Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sociopath de L'amour

Film: Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I don’t think I’m a prude. I don’t object to sex, or to expressions of sex, or even to honest conversation about sex. But I didn’t expect what I got with Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim). What I expected was the summary on the NetFlix envelope: “Writers Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are close friends who fall in love with the same woman, the unpredictable Catherine (Jeanne Moreau)…What results is a decades-long love triangle that both tests and strengthens the bond between the two men.” Sounds interesting, no? Yeah, it’s not that at all.

What Jules et Jim is instead is a film about capriciousness, jealousy, infidelity, dependency, and selfishness. To a one, these are character traits that I don’t hold in a lot of esteem. There’s love, and then there’s this film, in which love appears like someone looking in through a window. It’s sort of there, but not really a part of the gathering. Love is an onlooker here, not a member of the cast.

So, while the Austrian Jules and the French Jim have their names emblazoned in the title, it is Catherine who truly takes center stage in this strange little drama. Our two writers meet and become close friends, bonding over art, writing, poetry, and eventually, over a particular statue that bears an enigmatic smile. Later, they meet Catherine, who has the same smile. It is Jules who she attaches herself to first. They leave for Austria, and almost immediately, World War I begins.

Jules and Jim survive the war, and eventually Jim goes to visit his friends. What he finds is their child, Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and a marriage that is on the rocks. Catherine has not been faithful and has never been faithful. In fact, she was unfaithful to Jules the night before the wedding because of some slight uttered by Jules’s mother. And there were others, of course. We are given to believe that there have been many others. Jules, of course, has been faithful because Catherine demands it—in her philosophy, one person in a relationship must be faithful, and it certainly isn’t going to be her.

Jules eventually figures out that Catherine is looking for a reason to leave him. He confesses that she has in the past—she walked out for six months before returning. Why? She wanted to. Or something. Eventually, Jules convinces Jim to marry Catherine just so he can stay close to her. Jim does, and then they have to wait for awhile before sexing it up because Catherine wants a child with Jim, and wouldn’t know if the child was his if she became pregnant right away. And naturally, when they don’t instantly conceive a child, Catherine decides that she is tired of Jim and hates him and wants him to go away and never come back. Until she discovers she is pregnant and loves him more than anything. Until she loses the child and decides she hates him again.

Essentially, this film is supposed to be about the tremendous bond of friendship between Jules and Jim that endures and grows stronger despite the war between their countries and (really) despite them both falling madly in love with Catherine. And my reaction is to wonder why anyone would put up with the antics of Catherine, because they aren’t lighthearted, whimsical moments that anyone would find endearing, but fickle, erratic actions of someone who cares only about herself and damn the cost. Catherine is abusive and thinks only of herself constantly with no regard to how anyone else feels at any time. She turns her love for someone on and off like a faucet. In fact, she may be a borderline sociopath, and "may" and "borderline" might not apply.

So with Catherine sufficiently analyzed (or at least to my own satisfaction), let’s take a look at our two titular characters. These two, especially Jules, are men who seriously need to grow a pair. Jules even comments that Catherine is not particularly “…beautiful, intelligent, or sincere, but she’s a real woman.” And? That’s worth your own personal misery? But they are completely unable to break away from Catherine. Jim tries; he returns from Paris at one point when he is planning to marry Catherine only to discover that she has disappeared because she didn’t like his last letter. So Jim prepares to return to Paris and be done with things when she shows back up. So he stays.

This says nothing of the fact that Catherine vanished so she could have revenge sex with a guy named Albert (Boris Bassiak). And this doesn’t touch on the fact that Jim was in Paris sleeping with an ex-girlfriend named Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) who is still waiting for him to get over this whole Catherine thing. And this says nothing of the ultimate ending to the film (which I will not spoil) in which Catherine pulls one of the greatest dick moves in film history, and which we are supposed to accept as essentially the natural culmination of her “charming” ways.

Suffice to say that while this film is considered a nouvelle vague masterpiece, I didn’t think much of it. Catherine was not the enchantress I was led to believe she would be, but was a vain, vindictive, selfish person with severe emotional and mental issues. Eventually, even if the sex comes gold-plated, there’s a time to move on, but Jules and Jim never get there. What a couple of clods.

Why to watch Jules et Jim: Truffaut is too good to make something not worth watching.
Why not to watch: Sociopathy is not a positive character trait.

Month 20 Status Report...and Bonus News!

So another month comes to an end, or near enough that I can put up this post. I didn't do much this month in terms of longer films, but I certainly hit the rarities and hard-to-find films pretty hard, which is a good thing. I also had a bit of an uptick in the total number of films watched this month compared with the two previous. All good. Heading into the last third of the year, I need to stay at about 23 per month to end the year at the (soon to be updated) halfway point, which puts me close to on pace to finish by the end of 2013. However, I'll soon be watching more and more films that don't appear on The List at all because of the news below.

So here's the news: you can now officially find me as the co-host of The Demented Podcast every other week along with Demented Podcast originator Nick Jobe. We've only done one cast so far, and our first podcast with a guest is a couple of days away (and about 10 from broadcast), but so far the fit feels pretty good, and we have a good crop of guests lined up for the coming weeks and months. So listen in!

I hope to have more news soon about something else entirely.

Oh, and if you have the time check out this latest article of mine. They spelled my name wrong (of course), but I'm happy for the publication credit.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

He's a Complicated Man

Film: Shaft
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Who is the man who would risk his neck for his brother man? Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? You should know that I’m talk about Shaft. Can you dig it? Shaft is a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman.

Okay, enough fun with the theme song here. Shaft is not the first blaxploitation film, nor the first really important one (that would be Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), but it is the first one to be a huge financial success. It’s also the film that set a number of the blaxploitation clichés and stereotypes into some pretty heavy stone. In its own way, Shaft is the granddaddy of the subgenre, the one that dozens of films in the 1970s wanted to be. More than that, the character of John Shaft was (and still is in many ways) the prototype of the blaxploitation hero.

While the plot won’t be much of a shock if you haven’t seen Shaft, but it’s important to remember that in many ways this film is the progenitor of the films that followed. With this film, the plot was something relatively new, or at least a new spin on an old plot. We have the eponymous John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who is a private detective with some connections with the police, particularly Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi). Shaft is being sought after by a high-profile criminal named Bumpy Jones (the vastly underrated Moses Gunn).

As it turns out, Bumpy isn’t looking for Shaft to get rid of him, but to hire him. It seems that someone has kidnapped Bumpy’s daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer) and naturally Bumpy wants her back. Bumpy claims not to know who has his daughter, but he suspects a gang of men with connection to the Black Panthers, particularly Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He hands Shaft an envelope full of cash and tells him to find his girl.

As it turns out, things are not this simple. When Shaft finds Ben, they are attacked by men with sub-machine guns. Shaft and Ben escape, and Shaft gets a little more information from Androzzi. It seems that the Mafia has moved arrived in town. Bumpy Jones has taken over the drug trade in Harlem, and the Mob wants it back, and back by any means possible up to and including kidnapping Bumpy’s daughter and holding her for ransom. Naturally, this means that there’s going to be a war on the streets of New York unless Shaft can stop things, and thus we have a third act.

So with the basic plot squared away, let’s talk about what’s important here. First, the name “John Shaft” is one of the great film character names in history, and ranks with “James Bond” as the greatest action character name ever. Seriously—you can say it easily, shout it, say it seductively, and even insert the word “muthafuckin’” into it easily (as in “John muthafuckin’ Shaft”). This doesn’t even touch on the fact that “shaft” is a slang term for male genitalia or the fact that, as a black private detective, he’s always getting shafted by the man. It’s name that works on every level, and there’s not a thing that can be changed to make it better. It’s flawless, and it’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the reasons for the film’s success.

Additionally, while I still say that Super Fly has the greatest soundtrack in film history, the title track for Shaft may well be the best song ever written for a movie. It’s iconic for a reason, and it’s even iconic without the butter-smooth voice of Isaac Hayes asking questions about the man who is John Shaft.

But these things are superficial. There’s something much more important going on here. Where a lot of the blaxploitation films fell short is in how the film carried through its plot. In a sense, the dialogue of the film predicts this. For me, the most important moment in the film is the second meeting in Androzzi’s office, when Shaft and Androzzi finally come clean with each other. Androzzi comments that the coming war between the Mob and Bumpy Jones is going to be a huge problem. He says, essentially, that the war will be gang against gang, but that on the surface it will be black against white.

And that’s sort of the point here. It’s not black against white, which is what the blaxploitation genre turned into following this film. It’s not black working with white, either—when he’s accused of being an Uncle Tom, Shaft reacts badly, and no one who sees the film would ever consider Shaft has that particular failing. The central point is that the problem going on in New York that Shaft finds himself embroiled in is bigger than race, or at least different from race. It’s a critical point, and one easily overlooked.

Suffice it to say that this film is another one that made me feel pretty white, but not nearly so much as films like Super Fly and Boyz N the Hood. If I have a problem with the film, it’s that it feels a bit dated because of the language being used. But, change the jive a little, and this is a film that very much plays today—kind of remarkable for something nearly as old as I am.

As a final note, it’s worth saying that one of the most successful things about this film is that we as an audience learn everything we need to know about John Shaft before the opening credits have rolled. We see Shaft walking across a busy New York street, and he stops for nothing. No onrushing cab will cause him to deviate from his path. There’s no better ten seconds or so that show us exactly who this man is, and the rest of the film backs up that opening perfectly.

Why to watch Shaft: Because that cat is one baaaaad mutha…Shut yo mouth!.
Why not to watch: It can’t shake the fact that it feels dated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Real Life?

Film: David Holzman’s Diary
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Parody and satire are on life support when it comes to film. There are still a few filmmakers out there who get it; one need look no further than Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz to see someone who truly understands what these terms mean. Sadly, what gets pawned off on us as parody are the terrible ______ Movie films (Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, etc.), which are as similar to real parody as a good steak is to a cheap, moldy burger. They’re made of the same stuff, but one is exciting and delicious and the other will make you sick. True parody requires very deep knowledge of its subject and either an intense love for the subject or an intense hatred of it.

David Holzman’s Diary is a sort of exploration of cinema verite by means of satire through the lens of a man who evidently finds the entire style to be pretentious. Of course, as with any good satire, within the context of the film, everything is taken entirely seriously. David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson) has lost his job and decides to create a film diary with the goal of trying to get to the truth.

Getting to the truth is the entire point of cinema verite, at least according to its practitioners. The idea is that through confrontation with the camera, we learn what is really true. The style tends to be confrontational, with the filmmaker using the camera almost offensively as a way to get people to react, and thus reveal themselves and the truth of their lives. Holzman “explores” this technique by doing things like following a woman from the subway until she turns and tells him to leave her alone.

Through the basic idea of attempting to discover something within himself both as the filmmaker and as the subject of the film, Holzman manages initially only to alienate his girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz), who wants to maintain some semblance of her privacy in her everyday existence. A tipping point seems to be Holzman filming her while she sleeps in the nude; her discovery upon being filmed is almost violent.

Throughout the film, most of Holzman’s explorations of cinema verite are rather dull, self-indulgent, and sometimes mentally and emotionally masturbatory. That, of course, is intentional and almost certainly the entire point of the exercise. Despite this, some of the shots are inventive and fascinating. One sequence, for instance, is a highly sped-up version of his day spent watching television. We see a fast-motion version of Bat-Man and an episode of Star Trek, a Dean Martin show, and dozens of commercials all blazing through too fast to make sense of anything, almost subliminal. In its own way, this shot is both the sort of self-indulgent verite shot director Jim McBride wanted to make fun of as well as being a great statement on television itself.

Much of the film deals with Penny’s leaving and Holzman’s meditations on this. In true verite style, a part of him is actually happy that she’s gone because, as he says, this will help him get to the “real stuff,” which is of course what he’s after. The fact that the “real stuff” that he finds is a monologue on the pleasures of masturbation is, naturally, the satirical statement that McBride was going for. This is followed by the filming of a neighbor in an apartment across the street preparing for sex with her boyfriend, which Holzman interrupts with a telephone call. The multiple meanings here are great—is the character jealous? Attempting to force the camera on someone else? A perverse sort of voyeurism? And is McBride commenting in multiple ways on the style he derides? Yes to all of these things.

David Holzman’s Diary is a unique film in that it is simultaneously fascinating and filled with nothing. What McBride actually films is dull and pointless, and the fact that it is is sort of the point. Holzman even says this to the camera during one extended monologue (“You don’t show me anything that means anything!”). The result is something that is both interesting by design and interesting in spite of itself.

If the film feels dated, it’s because cinema verite is no longer in vogue. But it still makes a great companion piece to the films of Godard and Truffaut. Unlike most satire, it’s not particularly funny. Like all good satire, it skewers its subject without remorse.

Why to watch David Holzman’s Diary: True satire/parody the way it was meant to be.
Why not to watch: It’s kind of dull, really.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bang Bang Shoot Shoot

Film: Full Metal Jacket
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Some films are difficult to review because so much has already been said about them, coming up with something new is nearly impossible. Full Metal Jacket is like that in a lot of ways. This is a film that essentially has a standard opinion with which most people agree. The first half of the film is generally considered to be some of Kubrick’s best work, while the general vibe from viewers is that the film peters off in the second half, becoming more or less a standard war film, albeit a war film directed by Stanley Kubrick.

There is some truth to this notion, and the reason for it is pretty clear. Full Metal Jacket is a story told in two parts. This means that people will naturally make a favorite of one part and consider the other part to be considerably weaker. When this happens with a film as highly regarded as Full Metal Jacket, the stronger half of the film grows over time to become something much more than what it is, while the weaker half is diminished in the eyes of viewers until it is something unworthy to be watched. That was certainly in the neighborhood of my opinion going in, and it’s the opinion of almost everyone I know who has seen this film. The opening 45 minutes are as close to perfect as a film gets, and then Full Metal Jacket sucks.

Guess what. Not true. While I’m still of the opinion that the first chunk of this film is by far the stronger part, the second half is far better than I previously gave it credit for being. There’s a lot going on here that I never really wanted to pay attention to, simply because it was the second, inferior part of a movie that starts so strong.

For the most of the first part of the film, we are unaware of who the narrator is. Instead, we have a collection of men entering basic training in the Marine Corps. While several of these men are in most of the scenes, it soon becomes evident that we are focusing primarily on Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and Privates Cowboy (Arliss Howard), Joker (Matthew Modine), and Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). Cowboy gets his nickname because he’s from Texas; Joker gets his because he can’t keep his big mouth shut; Gomer Pyle gets his because there’s not much he can do right.

This sequence of the film is as dehumanizing as almost any horror film I have seen. The men are stripped of their humanity and built into marines by the constant, brutal abuse of Hartman, who spares no pity for anyone, least of all Private “Pyle.” As the platoon screw-up, Pyle is constantly on Hartman’s bad side. Eventually, it gets to the point that Hartman starts punishing the rest of the men for each time Pyle does something wrong, which leads to retaliation, which causes Pyle to slip further and further into a sort of paranoid dementia. Eventually, on the night after graduation, Pyle slips his mental tether completely and guns down Hartman before turning the gun on himself. The complete stripping of humanity is done—the recruits have been turned into effective killers. D’Onofrio’s portrayal here is one of the best in his career—it’s safe to say that it’s the role that turned him into the actor he is.

And then we’re in Vietnam, and suddenly most viewers want to change the channel. It’s evident now (actually a little before this) that Joker is our main character. He’s in country, and he is a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. He frequently works with a cameraman nicknamed Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), who got the nickname because he’s never left the rear guard and has never been out in the action.

And then the Tet Offensive happens and Joker is sent out into the field with Rafterman tailing. Joker hunts up his old basic training mate Cowboy, is introduced around the squad, and they go out hunting for the Viet Cong, an action that essentially takes the rest of the film.

The question I have is why so many people seem to feel that this part of the film has no merit. While I freely agree that it doesn’t have the same power as the opening, which essentially has at its heart the idea that the military wants to train men to kill without question and without mercy, essentially removing their humanity to turn them into weapons, I disagree that the second half is considerably worse. It’s actually still very compelling, in no small part because of the personalities we encounter in Cowboy’s squad. There is Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis), who celebrates his position in the war and fears its ending. There is Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), who is one step away from homicidal mania and is also the type to whom nothing bad in a war really happens. We meet Eightball (Dorian Harewood), who appears to be the only thing that keeps Animal Mother in line.

What we see here is that the war is just as dehumanizing and terrible as the training. Perhaps, because this is the reality, this is why the training is so brutal and crushing. The only way to come out of the war intact in any way is to reach a point where nothing matters, where life and death are merely states of existence. When a member of the squad is killed, there is some remorse and a little sadness, but not much. No one can afford it.

Is it the best film about Vietnam? No—that’s Apocalypse Now. But it’s right underneath it.

Why to watch Full Metal Jacket: The first 45 minutes and R. Lee Ermey’s coming-out party.
Why not to watch: Its reputation for ending weakly might keep you away.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

War! What is it Good For?

Film: The Battle of San Pietro (San Pietro)
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

I sometimes acquire movies in strange ways. A next-door neighbor moved away several months ago after booting her husband out of the house. The reason for the boot? The man was a serious hoarder. Our neighbor had boxes and boxes of his stuff (seriously, we’re talking the entire garaged filled with boxes because there was no more room in the house) that she wanted to get rid of including multiple boxes of video tapes that were still shrinkwrapped. Buried at the bottom of one such box was a VHS copy of The Battle of San Pietro (sometimes called simply San Pietro), which I took as my very own and finally got around to watching.

I’ll come completely clean here, though. If you glance to the right and scroll to the top of this blog, you’ll see a plug for my daughter and her upcoming trip/tour in Europe. We’re holding a garage sale for her as a fundraiser. I watched this today in part because it’s on the list and in part to see if it’s something that will have a 50-cent price tag on it on my driveway next week. Turns out it will be—I don’t foresee a need or desire to watch this one again.

The Battle of San Pietro is exactly what it claims to be—a short documentary (by film legend John Huston) on the eponymous battle. We see footage of Allied troops fighting in Italy; actual footage of the battles, complete with aircraft, tanks, artillery, and mortars; and even the bodies of fallen American troops being placed in body bags, wrapped in cloth, and buried near the site of the fighting.

Why this battle? Why not D-Day or Iwo Jima or the bombing of Dresden? This I cannot answer, although I am fairly sure that a part of this is because of the tremendous difficulty of this particular piece of the campaign. The terrain around San Pietro was perfect for the defenders and a nightmare for the attacking Allied troops. Huge mountains, rugged passes, few good roads, and more meant that the Allied troops essentially walked into the mouth of a meat grinder every time they attempted to take the German positions on the heights. Some companies were whittled down to almost nothing by the end of this battle.

What’s interesting here is that the documentary really pulls no punches. It doesn’t denigrate the German soldiers, downplay their bravery or tenacity, or brush off the massive casualties taken by the Allies in the week or so the fighting centered about this village. There’s no jolly pan of the camera past smiling troops (okay, there is one, but more on that in a minute). Rather we see a field of white crosses, women from the village carrying coffins on their heads, and graves being dug. The sacrifice of more than 1,000 men is neither glossed over nor turned into a point of patriotism and pride. It’s merely a fact of the documentary—taking this part of the road in Italy was costly and terrible, and the fighting didn’t stop once the Allies broke through here.

As for that pan across a group of soldiers, the narration suggests that between the time of the filming and the showing of the footage, many of these men gave their lives as the push up the Italian boot continued. There’s no happy ending to speak of here, just a brief pause in the battle before the battle continues. There’s no resolution and only a brief respite.

Where the film tends to bog down is in the sequences that describe the battle in terms of general strategy and troop movement. For these, we get a rough, undetailed map of the area and military symbols showing positions. Troop movements are indicated with a pointer. While perhaps integral to the understanding of the overall battle and limited by the technology of the day, these portions of the film are slow and a bit tedious for anyone who isn’t specifically a student of military history or military science.

The Battle of San Pietro is a unique piece of history, a military film that aims for accuracy and truth rather than mindless jingoism. Students of history may find quite a bit here to recommend it. If it feels a bit cold, it’s perhaps a welcome change from what could easily have been bleeding red, white, and blue.

Why to watch The Battle of San Pietro: True history with the propaganda toned down.
Why not to watch: A lot of maps and pointers.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Marriage Gone Bad

Films: Ucho (The Ear); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Format: Internet video on laptop (Ucho); DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

[These two reviews have been included as a part of Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon!]

I find films that take place behind the Iron Curtain fascinating. I can’t help it. There’s something about them that I instantly find compelling. I’m sure the reason for this is that the ones that I get a chance to see tend to be the better ones—the bad ones don’t get exported. Regardless, it’s undeniable that I find the existence of people in that sort of repressive, overwhelming environment riveting.

Ucho (The Ear) is a Czech film that fits this description perfectly. While there are a number of bit parts in this film, and a few people who become prominent for about 10 minutes in the middle, the bulk of the film centers entirely around two people, a married couple. These are Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty), a government official and his wife Anna (Jirina Bohdalova), the hard-drinking daughter of a pub owner. As the film starts, the pair is returning home from a party, but their gate is locked, and neither one appears to have the key. Eventually, they get into the house, and they discover that things are…different.

The power is out, for one thing. So is the phone. Things are missing, or are subtly moved around. This, coupled with some remembered conversations at the party causes the couple to start moving much more warily around the house. Ludvik’s superior has been arrested along with several other men in the same government area that he works in. Naturally, the question that Ludvik is asking is whether or not he’s next. Anna doesn’t seem too concerned with what will happen to Ludvik aside from the fact that it will affect her life greatly—and she is concerned about that. And both are convinced that while they were at the party, bugs have been planted in the house.

What we see as the film progresses is all of the frustrations of the last ten years of this marriage boil up to the surface and break open, aided by the intense paranoia and fear that Ludvik might be dragged off to prison for any reason at any minute. We learn, for instance, that Anna’s drinking isn’t simply because of the party; she drinks all the time anyway and would probably be drunk even without the party. We learn that it’s likely that Ludvik consented to marriage with the wanton Anna rather than his virginal former girlfriend because Anna came with a sizable dowry.

What is most fascinating to me in this film, especially because of how effective and believable it is, is how quickly Ludvik and Anna go from anger and hatred to mutual protection. As their feelings bubble out, it’s easy to think that there is no love lost between them; this is especially true when Ludvik becomes abusive of his wife. And yet, every time there is evidence of tampering in the home, or every time one of the pair thinks of something possibly incriminating, they immediately bond together. Anna yells at him for burning files in the bathroom and throwing them in the toilet, but immediately takes over and does the same thing when he takes a break.

The “ear” in this film isn’t a literal one but a figurative one. These are the spying devices most likely planted around the home to catch conversations that might well go against Czech policy or otherwise contradict the country’s leader. Throughout the bulk of the film, we simply assume that these exist somewhere in the film’s world. This in turn makes the conversations between our two characters highly charged emotionally, but also filled with hyperbole, double-speak, and a lot of veiled allusions to what is probably going on around them.

The end (which I won’t reveal) is chilling.

Ucho was suppressed the minute it finished filming. The film did not get a release until 1989 despite being made in 1970. It is hardly surprising that the Czech government suppressed this film, since it’s hardly a positive portrait of anything going on in Czechoslovakia. It’s a worthy film, though, and intense enough to still be more interesting than a film with two people walking around their house has any right to be.

The film that Ucho is most commonly compared with is Mike Nichols’s debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the marital dynamics, not the who “suppression by the government with bugs” thing. And, boy! There sure are some similarities here! George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are a married couple who have two pastimes—they drink and they fight with each other. George is a history professor at a small college and Martha is the daughter of the university president. After a party at her father’s house, Martha has invited a new professor named Nick (George Segal) and his wife, who goes by Honey (Sandy Dennis) back to their house so everyone can keep drinking.

What results is less a film with a plot and more a set of character studies, with the characters studied being the marriages. George and Martha have a marriage that consists of aggression fueled by drinking and drinking caused by unbridled aggression. They do nothing but pick at each other constantly, attempt to embarrass each other and attempt to break each other mentally and emotionally. As the film goes on, it’s not so much that cracks appear in the marriage, but that the marriage appears to be nothing but cracks.

What becomes evident quickly is that Nick’s and Honey’s marriage is also riddled with cracks that they were unaware of. Nick is relentlessly and aggressively ambitious, and will not hesitate to sleep his way to the top with the daughter of the university president. That’s Martha, for those of you playing along at home. And Honey seems to have a thing for brandy.

We learn all of the dirty details of these people in the course of the evening. We learn that George has been a part of the history department at the college for years, but will never be in charge of the history department because he doesn’t have the ambition, drive, or talent to head the department. In Martha’s eyes, this makes him a failure and completely worthless. We learn eventually that Martha’s world is one of dark fantasy. Her pleasures are one overriding fantasy and her constant cruelty of her husband.

What makes this film work, though, is that through all of this—through all of the horror and pain of this terrible, twisted relationship, these two people are entirely dependent on each other. They cannot survive without each other. George genuinely loves Martha, something she freely admits. She also admits that she isn’t worthy of it, and that some day she will push things too far and that this twisted life will come crashing down—and that it’s what she deserves.

This is a difficult film, one that I feel enriched in having seen, but one that I will probably not watch again for a very long time. It is brutal and unrelenting, a punishing film that seems intended to push boundaries as far as they could go in 1966. It succeeds in doing this, too. It’s a compelling watch—it’s just ugly to see these people go to smash in front of us.

The movie is based on the Edward Albee play of the same name, and it’s pretty faithful in general. While it has certainly been staged a number of times, I can’t envision it being staged more effectively than this filmed version. All four of the performances rank among the best of the respective players’ careers. Consider how rare it is to have four actors simultaneously perform at the tops of their respective games on the same days. For no other reason, this film is worth watching for that. It’s punishing and awful, but it is awful in the original sense of the word.

Why to watch Ucho: It’s tense as hell.
Why not to watch: The world it depicts is mostly gone.

Why to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: It’s a classic for a reason.
Why not to watch: Being around drunk people for a long time kinda sucks.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

It's Nothing Like What Macy's Does

Film: The Big Parade
Format: VHS from Downers Grove Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Most of the time, movies are about escapism. At least the movies I tend to enjoy the most are about escapism; I don’t always look for a lot of reality in my films because I get enough reality in my everyday life. It’s one of the reasons I tend to like horror, science fiction, and action as genres more than any other. But with war films, I appreciate a level of realism instead of escapism. The Big Parade, the highest grossing silent film in history, made a real attempt at realism, showing the war not as a grand adventure or something that turned boys into men, but a terrible conflict that caused pain, death, and destruction, but still had the potential to ennoble those who survived.

Our main character is James Apperson (John Gilbert, and notice that the character’s last name is a letter and a space away from being “a person”), who is a wealthy wastrel more interested in having a good time than in doing an honest day’s work. When war is declared, Jim is essentially guilted into joining by his friends, and wearing an Army uniform is evidently the first thing he’s ever done to meet with his father’s approval. Jim heads off to war and France with the assurance that he will one day return to marry his sweetheart, Justyn Reed (Claire Adams).

Along the way, we meet the two men who will prove to be the main companions of Jim as he experiences life in the Army and the war in France. These men are Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker with a constant huge plug of tobacco in his cheek and Bull (Tom O’Brien), a short, feisty bartender. The three men make an unlikely trio, but as they prepare for the fighting during a stay in the village of Champillon.

The most important event in Champillon is the meeting of the three men with Melisande (Renee Adoree), a local girl in the village. All three men are attracted to her, but it’s Jim that she decides to allow to court her. Slim and Bull break into cellars and drink wine, Jim and Melisande romance each other for a bit, and Jim feels guilty about making time with the girl while Justyn is still waiting at home for him. Right when this is going to become a problem, the Americans are sent to the front and into the shooting war.

For me, this is where the film really picks up. The first hour of the film is really little more than a character study of Jim as he goes from spoiled, wealthy socialite with no social conscience or accountability to a man willing to put himself out for his fellow soldiers and willing to feel something about two-timing his faithful girl back home. I certainly understand the point of this part of the film, but would have been just as happy with it had it been about half as long.

The war scenes, though, are impressive. Huge lines of vehicles, massive explosions, and clouds of poison gas cover the battlefield, and it very much looks like the real thing. Mortar shells and bombs land near groups of men who are nearly buried in the massive clods of earth that spray up and cover them. Men drop in the wake of brutal machine gun fire. These scenes, while obviously staged for the film, have the feel of the genuine article. I can’t imagine the logistics involved with filming something of this size and scope in 1925, but King Vidor pulled it off brilliantly.

I have no real desire to spoil this film. Suffice to say that the three men in our story aren’t too long at the front, at least in terms of the film’s narrative. Jim finds himself wounded and has a face-to-face encounter with a German soldier that was later referenced in All Quiet on the Western Front. Eventually, Jim is taken to a field hospital and while recovering, he learns that Champillon has changed hands over and over. Worried about Melisande, he leaves the hospital to investigate, which creates a number of complications in his recovery.

The happy ending feels a bit tacked on here, but in its own way, it also feels earned. Following the still harrowing scenes of war and battle, a little happy ending isn’t so bad. It’s here that the first hour of the film—the comic scenes with Slim and Bull and the romance between Jim and Melisande pay off. I’m not entirely convinced that the payoff is entirely big enough to justify the length of that segment of the film. I’d still like to cut a bit from it, but based on the second half, I like them better in retrospect than I did in the moment of watching them.

Silent dramas are still a tough watch, but in the case of The Big Parade, it’s worth the struggle of getting through. Make it past the first hour, and you’ll find yourself amply rewarded both in terms of the quality of the action sequences and in terms of satisfaction in getting a return on the investment in the characters.

Why to watch The Big Parade: An early, successful attempt at wartime realism.
Why not to watch: The first hour is too slow even if it pays off eventually.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

...and Two Bits for the Body

Film: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass DVD player.

We’re venturing into 50 Worst Films of All Time territory again. The first time I did this, it turned into the profanity laced rant that was my write up on Last Year at Marienbad. Sad to say, there’s no profanity (or at least not much) this time around, although in many ways, this movie deserves it more. Peckinpah without swearing is sort of like a cheeseburger without the cheese.

Regardless, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia isn’t hiding what it is or what it wants to be. That title is pure grindhouse schlock at its best, and the film does everything it can to live up (or down, depending on your perspective) to it. I’d like to call it a revenge movie, but it really isn’t one. It’s less about that than it is simply an excuse for Sam Peckinpah to have guys die of bullet wounds in slow motion.

The plot is pretty simple. The daughter of a Mexican crime boss called simply El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) has gotten herself in a family way. After a little torture, El Jefe gets her to admit that the father is Alfredo Garcia, a former lieutenant of sorts and a known ladies’ man. Garcia has hoofed it, and so he must be found and brought to crime boss-style justice. El Jefe demands Garcia’s head, offers a $1 million bounty on it, and we have a title for the film.

One of the many people who gets caught up in the search is Bennie (Warren Oates), a bartender. He discovers that his sort-of girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), a hooker with a heart of perhaps bauxite or cadmium instead of gold has spent a bit of time with Garcia lately “saying goodbye.” One would think that having a prostitute girlfriend would inure one to such things, but this is not the case. Elita tells Bennie that Garcia is dead—killed in a drunk driving accident. However, since Bennie has been promised $10,000 for collecting the head, he decides to dig up the body, saw the head off, and claim the reward. He goes, and Elita goes with him.

What follows is, for lack of a better way to put it, a series of attempted rapes, gun battles, and grisly deaths. There’s a real grindhouse feel to this film that goes beyond the lurid title. There’s a sense going in that everyone who is given a name and quite a few people besides will not make it to the final frame still breathing, and that sense is exactly correct. The body count hits the mid-20s easily, and that’s not counting Garcia. But the violence is only a part of the lurid business of this film. There’s plenty of grotesquery to go around here.

Eventually, Bennie gets the head, Elita almost gets raped and then gets killed, and Bennie drives around Mexico talking to the bloody, fly-encrusted melon of Garcia as a form of confession. He packs the thing in ice after awhile, pours booze on it, and speaks to it as if he was hearing it answer back. We never actually see the head itself—not really—but we get plenty of looks at the oozing cheesecloth it’s wrapped in.

As I’ve already said, this is not a movie about anything as important or noteworthy as revenge (although once Elita dies, Bennie goes on a killing spree that lasts roughly the last half of the film). It’s more or less here to give Sam Peckinpah an excuse to have guys get shot, see blood splatter out of their chests from fresh bullet wounds, and have them tumble gracefully to the ground as if they were Baryshnikov on a bender all filmed lovingly in slow motion. It’s not Peckinpah unless we get a slowed down view of every blood droplet.

I can’t say that I hated this film completely. There’s a certain poetry to the level of nihilism present here. Bennie becomes a sort of wrecking crew, mowing down anything and anyone who stands in his way, but he’s also pretty fragile. By the time the film ends, Bennie looks like he hasn’t been near a shower in a month, which is something he seems to share with pretty much everyone else in the film. There’s a feeling I get from this film that everyone in it smells like week-old body odor, cigarettes, and stale beer.

So I don’t hate it. I also don’t love it. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy to recommend it. Peckinpah was far better in films like The Wild Bunch, and equally nihilistic and violent. Unless you’re a Peckinpah fanatic or have a thing for guys flopping to the ground in slow motion, I can’t offer a really good reason to spend any time with this one. The gruesomeness of this film exists simply because it does and not for any other purpose.

Why to watch Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: The name of it really says it all.
Why not to watch: It’s an excuse for violence rather than a reason for it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chance Encounter

Film: Strangers on a Train
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass DVD player.

Alfred Hitchcock was best known, and rightfully so, for his tight direction and his interesting and intricate plots. What makes many of his best films so good is that the plots are deceptively simple, or at least come from an extremely simple premise. Strangers on a Train, for instance, starts with the idea of a chance meeting on (naturally) a train and a chance conversation between two men.

In this case, the two men are Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an amateur tennis player with his eye on a political career and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a dilettante with too much money. Bruno recognizes Guy Haines from his picture in the newspapers. In addition to being a well-known tennis player, Guy has also appeared in society and gossip columns. It seems that despite being married, he’s been spending a lot of time with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Of course, no one blames Guy in this case because his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) is known to go a-stepping with anyone wearing pants.

Bruno has an idea. He’d like to get rid of his father, and he’s pretty sure that Guy would like to be rid of his wife. His suggestion is to trade killings; he’ll kill Guy’s wife and Guy will kill his father. Since there’d be no motive for either man, there’d be no suspicion on either man. Guy, naturally, thinks this is nothing more than a flight of fancy until Miriam is killed and Bruno starts showing up in Guy’s life.

As I said, the plot is deceptively simple. What it needs is complications, and it gets them almost entirely through the actions of Bruno. Part of the interest here, though, comes from the fact that Hitchcock allowed this script to get pretty racy for 1951. We learn that Miriam Haines, for instance, is pregnant with another man’s child. Then, in the scenes leading up to her murder, we see her essentially dating two men at the same time. And she’s a vicious woman—now that Guy’s tennis career is really taking off, she refuses to divorce him and threatens to derail anything he attempts simply so she can get what she wants.

Bruno, it quickly becomes evident, is a sociopath. He can’t leave Guy alone, and as Guy continues to resist his half of the plot, Bruno gets more and more brazen. Guy holds off as long as he can, but finally has to admit to Anne what is going on. A big part of this is the fact that Bruno seems to get completely wiggy every time he sees Anne’s sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), who looks quite a bit like the now-dead Miriam.

It’s a solid enough plot that it’s been remade a couple of times—both as comedies. Throw Mama from the Train and Horrible Bosses cover the same basic territory. What those films lack is some of the really artistic touches included here. The murder, for instance, is filmed by giving us a view of the scene as the reflection in Miriam’s glasses, which have fallen to the ground. It’s an incredible shot, one worth watching again and again, and quite possibly good enough to justify the entire film.

Where this one falls down is toward the end. While the wrap-up of this film is sufficiently Hitchcockian, it simply takes too long. Guy has a tennis match and knows that he can’t forfeit or throw it—he has to win quickly, but naturally his opponent fights back. Later, Guy and Bruno finally confront one another on a speeding carousel that has gone out of control. Both of these sequences go far too long—long enough that in both cases I was more than ready for them to end about halfway through. Any tension that has been created by the situation and the knowledge that Bruno is ready to force Guy’s hand is lost by these scenes that simply don’t end when they should.

It’s not my favorite Hitchcock, and not in my top five for Hitchcock. It’s not a bad film, and certainly not the worst of Hitch’s 18(!) films on The List. It’s just not that great, and I wish it lived up to its simple but compelling premise.

Why to watch Strangers on a Train: A plot truly worthy of Hitchcock.
Why not to watch: Some parts trade tension for simply being too long.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Power to the People

Film: Salt of the Earth
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

While there are certainly some who might disagree, I’d suggest that one of the darker periods in the world of entertainment was the Hollywood blacklist. It turned friends against each other and cause a lot of unnecessary hatred throughout the country. The blacklist was an ugly period, and a lot of people suffered needlessly. One of the things that came out of the era was Howard Biberman’s Salt of the Earth.

Salt of the Earth is billed as the “only blacklisted American film,” and that seems like a bit of hyperbole and purple prose intended to get the rank-and-file titillation crowd to grab it off the shelf and give it a watch. Well, that crowd will almost certainly be disappointed in what’s on the disc. It probably got this particular moniker because it was directed by blacklisted director Biberman, written by blacklist member Michael Wilson, and starred blacklisted Will Geer and Rosaura Revueltas.

Knowing that most of the main people involved were involved in the blacklist, though, makes the subject matter of the film very interesting. This film was virtually banned in the U.S. (it played in about 12 theaters total) because it seemed to have significant communist sympathies. Having now seen the film, I find it difficult to disagree with that particular sentiment. It very much does feel like a film that would make the Communist Party stand up and cheer.

Anyway, the film takes place in New Mexico in a mining town. We learn very quickly that our Mexican-American main characters are workers in the mine, and that they are not treated very well by the mining company. Their houses (on company property) don’t have running water, and the Mexican workers are paid considerably less than the Anglo workers. And so the men go on strike. One of the leaders of the striking workers is Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacon). His wife, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) is pregnant with their third child.

The film follows the progress of the strike, as the men fight against the scab workers and the oppression from the company (and there’s a lot of oppression). Eventually, the company gets a court order to prevent the mine workers from striking, but the court order doesn’t include the women. And so the women take over the picket lines and the men are forced to stay home and work. Eventually, the film ends with the workers essentially having broken the strike with Ramon publically thanking the women for their support. Really, that’s a spoiler, but it’s hardly one you couldn’t see coming.

Actors like Geer and Revueltas certainly had the muscle to pull this film off, and their parts are pretty well done. The bulk of the film is handled by amateur actors, though, and it’s pretty evident that they aren’t professionals. Much of the dialogue is pretty wooden and halting and pretty poorly delivered. Then again, that wasn’t really the main point of the film—this was all about showing the workers of the world (or at least this part of New Mexico) that uniting had some real value. There’s a lot of propaganda here about the value of the union and how being in the union made everything better, since it was the union that helped the mine workers win the battle and kept them alive through the months of no salary.

There is a definite amateur feel to the film as well. Parts of it go a bit out of focus here and there, and the footage is horrible grainy in places. It’s not a pretty film to look at, but again, the look here isn’t what was considered important. It was all about the message of the workers overcoming against the wealthy bosses who oppressed them. And, with everyone being a part of the blacklist, it wasn’t like there was a ton of money floating around to make the film.

Is it worth watching? I guess. It does manage to get its message across, at times in spite of itself. This is a film to watch not for the scintillating acting or the beautiful sets, or even for the story it tells. Watch it because it’s important historically and because in its own way, the workers in the film and the filmmakers are fighting the same battle against the oppressors who had all the power.

Why to watch Salt of the Earth: It feels like a real-life drama, and it pissed off McCarthy.
Why not to watch: There’s a real amateur feel to this film, and not in a good way.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Film: Angst Essen Seele Auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass DVD player.

National identity is a strange thing. There’s nothing wrong with pride in one’s country, but it walks a fine edge between national pride and racism. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Angst Essen Seele Auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) is a sort of exploration into racism and relationships that cross racial barriers. It’s a strange film for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the central relationship of the film.

Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is an old widowed cleaning woman. During a rainstorm, she ducks into a bar that is frequented by foreign workers, particularly Arabic workers. Almost on a dare, one of the men, El Hedi ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustapha (El Hedi ben Salem), who goes by the name of Ali, asks the old woman to dance. The two enjoy their dance together, and he offers to walk Emmi home. She invites him in for coffee and he ends up spending the night.

Emmi and Ali begin spending more time together and fall into a routine that is comfortable, at least for them. It’s not comfortable for anyone else, though. Her neighbors being squawking immediately about the presence of a tall, black man 20 years Emmi’s junior spending a great deal of time in her apartment. When she is confronted by her landlord about her subletting to Ali, she tells him that they are planning on getting married. To her surprise, Ali immediately agrees to the plan, and the two are married.

This causes huge problems for Emmi at home, at work, and with her adult children. The minute she marries Ali, the gaggle of middle-aged hausfraue begin gossiping about the pair, complaining to the landlord, calling the police to break up gatherings of Ali and his friends, and shunning Emmi socially. The same thing happens at her job, and her children reject the marriage as well. Emmi wants nothing more than to be happy again, but it seems that no one will treat her or Ali with anything like respect. Even the local grocer refuses to let Ali or Emmi shop at his store.

The two go away on a short vacation, and it is here that we discover the real intent of the old woman with the trip. She envisions coming back home and having everyone treat her with respect and dignity. And this is what happens, at least for a time.

What also happens is that Emmi starts to show off Ali to her friends, essentially treating him like a piece of meat. Ali, angered, leaves their flat and goes his own way for a while. The real question of the film is whether or not this extremely unlikely couple can not simply find happiness, but find their way back to each other amid all of the problems that happen because we’re talking about a relationship and problems always happen as well as the added burden of racism against the foreign workers like Ali.

This is an unusual film for a number of reasons. First, these people are not Hollywood stars. I do not mean this in terms of their acting, which is pretty good in general. What’s more impressive is just how ordinary these people look. Made by the American studio system, this film would be filled with attractive people and glamorous photography. Instead, everyone looks very plain and average, which translates in a movie as homely at best. The woman who works in the bar Ali frequents is a perfect example of this. Meant to be something of a temptress, she is a tall, wide-hipped woman with sunken eyes. Emmi looks her age, too; she is not a preserved woman in her early 60s but a woman who has worked hard all her life. This adds a level of realism to the film that would be impossible with routinely attractive actors.

Ali himself speaks in a broken German that appears to be accurately translated. He refers to himself in the third person, doesn’t conjugate verbs, and tends to leave out articles. Statements like “Ali no sleep” maintain his foreign status in the film, never allowing us to forget that he is from Morocco and that communication for him can be difficult.

What I find very interesting is the extent of the racism in the film. This is Germany about a generation after the Germany military attempted one of the most significant atrocities in the name of racial purity. Where is the outrage for this kind of behavior from everyone around Emmi and Ali? Much of this racism seems to stem as almost a hangover from World War II—foreign workers are held in great distain, and frequently reference is made to their uninformed statements.

If Fassbinder moralizes at any point in the film, he moralizes at the end. I am sure that he scripted the doctor’s comments in this scene, but it is given to us almost as if the doctor were putting the final period on something he’d written, convinced the language will sway the audience. I don’t think I buy it, honestly. The film doesn’t need this speech; we’ve already been handed the message that the foreign workers aren’t all bad, but that racism is bad.

A strange but worthwhile film.

Why to watch Angst Essen Seele Auf: It’s marvelously realistic.
Why not to watch: It’s Harold and Maude without the funny.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fish Out of Water

Film: Captains Courageous
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

Some stories tell you where they’re going from the first few minutes. Captains Courageous is like that. Once we spend a few minutes with him, there’s no real shock where we’re going to end up. The film is based on a Kipling story, and there’s no shock that this was turned into a film before 1940. It’s a natural for the sort of treatment stories got in the early talkie days—it’s almost as if Kipling wrote it to be turned into a movie.

Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is a child of privilege, and he makes sure that everyone around him knows it. Master Harvey treats the family servants like, well, servants instead of like people and treats his friends as if they exist only for his own pleasure and amusement. In the opening sequence, Harvey is spending a vacation from boarding school at home with his father and a couple of friends. Harvey insists on getting his meals in bed, and then attempts to bribe one of the boys into getting him entrance into a particular school club. There’s precedent for Harvey; he’s one of the editors of the school paper because his father bought the school a printing press.

Sadly for Harvey, he’s confronted by one of his teachers (Donald Briggs) about his attempts at using cash to influence everyone around him. Rather than learning his lesson, Harvey runs away back to home and spins a tale for his father, Frank Burton Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas). But it goes nowhere—Harvey is temporarily booted from school, and his father takes it upon himself to teach the boy something of the world.

This doesn’t last long. On a ship crossing the ocean, Harvey falls overboard after attempting to show off to a couple of other boys. He’s picked up by a fisherman in a dory. This fisherman, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel (pronounced MAN-you-el and played by Spencer Tracy) takes Harvey back to the boat where the young lad encounters the rest of the crew including Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), his son Dan (Mickey Rooney), Long Jack (John Carradine), and a number of other salty dogs.

And you can tell where this is going, can’t you? Harvey is going to come of age on this ship, and there are going to be a number of hard lessons for him to learn en route. Manuel will act as his surrogate father for the months the ship spends hauling in cod, and Harvey will resist every lesson he’s taught until he learns the value of hard work, of being a part of the team instead of trying to buy the team, and the real value of other people. You know this is where we’re going; it’s really the only place we can go.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Harvey grows up thanks to the attention that is paid him by Manuel, who eventually takes him out in his dory after betting that he and Harvey can bring in more fish than Long Jack and his partner. Harvey tries to guarantee this by fouling Long Jack’s lines. This behavior—precisely in line with the way Harvey has behaved his entire life—but Manuel won’t put up with that sort of a cheat, especially when Long Jack gets stuck and ends up with a hook embedded in his arm. But, when Harvey attempts to apologize and Long Jack gets upset with him, it is Manuel who protects the boy.

And this is the lesson that Harvey needs. From this moment on, he becomes a true member of the crew, helping to bring in the fish, cleaning the ship, and otherwise acting like one of the men aboard. It’s also evident that it’s the first time that Harvey is really happy with himself and with his life. He’s finally learned to be a man, and he discovers that he likes it, likes fishing, and wants to stay with the boat the next time it goes out.

It’s not a stretch to call this film predictable. It’s not a stretch to have a very good idea of what will happen near the end, since this is a coming-of-age story for Harvey. And yet it still works, even though I knew what was on tap for the end.

Why? Because of Spencer Tracy, who is an absolute wonder, as always. I didn’t realize until he actually mentioned that he was intended to be Portuguese; I thought he sounded Italian. But it doesn’t really matter. He speaks English with a sort of familiar foreign patois that indicates he’s been working around English speakers for a long time, but learned the language late enough in life that he never quite got the hang of it. He’s fatherly and sweet, wise, and funny. He is, in short, the kind of a man that young boys wish to be and the sort of man adult men wish they could have turned into.

I admit that I did not go into this movie expecting a whole lot, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. The characters are vibrant and interesting, and even Harvey, once he’s put in his place a bit, is someone worth rooting for. But Spencer Tracy’s mop of curly hair, his hurdy-gurdy playing, and his quiet strength and wisdom carry this picture, and carry it all the way.

Why to watch Captains Courageous: Because Spencer Tracy is an absolute treasure.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen the story one time too many already.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sagebrush and Sadism

Film: Man of the West
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass DVD player.

Something there is about a Western that loves the touch of melodrama. Most of them, and especially the early ones, have that sense of good versus evil going on, but it’s more than just that. While cattle rustlers, land barons, and shady railroad companies exist in abundance, there is a particular naivety that goes with the old Western. Good guys win because they’re good guys and bad guys lose despite any lowdown sneaky tricks. Classic Westerns aren’t so much about realism but about reinforcing that idea of two-fisted honor.

Westerns changed, of course. One need look no further than directors like Peckinpah and Leone to see films in the genre that didn’t hold to those clichés. Films like Winchester ‘73 made strides into bringing the genre heroes into places more akin to reality, but I’m going to nominate Man of the West, Gary Cooper’s last great role and one of Anthony Mann’s best films as a starting point for stories that might not be so appropriate for kids in the genre.

The story is a simple enough one, and fairly standard fare for Westerns. Link Jones (Cooper) is an ex-outlaw who has reformed his ways. He boards a train headed for Fort Worth with a sack of money intended to be used to hire a schoolteacher for his little community. Also on the train is Billie Ellis (Julie London), a singer leaving town for greener pastures and a gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

Sadly for everyone involved, the train is robbed, and our trio is left behind when the train rides off. More to the point for Link, his satchel of money is missing. With no other option, Link, Billie, and Beasley start walking down the track until they come to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that this is the hideout of the trainrobbing gang. More seriously for Link, the gang is the old gang he used to ride with, led by his Uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). We learn quickly that this is not a simple gang of outlaws and bandits, but a group of sadists. Of these, the most particularly nasty is a man named Coaley (Jack Lord of Hawaii 5-0 fame under a couple of pounds of dirt and without the famous pompadour).

The plot hinges on Dock wanting to believe that Link is back in the gang and Dock’s dream of knocking over the wealthy bank in Lassoo. Things are complicated by the arrival of Claude (John Dehner), the last member of the gang and Link’s cousin. Claude doesn’t trust Link and thinks he’s up to something. And then there’s the problem of what to do about Billie. Link claims her to keep her safe, but there’s no protecting a pretty woman from deviants out in the middle of nowhere, is there?

Like I said, it’s pretty standard Western fare in a lot of respects. Where it is different is in not the execution of its simple plot, but in how far it goes. Billie is always a couple of moments away from complete degradation at the hands of Dock and Coaley. In fact, the moment she walks into the cabin, Coaley can’t contain himself and demands that she strip for his pleasure. The forced striptease—complete with Coaley holding Link hostage using a knife at his throat—is ugly and brutal. Just as brutal (and a real coming of age moment for the genre) happens when things finally spiral out of control between Link and Coaley. They fight, an extended beating for both men that ends with Link standing over the beaten Coaley and stripping him of his clothes, enacting his revenge by forcing him to live through what happened to Billie. There’s a real sense of justification in this, but also of sadism. As for what happens to Billie when Link isn’t around, it’s easily imagined, and while films today obviously go much further, even the implication in 1958 is pretty shocking.

Mann’s film was poorly received when it was released, and I’m not really that surprised. Like other films that break genre or push boundaries a good distance (Peeping Tom comes to mind), people simply weren’t ready for this. There’s a far cry between what Gene Autry did and Unforgiven, and Man of the West takes some pretty big steps in bridging that distance.

Mann was smart enough to go as far as he could, though. Late in the film, one of Dock’s men shoots a woman in Lassoo really for no reason other than that she was holding a gun and was nervous. Later, as Link rides out of the town, her husband appears and discovers that she is dead. Mann lingers here, and as Link rides away, we hear him shouting his wife’s name and crying over her body. It’s a moment that forces the audience to remember that even though this encounter for Link was about thinning the herd of Dock’s gang, other people with lives were affected by it. Link isn’t as innocent in this as he might want to believe. Even the minor characters have feelings, and their lives can be just as crushed by Dock Tobin’s savagery and sadism as anyone else.

If it goes too far anywhere, it’s in the character of Dock Tobin. I like Lee J. Cobb, but I didn’t really like him here. He’s far too scenery chewing. The man never talks in anything quieter than a dull roar. Coaley is far more menacing, even though he’s meant to be nothing but a thug. He’s much more evil and much more disturbing, and perhaps would have been a better villain rather than the drunk, vaguely demented old man.

This is a smart film, and an edgy one for its release date. I’m glad to have seen it.

Why to watch Man of the West: It’s far more badass than you expect a 1958 Western to be.
Why not to watch: Dock Tobin is an annoying asshole.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Petty Little Things

Film: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I knew 15 minutes in to this one that I was in for a rough ride. Actually, I knew it sooner. I knew it before the credits had finished running that the two hours or so I spent watching this film were going to cause me no end of pain. I was mildly buoyed by the fact that, as a wonder, I enjoyed Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, but it’s evident that his follow up (by all accounts assisted significantly by his wife Agnes Varda), Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) is a much more traditional musical. Instead of having people sing everything, people break out into song at scripted times, and there’s never a surprise of when the next song is going to come. There is quite literally at least one in every scene.

I’m struggling to find a way to describe this film that sums it up as closely as I can without too many words. The best I’ve come up with is that, aside from the fact that there is a plot to carry us from one end of the film to the other, it’s very much like watching the opening dance sequence from an Austin Powers movie for two hours. Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) walks down the street, and suddenly it’s a choreographed dance number complete with acrobats and people in matching outfits spinning around. I’ll give it that it’s quite a spectacle, but it also really hurts my head.

Let’s see if I can summarize in a single paragraph. We have twins named Delphine and Solange (real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) who respectively teach ballet and write music. They’re bored with Rochefort and want to go to Paris where they are convinced they will both become stars. Solange meets with a man named Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) who promises to introduce her to a successful American songwriter named Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Dame is unaware that Solange is the daughter of his former fiancée, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), who left him because she didn’t want to be known as Madame Dame (essentially, Mrs. Lady). He is also unaware that Solange and Delphine’s younger brother is his son.

Damn. It’s going to take another paragraph. Also thrown into this mess are two carnies named Bill (Grover Dale) and Etienne (George Chakiris) who suddenly need a new dance act for their display at a fair, so Yvonne sends them to her daughters. Also, there’s a young artist named Maxence (Jacques Perrin) who seeks after his feminine ideal, which looks a hell of a lot like Delphine. Oh, and no one sees or bumps into each other, except when they can’t know each other. Andy Miller and Solange run into each other and fall for each other without knowing who the other is. One of the other two couples happens before our eyes, and we’re left with the certainty of the third as the film closes.

All of that is part and parcel of a musical, and while it’s hardly my favorite genre, I can handle it. But there are aspects of this film that simply hurt my brain from start to finish. First, everyone in this film ranks among the most superficial characters it has ever been my displeasure to encounter in any medium. Seriously. The two dancers who leave Etienne and Bill in the lurch do so because they meet a pair of sailors. One of them leaves because Bill’s eyes aren’t blue—if he’d had blue eyes, she’d have stayed with him. Yvonne leaves the father of her son without a word and lies to him about moving to the Pacific coast in Mexico simply because she doesn’t like his last name. For a film that is intended in many ways to be a feel-good, it presents us with terrible characters who (at least for me) cause a wrinkle of the nose and a look of displeasure rather than a sigh and a fluttering heartbeat. Maxence has fallen in love with his feminine ideal without knowing anything about her—he’ll fall for her regardless because of what she looks like. Doesn’t matter what she’s like (he says as much multiple times); if she’s blonde and pretty and looks like his picture, she’s the girl for him. She could be a princess or she could be an axe murderer.

Which brings me to my second problem—there’s an axe murderer on the loose in Rochefort, a plot point that seems to come out of nowhere about an hour into the film. Suddenly, one morning, Yvonne picks up the paper and sings us the news that a woman was brutally hacked apart a few blocks away. And she’s smiling when she does it. And then Maxence walks over to check out the crime scene and calmly mentions to Solange (who happens to be standing there) that he prefers blondes to redheads, but that her being a redhead doesn’t mean he’d hack her apart with an axe. Good Lord, that’s messed up.

I don’t want to give the impression that there is nothing here, though. Certainly the presence of Gene Kelly livens things up tremendously, and while it might be difficult on its face to allow for the romance between the 55-year-old Kelly and the mid-20s Dorleac, it works to a certain extent. Kelly, in his favor, looked a good 10 or 15 years younger than his actual age here. But his dance numbers feel subdued compared with the others in this film, no doubt in part because of his age.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort also succeeds in its overall look. It’s a riot of color and splendor, with couples at the end pairing off in essentially matching outfits, an indication that their love for each other was meant to be. And yet, it’s perhaps a little overboard here as well. Many people throughout the film appear to wear matchy-matchy outfits, including an entire troupe of people wearing grey jackets and pants, white calf-high boots and color-coordinated shirts and ties. It feels so planned, in part because it is so obviously and completely planned. It’s a nice visual effect, but entirely artificial.

It could easily be argued that I’ve completely overthought this film; it’s not a film to be analyzed but a film to simply watch and fall in love with. But so much of it feels so off that I can’t help myself. These people are petty, vain, and self-serving. Why do I want them to get a happy ending? Honestly, I’d have rather seen a musical about the axe murderer.

Why to watch Les Demoiselles de Rochefort: Bright, shiny colors.
Why not to watch: Vast parts of this film truly make no sense.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sweet, Sweet Booze

Film: Whiskey Galore! (Tight Little Island)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

For about a decade, from 1947 to 1957, Ealing Studios became known for a particular brand of comedy. Four of them appear on The List, and I could argue for a fifth in The Man in the White Suit. There is a particular feel to Ealing comedies. They aren’t particularly laugh-out-loud affairs, but are instead an appealing combination of situation and attitude. Ealing comedies tend to be more sweet and entertaining than funny.

Such is the case with Whiskey Galore!, the earliest of the Ealing comedies to make The List. Released shortly after World War II, this is the tale of the small island of Toddy in the Hebrides about 100 miles west of Scotland. In 1943, the war hadn’t really affected this people until one sad day when the island ran out of whiskey. Nothing beyond a full scale invasion could affect the people more. So, when a ship loaded with 50,000 crates of everyone on the island’s favorite libation runs aground and begins to sink, there is a certain amount of excitement in the little community.

But, since this is a comedy, there’s a lot more to it than just a sinking ship filled with sweet, delicious booze. To complicate matters, we need a couple of cute love stories and someone to act as the foil for the entire town. Fortunately, we have that here. One love story concerns Sgt. Odd (Bruce Seton), on leave to court the young and sultry Peggy Macroon (Joan Greenwood), who likes him but isn’t pleased with the large gap in their ages. Peggy’s sister Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt) has recently become engaged to the timid local schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who lives under the thumb of his domineering, religious, and ultimately sort of evil mother (Jean Cadell). The home guard commander of the island is Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who needs everything done his way and attempts to run the island like his own little fief. Naturally, it is he and Mrs. Campbell who will prove to be our foils throughout the film.

Since this is a comedy, there shouldn’t really be any surprise when the love stories work out the way we as the audience want them to. That’s less a spoiler than a statement of obvious fact. It’s the whiskey that we’re really concerned about, and the whiskey that truly takes center stage here. In fact, it’s the whiskey that becomes not just the central theme of the film, but the solution to all of the problems the Isle of Toddy. It rescues relationships, and in the case of the infirm Hector (James Anderson), saves lives.

Ah, once again I’m ahead of myself. Allow me to backtrack a bit. It must be the whiskey going to my head.

One of the most entertaining—and specifically Hebridean moments—of the film comes just after the ship runs aground off the island. The men of Toddy rush to their boats to unload crates of whiskey when the bells of the local clock start chiming midnight, meaning has changed to Sunday. On the Sabbath, no work can be performed, even the desperate work of clearing as many crates of sweet, life-giving elixir off the sinking ship, and so the men slowly walk home, gazing longingly at the dying ship. It sets up a day of tension. The men stand on the beach praying that the ship will remain upright. It also moves Waggett into action; he sets Sgt. Odd to guard the ship. However, Odd knows that he and Peggy can’t properly announce their engagement without a whiskey-fueled party. All of this means that he very calmly and cutely allows the men of Toddy to “overpower” him on their way to the ship moments after the clock chimes that it is Monday. The haul of whiskey proves to be a true tonic for the island. Even lifelong teetotaler George has a few glasses, and uses his newfound courage to stand up to his mother and demand his engagement to Catriona.

What this sets up is a lovely game of cat-and-mouse as the men of Toddy attempt to hide the whiskey they have taken off the ship from Waggett, who is determined to round up all of the ill-gotten liquor and punish the men for taking it off a sinking vessel. Fortunately for them, old Hector has been so roused by the addition of booze to his sickbed that he becomes aware that men searching for the alcohol are coming to the island. And so the hiding of hundreds of bottles begins all over the island, with bottles being poured into hot water bottles, dropped into kettles, covered with pastry crusts, and even hidden in the blankets of infants.

I didn’t ever laugh audibly while watching this film, but there was not a moment of this film that I thought my time was wasted watching it. It’s sweet and entertaining and entirely British. That it seems to promote alcoholism in one sense might potentially offend some people in the modern world, but probably not more than would have been offended by this film in 1949. It’s also a very smart comedy in that it sets up something early in the film that feels like a throwaway comedy moment that turns out to be something that turns the entire plot in the last ten minutes, and sets up something in here that almost wrecks everything.

Ealing comedies are absolutely joyous and fun, and if the comedy sixty years later doesn’t make the audience laugh uproariously, it still pleases and entertains. Don’t expect this film to educate you or teach you anything about life and the world, but do expect to walk away with a grin, even in spite of the strange moral of the tale tacked on at the end.

It seems that August is becoming a month of films that were previously difficult to find. Whiskey Galore! is a film that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to locate, and yet it’s now conveniently parceled into six individual files on YouTube, and the transfer is excellent.

Why to watch Whiskey Galore!: An appealing combination of humor and sweetness.
Why not to watch: Because your family is starting to be concerned with how much you’ve been hitting the bottle lately.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Grey Clothing, Black Morals

Film: The Man in Grey
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I wonder sometimes how a film gets made. Take, for instance, the case of Leslie Arliss’s The Man in Grey. When this film was made, England was at war with Germany, and it was very much a hot war. England had suffered through Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Bombings in London were a constant affair, and civilian death tolls rose constantly. And in the middle of this, Arliss created a costume drama about a sadistic member of the ruling class and the petty jealousies of a couple of women. When the need for morale boosting and propaganda was at its height…they made this? I just don’t get it. It just feels so counterproductive, like it should have come five years earlier or five years later.

This film is bookended by a modern story, but this bookend isn’t important except that it connects the main story to the modern day, and in this case a connection to the war. Regardless, it’s only the first few and last few minutes, and this doesn’t truly impact the actual story in any way.

The main story concerns two women: Clarissa Richmond (Phyllis Calvert) and Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood). Hesther is a woman from a fallen family who has taken a job as an assistant schoolmarm at a prestigious school for wealthy young women while Clarissa is a student at the school, and essentially minor nobility. Hesther dislikes Clarissa immediately, but over time, the two become friends. In fact, they become such close friends that when Hesther runs away and marries a poor ensign and thus disgraces herself in the eyes of the school, Clarissa leaves rather than stay in a place in which Hesther’s name has become taboo.

Clarissa eventually marries the eponymous Man in Grey, a Lord Rohan (James Mason). Rohan is a rake and a misanthropist who has fought (and survived) more duels than any three other men. There is no love between the couple. Rohan marries Clarissa to procure an heir for the family while Clarissa consents to the marriage to please her godmother. Hesther doesn’t stay away long from the picture; she returns under her married name as part of an acting troupe. She claims to be widowed, and Clarissa seeks to find her a place in her household. Clarissa also meets another of the actors, a man named Peter Rokeby (Stewart Granger).

As it turns out, Hesther is widowed, but not in the way she claimed. She left her husband almost immediately because of his lack of wealth. Rohan knows this, and is mildly attracted to it. Hesther and Rohan begin an affair just as Peter and Clarissa begin one, making an uncomfortable love trapezoid. While Clarissa plots to leave with a man who truly loves her, Hesther plots to take the place of her friend as the lady of the Rohan family.

Of course, we learn in the bookends that the young officer is a descendant of Rokeby and the young woman is a descendant of Clarissa Richmond. In fact, the two parts are played by the same actors, and we’re led to believe that this chance meeting between them might well lead to some new connection between the two families.

As I said at the top, my biggest question is how the hell this movie got made when it was. Who on Earth thought that a Regency-era costume drama about a backstabbing woman and a lady of the minor nobility both involved with a sadistic bastard had anything to do with what was going on at the time? It feels completely out of place, almost like a film that had been contracted to be made and was then forced into production simply because it had to be. Why depict the upper society of England as bastards? Why create a movie for the war-weary British populace about a savage man who acts in terrible ways? This may in fact be the purpose of the bookended story here, since the tale told here is at least more upbeat and positive than the main story.

One of the more interesting moments in the film comes at the start when a gypsy fortune teller arrives at the school and Hesther and Clarissa rush to the kitchen to have their fortunes told. Clarissa is told that she will marry a grey man, but that her true love will come from somewhere else. She is also told to avoid the company of women, because she will never have a friend among women. The fortune tell then refuses to tell the fortune of Hesther—as if she can foresee that Hesther will be the cause of Clarissa’s troubles later in life. And so, it’s an interesting moment in the movie, but one that seems to presage far too much—there’s no shock when Hesther turns out to be conniving and wicked, repaying Clarissa’s kindness with scheming.

It is a lovely picture, and little more. The settings are sumptuous and gorgeous, as are the costumes and even the women’s hair. But the story is cruel and ultimately sort of average and predictable. Were it not for the beauty of the film, there would be nothing here to recommend it, and even that doesn’t hold a whole hell of a lot of water with me. The real reason to watch this is to look at it, not to care about it, and there are plenty of better movies that are just as attractive to the eye.

As a penultimate note, Clarissa's servant Toby (Harry Scott) couldn't be more annoying if he had been directed to be as annoying as possible.

As a final note, this is another in the list of films that is incredibly difficult to find. There's a version floating around YouTube these days. It's not a great version and the sound has some loud humming in places, but one takes what one can get, no?

Why to watch The Man in Grey: It’s pretty.
Why not to watch: It feels like the wrong film at the wrong time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

At Least it Isn't Twilight

Film: Vampyr (The Vampire; Not Against the Flesh; Der Traum des Allan Grey)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I wonder sometimes how movies get selected for this list. I mean, how many vampire stories do we need? There are five versions of the basic “Dracula” story (the Bela Lugosi version, the one with Christopher Lee, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the two versions of Nosferatu) plus Lat den Ratte Komma In and this one, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, which also has about 100 different names--The Vampire, Not Against the Flesh, and Der Traum des Allan Grey; if that’s not all, IMDB claims that this film is also called Castle of Doom, making me wonder exactly how many names one film needs. I may well be forgetting one or two vampire films as well. And for all these vampires, we still don’t get Lost Boys or Near Dark and get only one werewolf, two Romero-style zombies, and three Frankenstein pictures, one of which is parody. Seriously, I’m getting a little tired of the vampires.

My familiarity with Dreyer prior to this evening was limited to The Passion of Joan of Ark, which is a true masterpiece. Vampyr was poorly received upon release, but in more recent years has become considered one of his more important films. Having seen it, I’m not sure why it’s gotten this resurgence of critical acclaim. It’s not that good.

Our hero is an occultist named Allan Grey (Julian West), who arrives in a small town and immediately starts having some bizarre experiences. Truthfully, this is the most interesting part of the film, with some unusual effects used by Dreyer to produce an unsettling atmosphere. We see, for instance, the shadow of a man digging, but he’s digging in reverse, with the dirt flying up to his shovel and being laid carefully back into the ground. More disturbing and far more effective are the shadows of people, which move independently of the people themselves. This is a great effect, in part because it’s difficult to see that it’s happening at first. The realization that the shadows themselves appear to be living things is a wonderful moment (I watched that part twice just to have that experience again).

Suffice it to say that there’s a vampire preying on the area, and in particular on a pair of daughters of the local lord. The older daughter, Leone (Sybille Schmitz) is currently under attack while the younger daughter, Gisele (Rena Mandel) frets. Grey learns all he needs to know about the vampire from a book left to him by the girls’ father (Maurice Schutz), who is killed early on. However, Grey also spends most of his time dreaming or hallucinating while most of the killing-the-vampire grunt work gets handled by the servant (Albert Bras). This kills the mood for me in some ways—the hero really does nothing but observe; the servant is the one who figures everything out.

It’s evident throughout the film that Dreyer was working with non-actors here. Schmitz (a professional actress) is quite effective when the madness of becoming a vampire is on her, and some of her facial expressions are reminiscent (at least in terms of camera angle and intensity) of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Mandel as Gisele is routinely awful and wooden and particularly unnatural. When, near the end of the film, she stands in a rowboat for the entire trip, I was at first nonplussed by the action, and then realized that her acting there was no less unnatural than it was anywhere else.

What this film does very well is create a genuine atmosphere that, while not especially horrific, is at least reminiscent of what horror should be like. Things are just off-kilter enough to be disturbing and strange. Rather than being terrifying, it is unsettling. The audience can’t simply witness what is happening on the screen, but has to actively attempt to decipher the vision it is given. This is most effective near the start of the film, and appears to be something of Dreyer’s specialty. That, more than anything, makes this film work. This sense is greatly enhanced by a tremendous soundtrack that only adds to the feeling of unease given by the setting.

What doesn’t work is the narrative. Dreyer’s story is confused and confusing. It’s not simply a question of paying attention to the details, but that things simply do not seem to work believably even in the context of the story. Careful attention doesn’t help here; the story simply does not follow any rules that can be ascertained. While that can make for an interesting experience some times, here it feels like a mistake.

Dreyer chose to have a great deal of this story told in large blocks of text in the form of the book being read by Grey and the servant. While this allowed him to cut down on the dialog (important, since he was filming in three languages at the same time), it also detracts from the story being told. The story thus doesn’t so much unfold as end up being handed to us, destroying a great deal of the mystery that could have come from this film and reducing the impact of the unsettling world Dreyer places us in.

Like many films of its era viewed today, Vampyr is a much easier film to respect than it is to like or sit down and watch. Dreyer’s ideas here are good ones, but he falls very short in the execution.

Why to watch Vampyr: It’s unsettling.
Why not to watch: It’s incomprehensible and not that good.