Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst

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

When I was a kid, Bob Hope used to go to war zones and entertain the troops. I realize he did that before I was a kid, but that’s how I remember Bob Hope. It wasn’t too long before I started to get the impression that the riotous laughter of the troops didn’t happen because Bob Hope was funny. He wasn’t funny. Even as I kid I recognized that his act was pretty corny. I got the distinct impression that the troops laughed at the jokes more or less to make Bob feel good about flying all that way. They were, essentially, patting him on the head.

Which brings us to The Paleface. This “Western” “comedy” has four stars—Bob Hope, Jane Russell, and Jane Russell’s tits. But really, I should give you a little more to go on than that.

Calamity Jane (Russell) is in prison, but is broken out by an unnamed governor of an unnamed state. It seems that someone has been selling arms to the natives, and that needs to be stopped. So they offer Jane a full pardon if she can find out who’s doing what. They’ve decided to send a woman because the last agent was picked up immediately and found dead. The plan is for her to meet up with another agent, pose as a married couple, and head west in a wagon train.

So Jane heads out and discovers her first contact dead with only a cryptic note leading to the next link in the chain. With nothing like a plan, she encounters “Painless” Peter Potter (Hope), a sort of dentist without much experience who is being run out of town. She immediately agrees to marry him, figuring she can use him as a sap while she figures out how to get her pardon. Of course, once in Indian country, they meet up with some angry natives. Painless Potter panics and fires off a gun randomly while Jane, being the crack shot that she is, fights off the attack.

Of course, since she needs to protect her identity, he gets all the credit and he immediately becomes a hero. And so we have these two plots that go back and forth. She needs to figure out who the gun runners are (and discovers that there’s also dynamite involved), and he needs to discover that he’s actually not that brave, but that he might be when Jane is discovered to be in trouble.

Okay, so it’s a bit of a wacky plot that takes a lot of liberties with at least one historical character, and I don’t have any problem with that. Where I do have a problem is in the fact that this film simply isn’t funny. Allegedly, Bob Hope could tell a joke, but with a couple of spare exceptions, you wouldn’t know it from this film. Most of his schtick seems to be looking at Jane Russell’s chest and barking like a dog.

There’s plenty of humor that manages to be funny years after it was made. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd are still funny. The Marx Brothers are still funny. Bob Hope, not so much. I understand that times have changed and the way we look at things has changed, but this film is little more than sexism (in both directions) and racism. And it’s hard to recommend anything that seems to get all of its comedic oomph from things that feel so backward.

Yeah, times have changed. They’ve changed enough that we should consider forgetting about movies like this one. This can’t be the best thing in Bob Hope’s career. We couldn’t get Road to Morocco?

Why to watch The Paleface: Because Bob Hope was an American institution.
Why not to watch: Because there has to be a better Bob Hope movie somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Raising Hell

Film: Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

(This review is a part of the Blind Spots series. See others in the series for February at The Matinee.)

My long-time internet bro Kevin, aka Big Hominid, posted something a few months ago concerning his frustration that movie titles are often left untranslated from English, causing films like True Grit to be released in Korea with a Koreanized version of the American title. The problem as I see it, though, is that idiom is difficult to translate, creating the possibility that another culture might translate an idiom like “true grit” as “actual sand.” This is the case with a film like Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows). I went into this film cold, and based on the title assumed that it would be about a kid who was badly abused. Turns out that the title is part of a French idiom meaning to raise hell.

The film concerns Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young boy with a number of problems. He’s misdirected, bored, and somewhat listless. He has no interest in school and also happens to have ferociously bad luck. When a pin-up girl’s picture is passed around the class, it happens to be in Antoine’s possession when the teacher (Guy Decomble) spots it, getting Antoine in trouble. He earns extra homework as his punishment, and when he doesn’t finish, he skips school instead of admitting it.

And yet this is not a dumb kid. In his spare time, he reads Balzac, and when he writes an essay in class, plagiarizes shamelessly from his favorite author. But it’s worth noting that he plagiarizes so shamelessly from memory. For this he is expelled, as is his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay). The two, now with no school to worry about, become petty criminals. Antoine hides out in Rene’s room. It soon becomes evident that neither boy has much of a home life. Neither one is mistreated, but neither one gets much attention or affection. Since they are both constantly in trouble, their parents simply treat them as delinquents.

Eventually, the boys steal a typewriter from Antoine’s step-father’s business. When they can’t find a buyer, he tries to return it, and is caught. His parents, not wanting to deal with him any longer, force him to spend a night in jail and then send him off to the French equivalent of a juvenile camp for wayward boys, not that he lasts long. He escapes at his first opportunity.

Evidently, the film is highly autobiographical of Francois Truffaut, who led a life of petty juvenile crime and spent as much time as he could in a theater as a boy. It was the movies that in many ways saved his life. It also may well be the reason that the portrayal of Antoine is as sympathetic as it is. Additionally, we learn eventually that many of his problems seem to stem from the fact that he seems to be little more than an afterthought and a burden to his parents. He isn’t abused in any way, but there is no question that he is neglected. And because of this neglect, he is unmoored in the world, unable to find direction because no one in his life cares enough to put him on a path.

And so, there is a definite touch of tragedy to the film in that he is essentially forced to grow up on his own. There is very much a feeling through the film that he’s not a bad kid despite the things that he seems to get up to. His virtual abandonment followed by his actual abandonment by the end of the film simply underscores that tragedy. At the same time, there’s a part of me that thinks the kid is better off without his folks.

This most definitely is not the film I thought it was going to be, and yet in many ways I wasn’t too far off. Certainly I believed that there must be some level of physical abuse in the film, a fact that is not in any way changed by the picture of young Antoine on the cover of the DVD case looking mournfully through the bars of a cage. There is no physical abuse, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Antoine hasn’t been badly used by his indifferent parents.

It’s also one of the better performances I’ve seen from a young actor. Leaud was in his early teens when this film was shot, but he gives an adult performance, one of a seasoned actor who already knows his craft. This role of Antoine is one that he reprised multiple times in his career for Truffaut. Based on that, I’m curious to see the other, later films that chronicle Antoine’s life. It helps that I’m predisposed to like Truffaut, and the fact that Antoine is an interesting and likeable character certainly doesn’t hurt.

Why to watch Les Quatre Cent Coups: A formative film of the French New Wave.
Why not to watch: The story isn’t what you think it is from the title.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The First Big-Four-Winner

Film: It Happened One Night
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

A day after the Hugo/The Artist hoopla party also known as the 84th Academy Awards, I thought it might be appropriate to return to a simpler time and take a look at the first film to win the Big 4: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. The film is It Happened One Night, a thrown-together screwball comedy that influenced popular culture in a number of ways. Like a number of other great movies, this one was considered a dog by everyone involved. In fact, legend has it that Claudette Colbert was only coaxed into her role by being paid double her normal rate and being promised that the shoot would only take four weeks.

Regardless, the set up is a classic for the genre, one that has been around forever. All we need to make the true screwball romance work is to have two people meet cute, hate each other, and then fall for each other by being forced together. It doesn’t hurt if one of them is staggeringly wealthy while the other is not—in the 1930s, that was how you made sure that you got an “opposites attract” vibe from your characters.

In this case, the rich one is Ellie Andrews (Colbert), a society girl who has married a playboy aviator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Rather than get an annulment, she takes a swan dive off her father’s yacht and swims to shore, determined to get to New York and meet up with her new husband. At the same time, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is, depending on which side you ask, either quitting his job or being fired as a newspaper man. He’s also headed back to New York. Naturally, our two stars wind up on the same bus fighting over the same seat.

So now things get interesting. There’s a reward for the whereabouts of Ellie Andrews, a sizable $10,000 put up by her father (Walter Connolly) for her safe return. Peter knows this immediately—he’s aware of exactly who she is, but he’s not interested in the reward. Like any good newspaper man, employed or otherwise, his idea is to travel with her and get a story out of her that he can sell to the highest bidder. And so, they travel together, sharing motel rooms (scandalous for the time!) and posing as a married couple (equally scandalous!). Naturally, she complains endlessly and can’t seem to get the hang of not having any cash. He complains endlessly about the fact that she’s spoiled rotten. And naturally, the two fall for each other, but can’t admit it, requiring the intervention of her father and the paid compliance of King Westley for our couple to ride off happily together.

What? No spoiler alert? C’mon, it’s a romantic comedy. There’s no other way it could end.

As a screwball comedy, though, it’s not very screwball. Our two main characters dislike each other only slightly, and not for very long. It’s pretty quickly that they’re at least chummy with each other, and not too long after that when she professes undying love for him. It’s also interesting to note that in spite of the title, the film takes place over at least three nights—there are three different occasions in which our star-crossed couple beds down for the evening.

Essentially, screwball comedies changed quite a bit after this film, as did romantic comedies. There isn’t a great deal of tension between the two characters. After their first day, for instance, it’s pretty evident that they’re starting to like one another. Oh, they still give each other a difficult time about things and tease each other, but it loses the edge of malice after the first day. Really, the only tension that happens after that first night is the fact that she’s still a spoiled little rich girl and that she thinks at one point that he’s abandoned her.

But let’s talk about cultural impact. It’s a well-established fact that Bugs Bunny was based in no small part on Clark Gable’s character in this film. In fact, it’s Gable gnawing on a carrot and speaking at the same time that served as one of the cartoon standby’s greatest trademarks. Additionally, on their first night together, Gable partially disrobes and reveals that he’s not wearing an undershirt. Reportedly, sales of undershirts plummeted across the country. As Gable does, so do the masses, evidently.

I’m not as well-versed in 1934 as I probably should be, but I’ve seen several of the nominated films from that year. For my money, a good number of the awards, particularly the one for screenplay and possibly actor should have gone to The Thin Man instead. The dialogue is better for one thing. This isn’t to take away from It Happened One Night, but it’s simply the truth as I see it. I’ll take the saucy and sauced detective over the Reporter McDrinksalot and Snooty McWhitegirl every single time. Okay, yeah, that’s being unfair.

Why to watch It Happened One Night: It’s the progenitor of the ‘30s screwball rom-com.
Why not to watch: It’s still a rom-com, regardless of its impact.

It's Not About the Money

Film: Slumdog Millionaire
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

For a short couple of years, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was the hottest damn thing on television. I have no idea if it’s still on. First of all, I never watched it, and second, the only way we have television in Case de Honeywell is online or the Roku. Evidently it’s still on, at least according to my Google-fu. Slumdog Millionaire centers on this television show and one particular contestant playing the Indian version for 20 million rupees.

The player is Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, and Tanay Chheda as an adolescent, and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as a child), a tea boy and former slum dweller and criminal. But we don’t start in the studio. Instead, we start in a police station where Jamal is being beaten and electrocuted to get him to confess. It seems that at the end of his first day run, he’s managed to get to 10 million rupees, one question away from the jackpot, and everyone connected with the show is convinced that he must have cheated some way.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback, with Jamal going through his life to explain how he knew the answers to the various questions. As we progress, it becomes more and more obvious to us that he did really know most of his answers (if not quite all), but many of these answers are equally suspicious. I’m not justifying the torture, mind you; I’m just saying that I understand where the host of the show (Anil Kapoor) was coming from.

What we learn, for instance, is that he doesn’t know the motto of India—an early question—and needs to use one of his lifelines for it. We learn that he knows about the Hindu god Rama because his mother was killed by Hindus on in an anti-Muslim riot. Slowly, his story comes out, and each point in the story explains one part of his life growing up in the slums, following his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammad Ismail as a child, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala as an adolescent and Madhur Mittal as an adult) around India, and surviving.

It’s impossible to tell this story without including Latika (Rubina Ali/Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar/Freida Pinto as child/adolescent/adult). A slum girl, Jamal takes her in when they are children, and she becomes part of their family, a third Musketeer in a real sense, since this is a book the boys had been reading at school before their mother died. Salim is dead set against Latika, but accepts her, and so begins Jamal’s infatuation for the girl, and to some extent, hers for him. Much of the rest of the film centers around Jamal and Latika being separated, finding each other, and being forced apart.

More than anything, it is the squalor that astounds. The Indian footage was filmed by Loveleen Tandan, and it looks like she might have enough to make a documentary at some point. The poverty is incredible, as is the aforementioned squalor. These kids live on trash heaps, and in fact the child actors came from the trash heaps, and there are some reports that suggest that some of them are still living there. These are slums like the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground.

I don’t really know about that, so let’s stick to the film. The relationship between Jamal and Latika is an interesting one. I bought it for the length of the film, but now I’m having some second thoughts about it. Does it work? It sort of does. There’s a sense that Jamal wants to protect Latika from everything, but is unable to do so—in fact, he says that he went on the show specifically because he knew that she’d be watching. It comes across more as obsession than love, at least in terms of Jamal. I think that’s okay. It works for the characters. Jamal’s relationship with his brother is far less complicated in that respect. Jamal lives under Salim’s thumb until he finally breaks with him, over Latika, naturally. That relationship I buy without question.

Slumdog Millionaire won a shit-ton of Oscars, and it certainly deserved some of them. I’ve been told by several people that the film takes real liberties with the book, and not all of them in a positive way, but I can’t speak to that on personal experience. I can say that the film is visually fantastic; it’s a textbook on cinematography.

The ending, though. Eventually, after Jamal has pled his case with the police, they let him back on the show for the final question. And as with the previous questions he has gotten, it is one that has a connection with his life. He’s told that in the book The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (it’s spelled wrong in the film, incidentally), two of the Musketeers are Athos and Porthos. His question is to name the third. If you are familiar with the book or one of the multiple adaptations, you know whether or not he is right the moment he gives his answer. (Here’s a hint for you: it’s not D’Artagnan.)

Why to watch Slumdog Millionaire: Because Horatio Alger ain’t dead in spirit.
Why not to watch: If you know your literature, you know the end before it happens.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Savage Wars of Peace

Film: Glory
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every now and again, an actor takes a surprising role and proves that he or she has far more acting chops than previously imagined. That was my initial and main reaction to seeing Matthew Broderick in Glory. I had no doubts about the other major player in this film—Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, and Bob Gunton—but in a sense, Matthew Broderick is always Ferris Bueller or the kid from War Games, or even Gaston from Ladyhawke. That’s unfair, but in a lot of ways, Glory is the film that moved him into adult roles.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick) is a Union soldier who is wounded in the Battle of Antietam. After the battle, he returns to Boston where he learns that he is being offered his own commission—a volunteer brigade of escaped slaves and former slaves. Essentially, he’s going to be the first white officer in charge of a black Army regiment. He immediately recruits his friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) and his friend Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), a free-born and educated black man, becomes his first recruit.

And then we get to the section of the film that discusses racism and discrimination as if it is something that we no longer experience. Essentially, everything that can be used against the 54th Infantry is used against them. The quartermasters refuse to supply them with anything—including shoes—because they don’t feel that the troops deserve them. It takes Shaw essentially going in and destroying the quartermaster’s supply hut to get any action and get shoes for the troops. And this highlights another interesting piece of the puzzle. As it turns out, one of the recruits, Trip (Denzel Washington), is caught going AWOL and whipped. Shaw later learns that Trip wasn’t deserting, but was out looking for shoes because his feet are covered in sores and wounds.

It’s an interesting series of moments. Shaw, up to this point, has treated the men the same way he would treat any group of soldiers as their commanding officer. He remains aloof, going so far as to refuse to speak to Searles and, in fact, refusing Searles permission to speak to him. It’s not so much racism, but is certainly perceived by a number of the men as such. It’s Forbes who suggests that whipping an ex-slave is perhaps not the best choice in punishments, but Shaw goes through with it, commanding his vicious and brutal Sergeant Major Mulcahy (John Finn) to execute the punishment. It feels like racism very much, but in the mind of Shaw, it is the opposite—he is treating the men as he would any other soldiers.

We also learn that the troops will not be paid the same wage as white soldiers, and it is in this moment that Shaw endears himself to his men, by similarly refusing his own pay. Finally, the men are trained, they have shoes and uniforms, and they are sent off to the war. One of the men, Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), is pulled aside. He is told that there would be no commissioned officers who were not white, but that the regulations did not prevent the creation of non-commissioned officers, and he is given his stripes. It’s a nice moment.

Of course, it leads to further problems. It soon becomes evident that the 54th is going to be used only for menial labor and will not get into combat. They are given a quick taste of something when the follow another brigade of black soldiers into a town under the command of Colonel James Montgomery (Cliff De Young). As it turns out, it is essentially a raiding party, stealing everything they can from a town and then setting fire to the buildings. After that, Shaw and his men work at manual labor but itch to get into a fight. Passing white troops offer nothing but scorn regardless of the fact that they are also wearing Union blue. This is until Shaw confronts Montgomery and General Charles Garrison Harker (Bob Gunton) about their war profiteering. In short, he agrees to keep silent if they will send the 54th into battle.

And finally, the unit gets bloodied. Eventually, given a near-impossible task to complete, Shaw volunteers his unit to lead the charge against a Rebel fort in what is almost certainly a suicide march against a vastly superior enemy. The results of this are best left unmentioned in a review.

Glory goes about this story of racism in a very interesting way in that it focuses not on the black troops, but on their white commander. Certainly he feels some of the racism reflected back on him—he’s treated in many cases essentially as the same sort of pariah as they are. But really, he’s an outsider in the racism game. Characters like the educated Searles, the hot-headed Trip, the sedate Rawlins, or even the stuttering crack shot Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) would make for a much more interesting story. Seriously, these are the men fighting for their literal freedom in most cases, and with the word that the Confederacy will summarily execute any former slave in Union blues, for their lives. They, far more than Shaw and Forbes are the interesting story.

Where Glory really succeeds is in the depiction of the terror of war. The battle sequences may not carry the same weight or the same level of horror as, say, the opening 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but they are decidedly brutal and sobering.

All in all, Glory is good, but perhaps not quite great.

Why to watch Glory: Because there are still some war stories that can be inspiring.
Why not to watch: Racism from the white man’s point of view is decidedly less interesting.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Art on the Screen

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

The biopic is sort of its own thing in the movies, and when the subject of the biopic is an artist, I’m never quite sure what to expect from it. I have some not-so-fond memories of The Color of Pomegranates as being something that tried to film the interior life of poet Sayat Nova, and the bulk of that film went so far over my head that it looked like a passing aircraft. So I’d be lying if I said I went into Caravaggio without any trepidation.

Fortunately, while this film ranks high on the artistic scale, it is not an art film per se. Like many a biopic, it starts at the end, with the title character, Renaissance painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (Noam Almaz as a boy, Dexter Fletcher as a youth, and ultimately Nigel Terry as the adult painter) on his death bed, dying in exile of lead poisoning. As he dies, card for by Jerusaleme (Spencer Leigh), his deaf mute companion, he reflects on the major events of his life.

The first of these important events comes when he encounters Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough). The Cardinal acts to encourage the young artist to follow his talent. It also strongly suggests that Caravaggio gets this special treatment from the Cardinal because the Cardinal is getting some special treatment of his own from the young artist.

As an adult, Caravaggio is still living under the Cardinal’s tutelage and working for him essentially working for him as a beneficiary of his patronage. This causes some resentment among others. Part of that is because Caravaggio is frequently depicted as drinking to excess and fighting. Part of that is because it is heavily implied that he has sexy time with both his female and male painting models, including Jerusaleme and Pipa (Dawn Archibald), a female contortionist. Things intensify when he brings in Ranuccio (Sean Bean) and his lover Lena (Tilda Swinton in her screen debut). Caravaggio, naturally, is attracted to both.

And everything changes again when Lena claims to be pregnant and that she will become the lover of Scipione Borghese (Robbie Coltrane). And then, of course, she turns up dead. What happens after that is best left unsaid in a review, since it’s really the ultimate point of the film. I’m not even going to put this under a spoiler tag, because the film is pretty enough that you should watch it for yourself. I’ll just say this—if you’re a fan of Sean Bean and know his track record for his film characters, you won’t be shocked at what happens here.

No, really. The plot/history/biography of Michelangelo Caravaggio is interesting, and the overt hints at child molestation and bisexuality were certainly approaching shocking in the early-AIDS days of 1986. And certainly the child molestation angle is still disturbing (if no longer as shocking, particularly with it coming from a priest), but except for the extreme religious right, bisexuality and homosexuality no longer has the shock value it once did. So don’t be prepared to be shocked to your socks by this one the way you might have back in the middle of the Reagan years. Even the not-so-subtle hinting at the homosexuality of whatever Pope was sitting in the Vatican at the time doesn’t do much but elicit a shrug. Not even a raised eyebrow.

What’s worth talking about here instead is just how damn pretty this film is. It’s art directed all to hell and there are a significant number of deliberate anachronisms throughout. For instance, the characters all wear modern clothing instead of clothing from the actual time period. One room is lit with electric lights, and in one scene, a character uses a small pocket calculator. These are deliberate, and are a connection to Caravaggio’s actual artwork; he had a tendency to paint biblical scenes in clothing of his own period instead of the more classical attire. These things are not specifically intended to be hidden per se, but are so neatly and beautifully slid into the film that they become natural rather than jarring.

So really, that’s it. The story is good an interesting, but not really anything you haven’t seen before if you’ve seen a decent and relatively accurate attempt at a biopic. The real reason to watch this film is just to look at the way the story unfolds on the screen. It is a beautiful film to watch because of the richness of the set design and the costuming.

For art fans, there’s a nice little addition to the film. The stories of some of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings are told through the course of the film. Are these historically accurate? I don’t know, and I don’t honestly care that much. It’s a nice addition to the film, though, and is something else to latch onto if you lose interest in looking at something that looks like it belongs in an art museum.

Why to watch Caravaggio: It is filmed as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen.
Why not to watch: If you’re homophobic, you’ll have some issues here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Raiding the Kids' Shelves

Film: Swing Time; The Jungle Book
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player (Swing Time) and itty-bitty bedroom television (The Jungle Book).

Today, looking for something a little different, I raided my kids’ DVD shelf and watched a couple of their movies. That might seem strange for the first film, but Gail has owned the complete Astaire/Rogers collection for about four years.

Once upon a time, movies were ridiculously innocent, and no genre of movie was more innocent than the musical. And while I don’t have any proof of it, I think that no brand of musical was more innocent in tone than those done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This is not a complaint, but an observation. And it’s okay that that’s the case. These films are not about the plot but about the fact that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may have been the greatest dancing pair in history.

Swing Time follows the basic Astaire/Rogers formula. Boy meets girl, complications ensue, boy gets girl in the end. That really shouldn’t be a spoiler—there’s no real mystery that the pair who begin the film with her disliking him will end with the two madly in love with each other. John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) is a professional dancer as well as a fantastically lucky gambler. He’s set to marry a society girl named Margaret (Betty Furness), but in so doing, he’d need to abandon the troupe. So the guys in the troupe cause him to miss his own wedding. Naturally, he’s in trouble with the family, but placates them by saying that he was earning money on his own. Margaret’s father agrees that if his business (he doesn’t know that John is a gambler and that his business is essentially cards and roulette) raises $25,000, he’ll get to marry Margaret.

So Lucky sets off for the big city accompanied by “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore), a magician and card sharp. He almost immediately encounters Penny Carrol (Rogers). He’s smitten, and trades away his lucky quarter to her. When he tries to get it back, Pop steals it back, which causes her some trouble when she accuses Lucky of taking it. As it turns out, she is a dance instructor, and he goes to take a lesson from her to explain. Of course, since he’s a professional dancer, he does so well that the two of them are offered a tryout, which Lucky messes up.

And, naturally, the romance won’t be that easy. It seems that Penny is being romanced by a local bandleader named Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa). And Pop is madly in love with Penny’s friend Mabel (Helen Broderick). And into the middle of all of this, Margaret shows up and throws another wrench into the works. And of course it all comes out right in the end with everyone smiling regardless of who they end up with.

The dancing, of course, is top-notch, and couldn’t really be anything else. What is truly impressive is that the vast majority of the dance sequences are done in a single take with a single moving camera. And they are flawless. Astaire and Rogers perform exciting and difficult moves, leaping over things in unison, swinging each other around at the end of numbers, meaning that a mistake at the end would require performing the entire routine again.

What I didn’t expect was a full-blown routine in blackface. Not that big of a deal in the time the film was made, but it’s not something that really plays today. It’s an interesting thing to see in the sense that it’s sort of racially offensive on its face, but it doesn’t come across as attempting to be insensitive. It’s hard to call it respectful, but it does come across as if it is trying to be something close to respectful.

But, that’s a relatively short sequence compared to the length of the film. The plot is what it is—it’s nothing too exciting or original, but it also doesn’t matter at all, because the plot is absolutely secondary to just how damn good the dancing is. Additionally, Astaire is far too likable to really be believable as a gambler and even a part-time swindler. And let’s put this to rest here and now: there’s a saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. I call bullshit. Yes, she did wear heels, but she sure as hell didn’t do everything backwards and she also didn’t do all of the steps that Astaire did. When they dance, you watch Astaire.

The Jungle Book is evidently the last Disney film that Walt Disney himself had a part in creating before his death. As such, it has a unique place in film history. In a sense, it’s the last piece of truly classic Disney animation despite the fact that other films (obviously) followed it. It’s simply a fact that it was a good 20 years before Disney produced an animated film that really captured the public’s imagination.

The story is based on the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name, of course, even though it doesn’t really follow the odd narrative structure of the book and also avoids being as thoroughly dark as the original source material. We have Mowgli the Man-Cub (Bruce Reitherman, son of the director), who was abandoned in the jungle and ended up being raised by a family of wolves and lived under the tutelage of Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a kindly but stuffy black panther. Everything is fine until the jungle hears of the return of Shere Khan (George Sanders), a tiger. Shere Khan despises mankind, and Bagheera is concerned that if he discovers the existence of Mowgli, he will hunt him down and kill him.

So, Bagheera determines to take Mowgli to the human village in the jungle where he can not only be with others of his own kind, but can also be kept safe from Shere Khan. It seems that Shere Khan is afraid of only two things—guns and fire—and the village naturally has both. But Mowgli doesn’t want to go to the village; he wants to stay in the jungle, and he’ll do anything to stay despite its dangers. One of those dangers is the bumbling and perpetually hungry python Kaa (Sterling Holloway, best known as the classic voice of Winnie the Pooh). He also encounters a troupe of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley).

Things change when Mowgli encounters Baloo (Phil Harris), a bear who exists only for a life of ease, making his way calmly through the forest with a philosophy of scraping by on the bare necessities of his existence. He takes Mowgli under his wing to teach him how to become a bear like him. Mowgli is temporarily kidnapped by a group of lively orangutans led by King Louie (Louis Prima) who agrees to let Mowgli stay with him if Mowgli will teach him how to make fire. Mowgli is rescued by Bagheera and Baloo, and Bagheera is finally able to convince Baloo that Mowgli really does belong in the human village.

Of course, this means that Mowgli feels abandoned and lied to, and he runs off, which brings him back face-to-face with Kaa and Shere Khan, as well as a quartet of vultures who are actually friendly and resemble the Beatles (a fact that my 8-year-old daughter picked up on immediately). And so there’s a big confrontation with the tiger, assisted by a handy lightning strike on a nearby tree, as well as another rescue by Baloo and Bagheera. And of course Mowgli ends up near the human village and becomes entranced by an attractive young girl who entices him into the village using her feminine charms and wiles.

It’s cute. It’s fun and has the right amount of danger for kids. The first villain, Kaa, is sort of ridiculous and more funny than dangerous despite the fact that he almost eats Mowgli twice and despite the fact that Mowgli is saved first by Bagheera and second by blind luck. Shere Khan, on the other hand, is quite vicious and nasty. He’s also not in the film much, and I’d like his presence to be a lot larger in the film for him to really establish himself as a menace. As it turns out, he’s merely another thing that threatens Mowgli and not really that much more difficult or that much scarier than the monkeys because of his relatively small role.

It’s also evident that Disney reused a great deal of their animation in previous films in this one, and from this film in later films. I understand that, and I don’t really have a problem with it. Hell, I use templates all the time, and that’s for things that wouldn’t take me hours to recreate. It does, however, seem a bit lazy when sequences of animation are reused exactly in this film multiple times. Kaa’s exits, for instance, are identical down to the frame, and that’s a bit disappointing. Reuse from other films, no problem. Essentially give me the same footage a couple of times and not expect me to notice? Shame on you.

But for what it is, The Jungle Book is entertaining in that last gasp of classic Disney animation way. But for me, it will always be a lesser light when compared with the early classics as well as the brief resurgence of great Disney animation in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Why to watch Swing Time: Because Fred Astaire is always worth watching.
Why not to watch: It’s frequently silly, just like all musicals from the 1930s.

Why to watch The Jungle Book: It’s classic Disney animation.
Why not to watch: Repeated animation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Film: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

As I get closer and closer to finishing up the silent films on The List, I realize more and more that silent dramas are difficult for me. This isn’t always true, of course, but I have a much harder time with dramas than I do with comedies. I think the reason for this is that silent dramas tend to ramp up the melodrama in favor of actual drama. This comes about, of course, because there isn’t any real dialogue, which means that we need to rely on the actions, reactions, and expressions of the actors. When all we have is over exaggerated mugging for the camera, melodrama ensues, and really, melodrama isn’t that interesting unless it’s done really, really well.

F.W. Murnau, of course, was capable of being that good. The question is whether or not Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans is as good as Murnau could be. Like many silent films, the plot is extremely simple and straightforward, taking us through a spot of desperate evil, then reconciliation, a terrible almost-tragedy, and then a final reconciliation as the curtain closes.

At an unnamed spot out in the sticks, a man (George O’Brien) is married to a woman (Janet Gaynor). They have a child. They also have a problem. That problem is the woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), who has come to their backwards burg and overstayed her welcome. Why has she stayed? Well, naturally, she has stayed because of that sexy, sexy man with whom she is carrying on a poorly-concealed affair. She’d like the affair to end, too. She suggests to the man that he take his wife out on a little ride in a rowboat, then tip the boat, allowing his wife to drown. She even packs a few bundles of rushes into the boat so that he can float away when the boat capsizes. He reluctantly agrees.

On the boat, though, he discovers that he can’t go through with it. His wife understands what he was trying to do and runs from him, but he pursues and spends a good deal of the rest of the film trying to win her back. He does, slowly, and eventually she comes to trust him again. And then they head back out onto the lake to return home…and the boat sinks. Just like was going to happen an hour earlier! But this time, now fully recommitted to his wife, the man gives her the bundles of reeds to allow her to float safely to shore while he struggles against the water.

That’s not the ending, of course, but it’s as far as I’m going to go with it.

The story is probably too simplistic to really be that interesting here, and I have to admit that I wasn’t that captivated by the story being told. Boiled down to its barest essence, it’s essentially a man who cheats on his wife, relents rather than commit murder, and reconciles with his estranged wife as best he can. That’s really it—it’s an old story and something of a classic. And I even buy it to a certain extent. I think there’s genuine remorse in the man, and I appreciate that it takes a considerable amount of time for her to come around to believing that he is sincere. George O’Brien has a haunted look to him through the first part of the film, and it works completely.

More importantly in terms of the actual study of film is the realization that there are very few intertitles in large places of the film. After the initial plot, we don’t get much in the way of reading until about halfway through when our couple truly reconciles and recommits to each other when sitting and watching a marriage ceremony. It’s this sort of storytelling that helps me appreciate the art of the silent film more, since I didn’t feel as though I had to read the whole time.

Murnau is also smart enough to use his technical wizardry only as much as is necessary to convey the story. There’s some good rear projection work (obvious for us today, but not so much in 1927) as well as some excellent double exposures, but these serve to help tell the story rather than to stand in place of the story.

If I have a complaint here—and you know that I do—it’s that the middle of the film drags. The opening establishes the man’s desire for the other woman and his complicity in the plot to kill his wife, and up to the point of their reconciliation, the drama moves nicely. And then they reconcile, and we’re left with an extended “country couple in the city” sequence that serves only to fill space on the screen without doing much for our story. This sort of antic would work in a Harold Lloyd comedy, but the wacky hijinks of a couple of bumpkins seems out of place in a film that starts with murder and threatens to end with death. In other words, there’s a good chunk of this film that could be easily removed without much loss. I mean, do we really need to watch the man’s wife look on approvingly as he gets a shave and refuses a manicure? Seriously, the shaving scene here is longer than the docking sequence in 2001.

And that’s my issue here. There’s half an hour in this film that could be condensed into two minutes with no loss of story, or that half hour could be put to much better use.

Why to watch Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: The story holds up.
Why not to watch: The middle section is worthless.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Femme Fatale

Film: Out of the Past
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I like film noir. I like it as a genre and I like what filmmakers did with it before they realized it was a genre they were creating. Out of the Past is one that I knew nothing about until I found it on the library shelves today, and I was immediately attracted to it. I dig Robert Mitchum as an actor. He played a villain like no one else, and even in cases where he played the hero, as in this film, there’s something of the heavy about him. Mitchum always comes across to me not as a man playing a role, but as a man existing in a real world. He was always a compelling screen presence, and when he’s on camera, I want to watch him.

Out of the Past is in many ways a stereotypical noir, succeeding as a film not because it plays with the genre, but because it toes the noir line diligently, faithfully, and very, very well. Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) runs a gas station and dates Ann (Virginia Huston) on the side. Then one day, a man from his past shows up at the gas station. This is Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), who works for one of Bailey’s old clients, who wants to see him. Jeff takes Ann with him on a drive up to Lake Tahoe, and he tells her about his past.

It seems that once upon a time, Jeff Bailey was actually Jeff Markham and he was a private detective. A criminal named Whit (Kirk Douglas) hired him to find his girlfriend, Kathie (Jane Greer). Kathie shot him and ran off with $40,000; he doesn’t care about the money, but wants the girl back. Jeff follows her trail and catches her in Acapulco, and he immediately falls for her. They decide to give Whit the slip and head up to San Francisco. It’s here that they run into Jeff’s old partner, Fisher (Steve Brodie), who wants the money Kathie stole, although she claims she didn’t. To get out of it, Kathie kills Fisher and runs off.

From here, of course, it gets a lot more complicated because it’s a film noir. The essence of film noir is to get as complicated as possible before anything gets resolved, and that certainly happens here. We get double-crosses and more murders, and a lot of bad acting on the part of our femme fatale, Kathie. As it turns out, she’s a vicious little woman, the cold heart of any film noir, and hers is the coldest in recent memory.

But if Kathie is the cold heart of the film, it is Mitchum’s portrayal of Jeff that is it’s warm soul and center. He plays Jeff not as one of his typical villains, but as a man truly wanting only the life that he wants. But he’s also a man who gets in deeply over his own head and becomes unable to do anything except follow the path in front of him. He’s easy to root for, even when it becomes increasingly obvious that any good options for him are closing off and there’s no way out for him. Mitchum plays an interesting hero.

Out of the Past is as good a film noir as I’ve seen. It doesn’t have the same cultural weight as a film like Double Indemnity, but it’s no less entertaining and no less worth watching. The story is one that manages to be both believable and gripping. Even better, Kathie is so dangerous and so smooth about it that we don’t really understand the threat behind her until Jeff has realized it as well. We fall into the same trap he does, believing that a pair of soft eyes must similarly represent a soft heart.

I’m sold. This one moves near the top of the list when it comes to the genre for me, and I think it will be quite awhile before another film challenges it. Out of the Past hits on every cylinder, and is as gutsy and compelling today as it was when “noir” was a French word instead of a style of film.

Why to watch Out of the Past: Films noir don’t get much better.
Why not to watch: They also don’t end happily.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Film: Little Big Man
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

For whatever reason, there are some films that I just have trouble getting through. Little Big Man is one of those movies. I don’t have a reason for it. I’ve checked it out of the library probably four times and in fact had to renew it last week because I just couldn’t get myself to put it in the DVD player. So I finally did if for no other reason than that I could finally stop checking the damn thing out of the library.

We meet Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) at the tender age of 121 as he is being interviewed about what the Native Americans were like. He immediately turns the conversation to the topic that he wants to talk about. Crabb claims that he is the only white survivor of the slaughter at Little Big Horn, and essentially decides to tell that story. Of course, he’s not going to simply jump into that story; he’s going to start at the beginning and take most of two hours to get us to that part of the story at the end.

We go back 111 years to when Jack was a mere 10 years old and moving west with his family. His family is attacked by the Pawnee and wiped out or dragged off except for him and his sister Caroline (Carole Androsky). They are rescued by the Cheyenne and Caroline escapes. Jack is raised by the tribe, specifically by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), who christens him Little Big Man. The two separate and find each other again for the rest of the film. They split the first time when he is 16 and is attacked by the U.S. Cavalry. He reveals his actual race and is thus “rescued” and turned over to a white couple to be raised. The relevant person here is Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), who is obviously attracted to the young man. He leaves, mostly because he can’t reconcile her talking about piety while attempting to seduce him.

He turns to selling snake oil with Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam) and the two are eventually run out of town after being tarred and feathered. But one of those running them out of town is Caroline, and suddenly Jack is back with his sister, who teaches him to be a gunslinger. But he’s also scared of killing anyone, and when he meets Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Corey), he gives it up and is deserted by his sister. He tries running a store with a new wife (Kelly Jean Peters) but goes bankrupt and then heads west. They are attacked by natives and his wife is taken, and once again, he finds himself back with Old Lodge Skins.

And so it goes. He eventually finds Olga, who is now married to his Cheyenne rival and is terribly henpecked. He finds a new Cheyenne wife, who also forces him to marry her three sisters. But then much of the tribe is wiped out by Custer’s 7th Cavalry (Custer is played by Richard Mulligan, and he continually crosses paths with Crabb/Little Big Man). Over and over again, he runs into the same people and then parts from them. Eventually, he gets his revenge on Custer by essentially forcing him into the battle at Little Big Horn, but none of it seems worth it to him at the end.

This is a strange film in a number of respects. There isn’t a particular plot here—we aren’t really going anywhere in particular except eventually to Little Big Horn. There is, I think, a message here, but this is more or less a character student of Crabb/Little Big Man. And while it is essentially the story of his life and a study of him as a person, there is a great deal of evidence that most of it is entirely made up and is nothing more than an increasingly ridiculous fable created by Crabb for a gullible audience. A great deal of this is because of the coincidences that would make Dickens blush. After a number of years, Crabb runs into Wild Bill Hickock again, and is there when Hickock dies. His dying wish is for Crabb to pay off a prostitute…who just happens to be Mrs. Pendrake. It really gets sort of silly.

And so, while the story is important in the sense that it’s what we’re watching, the film lives and dies on the performances. Dustin Hoffman is good. He’s not exceptional, but he’s good here. Chief Dan George, though, steals the film from everyone else. Most of the white characters are caricatures, and act as caricatures, and I think that’s intentional. We’re supposed to have our loyalties and sympathies with the natives here.

It also has a real issue with tone. A number of sequences in the film are very funny, but the film turns very dark in the last half hour. It’s difficult to mentally switch gears from a very entertaining sequence in which Little Big Man is forced to satisfy his three sisters-in-law sexually followed by a massacre. It’s difficult to know where to stand on what is going on because it moves from humor to tragedy suddenly and without warning. I realize that’s realistic, but I’m watching a film—I don’t specifically want realism.

Ultimately, it was sort of a “meh.” I don’t see a reason to watch it again.

Why to watch Little Big Man: The story is frequently a lot of fun.
Why not to watch: It’s also frequently depressing.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Different Sort of Drug

Film: The Hurt Locker
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

About a year ago, one of my students asked me if I had seen The Hurt Locker yet. I hadn’t at the time and he told me that I shouldn’t bother. According to him, the film did not accurately depict his experiences in Iraq. Then again, one of my current students actually was a bomb disposal expert in Iraq, and he says the film is the real deal. Since I’ve never been in the military or been anywhere close to an active war zone, I can’t really speak to the realism of the film; I can only discuss it as a movie.

What we have is less a plot than a series of intense events that lead us to a particular place. In a sense, the film is a character study of one man in particular, but also of a personality type—a look at a genotype of soldier.

We start with a bomb disposal squad consisting of three men. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) has the important job of communicating with the man on the site of actually disposing of IED (improvised explosive devices) and providing cover. Sanborn is by-the-book and based on his line of work, doesn’t like mavericks or surprises. Also providing cover is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a nervous guy who frequently second- and third-guesses everything he does. These two are lead by Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) who has the same sort of attitude in life as Sanborn. In the first bomb disposal we witness, Thompson is killed by a phone-detonated bomb, a death that Eldridge blames himself for, since he was in a position to shoot the bomber.

Enter Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) who is everything that Sanborn hates. He is wild and reckless, taking chances simply to take them and unwilling to leave a zone with a known bomb in it despite the risks to himself and his team. He clashes with his team, particularly Sanborn, but he’s also very good at defusing and detonating enemy ordnance. This fact alone is what keeps him alive when Sanborn has the chance to literally frag James at one point.

What we see are snapshots of the last month of the team’s tour in Iraq. We see them go out on several bomb disposal missions, each one more dangerous and touchy than the last. It soon becomes evident that James isn’t specifically reckless, but more or less addicted to the adrenaline of life in Iraq. He collects pieces from the bombs he dismantles, for instance, because he enjoys looking at and holding things that could have killed him and failed. He continues to take risks that put him in danger, and more seriously, put the lives of everyone around him in danger, a fact that Sanborn especially takes issue with. Eldridge worries, but is more concerned with his own inability to pull the trigger when it needs to be pulled.

One of the many times things come to a head is when the team goes out on a mission with Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo) in two. Cambridge frequently speaks with Eldridge to help him over his problems and guilt, and when Cabridge is killed by an IED, Eldridge feels additional guilt. Eldridge is later wounded when James leads the team on a mission and exceeds their authority.

The entire point of the film, everything that we as the audience are to get from the film, can be summed up in the opening moments before the film really starts. The film begins with a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The quote fades, but leaves the last four words. War, then, is the drug of choice for Sergeant First Class James.

And really, what we see is his addiction. We see him in the moment, defusing bombs and in the moments just after, and it is very much like he has injected himself with the best thing in the world. Then, later, after the drug wears off, there’s nothing left for him until the next mission.

What impresses me the most about this film is the near constant level of tension. We spend all but a spare couple of minutes near the end in Iraq, and most of that we spend in the field on missions with the team. There is very little time spent anywhere safe, and in many respects we experience the same level of adrenaline that James finds himself addicted to. It’s incredibly effective and intense, never really giving us a let up until those moments at the end following yet another close call and the end of the rotation for James and Sanborn.

I have to say I’ve always liked Kathryn Bigelow as a filmmaker. I love Near Dark and Strange Days, and I certainly know more than a few people with a soft spot for Point Break. I can even see elements of those films in this one. But The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s move into the real big time, her entry into not just films that are exciting and fun, but films that are truly meaningful and artistic, films that have something to say more than action and stunts. It doesn’t surprise me that this film is as lauded as it is.

Again, I’ve never been in the military or near a combat zone, so I don’t know what it’s really like. I can’t speak to the realism. But I can believe this as a story and I can believe this as a real possibility of soldiers in combat.

Why to watch The Hurt Locker: It actually matches the tension of the film La Salaire de la Peur.
Why not to watch: Depending on which veteran you ask, your realism may vary.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'll Do What I Want

Film: Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (My Life to Live)
Format: Streaming video from HuluPlus on rockin’ flatscreen.

My wife Sue got a chunk o’ cash for her birthday recently and she bought herself a Roku box. It’s pretty sweet. It does the same NetFlix thing that the Wii does, and also allows us to watch HuluPlus and a few other free television and movie channels on the flatscreen just like normal people. So today I tested it out, and I have to say that HuluPlus on television trumps HuluPlus on the laptop.

Anyway, Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (My Life to Live) reacquaints me with Jean-Luc Godard. I think it’s safe to say that two years ago, I had never watched a Godard film, and now I have more than a half-dozen under my belt. The more I watch Godard’s films, the more I appreciate what he was trying to do with film in general. This film is another experiment of his, and it’s an experiment that, in the main, works. It is just as the French title suggests, a compilation of twelve short films about the same characters that show snapshots of a woman’s life. In those snapshots, we get her whole story.

Nana (Anna Karina) is unhappily married and decides to leave her husband and small child so that she can pursue an acting career. However, money isn’t easy to come by and her job at a music store doesn’t pay very much. So she makes a career move into prostitution and deals with her various clients and her pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebbot). Throughout, Nana attempts to determine if she is actually happy and actually living rather than simply continuing to exist. That’s really all there is to it.

Godard is a smart filmmaker, and was smart when he made this film. Vivre sa Vie is early in his career (only his third full-length feature), but it shows the deft hand of someone much more seasoned behind the camera. In one sequence, for instance, we hear Nana asking Raoul about what it really means to be a prostitute—how much can she make, how often will she be working, does she get days off, can she refuse clients—while we see her with a series of men. It’s a montage that really works; we get the sense of her being with a huge number of men, but we see none of the sex. Instead, we see dressing and undressing, sheets being folded down, money exchanging hands. It becomes a sort of rhythm.

Karina is the heart and soul of the film, and it is she who must carry it. She is on screen for virtually the entirety of the film, and while we never get her thoughts or ideas unless she speaks them, we are the closest to her throughout the story. She has the perfect look for the film to inspire the sort of sympathy that Godard wants. She is unquestionably beautiful, possessed of a near-perfect head of bobbed hair and deep, soulful eyes. More importantly, she is able to project a sort of constant innocence despite her career change. In one scene, a client asks for a second girl and then rejects Nana, and her reaction to this spurning is one of real emotion.

The film is not perfect, though. One particular fault is essentially built into the narrative. Since we see only bits and pieces of her life over the course of 80 or so minutes, changes occur that we do not witness. Her life and attitudes change and we are forced to pick these up on the fly as the scene changes from one moment to the next. A young man playing pool in one scene, for instance, has suddenly become a love interest for Nana later. For us, the time between these events is measured in minutes. For them, it could well be weeks or months, and we’re given no clues to determine the actual truth.

Second, the ending is abrupt and surprising, and not specifically in a good way. The ending isn’t inappropriate in any way, but it comes completely out of nowhere and gives us as the audience almost no time to react to it before the screen turns black. Again, I’m certain this was intentional on the part of Godard, but it does make the viewing experience unsatisfying at the end, at least for me.

The title is worth some exploration as well. On the surface, it would appear that Godard is allowing Nana the ability to chose the life she wants, and if that happens to be prostitution because the money is better, so be it. However, throughout the film, Nana’s choices seem almost predetermined. As soon as she sets off on her own path, her life is decided, and her life to live is lived at the behest of others and from choices beyond her control.

Vivre sa Vie is worth watching, though, because like many of Godard’s early films, it expanded the world of cinematic language. His experiments, while not always 100% successful, worked often enough to make anything he touched at least worthy of consideration. That’s true of this film, too.

Why to watch Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux: It’s supremely fascinating.
Why not to watch: The end.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


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

I will freely admit that I went into Chicago prepared to hate it. It seemed to me to be a distillation of everything I dislike in a movie sort of all at once. I already have problems with musicals, and Chicago features Renee Zellwegger (aka LemonFace), an actress I tend to dislike on sight. In fact, I blame her for duckface pictures. And yes, “hate” is a strong word, but as this blog sometimes shows, I’ve never been afraid of a strong opinion.

As it turns out, I didn’t hate Chicago, but I also didn’t like it very much. Before I get to the specific reasons why, let’s talk story.

Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) is married to Amos (John C. Reilly), a working class schlub. While he works as a mechanic, she’s off making the beast with two backs with furniture salesman Fred Casely (Dominic West). Part of that is, for her, because it’s more fun than waiting around for her sadsack husband and part of that is because Fred claims to have connections in Vaudeville. One night, they see Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) perform just before Velma is arrested for killing her husband and sister since she caught the pair also making the beast with two backs. Not too long after this, Fred dumps Roxie and she retaliates by shooting him. Amos takes the rap until he discovers that she was cheating, and he sends her off to the big house.

In prison, Roxie meets Velma, and the two dislike each other immediately. She also encounters Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron who can get anything for a price. She introduces Roxie to Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a high-priced criminal lawyer who has never lost a case for a female client. He accepts Roxie’s case, putting Velma on the backburner, causing more bad blood between the pair.

Eventually, Roxie’s case goes to trial (she keeps her name in the papers by faking a pregnancy), Velma cuts a deal to get Roxie convicted, Amos gets screwed out of everything, Billy makes money, and the film ends with Velma and Roxie performing on stage as a duo, out and proud of having committed their crimes. After all, that’s Chicago.

So let’s talk good and bad here. I’ve mentioned above that I dislike Renee Zellwegger intensely, and that’s something difficult to get beyond. She’s not terrible here, but I still don’t like her very much. She’s a score in the negative column. In the positive column, though, is Queen Latifah. I don’t care how many accolades she gets as an actress, the woman is underrated. Her big number is one of the best ones in the film both because she’s got the pipes to pull it off and because she has the sex appeal to really work it. Also on the positive side is the fact that Rob Marshall trusted his cast to sing for themselves. It works in the case of John C. Reilly’s rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” It doesn’t work so much when it comes to Richard Gere. He tries, but he’s not quite there. (I’m aware that many people may say the same thing of John C. Reilly, but it worked for me.)

Also to the positive here is the way the film is staged. We get a blend of numbers that function both to drive the story and give us insight into the characters, but also work as fantasy, as a behind-the-eyeballs look at what characters are thinking. When Amos confesses, for instance, we see Roxie singing a number about how much she loves her husband and how great he is to her. This shifts immediately when he discovers the truth. The singing here is essentially in her head—her costuming changes to that of a singer on stage, and the performance is on stage as well, and when the number ends, she’s back in the scene in the apartment in the clothes she had been wearing. The musical number is essentially what’s going on in her head rather than what’s going on in reality. It’s a neat mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic information—what’s real for us as the audience is not real for the characters on screen. This happens multiple times, to best effect with Mama Morton’s sexually-charged prison song, and again when the other female prisoners confess their crimes.

This, more than anything, is the biggest positive for this film. The staging of the film is incredibly inventive and beautiful to watch. “We Both Reached for the Gun,” for instance, is a film highpoint, with Roxie sitting on Billy’s lap as a ventriloquist dummy and the reporters shown on puppet strings pulled by Billy to get the press he wants. It’s the sort of thing that makes the movie version of any stage production viable—the way this is depicted in the film would be impossible on stage, but there is very much a sense of the stage here—it’s a near perfect mix of live theater and technical film wizardry.

If this is the high point, though, the low point is the characters themselves. With the single exception of Amos Hart, these characters are terrible people. Roxie Hart is a slut, offering sex to virtually anyone and anything that can get her ahead. She’s selfish, conceited, and willing to step on anyone and anything to get ahead. It’s a statement that could be made of about 90% of the characters in the film, in fact. These people—Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn—are sociopaths. To get Roxie off, Billy Flynn manipulates evidence, panders to the jury, has his client commit perjury, and destroys the career of the district attorney. Why would I root for this guy? Why would anyone want me to be happy when Roxie gets everything she wants? She’s a terrible human being.

And ultimately, that kills my opinion of the film. The characters are narcissists and sociopaths, guilty of awful acts and proud of having done them. Chicago is visually dazzling (often with skimpy, sexy costumes), but morally reprehensible. I can’t get past that.

Why to watch Chicago: More flesh per square inch than you’d expect.
Why not to watch: Bad behavior is not just rewarded, but lauded.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What Does Fried Dino Taste Like?

Film: Jurassic Park
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’d love to say that in 1993 when Jurassic Park came out I was a kid. Sadly, that’s not true. In 1993, I celebrated my second wedding anniversary. I wasn’t a kid. That didn’t make too much of a difference, though—I still really wanted to see giant, realistic dinosaurs on a giant screen. And so I went. You better believe I went and saw Jurassic Park during its initial run in theaters. I won’t kid you, here. Seeing giant friggin’ dinosaurs doing what they have always done in movies but looking like I imagined they’d really look was awfully damn cool.

I’m going to work on the assumption that you’ve seen this movie but may not have seen it lately. So here’s the quick and dirty. A rich guy named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has a cool idea. He sends out teams to find ancient, prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in fossilized amber. From them, the blood of their last meal is extracted, and since we are talking about prehistoric insects, we’re talking about dinosaurs. The DNA is then extracted from the blood, and using frog DNA to cover any gaps, real, living dinosaurs are created, with the goal being a huge zoo/amusement park called, well, Jurassic Park.

So, Hammond brings in some experts from a dig he is financing, specifically paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotonist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) as well as chaos-loving mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). He also brings his grandchildren Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards). And, of course, all hell breaks loose. What fun would it be if it didn’t?

The hell breaking loose comes from the actions of park systems designer and programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), who has some unidentified money problems. He is being offered a significant amount of money to bring out some dinosaur embryos to a rival company. When he attempts this, he shuts down most of the safety systems in the park. This means that the dinosaurs—particularly the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the velociraptors are free to move about and threaten the people. And, while running from the dinos, the scientists discover that despite all of the precautions, the dinosaurs have started mating.

The film, as is typical for Spielberg, sports a fantastic cast of players. In addition to those mentioned above, we get Samuel L. Jackson pre-BAMF as one of the main security experts in the park and Bob Peck as Muldoon, the big game hunter who works in the park to keep the dinosaurs in line. I had forgotten (or more likely never knew) that B.D. Wong shows up here for a cup of coffee as a scientist, too.

Despite the cast, Jurassic Park is essentially a big-budget B-movie. Man makes dinosaurs, dinosaurs escape, man runs from dinosaurs. The sell here isn’t the inspiring or terrific plot, but the dinosaurs themselves, looking more realistic than anyone had ever seen before on the big screen. Now, almost 20 years later (and yes, that’s hard for me to believe), they still look great. This is a film to watch on a large screen, HD if you can get it, and really experience the dinosaurs the way they were intended. The acting is good overall, but this is a film that sells itself from start to finish on the special effects and the overall look.

Jurassic Park does suffer from one of Spielberg’s frequent tropes. Our two paleoscientists, particularly Dr. Grant, has a hypothesis about dinosaurs. It’s his belief (one that actually is gaining credence these days) that dinosaurs didn’t so much evolve into reptiles, but into birds. Because Dr. Grant is a good guy in this film and is trying to save the two kids lost in the park, his hypothesis proves correct. This became a much larger problem in the sequel to this film, but it still exists here. People who we want to root for are always right in anything they think and try. They don’t make mistakes or have incorrect hypotheses.

But it doesn’t really matter. Jurassic Park is fun and scary. This is the movie that introduced those of us who aren’t paleontologists to the terror that are velociraptors. It’s also the film that made dinosaurs cool for the masses again. And they are cool.

Jurassic Park, as I’ve said, is all about the special effects. It helps that it really seems like the science would work, too. I have no idea if it is possible to create dinosaurs in the way described here, but for the layman like me, it sounds official and like it would work. I respect the hell out of it for that—it works on science and not magic, even if the science isn’t totally realistic.

So is it good? Yeah, it is. It’s fun and scary and exciting, and it’s not really meant to be anything more than that. Watch it on the biggest screen you have available, and if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it, remember how much damn fun this movie really is.

Why to watch Jurassic Park: Giant realistic dinosaurs.
Why not to watch: It follows the Spielberg morality rule, although the sequel is far worse.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What's Behind "Behind the Scenes?"

Film: La Nuit Americaine (Day for Night)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

On a long enough timeline, every director will do a film about films and filming. Altman did with The Player, Fellini did with 8 ½, and recently Scorsese did with Hugo. Francois Truffaut did with La Nuit Americaine (Day for Night) in the early ‘70s, and in many ways his film is the quintessential meta film about filming. We have a crew making a movie about a woman who falls in love with her father-in-law. We see a couple of the important parts of the film as it continues, but mostly, we see the cast and the crew and experience the problems and frustrations of the filming process rather than the joy. Were some of the events not so tragic, these moments would be wonderfully comic. Instead, they are comedic with a large dose of tragedy in places.

Francois Truffaut directs the film and is also a major player in the film as Ferrand, the director of the movie within the movie. Much of the time on and off the set is spent with him as he attempts to navigate the process of completing the project. We see him deal with problems at virtually every level, from set design to casting decisions to the surprise pregnancy of a minor cast member, love-stricken stars, and a fragile female lead. It is completely unromantic and completely believable. His job appears to be little more than putting out fires constantly, swapping schedules, rewriting script pages, and wondering how he can complete the film in the time available.

His cast of players are just as believable as he is. His young male lead, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is smitten with the script girl Lilianne (Dani) and proposes to her, but she can’t remain true to him, running off with the stunt man instead. This leads Alphonse to a one-night stand with his on-camera wife Julie (Jacqueline Bisset), who is emotionally fragile and recently married to her doctor. The other female lead, Severine (Valentina Cortese) has faded and is fading rapidly, unable to remember a line. Instead, she wishes simply to say numbers so it looks as if she is speaking and then record in post. During all of this, Ferrand deals with rewrites on the script, animals that won’t do the job they are supposed to on camera, and a crushing schedule that forces changes in how the film is shot. Tragically, something happens to his second male lead (Jean-Pierre Aumont) that threatens the entire production.

In a large way, it’s difficult to see exactly why Truffaut continued to make films if this one was a capsule of his typical experience. Nothing in the production within the film goes the way he wants or needs it to, and every shot that we see is fraught with problems and endless retakes. Many of these retakes we sit through, seeing the same actors walk the same path and say the same lines. This happens repeatedly throughout La Nuit Americaine as if to emphasize that the most common emotion on a movie set is not something emoted by the actors but pure boredom. For Ferrand, though, the emotion is frustration, and it is near constant.

The thing about Truffaut is that I find him immediately and consistently likeable. It may simply be my own bias coming through based on his role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I’ve always liked him on camera. He seems very genuine to me, as if he is not acting, but simply existing as his real self while a camera happens to be there. He’s just as likeable here and for exactly the same reason, although in this case, it’s likely he wasn’t acting so much as just relying on experiences he’d had in the past.

And yet, with all of the problems experienced on and off the set, there is a real sense of joy in this film. Despite everything, there is pleasure in the work of creating a film for Truffaut, and this comes through completely in his character of Ferrand. There is a particular feeling of pleasure in the struggle of getting through one more scene or jumping over one more hurdle and moving on to the next day. Ferrand expresses doubts in his film in one scene in the middle—his writing partner is working on a better project in Japan—but is continuing because of the irrepressible need to keep creating and to keep his flawed vision alive.

La Nuit Americaine does kill the magic a little. When we see the problems it takes to get a particular shot, it’s impossible not to wonder how much trouble Truffaut had in real life getting the same shots for the real film. I assume that in time, that opinion will fade, but I know that it’s a question I will have for the next half dozen movies I watch at least. How much am I not seeing? How much work and detail went into a scene? How many takes? I’ll never know, of course, but it’s something that I’m now made acutely aware is a question that can be asked.

Truffaut was a special filmmaker, and La Nuit Americaine is a special film. For anyone interested in film at all, particularly in what happens just off camera or when the camera stops rolling, this is the number one film to watch.

Why to watch La Nuit Americaine: One of the better odes to the film process ever made.
Why not to watch: It kills the magic to see the same scene over and over again.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Real Brave Sir Robin

Film: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Format: DVD from Bolingbrook Fountaindale Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

The Adventures of Robin Hood has a unique distinction. It’s safe to say that almost everyone knows the story, but virtually no one has actually read the book. I know that saying this will probably mean that I’ll get at least one comment from someone who will claim to have read the book. Yeah. Good for you. That’s why the word “virtually” is in the sentence above—I’ve been writing long enough that I can cover my bases.

Anyway, you hear the words “Robin Hood,” and unless you have lived under a barrel your entire life, you don’t think of Kevin Costner or Cary Elwes or Russell Crowe. The quintessential Robin Hood is Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Even if you haven’t seen it, you still know the basic story. But, just in case you do call that barrel home, here it is in a nutshell.

King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) has been captured in the crusades and the throne usurped by his brother John (Claude Rains). Working with Prince John are Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Robin of Locksley, a.k.a. Robin Hood (Flynn) rebels and gathers a group of men in Sherwood Forest and fights oppression. His main go-to guys are Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (the always magnificent Eugene Pallette). Robin fights for the true king, to free the Saxon people, and for the love of the beautiful Marian (Olivia de Havilland). We’ve also got a couple of comic relief characters, specifically Much (Herbert Mundin), who is saved at the start of the film by Robin and Will and Bess (Una O’Connor), Maid Marian’s handmaiden.

Okay, so you know the basic story, and that story is a classic. There’s another reason to watch this film, though. The Adventures of Robin Hood has the true classic Robin Hood scenes that are either referenced, spoofed, or remade in other versions of the film. We have, for instance, Robin’s entrance into the feast with a deer across his back and his daring, swashbuckling escape. We have the quarterstaff fight with Little John on the bridge. There is the meeting with Friar Tuck, the archery tournament, and his daring escape from the gallows. Oh, it’s all here because all of it started here.

Y’know what? I could be a cynical bastard and talk trash about this film, but I’m not going to. I really enjoy the hell out of this film because it’s a tremendous amount of fun. It’s Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood as a swashbuckling pirate, which has made Robin Hood a swashbuckling pirate in the minds of virtually everyone. Flynn plays the role with decided relish. He’s having a good time swinging a sword around and firing arrows and climbing ropes, and who can blame him? It’s the very thing that made him famous, and this time he gets to do it in Technicolor.

The film also benefits from a tremendous supporting cast for Flynn’s antics. We can start with Olivia de Havilland and we could just as easily end there because she’d be enough. Fortunately we don’t have to end there, though. We also have Basil Rathbone and Claude Goddam Rains as our main bad guys. I also have a soft spot for Una O’Connor, who frequently played this sort of shrill comedic harpy. And Eugene Pallette, who could do no wrong as far as I'm concerned.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is fun. It’s melodramatic and overacted, and it’s also great fun and completely entertaining. The ending is a foregone conclusion, of course. There’s no real possibility that Robin will swing from a noose or that the bad guys won’t get what’s coming to them. There’s no chance that Robin and Marian won’t end up together (and on a similar note, no chance that Bess and Much won’t end up together, either). We know this going in because it’s a film from 1938 and that’s the way films worked back then. We know we’ll get the Hollywood ending and the good guys will be triumphant because nothing really bad is going to happen to all of the characters that we like. And we watch anyway because it’s just so damnably fun and worth watching.

So yeah, I like this movie a lot. There’s a real sense of boyhood adventure in this film that is impossible for me to get past, and so I no longer try. I just enjoy it for the spectacle that it is. You should, too.

Why to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood: Errol Flynn was never better and because there’s swords and arrows and stuff.
Why not to watch: Because you already know the story.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Four Years in the Making

Film: Tokyo Orimpikku (Tokyo Olympiad)
Format: DVD from Arlington Heights Memorial Library through WorldCat on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There was a time in my life when I watched sports. Since I haven’t spent any time watching sports in several years, it’s actually sort of hard for me to remember when I cared about such things. When I was a kid, I was a complete sucker for the Olympics, too. There was magical about the Olympics to me. While there were sports I knew about, of course, there were also strange athletic contests that I saw only once every four years. I never really understood as a kid why someone would train for years for this one shot; I hadn’t figured out that these sports had other competitions throughout the years and that in many ways, the Olympics was just another contest in a string of contests.

Tokyo Orimpikku (Tokyo Olympiad) comes from a time when there was still a level of purity in the Olympic games, a purity that has since been lost and will likely never be regained. In 1964, the Olympics still required amateur status for competitors, meaning that we didn’t send a collection of NBA All-Stars over to another country so we could watch them do Harlem Globetrotter impressions and beat up on teams from Cameroon. There was a sense of competing for the joy and challenge of competing, not as a chance to get another endorsement. I’m not someone who lives in the past or thinks the past was a golden age, but there are some things that have gotten worse with time, and the Olympics is very much one of those things.

So, as it comes from a time of relative purity, at least in terms of professional participation in amateur games, the film tends to focus not on the personalities of the participants, but on the actual competitions themselves, the victories and heartbreaks, minor triumphs and major disappointments. Director Kon Ichikawa is smart enough to let the events essentially speak for themselves. The commentary we get is very much akin to the sort of commentary we would have watching the event on television. Most concerns the sport itself with occasional asides about one or more of the competitors.

Any Olympics takes place over multiple days, of course, and even a film of nearly three hours in length can’t come close to showing everything. Instead, Ichikawa gives us snapshots of the competition. We see some of many of the events, but by no means all of anything. For instance, we spend a little time with the shooting sports, but we see only the 300m rifle, skipping all of the others. We spend some time on the Pentathlon, but see only still photography of the first four days of the event, learn a story of an unnamed competitor, and do not learn the identities of the medal winners.

Ichikawa is remarkably even handed in his treatment of events. We see a montage of gymnastic performances around the middle of the film without learning anything of the medal winners. It’s moments like this that lend a sense of authenticity to the film—Japan is frequently dominant in men’s gymnastics, and was in 1964, and yet we aren’t given an unending string of Japanese athletes or made to revel in their success. We learn some medal winners and others we do not, giving the film even more a sense of attempting to create a feel of the Olympic games rather than a compendium or almanac of these particular games.

In not giving us everything, Ichikawa has picked and chosen for us. He has given us this particular and specific experience with this particular and specific Olympics, allowing us to experience more than we would had we actually attended, but still limiting our experience. In a sense, we are told that we will have only some of the full experience of the Games. We may not even get the most compelling or tragic stories. We will, however, get some stories.

This scattershot approach is one of the film’s great strengths, but also one of its greatest weaknesses. Unable to cover everything, Ichikawa attempts to cover as much as he can, and a number of sports are virtually or totally absent from the film. There is, for instance, no diving and no mention of the decathlon. Water polo, yachting, rowing and several other sports are on screen for a minute or so of screen time; fencing gets two, but even there it’s just the women and just the foil. The decathlon doesn’t appear in the film at all, which seems like a huge oversight. Diving is missing, too. We spend more time with the oddly-gaited racewalkers as we do on those aforementioned sports combined. I mean, I’m not a huge water polo fan, but I’m going to remain that way if I don’t see their technique and understand the skill of the game. Stories like Joe Frazier’s gold medal in the premier weight for boxing are ignored completely. The scattershot approach gives us that taste of many of the games, but loves so much room for more.

The photography is the real triumph here. The sports are shot with love and with an eye for giving the viewer a better chance to understand the sports themselves. We see a great deal of slow motion, for instance, showing the athletes’ in competition, their muscles straining, faces at times contorted in moments of agony or ecstasy. It’s a film that learned much from Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but has managed to present it to us without the hammering and yammering of nationalism, racism, and other “-isms.” Even for a non sports lover, there is much here to see and appreciate.

Tokyo Orimpikku is by no means perfect, but it is also one of the best sports and sporting life documentaries ever made. Criterion needs to bring this back from its out of print status. I went through too many hoops for a film this good.

Why to watch Tokyo Orimpikku: The glory of sport in a time when the glory was all the athletes competed for.
Why not to watch: No decathlon, no diving, and many sports given very short shrift.