Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sexual Healing

Film: Breaking the Waves
Format: VHS from Oregon Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Is Lars von Trier something of an acquired taste? It might just be me, and while I thought very much at first that I’d like him a lot, I like him less and less the more of his work that I see. Riget was amateurish in some ways but interesting with its ideas if not always in the execution. Dancer in the Dark was a bizarre combination of naivety and brutality that I found worth watching if not so much something I’d want to see again in the near future. And now there’s Breaking the Waves, the first of von Trier’s loose trilogy of films about women who act immorally but still retain a certain amount of innocence, a trilogy that ended with the aforementioned Dancer in the Dark.

Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) is a vaguely simple, possibly dotty Irish girl who wishes to marry outside of her community. In fact, she wishes to marry a big Nordic guy named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). They do marry, and for Bess, this is the beginning of the happiest time in her life. Jan is a big bear of a man, who introduces Bess to the pleasures of sex. The two are devoted to each other, but eventually, Jan has to return to work on an oil rig. Bess, whose simplicity tends to come out more in church (she prays and responds to herself for God), prays for Jan to be returned to her. He is; an accident on the rig has left him paralyzed.

Naturally, Bess blames herself, thinking that God has crippled Jan as a lesson to her for her selfishness. Jan, sick and fading, tells Bess to take other lovers and relay the details to him to give him something to live for. She is shocked and refuses at first, but when Jan’s health takes a dramatic turn for the worse, she agrees, and he starts to recover. Bess soon believes that what she is doing is God’s will—her promiscuity will somehow heal her husband from his injuries.

For whatever reason, this film was a very hard watch for me. Innocence corrupted seems to be a central theme for von Trier, and it’s a theme that I understand, but don’t really like much. His view of this theme, though, is an interesting one. If an innocent—and Bess truly is an innocent in this film—is corrupted in some way but doesn’t realize or understand the corruption, does it really take place? Certainly everyone in her town believes that Bess has become wanton, and by all accounts, she has. But in her world, her wantonness has a function, and to her mind, it must not be evil because it is God’s will.

This, of course, brings up the nature of religious belief. For many people, the idea of belief is more than just a touchy subject; it is taboo, and looking at the beliefs of others in a critical way is something that not only shouldn’t be done, but in a real way cannot be done. Bess’s beliefs in this case seem to run counter to everything that she has been taught, and counter to basic Western morality. But is she really guilty? Or are the townspeople who shun her essentially more guilty because of the way that Bess is treated?

If I’m honest with myself, one of the reasons I found this film difficult to get through was the graininess of the footage. It has the look and feel of a film shot on direct video for television, and that’s difficult to get past at first. In fact, when the film first started, I was unsure that it really was the film.

The performances are good in the main. Emily Watson is excellent as this somewhat addled woman who, for lack of a better way to put it, develops a sort of addiction for her husband, and then an addiction to this idea of curing him. Throughout, no matter how degraded she becomes with the various sex acts (and yes, rape is involved as you had to assume it would be knowing the basic plot), she maintains a sort of childlike innocence. Skarsgard is equally good, first as a physically imposing man and then later as an invalid. The unsung hero of the film is Dodo McNeill (Katrin Cartlidge), who is Bess’s widowed sister-in-law. Naturally, von Trier mainstay Udo Kier makes an appearance as well, and plays a stereotypically Kier-ian sadist.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m starting to see von Trier as a sort of low-grade Aronofsky. His work is interesting and thought-provoking. He has strange ideas and makes strange films in which not much good ever happens. But I’d rather watch an Aronofsky movie in most cases, simply because I like what he does with them more than von Trier does. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Why to watch Breaking the Waves: Lars von Trier’s early and edgy work.
Why not to watch: It goes in weird places, which means that it’s a von Trier film.

Month 19 Status news!

July was a bit of a down month. I might still sneak in another movie this evening, which would bring me to 22 total from The List, plus the last Harry Potter movie which will probably never make the list.

News #1: Results are in from my poll. 85% of those polled believe in some way or another I should start a podcast, so it looks like that will soon be in the works. Four of you (and you know who you are) said you'd be interested in co-hosting. If that was you, please contact me via email ( I'm thinking bi-weekly.

News #2: The 8th edition of The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has been announced for September release. The word is that a whopping 23 films have been added to this new edition. Since the cover is Natalie Portman from Black Swan, we can pretty much rest assured that it's one of the 23. The other 22 are a mystery. I have some suspicions (The Social Network, The King's Speech, Inception), some hopes (Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Illusionist) and some fears (Antichrist, Buried). What do YOU think deserves placement? Which movies from 2009 and 2010 do you think should be canonized as officially "must-see"? Got some ideas? That's what the comments are for.

Friday, July 29, 2011

For Love and Money

Film: The Gold Rush
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

The common thought of a silent comedy is that it plays like slapstick. The reason that most people think this is that a great number of silent comedies are little more than slapstick. I don’t mean this in a denigrating way; I like slapstick, and good slapstick is always fun to watch. Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is proof that quite a bit more could be done with silent comedy, though. While there are certainly slapstick moments in this film, there are also a number of other, far more sophisticated gags and jokes.

The film features Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, this time heading up to the frozen north in the hopes of getting in on the Klondike gold rush. He doesn’t fare too well, though, and winds up trapped in a cabin with two other men. The first is named Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted criminal who wants nothing to do with the Tramp and wants him out of the cabin. Then a third man shows up. This is a prospector named Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has just found a motherlode of gold on a mountain and wants to file his claim. The three men reach an uneasy truce until the food runs out completely. They draw cards to see who will go for provisions, and Larsen draws the low card. Of course, since he cares nothing for the other two men, he simply runs out on them, leaving the other two to starve.

This opening sequence, which goes about 20 minutes, is the most well known from the film. This contains the sequence in which Chaplin boils his own boot for food. It’s also, as far as I know, the first instance of a starving man looking across the table at a friend and seeing the friend turn into food, a moment referenced in a couple million cartoons. Eventually, a bear wanders into their cabin, they shoot the bear, and manage to survive the rest of the storm. The two part ways, the Tramp to a prospecting town and Big Jim to stake his claim. However, once he gets there, he meets Larsen, who conks him on the head with a board. Jim wakes up without his memory, but Larsen gets his just desserts, dying in an avalanche.

Of course there’s a girl in the picture. Georgia (Georgia Hale) is a dance hall girl, who is the love of Jack (Malcolm Waite), and the object of the Tramp’s infatuation. He does what he can to stay close to her, eventually taking a job cabin sitting for prospector Hank Curtis (Henry Bergman) near the dance hall. Through a series of mix-ups, the Tramp believes Georgia loves him, and when Big Jim McKay shows up unable to remember where his claim is, the Tramp has a chance to suddenly become a wealthy man.

What’s really interesting to me here is not the huge number of truly great gags, and we’ll get to those in just a second. Instead, what’s most interesting is how much actual plot there is in this film. A lot of silent comedies are pretty straightforward in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish. Boy meets girl, boy goes to elaborate lengths to impress girl, boy gets girl. Nothing wrong with that, but The Gold Rush shoots for a lot more. It runs a very thin line between the comedy of the various situations and real tragedy. Of course, those two things tend to be very closely connected.

And now on to the gags. There are three that are rightfully famous. The first is the boot eating scene mentioned (and pictured) above. The second is the dance Chaplin does with the rolls stuck to the end of a pair of forks. Apparently, audiences reacted to this scene so overwhelmingly that in some theaters, the film was stopped, rewound, and the scene run again. The third comes at the end, when Big Jim and the Tramp return to the cabin, and a huge wind blows it to a teetering position on the edge of a cliff. Many a comedy would kill to have a single scene as good as any of these three.

And yet, there’s plenty here that seems to have been almost forgotten. Chaplin turning into a chicken is one of these. The fight between Chaplin and Jack is another. Still another is Chaplin dancing with Georgia in the dance hall, discovering that his malnutrition is causing his pants to fall, and tying them up with an end of rope only to discover the other end attached to a large dog.

There are some movies that you watch because they are good for you. Others you watch because they are fun and entertaining. Still others get watched because they are classics, and viewing them is necessary to understand where film came from and where it is still going. The Gold Rush is all three of these things and more. This is a delightful film, suitable for anyone, and able to entertain anyone. It’s not my favorite Chaplin, but it’s a damn fine one.

As a final note, The Gold Rush was re-released in 1942 with a new soundtrack, sound effects, and the title cards removed and replaced by a voiceover done by Chaplin himself. The version I watched was not this one, but the original silent. I have no idea how much those alterations change the actual viewing of this film.

Why to watch The Gold Rush: Chaplin’s earliest great film.
Why not to watch: His later great films are better.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dear John Deere

Film: Zemlya (Earth)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There are films that I put off for a long time. A case in point is Zemlya (Earth), Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film about a Soviet collective farm, rich farmers, and a tractor. Since we started our NetFlix account a year or so ago, Zemlya has been in my queue, but I haven’t really done anything about that until tonight. It was finally time to sit down and bull my way through the film, like it or not. “Not” is the operative word here.

Let’s start with the positives, which can be counted on a single hand. The primary good thing about Zemlya is that it is extremely short, clocking in at just over an hour. And, if you press me on this, I’ll grudgingly admit that it is an excellent example of the Soviet montage style of the silent era. Dovzhenko had an eye for composition and visual effect, and that is evident in this film. Despite its age and the fact that the print I watched is not in the best of shape and could use remastering, there are a number of visual moments here that are quite striking and lovely.

Sadly, this can’t make up for the fact that Zemlya is staggeringly dull. Seriously dull. Dull as a beige room. Dull as a lecture on cheese enzymes. Dull as processed American cheese food slices on white bread. For a good ten minutes or so at one point, we see grain being harvested, sorted, tied into sheaves, ground, and made into bread. It almost plays in these moments like a documentary film about agricultural production, narrated by someone with a deep and authoritative voice. You can almost hear someone saying, “Grain falls through these hoppers and is conveniently and accurately sorted by size and weight. From here, it moves to processing to be separated from the chaff, ground, and turned into delicious bread flour for the glory of the Soviet proletariat.”

Here’s the entire plot, or at least as much as I can say without giving away the whole shebang: peasants in a small Ukrainian village pool their money together and buy a tractor to benefit everyone. When the tractor is on its way, people stand around shouting that the tractor is coming (and based on the length of this scene, it’s evidently critical that everyone in the area shout about the coming tractor. Seriously, the build uo for the reveal of this magical piece of farm equipment is so long that I was expecting something plated in gold and fueled by the blood of Christ). The tractor is used to bring in a big harvest for the peasants, which threatens the kulaks, or wealthy land owners. One of the kulaks shoots the guy who drove the tractor, which causes the peasants to get their underpants in a twist and go a-marchin’.

It’s evident that Dovzhekho was a lot more concerned with the visuals than he was with such niceties as plot and script. The opening of the film shows a man under an apple tree dealing everyone that he is going to die, and is simply waiting around for death to strike him. Told by another character that he should just die then, he promptly does, almost dutifully. This is accompanied by such lines of immortal dialogue as “I’m going to die now.”

There are a few weird moments, such as a nude woman doing a full-on vice lock of her boobs at one point, and the killer of the young man driving his face into freshly plowed ground and running in a circle like Curly Howard. Great for a little WTF action toward the end, but even these moments of surreal goofiness can't stop this from being a real plodder.

Silent dramas are a hard watch in this day, and Zemlya ranks pretty high in terms of being a difficult film to get through. It’s equally interesting that film obviously made with a specific propaganda plot (get Soviet farmers to give up their own farms and work communally), but it also goes against its own message. It’s ambiguous in that it would be very easy to suggest that the true message of this film is nothing like a celebration of soviet collectiveness, but a condemnation of the same—the farmers’ way of life must now change in new and exciting ways to accommodate the reality of the tractor over the slower, more traditional ways of harvesting.

And so, Zemlya is about a tractor, and Soviet collectivism, and life and death. It could also easily be pared down into a film about half this length. Zemlya feels important because it is important, but I can think of no earthly reason other than it being a required watch for The List that anyone would want to watch this piece of slow, tractor-fueled somnambulism.

Why to watch Zemlya: You like watching Soviet farmers yell at each other.
Why not to watch: It’s a soporific on film.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Passion Play

Film: Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There are films that present the world as a place that I do not really know or care to live in. Such a film is Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest). I’ve said this about other films as well, and I’ll say it about this one—in the main, nothing good happens to anyone in this film. Bresson’s film shows the world as a bleak place in which faith is difficult and painful, and the road to such faith is paved with pain and suffering.

The priest (Claude Laydu) of our title is not given a name. He is a young priest, just given his first parish in Ambricourt, a small village in northern France. Once there, he confronts complacency and apathy toward himself and his religion at best and outright hostility at worst. He is plagued by health problems, specifically a weak stomach and an inability to digest much more than bread and wine, and the hostility from the local people isn’t helping him.

This hostility comes from everywhere, too. The priest runs a catechism class for the local young girls. Only one of them appears to be paying attention, and he gives her additional praise. But as it turns out, this is all an elaborate prank played by the girls to embarrass the priest. He visits the local manor of the area’s count (Jean Riveyre) and countess (Rachel Berendt) because he is concerned about their daughter, Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral). He ends up spending a great deal of time with the countess, though, who has lost a son.

The two discuss the nature of life and death, and her own inability to return to the church because it feels to her like God has taken the boy away. It appears that the priest gives her a certain amount of courage and strength, and is thus surprised when he discovers that she has died in the night. He is further surprised when it turns out that young Chantal has eavesdropped on the conversation and is now blaming the priest for her mother’s death.

Through all of this, the priest keeps a journal of the events of his life and the minor indignities and torments he suffers at the hands of the people of Ambricourt. We are privy to his thoughts and feelings throughout, and we understand the suffering of his life. A great deal of his suffering comes from his stomach problem, but the majority of his issue is that he is going through a significant crisis of faith. He finds he can no longer pray despite the depth of his faith.

Journal d’un Cure de Campagne is extremely stripped down to almost nothing in terms of visuals and sound. While initially this threw me, I came to appreciate it quite a bit. It’s extremely sparse in terms of what it shows, and music appears only at specific moments in the film, which has the effect of calling attention to itself. In many ways, this is quite beautiful. The film feels minimalist in many respects.

However (and I’m guessing you could tell there was going to be a “however” here), this minimalism seems to infect everything on the screen including Claude Laydu as the priest. He is so completely detached from everything at all times, in many instances he may as well be a wax sculpture or a piece of the furniture. A great deal of the time, all he does in the film is listen to people talk and swoon because of the pain in his stomach (which incidentally turns out to be quite a bit more serious than a little mal d’tummy). This evidently is the effect Bresson was going for, but it’s extremely off-putting. The priest character is detached, but he’s also completely wooden. His entire life, or most of it, is lived internally, and we see this only in bits and pieces in the journal. Otherwise, he just closes his eyes and looks to be suffering divine pain most of the time.

That more than anything is the problem I have with this film. Well, that and the fact that no horrible fate seems horrible enough to inflict on the guy. His ordeal is so completely and terribly awful that I can’t even really dislike the guy as much as his stiffness, formality, and inability to answer a question without a pained five-second pause make me want to.

I know this film is influential in many ways and that Scorsese cites it as one of the main influences on Taxi Driver. I even see the influence. I simply didn’t enjoy it very much.

Why to watch Journal d’un Cure de Campagne: It’s stripped to the essential, beautiful basics.
Why not to watch: Misery piled on top of suffering with a side order of maliciousness.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Metaphorically Sleeping with the Enemy

Film: Le Chagrin et la Pitie (The Sorrow and the Pity)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I alluded to this when I watched Hotel Terminus: Marcel Ophuls has a one-track mind. As a Jewish survivor of World War II, Ophuls naturally has a deep and abiding hatred for the Nazis. However, his true wrath is reserved for those who assisted them without being members of the party. In Hotel Terminus he explored those who assisted Nazis fleeing from Germany after the war. In Le Chagrin et la Pitie (The Sorrow and the Pity), his ire and frustration are reserved for those French citizens who collaborated with their conquerors.

To make his point, Ophuls mixes interviews with resistance fighters, former German soldiers, and in particular a French soldier who fought on the Eastern front in a German uniform and a great deal of archival footage from the war. The points and comments made through the interviews are thus enhanced by these flashes back into the past.

Ophuls’s goal, evidently, is not simply to expose the collaborators for what they were, nor is it to allow them to justify their actions. What Ophuls really wants is to discover the reason that a French person would decide to assist those who had invaded his or her country and further the ends of a military that has proven itself to be hostile. Why, he wants to know, would any Frenchman don a German uniform and fight for the enemy of France? Could such an action be justified? Could there be a legitimate reason for abandoning France in this way?

The answers are both interesting and disturbing, and like the Nazis themselves, speak to the baser, uglier side of human nature. Most of the reasons cited are anti-Semitism, xenophobia, fear, a desire to survive, an assumption that German occupation was inevitable and could not be fought, and anti-communism. A few of these reasons—namely fear and a desire to survive—are treated with a bit more understanding than the others, and truly these are reasons that are a bit easier to understand.

It seems that in this film, unlike Hotel Terminus, the goal of Ophuls is less to point the finger and accuse and more to gain understanding of the how and why collaboration could have and did happen. The idea is less to condemn (although Ophuls appears to be unable to breathe without finding someone to blame) and more to understand the why. Ophuls allows people, particularly the collaborators, the opportunity to justify their actions during the war, and thus in many ways to blame and accuse themselves.

Undoubtedly, a vast amount of footage was created to construct this documentary, since it appears in two distinct parts, each lasting longer than two hours. Additional proof is that Ophuls shot the bulk of his interview footage in 1969 and the film was not released until 1971, indicating a long and involved editing process. What I honestly wonder as a viewer was if Ophuls couldn’t have made his legitimate points in something a bit shorter. Was it necessary to have more than four hours of interview and archival footage to explain the actions of the collaborators? Ultimately, the actions come down to those who wanted to guarantee their own survival and those who were more worried about Bolsheviks and Jews than they were about an oppressive regime from over the border. The tendency is to look at the first group as cowardly and the second group as something approaching inhuman. The first can be understood, if derided. The second does seem to warrant a bug-under-a-microscope sort of scrutiny. But even this sort of study isn’t that difficult in the conclusion: it all boils down to fear. Some people fear for their lives; other people fear anything different. Close curtain. In fact, in the first section, one of the interview subjects says flat out that anti-Semitism became a point of agreement between many Frenchmen and Germans.

Ophuls spends a good deal of time discussing the film Jud Suss (as near as I can figure, the translation is Suss the Jew) and many other German propaganda films of the day. These films naturally support the idea of the Reich and also tend to make further villains of the Jews. It’s an interesting film based on the clips, simply because it really looks like the Jew is the most sympathetic character in the film. We’re told that most of the French stayed away from the propaganda films, but those who saw their own biases reinforced tended to go to this and other movies from Germany. A part of the attraction was that while the films were German, many of the actors were French.

Le Chagrin et la Pitie is an interesting film, but it feels too long by a half. Ophuls certainly has a point, but in the end, he’s not beating a dead horse, but jumping up and down on a damp patch where a dead horse used to be.

Why to watch Le Chagrin et la Pitie: Some history shouldn’t be forgotten.
Why not to watch: While Ophuls is right, does he need another four hours to prove it?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watch Out for Apples

Film: All About Eve
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin' flatscreen.

A common complaint in Hollywood is that there aren’t very many good roles for women. There’s some truth to that, and the Bechdel Test offers a reason why. But there certainly are some good roles for women out there, and 1950’s All About Eve is proof positive that they’ve existed for some time. This film is the first, last, and only example of a film with so many good female roles that four of them were Academy nominated—two each for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Like many a film of the day, All About Eve is told in a sort of flashback. We start with an awards banquet where a young actress named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being given the highest award. We then look back at how this particular turn of events happened, which is interesting because at this point, we don’t really know anything about Eve, or why there’s a particular turn of events that gets us to this point.

No matter. We’re introduced to an earlier form of Eve, a woman who evidently lives for the theater. More specifically, she lives for the performances of Margo Channing (Bette Davis). She claims to go to every performance of her latest play, and waits outside the theater for a glimpse of her heroine every night. Channing’s best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), who is married to the playwright of Channing’s latest play, Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), takes pity on Eve and brings her back stage. Here Eve relates her story—a life defined by a marriage terminated by her husband’s death in World War II, and solace in the theater and the performances of her idol. Taking pity on her, Eve takes her in as an assistant, much to the disapproval of her other assistant, Birdie (Thelma Ritter, who is easily the most entertaining and level-headed character in the film).

While it takes us a little time to get there, it turns out the Birdie had the measure of Eve Harrington all along; she’s no poor, pitiable woman, but a vicious predator who wants nothing less than to usurp Margo Channing’s position, life, success, and lifestyle. She starts early at the birthday party of Channing’s beau, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). She convinces Karen to get her the job as Margo’s understudy in the next play, and then works to get Margo to miss a performance. She further invites all of the press to the performance that Margo misses and she plays, getting rave reviews.

Her plots continue, of course, but are so interesting, well-planned, devious, and coldly executed that spoiling them would be criminal. This is a film to be watched and experienced first-hand, not ruined on a blog.

The plot here is a timeless one, about age and aging, competitiveness, jealousy, and betrayal. Eve’s plot works in no small part because of Margo’s obsession with her own aging and what that means to her career. She’s a threat because she is young, pretty, and talented, but she is mostly a threat because she is young. Like many a person in a profession that glorifies youth and vitality, Margo Channing is necessarily worried about her own position as a leading woman on the stage, knowing that the years are passing rapidly, and that those choice lead parts written for women of ages she can still play will be out of reach for her soon enough.

What’s interesting to me here is not the plot though, although it is a good one and expertly scripted and acted. It’s the women characters themselves. Many films, including a good number of films today, feature female roles that are essentially window dressing for the men. The women exist only to stand behind the men and look pretty rather than actually having much to do with the film itself. Here, it’s the reverse. The men are much more the background characters while the women truly take center stage and control all of the action. These are not women who are looking to please the man in their lives or to stay home and bake turkey dinners. No, these are powerful, forceful women who act in ways to further their own ends. They have control of their own lives and push themselves for more control.

I’ll be blunt: this is one hell of a film. This is a sort of film that everyone really should watch, and should watch soon. How good is this film? How strong are the performances? Marilyn Monroe is in this film and is an afterthought.

I also very much like that the narration of Eve's story switches from person to person. Each part of the story is essentially told through the memories of one of the characters, and this person switches periodically through the film, giving us a much more well-rounded and complete view of exactly the sort of person Eve Harrington is, and what she does to those around her. It's a brilliant tactic.

I’ve never been a huge Bette Davis fan, but I’m going to change that opinion based on this film. I will admit to having liked her in other films, but not seeing why she was thought of so highly. No longer. I’m a fan now.

Why to watch All About Eve: Hollywood skewers itself by proxy.
Why not to watch: If you’re one of those people who hates Bette Davis, there’s not much here for you.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sibling Rivalry

Film: The Kid Brother
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When it comes to silent comedians, everybody still knows Chaplin. For good or ill, the Tramp character is still iconic enough that people recognize it. Less well known is Buster Keaton’s impassive, unchanging face, although there are still people who watch Keaton, including me. He’s my favorite of the silent physical comics. Trailing behind these two in terms of recognition is Harold Lloyd, the bespectacled everyman, completing the big three of early comedy. Everyone else—Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the rest—are now virtually forgotten.

Where Chaplin aimed for pathos and sympathy and Keaton played characters possessed of equal amounts of competence, idiocy, and pure blind luck, Lloyd’s most iconic character was a sort of lovable, plucky everyman who never let himself be defeated, regardless of circumstances. He gave up on his early characters Will E. Work and Lonesome Luke in favor of a character known as “Glasses” for the lensless horn rims he wore. This was the character who carried Lloyd’s career (and he was arguably the most successful of the big three silent comics) into the talkies.

The Kid Brother is in many ways the pinnacle of Lloyd’s craft and character. He hired a team of writers because he wanted constant, non-stop visual gags throughout the film, so there always needed to be something in the works. Like any good physical, visual comic, Lloyd’s gags often have multiple parts and work through multiple variations before climaxing in a final joke before he moves on to the next idea.

In this film, young Harold Hickory (Lloyd) is the third son of the Jim Hickory (Walter James), the sheriff of Hickoryville. Seeing as how the town is named after the family, young Harold has a lot to live up to. In specific, he has to deal with his two older brothers, Olin (Olin Francis) and Leo (Leo Willis). Harold doesn’t get to work with his dad and brothers, in part because he is the baby of the family and in part because he is considerably smaller than the other three. Instead, he becomes the equivalent of the family scullery maid and laundress, handling the day-to-day chores around the house. At this time, we’re also introduced to two other important groups. In town, there are the Hoopers, rival family to the Hickorys. Also, driving through town is a medicine show, featuring a young woman named Mary (Jobyna Ralston).

In Hickoryville, Sheriff Hickory is working on getting the town a new dam, and has finally collected enough money and signatures to petition the governor of the state for the structure. The sheriff takes possession of the money until it can be sent away. Meanwhile, the medicine show rolls in, and Harold, pretending to be his father, gives them permission to set up shop. Everything comes to a head when Harold is sent into town to shut down the medicine show (since the sheriff hates them) and ends up burning it down instead. This sets up a number of plots that will converge at the same time. First, the two men running the medicine show are now out of money and a means to earn it, so they conspire to steal the money for the dam. Second, it sets up a budding romance between Harold and Mary. Third, when the money is stolen, it gives the Hooper clan a reason to make waves against the Hickorys.

The Kid Brother suffers in the modern age essentially from its success. Anyone who has seen even a smattering of comedies can often predict the major plot points that are going to happen at any given time—not because the film itself is predictable, but because the basic story has been copied so many times that this film that introduced a number of these ideas has been turned into a cliché by imitators. It’s a shame, too, because a lot of what Lloyd does is incredibly inventive. There’s not a single scene—even those that lean more toward the serious—that isn’t filled with sight gags, jokes, and pratfalls.

The Kid Brother is also a smart film. Many of the gags are incredibly elaborate. There’s a running series of jokes, for instance, when Harold brings Mary back to his family house, and his two brothers are scandalized, mostly by the thought of being in their nightshirts with a woman in the house. Both of the brothers at this point want nothing more than to beat up their younger sibling, but they also don’t want to be seen by Mary, and Lloyd manages to keep them away from himself by playing on their fears of being seen in their nightclothes. And this goes on for a considerable time, and it remains clever, constantly changes, and is consistently funny.

I don’t have a single beef against The Kid Brother, and I understand that in many ways it is Lloyd’s masterpiece of sight gags, comedy, and story. The only complaint I have—and I am evidently in the minority on this one—is that I don’t think this film is nearly as successful as Lloyd’s earlier Safety Last. The image of Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock hand is iconic, and had I the choice and were I limited to a single representative Harold Lloyd film, that’s the one I’d go with.

But let me be clear: The Kid Brother is inventive, funny, and beautifully made. There’s a reason, after all, that so many other comedies follow the same basic pattern as this film.

Why to watch The Kid Brother: Lloyd is an underappreciated genius.
Why not to watch: Nothing will turn this movie into Lloyd’s superior Safety Last.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tonight They're Gonna Rock You

Films: This is Spinal Tap; Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

The deathbed utterance “Dying is easy; comedy is hard” has been attributed to at least half a dozen people. Regardless of who said it, there’s truth in that sentiment. I would add that in terms of comedy, the most difficult comedy to do well is parody. Parody runs a fine line. Go too far and it comes across as stupid; don’t go far enough, and it doesn’t come across as parody. Anyone interested in creating parody should take a very close look at Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap. This film, chronicling the American tour of one of England’s loudest bands, is so pitch perfect in terms of being just this side of believability. A couple of minor tweaks, and Spinal Tap could be a real band at the end of their career.

The film is a self-styled “rockumentary” created by Marty DeBergi (Rob Reiner) who learns that British metal group Spinal Tap is heading to the U.S. for a tour to promote its latest album, Smell the Glove. So DeBergi heads out with the group to see what a tour and album release is like. The band consists (initially) of five members: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), Viv Savage (David Kaff), and Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell).

It becomes pretty evident right away that Spinal Tap is, for lack of a better way to describe them, a terrible band. They’re quick to jump onto whatever looks to be the latest trend, starting as a skiffle group, toying with feel-good psychedelia, and ultimately ending as a leather and mildly evil-obsessed metal band cranking out tunes about sex and faux mysticism. As the tour progresses, the group suffers a series of setbacks with cancellations, an album that won’t be released thanks to its lurid and sexist cover, and eventually a road manager (Tony Hendra, sporting the awesome rock name Ian Faith) who’s simply had enough and walks away.

The band tries everything it can to promote itself and get fans excited, and true to form, everything ends disastrously. Stage props get stuck, trapping band members inside, the group gets lost behind the stage, and eventually, they create a Stonehenge monument as set dressing that looks more at home in a child’s diorama than on a stage. Things are further complicated by the arrival of David’s girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick), who is obviously despised by Nigel. As the tour winds down, the remaining members consider their options and decide that perhaps the best part of valor here is to simply walk away and pursue other things…but is there perhaps a glimmer of hope at fleeting fame in the distance? Now if they could get past the fact that their drummers seem to keep dying…

This is Spinal Tap works for any number of reasons, but it’s the members of the band, especially McKean, Guest, and Shearer, who really sell this film. The three of them play these parts so close to reality that it almost seems like they could be in earnest, but just off enough that they come across as ridiculous. It’s an almost flawless parody in that respect. The songs are masterpieces of bad songwriting and great comedy. It’s entirely possible that someone not in on the joke would accept Spinal Tap as a real band that just isn’t that good at songwriting.

The film is ably helped by a huge number of tremendous cameo appearances—Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., Fran Drescher (not annoying for once), Billy Crystal, Howard Hesseman, Fred Willard, Paul Shaffer, and even Angelica Huston all show up for a few minutes—all recognizable and all great in their tiny roles. They sell the film as much as anyone else.

I can’t say enough about this film. I loved it when it was shiny and new, and I love it now. I like the characters, who are played perfectly. I like the songs. Most of all, I like the situations that these poor guys are put into and have to deal with. As I said at the top of this post, This is Spinal Tap is parody at its best. There are scenes in this (Stonehenge, Nigel’s piano piece, Derek’s cucumber in his pants, the pod that doesn’t open, “Hello, Cleveland!”) and lines (“These go to 11,” “Lick My Love Pump”) that will continue to be referenced for years to come.

So if This is Spinal Tap is a near-perfect parody of a failed rock band that doesn’t quite make it, who does one react when the story of Spinal Tap becomes a reality without the parody and with a lot more pathos? Sit down to watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Anvil was (and in many ways still is) the original beating heart of thrash metal, but unless you’ve seen this film, you probably haven’t heard of them. I’m not trying to go all hipster on you here; I’m stating the truth. Anvil is cited as an influence and/or an equal by such bands as Metallica and Anthrax, but the two guys who started the band and have been in it for 30 years now work jobs like delivering food for a catering service.

Our two heroes are Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (the extra “b” keeps him differentiated from the director of Spinal Tap) who are the creative heart behind the band. Kudlow is the guitar player, singer, and front man while Reiner plays the drums. Also in the band are long-time Anvil fans bassist Glenn Five and guitarist Ivan Hurd. Kudlow works for a catering business, and the band—in some ways attempting to relive the glory days of the 80s when they were an up-and-coming sensation—still performs. In fact, Kudlow’s philosophy seems to reflect a sort of upbeat pessimism. He says, essentially, that things won’t get any worse than what they are, and if they do, he’s at least got what he’s got.

Things appear to turn around when he is contacted by a woman named Tiziana Arrigoni who wants Anvil to come to Europe for a five-week tour. Things go well at first, but quickly devolve into something entirely too reminiscent of Spinal Tap. Venues turn out to be tiny, crowds are sparse, advertising doesn’t happen, trains are missed. By the end of the tour, Anvil plays at a venue in Transylvania. The auditorium seats 10,000. Only 174 people show up.

The end result of this disastrous tour is that the band has made no money, and since they all took five weeks off from their jobs, they’re now behind. Bassist Glenn Five is essentially homeless, while guitarist Ivan Hurd is behind on his mortgage. Ultimately, two things of note happen on the tour. First, Hurd marries Arrigoni. Second, despite all of the problems, Kudlow remains positive and is grateful for the experience. Seriously, he’s the most upbeat guy ever.

Now, with everyone in dire financial straits, Kudlow has the brilliant idea of cutting the band’s thirteenth album with Chris Tsangarides. Producing the album will take thousands of dollars, which Kudlow tries to earn with a second job. Eventually, he gets the money loaned by his sister, and through a second mortgage on his house. So the album gets made, and no record company wants to touch it, another kick to the groin for the hardworking band. Nothing seems to work for them no matter how hard they try. At one point, just as Nigel leaves the band in Spinal Tap, Reiner walks away from the recording session of the new album, leaving his long time partner alone and attempting to keep the band working.

But this is still not the end of this short film. Another tour opportunity appears. After this many years, do they make one more attempt?

I’m not a metal fan, and I’ve never been one. I’ll never be one. But I love these guys. I genuinely like these guys, and this movie as absolutely heartbreaking. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s very very real. These two guys deserve a bite of the apple, and as a person watching this film, I want them to have it. This film, just as their music is to them, is a labor of love, a piece of true passion and dedication and faith and love.

It’s strange to me that what is so entertaining and funny in one film is so terribly tragic in the next. There’s a thin line between stupid and clever as the members of Spinal Tap say. There’s also a thin line between comedy and tragedy.

Why to watch This is Spinal Tap: Because few films are this funny.
Why not to watch: Because they’ve got armadillos in their trousers.

Why to watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil: There’s no joy like cheering for an underdog.
Why not to watch: Seeing someone’s dreams get crushed sucks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hot and Cold

Film: Kjaerlighetens Kjotere (Zero Kelvin)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There is something about extreme environments that seems to make drama happen almost naturally. A story that on its surface is fairly dull can be made interesting and fascinating simply by placing it in a location in which simple survival thanks to the environment becomes an issue. Such is the case with a film like Hans Petter Moland’s Kjaerlighetens Kjotere (Zero Kelvin). As the story unfolds about three men living together for a year, it becomes evident that there is a fourth character at work here: the snow-covered, desolate landscape of Greenland.

The film takes place in the 1920s and starts with newly published poet Henrik Larson (Gard B. Eidsvold) selling his little chapbook of poetry (and sweetening the deal with nudie pictures). This is a last hurrah for Larsen and his girlfriend Gertrude (Camilla Martens). This is because Larsen, with the hope of getting a book out of the deal, is heading to Greenland for a year. Here he will trap game, hunt, fish, and help create a motherlode of skins.

Also at the camp and doing a vast amount of the hunting and trapping is Randbaek (Stellan Skarsgard), who is in charge of producing all of the skins needed for his company in the course of the coming year. A scientist named Jakob Holm (Bjorn Sundquist) also works in this frozen wasteland, both conducting his own research and assisting Randbaek in his work.

Immediately, there is conflict, primarily between Randbaek and Larsen. We learn very quickly that Randbaek is precisely what he appears to be and less. He is a man driven entirely by his own particular needs, his own desires, and his own passions. His long time essentially alone in the wilderness of Greenland has turned him into something not simply base, but destructive. It is impossible for him not to attempt to harm. Throughout the film, in all situations (or at least in most), Randbaek does everything he can to tear down the beliefs, the lives, the hopes and dreams, and everything else he can grasp of those around him. There seems to be a perverse pleasure in him in destroying the hopes and dreams of everyone around him.

Larsen, as the new guy and as a poet, seems to be a perfect target for Randbaek’s abuse, and abuse is what Randbaek is good at. He is, among other things, an absolute treasure trove of disturbing profanity which he can’t help to spout at every opportunity. Anything that happens around him is cause for him to swear profusely and creatively, and to simultaneously blame on Larsen. Nothing Larsen does is good enough for him, in part because of the huge quota of skins and furs he must achieve and also in part because Larsen is not an experienced trapper or hunter.

And the abuse is constant. Randbaek appears unable to withhold his bile on anything that might conceivably get a rise out of Larsen, while Holm watches with a particularly Nordic passivity to the whole affair. Randbaek starts in at first with Larsen’s treatment of the sled dogs; essentially Larsen treats them like pets rather than work animals, and so Randbaek mistreats the dogs at every opportunity to ensure that they are subservient to him and know their place in what he considers the grand scheme of things. Additionally, he continually tweaks Larsen about Gertrude’s faithlessness, continually talking about how she is probably having sex with soldiers and suggesting a variety of sexual acts and positions that she may be engaging in while Larsen is away trapping furs on Greenland.

Naturally, this all ends badly. Randbaek can’t stop picking at Larsen, and Larsen himself can’t stop from retaliating as best he can to a bully who is more skilled and considerably bigger than he is. Eventually, Holm gets tired of both of them and leaves, taking some of the dogs and one of the sleds, hoping to get to another outpost where he no longer has to deal with the two men who seem hell-bent on driving each other around the bend. The terrible isolation and the awful landscape undoubtedly contribute to this constant battle of wills as well, and also contribute to Holm’s desire to escape these two men.

Kjaerlighetens Kjotere is a brutal film both in terms of how the characters act and in terms of the awful landscape in which they are placed. There is no warmth anywhere here—simply brutality and bullying until everything snaps and what has been slowly building becomes terrible and inevitable.

Despite this brutality, I found quite a bit to like here. The performances are excellent throughout. Skarsgard is particularly great, in no small part because he plays this broken brute of a man who can only attempt to break everything else around him to absolute perfection. Randbaek is a terrible character, a man with almost no positive qualities, and yet he is equally fascinating and compelling to watch.

This is not a friendly film, but it is one worth watching. Just don’t watch it around any kids who can read some of the disturbing subtitles.

Why to watch Kjaerlighetens Kjotere: White hot intensity, frozen landscape.
Why not to watch: Randbaek is a font of disturbing, awful profanity.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Battle of the Sexes

Film: Adam’s Rib
Format: DVD from Rockford Public library on rockin’ flatscreen.

First, a note on the format. I’ve often watched films in my living room on the television Sue and I got when we were married nearly 20 years ago. The television was damaged when we moved 12 years ago by the movers, but it hung on. Still, like an old horse, it was starting to die off and it finally kacked it a couple of days ago. We’d been talking about replacing the old beast for awhile and this weekend, we finally did. The “middlin’-sized living room television” is dead. Long live the flatscreen.


I had high hopes going into Adam’s Rib. The main reason my hopes were up was because of the famous chemistry between stars Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The chemistry truly is there, too. I realize that the two had an open secret affair for years despite Tracy’s marriage, and this was an opportunity to see the two of them onscreen together and see how they really cooked.

The problem with Adam’s Rib is that it frequently gets in its own way with the message it is trying to present. The overall intended message is a good one. What kills the film for me in a lot of ways, though, is that the way the film works seems to undercut that message it tries to project. In other words, if we accept the film’s ultimate message, the film itself disproves it. And around and around the mulberry bush we go.

Everything starts when harried and ignored wife Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday in her first-ever film role) attempts to kill her husband Warren (Tom Ewell) and his mistress Beryl Caighn (the always-marvelous Jean Hagen). The attempted murder fails. District attorney Adam Bonner (Tracy) is given the case of trying Mrs. Attinger. His wife Amanda (Hepburn) sees this as a case in which a man would be treated differently than a woman for the same crime. Since she is also a lawyer, she takes the case defending Mrs. Attinger. Plot achieved.

The Bonners have an idyllic marriage that is thrown into complete chaos by this arrangement. Adam does everything he can to get her to drop the case, but she won’t, and so the two prepare to square off against each other in court while attempting to remain a truly happily married couple on the home front. But, since this is a romantic comedy, you know going in that things aren’t going to work that way.

Things are complicated in a small way by the neighbor across the hall. Kip Lurie (David Wayne), an effeminate songwriter and pianist who appears to be as close as a character in 1949 ever got to being gay, has a massive crush on Amanda and doesn’t really care that much if Adam knows about it. He’s less real competition than he is someone to act as additional comic relief.

What follows shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a movie ever. The case proceeds, the two lawyers banter back and forth in the courtroom, things become heated at home, and the courtroom turns less into a place where the law is decided and far more into a circus, a fact that only benefits Amanda and damages Adam’s case.

The outcome of the trial is fairly predictable, but I’m more comfortable putting such things under a spoiler warning.


Naturally, the jury decides to acquit because Amanda’s closing is compelling (if this were a man defending his home, you wouldn’t imprison him) and because Adam’s closing arguments are muddled and interrupted by Amanda. When I said at the top that the film seems to disagree with its own premise, this is what I mean. Amanda turns the courtroom into a circus throughout the trial, which seems to indicate that she can only win the case through tricks and feminine wiles. In short, the film claims that women are the equal of men—a fine sentiment—and then essentially claims that women must resort to tricks, to crying, to acting like a female stereotype to get what they want.

As the marriage appears to break up, though, Adam confronts Amanda in Kip’s apartment as Kip tries to get her drunk and put the moves on her. In what is justifiably the most famous scene in the film, Adam threatens them both with a gun (as with the original court case) until he gets Amanda to admit that no one really has the right to break the law, man or woman. And then Adam puts the gun in his mouth and bites off the end, since the pistol is actually made from licorice. It’s a cute moment.

And, of course, since this is a comedy, they don’t really split up. Adam cries as they divide their assets and she takes him back, and he tells her later that the tears weren’t real, but conjured up so that he could get what he wants.


This is a difficult film for me to judge. On the one hand, the obvious chemistry between the two stars is palpable and a great thing to watch. The two really do belong on the screen together. On the other hand, I simply can’t get around the fact that the film, while perhaps well meaning and ahead of its time in the sentiment of actual equality for women, seems to indicate the exact opposite of what it intends.

Final analysis? Not guilty by reason of mental defect. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, so it has two personalities.

Why to watch Adam’s Rib: Tracy and Hepburn. Why else?
Why not to watch: It shoots its own message in the foot.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bleak House

Film: Wanda
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player

The reason to spend time reviewing films on the Internet or anywhere else is because opinions differ. If everyone thought the same thing all the time, there’d be no reason to discuss anything. A film like Barbara Loden’s Wanda is, by its nature, going to create this sort of differing opinion. Many will love it; others will not. Some will see a sort of feminist vision while others see the opposite.

For me, being told that Wanda is an example of feminist film causes me to start thinking that I don’t really have a grip on what feminism really is. Wanda (played by director Barbara Loden) is one of the most passive film characters I’ve ever come across. What happens in Wanda’s world simply happens. Wanda appears not only to not have any control over anything, but she doesn’t want to do anything to get control over anything. I mean anything. As we continue through the film, her hair, her clothing, the food she eats, all of her actions get decided for her. She never really protests anything—she simply goes with whatever happens to her.

There’s no better example of this than the opening minutes. Wanda is late for her own divorce proceedings, doesn’t protest anything her husband says, and easily gives up the custody of her children without a single word against what is said about her. She wanders away and winds up in a bar around closing time, not realizing that the bar is in the process of being robbed. Having nothing better to do and nowhere better to go, she winds up leaving with the thief, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

True to form, Dennis is a complete bastard. He’s demanding, rude, and abusive, treating Wanda as something to have sex with, servant, and target for verbal and physical abuse. After the bar robbery, Dennis steals a car, then plans a much bigger heist of a bank. It’s actually a pretty interesting idea for a bank robbery. Rather than go in with guns blazing, he instead holds the bank manager’s family hostage with a bomb and heads in to rob the vault.

These moments, which come close to the end of the film, are by far the most interesting part of the film for me. Up to this point, the film is plodding and dull, in no small part because Wanda herself is plodding and dull. In addition to being completely malleable and ready to do anything somebody tells her to do, Wanda is incredibly stupid. All she’s missing is a huge wad of gum to gnaw on and smack her lips over, and she’d be the complete cliché package.

That more than anything is my biggest issue with this film. I find it very difficult to care much about someone who is this willfully stupid. It isn’t that Wanda is dumb or uneducated or even actually really stupid. She’s passively stupid—she’s stupid not by nature but because she doesn’t want to think. She’s made herself into this passive, stupid person who doesn’t care what happens to her or what happens around her. Dennis slaps her across the face, and she takes it in stride. Dennis calls her “Stupid” and she doesn’t react. In fact, it’s not until the very end of this film that she breaks out of this and actually starts to care about herself and what happens to her. Perhaps this (actually, certainly this) is where the real feminist message kicks in—Wanda has been so long turned into something passive that it takes a shocking event to turn her into a person again. Or at least that’s my read on the story. And even this doesn’t take, because it doesn’t last.

So while the last 20 or 25 minutes of the film actually seem to have something to say, the first 75 minutes or so really just say the same thing over and over again. This is coupled with the fact that the film itself has a sort of grindhouse feel to it, and you have something extremely unpleasant to watch. By “grindhouse feel,” I mean that the film quality has that sort of unfinished, grainy look of a film made on the cheap. The sound suffers from the same thing—a great deal of the dialogue sounds like it was recorded inside a tomato can.

In the end, Wanda is little more than a curiosity, a film with a particular point of view made by a woman in a time when female directors were as rare as dodo birds. For me, though, this isn’t enough to save it from being anything more than just another tally mark on the list, another film down and one less to go until I’m finished.

To sum this up in a single word: Meh.

Why to watch Wanda: A unique vision from a director who probably should have done more.
Why not to watch: Because it really isn’t very good.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mischief Managed

Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Format: Carmike Market Square 10

Ten years ago, the movie world was invaded by muggles wishing to be wizards and living vicariously through the vision of J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter book series is probably the single best thing to happen to children’s literacy in my lifetime, and the movies have, regardless of quality, a legion of fans who will brook no comments that they are not the greatest thing since Citizen Kane. I have seen them all at one point or another. I read the books to my oldest daughter, and will read them again to daughter #2 soon.

As it turns out, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 opened at midnight on daughter #1’s birthday, so I naturally took her to it for closure, because it’s been a tradition, and because it was a pretty cool birthday present. The List has been notably silent on the Harry Potter series, which is interesting to me. On the one hand, while good and watchable, these are not the greatest films ever made. On the other hand, if for no other reason, these films resonate with a cultural significance that few other films can match. My guess is that it’s a coin flip for next year’s model. It’s possible they’ll add the last film because of its importance, or simply continue to consider it bombastic fare for Rowling’s legion of followers.

This is not a film to watch if you are not familiar with the series. Director David Yates doesn’t spend much time clearing up what has come before for newbies, which honestly shouldn’t be a problem. It’s helpful, though, to refresh yourself with at least Deathly Hallows Part 1 before entering the theater.

In many ways, we’ve seen the young actors who star in this film—notably Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Tom Felton, and to a lesser extent Bonnie Wright—grow up in front of us over the 10 years these films have been produced. They’ve changed significantly from the inexperienced kids they were to, really, genuinely veteran actors. Radcliffe in particular has concentrated on stage acting for the most part, a smart move in my opinion, because he’s going to be Harry Goddam Potter for the rest of his life.

Anyway, I should probably talk about the movie. It all comes down to the final confrontation between the virtuous and inexperienced young wizard Harry (Radcliffe) and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in a battle not only to the death, but essentially for the soul of the magical community. There are twists and turns, evil, betrayals, redemption, and finally, sweet closure. I’m not going to recount the plot—chances are good that you’ve already seen this by now and have your own opinion, and even if you haven’t seen it, you know the characters and story well enough that a summary here isn’t going to mean much. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you’re not going to see this anyway.

Deathly Hallows 2 is in many ways the finale this series deserves. It has the effects, the bombastic battles, the quality CG work, and the almost melodramatic battle between one side and the other. Like many of the other movies, a great deal of the story is given pretty short shrift here. Specific points of character development are glossed over or ignored completely—mainly because it is assumed that the audience already knows what’s happening going in.

I appreciate that on one level. I don’t always need to be told every detail, especially in a story that I have at least a passing familiarity with. On the other hand, for a non-Potterphile like me, it’s frustrating. Seeing a particular character injured or dead on the battlefield with no mention of who it is or how they died or why they died makes the experience more difficult for me to follow. I don’t live and die by the books, and have only read each one once, and then out loud to my daughter. I don’t remember all of the details of each character.

So on a purely movie basis, this film is lacking in serious ways, but these are lacks that only someone like me would notice. The diehard fan will gloss over these gaps in the story without even noticing them—they fill in these blanks automatically.

But all in all, this film was good and appropriate. I’m not the target audience here. I was married and in my late 20s when the first Harry Potter novel arrived, and in my 30s and with a young child when the first movie appeared. I understand why those who grew up on these books love them dearly—I feel the same way about things like the Tripods Trilogy and Narnia and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I love these things as only they can be loved when they are discovered by a reasonably bright 10-year-old. I get it, but not for me.

The truth is that no review is going to get someone to see this film or not see it. Those who have sat through seven films with Harry and company will sit through the eighth. Those who have not will not. Nothing I say will change that in either direction. If I had to give a score to this, I’d call it probably a 3 ½ out of 5.

Why the picture of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) up top instead of Harry? Because Neville is the shit, and has always been the unsung hero of the series.

Why to watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: Closure for one of the most lucrative and culturally significant events ever.
Why not to watch: You need to get through seven movies to get here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How Black were My Lungs

Film: How Green was My Valley
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

There have been some really good years for movies. One such is 1941. When a film beats out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture, it had better be one hell of a picture. Well, How Green was My Valley did beat those films and a few others for Best Picture. So how does it stack up?

Sadly, not as well as it should. This is not so much a movie about the triumph of the human spirit as it is a film that trips you, kicks you over and over again, and then takes your wallet. This is a “nothing good happens in it” movie, or at least not too much does. Of course it doesn’t help a lot that we spend our time in a small Welsh mining village and never really leave it.

The film is the story of Huw Morgan (a very young Roddy McDowall) who grows up in a coal mining family. He is the youngest, and like many a young boy, looks up to his father and his brothers, all of whom work in the mines. He wishes for nothing more than to work in the mines himself someday, seeing the permanently soot-blackened skin of his father and siblings as the true mark of a man.

We also learn of his sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), who falls for the local preacher, Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). Angharad is also pursued by the son of the mine’s owner. Gruffydd gives her up since he decides that he cannot provide the sort of life for her that she deserves, and thus we see the beginnings of a theme that will follow us to the very end.

We also discover the serious problems that plague the miners—namely that their wages are terrible and that they are unorganized. A strike hits the mines and separates the family at least temporarily as the older boys side with the idea of striking for better wages and conditions while the father (Donald Crisp) believes that the strike will only bring greater problems to the already relatively impoverished workers.

We go through a series of trials with young Huw. When his mother (Sara Allgood) falls through a hole in the ice during the winter, Huw dives in and rescues her, and because of this temporarily loses the use of his legs. It is Gruffydd who helps him through this particular trial and helps him regain the ability to walk, one of the few bright spots of the story.

Huw shows promise as a scholar and is sent off to school. Here, nothing improves for the young man at first—he is belittled by his schoolmaster and bullied by the other kids since Huw is new, small, and from a poor coalmining family. Huw is taught how to box and defend himself, a fact that prevents him from another playground beating, but earns him a more severe one at the hands of his sadistic instructor. Successful in school, Huw decides to work in the mines to be like his father and brothers rather than pursue another career.

Misery piles on top of misery when Angharad returns to the village and rumors spread that she is planning to divorce her husband because she is still infatuated with Gruffydd. Naturally, this ends just about as badly as virtually everything else in the film, placing the despair cherry on top of this gloom sundae.

More than anything, How Green was My Valley reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath. The main difference is that in this film, the people dig for coal instead of pick produce, and they all have strange Welsh names.

In all honesty, and admittedly unfairly, I expected this film to rock my world completely since it beat such notable films for Best Picture honors. It didn’t. I really didn’t like this film very much, in part because of these unreal expectations and in part because it seemed to revel in its own despairing story. The people in this film get kicked repeatedly, and even the one person who might make it out legitimately keeps himself in the misery corral. It’s entirely believable that young Huw would want to follow his father and brothers into the mine, but it’s not a choice I’m happy with.

What really tweaks me, though, is Huw’s mother. In her world, Huw has made the best of all possible choices, because all of that book learning is meaningless for her, and coal mining is the best her child can aspire to. She’s played sympathetically, but she is so backward and provincial in her thinking that I can’t help but be frustrated by her.

How Green was My Valley gives all of the important choices in his life to Huw, and sees him making the wrong ones over and over. Rarely have I wanted to reach into the screen and slap some sense into a character more.

Why to watch How Green was My Valley: It won Best Picture.
Why not to watch: It’s nowhere close to earning that award.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Joys of Pre-Code Romance

Film: Me and My Gal
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Because at least some of the people who show up at this site every now and again are fellow 1001 Movies bloggers, some of this site’s visitors know the pain of a movie that can’t be located. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to locate films that are obscure over the past few months. My best guess is that between three and five percent of the films will be headaches to locate.

One of those films is Raoul Walsh’s 1932 pre-code Me and My Gal. Those who have looked for it know that it’s easy to locate pictures and clips and DVDs of the 1942 For Me and My Gal with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, but Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracy? Nothing. Well, I found it. Those looking for it can head here.

Me and My Gal is a pre-code comedy, and a Prohibition-era comedy, which makes for an interesting combination. There’s tons of drinking and plenty of sexual innuendo, which is a bit surprising if one isn’t quite prepared for it. There also seems to be at least a little of an attempt to cash in on the box office success of films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, because there’s also a hefty gangster element to this film. Me and My Gal was made in a time when cops were always good guys, even if they snagged a banana off a passing porter, drunks were harmless fun, and in comedies the bad guys were bad enough only to cause a romantic headache, not really hurt anybody.

Police officer Danny Dolan (Tracy) is working on the docks, snagging an occasional piece of fruit and dealing with a drunk (Will Stanton) who makes frequent appearances as a sort of constant comic relief. During his rounds he encounters Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) a fast-talking waitress at a dockside chowderhouse. The attraction between the pair is as immediate as it is evident, considering the fact that the two do nothing but insult each other. We learn to trust Dolan immediately when he rescues a dog from being drowned—any guy who saves a pooch can’t be a bad guy in the cinematic language of the day.

Also down at the docks is Al (Adrian Morris), a detective, looking for the arrival of Duke (George Walsh), a criminal returning to the city. Thanks to the drunk, Duke makes it to the docks without being captured. As it turns out, Duke’s old girlfriend is Kate Riley (Marion Burns), Helen’s sister. Kate hasn’t forgotten about Duke, but is getting married in search of a less stressful relationship. Her new husband-to-be (George Chandler) is a relatively safe catch who works on a ship. Kate gets married, but Duke wants some compensation—the numbers for the safe deposit boxes where Kate works.

It’s all in good fun, with Danny trying to put the make on Helen, until Duke manages a prison break so simple it’s brilliant. He shows up at the newly-married Kate’s house demanding that she help him with a heist. Compounding matters, Duke hides out in the house of Kate’s father-in-law, who is paralyzed and can only communicate by blinking in Morse code.

Of course, this is a Hollywood movie from the 1930s, so the good guys are going to win, and nothing too terrible is going to happen to Helen, Danny, Kate, or anybody else who isn’t an overt criminal. In fact, nothing too terrible happens to the drunk, who exists here solely as something for us to laugh at. There’s no doubt from the outset that Danny and Helen will wind up together and happy, that Kate’s marriage will work out and that Duke will eventually be behind bars for a good, long time...or will at least get what's coming to him.

And so what? In many respects, the crime aspects of this film serve as nothing more than a way for us to get Danny involved in Helen’s life and to stay there, since it’s her sister who is in trouble. We get to see a lot of the movie clichés/tropes that have existed since, well, since films like this one. Kate, for instance, turns on a radio just in time to hear about Duke’s prison break. The dialogue is whipcrack smart and a lot of fun to listen to; it puts me in mind of similar films of the era like The Thin Man.

Had this movie been made a few years later, it would be considerably different. We wouldn’t see the newlywed Kate kissing another man or hiding him from the law. We wouldn’t get the awesome innuendo and internal monologues of Helen and Danny as they cuddle on the couch. We most certainly wouldn’t see Spencer Tracy climb over the diner’s counter to get at sweet, sweet Helen.

This movie has once again reminded me of something I know but seem to frequently forget—I love the fast-talking “screwy dame” film heroine of the 1930s. I love them all. Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Ruby Keeler, Kate Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell…the list goes on, and I love them all. I love the patter, the hats worn at a rakish tilt, the knack for taking guff and handing it right back. It’s an attitude that’s missing from modern films. Oh, modern movies have plenty of “attitude,” but these days, that means women who act like men. The heroines of screwball comedies and other films of the era had moxie, and I do genuinely love me some moxie.

I hear from many people who don’t appreciate older films that one of the reasons is that the plots don’t make a lot of common sense. I agree with that, but I don’t agree that it’s a problem. Certainly there are a lot of coincidences and extraordinary happenings in this film. The cop happens to fall for the sister of the bad guy’s girlfriend? And? This is somehow more extraordinary than The Proposal or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? It isn’t. More importantly, Me and My Gal also isn’t a cinematic turd like it’s hard-to-believe modern counterparts.

Why to watch Me and My Gal: A simple feel-good from a simpler time.
Why not to watch: More plot coincidences than a Dickens novel.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

1,100 Worlds

Film: Schindler’s List
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Steven Spielberg is a manipulative filmmaker. I don’t deny that he’s also a great filmmaker; I dearly love several of his movies and respect a bunch more. But a part of his success as a filmmaker comes from the fact that he is a master manipulator of the emotions of his audience. Often, this is done behind the scenes and it’s quite effective. The best such toying with feelings is done without the audience knowing its happening. At other times, the strings as it were are visible.

Few Spielberg films are as emotionally controlling as his epic Schindler’s List, a film based on the real story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler. The story itself is a grand one, full of real drama, real pathos, but there are moments that feel as if Spielberg has tweaked them one way or the other to get just the right emotional response from the audience. I don’t want to say that the film feels forced, but it does at times feel moderately artificial, or Hollywood-ized for the benefit of the viewer.

Schindler (Liam Neeson) is an ethnic German industrialist who has shown up in Poland shortly after the German takeover of the country. His intent is to make a huge profit, in no small part because Jews have been banned from owning businesses in the Reich. Thus, he can show up in Poland, nab a formerly-Jewish-owned and still successful business and run it. He manages to acquire a factory that creates enameled metalware and nabs a contract with the German government to make mess kits for the Wehrmacht. In so doing, he employs a huge number of Polish Jews, and essentially has the company run by a man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who essentially uses this as an opportunity to provide jobs for many people in the new Jewish ghetto who need them.

Things change in Krakow with the arrival of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), since he is to oversee the creation of the Plaszow concentration camp. Goeth is a man who thrives on cruelty and fear, killing any Jew who seems uncooperative, doesn’t work hard or fast enough to suit him, and at times, seemingly simply because he enjoys killing things. Once the camp is complete, he moves all of the ghettoized Jews into it, killing many of them in the process. Many of those killed are factory workers for Schindler. As a stop-gap measure to protect his profits and more and more to protect his people, Schindler bribes Goeth for the creation of a sub-camp. He houses his workers here, where they receive better treatment and are otherwise generally immune from the tortures and random killings of Goeth and his men.

Eventually, the war goes against Germany, and Goeth is ordered to exhume all of the bodies of the thousands of murdered Jews, to completely dismantle his camp, and to ship all of the surviving people to Auschwitz. Again, Schindler intervenes on behalf of his workers, paying a massive bribe to Goeth to redirect those he wishes to Moravia where he will again set up shop, this time creating munitions. This, then, is the list of the film’s title. Schindler spends the fortune he made in Poland to rescue as many people as he can, eventually creating a list of some 1100 people to be directed away from Auschwitz and to him, where he can continue to attempt to keep them safe.

I would be lying if I said the film wasn’t deeply emotional and deeply moving. It is. It would be impossible for a film like this not to be powerful. Spielberg is smart enough to film the bulk of this in black-and-white, which adds a particular starkness to the proceedings. He brings in small flashes of color—the flame of a candle, a girl’s coat—as emphasis here and there. It’s subtle but effective in drawing the eye to a particular place on the screen, and thus to a particular action or the result of an action. A red coat worn by a young girl grabs our attention when we first see it, and does again when we see it in the mass grave during the exhumation of the bodies of the fallen.

This is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that Spielberg is manipulative. There is nothing on screen so moving or so emotional that he will not do everything he can to wring one more tear or one more piece of anger from his audience. Normally, of course, that is precisely the job of a filmmaker attempting to make any film. If we as the audience don’t have an emotional connection to the characters (at best) or the action (at least), there is no reason to watch.

And yet for this film, I wonder if this sort of manipulation is necessary. The truth of the story of Schindler and the people he saved didn’t need any embellishing. It’s already a genuinely compelling story just sticking with the history. Goeth was a truly awful human being who not only ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings, but was evidently personally responsible for as many as 500. Schindler did make a fortune from essentially slave labor and then spend it saving those people from a terrible fate. Nothing here requires that we have anything extra to move us.

Regardless of the fact that I did notice the attempts at manipulation, Schindler’s List is essential for no other reason than it is essential. It is an impossible film to dislike because of what it represents. The most powerful moment comes at the end, when we see a procession of survivors of Schindler’s factory passing and marking his grave with stones. This is not calculating because it is real, and all the more potent because of it. The scene where Schindler leaves his factory to run (Germany has surrendered, and as an official profiteer of slave labor, munitions maker, and member of the Nazi Party, he is a war criminal despite his actions) is also a scene of emotional depth, but feels influenced by a desire for more drama. In fact, it is the difference between these two scenes that indicate precisely why playing the drama card wasn’t needed here. The real story is more than enough; I think it might be impossible to watch that line of people mark the grave with stones as a traditional way of saying thanks without a tear or at least a lump in the throat.

There is a Talmudic quote offered in the film to the effect that a person who saves a life saves the entire world. It's a refreshing piece of philosophy, and one worth maintaining.

Why to watch Schindler’s List: A truly magnificent story of hope and humanity.
Why not to watch: The history didn’t need the embellishment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Viva Italia!

Film: La Meglio Gioventu (The Best of Youth)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on various players.

When I finally decide to watch one of the longer films remaining to me, I sometimes despair. Part of this is a latent hangover from the fact that these epic films seem to be exclusively subtitled. I don’t typically mind a subtitled film, but when they are of extreme length, it can get tiresome. Part of this is the same trepidation anyone feels when setting off on a large project. And part of it is admittedly fear that I may hate the film, a pain that is greatly compounded when it’s the length of three typical films. I’ve had the snot bored out of my by shorter films like Dog Star Man and more recently The Color of Pomegranates; I can’t imagine having to sit through the equivalent four times in a row. Actually, I can—I did survive Les Vampires, after all.

Regardless, I went into La Meglio Gioventu (The Best of Youth) with high hopes if only because almost everyone I know familiar with the film likes it. But still, six hours is a long time to sit watching anything.

La Meglio Gioventu tells the story of the Carati family, focusing mostly on the two brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni). In a sense, it follows an earlier Italian tradition of films like Il Gattopardo that follow a segment of history by showing the story of a single family existing in those times. In this case, the story is a modern one, showing Italian history through the lives of the Caratis from 1966 to the film’s present of 2003.

Typically, this is where I would provide a rough synopsis of the film, but for something of this length with so many characters and events, we’d be here until next week if I did that. I’ll give some of the basics, because I think that’s all I can do.

We learn some critical information about our two main characters almost immediately. Matteo is considered the bright one who will be successful while Nicola studies constantly. During their oral exams, though, it is Nicola who aces his tests while Matteo walks out. Matteo is working in an asylum taking inmates for walks. One in particular, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), catches his attention for several reasons—she seems helpless, is attractive, and is young. When Matteo sees evidence that she is being abused by the asylum, he and Nicola break her out. On this trip, Nicola proves to be the one who is far more empathetic. When Giorgia is captured by the police and returned to the asylum, the brothers split up. Matteo joins the army while Nicola spends time as a lumberjack and considers studying psychiatry to help people like Giorgia.

The two are reunited when the Arno floods Florence. At the same time, Nicola meets Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), who is also helping with the clean up. The two become an item, and Nicola resumes his studies. Giulia becomes involved in radical politics, and as they become closer, Giulia finds herself involved with the communist Red Brigade. Even having a daughter with Nicola doesn’t quell her desire to violently change the world.

So while Nicola contends with a life partner who seems more involved with changing the world through violent overthrown than with changing a diaper, Matteo deals with his own anger issues as a member of the police—and in many ways Giulia’s opposite. And through all of this, the patriarch of the Carati clan is dealing with cancer. And this takes us through just part of the first half of the film.

La Meglio Gioventu succeeds in a number of important ways. First, and most important, the film is filled with realistic and engaging characters. These are people we want to spend time with and whose lives are more than merely a setting for the history going on around them. Instead, the history serves as a backdrop for their lives as they unfold. Of all the characters, my favorite is the father, Angelo (Andrea Tidona). He’s a genuine character, funny, and dedicated to his children.

What I really like here is that unlike most movies, there is no real climax to the film. This more than anything is what makes this film feel so realistic. Just as in our own lives we have a series of events rather than rising action and denouement, so we have the same thing here. While there certainly are high points and low points, a given high point isn’t followed by a happily ever after but just another day. Even the uplift ending is not truly an ending, but simply another event in life as life goes on.

I really enjoyed this film a lot not because of the tremendous cinematography or the beautiful Italian countryside (although the cinematography is great and the Italian countryside is beautiful). I didn’t enjoy it because it was exciting and filled with danger and stunts, because it isn’t. I enjoyed it because it was real, realistic, and marvelous. Hell of a film, and it honestly felt like it was two hours shorter than its actual length.

Why to watch La Meglio Gioventu: It approaches reality in how its characters live, react, and exist in a real world.
Why not to watch: Investing six hours in the lives of the Caratis means six hours out of your own.