Sunday, June 30, 2013

Month 42 Status Report

June has come and gone. I managed my goal of 25 films off the list, barely, but I made it just the same. This leaves me with 85 films to review, which will almost certainly not happen in the 92 days leading up to the release of the next edition of The List.

That's okay, though. My plan was to leave a film or two back anyway. I didn't want to finish only to have to restart again a week or two later because more films were added. No, I'll still be done by the end of the year, but I won't finish up before the 10th version arrives.

June was a good month--I got through a few films I was worried about, for one thing. I also took out the longest film I had left, which always feels like an accomplishment.

The summer months await. July will see another 25 (at least) going down, and with luck, I'll do a couple more than that. The issue I'm starting to face is films that I've simply avoided up to this point. There are still some I'm excited to see and others I'm excited to see again. But there are still a couple that worry me or that I know I dislike. More troubling, though, are the films that I simply have no interest in. I'll need to work through as many of those this coming month as I can. The good news with those is that they also tend to be the films that surprise me the most.

Riding in Style

Film: Le Carrosse D’Or (The Golden Coach)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

How do I explain a film like Le Carrosse D’Or (The Golden Coach)? Roger Ebert used to talk about films that had what he called an “idiot plot,” a film in which the whole plot could be short circuited by someone saying or doing a specific thing at one point in the course of the film. In the case of this film, the issue is entirely one of personal pride. Everyone has an ego the size of a truck, and the entire film is these egos banging into each other.

So here goes: in a small area of South America, a magnificent golden coach is delivered to Ferdinand (Duncan Lamont), the viceroy of this Spanish colony. Also on the boat is a troupe of actors, the most relevant of whom is Camilla (Anna Magnani), the star of the show and evidently the most irresistible woman in the world. Also on the boat is her current squeeze Felipe (Paul Campbell).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Not Even the Cleavers are Really the Cleavers

Film: Far from Heaven
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

One of the things I have really enjoyed about watching all of these films on the 1001 Movies list is the number of interesting discoveries I’ve made. Not only have I found a bunch of films that I really like, I’ve also discovered directors whose work I will now start seeking out. Todd Haynes is one such director. I’ve seen two of his films now and while the biggest similarity is the presence of Julianne Moore, there is a strange connection between them. Haynes comes across as a more socially acceptable David Lynch, or at least one who hits some of the same topics without all of the concomitant weirdness that goes along with Lynch. In other words, if you want to like Lynch or think you should but just can’t, try something by Todd Haynes.

What makes a film like Far from Heaven interesting is that it deals with some modern issues, but in the context of the 1950s. What we can freely and openly talk about—in this case homosexuality and interracial relationships—were taboos to the point of the ideas being non-existent in the world of this film.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Less God, More Devil

Film: Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God White Devil)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o Diablo na Terra do Sol (Black God White Devil) belongs to a special class and category of film. This is a “dust people” film. Everyone in the film lives in a blasted wasteland where it seems nothing should be able to survive. The men act like impoverished men, meaning they do everything they can to dig themselves out of the pit they live in and waste their money and effort foolishly. They all dream big and exist with a sullen look in their eyes. The women are beautiful in a way that only suffering can create and frequently look like they are about to collapse. It’s the sort of film that makes you thirsty watching it; everything is covered in a thin (or a thick) layer of grime, and the people eat with their fingers from bowls by grasping bits of food and throwing it into their mouths.

So it’s one of those films, where we will witness the poor and downtrodden become poorer and more downtrodden as life and the wealthy conspire against them, leaving them with nothing but their pure and honest faith to pull them through. Within the first 20 minutes, our main character Manuel (Geraldo Del Ray) brings 12 cows to market, but has four die from bad water and snake bites. He’s told by his boss that the dead cows are his loss and he is responsible for them. Oh, the downtroddening starts right away. So it was incredibly surprising when our poor, oppressed hero whips out his machete and kills his boss. Really, I was expecting something like Vidas Secas and found myself smack in the middle of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Watching Oscar: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Film: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Of all the movies I like a lot, there is none that I’ve gotten more grief for than Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. At least three other bloggers have metaphorically rolled their eyes and groaned when I have brought this up as a great film. I stand by my assertion that this is a film worthy of respect. I like it, perhaps more than I should, but I like it all the same. It’s the sort of film that I never get tired of seeing. Having watched it, I’d happily consent to watch it again immediately.

War movies are a genre I don’t love or hate, but I genuinely love naval warfare films. Many of my favorite films in the military genre are either prison films or naval films. Master and Commander (I’m shortening the title from here on out) takes place in the time of wooden ships and iron men, smack in the middle of the conflict between England and France, when Napoleon was in charge of a good chunk of Europe. With Europe under Bonaparte’s boot, the war became one of naval engagements far from home.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cycle Killer

Film: Sombre
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I try to find the good in everything I watch. It may not always seem that way, but I genuinely do. Because of that, it’s not that easy for me to say that Sombre is an ugly film. It’s ugly to look at, ugly in effect, and ugly in intent. It’s the sort of film that makes me want to take a shower after watching it; I felt unclean, not unlike I felt after watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s no coincidence that the two films cover much the same territory.

Ostensibly, Sombre is about a man name Jean (Marc Barbe) who follows the Tour de France in his car. As it happens, he also strangles women as he goes. It appears initially that he finds a victim, usually a prostitute, at each stage of the Tour and kills her either before or during sex, then dumps the body before moving on. This is displayed to us in the most brutal way possible—there’s no music, nothing really but the really awful noises of someone losing her life at the hands of a psychopath.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Messiah Complex Blues

Film: Ordet
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I wanted to say that I tend to have a mixed reaction to the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was genuinely moved by The Passion of Joan of Arc and genuinely bored by Vampyr, although it did have a distinctive look. And then I remembered that Dreyer was also responsible for Gertrud, a film that I believe concerns itself with the romantic life of mannequins. I went into Ordet with some hopes, but I tried my best to keep them moderate. Dreyer’s work has moved me to question why I watch these films, but it’s also given me one of the truly remarkable film experiences I’ve had doing this.

Ordet is a film that seems to touch more on the Passion side of things, but certainly has some connection to Vampyr as well. It is very much a film about religious faith and the lack of faith. It is also about the problems caused by differences of faith, familial duty, miracles, and insanity. Sounds pretty good, right?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Manic Pixie Dream Mentor

Film: Housekeeping
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I admit that for a time watching Housekeeping, I was interested in what would and might happen. And then I came to a stark realization two-thirds of the way in. It’s to my shame that it took me that long to figure out what should have been completely obvious much earlier. Housekeeping is a manic pixie dream girl movie with the big twist being that her target/victim isn’t a guy who needs to wake up to the wider world but her niece.

Two young girls who live with their mother (Margot Pinvidic) are suddenly and abruptly taken to visit her mother (Georgie Collins). It’s evident pretty quickly that the mother is abandoning the girls at their grandmother’s house, but it’s a little more surprising when the mom then takes the car she borrowed and drives it off a cliff.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Out for a Spin

Film: Breaking Away
Format: DVD from Western Reserve Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Breaking Away ranks in my mother’s top however-many of films. Mom loves this film. I’m not exactly sure why it resonates so completely with her; fortunately, this blog doesn’t have to try to explain the tastes of my mom or of anyone else. Breaking Away is a classic underdog story, although there are some important differences that raise it above the genre.

The film takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. The end of the film spirals around the Little 500, an annual bike race at the university. The bike race is based roughly on the Indy 500. Teams of four in this case ride a bike round and round a track. One of those significant differences between this film and the typical sports underdog film is this—the Little 500 is mentioned several times in the film, but is only really relevant in the third act. We don’t spend the whole film building to it—it just happens at the end.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Old College Try

Film: Monsters University
Format: Sycamore Theater.

Read this blog for a couple of weeks and you start to figure out that I don’t go to the theater that often. Read it for half a year, and you’d guess I never go. My trips to the theater are pretty limited. I don’t love movies in the theater. I mean, I like the giant screen and the surround sound. I don’t like the everyone else in the place. Make it a film designed for kids and fill the theater with children who haven’t learned that they aren’t sitting at home and should shut the hell up, and, well…that’s why I don’t go to the theater that much.

However, Kid #1 is off to Atlanta today for five weeks of intensive ballet. Monsters University opened. It was a last family night together until the end of July, so we went—the first theater visit of 2013 for yours truly. I didn’t go in with massive expectations. Sure, it’s a Pixar film, but it’s also a sequel. Were we going to get Toy Story 3 or Cars 2?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Cartier's is More of a Lunch Place

Film: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Let’s get the unpleasant business out of the way right off the top. Yes, Mickey Rooney’s depiction of Y.I. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is unfortunate, ugly, and racist. No, I don’t think it was specifically intended that way, but it’s absolutely how it plays out. Times change, opinions change, behavior changes. We move on. Pretty much everyone involved in the film has commented that he or she wishes it were not the way it is. In one sense, it’s a good thing that we’ve evolved socially enough that we can be made uncomfortable by an ugly stereotype or a character made specifically comic because of his national origin. On the other hand, it puts a pretty solid black mark on what is otherwise considered a classic and what is one of the crown jewels in Audrey Hepburn’s catalog.

I wanted to address that off the bat because blatant racism is something I’ve taken films to task for in the past, even when such racism was a product of its time. I get that we’ve evolved enough to understand it was wrong and that gives us a leg up on where the film industry was 50 years ago. Bully for us. The upcoming release of The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp in the role of a Native American shows that we also haven’t progressed that much beyond the whitewashing of a lot of roles. So, now that we acknowledge this and decry it, let’s move on to the rest of the film. At the very least, the ugly stereotype exists only in bits and pieces and not center stage as in many of the works of D.W. Griffith.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

Film: Safar e Ghandahar (Kandahar/The Sun Behind the Moon)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

My wife and kids got me a Blu-Ray player for Father’s Day. Sadly, I don’t have any Blu-Rays to play on it yet because it’s too new. While I’m certain I will get some eventually, I figured it would be a good idea to press it into service once it was hooked up, and since it plays DVDs as well as Blu-Rays, the latest offering from NetFlix it is. That latest offering is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Safar e Ghandahar (Kandahar, also called The Sun Behind the Moon), the sort of film that tends to get a filmmaker like Makhmalbaf put on some sort of list for assassination. I could do worse for an inaugural disc.

It’s important that this film, released in 2001, chronicles life in Afghanistan before the current war there but after the takeover by the Taliban. While this is the story of a particular woman who has come to Afghanistan, it is also the story of what has happened in that country as a result of the brutal Taliban regime. If you haven’t been paying attention over the last decade and a half, that means theocracy, the oppression of women, and all of the evil this entails.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Film: She’s Gotta Have It
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I like a lot of Spike Lee’s films. I think sometimes he loses himself in his message, but I appreciate what he is capable of. When Spike Lee is on, he’s as good as any other director out there. When he arrived on the scene and especially with the release of Do the Right Thing, he became the de facto voice of the urban African American filmmaker whether he deserved or wanted that title or not. His first full-length feature was She’s Gotta Have It, which shows both the potential and the mistakes of a young filmmaker capable of doing some pretty great things.

Fortunately for Lee and his audience, this film, while filled with the ambition of a new filmmaker, restrains itself by keeping the story extremely simple. The ambition is everywhere else outside of the narrative. Put simply, She’s Gotta Have It is the story of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the three men in her life. Each of the three men have a sexual relationship with Nola and each of them wants her exclusively. Nola, however, finds no reason to choose between the three of them and finds something of value in each of them.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cut from a Different Cloth

Film: Edward Scissorhands
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

About half of the classes I teach are English composition. One of the problem areas many students have when it comes to writing a paper is writing a good conclusion. I tell them, because it’s true, that a good paper with a bad conclusion is like a good movie with a bad ending. When the ending punks out, it ruins the entire experience. Every time I talk about this with a class, the movie I have in mind is Edward Scissorhands. While melodramatic, this is a film that more than any other I can think of is Tim Burton at the height of his visionary powers. The fact that it muffs the landing makes it a complete tragedy. Because of this, I can think of at least three Burton films I’d have rather seen on the list: Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Big Fish. If you press me, I’d rather watch Sleepy Hollow and Peewee’s Big Adventure, too.

That’s not easy to say because Edward Scissorhands has a lot going for it. When I call this the height of Burton’s vision, I mean that sincerely. The look of Edward Scissorhands is a bizarre combination of gothic and idealized Eisenhower America. It’s cute punk, the basic palette of Beetlejuice with an overlay of pastel blues and pinks. It shouldn’t work, but it does almost in spite of itself.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Black Widow

Film: De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Paul Verhoeven’s De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man) is what critics would call “a sexy, stylish thriller,” and it really is that. It’s also very strange. Pushed in one direction, this is a modern film noir. Pushed the same distance in a different direction, it’s a supernatural thriller. As it stands, it’s most definitely a psychological thriller with a significant dose of noir elements. But it also deals with religion, fate, and premonition.

Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbe—the character is named after the author of the book this film is based on) is a somewhat alcoholic author starting to be bothered by bizarre dreams. He heads off to the south of Holland for a speaking engagement at a literary society, mostly because it’s evident that he needs the money desperately despite his success as an author. The talk goes pretty well, but he discovers himself drawn to a woman named Christine Halslag (Renee Soutendijk) who has the unnerving habit of filming him with a hand-held camera. Christine can be generously described as “striking” and more realistically described as “weird looking.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

In the Long Grass

Film: Les Roseaux Sauvages (Wild Reeds)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It would seem that despite watching films made a good three decades apart, I can’t seem to get away from the French war with Algeria lately. Les Roseaux Sauvages (Wild Reeds) is set firmly in this time period, and we discover this within the first couple of minutes. The film opens at a marriage. The two being married are not central characters to the film, but they establish the time and the Algerian conflict for us immediately. The older brother of Serge, we learn, asked three different girls to marry him. One agrees, which gets him a three-day pass for the wedding. He hopes to use this time as a chance to escape the war in Algeria.

This is more or less a chance to introduce us to the main cast. The first of our players is Francois (Gael Morel), a young man at a boarding school. The aforementioned Serge (Stephane Rideau) is another student there. Francois is friends with Maite Alvarez (Elodie Bouchez), the daughter of the two boys’ literature teacher (Michele Moretti). She is initially important because, as an anti-war communist, she might be able to help Serge’s brother avoid returning to the war. She refuses to help, which leads to an unpleasant situation. The final important character here is Henri (Frederic Gorny), who is French and white, but was born in Algeria and has come to France to avoid the conflict.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

To Coin a Phrase

Film: Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There always has to be a first. When you look at a given style of film or a particular movement, there’s a first. There are times when you can trace the genesis of a new style to earlier films that lead up to it, but even in these cases, there’s still a film that is the one that starts the movement. With the French style of cinema verite, that film in question is the one that coined the term, Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer).

Almost as if to forestall anyone going back and looking for the influences of this unique documentary, our filmmakers Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch announce at the start of the film the previous films that they find themselves most indebted to. From there, they announce their basic premise: they will film real people discussing their lives. This, they feel is a grand experiment. Their hope is to determine if people can truly act and speak naturally in the presence of a camera filming their every move and facial expression. For this, they created the term cinema verite, or “film truth.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mommie (Kinda) Dearest

Film: Secrets & Lies
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies is the second film in two days to completely blindside me. I knew virtually nothing about it going in, and now, having seen it, I’m not sure how it passed completely under my radar. I mean, this is a film that nabbed five Oscar nominations, and those nominations were in real categories. It has a remarkably simple premise and spins it through the lives of real people, producing something startling and beautiful.

The story is deceptively simple. A young black woman with the amazingly awesome name of Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) has recently lost her mother. She was adopted as a child. With both of her parents dead, she decides it is time to look up her birth mother. See, pretty simple premise.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


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

Ray Lawrence is incredibly frustrating as a director. His first feature film, Bliss, was released in 1985. His second, Lantana, was released in 2001. Let me put that into a little bit of perspective for you. When Ray Lawrence’s first film came out, I was graduating from high school. When his second film came out, I had been married for 10 years. If Lantana is any indication, Lawrence has a steady eye and a great aptitude for storytelling. How frustrating then that his output is something like a film every 10 years. It’s as if he went to the Terrence Malick school of film releases. We can hope that eventually he’ll hit a massive creative spurt like Malick, who currently has three films in post.

Regardless, Lantana is one of that strange subsets of dramas that concerns groups of people loosely connected who suddenly find themselves dramatically influencing each other’s lives. The most obvious comparison here is with something like Short Cuts or Magnolia, and those two are the ones most commonly cited when looking at Lantana. There’s a pseudo-Short Cuts connection also in that Lawrence’s third film, Jindabyne, is a fuller exploration of one of the stories used in Altman’s film. Regardless, what we have here is an event that affects the lives of four married and divorced couples. For me, that means a very difficult summary in trying to keep it all straight.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Seduction of the Innocent(s)

Film: Tristana
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Getting through all of the films by Luis Bunuel on the list has been something of a chore. I’ve admittedly liked a few of them, but several have been noteworthy in their wretchedness, and most just passed over me. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s way too much Bunuel on The List. We can keep Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and maybe Viridiana. The rest can pretty much go scratch, including tonight’s film, Tristana. In the interest of full disclosure, I attempted to watch this last night, but fell hard asleep 30 minutes in and woke up only at the end. This doesn’t really bode well, considering I wasn’t that tired going in.

It’s a tried and true story. A young woman named Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) loses her mother. She is put into the care of a man named Don Lope (Fernando Rey), who has agreed to take care of Tristana. Eventually, though, he realizes that Tristana is a woman and no longer a girl. This distinctly changes their relationship from father/daughter to one much more to husband/wife. Since Don Lope is her guardian, this is creepy to the extreme. This comes more from the relationship itself and less from the vast age difference between the two of them.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Watching Oscar: The Moon is Blue

Film: The Moon is Blue
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Scandals of past eras are often really entertaining. It’s incredibly funny that a nothing little romp like The Moon is Blue not only created a massive scandal, but also helped take down the Hays Code. The Moon is Blue was so controversial that three states—Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio—actually banned this film for being salacious. It is a little be racy, but only in its conversation. It’s sort of a screwball comedy that is more about sex than it is about love. But that’s as far as it goes—a little very mildly racy talk—and nothing more.

There’s not really a lot to the film in terms of story. Architect Donald Gresham (William Holden) spots attractive young woman Patty O’Neill (Maggie McNamara) in the lobby of the Empire State Building. He’s immediately attracted to her and follows her up to the observation deck. After a little verbal flirting back and forth, it’s evident that the two are attracted to each other and have been paying attention to each other. She noticed what he bought in the store, and he noticed what she was thinking about buying and bought it for her.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Film: L’Eclisse (The Eclipse)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on various players.

I’m kind of dreading the next 600 or so words, because I don’t feel like I have anything to say about Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (The Eclipse). I’ve had similar problems with Antonioni in the past. His films tend to be filled with a lot of stuff not happening, and not much of a plot. That’s certainly the case with this one. But, I’m game to try, so here we go.

A woman named Vittoria (Antonioni favorite Monica Vitti) breaks up with her boyfriend Riccardo (Frincisco Rabal). He tries to cling to the relationship, but eventually, they complete the break-up. Vittoria then goes to visit her mother (Lilla Brignone), who hangs around the Rome stock exchange monitoring what her broker is doing for her. Her broker is Piero (Alain Delon), who takes a moment between making scads of lire to introduce himself to Vittoria. Vittoria tries to gain some consolation from her mother about her recent break-up, but her mom is far too involved in the money she just made.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Film: The Princess Bride
Format: LogoTV on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I started this project, I knew that eventually I would get to my 1,000th review. For this sort of a milestone, I wanted something special, something I knew I loved. In that sense, I’ve been saving The Princess Bride since I started for just this moment. It’s not in my top-5 or top-10 of greatest films, but it’s at or near the top in terms of movies that make me happy, that make me appreciate the fact that movies exist. I can’t watch it without smiling the whole time.

For the three people who haven’t seen this, here’s a quick synopsis: the entire story is framed by a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a story to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). At first, the grandson is not interested at all, but as the story goes on, he becomes more and more involved in the story. This framing story intrudes now and then, but never in a way that damages the story itself.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hot Tati

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

There are times when I feel like the last defender of the work of Jacques Tati. While today’s film, Playtime (sometimes written as two words or as one word with a capitalized “t”), is rightly appreciated by film fans, I sometimes get the sense that among 1001 Movies bloggers, Tati has few fans. More than once, I’ve read or heard that comment that three Tati films on The List is at least one too many. I can’t disagree more. I find Tati’s work sweet and endearing, silly, poignant, bizarre, and often infused with subtle humor.

Playtime is very much a Jacques Tati film, the sort of thing that only he could get away with making. From a lesser or different filmmaker, we would never put up with an extended sequence where we essentially stand outside an apartment building and hear almost no dialogue. With Tati, it all works.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sex for Fun and (Mostly) Profit

Film: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

This one is going to be interesting. On the one hand, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Howard Hawks at close to his best, one of Marilyn Monroe’s few films, and Jane Russell consistently stealing the show. On the other hand, this film represents pretty much everything I hate about the sensibilities of 1950s comedies, romances, and musicals. There’s a lot here to like, but a lot here to object to as well.

This is a pretty standard late-screwball-era screwball. There’s all manner of people getting the wrong ideas from harmless actions and people acting stupidly. Plus there’s a shit-ton of singing and dancing. Singing duo Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) preform a quick number and we’re then introduced to them. Lorelei is interested only in wealthy men, which is why she’s being romanced by the nerdy but screamingly rich Gus Esmond, Jr. (Tommy Noonan). Her plan is for them to be married in Paris, but Gus is forced to stay home by his father when Lorelei and Dorothy go on tour across the pond.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Knowledge is Power

Film: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

The more I watch Hitchcock, the more I like a lot of his work. At the same time, I also realize what a limited palette Hitchcock had. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a ridiculously entertaining film, but in many ways it’s no different from many other Hitchcock films. There are elements of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest and Rear Window packed into this film. What this one has that the others don’t is exotic locations. Hitchcock was all about ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances, mistaken identities, and people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Josephine (Doris Day), and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are on an exciting trip. After a medical conference in Paris, they’ve seen Madrid, Lisbon, and Casablanca and are now heading to Marrakesh before they head back home to Indianapolis. On the bus the meet a man named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), who is friendly but fairly mysterious. While Ben has no problem with him, Jo is suspicious of him. She’s more suspicious when Louis begs off of the dinner he promised them, then shows up at the same restaurant and ignores them completely.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Friend in Need

Film: Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I’m a big Dennis Hopper fan, and I have also liked everything I’ve seen from Wim Wenders. I state this up front, because those two facts will likely color anything I have to say about Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend). It’s also true that this film owes a huge debt to film noir, and I love film noir. You should be sensing a pattern here. I went into this film with huge expectations despite myself. When a film has this much going in a direction I like, it’s too easy to be disappointed when it isn’t perfect. I try to tamp my expectations down when I can, but I couldn’t this time.

What I was most curious about is how Wim Wenders would interpret film noir as a style. Noir is all about the crime and the grit and the seediness of human experience. Wenders, on the other hand, seems to be all about human connection. This has at least been true in the films of his aht I have seen and enjoyed. Those two ideas don’t necessarily fit well together, so a blending of them was going to either be spectacular or a hot mess.

Monday, June 3, 2013

If You Go Carryin' Pictures of Chairman Mao...

Film: Lan Feng Zheng (The Blue Kite)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When one watches films only from one’s own cultural perspective, it results in an insular, narrow view of the wider world. Films like Lan Feng Zheng thus become important as a way to connect with the broader history of the world. I’m not old enough to know much about Mao’s reign in China; most of what I know comes from The Last Emperor, and it’s been years since I’ve seen that. Lan Feng Zheng takes place during three major Chinese revolutions and shows specifically how these affected the lives of the common people, or at least the lives of one particular family.

The film is told through the perspective of Tietou (Xiaoman Chang as a teen and narrator; Wenyao Zhang as a child; Tian Yi as a toddler). We start with the marriage of his parents, which happens just after the revolution that brought Mao and communism to power in China. Shortly after the revolution came the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged people to express their opinions of the Party, ostensibly with an eye toward improvement. In truth, it was a ploy by Mao to get critics to expose themselves. Those who severely criticized the Party were rounded up and sent to labor camps.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Watching Oscar: Moneyball

Film: Moneyball
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I had three immediate thoughts on Moneyball when I watched it. First and foremost is that people love underdog stories. Since this is a baseball movie, there are large parts of the world where it will probably not have found much of an audience, but a good underdog story always works. For as much as we love success, we really love success at the expense of someone powerful. There is something ultimately satisfying about seeing someone stick it to the man. Mostly, I think that’s because most of us are underdogs in one sense or another—my guess is that everyone reading along here doesn’t have millions in the bank or a lucrative recording contract or ideas for dozens of patents. So there’s something attractive about seeing someone we can relate to make it in a big way.

The moment after I had that first thought came my second—in the movies, the underdog almost always wins for a reason. If he or she doesn’t win the big game, or succeed in business (with or without really trying), or survive the battle against all odds, or whatever, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. No one wants to see the school with the great football team beat up the guys who haven’t won a game in 10 years. They certainly don’t want to get to know the losers on a more personal level and then see them get annihilated.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ghost Story

Film: Ugetsu Monogatari (Ugetsu; Tales of Ugetsu)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Following the 1001 Movies List has taken me any number of places I couldn’t have predicted going. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it’s very much a bad thing. I can’t say it hasn’t been interesting, though. Ugetsu Monogatari (typically called Ugetsu but listed as Tales of Ugetsu in The Book) is a film I would probably never have chosen to watch. That would have been a shame.

This is a surprisingly complex story for what is at its heart little more than a ghost story. Like many a Japanese period piece, Ugetsu Monogatari takes place in the heart of the samurai era during a vicious civil war. However, the film does not focus on the samurai. Instead, our time is spent with two peasant families. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter and hopes that the coming war will increase his prices and make him rich. His wife Miyagi (Kinoyu Tanaka) is satisfied with the money they have and would like him to stay home and protect her and their child Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). Their neighbors are Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Tobei wishes for nothing more than to be a samurai, and earns a living by assisting Genjuro and thus getting some of his profit.