Monday, May 31, 2010

Month Five Status Report

The count stands, if I'm remembering correctly, at 148, which means I've still got a long way to go. There are more than 900 films still to watch on the list.

I had planned for May to be a month in which I tackle a lot of musicals, but I watched none. I did, however, knock out more than half a dozen subtitled films, which is a good thing. Expect for that trend to continue--I have a couple of Spanish films on deck, and a few more foreign titles ordered.

That said, the next few weeks will be slim in terms of updates, while the end of the month will be chock full o' film. I do need to get back to the musicals, so it's safe to say that there will be two or three days during which I watch more than one, and these will come at the end of the month. I also have a couple of three-movie days planned, but these will happen either in very late June or in early July.

It's also entirely possible that I won't watch a ton of actual films at the end of the month, but will knock out some of the big ones. I've been looking at lengths recently, and there are a few monsters like Les Vampires that are the equivalent of three or four films. The more of these I can take out now, the better the end of the year and beyond will be. So, I suppose that's possible as well.

June, here we come.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Night to Remember

Film: Titanic
Format: DVD from Yorkville Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

For what it’s worth, the movie Titanic has developed a reputation for being overrated. It won a shit-ton of Oscars, but ever since, it has become a movie that one feels slightly embarrassed admitting to liking or even watching. I’m going to buck this trend. I like this film. It’s long, it’s overblown, it’s melodramatic and silly in places, but it’s a damn fine film.

If it’s a spoiler to you that the Titanic sinks, then you don’t deserve to watch anything ever again. Seriously. Either that, or you’re 12 and you shouldn’t be reading this blog anyway. We start not in the 19-teens, but in the late 90s. A crew is investigating the wreckage of Titanic, sending robotic submersibles down the decks to look for salvage. Specifically, the crew, led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) is looking for a huge, heart-shaped blue diamond called La Couer de la Mer, or The Heart of the Ocean. They pull up a chest from the stateroom of the man who last owned the gem, but it is not inside. What is inside, though, is drawing of a woman wearing the necklace that held the stone.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., an old woman (Gloria Stuart) sees a report of the progress of the dive at Titanic and sees the drawing that has been discovered. She puts through a call to the discovery ship, asking if they have discovered the gem. Since no one knew about the gem, the crew is intrigued, and invites the old woman and her granddaughter out to the site. Once there, she claims that the woman in the drawing is her. They ask for her story, and she tells them. And, through movie magic, we are taken back to 1914.

We meet our major players immediately. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a young woman who is engaged to Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). He is exceedingly wealthy, and in stereotypical movie fashion, he’s also a complete bastard. Rose’s family has, essentially, lost everything but its name, and this marriage will save them financially. They are heading back to the States on Titanic’s maiden voyage. Meanwhile, on the docks, a couple of wastrels named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) win passage on the ship in a poker game.

I’ll cut to the chase here. Rose, terribly unhappy with her fiancĂ© and the life that looks to be ahead of her, considers suicide in the form of jumping off the back of the ship. Jack happens to be there and talks her out of it. Accused at first of attempted rape, he is instead given a sort of hero’s welcome by being invited to dinner in the first-class dining hall, where he is condescended to and derided. However, naturally, Rose falls for him.

The rest of the first half of the movie consists of continual reminders that Caledon is a bastard and that Jack is poor and noble. It would be improper to suggest that the two men fight for her affections, since only Jack has them, but Cal has money and power, and does what he can to make Jack’s life hell. When Rose poses nude for Jack to draw wearing nothing but the necklace (remember that drawing from the start?) Cal arranges for his valet Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) to put the diamond necklace in Jack’s coat, and accuses him of stealing it.

The second half of the film, or at least most of the second half, is all about the sinking. This is beautifully handled. We see the iceberg, and we get to see the ship filling up with water. It takes more than an hour for the ship to go down, and this feels very much like it is handled in real time. Multiple little dramas play out as the ship sinks. The major drama, though, as it has been through the entire film, is Rose’s attempt to save Jack, Cal’s attempt to keep Jack off a lifeboat and save himself (primarily) and Rose (secondarily).

The aftermath of the sinking is particularly disturbing, like something out of George Romero’s nightmare. As one lifeboat sails back to look for survivors, it passes through a floating graveyard of frozen bodies in one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever seen.

The actual sinking of the ship is what you pay your money for with this movie, and it does not disappoint. It is terrifying in places, tragic, and awful, and was worth every penny James Cameron put into it. And really, that should be enough drama for any film. And yet, we’ve got a whole lot more movie going on here with the love story and the fate of Jack and Rose. It’s almost too much.


It’s worth noting that the film ends in one of the biggest dick moves in cinematic history. Rose still has the gem, and the night after she tells her story, she walks up on the deck and tosses it overboard. Seriously, she could just as easily have extracted it from her bag and given it to her granddaughter and allowed her family to live like damn kings and queens for the next five generations, but instead, it’s relegated to worthless bauble status, or it’s more important to make a gesture toward a guy who’s been dead for 80 years than help her actual family. I do enjoy this movie, but this really cheeses me.


If I had to guess why this movie has, since its triumph at the Oscars developed a reputation for being an embarrassing film to enjoy, I’d venture that the main reason is that damn Celine Dion song. It’s not fair to the film to associate everything about it with the French Canadian harpy and her Svengali husband. The song is pretty damn terrible, after all. But so what? The movie is great. There are perhaps no great truths revealed here, or anything that couldn’t have been told in a much shorter story, but again, so what? Titanic is a chance to get your romance on, to see a grand story, and to see some brilliant effects work and a very scary and realistic ship sinking.

Why to watch Titanic: Romance, death, love, and life on the grandest scale.
Why not to watch: That song will go on and on and on and on.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Films: Tootsie, Rushmore
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on laptop (Tootsie) and big ol’ television (Rushmore).

I like Dustin Hoffman. I realize I’ve never met the man, so I don’t know what he’s like in real life, but I tend to like him in a lot of roles. He plays straight dramatic roles well (Papillon, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man), he does comic roles well (Stranger than Fiction, The Graduate). I tend to like his characters quite a bit. Of course, I’ve never seen Ishtar.

is the story of an out-of-work actor named Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) who is told by his agent (director Sydney Pollack) that no one in New York and no one in Hollywood will work with him. Michael is a good actor, perhaps even a great one, but he’s also impossible to work with. If a stage director tells him to do something he doesn’t agree with, he walks off the stage.

Michael lives with a tortured playwright named Jeff Slater (Bill Murray). He teaches acting classes, and sometimes flirts with one of his students, Sandy Lester (Teri Garr). He also works as a waiter, the traditional job of the struggling actor. While he can’t get work himself, he does encourage others, and he helps Sandy try to land a job, which she doesn’t get. Desperate for work, Michael transforms himself from Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels, a aging Southern belle and, in something of a shock to the soap opera director he will be working for (Dabney Coleman), he lands the part. Here he encounters the often nearly-nude April (Geena Davis), the aging, perpetually horny, and vaguely stupid soap star John Van Horn (George Gaynes), and fellow actress Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange).

Dorothy is an immediate sensation, both on the soap and suddenly in the world in general. But for Michael, the trouble is only starting. While his professional career is suddenly soaring in a way he couldn’t have expected, he also can’t tell anyone about it. Julie becomes quite close with Dorothy, inviting “her” to the family farm, where Dorothy meets Les (American treasure Charles Durning), Julie’s father. Les is immediately attracted to Dorothy, which makes Michael’s life complicated.

Tootsie is deceptively layered for a film that appears to be little more than a gender-bending comedy. Dorothy’s troubles with Les, Ron the director, and John Van Horn are funny and make for some great moments. One of the funniest scenes is when Michael is waiting for Sandy to get out of the shower. He sneaks into her bedroom, sees her clothing, and begins to wonder how certain outfits might look on Dorothy. When she comes out of the shower and finds him nearly nude, her mind goes one way, and he allows it to go that way. It’s got to be the only time in film history that a man agrees to sex simply because he doesn’t want the woman to know he’s a cross-dresser, although again, I’ve never seen every film produced by Ed Wood.

The depth here comes with Michael’s struggle as Dorothy. He’s a good enough actor (Michael, not Hoffman, although Hoffman is obviously a damn fine actor to be able to pull this off) that he immediately sympathizes with Dorothy’s plight. Treated as an object by her director and as something to be pawed by John, Dorothy manages to stand up for herself as Dorothy, not as Michael coming through Dorothy. In that moment at least, Michael is her, and it’s a great scene.

Additionally, for a comedy—and there are plenty of comic moments—there are also some real tender ones, and ones that strike at serious issues. We discover mid-way through the film that Julie is an unwed mother, and that she is having an affair with Ron despite the fact that he treats her shabbily. Again, for a comedy, there is an undercurrent here about the way women are treated, specifically in an acting environment, but in general as well.

Tootsie hasn’t aged as well as it could have, which is a shame. Despite this, it’s still a great film and worth watching. If I could change one thing about it, I’d add more of Bill Murray. He’s great in every scene he’s in. Murray was just at the start of a brilliant film career when this film was made. He could have easily demanded top billing in 1982, considering he’d just made Caddyshack and Stripes. That he took a small role in a great film like this speaks well of his choices.

Murray takes almost center stage in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, which is very much The Royal Tennenbaums before The Royal Tennenbaums. Anderson’s films are not weird enough to be called weird and too quirky to be called quirky. They are their own thing, unique in film. I can generally tell a Wes Anderson film by the feel. His characters are fully realized, perhaps even too realized to be truly believed. Each is an extreme caricature, an extreme personality who lives in a very particularly realized world. Murray plays disaffected, disgruntled, and dissatisfied Herman Blume, a steel magnate who sends his spoiled and completely nasty twin sons to Rushmore Academy. Also attending Rushmore is Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who is so filled with quirks it seems as if there is no room for a real personality.

Max loves Rushmore. In a very Wes Anderson montage, we are alerted to all of his extra-curricular activities, and the list is endless, extreme, and varied. Max is, for instance, in charge of his own theater company, is learning to fly airplanes, he fences, he edits the yearbook, and belongs to virtually every club that exists. If a club doesn’t exist, he starts it. Because of this, he also tends to fail his classes and is placed on “sudden death probation” by school headmaster Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (the truly wonderful Brian Cox). If he fails another class, he’s out.

Max discovers two important people at the start of the film. The first is Herman, who offers a strange homily at the school mass, a speech that seems to affect Max deeply. He also encounters Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a first grade teacher with whom he becomes immediately infatuated. Discovering that she has several fish tanks in her classroom, Max takes it upon himself to get an aquarium built for the school in her honor, and goes to Herman Blume to help him. What Max doesn’t realize is that Herman’s marriage is a sham at best, and he too develops an immediate and powerful attraction to the young teacher. And so, we have an early May-late May-December romantic triangle.

While the triangle takes up much of the story here, Schwartzman and Murray are the heart of this film. Herman deeply admires Max’s enthusiasm and his inability to doubt himself in anything. Max is as deeply idealistic and as easily hurt as any intelligent, overachieving 15-year-old can be, and needs the support of a man like Blume. His own father (played by Seymour Cassel) tries, but Max is embarrassed that his father is a mere barber and not something world changing and important. In short, for all of his quirks, Max couldn’t be more typical. Sadly for the both of them, their rivalry for the affections of Rosemary takes some serious turns as they do everything they can to destroy each other. It's petty, it's silly, and it's funny.

Rushmore is strangely endearing. I love Wes Anderson’s movies because I love his characters. I can also see that there are many people who will find this film infuriating and aggravating. Schwartzman was only 18 when this film was made, and he gives a performance worthy of someone with that many years of experience. And while he is the Energizer Bunny of this film, it is Murray who becomes and remains its emotional heart as a man who has everything, but nothing he wants.

Why to watch Tootsie: Hoffman is doubly likeable when he plays two roles.
Why not to watch: Hoffman in lipstick.

Why to watch Rushmore: Pathos, delivered in Wes Anderson’s signature style
Why not to watch: Quirk overload.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Film: Into the Wild
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

The thing that everyone wants to do, and that might well be the most difficult thing in the world to actually do, is follow a dream. It takes guts, conviction, determination, self-confidence, and a willingness to fail miserably. This is why most dreams remain unfulfilled. Most of us are scared of failing. I don’t mean failing something like a test or a college class, but failing on a grand level. There is something very real in failure on that sort of grand level.

Into the Wild is that sort of story. Our hero is Alexander Supertramp, nee Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man fresh out of college. Chris is an idealistic young man, much of this in direct reaction to his parents Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt). Wealthy in that East Coast private contractor sort of way, but typical of at least movie people with too much money, their marriage is rocky, and the talk of divorce is frequent. This has a strong impact on Chris and his sister, Carine (Jena Malone).

At his college graduation, Chris tells his parents that he believes his grades will get him into Harvard Law, and that he has a good $24,000 and change still in his accounts. His parents offer to pay for the rest of his schooling and also offer to buy him a car, an offer that sets him off onto a rant about material possessions. After his parents leave, Chris makes his decision. He writes a check for most of the contents of his bank account and mails it off to charity, then destroys his credit cards, driver’s license, Social Security card, and takes his remaining money and burns it, dropping completely off the map. He renames himself Alexander Supertramp and sets off for Alaska and the chance to live completely and totally off the grid of modern human existence.

He hitches rides here and there, initially with a hippie couple named Rainey (Brian H. Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) who are having relationship problems of their own. He stays with them for a few days, then moves on, although he meets up with them again. He spends time next working on a farm in the Dakotas for a man named Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn). He learns how to drive a combine, earns money despite claiming not to need or want it, and learns about hunting from a man named Kevin (Zach Galifianakis). When Wayne is arrested, he moves on again, buying a kayak with his combine money, and heading south. This is the Wayne he writes to throughout the film. He even has time for a little romance with a young girl named Tracy (Kristen Stewart).

The story is told in a series of chapters, each one a certain length of time of Alex’s journey into the wild. Essentially, per his own logic and ethics, Alex was born the day he gave up his identity and became Alexander Supertramp, and he grew up on the road. His final chapter begins before he gets to Alaska with arrival of Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Ron attempts to understand the life that Alex has chosen.

Ultimately, he does reach Alaska and heads out into the wilderness to live on his own. Life is difficult, but he sticks with it through a brutal winter, in no small part because he finds an abandoned bus that had already been converted into a makeshift shelter.

The “present” of the film is his time in what he calls the “Magic Bus.” Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback of his journey getting to that place. We see him through trips across the border into and out of Mexico as he heads south and then back up north. His sister narrates much of his story, telling not only of his life before he became Alexander Supertramp but also of the struggles of their parents to locate him.

This is a film of juxtapositions. We see the extreme privation of Alex’s life and the beauty of the world that he has chosen to surround himself with. We see his conviction tested as he lives in extreme poverty back in the United States compared with the wealth of the people he sees walking the streets around him. In a world of plenty, he has chosen instead a life with nothing but the road.

Ultimately, what Chris McCandless/Alexander Supertramp did was to live the dream that many people have had before him, and will have after him. It’s the dream to walk away from everything and leave the world behind, to exist without the meaningless trappings of the world that we live in.

This is a miraculous and wonderful film, miraculous and wonderful because it can be interpreted in various ways, each as potentially correct as the next. Sounds like time for a spoiler.


Chris/Alex doesn’t make it out of the wild alive. Eventually, he makes a mistake, eats the wrong thing, and dies. The cynic will interpret this as essentially meaning that ultimately, our dreams, our hopes, and our aspirations will come to nothing. Every dream that we have will be destroyed or end in failure. The optimist looks at this film and sees that, despite everything, Chris McCandless truly did live his dream for several years. Ultimately, while he died, he did exactly what he set out to do. That ultimately, he decided that his dream was wrong says nothing about his conviction, or his attempt to fulfill it. Being wrong in the discovery of a great truth is no shame.


I’ve known several people who have gone far out of their way to live a dream, and win or lose, I admire that. For me, this blog represents something very close to that, although admittedly I’m doing it from the comfort of my home. It’s a ridiculous thing to follow a dream, and yet it’s also what makes things worth it.

Why to watch Into the Wild: Conviction.
Why not to watch: Ultimately, dropping out has a price.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dead Man (and Woman) Walking

Films: I Walked with a Zombie, La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan, Black Sunday)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (Zombie), DVD from person collection (Black Sunday) on itty bitty bedroom television.

Most of the time, when we talk about influential people behind the scenes in the film industry, we talk about directors. In the case of the sadly short-lived Val Lewton, we’re talking about a producer. In terms of the movies he wrote and produced, he was much like Hitchcock—there’s a particular theme to Lewton’s work. His films all have a suspense angle, but take it another step further, adding a true supernatural element. Of all his films, Cat People is the greatest (my opinion) and most well known. I Walked with a Zombie fits his pattern, though.

Since this film was released in 1943, it’s worth noting that the zombie mentioned in the title is one of the traditional type. George Romero hadn’t created his flesh-eating ghouls yet, so the term “zombie” meant a corpse reanimated by witchcraft or Voodoo, often used as a servant. We start in Canada, where a young nurse named Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is hired by a sugar company to head out to the West Indies. She is to care for the wife of a plantation owner.

On the trip over, she meets the man she will be working for, Paul Holland (Tom Conway). While she is enchanted by the ocean and the scenery, Holland acts as the world’s meanest buzzkiller, telling her that where they are going is a place of sorrow and death. Once there, Betsy meets a few important people. First is the family maid, Alma (Theresa Harris), who welcomes her in. She also encounters Paul Holland’s half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison). That night, she gets her first encounter with Holland’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon). Jessica is silent, staring, and if not a zombie, doing the best impression of one ever. Betsy is freaked out by this, but stays.

Betsy also starts discovering some of the family secrets. While out with Wes, she overhears a local singer playing a ballad about the Holland family. According to the song, Wes and Jessica loved each other, and then Jessica took very ill, turning her into the catatonic sleepwalker she’s become. Wes stops the musicians, but later, when he is sloppy drunk, the musician finishes the song for Betsy’s benefit. Here she also meets the men’s mother, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett, who looks quite a bit like Jane Goodall).

Betsy soon suspects that Jessica is not sick, but is a zombie returned to life through Voodoo ritual. Alma aids her in this belief, and Betsy takes Jessica on a disturbing night stroll through the sugar cane fields to get help. It is here that they encounter the most disturbing spectre in the film in the form of the guardian, Carrefour (Darby Jones).

What works in this film is the atmosphere. Similar to the earlier Cat People, there really isn’t anything here in the way of gore, blood, or anything else. What there is, though, is a series of creepy moments, a sense of unrelenting paranoia, and claustrophobia. More remarkable, this film does not take the position that the people of the unnamed West Indian island of the story are terribly backwards, superstitious people who are to be treated like children. Instead, in general, their beliefs are given enough weight to carry the story. Many of the white people in the film give lip service to the crazy native beliefs, but as the film goes on, it becomes evident that the Voodoo has real power, and that the plantation owners believe in it as well. It’s not a film that could have been made by an American director in the ‘40s.

La Maschera del Demonio (released as Black Sunday in the U.S. and The Mask of Satan elsewhere) is a tale of horror, vampirism, Satanism, and the dead returning to life from director Mario Bava. Filmed in Italian and dubbed, this film is a prime example not only of horror films, but also a hint toward what would become known as giallo films a few short years later. Bava, in fact, was one of the first giallo directors. While often about crime, giallo films tend to have horrific or supernatural elements in them. This film isn’t all the way there, but Bava is credited with the first one ever a few years after this was made. Certainly the atmospheric camera, use of music, and hints of eroticism are leading the way to what would become a major Italian tradition.

This film starts with a 16th or 17th century ritual execution of a pair of witches. One is Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele); the other is her demonic lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Asa is convicted of consorting with Satan, and has his brand burned onto her back. Rather than deny the charge, she curses her accusers, claiming that she will live again thanks to the power of Satan. Her punishment is a gruesome one—a huge metal, spiked mask is hammered onto her face in one of the most shocking and, frankly, truly awesome opening sequences I’ve ever seen. Sadly for the people of Moldavia, the ritual burning goes badly, and rain douses the fires that were consuming Asa’s and Javutich’s bodies. They are buried, him in unhallowed ground and her in the family tomb.

Two centuries later, two travelers come upon the tomb. These men are doctors, Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Andre Gorobec (John Richardson). What they discover is that it would be better for them to not mess around with dead bodies. They find Asa’s tomb, fitted with a cross and a window so that, should she rest uneasy, she will be forced to look at the cross, preventing her from rising. Kruvajan is attacked by a bat, and in fighting it off, manages to smash the cross, break the window on the tomb, and cut himself. He and Gorobec remove the mask from the corpse and discover that the body looks recently dead despite being in the tomb for two centuries.

Later, after they have left, the blood from Kruvajan’s wound drips into the eyes of Asa, who is reanimated by it. She calls to her dead lover, who also rises up from the grave. The two then plot to take over the body of Katia Vajda (also played by Barbara Steele) so that Asa can live again.

This is a fun, gothic film. It’s not particularly scary for anyone who has seen a scary movie before, although this probably wasn’t the case in 1961. The vampires are particularly nasty and creepy, and when fresh out of their graves, they are incredibly gooey. Barbara Steele is disturbing with the massive holes in her face, and when she attempts (and succeeds) to seduce Kruvajan, she is both horrifying and erotic. It’s a creepy moment.

This film is all about the atmosphere. It’s evident that Bava started his career in film as a cinematographer. This is more than just silly fun, though. It takes itself completely seriously, and for that, it’s worth watching. The dub is good, too, and the effect of Katia aging while Asa gets younger is surprisingly smooth and effective. It’s histrionic, it’s overacted, and I love the hell out of it.

Why to watch I Walked with a Zombie: Surprisingly respectful of non-Western culture and decidedly creepy atmosphere.
Why not to watch: The dude with bug eyes.

Why to watch La Maschera del Demonio: The most awesome film opening ever.
Why not to watch: The dead things are all…gooey.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

60s Politics Today

Film: Z
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on itty bitty bedroom television.

Like most people, I have political views. You might agree with none, a few, some, most, or all of them. Since this is a movie blog, though, my political views really don’t matter when it comes to the movies I’m watching. I try to keep my politics out of my writing here. However, a film like Z is all about the politics. It’s impossible to get anywhere close to this film without getting into politics.

Z also contains the strangest anti-disclaimer I have ever seen. Before the actual start of the movie, text appears that reads, “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not the result of chance. It is DELIBERATE.” It is. The film is essentially a real story of Greek doctor and liberal Gregoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963. It’s never overtly stated where this film takes place, but the soundtrack has a definite Grecian flair, and there are other minor hints (Greek beer, etc.) throughout.

Despite its basis in reality, much of the film appears to be allegorical. The characters, for instance, don’t really have names. The character representing Labrakis (played by Yves Montand) is called simply “the doctor” throughout the film. He is a peace advocate, or more specifically, an advocate for nuclear disarmament. His opposition have painted him and those who agree with him as communists, and it’s entirely possible that they are. This is never really explored.

His position is evidently controversial, though, because whenever he goes anywhere, he has a group of followers as well as a group of anti-demonstrators who quickly become violent. The government is decidedly against him, as is evidenced by the subtle low-grade harassment and problems experienced by the group. They’ve planned a rally, but the owner of the hall they plan to use cancels on them, evidently strong-armed by someone else. Nowhere else is cited as being up to code. Eventually, they find a place and the rally goes off, but there is seating for only 200 instead of the 3-4000 expected.

As a remedy, the organization hangs speakers outside to let those who couldn’t get in hear. This is relatively peaceful, except for those who oppose the doctor. They cause problems, and the police in the area stand by passively. When the speech is over, the doctor is attacked by two men in a small truck. He’s beaten over the head with a club, and the perpetrators drive off, unmolested by the police. The doctor, ultimately, dies of the wound.

Throughout, we follow the story of two critical men in this piece. The first is a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) who is looking to get to the bottom of the story. The other is the official judge of the case (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who must attempt to bring order from the chaos. Even here, the official government position is that nothing really terrible has happened. The judge is encouraged to find a solution to what happened that will shed a positive, or at least neutral, light on the events.

What sadly doesn’t come as a shock here is the blatant lying, hiding from the truth, hedging, and general bad behavior of the government. They claim to be acting in the interests of the country, and not only constantly shut down the freedoms of their own people, they go out of their way to make obviously false conclusions about every aspect of this case. It soon becomes evident that the government, or at least elements of it, have done more here than simply cover things up.

It’s eye opening. More importantly, it’s still incredibly relevant. One doesn’t need to look any further than a particular news network to see this exact kind of action happening on a daily, regular basis. This is politics from the 60s and in Greece, but it functions here exactly like politics today in the U.S. Cover ups, bad behavior, and most importantly willful lying, often with complicit news outlets fostering the lies and covering up the truth. This is someone claiming to have not raided the cookie jar while brushing crumbs of his or her lapels, and doing so on a national scale, and doing it simply for the sake of retaining power.

Z is a masterful film, controversial because those who claim to love freedom and then act in ways to curtail it may find it hitting too close to home. Free speech was made for films like this one, and films like this one are the most important reason that speech needs to stay free. The ending, while inevitable, is brilliant, shocking, realistic, sad, and overwhelming

The title comes from the fact that, in Greek, "Z" is symbolic for "he still lives." He does, but here, as it often seems in our own time and in this country, he is on life support and fading.

Why to watch Z: The best political thriller ever made.
Why not to watch: If your political views are extreme, you may find this movie difficult to watch.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Film: Forbidden Planet
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Ah, 1950s science fiction. Is there any situation it can’t make better, any bad day it can’t improve? So much of the science fiction and horror from the 1950s is terrible, which is why so much of it ended up appearing on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, there are tremendous bright spots from this strange decade. The imaginations of authors, filmmakers, and children everywhere were on the wonders and promises of the atomic age. The boom in crazy science fiction movies was an outgrowth of that. So too was the Cold War and rampant paranoia about those nasty Russians.

The problem that many films of the era made was in having human-like aliens that could speak perfect English despite having no way to learn English. Certainly it made it easier for the audiences to follow, but it must have struck some people as ridiculous. Additionally, the technology was an interesting mix of unexplainable high tech and flat out goofy stuff. Forbidden Planet hardly manages to transcend this, and yet there is a real charm here. Perhaps its biggest selling point is that it manages to be a story without any moralizing about the evils of Communism or the awesomeness of all things American. (Don’t get me wrong—as an American, I do love my country, but I’m also smart enough to realize that it’s okay that other people love their country as well.)

It does have a great deal in common with virtually all science fiction films of the decade, though. The spaceship itself has a huge crew that appears to run like a naval vessel. I suppose, in those pre-space flight years, this makes a certain amount of sense, but seeing guys walking around on large, open decks and a dude wearing an apron (Earl Holliman plays the cook) comes off as odd in a day and age when most people are aware of some of the rigors of space travel.

Regardless, the man in charge is J.J. Adams (Leslie Neilsen, before he did nothing but comedy). He leads his crew of mostly young men as they travel to Altair-4, a planet colonized 20 years previously. What they discover is a single man surviving on the planet. This is Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the ship’s philologist. And I always get a chuckle here. Why would a scientific mission to colonize a planet 17 light years from Earth need an expert in language and literary study? I mean, I have a degree in stylistics, which is pretty similar to philology, but I can’t see as how I’d be that useful doing linguistic-based literary criticism on a space trip.

Regardless, Morbius tells the crew not to land, but they land anyway. Morbius tells them that everyone from his ship but he has died, and he conveniently manages to hide the existence of his daughter, Alta (Anne Francis). In truth, that might have been for her benefit, since the recent arrivals to Altair-4 are horny young men who have been cooped up on a spaceship for a year.

It’s a strange world, filled with ancient technology of a race Morbius calls the Krell. Morbius has been tinkering with their devices and has increased his own level of intelligence enough to create Robby the Robot (playing himself), a giant powerful creation that manages to take care of most of the work on the planet. Robby also seems to work under Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

The arrival of the crew also unleashes a return of a terrible creature, the one that killed off everyone in the original ship’s crew. The beast is gigantic, invisible, and evidently immune to anything the men of the ship can throw at it. Now, Adams and his crew need to determine what the beast is and how to stop it before it kills all of them.

While Forbidden Planet manages to fall into many of the same clichĂ©s as most 1950s sci-fi films, it also manages to transcend a number of them. The plot here is pretty good, as is the origin of the terrible creature that stalks Adams and his crew. It’s also fairly impressive how the filmmakers managed to skirt around the edges of decency. A few of Anne Francis’s costumes are short enough to almost reveal ass curvature below the hemline. She gets a scolding from Adams and switches to a longer gown at one point, but immediately goes back to skirts short enough that sitting down in them will allow anyone in the room to see whether or not she’s keeping up on her bikini waxing.

So much of this film is a product of its time that it’s difficult to judge it by modern standards. The necessary romance element that appears eventually between Alta and Adams, for instance, happens at movie-fast standards. They argue, and immediately they are passionately in love with each other and can’t live without each other. Of course, that kind of thing still happens in movies today, but it always happened in movies in the ‘50s.

Additionally, my mind works immediately to other realities that are simply ignored in the film. You know going in that Alta is going to end up on the spaceship at some point. How the hell is that going to work? Trapped for a year at light speed among a bunch of sex-starved young men? She’s got an interesting year ahead.

I do love this movie, but I also understand why other people don’t. The last time I watched this, I tried to get my wife and kids to enjoy it with me, but they all fell asleep before the appearance of the terrible monster. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the effects are obviously animation, but many of them are pretty good. When we do finally get a look at the creature, it’s most definitely drawn on the frames of film, but it looks great for what it is.

Watch it for Robby the Robot, and watch it to see Leslie Neilsen as the romantic leading man. And watch it because truly great science fiction films from the 1950s are national treasures that deserve to be watched, remembered, and enjoyed.

Why to watch Forbidden Planet: One of the great, influential science fiction films.
Why not to watch: Ultimately, it’s kind of silly.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

It's Twue! It's Twue!

Film: Blazing Saddles
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

If you put a gun to my head and ask me to choose Mel Brooks’s best movie, I’d tell you that he never got better than his debut film, The Producers. It’s certainly his most coherent, and the one that doesn’t rely on being a direct parody of another film or film genre, at least of the ones I’ve seen. However, if you ask me which one I like the best and which one I find the funniest, my answer is Blazing Saddles in a heartbeat.

You’ve probably already seen this movie, and you probably already agree with me that it’s one of the funniest things ever filmed. If you haven’t seen it, you should go find a copy of it as soon as you can and watch it. There’s a fairly decent chance that this film will offend you horribly, but there’s an even better chance that you won’t care because you are laughing so hard at everything going on.

Here’s the basics in case you’re under the age of 15 or have lived in a place where movies are seen as a type of voodoo magic that you fear. A railroad is being built through the west. The foremen, a man named Taggart (Slim Pickins) and his assistant Lyle (the sadly almost unknown Burton Gilliam) send a pair of (and I’m being politically correct here, because the movie never is) African-American workers to see if there’s quicksand on the line ahead. Of these, the one that bears watching is Bart (the great Cleavon Little in a role that should have made him a much bigger star). It turns out there is quicksand, and Bart and his friend sink. Left to die in the quicksand, they escape, and Bart smacks Taggart over the head with a shovel. Just as importantly, because of the quicksand, the train line has to be moved—right through the heart of the town of Rock Ridge.

From here, we are introduced to a few of the other major players. First and foremost is the evil assistant governor, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). He realizes that the land Rock Ridge is on will soon be worth millions, but to get it for himself, he needs to get rid of the people. Taggart and his men attack the town, which causes the people to petition for a new sheriff. In what he thinks is a brilliant move, Lamarr gets the incompetent governor, William LePetomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint Bart to the position.

And hilarity ensues. There are plenty of other great character actors in major parts throughout here, the most entertaining being the giant, stupid, thuggish Mongo (Alex Karras) and the exotic and speech-impaired Lili von Schtupp (the great Madeline Kahn). The townspeople of Rock Ridge are also populated by great character actors (David Huddleston, John Hillerman, and others). Later in the film, Dom DeLuise shows up. Early on, Count Basie makes an appearance as himself. It’s the power of Mel Brooks, evidently.

The film is an obvious parody of the western genre, but there are plenty of other parodies as well. Kahn’s performance is specifically meant to recall Marlene Dietrich’s film roles in both Destry Rides Again and Der Blaue Engel. The movie is also incredibly self aware—the actors frequently speak directly to the audience, for instance. As with any good parody, the jokes are both big and small. There are sight gags aplenty, but a lot of the really funny stuff, or at least a lot of what I find funny here is the subtle stuff. All of the people who live in Rock Ridge, for instance, have the same last name: Johnson. Howard Johnson runs the ice cream parlor, a precursor of the famous hotel/restaurant chain famous for its 28 flavors. Howard Johnson here has a single flavor. Now that’s funny.

Much of the reason that Blazing Saddles works is that there’s more than just regular humor here—there’s a lot of meta-humor as well. There’s almost constant funny going on here, and some of it doesn’t really hit until a couple of minutes or hours after the moment is passed.

It’s interesting to me that Brooks’s career as a director is so limited. For a moment, try to think of all of the Mel Brooks movies you can. If you’re like most people, you can come up with maybe half a dozen, maybe one or two more—this one, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety (maybe), Spaceballs, History of the World Part 1…and then you’re probably tapped. With the exception of a couple of stinkbombs, that’s pretty much his entire directorial output.

He never got better than this film in terms of bringing as much funny as possible. The film is entirely overwhelming with great moments, great lines, and brilliant performances. It does, however, get too meta- near the end. It gets even sillier than it probably should, too self aware. I dearly love this movie, but I could live without the last 10-15 minutes, or at least would prefer something that isn’t so clever by a half. Still, even with that, it’s one of the funniest 90 minutes ever filmed.

Why to watch Blazing Saddles: Mel Brooks at his insane best.
Why not to watch: Guilt feelings over laughing at racial humor in this day and age.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Stunts Without a Net

Film: ‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap (Project A Part 2)
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Jackie Chan movies are sort of their own category of film. There really isn’t anything else like them. They are part martial arts extravaganza, part comedy, and part sado-masochism. Chan’s films are short on plot and long on ridiculous action sequences that tend to be shown at slightly faster than normal speed and have a lot of interesting props thrown into the mix. Most of his movies really aren’t very good.

It’s sadly still true today. While Chan’s more recent movies have had bigger budgets and have relied much more on obvious wire work, they really haven’t improved. In fact, they’ve gotten a lot stupider. It’s not unlike a lot of martial artists. As they get older, the quality of their cinematic output declines rapidly. Chan’s last bunch of films are more than ridiculous, and he deserves better. Here you have one of the greatest action stars who has ever lived, and he's doing crap like The Tuxedo and The Spy Next Door.

‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap (Project A Part 2, or more simply Project A2) is arguably Chan’s best at least according to the book, although I have a fondness for Rumble in the Bronx. The plot…well, let’s be honest here. The plot really isn’t that important. Chan plays Dragon Ma, a naval police officer who is brought in to help clean up Hong Kong. Specifically, there’s at least one dirty cop on the force, and the authorities want Ma to take him out. There are criminal gangs, evil cops, bad guys, and corruption.

There are crosses, double-crosses, and more throughout the film. The plot gets relatively complicated, especially for a Chan film. Eventually, Jackie Chan and his pals kick a lot of ass, get the bad guys, and the movie ends.

No one watches a Jackie Chan movie for the plot, because the plots tend to be pretty much the same every time. The two paragraphs above pretty much cover every Jackie Chan film ever made, after all. In terms of story, if you’ve seen one, especially during his “Jackie Chan is a cop” phase, you’ve seen them all.

The reason anyone watches Jackie Chan films is for the fights. There are a few good ones, but we sadly go a very long time without a good one. It’s the ending that we want, though. ‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap is perhaps more ambitious than a lot of Chan’s other films. We go for a very long time without a good fight, and that’s the reason I watched. Ultimately, it’s a little disappointing in that there’s far too much concentration on a plot that is more convoluted than it needs to be.

I’d have really rather watched Rumble in the Bronx again, or even Shanghai Noon or Rush Hour. Okay, maybe not Shanghai Noon. It’s also a remarkably bad dub job, at least in the copy I have. It’s not so much that the dialogue is bad; it’s that the actors themselves frequently sound like they are reading the script for the first time. And, for some reason, a bunch of the people have Australian accents. I don’t want Jackie Chan to be relevant or coherent. I want him to do a bunch of crazy shit that no one else can do.

I found this film today in a used DVD store. Since it was on my list of “I can’t find them” films, I bought it. Based on that, it was a good $6 spent. Otherwise, I’ll likely only watch the kick-ass fight scenes again, skipping the middle hour or so.

Why to watch ‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap: Because Jackie Chan is unique in this world.
Why not to watch: Because his movies aren’t always that good, and this one really isn’t either. Jackie deserves a better film on this list.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Good Old Boy Drinking Whiskey and Rye

Film: The Lost Weekend
Format: DVD from Galena Public Library through interlibrary loan on itty bitty bedroom television.

Some of the greatest movies almost don’t get made. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is such a film. Since the film paints such a bleak picture of alcoholism, the liquor industry allegedly offered Paramount $5 million (and that’s 1945 dollars) to suppress the film. Wilder claims that if they’d offered him the money, he’d have taken it and the film would never have seen the light of day. Another story about the film is that Wilder predicted that Ray Milland would win an Oscar for his role as the alcoholic failed writer Don Birnam, a prediction that proved true.

Addiction is a difficult subject to treat honestly without becoming ridiculous or maudlin. It’s worth noting that at the time The Lost Weekend was filmed, there were a number of entertainers who made their living either by being or feigning near-constant drunkenness. Alcoholism was less of a problem in 1945, at least in terms of perception. Certainly everyone knew someone who hit the bottle too hard and too often, but it wasn’t thought of as nearly the problem it is seen as today.

As mentioned already, Ray Milland is at the center of this film as Don Birnam. Birnam was a hot-shot writer in college and even sold a story to the Atlantic Monthly. Based on that success, he dropped out of school and moved to New York, where his creativity folded under the pressure. He succumbed to the lure of the bottle. When drinking, he tells the local bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva), he can see an entire novel in his head, but when the alcohol fades, so too does the vision. Then he needs another drink to recover from the depression, then another drink to recover from that drink.

Seeing him through this, standing by him as much as possible are his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), who pays his bills and, in today’s parlance enables him, and Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), Don’s girlfriend. Wick has had his fill of Don, but Helen still loves him and is willing to stand by him despite the fact that he’ll do anything to roll himself off the wagon.

A number of images certainly resonate in this film and are difficult to forget. Don’s hospitalization at Bellevue, his attempted theft of a purse at a club to pay for his drinks, his delirium tremens, the frantic search through his apartment for the bottle he’s hidden, his desperation leading him to the arms (and purse) of bar floozy Gloria (Doris Dowling) all are remarkable for their intensity and poignancy. However, it is the image of Don walking down the streets of New York, desperately looking for a pawn shop so he can hock his typewriter for a few cheap bottles of rye that remains indelibly etched in memory.

To claim that this film is specifically and only about alcoholism or addiction, though, is to sell it dramatically short. There is far more here than just Don Birnam’s love of cheap rye. His addiction comes not only from his love of booze, but from fear. He claims to drink because the drink is what allows him to write, but he doesn’t write at all. In fact, he drinks to prevent himself from writing. If he does write, it might be terrible, like the last few things he’s tried to work on. If he doesn’t write, he can claim that he is loaded with untapped potential. Writing equals failure, because actually writing means he is risking being bad at writing.

This is a film that should be forced on anyone coming of drinking age. Despite its age and what could and could not be shown in a film in 1945, it is still incredibly affecting and powerful. Don Birnam’s night in Bellevue has a surreal, terrifying quality to it, even now in an age where directors are willing and able to show everything and leave nothing to the imagination.

It’s also worth noting that this is the first time a Theremin was used on a film soundtrack. In the next decade especially, it became a staple for science fiction films wanting to add an eerie, otherworldly quality to its atmosphere. Here, it’s used to highlight Don’s delirium and his warped sense of the world when he’s crawled inside another bottle.

Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to root for Don, and yet equally impossible to not feel a certain empathy for him. There but for the grace, and all of that. Don Birnam is a lesson, a picture of tragedy, and a worst case scenario. This is not a film that anyone, once having seen it, can forget.

If anything, I could live without the ending. Understandable, given the time the film was made, but hardly the ending that strikes a note of reality.

Why to watch The Lost Weekend: The greatest cinematic depiction of addiction ever made.
Why not to watch: Hollywood always gets its ending.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Long, Strange Trips

Films: Easy Rider, Narayama-Bushi ko(The Ballad of Narayama)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Easy Rider), DVD from Rockford Public Library (Narayama) on itty bitty bedroom television.

There is perhaps no more common theme in stories than that of a journey. Journey stories are central to the human experience, often with the protagonist(s) eventually coming full circle and winding up back where they started. Stories like, for instance, The Lord of the Rings is a journey on the grandest of scales, while others are far less sweeping. Still, it’s a well-known and loved trope. Our hero sets off from home, goes somewhere to accomplish something, and returns. In fact, this idea is so prevalent that fantasy films like LotR, science-fiction films (Silent Running, much of Luke Skywalker’s actions in The Empire Strikes Back), and romance films (An Affair to Remember, Titanic) use aspects of it. Bing and Bob made a cinematic career of going on the road.

Easy Rider is less a journey than it is a trip. There’s no great quest here for our two heroes Wyatt “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), nor their eventual companion George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). All they want to do is get to Mardi Gras before it’s over. It’s a long trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans on motorcycles, and the drive takes them through some places that are far more dangerous than they look.

The film starts with our two main characters transporting a large amount of cocaine across the Mexican border. They sell the stash to a man called only “The Connection” (played by Phil Spector before he started giving himself a daily enema with a Tesla coil). The money from the score is inserted into a long plastic tube which is then inserted into the teardrop gas tank of Captain America’s highly modified chopper. From there, the two set off for Louisiana.

Along the way, they encounter several people. They meet a rancher trying to make a go of things on his own with his wife and large passel of children. They also pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew), who directs them to his commune, offers them free love in the form of the women of the commune, introduces them to his group’s idea of living off the land in peace, and plants a few tabs of blotter acid on them, instructing Captain America to drop it with the right people.

They encounter George Hanson when they are thrown into prison for illegally entering the tail end of a parade, but the reality is that they’re incarcerated mostly because of their appearance. Captain America is ruggedly handsome, but sports some massive sideburns as well as an American flag-stitched jacket while Billy is a longhair and wears buckskins and a huge mustache. George, the local lawyer and town drunk, gets them out and decides to go with them on their trip. They introduce him to marijuana (and evidently were really smoking it on set).

The trip eventually goes south both literally and figuratively. They keep encountering people who don’t like their kind, seeing them as little more than animals on the road at best, or as things not even worth scorning with a boot at worst. This culminates twice—once at a campground and once on the road—in the only way it possibly can.

The acid trip in the cemetery in New Orleans is perhaps the greatest moment of the film. It is decidedly surreal and disjointed, and this is intentional. It is supposed to come as close to representing a real acid trip as was possible at the time. Accidentally overexposed film was used in this to good effect, the absolute essence of making the best of a bad situation. This scene is troubling and also touching, particularly as Wyatt hugs a statue and talks to it as if it were his mother.

The line of the movie comes in the final campfire. Billy is excited. They have money, they’re where they want to be, and for him, the dream of Mardi Gras is fulfilled at last. Wyatt looks at him and says, “We blew it.” He’s right. The dream they had, the one that they really came for, didn’t exist. All they found was a few hookers (one played by Toni Basil), a place to drop acid, and people who treat them as something less than second-class citizens. Earlier, George’s comment is dead on. He tells them that people dislike them because they represent freedom. Everybody loves freedom, he says, but they hate it in other people when they don’t really have it themselves.

What is noteworthy about this film is that the world hasn’t changed. Forty years or more after the creation of Easy Rider, there is a huge part of the American population that treats anyone different from them exactly as Captain America, George, and Billy are treated throughout this movie. We have not evolved, or at least a significant percentage of our population hasn’t. It is sad to think that in essentially my lifetime, so many of us have simply marched in place, ethically speaking.

Narayama-Bushi ko (The Ballad of Narayama) tells of a different sort of journey. While there certainly is a real voyage at the end of this film, most of the journey here is a metaphorical one. In the town this film takes place in, people live only to 70 years old. Life is difficult, and so as to not be a burden, at 70, people make a pilgrimage to Narayama, the local mountain. Here they are left to die, not unlike the traditional story about Aleuts putting Grandma on the ice floe and casting her adrift.

Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is 69 years old and is preparing herself for the journey to Narayama. She is ready to go, and even wants to go so as not to be a burden to her family. However, it also appears that she is the only one who can take care of anything in their household. The rest are concerned with their own minor pleasures and their sex lives while Orin seems to handle the day-to-day work of keeping the house running. We discover that her husband ran off years ago, in part because of the necessity of taking his own mother on the pilgrimage to Narayama.

Orin has two sons. Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) is the elder. His wife died in childbirth, and while he’s not that interested in marriage any more, he is promised a new bride from a nearby village. Life is so difficult in this part of Japan that only first sons are allowed to marry. Second (and beyond) sons are called yakko, essentially not only banning them from marriage, but from sex entirely. Tatsuhei’s brother is Risuke (Tonpei Hidari). Risuke is commonly called “Stinker” because evidently he smells to the point that no one can bear to be near him.

The film details Orin’s last year, and doesn’t shirk with the brutality of existence in this part of the world. Male children are frequently left to die of exposure when the family can’t afford to feed them. Daughters are more desirable because they can typically be sold off, getting rid of a mouth to feed as well as bringing in needed money. The harvest goes poorly this year, and a family is discovered hoarding food. This is stolen from them, and then the family is rounded up, taken out into the wilderness, and buried alive to get rid of the problems they cause.

Orin continually makes difficult choices throughout, choices that many Western viewers will have difficulty reconciling. She sends her prospective granddaughter-in-law to the family about to be killed, for instance, so that she will be taken with them and eliminated. This removes the problem of her pregnancy and an additional child around the house. At one point, deciding that she needs to make sure that she is carried up to Narayama when her time comes, she intentionally knocks out several of her teeth to help feign physical weakness and degradation.

While there are moments of comedy, most of this is of the blackest sort, and laughs come not specifically because of the humor, but to ward off cringes. The central ideas of this film are the twin thoughts of Orin’s remarkable strength in her life and her desire to do what is right for her family, and the bleak existence these people live. When food is such a scarce resource, luxuries like emotion have no place. Deaths are celebrated because they mean less strain on the limited resources. Even Orin’s grandson Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaka) mourns for his lost girlfriend and unborn child for an evening before finding another woman for himself.

The film takes a much more grim turn toward the end when Tatsuhei places Orin on his back and begins their trip to Narayama which only he will return from. Before they go, Tatsuhei is told that it isn’t really necessary to carry her all the way to the top of the mountain. There is a place he can leave her instead, and no one will really know. Their arrival to this place is one of the most terrible and moving things I have seen in a film, and it is a moment that will stay with me for a very long time.

I can’t say I enjoyed this film. It’s horribly depressing and unrelenting. It is, however, brilliant. I don’t want to watch it again, but I feel that watching it was certainly worth the time.

Why to watch Easy Rider: Counter-culture, music, and truth.
Why not to watch: Reality sometimes sucks.

Why to watch Narayama-Bushi ko: Orin’s admirable strength.
Why not to watch: Sometimes reality sucks even more.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Under the Worst of Circumstances...

Film: Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Some movies demand to be seen because of the direction, the plot, or the actors. There are plenty of truly great movies out there worth watching because of the story they tell and the quality of what is on the screen. Others demand to be seen because of the history behind them. Les Enfants du Paradis is such a film. While the story is beautiful and the acting excellent, in any other circumstances this would be simply a great epic romance, a French Gone with the Wind. It is the story of two star-crossed lovers who try their entire lives to be together only to be kept apart by the wiles and absurdities of others. It would still be great, but it wouldn’t be the incredible testament to the art of film that it is.

Garance (Arletty, [one name, like Cher or Madonna]) is a woman with a little too much time on her hands (she also bears a remarkable resemblance to my daughter’s ballet teacher). She is accosted by a pretentious actor named Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) who decides to pursue her on a whim. She brushes him off, but it’s a guarantee that the two will come together again at some point. Garance also spends time with Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a scribe, thief, and fence with the heart of a murderer. He claims that Garance is the only woman for whom he has no contempt, and she claims to visit his scribe’s shop only from boredom.

Her true love, however, is Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a mime who is despised by his father in the Funambules Theater. She encounters him when she is accused of stealing a watch from a man standing next to her—Baptiste saw the whole crime, and acts it out in mime to an appreciative crowd. She gives him a flower in thanks, and the two are quite obviously smitten with each other.

Into this, we add several other important players. First is Nathalie (Maria Casares), a player at the Funambules who is madly in unrequited love with Baptiste. A constant player roving through the lives of all off these people is Jericho (Pierre Renoir), a thief and criminal as well as a scrounge. He gives himself a variety of nicknames, claiming this is what others call him: Medusa for his gaze, Woe-is-me for his hard lot in life, Rat for his scrounging, and so on. Everyone comes together when Frederick is also hired at Funambules.

And so we follow the lives of these people in their life in and around the theater and Paris in the 19th Century. Baptiste is captured by Nathalie; Garance is taken in by Edouard Count de Montry (Louis Salou), and both are trapped in loveless marriages, separated from each other. The more than three hour running time is the story of how they try to find happiness and each other throughout their lives.

So, it’s certainly a sweet story, but it’s really nothing special. This sort of romance isn’t that hard to find in the annals of film and literature. It’s a classic tearjerker of a tale, the sort of thing that you watch with a box of tissues, or you do if you’re a middle-aged spinster.

What makes this film noteworthy is the situation surrounding its filming. This is a huge, three-hour epic with a cast of thousands of extras filmed during the Nazi occupation of Paris directly under the noses of the German occupiers. Filming took place over 18 months. The production designer and composer of the musical score were both Jewish, and had to contribute their materials through intermediaries while in hiding. One actor was pulled away from the project because he was accused of collaboration after the occupation end. Several producers were either investigated by the Nazis or pulled out when Italy fell. Many of the cast members and workers on the film were involved in the Resistance. In short, this grand film, this beautiful statement of love, joy, art, and theater, was created under the most brutal, terrible circumstances imaginable. In many ways, the creation of this film was the inspiration for another great film, Le Dernier Metro.

This is what makes this film so special. There is no greater testament to the power of art or the desire to create than this film. While it may be only a good, possibly great film on its own, the circumstances of its creation make it one of the most powerful and beautiful things ever placed on celluloid. You owe it to all involved in its creation to watch it. They deserve it.

Why to watch Les Infants du Paradis: It demands to be seen.
Why not to watch: Three hours of French romance.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Smart Hicks in Coen-ville

Films: O Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Brother), DVD from personal collection (Arizona) on big ol’ television.

When I think of the directors I really like, there are a handful who, as far as I’ve seen, can do almost nothing wrong. Scorsese hits on all cylinders most of the time, as does Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, Hitchcock, and a few others. There are few I love as much as the Coen Brothers, though. Joel and Ethan Coen know what they’re doing. They write well, direct well, produce well, and make me damn happy.

What I find interesting about the Coens is that they are equally at home with drama and comedy. Their first movie, Blood Simple, is one of the great debuts in movie history. In the same vein, they created Miller’s Crossing and No Country for Old Men. Comedy-wise, there’s The Hudsucker Proxy, Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, and these two films. In between, there’s Fargo.

Just as many directors have muses, so too do the Coens. A lot of the same people turn up over and over in their films. John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Francis McDormand, and others seem to keep showing up over and over in Coen films. There has to be some particular joy for an actor knowing that one of the best directors going likes having you around and continues to write great parts for you.

O Brother Where Art Thou is essentially a retelling of The Odyssey to the point that Homer is given partial writing credit for the film. We have a trio of ne’er-do-wells who have escaped from a prison chain gang. The leader is Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), a slick talking, educated man with a penchant for complex sentences and advanced vocabulary. Accompanying him are Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro). They go with Everett because they’re chained to him, and because he promises them a third share of $1.2 million from an armed car robbery. However, they need to get to where it was buried quickly because a new dam is being built, and the land will soon be covered by a manmade lake.

Along the way, the three meet up with characters of all stripes and deal with terrible odds preventing their success. All of this is predicted by a blind man on a handcart who tells them they will find a great treasure, but not the one they seek, a reference to the blind poet Homer. They meet with sirens, who spirit Pete away, a cyclops in the form of Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), see the murder of innocent livestock as with the slaughter of the cattle of Helios (here at the hands of Babyface Nelson, played by Michael Badalucco) and more. Even Circe is referenced when Delmar is convinced that Pete has been transformed into a toad.

The big reference, though is Everett’s wife Penny (Odysseus’s wife was named Penelope). She’s set to marry another man, which is the real reason Everett broke out of prison in the first place. Just as Penelope fended off suitors until her husband returned and proved himself, Everett must prove himself a man in her eyes to prevent her marriage. He does this because of a chance of fate. A meeting with a young man at a crossroads and a desire for instant cash turn the three with their new friend Tommy (Chris Thomas King) into The Soggy Bottom Boys, the hottest singing act to ever hit Mississippi.

There are great cameos littered through this film as well. Stephen Root plays the man who first records the Soggy Bottom Boys. Charles Durning shows up as the governor of Mississippi. The underrated and virtually unknown Daniel von Bargen (you’ll know him the minute you see him) plays the evil pursuing sheriff dedicated to finding and killing Everett and his friends, essentially acting as Poseidon in his wrath against Odysseus.

Here’s the thing: even without all of the references to Homer’s work, this is a great movie. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the hell out of this movie without knowing anything about classic Greek literature. It’s also worth noting that this is the first time in a long time I’ve had any desire to go out and purchase a movie soundtrack. It’s that good all the way through.

Raising Arizona was my first encounter with the Coens as a director/producer team (Joel Coen was the assistant editor on The Evil Dead). Despite multiple viewings, I still love this movie, and it still kills me every time I watch it. Of all the Coen films, this one is the most quotable, the one filled with lines that seem suitable in a variety of situations.

H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a small-time crook constantly arrested for armed robbery. He’s only technically armed, though; there’s never any ammunition in the gun. Every time he is picked up, he’s photographed by Edwina (Holly Hunter), whose conversation with him consists of a shouted “Turn to the right!” Eventually, Hi confesses his love for her, and when he’s released again, the two are married. They move into a trailer and await the coming of children.

Sadly, Ed is barren. At the same time, a local unpainted furniture magnate named Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife are blessed with quintuplets. Ed wants a baby, and since Hi has a criminal past, she convinces him that the only thing to do is to sneak into the Arizona mansion and steal one of the babies so they can raise it as their own.

The problem is that everyone wants the baby. Two of Hi’s prison friends break out and visit the couple. Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe) want the child for their own. So too do Glen (Sam McMurray) and Dot (Frances McDormand), who know the real identity of the child and threaten to turn Ed and Hi in if they don’t get the baby. Arizona wants his child back and hires Leonard Smalls (Tex Cobb), a rough and dirty assassin on a Harley, to get the child back at all costs.

And so, it’s a comedy of errors. Hi and Ed do everything they can to make their lives happy with a child, and at every turn, everyone they encounter wants to take the child away from them. Of course, the child isn’t theirs to begin with (although as Hi says after the kidnapping, he got a good one). This leads to more theft, another convenience store robbery, more kidnappings, chases, fights, and an explosion or two.

It also leads to a tremendous amount of hick philosophizing from Hi in the form of voice over. It’s these in general that kill me. Some of the comments are staggeringly funny and are certainly meant to be, but for the characters in the film, they are said in all earnestness. Hi is sincere when he complains that Edwina is a rocky place where his seed could not find purchase, and when he does this, it renders me incapacitated with laughter.

I don’t usually like Nicolas Cage. He tends to overact and he also tends to make really crappy movies. His output for a great deal of his career has consisted of overblown action films short on plot and far too long on budget. He could be better as this film proves, but he typically isn’t. It makes me sad that someone could be producing great work over and over again—he’s made other movies worth watching—but instead makes crap that’s not worth the popcorn I spill when walking out. Do better, Cage. Make the Coens want to work with you again.

Why to watch O Brother Where Art Thou: A modern classic, and a classic brought to modern times.
Why not to watch: You can’t get beyond the bluegrass.

Why to watch Raising Arizona: The funniest thing the Coens ever did.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to believe that Nicolas Cage didn’t always suck really hard.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Film: Akira
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

At least one of my co-workers, several of my friends, and many of my students are big fans of anime. Sadly, I have never really gotten into it. It’s just never been that interesting to me. The biggest issue I have is that so much anime seems to require a lot of exposition, and it’s rarely provided. I just can’t make sense of a lot of it. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or an anime thing. A friend asked me if I had the same problem with Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the answer is that I did not. Herbert’s lack of exposition bothered me less, so I suspect that the problem here is a culture gap. I am not otaku.

Akira is more or less the Gone With the Wind of Japanese animation films. It’s not necessarily the first one, or even the first great one, but it’s unquestionably the best-known of anime before it became far more popular, at least in the U.S. Certainly there was animation before this, but Akira woke up an entire generation of animators and artists.

I remember seeing this in college about a year after it was released. One of my roommates was an art student and he insisted on at least one of us in the house going with him to see a showing. I had no idea what to expect. He promised a good show and animation like I had never seen before. He was right.

As with most anime, the story here leaves a lot to the individual to understand, or attempt to understand on his or her own. The movie starts officially in 1988 with a massive explosion in Tokyo, heralding World War III. The rest of the film takes place 31 years later in 2019. Neo-Tokyo is a dystopian city: futuristic but with futuristic touches and technology. We meet a young cycle gang consisting of a few high-school age boys. Of these, Kaneda is in charge, while Tetsuo is the weakest, and the one least capable of taking care of himself.

The gang fights a battle with another cycle gang called the Clowns, and this is not what one might think of in terms of high school fighting. The fighting involves motorcycles, wrenches, metal bars, and high-speed pursuit. In the course of the fighting, several of the Clowns and a few innocent bystanders are killed or hospitalized. Meanwhile, a man and a strange, grey-green skinned child with the face of an old man are running away. The man is killed, but the boy escapes. He does this by screaming, which causes a nearby building to explode.

Tetsuo is injured when he encounters this old/young boy/man. The boy/man is captured by government officials, who take Tetsuo with them. It appears that Tetsuo carries many of the same abilities as the strange boy. As it turns out, he does: Tetsuo has the capability of being incredibly telekinetic and of manifesting incredible mental powers of destruction. All of this is tied to something called “Akira,” which is something like an ultimate power source.

That’s about as much as I can explain. The film actually makes more sense to me than a lot of anime does, although that frankly wouldn’t be hard. It is a traditional anime in the sense that it looks like anime, but that’s about all that, in my limited experience remains the same. While plenty of anime is violent, Akira is significantly violent, much of it sudden, unexpected, and shocking. Death comes quickly, unexpectedly, and horribly for not only characters we have come to know, but also for hundreds of bystanders. Tetsuo’s transformation near the end of the film is highly disturbing—borderline nauseating, which is something of an accomplishment for an animated movie.

What’s missing here and present in a substantial amount of anime that I’ve encountered is an obsession with the cute. There are a few moments of comic relief in this film, but not too many, and there’s very little going on here that anyone would classify as traditionally cutesy in the anime style.

While the story is an interesting one, and the implications of the ending (which I will not reveal) are fascinating in the extreme, Akira is not a film I love. It’s difficult for me to enjoy a movie that leaves so much unanswered for me. I don’t mind uncertainty. What I do mind more is that much of the basic background of this film is simply never explained. An ending open to interpretation isn’t a problem. A complete lack of a frame of reference makes my head hurt.

The art is pretty, though. If nothing else, Akira was the first movie that made people realize what could be done with animation when it wasn’t created for children or shorted on budget. It’s a true achievement. I just wish I liked it more.

Why to watch Akira: Groundbreaking animation and artwork.
Why not to watch: Disturbing imagery.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Post #100

Film: Platoon
Format: DVD from personal collection on itty bitty bedroom television.

When it comes to war in the movies, the granddaddy for sheer numbers and numbers of great films is World War II. The winner in terms of realism, though, is Viet Nam. There are a number of possibilities for this. The most likely is that the great Viet Nam films were made by filmmakers who were there, and who were far less restricted in what they could show then the veterans of World War II were allowed to depict on the screen.

The greatest of the Nam films will depend on whom you are speaking to. Opinions vary, but in any group of people, it won’t be long before someone mentions Platoon. Certainly, by any standards, Platoon should be mentioned in the same breath with other Nam films.

It had been years since I’d seen this. In fact, while I can’t pinpoint the date I saw this movie, I can pin a rough time on it. I saw it in the theater in 1986 with my mother. In retrospect, I’m not sure Mom was that comfortable watching this movie with her teenaged son. It’s plenty violent, features copious amounts of language, and makes a number of references to sex that aren’t so much fun in the company of one’s parent.

Like any good war movie, Platoon is about much more than just the war, although it’s certainly about that as well. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, back when he still had a career that didn’t involve hookers and a bad sit-com) has enlisted in the Army because he no longer appreciated his privileged life back in the States. He’s quickly disabused of his patriotic notions, however, when the war shows up to slap him across the face almost as soon as he gets there.

We’re introduced to a number of characters including Big Harold (Forest Whitaker), King (Keith David), the gravel-voiced Rhah (Francesco Quinn), Bunny (Kevin Dillon), and Junior (Reggie Johnson). Most importantly, we are introduced to Bravo Company’s sergeants, the spiritual Elias (Willem Dafoe), the scarred and terrifying Barnes (Tom Berringer), the terminally paranoid O’Neill (John C. McGinley), and the addicted Warren (Tony Todd).

Bravo is divided into two groups: Barnes’s group are drinkers, fighters, and psychotic killers existing only to destroy as much of the VC as they can. Elias’s group, on the other hand, tend to spend time in an underground bunker getting as stoned as possible. Chris initially fits in with neither group until he is wounded mildly in combat and comes back from the hospital. King takes him to Elias’s bunker, and Chris has essentially chosen his side.

The difference between the two groups is made manifest when the platoon investigates a Vietnamese village. Chris locates a mother and her disfigured son hiding under a floor in a hut. Chris torments the boy, but leaves it at that. Bunny, on the other hand, brutally kills the boy with the butt of his rifle, and then leaves the hut bragging about the splatter he created. Shortly after, Chris protects a young Vietnamese girl from what would likely have been a serial rape at the hands of Barnes’s crew.

The battle between the two sides of the platoon intensifies and finally culminates in a battle that goes badly. While chaos reigns on all sides, Elias runs off to flank the enemy. Barnes tracks him down and pumps three rounds into his chest, then makes for the evac helicopter, telling all who survived that Elias was killed. But, as the helicopter takes off, Elias breaks through the trees, only to be gunned down by the NVA as he attempts to flee. Chris is convinced that Barnes killed him, but can’t really prove it.

And that’s the movie, or at least the most obvious parts of it. Of course, there’s a lot more, which is what anyone watching an Oliver Stone movie should expect. Platoon is about choices, and the value of those choices we make. Here, those choices are represented by Elias and Barnes. Elias is a tremendous soldier. He’s smart, cunning, quiet, swift, and effective. But, he doesn’t kill needlessly. He’s as peaceful as a soldier can be, killing only from need and because he must. Barnes, however, lives for the killing. He kills out of hand simply because it’s what he does. There is something mystical about him as well—his severely scarred face serves as a constant reminder of his near-immortality. One member of the platoon comments that Barnes has been shot seven times, and that the only thing that can kill him is himself.

At this point, you can choose your dichotomy. Elias represents good, Barnes evil. Elias represents God, Barnes is Satan. Elias is humanity, Barnes is inhumanity. They’re probably all correct, although I favor the reading that Elias is a Christ figure. The first time we see him, he’s in the classic crucifix pose, rifle over his shoulders, arms slung over the top. Chris receives one of his first drug hits courtesy of Elias “baptizing” him through the barrel of his rifle. Finally, he dies and comes back, however briefly.

It’s a straightforward allegory, but that’s really the only thing straightforward here. Everything is confused by a haze of characters and personalities. That sounds like a criticism, which is unintentional. The movie is confusing because the war is confusing. Everyone shifts and positions change and mutate. Chris chooses, and so must we in the audience.

Why to watch Platoon: Realistic war and sweet, delicious allegory.
Why not to watch: Violence that will stick with you for a long time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The End of Poland

Film: Popiol i Diament (Ashes and Diamonds)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I took a much needed mental health break for a couple of days. Well, that and the fact that I had a massive pile of work to finish up kept me away from the DVD player for a few days. Regardless of the reason, I figured that when I came back it would be with something I’d never heard of in a foreign language. Thus, today I’m looking at a film from Poland from the height of the Cold War.

Popiol i Diament
(Ashes and Diamonds) takes place on the last day of World War II in Europe. With the defeat of the Nazis imminent, Soviet Russia has moved into Eastern Europe and making a play for control over as much territory as it can get. The people of Poland are naturally of two minds on this. Protection would be nice, of course—it was the invasion of Poland that touched off the shooting war, after all. On the other hand, communism is one of those ideas the works only for the true believers. If you’re not a communist, you generally aren’t a big fan of communism.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a Polish soldier who is strongly against the rise of communism in Poland as well as the effective Soviet takeover of the country. On the final day of the war, he is assigned the task of assassinating a Soviet official who is in town to establish a new communist government. Maciek has no problem with this, but he’s also tired of war. He meets a pretty girl on the evening of the war’s end, and would much rather spend time with her than go kill yet another person.

It’s a more than worthwhile film, but that’s not what I want to get into here. There are much more important things to discuss about a Polish film about World War II made in the late 1950s.

Anyone who was alive and relatively sentient during the 1980s remembers Solidarity and Lech Walesa and the Polish movement for freedom from the Soviet Bloc. Poland’s stand against the military might of the USSR was admirable, and captured the attention of the world. This filim is proof that this thread of resistance to outside domination had a long history. Imagine creating a film of this topic directly under the eye and thumb of an oppressive regime. The main character, the one we are supposed to identify with and like, is tasked with the assassination of an important communist official. Remarkable.

While certainly a risk for any of the actors who appear in the film, creating this story and filming it had to be a significant risk for director Andrzej Wajda. Maciek, our hero, carries around a U.S. Army surplus bag, almost a direct admission of sympathy for more Western ideas. Maciek, Western ideas and clothing, is a charmer, as he was designed to be. His flirtation with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) is cute—a little annoying, perhaps, but cute. Cybulski, who plays Maciek, was dubbed “the Polish James Dean,” and the comparison is apt. He’s ruggedly attractive, a touch smarmy, and completely likable.

Much of this film is not about the war, or Soviet occupation, or communism, but Poland itself and its identity in the new world created at the end of the war. Everyone in the film is conflicted by almost everything they do. Andrezej (Adam Pawikowski), after a botched assassination attempt, questions the need to assassinate Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). He merely wants an end to the killing. His superior officer is more pragmatic, claiming that for the past six years, they have fought for the freedom of Poland, and the Soviet version of a free Poland is not what they fought for. Again, strong words to put on film in a film made under such circumstances.

Maciek is just as conflicted, though. He’s happy to kill whomever he’s pointed at, except that he’d really rather just have a good time—a completely understandable position based on six years of constant fighting.

Popiol i Diament is a powerful story. Wajda pulls no punches from the very start. The opening scene is the botched assassination attempt in which two completely innocent men are killed. This happens with submachine guns blazing, in front of the watchful eyes of a young girl. Later, Maciek is confronted by the woman whose lover he killed accidentally.

Additionally, the overall grime and terrible condition of Poland both at the end of the war and as it will exist under communist rule is not hedged in the slightest. Cabinets pop open at inopportune times. Shades don’t close correctly and are filled with holes. Doors don’t close without effort. Nothing works as it should; the explicit reason is the war, but the implication is that things will get no better under Soviet rule. This is especially true with the badly tuned instruments owned by musicians attempting to play a song they don’t know at the end. Could there be a better metaphor?

There’s plenty of symbolism here—fire, a white horse—and plenty of ways to interpret. Even Maciek’s constant wearing of sunglasses means something. But this is a film that is better left to individual interpretation. Determine your own meaning, just as I have determined mine.

A masterful film. While I can’t say I’m in love with the ending, it is the only ending that really makes sense here.

Why to watch Popiol i Diament: Depressing realism in post-war Poland.
Why not to watch: The longest death scene in freakin’ history.