Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I see you shiver for the National Film Registry, with antici This is another film that's hard to talk about. I've never seen it in theaters. Little problem with being mostly homebound by disability, in large part because of incredibly severe airborne allergies. Large crowds are not my happy place. And the only real reason to watch this film at home is to prepare to watch it in the theater. And as an added bonus, I'm an asexual, so I'm really, really not this movie's intended audience. I like the soundtrack, but I mostly just find the whole thing confusing. Though I do think it's interesting that all of the films mentioned in the first verse of “Science Fiction Double Feature” are films preserved in the National Film Registry. If Richard O'Brien hadn't made the smart marketing decision to only allow this movie to be played at midnight, then it's likely it would have been as forgotten as some of the other movies in the opening song, instead of being the longest running theatrical release in history. It's been shown weekly somewhere in the world since 1976. That's a lot of garters and fishnets. From a purely technical standpoint, this is a bad movie. It's also a movie that knows that it's bad, so it's full of nods and winks and mugging for the camera. After all, the original idea is a B-movie as a wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more sex comedy. We may have an idea of prudishness in former generations, but when musicals of the 60's and 70's were billed as sex comedies, that's exactly what they were. Just listen to the song “Sodomy” from Hair! if you've got any doubts. Subtlety wasn't really en vogue for awhile there. So like Saturday Night Fever, you've got a little piece of 70's sex culture sliced off and preserved in celluloid, but because this film has a much bigger sense of humor, it ages a lot better. Both films have sex scenes that are arguably rape scenes, but the drunken girl pressured into having sex with two guys in the back of a car only to be shamed by the guy she was in love with just seems sleazy and tragic. Frank-N-Furter having sex with a day-old child in a man's body and seducing two virgins is all played for laughs. And after watching it for 40 years, we're willing to accept it, instead of having any sort of qualms about it. But then again, this is still a movie that knows it's not just crossing the line, but stampeding over it in stripper heels. At the very least, it provides a more complete picture of how sexual attitudes have changed in the last 40 years. It will be interesting to see how they celebrate the anniversary, aside from the TV movie with Tim Curry as the Criminologist. Overall, I'm not sorry I saw it, but I'd say I'm definitely missing something. Maybe it's audience participation, maybe it's the fundamental understanding of how sexual people function. I do like the soundtrack, but the rest of the movie is just kind of eh. …. pation.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

White Heat

Look, Ma! I'm on top of the National Film Registry! So I've been watching a lot of movies, but haven't had time to write anything about them. Who ever thought when I started this thing that I would actually have busy periods? Definitely not me. But since I do love noir-ish thrillers, White Heat was one of the ones I was looking forward to. And it didn't disappoint, although I admit I was confused about the title until the end. The foreshadowing in the chase through the chemical plant was definitely my "Ah-ha!" moment. This film is kind of the Trope Codifier for "Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas", and it's a major strength of this film that Mama is just as bad as Sonny. A lot of movies now seem afraid to go down the route of having criminal women actually seeming to enjoy crime, which is so odd in a Hayes Code era film. Well... none of the ladies prosper, but Verna is allowed to be taken in adultery and commit murder and get off with an arrest, and Ma Jarrett is allowed to order cold-blooded murder and have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with her murderous gangster son, and while she gets whacked for it, this skirts awfully close to the Pre-Code "bad woman". There was an article the other day on Buzzfeed suggesting that the recent spate of murderous women in movies are a reaction to postfeminism and women reacting in anger to patriarchy: effectively suggesting that when women go bad, it's men at fault. That's probably one of the reason I really love these noirs and gangster films. If the woman has any agency (and lots of women were working in scripts and story pitching in those days, so many of them did), then she is not a sort of passive thing that only kills and steals because men made her do it. She does it because she enjoys it. I'll touch on this more in The Maltese Falcon, since Brigid O'Shaughnessy really embodies this actively bad woman, but Ma Jarrett and Verna certainly don't start committing crimes because of men. Cody Jarrett himself is pretty fun to watch. They're trying to go for a character study of a deranged mind, and considering that psychology was still in a fairly primitive state, they don't do that bad a job. He's more a paranoiac with violent outbursts and a massive inferiority complex than the "psychopath" that he gets labelled in the film. Also, there's refreshingly few suggestions that he's purely a criminal because he's the product of "insanity" - just that it makes his motivations harder to understand. Again, not perfect from a mental health perspective, but not bad for 1949, especially since we're still getting it terribly wrong in movies. Really one of the central questions of the movie is the question as to whether Cody Jarrett is a criminal because he wants to be a criminal, or did Ma Jarrett push him towards it? While he's very protective of his mother, and her showdown with Big Ed is not portrayed as something she did often, she does operate as the brains of the operation enough to make that a pretty big question. Cody's motivations to Vic are consistently that he wants to make his Ma proud, even if she's dead and gone. And again, I really like that as a change of pace. Right now it's always a nasty man pushing a woman to commit crimes, and a lot of the less good film noirs have a sexy woman pushing a man to crime, so an old woman pushing her son to commit crimes is actually pretty fun. Overall, I'd say watch this one if you like thrillers or film noirs. Not just because James Cagney is always worth watching, but because this movie is fascinating. It certainly deserves its place as one of the best gangster movies of all time.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a National Film Registry reviewer... And now I finally get all those jokes in Animaniacs and a dozen other 90's cartoons that decided to spoof this very much R-rated film that hopefully none of the children watching had seen. Parental bonus... what really separates memorable cartoons, at least if it's done well. This is a movie I hadn't seen, even though I've seen a couple of other Scorsese movies (at least enough to understand what Honest Film Trailers Epic Voice Guy was talking about when he listed off the “Scorsesisms” in The Wolf of Wall Street,). But hey, when you're really good at directing pictures about slimeball criminals in New York, work with it. It was even fun watching Ray Liotta in the role that Leonardo DiCaprio would have had if he hadn't been 15 when shooting started. So every kid who grew up in the 90's is familiar with some level of the plot through cultural osmosis, though I don't know too many people who have actually seen the movie. It's the life of Henry Hill, a guy who always wanted to be a gangster, becomes one, enjoys it, but then there's the inevitable downfall and betrayal, with one of his closest associates (Joe Pesci as Joe Pesci) being a half-cocked maniac who is ready to kill at the slightest provocation, his own ever-growing problem with drugs, and the apparent allergy Scorsese leading men have to monogamy leading to a volatile marriage with a lot of screaming, throwing things, and death threats. And lots and lots of cussing. Which isn't to say it isn't a masterful crime movie. It is. Some of the shots alone are some of the best I've seen. It's just pretty easy to see where either Scorsese really likes these stories or figures “Hey, what works, works”. What surprised me is that the narrator and apparent lead, Henry Hill, is generally a non-entity in his own story. Almost everything is happening to or around him, but he isn't really a person who is making things happen. He isn't a guy making much in the way of decisions or calling shots – he's really reactionary. The only thing he does decide to do is to keep selling drugs and get a few other people in on it. Which is an interesting thread to follow. The book the movie was based on was based on a bunch of interviews with this guy who did sell out his mobster friends to get into Witness Protection (and was later thrown out for doing drugs). Was he downplaying his own role in events to make it seem like he was more of a bystander than he was to make himself seem more sympathetic to audiences? Or did Scorsese make him more of a bystander to make him more of a schnook? I can't say authoritatively, since I've never read the book, but now I'd like to, so I could answer this question. Overall, I'd say give it a watch if you enjoy crime and gangster movies, which I do. I have a preference for the classic ones, where there isn't a ton of cussing and domestic violence (which there definitely is in Goodfellas), but the cinematography alone is dazzling.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Young Frankenstein

Instead of a monster, I present the National Film Registry to you as a sophisticated, debonair man-about-town. Maybe. What is it about Gene Wilder? This may seem like I'm trying to capitalize on his death, but there really is something about his ability to switch between gentle sorrowing and manic shrieking. I am amazed he never burst a blood vessel on screen – he certainly looked like he would a few times. And in Young Frankenstein, this ability is really turned up to 11. The black-and-white cinematography doesn't show off just how extraordinarily red his face could get, but it did show off how well he had mastered the early silent film-style of acting heavily with eyes, eyebrows, and twitches of the mouth, only to move into the classic early talkie mode of howling like a maniac. He really does seem like he could be descended from the Henry Frankenstein of all the early monster pictures... though in a slight continuity error between the book and the films, Frederick's grandfather is named Victor. Which is correct for the books, but in all the Universal pictures, he's named Henry. It's a minor inconsistency as such things go, especially because even though they don't have the old, abandoned mill that's in the original Frankenstein pictures, they do have the lab equipment. I've always found Mel Brooks very hit or miss, but Young Frankenstein is a hit for me because it's more absurdist comedy and less situational. It does have the famous “Walk this way” joke (which, interestingly, sprang from a Looney Tunes short), and a lot of Marty Feldman looking directly into the camera, but Eye-gor is the only character who appears to know that he is in a movie. Maybe that's what bothers me about some other Mel Brooks movies. I don't know. This one is particularly full of running gags and rants, as well as a ton of references to the source material (“What else shall we throw in?” asks the little girl, making the Creature roll his eyes – film buffs may remember that the Creature in the Universal picture became distressed when there were no more flowers to toss in the water, and then threw in the little girl, who of course drowned. Or the hermit who offers cigars, which I thought was a silly gag the first time I saw the picture, but since I've seen The Bride of Frankenstein, I know really is a nod to the source. And I still wonder why on earth the hermit had cigars). More modern audiences may be rather offended at the scene between Elizabeth and the Creature, where her objections to the fact that the Creature has kidnapped her are overcome by her seeing his... schwangstugel. Though how exactly that transferred over is never really explained, and let me be the first to say I am really happy it was not. This is a film that shows off the comic genius of Gene Wilder and the proper way to reference source material in a parody (hint to all aspiring parody filmmakers of today: the fact that a thing exists does not mean that it is funny. You actually have to play up the absurdity of the existence of the thing). It can be crude at times, but it does deserve to be on the National Film Registry for its attention to detail and loving craftsmanship of parody – not just because apparently having “Frankenstein” in the title guarantees a spot on the List.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The National Film Registry. Whaaat a Duuuuuumpuh! That quote is from Beyond the Woods, by the way. That film is not on the National Film Registry. But this one is, possibly because the dialogue is witty in a horrible way, or because the miracle of making Elizabeth freaking Taylor look frumpy was achieved, or because you don't usually see male characters with possible Borderline Personality Disorder portrayed on screen, or because it did break a lot of censorship barriers. It's not that it's a bad movie or a movie that I'm confused about it's presence on the Registry, like Deliverance. It's a very good movie. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is just a very unpleasant movie, especially if you've ever been intimately acquainted with anyone like George and/or Martha. Being around people who enjoy torturing others and punishing them for ill-defined infractions is draining enough, without also spending time watching them for two relentless hours. Though arguably, someone as slimy as Nick does deserve some level of it, but Honey being the innocent little "simp" that she is, she doesn't seem to have invited any of it. I suppose that's why she gets absolutely sloppy drunk, while everyone else manages to keep their heads to some level. The only way it can be tolerated watching this ineffectual little creature being torn to pieces is the idea that she probably will only remember vague unpleasantness in the morning. So why watch them "all peel labels"? Well, it is a fascinating psychological profile. The dialogue is often blackly comic, and you sometimes wish you could be as witty as George when you're faced with someone like Martha. Because many of us know a Martha - a person who is deeply emotionally sadistic, but views themselves as the victim of unjust attacks if anyone says anything about it. But then George isn't much better - he is not as openly sadistic as Martha, but he is a master of passive aggressive jabs. And in this evening of Fun and Games, both of them manage to show off their talents in harming, and try out the other's specialty. I think everyone has had a feeling like Nick and Honey, where they've been trapped in a "party" where two people are having a nasty argument, and yet are insisting that everything is just fine and the night shouldn't be spoiled. This is "Horribly Uncomfortable Situations: The Movie". Which is better than "Awkward Pauses: The Movie" (also known as Twilight: memorably mocked by Rifftrax, as they demanded that someone say something). This isn't a bad movie by any stretch. It's an excellent movie. It's just not a movie I enjoyed watching. I did not want to be around George, Martha, Nick, or Honey, and by realistically portraying loathsome or pitiable people, the movie succeeds admirably. But I find personally a major difference between recognizing a realistic portrayal, even a masterfully realistic portrayal, and a film I want to revisit. These are not people I want to spend more time with, because I have unfortunately been acquainted with these people, and have had my fill well before they came onto my screen. Maybe if I decide to write some big opus on mental illness in film, but even then, I'll just be studying, not enjoying. So this might be one to consider based on your own comfort levels and personal history. I will never say a word against its mastery of its subject, but its subjects are so hateful that one may not want to see them mastered.

Sunday, August 7, 2016


Why do I review the National Film Registry? Because it's there. And boy howdy, if this wasn't on the list, I would have given up watching it. My advice to my Facebook friends was "If you haven't watched Deliverance, don't". It wasn't just that this movie is upsetting because watching on-screen rapes is upsetting. It was that this movie is ugly, unpleasant, and nonsensical. It's that I have a sneaking suspicion that this movie still influences how many Northerners see Southerners, especially those of us from any sort of mountain country. The movie starts out okay, I suppose, with some nice shots of the river and by making canoeing look fun, but it also shows "Hey, look, inbred Southern hicks! Look how disgusting they are!". But hey, that inbred little guy plucks a mean banjo, and that old hillbilly still knows how to clog dance! But it's still at heart a freak show. I have no idea why it's preserved, since the movie is really only known for two scenes. Maybe three, if you count the dream sequence of the hand floating to the top of the lake at the end. Or one of the endings. This movie has almost as many endings as Return of the King, and at least the multiple endings of Return of the King were characters you wanted to spend time with. So, everyone knows the basic gist of the story: a bunch of guys take a canoe trip down a soon to be dammed river, run afoul of some hillbillies, get bent over a log and made to squeal like a hog, have purty mouths, they kill the rapist, and then one of them dies, and they hunt down the other hillbilly, and get told to get outta town. And.... that's really about it. The rape scene is the most infamous, but it's also the most confusing scene in the movie. You get the feeling they wanted this scene to mean something, but that no one involved had any idea what. There was some dialogue in the beginning about nature getting raped by civilized man, so maybe they were going for nature raping right back? But the whole scene is just so weird and farcical. The Ned Beatty and Jon Voight characters (I watched this movie two days ago, and I've already forgotten their names) stop for a minute and run into some hillbillies. There is some stammering about maybe that the hillbillies have a still, but they don't care and maybe want to buy some, and then they get forced into the woods, so I guess the idea of moonshine is the catalyzing agent? Maybe? They then tie Jon Voight to a tree and make Ned Beatty strip, again, for no apparent reason. And then one of the mountain men makes Ned Beatty give him a horsey-back ride. No really. It is totally bizarre. And then he decides to rape him... which oddly, Ned Beatty doesn't seem too upset by. It's... well, he grunts a bit, but it's pretty understated (except for the joyous "REEEEEEE" that the mountain man keeps squealing out with each implied thrust) as such things go, and doesn't really seem to affect him for the rest of the movie. He's a bit embarrassed, but he seems more upset over being forced to strip in the woods. In fact, the one who seems the most upset is Drew, the guy who plays "Dueling Banjos". And he's mostly upset that no one wants to report justifiable homicide to the police. So maybe he commits suicide, or maybe he gets shot. No one ever figures it out, though moustacheless Burt Reynolds (who I remember as Lewis, because everyone keeps yelling "LEWIS!") takes it as murder. This is just... a weird, bad movie. I was dreading seeing it, and now that I've seen it, I'm forgetting it as quickly as possible. The only good thing in it is that it made canoeing look pretty fun, which it is, but it ruined a bluegrass classic. It has a muddled message and is just unpleasant to watch. I'd recommend steering clear.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Sting

I'm quite the National Film Registry reviewer. Know how I do it? I cheat. So, this was a really fun movie. It was a great caper movie, made better by delightfully anachronistic ragtime music. Though probably because of The Sting, people associate ragtime music with the 30's, even though ragtime is Edwardian. Some Like it Hot got the soundtrack right, but why be picky, when a bunch of classic rags made it on to the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973? The fashion is also fun to look at, with Robert Redford dashing about in one of the gaudiest suits on film, and everyone complimenting him on looking so sharp. Also definitely worth noting are the very clever title cards for each phase of the operation - each is done in a gorgeous Norman Rockwell style, and each describes part of the set-up for the titular "Sting", or when the con men finally trick their mark out of his money. This is an excellent crime caper movie. The plot hinges on a small-time grifter accidentally getting a huge pay-out from a mob boss (Lonnegan), who has the grifter's about-to-retire partner/mentor (Luther) murdered. The grifter, Hooker, then seeks out a big conman, Gondorff, to plan a huge con to get revenge for Luther. Complicating this is Lonnegan's deserved reputation for ferocity, a policeman chasing Hooker for counterfeiting, and Lonnegan's hired guns chasing Hooker. Everyone is chasing Hooker throughout this movie, and Robert Redford spends a ton of time running away in that ridiculous suit. Then also, you're dealing with two conmen - so is it possible that someone will double-cross someone else over money, danger, or honor? The movie manages to keep everything in shadow, and make you very aware that you are not dealing with good men. Just very likable and interesting to watch men. There are no answers until the last five minutes of the movie, which is exactly how it should play out in a crime caper. I was expecting it to be more humorous and less dramatic, but then again, the first caper film I ever saw was The Great Muppet Caper. The drama worked fine, and the important thing was the sparkling wit and dialogue, and watching all these disparate people trying to keep one step ahead of each other. I'd definitely mark this as a watch. I don't know yet if it's as good the second time, when you know the outcome of the caper and the threats and all the plotlines that are constantly threatening to overturn the sting itself, but I have a suspicion that it is. This movie was seriously a delight, and as long as it's on Netflix, I'd say give it a chance.