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

Deliverance

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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

City Lights

Yes, it's me. I've returned to the National Film Registry Project. And today I got to introduce a friend to silent pictures, so that's a plus. City Lights is very much a hold-out film by Charlie Chaplin. Almost all movies had moved to sound two years previously, but he refused, believing that talkies were just a fad, and that his iconic Little Tramp couldn't work if he talked. Chaplin did recognize some of the value of sound, so while this movie has no spoken dialogue (kazoos fill in where public officials are speechifying), it does have a synchronized soundtrack that Chaplin partially composed himself. He was really a Renaissance man in film, since he acted, directed, wrote, and scored several of his pictures... which is now usually considered the hallmark of a terrible movie (The Room, anyone?). But maybe he just understood silent film so well that it didn't become a problem. A lot has gone into describing his slapstick as composed, artful, even choreographed like a ballet. I'm not sure I agree with that, but then, I'm not a big slapstick person to begin with. Then there also comes in the necessary bit of presentism: I know that his pantomime and sound effect gags were fresh and original in 1931, when City Lights premiered. But for someone raised on Looney Tunes, while I now understand where they got a lot of the jokes, it feels a little stale. Which is not to say there isn't a lot here for the modern audience. There definitely is, since the movie does have deft comic timing, beautiful black-and-white cinematography, and (as a change from the silent films I usually watch) a wonderfully matched soundtrack. Some of the plot threads are kind of confusing, like the fact that The Millionaire can never recognized The Tramp unless he's drunk. It's also interesting to me that the only named character in the entire movie is the butler, but I guess you can't just call a butler "Butler". That's specifically mentioned as a breach of etiquette in The Hundred and One Dalmatians (the book, since the character was removed from the movies). But you would think someone would tell the butler that The Tramp saved The Millionaire's life, and that's why he keeps him hanging around. Or maybe The Tramp should bring some paper with him and have The Millionaire sign it. Of course, the driving plot of this movie, such as it can be called, is the relationship between The Tramp and the Flower Girl. He is willing to do anything for her, including risking falling into a rain barrel and getting clonked on the head by a flowerpot dropped by a cat. Though the romance will seem less charming and more creepy to a modern audience, given how much of it involves him stalking her and peeping through her window. But he did go to jail for her without complaint, and he is charmingly shy and twitterpated in the last frame of the film. Which is a little weird, because he was giving that same smile to the guy he was supposed to box earlier in the film. I don't think The Tramp knows how to smile without making it look like flirting. But this is a great picture, and very worth the watch. It's on Hulu right now, so if you like silent films, Charlie Chaplin, or classic slapstick, I'd say go check it out. It wasn't a favorite or a life-changing film for me, but it was interesting seeing where a good chunk of my favorite Looney Tunes gags came from.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Woman who Blogged the National Film Registry was the bravest of them all. Okay, maybe not, but it sometimes feels that way with all the other things I have to do. Which is amazing, because when I started the Film Registry Project a few months ago, I had nothing to do but the occasional paper for school. Now I’m graduating in a few weeks and actually getting out of my house to vend at Renaissance Faires and SCA events. But anyway, meatspace for the blogger is less interesting than the film. I’m not usually big on Westerns, but I do love Jimmy Stewart… and Andy Devine, even if I still think of him primarily as Friar Tuck (yes, even despite Green Acres). I knew this film mostly because of the song, which anyone who grew up listening to the Oldies station has heard approximately one million times. Which is okay, because it’s a good song. Which is now stuck in your head because HE SHOT Li-ber-TY Va-LANCE! The movie is definitely a classic because of its artistic merit. The whole thing has elements of Shakespearean tragedy, with the deep questions of the law of civilization vs. the law of brute force, the nature of manhood, the rights of self-defense, and where the necessity of the truth is opposed to the necessity of legends and symbols. And then there’s the central question posed by the title: who is the man who shot Liberty Valance? Did the pacifistic law man truly break what he believed in? Did Tom Doniphon lie to make Ranse feel confident enough to become the statesman that the territory needed? Did Tom Doniphon take the backseat in history because that's what history needed? The fact that these questions are never made clear is why this movie is still worth the watch over 50 years after it came out. The movie does seem like it has a generally happy ending – Liberty Valance is defeated, Ranse gets the girl, gets the territory statehood, becomes the governor and the senator, but for Ranse's happy ending, Tom had to lose his own. The last frame on Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart, as they stare tight-lipped and defeated, knowing that so much of what they achieved was because Tom went unrecognized and because a man had to die... it's just haunting. Maybe John Ford did learn pessimism with this picture and that's why it's such a masterpiece, but the cast does have a lot to do with it. I can definitely recommend this film to anyone, even if you don't like Westerns. I don't care for them myself, but this really is like Shakespeare in the desert.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers

Garlic is the spice of life, and the National Film Registry Project is the spice of rainy afternoons. So.... this is a really odd film. It's on both Hulu and YouTube, if you've ever wanted to see a documentary about people in California who really love garlic. It's... well, another of those films that I don't understand why it's on the Registry. That's not to say it's a bad documentary or even a bad film. Where else could you see a man wearing a giant garlic hat telling you about how America has discovered garlic because of hippies? Or see a guy credited as an "Andulusian Gypsy - Sausage Maker/Garlic Lover/Butcher of Fighting Bulls" tell you about the Spanish Civil War and appear to be threatening to stab the documentarian for asking questions about the garlic/tomato peasant sandwich? Or see a woman belly dance with a string of garlic? Or hear another woman sing a love song about garlic? Or see a documentarian go to a playground and ask a bunch of kids "Hey, what do you think of garlic?" (general consensus from kids in the 1970's "It's okay"). Or hear Werner Herzog's opinion on what garlic has to do with Nosferatu – yes, this movie addresses the vampire/garlic problem. This movie really, really loves garlic, and what it primarily wants to tell you is that it's okay if you do too. Unlike a lot of other food documentaries, it's not highly concerned with recipes or health benefits (though it mentions both). It just wants to tell you that a lot of people freaking love garlic. There's a weird phrase about 15-20 minutes in where a lady in voiceover says something about garlic being universal among people from "primitive cultures", and then it cuts to the very excitable Spanish man yell-singing about the way to keeping a man being to add a lot of garlic to his food. That was pretty weird, since most of the people shown enjoying garlic are decidedly WASP-y, though besides our friend the yelling Spanish man, we also have three whole black people appear in the movie to show garlic being used in barbecue, and a Chinese man appear to show us how to use garlic in a stir-fry. My roommate the chef was watching with me and really enjoyed those segments of the movie - most 70's food tends to look like the nation lost a bet with the Jell-O corporation. But even with the bad lighting characteristic of the mobile equipment of the 70's, most of the food shown in the movie looks pretty good. The end of the movie veers off from "People love eating garlic!" to "Garlic should be grown organically!" and showing us garlic pickers. And mad props to those people. It looks like a tremendously difficult job. The film ends with a caption over the screen: “Support the People Who Grow the Food We Eat”. Well, almost ends, since it goes on to show people carrying boxes, people cooking with garlic, and a few more close-ups of garlic. But it's still a pretty good message. Overall, my impression of this movie is that it's bizarre, but bizarre in a good way. I don't know why this particular Les Blank documentary was chosen for preservation, and Wikipedia isn't particularly enlightening on that fact. But it's still fascinating. So go check it out, if you want to see a bunch of people who really, REALLY love garlic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Thin Blue Line

Sometimes all that stands between civilization and anarchy is the preservation of culture. After some crazy time, it feels good to be back doing something that's my own again. Even if it is recording my reactions to a hideously depressing documentary where a real man was robbed of twelve years of his life, part of them spent on Death Row, for a murder he didn't commit. It was one of those stark peeks into just how crooked the concept of justice can go when punishment is put ahead of justice. Edith James, who represented Randall Adams, said that there were really two major things going against Adams in the trial - one, that he wasn't a local and the other possible suspect was, and that he was old enough to be given the death penalty, and the other possible suspect wasn't. You can't have cop killers getting off scot-free, and David Harris was a juvenile at the time of the killing. David Harris, who in tape at the end of the end of the film as good as admits to the murder of Officer Wood, is the culmination of the kind of laid-back "boys will be boys" Duke's of Hazzard philosophy. Sure, teenage boys get into trouble and raise a bit of Cain now and then. No need to wreck their whole lives. Even though David Harris was arrested multiple times for armed robbery, assault, attempted kidnapping, bragged about the killing of Officer Wood, threw the blame onto Randall Adams, then was ultimately given the death penalty for killing a man who tried to stop David from abducting his girlfriend during a home invasion. It's an odd question to pose at this point in time, since "Three Strikes" laws and mandatory minimum sentencing have been considered to ruin lives... after all, we've got people doing major stretches for marijuana possession. But then you've got the "We can't ruin a boy's life" with a boy who was what could be considered a menace to society. Where really is the line? I thought this would be more about the police, but it did help free an innocent man. This is really much more about the justice system - the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the way evidence can be fudged if there's a point that people really want to prove, and the impact of emotional appeals over solid reason. Under the weight of the facts, there was absolutely no reason for Randall Adams to shoot Officer Wood, and plenty of reasons for David Harris to. But then the wagging finger "THE MAN IS SITTING RIGHT THERE!" by a woman who fancied herself a detective and the prosecution closing with a heart-stirring speech about the titular "thin blue line" that protects society did sway the jury. Then the original subject of the documentary came into play - James Grigson. A quick game of match-up and a few questions about proverbs, and he was willing to declare an innocent man an incurable sociopath who should be put to death for the safety of society. And apparently did that so much that he was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association. James Grigson didn't seem to read many cases that weren't incurable sociopaths that should be put to death for the safety of society, with his "expert testimony" securing the death penalty for 167 people. So you have to wonder if there was some projection there. Overall, this movie was chilling. The camerawork and recreations were cutting edge at the time, though now it looks more like Unsolved Mysteries. But Unsolved Mysteries was awesome. I usually like my movies more fun, but if you would just really love to get outraged, this is one to check out.