Thursday, October 31, 2013

Month 46 Status Report

October was a heavy month, folks. A heavy, heavy month. But it was a damn fine one, too. I knocked out 27 films, leaving me with a mere 20. Finishing in November now looks to be a real thing, and it's something well within my sights.

Of the remaining 20 films, 10 can be found on NetFlix as DVDs, two are streaming, there are three remaining on the flashdrive, and the final five are in my collection. All of that is good news--I have access to all of the films I need. My biggest worry is broken discs through the mail, something that seems to happen at the worst possible times. Honestly, that's the only thing I see preventing me from finishing in November.

Semper paratus!

Off Script: Session 9

Film: Session 9
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I like good horror movies. I don’t like it when I see the scare coming from a mile away, because what happens might be disturbing or disgusting or nasty, but it’s rarely scary. In many respects, horror movies are the most stylized genre of film. Certain moments are set up in certain ways to elicit a certain reaction from the audience. Since the desired reaction is, in general, fear, there are specific horror movie tropes that get repeated. I enjoy it greatly when a film plays with those tropes and either does things in a new way or does things the old way with a different result. The real issue is that so many of these tropes are so ingrained in the genre that tweaking just one or two of them is often seen as a win or as masterful filmmaking. Session 9 tweaks a few horror movie ideas, but it also falls into a lot of the same pitfalls. That’s both encouraging and disappointing.

In that respect, it reminds me a lot of Paranormal Activity. The two films have very little outside of genre in common, but there is a similarity at the core. Both of them are more or less movies about really dumb characters by really smart filmmakers. Director Brad Anderson sets up some nice scares that don’t come through. Rather than being disappointing, these serve to increase the tension in those scenes. Sadly, those scenes also rely on one or more characters being painfully stupid to be in the situation in the first place.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Off Script: Jack's Back

Film: Jack’s Back
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Horror is a subjective genre. What scares one person leaves another one cold. I remember my brother telling me that The Blair Witch Project was one of the scariest films he’d ever seen while other people complained about how disappointed they were in it. To work at all, horror requires a certain amount of buy-in from the audience. If you don’t buy the premise, it’s not going to scare you, no matter what. Often, what makes the difference between a horror or thriller movie that works and one that doesn’t is how much tension it creates in the audience. Where Jack’s Back starts with a great premise, it fails in creating a great deal of tension, which ultimately makes it something of a disappointment.

In the Los Angeles of the time (late 1980s) there has been a rash of killings that almost precisely mimic the Jack the Ripper killings. The current victims match the original victims completely. The police (played by a number of people, and most relevantly by John Wesley and Chris Mulkey) aren’t dumb. This means that they are sure that the next victim will be not only a prostitute, but a pregnant prostitute.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Watching Oscar: Wait Until Dark

Film: Wait Until Dark
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Wait Until Dark puts me in a difficult position. I like to include a summary of at least the basics of a film’s plot when I discuss it. I do this for a variety of reasons. One reason is that aspects of story are some of the things that really interest me when it comes to film. It’s also a really convenient way for me to talk about the elements of the film that I like and dislike within context. Saying that a particular scene is a problem is difficult when there is no context for that scene for the reader. It also helps readers determine whether or not a film is worth seeing regardless of my opinion. At least that’s what I tell myself.

With Wait Until Dark, though, I don’t want to do that. This is a film that benefits greatly from as cold a viewing as possible. Know too much going in, and all of the wonderfully intricate twists and turns will be spoiled, and this is not a film to be spoiled. This is a story to see play out as it happens with no direct knowledge of what will happen next. With a number of films these days, it’s easy to forget that there’s some great suspense tales that really work all the way through. We give up a lot when we reward filmmakers for not making us work at the movies we watch. Wait Until Dark makes us stay with the story and work at what everything means. It rewards us with one of the truly great film climaxes ever produced.

Monday, October 28, 2013

His Word is Bond

Film: Skyfall
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When you play around with a legend, you always run the risk of losing a big part of your audience. Look at what happened with the Star Wars prequels. Look at what happened with the fourth Indiana Jones film. With Skyfall, the umpteenth James Bond film, the final product takes the entire franchise in a new direction. Risky, that. And yet, if it’s done well, the results are fantastic, as is the case here.

Skyfall is the 23rd official James Bond film, not counting the television and spoof versions of Casino Royale and the unofficial Never Say Never Again. As a film this far in the franchise would be, there are plenty of expectations from the viewers. Skyfall plays with many of these, and does so perfectly. In doing so, the film modernizes the franchise in substantial ways, opting less for traditional James Bond gimcrackery and gadgetry and more for modern reality and geopolitics.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Film: Days of Heaven
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Terrence Malick has a reputation for making some of the most beautiful films around. I’m honestly not sure how much of that reputation really belongs to Malick and how much should belong to his cinematographers, but impossible to get away from. There is an undeniable beauty to Malick’s films. Of all of them, Days of Heaven may well be the most visually striking. It may have been eclipsed by The Tree of Life, but even that is a matter of opinion. There’s no denying that Days of Heaven is a film of surpassing cinematic beauty.

Make no mistake; that is precisely where the focus is in this film, because it’s certainly not on the depth of the story. In truth, the story tends to be the biggest complaint about Days of Heaven. It’s one of those films that can be summed up in a couple of sentences. Around the 1920s, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a couple, but Bill insists on telling people that they are brother and sister to avoid dealing with questions about their marital status. As the film opens, Bill accidentally kills his foreman in a steel mill, and Bill, Abby, and Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) travel to the Texas Panhandle to work on a wheat farm.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Unkindest Cut

Film: Moolaade
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When I heard what Moolaade was about, it became the newest List addition that I least wanted to see. This film is about female genital mutilation, which is a subject I find difficult to even contemplate. I try not to shy away from things that are important, and don’t get me wrong—this is important. It just gives me the willies. Sembene’s film is, thankfully, wholly against the practice. Part of Moolaade’s purpose is doubtless to raise awareness of the topic. I’m all for that. It just happens that this topic is horribly icky.

A group of young girls escapes from this ritual exercise and rush back to their village, asking for the protection of Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a woman who refused to have her daughter undergo the same ritual some years earlier. To enact her protection, she places a colored band of rope across the entrance to her house. This protection, called “Moolaade,” prevents anyone from coming into the house to harm the girls. This all becomes more relevant because Colle’s “unpurified” daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) is promised to one of the powerful village elders. This elder flatly refused to have his son marry an impure woman as is demanded by this particular Islamic sect.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Film: Hana-bi (Fireworks)
Format: DVD from Western Illinois University through WorldCat on laptop.

I was introduced to “Beat” Takeshi Kitano with the film Gohatto. He was my favorite part of the film. That boded well for Hana-bi (Fireworks), a film that was written by him, directed by him, and stars him. There’s a gravitas to him that few actors can equal, although I’m reminded of David Gulpilil in terms of his on-screen weight. He manages to at once be solemn, brutal, and tragic. I guess in that respect, he also reminds me of Ulrich Muhe, while at other times he reminds me of a Japanese De Niro. In Hana-bi, he plays an ex-cop plagued by a series of problems that see him slowly spiraling into deeper and deeper problems.

Yoshitaka Nishi (Kitano) is a cop who has had a terrible string of luck. First, before the start of the film, his young daughter dies tragically. Next, his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is stricken with leukemia and the prognosis is less than favorable. Third, and this is the straw that finally does him in, Nishi’s partner Horibe (Ren Ohsugi) is paralyzed when he is shot by a criminal while Nishi is visiting his wife in the hospital. With the injury to Horibe, Nishi retires to spend time with his ailing wife. The lack of income forces him to borrow money from the Yakuza—money he can’t pay back.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

I Have Reservations

Film: The Exiles
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

The Exiles is one of those films that I dread when it comes to the review. Doing a lot of films I knew relatively well early on put me in the particular corner of writing to a general length on these, and I’ve been consistent. I can’t, now that I’m two dozen or so films away from finishing, change the formula now. Okay, I could, but it would feel like cheating. The issue with The Exiles is that nothing really happens. Director Kent MacKenzie follows a group of people around for a night and films the nothing that happens. Roll credits.

Okay, it’s a little more than that but not much more. The main thing I left out is that the people we follow around are all Native Americans who have left the reservation and fled to Los Angeles in search of something better/more/different. While there is a group of people we spend time with, the bulk of the running time of the film concerns Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Watching Oscar: The Truman Show

Film: The Truman Show
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I really love The Truman Show. It represents a particular example of what I think makes a film truly great and meaningful. First, it’s a great story, one that is engaging all the way through. It’s a unique spin on a story that I think everyone has had the feeling of at one point or another—that somehow everything is literally about us. It’s a masterpiece of solipsism, deceit, and paranoia. I love the way it works and I love the way it ends. While not perfect, it’s pretty damn close.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) has lived his entire life inside a television show. Literally. An unwanted child at birth, he was legally adopted by a corporation and placed inside the single-largest physical structure in the world, a massive enclosed studio with its own weather system, series of lights representing the stars, sun and moon, and ocean. Inside this massive structure is Seahaven, a small island community stuck in a vague memory of the 1950s. His life is broadcast 24/7 to the world at large. All of this is done completely without Truman’s knowledge. I think Seahaven is alleged to be in California (after all, the sun sets over the ocean), but every time I watch this, it has the feel of a town situated in Massachusetts. There’s something about it that feels like it belongs near Cape Cod.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Watching Oscar: Going My Way

Film: Going My Way
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

This is a film I vaguely remember as a kid. The local Chicago station (WGN, channel 9) would run family movies on Sundays, and Going My Way was a part of its regular rotation. I have fond memories of many of those movies. I don’t have particularly fond memories of Going My Way. That’s not really fair; the truth is that while I know this is a film I’d seen before, my memories of it are limited pretty much to the song “Swingin’ on a Star” and Der Bingle wearing a priest’s collar.

So I knew heading in that Going My Way was going to be a rough ride for me. There’s a lot in this film that was going to make things difficult for me. First and foremost, it’s a musical, and a musical of the traditional style, starring Bing Crosby, no less. Second, good ol’ Bing plays a priest, which means it’s going to be filled to bursting with God, Jesus, and all the saints. My suspicions were confirmed in the opening couple of minutes when our ultra-Irish main character, Father O’Malley (Crosby) wanders into his new ultra-Irish parish and encounters an angry atheist. Big damn sigh.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Welcome to the Machine

Film: The Man with the Golden Arm
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’m kind of fascinated by Frank Sinatra as an actor. He was fine in a musical or light comedy, but he was surprisingly effective as a dramatic actor. The Manchurian Candidate is my favorite of his films, but I genuinely haven’t seen a dramatic film he was in that I don’t at least like. From Here to Eternity is certainly his most acclaimed, The Manchurian Candidate is his most complicated, but The Man with the Golden Arm is the most aggressive, at least that I have seen. I knew going in this was a film that dealt with heroin addiction. I didn’t expect it to be a film noir with heroin as the bad guy.

Frankie Machine (Sinatra) is out after a short stint in prison. He was busted for running an illegal poker game, taking the rap for his boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss). While in the joint, a couple of important things happened to Frankie. First and foremost, he kicked his heroin habit. Six months cold turkey will do that to a man. Second, he learned to play the drums. Now finally clean, Frankie is looking to stay clean, wanting nothing more than to hook up with a band to play for, allowing him to take care of his wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker). Zosch has waited patiently for Frankie to be released.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Trapped in the Closet

Film: El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I’m never sure what I’m going to get when I sign myself up for a film directed by Luis Bunuel. Sometimes I really like his work a lot. At other times, I wonder why I bother. I’d heard a lot good about El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), but once bitten and all of that. There are too many Bunuel films that I genuinely don’t like at all that I’m going to be suspicious of any of them all the way through. What I’ve found is that I tend to like his work a lot more when, absurd or not, there’s a narrative through-line. Things can be absurd and I’m okay with it; it’s when they don’t make sense that I get bothered.

El Angel Exterminador, while absurd in the extreme, has an internally consistent narrative. A group of people go to a dinner party at the home of a man named Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal). Everything goes well, but for some reason, the servants suddenly find reasons to be away from the house. In the middle of the party all of them except the main butler (Claudio Brook) wander off suddenly with pressing appointments. The party goes off, and eventually everyone retires to the parlor where one of the guests plays the piano.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Okay with My (Orbital) Decay

Film: Gravity
Format: Kerasotes 16 IMAX.

It’s not often that you walk out of a film thinking that you’ve seen something that could legitimately win all five major Oscars. It’s even rarer when the film in question not only could but should win every technical award as well. Sadly, Gravity probably won’t win every major award because Oscar hates science fiction. Gravity isn’t really a science fiction film; it’s a drama that takes place in space. The technology shown in the film isn’t futuristic. It’s current, real-world stuff. But since the film takes place miles above Earth’s atmosphere, it’s suddenly science fiction. It probably will win most of the technical awards and it will be nominated all to hell and back, but it probably won’t win.

I say this as someone who is ambivalent to the acting charms of both stars, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Both are fine actors, but both also have made a number of really bad film choices in the past. Here, aside from the shocking cinematography, they are all we have to carry the full weight of the film and both are perfectly cast.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Where's Our Documentary?

Film: Bowling for Columbine
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

With the exception of Roger and Me, I always come to the films of Michael Moore with some trepidation. I can’t change the truth that Moore is an excellent filmmaker. He has a unique voice for a documentarian, but he’s also a polemicist. If you say that you like Michael Moore’s films, you’re suddenly a Whole Foods-shopping pinko communist. If you say that you hate Michael Moore’s films, you are a right-wing religious fundamentalist Nazi. While certainly true in some cases, it’s not true in all. Bowling for Columbine suffers the same problem. Moore is so polarizing that it’s easy to miss the actual message of the film.

As the title indicates, this is a film about America’s fascination with guns and the terrible cost that that fascination sometimes forces us to pay. The film came out several years after the shooting incident in Littleton, CO, but even if it came out now, “Columbine” as a word has changed its meaning in the American lexicon. It’s not a flower anymore; it’s a high school in Colorado. Moore is completely up front with why this is such an interesting topic for him. Within the first few minutes of the film, he talks about his own history with firearms and his membership in the NRA. Let me repeat that: super pinko leftie Michael Moore is literally a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, or at least was when this film was made.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some Kind of Monster

Film: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Based on the films on The List, it would be easy to decide that documentarian Nick Broomfield is something of a vulture. Both of his List films deal with the capture, trial, and execution of American serial killer Aileen Wuornos. This film, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, picks up 10 years after his first Wuornos documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Where the first film covered her bizarre trial, the latter film concerns the 18 months or so before her eventual execution, including the last of her appeals. While there is some crossover from the first film, almost all of this is new material.

There’s not a lot to talk about here in terms of story, because this is not a scripted story. Or is it? This is a concept that is touched on in the middle of the film when Broomfield himself takes the stand in a case. This legal case concerned Wuornos’s first trial, which her new lawyer wanted thrown out. Part of the testimony included admissions from her first lawyer that he smoked a vast amount of marijuana before meetings with her. The opposing lawyer brings up footage from the first film, showing that the lawyer in question was wearing two different shirts, indicating an edit and the possibility that the two clips were from different days.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Our Greatest Living Actor

Film: Lincoln
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

It would be forgivable to think of the term “Oscar bait” when contemplating Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. If you think about it, this is in many ways the perfect Oscar film. You have a celebrated, multiple-nomination-winning director; a film covering one of America’s greatest and most beloved political leaders at a watershed moment in his political career; an all-star cast with more nominations than can be counted on fingers and toes; and topped off with a starring actor who is arguably (and it’s not a difficult argument to make) the greatest actor of his generation. Lincoln is the kind of film that Oscar fills its pants over. No surprise that it walked off with 12 nominations.

That said, there is a very real question when it comes to this film: does it live up to its potential. While Spielberg is certainly capable of a great film, he’s also capable of shitting the bed, getting too sentimental and maudlin, and turning a potentially great film into a pretty good one. Unless Lincoln was terrible, it was going to get nominations. The question was whether or not it deserved any of them.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 46th State

Film: Oklahoma!
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who reads this site that I put off Oklahoma! as long as I felt I responsibly could. I’ve made it a point to watch some of the longest films I needed to see every month. The addition of a big, blustery 1950s musical didn’t surprise me, and since I’d already seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which Oklahoma! effectively replaced, well, I couldn’t get out of it. As one of the longest remaining, I knew I had to get through it. So with a deep sigh, I dropped it in the spinner and away we went.

Things did not start off well. The DVD copy I got was…sticky. It played for a moment and then stuck. I skipped the first track. The second scene stuck like the first. I skipped again, and the film played. I paused it, found the film’s opening online, and watched the first few minutes or so that way, and thankfully, that was the extent of the problems. Technically, I missed about two minutes, but I figure that’s about the same as a bathroom break. No harm, no foul.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Love the '80s

Film: Back to the Future; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Format: DVD from NetFlix (Back to the Future) and recorded video from DVR (Ferris Bueller) on rockin’ flatscreen.

When you watch Back to the Future, there are a few rules that are important to remember. The first one is to remember that this is a film from 1985. The bad guys here are Libyans. There was a short period of time when Libya was one of the major foes of Western style democracy. That, and a few of the jokes (“Gimme a Pepsi Free”) were funny at the time but fall flat now. The second, much more important rule to follow is that you can’t think too hard when you watch Back to the Future. This film goes to some very weird, oedipal places as well as contains some significant temporal paradoxes. The way to handle this is to ignore those parts of the film. Enjoy what’s here for what’s here and don’t worry about the places where it gets creepy. Doing this is the difference between enjoying a fun classic and losing sleep over the implications.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a fairly average movie teen with movie-issue problems. His father George (Crispin Glover) is a loser who gets bullied by a co-worker named Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is dumpy and unpleasant, as are both of his siblings. His family is made up of losers. Despite having an attractive girlfriend named Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), Marty has no self-confidence, in part because he comes from a family of known losers. Even his association with local crazy scientist Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is a source of friction.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Film: Mary Poppins
Format: DVD from Manhattan-Elwood Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I can’t say that I was terribly surprised when Mary Poppins arrived on the table with the List reboot. I also can’t pretend to say that I was overjoyed at the prospect. I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before, but equally sure it had been more than three decades since I’d seen it. There’s a lot of singing and a lot of cheery nonsense and a great deal of how children should be and how parents should be without touching anything near the reality of what parents and children are. In other words, it’s a Disney film from that time in the past when Disney films meant wholesome childhood entertainment on the surface and disturbing life lesson buried deep down inside. Wait, that’s pretty much non-Pixar Disney even now.

Anyway, the thing that most people remember about Mary Poppins is Dick Van Dyke’s execrable accent. I have two things to say about that. First, it’s absolutely true that Van Dyke’s attempt to sound something like a Cockney is the very definition of embarrassing. Did no one tell him? Did they watch the dailies with the sound off? My 10-year-old does a better one. Second, it’s not by a damn sight the most unfortunate part of this film.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

...and Albert Brooks as Albert Brooks

Film: Real Life
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s a problem with the comedy of Albert Brooks. If we lived in a better, closer to perfect, smarter and better educated world, Albert Brooks would be heralded as the funniest human being to ever be alive. Sadly, we live in a world where clowns who fall on their butts are considered the height of comedy. Albert Brooks is far more subtle. A lot of his jokes don’t have a solid payoff. What they have is a great premise that takes us to the point of the punch line, and then forces us to fill in the punch line ourselves. It’s genius stuff, really, but it requires effort from the audience. To really get why Albert Brooks is so damn funny, you have to be willing to walk part of the way there yourself, and a lot of people would rather see wacky antics.

What this means is that a film like Real Life is something that will pass over a lot of people who aren’t willing to get why it’s so funny. Brooks needs his audience to fill in blanks, and with Real Life, this is particularly true. This is a mockumentary of the first order. Brooks plays himself as a filmmaker with the idea of fitting the home of a typical American family with cameras and a crew to film their lives for a year, hoping to get the actual lives of the people on film. Naturally, everything goes to hell immediately, and that’s the comedy.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Film: Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Before I started watching The List, I didn’t know much about the films of Ingmar Bergman. I’ve seen a number of them now because a big part of The List is its specific fawning over certain directors. For instance, nearly 20 Hitchcock films have shown up at one time or another (with 16 currently ensconced). There’s a lot of Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Bunuel, Johns both Ford and Huston. Bergman ties for third with Kubrick with 10 films. Sure, that’s a small part of his nearly 70 films, but I think cases could be made for a few others. Anyway, I can’t say I was shocked when another of Ingmar’s works appeared. If I had to guess, I’d have gone with The Virgin Spring, but instead, it’s Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika).

The story here is almost painfully simple. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is stuck in a dead-end job he’s not very good at or with which he is very happy. One day he meets the eponymous Monika (Harriet Andersson) who is similarly underemployed and unhappy. At work she is frequently sexually harassed by coworkers and at home, her drunken father sometimes hits her. The two fall hard and instantly for each other, and begin spending a great deal of time together. When Monika, tired of the abuse, runs off from home and comes to Harry for help, he takes her to live on his father’s boat.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Boy, You've Been a Naughty Girl

Film: Osama
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I don’t think I was mentally prepared for Osama. This is not a film to breeze into lightly. The subject is simply too weighty and too tragically real to be anything other than a topic to be viewed with both care and caution. The first film made in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban, Osama is the sort of film that would get director Siddiq Barmak ritually executed for apostasy should the Taliban ever track him down. His output has been pretty sparse; only this film and two others released since 2003, and nothing in the last five years. One hopes Barmak is doing something else or biding his time and not in a shallow, unmarked grave.

The film takes place in Afghanistan after the rise of the Taliban to power. With the Taliban in secure control of the country, the most repressive rules imaginable become enacted as law. Primarily, these laws affect women. No woman is allowed outside of her house without a male escort, and the revealing of any skin at all is more than simply frowned upon.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

Film: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Every genre has its clichés. I’d suggest that a genre can in many ways be defined by its clichés better than by any other elements. For romantic comedies, one of the clichés is the imperfect person looking for love. After all, if the lonely heart was perfect, there’d be no reason for him or her to not have someone already, right? The issue is making that person likable, someone we want to root for and see find happiness and romance without making them such an ideal person that the premise isn’t destroyed from the outset. Because of this, the most common personality issue for a rom-com main character is being a physical or social klutz. Most of us can sympathize with being clumsy or awkward in some situations, so makers of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral have an obvious way to make the main character both likable and significantly imperfect.

We learn about this imperfection of Charles (Hugh Grant) immediately. The best man at the wedding of his friends Angus (Timothy Walker) and Laura (Sara Crowe), Charles almost sleeps through the whole thing, forgets to bring the rings with him, and makes a few embarrassing gaffes at the reception. This tells us everything we need to know about Charles as a person. He’s well-meaning, but forgetful and socially awkward. At this first of four weddings, he meets Carrie (Andie McDowell) and ends up in bed with her. This tells us everything we need to know about the plot moving forward.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

She Hired the Rest of Him, Too

Film: The Hired Hand
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Westerns are not my favorite genre of film. I respect them and when they’re good, they’re really good, but they still are very rarely my first choice of genre. I thought I was done with them, but I shouldn’t be terribly surprised that when the latest version of The List arrived that another Western popped up beyond Django Unchained. The Hired Hand is an unusual one, which is probably why it was added. It plays with many of the tropes of the genre, but does things through the odd point of view of Peter Fonda.

It’s a simple story. Harry Collings (Peter Fonda), Arch Harris (Warren Oates), and Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt) are three drifters. They’ve been on the trail a long time. Dan and Arch want to head to California. Harry decides that he’s had enough of this life and wants to go home. Home, as it turns out, is returning to the wife and child he abandoned years ago. Arch is planning to head to the coast with Dan, but in a flyspeck of a town, Dan shows up suddenly with a few bullets in him, courtesy of McVey (Severn Darden), who claims Dan was attacking his wife. Harry and Arch ride out, but not before they stop by McVey’s place and put a couple of bullets in his feet, crippling him.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Not Distant Enough

Film: Distant Voices, Still Lives
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I had been warned about Distant Voices, Still Lives, but that didn’t change the fact that I still had to watch it to complete this particular journey. I wasn’t aware until the film started that it featured the acting of Pete Postlethwaite, who I genuinely like. One of the reasons I like him is because he’s a hell of an actor. The other is that he doesn’t look like one. So I went into this with a positive and a negative, which is pretty much like going into it cold.

It’s worth noting that this is actually two films that are evidently always viewed together. The two films, naturally named Distant Voices and Still Lives, are always offered together. Each is roughly 40 minutes long, although it’s difficult to tell because there’s not a specific break between the two. What is the most likely break is about 43 minutes in. The two films take place two years apart, and director Terence Davies filmed them two years apart with the same cast and crew. It’s an interesting idea.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Greed is Good

Film: Wall Street
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I mentioned yesterday the abrupt rise and fall of Alicia Silverstone’s career. I could say the same thing about Charlie Sheen. The difference is that Alicia Silverstone’s career vanished because she took a role in a movie that killed it (and that of Chris O’Donnell as well). Sheen’s career imploded because he went insane. Still, before he was living on tiger blood and became a bitchin’ rock star from Mars, Sheen made some pretty interesting movies. Platoon might have been the flavor of the Sheen month for some time, but I think his early career is much more dominated by Wall Street.

I have a relationship with this film. From early 1991 to early 1996, I worked for a magazine publisher. Our company produced magazines dedicated to a number of entertainment industries. I worked on the computer game magazine. We also did a movie mag, a Wired-style internet magazine, a comic magazine, and a video game monthly, which was our flagship. After a few years, the owner of the company hired a few of his friends to create software. They are the source of my relationship with Wall Street, and it’s not a positive one. A couple of the software guys worked outside my office for 6-9 months. They were obsessed with Wall Street and watched and quoted it constantly.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pretty, Vacant

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

Before I talk at length about Clueless, let’s have a moment of silence for the career of Alicia Silverstone. She was just starting to take off, with Clueless as her official Launchpad and then tragedy struck: Batman & Robin. She’s barely been seen since. There are tragedies like the death of actress Brittany Murphy and then there are tragedies like the death of Alicia Silverstone’s career. Please, a moment if you will.

Anyway. I freely admit that I left Clueless unwatched until now because I frankly didn’t want to watch it. I was familiar enough with the story that I knew I’d have some problems with it. Sure, it’s based on a classic piece of literature, and sure it has a lot going for it and some excellent comedy moments, but it’s also populated by an entire cast of vapid people—the characters, not specifically the actors. I hate vapid, so I’m not sure I’m ever prepared to hunker down for 100 straight minutes of it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Skin on Skin

Film: The Pillow Book
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m beginning to think that Peter Greenaway is something of a creep. The Pillow Book is the third of his films that I have seen, and there’s something disturbingly sensual about his work. I don’t mean that his work is specifically erotic, although some of it is. I mean that how he chooses his particular sensuality is specifically off-kilter. Of the three I’ve seen (and there’s a fourth one coming soon), The Pillow Book is the most specifically sexually-charged and erotic, the most physically sensual and decadent rather than simply involving a lot of sex. The problem is a big one, though: it explores the depths of a sexual kink that I don’t think actually exists for real. Maybe I’m naïve. In truth there are probably entire websites devoted to this particular sexual proclivity. What the hell do I know?

Nagiko (played as an adult by Vivian Wu) had a father who was a writer. For good luck, he would write characters on her face in calligraphy. Her aunt would read to her out of the original Pillow Book, an ancient text that was a diary of observations. Nagiko will have a connection to this diary throughout her life. We learn that her father is forced to provide sexual favors to his publisher (Yoshi Oida) in order to get his work published at all.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

No Truer Title

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

I’m doing this to myself two days in a row. Yesterday, I got all weepy over an animated film for children because it ended in the most bittersweet way I could imagine. Today, I’m weepy for the exact same reason, but Amour is no film for kids. It is, as the title suggests, a film about love—about real, true, and deep love.

I want to be clear on this. Amour is not about movie love, the kind that makes someone do something embarrassing and foolish to win the girl of his dreams or chase someone halfway across the world because of an infatuation. This is about the real thing, the pain, the sacrifice, what it really means to truly love someone and love them more than you love your own life. It’s about the terrible (in its original sense) power that love can hold over us and what love will cause us to do when it is all that matters to us.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Out of the Box

Film: Toy Story 2; Toy Story 3
Format: DVD from New Lenox Public Library through interlibrary loan (Toy Story 2) and from personal collection (Toy Story 3) on rockin’ flatscreen.

It wasn’t a huge shock when the second and third Toy Story films appeared in the latest edition. I was kind of surprised they hadn’t appeared already. The Toy Story films are not my favorite of Pixar’s (that would be The Incredibles), but all three of them rank pretty high. Pixar started with the bar high, and managed to up the ante in this series every time.

Toy Story 2 picks up essentially where the first film left off. If you managed to miss the series, the basic conceit is that toys are alive, and when no one is looking, they move around and have feelings and lives. The goal of every toy is to be loved by a child. As Toy Story 2 opens, the toys owned by Andy (John Morris) are preparing for their owner to head off to camp. Since it’s cowboy camp, he plans on taking his favorite toy, Woody (Tom Hanks). Woody is damaged just before they go, and Andy decides to leave him behind.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Rest of Them Walked

Film: Some Came Running
Format: DVD from Somonauk Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I hear the name “Vincente Minnelli,” I think of musicals. I tend to forget about films like The Bad and the Beautiful and instead remember things like An American in Paris and the regrettable Gigi. It’s not merely his success with musicals that causes me to think of Minnelli as a musicals director. It’s that even his non-musicals that I’ve seen tend to have quite a bit in common with that genre. Take a film like Some Came Running. There’s a larger-than-life quality to this film despite the fact that the film itself is not of earth-shaking importance.

And that’s really the thing about Some Came Running. It’s a small story about small passions and people, but it plays out like a grand drama. Normally this would put the film in danger of being overblown, but somehow, this one works. Small lives writ large. It works, but not nearly as well as large lives writ large. The draw isn’t so much the drama, but the cast and the novelty of the first on-screen pairing of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.