Thursday, May 31, 2012

Suffer the Children

Film: Entre les Murs (The Class)
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I have watched a lot of movies in my lifetime. There are movies that I have loved, movies that I have hated, and movies that have bothered me on a deep level. But until tonight, I have never seen a movie that flat out pissed me off as much as Entre les Murs (The Class). I’ll be blunt here: I had to actively force myself to continue watching this after the first half hour, and the film runs somewhat longer than two.

I’ll make this short: the film takes place in a school in France. I’m not really sure of the level. The kids are in their middle teens, but they talk about eventually going to high school. Perhaps the French system is different. I’m not really sure. Anyway, the film tends to focus on the French teacher, Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau). More specifically, it focuses on one specific class of his, which appears to have about 8,000 students.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Garbo Laughs!

Film: Ninotchka
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I have discovered that I have a real appreciation for Ernst Lubitsch’s work. He had a style and a quality that most filmmakers past and present seem to lack. There is a touch of class and humanity to Lubitsch’s work as well as moments of sublime comedy. A part of his working philosophy was that even the most dignified person is completely ridiculous at least twice a day. It’s a great observation, and it’s one that informs a great deal of his work, including Ninotchka. (Incidentally, as an Anglophone, it’s disconcerting to type the names “Lubitsch” and “Ninotchka” over and over—all those damn consecutive consonants!)

Anyway, Ninotchka is a love story, and true to form for good ol’ Ernst, it’s a genuine romance. There’s comedy, there’s some intrigue, and there are some characters who are quite a bit more than they appear on the surface. This is a smart film, while it comes from the era of the screwball, it is most definitely not one. Oh, there’s plenty of comedy here, but it’s not of the laugh-out-loud variety. Most of it is subtle, occurring in the margins of the story. It’s the sort of comedy that causes a smile and a knowing nod rather than a knee-slap.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Re-Enlistment Blues

Film: From Here to Eternity
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s a reason that many films involving the military paint a fairly positive picture. This is particularly true of older films. A positive portrayal of the military means military cooperation—actual soldiers to work as extras, equipment, legitimate uniforms, all the perks. Go off script and paint the military as something less than stellar back in the day, you were on your own. A film like From Here to Eternity? There are a lot of military sins to make up for with this one.

The story takes place in the months leading up to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. We start with Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) being reassigned to the military base at Pearl Harbor. Prewitt is a good soldier and also the top man in the bugle corps, but asked for a transfer when he was replaced as the top bugler by the friend of his commanding officer. Prewitt is also an accomplished boxer, and this will be important as we move along. When he arrives at the base, he encounters his old friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) and also meets Sergeant Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster), a by-the-book sergeant who essentially runs the company.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The World is Yours

Film: Scarface: Shame of a Nation, Scarface
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

At the start of every quarter in school, I ask my students to answer a few questions for me juts to help me learn their names a little better. One of those questions, naturally, is their favorite movie. Scarface gets named with relative frequency, and when it does, I ask the student in question if he (it’s invariably a guy) means the original or the remake. “The original!” he’ll say each time. “The one with Pacino!” And so I sadly shake my head and explain how that’s the remake, and that particular class never again gets in my grill about my movie knowledge.

The original, frequently called Scarface: Shame of a Nation will be familiar to those much more comfortable with the remake, because the remake really is a remake in a lot of ways. In this case, though, we are dealing not with a Cuban cocaine lord but a Prohibition-era Italian beer runner named Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Camonte is the muscle for a booze runner named Big Louis, but Big Louis doesn’t make it past the first ten minutes of the film. It’s pretty evident that Camonte is the man behind the trigger, and that he is working at the behest of Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins).

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Off Script: Death Machine

Film: Death Machine
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

When you watch films off a planned list, you start to realize particular things. One things that you realize pretty quickly is that any list—even the AFI’s top 100—on some level reflects the tastes, opinions, and ideas of the list creator(s). Sometimes that’s easier to hide, and longer lists, since they include more, are less prone to personal bias. I say all of this because I’m starting to learn things about the editors of Fangoria Magazine and about their personal tastes in films beyond the basic “We like ‘em splattery!”

Death Machine is an odd choice for the Fangoria list. At least I found it an odd choice because I really don’t know what to make of it. It feels very much like a film created by a very talented and clever amateur. There are certainly some aspects of this film that really work and others that fall about as flat as a typical SyFy Original.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Wild Card

Film: One-Eyed Jacks
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

The revenge picture is about as old as movies themselves, and the revenge Western pretty much starts with the first ever Western. Even a film as rudimentary as The Great Train Robbery contains an element of revenge in the narrative—bad guys rob the bank and the good guys track them down and shoot them for their crime. As the genre grew and changed, so too did the nature of revenge in Westerns. One-Eyed Jacks, the one and only directorial effort from Marlon Brando, uses revenge as the driving force throughout. The nature of the revenge changes as the film continues, but don’t kid yourself; it’s revenge all the way through.

We start with a trio of (naturally) bank robbers. Rio (Brando), Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and Doc (Hank Worden) manage to rob a bank in Mexico and get out of town, heading to a local whorehouse after the robbery. Rio goes off on his own, and when the posse rolls into town, they kill Doc. Rio and Dad ride off, pursued by the Rurales. Eventually, Dad and Rio are trapped on a hilltop with only one horse. They make a deal—one will ride off for fresh mounts while the other holds off the posse. Rio arranges for Dad to ride away, and he does, getting himself a fresh mount at a nearby farm. However, instead of going back for his friend, he rides away, allowing Rio to be captured and imprisoned for five years.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Goin' to a Show

Film: Jalsaghar (The Music Room)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I find it difficult to classify Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar as a musical despite the fact that it features a number of musical performances. It’s not a musical in the traditional sense; we don’t get people singing about their feelings or emotions. Instead, the film is based in part around a series of musical performances that are, more or less, staged concerts.

Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is one of the last zamindars in India, a zamindar being the equivalent of a feudal lord. The time of the zamindars is ending, and Roy is suffering financially due to a lack of lands to control. This doesn’t bother him much, and he lives his life as if the money will never stop. His great passion is music, and he frequently hires musicians to come and play in his private music room, inviting other important people in the area to enjoy the concerts. These cost him a great deal—in addition to paying for the entertainment he must pay for refreshments for the guests. It doesn’t trouble him, though.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Genius is Relative

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

Wes Anderson makes strange movies. I’m not saying something that hasn’t been said many times before. Anderson’s movies concern extreme characters, people who exist on the fringe of rationality, sanity, and believability. The Royal Tenenbaums is different from this only in the sense that it concerns the lives of more than half a dozen such characters rather than two or three.

We are introduced to the Tenenbaums through a narrator (Alec Baldwin), who tells us of the early life of the family. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) have three children, each of whom is a prodigy in a particular way. Richie (Luke Wilson) is an accomplished tennis player, going pro at 17. Adopted sister Margot (Gweneth Paltrow) is a playwright, receiving a grant in the 9th grade. Youngest child Chaz (Ben Stiller) starts a corporation as a minor and begins making money in real estate. None of this prevents the eventual separation of the parents, and Etheline takes it upon herself to raise the three children. We’re also introduced to Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a young boy who lives across the street, but grows up in the Tenenbaum home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Twang Bar King

Film: Johnny Guitar
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Genre films offer particular expectations. As members of the audience, we expect specific things, but we also like a surprise now and then. It seems like back in the day that when a film did attempt to offer up a surprise, the idea was to come up with one thing that the audience might not expect and otherwise present a pretty standard film. Honestly, it seems like that’s still what happens. In the case of Johnny Guitar, the big switch is that our protagonist and antagonist are both women, quite unusual for a Western. It also didn’t prevent the filmmakers from naming this after one of the male characters.

As the film opens, we see a drifter with a guitar strapped to his back riding across a prairie. This is our title character, Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden), and he will prove to be suitably deep voiced and manly. He observes a stage being robbed, then rides up to a saloon out in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that this is is final destination—he’s looking for a woman named Vienna.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not a Magnet School

Film: An Education
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

“Period piece” tends to call up visions of a long-ago past filled with corsets, powdered wigs, and fancy language. We’re getting to the point, though, in which a film made now about the 1960s is potentially looking a good 50 years into the past. If nothing else, that defines the idea of a period piece, which makes An Education a period piece by definition.

This is the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a young girl living in London and attending an exclusive private school. Her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) are keen on her getting into Oxford, and on doing everything possible to make that happen. This is particularly true of her father. Their daily conversation seems to consist of what she is doing to impress the folks at Oxford, in fact. There are some odd ideas here—she is forced to consider playing the cello as a hobby, which means that her father tells her she doesn’t need to practice it, because hobbies aren’t for practicing. However, she’s also not allowed to quit the youth symphony, because that shows that she’s serious about the hobby. Her mother is quite a bit less intense, but no less focused.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Half a Loaf

Film: L’Femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife)
Format: VHS from Northwestern University Library through WorldCat on big ol’ television.

There are plenty of stories about infidelity out there, but none quite as strange as L’Femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife). This is a film that blends comedy with pain, loss, drama, romance, and morality. It’s not at all the film I expected, and I continue to realize that “not what I expected” is frequently a good thing.

Here’s the story in a nutshell—a baker and his wife move to a small town in southern France. The town has been desperate for a new baker, since the last one was inconsistent, and they’ve been living off stale bread for months. The new baker makes a top quality product. He’s also considerably older than his wife, who is young and attractive, and immediately falls for the shepherd of the local marquis. That night, she runs away with the shepherd, leaving her husband distraught and unwilling to bake more bread until she comes home.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Off Script: Horror Express

Film: Horror Express
Format: Streaming video from Pub-D-Hub on rockin’ flatscreen

As I continue to look for the films I’ve said I need to watch, I’m finding a whole number of places to look for them. Pub-D-Hub shows public domain films and shows them commercial free. The selection is, thus, not the best. However, the films appear to be pretty well transferred, and I dig the complete lack of commercials. Chalk this one up in the win category.

One of the films I found on Pub-D-Hub is the early ‘70s cult film Horror Express. This is not a Hammer Films production, but it feels like one, in no small part because it features both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the two most classic actors of the great Hammer horror films. It’s also about as silly as the classic Hammer films, and about as much fun, which I suppose gives away my opinion on the film here in the second paragraph. The “science” in this film is the worst kind of bullshit, but it doesn’t really matter, because you don’t watch a film called Horror Express for a lesson on paleontology.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Part of the Title is Appropriate

Film: Ivan Groznyj 1 (Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen

Strap in, folks. This one is rough. I don’t expect them all to be winners, and when the film was listed in “The 50 Worst Films of All Time,” I expect even less. But this one is really, really rough.

Ivan Groznyj 1 (Ivan the Terrible, Part 1, although this review will cover the secondpart as well) is, no surprises here, the story of Ivan the Terrible. It’s not the whole story, though, because this was originally thought of as a trilogy. Part 2 was suppressed, though, and Sergei Eisenstein died before he could get to the conclusion.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Off Script: Nomads

Film: Nomads
Format: Streaming video from Popcornflix on rockin’ flatscreen

As is evident from looking back at my reviews over the past couple of years, I am not someone who has decided to rebel against NetFlix. While I wasn’t thrilled when the prices got bumped, I continued to use the service and still do. I’ve also started using Hulu+ more and more, and I like it pretty well, especially their habit of having lovely, lovely Critereon films available for streaming. There are more channels available on the Roku box, though, and I thought it was time to try one out. I picked Popcornflix. Popcornflix is, well, it’s pretty shitty. Ads pop up right in the middle of scenes, almost at random, and often the same ad plays twice in a row. And, most of the movies suck pretty hard.

But not all of them suck. Nomads, starring Pierce Brosnan and Lesley-Anne Down is a mildly interesting horror/thriller from the heart of the 1980s. It’s hard to call Nomads a great film, and it’s almost a stretch to call it a good one. But it’s not a bad one, and sometimes that’s enough.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Contender Once More

Film: On the Waterfront
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

There are movies that sit in places of honor for a variety of reasons. When you look at particular lists like the AFI Top 100 and compare it with other, similar lists, you tend to see a lot of the same movies near the same spots. Citizen Kane, for instance, tends to hover pretty close to the top on these lists. Another film that tends to rank pretty high on most lists of this sort is On the Waterfront. This is a film that could have easily taken the big five had Eva Marie Saint been nominated for Best Actress instead of Best Supporting Actress.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prizefighter who now works on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey. Every day, he and a group of other men walk down to the docks and wait to be hired to help load and unload the ships. Terry tends to get work because his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand man of union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Johnny is insanely corrupt, taking a daily kickback from everyone who is hired as well as a kickback on every crate that is moved on the dock.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Very Proper Romance

Film: A Room with a View
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

After yesterday’s zombie bacchanalia, I thought it best to go as far in the opposite direction as I could. A Merchant Ivory production seems to fit that bill pretty nicely. Rather than flesh rending and the devouring of our heroes, we get a romance of excessive manners and proper breeding. I can’t call myself an aficionado of the company nor of the genre, but still, A Room with a View awaits and must be watched.

This is a difficult film for me to judge. I’ll be the first to say (okay, not really since I’m watching this 27 years after it was released) that it’s filled with excellent performances, in some cases by actors who have gone on to tremendous careers and a great deal of acclaim. I also understand very much that the things that annoy me here are supposed to annoy me. The characters I find infuriating are infuriating by design. I get that, but there’s still the fact that I have to spend time with them in the first place.

Monday, May 14, 2012

When There is No More Room in Hell

Film: Night of the Living Dead; Dawn of the Dead
Format: Streaming video from Drive-In Classics on rockin’ flatscreen (Night); DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Dawn)

I’m a fan of the zombie sub-genre of horror films. It’s taken me awhile to figure out precisely why, though. The simple reason is that zombie movies are just about the only form of supernatural horror that has the potential to scare the monkey shit out of me. Ghosts, vampires, and demons don’t have that potential, but zombies? Yeah, I admit it. They scare me. Because of this, there is a certain level of respect I have for zombie movies, and the really great ones rank high on my list. If I really want to get pedantic here, I could complain that these are actually movies about ghouls, but that would just be confusing. There should be no surprise at this point that I’m talking about Night of the Living Dead and its eventual sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

One of the great favors that George Romero did for the horror industry (inadvertent, I’m certain) was to leave Night of the Living Dead without a copyright notice, putting the film in the public domain, thus giving every other filmmaker in the world the opportunity to make more zombie films. The film is thought by many to be a sort of allegory for race relations, although this was never intended according to George Romero—it just happens to have worked out that way. Instead, it is a ferociously original idea for a horror film, so original that it spawned hundreds of imitators.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Film: Mad Max
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television

When I was far too young to see it, I saw The Road Warrior in the theater, and it rapidly became one of my favorite films. It may well have been the first ever VHS I ever bought. I didn’t see the first film, Mad Max for quite some time, and when I did, I saw the version with the dialogue “cleaned up” for an American audience, since, it was alleged, Americans were unable to understand the thick Australian accents of the original film. I’ve seen both films probably half a dozen times, but tonight was the first time in ages I’d seen Mad Max.

The most interesting thing to me about this film is not the cars (which are cool) or the revenge angle (which is a bit predictable and melodramatic), but the slow burn of society breaking down throughout the film. Most of the time, when we get a film that shows us the apocalypse, it’s a sudden thing—zombies crawling out of their graves, for instance, or an attack by aliens looking to destroy our world. This film is different. Here, the destruction of society comes not from outside forces or cataclysm but from slow decay and rot from the inside. Society in this film breaks down in pieces, not all at once, and this decline is what makes the film work more than anything else.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Film: Va, Vis et Deviens (Go, See and Become/Live and Become)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

When you watch films based on the real world, you can’t help but pick something up. For instance, I never knew that there were thousands of Jews living in Ethiopia. These are not displaced Israelis but Africans who are traditionally Jewish. Many of these Jews were moved out of Ethiopia and relocated to Israel by Israel. They were forced to walk, and many died along the way—bandits, disease, starvation, and the like killed them off.

Va, Vis et Deviens (Go, See and Become or more commonly Live and Become) is the story of one boy who was rescued. The boy, however, has a terrible secret. He is not Jewish, but the son of a Christian woman who is one who, because of her religion, cannot go to Israel. She gives her son to a Jewish woman who had lost hers. The boy is renamed Shlomo (Moshe Agazai as a boy, Moshe Abebe as a teen and Sirak M. Sabahat as an adult), learns a false family history, and is brought to Israel and safety. When his mother sends him away, she tells him to live and become, and to never return to Ethiopia.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Divorce for Fun and Profit

Film: The Awful Truth
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense that movies from the heart of the Great Depression would be about people with more money than sense in general. That’s certainly the case for many of the screwball comedies, at the very least. We see people who can focus on the silly business of living because, unlike the bulk of the audience, they aren’t currently focused on the more critical business of having enough food to make it through another day. This is certainly the case with The Awful Truth, a film that really more than any other launched Cary Grant’s career in light comedies.

Jerry Warriner (Grant) has been pretending to be in Florida, and is at his club faking a tan so that he’ll look the part when he gets home. When he does, he discovers that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) is nowhere to be found. She strolls in not much later with her vocal coach, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy), claiming that due to a broken down car, they had to spend the night in a cheap inn. While he’s indignant at first, it lasts only until she discovers that the oranges he brought back with him from “Florida” are actually from California, and the accusations start going in both directions.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Film: Secret Beyond the Door
Format: Internet video on laptop

(Note: I'm trying something new here. I want to see what this looks like if I start inserting jumps into my reviews.)

So let’s talk about Fritz Lang for a second. I like Lang’s work in general. He’s a director I have a great deal of respect for, and have since the first time I saw Metropolis as a teen. Yeah, I actually bought a copy of Metropolis when I was in high school. Even then, my tastes were wildly divergent from my own generation. Anyway, I’ve liked Lang for years, so I never shy away from watching his films. When the opportunity arose to see Secret Beyond the Door, I jumped at it. After all, any Lang is good Lang.

This film has many of the elements that make film noir what it is, and while this is how I classify this film, it only fits in the genre because it doesn’t fit well anywhere else. There is a sinister edge to this film, one that perfades it from almost the start to the very end. This, more than anything, gives Secret Beyond the Door that particular noir taste. There is a real sense of murder, of secrecy, and of palpable danger, yet the film doesn’t fully cross over into noir territory.

A Note on the LAMMYs

So it's award season again at the Large Association of Movie Blogs, of which I am a dedicated (and now contributing) member (I'm #773). Every year, the LAMB hosts an award competition called The LAMMYs. There are 15 categories of awards with a several-week-long nomination process followed by a vote. Last year, I hadn't been a LAMB for that long, and I campaigned for myself a little. I didn't campaign that seriously, though, and while I got a couple of initial votes, I wasn't nominated for anything.

I'm okay with that. I've decided that this year I'm not campaigning at all. I'm not making a "for your consideration" poster and I'm not going to actively put my name out for people to come to nominate me for the various awards. That's not why I do this blog in the first place, and I won't change that for the chance at an award.

So, to all my fellow LAMBs, good luck.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Den of Thieves

Film: Trouble in Paradise
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players

Once upon a time, there were old films made before the Hays Code. In these films, the bad guys could win and crime could pay. It wasn’t until after the code that we got such genres as film noir, where crime was a major part of the plot and didn’t pay no matter how much we liked the crooks in the film. Trouble in Paradise was made before the Hays Code happened, and it’s a film that couldn’t have been made the same way while the Code was in effect.

In this film, we meet up with Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), an accomplished and dedicated thief. He is posing as a baron and romancing a woman whom he is hoping to rob. The woman, Lily (Miriam Hopkins) turns out to also be a crook. We have something like a meet cute after they’ve already met when it turns out that he has robbed the room of Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). She, of course, has robbed him. But he’s stolen her brooch. But she’s stolen his watch. And he’s stolen her garter. And love blooms.

Some time later, Gaston manages to swipe the purse of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a widow who owns and operates the most successful perfume company in France. He and Lily discover that the reward for the missing purse is far more than he could sell the purse for to a fence. And so he approaches Madame Colet and returns the purse for the reward. He also charms her into giving him a job as her personal secretary, which puts him in prime position to rob her blind.

The problem is that, like Filiba and a man known only as The Major (Charles Ruggles), Monescu has fallen for her hard. He’s torn between the thief he knows and loves and the widow who is far more charming than he would have expected. And, since he’s already ripped off one of her suitors, there’s the constant threat that he’ll be found out before he can get away, if he even wants to get away.

The love triangle here is an interesting one, but one that crops up every now and then. The idea that the thief falls for the victim is sort of a fun idea, and one that in this case is very fresh for when the film was made. And it is a real love triangle—there’s a great deal of sex going on in this film. When Lily and Gaston go through their little “look what I took from you” moment early in the film, it’s palpably sexual and culminates with Lily virtually attacking Gaston, leaving us to essentially imagine her dragging him off to bed (rather than the other way around). It is this rather overt sexuality that has, more than likely, kept this film off the radar of all but the most dedicated fan of the classics.

Trouble in Paradise is in many ways the start of the screwball comedy, but this is not a screwball in any way, shape, or form. Lubitsch was an extremely sophisticated director in what he could do and what he wanted to get from his films. There’s no slapstick here, and there shouldn’t be, because it would probably spoil the entire effect. Instead, we are graced with a level of elegance that isn’t seen that often in early film.

This is quite a find for a number of reasons. In the first place—and don’t sell this short—this is a true romantic comedy, and in many ways the first in the talkie era. Second, the sexuality is quite surprising for a film of this era. We tend to think that films from the 1930s are staid, naïve, and almost Puritanical. Not so. This film is downright racy in its own way. Third, it’s damn well acted all the way around. Miriam Hopkins is tremendous in her role, and Herbert Marshall is as suave as any actor I’ve ever seen. As usual, the great Edward Everett Horton is tremendous in a supporting role, and is a huge benefit to the final film.

Films like Trouble in Paradise are the reason I started watching all of these films. I’d have never picked this in 100 years of choosing films on my own, opting more than likely to watch something for the fifth or sixth time. And doing that, I’d have missed a real gem both in terms of its history and in terms of just how entertaining this film really is. If you don’t mind a film from the dawn of talkies, you’ll find a lot here to not just like, but really fall in love with.

Why to watch Trouble in Paradise: It was made before that nasty Hays Code.
Why not to watch: More rich people problems.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

So, When's the Justice League Movie?

Film: The Avengers
Format: Sycamore Theater

Like the good nerd that I am, I tend to see a lot of the superhero-type movies in the theater. I miss a lot, too—I still haven’t seen Captain America, for instance. But I tend to see them all eventually. Because I see them all eventually, I’ve seen all of them except the aforementioned Captain America leading up to The Avengers. Yes, even the shitty first attempt of Hulk. So, this film has been building for years, and it’s finally here and has broken every box office record in existence. No surprise there. But is it any good?

Yeah, it is. It’s not as good as it could be, but it’s pretty damn good.

A group of people (we learn later that this is S.H.I.E.L.D.) is working on some sort of new energy source with something called the tesseract, which evidently popped up in the one film I haven’t seen. Anyway, it starts going nutty, and since it’s essentially a door to the other side of the universe, this can be a real problem. It opens up and out pops Loki (Tom Hiddleston). He steals the thing and makes potential Avenger Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) his mind-controlled servant for good measure.

So we spend the next chunk of the film doing the whole “Avengers Assemble” thing where we’re introduced to the rest of the team. Masterminding all of this is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Using agent Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) for some of his acquisitions and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) for others, he brings in Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), and somehow manages to acquire the services of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is a semi-divine extraterrestrial.

Anyway, it soon becomes evident that Loki’s plan is to use the tesseract to open up a doorway to the far side of the universe so an alien race can pop on over and basically destroy humanity. I’m not really sure what this does for Loki, or why the aliens want to kill everyone. It’s not really explained. Evidently, Loki wants to rule Earth, but he seems to have forgotten the part where the aliens are going to show up and destroy the place. Kind of silly, really, but I’m not keeping score that carefully.

Anyway, it proceeds in much the way you think it will. The heroes get together and there are huge personality clashes and everything goes to hell. Then the entire world is put into critical jeopardy and the heroes have to figure out a way to work together. Along the way, there is property damage and explosions of near-Biblical proportions. Seriously, this is not something that could have been filmed a few years ago—there are buildings falling over in Manhattan, and I’m fairly certain that some portion of the audience for this film is thinking that it’s still too soon.

Anyway, the last major chunk of the film is the alien invasion and the response to it, plus the big fight against Loki. Really, this is what virtually everyone in the theater paid for. The momenst of humor are fine, the quieter moments are dandy, but what we really want and what I certainly paid for tonight was a good half hour of solid ass kicking, and that’s what I got.

The Avengers is not a perfect film, though, and I’m preparing myself for the inevitable fanboy backlash for saying that. But it’s not. Whedon is an excellent writer and a dedicated fan, which is in his favor in a film like this. He knows these characters, and he’s enough of a fanboy himself that he knows what the fans really want. But he still hasn’t really figured out how to film close combat. While many of the action scenes look great, several—particularly one-on-one fist fights—are spotty and confusing, with no clear shot for the audience of what is happening. It’s a complaint I have in many films of this type. I want to see the damn action, not brightly colored flashes of costume moving quickly. I’d love to have someone film the action sequences as if this were a martial arts movie so that we in the audience can actually see the fight choreography. For a film of this type and stature, the action sequences are critically important, and not all of them work here.

My other complaints are more or less nitpicks. The first time we see the Hulk transformation, for instance, it is a long and painful process. The second time, it just happens, almost immediately, mostly so that Whedon could work in a line just before the transformation is needed. There’s no explanation for this—we’ve already established that it takes longer. So evidently the painful transformation is…elective? We see a board of directors for S.H.I.E.L.D. planning to nuke Manhattan…with no real indication that it will do anything. Huh?

But no matter. The Avengers is the sort of fun, big budget spectacle that summer movies are all about. It doesn’t have to make complete sense all the way through. It doesn’t have to sit solidly upon all of the various movies that have come before it. I went to see things explode and watch the Hulk punch things. That’s what I got. Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with that.

Why to watch The Avengers: Because it’s The Avengers.
Why not to watch: Not everything jibes perfectly.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Snuff Film

Film: The Passion of the Christ
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

So it occurs to me that Mel Gibson has a torture fetish. We get some torture in Braveheart, of course, and there’s plenty of head chopping and ritual sacrifice in Apocalypto, but never do we see continuous and unceasing torture like we do in The Passion of the Christ. With the exception of a few flashback scenes, the vast bulk of this film is nothing but brutality of a level that a director like Eli Roth can only pee his pants thinking about.

Before I get into talking about this too much, I should make a few things clear. First, I am an agnostic by personal definition, atheist by technicality in that there is no god I worship. I prefer the term agnostic, though, since it is my contention that no one can or does know of the existence of anything beyond this mortal coil. I’m also of the opinion that any religion in existence or that has existed simply hasn’t gotten it right. All of this is really neither here nor there, but I also understand that my beliefs, or more accurately my lack of same, could well color the following paragraphs. It’s only fair to get that out in the open.

I’m also going to avoid history here, even biblical history. There are plenty of true believers who will claim that this is an accurate representation of the scourging and crucifixion of Christ, but this simply doesn’t hold. There’s nothing in any of the gospels, for instance, claiming that Christ frequently and repeatedly saw Satan as he underwent his various trials. Even the carrying of the cross differs dramatically from the traditional Stations of the Cross. We’re going to let this go for the remainder, though. There’s simply too much to try to pick out, and it’s an argument I don’t want to have. (And yes, Gibson got the Stations wrong. Here, Christ falls twice before meeting his mother, when traditionally, this happens after the first fall. Simon of Cyrene helps before the second fall as well in the Stations. The Stations of the Cross include three falls, while Gibson’s version of Christ falls constantly. And then there’s the whole nails-through-the-hand thing. And the fact that the actor playing Christ is about as Arabic as I am.)

Instead, let’s talk about what’s here. What’s here is a shit-ton of blood. Seriously, I like horror movies, but The Passion of the Christ is bloodier than most. Christians, by and large, seem to like the bloody Jesus, too, since you won’t find too many films more passionately defended by the faithful.

Anyway, this story is pretty well known. Christ (Jim Caviezel) prays to be delivered from what is to come, but gets dragged before the Pharisees anyway after being betrayed by Judas (Luca Lionello). He’s beaten senseless (accompanied by huge swashes of blood and bloody chunks), further tortured, and then forced to drag a cross to the point of his crucifixion. He’s nailed to the cross, put up, and then dies. Gibson decides to focus almost entirely on the suffering here, giving us a few spare moments of the resurrection. Again, it’s evident that this film is all about the bloody version of Jesus, and not the raised one.

Really, that’s the whole film. It’s a two hour extended torture session. Caviezel is a veritable font of gore; who would’ve thought he had so much blood in him. The majority of the Jews and the vast bulk of the Romans are depicted as savages and sadists. Of course, that’s also entirely the point here.

So let’s get to it. No, I did not like this film. I was disturbed by it, certainly, because I was supposed to be. This isn’t a film that allows anyone to watch and not react to it. But my reaction was not one of spiritual uplift; instead I was simply grossed out by it. The intent here is obviously to cause a real visceral reaction in viewers, to create a sense of outrage as well as spiritual closeness with Christ. I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. It’s simply too much. There’s only so many times you can see the whip hit and watch Caviezel’s head rock back before it simply stops having any meaning.

I’ve been spiritually moved by film before. When I think of films that have contained a true spiritual element that has touched something in me, I immediately go to one like The Passion of Joan of Arc. That film has stayed with me since I watched it, and I still feel a true sense of honest spirituality from it. This film strays too far from something honest and instead tries at every moment to be manipulative. It’s overkill, and it’s ugly, and ultimately, it’s an unending scene of torture and mutilation. Done, and never again. After watching this, I highly recommend watching The God Who Wasn’t There, particularly if you’re a skeptic.

Final note: feel free to comment on my take on the film. Start commenting on my lack of religion, though, and I’ll delete your comment as soon as I see it. Fair warning, folks.

Why to watch The Passion of the Christ: If your religion swings this way, you’ll find it very moving.
Why not to watch: It’s a snuff film with a budget.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I am Writing this Title

Film: Adaptation
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players

Charlie Kaufman is a weird cat. In many ways, Kaufman is the quintessential indie film geek made good, the guy who writes the strangest, craziest scripts based on the most bizarre ideas, and makes them work. His movies go places that no one else would think to go. He’s daring and he’s gutsy, and quite possibly a genius. I’ve liked a lot of Kaufman’s scripts, but I’ve liked his crazy ideas more. Adaptation is perhaps his craziest, and perhaps his best.

This is not an easy film to summarize, but I’ll do my best. Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has been presented with the book “The Orchid Thief” to turn into a screenplay. The book concerns a man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who works with Seminole Indians in Florida to poach rare orchids. Because the orchids grow on formerly tribal lands, no law enforcement agency has been successful in prosecuting the Seminoles for poaching such plants. Laroche’s idea is to find a way to grow the orchids in his greenhouse and make them available, or at least that is the story he gives the book’s author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). In this scenario, the orchids become available to the general public, poaching stops, and Laroche gets rich, a win-win-win scenario.

The problem for Kaufman is that he can’t find a real plot in the book. Much of the book concerns something called a “ghost orchid” that Orlean never gets to see. Since there really is no plot and since the book is essentially about flowers, Kaufman doesn’t have a place to begin his screenplay and has no destination for it. Enter his fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman (also played by Cage), who wants to become a screenwriter as well. Donald takes a class from a man named McKee (Brian Cox) and begins working on his own script, a thriller of dubious quality but with lots of Hollywood-style pizzazz and action.

Donald is in many ways Charlie’s opposite. Where Charlie is introspective, nervous, self-conscious, painfully shy, and mildly agoraphobic, Donald is shallow, unassuming, oblivious, and mildly charming. He quickly gets a girlfriend, pens his script, and sells it for something close to seven figures, which only puts more pressure on Charlie, who is now well over his deadline for his own script, and no closer to starting.

And this is where things get weird. Kaufman essentially writes himself into the script, and the script starts being about his writing of the script that he is writing, creating multiple levels of self-reference. In the real world, then, at one point, the real Charles Kaufman was writing a script in which the character Charles Kaufman was writing a script in which a meta-fictionalized Charles Kaufman is writing a script about writing a script for “The Orchid Thief.”

Then, in the top level of the film, we discover that our top-level fictional Susan Orlean has become obsessed with Laroche. She also discovers that Laroche’s motives are not what he said they were—the ghost orchid can be used to make a particularly effective drug that causes the user to become enchanted and fascinated with the things they see. Hooked on this new, bizarre drug and running off for illicit trysts with Laroche becomes her new obsession. Meanwhile, Charlie takes the same screenwriting class from McKee and is told that writing a script in which nothing happens is ridiculous.

Then everything comes to a head. The events of the last half hour are either a staggering cop-out of astronomical proportions or the most subtle and sly dig and a further level of self-reference. I choose the latter in my own interpretation of the film. But I won’t spoil it here—this isn’t a film to read a spoiler on, even accidentally.

This is not a film that has a middle ground, I think. Either you see it and appreciate the ever tightening spiral of continuous self-reference or it becomes an exercise in self indulgence and mental masturbation. It seems to be one or the other, which makes a certain amount of sense for a film that is doing something so new. For the record, I fall on the former side of this—there is a particular brilliance to this film that is impossible to deny.

Adaptation also goes to show that Nicolas Cage, for all his acting in films like Drive Angry, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and the National Treasure series, is capable of a nuanced and emotional performance. Cage has a great deal of talent, because this film wouldn’t work even slightly if he didn’t. The performances by Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are perhaps less surprising, but no less great.

I understand why Nick (with a k), my podcasting partner, is enamored of this film. It’s smart, innovative, and an almost entirely new take on what a story is and what it can be. That said, I certainly understand why some folks wouldn’t like it.

Why to watch Adaptation: The most unusual story you’re likely to see for a very long time.
Why not to watch: The whole film is a snake eating its own tail.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Watching Paint Dry

Film: La Belle Noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on various players

For a good six months or more, La Belle Noiseuse has been sitting at the top of my NetFlix queue. I put it there for a few reasons. First, it’s been the longest film I’ve had still to review. Second, NetFlix listed the wait time as “very long.” I figured I’d keep getting what was second or third in the queue until this one popped up. Well, it finally popped up.

I also understand exactly why the wait for this is so long. I’ve seen longer films, certainly, but few that are as surprisingly daunting as this one. It took me several days just to get the DVD into one of the players and even longer to start watching. The watching of the film took me several days as well, not specifically by design. Part of that is that I do have a life outside of this blog, but I’d be lying if I said that was the only reason. A part of that is that the middle chunk of this film is dull beyond all measure.

That’s a very un-reviewer-y thing to say, I realize, but I don’t care because it’s true. The film snobs among us will no doubt take issue with my characterization of this film as dull or the middle section as tedious, but I call them like I see them. La Belle Noiseuse can’t get past the fact that a good portion of this film is essentially watching a man’s hand make scratching motions on a piece of paper.

Yeah, you read that correctly.

Our story concerns an artist named Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) who has given up painting. He lives out in the country with his wife Liz (Jane Birkin). Frenhofer and Liz are visited by a young artist named Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend/fiancée Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart, best known as the sort-of love interest in Mission Impossible). We soon discover that Frenhofer quit painting in the middle of what was to be his masterpiece, a painting called “La Belle Noiseuse.” Liz was his model for it, and essentially, the painting became too much and too intense, and he gave up not only it, but painting altogether. Marianne, though, has suddenly sparked his desire to paint again. Nicolas agrees that she will pose for Frenhofer, and Frenhofer agrees that when the painting is done, it will go to Porbus (Gilles Arbona), an art dealer.

Marianne reluctantly agrees, and we’re about an hour in. The next roughly two-and-a-half hours consist of Frenhofer sketching Marianne. Since we’re talking about high art here, this means that Marianne is posing in the nude, so Emmanuelle Beart spends the bulk of the eternal second act in the buff, walking around Frenhofer’s studio. It’s a strange nudity, and it warrants its own paragraph.

When I say the nudity is strange, I don’t mean that Emmanuelle Beart is strange or misshapen. What I mean is that her nudity is complete—not even a necklace—and also strangely non-sexual. She’s simply nude. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t at least partially pleasurable, and I wouldn’t be a heterosexual male and not say that Ms. Beart has a very shapely and attractive posterior. Hell, look at the picture at the top of the review. But, that said, her nudity is simply a fact, not a feature. It is, for the life of me, the pinnacle of “I’d do a nude scene if it was artistically valid.” It’s a blunt and frank sort of nudity, like a little kid walking around after a bath.

Anyway, during this stretch of time, a great deal of what we see is not Emmanuelle Beart’s naked hinder (as nice as that would be), but Frenhofer’s hand sketching. He sketches one pose, and we see the entire thing, from the first touch of medium on paper to the last. Then another. Then another. During this, there is no music and very often no conversation. It’s just the skritch skritch noise of whatever he’s using scraping against the paper until the sketch is completed. It’s not unlike an episode of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, only without the constant commentary. There are also no happy little trees and a lot more of Marianne’s crotch.

It’s not until the last hour or so of the film that Frenhofer even starts dallying with an actual brush—it’s all quick sketches up to that point. He and Marianne battle back and forth for some sort of control, and both of them lose themselves in the process. Liz worries that Frenhofer will have some sort of affair (perhaps a spiritual one) with Marianne, and Marianne considers that she no longer needs Nicolas around, and that he’s not worth much to her anyway. That, and skritch skrtich skritch encompasses our time until the painting is finished. Time for a spoiler.


Through all of this, I kept thinking that it might be worth it if we at least get a good look at the completed painting. And we don’t. Several people come to look at it. Marianne does, and freaks out, having seen some truth about herself on the canvas. Liz looks at it, marks the back of the frame, and walks away. And then, before we get to see it, Frenhofer takes the canvas, covers it, and walls it up behind bricks in his studio, then quickly paints a replacement. All that time, and we never get to see the painting except for one very quick glimpse of a bottom portion when it is being placed in the wall.


So, yeah. At the end, I feel like this was four hours of my time I don’t get back. Watching someone else draw isn’t that exciting. Watching it in almost complete silence without even a soundtrack to make it interesting is about as dull as you’d imagine. There’s no question that this is a beautifully made film and I won’t lie and pretend I didn’t like seeing an attractive woman nude on screen for a substantial amount of the running time. Still not worth it. Go ahead and read the spoiler if you’ve no plans of watching this. It’ll save you a lot of frustration in the end.

Why to watch La Belle Noiseuse: Emmanuelle Beart has a shapely butt.
Why not to watch:skritch skritch skritch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Month 28 Status Report

April, you cruel bitch!

I had a number of planned films for April, and most of them went out the window when I discovered that many films I had located online had subsequently disappeared. That turned into a sudden rush to watch some obscurities, which is what I then did for much of the middle of this month. That, combined with a NetFlix film that never seemed to get returned (not on my account) combined to make April something other than the norm for me.

What strikes me as strange here is that my traffic on the site spiked in April, and my hit count increased by something like 20%. I'll take it, really.

So onto May. I'll be starting with the longest film left on The List, and we'll see where it goes from there. Expect more from various internet sources for a few weeks, but with more traditional films laced through here and there. Internet movies are fine, but a steady diet is tough to take.