Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of Year Two

So I've decided against a final film review or two for the year.

I put up 290 reviews from the list this year, which tops last year's total by 18, or 1.5 films per month. Not bad. I also broke the halfway point and have pushed further past. Since I'm assuming another dozen films will be added in 2012, it's good to be ahead of the game. I currently stand at 562 films reviewed, 527 to go.

It's been a noteworthy year. I joined the Large Association of Movie Blogs late last year, and that has ticked up my traffic a bit. What's really helped in terms of traffic, though, is podcasting. I caught the bug with a spot on the LAMBcast in July and have been hooked since. You can find me regularly once per month on the Movie of the Month LAMBcasts.

But that's only a small part of the podcasting story, of course. I've been welcomed by Nick Jobe of Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob to be a part of The Demented Podcast. It's been fun. Hectic sometimes, especially when some guests give me grief about my movie picks (Kai). But fun. I'm looking forward to the next season, which starts for me in about a week, and for you listeners in about two. Also coming very soon is my debut on Nick's vlog, which will start soon and can be found on his site.

So what's ahead? More films, of course. I've managed to get through most of the really long stuff, but there are still a bunch of films that are, bluntly, a bitch to find. I've got some work ahead of me on that front. My goal, stated now, is 25 films from the list per month, which will put me at 300 on the year.

It's been fun so far, and it's still fun. I think that's a good sign.

Better things ahead, faithful reader. Here's to the year that was and the year that will be.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sparrow and the Rose

Film: La Vie en Rose
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Sometimes, an actor’s performance is greater than the movie. A recent example is Tom Hardy in the film Bronson. That film is pretty much a 90-minute waste of time, a compilation of violent scenes, frontal male nudity and profanity. But Tom Hardy’s performance is so good and so memorable that despite the relative failure of the film, it is mesmerizing to watch. Such is the case with Marion Cotillard’s performance in La Vie en Rose. This is actually saying quite a bit, because the film is pretty good.

It’s worth mentioning here that every film geek I know and most film bloggers I know have a massive crush on Marion Cotillard. I suspect this is more from her role in Inception, but I also suspect that the more adventurous of them fell for her here. This is the very definition of a star-making performance.

The problem with any biopic is that the only way to make a good biopic is to make a film of a life filled with tragedy, and the life of Edith Piaf (Cotillard) had enough tragedy for multiple biopics. Abandoned by her parents, forced to live in a brothel as a child, dragged along in a circus, then forced to perform on the street, Piaf’s early life was struggle and poverty and hunger. Her first real mentor, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) was killed in a gang shooting, and many blamed Piaf for introducing him to the criminal element.

And then comes success, affairs, drugs, and the eventual dissolution caused by the same. As the film flashes back in time and forward to the point of her death, she has aged a full lifetime. Dead a few months before her 48th birthday, she looks nearly twice her age.

Piaf’s tragedy is that everything she touched was destroyed. The love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) gives her joy and infuses her singing, but he is killed in a plane crash, destroying her world, even moreso because he was flying to see her at her request. No happiness for her lasts long, and always ends as tragically as possible. As such things go, both her temporary happiness and her continual tragedy infuse her singing with greater passion.

If I have a major complaint about this film, and I do, it’s that the non-linear style of the film is very difficult to follow. I don’t mind non-linear stories. I had no trouble following Memento, for instance. But there was something about this film that made this narrative style far less effective than a straight narration would have been. The constant flash-forwards to the decrepit, broken version of Piaf didn’t so much create a greater sense of tragedy, but a sense of inevitability. In other words, seeing her life progress from tragedy to tragedy would have made a certain sense. Skipping from tragedy to tragedy served only to muddle the story.

Still, it’s impossible to dislike this film entirely, and I did not dislike it. There’s simply too much here that is good. Some scenes, like Piaf’s true breakout performance, are truly brilliant. Instead of having us listen to her sing (which honestly wouldn’t have been too terrible), we instead see her perform and see the reaction of the crowd while music plays over the scene. It is surprisingly beautiful.

But really, as I’ve said earlier, the reason to watch this film starts and ends with the performance of Marion Cotillard. She plays Piaf in her early career as a kid out of her depth, self-conscious and shy, eyes huge and filled with both a quiet terror and desire. She plays Piaf in her heyday is out of control, desiring the acclaim of everyone and afflicted with a terrible need to perform and entertain. And she plays Piaf at the end of her life as something completely broken but compelled to ignore her own physical, mental, and emotional debilitation.

More than anything, there is throughout the evidence of passion. First, there is the passion of Cotillard for the role of Edith Piaf. Second, and just as important, are the twin passions of Piaf—her pursuit of her art and her own personal destruction. It helps tremendously to have Piaf herself performing the soundtrack. While I have no doubt that Cotillard can sing, very few people can sing like Edith Piaf did. I can’t admit to being a huge fan of Edith Piaf, but I recognize her particular genius and her incredible talent. The film would not be the same without her performances carrying the performances on the screen.

This is a film to see. It’s not a film to love, but it’s unquestionably a film to watch.

Why to watch La Vie en Rose: Marion Cotillard.
Why not to watch: What Edith Piaf turns into.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


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

So I’ve finally watched Eraserhead.

I’m not going to try to sum this film up or even explain it. David Lynch has gone on record as saying that all of the interpretations from critics and film viewers are wrong anyway. While that makes it tempting to try to find an explanation (and thus be the one person who actually understands the ferrets running around in Lynch’s head), I’m not nearly that smart or that brave. I’ll come right out and say it—I don’t get it. I have no damn idea what this film is about or supposed to be about or what its underlying meaning is. It is, essentially, a nightmare vision of a bleak and horrible world experienced by people buried in their own existential horror and paranoia. Oh, well, I guess that I did try to assign it a meaning after all.

Regardless, I’m not sure that Eraserhead can actually be reviewed as a film. Instead, I’d love to sit down with an art critic and have them review it, because I think that’s how it needs to be viewed. This is not a movie, despite the fact that there is some sort of narrative going on here. There is, at least, a progression of events even if I don’t understand what most of those events are or mean. The film essentially becomes its own environment, the industrial landscape, the bleak apartment of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), the world that seems devoid of life aside from the people who shuffle through it. The constant white noise is a big part of this—the noise of the machinery in this nightmare city is inescapable, and thus becomes a part of that environment that the film creates.

And it is a nightmare. The people in this film are all horribly broken, or perhaps put together wrong from the beginning. Henry’s girlfriend/wife Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has frequent unexplainable fits. Her mother (Jeanne Bates) is both accusatory to Henry and attempts to (I think) seduce him at one point. The (and yes, this is the name of the character listed) Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Roberts) appears to be the only person who isn’t physically malformed in some way, but she seems to exhibit a kind of spiritual or emotional deformity.

So let’s talk about some of the weird shit here, and no, I don’t mean “the entire fucking movie.” First, we have The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near in her only film role). She is one of the most disturbing visions in the film, with her bizarrely distended cheeks. At times, her cheeks look like the obvious prosthetics they are. At other times, the lumpy, cottage cheese-y facial structures are so disturbing that it doesn’t matter that they are obviously fake. Like virtually everything else in this film, she is nightmarish because of that physical deformity, and because it seems so at odds with the song she sings. But then again, she spends some of her time squishing things noisily, and then looking up for acceptance.

And then there’s the baby. Holy shit, the baby. The baby looks like the head of a cow fetus stuck onto a gigantic cocoon. And the thing moves, and breathes, and cries, and makes noise. I have no idea what the hell it is or how Lynch created it. But it’s horrifying.

I should also throw out a nod to Jack Nance’s hair, which really deserves its own line in the credits.

For all of this, and the fact that I finished the film with a whanging headache thanks to the constant white noise, I didn’t hate this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed watching it—I’m not sure it’s possible to actually enjoy watching Eraserhead, but I didn’t recoil from it or turn away. I had been nervous to watch this film mostly based on what I had heard about it. People made of sterner stuff than I have told me that it’s one of the only films that has truly frightened them. But I was not repelled.

I wouldn’t elect to watch Eraserhead again anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to explore it again some time and try to tease out something more from it. Nothing more than that can I say.

Why to watch Eraserhead: It’s a surreal vision.
Why not to watch: That vision is of a nightmare.

Far East Side Story

Film: Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian (A Brighter Summer Day)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

When I have time off work, as I do right now, it makes sense for me to seek out some of the really long, subtitled films that I still need to watch. And thus I spent four hours getting through (and yes, I mean it that way) Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian (A Brighter Summer Day). Watch me sum this film up in one sentence (thanks, Nick’s vlog): This film is West Side Story set in Taiwan and with less singing.

No, really.

In the early 60s, a massive influx of Mainland Chinese to Taiwan created a country that had something of an identity crisis. Specifically, a lot of the youth felt lost and displaced, and so a number of them formed or joined gangs for a sense of community and identity as well as personal protection. This film deals with a couple of these gangs; we may as well call them the Sharks and the Jets for all it really matters. They don’t like each other. They squabble.

Then one of them starts dating a girl who lives in the other neighborhood. He gets pushed around a lot. Things get serious. He pushes one of the other guys in front of a truck and continues to date the girl he likes. Eventually (and yes, this is a spoiler. I’m saving you four hours of your life here) he realizes that she will never change and will always sort of be the female equivalent of a player. So he stabs her and she dies and he goes to prison.

Oh, and there’s a lot of singing. A couple of the kids translate American pop records phonetically and sing them. One of them has an ear-piercingly high voice and tends to sing the women’s parts on many of the songs.

Yes, really. That’s pretty much it.

I know this sounds like I’m giving this film short shrift, and I really am. But, in my defense, this was a tough watch. The version I could find (internet video is always my last choice, but is sometimes the only choice) was relatively grainy, making many of the principle cast difficult to distinguish. Additionally, many of the subtitles could not be read—it’s that white text on a white background problem all over again. So, for large chunks of the film, I had to intuit what was happening as best I could.

Furthermore, most of the characters went by their nicknames, which meant that I was dealing with characters named Airplane, Underpants, Shit, Prick, Tiger, Cat, Honey, Deuce, and Sly.

Edward Yang’s style is to tell the story impersonally, which works as well as it could given the circumstances. The film is almost completely devoid of close-ups, opting instead for mid- and long shots. This gives us a sense of the characters in their environment without allowing for too much emotional involvement with them. It’s actually pretty effective for what it’s trying to do. Or, at least it would be effective if I gave a flying rat’s butt about anything going on here.

Evidently, this was based on a true story. The murder in question was the first juvenile crime of real seriousness in the new regime, which meant a lot of press and a lot of scrutiny. In the real world, the perpetrator was given the death penalty, but eventually released from prison. We can assume that the same thing happened in this film, too. I guess.

Well, they can’t all be home runs, can they?

Why to watch Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian: You like little boys with high singing voices.
Why not to watch: You can think of anything else to do with four hours of your time.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stripped Gears

Film: Hugo
Format: The Glen Theater.

Martin Scorsese loves movies. I don’t mean that he’s into them as a director and thus has a deep respect for them. I mean that Martin Scorsese is a movie geek as much or more than anyone who keeps a movie blog. If Scorsese were not a director of film, he’d be a critic, or a teacher, or a faceless blogger dutifully worshipping at the altar of cinema like so many of the rest of us. It’s one of the reasons that Scorsese movies tend to be well reviewed; he knows what movie geeks want to see, and makes references to things that movie geeks will get.

So Hugo comes as no surprise. While some maybe prone to calling this a love letter to film, it is not; it is, in fact, an explicit missive to film. It is passionate and romantic, and at least tries to be dangerous. And it succeeds at times. And the rest of the time, it is little more than a pretty picture book without a ton of substance. It’s a fluffy pastry of a film, delicious going down, but ultimately not that filling, and prone to giving the person who ingests it a touch of indigestion.

Anyway, we have a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives inside the walls at the train station in Paris (the station that is now the Musee D’Orsay, if memory serves). Hugo’s father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker killed in a fire. His uncle tended the clocks at the train station and took Hugo on when the father died, and then essentially abandoned the boy. So Hugo lives on, tending the clocks and scavenging food, ever watchful of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who loves nothing more than turning orphans in to the police.

Hugo has a secret. He is the possessor of an automaton that he is trying to fix. To do so, he steals parts from a toymaker located inside the train station. The toymaker (Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo one day, and takes the boy’s notebook. He has a strange and terrible reaction to the intricate drawings in the book, and threatens to burn it, causing a great deal of strife to Hugo. We are also introduced to the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is disturbingly precocious. She takes an immediate shine to Hugo, because there is great mystery around the boy, and she is attracted to this.

From here, the film is essentially a series of Dickensian coincidences. Isabelle’s godfather is connected to Hugo and to the automaton, and to virtually everyone else in the city of Paris by the end of the movie. And there is joy and redemption had by all by the time the curtain closes.

It’s a pretty film. I won’t fault it there. It is a truly extraordinary thing to look at on the screen. Many times, the shots look like paintings, and Scorsese is an old enough hand now that moving his camera perfectly is a matter of due course and a lot of planning. The close-up shots are radiant and beautiful, and used perfectly. I can find no fault here.

Sadly, I can find fault elsewhere. Let’s start with the running time. Hugo clocks in at a touch over two hours, but it feels like 150 minutes. This is in no small part because of the ending, which goes on and on. The film appears to end multiple times, with each ending simply summing up and resolving on of the major plot points one at a time.

However, all of this can be forgiven. So too can the fairly wooden performances. This will catch me hell from those more prone to buying the hype. But that can also be forgiven. What can’t is the fact that for a film that has all of the earmarks of a story swimming in magic and childlike wonder and magical realism,Hugo never strays far from bare, coincidence-laden reality. There are moments of magical realism here and there—the floating images from the toymaker’s trunk, for instance—but they never really go anywhere. I should have been almost overwhelmed by a sort of steampunk fantasy, but was instead placed in a world that was intricate, but nonetheless mundane.

Beyond this, there is a sense that Scorsese’s love letter to film is both too obscure and too constant for anyone but the biggest of film nerd to truly find captivating. We’re given glimpses into the world of silent films as the kids pour over a book on early film history. We see a dazzling display of clips from La Voyage Dans la Lune and a dozen others. I recognized Pandora’s Box, The Great Train Robbery, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Intolerance, The General and a few others. But anyone who is a big enough geek to spot these films would also be geek enough to know that the film that is so central to the narrative--La Voyage Dans la Lune predates almost all of these films, but is somehow encountered last in the book the kids read.

I appreciate what Scorsese is doing here. But in that theater today, I was probably the only one who had seen many of those films referenced. And based on the reaction afterwards of my extended family (we took up two rows of seats), not a single person in my group had the intention of seeking those films out, or was aware that many of them (especially La Voyage) could be found online.

Hugo tries hard to be sweet, but is ultimately misguided. So much time is spent on minor characters—a pseudo love story between railroad station regulars Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths—that the main thrust of the story gets bogged down.

Don’t get me wrong; this film will get some love come Oscar time, and people will sing its praises. But many who sing its praises won’t really know why, and many of them will do so for the wrong reasons.

Why to watch Hugo: Because it’s Scorsese.
Why not to watch: For a film that should be warm and inviting, it’s a bit cold and unwelcoming.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Film: Lawrence of Arabia
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Epic films seem to come and go in waves. Every now and then, someone makes a great long film, and suddenly that’s what everyone wants to make. For a few years, all of the great films are three hours long or more, and a lot of the shitty ones are that long, too. At least until someone makes a tightly paced and controlled film of 90 minutes to show that it can still be done. Nobody did epic like David Lean did, though. While not all of his films are eternal in length, most of his great ones are. None is so great or so long as Lawrence of Arabia.

We start at the end of T.E. Lawrence’s life in a motorcycle accident. At his funeral, it appears that opinion on the man is rather mixed. Many consider him a great man and a hero while others are of the opinion that he was little more than a self-aggrandizing show off. The bulk of the film is the most important sequence of Lawrence’s life, which goes to essentially prove both that Lawrence was a great man and a supreme egotist.

Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a member of the British military during World War I, stationed in Cairo. Rather than fighting against the Germans, he is stuck essentially nursemaiding some British allies. He is transferred to Arabia to better understand the Arabian problem from the British perspective. The Arabian tribes are battling the Turks, and have only mobility on their side. The Turks have efficient and modern weapons including artillery and aircraft, which makes the life of the Turks difficult.

Lawrence learns of the harshness of the environment, both physical and political, first hand when his initial guide is killed by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking from a well that wasn’t his. The Arabs are at this point in history a splintered people, a collection of tribes who have at best uneasy alliances with each other, and at worst practice open war. Tribesman kills tribesman for water rights, leaving the entire population essentially at the mercy of the Turks.

Lawrence sees this as the biggest problem that the Arabs face. He sets about uniting them as best he can, winning over Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and using this influence to unite Sherif Ali with Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). Lawrence leads men across the most severe and terrible desert so that his men can take the fortress town of Akaba from the land, claiming the guns there as well as the port.

And this, essentially, is the bulk of the film. Lawrence attempts to lead the Arabic people to unity and freedom, simultaneously battling the British interests in the region. His preference is for a free Arabia, a new power in the Middle East acting as a true nation of united people instead of a collection of warring tribes. In many cases, he feels he must bring this about against the will of everyone, including many of the Arab tribes.

There are a number of noteworthy things in this film. On the positive side is the incredible cinematography. This is a film that needs to be watched on a large screen, the larger the better. Much of what Lean wants to accomplish with this film is to show the severity of the landscape, so this is quite a bit of what we see. There are incredible long shots of the desert, often with a single distant rider slowly approaching. It would be easy for these shots to be boring, but they are not. Instead, they are starkly beautiful, even thrilling at times. Lean contrasts these long shots with intense close-ups of his principle actors. There’s a great juxtaposition of images here. The intensity of the interpersonal conflicts matches the intensity of the world in which these characters live.

Where I take issue with the film is in the casting. It’s nearly impossible to get too terribly upset about the actors in this film because they are all excellent, but it seems that the racism of the period has managed to filter into this film as well. Omar Sharif at least is of Arabic descent, but none of the other major Arab characters are. Guinness is pure British and Anthony Quinn is Irish-Mexican. And yet here they are playing Arab tribesmen. I find that difficult to stomach on some level.

While all of the major performances are great, it is O’Toole who makes the film, though. He plays Lawrence with true conviction. He is entirely believable as Lawrence because he believes himself to be Lawrence, and so we believe it, too.

Lawrence of Arabia is not a film to watch lightly. With the fill musical sections included, the film runs close to four hours long, making it a significant undertaking. This is not to discourage anyone from sitting down and taking this film in. It is a brilliant film from start to finish and entirely engaging. If nothing else, it is a brilliant example of a story in which the hero gets everything he desires and nothing at all at the same time. Lawrence is ultimately a tragic figure, but tragic through the faults of others and not his own.

Just make a lot of popcorn for this one, and plan your bathroom breaks carefully. You’ll need them.

Why to watch Lawrence of Arabia: Epic filmmaking at its greatest and most epic.
Why not to watch: I still don’t understand the casting.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Nod to the 1%

As I did last year, I'm going to nominate some films that should be on The List but that have been somehow overlooked. While I may well dip into personal favorite territory here, I'm going to try to stick with truly great films--films that are objectively great or important, or worth watching for a significant reason.

I will limit myself to 10 films, or roughly 1% of a given volume. I don't want to get greedy. As I did last year, I kept a running list of films that are strangely absent, and have decided on 10 that I think should make it on somehow. The following films are presented in no order, other than the order in which they came to me.

10 movies that should be added to the 1001 Movies list

1. Inherit the Wind:
A great adaptation of what has proven to be an important piece of trial precedent in American history. This is a film that is still extremely relevant, and features great performances by all of the principle players. Run out and see this if you haven't already.

2. Roxanne: No film better proves that romantic comedies can be both truly romantic and truly funny. A stellar performance from Steve Martin helps sell it, and basing the tale on Cyrano de Bergerac seals the deal.

3. Stop Making Sense: The quintessential post-modern concert film. David Byrne in all his weird glory, a special appearance from The Tom Tom Club, and some funky-ass music.

4. Office Space: This film resonates with anyone who has ever worked a thankless, meaningless, mundane job. Or anyone who has worked in food service. Or anyone with a terrible boss. In other words, pretty much anyone older than 18. Oh, and it's drop-dead funny.

5. Kung Fu Hustle: Stephen Chow's best film is also his most accessible, his most entertaining, and his most frenetic. It's like Bugs Bunny snorted Vincent Vega.

6. Any film from the Harry Potter franchise: The Potterphiles can fight and argue about which one is the best, and I'd be happy to suggest Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2 included as a single film. There are few cultural touchstones in the modern world as important as Harry Potter. That should be enough, but the film series deserves some love on its own merits.

7. The Nightmare Before Christmas: The only knock against this film is determining whether it's a Halloween film or a Christmas film. It's sort of both. It's also charming and fun, and just a touch scary for the little ones.

8. The Fugitive: If there's ever been an argument that television shows could successfully translate to the big screen, it's this rollicking action/suspense film. It's a great role for Harrison Ford and a break-out role for Tommy Lee Jones. Plus, the story is fantastic, and the camaraderie of the U.S. Marshals is surprisingly entertaining.

9. The Warriors: Somewhere between West Side Story and Boyz N the Hood came this nightmare, psychedelic vision of street gang life in New York City. Loosely based on an ancient Greek tale, the story of young criminals trying to get home when the entire city wants them dead is fun, has some great action sequences, and some of the most easily identifiable moments of the last 50 years.

10. Anything from William Castle: Castle was the master of goofy promotions, having moviegoers sign waivers against death from fright, for instance. One of his camp horror classics should be here, because there was no one quite like Castle. I'd go with The House on Haunted Hill, but the original 13 Ghosts or The Tingler would work, too.

And would you believe I've still got half a dozen for next year?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!

Films: It’s a Wonderful Life; A Christmas Story
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television

Y’know what? I’m not going to talk much about the plots of either of these films. I’m just going to talk about how much I love them and why you should love them. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, you should stop reading this and go watch them. Now. I’ll still be here when you’re done.

So, It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart) and his small town of Bedford Falls. For the bulk of the film, we discover that George Bailey’s life is all about giving of himself to others and making everyone around him happy while getting nothing that he really wants for himself. And then it all goes to hell because of Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) can barely remember to keep his pants zipped, let alone what he’s done with $8,000. And naturally there is the evil, twisted Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) there to oversee the rapid demise of Bailey.

All in all, this should be a tragic and depressing film except for the intercession of wingless angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who comes to put George right and show him the true meaning and value of his life. The world without George Bailey, or at least the world of Potterville (nee Bedford Falls) is a gray and terrible place. There’s no Harry Bailey (Todd Karns), no houses for the masses of townspeople, George’s wife Mary (Donna Reed) turns into a spinster librarian (which is an unfortunate slam on librarians, dammit). And so we learn that George’s life is actually pretty good, despite the fact that he may end up in jail after all. But, this is a Capra film, so that’s not going to happen.

It’s a sweet movie. It still, 60+ years after its creation, manages to pull all the right strings, and no matter how many times I have seen it (and that number is pretty high), it still works exactly the same way every time. Every single time, I fall for it. It’s sappy and silly, and filled to the brim with saccharine sentimentality, and it never fails to entertain me or make me feel good. In many ways, it’s not really Christmas until I see this film.

What I like very much here, aside from the great performances all around, is that George Bailey is depicted as a real person. Sure, he’s a good guy. He’s the sort of guy we’d all like to know, and the sort of person we tell ourselves that we are, even when we know we’re not. But in the second hour of the film, George shows a real darkness that is necessary to the film. His world, the only world he has had and the world that he has spent his entire life trying to maintain, is suddenly shattered, and the wheels come off quickly and hard.

I like that. It doesn’t mean anything if George’s problems are cute or silly, or don’t have real consequences. He needs this dark midnight of the soul to bring him through to the other side.

And yes, like a sap, I go right along with him every time.

The basic story of It’s a Wonderful Life has been done and redone, imagined and reimagined time and time again, much like A Christmas Carol. There’s no need for this. The original film is still as good a holiday movie as you could ever hope to encounter. James Stewart is a great everyman because he seems so natural in that role. That, more than anything, sells the film. If we can’t relate to George Bailey, if we don’t sympathize with him completely and feel for the problems he is having and truly understand them, we don’t for a second buy into the film.

There are people who don’t like this movie. I feel badly for them. It must be difficult to walk through life emotionally petrified.

A Christmas Story takes place in essentially the same era as It’s a Wonderful Life, but the perspective is entirely different. This time, the film comes from the point of view of Ralphie (Peter Billingsly), who wants nothing more in the world than an official Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action range model air rifle. Unfortunately, standing in his way is his mother, his teacher, and even the Santa Claus at Higbee’s Department Store, all of whom tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out.

While this is the throughline of the film, in reality, A Christmas Story is really about being a kid at Christmas, about wanting something so desperately, as only a kid can want something. It’s about mom and dad being mom and dad, about memories and little brothers, and bullies, and getting in trouble. It’s about all of that, and a hell of a lot more.

The Christmas that is at the center of this film is arguably the most magical Hollywood Christmas in history. There’s no real magic, of course, but there is an incredible confluence of events leading up to the holiday that makes it incredibly memorable. It seems that every day brings something new, and for us, the viewers, that something new is almost always hysterical.

The film is aided greatly by a tremendous performance from Darren McGavin as Ralphie’s father. His performance is broadly comic and constantly entertaining. He’s long suffering, angry, and funny as hell. Equally long suffering is Melinda Dillon as the mother, who deals with everything the Old Man does, and still never gets to eat a hot meal.

Y’know what? Enough. A Christmas Story doesn’t need to have a plot, and it doesn’t really have much of one. It doesn’t matter. Who cares? This film is funny. It’s really funny. Every time I watch this film, I think throughout it that each scene is my favorite, only to forget what hasn’t happened yet. Just watching it tonight, I forgot, for instance, that the scene in which Ralphie and his brother Randy visit Santa comes really late in the film, and the fight against school bully Scut Farkas (Zack Ward) actually comes relatively early, or at least not at the end as I always remember it.

I love this film. It makes me happy. If it doesn’t make you happy, I feel bad for you. As with It’s a Wonderful Life, I’m sure there are people who don’t like this film, but I don’t want to spend any time talking to them. That, and I don’t know a single one of them.

So, go out and win yourself a major award. Stick your tongue to a flagpole. Sit on Santa’s lap and ask for a football. Write a theme about a bb gun with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time. Get Chinese turkey for dinner.

Go watch this film. And enjoy your holidays, folks.

Why to watch It’s a Wonderful Life: It’s the most classic Christmas film imaginable.
Why not to watch: You’re soulless.

Why to watch A Christmas Story: Because it’s the funniest Christmas film imaginable.
Why not to watch: Bob Clark’s career after directing this.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Breakin' the Law

Film: The Defiant Ones
Format: DVD from Seneca Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Months ago when Scott Knopf of the Frankly My Dear Podcast was Nick’s and my guest on The Demented Podcast, we talked in part about the film Shaft. Scott mentioned a list of films that he considered essential for understanding race in film, and specifically the African American experience in film. One of the films he mentioned was The Defiant Ones, one of Stanley Kramer’s films investigating racial politics before and around the Civil Rights era.

He’s right. With this film, we start to see a progression in the roles that black actors were able to take. In many ways, Sidney Poitier is the black man that middle America could handle at the time. He was part of a prison chain gang, but arrested and convicted unjustly, for a crime that no white man would have been accused of, let alone sentenced for. He reinforces the stereotype while at the same time being the safest version of an African American that many whites would accept.

Regardless, this is a gripping film. Heading back to prison in a chain gang truck, prisoners John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Poitier) are chained together, mostly at the behest of the warden, who knows the two hate each other. There is an accident, and the two are sprung free and head off into the backwoods in an attempt to escape. The two encounter a variety of problems, some because they are chained at the wrist and some because of their own racial division, and eventually bond over their difficulties.

It’s an old formula, in many ways started here first. Two guys who hate each other are bound together in some way, either literally or figuratively, and discover that a mutual respect and even friendship has developed. The events of the film, here involving a difficult climb out of a clay pit, a near lynching at the hands of an angry mob, and an eventual betrayal at the hands of someone they meet on the way, serve as a method to create the metaphorical bond between the men by the end of the running time. It’s every buddy cop film ever made, but this time with the buddies as escaped cons.

Films like The Fugitive borrow a lot from this one, too. We see this most in the time we spend with the authorities looking to catch our two escaped cons. In their own way, these two, Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller and Charles McGraw as Captain Frank Gibbons are experiencing their own buddy film, although the two of them never end up seeing eye to eye on anything. Throw in jazz music loving dog handler Solly (King Donovan), and you have two groups constantly at odds not only with each other, but internally as well. This is what makes the film work.

In addition to the folks already listed, we get a short but meaningful performance from Claude Akins as a man bent on lynching our two fugitives and Lon Chaney Jr. as a man bent on saving them from that lynching. Cara Williams shows up as a lonely woman looking for a little bit more than some companionship when the two fugitives show up on her doorstep, and she plays the role with a real sense of desperation that is perhaps a little unbelievable, but makes up for this in its essential creepiness.

Films like The Defiant Ones are important. These are films that need to be kept alive and talked about and studied. People need to not simply view this film, but really examine it, really look at the relationships that are depicted here and how they are shown. Hollywood, and indeed American society, has advanced in many ways since the late 1950s, but we aren’t all the way to where we need to be. The Defiant Ones, though, is one of the starting points. The Civil Rights Movement still would have happened without this film, but it certainly didn’t hurt for America to see a wrongly accused black man continually treated unfairly by the unthinking and racist folk of the film.

Despite the fact that this was filmed in the late 1950s, there is a distinctive noir feel to the film. I probably wouldn’t classify it specifically as a noir, but it does contain a lot of the same elements. I looked around to see if anyone else has classified the film that way, and evidently, when it comes at least to bloggers, I am alone. But I stand by that judgment. In terms of character, plot, tone, and especially pessimistic worldview, this belongs at least with neo-noirs or pseudo-noirs in some sort of pantheon. There’s a moral ambiguity here that fits in well with films like Double Indemnity.

It’s worth noting that director Stanley Kramer had quite the track record of films like this. In addition to The Defiant Ones he also directed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremburg, and Inherit the Wind as well as a film about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Kramer should be better known and more respected than he is.

Why to watch The Defiant Ones: The beginning of race relations in film.
Why not to watch: If you have a “no old movies” hangup, you’ll never watch it anyway.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Apocalypse in 9/8

Film: The Quiet Earth
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films. There’s something very human about people suddenly thrust into a world made dangerous by the machines left behind by the dead, struggling to complete the most basic of tasks because everything has broken down. Post-apocalyptic films tend to gravitate toward the idea of humanity struggling with its baser instincts in the struggle for survival. In the worst of times, both the best and the worst in people are brought out.

The Quiet Earth, on the other hand, plays much more like an episode of The Twilight Zone. New Zealand scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakens one morning to find that he is the only person left on the planet. In fact, he appears to be virtually the only living thing that isn’t a plant. There are no bodies, no traces of anyone, although there are signs that the people simply vanished—a half-eaten breakfast, a still bubbling coffee pot, and most ominously, a crashed airliner with no carnage in the wreckage, all of the seats found with the seatbelts still locked in place around…nothing.

Zac does exactly what we would expect him to do. He makes a short tape and loops it, broadcasting it on a local radio station. He moves into a large, swanky house. And then he starts to go slightly mad, declaring himself the president of the world, and shortly thereafter, the new God. On the brink of suicide, Zac relents, and attempts to live as normal a life as he can. And eventually, he is rewarded with human contact in the form of Joanne (Alison Routledge), and eventually, Api (Peter Smith).

As the film progresses, we learn at least a theory of what might have happened. Zac had been working on a project to create a global power grid, and it went live the morning of what he calls
“The Event.” It is his belief that the turning on of the grid made a huge shift in the fabric of the universe. Significantly, he, Joanne, and Api were all on the brink of death when The Event occurred, and this may be the reason why they still exist. Significantly, though, it appears that The Event is going to occur again and must be stopped if the three are going to go on living.

The best part of this film is the opening 30-40 minutes. It is here that we encounter Zac and the new world in which he lives. His quick descent into insanity is incredibly compelling. It starts out simply enough, graduates quickly into fantasies in which he plays every role, and ends with him walking around the deserted New Zealand cityscape in a bloodied and torn slip, causing destruction. At one point, he creates a tableaux of cardboard cutouts of world leaders—Hitler, Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon—and addresses them from a balcony, declaring himself the president of the world. This is accompanied by a series of reel-to-reel tape recorders that he uses to cheer for himself on cue. This rapid decline is fascinating, and ends far too soon.

Strangely, it is the arrival of Joanne where the film starts to turn a bit, heading further into its decline with the arrival of Api. I don’t want to give the wrong impression—the film is still very good, and I think the arrival of these other characters is necessary for any sort of resolution here, but the film simply isn’t as good or as entertaining, Alison Routledge’s shapely bare ass notwithstanding.

Another downpoint of the film is the special effects. While a few of them are interesting and are a minor, rudimentary precursor to the hotel scene in Inception, many are simply dull, simple camera tricks and superimpositions that do nothing to help tell the story or sell the fact that the world is ending. A bigger budget here would have been well-spent, and would go a long way. In fact, I don’t feel at all strange in saying that the story is good enough to have warranted that sort of attention.

And it is a good story, albeit a very slow one. More than anything, it is the characters that sell this story. With so few actual people walking around and not much in the way of actual conflict aside from insanity and loneliness for the first hour or so, the characters absolutely must be compelling and interesting for us to continue watching. Fortunately, that is the case here. Bruno Lawrence is stellar throughout. One reason that I may have started to fade in the second half is that Routledge and Peter Smith, while decent in general, don’t have the acting chops to really pull this off as the story requires.

I don’t push for remakes that often, but this film warrants one. It deserves a meatier budget for the small number of effects it needs, and it could use some bigger names to draw in the audience. If the story was held to, I’d go see it in the theater, because the story is worth seeing, and deserves a chance at a wider audience.

I liked this film despite its flaws. Story wins out over the trappings, after all.

Why to watch The Quiet Earth: An oddly compelling view of the apocalypse.
Why not to watch: Even the best of its special effects are pretty…old Doctor Who.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gordon Gecko was Wrong

Film: Greed
Format: Internet video on laptop.

The first cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed was nine and a half hours long. Roll that around in your head for a minute. If you assume a 15 minute intermission every two hours, you could start watching it just after breakfast and finish just after dinner. I can’t for the life of me understand why someone would make a film that long, and I’ve watched all three of the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings in the same 24 hour period.

Naturally, the released version was considerably shorter, coming in at about 140 minutes. Naturally, von Stroheim had a conniption, claiming that the studio had butchered his heartfelt work needlessly. And so, multiple versions of the film have flitted around, with the 140 minute version being (for some time) the most common and the most maligned. A few years ago, a “restored” version showed up using stills and similar shots to replace some of what was lost. This version clocks in at about four hours.

All of this leaves us, the viewers, with something of a quandary. The four hour version by all rights is greatly superior to the butchered version. But, watching what amounts to an hour and forty minutes of still pictures is not unlike sitting through watching someone’s vacation photography. Suffice it to say that things are much easier on the eyes and the brain when there’s movement on the screen.

Anyway. As the title of the film indicates, the plot here is all about greed in its many and various forms. A guy named McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is apprenticed to a dentist, sorta. He’s apprenticed at least to a guy who claims to be a dentist. And he takes to the work. Eventually, he goes off on his own and sets up a practice in San Francisco. It’s here that he meets Marcus (Jean Hersholt), and the two become friends. This lasts only until Marcus’s cousin Trina (the awesomely named Zasu Pitts) arrives, and the two men fight for her affection.

McTeague comes out on top of that battle, and Marcus is a good sport up until the moment that Trina wins $5,000 in a lottery. At that moment, Marcus decides that he shouldn’t have given up on wanting to marry Trina. But all is not well. Trina, it turns out, is a complete miser, and she refuses to do anything with her money except horde it. McTeague eventually loses his dental practice because of Marcus’s machinations, but still Trina will not allow them to use “her” money to survive, and McTeague is forced into work as a laborer and the two live in poverty.

And then the trouble really starts. McTeague leaves, but eventually decides that he wants that money, and decides to kill his wife and inherit her wealth. This will concern us for quite some time with this film.

This is hardly a new story, of course. It’s a classic tragedy in which everyone has the same tragic flaw—a desperate love of money. The support characters suffer from the same basic problem, too. Throughout, characters make decisions based strictly on wealth and the desire for wealth, often choosing the specifically wrong thing because it offers a chance at cash. There’s nothing wrong with telling a simple story or telling an old story. It’s just that this particular story doesn’t require four hours to tell it, let alone von Stroheim’s original mindboggling 9 ½ hours.

There are some other things here that irritate me beyond the length, much of which could have and should have been cut. For instance, a great deal of the intertitles are written in dialect, which is painful to get through. Trina’s parents, for instance, are Old World German, so we get dialogue like, “…pe vairy goot to her…von’t you?” I don’t see that that enhances the story in any way. It makes me pause and try to interpret, and I don’t want to have to do that. I just want to watch the damn story.

The shame of it is that Greed could well be a fascinating story. There’s a certain level of strange, goggle-eyed fascination that comes with people who have the resources to do anything they’d like but are unable to spend a dime without purpose. Trina at the very least should be someone we want to know more about. The film goes there at times, showing her polishing her money and admiring it, for instance, but the long running time doesn’t offer nearly enough to satisfy, instead dealing with subplots of other people torn apart by the insane desire for cash.

It occurs to me after spending multiple hours watching von Stroheim’s directorial work on the screen that he was very much enamored of the idea of his own artistic vision, and damn the cost. But it also seems that his concern was with his own image as a director, and damn the cost of that even more. Greed gets part of the way there, but seems to be sunk under the weight of its director's enormous ego.

Why to watch Greed: The height of von Stroheim’s skill as a director.
Why not to watch: At less than half its original length, it’s still way too long.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Secrets and Shame

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

Atonement is a film of two halves. In the first half, we learn all that we need to learn about the principal characters with a couple of exceptions. In the second half, we get the payoff of everything in the first half, then get a fantasy ending and a real ending. It’s no coincidence that the first half of this film is excellent, dramatic, and great and that the second half has a tendency to drag.

As seems the case with many a film set in Britain, all of the early action takes place on one of those giant estates with five servants for every person living there. We are introduced to Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious 13-year-old who spends a lot of her time writing. In this case, she has written a play to be performed at a party that evening. The parts of the play are to be performed by Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her two brothers, but the kids quickly lose interest.

Briony doesn’t push this because she’s too busy eavesdropping on her sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightley), who appears to be all but humping the son of the housekeeper, Robbie (James McAvoy). This is a problem for the precocious Briony, because she has one hell of a crush on the good looking lad, despite the fact that he undoubtedly looks upon her as a little girl. We also see the same scene Briony does from a different perspective, and while there’s some sexual tension between Cecelia and Robbie, they’re far from having a tender moment.

Also appearing is the brother of Cecelia and Briony, Leon (Patrick Kennedy) and Leon’s friend Paul Marshall (the awesomely named Benedict Cumberbatch), heir to a large candy fortune. It’s evident that Paul is something of a horndog and is mildly attracted to Cecelia, but is evidently saving the best of his loving for Lola.

Anyway, as it turns out, there is something between Cecelia and Robbie, and Briony walks in on them consummating their relationship, which convinces Briony that Robbie is a dangerous sex maniac. When Lola is ravaged that night, Briony tells everyone that it was Robbie. Since he is the son of one of the servants, the lie is believed, and Robbie shipped off to prison, which causes a rift in the family. Cecelia leaves. Robbie is let out of prison in exchange for his joining the Army at the start of World War II.

So the rest of the film is essentially what becomes of the lie and what happens with Briony, Cecelia, Robbie, Paul, and Lola in the ensuing half dozen years or so. Naturally, this is necessary for the telling of the story. The problem is that it simply isn’t as interesting as what comes before. Briony is a far more interesting character as a child than she is as a teen (played by Romola Garai) or as an older woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave).

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of impressive work here. There is. The long take on the beach at Dunkirk, for instance, is a masterpiece of camera movement, timing, and coordination. This is a fantastic sequence because of its complexity and because it seems so completely natural. It’s difficult to make something that complicated and big look that seamless and easy, and this sequence can and will be studied for a long time.

And yet, all that really happens in the scenes in France are that Robbie and his compatriots wander around in retreat, reach Dunkirk, and wait. Robbie goes a bit mental for awhile and we deal with that. Interspersed are scenes of Briony working at a hospital and not doing it very well, almost as if she is trying to pay penance for what she did to Robbie several years before. In fact, it’s not “almost” as if she is doing that—it’s precisely what she is doing. But again, it’s simply not that interesting.

Sure, the conclusion is great. The last 10 minutes or so of the film are pitch perfect. The 50 minutes leading up to that ending, though, simply drag.

Atonement is nonetheless a seminal film for several reasons. It’s a great coming out party for Saoirse Ronan for one thing. It also marks a moment for Keira Knightley to grow up on film, and it’s one of the first films I’ve seen her in that I found appropriate for her. Okay, I liked the first Pirates film, too. But really, she’s a sort of non-entity in my book until this film, which proved that she could handle a role with real dramatic range. And James McAvoy is generally good in most things he touches, and he’s just as strong here.

If only it were more interesting!

Why to watch Atonement: The first half.
Why not to watch: The second half.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Stan 'n' Ollie

Film: Sons of the Desert
Format: DVD from Fountaindale Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Most great comedic duos, at least the classic ones, work on the premise that one of the pair is the straight man and the other provides the bulk of the comedy. Dean Martin played the foil for Jerry Lewis, Tommy Smothers was the goofy part of the Smothers Brothers, and Lou Costello got far and away more laughs than did Bud Abbott. Laurel and Hardy worked much the same way, with Hardy as straight man. But Laurel and Hardy worked as well as they did because Hardy’s character was as much of an idiot as Laurel’s.

Sons of the Desert is a pretty straightforward story. Laurel and Hardy are members of a fraternal organization of the film’s title. The group has a convention coming up in Chicago, and both Stan and Ollie (they use their actual names here) take an oath that they will be there. The problem is that neither one wears the pants around home, and Ollie has already committed to taking his wife to the mountains at the same time.

So they create an elaborate ruse. Ollie pretends to be undergoing a nervous collapse, and Stanley hires a doctor (actually a veterinarian) to prescribe a long ocean voyage to Honolulu. Since Ollie’s wife Lottie (Mae Busch) hates the ocean, Stanley agrees to accompany him. Naturally, the two go to the convention instead, where they have a splendid time despite almost being caught at one point. But then the ship they are allegedly on sinks, and suddenly they don’t have a believable reason to not be on the boat, and thus are both going to incur the wrath of their respective wives. And, of course, everything the pair does sinks them further into hot water. It even causes a rift between Lottie Hardy and Betty Laurel (Dorothy Christie), since each is convinced that the other’s husband is at fault.

Like many early comedies, the film is concerned with its plot for only about half of its short (just over an hour) running time. It would have made a pretty dandy short film, matter of fact. The rest of the time is spent on sight gags, slapstick, Laurel muffing difficult words, and Hardy’s exasperation with his dimwitted compatriot. This is not a complaint or a problem. After all, the slapstick is what we pay our admission to see.

And it is funny. I image that in the 1930s, this was funny like few other things are funny. Today, it’s a little more difficult to get an audience to laugh with simple sight gags because we’ve seen all of these sight gags before. It’s important to remember, though, that we’ve seen them because other people have copied them. Watching a guy hit his head on a low beam is a standard comedy trope. Does the fact that it appears in this film multiple times in a row detract from the film? It’s easy to say yes. But many of these gags originated with Stan and Ollie. What we see in a film like Sons of the Desert is not old, hackneyed comedy bits, but those bits in their original, pristine state.

Laurel and Hardy are a comedic pair that has been copied time and time again. After all, what are Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton but these two characters reborn? What are Fred and Barney but a cartoon duplication of the same? The Skipper and Gilligan? Pair an angry fat guy with a dumb skinny (or little) guy, and you’re looking at an homage to these masters, intentionally or otherwise.

So it’s right and fitting that the pair should have at least one film on the countdown, and Sons of the Desert is a fine one. I haven’t seen a vast amount of Laurel and Hardy, so I can’t say that this is the best representative of their body of work, but it certainly isn’t a bad one. If there other films are as consistently funny and clever in their stupidity, there’s a reason that the duo remains as a sort of cultural comedic touchstone.

Sure, it’s not perfect. There are continuity problems throughout, generally involving someone getting soaked in one scene and being perfectly dry the next. So what? There’s plenty of overacting and goofy doubletakes and mugs to the camera. And? It’s funny. If you’re putting a Laurel and Hardy movie in the spinner, you shouldn’t need internal consistency or a driving narrative to keep you watching. It’s funny. You don’t need it to be anything more than that.

Why to watch Sons of the Desert: Because it’s funny. Why else?
Why not to watch: If you don’t like comedic overacting and over-reacting, Laurel and Hardy won’t do it for you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mongol Horde

Film: Potomok Chingis-Khana (Storm Over Asia)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

To me, there is something particularly Soviet about silent film, particularly silent epics like Potomok Chingis-Khana. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of all silent epics in my mind, not merely those that are actually Russian. These’s something about the behind-the-times feel of silent films that strike me as being like a lower end version of Hollywood that they feel sort of like Soviet attempts to mimic the West and simultaneously demonize it.

A young Mongolian trapper (Valery Inkijinoff) is entrusted by his father with a rare and valuable silver fox pelt. As the son is going to marker, he is entrusted with the pelt and told specifically not to take less than 500 marks for it. Sadly, the evil British capitalists cheat him out of his prize. A fight ensues and the young man is forced into the hills where he joins the Soviet partisans. All is well for a bit. A new Lama is discovered and crowned. Oddly, the British Army appears to be occupying Mongolia at this point.

But things change. Our hero is captured by the British, and it is discovered that he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. This inspires his captors to place him in charge of a puppet government, giving the local populace the semblance of being governed by one of their own (and one with a significant lineage), but in reality still being controlled by a foreign government. And this works well for a little bit until the newly crowned “ruler” decides to rebel, since his heart is with the glorious Soviet revolution.

Okay, so it’s a propaganda film. It’s mildly amusing to me that the bad guys here are the British, who were never anywhere in Mongolia, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the glorious Soviet state was doing to these peasants the very thing they accuse the British of doing. This, of course is not surprising. The art of propaganda is convincing the populace that your enemies are doing precisely the despicable acts that you are currently engaged in yourself. But it is pretty amusing that the Brits got tagged for this. Or maybe not—Hollywood seems to like British guys as the villainous foil quite often.

There’s a lot going on here that doesn’t deal directly with the plot. For instance, there’s a huge build-up to the new Lama, and I suppose it’s funny that after all of the noise and confusion and pomp that the Lama is a little kid. But really, it’s a long way to go for a fairly minor joke. In fact, the entire section with the Lama is simply to force the British to go rustle some cattle and thereby encounter, wound, and capture the hero of the film. It’s far too long of a sequence for its purpose, and the payoff isn’t close to worth it.

My guess is that this is a function of the version I got. The Book lists this as a film just a touch over 90 minutes, while the version I watched is a good half hour more than this; my guess is that this extended middle section is a big part of what was added back in, and it’s not a very good addition. It makes the film drag, and the brutal soundtrack that accompanies much of this is better left unmentioned. It’s essentially the equivalent of giving two dozen kindergarteners some pots, pans, wooden spoons, and a couple of vuvuzelas and letting them go to town.

These two things are my biggest issue with this film. The first seems like a bad decision by someone deciding that adding in any cut footage could only improve the film, and missing the mark on that badly. The second is a decision by whomever created this version of the film, and that was equally a misfire.

The rest of this is pretty interesting, and it’s also beautifully filmed. Pudovkin does some interesting things with the camera and uses some innovative (for the time) camera tricks to heighten the action and in some cases add a surreal edge to it.

All in all, this is a great example of the montage style of filmmaking and a worthy addition to the pantheon of silent classics. But be warned that you’ll want the sound down for part of it due to the cacophonous “music.” And if there’s an option to pick the long version or the short one, go with the short one; you’ll be a lot happier in the end.

As a final note, a big deal is made of the fact that our hero is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Evidently, this isn't that remarkable of a feat. According to the Smithsonian, one person in every 200 in the modern world is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. So really, they could have gone through with their plan to shoot this guy and just found another one.

Why to watch Potomok Chingis-Khana: Soviet montage style on a Mongol horde scale.
Why not to watch: It’s roughly as historically accurate as the Twilight series.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Revenge Served Basted with Shallots and Chanterelles

Film: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes after I watch a film like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, I head over to IMDB and look at the parents’ guide just to see what it says. All I knew going into this one was that it started life with an X rating, which was eventually changed to the functionally equivalent NC-17. Oh, and I guess I knew that Helen Mirren is in it along with Michael Gambon, who is better known these days as the guy who took over for Dumbledore.

Anyway, I’m going to jump right into this one with both feet, and while there are a number of people in this film, I’m going to focus on the four in the title. We have a cook named Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer), who is renowned as a great chef and runs a very fancy restaurant. His partner in the restaurant is the thief, Albert Spica (Gambon), who is an absolute pig of a human being. In many ways, he is the most distasteful character I have ever seen in a film. He is loud, stupid, arrogant, mean, violent, and acts like a spoiled child. He is abusive of everyone around him, his wife Georgina (Mirren) in particular. And then there is the quiet, shy bookseller named Michael (Alan Howard). He eats in the restaurant pretty much every night.

Albert is such a complete bastard that Georgina spends a lot of time away from him, or at least as much as she can get away with. During one of her trips to the bathroom, she encounters Michael, and the two of them immediately begin having an affair. Their affair consists of trysts in the bathroom and in the kitchen with the full knowledge and observation of the kitchen staff. There’s plenty of full frontal here of both actors, and the sex is quick and almost ravenous—ravenous because of the passion and quick because it occurs in moments when Georgina is supposed to be using the bathroom.

Regardless, eventually the couple is found out and Albert goes into a rage. The two lovers are secreted out of the restaurant in an extremely disgusting manner and take up residence in the bookseller’s shop. The rest of the film is all about Albert finding out where they are, enacting his revenge, and then Georgina turning the tables on him. Go go gadget spoiler!


So Albert discovers that food is being taken to the pair by the restaurant, particularly by a young boy called Pup (Paul Russell) who washes dishes in the kitchen and sings liturgical music. Albert captures the boy and tortures him, sending him to the hospital, but discovers the location of the lovers because of the address printed on the inside of one of the books the boy borrows. Georgina goes to visit the boy in the hospital, and while this happens, Albert and his goons move in and kill Michael by force feeding him one of his books.

Eventually, Georgina returns and finds the destruction. She convinces the cook to, well, practice his craft on the body of Michael. He does—he cooks the body. The whole body. This is then served to Albert, who is forced to begin eating it. When he does, Georgina shoots him in the head, and the film ends.


This is a brutal film. The sex is particularly unsexy regardless of the shapeliness of Helen Mirren’s circa 1989 backside. In any other movie, the sex and nudity would be the centerpiece of the film, but here, it takes a back seat to virtually everything else. The sex is not the extreme behavior here—instead, it is Albert’s behavior that is consistently and constantly shocking because of its extreme vulgarity. A great deal is unexplained, or at least not understood by me. I don’t know why the boy sings constantly, except perhaps as a counterpoint to the vulgarity. I don’t know why there’s a guy in the kitchen who appears to wear nothing but an apron. I don't know why the kitchen is the size of a warehouse with tables spread about it. The stress on vulgarity does explain why a man is coated in dog feces and then urinated on in the first five minutes, and it explains why Albert forces the kitchen boy to watch him rape Georgina. It explains Albert’s dinner conversation and dinner companions (who include Tim Roth), too.

The art direction on this film is worth noting. Each of the parts of the restaurant is of a different predominant color. The exterior is blue, the kitchen is green, the restaurant itself red, and the bathroom is white. Characters have their costumes change all or in part as they move from one place to the next. Georgina gets up from the table wearing a red dress and appears in the bathroom in a white one. Her clothes were evidently made by Gaultier, and they are quite fashionable. Each of the sets is pretty amazing—the film looks very much like a painting.

I have heard that this film is a metaphor for the Thatcher administration. The cook evidently represents the long-suffering loyal British citizenry. The thief is Thatcher herself, conferring her attention and favors on the wealthy without regard to the rest of the country (or the patrons in the restaurant). The wife is Britain herself, raped and abused by the vicious and cruel master. And the lover represents the British liberal elite, romanced by the spirit of the country and eventually crushed by, as Rik from The Young Ones used to say, the “fascist Thatcheristic junta.”

It works as a metaphor. And it has to. The events on the screen are so repugnant that the only way to bear it is by seeing it as a metaphor for something. This is an uncompromising film and difficult to watch, but very much worth seeing, if only for the amazing visual appeal.

Why to watch The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: It’s art directed out the ass.
Why not to watch: It takes mincing baby steps toward Salo territory.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Demented Tower

Film: Die Hard
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Christmas season is well and truly upon us, and when it comes to holiday films, there are plenty that I enjoy. Die Hard is one of them. It’s not really a Christmas film except that it takes place during a Christmas party. It could just as easily take place at any time of the year, but since it’s the end of the year, well, here we are.

Die Hard is a simple film that takes its basic idea to an extreme, and does it about as well as it’s ever been done. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles. His wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), has gone back to her maiden name. She has a fantastic career as a top executive in a Japanese company, which might make the more perceptive and cynical viewer wonder why Mcclane is still working as a cop at all. Regardless, this is a step toward reconciliation between the couple—she has invited him out to her company’s Christmas party.

Once he arrives at the building, we get the meeting between the couple we expect. We are also introduced to company boss Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta) and international sales guy and all-around sleazebag Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner). And then the fun starts. A whole bunch of apparent terrorists show up at the building, hold everyone hostage, kill Takagi, and otherwise raise hell. However, when they show up, McClane is elsewhere, and thus he becomes the fly in the ointment for the bad guys, running around the building creating his own brand of chaos and doing anything he can to keep the hostages alive and screw up the plans of the bad guys.

That’s really it. Lots of explosions, lots of gunfire, a few crazy stunts, and an ending. There are a few other key roles not mentioned at this point—former beat cop-turned-desk jockey Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) shows up and acts as McClane’s advocate for much of the film and is responsible for calling in the cavalry. The bad guys are headed by a guy named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in one of his great roles), who is slick, suave, charming, and contemptible. We also encounter a television reporter named Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) who has delusions of grandeur and a very high opinion of himself. But really, this film is all about Bruch Willis kicking ass and not even bothering to take names.

I don’t really know why Die Hard works as well as it does except for the fact that it is, for lack of a better way to put it, completely balls-out at all times. What McClane goes through is extreme, his reaction is extreme, and the explosions are extreme. And it is awesome. There is no other word for it. It’s entirely possible that I call it awesome (I and virtually everyone else I know, mind you) because we were around in 1988 when this film was first released, but there is a reason that Die Hard is considered one of the great action films of…ever.

Bruce Willis is a big part of the reason for this. He takes a massive beating in this film and ends up slicked over with his own blood by the end of the film. He also makes a ton of wisecracks through the film, which is one of the reasons he makes such a great action hero. The other reason this film works as well as it does is thanks to Alan Rickman. Rickman is virtually always entertaining in any role, and Hans Gruber is a meaty role that he really sinks his teeth into. Hans Gruber is one of the great film villains not just because he is a suave bastard but also because just like McClane, he has a bunch of great lines, and Rickman delivers them with decided relish.

All of this adds up to a film that is riotously entertaining. There’s not a frame of this film that isn’t fun to watch. Further, this is a film that is fun on a second, third, (or as it was for me today) tenth or twentieth viewing. If you haven’t seen this, go see it now. And watch at least the first sequel which is crazier, harder to believe, and almost as much fun.

Why to watch Die Hard: Because it kicks ass.
Why not to watch: Eventually, this series dips into PG-13 and starts to suck.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Turkey Trot

Film: Yol (The Way; The Road)
Format: VHS from Blackhawk College Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

I know very little about the modern state of Turkey. I know that they’ve had in the past an extremely oppressive government. I know this because one of my professors in grad school told me, and I figured that since she is Turkish, she’d have the first-hand experience to back it up. The country’s human rights record is pretty shabby, too. I know it’s a big, predominantly Muslim country that sits in a geographic crossroads. In some ways, Turkey is European, and has joined the EU. However, its location and dominant religion gives it strong ties to the Middle East as well.

That’s about as much background as I had going into Yol (alternately known as The Way and The Road). This is a film with an interesting history; in fact, it may be the story of its creation that causes it to be a part of The List rather than the film itself. Yol is credited to filmmaker Yilmaz Guney, who never actually filmed a frame. Why? Well, he was in prison at the time. He “directed” the shots through his proxy, Serif Goren, who is given equal screen credit. When Guney escaped from prison, he edited the footage in Switzerland.

Naturally, Yol is a prison movie. It appears that in Turkey, prisoners are sometimes given furloughs to go out into the real world again and connect with their families, sort of like a vacation from jail. We spend most of our time with three men in particular. Each of them starts off on furlough together and each goes through a traumatic event before the furlough ends. Essentially, the film appears to suggest that even when not constrained by the walls of the prison, these men are still trapped in a very real way. They are hemmed in by family, culture, society, religion, and hundreds of years of tradition, and no less prisoners because of it.

One man, Mehmet (Halil Ergun), is in prison for his part in a heist gone wrong. During the heist, his brother-in-law was killed by the police. Now, his wife’s family blames him for the death despite the fact that he has maintained that he did not panic and desert his brother-in-law. However, he really did. Hated by his in-laws, Mehmet wants only to reconcile with his wife and children again.

Another man, Seyit (Tarik Akan), has a different problem. His wife has become a prostitute in his absence, bringing shame upon him and the entire family. Reclaimed by the family, Zire (Serif Sezer) has spent eight months literally chained in a barn and living on bread and water. The family waits only for Seyit to mete out justice against her for her shame and for the greater shame brought to the family. “Justice” in this case is an honor killing. Seyit, as might many of us be, is of two minds of this sort of punishment.

We also spend a good deal of time with Omer (Necmettin Cobanoglu), who wishes to rejoin his family in a village on the border. Because it is a border village, the army is attacking it repeatedly due to its people practicing frequent smuggling. Omer is caught in the middle of this, one the one hand trying to escape prison and on the other being trapped by duty and loyalty to his family.

In many ways, none of them dealing with the subject matter, Yol reminds me of Les Enfants du Paradis. It is a competently made and good film, but the story of its creation is far more involved and involving than the film itself. This is not to say that the film is without merit, but that Guney may well have made a greater artistic statement simply by creating any film in his situation than any film could have on its own.

What is constant here is the repression of the regime and of the culture. There is a culture of suppression evident throughout the film and in almost every action taken by each character. In many ways, Yol feels like an Eastern Bloc film. It matches the level of oppression in Czech and Polish films of a decade previous. The personal and social privation, constant vigilance against the state, petty losses of freedom, all of these are reminiscent of films that came from communist countries during the Cold War.

This is an interesting film, but also a frustrating one, and not a film to enter into lightly.

Why to watch Yol: A gripping portrait of a repressive culture.
Why not to watch: So many plots, it can be hard to follow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Love in the Time of Aliens

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

If I have to pick a genre that I like more than any other, on most days I’d pick science fiction. I really enjoy good science fiction, which to me is defined as science fiction that has a brain. Dumb science fiction isn’t really any better than a dumb story from another genre, but good, smart science fiction tends to ask interesting questions and tends to answer them in interesting ways. I suppose in reality modern science fiction is my favorite; my favorite classic genre is film noir. If I have to narrow down further, though, I really like films that sit at that juncture between science fiction and horror.

This brings us to Monsters, the 2010 release from Gareth Edwards. Like a number of recent indie films, it was made on a relatively small budget (roughly half a million by estimates I have seen) and looks like it was made for a great deal more. It’s a giant monster movie, an alien invasion movie, a drama, and a romance all at the same time. This makes Monsters sound like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but that’s not really the case. For all of the directions it goes in, this film is really pretty focused.

The thrust of the story is pretty basic. A number of years ago, a space probe broke up over Mexico. Not too long afterwards, gigantic alien creatures began stomping around Mexico, and I do mean gigantic. These creatures now rule roughly the northern 2/3 of Mexico in an area called the “Infected Zone,” and the United States has built a huge wall to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande.

In Mexico, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of a publishing magnate, is hiding out. It seems that she is having second thoughts about her engagement. But Mexico is a dangerous place to be. While the creatures tend to stay within the Infected Zone, they don’t always, and thousands of Mexican citizens are killed every year. It’s time for Sam to go home, but even travel is difficult, and not leaving in time will force her to stay in Mexico for another six months. That may not sound so bad, but Mexico, thanks to the creatures, is essentially a warzone.

Sent to bring her back is Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist who works for Sam’s father. He’s in Mexico to get pictures of the giant creatures and the destruction they cause. But now he has to babysit Sam back to the U.S., or at least get her on a plane or a boat that will take her there. And, of course, if the journey to the coast was an easy one, we wouldn’t have a movie. Eventually, completely out of other options, the two are forced to attempt to enter the U.S. by passing through the Infected Zone, a sort of massive-alien-filled El Norte.

This sounds like an action movie, doesn’t it? If Edwards had had a larger budget, it probably would have been one. Alas, that simply wasn’t the case. Edwards was forced to work within the constraints of the limited budget he had, a budget that forced him to essentially film actual scenes with unknowing passersby filling in as extras. So what we get instead of gun battles against 60-foot-high tentacle beasts out of a Lovecraftian dream is an indie romance between Sam and Andrew.

This was unexpected. It’s also something of a disappointment.

I recently had a conversation with Kai Parker over at Man, I Love Films about one of the reasons he’s not a fan of many films before about 1980. One of the reasons he cited is that couples seem to fall in love instantly in older movies without any justification of it. I see that, but I’d hold this film up to Kai as an example of modern films not stepping away from that old model in the least. Sam may well be engaged to someone back in the States and Andrew has a son, but these two are immediately attracted to each other. In fact, the reason they are forced to go through the Infected Zone is because Andrew is robbed of their passports, which happens when Sam has a temper tantrum after seeing him with another woman. And this is after one day together. Take that, Kai.

I won’t say that Monsters isn’t an interesting or entertaining movie, because it is both of these things. And, despite it’s apparent multiple personalities, it seems to know what it wants to be. However, it comes in vastly different trappings from the standard indie romance film, which is what it is in its heart. It may well also be a subtle indictment on American immigration policy, but that’s a stretch for a film from a British filmmaker.

More or less, this is my problem with the film. I wanted this to be a film about fighting these awesome creatures, and while there are some tense moments and some decent effects for this low budget, it would be a much more interesting film as well as a much more entertaining one if it had been more about the critters and less about romance blooming between two people thrust into a difficult situation with each other. Even those times it feels like we’re finally going to see one of the aliens, we generally instead have a scene that develops our two principal characters instead. Normally, I’m all for character development instead of explosions, but when the film ostensibly deals with giant land-based octopus beasts, the opposite is true.

This is worth watching to see a film that capitalizes brilliantly on its small budget, but there are more interesting and entertaining places this film could have gone.

Why to watch Monsters: Low budget science fiction that looks more expensive than it is.
Why not to watch: It could have gone more interesting places.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Suicide is Painless

Film: M*A*S*H
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I wasn’t that conscious of movies when I was two or three years old, which is how old I was when M*A*S*H was released. As a kid, the most relevant thing with that name was the television show, the one that ran for three times longer than the war upon which it was based. I spent a lot of evenings watching the show, and as I got older and the show was eventually retired, I watched a lot of reruns. What that means is that I have a particular view of M*A*S*H, and it’s a view that doesn’t really jibe with the film.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t great, though, because it is. It’s a very unusual film, though, for a number of reasons. It’s also very much an Altman film in that the cast is freakin’ huge and there are tons of characters to keep track of during the course of the film. However, as a person who is so familiar with the television versions of many of these characters, it’s impossible for me to tell if the film is difficult to follow. I know almost all of the main characters, so in a real sense, I know what to expect of them.

Essentially, we have a group of doctors in a mobile Army surgical hospital (hence the initials) a few miles from the front in Korea. They patch up soldiers when they come in wounded, and otherwise spend their time trying to forget that they are in Korea. They drink, play pranks on each other, and chase nurses with reckless abandon.

The doctors that we become acquainted with first are Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerrit, almost unrecognizable without the trademark mustache). They are the new surgeons at the 4077th hospital, and the minute they arrive, they begin to turn the camp upside down, getting things running the way they like them. This task is made easier because their commander, Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is a pushover. It’s made more difficult because their bunkmate, Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), is a by-the-book officer and deeply religious. Things are compounded in both directions with the arrival of Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), who sides with our degenerate doctor heroes, and a new head nurse named “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

Essentially, M*A*S*H is completely without a plot. There are events that happen, and we see the camp personnel deal with these issues. We deal with the issues of the doctors not being up to military muster, with the fact that the camp dentist, “Painless” Waldowski (immediately recognizable character actor John Schuck) wants to commit suicide because he believes he has turned gay, and a surprise trip for Trapper and Hawkeye to Japan. Everything eventually culminates in a football game with another military outfit, complemented on the 4077th’s side with a ringer—an ex-professional football player-turned-neurosurgeon named Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones (Fred Williamson), given that nickname not because of his skin color, but because he used to throw the javelin.

M*A*S*H isn’t about a story, or getting through a particular plot or series of events. Instead, it’s about surviving the insanity of war, and the irony of being a medical doctor in a place of death and destruction. In fact, one of the reasons that there is so much humor in the film is because it is a natural contrast to the pain and misery of war. The other reason is that extreme situations like war often bring this sort of behavior and attitude out in the people trapped in the middle of it. We laugh so that we are not sickened by it. This is also why a lot of the humor here is so dark and so cruel. That’s the only reason for the broadcasting of Frank’s tryst with Hot Lips, and why the shower is rigged to collapse when Hot Lips enters it.

The film also works because the operating room scenes are both brutal and banal. Men are on the table with horrible wounds, and while we don’t specifically see any body parts or grue (or at least not too much), there’s an ocean of blood, and the doctors and nurses are up to their elbows in it. At the same time, the doctors and nurses discuss average, everyday topics, almost as if they are fixing toasters.

Altman is a difficult director for me to get behind, often because there is so much to pay attention to in his films. There are often so many characters that it can be tough to keep everyone straight. M*A*S*H does not suffer from this though, although that may only be because I know these characters so well. This is a hell of a film, and one that has aged surprisingly well, a fact that may be due to the influence of television as well.

Why to watch M*A*S*H: It spawned a true American cultural landmark.
Why not to watch: There really isn’t much of a plot.