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



 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


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


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


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


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.