Thursday, June 30, 2011

Under the Sea

Film: Das Boot (The Boat)
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

I took German as my foreign language in high school in part because it was the language that nobody took. My high school had three Spanish teachers, two French teachers, and only one German teacher. This is not really important when discussing Das Boot (The Boat), except for the fact that this movie may have been influential in my decision to study German as much as the fact that I figured if I learned how to swear, there would be fewer people who could understand me.

Das Boot is notable if for no other reason than it is the first post-World War II film that is about the war, made in Germany, made by a German filmmaker, and features the German military as the heroes. At first blush, this sounds like the worst possible idea for a film—who would want to watch a glorification of Nazism? Fortunately, that’s not what this film is about. Instead, this is about the crew of the U-96, a U-boat sailing in the Atlantic during the heart of the war.

The most interesting thing about this movie is how easy it is for the viewer to see these German sailors not as Nazis and monsters, but as men fighting for their lives in a situation not of their own making or choosing. We see our submarine crew at the beginning of the film, and they are nothing but boys eager to prove themselves in battle. This quite naturally changes as the film progresses.

As far as ideology goes, the U-96 has only one fervent Nazi on the ship—one man who seems to both believe in and embody the principles of National Socialism is the most hated man on the boat. The only instances of Nazism that appear in this film are derided or treated as something of a joke.

What we see instead is the life of these men as they attempt to run a patrol around the Atlantic Ocean, looking for British shipping to sink, running across destroyers, and surviving seemingly endless depth charge attacks. We see the ship descend below its maximum depth, see the men living in these terribly cramped conditions, sleeping in cots in shifts, sweating, stinking, pushed to and past the brink of sanity. What we genuinely see—and this is the genius of Wolfgang Petersen’s film—is this ship of young men turn into a ship of old men in a few short months at sea.

As we learn more about these men, we discover that they are not the clean, precise machinery of evil that the German military has always been depicted as. These are real men with lives, families, dreams, ambitions, and fears. Many of them are in the Navy not because of their ideology or beliefs, but because the country went to war, and that’s what young men do when their country goes to war. In interviews, Petersen said he wanted to make a film not about Germans, or Americans, or British, but about men, and that is precisely what this film is about. Half an hour in, and despite all instincts to the contrary, the audience wants nothing more than for these men to get home to port safely.

Das Boot is assisted by some tremendous work in front of the camera. The captain of U-96 is played by Jurgen Prochnow. The character is a mere 30-years-old in this film, but he has the face and manner of a much older man, a symptom of spending so much time in battle under tense conditions. For this voyage, his ship takes on a German journalist named Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), a man who begins the film filled with ideals that slowly turn into little more than survival instinct as the film (and the journey in the death trap of a U-boat) continues. Other notables are the ship’s chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann), a young romantic named Ullman (Martin May), and a veteran seaman named Johann (Erwin Leder).

It’s Johann who tends to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from me. In an early scene, the U-96 is spotted by a British destroyer and dives to get out of the range of depth charges. The bombardment is ferocious and never-ending, and Johann breaks. In this moment, looking into the man’s face is looking in the face of insanity and pain. Johann recovers, and even performs brilliantly after this incident, but in that one moment, the man looks like Death walking through the narrow passages. The fact that Erwin Leder’s face looks almost identical to a skull is just a bonus in this case.

In addition to making this crew a group of real men with real issues, in addition to giving us a group of World War II-era German troops that we want to survive, Petersen also provides us with great moments of film. At one point, the U-96 dives, and the dive plane sticks, sending the ship to the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar. Bottomed out on a submerged patch of sand at twice the maximum diving depth for the sub, the ship begins to flood. Everything stops working. The men work feverishly simply to survive. In these moments, this film becomes the definition of claustrophobia.

At other times, there is even genuine humor. Meeting a German merchant ship off Spain, the captain and his men are openly contemptuous of the easy lives of these merchant sailors, wearing their own battle experience and toughness on their sleeves. By this time, even the journalist is treated as a member of the crew, having survived the same trials as the rest of the men.

Das Boot is not a film that I’d choose to watch that often, evidenced by the fact that it’s been probably 25 years or more since the last time I saw it. It’s still a damned effective film, though, and it still manages to perform the nearly impossible task of making me want to see the Germans succeed, or at least survive. Don’t feel guilty about that is my recommendation. These guys aren’t Nazis—they’re just men who want to go home.

Why to watch Das Boot: A war film that hits the target it’s shooting for.
Why not to watch: Your only option, really, is to root for the Germans.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

This One is Inevitable

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

The 8th edition of The Book has been announced for September release, and the released cover is Natalie Portman’s character from Black Swan. So, it’s a given that Black Swan will be one of the dozen or so films added to this latest edition. When I went movie shopping at the closest Disc Replay to my office and saw a copy for an amazing $5, it was equally a given that I would buy it.

The majority of heterosexual males in this world neither know nor care much about the ballet. Yes, that’s a stereotype, but I’m also guessing that it’s at least 95% accurate. If you lined up 100 heterosexual men, at most five could name more than Swan Lake and The Nutcracker as ballets that they have heard of. This makes me unusual, since I can name a few more. In defense of my own heterosexuality, though, it should be stated that my older daughter is a very serious dancer, and has taken ballet for years. She goes to summer camp for it. Hell, I’ve even performed in The Nutcracker to help out her dance company.

So I’m no stranger to ballet dancers or obsession, which is really the entire point of this film. Our dancer in question is Nina Sayers (Portman), who has been a member of her particular dance company for several years. She’s been made promises to be featured more thanks to her skill and dedication. We learn right away that the featured dancer of the company is Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who is retiring at the end of the year, since she is now over 40. It becomes evident eventually that Beth isn’t necessarily going gentle into that good night, and that this retirement is not her idea in particular.

Regardless, the ballet company is going to open the new season with Swan Lake, a ballet in which a princess is turned into a white swan. She will remain a swan until she earns unending fidelity and devotion. The swan is well on her way to exactly that when a black swan, who is the curse-casting magician’s daughter steals the love of the prince from the white swan. Now doomed to remain a swan forever, the white swan kills herself tragically. The company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) plans on doing something new with the ballet this time, and the ballet is looking for a new face.

Nina is tapped to audition for the role, as is another dancer named Veronica (Ksenia Solo). Nina’s audition is interrupted by the arrival of a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis), which throws off Nina during her audition as the black swan. The black swan role was already her Achilles heel, since Thomas has decided that she does fragile and vulnerable well, but can’t really act the part of a seducer. The next day, he tells her that he’s given the part to Veronica, but actually gives it to her.

And now the fun begins. Nina starts to hallucinate as the stress of the role begins to wear on her. Much of this hallucination comes in the form of seeing herself as an evil double, much like the black swan is the evil twin of the white swan. It also involves pulling pieces of her skin off various parts of her body. Nina is obsessed with her own perfection, which has made her constantly self-conscious on stage. Thomas tries to get her to open up sexually, figuring that this might help her lose herself in the black swan role. What it seems to do, though, is create more and more moments when reality for Nina isn’t reality for anyone else. Ultimately, she embraces both the role and the persona of the black swan, going so far as to physically attack her mother (Barbara Hershey) to make it to her opening performance.

We also learn that Nina once had a habit of scratching herself badly, not unlike cutting herself. As the film progresses, the scratching gets worse and worse, and happens on her shoulder blades, as if swan wings might be attempting to sprout there—something that does eventually happen in one of her hallucinations. I won’t go past here—this is not a movie to have spoiled.

Once again I find that Aronofsky has created a film that is difficult to enjoy or like, but is incredibly easy to respect. Black Swan explores this concept of madness and obsession to its logical and terrible conclusion. In short, it’s very much like his earlier films Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler. Aronofsky might well be a one-story guy, but he hammers that story better than anyone else. The obsession with and desire for perfection is certainly a well-known idea, and one that anyone who knows a ballet dancer or two has some first-hand knowledge of.

Of course the scene that gets all the motors running here is the lesbian scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. True to Aronofsky’s idiom, it gets disturbing and horrible pretty quickly.

Many people didn’t like Black Swan, as is evidenced by the fact that I got a virtually new copy for peanuts a couple of weeks ago. I wonder how many dislike it for the overt sexuality and lesbian moment and how many are bothered by…everything else. True to form, I can’t say that this was a film that I really enjoyed watching, but I respect the hell out of it and what Aronofsky does with his films. And for the record, I’m forbidding my ballet dancing daughter from ever watching it.

Why to watch Black Swan: Aronofsky seldom makes bad films.
Why not to watch: Insanity is never pretty, even when it’s beautiful.

Monday, June 27, 2011


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

Films like Sergeant York have the power to turn me into a conspiracy theorist. Released in 1941 before America entered World War II, this film feels very much like a pure propaganda piece created so the folks back home would support the troops in the war. It’s almost as if Roosevelt, knowing that war was coming, tapped Howard Hawks on the shoulder and commanded him to make a film that glamorized one of America’s greatest war heroes, leaving in just enough dirt to make it real, then pouring on the schmaltz to give the audience war(m) fuzzies.

The film is a mostly-warts-removed biopic of Alvin York (Gary Cooper). We start with the warts. York is a hellraiser in his backwoods area of Tennessee, drinking every night and disturbing church services with his carrying on. We learn that he and his family are dirt-poor and are farming a patch of top land, which is not nearly as productive as the rich and fertile bottomland. Alvin runs afoul of the local preacher, Rosier Pile (the always great and identifiable-by-voice Walter Brennan), who cautions Alvin that the Devil is working through him.

Things begin to change when Alvin encounters Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), who has blossomed into quite the beautiful young woman. He faces neighbor and local rich guy (relatively speaking) Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield) for the girl’s affections. While she shies away because of his reputation, Alvin has convinced himself that the real problem is that the doesn’t have a piece of that bottomland. He mortgages everything to acquire it, pledging to come up with $70 in 60 days to pay the balance, and works like a dog to get the money. He comes up short, and the land dealer sells it to rival Zeb.

And this is where the movie takes its first turn into schmaltz and propaganda. York, drunk off his ass, decides to go hunting for the men who did him a bad turn, specifically Mr. Tompkins the land dealer (Erville Alderson) when he is struck from his horse by a bolt of lightning. Awakening, Alvin wanders into a nearby church and gets himself some old-time religion thanks to the ministrations of Pastor Pile. Once properly a part of the church both in body and spirit, Alvin goes out to ask forgiveness of Tompkins and Zeb Andrews, and both men repay him with similar kindness. The romance between Alvin and Gracie blooms, and the two plan to get married and sharecrop the land Zeb bought until he can buy it for himself.

And then the war comes. Alvin, thanks to his new beliefs, attempts to register as a conscientious objector, but is rejected and drafted. In boot camp, it is discovered that York is not only a proper soldier, but also one hell of a shot. In fact, he’s so good that he gets promoted to Corporal and is asked to instruct other men in target shooting. The problem is that his religious beliefs still won’t let him abide by killing other men, even if they are enemies of his country.

Fortunately for him, he has probably the most understanding base commander in history, who lends him a book on American history and gives him a 10-day leave to go home and think it over. He tells York that if he comes back and truly can’t bring himself to fight, he’ll be recommended for an exemption. Naturally, though, York contemplates history and the Bible, and decides to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and go fight in Europe.

Now, it would be easy for me to gloss over the military part of this story as simply more propaganda and schmaltz, but I really can’t. It’s documented. In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Alvin York captured 32 machine guns, 132 German prisoners, and killed 28 German soldiers on his own, feats for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. I’m not going to poke at this, because it’s proof that the real life Alvin York had gigantic metal balls.

The good news for all of this is that it seems to honestly follow the general path of Alvin York’s actual life. He was by all accounts a drinker and a hellion, and did get religion and head onto the straight and narrow path in a denomination that foreswore violence. And he did go kick serious ass in Europe and walk away not only with the highest military honor of this country, but also with the French Croix de Guerre and medals from Italy and Montenegro. Dude was badass.

And yet there is a part of me that can’t get past the fact that this really feels like the story has been run through a Hollywood cleansing machine to make it that much more inspiring. It seems like the story doesn’t need that much in terms of inspiration, but with patriotic music swelling in the background and down-home wisdom coming from the backwoods hero, it has a very distinct sense of nationalistic manipulation. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the bad guys here are German.

I don’t really believe the conspiracy idea here. It was probably common knowledge that we were heading toward war throughout 1941, so it’s no surprise that this sort of film would start being standard fare at local movie houses.

And yet, films like this don’t translate well to the modern era. Most filmgoers have seen far too many modern war movies to buy into the tale being told here and accept it as truthfully told. There are seams evident on the patchwork done to Alvin York’s life that diminish the film somewhat. The characters, York included, are too much out of central casting for this to really be an unvarnished tale. It’s kind of a shame, because capturing 132 prisoners shouldn’t need much in the way of varnish.

Why to watch Sergeant York: Eleven Academy Award nominations.
Why not to watch: It’s filled with patriotic syrup.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mexican Standoff

Film: Touch of Evil
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

There is a particular vogue among modern film critics—mostly younger and mostly online—to hate Citizen Kane. There is a particular level of independence of thought to be gained, these critics seem to imagine, by publically declaring their dislike of the film that has been voted as the greatest ever made by the AFI. It’s the classic anti-conformity argument. If I as a critic hate what I’m “supposed” to like, I must be trustworthy. Certainly some of these critics genuinely do dislike Kane and I won’t fault them for it, but I know for certain that there are those who hate because it’s cool and rebellious to do so.

That said, Citizen Kane isn’t my favorite Orson Welles project by a long shot. I respect that film and even like it, but given my choice, I’d much rather spend time watching Touch of Evil, which is truly Welles’s magnum opus in my opinion. Everything works perfectly, even Charleton Heston as a Mexican police officer. Yeah, it’s a stretch, but it still seems to work really well.

The opening of the film is one of the greatest ever made. We see a bomb planted in a car as it crosses over the border from Mexico into the U.S. As we follow the car, we are also introduced to a pair of pedestrians. These are Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston) and his new bride, Susie (Janet Leigh). They and the car cross the border at about the same time, and we learn of the recent wedding of the pair. Just as they embrace, the car explodes, setting the plot into motion.

Like any good film noir, there are a number of things going on at once here. We’re quickly introduced to the major players on what we’re led to believe is the side of good and law. The main man here is Hank Quinlan (Welles), who as both an actor and as a character has started to go to fat. Quinlan is the police captain on the American side of this border town, and it’s quickly evident that he does things in his own way. He decides what the real story is, and then does what he can to make that story stick. It’s also pretty evident that he dislikes Mexicans intensely, and takes an immediate dislike to Vargas, who has a reputation both as a clean cop and a very good one, having just busted part of a drug ring in Mexico.

While the car bombing is explored, we also learn of that drug bust in Mexico. Vargas has busted a man named Grandi, who has relatives with influence in both sides of this border town. “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) manages to threaten Susie Vargas without really threatening her, and Vargas is attacked by one of Uncle Joe’s flunkies with a vial of acid.

Things continue to come to a boil, and the two plots intersect in one important point—Quinlan’s hunch about the source of the car bomb. The man killed in the car was wealthy, and left $1 million to his daughter. It’s discovered that the daughter has been running around with a Mexican worker, something he forbade, which makes that boyfriend suspect number one. In Quinlan’s mind this is especially true because the boyfriend is Mexican. Exploring the apartment the two lovers share, Quinlan’s assistant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) finds two sticks of dynamite, closing the case. The problem is that Vargas saw the box the dynamite was found in, and the box had been empty. Essentially, he has proof that Quinlan and Menzies framed the young man, and Vargas suspects this isn’t the first time.

As it happens Uncle Joe Grandi is there when all of this goes down, and he plots with Quinlan to take care of the problem that is plaguing both of them—Vargas. If Vargas can be discredited, then the conviction in the bombing will stick (planted evidence and all), and Grandi’s brother will get out of the drug charge. And so the movie goes.

This film is tuned to the absolute perfect pitch throughout. It’s so tightly wound, it feels like it could be played like a guitar string. As each plot point becomes evident, everything is wound even tighter until it finally reaches its breaking point.

As a case in point, Susie’s stay at the motel is pitch-perfect and brutal. Exhausted from her day, she is taken to an out-of-the-way motel on the American side of the town. As it happens, the motel is owned by Grandi, who wants her husband to back off his brother. Grandi sends his minions to keep her awake, and then frighten her. The scene of the assault on Susie is played as if it will become a rape scene—and a gang rape scene at that. What we learn later is that the hoodlums merely trashed the motel room, planted drug evidence, and then drugged her to discredit her and play into Quinlan’s story that the Vargases are drug addicts. But we don’t find this out right away. We see the assault, we hear Quinlan mention that Vargas is a junkie, and then the film puts the two threads together for us.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the casting of Charleton Heston in Mexican brownface. Despite the heavy makeup, he still doesn’t look Mexican, and he certainly doesn’t sound Mexican. It’s a piece that requires overlooking, perhaps considering him as a cop from another state and thus out of his jurisdiction in that respect rather than a legal representative of a foreign government.

Despite this oddity, Touch of Evil is a near-perfect film. The characters speak exactly as you want them to, and act exactly as you feel they should. Menzies is a lapdog and a sycophant. Quinlan is a racist and plays the martyr card to full effect. Vargas is upright and a straight arrow, and believes in the power of law. But it’s Susie Vargas who gets the most of my sympathy. Not only is she poorly treated, she shows early on that she’s got a spine, and that she can be pretty rough when she needs to be. It does make me wonder at why a couple of years later in Psycho she’d run into trouble in a motel room again, though.

What truly makes this movie work for me, though, is that it works on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good noir, filled with questionable morals and actions, crime, punishment, and shadowy lighting. It’s entirely possible to simply watch this for the great plot and acting and enjoy it completely. It works on a deeper level, too. Quinlan admits toward the end of the film that he frames people, but only those he knows are guilty. While this makes him a criminal in a very real sense, in a way, don’t we expect our police to do this? To keep dangerous people off the streets by any means necessary? On still a third level, it plays to Welles’s favorite theme—that of a powerful man destroyed by his own demons. We see the wheels come off for Quinlan. Offered a drink, he protests—he’s given up alcohol. Later, he protests more weakly and hops off the wagon with gusto, beginning his long slide from framing those who need to be taken off the street to framing the innocent Susie Vargas to protect his own career.

This is Welles at his finest. He was still the great director for this film, and while he was starting to come apart physically, he hadn’t yet become the farce he eventually became late in his career. This movie hits on all cylinders, and represents the pinnacle of the Welles canon, and sits near the pinnacle of film noir as a genre. Everyone should see this.

Why to watch Touch of Evil: The greatest moment of Orson Welles.
Why not to watch: It’s sad to see what happened to Welles afterwards.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sandra Dee

Film: Grease
Format: DVD from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

Certain movies become institutions almost from the moment they are released. Grease is one such movie; it became iconic the instant it was filmed and released to the general public. Since 1978, Grease has been the word. Yeah, I know. That’s pretty sappy, but it’s also really true. There hasn’t been a high school swing choir or glee club that hasn’t bumped into a song from this musical at least once every five years.

To put it as briefly as possible, Grease is the story of Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). Our two high school students meet at the beach over the summer and have a little harmless fling before it’s time to go back to school—Danny to Rydell High and Sandy back to Australia. However, as it turns out, Sandy’s family plans change and she winds up at Rydell, too.

Danny brags to his friends, a group of greasers who call themselves the T-Birds about his summer escapades. Sandy falls in with a group of tough girls who go by the Pink Ladies. The toughest of these girls is Rizzo (Stockard Channing), who takes an immediate dislike to the goody-goody Sandy. Danny rejects Sandy when they finally meet. Sandy tries to take up with another guy, but it doesn’t work out. The two dance (actually and figuratively) around each other until it all ends exactly the way you know it will.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than this. Rizzo believes herself knocked up by T-Bird Kenickie (Jeff Conaway). There’s a rival gang called The Scorpions from a rival high school who give a lot of crap to the T-Birds, giving us an additional level of conflict in the film which culminates in a race at an old viaduct. There’s also a high school dance-off. Oh, and there’s a shit-ton of singing.

What surprises me more than anything about this film is how it managed to come away with a PG rating considering the amount of sex in it. There’s a load of sexual innuendo throughout this film, not the least being the back seat sex between Rizzo and Kenickie that includes a broken condom.

This film was the choice of my 12-year-old daughter, and I’m hard-pressed to fault her for it. What I found most amusing, though, was that my 8-year-old daughter managed to sing along with a few of the songs thanks to Glee. Was this appropriate for an 8-year-old? Probably not, but it certainly seemed like a lot of it went directly over her head. And, y’know, PG rating and all. My wife saw it at 9, and she turned out fine.

Grease is a pretty silly musical. It’s a little more sexually sophisticated than the classic MGM musicals of the early years of film, but it was made for a more sexually open time. The girls appeared to enjoy the hell out of it, and it was a nice bit of nostalgia for my wife as well.

For me, I’d rather watch the original version of Hairspray if I want my fill of high school angst and happy endings. It could be worse, right? The girls could have chosen one of the versions of High School Musical, which would have been painful.

If I really think about it, there are things to like in Grease, even for someone as completely ambivalent to musicals as I am. The appearance by Frankie Avalon as a guardian angel is pretty damn funny. Some of the songs are good in spite of themselves, and it’s impossible not to be impressed with the dancing.

Grease isn’t a movie I’d choose to watch very often, but that’s my own prejudice against musicals in general. It’s pretty harmless, after all.

Why to watch Grease: The quintessential American musical.
Why not to watch: High School Musical, the early years.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Life of Crime

Film: Le Roman d’un Tricheur (The Story of a Cheat)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

One of the reasons I enjoy this particular journey through film is that there is a real, palpable joy when I find a film that has been eluding me. One such film is Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un Tricheur (The Story of a Cheat). I can’t say that I spent a great deal of time hunting this film down, but that was because this film wasn’t to be found anywhere. And then, the Eclipse imprint of Criterion released a Guitry collection including this film, and evidently the library in Rockford picked it up, because here it is.

The film tells the story in the past tense as a man who has spent his life being picked out to commit crimes by others writes his memoirs. He learns that crime actually pays early on. As a child, he lives in a house with 11 other people. His parents run a store, bringing in a decent yearly income. One day, our hero steals a little money out of the till to buy himself some marbles. He’s caught, and as punishment he is not allowed to eat any of the delicious mushroom dish his mother cooked. However, the mushrooms were poisonous, and everyone else in the family dies.

He is taken in by a relative, who cheats him out of his sizable inheritance. Again, he learns the same lesson—cheaters prosper. While he was punished (and then vindicated) for his small crime, no one thinks to prosecute his relatives for their crime of stealing his money. So, figuring that the money is lost and that he needs to make his own fortune in the world, he goes out to discover the world on his own. He works as a doorman at various establishments, and when he gets older, he discovers that his position has particular fringe benefits of placing him around attractive, wealthy, bored women.

Throughout his life, he attempts to walk the straight path, but is continually taught by fate or whatever hands guide him that cheaters win and acting honestly is ultimately punished. His attempt to break the bank at Monte Carlo, for instance, succeeds, except that it succeeds for everyone but him. He tried to cheat, failed to do so in a way that benefitted him, and loses everything because of it. This pushes him firmly into the realm of a card sharp, an event that really doesn’t happen until close to the end of the film.

He becomes an expert at cheating and at disguising himself to allow him to cheat freely. And then an event occurs that changes everything for him, but teaches him the same lesson over again. A number of coincidences happen that seem guided by the hands of fate, assuming that fate really wants to prove to him that it’s better to be a cheat than it is to be an honest man. And it ends with, essentially, a final joke that evidently the entire film has built up to.

What makes this film interesting is that the old cheat (played by Guitry himself) tells the entire story as the narrator. Any dialogue that happens comes from the voice of the old cheat. In many ways, it plays very much like a silent film that happens to have a legitimate narrator throughout.

Initially, this is sort of charming like much of the film itself. The story itself is sort of fun and often funny, and much of this comes from the narration and the narrator. But more than an hour of listening to the same person over and over, the voice never really changing soon becomes sort of oppressive. I wasn’t able to watch this straight through—I had to take breaks to get away from the voice.

This is a cute film, but somewhat difficult to watch because of the style in which the story is told. It may be that I wasn’t ready for the constant narration and the lack of any real dialogue except in those few parts that occur in the film’s present as the narrator writes his memoirs. I can’t help but think that I might have reacted better to it had the narration been there to guide the story, but not tell the entire story.

Why to watch Le Roman d’un Tricheur: A charming life of crime.
Why not to watch: All voiceover all the time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Children of Marx and Coca Cola

Film: Masculin Feminin (Masculine-Feminine)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’ve been on a minor Godard kick lately, Masculin Feminin (Masculine-Feminine) being the third (I think) in the last month or so that I’ve watched. There’s still more Godard to go on the giant countdown, but I think I’m done with him for a bit. The simple reason is that I found nothing in this film to recommend it and nothing to get worked up about. I had almost no reaction to this film at all—not even bewilderment.

The film is unquestionably some sort of statement about youth and youth culture. Our two main characters are Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya), who become kind of a couple. Paul is intensely political, asking people about their beliefs on things like socialism, the American dream, the birth control pill, and wars going on in the world. Madeleine is a flighty, up-and-coming pop star who doesn’t have a single thought in her head.

And really, that’s it. Paul interviews people about things. Madeleine sometimes sings. They talk more. Then the film ends. Godard also jams in some intertitles containing pithy sayings that are accompanied with blaring music. These are as precisely disconcerting and surprising as Godard no doubt wanted.

When I suggest that this is it, I’m not really exaggerating. There’s a lot of talking going on here, and nothing actually happening. Paul seems to dislike everything he comes across, hating existence for essentially being bourgeois. Madeleine seems to drift from place to place in a world that has been designed to make her feel vaguely content without really feeling anything all that strongly.

Fellow 1001 blogger Squish Lessard uses the term “Eurotrash” every now and again in some of his reviews, particularly on films like this one that seem to come with a particular sensibility. The idea of Eurotrash is almost the polar opposite of the term “white trash.” Where white trash means poor and un- or undereducated, Eurotrash is old money-wealthy, pompous, and entitled. Both of our main characters are made up of different amounts of these qualities. Paul is disaffected by everything, but carries with him a sense of entitlement and supreme arrogance, like the world should be the way he wants simply because he wants it that way. For her part, Madeleine seems to live that same idea without really knowing or caring that she does it.

When I was in college working on my Bachelor’s degree, my campus had a collection of Marxists. These campus radicals protested everything they could think of and a few more things besides. Not an event happened on campus that could happen without someone from the Marxist group(s) getting bent out of shape about it. They yelled and hollered and raised a stink whenever they could. What they didn’t seem to do was go to class or graduate. For all I know, they may still be here. The irony of this is that several of them (and I’m in no manner joking) lived off trust funds and Daddy’s gold card. I can only hope that eventually Daddy got wise and stopped paying after yet another “I’m out of money, you fascist bastard!” conversations.

This, in a nutshell, is how I see Paul. He’s entitled because he can be, and extreme because he lives in a place that allows for and even encourages such extremism. Medeleine is extreme in the opposite direction, being completely unable to care or even to think much about anything going on in the world or directly in front of her face.

At one point, Godard calls his two characters (and the entire youth movement by proxy) “children of Marx and Coca Cola.” In many wyas, this intertitle is the best and most incisive part of the film. These are characters (Paul, at least) who know Marx because Marx is a name to know, not because they learned from him. Paul is a radical because he can be, spouting Marx and creating graffiti because it’s what someone his age is supposed to do. Madeleine simply waits for pop culture to be fed to her.

This may be exactly what Godard was going for with this film. It’s almost an expose on the extreme shallowness that exists beneath that Eurotrashy veneer. If this actually is the case and not merely my own sad ramblings, I applaud Godard for creating this film in the manner he did.

But I still don’t have to like it. And I don’t. This film is completely dull. Nothing much happens in a way that affects much of anything. People talk; others listen, and enough of these are infected by the talk to become the next set of agitators. Roll credits. Bluntly, this film is about as exciting as dish water. I have not been so bored watching a movie for at least six months, and probably closer to a year. Masculin Feminin tries for something and fails miserably. So how much should it be rewarded? Does dull with a message trump shallow eye candy?

Not today. And so I think I’m done with Godard for a bit.

Why to watch Masculine Feminin: It raises some interesting questions.
Why not to watch: It does so in increasingly dull ways.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Not Charlotte's Web

Film: Kiss of the Spider Woman
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Prison movies are sort of their own thing—enough that it’s possible to subdivide them into several sub-genres. Prisoner of war films, for instance, are quite different from films that simply involve people in prison for crimes against the state or humanity. There are films in which the prisoners have been imprisoned for legitimate reasons and those imprisoned for political ones. Some prisoners we are to sympathize with; others we are supposed to despise.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a prison drama in which we give our sympathies to a pair of prisoners sharing a small cell. The prison is located in an unnamed South or Central American nation; however, since the author of the original book and the director of this film are both Argentinean, and since Argentina was the presumed location of escaping Nazis, and since there are some Nazi references, it’s a safe bet to call this Argentina. Our two prisoners are incarcerated for very different reasons. Luis Molina (William Hurt) is in jail because he corrupted a minor. Molina is very much the 1980s stereotype of a homosexual—flamboyant and effeminate. His cellmate is Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), who has been thrown in prison for political reasons. The more he talks, the more it sounds like those politics are communist.

Initially, we are led to believe that Molina is frivolous and flighty and that Arregui is deeply committed to his cause, giving up everything for it. Molina keeps himself sane and escapes mentally and emotionally from his imprisonment by reciting the plot of a particular romance film he once saw. It’s quickly evident that the film was created in Germany during World War II and is a Nazi propaganda film. Molina claims not to care despite the Nazi’s depredations against homosexuals because he loves the romance.

While Molina describes the film, we frequently see scenes from it through his eyes. In the film a French singer (played by Sonia Braga) falls for a German officer (Herson Capri). Their romance is, of course, a star-crossed one, but she comes to believe that her lover is actually working for the good of France and the good of the world, and that the resistance fighters are truly the bad guys. It’s noteworthy that throughout, the resistance are portrayed not only as cowardly and subject to base whims, but also Jewish. This film within a film becomes something of a metaphor for the relationship between Molina and Arregui.

How can this be? About halfway through the film, we learn that Molina is actually working for the warden and the state police. His job is to get as much information as he can from Arregui through kindness, bribery, and any other methods he can determine. He uses this position to ask for special food, and then attempts to insinuate himself into the better graces of his cellmate to learn as much as he can about the radical resistance.

However, as he sees the daily torture Arregui goes through (his food is routinely poisoned), Molina slowly starts to fall in love with his cellmate, becoming in a sense the heroine of his propaganda film. While he still wants to get out—dragging vital information from Arregui means parole for him—he also doesn’t want to betray the man he has come to both love and respect.

The title comes from another movie interlude spoken of by Molina—he tells of a beautiful woman (also played by Braga, who plays Arregui’s lover in one quick flashback) trapped by a web of her own making. She rescues a drowning sailor and nurses him back to health, but is also seen crying for some reason that Molina cannot express. It’s evident that Molina is making up this “film” of whole cloth, and it’s just as evident that as with the propaganda film, he sees himself as the woman and Arregui as the man.

Throughout my watching of this film, I was struck by how nicely this story would play not as a film but as a stage play. As it turns out, the story has been turned into a play, which seems very much more the natural environment for a story that essentially involves two men in a small room for most of the running time. This is greatly enhanced by the performance of our two main stars. Hurt inhabits this role almost too perfectly. Julia is almost instantly sympathetic, and despite his outbursts of temper against Molina and his almost painful dedication to his cause, he remains sympathetic throughout.

I don’t necessarily believe where the film eventually goes, but I like the interplay between the two characters as well as the switches between fantasy and reality. If I have a strong objection, it’s in the way the William Hurt character is written. Hurt plays the character beautifully—he did win an Oscar for it, after all—but the character is in many ways a complete stereotype of the effeminate gay man. It’s a bit disappointing, actually to see that stereotype played out once again in a film that really appears to be attempting to play the character far more sympathetically. It could be argued that the stereotype exists for a reason, and almost everyone knows at least one truly flamboyant gay man, but that doesn’t mean I want to see that stereotype reinforced and played out in a film that frankly should know better.

And so, while I find a lot here to recommend, it’s a reserved recommendation. It’s another film I’m happy to have seen, but that I don’t foresee me watching again in the near—or distant—future.

Why to watch Kiss of the Spider Woman: Two performances as good as they come.
Why not to watch: Stereotyping doesn’t need to happen in film.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Good Thing Karl Never Joined the Act

Films: Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television (Duck Soup) and on kick-ass portable DVD player (A Night at the Opera).

When I was a kid, Duck Soup was on television on New Year’s Eve every year. Until I decided that there were more interesting things to do on the last night of the year, I watched it every year. This probably ended when I was in my early teens, but I still have fond memories of the film. Duck Soup for me was sort of the best exemplar of inspired wackiness. There’s a type of insanity here that doesn’t really appear anywhere else in film, or didn’t until Monty Python showed up.

Watching it now for the first time in what feels like 100 years, I find that I still like Duck Soup almost as much as I did when I was younger. It still feels like inspired insanity. Many scenes happen not because they are integral to the simple plot but because they are screamingly funny, funny being enough. For instance, there is an extended scene in which Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) assault a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) and play keep away with the man’s hat. It sounds like this would be funny for a minute, but the scene keeps going and remains funny for several minutes, culminating with Pinky setting the man’s hat on fire. This has nothing to do with the plot of the film, but so what? It’s really funny.

Our story takes place in the vaguely European country of Freedonia, which is currently broke. Wealthy Freedonian widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers to bail out the government provided the current leader step down and Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is moved into the presidency. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania is hoping for Freedonia to go belly up so they can take over. Leading this charge is Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), who would like to marry Mrs. Teasdale for her money and to prevent her from using it to save Freedonia.

To assist him in his attempt to destroy the neighboring country, Trentino enlists the support of two spies, the previously mentioned Chicolini and Pinky, who actually do more to create problems than they do to get information. Everything comes to a head when Firefly and Trentino insult each other and war breaks out. Chicolini and Pinky attempt to steal the war plans that are place in safe keeping with Mrs. Teasdale, a huge battle happens, and hilarity ensues. There’s more to the film here, or there could be, because Mussolini banned this film in Italy since he took it personally.

The truth of Duck Soup, and in fact the truth of all Marx Brothers movies is that Groucho, regardless of his name, plays Groucho. Chico plays Chico, Harpo plays Harpo, and Margaret Dumont plays Margaret Dumont. The point of the film is not to watch or care about the plot, but the watch and care about the Marx Brothers being agents of chaos and insanity. The most entertaining (and famous) moment is the mirror scene in which Groucho and Harpo (I think…it might be Chico) mirror each other’s actions.

The person who really gets short shrift in this film is the fourth brother, Zeppo Marx, who plays Firefly’s aide-de-camp. Zeppo was always the straight man for the Marx Brothers, evidenced in no way better than the fact that his character names were always completely vanilla. Where Harpo gets to play a guy named Pinky and Groucho gets the awesome comic moniker of Rufus T. Firefly, Zeppo’s character is named Bob Roland. Kind of sad, really.

Duck Soup isn’t really supposed to make sense, and it doesn’t. It’s inspired insanity, a barely contained chaos of movement, noise, and zinging one-liners. There are a few musical numbers, and these are where the film feels the flattest to me. They contain the same sort of wonderful craziness, but they seem so much more artificial than the rest of the non-musical parts of the movie. They feel more staged somehow, and thus less genuine, and less funny.

Still and all, I have a warm spot for Duck Soup because it contains good memories for me. Despite the musical numbers and a tragically short running time, it still manages to make me laugh legitimately out loud every time I watch it.

A Night at the Opera is the first Marx Brothers movie after the departure of Zeppo Marx as well as the departure of the Marx Brothers from Paramount. The three remaining brothers wound up at MGM. MGM wanted the Marx Brothers to be a little more family friendly and a little less insane, something that might be a little more marketable for a larger group of people. What this means is that the Marx Brothers lost in edge they picked up in audience and popularity. What this means for us in terms of this film is that in addition to the antics of the brothers, we’ll also get a manufactured love story between Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and Ricardo (Allan Jones). More seriously to my way of thinking, all three of the brothers are now good guys, meaning they aren’t going to be pitted against each other, which is where most of the comedy in their early films came from.

Regardless, we start in Europe as the manager of the New York Opera, Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), looks to sign a new tenor. The tenor he has his mind on is Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Lassparri has his mind set on Rosa, but Rosa loves Ricardo even though the talented Ricardo can’t get a break as an operatic tenor. The signing of Lassparri comes thanks to the intervention of yet another wealthy widow played by Margaret Dumont, this time named Mrs. Claypool; regardless, she’s essentially the same character Margaret Dumont always played.

Also working for the opera is Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho), who would like to marry Mrs. Claypool for her money. He’d also like to sign a tenor, and is steered toward Ricardo thanks to the intervention of his erstwhile manager Fiorello (Chico) and wardrobe worker Tomasso (Harpo). Lassparri signs with the opera and leaves, taking Rosa with him (since of course he has designs on her, too). Driftwood inadvertently smuggles Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso on the ship in his steamer trunk, and (naturally) hilarity ensues. The entire plot revolves around getting both Rosa and Ricardo to sing for the opera despite the machinations of Gottlieb and Lassparri.

As with Duck Soup, the entire film hinges far less on the plot and the frankly tepid romance than it does on the comedic bits of the three brothers and the multiple straight men (and straight woman Dumont). The classic bit here is the scene in Driftwood’s stateroom aboard the ship. Little more than a closet, 15 people manage to cram in at one point, since more keep showing up and no one ever leaves. Another involves the police looking for the three ship stowaways in New York, a chaotic scene involving moving furniture, disappearing on the fire escape, and some quick costume changes.

Again, the major recurrent Marx Brothers players here play simply themselves. One of the reasons Margaret Dumont was such a great foil for Groucho Marx is that (evidently) she didn’t really get the jokes, and always played her scenes straight. Groucho is still the master of the quick one-liner and faster retort. Chico can spit out long, rambling nonsense. Harpo…well, Harpo doesn’t talk, but he is in many ways the most entertaining of the bunch.

With the basis of the film being opera, there’s no surprise here that a lot of time is spent on musical numbers. The concluding numbers, or at least the opera that leads to the inevitable ending, are silly and filled with the sort of random events and anarchy that made the Marx Brothers who they were. On the ship, though, there’s an interlude in which Chico plays the piano and Harpo plays the harp. While sweet and fun, there’s not a lot here, other than it gets the three stowaways temporarily caught. It appears more or less to be a scene to allow the two brothers to demonstrate their musical talents.

And so, with less of an edge, with a cobbled love story that is tepid at best, and with scenes that don’t add much to the overall plot, A Night at the Opera feels more uneven in many ways than Duck Soup. Where Duck Soup could have used another 10 minutes, A Night at the Opera feels like it could lose 10 without losing too much.

Why to watch Duck Soup: The last Marx Brothers movie involving all four.
Why not to watch: Too short, and the musical numbers don’t do much for it.

Why to watch A Night at the Opera: Some of the greatest comedy bits ever filmed.
Why not to watch: The Marx Brothers with far less edge than they once had.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I'm Hungry!

Film: Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Luis Bunuel is a director with whom I have trouble. Since a great deal of his output delves fully into the surreal, I often don’t know how to react to it. Do I laugh? Do I take it seriously? I tend to go into his movies like I go into a cold swimming pool. I dip in a toe, inch my way in, and eventually get to the point where I feel acclimated. The problem is that often with Bunuel’s films, I’m just getting acclimated with the environment when the film ends.

So I was rather pleasantly surprised by Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), which certainly goes to the surreal, but is also in many ways easier to read. We are concerned with three couples who are in many ways the epitome of the upper middle/lower upper class. Throughout the film, the three couples attempt to get together for a meal and are snubbed at every turn.

Our first couple is Don Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey) and Florence (Bulle Ogier). He is the ambassador to France from the mythical country of Miranda, which might be South American or Caribbean. As a diplomat, Acosta uses his position to smuggle in massive amounts of cocaine, which he shares with his friends. One of those friends is M. Thevenot (Paul Frankeur), who is married to Simone (Delphine Seyrig). It’s entirely possible that Simone and Don Rafael are having an affair. They certainly seem to be, at least, but reality is not always that firm in this case.

Our third couple is Henri and Alice Senechal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stephane Audran), who initially are the hosts of a failed dinner party. They also host a second failed dinner party when, instead of going down to greet their guests, they sneak off into the garden for sex. Their sudden disappearance causes Acosta and Thevenot to panic, since they believe the police are on the way to arrest them for drug trafficking.

Meals are interrupted by the Army, by police raids, by dead bodies, and more. In short, the six people almost never get to eat, and when they do, it’s only for a few minutes before something terrible happens and disrupts them.

Around the middle of the film, we starting delving into the world of dreams. Frequently, a scene will take a very strange turn, like the characters arriving for a dinner party only to discover that they are in fact on stage and expected to perform a play that none of them have learned the lines to. Just as the scene comes to a head, one of the characters wakes up and the film continues. From this point forward, it is impossible to tell if anything is actually happening or if we are in the dream state. This is because Bunuel never changes away from reality in the dreams. They are played straight, as if they are really happening, and we don’t discover that reality is being twisted until we see someone sit up.

This more than anything is what makes the film work for me. There is no separation between the dream states of the various characters and their waking reality. We can never be sure what we are seeing is real or if it is the figment of someone’s subconscious. For instance, at one meal the couples are arrested. At the police station, we hear the story of a police lieutenant who was killed, but comes back every year on the anniversary of his death to try to get people to like him. He arrives and releases our characters, but this then turns out to be another dream. The police chief is told the release the prisoners and does. But were they ever really arrested in the first place? It’s impossible to tell.

In short, Le Discret Charme de la Bourgeoisie makes it impossible to tell if something is really happening or if it is something else. Because of this, everything has to be taken at face value until it is proven to be something other than reality. This makes the film more than a little farcical, but it’s a farce that really works. Eventually, we question the entire experience—how artificial was everything that we saw? On a very real level, it’s all artificial since these are actors playing roles in a film. It’s impossible to tell where the story ends and begins, where reality ends and begins, and where the roles end and begin.

As a shock, I liked this film, and I didn’t really expect to. It’s silly and strange, but it’s a film that benefits from a sort of laissez faire attitude of just letting the film happen and worrying about interpretation later. Of course, Bunuel never works on a single level, and he’s making a statement about the bourgeoisie class here, too.

There’s also some genuine humor here. At one point, Acosta tells his friends about people at the airport wanting to search his diplomatic bag—a serious breach of etiquette. He mentions that another ambassador was recently arrested for drug trafficking, discovered when his diplomatic bag was searched. Upon conclusion of the story, Acosta reaches into his own diplomatic bag and pulls out a couple of fistfuls of cocaine.

This film is about attitude, perception, and ego, and it really works. Some may find it difficult and others may be offended by what Bunuel seems to be saying about the upwardly mobile, upper middle class. But so what?

Why to watch Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie: Highbrow silliness.
Why not to watch: Up is down, down is up, and it will remind you strangely of Inception.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Full-On Meta-Film

Film: Le Mepris (Contempt)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Jean-Luc Godard is a director that I’m starting to come to terms with as a viewer. At least I thought that was the case until Le Mepris (Contempt) came across my desk. I’m not 100% sure how to react to this film.

But let’s start at the start here, because we start with Brigitte Bardot’s naked hinder. Brigitte hasn’t aged particularly well, but in 1963, her behind was a thing of beauty and the camera spends a lot of time inching forward and back over it. Her name, we discover, is Camille and she is married to a playwright named Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli).

While Paul is a playwright, he’s been dabbling a bit in films. He’s been contacted by an American film producer named Jeremy Prokosch (an unmistakably scenery-chewing Jack Palance) to work on the script for a film based on Homer’s Odyssey. Prokosch has brought in Fritz Lang (playing himself) to direct this vision, but he’s not happy with the film he’s getting. To put the conflict of producer and director into stark contrast, Lang is creating an art film and Prokosch wants as much nudity as possible.

Prokosch is everything you expect a smarmy film producer to be. While he certainly wants his film to make money (and contain buckets and buckets of nudity), he’s far more interested in making time with Camille, inviting her to ride with him back to his villa while her husband follows along in a cab. And this is where something happens that we don’t get to see.

Something, in the half hour it takes Paul to arrive at Prokosch’s villa, happens between Camille and Prokosch, but we never discover what it is. My thinking is that he attempted to force himself on her, which is exactly the persona that he’s shown us so far and exactly what we expect of him. I think he’s unsuccessful in this, although I have no proof of it. Honestly, I don’t have any proof that Prokosch tried to introduce Camille to Little Jeremy; it just makes sense that that’s what happened.

Whatever happened during this time causes a huge rift in the relationship between Camille and Paul, probably because it was at Paul’s insistence that Camille go off in Prokosch’s car. What she learns from this is that essentially Paul is weak. Prokosch’s intentions with Camille were evident to anyone who still had a pulse, and Paul—knowing this—sends her off with the man anyway because he wants the money to rewrite The Odyssey script. He’s weak. He’ll sell her out even if the reason is to make enough money to make her happy. And this is where we get the name of the film.

The key scene comes in the middle of the film after Paul and Camille return to their apartment. They proceed to discuss whether or not they will head to Capri with Prokosch and whether or not Paul will rewrite scenes in Lang’s film to include more T & A. This argument rambles on and covers several dozen topics, takes place in every room in their apartment, includes both of them taking baths, and lasts for a good half hour. I was dreading this scene a bit, but as it turns out, the scene is really pretty watchable.

As it turns out, they do go to Capri, and everything spins further out of control until we get the ending that comes completely out of nowhere…at least until you put a little thought into it. I’m not going to go into this here or put it under a spoiler.

Le Mepris is beautifully shot throughout in startling colors and with truly marvelous scenery. Brigitte Bardot, when not showing the full-on full moon of her backside is frequently draped in solid primary colors which work very well for her. In short, this is a gorgeous film to look at. There’s something about the film quality here that makes the film look European. It looks in many ways like a Fellini film, or at least it doesn’t look like an American film of the same era. I can’t truly describe that film quality because I don’t have the vocabulary for it.

It’s also a pleasure to see Fritz Lang playing himself. First of all, the dude is rocking a monocle, and that makes me love him more than I did going in. Second, it’s Fritz freakin’ Lang, one of the greatest directors to ever stand behind a camera. I really love it when directors show up in films, especially when they are directors I like.

For all this, Le Mepris is a film that leaves me torn. I want to like it more than I do, in part because it is so pretty to look at and in part because it does feature a lot of dialogue with Fritz Lang (who admits that M is his personal favorites of his films). There’s a part of me that really appreciates the meta-nature of this film as well. We see many of the aspects of filmmaking as the movie goes on: we watch rushes, see shots being made, look at casting decisions, and more. It is, essentially, a film about making a film, which means that Godard is commenting not only on the subject of Paul’s and Camille’s marriage, but also on the filming process itself, much like Bergman did with Persona.

And yet, there’s another part of me that finds all of this simply too much for a Monday night. Le Mepris feels like a film that requires multiple viewings to truly understand, and I can’t say that I liked it enough (aside from seeing Fritz Lang en-monocled and the loving shots of Brigitte Bardot’s hinder) to watch it again in the near future.

Why to watch Le Mepris: A truly beautiful film.
Why not to watch: A WTF ending to end all WTF endings.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Haters Gonna Hate

Film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

I suppose that until tonight, I was the only person of my generation to have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Up to this point in my life, I’ve managed to avoid this film through design and by carefully avoiding it whenever possible. I knew the basics going in and I knew that in the theater, people scream, holler, spray water on each other, throw rice, and otherwise mess up the theater. I had no interest. I don’t like crowds and I don’t want to have strangers throw things at me. The best piece of writing I’ve ever seen on the film is in Kevin Murphy’s book, “A Year at the Movies,” which I will certainly reference again by the end of this.

Tonight, when scrolling through the NetFlix queue, my wife scrolled across this one. She’s been on me to watch it with her since about the time we got NetFlix a year ago. It was time to bite the bullet and put this one behind me.

So now I’ve seen the damn thing, and I realize now that I was right to avoid it my entire life. I understand the reason the film is a must-see, but I don’t have to be happy about it.

Let’s be blunt here—this is less a movie than it is an excuse to string a bunch of unrelated songs together, get Tim Curry to wear stockings and garters, and celebrate things like transvestitism and rampant sexuality of all types in ways that would shock the establishment in 1975. I don’t have a real issue with shocking the establishment, honestly. I’d just rather it didn’t have to happen with songs I don’t like, excessive camp, and things that annoy me.

There is a sort of a plot involving a newly engaged couple named Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), who get a flat tire in the proximity of a large castle. Here they are met by a hunchback named Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien), a couple of servants named Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Nell Campbell), and a transvestite scientist named Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). Frank is trying to create a man for sex purposes, and succeeds in building Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). There’s also a rival scientist (Jonathan Adams) and a delivery boy missing part of his brain (Meat Loaf), cannibalism, aliens, and a lot of implied sex in various configurations. That, and a lot of songs. Really, that’s enough of trying to make sense of the plot. There’s also a narrator of sorts (Charles Gray).

I genuinely attempt to give every movie I watch a fair shake. This time, I’m not sure that was possible. If you’re a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, I’m sorry. I really hated this movie. A lot. I can’t recommend it from a schlock perspective, from a musical perspective, from a film perspective, or any other.

I go back to Kevin Murphy’s essay in which he comments that the general reaction of the crowd watching this film is entirely wrong. Brad gets called an asshole every time he says his name, but he’s the only person on the screen who isn’t an asshole. People participating in the live show must conform to the script, which seems to be at odds with the original intent of the show and the stage show that spawned it. Ultimately, the story is pretty stupid and doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And it’s a damn shame that Tim Curry hasn’t seemed to get past this film. Susan Sarandon has, as has Barry Bostwick. But evidently the dress and the garter belts have kept Curry in a series of crappy roles for most of his career. Such a shame, since the guy is really a lot more talented than a lot of his roles.

I realize, though, that my opinion on this film is not necessarily the popular one. Frankie fans tend to be rabid. My lovely wife is one such Frankie fan. It’s only fair to give her the opportunity to say why she loves this film, since evidently I don’t get it. I promise not to edit her. I’m giving her a free chance to defend this film.

“I think it’s stupidly entertaining. It has no other value except for that. I think the songs are catchy; I like singing along to them. And every time I watch it, I am not disappointed that I have seen it again.” So there’s that.

Go ahead and beat me up for it, folks. I stand by the fact that while it may be camp and “so bad it’s good,” at its heart The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a bad movie.

Why to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show: A piece of filmic, schlock, and camp history.
Why not to watch: Because it really isn’t very good.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dumpster Diving

Film: Les Glaneures et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

We live in a world of plenty. I live in a community that makes at least part of its income through farming. Despite the fact that it looks fairly suburban and despite the fact that there is a large Midwestern university within a couple of miles of my house, there is corn or soybeans within 15 minutes of my house in literally every direction. This begs the question of why so many people go hungry not just in the world but in the U.S.

Les Glaneures et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) explores the history and phenomenon of gleaning, or going through the fields of produce after the farm machinery and farmers have taken their yield. This film follows a number of gleaners—those who glean from necessity and those who glean because they enjoy it. Additionally, the film shows a collection of people who glean in urban environments.

This privation and necessity of gleaning is juxtaposed with the tremendous waste that occurs in farming. Filmmaker Agnes Varda talks to potato farmers who deliberately throw away a portion of their harvest every year because the potatoes are misshapen, or damaged or shockingly too large for the size that supermarkets want to sell. These extra potatoes, tones of them, are dumped in fields and left to rot, and so the poor and hungry pick among them for food.

We also see vineyards in Burgundy. Here, for a wine to be considered vintage, only a certain number of bottles can come from each plot. The extra grapes, rather than being picked and sold or gleaned, are destroyed.

Not everyone in the film gleans from necessity. A chef—the youngest in history to earn two stars in the Michelin Guide, gleans herbs and apples on a hillside. Partly, he says, it is to save money. Without gleaning, he would spend $30 per day on savory alone. He also gleans because it gives him control over the produce he includes in the meals he cooks. Through gleaning, he is able to determine for himself the freshness of his foods and regulate the quality of his meals.

Among the more interesting characters we meet are a few artists who glean materials for their projects and one man who admits to having both a job and a social security number, but gleans 100% of his meals from dumpsters because he objects to the tremendous waste he sees in the streets. Too much food gets thrown away, he claims, and the waste is will destroy everything. He also claims that since he started gleaning all of his food from trash receptacles, he has not been sick. Another man who has a Master’s degree and now sells newspapers and magazines, gleans day-old bread from bakeries in the morning and fruits and vegetables from markets in the afternoon.

Next to all of this, the people who pick potatoes in fields and those who pull together pieces of refuse to make art, Varda experiments with her own relationship with gleaning as well as her own mortality. As she wanders through fields, she grabs potatoes for herself and arranges for a local foodbank to come and gather potatoes to feed those who need feeding. She wanders through an orchard of fig trees, eating overripe figs that were left on the trees because they had ripened past the point at which they could be candied.

In her own way, Varda also gleans her film both in the sense of picking up pieces that she sees and likes and takes with her, as well as in the more modern sense of the word. At the same time, the more she films and the more she sees, the more she understands this activity and the various reasons the people she meets have for gleaning. Similarly, as a viewer, we glean in the same way, understanding the behavior that at first seems so strange and foreign. In terms of objects taken home, she admits to a pair of chairs found discarded on the street. She also takes a clock without hands since she feels attuned to it—without hands, it no longer shows advancing time.

Les Glaneures et la Glaneuse is a film of surprising power and beauty. In showing the various attitudes and styles of gleaning, Varda has created a film that speaks to almost all segments of the population. We see those who prevent gleaning of their otherwise wasted crop as a form of protection for themselves. We see other farmers who allow the gleaning, saying that if their own pickers left the fruit, it would simply go to waste anyway. And through it all, there is the constant metaphor of gleaning as something we all do, picking pieces of experiences to remember, taking small parts of others along with us on our own journey.

This is a special film. Who would have known that a film that opens with people digging through dirt piles for potatoes would have such a particular magic and majesty?

Why to watch Les Glaneures et la Glaneuse: A surprisingly beautiful look at food and poverty, art and life.
Why not to watch: It’s a film about potatoes and junked furniture

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

Films: Neco z Alenky (Alice)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Some stories stick around forever. Every few years, it seems that a new version of “A Christmas Carol” shows up (although for my money, none will ever be better than the one with Alistair Sim) to retell a classic tale in a new way. The works of Lewis Carroll are similar in that respect. Generations of children have gone through the looking glass, and generations more will continue to go through. For as much hype as the Tim Burton version got, and for as stylized and bizarre as Burton’s version is, there is no stranger place than what is found down the rabbit hole of Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky (Alice).

I’m going to say this right off the top here: I’m not going to even try to summarize this film. Svankmajer’s vision here is completely off the charts weird, and yet completely accessible, provided one is at least remotely familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland. It follows the basics of Carroll’s tale without feeling at all like it is in any way derivative of anyone else’s vision of this tale. There is a thick, creamy layer of surrealism in this film that makes for a very interesting viewing experience, to say the least.

Our only human character in this film is Alice herself (Kristyna Kohoutova). The other characters in the film are bizarre creations that sometimes approach the well-known characters from the story. Everything but Alice, and sometimes Alice herself, are depicted as stop-motion animated things—taxidermy animals, socks with over-large eyes, and cardboard cutouts. Alice is often depicted as a stop-motion character herself; parts of the film look as if Svankmajer removed a couple of frames per second, while other pares are obviously as animated as the non-human characters. Frequently, when Alice shrinks, she is depicted not as the actor playing her, but as a doll.

Alice, both the actress and the doll version, is a straw-haired little waif with that odd look that appears in so many Slavic children. She has a young/old face, still obviously a child, but with eyes that appear to have seen a great deal of privation. Her pale coloration and faded pink dress only add to the oddly washed-out look of a great deal of this film. Few things are vibrantly colored, and even those things (like the White Rabbit’s red coat) seem somehow faded.

The creatures of this disturbing wonderland are the stuff of nightmares. The best analog I can think of for these creatures is to think of them as the hybrid toy creations of the toy nemesis Sid in Toy Story. To truly get the effect of what these beasts look like, though, substitute taxidermy animals and skulls for toys. The White Rabbit, for instance, is a taxidermy rabbit with horrifyingly large googly eyes. A carriage is driven by some sort of taxidermied beast with a miniature human skull (a monkey skull?), with the carriage pulled by chickens with the skulls of different animals. For adults, these creatures are bizarre representations of real things. For children, these would be the things of nightmares. Of these, the White Rabbit is perhaps the most horrible, if only because he gets the most screen time. His teeth jut forward from his head, and the large gap in his chest constantly leaks sawdust, forcing him to ingest sawdust to replace the loss.

Svankmajer enjoys the idea of repetition. One continuing event, for instance, is Alice being unable to open drawers. Repeatedly, she pulls off the knob of a drawer and then is forced to wedge the drawer open with either her fingers or a knife. Nothing here is what it seems. Tin cans are opened to reveal live cockroaches, while pots reveal living, moving meat that crawls from place to place. Alice in fact enters Wonderland by crawling into a drawer that is far too small to hold her, revealing a much larger place once she gets inside. At one point, Alice returns to the room she begins in, although this new version is a doll house that appears at least on the outside to be made of stone building blocks.

This is not a film to watch without a basic idea of the story that spawned it. With no knowledge of Alice in Wonderland, this film is nothing more than a series of weird images. Svankmajer loses almost all of the intelligent wordplay of Carroll’s story, favoring visual storytelling. While this presents a very different vision of the story, it is not so different that it can’t be recognized.

A few things are worth noting here. First, the stop-motion animation is really good. While obviously animated and surreal, it comes across quite well. It’s not as polished as, say the more recent Aardman films like Chicken Run. Actually, it’s very reminiscent of Aardman’s first “Wallace and Gromit” short films. On the other hand, there is a disturbing trend throughout the film to show close-ups of Alice’s mouth. The entire film is narrated by Alice, who speaks the dialogue of the other characters. Each time she speaks a line of dialogue for someone else, we see her mouth in close up. Alice’s voice says, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” and then we see her mouth say, “said the Mad Hatter.” While I got used to the bizarre creatures and animation, I never got used to this.

Neco z Alenky plays like a full length short film. That’s as close of a description as I can think of for this film. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see as an animated short created by a particularly visionary and gifted film student. It’s just close to 90 minutes long.

While visually fascinating, I got a bit tired of this film eventually. It’s too much to take in, and despite the fact that it is less than 90 minutes long, I felt overwhelmed by it at the end. It’s an experience and worth watching for its unique visual style. Don’t think about putting this in front of kids, though. And don’t look for the Cheshire Cat; he’s not in this.

Why to watch Neco z Alenky: A unique and singular vision of a unique and singular story.
Why not to watch: It’s a direct assault on your cerebral cortex through your eyes.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Message Overload

Films: Stachka (Strike)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Say what you will about Sergei Eisenstein, he knew which side of the bread the butter was on. When the Bolsheviks took power, Eisenstein began creating films that fed directly into the Soviet propaganda machine, either by extolling the power of the workers, decrying the evils of the Czarists, or both. Stachka (Strike) does a little bit of both, but leans heavily on the side of attacking the bourgeoisie, those capitalist controllers of the means of production who got Karl Marx in such a dither.

Stachka is actually a very simple story. The workers at a capitalist-owned factory in the pre-Bolshevik days are not particularly happy. Things boil over and reach a breaking point when one worker is falsely and unfairly accused of stealing a micrometer, an item that comes with the hefty price tag of 25 rubles. Unable to clear his name or prove his innocence and unwilling to attempt surviving without his job, the worker commits suicide.

This event proves to be the catalyst for a strike. The workers make a series of what would today be considered completely reasonable demands—fair treatment, eight-hour work days (six for minors) and a wage increase. These demands are gone over by the heads of the factory, who in typical silent melodramatic style are the epitome of fat cat industrialists. In fact, some of them have become so wealthy from the sweat of the workers that they are indeed extremely obese. These men sit around in a posh room and puff giant cigars and enjoy delicate treats. Naturally, they come back with the statement that the demands cannot be met—not a single one will be given in on.

Instead of negotiations, the bourgeoisie try to send in their own agitators to return the strikers to work. Finally having had enough, the strikers resist such propaganda efforts and continue the strike. Then, in a move that seems positively modern, Czarist troops arrive and gun down everyone they can find in a scene that quite literally compares the poor slaughtered Proletarians with slaughtered cows.

This is Eisenstein’s first film, and it shows. Certainly Bronenosets Potyemkin was just as filled with propaganda and anti-capitalist moments, so the political ideas evidently took a look time for Eisenstein to outgrow. So while the impact of this film is the same as its later masterpiece, it doesn’t change the fact that his later films are substantially better. This is almost certainly comes from Eisenstein’s overall level of competence and comfort as a filmmaker.

His work is very stylized, in part from the era it was made in, in part from the form of the silent, and in part because it is very, very Russian. Some elements of the film smack of surrealism. The Czarist spies at the factory are named after animals and look like the animals that they are named after, for instance.

It helps that the story here is a good one, or at least one filled with a lot of dramatic possibility. The shots, while sometimes a bit ham-fisted, show a lot of promise that would be realized in some of Eisenstein’s later work. Here, though, this promise is tarnished by the metaphorical sledgehammer with which Sergei applies his message. The bourgeoisie factory owners are so stereotypically fat cattish that they are almost cartoons who care nothing of the suffering of the poor, oppressed workers. While no doubt true at some level, the depiction here is pretty extreme.

All in all, a good film. If for no other reason, it shows the earliest available Eisenstein work, which shows the rudimentary beginnings of a man who would become an important film pioneer.

Why to watch Stachka: All directors start somewhere, but not all directors are Sergei Eisenstein.
Why not to watch: The premise is far more interesting than the film.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ultimately, It's Kind of "Have Not"

Film: To Have and Have Not
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There are a few things that tend to make me look favorably on a film. I tend, for instance, to like almost all film noir regardless of quality, and the nastier the better. I tend to like everything that stars Humphrey Bogart, too. I’m a sucker for exotic locations, even when they are depicted in black and white. I dig films that have the balls to have a character named Frenchy. More than anything, I always fall for great dialogue, which is one of the reasons I tend to love film noir.

To Have and Have Not isn’t really film noir, although it does have some relation to the genre. It’s a tangential war drama in that it takes place around World War II just after the fall of France. While not specifically film noir, it does have all of the other elements I fall for. It takes place in Martinique, stars Bogart, has marvelous dialogue, and even has a hotel manager named Frenchy. In many ways, it’s a poor man’s Casablanca. It even has an evil fat guy and a singing piano player in this case played by Hoagy Carmichael.

Harry Morgan (Bogart, and not the guy who played Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H) has a boat for hire on Martinique which he runs with his often-drunk assistant Eddie (Walter Brennan), who likes to ask people if they’ve ever been bitten by a dead bee. Their current client is an American named Johnson (Walter Sande) who has lousy luck reeling in fish. After a little more than two weeks on Morgan’s boat, Johnson is ready to call it quits, and he tells Morgan he’ll pay him the $800 or so he owes him in the morning.

Enter Marie (Lauren Bacall), an American who appears to live through looks, charm, and pick pocketing. She lifts Johnson’s wallet and Morgan catches her at it. He confronts her, and Morgan tries to get Johnson to sign over some travelers checks, since it appears that he was going to skip the island without paying. In the meantime, Morgan is asked by his hotel manager Frenchy (Marcel Dalio) to meet with some French Resistance looking to smuggle people to fight the Nazis. Morgan refuses. The Vichy government of Martinique catches wind of the Resistance and a shootout occurs at the hotel, leaving Johnson with a bullet in his chest and Morgan broke, which means that he’ll have to take that job smuggling Resistance fighters.

Marie and Harry circle around each other like sharks, or perhaps cats in heat. They even come up with nicknames for each other; she calls him Steve, presumably because he works on a ship even though he isn’t a stevedore while he calls her Slim, an nickname that is immediately picked up on by the hotel piano player, Cricket (Carmichael). Eventually, Harry brings in the husband and wife Resistance team of Paul and Hellene du Bursac (Walter Szurovy and Dolores Moran) and incurs the wrath of tubby Vichy police guy Captain Renard (Dan Seymour), whose name is just a few letters off the Claude Raines police chief in Casablanca (Renault, if you’re playing along at home).

That similarity highlights the similarities of these two movies. Both take place in an area currently under control by Vichy France, both involve moving Resistance fighters through this troubled area using the assistance of an American expatriate. Both make frequent use of the piano player both as mood music and as minor plot point. The problem for To Have and Have Not is that Casablanca is the superior film in every respect.

Here’s what I mean. Bogart is Bogart, certainly, but here he’s much more mercenary than Rick is in Casablanca. There, the Bogart character is all about doing what he can for the French Resistance and damn the cost. That film also has the interesting love triangle, and there is no such triangle here. Oh, Slim might think there is, and she reacts to Hellene du Bursac as if they were rivals, but they really aren’t. Hellene is too obviously in love with her husband to even think about straying. I may really like Hoagy Carmichael, but he’s no Dooley Wilson, and Walter Sande isn’t anything like a replacement for the great Peter Lorre. In Casablanca we have the aforementioned Claude Raines as the smarmy but likeable cop; the closest character here is probably Frenchy, who is really without much in the way of personality. In terms of plus-sized villains, Sydney Greenstreet has both menace and class while Dan Seymour has a beret and a voice that grates on me like nails on a chalkboard.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like this movie, because I did. I generally like Walter Brennan and I almost always enjoy any movie that contains Humphrey Bogart. It’s just that the comparison with Casablanca is so natural here, and this film simply can’t measure up to one of the greatest screen romances ever created.

On the one hand, I liked this movie because it's hard not to like. On the other hand, Casablanca is far superior in every way.

Why to watch To Have and Have Not: Bogart and Bacall when they became Bogart and Bacall.
Why not to watch: Because Casablanca is better.