Saturday, April 28, 2018

The (Very) Slow Passage of Time

Films: A Ghost Story
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

Sometimes, this hobby is a frustrating one. I don’t expect to love every movie that I watch, but I’m not always game for a film that is going to more or less be work. A Ghost Story, for much of its 92-minute running time, is work. This is one of those films where nothing happens for a very long time. Sometimes, like with the films of Robert Bresson, that can work for me. Other times, that becomes not unlike sitting through Jeanne Dielmann and I want to pull my own head off. Oddly, A Ghost Story is both.

This is not a plot-heavy film. A musician (Casey Affleck) and his wife (Rooney Mara) live in a house, evidently in or around Dallas. She wants to leave and he doesn’t. One night, something makes a noise on the piano, but they can’t find a cause. Soon after, he is killed in a car accident. His wife identifies the body. When everyone has left, he sits up, still covered in the sheet. That sheet is going to be important, because our spirit is going to spend the rest of the film wearing it much like the old-school depiction of a ghost, a sheet with eye holes cut into it.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Urban Haute Bourgeoisie

Films: Metropolitan
Format: DVD from Mokena Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

In the end of the blogging swimming pool where I swim, the nicest guy around is Dan Heaton. Dan named his blog, Public Transportation Snob, after a line from Metropolitan. The more I think about this, the more I am fascinated by it. Dan is a genuinely good guy and seems like the complete opposite of the smug, entitled douchebags that populate the world of this film. Clearly, Dan is a fan of this film. It seems incongruous; he’s too nice to like these people.

If you think that’s a hint as to where this review might be going, you’d be right. Metropolitan is more or less a series of conversations among a collection of pseudo-intellectual, filthy rich college students home for Christmas. More specifically, these conversations happen at a series of debutante parties and after parties in New York. Even more specifically, this is about the experience of Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) falling in with this wealthy, preppy crowd.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Private Parts (1972)

Films: Private Parts (1972)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

For what it’s worth, not all of these reviews write that easily. Some of them are a real pain in the ass. Private Parts, the weird horror/comedy film from 1972, not the Howard Stern biopic, is of the latter type. I’m honestly not even sure where to begin with this one. I mean, I understand the idea behind it and where it was intended to go, but this is a weird mishmash of things combined to make something really ugly.

Let’s start with the basics. Cheryl Stratton (Ayn Ruymen) is a teenage/early-20s runaway who fled Ohio for California with her friend Judy (Ann Gibbs). The two fight when Judy catches Cheryl watching her have sex, and Cheryl runs again, this time to a Skid Row hotel called the King Edward that happens to be run by her Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson). And, because this is the sort of movie it is, everyone who lives at the King Edward is weird, disturbing, creepy, or awful. This includes a gay priest, a drunk, and most especially photographer George (John Ventantonio), Aunt Martha’s son.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Show Must Go on (and on)

Films: Funny Girl
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I’m going to be upfront here; Funny Girl is the sort of movie that really isn’t made for me at all. I certainly recognize that Barbra Streisand is a real talent, the sort of performer who, like Judy Garland, can do just about anything and make it work. I just don’t love her. I recognize the talent without being a huge fan of the talent. That puts me in a weird position with a movie like Funny Girl that is very much about Streisand being front and center and on screen for virtually the entire running time that isn’t overture, entr’acte, or closing credits.

Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice (Streisand), once and future Ziegfeld Follies girl and a portion of her life. The film doesn’t include her first, short marriage and doesn’t include her third marriage, either. It focuses instead on the bulk of her Ziegfeld career and her marriage to gambler “Nick” Arnstein (Omar Sharif).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Off Script: Flatliners (1990)

Films: Flatliners (1990)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on various players.

When I started this blog, I made the decision that every review I posted would be a review written based on a recent viewing of the film. There have been cases when I’ve posted a review more than a year after I wrote it, but that writing occurred immediately after the viewing. There are reasons for doing this. The main one, in fact the one that is probably the only relevant one, is that opinions change and people change. The person who reacted to a movie in a particular way in 1992 is not the same person watching it today. With Flatliners from 1990, this rewatching is important, because this is a very different review than I would have written based on memory.

The idea of Flatliners is that a group of medical students decide to experiment into the realm of near-death experiences. In truth, the idea is to go a bit further. Rather than coming close to death and experiencing the “tunnel of light” phenomenon, the goal is to make themselves temporarily brain dead to see if there is anything after death, and then come back. It is, after all, the final frontier in many ways.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Misery Loathes Company

Films: Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Al Pacino, someone who almost certainly earned any number of Oscars in his career, finally won for Scent of a Woman. That movie is a sort of remake of Profumo di Donna from the mid-1970s. Pacino’s win tends to be considered one of the clearest examples of someone winning a lifetime achievement Oscar in the guise of a competitive one. Pacino’s performance is all bluster and shouting, and I ultimately kind of liked the movie in spite of itself. I was concerned about this original version, though, and now that I’ve seen it, I think I have clear reason why I was hesitant.

One of the big changes here is that Profumo di Donna has substantially less plot than its later remake. The culmination of Scent of a Woman is the “trial” scene. This doesn’t happen in Profumo di Donna. In fact, all of the elements of the remake that don’t deal overtly with the blind former military guy and his desire to end his life don’t appear in the original film at all. The two most famous scenes from Pacino’s film—the speech at the end and the tango—aren’t here. What this means is that Profumo di Donna is about a young Army cadet (not a student) follows around a blind ex-military man and, to use the advertising copy parlance, learns valuable life lessons.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Everybody Hurts

Films: Rabbit Hole
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on various players.

As I get closer and closer to finishing up the Oscar lists I have set for myself, each movie I watch brings up a particular question: why have I not watched this one yet? For some, it comes down to availability. For others, it’s more about the film’s subject matter. There are some films I just don’t want to watch because of what they’re about. Rabbit Hole is about parents who lost their four-year-old son in a terrible accident. This is precisely why I haven’t seen it until tonight.

I don’t like stories involving the very real grief of losing a child. I mind it far less when this is attached to a horror movie because of the inherent unreality of that situation. With a realistic story involving a child’s death, I end up feeling a lot more vulnerable as a parent. I end up watching films like Rabbit Hole rocking back and forth in my seat. As good as the movie might turn out to be, I know I’m in for a rough ride. At least Rabbit Hole has the decency to not have us live through the child’s actual death. The movie starts eight months after the accident.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Shadow of the Vampire

Films: Shadow of the Vampire
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

When you talk about great silent films, there are a few names that are going to pop up right away. Nosferatu might not be the first film named, but it’s likely to be one of the first five and almost certainly one of the first ten. Shadow of the Vampire explores the making of Murnau’s film with a very interesting twist. In this version, we have a real vampire to give the film a particular authenticity.

That’s the high concept of Shadow of the Vampire: Murnau’s classic vampire film was made with a real vampire who called himself Max Schreck. It’s a great idea, actually a little surprising that no one thought of it before this. Schreck’s costume as the nosferatu Count Orlock is so strange and otherworldly that it almost makes sense that it truly was an undead creature. The film shifts between the filming of Nosferatu and the cast and crew, shifting from the sepia-toned world of the movie to color as appropriate. Whenever we are in the world of the movie within the movie, it’s made abundantly clear by this small but effective artifice.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

...Burma Shave

Films: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Going into Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (hereafter called simple Three Billboards to save space), I knew only a couple of things. I knew first that it won a couple of Oscars in acting categories. I also knew that of the Best Picture nominees, it was probably the most controversial one. A lot of people really liked it; some people didn’t. What makes this different from normal is that the people who didn’t like Three Billboards really didn’t like it. There wasn’t a great deal of casual dislike for it is what I’m saying, at least in my experience.

Having now seen it, I find myself in the position of seeing both sides. I understand why people like it as much as they seem to (the overwhelming ratings on Letterboxd are four and four-and-a-half stars). I also understand why there are people who are upset by it. Three Billboards is a movie that has grand pretensions and lives up to most of them. It’s also a film that is deeply flawed in serious ways.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Colonizers Gonna Colonize

Films: Indochine
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on various players.

I’m not sure what it is about an epic that makes me a little bit cockeyed going in. Sure, there are epic films that I love. Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, is a true classic, and I’m a huge fan of The Bridge on the River Kwai. But many epics seem to get to that point by some means of unnecessary bloating and padding. You may also notice that the two epics I’ve said I’m a fan of are specifically epics that have no real romance plot or subplot. That’s important, because the romance often seems to be the padding of choice. That’s certainly the case with Indochine.

In fact, Indochine is one of those epics that is essentially a romance set against a huge story. We’re going to get the romance that we (evidently) crave set against the full sweep of history, where the world is changing dramatically and our star-crossed lovers are caught up in those changes and both pushed together and pulled apart by forced beyond their control. I’m not saying anything here that you haven’t seen at least a dozen times. The difference is that this time, that story is happening in what used to be called Indochina (essentially Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and it’s going to be in French.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Alien Lanes

Films: Starman
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

One of my favorite pieces of Oscar trivia is that Wes Craven once directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar-nominated performance. It’s only fair, then that, it would be equally a fun piece of trivia that John Carpenter did essentially the same thing with Jeff Bridges. In some respects, this is more impressive; it would seem that virtually anyone can direct Meryl Streep to a nomination because she’s Meryl Streep. While Jeff Bridges is a fine actor, his three nominations are far fewer than Streep’s. On the other hand, Craven’s oeuvre is virtually entirely horror movies from stem to stern with Music of the Heart standing out as a weird outlier. That’s less true for Carpenter, who worked in other genres, although typically in those not favored by Oscar. Starman is science fiction, so maybe this is still impressive.

The high concept here is that an alien race has intercepted Voyager and decided to come for a visit. Because humanity is awful, the U.S. military shoots down the probe, which crashes in Wisconsin. Out comes a glowing ball of light. It travels to a nearby house belonging to Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), a recently widowed woman. The light enters her home and, using a lock of hair from a scrapbook, turns itself into a clone of her late husband Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Maniac (1980)

Films: Maniac (1980)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I know I’ve referenced the Video Bug a few times in the past here. For those who might be new to this site (or for whom existence doesn’t revolve around the minutiae of this blog), the Video Bug was the first video rental store of my childhood. Like all video rental places of the early- and mid-1980s, a vast number of their movies for rent (both VHS and Betamax) were on the lower end of the cinematic spectrum. One movie you could guarantee would be available, sitting between The Last House on the Left and Mother’s Day was Maniac. The cover art told you everything you needed to know. On the box, we see a man wearing jeans from the waist down. His right hand grips a large knife. In his left is a mass of hair—it’s not a decapitated head, but a scalp. Scrawled over the title of the film are the words, “I warned you not to go out tonight!” Casablanca this ain’t.

I’m not going to hold back here. There’s not a lot to recommend Maniac. This is low grade exploitation exactly at the level that the box art would suggest. It’s not a complete waste of time or effort. There are some things here that are worth seeing, but overall, Maniac is trash cinema. I’m not saying that to recommend people away from it; I’m saying it because it’s simply true.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Off Script: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Films: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I was less enamored of Cloverfield than a lot of people. I’m not in love with the found footage “genre” as a whole, and I have real issues with shaky-cam if it goes on too long. The story was interesting once it got started, but I didn’t see it as the sort of revelation that a lot of people did. So, when a spiritual sequel in 10 Cloverfield Lane came out, I didn’t rush off to see it. I mean, I knew right away that it wasn’t going to be the same movie as the first one and that it wasn’t really a sequel at all, but I can’t say I was terribly excited by the prospect.

Things start with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packing up a few things and leaving her apartment. It’s clear a few moments later that she is leaving her boyfriend/husband/whatever. We’re not sure why; in fact, we’re never sure why. This doesn’t matter. Out of nowhere, a car strikes her vehicle and Michelle is knocked unconscious.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Allegory, Emphasis on "Gory"

Films: mother!
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I know roughly where I am starting out with this, but I have no idea where I’m going to end up. I knew going into mother! that writing anything about it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t know it was going to be this difficult, though. I’ve put up more than 3000 reviews on Letterboxd, each with a star rating until now. While I will almost certainly eventually post ranking, at the moment I’m not sure what that ranking should or even could be.

Let’s start with the fact that mother! is clearly allegorical. There is not much of a way to view this as a straight story without the allegory. You’re going to be preached to at some level here, an interesting thought since Aronofsky is an atheist. This is despite the fact that both mother! and Noah have clearly religious themes.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Prime Minister's Speech

Films: Darkest Hour
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

For the next 800-1200 words I’m going to talk about Darkest Hour, but I’m also going to address what I see as a significant problem with the Oscars and the nominations. The reason for that is that Darkest Hour is one of those movies that serves as an excellent example for what I see as a continuing and continual problem. Oh, there are plenty of other potential examples. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is perhaps the best example I can think of in the last 10 years. Because it’s how my mind is currently working, I think I’m going to address that first.

The problem is that Oscar, or Oscar voters perhaps, don’t seem to know the difference between a movie being good and a movie being important, or at least about an important topic. I fully understand why many people in the film industry seemed to think that Darkest Hour was an important film. Depending on your political persuasion, this could well be seen as an inspiring story of someone standing up to face off against fascism when it appeared that fascism was taking over the world. I get that some will call it rousing. I understand this more or less memoir taken from Churchill’s life is something that people thing demands to be seen. But did it really need to be nominated for Best Picture?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Come on Baby, Light My Fire

Films: Joan of Arc
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

As I get down to the last few dozen movies on my Oscars lists, I’m starting to find more and more movies that I avoided for one reason or another. With Joan of Arc, my avoidance happened because the movie wasn’t available anywhere I looked. Oh, I found a shortened version on YouTube that cut something like 45 minutes out of the theatrical release. I’d have watched that if I got desperate enough. But lo! and behold, suddenly NetFlix is carrying the film once again. I have to say this is one that, had I not had it on a list, I’d have walked away from partway through.

Joan of Arc isn’t a bad film; it’s just not a great one, or even a very good one. It’s long and talky and it doesn’t pull this off that well, which means that it’s also long and boring. It suffers as well from putting a mid-30s Ingrid Bergman in the role of a French teenager. We’ll get to that soon enough.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Strangers

Films: The Strangers
Format: DVD from Franklin Grove Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

The home invasion horror movie has been around for some time and almost certainly gained a lot of teeth in the aftermath of the Manson Family. One of the premier versions of this story is The Strangers from 2008. The big strength of the movie is also one of the biggest problems with it. We get a home invasion story of three people attacking two people in a home for literally no reason. We’re even told that at the end of the film—this happened for no real reason except that it happened. The randomness is scary and that works for the film. But it also makes this really nihilistic and ugly. Of course, that may be part of the point, too.

So like any movie that is going to eventually feature mindless destruction and chaos for no reason other than the fact that it happens, we’ve got to spend the first chunk of time dealing with our two protagonist characters. To make us care about what is going to happen, we need to care at least a little about them. So, to that end, we’re going to get a fair chunk of time with James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), who have returned from a wedding reception. Through flashback, we learn that at the reception, James has proposed to Kristen, and she has turned him down because she is not ready for that level of commitment. As they try to keep their relationship working, there is a knock on the door. A voice asks for someone who doesn’t live there. Kristen asks for James to go get her a pack of cigarettes (the house is in the middle of nowhere), and the terror starts as three people wearing masks begin terrorizing Kristen and then to two of them when James returns.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Starry Starry Night

Films: Loving Vincent
Format: DVD from Dekalb Public Library on The New Portable.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’m mostly interested in story. The reviews that I write more often breakdown the narrative of what I’ve watched. I like narrative. I like understanding what makes a story work. Once in a while I get a movie where all considerations of story go out the window. Russian Ark, a film without much plot but that runs just over 90 minutes as a single shot involving massive crowds and orchestras is one such film. The Adventures of Prince Achmed, simplistic in plot but gorgeous in style is another. Loving Vincent now joins this group of films. It’s not about the story for me, here; it’s entirely about the spectacle.

If you follow the Oscars at all, you’ve heard of Loving Vincent almost certainly. If you haven’t, allow me to explain why this is about the spectacle rather than the story. This is a movie that runs just over 90 minutes, and every frame is an oil painting done in the style of Van Gogh. Think about this—95 minutes times 60 seconds per minute times 11 or 12 frames per second adds up to the roughly 65,000 paintings made to generate the film. This is not computer animation made to look like oil paintings—these are actual oil paintings generated from the actors being filmed and rotoscoped. It is ambitious to the point of insanity.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Flip and Flop

Films: House of Sand and Fog
Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.

I’m going to go far afield to introduce the idea of House of Sand and Fog because there’s something incredibly important about this movie that needs to be addressed. As will likely surprise no one, I am a huge gaming nerd; it’s possible that I’m a bigger tabletop RPG nerd than I am a movie nerd. One day several years ago during a gaming session, my friend Doug said something that stuck with me that is surprisingly relevant to House of Sand and Fog. For Doug, contemplating a good vs. evil battle wasn’t that interesting. For him, in D&D terms, the most terrifying conflict he could imagine was between two good societies, and specifically between two lawful good societies. Why? Because each of them would have clear reasons to believe themselves to be in the right and to have the moral high ground. Because of this, each would be more likely to fight to the bitter end for those moral principles.

How is that relevant to a film about a house in California? Because it’s kind of the situation we find ourselves in. There are two sides in the conflict we see, and both sides are clearly in the right. So often in a film we’re given good guys and bad guys. Even when the bad guys make sense (see Black Panther from a week ago), they’re still almost always clearly bad guys. That’s not the case with House of Sand and Fog. The two sides in conflict in this film are both very clearly in the right, and we are in a position where at best only one will give what they want or deserve.