who made it, and the man gives it to him; Ivens returns the favor by giving the mask maker a copy of one of early films. Ivens is then carried to a mountaintop where he films and listens to the wind. For me, this is the true heart of the film, the real emotional core. As he sits on the mountain, microphone dangling in front of him, it soon becomes evident that we can hear voices in the wind. In a variety of languages, the wind speaks to us, each voice representing a different wind. Slowly, the sound of the actual wind dies off, and all that is left are the sounds of the speaking—a tornado in Nebraska, the original wind of creation.

Ivens and co-director Marceline Loridan decide to film the Terracotta Army near the Great Wall of China, but are given permission to film for only 10 minutes. Instead, they buy dozens of replica statues and films these.

Back in the desert, we are still waiting for the wind to arrive. An old woman shows up and tells them that she can bring the wind. She draws a pattern in the sand while Ivens yells at the desert for the wind to blow and remake the landscape. As she finishes draw, the wind arrives.

Une Histoire de Vent is a queer duck of a film, a strange little piece of film that has no real point or plot other than simply being what it is. Ivens’s physical frailty becomes more and more evident as the film goes on. Early on, he walks, then is carried in a chair and walks with a cane on the mountaintop. By the end of the film, he is being pushed in a wheelchair around his terracotta replicas. His desire to film the wind in action in many ways seems to be what is keeping him alive.

I don’t know that I fully have understood this film, but I found it very much worth watching. It is a film of surprising and stunning beauty, a world of reality and make-believe, a sort of cinematic interior life or mental construct. It’s a difficult film to recommend because of its inherent strangeness and lack of real plot, but it is a decidedly memorable experience.

If you’re up for something weird, you may find much to take your breath away by clicking here.

Why to watch Une Histoire de Vent: Beauty, peace, and art.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to tell if it goes anywhere sometimes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Gamesmanship

Film: Sleuth
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Years ago, when I was a relatively young lad, I was watching television with my father when a movie came on. My dad has always been a fan of the intricate, especially when it comes to puzzles and mysteries. He’s brilliant with crossword puzzles, for instance. I could tell right away that Dad really enjoyed this movie, and I think he’d seen it before. The film in question was Sleuth, which I just watched again for the first time in about 30 years.

I can’t explain why this film has been so difficult for me to find, considering the both stars, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, were nominated for Oscars. But NetFlix doesn’t have it (they have the remake with Caine and Jude Law) and my library system doesn’t have it. Sleuth, for all its greatness, is nearly impossible to find, which is a damn shame.

This is a film that I’ve wanted to rewatch for some time, and I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint. Here’s the thing about Sleuth: I remembered this movie almost perfectly. I didn’t remember all of the details, but I did remember many of them, and I also remembered al of the major plot points, the double crosses, and the twists. I hadn’t seen this movie in at least three decades (possibly more), but I still remembered the details.

This is a devious little tale that starts simply and builds through its two plus hours. We start with a pair of gentlemen meeting in a beautiful English garden. The older man is Andrew Wyke (Olivier), a member of the gentry and a writer of detective novels of the sort made popular by Agatha Christie. In Wyke’s books, his detective Merrydew always has all of the answers while the police are bumbling simpletons constantly in awe of the great man’s brilliance. The younger man is Milo Tindle (Caine), who runs a couple of hairdressers’ shops. It would seem they have little in common, but there is one important point between them. That single fact is that Milo is having an affair with Andrew’s wife.

And now we take a turn for the surreal and strange. Andrew has decided that he doesn’t much love his wife anyway. Besides, he’s got a mistress already. The problem as he sees it is Marguerite, his wife. Poor Milo doesn’t have a great deal of money, and Marguerite is used to being kept in something much more than simple style. His worry is that after a few weeks with Milo and living in poverty, she’ll come crawling back, and he can’t have that. Instead, he proposes something of a game. The idea is that Milo will break into the house in disguise, “steal” Marguerite’s jewelry, and fence it through a fence that Andrew has arranged. This will give them enough money to live decently and keep Marguerite away for good.

Of course, that really isn’t what Andrew is after. Instead, this becomes a double cross. Andrew, once he has Milo completely in an unexplainable position, he shoots him.

I’m not going to spoil this, because this is a film that deserves to be watched cold. Knowing the set-up (slightly less than the first half of the film) is enough to get you going without ruining the wildly entertaining second act or the vicious, revenge-served-cold third act in which both Caine and Olivier earn every bit of their Oscar nominations.

Sleuth is fascinating and entertaining, a film that never slows up or gets dull. Our two main characters are well drawn and fully three-dimensional. Olivier is a man too sold on his own talent and breeding and very much on his own intelligence and skill as a gamesman. Caine is ruthless and low, but charming, the sort of man with a hint of danger about him, but in a way that is almost impossible to put a name to. The joy here is in part with the intricate and detailed plot. What’s more of a joy, though, is the fact that the two men woul are battling each other through the entirety of the film are both smart and devious.

I like this film a lot, and I’m happy to have had the chance to watch it again. I cannot fathom why it is so difficult to find (again, the remake is ubiquitous at every place that sells movies of which I am a sometime patron). If I ever found this film on a shelf, I’d buy it because it’s a film that deserves to be watched more than once. Admittedly, the plot twists don’t hold up to multiple viewings—the film is less effective when you know what happens next. The rewatching is more for the joy of seeing Olivier and Caine work with such a great script and in such a magnificent setting.

It’s worth noting that this was Mankiewicz’s final film. It’s a hell of a last film and shows that even toward the end of his career, he lost none of his ability to surprise an audience, shock them, or simply wow them with the tale unfolding on screen.

If you can find Sleuth at a rental store or your library, get it and watch it, and bask in two of the finest performances of the 1970s. If you can’t find it, set aside some time, pour yourself a glass of something posh, and click here.

Why to watch Sleuth: It’s a great damn story.
Why not to watch: The middle part is more obvious to the audience than it should be.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Plain Jane

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

I work with a guy named Ron who has a thing for Olivia de Havilland. We’ve discussed this back and forth with him pushing de Havilland and me stumping for Barbara Stanwyck. While I won’t ever give over to Ron on this, he’s got me in the fact that Olivia de Havilland won a pair of Oscars and Stanwyck, for all her nominations, got skunked. One of those Oscars came from her role in The Heiress.

This is a strangely dark and angry little romance of both manners and ill manners. Young Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) lives a quiet and solitary life with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and her aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). She is a plain girl, shy and retiring, and spends her time doting on her father and tending to her embroidery. Her father compares her unfavorably to her late mother, who was vibrant and lovely. Her aunt, though, sees the good in her and wants nothing more than for her to be happy.

Enter Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who immediately takes a liking to the girl and begins to pursue her romantically. At least that’s what he claims. Her father seems to disagree, though, thinking that Morris is after her for her inheritance. She’s inherited a tidy sum from her late mother, and stands to inherit twice that amount more when her father dies. Morris, we soon discover, is fairly dissolute. He spent his own fortune roaming around Europe, buying himself the finest clothing, and essentially ignoring his widowed sister and her five children. With that as his history, Dr. Sloper smells a bit of a rat.

The awkward Catherine refuses to see this and is convinced that he loves her for her and not for her money. Morris comes to plead his case, and does so unsuccessfully. He creates a plot to elope with Catherine in two nights, but she convinces him that they should elope that very evening. Running off to a small church and marrying, and damn the inheritance, since her father has threatened to rewrite his will should she marry Morris.

In a stunning turn of unexpected assholery, though, Morris doesn’t show up. Instead, he borrows money for passage and goes to California, completely avoiding the situation and abandoning Catherine to spinsterhood. Eventually, Dr. Sloper dies, and while he threatens to cut off Catherine’s inheritance, he does not, leaving her a very wealthy woman.

Of course, Morris returns. The remaining 15 minutes or so of the film, though are too good to spoil, so I won’t. Suffice to say that the ending is extremely satisfying.

There’s a lot of this film that really works, and a lot of what works is de Havilland. She was, as most of the classic Hollywood legends were, a stunningly attractive woman. Here, she is made plain and average. She’s not unattractive; she’s just very, very ordinary. She also tones down her vibrant personality in exchange for one that is painfully shy and drab. It’s a transformation similar to that of Charlize Theron in a film like Monster, or her own transformation in The Snake Pit.

I also like the performance of Ralph Richardson here. He’s generally an actor I enjoy watching, and in this film, he has a tendency to steal most of the scenes he is in. He plays the doctor with a combination of supreme knowledge and decided malice. One of the most effective scenes here is when he confronts Catherine about the real motives of Morris, telling her that she has no real good qualities save that her embroidery is consistently good. It’s a magnificent moment for both actors—he, acting as a doctor performing what he sees as lifesaving surgery without emotion, and she, realizing in that moment (as she tells Lavinia) that her own father dislikes her. His lack of emotion and her flood of realization at this cruelty are both palpable.

I should mention Montgomery Clift here. He’s certainly a capable actor, as his career attests, but I don’t love him here. Most of what draws me away from him is his accent. There is a touch of England in most of the characters in the film, while Clift comes across as a bit of a hick, like the lone American in a British drawing room drama. There’s something off-putting about the way he speaks throughout the film. Couple this with the fact that not a single person uses a single contraction, and there are times when the proceedings feel a bit too stiff and formal, or as formal as they can be when one person can’t seem to get the hang sounding like everyone else.

Regardless of that, The Heiress is a masterful film, precise and measured, and served with exactly the right combination of emotional reactions at exactly the right time. I have a feeling that this is a film that I will revisit again in the future, and I look forward to doing so. As much as I hate to say it, Ron might be onto something here.

Why to watch The Heiress: Olivia de Havilland at her very best, and an ending that is surprising.
Why not to watch: Montgomery Clift’s accent.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The End of Chaplin

Film: City Lights; Monsieur Verdoux
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

I enjoy silent comedies quite a bit. Of the great silent comedians, I enjoy Harold Lloyd, I have great respect for Chaplin, and I have a deep and abiding love for Buster Keaton. Naturally, this means I watched all of Keaton’s films pretty quickly. Chaplin I’ve been savoring a bit, at least until now. The three comedians were all quite different. Lloyd was in many ways the most American in his characters’ outlook. Keaton offered a more zen outlook on his comedy. Chaplin is all about the pathos.

City Lights doesn’t stray too far from the formula that worked for him his entire career. Like most silent comedies, the plot is very simple. The action tends to drive that simple plot forward very slowly, because the action is more about the slapstick than the actual story. In this case, the plot is pretty easily resolved, with the additional material there only for laughs.

That’s not a bad thing—these are good laughs. Chaplin plays his trademark Tramp character. Early on, he encounters a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) and becomes smitten by her beauty and her tragedy. He also rescues a man (Harry Myers) about to commit suicide. These two things seem unrelated, but will merge as the film closes. It turns out that the man the Tramp rescues is a drunken millionaire. He thanks our hero by taking him out for a night on the town. The problem is that when he wakes up and sobers up, he has no memory of the previous night—not his suicide attempt, his rescue, or the evening that followed.

In the mean time, the Tramp spends time with the blind flower girl, and discovers that there is an expensive operation that can cure her blindness. He also discovers that the girl owes her landlord rent and is about to be evicted. Unable to get the millionaire to remember him, the Tramp takes (and subsequently loses) a job as a street sweeper. Eventually, his only recourse to cash for the girl is to sign up for a boxing match. He makes a deal with the other boxer to throw the fight and split the $50 purse, but is forced to fight another man instead, who won’t take the deal.

Of course, this is a comedy, which means it has to work out in the end. The ending is sweet and heartfelt, if perhaps a bit twee. But it’s cute and impossible not to smile at.

But the plot, sweet as it may be, is not the reason to pay attention here. The whole purpose of the film is to see what Chaplin does throughout. The gags are as good as we’ve come to expect from Chaplin, with the boxing match near the end a true highpoint in not just the film, but in his catalog. It’s silly stuff, the kind of thing that young children would find riotously funny today (at least the non-jaded children, and even some of them). One of Chaplin’s great talents was finding a gag and playing it as many different ways as he could—the back and forth shuffle of Chaplin, his opponent, and the referee here being a prime example.

For many people, City Lights is Chaplin at his finest. That’s a hard thing to argue against, even if my preference might be more for the opening half hour of Modern Times. There’s no doubting that while his last silent film is stronger in places, City Lights is more consistently funny and on plot all the way through.

If anything, I’d have liked this to be a little longer. Chaplin was and is a joy, and a running time of under 90 minutes feels like short change.

That shorter running time may have better served Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, because at the 90 minute mark here, I was ready for the film to be over, and knew that there was still a good half hour left to go. This is the story of a Bluebeard, a man who marries women and murders them for their money and property. He tells us at the start of the film that life was fine until he lost his job in a bank when the markets crashed. Now, with a wife and child to support, he turned to a different line of work (killing widows) to make ends meet.

We see him at work several times during the course of the film, and as the film starts, we learn from the family of his latest conquest that Verdoux’s latest (and late) wife has just emptied her bank accounts of 60,000 francs. We cut to the man himself cleaning up after the deed and engaging to sell the home. The prospective buyer is another widow who he sets upon wooing, a plot that will take us to near the end of the film.

In the meantime, he is already married not only to his first wife, but to several others, and he proceeds to go on a sort of murder tour around France, bumping off women and collecting on them, spinning crazy stories about impending bank collapses to get them to draw their money out, and then doing the deed and making off with the benefits. One of these wives, Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) has a nasty habit of not dying, leaving him in something of a predicament.

Thanks to the Hays Code, Monsieur Verdoux is destined to be caught by the end of the film. Criminals, after all, couldn’t win under the Hays Code, and no one could be seen to truly benefit from the commission of a crime. So naturally, everything will come to a head, and does when the foghorn-voiced Annabella arrives as a guest for his latest wedding.

My problem with Monsieur Verdoux is not that it isn’t well made or that it isn’t entertaining. It’s beautifully filmed and it’s acted well, and there are even a few laughs in it here and there. My problem is that it seems so opposite the typical Chaplin comedy. While terrible things happened to the Tramp all the time, they were always caused by circumstances beyond the poor guy’s control. The Tramp was always lovable and sweet, someone whose tragedies were all the more poignant because we as the audience want him to be okay. Verdoux in this film is cruel and heartless, everything the Tramp seemed to stand against.

I don’t really mind heartlessness, but I don’t like it for its own sake, and that, more or less, is how I took Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin aims for pitch black comedy, and while it seems impossible that he would ever miss completely, he misses on quite a bit of this. I’m not used to, or much in favor of a Chaplin character who isn’t worth rooting for, and Verdoux is simply not. This film comes off as mean spirited in a lot of ways, and that seems so wrong.

There are other, similar comedies, of course. Arsenic and Old Lace, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and even a film like The Ladykillers cover similar territory, and do it with better humor and a lot more panache. I’m disappointed here, not because this is a Chaplin talkie, but because a film like The Great Dictator was left off the List when it much more rightfully belongs here. Monsieur Verdoux covers territory better mapped by others, and Chaplin is better than playing this sort of rogue, no matter how charming he might appear.

Why to watch City Lights: It’s sweet and heartfelt.
Why not to watch: It’s over too quickly.

Why to watch Monsieur Verdoux: Of the three great silent comedians, only Chaplin made a solid transition to talkies.
Why not to watch: He made better talkies.

Monday, April 23, 2012

An Announcement of Sorts

No review today. Sorry.

I'm realizing that I've got a little more than a year to go on the giant-ass list I've been working on. There are a number of other lists that I've compiled that I will be working on in the near future. With the new version of Blogger, I've got a little bit more freedom to put things together the way I want. If you look directly to the right, you'll see a few new things. Specifically, you'll see links to other pages of film lists that I'll be completing in the months and years ahead.

First, there is a trio of horror film lists that I've found that all look interesting. These lists come from Time Out London, Bravo Television, and Fangoria magazine. There's a bunch of crossover (particularly on the first two), but still multiple dozens that have passed by me.

The bigger list is actually five more lists--the complete collection of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress nominees in Oscar history. Again, I'll have already reviewed a number of these, but there are plenty I won't have touched. I'm excited about that particular project because I'm going to do something else with it as well. When I complete a given set of nominees, I'll take a look back at them and determine which I would have picked, had I been given a vote.

So, while I'm still concentrating on the main list for the moment, expect to see some deviation here and there moving forward.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why am I Doing This Again?

Film: Blonde Cobra
Format: Internet video on laptop.

For whatever reason, I’ve been on something of an art film kick lately, and Blonde Cobra is merely the latest in the string of video oddities I’ve been watching lately. Like many films in this pseudo-genre, I’m thrown off-kilter by what I see on screen. I don’t find anything to latch myself onto as even a frame of reference for this film.

According to the story (I’m loathe to call it a legend), the fragments that make up this film actually come from the remnants of two other films created by Bob Fleischner and Jack Smith (who created then as-yet-unseen-by-me Flaming Creatures). A fire destroyed part of what they had created, and Ken Jacobs took what survived and cobbled together…this. I don’t have any explanation for what remains here.

The film consists of three parts, more or less, and none of the parts seems to have much to do with any of the other parts. Frequently, we’re given nothing to look at but a black screen with rather florid narration over the top. This narration, which comes from Jack Smith, tells bizarre stories that link to perverse sexual practices with elements of sadism and furious self-abuse. He tells, for instance, of the time when he was a young child and ignored by his mother. Upon meeting another boy, he lights a match and burns the other boy’s genitalia. The middle story deals with a group of nuns that are evidently having sexual relations with a plaster statue of Christ, which culminates in them being punished by being whipped with rosaries.

Yeah, I don’t really know, either.

It’s evident that there’s a great deal here that is, while not precisely homoerotic, definitely homosexual in source and intent. Initially, it seems that Smith’s monologues seem to be blaming his mother’s inattention and a sort of overbearing Catholic authority for his own homosexuality. There’s also a great deal of self-loathing at play. That Smith on camera dresses in baby clothing and as a startlingly ugly transvestite is perhaps a part of this. More, though comes through at the end when Smith is complaining about a life lived in futility and for no purpose, putting a toy gun to his head and pulling the trigger followed by flashes of cemetery imagery. In fact, the last thing Smith shouts as the film ends is “What went wrong?”

Really, I’m floundering here. I’m trying to work out something that this film might actually be about, and I’m really coming up empty. Blonde Cobra seems very much to be about nothing but itself. It is despairing and strange, and difficult to watch. It is also thankfully just over half an hour long.

For me, the most difficult part of the film is Smith’s voiceover. He comes across as taking this experiment as casually as possible, which I don’t think is the case. For much of the film, he sounds a great deal like a cartoon character, a cross between Snagglepuss and a carnival barker. Again, knowing nothing about Smith (but knowing that several people have warned me about his Flaming Creatures), I have no idea if this is his natural speaking voice or something affected for this film. I suspect the later, but have no proof.

All told, I’m simply happy that this is a film I’ve put into the rearview mirror and that I won’t have to watch it again. And I probably won’t. I can’t help but think that I’d probably have been better served to knock out films like this a year or so ago if only so I didn’t have to spend my time watching them now.

I wrote this much without consulting The Book, but felt I should give the film one last chance to make itself relevant to me. It’s worth noting that The Book doesn’t explain anything about Blonde Cobra either, save for calling it one of the important films of the New York underground scene of the 1960s. And with that, I’m done trying to figure out what I just spent half an hour watching.

Need to see this and willing to give over half an hour? Click here.

Why to watch Blonde Cobra: Experimental film had to come from somewhere.
Why not to watch: It will damage your soul.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Billy the Shake's Greatest Hits

Film: Campanadas a Medianoche (Chimes at Midnight; Falstaff)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

My guess, if I had to make one, is that William Shakespeare enjoyed writing the character of Falstaff. It’s entirely possible, though, that he was simply a favorite of the rabble. Regardless, Sir John Falstaff appears prominently in four of Shakespeare’s plays. He is one of Shakespeare’s more interesting characters, and that’s really saying something. Falstaff is primarily a comic character, one of Shakespeare’s clowns, but there is a true depth and humanity to the character. Falstaff is tragic in the extreme, with enough character faults for an army, but a man it is almost impossible not to like, making his tragedy more poignant.

Campanadas a Medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, or more commonly Falstaff) takes many of the important scenes from Shakespeare’s two “Henry IV” plays, “Henry V” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and puts them in one place, a sort of Falstaff’s greatest hits reel, although there is quite a bit here that concerns Prince Hal far more than it does Falstaff and his ilk. Still, it is Falstaff’s film. There is nothing really new here for those who know their Shakespeare; it merely offers the advantage of being the condensed and concentrated Sir John in one package rather than spread out over four.

Falstaff is a rogue, of course, in every sense of the word. He has not many positive qualities save that he truly does seem to love his friends. This doesn’t stop him from harassing them, beating them, and taking the credit for everything they do. He is vastly overweight, a drunkard and a whoremonger as well as a coward. Into this role steps Orson Welles, a good 20 years past his trim physique in Citizen Kane, and larger than his bloated character in Touch of Evil. This is the Welles I remember as a kid—hugely fat, but possessed still of that remarkable voice.

Fortunately for us, this is still Welles in possession of his skill in filmmaking, because Campanadas a Medianoche is the sort of brilliance that few filmmakers could legitimately attempt, let alone pull off. Welles, having become something of an arthouse director at this point in his career, apparently felt free enough to direct what he wanted and do what he wanted, damn the critics and the public both. He plays Falstaff as close to perfectly as can be imagined, a combination of cowardice and bravado, telling massive lies with a straight face, claiming credit for everything that happens around him.

While the film focuses on Falstaff, the story is really about Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), who eventually becomes King Henry V. He is a dissolute youth, preferring the company of Falstaff and other thieves and hooligans. He responds to the call of his father, Henry IV (John Gielgud) to attend the Battle of Shrewsbury and help put down the rebellion of Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). The battle done and Percy slain, Hal returns to his waywardness and sloth. The death of his father, though, causes Hal to awaken to his responsibility, which is where we get Henry V.

It is the relationship between Hal and Falstaff that is most interesting. It’s obvious that the two love each other, but it’s evident earlier in the film that Hal is aware that he will have to divorce himself from Falstaff when he becomes king. There is a bit of play acting, first with Falstaff as king, then with Hal as king and Falstaff as Hal. It is in this scene that we learn of the eventual fate of the pair. Falstaff, playing as Hal, begs his father not to banish Falstaff, heaping praise upon himself. While he is pretending to be Hal, it is evident that he is begging Hal to keep him close when he does become king, and Hal acknowledges that he will eventually have to force the man away.

Shakespeare, when done well, is sublime, and this is Shakespeare done very well indeed. It’s a shame Welles didn’t get through the entire catalog. In many ways, a good adaptation of Shakespeare is like watching a well-loved film multiple times. We know what is there, but there is true joy in seeing it acted well and with conviction. Welles, for all his missed potential and physical dissolution, remains one of the three or four best cinematic directors of Shakespeare to ever yell, “Action!”

It’s also worth noting that the Battle of Shrewsbury is magnificent here. While the film is in black-and-white and certainly limited by technology, the battle sequence is still highly effective. Films like Braveheart stole unabashedly from Shrewsbury here, and despite the lack of color, these scenes still look modern.

Campanadas a Medianoche has never gotten a DVD release in the U.S., making it extremely difficult to find. You could do worse than to follow this link.

Why to watch Campanadas a Medianoche: Shakespeare the way it should be done.
Why not to watch: By this time in his career Welles was planetary in scope.

Feminism

Film: De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence) Format: VHS from Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

I live in a town with a large university, which gives me the benefit of having a gigantic additional library at my disposal. While I can’t get things through interlibrary loan, I can have access to the library collection. Since it’s a public university, my taxes pay for it, so I get that for free. I renewed my card today and walked out with a couple of films, in particular De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence), which I haven’t otherwise been able to find.

This is an odd film, one of the first real cinematic visions of violent feminism. It unquestionably follows a film like Jeanne Dielmann and presages films like Thelma and Louise. The story is as odd as it is simple; three women who don’t know each other brutally murder a shopkeeper in Amsterdam and are put on trial. Before the trial, they are investigated by a psychiatrist who tries to determine what led these women to commit murder. She shocks the court by declaring that the women are legally sane, a declaration that sends waves through the court, her life, and potentially society.

As the film progresses, we learn more and more about the three women. Christine (Edda Barends) takes center stage in terms of the title, but is also the character who speaks the least. After the murder and her arrest, she becomes non-communicative, refusing to speak about any issue. The psychiatrist Janine (Cox Habbema) questions her, and while Christine draws pictures, she says nothing. She is more successful with the other two. Annie (Nelly Frijda) is a divorced waitress who speaks openly and laughs constantly. Anna (Henriette Tol) is a secretary who has started to recognize that she not only has a particular power, but that her abilities are both wasted and purposefully ignored.

The three women, of course, are meant to be the center of the narrative, but in general, it is Janine who takes center stage. The film is in many ways less about what the women did or even why they did it and more about how Janine comes to understand their actions, and eventually to at least partly condone those actions. Much of her awareness comes from Anna, who, of the three women, is the most forceful in turning the questions back on her questioner.

While the story of our three murderers is an interesting one, Goris is right to focus on Janine, because her awakening is the most interesting in the film. We have in her an accomplished, powerful woman in her own right—a psychiatrist frequently called on for expert testimony. As the film progresses, we learn, though, that she is still a second-class citizen in her own home. A dinner party requires that she do all the cooking, for instance, and afterwards she is expected to submit to sex whether she wants to or not. It is events like this that wake her up to the cause behind the attack on the shopkeeper, since by the end of the film it is evident that she does understand the why of the event even though the three women never tell her explicitly.

Perhaps the most effective device used in the film is the series of short sequences depicting the men in the lives of the imprisoned women. In each case—and this becomes true for Janine as well—the men are unable to come to grips with the events at the shop except in terms of how those events affect them specifically. Christine’s husband, for instance, can only question why she would do this to him—he’s had to ship the children off to other locations because he is incapable of caring for them himself. Anna’s boss comments that she was a necessary part of his business, but in a flashback we see that her function was strictly to keep things organized, and any opinion she expressed was purposefully and specifically brushed aside. Events like these lead us as audience down the same path as Janine so that, by the end of the film, we understand the motive behind the attack as well. Janine experiences the same thing when her husband (Eddie Brugman) tries to force her to change her testimony so that it won’t reflect poorly on him or his career as a lawyer.

My one complaint here is the music. It is loud, jarring, and often highly reminiscent of this film’s musically unfortunate decade. I’m reminded, in fact, of a film like Ladyhawke that is crippled today by its dated and cheese-filled musical score. Even though the music here is plainly dated and often ugly, there are still some interesting choices. For instance, some scenes (particularly the one in which Janine truly begins to understand the women) have a soundtrack that is in many ways akin to a horror movie. And it’s appropriate—what Janine is realizing is horrific.

This is an impressive film start to finish. The ending is shocking, and Goris’s choice to leave that ending ambiguous was a smart one. While we don’t know what Janine will do next, we know that it will be significant. We don’t know the outcome of the trial, but it is not the result that we care about. What we want is to understand, and Goris leaves us enough breadcrumbs to follow the trail and arrive at the conclusion she wishes.

Why to watch De Stilte Rond Christine M.: A shocking and powerful feminist statement.
Why not to watch: The music is wretched.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Zoom Zoom

Film: Wavelength
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Art films and I often don’t get along. I say that not as a defense of any review I make of said art films but as a statement of fact. Frequently, such cinematic experiments make me feel pretty stupid, as if I should be getting more from them than I am. Wavelength, considered a critical experimental film by Canadian director Michael Snow, is such a work. I’ve had a link to this film for a long time and have actually started the film more than once, but until today, never really made it more than a few minutes in. It’s unusual to say that a film with a running time well under an hour is daunting and difficult to watch, but Wavelength is both of those things.

To give it a chance to work, I decided that the best and fairest thing was to really watch it from start to finish in as close to one take as I could make it. In the interest of fairness, I was forced to pause it once briefly, but I got through the entire running time of about 43 minutes in something like 44:30, and my pause was early in the running time.

I’m certain there are a number of ways to consider this film, the most obvious being that this is the story of a single camera zoom. That is, more or less, what it is. The film starts at the end of a large room that looks like nothing so much as a loft apartment. Over the course of the film’s running time, the camera zooms from its initial position to a single point on the far wall.

I’d love to say that’s it, and for many an experimental film, that would probably be enough. Snow gives us some things to deal with as viewers of the film, though. First, there are four events that take place in the room. First, a woman enters with two men carrying a piece of furniture. She instructs them as to where she wants it placed, and then everyone leaves. This happens right at the start. Second, the woman returns with an acquaintance. The two listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio; actually, the only listen to most of the song. Third, just before the midpoint, a man enters the room and collapses on the floor, the camera zooming past him as it continues. Fourth, the woman returns and reports the body of the man, who she claims to have never seen before.

Throughout, we are given the same view of the room with its glacial zoom through a number of different lenses and filters. The screen sometimes flashes white, shows the room in a deep red tone or in a reverse image. There is also a constant hum of a tone throughout the film’s running time. The pitch of the single played note slowly rises and gains in intensity as the camera nears the far wall. This note becomes an important part of the film’s environment, soon eclipsing virtually all other potential sounds we might here, like that of the traffic rushing past the window. Additionally, the constant changing of lighting and filters does produce something akin to the passage of time, giving us something that is the equivalent of day and night during the duration.

This was, I will not mince words here, an ordeal, but one that I am in part glad to have gone through. Wavelength is not an easy film, but it is one that pays a strange sort of dividend by being watched all at once (or virtually so) rather than a minute or so at a time. That sort of episodic viewing, clicking the film on for a minute and pausing it, is extremely tempting, in no small part because of the increasing pain of the single note on the soundtrack.

While Snow attempts to portray the film as existing as a single shot, there is a great deal of evidence of cutting here as well as some film editing. In the last of the four episodes for instance, the woman in the apartment appears as a ghostly figure, semi-transparent and flickering in and out of existence as she calls for help. Still, even at these moments where it appears that we might gain some sort of clue to what Snow wants us to see, the camera continues its relentless zoom, evident at this part of the film to be centered on a picture on that far wall. The events, in other words, take place not in front of the camera or because they are important for us to see, but in spite of the camera or with no real relation to the camera. The collapsed man, for instance is soon zoomed past, presumably still on the floor but no longer visible to us.

I believe it may be impossible to call the experience of watching Wavelength enjoyable. It is not, but it is also not intended to be. It is instead a cinematic trial of endurance in the viewer and an artistic statement both strange and strangely captivating. I cannot say that I will watch this film again in the near future—I may never do so again—but for one reason or another, it is a film that will stay with me as a piece of artistic expression for a very long time.

If you've got the stomach for it, click here.

Why to watch Wavelength: Experimental film at a peak.
Why not to watch: It’s a single camera zoom.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Windmill Too Far

Film: Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

If you look at my archive, you may notice that I haven’t specifically avoided any part of the list or any film in the specific. I realized recently, though, that I have somehow missed all of the films by Paul Verhoeven. This is surprising and completely unintentional. Now, close to 60% done, Verhoeven is a measurable part of The List, which is the main reason I watched Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange) today.

There’s a particular type of World War II film that I watched a lot of as a kid, frequently in the company of my older brother. My guess is that my own personal interest in World War II comes in no small part from these films and their specific way of looking at the war. There is a moral clarity in these films, a sense of good and evil, right and wrong. There’s also a good bit of adventure and danger, which is what kept me in my seat while I watched. I’m thinking of films like The Great Escape or A Bridge Too Far specifically, with its cast of thousands and stories of both the military and The Resistance. Such a film is Soldaat van Oranje.

A group of relatively wealthy college students in Holland acts like, well, college students. They play pranks on each other that sometimes backfire, play a lot of tennis, and suddenly, their lives change completely as the war starts. It is their belief and hope that, as with the previous war, Holland will remain neutral, a hope that quickly becomes shattered when Germany invades. The film follows the fates of these young men as the war goes from bad to worse, to unbelievable and then to final victory.

Erik (Rutger Hauer) and Guus (Jeroen Krabbe) are the main focus of the film, or are at least the characters with whom we spend the most time. When Holland is invaded, both attempt to join up, but are pushed aside by the recruiter, who seems unable to focus on anything. Instead, the pair joins the Resistance, eventually attempting to make their way over to England. Meanwhile, their friend Jan (Huib Rooymans), a boxer, defends a pair of Jews, and must escape. Erik offers him the chance to make it to England, but Jan is caught, imprisoned, and tortured.

On the other side of the fence, we have Robby (Eddy Habbema), who runs a small wireless set in communication with the Allies. Eventually, the invading Germans find him out, and convert him to work for them, mainly because Robby’s fiancĂ©e Esther (Belinda Meuldijk) looks (and likely is) at least partly Jewish. His compliance with sending false information and helping round up the Resistance is what keeps her out of a Polish labor camp and a mass grave. The final member of the group is Alex (Derek de Lint), who joins the Dutch Army, and with the capitulation, signs up with the Germans and fights in an SS unit on the Russian Front.

Throughout the film, we move back and forth between the stories, seeing in many cases the results of particular actions as well as the personal and private failures and successes of the characters. Jan, for instance, never talks and never reveals any information to the Germans, and eventually pays for it, ending up buried in an unmarked grave in the sand dunes near the coast. Guus and Erik eventually make it to England where they work for the Resistance, both eventually crossing back into Holland with the goal of bringing out important people for post-war Holland as well as tasked with the idea of spreading rumors about the imminent Allied invasion of the continent, hoping to mislead the enemy into thinking the invasion might occur on the Dutch coast. As one British officer comments, it’s not important whether or not they return or die as long as they help further the cause of misinformation regarding the invasion.

And so, while the machinery of war marches on heartlessly, using up and discarding the people caught up in the struggle, those people continue to live and survive as best they can—as dupes, as collaborators, as fighters against oppression. The plot, such as it is, is one of survival through the war and the struggle to reclaim Holland and eventually the European continent, all told through the lives, actions, and thoughts of these characters.

Soldaat van Oranje is not a character-driven movie. We see, for instance, Erik graduate from college with a law degree, but that degree never really enters into the film otherwise. He could have just as easily had any other degree for all of the impact this makes on the narrative. In fact, based on circumstances, many of these characters could be swapped out for each other. While it might be a stretch to see, for example, Erik donning an SS uniform as Alex does, it’s not a difficult think to envision him trapped in the same sort of conflict as Robby and thus acting as Robby does.

That, certainly, is a part of the point of this film, but this is not a film with a deep or important message. The story is what’s important here, the story of the struggle and of survival against these terrible conditions and odds. Throughout, there is less a sense of duty and urgency and more a sense of fate in the proceedings. Esther, at the end of the film, her hair cut short to mark her as a collaborator, holds no grudge and shrugs about her treatment. She and Robby did what they did to survive, just as everyone else who survived did.

There’s plenty of action and intrigue in this film, which is probably why it seems shorter on character and longer on events. It’s also another reason why it feels so familiar to me, like those films I mentioned back at the start. What people do here is far more important than who is doing them. The actions are critical, and in many ways independent of the characters.

If I have a complaint, it’s that everything wraps up too quickly—not an easy thing to say for a film that runs about 2 ½ hours. Erik, though, desperate to fly for the RAF, only gets into a cockpit with about 15 minutes left. It’s almost as if Verhoeven ran out of film or was told to keep the film under a certain length, so he cut half an hour from near the end and shoehorned a year of war into 15 minutes. In many ways, I’d have loved to have seen this as a mini-series of 4-6 hours in length where the full scope of the story and the characters could be given room to breathe and stretch, but I’ll take it and enjoy it for the ripping yarn it is.

Why to watch Soldaat van Oranje: A classic tale of World War II.
Why not to watch: After a sweeping story, it all wraps up far too fast.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Billy Budd

Film: Beau Travail
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I’m continuing with the all-internet video all the time program for the moment, although I have to assume that I’ll continue to bust through NetFlix DVDs as they show up—otherwise, I’m just wasting money. Still, I’m finding this an interesting process at the moment. I’m watching things that most people don’t based simply on availability at the moment, and in some ways, it feels like I’m blazing a sort of trail. Beau Travail is a film that is currently unavailable on NetFlix, and not available in my various library systems, meaning it’s yet another that leaves me at the whims of internet availability.

This is an odd duck of a film, a modern military film that doesn’t touch on a war. Instead, we see troops training and patrolling, practicing, doing mock drills, and fighting. There is a sense of military school in this film, although the soldiers are not of school age. Oddly, the film that I am most put in mind of in scenes like this is Shaolin Master Killer with the endless training and drilling.

The story here is a very simple one. We are told the tale in flashback through the eyes of a man named Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup recalls his time in the French Foreign Legion, working and drilling his men in the heat and dust of Djibouti under the tutelage of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). It’s evident that Galoup desperately wants the approval of his superior, and that while he is well thought of, he’s not thought of that often.

The trouble starts with the arrival of a soldier named Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup’s world changes in significant ways with the arrival of this new soldier. Sentain good looking, dedicated, and well-liked among the men. He also proves himself to be exceptionally brave when he saves victims from a helicopter crash nearby the legionnaires’ camp. All of this would seem to be a good thing, but in the mind of Galoup, it is not. It quickly becomes evident that there is a great deal at work here. Galoup is threatened by the young man, threatened for very specific reasons. First, Sentain is an excellent soldier. More significantly, it’s equally evident that Galoup is attracted to the young man, and this sends a jolt through the man’s world.

Certainly there is a great deal of homoeroticism in the film. This is due in no small part to the frequent shots of lines of men exercising with their shirts off, grappling, embracing and otherwise training. Many of the most masculine activities have this touch to them, whether intentional or not, and it’s most certainly intentional here. There is no other purpose for the relative close-ups of half-naked men stretching for minutes at a clip.

Because Sentain is such a threat to him, Galoup reacts out of his own fear and pain, sabotaging the man at every opportunity. He channels his attraction to the younger man into a sort of burning hatred, convinced that Sentain is set to destroy him and dedicated to the idea of destroying him first. So, when Sentain falls afoul of military discipline, Galoup has his chance to act, sending him off into the desert with a broken compass in the hopes that he will die of exposure, thus freeing Galoup from his presence.

That’s really the whole film. As you might expect, this is a slow movie. Anything like an action sequence is really nothing more than a training montage. Additionally, the drama here is entirely internal and never fully expressed outwardly. We’re left to divine everything for ourselves, even the basic attraction that drives the slim narrative to its conclusion.

Beau Travail is tragic in the traditional sense in that it tells the story of a man destroyed by his own inner character defect. Galoup’s actions are beyond his own control, and while he is not forced to act by any traditional measure, he is also powerless to prevent his own acting.

This is not an easy film. The narrative is sparse, as is the dialogue. Instead, the story is told through glances and camera angles, through the looks given by one character to another and through anything that we can gain by what we infer. It is filmed beautifully, and fans of cinematography will not even need the story to find this film worth watching. For the rest of us, the simple story simply told and the rather surprising and bizarre ending make for an unforgettable film experience.

If you're of a literary bent, Beau Travail owes a great deal to Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I don't remember as much homoeroticism in that work, but it certainly wouldn't be out of place on board a military ship out to sea for months at a time.

Why to watch Beau Travail: A visual feast.
Why not to watch: Not much happens.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Malaise

Film: Astenichenskiy Sindrom (The Asthenic Syndrome)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I started looking through my bookmarks today to check out some of the films I’ve found on the internet. As it happens, Sunday tends to be a good day for me to watch something on the laptop because I’m not teaching and have been pretty good about getting my work graded quickly. Unfortunately for me, I discovered today that a number of films that I had found and bookmarked have since been removed—all within the last couple of weeks. So it looks like I’ll be burning through as many that remain as possible in the weeks ahead, just to avoid having to search for them again. Of these, I selected Astenichenskiy Sindrom (The Asthenic Syndrom) for today for one particular reason.

That reason is simple, and perhaps does not speak particularly well of my desire to watch this film. I can’t claim this is a film I’ve been wanting to watch. But when I first started looking for some of the more unusual films on The List, this was the one that seemed in many ways the most difficult to find and the most exotic. That’s not true, obviously; there are several dozen I have yet to locate, but mentally and emotionally, finding and watching this film feels like achieving the impossible, or at least the highly unlikely.

Kira Muratova’s film is…well, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s also almost impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, so you can expect a spoiler tag very soon. Our film begins in black-and-white. A man is being buried, and his widow, a woman named Natasha (Olga Antonova) reacts to this in an extreme way. She becomes alternately aggressive and completely passive to the point of catatonia. Her life, essentially, ceases to have any meaning or purpose. She attacks anyone who comes near her, resigns from her hospital job and burns that bridge by overtly insulting everyone she worked with including her boss. At one point, she grabs a drunk off the street for sex, then kicks him out of her apartment. In one of the more disturbing scenes, she stands in her kitchen, slowly pushing wine glasses off the table and listening to them shatter, an act aggressive in nature but passive in the way she does it. And then…

*** GO TO SLEEP ***

We discover suddenly that all of this has been a movie. The first forty minutes of this film are actually a film within this film. The actress walks out on stage to take questions from the audience only to discover that the audience is leaving en masse and that no one cares to ask her anything. We’ve been scammed for forty minutes, sort of—everything that we’ve invested in so far is a fiction within the fiction. It was all to set the stage and the theme for our main story.

*** WAKE UP ***

The rest of the film concerns Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a teacher who suddenly discovers himself unable to stay awake. He falls asleep in almost any situation. We see him first asleep in a crowded theater, then asleep in the middle of a busy concourse of a Moscow subway. Eventually, someone drags him out of the main path for foot traffic, propping him against a wall, only to leave him sleeping peacefully in a sort of extended narcolepsy. And in what will come to be a theme for the film as it continues, many who encounter Nikolai begin yawning, as if his sudden narcolepsy is contagious.

This contagion of sleepiness becomes the central theme of the film, which takes place in Glasnost-era Russia. Nikolai’s students don’t care about the English lessons he gives them, and it’s evident that he doesn’t care much about them (the lessons or the students), either. There is an overall feeling of listlessness and ennui over virtually everyone in the film. There is a grayness that permeates the proceedings—even the part of the film in color might as well be in the pseudo-sepia of the opening forty minutes. The title evidently refers to a sort of hypochondria, but really, it seems much more like a general malaise, and it’s universal. We see the kids in Nikolai’s class not paying attention, chatting with each other. Later, we see the teachers in a meeting doing the same thing.

So what is Muratova trying to say here? Is this an indictment on Glasnost? Probably, but it seems like it’s more general than that, as if there is an inherent laziness and indifference in the entirety of modern life, as if we are all seeing the world through a dirty filter. I do not know if this is a film that I can honestly say that I enjoyed; it might well be impossible to truly enjoy this film. It is an impressive film, though, one that works on multiple levels. There are sudden bursts of violent action throughout the film that are strange and shocking, made all the more terrible by witnesses simply observing and doing nothing to prevent it. There is a pervasive sickness at work here, a contagious insanity that infects everything it touches in this film world.

It’s worth noting that this film was the only Russian-made film banned in Glasnost-era Russia. It’s a film that should be seen by more people despite its daunting length and subject matter. However, I imagine it’s also a film that many people will find too trying or too slow to fully consume. That’s not a film snob comment, by the way. There have been plenty of films on this list that flew straight over my head. I think in this case, I’m simply more attuned to the message Muratova wanted to get across.

As a final note, there are some scenes near the end that are extremely upsetting, particularly if you are an animal lover.

If this is one you need, go here: The Asthenic Syndrome.

Why to watch Astenichenskiy Sindrom: It expresses something almost impossible to express.
Why not to watch: The start is there just to mess with you.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

Film: Dodsworth
Format: Internet video on laptop.

It occurs to me that in poor economic times, movies often reflect both the economic realities of the day as well as the fantasy. It seems that when I think of movies made during the Great Depression, for instance, most of them seem to feature the uber-wealthy. It’s almost as if these films offered a sort of money porn for the downtrodden. It also seems often as if the problems that occur in this films are the sort that plague only the wealthy and not the rank and file rest of us. And then, suddenly and out of nowhere for me in this collection of films about rich people being rich, comes a film like Dodsworth.

Our hero, Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the owner of a large automobile company, and as the film starts, he has sold it off to another company, effectively retiring. He’s decided, as many wealthy retirees might, to take this opportunity to travel to Europe with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) for a sort of second honeymoon. But the ship over presents us with a few hitches in the Dodsworths’ plans. Fran, it soon becomes evident, is younger than her husband, and is desperately afraid of being old before her time. We get inklings of this in her encounters with Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven), who romances Mrs. Dodsworth rather unsuccessfully, and forces the couple to France instead of England thanks to her potential embarrassment.

And things don’t change in Paris. Here, she encounters Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), a wealthy financier, who picks up where Lockert left off. This time, Fran is swept off her feet and she decides that she likes it in Paris, in no small part because of the presence of Iselin. Sam decides that he’s had enough, and returns home while his wife is left in the company of the man trying to steal her away. Once home, Sam becomes lost in his life without his wife around and confused by her lack of communication with him. Her returns to Europe to confront her and essentially offers her the chance to save their marriage by leaving with him for another part of Europe immediately. Again, she goes with him. The mood changes when he reveals that their recently-married daughter is pregnant, and Fran is overwhelmed with excitement until that moment when he says the word she dreads—grandparent.

The night of the child’s birth, when Sam and Fran are in Vienna, she forces him to hide the news from Baron Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) and Sam complies. He also spends the night in, allowing the baron to escort his wife out for the evening. Three is a charm, of course, so when Kurt confesses his love for her, Fran decides that this time it’s the real deal. She tells Sam that she will divorce him and marry the baron, living on in Europe as a part of the minor nobility and setting Sam spiritually adrift once again.

And so he travels, but never discovers precisely how he wants to live. In Italy he runs into Mrs. Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a young divorcee living in Italy because it is cheap. He remembers her from his first crossing to Italy, and it’s evident that he is immediately smitten with her. Lacking direction and now on the verge of divorce, he moves into her house, deciding not to care what her neighbors think. Then Fran’s impending marriage to the baron falls through, leaving Sam with a quandary. Does he return to the life he had and the wife he loves despite her evident penchant for infidelity? Or does he remain with the woman who has discovered a better way to live, a woman truly alive and in the moment rather than simply running after her own faded youth?

Dodsworth is a film that could have quickly become melodramatic and maudlin, but it resists this temptation throughout. It does so in the best way possible—by presenting real characters with real emotions and who truly experience the passions and joys and problems expressed in the film. Sam Dodsworth may well be a wealthy industrialist at the start of the film, and there’s no loss of opulence as he travels around Europe or strides through his home library, which is roughly the size of my entire house. Regardless of this, he is at heart a real and simple man attempting to discover a meaning for his existence in his world post-career. Sam is not pathetic by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he’s decent and caring. But he’s also vulnerable and fallible as a person, and easily wounded.

This more than anything is what surprised me about this film. Rather than fall victim to the standard Hollywood tropes, Dodsworth attempts to depict real people going through real emotional struggles, dealing with the pain and frustration of the couple growing apart and their marriage splintering as they realize that they both need and want different things from life, and that each one is incapable of giving the other what he or she needs. It’s poignant and painful, and very, very human.

I can’t say that I’m gobsmacked by this film, but five minutes in, I thought I was in for the standard “It’s good by old Hollywood standards” trope fest. By 15 minutes, I was hooked and buying into it completely. It’s as good and as true as story as you’ll find in any film, and it plays straight with the viewer as well as its characters. A higher compliment, I cannot give.

Why to watch Dodsworth: A story that aims for painful reality rather than Hollywood feel-good.
Why not to watch: Sometimes it seems like old Hollywood thought that only the wealthy could manage to have non-monetary problems.

Friday, April 13, 2012

One Hell of a Poker Hand

Film: Three Kings; Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)
Format: DVD from personal collection (Three Kings) and from Rockford Public Library (Nueve Reinas) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I sort of remember when Three Kings was released. I remember it got pretty good reviews overall, but I never really had any strong desire to watch it. Then it turned up on The List, and when I encountered a copy for sale for a couple of dollars, and knowing I’d have to watch it eventually, I picked it up. Eventually finally turned up today.

The film takes place during the waning days of the first Iraqi war. We encounter (despite the sort of misleading name of the film) a quartet of American soldiers getting ready to rotate back home. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a new father who just wants to get back to his new baby. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, far better known as a director) is a guy who never graduated from high school, and idolizes Barlow and everything he does. We also have Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), who is officious and just wants to get himself out of the war in one piece. Finally, there is Archie Gates (George Clooney), who has rank and good looks, is tasked with leading around a press correspondent named Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), but who is leaking her stories and having sex with other reporters on the side.

The plot takes off when Barlow discovers a map stuck into the rectum of a surrendering Iraqi soldier. The map evidently shows the location of several compounds controlled by Saddam Hussein and reported to be loaded with the various treasures he removed from Kuwait during his invasion. Naturally, this sets Barlow, his constant companion Vig, and Chief Elgin to thinking. But when Cruz gets wind of the map (and thus Gates finds out about it), everything kicks into high.

Basically, Gates shows up and takes over. His plan isn’t to liberate a couple of televisions and cell phones, but to locate the millions of dollars worth of gold bullion that Hussein was alleged to have stolen with the idea of liberating it for himself. He works out a plan with the other three, engages another soldier (Jamie Kennedy) to get his press contact off his back, and the four proceed to head off in a Hum-Vee to see what they can see. And, not too long after they start looking, they find the gold. They also find quite a bit more. They find refugees, who will be killed by Hussein’s troops as soon as they leave. And so a deal is struck—the refugees help them carry the millions in heavy gold bullion, and they get the refugees to the Iranian border and safety.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple, especially in the demilitarized area of a warzone in a movie, and there are plenty of complications, live fire, deaths, and a little bit of torture. Despite all of this, the film is relatively straightforward from start to finish. The twists and turns here come not from double crosses, but from attacks of conscience and from people making the decision between doing what they want and ultimately doing what is right. All of our main characters make this choice at least once, deciding essentially what the lives of these Iraqi refugees is worth in a very literal sense.

I liked Three Kings, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies list. It’s a good film, and one that makes an interesting point about the war in which it takes place. It’s difficult these days to make a war film that doesn’t make some sort of political point, and Three Kings is no different in that respect. The troops, eventually, feel responsible for the suffering and the survival of the Iraqi people because the joint military forces stopped short of the removal of Hussein from power, leaving those people to his not-so-tender mercies in the aftermath. In other words, these troops defy orders to do precisely what the American military failed to do in the war. There’s no question that this was the intended message here.

Russell frequently plays with the way the film plays out, reducing one action sequence to slow motion and momentary still frames. It’s an interesting effect. Rather than showing a melee, he shows one man shooting, then the results of that shot, then the next and the next until the shooting stops. It’s a fascinating scene, but the use of this technique is too infrequent in the film to be more than a simple trick. At several times, he takes us inside the human body to show us what is happening, and here he depicts the human organs in a variety of bright colors that offer the suggestion of biology with all of the reality of an expensive plastic museum display. It’s odd and mildly off-putting, as if he wanted to be edgy without offering offense.

Three Kings isn’t a bad movie, but it’s also not really a great one.

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a film I knew nothing about going in, and that I selected only for the royal similarity in the name. As it turns out, though, there is a distinct similarity between these two films despite having nothing in common on the surface. This film is far more akin to a modern Argentinean version of The Sting than anything else, and had I known that, I might have saved it for a conman/crime spree double feature. However, I didn’t and went with a pairing based on titles alone. I just happened to get lucky in that both films involve a plot that is at least marginally about acquiring and moving merchandise of great value.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time conman scamming convenience stores for a few bucks at a time. He’s caught by who he thinks is a cop, but who actually turns out to be Marcos (Ricardo Darin), another conman who is more sophisticated and experienced. Marcos, used to working with a partner, decides to take Juan under his wing, and the two pull off a couple of scams around Buenos Aries. We discover that Juan needs the money to bribe a judge for his father, which is why he is scamming everyone and everything he can. And then a massive scam falls into their laps.

A former associate of Marcos, a man named Sandler (Oscar Nunez) has a scam set up that is perfect. A man named Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal) is being deported. As it happens, Gandolfo is fabulously wealthy and is an inveterate stamp collector. Sandler has access to a set of rare stamps from the Weimar Republic. These stamps, called the Nine Queens, are worth a fortune, and while he can’t actually get his hands on the real thing, he’s been able to create a near perfect forgery. With Gandolfo leaving the country the next day, he’s got to sell him the forgery now, but his health won’t let him. Enter Marcos and Juan to pull off the deal.

Of course, there are a lot of hurdles in the way here. The first and biggest is that Gandolfo is staying at the hotel where Marcos’s sister Valeria (Leticia Bredice) works. The two are at odds with each other because Marcos has cheated her and their younger brother out of their inheritance. The appraiser who verifies the Nine Queens wants his cut for passing off the forgery as the real thing. Gandolfo decides that he’d rather have sex with Valeria as part of the deal. And Marcos attempts to screw Juan on the deal at every opportunity, naturally enough.

This film is very much like The Sting, although its sense of humor comes from a very different place. This film is grittier and a lot more sardonic, mainly. It becomes difficult to take anything at face value, which naturally makes those things that happen at face value that much more effective.

This is a clever film, and a film that is carefully plotted to within an inch of its life. Throughout, we get only enough information to keep us invested in the plot. Everything makes sense during the entire running time, and each of the various plot twists continue to make sense all the way along. And yet despite this, the ending is impossible to guess. Every time something happens, there’s no way to know if it’s really happening or just another machination from Marcos or Juan.

Worth watching? Absolutely yes. The performances are well done all the way through, and the film is a real pleasure to watch. Director Fabian Bielinsky doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy here, but he’s also smart enough to stay out of the way of the film and the actors and let the plot play out. Nueve Reinas is all about the plot—the actors and characters are almost secondary, and only Marcos (and perhaps Valeria) are really memorable here. But that doesn’t matter at all because the plot is good enough that it’s all we really want anyway.

Why to watch Three Kings: A war story with actual heart.
Why not to watch: Day-Glo innards.

Why to watch Nueve Reinas: A con game of the highest quality.
Why not to watch: How enticing do you typically find stamp collecting?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Cheerful Touch of Misogyny

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

I have a friend named Lori who loves musicals. Loves them to death. She gets mad at me when I complain about musicals. Then again, she’s more cinematically limited than I am, in that there are a good dozen genres she won’t watch. Anyway, every now and again I talk to her about the stuff that I’m watching. When musicals on The List came up, she flat out told me I shouldn’t watch Gigi. It wasn’t because she didn’t think I’d like it. It’s because she absolutely hates it. Lori was right.

Hate isn’t a word that I bandy about loosely, either when writing about film or talking about anything else, and it’s probably too strong a word for my feelings about this film. It’s safe to say, though, that I really didn’t like it, and I had a difficulties paying attention to it at times. It’s a film that features the sort of joyful misogyny that only a musical from the ‘40s or ‘50s can. That, more than anything, is my biggest problem with the film.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

She is Risen!

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

A few days ago, I tried to get a little ahead on my movie watching, so I plugged in Volver. I managed to get about 20 minutes in before I turned it off. I just couldn’t get into it. I tried again today, and I’m happy to say that my inability to watch this film the other night rests entirely on my shoulders, and is not the problem of the film. I enjoyed it far more than my initial foray would have had me guess.

This is not to say that the film is without its problems. It has a major one that’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the entire film. I’m going to try, but you can assume there will be a spoiler tag coming up in the near future. Anyway, regardless of the problems of this film, it has one major plus going for it: Penelope Cruz. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call her a favorite of mine; in addition to being very easy to look at, she’s also extremely talented, and Volver is plenty of evidence of that.

Raimunda (Cruz) returns to the village of her birth to take care of the gravestone of her parents, who died in a fire. She is with her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas). While in town, they visit their friend Augustine (Blanca Portillo) and their aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). Tia Paula is old, becoming infirm, and not sure what decade she is living in any more. She seems to be hallucinating, claiming that Raimunda’s and Sole’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura) has returned from the dead and lives with her, helping around the house.

They return to Madrid, and the film takes a strange left turn. Raimunda’s husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) claims that Paula is not his daughter and tries to molest her, and Paula reacts by killing him. Raimunda works to clean up the mess only to find that Tia Paula has died, and that she has been charged with selling off the restaurant of an old boss. While she disposes of Paco’s body by placing him in a freezer in the restaurant, Sole returns for Paula’s funeral and discovers that her mother’s spirit now appears to her and follows her to Madrid.

And, to add more fun to the mix, we learn that Augustine has cancer and is terminal. All she wants is to discover what has happened to her mother, who disappeared on the same day that Raimunda’s parents died in the fire. There’s enough here to figure out exactly what happened, but to talk about it, we need that spoiler tag I mentioned earlier.

*** DO NOT REVEAL THE SECRET ENDING! ***

Okay, so Raimunda’s mother isn’t dead. She was never dead. It turns out that Augustine’s mother was having an affair with Raimunda’s father. Worse, he also molested Raimunda, and young Paula is both her daughter and her sister (following Chinatown and followed by Precious). When she discovered this, Irene burned the house down, then vanished, and has appeared as a “spirit” ever since. All she really wants is to reconcile with her children, particularly Raimunda, who was so badly wronged.

As much as this was supposed to be a big reveal, though, I didn’t buy it for a second. As soon as Irene showed up, I knew who she was, and I knew she wasn’t dead. I didn’t put all of the pieces together, but I did figure out that she was alive from the first moment. She didn’t look like a phantom, for instance, and she had far too many physical characteristics. She was solid. She was capable of working for Soledad, for instance, and when she travelled to Madrid, she did so inside Sole’s trunk. In short, she didn’t act like a ghost at all.

It leaves me in a strange position. See, I rather liked this movie for the simple fact that I got that the spirit thing was an act. I don’t know how much it was supposed to work as something I didn’t get, because I wasn’t really fooled by it. The problem with that is that it immediately calls into question the essential intelligence of everyone in the film with the exception of Raimunda, who sees through the ruse immediately.

*** OKAY. WE’RE DONE HERE ***

The major problem with Volver is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s a whole subplot, for instance, about the restaurant that Raimunda tries to sell for her former boss. A movie crew working in the area decides that evidently it’s the only restaurant in all of Madrid that they can eat at, so Raimunda opens it up specifically for them. Why? While this offered us a few plot points, and gave us a temporary place for the body of Paco, it felt in many ways like padding.

Regardless, it’s well acted and surprisingly entertaining. I do love me some Penelope Cruz, and Blanca Portillo is an absolute find, and is my favorite non-Penelope character in the film. It’s worth seeing for the depth of the relationships of the characters, but I can’t help but think I’d have liked it more if it could have decided what exactly it wanted to be and simply focused on that rather than trying for so much real life that didn’t intercept with the plot.

Why to watch Volver: Because it stars Penelope Cruz.
Why not to watch: It’s not sure what it wants to be.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Painful Delivery

Film: Bringing Up Baby
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m going to say something relatively controversial here—Bringing Up Baby annoyed the living shit out of me. There. I said it, and I’ll say it again if I have to.

I really didn’t expect this. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors, I’ve always liked Katherine Hepburn, and I even like Howard Hawks pretty well. This film is in many ways the birthplace of the screwball comedy, and so I came to it expecting to love every frame. Instead, 15 minutes in, I was ready to turn off the player and walk away from it. I. Am. Annoyed.

The reason is because Bringing Up Baby manages to do everything that a screwball comedy does, and does it all in a way that makes me angry. It gets all of the pieces right, but combines them into an annoying whole. Screwball comedies trade on the idea that crazy things happen in the lives of its characters mainly because of mixed-up communication. Because they are comedies, everything works out in the end, but it’s a long time getting there because of the trips and hiccups along the way.

In the case of this film, all of this falls squarely in the lap of Susan (Hepburn). It caused me to consider what makes this film different in my opinion from the typical screwball comedy that I tend to enjoy, and it comes in the form of Susan, the spoiled little rich girl who stands at the heart of all of the problems.

See, in many a screwball, things happen as a matter of course in the proceedings of the plot. Things get mixed up because of miscommunications or mistaken identities. That’s the source of Top Hat, for instance. One person thinks someone is someone else, and through a number of missed chances, continues to think that. And it works. Often, the zaniness is there for a specific reason. In The Philadelphia Story, for instance, Katherine Hepburn puts on an act as a way to shoo the press off of her. Sometimes, like with His Girl Friday, the characters simply get caught up in something above their heads. It’s not the fault of the characters, who are smart and funny.

But not here. Oh, not here at all. Here, our main female character is clueless and walks through life causing havoc for other people and not caring enough to realize what a complete menace she is. This isn’t an endearing trait. She steals people’s cars at random, destroys a man’s life’s work, potentially damages his professional reputation, and, because there has never been a single consequence of any of her actions ever, is oblivious to the fact that her actions are almost universally destructive. And we’re supposed to root for her.

Dr. David Huxley (Grant) has been working on the skeleton of a brontosaurus for four years and needs only a bone called an intercoastal clavicle to finish. Finally, one has been found on a dig he has sponsored, and it will arrive in the morning, which also happens to be the day he is to be married to his priggish and emotionally cold assistant, Alice (Virginia Walker). The day before the wedding, he is to play golf with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), the lawyer of the wealthy Elizabeth Random, who is planning on donating $1 million somewhere. David, naturally, wants that money to go to his museum.

Enter Susan, who destroys the golf game, wrecks David’s car and then steals it, destroys his tuxedo that evening, and knocks the lawyer unconscious with a rock. She also receives a live leopard from her brother in Brazil, and deciding that David is a zoologist rather than a paleontologist, recruits him to help her. And, naturally, it turns out that the wealthy Elizabeth is her aunt. This doesn’t help, as she proceeds to destroy David’s reputation with the woman who can support his museum. Oh, and she decides that she’s madly in love with him to boot.

And, of course, there are the screwball antics that make the screwball comedy work otherwise—Elizabeth’s dog steals the bone (despite the fact that it would be petrified and unappealing to a dog unless the dog also likes rocks). The baby of the title—the leopard—gets out and causes havoc, and everyone eventually ends up in jail.

Through all of this, Susan is blissfully unaware of anyone but herself. Nothing that she does to David (and she does a lot) matters to her because it either serves her purposes or—and this is the key to my aggravation here—she doesn’t care enough to find out why it matters. No one can tell her anything, and it’s not because she knows better. It’s simply because she doesn’t care. She does what she wants, and if she’s not in trouble for it, damn the carnage and collateral damage. I know there are people who live in their own little bubble of self-satisfaction, caring nothing about what goes on farther away than three feet in front of them. I don’t like being told that this is someone I should like and respect. I don’t like this character, I don’t want her to get what she wants, and the predictable ending only makes it more frustrating.

The entire love story turns on this attitude, in fact. She decides that she loves David, and thus the poor man is doomed. He doesn’t get to have a say in it. Should he decide that he could justifiably kill her, it doesn’t matter. She gets what she wants because she just does, and if you don’t like that, too bad. That’s the world she lives in, and collateral damage doesn’t matter as long as her life continues blissfully unaware of consequence.

In other words, I’d have been happier if Baby had eaten her.

Why to watch Bringing Up Baby: It’s where screwball comedy really got its start.
Why not to watch: Holy crap, Susan is annoying!