Tue Dec 01 2015 22:17 November Film Roundup:
I remember this month's movies being meh-ful, but when I went back to the list there were three really good movies, and I'd just allowed my memories to be overwhelmed by the underwhelming movies, because I saw the three really good movies all in a row. No more! Let joy be unconfined!
- Aparajito (1956): I believe this movie was bankrolled by Indian moms looking for effective ways to guilt-trip their children. I saw this while Sumana was out of town. Sumana really wants to watch the Apu trilogy, and I'm happy to watch these movies with her, but it's the kind of episodic character study stereotypically associated with foreign film and it's not a great way for me to spend my alone time. PS: Call your mother!
- My Name Is Nobody (1973): An attempt to deconstruct the spaghetti western a la Sergio Leone, the way John Ford deconstructed his own work The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don't think it works very well. Ford's films are full of humor and in Liberty Valance he uses that humor to fuel the dramatic irony. I find spaghetti westerns effective insofar as they're bleak and kinda humorless, and this film pours on the humor to create a satire of the genre. Admittedly this was (barely) pre-Blazing Saddles, so I understand why this movie was made, but between Blazing Saddles on the lowbrow end and Liberty Valance on the highbrow, the western is pretty well deconstructed by 1974.
This movie contains an awesome sight gag involving more pool balls on a pool table than I've ever seen before. I'll always remember that sight gag and I've already forgotten most of the rest of this movie. On IMDB for this film Sergio Leone is credited with "idea", and I hope his idea was "you should do a gag with a bunch of pool balls on a pool table" and not "what if you made a film that exposed the shallow conception of heroism in the western?" Because John Ford already had that idea.
- 1776 (1972): Among movies whose titles are years, the one with the largest delta from the year the movie was made is probably One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the smallest is Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). In between we have... this fine movie. You may know that Sumana is obsessed with Hamilton, but I don't want to listen to the soundtrack until I've seen the play, so we saw 1776 together as a compromise move because our Hamilton tickets aren't until next year.
Sumana found it a learning experience since 1776 was a big influence on Hamilton. We agree that it's incredibly ahistorical and that the songs are overall not great (Sumana: "Do we really need a song about how Jefferson plays the violin?"). The villains (i.e. the Southern reactionaries) have the best songs, like the one that exposes New England's complicity in the slave trade. Howard da Silva does a great job playing Benjamin Franklin as I've always pictured him: as America's wacky Falstaffian uncle. According to IMDB da Silva also portrayed Franklin "in a National Park Service film presented in the 70s and 80s at Ben Franklin's home at Franklin Court, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," making this also the federal government's official portrayal of Franklin.
- Johnny Guitar (1954): Didn't find it that enjoyable, and in retrospect I mainly wanted to see this because everyone in the screenshots looks like Jeff Goldblum in Buckaroo Banzai. Not a good reason to see a movie. I did like Joan Crawford being real brassy. Just a hunch, but I think this movie is a lot better if you're a forty-year-old gay man. I feel that's the approximate shape of the thing I don't understand here.
- Out of the Past (1947): Stereotypical film noir with a character named Leonard! Boosts my hypothesis that Leonard is a perfect film noir name. For heroes, villains, thugs, cops, society gents or skid row bums... "Leonard" always works. Consider naming your next noir character Leonard!
Oh yeah, everything else about the movie. The first few scenes defied convention with their setting and mood, but it settled in to the familiar pathways pretty quickly. Overall... popcorn noir, recommended, but not highly.
- Nightmare Alley (1947): Now this is some noir. It starts at a carnival, the place where all happiness is false and misery is paraded as entertainment. And it all goes downhill from there, and you're along for the ride. Great stuff. In particular the portrayal of a ruthless woman psychiatrist who sleeps in a Ruth Bader Ginsberg outfit seems unusually progressive for 1947.
- Clueless (1995): One of Sumana's all-time favorites, and an entry on our "women directors" watchlist. I saw it for the first time this month and I gotta say this is a great movie. The characters change over the course of the film, they avoid being John Hughes teen stereotypes, and the only real villain is dispatched pretty early on, allowing for plenty of conflict that's not predicated on someone being the antagonist. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments for me.
One weird thing: the cell phone jokes don't land anymore. You can see them happening, you know they are jokes, but everyone has cell phones now so the jokes don't do anything. They're like the ghosts of jokes.
- The Crimson Kimono (1959): Wow, what an unusual movie. It's resembles noir, but it's too procedural, too earnest, and it has a happy ending. None of the cops are crooked; they just have personal problems that get in the way of their work. It goes overboard showing that Japanese-Americans are good, patriotic Americans. In general, it has too much faith in humanity to be film noir. But it was more daring in its time than more cynical movies, and it's the rare movie that makes me want to seek out more of this director's vision. Really glad I saw this one.
- It's the Old Army Game (1926): At this point I gotta say that W.C. Fields, like Jerry Lewis, is one of those comic legends I just don't find funny. A misanthropic loser can be a hilarious character, but I only laughed at some of the physical comedy (like the Stooges but more highbrow). The best thing about this movie was that the Zeppoish love interest resembles Derek Waters from Drunk History, allowing me to pretend that the whole thing was a Drunk History vignette gone wrong.
This silent film includes a title card containing must be the ultimate W.C. Fields line: "I'll hit him in the face with this kid!"
- In honor of Clueless, this month the Television Spotlight focuses on Square Pegs (1982), a really smart television show about high school girls, created by SNL writer Anne Beatts. It's clever and funny in the same way as Clueless, but it's even better because it focuses on the misfits rather than the popular kids. Watch it today! Includes Devo.
(1) Tue Dec 29 2015 17:13 December Film Roundup:
The final Film Roundup of the year! Step onto the red carpet, and... no, wipe your feet first! Geez.
- The Last Blitzkrieg (1959): A weird little war movie that I watched for only one reason: it's the only movie I've ever heard of that features a character named Leonard Richardson. Except that's not really his name! "Leonard Richardson" is an alias the main character steals from a red-blooded American POW to carry out a nefarious scheme.
This movie was nearly interesting--there were some moments when it could have taken a really cool turn, got some dramatic irony or moral ambiguity going, a la The Americanization of Emily. But nope! It's a normal WWII movie that was made fourteen years after the war ended. Bizarre.
- Sunset Boulevard (1950): This is a great movie. Exactly as you'd expect me to say. Classic dark-roast Wilder. 'Nuff said.
- The Breaking Point (1950): The sort of surprise that keeps me coming back to the museum. Sometimes I know a film will be great ahead of time, sometimes for educational purposes I watch a "classic" I don't think I'll like, and once in a while I'm blown away by a film I had no particular expectations for. Such was The Breaking Point. This film rises above popcorn noir by focusing not on the gritty glamor of the underworld but on the corruption of a decent family man. Great, great stuff.
- Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (2015): Guy Maddin somehow gets a job doing the behind-the-scenes documentary on a Canadian war movie. He does his best to bite the hand that feeds. Some good lines ("A war movie is a funeral with no body.") and great gags. The weird video effects are inspired by 80s VHS movies and video games, and thus I find them less annoying than the usual silent-movie schtick. I think Maddin should stick this film on Vimeo.
- Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015): Pretty educational. It was fun to hear Truffaut be a huge fanboy. If I'd known about the book this film is about, my "French New Wave films are secretly genre films" theory would have gotten off the ground a lot sooner. The things you miss out on by not going to film school.
- The Golden Cane Warrior (2014): Starts out really cool, but the best character (the martial-arts mom) dies in the first act, her kids take over, and the middle of the film is kind of a slog. It comes back together for the big fight at the end. Sumana liked it more than I did.
A character in this movie does the most heroic thing you can do in this sort of movie: she stops a village from being burned down, preventing the traditional "burnt village" scene. The villagers get slaughtered anyway, but a valiant effort.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): This was going to be my Christmas movie to see with Susanna, but she had to take care of her new baby, so I saw it with John and the niblings who were old enough for it. This movie provides a good illustration of the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars: J. J. Abrams ruined Star Trek, but he did an excellent job with Star Wars.
It's totally Abrams-friendly! Star Wars is based on action set-pieces and eyeball kicks, not thought experiments. The Star Trek characters are all military officers who serve together, but the Star Wars characters are distinctive archetypes, so it doesn't bog the film down to give everyone their scene. We expect a Star Wars movie to have a megalomanical villain, so it's not a disappointment when it happens every single time. The morality is cut and dried: light side, dark side. You can make the hero fight a giant spider in the second act and it makes perfect sense.
I think Star Trek is an important contribution to human culture, whereas I think Star Wars is a fun couple of movies that got out of hand, but I gotta face facts: the Star Wars movies that actually get made are now better than the Star Trek movies that actually get made. I don't like it, but that's what how Hollywood works.
Anyway, a really fun movie. I'm especially tickled that they made the hypothetical "plumbing contractor who works on the Death Star" from Clerks into a compelling, canonical Star Wars character.
- The Last Picture Show (1971): I guess this is the month where I watched movies that claimed to feature "The Last" of something. Appropriate, as this is The Last time I will watch this film. I'm not going to say this is a 'bad' film, there's a lot of good in it, but it hits too close for comfort (I basically grew up in that town) and I also encountered two of my common bugbears:
One, as I've mentioned before, ninety minutes is kind of my cutoff point. I'll watch almost any kind of film if you can keep it to ninety minutes. If you go beyond that point, I need something compelling, like a plot, or fight sequences, or I get antsy. This film is over two hours long, and...
I'm averse to films that could end at any time. The Last Picture Show is such a film. It has a through-line, sure, but since the point of the film is that life is a stochastic process that just creeps at its petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time, I'm sitting here at minute 90+k unsure if this movie's ever going to be over or what. Whereas Celine and Julie Go Boating has a rough first hour, but by ninety minutes a plot is apparent, and by the two-hour mark you can see what has to happen for the film to come to a conclusion.
Just to end on a positive note, it was nice to see young Jeff Bridges. And if you want a cynical 1970s black-and-white Bogdanavich film about the horrible past that's funny and full of life, check out Paper Moon (1973). That movie's more my speed.
- The Cheap Detective (1978): Rewatch with Beth over New Year's Eve. A classic pre-Airplane! spoof with incredible casting (Peter Falk! Louise Fletcher! Stockard Channing!) that gets a lot of laughs out of its absurd dialogue but isn't the perfect classic I remember, because I mentally edited out the bad/boring/offensive parts.
Hilarious and worth a watch, but not tight enough to be a work of genius. Trying to do The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and Casablanca all at once makes it less a tightly focused experience like Airplane! and more like the omnibus spoof movies that dominated stupid comedy in the 2000s. I do think this movie is funnier overall than Airplane!, but I prefer verbal comedy to sight gags, and there's no wasted space in Airplane!. Unless I mentally edited that movie as well.
And now, the Television Spotlight focuses on a show that we watched in its entirety
- John Adams (2008): Hamilton-mania continues to run rampant in our household, and I had the idea to apply HBO's recent miniseries to Sumana's forehead as a sort of poultice. We had a good time and enjoyed the subtle shout-outs to last month's poultice, 1776. The John/Abigail relationship is always a winner.
If you look at the reviews for this movie, you'll see that a lot of the low-rated reviews are based on complaints about historical inaccuracies, but they're generally pretty minor inaccuracies, well within the range of... Creative License. In fact, in the final episode, Adams, talking to John Trumbull, makes the 'historical inaccuracy' critique more effectively than most John Adams reviewers, who admittedly may not have made it to the final episode. Just a little bit of fourth-wall breaking to send you on your way.
I haven't read the book but I think this series does a good job of portraying Adams the way he might have seen himself: as an unappreciated figure, always working away in someone else's shadow, a man whose greatest accomplishment as president was having the guts to do nothing when the public was demanding he make a horrible mistake.