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Sep. 30th, 2012

LotR gondor no shirt

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A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda
1988

Director: Charles Crichton (and an uncredited John Cleese) 

Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin

I am sitting here, literally giggling to myself, as I watch the opening credits of A Fish Called Wanda for the hundred billionth time. I’m giggling in anticipation of all the awesome jokes and scenes and comic genius I’m about to see.

Yeah, I’m kind of a fan of this film. Just a wee bit.

The plot focuses on a gang of jewel thieves and opens with their diamond heist. The gang consists of Wanda (Curtis), who is romantically involved with gang leader George; Otto (Kline), a pseudo-intellectual posing as Wanda’s brother while sleeping with her on the side; and Ken (Palin), a stuttering animal rights activist who seems far too kind to be in a gang at all. When Wanda and Otto double cross George without his knowledge, barrister Archie Leach (Cleese, and yes, let’s all laugh at the Cary Grant reference) takes on George’s defense case. Convoluted story short, Wanda must cuddle up to Archie in order to get information on where George stashed the diamonds before leaving the country, all while keeping George in the dark and slightly insane and overly aggressive Otto at bay.

Explaining why a movie is funny is extremely difficult for me. It’s relatively easy to explain why a drama is gripping, but explaining why something really strikes my funny bone is so hard, especially a movie like this one where I laugh and snort and giggle in pretty much every scene. As Movie Guy Steve put it (holla at ya, boy!), you don’t want to resort to listing off all your favorite gags. Okay, Steve, I accept your challenge. I will try really hard not to simply list my favorite bits in this flick.

This is John Cleese’s movie. He came up with the idea, wrote it, starred in it, and apparently had a large hand in directing it as well. Being a fan of Monty Python, I can see Cleese using that same comic sensibility here. Nearly all characters in the film are absurdities. There is Wanda, who despite being a powerful femme fatale, also has a ridiculous crippling sexual weakness for any foreign language. There is Ken, whose love of animals gets ludicrously in the way of his life of crime. And finally, there’s Otto, a walking talking ridiculous cartoon who throws knives, swears loudly at the British, misquotes Nietzsche, and completely loses his temper when anyone dares to call him “stupid.” But while all the characters in Monty Python were absurd to the point of surreal, there exists in A Fish Called Wanda the faint possibility that its characters could exist. It’s a long shot, but there might be a Wanda in the world somewhere. The fact that the absurdity is somewhat dialed down from total and complete lunacy helps to give the film a far more focused feel than anything Python ever did. All the typical crazy gags are there in the outlandish situations, characters, and lines, but it’s all in service of the plot.


The major theme of the film, and a source of tremendous humor, is the fundamental cultural differences between Americans and Brits. Archie Leach, the least absurd character in the movie, is also painfully British to the point of being stagnated, and a very clear representation of perceived British emotional repression. Archie talks about the pain of being constantly embarrassed by anything; that line always reminds me of the time I spent a week and a half staying with a British host family outside London. The mother was constantly apologizing to me for everything; I kept trying to tell her it was fine, I was offended by nothing, but she was embarrassed nonetheless. Otto, and to a lesser extent Wanda, represent so many typical American stereotypes, most of them negative. Otto is too vulgar, too crass, too stupid, too insensitive, and far too aggressive. Wanda is overtly sexualized and loyal to no one, opportunistic to the last. So many of the comic situations in the film pit Otto against Archie, America versus Britain, and we get oh so many laughs from their matchups.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline turn in outstanding performances. From what I can tell of her filmography, Curtis had never done a role quite like this one before. She’s so powerful and so sexy – man is she sexy in this – and yet so funny as well. For his part, Kevin Kline completely deserved his Oscar for his role as Otto. He is so crazy and funny and scary and ludicrous, all at once. I will resort to one mention of a favorite bit of mine (thus failing Steve’s challenge): the subplot where Otto pretends to be romantically interested in Ken. Otto screaming at Ken while he’s walking away, shouting “Hands off, he’s mine!” slays me. As does the scene in the hallway where Otto says “You’re smart, you’ve got wonderful bones, great eyes, and you dress really interestingly.” I really don’t know entirely why, but I get conniptions every time Kline delivers that line. Absolute comic genius.

When I first saw A Fish Called Wanda, I was but a wee little Siobhan and I did not appreciate it at all. But I came back to it years later, and laughed so hard, I could hardly believe it. Then I saw it again and laughed even harder. It keeps getting funnier. I keep finding new things that make me laugh, little touches that I never noticed before. This is absolutely one of my favorite comedies ever.  I never, EVER, get tired of this movie.  I will undoubtedly see it another billion times or so.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.

Sep. 23rd, 2012

LotR gondor no shirt

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Yi Yi





Yi Yi (A One and a Two…)
2000
Director: Edward Yang
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang

Yi Yi focuses on the life of a Taiwanese family living in Taipei in 1999. The father NJ (Wu) has two children, a teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Lee) and a young son Yang-Yang (Chang). Around them swirls the extended family and neighborhood: a broke and bumbling brother-in-law and his young pregnant wife, the grandmother who starts the film by falling into a coma, and the apartment neighbors who argue loudly and often. The movie takes place over the course of about one year as we watch this family go through the typical trials and tribulations of life.

In a film as rambling as this, filled with many small moments but no overall narrative direction, it practically invites the viewer to interpolate their own meaning. For me, throughout nearly all the vignettes, I got the feeling of the sorrow of banality. Is life really meant to be simply a series of repeated days, one exactly like the other? The mother’s speech when she is in the throes of an existential crisis nicely sums up this particular point. There is so much of the mundane in this film; the father’s work seems utterly boring and life-draining, as does the mother’s. The wedding that opens the film seems less a celebration and more a strange party at which drunkards, fools, and bullies waste their time. I don’t see Yang as delineating the joy of the little things, but more the pathos of them.



Having said all of that, I also think that Yang offers us the solutions to this sad existentialism. One is a fairly standard cinematic solution: love. When the father starts to reconnect with his old high school girlfriend, we can see his soul begin to awaken again. When the daughter has her first experience with love, there is excitement and the sense of breaking from the soul-crushing day-to-day norms. Even the young son feels the stirring of that wonder. On the other hand, Yang also warns us of the dangers of love, played out in several storylines. The next door neighbor cannot seem to keep a man longer than a few weeks, and her teenage daughter appears to be following in her mother’s footsteps. The brother-in-law married a woman he shouldn’t have, while his real soulmate is forced to watch from the sidelines. Love is a wonderful thing, Yang says, but it’s also rather terrible.

The other solution Yang gives us is to this problem is one not as often explored in films: music. Many characters engage in music throughout the movie. The next door neighbor’s daughter is a brilliant cellist. The daughter plays the piano. The father listens to his Discman. Many characters go through CDs to pick out a tune to listen to. Even the English title of the film has musical meaning. Music is an escape for the soul, a way of expressing the most ineffable ideas. As a musician, I completely understand this idea. Something happens when I listen to Beethoven: I am transported. But Yang also throws in some pessimism about music for good measure. Society does not always understand the value of such a thing. As the father says, if you cannot put a price on it, what good is it to a business man? The next door neighbor tells the daughter that it’s better to be good at books than good at music. Yang disagrees with this, but he also knows that society as a whole is more apt to side with this particular belief.


So much of this film is shot from far away. There are so few close-ups. I really got the sense of being an outside observer of these people and their lives. We can hear them just fine; Yang lets us into their conversations, but purposely keeps us from seeing their faces time and time again, as if he doesn’t want us to see the emotion in their eyes. As if he wants to keep something from us. Body language, therefore, takes on huge meaning in this film, as it’s often the only clue we get as to the context of a speech. Similarly, we see so many scenes unfold not actually before us, but through reflections. Reflections from glass windows or doors, or shiny elevator surfaces. In some scenes, we see a character approach, only to realize at the last minute that we were actually seeing their reflection. It’s as if we can only see a shadow of these people, a glimpse, and not their whole selves, a thought echoed by the young son’s speech about only ever knowing half of the truth.

The setting of the film makes the profound philosophy behind it accessible. It takes place in 1999 Taiwan, and boy, is it ever stuck in 1999. There are Discmans and CDs and old cell phones and old fashions. It seems fitting, though, that it is tied to a particular time. And the place is most definitely Taiwan, an amalgamation of many cultures all coming together in a modern way. The father and son eat lunch at McDonald’s, the daughter goes to New York Bagels with a friend, there are Dove bath products next to the tub, and a large Batman and Robin poster is tacked onto the son’s wall. These charming touches are colorful and a little humorous, and provide a heaping dose of levity to the story.

Ultimately, Yi Yi is very much in the tradition of “snapshot of daily life” films. We are granted entry into this modern day Taiwanese family, not over the course of generations, but a single year or so. Things happen, hopes and dreams are born and crushed. Throughout all of it, Yang is inviting us to take what we will from the rambling little story. Personally, I take quite a bit.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10.

Sep. 2nd, 2012

Cary Grant Ingrid Bergman Notorious tran

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The Wicker Man

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The Wicker Man
1973
Director: Robin Hardy
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento

Horror is a very personal genre. What scares one person doesn’t affect someone else in the slightest. Like comedy, it’s impossible to make a scary movie that can get under everyone’s skin. While The Wicker Man is not a horror movie through and through, it certainly has certain classic horror elements, and although tame by today’s bloodbath torture porn, it still has the ability to be creepy. I can see why some would find it ridiculous, but personally, I find The Wicker Man disturbing.

More a mystery, perhaps, than a horror film, the story focuses on Scottish cop Sergeant Howie (Woodward) who goes to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of the young girl Rowan Morrison. When he gets there, though, all the locals deny ever knowing Rowan, let alone being able to help him in his investigation. Moreover, the longer he’s on the island, the more he’s exposed to, and offended by, the free love pagan rituals that start to show up. Howie, a devoted Christian, clashes with Lord Summerisle (Lee) and the local schoolteacher (Cilento) over “proper practices” for worship and education.

Most of the film focuses on this clash between Christianity and paganism. The paganism is not always overt, and director Hardy slowly uncovers it. When Sergeant Howie arrives, he is not greeted at the dock by flower-wreathed hippies, but by regular classic salty old Scotsmen. But a few things seem off – their denial of knowing Rowan, for one thing. He goes to the sweets shop, where we have candies and chocolates of perhaps too many woodland animals and a disturbing image called the Green Man. At the local pub, the locals suddenly break out in a graphic song about having sex with the landlord’s daughter. By the time we see naked young women leaping over an open fire, there is no doubt that these people celebrate pagan rituals, but the movie takes its time in establishing that.

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It’s important that Howie is as devotedly Christian as he is. A virgin himself, he is completely shocked and horrified by the rituals he uncovers on the island. He does not have the capacity to understand what he is seeing, thus providing the tension of most of the film. If he were accepting, we wouldn’t have a movie. But instead, he is outraged, which lends the film the sinister nature that is so important to its mood. The natives on Summerisle are happy. That’s nice, you might say, to which I reply that they are a little TOO happy. They’re always smiling and dancing and singing and chanting. Because Howie is outraged by what he sees, their incessantly cheerful demeanor starts to become frighteningly sinister and very, very creepy.

This is a movie more about mood and less about plot. The central mystery of what happened to Rowan Morrison is abandoned in entire scenes, focusing instead on the pagan culture of the town. I don’t believe this hurts the film. I don’t mind the narrative thread being dropped every now and then for a spell (ha ha) because the tension between Howie and the rest of the island is actually far more interesting than little Rowan. While more important than a MacGuffin, she’s nonetheless of the same idea. In fact, in one of the final scenes of the film where the central mystery is explained, the whole explanation seems a bit contrived and feels slightly unsatisfying. What IS satisfying is the culmination of the mood of happy terror the film has been cultivating. Narratively speaking, the finale is a little weak, but it succeeds wildly in bringing to a head the uncomfortable clash between Christian Howie and the pagan townspeople. By the final shot of the film, you won’t really care about what happened to Rowan either.

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IMDB categorizes The Wicker Man as “Mystery,” “Horror,” and “Thriller.” I’d agree with that, but for the first hour, it’s only sort of a mystery and not really horror or thriller. In that regard, it’s difficult to categorize. From a horror vantage point, though, I am fascinated with the setting of the film. Having what amounts to a horror film climax taking place in the incredibly idyllic setting of a Scottish island is surprising and, frankly, that’s where the film can milk most of its scares from. We aren’t expecting a horror film in such a travel tourist destination. Heck, Summerisle seems like a fantastic place to visit. And the people are so damn happy! From an American standpoint (because this film is most definitely Scottish in characters and setting), the equivalent would be making a horror movie set in a hippie commune. Everyone is happy and hippy-dippy and in tune with nature and the world around them. It’s very unexpected. Given that this movie was made in 1973 when such hippie culture was still highly visible, I get the feeling that this clash of nature-loving pagans against classical Christian law and order to be symbolic of more than just Sergeant Howie’s story.

SORT OF SPOILERS: I must add the ending of this movie REALLY wigs me out. It horrifies me in a very gut-wrenching way. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It’s not so much what you see that scares me, because we don’t see much, but the very concept of it. Howie’s desperation in his final moments and his song – wailing, more like it – is utterly terrifying to me. In my opinion, this is a movie made by its final ten minutes; it earns its horror tag there, and then some. END OF SORT OF SPOILERS.

The Wicker Man isn’t a film that delivers a thrill a minute, but it delivers the slow burn very well. Throughout the entire film, you’re constantly feeling as though something is wrong, something is off, in spite of all the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces. When it all comes horribly to a head, it’s easy to see why this film made it into the annals of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

That being said, I can also understand how this was remade into a gawdawful Nic Cage D-movie.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10

Aug. 31st, 2012

Rebecca Fontaine and Olivier

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Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter
1945
Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard

When you think David Lean, you think big, exciting, and sweeping. You think Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Bridge on the River Kwai. But for me, Brief Encounter, so very different from Lean’s later work, is passionate and evocative enough to easily rank it among Lean’s best despite of – or perhaps because of – its much more modest focus.

We meet Laura Jesson (Johnson) when she seems to be having a difficult day. She is upset and anxious as she travels home from a train station. When she sits in front of her fireplace with her husband Fred, she starts narrating in her head the tale of her recent platonic love affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Howard), which just ended that day. Through flashback, we go back to the beginning of Laura and Alec’s relationship as she recalls meeting him at the train station, and how they continued to meet once a week at or near the train station.

There are a great many things I feel very fondly of in Brief Encounter. I’ll start with the central relationship between Laura and Alec. Both Laura and Alec are married, and contentedly so, with children. Both Laura and Alec are middle-aged; perhaps still on the youngish side, but definitely no spring chickens. Both are leading lives of sedate routine. When they meet, it’s completely innocuous as he takes a piece of dirt out of her eye. When they meet again, though, they happily start to fall in with one another, they enjoy spending time with one another, and suddenly, they realize they are in love.

So much is made of the fact that the relationship between the two is platonic; I believe the two only kiss three times and cuddle a bit. There is an opportunity for more at one point, but both of them are anxious and guilt-ridden about it, so nothing happens. Nearly every single damn review I’ve ever read of Brief Encounter talks about the fact that this is a platonic relationship with a derogatory attitude, often stating that it horribly dates the film because these two lovers don’t bump uglies. What I desperately want to impress here is this restraint between Laura and Alec is one of the things I love most about this movie. I do not think it dates it in the least. I think it is what makes the film shine as a bright, though unusual, jewel.

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I say this because it is precisely their restraint that helps me relate to Laura and Alec even more. I was raised to be moral. I believe strongly in not cheating on whoever one may be in a relationship with. I have been in a few significant relationships in my life, and I can point to one or two instances where I was in a relationship yet felt an intense emotional connection to someone else. It caused me angst. However, I restrained myself and nothing (or, perhaps, the right thing… I’m not telling all my personal secrets here) happened. Needless to say, I never cheated. While Laura and Alec are certainly cheating on their spouses, they also feel horrible about the whole thing, and although they feel that very strong personal connection, they do not take their relationship to a physical level. I love this movie for that reason. Instead of giving me a fantasy romance, Brief Encounter gives me a REAL romance. I know that many cinematic romances would never happen to me; something like Brief Encounter might, although I don’t necessarily want it to. The fact that it’s distinctly within the realm of possibility makes the tale much more beguiling.

So nerts to those who say the restraint dates the film. To me, the restraint is what makes it far more relatable.

While the sexual restraint between Laura and Alec is written into the script from Noel Coward’s play, David Lean manages to take the central relationship and portray it with tremendous soul. This is a movie with a very clear mood, one of melancholic nostalgia. Brief Encounter is rarely a happy film, instead feeling intense, passionate, and angst-ridden. For me, that effect is achieved primarily through the use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as the soundtrack. Rachmaninoff and I have a very intense relationship. In my freshman year of college, I was going through a rough patch, and I would go to the library in between classes, sit in the stalls, and write in a journal while I listened to Beethoven’s symphonies and Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. The sadness and passion and anger of Rachmaninoff spoke to me in a way many other composers (save Beethoven) did not. If ever I feel the need for a little aural soul-searching, I still reach for either Rach or lovely lovely Ludwig van. When Rach’s 2nd is used repeatedly in Brief Encounter, I am aware of it each and every time, and each and every time, it makes me feel the passion and sadness between the two main characters. You want an angsty relationship? Use angsty classical music. Rachmaninoff is nothing if not angsty, but so help me, I adore it.

The performances of Johnson and Howard are wonderful as Laura and Alec. I love that this is a romance between two middle-aged people, and the casting reflects that. Celia Johnson is very pretty, but not gorgeous. She has beautiful wide eyes, but you can see the wrinkles in her forehead and around those limpid eyes. Trevor Howard is handsome, but not a heartthrob. He too shows signs of age. Both are dressed quite normally, not especially smart or slick. These are two terrifically common middle-aged, middle-class folks, and watching Johnson in particular (after all, this is Laura’s story, Laura’s flashback) is heartbreaking and wonderful. This is a very adult romance, in the non-pornographic sense of the word. These are not teenagers falling in love, these are parents. They act like it, and not like silly children.

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The use of Laura’s narration, as she confesses not only her feelings for Alec but also her rather biting true thoughts about her silly friends and her sedate and perhaps dull life, gives us tremendous insight into her life. Perhaps that is, ultimately, the reason for the great fondness I have for this film. Laura admits things, and not just romantic things. She sees someone she does not want to talk to and she hides. She looks at her husband and knows that she loves him, but not in nearly the same way she loves Alec. She admits things that it is hard to admit. Despite the fact that this film is nearly seventy years old, the shockingly honest inner monologue of Laura’s remains unique.

Perhaps by feeling so strongly in favor of this film, I am admitting to being a bit stuffy and stodgy and uptight myself. Perhaps. If I am, then that’s me, and I’m at a point in my life where I am accepting myself for who I am. And I like this film because it’s sadly romantic but in a real world way. If two married people met and fell in love, and they were both sensible, yeah, they’d have emotional angsty problems with the fact of their affair. That is precisely what happens here. That is precisely what one doesn’t see in other movies. Laura’s husband doesn’t conveniently disappear; in point of fact, he significantly closes the film.

I’ve seen this film several times, I know how it ends, but still, the ending managed to bring a tear to my eye. And dammit, that’s a great film.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10 (And remember, if it weren’t for Brief Encounter, we would not have The Apartment.)

Aug. 29th, 2012

J&W Class Bertie

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Black Orpheus

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Black Orpheus
1959
Director: Marcel Camus
Starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira, Lea Garcia

The old stories, the classic stories, simply will not die. They are told time and time again, in different cultures, in different languages. I am always fascinated by how a story of one culture can be reinterpreted and retold, usually with great success, by a completely different culture. Black Orpheus is a great example of this, how a classic story of Greek mythology is reinterpreted in 1950s Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval.

As stated, the film is a retelling of the Orpheus myth. In this case, Orfeu (Mello) is a streetcar operator in Rio, and he meets Eurydice (Dawn) when she rides the trolley car to the end of the line her first day in town. She is there to visit her cousin Serafina (Garcia), but Orfeu is more concerned with marrying his shrill harpy of a fiancée Mira (de Oliveira). Eurydice confesses to Mira that she fears Death is stalking her. Eurydice and Orfeu fall in love over Orfeu’s music, and Orfeu spends most of Carnaval avoiding a jealous Mira. When Death finally claims Eurydice, Orfeu must "descend the depths of the underworld" to find her again.

The first hour of the film does little other than to establish the fact that it is Rio, it is Carnaval, and that Orfeu and Eurydice fall in love in spite of obnoxious Mira. Clearly not terribly concerned with actual plot in this first hour, Camus shows us instead Rio de Janeiro. This section of the film has a distinct feeling of a director showing off his world to us. There are extended dance sequences and parade sequences where nothing happens in the least; instead, we just stand back and observe. There mood in this section is joyful, despite the film lagging a bit. Eurydice’s cousin, the giddy and loud Serafina, is a bundle of scatterbrained energy, but even her foolishness seems to fit within the air of excitement here. The music and the colors all seem to jump off the screen. No wonder Carnaval is such a party! Apparently, despite being one of its most famous film, the country of Brazil doesn’t particularly care for Black Orpheus because it depicts its country as a nonstop party.

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It does look like a fun time.


If it’s the Greek mythology you really want, and not a super glammed up travel video for Rio de Janeiro where even the slums look like a party, tune in for the last half hour. For me, that’s where the film is the most engaging because I am most fascinated by the interpretation of the myth. Although it’s certainly necessary to establish the new world that the myth will take place in, I do think the first hour plus could be condensed with no overall loss of atmosphere. Regardless, the myth section of the film kicks off with Orfeu wearing a little gold gladiator-like costume for Carnaval. In search of Eurydice after her death, he goes to the police precinct building, cold and dead in the middle of the night. The janitor, a stand in for Charon, ferryman of the River Styx, tells Orfeu he must not look for Eurydice in the office building, and takes him instead to a Macumba ritual, mirroring the descent into Hades and passage through the entry gate past a German Shepherd named Cerberus. At the ritual is where we have the classic exchange between Orfeu and Eurydice’s spirit. After it concludes, Orfeu reclaims Eurydice’s body from the morgue and we have our return to “reality.”

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The descent to Hades


What I really like about this particular version of a Greek myth is that it is possible to believe that this story actually happened. Don’t get me wrong, I find the film to be magical and mystical – that’s part of its joy for me – but the film never once forces you to believe something supernatural just occurred. If you want to, you can see the representation of Hades as just a police station, and the Death character who stalks Eurydice is just some wingnut in a skeleton costume. Even the spiritual exchange between Orfeu and Eurydice at the ritual can be “explained away;” with all the sweat and smoke and drugs in there, it’s entirely possible that Orfeu simply imagined he heard Eurydice’s voice. After all, he never sees her.

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Could be death, or just a wingnut.


Personally, though, if you only want to accept the story on a literal level, you are missing most of the fun of the film. Whenever there is any reference to the Orpheus myth, there is a distinct aura of mysticism in the movie. The young children around Orfeu insist that his music has the power to make the sun rise in the sky, and they believe in it so wholeheartedly that yeah, you start to believe a little too. When Eurydice says that Death is stalking her, you don’t think it’s just some wingnut in a skeleton costume. She is the only melancholic person amongst a sea of revelers; it is as if she has foretold her own demise. The scene in the precinct with the janitor is utterly haunting. If Orfeu’s chase of hints of Eurydice, the words of the prophetic janitor-slash-ferryman, the blowing leaves of paper, and the gorgeous descent of the spiral staircase to “Hades” doesn’t leave you with a sense that strange and otherworldly things are happening, well, then, I’m a little sorry for you. This is where Camus’ direction shines; he manages to completely shift the mood from one of crazy partying to one of magic, death, and mysticism.

Ultimately, I wound up wanting more from the mythology and less from Carnaval. We spend so much time in the film on that first hour with many long shots where nothing happens other than people dancing in the streets, it ends up almost rushing through the story part of the Orpheus mythology. I wish the two were inverted, that we had less time spent on set up and more time interpreting the myth for the modern world.

The pulsating rhythm of nonstop bossa nova music, brilliant colors, and an ultimately haunting story full of symbolism make for an entertaining film, and one of which Brazil should be proud, not annoyed. Although I greatly prefer Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) when it comes to cinematic Orpheus myths, Black Orpheus holds its own.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.

Aug. 27th, 2012

James Cagney sidebar

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The Public Enemy

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Public Enemy
1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook

For my money, there are not enough superlatives in the world for James Cagney. We still talk today about screen presence, charisma, charm, these ineffable attributes an actor must possess if they want to become a superstar. It’s no surprise that this, Cagney’s fourth film, has him in the lead role and beguiling us at every turn. It’s a good thing for Public Enemy, though, that it stars Cagney; if it didn’t, it would have precious little going for it.

Tom Powers (Cagney) grows up in the slums of Chicago at the turn of the century. Even as a child, he’s predisposed to being nasty and cruel, all while his brother Mike (Cook) is virtuous and true. Tom grows up to be a gangster, getting hooked up with running booze during prohibition with his best pal Matt Doyle (Woods), while his brother becomes a soldier, going off to war and returning a hero. As Tom’s actions become more violent and ruthless, the ending of the film becomes more and more clear.

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The Public Enemy suffers tremendously from age. It has not lasted well. The straightforward morality play of the film (good brother versus bad brother, gangster versus law) is far too simplistic for today’s standards. The acting of everyone other than Cagney is mediocre. Donald Cook as Tom’s saintly brother is stereotypically thirties cheesy, with him blurting out lines quicker than a tommy gun shoots bullets. There is no soundtrack to the film, so nearly all scenes have an uncomfortable grainy silence in the background; clearly, even four years into the sound technology, all the kinks were not yet worked out. The photography is pretty simplistic, focusing instead on the story. There was a nicely composed sequence where Tom murders someone offscreen and we know it through piano music, and Tom’s downfall in the pouring rain was a nice cinematic touch, but overall, the camera felt static and uninspired. The finale, though somewhat unexpectedly gruesome, is rushed and incomplete; I was left wanting more at the very end. The Public Enemy is a short film, clocking in under an hour and a half, but it still manages to feel a little slow and tedious.

Thank goodness, then, for Cagney.

Every time Cagney is on screen, the film feels alive. Every time he’s not, it feels slower than molasses. When he finally made his entrance (the film opens with Tom, Matt, and Mike as children), it was as if someone opened the door and a huge breath of fresh air suddenly woke up the story. The man is magnetic; he exudes star appeal, that unquantifiable magic that just makes him *work.* His voice, his eyes, his shifty demeanor, it’s all gold. I love the man. I will never get sick of watching him. The Public Enemy was, according to IMDB, Cagney’s fourth feature, but the first where he got top billing. He had been in a few gang/violent films before, but always in a supporting role. This was the breakthrough film for Cagney, graduating up to top billing and cementing that iconic image of Cagney as gangster in the process.

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There is an interesting dynamic between Cagney’s Tom and his best pal Matt. Matt is side by side with Tom through all the robbery, thugging, and violence, yet he is not Tom’s mirror image. Matt is the one who has to look away while Tom gets more out of control, and he is the one who gets married to a broad while Tom shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face. Mike, Tom’s brother, is a boring goody-goody, but Matt’s morals are more interesting. He’s a criminal, just like Tom, but he’s not just like Tom. That slight bit of moral gray zone helps coat the oversimplified battle between Tom and his brother.

Besides being a huge film for Cagney, Jean Harlow appears, if briefly, as Tom’s girlfriend in later scenes, further propelling her career to superstardom. All her pouty, slouchy, lusty appeal is there, and she’s draped in silk and diamonds and fake eyelashes just like her persona expects. She’s the only actor in the movie who has a hope of holding a candle to Cagney, but even she is overwhelmed by his sheer power. She’s fine, certainly, and has a more interesting character than the other women around her, but she’s fighting a losing battle when she comes up against Cagney.

1001 Movies says that this film’s sympathetic portrayal of a gangster helped bring about the censorship of the Hays Code, and I don’t doubt it. While I never really found Tom Powers sympathetic, per se, he’s easily the most entertaining character in the entire film, and I suppose the Hays Code couldn’t have a gangster being entertaining. Although other people keep on talking in the same scene as Cagney, no one can steal his magic.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Aug. 26th, 2012

PP 2005 mr darcy closeup

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Princess Mononoke

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Princess Mononoke
1997
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (in the English version) Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton

The maestro Miyazaki tackles ecological issues by moving the setting of the crisis from the topical Amazonian rainforest to an enchanted land far away in this anime classic. Although it’s titled Princess Mononoke, the eponymous princess is actually more of a supporting character who goes by San instead of Mononoke, and she doesn’t do much in the film except act angry a lot. Our real hero is more interesting.

We open with Prince Ashitaka (Crudup), our real hero, defeating a gigantic gross warthog worm demon thingie, but in the process of bringing the nasty beast down, he gets hit with a fatal curse. In an effort to find some sort of a cure, he travels to the heart of an enchanted forest to beg the spirits to heal him. In doing so, he also stumbles into the ongoing war between Lady Eboshi (Driver), a ruthless and inventive leader, and the spirits of said forest.

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While animation is not typically a genre I would choose to watch if left to my own devices, I have to give Miyazaki his due in this, my first experience with the Japanese master. In terms of animation itself, I was impressed by several facets of the film. The forest spirits were all done with a bizarrely grotesque beauty. The army of warthog spirits was disturbing and impressive. The main forest spirit was truly awe inspiring. The landscapes were absolutely enchanting, and the little ghost sprites of the forest were delightful. The human characters were normal Japanimation, but perhaps that lets the fantastic elements shine by comparison.

In terms of the narrative, I was truly impressed by the even-handedness with which Miyazaki approached the story. The message of the film is a profoundly ecological one, and yet it has become stereotyped: big bad industry (Eboshi) threatens to destroy beautiful serene nature (forest spirits). Amazingly, Miyazaki makes this a complicated battle. Eboshi is ruthless, but also fiercely protective of her own people, and they, in turn, idolize her. She is not wantonly going to war with nature; she is doing it to protect her own. She takes women from brothels and gives them honest work. She employs lepers when anyone else would leave them to die. Sure, she could do with a dose of ecological awareness, but she isn’t wholly villainous. The forest spirits, for their part, are hardly the angelic, serene fairies. They suffer from infighting and ignorance, ultimately doing more to destroy themselves than one would expect. They are hotheaded and close-minded. They are hardly wholly heroic.

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In the middle of this is Ashitaka, the definite hero of the picture. He’s one of those obnoxiously perfect heroes; he doesn’t have a damn flaw. Honestly, his saving grace is related to more of his perfection: he refuses to take sides. He travels back and forth between Lady Eboshi and the forest spirits, aiding and abetting both of them at various points throughout the film. I like that a lot about them. My husband is a very middle of the road person; it’s very easy for him to see both sides of an argument, and I respect that in him. Needless to say, that’s what Ashitaka is all about, and it’s something you just plain never see in a film hero. It was refreshing.

Ultimately, though, while I can respect this film, I don’t know that I liked it very much. It did little to hold my overall attention, and despite the even-keel of the overall narrative, the ecological standpoint was still preachy, something that really turns me off. I respect Princess Mononoke, but I honestly can’t see myself ever wanting to watch it again. It has, however, made me curious to see how else Miyazaki will surprise me when I partake of his other classics.

Arbitrary Rating: Interesting, but no more than that. 6/10

Aug. 22nd, 2012

BN Michael big gun blue

siochembio

Little Caesar

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Little Caesar
1930
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

One of the earliest gangster films, Little Caesar is more than just a movie for those interested in the history of cinema. Propelled by a captivating performance by Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar still tells a gripping story.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Robinson) is a small time crook who dreams of making it in the big time. His partner Joe (Fairbanks), though, dreams of getting out and going straight (as a dancer, of all things). While Rico gets introduced to the local gangs and rises through the ranks, Joe is trying to make it as an entertainer despite Rico’s best efforts to keep Joe in the gang. Rico’s rise is meteoric due to his utter ruthlessness and crazed bloodlust, which, of course, can only lead to an equally meteoric downfall.

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While the characters in the movie aren’t exactly realistic, they are so far over the top that they are tremendous fun. Rico’s first boss Vettori (Stanley Fields) becomes a bumbling mess when Rico moves to take over the gang, which is actually pretty fun to watch. Each member of Vettori’s – and then Rico’s – gang is straight out of Looney Tune cartoon. Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as Rico, playing the character with full tilt bloodlust and ambition in every single scene. When he isn’t violently planning his next movie, he is primping and preening. Money, suits, jewelry, furniture – his eye is constantly roving, wanting more. Robinson is never in park – he’s always on the go. In one of the final scenes, after Rico’s downfall, he’s positively animalistic as he desperately seeks to reclaim his power. Second only to Robinson’s portrayal of Rico is Thomas Jackson’s part as Flaherty, the shrewd police detective who wearily but sarcastically pursues Rico to the end. He plays the part with such relish, it brought a smile to my face.

The direction has moments of inventiveness. When Rico is introduced to his first “big time” gang, the camera takes on a first-person point of view and becomes suddenly jittery as it quickly moves from face to face, as if it is Rico overcome with excitement. Certain key shots throughout the film go in and out of focus, as if in the head of a crazy person. A heist is shown in montage, highlighting the rush and adrenaline of the moment. A nice framing of Rico’s reflection as he tries on a tuxedo is very clever indeed, making it indeed look as though Rico has had his portrait painted and it’s hanging on the wall.

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While the film certainly feels a little dated – it’s definitely an early talkie – there is a lot to be said about a story that deals with a person (or company, or bank, or shareholders) whose greed overinflates them beyond their capacity. Originally made as an allegorical response to The Great Depression, Little Caesar still, sadly enough, works as an allegory today.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Aug. 20th, 2012

James Dean rebel

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The Seven Samurai

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The Seven Samurai
1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

I tend to complain a lot about movies with running times greater than three hours because I apparently have the patience of a squirrel on crack. With a total running time of 207 minutes, you would think that The Seven Samurai earns my wrath. Sorry to disappoint, but The Seven Samurai manages to do what most epic films simply cannot: hold my interest with a meaningful, rich, and varied story filled with characters with which I enjoy spending my time.

The plot of The Seven Samurai is tremendously simple: some samurai soldiers are recruited to help a poor farming village fend off a bandit attack. We open by seeing the bandits ride up to the village in question but decide to postpone their attack until the rice harvest is in. This prompts a great deal of wailing and weeping from the villagers, who are poorer than poor. They send emissaries to a nearby town to find samurais who will work simply for food and honor rather than money. The first one they find is Kanbei: older, sharper, and with a great deal of nobility. He is doing this because it is the right thing to do. With Kanbei on board, five other samurais sign up, along with a samurai apprentice and a pesky samurai wannabe Kikuchiyo (Mifune). Back at the village, the samurai deal with frightened and, frankly, stupid villagers, train them, wall off the perimeter, all in preparation for the impending siege.

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What makes this the classic that it rightly is, is the simple fact that The Seven Samurai is a very entertaining film. Through the very simple premise, Kurosawa goes to town, playing with so many different ideas. Of course, the very subject matter is an ode to traditional great swordplay stories, and the plot seems to draw from traditional Japanese folklore. On top of this scaffold are laid some serious trappings of socioeconomic commentary; the farmers lives are absolute hell, and their poverty is absolute. Kurosawa doesn’t try to hide this from us at all; we are in there with the muck and grime and filth, stricken to the extent that a bowl of rice is considered a luxury. There is also humor, popping up at unexpected moments. Most of this comes from Mifune’s character, an utter buffoon who fancies himself a samurai simply because he hangs around with others. Luckily, the film tempers his utter absurdity with moments of heroics and poignancy, making him relevant and not simply a jester.

In between all the depression you’ll feel at the farmers’ plight and the giggles you’ll get out of Mifune, you’ll be pulled in by the fascinating study of war strategy this also provides. There are eight samurai in one form or another – it’s worth mentioning that it’s never clear if it is Kikuchiyo or the apprentice who is the seventh of the title – and forty bandits on horses. In order to successfully fight off the bandits, the samurai have to be smart. The tactics they employ are rather ingenious. The siege, which encompasses about the last third of the film, is one of the most interesting film battles I’ve seen, and that’s due to how it’s filmed. Instead of an hour long non-stop onslaught (which most directors would be tempted to do, methinks), Kurosawa spaces his battle out over several days and nights, which provides beats of rest and quiet in between the mayhem. The samurai keep count of the bandits they have dispatched of; we are impressed when six bandits are killed at the first attack, but we know that our village has a long way to go yet. You feel that sense of grueling perseverance.

There is also fundamental human drama in almost every corner of the film. A dying woman handing her child to the samurai, unexpected fatal attacks on the village, the men giving up their rice for an old ailing woman; Kurosawa knows how to pull at the heartstrings. It’s all part of feeling the magic of The Seven Samurai; it has so much to keep you entertained. There’s even a romantic subplot thrown in for good measure. All of this works because the plot is so simple. We always come back to the idea of the attack, no matter what little side story is being told. One moment you’re laughing, and the next, you’re shaking your fist in anger.

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My favorite character of the film was easily that of Kanbei. He is the orchestrator, the organizer, the master strategist, and, in the first hour, the recruiter as well. Through sheer force of personality, he manages to attract other noble samurai to the cause. Shimura has tremendous gravitas in the role, fully inhabiting the quiet and clever character. When Kanbei is still, you know he’s thinking of something. Rather funnily, my least favorite characters were the villagers. They were utterly undeserving of the quality of help the samurai provided. Ignorant, ungrateful wretches who, as soon as they realized that they had eight men coming to defend their village with their very lives, started worrying that these samurai would start raping every woman in town. Ultimately, though, I think this is Kurosawa’s point; these samurai are willing to do the right thing for the wrong people. It is *not* about payment, it is *not* about reward; it is about helping those who would otherwise fall prey to others, even if they don’t deserve it.

Now, having said all of this, I will add that this is not my favorite film by Kurosawa. I think of Throne of Blood or especially Ikiru for that particular honor. Ultimately, despite great moments of poignancy, this is a film that comes up feeling a little light to me. Kurosawa, although fundamentally a showman of a director, also has the capacity to be profound; he dabbles in that in The Seven Samurai, but really achieves it better in other films. Plus, well, it’s 207 minutes long, and as I mentioned in the intro, I don’t have a lot of patience for tremendously long movies. This one kept me interested, sure, but it’s still really long. I do not dare doubt its place in the pantheon of world cinema, but it will never be a movie I “just throw in” to the DVD player.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10. I really really really really like it. I’m not sure if I love it.

Aug. 19th, 2012

Chaplin surrounded

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The General

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The General
1926
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

So many others have said it before me, but who cares: the easiest gateway into silent cinema is through the comedies. Funny is funny, regardless of time. Drama ages, horror ages, but comedy – good comedy, that is – perseveres. The General is not only good comedy, it’s great comedy.

Southern rail engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) loves his train, the eponymous “General,” and his girl, Annabelle (Mack). After the eruption of the Civil War, Northern spies steal both Johnnie’s train and Annabelle, who was hiding in a storage car. Johnnie must follow them with another train, save the girl, and bring both of them – the girl and the General – home to the South, all while foiling the evil Northern army’s plans.

Keaton is my favorite of the silent comedians due to his “Old Stoneface” acting style. He was known for his stoicism in the face of outlandish situations, and that stoicism has served him well as time has gone by. He doesn’t mug for the cameras, and in any scene where he’s acting (versus wild athleticism) he underplays everything. There is a subtlety to his comedy. There are plenty of obvious jokes, sure, but also smaller, quieter gags that set Keaton apart from his contemporaries. All of this explains why I like Keaton in general, but not why I like Keaton in The General. (ha ha, catch what I did there? I’m so clever…) His Johnnie is so likeable, I just want to take him and hug him like a little teddy bear. Keaton plays Johnnie with a very strong bravado style. Johnnie doesn’t flinch at facing men taller and stronger than he is. From what I can tell, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd weren’t exactly toweringly tall actors, and frequently their characters were the “wimps” who had to eventually fight the big bad bully. Typically, they are quaking in their shoes at the prospect of this. Not Johnnie. He’s headstrong, almost to the point of absurdity, but he never for a second doubts his abilities. I like that. A lot.

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Apart from Keaton himself being wildly amusing, he is well matched with the Mack’s portrayal of Annabelle. Refreshingly, Annabelle is a damsel in distress who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. When Johnnie rescues her, she loads wood into the steam engine’s fire and, unbeknownst to Johnnie, even sets up an ingenious trap for the bad guys. She rarely just “sits there” (a pet peeve of mine), instead getting involved and helping out where she can. Additionally, all is not always rosy between Johnnie and Annabelle. He gets frustrated with her a few times over the course of her rescue, most amusingly when she tosses out a perfectly good piece of wood for the fire because it has a hole in it. Watch Keaton when he then hands her a tiny bit of kindling and she delicately places it in the stove. I almost fell off the couch laughing. It’s rather refreshing to see a romantic couple, let alone a silent film romantic couple, who get on each other’s nerves from time to time.

In terms of production, I don’t think you can really top this one. Every train sequence is a real train on real tracks. Famously, at the end of the film, a train crashes off a bridge into a river below. Yeah, that was real – no second take on that one, I bet. The army sequences are likewise impressive; there was no CGI back then to create a huge army digitally. When the entire Southern encampment rushes out to face the enemy, it’s 500 dudes in soldier uniforms and on horses. Essentially, Keaton assembled an actual army. More than that, Keaton – like Chaplin and Lloyd – had no stunt double. Everything he does as Johnnie is, well, real. I get tired watching him because he’s endlessly hopping up and down off the train, jumping over wood piles, chopping timber, or getting stuff off the tracks in front of him. It’s staggering, the amount of acrobatics he has in this film – all while pulling off a deftly comic performance.

Ultimately, though, The General still holds up extraordinarily well today because all of these things – the great performances, the fantastic stunts, and the very funny comedy – are all clearly linked to the central plot. The film never feels like a patchwork quilt, a mishmash of various great elements never quite synching together. Everything is focused squarely on furthering the narrative: save the train and the girl and bring them home. Sure, it’s a simple story, but it works. My problem with other silent comedies (Gold Rush comes to mind) is that they contain great comedic setpieces that would almost function better as stand-alone bits. Essentially, they feel like multiple comedy shorts loosely strung together with the faintest hint of a narrative thread connecting them. Not so in The General. It doesn’t lag, it doesn’t tire, it keeps going with great comedy pieces, all very clearly there in the service of the story. To be honest, I do find the parts of the plot where Johnnie is not actually on a train to be a little bit slower, but I feel like that’s nitpicking at a masterpiece. Keaton was a perfectionist, and it shows in how wonderfully and carefully he crafted this film.

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So many silent films have been cut and reedited over the years that the issue of which version to watch is fairly standard. While The General doesn’t have different edits (that I know of), I would like to highly recommend the particular version I saw – the Kino International special 2-disc DVD set. First of all, the print is just gorgeous. It’s a tremendously clean image, and if you watch a lot of silents, you know that is hardly guaranteed. But the biggest reason I recommend this one is Carl Davis’ score. The other place where I am familiar with Davis’ work is the soundtrack for the BBC’s 1995 Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice. If you liked the music there, you’ll love it here. It’s a rich and varied score that sounds nothing like typical silent film piano tinkling, and absolutely charming music that never overpowers the film, instead complementing it extraordinarily well. This is also the version that is available, in full, on youtube.

I would easily recommend The General to be the first silent film someone sees. I would have them watch it, then after they’ve seen maybe another one or two dozen additional silent films, I’d have them see it again. The first time would be to prove to a possibly skeptic modern film lover that silents are entertaining; the second time would be to make the point that even amongst silents, The General stands above the rest. I recommend this because that’s essentially what I myself did. I watched this very early on in order to ease my way into silent films, but it wasn’t until I watched The General for a second time that I realized just how genius it is.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. It even made my husband laugh.

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