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Aug. 17th, 2012

Thin Man Loy Powell Kissing

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Once

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Once
2006
Director: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova

A Guy (Hansard) and a Girl (Irglova) meet in Dublin. Both are musicians without an outlet, both are working menial jobs to barely make enough money to get by, and both have recently been dealt losses in their love lives. Drawn together by music, they rehearse and record an album of the guy’s original songs, all while a strong romantic attraction between them looms in the background.

This is an incredibly sweet film. “Sweet” can be such a terrible word, but I mean it un-ironically here. The growing affection between the guy and girl feels natural and unforced but still manages to make me feel all warm and glowing on the inside; even better, it has realistic missteps. Early on in the film, the guy invites the girl back to his bedroom and asks her to spend the night, to which she replies, “Fuck this,” and leaves. He feels stupid, and must make amends later. Little glitches like this in their relationship make it feel far more relatable. As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” I really appreciate that about the film; it manages to set the romance apart from the thousands of other stereotypical film romances.

Of the two performances that drive the film, I am most taken with that by Irglova. She is fantastic as the girl, straightforward and shooting from the hip, even on her first meeting with the guy. She calls him out and he can’t help but notice. She is warm and funny, yet clearly manages to communicate a life that has experience, and not all of it good. The image of her dragging her Hoover down Grafton Street in Dublin is perhaps the most indelible.

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Musicians need to make music. It’s not a choice; it’s a necessity. It’s tremendously clear that these two musicians are yearning for each other, and they are drawn to one another not only through a growing romantic attraction, but because they sense they can make music together. They fulfill a basic need in the other. Due to her encouragement and pushing, he decides to take the plunge and rent a studio to record his songs. This provides the central narrative of the film (rehearsals, finding backup musicians, and laying down the tracks of the album), and it’s very interesting watching this from a “creation of art” perspective. Even if you’re not a huge fan of the songs in question (like myself – they are simply not my style, and I found them a bit too simplistic), you will still appreciate the focus on the craft. The film was described by the director as a musical, and I certainly agree with that. While people do not spontaneously burst into song and dance as you imagine when you think of an MGM musical, there is an awful lot of singing and performing. However, it is all done naturalistically. The guy and girl stop by a music store to perform on the piano during the owner’s lunch hour. Nearly all the other musical numbers flow organically as part of the plot. It’s a different type of musical, and perhaps one of the best examples of music integrated with narrative that I’ve ever seen.

The film manages to avoid several stereotypes of the “struggling musicians fall in love” romantic drama genre. Take the guy, for instance. He works at his father’s vacuum repair store, and his mother has passed away. In a typical movie of this particular genre, the father would be against the guy following his dream of making music, instead pressuring him to follow in the family footsteps. Nope, not here. Dad is nothing but supportive of son’s dreams. Same thing goes for the girl. Her Czech mother and her young daughter live with her in a glorified tenement building, thereby relying on her for their income, but her mother clearly supports her when she is helping the guy record his album. Far too many times, in a film where someone “follows their dreams,” those around them have to be convinced or coerced into supporting the person in question. It’s lovely to instead see functional families who love and respect the guy and girl, allowing them to fulfill their dreams.

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Once is a lovely, small, quiet film about two people whose lives intersect for a fortuitous week. It has no pretensions of grandeur, and is rather content to exist peaceably in its small little microcosm. It’s a breath of fresh air and a tremendously touching and poignant film.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Aug. 15th, 2012

NCIS Ziva once killed a man

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2000
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Ziyi Zhang

By now, you may have noticed that I tend to get annoyed with grandiose films that feature tragic romances. Oh, did I say “annoyed?” Perhaps I should have said “I throw a tantrum and rant and rave and make it more than clear how much I kinda sorta hate that type of movie.” But then, see, just when I’ve almost given up entirely on grandiose films, I see something that clicks, something that really gets to me. The exception that proves the rule. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one such exception.

Shu Lien (Yeoh) and Mu Bai (Chow) are both warriors who are seriously considering retirement. They have also been desperately in love with one another for ages, but because of an overdeveloped sense of dignity and tradition, plus a heaping spoonful of self-sacrifice, neither has ever dared to speak their feelings to the other. When Mu Bai’s unbeatable and somewhat mythic sword, Green Destiny, is stolen, the two embark on an adventure to find it. This quest brings them into the company of Jen Yu (Zhang), the governor’s daughter, who has been secretly training in the martial arts with the help of her governess-slash-trained-killer, Jade Fox. Mu Bai has a bone to pick with Jade Fox, but wants to help train and develop Jen, who, it turns out, has been carrying on a rather torrid love affair of her own. On the brink of retirement, both Shu Lien and Mu Bai find themselves hopefully pulled back into the world that has consumed both of their lives.

When I rewatched this for the first time since seeing it in its original theatrical release, I was struck by an odd thought. There isn’t much fighting in this martial arts film. True, though, that’s a question of perspective. In the dozen years since first seeing Crouching Tiger, I have since seen such classic martial arts films as A Touch of Zen, Enter the Dragon, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and, most recently, Hero. That last one in particular is chock full of brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, with only the loosest scaffold of a plot binding them together. Not so with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The fight scenes, which are, of course, fantastic, are not overloaded throughout the movie; instead, they are delicately woven throughout the narrative of the film. Ang Lee makes it incredibly clear with this film that the characters are more important than their technical prowess in an arena. This fact makes me far more emotionally connected with this film than the previous ones.

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The other thing that struck me when watching it was how much I really connected with the tragic romance. Normally, tragic romances make me blanch, but I got sucked into this one. Why? What makes the romance told in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so different from the other ones at which I roll my eyes?

I will preface my answer by explaining something about myself. I cannot get enough of nineteenth century classic British romance literature, and any and all TV/film adaptations of them. Think Jane Austen. Think Jane Eyre. Think Masterpiece Theatre. These are things that make me swoon, and swoon hard. The first time I watched Romola Garai’s Daniel Deronda, I was helplessly hooked. About once a year, I’ll line up all my DVDs of all my favorite costume dramas and marathon the lot. It takes at least two days to do this. I love this shit. There is no such thing in my world as “too many Jane Eyre adaptations.”

So as I was watching Crouching Tiger, it suddenly struck me that the main romance of the film, that between Shu Lien and Mu Bai, filled to the gills with longing glances and stolen touches, is cut from the exact same cloth as that of classic British romances. Yes, the series of novels from which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was adapted, by Wang Du Lu, is twentieth century Chinese and tells stories deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture. But the emotional core at the heart of the story is the same. Sure, the country and costumes are different, but the romance is the same. Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh are both fantastic in portraying this huge romance with the subtlest acting. Yeoh in particular, an actress who made her career in action films, convincingly plays a woman who is all quiet strength on the outside, with rivers of emotion below the surface. Every time she slightly raised an eyebrow, or slowly widened her eyes, or even just clenched her jaw, I knew exactly what her character was feeling. When her character has an emotionally explosive scene (there aren’t many of them), it felt genuinely cathartic.

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So I’m sitting there, feeling pretty proud of myself for coming up with this connection, and watching the special features of the DVD. Then I hear Michelle Yeoh say in an interview that this film is “a martial arts Sense and Sensibility.” I practically fell off my chair. First of all, it verified the connection I had made. Second of all, let’s all laugh at the irony of Ang Lee directing not only a “martial arts Sense and Sensibility,” but an actual Sense and Sensibility (1995). And lastly, hearing her say that helped me to understand the relationship between Shu Lien and Jen Yu. In Sense and Sensibility, the two lead females are sisters with opposite temperaments, but an enormous devotion to each other. While Shu Lien and Jen Yu are not blood sisters, their relationship is very similar to that of Elinor and Marianne. They fight, they bicker, they make up, they fight some more, they help each other out. It’s a far more complex relationship than simply “enemies” or “friends.” It’s dynamic and intriguing, and kept me on my toes.

Speaking of which, the strong female characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are wonderful. When you boil the film down, the only male of any real significance is Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat). In the climactic scene of the film, Mu Bai is surrounded by three females: Shu Lien, Jen Yu, and Jade Fox. All three of these characters are rich, with complicated forces driving their action, and all of them wanting to live life according to their own rules. It’s brilliant to see this film coming out of modern day China, and Hollywood could learn a thing or two.

The production is gorgeous. As befits a film as emotionally claustrophobic as this one, there is a focus on interiors. I was intensely aware of the space the characters were living in, and how it connected to other spaces. There are many scenes in rooms that are connected to doorways and courtyards, with shots of archways, windows, all with gloriously furnished sets. Of course, the exteriors are breathtaking as well; the desert and forest scenes are beautiful. But this being Ang Lee, he manages to find the peace in the phenomenally large exteriors. Instead of being overwhelmed by the vast scope of the landscape, Lee brings the focus down to the small, and a sense of loneliness creeps in. No one does emotional repression quite like Ang Lee.

This was my first martial arts film that prominently featured wire work. The first time I saw it, I was distracted by it. Now, though, I accept it as a storytelling technique. If you can get past that, you’ll find a lovely Chinese fairy tale, full of romance and longing and the occasional fantastic martial arts sequence.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10.

Aug. 14th, 2012

BN Michael bored

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Reds

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Reds
1981
Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, lots of others

*heavy sigh* So I watched Reds today. Reds clocks in at 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Here are better uses of my time for those 3 hours and 15 minutes:
1. Roast a 15 lb. turkey
2. Do two loads of laundry
3. Go for a two-hour canal run followed by post-workout snack and shower
4. Clean and organize the linen closet
5. Make mole sauce from scratch

I know, I know, I’m showing my hand too soon about what I thought of the film. Sorry. Can’t help it.

Reds, Beatty’s little pet-slash-vanity project, follows the life of journalist and revolutionary John, nickname Jack, Reed, obviously played by Beatty himself. The film starts when Jack meets Louise Bryant (Keaton), and the two are attracted to one another over shared revolutionary ideals. They get together, fight, break up, get together, fight, break up, then… wait for it… get together, fight, and break up. I think this happened a few more times in the film, but I stopped keeping count. Anyway, for what it’s worth, the background against which they get together, fight, and break up, keeps changing throughout the film. They start getting together, fighting, and breaking up in New York City, then move the bickering and sexy times to Europe then Russia, where both are reporting on the front line of the Russian Revolution, then back to the US, then back to Russia. The film is really focused on Jack Reed, on his transition from journalist reporting on socialist ideals and people’s revolutions, to full-blown revolutionary himself, making the speeches rather than writing about them. (And in between, he gets together, fights, and breaks up with Louise.)

OK, where to start. Well, to the uninitiated, I will reiterate that I. Hate. Epics. If your movie is over three hours – hell, over two and a half – you better have a damned good reason for it to be that long. I have precious little patience for tedious filmmaking. Reds is long. Very very long. To its credit, it managed to keep me engaged for the first hour or so, which, considering I was going in with a bit of a sigh and low expectations, is pretty remarkable. I am being whole-heartedly honest when I say that I give the film props for that first hour. It was a little silly, but I was interested. But the last two-thirds of the movie completely disengaged me. COMPLETELY. I had to start taking breaks every thirty minutes or so to go do some mundane task that was more interesting than watching Warren Beatty yell at Russians. Again. I checked my email continuously. I got caught up on old facebook posts. I got all excited when one of the characters started acting sick, because I knew the end was coming; after all, what would an epic be without someone dying? I literally changed the DVD player over to “countdown” mode so I could revel in the fact that I only had ten minutes left of this nonsense, then I could check this movie off and move on with my life. This is my fundamental problem with epics. You make a movie this long, DO SOMETHING IN IT TO KEEP ME INTERESTED. When I stop caring about a third of the way through, that’s not a good sign.

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I found the central relationship rather obnoxious. So did my husband, who was in the same room with me as I slogged my way through Reds. He, though, was smart, and was playing Skyrim in the background. He was so turned off by the two central characters that, to quote him, “I didn’t care, by the end, if they got together or not.” There ya go. He just didn’t care. Frankly, I didn’t either. It’s people like this that I want to slap in the face and yell, “Love isn’t that complicated! What’s the matter with you?!?!” To those overly dramatic types who buy into Shakespeare’s “never run smooth” theory, I feel bad for you. Honestly. Jack and Louise were so tempestuous that any little thing that happened between them resulted in a huge fight that broke them up. Then they got back together. Then they had a huge fight again. I garner no pleasure from watching such a relationship. Even as a young little Siobhan reading Wuthering Heights for the first time in school, I didn’t understand why Heathcliff and Cathy just couldn’t talk things out. Same feelings here. Stop fighting and play nice, folks.

In terms of the politics committed to the screen in this film, here’s where I start to understand why Reds is kind of a big deal. Yeah, it’s impressive that, in 1981, with the Cold War still going on, and Communism definitely a hot-button topic, a sympathetic film was made about a pro-Bolshevik American citizen. That’s ballsy and gutsy and, considering how many other huge actors appeared in this film, this was a high-profile film, meaning there was no place to hide. This wasn’t a tiny little picture, this was big doings. For this reason, I’m sure it was difficult for Beatty to get this movie made, so good for him on seeing the project through. Americans always seem to be scared of the word “communism,” so it’s definitely unique in terms of its subject matter. However, I did not like how the film seemed to whitewash the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution is something that frightens me; not in terms of the “people rising up” aspect, but because of the aftermath. It was bloody and violent and scary. None of this is depicted in Reds. All we see is speech-making and cheering crowds, and occasionally, characters talk about hardships in Russia. But we don’t see it. Maybe that was the point, but I felt like the film really undercut just how devastated Russia became.

Alright, let’s talk about Louise. She’s a feminist. But, sigh, and here’s where I turn into crotchety-feminist-Siobhan, you never really see this. Wikipedia had more information about how she was important to feminism causes than Reds. The film marginalizes her work, making it seem like she’s just a little tagalong who is only motivated by her love of Jack Reed. The ending of the movie completely undercuts poor Louise, putting her life’s work only in the context of what Jack Reed did. For me, one of the best parts of the film was when Louise has an affair with playwright Eugene O’Neill, blessedly played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is fantastic, his depiction of O’Neill is tremendous, so much so that I sat there, agape, when Louise went running back into Jack Reed’s arms. Really? You had a man who was literally there for you when your lover wasn’t, who told you oh-so-passionately about how much he loves you, and you ditch him for the boring guy? Perhaps it’s just Nicholson’s fault… he’s too good an actor. He acts circles around Beatty, that’s for sure. Diane Keaton was likeable enough as Louise, but I stopped having patience for her character after she ditched Nicholson. Yes, yes, I know it’s based on real life people, to which I will say I did not like these real life people.

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The real life people I *did* enjoy were “The Witnesses.” Throughout the movie, we see and hear from people who actually knew Jack Reed and Louise Bryant in real life. These are not actors, these are just regular people. They share little stories and recollections. This was important for me, because it helped to counterbalance the glorification of Jack and Louise in the rest of the film. These people who are interviewed, some of them don’t have the nicest of things to say about Jack and Louise. Some admit to hardly knowing them at all. It was refreshing to not have this be another litany of how wonderful Jack and Louise were. I liked that. Plus it was funny to see a really old guy say, “There was just as much fucking going on back then.”

Look, this whole review really boils down to this not being the film for me. I knew it wasn’t the film for me. I watched it anyway because I’m a glutton for punishment, and I get very OCD about “watch every movie on the list!!!” Good things I got out of this: Jack Nicholson rocks, actual witness accounts were enlightening, and Hollywood had to be pretty damn progressive to make this movie. But no, it has not changed my mind about epics. This was not the epic that made me think I was foolish for disliking the genre. I cheered when the credits rolled, then very happily hit the “Eject” button.

Arbitrary Rating: 4/10

Aug. 13th, 2012

Friends Joey jazz hands

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The Bank Dick

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The Bank Dick
1940
Director: Edward F. Cline
Starring: W.C. Fields, Una Merkel, Cora Witherspoon, Franklin Pangborn

If ever there was a live action film that is essentially nothing but a real world cartoon, The Bank Dick is that film. This is W.C. Fields’ film from start to finish and as it moves from scene to scene, it’s just another chance for him to display his comedic talents.

The “plot” is about Egbert Sousé (Fields), accent grave over the “e” as the characters remind us (DAMMIT IT’S AN ACCENT AIGU, NOT AN ACCENT GRAVE!!! OK, I got that off my chest). He lives with a house full of women who constantly henpeck him, so he’s constantly running off to the saloon. There’s a scene where Sousé takes over as director on a movie set, but we mostly focus on how Sousé manages to unwittingly foil a bank robbery. On account of this, he’s appointed the new bank detective, or bank dick. Of course, he immediately runs into trouble involving some misappropriated funds, and he has to hold off the bank examiner (Pangborn) from discovering the embezzlement. Naturally, the film ends with a raucous car chase.

This is not a movie to be judged on its plot or narrative structure at all. This is simply a series of set pieces for Fields to perform. I don’t think there’s a single serious scene in the movie at all. Even when the characters start to fret about the embezzlement charges, they do so by acting in funny ways, fainting in funny ways, and lashing out in funny ways. Throughout the entire thing is Fields’ unique sarcastic mutterings and mumblings. Because a good portion of his brand of humor is relatively subtle, it translates well to modern audiences. Of course, though, there’s also a tremendous amount of broad physical comedy; Fields seems constantly to be running into walls, doors, coat racks, etc. that he doesn’t see. This stuff works too.

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One of my favorite parts of this comedy was the Sousé family. His wife Agatha (Witherspoon) and her mother and their youngest daughter walk around as a triad, eating constantly and yelling at Fields in between bites. When the youngest daughter says she’s going to throw a rock at her dad, Agatha says, “Respect your father. What kind of rock?” They cracked me up everytime they were onscreen.

The names in this movie are killers. Egbert Sousé, as silly as it sounds, is positively tame compared to some of the other doozies that appear on the cast list. The bank examiner is named J. Pinkerton Snoopington; the eldest daughter’s fiancé is Og Oggilby; there’s even a character named Filthy McNasty! I can picture W.C. Fields going to town while he was writing the script, creating the most ludicrous names he can come up with. The casting upholds the silliness of the names; this is probably one of the least attractive casts assembled in a classic Hollywood flick. But really, when you have a character named J. Pinkerton Snoopington, you don’t want Errol Flynn playing the role. You want someone who, well, LOOKS like a J. Pinkerton Snoopington!

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A great deal of the humor in this film comes from alcohol, and this film is from the era where drunks were silly and comic rather than a source of tragedy. Sousé loves the stuff and schedules his day around getting as many drinks in him as possible. A sequence in the middle of the film is all about Sousé getting Snoopington so drunk he can’t audit the bank properly. Again, the drinking is played for extreme laughs. If you can get past that, it’s good stuff.

I want to come back to the idea of this being a live action version of a cartoon. In this film, Sousé has several items thrown at him; glass, stone, etc. All of these items bounce off him with a silly little “boing” sound effect. Everytime there’s a pratfall, we hear a slide whistle. The frenetic finale with the car chase is full on cartoon, with men literally flying into the air as if they were bouncing on trampolines. Every Bugs Bunny cartoon I ever saw owes a debt to W.C. Fields.

The Bank Dick isn’t a great film on the order of Citizen Kane, certainly, but it’s solidly funny in many different ways. The plot is ludicrous, but the characters are ludicrous as well, so it fits. It’s zany, but it’s aged pretty well.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.

Aug. 10th, 2012

Some Like It Hot I'm a Girl

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Some Like It Hot

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Some Like It Hot
1959
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, George Raft, Joe E. Brown

I have what I call “comfort movies.” Movies I can count on to cheer me up when I’m feeling blue, movies I know will make me laugh or distract me from my problems. I’ll be up front about this right now: these movies get a bit of a free pass from me when it comes to critical evaluation. If a movie is capable of repeatedly making me feel warm and fuzzy when I need it most, it gets entered into the pantheon of “comfort movies,” and is forever cherished. Some Like It Hot is one such movie. Fortunately, though, my adoration of Some Like It Hot doesn’t need to be apologized for; the film stands up for itself.

Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, broke jazz musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) have the misfortune to be witness to a mobster’s (Raft) hit. Fleeing the city for their lives, the only transportation or work they can find is for an all-women ensemble heading to Florida for the winter, so they decide to dress up like dames to land the gig and get out of town. Problems arise when Joe, posing as Josephine, falls for the band’s lead singer Sugar (Monroe), and Jerry, posing as Daphne, catches the wandering eye of a bachelor millionaire (Brown) looking for his next ex-wife.

This is a full-on screwball comedy, constantly moving from zany to outrageous and back again. That being said, I give Billy Wilder such credit for managing to make the initial mob hit, the driving force for the plot, a little scary. He makes it perfectly clear these mobsters are not to be trifled with, and even though the violence pales in comparison to what we get nowadays, there’s real tension in that scene. Likewise, when the gangsters show up in Florida, thus book-ending the film, Wilder brings back a bit of the mortal peril. This time, though, it’s much more played for laughs as the triumphal finale of the screwball comedy. The only other time Wilder breaks from straight up screwball comedy is in a few key scenes between Curtis and Monroe, setting up the central romance. It helps the film that Wilder occasionally comes down off the wacky zany confection for moments of heart and just a touch of pathos. This IS Billy Wilder, after all.

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The script is an utter gem. It’s gags and jokes and laughs at every angle. Not only are the situations hilarious, but it’s the type of script where if you stop paying attention for a few seconds, you probably just missed at least three jokes. There are double entendres, plays on words, slapstick humor, one-liners, in-jokes and references, and more than enough cross-dressing jokes to shake a stick at. It’s honestly impossible for me to try to pick a favorite bit or favorite lines; all I can do is gush about the all-together fantasmoniousness of it. This is a fast, witty, zany, FUNNY movie.

Perhaps the only thing more apparent than the comedy is the crazy sexiness. There are so many not-so-veiled references to getting laid and both female and male genitalia, it’s no wonder that this film started the death knell for the Hays Code. It was so raunchy for the time that the studio didn’t even bother trying to get it approved; they knew it wouldn’t pass. But Some Like It Hot was released anyway, and turned out to be rollicking success, thus weakening the Hays Code forever. Personally, it’s wonderful finding all these little sex gags in a movie from the fifties. Watching Jack Lemmon play a woman talking to a woman but inferring that he’s a man and wants to sleep with her… well, it’s trippy, but it’s sexy, and very funny.

This is easily Marilyn’s sexiest role. Although she’s playing the dumb blonde to end all dumb blondes, and I prefer her roles with a bit more bite (think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), there is nothing more blatant than when she sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” The dress she wears is pure sex; she looks nude. The spot light on her cuts right down to her nipples, enhancing the illusion that she is naked; apparently, the spot was added in attempt to make it a little less sexy. I’m not sure if it didn’t wind up making it more so! And then there’s Marilyn herself; all luscious lips and bedroom eyes and a voice that makes clear the distinction between “loved” and, well, something else.

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I honestly can’t say who I prefer in this film, Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon. When I start watching the movie, I prefer Jack Lemmon in all his nebbish glory. Lemmon playing Daphne is hysterical as he goes from prissy over-the-top femininity to lascivious hound dog, and I can’t get enough. But then Tony Curtis launches into his Cary Grant millionaire impression, and I lose it, and the pendulum swings back in his direction. The two are absolutely perfect together. I suppose that Lemmon ultimately wins out for the storyline of Josephine and Osgood, which is so ludicrous and so hysterical, and ends the film, but I can be convinced either way.

When the AFI came out with their 100 Years, 100 Laughs list, Some Like It Hot topped the chart. At the time, I was still in college, and had only seen it once or twice. I was astounded that *this* was considered the greatest comedy of all-time. I mean, it was good, but best of all time? In the years since, though, my position has changed. Rare is the comedy that gets funnier on repeated viewings; to me, that’s the mark of a truly great comedy. Some Like It Hot is exactly that. Granted, I still hesitate to call any one film the best of anything, but I completely understand why this movie wound up on the top of the AFI list. This is a movie I can count on. I know it will make me laugh, I know it will make me smile and snicker repeatedly, and I know I’ll have a rollicking time while watching it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. One of my favorite “comfort movies.”

Aug. 8th, 2012

Brando black

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Hero

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Hero
Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang
2002

The story of Hero is fairly straightforward. A nameless warrior, literally (Li), is summoned to the Emperor of Qin to relay his story of how he defeated three infamous assassins (Leung, Cheung, and Donnie Yen). Along the way, the Emperor starts to doubt the warrior’s veracity, suggesting other possible alternatives than what Nameless has said.

The story is easily the least interesting part of the film, providing more than anything a framework from which to hang spectacular battles and set pieces. However, there is a hint of Rashomon to Hero through the idea of the retelling of the same story but through different lenses. I rather enjoyed seeing the different ways the same story played out. As each retelling changes, the impression of each character changes as well. Even the Emperor, who is not a character in the stories, goes from hero to villain then somehow back to hero again through the course of the film, and there is a similar sort of circular journey for the other main characters. It’s a neat story-telling method.

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The real stars of the film are the fight sequences and the production itself. I am not a kung fu movie fan. I am not a wuxia nut. I don’t seek out Chinese fighting movies for something fun to watch. But HOLY COW the fight sequences are drop dead stunning. All the actors and actresses involved were beyond compare in their breathtaking choreography. It was as if I was watching some sort of grand ballet played out with swords. The movie really makes no pretense that it wants to focus on anything else; within the first five minutes we are already flashing back to Nameless’ first battle with an assassin. Okay, then, jump right in! The slow motion, the flying through the air, the glorious swishy costumes that accentuate every move, all combine to make the fight sequences simply jaw dropping.

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The only thing better in this film than the fighting was the production. Simply put, Hero ranks right up there as one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and I do not say that lightly. It’s stunning. Simply stunning. The film is a continuum of gorgeous set pieces. Opening in the Emperor’s palace, you will be stunned by the hordes of soldiers in black adorned with bright crimson feathers on their helmets. Later in the film, a quiet mountainside lake vista will leave you in awe. And ultimately, a desert mountain top scene with two characters dressed completely in flowing robes of white is dazzling. Shot after shot, scene after scene, Hero puts on a hell of a show. I watched it on the regular television at my house. Now I kinda wish I could see it in a theater. It certainly deserves the adjective ‘epic.’

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While the fight scenes and production values are monumental, the acting performances were kind of phoned in. Jet Li does little else than fight spectacularly and speak stoically. We are given precious little insight into the character’s motivation for his action. I suppose it doesn’t really matter; one doesn’t watch a Jet Li movie to hear him recite ‘Hamlet,’ after all, you watch it to watch him fight. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung fare better as two assassins who may or may not be in love with each other, but their roles are certainly not career-defining; I have seen both of them in much more interesting parts. And pert little Ziyi Zhang is somewhat wasted as the apprentice to one of the assassins; she has very little to do in the film except stand at the wayside and look concerned.

Thematically, the film ultimately speaks of loyalty and patriotism. I found this a bit too nationalistic, a bit too much like propaganda in its flavor. But I suppose it’s no different than an American film about the War for Independence, or the Civil War.

Why watch this movie? Simply put, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen. It’s unfailingly beautiful and spectacular. Story-wise, it’s alright, but that’s not the reason to see it. Shot for shot, it would be difficult to find a more impressive film.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10

Aug. 6th, 2012

Rita Hayworth LofS with Orson

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The Last Wave

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The Last Wave
1977
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil, Olivia Hamnett, Nandjiwarra Amagula

I am a ginormous fan of Peter Weir’s early Australian films before he went all Hollywood, before he became predictable. I don’t know how he managed to do it, but he has the dubious honor of being the ONLY director I can think of who made a film that cracks my all-time top ten list (Picnic at Hanging Rock) AND made one of my most hated films of all time (Dead Poets Society, a movie that pushes all the wrong buttons). Luckily, The Last Wave is far closer to the former than the latter, as it is definitely one of his early films. It is a film that has to be Australian, a director exploring his country and its conflicts in one of the only ways he knows how: through mystical film.

David Burton (Chamberlain) is a tax lawyer who gets inexplicably brought on to help defend a case of five Aboriginal men accused of killing another Aboriginal in modern day Sydney. One of the five men, Chris (Gulpilil), is the only one who will talk to David, but he won’t talk about the night of the killing. The more David gets involved with Chris and Chris’ old friend Charlie (Amagula), the deeper he seems to sink into a mystery. Unexplained weather and strange dreams; are these frightening portents of things to come?

For me, this film is all about mood; a fantastic, spiritual, uncertain, threatening mood. What Weir does so well is to create this mood, then let it wane, then bring it back, then ratchet it up. The ever so slight slow motion shot, thrown in when you’re not expecting it, or the ceaseless ping heard on the soundtrack when you expect it to be quiet, or a casual shot of or making it completely unclear as to what we are being shown is fact or fiction. As one of the seminal directors of the Australian New Wave movement of the 1970s, Weir’s most significant contemporary (in my opinion) was Nicolas Roeg. I mention this because I swear, the two of them must have had conversations about this concept of elliptical storytelling and slightly sinister mysticism.

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In fact, I find the mood of this film so compelling, I would even say that this film is far more about images and tone than about dialogue. When The Last Wave gets to the point where it is necessary to have characters speak in expository fashion, it is the weakest. Gulpilil is a very fine actor, but his best scenes in this movie are ones of very quiet power and charisma; when he is forced to “explain” what is happening, it drags the movie down. Ditto for Chamberlain; ditto for everyone else. In some scenes, Weir makes it clear that the dialogue is completely irrelevant. The banal conversation at a barbecue or dinner party is hushed and muted, as if Weir is telling us it’s okay not to pay attention to these words. In other scenes, expository scenes, the dialogue tries to explain what is happening, and it all feels so weak. There is so much power in the mysticism and imagery of the film that trying to use mere words to explain it cheapens the experience. I like this movie best in the dream-like sequences, or when the characters speak in terms of symbolic poetry; there, the film is so beautiful and enchanting and thrilling and fascinating. I like it least when the characters feel the need to explain everything.

“What are dreams?” David asks Chris in a dinner conversation (and my favorite scene of the film). Chris ultimately responds that dreams are “a shadow of something real.” So much of the movie is about this concept of dreams and their meaning, and it’s one that is not often committed to film; at least, not quite like this. This is what I like about this movie. Much like dreams, the meanings of many things in this film are left unexplained. There is ambiguity in what is going on. Do you believe that David is actually having dreams that tell the future? The movie makes very little attempt to answer that question, and god bless it for that. I love it when directors have faith in their audience; faith that they are intelligent enough to interpret the film their own way, intelligent enough to extrapolate what they see into a meaning all their own. I don’t like to have every last thing spelled out, least of which in a movie where explanations are cheap. Therefore, for me, this becomes a very personal film. I know how I interpret the movie; I completely buy in to the magic it hints at. Which surprises me, actually, because I am a student of science, a skeptic, and not at all a spiritual person in my real life. I would much more expect to take a hard line on all the funny hand-waving, but Weir’s world is so entrancing, I fall under its spell. He has me; he caught me in his web, and I will buy in to anything he presents me. The dream sequences and their obscure meanings are utterly fascinating.

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Apart from the idea of dream states and their meaning, man’s relationship with nature is explored as well. Throughout the whole movie, very strange weather phenomena keep occurring. We open with a small school in remote Australian countryside that gets pummeled with a bizarre thunderstorm; bizarre because there are no clouds or dark skies. The rain seems to come from nowhere. Hail follows, breaking the windows of the school. From this point forward, water is in nearly every scene in the film, making you think about what the title The Last Wave really means. A policeman idly fingers a dripping faucet; a rainstorm follows David home from work; the wall outside the courtroom has a small trickle running down it. It is as if nature is constantly trying to find its way into this nice little civilization we’ve built for ourselves. Our rules and buildings and finery are all very well and good, but nature is so much more powerful, and can – and will – break down the flimsy barriers we have erected against her. David seems to sense this; as the film goes on, he breaks more and more from the societal rules thrust upon him, and seems to become more involved with the odd natural world around him.

I love ambiguous filmmaking. I love filmmaking that poses questions it will not answer; or, at the very least, not answer completely. The Last Wave has moments of terrific beauty and awe and gauzy mysticism. It also has moments that don’t work as well, that feel clunky and unnecessarily expository. I completely admit that; this is not a perfect film. It’s not my favorite film by Weir, nor my favorite Australian New Wave film. For me, though, the good outweighs the bad, and the tone and images and dreamlike world that Weir manages to create here, so much like that he created in Picnic at Hanging Rock, place this film solidly in the top of his filmography for me.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10. Achieves moments of greatness, but is a little unsteady.

Aug. 4th, 2012

Lillian Gish

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The Passion of Joan of Arc

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The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti

Sight & Sound’s almighty critic’s poll of “Best Films of All Time,” published only every ten years, just came out. While all the media attention was focused on the fact that Vertigo ousted Citizen Kane for the number one spot (btw, Kane was still number two), I find it more interesting to focus on some other, more significant changes in the list. Like the presence of a film in the top ten list when it never breached that mark before. The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film considered lost until the 1980s, continues to climb in world esteem, jumping to the number nine slot on one of the most prestigious Top Ten lists in the world.

The story is based on the transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial and subsequent execution. There is no set-up; we jump right in. Joan (Falconetti) is interrogated by priests who ask her questions about her faith and her belief that God gave her a mission. She holds fast to her declarations. They threaten her, torture her, try to confuse her. Ultimately they charge her with heresy and she is burned at the stake. So, y’know, this summer’s feel-good popcorn flick.

All kidding aside, this is a beast of film, a towering presence in the film canon. Anything I say about it is slightly ludicrous because it’s all been said before by people far more eloquent. But hey, this is my blog, so I’ll nobly make an attempt.

Yes, this film was made in 1928, but holy guacamole, it doesn’t feel like it. There is such power and tension and dizzying drama here, this feels like it should slot in with the emotional powerhouses of cinema from much later decades. I compare The Passion of Joan of Arc to other movies of its time, and it’s a total joke. For reference, we had a couple of melodramas in 1928 in The Crowd and Docks of New York; silent comedians were still busy putting out The Kid Brother in 1927 and Steamboat Bill Jr. in 1928; and Sergei Eisenstein continued his propaganda push from the USSR with October. While I’ve seen my fair share of films, I know that I have loads left to see, but from my limited experience, this was the film landscape in 1928 when The Passion of Joan of Arc was made. Melodramas, comedies, and the experimental/propaganda flicks. The Passion of Joan of Arc is none of these things, being instead a highly rigorous drama that never stoops to melodramatics, confronting issues of faith and politics and organized religion head-on, and doing it all with tremendous style.

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For me, The Passion of the Joan of Arc is impressive because of Falconetti’s performance and Dreyer’s camerawork. Falconetti was a stage actress at the time; thank goodness Dreyer did not go with a film actress. By using Falconetti, he was able to get a much subtler performance. Her face conveys such pain and despair; I perfectly understood the world of Joan in the film. She cannot understand why she is being interrogated; she cannot understand why she is being considered a heretic. She believes in God, she loves her God, and she ultimately comes to terms with the worldly fear that eats away at her. She makes her peace with the hate and intolerance that surround her. All of this through an incredibly simple yet wildly powerful performance. Straight up, there is not another silent film performance that matches this one.

Dreyer’s camerawork is so unique. This is a film of faces; while it’s not true that every shot is a close-up, I’d estimate that at least half of the film is up close and personal with the faces of the actors. And what faces they are; while Falconetti’s is a beautiful portrayal of pain and anguish, all of Joan’s judges are things of grotesquerie. Dreyer is unflinching in his camera, shooting from low angles and using harsh lighting and no makeup in order to highlight every wart, double chin, and wrinkle he can find. Without no sound and minimal intertitles, it is clear who the enemies are.

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The set, which Dreyer built exclusively for this film, helps to contribute to this somewhat surrealistic treatment of its subject. In the actual castle that Dreyer built to stand in for the castle at Rouen where Joan was tried, everything, even the torture chamber, is sparkling clean and white and fresh. The set is borderline art nouveau, like a stripped down version of that style, with all the clean lines and geometric angles. There is a bare minimum of props or set decoration; the focus is squarely on the actor against a plain background. Against this set, Dreyer places his camera at some very unique angles. In one scene where the judges enter a room through a door – a simple enough shot – Dreyer’s camera is at such a low and bizarre angle, it looks as though the judges are ascending up to the earth through a hole to the underworld. We do not see the door; we don’t even see the room. We see the arched ceiling and watch these caricatures diagonally enter up and to the right in the shot. All of this makes for a very disconcerting shot, and why I call it somewhat surreal.

Ultimately, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a challenging film to watch. It’s emotionally harsh; there is such injustice being carried out here, and Joan is so sympathetic in its face, it’s hard to watch her burn at the stake. Furthermore, movies like this one push a very unique button in my soul. I have deep-seated problems with organized religion, so I have given it up completely. A movie like this reconfirms my belief in the injustice and intolerance perpetrated by The Church, not just in our current day and age, but over the centuries. But this movie is about more than that; I look at Joan, at how powerful her faith is, and I am fascinated and perhaps a little bit jealous. I still don’t know where I fall in terms of my spirituality. Movies like this one make me think about that issue, and that’s a very profound thing for me. Of all directors, Ingmar Bergman’s work really taps into that vein in my soul; I find The Passion of Joan of Arc to feel like a precursor to Bergman’s repertoire.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Aug. 2nd, 2012

BN Michael big gun blue

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Zero Kelvin

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Zero Kelvin
1995
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gard B. Eidsvold, Bjørn Sundquist

The Scandinavian countries are lands that teeter on the edge of the world. I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the dramas I have seen from these countries are typically powerful psychological battles brought on through isolation and the intensities of nature. Zero Kelvin is a fantastic recent example of this.

Henrik Larsen (Eidsvold) is an aspiring poet slash pornography distributer living comfortably in Oslo in the 1920s. He loves his girlfriend, Gertrude, but she doesn’t want to get married. To get some life experience, he takes a job as a fur trapper in Greenland. There he works in close quarters with scientist Holm (Sundquist) and the main fur trapper Randbæk (Skarsgård). In the remote and vicious country, it’s imperative the men get along in order to ensure their survival, but when cabin fever starts to set in, the mind games really begin.

This is a brutal, brutal film. It’s like a Jack London novel without all the laughs. The setup for the film is minimal at best; Moland wastes little time getting us to Greenland and getting all three of the men together in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. The environment is bleak and harsh and completely unforgiving. This is the edge of the world, where any dictates of civilized society quickly fall by the wayside, and the brutality of the landscape is mirrored in the brutality with which the men treat one another.

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The focus of the film is definitely the relationship between the three men and how they antagonize one another. I’m always fascinated by movies like this, movies about the limits of the human spirit, about just how far a person can be pushed, and how they will react when they push back. I was reminded at various points of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The relationship between Larsen and Randbæk is the primary one. Larsen, the poet, manages to get on Randbæk’s nerves almost immediately. Randbæk is a man’s man, and Larsen is soft. What’s fascinating, though, is that this antagonism doesn’t play out how you would expect. Hollywood has trained us to expect the strong man to bully the weak man until the weak man, in the film’s finale, finally rises and strikes back. Well, thankfully, this isn’t a Hollywood film. Very early on, the strong man is revealed to have a number of weaknesses, and the weak man is shown to be unexpectedly strong. Both Randbæk and Larsen fluidly move back and forth between being strong and iron-willed, then being weak and manipulated. This goes beyond simple mind games. This is like the world championships of mind chess. The two collaborate, then violently turn on one another. Randbæk is curiously nice to Larsen, then Larsen viciously swipes at him. It is impossible to work out just how the two feel about one another, even after the film ends – and I love that. I’ve mentioned before just how much I love ambiguity in film, and Zero Kelvin is too strong a film to nicely and neatly wrap up an incredibly complex relationship. Because of that, I have to say that I think this is one of the finest examples of a psychological battle I have ever seen on film.

But there are three men in the film, not two. Holm, the scientist, is also there. Just like a scientist, too, he is mostly in the background, observing the antagonism between Randbæk and Larsen. He is silent and stoic, but erupts violently with rage occasionally. Even the quiet observer cannot deal with the isolation. He is Randbæk’s friend, but will not automatically forgive him. He refuses to serve as the go-between for them. He provides a fascinating counterpoint to the warring factions around him.

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Skarsgård’s performance as Randbæk is enormous. I have never seen Skarsgård like this; here, he is barely a man. He is more like a caged bear. He roars, he rumbles, he becomes suddenly violent, and then, he’ll be crying in the corner. He swears like a sailor. Frankly, I never knew that Skarsgård had it in him. This is amazing stuff. His performance drives the film. I’m shocked to discover that Skarsgård wasn’t nominated for a single acting award for this film. That’s downright burglary right there. This is his film; everyone else is just along for the ride.

This film is pretty much the limit in terms of the amount of animal cruelty I can tolerate, and even then, I had to physically cover my eyes a few times. Given that the premise of the film is about fur trappers, and the men keep sled dogs as their primary means of transportation and survival, I knew that I would have to deal with some animal stuff. If, like me, you have a hypersensitivity to animal maltreatment in film, even fictional maltreatment, then I can pass on that the animal scenes are not the focus of the film – the film is about the three men. Be warned, though, and avoid getting emotionally attached to any animal (or human, for that matter) in the film.

Although Zero Kelvin has fantastic mind games and gorgeous and frightening cinematography, this is not what I would classify as an “enjoyable” film. I know that all films are not for entertainment, and I don’t mean to say that Zero Kelvin has to be a popcorn flick, but having seen it once, I feel no compunction to ever watch it again. It’s difficult and uncomfortable. It’s good, to be sure, but it ranks very low on “rewatchability.” So ultimately, the brutality of the film caught up with me. Which is probably the point.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Aug. 1st, 2012

Grace Kelly High Society hungover weddin

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High Noon

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High Noon
1952
Director: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and many other recognizable faces

I make no bones about the fact that westerns aren’t really my thing. Luckily, High Noon is touted as “the western for people who don’t like westerns.” I don’t know if I would completely agree with that, but I do think that the themes present make it more accessible. For a western made in the fifties, there’s a profound cynicism in High Noon that a modern audience can connect with.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) has just married his lovely new Quaker bride Amy (Kelly) when word comes in that an outlaw he put away five years ago has been pardoned and is on his way back for revenge. Amy protests, not believing in guns or violence, but Kane has his principles and must stay in town to fight the gang. Trouble is, Kane runs into massive difficulty in recruiting townspeople who are willing to help him fend off the outlaws.

High Noon is a bit of a loaded film. It was made in the midst of McCarthyism, and screenwriter Carl Foreman was a victim of anti-Communist blacklisting. As such, the idea of Will Kane looking for help but having his friends one by one turn their back on him takes on a powerful allegorical meaning. The film won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Cooper, and was nominated for three other; it did not win in the Best Screenplay category. The weakness of the townspeople also riled up a number of Hollywood’s biggest names, most notably John Wayne and Howard Hawks. Both were so disgusted with the portrayal of classic American Western in High Noon, they teamed up to make its antithesis in Rio Bravo in 1959. All of which makes High Noon have an interesting place in the social fabric of 1950s Americana, but how is it as a film?

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High Noon shows a bit of creaky arthritis around the edges, and the plot certainly feels a touch predictable at times, but what I like about it is its central motif of “no one being there when you need them.” One by one, each townsperson backs down and turns away from Kane. I’m fascinated by the reasons given for each of them, highlighting the various ways in which people are weak. There is the judge who sentenced the outlaw five years ago, being upfront about his cowardice and getting out of Dodge. There is a former deputy who will only join Kane if Kane helps him with a promotion. Kane refuses, saying he will not buy his help, so the deputy resigns. There are tired old lawmen are too jaded to see the point in continuing to fight the good fight. There is the mayor, who is worried that the town will lose what are essentially described as tourist dollars if other towns hear of a gunfight in Main Street, so he pushes Kane to leave in order to avoid bad word-of-mouth. I enjoy that there is not just one reason given, but multiple. As sad as it is, most of the reasons sound somehow legitimate. These are not evil people, but weak people, each weak in their own unique way. Although at the time the film was bathed in anti-McCarthy aura, it is not wholly obvious nowadays; instead, I read something different in the film. The idea of knowing what the right thing to do is, but having everyone around you constantly argue and bicker and give weak-ass reasons to avoid doing it did NOT necessarily read Blacklisting to me; rather, I heard “Modern America Political Quagmire.” Again, I do not want to use these reviews to talk about politics, but I think that everyone can agree that it is near impossible to get anything done in American government these days. We constantly argue and snipe at one another while everything seems to be staying stagnant. The frustration I felt while watching High Noon was very much akin to that I have felt with the government and politicians. What’s good about High Noon is I was able to equate it with my own feelings; the original allegorical intent was not laid on too thickly to keep me from interpreting it in my own way.

The very weakness of the townspeople – the heart of the black streak that runs through the film – must have come for a shock back in 1952. This is the era of classic cut-and-dry Westerns, where the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black and there was a clear distinction between the two. Well, while Kane is clearly good and the outlaws he’s fighting are clearly bad, the condemnation of pretty much everyone else had to be a shock to the system of people thinking they knew what Westerns were all about. I can understand (without agreeing) why John Wayne labeled this an “un-American” film; it does not paint a positive picture of an American town. In coming years, the type of people shown in High Noon would continue to pop up in Westerns, only their flaws would become more pronounced as the genre grew edgier and darker. Hollywood had certainly produced dark and cynical films prior to High Noon, but the Western seemed to be considered untouchable; High Noon broke that rule.

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I love the musical theme of the song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” repeated again and again as part of Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score. It’s a painfully beautiful little song; plaintive and lamenting, with a repetitive percussion that symbolizes both a heartbeat and the ticking of a clock. I would rank it highly amongst my favorite movie music themes. I hope you like it too; if you don’t, they play it over and over again, and I can easily understand someone getting annoyed with that.

In terms of performance, I find Gary Cooper lacking. Yeah, he won Best Actor, but for what? For playing a particularly good version of himself? Fundamentally, I just don’t think Gary Cooper is a good actor, and no film has yet convinced me otherwise. I think he has two expressions: bland smiling and blank frown. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Gary Cooper. I just don’t think he’s a good actor. He always seems to play himself. With a Gary Cooper movie, I know exactly what I’m getting from him (bland smile, blank frown, everyone acting around him). I suppose I like his inherent charisma because, as I said, I enjoy Cooper, I just don’t think he’s a good actor.

Everyone else around him is superb. Grace Kelly in a career-making early role is fantastic as Kane’s flinty-as-steel Quaker bride. Thomas Mitchell, he of nearly every early Western you can think of, shows up as the mayor. A boyish Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) is Kane’s deputy who is out for what he can get. There’s also Lee Van Cleef, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, and Katy Jurado, all familiar faces. They are all great, and all of them play their roles to perfection.

If I was recommending classic Westerns, this is probably one of my go-tos. It’s short, it’s accessible, and it has a nice gimmick of taking place in real-time. It’s a bit stodgy, but I am convinced it was ahead of its time in terms of the dark streak running through it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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