A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 586 – The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game – October 7th, 2011

Going into this tonight I admit, I was a little nervous. I’d last seen it in high school for a class and I vividly recall being incredibly taken with it. The problem was I couldn’t for the life of me remember just what about it had interested me. I had vague memories of some of the scenes and I knew most of it took place in a huge hunting lodge in the French countryside. I knew there was a theme of infidelity and that someone died. I knew it was in black and white. I had a mental image of a particular shot of one of the characters. And that was it. That’s all I could remember. So I was nervous that I would watch it for a second time, fifteen years later, and be appalled at my own taste.

Fortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I’m still not entirely sure what specifically caught that much of my interest, but while I wasn’t as swept away by it this time as I was before, I did enjoy it. And watching it with a more critical eye was kind of fun. I don’t always enjoy watching things critically like this. Sometimes I just want to sit back and let the movie play. But this movie all but invites some critical viewing. It wasn’t made to be an escapist fantasy or an action movie or anything like that. It was made as social commentary. The pity of it is that it’s social commentary on a society and time period I’m not terribly familiar with. So I can make some general comments, but the particulars of the mood of the country at the time aren’t my thing. Some of the finer points of the movie are just sailing right over my head and the best I can say is that I’m aware of it.

For anyone completely unfamiliar with this movie, it’s a French film from the late 1930s, pre-World War II. The story revolves around a number of relationships between various people. There are married couples and affairs and there’s flirting and arguing. Christine and Robert are a married couple living a life of luxury in Paris. Robert has a mistress (Genevieve) but whether or not Christine is seeing someone else is rather a mystery at first. A famous aviator, Andre, opens the movie by very publicly declaring that the woman he loves has disappointed him and as Christine has been rather close with him, well. Assumptions are made. Andre and Christine’s mutual friend, Octave, shows up and eventually everyone (yes, everyone, including Christine’s niece, who falls for Andre) is headed off to the countryside to Christine and Robert’s chateau.

I remember thinking at the time that I first watched this that there was something very Shakespearean about it all. The big house in the country and the huge group of people of various social roles and strata and the interplay between them all just seemed like it belonged on stage. Of course, at the time that I first saw this I’d been taking a course in Shakespeare for most of the school year, so I was primed to see everything in relation to it. Regardless, it did strike me again watching it now. I’m sure this sort of thing is older than Shakespeare and he wasn’t the only one doing it, but still. The setting feels like a cross between Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night but not played so much for obvious laughs. Then too, while I was told by a college professor that the theory of simultaneous plots for upper and lower class audiences in Shakespearean plays is total bullshit (he was less coarse than that, but his meaning was quite clear), I still maintain that regardless of the intended audiences, plays like Twelfth Night did indeed often have multiple groups of characters playing out their own stories at the same time. And that happens here too. While Christine and Robert and Genevieve and Andre Christine’s niece, Jackie and Octave all dance around each other, Christine’s maid is at the peak of an entirely separate triangle.

Lisette, the maid, is married to the game warden at the chateau. It suits her just fine to live in the city with Christine and Robert where she can carry on her own affairs without worrying about her husband’s reaction. She’s very clear about that when Christine asks her about it. Meanwhile, Genevieve tells Robert that he should just tell Christine about the two of them. When Robert declines, saying Christine wouldn’t understand, Genevieve complains that if Robert had married Parisian woman it would be different. Expected. Christine, on the other hand, is Viennese, and it is assumed that she has entirely different standards. The same could be said of Lisette and her husband. She is a Parisian woman married to a man who’s not from Paris and who therefore has different expectations. And when they’re all put back together in a confined space and forced to be a little more honest about their actions than they were prepared to be, well. That’s where the conflict in the movie comes from.

One of the things I find so interesting about this movie is that gender isn’t really as much of a consideration as one might expect from a movie made in the 1930s. Yes, the men do talk about their rights towards women and how they really should just be allowed to have all the women they want. But on the other side of it, the women are just as interested in having as many men as they want. Neither group comes out looking any more virtuous than the other and neither really comes out looking any worse. The only people who aren’t sleeping around as of the beginning are Christine and Schumacher (the game warden) and Schumacher’s the only one who doesn’t want to sleep around and he ends up shooting up the place. It’s an equal opportunity tangle.

It’s a beautifully made movie with an excellent cast and I did enjoy watching it for a second time. I’m so relieved that it didn’t disappoint me somehow. I do idly wish that I knew more about the time period and society on display because it’s clear that the movie is making points about it all and I’m missing them. But even without the specifics of the social commentary going on, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable movie.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 567 – It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night – September 18th, 2011

Early on in my relationship with Andy he went on a little bit of a mission to introduce me to movies he enjoyed but that I hadn’t seen. See why this project really is perfect for us? I remember two specific titles from that time. I remember watching them in my parents’ living room. It’s entirely likely that there were more than two, but the ones I remember are The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and this. And regardless of any other reason, that’s why I put it on the list of things I wanted to add to the collection for this project. Oh, I enjoy the movie itself, it it’s the experience of watching it with Andy that sticks in my mind more than anything on the screen.

Watching this again for the first time in over ten years, I will admit I had glossed over a few things in my memory. And I’d like to think that they’re things from the time period the movie was made in and set in and that romantic comedies today are better. But I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail and enough of What Women Want to know better. Modern romantic comedies aren’t really much better in terms of how the male lead treats and talks about the female lead. They’re just a little more oblique about it. But such is the case with romantic comedies in general. At least with one from 1934 I can pretend we’ve progressed since then and we would never now see a man throw a woman over his shoulder and forcibly remove her from the scene over her protests. Silly me! That’s totally a thing of the past. I’m sure such romantic comedies as The Bounty Hunter are better than that. And so long as I don’t watch them, I can live in peace.

Anyhow! Since this movie is from the 1930s it is, of course, in black and white. I do love a good black and white movie. And it stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. I’ve got to admit, Gable’s never been my cup of tea. He’s all well and good, but he doesn’t bowl me over. Colbert, on the other hand, is fantastic. I love her in this role, even if she was reticent about taking it in the first place. I think perhaps she is what makes this movie memorable for me. Because her role could be so very unpleasant. She plays Ellie Andrews, a rich and spoiled heiress who married a man against her father’s wishes. When her father tries to hold her on his yacht for long enough to get the marriage annulled, Ellie dives over the side and swims to shore to try and reach New York before her father’s men catch her. Now, on one hand there’s the pretty clearly gross control being exerted over Ellie by her father. On the other, it becomes apparent over the course of the movie that she married as a show of rebellion, and that it wasn’t marriage that her father objected to so much as the groom in particular. Okay. Fine. Let’s move on. The thing is, if you accept that Ellie is the sort of person who does things like marrying a man her father hates just to spite him then that doesn’t cast her in the best light. But the combination of the script, which provides a good amount of information about the total lack of privacy and autonomy Ellie’s always lived with, and Colbert’s portrayal of a young woman desperate to live her own life, the character becomes more than sympathetic.

I have a much harder time finding Clark Gable’s Peter Warne sympathetic, mostly because he seems to be just as much of a controlling ass as every other man in her life and the character feels like an eerie precursor to the paparazzi of today. When he realizes just who this young lady on the bus to New York is, he tells her he won’t say a word so long as she sticks with him and he gets and exclusive on her story when they reach New York. If she doesn’t stick with him then he’ll go straight to her father. Yuck. And it’s not a ploy for her attention at that point in time. He thinks she’s a spoiled brat. And she is spoiled and she is sort of bratty, but she gets better as the movie goes on and she’s introduced to the regular world (as opposed to the extremely privileged but prohibitively sheltered world she’s been living in). Peter, on the other hand, remains sort of a jerk for much of the movie. A charming jerk, but still. That’s the character. Part of the story is that while Ellie is falling for Peter, Peter remains aloof, not wanting to admit to how he feels about her.

And why is that important? Well, this is a romantic comedy, after all. Which means the two leads can’t possibly just tell each other they’re interested and live happily ever after. One hallmark of the genre is crossed wires and a big to-do at the end where one thinks the other’s not interested and someone has to help them sort things out. Not present in every romantic comedy, but it’s definitely something I consider fairly standard. So by the end, when Peter wants to ask Ellie to marry him and Ellie’s totally smitten, does he tell her? No. Instead he takes off in the middle of the night, doesn’t tell her he’s leaving, let alone where he’s going and why, and she wakes up to the owners of the camp site they’re staying in kicking her out because clearly she can’t pay. She assumes Peter’s run off on her and since he hasn’t said anything to imply that he returns her feelings, she also assumes he’s gone for good. You can figure out how it plays from there. Watching it tonight I was struck by how similar the ending is to Spaceballs, of all things. But then, Mel Brooks knows movies.

So okay, viewed today it’s nothing out of the ordinary. But as a piece from its time it’s a little different. A little interesting. Certainly I think it handles itself better than many romantic comedies, regardless of time period. And the writing and acting are both well done. By the end of the movie I end up even liking Ellie’s father. It’s got some good laughs in it, especially when Ellie and Peter have to improvise some play-acting to convince people looking for Ellie that she’s someone totally different. The people leave, they go back to normal, and then the next knock on the door sends them right back into their act. It’s a nice little bit of connection between the two characters, regardless of the content of the play-acting itself. The content isn’t the point. The point is that these two people who never intended to ever be in this sort of situation are working together without having to discuss things ahead of time. And that in turn makes the eventual ending more believable than not. And that, along with fond memories of the first time I saw it, are why we have this in our collection.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 536 – The Big Six

The Big Six – August 18th, 2011

You know, if we were going to watch a short movie last night, we really should have watched this back to back with its companion piece. But the plans we’d had last night, and the reason for watching Laserblast fell through and we watched it anyhow and saved this for tonight. I guess that’s actually a good thing, because this right here washed all the horrible aftertaste from Laserblast clean away. It’s another story from Arthur Ransome, again with Dick and Dot and their friends on the Broads, including Mrs. Barrable and her dog and Tom and the twins and the Death and Glories. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as much fun for me as the first one and I’m not sure if I can put my finger on why, but we’ll see.

It certainly isn’t because of the scenery or the acting or the overall tone of the piece. Those are all pretty much exactly the same as Coot Club. However, where the first movie was more an adventure story with mischief taking place, this story is definitely a mystery right from the outset. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s not the mystery so much as that in film format, there’s not as much room for explanation for why these characters act the way they do. The tension of the story requires that the vast majority of the village and the surrounding villages believe that the Death and Glories are entirely likely to do what they’re accused of, but if the events in the first movie are anything to go by, they’re well liked by just about everyone around. In a book – and especially in a book as densely written as Ransome tends towards – there’s ample space to explain events that have might have happened in between, or in the past. Likewise for George Owden, who’s clearly a bad sort in the first movie and clearly a bad sort in the second, yet believed far more easily by the adults than one would expect.

The mystery involves someone on the river casting boats adrift and framing the Death and Glories for it. Of course the Death and Glories have nothing to do with it, but wherever they go, boats lose their moorings overnight and people start to get pretty damn pissed. They go up the river to another village entirely, thinking they can hide out somewhere out of the way to prove their innocence when other boats go adrift. Except the villain of the story is specifically targeting them, so they only spread their problem. The rest of the children try to help them in various ways, hiding them, giving them assistance and so on and so forth. It only makes things worse when they help a fisherman land an enormous pike and an innkeeper pays them a hefty sum for it, but only if they keep it a secret so he can make a big unveiling of it once it’s mounted. So they’ve got money and no alibi and some stolen good are planted on their boat and it all seems like they’ll never be able to clear their names when Dick comes up with an idea using the amazing new technology of a flash pan for night photography!

Really, it’s a simple story. And you know from the outset that it can’t have been the Death and Glories, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re being framed. There’s no question there. And there’s no real tension either. It’s just a matter of waiting until Dick has his brilliant idea to solve everything. But between when they realize they’re being framed and then it just feels like there’s a lot of sailing up and down the river. They go up one way, then turn back. The twins go up by a sort of river-based hitchhiking to meet the Ds, Tom and Mrs. Barrable, then they get called back by their father. The Death and Glories go to one village, then have to run for it when more boats are unmoored and go to another village. Not that I really mind seeing a whole lot of sailing scenes on the river. That’s where a lot of the charm of the whole thing lies. It’s just that it starts to feel as though the story is an excuse to show a lot of sailing as opposed to the sailing being an integral part of it all.

Now, this is an issue with the story, not the movie specifically (since I can’t recall if it’s addressed in the book), but part of my issue with mysteries like this one is that there’s often something in the way of the truth and had it been revealed earlier a lot of fuss would have been avoided. In this case it’s the pike. The innkeeper tells them to keep it a secret, which is all well and good when it comes to the general public on the river, including the boys’ friends, but why not tell the police Constable who’s convinced they’re at fault? It would give them a solid reason for having the mysterious money everyone assumes they got from selling stolen goods and it would establish their whereabouts for at least part of the time. But they say nothing. This is something that comes up, frequently in children’s mysteries, and always bothers me. It’s a convenient and in my opinion cheap way to keep a mystery a mystery.

Anyhow, Dick saves the day with his camera and flash pan and with a photo of George Owden and his friend shoving a boat off its mooring the Death and Glories are off the hook. Their pike is revealed and hooray for the boys! Just like we all knew it would go. Truly though, it’s not the story that’s the point of watching this. The point is the boating and the setting and scenes like the kids all trying some smoked eel and finding it revolting and Port and Starboard hitching their way up the river by traveling with random boaters who take them on for a bit. It’s the atmosphere that I love here. And I’ve got to say, I do love the three Death and Glory boys. They’re good fun to watch and clearly having a good time with it. So despite my issues with the story, I still greatly enjoyed this. I think I’d put in its companion first, but I’f probably pop this in right after just to keep the mood going.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 534 – Coot Club

Coot Club – August 16th, 2011

When I was a child my father bought me several books that I didn’t read right away but eventually picked up and fell in love with. The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome was something my father loved when he was young, and he’d wanted to share them with me and I can see why. The stories are rollicking adventures for children, featuring kids on holiday, sailing and exploring and camping while pretending to be pirates and explorers and castaways. There’s a mild bit of danger but mostly a whole lot of imagination. The first several books are about the Swallows (the Walker family: John, Susan, Titty and Roger) and the Amazons (the Blackett family: Nancy and Peggy), so named because of the names of their respective sailboats. Eventually the Ds, Dot and Dick Callum, are introduced, and then they go off to have other adventures of their own.

Now, personally? My favorite books in the series are ones with Nancy and Peggy. They are, without a doubt, some of my favorite children’s book characters ever written. The series as a whole is really rather impressive when it comes to having girls off having rough and tumble adventures alongside the boys, especially given that they were written in the 1930s. I often recommend them to families with multiple children, boys and girls, who are a wide range of ages. They make good family reads, so long as a parent is prepared to use the dated bits and sometimes archaic terminology as teaching opportunities. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that these books are well loved in my family and I was more than thrilled to find that two of them (three actually, but we don’t have the third) were made into movies by the BBC in the 1980s. They’re out on DVD now, but I got our copies from work when we decided we simply didn’t have the space to keep a VHS collection and a DVD collection, especially since the DVDs were out-circulating the VHS tapes by a wide margin. I tossed a little more than the asking price towards the Friends of the Library and took them home with me. Having now seen them, I’m going to have to go ahead and buy the DVDs, because these are marvellous.

As I mentioned, there are stories with Nancy and Peggy Blackett and the Walkers and then the Ds and then the Ds go off on their own. This movie and its companion, The Big Six are both stories with the Ds and none of the others. I’ve never been quite as fond of Dot and Dick as I am of the others because they seem so much more pigeonholed than the rest. Dot’s the writer and Dick’s the inventor and Dot talks endlessly about how she’ll write up their adventures and Dick’s always got some gadget or other to save the day. My point is that they’re predictable in a way that the other characters aren’t. I suppose it’s to give them some sort of strength to make up for them not being sailors like the rest are. In this story, Dot and Dick are visiting a family friend, Mrs. Barrable, on the Norfolk Broads, spending a holiday living in her houseboat, the Teasel. While there they get involved in some mischief involving a number of the local children who call themselves the Coot Club because they’re all birdwatchers.

Early on in their trip, Dot and Dick meet local boy Tom Dudgeon. Tom gets himself in a bit of trouble when he asks a noisy motor cruiser to moor elsewhere so they aren’t blocking a bird nest with eggs ready to hatch. The people on the cruiser ignore him, of course, because they are horrible Hullabaloos, only interested in drinking and dancing to loud music and driving their boat too fast down the rivers and byways. Some of Tom’s friends had already asked them and been given the same nasty treatment, so Tom goes and unmoors the cruiser, setting it adrift. The rest of the movie involves various people hiding Tom, various other people searching for him and Tom and his friends worrying that he’ll be caught. Along the way we meet all of Tom’s friends, the rest of the Coot Club: There’s Port and Starboard, a pair of twins who live with their father and love to sail. No uses their real names, but one girl’s lefthanded and one’s righthanded, thus Port and Starboard. And there are the Death and Glories, a trio of boys who run a little steamboat called (what else) the Death and Glory. They’re very much ‘locals’ and their accents suggest they’re of a somewhat different class than Tom and the twins, but at least in the movie, that doesn’t really ever play into things. I can’t recall if it does in the book, but I find it interesting that there’s such a distinctive class marker included in the characters and then it’s ignored because the important bit is that they’re Tom’s friends.

Anyhow, there’s plenty of sailing and motoring and birdwatching and sneaking around. I’m not certain where precisely the movie was filmed and I’ve never been to the area in England where it’s meant to take place, but it feels authentic to me. Of course, I grew up on the coast in Massachusetts, with a beach down the street and an estuary nearby. Mazes of waterways through reeds and marshes are familiar to me, so maybe there’s something there. But the movie itself simply feels as though it’s filming a bunch of kids getting into trouble while they’re on vacation from school. Maybe it helps that none of them are terribly good actors. In another movie that might be cringe-inducing, but there’s nothing in this story that makes me wince. Nothing at all. Sure, they’re not great actors at the time, but they’re not terrible and there’s something about the kids in the movie that makes me feel as though they’re real. Not playing parts, but delivering lines. I hope they had a good time making the movie. I know I would have.

If you’re thinking this all sounds so very quaint, you’re right. That’s exactly what this is. It isn’t complicated and it sure as hell isn’t fancy. It’s sweet and simple and exactly what I expected from a BBC adaptation of this series. The story gets wrapped up neatly at the end, with no ill coming to Tom and with the Death and Glories coming out on top for having saved the Hullabaloos and Dot and Dick get to do some sailing and be clever and write a story so hooray for that! I can’t believe I never got around to watching these before now and I’m going to have to make them a tradition. And buy copies for my father. I’m absolutely certain he’ll love them.

August 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 469 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – June 12th, 2011

You know how the Star Trek movies have that thing where the odd numbered ones used to always be the bad (or relatively bad) ones and the even ones were good (until the reboot)? I think the Indiana Jones movies work the opposite way, with the odd numbered ones being good and the even numbered ones being unfortunate. Of course, I can’t say that for certain, having not seen the fourth one yet, but I remember thinking it the first time I saw this one. After all, even though I do enjoy the second one in places I will freely admit that it’s got some major problems and is vastly inferior to the first. It’s also vastly inferior to the third. So my theory holds true even without the fourth.

Part of what works so much better here is that while it is indeed formulaic, it’s gone back to the Christian relic + Nazi villains combination and brought back John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott as minor characters who firmly ground the character of Indiana Jones. And then there are some twists to the formula, with Indy’s father and a female lead who isn’t at all like either of the others. I think this basic formula is fairly solid, but it’s also somewhat limited. Keeping the villains as an easily recognizable group that there are no questions about the nastiness of is a good move. And keeping the relic Indy is looking for as something known and easily identified is also a good move. It means less scrambling to explain the importance of the item and why so many people want it. It uses existing folklore. So I forgive the movie its formulaic construction, because instead of flailing around like the second one did, it gets right down to business. And that business is kicking Nazi ass.

I do also like that this movie makes fun of itself. By this point, even with just two movies, it was pretty obvious that Indiana Jones was a cultural icon. The hat, the coat, the whip, the stubble. The fear of snakes! And this movie starts out right from the beginning by giving us some background, showing a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) starting off with his “this should be in a museum” attitude, facing off against a be-stubbled man in a leather jacket and a fedora. He falls into a tank full of snakes. He gets his whip. It’s all so very pat, but I find I don’t much care. After all, if we go with this being an homage to serials I would expect the hero’s background to be set out in such a way, with everything pointing towards his present representation. I also like that the beginning of the movie, with the somewhat unrelated adventure and artifact quest segment, isn’t just showing Indy doing what he does. It’s giving us character background as well as introducing Indy’s father and his fascination with the Holy Grail. It’s far more elegantly done than the Shanghai action scene from last night.

The story follows Indiana Jones as he heads off to track down his missing father. Sure, he’s also looking for the Holy Grail, but he flat out states that his father is his real reason for being there. Of course, he does get caught up in the search. And I like that about his character. He finds the hunt exciting and interesting and he does get wrapped up in it, gleefully making rubbings and destroying the floors of ancient buildings. Okay, so that last part makes me wince (it’s in a library) but the rest? It’s some nice character building. It makes his character more three dimensional.

It also helps that his father is played by Sean Connery, who is so perfect in his role I can’t find words for him. I love everything about his character, from his flirting to his chiding of his son to his disbelief that this is what archaeology involves these days. He is the perfect foil to the hero and he doesn’t do it by flailing around. And Indy needs a foil. He needs someone to point out that he’s not perfect. Because he isn’t and that’s part of his charm. He messes up and he gets smacked around and he doesn’t always win. He goes up against impossible odds and sure, in the movies he wins, but they’re hard wins. And in a series where he’s won several times it would be easy to fall into a bit of a trap with him. It’s why I had some trouble with the Spider-Man movies. Give a hero too many wins and he gets cocky. And when Indy gets cocky he needs someone there to remind him he’s not invincible. And Sean Connery does that with relish, happily calling him Junior and solving problems without going to the lengths that Indy would have. And he’s also a dedicated researcher, determined to find the Grail. Which gives them a point of mutual interest – research and the hunt for something long lost – that keeps their relationship from total antipathy.

I think it was a smart move to put the elder Dr. Jones into the movie when they did. The movie takes a bit of time with it, giving Indy a femme fatale to deal with (Dr. Elsa Schneider – who initially seems to be helping him) and some action scenes in a crypt full of rats and a boat chase through Venice. And that’s just enough. Okay, I admit that the secret brotherhood that were trying to protect the location of the Grail and their convenient knowledge of where Indy’s father was being held is a little more than I’d care for, I do like that they’re good guys. And when the Nazis show up and Elsa turns on them we get the elder Dr. Jones to take up the role of Indy companion and keep things interesting.

The other thing I especially like about this movie is that the supernatural element is kept to the end, like in the first movie. This isn’t a movie about supernatural things happening. It’s a movie about a single item with supernatural properties. Which to me is far more interesting and works better with the action archaeology concept that the series is built on. I would far rather see fights on top of moving tanks and Indy figuring out puzzles than have him deal with people with magic powers. And this time they kept the deadly puzzle room sequence for the final scenes, making it an integral part of the plot.

And that’s what I mean about the twists. The formula is all there, but there are tweaks to how each part is presented and I enjoy that. Oh, it’s not as brilliantly done as the first one, but nothing could be. I’d very much have liked a female lead who is both independent and positive, but at least Elsa is intelligent and capable, even if she is a villain in the end. And she’s just as fascinated by the hunt and the artifact as the Doctors Jones. Overall it’s a bit too crisp in places. A bit too obvious. But it’s also a lot of fun and gets it right the vast majority of the time. And that’s really all I ask.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 468 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – June 11th, 2011

Last night I promised a story about when I first saw this movie. While on vacation, my parents and some friends of theirs went out for dinner, leaving myself, my brother and the son of my parents with my great-aunt and uncle. Our viewing choices were limited. There was a tiny video place near the house we were staying in but it was roughly the size of a closet. Somehow my brother and I convinced my parents that this movie was a great choice for a night they’d be going out. So we sat with my great-aunt and uncle, who are very nice folks, and watched a man reach into another man’s chest and pull out his heart. Needless to say, my great-aunt and uncle were a little taken aback by what we’d rented for the night.

I was a little taken aback too, as I hadn’t really known what to expect but that certainly wasn’t anywhere close to what I’d been thinking. Mostly it was the sacrifice scene, and the whipping. It didn’t really bother me, as it’s patently ridiculous and unrealistic, but I’m sure my great-aunt and uncle would have preferred not to watch anything like that. And there is some speculation that this movie was one of the films that necessitated the introduction of the PG-13 rating. Too violent for a PG rating and not quite extreme enough for an R, so it got something in the middle. But like I said, it didn’t really bother me when I first saw it.

Of course, watching it now, I have a bit of a different response. I have a lot of problems with this movie, even if I do have fond memories of the experience of watching it for the first time. And I enjoy bits and pieces of it, but oh is it problematic. And it’s problematic in addition to be messy, but let’s start with the messy since it’s a lot easier to get into. For one, I think it’s pretty clear that the structure of this movie is an attempt to take the structure of the first movie and copy it. We begin in a foreign land where Indiana Jones is attempting to do something involving an artifact and an antagonistic figure who’s obviously going to double cross him and try to kill him. And then it turns out that this introduction has almost nothing to do with the eventual plot and it mostly existed to show how Indy is a bad-ass archaeologist. And then there was the main plot, which involved Indy, a lady friend and a sidekick all working together to recover an artifact with supernatural powers while facing off against a large antagonistic group of enemies.

The trouble here is that they applied the formula but didn’t think enough about how they were doing it. The initial introduction in Shanghai? Ridiculous, and it seems like an odd thing to have Indy doing – selling off a priceless artifact for a diamond? The fight scene in the club is laughably over the top, with the giant gong and the diamond and the poison. And it takes 20 minutes of the movie’s time. Not only that, but the bad guy here has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It all just seems like an excuse to stick Indy with this movie’s female lead and crash them in India. It feels out of place and clumsy. Then once we get to the main plot there’s a whole pile of backstory and it’s set up not to be an artifact Indiana wants to retrieve because he recognizes its importance. It’s this whole “Please, save our village by getting our magic stone you don’t believe in!” deal. Again, it’s an odd thing to set up for Indy. So off he goes to this palace that’s supposed to be deserted, I think? Except it’s obviously not and while the path there is overgrown and the locals won’t go near it, it’s clearly well populated and has not only a full complement of servants and dancers but also a young ruler and a bunch of wealthy guests both foreign and local. I’ve never quite gotten that. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s just lazy writing. I’m going with the latter.

Regardless, the next messy part of the formula is the bad guys, and here is where we segue into the problematic aspects of the movie. Now, one could explain the depiction of the Indian people in this movie and the Thugee cult as being something out of serials from the time period the movie is set in. But it’s one thing to look back at media from a given time period and know that racism and a total misrepresentation of “exotic” cultures was the norm and while not excusable, certainly expected for the time. One of my favorite series of children’s novels are from the 1930s and while the vast majority of them are fantastic, two so very clearly show their age that I flat out tell parents not to take them unless they’re up for a discussion of racist depictions and British colonialism in writing from that decade. But while I can work with that, I cannot work with this. Because it wasn’t made in the time period it takes place in. It was made in the 1980s by people who should have known better. In fact, talks to film parts of this movie in India fell apart because of the movie’s depiction of Indian people, and I’m not at all surprised.

The baddies here are a secret cult that are called Thuggee but I suspect they have little to no resemblance to the actual group the name comes from. I’m afraid I’m not terribly well versed in Indian culture, history or religious practices (of any of the major religions practiced in India) so I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that ritual human sacrifice into lava wasn’t typical. But oh, it’s all supposed to be unrealistic and supernatural and they’re supposed to be a secret cult of bad guys so of course they’re evil! Still doesn’t make it okay. You’re still talking about some absolutely horrible misrepresentation, not to mention having the vast majority of Indian characters in the movie playing evil roles. And on top of that, I honestly think the Thuggee cult was a foolish idea for antagonists anyhow. The first movie had the easily recognizable Nazis as the baddies. And I get that they didn’t want to just make another Indy vs. the Nazis movie, but to go from that to a movie where the bad guys are a largely fictional homicidal cult with some nasty racial overtones? It’s just unpleasant. And then there’s the voodoo doll and oh, what a messy situation this all is.

Add in a shrieky female lead who’s feisty yes, but not in the fun way Marion was and this movie just doesn’t have the charm of the first. Oh, it has all the necessary parts if you simply label them according to where they fit into the formula. It’s got Indy and his whip and it’s got the great mine cart chase scene and okay, the heart ripping scene is the sort of over the top ridiculousness I expect in a schlocky serial like what they’re alluding to. I like Short Round as the sidekick (yes, really) and the requisite cramped-tunnel-with-traps scenes are fun. But the major parts of the formula just don’t fit together as well as they did in the first movie. It’s a pity, but that’s the way it goes.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 402 – Miller’s Crossing

Miller’s Crossing – April 6th, 2011

I should not have watched this tonight. I’m having a very low energy evening after a tiring day and I should have taken the easy way out and watched something silly and simple and gentle on the brain. But I didn’t. Andy suggested this and I said sure and I should have known better because it’s the Coen brothers and they don’t do silly and simple and gentle on the brain. Okay, they do silly, but their version of silly usually involves screaming and people getting killed. But this isn’t silly. It’s the Coens’ version of a noir gangster flick and there is indeed screaming and people do indeed get killed. It’s also not simple or gentle on the brain. It’s got a twisty plot full of characters who don’t do much explaining. At one point I had to stop the movie and go over the set-up with Andy to make sure I had it right. And I didn’t. Like I said, low energy tonight.

When the movie begins we meet a number of sketchy characters. And I don’t mean that they’re not well developed. I mean they’re well developed to be sketchy. We’re talking gangsters and hit men and thugs and bookies and gamblers and snitches. We meet Johnny Caspar and Leo, two of the top level mob bosses in town. We meet their guys and find out that there’s some sort of rotten deal going on with fixed fights and someone leaking the fix and Leo’s protecting that someone (Bernie) and Johnny wants him dealt with but Leo won’t. Backing Leo up is Tom. And Tom? Tom is the one to watch. The movie revolves around Tom. He’s the central figure in a major battle between two rival mobs as they duke it out for control of the city. Tom’s a tricky one to figure out until you realize he’s really quite simple.

Tom is a survivor. Throughout the movie you see Tom cross and double cross and triple cross everyone. He sides with Leo, he fights with Leo, he goes over to Johnny, he calls the police on both sides and plays them like pianos. But he’s also always getting himself beat up. If he planned it all, it seems like a lot of it is awfully sloppy. But I don’t believe he planned it all. I believe that he is a clever man who can read a situation and go with whatever will hopefully get him out. When the situation changes, he changes his plan to suit. It’s fascinating for me to watch and to be honest, he reminds me of a character I very much enjoy, so once I realized what he was doing, I enjoyed watching him a lot more.

And it was tough going for a while there. The Coens like to present you with a number of unlikable or only semi-likable characters and let you struggle to pick out who you’re going to care about. But in a movie like this you really shouldn’t care about anyone. Don’t get attached, because they’re all bad guys, even Verna, Leo’s girlfriend (whom Tom is sleeping with). So I think it’s better to not care about these people. Instead look for things to find interesting about them. I don’t really care about Tom as a person. But do I want to see him survive the movie? Yes. Because I wanted to see how he’d manage it.

As the movie goes on, with Tom getting himself in deeper and deeper and people getting killed and people disappearing, it starts to look like no one’s going to make it out alive. Everyone’s got it in for everyone else and it’s going to come down to who gets to fire first. I really wish I’d been more on top of my game tonight so I could have appreciated the twists and turns a little better. What I did appreciate were the performances. I can honestly say I really truly loved Gabriel Byrne as Tom. Watching him work through each new development became my reason for continuing to pay attention to the movie. And I have to give some serious credit to Albert Finney as Leo and J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, one of Johnny’s thugs. Jon Polito and John Turturro were both good as Johnny and Bernie, respectively, but to be honest I don’t think either had to stretch much for the roles they were given. I wish there’d been more of a role for Marcia Gay Harden as Verna, but I wasn’t shocked that there wasn’t. Still, she did well with what she had.

Halfway through this movie I wasn’t enjoying it terribly much. I could acknowledge that it was pretty and that the score was bizarrely light (it’s not the minor key sort of sound you expect) and that the combination of the visuals and score and performances made for a nicely put together movie. But I wasn’t having fun watching it. And then, well, I latched onto Tom and that was all it took. Maybe on another day I’d feel differently about it and if that sort of character doesn’t do it for you then, well, I can’t be of much help. It did it for me. Not my favorite Coen brothers movie, but it does have a Coen brothers character who’s now high on my list.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 299 – It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life – December 24th, 2010

How does one begin to review this movie? It is a quintessential classic about community and giving and sharing and family and desperation at a time of year when many people surely feel the same way. It’s certainly dated, and I find myself annoyed at it for what was acceptable at the time and is now more than distasteful. But it’s also timeless in its message and story and tone, so I can look past the dated stuff and focus on everything positive about the movie, and there is a lot of positive.

There was a time when this wasn’t a Christmas classic, but that was before I was old enough to really think about it. Now it’s one of the staples of my family. Something we can always put in around this time of year and leave running in the background even if we’re busy baking or wrapping presents or goofing off as we are wont to do. In fact, we watched this with my family this evening after Christmas Eve dinner and we spent much of the time talking and joking and looking up trivia about the movie and pointing out anachronisms and goofs and over-analyzing it and singing Buffalo Gals. I think we probably missed half the movie. I know I wasn’t watching the whole scene at the dance and only caught the tail end where George and Mary are dancing ever closer to the edge of the pool. And yet I can’t really tell where I came in, because I know the movie so well that I know how it all goes.

Do I have to describe it? This might well be the introduction of the concept of alternate universes for most people, or at least the root of other inspired works. After all, we watched a movie just last week that was clearly a take on this theme and I’ve seen it done in many more places. The final episodes of the Highlander tv series used this plot device, even. A man with a full life but also many regrets falls onto desperate times and wishes he’d never been born (thinking that everyone around him would be better off). With a little divine intervention he’s shown just how wrong he is when he sees the world as it would be without his existence. People are harsher, meaner, lost, dead, thoroughly changed in unthinkably sad ways. The world is worse off. It’s all about showing how one person can make a difference in the lives of others and not even know it.

In this, the classic version of the story, George Bailey is the main character. He’s lived his whole life in a small town and seen all of his friends leave and make big lives for themselves. He sacrifices and gives and works himself sick for the people in the town of Bedford Falls. He gives up a trip to Europe that he’d saved for. He gives up college. He gives up his honeymoon. He never gets to see the world or get out of his home town. Instead he stays and puts every ounce of energy he has into his father’s old Savings and Loan, which he is adamant the town needs so as to not become thoroughly beholden to the stingy and cruel Mr. Potter (who runs the bank). George falls in love with Mary, who’s always had a thing for him, and they set up house right there in town. But it’s one of those situations where it feels like no matter how much you give, you never get anything back and nothing goes right. We get to see George’s life and how desperate he’s been to leave and how conflicted he is about staying. When everything goes to hell and he thinks the S&L’s lost eight grand and he’ll be going to jail, well. It’s just too much. He wants to die. Worse, he wants to never have lived.

From there you know how it goes. He meets his guardian angel, who shows him Bedford Falls without him. His old boss spent time in jail since he wasn’t there to fix a mistake he made. No one knows him. Potter owns the whole town and everyone lives in shacks and slums. Violet, a woman who flirts with him outrageously in the regular world and is usually all dolled up but a nice gal at heart, is a drunk without George around. His mother is a bitter old widow who lost George’s brother as a boy since George wasn’t there to pull him out of a freezing pond. His friends are nasty and mean. And his wife? Well, Mary is… a LIBRARIAN! (Cue the gasp of horror – she even wears GLASSES!) Truly, everyone is suffering without George. And so he returns and everyone shows up to help him the way he’s helped them in the past and it all turns out just fine.

It’s a nice message, that if you give aid to others they’ll give it back when they can. It seems to me it’s a wonderful bit of Christmas spirit and puts me in mind of an incident that happened this year on this awesome blog where people started donating to other people just… because they needed it. And people who got more than they needed turned around and donated it to others. It’s that sort of message. True, in real life there are plenty of people who toil and work and give and give and give and don’t get recognized in any way. And that, I say, is a fucking travesty. Because when someone is a George Bailey, they should be recognized. But in this movie there is this wonderful ideal of community and friendship. True, it would be nice if the people who came through for George at the end had maybe been there for him more before that, but they showed up when it was needed. At Christmas. And George didn’t say he wanted to world to go back the way it was because of himself. He wanted it to go back because he knew while he was miserable, he’d truly made a difference, and other people would be happier. Again, idealized, but a nice message.

Now, there are some negatives here. The movie has a couple of racial stereotypes that make me wince, and George’s brother’s actions towards the family’s cook (an African American woman) are reprehensible at best. While there are some great lines and bits between George and Mary after the dance, his refusal to give her back her robe when she’s hiding in the bushes, ostensibly naked, makes me cringe. And his off-hand comment about the police being on his side is exceedingly gross. And Mary’s tragic alternate life as a spinster librarian always makes me laugh at its dramatic sting. But, well, time period, you know? It doesn’t make it okay, but it does explain some of where it comes from. And there are some bizarre bits that don’t seem to fit the time at all, like Mary’s line to her mother, snappily telling her that George “is making violent love to [her]” when her mother is snooping, which seems so out of place in the time. But as I said I pass over it and focus on the good stuff, like the fantastic plot and Jimmy Stewart’s amazing acting. I love him in this role. I love how desperate he is through the whole movie. How trapped he is and how he conveys it with facial expressions alone in several scenes.

It’s one of those movies people just know. It’s grown hugely in popularity to the point where it’s a cultural touchstone, and I like that. I honestly think, unfortunate racial and gender implications aside, that it is an excellent movie with wonderful acting and a fantastic script and plot. It’s quotable and easy to reference. It teaches a nice lesson that could be for Christmas or could be any time. And so it is our penultimate Christmas movie for this year. Sweet and heartfelt and a joy to watch.

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 298 – The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights – December 23rd, 2010

When we planned this little mini-project, with twelve days of Christmas movies, I knew exactly which day I wanted to watch this on. It is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie out of all of our regulars. I’ve been watching it at least once a year at Christmas time since I was a kid. We first saw it on our local PBS and fell in love with it instantly. The next year they showed it again and we thought to tape it, but it was an edited version, only two hours long instead of almost three. Such a disappointment. We cherished our somewhat illicit tape, watching it once a year only, to keep it from wearing out. And well into my adulthood, with eBay and Amazon and the like making it easier to find such things, I located an NTSC copy of the full version and snapped it right up. And so tonight, for my birthday, I am watching the full version of my favorite Christmas movie, in excellent condition, while making cookies with my mother. All in all, the perfect way to spend a Christmasy birthday evening.

You might not have heard of this one. I’ve met people who have, but most of them are from the UK. It’s just not as well known around here. It’s based on a children’s novel by John Masefield and is a rollicking adventure about a magical box and an evil sorcerer bent on getting it and Christmastime and mythology. There’s some stuff with King Arthur and Herne the Hunter. There’s a trip back in time and demons and robberies and kidnappings. It’s a highly unusual story, and I love it thoroughly.

Having read the book this is based on, I can say with some authority that it’s very true to it. There are some things changed, but they were minor enough that they made little impact on me and I honestly can’t say what they are. Some additional description, probably. Some more magical stuff. But from what I recall it cleaves very closely to the book. Which is fantastic, because the book is a ton of fun too.

I’m going to attempt to explain the plot here, but I warn that I am quite certain I won’t be able to truly impart the charm this movie has. Please just believe me on that point. Kay Harker, a boy returning home for the holidays from school, meets a Punch and Judy man who turns out to be the keeper of a magical box that allows one to fly, shrink and go inside of it to have magical adventures in fantasy lands and the past. The evil sorcerer Abner Brown, whom Kay has dealt with in the past, is trying to get his hands on the box, but the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, gives it to Kay. Abner and his gang – masquerading as the staff and students of a theological college near Kay’s home – kidnap (or ‘scrobble’ as the movie puts it) person after person to try and figure out who has the box. He takes Hawlings. He takes Kay’s governess, Caroline Louisa. He takes clergyman after clergyman, believing that since the local cathedral is planning its 1000th Christmas mass and won’t be able to run it without the local clergy, someone will step forward and give over the box in order to save the big celebration. Kay and his friends, a family of children who are staying with him for the holidays, have to find out what’s going on and stop Abner and his gang and rescue all their prisoners – including the clergymen – before midnight mass on Christmas.

Throughout the course of the movie Kay has many adventures. The villains in the movie are characterized as wolves and the phrase used to warn that there’s villainy about is that the wolves are running. Kay helps Arthur fight them off and defend a caste. He learns about them from Herne the Hunter. He shrinks down and talks to a mouse living in the walls of his home and he goes into the past to try and find the creator of the box and ask him to come forward in time and take it back with him so people will stop fighting over it. And the movie ends with Kay, stuck tiny because he’s lost the box, riding around in Abner’s pant cuff in secret, helping free prisoners and learning all about Abner’s devious plot.

The movie features plenty of wonderful shots of the British countryside (the movie was filmed mostly in Worcestershire), both green and covered in snow. Kay and his friends have a grand time, even though there’s clearly some nasty stuff going on and the stakes are rather high. The story is set in the mid 1930s and it’s got a fantastic period feel. We (being my mother and myself, specifically) especially love some of the language used, like scrobble, splendiforous, and the purple pim. The last is used as an exclamation, as in “Being scrobbled really is the purple pim!” We use it all the time and laugh whenever we do.

The adults you see a significant amount of are Abner and his gang (Patricia Quinn plays one of them, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, with relish) and Cole Hawlings. Abner is played by Robert Stephens, and he has this wonderful delivery for his lines. Sure, in any other movie it would be scenery chewing, but it’s perfect here and same for Patricia Quinn. The kids playing Kay and his friends are fine, but really the stand out is Joanna Dukes as the spitfire Maria (she’s been expelled from four boarding schools and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear her name). I love Maria. But then there’s Cole Hawlings, the mysterious old man who gave Kay the box in the first place. He’s played by a familiar name to anyone who knows Doctor Who: Patrick Troughton. You might not recognize him under the wild hair and bushy beard, but he does a magnificent job with the role.

If you are at all interested in seeing this, and I hope anyone reading this will be, I would encourage you to see if you can find the full version. There’s about 40 minutes more material and while there are some “comedic” bits with a foolish police constable who doesn’t believe Kay, there are also some extra bits of magic and time travel and conversations and it’s well worth it. And, well, if you can’t find the long version do the short version anyhow. It’s worth it too. I truly love this movie and I’ve loved it for years. There is nothing else like it and it’s not really Christmas for me until I’ve seen it. There are some fantastic bits of animation and a whole lot of adventures and evil plots and magic. All to stop a villain from getting his hands on a magical box and to save Christmas (just ignore the cop-out ending). An odd combination to be certain, but a wonderful one. Splendiforous, even.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 240 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – October 26th, 2010

The only excuse I can come up with for not having seen this before is that until this project, I wasn’t making time in my days to watch movies and I’d never come across it on television. It has a few actors I really enjoy watching (Jude Law and Angelina Jolie) and the mood is this great mix of noir ambiance, adventure serial and steampunk timeline. Oh, and it’s got Bai Ling. How could I resist? And yet I’d never seen it. I’d only heard the title and heard the Futurama “Welcome to the WOOOOOOOOORLD of TOMORROW!” line in my head and never bothered to put it in. So very foolish of me.

According to IMDB, it was, at one point, envisioned as a serial, in the vein of Commando Cody and Undersea Kingdom, which makes perfect sense to me, since my first reaction to Sky Captain himself was to think of Commando Cody. Fortunately for Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, he doesn’t have to tweak his nipple knobs to take to the sky. No, he gets a good old airplane to zip around in. There is a jet pack in the movie, but a more awesome character gets it. Everything about this movie is homage to the classic adventure serials and movies and comics of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. It’s got giant robots (some with awesome tentacle arms), an island full of dinosaurs, a mad scientist, a rocket that will incinerate Earth, a plucky and brash reporter and a dashing and brusque pilot, a genius sidekick and a mysterious villain! It’s got explosions and daring chases and evil plots that stretch around the world. It is everything a pulpy serial could ever want, filmed entirely in bluescreen and starring some big name actors.

Now, I mentioned noir above and the movie certainly has a noir-ish feel to it. Part of it is the overall lighting effects and visual style of the movie, as well as the time period. But it’s also got its opening scenes, with a mysterious package being delivered to reporter Polly Perkins. Her whole introduction feels like something out of a murder mystery smack in the middle of the 1940s, except soon enough there are giant robots in the streets of New York and Sky Captain himself is introduced in his plane, shooting the robots and seemingly saving the day. Hooray Sky Captain! Of course it turns out that Polly and Joe have some history together and of course they need each other to discover what’s been going on with the giant robots and seven missing scientists. So off they go, racing to Nepal to save their mechanical genius friend, Dex, who’s been kidnapped by the robots and taken off to the source of robots’ commanding signal. Adventures abound, as does snarky banter between Polly and Joe.

To be honest, I could have done with a little less period-authentic attitude from Joe. I want to like my heroes, not spend more than a handful of moments in the movie wanting to slap him for being an ass. And Polly’s fine much of the time, but she had her moments too. Really, they deserve each other. Good thing there’s more to like about them than dislike. Polly’s stubborn and certainly brave, if not always thinking ahead about what her bravery will do. Joe’s very good at what he does, which is flying mostly, but also being a hero, which is kind of the point. But they both come across as the sort of people who get into trouble and then get out of it through their own determination and wits. I like that sort of thing in a character (or two). So I can forgive the misogyny, or at least cheer when a certain crack pilot gets punched later on.

After reading that there’d been at least some thought about making this a serial, I started paying attention to it that way and I can see it. There are some episodic bits, going from place to place, plot point to plot point, crisis to crisis. But really, it all flows very nicely. It feels cohesive, and has a great overarching plot that ties everything together. No, it’s not anything astounding that will make you gasp or surprise you in any way, but that’s not the point. Going into this, you’re supposed to expect the mad scientist planning on destroying Earth. That’s a given. Very little here is shocking at all. But fun? Oh yes. The huge flying airstrips (where we meet Angelina Jolie’s Franky), the tentacle-armed robots, the tiny elephant? All fun. Same for the plot and the script. It’s the sort of movie that makes you grin because it’s so obviously in love with its source material and thrilled to be presenting it in a new light.

Given how this movie was made, with the blue screen work and all, and its main cast of known names, mixed with its odd modern take on classic serials, I’m not surprised that it’s slipped through the cracks for some people. It’s really too bad. I’d love to see a sequel, to be honest. But I’m guessing a sequel to this is as likely as a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai. Still, wouldn’t Sky Captain Against the World Crime League be a fantastic idea?

October 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment