Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

2017 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #11 – On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951): Another of Ray’s noir films.  This time a cop who is turning increasingly sadistic due to isolation and the pressures of the job (Robert Ryan) is sent to a rural area to help in the manhunt for a murderer.  There he encounters the murderer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino – who also directed some scenes, but is not credited) and the vengeful father of the victim (Ward Bond).  Ryan is at his best while portraying the “cop on the edge” but becomes much less interesting as he is redeemed.  This being a 1950s film, the redemption is at the hands of Lupino, who gives as good a performance as a rather mawkish script would allow (she is blind and angelic and her character exists for no reason than to inspire the humanity of Ryan’s character.)  Bond is fine as the revenge driven father, but has little to do except be gruff and angry at these “city-slickers and their fancy trials”.  The contrast between the darkened city at the beginning of the film and the snowy countryside of the main action is interesting.  Worth checking out if you like noir or Ray (as often here, we get a rather sympathetic take from him on society’s losers and outcasts).

2017 Summer Movies #12 – Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956): Wow.  This is a slice of life film, when life goes off the rails.  James Mason plays an ordinary school teacher who suffers and inflammatory disease and is treated with cortisol.  He takes too many pills and the steroids drive him to psychosis.  What is brilliant here is Mason’s portrayal of the deterioration and Ray’s framing of the events.  It is also an almost subversive look at the “Father Knows Best” idea of American life in the 1950s.  His madness takes the form of an increasingly intense version of patriarchalism.  Side observation: there are several scenes here that show how unchanged America is in many ways: the first scene shows a school kid who doesn’t know his basic geography, Mason’s school teacher has to hold a second job just to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, the schools are burdened with bureaucratic nonsense, later in the film Mason – deep in the madness – gives a speech to a PTA meeting about how education “today” (in the mid-1950s) coddles children and America needs to return to traditional ways to save the morality of the youth… and gets much applause.  You’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #13 – Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel, 2015): This is a surprisingly insightful, and even hopeful, documentary about an almost unbelievable story straight from Reality TV America.  Two men get into a dispute about ownership of the severed left leg of one of the men.  What follows is a story about family, addiction, and the obsession with celebrity.  It is funny, touching, and horrifying all at once.

2017 Summer Movie #14 – Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958): While this deals with gangsters, etc… this is so different from the other Ray films I’ve recently written about.  In many ways, this is a pretty formulaic story – mob lawyer (Robert Taylor) falls for show girl (Cyd Charisse) and winds up betraying mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) so justice can triumph.  What makes this worth watching is the beautiful use of CinemaScope by cinematographer Robert J. Bonner (especially in Cyd Charrise’s two big dance numbers), Robert Taylor’s excellent performance (he does a lot with a fairly cliche character), and Lee J. Cobb’s wonderful over-the-top performance as the mob boss (I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t thinking of this with De Niro’s portrayal of Capone in De Palma’s “The Untouchable’s”).  Not fantastic, but still worth watching.

2017 Summer Movie #15 – La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962): This is a short film told almost entirely with still photographs about a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys is heavily based on this, and this film is credited as inspiring it.  It is an interesting movie in its use of still photography, its sound, and it’s themes of time and memory.  Worth checking out if you like the art house stuff like I do.

2017 Summer Movie #16 – Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997): This film is about a British journalist covering the siege of Sarajevo and how he came to adopt a young Bosnian girl.  What could have been sentimental claptrap is made into a compelling story through good performances and a fairly brutal visual style.  Winterbottom shot is Sarajevo and Croatia just months after the war and filmed some of the scenes of reporting with videotape and then also used actual news footage to heighten the sense of reality.  The violence in the film is not action-style, it is just random and brutal.  Very good.

2017 Summer Movie #17 – For the Love of Spock (Adam Nimoy, 2016): This is really for the fans and as one, I loved it.  Although I had backed Adam Nimoy’s Kickstarter campaign and received a digital copy as soon as it was released, I’ve been putting off watching this for some reason.  There isn’t much about Star Trek or even the impact of Spock on the culture that is very surprising here.  The film is at its best when it focuses on Nimoy and his life.  We get to see his family (of course) and insights into his art and career beyond Star Trek.  Much like his professional life, though, the film keeps coming back to that show – which makes sense.  I loved it.

2017 summer Movie #18 – Chaos on the Bridge (William Shatner, 2014): I was much more impressed with this than I expected to be.  I think Shatner did a decent job of navigating between respect for what Star Trek is to so many people and being honest about the making of a TV show.  This is a documentary about the creation and the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and particularly about Gene Roddenberry’s role in all of this.  It is a funny and often brutal depiction.  If you weren’t clear on why the first two seasons of the show are (to quote Ronald Moore) “almost unwatchable,” this gives you a good set of answers.  I liked Shatner’s documentary “The Captains” but this is even better. Worth watching both for fans and for anyone who is interested in how TV shows get made.

2017 Summer Movie #19 – Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016): I don’t get the positive reviews.  I thought Idris Elba was given next to nothing to do, the only real emotional moments were either associated with tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin or were echoes of the original series, and in place of a story we see empty jokes connecting overblown action sequences.  Also –  a note – not every villain is motivated by vengeance and not every Star Trek story needs to be about a battle.  I came to terms with the idea that many of my problems with the last film were that it wasn’t “my” Star Trek, but I think this was just weak movie making.  The performances were fine and the visuals were big, but I just didn’t care about it.

2017 Summer Movie #20 – (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016): I love the Coen brothers’ movies.  I particularly love how they manage to make comedies that are simultaneously cynical and sentimental.  This is one of my favorites.  It is a love song to post-WWII big studio Hollywood that is also a brutal parody of post WWII big studio Hollywood.  There is so much here I can’t even get started.  If there is one perfect shot, though, it is Eddie Mannix in a moment of profound crisis silhouetted against a Calvary scene on a sound stage.  This is just perfect.  BTW – make sure you know who Eddie Mannix and Nick Schenck really were and brush up on the story of the Hollywood 10.  You don’t have to do this to enjoy the film, but knowing this stuff add many layers.  Watch more movies!

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Summer Movies 2017 #1

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #1 – From Caligari to Hitler (Rüdiger Suchsland, 2014): Summer 2017 Movie #1 – This is a documentary based on a 1947 book which analyzed Weimar era German film to show elements of Nazism. I’ve not read the book, but the film loses that thesis repeatedly – and often to its benefit. The film is really at its best when analyzing popular genres of Weimar movies and bringing in elements of cultural and social history. It suffers from a lack of structure but has enough interesting details to make it worth watching.

2017 Summer Movie #2 – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016): Okay, I’ve finally seen it. I’m sorry, but I just don’t like Zack Snyder’s version of all of this. Martha Kent telling Clark he doesn’t owe the world anything… A middle-aged Batman who is still primarily motivated by his parent’s deaths… a long and grinding series of fights mostly motivated by everyone’s daddy issues… a big funeral scene for a character no one in the audience really believes is dead… Not really exciting, fun, or thought provoking. I’m hoping Wonder Woman might work.

2017 Summer Movie #3 – Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016): Figured I’d get them both in today. The humor wasn’t funny enough, the action wasn’t thrilling enough, the drama wasn’t moving, and the ending was just terrible.

2017 Summer Movie # 4 – The Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014): This is a decent documentary about a famous police corruption case in NYC. Frankly, if you watch this sort of thing you’ve probably seen this before – interviews with cops and crooks (and cops who were crooks) interspersed with archival footage; the corrupt cops who feel invulnerable because of police loyalty right up until The Thing happens that brings it all down; the central figure who lies so well you can’t tell whether he is lying to himself or just to everyone else and who may not know himself, all building up to the final fall and then credits backed by a Rolling Stones song that references New York. This is at its most interesting when it deals with the complex negotiation of loyalty and morality these guys use to justify what they did.

2017 Summer Movie #5 – CBGB (Randall Miller, 2013): I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. Given the comic-book framing device it used (I get why it was used, but it didn’t really work well) I suppose it makes sense that the film feels more like it has a series of caricatures rather than characters. It just seems to me that there was a fascinating subject here and some good acting talent on hand, but the film-makers did little with them.

2017 Summer Movie #6 – Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965): If you know Kurosawa from “Seven Samurai” or “Yojimbo”, this film might be a surprise.  It follows a young doctor in Tokugawa era Japan who winds up working in a clinic in a poor area run by an older doctor (Toshiro Mifune) who becomes his mentor.  There really isn’t a single narrative here so much as a framework that is being used to examine humanism and social injustice.  In the hands of a lesser director this could have been sentimental melodrama but in Kurosawa’s hands it is a thing of beauty.  Great.

2017 Summer Movie #7 – They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949): Ray’s directorial debut is a film noir about a young couple on the run.  There are many parallels here to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”.  It has good performances by Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger as well as some interesting touches, including what seems to have been the first use of a helicopter to capture arial footage of action (as opposed to landscape shots).  Well worth checking out if you like the genre.

2017 Summer Movie #8 – X-Men Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016): Another superhero movie I hadn’t seen yet.  I thought this had some good sequences and performances, but I’m not sure the whole-world-is-in-peril structure can work in every entry in a franchise.  I knew what was going to happen most of the way through the film.  Of course Magneto’s happy family isn’t going to make it, of course Storm will eventually switch sides, of course the Big Bad will be defeated and the world saved.  This is, of course, true of many types of films and sometimes everything else happening makes it all work.  In this case I think it almost worked, but not quite.  I’m glad I saw it, but I didn’t love it.

2017 Summer Movie #9 – Snow Trail (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1947): This was Toshiro Mifune’s film debut and the script was written by Akira Kurosawa.  The story follows three bank robbers attempting to evade police by crossing the mountains in winter.  While there is some action, it isn’t really either a cops-and-robbers movie or a survival film, instead it is mostly about themes of innocence and redemption.  There are some really good landscape and weather scenes and decent performances all around.  If you like Japanese cinema, this is very worth checking out.

2017 Summer Movie #10 – In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950): This is a great movie.  Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter with a history of violent outbursts who becomes the suspect in the murder of a young woman.  Gloria Grahame plays a woman who becomes involved with him and is increasingly suspicious about his guilt.  Both are just amazing in this and the film manages to leave you wondering about the truth right up until the end.  If you love film noir and haven’t seen this, do so immediately.

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Random Films 2016

Posted by Gerald on May 30, 2017

Here is a bunch of mini-reviews from last year that I had scattered across several draft posts and just never published.


Film #1 – You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937): This is Lang’s second film after coming to the US.  Lang is well-known for his influence on film noir, and already in this film you can see elements associated with those movies; the anti-hero, a sense of moral ambivalence, and – of course – those touches of German Expressionism that Lang played so significant a role in bringing to Hollywood.  The movie is also interesting for Henry Fonda (the male lead, but second billed after Silvia Sidney).  I always find the contrast of Fonda’s very naturalistic style with that of almost every other actor he works with in his early films to be fascinating to watch.  Finally, this movie is worth watching for the ending, which is just odd.  Either it is a rather forced attempt at being spiritually uplifting, or it is a satire of the spiritually uplifting endings of Hollywood movies, or Lang was hiding the satire into what was supposed to look like sincerity… or I’m overthinking it all…

Film #2 – War and Peace, Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This is it, the mother of all film adaptations, a four-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel.  It took six years to make and the whole thing clocks in at over seven hours.  This first part is two and a half hours long alone.  It is huge.  The sequence dealing with the Battle of Austerlitz is on a scale like the battle scenes in “Lord of the Rings” – except this was the 1960s, there was no CGI, and every one of the LITERAL cast of thousands is a real person.  I loved it, but would offer a few caveats to anyone planning to watch this.  First, this is a 1960s Soviet film re-released by Criterion; the print has some issues and the transfer is odd, to say the least.  Second, this is NOT a Hollywood epic.  The visuals are fascinating in their use of angles, multiple exposures, varied time, shading and color, and point of reference – but this doesn’t look like a Hollywood epic.  This has Eisenstein and montage theory all over it, and if you aren’t familiar then you’ll want to know who that is and what that is before you watch this.  The sound editing is also striking for its use of contrast and blending – but it won’t sound familiar unless you are really into European film.  Check this out, just be ready – and make sure you have enough time free…

Film #3 – War and Peace, Part II: Natasha Rostova (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): Grand balls, hunts, love and its pitfalls, all done with more interesting use of montage.  Ludmila Davelyeva is wonderful as the young Natasha Rostova.

Film #4 – War and Peace, Part III: The Year 1812 (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This chapter is basically the portion of the novel that deals with the Battle of Borodino.  The battle takes up an hour of the film but at no point is it anything of military history.  Instead it is an epic, grinding, but somewhat ponderous examination of war.  There is a jarring moment at the end where the viewer is forcibly reminded that this film was made in and supported by the Soviet state – and during the early transition from the Khrushchev to the Brezhnev years.  Having finished an hour of looking at the human costs of war, the film ends on a note of strident patriotism – asserting that the battle was a “moral victory” for Russia and the beginning of the Napoleon’s “inexplicable flight away from Moscow” and the beginning of the end of his empire.  Triumphant music then swells, in absolute contrast to the scenes of corpses and wounded men that had preceded it.

Film #5 – War and Peace, Part IV: Pierre Bezhukov (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967):  One last quibble, Sergei Bondarchuk should not have played Pierre Bezhukov.  He was, and looked, too old for the part.  So, the end.  Still very faithful to the novel (yes, I did read the whole thing) but within the constraints of a Soviet film.  In the latter portions of the book, Tostoy is ruminating more about his philosophy of life and death, which is bound up with his Christianity.  Removing the religious elements makes it hard to parse some of the story – such as Bezhukov’s great moment of revelation during his captivity.  Despite this, the last part retains the virtues of the whole.  For those who love big historical dramas, and enjoy a more European style of movie-making, this is very much worth the (considerable) time investment.

Fall Movie #1 – Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946): This is one of those films that film people talk about a lot and I can see why.  It is this dark fantasy whose only real flaw is the flaw of the Beauty and the Beast story – the message of the value of perceiving what is beyond the surface is undermined by the idea that the reward for doing so is surface beauty.  The film is lush and beautiful and the fantastic vision of the magical house being realized with 1940s camera work and practical effects is more impressive, to me, than the modern equivalent with CGI.  Also, one can see the debt the popular Disney version owes to Cocteau’s vision of a house full of spirits and of life.

Fall Movie #2(?) – Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): It isn’t that many directors who have two films nominated for best picture in a single year. Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” won best picture in 1941 (his only Best Picture winner) – this is the other film he had nominated for that award that year.  It is a well-paced action thriller and a wonderful piece of propaganda (a fact noted by no less a connoisseur than Joseph Goebbels).  Good performances and some brilliant production design and photography make this film stand out from similar entries in the genre.  There are two particularly impressive scenes.  The first is a sequence set around a rural field of windmills in Holland.  It combined exterior location shooting on a California beach and a matte painting for the long shots with a full reconstruction of a windmill in a studio soundstage for closer angles and then interior sets of the windmill itself.  Second there is a climactic sequence involving a passenger plane being shot down that featured a brilliant use of rear projection and practical effects.  As the plane is crashing we see the pilots against a projection of film taken by a stunt pilot diving as close to the ocean surface as he could without crashing that was displayed on a rice paper screen so that when the plane hit the water Hitchcock could trigger a flood of actual water that breaks through the screen and floods the cockpit set.  Even the opening shot is all about Hitchcock’s visual sense and carefully planned scenes.  It uses a model of a newspaper office building with a rotating globe on top, begins with the globe (which was in close-up all through the opening credits) pulls back to an establishing shot of the building and then zooms into the window of the office where the movie begins.  Great stuff.

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953):  Even as film noir goes, this thing is fairly brutal – and it works. Glenn Ford plays a cop whose drive for justice, and then revenge, manages to kill all four major female characters in the movie.  Great performances all around, especially by Lee Marvin (I even love that guy’s worst movies) as a sadistic mobster and Gloria Grahame as his girlfriend.  Grahame manages to project the idea of a “good girl” who has become a “bad girl” but wants to be a “good girl” yet is okay with being “bad” anyway.  A couple days ago I was listening to Karina Longworth’s account of Grahame’s life and career in an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast.  She is kind of fascinating for many things, including for having foreshadowed Woody Allen by a few decades and marrying a man (director Nicholas Ray) only to later divorce him and wind up marrying his son (her stepson who lived with them as a teenager) Tommy Ray.  Grahame’s story aside, this is a great film from a world-class director.  Check it out.

Strokes of Genius Film #1 – Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952): Very much not Baz Luhrmann although this film and his won the same two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design).  This is a sort of biopic/artist portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Huston seems to revel in the contrasts of seediness and grandeur in this film, echoed in the “destruction” of the Moulin Rouge through its rise to respectability.  Jose Ferrer is wonderful in his savage and witty self-destructiveness.  His physical performance – often shot walking on his knees with his legs bound behind him – is probably the most famous element of this film.  I was struck by the cinematography.  Huston and Oswald Morris used a special process with the Technicolor print to allow more control over the colors.  The result is a less saturated and vivid palette than the usual Technicolor film; a palette very similar to the artists paintings.  This is a celebration or art that also tries to evoke fin de siècle Paris and does both well.  Still don’t see the point of casting Zsa Zsa Gabor, though.

Strokes of Genius Film #2 – Lust for Life (Vincent Minnelli, 1956): Not Iggy Pop but Kirk Douglas.  Appropriately this film is more about depicting an impression of the art and the artist than a biographical account.  It is at its best when it uses lush cinematography and exact shot placement to echo Van Gogh’s painting.  Although this is one of Kirk Douglas’s most famous roles, I’m not convinced it is his best.  He is good but, perhaps, if finding his way to the consuming passion he wants to show in the character he lost his ability to restrain his own performance when it needed it.  Just one man’s opinion, though.  Anthony Quinn feels much more nuanced in his portrayal of Paul Gauguin.  The film also finds a solid center in the always dependable James Donald.

Strokes of Genius Film #3 – Rembrandt (Alexander Korda, 1936): Alexander Korda produced and directed many films, but historical biopics were pretty much the core of his work.  This is one of those.  Nothing is terribly surprising here for a 1936 film – we have the artist who is misunderstood in his time, lots of Biblical references to maintain the proper moral tone, and an ending suggestive of the poverty of the artist’s later years while also the triumph of genius that lives on.  Charles Laughton is wonderful as always in the lead role.  A young Elsa Lanchester (remembered mostly for “Bride of Frankenstein”, lots of 1960s Disney movies, and “Murder By Death”) plays Rembrandt’s second wife and brings some spark to the role.  Not the greatest film but still worth a look.

Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015): I wanted to like this film. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it either, but I just didn’t care. It has big visuals, but then what major SF film these days doesn’t? It has a sweeping orchestral score, so check off box number two on the Big Budget SF Movie Elements check-sheet. The performances were fine, but in service of a cliche-ridden story; the only twist being it is a “Girl with a Destiny” rather than a “Boy with a Destiny” (but the girl still isn’t the hero; she has to be saved by her boyfriend… repeatedly…). It couldn’t work up any tension in the big climactic scene because it never even occurred to me that our happy couple wouldn’t live or that our villain wouldn’t be vanquished. Seriously, save your time and skip this one.

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John Ford in the 1930s (FilmStruck Collection)

Posted by Gerald on November 6, 2016

Film #1 – The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934): This film is like Ford’s “Stagecoach” in that the most interesting thing about it is the way it inspired so many re-makes. It is a traditional Ford film – you could easily transform the British soldiers into US Cavalry and the Arabs into Indians and have the same movie. That isn’t a slight. Ford was a master at formulaic film-making, to such a point that he established his own formulas. This is one of them.

Film #2 – The Informer (John Ford, 1935): Ford won his first (of six) Best Director Oscars for this film. It is a wonderful study of temptation, betrayal, and guilt. It is also a showcase of John Ford’s ability to craft images. There is a wonderful short sequence where Margot Grahame is shown in close-up with a shawl pulled tightly about her face – an image full of innocence – the Madonna, if you will. Then we cut to this disturbing shot of a man leering (this film has the imprint of German Expressionism all over it) and right back to Grahame as she slips the shawl around her neck to show tousled hair and an air of weary seduction – the Whore, if you will. It says so much, and takes maybe ten seconds of film time. There is too much to describe here. If your only experience of Ford is his westerns with John Wayne, check this out to see why he is justly considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th century.

Film #3 – The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, 1935): This is a comedy featuring Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as a mild-mannered clerk named Jones and a dangerous gangster named Mannion.  It is a quick-paced comedy of mistaken identity that works both because of Ford’s direction and because Robinson is just so good.  Adding to this is Jean Arthur who was one of the best when it came to the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s.  This is a fun movie to watch.

Film #4 – Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936): Not one of Ford’s best, but then a sub-par John Ford film is better than many other directors’ best efforts.  Maybe it is that Ford’s best films tend to focus on characters at the bottom of society – he wasn’t a director of glittering period pieces.  Maybe his devout Catholicism led him to overplay the idea of Mary as Catholic martyr.  Or, maybe, the fact that he was falling for Katherine Hepburn effected his instincts.  Certainly this film lacks many of the characteristic elements of Ford films – such as meticulously designed shots – while substituting more long close-ups of his heroine than we usually see.  The film is at its best though when it deals with something we can see in many of Ford’s best efforts, the power that loss has on people.  Again, not his best, but still worth seeing.

Film #5 – The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1937): This is a film adaptation of a play about the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  Ford hated it.  He fought with the playwright over the adaptation and with the studio over the finished product (which included re-shoots which he had no role in making.) Ford left RKO and didn’t make another film for them for ten years (and when he did it was as an independent producer).  It is fairly uninteresting except in its juxtaposition of duty to one’s country and duty to one’s family (without any real resolution of that conflict).  The highlight of it is Barbara Stanwyk, who makes the movie worth a look.

Film #6 – The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937): This is almost like one of the 1970s disater films in that the whole story is mostly just a set-up for the big storm at the end.  This is one of those “exotic south seas” genre pictures, but it features a dichotomy you can see in many of Ford’s westerns as well.  The Polynesian natives, played by Dorothy Lamour (I think this is the only non-“Road to…” film I’ve seen her in) and the startlingly white Jon Hall, are depicted as simple, pure, and naive – the racist pastiche of the noble savage.  At the same time though, the French colonial system is depicted as rigid and brutal (Raymond Massey’s governor is almost like Javert in his devotion to law and John Carradine’s sadistic jailer is the picture of unchecked power)  and the main action of the film centers on an encounter with a overtly racist white guy.  Ford did this in many of his westerns where he shows some level of awareness of what the US did to the Native Americans, but still pictured them in pretty stereotypical terms.  The film ends with the eponymous hurricane which is quite a special effects scene for a 1930s film.

Film #7 – Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939): FilmStruck had to end its series about Ford in the 30s with this – it was made in 1939, it is the only western he made during the decade (he’d left westerns in the late 1920s), and it is THE western.  To really appreciate it you need to realize that all of the well-worn tropes of the western that you see in this movie are showing up here for the first time.  Also, pay attention to the artistry of the film.  Fords was a painter and you can see his painter’s eye at work here.  Finally, this movie is also very much a reflection of the New Deal.  A group of disparate people come together in the face of common problems and cooperate to survive.  You also just have to love the ending (SPOILER) – Many people criticize media today for its lack of a moral compass.  Well, here you have a director who was a devout Catholic making his best film ever and in the most American of all genres, and what do we have at the end?  The convicted felon/escaped prisoner and the prostitute ride off into a bright future while the banker goes to jail.  Happy ending indeed.

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2016 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on June 24, 2016

Summer Movie #11 – That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941): This movie is as different from the last I watched – Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” – as it is possible to be. This is a piece of classic polished film melodrama portraying the illicit affair between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton. It has major stars in Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier who give typically capable performances. It is overtly romantic, patriotic, and moralizing. It was Winston Churchill’s favorite movie. It portrays the full national mythology of Nelson’s career and death while also dropping large parts of Emma Hamilton’s life as a performer and as the “muse” of painter George Romney. It is a wholly classic piece of work. It is more approachable and entertaining than “Jubilee” on every level. It is also far less daring and memorable, in my opinion. If you love the classics (and I do enjoy them) you’ll love this movie.

Summer Movie #12 – Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1956): This is the second of Wajda’s “War Trilogy” – the third being “Ashes and Diamonds” which I watched and wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  “Ashes and Diamonds” alluded to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but this deals with it directly.  Basically it follows a company of Polish resistance fighter who journey through the sewers of Warsaw to try to escape destruction by the Nazis.  The movie is lass about war than about how humans deal with despair and the loss of hope.  It is powerful, dark, and really depressing (any film that BEGINS by telling you that you are watching the last hours of the characters’ lives is not going to be a light-hearted romp).  The cinematography is great – claustrophobic, shadowy, and gritty (most of the movie is set in a sewer, after all).  The performances are remarkable.  This movie is neither entertaining nor fun, but it is worth experiencing.  Like all worthwhile art, it says something about being human – in this case about being human in really bad times.  Side note – Vladek Sheybal plays a composer who hooks up with the resistance fighters and this was his first major film role.  You probably don’t know the name, but you’ve probably seen this guy – most famously as the chess master in “From Russia with Love” but he did a lot of movies and late 60’s early 70s TV (including many Gerry Anderson series).  This movie is hard to watch, but it is worth the seeing.

Summer Movie #13 – Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980): I love Walter Matthau, so when I noticed his face on the banner for this movie while searching the Criterion offerings on Hulu, I clicked on it immediately.  I felt like I should have watched this at a drive-in.  This is a lightly-comic dark spy thriller – if you can process that.  It has the late-70s vision of the CIA – manipulative, ruthless, institutional – the one depicted in movies like “The Parallax View” or “Three Days of the Condor”; but it has also been written to be a shaggy-dog comedy of the sort Matthau specialized in by this period.  The story was based on a novel written by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel “Death Wish” was based on.  The director, Ronald Neame, is best know for “The Poseidon Adventure”.  As Matthau’s character rebels against the CIA, by threatening to write a tell-all book (this in the era of Frank Snepp and Victor Marchetti) you get wit and comedy rather than Jason Bourne-style action and violence.  He is constantly showing up his pursuers as incompetent and violent, but he never kills any of them.  The movie is just fun in that sort of dry and witty way movies made for adults were once upon a time.  Glenda Jackson is wonderful as his romantic interest/accomplice.  Sam Waterston plays his protege who is reluctantly hunting him at the orders of Ned Beatty, playing one of his many roles as the evil careerist.  Herbert Lom plays a Russian spy who was his long-time rival.  If you would like to visit a very 70s movie and just have fun, watch this.

Summer Movie #14 – The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960): I watched this movie simply because it started right after I finished watching “Hopscotch”.  It is a well-made caper film dealing with a group of former army officers (headed by Jack Hawkins and including Richard Attenborough) pulling off a bank robbery.  There is an interesting undertone of social commentary in that the idea seems to be that these former “Officers and Gentlemen” (all of whom, other than Hawkins, had left the army under various sorts of clouds) were never quite able to find their way to civilian life.  It is also interesting that as they organize and prepare the soundtrack is the sort of heroic score one would associate with war films – underscoring the idea that it was their military training that is allowing them to be daring criminals.  It is all very British – but it is also somewhat reminiscent of the original “Ocean’s Eleven”.

Summer Movie #15 – Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975): This isn’t so much a war movie as it is a movie about being alive during a war.  The film follows a young soldier from call-up through his first experience of actual battle.  There are few surprises in the narrative, but that isn’t really the point.  What Cooper did here was to use very familiar elements from a very familiar story, but he did so with interesting visuals and sound choices and, most notably, great use of archival footage.  This isn’t a movie to watch to unfold a story – you’ve seen this story before – but to experience it in a different way.  This isn’t a “life-changing” sort of movie, but it was an interesting exercise in visual story-telling.

Summer Movie #16 – The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979): There is a lot going on in this film.  It is a sort of rumination on innocence and depravity while also using those extremes to look at the German community in Poland, and Nazism generally, before and during WWII.  It tells a story from the viewpoint of Oskar, a preternaturally intelligent child who deliberately stops growing at age three.  The imagery is fable-like and surreal, then brutal and ugly.  If there is one scene that kind of sums up the movie for me, it is one where the local Nazis (including Oskar’s ostensible father) hold a Nuremberg-style rally to hear a speech from a senior party member.  Schlöndorff is quite deliberate in using moments from “Triumph of the Will” to show these local idiots who see themselves as masters of the world celebrating their vision of their own greatness.  Oskar begins playing his eponymous tin drum in counterpoint to the marching music of the rally, which confuses the band musicians and slowly transforms what they play into the Blue Danube Waltz, at which point the gathered party members begin to waltz with one another to the consternation of the higher officials, and then the whole thing dissolves into chaos as a rain storm breaks.  If the humor of that appeals to you, as it did to me, this film is something you should watch.

Summer Movie #17 – Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): This is a movie I’m embarrassed to say I’d not seen before, given its significance.  This and “The Bicycle Thief” are always mentioned as the beginnings of the whole neorealist movement.  This film, shot and the premiered in an Italy still ravaged by the war, tells a story of the period when Rome was under occupation by the Nazis.  The film has many moments of pure melodrama, but the things that really hit home are the moments of just brutal honesty – about the violence of occupation and about the small moments of courage or compromise that Italians showed then.  The movie is worth seeing on its own, but it is also worth seeing as a moment in film history, as the launching of the careers of figures like Rossellini and star Anna Magnani, and finally as a movie whose making has itself spawned myth and legend.

Summer Movie #18 – A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1991): This is a film from one of my favorite documentarians and shows what makes his work successful.  Rather than a simple narrative of Stephen Hawking’s life, this takes the form of interwoven discussions of his breakthroughs in cosmology with people telling stories about their encounters with him.  The result is a film that leaves one knowing a bit more about the universe and with some insights into the man who discovered so much about it.

Summer Movie #19 – Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946): This was the second of Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” which I’ve been watching out of order (since I wound up watching the last one, “Germany Year Zero” first).  The movie is made up of six vignettes set during the Allied Sicilian and Italian campaigns.  Each of the stories is almost trite – the American soldier and the spunky Italian kid, the GI and the girl he met the day the Americans liberated Rome, etc… – but Rossellini’s unflinching realism and unwillingness to romanticize the characters makes the film rise above what it could have been in the hands of a lesser director.  It is also interesting that his depiction of the American army in Italy is more diverse than those in America at the time.  We see a Black GI, a story about an American nurse, and a group of American chaplains that includes a rabbi.  Still, this is are Italian stories and not American ones.  As was so often the case, Rossellini added to the realism by casting real people – a village girl, a street urchin, etc…  Brilliant and real.

Summer Movie #20 – Jour de Fête (Jacques Tati, 1949): This was Tati’s feature-length directorial debut.  The only other Tati film I’ve seen is the 1971 film “Trafic” and there are a lot of similarities.  Both films have a theme of lampooning the modern search for efficiency and the use of technology (and both films use America as the very symbol of those things).  However, that isn’t really what the movie is “about”.  Like “Trafic” the story, about a fair in a small farming village and a bumbling postman (played by Tati) is really just a vehicle to string together a set of visual comic set-pieces.  His films are quite reminiscent of silent-era comedies.  There is a strong sense of seeing people as both ridiculous and endearing that marks his work; mocking with love, if you will.  If you appreciate Chaplin or Keaton, you’ll probably like Tati as well.

Summer Movie #21 – 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963): I’ve always loved “All That Jazz” but hadn’t been aware that every non-musical thing I really liked about that movie had been done sixteen years earlier by Fellini. It is impossible to sum up this movie, so I won’t try. It is about vanity, lies, faith, truth, doubt, and creativity… and almost everything else. It weaves between reality and fantasy and finally underscores that this is a movie, so it is all fantasy – especially the “real” parts. The cinematography and score are justly renowned and Marcello Mastroianni is fantastic. This movie is on lots of the “top films” lists and has joined the list of my favorite movies of all time.

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2016 Summer Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on May 31, 2016

Summer Movie #1 – Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948): At the time I’m writing this, I’m about a week away from heading to Berlin, and here it is as shot by a master in August of 1947 – still then very much a city in ruins.  There are a lot of things in current culture that are labelled “post-apocalyptic”.   This film shows the real thing, a ruined city filled with ruined people and no real hope at all.  The people have been ruined by the poverty of living in the shattered remnants of a city, but they’ve also been poisoned by what came before.  There is a brilliant sequence with a recording of one of Hitler’s speeches framed against what his movement left behind.  The character story is also one of how evil remains in us, and maybe of how it has to be expunged.  It is a hard movie to watch, but I think it will be equally hard to forget as I’m looking at the gleaming city that has been built out of the one Rossellini shot almost seventy years ago.  A couple other things: It is amazing and heart-rending to realize that Rossellini had lost his own son not long before seeing this film.  I saw pictures of him in the Criterion extras, and there is more than a bit of resemblance between that young boy and Edmund, the major character in the film.  Second, Rossellini evidently shot this without any real script and you can see echoes of what Godard will be doing twenty years later.  It is also fascinating to realize that he had to be working out the precise movements that make up so much of the film (especially the ending scenes) as he was shooting them – no elaborate story-boarding, just his mind and his eye.  Amazing and shattering.

Summer Movie #2 – Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987): Here is a second film I watched because I’m going to the city where it was set – and it was a perfect choice.  There are films where the city itself is one of the characters (I’ve argued here, for example, that the biggest weakness of the second “Ocean’s” film is that it wasn’t set in Las Vegas) and Berlin is a character here.  I can’t wait to walk those streets, hopefully late at night, to see if I can capture a bit of this.  If you need a solid narrative, you won’t find it here – this is a collection of moments in people’s lives, in a city, around a theme of witnessing life and living it.  It is a movie about being in a story that doesn’t tell much of a story – which is fine.  This is film as art, to be experienced and internalized, not parsed and consumed.  It took me much of my life to understand how to do this, or to realize I wanted to, but it changed everything for me about not just film, but music, writing, everything.  BTW – if you have seen 1998’s “City of Angels” this is much less easily accessible, very different, and much better.

Summer Movie #3 – Closely Watched Trains ( Jiří Menzel, 1966): This film isn’t associated with one of the cities I’m travelling to, but it is one of the more well-known films from the Czech New Wave.  It is a comedy, of sorts, set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.  It is kind of a coming-of-age story, but not exactly.  I’m using all these qualifiers because this movie doesn’t fit into neat categories, it is funny, but also bleak, it is sexual, but not “racy” – it is a bit more than any of those terms would suggest.  I’ve been reading a fairly dense book dealing with modernism, surrealism, and the city of Prague and the author frequently comments on the bleak humor of the Czechs – created from having experienced every flavor of modernism in the 20th century and often in the worst possible ways (a nation born in world war, occupied by the Nazis in another world war, taken by the Soviets afterwards, and then being reborn into westernism and capitalism).  This film is filled with those sensibilities.  It celebrates while scoffing.  I’m really glad I’ve seen it.

Summer Movie #4 – 21 Days (Basil Dean, 1940): This is a decent suspense melodrama, though really only notable due to the cast.  It stars Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh and was shot in 1937, so early for both of them.  Lawrence Olivier is the “black sheep” wild younger son, Leslie Banks is his upstanding barrister older brother, and Vivian Leigh is his lover Wanda.  There is a murder, and a cover-up, and an innocent man.  Everything hinges on whether Olivier will own up to the crime or let an innocent man be punished.  It was fine, but not really noteworthy.  The only connection to my pre-trip films is thin – it was produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda.

Summer Movie (special) – Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984): I’m not counting this one in the “Summer of 100 Criterion Films” because a) I’ve seen it many times and b) it isn’t in the Criterion collection.  Despite all that I thought I’d watch it before the trip.  Many of the exteriors were shot in Prague – in the Mala Strana, which we will be visiting – and Vienna.  Also, Milos Forman is Czech, so there is that.  I don’t have much to add – beautifully shot, great performances, wonderful staging and choreography (by Twyla Tharp) for the opera scenes.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  I watched it via Netflix, and thus saw the “Director’s Cut”.  It wasn’t a short film when I saw it in the theater (161 minutes) and this adds twenty more.  Like many of these “restored” versions, you can often see why some of the scenes were cut.  Still a few of them are worth seeing in that they add resonance to things that were already in the theatrical cut.  Worth seeing, but be ready for the long haul.

Summer Movie #5 – Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958): This is a powerful film, cited as the best of Polish realist cinema, dealing with the end of World War II and the rise of the Communist regime.  It walks a bit of a tight-rope between nationalist sentiments and what the government would allow even in the aftermath of the reforms of 1956.  It is beautifully shot in a style reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” in many ways and features some interesting performances.  The story really seems to focus on the ultimate futility of war, even when one fights for a good cause.  A final sequence where people celebrating the new regime dance in an almost mindless fashion seems to be showing the worst of what was yet to come. Depressing but powerful and well worth seeing.

Summer Movie #6 – Gimme Shelter (Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970): I decided I needed a break from grim Eastern European films, so I went for a documentary that focuses on a concert that turns into a sort of riot and includes a fatal stabbing.  Somehow I’d never seen this before – at least in its entirety.  Footage from this has been used so often that I’d seen bits of it many times.  This works for two reasons, camera operators who knew where to point their cameras and when and great editing.  The content, well that pretty much confirms my opinions of the period as a whole.  This movie and “Woodstock” sort of encapsulate our whole visual memory of this cultural era, so see it if you haven’t.

Summer Movie (Special Transatlantic List):
Atlanta to Amsterdam
#1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
#2 All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
#3 Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Paris to Atlanta
#1 Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
#2 Trumbo (John McNamara, 2015)
#3 The Man From UNCLE (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Summer Movie #7 – Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974): This documentary about the Vietnam War has too many echoes with much more recent events.  It is powerful and brilliant.  This is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made and you can really see the influence it has had on later film-makers.  Michael Moore might seem an obvious example, but I think Errol Morris is a better one.  Unlike Moore and many other documentarians, Davis is rarely seen or heard in the film.  Instead he allows interviews and news footage to carry the message.  Adding to this is the breadth of figures interviewed – William Westmoreland, Walt Rostow, Clark Clifford, numerous veterans, Vietnamese from all sides of the struggle, etc…  This is a brilliant film.

Summer Movie #8 – Judex (Georges Franju, 1963): Sometimes reading up on a movie before watching it really helps, and this is an example.  The movie is a re-make of a 1916 French serial of the same name featuring a pulp avenger character named Judex.  Knowing this explains a lot of things left unexplained in the film (the pre-WWI setting, the use of silent film narration cards, etc…).  The movie is fun, but not really a send-up.  It is almost like “Raiders of the lost Ark” in that it tries to capture an earlier sort of movie.  It is almost surreal at times with visuals that seem influenced by German expressionism.  The thing it really reminded me of was the 1960’s series “The Avengers” – a similarity heightened by the Diana Rigg-esque black cat-suit occasionally worn by the villainess.  That character, played by Francine Bergé, is the most arresting thing about the film.  Fun, but be prepared for something that is self-consciously heavily stylized and effected.

Summer Movie #9 – The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958): Alec Guinness, who stars as well, wrote the screenplay for this film.  It is a comedy that ventures into some social commentary about art and society (especially about art and wealth).  Guinness is fun as the anti-social conman painter and delivers a wonderful monologue to his uncomprehending lady friend about how to view a painting.  Well worth the viewing, particularly if you care about art.

Summer Movie #10 – Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978): See “Cult Movie.”  This film is a bit hard to describe – think of it as existing at an intersection between British punk, no wave cinema, and magical realism… sort of.  There really is no story, but rather a framing device for a series of episodes (Queen Elizabeth I has John Dee summon the angel Ariel – from “The Tempest,” which Jarman adapted immediately after releasing this film – to allow her to see the future; a sort of collapsed nightmare version of Britain not too different from “A Clockwork Orange” in many ways).  The film-making is studiously raw (or punk) and the performances likewise.  Brian Eno scored the film, several punk figures appear in the film, most significantly Adam Ant, and also Richard O’Brien and Nell Campbell who are best known for “Rocky Horror”.  If you can appreciate the film for what it is – an early effort by Jarman to examine the sorts of things he would for the rest of his career but in this case through a late 70s British punk aesthetic – this is worth watching.  If that description makes no sense to you at all – or is already irritating you – best to avoid this one.

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2015 Fall Break Movies

Posted by Gerald on October 18, 2015

Fall Break Movie #1 – Fulltime Killer (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2001):  Here we have a film that happily sacrifices any sense of heavy drama for heaps of stylish darkness. This takes a well-worn concept (a conflict between the Best Assassin Ever and the Guy Who Wants the Title) and breathes some life into it with some good action pieces, a lot of pop-culture references (everything from the movie “Point Break” to the manga “Crying Freeman”), and a fun performance by Andy Lau as the smirking would-be top killer.  The use of Beethoven along with choreographed slow-motion violence, and a heavy helping of grotesque humor, give a couple of the sequences a strong feeling of “A Clockwork Orange”.  As is often the case with these Hong Kong action films – especially those from Johnnie To – this moves along in a pretty formulaic direction and then suddenly veers in a very strange direction – like structuring the whole ending of the movie around a cop who had gone insane in a big shoot-out with the two gunmen finding closure by writing the ending of the story – but then fictionalizing it so he can sell the screenplay.  Odd and very worthwhile if you are into this genre.

Fall Break Movie #2 – Winter on Fire (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015): This is a documentary about the 2013-2014 revolution in the Ukraine that brought down the Yanukovich government and indirectly sparked the current conflict there.  It eschews and pretense at an objective stance in favor of a celebration of the protesters.  What this loses in informative power or persuasiveness it more than makes up for in immediacy.  It is mostly made of video shot on the streets and interviews with protesters – in many cases the very people caught on camera.  It is hard to watch at times – the view of police violence and the bloody victims is hard, watching as a sniper kills unarmed protesters is even harder.  This is a very worthwhile view of revolution from the street level and a story that we are dealing with now just over a year later.

Fall Break Movie #3 – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2014): Finally saw it.  Most of my friends know that I loved the LOTR films (and make a ritual out of watching them every New Year’s Day) but I just can’t feel the same way about the Hobbit films.  Much is good – I love Martin Freeman as younger Bilbo, all the work from WETA was excellent, and more… – but overall I can like these movies, but not love them.  They’ve taken what could have been an enchanting single movie and blown it up into something it should never have been.  I’m not going to argue the points – there is much to love here, but not for me.

Fall Break Movie #4 – The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015): This is an excellent, though not flawless, example of a favorite genre of mine – space exploration adventures (not really “science fiction” as it usually appears in movies).  Others would include films from 1969’s Marooned to 2013’s Gravity.  It is nicely paced and features beautiful scenery.  The characters are well-written and nicely played, even if in some cases they are also a bit stereotypical.  If I have a major criticism it is that the movie seems to play out in a fairly predictable fashion.  There is never really a strong feeling that it will end any differently than it does – but it is still fun seeing exactly how it plays out.  A few weaknesses don’t spoil the reality that this is a very good film and well worth the watching.

Fall Break Movie #5 – Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015): This was the second of a back-to-back movie day and a second film from a favorite genre of mine – a Cold War movie (that is also a historical drama).  This tells the story of attorney James Donovan who represented Soviet spy Rudolph Abel and was subsequently involved in the negotiations concerning Abel’s exchange for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.  Strangely enough, a movie about the U-2 spy plane incident starring Tom Hanks attracted a crowd that was, on average, somewhat older than me.  The movie does have the burden of telling a true story whose outcome is a matter of history, but manages to overcome that by emphasizing the uncertainties of the process itself.  The real success of the movie comes, not surprisingly, from an excellent performance by Hanks who portrays the sort of ordinary hero he has made his specialty.  The result is more drama than thriller, but still packs some tense moments.

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2015 Summer Movies #8

Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2015

Summer Movie #71 – Mission: Impossible 3 (J.J. Abrams, 2006): With this movie the franchise got back on to firmer ground. The film is more about the technology and the capers than the big action set pieces. It has a number of tightly plotted (and edited) sequences that feel like Mission: Impossible, as opposed to “insert generic action franchise”. Keri Russell’s short appearance foreshadows her excellent work on “The Americans” (which you should be watching, if you are not already). I’d forgotten that Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q both appear as part of Ethan Hunt’s team for this one. Philip Seymour Hoffman was wonderful as the villain. Finally, this film has to have the most MacGuffin-ish MacGuffin in the history of stories. The whole plot centers around the “Rabbit’s Foot” – people die, kill, kidnap, torture, and offer to pay vast sums of money for this thing. Yet, at the end of the movie you’ve got no clue as to what it is supposed to be – which is the point. It drives the plot, but what it is matters not at all. I had fun. One more before I go see the new one.

Summer Movie #72 – Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999): This is one of my favorite moves – the Gulf War era’s answer to “Kelly’s Heroes”.  I love how Russell takes comedy and drama and slams them into each other in this (common for his movies, but I think it is exceptionally effective here).  I also love the cinematography – great photography, beautiful processing, and innovative technique.  It has great action sequences that are very different than anything else out there – you just don’t see many battle scenes played with Peter Cetera crooning in the background.  It is to my mind the best depiction of the “media war” done on film yet.  This is also the movie that convinced me George Clooney could really act.  If you’ve not seen this, treat yourself soon.

Summer Movie #73 – Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986): Lately I’ve been watching a lot of 1980s action movies and I’ve been watching the Mission: Impossible franchise.  At the center of that particular Venn diagram is one movie – “Top Gun”.  Roger Ebert really summed up this movie when he said, in effect, that it was hard to review because the good parts are overwhelmingly good, but the bad ones are unrelentingly bad.  Really when there are planes, it is awesome, when people talk it is terrible.  You really could just watch the opening credits part – almost pornographic shots of aircraft being readied for launch over the Harold Faltemeyer them, then launch and Kenny Loggins – and skip the rest of the movie.  Here are some question that occurred to me this time:

  1. Does Hong Kong really produce “rubber dog shit” and are there people who pay airfreight to have it shipped in cargo planes?  If so, why?
  2. Is it possible that Tony Scott didn’t realize he was making gay porn?
  3. Did that aircraft carrier not have any pilots aboard until “Maverick” and “Iceman” were flown in special?
  4. When “Maverick” asks permission for a flyby after his big victory at the end, he is informed “the pattern is full”.  Full of what?  The whole setup for the preceding fifteen minutes of the film is that there were no other planes flying during the big dogfight except the two stars – and one rescue helicopter.

Still, for some reason I wound up watching it, and probably will again someday.

Summer Movie #74 – Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990): I’ve never understood why this film enjoys the popularity it does with some people.  I think Verhoeven was effectively blocked from making a much more interesting film about the slippery nature of reality by the presence of Schwarzenegger and Schwarzenegger was asked to do things he simply doesn’t have the acting chops to pull off.  I still like it, but I don’t think it measures up to, say, “Robocop” or “Starship Troopers” on the one hand or to “Conan the Barbarian” or “Running Man” on the other.  I also do not get why Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this is so well-regarded.  Again, I love his work but don’t see this as his best.  It sounds to me like someone took James Horner’s score for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and mixed in elements from Basil Poledouris’s score for “Conan the Barbarian”.  Maybe it is the mixture?  I don’t know.  Still, this movie has a bartender throwing a machinegun to a three-foot tall hooker so she could mow down a bunch of guys in tac armor, so I have to love it a little bit.

Summer Movie #75 – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011): I really enjoyed this movie.  Bird, who had made his reputation with animated films (“The Iron Giant”, “The Incredibles”…) built a fast-paced action thriller that hit all the spots for this franchise – intricate caper scenes, exotic locations, high-tech wizardry, all the good stuff.  I also liked that the script paid attention to events in the previous movie and the film featured cameos from some of those actors.  Simon Pegg becomes the new “Barney”(and also “Scotty” in Abrams second big franchise – always the tech guy and comic relief).  Jeremy Renner does a good job doing a two-hour audition reel for the Bourne films and for the Avengers.  No high art, but a good example of what it is.  Now I’m ready for the new one… and this is it for the summer 2015 movie reviews.

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2015 Summer Movies #7

Posted by Gerald on August 2, 2015

Summer Movie #61 – Tears of the Sun (Antoine Fuqua, 2003) I was in a mood, so I watched this again.  No new reactions, except that a competent filmmaker can manipulate your feelings, but a great filmmaker does so without letting you know it is happening.  Fuqua is competent.

Summer Movie #62 – The Wild Geese (Andrew McLaglen, 1978): Again, I was in a mood, so I watched this again.  No new thoughts at all.  See my review from last summer.

Summer Movie #63 – Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006): And the mood to watch action films set in Africa continued, so I did.  I like this movie, but again had no new insights about it since my last review.

Summer Movie #64 – Mission: Impossible (Brian DePalma, 1996): DePalma has made a number of memorable movies, but this is the only one I really enjoy watching and re-watching.  I think the whole modern spy action movie genre (Bourne, etc…) was started with this movie.  Of the various films in this franchise, it is my favorite because it is the closest in feel to the TV series.  There are big action sequences, but it is mostly a caper film.  I’m even willing to forgive them for making Jim Phelps into a bad guy, mostly.

Summer Movie #65 – Mission: Impossible 2 (John Woo, 2000): I just rewatched this for the first time since seeing it in the theater and my opinion remains unchanged.  It doesn’t work.  I love John Woo’s movies, overall – but not this one.  The story is basically fine.  The acting is competent, although both Ving Rhames and Bendan Gleeson are completely wasted, and this goes double for Anthony Hopkins, who might as well have not appeared onscreen at all.  I’ve got to lay this one at the feet of the director.  His style didn’t fit the story.  The over-the-top action he is so well-known for seemed cartoonish here (and not in the good way).  Also, the last scene, with Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton wandering off into an Australian street fair to have a romantic getaway felt completely false.  It was too happy.  It was as if David Lynch had used his ending for “Blue Velvet” without layering in any of the dark and fake hints (that mechanical bird is still one of my favorite things ever).  Yes, I’d rather talk about that movie than this one, but this was the one I watched.

Summer Movie #66 – Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982): One of the surprising things about the Netflix series Sense8 is that it has an ongoing set of references to 1980s action films.  Having watched the first season of that, I felt a need to watch some, and started here.  Why does this movie work?  The story is a set of cliches, the acting rarely rises above the competent and often doesn’t reach that mark – although Mako is fun and his narration really sets the tone, James Earl Jones is quite good, and William Smith is always interesting even if he is only onscreen for a few minutes.  Also, Max von Sydow just can’t help but be good, and he seems to really enjoy doing these cheesy genre roles.  I think some things make this into a film worth watching.  First, Milius just knows how to pace an action film and brings that gift here.  The cinematography is quite striking. Finally Basil Poledouris created a beautiful score that fits the visual style and the story well.  I do love this movie, even with its flaws.

Summer Movie #67 – The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984): Many people rightly discuss Cameron in terms of his use of special effects, but I think that does him a disservice.  This guy is not Michael Bay.  Bay builds movies to support special effects, Cameron uses special effects to support his stories.  I think this is clear in this movie.  While it has some effects, what he does very well here is create tense scenes.  Most of the film is in tight shots and close quarters, it makes you feel tense and claustrophobic.  Then when he opens things up, it is a relief.  He also shows he understands pacing here – how long to keep the tension building and when it needs to break.  I’m not saying he is Hitchcock, I’m just saying he deserves more credit than he often gets.  Finally, I like villain Arnold Terminator much better than hero Arnold Terminator.

Summer Movie #68 – The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987): How perfect is the cheese of this movie?  It is all of the 1980s in one spot.  Harold Faltermeyer (“Beverly Hills Cop”, “Top Gun”) did the score.  The closing song is sung by John Parr who sang the theme song from “St. Elmo’s Fire”.  You’ve got Arnie, you’ve got Maria Conchita Alonzo, you’ve got Yaphet Kotto, you’ve got cameos by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa.  Finally, you have Richard Dawson playing the evil version of himself from “Family Feud” while surrounded by the Solid Gold dancers.  All of this against a backdrop of neon dystopia in a screenplay based on a story by Stephen King… and the movie is directed by Starsky of “Starsky and Hutch”!  Yes, it sucks (except for Dawson, who is brilliant) but who cares?

Summer Movie #69 – Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988): Golan/Globus, Canon Films, Jean-Claude Van Damme. – you pretty much have the whole movie there.  This is pure popcorn trash.  You’ve got the young “American” (this is one of several Van Damme films where they do some creative screenwriting to explain why this dud with the Belgian accent is actually American) who grew up being taught by a Japanese master of ninjitsu and then goes to fight in a big martial arts deal to honor him – based on “true events” in the life of the film’s fight coordinator, Frank Dux (you get over two minutes to read about him just before the final credits roll).  This has every cliche in the book – the buddy (Donald Gibb – “Ogre” from Revenge of the Nerds and from about a thousand other movies – this guy has worked), the hot blonde reporter (Leah Ayres), the bad guy who the hero has to beat because he hurt the buddy and is all evil and stuff (Bolo Yeung), the training montages, the moment of crisis, etc…  The film has somewhat pedestrian fight scenes that really just exist to showcase individual moves, usually shown in slow-motion (here Van Damme does a combo ending in a helicopter kick, etc…) much like the “story” of this movie only exists to showcase the fights – like the “story” in a porn film exists just to organize the sex.  The only really good things about this are the location – Hong Kong just always looks good on film – and that it gave a minor role to Forest Whitaker, who is not interesting at all here but it gave him a paycheck so he could eventually go on to do good movies.  If you can appreciate the athleticism of the fight scenes, the ineffable je ne sais quoi of Jean-Claude Van Damme, or the almost textbook exercise of genre this movie represents, watch it – otherwise avoid.

Summer Movie #70 – Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson, 1965): Robert E. Lee is widely, and probably falsely, quoted as having said “It is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”  (there are several variants – see “falsely”).  Whatever the provenance, that quote sums up many major studio war films in the 1960s.  They are structured and shot like classic action-adventure movies (a hero, a sidekick, a villain, exciting stunts, etc…) but also contain darker moments influenced by the growth of the more anti-war war films that began to appear (again) in the 1950s.  This is a classic that falls perfectly into that sort of movie.  It is exciting and fun, but also has moments of darkness – especially the ending.  Mark Robson directed other films of this sort, as well as “Peyton Place” and, two years after this “Valley of the Dolls”.  The performances by Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard make up most of the film.  Wolfgang Preiss appears as the major personal antagonist – I think there was a law that he had to play a German officer in every big budget WWII film between 1960 and 1960.  Jerry Goldsmith contributed another of his great movie scores.  This film also featured a young James Brolin in one of his first credited film roles.  I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never seen this before, but I’m glad I finally did.  BTW – MST3K is wrong in quoting Trevor Howard’s line – it wasn’t “Run, Von Ryan!” it was “Come on, Von Ryan!”  You’re welcome.

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2015 Summer Movies #6

Posted by Gerald on August 1, 2015

Summer Movie #51 – The General (John Boorman, 1998): No, not that one – this is a biographical film about Martin Cahill, an Irish crime boss who was assassinated by the IRA in 1994.  Brendan Gleeson is great as Cahill and Jon Voight turns in a good performance as a police officer trying to bring him to justice.  This film is not one of the stylistic masterpieces that Boorman is best known for – it is generally pretty spare and straightforward.  The film can’t seem to decide if it wants to depict Cahill as a Robin Hood-like example of the Irish independent spirit, or a ruthless thug – and to my mind doesn’t do a good job of navigating between those extremes.  Perhaps the ambivalence is a reflection of Boorman’s attitude (he also wrote and produced the movie).  Boorman was a victim of one of Cahill’s burglaries – and this burglary is dramatized in the film.  We see Cahill break into a house and steal various items, including a child’s toy train (which he later gives to his daughter) and a gold record – Boorman’s copy of the gold record for the soundtrack from “Deliverance”.  I was left equally ambivalent about this movie.  I’m not sorry I saw it, but I can’t really recommend it either, unless you just love Brendan Gleeson.

Summer Movie #52 – Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014): This adaptation of a play dramatizes the efforts of a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, to convince the commander of German forces in Paris at the end of the occupation, General Dietrich von Choltitz, not to destroy the city before it could be taken by the allies as he had been ordered by Hitler.  The movie plays out almost entirely as one conversation between the two over the course of one night.  The performances are great and it manages that trick of building real tension even though we know the ending.  Well worth checking out – just be ready to read a lot of subtitles.

Summer Movie #53 – Carve Her Name with Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958): This is a British dramatization of the wartime service and execution of SOE agent Violette Szabo, played by Virginia McKenna.  This is a decent war adventure film of the classic style done by a skilled director (Gilbert had a successful career that included “Alfie” and three Bond films).  It is certainly a genre exercise and both romanticizes and whitewashes the real story.  If you are a fan of this sort of film, it is certainly worth the watching.

Summer Movie #54 – Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014): This is an excellent musical biopic about Brian Wilson that doesn’t follow the general pattern of musical biopics.  Rather than a single narrative the movie switches back and forth between two key periods in Wilson’s life and uses two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) to play him at these stages.  Paul Giamatti is wonderfully creepy as Dr. Eugene Landy, who basically held Wilson as a prisoner for many years.  The film does a wonderful job of depicting genius and insanity.  You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Summer Movie #55 – X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014): I almost felt a sense of responsibility to watch this one, as opposed to any real desire – but I’m glad I did.  This might be the strongest entry in the X-Men franchise so far.  It had a lot for the Marvel fans, a good story, and decent pacing.  The performances were good overall and I found myself able to see past the action set-pieces (which were well-done) and actually care about what was happening to these people.  Maybe the reason is that this story centered on the idea that these are damaged people in many ways and explored how their damage could lead to heroism or treachery alike.  If I have a criticism it is the one common to most summer tent-pole action films – there is precious little time to really develop the character and sub-plots.  Still, Singer made good use of what time he had.  This was quite well done.

Summer Movie #56 – A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbjin, 2014): This was the last of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film to be released during his lifetime – dammit.  It is an excellent spy thriller based on a John Le Carre novel of the same name.  I love these sorts of films – subtle intricate plots about deception and betrayal.  This is completely lacking in “Bourne” style action sequences – it is about mood, character, and tension.  The performances were great, especially Hoffman who plays one of those Le Carre characters with a lot going on underneath, but very little of it reaching the surface.  An excellent movie.

Summer Movie #57 – The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes, 2014): It is the third Expendables movie.  One-liners were delivered, things were blown up, hordes of faceless enemies were dispatched, more things were blown up, martial arts sequences were sequenced, more things were blown up…  This franchise has always been about the stars.  This time the cast included Mel Gibson channeling the crazy for artistic purpose, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, and Antonio Banderas who was quite entertaining as he chewed scenery with delight.  If you can appreciate these for what they are, this is worth the seeing.  If you can’t it is worth avoiding.  Personally, I loved it.

Summer Movie #58 – PTU (Johnnie To, 2000): This is a well-known Hong Kong action film from one of the best directors of the genre.  It basically follows a “Police Tactical Unit” through an evening of patrol that gets wound up with the loss of a detective’s gun (I can’t help but think there is some homage to Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” there) and interwoven with a Triad murder and other elements.  The film is filled with noir style and delves into themes like corruption and police brutality before ending in a climatic shootout that seemed steeped in Peckinpah and Woo.  The only down side is that the narrative itself is so murky as to be impenetrable in places.  I’m not sure if that is deliberate or just a failure of translation or cultural transmission.

Summer Movie #59 – Rough Riders (John Milius, 1997): Ah, John Milius… has any other director ever made imperialism seem like so much fun?  Which is why Theodore Roosevelt – a man who gloried in American expansionism and who saw war as a crucible from which true manhood emerged – has been such a perfect subject for him, both here and in 1975’s “The Wind and the Lion”.  Having just finished a biography of TR, I was prompted to dig out the DVD of this, which I got some years ago but hadn’t watched (I did see this back when it aired on TNT, though).  This “miniseries” (it really is just a long movie in structure) is clearly the work of the same man who gave us the (much superior) “The Wind and the Lion”.  It simultaneously presents American imperialism as an outgrowth of greed and as a wonderful adventure.  Tom Berenger did a much better job of capturing the real TR in this film than Brian Keith (who appeared in this as William McKinley) did in that older one.  He got TR’s earnestness, his energetic and overwhelming charm, and things like his speech patterns – but Keith’s version was more fun.  Fun, that is the problem for me.  I love that older movie and can like this one, until I start thinking.  Brian Keith as TR in “The Wind and the Lion” delivers a line that expresses an idea one can also see behind this film’s depiction of the Spanish American War.  He says the the world will never love America “because it has too much audacity… and can be a bit blind and reckless at times…”.  Here we have the comforting lie we Americans can tell ourselves about our brand of imperialism – that it is just us overreaching a bit.  This makes the thousands of dead and the concentration camps in the Philippines after 1898 into the equivalent of a teenager going for a joy ride.  We meant well when we went into Cuba, so subjecting the island to decades of oppressive dictatorships that we supported in the name of maintaining American business interests (not to mention fifty years of undeclared war when they had the “audacity” to throw out our chosen guy) was just a youthful indiscretion.  Boys will be boys after all.  Milius has done exciting and interesting action films, but they support a philosophy which makes us feel good about American dominance, and whose toxic remnants are “extraordinary rendition” and Abu Ghraib.  I wish I hadn’t realized this.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch his work again without this being all I see.

Summer Movie #60 – Sharknado 3: Oh Hell, No! (Anthony C. Ferrante, 2015): As anyone who reads these would know, I loved the first two movies in this franchise.  They managed to walk a fine line between schlock and self-parody with real aplomb.  This one didn’t work as well.  It is obvious now that SyFy sees a cash cow so they are trying too hard to manufacture a cultural moment, and not doing well.  There was too much product placement, too much barely concealed corporate synergy.  Also, if you are going to put Ann Fucking Coulter in front of me as the Vice-President of this country in a movie about tornadoes filled with sharks, I want to see her gruesome death, and I didn’t.

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