Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for August, 2013

Summer Movies 2013 Pt. X

Posted by Gerald on August 11, 2013

Summer Movie #91 – Galaxy of Terror (Bruce D. Clark, 1981): It is called “Galaxy of Terror” and it was produced by Roger Corman. I think we can all see where this is going. This rather blatant “Alien” rip-off is a somewhat famous for several reasons. A young man named James Cameron was the Second Unit director and one of the production designers (this was his second film working for Corman). It starred Edward Albert, Erin Moran (who was still appearing on “Happy Days” at the time and was about to do “Joanie Loves Chachi”), Ray Walston, Grace Zabriskie, and a pre-“Freddy Krueger” Robert Englund. Despite all this, though, the movie is probably most infamous for a scene that originally earned it an “X”-rating where a worm monster rapes a busty crewwoman (played by Taaffe O’Connell – yes that is spelled correctly) who goes from terror to ecstasy before dying of an orgasm. According to the interwebs, this scene (which began in the script as the woman is attacked by the monster, “accidentally” rendered topless, and then devoured) was greatly changed at the insistence of Corman, who had promised both a sex scene and full frontal nudity to the backers. Being Corman, he decided to just combine that into the existing scene. When the director and actress both refused (she was willing to do the moaning and faces of ecstasy, but not the full nudity), Corman directed the scene himself, using a body-double, and then edited the results into the existing attack footage. The results earned an “X” rating and then had to be re-edited. This was film-making in the Corman School. The whole thing (even the parts without disturbing sexual connotations) is really awful. I wish MST3K could have done this one.

Summer Movie #92 – Papillon (Franklin J Schaffner, 1973): I saw this mentioned in the film “Trumbo” because he wrote the screenplay and had added it to my Netflix queue because it is one of the “classics” that I’ve never seen.  Then, unable to sleep last night, I turned on TCM, and there it was – serendipity.   This is one of the classic escape movies, although most of it is about failure to escape.  It is a classic big picture from one of the great big movie directors (“Planet of the Apes” & “Patton” among others).  Beautiful Technicolor cinematography and a score by Jerry Goldsmith contribute to a good movie.  Not a great one, though – at least for me.  I was just never that taken with Steve McQueen’s performance here.  I thought Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of weakness and guilt was far more interesting.  Still, this is very worth watching.

Summer Movie #93 – Slaughterhouse Five (George Roy Hill, 1972): This has been on my “I ought to see this” list ever since I saw a short write-up about it in a book on science fiction movies that I had when I was a teenager.  It is an interesting movie adaptation of the famous novel.  Through a jumping narrative and interesting visuals we see a reflection on how the events of our lives fit together, we see death represented as a hostile psychotic tracking us through time to wreak vengeance for nothing, and, probably most significantly, we see the stupidity and waste of war.  None of this is done with a lot of preaching or explanation.  The audience is largely allowed to draw their own conclusions.  Well worth seeing.

Summer Movie #94 – Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004):  Another movie with time as a central conceit, which I didn’t really think about until I was watching it.  This movie takes one of the most fantastic concepts in science fiction – time travel – and treats it like the development of the PC.  A couple of smart guys in their garage figure out how to do it – by accident.  It feels very real – especially given that Carruth (who wrote and directed – as well as several other tasks) has a background in mathematics and decided not to explain any of what the characters are talking about on a technical level.  The result – added to the hand-held camera work and grainy look of the film – gives a cinema verite feel to it.  Carruth evidently produced this for $7000.00  While it certainly has a low-budget vibe to it, the movie looks more expensive than that.  Much like his follow-up film, “Upstream Color,” Carruth doesn’t make the science fiction element the central part of the movie – rather, it is the destruction of the friendship between the two discoverers.  This is almost like a SF “Treasure of Sierra Madre” in that the success these two find brings out their moral weaknesses.  On another level, this movie also has the best examination of time travel and multiple lines of causality I’ve seen or read.  If this seems disjointed, it is because this movie is very hard to follow, very evocative rather than descriptive, and so after just one viewing I can’t be entirely clear.  This is a fascinating and intellectually challenging film.  I’m looking forward to a second viewing.

Summer Movie #95 – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Kenneth Bowser, 2003): This documentary is based on a book of the same title by Peter Biskind (which I want to read now).  The major theme is not original – how a director-centered environment became prominent in Hollywood after the failure of the traditional studios in the 1960s and the unexpected successes of films like “Bonnie and Clyde” & “Easy Rider.”  How this opened the door for a new generation of film-makers (Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdonavich, Copolla, Scorsese, etc…) and how this new group had unparalleled successes with movies like “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.”  Then how these director’s excesses and failures in the mid-70s and how those things changed the attitude of the studios against the new environment.  Finally how out of this came Spielberg and Lucas and the “New Hollywood.”  This documentary does us the courtesy of not going into a re-hash of 1960s and 1970s political and cultural history and just takes that as a given.  Instead it does a good job of following the different threads that were coming together in 1969 and then charts this whole thing using a lot of interviews that are done well.  The story basically starts with “Bonnie and Clyde” and ends with “Raging Bull”.  This gives a lot of insight into this period of American film.

Summer Movie #96 – Behind the Planet of the Apes (Kevin Burns & David Comtois, 1998): This documentary was shown on AMC as part of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original.  I caught the last half of it, but not the first hour.  My good friend Dana loaned me the DVD awhile back but I just now got around to watching it.  The documentary has a lot of interviews and spends most of its time on the first film, but then does a good job of chronicling the story of the four sequels and the TV series (both the live action and the animated).  Some interesting (to me, anyway) details emerge – how the “ape” actors in the first movie tended to congregate by “species” while not filming, some of the set and visual design stuff, the presence of a couple of actors I hadn’t realized or remembered were there (Sal Mineo in “Escape” and Mark Lenard in the TV series), and most notably that the ending of the first movie was originally part of one of Rod Serling’s treatments of the script (that shocking reveal of a buried Statue of Liberty and the harrowing implications of one shot – that is just pure Serling).  Probably the biggest weakness of this documentary is understandable – it is a bit too celebratory.  While acknowledging the declining budgets and their effects on the franchise, the documentary glosses over the growing weaknesses of the sequels – especially “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”  Still, there is a lot here about a chapter of Hollywood history that might not appeal to “students of film” but that has had a huge impact on what Hollywood has become.  I’ve watched two documentaries recently on 1970s American cinema and neither mentioned this franchise at all – but both ended with the rise of the “Blockbuster”.  These documentaries both point out that Spielberg and Lucas had roots in the “New Hollywood”– but then treat the sorts of films they went on to make as if they just spring out of nowhere.  There was an existing tradition of big budget effects films before those two guys arrived.  The “Planet of the Apes” movies, along with things like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyessy” & “A Clockwork Orange” and other big effects movies like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green” – and let us not forget “The Exorcist” – meant that Hollywood wasn’t in uncharted territory when it put money behind Spielberg and his ultimately malfunctioning (thank heavens) mechanical shark or Lucas’s vision of space battles and heroism.  It certainly is no accident that the studio that had released the “Planet of the Apes” was the one to release “Star Wars.”  This strain of films – and the merchandising of the “Apes” franchise in particular, really point the way toward the Hollywood of the “Blockbuster” era we’re still seeing today.

Summer Movie #97 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969): Another seminal American film I’m just now getting around to seeing.  I went into this already knowing a lot about its position in the genre of road pictures, the counterculture, the rise of the “New Hollywood”, etc…  I knew about the ending and the central concept of freedom and the repressive nature of society, yadda, yadda.  Frankly, I also bring to this the experiences of having been born into the working middle-class and having really come of age in an era when the “counter-culture” and been thoroughly coopted by corporate America – and thus I’m a bit contemptuous of all that.  Hence, I’ve kind of avoided this movie.  What I was really surprised by is that one can take some much more subtle shades of meaning from this than the typical interpretation of it as this celebration of the counter-culture.  In many ways, the two “heroes” (Billy – Hopper and Wyatt – Peter Fonda) aren’t really the “free men” the George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) character talks about.  They succeed by buying low and selling high – it might be cocaine they are selling, but they are still merchants.  Before his death, Hanson talks about the threat true freedom poses to those “bought and sold in the market.”  Yet the first thing that Wyatt and Billy do upon hitting New Orleans is “buy” two women (Karen Black and Toni Basil as prostitutes).  There is a tension there, to me.  Then they wander Mardi Gras (scenes more famous for how they were shot than for their content) and then drop acid and experience a “bad trip”.  Intended or not, there is an indictment here of their hypocrisy.  Contrast their course with the earlier experiences on a ranch and in a commune and the emptiness of the course they’ve chose become clearer.  Also striking is the idea that Wyatt, at least, knows he is making a mistake by continuing to follow what is, in essence, a drug culture version of the “American Dream” –something he confirms in his dialogue with Billy about having “blown it” the night before their deaths.  This film was much less simple than I had been led to expect, and was therefore much more rewarding.

Summer Film #98 – Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000): Before there was ever a “Hunger Games” (movie or novels) there was this.  In a dystopian Japan, high school classes are chosen at random (possibly) and dropped on an island to fight to the death.  Like the “Hunger Games” there is an elaborate set-up to ensure that only one can survive.  Unlike the “Hunger Games” there is no training or preparation – the students are just kidnapped by the military given supplies and a weapon each, and told the rules.  The result is vastly superior to the later American blockbuster.  The film takes all of the normal angst and hormonal overcharge of a group of 15-year-olds and then makes it lethal.  Many reviews seem to stress the hyper-violent nature of the film – and that is accurate – but it is also very real.  Friendship, betrayal, jealousy, despair, courage – all are on display here, written in bright red blood.  This is a brilliant movie and far more worth seeing than that other one.

Summer Movie #99 – First Man in Space [aka Satellite of Blood] (Robert Day, 1959): Cocky test pilot flies rocket plane over objections of more level-headed brother (Marshall Thompson); pushes beyond flight plan to become “first man in space”; plane breaks up and crashes; exposure to radioactive dust preserves cocky test pilot, but turns him into a scorched blood-drinking monster; wackiness ensues.  Like “The Atomic Submarine” which I watched a week or so ago, this is part of the Criterion collection available streaming on HuluPlus.  Like that other movie, I get why Criterion released this.  While not a superior movie, it is a good example of the space/radiation/monster “B” movies of the 50’s and 60’s.  The script and acting here are a bit above average for these and it uses stock footage and models fairly well.  Even the creature make-up looks a bit less ridiculous than the norm.  It is a good genre “B” movie – and I enjoy genre “B’ movies.

Summer Movie #100 – The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938): I barely managed to get this in before the “Breaking Bad” premiere.  Altogether, I could have ended the summer in a worse fashion than with a Hitchcock film.  This is one of his last British films and is probably the best known of them.  It is yet another that has been on my “to see” list for a long time.  The central idea – a person vanishes, only one other person seems to remember them, a lot of other people deny the vanished person was ever there – has been used in many other thrillers.  This movie is nicely plotted and paced and features a lot of comic touches and great character bits – including the creation of two ultimate Englishmen (and cricket fanatics) named Charters and Caldicott who would show up in some other films not directed by Hitchcock.  Probably the most interesting thing about the movie is that when the victim (Miss Froy – who turns out to be a British agent) disappears and the people on the train deny having seen her, we discover that their reasons for lying are all individual rather than everyone being connected to the kidnapping.  This is a nice example of creating good characters even if they are not central to the plot.  Of course, doing so also enhances the mystery by making it unclear to the audience who the real players are until it is time to reveal all.  This is just a great example of early Hitchcock and well worth seeing.


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Summer Movies 2013 #IX

Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2013

Summer Movie #81 – Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987): I bought the trilogy on Blu-ray awhile back during one of those Amazon Gold-Box sales, but haven’t watched them. “Shifts in tax structure have made the economy ideal for corporate growth. But community services, in this case law enforcement, have suffered” says Edward O’Herlihy as the CEO of Omni-Consumer Products. If this isn’t one of the most alarmingly prescient movies ever, I’m not sure what would be. Some of it is incredibly dated, but the rest is a bit frightening. Unchecked capitalism, “infotainment”, growing violence in Mexico, also the absurdity of a Detroit that turns over its public services to a private corporation – it all seems too familiar. This movie is also rather ahead of the curve in terms of violence. It was actually originally given an “X” rating for graphic violence and even by current standards the scene where Murphy is literally shot to pieces is quite something. Other reactions: Peter Weller and Miguel Ferrer look like kids in this thing (I’m older now? Really?) So does Ray Wise. Nancy Allen was awesome. Evidently Stephanie Zimbalist was going to play that role, but was brought back for the final season of “Remington Steele” which echoes what happened earlier with Pierce Brosnan and James Bond – kinda. I’m not sure she had it in her. Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith should have played many more villains. “Give the man a hand.” Edward O’Herlihy – “Dick… You’re fired!” Finally, ED-209 may be the most hapless robot villain ever. The Daleks at least manage to kill someone occasionally. I’m really skeptical of the upcoming “reboot”.

Summer Movie #82 – Max Payne (John Moore, 2008): This is one of two movies that have been on my shelf for several years.  I got both of them by accident – I used to be a member of the Columbia House DVD Club and I forgot to send in my rejection.  The reason I still have the movie is that I e-mailed in a cancellation of my membership before mailing the DVD back.  So, I thought I’d watch it before chucking it into the bag for Edward McKay’s (which is a chain of used book, movies, etc…, shops – for those of you who aren’t local).  The movie is a sub-standard action film from the man who directed “Behind Enemy Lines” (yawn), the remake of “The Omen” (why?), and the most recent Die Hard movie (I think – I lost track after the one with Samuel L. Jackson).  It features some decent visuals, a story riddled with inconsistencies, and some sub-standard performances, especially from Mark Wahlberg.  I remember that IGN (a gaming site) panned the movie and then gave it an award for “Best Videogame Adaptation of the Year” (then went on to say that is a testament to just how bad videogame adaptations in movies are.)  It could have been worse, though.  It could have been directed by Uwe Boll.  I am somewhat interested in seeing what the game (generally noted as superior) is like.

Summer Movie #83 – Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008):  This is the other Columbia House accident I’ve had on the shelf.  It is certainly better than “Max Payne,” but that isn’t saying much.  The story is a bit idiotic – a shlub finds himself becoming a member of an ancient order of assassins who carry out killings at the instructions of a mystical loom (as interpreted by Morgan Freeman) to “maintain the balance of fate”.  The film never really asks questions like why, if people are fated to die, we need killers to accomplish those deaths – as opposed to, say, fate.  Instead, wow, look – he’s flipping a car over another one (in slow motion) so he can shoot a guy through the sun roofs of the two cars – cool.  This is just a vehicle to frame a lot of cool stunts – and the stunts are very cool in an over-the-top CGI way.  It is a bit dark (after all, our protagonist kills people he doesn’t know because a loom told him too) and very violent (though after watching “Oldboy” the other day, I’m almost chuckling when I use the terms “dark” and “violent” to describe this movie).  This was another of the vehicles that Angelina Jolie used to try to become an action star – and she isn’t bad here.  James McAvoy is the lead and he is pretty good.  All in all, it was fun – enough so that I don’t think I’m going to trade this one in.

Summer Movie #84 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Daniel Alfredson, 2009): I think this might be the weakest of the three movies because it is really just an extended last act of what happened in the second movie.  Noomi Rapace is still the core and her performance is great.  Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have that much to do here.  The movie nods at the very interesting idea of the pathologically independent Lisbeth being forced to rely on others and she plays that well, but there isn’t much of it in the movie.  Michael Nyqvist is also not given much to do with his time on-screen.  It occurred to me while watching this that the biggest thing missing from these two films is what was best about the first – having those two on-screen together, which we only get to see right at the end of this movie.   I’ve also got to say that in this movie (I can’t speak to the novel) the arrival of the cavalry in the form of a special police unit (or something, it is hard to tell) that hands out justice left and right alongside the sudden Big Break when Lisbeth’s hacker buddy gets the goods on the evil psychiatrist – it all just feels false.  What felt very real, though, was that in the end Mikael was, as always, willing to burn everyone in pursuit of his vision of the truth and Lisbeth did not just magically come out of the armor her whole life had caused her to build.  So the plot was thin, but the emotions and characters remained real.  Thus, this was still good, but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was much better.

Summer Movie #85 – OSS 117 Cairo, Nest of Spies (Michel Hazanavicius, 2006): My friend Richard has been telling me about this movie for a couple of years now.  I think this is one of those films that you either love – like I did – or you spend the entire time wondering what anyone sees in it.  It is a French comedy that parodies the classic spy films.  Evidently (internet research) it is based on a series of French spy films based on a set of novels concerning the adventures of agent OSS 117 that were popular in the 1950s and 60s.  The movie itself is a parody, but also a tribute.  The cinematography could have been right out of early Bond movies – simple camera moves (no steadicam), big crane shots, everything right down to using rear projection for driving scenes.  The film parodies spy movie tropes, French politics, Western arrogance, and the list goes on.  The comedy runs from broad slapstick to almost surreal (photos of French President Rene Coty are a running joke, as is something about homoeroticism and paddleball).  The main character is played with gusto by Jean Dujardin (of “The Artist”).  He is like Maxwell Smart – if Smart was less stupid than ignorant and arrogant – and if he were rather lethal at hand-to-hand combat.  I loved this and am looking forward to checking out the sequel.

Summer Movie #86 – The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera (Larry Blamire, 2001): This is a spoof of 1950s scifi “B” movies on the level of what Roger Corman was doing at the time.  It revels in its cheap cheesiness (according to the interwebs it was shot over five days for a budget of $100,000 – in California).  Much of it was shot in Bronson Canyon and, since they processed the videotape into black-and-white, it looks really familiar.  Often these sorts of parodies seem too forced, this (usually) doesn’t.  You have some decent character actors (many of who you would recognize in a “wasn’t she that girl in that thing one time?” fashion) deliberately reaching for wooden performances.  The editing is perfectly shoddy (just a beat too long here and a beat too short there).  If you can enjoy a movie like “Robot Monster” without the MST3K guys, you’ll love this.  If “Robot Monster” and “Roger Corman” mean nothing to you – best to avoid this.  This guy has evidently directed most of these actors in several other parodies (including a sequel to this movie “Return of the Skeleton”) which I must find.

Summer Movie #87 – Beyond the Time Barrier (Edward G. Ulmer, 1960): The last movie I watched was a spoof of scifi “B” movies – this is a scifi “B” movie (released by American International Pictures, of course).  Stalwart test pilot is accidentally propelled into The Future – 2024 to be exact.  The world is a shambles, having been devastated by cosmic radiation starting in 1971, fallout from nuclear bomb tests having weakened the Earth “shield of protective particles.”  There are mutants, there is a repressive society that is holding out against the mutants, there is the last fertile girl in that society – who, due to radiation, cannot speak but can read minds – and who, of course, falls in love with our stalwart hero.  There are fellow time travelers who are most definitely Not To Be Trusted – including an evil femme fatale Russian pilot who is obviously bad due to being brunette and not wearing skirts (also she can speak).  Bad people help mutants destroy society, but are killed when they try to interfere with stalwart hero.  Blonde skirt-wearing mute girl is killed saving stalwart hero.  Stalwart hero returns to his time by simply flying his original profile in reverse – but arrives tragically aged.  We end as he warns the world about the terrible nightmare which must be avoided.  I love this stuff – even without intentional irony.

Summer Movie #88 – Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013): This movie is described in some places as a “Science fiction thriller” and it is, but it isn’t.  If you read a plot synopsis of it – which I did before watching it – it will talk about people reassembling their lives after being abducted and may mention parasites and orchids.  All of that is accurate, and doesn’t tell you what the movie is about.  This film examines a lot of things, but doesn’t offer any explanations.  It has a narrative plot – that is difficult to follow – but that plot isn’t what the movie is about.  Like “Oldboy” this movie is less about the hows and whys of a story than it is trying to look at what happens to people in extreme circumstances.  It is looking at memory, and identity, and will, and all that sort of thing.  It is surreal and beautiful and visually and aurally fascinating.  If you watch this, don’t try to follow a plot or constantly ask yourself what is happening – just let it unfold and see where you are at the end.  It is quite worth the journey.

Summer Movie #89 – Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973): Watching Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) in his self-destructive spiral in this movie, I kept thinking about a line from – of all things – “Excalibur.”  When Arthur observes that Merlin must have loved Uther Pendragon despite his failings, Merlin replies “Well, it’s easy to love folly… in a child.”  One of the brilliant things about this movie is that even while seeing what a lying weasel punk Johnny is – you can also see why Charlie (Harvey Keitel) loves him.  (Charlie – hmmm… “On the Waterfront”?  “You was my brother Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me just a little bit.”?  Or am I reaching too far?)  Writing a review of a movie like this is difficult – it has been called one of the most innovative American films of all time, with good cause.  People with better perspectives than mine (and probably some with worse) have written doctoral dissertations about it.  I don’t have much (really anything) to add.  All of Scorsese’s favorites are here – Italians, New York, Mafiosi, the quest for redemption, the dangers of male-bonding, etc…   It has his typically brilliant camera-work, his use of pop-music and other cultural items to set the place, again… all the stuff for which he is so rightly known. It’s just brilliant film-making.  Then we add in great performances by young fresh actors with names like Keitel and DeNiro – backed up by great character actors (including two Carradines – David as a drunk and Robert as a young punk who kills him to get in good with the local boss).  Just don’t wait until you are almost fifty to see this movie.

Summer Movie #90 – Trumbo (Peter Askin, 2007): This movie is based on a stage play written by Christopher Trumbo and based on his father’s letters.  Dalton Trumbo, for those who might not know, was an (multiple) Academy Award-winning screenwriter and novelist.  His novel “Johnny Got His Gun” is one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written.  In his film work he contributed stories and screenplays ranging from “Roman Holiday” to “Spartacus”.  In 1950 he was blacklisted for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was sentenced to federal prison for contempt of Congress.  This movie centers on that period using his letters (read by an all-star cast) along with interviews and documentary footage (including home movies).  The historical stuff quickly gives way to the experience of living through this and the joy of Trumbo’s words.  The best parts of the movie are the letters – a half-angry and half-humorous response to a price quote; an extended and squirm-inducing homily on the joys and pitfalls of masturbation written to his 12-year-old son; a denunciation of an unnamed “liberal producer” who would condemn the blacklist, but still abide by it; a raging letter to a principal for failing to protect his daughter from the fallout of PTA and other adults who condemned the Trumbos and then passed that on to their children.  This is the man who wrote the “I’m Spartacus” scene turning his pen to so many other things.  It is a beautiful depiction of facing everything that goes wrong with our country and sad because it seems to be happening again.

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Summer Movies 2013 Pt. VIII

Posted by Gerald on August 4, 2013

Summer Movie #71 – Iron Sky (Timo Vuorensola, 2012): When I first saw the trailer for this – a Finnish-German-Australian movie about Nazi emerging from a secret base on the dark side of the moon to attack the Earth, I thought “awesome!” It isn’t. The visual effects of the actual invasion are pretty cool, but these dress up ham-fisted political commentary and borderline racism. The jokes are flat, but not bad enough to be campy. The result is just lame. I read reviews to this effect and wanted them to be wrong. They weren’t. Except for a very few moments, this is, again, lame. Avoid.

Summer Movie #72 – The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974): Let me start by saying I love well-made conspiracy thriller.  I also quite like several of Pakula’s film, particularly “All the President’s Men” which was released two years after this movie.  Finally, I’m a big fan of bleak 70’s endings.  On the basis of all that, I should really like this movie more than I do, but I don’t.  It features fine performances, it is visually interesting, and Pakula employs the same interesting sound editing he used in other films.  It just doesn’t work as a thriller.  The big conspiracy is more murky than intriguing.  I never became invested in what happened to any of the main characters.  Also, there are a lot of slow and rather pointless shots that serve to stall the film’s momentum rather than building tension.  My biggest complaint, though, comes from an extended montage that was supposed to represent some sort of attempted psychological conditioning through visual symbols.  The audience is bombarded – for a couple of minutes – with a series of images that are sentimental, patriotic, religious, emotional, erotic, violent, and disturbing.  It goes on for too long and the images just become a mish-mash.  I would argue that this has been done much better in other films – Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” comes to mind.  This movie does try to do something, and for that deserves applause – it just doesn’t succeed.  If you are in a mood for some 70’s political paranoia, though, you could do worse.

Summer Movie #73 – Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986): I’ll start off by saying I don’t know enough to have opinions about the accuracy of this film and the portrayals of the various people in it.  What makes this film are the performances and the especially Gary Oldman’s Sid.  The movie has some really interesting visual moments.  Two stood out for me: one was an early shot where the two characters are walking through a near riot but seem completely divorced from it which seems to establish the idea of two people being lost in each other and a second shot of them kissing in a trash-filled alley (the poster) which also played on this idea of love and being lost in one another.  All of this contrasts with an endlessly degrading downward spiral into drugs and death.  The idea that drug addiction destroys these two lovers is the obvious core of the movie, but I wonder if there isn’t a wider statement about the destruction that comes from losing oneself in anything?  The couple is lost in drugs, but they are also lost in each other – and the one addiction seems to fuel the other.  We see two naïve and toxic people who seem worse together than either was separately.  Finally, the music was great.  This may be heresy, but having heard both I think Oldman’s performance of “My Way” for this movie is better than the original by Sid Vicious.

Summer Movie #74 – The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948): “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”  This famous line is the last of the movie, and completes a rather pointless and often irritating narration.  The last ten minutes, featuring a pretty good chase scene and shootout filmed on location in New York City (which was innovative for the time – a fact the movie makes you aware of by announcing it at the beginning) are quite good; seemingly good enough to win this thing two Academy awards (cinematography and editing).  It has to be the last ten minutes they voted for, because the rest is fairly conventional and uninspired.  The seventy minutes before the big chase comprise a standard police procedural that seems like a long and noir-ish episode of “Dragnet”.  The performances run from competent to almost comically bad.  If you are looking for noir or for police procedurals, there’s much better out there.

Summer Movie #75 – Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011): I liked this movie a lot more than I expected.  It is a very noir-ish action film that also feels very 1980s – and combines all of this successfully.  It is full of long, slow, quiet scenes and then suddenly explodes into car chases and graphic violence – and then goes back to being quiet and slow.  Think “Vanishing Point” meets “Miami Vice” as directed by John Carpenter (at his best).  It features really good performances by Albert Brooks (no neuroses, no charm, he’s bland and then he’s dangerous), Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and Ryan Gosling.  I’ve not seen any of Ryan Gosling’s other performances except “Gangster Squad” – which was not a good movie.  I didn’t get the big deal about him.  Now I do.  Through the first third of the movie I was thinking he was just wooden – then he starts having scenes where he shows a lot of bottled emotion that explodes into action.  It was reminiscent of the attempts at “serious” action films from the 80s – just done better than most.  The cinematography was beautiful – again, very reminiscent of stylish stuff from the 80s.  That feeling is strengthened by everything from the soundtrack (synthesizers and processed vocals) to the font used in the credits.  It’s a stylish action film for grown-ups.  See it.

Summer Movie #76 – Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011): This is a decent spy action-thriller with the evil private spy company that betrays an agent as part of a wider plot.  It has good action pieces and is nicely paced without being overdone.  It has a great set of co-stars, all of who turn in performances of a quality one would expect from them: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and a pre-“Magic Mike” Channing Tatum.  The only problem with the film is that these are all co-stars.  The protagonist is played by Gina Carano – former world-class mixed martial artist and “American Gladiator.”  She is predictably great at her action sequences and stunts – and since that is a lot of the movie, that’s a good thing.  Unfortunately she is not as good at the whole delivering dialogue and acting thing.  She’s not terrible, she just isn’t very good.  She treats her lines like opponents to be beaten into submission.  As action stars go, she is better than Cynthia Rothrock but is not as good as Linda Hamilton (in either Terminator film).  Still, she was competent, and might improve.  This is definitely worth watching – if you are in the mood for this kind of movie and, frankly, can’t find a better one.

Summer Movie #77 – The Girl Who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009): I watched “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” several months ago (Swedish version, not English) and really liked it.  I liked this one too, but not as much.  The two best things about the first film are here as well: Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth (all steely glares and little tiny cracks of humanity) and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael (one of the reasons I’ve not watched the English version is my inability to see Daniel Craig – who I really like – as Mikael; Mikael is not a muscular action guy).  The story is good, but not as good as the first film.  One of the things I liked about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was that we saw a lot of grey in between the black and the white of the movie.  There isn’t a lot of grey here.  Also, to me much of the power of both movies comes from a sense of reality.  In this film that gets shaken a couple of times.  We have a bad guy who can’t feel pain – like an over-the-top Bond villain.  Just give him a hat with a metal rim and he’s good to go.  Then there is the climax – Lisbeth, having been shot a few times, digs herself out of her grave (using a cigarette case) and goes on to wreak some vengeance.  Put this in a Quentin Tarantino film, and I’m down with it, but it felt wrong here.  It is a testament to Noomi Rapace’s performance that I was able to put that aside and get back into the (excellent) final confrontation.  Finally, while I enjoy the opportunity to watch attractive naked women rolling around together as much as the next guy, there is a lesbian sex scene which seemed rather gratuitous (and a prime example of the “male gaze”).  I know I’ve spent most of this talking about weaknesses, but that is really because the first movie was so good.  This one is also quite good, especially if you liked the first.  This is well worth checking out – but see them in order.

Summer Movie #78 – Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960): This is one of the seminal works of French New Wave, and I’ve never seen it before.  While watching it I had a similar reaction to watching both “Psycho” and “Stagecoach” for the first time: what must it have been like to see this when it first came out?  What I mean is that these movies have had such a huge influence on what came after them, so seeing them for the first time – at least if you knew what you were seeing – must have been startling.  Here we see hand-held camera work, jump-cuts, and dubbed sound around odd framing and interesting long shots – the things that would be used so often by “underground” film in the 1960s and 1970s and then would creep into the mainstream.  The way in which the narrative story of the film is really in the background of conversations and character moments is also striking.  This was fascinating to watch, but there was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have understood any of that and would have just seen this as seemingly amateurish and pointlessly confusing.  There is a story about Rock Hudson walking out of the premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and demanding that someone explain “what the hell that movie was about” – same thing.  Now I get it.  Jean-Paul Belmondo is really fun to watch.  His first line (as translated) is “Well, I’m an asshole.”  He then spends 90 minutes demonstrating the truth of this.  Jean Seberg is fascinatingly vague as she spends most of the film wavering between possibilities, then only at the end makes a decision – one of conventional morality but personal betrayal.  This is another of those classic films that (like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane”) I think is every bit as good as it has been cracked up to be.

Summer Film #79 – Following (Christopher Nolan, 1998): This was Nolan’s first feature and won several awards.  It is a short neo-noir about a would-be writer who begins following people to observe them and who is drawn into a complicated plot.  It shows a lot of the elements of Nolan’s later work, such as an unreliable narrator (the film is told as an extended flashback) and urban settings.  It is unremittingly bleak and twisted.  The movie goes from one violation of privacy and trust to the next.  It also features a nicely complex fractured narrative.  You can see the techniques he was going to use to such good effect in his next film “Memento” (which is just brilliant).  I came across this movie on Netflix because I saw it displayed a four-star rating from me – which was odd given that I’d never seen it.  I’m not sure if I accidentally clicked something or what.  Still, that is exactly the rating I did give it – which fits nicely into the theme of fractured narrative.

Summer Movie #80 – Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003): Wow.  It is almost impossible to describe this movie – you just have to see it.  However, if you choose to, be aware that it is violent, gory, and intensely surreal.  It is described as being about the depth of vengeance, and it is.  It is also about love, identity, reality, and despair.  It is funny.  It is horrible (remember the icky feeling of that moment in “Chinatown” when John Huston picks up the little girl (his daughter and granddaughter) and says, “I’m your grandpaw”? – like that; oh, and a guy cuts out his own tongue at one point – so like that, too)   It is hard to watch.  It is brilliant.  It is not for weak constitutions.  It also has a bleak and uncertain ending.  If Spike Lee can replicate this – as opposed to some bloody action film – I’ll regain a lot of the respect I’ve lost for him in recent years.  I don’t think this can be an American film, though.  I need to watch something happy now…

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