Thursday, February 28, 2013

Forbidden Fruit

Film: Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (Spring in a Small Town)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on far less kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s been a fairly consistent effort on my part for more than a year to watch the earliest films on The List regularly. This actually has nothing to do with wanting to get past these films. It has everything to do with context. While I certainly haven’t shied away from the more recent films, I think I have a much better sense of these films having watched more from the earlier years. Today, I close out the 1940s (for now) with Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (Spring in a Small Town).

This film was originally banned in its native China, although it is available now. I guess I can’t really be surprised that the film was banned during the political reign of Mao Zedong. This is the guy who, after all, attempted to destroy the past and erase the history of Chinese culture as being meaningless. Since its rediscovery, Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is widely regarded as one of the great films of Chinese history. But it’s also sort of decadent in a Western/bourgeoisie sense, and I imagine that didn’t sit well with Chairman Mao.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For Me, that Something is Pain

Film: There’s Something About Mary
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I was worried when, in the opening five minutes of There’s Something About Mary that it appeared that a person with some form of mental disability was going to be made into a stooge for some unpleasant humor. I mean, there’s bad taste and then there’s really bad taste. I don’t mind some humor that edges past the boundaries of good taste, but getting the mentally disabled guy beaten up in the first few minutes of your film? There are places you just don’t go.

Fortunately, we don’t go there. That’s the only place the Farrelly Brothers don’t go in There’s Something About Mary. Anything else is on the table. My guess is that almost everyone reading this has seen this film, so I won’t go too much into detail here. I will say that I have a history with this film. My history is that the first (and only, prior to today) time I tried to watch it, I walked out less than an hour in. That doesn’t bode well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

All That Glitters

Film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The first 20 minutes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a master’s class on how to set up characters and plot. We meet Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), a down on his luck American stuck in Tampico begging for money from other Americans. When he finally finds a job with fellow down-and-outer Curtin (Tim Holt) from a man named McCormick (Barton MacLane), they discover that McCormick is a known cheat who always finds a way to avoid paying his workers. They learn about the fever of gold prospecting from an old timer named Howard (Walter Huston). And they confront McCormick and beat him senseless, taking only what they are owed. In this 20 minutes, we learn that our two men are desperate, still honest, tough, and that the idea of finding gold has been firmly planted in their heads.

Our trio heads off into the wilds of Mexico to see if they can locate some of the magical metal that changes hearts and lives. Dobbs and Curtin are initially of the opinion that they’ll be carrying Howard on their back, but Howard proves to be more than able to carry his own weight. In fact, he appears to be in the best shape. After a run-in with fool’s gold and other problems of the Mexican wilderness, they find what they’re looking for—gold dust mixed in with the dirt. They set up camp, build a sluice and a mine, and start digging.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Enjoy the Sauce

Film: Do Ma Daan (Peking Opera Blues)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Okay, I’ve seen some weird shit in my lifetime, but few things as completely nonsensical as Do Ma Daan (Peking Opera Blues). I mean, I’ve seen Eraserhead and Liquid Sky, and both of those films made way more sense than this one did. I’m not even sure where to begin. I typically spend some time rehashing the plot to help make sense of the film and to highlight particular aspects of it, but with this film, I have nowhere to begin. Here’s a quick synopsis: stuff happens.

Because of this, what you are reading may well be the shortest review I’ve ever written, because without a plot that makes any sense, I have only the performances (such as I can make sense of them), the action sequences, and what evidently passes for comedy in mid-‘80s China. There are some pretty funny moments, I’ll admit. But there’s also an incredible amount of unintended humor created by the single worst subtitle track I have ever seen in my life.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

All Singing, All Dancing

Film: On the Town; An American in Paris
Format: VHS (On the Town) and DVD (An American in Paris) from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

Sing the refrain with me, folks: I don’t like musicals that much. I have, however, been very good about crossing them off my list. In fact, I think I’ve crossed off all but a few after today. I try very hard to take each one for what it is and I always want to like whatever I watch. Sadly, I have a feeling I’m going to catch some hell for disliking On the Town (I’m looking at you, Siobhan). This is a musical that hits every main point a musical needs to please the fans of the genre. What I mean by that is that it’s more than just the people singing and dancing that make this a most musical of musicals. Its attitude, situation, and wacky hijinks throughout place this firmly into its genre.

Ready for the plot rehash? Three sailors get a 24-hour leave in New York. Two of them find girls to spend the day with immediately while the third creates a fantasy girl for himself, then finds her, then loses her, and spends most of the day trying to get her back. That and a shit-ton of singing and dancing are the whole film.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Did He or Didn't He?

Film: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Think just for a moment about John Wayne. You can see him, right? You can hear him talking, right? I’d guess there’s a 50/50 chance that you’re imagining him calling somebody “Pilgrim.” If that’s the John Wayne mental stereotype you’ve pictured (it certainly is for me), you have The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to thank for that mental picture. He says that word probably more than any other in this film.

I’ve mentioned my relationship with Westerns in the past, but I’ll sum it up here for reference. Few genres of film are so likely to fall into cliché as the Western, which means that for a lot of them, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen a ton. This also means that Westerns that manage to get away from cliché or do something more than show us six-guns and horses have the potential to be extremely interesting. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is such a film, because it plays with those Western conventions and gives us something different from good guy-bad guy to think about.

Friday, February 22, 2013

One After Another

Film: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer; Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen (Aileen); streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Henry).

I’ve known for a couple of years that when I got to either of today’s films I’d watch them on the same day; they’re a natural double feature based on the titles if nothing else. I’ve put them off until now mostly because I was nervous about one of them and didn’t have a great deal of interest in the other. Still, I’m running out of films, and with February being a down month for me in general, it was time to knock them out. While both films (obviously) deal with serial killers, they couldn’t be more different.

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is a documentary about the title character, the first convicted female serial killer in American jurisprudence history. It is one of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever seen in that it would seem to be tailor-made to be a lurid story, but it’s not. Rather than focusing on the seven murders Wuornos was accused of (she was ultimately convicted of six), it instead focuses on the people around her, many of whom decided to associate with her specifically to make money from her crimes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On

Film: Once
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

I’ve finally figured out why I really don’t like romantic comedies. I’ve always thought it was because they set up unreal expectations. The romantic gestures that eventually get the girl at the end of the movie are the kind of thing that would get a typical guy arrested and slapped with a restraining order in the real world. There’s also the idea that women in most romantic comedies, no matter how accomplished and successful they may be, are failures simply because they don’t have a man in their life. But I’ve finally figured it out.

The reason I’ve figured it out is because I watched Once, which is not a romantic comedy, but a romance that features a lot of music and some really good performances from actors I’ve never seen before. And here’s the thing—what makes this film work is that I genuinely like these characters. They sell the story, they sell the film. Ultimately, Once has led me to figuring out that the main reason I don’t like romantic comedies is that I genuinely don’t like the characters. They almost always come off as smarmy, stupid, arrogant, spoiled, and unpleasant. Contrast that with this film, where the characters are sweet, natural, and likeable. I also appreciate it when a romance ends on a down note. Sure, I like some that end happy, but I like the sad ones more (Amelie and a few others are notable exceptions).

Bible Stories

Film: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

This one is going to be rough. Keeping in mind that I do my best to maintain an open mind for all films, it is impossible not to pre-judge some films. I knew going in to Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) that it was a biblical story following the life of Christ. Despite my lack of belief, I’m okay with this. I’m happy to watch something in which I have no spiritual investment. Plenty of films of religious impact have impacted me regardless of my beliefs. No, the problem with Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo is that it is an almost direct interpretation of the biblical gospel, including a great deal of dialogue taken directly from scripture.

It would be easy to suggest that this is cause of my problem here, and it is, but not for the reason you may think. No, the problem is that it’s nothing new. Hell, I grew up going to church and spending Sunday afternoons in youth group meetings. I know about the Sermon on the Mount and the loaves and fishes. I’m aware of the stories of healing lepers and cripples and the water into wine. Pasolini’s film is less an interpretation of these stories and more the most direct and literal version of the gospel that he could manage to present. It’s just miracle-miracle-miracle, platitude-platitude-platitude, crucifixion, resurrection. Seriously, if have any background in Christianity, you know these stories and can almost feel what is coming next.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Off Script: Re-Animator

Film: Re-Animator
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m trying to remember the first time I saw Re-Animator. I’m sure I was too young to watch it, and I’m almost positive that I watched it with my brother Tom. I’m pretty sure that Tom rented this from the old video store strictly based on the box art, which featured one of the greatest taglines in B-movie history: “Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders…and another one on his desk!” Needless to say, both of us loved it. We loved the campy fun of it, the gore, the great one-liners, and everything else. Of course, this was in the pre-internet days, and neither of us knew that we were diving head-first into what has become one of the great cult horror films of the 1980s. I recently re-watched The Breakfast Club, which I consider one of my favorite and one of the best films from 1985. I’d be lying if I said something different about Re-Animator.

The story is based roughly on a short story by the great H.P. Lovecraft. It’s one of his stories that doesn’t deal with the Great Elder Gods and C’Thulhu and all the rest. No, in this case it’s bringing back dead people, re-animated corpses, and life after death. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a medical student investigating the line between life and death. He arrives at Miskatonic University, where he soon makes a name for himself. First, he shows open contempt to Professor Carl Hill (David Gale) and his beliefs on brain stem death. Second, West moves in with star pupil Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who is currently dating Megan Halsey (B-movie queen Barbara Crampton), daughter of Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Casualties of War

Film: Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

If you get it into your head that war is a noble pursuit, I can list off a number of films that will do their best to convince you otherwise. Up to now, the film at the front of that list would have been Idi i Smotri, but now it finds itself sanding side-by-side with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games). Both of these films take place during World War II. More central, both films deal with the idea of lost innocence and the requirement of young children to grow up in the face of poverty, death, and the atrocities of combat. How does a child remain a child when death is at every turn?

During the invasion of France, young Paulette is on the run with her parents. Like everyone in the line of refugees, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her folks leave their car and run for cover when German planes strafe them. During one such strafing run, both of Paulette’s parents and her dog are gunned down, leaving her immediately orphaned and alone. She is temporarily picked up by another fleeing family, but when the woman throws the corpse of the dog out of the cart and into a river, Paulette escapes to retrieve it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Most Important Meal of the Day

Film: The Breakfast Club
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

There are films that define particular generations at particular moments in their history. For my generation, the 1980s were defined by the films of John Hughes, and of these, none more perfectly encapsulated that generation than The Breakfast Club. This is not a film that I have any ability to discuss with anything like dispassion or objectivity. I’d guess that anyone within five years of my age will comment similarly: this more than any other film defined who we were, how we thought, and how we wanted to be at our disaffected, semi-rebellious best. I’d go so far as to suggest that almost everyone of my generation has a character in the film that he or she identifies with immediately, and if they watch it again today, they’ll likely identify themselves in the same way. The Breakfast Club told us who we were (mine isn’t that hard to guess).

Five kids are sentenced to a Saturday detention in their high school. The five represent completely different cliques in the school. There is the princess, Claire (Molly Ringwald); the jock, Andrew (Emilio Estevez); the burnout John (Judd Nelson); the brain, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); and the basket case, Allison (Ally Sheedy). Their day starts at 7:00 in the library under the direction of vice principal Dick Vernon (Paul Gleason), and they will be released at 4:00. They aren’t supposed to talk to each other or leave their seats, and Vernon has given them the additional task of writing a 1,000 word essay on who they think they are. From that premise, the five kids actually spend the day discovering who they are, what makes them who they are, and the many, many ways they are actually alike. That’s really it—it’s a character study times five, with the added bonus of a bit of character study on Dick Vernon, too.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

No Peeking

Film: Don’t Look Now
Format: DVD from NetFlix on far less kick-ass portable DVD player.

It will soon be time to retire the portable DVD player permanently. It still plays movies well enough, but the dead remote (and it’s not the battery) makes it far less functional than it could or should be. That, and it no longer holds much of a charge, something I’ve confirmed on several trials now. It’s kind of sad, really. I like the little player. I’m also just enough of a cheapskate to not really want to suffer the expense of buying another one. So I muddle through, using it at times in the vain hope that it will have somehow magically improved, and it never does. So, sad as it is, Don’t Look Now is likely to be the end of the line for its usefulness.

Then again, it seems additionally tragic to have its last film be something as dark as Don’t Look Now. In its own way, this is as dark a film as I have seen in a long time. I won’t pull a lot of punches here, because I do want to be clear with what exactly why this film is likely to elicit strong reactions in many people who see it. Five minutes in, and I was honestly ready to turn it off. Why? Because in the first film minutes of the film, the daughter of our principle characters, Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) and John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) drowns in a pond. I’ve seen kids die in films before, of course, but there was something very different about this. My reaction to this was extremely visceral. I don’t like seeing kids die in films, but here, it seemed like such a real thing that I didn’t want to keep watching.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Shave and a Haircut

Film: De Man die Zijin Haar Kort Liet Knippen (The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

So I watched De Man die Zijin Haar Kort Liet Knippen (The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short) today, and I don’t really know 100% what to make of it. I’m also not going to type either of its names again until the end of this review if I can help it. There seems to be almost nothing coherent going on here, making it difficult to determine exactly what is actually going on. I really can’t determine. And because of this, you can consider the rest of this review as a giant spoiler, because I can’t discuss this film without really getting into the ending and whatever it might imply.

We start with Govert Miereveld (Senne Rouffaer), a teacher at what appears to be something like a high school. He is obsessed in a “Lolita” sort of way with his student Fran Veenman (Beata Tyszkiewicz). The film begins on the day that she graduates from Miereveld’s school, and we witness him going through a significant crisis regarding this. He’s simply not ready to give her up. The opening act of the film consists of this day of graduation and Miereveld’s attempting to deal with Fran’s departure.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Burn Notice

Film: The English Patient
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

While I currently have fewer than 200 films to watch to finish up the full 1001 List, I have a surprising number of Oscar winners and nominees still to see and review. I’m frequently surprised at how many there are left, so I’m going to try to make a larger effort to get through more of them sooner rather than later. To continue things from yesterday, what could be more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than The English Patient? This is grand romance in the classic tradition, epic in scale and length, making it perfect Oscar bait.

The film takes place about half in the present day of the film (late in World War II) and half in the years before that. A badly burned man (Ralph Fiennes) is being cared for in a desert hospital by a French-Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche). The man, partly because of his past and partly because of amnesia, refuses to divulge anything about himself, and so he is referred to only as the eponymous English patient. In reality, he is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a cartographer attempting to map the Sahara in the pre-war years.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Christy Brown

Film: My Left Foot
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

If there is a more dedicated actor in the business than Daniel Day-Lewis, please point him or her out to me. It has been reported that during the filming of My Left Foot, Day-Lewis refused to leave his wheelchair, required other people to feed him, and stayed in character while on set the entire time. From what I understand, this is par for the course with him. What that means to me is that I’m very happy I didn’t work on Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood. He’s been nominated for an Oscar five times, and has won two so far. I imagine that anyone reading this in a couple of weeks will be wondering why I forgot his almost inevitable Oscar for Lincoln. Well, that’s because I’m writing this about 10 days ahead of the ceremony. I’m just guessing that he’ll win.

My Left Foot is the inspirational and somewhat true story of Christy Brown. Brown was born with severe cerebral palsy and had full control over only one part of his body: his eponymous left foot. Assumed to be mentally retarded as well as physically handicapped, it took years for Brown to get others to understand he was not merely mentally average, but bright. The film chronicles his story of learning to write (he eventually became an acclaimed novelist) and draw (as well as a noted artist), doing everything with his left foot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Watching Oscar: The Caine Mutiny

Film: The Caine Mutiny
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve come to the realization that when it comes to war movies, my favorites are either prison pictures or naval pictures. Oh, I don’t have a real problem with aerial combat or tank battles, or guys slogging it out through hedgerows. But when I think about the war films that really get me going, they tend to revolve around POWs or take place on ships. Maybe it’s got something to do with the principles being confined in some way—the limited space for people to move around evidently ramps up the drama for me. Such is the case with The Caine Mutiny, one of my absolute favorite war films.

Our evident main character is poor little rich boy Willie Keith (Robert Francis), fresh out of officer training and raring to go with his naval career. On the one hand he is romancing nightclub singer May Wynn (playing a character of the same name), and constantly badgered by his connected and influential mother (Katherine Warren). While he’d love to be assigned to a major ship of the line, Keith is instead sent to the Caine, a battle-scarred minesweeper desperately in need of rest and refit. He discovers a crew that is superficially lax but actually efficient and well-trained under the command of Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Watching Oscar: Princess O'Rourke

Film: Princess O’Rourke
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Regular readers of this blog know that my classic movie dream girl is the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck. My co-worker Ron’s Golden Age crush is Olivia de Havilland. I get it. He could certainly have chosen a hell of a lot worse. De Havilland was an accomplished actress and pulled two Oscars in her day. Princess O’Rourke is evidence of something far less seen in her acting repertoire: comic timing.

Princess O’Rourke is, on the surface, a pretty standard not-quite screwball romantic comedy from the war years. What sets it apart from the standard is not the presence of a title character who is a princess or a plot that is connected to the war and to morale. No, the main difference here is a whip-cracking script and some genuinely funny moments that raise it a couple of miles above the standard rom-com.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On the QT

Film: Reservoir Dogs
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

So let’s get this over with. I’m not a massive Quentin Tarantino fan. I actually like a lot of his films pretty well; my issue is more with his public persona than his films. However, there are things about his films of which I am not a fan. One of the selling points of Tarantino’s films is his dialogue. A lot of his dialogue really is good, but a lot of it seems to exist only to show how much obscure music or movie trivia he knows. Fortunately, that doesn’t come up much in Reservoir Dogs.

Plot is simplicity itself: six guys are hired to knock over a jeweler. The plan goes bad because evidently they were set up, and they’re fairly convinced that one of the group, either the six or the men who hired them are working with the cops or may in fact be a cop. Typical of Tarantino, nothing happens in order and there are a lot of flashbacks and playing with time and narrative. But really, the bulk of the story is the job goes bust and the surviving members of the team try to figure out what happened.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Not a Fairy Tale

Film: C’era Una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I doubt I will have much new or original to say about Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West). This is a film widely considered one of the all-time great Westerns in film history. I very much feel like the last person in the world to see and comment on it. In an effort to at least be honest and stick with only my own thoughts, I’m writing this initially in longhand while watching, so at least my thoughts will be my own, even if they’ve been uttered by hundreds (or thousands) before me.

The genius of C’era Una Volta il West can be seen in the way the first act unfolds. Leone introduces us to the principle players in stages, giving us enough of a glimpse to define each character without a complete picture. We start with a long tension-building sequence as three men wait for a train. The train arrives and a man appears on the platform. This is Harmonica (Charles Bronson). The three men have been sent to kill him by someone named Frank. One short burst of violence later, and Harmonica is patching up a wounded arm while the other thre lie dead. And that’s all the introduction for Harmonica we need.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Contact High

Film: Up in Smoke
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

In the first couple of minutes of Up in Smoke (also known as Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke), Cheech Marin smells a young child’s poopy diaper and then pisses into a hamper full of clothing. If you thought this was going to be a high-brow comedy, this is to assure you that you’ve come to the wrong place.

It should also come as no surprise that the plot is ridiculously simple. Up in Smoke was specifically made for an audience so baked that it can barely remember its own name. Pedro de Pacas (Cheech) is a wastoid who is always broke. He spends any money he gets on weed and cosmetic enhancements to his p-o-s car. He’s also allegedly in a band, which is evidenced by several of the songs on the soundtrack that are obviously sung by Marin. We also meet Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong), who is, if possible, a bigger waste. He’s kicked out of the house for being such a loser. The two meet when Pedro picks up Man, who has stuffed a couple of melons into his shirt to make him look more feminine, despite his beard. Har har har.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Vietnamese New Year

Film: In the Year of the Pig
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

It’s a sad thing to say, but I think the life expectancy of the kick-ass portable DVD player that has been my companion for slightly more than two years is on its last legs. It doesn’t hold a charge for more than about 45 minutes anymore, and now the remote no longer works, even with a fresh battery. It’s sad, but I got a great deal of use out of the little machine, and maybe it’s time to hang it up. Ending it with a film like In the Year of the Pig somehow seems appropriate.

In the Year of the Pig is a war documentary, which puts it into a very specific genre. What it is not by any stretch of the imagination is a a film that depicts war as anything other than something terrible. More than that, Emile de Antonio’s film shows that the conflict in Vietnam was caused as much by American pride and expansionist policies as it was by Ho Chi Minh, the influence of China, and the French presence in Indochina.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

We Remember Thee, Zion

Film: Giv’a 24 Eina Ona (Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Some of the films on The List I privately call “unicorns.” What that basically means to me is that if for some reason I didn’t finish the full list, it would be because I couldn’t find this particular rarity. Deseret was one such film, as is The Cool World. Another of this is Giv’a 24 Eina Ona (Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer). I don’t know if this film has ever been released in the United States. It most certainly has never gotten a desperately needed restoration, which is a whole different issue.

This is the first film ever produced in Israel, and as might be expected, it is extremely pro-Zionist. That’s probably to be expected. The new Israeli citizens, facing attack from all sides just after the formation of the new nation all fight for the freedom and survival of the new state. The British, who held the mandate on the area, are depicted quite favorably, as are the Americans to some extent, and the Druze people. The Arabs, as should be expected in a pro-Israel film made less than a decade after the reformation of the nation and after the war in question, are almost faceless, rampaging villains.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mother Russia

Film: Voskhozhdenie (The Ascent)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There’s something about Soviet films that I find depressing. In part, that’s sort of what Soviet films are, even when they’re trying to be inspiring. There is a deep sense of fatalism, of great suffering as the only guarantee. When I say that such films often leave me cold, I don’t mean that in a figurative sense, but a literal one—to enhance the guaranteed suffering, these films are frequently set in winter with tons and tons of snow. With Voskhozhdenie (The Ascent), we get all the suffering at once, and within the first five minutes. A group of Russians, some soldiers and some civilians, are on the run from invading German troops some time during World War II. They’re freezing and virtually out of food.

Desperate for food, two of the men are sent off to find something to bring back to the partisans. These men are Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin). Of the two, Sotnikov appears the more fatalistic, almost working under the assumption that he is going to die; this is no doubt influenced by his being wracked with fever. Rybak is fatalistic, too, but also seems to maintain some level of cheerfulness despite himself. The two find a far destroyed by the Germans, then make it to a small village where they take a sheep from the head man (Sergei Yakovlev), partly because they need the meat and partly because his position as village elder means that he is collaborating with the Germans, at least on the surface.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Film: La Notte (The Night)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Last year on Super Bowl Sunday, I watched a musical. While I certainly could have done the same this year (I have a few musicals left to watch, although not that many), I decided this year I wouldn’t go the non-manly route. Instead, I went the non-American route. I don’t specifically object to football or sports in general (in fact, I used to be a something of a sports geek, particularly football), but I don’t care about them any more. There isn’t a single sport that I pay even a moment of attention to. Super Bowl Sunday has become my favorite day of the year to go to a restaurant: as long as you avoid sports-themed places, they’re pretty much empty and you get fantastic service.

Anyway, since Super Bowl Sunday is effectively an American national holiday as important as any other (and more important than many), watching Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night) sounded like something as far away from watching grown men throw each other to the ground as I could find. There’s a part of me that truly enjoys this sort of cultural clash.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Watching Oscar: The Front Page

Film: The Front Page
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When I started watching The Front Page, it certainly seemed familiar to me. And then people started talking about Hildy Johnson, and I knew I knew that name. Hildy Johnson is the character played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. I suddenly got the impression that this might be an earlier film, sort of a “Hildy Johnson before we got to the famous film” sort of thing. So imagine my surprise when it turns out that The Front Page is essentially the same film as the later (and better) His Girl Friday, and in this version, Hildy Johnson in a man. Yeah, I know. Weird, right?

But that’s what we’re left with—a precursor version of a classic screwball comedy. Newspaper man Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is planning on quitting the paper and moving to New York for a job in advertising. The impetus for this is not just the cushy salary of the new job, but also his impending marriage to Peggy Grant (Mary Brian), who wants him to have a normal life instead of running around after stories at all hours. This move does not sit well with Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), who realizes that Hildy is a born newspaper man and wants to keep him on staff.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Slippery People

Film: Pickpocket
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Seeing someone pick a pocket is like watching a magic trick. It’s a subtle art, one that by its nature combines both speed and a light touch. It’s no surprise that Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket explores this particular activity at some length. The title would suggest that, of course, but since this is Bresson, we’re going to spend a good deal of time watching scenes where everything that is happening is happening below the surface. What this means is that we’re not going to get a high-speed montage of pockets being picked, ut a slow and painstaking linger on individual crimes. So when we do get a montage, it’s actually something of a shock.

Because this is Bresson, it’s a slow mover, much more interested in the slow build of character rather than the rush of excitement. Almost all of our time is spent in the company of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a pickpocket who gets picked up at the racetrack with a wad of cash. He’s released by the police because they can’t prove anything, but a particular inspector (Jean Pelegri) has his suspicions.