Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Month Eight Status Report

So, eight months in and 203 movies down, including the two I saw in the theater that will almost certainly end up on this list eventually. Those two bring the total list up to 1070, putting me just a hair shy of 20%, which I should reach in the next couple of weeks.

I watched a lot fewer in August--only 16--but I've concentrated on longer, more difficult films at least in some respects. Additionally, I've watched the third or so of one of the longer films, and am waiting for the follow-up DVDs to show up in the mail, so I've actually done a little more than the 16 that show here.

What I have discovered, though, is that there are about two dozen directors with four or more films on the list who I haven't touched yet. I think getting these directors' collections started by the end of the year is an achievable, worthwhile goal. For the record, here are the directors in question:

4 movies
John Cassavetes
Carl Dryer
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Krzystof Krislowski
Ang Lee
Leo McCary
Max Ophuls
Satyajit Ray
Rob Reiner
Roberto Rosselini
Ridley Scott
Ben O. Sharpstein
Paul Verhoeven
Lucino Visconti
Raoul Walsh

5 movies
Bernardo Bertolucci
Robert Bresson

6 movies
Woody Allen
Robert Altman
Jean Renoir
Orson Welles

10 movies
Ingmar Bergman

18(!) movies
Alfred Hitchcock

It may seem like an oversight to have ignored at least Hitchcock to this point, but that at least is by design. My thinking is that if I delay my Hitchcock viewing as long as possible, the more Hitch I get to watch at the same time.

Upon further review, these numbers are wrong. There are movies on my list that are not in the index of the fifth edition, either having been removed or added at some point.
Pedro Almodovar, Lawrence Kasdan, and Abbas Kiarostami all have four films and I have (re)viewed none of them. Additionally, Woody Allen has seven on the list instead of six.

Tick Tick Tick Tick Boom!

Film: Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Real tension is difficult to create in a film, I think. I’m not a filmmaker, so I could well be wrong on that, but based on the number of movies I have seen in which tension is supposed to be ratcheted up and isn’t, I’d guess it’s more difficult than it looks. Hitchcock was a master of creating tension. Evidently, based on the films of his that I’ve seen, Henri-Georges Clouzot was a master of it as well.

La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear) is perhaps the most intense film I have seen this year. The plot is simple, the characters unexceptional, and yet this film is difficult to watch sitting still. Through the second half of the film, almost every frame holds the potential for destruction completely out of the blue. A single wrong move by the characters, a bad break, or a single tiny misstep holds with it not the threat but the promise of complete devastation. Every scene is a breath holding moment.

We start in a little town somewhere in South America—my guess based on some of the geography mentioned is that it’s in Venezuela. The town is the perfect location for nothing good—it’s inaccessible except by air for the most part. The only thing in the area is oil, and this is controlled by an evil American corporation straight out of central casting.

A number of foreigners have ended up in this dead-end town, and all of them have learned the central problem with their new location. There’s no work. The only possibility of a job is from the Southern Oil Company (SOC), and they aren’t hiring. The only way out of the town is by air, and the tickets are expensive. So, without money and without prospects, these foreigners end up hanging around the local saloon doing nothing but complaining and wishing they could get away.

Prominent among these men is Mario (Yves Montand). He’s a good-looking Frenchman who is having a fling with the pretty but clingy and vacant Linda (Vera Clouzot). Mario lives with Luigi (Folco Lulli). Luigi has a job and is saving up his money to go back to Italy since he, like everyone else, wants nothing more than to get out of this town.

Into this mix walks Jo (Charles Vanel), who walks the walk and talks the talk of a man to be taken seriously. He’s an older man with a history of criminal behavior, particularly bootlegging, but has fallen on harder times. Outrunning the law, he wound up in this nowhere, and now like the other foreigners, he’s stuck. However, because he likes to come off as important, he acts as a bully, setting himself apart from the other men in the area. He bonds quickly with Mario, since both are Frenchmen, and the two immediately make enemies of the other expatriates.

And then there is the possibility of escape, at least for four of the men. One of the SOC oil fields has suffered an accident and is now on fire. The only way to stop the blaze is to coordinate an explosion to cut off the supply of fuel. The only explosive available is a cache of nitroglycerine, which needs to be transported by truck across 300 miles of terribly maintained, bumpy, dangerous roads. The SOC is unable to use its own employees for this task—the union would never allow it. Instead, they offer the job to the foreigners with the chance at $2,000 cash for a successful run. That’s enough money to get out of the town and start a new life somewhere else.

But it’s more fun than that, of course. The trucks that will be carrying the nitro aren’t designed for the purpose. They don’t have special shocks or padding. They’re just standard trucks, and the nitro is in standard jerry cans. What this means is that a single bad bump will cause the nitro, the truck, and the men inside to go up like a Roman candle. Desperate, a number of men apply for the job anyway. While it’s almost certain death, it’s also a way out or a way home.

Four men are selected: Mario, Luigi, an intense Dutchman named Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and an old man named Smerloff (Jo Dest). Jo, upset that he wasn’t chosen, argues his way in by saying that if one of the four doesn’t show up, he’ll take their place. Naturally, this is exactly what happens—Smerloff doesn’t appear the next morning, and the implication is that Jo may have killed him for the chance at the money.

The second half of the film—a bit more than an hour—is the drive. Mario and Jo ride in the big truck and leave half an hour before Luigi and Bimba in the small truck. The gap is for safety. If one truck goes up in a fiery burst, the other should be far enough away to avoid the problem. Of course, the two trucks manage to cross paths frequently as one catches up to the other.

What becomes evident as the film progresses is that Jo, once a daring bootlegger, has lost his nerve completely. He is too cautious, unable to force himself to take a single chance at anything. This becomes very evident when the pair reaches a stretch of road known as “The Washboard” where a speed of at least 40mph is required to avoid significant bouncing. Jo can’t do it, trying instead to convince Mario that they two should drive the 30-mile section at dead slow.

This is all that happens for the rest of the film. The men drive, encounter problems on the road, and reveal their true selves and motivations as death sits literally behind every curve and bump in the road. Every frame of the film from the moment the first truck leaves contains with it the possibility of a massive explosion and instant death for the men inside it. As problems mount up and the trucks encounter danger after danger and close call after close call, the tension becomes a palpable thing, almost a character in and of itself.

I never thought I’d say what I’m about to say. Had you asked me a month ago about Henri-Georges Clouzot, I’d have said that Les Diaboliques was the best thing he ever did. Now, I’m not so sure. I still love that film, and called it Clouzot’s masterpiece less than two weeks ago. Today, I think I spoke too soon. La Salaire de la Peur is not just Clouzot’s arrival on the international film scene, it’s one of the most nerve-wracking, most intense films ever made.

I’ll say only this otherwise—the ending is difficult to stomach. I’m not saying it’s a bad ending or an inappropriate ending, but it does leave the viewer (at least this viewer) with a hollow place in the soul. I won’t spoil it here, not even under a spoiler warning, because this film is far too good and far too memorable to risk spoiling for anyone. But…damn!

Why to watch Le Salaire de la Peur: One of the tensest, most gripping dramas ever.
Why not to watch: A whiskey-tango-foxtrot ending.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Where Your Eyes Don't Go

Film: Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man with the Movie Camera)
Format: NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

Often, when I watch a film, particularly for this blog, I multi-task. I’ve made dinner while watching something on the laptop, for instance. I’ve also used a film to act as an excuse to fold laundry. Last night was a variation on that theme: I watched Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man with the Movie Camera) while ironing. Ironing is new for me, which means it takes me awhile to get it done, and a movie seems like the right thing to do.

This is not a typical film, however. Director/producer/etc. Dziga Vertov (who started life as Dennis Kaufman) wanted to do something entirely new with film. Doing something new was, at least in terms of innovation, easier in 1929 when film was still a new medium. For his innovation, Vertov decided to essentially follow the path of a day in cities like Moscow and Kiev, and that is the extent of his story. There are no characters, no actors, no sets, no story, and no title cards. In fact, the only thing like a title card that appears here is the translation of written items that are filmed.

Vertov does more than just film what he sees, though. This is undoubtedly the most heavily edited and altered silent film ever made. Vertov uses every trick he can muster. Scenes appear in fast and slow motion, there is stop-motion animation, frames slow and speed up as we watch them, freezing for a moment and then running again. Parts of the film run backwards, allowing a pair of men to start with a jumble of chess pieces and end with a perfectly set board. Images are superimposed on each other, showing workers at the center of their machinery. Vertov also frequently uses a horizontal split screen, showing two crowd scenes or street scenes, one on top of the other.

As there is no story or plot here, what the audience is left with is the images, both individually and in series. Many of the images are beautiful while others (a woman giving birth, several women nude from the waist up) are mildly shocking for a 1929 audience. Others are used to extol the glories of the Soviet state. We get, for instance, many shots of workers and machinery, often sped to the extreme, demonstrating the great productivity of the Soviet worker. We also get a number of shots of attractive and fit Soviet youth participating in various track and field events—tossing a javelin, running hurdles, and more.

Or are we? It could possibly be argued that the factory scenes in particular aren’t extolling much virtue, but instead reducing the workers to the level of the machine, where only productivity matters and placing another label on another package is more important than the person him- or herself. In fact, one of the opening scenes shows a city coming to life in the morning. Many of those people coming to life appear to be street vagrants, sleeping on benches or on sidewalks—hardly the sort of image that speaks to a benevolent state.

The most impressive part of this film, at least the version that I watched, is the accompanying score. The version I watched uses a score created and performed by the Alloy Orchestra, in part using the notes and directions of the score Vertov wanted. This is a tremendous effort—the music is appropriate and fascinating, and performed here with such quality that I can’t imagine it being handled by another group. In fact, as I type this, some of that music is running through my head. It is impossible for me now to separate this film from this soundtrack—and I don’t think I’d want to if I could.

The film I am most reminded of here is Koyaanisqatsi. It would not surprise me if I learned that Godfrey Reggio studied Vertov’s work when creating his own film. The juxtaposition of images and ideas leads me to believe that the one is the natural son of the other.

Ultimately, Chelovek s Kinoapparatom is engaging and interesting, but not the sort of film I’d like to have as a steady diet. I’m pleased to have seen it, and would watch it again, but not for a long, long time.

Why to watch Chelovek s Kinoapparatom: Innovation and history
Why not to watch: No plot, no characters, no nothing.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bogart and Bacall

Film: The Big Sleep
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

There are certain things that, when I see them on the description of a film, give me a very good feeling. Certain elements almost guarantee that I will enjoy a film very much. I tend to like films done in the noir style, for instance. I also tend to really like films that star Humphrey Bogart. This gives The Big Sleep a lot of potential.

Okay, I’m kind of bullshitting here. I’ve seen The Big Sleep before and I know I like it. I’ve even read the book it was based on—in fact, I read the book before I saw the film. Philip Marlowe is in many ways the greatest of the noir detectives, and Bogart is really the best guy to play Marlowe. And here, he gets to play opposite his real-life eventual wife, Lauren Bacall. What could be better?

The Big Sleep starts simply and gets complicated quickly, like many film noirs. Marlowe (Bogart) is called to the house of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood is old, sickly, and near death. Those aren’t the problems on his mind, though. What is on his mind is the actions of his two daughters. The older is Vivian Rutledge (Bacall). She has her vices, which include gambling and booze, and she also married badly, considering her husband is now out of the picture. The younger daughter, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), is a bigger problem. Carmen has all of Vivian’s problems and more. Her biggest problem is that it appears that she likes men far too much.

In this case, Carmen has incurred a number of promissory notes to a man named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, who runs a rare bookstore. It looks like a simple case of blackmail. General Sternwood wants Marlowe to take care of the problem because his old go-to guy has gone missing for the past year or so. Marlowe goes to investigate and discovers that the woman who works at Geiger’s store appears to know nothing of antique books.

Marlowe tails Geiger to his house and guess who shows up. It’s Carmen. A few gunshots later, and Marlowe rushes in to see what’s happened. He finds Geiger dead on the floor and Carmen dressed up in a slinky outfit in front of a hidden camera and drugged off her ass. It’s never stated outright, but Carmen has descended into the world of pornography, either to pay off those promissory notes or for some other reason.

And this is where things get complicated. Bodies begin to pile up. The Sternwoods’ chauffeur ends up blackjacked and dead in the bay, and bodies seem to tail Marlowe wherever he goes. Much of this is in the pursuit of finding the pictures of Carmen. But in comes many more complications and many more people and more and more shooting. Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge flirt with each other, and eventually, the bad guys get what they deserve.

The joy of any film noir is in the dialogue between the characters and the twists and turns of the plot and all of the gunplay. The Big Sleep has all of this in spades—and it’s got Bogart and Bacall doing what they do best. This is what a film noir should be. I could say a lot more, but it’s more fun to see this film for the first time and watch where it goes, to see the back and forth between the characters, and enjoy Bogart do what he does.

Why to watch The Big Sleep: It’s noir. What more do you need?
Why not to watch: So many characters, so much shooting.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Big Land, Little Brains

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

Looking at American movies, it would be easy to assume that the basic American assumption is not with violence or sex, but money. Giant is a story of money, but also a story of love, oil, cattle, and racism in Texas in the years between the World Wars and after the second one. It starts simply enough. Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson) travels from his massive ranch (595,000 acres), Reata, in Texas to a horse farm in Maryland to buy a stud horse named War Winds.

He does manage to purchase the horse, but returns to Texas with more than he bargained for. He comes back with a wife—Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Leslie is a headstrong young woman, and also a Yankee, which makes her something of a rarity in Texas not too far from its rough and tumble past. Leslie immediately butts heads with Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCaimbridge). Luz is not a big fan of Bick’s new wife, but it doesn’t really matter much, or at least for too long. Attempting to prove that she is every bit as tough as Bick’s wife, Luz attempts to ride War Winds, is bucked off, hits her head on a mesquite stump, and dies.

We’re also introduced early on to a young ranch hand who works on the Reata. This is Jett Rink (James Dean). Bick’s not a big fan of Jett, who’s ready to quit the ranch after Luz dies. However, Luz remembers him in her will, giving him the rights to a small, relatively worthless piece of land that’s a part of Reata. Bick, wanting to keep all of his land in one piece, offers instead to give Jett double the price of the land.

Jett, however, enjoys the idea of tweaking Bick Benedict and opts for the land instead. Things don’t go so well for Jett for a few years. The Benedicts have twins (Jordan the third, called Jordy) and Judy, as well as another daughter named Luz. Right away, the kids are not what Bick wants them to be—Jordy, it turns out, is not a big fan of horses.

Jett, though, is a big fan of two things: money and Leslie Benedict. He gets the first one when the little oil well he’s built on his “worthless” scrap of land turns up a gusher. More oil wells follow, and suddenly, Jett Rink is the man of the hour, buying up ranches in the area to build more wells and pump up more and more money.

We flash forward a few years until the kids are of college age. Jordy (Dennis Hopper) shocks his father by saying he won’t run the ranch. Instead, he wants to be a doctor. Judy (Fran Bennett) elopes with a local boy, and they don’t want the ranch either, which causes Bick to wonder what he’s been keeping it together for.

Leslie doesn’t wonder about that, but she does wonder about the treatment of the Mexican workers and residents of the area. The Mexicans, openly called “wetbacks” throughout the film up until the very end, live in appalling conditions. Leslie does what she can to help them, much to Bick’s chagrin. Even more to his chagrin, his doctor son marries a Mexican woman named Juana (Elsa Cardenas) and names their very Mexican-looking son Jordan Benedict IV.

Things come to a head when the now filthy-rich, alcoholic Jett Rink opens a new massive hotel and airport complex. Twenty-five years of bad blood, racism, and oil and cattle money finally come to a head.

Giant, for all of its social conscience, still seems to fall flat in the modern world. Bick Benedict’s great awakening doesn’t seem all that great when he calls his own grandson a “wetback.” This film seems very much like Gone With the Wind with oil and Mexicans instead of the Civil War, slaves, and cotton. While the film appears very much to deplore racism against our neighbors to the south, it makes no comment about the fact that in Maryland, all of the rich people are white and all of the servants are black. It could very well draw a parallel here, but doesn’t.

There are good performances all around, but something just seems to fall flat for me here. James Dean is relatively convincing as a middle-aged Jett Rink, but the iconic look—the cowboy hat, jeans, and boots—vanish earlier in the film than I thought they would and he ends up looking a little bit like the unnatural son of Johnny Depp and Steve Buscemi.

I guess I’m ultimately a little disturbed by a film in which the ultimate decisions of right and wrong, good and bad, are decided with an endless series of fistfights.

Why to watch Giant: It’s James Dean’s last movie!
Why not to watch: Don’t mess with Texas—you might get some on ya.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Power of Christ Compels You

Film: The Exorcist
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

What is the scariest movie ever made? For my money, films that make the idea of going to sleep dangerous rank up there pretty high—A Nightmare on Elm Street and Invasion of the Body Snatchers thus are scary to my mind. As much as I enjoy zombie films, they also scare me pretty well, and are often nightmare inducing. I have a good (or bad, depending on your point of view) zombie dream at least once a month.

The Exorcist was so scary for its time that it was protested around the world. An uncut version of it was not available in the UK until as recently as a dozen years ago. Billy Graham went so far as to suggest that an actual demon existed in the celluloid of the print. And despite the fact that I love a good (or great) scary movie, up until tonight, I had never watched this film. I was far too young when it first came out, and just never got around to seeing it.

For me, it was more about how much I wanted to take. I like roller coasters, for instance, but there are some that I simply won’t go on. They’re just too much. The Exorcist was like that for me up until today. I’d always been scared not of the film, but of the idea of the film, of how scary other people said it was.

Well, now I’ve seen it.

It’s a pretty straightforward film, for what it’s worth. A young girl is possessed by an evil spirit (Pazuzu according to various materials, although the name is never stated). At first, it is presumed her odd behavior comes from a lesion on her brain, but eventually, it is realized that what is happening is far beyond a human’s ability and in come the priests. All of this takes the bulk of the film—the exorcism itself doesn’t happen until the last quarter or so of the movie.

This film has become enmeshed in the vocabulary of film—the little girl’s head spinning around, swearing, and spitting pea soup, for instance, is a reference anyone can make whether or not he or she has seen the film. The girl is Regan MacNeil, famously played by Linda Blair. Her badly set upon mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is a real force in this film despite all of the crazy antic of Linda, her various puppet doubles, and her voice double. She ages visibly in the film as the weight of what is happening presses down on her.

But aside from Linda Blair, the film really belongs to the priesthood. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is a young priest, doubting his faith. He is the initial priest who sees Regan. As a trained psychiatrist, he first recommends psychiatric treatment until he discovers that Regan is capable of impossible physical feats as well as speaking backwards. Karras acts as the assistant to Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), a priest who has performed exorcisms in the past. There is also a police lieutenant named Kinderman (the great Lee J. Cobb in one of his last roles), who is investigating the death of one of Chris MacNeil’s friends, presumably killed by Regan during one of her possessions.

Viewed in the right mindset, The Exorcist is plenty scary. The effects are still pretty good, even after coming up on 40 years, particularly the makeup effects. But as someone who doesn’t believe in demonic possession, I have to admit that I didn’t really find the film all that scary. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not going to let my kids watch it—but I’ve seen films that have scared me more on almost every level.

What it is, though, is excellently made and well cast throughout. However, I couldn’t help but think constantly throughout the film about what Linda Blair’s parents must have been thinking. My younger daughter acts. In fact, she’s doing a production of Miracle on 34th Street later this year. My older daughter is roughly the age of Linda Blair in this film. I can’t imagine okaying either of my girls to play this role, to say the things Linda Blair at least mouths, or to perform some of the more brutal and horrifying acts she is asked as an actress to perform. More than scaring me, I felt concern for the little girl under the makeup.

So it is a great movie, and for those of a more standard Christian mindset, a potentially terrifying and offensive one. All films, once they have started to age, exist really as two films: one film of the time in which it was made and one film in the present. The Exorcist has perhaps not aged as well as it could have. It still works, but so much has been built upon the ground it broke, that for those new to the film, it may be more of a letdown than the scarefest it was in the early 70s.

Why to watch The Exorcist: For its time, the most terrifying film ever made.
Why not to watch: You have no tolerance for supernatural scary stuff.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

And Did Those Feet...

Film: Chariots of Fire
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Certain movies stay with us for whatever reason. There are any number of movies I recall for any number of reasons. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, for instance, was the first time I got to watch a really scary R-rated film in the theater with my siblings, although not my first R movie at a theater. That was The Road Warrior. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first time I thought I got more than my money’s worth. Octopussy was the first film I walked out on. Chariots of Fire was the first film I went to see on my own because I wanted to see it, and couldn’t find anyone to go with me.

Go figure that, right? Evidently, I was the only 13-year-old kid in my area who wanted to go see a film about really white British guys running as fast as they can in the years between the two World Wars. And yet, there I was, sitting in my local second-run theater, watching said film. I can’t say that I regret it, but in watching it again, I wonder what I was thinking, riding my little Schwinn and parking it on the bike rack out front. I was something of an Anglophile, though, thanks to my Monty Python addiction, so I tended to be pro-anything that was also pro-British.

The film is, as I stated above, about fast British guys running in what looks to modern eyes like the strangest track suits ever devised—knee-length shorts, collared shirts, and what looks to be the furthest thing from a pair of track shoes. Seriously, the things look a step away from wingtips, and not a full step.

Our two primary runners are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Cambridge student who feels as if the world is against him specifically because he is Jewish and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Scotsman and a former missionary in China who runs for the glory of God. The goal of both men is to reach the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

Their two stories are different, but manage to intertwine a few times. Abrahams makes a name for himself on the college circuit, running for Cambridge and winning everything he enters. His fame increases with each race, a fact that gets him a dinner date with Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), an up-and-coming actress and singer, who doesn’t seem to mind much that he’s Jewish. Their romance begins to blossom just as Abrahams is taken down a peg by Liddell.

Liddell, on the other hand, is in constant conflict with his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell). Jennie believes that Eric is running for his own glory and is denying his commitment to God, the church, and most especially the family mission in China. Eric counters, telling her that while God may have created him for a purpose, God also created him fast for a purpose, and that purpose is to bring glory to His kingdom. In their first race against each other, Liddell wins, crushing Abrahams spiritually and emotionally. As a result, Abrahams hires Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm, who has evidently been about 60 for the last 30 years), the best professional athletic coach on the British Isles. This gets him in a little bit of trouble with the Cambridge higher-ups, which he probably rightfully takes as anti-Semitism.

Both men, as well as a number of Abrahams’s college mates, are selected for the Olympic team. What Liddell discovers is that the heats of the 100-yard dash, are to be held on a Sunday, and he refuses to run on what he considers a holy day.

Really, this is the central conflict of the film. Liddell refuses to run on Sunday regardless of the pressure being put on him. Moves are made to put him into a different race. A huge media blitz follows as the world appears to admire the young man’s resolve and fortitude of giving up his favored race to stay true to his own beliefs. Eventually, Liddell runs in a different race, a compromise made with a good half hour of the film to go.

The rest is just the running and the Vangelis soundtrack that became more famous than the film that spawned it. It is, in fact, difficult to see people running in slow motion on film without thinking of the famous “white guys running in slow motion” song from this film. Even now, nearly 30 years later, the song remains iconic, easily spoofed, and still more easily identifiable than the film itself.

It’s easy to call this film overrated, and perhaps it may well be thus. I’m not sure it really qualifies as a great film despite my youthful desire to see it. It is, however, a very good film and worth watching.

Why to watch Chariots of Fire: A good story and a memorable soundtrack to beat all.
Why not to watch: Slow motion white guys.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Suspense, Old School

Film: Les Diaboliques
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I disagree with the entry of some films on this list. That’s hardly a surprise with a list of this size, or any size. The only way I’d be able to have a perfect list is if I created it myself. Still, there are a number of pleasant surprises on the list—films I was excited to see make the list. There are still others that I would have been shocked to not see on the list. Such a film is the classic suspense drama Les Diaboliques, the masterpiece of Henri-Georges Clouzot, and a film that Alfred Hitchcock wished he could have made, at least by my reckoning.

What we have here is a tragic little domestic drama in a French boarding school. The school is owned by Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot, the wife of the director, in one of her three film roles ever). Christina is a kind soul who cares deeply for the children in her charge. She also has a serious heart condition, making her susceptible to severe shocks. Sadly for her, she has married very poorly. Her husband, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a complete villain. He’s domineering, abusive, and hateful. Worse for Christina, he is having an affair with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), one of the teachers at the school. And he’s just enough of a pig that he makes sure Christina knows of the affair.

Of course, things aren’t much better for Nicole. When the film opens, Nicole is wearing dark sunglasses to disguise the bruises from a beating administered by Michel. The two women console one another and hatch a desperate plan. They will trick him into leaving the school and kill him.

The plan is, if you will pardon the pun, diabolically simple. On a school break, the two women take the school car and drive to Nicole’s home away from the school. Once there, Christina calls Michel and tells him she wants a divorce. He arrives by train to confront her, and it appears that the two are on the verge of patching up their differences until he again becomes abusive, stiffening Christina’s resolve. He drinks several glasses of whiskey pre-drugged with a sedative. Once asleep, Nicole returns from establishing an alibi for the pair, and they drown him in the bathtub. The next morning, the two of them drag the body out in an enormous chest and return to the school, where they dump the body into the abandoned, unclean swimming pool.

Their thought is that eventually, the body will rise to the surface. When, after a few days it does not, Nicole arranges for a minor accident that necessitates the draining of the pool. When it is drained, they find…nothing. The body is gone. That same day, the suit Michel was wearing the night of his death returns from the cleaners. A body in the Seine turns out to be someone other than Michel; this episode brings in the attentions of a retired police commissioner named Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), who takes it upon himself to discover what has happened to M. Delassalle. Regardless of what the good commissioner might think, it is evident to the two women that something has happened. Nicole believes they are to be blackmailed, while the religious Christina is convinced that the disappearance of Michel’s body might have a higher, more sin-driven meaning.

Clouzot’s film works for a variety of reasons, but the largest and most important is that every scene is filled with a palpable tension. He holds the tension for as long as he possibly can, ramping up the discomfort of his characters as much as possible in each scene. For instance, when Christina goes to check on the body retrieved from the Seine, it takes a substantial amount of screen time for that body to come up the elevator and into the viewing room, and we see most of it. All that for a reveal that is essentially nothing—it’s the wrong body. Much of the tension in these scenes is created by Clouzot’s use of camera on Christina listening to the conversations of others, attempting to be stone-faced and failing.

Christina’s complete lack of a poker face is, in fact, one of the most effective parts of this film. A simple conversation between two people takes on entirely new meaning when viewed through the lens of her inner turmoil over the murder of her husband and the disappearance of the body. Her conflict goes from fear of committing a mortal sin to a fear of being discovered, and these tensions are revealed in her face at every moment. Additionally effective is the role reversal of Nicole, who starts as a battered mistress and quickly becomes the domineering and dominating leader of the relationship with Christina. Stern but supportive at first, she devolves into abusiveness and snide comments once the murder has been committed.

For all this, my favorite character in the film is Fichet. While I have no proof, he appears to be the basic inspiration for Peter Falk’s Columbo. Fichet appears to be a harmless old man, but he always has one more question, and is always at least twice as clever as anyone gives him credit for being. While we in the audience are spun on a merry-go-round, never knowing what to expect next, Fichet has all the answers, and has always had them. He just wants the proof and the confession to back up his hunches.

Les Diaboliques has one of the great endings in film history, and it is this more than anything else that makes this film feel like it should have been directed by Hitchcock. It almost was—the legend is that Hitch was a mere few hours late in attempting to buy the rights to the story, and the author penned something else for Hitch to adapt—a short story that turned into Vertigo.

Edit: Incidentally, you should really avoid the shitty remake with Sharon Stone and Chazz Palminteri.

Why to watch Les Diaboliques: More Hitchcock than Hitchcock.
Why not to watch: There is not a single reason in the world to avoid this film.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Film: Riget (The Kingdom)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Let’s assume for a moment that ghosts exist. If we go by the traditional thoughts and beliefs of ghosts, the most likely places a ghost would inhabit would be either a place important to that person in life, or the place of that person’s death. Based on that, it would be an easy assumption that hospitals would be the most haunted places in the world, since hospitals are where most people die.

Riget (The Kingdom), a mini-series made for Danish television, takes that basic premise and runs with it in several different creepy directions. The series of four episodes, totaling about four-and-a-half hours, takes place at the largest, most technologically advanced hospital in Denmark. This hospital, called “Riget,” is experiencing a rush of spectral, otherworldly, inexplicable events that occur either in the hospital or in the lives of the doctors and patients.

Riget is, for lack of a better way to explain it, a medical soap opera from hell. Get rid of the supernatural elements, and it would be a very boring week of General Hospital. This is not to say that Riget is boring or dull. On the contrary—it’s fascinating, and this is entirely because of the disturbing and supernatural elements.

Like any good soap opera, there are a variety of plots that roll around and bounce off each other. When the director has enough space for 280 minutes of film, he’s able to give weight to more than just a single driving story. The main character is Dr. Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard), a Swedish neurosurgeon who has been forced out of his country because of research he stole and published under his own name. Helmer is a complete bastard, the stereotypical doctor who thinks he is God himself, and he despises almost everything about Denmark. Typically, episodes end with Helmer standing on the roof of the hospital screaming about “Danish scum.” Sadly for the brusque and rude Helmer, he botched an operation on a young girl named Mona (Laura Christensen) early in his tenure at Kingdom Hospital. The girl is now in a persistent vegetative state, and Helmer needs to destroy the records of the surgery to keep his own job. Helmer is dedicated to science and frequently squabbles with his love interest, Rigmor (Ghita Norby), who is interested in holistic healing, herbal therapy, and voodoo.

Enter Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a sensitive who complains of neurological problems in her hands. She hears the sound of a child crying in the elevator, and with the assistance of her son Bulder (Jens Okking), a porter at the hospital, she investigates and finds evidence of the ghost of a girl named Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), who died there in 1919.

Helmer’s foil is Jorgen Krogshoj (Soren Pilmark), whose name is translated as “Hook” according to the subtitles. Hook is also a neurosurgeon, and frequently butts heads with Helmer because the two disagree on almost everything from the way the hospital is run to treatments for specific patients (particularly Mrs. Drusse). Hook lives in the basement of the hospital, a fact known only to a few. Here he collects various objects from the hospital that are being misused (he claims) and redirects them elsewhere. In truth, he runs an active black market, using what he acquires to get what he wants. He has a relationship with Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), who is pregnant by another man. The baby is growing at an unnatural rate, and as evidenced later in the series, there is more than just the growth rate that is unnatural—evidence comes to light that she was actually impregnated by a ghost.

We also have Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), who teaches at the hospital. He collects medical oddities including, as it turns out, the preserved body of Mary, the ghost girl. A dying patient in the hospital has a huge tumor on his liver, and Bondo is denied the ability to extract and preserve it. Instead, he has the liver, tumor and all, transplanted into his own body as a way to keep it in the hospital’s collection.

Bondo’s main rival is Mogge (Peter Mygind). Mogge is a student who is madly in love with Camilla (Solbjorg Hojfeldt), who spurns him. As a way to stay close to her, Mogge enrolls in a sleep study (run by Hook), where he has disturbing and terrible dreams. Mogge is the son of another doctor, Einar Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), who tries to run Kingdom Hospital as a touchy-feely place, complete with a collection of doctors who form a lodge called the Sons of the Kingdom, where they look out for each other and cover each other’s back.

A pair of dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers), both suffering from Down Syndrome act as a sort of Greek chorus. We get short snippets of them washing up and discussing the events of the hospital. And this says nothing of the ghost ambulance that arrives every night and vanishes. Or the very special guest appearance by Udo Kier.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on, which makes sense for something that was essentially a short-run soap with spooky stuff happening. It starts very slowly—most of the first episode is really just setting up the characters and giving us the very basics of the supernatural events. We don’t see anything incredibly disturbing until the very end, when Mrs. Drusse investigates the elevator shaft and gets her first look at Mary. From there, however, things begin to weird up quickly, getting far stranger and more disturbing in the second episode and downright creepy in the third and fourth.

As with any good film that tries to truly terrify instead of just go for the gross-out, we learn things slowly, getting new information only as we need new pieces of information. Much of what we see early on is not explained until much later in the series, as it should be. Many of the plots are interconnected, and as we learn about one, we learn about another, and pieces of one affect another.

Much of the reason for the effectiveness of this series comes from the way in which it was filmed. Every frame has a distinct sepia tone, and the cutaway shots of the hospital that act as transitions here (and presumably commercial breaks when this was originally shown on television) are completely sepia. While these are interesting, it’s more interesting to me that the main film itself is so oddly tinted, as if it were dipped in a wash of brown. The camera work looks to be hand-held cameras frequently, which gives this a documentary feel, which is also effective here.

Another effective thing here is that there are a number of comedic touches throughout the film. Many of these are darkly humorous, such as the sequence in which Bulder, Mogge, and Helmer all need to break into the records room at the same time and attempt to bully each other into leaving or avoid being seen by each other. Comedy and horror are often tightly intertwined, and here they are inseparable. A small part of this comes in the form of co-director Lars von Trier talking about his work over the credits.

The only thing that really disturbs me here is that many of the medical procedures are shown not in full, but at least in part. I don’t mind gore, but there’s something about surgery that really bothers me. I don’t want to see brain surgery from the top of the patient’s head, or the really meaty parts (pun intended) of the liver transplant. It’s the same reason I never really got into shows like ER. Even parts of NCIS bug me at a deep level, and I could have lived without it here.

Good stuff. This was vaguely remade as Kingdom Hospital with Stephen King’s name tacked onto the front. There was also a sequel miniseries made that followed up where Riget left off, and evidently left as many questions unanswered as this one does. Still, even though most of the plots are left unresolved, it is very much worth watch from end to end. Sadly, because of the deaths of two of the principal actors (Jaregard and Rolffes) as well as the male dishwasher, it is unlikely that the third and final installment will ever be filmed.

Why to watch Riget: Supernatural chills that really work.
Why not to watch: Some surgical procedures are not hidden, and most questions are left unanswered.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Broken Dreams

Film: Sunset Blvd.
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

How does one react to genius? Is it to be scared of it? To revel in it? To let it roll over you and take it in? Sunset Blvd. is genius—start to finish, from one end to the other, the film is 110 minutes of pure genius. It’s tender, sweet, pathetic, and painful, tragic, and awful, and sad. People who say they don’t watch or can’t watch black and white films because they are boring or not interesting enough have not watched Sunset Blvd. It is rightfully considered one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps the greatest of Billy Wilder’s career—a career filled with some of the greatest films ever made.

One reason the film is so great is that it is perhaps the greatest skewering of Hollywood and the studio system until the release of The Player. Every aspect of the film business takes a beating in this film, from the writers through the faded, has-been stars. It doesn’t hide where it’s going to go from the beginning; we start with a body being fished out of a swimming pool.

The story is that of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a failed screenwriter on the verge of having his car repossessed and unable to sell a spec script or a story to be turned into a B-movie. The only thing he has working is a story that nobody wants, a fact revealed to in person by Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a reader for Paramount. Chased by the repo men, Gillis pulls into the driveway of what he believes is an abandoned old house on Sunset.

As it turns out, the house isn’t so abandoned. It belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who once upon a time was something in the film industry. Norma was a silent film star—one of the biggest—but has since retired from the film business to live in her giant, crumbling mansion with her manservant, Max (Erich von Stroeheim). In a mix-up of mistaken identity, Norma believes Joe has come about her recent tragedy. Her pet monkey has died, and she wants him placed in a casket and buried in her garden.

But Joe recognizes her, and remarks that he is a screenwriter. On hearing this, Norma perks up. She asks him to read part of a script she has been writing for her own return to the screen. For her subject, she has selected Salome, to be played by her, of course. Gillis reads the script, determines in voice over that it is absolute garbage, and tells her that she needs a rewrite. She’s willing, but only if he does it. She moves him into her house without his knowledge or permission, and treats him like a kept man—mainly because that’s what she wants more than a collaborator.

Joe doesn’t realize this until New Year’s Eve when Norma throws a lavish party. He assumes that the other guests will be her friends from her acting days: Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and Buster Keaton, all playing themselves. Instead, the party is just for the two of them, and Norma makes her play for Joe. He is disturbed by this turn of events and runs off to a friend’s house where he once again encounters Betty Schaefer. As it turns out, Betty is the fiancée of his friend (played by a surprisingly non-monotoned Jack Webb). She tells him that she discovered something in one of his stories that she thinks can be turned into a real script, but before this can to any further, he calls Norma’s house and discovers that she has attempted suicide.

Ultimately, Joe realizes that he is a kept man. Everything he has comes from Norma. When he meets up with Betty again, she tells him that she wants to write with him, and he demurs, unable to break away from Norma. Things become more intense when she finally packages off her cumbersome Salome script and sends it off to Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself). When she gets a series of calls from DeMille, she is convinced that the script is a hit, but it’s not the case; the studio just wants to rent her car, and DeMille doesn’t have the heart to tell her that her movie will never happen, and neither do Joe or Max.

In the meantime, Joe’s friend heads off to Arizona to work on a film, and Betty and Joe begin collaborating on that script…and slowly falling for each other.

It’s impossible for me to pinpoint what makes Sunset Blvd. work as a film, because everything about it works. Gloria Swanson is tragicomic as Norma Desmond. She is completely unaware that she is an aged film star and that no one cares about her any more. She spends her days answering fan mail, completely unaware that the letters have all been written by Max. She hears only what she wants to hear, does only what she wants to do, and convinces herself constantly that she is still young, still beautiful, still sought after, and still desirable.

More than anything, it is Swanson’s picture. The Norma Desmond character is so contrived, so artfully unaware of her obvious posing, that only a truly masterful actor could pull off such a role. The character goes deep, here. Swanson needed to play Norma over the top and terribly theatrical but subtly enough that we understand that Norma doesn’t realize she’s a caricature. As she slowly descends into madness, the changes are very slight and incremental, and all the more realistic and disturbing because of it.

This is a great picture—the best for virtually everyone involved. That takes into account a lot of great movies in a lot of great careers. It’s a heartbreaker and it still carries the weight it did when it was made. Unlike Norma Desmond, this film hasn’t aged a day.

Why to watch Sunset Blvd.: The greatest skewering of Hollywood ever created.
Why not to watch: Because you’re a moron.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

This One is for Forte

Film: The Shawshank Redemption
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television

I have a former student named Forte. Should you ever happen to meet Forte, he will not be shy in telling you that his favorite movie of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, or as he calls it, “SHAUW-shangk!” Plunk him down with a big ol’ sandwich, a glass of orange soda, and some chips, and Forte is good for the whole running time.

He’s not alone. I haven’t met a single person who, having watched “SHAUW-shangk!” doesn’t come away loving it. It may not be everyone’s favorite film—it surely isn’t mine—but pretty much everyone who sees it loves it, and loves it a lot. I suppose that people who dislike the politics of Tim Robbins probably hate it, but anyone who dislikes a film because of the external reality of the actor’s life doesn’t have much of an opinion worth caring about anyway.

The film is based on a novella by Stephen King with the odder and longer title “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a title that really makes sense only upon knowing the story. We follow a man named Andy Dufresne (Robbins), who is convicted of killing his wife and her lover, although he maintains his innocence. His sentence is two consecutive life terms, one for each body.

In the stir, Defresne makes both friends and enemies. His friends include Ellis “Red” Redding (the great Morgan Freeman), Heywood (William Sadler), and Brooks (James Whitmore). Enemies include the bull queens as well as the guards and the warden. One guard is particularly vicious. Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) beats a new prisoner to death on Dufresne’s first night in prison, and he has a brutal reputation. Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) professes to be a man of God, but also seems to be prone to several of the deadly sins.

Dufresne’s life changes when he performs a significant favor for Captain Hadley, which gives him a few perks he wants. First, when he is later confronted by the bull queens and nearly beaten to death, Hadley retaliates, and Dufresne is never bothered again. Second, he’s pulled out of the laundry and placed into the prison library for his job. None of that, however, is out of appreciation. Most of it is because it puts him in the position to offer financial advice to the guards and the warden, a job he is good at because of his former life as a banker.

However, he’s too good at what he does. When news comes to light that he might actually be innocent of the crime he is in prison for, the warden prevents any sort of appeal or new trial. The big reason for this is that the warden enacts a plan that looks like it benefits the people of the area by using prisoners for work outside the prison. However, he uses this program to extort money from other businesses, and uses Dufresne’s financial wizardry to launder the money. To do this, Dufresne creates a false persona to funnel the money through.

Ultimately, the film is about the men in the prison attempting to maintain their dignity in a world that has stripped the dignity from them. It can be argued that many of these men deserve to have their dignity taken by virtue of their crimes. And yet they are virtual slaves to their prison masters. Dufresne becomes a virtual slave. He’s given minor perks for performing his job as financial wizard. When he objects to anything or takes a stand on anything, the punishment is severe. It’s not just his dignity that is removed—it’s his humanity, and the humanity of the other men inside Shawshank Prison.

It’s a marvelous script. Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration drives the film forward by providing a good amount of exposition and much of the emotional thrust of the film, and yet it never feels tacked on or unnecessary.

Even better, it features some of the best work of a number of great actors. Anyone who doesn’t love the work and the catalog of Morgan Freeman is either without taste or has never seen one of his movies. He’s not just a magnificent actor, he’s a magnificent voice actor. Much of the power of this film comes from his voice. It’s also some of the best work from Tim Robbins. I also have a soft spot for Clancy Brown. He almost always plays complete bastards who deserve to be shot in the head, and never better here. A friend of mine worked the front desk at a hotel Brown stayed at, and he said that the man was a real gentleman, which I believe. After all, it’s called acting for a reason, and few people play a better son of a bitch than he does.

The performances here are often subtle, made possible by a story that allows for subtlety. Darabont’s handling of the script is masterful, which is an astonishing feat for a man directing his first major release.

A hell of a film. Before I had seen this, I would have told you that the best prison movies are also war movies. That was before I saw this film for the first time. Shawshank is as good as a prison movie gets—with the possible exception of Cool Hand Luke. I’m not saying Luke is better. I’m just saying Shawshank is just as good.

Why to watch The Shawshank Redemption: A truly uplifting film, a tremendous cast, bad guys worth hating, and a great ending.
Why not to watch: Eventually, it ends.

Jesus 2.0

Film: The Matrix
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television

Some films change the game. After their release, film changes to incorporate what these films do. References are made to them that virtually everyone understands—they become a part of the culture, part of the collective knowledge base of a generation. The Matrix is a film that manage this feat. Even if it weren’t an incredible thrill ride, it would still have changed the game and become a part of the vocabulary of even the most casual filmgoer.

It’s hard to imagine that there are people who haven’t seen The Matrix, but I know they exist. I use the film as an example in a number of classes I teach because it’s such an accessible piece of cultural history for most students that they can follow the lecture without needing to watch the film again. And yet, I have never done my short “symbolism in The Matrix” lecture to a class in which every person has seen the film. There are always a couple of people who haven’t seen it.

So if you happen to be one of those people, here’s a brief run-down. A guy named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has a typical work-a-day job, but he is also an extremely talented computer hacker who goes by the alias Neo. He starts to have a number of strange experiences that relate to something called The Matrix—he can’t quite put his finger on what that is, though. He encounters another legendary hacker named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who tells him that he is in danger and that the most legendary hacker in the world, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) wants to meet with him.

At the same time, Neo is plagued by visits from government agents from a faceless, nameless agency. This trio, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), seems possessed of limitless power to the point that Neo’s encounters with them seem very much like intense, realistic nightmares. Eventually, Neo meets with Morpheus, who offers Neo a choice. He can swallow a blue pill and leave, never getting any answers, or swallow a red pill and figure out what The Matrix really is. Neo, naturally, takes the red pill and discovers that the world he thought he lived in was nothing more than a simulation.

The world is actually run by machines. The machines took over, and all of humanity is now essentially a collection of bio-electric batteries that run the computer world. The world as Neo (and everyone else) experiences it is nothing more than a mental projection designed to keep the humans from waking up to the real world, in which civilization has fallen and people live in cocoons, powering the machine world. The only free humans fight against this by sometimes freeing talented and powerful individuals (like Neo) to continue the fight.

What Neo learns is that the computer simulated world has rules, but that by learning those rules, he can find ways to bend and break them. This means that an experienced human in the Matrix world can jump long distances, run at super-human speeds, and perform the impossible. Neo has been saved because, according to Morpheus, a long-ago prophesy claimed that a man would come who could save humanity—and Neo is that man.

We’ll get into the symbolism in a minute. What this means for those of watching the film is that we’re going to be treated to a special effects extravaganza. We’ll get slow motion battles, bullet dodging, gun fights, people performing impossible feats, and camera trickery the likes of which had never been seen to this point. The most iconic of these is what the filmmakers call “Bullet Time.” Essentially, a huge camera rig allows for action to freeze and rotate almost instantly, switching perspective in the middle of a fight by stopping the action and shifting rather than simply switching to a new camera angle. While this is now commonplace, when the film was originally released, this effect was staggering, and the sort of thing people went to the film to see over and over again. It’s also why, when I bought my DVD copy of the film years ago, the guy who sold it to me guessed correctly that I had also just purchased my first DVD player. According to him, at that time almost everyone who purchased The Matrix bought it as their first ever DVD purchase.

Symbolically, The Matrix isn’t that hard to track. Neo is roughly 30-ish, believes that he is capable of more, and is suddenly told that he is the man told of in legend to save humanity and the world. He is baptized with the red pill, learns he is capable of miracles in what passes for the real world, and fights for the salvation of people. Eventually, he is betrayed by one of his own (Joe Pantoliano), dies, comes back to life because of his girlfriend (who is, again, named Trinity, for cryin’ out loud), and ends the film by flying into the air in the crucifixion position. Oh, and “Neo” means “new.” This means he’s the Second Coming—Jesus with uzis, if you prefer.

The wild success of this film spawned two and a half sequels—two live action ones with essentially the same cast as well as a collection of animated stories. I haven’t seen the animated films, but the two standard sequels are really sub-standard. Additionally, the film spawned hundreds of imitators, parodies, duplicates, and homages. For a few years, it was impossible to turn around without seeing a Matrix reference in another film. Bullet Time has become de rigueur and is no longer as exciting as it once was.

But that’s what happens. Something is so groundbreaking that it’s immediately copied and perfected so that it becomes a part of the vocabulary of film. The Matrix expanded that vocabulary by adding not just a new word or concept, but a whole new lexicon.

Why to watch The Matrix: One of the most culturally important films from the ‘90s—a film that changed the way films are made.
Why not to watch: After this first film, it got pretty stupid.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What Dreams May Come...and Come...and Come

Film: Inception
Format: Goodrich Randall 16 Theaters

As I did with Avatar, I’m guessing here. I’m guessing that Inception will eventually make this list and it will do so long before I am done with the list. I rarely see movies in theaters because there’s usually someone in the theater with me who angers me—cell phones, talking, etc. It’s also difficult (and expensive) to find a babysitter. And, honestly, there aren’t a lot of movies worth spending the money on when I can just be patient and wait for it to come to a home format. However, I heard nothing but good about Inception. I was also contacted out of the blue by a friend, so we decided to go.

I’ve seen a whopping three movies in the theater this year, or about one every quarter: Avatar, Iron Man 2, and now Inception. The film has a one-in-three chance of being the best thing I’ve seen in a theater this year, and as it turns out, it is. Inception is a film that requires careful attention. It’s a film made for people willing to pay attention to it. In fact, it requires paying attention to follow, making it exactly the kind of movie I like seeing in the theater. The audience had to sit and watch the thing—no cell phone rings, no noise, no talking. In short, it was a great experience. Even better, my friend Tim and I spent a good half hour talking about what it all meant at the end.

Even better, what writer-director Christopher Nolan has done here is create a movie that absolutely cannot be spoiled. For me to spoil this film, I’d need a good 20 minutes and probably a beer, or at least a decent martini.

Here’s the set-up: a man named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has the ability to enter the dreams of other people. Once inside their dreams, he can extract information from them—safe combinations, corporate secrets, you name it. The dream world functions in many ways like the real world—it has (generally) realistic physics, for instance. The world of the dream is created by Cobb and his team, but is populated by the target with projections of their own subconscious mind. Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are performing this operation on a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), and we learn that what happens in the first chunk of the film is actually Saito’s dream. In fact, it’s a dream inside a dream.

Saito is actually trying to hire Cobb, because what he wants is something that allegedly can’t be done. He wants Cobb to implant an idea—this process is called “inception”—into the mind of a business competitor. Ultimately, he wants the idea to feel natural to the target, which requires getting deep into the target’s subconscious and attempting to make this implanted idea feel like the target came up with it on his own. In this case, the target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying energy magnate named Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite).

To do the job, Cobb, Arthur, and Saito assemble a team. They hire an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), a pharmacist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and a thief named Eames (Tom Hardy) and set up a situation that will give them 10 hours inside Fischer’s mind. Complicating all of this is the fact that Cobb’s wife (Marion Cotillard) is dead, and frequently shows up whenever Cobb is inside someone’s mind—and Cobb has issues with her death and in seeing both her and their children.

It’s actually even more complicated than this, but these are the basics. Cobb’s father is played by Michael Caine, who evidently has a rider on his studio contracts that he must appear in every damn movie ever made. Also showing up here is Tom Berenger as Maurice Fischer’s right-hand-man/Robert Fischer’s godfather.

Because once inside Fischer’s head the agents must dive into successive layers of subconscious, the film takes place in a variety of dream states, each one level deeper than the next. Fortunately for the viewer, these layers are easily distinguishable—a cityscape, a hotel, a military prison/hospital in an arctic waste, and a ruined world—and are thus easy to keep straight. One of the selling points is the hotel. Because the physics of the worlds above them affect the dream world anyone is in, sudden shifts in gravity work their way down. So, in the long climactic scene, as the van the characters are in on one dream level falls off a bridge, gravity is suspended the next level down, leading to an amazing sequence of zero-gravity fighting and movement that looks like The Matrix on acid.

In short, Inception requires the audience to think on multiple levels at all times. It’s a film that requires its viewers to determine if they are in the dream state, and decide which level of dream state they are in all the time. It’s a movie that doesn’t talk down to the audience, but invites them instead to think upwardly, to buy into the dream on the screen and engage both emotionally and mentally throughout.

Nolan is a smart filmmaker, and a smarter writer. Inception is damn good, has a cast that really buys into it, and sells the premise at every moment. It doesn’t hurt that two of my favorite actors—Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy—are here, too.

A worthwhile watch made better because of the worthwhile and interesting conversations it leads to once the film stops rolling.

Why to watch Inception: Anything that gets people to use their grey matter is a good thing.
Why not to watch: You want only bread and circuses.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Head Trips

Films: Manhunter, Naked Lunch
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on middlin’-sized living room television

Sometimes plans don’t work out. My original plan for the night was to do a Hannibal Lector double feature—the original screen adaptation of the character as well as the most famous version of the character. Sadly, my VCR ate my tape of Silence of the Lambs immediately after I finished watching Manhunter. But we adapt, we change, we do something else instead. So rather than making today about Hannibal the Cannibal, I’ve decided instead to look at the weird and the offbeat.

Manhunter, as mentioned above, is the first film ever made featuring the character of Hannibal. This is not the character you are expecting if all you’ve seen is Silence of the Lambs. For starters, in this film, his name is spelled Lecktor. Second, and critical, is that in this film the bad doctor is played by noted actor Brian Cox, of whom I am a huge fan.

If you are a Hannibal fan, this is a story you’ve seen before, because it was remade as Red Dragon, which is also the name of the book the film is based on. It is, much like Silence, the story of an FBI agent trailing a serial killer and getting help from the depraved killer in prison. The agent here is William Graham (William Peterson), who is also the man who caught Lecktor in the first place. The case caused Graham to break with reality and retire from the Bureau. Graham’s specialty was (and to some extent still is) profiling. To profile killers, though, he needs to get deep inside their mind, essentially seeing what they see, and in some cases becoming what they become.

Graham is pulled from retirement by Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), who needs help with a new serial killer. The killer is known by the FBI as the Tooth Fairy because he bites his victims. His victims are entire families, always cut down in a group during the full moon. Based on two crime scenes, the FBI knows quite a bit about the man (who is disturbingly played by Tom Noonan). They know he is very tall and blonde; they know his shoe size and his fascination with the lunar phase. What they don’t know is how he chooses his victims or where he will strike next.

Enlisted in finding the killer is a reporter for a National Enquirer-style paper called the Tattler. The reporter, played by Stephen Lang, is a creep and willing to do anything for a story. More important for Graham, the FBI discovers that the Tooth Fairy has been corresponding with Lecktor through the Tattler’s personal ads. To get the killer into the open, Graham feeds Lang false information, which leads to a terrifying confrontation between the reporter and the killer—one of the great scenes in the film.

While Graham and team become frustrated by the lack of movement on their case, the Tooth Fairy’s real identity—Francis Dollarhyde—has a change in his own life. While on the one hand he believes himself to be becoming something more than he was through his killings, he also finds someone who he believes can make him happy. This is Reba McClane (Joan Allen), who works at the same film processing studio he does, despite her being blind. Francis connects with her, but also feels betrayed by her, and puts her into his sites just as Graham begins to understand precisely what motivates the man.

It’s a good story. The real selling point, though, is a very different take on the Hannibal character. Cox isn’t in the film much, but he casts a long shadow over it. We gain terrific insight into the man when he uses his one phone call a week to discover the home address of Graham and his family, and then sends an encrypted message to the Tooth Fairy telling him to find and destroy Graham’s wife and son. He is a very different take on the character than is Anthony Hopkins’s version. Cox’s Lecktor is cold and calculating. He is filled with equal parts feigned innocence and malice disguised by concern. It’s such a different take that his version was overwhelmed by that of Hopkins in later films.

As for Naked Lunch, you tell me. The book it is loosely based on, or at least named after, was thought to be unfilmable until David Cronenberg attempted it. He evidently found it unfilmable as well and included several other books by Burroughs as well as aspects of Burroughs’s real life into something that is less a narrative and more an two-hour long fever dream of hallucination.

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator whose wife Joan (Judy Davis) has become addicted to the bug powder he uses to kill roaches. Bill himself is showing signs of addiction to the bug powder himself and begins to have significant hallucinations that center around gigantic bugs, many of which manifest themselves as bug-machine hybrids.

One day, Lee comes home to find his wife having sex with one of his friends while another friend reads droning poetry. Lee has been instructed by one of his hallucinatory giant bugs to kill his wife (and to make it…tasty…), so he shoots her in the head while playing “William Tell.” He flees, at least in his mind, to a place called Interzone, which is also the headquarters of an organization called Interzone Incorporated.

It seems that Lee is an agent for the bugs, and has been sent to Interzone to write reports on his typewriter, which is also a giant bug, and also his contact for the agency he works for. However, in the real world, it turns out that he has been mailing his “reports” to one of his friends, who has shown it to a publisher, who wants to publish it under the name of Naked Lunch. Along the way, Lee also encounters Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who might be a doctor and might also be in charge of a drug running conspiracy, shipping a drug called “black meat” made from gigantic Brazilian aquatic centipedes. He encounters Joan Frost, who is a dead ringer (no pun intended) for his dead wife. This Joan is married to Tom Frost (Ian Holm), who might be an Interzone agent, or could be just a hallucination.

The film is both real and unreal, existing in the real world as well as the vaguely Arabic Interzone of Bill Lee’s subconscious mind. I don’t get it. I’m also not sure if I like it. This is the second time I’ve watched this film, and just like the first time, it gave me a headache that required multiple ibuprofen to conquer.

I can’t make it make sense. I defy anyone to—even Cronenberg.

Why to watch Manhunter: The original take on Hannibal Lec(k)t(o)r.
Why not to watch: Thirty minutes of Inna-Gadda-Da-Vita.

Why to watch Naked Lunch: I don’t know.
Why not to watch: I don’t know this, either.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Keep Watching the Skies!

Film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television

Everyone has specific movies that are important to them for one reason or another. Movies that we watch at a particular time in our lives or at a specific age become films that define not only who we are, but how we react to other films, stories, and media. Everyone has these films or television shows, or books. One of those films for me is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Is it one of the greatest films ever made? Perhaps. It’s not specifically one of my favorite movies of all time, but it certainly had a lasting impact on me and on the films that I tend to like. For my money, it has all of the aspects of films that I truly love. There’s enough scary to keep me interested and there’s a classic science fiction element that keeps me riveted in my seat. I saw this film originally when it was released in the theater just a couple of weeks after I turned 10, and about half a year after I saw Star Wars. And I was hooked, and still am on science fiction.

Traditional science fiction films depict aliens that visit Earth as terrible conquerors, or at least something that needs to be battled against. Close Encounters does the exact opposite of this, positing instead that the aliens are unknowable and mysterious, but not specifically hostile or dangerous. This mystery, though, does ramp up the scare factor.

It starts strangely, with the discovery of the airplanes from Flight 19, a famous training flight that vanished in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945. Among those discovering the planes are David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) and Claude Lacombe (influential director Francois Truffaut). Later in the film, this pair and others also discover a missing ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

On a more domestic front, parts of Indiana and Ohio are plagued by alien sightings. In particular, the home of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) suffers through a fly-by that turns on all of the electronic equipment. Jillian’s young son Barry (Cary Guffey) runs out of the house because of the lights, but he’s not scared. He’s attracted to them. At the same time, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who works for the electric company, has an encounter with alien spacecraft of his own. These folks meet when Roy chases the mysterious lights and almost runs down Barry with his truck.

After this encounter, Roy and Jillian are plagued by visions of a large mountain-like structure, as well as a series of five musical tones. Roy begins to see the shape everywhere, and his obsession with the things in the sky above him cause him to lose his job as well as his relationship with his wife (Terri Garr) and kids. Another encounter with the aliens causes Barry to walk out of his house and vanish.

When a news story breaks about a terrible nerve gas leak in Wyoming, Roy, Jillian, and evidently dozens of others see what they’ve had visions of: Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The government converges on the site, the scientists converge on the site, and so do dozens of ordinary people, compelled by the vision of the site in their heads. And for better or worse, something else is converging on Devil’s Tower as well.

Close Encounters has a subtle magic to it. It’s actually a fairly slow movie in many ways. Only a few scenes really have anything happening, and the end of the film goes on for a very long time with some very long shots.

While there’s a lot to love here, it’s the vision here that I love most. There’s something very special about a film that manages to take a fairly standard fiction trope (aliens visiting our planet) and does something original and unique with it. It’s happy science fiction; it’s optimistic rather than defeatist or pessimistic. The evil here comes from our own government, which is a common theme with Spielberg.

It’s worth noting that at this point in his career, despite the fact that he had only a couple of films under his belt, he was able to convince no less a luminary than Francois Truffaut to not only appear in his film, but appear in a major, significant role. I like Truffaut’s films, and I like him here. He seems like such a sweet guy. Whether that’s the role or the man, I find him to be a positive presence in this film, and it would be much less without him.

Close Encounters is all about the mystery and all about the wonder. The last scene lasts forever, and the film is good enough that you’ll never notice that the scene doesn’t change and the set doesn’t change for a good half hour or so. That’s masterful filmmaking. The suspense continues to build until it can no longer be contained, and everything is finally revealed in some of the most memorable and important sequences in science fiction film history.

Damn, I like this movie.

Why to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Science fiction as good as it can be without all of the dystopia.
Why not to watch: Well, there’s that whole lack of dystopia thing.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Film: Goodfellas
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television

Certain movies become iconic almost immediately. They do something a new way, or touch a particular nerve. Whatever the reason, whatever the film, it immediately becomes recognizable and influences a dozen other films. It gets parodied, refined, copied, tweaked, and twisted. In the past two decades, perhaps nothing exemplifies this like Bullet Time from The Matrix. Another film that had this much of an impact is Scorsese’s Goodfellas. People can talk about The Godfather movies as being the greatest Mafia films ever made, and they well may be. But for my money, nothing did more for the allure and appeal of wiseguy culture than Goodfellas. Scarface is a bigger favorite in some communities, but it’s more drug culture than wiseguys.

This is the story—the Hollywoodized true story—of gangster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), who joined up while still a kid. He worked his way up through the ranks, starting by parking cars and selling heisted cigarettes on street corners all the way up to major heists, drug trafficking, and performing hits on people as needed. Along the way, he works with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who is loved because he is generous with the vast amount of money he steals, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who is completely out of his mind.

Hill’s life is in and out of prison, playing fast and loose not only with the law, but with the people he works for, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) in particular. He cheats on his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) with a series of mistresses, deals vast amounts of cocaine, and ends up turning state’s evidence.

The movie is filled with iconic, memorable scenes. De Niro, naturally gets top billing. Liotta plays the film’s main narrator and main character. For all this, the truly iconic scenes all belong to Joe Pesci, who makes this film his, and picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Hell of a role, that—in many ways, it made Pesci who he became in the years following this film. The scenes with the kid Spider (Michael Imperioli), the “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?” sequence, the dinner with his mother…this is Pesci’s film in every scene he’s in it.

For the time in which it was made, Goodfellas runs as close as it can to keeping an R rating without going beyond. According to legend, Scorsese had to remove 10 frames of blood to keep the R rating and avoid the dreaded NC-17.

For all the hype of this film, for all of the people who love it, it’s surprisingly intense. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the film, at least if you ask me, is how callously it treats the life and death of characters throughout. I suppose if I think about it long enough, it really isn’t surprising that guys who spend their whole lives perpetrating one crime after another wouldn’t be so terribly torn up about whacking someone who gets in their way, but it happens so quickly, so calmly, and with so little fanfare or problem afterwards that it’s like someone taking off a shirt or changing his socks. Frankly, I think this might be part of the appeal of the film, and for all of its moral shock value, I think it’s part of the reason that the film appeals to me as well.

I’m not going to say too much more about Goodfellas. You’ve seen it and were shocked and repulsed by it, you’ve seen it and loved it and don’t need to read my yammering about it, or you haven’t seen it and should. You fall into one of those three categories. Pick yours.

For what it’s worth, the best two parodies of this film are from Spielberg’s Animaniacs television show and the HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show, which is where I got the name of this particular blog entry. Additionally, the vastly underrated My Blue Heaven with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis is based very loosely on Hill’s experience in witness protection. It’s funny, it’s sweet, and it’s worth a watch, too. In fact, it would make an oddly fitting and yet incredibly weird double feature.

Why to watch Goodfellas: The most complete wiseguy film ever made.
Why not to watch: It’s more violent than you remember.

Month Seven Status Report

Not a lot to report this month. I'm pushing this month to get to 20% complete, and that will take some doing. But, as you may notice, I forgot to post even this at the end of July. Crazy weekend, crazy days.