Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Happy Christmas, Harry!" "Happy Christmas, Ron!"

Well, I had a very nice Christmas, getting more than half a dozen classic movie box sets that I can't wait to break open. I love what Warner Bros. has done with their classic dvds, the whole "Warner's Night at the Movies" feature with classic shorts, cartoons, and trailers. I'm almost more excited about them than I am about the movies themeselves!

I've also seen some great films these past couple of weeks, and I may write about them and I may not, but regardless, I've enjoyed myself. I have a particular weakness for corny and sentimental movies around Christmas, so take that into account when you see some of these grades:

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Roy Rowland, 1945, A-)
Holiday Affair (Don Hartman, 1949, B)
The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955, A-)
The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown, 1943, A-)
Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood, 1940, B-)
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997, A-)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Marc Rothemund, 2005, A)
The Secret Garden (Fred M. Wilcox, 1949, C+)
All Mine to Give (Allen Reisner, 1957, B+)
The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006, B-)
We Are Marshall (McG, 2006, B)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Quote of the Week

"Genres were never rigid. Creative filmmakers kept stretching their boundaries. This was a classical art where personal expression was stimulated rather than inhibited by discipline."

Martin Scorsese (on classic Hollywood)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This has nothing to do with movies

In order to waste time and avoid studying for finals, I took this quiz (via Barb Nicolosi):

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

And it's one-hundred percent right! Even about the pop!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942, B-)

This is an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book about a group of paisanos in California who work hard at not working hard. Danny (John Garfield) is the "hero" of the piece, trying to change his ways to impress Dolores (Hedy Lamarr), while his best friend Pilon (Spencer Tracy) spends most of the film conning people and trying to keep Danny away from Dolores. Tracy's accent is laughable, and the attempts at humor for the most part fall flat. Hedy Lamarr, who can give a good performance as evidenced by her work in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (King Vidor, 1941), spends most of her time overacting in a poorly written plot. My suspicion is that Lamarr needed a stronger director, someone more adept at handling women's parts, than Victor Fleming, who was often thought of as a "man's director." Myrna Loy and Vivien Leigh have given great performances under Fleming, but they were better actresses than Hedy. Lamarr needed more help than Fleming was able to provide.

The other great surprise was that Tracy could be so annoying. The bad accent had something to do with it, but most was due to the unlikable character he played. Pilon is selfish, sometimes cruel, and even as he tries to help Danny, it still feels like he's only doing it to make himself feel better. I suspect we were supposed to find Pilon's antics somewhat humorous, but instead he comes across as immature and destructive. The only thing funny about the movie is the accents and I doubt that was the intent (also, it's interesting to note that, once again, classic Hollywood hears someone with a foreign accent -- Lamarr -- and thinks they can play anyone with an accent, nevermind that Hedy's accent is German while her character's is Spanish -- kinda ruins whatever illusion of verisimilitude they were going for).

What saves the film is Frank Morgan's (Oscar-nominated) performance as Pirate, the old vagabond with a touching piety and gentle heart. It's no coincidence that Morgan has the best accent of the bunch and gives the best performance: he takes his character seriously, embodying the spirit of a simple man who loves dogs and St. Francis. Tracy, for all of his skill as an actor, never seems to take Pilon seriously as a character; Tracy always seems to be winking at the audience throughout his performance. Morgan's storyline -- a poor man who saves all of his money in order to buy a candle for the church -- is actually more interesting than the main one about Danny, Dolores, and Pilon. The scene where Pirate prays to St. Francis in the woods while his dogs yelp and jump at his feet is one of the truest displays of religious feeling I've seen in a film.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Quote of the Week

"Today, studios don't exist anymore. Sure, you can go in and shoot there, but you move in like you move into the Ramada Inn. You finish shooting, you finish cutting, and it's 'Goodbye Charlie.' It's no fun anymore. Not the real fun which we had. Paramount made fifty pictures a year, and even if a picture failed, you went on and on, because to the bosses you were as good as the best thing you had ever done."

Billy Wilder

I am a horrible person

I haven't written about Robert Altman's death and I feel like my cinephile membership card should be taken away or something. But the reason I haven't written anything is because I've never actually seen any of his films. I guess that, in itself, should be enough to get me kicked out of the club, but the truth is that I've never really been interested in anything he's directed. I know I should watch his masterpieces because it's hard to be a part of the larger film conversation when you haven't seen the "big ones" but none of the stories he's chosen to tell sound all that interesting to me. I'm very sorry to hear of his death, of course, because even though I was never a fan, I can certainly recognize his place in film history. That alone is enough to make one sad, that one of the great figures in American cinema is gone. But I haven't written any sort of reflection or commentary because I have nothing to go on, having not seen any of his movies. Hopefully one day I can get past my hesitation and watch an Altman film or two and find out what I've been missing all these years.

You Know What Really Grinds My Gears?

I've noticed over the past couple of years (I dunno, maybe it's been happening longer and I just never noticed) is that mainstream critics -- newspaper critics, magazine critics, TV critics, many online critics -- all tend to adopt a "script" about certain movies and then proceed to view these movies only through that script. For The Passion of the Christ it was the possible anti-Semitism of the film; for Brokeback Mountain it was the gay romance angle and how the film was breaking down prejudices against Gay and Lesbian people in America; now for Borat it's the angle that the movie is some great social commentary revealing the "hidden prejudices in America." The angle, in such cases, takes over the conversation about the movie to the point that nearly every major review or commentary approaches the film from that angle and the film gets defined as being "about" that before the audience has even seen the film. This, of course, isn't limited to film criticism and movie reviews -- the media has a tendency to approach a story in only one way and that one way is the one that dominates our national conversation about the story. But I'm getting kind of annoyed by this in film criticism since film is what I'm most interested in and I hate how the conversation gets defined before the audience has even had a chance to see the film and decide for itself.

Borat is the latest example of this, where everyone has been told for months that the film is all about exposing the prejudices of "average" Americans so people go into the movie expecting it to be about this, and since the movie does have a few scenes where Americans act like bigoted, disgusting jerks, people think they've seen some ground-breaking work of social satire.

Am I being too condescending toward the audience? Am I giving critics too much credit and the audience not enough? Maybe. I would hope that people are able to see films for what they are and not have their opinions dictated to them by the media or so-called experts. Maybe I'm getting hot and bothered for nothing and most people in the audiences for Borat recognize that they aren't laughing at the frat boys' stupid remarks because, frankly, their gross remarks aren't funny, but that they're laughing at Borat and his silly, over-the-top comments, and his zany slapstick. For the most part, the comedy in Borat doesn't come from the awful remarks made by a few frat boys and rednecks; the comedy comes from Borat himself. But the way the media hype surrounding the movie would have it, you'd think you were watching a two-hour masterpiece of groundbreaking social satire. I hate the way the conversation gets started about a film and everyone just echoes and parrots the same few things that the mainstream critics have all glommed onto.

I am encouraged by the Internet, of course, and the fact that more people have a voice now and can enter the conversation instead of just being suffocated by the conversations of others (i.e.: "professionals"). To take Borat as an example again, there's the commentary by Christopher Hitchens which I think makes some good points (and of course, some points I happen to agree with, see my review below), and then there's Jim Emerson's response, which also makes some excellent points, and analyzes the film in its relation to traditional cinematic comedy (as opposed to its status as social commentary), something I'm afraid I've found very little of in the mainstream reviews that welcomed the movie into theaters. Hitchens and Emerson are, of course, both part of the mainstream themselves, in a way that I, the humble nobody blogger, am not. But they're engaging the film in a way that is based on actually thinking about it as individuals and not just parroting a lot of movie reviewer groupthink. That's what's refreshing, and I hope the more I explore this whole film blogger thing the more I'll encounter this kind of individualism in criticism. At this point, I'm pretty much sick to death of the professional reviewer scene, because it seems like there's always a specific "line" on a movie -- it's this, it's that, it's got this controversy surrounding it, it's got that scandal accompanying it -- and whatever the line is the reviewer can't help but reduce the film to that one thing. I suspect what people like Hitchens and Jonah Goldberg are reacting to (I can't comment on David Brooks, whom Emerson mentions, because I don't subscribe to the New York Times online) is not so much the movie Borat itself, but the national conversation that seems to have arisen around it. The "line" on a film has already been written, and so that's what the movie "is," whether we like it or not.

Sorry for the rant, but I say not.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote of the Week

"I don't think the film has a grammar. I don't think film has but one form. If a good film results, then that film has created its own grammar."

Yasujiro Ozu

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

This one's for you LeaJo

What's with all the evil bunny suits?

Quote of the Week

"I have always felt that visual literacy is just as important as verbal literacy. What the film pioneers were exploring was the medium's specific techniques. In the process, they invented a new language based on images rather than on words, a visual grammar you might say: close-ups, irises, dissolves, masking part of the frame for emphasis, dolly shots, tracking shots. These are the basic tools that directors have at their disposal to create and heighten the illusion of reality."

Martin Scorsese

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970, B+)

I didn't really get anything out of this film thematically; all of the stuff about sex and fascism and wanting to conform and appear normal left me cold. Frankly, I'm just not interested in sex as a subject matter unless it's about how sex isn't as crazy-fun and non-committal as modern Western culture would have it. So right there Bertolucci loses me.

But, hoo boy, is this film beautiful! I mean, gorgeous. Probably one of the top five most beautifully photographed films I've ever seen. The use of color for one thing, right off the bat with the contrasting redish-browns of the first scene to the somber blues of the next scene, to the stark, clean whites and blacks of several of the scenes at fascist headquarters. I especially loved the softness of the lighting used on the female leads. Bertolucci was able to make their faces look as luminous and flawless (in color) as the beautiful black and white faces of Hollywood's glamour heydays of the 30s and 40s. For me this film was all about the aesthetic pleasures of gazing at these dream-like images, with narrative reduced to a secondary, or even tertiary position. I really wasn't invested in whether Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) would let his former professor be killed, or whether he'd save Anna (Dominique Sanda) from a similar fate. All I cared about was the haunting image of Professor Quandri surrounded by assasins and trees in the yellow light of the dawn. The whole film was just a pleasure (and a nightmare) to look at. In a way, this movie is an example of how cinema is not as strongly tied to narrative and storytelling as we so often would like to think. Even a movie that doesn't have a strong story or a compelling theme can be a powerful, moving, important experience. Like our experience with dreams, the images from The Conformist will linger indefinitely, while its meaning will most likely be forgotten.

Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1933, B-)

Not as scary as I hoped, mostly due to the fact that the male lead, Richard Arlen, hardly seemed bothered by the freakish experiments of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). His performance throughout the film was one of mild irritation, as if the men-beasts and panther woman weren't frightening monsters and twisted perversions of nature but unwelcome dinner guests or something. Not good.

But Laughton's performance makes up for it, as he's so deliciously cool, and evil, and crazy, and charming. He's hamming it up, sure, but it's one of those hammy performances that's actually menacing (take note Brando, whose own Dr. Moreau was just ridiculous). Moreau, of course, isn't bothered by such petty things as morality, being one of those Dr. Frankenstein types who believes he can conquer nature, and Laughton is just that right mix of charisma and arrogance and intelligence that can make even the cruelest and sickest of scientific experiments seem "important" and "revolutionary" and "good." Of course, they're not, and Moreau soon finds out what really happens when you turn beasts into men.

The make-up work on the men-beasts is fantastic, and though Lota the panther woman looks human for the most part, the reveal of her beastly claws was creepy as hell. Definitely the scariest stuff in the film comes from the grotesque faces of the men-beasts lurking in the shadows of Moreau's tropical island. When their true deformities are revealed in close-ups at the end, it's pretty cool, and I was definitely disturbed by Moreau's demise.

Watch (or I should say, listen, as it's hard to tell it's him from appearances) for Bela Lugosi's supporting role, and marvel as well at some pretty graphic pre-Code violence.

The Fastest Gun Alive (Russell Rouse, 1956, B-)

Great black and white cinematography and a solid performance from Glenn Ford. Unfortunately, Jeanne Crain, whom I usually like, overacts. She reads every line with this sort of tragic voice of weariness and disappointment and it gets a little tiresome after awhile. But it was nice to see Glenn Ford in the genre he's most known for, the western. Confession, I've never actually seen any Glenn Ford movies before, this was my first, and I was struck by his naturalistic performance and his almost James Dean-like line delivery, sometimes speaking in an under-the-breath sort of way, sometimes talking too fast or talking over someone else's lines, or just talking in an off-hand sort of way, as if he were just talking and not reading lines from a script. I liked it and I hope to see more Glenn Ford pictures in the future.

I also enjoyed the shoot-out at the end of the movie. For a film called "Fastest Gun Alive" one expects some fast gun work, and the first gun shot of the final duel doesn't disappoint. Using misdirection through dialogue and camera work, the shot really does "feel" fast, as it took me by surprise. At first, Ford and Broderick Crawford's bad guy get the typical shoot-out-at-high-noon treatment, with a sequence of shots showing the two men slowly approaching the middle of the street, overhead shots that emphasize the distance still between them, their figures positioned at the edges of the frame as they gradually close in on one another, etc. But when the first shot is fired, the characters aren't being filmed in that typical "here comes the first shot" kind of way; the camera is just resting easily as if this were another typical dialogue scene before the shooting starts. And then suddenly the shooting starts. It's pretty effective and one of the better shoot-out scenes I've seen (not that I've seen very many, admitedly).

Russ Tamblyn also co-stars and has a high-spirited dance number that seems out-of-place in this otherwise gloomy sort of western. Music is, to my surprise, by Andre Previn.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Regarding upcoming features on the blog, I forgot to mention that one of my areas of interest in film studies is Central and Eastern European cinema, specifically Czech cinema, and that I'll be doing a Czech cinema retrospective over the next few months, focusing especially on the Czech New Wave. All of this is thanks to the wonderful Professor Eagle, whose film course on Central and Eastern European cinema was a highlight of my undergraduate years. I'll keep everyone in suspense as to which films I'll cover, but it should be a good mix.

Quote of the Week

"He gave us the grammar of filmmaking. He understood the psychic strength of the lens."

Lillian Gish (on D.W. Griffith)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Random stuff

Jim Emerson has a post up taking Anthony Lane and Armond White to task for their lame reviews of Borat, but I was actually more fascinated by the reader comments, many of which make some great observations about the movie. Check it out.

Also, one of the commentors links to a piece by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club blog which makes almost the exact same point I made in my review of Borat, namely, that it's not really the crackerjack social commentary it's being billed as.

Finally, I'm starting to get into a groove here with my blogging, like, actually posting on a semi-regular basis. Careful readers will have noticed that LeaJo's presence has been slight these past two months, but this is due to the fact that she actually takes her higher education seriously and doesn't goof around on the blog wasting time like I do. Despite its continuing damage to my grades, my blogging will not be abated. The future of the blog (hopefully) will include the following:

* A series of posts analyzing adaptations of British lit classics (these will not be the usual suspects, however, instead I'll be focusing on made-for-tv BBC versions and lesser-known, less-canonical works such as Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby)

* A series on my favorites from childhood, many of them considered "bad" by mainstream critics (Troop Beverly Hills, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Howard the Duck, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking); some I will be watching for the first time since seeing them as a child, so it'll be interesting to see how they hold up

* Detailed analysis of several of my favorites including: Gone with the Wind, Libeled Lady, Gypsy, Ball of Fire, Stage Door, Waterloo Bridge, Dazed and Confused, and t.v. shows Freaks and Geeks, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, The Venture Bros., and Aqua Teen Hunger Force (no links for these, 'cause I'm tired of looking up titles on IMDB)

* A year-long (at least) retrospective of fantasy films (fantasy here being restricted to fairy tale or High fantasy or magical-world fantasy, not It's a Wonderful Life fantasy); I've long been a fan of fantasy as a genre, but fantasy films haven't really gotten the attention other genres of the fantastic like horror and sci-fi have gotten and I'd like to see if I could remedy that; I plan on looking at everything from silents to sword and sorcery stuff from the 80s, from live action to animation, from American to Japanese, from French to German, everything -- it's going to be a huge undertaking, and it'll take a long time, but I'd like to think it will be one of the defining features of this blog

And one last note: I've been totally digging Squish's Hitchcock series, mostly because he doesn't treat Hitch like some untouchable god of filmmaking, never to be criticized -- his views are fresh, unique, and funny. What's great is that Squish doesn't just parrot the accepted views on these films or on Hitchcock, and even while I don't agree with every rating (Suspicion is one of my all-time favorites, Squish gives it a 70%), I appreciate the critical eye he applies to these "canonical" movies.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

American Niceness and Borat

John Derbyshire of NRO has seen Borat (Larry Charles, 2006), and though I generally don't agree with him on ANYTHING, I think he's got a great point about Americans as seen in the movie:

I think native Americans might be more at ease with this movie than I am. Imbedded in it is a critique of American niceness. Coming from the Old World, where people are much less nice, I am a bit of a fan of American niceness, and perhaps can't laugh at it as easily as someone who grew up with it.

Niceness is of course a matter of balance. Niceness can hypertrophy into the horrors of Political Correctness—speech codes, hate crimes, litigation over mild insults or compliments, etc. The opposite danger, the one SBC's style of humor points to, is that too much deconstructing of niceness might lead to a state of affairs where niceness vanishes. What's that Nadezhda Mandelshtam quote? Something like: "Once there were kind people, and even people who weren't kind, pretended to be, because that was the way to be. Then people began to scoff at this hypocrisy, to make fun of it, to expose it. The result we now see: there are no more kind people now." She was writing from the depths of Stalin's USSR. No, SBC isn't going to drag us down into totalitarianism, of course not. I do hope, though, very much, that he won't make Americans ashamed of their niceness.

Full post here

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America etc. (Larry Charles, 2006, B+)

*minor spoilers ahead*

Laughed hard and had a great time. Probably the funniest movie I’ve seen since Team America: World Police. Not the funniest movie ever (get over the hyperbole Entertainment Weekly, seriously), but definitely one of the funniest movies of the last ten or fifteen years. Baron Cohen’s performance is hysterical, and the Borat character is both revolting and pitiable. My favorite part of the Borat shtick is the over-the-top anti-Semitism that completely sends up the ridiculous, illogical, ignorant, and disgusting views of real anti-Semites. I’m reminded of the great comedic masters like Lubitsch and Chaplin who used their films to send up the Nazis and their hateful ideology. Baron Cohen exposes anti-Semitism for the evil it is, all in the guise of gross-out humor.

I’m less impressed with the film’s so-called expose on America’s dark underbelly. Mostly I learned three (not-very-shocking) things about America: 1.) There are old hicks out there who hate gay people; 2.) Frat boys are idiots; and 3.) Americans are nice to a fault, afraid of confrontation in almost all circumstances (except New Yorkers, who can *shockingly* be angry and rude). Frankly, none of this is surprising or really all that insightful. I’m more surprised by how well Americans in general come off in the film. The driving instructor and the etiquette lady both have a lot of patience with Borat, the politicians don’t say anything even remotely controversial, and the dinner party people put up with a lot of crazy shit that I probably would have been a lot less patient about. Yeah, the one lady was pretty condescending, but she fricking went into the bathroom with Borat and should him how to wipe himself! Talk about being a gracious host. I also noticed that when Borat told the crowd at the rodeo that he hoped George Bush would drink the blood of the Iraqis, most of the people in the crowd behind him were standing there motionless, obviously not cheering, though the soundtrack had the crowd yelping and cheering enthusiastically. Deceptive sound editing on the part of the production? In my opinion, quite possibly, because the crowd grows less and less enthusiastic as Borat’s rant continues. By the end they appear suitably appalled, and I have to say, not at all like the ignorant, bloodthirsty, warmongers that seem to be the typical stereotype of conservative Southerners. From the way the previews showed it, I expected the crowd to cheer all of Borat’s speech, but they eventually caught on to the nature of his comments and were not supportive. I also have a theory that guys like the gun shop owner and the car dealer ignored Borat’s questions about killing Jews and Gypsies probably because Borat was foreign and they chalked up his questions to some form of misunderstanding (many people have difficulty understanding people with accents, and instead of asking for clarification and possibly risking embarrassment, they just ignore the comment as if they understood it). Am I making excuses for these guys? Maybe, but even if they understood Borat completely and had no problem with it, I’m not exactly shocked to find out that one car salesman and one gun dealer aren’t exactly upstanding moral citizens. Maybe if the film had a montage of gun dealers not batting an eye at Borat’s query for a Jew-killin gun I’d be more impressed. As it is, not so much. All this talk about the great social commentary of this movie just seems like a lot of wishful thinking to me.

But, dang, is it funny. This movie is really, really, ridiculously funny. People next to me in the theater almost literally started rolling on the floor with laughter. I’m ashamed to say it (my good taste cred is at this point seriously nil), but I couldn’t stop laughing at the naked wrestling of two ugly, hairy men. It was the most absurd moment in comedy this year, or maybe ever. It was gross. I loved it.

I also loved the simple, old-fashioned jokes, like the moment when Borat, in frustration, throws his bag onto the ground and we hear the annoyed cluck of his chicken, which has been residing in Borat’s bag throughout the trip. Or the little throwaway moment when Borat’s producer, Azamat, dressed as Oliver Hardy, tells Borat: “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many people in my theater caught this joke. Both are indications that Baron Cohen is a real comedy writer, not just a guy who throws gross stuff up at the screen in the hopes that people will laugh. He’s that too, but he’s smarter than the average gross-out writer, willing to get laughs that are both low-key and clever, as well as disgusting and ridiculous.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Quote of the Week

"I am often asked by younger filmmakers: Why do I need to look at old movies? The only response I can give them is: I still consider myself a student. Yes, I have made a number of pictures in the past twenty years. But the more pictures I make, the more I realize that I really don't know... Do what painters used to do, and probably still do. Study the old masters. Enrich your palette. Expand the canvas. There's always so much more to learn."

Martin Scorsese

Saturday, October 28, 2006

It's hard not to cry...

...when your team chokes so badly. But congrats to St. Louis, they deserve it. The Tigers will be back to the World Series, though. Only good things ahead for our boys wearing the old English D.

But I gotta say, Sean Casey is my hero. He never gave up. I almost think they should've given him the MVP -- the guy just never quits. He kept the Tigers in it and single-handedly put us in a position to win these last two games. I love The Mayor!

post edited: to clarify why I'm crying; sorry for the confusion

Monday, October 23, 2006

Quote of the Week

"When taking close-ups in a colour picture, there is too much visual information in the background, which tends to draw attention away from the face. That is why the faces of the actresses in the old black and white pictures are so vividly remembered. Even now, movie fans nostalgically recall Dietrich... Garbo... Lamarr... Why? Filmed in black and white, those figures looked as if they were lit from within. When a face appeared on the screen over-exposed -- the high-key technique, which also erased imperfections -- it was as if a bright object was emerging from the screen."

Nestor Almendros

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Old Movie Dialogue – The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941; The Derelict: A, LeaJo: B+)

Part II

The Derelict:
So what did you think of Maltese Falcon?

Well, I liked it! I thought it was a good movie and it was entertaining. It wasn't really what I expected it to be though. I thought there was going to be a lot more action and mystery, but the whole thing felt a little bit more subdued compared to the other mystery movies I'm familiar with. I also thought it was a bit boring at times though. There was a ton of exposition that would go on for long periods of time and I kind of just wanted them to SHOW me what was going on, not just tell me everything. I also liked the ending when Sam turned the girl in, but I was sort of expecting there to be a bigger twist in the end. I don't know why, I just thought there would be more to the story with the actual falcon, but I guess it just wasn't that kind of movie.

Yeah, like were you waiting for a flashback or something to explain the bird's origin?

Yeah, maybe. Except that might seem sort of out of place in the movie. So I don't really know how they could have fixed that scene with Gutman telling the history of the falcon because it seemed to go on FOREVER. Although I did like listening to that actor talk. He was kind of awesome!

Yes! And for me (and I think other fans of this movie) that was the point. The bird is the macguffin, it's just an excuse to hear Sidney Greenstreet say lines. And to have Bogie act like a bad ass. Did you read the Ebert review?

Well, I did enjoy watching the actors. Yeah, I read the review. He said everything you said. There was a lot of talk about how it was such a great movie because it was the first noir and it launched the careers of Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and I totally understand what he was saying, but I don't really have a particular connection to any of these actors so while I think they're good and they were very enjoyable to watch, that didn't really make me love the movie more. Same thing with it being the first noir. I've seen movies that are sort of similar to this and Sam Spade is a character type I've seen before so it wasn't really all that "fresh" to me. Maybe that's why I wasn't that impressed with it. It was good, but it wasn't anything all that special. At least to me.

That's interesting about you liking the characters a lot, but not liking the movie as much. I think Maltese Falcon is all about character, as you know, so the characters ARE the movie for me. And I first saw Lorre and Greenstreet in Casablanca where their roles are much smaller, but I thought they were great. But Maltese Falcon really made me fall in love with them as character actors.

I had never seen a movie with any of these actors before so it was all new to me. I think my favorite was Cairo. I thought Peter Lorre was really funny and the character was interesting to me. I didn't particularly like Gutman, but I liked the way Greenstreet sort of, I don't know, strutted about. I also loved it when he laughed. As for Sam Spade? You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that maybe I didn't really like the character that much. He really is an anti-hero in every sense of the word. So even though he was funny and charming and kick-ass, he was also mean and I didn't really respond to that very well. Except at the end. In that one shot I was talking about [n.b.: the shot where Spade is in the frame but Brigid is crying and speaking just outside of the frame; Spade seems to be displaying regret, sadness, etc. about turning her in]. He finally showed his true emotions and I felt really bad for him. That was probably my favorite part of the movie.

Yeah, and I think that's why this movie is often considered the first film noir, because Spade is kind of a jerk-hole and he's only heroic because he turns the crooks in at the end. Film noir, after all, is characterized, among other things, for having very morally ambiguous characters who are the main protagonists. So do you think that not being able to like the Sam Spade character meant that you were more focused on plot and therefore disappointed because the plot was just an excuse to see Spade out-smart everybody?

I think you hit it right on the head. I think that's exactly why I was sort of disappointed with the plot. Because on the one hand, it was fun to watch Spade, but throughout the movie I wasn't really trying to focus on him all that much. I was busy focusing on what was going to happen in the plot (and also trying to figure out how everyone was connected...it was a little confusing). So at the end I was sort of like, "oh, that's it?" I didn't really want Spade to turn in Cairo and Gutman. I wanted them to go on their adventure to Istanbul. You know, I wonder if I saw this movie again, knowing how it ends, if I would enjoy it more. Being able to pay attention to the characters and their interactions instead of the mystery.

Well, I was reading some comments at the IMDB message boards for this movie (after we had our conversation yesterday) and many people said that it took them a second viewing (or more) before they really fell in love with the movie. Some people even said they hated the movie the first time they saw it but loved it the second time. Actually, this was kind of my experience as well. I first saw this film in an early 100-level film class and I liked it but was very confused by it. But I liked it mostly for its atmosphere (Ebert mentions this point too, I think, about the atmosphere), the whole private eye thing, all 1940s with cigarette smoke everywhere and mysterious Far East adventures just off in the horizon... But in subsequent viewings on tv (thank you TCM) I really came to love the movie because I was able to finally understand all the dialogue and pay attention to little details of character and acting that I couldn't pick up the first time because I WAS paying so much attention to the plot. The Maltese Falcon: How I learned to stop worrying about plot and love the dialogue.

Hee! Yeah...I can totally see my opinion being changed the second time I saw it. Just look at my experience with Gone With the Wind. Don't know that I'll ever see the Maltese Falcon again, but I guess it's something to think about. And remember, I did like it, I just didn't love it like a lot of people seem to do.

Well, I was wondering what your general opinion about dialogue is? Because this film is so dialogue-heavy, and the dialogue is so great, even the expository stuff is fantastic and fun to listen to (at least for me and other big fans of the movie), but do you as a movie viewer find dialogue interesting? Do you pay a lot of attention to dialogue in the movies you watch? What kind of dialogue do you prefer (if any)? I ask these questions because I think a lot of great old movies have a lot of great dialogue, and that's one of their virtues. "High pants, fast talkers" isn't just a Family Guy joke, it's a real comment on films from the 30s and 40s and the fast-paced dialogue is one of the reasons, in my opinion, why the films have such charm. I wonder if not being as receptive to dialogue in general translates into finding it harder to "get into" old movies.

Geez. These are hard questions. Hm, well, I guess I've never really thought about dialogue too much in the past. Like, I'm not really sure what your question is. Because every movie has dialogue so how could I not like it? Do you mean, do I prefer talking to action?

No, not really that. I mean, do you have an ear for dialogue? Are you pleased by an especially witty turn of phrase from a character? Do you love a movie more because it’s got such great lines? For instance, on the cheesy AFI 100 Greatest Movie Lines, nearly eight or nine lines came from Casablanca, and probably five came from Gone with the Wind. These great lines are part of the reason why I love those films. But I wonder if it's hard for younger people today to get into old movies because they're not as tuned into listening for fast paced, witty dialogue. Because of contemporary cinema's reliance on special effects, often the lines of movies can get away with being pedestrian. I wonder... I'm not talking about either/or. Just more of a "taste." Like, I have a taste for musicals and I like really inventive dance numbers. I look for those in my musicals. I also love great dialogue and I listen for it in my movies.

You know, I totally agree with that. I like witty dialogue, but you know, when you think about it, most of the awesome movie lines that people quote all the time are from old movies. So I can see that people my age might not really care much at all for the cool lines in Maltese Falcon because a lot of contemporary movies are so visual. But to answer your question specifically, I do like great lines especially if it has great line delivery. If I know a favorite line of mine is coming up in a movie I love, I get really excited! The thing about the Maltese Falcon however is that most of the time they talked so fast, the lines never really struck me at all. Except "the stuff that dreams are made of". That's a good line. Which has nothing to do with the name of our blog of course.

Now you know all my secrets.

I still say to this day that "well, well, well....Lupin...out for a walk....in the moonlight?" is one of the greatest lines of all time. Sorry, that was random... but slightly on topic.

Yes, definitely on topic. And I think a good illustration of my point. You know how much I love that line, but it does have a lot to do with the delivery and the context of the scene. It’s Alan Rickman’s way of saying the line that makes it so great. Taken out of context it's almost meaningless to those who aren't familiar with Prisoner of Azkaban. But a line like: "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck... The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.” That's a great line even out of context (though of course, in context it's even better). A lot of movie dialogue today doesn't have that same sharpness, it doesn't crackle the way old movie dialogue does. There are still plenty of great lines, but they're of a different sort. Not as witty, I guess. Or as poetic.

And you know this brings me back to what we were talking about yesterday...it's because no one actually talks the way people in these old movies do. It's why the lines are so awesome, because they are so obviously scripted to sound awesome.


It's not realistic, but it's cool nonetheless.

But for a lot of people these old movies come off as cheesy for the exact same reason. Because movies today are almost always "realistic" in a stylistic sense people aren't used to seeing and hearing the more artificial, mannered speech and actions of the old movies.

Oh yeah totally. I have to admit...I thought the dialogue in Gone With the Wind was really cheesy, but I didn't really let it bother me. As soon as I just let myself go with the flow, I found Scarlet's ravings to be quite entertaining and enjoyable. I mean, who talks like Sam Spade? No one! But I bet people wish they could talk like that.

Yes. So, what are your impressions about old movies now having seen and discussed Maltese Falcon? Are you curious to watch more old movies? And if so, are there any movies that you feel you'd like to watch, or, perhaps, you feel you have to watch?

Ok, you're going to have a heart attack when I say this, but I think I need to watch Casablanca. It sounds even better than Maltese Falcon, and I guess it's one of those "classics" that everyone talks about that I really should just get around to seeing. My impressions? Hm…well, I don't know if my impressions really changed. I never thought that old movies were bad and I still don't. Maltese Falcon was good, and I'm sure there are a lot more movies like it that I would really enjoy if I went looking for them, but....I probably won't go looking for them. I may just continue to rely on you to "expose" me to the good stuff. I liked the movie, but I can't really see myself becoming as interested as you are now. It may take a while for me to get to your level.

Well, I'm not sure anyone is at my level. You've met me. I'm crazy.

True. You're insane. I guess what I meant was that you started watching old movies and you became interested in them so you began to actively seek them out. I'm not there yet.

Well, let's try for Casablanca next time and we'll see what happens!

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006, B-)

I love learning about the movies from Alfred Hitchcock. One of his more famous explanations involves the difference between suspense and surprise. Surprise is having two men eating lunch and then suddenly a bomb explodes under their table. Suspense is showing us the bomb under the table before it goes off, so that the audience knows about it but the two men don't. And so we wait in anticipation for the moment when the bomb will go off. The thing about suspense that I love is that, if well done, it stands up to multiple viewings. The thing about surprise is that it's great the first time around, not so much the second and third (though, of course, exceptions abound).

The Departed is all about suspense for a good four-fifths of its running time. We know who the undercover cop is and we know who the informant is, but they don't know each other, and we wait in anticipation to find out when and how they'll discover each other. But Scorsese wastes a lot of time letting Jack Nicholson chew scenery, and drags out the cat and mouse/mouse and cat game between Damon's character and DiCaprio's character to the point where nearly all suspense and anticipation are lost. After awhile it gets tiresome waiting for Damon and DiCaprio to discover each other. The movie is just too darn long. Scorsese tries to make up for this by adding a few surprises into the mix at the end, but they feel cheap -- the suspense is lost, the movie's getting a little long, so let's throw in a couple of out-of-left-field surprises to keep it interesting. Well, the surprises are somewhat surprising, but ultimately unsatisfying. And Nicholson's character turns out to be a dead-end -- he sucks up screen time with an over-the-top performance (which I did find entertaining), but in the end his presence in the film means nothing, except as an excuse for the plot.

The thing that saves The Departed for me is Scorsese's skill as a director and as an artist. His love of cinema, his playfulness with the camera, with sound and music, with little tricks like irises -- the guy is having fun, and that fun is translated to the audience. And the movie is funny too, in a salty, dark sort of way.

J. Hoberman in the Village Voice sums it up pretty well: "Neither a debacle nor a bore, The Departed works but only up to a point, and never emotionally."

Old Movie Dialogue – The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941; The Derelict: A, LeaJo: B+)

Part I

The Derelict:
So, Leajo, how many "old" movies have you seen? Pre-1970 movies?

Heh. Well...I'm not really sure about the exact number, but probably about, I don't know...five. That sounds really pathetic, I know.

The Derelict:
No, not pathetic at all. Which movies have you seen (prior to watching the Maltese Falcon)?

This is a hard question. I might not remember them all. Actually, it's funny, but most of them are Hitchcock movies. The Birds, Rear Window, Psycho. Let's see, I've seen The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life, and I know there are more, but I can't remember them off the top of my head...I might be able to come up with some more later.

You've seen It's a Wonderful Life???!!!! I had no idea! That's actually one of my favorites.

Yeah, we had to watch it in school. Maybe that means it doesn't really count. I liked it though. Oh yeah! I've seen Gone with the Wind too!

You watched It’s a Wonderful Life in school?! Okay, now my mind has been blown. Why?

Actually, I don't really remember why. It was in 6th grade and my whole grade watched it so it wasn't like it was for a specific class. Maybe we just watched it for a Christmas thing...except...oh man...you are going to be mad about this. Everyone had to get permission from their parents to watch it because it dealt with religion and they didn't want anyone to get offended.

Oh my gosh! Really?! I'm not mad, that's just f-ing hilarious. The "religion" is like, what? A silly storyline about a comical angel getting his wings and George Bailey praying in the bar for a few seconds? Seriously, it's only slightly more "religious" than Elf.

Yeah...I don't know. I barely remember watching it so I don't really know what my teachers were thinking. Oh, I've seen To Kill A Mockingbird. Does that count? (I also had to watch that movie in school)

Yes! That definitely counts. Wow, you're a closet old movie watcher, aren't you?

You got me! Hee! I bet there are more too; I just can't remember them all right now. Do you remember that one movie that my mom made us watch with Sydney Poitier and the nuns? Does that count?

Yep, that counts. It's Lillies of the Field, and a good movie, though I've only seen it that once. Okay, so there's The Birds, Rear Window, Psycho, the Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lillies of the Field. Is that right?

Yeah. I think so

That's a pretty good list, when really, I bet if you asked your friends they've seen maybe two old movies, probably Wizard of Oz and maybe something like Sound of Music or Mary Poppins or another old Disney movie. Maybe It's a Wonderful Life too 'cause it's on every year on NBC, but that’s probably a stretch. So you are maybe a little ahead of the pack, for your age group.

You're probably right. I doubt my friends have seen any Hitchcock movies.

You're probably right. Okay, so before watching Gone with the Wind with me, and then Maltese Falcon last night, what would you say your general impression of "old" movies was? What did you think about old movies (if you thought about them at all)? Did you have any interest in watching these "classic" Hollywood movies or were you content with watching contemporary films?

Oh, I was definitely just content in watching contemporary films. I only really watched those movies because I had to at school or someone in my family recommended them to me and made me watch them. I never actively went out and searched for old movies to watch. My impression with them was that in general, I liked them. They were definitely different than newer movies, but that didn't make them bad. The Birds and Rear Window and Psycho scared me just as much as any contemporary horror movie did. I think the main difference I felt between old movies and contemporary movies was that old movies didn't look as good. Like, I thought Rear Window was cool...but it could have been cooler with better special effects. I liked all of the movies though. Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Oh yeah. Wizard of Oz is the best. Interesting about the special effects, because Rear Window didn't really have any special effects, or are you talking about when he's hanging off the window at the end? Yeah, I can see why that would be cheesy looking to a contemporary audience.

Yeah...actually that's the only scene I can remember. Was that movie in black and white? Because I sort of meant that too. All of the black and white movies in my mind would have looked better in color. Not that I don't like black and white, it's just a matter of taste.

No, Rear Window is a color film. As is The Birds. Psycho was shot in black and white because Hitchcock didn't have the budget for color (I think that was the case). Yeah, and I have to be perfectly honest, but I've been thinking about my own "education", if you will, in old movies, and it took me awhile to warm up to b&w movies. In fact, the first time I saw Gone with the Wind (I came in at the end while my parents were watching it) I thought it was kinda cheesy and bad. But something about the film stuck with me and almost kinda haunted me, and a few years later when I watched it with my mom on tv it was the greatest movie I'd ever seen. But black and white movies were not an instant "watch" for me, it took me many almost forced sessions of watching b&w movies to start to "get" them.

First time I saw Gone With the Wind, I though it was really boring. I liked it a lot more when we watched it. Things can change depending on when you watch certain things.


Believe me, I have nothing against black and white movies. I just don't really prefer black and white in a movie, probably because I'm used to color. Because of that, I would pick a color movie over one without. You watch a lot of black and white movies so you're probably used to it.

Right. Which is what I'm saying about familiarity (remember from last night?) -- I made myself watch black and white movies because I wanted to understand them and see what made them good as opposed to color films. I was interested in the lighting, and the way faces looked different in black and white, and the haunting quality of it all.

Yeah. I totally understand. It makes sense

I wanted to experience that thrill and newness that came from black and whites -- I was intellectually curious about them. It was about learning something new, in a way. A new way of looking at and enjoying movies. I wanted to get beyond the familiar movies I was exposed to at the time at the theater and on tv in general.

Did most of this come about because you were taking film classes?

No, it happened before that. It came about because my mom used to watch movies on Saturday afternoons while she folded laundry, and I would sit and fold laundry and watch with her. At first I wouldn't sit down if a black and white movie was on (I'm thinking this is maybe when I was eleven or twelve), but my curiosity and love of the cinema got the better of me. Also, my mom would tell me that the movie was really great and I should watch it. So I would force myself to sit on the couch and watch it. And to my surprise the films held my attention and they were really good. In fact, I made a video for a class in high school and I wanted to shoot parts of it in black and white cause I liked the look. But film classes did help, because I was better able to understand the principles of lighting and how huge a deal lighting is in a good black and white film. Not that lighting isn't important in a color film as well....

Right. You know it's funny, I think how your mom was for you, you are for me. You're the one going "you have to watch this movie it's so good!" and making me watch these old films. So good on ya! You're getting me to watch more movies!

To be continued...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Recent Obsession

Since starting this blog, and getting back into my old cinephile ways, I’ve been kind of obsessed with why and how some people develop a love for old movies (and with old movies being a pretty elastic term, I mean roughly movies made before the late 60s/early 70s). For my own part it had a lot to do with my mom and her love for old movies, but it can’t merely be a question of exposure, since my brother was, arguably, more exposed to old movies than I was (my mom didn’t work when he was younger so she was home more often, watching movies on tv). Why did I fall in love with old black and white studio pictures, while my brother couldn’t be bothered to watch anything except Star Wars?

Obviously, some people are just more predisposed to like old things. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I also like old music of the 30s and 40s, and that I’m generally interested in the history of the earlier half of the century. My attraction to all things WWII-era began fairly early, first with Indiana Jones, then Dick Tracy (movie and comics), Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, A League of Their Own, and The Rocketeer. These movies all came out around the same time, and they were all set in that era of swing jazz, fedora hats, private dicks, and pretty dames and I fell in love with it all. These movies led me on a quest for more; I wanted as much of my grandparents’ era as I could get. So where do you turn if you want to experience the 1930s and 1940s? For me it was jazz and the movies. And what better way to experience that time period than to watch its movies. To watch not only movies set in the 40s but movies made in the 40s.

But this can’t be how every old movie lover came to be. And not every WWII-era buff falls in love with the era’s movies either. And I certainly branched out beyond that late 30s/early 40s time period (into silents, foreign, films of the 50s and 60s, cult, etc.). Obviously, dozens of things factored into my love for old movies, and obviously, the path to “classic movie lover” status is different for everyone. But how is a cinephile born? Why is it that some of us love this old stuff while others could take it or leave it? Since I’m obsessed with these questions of why and how, LeaJo has been kind enough to be a sort of guinea pig for my experiments. She’s agreed to watch some old movies and answer some questions I have, both about her opinions of the movies in particular and old movies in general. It’ll be a semi-regular feature here at the blog, and we’re calling it “Old Movie Dialogue,” since it’ll be formatted as a dialogue between LeaJo and myself. The hope (on my part) is that LeaJo will develop an appreciation, and perhaps even a love, for old movies. But at the very least I think it’ll be interesting to read LeaJo’s thoughts on these “classic” films – a fresh perspective from someone fairly new to the old movie scene.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Quote of the Week

"I don't like close-ups unless you can get a kick out of them, unless you need them. If you can get away with attitudes and positions that show the feeling of the scene, I think you're better off using the close-up only for absolute punctuation -- that's the reason you do it. And you save it -- not like TV where they do everything in close-up."

Howard Hawks

Sunday, October 15, 2006

How the movies helped me love baseball

I have to admit, I used to hate baseball. I was one of those uninformed, ignorant types who thought baseball was "slow" and "boring." I prefered faster-paced sports like basketball. I remember going to games at Tigers Stadium as a kid, but that was because my dad loved baseball and made us go. And I remember collecting baseball cards when I was younger, but that was because I had an older brother who collected them and I wanted to be a part of anything he did. I even used to go to Tigers Stadium with my friends back in high school and sit in the cheap seats and eat hot dogs and basically goof around, but I didn't really go for the baseball. I just went because it was something to do. Besides, the Tigers were bad back then. They were almost the worst just three years ago.

But I did love A League of Their Own. Make fun of me if you want, but I can recite nearly every line in that movie. And I did get a thrill when I watched Field of Dreams for the first time as a thirteen year old kid and saw Shoeless Joe emerge from the corn field. And I laughed along with my fellow 80s babies at silly kids movies like Rookie of the Year. I might have hated baseball but I loved baseball movies. I only knew who Ty Cobb was because I knew Tommy Lee Jones had played him in a movie. I enjoyed the mediocre Babe with John Goodman, then I went to Baltimore and was excited to see a statue of the real Babe at Camden Yard. I cried when Gary Cooper told Yankee Stadium he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and then suddenly I was a Yankees fan.

Suddenly I was watching games. Then came Eight Men Out, the White Sox 2005 season, and I was watching baseball every night during the playoffs. Suddenly I was watching baseball with my dad, only this time I wasn't being forced into it. Suddenly, the Tigers were the best team in baseball. Suddenly, the Tigers' performance in the playoffs was like something out of a movie. First we slayed the mighty Yankees, the old underdog story that's been told a million times. Then we swept Oakland, ending with a Magglio Ordonez three-run walk-off homer that looked and felt like it had been scripted in Hollywood's feel-good sports movie department.

Everything I knew about baseball I learned at the movies. Everthing I loved about baseball I got from the movies. The movies showed me the history, the American-ness of baseball. The deep tradition, the great drama of the national pastime, with its heroes and its heartbreaks.

The movies gave me baseball. And baseball has given me more than I ever dreamed it could. Bless you boys.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968, B)

I can't really love this film, mostly because A.) It wasn't really that scary or disturbing once the Goke alien showed up and turned characters into vampires, and B.) Because of the rather lame anti-Vietnam message (man is just killing man, for no reason, just senseless violence, etc. etc.). If the film had just stuck to the characters themselves, their own faults, their envy, pride, and rage, it would have been more profound, more universal, less dated. Instead, the stark, red-soaked montages of war violence (I'm assuming mostly footage from Vietnam), though visually interesting, are really simplistic thematically (yeah, okay, war is bad, thanks for that totally unoriginal, and tiresome point). But, what do you want from a horror/sci-fi B-movie, right?

The less forgiveable point is the lack of scares. The beginning is utterly perfect, from the strange behavior of the birds to the eery red sky. (n.b.: notice Tarantino steals the shot of the airplane flying against a sunset-red sky and puts it into Kill Bill vol. 1)

But once the Goke shows up it becomes pretty predictable and it didn't take long for me to figure out how things would end. Let's just say (possible spoilers ahead), it comes off very Twilight Zone-ish, and echoes a certain famous American sci-fi film of the 1950s. Of course, the American title kinda gives that one away.

Yet despite the fairly ordinary vampire/body snatcher stuff, the film really wins on visual style, use of color, and the straight-up drama stuff between the characters. There's the whole "survivors coping with each other and the natural tensions that arise" thing going on, as well as the tensions between characters that existed before the situation got freaky. I loved the relationship between the politican and the business man. The director does a fantastic job of fitting all of his characters into the frame at the same time, giving the film a very claustrophobic feel:
(contrasted with wide, high shots later in the film of characters running along a barren and empty terrain)

The use of color is extraordinary, with reds, whites, and blues being used to great effect:

On a storytelling level I thought the characters and their relationships with each other were great: the corrupt politican, the sychophantic business man, the emotionally frayed Vietnam war widow, the know-it-all psychologist, the co-pilot whose virtue and basic humanity are the only things the viewer can be sure of in this nightmare. There was a lot of psychological and sociological stuff being addressed in the film that really had nothing to do with the science fiction/horror element and the movie could have worked even without the Goke vampire stuff (don't misunderstand me, I love sci-fi and horror, but it just so happened that in this instance I was more interested in the "normal" stuff than the weird stuff -- and just to be fair, there was one moment in the film that really did scare me and that was when the Goke possessed one of the characters and was "speaking" through that character; the Goke's voice in this scene was frightening, and the way the scene ends was chilling). The drama between the characters was often more compelling than the drama of the vampire scenes. Of course, the vampire stuff (the bloodlust and violence of the Goke) was just a metaphor for the bloodlust and violence of humanity. The film asks us to think about who the real "monsters" are, the Goke or human beings. This universal point about Original Sin, about the danger of hate, envy, greed, and pride was more interesting to me than the rather weak point about Vietnam the film tried to make.

On the level of straight-up character drama, and on visuals, I would give the film a B+/A-, but because it's a relatively predictable horror/sci-fi plot I have to give it a very solid B.

(One more note: The music in this film drove my mom nuts -- there's a very high-pitched pulsing sound that we hear throughout scenes involving the Goke's space craft that just goes on and on. My mom kept going, "What IS that?!" But I loved it! It was annoying in that kind of good way that makes you wish it would stop and yet at the same time you're mesmerized by it. Leajo, think "Show show show, show show show, show show show, the show of shows show")

Monday, October 09, 2006

Quote of the Week

"All this compulsion to understand everything fills me with horror."
Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Don't tread on the the "D"

(Oh, and Go Blue!)

This was a good day for sports.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Quote of the Week

"There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. I can't imagine how such a rumor began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle."
Alfred Hitchcock

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Blog rolling

Miyazaki blog-a-thon... and here, here, and here

PJ and the Hobbit

Knowing your audience

Jim Emerson on film criticism

And a bleat from James Lileks about the "golden age" of television (which in case you were wondering is Right Now)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hail to the Victors!

Michigan 47, Notre Dame 21 (sorry Michael)

But Notre Dame does have better football movies.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Superman Retreads

(N.B.: This is not really a review. It's more like a few idiosyncratic observations.)

I'm not sure how it happened, but my opinion of Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, B-) has steadily decreased from B+ to B to B- as time has passed. I figure I'd better commit myself to a blog entry before things get worse and Superman gets downgraded to just plain old Average C. As it is, he's only slightly above average and that's too bad. Too bad because I'm one of the few (I think) who really likes Superman (better than Batman and Spiderman and Ghost Rider) and doesn't think he's a stodgy old boy scout. Too bad, because a director with a little les nostalgia in his eyes and a little more daring could have made a fresh, sparkling film for 2006, instead of the backward-looking homage to the 1978 film we actually got. Everything about Superman Returns feels unnecessary, in the sense that if we wanted a film like this we could have just turned to the original Richard Donner film. Why make this new one?

Imagine for a moment some possible ideas for a new Superman film, a film meant to jumpstart the franchise for the 21st century (and also note that these are just a few off-the-cuff ideas I came up with, or borrowed from other, better sources):

*It's 1942 and a (Golden Age) Superman must defend the Daily Star, Metropolis, and the Allied forces from a (magical, kryptonite-fortified) Spear of Destiny-weilding Hitler. Imagine Superman fighting scientifically enhanced Nazi supermen and throwing tanks across the fields of France (and as Clark Kent, exposing Lex Luthor as a shameless war profiteer who's getting rich selling arms to the Axis).

*Imagine Superman is dying (one of Lex Luthor's schemes and the idea Grant Morrison has come up with in his All-Star Superman comic), so what else does he do except go to his Fortress of Solitude and develop a serum that gives Lois the same powers as himself for 24 hours. Oh, and he also reveals to her his secret identity as Clark Kent.

*How about Braniac as the big bad? Or maybe a riff on the "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Alan Moore story? What if Superman returned and found Lex Luthor elected president?!

Any idea that has some gumption or a spark of innovation would have been just the thing to revitalize the Superman movie franchise and make it feel necessary. Instead, Bryan Singer indulged his love for the original Christopher Reeve version and delivered a well-made (boring) semi-remake. I guess I'm just not infatuated enough with Donner's movie to get all starry-eyed with this too-long (154 min.) tribute to it. Don't get me wrong: the performances are generally good (loved Kevin Spacey), the special effects dazzling (loved the bullet glancing off Superman's eye), the story well-told (if ill-chosen). But did we really need another Lex Luthor land scheme? (Lex Luthor O'Hara: "Why Kitty Scarlett Kowalski, you mean to tell me that land doesn't mean anything to you?! Why, land's the only thing that matters, the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for. Because it's the only thing that lasts." *unless Superman throws it into space of course*)

Was Singer's notion of a fresh idea really just to add a cute kid to the mix? Wow, I can't wait to see the sequel in which Superman agonizes over what to do about his bastard son. That sounds like a great storyline for a superhero movie!

Seriously, I sound a lot harsher about this movie than I really feel. I did like it. It's just a disappointment insofar as it's supposed to be a restart of the franchise and instead it just feels like a retread of a movie from 30 years ago. Superman returned alright. I just wish he could've flown in a different direction.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

No Children, No Future, No Hope

I think the upcoming film, The Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron), looks fantastic. I'm actually a little surprised a film like this is being made today. I mean, a film about the importance of having children and making sure the world is populated?! What happened to all the doomsday stuff about how there are TOO MANY people on the planet??? I'm sure the leftists at the UN and other population-control liberals aren't too pleased with this little speculative-fiction movie. Anyway, I'm very excited, not least of all because Alfonso Cuaron is directing.

via Jeffrey Overstreet at Looking Closer

Why I can never really hate Ted Turner

Turner Classic Movies is the greatest channel on television. In the past few months I have watched these films and more (all uncut and commercial free, of course), some of which are not available on dvd:

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, A)
Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, B)
American Graffiti (George Lucas, A)
To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, B+)
My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, A-)
Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, B+)
High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, B+)
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, A-)
Get Yourself a College Girl (Sidney Miller, C-)
Ecstacy (Gustav Machaty, B-)
H.M. Pulham, Esq. (King Vidor, B)
Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz, B-)
Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, A-)
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, A+)
Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, B-)
Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, A-)
Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, A)
Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, A-)
Key Largo (John Huston, B+)
Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, B)
The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, B+)
Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, B)
Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, A-)
Swing Time (George Stevens, A-)
Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, C)
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, B)
Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, A-)
Enchantment (Irving Reis, B-)
Crossroads (Jack Conway, C+)
The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, A-)
The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, B-)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (William Keighley, B+)
Pinky (Elia Kazan, A-)
Gold Diggers 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, B+)
Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, B)
Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, B+)
A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, B+)

And... I'm still waiting to watch:
Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (Pietro Francisci, 1963)
The Invisible Boy (Herman Hoffman, 1957)
Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1933)
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)
Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942)
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

And in addition to all the great movies, I've managed to watch several hours of classic cartoons from MGM, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., etc. on TCM's Cartoon Alley program (on Saturday mornings, appropriately enough).

Monday, August 21, 2006

The 2006 Summer of Movies -- "What's a good movie we can go see?"

I'm often asked this question by my parents when they're thinking about going out to the movies. My parents are in their 50s, pretty conservative, and not really into action or big-budget type stuff. And they're also like many of the older set who often deplore the increased sex and violence of "today's movies" (where they were during the Godfather/Taxi Driver/Last Tango in Paris 1970s I'm not sure -- Mom: "Having babies.")

In fall, winter, or spring I usually suggest a political thriller or a (non-SNL-alum) comedy. But in the summer, when nearly every movie has either spandex or Will Farrell, it's slim pickins. This summer, when the question finally arrived, I tentatively suggested Superman Returns, hoping my dad would forget his antipathy toward superhero movies 'cause, well, it's Superman, and Superman is, like, actually pretty normal and mainstream and stuff.

Well. . . no. Superman Returns was not going to happen.

Then a brainwave! What was my favorite movie of the summer so far? CARS! Cars was funny but not stupid-funny. Cars was a good story but not a story exclusively for children. Cars was gorgeous to look at. Cars was fun. Cars was like a movie from Golden Age Hollywood, a Boys Town or You Can't Take It With You, that wasn't tailored to fit an age demographic but was just a good movie that any person could enjoy.

So I suggested Cars.

I might as well have suggested X-Men 3. Cars was off the table for my dad (my mom was more receptive, since she had seen The Incredibles and loved it). Why? I asked. No reply, but I knew the answer. Cars was a "no" because Cars was a cartoon. Silly Derelict, cartoons are for kids. He never actually admitted it, but that was the reason.

Thanks to the way many mainstream animated films are marketed (advertised on children's television, tie-in toys sold at McDonald's, characters' images on everything from sleeping bags to sneakers) many adults probably don't take them seriously as legitimate (adult) entertainment. They're movies you take your kids to, not movies you go see with your friends. To the average American adult moviegoer they're like foreign films or art house indies -- movies that don't even fall under the radar when looking through the paper on a Friday night. They've even been ghettoized by the Academy Awards with the Best Animated Feature category.

Why do I bring all this up? It's not a particularly novel insight on my part; many things have been written and said, for instance, on the differences between American and Japanese attitudes toward animation. But the notion struck me in a particular way recently because three of my favorite films this summer have been animated, and yet I find I can't really recommend them to my adult friends and relatives because, in their minds, animated movies aren't *really* movies. They're just cartoons.

Yet Over the Hedge (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, B+) is as zany and hilarious as any screwball comedy. Cars (John Lasseter, B+) is as fun and uplifting as any good sports movie. Monster House (Gil Kenan, B+) is as spooky and atmospheric as any good monster movie. Summer 2006 has been a great season for animated features, a fact I remind myself of whenever I hear the familiar (critics') cry of "disappointing summer for movies." Superman Returns may have fallen short at the box office; Pirates of the Caribbean may have fallen short at Rotten Tomatoes. But talented filmmakers who happen to make cartoons have made 2006 a pleasantly surprising summer.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"

Donnie Darko Review:

What can I say about this movie that probably hasn’t been said a million times before? I’m very late to the Donnie Darko train, but I’ll do my best to throw in my two cents about this supremely messed-up movie.

I loved this movie…so dang much. It totally blew my mind, but I liked that it did. It got me thinking and I always like it when a movie does that. It was the kind of movie that kept on piling on mysteries right up to the big climax and the big reveal, and I was so afraid that it was going to disappoint (as movies like this tend to do), but it didn’t. It was very satisfying in that the end wasn’t so confusing that you couldn’t figure out the basic gist of what happened, while at the same time it still left some things open for you to think about long after the movie was over.

The performances in this movie were all great starting, of course, with Jake Gyllenhaal. There are some people who post on this blog who can’t even stand the sight of him *looks disapprovingly at The Derelict*, but I love him. I think he is so talented and (if I can be shallow for a moment) really cute. So…yeah, I REALLY liked this movie (you should probably keep that in mind when reading my review since half of the reason why it’s so positive is because of Jake). I think Jake is so good at making the characters he plays likeable. I was not expecting to like Donnie as much as I did during this movie. Something about the way Jake played him made him…relatable? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but something like that. There was a sort of innocence behind all his brooding and seriousness that was really appealing.

But above all I would recommend this movie because it is so creative and…different than anything I’ve ever seen. Frank was thoroughly creepy, and that ending…I’m still thinking about it. And now for the grade…I can honestly say that while watching this movie, there was nothing about it that I didn’t like, so what else can I do, but give it the only grade it deserves: A.

Derelict, I found this interview with Richard Kelly (the director and writer) and Jake Gyllenhaal as well as this site which both helped to explain the movie a little more for me. Hopefully, it does the same for you and makes the movie as enjoyable for you as it was for me.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"Hardly the stuff that dreams are made of"

Kathy Shaidle has a great little post up about "beautiful" celebrities, and her take is very similar to my own:

Time was someone like Winona Rider would have been a beloved character actress/ingenue (or working at the Dairy Queen) than a "sex symbol". Diana Durban or such like. And yet she is the Fantasy Woman of millions of my fellow Gen-Xers. Yes, I know she has that giant shelf o' boobs. But really, isn't Rider just a few steps up from the squinty-eyed, lipless Tatum O'Neal (who I blame for much of this lowering of standards), and her latter day doppleganger, that Bridget Jones girl whose name I can't even remember.

The strangest thing is watching today's mousy actresses make yesterday's mousy actresses look better, the way "crappy" 80s music we all made fun of now sounds genius compared to Coldplay. I mean, stick Lindsay Lohan next to Winona and suddenly Ryder looks like Liz Taylor. We've moved way beyond jolie laide to just plain moche.

TCM has been featuring Elizabeth Taylor during the month of July, and I just can't get over the fact that she is stunning. Like maybe one of the most beautiful people ever. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I was totally overwhelmed by the h-o-t-t hotness of Paul Newman and La Liz, and was really hoping that they would have a child, like, not just in the movie but in real life. Talk about most gorgeous offspring.

More Kathy:

Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis weren't supposed to be "sexy." That was Ava Gardner's job.

Indeed. But were the 1930s-50s just some kind of blip on the beautiful people radar and that kind of beauty just won't be achieved again in Hollywood? I mean, Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Brad Pitt, etc. are very cute, but they're nowhere near as sexy or drop-dead gorgeous as someone like Paul Newman in the 50s, or Cary Grant and Clark Gable in the 30s. Were Hedy Lamar, Ava Gardner, Liz Taylor, and Greta Garbo just flukes? I guess they probably were, and maybe it's nice that today's standard of beauty is more attainable for us mere mortals -- but, well, I'm not sure what I'm saying, except that our Hollywood stars today don't feel like STARS so much as just good-looking people with very little in the way of personality. In fact, I'd say that "stars" in the old-Hollywood style don't exist anymore -- Angelina Jolie is a curiousity, a puzzle, a homewrecker, a freak-a-do, a whatever, but she's certainly not mysterious or glamorous or otherwordly the way Greta Garbo was. Heck, even Liz Taylor has lost her "star"-ness and become just another crazy curiousity in a town of lost dreams.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Movies I watched last week

Raintree Country (Edward Dmytryk, C-)
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, A)
Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, A-)
Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, B-)
American Graffiti (George Lucas, A)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Kraken!

I was typing out my review for Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest (which I gave a C+) and I was having a rather tough time with it since this movie seems to confuse, frustrate, and fascinate me all at the same time. Of course, that was until I watched Ask a Ninja's review of PotC: DMC in which I realized that The Ninja said everything I wanted to say way better than I could ever say it. So yeah, go watch it if you want to know what I thought of the movie. The review is hilarious and so, so true (although, in all fairness, I did enjoy the movie...I just didn't think it was very good, if that makes any sense at all).

The Kraken!!!!!

Hooray for old movies!

You don't know how excited I am to see that LeaJo has watched and liked The Sting! I'm forever trying to get her to watch older movies, but she's strangely resistant, despite the fact that everytime she does watch an older (pre-1980) movie, she enjoys it. For example, I happened to be at her house watching Rear Window, and she wandered into the room, asked what I was watching (Me: "It's Hitchcock! One of my all-time favorites! A masterpiece! See how he's critiquing the voyeristic urge of the movie-goer?!" -- actually, I'm surprised she didn't run away from me at that point), and sat down to watch for a few minutes. Two hours, several-nails-bitten-off-in-suspense later, she was exclaiming how good the movie had been. "Well," I said. "Of course it was good. It was Hitchcock."

But watch another Hitchcock movie? Sorry, no. Spend a few hours in Casablanca or laugh at Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag? No again. Urg! It's very frustrating trying to get one of the younger set interested in old movies, even when they themselves admit to liking the few older movies they've actually, you know, seen.

So, I'm very gratified and excited that LeaJo has watched an older movie (albiet, a color movie) and enjoyed it, and it wasn't one that she had to watch because I forced her to (I believe she was forced by another member of her family). Now, if only I could get her to try Hitchcock again.

Quickie Reviews

Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, A-)
I can't believe it took me this long to finally see this movie, since A.)I'm a pretty big fan of Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, and Claude Rains and B.)I'm a pretty big fan of the Robin Hood legend. Needless to say, it's great, but what really caught my eye was the brilliant Technicolor. Yowza! That's one good-looking film. I don't think I've enjoyed Technicolor more (except, of course, in Gone With the Wind). Really stunning.

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, A)
I mostly love this film for Gary Cooper (I watch Sergeant York and Pride of the Yankees nearly every time their on t.v.) and the hilarious scene where York shows-up his superior officers at the firing range. And of course the rah-rah America stuff, which I can never get enough of (hello Yankee Doodle Dandy and Cagney's Cohan). But the scene I really picked up on this time was the conversion scene, where York gets struck by lightning and enters the church to be "saved" and get religion. Now, I'm an anonymous, back-pew-sitting Catholic, so my religious experiences are the furthest thing from York's evangelical, old time religion stuff, and so that scene has kind of a weird/strange vibe for me. But the cool thing is that Hawks doesn't try to soften it, or make it a more mainstream, unobtrusive Christianity -- he lets the whole wild, ecstatic scene play out, and even though it's kind of strange from my religious perspective, it's also strangely beautiful.

Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, A-)
Now, I'm not saying this movie isn't a masterpiece, but I only gave it an "A-" because I wasn't as impressed as I thought I would be after watching it. I've heard often that it's Renoir's best, but I LOVE Grand Illusion, so I think I was expecting Rules to be way better than Grand Illusion, and it wasn't, at least for me. I think I need to watch the film again, since I had a headache the night I saw it, and also because Renoir's style isn't always as "obviously" great as some of the more flashy directors (i.e. - Eisenstein or Griffith). So, "A-" for now, may be revised.

Mirrormask (Dave McKean, B, previously B+, but I don't know why I rated it that way earlier, it should have been B from the start)
This movie is so totally strange, imaginative, and inventive in its visuals that it's hard not to like it just on that aspect alone. But I also liked Helena and her story: her fantastic drawings; her purity and goodness; her guilt about her mother; her determination to try and put things right. I went in expecting the movie to look great (Dave McKean, the Henson Co., come on), but I actually ended up liking the story and characters too, and that was something I did not expect. And it's got a little creepiness to some of it as well. Plus, always good to see a movie with a circus in it. The circus is that place where happiness and terror seem to exist in equal amounts -- contradictions and paradoxes (and freaky clowns) abound at the circus.

Cars (John Lasseter, B+)
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie, since I'm not much of a car person (a veritable sin here in the Motor City). But the visuals were gorgeous, the jokes were really funny and/or clever, and the ending had a nice twist to the usual sports movie formula. Cars also tapped into my natural affinity for nostalgia -- I'm a total "back in the good ol' days" kinda gal, and this movie really lays that on pretty thick.

Key Largo (John Huston, B+)
Bogey kinda bored me in this one, but whoa man! do Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor make up for it! I feel like this is Robinson's film more than Bogart's, really. I much prefered Johnny Rocco's descent into paranoia over the raging hurricane than I did the world-weary-hero-regains-his-ideals that Bogart seemed to be recycling from Casablanca (it was much better in the earlier film). And Claire Trevor. Wow. That is one very well-deserved Oscar. The scene where she sings in front of everybody in order to get Rocco to give her a drink? Painfully awkward, utterly humiliating -- fantastic. And when Rocco shakes his head to one of his goons and smiles sadistically, and you know he's not going to give her the drink, but she keeps on singing so desperately -- I actually felt kinda sick to my stomach at that point, I was so embarrassed for her, and so disgusted with Rocco. And then Bogey gets up and gives her the drink, and he gets slapped across the face by Edward G. Robinson. Yeah. That's one helluva scene.

The Big Sit

That's what one reviewer is calling Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. I've only read one of Philip K. Dick's novels (Ubik, to be exact), but I've been dying to see a real adaptation of his work on the big screen and not just an excuse for an action flick that so many Dick adaptations turn out to be (I'm looking at you Total Recall, even though I still kinda liked you).

So, just my luck, instead of taking Dick's novel and deciding, "Let's make an action movie," Linklater (who I generally like) decides to turn Scanner into a talky mess just like his talky (but interesting) mess Waking Life. Now, maybe Dick's story is a talky mess (I haven't read it, so I don't know), but surely Linklater realizes it takes more than trippy animation and deep philosophical talk to make a successful science fiction film. I mean, Waking Life was interesting and different, but not the kind of movie one actually "enjoys." That's why I'm surprised no one has attempted to make a film out of Ubik, since I think it has the potential to be visually interesting (necessary for a visual medium like film), in addition to the fact that it has a plot with enough twists to keep audiences interested in all the weirdness.

An old post by The Forager discusses the difficulty Dick's work has had in making it to the screen in some recognizable Phillip K. Dick-like form. The problem with Dick is that he doesn't always have the easiest plots, so plots get grafted onto his stories to make them more mainstream. My fear, however, is that Linklater is going overboard in the opposite direction, making Scanner into just another excuse for a big long conversation about life, the universe, and everything else (plus drugs). Victor Morton's review suggests that my fears have been realized and that Scanner is just Waking Life 2.

Also, this movie needs to be at more than the Royal Oak Main Art, since I don't feel like driving all that way to see it. Hopefully my review will be forthcoming.