Friday, September 30, 2011

Month 21 Status Report

Not much to report. I watched 22 films in September. I'm shooting for 30 in October. As far as the entire list goes, there are just over 600 films left on the list--that's bumped up from the latest edition of The Book.

So, if you haven't spotted the changes, here are the new films:
District 9
In the Loop
Of Gods and Men
Black Swan
Four Lions
The Social Network
The King's Speech
True Grit

Cheaters Never Prosper

Film: Fatal Attraction
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I have something of a history with the film Fatal Attraction. This is not an admission of marital infidelity on my part, nor on stalking someone else. Back in the dark ages, when VHS was the medium of choice, Blockbuster still existed as a going concern, and my wife and I were just dating, we rented this movie. We took it back to her place and we sat down on her basement couch to watch. We got about 30 minutes into the movie before Sue completely wigged out and demanded that I shut the film off. I did, rewound the tape and returned it. Since that day, probably 1988 or 1989, I haven’t so much as touched the box of a copy of this film until now.

But hey, it was time to watch it finally. The story is one you almost certainly know by reputation if not experience. A lawyer named Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) has a one weekend affair with a book editor named Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Thinking it’s over, he goes back to his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen). But it’s far from over. Little did Dan know when he hooked up with the sexy book editor that she was infected with a case of the crazies, and shit’s going to get real.

Fatal Attraction is not the first stalker movie by a long shot. There are plenty of movies with someone completely obsessed with the affections of someone who doesn’t quite return the sentiment. It’s not even my favorite stalker movie—that’s Play Misty for Me, and the woman obsessed with Clint Eastwood in that film is just as deranged as Alex Forrest in many ways. Fatal Attraction, though, goes places no films before it ever did. This film pushed the crazy stalker envelope in ways that, based on how incredibly popular this film became, everyone was ready to see.

See, right away we learn that Alex is a few slices short of a full loaf when she tries to kill herself because Dan prepares to go home after their night of bouncy-bouncy. From this moment on, things are going to get weird. Like we expect it to, it starts nice and slow—phone calls at work, calls to the house, hang-ups when Beth answers, and similar tactics. And then things escalate. She tells Dan she’s pregnant (and she evidently really is), destroys the electrical system in his car, and begins a campaign of harassment that is truly epic in scale.

So I’m going to talk about the rabbit. Everyone knows about the rabbit. People who haven’t seen this film know all about the rabbit. While it’s a terrifying and awful moment in the film, it’s also a truly brilliant one. The reason it’s such a great moment is that it shows us very definitely just how unhinged Alex has become and exactly what she is capable of. While things were weird up to this point, once that happens, all bets are off. Alex Forrest goes from being someone a little obsessive and stalkerish to someone capable of virtually anything.

The film does raise some pretty interesting questions, though. On the one hand, no other film in history has done more for the idea of marital fidelity than this one. Any guy who saw this film and thought for a moment about cheating had second thoughts. Part of this is because Alex was bat-guano-sandwich-eatin’ crazy. Part is because every guy in the world secretly believes that he has the same sort of animal magnetism as Michael Douglas, and thus every woman would immediately go bonkers over him. I kid, but only a little.

What’s more interesting, though, is the feminist reaction to this film. Fatal Attraction. When the film was released, there was a huge feminist outcry against the film. Alex Forrest is an unmarried woman, a woman who has evidently sacrificed family for career…and she’s crazy. It’s fair to say that I didn’t get that reading from the film. I see it, and I understand why some people were upset. What it comes down to is how you take that character. Is Alex Forrest a crazy career woman? Or is she a career woman who happens to be crazy? And, accompanying this is the fact that the stay-at-home mom proves to be the one who fights to keep her family and sanity, and all that. So I see the anti-feminist position. I just don’t think it was intended.

What’s more impressive is how well the film addresses one of the main reasons that people cheat. When Dan and Alex hook up, it’s very much like the start of a new relationship when everything is exciting and new. Your partner, assuming you have one, was never more perfect in your eyes than in that first month or so when you were still discovering everything there was to know about each other. There’s still an effort made to impress—you’re the best version of yourself at those times. But that sort of excitement can’t last, because it would kill us. If we’re lucky, it fades into things like intimacy and comfort and companionship.

But that thrill definitely dies off. When he decides to spend the night with Alex, what Dan thinks is exactly that—that thrill has suddenly returned. It’s back, at least for the weekend, and he can return to comfort and intimacy. In those moments, Alex is (in his mind) perfect. She’s still dressing to impress and looking her best; she’s probably wearing sexy underwear and not something that’s been washed 100 times. She won’t fart in bed, eat garlic, or pick her toes. For that moment, she’s as close to perfect as she’ll ever get. We get this early in the film when it looks like there’s going to be a little boom-boom between Dan and Beth, and he returns to the bedroom to find his daughter in bed. Comfort, sure. Intimacy, yes. Sex? Not so much. And thus Alex becomes that outlet, if only for the weekend.

That said, it’s worth noting that anybody who goes straying when he’s coming home to the 1987 version of Anne Archer is an idiot. Dumbass deserved something just for going there.

Why to watch Fatal Attraction: Because it’s a great example of the crazy.
Why not to watch: You’ll never look at hasenpfeffer the same way again.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The No-Sparkle Zone

Films Lat den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In)
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In the future, the ‘00s will be known in some circles as the decade that vampires turned lame. The Twilight series has done more to damage the reputation of bloodsuckers than anything else, although if I’m honest about it, I don’t see these books as the starting point for effeminate vampires. No, that belongs to Anne Rice and particularly the movie version of Interview With the Vampire. Vampires have always been somewhat sexually charged, but it was the portrayals by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise that started the transformation from creepily appealing creatures of darkness to full-blown romantic characters.

So it’s nice to see someone try to bring them back. Lat den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In) is a step in the right direction. This is a real return to the classic style of vampire. The longing, and even nascent sexuality is present here, but the little bit of puppy love romance here is creepy and disturbing. That’s the way it should be.

We start with Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old boy who is being badly bullied. He dreams of revenge, and even carries a knife. Oskar has some issues beyond the bullying. He keeps scrapbooks of murder victims and police reports. In many ways, Oskar is sort of a serial killer in the making, which is entirely appropriate for where this film goes. As the film begins, Oskar gets new neighbors, a man named Hakan (Per Ragnar) and a girl (kinda) his age named Eli (Lina Leandersson, but voiced by Elif Ceylan). Oskar notices right away that there’s something odd about Eli; she sits outside in the winter without a coat, for instance. Eli is initially aloof, but Oskar continues to be friendly toward her.

We see what’s going on far earlier than Oskar does. We see, for instance, Hakan draining the blood from victims hung up like slaughtered farm animals, and when he is interrupted and must leave the body and much of the blood behind, we see Eli attacking her prey herself. It takes Oskar a little longer to realize what Eli is, but when he does, he is not repulsed by her. Instead, Oskar is attracted to Eli, and this is at least somewhat mutual. Eli appears to have some feelings for Oskar as well, and wants to protect him.

But this is surface stuff. I don’t want to get anywhere close to spoiler territory with this, though, because it’s a film that works on every level, and very little of it should be spoiled. What’s far more interesting is why this film works as well as it does.

For starters, Oskar looks like a victim. This kid is skinny and pale. Disturbingly pale. Edgar Winter raping a harp seal pale. It’s easy to see this kid as a victim of bullying because he absolutely looks the part. His main bully is a kid named Conny (Patrik Rydmark), who also looks the part. He looks like a young athlete, muscled under baby fat. When Oskar does strike back at one point, Conny recruits his older brother, Jimmy (Rasmus Luthander) to get back at the kid who no longer tolerated the bullying.

Another thing that works here is that Eli is both vulnerable and terrifying. In truth, she is not vulnerable at all, something she proves time and time again through the film, but she looks like she is. She rarely looks up, almost as if she is trying to hide herself and what she is even with those who know what she is. This is almost indescribable, but is quite effective because it gives her that look of a young, shy child. Except that when she does look up, her eyes are ancient. The vocal dubbing is also excellent and a great choice. Her voice carries the sort of weight that a child’s would not, and this lends additional weight to her character.

The film is also filled with fantastic details. At one point, she asks Oskar to invite her into his apartment and he refuses, wanting to know what will happen if she comes in without being asked. She does come in, and a few moments later begins bleeding from everywhere—ears, eyes, the top of her head. Her reaction is simply to stand and let this happen until Oskar, in horror, finally gives her permission to be in the house and the bleeding stops.

What also works is the budding sexuality of these two characters. Oskar is twelve, and isn’t quite sure how to create a relationship. Eli is hundreds of years old, but is still physically twelve, and is thus in the same position. There is a certain tension between them, but there is also a sense of camaraderie, like they are buddies who happen to be of different genders.

But what really makes this film work will spoil the film. So I am going to put up a spoiler tag here. If you’ve seen the film, read at leisure. If you haven’t you should really skip the spoiler and see the film first.

*** LET ME IN ***

It’s evident that Hakan has been with Eli for a long time. Eventually, when he is trapped with an attempted murder victim, he burns himself with acid, then submits himself to her as a last sacrificial meal. But it’s also evident that Hakan is jealous of her attention given to Oskar. It occurs to me that it’s entirely possible that Hakan has been with Eli for years—decades—and that he started out with a relationship with Eli similar to the one Oskar has now.

So, at the end of the film when Oskar and Eli are traveling by train and tapping love notes to each other in Morse code, there’s a sweetness, but also some despair. Oskar isn’t going to be Eli’s permanent love, and she probably won’t turn him into a vampire like her. Instead, he’ll be her protector for the rest of his life, will grow old like Hakan, and will eventually give himself up to her as a meal when she encounters someone new to take care of her.

So while it’s both terrifying and rewarding when Eli returns to save Oskar from his tormentors, the actual ending of the film sets up Oskar for a terrible life of longing, loneliness, and murder.

It's worth noting that I've called Eli "her" throughout because Eli is portrayed as a girl. When Eli says "I'm not a girl" repeatedly to Oskar, the initial assumption is that it's because Eli is a vampire. However, Eli is actually a castrati, which adds a whole new level of creepy.

*** LET ME OUT ***

This is as good a vampire movie as you are likely to see. If you like a good horror movie, don’t miss this.

Why to watch Lat den Ratte Komma In: Vampires the way they used to be and the way they should be.
Why not to watch: Violent child vampires are pretty creepy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Depression in Six Parts

Film: Paisa (Paisan)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy is an achievement of no small proportion. These films have a feel of reality to them that other war films of the day did not attempt, opting instead for straight propaganda and nationalism. Rossellini instead depicted real stories of people dealing with war and dealing with the tragedy of invasion, bombs, death, occupation, and seeing the horror of their world destroyed.

Paisa (Paisan) is less a movie and more a connected series of short films. The connection between these short films is tenuous at best—they don’t have continuing characters or a connected plot. Instead, they are snapshots of events and lives that take place in Italy during the Allied invasion and campaign from the southern reaches up through the north. Each story takes place in a specific place and concerns a small group of people dealing with the horrors going on around them.

As might be expected from the non-propaganda nature of this film, these are not happy stories. These are shorts that all express the extreme loss and anguish of war rather than the glory and nationalistic pride. There is frequent death and destruction, and in most of the films, the protagonists don’t get what they desire, but see their hopes dashed. Only the second film has anything like an uplift, and even that is closer to depressingly neutral—charity not from a desire to do good but charity because reality is so bleak. Each of these stories ends essentially with the moral that war is a terrible reality.

The stories (minus spoilers) are as follows:

1) A recon group of Americans enters a small Sicilian village and needs to find a way past a German minefield. They are led by a young woman named Carmela (Carmela Sazio). She and a soldier named Joe (Robert van Loon) wait behind for the rest of the troops and are surprised by a German patrol.
2) In Naples, an American soldier named Joe (Dots Johnson—not the same Joe) encounters a street urchin named Pasquale (Alphonsino Pasca), who steals his shoes. Joe looks for Pasquale to get his shoes back.
3) A soldier named Fred (Gar Moore) meets a young woman named Francesca (Maria Michi) in Rome. They spend a night together. Six months later, when Fred returns, Francesca has become a prostitute.
4) A nurse named Harriet (Harriet Medin) is working near Florence when she hears of a rebel leader named Lupo. She learns that Lupo is a painter she knew, and she heads into the warzone to look for him.
5) Three American chaplains spend the night in an Italian monastery. Later, the monks realize that only one of the chaplains is a Catholic; the others are a Protestant and a Rabbi. This realization causes conflict.
6) American operatives working behind enemy lines are captured, along with a group of partisans. While the operatives are protected by the Geneva Conventions, the partisans are not.

What Rossellini has done here is present war not as an adventure story, or as the greatest horror of mankind, or as really anything more than what it is: a traumatic event that affects the lives of millions of people in many different ways. While these stories are all fictional, all six of them have a ring of truth to them, as if they were somehow related to Rossellini at some point and presented here with little to no fictionalization.

It’s reality placed on film, or at least as close to reality as film can produce. That it’s depressing is a function of the subject matter, not Rossellini’s deft work behind the camera.

Why to watch Paisa: Real stories expertly filmed and real pathos brilliantly told.
Why not to watch: War minus propaganda isn’t uplifting. It’s depressing.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Films: The Jazz Singer
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

The Jazz Singer is sort of like the Robin Hood of movies. Everyone’s heard of it, and most people know the basic story. However, almost no one has actually read Robin Hood, and most people have never seen The Jazz Singer. Until tonight, I fell into that category as well.

Fortunately, The Jazz Singer is more than simply an important piece of history. It’s also interesting in an of its own sake. The story is an old one. Young Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) loves to sing. This is a good thing, since his father is the cantor of his local synagogue and fully expects Jakie to follow in his footsteps just like he did his father’s, and his fathers’ before him. Jakie, though, has his heart set on singing ragtime and jazz, a truth that gets him kicked out of the house.

Years later, Jakie (now played by Al Jolson) has taken the stage name Jack Robin and is making a name for himself on stage. This is where he meets Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who he falls for immediately. It seems that Mary has a reputation of being unreachable, but it also appears that Jack has gotten through. When she gets her big break on Broadway, she sends for him to appear in a show with her.

And now is when the fun starts. Jakie goes home to visit his parents and performs for his mother, but he is summarily dismissed from the house by dad. Jakie Rabinowitz goes back to being Jack Robin and his show, and is not aware that his father has taken ill and now lays in his bed. And we come to the crux of the problem—opening night for his big break on Broadway happens to be the same day as Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. With his father ill, the synagogue has no cantor. The performer must now decide whether he is Jakie Rabinowitz, son of the cantor ready to take his father’s place or Jack Robin, the great jazz performer.

And that’s really it. It’s a simple tale about a man’s difficult choice between the career he loves and has worked for all his life or the duties of family and religion.

The film is notable mainly because it’s the first film to use synchronized sound. Jolson performs a number of songs, and in a couple of spots speaks, notably about 15-20 minutes in when he says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” However, except for this moment and a conversation with his mother in the middle of the film, the rest of the film is played as a silent, complete with flapping mouths and a bunch of intertitles.

The film is also notorious for the performances in blackface. It’s interesting how morals and morality changes over time. When Jolson performed this film, the minstrel show standby of white performers playing in blackface was nothing new and nothing notable. Today, it’s immediately seen as a slap against the African American community. What it truly is is simply a stylized way for Rabinowitz/Robin the character to further distance himself from his Jewish background, something potentially just as fatally non-white in the 1920s.

It seems strange to say this, but the two blackface performances, both of which occur near the end of the film, are almost respectful in their tone. They are certainly not especially racist; Jolson doesn’t imitate stereotypical “black” mannerisms, talk in an uneducated fashion, or really do anything but come on stage and belt a couple of numbers.

But ultimately, this is something of a shoulder shrug of a film. Were it not for its incredible historical impact, no one would care much about it anymore. Sound, it can be easily argued, is the biggest advance in film since the creation of film, and this is the movie that led the way. And that’s all it is—a simple tale told elaborately for the time. I’m glad to have seen it for its importance, but don’t really have much of an opinion on it otherwise—it’s important for what it is, not for the story it tells.

Why to watch The Jazz Singer: History, pure and simple.
Why not to watch: It’s credited as the first talkie, but there’s not a lot of talkie.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Starting Point

Films: Roman Holiday
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

All actors start somewhere. Those who end up having a career get lucky at some point and are in something that hits. Those who become legendary have the same luck, but prove that some of that luck was created by them in the first place. Audrey Hepburn is one of those legendary performers, and she started in Roman Holiday. I consider myself a fan of Audrey Hepburn, so I was very interested in seeing this, her first major role, and the film that earned her an Oscar.

The story is a pretty simple one. Princess Ann (Hepburn), who is from an unspecified European country, is currently on a tour around Europe to boost trade and good will. However, she is bored by the tasks put in front of her and intensely frustrated. Upset, she’s given a sedative, but when she is left on her own, she runs off into the streets of Rome where she is picked up by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter working for a news service in Rome. Joe doesn’t recognize her at first, and believes her to be drunk because of the sedative. He takes her back to his place and puts her up for the night.

He discovers who she is in the morning and calls in his photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to help him. He gets his editor to agree to a huge price for an exclusive story on the princess on what is essentially her first day off in her life. While she goes off on her own at first and gets a severe haircut (that looks better on her than her long hair, incidentally), Joe makes plans, then meets up with her again and takes her around the city while Irving hangs out incognito and snaps photos of their day. And as will surprise no one, the pair falls hard for each other by the end of the day, a scene made poignant when both realize that they live in very different worlds. All of this leads to the inevitable concluding scene.

Roman Holiday is in many ways the template for the typical romantic comedy. It has all of the earmarks of romantic comedies that are still being made today—an extremely privileged woman has everything she wants except for the one thing she really wants, and that comes from an unexpected place. The pair meets cute and has wacky adventures together—in this case involving a scooter ride through Rome and Ann trying her first cigarette—before they decide at the end that they really want to be together. While the career of princess is perhaps a bit less common these days, women in romantic comedies still tend to have these sorts of dream careers (book editor, museum curator, high-profile author, etc.). And the guy tends to be ultimately decent despite being a little dangerous or potentially deceitful at the start.

Most of the time, this formula doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work because it’s so obviously lifestyle porn and romance porn for women that I can’t bring myself to do much but be repelled by it. Modern romantic comedies generally involve the guy acting in ways that would get a restraining order slapped on him in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t happen here. In fact, Joe and eventually Irving are downright noble in their actions throughout. Part of that may be the year in which this film was made, but part of that is the characters themselves.

There are some very cute scenes. At the Mouth of Truth, for instance. Tradition states that if a liar puts his or her hand in the mouth, it will bite the hand off. Joe places his hand in the mouth, gives a scream, and then pulls out his sleeve with his hand missing, only to reveal it tucked up his sleeve. According to legend, Audrey Hepburn didn’t know Peck was going to pull that stunt, and her scream reaction is a genuine one. Just as cute are the pratfalls taken by Irving when Joe is trying to clue him in on the identity of Princess Ann. These are sweet moments of real joy, because they come across as actual instead of overly “film-y” or forced.

What romantic comedies seem to have forgotten is that what’s important is not that the characters fall for each other eventually, or even that opposites attract, at least on film. What’s important is that we as the audience care for these people and want the same things they do. I dislike most characters in modern rom-coms because they are shallow, stupid, snotty, selfish, and other words that probably start with “s.” In a well-made romantic comedy like this one, I want the characters to end up happily because I like them and have grown to care for them. That’s the success of this film more than anything else.

And it doesn’t hurt that Audrey Hepburn is Audrey Hepburn. That covers a lot of faults. When the film has very few and only minor faults to begin with, the end result is something truly special. And it also doesn’t hurt that the ending is the right one. It may not be the one that everyone likes, but it’s still the right one.

Why to watch Roman Holiday: Because it’s the start of Audrey Hepburn’s career.
Why not to watch: The ending is the right one, but you might not like it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Uneven Results

Films: La Chienne (The Bitch); Boudu Sauve des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning)
Format: VHS from Highland Community College Library through interlibrary loan on big ol' television (La Chienne); DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player (Boudu).

Jean Renoir has six films on The List. I say that as a statement of fact, not as one of shock, surprise, or outrage. Before working The List, I had not heard of Renoir; that name was immediately associated with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter and not the French director. Well, I’ve corrected that today, watching one-third of his entries.

The first is La Chienne (The Bitch). This is a surprisingly convoluted story for these early days of film. It’s complex and layered without being complicated. There are only a couple of major players here, so it’s simple to keep track of everything, and yet this film goes a very long distance from its starting point.

We start with a puppet show, and I mean that in a literal sense. The first puppet tells us that what we are about to see is a tragedy. It is interrupted by a second puppet who tells us this is a comedy with a moral. Both of these puppets are beaten into submission by a third, who tells us that that the story we are about to see is just a story with no moral and no lesson to share. The people are real people and the story is a real one, and it signifies nothing.

Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) is a meek cashier who is dominated by his terror of a wife, Adele (Magdeleine Berubet). Adele constantly complains of his painting and compares him unfavorably with her first husband, who died in World War I. One evening, when out with his coworkers, he sees a fight between a man and a woman, and he intercedes.

The woman is Lulu (Janie Marese). Legrand is immediately smitten with her because of her youth and her beauty, not knowing that she is essentially a prostitute and that the fight was with her boyfriend/pimp, Dede (Georges Flamant). He also doesn’t know that Dede and Lulu are still a couple, and that this meeting with him is something they have essentially been looking for. Thanks to his infatuation, Legrand sets up Lulu in a new apartment, which he decorates with his own paintings. Dede believes that Legrand is actually a famous painter, and decides that he’ll sell the unsigned artwork under the name of Clara Wood, setting up Lulu as Clara. Meanwhile, to keep her (and, unknowingly, Dede) living in some comfort, Legrand begins embezzling from his company.

Things really come to a head when Legrand discovers that Adele’s first husband is not dead, but living under an assumed name. Both men are in the position now of wanting their own freedom from the terror that is Adele, causing some scheming by both. For Legrand, this is a way out of his loveless, terrible marriage and a life with Lulu, but of course he doesn’t realize that Lulu’s life is actually with Dede and she wants to keep it that way.

I can’t express how disappointed I am that this film was available to me only on VHS and that it hasn’t been remastered. This is a highly entertaining film all the way through. The story plays out like real life, with real people coming up against obstacles and reacting to them. The plot continues to thicken throughout, and while the story does require that the audience pay attention, it never gets so dense that it can’t easily be followed. I can only imagine what this would look like fully remastered and looking like it should. Certainly far less entertaining and less interesting films have been given the full-on Criterion treatment; Renoir’s early work would appear to deserve at least that same consideration.

That aside, though, this film comes highly recommended. The comedy is dark and not always obvious, but the people are real and the situation is one that plays out exactly as it should, even if it isn’t exactly how we as the audience would like it to end up.

There is a Chinese saying that goes along the lines of saving someone’s life makes you responsible for that person. Had you not saved the life, any evil that person commits would have never happened. No film explores this idea more completely than Renoir’s follow-up to La Chienne, Boudu Sauve des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning). Priape Boudu (Michel Simon once again) is a tramp. His dog has run away, and despondent over this, he decides to drown himself in the Seine. Fortunately for him and unfortunately for the rest of us, he is pulled from the water (hence the title) by Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval).

Lestingois takes the dripping tramp into his home to care for him, and we get a lovely view of exactly how Boudu repays the man who saved him. Essentially, his repayment comes in the form of acting like a complete bastard at every possible opportunity. He spits on things, drops things, breaks things, demands everyone get him whatever he wants, tries to have sex with the serving girl (Severine Lerczinska), polishes his shoes with the satin comforter, floods the kitchen, and otherwise acts like a sort of Will Farrell character with fewer manners.

At one point, Boudu has so offended everyone in the house that they are ready to push him out the door. This is after he has trashed the place, destroyed the kitchen, ruined one of Lestingois’s valuable rare books by spitting in the pages, and destroyed the bedroom by polishing his shoes with whatever he could find. Confronted by Lestingois’s wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia), he basically rapes her, which naturally causes her to fall deeply in at least lust for the man. Her husband isn’t too worried since he’s sticking it to the serving girl anyway.

I see what Renoir is trying to do with this film. He’s commenting on the sort of hypocrisy that is rife in the world. At the start, for instance, when Boudu’s dog runs off, he is given no help by the police officer he speaks to. Moments later, a rich woman with the same problem is treated seriously and the cop starts a doghunt to find her precious Pekinese. Okay, I see that. And I see it at the end as well (don’t worry about this being spoiled—you’re missing nothing). This horrible man who treats everyone terribly owns the winning lottery ticket, giving him a small fortune of 100,000 francs. And suddenly he is respectable, all is forgiven, and he can marry the chambermaid, who’s getting sexed by her boss. I get that. I see the hypocrisy of the situation exactly as I am supposed to see it.

But that doesn’t mean that the film works or that I like it. In fact, the film does not work in the main specifically because Boudu is such a hateful character. I believe he is intended to be funny, to be something of a clown. He is not. Instead, he is merely an ingrate and an asshole. As a character, he is a complete misfire, and since the entire movie revolves around him and what he does throughout, the entire movie misfires as a result.

My fervent hope is that of the two Renoir films I watched today, this one is the aberration and not the norm, because this one was painfully bad.

Why to watch La Chienne: For a film that is this old, it’s actually quite modern.
Why not to watch: It won’t be the ending you want.

Why to watch Boudu Sauve des Eaux: For the first hour or so, Boudu has a truly epic beard.
Why not to watch: Because it isn’t worth watching.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Love and Death

Films: Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine); Camille
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

While I try to be as active as I can be at seeing things I am not familiar with, there are plenty of things in the world that I know little to nothing about. Chinese opera is one of those things. In fact, all I really knew about it before tonight is that it is highly stylized, much like Japanese Noh theater. The stories are traditional, and a good actor plays the part to a very specific standard. Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine) exists in this world, and gives the audience a real view of it.

The view is one of intense brutality. Young children are taken in to be trained as actors and acrobats, and this becomes their entire life. The training is grueling, praise is rarer than hen’s teeth, and punishment is constant. A young boy named Douzi (Mingwei Ma) is taken to join the opera by his prostitute mother, but the opera will not take him because he has a sixth finger. The mother chops off the offending digit with a cleaver and takes him back, and he is accepted and his training begins.

The person he ends up training with the most is Shitou (Yang Fei). Shitou is trained in male roles and Douzi in female ones, essentially becoming a woman from all outward appearances. The two endure their life of brutal punishment and end up being stars of the stage in large part because of their performances of an opera called Farewell My Concubine. In this play, the king is abandoned by everyone, and he tries to send away those things and people that have stayed with him. The concubine commits suicide rather than exist without the king.

Where this goes is to a bizarre love triangle. It’s evident when Shitou and Douzi (as adults played by Fengyi Zhang and Leslie Cheung) are performing on stage, it’s less of a performance four Douzi. Also at this time, the two adopt stage names; Shitou is known as Duan Xialuo and Douzi as Cheng Dieyi. And this is where we need a femme fatale—and one arrives just when we need her. This is another prostitute named Juxian (Li Gong). Xialou tells an angry mob that the two of them are engaged as a way to calm them down. And he lives up to the promise he made. This impending marriage creates a huge rift between the two actors, and Cheng Dieyi.

Around all of this story, World War II, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the communist takeover and the cultural revolution occur, and all of these things have tremendous impact on the characters.

More than any of the other characters, this seems to be Cheng Dieyi’s film since all of the controversies either swirl around him or are at least tangential to him. His defining characteristics are his inability to forgive anything and his incredible ability to play the martyr card. He’s actually difficult to like; he seems to want to live a particular romantic ideal, even to the point of his own destruction.

It’s worth noting that there is a great deal of Chinese opera in this film, and that should not be surprising. And here’s the thing—Chinese opera is really hard to deal with if you aren’t used to it. The female characters sing in this incredibly affected style that is high-pitched and piercing and has the effect on me of nails on a chalkboard. It absolutely drove me to distraction. Fortunately, the rest of the movie is quite good and laced with tragedy and history that it kept my attention. But I was really ready to stop hearing these guys sing like elf women with nasal conditions.

Camille is another film in which the road to love is rocky and the ending never seems like it will be cheerful. Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is a woman in mid-18th century France who lives essentially as a kept woman by making men fall in love with her. Her current target is a man named Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), who has enough money to keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. This idea of “the rest of her life” is important, because Camille is sickly, and by sickly I mean that she is consumptive.

Unfortunately for Marguerite, she doesn’t quite get the results she wants when she meets de Varville. While he certainly falls for her and not her frenemy Olympe (pronounced o-LAMP and played by Lenore Ulric), she is instead captivated by a young man named Armand Duval (Robert Taylor). Armand doesn’t have the same sort of money that Marguerite needs, but he’s young, smart, and pretty. However, because she is a spendthrift and always in debt to everyone, she ends up having to become essentially the kept woman of de Varville.

And that’s really the story. Marguerite attempts to keep earning a living from de Varville while leading Duval on romantically. She’s essentially forced to make that age-old choice of comfort and money or love. And, of course, she is consumptive, but she’s consumptive in that mid-1930s Hollywood way in which she gets sicker as the movie progresses but always manages to look exactly like Greta Garbo at the height of her film career.

You know what? This film failed for me on almost every level. Camille is an offshoot of the “manic pixie dreamgirl” except that instead of being a free spirit, she’s just shitty with her money management skills because she’s far more intent on having a good time and being the center of attention. She’s a sort of low-grade Scarlett O’Hara. Additionally, Duval is a complete sucker and a sap, a man so deeply in love with the object of his affection that he’ll do anything for a minor sliver of attention. He gives guys a bad name. As a man I really just wanted him to grow a pair.

In fact the only character I really like is de Varville. It sems like he really got the short end on everything in this film. I feel badly for him.

Of course, the focus is on Marguerite, though, and she’s undeniably annoying throughout. She’s supposed to come off as fun loving and free spirited and whimsical with a touch of tragedy, and she instead comes across as completely fake and not worth spending a lot of time around. Sorry, old movies—this one falls flat and falls hard.

Why to watch Ba Wang Bie Ji: A story in China as it changed and changed again.
Why not to watch: Chinese opera is really hard on the ears.

Why to watch Camille: It’s a pretty little romance.
Why not to watch: Everyone in this film is annoying.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Film: District 9
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Great movies are about much more than the story they show. This is especially true of good science fiction. Truly great science fiction is never really about aliens, laser guns, and robots. District 9, for instance, is about Apartheid. The fact that it takes place around Johannesburg only makes it Apartheid specifically rather than simply racism. So there’s a story, and then there’s the meaning behind the story.

Typically in science fiction stories, alien races are as advanced as we are, or far more technologically advanced than we are. This is not the case here. The film starts a number of years after a significant event—the appearance of a giant alien spacecraft above Johannesburg, South Africa. Nothing happens for some time, and eventually the humans break in to the craft to discover what the aliens want. What they discover is a race of aliens on the edge of starvation, filthy, and leaderless.

The humans create a shantytown for the creatures, which are nicknamed “prawns” because of their similarity to shrimp. The creatures live a miserable existence, picking through garbage to live, and happily oppressed by humanity. The camp of the prawns is called District 9 (hence the name of the film). There is frequent unrest between the humans and the aliens, and a lot of resentment on both sides.

Eventually, the humans have had enough of the prawns, and the South African government hires a company called Multinational United to deal with them. MNU is essentially a for-hire military, and is not merely watching over District 9 but exploiting it as much as possible. The aliens are kept in terrible poverty, and their technology is stolen at every opportunity. Unfortunately for the humans and for MNU, humans can’t use the alien technology; it’s tied to the alien DNA. However, MNU still wants it to see if they can make it work. They build a new place for the prawns called District 10 and set about evicting them. Placed in charge of the eviction is Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

Y’know what? I’m not going to go much further into the plot. Suffice it to say that an alien named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope, and yes, the aliens all have human names) is trying to get the aliens back up to the mothership and Van de Merwe interferes with some pretty disastrous results. All of this happens early, and the reveal of the extent of Van de Merwe’s problem is so good and so much fun that it’s not worth spoiling, even under a spoiler tag.

There are a lot of things that really work in this film, not the least of which is the method in which it was filmed. The film, as it plays, is a combination of a variety of video styles, all of them effective to heighten both the tension and the realism of the story on the screen. Almost everything appears filmed with video cameras. A great deal of what we see is actually surveillance footage of different parts of the MNU facilities and the alien shantytown. All of this has the effect of making this look like real footage of real events. There’s a visceral feel to everything happening on screen that makes gives the film a real edge of legitimacy it wouldn’t have as a polished piece of cinema.

This is great stuff. In addition to the direct video feel, this film is dirty. The aliens themselves, their shantytown, the way they live is disturbing and horrible. Equally horrible are the alien weapons in use. There’s plenty of spatter and splatter when the guns go off, and this is horrifically real as well, the sort of thing that nightmares are made of. Director Neill Blomkamp has opted to give us not the sort of clean weaponry we are used to in many similar films, but weapons that turn whatever they hit into exploded parts.

Just as effective is the fact that a great deal of the film is done in traditional South African languages like Xhosa and Zulu, and this is left untranslated. We get translations of the alien speech, but not the rest, leaving us as in the dark as to what is being said for much of the film, just as the aliens and Van de Merwe are.

If there’s a flaw here, it’s that perhaps the ultimate meaning of the film is perhaps too obviously about the Apartheid system. Most of this comes in the character of Koobus Venter (David James), who likes nothing more than destroying every alien he comes across. And yet, it doesn’t really matter in the long run that it’s as subtle as a mallet to the head, because it’s really compelling and well made.

For what gives the impression of little more than a science fiction romp, District 9 is surprisingly deep and a surprisingly difficult watch. Wikus Ven de Merwe goes from villain to hero in part because of what happens to him and in part because of his actions, but also because he is the only human character worth rooting for. Koobus is an awful creature, and just as terrible is Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa), who eats parts of the aliens in the hopes of gaining their power. It’s details like this, which have roots in the beliefs of many South African people, that take this film beyond the level of science fiction/action/thriller and into the realm of real cinema.

Why to watch District 9: It’s a science fiction story grittier than anything you’ve seen.
Why not to watch: It’s more disturbing than you think.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keaton's End

Film: Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Buster Keaton is the most represented of the three best-known silent comedians on The List with five films. I’m fine with that, since he’s also my favorite of them. It’s with a little sadness that I’m writing up the fifth and final Keaton for this project. I simply couldn’t resist, though. I just can’t help myself.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. is also the newest of Keaton’s films on the list, although in the case of silent movies, “newest” is a relative term. Importantly, though, it’s also a film that came after the commercial failure of The General and thus lost control of his films. Sadly, as will soon become apparent, this shows through in the final product.

The story, as is typical with silent comedy, is simple. Bill Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is a steamboat captain in Mississippi. Unfortunately for him, he’s got competition from a man named J.J. King (Tom McGuire), who happens to be the richest man in town and is thus able to purchase a much nicer steamboat. As it happens, Canfield’s son, who he hasn’t seen in years, has finished school and is coming for a visit. Naturally, this is Buster Keaton. And, as naturally happens in such films, Keaton is madly in love with Kitty King (Marion Byron), J.J. King’s daughter, and the feeling is mutual.

It’s not too difficult to see where this film is going. In fact, while the details may not be clear or obvious from the paragraph above, you almost certainly have an idea of what the last couple of minutes are going to look like, no?

With Keaton, it’s all about the stunts, and with silent comedy in general, it’s all about the set up. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is about 2/3 set-up and 1/3 payoff. The set-up is all about turning the short, wimpy Junior into a real man, or at least into the sort of real man that Senior will accept. And that is what the third act is all about.

While the first chunk of the film is all about the set up, it’s also loaded with sight gags and jokes, and there are some good ones, and one that references Keaton’s typical persona that is quick and brilliant. And, as is typical with Keaton, the big set piece stunts that make up the end of the film are essentially tangential to the actual film. A huge storm whips up and destroys the town, which sets up the necessary situation for the end of the film. That said, much of what happens is there simply to showcase Keaton’s virtuoso skills at stunts and comedy. The storm is one of those classic scenes that is referenced in films, especially the part when the house front falls down around him.

It’s also interesting that there are shades of Romeo and Juliet in this in that we are dealing with feuding families and children in love with each other. Of course, this is far more comedic and far less tragic, but there are times when it seems that Keaton is attempting to directly reference Shakespeare’s play.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a marvelous piece of footage because of all of the stunts and ideas in it, but it is lacking when compared with other Keaton films that I have seen. There is something less joyful about it somehow, less manic than his earlier films. Had you asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have said that Seven Chances was the least of the Keaton films I’d seen, but sadly that has to be revised to include this one.

So, while Steamboat Bill, Jr. might be the least of the five Keaton films on The List, it’s the least of five films that are Master’s classes in how to pull of sight gags, stunts, and comedy. Keaton’s been better, but Keaton at 70% is better than most.

Why to watch Steamboat Bill, Jr.: It’s Buster Keaton. Why wouldn’t you watch it?
Why not to watch: It lacks a lot of the joy of his earlier films.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Con Game

Film: The Lady Eve
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Every three months, my output on this blog drops to nearly nil. This is because of my life outside of the blog. Every three months is the end of an academic term, so generally speaking, in the third weeks of March, June, September, and December, I am buried in papers that need grading and grades that need posting. Still, I am very much a person who needs some level of distraction. I take breaks. Today, I took my breaks in the form of watching The Lady Eve as a step away from the dwindling mountain of ungraded student work, watching in 5- and 10-minute bursts throughout the day.

Let’s get this out of the way right away. Had I been alive and of the right age in the early 1940s, my pin-up girl of choice would have been Barbara Stanwyck. It’s not merely that she was drop-dead gorgeous. It’s her entire persona. There’s a gutsiness to her that I really admire. I felt it only fair to come clean on this because it will likely color the rest of this. So, just to be clear, I dig Barbara Stanwyck, or at least her typical screen persona, which is precisely what she plays here.

Our hero, or at least the patsy for the allure of Ms. Stanwyck is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). Pike is the heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale fortune, but like many young men in such a position, he has no interest in beer, ale, or anything else of his father’s business. Instead, Charles has devoted his life to study and scientific enterprise. As the film begins, he is just ending a year of work in the Amazon, finding and cataloging new species of reptiles. It’s worth noting that Charles Pike is no dilettante, but an actual scientist.

To leave the Amazon, he stops a cruise ship (he’s got that kind of money) and boards, where he immediately becomes the object of attention for every single girl on the ship. But it’s Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) who is going to win this battle. Sadly for Charles, Jean Harrington is a con artist who works with her card sharp father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn). Jean arranges for Charles to literally fall at her feet, and then dominates his attention, even arranging a bridge game in which she and her father can lose a ton of money to Charles to earn his trust. The only person looking out for Charles Pike is Muggsy (William Demarest), his aide, valet, and confidant. And Muggsy doesn’t like what he sees.

Of course, things are more difficult than that. Jean actually falls for Charles and tries to protect him from her father, and Muggsy discovers who she really is, which makes Charles give her the heave-ho. Still smarting from being dumped, Jean reinvents herself as the Lady Eve Sidwich and attaches herself to another conman named Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), reinserting herself into the life of Charles Pike. And thus the wacky hijinks ensue.

In all honesty, if you’ve ever seen a single romantic comedy in your life, you can tell where this film is going from a mile off. It’s not much of a spoiler to comment on how this one ends because if you’ve never seen this film but have read this far, you know where it’s going. Of course these two are going to end up together. We want the clumsy, romantically-challenged Charles to find love at last, and we just as much want to see the shifty but ultimately sweet Jean be redeemed in the end. So, naturally, that’s what Preston Sturges gives us. It’s not the destination that matters here because we all know where we’re going. What matters is the trip and how we get there.

And it should be no shock that for me, one of the joys of getting there is the performance by Barbara Stanwyck. The reason it’s such a great role, though, and such a great performance is that in virtually every scene, it’s evident to us that she is saying one thing, doing another, and thinking a third—and all of this comes through in her body language and her eyes. Early in the film, she is introduced to Pike’s new rare Amazonian snake, and she panics. In the scene that follows, it’s obvious to us that she is hanging on Charles for “protection,” but actually seducing him, and really thinking about how to take him for his money. It’s perfect, because he’s so oblivious to it and we as the audience are so easily able to see it.

Another real pleasure in this film is Henry Fonda. Fonda has long been considered one of the greats of American cinema, and this film is one of the reasons why. Fonda is always remarkable in no small part because he’s so damn believable in every role. He’s sympathetic in this film as the guy who gets his heart broken. I like this character, and I like him.

Where this film succeeds more than the typical romantic comedy—particularly the modern ones in which most of the characters are pretty hateful—is that this film goes for some real depth with the characters. Jean is a cheat and a bit of a louse, but truly loves the guy, and acts the way she does because she doesn’t have another way to act. Pike’s reaction to this situation is so believable not because he acts simply like a man who has been hurt, but because he acts precisely like an inexperienced man who has been hurt. His reactions have the tenor of a man who expected everyone else to live up to his ideals and is truly disappointed for one of the first times in his life.

So, while The Lady Eve is unbelievable in many respects and classic Hollywood era extreme, it’s also brilliantly conceived and entertaining from start to finish. And, of course, it’s got miles and miles of Barbara Stanwyck, and that’s never a bad thing. And it’s worth mentioning, Eugene Pallette, who plays Pike Senior is a constant pleasure in films like this one. You may not recognize the name, but if you’ve seen films from the 1940s, you’ve seen a great deal of his work.

Why to watch The Lady Eve: Because Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are national treasures.
Why not to watch: Like all screwball romances, it’s pretty much fluff.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Too Soon?

Film: Four Lions
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

It’s been just over 10 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People tend to pay special attention to those anniversaries that end in 5s and 0s, and so the mood of the States was pretty somber a few days ago. On a completely unrelated note, the newest edition of The Book was released, adding back a dozen or so films and bringing in 10 new ones. So, in an effort to combine the recent anniversary and the release of the 8th edition, as well as my own twisted sense of humor, I watched Four Lions.

Let’s get this stated right off the top: this film is a comedy about suicide bombers. Roll that around in your brain pan for a couple of moments and then come back to me. I’ll wait here until you come to terms with that concept.

Back? Excellent. Let’s move on. We start with a group of four jihadist wannabees. They are led, or at least somewhat guided, by Omar (Riz Ahmed). Also in the group is militant Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who is more eager for personal control over the group but can’t understand subtleties; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who wants to train crows to carry bombs so he doesn’t have to blow himself up; and Waj (Kavyan Novak), who has real issues with things like thinking. The four believe in a militant version of Islam and would like to bring the jihad to England, blowing themselves up in the process.

To help them pursue this goal, Omar and Waj head off to a training camp in Pakistan where they hope to meet an emir to get permission to blow up targets in the U.K. The training goes poorly, though, when Waj takes video with his phone, allowing his location to be tracked. While the rest of the camp runs off to meet the emir, Omar and Waj attempt to blow up an American spy plane, but Omar aims the rocket the wrong way and instead blows up the emir (and this is referenced at the end of the film). Back in the U.K., Barry enlists a fifth member named Hassan (Arsher Ali), who disrupts a Muslim conference with a fake bomb strapped to his stomach.

Omar and Waj return and now are forced with having to talk Barry out of his new master plan: blow up a mosque pretending to be someone else to ignite the passions of the moderates and thus start the jihad. Omar must deal with this problem, but is confronted with a more serious one when Hassan invites the next door neighbor over for a dance party in the same room where the men are creating their bombs. When transporting the explosives, Faisal trips over a sheep and explodes, which naturally causes a rift in the group. Eventually, they reform and decide to attack the London Marathon dressed in a variety of costumes to conceal the bombs.

Naturally, this subject matter is incredibly touchy, and director Christopher Morris needs to tread lightly to make it something more than extremely painful. He doesn’t. Instead, he charges directly into this topic and stomps around like a mad elephant. It’s a smart move, because it’s in many ways unexpected. Because it is so extreme, it works.

It also works in that the characters are well realized, even if they are obviously movie characters because of their extreme personalities. Everyone knows someone a bit like Barry, for instance. Barry is sort of constantly confused, or at least blinded by what he thinks is right. His initial plan of blowing up a mosque is sort of interesting—it’s a false flag plan designed to put suspicion elsewhere and get the moderate Muslims angry. But even after the group decides to do something else, he makes videotapes of himself claiming responsibility, and thus negating any possible effect of the false flag. He also doesn’t see a problem with this. Waj is a step above mentally retarded, gets confused and lost easily, and seems to equate going to paradise to be the equivalent of a theme park ride called “Rubber Dinghy Rapids.” In fact, Barry regularly calls Waj “the special needs donkey.”

There is, of course, a large streak of cruelty in this film, and it needs that. The humor is pitch black dark, and successful because of it. But the real reason this film works is because of how it looks at this deadly serious and dangerous topic.

All of the men—Omar, Barry, Waj, Faisal, and Hassan—want desperately to be jihadists and to die gloriously for the Will of Allah. All of them desire to go to paradise and be seen as martyrs for the cause of Islam. But none of them, were you able to pull the characters out of the film and ask them about it, could tell you precisely why. They have only vague notions and ideas, and most of those come from people other than them. None of them could put into words the ideas and desires they are trying to express, and so their method of expression becomes suicide bombing. They want to do it, but have no concrete reason beyond wanting to, or thinking they should, or, as Waj puts it at one point, because “it would be pathetic to cop out now.”

In its own strange way, it’s almost comforting to see these men just as confused about their motivation as we are about their motivation.

Truthfully, American audiences will have a tougher time with this film because it is very British. The accents can be difficult at times, and many of the references (Honey Monster?) aren’t known or obvious to those of us on this side of the pond. And, even for those of us with a good ear for accents and a fondness for British culture, there are those who will find the material to be objectionable. That’s to be expected. This is not a film for someone who was directly affected by the 9/11 attacks, because there will be things in their lives that they cannot laugh at ever.

But in truth, Four Lions goes to prove the old idea that the best way to counter oppression, terror, and evil is not by open warfare, assassination, outrage, or political speech, but with humor. It’s humanizing and healthy to laugh at those things that scare us or that we can’t understand. Laughter takes away the weapon of fear and neutralizes it.

If you can separate the tragedy of any bombing attack from the comedy present here, you should enjoy this film tremendously.

Why to watch Four Lions: Scathingly funny.
Why not to watch: For some people, this topic will always be too soon.

Monday, September 12, 2011

All Josey, No Pussycats

Film: The Outlaw Josey Wales
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Clint Eastwood is almost certainly one of the top five actors associated with the Western. It doesn’t matter how many films he made as Harry Callahan, Eastwood simply looks right wearing a duster or serape and toting a couple of six guns. While Eastwood is a pretty celebrated actor, he’s a lot better (my opinion) behind the camera. He comes into his own when he does both. He’s directed a surprising number of films for a guy who most people (at least my age) still think of primarily as an actor. Of those 30+ films, five track as Westerns. Of these, Unforgiven is almost certainly his best. High Plains Drifter is the one most beholden to his past. But The Outlaw Josey Wales is perhaps the most quintessentially Eastwood.

The plot, as is the case with most Westerns, is incredibly simple. Josey Wales (Eastwood) is a Missouri farmer content to work on his land. His wife and child are killed by pro-Union guerrillas from Kansas. He signs up with pro-Confederate forces and is led by a man named Fletcher (John Vernon, immediately recognizable by his deep, resonant voice). At the end of the war, all of Fletcher’s men save Wales surrender, and are then gunned down by the Union forces, led by Terrill (Bill McKinney). Wales goes on the run, looking for something, pursued by the Union, who brand him a killer and outlaw.

As a film, or as a story, The Outlaw Josey Wales leaves a lot to be desired. It is, like it or not, riddled with clich├ęs. For instance, shortly after the massacre of Fletcher’s men, Wales rides off with Jamie, who survived the slaughter, but is badly wounded. Jamie and Wales run into trouble a couple of times and save each other, but Jamie isn’t going to make it to the end of the film; this is obvious, since he was shot through the chest. The moment that Jamie says that he no longer fears dying, well, he’s going to die. In fact, that’s his last line. The next time we see him, he’s a corpse. This should shock no one. (Don’t worry—it’s not a spoiler. It happens in the first third or so of the film.)

So, the story itself is pretty simple, and it’s not that hard to tell five minutes ahead of time what is going to happen. You know there’s going to be a showdown between Wales and Terrill at some point, and it’s not difficult to figure how it’s going to come out. You know that Wales is always going to outdraw the men who hunt him, because you’re not going to lose your star with an hour left in the film.

Fortunately, this film is filled with joys beyond the plot. There’s plenty going on here that make this film worth the time.

First are the excellent portrayals of the characters. Eastwood is the most as-you-imagine-him Clint Eastwood probably ever. This is a role that he inhabits, and one that would not have been possible without the No-Name Trilogy directed by Leone or even his own earlier High Plains Drifter. Eastwood is able to sink himself into this role to a point of believability that never breaks or even cracks. Other roles and other films of his might well be better, but he was never better at portraying a character.

Similarly, Chief Dan George as Lone Watie is one of the great Western characters ever created. He is (and this is the sort of thing that is rare in Hollywood) a realistic native character. He doesn’t particularly have a great deal of wisdom, but he’s willing to share what he does have. He’s always interesting to watch on screen. This attempt at an accurate portrayal of both Native Americans and the treatment of the same is something really special about this film as well. From my own experience, only Dead Man does the same thing. Other films tend to depict Native Americans either as savages or as spiritual gurus capable of tapping into an inherent one-ness with the universe. Lone Watie is neither; he’s just a guy trying to get to Mexico.

Where the film bogs down for me is when Wales and Lone Watie get involved with a group of settlers moving to Texas. I understand the necessity of this for the character arc—Wales is tired of the violence and the running and would like to settle down, preferably with Laura Lee (Sondra Locke), but is still being pursued. But it feels forced, like he’s doing this for the necessity of the plot rather than the necessity of the character.

Still, despite its faults and shortcomings, The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the true classics of the Western genre. In this film, Eastwood manages to both reference the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah and also to transcend them in real ways.

Why to watch The Outlaw Josey Wales: It’s quintessential Eastwood, both acting and directing.
Why not to watch: You can tell what’s going to happen five minutes before it does.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hollywood and Vain

Film: The Player
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

I can’t say that I dislike Robert Altman, but I often have trouble getting into his films. I think a part of that is that often he has these massive casts and films with multiple dozens of characters. I frequently feel overwhelmed by him. It’s been years since I’ve watched M*A*S*H, but I think part of the reason I can follow that film easily is because I used to watch the television show it was based on, so I knew the characters going in. I’ve tried and failed to watch both Short Cuts and Nashville and just haven’t gotten through them yet. So it was with some trepidation that I dropped The Player into the spinner today.

The Player is satire, and it’s self-referential satire. This is the story of a studio executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) who discovers that he has wronged someone, or at least that someone thinks he’s been wronged. He begins getting threatening postcards from a disgruntled screenwriter, someone that he promised he would call and never did. Simultaneously, he’s under the impression that he’s on the outs at his current studio, because he keeps hearing about Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), who is an up-and-comer.

A little investigative work leads him to a screenwriter named David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio, who was thin once). Griffin tries to get Kahane to re-pitch the script to him, but Kahane balks, and essentially calls Griffin out for being a complete bastard. Push leads to shove, and Griffin kills Kahane, then makes it look like a robbery gone bad and flees the scene.

Now, on top of all of his other problems, he has a murder he needs to cover up. At the same time, he starts to become involved with Kahane’s pseudo-girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), much to the irritation of his current girlfriend and scriptreader, Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson). So, for the rest of the film, Griffin Mill needs to stay one step ahead of the police (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett), keep tabs on Larry Levy, split his time between Bonnie and June, and rescue his own career.

One of the sells of this film is the incredible number of cameos. In terms of others playing actors, Fred Ward plays the head of studio security and B-movie mainstay Brion James plays the head of the studio. But throughout the rest of the film, there are quick appearances from about a third of Hollywood playing themselves. People show up at parties, appear in restaurants, make quick movie pitches or exchange pointless small talk. The list of extras reads like a Who’s Who in southern California circa 1992.

The Player succeeds on nearly every level. One way that it is truly successful is not in the strange threats against Griffin Mill (at one point, a rattlesnake is left in his car), but in his reaction to all of this. With his livelihood threatened, his relationship on the rocks, a murder to cover up, and the police tailing him, he exists in a world that for all intents and purposes seems like the inside of an opaque sphere. Mill continually and continuously acts as if nothing can touch him, like these situations that would concern others are beyond him. He puts a plan in place to keep his job, and this is far more important to him than the fact that he murdered a man in an alley in Pasadena.

And so, there are no heroes to cheer for in this film, and for once that doesn’t bother me. In fact, watching a couple of potential heroes’ story arc is, for me, one of the true highlights of this film. However, since this resolves very near the end and it’s worth seeing, I’d rather put this under a spoiler tag than simply talk about it.


Two screenwriters (played by Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant) appear in the second act to pitch a film called Habeus Corpus. They want the film to play with no known actors and to have an extremely downbeat ending. This is the film that Mill uses as his way to get back in with his studio—when Larry Levy screws things up, he’ll come in with the solution and save the picture. The two writers are adamant that they want the extremely downbeat end and that there should be no one recognizable in the film.

At the end, we see the latest rushes of the new ending. In the background we see Peter Falk and Susan Sarandon. Then we catch a glimpse of the stars, Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis. And we get a happy ending. Bonnie complains about the ending, and the two screenwriters, who earlier had been so set on having a realistic, serious ending, chime in that they’re fine with the ending as it is, because the sad ending tested so poorly.

In this moment, we see the depth and the price of the Hollywood machine. Integrity and artistic vision, regardless of all the speechifying throughout the film, goes by the wayside when it comes down to how much money the film will make at the box office. While it’s almost certainly an exaggeration, it’s also almost certainly very reflective of the truth. In my more cynical moments, I’d guess that if anything, Altman softened this moment from the reality.


The Player succeeds not despite the overwhelming smarm and palpable soullessness of all of the principle characters, but because of it. This is a film that would buckle under its own weight of pretentiousness if it tried to paint the characters as anything other than avaricious, vain, shallow, and awful. Tim Robbins is especially hateful, and because of it, especially good.

In short, it looks like I should give Altman more of a shot.

Why to watch The Player: The greatest skewering of Hollywood ever filmed.
Why not to watch: If you try to keep track of the cameos, you'll miss the movie.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Blood Sacrifice

Film: Apocalypto
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There are a lot of things that can be said about Mel Gibson. We could say, for instance, that he had one of the great Hollywood careers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We could say that in recent years he’s shown a tendency for crazy behavior, excessive drinking, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. But what we cannot say is that the man doesn’t have a pair of balls on him. How else to explain Apocalypto? How else can we explain a film with a $40 million budget filmed in Yucatec Mayan? He needed balls simply to pitch the concept. Of course it helped that his previous foreign language film (The Passion of the Christ) was the highest grossing R-rated film, highest grossing foreign language film in the U.S., and highest grossing religious film worldwide. That gives a man a little bit of leverage.

But Apocalypto doesn’t have that sort of guaranteed religious fervor tie-in that Passion did, since it features not the center of a major world religion, but Mayans living in the Yucatan. These people live an essentially peaceful existence, relying on the forest around them to provide everything they need. We meet initially the men of the tribe, who are hunting tapir. These men are Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), his father Flint Sky (the awesomely named Morris Birdyellowhead), Curl Nose (Amilcar Ramirez), Cocoa Leaf (Israel Rios), Smoke Frog (Israel Contreras), and Blunted (Jonathan Brewer). Blunted gets teased a lot by the others because he has yet to get his wife pregnant. Back in the village, we meet a few other folks, in particular Jaguar Paw’s wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and his son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez).

Everything changes when we meet a group of refugees fleeing from their own village. Jaguar Paw’s village is attacked the next day. During the attack, he lowers Seven and Turtles Run down into a deep hole near the village, leaving a vine hanging down so they are not abandoned. He returns to the village to fight, but is captured. Flint Sky is killed in front of him by Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), and Jaguar Paw and the surviving members of his village are led off. Before going, one of the invaders cuts the vine leading down to Seven and Turtles Run, stranding them.

Essentially, the village is being dragged off to a massive Mayan city where they are to be sacrificed to the sun god. A couple of Jaguar Paw’s friends are killed by having their hearts cut out and then their heads cut off. This all coincides with an eclipse just as Jaguar Paw himself is on the altar. The sun god being satisfied with blood, the surviving members of the village are allowed to try to escape, but are hunted down. Jaguar Paw is wounded, but kills the son of the enemy leader, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). Jaguar Paw runs home to save his wife and son, and is pursued the entire way.

There are many references to other films throughout this one. Jaguar Paw’s “rebirth” from the deep pool of mud is highly reminiscent of Apocalypse Now for instance. Jaguar Paw’s jump off a high waterfall calls back to The Fugitive, and his speech on the shore below contains shades of Arwen in The Fellowship of the Ring. But throughout the entire second half of the film, what I am reminded of more than anything is The Naked Prey.

Regardless of this, there are a number of things to talk about with Apocalypto without specifically comparing it to something else. It is, ultimately, extremely melodramatic, with points of danger seemingly added simply to heighten the intensity of the given situation, in many ways unnecessarily. For instance, as Jaguar Paw nears his home village, it begins to rain, and the deep hole in which Seven and Turtles Run are standing begins filling up with water at an incredibly fast rate. And then, suddenly, it’s time for Seven to deliver the baby. All we need is a train track for her to be tied to and for Zero Wolf to have a Snidely Whiplash mustache to twirl.

Despite this, there’s still plenty here to like. The acting is excellent throughout. Middle Eye is absolutely menacing and vicious. There’s a definite sense of evil from him as he hurts and kills other not for gain but purely for sport. Similarly, Zero Wolf casts a long shadow over the film as a source of fear and malice. Most impressive is the massive ziggurat set that is both magnificent and terrible.

Apocalypto is plenty violent as well, but the violence here all makes good sense. This is not prurient stuff or something to satisfy the bloodlust of the audience, but realistic violence intended to give the audience a real sense of the incredible danger of this world. Even during times of peace, this forest is a dangerous place to live. Wounds are easily gotten and can kill in a non-sterile environment. Danger lurks everywhere. The violence is not the indicator of this reality, but a symptom of it.

Be prepared for a lot of body modification. If the idea of people having bones through various facial features, large tattoos, ritual scarification, and hugely stretched earlobes is a turnoff for you, you’ll have some issues here. Everyone has some pretty big earlobe plugs in—even Turtles Run has holes you could put a couple of fingers through, and many of the people have multiple nasal piercings as well as piercings below the lower lip. If you’re into that kind of thing, this won’t bother you at all. If this sort of thing gives you the shivering Willies, though, stay clear.

Why to watch Apocalypto : Beneath all of the strangeness lies a solid story.
Why not to watch: Disturbing piercings and ritual scarification.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How Many Boobs Do You Need?

Film: Eyes Wide Shut
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Once upon a time, Nicole Kidman was a beautiful woman. I’m not sure precisely when she changed from beautiful woman into a botoxed mannequin with a frozen expression, but it happened sometime within the last few years. Evidence for just how damn pretty she was can be found in Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s last film.

Eyes Wide Shut was celebrated initially for several reasons. It was Kubrick’s final film, and Manly Stanley didn’t make too many films in the first place. Second, it starred real husband and wife couple Tom Cruise and the aforementioned Nicole Kidman. Third, this film ramped up the sexuality to just shy of porn levels (much of which was cut or digitally altered to ensure an R rating rather than the dreaded NC-17). So let’s jump in.

Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Kidman) are invited to a party being held by their friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). During the party, Bill recognizes a former medical school colleague named Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) playing the piano; we also learn that Nick dropped out of med school. During the party, Bill and Alice get separated. Alice dances with a charming and mildly seductive Hungarian named Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), who makes no secret of the fact that he would very much like to take her off in a private room and have his way with her.

At the same time, Bill is being aggressively pursued by a pair of nubile young women. Just as Bill is seriously reconsidering his marriage vows, he gets pulled away. It seems that Victor has already reconsidered his marriage vows, and the young woman (named Mandy, and played by Julienne Davis) he’s been sexing up has had a very bad reaction to the drugs she’s been shooting.

And so neither of the Harfords breaks their marriage vows, at least at this point. As Bill and Alice talk, though, it becomes an argument about the party. Bill is convinced that Alice would never be unfaithful to him, but she relates a story to him about a fantasy she had involving a young military man she saw on a previous vacation. And suddenly Bill becomes obsessed with thoughts of his wife’s possible infidelity.

From this point forward, Bill sinks into a world of sex. Significantly, he runs into Nick again, who tells him of a gig he has been taking regularly. An hour before his performance, he is given an address and a password. He goes and plays the piano, but must play blindfolded. At the last performance, the blindfold slipped, and he intimates that what is going on is a crazed sex party. Bill gets the password and runs off to find a costume, since everyone at the party wears cloaks and masks. At the costume shop, he discovers the owners daughter having sex with two Japanese gentlemen, and we discover later that the shop owner is essentially prostituting his daughter (Leelee Sobieski).

However, it’s the orgy in the middle of the film that caused all the controversy, raises all the eyebrows, and otherwise makes this film what it is. And it is an orgy, complete with something like a pagan ritual and tons of naked women. After the initial ceremony, Bill goes wandering through the giant house and sees, well, full-on sex acts being performed in every room, most of them with a fairly captive audience watching. However, it soon becomes evident that Bill does not belong there, and he is forced out. He returns home and discovers that Alice has been having dreams that are very similar to what he just witnessed.

And then shit gets really strange. Rather than get too detailed, let’s just go with this: sex, threats, death, more threats, disappearances, nudity, and sex.

This is a film that can be interpreted in any number of ways, I think. Certainly one can look at this as a sort of dark fantasy of Bill’s triggered by his wife’s mental infidelity. It does play that way in many respects—the fantasy that pushes Bill into this particular situation is both sexually interesting and arousing (the orgy) and sexually emasculating (Alice’s dream of having sex with countless men while Bill watches helplessly). But in many ways this can be interpreted as Alice’s dream as well. The frequent black-and-white shots of her having sex with the naval officer could easily be interpreted has her fantasy and not Bill’s thoughts.

It’s an interesting film in the sense that Kubrick is obviously using sex as the draw here, and there is a shit-ton of full-frontal female nudity in this film. I can easily see a bunch of guys watching it, or at least fast-forwarding to the “good parts” for the acres of boobs in the middle of the film. But Kubrick, while certainly willing to use those acres of boobs to get people into their seats, is certainly investigating more here. I’d suggest that regardless of whose dreams we are seeing here, this film is really in many ways looking at the sort of spiritual malaise of this group of insanely wealthy people who are evidently bored with their own existence. The sex is a cover for people looking for something more and grasping at sex. Alice and Bill need to work their way through this, or need to rediscover their own relationship, to survive.

Interesting and weird, but not my favorite Kubrick. Ultimately, the sex and the nudity becomes something not titillating, but grotesque. Of course, that may well have been the point after all.

Why to watch Eyes Wide Shut: Damn sexy, at least up to a point.
Why not to watch: It’s much longer than it needs to be.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Young Ones Fare Badly, Too

Film: No Country for Old Men
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There are, generally speaking, two opinions on No Country for Old Men. Some people (including me) will tell you that it’s the best thing the Coen Brothers have ever done. Others—many, many others—will tell you that the film is great until the last couple of minutes. What this means is that we’ll be getting to spoilers here eventually, because this is an ending that needs defending.

This film is the story of three men, none of whom appear on the screen at the same time. First we have Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Out hunting one day, he stumbles across a drug deal gone very wrong. Following the trail of the one man to walk out of the gunfight alive, he discovers a dead body and a satchel containing $2 million. Naturally he takes this home, but returns to the scene that night to see about a man still at the scene who was dying, but not yet dead. He’s discovered there by a pair involved with the trade, and he flees, returning home for the satchel. He also sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother’s house to keep her safe.

We also meet the man who will spend most of the film pursuing Moss and the money: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a hit man who has been hired to recover the money, and he is perhaps the most ruthless man ever portrayed in a film. Our first view of him is strangling a deputy with his handcuffs. He then steals a police car, pulls someone over, and kills him with a captive bolt pistol (usually used to slaughter livestock) and takes his car.

Our third character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He is a man who has aged into his job as sheriff, and comes from a line of lawmen in the region. He fills this role as sheriff of this expanse of Texas with a sort of resigned dignity, knowing that there will be violence that he must see to, and understanding it less and less every day.

Sheriff Ed Tom is on screen less than the other main characters, but it is he who stands at the heart of the film. He is the moral center of the action as well as the character we are most likely to attach to as the protagonist. In the role, Jones carries the weight of the area on his soul. This is a man broken down by what he has seen and knowing what he will see in the future, a man who can only react to the increasing horror of his work by strapping on his sidearm and continuing to walk forward into whatever the situation throws at him.

All of the performances are notable ones. Javier Bardem comes across as one of the purest incarnations of evil ever filmed. Chigurh has a particular code that he lives by. He is a ruthless killer, someone who destroys everything he sees simply because it might see him, but there is evident a twisted moral ethic by which he works. He kills with no pleasure in general (although there certainly seems to be some pleasure at the start), but rather with a sort of satisfaction in doing a particular job well.

As the story unfolds, Chigurh tracks Moss across Texas, following him by means of a transponder hidden in the money satchel. Moss demonstrates his own particular cunning, renting back-to-back rooms at a motel and shifting the money satchel through the air vent to keep it out of Chigurh’s hands. Along the way, we encounter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), sent to track down both the money and Anton Chigurh. Like Chigurh, Wells is ruthless and dedicated to his craft, but it’s also evident that he lacks the completely cold-blooded nature of Chigurh.

So let’s talk about that ending, shall we?


For many people the end of the film is a dud because there is no confrontation with Chigurh. At the end of the film, Chigurh is in a serious car accident, but he walks away, heading toward his next assignment. Moss is killed by Chigurh, and Ed Tom Bell retires.

So why is this such a great ending? Because it’s all about the opening narration from Ed Tom Bell. He tells us in the first few moments of the film that he is losing his ability to understand what is happening around him. He’s willing to die for the job if it becomes necessary, but as he tells us at the start, he doesn’t want to take his life into his own hands when he no longer understands the terms of the bet.

And so, the end, with no confrontation and Sheriff Bell’s retirement, we get the ending this film needs. Sheriff Bell no longer has a handle on the nature of the criminals he is seeing, and rather than risk being killed for something he cannot fathom, he hangs up his pistol. That is the entire point of the film—that Sheriff Bell is unable to determine a course of action and is equally unable to get a line on Chigurh and the people like him. It’s a stark and poignant moment, and it is truly what the story needs.


In short, I think this is the best thing the Coens have ever done. It follows the book it was based on religiously, and offers a new dark vision of what crime has become

Why to watch No Country for Old Men, The Coen Brothers have never been better.
Why not to watch: There’s a fair chance the ending will piss you off.