Sunday, March 31, 2013

Month 39 Status Report

We're getting down to the final slog here. I have exactly 160 films left to review, and I freely admit that a part of me is starting to look ahead to future projects. I lost some focus in March, reviewing only 22 films from The List, which is much less than I would have preferred. Oh well.

April, of course, is another month, and a chance to refocus myself on finishing what I started. The problem I'm starting to have is an interesting one--with a much smaller list to deal with, my choices are a lot more limited, and it becomes a question of availability more than anything else. Expect the number of non-List reviews to increase slowly in the months ahead to reflect this. I'm hoping to keep up a pace of 5-7 List films per week, but I'm not sure how much longer the availability of films will allow that. I'm pretty much stripped my local library of necessary films, and have come close to doing the same with two other libraries I use. That's the biggest challenge right now.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

That'll Do, Pig

Film: Babe
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I was a hard sell on Babe. Seriously, I had no real desire to watch a movie about a talking pig the first time I became aware of it. I’m still a little bit in denial that Babe was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture. It’s a feel-good choice, I suppose, but I can’t imagine it got a lot of votes. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’m a convert. I like the little pig. I liked it the first time I saw it, and I liked it again tonight, watching it with the girls while coloring Easter eggs. Babe, both the movie and the pig, is insufferably cute, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a great family film—entertaining for kids and adults, and that’s something pretty rare in the world.

Babe the pig (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is won by farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) at a county fair, a nice prize for a farmer who is so old school he still uses a horse and wagon. The Hoggett farm is sort of hemorrhaging money in no small part because Hoggett and his wife Esme (Magda Szubanski) refuse to modernize in any way. The pig, of course, is there to be eaten eventually, as Mrs. Hoggett has dreams of a nice Christmas ham. Farmer Hoggett, though, sees something special in the pig when Babe helps defend the sheep against thieves and wild dogs.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Youth in Asia

Film: Yuen Ling-yuk(Ruan Lingyu; Center Stage; The Actress)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Every now and then I watch a film that I’m sure how to react to. Yuen Ling-yuk (which has a couple of dozen other names: Ruan Lingyu; Center Stage; Centre Stage; The Actress) is one such film. It’s an oddball of a movie, that feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be, although it does. It’s brilliantly acted and filmed, unique in a number of ways, and I found a great deal to like here. I’m just not completely certain what I actually have to say about it. Bear with me; this might ramble a bit or go massively off-topic. You’ve been warned.

Yuen Ling-yuk) is in some ways a documentary about itself. It is also a biopic of the actress Ruan Ling-yu (Maggie Cheung). Ruan began acting at 16, starred in a number of films (about six of which survive), and took her own life at 24. The film is in part an exploration of what led to the suicide. It is also in part an discussion of the film itself by the actors and the director, Stanley Kwan. Frequently, we see scenes from Ruan’s life, and then the cast discusses what they think may have really happened or watches current footage of people who knew Ruan in the 1930s.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Less Arsenic, More Old Lace

Film: The Ladykillers
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

How come Alec Guinness doesn’t get the props he deserves? I mean, if you look at the actors of his heyday, he might well be remembered, but certainly not with the same sort of reverence as an actor like Olivier. However, Guinness was much more versatile. He was capable of more than most actors of his time, and in fact most actors of today. A case in point is a film like The Ladykillers, a black comedic little number that puts Guinness in the guise of a criminal mastermind, a vastly different role from his criminal neophyte of The Lavender Hill Mob and just a year or two before his triumph in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Guinness was a cinematic chameleon every bit as versatile as someone like Peter Sellers, but with less recognition that he had that skill.

In The Ladykillers, Guinness plays “Professor” Marcus, a criminal genius set on stealing a massive amount of money with his four associates, the constantly worried Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), the smooth Robinson (Peter Sellers), the nervous hitman type Louie (Herbert Lom) and the loutish muscle man One Round (Danny Green). The caper is a simple one. They manage to block off traffic both behind and in front of an armored car, disable the guards, and stash the four suitcases of loot into a massive steamer trunk. The trunk is then wheeled into the train station.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Baby, It's Cold Inside

Film: The Ice Storm
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

The 1970s were a strange time. I don’t remember a lot of the early ‘70s because I was little. Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm takes place during Thanksgiving in 1973 in the middle of the Watergate scandal. All I genuinely remember about Watergate is that for much a year, boring political stuff with people saying things that I didn’t understand pre-empted my favorite television shows. So when we’re told that this time was filled with a dissolution of spirit, community feeling, and even marriage vows, I’m sort of forced to take people older than me at their word.

And that is what The Ice Storm is very much about. It would be tempting and extremely easy to simply claim that the film is almost entirely about sex. On a first look, and even a second look, that’s a pretty simple place to take it, but that would be selling the film short. A great deal of the film does, in fact, focus on sex, but it’s hardly the only thing going on here. No, sex—not the sexual freedom and liberation of the 1960s, but the more callous, sex for pleasure at the expense of others—is merely the most obvious and common symptom of the underlying problem the film is trying to expose.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Watching Oscar: You Can't Take It with You

Film: You Can’t Take It with You
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

At the start of the year I decided to watch everything that had ever won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was an easy decision, seeing that finishing off The List put me within shouting distance and picking up a few others here and there brought me even closer. It was, on an already packed list, a few extra weeks of viewing. And I figured I may as well put up a review of all of them, too. Really, what’s 20,000 words, more or less. It occurs to me, though, that there’s a reason many of the films that won this particular award are no longer considered “must-see” films. And so we have 1938’s winner, You Can’t Take It with You, another big winner that has justifiably sunk into obscurity.

In the finance world, no one has the clout of Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). He’s working on a major deal that requires that he buy up 12 city blocks worth of buildings, and he’s managed to do this with the exception of a single house. That house is owned by Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), and there’s no way he’ll sell. He lives there with his collection of eccentric relatives and friends, each of whom does whatever he or she pleases at any given time, regardless of its quality, value, or use to the world at large. They’re sort of half commune and half open-door lunatic asylum, and they’re always recruiting new members.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Free Spirit

Film: My Brilliant Career
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

There is a character in many a period drama that I almost always dislike. That character is the “free-spirited,” independent woman. I tend to dislike this character because in the movies, free-spirited usually translates as bitchy and unpleasant. I appreciate strong female characters and I like independence. But there’s an attitude with these characters that is a bit like biting down on a piece of tinfoil for me. So I tend to be leery of them. When I discovered that a character like this was at the center of My Brilliant Career, I went in with a number of reservations.

I needn’t have. Our main character, Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is fun to be around. She’s the sort of independent I like. She’s a true free spirit, someone who wants something more than what life as a young woman in late 19th century Australia typically offers. I understand her desire to want something more than a loveless marriage that may or may not work out. Sybylla claims to be bright and clever but physically ugly, which isn’t really true. She’s not even movie ugly. In fact, the biggest problem I see with her is that she has too damn many y’s in her name.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Watching Oscar: Cimarron

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

It would be really easy for me to say rude things about Cimarron. It was the first Western to win Best Picture (and it’s only marginally a Western), and it evidently left such a bad taste in the collective mouth of the Academy that another film from the genre didn’t win until 1990. And it’s not even a real Western; it just takes place in the Old West. There’s a single shoot out, a lot of posturing, and something that I flat can’t make a lot of sense of. But times have changed. A film like Cimarron, made today, would be vastly changed from this version.

In addition to being the only Old West film to win in the first 60+ years of Oscar history, Cimarron is also the only Best Picture to lose money on its initial release, and it lost a lot. That’s what you get for producing a big-budget film in the middle of one of the worst years of a terrible economic depression. But hey, it won the top prize, and for that reason alone, it has some historical significance.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

And the Soul of a Devil

Film: Angel Face
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I haven’t really had much of a plan in taking out the films on The List. That’s been by design. I didn’t want to burn out on old films or get stuck in a particular rut. In general, I jump around a lot. I have focused some on the early films of the list, though. It helps with a sense of film history, of learning where later films got their ideas. So I have regularly targeted the lowest current remaining number and watched that film. I wasn’t too excited when I saw Angel Face as the low number du jour, at least until I cracked open the NetFlix envelope. I saw “Robert Mitchum” and “Otto Preminger” and “film noir” and became very pleased. Sometimes, going into a film completely cold has real benefits. (On a related note, this is one of the bad things about removing most of the early films—I’m pretty much out of noir titles, and that’s a bummer.)

Anyway, Frank (Mitchum) is an ambulance driver with his partner Bill (Kenneth Tobey). They’re called to the Tremayne mansion where Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has almost died of gas inhalation. It’s the sort of thing that is easy to consider a suicide attempt, but all of the indications suggest that suicide isn’t really on the table for her. On the way out, Frank meets the hysterical step-daughter, Diane (Jean Simmons). A few mutual slaps later, and these two are hitting the town, with Frank waxing poetic about the garage he wants to build, the cars he used to race, and now and then mentioning his girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman). It’s important that he’s begged off a dinner with Mary in order to spend the night with Diane.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dos Films de Pedro

Film: Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown); Hable con Ella (Talk to Her)
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library (Breakdown) and personal collection (Talk) on laptop.

Cynthia, my librarian, loves Pedro Almodovar. We talk movies now and then, and whenever one of his movies comes up, the tone of her voice changes. I don’t think this is terribly uncommon. Almodovar is generally thought of as a director of women’s movies. I believe this is a misnomer. Certainly his films focus on women in general and he often has many memorable female characters. However, I’ve really enjoyed the films of his that I have seen. The fact that they focus on women makes no difference to me—I like that they focus on interesting characters and real stories.

Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of the most appropriately named films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also a film that more than almost any other I have seen in recent memory depends on Dickensian coincidences that would embarrass most amateur writers. Oddly, it sort of works in this film because the coincidences pile up to such an insane degree that it quickly becomes ridiculous. Let’s see if we can make sense of things.

Politics is a Dirty Business

Film: Terra em Transe (Earth Entranced; Entranced Earth)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

The computer I use for this blog doesn’t actually belong to me; it’s my work laptop. This places certain restrictions on me in terms of what I can and can’t do. When Chip Lary at Tips from Chip sent me a huge chunk of rare films, I convinced my IT guy (and since Mike is cool, it didn’t take much effort) to let me store these films directly on my hard drive. Since then, I’ve been trying to take out these rarities at a pretty regular pace. Because these films are rarities, I go into them pretty cold. I watched Terra em Transe (Earth Entranced, sometimes called Entranced Earth) knowing nothing more than that it was Brazilian and came from the late 1960s.

This is the story of Paulo Martins (Jardel Filho), a journalist and poet living in the fictional Central (or South) American country of Eldorado. He is a man of the people, wanting to bring happiness and prosperity to the land. To do this, he latches onto two politicians, each very different in important ways, but identical in the ways that matter. Both are opportunist and tell people what they want to hear to achieve and retain power. The president of the country is the conservative Porfirio Diaz (Paulo Autran), while the governor of the area is a populist who doesn’t practice what he claims to preach. This is Felipe Vieira (Jose Lewgoy). Vierira and Diaz hate each other, but both are connected to Paulo.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Watching Oscar: The Greatest Show on Earth

Film: The Greatest Show on Earth
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on various players.

It would be completely dishonest of me to not mention at the start of this that I really don’t like circuses. I mean that I really don’t like them. That being the case, The Greatest Show on Earth has a strike against it before I’ve cracked open the DVD case. Strike two is that this film is often mentioned as a film that should never have won Best Picture. There’s almost always some anger around what wins in any given year, and most of that is reserved for recent memory. Most people couldn’t peg this as something that won that particular award. Unlike classic winners like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, The Greatest Show on Earth has sort of faded into a sort of well-deserved obscurity.

Super-heroishly named Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) runs the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as it travels around the country. But the circus is going through some rough times in the post-war depression years and the bigwigs of the big top want to run a short season—10 weeks playing only the major cities. Brad convinces them to allow him to continue on the road as long as the show remains in the black. He does this by telling them he’s acquired the services of The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wild), the world’s greatest trapeze artist, and that Sebastian only agreed to work for the circus on the promise of a full season.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Prison Break

Film: Le Trou (The Hole)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing an increasing number of subtitled films lately (and most of the ones I’m planning on seeing this coming week fit this bill as well). I’m not sure there’s a specific reason why this is, other than that about half of what I have left is subtitled. I also didn’t plan to watch a couple of films in a row that feature non-professional actors. This happens now and again—I’ll watch two films that have something interesting in common without planning things that way.

Le Trou (The Hole) is the final film of Jacques Becker, who died while the film was in post-production. The film is based on a real life event, a prison break that happened in the late 1940s in France. We spend almost all of our time with a group of five men—one is sort of the main character, but also sort of isn’t and gets that designation only because we learn a little more about him than we do about the others.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Man and His Dog

Film: Umberto D.
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

What can I say about Vittorio de Sica that I haven’t already said before? He made slice-of-life films about the poor and downtrodden being poor and downtrodden and seemed to love to cut the hearts out of his main characters and his audience. Ladri di Biciclette is one of the most gutting experiences I’ve had watching a film. I was braced for something similar when it came to Umberto D., a film that I’d been warned about. I expected it to be a great film and one that would absolutely tear my heart out. Yes and yes.

Our main character is the eponymous Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), an old pensioner who spent his life working for the government. As the film begins, Umberto is protesting for a raise in his pension along with a number of old men. While it seems that many of them simply want more money, Umberto needs the raise to make ends meet and pay off his debts. The small pension he gets is not nearly enough for him to live on, and he owes his landlady(Lina Gennari) a great deal of back rent, which causes her to threaten to evict him.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Watching Oscar: Quo Vadis

Film: Quo Vadis
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are times when I don’t look forward to a particular film specifically because of the subject matter. That’s pretty normal, I think. I pretty much don’t watch torture porn because I don’t want to watch torture porn. I have no real interest in subjecting myself to that, and so the rare film that crops up that touches on that subject is one that I dread. It’s why I put off films like Audition, Funny Games and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for as long as I did. At other times, I feel like it makes sense to knock these films out as soon as I can so that they aren’t hanging over my head. Thus it is I spent nearly three hours watching Quo Vadis, a biblical epic that seems tailor-made to tell the faithful how special they are.

I’ll try not to get too anti-religion on you with this one, but that’s not easy for someone with my religious outlook when it comes to a film like Quo Vadis. This is a film tailor-made for the sort of Christian believer who wants to claim persecution for his or her faith, since this film is entirely about the persecution of Christianity by the Roman Empire under the reign of Nero. Never once are we led to doubt anything but the literal truth of the biblical account, and right there and in a large way the film loses me.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lost in the Woods

Film: The Blair Witch Project
Format: DVD from Morris Area Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

The first time I tried to watch The Blair Witch Project I couldn’t get through it. The reason was simple—the constant hand-held camera work nauseated me. I don’t mean that I didn’t like it—I mean it literally made me feel sick to my stomach. I considered taking Dramamine to counter it. I didn’t and I did manage to make it through. It’s a film I’ve been planning to see for some time. My brother Tom, who is also going through The List on his own terms, considers this one of the scariest films he’s ever seen.

I’ll disagree with him on that. I don’t disagree that there’s some boo factor here, but I found The Blair Witch Project a lot more unsettling than actually scary. The genius of the found footage genre—the genre that this film started—is that it’s low cost and shows only exactly what you can legitimately suggest to the viewers that the person holding the camera would see. Because of this, the film (and generally the genre) depends on the idea that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. We’re in luck with this one—this film is smart enough that what we don’t see really does have some scare factor.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kol Nidre

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

I think I’ve mentioned before that there was a time in my life when my favorite genre of film was war films. When I was a kid, I liked the adventurous nature of films showing combat, something true in the main because the war films I had access to tended to be from the 1940s and ‘50s, and tended to be of the more jingoistic variety. The good guys always completed their mission and stopped the Nazis in their tracks. Much of the time, this came down to American ingenuity and determination. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve changed just as the genre has changed. War films now are not about plucky Americans overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. No, these days, filmmakers have the correct idea in most cases of showing war for what it is: something awful, confusing, and terrifying. So it is with Amos Gitai’s Kippur.

I’ve seen plenty of war movies of the last few years. It’s really no surprise; after all, war is a common event in the world and has been for millennia. I’ve seen war films from the point of view of the combatants, films that show the combatants on both sides, modern war, ancient war, war as seen by children, war from the point of view of the bystanders, and war seen through the eyes of the prisoners. But Kippur gives us something different—war through the eyes of the men who go to the battlefield and pick up the bodies of the dead and dying, transferring them back to the hospital. We don’t see the shooting war; we see the terrible and tragic aftermath.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spring is Coming

Film: Nattvardsgasterna (Winter Light)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I find the films of Ingmar Bergman interesting for a number of reasons. The primary one, I think, is that so much of Bergman is infused with religion and religious imagery while so frequently being about people struggling with living in a world they envision without a god. Bergman liked the pain of existentialism, the search for meaning and purpose in an uncaring and indifferent universe, and particularly that key moment of struggle when the people in question discover their own lack of faith in what may or may not be in the world beyond this one. Nowhere is this clearer than in Nattvardsgasterna (Winter Light) where even those who have dedicated themselves to a life of faith find that their faith is unable to withstand the burdens of the world.

Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) presides over a very small rural flock in his church. The film opens with a service attended by a small crowd of people. This crowd includes local fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). When the service ends, Jonas speaks with Tomas about his own worries and fears. In particular, Jonas is upset that the Chinese are working on an atomic weapon, a reality that fills him with abject terror. Tomas is also confronted by Marta (Ingrid Thulin), a former lover who also happens to be his antithesis, as she is an atheist. Tomas is only able to give her part attention, since he is concerned about his ability to minister to Jonas Persson—just as Jonas has lost faith, Tomas finds himself without hope or solace.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Myth Representation

Film: The Natural
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The American people once upon a time had a fascination with the game of baseball. Some of that remains, but a lot has faded in the last few decades. There’s still a relationship there, though unlike that with any other sport. This is due to baseball’s history, which is much longer as a consecutive thing than other sports (barring lockouts and strikes) and in part because of baseball’s pastoral nature. Even in this day of steroid abuse and multi-multi million dollar contracts, there’s a connection between baseball today and the game of nearly a century ago.

Because of this unique relationship between America and baseball, it’s no surprise that the game frequently takes on a mythic significance in film. And thus it’s no surprise that a film like The Natural ascribes a mythic significance to the game using story that borrows lightly from the story of Percival in the Arthurian tradition and heavily from The Odyssey. In the world of the film, baseball is writ large. A hit is not merely a hit, but a stroke of power. A home run is an achievement of legend. If this makes it sound like The Natural is a bit overblown and takes itself a bit seriously, well, that’s exactly the case. Those truly immersed in the game, who take hot stove time seriously and count days to spring training will not find this odd. Everyone else may be put out by the film’s need to blow the impact of a simple game completely out of proportion.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lots of Shooting, Not as Many Stars

Film: La Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of the Shooting Stars)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Most war films are about the war itself and the people who fight in it. That makes perfect sense, actually. When people are struggling with one another in life-and-death situations, the drama is naturally heightened. War affects everyone, though, and the stories of those who see war come to them are often just as compelling and in many ways more understandable. La Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of the Shooting Stars, although literally translated as “The Night of San Lorenzo”) is the story of a town affected not only by the presence of war, but also by the promise of its absence.

In a small Italian town near the end of World War II in Europe, the people are anxiously awaiting what will happen. The German Army has held the town for some time, but the advancing force of Americans is pushing them back to their own country. Typically, not wanting the enemy to benefit from their absence, the Germans have been destroying as much as they can during their retreat.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Watching Oscar: Born Yesterday

Film: Born Yesterday
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

I think it’s hard to play dumb convincingly. Sure, plenty of people in the movies play dumber than they are, but a lot of them don’t do it very well. That vacuous, nothing-going-on-behind-the-eyes look takes real talent. Judy Holliday could pull it off so well that it’s tempting to think she might really have been that empty between the ears. That’s talent. Bette Davis couldn’t do it and neither could Katherine Hepburn. If you really want to see someone very smart act very, very dumb, you’ll want to take a close look at Born Yesterday.

Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a junk dealer, and one who has never really worried too much about the legality of what he does. Because of this, he has a great deal of influence and money and he’s looking for more of both. He arrives in Washington where he meets with Jim Devery (Howard St. John), his lawyer. Their discussion is (we gather—it’s never very explicit) on how to spend enough money in Congress to get some shady deals moved through.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Desperate Measures

Film: Fargo
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In Fargo, Frances McDormand plays the seven month pregnant police chief of Brainerd, MN, Marge Gunderson. I say with absolutely no shame (and knowing that almost everyone who reads this will agree with me) that Marge Gunderson is one of my absolute, all-time favorite film characters. I could seriously watch her all day. There’s a part of me that’s sad that Margie only appeared in a single film, and a part of me that rejoices at this, since the character never got the opportunity to become stale and silly. No, Marge is great where she is, forever pregnant, forever looking like a rube on the surface, and forever being a damn fine police officer.

The marvelous thing about Fargo is that it excels in two of the most important aspects of any film. First, it has a great story. It’s complicated enough to be interesting, but simple enough to follow easily on a first watch. Things get complex in stages, and each stage makes a certain amount of sense. We don’t go into exhaustive and unnecessary details; we get what we need to follow along and make sense of the events that unfold. And since this is a movie that involves any number of shady deals, underhanded actions, betrayals and criminal acts, it’s naturally interesting.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Internet is for Porn

Film: Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I knew that Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Sense) contained explicit sex before I watched it. That was pretty much all I knew about the film. What I didn’t realize was that this one is pretty much exclusively about sex and that “explicit sex” has multiple possible meanings. If you’re curious, Ai no Corrida covers pretty much every possible meaning of explicit sexuality you can likely think of.

It’s tempting to say that Ai no Corrida is surprising in its frank depiction of sexuality for the time in which it was made, but that would be a lie. The truth is that it’s surprising in its sexuality for any time—it would be no less startling in this respect were it made today. Within the first 20 minutes, we see penetrative sex, flaccid and erect penii (the one and only proper plural for “penis”) and non-simulated fellatio. Charges that this film is little more than pornography certainly make much more sense in this light. Again, I knew that there were non-simulated sex acts in this film. What I did not expect was that they would be completely undisguised. There is no way to mistake what is happening here. There is no pan up to focus on the actor’s face or action obscured by a conveniently placed blanket. No, this is actual sex. Seriously, we get close-ups and “money shots” and everything you’d expect from the Playboy Channel.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Made in Taiwan

Film: Bei Qing Cheng Shi (A City of Sadness)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

If I were a film student, I think I would strongly consider doing a dissertation on the cinema of oppression. It’s interesting, I think, how people react to films about the oppression of others. I think often we are more upset about the stories we don’t know and aren’t familiar with than with the ones that are more culturally our own. It’s probably from surprise. I’m not yet inured to the Holocaust despite having seen more than my share of films about it. The enormity of the event prevents me from ever really having a “been there, done that” attitude. And yet I find myself often more moved by stories of social evils and people buried under the weight of their wicked governments that I was not familiar with before watching. Why is this? I think it has something to do with familiarity. I know where a Holocaust film is going. I didn’t know enough about what happened in Taiwan post-World War II to really know much about Bei Qing Cheng Shi (A City of Sadness).

I knew nothing of what happened in Taiwan after it was given back to Mainland China after the war. As such, I had no idea what to expect or what kind of human injustice would crop up agains the people in this story. The film tells the story of a single family living in Taiwan after its return to Chinese rule following the war. Immediately there is corruption and trouble. While the people appear to be happy to be free of Japanese rule, the begin to see that not everything is as good as it once was. Food becomes scarce, and the systematic oppression of the people, particularly those sent to Taiwan by Chang Kai-shek becomes the norm.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Coals to Newcastle

Film: Get Carter
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

A few years ago when Stallone remade Get Carter I was vaguely aware that it was a remake but knew nothing about it or about the original. In my mind for some reason I conflated it with Cop Land despite the films being three years apart. Anyway, I knew nothing about Get Carter going in and really wasn’t prepared for the film that I watched. That’s not a complaint; it’s just a statement of fact.

Get Carter is a sort of a British take on post-noir noir and an early prototype of what the British gangster/crime film would become in later years. Gone with this are the days of polite Limey crime like The Lavender Hill Mob. No, Get Carter is sex and violence, so much so that it was originally given an X rating. The film it most reminds me of is Point Blank, and while it shares a sense and a kinetic sense with the earlier film, it’s also not quite as taut, substituting complexity, nudity, and violence for style.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Watching Oscar: The China Syndrome

Film: The China Syndrome
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

I think I must have been sort of a weird kid. Actually, I know I was a pretty weird kid, but that seemed to express itself in my movie choices. I can remember seeing The China Syndrome as a kid, which means I saw this when I was 11. Why the hell would an 11-year-old kid want to see The China Syndrome? I have no answer for that except to say that evidently, I was that kid. This was a pattern—I saw Chariots of Fire in the theater by myself, and I also remember seeing, of all things, The Falcon and the Snowman. What the hell was I thinking? On the other hand, I also saw Star Wars in the theater almost 20 times. Actually, that’s pretty weird, too.

Anyway, The China Syndrome is a film about an almost-accident at a nuclear power plant that turns into both a scare and a scandal. It’s a solid film with some very good performances, but it also benefited greatly from timing. When the film was released, the idea of a nuclear power plant disaster was not really in the mind of the public, but less than two weeks after its release, the incident at Three Mile Island happened. Suddenly the idea of nuclear disaster was on the minds of everyone, and The China Syndrome reaped the enormous benefits.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


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

I haven’t ever attacked the watching of this list of films with much of a plan, or at least without much of a plan that’s looked more than a week or so ahead. I’ve tried to watch films from all genres and from all decades pretty consistently. I’ve also sort of kept track of the films I’m really interested in seeing and the ones that I dread. For the last three years, I’ve done my best to ration the films that really interest me and to force myself to do a couple of the scarier ones every month. The fact that I’ve disliked four of the last seven and want a better print of a fifth means it’s time for one I’ve been looking forward to seeing.

Walkabout is a story unlike any that I have seen. A man (John Meillon) takes his daughter (Jenny Agutter) and son (Luc Roeg, son of director Nicolas Roeg) for a drive out into the Australian Outback, driving into the heart of nowhere until the car is virtually out of gas. As his daughter puts together a picnic lunch, he consults what looks like geological information about the area. Then, quite suddenly, he pulls out a gun and attempts to kill his children. The kids run off, and he sets fire to the care and shoots himself in the head, leaving his children alone and in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Damn You, Delphine Seyrig!

Film: India Song
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Up to tonight, I’d seen exactly three films featuring Delphine Seyrig. I’ve absolutely hated two of them (Last Year at Marienbad, Jeanne Dielmann) and really enjoyed one (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). It would appear, then, that a fourth film will tell the tale. Either Seyrig will come out close to even (although I really hate those two films) or will get her third strike. The film in question this time is India Song, which, despite its name, is French and was filmed in Paris.

Yeah. We’re not getting out of this one unscathed. Part of that is due to either the unfortunate state of the print or something else, but a large part of it is that this film moves at the pace of a basalt slab. Its one effective speed is “stop.” I didn’t think it was possible for a film to be more motionless than either Marienbad or Jeanne Dielmann, and yet here we are, watching a film for which all of the voices were recorded before the film was made and we spend minutes at a time watching three people lay unmoving on a floor. Were it not for the evidence available in Discreet Charm, I’d be half convinced that Delphine Seyrig was actually a mannequin.

Month 38 Status Report

My goal every month for some time now has been 25 films. I had to stretch to hit that in February, and that stretch involved a couple of double features, but I did scrape it in under the wire.

But, nothing out of the ordinary in general for the month. I've got a little more room to play in March, which is good--since I do themed double features when I do them, I'm starting to run out of possibilities. I never thought there would be a downside to getting closer and closer to finishing up, but there it is. The biggest milestone was finishing up the films from the 1940s.

I currently stand at 182 films to go, which means I'll be right around the "down to two figures" point in early June, and am hoping to finish up right around the time the next edition publishes. We'll see what happens then.