Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Month 17 Status Report/Meme Participation

I don't generally participate in movie blog memes because of how focused this blog is, but the current one is far too much fun to not join in. So, as a break from the typical status report, here are my answers to the 15 Movie Questions currently circulating.

1. Movie you love with a passion

...28 Days Later. I realize that many people dislike the third act of this, but I really like this film stem to stern. It's zombies, plus a completely new take on zombies!

2. Movie you vow never to watch

Torture porn just doesn't swing it for me, and this seems like the most egregious example.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless

Idi i Smotri.
I have never seen a better argument against war, or a more brutal lesson in the same. It not only left me speechless, I couldn't bring myself to move, and I watched the DVD menu for a good five minutes before I could turn it off.

4. Movie you always recommend

Hot Fuzz.
I like it more than I liked Shaun of the Dead. It's a thorough skewering of buddy cop movies and plays all of the cliches perfectly.

5. Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.

Either Audrey Tautou or Audrey Hepburn.
I love them both equally. I almost said Cary Grant.

6. Actor/actress you don't get the appeal for

Renee Zellweger.
When did sucking on a lemon become sexy? I don't condone abusive behavior, but seriously, she has a face that's absolutely dying for a slap. Second place, Katherine Heigl.

7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you'd love to meet.

Bruce Campbell.
'Cause he's the man.

8. Sexiest actor/actress you've ever seen (picture required!)

Salma Hayek
. I did not have to think about this.

9. Dream cast

The cast of any Christopher Nolan film, but directed by Guillermo del Toro
--especially if del Toro is adapting a Lovecraft story. How much fun would it be to see Joseph Gordon Levitt, Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe fighting eldritch horrors from beyond space and time?

10. Favorite actor pairing

Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont.
Has there ever been a better foil for a better comic? I think not.

11. Favorite movie setting

I'd live there if I could, and every movie that takes place or has a scene there makes me want to go back. Sacre Cour (in the background) is my favorite place in the world.

12. Favorite decade for movies

The '80s.
Not a popular answer, I know, but it was the decade I came of age in, and the movies that were critical for my formative years all come from this decade. It was a great decade for science fiction, too.

13. Chick flick or action movie?

If I'm paying $9 to see something, I want bread and circuses. I want explosions and quality kill, dammit. I have money; entertain me!

14. Hero, villain, or anti-hero?

I like my movie gods to be accessible and believable. I like them bad enough to be dirty, but not so bad to be despicable. Heroes are just too perfect.

15. Black and white or color?

How can I choose?
I love both. There's a part of me that loves it when a modern filmmaker chooses to use black and white, though.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It Only Sounds Like Porn

Film: The Big Red One
Format: DVD from personal collection on itty bitty bedroom television.

I have no idea why I watched The Big Red One the first time other than the fact that it was a war movie, and when I was a kid, war movies were my favorite genre of film. I don’t think I knew then that the official museum of the First Division was almost literally in my backyard, or at least within a 15-minute drive. All I knew was that it was a war movie and that guys shot at stuff and got shot at, and bad guys died, and that was enough for me.

The film opens in the days at the tail end of World War I. An unnamed man (later referred to only as the Sergeant and played by Lee Marvin) is wandering the battlefield when he is attacked by a crazed horse. The horse destroys his rifle. The man then encounters a German soldier who tells him the war is over. Not believing the German, the man kills the German with a knife, only to discover later that he’d been told the truth, making what he did not killing an enemy, but murder, at least in his own mind.

We flash forward then to World War II, with a group of new soldiers heading for North Africa under the command of the Sergeant. Of this group and the Sergeant’s rifle squad, we are concerned really with four men: Zab (Robert Carradine), who is an aspiring novelist and also our narrator through the film; Griff (Mark Hamill), a semi-pacifist and sharpshooter; Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco); and Johnson (Kelly Ward). The other soldiers in the rifle squad come and go, but these four remain, fighting through North Africa, Sicily, D-Day, and across Europe until the end of the fighting.

And that is really all that happens here. There is no major overarching plot to keep us glued to our seats. While several of the characters—particularly Griff—experience some changes between our opening frames and the credits, this film is different from most World War II films and most war films in that there is not a particular mission or event that concerns the bulk of the action. Instead, the plot is the survival of these men in the squad—can they make it to the other side of the war with not only their bodies but their minds still intact?

There are a number of particular events that occur through the film, of course, to show us in the audience the true horrors of battle and of warfare. We see the men dig into foxholes at Kasserine, we see them fight German panzer divisions on Sicily. We see a vicious firefight in an insane asylum. All of this culminates in the liberation of a concentration camp and the realization of what has been going on far behind the German lines.

While both war and anti-war films have been made almost since films started rolling more than 100 years ago, The Big Red One is different from both in many respects. It’s almost neutral on the idea of whether we should fight in wars or not. War is treated not as something to seek for and find glory and honor. It’s also not treated as the greatest evil of Mankind and something that should be avoided at all costs. Instead, war simply exists, and men go to fight and die in it, and some of them live to see the end while others are killed along the way. In essence, war here isn’t objectively good or bad—that judgment is up to each of us individually.

Certainly war isn’t glorified here. The men are simply men—tough in many cases (Lee Marvin couldn’t possibly be something other than tough), dedicated, good soldiers, and even willing to fight for their country, but there is no tickertape parade or swelling musical strains here. At the same time, the theme of killing in war versus murder is played out multiple times, and Fuller’s conclusion seems to be that these two things are not synonymous—that there exists a very real difference between murder and death in war. Again, war simply exists, and the rules for it exist, and there is no objective judgment. What we learn by the end is that war exists sometimes because it has to.

In many ways, it feels like American war movies grew up some with the creation and release of The Big Red One. Instead of nationalistic chest thumping, propaganda, or pacifism, we get instead something that attempts to approach simple reality.

All well and good, but how is the movie? It’s a keeper. There’s enough going on here to keep a dedicated action fan watching. There’s enough “us good, them bad” for even the staunchest military hawk to clap hands and cheer. There’s enough “war is hell” for the doves. And despite this, it doesn’t feel scattered or difficult to follow.

I can’t say it’s my favorite war movie, but it was an important step in moving the film industry toward more realism in such films. That it does so without obvious moral judgment is even more impressive.

Why to watch The Big Red One: American war movies grown up.
Why not to watch: War is never pretty.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Robot Love

Film: WALL-E
Format: DVD from personal collection on middlin’-sized living room television.

Say what you will about Pixar, they aren’t afraid to take chances. This is a company that made a kids movie about monsters in the closet, people who created an engaging story about a sewer rat living in a restaurant, and a children’s fable about a cranky old man. It seems like the folks at Pixar go out of their way to craft stories about the most unusual, non-kid-film characters they can think of. WALL-E pushes that envelope about as hard as Pixar can push it, and the fact that Pixar pulls it off is nothing less than amazing.

In a future world, the Earth has become so covered in garbage and trash that it is no longer fit for human habitation. The humans all leave to journey out in space for a few years while the planet is reconditioned by hordes of little garbage compacting robots called WALL-Es (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth class). The clean up is originally estimated at five years, but it takes quite a bit longer. In fact, as the movie opens, there is only a single WALL-E left functional on Earth.

Having worked around the refuse of Earth for so long, and now completely isolated, WALL-E has developed something of a personality. He has a penchant for old musicals and likes to collect interesting items that he finds in his wanderings. WALL-E continues to compact garbage, making massive towers of waste material, but also puts his more interesting finds into an old cooler that the takes back to his home every day. He collects anything that strikes his fancy—Rubik’s cubes, old lighters, a bra, a hubcap.

Everything changes for WALL-E with the arrival of EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Examiner) from the human ships still in orbit. While it’s not immediately evident what EVE wants, she appears to be searching for something. Alone for so long, WALL-E is immediately smitten with this sleek new robot, and he does everything he can to gain her attention.

Eventually, after taking a couple of high-powered explosive shots at him, EVE figures out that she can trust the little yellow robot. He tries everything he can to impress her, and finally does when he presents her with a growing plant. EVE shuts down when this happens, and is eventually taken back to space to trigger the recolonization of Earth by the generations still alive. These generations, with 700 years in space of pampering and massive bone density loss, have their own problems to deal with, including a ship’s computer that would rather keep the people in space.

WALL-E is amazing not because of or even in spite of the characters. What is truly astonishing here is that there is virtually no dialogue through most of the film. Only the people on the giant spaceship really have much to say—WALL-E doesn’t say much beyond his own name and “EEE-vuh,” which is about the amount of dialogue that EVE has. And yet, while our only other character for the first half hour or more of the film is a cockroach, there is not a single dull moment.

The second half of the film, with WALL-E trying to find and then rescue EVE, and EVE trying to find and rescue WALL-E is not nearly as entertaining as the scenes with WALL-E exploring the remains of civilization on Earth or the rather tender scenes in which he tries to impress EVE with his collection of junk. It’s not that the second part of the film is bad, but it loses a great deal of the innocence and sweetness of the film’s opening.

I very much expected to like WALL-E, this being another film that was built up in my mind before I watched it. I knew my kids liked it, which is why I purchased a copy for them the other day—it took them less than 48 hours to break it out and watch. Sadly, though, I’m not sure it hits my top tier of Pixar films. It’s better than several, not nearly as good as at least three of the Pixars I’ve seen (I still haven’t seen all of Toy Story 3 or Up). I really wanted this to rank with The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story. Instead, it comes in a little south of Ratatouille.

The first part of WALL-E is irrepressibly cute, but never cutesy. In the second half, we’re hit with message-message-message in terms of both environmentalism and the tendency for people to be fat and lazy. Good messages to put in front of kids, no doubt, but there were moments when it felt like I was getting hammered with them.

The film also makes some interesting comments about gender, probably without meaning to. WALL-E is male; EVE is female. How do we know? We simply do, but part of the reason is because of some subtle stereotyping. WALL-E is boxy and angular while EVE is curved with no angles. WALL-E is dirty and unkempt; EVE is clean and shiny. It's a nice touch that here EVE is the savior of humanity and the world. Still, is it a mistake that WALL-E is cute and cuddly and comfortable (and male) and EVE is sleek, pretty, and somewhat terrifying (and female)? I'm certain much of this is not intentional, or happened because such stereotypes are fully ingrained in us. And it's worth noting that in contrast to these stereotypes, EVE is also smarter and better with technology than her male counterpart. Unintentional almost certainly, but it's definitely there.

In short, WALL-E is good, maybe even great, but Pixar has been better. It’s still a better film than about 95% of “family” films ever made.

Why to watch WALL-E: It’s 100 times better than you imagine a movie about a garbage robot could be.
Why not to watch: The cuteness will make your eyeballs melt.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tahitian Treat

Film: Mutiny on the Bounty
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s something special about a film of men on the high seas, battling the most powerful of elements and each other that gets the blood stirring. While seagoing movies of wooden ships and iron men are no longer yearly fare, enough of them were made in bygone years to last us for a long time. Many of these films tell the tale of war; others tell of piracy (a very popular thing at the moment). Still others tell of treachery and mutiny. Some of the greatest sea pictures are of the mutiny or almost-mutiny variety. Mister Roberts and The Caine Mutiny both fall into that broad category. So too do all of the different versions of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The story of the Bounty has been filmed multiple times—as a silent film, as the version here with Clark Gable, another version in the ‘60s with Marlon Brando, and an updated ‘80s version with Mel Gibson. There may well be other versions as well—it’s a popular story not the least of which is because of the various themes that it explores. Mutiny on the Bounty touches on themes of loyalty and duty as well as ideas of cruelty and leadership. We have base human emotions, nobility, sacrifice, danger…in short, everything a “boy’s own” adventure should have.

Our ship, the HMS Bounty, is heading to Tahiti on a trade mission. The ship is to transport a cargo of breadfruit trees to the West Indies to be replanted for food for the slaves working there. To staff the ship, the crew takes men from jails and press gang others into service. Sadly for those picked up in the press gang, the HMS Bounty sails under the captaincy of Bligh (Charles Laughton).

Captain Bligh (one letter away from “blight”) is a great seaman and a sailor’s sailor. His main issue is that he’s a complete son of a bitch. Certainly capable of sailing a ship through almost anything and to almost anywhere, he is intensely dislike by his crew for his obstinacy and his nearly pathological cruelty to the men. Any slight is dealt with in the harshest, most unfair methods, and Bligh brooks no word against his own. He is always correct, never to be corrected. A man asking for water while working is given water—by being keelhauled and killed. We learn of Bligh’s insane “by the book” mentality when before sailing, he is tasked with punishing a man who struck his captain. Before the punishment is given, it is discovered that the man is dead. Bligh orders the corpse whipped anyway.

As the journey progresses, we learn that this is the normal state of affairs for Bligh. He expects not merely for his orders to be obeyed, but blind obedience to every word he utters. A lapse in his own memory means punishment for anyone who disagrees with him. Often, it appears that he exacts punishments merely for the sake of doing so, hoping to cow the men into complete submission to his every whim. Just as critically, once Bligh has his mind made up about something, no force in the world can change it.

Opposing him is Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who believes that the men onboard would be better served by a little thought and a little mercy rather than draconian punishments for everything up to and including doing their duty as instructed. He begins to openly oppose the captain, especially once the ship reaches its final destination. Less obvious in his opposition to Bligh is Byum (Franchot Tone). Byum struggles with Bligh’s cruelty as much as Christian does, and wants things to improve for the men as well, but he is also young enough and is enough of an idealist that he refuses to compromise on what he considers to be his duty to King and country.

We get a nice idyll in Tahiti, where both Byum and Christian find sweet, sexy, native love until it’s time for the Bounty to head off back to the West Indies. Not too long after this, Christian has finally had enough of Bligh’s mindless cruelty and stages a mutiny with many of the men onboard. Byum, trying to stage a counter-mutiny, is trapped below decks and is thus not able to be put into the longboat with the rest of those loyal to Bligh.

This sets up the interesting sequence in which Bligh proves his ability, sailing a tiny little longboat across 3,500 miles of open ocean to safety. Once there, his goal is to get a new ship and sail back to Tahiti, confront the men who disobeyed him, and see as many of them swing from a yardarm as possible.

Mutiny on the Bounty won the Best Picture Oscar in 1936, and all three of the principal actors were nominated for Best Actor, the only time in history such an event has occurred.

Having now seen the film, I wonder at its inclusion. Certainly it’s a fine film, and while the scenery and the beauty of Tahiti are something to behold, it hardly seems like enough. I can’t think of a solid reason to want to watch this again. Without a doubt, Bligh is a bastard coated bastard with bastard filling…and? Fletcher Christian certainly talks a good game, but here I find it difficult to side with him fully.

I guess what I’m saying is that if a mutiny film needed to be included here, I’d have preferred The Caine Mutiny. If it was more a wooden ships/iron men film needed, I’d have preferred Master and Commander. Ultimately, this is kind of a big so what.

Why to watch Mutiny on the Bounty: A rousing sea adventure.
Why not to watch: Bligh will make you want to punch through the screen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

RKO 281

Film: Citizen Kane
Format: VHS from personal collection projected on screen.

For all the hoopla that surrounds it, Citizen Kane has a very strange reputation. It has been hailed by the American Film Institute as the greatest film ever made, a distinction the AFI has given Citizen Kane more than once. On the other hand, I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me how much they dislike the film, or find it boring and a waste of time. My conclusion of these differing opinions? The AFI knows in general what it’s talking about, and a lot of people have crappy taste and are really, really stupid.

This is the first film done by Orson Welles, and it’s one hell of a debut. It’s essentially a character study rather than focusing on a plot. We start with the death of our title character, media tycoon and former political candidate Charles Foster Kane (Welles). He dies uttering the single word “Rosebud,” creating a mystery. No one, it seems, knows who or what “Rosebud” is or was.

The task of discovering the truth behind the word falls to a reporter named Thompson (William Alland). He interviews a number of people who knew Kane or who worked with Kane in an attempt to come to the truth of the word, and ends up discovering instead the story of the man’s life. Thus, the entire film is told in flashback through the memories of those who knew him.

Kane gained his fortune by accident; a boarder at his parent’s boarding house left the deed to an allegedly played-out mine which turned out to be filled with gold. His mother (Agnes Moorehead) puts the young Charles in the care of Thatcher (George Coulouris). Charles takes an immediate and intense dislike to Thatcher, something that continues throughout the rest of the film.

Upon his graduation, Kane decides to take over the running of a newspaper that is a part of his holdings, and he uses it to attack big businesses and (at least in his own mind) assist the common working people. Helping him do this are his friends Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane, and we never to learn Bernstein’s first name) and Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten). Kane uses his money and influence to hire away the best writers from other papers and push his own circulation to the top of the charts, using this platform to influence public policy and national events. He also begins collecting art treasures from around the world and, on a trip to Europe, finds himself engaged to Emily (Ruth Warrick), who also happens to be the niece of the sitting president.

Eventually, buoyed by his wealth, fame, and success, Kane runs for governor, but is caught in a compromising position with a young “singer” named Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). He loses the election, is divorced by Emily, and marries Susan with the intent on turning her into a great opera singer. The plan backfires mainly because of her complete lack of talent, and when she can take the catcalls and boos no longer, she attempts suicide. With this, Kane builds a huge fortress called Xanadu for her, and the two become completely isolated.

However, Susan doesn’t want isolation; she wants nightlife, and after a few fights, she too leaves the great man, leaving him in his crumbling palace with his crumbling media empire around him to die alone, bringing us back to the beginning of the film. The people in the film never do discover what “Rosebud” is, although we in the audience do. You’ve either seen this or know it already, or don’t want it spoiled, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that “Rosebud” actually does tie up a great deal of information about who Kane was and what he really wanted from life.

The noteworthy thing about Citizen Kane is everything about Citizen Kane. It enjoys one of the greatest scripts ever penned, with some genuinely insightful and marvelous lines. There is a moment, for instance, when Bernstein comments to the reporter that “Rosebud” might be a woman. The reporter demurs, but Bernstein insists that he can still remember a girl he saw for just a second on a ferry decades ago. It’s a great image.

My favorite character in the film is Jed Leland, particularly the older version in the nursing home. He’s an irascible old coot, calling Kane’s palace “Sloppy Joe’s” and repeatedly asking the reporter to find a way to slip him in some cigars without the doctor knowing. He’s a great character—funny, irreverent, and honest in a way that only the old without anything to lose can be. Susan Alexander Kane is far more poignant, having slipped deeply into alcoholism after her divorce from Kane.

But more than the script and the great characters, this is a tremendous film to watch simply for the technical aspects of film. Welles may have been working on his first movie, but he shows that he as a flair for the dramatic and the subtle. Powerful characters like Kane are almost always filmed from below, making them towering presences in the film, while the weaker characters like Susan are virtually always shot from above, making them look more vulnerable. Light and shadow are used brilliantly, and the make-up work is consistently excellent—Welles looks his age in the early scenes and truly looks old instead of under heavy cosmetics in the later scenes.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss this movie without at least mentioning William Randolph Hearst, since the film acts as a sort of unofficial biography of the publishing magnate. Hearst did his best to quash the film, and in fact no Hearst publication reviewed the movie until about forty years after the film’s release. Hearst was unsuccessful in stopping the movie from release, which is all to the good. Citizen Kane is a true work of cinematic art.

I understand why people dislike this film. The plot, such as it is, is about a single man and the life he lived. It’s an intense, warts-and-all character study with no real action. But it is staggering, a monumental achievement. It’s not my favorite film, but it is one that I never tire of watching, and while I like many other movies more than this one, I can’t argue with the thoughts that put this as the greatest achievement ever made in film.

As a final note, it’s worth seeking out the fictionalized making-of film RKO 281, which was the production number for Kane.

Why to watch Citizen Kane: The greatest film ever made according to a great many people.
Why not to watch: You’re one of those people who won’t watch a film more than 10 years old and are thus an idiot.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Round and Round

Film: La Roue (The Wheel)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

While I’ve become more and more attuned to silent films the more of them I watch, it’s come to my attention that in general, silent comedies aren’t long enough and silent dramas are far too long. This is no doubt because of the conventions created and necessary in the early days of cinema. With audiences unsophisticated in the language of film and the inability to use actual speech, many things simply took longer to get through to the audience. Abel Gance’s La Roue (The Wheel) is a perfect example of this. While a landmark film for many reasons, even its trimmed length is far longer than it feels like it needs to be.

The story is one to make Freud chomp down harder on his cigar. A train driver named Sisif (Severin-Mars) discovers a young girl after a terrible train crash. He determines that the girl is now an orphan and named Norma, and he takes her home to raise side-by-side with his son. The two children grow up together, and Sisif cares for both of them.

The boy, Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), becomes a violin maker while Norma (Ivy Close) appears to live a life of tending the house and teasing Elie. The two believe themselves to be brother and sister, because Sisif has never told them any differently. However, Sisif knows the girl’s origins, and finds himself slowly becoming entranced with her, which causes him to start drinking heavily. In the meantime, a man named de Hersan (Pierre Magnier) has also taken an interest in Norma. Sisif confesses his completely natural love for his adopted daughter to de Hersan, who blackmails the old train driver: let him marry Norma, or he’ll tell the girl of her origins.

Sisif complies, and sends Norma away, driving the train himself, but the grief and pain causes him so much distraction that he almost crashes. However, de Hersan stays true to his word, and keeps Norma away from the train yard and Sisif’s house. Eventually, Elie discovers Norma’s origins and he pines for her two, and on those rare occasions Norma attempts to visit her adopted family, they send her away because both of them love her. Elie confesses his love in a note he slips into a violin, which de Hersan breaks. He confronts Elie, and the two fight, killing each other.

During all of this, incidentally, Sisif is nearly blinded by an accident, and because of his terrible eyesight is transferred from the main train yard to driving the little funicular train up the side of the Alps, so that confrontation between de Hersan and Elie occurs on a splendid mountain backdrop. Sisif slowly loses his eyesight completely, and Norma discovers this, and moves back into his house without letting him know. Eventually he discovers this and…well, I won’t spoil that part.

While the story is an interesting one and Gance’s style and technique are landmark, La Roue is incredibly slow. The story delineated above takes nearly four-and-a-half hours to chug through, and the original cut of the film clocked in at something closer to seven hours. Much of the reason for this is the conventions of silent film. It takes forever for Gance to show us anything because he has to hammer every truth home repeatedly until he’s sure that the slowest dimwit in the audience gets it. For instance, when Sisif starts to lose his eyesight, we see him look at something, then we see it all blurry from his perspective. Then Sisif looks at something else. We see it blurry. Then he looks at something else. We see it blurry. Then he…you get the pattern. To a modern audience, this was established the moment we saw something blurry from his perspective, but here, we see this time and time again, and then we get a title card telling us that he’s losing his sight.

This is frustrating. It slows down the narrative terribly, and makes a great deal of this film a chore to get through. While perhaps necessary for the time in which the film was made, for a modern audience, at least an hour of this film could easily be removed without losing anything but essentially repeated footage that we no longer really need to establish the things that Gance wants us to know. Other things simply become annoying. Severin-Mars evidently believes that the way to convey blindness is to roll his eyes up into his head and stare out like a zombie, which is both unsettling and weird.

There are some genuinely great things here, too. Gance uses extremely fast cuts from scene to scene, sometimes with multiple edits in a single second of film, giving us almost subliminal flashes of images at times. It’s a technique he continued with Napoleon, but here he shows that it was a technique he had already been developing.

It’s no coincidence that our main character’s name is a couple of sounds off from Sisyphus, who was depicted in the afterlife of Greek mythology as endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill. Sisif here endlessly toils on the rail line and endlessly suffers from his love for his adopted daughter. It’s a nice little sop to those with a love for the classics.

La Roue is a film that I respect for the work that Gance did and the techniques that he worked with and advanced here. It’s not a film I like that much, because I’d love to pare it down even further, to maybe something with a running time of 150 minutes or so. There’s a lot of fat here for the modern viewer, so if you do sit down to watch this one, be prepared.

Why to watch La Roue: It continues Abel Gance’s groundbreaking film techniques.
Why not to watch: It’s much longer than it needs to be.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Toys Not Yet in the Attic

Film: Toy Story
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on middlin’-sized living room television

If you have kids, you know Pixar. They’ve been releasing movies for 16 years, and while a few have been on the lower end of the scale, Pixar’s scale is pretty high. A weaker Pixar film like A Bug’s Life or Cars is still better than most of the animated films made for kids. Pixar’s reign of awesome (which to my mind peaked with The Incredibles) started in 1995 with Toy Story. What a happy surprise when Kid #2 came home from the library with a copy in tow.

I have to admit that I had never seen Toy Story before. In my defense, the movie came out three years before I had children. The story is based on the notion that when we aren’t looking, toys come to life and actually have real lives. Our focus initially is a cowboy doll (sorry, action figure) named Woody (Tom Hanks), who is the favorite toy of a young boy named Andy (John Morris). It’s Andy’s birthday, and all of his toys are concerned about what might be arriving as gifts, pushing each of the older toys a step further down on the favorite list. These include a piggy bank (Pixar staple John Ratzenberger), a Little Bo Peep doll (Annie Potts), a Slinky dog (Jim Varney), a Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), a tyrannosaurus (Wallace Shawn), and plastic army men (R. Lee Ermy).

The big present is the latest toy, a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Eventually, Buzz (Tim Allen) makes his way up into Andy’s room, and it seems that he is the one to rule the roost of the toys. The problem is that he doesn’t think he’s a toy, but a real person trapped on a strange, alien world.

What evolves is a story initially about trying to get Buzz to realize he’s a toy. This quickly morphs into a story of jealousy and revenge, as Woody plots to get rid of the new guy. The easiest way to do that, he determines, is to get Buzz hidden, since Andy’s family is moving in a couple of days. Of course, his plan is successful, and of course he immediately regrets his actions and must save Buzz.

The adventure that follows is quite kid-friendly, exciting throughout with some toy-sized dangers, mostly in the person of Sid (Erik von Detten), the neighborhood toy-destroying kid. Throughout their adventure, Buzz learns to accept the fact that he is a toy and the two learn to like each other, and even act selflessly to rescue each other multiple times.

To be honest, the story here isn’t really very original, but it doesn’t have to be. This doesn’t mean that kids are less sophisticated than adults, but they’ve seen a lot fewer plots than adults have. And, while the plot is relatively simple, it’s done pitch-perfect, making it a pleasure to watch for the however-manyeth time.

One thing that is greatly appreciated is that this film is almost devoid of adult-oriented humor. More and more, “family” films are filled with jokes that are inappropriate for children but that normally won’t be picked up by them. My guess is that the filmmakers do this as a way to give the adults in the audience something to laugh at. Toy Story manages to avoid taking this cheap road out by making a movie that is entertaining on its face.

So why does this film show up on The List? Beyond the fact that it’s a highly entertaining movie for virtually any age? Well, it’s also the first completely computer-generated film ever made. It set a high standard for animation that has continually been surpassed, often by Pixar itself.

Toy Story is a wonder, and is entirely entertaining start to finish. In my opinion, Pixar got better with films like Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles, but they started out far and away better than anyone else in the genre.

Why to watch Toy Story: A kids’ movie that is equally entertaining for adults.
Why not to watch: You never had toys this cool.

Monday, May 23, 2011

His Terrible Swift Sword

Film: The Grapes of Wrath
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

When I was a kid, my siblings and I were expected to be reading something at all times. I don’t mean that we always had to have our noses in books, but if Mom or Dad asked us what we were currently reading, we were supposed to have an answer, and an answer that changed pretty regularly. Mom never cared what we read as long as we read something. Dad was pretty adamant that we should be reading the classics. I remember vividly a “discussion” between him and my brother Tom about Tom reading “The Grapes of Wrath.” Tom resisted, calling the book “The Grapes of Snore.”

Actually, I think all of us resisted. One sister read mysteries; the other read Westerns (specifically Louis L’Amour). One brother read science fiction; the other (Tom) read pulps. I split the difference on my brothers and read both science fiction AND pulps. I never did read “The Grapes of Wrath/Snore,” but as of today, I’ve seen the movie version.

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family from Oklahoma. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) has just been released on parole for killing a man in a fight. He returns to the family farm to find it deserted. In fact, the whole place is deserted. Everyone has been run off the land thanks to the Depression and the Dustbowl. With no crops, there’s no food and no money, and all of the land is being repossessed. Tom meets up with Casy (John Carradine before he became wizened), a former preacher. They also meet Muley (John Qualen), now insane and staying on the land despite the efforts of the local law to evict him.

Tom and Casy find the rest of the Joad clan on another family farm, but the joy is short-lived since this branch of the family is being evicted as well. The entire clan, plus Casy, load into a converted wagon/truck and head to California to look for sharecropping and field hand work. Along the way, they’re warned that there isn’t much work to be had, and a couple of the older family members die en route.

Once in California, the Joads discover that what they’d been told was the absolute truth—there isn’t any work to be had, and the work that is there doesn’t pay. The Joads move from camp to camp looking for something and finding nothing. At the first camp, an agitator tries to stir up the people, and is put down by the local constabulary. In the course of this, the sheriff kills a bystander, and Tom knocks him out. Casy stands in for Tom and is arrested, and the Joads head off again.

They find work at the next camp picking peaches, but discover that the only store in the area is run by the company, and the prices are so high that they aren’t much better off than before. Here, Tom runs into Casy again. Casy has essentially become a communist, or at least a dedicated socialist. He, along with a few others, plan to agitate this camp because the company is cheating the people. They promise five cents a bushel, but pay only two-and-a-half. On the way to start up their trouble, Casy is killed by a thug from the farm. Tom kills the man in turn. He isn’t seen, but he takes a crack across the face, and is now a marked man quite literally. And so the Joads are forced to leave again in a pattern that will repeat itself one more time before the end of the film.

Like many great stories and many great films, The Grapes of Wrath consists essentially of heartbreak after heartbreak for the title characters. All the Joads want is honest work and the chance to feed their family, and at every turn, they are beaten down by bad luck or flat-out greed of the wealthy farmers who hire the migrant help. Each death or disappearance in the family is treated both with sorrow and with the relief of one less mouth to feed. Noah Joad (Frank Sully) simply vanishes at one point. Rose of Sharon’s (Dorris Bowdon) husband Connie (Eddie Quillan) bugs out as well, again to relative indifference from the family. Does it matter that Rose of Sharon is pregnant with his child? Not really—he’s an adult that no longer needs feeding.

Tom Joad is an interesting character if for no other reason than the disconnect between how we as an audience are intended (and do) feel about him and his evident personality. Consider that Tom does a four-year prison stint for homicide, gets into a fight at the first migrant camp, and kills a man in the second one. In most situations, this would be evidence of a man with some sort of pathology, or at least with serious anger issues. However, we accept these faults from Tom because we spend so much time with him and see so much of him. In each case, we come to see Tom’s anger and violence as not merely acceptable, but as justifiable.

The one person I haven’t said much about so far is Ma Joad (Jane Darwell). In many ways, she is the moral center of the film, wanting nothing more than to keep her family as together as she can and keep them going. Ma Joad is a pillar of strength in this terrible, unforgiving world, and Jane Darwell not only acts the part, she looks it. This is a face worn by care but still full of hope and optimism, and ready to smile at the slightest thing. She seems like such a sweet woman—in the scene where the bystander is killed by the sheriff, I thought for just a moment it was Ma Joad, and I considered turning off the movie in that moment. You just don’t do that to the sweet old lady.

Is it a great film? It is, and for a wonder, I actually don’t mind the tacked-on uplift ending here. If anything, the film is too tame and doesn’t go far enough in exposing the plights of the Okies in the Dust Bowl, but I’m certain they went as far as they could at the time. It’s the film that made Henry Fonda who he was, and there’s a reason for that.

Why to watch The Grapes of Wrath: Powerful performances and an equally powerful narrative.
Why not to watch: Despite the last few moments, it’s a two-hour long downer.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mutilation for Fun and Profit

Film: Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Evidently, I’m on a kick for the weird, disturbing, and upsetting the past few days, since of all the films I had available to me, this is the one that caught my attention. Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, also released as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus) is another in the series of films that was released to some cries of revulsion and critical derision only to be rediscovered years later as a masterpiece of its genre. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Peeping Tom of the following year. However, where Peeping Tom was upsetting in its implications and desire to make a sympathetic serial killer, Les Yeux sans Visage goes right for the gag reflex.

We start with Louise (Alida Valli) driving through the countryside with what appears to be a body in the back of the car. As it turns out, it is a body, and she tosses it into a river. The body is identified by Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) as that of his missing daughter. The main point of identification is the essential lack of a face on the body; Christiane had been horribly mangled in a car accident caused by Genessier.

Of course, if that were the film, we’d be done in a couple of minutes and be pretty disappointed in the whole thing. Christiane (Edith Scob) is still alive and living in Genessier’s villa. Because of her terrible disfigurement, she is forced to wear a mask over her terrible scars. Only her eyes are visible. The mask itself is a plain, white, featureless thing. Genessier is an expert in transplantation surgery. His goal is to find a way to restore Christiane’s beauty to her.

Assuming you are even relatively astute, you should be able to put two and two together at this point. You have a horribly scarred woman, a father intent on restoring her face to her, and a horribly mangled corpse. Guess what’s been happening. If you guessed that Genessier is kidnapping young women, peeling off their faces, and grafting them onto his daughter, you win! Let’s let that sink in for just a second before we continue, shall we?

We learn early on that Genessier is a bit of the doctoral stereotype—he possesses the powers of life and death and thus everyone else needs to stay out of his way as much as possible. There is a not-so-subtle arrogance that drips from him every time he is on the screen. When he identifies the body of “Christiane,” for instance, he is forced to deal with the actual father of the dead girl, but is not just unable to comfort the man, but is completely unwilling to have anything to do with him. There is no compassion or empathy in Genessier, only a great desire to have things as he believes they should be.

We don’t see the mask until a good 25 minutes or so into the film. Just before we do, we hear Christiane say that her face terrifies her, but the mask frightens her more. It’s with reason. The mask is a featureless thing, a plain white slate, and it’s terrifying for the same reason Michael Myers or the killer in Alice Sweet Alice is scary. It’s just a baby step past the brink of the uncanny valley. She’s too human to be anything but human, but just inhuman enough to be completely terrifying. And yet, as the eyes are the window to the soul, Scob is capable of great emotion and pathos behind the terrible mask.

What I find so interesting here is how similar this movie is to so many other, lesser films. There is a particular old-school horror sub-genre of a mad scientist working in a basement lab to further some medical procedure, often for the sake of a loved one. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was rife with films like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and The Unearthly and The Corpse Vanishes that had plots running very much along the same lines as this film. While those films were played for cheap thrills and minor shocks, this one takes itself quite seriously.

One major difference between this film and the others of the genre is that this film does not spare any of the gruesome details. We get the full on surgery sequence, and it takes several minutes for Genessier to remove the face of one of his victims. It’s also quite horrifying. Okay, we’ve seen it again in films like Face/Off and some of Rob Zombie’s output, but this is still quite disturbing and awful, and the effects are really quite good. I had a hard time with this sequence, in part because of how clinical it is rather than despite it.

Another interesting thing here is that it’s difficult to understand Christiane’s moral position throughout the procedures. While she protests that she doesn’t want to go through these medical indignities any more (one imagines that having new faces grafted on every few weeks would be something of a drag), she also doesn’t free the poor girl whose face is removed in the middle of the film. Similarly, while a great deal of what Genessier does in this film is terrible and evil, it’s also evident that he is conflicted by it and suffers for it. He is driven to save his daughter, but knows that the price he pays to do it is a terrible one.

Make no mistake here—Georges Franju made a shock film, but he made a really, really good and artistic shock film. This is not cheap filmmaking that is designed only to gross people out or make them run from the theater—this is the Shakespeare of mad scientist gross out films. It’s a movie of surprising depth with vivid and deep characters—not something one expects from a film that otherwise seems to be the sort of thing played in old drive-ins. In fact, there’s a great deal that I’ve left out of this write-up simply for space, like the doctor’s dogs, Louise’s obvious obsession with the doctor, and Christiane’s fiancé. I see I've also forgotten the fact that most of the music sounds like it belongs in a carnival--a truly creepy addition to this film. A lot happens in 90 minutes. I can’t say I look forward to seeing it again, but I understand the reason that so many people find this film compelling and necessary.

Why to watch Les Yeux sans Visage: A tale of love, terror, horror, and hubris all brilliantly told.
Why not to watch: It kicks the gag reflex into overdrive.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Non-Traditional Horror

Film: The Shining
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

No less a luminary than Stephen King once said that horror comes in three basic varieties. The lowest level is the gross-out, which he likened to the lights going out and you being hit with something green and slimy. The second level is the horror, which is the lights going out and you being grabbed by a claw. The highest and most difficult level is the terror, which is the lights going out and you can sense something behind you and hear its breathing, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there. This is appropriate, because King wrote the novel version of The Shining, which Stanley Kubrick made into a sort-of based on the book film.

Since The Shining has become such a major part of film culture, you’ve either seen the film or you know enough about it that you can follow along without much of a plot summary. I’ll keep this short and sweet. An aspiring writer agrees to be the caretaker of a large resort in the middle of nowhere over the winter. He and his wife and son go there. We discover that bad things have happened at this hotel and have left a sort of make-you-go-crazy residue that makes the guy go homicidal when the place is completely cut off from civilization. Oh, and the boy has some sort of ESP. Weird shit happens. A lot.

What sets The Shining apart from other horror films isn’t that it strives for and achieves all three of King’s levels of horror. It’s that it goes somewhere else entirely. The film is absolutely saturated with a deep sense of wrongness. It contains so many things that are not completely opposite reality, but are just different enough to be truly disturbing, mind-searingly, horribly disturbing.

We find out early about the past of the Overlook Hotel when the new caretaker, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), is told of a winter caretaker in the past named Grady. Grady got a bad case of cabin fever and took an axe to his wife and daughters, then blew his own head off. We also learn that the Overlook as built on an Indian burial ground, and if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that building on top of any sort of old cemetery is a really bad idea.

Nicholson’s performance is sort of the ultimate Jack Nicholson performance—it’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Batman and a few more besides. He slips into the insanity so naturally that he’s much further gone than we think by the time we realize he’s gone insane.

While Nicholson’s performance is a great one, it is Shelley Duvall who steals the film as Jack’s wife Wendy. As Jack starts to slip more and more into his insanity, Wendy becomes more and more terrified of him, and Shelley Duvall has a natural deer in the headlights look to her, a terrified expression she does so well that it’s impossible to believe that she isn’t on the edge of simply falling apart for about the entire second half of the film.

The other character we spend a lot of time with is the son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny knows things and has premonitions of the future. These come out through his imaginary friend, Tony, who speaks through Danny’s finger in a disturbing, creaky voice. It becomes almost immediately evident to us in the audience that Danny really can tell the future and sees things that others don’t. We get this confirmed when we meet Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) at the Overlook. Dick has a bit of the “shine” to him as well and can speak with Danny mentally. Danny spends a lot of his time riding a trike through the halls of the hotel and encountering a number of disturbing ghosts, particularly the two little murdered girls, who are absolutely terrifying.

The most famous scene in the film is Jack hacking through the door of the bathroom with a fire axe, leaning in, and saying, “Here’s Johnny!” While a great scene, and one that has been referenced and parodied for the last 30 years, it is not the scariest moment of the film. This comes when Wendy, looking for Jack, gets a look at the novel he’s been working on for the past few months. As it turns out, it’s nothing more than the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over in a variety of patterns. As she flips through page after page, seeing the same words over and over, she finally realizes the level of Jack’s psychosis. The look of despair on her face in this moment is so real, it’s almost impossible to believe that she is acting and not truly experiencing the emotion herself.

That’s what makes this film work throughout, the sense of things just being wrong. Near the end, Wendy tries to leave the hotel and runs into a series of ghosts or spirits or visions, many of which are actually more disturbing than something horrible, bloody, or dead. In particular, she finds a man in some awful bunny/bear suit performing some sort of sexual act on another man—we see nothing, but the two men stop and simply stare at her until she flees in terror.

For what it’s worth, The Shining is different from King’s novel in a number of significant ways. It’s a completely different vision, and much of the source material is simply not here because Kubrick didn’t have the room for it. I honestly don’t miss it. The Shining is a film that stays with the viewer for a long time because of its strange and horrible otherworldly evil quality. This is not a film to take lightly or to watch on a whim. But it’s absolutely a film that belongs in this list.

Why to watch The Shining: It’s genuinely and deeply scary.
Why not to watch: It’s nightmare fuel.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gooble Gobble, Gooble Gobble

Film: Freaks
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I love a good horror movie, but I don’t always have the strongest of stomachs, which is something of a quandary. Medical stuff really bothers me intensely. I have a tendency to recoil from witnessing medical procedures, needles, and similar things. Human physical oddities cause me to react in much the same way, which makes it very strange indeed that I really like Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Freaks is not the earliest film designed to shock its viewers, but as far as I know, it’s one of the first with no other real purpose in mind. Films like Un Chien Andalou were as much artistic statements as films with an eye toward making people rear back in horror. Freaks, though, is all about that gasp of shock and fear.

The story is a simple one, and told in the past tense around the “home” of a circus freak. We are told by the sideshow barker that the freak in question was once a beautiful woman who had an act as a trapeze artist, and we then see the story in question.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is the woman in question, a great beauty of the circus world. She is adored from afar by Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, who is seriously one of the smallest human beings ever to live. Frieda (Daisy Earles, actually Harry Earles’s sister in real life), of an equal stature with Hans, is engaged to Hans despite his obsession with Cleopatra.

Love seems to be in the air at the circus—the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) has booted animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) out of his trailer; she encounters the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), who shows some interest in her. Another clown named Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) with a stuttering problem is marrying one half of the conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton). Hercules invites himself into Cleopatra’s trailer, and the two become a private item, although there’s quite a bit of suspicion among the freaks.

Cleopatra plays up Hans’s obsession with her, and she decides that she’s more than a little interested in him when it turns out that Hans has come into a good deal of money. He reneges on his engagement with Frieda and proposes to Cleopatra. She agrees, hoping to marry him, kill him, and get his money, which she’ll use to run away with Hercules. The freaks (and there are many—a bearded lady, a human skeleton, a bird woman, an couple of armless women, some pinheads, a guy who’s body stops mid-torso, and a guy with no arms or legs, and at least two other midgets) start to realize that something is amiss when the attempt to bring Cleopatra into the their fold and she rejects them. This scene is perhaps the most famous in the film. One of the midgets (Angelo Rossitto) starts a chant and pours booze into a large loving cup. As the freaks chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” each one drinks in turn from the cup until they offer it to Cleopatra herself. She screams, calls them freaks, and throws the booze on the poor circus performers.

Cleopatra goes ahead with her plot to poison her diminutive husband, and then comes the revenge of the freaks in one of the weirdest and most disturbing scenes ever filmed. There is something horrible about seeing a man with no arms and no legs crawling forward with a knife in his teeth that spins my guts. And then I think about it for a second, and I wonder how he’s going to use that knife if he manages to catch up with someone.

Browning endured a lot of criticism in making this film because he used actual circus freaks for many of the roles—the freaks here are not make up, but actual circus performers. For what it’s worth, it’s pretty evident that many of the performers in this film are not actual actors. It’s pretty poorly acted in general, although the non-actors certainly try their best. It’s a bit hard to watch in that sense.

And yet, there is something really compelling about this movie. It’s such a lurid tale and so luridly told that it almost forces itself to be watched. Freaks is not a great movie by any measure, but it is absolutely a film that needs to be watched for how strange it is. This film is so creepy and wrong, so horribly twisted, that it plays out like a train wreck. It’s awful to see, but you can’t look away from it. This is especially true of the confrontation of Cleopatra and the freaks.

Freaks is a hard movie to classify. I’m calling it horror because it’s no comedy and it’s too strange to be a drama. It’s not traditional horror in any sense of the word, but a deeper sort of horror, the sort that required a twisted mind like Browning’s to create.

Why to watch Freaks: Mainstream shock cinema in its earliest form.
Why not to watch: If you are squicked out by circus freaks, prepare for an hour or more of severe squicking.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Deutschland Unter Alles

Film: All Quiet on the Western Front
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I imagine that in some sense, it’s not that difficult to make either a pro-war or anti-war film. If you want a pro-war, nationalistic film, you make your good guys noble and filled with idealism. You make your bad guys evil, cowardly, and nasty. The good guys defeat the bad guys against overwhelming odds, a few of the good guys die heroically, and everyone feels ennobled by the war. For an anti-war film, you make the good guys noble and heroic, and then you have terrible things beyond their control happen to them as they are tossed about by forced beyond their knowledge and control. Note that this doesn’t mean your film will be any good—but these seem to be the basic formulas.

All Quiet on the Western Front is to my knowledge the first great anti-war film, and it came at a time perfect for anti-war sentiment. In 1930, the Great War was still a painful memory for much of the world, and it would be almost a full decade before the world would explode into war again. A treatise on the folly, destruction, and cost of war feels like a natural fit in this decade between.

We first meet a group of young Germans in school at the outbreak of what would eventually be known as World War I. These boys, assured that the war for the Fatherland would be a short one and egged on by their professor (Arnold Lucy), all rush to enlist in the Army and head off to battle and glory.

Those dreams of glory are short-lived, though. They first learn that life in training isn’t much fun, thanks to the presence of Himmelstoss (John Wray), their drill sergeant. Himmelstoss was formerly the boys’ mailman, but given this authority, he quickly becomes a martinet, causing no end of suffering and cruelty, forcing the young soldiers to do things simply because he can. After a bit of training, the new soldiers head off to the front, convinced that they would soon be bathed in glory and would return home to wow young women with their fancy uniforms.

And here is where their dreams of battlefield victory are quickly smashed. They learn all too quickly that food is scarce, bombardments are a nightly event, and combat often becomes a hand-to-hand affair. We see the French run up and out of the trenches only to be mown down by machine gun fire. We see the Germans run up and out of the trenches only to be mown down by machine gun fire. The boys start to lose companions as their friends are killed in action, wounded, or killed recovering from their wounds.

The one we follow the most is Paul (Lew Ayers), a sensitive young man who is something of a leader of his friends. Much of the war is seen through Paul’s eyes and experiences. We suffer through the deaths of his friends, the insatiable hunger, the nightly raids, the privations of life in the trenches and at the front. Paul and the rest of his comrades quickly become disillusioned about why they came to fight at all, wanting nothing more than to go home and have nothing to do with fighting for their own survival.

There are a few key scenes that really put the hammer down in terms of Paul’s experience and the experience of the soldiers in general. One of the first is the visit of the surviving schoolboys/soldiers to their friend Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), who is convalescing in a field hospital. When they arrive, they discover that Kemmerich’s leg has been amputated. Eventually, Kemmerich succumbs to his wounds in front of Paul, and Paul takes his boots since supplies are short at the front.

The dreaded Himmelstoss eventually makes his way to the front as well, and proves himself to be a coward under fire. During this attack, Paul finds himself in a trench with a French soldier. He stabs the Frenchman, who doesn’t die right away. Paul, realizing that this man is essentially in the same position he is, does all he can to save him and asks for forgiveness, all in vain.

The most telling moments of the film don’t happen until the last 25 minutes or so. Paul, recovering from an injury, is given leave and returns home to find his mother ill. What he also discovers is that the people on the home front have no idea of the realities of the war, the privation, the suffering, or the death. He listens to men discussing the way that the war will be won and is told that despite his experience on the front, he has no idea of what it takes to actually win the war. He sees a world of comparative plenty—food, clothing, soft beds—and is told that everyone assumes that everyone is making sacrifices so the soldiers at the front can have supplies; the reality is that the men are reduced to eating sawdust because there is no food for them.

For me, the culmination of the film comes when Paul encounters his old professor still preaching his lesson of Fatherland and glory to a new crop of young men. Asked to speak to them, Paul tells them of his experiences on the front, and is called a coward for telling them the truth.

In short, All Quiet on the Western Front attempts to show the reality of war, the brutality of battle, the constant fear and death and desperation as well as the disconnect between those who fight and those who demand that others fight on their behalf. As a film, it is a good one, if overacted in that early talkies style. As a message against war and the desire for war, it is one of the most effective films ever made. Paul is entirely sympathetic, and his constant plight is nothing less than heartbreaking throughout.

I have a tendency to believe the reality of anti-war films more than pro-war films. That being the case here, All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the strongest statements against war that I have seen, and while it’s worth watching for a number of reasons, it doesn’t really need a reason other than that one.

Why to watch All Quiet on the Western Front: The most powerful anti-war message until the making of Idi I Smotri.
Why not to watch: In war, death seems to come mostly to those who don’t deserve it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kurosawa...in Color!

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

Akira Kurosawa is one of those directors who has enough great films in his repertoire that it’s not difficult to find a great one to watch. I haven’t seen his entire catalog by any stretch of the imagination, so it’s easy to assume that he has some lesser films and possibly a few stinkers in there. Hey, Hitchcock and Kubrick didn’t bat 1.000, either, and not every Bergman film is worth careful contemplation.

Ran is Kurosawa’s last great samurai epic, and “great” is the operative word in that sentence. It’s commonly thought of as Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and the two stories do have more than a little in common. There are some significant differences, of course—hordes of samurai for one—but the stories have enough in common that it feels like a natural thought to call one the Japanese version of the other. However, a great deal of Ran feels like it comes from Kurosawa’s life instead. The production of this film saw the great director aged, alone, unable to secure backing, with the opinion of many being that the world of film had passed him by. This film showed that it hadn’t.

Ran centers on the Ichimonji clan, specifically on Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a ruling warlord. Through his life, he has risen to the exalted rank of Warlord through feats of arms, brutality, and treachery. Now, nearing the end of his life, he wishes to retire and allow his sons to rule. So he decrees that he will retain his title, but will pass the rule over the Ichimonji clan to his eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao). Taro will rule at the first castle. Second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) will hold the second castle. Third son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) will hold the third. Jiro and Saburo are entrusted with these castles with the idea that should Taro need them, they will follow his lead.

While it seems like a nice plan at first, it immediately goes to smash. Both Taro and Jiro are ambitious and would like to rule entirely. Saburo still has respect for his aged father, and warns him that his plan seems like a very bad one. Since Lord Hidetora gained his position through ulterior means, expecting his sons to act together seems like insanity. Hidetora immediately banishes his son from his lands, and follows that banishment up with another. Also forced to leave is Tango (Masayuki Yui), his servant, because he dares to tell the Lord that Saburo is right.

Things go well for Saburo, though, since he is adopted into the house of Fujimaki. Things don’t go so well for Hidetora. Immediately, the scheming begins. Taro’s wife Kaede (Mieko Harada) tells Taro that he should be the Great Lord, and Taro forces his father to sign a compact giving up all his power. Hidetora signs, but then leaves immediately to go to the second castle and Jiro. Here he finds that Jiro wishes to use him as a pawn against Taro. Hidetora has no option but to head to the third castle, which proves to be a trap. His men and concubines are killed or kill themselves, but Hidetora cannot commit seppuku because his sword is broken. Instead, he loses his mind completely, and his rescued from wandering the wilderness by Tango and Kyoami (Pita), his fool and comic relief. All of this is the first half of Hidetora’s downward spiral from the great heights of warlord-dom to almost total dissolution.

The story is a great one. We have the great man who is torn apart not only by the life he led, but also by the decisions he has made and continues to make while his children essentially fight for the right to pick his bones clean. The same thing happens now often enough when a powerful and wealthy patriarch dies and his children fight over what he leaves behind. For taking place in the warlord era of Japan, this is a very modern story.

It’s also blood-soaked, as any film involving hordes of samurai should be. The aftermaths of battle are terrible and gruesome. In typical Kurosawa style, the battles are set pieces of direction and camera work. The initial major battle at the third castle, for instance, takes place in almost a dreamlike state, with music instead of battle sounds, until the reality of the situation he is in crashes around Hidetora, and the sounds of battle erupt.

Ran also has the benefit of being in color. I like a good black-and-white film, but the color here brings something to the table that Kurosawa’s previous samurai epics did not have: the pageantry and spectacle of the samurai armies arrayed on the battlefield. While the warfare is terrible and costly, the scenes of men arrayed in armor with huge pennants swaying over them are stirring to say the least. It makes a small part of me want to see films like Shichinin no Samurai in color just for the incredible spectacle.

One thing Kurosawa does that Shakespeare didn’t is he gives his old warlord a backstory. Hidetora Ichimonji was not noted for his benevolence. In fact, throughout the film we are reminded of exactly how brutal his push to power was. He murdered and slaughtered his way up the ladder, forcing the children of those he killed into marriages with his own clan to further strengthen his position, and otherwise destroying those who he could not marry into his family. His reputation for brutality, bloodshed, and treachery comes back on him through the course of the film, serving as a lesson in bloody, terrible karma.

Ran is not a happy film by any stretch. Nothing good happens to anyone in this film, but it probably shouldn’t. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Kurosawa film--Rashomon seems to be still battling Kumonosu Jo for that title—but Ran is Kurosawa showing that he still had the ability to stir emotions and excite the senses when most of his contemporaries and those following him believed that the world of cinema had passed him by. This film is magnificent and I do not in any way question its location here.

Why to watch Ran: Kurosawa’s final samurai epic, and it’s blood-soaked enough for two films.
Why not to watch: It’s also a constant reminder of one’s own mortality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Old West, the New West

Films: The Big Sky, Hud
Format: VHS from Kankakee Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television (The Big Sky), streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Hud).

Anyone who watches film becomes more attuned to some genres and less attuned to others. I like horror, for instance. I don’t watch a lot of musicals or romance films. It continues to surprise me how little I know of Westerns as well. I’d have thought I knew as much about them as any typical genre, but the more I look at, the more I see films that I should know and don’t.

I know that someone out there is convinced that I am not a complete filmgoing person until and unless I have seen The Big Sky, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why this is the case. I’m completely stumped as to why this film made the list when other 1952 films like The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Western Bend of the River didn’t. I don’t choose the movies, though, and this is what I’ve got. The Big Sky is a must-see, and so I saw it.

Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) lives in Kentucky, where he encounters Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin). Their friendship starts out Old West style, with Boone punching Jim in the face a couple of times for a few imagined slights, and Jim reacting to this with good-natured acceptance. See, we’ve established right away that these two guys are rough and tough, solve things by punching them, and see physical violence as an acceptable way to greet another person.

Anyway, they head off to Missouri to meet with Boone’s uncle, Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt, who also acts as the film narrator and sort of wishes he were Walter Brennan). The pair run afoul of some locals and get tossed into jail, where they find Zeb. Zeb is a trapper-type. He wears a lot of buckskin and has a lot of whiskers, and he is intensely disliked by the local fur trading company because he is an independent. The trio are bailed out of jail by Zeb’s partner Frenchy Jourdonnais (Steven Geray).

The plan is to take a keelboat up the Missouri to Blackfoot country. No white man has ever successfully traded with the Blackfoot tribes, but Zeb and Frenchy have a ace in the hole: Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt in her only film role). Teal Eye is a Blackfoot and the daughter of a chief. She was taken from her people and Zeb and Frenchy are returning her, using this act of not-quite charity as a way in to trade with the natives. In fact, Zeb calls her a hostage.

So Zeb, Frenchy, Boone, and Jim head upriver in a keelboat with a crew of French Canadian woodsmen. As they pull and paddle the boat for mile after mile, they encounter threats, difficulties, and setbacks. Their biggest problems are the Crow tribes, who have decided to attack them, and the fur trading company, which wants its trading monopoly and might well be behind the Crow attacks.

We also get some relationship things going on—Jim is initially attracted to Teal Eye. Boone, who hates Indians on principle, dislikes her. Teal Eye and Boone squabble over the fact that Boone possesses the scalp of a Blackfoot warrior; Zeb has told him it’s the scalp of the man who killed Boone’s brother. Teal Eye frequently tries to steal the scalp from him, and the two fight quite a bit. If you’ve ever seen a Western before, you should realize from their first encounter that Boone and Teal Eye are attracted to each other despite any misgivings they might have.

Really, that’s the whole film. The boat moves upriver. A problem is encountered. The problem is dealt with. The boat moves on.

Some of the problems are at least causes for some good action sequences. The major attack by the Crow, for instance, sees several members of the party getting separated from the boat. Zeb and Boone split off in one direction and make it back under heavy attack. Later, a somewhat insane and whisky-obsessed guide named Poordevil (Hank Worden) makes it back at night, saying that Jim is still out there with the Crow. Boone runs off to find his friend and is tailed by Teal Eye. They find him, patch the bullet wound in his leg, and hide out for a week before rejoining the party in what results in the best confrontation in the film.

There’re also some attempts at showing not only our heroes’ toughness, but also the realities of trail life. After a minor accident, Jim finds that one of his fingers on his left hand is completely numb and no longer bends. Rather than leave it flopping around, the other members of the boat crew get him roaring drunk and then amputate it. The scene is played for humor, but that humor sits over something relatively grisly.

But for all of this, it’s a pretty standard Western. We have good guys who are tough beyond all measure of toughness. We have bad guys who essentially act exactly like the good guys do, but since they are opposed to the heroes, they are bad. The aims of Frenchy and Zeb and the aims of the trading company are, after all, the same thing—they want to trade with the natives upriver. What we’re led to believe is that as independents, Zeb and Frenchy won’t cheat the ignorant natives, but this isn’t the case. At one point during the trading scenes, Zeb comments that Frenchy will probably never get furs for a better price again in his life.

And then there’s the romance part of the film. The love triangle was an interesting addition, but wasn’t played up as much as it could have been. Really, the triangle exists only for those unfamiliar with film convention—the actual romance between Boone and Teal Eye was decided the moment that we know Boone dislikes Indians and that there’s an Indian woman aboard the keelboat.

I like my films a little more complex, a little more interesting, a little less predictable. The Big Sky is a fine Western, but it wouldn’t make my top 10, or probably my top 20. The scenery is pretty, and the on-location shooting is great, but other than that, you’ve seen this all before. It’s telling that this film doesn’t have a DVD release in the States. From what I’ve seen of Howard Hawks, this is the least of his films to reach canonization.

On the other hand, the value of Hud is almost immediately evident. Within the first 20 minutes of this film, I knew I was watching something that would stay with me and that had classic status for a reason. It’s not merely the iconic landscape of the Texas Panhandle, nor is it the fact that the film features the twist of taking place in the modern day rather than the classic Western period. No, this is a film about the characters and about the performances.

Hud (Paul Newman) is a layabout and a wastrel, interested only in his own pleasures and having enough money to pursue them. This puts him greatly at odds with his father, Homer (Melvyn Douglas), who is upright and upstanding. Homer runs a cattle ranch, and doesn’t much like the life his son leads. Also on the ranch is Hud’s nephew Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde), who is torn between the two adult male role models in his life. One the one hand he is attracted to the freewheeling lifestyle of Hud, but he also sees the necessity and value of Homer’s morality and honesty. The fourth member of the ranch house is Alma (Patricia Neal), the middle-aged housekeeper. Both Hud and Lonnie find themselves attracted to Alma, who was left by her husband years before, and is just hard-bitten enough to not really be that interested in the lecherous Hud or the too-young Lonnie.

Into the middle of the family drama comes the incident that sets off all the problems. Homer has discovered one of his cows dead in the middle of the ranch with no apparent cause of death. Fearing the worst, he calls for the vet despite Hud’s warnings, and it turns out to be the worst possible situation—hoof and mouth disease. The old man bought a few dozen Mexican cattle on the cheap and rather than quarantine them, he mixed them in with his entire herd. This means that the entire herd needs to be slaughtered, destroying the family business. The best insight we get into Homer is during these moments—driving his entire herd into a hole dug into the ground and ordering them shot. Later, with two cows that he raised from calves left, Homer watches them for a few moments, then walks out calmly to add them to the body count as well.

Hud sees this as his golden opportunity, and starts proceedings to essentially have the old man declared incompetent so that he can take over the ranch himself. It also comes out that Lonnie’s dad—Hud’s brother Norman—was killed in a car accident caused by Hud. For Hud, this has been the thing between him and his father for the past dozen years or so, but Homer’s resentments run quite a bit deeper.

What makes Hud work is not the situation of the ranch or the unexpressed emotion between Alma and Lonnie and between Alma and Hud. All of the trouble and problems that happen here are there so that we can see the lives of these people boil over. In terms of this, the film belongs to Lonnie, since it is he who is the one character capable of determining the course of his future. Homer’s life is the way it is; Hud is a man Homer dislikes, but Hud is his own man and chose his own life. Lonnie is stuck between them, between living the life he knows is correct and the life that looks tempting and fun. It’s a sort of coming of age film in that sense despite the fact that Newman’s character almost always takes center stage.

More than anything, it is the performances that truly sell this film and make it what it is. Homer is the sort of gruff patriarch we might expect, but he has enough personality and individuality to make him a unique character. Lonnie is a typical teen—confused, excited, wanting to please, and wanting to give in to his natural urges. Alma wants only to be taken seriously for what she does and otherwise left alone by the men until she’s ready. And Hud. In a career of incredible performances, this one is one of Newman’s most memorable, most powerful, and best. The character comes across as a sort of primer for Luke in Cool Hand Luke. He’s more intense than Luke, but also less subtle. Still, this is Newman at his best.

Paul Newman won an Oscar for his role in the otherwise forgettable The Color of Money. The reason he won for that film is because he didn’t win for The Hustler or Cool Hand Luke or Hud despite being nominated for all three (and he was additionally nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Absence of Malice and The Verdict and received a nomination for supporting actor for Road to Perdition). It’s my contention that it would be seen as another stain on the Academy if Newman never won after that many nominations—sort of like how Hitchcock never won Best Director.

In addition to the strength of the central performances (both Patricia Neal and Mervyn Douglas did win gold statues), much of what makes Hud so attractive is the overall look of the film. The stark black-and-white photography paints the world of the Texas Panhandle in exactly the shades that our characters see them. For Homer, the world is one of black and white-morality or indolence. For Hud, black and white is also the theme—what benefits him and what doesn’t. And yet for Lonnie, the world is filled with various shades of grey as he determines which of these two men he should follow. The landscape is one of empty spaces and open sky, big country where the horizon runs unbroken. In color, this would be beautiful, but in black-and-white, it looks harsh and unyielding. Hud is another film that benefits from the choice of avoiding color photography.

Great film, great performances, great photography. Hud breaks some genre stereotypes and is all the better because of it.

Why to watch The Big Sky: Great on-location filming and a few exciting sequences.
Why not to watch: Predictable and straightforward.

Why to watch Hud: Paul Newman, plus a supporting cast as good as he is.
Why not to watch: Mass cattle slaughter.