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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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2015 Summer Movies #5

Posted by Gerald on June 30, 2015

Summer Movie #41 – Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941): Walter Pidgeon plays a big-game hunter who winds up looking at Hitler through a rifle scope sometime shortly before the war and then spends much of the rest of the film trying to escape Nazi agents. Joan Bennett plays the spunky English girl (heavily suggested but never actually named a prostitute) who winds up helping him while delivering lines in a terrible “Cockney” accent.  The movie is also notable for featuring a young Roddy McDowall in his first Hollywood movie (he had just been evacuated from England due to the German bombing). Lang is a great director as always and here is highly motivated as he makes the first of his explicitly anti-Nazi films. The film is exciting and takes a couple of unexpected turns. I’m not sure the “we will prevail” ending quite works, but it does have the benefit of being one of the most straightforwardly vengeful versions of that theme I’ve ever seen in a wartime film. Frankly, after watching that ending I’m pretty sure Lang would have really appreciated Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”.

Summer Movie #42 – Gog (Herbert L. Strock, 1954): Strock, who went on to make films such as “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” and “The Crawling Hand” is directing the third of Ivan Tors “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy – in 3D, no less.  Richard Egan plays a scientist/government agent dispatched to a secret lab to investigate strange happenings.  About 1/3 of the way through the movie he encounters a German scientist running a huge computer (N.O.V.A.C.) that, along with running the whole base, operates two robots called “Gog” and “Magog”.  “Gog” is the name of the movie.  It also has somewhat dire Biblical associations.  Hmmm… what could be responsible for the mysterious deaths at the base?  I wonder?  This is exactly what it looks like – a government agent hero, lots of science-ing, a smidge of condescending sexism (one the one hand – numerous women shown as being competent in scientific and technical areas, on the other hand they are all underdeveloped secondary characters and the men make cringe-worthy comments right to their faces – so not that different from today, really), and lots of incorrect use of scientific and technical jargon (“If the control rod is removed from the reactor it will explode!”).  I love this stuff, wart and all, so it was fun.

Summer Movie #43 – The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (Henry Hathaway, 1951): James Mason stars as Erwin Rommel in this biopic.  The movie mostly concentrates on Rommel’s growing disillusionment with Hitler after 1942 leading to his involvement in a plot to remove Hitler from power in 1944 – involvement which led to the general’s death.  Mason is good in the role and Jessica Tandy is also good as his wife.  The directing is competent, but there is little of great note.  One problem is an over-reliance on stock footage in some scenes – for example the narrator mentions the D-Day invasion and then we are treated to several minutes of footage of Normandy over swelling music.  These sorts of scenes actually take away from the more human drama of The fall of Rommel.  The movie also plays heavily into the mythologizing of the general which the British, in particular, seemed prone to.  Not bad if you are into WWII movies, but also not one of the best of those, either.

Summer Movie #44 – Khyber Patrol (Seymour Friedman, 1954): Richard Egan is an American (well, “Canadian”) serving as an officer in an Indian lancer regiment.  Raymond Burr is a duplicitous Afghan officer.  You have political intrigue, you have a love triangle, you have Maxim guns, you have harem girl spies, you have an Afghanistan that looks a lot like southern California, you have lots of white guys playing south Asians.  You can guess the end of the movie right now.

Summer Movie #45 – The Beast with a Million Eyes (David Kramansky, 1955): I do miss Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This movie was co-produced by Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff and if you know those names, you know everything about this movie.  This was the third of a three picture deal Corman had and he only had $29,000 to make it.  It has a decent concept – an alien invader who works by taking over all of the minds of all of the life forms. After that, all of the creative power of this film was pretty much spent. Sometimes they say that every dollar of a budget is on the screen.  In this movie, most of the dollars probably went for wages, hotel rooms, and food.

Summer Movie #46 – Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960): In this film Jules Dassin plays an uptight sophomoric (in the full meaning) American from Middlebury, Connecticut (Dassin’s actual home town).  Arriving in Greece he meets a prostitute played by Melina Mercouri and entranced by her beauty and love of life immediately decides to change her.  This is half romantic comedy and half clash of cultures.  The film was widely acclaimed and rightly so – it is full of the joy of life and doesn’t have a mean moment in it.  Somehow this just seemed really appropriate on a weekend where it seems like the Greeks have decided to trigger an economic meltdown.  They’ll make it through – they always have.

Summer Movie #47 – Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953): I’d never seen this before and I’m sorry, but how perfect is this movie?  Take one of the best directors ever, add two screen legends in Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn (in her first starring role), then mix in impeccable camerawork and the city of Rome.  An absolute classic film results.  Frankly, if you can’t find something to love in this movie you need to check when your soul was removed.  Evidently in the 1970s Peck and Hepburn were approached about a sequel.  Luckily that didn’t happen.  Outside of anything else, it would have ruined a perfect ending.  Peck, standing alone in the audience hall, not really hoping she’ll come back but staying because he wants her to.  Then the long tracking shot of him walking slowly down the length of the room, turning to look back with that air of no hope but desire, then he turns, that slight smile, and he leaves.  Any ending where they wound up together would have been false.  Perfect.

Summer Movie #48 – War of the Worlds (George Pal, 1953): I’ve seen this several times and watching it is the equivalent of eating junk food.  The only “nutritious” parts of the movie are the Oscar-winning special effects.  Otherwise we can learn a few things from this film: 1) There are NO black people in southern California; 2) Women have two speeds – sweet subservience and totally losing their shit; 3) Martians hate historical monuments; and 4) Martians may have advanced knowledge of physics and engineering but their understanding of biology is at about the level of Jenny McCarthy.  I remember watching this as a kid and thinking during the early scene where the Martians blew away three guys waving a white flag – “Why would Martians know the first thing about what a white flag means on Earth?”  Later, when they kill a minister showing them a cross, I thought “How would they know what a cross is?  All that happened on Earth.”  Thus began my road to understanding the interpretive nature of symbols and becoming an atheist.

Summer Movie #49 – What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015): One of the toughest things to do well in any biography of a celebrated artist is to walk the line between telling the story and praising the subject.  This documentary does that extremely well.  You see why Nina Simone has the place she has in music history and the history of the Civil Rights struggle.  You also see a flawed person who willingly remained in an abusive relationship (and the interviews with her ex-husband are disturbing) for quite some time, who had a mixed track record as a mother, and who was seemingly driven by many demons.  This also does a good job of showing the impact mental illness can have on a person and those around them, but without fully allowing that illness to serve as an excuse for every short-coming.  This is not a fun story, nor is it falsely uplifting in that “VH-1 Behind the Music” style that is so common.  What triumph there is here is well-deserved, and this documentary is well worth watching.

Summer Movie #50 – Point and Shoot (Marshall Curry, 2014): This is a documentary about Matthew Curry, who went on a self-described “crash-course in manhood” which led him to a motorcycle journey across the Middle East that included time as a journalist embedded with US troops in Iraq and then took him through Iran to Afghanistan and finally Pakistan – then the real story began.  He eventually went to Libya and fought in the revolution against Qaddafi and spent five months as a POW.  As I often do, I read some of the reviews of this movie and almost all of them seem to miss the point.  This isn’t really an adventure story, nor is it an attempt to talk about the geopolitics of the Middle East.  This is about the American urge to reinvention.  It is about the line between identity and what we want to portray to others, especially in the era of cellphone video and social media.  It is also about an individual experience of war.  The movie doesn’t condemn or celebrate, it just explores one really complex story and one that is very worth the watching.

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2015 Summer Movies #4

Posted by Gerald on June 21, 2015

Summer Movie (additional) – Carlos (Oscar Assayas, 2010): I’m not putting this in my movie count because it is technically a TV miniseries.  This tells the story of the terrorist “Carlos” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) from the time of his first attacks in the early 1970s until his arrest by the French Secret Service in 1994.  Despite its nearly six-hour length, it never lagged or seemed bloated.  Edgar Ramirez does a great job portraying Carlos as being on the one hand very charismatic but on the other quite vain and abusive – especially to the women in his life.  Carlos is neither shown as hero or villain, but as a violent man whose reputation was frequently used by others for their own ends.  One of the most fascinating things about this miniseries is how it depicts the international links between terrorist groups in the 1970s – a time when strikes centering on the Palestinian struggle were being carried out by German and Japanese radicals.  It is also interesting for how it weaves in the growing power of Islamism in these Arab states during the 1970s and 1980s.  Very worth watching.

Summer Movie #31 – Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004): This is a Hong Kong action film by the always excellent Johnnie To and starring one of his frequent leading men Nick Cheung.  This has all the hallmarks of the better films of this genre.  Like many of To’s later films this operates on a couple of levels.  At base it is a an actioner about an armored car robbery leading to a manhunt – with a fanatically determined police inspector played by Cheung leading his unit in pursuit of the cool and villainous Richie Jen (an actor who looks remarkably like a Chinese version of the American actor Billy Drago) – that culminates in a gun battle and hostage situation in an apartment building.  On another level this movie is about media in the digital age.  A police commissioner played by Kelly Chen winds up in a battle via the internet with Jen’s character over control of the narrative of the events in the apartment building.  She is trying to build positive PR for the department by feeding carefully edited footage and images to the media, he counters with his own cellphone pictures of police defeats and missteps.  There is a wonderful scene where both sides “break for lunch” and make sure the media sees it as a way of trying to humanize themselves.  This ends with a great chase scene where Cheung’s relentless pursuit becomes almost comical in its intensity.  I loved this.  I’ve not been doing the Hong Kong films for awhile – I think it is time to get back to those.

Summer Movie #32 – Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013): This is a thriller about revenge and family.  However, what makes it brilliant is that it isn’t a macho power fantasy.  While remaining very tight and suspenseful, it never lets you forget that violence is ugly and that revenge is a very uncertain endeavor.  The cinematography is beautiful, the editing is spot on, and the performances are excellent.  Probably the best thing, though, is the writing.  You discover these characters through real dialogues and action.  At no point do we have a scene that is there just for exposition.  The filmmakers trusted the audience to be able to fill in the gaps themselves.  An intelligent film, but not always easy to watch – this one is very good.

Summer Movie #33 – Thief (Michael Mann, 1981): This was Mann’s directorial debut and it has most of the hallmarks for his career overall – visual style, prominent use of music to set the tone (in this case the score was from Tangerine Dream), all in service to a neo-noir story.  The performances are good – James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky,…  The film also marks the debuts of both William Petersen (as a bartender) and Dennis Farina (as a goon) as well as an early dramatic role for Jim Belushi as Caan’s younger partner.  It also features an unfortunately underdeveloped role for Willie Nelson as Caan’s mentor.  The story is a decent version of a standard – the criminal who wants to move on to the “straight” life after one big score.  It has good characters and dialogue but does suffer from being a bit predictable – of course the Big Gangster Boss (Prosky) is not going to let the Master Thief just retire and of course the Master Thief’s Young Partner is dead as soon as we see him joyfully frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend as they celebrate the big score, etc…  Like many of Mann’s projects, though, the fact that you don’t need to really think about the plot gives you more time to enjoy the massive loads of style.  Here he adds to his later repertoire a visual fascination with machinery that rivals the opening credits of “Twin Peaks”.  All in all, this is well worth watching.

Summer Movie #34 – The Double (Michael Brandt, 2011): This is a spy thriller with a couple of decent twists and action scenes that are outweighed by plot holes and general mediocrity.  I didn’t think it was as bad as most of the critics seem to have, but that doesn’t mean it is good.  If you want 90 minutes of spy drama, this is one – but there are far better out there.

Summer Movie #35 – Suddenly (Lewis Allen, 1954): This is a decent suspense film with Sterling Hayden as a town sheriff and Frank Sinatra as a would-be Presidential assassin.  The film has a sort of film noir sensibility without fully embracing that genre and also feels claustrophobic in that most of it occurs in a single house where Sinatra and his flunkies (including frequent Jay Ward and Rankin/Bass voice actor Paul Frees) hold a family hostage as they await a train carrying the President.  Hayden is rather under-used as the typical stalwart hero.  All the fun stuff goes to Sinatra as the vain sociopath gunman.  The film is also interesting to watch because of its theme; a Presidential assassination set some nine years before Kennedy in Dallas.  There is also an interesting subplot from a modern perspective about how the mother of the hostage family is keeping her son from playing with toy guns because of her husband’s death in World War II.  This, of course, is roundly condemned by the male characters, especially Hayden’s sheriff, who see that as both emasculating the boy and stunting him in learning to be prepared to fulfill his duty to defend America when he grows up.  This is pretty good, but also very much a product of its time.

Summer Movie #36 – Malta Story (Bruce Desmond Hurst, 1953): I’m planning to watch some Alec Guinness films.  This is one.  Guinness stars with Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Steel in a story about the heroic defense of Malta during WWII.  Upper lips remain stiff, quips fly between chums, the Maltese are appropriately subservient, and the Germans are faceless and evil.  Spoiler – the British win.  If you enjoy incredibly traditional war films (and I do at times, despite the snark) this is good.  If you want something more, you will not find it here.

Summer Movie #37 – Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963): This is one of those movies that just seems to distill the early 1960s into a single movie – Donen directing what some people have called the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock didn’t make, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, a supporting cast that included Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass (who was in every movie in the 1960s, I think), and the music was done by Henry Mancini.  The movie is at times a thriller and at times a screwball comedy – a feeling strengthened by the presence of Grant who was a master of both.  The directing is tight and the performances are predictably wonderful.  For me the only things that didn’t work were the last two plot twists (in a film with several).  The reveal of who was the murderer was spoiled for me in that I had figured it out about twenty minutes into the film (and pretty much anyone who has viewed some thrillers would do the same).  There is also a twist right at the very end that I thought was just false – the movie hadn’t earned it and it soured the ending for me.  I think all of the Hitchcock comparisons really come down to Grant being in the film – Donen could be a fine director (“Saturn 3” notwithstanding) but he was no Hitchcock.  Still, the virtues of this film far outweigh the faults.  It is fun, exciting, and enjoyable.

Summer Movie #38 – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014): This is tagged as “the first Iranian vampire Western” – which describes it, yet doesn’t.  The film is in Persian and has an Iranian cast and is described as being set in the “Iranian ghost town” of “Bad City”.  However, it was actually filmed in southern California.  It has many scenes and tropes one would associate with Westerns, and the southern California location adds to that, but it is more a story about an underworld of pimps and whores, drug addicts and drug dealers, than it is a traditional Western.  The central character, the eponymous “girl” is a vampire, but this really isn’t a “vampire movie”.  That tag would suggest some campy send-up.  Instead the humor is sly and the film is self-consciously stylish and evocative of film genres without belonging to them.  The movie it reminds me of the most, although it is VERY different, is Kathryn Bigelow’s first directorial effort, “Near Dark”.  That was a noir-ish and heavily violent vampire story set in the modern (1980s) west.  It is a favorite of mine and the best parts of it are echoed in this film.  This movie also leaves the viewer with a lot of blank canvas upon which to fill in their own parts of the story.  It doesn’t always work, some parts are to obviously “artsy” for the films own good – but still this is brilliant.  It is one of those movies that movie makers are going to talk about.

Summer Movie #39 – Desert Sands (Leslie Selander, 1955): I recently read an observation that maturity in assessing art comes when one can distinguish between liking something and something having merit.  I liked this, but it has no merit.  Ever since reading “Beau Geste” I’ve had this thing for Legionnaire stories.  This is a classic Hollywood Legionnaire movie – meaning it is a western in disguise.  Ralph Meeker leads a group of white guys in defense of a Legion outpost against a group of “Arabs” entirely played by white guys (led by John Carradine).  Marla English, despite being both pale and blue-eyed, plays the stereotypical “fiery princess” who winds up switching sides and helping the Legionnaires because of Ralph Meeker’s overwhelming maleness.  The defense of the fort plays almost exactly like the movie “Zulu”.  It was fun.  It was also a piece of crap.

Summer Movie #40 – Intimate Enemies (Florent Emilio Siri, 2007): This is a French film that deals with the psychological trauma of war as experienced by the French soldiers who fought in the “undeclared war” in Algeria (1954-62).  The film is powerful, but more for the subject matter than for the way it was handled.  Frankly, the movie is very evocative of “Platoon” (Oliver Stone, 1986).  You are following a fairly decent man through the horrors of a brutal insurgency. Much like “Platoon” we see the atrocities committed by both sides, but for the protagonist’s side we also get to see the soldiers as human beings.  The enemy is presented as mostly faceless and brutal (although this movie does make more of an attempt to personalize the other side by presenting a few characters who support the FLN).  The best part of this movie, and the most difficult to watch, it the way it depicts how a decent man can become a monster.  The weakest part of the movie is an unfortunate tendency to rely on some fairly familiar tropes from war films generally.  Not a flawless film, but certainly worth the seeing.

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2015 Summer Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2015

Summer Movie (additional) – La voyage dans la lune (Gorges Melies, 1902): This is the restored version that was released in 2011 and premiered at Cannes that year.  It is notable for the restored original hand-tinting that created color on some elements.  It also has a new musical score composed by the band Air.  This version is mostly interesting as an example of film history.  The color is an interesting element for the time.  The score varies from distracting to somewhat interesting – but frankly doesn’t add much to the experience in my opinion.  This is currently streaming on Netflix.

Summer Movie #21 – Get the Gringo (Adrian Grunberg, 2012): This one was surprisingly good. Mel Gibson (who co-wrote and produced) is back to playing the sort of character he’d done so well over the years – a sharp, funny, slightly crazy and dangerous anti-hero. The filmmaking channels a lot of Sam Peckinpah; over-the-top violence, very efficient scenes, etc… (even some playing with multiple timeframes within scenes). The story – a thief turning the tables on the crime bosses who oppose him – is reminiscent of “The Getaway”. A good movie, but it isn’t without its flaws, including a fairly stereotypical view of Mexico, a rather forced plot involving a kid and his attractive mother (who, it should be noted, was at least played by an actress who was somewhat close to Gibson’s age – her 40s to his 50s), and a rather improbable ending. Still, it is a fun crime drama and wirth your time if you like that sort of film.

Summer Movie #22- The Invisible Front (Jonas Ohman & Vincas Sruoginis, 2014): This is a documentary where the subject matter is much more interesting than the film itself.  The subject is the Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation up through 1953 and focuses on one leader, Juozas Luksa.  It is a compelling story and shows a side of the Cold War that we rarely see in the West – the resistance of the people inside the Soviet bloc and, in particular, their desperate hope that the US would come to help them.  The film itself is a bit dull – long interviews and narration over mournful cello and piano music.  However, we get an inside view of the Soviet takeover – the resons people resisted and the reasons some cooperated.  Well worth seeing if you have an interest in the history of this period.

Summer Movie #23 – The High and the Mighty (William Wellman, 1954): Here is the prototype of the 1970s and 80s disaster films.  You have a group of rather fabricated characters brought together by being on the same public conveyance which has a crisis during which personal issues are explored or resolved until in a moment of competence porn the main character somehow saves some or all of them.  This, “The Poseidon Adventure”, every “Airport” movie…  Probably the most interesting thing about this is that it is kind of an ensemble picture.  Although John Wayne is the big star, there really isn’t a clear “leading man” distinction between his character and Robert Stack’s.  Otherwise, the movie is best seen as an historical relic – the men are men, the women are gendered stereotypes, and the non-white people are funny and non-threatening.  The movie itself manages to take about ninety minutes of action and spread it out over two and three-quarters bloated hours.  Especially edifying filler is provided by the several minutes of watching Wayne and the passengers forming a human chain to pass luggage to the rear of the plane and by the final scene where a few pointless minutes are spent as each pair of passengers leaves the plane to the accompaniment of the same swelling musical notes (by the third time it is repetitious; by the fifth annoying) to indicate drama in a scene that has none – everything is resolved.. the movie is over… we’d like to go home now… please…

Summer Movie #24 – Apur Sansar (Satyajit Ray, 1959): This is the third film of the “Apu Trilogy” chronicling the childhood and early adulthood of a Bengali man.  This movie again shows Ray’s skill as a filmmaker with beautiful shots and brilliant editing.  This film continues many of the themes of the earlier films, such as tragic loss and how to find meaning in the most ordinary moments of life.  These movies aren’t fun, they are beautiful.

Summer Movie #25 – Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980): Because sometimes you just have to watch it.  It is somewhat unbelievable that this campy wonder was directed by the same guy who wrote and directed the amazing “Get Carter” (the 1971 version with Michael Caine, not the limping re-make with Sylvester Stallone.)

Summer Movie #26 – The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961): This is one of the great movies.  It is beautifully staged, shot, and edited. It features great performances by George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, and – of course – Paul Newman.  Jackie Gleason is also really impressive during his scenes as “Minnesota Fats” that bookend the film, just in silently conveying the sense of a man at the top of his game, but who is also under the thumb of men like Scott’s character.  It is notable for addressing one of America’s defining characteristics, the worship of winning.  Here we have an American protagonist who can be a “winner”, but comes to realize, through tremendous personal loss, that victory is meaningless if you have to destroy everything else about yourself in pursuit of that.  The triumph here is to forget his dreams and embrace real life – which is not the thing that the American Dream, or its Hollywood portrayals, has ever fit well with.  Watch this!

Summer Movie #27 – His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940): I had never watched this before.  Cary Grant at his cynical best, Rosalind Russell caught between patriarchy and patriarchy, Ralph Bellamy as the hapless straight man and lots of really snappy dialogue.  What surprised me about this was how dark it is – murder, attempted suicide, the heartlessness of the press, political corruption, etc…  It is also interesting how the “happy romantic ending” seems to strongly suggest that Grant and Russell’s characters will wind up exactly where they were to begin with – divorced and resentful – because they can’t help but be who they are.  There was more to this than I expected.

Summer Movie #28 – Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009): This is an excellent drama about the aftermath of violence – in this case the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  It depicts the historical killing of James Griffin, a 19-year-old Catholic, by Alistair Little, the 17-year-old head of a cell of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in 1975.  The latter half of the film dramatizes a meeting between Little and Joe Griffin, the younger brother of James and a witness to the murder, some thirty years later. The movie is well-shot and directed but the real power comes from the performances of Liam Neeson as Alistair Little and James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin.  The movie deals with guilt and acceptance without becoming falsely sentimental or succumbing to platitudes.  A interesting side-note for me was that the 1975 version Little was played by Mark Davison (or Mark Ryder) who played Cesare Borgia in the 2011 Tom Fontana series “Borgia” and one of the members of his cell was played by Diarmuid Noyes, who played Alessandro Farnese in the same series.  I also found the film interesting in that it is one of the few times I’ve seen a depiction of the terrorist acts performed by Ulster Protestants in a movie about Northern Ireland.

Summer Movie #29 – Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952): Not the Marx Brothers movie – this is another screwball romantic comedy from Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.  It plays a lot like “Bringing Up Baby” in many ways, but doesn’t work quite as well.  However, a lesser effort from Hawks and Grant is still going to outshine many other people’s best film.  Marilyn Monroe is good in a supporting role, but somewhat under-utilized.  I think the best parts of the movie are the scenes where Rogers gets to show her comedic skills (and the one scene where she dances, of course).

Summer Movie #30 – Stand Off (Terry George, 2011): This was a Netflix recommended movie that I watched on the spur of the moment.  I did not realize going in that it was set in Belfast and that I would, therefore, be following up a Howard Hawks/Cary Grant screwball comedy with a movie set in Northern Ireland for the second time in two days.  The film is a crime dramedy starring Brendan Fraser that centers on a botched robbery.  It tries to deal with the relationships of father and sons and ends on a life affirming note (it is one of those movies where the closing credits play over jangly guitars while we see “candid” shots of the stars of the movie being all warm and affectionate).  Even with a decent performance by Fraser and the presence of Colm Meany and David O’Hara, the best that can be said for the film is that it is profoundly okay.

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