Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Untamed Youth!

Films: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Rebel Without a Cause
Format: internet video (Pussycat), DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Rebel) on laptop.

There’s a certain male mindset that I don’t understand. Russ Meyer understood it, mostly because he was a victim of it himself, evidently. This mindset that I don’t understand is an attraction to really scary women, the kind who are not merely capable of killing a man for fun, but who are happy to do it just for the kicks. It’s evidently a common thing, though. It seems to explain about 80% of Quentin Tarantino’s movies.

A prime example of this mindset is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by “auteur” Russ Meyer. Allegedly, Meyer gave the film this name because it contains everything he wants in a picture: speed, sex, and violence. And a weird little collection of speed, sex, and violence it is, let me assure you. It’s a world populated by fast little cars, women wearing next to nothing, and sex fiends of both genders. Interestingly, it also seems to presage such “creepy people in the middle of nowhere” films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.

We start with a voiceover accompanied by a visual representation of the sound waves. This voiceover is all about the problems of youth and violence, violence in the guise of shapely, beautiful…WOMEN! And from here we jump cut to a trio of go-go dancers. These girls are our heroines. They are Varla (the awesomely named Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji, who is either the source of all super-fake Italian accents or the victim of the same), and Billie (Lori Williams). They drive off to the desert for no real reason other than to blow off some steam. It is here that they come across Tommy (Ray Barlow) and Linda (Sue Bernard). Tommy is in the desert to run some time trials on his car with Linda timing him. Unfortunately, Varla, Rosie, and Billie aren’t going to let it happen. They end up attacking the pair, and Varla kills Tommy.

The trio kidnaps Linda and drives away, trying to determine what to do next. In a little Podunk town, they locate a family that’s contending with its own demons. The old man (Stuart Lancaster) is in a wheelchair thanks to a train accident. His two boys are completely different. Kirk (Paul Trinka) is an intellectual while the big one is just called The Vegetable (Dennis Busch).

It’s pretty evident that things are hinky here right away. Some things have already happened here, and the old man has the hots for Linda. This is something he’s done before, because he talks about hiding her body out in the desert when he’s done with her. Fun! Really, it’s just a bloodletting and meat hook away from living next door to Leatherface and kin.

But let’s be honest here. This isn’t a movie anyone watches for the scintillating dialogue or the riveting story. This movie was (and is) watched because Varla, Rosie, and Billie are barely in their clothing at all times. Varla is barely contained by her leather top. She’s a shrug and a hiccup away from exposing 18 pounds of mammary. The bulk of the audience, of course, is hoping against hope for that shrug and hiccup. If the film were to be made today…well, she’d just be constantly topless, and you’d be able to watch it every night between 11:30 and 1:00 am on Cinemax.

Frankly, these women scare me. Rosie needs to take diction lessons. Billie needs to stop drinking and put on pants. And Varla…geez. She’s terrifying. I can kind of understand why men might want a taste of that particular well, but not me. I prefer my women smart and safe, not a whim away from lopping off my manhood for a lark. But all that said, I don’t really begrudge them what they did to Linda. Seriously, with her little bikini and hair bow, she’s right out of a Gidget movie. I’d want to slap her, too.

Of course, not all rebellious youth movies are exploitative and trashy. At the other end of the spectrum is the classic Rebel Without a Cause, noted primarily as being one of James Dean’s only films. And this begs a serious question about this film. If we presume for a moment that James Dean didn’t die in a car crash after making only three movies, that he made perhaps three dozen and died of a heart attack at age 65, would anyone still care about this movie?

The simple answer is that people would still care about this movie because of what it is. We’re introduced to most of our major players almost immediately. Jim Stark (Dean) is drunk and wandering around town extremely early one a morning near Easter. He’s dragged into the police station where we are introduced to Judy (Natalie Wood) who has run from home because of the way her father treats her. Also at the police station we meet John, better known as Plato (Sal Mineo), who is in trouble for shooting puppies.

We spend most of the time initially with Jim, who has a bucket of problems. It’s a classic case of teen angst before there ever was a word for it. His parents fight constantly. His dad (Jim Backus) is a pushover and his mother (Ann Doran) is a constant nag. Jim isn’t a bad kid. He just wants some part of his life to make sense, and he’s at an age where nothing ever makes sense. The only thing that does seem to be working for him is the cop (Edward Platt, best known as the chief from Get Smart), who appears to take an interest in keeping the kid out of too much trouble. He seems to understand exactly what Jim is going through.

It’s a Hollywood coincidence that Jim’s new house (the family moves because Jim is constantly in trouble) is next door to Judy's, and the two seem to hit it off immediately. But seem is the operative word here. Judy runs with a tough crowd, and they dislike Jim right away. In particular, the leader of this gang, Buzz (Corey Allen), really dislikes Jim. And Buzz is Judy’s boyfriend.

At a school field trip, Buzz decides to get under Jim’s skin, going so far as to puncture one of Jim’s tires with a switchblade. This culminates in a little knife fight between the two, and while Jim is getting the worse of it, he wins by knocking the knife out of Buzz’s hands. Buzz has some respect for Jim now, but still doesn’t want to let him off the hook completely. He challenges Jim to a game of chicken that night on a bluff overlooking the town.

The game is a little different than a traditional game of chicken. In this game, the two participants drive stolen vehicles toward the edge of the cliff, jumping out before the car goes over. The first one to jump is the loser. Jim does pretty well in the contest, but Buzz’s leather jacket gets caught on the door handle of his car, and he goes over the cliff with the vehicle, smashing onto the rocks below. And if Jim thought the teen gang was after him before, they’ve really got it in for him now. In the meantime, Plato has developed something between a crush on Jim and hero worship of him. Plato lives with a maid, and has been all but abandoned by his mother and father.

In addition to being one of James Dean’s only films, Rebel Without a Cause is the first film in Dennis Hopper’s strange and rambling career. It’s worth noting as an aside here that I had the opportunity to meet Dennis Hopper a number of years ago. I had lunch with him, and he was an absolute sweetheart of a person. We’ll see him a number of times in the films ahead, and I figured I should get this out there now—I’m a big fan of Dennis Hopper, not because of his film roles or his acting skill, but because he was a genuinely nice person who treated me with a lot of respect and kindness.

So what’s so special about this movie? It’s really the classiest film of its kind. The story is nothing special, but the characters are. The plot is one you’ve seen a dozen times or more, but Rebel did it first and best. Everything from scenes in Edward Scissorhands to Aragorn’s tumble over the cliff in The Two Towers references this film, and with purpose. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, and heartbreaking to watch unfold. The climax becomes inevitable, perhaps, but it’s still an exciting thing to watch, and pulls the right strings to stay gripping no matter how much you see it coming.

Jim doesn’t have the words to express how he feels, and that’s part of the magic here. Rather than giving him words beyond his character’s years, the scriptwriters were smart enough to make him verbally impotent and reliant on deeds instead. It’s improbable in that pretty much everything takes place on a single day, but that’s easy enough to forget in the watching.

Why to watch Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!: You can learn the tensile strength of a leather bustier.
Why not to watch: Do I have to go there?

Why to watch Rebel Without a Cause: You’ve only got three choices when it comes to seeing James Dean, and this one is iconic.
Why not to watch: Your opinion has been sullied by inferior versions of the same story.

Month Three Status Report

Well, today is the 90th day of this journey, and at the moment, I stand at 81 films viewed, a bit behind my goal. I should be adding two additional ones today, putting me at 83. I'd like to be at 100 by April 10th--that would be 100 films in 100 days, and I think that's within grasp.

The bigger issue is that there are 50 movies I'm going to have some difficulty finding. It's fewer than 5%, but it's still a sizable chunk. Some of these are available for purchase, but most that are are only in non-US formats, which means I can't watch them anyway. So...if you've got access to any of these and can point me in a direction, here's what I still need to locate:
The Actress (Yuen Ling-Yuk) 1992
Archangel 1990
The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskij Sindrom) 1989
Before the Revolution (Prima Della Rivoluzione) 1964
Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diablo na Terra) 1964
Blonde Cobra 1963
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau) 1974
Chimes at Midnight (Campanadas a Medianoche) 1965
Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d'un Ete) 1961
The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara) 1960
The Cool World 1963
A Day in the Country (Un Partie de Campagne) 1935
Deep End 1970
Deseret 1995
The Docks of New York 1928
Drowning by Numbers 1988
Earth Entranced (Terra em Transe) 1967
Fat Girl (A Ma Soeur!) 2001
Golden River (Subarnarekha) 1965
Hill 24 Doesn't Answer 1955
Hold Me While I'm Naked 1966
The Housemaid (Hanyeo) 1960
India Song 1975
Last Chants for a Slow Dance 1977
Lucia 1969
The Man in Grey 1943
Marketa Lazarov 1967
My and My Gal 1932
Mediterranee 1963
The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) 1973
No Fear, No Die (S'en Fout la Mort) 1990
The Phantom Carriage (Korkarlen) 1921
the Phenix City Story 1955
The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) 1964
Red Psalm (Meg Ker a Nep) 1971
Report 1967
The Smiling Madame Beudet (Souriante Madame Beudet) 1922
The Spider's Strategem (La Strategia de Ragno) 1970
A Tale of the Wind (Une Historie de Vent) 1988
Three Lives and Only One Death (Trois Vies & Une Seule) 1996
Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Zeyton) 1994
The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tong Nien Wang Shi) 1985
Too Early, Too Late (Zu Fruh, Zu Spat) 1982
Travelling Players (O Thiassos) 1975
Tristana 1970
Utu 1983
Vij 1967
Vinyl 1965
The Wanton Countess (Senso) 1954

Any help?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rich People Do Bad Things

Film: Reversal of Fortune
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

We have a fascination in this country with the extremely wealthy. This is not really surprising, because when things are good, there’s not a one of us in the great unwashed who wouldn’t want just a little taste of that life. When things are bad, we like to look at their foibles and issues and stand in moral superiority over those people who use their extreme amounts of wealth to commit moral depravity because they feel that they are above the law and their money makes them so.

Reversal of Fortune is the film made of the book of the same name. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor (played by Ron Silver), both wrote the book and served as the defense attorney in the case at hand here. The case is that of the attempted murder of Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close) by her estranged husband Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons). Claus was convicted of two attempted murders of his wife around Christmas on two successive years. The case at hand and the film are about the appeal.

I remember this case when it happened, although I remember imperfectly. Certainly I remember that Claus von Bulow was guilty in the minds of the average citizen. There was no doubt in the minds of many people that Claus von Bulow injected his wife with the near-fatal overdose of insulin that put her in a vegetative coma that lasted until her death in 2006. Unlike other, more recent high-profile murder cases, I don’t recall having much of an opinion on this one beyond the fact that von Bulow probably was guilty.

But the movie calls all of this in doubt, presenting a variety of alternative theories. The result of the case really isn’t in doubt, since it’s all a matter of public record. Dershowitz absolutely destroyed the state’s case against von Bulow by throwing everything they did in doubt. Von Bulow’s guilt or innocence isn’t really in question here—what is in question is whether or not he got a fair trail the first time around. In fact, the closing comments, done in voiceover by Glenn Close suggest that von Bulow’s victory is all that we are really allowed to know.

What makes the film interesting is the personas of Dershowitz and von Bulow. Since the movie is based on Dershowitz’s book, he certainly comes off as the hero of the film in many ways. He’s a tireless fighter for the rule of law, taking the case because it angers him on a deep level. His conviction of von Bulow’s guilt or innocence doesn’t matter to him—what matters is the way the case was handled initially. Since this offends him, the case is worth taking. He’s something more than a white knight here—he’s almost too perfect. His flaw is that he cares too much about his cases and not enough about the people in his life, exactly the sort of quality you want in a lawyer.

Von Bulow is a different case. What makes this film so interesting is that Claus von Bulow, as depicted here, is a complete prick. You want him to be guilty because he’s such a pompous ass. And maybe that’s the point of the film—even if you overlook the vast amounts of money and assume that he was acquitted because of the cash, the truth is that we want him to be guilty. We almost need him to be guilty so that we can feel better about ourselves. So maybe, if a complete and utter shite like von Bulow can get something like justice, the system might actually work for all of us. We want to root against him—he married for extreme wealth, conducts an affair with a friend’s daughter (Julie Hagerty in a “this will be good for your career” move that didn’t work) in full view of his wife, and days after his conviction, shacks up with a new mistress, Andrea (Christine Baranski).

Dershowitz is assisted by his team of current and former law students, who are essentially faceless and interchangeable for the purposes of this film. A few notables came out of this crew—the bushy-eyebrowed Tom Wright, a very young and nubile Felicity Huffman, and the instantly recognizable Jack Gilpin, for instance. But these are less characters than a backdrop for Silver’s Dershowitz. They are distinguishable only in the sense that Raj (Mano Singh) is the Indian guy and Minnie (Huffman) is the one who didn’t want the case initially. Beyond that, they may as well be animatronic or waxworks, and could just as easily be named “Indian dude,” “goofy white guy,” “female African-American student,” and “doubting white chick.”

It’s worth it just to watch Jeremy Irons. He’s magnificent in the role here, as he generally is. Irons is tremendous because he’s a complete chameleon, and when given a role he can bite into, he’s as good as anybody out there. This is back from when he took fantastic roles—this, Dead Ringers, The Mission. Lately, his judgment has lead him to trip like the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Eragon, and the fourth Die Hard installment. Choose better, Jeremy. You’ve shown here that you’ve got the skills.

Why to watch Reversal of Fortune: Jeremy Irons at the absolute pinnacle of his craft.
Why not to watch: Do you really want to root for von Bulow and Dershowitz?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dogs and Death

Film: Straw Dogs, C’est Arrive pres de Chez Vous(Man Bites Dog)
Format: VHS from Maple Park Public Library through interlibrary loan (Straw Dogs), VHS from Northern Illinois University library (Man Bites Dog), both on big ol’ television.

The “1001 Movies” book contains any number of controversial films. At times, it feels like the creators of the book looked for everything that cause a controversy and included it, whether worth watching or not (see my comments on Salo in early February). Certainly a number of worthy films were left off the list. I introduced my kids to The Fugitive last night and still can’t understand why it wasn’t on the list. Not controversial enough, probably.

This doesn’t mean that I’m anti-controversy. Many controversial films are worth watching, some because they are controversial and some despite it. Straw Dogs is a film that is worth watching despite the controversy it caused, and it takes a little digging to uncover the actual controversy itself. You can expect violence—it was directed by the king of slow-motion death, Sam Peckinpah. But it’s not the violence that made the film so controversial. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were filled with extreme violence movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Peckinpah’s own The Wild Bunch (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It’s the rape scene that occurs in the middle. We’ll get there in a moment.

We start with David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician and his British wife Amy (Susan George). The couple has moved to a small town in England so that David can work on his book on celestial mechanics and formulae. Amy spent some time in the town when she was younger, and she is accosted by Charlie Venner (Del Henney), an old flame very interested in rekindling what was once there. Amy’s not interested, though, and she and David head off to their house in the middle of nowhere.

While David works, he and Amy alternately get along and quarrel, mostly over the amount of time he spends with his chalkboard. Outside, a group of local men work at fixing the garage. These men spend a lot of their time hazing David, who is both an outsider culturally and intellectually. What time they don’t spend working, they spend ogling Amy. Amy is both uncomfortable with this and defiant of it, walking around topless at one point just to see their reaction. Amy’s cat turns up dead—hung in their bedroom closet. Amy says this is to prove the men could get into their bedroom, a phrase that soon proves prophetic.

Things turn worse when the locals invite David out for the equivalent of a snipe hunt. While he stands in a field holding a bag, Charlie goes back to the house for some alone time with Amy. And here’s the controversy. Charlie slaps Amy a couple of times and proceeds to rape her. Bad, right? The controversy happens when, part way through the rape, it becomes evident that Amy is enjoying it, even encouraging it. They finish, and another of the men, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), arrives and rapes her again, and she clearly doesn’t enjoy it this time.

The film culminates in a siege of the house. Local Henry Niles (David Warner, uncredited in the role) is a known pedophile. He inadvertently kills a young girl named Janice (Sally Thomsett) and runs off. The locals who have been persecuting David and Amy track Henry to the Sumners’ house, but David refuses to let them have him. And all hell breaks loose as the men attempt to get in and David does what he can to defend himself, his house, and Henry Niles.

A lot has been written about what Peckinpah (who also wrote the screenplay) meant with this film. One of the most common readings of its meaning is that it’s anti-feminist, and that essentially it says that men have to prove to their women that they are willing to fight for them, and that women can only be taken through violence and combat. I disagree. I see how people come to that conclusion, but I also see that that particular conclusion leaves out an important piece of information.

David is defending himself and his house, nothing more. Amy never tells him about the double rape, and he’s unaware that, well, his bedroom has been violated a second and third time. Amy’s desire to leave comes both from her recent rape at the hands of Charlie and Norman and the presence of Henry Niles, a known pedophile and rapist in her house. David simply thinks she’s scared and wants to keep her safe from the mob outside, and is convinced that her actions are nothing more than a manifestation of that fear. He’s wrong, of course, but has no chance of guessing the truth.

The whole point of this film is the violence, which is not to say that it’s violence for its own sake. David and Amy came to England to get away from the increasing violence in the U.S., but the violence tracks them down and they are caught in the middle of it anyway. The violence of everyday life is inescapable, essentially, and at some point, everyone must stand up and face it. That David’s stand is against the right people for the wrong reasons doesn’t matter—the violence occurs naturally because people are violent creatures. The siege is inevitable, because there is no true escape from the troubles of the world.

So why “Straw Dogs”? A straw dog is not unlike a straw man—it’s a thing created to be easily destroyed. Is David the straw dog? Are the men from the local village? Or is the real straw dog the notion that we can somehow escape the reality of the world and the knowledge that every part of our society is violent in some aspect or another? That’s my thinking—the straw dogs of the title are David’s beliefs, which fade the minute he is put into jeopardy.

Man Bites Dog is a different take on violence, just as realistic in many ways and far more disturbing. Essentially, this film is a fake documentary about a serial killer named Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde). Benoit has invited a film crew to follow him around for a while to film his life and what he does. What he does is kill people. A lot of people. While he kills, he discusses the various methods he uses and how he disposes of the bodies. There’s a certain weight needed to sink a body, according to Ben. Typically, it’s three times the body’s weight, but that’s different for the elderly, children, and midgets.

According to Ben, the elderly are the best targets. They tend to have money and people don’t miss them too much. He generally starts the month by killing a postal carrier, using the uniform to deliver mail and steal pension checks, and discover the locations of old people worth killing.

This really is the bulk of the movie. A crew consisting of the interviewer, Remy (Remy Belvaux); cameraman Andre (Andre Bonzel); and a trio of soundmen named Patrick (Jean-Marc Chenut), Franco (Alain Oppezzi), and Vincent (Vincent Tavier) tail around with Benoit as he kills people and steals their money. The body count is impressive, mainly because the longer conversational pieces are cut with montages of Ben slaying multiple people. He tends to use a gun, but frequently strangles or kills in other methods, including causing a heart attack in one elderly woman.

Aside from his constant killing, Ben seems to have a pretty normal life. He gets along with his mother and grandparents, has friends who he enjoys spending time with, and even plays the piano accompanied on flute by a woman named Valerie (Valerie Parent). Some of the people in his life seem to know exactly what he does, but many of them have no idea.

The violence in the film isn’t highlighted as it is in Peckinpah’s film. There’s not much slow motion here. People just get killed when they run into Ben more often than not. This means there are frequent cuts to the local quarry and shots of Ben dumping bodies to avoid detection.

What’s disturbing here isn’t so much the constant death and the huge body count (certainly in the multiple dozens by film’s end), nor even the nonchalance of Ben’s murders. What really becomes disturbing is that the camera crew, particularly Remy, become complicit in Ben’s crimes, even helping him commit a number of them. When the crew starts to run low on funds to keep filming, they rely on the money Benoit steals from his victims to keep them working.

Just as disturbing is how much of the film is played for laughs. Remy gives little tributes to his slain soundmen, both of whom have identical lives—they’ve both recently moved in with a woman of the same name, and both women are pregnant. Going to dispose of another body at the quarry, Ben discovers that the water level has dropped so low that there is a death tableaux of scores of bodies now visible from the top. He stands and directs the other three as they dig into the floor of the quarry to hide the evidence of Benoit’s crimes.

Like Straw Dogs, the violence here is a part of the film world, inevitable and inescapable. The difference is that here, the violence not only can’t be avoided, it is sought out and, while not precisely reveled in, seen as being a completely natural and good thing. It’s a guilty feeling to laugh at parts of this film, and yet it also feels like the most real and natural reaction.

Incidentally, the literal translation of the French title is “It took place close to your home.”

Why to watch Straw Dogs: Peckinpah’s signature slow-motion death ballets with nary a horse or cowboy hat in sight.
Why not to watch: In Peckinpah’s world, sometimes rape is enjoyable for everyone involved.

Why to watch C'est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous: The friendliest killer you’ll ever meet.
Why not to watch: This is not a world anyone wants to live in.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

British Crime is so Polite

Films: A Fish Called Wanda, The Lavender Hill Mob
Format: VHS from personal collection(Wanda), DVD from Freeport Public Library through interlibrary loan (Lavender), both on big ol' television.

Like many, I grew up on British comedy. One of my earliest television memories is of a show called “The Goodies” that Chicago Public Television broadcast for a year or so way back in the day. Those of us who loved Brit-com and grew up in the shadow of Chicago in the 70s and 80s can tell you what Sunday nights looked like on Channel 11 WTTW, Chicago Public Television. At 10:00, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At 10:30, Dave Allen at Large. I named my dog Monty, and a few years later we got another dog and named him Basil Fawlty. British comedy was my chosen environment.

Our lime-scented Anglo brethren (and I’m British both in ancestry and in comedic sensibility) have a distinctive style of comedy. They also love to root for criminals, provided those criminals are smart and wacky. There’s a history of British comedy capers. Witness films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, The Ladykillers, and a host of others. And so, today, we’re going to look at two of the best.

I remember when A Fish Called Wanda came out in theaters. I was convinced that it was the funniest movie I’d ever seen, and watching it again today…it may not be the funniest, but it’s still in the top five. The plot is pretty simple, but there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to keep track of everything. So let’s cover the basics and see where that takes us. A crew pulls a heist on a bank, looking for 20 million pounds of diamonds. It’s masterminded by Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson); assisted by his girlfriend Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis in the prime of her hottitude); Otto (Kevin Kline) ,her actual lover posing as her brother; and Ken (Michael Palin), a stuttering animal lover.

The heist seems to go well, except the crew is seen by a little old lady walking her trio of yappy rat dogs. Of course, when the caper happens at the start of the film, you know that complications are coming. Otto and Wanda double cross George, informing the police about George’s guilt and location. But George has moved the loot, and now they need to find out where it’s been moved to. George’s lawyer is Archie Leach (John Cleese, who named the character after Cary Grant’s real name).

What makes this film work is that each of these characters is incredibly realized and distinct. There are no cardboard cutouts here. Leach, for instance, is stuck in a painful marriage with his wife Wendy (Maria Aitken), who is an awful nag and with a terrible spoiled daughter named Portia (Cynthia Cleese). He wants only some excitement, or something different, so he is immediately taken with Wanda. Wanda herself is greedy and not above using her body to get what she wants, and becomes intensely passionate when someone speaks in any language other than English. Otto claims to be an intellectual of the Nietzchian stripe, but he’s actually a complete moron, and a violent one. And poor Ken wants only to save the animals and make a lot of money…and maybe not stutter so much.

The case goes through cross, double cross, triple cross, and more. Wanda wants to find out where the gems are held, and to do so, she has to romance the stiff, formal, and slightly necrotic Leach. Ken is completely loyal to George, and does what he can to kill the old woman so that she can’t testify against his boss. Otto, claiming to be above jealousy, does everything he can to prevent Wanda from spending any quality time with Leach, and making things worse even when trying to apologize.

I don’t want to go into details on this movie, because it’s such a joy to watch. So much happens, and so much of it is genuinely clever, that detailing it would only spoil how wonderful it really is. A lot of comedies leave me cold, because to me, watching stupid people act stupidly isn’t funny—it’s expected and kind of sad. Watching smart people act stupidly, however, is funny. Watching them try and fail to think their way out of situations that they’ve made worse is where the humor comes from, and in this film, there’s a lot of that. It is solidly funny every couple of minutes, and consistently, screamingly funny. I’ve seen this film a dozen times, and there are still places that make me laugh out loud, despite that many viewings. It’s marvelously funny and wonderful, and can be watched over and over with no loss of joy. How funny is it? Allegedly, in Scandinavia, a man literally died laughing while watching. Take that, modern comedies.

The Lavender Hill Mob is one of Ealing Studios’ great black-and-white comedies, and one of the many vehicles of the same era that featured Alec Guinness in cute, comedic roles. Here, he plays Henry “Dutch” Holland, an unassuming little clerk whose job it is to ride along with shipments of gold bullion for his bank. While he rides with a million pounds Sterling of loot every week, he’s paid a pittance. Sadly, though, gold bullion is tough to move. Without someone to help him transform it, stealing that wealth will always remain a dream.

It is thus fortuitous that a man named Pendlebury (Sterling Holloway) moves into Holland’s boarding house. Pendlebury works in the foundry trade making knickknacks and paperweights. And suddenly, the plan is born in Holland’s mind. If they can steal the gold, they can melt the bullion down and turn the ingots into Eiffel Tower paperweights, smuggle them to Paris, and get away with a fortune.

Sadly, Holland gets a promotion at work and is going to be taken off the bullion truck at week’s end. If they’re going to pull off the caper, it’s now or never, and the two of them have never met a real criminal in their lives. They hook up with criminals named Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) by going around London and talking loudly about Pendlebury’s broken safe, nabbing the first two criminals who break in for a shot at the loot.

The caper goes off with several hitches, but seems to come out fine in the end. But it wouldn’t be much of a film if everything went perfectly, would it? The amateur criminals find their way blocked continually, culminating in the inadvertent sale of a half dozen of the solid gold Eiffel Towers to a group of British school girls.

The Lavender Hill Mob, as fun and entertaining as it is, is not nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as Wanda. It’s silly and fun and entertaining, but it’s considerably more staid, a product of a much earlier time. This isn’t to say that it’s not worth watching, only that it’s a much less over the top piece of film.

Nonetheless, it’s worth watching to see where a great deal of what became British comedy came from. Guinness was always capable of being a cinematic chameleon, a great and powerful man in one film and an unassuming little nobody in the next. Here, Guinness essentially does both, and does it brilliantly, even making his character more believable by affecting a slight speech impediment.

Entertaining and fun, and worth a watch. But worthy of being on this list? I’m not 100% sure. Interesting that Charles Crichton directed both of these films. He seems to have improved with age. Wanda was his last film, which is a hell of a capper to a career.

Why to watch A Fish Called Wanda: Still screamingly funny, and likely always will be.
Why not to watch: You’re one of those rare people who can’t follow British humor.

Why to watch The Lavender Hill Mob: A fun little caper.
Why not to watch: Does old British humor still work?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Musical Life

Films: All That Jazz, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop (All That Jazz), DVD from Shorewood-Troy Library through interlibrary loan on little bitty bedroom television (Yankee Doodle Dandy).

I mentioned yesterday that I’m not a big fan of musicals, and it’s true. I also said that I’ve been somewhat remiss in trying to get through the number of musicals on this list, and that’s also true. What I didn’t say was that this can cause some friction at home. Both of my daughters like being on stage. The older of my two girls is specifically a dancer, and is currently preparing for a show in a couple of weeks. It’s time for me to start plowing through some of these. I have to eventually, right? And if I don’t start now, then I’ll end up with six dozen musicals at the end.

So we’ll start with the vaguely autobiographical All That Jazz, a film by Bob Fosse about the life of Bob Fosse. It’s completely unflinching, which is what makes it worth watching. Fosse presents the life of stage director and choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), warts and all. Gideon is a drinker, a womanizer, a workaholic, and a speed freak, surviving on Dexedrine, Visine, and nicotine.

The film is not the story of Gideon’s life, but rather his death. We watch him exhaust himself, overextend himself, and push himself to the point where he can simply go on no longer. Gideon is, in the world of the film (and mirroring Fosse in many respects) wildly successful in the world of Broadway. Because of this, he has something approaching carte blanche to do what he wishes at any time he wishes. Cheat on his girlfriend who he cheated with on his wife? Sure, why not? He’s Joe Goddam Gideon, after all!

But the life takes its toll. Gideon walks around the movie with a half-burned cigarette perpetually clutched in his lips. His morning routine involves classical music, Alka-Seltzer, Visine in both eyes, a shower, prescription dexies, and a final look in the mirror with jazz hands and the phrase, “It’s showtime, folks!” We see him never stopping, moving from one project to the next, demanding that he be better, be bigger, be more. He takes what he wants with one hand regardless of who is affected by it, and beats himself silly with the other. Late in the movie, an actor tells him that he understands Joe Gideon—he’s worried that he’s not special, that underneath it all, he’s really just ordinary like everyone else. That sentence or two encapsulates the entire film.

Gideon is in constant contact with his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking, who is essentially playing herself from Fosse’s actual life), and his daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi, in her only film role). Since he is who he is, he is badly hurt when it becomes evident that Kate isn’t faithful to him, but has no remorse for his own lack of fidelity to her. In short, Gideon is not so much a complicated dude as he is just a talented, selfish bastard.

Much of the film takes place somewhere between life and death, as Gideon talks with Angelique (Jessica Lange), who is, for lack of a better term, the angel of death. As Gideon’s health deteriorates, he spends time discussing his life with Angelique, having a few full-blown Fosse number hallucinations while lying in his hospital bed.

I don’t like musicals. I really have a problem with them in general, but All That Jazz is a wow from start to finish. The numbers are good, surreal and bizarre and beautiful (and I love Ben Vereen as the emcee of Gideon’s death trip). Even more astonishing to me is the brutal honesty with which Fosse looked at his own life. Fosse based this film off his own heart attack in 1975, he made this movie and lived another six years after baring his soul and faults to the world. That’s why it’s great. To paraphrase the narrator in Fight Club, that sort of honesty makes me go a big rubbery one.

On the other end of the biopic spectrum we have Yankee Doodle Dandy, the film autobiography of George M. Cohan. It’s the sort of film that, if you didn’t know going in that it had been significantly sweetened for an audience, you’d figure it out pretty quickly. George M. here might as well be starting his name with “Saint” for the life that’s depicted on the screen, or have had the screenplay penned for him by Horatio Alger.

We follow this rose-colored view of Cohan’s life from start to the middle of World War II, mostly in flashback. At the start, Cohan has begun a new stage play about the current occupant of the White House, and after the opening performance, he is summoned to Pennsylvania Avenue for a heart to heart with FDR. From here, Cohan (played as an adult by James Cagney) spins the tale of his life for the president, going through his family’s routine on Vaudeville, his failure to get his plays produced initially, and his eventual booming success on Broadway and just about everywhere else.

There aren’t a lot of failures to moon over, but the ones that do exist are treated like the sort of minor stumbling blocks that befell Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in a couple of dozen mid-1940s movies, with the “Hey, gang! Let’s put on a show!” mentality as a bounce back from tragedy. Can’t get someone to produce his play? Well, by golly, he’ll show them! All it takes is pluck and determination! Cohan writes a stinker? By golly, he’ll admit it in a self-effacing telegram sent to all of the newspapers!

It’s a bit overbearing, really. Cohan is a firecracker short of being a full-on fireworks display according to this film, and that’s all well and good, but at some point, I’d like to see something that approaches realism in any stretch of the imagination. Nobody is that all-fired plucky all the damn time.

This may simply be my distrust of the typical musical talking here, but I found the film to be the weakest when it excerpted scenes from some of Cohan’s plays. His ability as a dancer and actor, etc. is great, but I don’t need to see half of “Yankee Doodle Boy” to understand the play was a hit. The film is far better in the non-staged scenes, because then at least it doesn’t feel like I’m getting Americana dumped on me. This is especially true at the very end—the last five or ten minutes are a full dousing. It’s a patriotism bukkake (if this is a term you don't know...please don't Google it. If you do, don't blame me).

The saving grace of the film is James Cagney in the title role. The man goes for it, and while he’s best known for gangster films, the man could cut a rug. He’s no Astaire, and he’s no Gene Kelly, but he dances with his own distinctive stiff-legged style, and there’s not an ounce of guile in the man. He, at the very least, is a joy to watch.

Why to watch All That Jazz: The reality of what life on the stage is really like, at least from one perspective, and for those worried, it’s surprisingly non-fabulous.
Why not to watch: It’s frequently unpleasant.

Why to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy: Cagney.
Why not to watch: If you’re close to diabetic, this film will push you over that cliff.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pay Careful Attention Here

Films: Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), The Usual Suspects
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (Caligari), DVD from personal collection (The Usual Suspects) on big ol’ television.

Before we start, it’s worth noting that both of these films are great, and both rely on a shock at the end that is worth enjoying if you’ve never seen them. Don’t read the spoilers unless you’re already familiar with how these end.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating now and again. I knew going into this that there were films I wouldn’t like or that would be difficult to watch. I haven’t watched things like Eraserhead yet on purpose because there’s only so much completely freaking myself out that I can handle in a given month. I’m sure I’ll find something along those lines in April since March has close to run its course at this point, and I’ll be good again for another six to eight weeks.

Additionally, there are genres that are more difficult for me than others. I don’t love musicals in general, and so I don’t watch a lot of them. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of musicals I’ve watched so far this year—it’s a genre I need to start working on very soon. I’ve done better with foreign films. I like foreign films often enough, but they require intense concentration. I should do a little better and try to get through one or two every week at least. I’ve done very well so far with silent films, and have watched probably a larger percentage of them than the number on the list warrants. Like foreign films, silents require intense concentration—I have to be mentally prepared for them.

Today’s first film involves two of the genres I’m less apt to watch on a given day—it is silent and foreign. Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari is considered the first true horror film, but it is difficult to really call it thus. Like many films that came from this particular German tradition, the film explores ideas of fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity.

We start with a young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher), who is sitting in a garden with an older man. Francis sees a young woman walk past, not noticing him or the older gentleman. He claims that the woman is his fiancée, and that the two of them have been through a series of terrible trials, a story he will now unfold.

Francis’s two best friends are Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and Jane (Lil Dagover). They go to a carnival where they encounter Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his sleepwalker, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). While Cesare spends all of his time asleep, he is capable of telling the future when he is woken up. Alan asks for his future, and is told that he doesn’t have one—he will die at dawn.

The prophecy comes true, and for the viewer, it is evident that the killer is the somnambulist Cesare himself. Another failed murder leads to a crazed local as the perpetrator, but Francis is still convinced of the guilt of Dr. Caligari, and continues to press his investigation, convinced that Caligari is the madman behind the rash of killings. To stop this investigation, Caligari tells Cesare to kill Jane. Naturally, Francis is correct about the identity of the true madman.

Cesare dies in his attempt to kill Jane, and Caligari vanishes. It also becomes evident that the somnambulist who stays in Caligari’s cabinet is nothing more than a dummy. And now the hunt is on for Caligari.


In its own way, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is something of an extended middle finger to the audience, because it becomes evident when Francis finds Caligari near the end of the film that Caligari is actually a psychiatrist and Francis is one of his patients. Jane is as well, and she’s as completely lost in her own delusional world as Francis, and so is Cesare. What has gone before has not been a story of truth, but instead has been the ravings of a madman. We’re seeing his delusional world instead of the reality of the story that brought him here.

It shouldn’t necessarily come as a huge shock, though, because hints have been given along the way. We get a very realistic world in the opening and closing scenes, but something very different in the middle, the main part of the film. Nothing truly looks real. Instead, the world looks as if a child has drawn and populated it. Nothing exists on a straight angle. Houses are canted and tilted oddly, windows are an uneven shape, even floors and doorways are irregular, vague trapezoids instead of rectangles. The people as well are caricatures of reality. Cesare, with white face and black-rimmed eyes is from a child’s imaginings rather than reality. This is the world seen through the distorted lens of Francis’s madness.


In ways that will be revealed in the spoilers that follow, The Usual Suspects bears a lot of similarity to Caligari. Here we have an elaborate crime drama that, like many films, starts at the end. We see a brief conversation on a burning ship. One man we can see, who is wounded and another who is not. The wounded man is shot and killed, and the ship bursts into flame.

From here, we are taken in flashback through the rest of the film. First, we are introduced to our major players, and are taken through our truly all-star cast. Five men are arrested in connection with a stolen truck of weapons. In the line-up, each man steps forward and reads off a sentence, and from each, we get a capsule of their various and varying personalities.

First is Hockney (Kevin Pollak, an actor I almost always enjoy). Hockney is world-weary and beyond caring about anything, a man who has seen and done it all and is bored by whatever is left. Next is McManus (Stephen Baldwin, in easily the best role of his career). McManus is only slightly in control, apt to go off on wild, ADHD tangents at a moment’s notice. Third is Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), who speaks in the most unintelligible patois ever conceived. Fenster pals with McManus and doesn’t always seem all there. Fourth is the real prize of the line-up: Dean Keaton (the always underrated and tremendous Gabriel Byrne). Keaton is a former-cop-turned-crook-turned-businessman, who brooks nothing and is willing to do anything to keep what he’s made of his life. Last is “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), palsied, pathetic, and oddly proper. We get more of the same in the interrogations of the five men. By the time this scene is done, we know as much as we’ll need to about these five men.

The five men are thrown in a holding tank together, and McManus decides that it’s a good idea to get back at the police for this current indignity. The idea is to damage the reputation of the police, have a little fun, and make a little money at the same time. “New York’s Finest Taxi Service” is a corrupt group of NYC cops who happily drive criminals from one place to another for a large fee. The job is to catch a group of dirty cops in the act, cause some consternation, and get away with the money.

Meanwhile, back at the boat, there’s an investigation taking place from the FBI in the person of Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito), who looks straight out of a ‘40s noir. One of the survivors of the massacre on the boat is that very same Verbal Kint, who is now in custody at a New York police station under the tender care of U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and police sergeant Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya, who should get more roles like this one).

Verbal talks at length to Kujan, telling of the attack on New York’s Finest Taxi Service, and the aftermath. This aftermath involved a mythical criminal mastermind named Keyser Soze. Soze is legendary for being untouchable, unknown, and completely vicious. The story of Soze’s past Verbal tells is of a time back in Turkey when a rival gang captured Soze’s family. Soze, finding the men in his house, kills his family, claiming that he’d rather see them dead than in the clutches of such inferior men. And from that moment forward, Soze builds his legend, destroying everything of those men, killing their families, their friends, the people they knew, and then disappearing to run a massive criminal underground empire.

It seems that each of the five men from the lineup crossed Soze at some point in the past. According to Soze’s contact, a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite, who is one of those “that guy’s” and better than many of his roles), these five men owe Soze a job for past problems. Their job is to destroy the cargo of a ship—the one from the start of the film.


It’s not revealed until the end that this movie has anything in common with Caligari, but when that comes out, it comes out for real. What we discover at the end, the very end of the film, right when it feels like the audience understands everything, the rug gets pulled out from under all of us.

Dave Kujan is convinced that Dean Keaton is really still alive, and that Dean Keaton is Keyser Soze. And it all fits. Everything that Kujan says at the end fits perfectly with what we know and what we’ve been told. But it’s all a lie. Dean Keaton really is dead, because Verbal Kint is really Keyser Soze. He’s the one who has been weaving the entire tale, which means that, once this is revealed to us, it becomes evident that there is no way to tell exactly how much of the story we’ve seen is real.

It’s a great story—a fun and entertaining ride, with exciting twists and turns, intrigue, and violence. And yet, like the story we see in Caligari, it’s all a sham, and likely, all coming directly out of the head of Verbal/Keyser.


Movies can be wonderful things. At some level, all movies, even those based on real life, are little trips into another world. Sometimes, as with these films, our trip into that other world takes a few additional twists and turns before that world comes to an end for us.

Both of these films can be infuriating, but both are also worth that risk.

Why to watch Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari: It’s where horror movies, psychodrama, and a great deal of thrillers came from.
Why not to watch: A long-dead director can still tweak you.

Why to watch The Usual Suspects: A ripping yarn like no other
Why not to watch: The holiest of holy shit endings that might really piss you off.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fellini's Fabulous Flashback

Film: Amarcord
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

If you love film, at some point you’re going to run up against the catalog of Federico Fellini. Love him or hate him, you have to know him. You can’t know the novel as a form without some familiarity with Dickens, you can’t discuss Cubism without having a vocabulary that includes Picasso. And you can’t pretend to know anything about film if you haven’t spent at least a little time in the magical (and sometimes not so magical) worlds of Fellini.

Amarcord is perhaps Fellini’s most accessible work. It’s also virtually plotless, following a year of life in Italy around the rise of fascism. And while the fascist movement does make an appearance, and is at the center of one of the only really unpleasant moments in the film, it essentially doesn’t mean much in the final analysis. The movie is based on Fellini’s childhood at least in part, although he denied that it was truly autobiographical. It takes place in a small seaside town based loosely on Rimini, the town of Fellini’s childhood.

The film opens with the appearance of the puffballs, evidently a seed of some type, similar to the springtime appearance of dandelion fluff. The townspeople say that when the puffballs appear, winter is soon at an end, and the town celebrates with a massive bonfire and the effigy burning of the old witch winter. We then follow a year of life in the town, focusing primarily on the life of Titta, a young man; his parents; a few of his other relatives; several of the townsfolk; and a number of his schoolmates. The film follows Titta, et al. through a year, ending with the return of the puffballs the next year.

Amarcord reminds me very much of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Essentially, it is less a coherent, complete story than it is a loose collection of vignettes with a common group of characters. These characters, certainly drawn at least in part from Fellini’s life, are nonetheless caricatures. For instance, Volpina, either the town prostitute or simply the town slut, is so greedy for sex that she’s all but pleasuring herself walking down the street. The blind accordion player does his best Ray Charles whenever the music strikes him. Gradesca (roughly translated as “appreciation”) is the town’s beauty, and she knows it, appearing in most scenes in a red coat and dress, and always at least partly in red in every scene. She is the woman the boys, Titta especially, moon over.

While some of the events of the film are unpleasant or sad, this is a time that is viewed not so much with a nod toward realism, but through the hazy warm glow of nostalgia. There is a magic here, a sense of unreality, as Titta and his friends attempt to come of age in a time that is remembered only indistinctly. There is a wistfulness even in the sadness, and a carnival-like feel to everything.

This is perhaps most evident in the scene in which virtually the entire town rows out a few miles to witness the passing of a massive luxury liner. As the boat passes, the people cheer. Some cry, overcome by the majestic size and power of the Italian ship. But it is obviously a fake, a prop, a piece of scenery and stagecraft. It is, essentially, the same as this film—something that stands in for the real thing, and even looks at times like the real thing, but is not.

"Amarcord" translates as “I remember” in the dialect of Fellini’s hometown of Rimini. It is a lovely, heartfelt remembrance, if one not so concerned with telling literal truth.

Why to watch Amarcord: It’s joyously Fellini-tastic.
Why not to watch: No plot = big problem for you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

War is Funny

Films: The General, To Be or Not to Be
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Silent movies are a tough sell for a modern audience. I had a phone call today with a group of fellow college instructors, most of whom will be teaching a film class this coming quarter. I’ve taught the class once in the past, and another instructor and I helped rewrite a general curriculum as a guide this past quarter. One instructor, a veteran going into his fifth or sixth time teaching this class commented that he generally shows at least one silent to his class every year. He’s going with Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. this year, a film I’ll be watching eventually.

I asked him if he tends to go with silent comedies, and he confirmed this, saying that Keaton or Chaplin tend to be his choices. Silent films are a tough sell, but silent comedies still work. The reason is that funny is funny, whether it be in Technicolor or black-and-white, in Sensurround or with nothing but a guy playing the piano over it. And Keaton is damn funny, even today.

The General is, and I’m really trying not to overuse this word, Keaton’s masterpiece. It’s brilliant from start to finish. It’s funny, action filled, entertaining and wonderful. There’s a reason that it still shows up on greatest films ever made lists 85 years or so after it was created. Had the book that inspired this odyssey of mine been “The 101 Films You Must See…,” I’m convinced that The General would have made the 90% reducing cut.

The film begins just before the start of the American Civil War. We are introduced to Johnnie Gray (Keaton), who drives an engine for the Western and Atlanta Railroad. We’re told that Johnnie has two loves in his life: his engine, the General of the title, and his girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnnie goes to visit Annabelle, and while he’s there, news comes of the attack on Fort Sumter. Annabelle’s father (Charles Henry Smith) and brother (Frank Barnes) go to enlist, and Johnnie follows along.

What happens next sets up the entire film, and has become a staple of comedies ever since. When Johnnie tries to enlist, he is refused. The reason is simple. He’s far more valuable as an engineer than he would ever be as a common soldier. He’s refused, but he fails to ask why, and the agents don’t tell him. A simple question from Johnnie would end the film. Instead, it appears to Annabelle and her family that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle, heartbroken by Johnnie’s evident cowardice, tells him that she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform.

A year later, Johnnie’s train is stolen by Union spies. Unbeknownst to Johnnie, Annabelle is kidnapped along with the train. What follows, the rest of the movie in fact, is a merry chase as Johnnie pursues his beloved engine and girl into enemy territory and back, acting first as the pursuer and then as the pursued. Along the way are a number of comedic set pieces that demonstrate exactly why Keaton was so beloved in the early days of film and why he is still influential now. He deals with the problems of running his train solo, loading and firing a cannon, avoiding the shot from that same cannon, dealing with a torrential downpour, figuring out how to rescue Annabelle, and getting himself back across to friendly lines while having what seems like half the Union Army on his tail.

Keaton’s trademark, evident in this film as much as anywhere, is his constantly unchanging expression. He is capable of conveying almost any emotion with his notably stony face, often simply by the way he blinks in disbelief or holds himself. The cannon bit is perhaps the best example of this. After hooking up a car with cannon to his engine, Johnnie continues pursuing the Union soldiers. He loads the cannon and sets it to fire, but manages to disconnect the car as he climbs back to the engine. The cannon tilts down, aiming itself at Johnnie, who tries to get away, but his foot gets caught in a chain, leaving him trapped in the cannonball’s impending path. Eventually, he frees himself, the cannon fires, and the shot misses anyway.

What I like about Keaton’s films is how different they tend to be from many of the current comedies that feature main characters who are blindingly stupid and succeed only because the people set against them are equally stupid or because our supposed heroes are extraordinarily lucky. Keaton’s heroes certainly have their share of screw ups, goofs, and missteps, but they are also incredibly resourceful, and tend to be successful because they are smart, talented, or both. Johnnie Gray is that, which means that at least for me there is no shame in rooting for him to come out on top.

The great set piece here is the train crash into the river. This is before the days of great special effects, which means it was a real bridge, a real river, and a real train. The effect is still magnificent, and the train remained there until it was used for scrap iron during World War II.

Like Keaton, Jack Benny is a performer whose star has faded more than it should have—certainly more than even Keaton’s has. A major star in his own time, many people these days know virtually nothing about him. I’m just as guilty. Aside from knowing that he claimed to stop aging at 39 and was stereotypically stingy (answering “I’m thinking it over” to a mugger who asked for his money or his life during a comedy routine), I don’t know much about him, and have never seen him in anything until tonight.

To Be or Not to Be also starts at the beginning of a war, this time World War II. Set mainly in Poland, it follows the careers of stage actors Josef Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard, in her final role before a fatal plane crash). The Turas are the toast of Warsaw, and Tura is certainly the toast of himself. Something of a ham, Tura is both concerned with constantly getting the top billing and making sure that his wife is doing nothing she shouldn’t with men he doesn’t know.

Of course, the war starts, and Poland is caught in the thick of it. A young bomber pilot (Robert Stack) who is infatuated with Maria Tura ends up in England with a group of free Polish fliers. They wine and dine a Polish professor (Stanley Ridges) who confesses that he is heading to Warsaw on a secret mission. The young Poles give him the names of their relatives so that he can look in on them. The pilot, Sobinski, asks for the professor to look in on Maria Tura.

However, Sobinski becomes suspicious when it is revealed that the professor has no idea of who Maria Tura is. According to the still-infatuated Sobinski, it would be impossible for anyone in Warsaw to have not heard of her, leading him to suspect that Professor Siletsky is a Nazi collaborator. He is airdropped into Warsaw to warn the underground.

As it turns out, Sobinski is right; Siletsky is a Nazi, and he’s working on helping the Gestapo round up and destroy the underground movement. Now, Tura, his wife, and the remains of their theater company must stop Siletsky from reporting the members of the underground movement to the Nazis, do away with the man, and (with luck) survive. To do this, they must impersonate the local Nazi hierarchy and break into Siletsky’s hotel. Leading the way is Josef Tura, who, in addition to wanting to help save his country, also wants to give the performance of a lifetime and keep Sobinski away from his wife.

For such a serious topic, and it is gravely serious, this film is played constantly for laughs. Near the beginning, Sobinski has been sending Maria flowers anonymously. He finally contacts her, and she tells him to come to her dressing room when her husband, who is playing Hamlet, begins his “To be or not to be” speech. Moments later, Tura walks out on stage and begins the famous soliloquy and Sobinski stands up to head to the wings. However, Sobinski is in the second row, and his making for the exit causes a huge commotion.

This scene is the heart of this film. In addition to its plot ramifications, it is screamingly funny. Sobinski’s actions, however motivated, are the single worst nightmare of a serious actor—someone has decided to walk out during a key moment of the drama, completely spoiling the trance of the audience and ruining whatever effect the actor might want. There could be no bigger insult. Tura soldiers on, but the scene is ruined, and when the young bomber goes back stage, Tura’s marriage is suddenly in danger as well.

It’s interesting to note that both of these films, in addition to being comedies set during wartime, were critical and financial failures upon release. In fact, the release of The General caused Keaton’s film company to restrict him in the future, since the film had been so expensive to make and returned so little on the investment.

It seems like over and over authors and filmmakers both discover again and again that while war is hell, it also has the potential for humor. We laugh so that we don’t cry, or to cover our tears. We laugh because we have to, because that is all that keeps us sane. It’s what created M*A*S*H, Stalag 17, and Catch-22, and it’s what created these films as well. Mel Brooks remade To Be or Not to Be in the mid-80s with certain competence and a lot of humor, but it’s simply not the same as the original.

Why to watch The General: Perhaps the greatest silent comedy ever made.
Why not to watch: Silent films, even comedies, don’t play well today.

Why to watch To Be or Not to Be: You owe it to Carole Lombard and Jack Benny.
Why not to watch: You’re uncomfortable with the idea of humor and Nazis in the same place.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Film: A Clockwork Orange
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

There I was, sitting in my basement making up my rasoodock of what to do with the evening. There are papers that must be graded, but also this film to viddy all on my own oddy-knocky. It was made by Stanley Kubrick, some great chellovek who made a bolshy great pile of cutter, such that he might be like Bog and all his saints, oh my brothers.

When I think of movies that fascinate me, I frequently forget about A Clockwork Orange until such time as I watch it again. Once I do, I remember how much I like this movie despite how difficult it can be to watch. This is Kubrick at his best, at the absolute height of his abilities as a filmmaker.

All films are of a time, place, and creator. The power of A Clockwork Orange is such that I cannot imagine anyone else making this film, nor can I imagine it coming from any other era. This film is unquestionably from the early 1970s and could not have come from any other time period. It would be an entirely different film if it was created in a different decade.

Kubrick was an incredibly smart filmmaker, and this movie is ample evidence. A Clockwork Orange is hardly an innovative story—the basic question is whether or not being good without choice is better than being bad by choice. If a person has his or her free will taken away, do they continue to be a person, or are they something significantly less? This is the “clockwork orange” of the title—an organic thing that is nonetheless without the ability to make a choice for itself. It’s also possible that it’s a minor corruption of “A Clockwork Orang,” or a mechanized man without free will.

What makes the story so great is the setting. The original novel by Anthony Burgess takes place in the near future, a world that is terrorized by youth gangs who attack anything they wish, do anything they wish, steal anything they wish, and suffer virtually no consequences. Burgess is a master of language, a virtuoso of the written word, and of adapting language to suit his various purposes. He’s good enough at this that he created the language used by the proto-humans in Quest for Fire.

For A Clockwork Orange, he developed his own slang, called Nadsat. This language used by his narrator in the book is also used by most of the teens throughout the story. Based on a combination of rhyming slang, schoolboy slang, and Russian, Nadsat is a complete language in and of itself, difficult at first to follow but ultimately cohesive and following a complete set of rules.

The evidence of Kubrick’s genius is that he left most of the Nadsat in the film. While this does make some of the dialogue difficult to understand at times, much of it is simple to follow. It adds a unique texture to the film, adding to its futuristic and otherworldly qualities.

The film is also visually striking throughout. One of the best known images of the film is Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in his white outfit and black bowler, false eyelashes on one eye, holding a glass of drugged milk. Perhaps more well known, and much more striking, is that same Alex in a straightjacket, head held in place with wires coming off the top, eyes clamped open, forced to watch film after film while an assistant douses his eyes with a constant stream of eyedrops.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our Nadsat-speaking narrator, Alex, is a juvenile delinquent of the worst and most vicious caliber. Within the first few scenes of the film, he and his three droogs, Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus), and Dim (Warren Clarke) savagely beat a beggar, beat up a rival gang headed by their foe Billy Boy, steal a car and run pedestrians and other traffic off the road, and break into a country house, savagely beating the owner and raping his wife. And then, Alex goes home to bed, because he has school the next day. It’s worth noting that while he’s a little older here, in the book, our humble narrator is a mere 15.

The rape sequence is notable for its savagery as well as the fact that, while he prepares his victims, Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” in preparation for his festivities. It’s a brilliant move by Kubrick. A song that for so many years had such pleasant associations becomes, in the span of a couple of minutes, attached to a scene of depravity and horror. It’s nearly impossible for me to hear the song again, even in the context of the movie that made it famous, without flashing back a little to Alex wearing his rubber mask and emphasizing particular words by kicking Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee).

Things go sour for Alex the next day. Warned by his probation officer to stay out of trouble, Alex and his gang instead quarrel amongst themselves. Alex reasserts his dominance by thrashing two of his mates. Then they break into a spa, where Alex inadvertently kills the resident by bludgeoning her with a giant ceramic phallus.

Here again, the visual brilliance of the film is evident. The spa is decorated, at least in the one room, with incredibly suggestive art. In addition to the giant phallus (attached to a combination scrotum/sphincter), the art on the walls shows women either pleasuring themselves or posing in pre-sex positions. And in the midst of this, the woman is killed in what is, ultimately, a simulated sex act.

From here we follow Alex to prison, where he falls in with the prison priest (Godfrey Quigley). The priest is convinced of Alex’s trying to better himself. The boy does, in fact, spend a lot of time reading the Bible, but it becomes evident to us that he is interested less in salvation and more in many of the Bible’s more lurid tales. This is evidenced when we see Alex reading, then watch his mental picture of the crucifixion, with him driving Christ onward by beating him with a whip.

Ultimately, Alex submits to the new Ludovico Technique, which is guaranteed to completely reform him in a couple of weeks. Essentially, Alex is forced, eyes clamped open and otherwise restrained, to watch films of beatings, rapes, and other atrocities while being drugged to feel ill. Essentially, he is conditioned a la Pavlov’s pooches to respond to sex and violence with intense nausea, guilt, and feelings of suicide. Once “cured,” he is released again into a brutal world where he is no longer capable of defending himself, since even self-defense makes him violently ill.

These scenes of the Ludovico Technique are difficult to watch, but also demonstrate the commitment of this film. They had to be pure torture for MacDowell to undergo, and yet he does. There is no way to fake what was being done to him, and he soldiers on, acting through what must have truly been something like torture.

The film is graced by an incredible soundtrack of electro-techno Beethoven performed by Walter Carlos in the few years before he became Wendy Carlos. It is both classic and disturbing, and a perfect complement to the film.

If I have one complaint about this movie, it’s that Kubrick based his film on the American version of the book. For whatever reason, when Burgess’s novel came to the U.S., the 21st and final chapter was omitted. That 21st chapter is absolutely pivotal—it changes the entire meaning of everything that happened. Kubrick’s film ends on chapter 20, which is also as far as I knew the book went the first time I read it. Now, having read the restored novel, I would have liked to see what Kubrick would do with it. Part of me imagines he still would have stopped where he did—but I’d have liked him to have that choice.

Should you watch it? Yes. But you should also read the book. Just make sure you find a copy with a decent Nadsat glossary in the back, or you’ll likely find yourself lost.

Why to watch A Clockwork Orange: Even 40 years after it was made, it has lost none of its original power to shock, awe, or provoke thought and discussion.
Why not to watch: It is tortuous in places.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How I Spent St. Patrick's Day

Film: Rashomon
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

So here it is, St. Patrick’s Day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a day near and dear to the Irish Catholic better than to watch a black-and-white Japanese film directed by the great Kurosawa. I’ve seen a few Kurosawa films in my day, but this one has always eluded me until now. This wasn’t by design, but by chance. I like Kurosawa in general. Kumonosu Jo and Shichinin no Samurai are rightly regarded as classics. The same is true of Ikiru and Ran, which I haven’t seen yet. Rashomon is as well, and just as rightfully. The only way to discuss this film is to spoil it, so consider the rest of this commentary as being under a spoiler warning.

The story is a relatively simple one. A terrible murder has been committed, and no one seems to understand exactly what has happened. In fact, we are told the story of the murder four different times from four different points of view. We hear from a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the murdered man (Masayuki Mori), the samurai’s wife (Machiko Ky), and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura). More than this, though, because the entire film is actually told as a flashback. Three men, the woodcutter, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner are sitting in a ruined temple (called “Rashomon”) out of a rainstorm when the woodcutter starts his tale.

The bandit, Tajomaru, tells his story first. He confesses to the murder of the samurai and to raping the man’s wife. He watched the pair go by him, the samurai walking and the woman on a horse. A small gust of wind revealed her face beneath her veil, filling the bandit with intense desire, subtly implied by his sword moving from point down to point up after she has ridden past. He tricks the samurai by telling him of a hidden cache of weapons nearby. Once the two are isolated, he overpowers the samurai, ties him up, and returns to the wife. He takes her back to her husband, still tied to a pine tree, and there he has his way with the woman in full view of her husband. She, shamed by this, asks Tajomaru to release her husband. The two fight, and Tajomaru bests the samurai, killing him.

Tajomaru is a fascinating character and a creation of Mifune’s genius. His frantic laugh and constant slapping at insects paints him as both on the border between sanity and insanity as well as something dirty and foul. The others ignore the insects—or are perhaps ignored by them—while Tajomaru constantly slaps at them and scratches. It’s also worth noting that in his version of the story, the wife essentially consents to the rape after a few moments. The samurai also tends to retreat from attack and swings wildly, making him something considerably less than the typical image of a fierce warrior. It is no mistake that the battle between the two resembles the battle between Tajomaru and the samurai’s wife.

We get the wife’s story next. She starts with her return to her husband tied to the tree. After the rape, Tajomaru runs away, leaving her with her husband. Her shame from the rape was so great that she believed that her husband was filled with a loathing of her so great that it could not be stopped. She releases him from his bonds, offers him the knife and asks him to kill her, but he refuses. She faints, and when she wakes up, finds that evidently, he has killed himself on her dagger. Despite her attempts since that time, she has failed to kill herself.

Next we get the story of the murdered samurai, who tells his story in court through a medium. In his version, Tajomaru stayed with the wife and tried to console her. The bandit argued that now that her honor was stained, she could no longer stay with her husband and she should leave with and marry him. To the samurai’s shame, the wife agrees to go with the bandit. However, she refuses to leave with Tajomaru until he kills the samurai, who is still tied to the tree. Even the bandit is shocked by this, and leaves the life of the woman up to the samurai, who claims that this mercy on the part of the bandit was enough for him to forgive the man. While he waits for an answer, the woman leaves, and the bandit gives chase, leaving the samurai. Eventually, Tajomaru returns, releases the samurai, and tells the man that his wife has run off. He finds the wife’s dagger and uses it to commit seppuku.

After each of these three versions of the story, we go back to the ruined temple and the three men. Each time, the woodcutter claims that the stories are all lies, and that he knows what really happened. After the samurai’s tale, he states definitively that there was no dagger and that the samurai was killed by the sword. The woodcutter claimed earlier that he only found the body, but now, it appears that he saw the entire crime. Instead of getting involved, he kept the story to himself.

As it happens, he didn’t find the body, but found the entire tableaux—the woman crying, the samurai tied to the tree, and Tajomaru. According to the woodcutter, Tajomaru was begging for forgiveness from the woman and begging her to leave with him. She is inconsolable, though despite his promises of great wealth. He offers to give her anything, even to the point of working for a living if she wants him to, and if she does not consent, he’ll have to kill her. She won’t answer him, though, except to say that she has no say in anything. Instead, she frees her husband and goes back to crying. Tajomaru is ready to fight, but the samurai says that now she is no longer worth fighting for.

Instead, he suggests that she kill herself because of her shame. The samurai tells his wife and the bandit that she can go with him, calling her a shameless whore. Instead, the bandit starts to walk away, deciding that he no longer wants her either. The samurai berates her some more, and the bandit attempts to defend her. She stands to defend herself. She dresses her husband down, claiming that if he were a real man, he’d kill the bandit and then demand she kill herself. She turns on Tajomaru, saying that she wanted out of her marriage in the first place, but he proved to be just as passionless as her husband. And so, the two fight, but do so incredibly incompetently because both men are truly cowards. Interesting that again, there is a call back to Tajomaru’s version of the fight, this time with both of the men in the role of the woman. The bandit finally kills the samurai, who begs for his life, and the wife runs off.

And so, the question must be asked: is reality what we see or is it what we believe? Or, possibly, is it what we remember? Rashomon asks all of these questions and provides no answers. Whose tale is the most accurate? We aren’t ever told, and we never will be told, since we only have the four different perspectives, each one completely different from the others. We can never know what really happened because we weren’t there. In fact, Kurosawa seems to be saying that we can’t know what happened even if we were there.

Rashomon is exceptional because of the questions it asks. While the woodcutter tries to make sense of things and the priest attempts to rationalize his faith in humanity against the four stories he’s heard, the commoner seems to have the only appropriate response—laughter because this is simply the way the world works and we each of us make our own reality. At the end, an abandoned baby cries in the temple, and the commoner steals the baby’s kimono. It is the woodcutter who defends the child and calls the thief’s morality in question. So, perhaps despite the extensive lies and unreliability, goodness still does exist, but only individually. And even the woodcutter is a liar, since the thief confronts him at the end. It was the woodcutter who stole the woman’s dagger, but his acceptance of the abandoned child at the end redeems him. Or does it?

Ultimately, no one is reliable. And thus are the genius of Kurosawa and the brilliance of Rashomon.

Why to watch Rashomon: Regardless of how fantastic the story, few films have approached how the world truly works as thoroughly and beautifully.
Why not to watch: You’ll never know what really happened.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Name Says it All

Film: The Great Escape
Format: VHS from personal collection projected on screen.

I made the comment a couple of months ago that many of the great World War II films involved military prison. It still surprises me that Stalag 17 isn’t on this massive list, because it certainly should be. It came as no shock when I compiled my version of the huge number of films to watch that The Great Escape was there. Of all military prison movies, none are bigger or more ambitious.

A simple look at the cast list confirms this. It’s impossible to tell who stars in this movie because there are a metric ton of major stars in this film—Steve McQueen, David McCallum, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, and on and on. These are actors who carry their own movies, and here they are all playing in the same swimming pool.

The Great Escape is based on a real story of Allied prisoners escaping en masse from a German POW camp. It starts with the first day of the camp, created to keep the worst escape offenders in one place, and ends with the return of a number of the prisoners to the camp. Between, it covers the creation of the three tunnels used to escape from the prison camp as well as the creation of the various plans designed to both get men to safety and confound the German Army with the prisoners released behind enemy lines.

What is fascinating to me about this movie is how little happens through so much of it. A huge part of the movie is about the process of creating the tunnels, finding the materials, dyeing and changing the prisoner uniforms to civilian outfits, and arranging to get as many men out of the prison at once as possible. The actual prison break itself takes up a good chunk of the film as well, and only the last portion of the film involves the prisoners out in Germany.

What makes this film work is not the actors, but the story itself. The author of the book the film was based on, Paul Brickhill, was one of the prisoners in the camp in World War II. He held out on having the film done until he could get someone to agree to stick to the actual story without Hollywooding the reality of the prison camp. It was absolutely the correct decision, because the story doesn’t need to have little coincidences and additional drama added to it.

Because the focus isn’t on the actors themselves, and they aren’t specifically needed to be brilliant to make the story work, they’re allowed to be freer with the roles. It’s almost as if the pressure was off the cast because the story they had to work with was so good. Because of this, they all work well together in every scene. There’s no pushing to take the focus of the audience from the other actors. Essentially, they work brilliantly as an ensemble. It doesn’t even matter that Charles Bronson is rocking a Polish accent or that James Coburn is attempting to sound Australian.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who is in the roles provided the roles are acted well. The Great Escape is a ripping yarn, exciting and in no need of anything other than the fascinating story it tells.

Why to watch The Great Escape: One of the great stories from World War II.
Why not to watch: Bad accents.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Heading to a Finnish

Film: Ariel
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’m slowly making my way through the list of movies both in terms of watching them and in terms of finding them. I’m hoping to have that part of the task completed by the end of March. It’s always exciting when I locate a film that I thought I’d have a hard time getting. Such was the case with Ariel. I stopped by the Rockford Public Library today on my way home from work, and there it was, right where I’d looked half a dozen times and evidently skipped over half a dozen times.

Ariel is a weird little movie. There. I said it. And I do mean little. It's 72 minutes long.

As it stands, I don’t really know what to do with things that are Finnish. I don’t know how to classify them. Are they Scandinavian? Russian? Wanna-be American? All of the above? And why do all the names have a double “k” and an “a” with a little circle over it. And how do you pronounce the a-with-a-circle?

We follow Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala), a miner from the sticks. When the mine shuts down, Taisto’s father gives him the keys to the Cadillac convertible, tells him to do something better with his life, and promptly retreats to a restaurant bathroom and shoots himself. Taisto drives off to the city (Helsinki, probably) and looks for work that he finds only sometimes. He’s also beaten and robbed along the way.

While looking for work, Taisto’s car is ticketed by the world’s most bored meter maid, Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto). Irmeli evidently works every job known to mankind, since she also cleans hotel rooms and cuts meat at a meat packing plant. Taisto offers her dinner, and she immediately quits her meter maid gig, invites him over, and boom—they’re a couple.

Still looking for work, Taisto encounters one of the men who robbed him, and he beats the man severely. Sadly, he’s immediately arrested and thrown in jail for about two years. It is here that he meets Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpaa, who really should be be-umlauted on those last two letters). Mikkonen is in prison for manslaughter. Taisto and Mikkonen conspire to break out of prison, have Taisto hook up with Irmeli, and then hop a slow freighter to Mexico where they can start their lives over again.

What strikes me as so strange about this film is the passivity of all of the characters. Irmeli, for instance always looks like she would rather be doing anything else than what she is. She looks constantly peeved in one way or another, or at least completely bored with everything going on around her. Taisto almost never shows a hint of emotion. He reacts to seeing the dead body of his father in approximately the same way he reacts to Irmeli asking him up to her apartment. Irmeli’s young son is equally passive, accepting everything that happens around him with about as good of grace as can be mustered for a young child.

Like many a good tale, there is plenty of comedy here, most of it quite dark. Completely down on his luck, Taisto starts picking up discarded cigarette butts since he can’t afford his own pack. Once he finds one long enough to be worth smoking, his lighter stops working.

In a way, this film is not unlike a Finnish Pulp Fiction or Down by Law. Taisto, once in prison, adapts to a life of crime almost instantly, and becomes a vicious, hardened criminal how doesn’t hesitate to shoot someone. I’m certain prison life is bad. I’m also certain that when it goes as bad as it does, that there’s more than a blank, Finnish face looking back blandly at the various guards.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this film. It’s a weird little ride. I think, seriously, that I might need more than a couple of hours to digest it.

EDIT: I’ve returned to this because a couple of additional things about this film have struck me. The case the film came in suggests that the film is a “droll, existential crime drama,” but I’m not sure if that’s the most accurate way to depict this film. Perhaps in some worlds, “droll” means people who are willing to commit crimes, begin relationships on whims, and shoot others in the chest without once changing facial expression. That’s not the word I’d pick here, and I find the difference between the events of the film and the reactions to the events of the film off-putting.

Why to watch Ariel: Well, how much Finnish stuff have you seen in your lifetime?
Why not to watch: There may be a reason for this.