Monday, December 31, 2012

End of Year Three

Once again I find myself in the position of having a bunch of films around me, but deciding not to end the year on a review. I said last month (I think) that getting to 230 left was doable, and I've missed that goal by two--I stand at 871 films reviewed and 232 to go from The List. Not bad.

As it turns out, December was still a massive month for me, and one in which I did complete a lot of goals. I've now watched all of the films on The List longer than three hours (actually, everything longer than 170 minutes). I've watched the first 200 (actually, the first 204). I've also watched all of the new additions. Pretty good.

All told, I put up 307 List reviews this year, which is more than I thought I'd do. I put up 29 other reviews, too, for a grand total of 336 reviews. With other posts here and there...that's a lot of writing.

All of this means that, barring serious incident, I'll finish in 2013, and this blog will head in a new direction. Stay tuned, folks--there's interesting stuff ahead.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

World on a String

Film: Being John Malkovich
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen

I’m going to get this out of the way right now—I’m going to take a load of heat for saying that I don’t love Being John Malkovich. I don’t hate it and I respect the hell out of it, but I don’t love it. It’s weird, and I like weird. It’s dark, and I like dark. But it’s also kind of hateful. The only really sympathetic character in the film is Malkovich himself, and even then, he’s only sympathetic for a short period of time. Yes, there are great scenes here, bits of cinematic genius that will continue to be referenced in years to come. But I just don’t love it. I mean, I almost wish this had been my first viewing of the film because at times, I just sort of wanted it done because I knew what was coming.

In a lot of ways, I dread movies like this one more than ones I outright hate. At least with a film I dislike intensely, I can muster up some good emotion and a few good quotes in the review. With Being John Malkovich, I’m more or less waiting for the end because I’m not specifically enjoying myself and I don’t have the sweet, sweet balm of righteous anger. It’s two hours of me looking at the screen like my dog does when it hears a noise it doesn’t recognize.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Not-So-Innocents Abroad

Film: Viggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy; Journey to Italy)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop

I have a strange relationship with Robert Rossellini’s films. Viaggio in Italia (alternately Voyage in Italy or Journey to Italy) is the third of his films that I’ve seen, and I’ve liked all three. What’s interesting here, what makes my relationship with Rossellini’s films so unusual is that I can never remember what he’s directed. I had to look him up to remember that he did Paisa and Open City. I don’t know why this is. I sometimes get him mixed up with Bertolucci and Antonioni because they have long, Italian names. I should try to remember a little more clearly, really.

Viaggio in Italia is an almost plotless film that follows a very familiar scenario. It does it quite differently, though. Essentially, we have a married couple on a vacation experiencing significant problems. Typically, this makes for a comedy, but Viaggio in Italia is no comedy. Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) Joyce are vacationing in Italy. They’re their because they have inherited villa they want to sell.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Film: Skammen (Shame); Shame
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop (Skammen); DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player (Shame)

Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen (Shame) is a very odd film in an important respect. The film depicts a couple caught up in the middle of a war, essentially as victims rather than as people on one side or the other, but I have no idea what war it’s supposed to be. From what I can determine, the war here is an allegorical one that exists mostly because Bergman wants to make a particular point about war. It makes this film an odd mixture of something like fact and something very much fiction.

Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) Rosenberg live on an island away from most of the madding crowd. Both are former instrumentalists an a symphony, but have since retreated to this island house to get away from an unspecified civil war. While it’s a real enough war in the film itself, I have no idea what war it is representative of, since Sweden doesn’t get involved in wars that often, which is precisely why I suggest that this is a real story that takes place in an allegorical war. Regardless, the war finally comes to the island, first as threats and then as reality.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Things Santa Should Bring

Every year around this time, I offer up a list of 10 films that belong on the 1001 Movies list. so why break with tradition now? There are plenty of films that are important in real ways of great in the way that almost everyone agrees that make them required viewing for anyone serious about film. So without further ado, here in no particular order is this year's model.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Girls Gone Wild

Film: Thelma & Louise
Format: DVD from Genoa Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

For the past year, on the last Tuesday of the month, I’ve put up a review of a film that I hadn’t seen but really should have at this point in my life. This was a part of Ryan McNeil’s Blindspot idea, asking bloggers to catch up on great, classic films of the past that we’re a little embarrassed that we hadn’t seen yet. I’ve seen some good ones this year, and I’m a much more complete film viewer. Now, I admit that all of these films were on my list anyway, so I’d have gotten around to them, but having that slight amount of structure has been fun. This month, though, the last Tuesday is Christmas, and I’m not watching a movie on Christmas. Instead, I’m doing this a day early. And that’s why, between last-minute shopping, a little wrapping, and getting the kitchen ready for tomorrow, I watched Thelma & Louise.

In a nutshell, bored and downtrodden housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) and her street smart and world-weary friend Louise (Susan Sarandon) plan a weekend trip, at least in theory going fishing at the cabin of a friend of Louise. On their first night out, they stop at a bar where Thelma drinks a little too much and dances with a guy named Harlan (Timothy Carhart). When Harlan gets a little too frisky and tries to rape Thelma, Louise responds by shooting Harlan in the chest. The women flee, trying to figure out what to do.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Me, Myself, and I

Film: In a Lonely Place
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

After a delay for wrapping Christmas presents and not quite enough sleep, here is your review.

I have a real fondness of Humphrey Bogart. Lots of people play tough guys in films, but Bogart had something about him particular that most don’t. Bogart played tough guys with a streak of vulnerability. Even his best characters are damaged goods, and it’s the damage that makes them interesting. His character in In a Lonely Place is one of the most damaged of his career, probably the most damaged since Treasure of the Sierra Madre or after. There’s always something of the anti-hero in Bogart, even when he’s playing more noble than the rest of the cast put together.

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is the sort of lurid Hollywood tale that, with a less stellar cast, would be memorable only for the more vicious moments and potential shock value. With Bogart in the lead role, though, it transcends its genre and becomes something far more interesting.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Thermos Song

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

When Steve Martin is good, he’s really, really good. He’s not someone who works well with bad material, though. Steve Martin’s bad movies are really, really bad, not even “so bad they’re good” bad. Ask anyone who’s seen Sgt. Bilko; they’re unwatchable. But with good material, Martin is a decent actor with great comic timing. He rises or sinks to the level of what is written for him. This makes The Jerk interesting.

The Jerk is Martin’s first major role, and his first film role in general excepting a part in the excremental Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a couple of moments in The Muppet Movie. It’s a dumb movie, filled with stupid humor where what is said or done is just off-kilter from what is expected. It works because Martin is funny and charming and it works at times in spite of itself. But mostly, it demonstrates that Martin is capable of being funny and silly and strange and endearing on film. It’s not really that much of a surprise, since a good deal of the script was written based on parts of Martin’s acclaimed stand-up act.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What Happened to 1-6?

Film: The Seventh Victim
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I lke films that bear the stamp of Val Lewton, or at least I like the ones I’ve seen. There’s a particular vibe to the films that Lewton produced, and idea that strikes me as odd. Typically, I look at films and not the hallmarks of particular directors or actors. With Lewton’s films, though, the director and who is starring feel much less important. It’s Lewton who comes through.

One of Lewton’s signatures is thriller films that imply much more than they show. Cat People, for instance, does a lot with a few shadows and some sound and not much else—the joy of intelligent direction on the cheap. The use of light and shadow, the lurid, often sexual topics—these are Lewton’s most commonly reference hallmarks. However, for me, the most telling thing about a Val Lewton film is that those that I have seen typically focus on a woman who is tied to a terrible fate that she cannot get beyond. Often there is another woman who has a larger role in the film, acting as an observer on the tragedy of the woman who is the central focus. This is certainly the case with The Seventh Victim.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


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

It’s evident within the first minute of Irreversible that it’s going to be a rough ride. That first minute, when we see the closing credits of the film indicate that nothing is going to be what we expect here. What follows is one of the most disturbing and upsetting 100 minutes ever seen on film. Certainly there are films that go to more difficult or horrible places than Irreversible, but none that I can think of with this combination of horrifying imagery and physically upsetting camerawork and ugly headspace. Irreversible is less of a movie than it is a visual and physical assault on the nervous system. I’m not entirely sure how to process it.

Irreversible is not the first film in the new French Extreme, but it is one of the most infamous. I’m not going to attempt much of a plot summary here beyond the basics. Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are in a relationship and Alex discovers she is pregnant. However, there are problems with the relationship because Marcus drinks too much and flirts with other women. Angered, Alex leaves a party and encounters a man named Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) who is viciously beating a transgendered prostitute named Concha (Jara-Millo). He turns his attention from Concha to Alex and brutally rapes her. Marcus and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) then hunt for Tenia and exact a brutal revenge. All of this is show in reverse order. We see the aftermath, then the revenge, then the rape, then the lead up to the rape, and then Marcus’s and Alex’s life before these incidents.

Bonjour, Y'all

Film: Paris, Texas
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

There is a dreamy quality to the work of Wim Wenders. In a film like Der Himmel Uber Berlin, this quality is so evident as to not really need to be mentioned. With Paris, Texas, it’s much less apparent, but it’s still there. This is a slow film—I’ve seen slower, but not many that are this methodically pleased with themselves to take a long time to get to the intent. For me, it’s a huge help that Harry Dean Stanton is front and center and on camera for the bulk of the film. Roger Ebert once penned the Stanton-Walsh rule, which states that with the exception of Chattahoochee, no film that has M. Emmett Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton in a support role can be all bad. Paris, Texas is an indicator that in Stanton’s case, he can include lead roles in that.

A man (Stanton) walks through the desert, and it’s somehow evident that he’s in or near Texas (although that might well be the name of the film). He finds a bar and collapses inside. We switch to Walt (Dean Stockwell), who is evidently the man’s brother. Walt, who lives in Los Angeles, flies down to Texas (see! I was right) to get his brother, who is named Travis, but the silent brother has disappeared. Walt tracks him down and tells him that he’d like to take him to Los Angeles. Eventually, Travis speaks. We learn that he has a child named Hunter (Hunter Carson, the son of one of the screenwriters) and that he refuses to fly, so instead they drive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The New York Thruway's Closed, Man!

Film: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I try to keep a careful watch on my NetFlix queue so that I get a film I’m in the mood to see or one that fits my schedule. Imagine my chagrin when I realized that just after I finished watching Short Cuts, the second-longest film I had left, the next thing to show up was the full director’s cut of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, a nearly four-hour documentary on the festival held in 1969. I shook my head and gritted my teeth, and thought that at the very least, it would be the last of the three-hour-plus movies.

Yeah. And once again, I need to learn to trust. While this is not a perfect documentary, it’s a really good one. I admit that I expected a lot of the music to wash over me, too. Some of it did, but not all of it. This is a smart, well-designed film that deserves to be put in the same sort of category as other well-regarded documentaries like Hoop Dreams. That it was edited in part by a young Martin Scorsese is just a bonus.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Soap Opera

Film: Short Cuts
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve been making a concerted effort for some time to get through the longest films on the list. Specifically, as much as possible, I’ve tried to hit two very long films (at least) every month. This has gotten me to a place where I have only two films of longer than three hours left. One of these is Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. This marks the fourth time I’ve check this film out from the Rockford Library. I just can’t get into it. I’ve seen the opening 10 minutes at least four times now, and I just stumble every time. I’m not exactly sure why this is. It might be that I have issues with Altman sometimes. His films are long and rambling and feature massive casts. Maybe it’s something more specific about this film. I’m not sure. But anyway, there it is. I have long had a mental block when it comes to Altman’s Short Cuts.

Part of the reason is probably that Altman’s films are difficult to summarize, and I’ve put myself in the position of summarizing the films I watch as a matter of course. This film, though, has such a large cast with so many interconnections that to adequately define everything and everyone would take nearly as long as watching the film itself. There’s just too dang much. To put it simply, Short Cuts is based on the writings of Raymond Carver. It is a slice of the lives of a couple of dozen people, all intertwined and interconnected in various ways. In a lot of ways, a film like this is the natural parent of something like Crash or the less well-known 11:14 (you’re welcome, Nick), in that it shows how each live touches others and all of our lives are connected, however tenuously.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Darkness from Disney

Film: Pinocchio; Fantasia; Dumbo
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television (Pinocchio; Fantasia); streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Dumbo).

As much as I would have loved to have posted this last night, I fell asleep. I watched all of these on Saturday, which means that some references to “today” might come off as strange. Anyway, better late than never, right?

I think I’d seen Pinocchio years ago because I remember specific parts of it, but I really can’t be sure if that’s because I’ve seen the film or seen clips of it. In a lot of ways, despite knowing the story, this was my first viewing of the film, the second full-length, story-driven animated feature from Disney. The story may not have been well known at the time, but has become (thanks in no small part to this film) a beloved story of many.

So, quick summary. An old carpenter named Geppetto (Christian Rub) makes a little marionette of a boy under the watchful eyes of his kitten Figaro and his goldfish Cleo. That night, Geppetto makes a wish on a star that the puppet, which he named Pinocchio (Dickie Jones), would come to life. Because this is Disney and a fairy tale of sorts, the wish comes kind of true. The Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) awakens Pinocchio and tells him that if he is good, he can become a real boy. To help him, she appoints Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) as his out-of-body conscience.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Heaven Can't Wait

Film: A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

If people ask me why I watch movies from a list based on what other people think is worth watching, I point to films like A Matter of Life and Death (alternately titled Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.). This is not a film I’d have picked up without being told I should watch it, and I couldn’t be happier that I spent my time with it tonight. This is not just a charming little fantasy, but a very smart film, one that beautifully blends fantasy and reality, deals with questions of law, justice, and love, and manages all of this neatly and efficiently. It also gives me another look at the great Roger Livesey, who I need no excuse to watch.

The film takes place at the tail end of World War II. Pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is trying to limp home, but knows his plane can’t make it. His crew has already bailed out, and his radio operator (Robert Coote) has been killed. Peter radios in and contacts American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) and tells her what has happened. He also tells her that he’d love to meet her for real, but that he’s going to jump out of the plane. Normally, that’s not a big deal, but his chute and the remaining chute on board have been destroyed. He knows it’s a death sentence, but he’d rather jump than burn. And so, wishing only for time to truly meet June, he jumps.


Film: The Sound of Music
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

You should know off the bat that I really hate The Sound of Music. I hate every glurge-soaked moment of this film, every over-eager, exaggerated expression of joy and forced laugh, every sugary, syrupy song, every gloppy, saccharine frame of this celluloid diabetic coma. I reserve the right to root for the Germans in two films: Das Boot and this one. I’m saying this at the top because obviously these opinions are going to dramatically influence what I have to say in the paragraphs to come.

Maria (Julie Andrews) is attempting to become a nun in an Austrian convent, but she’s far too much of a free spirit. Instead of staying at home and being penitent, she’s compelled to run off to the mountains and traipse around singing about how those mountains are filled with music. Of course they’re filled with music; she’s running around singing. When she comes back, she finds the nuns singing about how they should solve a problem like her. I have a suggestion. It involves a garrote made of piano wire.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Half an Hour in Hell

Film: Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I’ve said before that there is probably no event of human experience more fully explored in film than World War II. When it comes to World War II, there is probably no event more extensively written about and filmed than the Holocaust. I have, over the course of this odyssey, seen more than my share of Holocaust-based films. None have been as brutal, as powerful, or as morally shocking as Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). Even the overwhelming emotional assault of Shoah cannot compare with the stark atrocity depicted in this film.

Really, I’m left with very little to say about this film. Most of us have seen some of the images of the gaunt stick figures, the shattered bodies, the skulls, the crematoria, but being exposed to them in the past is no inoculation against seeing them here. These images are, of course, of critical importance for anyone to see—they record one of the darkest and most evil times in human history, an industry of human slaughter designed only to kill as efficiently as possible. Even these, though, are not the truly awful images that stay with the viewer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Joseph Conrad

Film: Apocalypse Now; Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players (Apocalypse); DVD from NetFlix on laptop (Hearts).

It’s not easy to write about Apocalypse Now because so much has already been written about it. I’ll come clean at the start here and say that I think it’s the best Vietnam War film ever made and one of the best war films in general. When I was younger, I’d have picked Full Metal Jacket. FMJ is underrated—the opening half is so good that people forget just how solid the second half is. But Apocalypse Now is the full package. It conveys not only the battlefield of the war, but the mental landscape as well. It’s as much a physical depiction of the war as it is an emotional reaction to it.

Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has returned to Saigon after rotating back to the U.S. following his first tour. He spends a week in a hotel room slowly going crazy until he is given an assignment. His mission is to commandeer a boat and take it up river into Cambodia and take out a man named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone off the rails from the more standard operating procedure of the U.S. military. Accompanying him on this mission are the crew of his boat: Chief (Albert Hall), who wants to keep his men safe and make it back; “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), a New Orleans saucier who really just wants to make food; “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), a young kid who possibly lied about his age to join the military; and Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), a world-class surfer-turned-sailor.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Alpha to Omega

Film: The Tree of Life
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

I won’t for a moment pretend that I fully understand everything that Terrence Malick was trying to do with The Tree of Life. The film I am most immediately put in mind of, though, is 2001: A Space Odyssey, although I also found moments where I thought of Koyaanisqatsi on a galactic scale. There is a great deal of power and beauty to the images that Malick gives us. This is a view of life in all aspects, from the very beginnings of the universe and the formation of our world to the individual lives of a handful of people. Much of this film looks like a nature documentary. Most puzzling to me is the fact that The Tree of Life is deeply philosophical, but I cannot determine if it is suggesting that the source of life is a deity or if there is no ultimate purpose to the universe and that life (all life) is its own reward. What’s more, I think it can be interpreted either way accurately. Religious or not, this film is all about the spirituality of existence.

This film is more or less about events in the life of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). As the film opens, we learn of the death of his younger brother. We flash forward to the present, and Jack is apologizing to his father (Brad Pitt) about something he said regarding his brother’s death. Jack is adrift in his life, apparently successful, but suddenly unfocused. He begins to think about his childhood (where he is played by Hunter McCracken, the real star of this film) and his relationship with his parents. His father is domineering and dominating while his mother (Jessica Chastain) is more open and loving.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Film: Marnie; Spellbound
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

I’m going to spoil Marnie. I’m going to be upfront about this on the off chance that you, Dear Reader, haven’t yet seen it and don’t want it spoiled. If that is the case, jump down to the second picture in this review, because I won’t be spoiling the second film. In the case of Marnie, though, I figure I’m doing everybody a service. This is a film that deserves to be spoiled. That’s not something I expected to say about a Hitchcock film, but this one deserves it for being the Freudian mess that it is.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is one messed up little chickadee. She works a con in which she gets hired as a bookkeeper or accountant at a firm, works there for awhile until the circumstances are right, and then steals as much as she can from the company safe. Then she changes her identity by putting her hair back to its natural blonde color, and moving to another city after visiting her rather cold and distant mother in Baltimore. She also has a significant problem with thunderstorms and can’t abide the color red. In fact, red drives her berserk.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The High Cost of Rice

Film: Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve said this before, but it’s relevant today: my favorite Kurosawa film is the one I’ve watched the most recently. What that means is if you ask me for my favorite Kurosawa film, as of right now, it’s Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai). Really, there aren’t any bad choices when it comes to Kurosawa’s great films. There’s no shame in picking this one, at least temporarily.

The story is simple enough that it was adapted into the classic Western The Magnificent Seven. While there are certainly cultural aspects of the film that are uniquely Japanese, the story itself translates to the American West very easily. We have a village of farmers who are constantly being harassed by a collection of bandits. Recognizing that they stole the village’s rice earlier in the year, the bandits decide that they will come back for the barley when it has been harvested. One of the farmers overhears this and returns to the village with the bad news. The old man of the village is consulted. He recommends that they hire samurai to fight off the bandits. However, since they have only food to offer, he suggests they look for hungry samurai.

Friday, December 7, 2012

London's Burning

Film: Fires Were Started (I Was a Fireman)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s always something fascinating to me about propaganda films, especially those that try to proclaim themselves something other than propaganda films. A case in point is director Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (also called I Was a Fireman). This is a wartime film, released during World War II about the Blitz of London and the men who risked their lives as firefighters every night in the aftermath of the latest raid. It’s not really a documentary, but rather a re-creation using actual fires lighted on bombed-out buildings. It’s more or less based on the specific hell these men and women when through on a nightly basis.

Really, what I’ve said above is pretty much the bulk of the film. The first half consists of a group of firemen relaxing and jawing with each other. They play pool and gather around the piano singing songs. This is particularly important since one of them, a man named Barrett, is new on the squad. The second half of the film is little more than the various firefighting teams heading out to battle the blazes caused by yet another bombing run. In particular, one fire threatens to be significant thanks to the location of live munitions near the blaze.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reality Scramble

Film: Total Recall
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

It may just be the small bits of latent fanboy in me, but I sometimes get a real kick out of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know he’s really at his best in roles that don’t involve a lot of dialogue (like The Terminator), but there’s a certain camp appeal to Arnie that I find entertaining. There’s always the potential for a couple of bad puns when he kills someone and you can general bet that he’ll yell, “Come on! Hurry up!” or something to that effect to whoever the woman in the picture is. Yes, a lot of his films are crap, and Arnold is never going to go down in history as a great thespian, but damn, he’s fun to watch.

And sometimes, he’s in really entertaining movies. A case in point is Total Recall, based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale.” On the surface, it couldn’t be simpler. A guy wants to take a trip to Mars where there is currently civil unrest. As it turns out, he’s an agent under deep cover, and the trip brings out some significant problems.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sister Sister

Film: Hannah and Her Sisters
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I like Woody Allen. I know his personal life is strange and a little creepy, but I really don’t care that much. The man makes a lot of really good films. He’s also remarkably consistent, putting out about a film a year for as long as I can remember without too many misses. Sure, when Allen is bad, he’s really bad. When he’s self-indulgent, he’s really self-indulgent. And when he misses, he misses big. But I respect that, too. When he misses, it’s because he’s swinging for the fences. Even when he doesn’t hit a home run, he still manages to get safely on base.

Hannah and Her Sisters is very Woody Allen. Even better, it’s very Woody Allen right in the heart of a string of some of his best films, back when almost everything he did came with multiple Oscar nominations. And with reason. His films were (and often still are) uniformly smart, funny, tragic, and poignant, blending everyday life, problems with relationships, and philosophical topics under one roof. This is one of the main reasons I like his films so much—they attempt a lot in one package, and often work on multiple levels very effectively.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ride Like an Egyptian

Film: Bab el Hadid (The Iron Gate; Cairo Station)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Egypt is a country with a strange identity. It’s an African country that most people don’t think of as an African country. It’s far more easily identified as an Arabic country, but there’s something Western about it as well. Bab el Hadid (alternately called The Iron Gate and Cairo Station) takes place in Cairo, and it presents an interesting blend of Arab and West in pursuit of a story that quickly becomes dark and then gets darker.

The owner of a newsstand in the train station in Cairo takes pity on a mildly crippled man named Qinawi (director Youssef Chahine), giving him a job selling newspapers around the station. This handicap, and his threadbare existence make him less than attractive to the many women who also work in the train station, but this doesn’t stop him from being filled with desire for them. In particular, he is obsessed with Hanuma (Hind Rostom), a woman who illegally sells cold drinks to train passengers (illegal because it takes business away from the man who runs the concession stands).

Monday, December 3, 2012

14 Will Get You 20

Film: Lolita
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I was tempted, very tempted, to put “comedy” in the tags for this review of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. Despite being most definitely a devious domestic drama and a twisted and disturbing romance, there is a definite sense of black humor running through the entire thing. In many ways, the situation is so perverse and the editing so severe because of its perversity and the Hays Code, it almost needs to be viewed as comic. I’m also going to annoy a few people with this review; in the 1001 Movies blogging community, Lolita is regularly seen as the least of Kubrick’s films on the list. I found a strange pleasure in it, a bit of cinematic schadenfreude.

For those who don’t know the story, allow me to sum it up very quickly: academic and quirkily named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) takes a position in the United States. The summer before, he moves to a small town and takes a room in the home of a widow named Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). He agrees to stay because of the seductive power of Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyons). Eventually, Humbert-squared marries Charlotte to get closer to his new step-daughter, and he eventually embarks on a sexual relationship with the young girl. This is pretty much the plot of Nabokov’s book as well. The only major change made by Kubrick is upping her age (roughly 14 in the film, 12 in the novel).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Family Life

Film: Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

For a brief time in my life, I was working on a Master’s in linguistic anthropology. One of the requirements was to take at least one class in each of the four main branches of anthro—linguistic, cultural, physical, and archaeology. I gravitated toward linguistic, naturally enough, but I liked cultural and archaeology as well. What consistently struck me about cultural anthropology was that despite many vast differences between cultures, there were also a number of similarities. This, more than anything, is the lesson I took from Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation).

The initial question for a film like this for a Western audience is “What does divorce look like in the Muslim world?” The stereotype, naturally is that Islamic women don’t have anything like the same rights and privileges afforded to women in Western democracies. Is this true? I honestly don’t know, but Jodaeiye Nader az Simin makes a pretty compelling case that a lot of what we’ve been told about life in Iran isn’t exactly the gospel truth. We start with our troubled couple, Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). They have received their visas to leave the country after a long wait and have only 40 days remaining on them. Simin is desperate to leave the country, particularly for the fate of her young daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). However, Nader refuses to leave because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.