Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Month 43 Status Report

July was a big month, and it's not quite done. As of right now, I took 28 films off The List this month, including a few of the longer ones I had left. There's a chance I'll put up one more review tonight, taking the total to 29. In either case, I've got fewer than 60 movies left on the current List (I'll be at 57 or 56, tonight's potential review depending).

I'm in an interesting position--it's entirely possible that I could finish the list before the release of the next edition, which promises to hold 50 new films in recognition of this being the 10th edition. I've decided in the past that I'll leave at least one film (The Last Picture Show at the very least) until the new volume comes out. Were it not for that, I likely would finish before September 30. As it stands, that date will likely push back to late November or early December.

Most important to me, the goal I ultimately settled on was finishing in four years. Even with the continual addition of new films (I think I started at like 1056 and have seen that balloon up to 1103, and potentially 1153 this year), I'll still make it barring any serious trauma. It's a good reminder that such goals are achievable, provided that one works toward them consistently and maintains a level of focus. I realize I now sound like a moral from the G.I. Joe cartoon (and knowing is half the battle), but it's true in this case.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Solipsism is Its Own Reward

Film: Signs and Wonders
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

As someone who lacks belief in the supernatural, I find a film like Signs & Wonders (sometimes written as Signs and Wonders) both interesting and incomprehensible. I have a complete and total disbelief in signs or portents of a mystical nature. I don’t believe in premonitions or prophecy. Signs & Wonders is a film that trades on the belief of such phenomena. That’s strangely compelling to me specifically because I don’t buy into it, and I’m interested in the mind that does. At the same time, it’s difficult for me to understand specifically because I do not understand it.

Alec (Stellan Skarsgard) works evidently as a stockbroker. His wife Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) works at the American consulate in Greece. It’s an interesting (“interesting” in the Chinese proverb sense) time in Greece during the period of this story. It happens just as the Greek military junta (maintained by American influence) is coming to an end, putting the country in a period of flux. The two have a happy marriage and two kids. This hasn’t stopped Alec from having a torrid and passionate affair with Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger), an American co-worker.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Betting Against the House

Film: Atlantic City
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Film noir is an American film style, but it was defined by the French. That being the case, it’s not that surprising that a French director would pick up on the style and do something with it. What Louis Malle decided to do was make Atlantic City, a very strange neo-noir. This is an odd movie, one that manages to strike at the heart of what a noir should be but also turns out to be something different.

It starts with a guy named Dave (Robert Joy) stealing a package of drugs from a pickup in Philadelphia. He takes the package to Atlantic City in the hopes of making money by selling off what he’s found. There’s a part of him that realizes that he’ll be pursued, so he looks for a way to ditch the stash quickly. It doesn’t help that he’s got the additional baggage of Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), who is pregnant. In Atlantic City, they hunt down Sally (Susan Sarandon). This is awkward because Sally is simultaneously Chrissie’s sister and Dave’s wife.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Don't Like Mondays

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

You can say whatever you like about Roger Corman, but you have to admit that the man has an eye for talent. Corman started the careers of a lot of directors. There are a lot of recognizable names who worked as directors on Corman films either early in their careers or at the beginnings of their lives as directors. These aren’t just recognizable names, either—we’re talking about people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. The list also includes Peter Bogdanovich and one of his first films: Targets.

This is a film that I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I watched the documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue about the American horror film industry. Targets features for a few moments in that film, and it looked intriguing enough that I both wanted to see it immediately and wanted to hold off on seeing it by way of anticipation. Well, it showed up in the mail today, so the wait was finally over.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Brokeback Fuji

Film: Gohatto (Taboo)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

The List takes me to some pretty odd places. This is okay, because I tend to like odd places. Gohatto (Taboo) combines two words that I didn’t expect to see in the same place. Those two words are “gay” and “samurai.” I have no idea of the historical accuracy of this film in how it depicts this relationship; sam-sex couples here are viewed with some distance but no real animosity.

It is a time of war and a militia is looking for new recruits. At a particular dojo, two men are selected. Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) and Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda) are the two selected, and Kano is chosen to perform an execution the next day. It’s also evident that there is a great deal of attraction between these two new recruits. In particular, Tashiro has determined that he is in love with the younger, effeminate-looking man. Kano seems initially antagonistic to this relationship but eventually acquiesces to it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Off the Diving Board

Film: Deep End
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

When it comes to films about sexual awakenings, there is no real way to pigeonhole what’s possible. Much sexual coming-of-age films are comedies, and rightly so, since there is comedy both light and dark in the sexual fumblings of the inexperienced. But there are much darker tales as well. Sex itself can be pretty dark business; there’s a definite connection between sex and death and between pleasure and pain. Deep End is a film that explores this darkness and does so in the context of the sexual awakenings of a young man.

Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is a 15-year-old school dropout who gets a job in a public bathhouse. The idea of a public bathhouse is exactly what it sounds like; while some of the clientele may go there for a bath or a swim, what’s really sold is a little something-something on the side by the attendants like Mike. He is taken under the wing of Susan (Jane Asher), who is about ten years older than he is. It’s implied that some of the clients will tip heavily for sexual favors, and Susan makes an agreement to switch clients with Mike depending on the preference of the bather. His baptism into this world of bathroom sex is immediate—his first client (Diana Dors) tips him significantly for allowing her to violently thrust his head into her chest while she talks about soccer players.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction

Film: The Age of Innocence
Format: DVD from Schmaling Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I can’t know what was going on in Martin Scorsese’s mind when it came to directing The Age of Innocence, based on a novel by Edith Wharton. I imagine, though, that his decision was made in part as a way to earn something like greater credibility. He certainly had a good deal of credibility before 1993, but it would be easy to pigeonhole his career as a director who made a very specific type of film. Even in his non-gangster pictures, many of his characters act like gangsters. The Age of Innocence is a complete break with the sort of films Scoresese was known for. I wonder what others thought when he was working on it. Would it come out as a Reconstruction Era Taxi Driver?

It didn’t, of course. The Age of Innocence is, as far as I can tell, faithful to Wharton’s novel. If Scorsese was looking for respect, or wanted to offer proof that his skill as a director wasn’t limited to people trying to kill each other and criminal acts, this was the perfect vehicle him.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


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

Lola is one of those films that I’ve seen and immediately wonder why I bothered. I don’t mean that this is a bad film, because it’s not. I just question the reason it was a film that made my life incomplete without seeing. Lola is a pleasant enough film and it presages Demy’s later musicals without question, but I simply can’t see it as something essential to my well being and knowledge as a film viewer.

Interestingly, Lola is named after a character who is actually named Cecile and is merely one of the foci of the film. She’s central to the story of a couple of our other characters and has her story as well. None of the stories in the film are deep, each one is mildly interesting, but none of them have a significant impact. Even the strange little crime angle doesn’t add much in the way of tension, interest, or anything else.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ironic Title is Ironic

Film: Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (Happy Together)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t have a vast amount of experience with the films of Wong Kar Wai. Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (Happy Together) is the third of his films that I have seen, the others being In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express. Based on this small sample, it would seem that his films are about love, or more aptly about simple human connection, which frequently manifests itself as love, searching for love, or at least as sex. At the same time, it occurs to me that all of these films are not just about connection, but a lack of connection—an unfulfilled desire to make a connection that simply doesn’t happen.

That’s certainly the case with Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit. Fai Yui-fai (Tony Leung Chui Wang) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are a couple who leave Hong Kong and travel to Argentina. This trip seems to be something undertaken as a way to save their relationship, and it’s immediately evident that it didn’t work. Ho is abusive and unfaithful; he frequently brings men to the place Fai works almost to show off his infidelity. It soon becomes apparent that this is a pattern with the two of them. After weeks or months of this behavior, Ho eventually says “Let’s start over,” and Fai always goes along with it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

No-So-Darkest Africa

Film: Yeelen (Brightness)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There is a small irony in my watching Yeelen (Brightness) today. Just a couple of days ago, I made the comment that there are films on The List that seem to be on the list specifically because they are obscure and difficult to find. At first blush, Yeelen has that sort of feel to it; one of the first images we see is a chicken hung from a post being burned alive. This film is out of the landlocked African nation of Mali, not the place one thinks of when it comes to film. I won’t go so far as to say these are strikes against the film, but I was initially quite wary.

I should not have been. Yeelen is a film that will strike many a Westerner as strange. This is mostly because, well, it’s a fantasy tale and fantasy tales from other cultures always seem a little weird. Our own ancient stories feel natural to us; those of other lands are often not only strange, but are incomprehensible. Fortunately, Yeelen, for all of its cultural differences end evident oddity, is also a story that fits in the main with the hero tales of more familiar cultures.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Chicken Dance

Film: Stroszek
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve said a number of films that I have watched for this project are genuinely reflective of real life, but I don’t know if there’s a film I have encountered that does this more effectively than Werner Herzog’s Stroszek It bears some similarity to a film like El Norte, at least in its basic theme of immigrants coming to America in search of a better life and not finding it, but Stroszek injects a great deal of humor into this basic premise, mixing the potential humor of the situation with the tragedy that soon becomes evident.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is released from prison, having committed a crime that we are not privy to. He is told that his problems seem come directly from his alcoholism and is warned not to continue drinking. He doesn’t heed this advice and walks from prison directly into one of his old bar hangouts. It is here that he meets Eva (Eva Mattes), a down-on-her-luck prostitute. He gives her a place to live, which causes immediate trouble with her two aggressive pimps.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sometimes, I Hate this Pastime

Film: Zu Fruh, Zu Spat (Too Early, Too Late/Trop Tot, Trop Tard)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I dread films like Zu Fruh, Zu Spat (Trop Tot, Trop Tard in most places, Too Early, Too Late in English). I knew it was going to be a rough ride, and while I’ve certainly watched films that have been more difficult or that have tried my patience more significantly, there’s a level of annoyance at a film like this that I find difficult to express adequately.

See, here’s the thing. My habit in reviewing a film is to open up two browser tabs as reference points. One page I keep open is the IMDB page for a given film. This is used mainly for reference with the names of actors and their roles in the film. The other is the film’s Wikipedia entry (yes, I know I tell my students not to use Wiki pages, but they’re fine for quick reference, and I’m doing no real research). I use the Wikipedia page to keep myself honest with the order things happened. It’s a plot touchstone, ensuring that I more or less get the plot summary correct. This film has no Wikipedia page. Think about that for a second. Some of the most obscure crap ever made has a page on that site, but Zu Fruh, Zu Spat does not.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Arrested Development

Film: Big
Format: VHS from Seneca Public Library through interlibrary loan projected on screen.

Big is the film that made people sit up and start taking Tom Hanks seriously. His career before Big had some good movies, but they were all comedies, and Hollywood doesn’t take comedy that seriously. Sure, there’s a lot of comedy in Big, too, but there’s a lot more here. The film requires a great deal from Tom Hanks, and he delivers like the actor we all discovered he was in later films.

Young Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a pretty normal kid with normal kid desires and crushes. At a carnival, he makes two important and devastating discoveries. First, the girl he has been crushing on has a boyfriend who is capable of driving (this pushes believability a bit, since Josh is 12, and presumably so is the girl). Second, he’s too short to go on the scariest ride. Despondent, he drops a quarter in a fortune telling machine and makes a wish to be big, and is told his wish is granted. It’s only then that he discovers that the machine is unplugged.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Daytime Television

Film: Written on the Wind
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Melodrama is its own thing. The idea of subtlety and melodrama don’t work together, which makes it an acquired taste. There’s a part of that thinks of the genre as drama for stupid people not able to figure things out for themselves. The whole point of melodrama is that all of the characters wear their identity on the front of the chest like medals.

A film like Written on the Wind is melodrama not in the way I tend to think of melodrama. Say the word to me, and I think Snidely Whiplash roping Nell to the railroad tracks. No, this is soap opera melodrama, the kind where someone suddenly is revealed to have an evil twin or gets kidnapped by drug dealers because they look like someone else. Once you realize that this is the world we’re dealing with, Written on the Wind becomes perfectly understandable.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ken, Tom, and Me

Film: Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers)
Format: DVD from Mitchell Multimedia Center Northwestern University through WorldCat on laptop.

I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find a film that is deceptively simple. Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers) is a strange little film with a very simple premise, but it takes that premise in some interesting directions. I had no idea what to expect with this film, but found myself surprisingly involved with it. It may be as simple as the fact that I am one of three brothers, each of us born about five years apart, and that like our protagonists here, the three of us are very different in many ways.

A farmer named Donato Giuranna (Charles Vanel) sees his wife (Gina Pontrelli) and has a short conversation with her. She then stands up and walks away, waving goodbye to him. We soon realize that she was not waving goodbye; in a moment close to magical realism, she has died, leaving the old farmer alone. He sends off telegrams to his three sons, who respond by returning to the old farmhouse to pay their last respects.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Off Script: The Changeling (1980)

Film: The Changeling (1980)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

Whenever I see a really good horror movie, several things occur to me right away. The first is that I’m happy there are directors who try to do more with the genre than just gross out the audience. The gross out is easy. To really scare an audience, to really get under the skin of an audience takes a lot more. It takes a smart director, a cast that agrees to go with it, and the willingness to really take a chance and go for it. I also quickly realize that I would be a terrible protagonist in a horror film. They’d have to kill me off in the first reel, because I’d get the hell out of the house the moment things started getting weird.

The Changeling, released in 1980, is the goods. It’s the real deal when it comes to spook films. It starts with a bang the way any good horror movie should, then dials everything back and works on the slow build of terror for the next hour. Much like the earlier film The Haunting, it relies on shadow and sound, using everyday objects and subtlety to bring the scares, and bring them it does. There is a genuine sense of the world beyond death here, done with the film equivalent of smoke and mirrors. It plays its audience like a virtuoso plays a violin.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Finishing Hitchcock

Film: Frenzy; Rear Window
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Frenzy) and from personal collection (Rear Window) on laptop.

I made the executive decision to finish up the films of Alfred Hitchcock today, which meant that I’d be watching Frenzy. I’ve tried to watch Frenzy in the past and it just didn’t interest me at all. Nothing about this film made me want to continue. I got about 30 minutes in and just turned it off from lack of interest. Certainly it manages to trade on a lot of Hitchcock’s signature ideas, but the main character is singularly unappealing, and Hitchcock’s decision to play in the R-rated end of the swimming pool didn’t make his films better or more interesting; it just allowed him to roam his camera around a bit more. Knowing I had two Hitchcock’s left, I made the second executive decision to watch Frenzy first. Hitchcock deserves to leave The List on a high note.

Here’s what we get in Frenzy: London is being stalked by a man called the Necktie Murderer, who strangles women with a tie. We learn pretty early on that the identity of the killer is a man named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). We also learn pretty quickly that Rusk is either incredibly lucky or that the police are amazingly incompetent, but that’s a rant for a little later (we’ll get there). In one way, Rusk is luckier than most criminals—he has a patsy who stumbles into the crosshairs for him. That patsy is Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), Rusk’s personal friend.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Exhuming McCarthy

Film: Silver Lode
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I thought I was done with Westerns until I discovered that Silver Lode was still on the list. As far as I know, this is the final Western film that I’m told I have to watch before I expire, and I think that’s probably a good thing. I don’t dislike Westerns, but I do get tired of them. Certainly there are some in the genre that are a little different or that go to interesting places, or that are Western only in setting, but this is a genre that gets stuck in the same loop more than most others.

That’s very much the case with Silver Lode, a film that was done a lot better a few years earlier when it was called High Noon. It’s not a direct rip-off, but there are enough similarities here that I can’t imagine that director Allan Dwan wasn’t influenced in many ways by the superior film. Only the details are different. In the first film, a highly-respected member of the town is called out on the day of his wedding by an old enemy and the townspeople refuse to help him. In Silver Lode, a highly-respected member of the town is arrested on his wedding day on a fake charge by an old enemy and the townspeople slowly turn against their former friend.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Yeah, Boise!

Film: My Own Private Idaho
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I was not prepared for My Own Private Idaho. I knew going in that it was a film about street hustlers and young male prostitutes. I knew it had River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in it. I knew there were homosexual overtones (although there’s more than just overtones). But that was all I knew. A few minutes in, I was prepared to complain about the woodenness of the acting, particularly Keanu Reeves, who is often pretty wooden.

And then I got it. It’s one messed up piece of film, tells what seems like a couple of dozen stories, and goes in a couple of hundred directions, but I feel like I got something of a handle on it. Kinda. One of our two street kids is Mike (River Phoenix). Mike is a born hustler, but has some real problems. For one thing, he has significant abandonment issues concerning his mother. He’s also a narcoleptic who falls asleep sometimes for a long time when things get stressful. In addition to this, he’s in love with his best friend, Scott (Keanu Reeves).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Emotional Fight Club

Film: American Beauty
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

American Beauty is the angriest film I have seen in a very long time. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s a true thing. This is a film that is fairly seething with violent emotions that then spend the entire film bubbling up to the surface and breaking. It’s the very opposite of a Regency era drama where everyone is buttoned down and afraid of doing anything that might cause offense. And the anger here is from everyone on all sides—our main characters and many of the secondary characters as well. In the world of the film, everyone is a seething cauldron of repressed emotion that needs only the right catalyst to come rushing forward.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged advertising executive trapped in what has become a loveless marriage with Carolyn (Annette Bening) and maintains a distant relationship with his daughter Jane (Thora Birch). For her part, Carolyn is an aggressive and somewhat successful real estate agent. She is constantly concerned with appearance—we’re asked to note in the opening few minutes that her gardening shoes and shears match each other. Jane, like virtually every teen in existence, struggles with her self-esteem, which turns her inward. Her friend Angela (Mena Suvari) has the same problem expressed through massively misplaced self-confidence.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watching Oscar: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Film: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I don’t quite know how to react to Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film is obviously a piece of magical realism, so in that sense, there’s going to be some story stuff that doesn’t have a standard explanation. I don’t mean that—I can handle magical realism.

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in the almost mythic place of The Bathtub. It is here that young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). She goes to school and evidently learns what it takes to survive in The Bathtub rather than what the rest of us might expect. The area is connected to the mainland and separated from the mainland by a causeway that keeps the people here isolated. Hushpuppy and her father live a life of poverty. Hushpuppy appears to take care of herself more or less because her father is sick, drunk, and often mildly physically abusive.

And then a massive storm, which can really only be Hurricane Katrina comes and floods out The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and her father ride out the storm while many of the rest of the people of The Bathtub leave. After the story, the area is completely flooded; the water stays because of the causeway, which prevents it from draining. A group of townspeople go to destroy the causeway and thus release the water, knowing that doing so will cause the mainlanders to come and take them all to a shelter, which is precisely what happens.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

Film: Heavenly Creatures
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

It would take a very special movie to make me want to slap Kate Winslet. I like Kate Winslet a lot. She’s one of the best modern actors around and when she’s on screen, she’s always worth watching. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a performance of hers that I haven’t enjoyed. I’m not saying such a performance doesn’t exist, mind you. I’m just saying I haven’t encountered it yet. That’s true of Heavenly Creatures despite the fact that I have never wanted to reach through the screen, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her more. It’s a testament to her skill that an actress I find so entertaining and worth watching can play a self-possessed and infuriating character this well.

Heavenly Creatures is based on the true story of two young girls in New Zealand plotting and murdering the mother of one of them. While some details have certainly been changed from reality, a cursory examination reveals that Jackson kept to the real story as much as possible, embellishing only visually rather than narratively. This is a film that contains a number of vivid flights of fancy designed to add realism to the shared hallucination of the two girls at the center of the story.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Film: The Phenix City Story
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There is a moment in The Phenix City Story that seems so far beyond the pale that I almost can’t believe it happened. I know film noir plays for keeps, but there’s a viciousness here that seems out of place in 1955. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. It’s merely a surprising one. The Phenix City Story is ahead of its times in many ways. What seems like a typical film noir suddenly becomes a gangland film of startling violence and evil.

The hook here is that The Phenix City Story is based on an actual story that took place in an actual city. Phenix City, Alabama is located just over the border from Fort Benning, Georgia. As such, the town quickly became a place for soldiers to go on leave, which meant that it soon became a haven for booze, prostitution, gambling, and vice. Many of the good townspeople stand against this, but the town lives under the boot heel of Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), who hides ruthlessness behind his friendly demeanor.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Caste Away

Film: Subarnarekha (Golden River/The Golden Thread)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Subarnarekha (commonly called The Golden Thread but called Golden River in the Tome of Knowledge) is a film that I badly misjudged going in. This is the second time I have done this with a film in the last few weeks, and it both cases, I misjudged the films the exact same way. As with Black God White Devil, I immediately assumed that Subarnarekha was going to be another “bad things happen to poor people” film. It’s not—the financial status of the people in the film never plays into anything. Instead, this is a film about the Indian equivalent of racism, although it’s probably more aptly caste-ism.

So what we have is, essentially Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but in black-and-white and taking place in India. Ishwar Chakraborty (Abhi Bhattacharya) is a Brahmin-caste refugee forced into India by the partition that created the state of Pakistan. He ends up in a refugee camp with his sister, Sita (Indrani Chakraboorty as a girl, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay as an adult). The two do their best to survive, which is made more difficult when they see a woman driven off and separated from her son, Abhiram (Mater Tarun, then Satindra Bhattacharya as an adult). Ishwar takes the boy in, essentially adopting him as a younger brother.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Film: Despicable Me 2
Format: Sycamore Theater.

So it seems that 2013 is my year of seeing only kids’ films in theaters. While my older daughter has gone on to advanced fare like The Great Gatsby, I am still attending only with kid #2, seeing the latest to come from animation studios. That’s okay with me, really. I watch so much dark stuff on my own that a little levity now and then, a little assurance that it will always work out in the end is probably good for my mental state.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Despicable Me 2, the “you knew there was going to be a sequel” sequel of the 2010 film. All of the characters are back, some in lesser roles, with a new cast as well. This is good news all around. What’s better is that the writing team has managed to keep the sense of the first film and adapt it into a world that has its own history. This is a continuation of the characters, and that’s a real positive.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Over the Hills and Far Away

Film: Dersu Uzala
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I make no secret of my love for the films of Akira Kurosawa. I’ve said before that my favorite Kurosawa film is the last one of his films that I’ve seen. Sadly, this is a trend that stops with my viewing of Dersu Uzala. This is not to say that this isn’t a great film or a film that shouldn’t be treasured. I just didn’t like it as much as I do the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen. I want to stress, though, that up to this point, Kurosawa has been a nearly perfect director in my estimation; Dersu Uzala not living up to that impossibly high standard is not at all a knock on it.

A group of Russians in the first years of the 20th century have been charged with making a topographic survey of a part of the Russian wilderness. They are led by Captain Vladimir Arseniev (Yuri Solomin). On their expedition they encounter a man named Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) who lives in the forest and survives as a hunter. Dersu’s family is gone and he has no home, but survives as comfortably as he needs to. The soldiers soon recognize that the mountain man is very skilled and knowledgeable and ask him to be their guide for the rest of their expedition. Dersu has a number of practices that suggest a great deal of respect for his world and for others; he asks for food to be left in temporary shelters for other people who wander through, for instance.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Men are Bad

Film: The Color Purple
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

When I wrote up the end of June, I mentioned that there were several films that I was dreading and that I should do my best to get through a few of them sooner rather than later. Behold, The Color Purple, a film that I knew was going to be a rough ride for me, not only because of its length. Spielberg, for all his acclaim, is a director who goes too far into some territory for me. When he’s on, there are few people better. When he gets a particular idea, though, he worries it to death, hammering home his message with as much force as he can. He’s not a subtle director (see War Horse for a more recent example). And with The Color Purple being an “important” film, I knew there was great danger of Spielberg spending 150 minutes on a pulpit.

Here’s the nutshell version. If you are the possessor of a penis, The Color Purple thinks you are a bad person. It doesn’t matter how much you think you’re a good person or even if anyone else thinks you’re a good person. No, in the world of this film, men are all melodrama villains who live only to oppress women. Got that? If you’re male, you’re evil. Deal with it. In fact, the film says, if you are not sexually or physically abusive, you are a weakling.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Day Off

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

Films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker pose me something of a problem in terms of the typical criticism that I write up. I’ve said before that I tend to be most interested in ideas of narrative and structure. The questions I’m most interested in when it comes to film. Put another way, I like “why” and “how” questions—why does the story work the way it does, how does everything hang together. The meaning of the film is ultimately a “what” question. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of question and there’s a shit-ton of criticism out there that tackles this question and does it better than I can. It’s just not always a question that interests me.

With Slacker, though, there is no story, or at least not one in the traditional sense. This film is typically called “plotless,” which it is. What makes it interesting is that it is not without a story or an idea to drive it forward. There is an idea at the heart of Slacker that makes it work. Rather than driving this idea with a traditional narrative that follows a set of characters from point A to point B, it follows a meandering path through characters all headed in the same lack of direction.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mommy Issues

Film: Terms of Endearment
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I knew in the first minute I wasn’t going to like Terms of Endearment. How did I know? In that first minute, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) decides that her infant daughter has died. To prove it to herself, she virtually climbs into the crib and ends up waking her infant and making her cry. Satisfied now that the baby is screaming, she walks out of the room, pleased with herself. And I just knew that this was going to be the person that I was supposed to sympathize with for the course of the film.

Aurora Greenway is the type of character that film producers call “headstrong” or “willful.” She’s the type who is always right about everything, even when she’s wrong about everything. No one can talk sense into her because she’s just right (dammit) and you’d better get used to the idea that she knows better than everyone else. People like that make me want to jab pencils into my ears. Movie characters like that cause the exact same reaction.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

You Get What You Pay For

Film: McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I have something of a relationship with the films of Robert Altman. I really like some of his films a lot. Others I think are meandering and go nowhere and take too damn long to get to that nowhere. McCabe and Mrs. Miller feels like an odd film for Altman. This is the guy who did Short Cuts, Nashville, The Player and M*A*S*H. What’s he doing making a Western?

The short answer is that he isn’t making a Western. He’s making a film that simply happens to be set in the American Old West. The basic story could easily be set during Prohibition or the 1960s or today. It just happens to be set in the West for whatever reason. As such, this is not a film that defines the Western genre, but is more or less a tangential part of the genre. Fans of the Western will likely find something here to latch onto. Those who dislike Westerns will, should they give it a chance, find that with its trappings removed, it’s not so Western after all.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Fifty Shades of Quebecois, Part II

Film: Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I didn’t like Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire much. It established a huge number of relationships that ultimately had an extremely convoluted path. It wasn’t that specifically, but the fact that 90% of the film was sex. People talked about sex and their past conquests like people talk about their high school athletic careers. My original plan was to watch it and its sequel on the same day. That then became maybe the same week, or the same month. And here we are, a bit more than two months later and I’m finally coming around to watching Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions).

It cannot be said that this film picks up where the previous left off, given the 17 years between them. Remy (Remy Girard), one of our handful of randy intellectuals from the first film, is dying. I assume it’s some sort of cancer, although I don’t remember anyone being very specific about what was going on with Remy’s internal bits. He’s now divorced and otherwise alone in the world. His ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) contacts their son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), a London banker, to return home to be at his father’s side.