Friday, February 26, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #11: The Cat Returns (2002)

This one's not directed by the legendary Miyazaki, but it is a Studio Ghibli film, and a nifty one at that. It's directed by Hiroyuki Morita, and is the only film he seems to have directed, which is a shame.

It's about this frazzled young girl that gets whisked off to the kingdom of cats - and the cat King has some plans for her that aren't much to her liking. But fear not! A Sherlock Holmes-esque cat named Baron from the Cat Bureau and his companions won't let the mad king get his way. It's a charming little adventure from start to finish, and if you like cats you'll probably have the added bonus of exploding over how cute they all are.

In the Ghibli tradition, The Cat Returns is drawn colourfully and crisply, and the animation is top of the line. It's full of fun and magic, and will satisfy the young and the old and the inbetween.

So: Cats can be very dashing indeed. I want to start a Cat Bureau.

Pose Reviews a Movie. #4: The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh, 2009)

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from this one, but it definitely didn’t deliver it.

Or anything, really.

Like, at all.

Steven Soderbergh’s emotionless and fragmented Girlfriend Experience provides a potential framework for a story that might have been good, had it been presented with people who can act, and taken more time to investigate its (too) many plot dimensions.

The main trouble with this recent effort of Soderbergh’s is that there just isn’t a single likeable character. The protagonist is a high-class escort by the name of Chelsea, whose style of prostitution incorporates an interpersonal connection as opposed to straight-up sex (hence, The Girlfriend Experience). And her long-term boyfriend, Chris, is a personal trainer who continuously whines about money when he isn’t whining about his relationship.

Neither character is appealing enough to make the audience to care about their story, and neither actor can make their character three-dimensional enough to change that. As "actors," they both lack the ability to exhibit basic human emotion, which I suppose could be interpreted as an artistic choice exhibiting the removal of “true emotion” from the “life of a sex trade worker,” but which could also be interpreted as the removal of “talent” from the “movie.”

And although the plot throws a couple of cool emotional curveballs, the characters just aren’t backed well enough by their actors to react fittingly. I enjoyed the concept of the film’s events, but their execution was disappointing and dull.

So what can I say that’s positive? Well, it’s only 78 minutes. And as luck would have it, there are no awkward sex scenes. And of course, it’s well-shot, since Soderbergh employs the same gifted use of light filters and quality cinematography that inhabits some of his less awful films like Traffic and the Che epic. But just because Soderbergh knows how to shoot a movie doesn’t mean he can save one. And he sure didn’t.

Sorry Steven. I still love you, and I'll still watch ANYTHING you make. But I’m afraid your Girlfriend Experience just...isn’t worth experiencing.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #10: Ponyo (2008)

The latest Studio Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind some of my favourite films: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke. Ponyo doesn't seem to attain the level of emotional force and complexity that Miyazaki has reached in the past, but the colourful and intricate visuals are a wonder - if you love the sea and have ever dreamed of living in a breezy seaside town and in a house on the shore, you'll be thoroughly enamoured.

Ponyo's clearly more of a children's film than Miyazaki's other efforts, and has much more in step with My Neighbor Totoro than the intense and adult Princess Mononoke. Characters and their motivations here are simple and blatant, and the film's crux is in its wistful, magical sense of youth and imagination.

As always, the Disney-produced voice-dubbing is top-notch and sports A-list actors, so if you want to get more anime in your life but are loathe to read subtitles, the Miyazaki DVD releases will do the trick nicely.

So: I fucking love the sea and want to live there and meet the sea-goddess of mercy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #42: On the Town (1949)

The classic Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly combination, seen before in Singin' in the Rain, doesn't let you down here. Donen's past musicals include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Funny Face, both are among my favourites and On the Town ranks pretty strongly among them. I love watching musicals and discovering the origin of songs you've known your whole life, like On The Town's "New York, New York." Though the movie is about 3 young sailors on day leave in New York, my favourite character is by far Betty Garrett's Brunhilde Esterhazy. She's a sassy cab driver with the guts to go after what she wants, which just happens to be the boyish and somewhat clueless Chip (Frank Sinatra). She's boisterous, funny and clever - not the kind of woman you typically see in old Hollywood musicals. The boys are charming, and their quest for love in 24 hours is adorable. The music is fun, with great numbers by Kelly, Sinatra and their fellow sailor played by Jules Munshin, and I can see how some consider it one of their favourites.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 23 February, 2010


Alexander the Last
Box, The (also BluRay)
Damned United, The (also BluRay)
House of the Devil, The
Informant!, The (also BluRay)
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
September Issue, The
Shaun the Sheep: Woolly Good Time
XIII The Conspiracy
Vampire's Assistant, The: Cirque du Freak

Alcove, The
Amateur Porn Star Killer 2
Amateur Porn Star Killer 3
Androcles and the Lion
Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay
Caesar and Cleopatra
Farscape: Season 3
Farscape: Season 4
Five Element Ninjas
Girl on the Bridge
Japanese Wife Next Door, The
Major Barbara
Midsomer Murders: Dead Letters
Midsomer Murders: Down Among the Dead Men
Midsomer Murders: House in the Woods, The
Midsomer Murders: Vixen's Run
Notorious Concubines, The
Perry Mason: Season 3.1
Ran (BluRay)
Sympathy for the Devil
Touch of Frost, A: Season 13
Touch of Frost, A: Season 14
Touch of Frost, A: Seasons 11 & 12
Touch of Frost, A: Seasons 7 & 8
Touch of Frost, A: Seasons 9 & 10
Universe, The: Season 4

Monday, February 22, 2010

Colin's 2010 Movies #2: Shutter Island

I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. From a technical standpoint Martin Scorsese does a phenomenal job crafting a creepy, foreboding, 1954 period atmosphere around Ashecliffe, the island-bound asylum for the criminally insane where two federal marshals are called to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Leonardo DiCaprio also does a great job portraying the driven, haunted marshal Teddy Daniels, whose wife died in a fire caused by an arsonist (Elias Koteas in a brief but memorably slimy cameo) who may or may not have been committed to Ashecliffe. Teddy must uncover the truth of what goes on at Ashecliffe while coping with vivid dreams of his dead wife and his wartime experiences liberating Dachau from the Nazis.

The problem lies with the ending. Certain twist endings need to be banned. After being used over and over, there’s just no way they can be surprising or compelling any more. Shutter Island’s third act reveal is one that most people could probably guess at from the trailer and once you get there, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it’s all the story amounts to.

It’s a shame because the film has so much else going for it. It looks absolutely beautiful especially the overhead shots of the storm-beaten, dreary island, and there are lots of clever editing tricks used to heighten the tension, like the continuity of a person’s movement or expression being jarringly mismatched between shots, and shots that seem to last a little too long or too short before cutting. It manages to make everything subtly unnerving.

While Shutter Island is less of a horror film than the trailers seemed to suggest there are a few impressively creepy sequences, the standout being a trip through Ashecliffe’s ward C, a medieval dungeon-like fortress reserved for the most violent inmates, filled with dripping water and dark stone passageways. I wanted the film to spend more time there.

There’s no faulting the acting either, with Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow playing the eerily polite but infuriatingly unhelpful psychiatrists running the facility, and Jackie Earle Haley in another neat cameo as a badly beaten up psychopath. DiCaprio really sells the emotional impact of the story, keeping us grounded in Teddy’s increasing paranoia and grief-stricken memories.

When it was all over, everything Shutter Island did right just increased my disappointment. All the talent on display made me wish it was in service of a better story. Other reviews I’ve read have been willing to look past the script’s predictability and just enjoy the brilliant filmmaking technique at work but for me it just wasn’t enough to justify trotting out that lame twist for the umpteen thousandth time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #3: A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers have done it again.

It’s amazing to me how those boys can not only churn out solid movie after solid movie, but that they can do it so quickly. The Brothers Coen are currently on an unstoppable three-year winning streak, having released No Country for Old Men in 2007, Burn After Reading in 2008, A Serious Man in 2009. (And the forthcoming True Grit is set for release this year.) It’s extremely impressive that not only are Joel and Ethan (the affectionately nicknamed “two-headed director”) quality filmmakers, but they’re also incredibly efficient. But A Serious Man does not come off as rushed or poorly thought-out, despite being the Coens’ third film in as many years. In fact, it’s nothing short of exceptional.

The key to watching this particular cinematic endeavor is an appreciation for dark comedy. Reeeal dark. The film can come off as a fairly colossal downer without this perspective, since it centres around a protagonist, Larry Gopnik (played flawlessly by Michael Stuhlbarg), whose life is slowly going to hell in a hand basket.

Actually, scratch that. A breadbasket.

Nah, that’s still a little small. His life is going to hell in a wooden keg.

Without giving too much away, Larry Gopnik is facing divorce, career sabotage, and mountainous financial trouble, while his brother and son add to his burdens with problems of their own. It doesn’t sound particularly uplifting, but there’s comedic value in the way the film portrays Larry’s struggle, and in a way, there is almost humour to be found in the sheer volume of crap that he has to deal with. And that’s where A Serious Man becomes a profound statement on “life.”

I have to put “life” in quotation marks, because to describe something, anything, as being “about life” tends to sound stupid right out of the gate. But A Serious Man puts a lot of things in perspective as the film progresses, and can even be therapeutic in its implicit commentary on the (often confused) priorities of (often confused) North Americans.

Although the film is set in and around 1970, its message is timeless: shit happens. But it happens to everyone, and the magnitude of it is often misunderstood. The moment we can find humour in a situation like Larry Gopnik’s is the moment we can face our own struggles with a more level-headed outlook. Ironically, A Serious Man serves to encourage the viewer to take things a little less seriously.

But in addition to being an awesome life experience, A Serious Man is also a genuinely well-made movie. It is exceptionally cast, and functions as a charming period piece nodding nostalgically to suburban life in the 1970s. And the Coens definitely deserve that Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Oscars this year, even if Quentin Tarantino takes the win for Inglorious Basterds.

Overall, A Serious Man is a well-rounded, deeply layered piece of dark comedy with transferable value to everyday “life.” I’d highly recommend it, and I think you should probably watch it tonight.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #9: Under Siege (1992)

The greatest of the Seagal movies, and one of my favourite ridiculous early 90s action films. If you're looking for something to get excited about with friends and laugh as Seagal's clunkily powerful body breaks limbs and deflects knife blows, look no further.

Seagal plays this ship's cook called Ryback that is also a disillusioned Navy Seal. When another disillusioned military-type and his forces take over the ship he's cooking on, he must hurt them all in a great many ways. And he does. The final battle finishes off with Tommy Lee Jones getting a thumb through his right eye, getting a kitchen knife plunged into the top of his head, and getting his upper body rammed into a computer monitor and electrocuted. All in the span of about 5 seconds. It's like a Mortal Kombat finisher.

It's just starting to show its age, what with its Gulf-war talk, Bush Sr. appearance, and melodramatic soundtrack. Aged action movies are the best action movies. It also has ex-Baywatch playboy playmate Erika Eleniak getting a bit naked.

So: A wine pairing suggestion - cheap and red. Like the lifeblood of Seagal's enemies.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #8: Pandorum (2009)

I've read it described as The Descent meets Event Horizon, with a bit of Cube. That about sums it up.

While Pandorum doesn't ever quite reach the level of its predecessors (yeah, I liked Event Horizon), it did satisfy me enough to warrant a fairly positive recommendation - though not enough to put it under the 'recommended' blog tag reserved for whole-hearted enthusiasm. Pandorum dwells on some plot elements it really didn't need to, tries to be too many movies, and should have drawn its mysteries out much, much more than it did. It did provide me with memorable scenes, however, and more importantly, an atmosphere I found really engrossing.

And it has Dennis Quaid being growly and weird.

So: Flawed, but certainly worth a watch.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #7: The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder's oscar-winning comedy about a man who lends his bachelor pad out to lovers at the expense of his own lovelife. Jack Lemmon is C. C. Baxter, the overly helpful nice-guy and American everyman trying to earn his share of the big dream. He works in a big building at a desk in a huge room of other desks and other people working, hardly paying attention to each other. Day in, day out. But then he falls in love with Shirley MacLaine, which I would have done too.

Jack Lemmon is fantastic and neurotic and absolutely lovable as misunderstanding and misfortune pile upon him like mountains on Xenu. Lemmon's posturing translates a profound frazzledness that winds my muscles up something fierce and makes me uneasy, and I can only relax as he starts to gain his confidence and deal with his problems. There's a wonderfully dark undercurrent in this film that I really hadn't expected, and it works to raise some staple arthouse points about the effects of modernity on the individual human being.

So: One of the best romance films I've ever seen. Watch it, sucka.

tm Does the QT 20 Part 18: Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright – 2004)

A spoof of zombie movies, you’ve got two slackers in suburban London faced with the unexplained transformation of normal people into flesh-eating zombies. They try to survive and ensure the safety of some family and friends.

It’s funny but also has enough gory blood’n’guts to let you know this is a zombie movie. It’s also apparent by the depth, sleight-of-hand, and rapid-succession of jokes and gags, that this movie has quite a bit of thought and rewrites behind it. Many initially dismissed this movie as a lame spoof, a la Scary Movie(s), but the quality and (mostly) resisting the urge to make the quick joke sets it apart.

tm sez: 7/10

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #22: Percy Jackson and the Olympians - The Lightning Thief

US, 2010. Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener.

Ah, Chris Columbus. The Spielberg of hacks. The hack of whom other hacks wonder "what does that hack hack that I don't hack?" A man who wrote a promising screenplay (Gremlins) that dealt in sick and sadistic humour and then proceeded to sit in the director's chair for some of the most odious family entertainment ever made. Along the way he lucked into the first two Harry Potter movies (the mediocre first one and the almost-good second one). Percy Jackson is, from what I can gather, based on a series of books that are a shameless attempt to mimick the success of Potter. How apropos that Chris Columbus should take the reins for the film version.

Percy Jackson is a troubled youth who lives with his mom (Keener) in a NYC apartment with his smelly stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) - his smelliness is a plot point! Percy is a misfit at school - the bullies hate him, because he is hunk who doesn't fit in. He also has been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD, and only his wheelchair bound teacher (Pierce Brosnan) and crippled comic relief black friend seem to understand him.

But Percy Jackson is no ordinary mortal! He is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea! And Brosnan is only in a wheelchair to disguise the fact that he is a centaur! And his crippled friend only walks with crutches to disguise the fact that he is a satyr! And his uncle Zeus (Sean Bean) is pissed off because he believes that Percy Jackson stole his lightning bolt and is threatening Poseidon with a war of the gods! Percy is whisked away to a summer camp for the mortal children of gods (there are quite a few) until he and his pals decide to take a road trip to collect pearls that will help them travel to the underworld and get Percy's mom back from Hades (Steve Coogan - who, for a moment, seems to be about to play the devil as a young Tommy Saxondale, but this is a Chris Columbus movie, so nothing that cool would be allowed), who has kidnapped her because he wants the lightning bolt.

It's all very involved and, if you think about any of it at all, doesn't make a lot of sense. I put it down to chopping a lot of exposition to make a book fit into a 119 minute movie. I don't know that for sure, but the few seconds I could stand to read fans of the books bitching about what was cut seems to confirm my suspicions. My six year old enjoyed it, and truthfully it never does get dull - there's always a new monster or bit of magic or celebrity cameo at each turn to keep you awake. Plus it has Uma Thurman (Medusa) and Rosario Dawson (Persephone), who are teh hott.

But really, you should just rent Coraline instead.

Wendy's "Films" of 2010 #41: Skins, Season 2 (2008)

So, I obviously liked the first season of Skins. Enough to watch the second season just days after the first. It's not really ruining much to say that the cast changes after this season, as the friends finish high school and move on with their lives. I will be sad to see them go. I get attached to television characters the same way I do to those in a novel. You spend time with them, get to know them; you watch an episode here and there over a few days, or all at once, but you seem to know them better than those in a film. This season was slightly different, but the turns they took were generally for the better. There are concerns about pregnancy and other health problems. It's about growing out of your childhood and beginning to understand more serious issues, while still remaining fun and entertaining. I think I'll check out the third season when it comes out on DVD, even if almost all the characters are different. The only one remaining is Tony's younger sister Effy, whose antics in the first two seasons include overdosing on pharmaceuticals, and tricking people into making the right decisions, the ones that will make them the happiest. Should be diverting at least.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #40: Pierrot le fou (1965)

I'd somehow worked up this film in my mind to be something somewhat different from what it was. It's not that it isn't characteristic of Jean-Luc Godard's films, but the story was a little less engaging than I'd hoped. I did enjoy it, but it didn't sweep me off my feet. I'll have to watch it again with a friend who loves French New Wave. New Wave isn't something you should watch when you're not in the mood; I wouldn't suggest watching anything if you're not in the mood for it, really. It is a great example of Godard's work, however. At one point, Anna Karina's character asks Jean-Paul Belmondo, "Who are you talking to?" "The audience," he replies. I love parts like this. The colours are magnificent; bright yellows and blues add exuberance to this film about love and loss. Karina and Belmondo have wonderful chemistry, and I love how she continues to call him Pierrot, though he always replies, "My name is Ferdinand."

Wendy's "Films" of 2010 #39: Dollhouse, Season 1 (2009)

Why do Joss Whedon's shows always get cancelled lately? They're an awful lot more interesting and entertaining than Everybody Love Raymond, that's for sure. Dollhouse is about Caroline/Echo (Eliza Dushku), a girl who gives 5 years of her life (for an unknown reason) to a corporation that wipes the minds of young men and women and rents them out to rich customers with new minds and memories. It's interesting because you think at first that it'll be hard to connect with the characters if they keep changing personalities, but it's oddly refreshing and after a time certain characteristics begin to show through. Many characters are played by actors from past Whedon creations, and I loved several of them; Echo's handler Boyd (my friends and I came up with the term "boyded" to refer to Boyd kicking someone's ass), Dr. Claire Saunders, Echo's fellow "active" Victor, and Topher, the programmer of the mind. My one major complaint has to do with the last episode of the season, which takes a drastic turn with little to no explanation. The tone of this new style left me with very little desire to see the second season, as its characteristics aren't really aligned with my tastes. I'm trying to be a vague as possible so I don't spoil it for anyone, but I'm pleased to say that I've been told by friends that the second season returns to the original story for the most part. I definitely want to check out what happens next in this series, as Whedon draws you in with great dialogue, interesting characters and a really intriguing premise.

New to the Store: Week of 16 February, 2010


Big River Man
Black Dynamite
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever
Chuck: Season 2
Coco avant Chanel
Crude: The Real Price of Oil
Dark Matter
Halo: Legends
Law Abiding Citizen (also BluRay)
Life & Times of Tim, The: Season 1
Love & Savagery
Revanche (also BluRay)
Sarah Silverman Program, The: Season 2.2
Song of Sparrows, The
Voy a explotar (I'm Going to Explode)
Walled In
Women in Trouble
You Might As Well Live


About Last Night / St. Elmo's Fire
Bad Girls of Film Noir v.1 (The Killer That Stalked New York / Two of a Kind / Bad for Each Other / The Glass Wall)
Bad Girls of Film Noir v.2 (Night Editor / One Girl's Confession / Women's Prison / Over-Exposed)
Dragnet 1967: Season 1
Eighth Day, The
Farscape: Season 2
Forbidden Hollywood v.2 (The Divorcee / A Free Soul / Night Nurse / Three on a Match / Female)
The General (Buster Keaton) (BluRay)
Godkiller: Episode 1
Joe versus the Volcano
Kojak: Season 1
Law & Order - Trial by Jury: Complete Series
Lola Montes (also BluRay)
Magical Mystery Tour
Northern Exposure: Season 3
Pope of Greenwich Village, The
Quincy, M.E.: Seasons 1 & 2
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion

Pose Reviews A Movie. #2: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Well I won’t lie to you. The first time I saw The Big Lebowski back in 2006, I didn’t like it.

Nowadays, I probably couldn’t even tell you why. It’s not that I didn’t dig The Dude and his charmingly mellow demeanour. (Which I did.)

It’s not that I didn’t find John Turturro’s portrayal of Jesus, the unnecessarily hardcore bowler, to be downright hilarious. (Which it is.)

And it’s not that Walter, played by John Goodman, pissed me off more then than he does now. (Which he does.)

For some reason, this cult classic from the Brothers Coen just didn’t come together for me. I didn’t jive with Lebowski, and for two years, I let this opinion stand.

Fast-forward to 2008.

I’m on a four-month exchange in Denmark, it’s a Tuesday night, and my roommate suggests that we watch it.

Now, I have a situation on my hands. Either I can agree, and pretend I’ve never seen it, or I can tell him what I really thought, and risk a really awkward living situation for the next several months.

I KNOW how much people who love The Big Lebowski love The Big Lebowski, and the last thing I want to do is offend one of them, IN THEIR OWN HOME!

But, seeing as how he was a peaceful, non-violent fellow, indeed the Danish equivalent of The Dude himself, I levelled with him.

I said something like, “I don’t know man, I watched that movie like two years ago and couldn’t get into it.” And then promptly dove behind a chair in anticipation of something flying across the room with my head as its eventual destination.

But he just grinned and asked, “Did you watch it with people who also hadn’t seen it before?”

I had. But why did it matter?

And then he revealed to me the divine secret of The Big Lebowski.

“The thing with The Big Lebowski is, you’ve got to watch it with someone who loves it. You’ll laugh when they laugh, and you’ll see what they see in the film. And once you’ve done that, you’ll love it too. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times, and I promise that once you’ve watched it with me, you’ll change your mind.”

So I did. And sure enough, I was converted. I finally came to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the film’s zaniness, the witty dialogue, the outlandish yet consistent character portrayals, and the proof that Joel and Ethan Coen have nothing short of a gift for niche filmmaking.

These Coen brothers have a knack for pinpointing tiny sects of American culture, and making them larger than life by bringing them to the screen. In The Big Lebowski’s case, Joel and Ethan use an elaborate kidnapping scheme to highlight the uniquely distinct personalities and world-view of a couple of bowling fanatics, one of America’s thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of subcultures. And although The Dude and Walter Sobchak probably aren’t indicative of The Bowler at Large in America, they’re such endearing personages that we can’t help but wish they were.

The Big Lebowski takes the bowlers out of the bowling alley, confronts them with an outlandish situation they’d be highly unlikely to face under regular circumstances, and derives unparalleled humour from the way they conduct themselves in their interactions with society’s rich and eccentric.

Its brilliance is in its specificity, and it’s why a movie like The Big Lebowski is so rare, and thus so beloved. In fact, Big Lebowski fanatics occupy a similar ‘cult subculture’ to the bowling fanatics in the film, which gives America yet another niche of people to embrace. And the legend continues.

So here I am, a Big Lebowski convert, who has just been told by his girlfriend that she hasn’t seen the film. So what do I do? I tell her exactly what my Danish roommate told me--that she should watch it with someone who loves it, and now that I do, that someone might as well be me. So we rented it and watched it on Valentine’s Day, and sure enough, she joined the prestigious club. And one day she’ll do the same for one of her friends, and on it goes.

So that’s the story. It seems a bit silly to write a standard review for a film that has been so loved for so long by so many, so instead I wanted to provide this prescription for how to view it. If you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, or saw it once and didn’t like it, try it with someone who loves it. I guarantee you know someone who does--and after that viewing, I can almost promise that your opinion will change.

And if not, fuck it. Just go bowling.

Pose Reviews A Movie. #1: Helvetica (2007)

When Gary Hustwit’s documentary, Helvetica was released in 2007, I had the same reaction as a lot of other people: “So do you make a movie about a font?” I could see it easily as a book, since Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves made the subject of English grammar sexy enough to launch her book to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list back in 2006, but a movie? About a font? I figured the film was either a hoax or just incredibly boring.

But I was wrong.

So how is it that Gary Hustwit can use his directorial debut to make a movie about a font? Simple. He didn’t make the movie about the font.

is a genuinely fascinating look at the entire world of graphic design. It uses interviews from successful graphic designers, as well as seemingly endless shots of pamphlets, billboards and shopping bags typed in Helvetica font, to demonstrate that the average consumer is completely unaware of the impact which typeface has on their absorption of information. It’s the ultimate example of that old phrase, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” And believe me, it says a lot.

One of the most interesting things about Helvetica is that it not only explains a great deal about its namesake’s role in graphic design, but also why it has never occurred to most people to question its use. Designers don’t want fonts attracting any attention at all--if the reader pays more attention to the typeface of the letters and words, and less attention to the content they convey, then all is lost. But Helvetica takes this rule and flips it on its head--now the conveyance of the content is the content, and in eighty minutes, you will learn more about how you see the world than you ever thought a movie about font could teach you.

Finally, one of the best parts of Helvetica is, believe it or not, its soundtrack. I thought this was particularly important to mention since soundtrack is the cinematic equivalent of typeface. Its job is to highlight what’s being said without detracting from it, and to invisibly enhance the audience’s consumption of the content without being consumed itself. The ambient post-rock of Helvetica serves its purpose extremely well, and it implicitly reflects the message of the film without being noticeable until the very end. (It also gave me a band to look into--they’re called El Ten Eleven, and I must say, they’re pretty good.)

All in all, Helvetica comes with my glowing recommendation, in any font. You can find it in the Documentaries section, or perhaps even on my Staff Picks shelf.

Wendy's "Films" of 2010 #38: Skins, Season 1 (2007)

Skins is sort of what Degrassi: The Next Generation should have been, except in the UK. Not overly dramatic, but still entertaining. It's got the drugs, the sex, the teen love; it never gets boring, but also stays away from the repetitiveness of so many recent high school TV series. The characters are likable and their lives are relatively realistic, though fun enough and outlandish enough to be worth watching. I wouldn't say it's a work of art, but it's hardly supposed to be. It's popcorn television, and it's fun. I liked Hannah Murray's spaced out, kind and wholehearted character Cassie the most, but each has their own distinct style. They're not incredibly easy to label either; I always hated that in movies and TV growing up: the preppy girl, the nerd, the jock, etc. Eugh. Can we please try not to pressure people into cultural moulds? Luckily these kids have enough development to surpass any stereotypes, and their lives are believable. Perhaps not in every aspect, but that's just part of most television.

Monday, February 15, 2010

DVD MIA #3: While the City Sleeps

US, 1956. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price, Howard Duff.

I don't think While the City Sleeps is the best of Fritz Lang's American films (The Big Heat almost certainly holds that title), but it may be my favourite - it's certainly the most entertaining. It`s a sly, funny and suspenseful tale set at a news syndicate while a series of sex murders is going on in the big city. The man who founded the empire has died, leaving the works to his useless son (Vincent Price). The only man dad thought worthy of the job was the resident editoralist and TV news anchor (Dana Andrews), who has no interest in such a job, since he routinely fires off bestselling books and receives Pulitzers where he is. So Junior decides to pit three veteran department heads - wire service man George Sanders, newspaper editor Thomas Mitchell, art department head James Craig - against each other for a coveted managing director position, little suspecting Craig is sleeping with his wife (Rhonda Fleming at her va-va-voomiest). The contest: whichever department head can unmask the sex killer first gets the job.

Sanders and Mitchell immediately try to convert Andrews to their causes, using two women - Sanders`mistress, gossip columnist Ida Lupino, and his secretary, Andrews`potential fiancee, Sally Forrest.

Anyone who enjoys vintage Hollywood movies should get a jones for this movie just looking at that cast, and I`m happy to report that Lang and the scenario use them all to marvelous effect. Ever the perceptive social critic, Lang is fascinated by how the various players used the police and other peoples lives purely for the advancement not even of their common employer`s cause, but their own selfish ends. Craig doesn`t even actively pursue the job, preferring the let Sanders and Mitchell cancel each other out and just gets it on with Fleming in the meantime. Andrews, on the surface the most respectable of the bunch, thinks nothing of putting his fiancee out as bait for the sex killer, figuring the end justifies the means.

The dialogue is witty and acidic, the suspense sequences solid, even if the actions that initiate the murderer`s ultimate capture ring a bit false. Why this isn`t on DVD is beyond me, so if it pops up on TV or you find an old tape of it, I highly recommend you seize the opportunity.

Chris 2010 Viewings #21: Mamma Mia!

UK, 2008. Directed by Phyllida Law. Starring Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgard.

I'm increasingly fascinated by major stars taking roles in retreads of material they would never have taken part in back when the material was fresh. For example, I feel very sure that Liam Neeson would never have appeared in an episode of "The A Team" back in the 80s, but there he is taking George Peppard's role in the sure-to-be-fabulous big screen version. And back when ABBA were doing their spandex-clad thing in stadiums worldwide I don't imagine a big screen musical based on their song catalogue would have lured the young Meryl Streep to bypass Sophie's Choice or, hell, even Plenty.

But there she is in this movie, belting out the Andersson/Ulvaeus songbook with complete abandon, apparently loving every minute of it. So something rather fascinating has happened to the division between high culture and kitsch in the last 20 years. The general lack of good roles for actresses of Streep's age bracket may have something to do with it, though it hasn't stopped her from picking up her first Oscar nomination in a while this year (for Julie and Julia), and it still doesn't explain Neeson. The next few years should be fascinating, especially once we've run out of grade-A shows like "The A Team" to reboot and have to move on to the likes of "Manimal" and musicals based on the M.C. Hammer songbook.

Of course ABBA are miles better than Hammer, and their brand of cheerful pop lends itself rather well to something like Mamma Mia, where the plot is so insubstantial that no five minutes of movie pass without a new hit everyone knows starting up. It keeps the movie going at a decent clip, never really becoming boring even for someone like me who only saw it because the girls were watching. It's not a good movie by any acceptable definition, but it has a lot of spirit, helped both by the wise selection of catchy songs (except for two or three deep cuts and the inexcusible absence of "Knowing Me, Knowing You") and enthusiastic performances. Even when the performances and vocal performances made me cringe, I was filled with a lot of admiration for name actors being willing to sacrifice their dignity so ruthlessly onscreen. For that reason, even though Streep gives far and away the best performance, my MVP award goes to Pierce Brosnan, saddled with a singing voice only a deaf person could love, but who nonetheless puts it all out there at every opportunity and remains immensely likable in spite of, and because of it.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #37: The Science of Sleep (2006)

I sort of happened upon this film when a friend suggested we watch a movie she'd just bought, and I must say I was quite happily surprised. I'd seen a few of Michel Gondry's films before and this one definitely fits in with his distinct visual style and storytelling. I loved the idea: a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) drifts between life and waking dreams, not knowing the difference, and we drift in and out with him. As he attempts to deal with the recent death of his father in Mexico and the culture shock of living in Paris, young Stéphane's dreams are as confused as his state of mind. Bernal's charming forgetfulness and the unaffected thoughtfulness of Charlotte Gainsbourg - his beautiful neighbour - make for a strong and yet strange combination. It's a tale filled with love, cellophane streams, cotton clouds and stop animation horses. Definitely a surreal experience, but one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #36: Good Hair (2009)

Chris Rock's documentary on what exactly "good hair" means to African-Americans sheds light on the incredible amount of effort, time and money put into creating a certain self-image. I never knew a weave cost upwards of $1000, or that many put dangerous chemicals into their hair to straighten it. It all began when Rock's young daughter asked her dad why she didn't have "good hair" - a question that made him wonder what that meant, and why such lengths are gone to achieve a particular image.

From the salons of Harlem to the temples of India, Rock travels far and wide to find answers and makes the purpose of his journey to inform the world of his discoveries. It's this element - the fact that Rock is discovering these details and not just expounding them - that makes the documentary so interesting. It feels like an adventure on a subject I never even thought to explore. I must admit I was shocked at his findings, and love the overall message he wishes to send: what matters is what's in the head, not on it.

Chris 2010 Viewings #20: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

US, 1957. Directed by John Sturges. Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas.

John Sturges directed some great movies (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape), some overrated ones (The Magnificent Seven), and some crappy ones (Marooned), but was overall an above-average helmer for a testosterone-heavy action picture. Not a Hawks or a Ford or a Boetticher, but solid.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is par-for-the-course Sturges. It has some excellent elements, it moves at a good clip, never really bores, while never showing any really sign of a directorial personality. I wasn't especially excited to watch it, but I figured what the hell, Burt Lancaster is always good, I'm falling behind in the movie-watching contest, let's roll. Kirk Douglas in in there too, whatever, he's been in a lot of good movies, even if - Ace in the Hole aside - he's never much rocked my world. And I hold Michael Douglas against him, how could you not? In fact, this is my favourite thing associated with Kirk Douglas:

And that's not even his voice, it's Frank Gorshin! Anyway, I'm not saying I don't like him, just never meant that much to me.

After Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, I wish to apologize to Kirk Douglas for my prior indifference. You, sir, are the bomb. I even forgive your son's hiney in Basic Instinct.

The story in this film is the familiar one of Wyatt Earp (Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (Douglas) and their showdown with the bad ol' Clanton boys at the O.K. Corral. Lancaster is surprisingly boring in this film: Earp is just so damned good and incorruptible that it's hard to be much interested in anything he does. I never dreamed he could be so lacking in screen magnetism. It's shocking.

But Douglas, who admittedly has the much more interesting role as the much-loathed, frequently almost-lynched Doc Holliday, is just fabulous, I would have been happy to watch him for hours more. Burdened with self-loathing, alcoholism, tuberulosis, and a passive-aggressive relationship from hell, Douglas grabs hold of this role and savours every ounce of the dramatic potential. He tackles it like it's the tastiest multi-course dinner ever set before him and invites you to enjoy every last nibble and drop with him. This movie has an insanely good supporting cast - JOhn Ireland, Joe Van Fleet, Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, young Dennis Hopper (as the one potentially redeemable Clanton), Jack Elam, DeForrest Kelley, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef - but what lingers from this movie for me is Douglas, Douglas, Douglas. Well played sir, and I will hereby shut my mouth on the matter.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #35: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

I had to find a movie that I wanted to watch, that I hadn't seen before, and that my mom would enjoy. So I came up with Definitely, Maybe. It's pretty standard for a romantic comedy, every moment is pretty predictable and the story has a nice tidy ending. Abigail Breslin adds a touch of interest in this movie by taking the story out of the simple "boy meets girl" premise. She plays Ryan Reynolds' daughter, curious about the way he met her mother and unhappy because they're about to get divorced. Reynolds cooks up the idea to tell her the story of all three relationships he's had in his life, giving each woman a new name and making Breslin guess who her mother is. It's an interesting idea, and the one that gave me the vaguest desire to see the film. Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher are far more charismatic than Elizabeth Banks, and provide most of the more amusing parts of the film. Overall it's nothing special, the acting is fine, the story is fine - it's a nice movie to watch if you're in the right mood.

To go: 321 days, 330 films.

Friday, February 12, 2010

tm Does the QT 20 Part 17: Memories of a Murder

Memories of Murder (aka Salinui chueok; dir. Joon-ho Bong - 2003)

Despite the Hallmark/gotta be a rom-com, title, this is a very good movie.

Taking place in small-town South Korea, there’s a serial killer loose. The local cops are unable to solve it and public pressure is mounting; they are generally more inclined to force/beat confessions out of suspects so early confessions turn out to be deadends. A cop from Seoul arrives to help with the case; he’s not a fan of the rough justice of his new partners and they’re unhappy being saddled with an outsider.

The dichotomies are there – good cop/bad cop, city cop/country cop, solving the case by pounding the pavement or using your head, etc. but the movie never polarizes the characters. The main cops are nuanced and neither one is being set up as a straw man for the audience’s sympathies.

This director also did The Host and shares many actors with that movie. Memories has some genuinely chilling scenes but not sensationalized. It doesn’t answer all the questions that it poses about the characters, motivations, etc. but those that it does, it lets them unfold.

tm sez: 8/10

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #34: What a Girl Wants (2003)

Sometimes people make bad decisions. This was one of mine. My sole explanation is that I was really bored, it was on TV and I have a soft spot for Colin Firth. There really isn't much to say about the film. It's for tweens and little girls who want to discover that they're actually rich little girls who have huge houses in England with pretty rooms and who get to wear fancy hats and meet the queen. I must admit, the idea is quite appealing. Well, in this terrific movie she has all this presented to her and decides all she really wants is to be a normal girl again, with a normal boyfriend and a normal family. It's a very black and white tale, and Amanda Bynes is kind of annoying.

New to the Store: Week of 9 February, 2010

Alone in the Dark II
Boobs: An American Obsession
Broken Glass
Cold Souls
Couples Retreat (also BluRay)
Escapist, The
Forbidden Hollywood v.1 (Baby Face / Read Headed Woman / Waterloo Bridge)
Hunger (Criterion) (also BluRay)
I Can't Think Straight
I Hate Valentine's Day
MI-5: volume 7
Mr. Right
New York, I Love You
Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning (also BluRay)
Serious Man, A (also BluRay)
Serious Moonlight
Stepfather, The (2009)
Syndromes and a Century
Time Traveler's Wife, The (also BluRay)
Universal Soldier: Regeneration

Wendy's Films of 2010 #33: Wild About Harry (2000)

Aww, I love Brendan Gleeson. I think he may have been the perfect choice to star in this Irish film about a middle-aged man who suffers a coma and memory loss just before getting divorced from his wife. As such, all the horrible things he did (namely cheating too many times to count and being quite a good alcoholic) are erased from his memory and he's back to who he was at 18. Gleeson does a great job of making this transition in age believable and endearing, while attempting to grow into the fairly big shoes he's made for himself as a celebrity chef and man whore. Most of the movie is spent with Gleeson trying to win back the heart and trust of his teenage sweetheart (now wife, and soon to be divorcée) and children. The film as a whole is unassuming and modest, and though it's no masterpiece it's what I'd call a "nice" movie - something your mother would probably enjoy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mike The Boss - Films of 2010 - Film the Fourteenth: Masters of Horror: Right To Die

Right To Die (2006) (dir: Rob Schmidt)

Moving right along with the Masters of Horror series, I watched Rob Schimdt's Right to Die. If you've never heard of Schmidt, it is because he has one real film to his name, Wrong Turn, and that film isn't really all that great. I guess they needed someone to fill the director's chair and he was all that was left. Right to Die features the overacting of Martin Donovan, as the husband of a woman who has had all of her skin removed due to a horrible car accident and fire they were in. Whenever she dies, she appears as a fleshless apparition and does terrible thing to people around him.

The story is not that great in this one either although I do enjoy the play on words in the title. Donovan is seeking to have his wife taken off of life support but in reality, it would only be correct for her to die given the nature of her wounds. Tthe weak story and bad acting is mollified by copious gore effects and plenty of nudity and sex. So while the plot may not be great, you will still be kept entertained if those things are what you are into. I did like the ending as well but it still felt like it took a little too long to get there. Anyway, not a complete dud but nothing special here.

Mike the Boss - Films of 2010 - Film the Thirteenth: Masters of Horror: Sounds Like...

Masters of Horror: Sounds Like... (2006) (dir: Brad Anderson)

Another in the Masters of Horror collection, this one is directed by Brad Anderson who did the delightfully scary Session 9 and cringe-inducing The Machinist. It deals with the manager of a call centre whose hearing becomes hyper-sensitive to the point where it is driving him crazy. This episode has an decent back story but I'm not sure it really does the job of a horror film. Sure there is the psychological aspect of his condition and what it causes him to do but I just didn't feel the tension that might have been there if they hadn't kept the story so simple. I think this is more of a failing of the concept of the Masters of Horror series than anything else. The constraint required to keep things within the 50 minute limit means that the director cannot always go where he needs to. Anyway, Sounds Like... is not great but it is still a decent diversion for an hour if you need one.

Mike The Boss - Films of 2010 - Film the Twelfth: Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution

Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution (2006) (dir: Joe Dante)

Since we are supposed to be watching a movie a day I have naturally gravitated towards the shorter movies since I can fit 1 or 2 in much more easily that way. I had not watched any of the Masters of Horror collection expect for the one by Takashi Miike which is acknowledged to be one of the best and was actually banned from US television.

The Masters of Horror collection was the brain child of Mick Garris and ran on the Starz cable channel in the USA. The concept was to get directors, who have made great horror films in the past, to do 50 minute TV movies a la Twilight Zone. Since it was to be on a cable channel, nudity and gore could feature prominently. The idea sounds like a good one but the constraints on the series (length, money, actors) resulted in an underwhelming collection of movies. However, if you are able to twist things around in your head to realize that these aren't really movies, they are episodic television shows, then they begin to shine a little brighter. None of them are great but there are quite a few that are fun. And since most of the DVDs only feature 1 episode on it, they are only half price to rent and definitely worth your time at that price.

I started with The Screwfly Solution, directed by Joe Dante, mostly because I know Dante has a good sense of humour and has been underused in Hollywood these days. I'm glad I did because Joe does a fine job of taking decent short story and working in some fine killing and a bit of sex to boot. It is based on a 1977 short story by Raccoona Sheldon who is also Alice Sheldon who wrote under the name of James Tiptree Jr. since sci-fi readers seem to have an aversion to female authors. If you don't know the story of the Screwfly, it is an annoying pest in South America that lays its eggs in human hosts which then begin to eat the living flesh while they grow. They were controlled by breeding sterile males and then releasing them in the wild to compete with the fertile males thus reducing the population.

Sheldon took this concept and applied a variation to humanity so that men become increasingly violent towards women as a result of this plague. Dante uses the obvious male violence theme to great effect having even the most well-meaning individuals hurt the ones they love the most. It is a well put together story with a bit of cheesy special effects for the grand finale but still an above average television production. Dante still has what it takes to shock us but knows full well that a bit of humour is always appreciated with our horror.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

DVD MIA #2: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

By decree of the boss man, movies/DVDs only count towards the great 2010 viewing tally contest if Gen X carries the film for rental. For my extracurricular viewing, I've created DVD MIA, a series covering movies not available on DVD in North America.

US, 1956. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer.

Fritz Lang's last American film, and it's a solid one. Thriller fans may find it routine, in spite of a satisfying twist that maybe isn't the one most viewers will expect. Lang's concern here isn't with crafting suspense but with exploring degrees of culpability among his characters. Proof positive of the film's lack of suspense movie oomph is that the recent Michael Douglas remake seems to have screwed around the plot to the point where it barely resembles the original's.

One thing the two have in common is the central gimmick - a writer of integrity (here it's Dana Andrews) sets up an elaborate plot to frame himself for a murder in order to prove a point. He's given the idea by newspaper publisher Sidney Blackmer, whose daughter (Joan Fontaine) is his fiancee. Blackmer fiercely attacks capital punishment in the pages of his daily, with frequent verbal blows directed at the pro-C.P. district attorney. By planting evidence and secretly, scupulously documenting Andrews' actual innocence, the pair hope to get Andrews sent to death row, to be saved at the last moment by the exculpatory documentation. I'll bet you've never seen a movie before if you haven't already guessed that something is going to throw a wrench into their plan, and it wasn't the wrench I was expecting.

Lang is clearly happy as a pig in filth with how many avenues this scenario opens up to explore his obsession with human guilt. Blackmer and Andrews may have noble motives in their plan, but is it noble to hijack - maybe permanently - the investigation of a lonely stripper's murder in order to make their point? What kind of sexist, patriarchal monsters do they have to be to mess so much with the emotions of Fontaine, the woman they have in common? How about the police detective who once romanced Fontaine, what are his motives for steering the case in the directions he does, to the point of contradicting himself in two back-to-back sentences in the climactic scenes? And what of the murder victim, never spoken of positively by a single witness, in contrast to the relatively noble motives of one particular lawbreaker? Not to mention all of the other gray areas I won't bring up so that I don't ruin the plot.

The film is very low budget, and looks it, so one will often search in vain for the striking Lang visuals established from the very beginning of his career. For fans of ambiguity and thought in mainstream genre cinema, however, there's plenty to chew on here.

Wendy's FIlms of 2010 #32: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

I honestly thought I'd seen this before! And I must admit I'm a little ashamed that I hadn't seen it all the way through - the ending if fantastic. It does, however, give me the occasion to write this review, which is nice. It's the tale of a the young man that watches as mysterious killings start to occur after Dr. Caligari's Somnambulist at the town fair predicts one man's death. Of course I can't mention the film without putting it in the context of German Expressionism, a movement that saw intense shadows, angular shapes and high contrast between light and dark in the lighting and makeup of its cinema. It was the forbearer of Film Noir, and its impact on this film makes the story even more dark, twisted and sinister. The film is much better than I remember it being, perhaps because I'd just started studying film the first time I saw it and wasn't as appreciative of silent cinema as I am now. The quality of the film was enhanced by my good fortune to see it with a live orchestral group called Melodeon in a church with amazing acoustics. The score by Andrew Downing, a member of the group, was fantastic and made every menacing moment even more forbidding. It is a must see for any film student, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to step outside the box and see something quite different from what they've had the opportunity to watch before.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #31: I Love You, Man (2009)

My crush on Paul Rudd began in the mid nineties when I saw Clueless for the first time. Since then there have been ups (Anchorman) and downs (Anchorman), but his boyish grin and offbeat style of comedy have always swept me off my derrière. I must say I laughed my ass off with I Love You, Man; I didn't expect to, but sitting alone in my house with a bowl of pasta and Paul Rudd proved to be a fantastic afternoon delight. Rudd plays a guy who's never really had any guy friends and needs to find a best man; after a series of man dates he meets up with Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother). With the face like a puppy and the mouth of a sailor, Segel charms his way into your heart by pulling stunts that might put any other guy in the dog house. I rather enjoy this form of comedy; it's awkward without being uncomfortable and the chemistry between Rudd and Segel made this a bona fide epic bromance.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #19: Night Nurse

US, 1931. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable.

The thing I love about these pre-Hays Code talkies is how reliably bonkers the best of them are. It's almost as if the restictions on sex, violence and conduct that Hollywood imposed upon itself post-1934 also included a narrative control clause as well. Night Nurse is featured on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, volume 2, along with four other peculiar relics from this oddball period.

The film doesn't start promisingly, though 30s audiences hadn't been E.R.ed and St. Elsewhered to death, so maybe the life of two nurses in training (Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell) at a big city hospital would have been more fascinating then. For a modern audience, the first half hour is mostly carried by the charm of the two ladies and Wellman's need to show them dressing and undressing every few minutes.

The fun really begins when the girls become full-fledge nurses and get a placement, taking care of two angelic little girls whose slow descent towards death doesn't seem to bother their alcoholic floozy of a mother. And why does surly chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) refuse to allow the nurses to seek outside help? The tone is full tilt Victorian-tragedy-meets-Reefer Madness as Stanwyck fights furiously to save the youngsters while Mom holds debauched parties with free-flowing liquor a few rooms away.

Luckily, Stanwyck has an ace up her sleeve: a prohibition-bustin' bootlegging potential boyfriend with mob connections. The final scene, which combines the cute couple finally coming together while casually discussing the violent death of one of the other characters, is delightful, especially the grim punchline.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #30: The Young Victoria (2009)

Watching films like this brings me back to my most vulnerable state. I have always had a weak spot for period pieces, especially those relatively cheerful romances that combine the most irresistible, devastatingly affectionate couples with gorgeous costumes and intriguing stories. Nearly very shot was like stepping into the most beautiful, luxurious imaginings of my childhood. As a girl I would drape our old yellow afghan around myself, its tassels dancing as I would twirl and pretend to be some exotic duchess or queen. The costumes in this film managed to express my most fantastic daydreams, with a plethora of expensive jewels, lace, stunning colours and fabrics. They were simply breathtaking, and I'll be stunned if Sandy Powell doesn't win another Oscar for her efforts, though Coco could potentially steal away the prize.

I loved Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria; her tone of voice and manner of being seem to lend themselves to a young woman attempting to lead a country while still unsure of herself. She skillfully balances the insecurity of a young woman and assertiveness of a girl brought up to be the queen of a patriarchal society. Rupert Friend performs his role as Victoria's unaffected suitor and husband Prince Albert with subtlety and quiet passion. Their love was not just fabricated for cinema, but a historical truth; according to Mike the Boss, several of the letters they wrote in the film came directly from the correspondence the two shared.

The film's focus lies heavily on romance, but does notice other issues and significant historical advances of the time. It is a member of a genre which seems to have been dubbed queen or crownsploitation (I prefer the later, it has a nice ring to it), and I enjoy the way it sheds new light on a Queen often thought of as a hefty, middle-aged force to be reckoned with.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

tm Does the QT 20 Part 16: Lost in Translation

Lost In Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola – 2003)

We start off with Charlotte (Scarlett), who’s in Tokyo with her husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer (allegedly based on director Spike Jonze, Sofia’s ex-husband as of 2003). He’s gone most of time, photographing a band, so Charlotte kicks around the hotel and the city, eventually bumping into fellow lonely-soul Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a past-his-prime actor who’s there to shoot a whiskey ad. He’s married but clearly not into it and hitting a life crisis pretty much head-on. So, Charlotte and Bob hang out and kick around – eat some food, sing some karaoke, etc. They form a quick friendship – they go through some up’s and down’s but clearly they’re both enjoying the attention of the other; both are in a questioning state of their lives, though clearly coming at it from different viewpoints.

The movie had the buzz around it when it came – mostly focusing on Sofia (she is a Coppola, after all) and the allegedly glorious return of Bill Murray. Sofia’s next movie was Maria Antoinette which disappointed and since then Bill’s done some crazy things, like drive a golf cart after having some major doobage and storming out of the Oscar ceremony when he didn’t win Best Lead Actor (losing out to Sean Penn for Mystic River – hard to argue with that decision). Sofia did win for Best Original Screenplay but lost on Best Picture and Best Director in the Lord of the Rings /Return of the King cataclysm. The ‘making of’ bonus features on the disc are all about Sofia and Bill, too – Bill doing silly things, Bill learning some wacky words in Japanese, etc. while you Scarlett for about 30 seconds. Strange, as Scarlett probably got the biggest bump out of it, boosting her profile after generating some buzz in Ghost World (2001) and now has gone on to be Woody Allen’s new muse.

A movie where not much happens, it still unfolds gracefully and deliberately, telling what little it tells patiently and well.

tm sez: 7/10

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #6: Witchfinder General (1968)

A gem of a film based loosely on the life of the Witchfinder General, one Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer turned witch-hunter during the tumultuous upheaval of Cromwell's revolution. Hopkins roved from village to village exploiting the superstitious for good coin by inflicting cruel witch-finding tests upon anyone suspected of being a witch. So basically anyone kind of weird. Or anyone people just didn't like.

In the role of Hopkins is the inimitable Vincent Price. Now, this film gave him his 75th role, and by this point Price had understandably been coasting through his horror roles like a sleeping Cthulu through the epochs, but two things now awakened him:

1. The shock of having a director like Michael Reeves, who had wanted Donald Pleasence in the role and was furious over the studio's insistence on Price. Reeves refused to speak directly to him the first day, and when Price fell from his horse, reportedly didn't even check to see if the man was alright.

2. The level of the crew's competency was something Price hadn't expected. Everyone on set was dead-serious about making a good film, and the majority of the cast seemed to be delivering the kind of performances he could actually work with.

These two things sobered Price, and later, he conceded that his own performance in the film was probably the best of his horror career. His Witchfinder General possesses a quiet belligerence made more menacing by an aloof, emotional disconnection. That disconnection doesn't seem lazy, though. It seems carefully set, and most of it comes off through his enigmatic stares.

The level of torture and violence that initially got this film banned in places, by today's standards, manages to be bloody without being gory, and fiercely uncomfortable instead of indulgent. The watershed Bonnie and Clyde was released just a year earlier, and the kind of screen violence that was emerging held a new potency. Witchfinder General could actually be considered England's Bonnie and Clyde, as both pushed the boundaries and ended off on a violent down-note. Reeves ended WG with an improvised and unnerving final sequence that will ring in my memory for some time.

So: A fluid and stylish revenge tale with Price back in action. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #18: Point Blank

US, 1967. Directed by John Boorman. Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor, John Vernon.

So they sez "Have you seen Avatar yet?" they sez.

"No," I reply, "I can't do it."

They stare blankly back at me, and I scan their eyes for any sense that they understand where I'm coming from but they just need some clarification, but it's not there. Damn it, I have to go back into it again.

"I can't..." I sputter, trying to say as much with as few words as possible, "It's just... James Cameron... those shitty screenplays with the cardboard cutouts standing in for... not even for characters, but for types... child in danger... tough woman... cold-hearted capitalist/scientist/evil du jour... the ham-fisted way he says everything... Even the movies of his that I like I can never actually embrace..."

"Yeah, the script is incredibly bad," they say, and I wait for the word. I know it's coming. I watch their lips purse as if in slow motion. If it was a hitman coming for me I could crouch into a position and take him out, unawares, that's how sure I am that it's coming at me... here it is....


It can't end well. They want me to give in, and I know I never will. I feel so very, very tired. I have fought this fight dozens of times and it always ends the same way. It's usually someone I like, too, so I can't get too uppity about it because I know they mean well and I know that the movie really excited them and after a while they forgot the whole digital planet was pretend and got immersed in the experience and I don't begrudge them that. It doesn't make me better than them or vice versa and I could say it all looks like a video game but I know that no video game actually looks that good but it's as close as I can get to explaining my disconnect, and I just don't want to go into it again.

I mutter something non-commital and completely incoherent. "That's awesome that you liked it so much" and I will wonder for the next half hour or so if that sounded really condescending and what an asshole I must have come off as. But I cannot say "maybe I will see it" even if that is indisputably true - that I may. Anything's possible. But I will not. And now I am tired.

I haven't seen Point Blank in 10 years or so, but last year I read all but one book in Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake's Parker series (everything except "Plunder Squad" - if you can loan it to me I'll be your friend forever; if you give me a copy I will maybe even see Avatar in exchange). Point Blank is loosely based on "The Hunter", the first in the series. It's on in HD. No better time to revisit it, I should say.

"The Hunter" is irrelevant to my enjoyment... no, my immersion in Point Blank. If fidelity to source material mattered one whit to me, I would be infuriated by the film, its relocation to the west coast, re-naming the lead character, the addition and removal of characters, the re-jigging of the back story, the restructuring of the plot. I could give a rat's ass. "The Hunter" is "The Hunter" and it is fantastic. Point Blank is Point Blank and it is transcendent.

Lee Marvin is the rechristened "Walker", career criminal, seeking revenge on the people who betrayed him and seeking the money he is owed from the job he was working when double-crossed. Lee Marvin is an actor who gives little if your preference is for performances that win Academy Awards. But he gives way more than any grandstanding soliloquy ever could, the way he moves, the unpredictable way he reacts. John Boorman knew this, and right after he made Point Blank with Lee Marvin, he made Hell in the Pacific with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as American and Japanese WWII soldiers stranded on an island together, and most of the film is without dialogue, just watching the way these two guys who don't understand each other interact.

Boorman made lots of great movies, but none is greater than Point Blank, his second. Point Blank has images that live inside you long after you've seen it and even if you have forgotten their context. Lee Marvin emptying his revolver into an empty bed that he thinks his enemy is sleeping in. We see it a couple of times, most rivetingly in slow motion, partially because Boorman knows how much there is to digest in this deceptively simple shot of a man's body recoiling from the immense force he has unleashed. This shot is a permanent part of my brain, and it took one camera, one man, one gun. Fait accompli. But a different eye behind the camera, a different man, even with the same gun; not the same thing at all.

Later in the film Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin are checking out a hotel from a distance. Angie stands in the foreground, with the hotel behind her. John Boorman cuts to a reverse shot, with Lee Marvin isolated in one corner of the widescreen frame with the ocean behind him and my breath is taken away. The scene is a matter of routine investigation in script terms, even in a good script like Point Blank. But the imagery is otherwordly in its perfection, its evocation. A man and the sea and the camera. Sensual. Deep. Limitless. And I wouldn't trade it for anything any computer has done in any movie, anywhere, ever. I couldn't.

tm Does the QT 20 Part 15: J.S.A. (Joint Security Area)

Joint Security Area (aka Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA; dir. Chan-wook Park – 2000)

Another Korean movie with an ensemble cast, featuring Kang-ho Song (here for the third time - soon to be seen in the QT 20 as the slacker father in The Host and the rural detective in Memories of a Murder).

The movie deals with the fallout from an armed confrontation between North and South Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone between the two countries, leaving two North Koreans dead, a third wounded as well as one of the South Koreans. A Swiss/Korean woman leads the investigation, interviews the survivors and tries to piece together what really happened. The movie unfolds via flashbacks and there are allegations about the investigator’s impartiality.
The female playing the investigator is a bit one-dimensional but the four actors playing the Korean soldiers are very good and the interaction between them unfolds naturally.

Like Memories of a Murder, this movie is well done and was a pleasant surprise.

tm sez: 7/10

Alert: Scads of Criterion discs going out of print!

At the end of March, a truckload of Criterion Collection titles (including some only recently released) will be going out of print, destined to sell for ridiculous prices on eBay. If you want to snap up some of these titles before it's too late, we can order them in for you, but the sooner the better. The titles on the chopping block:

Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy (Eclipse Series 6)
Le corbeau
Coup de torchon
Diary of a Country Priest
The Fallen Idol
Forbidden Games (Criterion and Essential Art House editions)
Gervaise (Essential Art House edition)
Grand Illusion (Criterion and Essential Art House editions)
Le jour se lève (Essential Art House edition)
Last Holiday (Essential Art House edition)
Mayerling (Essential Art House edition)
The Orphic Trilogy
Peeping Tom
Pierrot le fou (DVD and Blu-ray editions)
Port of Shadows
Quai des Orfèvres
The Small Back Room
The Tales of Hoffmann (Criterion and Essential Art House editions)
Le trou
Variety Lights (Essential Art House edition)
The White Sheik

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #29: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

I was slightly perplexed by this movie. It seemed to have all the components of a great film; one to inspire hope, to effect change, to shove people out of their comfort zone. But somehow I didn't feel incredibly drawn into its story. I felt like time was crawling and halfway through thought it was almost over. Just when things start to go right for Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), they go wrong again. It felt relentless to the point of losing purpose. Sure I cried, I felt angry; I was happy that she had such strength and optimism, but I didn't walk out with that feeling of having watched a really great piece of cinema.

I found out that the film was nominated for several Oscars just hours before seeing it and felt confident that the performances of Sidibe and Mo'Nique would be powerful, and they were. Sidibe is instantly likable, and I immediately sympathized with her character's awful state of being. There were other aspects of the film that I really liked, especially the fantasies Precious experiences in times of particular hardship. I was pleasantly surprised at the inclusion of a central character's same-sex relationship, and was glad that all the problems weren't neatly tied together. I really wanted to love this film, but unfortunately it seemed to lack something, or perhaps it had to much.

Chris 2010 Viewings #17: Mogambo

US, 1953. Directed by John Ford. Starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly.

Manly man Clark Gable lives at an outpost in Africa, capturing big game for circuses, zoos, and the like. He also takes high-paying folk on safari. His only companions are some natives, a roly-poly Brit and a drunk Russian, who defied my expectations and at no point in the film gets anyone killed due to negligence or shiftiness. Into Gable's orderly life of macho comes vexy Ava Gardner, with whom he spars verbally and then gets it on. Soon uptight British anthropologist Donald Sinden and his uptight British wife Grace Kelly show up and Gable becomes convinced that Kelly is the one for him, and she gets the same feeling.

Gardner is upset and gets snippy with everyone, rendering her likeable character annoying for a full hour or so of the running time. Gable and Kelly go for walks when hubby isn't around and hold on to each other and wonder what they should do. They all go on safari, to observe and maybe capture some deadly gorillas. Will hubby get killed by a gorilla, thus removing the one obstacle to their great and wonderful love? Will Kelly and Gardner get into a catfight? Will the drunk Russian get someone killed by accident? (No, I told you that already.)

There is a lot of beautiful colour location shooting in this film, some good suspense, and reasonably entertaining melodramatics. The major cog in the wheel is that Gable and Kelly have no onscreen chemistry whatsoever (in spite of their offscreen affair), while Gable and Gardner have it by the bucketload, rendering the whole passionate Gable/Kelly love dilemma fairly ridiculous. Other than that the only thing really wrong here is that I spent the entire movie waiting for the Russian to get someone killed and it never happened.