Friday, December 31, 2010

End of Year One

Strange Days, indeed. Most peculiar, Momma.

So as 2010, the first year of this blog wraps up, I stand at 271 films from the list viewed, or roughly 25%. Actually, I'm a little over. An exact quarter would be 269 3/4, so I pushed past a touch. Additionally, there's a review of Inception floating around there, since I presume that it will be added to the list with the 8th edition.

More importantly, I'm more than one-quarter of the way done in terms of length of films. By rough calculation, I have watched exactly 543 hours of film this year and have about 1524 still to go. Since the list is only going to get longer, being a little ahead of the game is a good thing.

Of course, my original projection for this was two years, which certainly won't happen. I had hoped to get a film done every day, and at one point projected a whopping 400 films this year. Obviously, that didn't happen, either. I'm looking at three more years for this project, I think, and an undertaking this grand in four years is not a bad thing.

I still have a lot to do, obviously. At the moment, there are 808 films still to be watched and written about. In 2011, I hope to plow through more difficult films, hit the earlier years on the list more heavily, and continue to push my way through the longest films on the list as well as hunt down the ones that are difficult to find.

I've been helped immeasurably by NetFlix, of course, but also by the DeKalb and Rockford Public Libraries, the PrairieCat interlibrary loan system, Disc Replay in Rockford, and the many who continue to read my ramblings. The biggest thanks go to Sue and the girls, who shake their heads at me, but still put up with my movie nonsense.

Thanks for reading.

Fin de Siecle

Film: Strange Days
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television

It takes guts to make near-future science fiction. If you make a science fiction film set a couple of hundred years, or even a few dozen years into the future, you have a lot more play. When you only look three or four years off, your film tends to become silly once real time catches up to the time depicted in the film. As a case in point, Strange Days depicts a 1999 that never happened, even if it was a legitimate prediction when the film was made in 1995.

The film takes place over the last two days of 1999, mistakenly believed to be the last days of the 20th century, which really ended on December 31, 2000. Anyway, a great deal is made of the impending “end of the world” because of the first digit of the year marker changing. Interesting that the actual projected calamity of Y2K hadn’t been thought of when Kathryn Bigelow made this film. Anyway.

The latest and greatest technology is SQUID. Essentially, this is a neural net placed over the scalp that plays mini discs directly into the wearer’s cerebral cortex, allowing that person to actually experience the life of the person being filmed. The technology, originally developed for the military, has gone underground and black market. The main trade is (naturally) pornography, but there is also a market for clips in which the original recorder does things like rob liquor stores. This allows the user to experience the actual adrenaline rush and thrill of committing a crime without actually risking injury or jail time. There is also a market for so called “blackjack” clips in which the recorder dies at the end, giving the person playing back the disc a small taste of the Great Beyond.

In this world of underground smut and death runs Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop. He’s got a thing for his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), who is an up-and-coming singer working for a producer named Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) as well as Gant’s main squeeze. Lenny’s best friend is another ex-cop named Max (Tom Sizemore), and he also pals around with Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a private security/limousine driver. Lenny buys clips from other people, duplicates them, and packages them off to his clients who want to experience a little bit of someone else’s life. Lenny makes a good deal of money at this in part because of his discretion, and in part because like any illegal drug, the market always pays big.

We learn two important things at the start of the film. The first is that a former friend of Lenny’s (and Faith’s former best friend), a prostitute named Iris (Brigitte Bako) is in trouble. She is being pursued by someone who evidently wants to kill her. We also discover that a rap artist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) has been murdered gangland-execution style. It’s likely that the two are related.

While all of this is happening, Lenny starts getting mysterious clips left for him by an unknown party. These clips depict a killer breaking into apartments and hotel rooms and raping and killing the women inside. More to the point, before killing his victims, the killer is wiring them with SQUID and feeding them back his signal, essentially forcing them to not only watch themselves die, but also to experience his own excitement at the crime. Evidently, James Cameron (who wrote the screenplay) spent some time watching Peeping Tom while penning this script. The parallel is impossible to miss.

Now, Lenny has to figure out who killed Iris and why, who killed Jeriko One and why, and what all of this has to do with him, with Faith, with Philo Gant, and with the “end of the century” coming. And then there’s the problem of the two cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) who seem to want to kill him.

In essence, Strange Days is noir-punk. It follows all of the conventions of a good film noir, but sets it a few years into the future, into that cyberpunk world where technology is more important than humanity, and being wired is more important than being alive. Because 1999 and 2000 turned out to be very different than depicted here, it’s important to try to view this film from a pre-Y2K perspective. It can be difficult to judge this film based on the reality of 15 years after the film being made and 10 years after the “events” depicted in the film.

Viewed from that perspective, ignoring the Y2K aspects of the story (which are ultimately sort of a red herring anyway—important for a couple of lines of dialogue and very little else), looking at this film as simply “five years in the future,” it does a remarkable job of creating a mood and a believable atmosphere. This is a dark vision, but it is a very real vision and a possible one. This is not high science fiction in the sense of hyperspace, laser guns, and travelling to distant stars. This is gritty technology: real, human, and ripe for causing a great deal of pain and suffering.

The characters throughout are motivated by their emotions, and because of this, act in believable ways. Frequently they act in ways that are incredibly stupid, but are believable because of this. Vincent D’Onofrio hasn’t been this creepy and disturbing since Full Metal Jacket.

I like this movie. I liked it the first time I saw it, and I considered it a guilty pleasure, as I often do with science fiction. This may be because I was indoctrinated by my father to think that science fiction was something to be embarrassed about liking. Dad was never a big fan of anything involving aliens, lasers, spaceships, or future technology. So there’s a part of me that’s a touch ashamed of digging this kind of material. I should get over that, because Strange Days is really good and worth watching.

Why to watch Strange Days: Advances noir into the current century.
Why not to watch: “The last day of the last year” already happened very differently.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dreamhouse Sold Separately

Film: Hotel Terminus: Klaus Barbie sa Vie et Son Temps (Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Marcel Ophuls is an angry man. He can be forgiven for this, considering the fact that his life was thrown into terrible upheaval during World War II thanks to the Nazis. It’s not the Nazis who receive the bulk of his ire and scorn, however. It certainly appears that way on a first view, but this is not what drives Ophuls to make films. In Ophuls’s world, the Nazis represent the second lowest level of Hell. The true lowest level is reserved for those who collaborated with the Nazis, especially in France.

Hotel Terminus: Klaus Barbie sa Vie et Son Temps (Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, hereafter referred to as simply Hotel Terminus) is a nearly 270-minute documentary that, based on the title, is about the man who headed the Gestapo in Lyon during the war and was responsible for the deporting of thousands of French Jews and undesirables to concentration camps and near-certain death. Certainly, a great deal of this film is about Barbie, his time in Lyon, his flight to South America, and his eventual extradition from Bolivia and trial back in France.

In essence, Ophuls is using the story of Barbie to get at a much larger problem, one that was essentially covered up for a good forty years between the flight of Barbie to South America and his extradition 40 years later. What Ophuls uncovers is not just the how of Barbie’s escape, but the who. Through a variety of interviews, Ophuls makes a genuine connection between Barbie’s escape from justice and a variety of governments and government agencies—including American ones—who aided and abetted him because of his usefulness.

Complicity with various Nazi war criminals was something of an open secret. The American space race was aided in no small part by Werner von Braun, who also invented the V-2 rockets that were sent to pulverize London near the end of the war. But there is a feeling that complicity with Klaus Barbie is somehow different. We pin medals on the uniforms of bomber pilots, after all, while based on a great deal of testimony in this film, Barbie was a man who enjoyed torturing people for the sake of torturing them. The nickname “The Butcher of Lyon” doesn’t happen by accident.

Hotel Terminus is slow to develop, which makes sense in a film of this length. Ophuls breaks the film down into discreet sections: Barbie’s time in Lyon, his flight to South America, his time in Bolivia, his connections, etc. In each part of the film, Barbie becomes less the focus of the narrative and more the example of a larger pattern of behavior by various governments to protect men who deserved a far worse fate because of information they possessed or knowledge they had. One long section of the film deals with Barbie’s alias. It was again an open secret that he was who he was, but because of his knowledge and position of influence with various governments in South America, no one could touch him. He was, in essence, a man too valuable to get rid of.

And this is what fuels the anger of Marcel Ophuls. Throughout the film, in various interviews with those who knew Klaus Barbie and helped him, Ophuls goes on the offensive, seeking to determine not what people did, but why they would consent to help a man with such a bloody and terrible reputation and past. By the end of the film, with Barbie’s sentencing almost meaningless, the answer has still not arrived.

What comes through again and again, even more than the complicity of various people and organizations with Barbie’s crimes is the complete lack of acknowledgment that there is any value in pursuing justice against the man. By the time his life sentence in France was carried out, he had become an old man recovering from a stroke and doomed to die in a few years. “So what?” is the repeated essence of many of these conversations. The past is the past, and it helps no one to put a decrepit man behind bars for crimes that happened a generation and a half ago.

Or does it? Ophuls wants justice, and I think most people who watch the film will want more justice that was given here. A few years in a cell at the end of his life is a small payment for the massive evil that the man worked and the thousands of lives he either ended or destroyed.

Essentially, Hotel Terminus is Marcel Ophuls’s way of reminding us that for some crimes, perhaps there is no true justice, but that striving for that justice is always worthwhile and important. Unless we remember what has happened and do what we can to make those responsible pay for their crimes, the past is doomed to be repeated again and again—and some pasts are too horrible to contemplate returning.

This is a hard watch. I will not call the film boring, but I will say that it does require a great deal of endurance. The 267 minute running time is almost exclusively interviews of people who knew or had dealings with Klaus Barbie, and while many of these interviews are enlightening and interesting, more than four hours of them straight through can cause some mental wandering. I recommend watching this over a period of several days, but I do recommend watching it.

Why to watch Hotel Terminus: Klaus Barbie et Son Temps: An important topic handled in extensive detail.
Why not to watch: Guy talking, guy talking, woman talking, guy talking.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Aloha and welcome to the various and sundry members of the Large Association of Movie Blogs who may be joining us today. Please, make yourselves comfortable!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Getaway is Built In

Film: Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief )
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Well, after watching two wrist-slitters yesterday, I guess I haven’t had enough depression for this week, because I decided to push my way through Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, sometimes called Bicycle Thieves), which kicks our main character in the hoolies within the first 15 minutes or so and never stops.

Our film takes place in post-war Italy, where the economy is far worse than it has been in the U.S. in recent years. Everyone is out of work, and everyone is looking for work. Our hero, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is offered a job by the employment office. He is to ride around town putting up posters. The downside is that to do the work, he needs a bicycle, and his is in hock.

He tells his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) about the problem, and she helps by hocking the family’s sheets to get his bike out of the pawnbroker’s shop. All seems well, and they even have a little bit of money left over. She goes to pay a fortune teller the money she owes, and Antonio scoffs at her for spending money in such a foolish way. The next day, he heads out for his new job, and if you can remember the name of the film, you can guess what happens. His bike is stolen while he is putting up a poster. Now unable to continue his job, Antonio is desperate—even more desperate than before.

The police refuse to help—they have more serious crimes to deal with than a stolen bicycle, no matter how devastating the loss is to Antonio and his family. He and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search through the streets for the missing bike and are unable to find it. He does, however, spot the thief and confronts him. The police are summoned, and the thief (Vittorio Antonucci) is not arrested because of a lack of evidence. Antonio is humiliated by the neighbors of the thief as he walks away, more desperate than ever—especially because he still doesn’t have his bicycle; the thief has already sold it. Now, Antonio’s only option is to steal a bike himself.

The English translation of this title is mildly contentious. The copy I have calls it The Bicycle Thief, but in truth there are at least two thieves in this film—the man who steals Antonio’s bike and Antonio himself. There’s a deeper meaning here as well, because the bicycle represents life and wealth to many different people. For Antonio, it is a way to support his wife and son; for the thief, it is a way to do the same, since he profits by selling his stolen goods. Additionally, the purchaser of the bicycle from the thief survives by virtue of the bicycle as well.

In essence, Antonio Ricci is merely one story of the tens of thousands that could have been told in post-war Rome. When Maria pawns the linens, we see them go onto a high shelf laden with hundreds and thousands of similar bundles; the Riccis are not the only ones forced into pawning off everything that they own for another meal and another day of survival.

What is the point of this film? Good question. On the one hand, it seems to be about the value of a person. Antonio Ricci, in the opinion of the masses in the film, has no value because he loses his bicycle and can no longer provide for his family. Without the ability to feed his wife and child, he becomes nothing more than a creature of desperation, looking for a way to survive the increasingly difficult and relentless circumstances he has been thrust into. Essentially, he has no true value—only the bicycle does.

And yet, he continually attempts to prove that he does have value as a man. In a heartbreaking scene, after scolding Bruno, the pair go to a restaurant, and Antonio spends a large percentage of the family’s remaining cash to give the boy a treat. It is as if providing something special for Bruno gives him back a measure of his humanity—he can still do the sort of thing a father is supposed to do for his children, even if he can only do so this one time.

Perhaps this film is merely striking me at a bad time. It’s the end of the year, Christmas has just come and emptied everyone’s bank account, the economy is still in the tank, and my car is racking up repairs. Without the car, I cannot perform my job, just as Antonio cannot perform his. I’d like to suggest that I have more value than my car, but at times like this, I begin to wonder.

Ultimately, Antonio is pitiable because he is also perfectly real. Because he is perfectly real, this film resonates like few others.

(If you viewed this before the write-up was complete, I apologize. This film required that I sleep on it to fully digest it.)

Why to watch Ladri di Biciclette: A classic film for many, many reasons.
Why not to watch: Holy crap on a stick is it depressing.

Tracking My Progress

So I spent a great deal of time yesterday typing out the full list of 1079 movies that compose all of the films ever on the 1001 Movies You Must See list. At the moment, movies I have watched and reviewed are simply bolded. Eventually, I will turn these into links back to this blog for easy reference.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Films: Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother ), A Streetcar Named Desire
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (My Mother); Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Streetcar).

There are “chick flicks” and then there are “chick flicks.” On the one hand, you have the kind of film my wife tends to favor—bland romantic comedies where it’s obvious in the first 15 minutes that the guy will end up with the girl no matter how many hoops they have to jump through. There’s not much at stake in these movies, and while some are better than others, they are, in general, fluffy feel-goods.

And then you have films like Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), which is a prime example of a three-hankie film. Oh, you could go through a box of tissue on this one, folks. It’s nothing but gut punches from about 15-minutes in, and even the uplift at the end is sure to drag a tear out of many a stern heart.

Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is our main character. She works as the coordinator of organ transplants at a hospital and lives with her 17-year-old son. Her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) wants to be a writer, and wants to learn more about his father, who he has never met. On his birthday, the two go to the theater to see “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) as Blanche. Esteban tries to get an autograph after the show, but fails, and while he stands in the rain watching Huma’s car drive off, he is struck by another car and killed. And thus, we are one hanky in. Manuela goes to Barcelona to find Esteban’s father.

As it turns out, the father has vanished, taking everything of his roommate’s. His roommate is Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite prostitute. Manuela arrives just in time to save Agrado from a beating administered by a John (a Juan, perhaps?), and the two return to Agrado’s place. The next morning, Agrado introduces Manuela to Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a local nun who works with the local hookers and junkies, finding them honest work.

As it turns out, though, Sister Rosa is ill. In fact, she’s pregnant, which would seem to be something of a violation of her vows as a nun. As it turns out, the father is none other than the father of Manuela’s late son, and we also discover that he has given Sister Rosa AIDS. And here comes the second hanky, and there it goes.

In the midst of all of this, Manuela tracks down Huma to speak with her, but it seems that Huma has problems of her own. One of her co-stars is Nina (Candela Pena), who is also a junkie and evidently her lover. Manuela helps Huma track Nina down during a buy, and, essentially, this causes Huma to trust Manuela implicitly, and she hires her to act as the personal assistant for both her and Nina. Manuela, needing a job since she left Madrid, accepts, and soon begins doing things for Huma, and taking care of Sister Rosa when not at work.

Nina, constantly looking for a fix, causes no end of problems, including being too bombed one night to perform, so Manuela steps in, causing a great deal of friction, and forcing her to leave the job. She explains everything to Huma, as well as her own past with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As it turns out, she used to perform in an amateur company, and met her husband (and Esteban’s father) during a production of the show, and of course, lost her son immediately following a performance of the same show. Huma accepts her resignation but stays friendly with her, and hires Agrado has a replacement.

Of course, eventually Rosa has the baby, dies in childbirth (third hanky!) and we also learn that Rosa’s father is suffering from Alzheimer’s (hope that first hanky is dry by now). Yes, there’s an uplifting ending, but not before at least one more pile of tragedy gets dumped on us in the person of Manuela’s former husband, now-AIDS-ridden transvestite prostitute, Lola (Toni Canto).

It would be a lie to say that I was unmoved by all of this, because, well, it would be impossible not to be moved by some of it. But the movie seems to exist as a platform for continual bad things to happen to everybody at a near-constant clip. Misery gets piled on sadness gets piled on the worst luck possible throughout the film, and every step forward has a corresponding three steps backwards in terms of how much the characters are dealing with at any time.

Of all of them, my favorite is Agrado. Manuela is certainly a tower of strength throughout, and Huma—just one letter off from “Human,” shows that her strength as an actress comes from the tragedy of her life no less than anyone else’s. Agrado just exists, though. She’s a whore and fairly content with that as her occupation, and when she retires from that life to become the assistant to Huma, she’s content with that as well. Perhaps everything rolls off Agrado because Agrado doesn’t get involved in any of it. Good for her.

This is not a film to watch lightly, or to watch just because it’s sitting around. It requires the right mood. As for me, I get enough kicks to the groinular region without signing up for watching someone else get dumped on by the problems of the world.

Originally, I was prepared to watch another of Almodovar’s films today, but there’s such a strong thread of A Streetcar Named Desire running through Todo Sobre Mi Madre that it seemed natural to head in this direction. Fortunately, the film was streaming, and so here we are. There are a number of connections between the two, but more the stage play than the film. In the stage play, for instance, there are a number of hints toward homosexuality—Blanche’s husband killed himself after being caught in a homosexual affair. Shades of Manuela’s husband, condemned to a death by AIDS from the same source.

The film version stars Vivian Leigh as Blanche DuBois, a faded and fading Southern belle fallen on hard times. The family fortune, what little there was to begin with is gone, and she arrives in New Orleans at the apartment of her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter). Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), is a brute and a thug, and takes both an immediate dislike to Blanche as well as having an immediate attraction to her.

This attraction is mutual, in no small part because the two are near opposites. Blanche, for all of her lost fortune, is the epitome of a Southern belle. She puts on constant airs, flirts shamelessly with whomever is around her, and attempts to look every inch the damsel in distress. Stanley, on the other hand, is a primitive. He demands what is his from the sale of the family property, even if he has to beat it out of Blanche, who he treats roughly. There’s a part of her that likes this rough treatment, though. It’s evident in her eyes.

The complication here, or at least the main one, is Blanche herself. It becomes evident that she is not so much taking a sabbatical from teaching as she has been released from her position by virtue of an affair with one of her 17-year-old students. This, combined with that suicidal, gay husband of hers has caused her to retreat into a world where the fantasy of her Southern belle-hood is just as powerful (if not more) than her reality.

The fact that Stanley is such a brute doesn’t help matters here. He’s abusive to Stella, both physically and emotionally, but like any good sub-dom couple, Stella is into it. After the poker game, during which Blanche encounters “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden) for the first time, Stanley loses a big hand, and goes berserk, punching the pregnant Stella. She and Blanche retreat to the apartment upstairs. Stanley goes out on the street and yells for her—that classic moment of Brando in the torn t-shirt screaming “Stella!” at the top of his lungs. And Stella comes to his call, pure sex walking down those stairs despite her plainness. And the next morning, she revels in the night she had, talking of how Stanley’s brutishness thrills her.

Blanche sets her sights on Mitch as her way of getting out of the apartment of her sister and of the both hateful and irrepressibly sexy Stanley Kowalski. Her alcoholism doesn’t help her any, of course, although she does try to hide it. And in her own way, Blanche needs Stanley as much as she thinks she needs Mitch—a guy collecting for the paper becomes just another man in her life who needs to prove to her that she is still desirable. Ultimately, of course, it ends badly with Stanley giving in to the urges that have been evident from the moment he first set eyes on Blanche and the conclusion that suggests that Stella might forgive him even this.

A Streetcar Named Desire won a quartet of Oscars, including three for acting. Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all walked away with gold statues. Brando was nominated but lost out to Bogart. While it’s hard to object to Bogart winning anything, this film has become the one that made Brando who he was. Ultimately, although he didn’t win anything for the role, it’s become impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part of Stanley Kowalski, and every version of this play since has referenced him. This film is Brando at both the beginning and the height of his power and raw sexuality. When you see him in later films, it can be difficult to remember what he once looked like.

As a final note, I know several people who are a sort of modern day Blanche DuBois—the feminine posturing, the feigned helplessness. I understand the sort of mindset that makes this an attractive characteristic. It’s not one I favor—helplessness doesn’t attract me in the least—but Vivian Leigh plays it for every ounce of what it’s worth.

Why to watch Todo Sobre Mi Madre: Powerful drama.
Why not to watch: You’ll run out of tissue and revert to your shirt sleeves.

Why to watch A Streetcar Named Desire: Brando’s coming out party.
Why not to watch: It’s arguably less happy than Todo Sobre Mi Madre.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Film: The Quiet Man
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Yesterday was Christmas, and in addition to a few new ties, some kitchen gadgets, and some gift cards, I got a portable DVD player. This means that when I drive my daughter to dance class, I can watch a film while I’m waiting for class to end, and can bring the light and streamlined player instead of my laptop. Bonus, bitches!

The inaugural film is John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Why that film? Because I have it checked out from the library and it needs to go back soon. Additionally, because I looked at the titles I checked out and discovered depressing, depressing, depressing...and this one. Hey’ it was Christmas when I watched, so we’re not doing depressing. We can do that later in the week, but I wasn’t going for existential drama on Christmas.

To start our film, an American named Sean Thornton (John Wayne) shows up in rural Ireland and asks the way to Innisfree. While a gaggle of locals squabble about the best way to get there, a little man named Michaleen (Barry Fitzgerald) grabs Thornton’s bags and the two head to town. Curious as to why an American would want to come to this backwater, and want to buy a house, Thornton reveals his identity—he was born here and his family moved away years ago. He’s returned to claim his family land. Michaeleen remembers him.

This land is owned by (and I’m capping all of the words in this name, because that’s how it’s said throughout the film) The Widow Sarah Tillane. Thornton arranges to buy the land from her in a bidding war with the proud and pugnacious “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Danaher wants the land to add to his holdings, and because it will give him a better connection to Sarah. She happens to be in his age range and wealthy beyond measure, and Will Danaher wants to go a’courting. Now Danaher is forever angry at the Yank and forbids Thornton from courting Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), Danaher’s sister. Since Michaleen is the matchmaker, this creates a problem and a conspiracy is created.

So now, Michaleen, Catholic priest Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, who also serves as the film’s narrator), and Protestant minister Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields), and Playfair’s wife (Eileen Crowe) conspire to trick Danaher. They convince him that Sarah Tillane shows no interest in him because of his sister’s presence in his house. He allows Thornton to pay court, the two are married, and it would seem that all is well.

But it isn’t. He becomes aware of the trick and keeps Mary Kate’s dowry. Sean doesn’t care about the dowry, but she does—to the point of refusing “wifely duties” until she gets her things and her own money. Danaher refuses to pay without a fight—a literal fight—with Thornton. It is here that we learn of the past that made Thornton seek the peace of the Irish countryside. In his former life, he was a boxer known as Trooper Thorn. In his last fight, he killed a man in the ring, and now refuses to strike another man in anger. So the countryside (except for Playfair) now believes him a coward, and Mary Kate can’t stay with a man she believes incapable of fighting for her honor. But, since this is a romance that plays like a romantic comedy, it will all turn out right in the end.

It’s a pretty good set up. It’s also very much the product of its time. I can imagine there are plenty of people who love this movie who would simultaneously be shocked and scandalized if a film with essentially this same plot were to be contemplated today. Women in this film are prizes to be battled for, and belong in the home. Men are hulking thugs looking for an opportunity to get piss-drunk and pound the snot out of each other. A real man swings a fist. Hell, Danaher actually keeps a book of enemies and writes names down in it when someone crosses him.

That, more than anything, is what I have trouble with here. Mary Kate Danaher thinks of nothing but money. In a simpler time, a character like this was called “headstrong” in the movie flack, but what she really is is just bitchy. There is unquestionably value in knowing what you want and fighting for it, but she is obsessed with getting her “fortune” no matter the personal cost to her or the man she claims to love. I realize that culturally, this is what she was brought up to believe, but when Sean Thornton delivers the film’s most famous line (“There’ll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate, except for those in your own mercenary little heart!”), he’s saying it with a lot of justification. When she confesses to Father Lonergan the reality of her marriage—that Sean sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor because she has refused him the bed—he brings down fire and brimstone like nobody’s business, shaming her terribly, and changing nothing. Evidently, her fortune trumps the fires of Hell.

Beyond this, the Irish countryside is something special to see. The film is gorgeous, no less so than films like The Lord of the Rings that make the audience gasp a bit to see the beauty of the landscape. Maureen O’Hara is fiery and gorgeous as well—she’d be worth a fistfight or two even if she is a beard and a leprechaun hat away from being the pugnacious mascot of Notre Dame.

Many people claim that this is Wayne’s best film. I’m not so sure of that in a career that included films like The Searchers and Stagecoach. It’s a film to show someone who claims that John Wayne couldn’t act, though, or that all he could play was a Western hero or a military hero. Certainly there’s a macho quality to the character of Sean Thornton, a former boxer, but he’s also just a man looking to live a peaceful life. This film is proof that he could do more than just play John Wayne.

Why to watch The Quiet Man: The beauty of Ireland, including Maureen O’Hara.
Why not to watch: It hits on every Irish stereotype you can think of.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas to Hollywood

My plan yesterday was to watch a couple of holiday classics with my kids, but the day got away from us. Ultimately, we decided that we'd rather go to a candlelit church service than watch a movie, sacrilege of one sort to prevent sacrilege of another.

Today, I thought I'd revive something I did last year. Periodically over the last 12 months, I'd jot down a note to myself of a film that I thought belonged on the list that wasn't on it. Last year, I came up with 25 films that should be in the 1001 Movies list. This year, I'm limiting myself to nominating 10 films that should be added to future editions. While I'd love to repeat from last year, I won't; these 10 are ones I didn't suggest 12 months ago. Presented in no order...

10 movies that should be added to the 1001 Movies list

1. Amelie: I'm cheating a little here because Amelie was on the list and was removed this year. I find that decision depressing. There are so many lesser movies still on the list, and Amelie is a really special film. Put it back on.

2. Jason and the Argonauts: There are plenty of movies on the list that are there specifically because of their special effects. Ray Harryhausen was and should be a Hollywood icon no less revered than Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, or Audrey Hepburn. This is his best work. It deserves to be seen, remembered, and cherished.

3. Wait Until Dark: This is without question one of the scariest movies ever made, and there's not a touch of the supernatural in it. The ending is one of the greats in Hollywood history. So why the snub?

4. The Prisoner: There's precedent for made-for-television films on the list like Riget and Dekalog. So is that reserved only for television made for non-English speaking countries? The Prisoner is arguably the most ambitious television production ever made. The whole series is worth watching.

5. Thriller: Yes, Thriller. Again, there is precedent for short films, and Thriller changed the music video game.

6. Either Chicken Run or Wallace and Grommit in The Wrong Trousers: As with special effects, there is some effort on the list to include a variety of animation styles, and no one has ever done claymation like Aardman Studios. Either of these would be an excellent and worthwhile choice.

7. Quadrophenia: The best example of a rock musical, including Pink Floyd's The Wall. This film is an excellent and compelling coming-of-age story and has a fantastic soundtrack to boot. Plus it's got Sting before anyone really knew who he was.

8. Talk Radio: I'm not a big Oliver Stone/conspiracy guy, but it occurs to me that Talk Radio gets more and more relevant every year. Show this film to a political polemicist in your life and see the reaction. I'd rather watch this than most of Stone's other films.

9. The Grifters: I don't know how this was left off. John Cusack grew up in this film and proved he could act. This is a gripping and involved tale all the way through with one of the greatest endings ever pulled. The first time I watched it, it took me five minutes to reel my jaw back in. Masterful.

and finally,

10. Iron Man: There has been a resurgence of superhero movies in the last few years, and Iron Man represents the best of them. It's fun, exciting, and intelligently made, and features a real, flawed human being at its center. Plus, there's lots of stuff blowing up.

There were others on my list. I guess that means I've got the start of a list for next year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Musicals with a Twist

Films: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Dancer in the Dark
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Umbrellas), VHS from DeKalb Public Library (Dancer), both on big ol’ television.

Before I get too involved here, I want to preface this with the part of this movie that still makes my head spin a little bit. Our two main characters here are Guy (pronounced “Gee” with a hard g”) and Genevieve (pronounced “Zhaun-vee-EV”). While not particularly uncommon names in France, these are not names we hear much in the States. Nonetheless, my wife’s parents also happened to be named Guy and Genevieve, albeit pronounced in the American fashion.

In musicals, typically the characters break out into song at specific times, and it’s never that hard to tell when a song is coming. The music swells a little, the people stand up a little straighter to get their breathing right, and all conversation stops. This is not the case with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The reason for that is that every single line of dialogue in this movie is sung. There is no speech; there is only music and lyrics. This is jarring at first, especially with the subtitles on, as it quickly becomes apparent that, like everyday life, most of the lyrics are pretty banal. People ask for their car to be filled with gas, buy umbrellas, and talk about what they want for dinner. They just do it as a song. There’s no effort toward rhyme, no effort to produce a chorus.

This is an important distinction. While all of the dialogue is sung, it is actual dialogue. These aren’t songs. There’s no reprise except at times in the music. There aren’t frequently repeated lines or recognizable stanzas. A given speech is as long as it normally would be—there’s no effort put into characters having their dialogue of a certain length or set to a specific meter. Essentially, it’s a regular movie, except that the music is constant and everybody sings all the time. The next time you speak with a co-worker, imagine singing your conversation. SomeTIMES you might EMphasize words, speeduptosticktothemeter and then gooooo slooooooooooooow. It’s like that.

Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) lives and works with her mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) in her mother’s umbrella shop, called “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg,” hence the name of the film. Genevieve is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who works as a mechanic. Her mother stands against the union for several reasons. For one thing, Genevieve is only 17 and Guy is just 20. Additionally, she has had a note for 80,000 francs come due, and if she can’t pay, she’ll lose the shop. Genevieve doesn’t care—she loves Guy and wants to marry him, and he wants to marry her. Guy lives with his godmother Elise (Mireille Perrey), who is taken care of by Madeleine (Ellen Farner). It’s evident that while Guy loves Genevieve, Madeleine has a little crush on Guy.

To save the shop, Genevieve convinces her mother to part with some of her jewelry. The jeweler can’t buy her necklace, but a diamond merchant named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) offers to take the necklace and sell it on her behalf. There are a few tense days as they wait for the money, and Genevieve goes off to spend time with Guy. As it happens, he’s gotten his draft notice and will have to spend two years in Algiers. The two spend a night of passion together and he leaves. Meanwhile, Cassard returns with the proceeds from the necklace and shows interest in Genevieve.

Naturally, that night of passion results in pregnancy. Cassard continues to press his suit for Genevieve despite the fact that she is carrying another man’s baby. Guy writes infrequently, and eventually, feeling abandoned by him, Genevieve agrees to marry Cassard, and starts a new life with him.

Two years later, Guy returns to Cherbourg. He quits his job almost immediately, and just as suddenly, Elise dies. Now missing the two most important women in his life, unable to marry Genevieve, he realizes how much he likes Madeleine, and after a courtship, they marry and have a son. Guy uses his inheritance to purchase his own service station. It is in that role that he is working when Genevieve returns to Cherbourg with her daughter…who is also his daughter.

Here’s the thing—the story here is one that has been told and retold a number of times, but there is a significant difference with this telling. However, this difference is best put in a spoiler.


They recognize each other right away of course, and Guy invites Genevieve into his office. She asks him if he would like to meet his daughter, and he declines, telling her that she should leave. As she drives away, Madeleine and their son arrive, and he plays with his son in the fresh snowfall outside.

Here’s why I appreciate this: The typical romantic movie would have these two run off together, or at least be really tempted to rekindle their romance. It’s evident that there’s some desire on both of their parts right away, but that this desire is greatly subdued by the reality of their lives. It’s not evident that Genevieve is happy or unhappy, but she doesn’t press the point, or ask Guy to run away with her. Guy’s life with Madeleine is evidently satisfying enough that he’s not really tempted in the first place. This is a real decision from real people who live in the real world.


In a typical musical, we’d find quickly that Cassard is a bastard and that Madeleine is a shrew. In this case, Cassard is actually a very nice guy and Madeleine is quite sweet. They’re nice people—they just aren’t the people Guy and Genevieve originally fell in love with.

There’s an initial shock to this film once everyone starts singing, and a second shock once it’s realized just how banal most of the dialogue is. But this passes. The movie is completely internally consistent, and most musicals are not. I rather liked it. Surprise, surprise. I’ll say this, though: now that I’ve seen it and know the story, I’d rather watch it without the subtitles so I’m not constantly reminded of the rather pedestrian nature of the lyrics.

Dancer in the Dark is a completely different take on musicals—different in many ways from the standard and also different from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. For starters, the first musical number doesn’t appear for the first 40 minutes or so of the film. Selma Jezkova (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant who has moved to Washington State to create a better life for her son. Specifically, she has inherited a genetic disorder that has been slowly ruining her vision, and the condition is progressing. She works at a local factory, and she and her son scrimp as much as possible. She tells him it is because they are so poor, but in reality, she is saving for an operation that will prevent the condition that is blinding her from doing the same thing to her son (Vladica Kostic).

Selma is also enamored of musicals, and participates in amateur theater. Since her eyesight is disintegrating, she is taken back and forth to rehearsals by Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of Bill (David Morse) and his wife (Cara Seymour). We learn quickly that Bill has inherited a great deal of money, but the money has run out. Debts are coming due, his wife is a spendthrift, and he can’t bear to tell her that they are broke.

He tells this to Selma, and she tells him about her eye condition and the money she is saving for her son’s procedure. Her eyes have gotten so bad, though, that he feigns leaving the room to discover where she keeps the money. When Selma’s eyes have gotten to the point where she can no longer work, she discovers that the money has been stolen. She confronts Bill, who has told his wife that Selma attempted to seduce him. A confrontation happens, and ultimately, Selma kills Bill to get her money back. She is promptly arrested and sentenced to hang.

Along the way, we encounter a cast of excellent character actors including Peter Stormare as Jeff, Selma’s potential love interest; Lars von Trier favorite Udo Kier as a doctor; Siobhan Fallon as a prison guard; Joel Grey as an aging former tap dance star; and Zeljko Ivanek as a prosecuting attorney.

Where the film is surprising is in the musical numbers. Selma is entranced by old movie musicals, and frequently fantasizes about them. Any rhythmic noise, like the machines in the factory in which she works, becomes the background for substantial musical numbers that include anyone who happens to be in the area. These are elaborate and fascinating, and evidently take place entirely in her mind, because when the musical numbers end, no time has passed.

For me, someone who tends to have a problem with musicals, strangely enough, it’s the musical numbers here that make the film work. They make perfect sense to me in the context of this film because they are all fantasies in the mind of Selma. In her musical world, she says, “nothing dreadful ever happens.” After she kills Bill, for instance, a musical number begins in which Bill is alive again and participates, his wife is happy to see Selma and helps her escape, and life is as good as it ever gets.

Of course, nothing good happens here. That’s sort of the point.

I can’t say I enjoyed watching Dancer in the Dark, but I can say that it is very well made and that I’m glad I watched it. With the number of musicals I have enjoyed so far this year, it appears that I can no longer say that I dislike them as a general rule.

It's worth adding this as well: it may very well be that admitting to liking Bjork's music is akin to admitting enjoying Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, or Zamphir, but I'll make the admission. I don't own anything by Bjork, but I've never heard a song of hers on the radio and rushed to turn it off the way I do with most of the garbage my 12-year-old favors. Her odd musical style, rhythmic sense, and phrasings work in this film--the "I've Seen it All" number on the train is one of the best musical numbers I've ever seen in a film, and much of the reason for that is Bjork.

Okay, she's weird. However, if you have children between the ages of five and nine and ever sat with them through an episode of LazyTown on Nickjr., you know that she is not the strangest thing to come from Iceland.

Why to watch Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: A very different sort of musical.
Why not to watch: Remember how much Cop Rock sucked?

Why to watch Dancer in the Dark : The most original take on musicals in a couple of decades.
Why not to watch: The events are inevitable, terrible, and painful to watch.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Unintelligible Crime

Film: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

So here I am, stuck in a motel for the night with nothing to do. I considered watching The Shining but decided that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to watch a film where a guy goes crazy while snowed in at a hotel while I am spending a night at a motel because of the snow. Too close for comfort. Instead, I’m relishing in the joy of the resurgence of the British crime comedy with Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Prior to this, my exposure to Guy Ritchie is Snatch, which a part of me thinks should be on this list. The two movies are similar in a lot of ways. Ritchie’s films, at least as concerns my experience with them, include a lot of seemingly unrelated plots coming together in one place, sudden violence a la film noir, extensive and creative use of expletives, and shady underworld characters with great names. In this case, we have Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), who is both a porn king and the man in charge of a crooked card game designed to pour additional funds into his pocket.

Wandering into this crooked game is Eddy (Nick Moran), a born card player and the sucker of the moment. Hatchet Harry’s game is accessible only to those who can ratchet up the entrance purse of 100,000 pounds. Eddy does so by being funded in part by his three friends Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher, called “Soap” because he has a legitimate job and likes to avoid criminal pursuits), and Bacon (Jason Statham).

Of course, since Eddy is in a crooked card game, he loses, and he loses big. Now he and his friends owe a massive amount of money to Hatchet Harry and his associates, Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean, and called “the Baptist” because of his penchant for drowning his victims) and Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) and have just a week to pay them back. Meanwhile, a couple of low rent thieves are sent by Barry to heist some extremely valuable antique shotguns from a down-on-his-luck Lord. We also have a collection of bombed out pot growers and a collection of thugs who like to rob drug pushers. This group is led by Dog (Frank Harper) who, like many of the characters in this film and in Guy Ritchie films in general, is crazy, focused almost exclusively on causing pain in others, and has a nasty reputation.

So how do these plots come together? The four card playing losers end up purchasing the two valuable shotguns by way of a fence and the thieves, who know no better. Now, the four buddies need to pull heists to come up with the money to save their skins, the thieves need to get the guns back to save theirs, and everyone is looking for everyone else. To get the money, they’re going to rob the thugs, who happen to live next door to Eddy, using the antique shotguns that were originally stolen at the behest of Harry the Hatchet. Eddy’s dad (Sting) gets involved because as part of the debt, Harry wants his bar. Guns and expletives fly, and ultimately, no matter who comes out on top, it’s going to be someone on the wrong side of the law.

Our four heroes line up a deal with Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus) to unload any marijuana they get in their heist of the thieves, and Nick arranges to sell the weed to Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), not knowing that the growers are actually working for him, and he’ll be buying back his own product. That’s not going to go well, because in addition to being a drug lord, Rory Breaker is also a sociopath. How do we know Rory is a sociopath? Well, when Eddy goes to the card game, the other three guys hang out at a nearby pub, and are greeted on arrival by a guy running out of the pub covered in flames. After we are formally introduced to Rory, we hear the story of exactly how that guy got lit up in the first place, complete with subtitles since it’s told in British criminal rhyming slang.

Ultimately, everybody is looking for everybody else, the money and drugs change hands time and time again, the body count (and f-bomb count) rises continuously, and the fate of Eddy, Tom, Soap, and Bacon comes down to the value of the two shotguns.

Is it complicated? Of course it is. That’s part of the fun here. All of the plots tumble into each other in interesting ways, and you can bet that any time someone new shows up, he will eventually be a part of the main action, even if the connection appears to be tangential. After all, all of these characters are essentially stealing from each other, chasing each other, owe each other money, or want to kill each other. Sometimes, all of that at once.

The real difficulty, though, is following the dialogue. As an American, I can pick up on some of the stranger accents in the Americas because I’m used to hearing them now and again. In this film, many of the characters have such a thick regional British patois that subtitles would have been helpful for more than just the criminal slang. (It’s worth noting that this was one of the bigger criticisms of the film, and Ritchie responded in Snatch by giving the Brad Pitt character a completely unintelligible speech pattern.)

The joy of a film like this is seeing the plot wound into a Gordian knot and then seeing it all come unraveled. Like the knot of legend, the only way to get everything untied in the end is by cutting it in half, which means a lot of guns are going to get fired and a lot of people are going to end up as bodies. And that’s part of the fun, too, because almost all of these people really deserve that fate. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is not something I’d put in front of my kids, but there’s a particular charm to British gangland thugs, pushers, and mobsters. It’s a particular brand of cold-blooded viciousness that, as a member of the audience, makes me break into a broad grin. It’s just so damned British that I can’t help but like it.

Why to watch Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: Modern British crime comedy as good as it gets.
Why not to watch: Don’t be surprised if you resort to subtitles.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Marriage Before and After

Films: Kramer vs. Kramer, The Hangover
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Kramer), DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television (Hangover).

Around the time my parents were divorced, my sister said something to the effect that no matter how old you are, you’re essentially two years old when your parents split. That’s pretty accurate. It’s also the subject of Kramer vs. Kramer, which means it’s the happiest damn movie I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, that’s sarcasm.

We start with Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), who works for a high profile advertising agency. Because of his hard work and skill, he’s landed a massive account and is on the fast track. He goes home to share the good news with his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) and their son Billy (Justin Henry). He’s greeted with some bad news, though: Joanna is leaving him, and she does so, leaving their son as well.

This creates a huge problem for the fast-track Ted, since he now has a young child to deal with on his own. Like a typical late-‘70s father, he’s not really aware of how to care for his son. He muddles through the best he can, but this also creates a number of problems for him at work. His attention to detail begins to slip. Ted begins to draw a little closer to his divorced neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), has a one night stand with a coworker (JoBeth Williams), and starts to figure out how to be a father to his son.

That’s too easy, though. Joanna returns from her soul-searching sojourn in California and decides she wants custody of Billy. Ted decides to fight it regardless of consequence. The first consequence turns out to be his job, which of course is to his detriment when it comes to the court battle.

I’m not going to spoil this movie, so I’m going to leave the results of that trial out of this write up. I’m also to leave out the actual ending, which is sweet, touching, and completely unrealistic. We’re not going to go there.

There are a couple of parts of this movie I do want to talk about, though. First, I want to go into the relationship between Ted and Billy. I was impressed mainly with how real the relationship came across. This was a real father and son doing real father and son things, having real father and son troubles. There’s joy when Ted teaches Billy how to ride a bike. Ted is excited to see his son ride off, and then shouts after him not to go too far. The Salisbury steak scene, where Billy decides he’s tired of TV dinners and instead grabs the ice cream from the freezer, leading to a huge fight is also very real. I don’t have sons; I have daughters. Still, these scenes felt completely genuine to me, and I bought them completely.

The film lives and dies in the courtroom, though, and these scenes are very hard to watch. Both Joanna and Ted are destroyed on the stand by each other’s lawyers. It’s painful to see, and much more painful to watch Ted go through it, because by the time we get to the actual custody hearing, we’ve spent so much time with Ted and watched his relationship with his son grow that we want him to come out on top. Everything is brought up—Ted losing his job despite the fact that he did so because of his son; the accident at the playground that gave Billy stitches comes out, too. It’s painful to witness.

This is not a film designed to give any sort of sympathy for the women in this position. We’re supposed to like Ted and see that he has become a real father. We’re supposed to see Joanna as a cruel, selfish, manipulative bitch. In part, we do see that because that’s the character. We also see that, though, because by the time she shows back up in the film, we’re looking at everything from Ted’s point of view.

I know the film is manipulating me and I don’t really care. It works. It absolutely goes right for the gut and it scores, and it does this even while I realize what it’s doing. I can no more stop myself from caring about this guy and his kid than I can stop myself from breathing.

The big problem? The ending ruins everything the film tries to build up. After a whole film of what we get here, to have that ending and coda is a slap in the face to the audience. Shame on the filmmakers.

If Kramer vs. Kramer is the story of the end of a marriage and the aftermath, The Hangover is the story of the beginnings of a marriage. Sort of. In reality, The Hangover is about an aftermath as well, in this case, the aftermath of an epic bachelor party in Las Vegas. This is all well and good, but there's a touch of resentment on my part. The Hangover is one of the new additions to the book, and one of the movies kicked out is Amelie. That's not right.

Doug Billings (Justin Bartha) is getting married. Before he does, his two best friends, school teacher Phil (Bradley Cooper) and dentist Stu (Ed Helms) as well as his fiancée’s socially backward and inappropriate brother Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are taking him to Vegas for a last night of partying and freedom. We discover that Doug is a decent guy, Alan is disturbing (but funny) and may have a seriously checkered past, Stu is completely under the thumb of his testicle shrinking girlfriend, and Phil pretty much despises his life. The four check in to Caesar’s Palace and sneak up to the roof for a toast before hitting the town.

What wasn’t planned was the additional ingredient in their drinks. Alan bought what he thought were tabs of Ecstasy and slipped them into everyone’s drinks. Instead, he spiked everyone’s drinks with roofies, and now no one has any memory of the bachelor party. That’s bad enough, but when the group wakes up, they discover a number of even more troubling developments. There are chickens in their suite, there’s a live, full-grown tiger in their bathroom, Stu is missing a tooth and the ring he was planning on using to propose to his evil girlfriend, Phil has a hospital bracelet on one wrist, they've stolen a police car, and there’s an infant tucked away in one of the rooms. Oh, and Doug is missing.

The rest of the film consists of the three guys backtracking through what they can discover to figure out what they did, where they went, what happened to them, and the location of Doug. Of course, since this is a comedy, things get far, far worse before they get better. The group discovers in short order that Stu married a prostitute named Jade (Heather Graham), the tiger was stolen from Mike Tyson’s house (Tyson makes a funny cameo as well), and that there is a naked, effeminate, Chinese mafia type (Ken Jeong, who is staggeringly funny) in the trunk of their car, who claims to have Doug in his possession and wants the $80,000 the group stole from him.

Of course, this is a comedy, so everything is going to turn out fine in the end. It’s the getting there that makes the film worth watching. The characters, for the most part, are caricatures, of course. Phil is far too smooth in the face of all of the problems to be a school teacher, and Alan is far too much of an idiot to be anything other than a film character. Ed Helms, though, as Stu really sells this for me. He’s funny, panicky, and has extreme mood swings that strike a needed note of realism. He reacts to all of this in the way most of us would.

This movie is funny. I can’t deny that. It’s also crude, disturbing, and isn’t going to be a film I enjoy watching around my parents or my children any time in the next, say, 60 years. Don’t take that to be an insult, though—this film really is funny all the way through. It’s screwball comedy taken to a strip club, and that’s okay. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Why to watch Kramer vs. Kramer: A lesson in the real victims of divorce.
Why not to watch: The ending undoes the entire movie.

Why to watch The Hangover: It's brutally funny.
Why not to watch: Amelie got taken out of the book for this.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Tarantino Dreams of

Film: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Quentin Tarantino tends to provoke two reactions: unbridled adulation or equally unbridled disdain. Strangely, I fall somewhere in the middle. I appreciate some of his films. When Pulp Fiction was shiny and new, I loved it, although I love it less now. Reservoir Dogs is still one of the best films of its decade. But I soured on Mr. Tarantino, in no small part because it seemed like he made a huge name for himself and then did nothing as a director for years. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is his fourth complete film, made 11 years after his first full-length feature.

In short, while I think the man had and possibly still has some real chops (I’ve yet to see Inglourious Basterds, his fourth film on the list along with the other three mentioned), it seems to me that he believes his own press. One of the reasons I like his first two films as much as I do is because he’s obviously a smart guy who can make reference to film culture both well-known and obscure. I appreciate that. However, it seems also that he can’t not make reference to such things and enjoys showing his audience exactly how much he knows all the time. Characters in his films are hyper-aware of pieces of pop culture—a band, a film, a whatever—and this seems to be to make us as audience aware that Tarantino knows all about those bits of pop culture. He’s often in love with his dialogue to the detriment of his films. That’s my opinion, of course.

Until tonight, I’ve avoided Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the simple reason that I didn’t want to spend two hours watching what looked to be Quentin Tarantino’s masturbation fantasies. Again, my opinion. And really, what do I know? After all, he’s the one making movies and I’m the one teaching English.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a revenge picture, pure and simple. We open with a fight between a character known only as The Bride (Uma Thurman…and the character’s real name is evidently revealed in the second film as Beatrix Kiddo. If you look quickly and carefully, though, you can see it on her plane tickets a couple of times) and a woman named Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). They destroy the hell out of Vernita’s house until her daughter comes home, and then the two talk civilly, planning a fight for later that evening. When Vernita goes for the double-cross and tries to take out the Bride with a gun, she ends up dead. The Bride leaves, crossing a name off the list, and we can see that she’s already scratched off the name O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

The rest of the film to the very end is told in flashback. We start with where the revenge starts—the Bride is known by this name because she was attacked by a collection of assassins on her wedding day. The entire wedding party, as well as her unborn child, were killed. It’s also made evident that the Bride was once a member of this group, led by the Bill (David Carradine, who does not appear in the flesh aside from his hands in this film) of the title.

The Bride is comatose for four years, during which she is evidently repeatedly raped by a sadistic hospital worker, who also sells out her services. We discover this when she comes to just before another rape and annihilates the rapist as well as the hospital worker. While she’s working on getting her legs to function again, she relates the story of O-Ren’s rise to power in the Tokyo underworld. And then we get the story of her getting a kick-ass sword from a retired swordmaker (Sonny Chiba) and the giant battle scene against O-Ren and her minions including schoolgirl assassin Gogo Yubari. And the rest of the story presumably happens in the second film, which I did not watch.

Kill Bill is all about spurting blood, violent death, and 1970’s-style wire work. It’s as much a modern action/revenge movie as it is an homage to the Shaw Brothers films and the martial arts classics of that era. This is undoubtedly intentional on Tarantino’s part. Averaged out, there’s a dead body for almost every minute of the film here. Blood sprays in geysers from severed limbs and heads, fountaining as if arteries were high-pressure hoses. The giant battle takes place mainly in black and white, apparently in homage to the old martial arts flicks that did it to avoid television censorship. That which isn’t in black and white is in monochromatic blue and shown in shadow pantomime.

It’s extreme. I’ve never let a bit of gore or a good bloodletting stop me from liking a film, but this was simply too damn much. I fully understand why people like this movie, why people look at this as a continuation of Tarantino’s promise. I demur. It’s too much, too extreme.

Again, in a Tarantino film, there are no innocents. The Bride can’t wake up from her coma and escape the hospital—it has to happen as a part of a rape scene that we as viewers are led to believe has happened over and over in the four years she has been comatose. That’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder where Tarantino’s head is at. Why the hell was that necessary? To show that the Bride can kick ass? We already know that from the opening sequence. To up the revenge? Also not really necessary. To add another layer of depravity in the film and show us again that Tarantino has a thing for female characters who can kick his ass? Yep.

I know I’m in the minority here, but so much of the violence here seems to be nothing but violence for its own sake. It does nothing for me. Will I watch the sequel? Probably not.

Thanks to some excellent comments and a little more thought, I've finally come up with the way to describe this film: it's like a video game. "Soulless" is a great description (thanks, fellow 1001 blogger Edward Boe for that observation). The film reads like nothing so much as a stream of combats in an effort to get to the boss fight. This may be the reason the film is so popular and highly regarded.

I worked in the video game industry for about 12 years, first as a journalist and then as a hint book author. I haven't played a video game in seven years because I burned out and burned out hard. This may well be the reason this film holds no magic for me.

Why to watch Kill Bill Vol. 1: Ass-kicking on the grandest scale.
Why not to watch: Violence for the sake of violence on the grandest scale.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gotta Dance

Film: Singin’ in the Rain
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on middlin’-sized living room television.

When the conversation turns to great movies, as with “The List,” there’s often (or at least should be) an effort made to hit every genre of film. I know far too many people who hate a particular genre and write off everything from that genre regardless of quality. I try very hard not to do that. I admit that even some of the best musicals pass over my head, but I do try to be aware of what makes a great one, and what separates the great from the good and the mediocre.

This makes Singin’ in the Rain a dodgy proposition for someone like me, who does have a bias against musicals. Further, this is a film that is steeped in the tradition of musicals that irks me. I can willingly suspend my disbelief for any number of strange ideas and plot points. If you tell me that the film takes place in a world with robots and faster-than-light space travel, I’ll buy into it provided that the film itself stays true to that and contains a level of internal reality. Musicals don’t do that. They propose to be the real world, but people break off into orchestrated song and fully-realized and choreographed dance numbers. That doesn’t happen in the real world, and it throws me.

So, a warning: this happens frequently in Singin’ in the Rain. And for once (and for a wonder), I don’t really care that much. This film is simply too damn good. The numbers are great, the dancing is fantastic, and the story is entertaining and fun enough that I can actually ignore the whole “orchestra and choreography” thing that bothers me so much.

We start at a movie premiere of the latest silent film starring Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). We get a short biography of Lockwood and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), which covers their misspent youth and early days in Vaudeville, and the wow number “Fit as a Fiddle,” which really is a hell of a dance, and on a real stage would have people in the aisles instead of the poor reception we get here. We also learn of Lockwood’s early film career as a stuntman and his promotion to leading man by studio producer R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell).

What we also learn right away is that Lena Lamont has a grating voice and is dumber than a sack of hammers. In Lena’s world, anything the tabloids print is the truth, so when she and her co-star are romantically linked in the movies, they must be romantically linked in real life. Lockwood actually despises her, and becomes enamored of a young actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) when fate brings them together twice, each one getting embarrassed in front of the other.

Everyone’s world changes with the release of The Jazz Singer and the public demand for talkies. The latest Lockwood/Lamont film is turned into a talkie with disastrous results in the test screening. Thinking it over, Don, Cosmo, and Kathy decide that maybe it should play as a musical, with Kathy doing the voice work for Lena. Eventually, Lena finds out and flexes her muscle in the studio, leading to the climax of the film’s debut as a musical picture and a happy ending all around.

The plot is a fun one, but it’s not really the reason to watch this film. The reason to watch is the song and dance numbers, and yes, I feel very strange saying that. The painful (to me) truth is that virtually every number here is one that would be the focus of a lesser film. They’re all great. Whenever I see this film, I’m curious as to why O’Connor isn’t better known than he is, because he tears the hell out of the floor. He manages to keep pace with Kelly in their numbers together, and crushes the “Make ‘em Laugh” number in one of the high points of not just this film, but film.

Of course, the big deal number is the “Gotta Dance” piece toward the end, which is a long dance sequence that is being inserted into the revamped version of the original talkie. Oddly, I find it to be the one that is the least compelling. Sure, the sequence with Cyd Charisse wearing the short green number is great, but the sequence goes on too long for my tastes, and really exists only to give Kelly another number to hoof in. Admittedly, though, he hoofs better than pretty much anyone ever, and he is something magical to watch on the screen.

Kelly is always compelling, and he’s a joy to watch. The thing I have always liked about Gene Kelly is that he could act as well as dance—Inherit the Wind proved that. Donald O’Connor was badly underrated, or isn’t famous enough, or something and makes for great comic relief. Debbie Reynolds earned every role she got after this one with this performance. The unsung hero here, though, is Jean Hagen in the thankless role of a wicked, vindictive idiot. She’s as good as everyone else, even though she doesn’t get to sing or dance.

What can I tell you? I’m a sucker for Gene Kelly (and Fred Astaire—we’ll get to him eventually), and Singin’ in the Rain has everything and more. This is a hell of a picture; even a die-hard musical hater like me walks away from it humming a tune.

Why to watch Singin’ in the Rain: The most flawless musical comedy/dance film ever made.
Why not to watch: Your personal bias won’t let you enjoy it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Obscure Spongebob Reference Not Intended

Film: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Our NetFlix subscription has been a boon in finding a lot of movies, but NetFlix doesn’t have everything. There are probably 100 or more films not in the NetFlix library that might show up eventually and might not. One of these is Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which has been sitting in my NetFlix queue at the bottom in the “not available” category for months. What a treat to find it at a public library!

Like many films of the day, this one starts at the end. A collection of Spanish fishermen dredge up something horrible—a pair of bodies intertwined. We don’t see them; we see only their hands clasped together in death on the beach. The story is then picked up by a professor of archaeology named Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), who relates the tale of Pandora (Ava Gardner).

Pandora is a beautiful but selfish and self-centered woman. Every man who knows her, even in some respects Fielding, is infatuated with her, and she uses this knowledge to force men to act in the way she wants. She’s a tease, and in our opening scene with her, she teases a man named Reggie (Marius Goring) into suicide. Since he can’t have her, he poisons himself. She also teases Stephen (Nigel Patrick), the object of Janet’s affection. Stephen is a driver, and has spent two years building a car to break the land speed record. Pandora promises to marry him if he pushes his car into the sea. He does. She tells him since it is the ninth day of the third month, she will marry him on the third day of the ninth month.

Unbeknownst to Pandora is the presence of Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason), who has shown up in the small Spanish port. Pandora swims out to his ship and meets him, surprised that he is alone. He is in the middle of painting a portrait, quite coincidentally of the Greek myth Pandora, and the face on the portrait is Pandora’s. She becomes quite interested in him as a result, and he joins her group of friends and suitors on the Spanish coast.

What we (and Fielding) learn is that van der Zee is truly the Flying Dutchman of legend. He killed his wife, convinced that she had been unfaithful, and declares a curse on himself at his trial. He escapes his jail cell and returns to his ship only to discover that the curse has come true. He cannot die. He is forced to roam the Earth alone and eternally. Every seven years, he can come ashore for six months to find a woman and convince her to love him so much that she will give up her life for him.

Into this mix, we add a matador named Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabre), who is also infatuated with Pandora. He schemes against the other men (especially van der Zee), Stephen rescues his car from the ocean and attempts to set the land speed record a few days before the wedding, and everything comes to a head, leading back to the beginning. Honestly, it’s impossible to spoil the ending of this movie. If you’ve seen the first five minutes, you know how it’s going to end.

The question is the movie’s place on the list. Does it belong? I’m not really sure. It’s a nice story and an interesting one because of the supernatural elements in the story. I’ll be blunt here: I like James Mason a lot. I think he was almost always great and it’s impossible not to watch him when he’s on the screen. Ava Gardner, though, does nothing for me. I’m not sure why.

While the film is about the romance, it’s also about the growth of the Pandora character. She’s nasty for quite a bit of the film. It’s evident that van der Zee is enamored with her because she is the very image of his murdered wife. She’s mean, though, through a good part of the movie. This is entirely intentional, of course, because if there is no real growth in the character, there’s no real purpose behind the film. As the film goes on, she learns that her own desire to hurt others comes from her own unhappiness, and by the end of the film, rather than goading Montalvo, she seeks only to calm him and send him on his way.

The supernatural elements seem to be an attempt to add weight to the film, but I don’t know if there’s enough there. It’s a sweet movie, and a tearjerker of sorts, but all in all, it doesn’t belong with the greatest of the great.

Why to watch Pandora and the Flying Dutchman: Because James Mason kicks ass.
Why not to watch: Too fluffy to be anything more than a curiousity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alone in a Sea of Humanity

Film: Lost in Translation
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Suffering from jealousy is not one of my problems when it comes to actors on the big screen. It would be cool to be in a movie once—I’d love to be horribly killed in a film, either by zombies or as a zombie, but beyond that, I have no ill feelings toward the people on the screen. The main reason for that is that I am not an actor. The last time I acted seriously was 1988, and I gave it up for good immediately following that. I’d make a fool of myself in a movie.

The money would be nice, though. I could certainly handle the lifestyle. Or could I? Bob Harris (Bill Murray) would appear to suggest that the same things that the rest of us go through are gone through by those at the top end of the fame and money spectrum. Life is a series of boring events, being pushed and prodded by others, and drinking away the pain. Such is the tale of Lost in Translation.

Harris is an aging action movie star well past his prime who has shown up in Tokyo to film a few commercials for whiskey, and the fact that he’s being paid $2 million is the only thing that is comforting him. He feels lost, not just in Tokyo but also in his life. His marriage is stable, but boring; while he is in Tokyo away from his family, his wife constantly harangues him about carpet samples, which she sends him. He spends his evenings in the bar trying to drink away his jet lag and boredom.

Also staying in his hotel is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) in Tokyo for a photo shoot. He doesn’t have a lot of time for her, and she spends her day being bored and lonely and completely out of place in a city in which she understands nothing and no one understands her.

The two find each other and gravitate toward each other. This is an age difference that we have been taught to expect in movies, the much older man and the very young woman, but this is not the typical romance. Their mutual attraction, while it certainly contains something physical, remains almost platonic. They become not romantic love for each other, but a center of calm and a place of normality. In a city where the language is completely unintelligible and the customs and current fads are strange and unfathomable, they each become a place of comfort for each other. This is what is central to their relationship—not sex, but peace of mind.

Bob continues to live out the absurdities of his existence, appearing on a Japanese talk show. The show is almost unexplainable, a sort of video madhouse that could only make sense for those fluent in the language—he is as out of place here as he is everywhere else in Tokyo except for at the side of Charlotte. That night, after dealing with more carpet samples, he finds himself alone and falls into the arms of the hotel lounge singer (Catherine Lambert, who evidently was the actual lounge singer at the real hotel in Tokyo). This causes a minor rift between him and Charlotte, almost as if he was unfaithful to her instead of his wife.

There is a sweetness to this film in which the romance is made more real by the fact that it isn’t consummated. Right around the middle of the film, the two are lying on her hotel room bed fully clothed after watching La Dolce Vita, and they talk about his life and hers. Both of them are lost in their lives. He is bored with his existence, tired of constant attention and being fussed over by people he can’t understand and doesn’t want to understand. He’s adrift. She hasn’t discovered yet what she wants and has lost any will to do anything. It’s a touching scene with real intimacy despite the fact that they barely touch. Their physical contact is limited to his patting her feet near the end of the scene, but it is such a comforting and natural gesture that it resonates with a real affection.

There is an opposite to Bob in the film; this is Kelly (Anna Faris) who is in Tokyo promoting her new film. Kelly is everything that Bob and Charlotte are not. She is vain, stupid, arrogant, and unable to see her own ridiculousness and idiocy. There is no indication that Bob was anything like this at the start of his career, but I like to think that he was. Kelly is too unaware to realize that she’s nothing more than a pretty face—she thinks that people love her because she is special and talented. Bob, world-weary, has grown up enough to realize his own irrelevance while Charlotte appears convinced that she never had any relevance in the first place.

Typically with a romance—and this is a romance despite the almost complete absence of sex and the total absence of it between our two main characters—the desire of the audience is to have the couple end up together. I don’t think that’s ever on the table here. I don’t want these two to run off together, and really, I don’t think either of them wants it. They do, of course, the same way everyone thinks “if only” at certain times in their lives, but there is no real danger that each will abandon his or her spouse and stay in Tokyo. Their parting is inevitable. And yet even though that parting is tender, sweet, and sad, there is a sense of joy in it as well—if nothing else, they’ve found someone who can always be a friend when a friend is needed.

This is a pretty film. Coppola’s idea to not subtitle the Japanese is the right one—it places us in the audience in the same position as the characters, who smile and nod like many people do when confronted with a language they cannot possibly fathom.

While all of the roles are well acted, this is Bill Murray’s movie. It shows exactly where he has come in terms of presenting a character on the screen. Bob is a real person. He makes jokes that only he understands and finds funny. There is a part of him that appears to revel in the bizarre circumstances he finds himself in. He plays this role with complete resignation of his life being what it is and nothing more or different that Charlotte becomes something he needs to attain. He’s finally found something worth striving for, and there’s a real sense of ache in him, of utter confusion and frustration and bewilderment, that the scenes with her are real treasures.

This is a spectacular film, and I’m happy I watched it, and happier now that I own a copy and can watch it again whenever I want. It feels like reality, like a few days sliced from someone’s life. I can give it no higher compliment.

Why to watch Lost in Translation: Proof that Bill Murray has grown up. His comedy is tinged with tragedy.
Why not to watch: Ennui, pain, and desperate loneliness

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Oddest Flower in the Bouquet of Love

Film: Midnight Cowboy
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

What will you do to survive? How far will you go? In John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, we discover exactly how for our putative hero Joe Buck (Jon Voight) will go to live another day in New York City in pursuit of a sad little dream.

Joe is a cowboy, not a “for-real cowboy,” as he tells people throughout the film, but the closest thing to a cowboy in New York City. At the start of the film, Joe is a dishwasher in the Podunk ass-end of Texas who decides that life would be better if he were having a lot more sex. While that’s a career option for women with little moral standing, there’s not really a huge market for guys looking to get paid to have sex with women in the Podunk ass-end of Texas, so Joe collects his last paycheck, buys himself some slick cowboy duds, and hops a bus for New York City.

Sadly for Joe, New York doesn’t operate in the same way that he’s used to. He’s a rube, and he’s also an obvious victim and target. It’s apparent immediately that Joe is either going to need a lot of good luck or a very good teacher if he’s going to survive, let alone thrive in the city. He starts his “career” as a hustler by propositioning women on the street, asking if they can show him to the Statue of Liberty. This gets him into the penthouse of Cass (Sylvia Miles), and it appears that his career is off to a rollicking start.

Sadly, though, Cass is offended by his asking her for cash, and ends up demanding money from him. The cycle continues when Joe meets Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled no-account who fashions himself as a con man but is too well known by the downtrodden to hustle anyone but a rube like Joe. Ratso hustles Joe for $20, telling him that he’ll take him to a “manager” but instead dropping him off with a religious fanatic (John McGiver, a classic “that guy”).

Eventually, Joe finds Ratso again, and shakes him down for his money, but naturally it’s all been spent. In a rare moment of conscience, Ratso takes in the big stranger, inviting him back to his place, which is a condemned building that the two squat in. They become petty criminals, scamming people for change, ripping off grocers for food, and trying to find a way to get Joe’s stud career started. It finally happens when Joe receives an invitation to a party hosted by some Andy Warhol wannabees, and the pair manages to entice Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) to pay $20 to spend the night with Joe. However, Ratso takes a tumble down the stairs, and his health takes a drastic turn for the worse. He becomes convinced that the only thing that will solve his health problems is getting to Florida.

That’s the rough outline. Contained within is a series of some of the most tragic and sad events I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. Joe is a complete innocent, good only for lovin’ as he tells us at one point. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the life he spent with his grandmother, who frequently abandoned him. We also see his relationship with his girlfriend Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt), a relationship that ends in a gang rape and Annie in an institution.

It’s evident pretty quickly after Joe hits New York that his dream is doomed. Flat broke and kicked out of his hotel, Joe scams crackers off tables in restaurants. Desperate at one point, he allows a young gay man (Bob Balaban) to take him into a movie theater and perform oral sex on him, a low he didn’t think he was capable of reaching. In this world, though, nothing can go right for Joe, and the young man doesn’t have any money to pay him, leaving Joe still broke and, by his own code, defiled. By the end of the film, Joe is willing to do almost anything to get Ratso to Florida, pleasuring men being fair game.

There are definite homosexual and homoerotic undertones throughout the film, particularly in the relationship between Joe and Ratso. Are they gay? It’s hard to tell. There are certainly tender moments between the two of them. While we see flashbacks of Joe’s past, when we enter Ratso’s mind, it’s to envision his magical future in Florida, generally with a shirtless, attractive Joe. It’s not too hard to read this as homoerotic, but I don’t think it is. That these two men come to love each other, but I don’t gather a sexual thing between the two of them. They’re merely devoted to each other. Still, that’s been a common read. This is further enforced by the constant gaybashing the two of them do. This is further indicated by Joe’s inability to perform with Shirley until she accuses him of being gay, which suddenly changes everything. Of course, this is merely my opinion, and the reading that the two men are closeted is certainly one that can be justified.

What stays with me from the film is the plight of these two men, desperate for anything to get them out of their situation and unable to do anything that works, never getting ahead. At one point, Joe pawns his little battery operated radio for $5. This doesn’t sound like much except that the radio is virtually the only thing he has left from his life in Texas. It’s been his constant companion, the only thing he has for entertainment. To see it go, and go so quickly is a tragic moment in the film. It’s evident to anyone watching that there’s no chance in hell of him getting his radio back. They freeze in their squat, barely able to cook a meal, and at almost every turn, their life together disintegrates.

Midnight Cowboy is celebrated in no small part because it was originally released with an X rating, a rating that was subsequently dropped to R without any changes or cuts. Why did it get an X initially? I have no idea. It’s certainly got enough troubling material in it that I wouldn’t let anyone under 17 watch it, but it’s hardly explicit.

Despite the fact that this film is almost as old as I am, very little in it has aged. This is still a masterful film worth watching, worth studying.

Why to watch Midnight Cowboy: The strangest love this side of Martha Ivers.
Why not to watch: You can’t get past the X rating