Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The African Queen

It can be hard on the nature to review so many films, but Nature is what we were put here to rise above.

And rise above we do with movies like The African Queen (though the film has a rather astonishing lack of Africans – even for the time period). Ostensibly, this is one of those romance/adventures where the totally unlikely couple find acceptance and love in their differences. Though watching tends to form a different reaction than most of the sappy thrown-together plotlines, where you could never for a moment believe they will last a week out of danger. My roommate commented that this was the first movie he saw where Humphrey Bogart wasn't in charge, and I pointed out that Katherine Hepburn is always in charge. You can believe Mr. Allnut would happily bend his will to Miss Rose for the rest of his life, seeing as how he's a useful, but not a particularly determined man without her. You don't usually get the narrative of the woman being the courage and the driving force in the “danger romance” genre, and even though the movie came out in 1951, it's still refreshing. Rose Sayer may be a bit naive on technical matters, but the only thing that makes her shriek in the entire film is a choking swarm of mosquitoes. In most other “danger romances” you spend half the time wondering if the man's turn-ons include helpless whimpering, blood-choking arm holds, and screaming like an infant. Like I said, it's refreshing that Rose Sayer does none of those things, but is instead, always flawlessly polite and level-headed, even as she actually becomes filthy enough for you to believe she's on a river (as opposed to most heroines, who manage to do perfect winged eyeliner and keep their eyebrows on point during the zombie apocalypse).

Really what the story is about is two people learning to deal with each other, and the understanding leading to love. It isn't too different in basic outlines as the basic “Beauty and the Beast” story, although it's subverted by having “Beauty” cast as an unattractive old maid (which must have been tough work for the makeup department, considering they had Katherine Hepburn to work with), and having the castle setting replaced by a dangerous river surrounded by hostile Germans. It seems like it should be absurd, but maybe because the mains are really so likable, you can't help but get invested in what happens to them. Also, a World War One movie? Stop the presses. There's also the admirable decision to not try to force poor Bogie into doing a Cockney accent (how Charlie Allnut was characterized in the novel). Rewriting him as Canadian helped prevent the kind of dignity loss inflicted on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now if only we would allow actors who can't do accents to retain their original style of speaking and maybe rewrite a little to explain things.

Overall, I really enjoyed this film. It is definitely one I would watch again, and it's a movie I would suggest aspiring filmmakers watch. Your heroine in difficult circumstances does not need to be either brain-rendingly annoying or be unbelievably tough and competent. She doesn't have to know everything to be courageous or admirable, and she doesn't need to shriek and grab the hero to have vulnerability or build up the romantic tension. This is one of the perfect examples of a heroine in danger acting like a capable adult human being, and as such, really deserves the watch.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire

HEY STEEEEELLLLLLAAAAA! The Film Registry Project is back!

So... this is one of my favorite films of all time, as depressing as it is. I got an opportunity to watch with a dear friend who had never seen it before, and the big thing that struck me again on why I love this movie so much was the conversation we were able to have about the film. Sometimes it's great to have a movie you can just watch and enjoy, but the movies that get you talking afterward... though to enlighten our discussion, I had to bring up my reading of the original play. The Hayes Code did make some really peculiar choices about homosexuality in film. You'd think, given the mores of the time, that a woman telling a gay man she is horrified and disgusted, leading to him shooting himself, would actually be allowed in an adult film. Or at least a film shunned by the League of Decency (I have on first-hand information that all good Catholics were told never to watch this film), which is as adult a rating as you could get before the formal codifying of film ratings. But then again, maybe they figured the idea was so poisonous, that even a guy shooting himself for shame wouldn't erase the horror of his "crime". Instead, Blanche just loathed her husband for being "weak", which doesn't really seem enough to cause a person to shoot themselves at a dance.

The character I've always been the most fascinated by, however, is Stella. Even if Stella doesn't leave Stanley in the play, my friend pointed out that they believed that Stella's flight of the film would last maybe a day. Maybe. Probably more like four hours. Because hey, as horrible as it is to have your husband rape your sister while you're having his baby, what are you going to do? Leave a man that handsome?Stella's motivations are largely unexplored, beyond that she's the big motivating factor for the bigger personalities of Blanche and Stanley. But that's precisely why I find her interesting. Blanche could grate on the nerves of a saint, with her melodrama and snobbery, while Stanley is, as Blanche said, a "survivor of the Stone Age". While Kim Hunter was a beautiful woman, she's dressed plainly and has a rather unflattering hairstyle. She's got her delicate, beautiful sister on one side... imagine growing up in that house! Stella seems the type to always be shunted aside in favor of the needier Blanche. Yet Stella's marriage is to an incredibly handsome man who is sexually exciting to her, pays her all kinds of attention, and is possessive of her. She has some standard characteristics of a battered woman, but her sexual need of Stanley and his way of being helpless without her seems to be the biggest thing holding her there. Finally, there's someone who really prefers her to her sister. Finally, she has won and Blanche has lost. No wonder she refuses to believe Blanche about the rape - how could her adored husband do that ultimate act of betrayal?

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but to me, the sibling issues are one of the most fascinating angles. There's the archetypal reading, where one views Blanche as the Old South (courteous and courtly, but frail and overdramatic) and Stanley as the New South (vigorous, but raw and violent). There's the perspective of mental illness, the psychological impact of enforced closeting, the study of PTSD causing acting out in a way besides the typically depicted violence, the study of domestic violence, the portrait of female sexuality... the best movies are the ones that you don't run out of discussion fodder for, and if you're willing to spend two hours being thoroughly depressed, you can also get a ton of things to think about.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

What is the victory of a National Film Registry blogger on a hot tin roof? Just staying on, I guess.

 Well, it's been awhile. In this while, I've had laryngitis twice, which is absolutely unreasonable, and that really put a damper on me wanting to write and review. Hard to think of anything but loathing for all the people out there who don't have sore throats, really. But I did watch this movie twice while I was sick, and it was a very good film. And that opens up a question: is there an artistic problem with enjoying a work that the original artist repudiated? Tennessee Williams hated this adaptation of his work, both for excising most of the homo-erotic subtext (which is a major plot point of the play and the lack of which does create some confusion), and for adding a tacked-on reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. Elizabeth Taylor stars as Maggie the Cat (a joke I didn't get in "The Mighty Ducks" until I saw this movie), with Paul Newman as her bisexual sot of a husband. We get the feeling that something truly awful happened between them, because most men wouldn't reject a 20-something Elizabeth Taylor throwing herself at their heads. The truth is slowly unfolded against the backdrop of a passel of family drama - the impending death of the family patriarch, the scheming of the hateful sister-in-law, and the unwritten laws of the South that prevent anyone from talking about anything openly. You don't wash the dirty laundry in public here. Or in private. The worse things get, the more you're expected to politely ignore it, or dismiss it. It's an odd code of behavior that has relaxed since the 1950's, but still exists.

The truth, such as it is under the Hayes censors, is that Brick has been laboring under the delusion that his adored best friend slept with his wife and then killed himself. Which... does become kind of strange and has the side effect of making Brick seem much more in love with Skipper than the other way around. The plot point in the play is that Skipper confesses his love to Brick over the phone and kills himself when Brick rejects him. I know they had to re-write the play under the restrictions of the Hayes Code, but it makes the whole break and reunion (also tacked on for the movie) seem a lot stranger. Why would a man kill himself after telling his best friend that he was seduced by his friend's wife? Why would the man become convinced in the course of a few hours that the woman he's been blaming for his friend's death is actually not responsible? A Streetcar Named Desire has the excision of the homosexuality plot point as well, which also makes the suicide in that play seem strange and forced. It's still a masterful movie, with amazing performances and excellent cinematography. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor putting on stockings.

My overall answer to enjoying art that the original artist hates is that it depends on what the adapting artist made out of it. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is superior in many ways to Stephen King's The Shining, no matter what King says about it. But I suppose the best reason for this film being considered a masterpiece is the work-arounds and attempts at subverting the strictures of the Hayes Code, which opened up the way for more open and experimental cinema. And that's definitely worth a lot.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Harold and Maude

If you want to review, review.

 So this is an interesting movie to review, since usually when one sees a huge age disparity between the couple in a film, it's a man romancing a woman. And in classic films, that woman was frequently Audrey Hepburn (25 years younger than Cary Grant in Charade, 30 years younger than Fred Astaire in Funny Face - guess Hollywood thought that Audrey looked like the type to go for silver foxes). But Harold and Maude really flips the script by not just having a young man interested in an older woman (well before the advent of the cougar trope), but a baby-faced guy who looks barely 17 having very sexual feelings towards a woman who is obviously elderly. Elderly people aren't supposed to be the subject of love stories, especially not sexual ones. Yet here we are, having a complete script flip, from the elderly person being the fun-loving one to the young person making a sexual pursuit of an elderly person. Maude is a prototype Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only instead of being a big-eyed waif with crazy hair, she's a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor who steals cars, poses nude, and has a giant wooden sculpture of her vulva, which Harold fingers and then licks in a scene that seems more creepy than affirming attraction between the two.

 I don't know why, but while I appreciate all the subversions, I just can't find where I'm supposed to be entertained by this film. It's ranked as a "Best Comedy", but I personally didn't laugh once. Maybe because the young guy obsessed with death has been used in plenty of other things since, or maybe because I don't see inherent humor in the idea that a couple with a 61-year age difference could form. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be the joke, or if the jokes are supposed to be Harold's obsession with death and elaborate suicide attempts. I guess the juxtaposition of Harold's suicides and his mother's exasperation are somewhat humorous. But where does one really go with this? This is by far the best movie I've found for showing that humor is totally subjective. Maude teaching Harold to live every day to the fullest with semi-controlled anarchy, then killing herself because she is convinced that 80 is the proper age to die doesn't really strike me as humorous. Maude's fast talk can be witty, but over all, the movie just seems to be congratulating itself on being so subversive that they forgot to put real characterization into the leads. Harold and Maude are both conglomerate characters of everything but the kitchen sink. Harold is a hodgepodge of neglected rich boy (the most famous of this trope is the preternaturally annoying Holden Caulfield), stereotypes about depression, and what the team seems to think are jokes about sexuality. Maude is given a lot of hints that she would be more interesting in the hands of another script writer, but she's a straight-forward "subversion" of Holocaust survivors (who are presumably all miserable and consumed with the horrors of their life?) and elderly people (who have no sex drives and don't like adventures? Tell that to the exploding STI rate in seniors) who speaks in affirmations and fortune cookies. I'm not saying there's nothing here for anyone. Obviously, there's something for some people. But I just can't appreciate it properly. Maybe the film didn't age well, or maybe the leads just really need more depth. We are overdue for a film that allows a young man to show attraction for an older woman, though. Maybe then it won't be considered ridiculous to cast a 30-year-old woman opposite a 45-year-old man, so a 22-year-old is cast instead. Then again, if we try to pull that subversion, then Hollywood will probably try to pass a woman of 35 as a woman of 50.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


I think we're gonna need a bigger blog.

 So... Jaws. I had avoided seeing this movie, because of all things, my deepest fear is being eaten to death. All I had seen of this movie was the opening chomps and the severed leg of the boater drifting to the bottom of the ocean - the first had caused me to flee the room (my sister was watching), and the second was while I was channel surfing. It's movies like this that give little kids complexes about things like being eaten. What 7 year old thinks about the primal dread of being eaten to death? Well, I was a weird kid in a lot of ways. But the thing that surprised me with this was how hard it was to keep my attention focused. Instead of being kept spellbound by the ramping up tension, like in Vertigo, I found myself checking my phone and wondering whether it would be tasteless to be eating pudding while watching. I decided it wasn't (Mmm, butterscotchy goodness to go with watching a shark). I think the issue here was the same problem with The Exorcist - cultural osmosis for this film is so inescapable that the "surprises" are now pretty tame. I knew Kim Novak died in Vertigo before I saw it, but I had no idea how she died or why she died or how anyone got to the state they did. I guess this comes down to a personality thing. Some people enjoy spoilers and like watching how things unfold, while people like me can't enjoy suspense movies without the suspense present. And watching Jaws just doesn't have any surprises for a person who was a kid in the 90's. Cartoons and pop culture were lousy with references.

 This is a pretty standard film as far as summer monster blockbusters go, but obviously that's what makes it so influential. Monster movies where usually the B-reel, and made the kind of quality viewing that you see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Of course the progenitor is going to seem standard, since everyone ripped it off. The soundtrack is so beyond iconic that it's joined The Ballad of Jed Clampett and The Ballad of Gilligan's Island (what was it with 60's sitcoms and calling their theme songs ballads?) as an instantly hummable wad in the American conscious. There seems so little to talk about, considering you can take a class on Jaws alone in some places. Though I did find it funny that the girl who gets eaten at the beginning is signalled as a literal garbage person. Like... she's not just the slutty girl who invites a stranger to go nude swimming and thus must be punished with horrible death (as per horror tropes). She's actually first seen sitting in a pile of trash, like Oscar the Grouch. I thought this little bit of virtue signalling was pretty heavy-handed, but odds are, it wasn't really a conscious decision. Lots of people subconsciously virtue signal... and based on descriptions of the problem-plagued production of the film, they probably just meant her to be sitting off a little ways, and the mound of trash was incidental. I overthink a lot of things. There doesn't seem to be a lot of point into getting into describing the film, because everyone knows it: shark starts eating people, police chief gets overridden about closing the beach by a bunch of bureaucrats, shark eats more people, men go out hunting shark, shark eats more people, shark explodes. An exploding shark is really the best thing you can hope for when you have a monster shark. I didn't personally care much for this film (DEAR SWEET LORD WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THERE WAS BLACKBOARD SCRATCHING!?!), but I can see why it's influential and why people enjoyed it. However, here's also the problem that the killer Great White took such a hold on the public imagination that they were hunted to the endangered list. There's a little factoid for anyone who says movies don't influence reality. This is a movie that broke barriers for summer films, for action, and for monster films. It's also a film that caused widespread damage as people became terrified of sharks. Maybe someone should make a movie about malarial mosquitoes killing a bunch of cute, rich, or likable people in Massachusetts. Maybe then we could focus on an animal that actually causes humans problems.

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.