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

Jaws

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.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Goodfellas


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

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Great Dictator

Look up, Hannah, there's another Film Registry Project Review!

 So, here we are at the first Chaplin film I'm going to review. According to the little bonus commentary that played after the feature on Hulu, he really wanted to make a film about Napoleon, but felt that he really, really needed to lampoon Hitler. Which isn't surprising, given that he was Jewish. The rumors of the "Final Solution" were only starting to percolate out to the US by 1940, but most people just couldn't bring themselves to believe them. After all, Germany was a civilized country. A little jerky, but only 30 years before, German had been the second most common language in the United States. This is what started an odd little trend of comedians urging the US to enter the war by making Hitler and Mussolini both look like evil dopes who wanted to conquer the world. Which is fairly accurate, but it's still an interesting insight into propaganda history. Usually, propaganda efforts start when the government wants to get people on board with an idea, but as far as I've been able to tell, the pre-US-involvement films were a sort of grassroots effort by both Jews and anti-fascists in Hollywood. Carole Lombard's last film (another National Film Registry movie, To Be Or Not To Be) is another of these movies, and her USO tour plane crash made her one of the only American civilian casualties on American soil, since Hawaii wasn't a state at the time of Pearl Harbor. Maybe these movies are part of the reason Hollywood went to war, with almost every physically capable leading man signing up, and the physically incapable and the women doing USO tours and cranking out propaganda films by the hundreds. It's a fascinating bit of cinematic history.

 But back to The Great Dictator. This was Charlie Chaplin's first complete talkie, and got kind of mixed reviews upon release. It wasn't that the critics didn't love his trademark slapstick anymore - on the contrary, they thought it was great. So great, in fact, that a bunch of scenes became iconic enough to be "paid homage" in various Bugs Bunny shorts (memorably the shaving scene to classical music and the bit with the barber's chairs, both used in "The Rabbit of Seville"). The image of "Adenoid Hinkel" doing a delicate balloon dance with a globe has become one of the most famous images of Hitler-mocking that didn't come from the mind of Mel Brooks. It was just that ending that critics had a problem with. Why would a former soldier/barber, escaped from a prison camp and mistaken for the man persecuting his people, make a five minute impassioned plea for peace and justice and for the liberty of soldiers? Well... because any brave person given the platform would. Sure, he'd likely be shot at the end of his speech, but he gave it, and that's what's important. It's not inconsistent with anything we had been shown about the character, who had really kicked off the slapstick by slapping a stormtrooper in the face with a paintbrush. It's just no one at the time was familiar with the idea of mixing comedy and a social message. This one may have been on the heavy-handed side, but it was still a new idea. There are definitely a lot of people who don't know how to do this at all, so "kind of heavy-handed" vs. "Anvillicious", and I'll go with the originator of the idea being a little heavy on the pathos.

 Overall, this really is a great movie. Long, which I wish I had remembered before agreeing to watch it for a second time after taking cold medicine. I suggest anyone interested in film history or in WWII history give it a watch. Just make sure you're awake.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Star Wars: A New Hope

May the Force be with you... AND ALSO WITH YOU!

 So... what do I say about one of my favorite movies? I've seen this film so many times in the last twenty years, I can quote the whole thing from memory. I've cosplayed as Mara Jade. I have my own collection of lightsabers. I'm currently sitting underneath the New Hope poster, an Ewok keychain, and a Darth Vader with cookies con badge, and in front of a Rebel insignia autographed by Michael Stackpole. I have a wall of Star Wars collector's memorabilia on top of my movie collection, and a tub of mint condition action figures at my parent's house - not to mention a whole shelf of Star Wars books. So it's pretty hard to be unbiased about this film. Thankfully, it's the original that's preserved, not the "Special Edition", with all the CGI frippery. I can totally understand cleaning up some shots, but like every other fan, I don't understand cluttering up shots with dozens of CGI monstrosities. The success of the original films was that George Lucas was working with an amazing group of people - the actors would say no to him, he had good editors, script people, basically everything he didn't have for the prequels. The only thing that stayed the same was John Williams, and what do people remember fondly from the prequels? The amazing soundtrack. But off the criticism of George Lucas.

What is it that makes Star Wars so successful? Well, it's a combination of a few things. The straightforward Campbell Hero's Journey. The exciting serial adventure feel. The lived-in look of the galaxy. The fact that you got the idea that if the camera wandered off the main characters, you'd still end up watching a story that was just as interesting. The feeling that you're watching a part of a grander whole. The voyage of discovery. The likability of the cast. No, on a strict level, it wasn't doing anything brilliant. It's actually a pretty by-the-numbers science fantasy story (it's not even true science fiction if you want to get technical). It's not a grand epic like Dune or Foundation. It doesn't espouse a philosophy like Stranger in a Strange Land or make commentary on the nature of humanity like 2001. But Star Wars did something that very few science fiction films had ever done before: it took that magnificent landscape of imagination and it made it visible. Unlike Star Trek, all the aliens looked alien. Robots looked like robots. Things looked dirty. It all looked real - you could totally imagine aliens from another society seeing this movie and mistaking it for a historical document. Sure, a few of the puppets and costumes look kind of rubbery now, but geez, did they look different from anything anyone ever saw before. And just like Blade Runner influenced future city design for years to come, Star Wars influenced science fiction films. Suddenly, these were blockbusters, not kiddie fare. It made nostalgia for the old whiz bang Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers cool. In a way, you could say Star Wars started this whole nostalgia train by legitimizing it. It made some level of geeking out socially acceptable. And the soundtrack was just so good. And the cast was just so likable. And the special effects were just so groundbreaking. People who are more educated in film than I am have tried for years to explain "Why Star Wars?". That's my best explanation. Every time I watch it, I'm back to a 9 year old kid with a sore throat sitting down with a ginger ale and a bowl of chicken soup, watching them for the first time. Even if I can quote every line, I'm filled with wonder and joy every time. And I can't really ask a movie to do more than that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Bride of Frankenstein

It's a perfect night for mystery and horror and the National Film Registry.

 So, this is another of those movies that's more famous for its level of pop culture osmosis than for actually being seen. A fair amount of the parody Young Frankenstein (another List film) is taken from The Bride of Frankenstein, rather than Frankenstein itself. This also sets up that apparently the Preservation Board adores the Frankenstein's Monster character, as four films featuring him are preserved. No other character has that distinction. Even Dracula is technically only on the List once, though in original English and Spanish dubbed form, it's the same movie. The Bride of Frankenstein does veer a little closer to the book in attempting to make the Creature more sympathetic and more articulate, and even adds in Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. That part is an odd little scene, because the conceit is that Mary is telling the sequel to the tale she told the last time... which was set in the 1930's, and judging by most of the costumes, still is. But she's still the historical figure of Mary Shelley, telling the tale in 1817. She's amazingly presentient about the fashions of the future, since Elizabeth again spends this film impeccably dressed.

 Anyway, this movie not only introduces the comic old lady in Minnie (famously recreated as Frau Blucher), but also the old blind hermit, who has somehow acquired cigars. I thought the idea of a hermit with cigars was just a gag for Mel Brooks, but no, that's actually a plot point in the film. The old hermit teaches the Creature to speak, to eat, to drink, and to smoke. "Smoke good, fire bad". The film also introduces the very camp Dr. Pretorious, who has succeeded in growing tiny human forms that he plays dress-up with and keeps in bottles. He also enjoys blackmail, fancy coats, and picnics in crypts. He's a riot. He's also the one that convinces Henry Frankenstein to make the Bride, using parts from random dead ladies, including a few murder victims. Pretorious isn't really the snuggly type. Again, a major plot point from the book is never addressed. There, you have some excuse, as Mary Shelley was presumably ignorant of a few facts of reproduction - Victor Frankenstein destroys the nearly completed Bride out of terror that She and the Creature will reproduce. Apparently the idea of just leaving out her uterus or ovaries never occurred to him. In the film, Pretorious is all for the Creatures having Creature babies, so I guess that explains that, except why does he think they'd be able to reproduce? But it turns into a moot point anyway, because the Bride is horrified by her Bridegroom, and after maybe five minutes of screentime where she spends the entire time screaming and hissing, the Creature kills everyone except Henry by knocking the tower down. Though a good monster can't stay dead, and he reappeared a few years later in The Son of Frankenstein. Dude needs to learn that collapsing buildings just isn't a good suicide method.

 Overall, this movie was a lot of fun. It made the jokes in Young Frankenstein a lot funnier. It also opened up a lot of questions to a nitpicker like me, but I had a roommate on hand reminding me to just go with it. I'm not supposed to look for logic in a classic monster movie, I'm just supposed to enjoy the ride. And I definitely did.

Friday, April 29, 2016

E.T. The Extraterrestrial

E.T. phone some pacing and a coherent plotline.

 I hated this movie as a kid because E.T. scared the bejabbers out of me. I never made it through the whole film before I'd start crying and run out of the room (fun tidbit, I was also afraid of the song "Driving in My Cadillac" and of Yoda). Last night marked the first time I saw the film in it's entirety. And hopefully the last time. Why on Earth is this listed as "the greatest science fiction movie ever made"? Did the people rating just really hate the science fiction genre? I know this is an extremely iconic movie, but watching without the lens of nostalgia, all I can see is that the movie is clunky, badly paced, and makes no damn sense. The third act is a complete mess of non sequitur. Okay, so being away from his planet and people makes E.T. sick. I can see that. But the government scientist people who have been built up as threatening were only threatening accidentally, and when they actually find E.T., they do everything that they can to help. While Elliot screams that they're "killing him", he doesn't actually offer any suggestions on what they should do instead. Stop killing him, presumably. I don't know, it's not really clear. The guy built up to be a sinister government agent, "Keys", is actually shown to be really nice, and gives Elliot time to mourn with E.T.'s dead body - alone. Which... E.T. then comes back to life for reasons that are unclear (proximity alert?), and Elliot makes the logical decision to fake a meltdown and then steal a truck instead of tell the guy who apparently wants nothing more than to help what's happening. And then some police pull out guns, but that's not clear either. Why? Those guys seem to be in an entirely different movie than the one we're actually watching. Maybe they wandered over from the set of Splash, where the government types actually were being sinister on purpose and were actually intent on experimenting on the otherworldly creature.

 I don't know... maybe if I hadn't have been terrified of this movie as a kid, I wouldn't have seen it as chock full of weird inconsistencies and plot holes. My roommate watched it with me, and he grew up with the picture, and was far more forgiving. Maybe I've seen too many parodies - my personal favorite being from Freakazoid!. But instead of seeing a movie filled with whimsy and mystical wonder, instead I started thinking about how Steven Spielberg movies often suffer from being too long, because while he's trying to build up atmosphere, instead he's just meandering. A lot of scenes drag on... and on... and on... and on. While I thought all the little Star Wars nods were cute, they didn't save the movie for me (by the way, it's Ponda Baba, not Walrus Face, you ignorant child!). I was just bored by most of it.

Instead of being caught up in the whimsy of a child finding his very own alien friend, I found myself checking the Netflix timer to see how long I had to go. The last time I watched a movie that felt so long was Bicentennial Man. I don't demand constant stimulation from my films, but I do like some pacing. I know a lot of people adore this movie, but all I could think while watching was that I would rather the camera had stayed on This Island Earth.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Frankenstein

IT'S ALIVE! THE BLOG IS ALIVE!

 So, this was a movie I hadn't seen, though I've read the book multiple times (I specialized in science fiction - it goes with the territory). And man, the movie is different than the book. Heck, the movie is different than people think it is. The movie has become so iconic without people actually seeing it that everyone has the idea of a Boris Karloff/Fred Gwynne/Peter Boyle hulk that they are usually surprised when they read the book, and the Creature isn't like that at all. He's a big creature, because that made it easier for Victor Frankenstein to work on him, but he's really an egghead type that speaks at least two languages and really likes discussing 'Paradise Lost'. Also, weirdly, they swapped the names of Frankenstein and his best friend - in the book, they're Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval. In the movie, it's Henry Frankenstein and Victor is just some dude who pops up from time to time. There's also no Igor in the book or in this movie. Here, the hunchbacked cringing assistant is a fellow named Fritz. He doesn't even have a particularly weird accent. According to a bit of searching, Igor pops up in the third Frankenstein film, Son of Frankenstein, where he's played by Bela Lugosi. So how did the little cringing, spitting, hunchback with a severe speech impediment become Igor in pop culture? I have no idea - your guess is as good as mine. Fritz does get murdered by the Creature, but he really did have it coming. He torments the Creature for no apparent reason, even after being told to be careful.

Though one thing that did translate well was the jaunty emcee in the beginning, warning us all that we may die of fright when we see the shocking film. It's delightfully cheesy, and one of the most memorable parts of the film. Colin Clive does a memorable spin on the character of Dr. Frankenstein, going between serious and well-spoken and having a fierce case of crazy eyes. He can go between a person who seems to reasonably understand that it's a bit nutty to steal dead bodies and sew them together in an attempt to bring them back to life, and well, the kind of person who views that as somewhere between a harmless hobby and a life's vocation. He is deliriously creepy because of his ability to swing between those two sides of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff is, of course, the trope codifier for Reanimated Monster, even if he was supposed to look more like the Armored Titan. He does this with some masterful grunting and throwing himself around... which, no wonder he was tired of it and ready to take on a comedic role in Arsenic and Old Lace. We're told in this movie that the reason the Creature kills things is that he accidentally received a criminal brain, instead of a healthy one. So he just kind of cheerfully causes mayhem. The book had the opposite moral - that nurture is the defining characteristic of how someone will turn out. So I guess whoever wrote the script didn't take any classes in literary analysis. We also have Elizabeth, the Scream Queen for the film. They do try to give her more stuff to do, like warning Frankenstein that his ideas are nuts, but she's mostly there to be menaced. There is a lot of screaming in this movie. The special effects are still fairly impressive, not just for their time period, but in general. There are a lot of interesting flips and switches and Tesla coils zapping. The backgrounds suffer, since they're very clearly painted canvas, but hey, the outdoor scenes look nice otherwise.

 Overall, I'd suggest watching this movie, and not just because the Film Registry is apparently obsessed with the character (there are four Frankenstein movies on the List). It's a pretty interesting study of early horror film making, and a delightful stew of anachronism, since the dress suggests the movie is taking place in the 1930's, but the Bavarian peasantry is still going out hunting demons with torches and pitchforks. It's a fun watch.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Thin Man

While you're waiting for this review, have a drink. Have a few drinks.

 This is probably the best example of mixing a screwball comedy with a murder mystery. You get the fun of watching the impossibly chic characters throwing out impossibly witty repartee, and this time it's highlighted with the solving of multiple homicides. I'm not sure why this one seemed classier to me than His Girl Friday - perhaps because Nick Charles is a retired detective, and as far as he knew, no one's life was hanging in the balance whether he took the case or not. And there was no point where the subtitles gave up trying to subtitle because of the atrocious din. Or maybe it was the presence of Skippy the Dog as Nick and Nora's faithful terrier, Asta. I do love pups. Interestingly, the titular “Thin Man” is not supposed to be Nick Charles. Instead, it is supposed to be the missing scientist who is accused of triple homicide – Claude Wynant. However, seeing as William Powell was a slender fellow, people forgot that the case described the missing person as a “thin man”, and assumed the title was referring to the devotee of the Drinking Man's Diet, Nick Charles. Thus, the title was kept for a series of movies, which I fully intend to watch.

 William Powell and Myrna Loy are just so very, very likable, and of course, Skippy is adorable and very well trained for perfect comedic timing. The Wikipedia page credits the director, W.S. Van Dyke, with the atmosphere of the film, since he apparently was very much of the school of turning a camera on a talented cast and letting them go. Except according to the sources, he usually didn't even tell them he was filming, because the improv and the banter and the relaxed atmosphere were more important to him than getting perfect lines and reads – basically an exact opposite of Stanley Kubrick. He can't be faulted for results. We got a product of a married couple who actually seem like they would be married, and who actually do make the audience laugh.

I watched this film with my parents, and while my stepmother often falls asleep while we watch films, she was awake and chuckling or interested through the whole thing. I think that's a pretty good recommendation, since this is a lady who has fallen asleep during pretty much every comedy or thriller I have watched with her over the last fifteen years. Most of the film isn't guffaw-level funny, but it's chuckling and wishing you were that witty level funny. I'd say this is a definite watch. I wish I had watched it years ago myself.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sunset Boulevard

I am big, it's the reviews that got small.

 So, if you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you already know that I have a weakness for film noir and a separate weakness for black and white. And how beautifully the two match up in this elegant drama about an aging silent picture siren and the broke screenwriter who is her kept man. In some ways, this movie made me think of a really dark turn for Lena Lamont after Singin' In the Rain. Norma Desmond still has a faded dignity about her, and some elements about the movie make you wonder if they would fly today. While Norma using threats of suicide to keep Joe with her is undoubtedly an abusive action, would the more modern mindset have made the situation so acutely uncomfortable as to turn tragic? I've known a few fellows who joke that their goal in life is to find an attractive older woman and become kept men, and Gloria Swanson definitely qualifies as an attractive older woman. Is it the level of shame in 1950 for a man not being the breadwinner? It seems to be more that than her personality, though some effort is given to make her personality seem unattractive. Norma Desmond is shown as self-obsessed, petty, and distinctly unsympathetic, while also being generous and highly affectionate. Actually, if I taught psychology instead of English, I would probably use her as a good example of Borderline Personality Disorder in film. Her psychotic break at the end keeps it from being a sensitive portrayal, but the alternating loving and generous and self-obsession and demanding attention are pretty classic.

 The cinematography is fantastic and the sets are all glorious. I'm not usually a fan of narration in film, but it works very well here. Often you don't need to be told what's in the character's head, but since Joe's murder at the beginning is the framing device, it becomes more necessary. I know some people really hate the "This is the story of how I died" framing device, but this is the earliest film I'm familiar with that uses it. Points for originality there. There's also the litany of crazy beauty treatments that women used to undergo to maintain their youthful appearance - also memorably filmed in Mommy Dearest. Now ladies who are beginning to show age have the quick and convenient option of having neurotoxin injected straight into their faces. Isn't progress wonderful? While the movie focuses primarily on Joe and his shame at being a failure at his job as a screenwriter, and his even deeper shame at being a kept man, I think Norma Desmond is a more interesting character. After all, she blames "talkies" on why she was discarded, but she's got a beautiful, cultured voice. It wasn't her voice at all - that was usually the bane of transferring to talkies. Talkies destroyed Clara Bow's career, because she had a heavy Bronx accent that filmgoers thought was uncouth. But in Norma's career, it's obvious it wasn't the sound that ended it. It was that she began to age. She was discarded because she was no longer twenty-five. Joe memorably tells her at the end of the movie that there's no shame in being fifty, unless it tries to act twenty-five, but he's in a position that was allowed to be both ages. Poor Norma wasn't.

 Definitely watch this movie for some fascinating takes on Hollywood life, the question of male dignity, and the question of female aging. It has a few 50's sensibilities, but it's still astonishingly relevant.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Oklahoma!

I'm just a girl who cain't say no to reviews.

 This is one of the few films on the National Film Registry that I grew up with, so it may be hard to divorce childhood feelings from being purely objective, but I'll try. This is one of the few nearly direct adaptations of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical – the only cuts made were two songs, and pretty much the only changes made were to take advantage of the expanded sets. After all, you can't really have a cowboy ride a horse onto a Broadway stage, let alone light a haystack on fire. This is one of those films from when it was fashionable to pull the action to a halt for an extended ballet sequence, and I have to admit that I hated it as a kid, but appreciate it more as an adult. Maybe because before my nervous system started decaying (that's right - multiple disabilities!) I had started taking dance lessons. I appreciate the artistry more, while as a kid, I wanted to get back to the action. The ballet in this one made particularly less sense to me, since Curly and Laurie are obviously not Curly and Laurie, but Jud is still Jud. Struck me as weird. It also struck me as weird that everyone was going on about how gorgeous Ado Annie was, when I thought she looked strange. I've since become acquainted with the tragic story of Gloria Grahame, the actress who played Ado Annie. She thought her upper lip was unattractive, and had so many plastic surgeries that she partially paralyzed her face from nerve damage. But then I don't know how sorry I can feel for her, because she also apparently molested her 13-year-old stepson, and later married him. Which... celebrity gossip isn't what I wanted to write about, but it does influence my watching of some movies.

  Oklahoma! itself is kind of odd, in that it seems like the most wholesome musical to ever come down the pike (at least until The Sound of Music topped it by having singing nuns and folk dancing), but it also has a recurring subplot of dirty pictures and a whole musical number where our hero tries to rid himself of a rival by encouraging him to commit suicide. A family picture! Changing standards, I guess. There's also some slightly risque stuff with Ado Annie, but most of it will go over kid's heads. It certainly did mine. I got the stuff about shotgun weddings, but I didn't get the lines about how Will was worried that a baby might not look like him. Then there's the whole thing with the “Little Wonder” - the dirty picture scope with a knife hidden inside it. First, I'm wondering how no one explained it to Will when he bought it, and second, I'm wondering how it would kill anyone. From the way the blade springs out, it looks like it would give your fingers a nasty cut, or maybe slice your nose if you were holding it the other way, but I just can't figure out the logic on it actually killing someone. I'm probably overthinking it, but this has bothered me since I was 8.

 This is a generally family friendly picture and a good one to watch if you like musicals. I still like 1776 better, though.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Vertigo


Nothing to fear but heights and the addition of some bad movies to the National Film Registry.

 Well, this is another film that was vindicated by history. Again, people considered Hitchcock a nut for “killing the suspense” - in Psycho he killed the heroine in the middle of the movie, and here in Vertigo, he gives away the solution to the mystery at the beginning of the third act. People at the time no longer saw how a movie could be suspenseful if you knew how the murder took place and how Kim Novak's character was actually involved. But that doesn't weaken the build-up in the first parts of the movie, where you have this vague, supernatural unease, and it actually ramps up the suspense in the final third, where you're trying to figure out how and where Jimmy Stewart will figure out that he's been set up. As Epic Rap Battles of History put it: “The master of suspense/so intense”, indeed. When you're still in the grip of a movie after you realize whodunnit, then you know you've got some sort of special thriller going.

 The movie is often interpreted from a sort of postmodern feminist lens, about how it's really about male obsession, control, and domination. I admit it is kind of weird watching the usually amiable and likable Jimmy Stewart ordering a woman to change everything physically about herself to match his “dead” lover, and her just going along with it. It is weird to hear them declaring their love for each other, when there is no logical reason for that love to exist. I guess you get a bit from the protective urge on his side, and she is always shot through a slight haze of Vaseline on the lens, giving her an otherworldly glow. But why does Kim Novak's Judy love Stewart's Scottie? We're never given a compelling reason – we're just told that she does. And she loves him so much that she never makes good her escape, and he loves her so much that he falls into a near catatonic state for a year. It's a peculiar sort of mutual obsession that seemingly springs out of nowhere. Not to say that it's a major weakness of the film. It can be taken as a strength, that these two people become so obsessed with each other. It's just an oddity for a modern viewer.

 This is the first Hitchcock movie I've watched in a long time, and I'm glad I did. No one does that bone-chilling suspense like he does, and he somehow manages to make following along in a car seem fraught with tension. So definitely check this one out.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Bambi



Reviews are a song that never ends... at least until I get a whole lot further into the Film Registry.

 Interesting little factoid: according to my baby book, this is the first film I ever watched. Dramatic irony, since my mother chose this picture, and then died of cancer when I was only five. Guess it's better to be prepared. So as you can imagine, aside from its technical merits, I have some... mixed feelings about Bambi. I don't think it's a bad film, though it was a flop when it premiered (in part due to WWII cutting off European markets, and in part because a lot of people took exception to “Man” as the villain). It is certainly a beautiful film. The delicately animated forest animals are in definite contrast to the earlier comedic animals of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the lush backdrops only improve on the earlier film. The whole film looks like you could just step into it and spend an afternoon – with the exception of the dogs that chase Faline. They look awful. And the early scene of forest fire could have been done better, but once it spreads, you have this terrible majesty of destruction and death. But I can cut them slack, since they were overbudget and overdue at the point they were animating these bits, apparently because they kept getting sidetracked.

 And sidetracking is easy to do with this movie. It's not a particularly cohesive narrative. Bambi is born, he bumbles around, he loses his mother, he grows up, he mates, he escapes a hunter and a forest fire. He is far more defined by the actions happening to him than by any actions he takes. It's not necessarily wrong, since this is a story about survival. A basic survival story about a deer doesn't really need a lot of furbelows. The gags are fewer in this film than in a lot of the earlier Disney efforts, which is a strength, but Bambi isn't really a very strong character, because his dramatic motivation is “survival”, and the movie doesn't really want to go too far in showing that. Of course everyone remembers Bambi's Mom gets shot, but most people forget that right after he realizes that Mom is dead, the very next scene is the “Twitterpated” song and dance routine.

think that's what bothers me about this movie. It pulls its punches. Which I guess is good for a family picture, since Lord knows I still can't watch Land Before Time (which may be a superior film, but I don't remember. I haven't seen it since my own mother died – I would just start crying too hard to get any farther). But Don Bluth famously espoused that you can throw any amount of messed up into a kid's film as long as there was a happy ending, while Walt Disney was okay with some level of darkness, but overall liked to keep things on the lighter side.

 Probably everyone has already seen this movie, and from an artistic standpoint, it's worth a rewatch as an adult. But from a dramatic standpoint, it's kind of dull.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pillow Talk



If you would get off the line, then I could get some reviews through.

 This is a difficult film to talk about, since it's the Ur-example of the romantic comedy. Because of that, it's overloaded with the cliches of the genre – the couple that starts out on a misunderstanding, the playboy who falls in love with the good girl, the faked identity, the other possible love interest, the discovery of the secret identity, the wacky plan to reunite that of course works after a big blow-up fight where everything is forgiven when “love” or “marriage” is mentioned.... well, they needed the rubric to come from somewhere, and here it is. The basic plot is bound to be confusing for younger viewers, since we've never had to deal with party lines, but the premise is that a party line is shared by a busy interior decorator and a Lothario songwriter. She has to pick up the phone to bawl him out for blocking all her calls while he seduces women over the phone, and he quickly grows to loathe her just as much as she loathes him. Until he discovers that she looks like Doris Day. And then she discovers that he looks like Rock Hudson. Only he has adopted the persona of a sweet, unassuming Texan to get past her defenses and into her very chic white dresses. And when she discovers that her sweet Texan is really her “sex maniac” phone hog neighbor, she gets furious and vows to never speak to him again. So he hires her to redecorate his apartment, which she does... in the most hideously tacky way imaginable. Which of course leads to a big confrontation and then talk of marriage, and they fall into each other's arms and love and babies ever after.

 So... yeah. Trope codifier for one of my least favorite genres. There are a few laughs, because the cast is absolutely excellent. But I found a lot of this movie kind of eh. The cast is good, the jokes aren't bad, and I probably would have laughed a lot harder if I had seen this in the 60's. But as hard as I try not to watch movies from a presentist point of view, I can't help it to some degree. I can't help that I've already seen this movie a dozen times, even if this is a superior example of the product. I also can't help that I generally don't like this kind of movie. I saw it first when I was about 10, and most of the risque jokes flew over my head. I also didn't really realize about the running gag of Rock Hudson's character ducking into an obstetrician's office and the lady's room, but that was because I needed glasses at the time and hadn't gotten them yet. I also didn't understand the “Make her seduce him by suggesting he might be gay”, which was a common trope in that era, but would be considered horrifyingly homophobic now. Apparently there was a subculture of men pretending to be gay in the 50's and 60's so that women would try to “fix” them, so maybe remember that little bit of cultural oddity when talking to an older person about gay issues of today. This was a thing. And it is really weird.

 I guess this is a decent flick if it's the type of thing you like. It's cute and well-acted, and the hideous apartment decoration at the end does have to be seen to be believed. But if you're not a romantic comedy fan, you shouldn't feel any qualms missing this one.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pinocchio



I got no strings, except the National Film Registry.

 This is one of those movies that has always foxed me. It's not that it's not technically excellent. From an animation standpoint, it is consistently ranked as one of the best movies ever made. It's just what a strange story to pick to adapt to a Disney movie. The original book was meant to be a tragedy starring a rather mean-spirited prankster who squashed Jiminy Cricket and eventually is lynched by the fox and cat. Part of me really wonders why Walt Disney would go "Yeah, that's the one we want to animate!". And then some of the other choices - like, why is Geppetto vaguely Bavarian when he's obviously supposed to be Italian? Why does Pinocchio dress in Tyrolean clothes? And then choices that were in the book, but that always confused me. Honest John and Gideon are startled by the appearance of a living marionette, but no one at all is startled by a human-sized talking fox and cat? And did we really need Stromboli to do a butt dance when he mentioned Constantinople?

 Like I said, from a technical standpoint, this is a truly excellent film. The animation is an absolute triumph, with everything being rich in detail, ambitious camera angles, amazing colors, and a depth that is lacking in most animated pictures of the time - hell, that's lacking in a lot of animated pictures today. The underwater scenes are as beautiful a creation as anything put to film. Figaro moves exactly like a real kitten, the various puppets move like puppets, and you can see the forerunners of the gorgeous underwater ballet in Fantasia in the movements of Cleo the fish. Pretty much the only place detail was scrimped was in animating the various hordes of children. There's also an appropriate darkness, with the Coachman being perhaps the most neglected Disney villain, despite the fact that he's probably the most terrifying. Maybe that's why he doesn't get fans - the others have some element of interest, while he's just straight up despicable. I was terrified of this movie for years because of the Pleasure Island bit. But that was also always an element that bothered me. Pinocchio is supposed to be a pretty straightforward morality play. Be good, and good things will happen, be bad, and truly terrible things will happen. But the plot seems to forget that Pinocchio was literally born yesterday. All his "badness" happens when he is essentially kidnapped by Honest John and Gideon at various points, and he doesn't know enough to say "No". Of course, Jiminy Cricket gets some of the blame, but don't you think he could have at least gotten a crash course in "You do these things and not these things" before they sent him out on his own? All of the trouble could have been avoided if anyone had bothered explaining anything to him.

 This is a film I'll always have mixed feelings about. I can't say enough good things about the art and the animation, but the plot and the characters leave me cold.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory



Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure Film Registry nitpicking.

 I guess I better start off with a disclaimer that I have never liked this movie. I hated it as a kid, and then I read the book and I hated it even more for not being like the book. This is the first time I've seen the movie in at least 20 years. And my feelings haven't changed. I can appreciate the creativity of the set design (which are very 70's and very plastic-looking, but they're pretty good for the time), and I can appreciate the brilliance of Gene Wilder's performance. But this film has major, major problems with pacing, and aside from Gene Wilder's unforgettable performance and a few bright spots by various British comedians, the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable. And then there are those nightmare-inducing Oompa-Loompas. This may be childish prejudice still holding on after all these years, but I used to have nightmares about those damn things eating me, so I am not inclined to be charitable.

 Overall, the film would probably have worked better for me if it wasn't a book. But I don't blame Roald Dahl for hating this adaptation of his work, since it ruins so much of the book. Charlie is a little bland in both versions, since he's primarily a passive character. What's more, he's a character who is defined in large part by his passivity – the important thing about him is he's an observer and a learner, not an aggressive child like the others in this very blatant morality tale. This is one of those stories where the quiet kid wins, though it doesn't have the extra layers of preachy sentiment that these types of stories usually have. Roald Dahl did have a fantastic understanding that kids do have a sadistic streak, and they love seeing wrongdoing getting punished and virtue getting rewarded... as long as virtue looks like something they can reasonably imagine themselves doing. Reasonably, most kids can cast themselves as not being a greedy, pushy little swine that insists on not listening to warnings, but instead tries to bear up under adversity. But that's also a weakness in adapting this book to film. This version's Charlie at least gets upset or disappointed sometimes, where the Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems like he just escaped out of a morality tale in the MacGuffin's Reader.

 Overall, I'm not sorry that I rewatched the movie, as I can satisfy myself now that I in fact do not like this movie. I know a lot of people love it, but I don't.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Big Lebowski



Let's see what condition my reviewing is in.

 So, the interesting thing to me about this movie is that not a single character is aware what kind of movie they are in. It's like the Coen's grabbed characters off the sets of a bunch of different films and stuck them all in a heist movie, and each character is gamely trying to make the movie they thought they were making originally in. You've got the Dude, who's making a stoner comedy, Walter, who is making a Rambo-type ignored veterans of Vietnam flick, the Stranger, who is narrating a Western, Maude, who is making a second-wave feminist art house piece, the nihilists, who are making a German existentialist movie, the Big Lebowski, who is making Citizen Kane, the Jesus, a guy who is making a particularly dirty telenovela, and Treehorn and Bunnie, who are making a porn. And Donny is just a guy who likes to bowl who wandered onto the set. There are a lot of critical pieces about how it's about men feeling emasculated by women in the late 80's and early 90's, between the castration threats, Maude using the Dude as a sperm donor without his consent, the Big Lebowski being little more than a kept man whose only illusion of power comes from keeping a woman of his own - who in turn further emasculates him by running out on him whenever she pleases and openly offering sexual services to other men. That may be true. There may also be some major criticism of the odd sexual attitudes of second wave feminism, where sex was good provided it was the right kind of sex, and the wrong kind of sex was to be severely punished as "regressive" and "patriarchal oppression". Maude is certainly a character who does not see her own hypocrisy, where it's all right for her to use a man for her own ends, but Bunnie is a slut and a nymphomaniac for doing the same.

But to me, the interest in the movie comes from the fact that these are all people in the wrong movie. Each one of them has been a tragic hero in another flick, and here, they are all just kind of absurd figures wandering around, shouting "fuck" and horribly annoying each other. I've wondered why I don't hate this movie, when it isn't that fundamentally different from A Confederacy of Dunces, which also features absurd people who all think they're supposed to be the hero but are in the wrong story to be. I guess because no one in The Big Lebowski is as repulsive as any of the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces. Even Walter, who is by all measurements a pretty horrible human being, is understandable to some degree. You've seen the character trope before, just usually you don't see him as a nutter in a bowling alley. He's usually cast as tragic because of what he saw in 'Nam, and depending on the sympathy of the director, he is either one dropped coffee cup away from killing everyone or he is so beaten by the system that his PTSD has gone untreated for however many years and it's an indictment of American society.

 I can't say whether a person will like this movie or not. It's a curious film. I'm not sorry that I've seen it, and I probably won't re-watch it. It does have a pretty awesome soundtrack.