Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Day 61: The Leopard

There's a certain shame that comes from not understanding the context about which a story is told, a shame that sometimes inspires a reticence to admit the ignorance I have.  The Leopard poked at my ignorance over and over during its running time, detailing events that, to me, might as well have been about ancient Martian political insurrections and aristocracies run amok.  I found this excruciating.

The film is, on its surface, about events in Italian history, specifically events in Sicily (you know, the place with penetratingly sweet sherberts), and I'm still not entirely sure I understand the historical aspects of the film (the shame).  My loss.  The events depicted are gorgeous, beautifully shot and thick with period pageantry.  This is so emphasized in the opening, with depictions of a wealthy, aristocratic family run by Burt Lancaster and some revolutionary fighting in the streets, that I feared I might be in for an Italian version of Gone with the Wind, only without the context to get why this terrible war was being fought in the first place.  Not so.

What The Leopard is about is the passing of one age to the other, from monarchy steeped in beautiful, yet restrictive, traditions, to the ugly rabble and freedom of a people-run state.  This passing is personified by Burt Lancaster as an aging prince, forced by circumstances to compromise his principles in order to preserve his way of life.  His era and its way of dealing with power are contrasted sharply by Paola Stoppa as a stumbling, ill-mannered rube, a man lucky enough to have acquired such wealth as to be a force to reckon with in this new world.

I've written about how this movie angered me on first viewing.  Not having the proper context surely played a part in that.  If I were a history buff, I'm sure I'd have been delighted to see history written with such lightning.  Instead, I was confused, displaced, and irritated that the movie didn't help me along by setting up the historical context (I can be a dumb American too) more clearly.  But even with this crankiness, there was no mistaking the brilliance of the ballroom sequence in this film.  It goes on and on as people dance and Lancaster stomps about, tired, worn, and saddened by the death of his way of life.  It's superb on every level and hits its height when the old prince dances with Claudia Cardinale, a dance that gives him one last chance to be a true dashing prince and not the withered old man he really is.

The Leopard will stay with me for the rest of my life, this much is certain (and not just for letting me know about the penetrating sweetness of certain sherberts).  The images in it are stark, sharp reminders of how beautiful cinema can be, and the weary, oppressive tone is a brilliant, grim counterpoint to this beauty.  Despite my first impressions, I'm beginning to think it's one of the better movies about aging and dying, making the personal aspects of aging political and the political aspects of worn-out regimes personal.  Still, I do wish to see it again, preferably in five or ten years so that the first impression will have faded some.  Maybe it's just an indulgent, pretentious stew after all.  I can't say right now.  I'm still in love with the last shot of the film.

Now is that Gratitude? Or is it really love?

So, after reading the comments on yesterday's post, I've decided to set up a spinoff blog at the end of the year. I imagine it will be more "bloggish" and will probably detail my aborted attempt to get into shape with such clarity and detail as to add, by its existence alone, another five pounds to my ever engorging waistline (are you with me ladies?). I'll be sure to post a link when it's available.

Thought this Pinky Violence collection thing looked interesting.

last night, I watched The Leopard. It was one of those rare occasions where I feel as if I need to watch the whole thing all over again, no small feat. It's not that I didn't "get it" or that I was confused by it, per se, but the movie ended in such a way that I realized it had been a completely different movie than I thought it was while I was watching it. Watching this three-hour movie was sometimes a chore. For the first hour and a half I was angry at it, frustrated by the giddy attention to period detail. By the 2 hour mark, I was even angrier, since the movie seemed determined to be as free of direction as some misguided people apparently think L'Avventura is.

At about two hours and eight minutes (if I remember correctly), an unintentionally funny line made it impossible for me to continue for at least five minutes. The main character is talking about the character of Sicilians, how it's so lugubrious and yet sensual... as examples he provides knifings, shootings, and then offers "the penetrating sweetness of our sherberts..." Wow. How bizarre.

Anyway, the movie ended and I was suddenly taken with it, even though for most of its running time I was angry, angry, angry. When this happens, it's usually a signal to me that I need to watch it again, if only to be sure that my anger was justified. Sometimes movies just end well, despite middling beginnings, but other times, I've just been completely wrong about what the movie was doing the whole time and my anger is just that of a spoiled brat not getting what he wants from his entertainment (I'm sorry about what I said, Rushmore) But then the idea of sitting through something that made me as furious as parts of this movie did isn't exactly a pleasant thought. Of course, the notion of being able to appreciate something beyond my preconceptions is. Hmm, does this count as a review?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Day 60: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Way overwrought and unbelievably frenetic, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy scores a few points by nailing the tone of the Douglas Adams book every so often.  When it hits these cheeky, witty high points, one can see an inkling of a very good time to be had.  However, the movie buries these moments by blistering along at a pace not suited to the material and screaming jokes that would clearly work better as offhanded remarks.  

It's frustrating when a movie ends up like this.  The design is pretty cool (love those Vogons), the actors are game, and the script, while lacking, isn't bad.  The movie undermines these elements, running them through a blender of hyperkinetic filmmaking resulting in a pile of mush.  Martin Freeman is well cast in the lead role of Arthur Dent (I would give him an award for "best reactions to imaginary objects composited in later), but I never felt as if I had a chance to know his character, and his character never had a chance to cut through the muddle.  

Whenever the movie cuts to animated sections from "The Guide," there's a stillness that allows the jokes being told to actually take hold and be funny.  Whenever the movie is dealing with live action folk, though, it seems to think it's a parody of the Star Wars prequels or Lord of the Rings, mirroring the hyperkinetic tone of the former and the overly sentimental majesty of the latter.  It's not as if these jokes don't deserve to be told, it's just that they demean the plot of the movie we're watching.  It leaps from farce to honest storytelling without these aspects ever coexisting in a way where one informs the other or, at least, coalescing into a spicy jambalaya.

The most telling example of the movie's mistaken tone is a scene where the movie delves into Adams's famous answer to "life, the universe, and everything."  We're shown a collection of super-intelligent pan-dimensional beings that have built the computer that can calculate the meaning of life, gathered to hear said meaning.  They're partying like it's Mardi Gras, and that's… okay, I guess, not really funny, but it makes sense, sort-of… but when the computer is about to reveal its answer, the movie keeps artificially heightening its tone:  the camera cranes up the supercomputer to reveal the multitude of beings, the score builds and builds, and, all the while, even if you weren't familiar with the book, you'd know there's a joke about to be told.  This telegraphs the joke in such a way as to cheapen it, castrate it, and destroy whatever chance it had to be funny.

This happens a lot in the rest of the movie, this overindulgent, in-your-face jokesmithing, and it sucks most of the wit out of the script.  That's nothing to be said of the ridiculous pace of the movie.  The movie is in such a hurry to hit its plot points, it often feels like you're taking a tour of the Parthenon and the tour guide is constantly pushing you through it as fast as the two of you can go, all the while screaming into your ear to look at the important stuff you're missing.  It's disappointing, because there are a few good moments in the movie, mostly related to the Guide, that indicate potential goodness.  Otherwise, it's a noisy, overbearing mess.

Too tired to die

I've been swamped, too busy to post anything other than my nice reviews. And by nice, I mean, somewhat lacking.

Anyone have any thoughts as to what should happen here after January 1st? Should this site sit, unupdated, collecting dust on the shelf of Internet antiquities? Should I post randomly? Anyone out there want to take up the challenge of one movie a day for x months?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Day 59: King Kong

Years ago, I was in a book store and saw a children's book version of King Kong.  It was a simple retelling of the tale with illustrations and, aside from the fact that it told the same story, it never referenced the movie.  It just was, Kong as mythic a creature as the Big Bad Wolf or Rumplestiltskin, a fable about the hubris of man versus nature or the explosiveness of rage.  It was then that, though I was a stop motion nut, King Kong really began to excite me.  I realized that Kong is one of the first, if not the first, filmic myths, myths whose origins began when the lights went down in some movie theater somewhere (I'm hard pressed to come up with another one right now, though I think Freddy Krueger might be another example of a purely filmic myth).   So, while I loved the idea of Kong as much as Kane loved the idea of his past, every now and then I'd remember that I had never actually sat down and watched the whole thing from beginning to end.  As a kid, I'd watch bits and pieces of it when it came on TV, but I had a short attention span back then and had trouble accepting anything in black and white.  So this was, I believe, my first viewing of King Kong from beginning to end, though I'd probably seen the entire movie in chunks prior to this.

And, finally watching it, I realized why it was a myth that refused to die and why children still know through cultural osmosis about Kong atop the Empire State Building (how many know about Mighty Joe Young's fight with lions?).  King Kong is made of the same stuff as the Grimm Brothers' Tales.  It's got the logic of a fairy tale (particularly when he randomly climbs up the Empire State Building) and whatever the moral of the tale is, it's delightfully obscured by the sheer narrative of it all, slim though the narrative may be.

I don't have anything to say about it that hasn't been said to death, but while watching it, I was tickled to notice that every single time Jack Driscoll showed affection for Ann Darrow, something Kongish would happen.  He tells her that he loves her on the boat and then she's whisked away by the "primitive people", given over to a hulking monstrosity of pre-human (read: id-like) impulses.  He puts his arm around her in New York and the same giant bundle of animal instinct breaks free!  He comforts her in a hotel room (I mean, a hotel room, wink wink, nudge nudge) and Kong breaks through the window with a giant furry appendage and takes her away.  Is Kong simply a hyper-Freudian manifestation of Jack Driscoll's repressed sexuality?  Why not?

There are a bazillion reads on Kong (including the "miscegenation read," something I leave to better folk than I).  And I take that as evidence that it's the stuff of myth, the stuff of enduring folk tales.  Like Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Wolf Man, Kong is a manifestation of something primal, something dangerous, but also something loveable.  The difference between these other monsters, though, is that Kong is a direct result of industrialization.  He's a natural warning about how, as we build our buildings bigger or have the ability to take to the sky, there's a danger that grows in accordance with this "progress."  Strangely enough, the threat looks a lot like we do, represents our evolutionary past and, god dammit, when it dies, everybody gonna cry.  Of course we cry.  He's a symbol for everything we've lost or left behind in our development as a species and we have to slaughter him if we want to continue developing.  

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Day 58: Monsters Crash the Pajama Party

Something Weird Video has put together a phenomenal disc here.  The subtitle is "Spook Show Spectacular" and the way the DVD's laid out provides an excellent context for viewing Monsters Crash the Pajama Party.  The movie was part of a live show and, as the movie played, actors would emerge dressed as monsters to terrorize the audience.  The disc is laid out with no clear indication as to what the buttons on the menu will play and, so, clicking around will net unusual results.  (After playing around, I found an entirely separate feature entitled The Tormented, but having subjected myself to so many random, kitschy, spooktacular images by exploring the DVD, I thought it best to leave this flick for another day).

Monsters Crash the Pajama Party is, as a movie, awful, just awful.  The titular monsters are really just a guy in a monkey outfit, though there are some other people made up like it's Halloween, and a mad scientist.  Some girls spend the night in a haunted house for a sorority initiation and are harassed by the monster and scientist, as well as some guys.  It's perfect if you're looking for one of those confused, hilarious movie experiences at 2 a.m., and would be good fodder for training MST3K wannabes if the movie itself wasn't constantly throwing in meta-jokes about its own awfulness.  It's all in good fun, though, and great viewing if you're a lover of esoteric entries in campy juvenile horror from the 60s (which I am).

Anyway, it's only about thirty minutes long, including a seemingly interminable credit sequence in which men in monkey suits embody the role of director, producer, composer, editer, etc.  The real treat is finding the goodies on the disc and trying to decipher meaning, any meaning, from them.  So, the movie's very, very bad but it's wonderfully presented, just as it undoubtedly was during its original theatrical run.

My favorite part of this DVD is the first thing that plays.  It's one of those black-and-white circular rotating hypnotic images and a voice says some of the following over four minutes:

"…you may feel yourself changing, from the gentle person you are, to a monster with dark green blood running through its veins.  Or you may change into a werewolf with long fangs for teeth.  Or you may become a vampire with a deep urge within you for a refreshing drink of blood… warm human blood.  

Of course, these changes will happen to only a few of you, while others will remain as themselves, in a way.  In a strange sort of way.  And some may notice a feeling of loneliness and have an urge to run far into the darkness, to the nearest cemetery, to be in the company of the other souls who walk in the night.  Some may imagine they feel long bony fingers clutching at their throats.  If this should happen to you, don't move a muscle.  Don't make a sound.  Don't even breathe.  Just cross your fingers as a cross usually protects you.  If not, you will have the time of your life.  The last time.

…Or you may feel other things, things without shape of any kind, yet you know somehow that they are very close to you.  You may feel something crawling all over your body that leaves cold damp impressions on your skin.  And some of you may feel your hands tingling a bit here and there.  Don't be alarmed, these are the friendly ones.  The only friendly things you'll feel during this night of terror.  I leave you now in a trance of enjoyable hallucinations of the horrible things in store for you."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Day 57: Shopgirl

Worthwhile, though far too mawkish at times, Shopgirl's a sweet, affecting movie about a young woman living in L.A. She's kind-of an artist, works at Saks, and can barely afford the minimum payment toward her student loans. The movie focuses on two relationships in her life, one with a scattered, aimless young man and the other with a wealthy, classy older man. The movie indulges in too many saccharine-laced montages, or too much awkwardly used slow motion when it should be getting deeper into the nitty gritty of its characters (something it does well otherwise) and narration is used in an inconsistent, clumsy way to fill in details. However, it's quite thoughtful and exceedingly sincere, and for all its sappiness, it's this sincerity that saves it from ruin.

Claire Danes is wonderful as the main character, nuanced and realistic. It's a well-observed performance, one that seems tailor made for her skills as an actor. Unfortunately, in the role of the older man, Steve Martin, while not exactly bad, seems more aloof and embarrassed than his character warrants; his is a shy performance, one that at times is fantastic, but at others feels far too shallow or reserved. His work as an off-screen narrator is great, though, and this is no surprise since he wrote the book the movie's based on. Playing the young man, Jason Schwartzman is a scream, though he's playing the part a lot more broadly than the other two so, at times, he feels as if he's from a different movie. (This feeling is enhanced by the fact that Schwartzman is often framed in a shot by himself, talking to or reacting to someone off camera, lending the feeling that he's doing a one-man show that happened to be inserted into the film).

I was quite impressed with the way the movie used clothes. It's not that clothes play a very prominent role in the diegesis of the film, but the way they were used to define and develop character was compelling. It's interesting that both men are drawn to Danes in clothing-based environments (Schwartzman at the Laundromat, Martin at Saks) and, as her relationship with Martin inspires a new kind of happiness in Danes, the outfits she wears (outfits he can afford to buy for her) are presented as the most prominent evidence of this change (not to dismiss Danes's performance in the role; in fact, it's also due to how she wore the changing outfits that I noticed this aspect of the film at all). Wardrobe is something I usually pay the least amount of attention to in a movie, and this felt like a nice primer in how it can be used to reveal, develop, and enhance a character.

The movie takes too many of the moments mentioned in the first paragraph to give it an unqualified rave, and yet its tone is compelling. I enjoyed the way it veered from the lunacy of Schwartzman's character to the quietude of Martin's and I liked how Danes's problems (which, really, don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world and all that) were dealt with seriously, though never indulging in histrionics (she's not going to kill herself over either of these guys, she just wants to be happier). And I loved the set decoration here too; it was just right in all cases. Danes and Schwartzman live in very similar apartments, but what they choose to do with the space reveals more than thirty minutes of dialogue between the two could. It lacked only a little more dramatic "oomph*" to push it from being a movie I liked a lot to a movie I loved.

*dramatic oomph: Aristotle called this the finest of all things, though he could never quantify it with words, really. He just told me once that the thing he liked most about drama was its oomph. I nodded politely and sipped my tea, waiting for him to leave so I could go to bed, but he wound up talking for 2 more hours about the nature of dramatic "flat-itude" and how it led to a lack of "dramatic oomph." Eventually he left because he had to feed his goldfish and I vowed never to invite him to one of my parties ever again.

Day 56: The Time of the Wolf

A lot of apocalypse movies focus on "survivors," people who size up the situation and find that there's benefit to be found in the destruction of society.  Watching these industrious folk take advantage of the freshly wiped societal slate to build their version of a utopia (Dawn of the Dead) or maybe survive through brute force and manipulation (Mad Max 2 & Beyond Thunderdome) is always pleasurable.  It allows one to project themselves into the scenario and conjure up a wistful world where survival seems, for some reason, simpler than a world where you have to go through endless loops to achieve the means to convince the guy at the store that he benefits by giving you a bag of marshmallows (this is usually done with currency, a form of communication that allows us to buy CDs without dragging a prize cow into the store).

The Time of the Wolf is an apocalypse film of a different flavor, though it contains many of the same trappings of other films of the (sub?)genre.  It reminded me of Testament at times (a movie I saw at the height of a delirious fascination with nuclear weapons and one that I could subtitle for myself: how I learned to start worrying about the bomb) with its bleak and unrelenting outlook on how humans behave as society crumbles.  And yet, though the movie contains familiar plot devices like the characters not knowing exactly what is going on, the struggle for resources, or the paradox that the safety found in numbers can be, at times, a perilous one, the movie jettisons the familiar concept surrounding "survivors" in the face of danger and instead features a group of social animals known to some as "humans."

It's well written, insightful, and naturalistic throughout, so much so, that any degree of familiarity I might have felt was replaced with anxiety.  The movie's an anxiety-laden endeavor, never ebbing enough to make one feel comfortable (and any time you might think that it's about to, it ratchets up the intensity).  This is the case from the beginning to the end.  It opens with a nuclear family arriving at a home in the country, starting to unpack the car only to be held at gunpoint by another desperate family and ends with the little boy from this family about to jump into a raging fire.  It's not, exactly, a pleasant experience, but then, in retrospect, because it's so spot-on in its observations, this is one of the few apocalypse movies I've seen that actually gives me hope for my own survival.  

The novelty of the movie is that it presents an argument that, in the absence of all the security we're used to, there is safety to be found in numbers, though it comes with a price.  Certain notions of justice and retribution must be either discarded or dealt with differently than we're used to.  Two scenes in the movie feature a person in the group of survivors (note the lack of quotes to protect myself from charges of contradiction) accused of committing a crime, a crime that offers up no external proofs and are quickly reduced to "he said/she said" argumentation.  The group, which has no de facto leaders (though some people do step into that role when they feel it's needed), decides there's nothing that can be done about these perceived crimes.  The matter is dropped out of necessity: punishment would only increase tensions, thus making it harder to complete what's needed to survive.

As more people get involved, the group of survivors evolve a social structure that reminded me of the social habits of chimpanzees (or, to be fair, my idea of the social habits of chimpanzees; I'm only glancingly familiar with chimp life).  Conflict breaks out between them, is resolved through the most resource efficient means, and on they go… busying themselves with their day-to-day necessities.  When a young boy is rightfully accused of stealing, he's ostracized.  Though the boy is given a chance at redemption, he knows he can never fit into the group again, stigmatized as he is.  And yet, he still hangs around, stealing from the main group when he has a chance because they're his only reliable source for survival.

Technically, this is a first class operation all the way.  A scene where the main characters are plunged into darkness and lit only by the quick flame of a lighter or by burning hay is particularly resonant.  And all aspects of the movie are geared toward a type of naturalism that gives it a welcome legitimacy.  The realism only adds to the underlying tension in the movie's plot, a tension so great, at times I felt like I might vomit.  And yet, the tension, the uncomfortable anxiety… they exist because of the accuracy in depicting human behavior and it's in this accuracy that the movie's hope lies.  So, even with the near-vomiting feeling, The Time of the Wolf is the most heartening, comforting movie I've ever encountered about the destruction of everything that keeps us safe from one another.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Day 55: The Celebration

Before I begin, I'd like to note that someone clicked on a link to this blog after Googling the phrase:  what general belief about pride and prejudice are the makers of this film version trying to dispel and/or what interpretation are they putting in its place?  In answer to the question without having seen the movie, I'd venture a guess that they're trying to dispel the belief that pride and prejudice are bad things and that the interpretation they're putting in its place is that Donald Sutherland is, in actuality, a mushroom.  Just a guess.

It was a deliberate, cheeky choice on my part to watch this movie with the intent on reviewing it today, Thanksgiving 2005.  I confess to finding the whole thing superbly ironic that, on a day when most Americans are gathering together with their families to make merry and consume, I've got to write a review about this particular movie.  And, while The Celebration is a movie about the nature of family and asserts the power of the family group, it's certainly not a feel-good reinforcement of the safety found in the warm embrace of one's family. If you're looking for something like that, I'd direct you to Jurassic Park or Mrs. Doubtfire.  Now leave us alone.

The Celebration is one of the Dogme films, Dogme '95 being a movement to strip the artifice from movie making in favor of filmmaking with a more direct, improvisational spirit.  It's a harsh, pointy movie in every way, from its splotchy, grotesque video, to the way it unravels the truth about the family in question.  The setup itself is confrontational: a large family gathers to celebrate the father's sixtieth birthday and the oldest son, Christian, uses this opportunity to level allegations of sexual abuse at his father.

But what happens after he speaks up is unique and honest.  The family barely bats an eye, unsure how to take the charges, whether as a joke or something serious to deal with.  They continue their gaudy meal and Christian, only slightly deterred, continues to bring the topic up.  After dealing with this for a certain amount of time, the family rises up against him, throwing him out of the birthday party so that they don't have to put up with his disturbances.  Even still, he's not done.  The movie milks the situation for bleak humor at every opportunity.  Everyone wants to enjoy the party, they want to be polite, but they're unsure how to react to Christian.

I enjoyed the way the movie depicted a family circling its wagons against a perceived threat, both at the beginning of the film and at the end.  And the style of the film is absolutely perfect for the material; jittery hand-held camera shots capture the intensity of the narrative, but the movie also knows when to be still.  Ulrich Thomsen, as Christian, is magnificent.  His blue eyes are both dewy and steely at the same time, and, accordingly, he plays the character as a man deeply hurt, but possessing enough inner strength to deal with his pain.

It's an angry movie, rife with confrontation and rage.  It's well acted and well produced, even under the strict Dogme requirements.  But, though it's so bleak, it's, really, a heartening testament to the notion that families protect themselves against anything threatening.  Even when the threat comes from within their own ranks, the movie's point is that they'll adapt in order to flush the intruder out.  As such, it feels as much an observant, character study as it does a film about biology, about the way the survival of humanity is so dependent on social structures and the safety net they provide.  For this reason, despite the rancor and screaming, it inspires far more comforting thoughts about the way families work for people than anything Chris Columbus has made.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Day 54: Cold Comfort Farm

Flora Poste's parents have just died (she wasn't close to them) and, as an aspiring writer, she wants to spend the next thirty years of her life accumulating life experiences that will enable her to write a book as good as Jane Austen's Persuasion. Her inheritance is paltry, though, and she is, thus, forced to confront the most important question all young aspiring artists face: How will I eat?

Luckily, she's offered a room on a farm owned by one of her distant relatives who, due to some mysterious goings on in the past, feels as if she owes a great debt to "Robert Poste's child". Flora, seeing this as an opportunity to gain some insight into the world, sets off to Cold Comfort Farm where she's confronted with a plethora of miserable, grimy characters living under the sway of a mysterious, traumatized matriarch. Refusing to succumb to their gloomy way of life, Flora reinvents this place, using insight and wit to inspire nearly everyone on the farm to enact a better life for themselves.

I liked Cold Comfort Farm well enough. I was pleasantly reminded of Beetlejuice throughout the film (something that would seem inexplicable on the surface) and I think it was because the two movies share a similar tone, moving from arch, gothic plot machinations to an outright parody of the same. But don't get me wrong, there's nary a severed head in Cold Comfort Farm. The tone of this film is light and breezy, broadly played, and of little consequence. Kate Beckinsale is great as Flora Poste, investing the role with intelligence and a great deal of charm. I enjoyed the way the movie poked fun at the character's literary aspirations, the movie depicting her writing with such bombast as to constantly refer to the sun as "the yellow orb". And it's wonderful that, for a movie about an upper class, urban character coming into a lower class, rural environment and changing everything so she's not quite so uncomfortable, the way Flora gets what she's looking for is to help other people with their own wishes.

But, I cannot deny, that amidst the fun, a grumpy little demon talked to me during this movie.It kept asking these questions like, "Hey, what if all the characters who lived on the farm were black? Wouldn't you say that this is just like one of those movies where the white people teach the black people how to assimilate and live properly?" And the answer to the question is, honestly, yes. As this is a story about cultural assimilation. Flora Poste brings a more "enlightened" world to the gloomy, uneducated place. She often balks at their backwardness.

But, then another demon, a happier one speaks up: "The farm is gloomy because the characters are obedient to traditions that can bring them nothing but gloom, and it's delightful to see their worlds brightened into something more aesthetically pleasing. And, you know, for the most part Flora simply gives the characters nothing more than a little education that inspires them to do things in a way that makes them happier. And everyone is much happier after she leaves. And, again, the characters really do want this change."

"Well most of them. The one who, ultimately, doesn't want the change is shipped off to an insane asylum."

"But then again, that's quite a good thing for this character and the character is pleased to be going."

"Yes, but isn't it odd that the main character affects so much change but she, herself, remains virtually untouched by them? Sure, she gives up being a writer and jumps into the arms of the guy with the coolest car around (so what if it happens to be a plane?) but, really, up until the very, very end of the movie, she never seems to gain anything from them and, in fact, this final turnaround in her character seems rather unlikely because she's been so unaffected by the other people. Don't you remember Walkabout where we agreed that the reason there was a failure for the two cultures to live peacefully was that the Colonists could take as much as they wanted from the Aborigines but had nothing to give in return? Isn't this part of the same problem?"

Then the happier demon replies by asking the grumpier demon out to dinner and they talk for all hours of the night about many, many things and eventually agree that the movie was a lot of fun to watch, regardless.

Thanksgiving Present

Here's a dumb little thing I worked on during film school as an exercise over the course of, like, two days. It requires the latest versions of Quicktime (I think) and it's about four minutes (too) long. But maybe it will remind all of us of everything we have to be thankful for.

The Last Man on Earth

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Day 53: Fanny & Alexander

I'm unsure what to say about a movie which so wonderfully expresses such an incredible range of powerful emotions.  It features both a scene of agonizing grief in which an older woman, racked with sorrow from the loss of her son, wails like an animal in pain and a scene near the end in which a man, overjoyed at the birth of his child, delivers a speech that is a deliriously happy vindication of life, love, and theatre.  The latter is like Henry V's "once more unto the breach" for anyone experiencing depression, clinical or otherwise.  One scene aside, involving two characters who're not really all that important to the film, a scene that only feels extraneous in retrospect because it's so damn good, the experience of watching Fanny & Alexander defies the logic of language, the harsh razor of analysis, and the diminishment of capsulation.  This is my experience with many of Ingmar Bergman's films and I've now come to the rather hasty and extreme conclusion that if one is to write about them, one should be writing poetry.

Since inflicting my own particular brand of poetry on the Internet would drive my readership down, destroying whatever hope I have of sweet coinage, I will make an attempt to relate the experience of watching Fanny & Alexander to the readers of this blog through my stultified prose.  Ladies, get ready to re-experience that sophomore/freshman/Boy Scout tugging at your brassiere.  Gentlemen, get ready to empathize with the humiliation thereof.  And you purple creatures with tentacles and eye stalks, get ready to laugh confusedly because you don't even understand the language but are sure something inappropriate's being said because Cousin Larry's looking peeved.

Fanny and Alexander are two children whose parents run a small theatre.  They are part of a large, happy family with some amount of money and a history in the theatre.  A Christmas celebration early in the film provides a sweeping introduction to all of the members of the family and, though the film is never quite so happy as to gloss over the fact that the matriarch of this clan is sad about aging and quite often feels like crying with little provocation or the fact that one of the men in the family is far in debt, can't afford to heat his house, and is violently angry with himself and his wife, these early scenes are sweet and happy.  When the children's dad dies (while rehearsing for the role of Old Hamlet's ghost), their mother quickly remarries a stern, pious Bishop.  Soon, the two children start to see their Father's ghost.  As you can see, echoes of Hamlet inform Fanny & Alexander, and this isn't particularly out of place, since the film's focus is those who would play in the "little world" of theatre.

The contrast between three worlds featured in the film is illuminated with clarity by the differences in set design and photography for each.  The homes of the Grandmother and her children have a feeling of wealthy austerity.  Clean, well-kept, but somewhat cluttered with baubles at the same time.  The Bishop's home, reflecting his view of the world, is stark, grim.  The windows are barred and the walls are bare.  It resembles a home carved out of stone at times, so bleak is the design.  And then there is the final world, one of magic and wonder.  Reds dominate and facsimiles of humanity appear everywhere, puppets and animatronics bobbing their heads as characters pass by.

Ghosts and magic do play vital roles in the film, but they're not used cheaply.  Bergman's understanding of ghosts is satisfying, since the ghosts in this film reflect a sense of shame about dying.  Magic is as frightening and punishing as the Bishop's Christian piety, though it is also more delightful since it is uncontrollable and spontaneous.  Interesting too, is the way Bergman brings forth the notion that extreme emotions can split the fabric of reality, allowing these supernatural forces in.  But all of this is part of a conflict in the film between illusion and reality; Christian order vs. Natural Entropy; Adults vs. Children.    

I'm sure the word "haunting" has been overused to describe this movie, but if so, it's only because it's an apt description.  When Alexander meets a strange, mystical doppelganger who, cruelly, frees him from oppression, it feels like an ancient fireside story or a Greek myth or some sort-of Pagan ritual brought to life before you.  There's something in this scene that appeals to those aspects of the brain that still believe in fairies, and also to the parts of the brain that insist there are no such things.  The lack of resolution between these two awarenesses of the world is, I believe, what creates the haunting feeling, and it's something the movie does consistently and well.

It's a long film (three hours and eight minutes) but, as the movie would agree, the experience of time is relative.  For me, these three hours passed by swiftly and my attention rarely faltered.  I'm aware that there's an even longer version that originally aired on TV and that this version probably justifies the one scene that I felt was extraneous (it's a scene about the son that's not doing so well financially.  He's barely in the movie after this scene and the focus on his character proves a little undue considering what the rest of the movie is about [though it does provide a larger sense of the family and the grandmother and adds disquiet to the jolliness of the Christmas celebration]).  After watching the theatrical cut, I have every intention of seeing the longer version someday.  It's a beautiful thing to live in a world with movies like this one that satiate the desire for myth and story so completely.  And the movie itself acknowledges this (though it's not talking about itself) in that wonderful, joyful monologue at the end.  

But it feels pointless to talk about this movie in such dry terms since it's invested with such greatness.  Words in this particular paradigm of thought can't even come close to expressing the power of something like this movie.  So, if you'll excuse me, I need to go write some awful poetry.  About awesomeness.

Quotation marks around my heart

Just noticed that apostrophes and quotation marks are all insane on some individual pages. I will try and fix this over the Thanksgiving break but it's a big job so we all may have to live with it as my laziness often gets the better of me.

In the meantime, god damn Ingmar Bergman and his pointed, invasive style of filmmaking. I watched Fanny and Alexander last night and, despite its running time of three hours, sat rapt for the whole thing. I can't shake the movie now; it's deeply embedded into my head. And I have no idea what to write about it since it's such a rich and filling experience to watch. I'm sure I'll come up with some way to express the experience. But it's a peculiar phenomenon I've noticed in writing this blog that the C.H.U.D.s of the world are so much more fun to write about than these movies that shake the foundations of my cells. It's probably because something like Fanny and Alexander is so complete, it requires nothing from me but to watch it, while C.H.U.D. is so very, very incomplete I get to add to it in a way that makes me feel smart and clever, stroking my ego all over the place. Writing about Fanny and Alexander feels like trying to add the arms to the Venus De Milo. That is to say: futile.

edited to add: It apperas that the quotation/apostrophe thing is a Mac/PC issue. Hmmm....

Monday, November 21, 2005

Day 52: True Stories

Short on time and, unfortunately, short on words.

Briefly put: True Stories is a weird Talking Heads musical, the enjoyment of which will depend entirely on your appreciation for their music. I'm a fan and I enjoyed this semi-narrative, semi-feature-length-music-video. John Goodman has a nice, early turn here, one that reminds me that the guy's extremely charismatic and not a bad actor. The movie follows David Byrne as he observes the goings on of people in Virgil, Texas and the film's focus seems rather prescient as it discusses the role of emergent technology on the economy, the workweek, the church, and the family. The movie's got a nice appreciation of suburbia while putting it up to scrutiny and, at times, feels like a jollier, snappier David Lynch film. My favorite part featured John Ingle as a preacher singing about computerized morality in America and I also loved David Byrne's absurd and deadpan one-liners. The movie's self indulgent to the max, but it's good hearted, patently inoffensive, and fun... if you like the Talking Heads. If you don't... boy this would be a chore to sit through at times.

Week 7 Index

Day 44: L'Avventura
Day 45: Murder, My Sweet
Day 46: L'Age D'Or
Day 47: Bringing Up Baby
Day 48: C.H.U.D.
Day 49: Passion Fish
Day 50: The Comedians of Comedy

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Day 51: Capote

Right, right: the acting by Philip Seymour Hoffman is phenomenal (that’s nothing new) and the movie’s got a boffo look and color palate that makes it seem like things are out of focus in a creepy, unsettling way.  But what really gives this movie its punch, what takes it beyond something for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s personal acting (and undoubtedly Oscar) reel, is the way it captures Kansas and the Midwest.  I can’t remember another movie that captured the feeling of the Midwest quite as well as this movie did.  It’s not just the romanticism of the wide open spaces or the banality thereof, but the casual, unthreatening way Chris Cooper’s KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer threatens Truman Capote’s life while simultaneously allowing him to access investigation files.  The way Amy Ryan, as Cooper’s wife, cagily smiles at Capote, delighted to have a celebrity in her midst, but unable to fully express it.  The movie conveys not only the beauty and monotony of the landscape’s blight, but also the way the landscape inspires gentleness, even while its citizens are in the midst of overpowering emotions.

A great deal of this gentleness must be credited to Clifton Collins Jr., playing one of the killers featured in Capote’s In Cold Blood.  His Perry Smith is quietly reflective, lonely, and, very, very sad.  In this way, he’s the perfect rural foil for the flamboyant and effusively urban Capote and the actor excels at the role, holding his own against Hoffman.  He turns a confession scene late in the movie into a powerful moment about the triviality of murder.  Capote describes Smith as someone who might have, had circumstances been different, turned out much like himself and so, it’s clear that what we’re watching is Capote face part of himself.  Collins, as much as Hoffman, makes this interesting.

While noting this, it really is Hoffman’s movie all the way.  The movie faces two giant, cliché-ridden genre hurdles: the biopic and the struggling writer movie.  The movie clears both of them, mostly through the editing.  Much like the equally successful Ed Wood, the movie uses the microcosm of Capote’s research into In Cold Blood to illuminate the life of the man, rather than give us a sweeping account of his entire life.  As such, Capote is edited within an inch of its life to focus squarely on Capote’s perspective during this period in his life.  The writing is taken for granted, so there’s actually very little struggling, though events in the real-life make it impossible for him to finish his book.  Hoffman carries the film on his shoulders, disappearing into the role and capturing the essence of Truman Capote, if not pulling off an accurate impersonation.

The movie’s keenly observant about everything: from the details of a Kansas execution to the way Capote relates to his lover.  And it carries an impressive authenticity about its time and place due to the fact that all of the usual period “goods” (costuming, sets, etc.) are less interesting than the main conflict.  Still, for all its authenticity and observation, it’s a dreamy movie, languorously paced and soft on the eyes.  It’s a great biopic, finding exactly the right tone (in this case, it’s a counterpoint to Capote’s flamboyance) to elucidate the inner life of the person it’s focusing on.

Oh, and it’s always nice to see Bob Balaban.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Day 50: The Comedians of Comedy

The Comedians of Comedy is a fly-on-the wall documentary about four stand-up comedians on the road.  There's not much else to it.  Those looking for much insight into the life of a stand-up will be disappointed since the comedians seem wary of honestly examining their work or their lives without making fun of themselves for doing so (one sequence features Zach Galifianakis waxing about how comedy has gone too far toward slapstick, how he favors “the word” over falling down antics and then his chair breaks).  But that doesn’t matter because the one thing that unites all of these four comedians is their brazenly honest approach to comedy, so the acts themselves provide plenty of insight.  All four comedians are super-funny and the movie nicely conveys the feeling of spending a few days on the road with four people who are much funnier than you are.  In my case, that feeling expresses itself in a thin sheen of sweat from the exertion of laughing and a desire to take a shower.

We follow Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis, on a unique tour aimed at taking stand-up out of comedy clubs and into smaller, indie-rock venues.  The idea is to make the experience of watching stand-up closer to the way one watches the local music scene, away from exorbitant cover charges and two-drink minimums.  Oswalt, Posehn, and Bamford all tell horror stories about working in a traditional comedy club, some related to the awful environment and others about the types of comedians that work there.  

The movie, directed and edited by Michael Blieden, is structured well, focusing on each day of the tour in a way that allows thoughtfully mingled concert footage with backstage or on-the-road footage.  It captures the backstage feeling well with grainy, gritty video in the darkness of indie rock clubs, blown out irises in the tour bus, and dim, flat footage of generic hotel rooms.  I was particularly taken by some of the concert footage which featured odd angles on the faces of the comedians, very close and canted wildly.  It felt like the right expression for the material, often screamingly outrageous.   I also enjoyed the way the movie would often show its subjects talking about something that had happened to them earlier in the day and then flash back to the event in question.

None of this would matter if the four comedians weren’t fun to watch.  They are.  I was blown away by a bit done by Zach Galifianakis.  Dressed up in olde timey garb, he does a traditional stand-up routine as if he’d time traveled from the 18th century (“Is this thing on?  What is this thing?”).  The tense, sometimes antagonistic camaraderie is entertaining, especially when they’re riffing together, piling joke on top of joke or bear pun on top of bear pun.  It’s interesting to see Bamford, who seems somewhat shy in the backstage footage, let loose on stage with a horrifyingly funny pterodactyl shriek.  And then there’s the faux gay porn movie that Posehn and Galifianakis make, something the movie doesn’t reveal in its entirety but exists in all its shameful glory on the DVD.

Speaking of the DVD, this is a Netflix movie, financed and released by the company.  It’s unfortunate to see some Netflix banners in the concert footage, but, still, I like what they’ve done here.  The DVD contains a few deleted scenes (that puppy is fucking adorable), but more importantly, they’ve included video of some of the stand-out stand-ups Oswalt and Bamford mention during a radio interview.  Oswalt laments while naming these people that no one will have heard of them because they haven’t gotten the exposure, their innovative work aside.  Stand-up being a specialty genre anyway, it’s heartening to see these people getting this exposure through a kind-of direct marketing via Netflix.  

So, yeah, this is a lot like a concert movie and a backstage, behind the scenes tour movie got smashed together in a boating accident.  It’s not particularly ground breaking, but it’s well done and extremely funny.  These are the right comedians to document since they are honest on and off the stage.  At times, it seems like an ideology with them.  Posehn recounts a story of his early years as a comedian where a fellow comic advised him not to mention that his dad died during a joke because it was too depressing for the audience.  Posehn is repulsed at the idea of lying about his life to make everyone feel better.  The movie strays from this overt honesty in one out-of-place montage that comes way too soon, not giving us the chance to learn who these people are before glossing over details (and it’s smarmy to boot).  But, for the most part, it’s right there with the four, wisely allowing them to speak for themselves since, when they do, they kill.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Day 49: Passion Fish

I caught John Sayles’ Lone Star sometime in high school and fell in love with the way he made movies.  I loved the density to the material, how it felt as rich and fulfilling as a good novel, and how it didn’t seem as cramped as movies usually do.  What I remember is that there was a world in Lone Star, a fully inhabited world that was efficiently explored through the characters.  While I loved it so much, I was not quite as diligent in pursuing Sayles’s oeuvre as I was for Cronenberg or Lynch (I think I stopped my random sampling after seeing Matewan, my personal favorite of his work), but I do enjoy checking in on his movies.  Anyway, this isn’t about me (ha ha ha, yes it is) it’s about Passion Fish.

The movie deals with a soap actress-turned-paraplegic (Mary McDonnell) and her caretaker nurse (Alfre Woodard).  McDonnell is an alcoholic, I guess, the movie kind-of slips this fact in at an awkward moment, and Woodard is a recovering drug addict.  Over the course of their relationship, they begin to need one another to face the various challenges of their lives.  Dangerous territory and the shallowness of Lifetime Movies of the Week hang over this film, threatening to descend at any moment and ensnare us in manipulative weepiness.  To be fair, most of the pitfalls are avoided along the way in favor of straight-forward honesty.  This is what makes it frustrating when the movie does fall into one.  The montage sequence when McDonnell begins to care about her life again, taking pictures, and working out, is inexcusable.  And the very end of the movie features a conversation in which the mutual power-sharing dynamic between the two ladies, a carefully balanced see-saw throughout the movie, is destroyed by thrusting all power into McDonnell’s hands, giving her the opportunity to act silly-poignant which comes off as trying-too-hard-poignant.

And so, if it can be said that John Sayles’s movies are a lot like books, this is his Oprah Book of the Month.  It’s not bad, though it’s somewhat plodding, and it’s not great, though there are some dazzling moments.  The two main characters are strongly etched with, for the most part, great writing and strong acting.  There’s some outright awful sentimentality (the very end and in the “Mary McDonnell works out” montage) but, aggravatingly, there are also moments where sentiment emerges in a sublime fashion: Woodard’s repressed sobbing in response to the ministrations of a suitor are touching for what she’s not saying or talking about.  There’s sharp characterization throughout:  William Mahoney, playing Mary McDonnell’s uncle, is fascinating when he’s onscreen and David Strathairn puts in a typically well-wrought performance.  And the racial tensions in the movie (at least between the two main characters) are subtly done, palatable, but not overt.

The structure of the movie vacillates so wildly between well-constructed scenes, well-performed monologues, pedantic scenes, and misguided monologues (I never asked for the anal probe), that it’s frustrating to watch.  Additionally, after the third party came to visit McDonnell, I got sick of the characters sitting around at home, waiting for other characters to visit them.  I wanted to like this movie a lot, and I did like it a lot when the movie focused on Alfre Woodard’s character, but its scattered nature makes it a frustrating viewing experience and it doesn’t really come together as a whole.


In going through IMDB's CHUD page, I discovered that the director of CHUD, Douglas Cheek, worked as an editor on the progressive political documentaries Outfoxed and the recent Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. That's fantastic!

I will now send my feature length script: "Hobgoblins vs. Republicans" to his office. WISH ME LUCK!

Additionally, this thread on the IMDB discussion forum entitled "The C.H.U.D.s got my little brother!" is a great read.

Oh what the hell... it's Friday

This made me chuckle a few times. Though I only found it to be sporadically funny...

From metafilter:
Star Wars Episode 3, the abridged script (MP3).

And to read along:
The Script

My favorite line is "Well, now that you have taken a single, somewhat justifiable step toward the Dark Side, there's no turning back."

In other news

Unrelated to movies, I just saw this picture of Fidel Castro that amused me.

I wish there'd been an episode of Quantum Leap where Sam leapt into Castro's body and had to make Castro decide not to choose baseball over communism.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Day 48: C.H.U.D.

So after all my caterwauling and gnashing of the teeth about strong female voices in cinema, fate has forced my hand, denying me Cold Comfort Farm and replacing it with C.H.U.D.  Oh, Movie Gods, you mock me so!

Before saying anything else, let me just state that, for all its weaknesses, I enjoyed C.H.U.D.  It features a god awful score, lacks any verisimilitude when it comes to its homeless characters, and contains some glaringly out of place genre moments that stick out as being motivated solely by commercial interests*.  The pace of the movie stops dead halfway through as an expositional conference room scene stretches on into infinity, repeating the same beats ad nausea.  The look of the film is also a problem.  When the characters enter the subterranean dwellings of homeless people and CHUDs alike, it’s far too bright down there and looks exactly like the set it is.  More than once as John Heard and Daniel Stern clomped about in the sewers, I wondered what could have been done with the gritty, disgusting environment given either more time for the makers of the film to exploit their setting or a more talented D.P.  And, hence, the slickness gives it a feeling of being too cheap.  

Nevertheless, the script is a fun, straight-forward horror script which also contains similarly straight-forward allegorical elements about the neglect of the homeless problem in New York City by the governing bodies.  The characters are appropriately arch, and the script uses them in interesting ways.  I was delighted when Daniel Stern’s hippy Soup Kitchen proprietor joined forces with Christopher Curry’s square police officer Captain Bosch to fight the oppressive forces of the government.  The performances are enjoyably campy; I really enjoyed most of Daniel Stern’s hammy performance and how John Heard looked rumpled all the time.  And I think there’s something inherently creepy about a monster in the sewers, the place where we flush all of our shame.

According to its page on imdb, C.H.U.D. came out in 1984 which would put it out in the same year as Ghostbusters.  I think it’s instructive to compare the movies, since they deal with an uneasy dread that, secretly, something is very wrong with New York City.  And both deal with conflicts of local control vs. national control and come to similar conclusions.

Ghostbusters, being the more mainstream of the two (by far), offers the American Dream as the solution: small business owners solve the (in this case, supernatural [but I believe the movie actually treats the supernatural as an inevitable, natural force as it would if it dealt with tornadoes or rain]) problem with industry and invention and make themselves rich (and famous) in the process.  Their biggest obstacle is the Environmental Protection Agency, represented by Walter Peck, who’s convinced that the whole thing is both phony and a danger to the public health.  When he shuts down the Ghostbusters’ containment grid, he believes he’s helping the public, but is, in fact, endangering them in his zeal to assert his governmental authority over the business.  Faced with a choice between siding with the local Ghostbusters or with the national EPA, the Mayor of New York places his faith in the local boys.  Ghostbusters posits that New York’s problems are unavoidable and can be solved through local free enterprise without interference from dickless government agents.

Entrenched in genre and, thus, outside the mainstream, C.H.U.D. has the ability to be far more cynical.  C.H.U.D. states that the problem is, in fact, a perversion of both humanity and nature and that the national government itself is responsible for the secret problem in New York City.  Indeed, the real monster in the film is the national government since the movie ignores the ultimate fate of the mutated monstrosities, choosing to focus its climax on the way the New Yorkers oust the national government from its seat of power (uniting, for instance, the square cop with the hippy liberal, both locals, against the national forces).  C.H.U.D. ultimately offers no solutions to the monster problem in favor of offering solutions to conspiracy and, as a result, is all the weaker for it.  It serves merely as a cautionary tale about the dangers of national forces meddling in local affairs with monsters representing the result.

And, so, C.H.U.D. isn’t super.  It’s, at best, a mediocre film, but there’s enough wit and cleverness on display in the writing and the acting to make it a fun dose of mediocrity.  Oh, and John Heard has one of the more hilarious freak-out scenes I’ve ever seen.  When he and Stern stumble across some mutilated bodies in the sewers, he tries to run, Stern tries to stop him, and they both fall down.  Then, the two tumble about until Heard calms down a bit.

*I’m thinking particularly about a clumsy moment when Lauren, the main female character, finds a mutilated dog in a space underneath the basement of the building in which she lives, calls the cops, and then takes a shower.  The shower drain is clogged and so she attempts to clear it with a wire coat hanger (this is actually rather interesting imagery since, prior to this scene, we’ve learned that the character is pregnant and has discussed terminating the pregnancy with her boyfriend).  A jet of blood spurts out from the drain and onto her.  I don’t object, necessarily, to the showering here (illogical as it may seem given the course of events and exploitative as it may be) but rather to the unconvincing physics behind the jet of blood and the way this scene is dismissed by the rest of the movie as if it hadn’t happened.  In Lauren’s next scene, she’s casually arranging flowers with no sign of disturbance from previously being showered by blood.  This is clearly a “shock” moment, a cheap one, capitalizing on the vulnerability inherent in bathing, and, abortion symbolism aside, adds absolutely nothing to the film.

The George Miller/Romero post

George Miller made the Mad Max series. Now he's making this: Happy Feet. It's true he made Babe: Pig in the City, but that had, among other things, a nice Dickensian quality that actually felt dangerous at times. This looks like it has a nice Disneyensian quality circa the year 2000.

I was into penguins before penguins were cool.

Then I saw this posted on GreenCine Daily and thought I'd share. An analysis of Land of the Dead. I enjoyed reading it, though the movie's definitely not aging well within me. In particular, I think Big Daddy's makeup was a Big Daddy mistake.

We can only hope that Tom Savini can someday preserve the Romero dynasty with Vampirates. Ah, Vampirates. Why don't you exist right now???

Week 6 Index

Day 37: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Day 38: Who's That Knocking at My Door?
Day 39: Bad Company
Day 40: Day for Night
Day 41: Q: the Winged Serpent
Day 42: Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Day 43: Parents

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Day 47: Bringing Up Baby

My face hurt from laughing after watching this.  It hurt most after watching a dinner scene during which Cary Grant left the table frequently to follow a dog.  After leaving a couple times, he returns, looks at the table and complains to the flabbergasted people at the table, “My soup’s gone!”

There’s something so effortlessly charming about this movie, due in large part to the chemistry between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.  She’s on fire in this role, shooting out fast paced dialogue with a devilish grin and an infectious lust for life.  Her character is impulsive (to the point of madness, I thought) and forgetful.  In lesser hands, the character would be completely annoying in how she disregards the other people around her, but Hepburn adds an element of caring and class to the role that, ultimately, avoids this pitfall (though it’s a close call at first).  Cary Grant is a great match for her too as an ineffectual nerd, bursting with latent aggression.  His bumbling and stuttering would also be annoying in lesser hands, but the way Grant bursts out of it from time to time is a joy to behold.

These characters have a volatile relationship from the start.  But after a psychiatrist informs Katherine Hepburn that the male love impulse often expresses itself in terms of conflict, she decides that Grant loves her and that she’ll love him too.  Then, the plot places a leopard named Baby between the two, and their efforts to control the volatility of the wild animal teaches them how to control the volatility between themselves.  

As you can see, this is an entry in the “couple hates each other until they fall in love” genre, featuring the staple mismatched characters and many plot contrivances to bring them closer together.  But where other movies fail, this one succeeds because most of the contrivances are character-driven.  After our introduction to the characters, we could honestly believe that Hepburn would be sent a leopard by her brother or that Grant’s character is good-hearted enough to see a task through to the end, no matter how horribly he’s treated.  And the leopard is, I must say, a nice touch.  It gives the couple an external force to reckon with, causing them to unite (and it does it without all the super-serious fuss of something like a war to hone in on the fun).

To be sure, it left me a little exhausted with all of the running around and fast-paced talking.  And a couple characters are played so broadly that they were never, ever funny (the Constable being the worst offender to my mind) though they were clearly trying to be.  And, you know, there’s not much on the surface of Bringing Up Baby that differentiates it much from something like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.  There’s a lot of mugging and a lot of jokes that fall flat because of this.  The action onscreen is, at times, as stupidly zany and reckless as it was in Goldfoot.  And, yeah, some things bugged me, like Hepburn deciding on a whim to love a man she hardly knows.  But it’s all so whimsical, anyway, and the movie hits more often than it misses, so why bother?  This is a solid effort all the way through with good writing, a sure-handed pace, and wonderful chemistry between its co-stars.  The chemistry is so good that I forgave all of the absurd (and ultimately unconvincing – Grant’s fault) declarations of love in the final scene the way everyone forgives them in the last act of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Eh, I’m thinking too much.  This is an utterly charming movie and a funny one at that.  The dinner scene mentioned above is a perfectly pitched, farcical scene.  It’s played so well that peals of laughter came out of me, and I don’t use the word peals lightly.

Serendipitous Mystery

Coincidentally got around to Bringing Up Baby last night and it cured what ailed me.

Today I've been taken by two things: This feature on Reverse Shot Online in which their writers watch canonical films they've somehow missed through the years (something close to this blog's heart). I remembered that I've never seen the original King Kong all the way through (when I was a kid I was too impatient for anything that didn't feature Kong or the Dinosaurs) thanks to this feature. I think I'll do a Kong-a-thon sometime around the release of the new movie.

The other thing I'm taken with today (directly related to reading this feature) is finding movies I've never even heard of. With the exception of The Nesting, I think every single movie on this site I'd heard of in some capacity before watching it. Hence, an upcoming film on the queue is Monsters Crash the Pajama Party. I'm entertaining all suggestions, but if you post something, don't let me know what the movie's like or about or anything... just post the title and the year it was made. I'll see if I can find it if it's a new one to me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Day 46: L’Age D’Or

The followup film to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou, L’Age D’Or is made in the same semi-narrative style, a stream-of-consciousness collage of images and ideas which build sequentially as the movie plays out.  It’s a way of filmmaking that works in a similar fashion to the way poetry works, taking the representations of a language (in poetry it’s words; in film, photographic representation) and putting them to use in novel ways.  

It’s a lot like a piece of music, too, since it is often dealing in purely abstract messages (the film medium’s concrete representational qualities notwithstanding) and in the way it moves from idea to idea in sequential, temporal fashion.  Additionally, as in some pieces of music, there are themes that reoccur throughout (religion and child-murder featuring most prominently in my memory of the film), commenting on one another and, eventually colliding to form a conclusion.  

Since, like music or poetry, everyone who experiences it will come away with a different impression of what it “means”, I think the experiential aspect of seeing this film and the reaction one has while watching it is, in many ways, more important than further reflection.  It’s eminently interpretable, due more to the human being’s almost insatiable desire to connect two dots than to any ostensible meaning in the film’s text or subtext.  This isn’t to detract from the film, though, because there’s a consistency guiding everything and it’s smart enough to know that the real importance in doing an experimental stream-of-consciousness piece like this is an undercurrent of dramatically satisfying “stream-of-emotion.”

And, anyway, it’s this tendency to connect the unconnected that allows us to understand the language of cinema in the first place, to understand that a cut does not necessarily constitute the beginning of a new movie.  What Dalí and Buñuel have done in both movies is to apply this concept of juxtaposition to the literal meaning of their films.  The way ideas and narrative streams flow one from another is, really, no different than the way all movies move from one geographical location to another.  

The movie’s hilarious too.  After being introduced to a city, a title card informs us, “Sometimes on Sundays…” and then the film cuts to shots of buildings collapsing.  A character in the film is prone to such bouts of anger, he slaps an old woman when she spills a drink on him and knocks a blind man down for absolutely no reason (this despite being honored by the National Goodwill Society [or something like that]).  Additionally, before this movie, I never realized how funny it is to see a cow in a bed. (The movie also features what has to be the funniest use of Jesus in a movie, ever, ever, ever.)  All of these absurdities are used to good effect, beyond simply busting the gut of the viewer.  

I could quibble about a few things.  The ending (featuring the Jesus moment) is a little abrupt, like a rude punchline at the end of a great shaggy dog joke.  The images in the film aren’t exactly beautiful with much awkward framing and mediocre camera work (though it’s hard to know how much of this is due to the image quality on the DVD. It seems they could only find a print of the film archived by Scratchy McCactushands).  But I can’t really work up the passion to dwell on the movie’s faults.  What’s great about this film is how much sense it makes within itself.  In polite society, it wouldn’t make sense for a man with a gun to shoot a kid who’s angered him.  Here, because of every single thing that’s preceded this moment, nothing else would.

Where are all the white women at?

Something that's becoming more and more clear to me with every movie I watch is the absolute dearth of good, strong female voices in film. I'm probably to blame somewhat; the movies I'm choosing are based partly on my own interests and partly out of curiosity about movies I've read about in various books and magazines and it might be this dearth I sense comes as a result of a male-centric blind spot in the movies I'm choosing.

It's just that I'm really getting sick of this whole virgin/whore thing. And so many of the movies I've watched have extended sequences designed to convey the threat of rape. It's as if the sum total of the movies I've watched posit that there are only 3 women in the world and all of them have penises thrusting at them and the one who can hold out longest from being penetrated is the one everyone wants to marry.

So help me out if you're reading this. Suggestions for movies with strong female voices, preferably ones made by women. It's okay if there's virgin/whore/rape stuff in them, I'd just like some new P.O.V.s

Monday, November 14, 2005

Day 45: Murder, My Sweet

The writing of Raymond Chandler, the silly way he throws out similes and metaphors to make his characters sound tough, always makes me smile appreciatively, and then, for a day or so, I hear everything in the rhythm of his writing.  The language is so delightful and skirts so closely to the boundaries of self-parody that it’s no surprise this Chandler-speak has been effectively demolished by pop-culture jokesters since its inception. Still, it’s compelling.  Played straight and played well Chandler’s dialogue has an enjoyably cynical, sarcastic bite to it and when he’s “on,” his writing is as lovely to the ear as Shakespeare.  A typical line from Murder, My Sweet, drawn at random and presumably taken from the book (but is so in keeping with the spirit of Chandler that it’s no matter if it’s not): “My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn't feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers.”  To quote Homer Simpson, “Priceless.”  

Dick Powell, who plays private detective Philip Marlowe in the film, is great at spouting this stuff.  He’s got the rhythm down and nails the self-effacing humor of the dialogue.  As Powell plays him, the character isn’t particularly bright, nor is he particularly tough and from the way he speaks, you can tell he knows it.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t: Marlowe gets knocked around a lot in this movie, and is often confused by the plot.  When Powell utters a glib recap of the situation in which he finds himself, he seems like the last one in the room to realize what’s going on.  The incompetence of the Marlowe character in this movie is very, very funny, never more so than when he spouts nonsense for a good while after a forced heroin injection.

The plot of the movie is standard mystery fare, though it’s nice that, as in all good detective stories, what seem like the larger, more important issues at play really result from a simple emotional conflict between two people.  The solution to the mystery involves the detective playing a relationship counselor of sorts, piecing together the story of how people shattered each others’ lives, expensive jade necklaces notwithstanding.  The movie goes through these paces compellingly enough, with nary a sag in the pace.  It’s also fun to look at; the heroin hallucinations are good, expressionistic fun (used better here than Dali’s dreamscapes in Spellbound, though they’re not nearly as pretty) and I particularly liked the way the shadows of the letters painted on Marlowe’s window landed on the characters in his office.  

The unabashedly romantic coda to this movie feels out of place, or at the very least, unimportant.  Marlowe, having led a life where he’s witnessed the trauma of broken relationships, the dirty deeds of heartache, is so compellingly cynical that when he embraces the “good girl” at the end of the film, it’s almost a betrayal of the character.  But, at the same time, the movie’s run him through the gauntlet hard enough that it’s nice to see the disillusioned private dick get the girl at the end of the movie and partake of the same spoils that James Bond has no trouble indulging in after a strenuous mission.

I think the Google Ads are trying to tell me something.

I just noticed, at least this morning, that my google ads are all for things like life changing books and you can do it pamphlets.

Got rested and caught up this weekend as I'd fallen behind and was writing about movies I'd watched the same evening as the review, rather than having a full day to think about them like I usually do. This results in reviews like the one for Parents where I'm not sure what I'm saying but blunder on ahead anyway.

My netflix queue is lagging behind, so I may actually have to set foot in a theatre sometime soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Day 44: L’Avventura


In L’Avventura, the question “Why?” is asked by most of the main characters, usually in a fit of frustration.  In all cases, there is no answer forthcoming.  Still, the question remains and repeating the question in a mocking tone is the only response the character being asked can muster up.  It’s the only answer that makes any sense.

This is the kind of movie where characters walk around and talk to each other about life, love, and pain.  The conversations the characters have with each other on these topics are honest, and the movie’s funny in the way it never misses an opportunity to cut one character down by using another to contradict them.  The characters lead listless lives (triple alliteration word score!) drifting from location to location with few worries and, seemingly, fewer responsibilities.  It’s appropriate, then, that the movie opens with its characters on a boat trip.  They’re not going anywhere in particular, and they’re not really having any fun.  When they arrive at a remote island, one of their party, a disillusioned woman named Anna, disappears.  Her boyfriend, Sandro, and her best friend, Claudia, obsessively search for her, but there’s no trace.  A few boats may have passed by during their search, and it’s hinted that she was abducted by smugglers or maybe she even left of her own volition on one of these boats.

It doesn’t matter because she’s not as important as the effect her disappearance has on Claudia and Sandro.  After they’ve searched for a few days, Sandro begins putting the moves on Claudia.  She’s resistant to his advances at first, but eventually gives in and they begin an ill-fated affair.  The ghost of Anna remains between them and Claudia, who was once the most ardent advocate of searching for Anna, now fears that her friend will show up and take Sandro away from her.  Her fears aren’t unwarranted.  Sandro is clearly distracted, but it’s not exactly Anna that occupies his thoughts as the movie demonstrates in its closing sequence.  He’s bored, a man who had dreams of being a poor genius, but ended up being rich and unappreciated for whatever skills he thought he had.

All the characters are like this, people inhabiting roles that don’t seem to suit them too well.  A husband constantly berates his wife for being silly and frivolous, but when she flaunts an affair with a young painter (the kind of guy who’s painting, it seems, just to see naked women) he isn’t too much disturbed.  The people at the center of the movie go from hotel to hotel so much, I realized late in the film that I had no idea where any of them lived or what, exactly, it was that most of them did to earn all this money.  They all seem miserable and annoyed at everything around them.  

Movies about the ennui of rich people are often uninteresting to me, being the solidly middle-class bloke that I am.  But this one is more interesting than most; it cuts through the wealth and the privilege and finds the heartache inherent in a life of coasting from task to task, from one lover to the next.  When Claudia says that her mother was “sensible” and is asked what that means, she replies, “It means she had no money.”  She’s joking, but there’s a truth behind the way she says it, a yearning for some kind of stability.  When later, in yet another hotel room, she lies down on her clothes, still stuffed into her open suitcase, it’s as if the suitcase is the only home she’s ever had.  At the end of the movie, Sandro is weeping and Claudia puts her hand on him to comfort him.  As she does, the score swells in contradictory, ominous tones, seeming to say that whatever joy the two find in one another will be short lived.  

It’s well acted, well observed, and well written, though it’s a bit too long in the beginning.  The search for Anna is intriguing at first, as mystery always is, but it occupies three or four scenes too many, especially when it’s clear the whole time that the movie has other things on its mind.  Still, it’s always interesting and always honest.  I liked the way the movie sets the investigation aside to show how the characters fill the holes she’s left behind and how, even with a newfound purpose in finding Anna, Sandro and Claudia are so easily distracted from this purpose.  They don’t really seem to know why it’s so important to find her.  But there’s that question again: Why?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Day 43: Parents

Bob Balaban's Parents is a smart horrorish film, one that wisely sets its foundation in Freudian psychology.  It effectively depicts the creeping unease of a child who’s come to believe that he’s not safe with his parents as his awareness of them grows.  Bryan Madorsky, who plays the kid, is great and the movie also features a genuinely creepy performance by Randy Quaid as the kid’s dad.  It’s a funny movie but also scary, with more than a couple great horror movie moments.  Unfortunately, the movie dives into the pool of convention towards the end and it’s here that the filmmaking itself fails the film and its ideas.

But still, lots to like in the movie.  I was surprised at how affected I was by the horror moments.  A scene in which a social worker is menaced by an unknown assailant in a pantry is as good as any Argento sequence (though only ¼ as long), particularly in the editing.  A few images from the movie stand out to me as well: sausages snaking around a little kid, a hand sticking out of a garbage disposal, and Randy Quaid’s sweaty, angry expression.  And, boy, did I like the moment when, as the camera panned past a wall in a house, the cheerful music that was playing faded out as we entered the next room.

The relationship between the three principles (Boy, Father, Mother) is handled well.  Because the Father and the Boy are at odds with each other, the Mother is constantly picking which side she’ll be on and, more often, it is on the side of the Boy.  It’s all very Freudian, as I said, and acted well by Mary Beth Hurt.  Quaid is a mean dad, telling his kid scary stories to teach him lessons.  The Mother protests, but Quaid’s eventual revelation of why he’s so hard on his son is great:  “He scares me.  He doesn’t look like me, he doesn’t act like me…”

It’s also a nice choice to set the movie in the 50s.  Since the plot deals with the growing realization the kid has that his parents are up to something suspicious, it resonates that all of this is going on in the Eisenhower-era or, if you like, the Father Knows Best era.  The fact that it deals with food seems even more appropriate given the fact that nutritional information and the marketing of the food pyramid feel as if they come from the 50s, even if they didn’t.  

The movie is shaky, though, in filmmaking terms, something that I can overlook if the overall effect isn’t diminished.  Here, diminishment occurs.  Towards the end, the movie devolves into a slow-motion parade that is both cloying and maddening.  I liked everything that was going on in the movie here, conventional though it may have been, but I hated the way it was captured.  This is the most egregious offense, because the movie does have a nice build prior to this and it really destroys all of the movie’s tension.

For most of its running time, Parents is a well-made Freudian horror movie.  I would say it’s the best Freudian horror movie, but Spider exists and covers much of the same ground in a better, more confident way.  Nevertheless, if Freudian horror comedy is what you’re looking for, Parents is worth your time.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Day 42: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

I can now say I’ve seen two movies that feature acting from both Andie McDowell and Peter Gallagher.  Is there a third movie out there that will complete the trilogy that Short Cuts and this movie began?  An episode of The O.C. will do.

I usually dislike Andie McDowell, but can’t deny that she’s perfectly cast in this film as a prudish and moralistic housewife, a character who dislikes discussing or involving herself in all matters sexual and who admits that when she tried to masturbate, she thought the whole thing seemed silly.  Gallagher, also well cast, plays her husband who’s been reacting to her disinterest in sex by cheating on her with her sister (played by a pre-Quigley Down Under Laura San Giacomo).  When an old college buddy comes to visit (played by a post-Tuff Turf James Spader), he, aided by his video camera, inspires all of them to see the truths of their lives that they’ve long ignored.

Summing up the plot like that makes it sound cheap and easy, like a movie where mentally challenged people teach the normies around them how to appreciate life by constantly talking about things of which they have no real understanding or eating apples all the time.  But with a slight exception for the end when everyone gets what’s coming to them, the movie doesn’t feel cheap or easy and it earns the change in its characters by forcing each one of them to face values they find threatening.  Indeed, though he’s the instigating force behind all this self inquiry and, at first, immune to its effects, the movie doesn’t let Spader run away from the effect he’s had on these people’s lives and challenges his own viewpoint.

Just how Spader’s character creates this effect is novel.  He’s completely honest with everyone and asks genuine but disarming questions.  He declares that liars are the second worst kind of people in the world (the first being lawyers) and, so, many of those around him make a concerted effort to be honest (since no one wants to be among the bad people) which causes them to confront issues in their lives that have been unexamined.  
He reveals openly and unashamedly that he’s unable to achieve an erection with another person, a trait that inspires an immediate mutual attraction between his character and McDowell’s, and videotapes women willingly talking about their sex lives for his own autoerotic purposes.  

Enough has been said, I assume, about the sexual aspects of this film (these aspects come off as rather sweet and curiously innocent to me).  And I’m sure that if you look, you can find a well-reasoned analysis of how the camera functions in the film, allowing the characters to speak their mind and freeing them from the bonds of polite society to talk openly and yet keeping Spader’s character distanced from true intimacy.  I’m not convinced I have anything of note to add to either of these discussions.  Video sees things with such clarity and honesty, though, and this connection of the honesty of the camera and the honesty of Spader’s character is hard to resist.  Blair Witch 2 (yes, I saw that movie) said something along the lines of “Film lies.  Video tells the truth,” a thesis Sex, Lies and Videotape agrees with.  The immediacy and accessibility of the video camera has the freedom to capture honesty about the people it’s aimed at in a way (low-rez though it may be) that film simply cannot (there are too many chemicals [read: variables] in film for us to be able to trust it completely).  

Every time the camera is aimed at someone in this film, it transforms them with its honesty in the same way that Spader’s character inspires everyone in the movie to be more honest.  There’s a fantastic moment when the camera is turned on Spader and how the emotional power invested in the camcorder was palpable, due, mainly, to Spader’s reaction to it (as if he was being violated or, perhaps, his soul stolen).  It’s interesting that Gallagher’s character is the only major character that doesn’t have the camera turned on him.  Instead, he watches a recording of someone else who’s been videotaped, and, as a result, he fortifies his own ideological position, distances himself from those who have been caught by the camera’s unblinking eye.

The movie goes by the book as far as the marriage and infidelity plotting goes, but it never defies the tone it establishes from the outset in doing so.  And there’s a weird, confrontational tone throughout the film, helped along by a nice electronic score by Cliff Martinez.  Looking back over my thoughts, I think I can conclude that the film itself feels honestly wrought.  It’s almost as if a dumb American comedy about marriage, infidelity, and sex was captured on video the same way the characters in this film are and forced to look deep inside itself and tell us what’s really going on underneath it all.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Day 41: Q: the Winged Serpent

There’s something in nearly every monster movie that affects me tremendously.  It’s a Darwinian sort-of tragedy when the heroes, in order to preserve society, rise up and defeat the monster and I always feel sorry for the damn thing, no matter how many people it’s killed.  In Q, there’s a nice reverse of the King Kong myth as the winged beast flies around the Chrysler Building with men inside shooting at it.  But as Q got pummeled by bullets and it screamed in agony, it happened again.  I felt sorry for this monstrosity.  The thing is, sometimes movies do address this, but it’s always so stupidly weepy (Nobody cries when Jaws dies and all that.).  I’d just like someone in a monster movie to say, “Oh man, this is too bad that we’ve gotta hurt this thing, but, seriously, it ate my dog and I can’t have that.”  And then his partner can say, “Yeah, you know, these constant monster attacks are just seriously annoying.”  And then the main guy could say, “Yeah.”  Then they kiss!  FADE OUT.

Q is good fun, a classic monster movie anchored by a bizarre, unhinged performance by Michael Moriarty.  His character is an unusual and welcome addition to the other standard monster-movie tropes employed.  He’s a wheel man for some crooks but also has some skill at the piano (though his random, chaotic noodling fails to impress a barkeep enough to get him a regular gig).  The character’s angry, paranoid, and strangely impulsive, traits convincingly attributed to time spent in prison.  When he discovers the titular winged serpent’s nesting ground (the monster is apparently Quetzalcoatl, an ancient Aztec god), he holds the city for ransom, demanding money and immunity from the law before he’ll tell the authorities.  

Moriarty’s performance is something to see: the character borders on seeming psychotic at times as he rants and raves about how much he’s suffered at the hands of everyone around him.  It gets annoying at times, but it’s usually good, intense fun.  It’s also a nice choice for the script to center itself on an angry dissolute who’s more interested in getting what he thinks the city owes him than saving lives.

How Quetzalcoatl comes to New York is patently uninteresting, easily the weakest part of the film.  The monster itself is a badly composited and cheaply animated claymation beasty.  But the movie uses the POV of the creature well with a shitload of helicopter footage and one shot where we see the shadow of the thing on some skyscrapers actually gave me the old monster-movie thrill, a feeling I assumed dead and buried since I hit puberty.  My absolute favorite part of Q is how quickly the seemingly no-nonsense cop played by David Carradine comes to accept the theory that an ancient Aztec god is decapitating people in New York.  After a quick lecture by someone at a museum, he seems quite convinced of the possibility, despite the scorn heaped on him by his superiors.  The only question that remains for him is whether it’s an unstoppable God or a creature that can be killed.  

The movie answers his question, and it answers it by making me sad.  I suppose this sadness I feel on behalf of the monsters of the world is misplaced and, when faced with a giant tentacled thing or a zombie incarnation of FDR, I’d get over it and gladly shove an ice pick into one of their eyeballs to save my own hide.  And I suppose that showing the suffering, dying throes of the monster allows one to understand with absolute conviction that the heroes were successful at vanquishing their foe and saving us all from being eaten.  And, going even further, I suppose that my empathy for the monsters of the world is based on a belief that there exists a similar monstrosity within myself.  And I guess that’s why I and many, many other people have always liked monster movies (and Q is no exception, though it’s tough going at times).  And I guess what I wish is to see a representation of that feeling onscreen, the feeling that we’re all monsters on the inside and that most of us empathize with monsters.  The movie actually gets close to this with Moriarty’s character and performance, but in the end, this is still a movie about a hunting party.