A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 634 – Medium Cool

Medium Cool – November 24th, 2011

I first saw this movie as part of a film class in high school. It was the same class I watched The Rules of the Game for. The Deerhunter too, though we don’t own that one. This movie is the one that’s probably stuck with me the most. Enough that there are bits and pieces of it I still remember over a decade after last seeing it. And it’s a weird one, but well worth watching. The trouble is, it’s kind of hard to find. We had to buy it on VHS as the DVD copies were well out of our price range. We did get a mint-in-shrinkwrap copy (still sealed with its stickers and everything), but a VHS nonetheless. If you’re at all interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan, violence in media or protest culture in the 1960s in the US, you should see this.

One of the most disorienting things for me when I watch this movie now is the soundtrack. The vast majority of it is exactly as I remember from my first viewing. There is one notable exception, however, and it is so incredibly jarring that I think it bears mention. Violence and how people respond to it is a major theme of the movie. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the movie where the main character takes a date to a roller derby game where violence is a spectacle. In the original version of the movie, Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer plays over this scene. The bizarre nature of the song makes the scene feel like it’s part of a strange alternate world. It’s a slightly aggressive song in that it’s mostly shouted, but also repetitive (which is emphasized by its subject: the merry go round). In the home release? Paramount didn’t have the distribution rights for the song. So it’s replaced with the Harlem Globetrotters theme. Which, as one might think, changes the tone entirely. If you do watch this, and you find a version that doesn’t have Merry Go Round? Pull up this video and mute the damn whistling during the roller derby and play that instead.

The story is a little disjointed and I’d always wondered why, but doing a little reading up on the movie explained it. Originally Haskell Wexler went to Paramount proposing to make a movie about a boy moving to the city from Appalachia. Then the Chicago Democratic National Convention was going to be in town and Wexler shifted gears, morphing his original concept into a piece of cinema verite about media and violence and observation versus involvement and the time and place the movie was filmed in. So while we do still have a young boy – Harold – in Chicago, the story is more focused on a television cameraman named John who prides himself on never getting involved in what he films. Through the course of the film he becomes more involved in the world around him and finds out that the footage he’s been filming has been given to the FBI. After that he ends up involved with Harold’s mother, Eileen, and the movie concludes with John and Eileen in the midst of the riots during the convention, looking for Harold, who’s gone missing.

While Harold, Eileen, John and several other characters were played by actors and spoke scripted lines, they were often filmed in undressed streets and sets and the movie is chock full of documentary footage of various events and places. Wexler had a suspicion that something would happen at the convention and so did the US Army. Some of the footage in the movie was filmed during training drills for soldiers, practicing what to do in a protest riot situation, with the actor playing John present in that footage. John is a character, pretending to film, while Wexler films him, but he’s also being filmed with a bunch of soldiers who are not actors, going through training exercises that aren’t fictionalized. There’s a lot of improvisation and a lot of real people not playing roles. The movie doesn’t just follow the linear story but also goes off on tangents, bringing in bits and pieces about race, violence, class, etc. It’s very much a two hourish snapshot of Chicago in 1968.

I recently got a copy of the DVD from work and got to listen to the commentary. One actress is asked if they got along on set and she said yes, because they felt they were “there for a higher purpose” to show some sort of truth about what was going on in the world at the time, even if they themselves didn’t fully understand it. They trusted that Wexler had a view for the movie and for what he wanted to say with it. I find that to be a fascinating statement. It seems to be a sign of the times, of a sort. They all knew there was something big going on. Something important and something worth talking about and presenting to the world. But they couldn’t quite articulate it on their own, for the most part. Not that I think it’s unique to the 1960s in the US. I think it’s something that happens in every generation, whenever there is upheaval. But it also says something about this movie. It puts its time and place out there for you to see, in a combination of documentary and staged scenes, to tell what Haskell Wexler saw as the truth of it all, in its messy glory. It’s a collection of bits and pieces that form a portrait of the times. Wexler keeps the pauses and awkward moments because they provide a sort of meta filmmaking. An acknowledgement that this is fiction while at the same time pointing out just how real so much of it is.

The commentary also talks about how the movie was originally rated X, ostensibly because of nudity and language, but truly it was a “political X.” The language and the nudity (the latter of which Wexler offered to take out and the former of which they tried to compromise on) weren’t really the issue. The politics were the issue. Given that the movie not only showcased racial tension, class struggle and the riots around the convention, I’m honestly not shocked. I mean, the scene where John goes to talk to a cab driver and ends up being confronted by a group of African American men and women who want to talk about race? That scene makes me uncomfortable. And it should. It’s not meant to be a comfortable scene and it’s not meant to be a comfortable situation. That is the point. In the commentary they mention how the impassioned speech made at the end of that scene was written by Wexler, but it came through as genuine enough that other people on set, who had been improvising many of their own lines, congratulated the actor who gave the speech, thinking it was his own. It felt true to them. It felt real. And given how uncomfortable it makes me in the here and now, I would guess that the people in charge of film ratings at the time were positively terrified by its implications. And that’s not even the most dangerous of things this movie does.

This movie doesn’t shy away from showcasing the uglier sides of things. Not just the dramatic, like the riots, but the everyday ugly of poverty and prejudice and violence and sexism. The things that grind people down or put neverending pressure that ends up causing explosions. Presenting those things, putting them out there as things that exist, things that affect us, instead of ignoring them or covering them up or pretending they don’t exist? That’s dangerous. Acknowledging that things are not perfect? That’s dangerous. Of course this movie was rated X to start with. It’s not that it showed a woman’s breasts or a man’s butt or taught people any new obscenities. It’s that it showed flaws in the world we live in. Hell, that still gets people worried now. And as the movie ends we hear the crowd chanting “The whole world is watching.” And we still are.

November 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 592 – Animal House

Animal House – October 13th, 2011

By all rights I should hate this movie. It’s not like I relate to it, given that my own college experience was so very different than the one portrayed in this movie and I’m not a guy. It’s full of raunchy humor, drinking, objectification of women and one dead animal joke. On the other hand, the cast is fantastic, a fair amount of the humor is fun no matter what and the pay off at the end is some of the best chaotic revenge one could ask for. But honestly, I’m still baffled by how much I enjoy this movie. I feel almost like I should be ashamed.

I should start out by explaining my own college experience. I had friends who drank, but I never did and even the friends I had who did drink didn’t party quite that hard. Heavy drinking was really an occasional thing and wild parties weren’t thrown spontaneously – they were planned properly and we got permits for them from the school and everything. So it should go without saying that they weren’t too wild. The wildest party I attended while I was there was a party thrown for the whole college (sounds weak, but it was an annual bash and we had bouncers out of necessity). In this movie, some of the main characters take a little bit of a road trip to Emily Dickinson College, where they trick some nice young women into going on a date with them. My college? Was more like Emily Dickinson College. This is why I feel like I should be a little ashamed. But I can’t really bring myself to be ashamed. I’m usually too busy snickering.

By now this movie is a classic, so let’s dispense with the plot summary quickly. Because it’s an ensemble piece it’s not really about the personal journey of any one character. And really, it’s not about a personal journey for anyone. It’s about a fraternity, Delta Tau Chi, whose members are more interested in partying than classes and how they’re targeted by the college administration and then get their revenge. And let’s face it: everything the school administrators say about the frat is true. They are lazy and their house is an absolute mess. They’re loud and they’re obnoxious and they throw noisy drunken parties at the drop of a hat. Their grades are abysmal and they’re not really involved in any activities. They’d make horrible neighbors and they certainly wouldn’t be enhancing the reputation of the school. But since the administrators and their rival fraternity members are all such assholes, where the Deltas are shown as fun guys who aren’t looking to put anyone else down so much as they just want to have a good time, well. You can’t help but root for them.

It’s really a very silly situation. In real life I’m sure I wouldn’t be rooting for them, but this movie presents them just enough on the side of “lovable scamps” that I do. Granted, they’re college-age scamps and their scampering is more along the line of throwing toga parties and causing mayhem during the homecoming parade. Still, that’s the light they’re shown in and somehow I think the movie pulls it off. Which, when you stop to think about it, is really rather impressive.

Now, on the other hand, I really don’t care at all for how the movie shows some of the Deltas interacting with women. The aforementioned road trip to Emily Dickinson College begins with convincing the women that one of the Deltas was engaged to a recently deceased Emily Dickinson student, then ends with the Deltas abandoning the young women at a roadhouse. That’s mitigated by a scene that makes it clear that no harm came to the women aside from having to walk home, but still. The implication the movie makes is that the women were a hair’s breadth away from being assaulted, which is unpleasant in several ways, especially given the racial implications of the scene. And then there’s a whole subplot about how one of the Delta pledges sleeps with a girl whom he assumes is over 18 but it turns out she’s very much underage. And that’s not even touching the implications of the line “The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests – we did.” Yeah. This is why I feel like I should be ashamed for liking this movie.

Still, there’s a lot of good solid humor here that doesn’t rely on that sort of joke and the cast is really very good. John Belushi plays the iconic role of Bluto, who is probably the most recognizable character of the movie. He drinks hard and parties hard and he’s both obnoxious and frequently incomprehensible, but he is the heart of the Delta house. But for me, the character I end up focusing on is Boon, played by Peter Riegert. I can’t help it. I really like Riegert. And I like his friendship with the fraternity president, Otter (played by James Widdoes). They’re obviously best buds and often partners in crime and the actors playing them have a fantastic rapport that makes their conversations feel perfect. I’ve also got a soft spot for Boon because he’s the only one of the guys (aside from pledge Flounder) who actually has a girlfriend. He’s certainly a member of the fraternity, but he’s got it a little bit more together than the rest. Not enough, since his girlfriend, played by the fantastic Karen Allen, breaks up with him temporarily mid-movie, but they get back together at the end.

I only spent a few lines on the plot summary above because really, this movie doesn’t so much need a plot summary. The plot is there to allow the Deltas to do what they do, not to tell a cohesive story. So long as the bad guys are adequately identified and vilified and the good guys are allowed to triumph in the end, that’s what matters. And the point here is really to watch the Deltas be the Deltas. And that’s all basically there to lead up to the end, when they use all of their pranking and havoc-creating skills to thoroughly ruin the homecoming parade. It’s a fantastic scene full of great moments for the whole fraternity. What I really like about the ending is that it doesn’t wrap everything up neatly. I mean, the Deltas don’t get magically reinstated by the end. No deus ex administration pops out to say the Dean has to let them back in. They cause chaos and go out with a bang, then go on with their lives. That’s a truly great way to end a movie like this.

October 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 569 – Danger: Diabolik

Danger: Diabolik – September 20th, 2011

As with most of our done-by-MST3K movies, this is probably my fault. I don’t know why, but every time I see a movie MST3K featured in an episode I feel like I need to buy it and have an unaltered copy. I don’t know that I ever truly planned to watch things like this and The Deadly Mantis. I just liked knowing I had them. I grabbed this one from the video store we used to work at in Pennsylvania. Can you imagine, they were selling this off? How could they?! But there it was, getting shrink wrapped to go in the used VHS bin. So we snapped it up, and regardless of who initially picked it up – me or Andy – I will take the blame here. I’m always willing to take the blame for non-MST3K versions of MST3K movies. Always.

Now, I will say that this one was special. It was featured in the very last MST3K episode and consequently, I think we’ve seen it twice. Most of the other episodes out there, well, we’ve seen them oodles of times. But it was hard to watch the last episode. I’m veering away from the movie a bit, but I’ll come back to it. I just think it’s worth explaining that MST3K was incredibly important to me when I was in my teens. I didn’t make friends easily and suddenly I had a bunch thanks to the online fan forums. Andy and I started talking because he saw a couple of tapes I was letting a mutual friend borrow. So when a bunch of the people I knew online all got together to watch the end of the show together (I think there were about 30 of us) it was hard. I cried, and I wasn’t the only one in tears. Consequently, we never put the episode featuring this movie into our VCR. Ever. I can remember tons of specific moments because I associate them with watching the episode in a room full of my friends and fellow MSTies. The line “Is that stud coming?” caught us all by surprise and I will never forget it. But while this movie is precisely the sort of cheese I adore, I do not know it nearly as well as I would like.

And what sort of cheese would that be? Why, a 1960s romp with a super suave master thief named Diabolik! It’s based on a long-running comic serial from Italy and oh, oh does it show. Diabolik himself is played by a young John Phillip Law (this came out the same year as Barbarella to give you an idea of how young) and he’s basically a criminal but the hero at the same time. He has a super secret lair where he lives with his sexy girlfriend, Eva, and he drives fast cars and has lots of gadgets and is generally incredibly clever and smooth. He steals from anyone he likes, whenever he likes. Watching this I am put in mind of a combo of spy movies like Bond the newer Mission: Impossible movies (since I don’t know the older show) and then also the show It Takes a Thief, where the hero is a master thief working for the government (a plot which has been recycled more than a few times). The big difference here is that Diabolik is really just out for himself. He hasn’t been given assignments by anyone. His illegal actions aren’t sanctioned by some secret organization. Nope. He just likes stealing stuff.

Does it really matter what the specific plot is in this movie? Diabolik steals stuff! People try to stop him! He gets away! He and Eva roll around in a spiral-shaped bed covered in money! He tries to steal more stuff! He almost gets caught! He does get caught! But maybe he’ll still get away with it! The particulars aren’t so much a concern to me. But I suppose they might be a concern to someone else. We begin with Diabolik stealing an enormous sum of money from the government using a smoke screen. An actual smoke screen, not a metaphorical one. The government and police are pretty ticked off, so they up the stakes and crack down on every criminal and illegal business they can find. Crime lord Valmont gets ticked off by that and makes a deal with the police to deliver Diabolik to them. He kidnaps Eva and uses her to try and get Diabolik (and some emeralds Diabolik had stolen for Eva) but Diabolik gets the better of him and escapes with Eva. And the emeralds. This only escalates everything and after destroying all tax records with a bomb, Diabolik is able to try and steal molten gold that the government is selling off. This proves to be his undoing and the movie ends with him trapped in his heatproof suit, having been sprayed with molten gold when the police raided his hideout.

Look, don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all ridiculous and over the top. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to be outrageous and unbelievable. After all, what good would the story of a regular thief and his not-so-daring exploits be? The character is meant to be larger than life, with his underground lair and all. Not that it makes it a truly high quality film, but a lot of the stranger stuff in it is clearly informed by the comics it’s based on. What I find strange about that is that there’s a lot of talk about dollars in the movie and when Eva and Diabolik are rolling around in their ill-gotten gains the money looks like US currency. But the movie was filmed in Rome and it’s clearly dubbed, not to mention it’s based on a series of Italian comics that weren’t in wide circulation in the US at the time. While personally, I think the movie is fantastic and fun, I can see how it might be a hard sell, given the lack of anything explaining the character’s motivations and his thoroughly anti-establishment nature. Still, I’m not complaining that it exists. I do enjoy it, after all. Not enough to put in the MST3K episode more often, but maybe since I own it un-MSTed, I’ll put that in once in a while.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 558 – X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class – September 9th, 2011

Let me just say, this summer was pretty good for superhero movies. Or rather, it was good for Marvel superhero movies. We did go to see Green Lantern and we’ll probably buy it, but that doesn’t mean it was all that good. Poor DC. Marvel, on the other hand, had this, Captain America and Thor in theaters this summer. And we loved all three. This is the first to hit DVD, so we watched it right away. How could we not? After all, I am, first and foremost, an X-Men fan. Cap, Iron Man, they’re great and all, but I say bring on the mutants.

As I’ve said before when it comes to comic book movies, people can piss and moan all they want about continuity but it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Comic books, and Marvel in particular, have been mucking with continuity for decades. Marvel’s even numbered their various AUs and made up extra ones for kicks, like Earth-1002, where everyone’s a canine and the team is called the Rex-Dogs. I’ve mentioned before that the Summers family is a perfect example of what happens when you cross AUs, so I don’t see the big deal in changing up the specific first members of the X-Men, or having Alex Summers older than the other movie-verse versions of Scott Summers. So what you will not find in this review is a nitpick on continuity or canon. Yes, things deviate from the other movies. Emma Frost being the best example there. Yes, things deviate from the comics. No, I do not care.

I love this movie. I don’t love everything about it (and I’ll get to that) but I love a lot of it. I love seeing Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr before they became Professor X and Magneto. I love seeing the team grow and train. I love seeing little hints at the future, like General Stryker and the proto-Cerebro. I love the use of the time period for clothing styles, slang and most of all, plot. Because this movie is set in 1962, right on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis, into which the mutants are thrown. It makes the team an integral but secret part of an event that truly happened in our own world. Really, I think the set-up for the team and the overarching plot are really nicely done, leading to a fantastic climax where not only is the team battling against what they perceive as their enemies, but also against the humans and then we get changes in loyalty too. Very nicely orchestrated.

Really though, in my heart my favorite bits of the movie are just the whole building of the team. Also, Erik and Charles. I don’t care who knows it: I honestly think this movie was Erik and Charles’ epic love story and breakup. And it’s not just me. Ian McKellan and James MacAvoy both agree, so I stand firm on this. Even if you don’t want to go with the love story aspect, they are certainly very close friends. The closest of friends. And their worldviews just aren’t compatible by the end. It’s tragic. And what I think this movie does excellently is present both sides as being potentially valid and potentially flawed. We know Magneto turns out to be “evil” later on, but the background they gave him here? It’s difficult to deny that his views are, at least in part, accurate for the world he’s lived in. Same for Charles, who has a much easier childhood and adolescence. Where this movie’s real strength is for me, is in its character arcs. Charles, Erik, Raven? They’re all given some truly good material to work with that makes what we know of their eventual futures that much more interesting.

Then too, you have the rest of the recruits. I love the recruitment montage, with Charles and Erik traveling to find mutants and make their case for joining the CIA. I love the little displays of power and quick character introductions. They’re not terribly heavy-handed but they give an idea of who’s who and who does what. And the cameo at the end of the recruitment montage? Perfect. Well played, good sirs. The recruits hanging out and goofing off together? Also fun, and a nice way to show off their powers. Training montage? Better than most montages because there are pauses for dialogue and context. I especially enjoy the interactions between Sean and Erik. They make the characters a little deeper and a little more real. And the chemistry between the various cast members is great. It seems like they had fun making the movie together, which translates well on screen.

What I find most frustrating about the movie is how piss-poorly it handles the races and genders of its characters. As ensemble casts go, it’s got a decent (but not great) assortment of genders and races. There are two women on the team, one of whom is Hispanic. One of the men is African American and while I’d love to see more diversity there I will give them credit for not having an entirely pasty white crew. The thing is, by the end? The team is Professor X and the three white recruits. Okay, one is blue by then, but he started out white. Granted, the divide between sides is made out to be very grey here and I can see how the justification might have been made for Angel switching over, I cannot for one second excuse how they handled Darwin. Okay, so you don’t want an overpowered character mucking up your main action scene. Then why introduce him in the first place? It’s not like Alex ends up being super useful (Sean’s more useful in the final battle and the poor guy gets left off every poster), so if you want to up the ante for the characters by killing off an ally, go for it. But why him?

Similarly, I totally understand Mystique’s character arc. And as an individual character, divorced from the larger cast issues, her story carries a hell of a lot of weight. To be honest, I don’t blame her one bit for leaving Charles on the beach. Charles is a privileged douche for much of the movie, spouting “mutant and proud” when it suits him but expecting his adopted sister to hide her true nature. So when she walks away, I get it and I do not question it and I think the writers gave her a wonderful arc. But taken in the larger context, when she switches sides, that makes all three female mutant characters on the “evil” side. And again, while I like the individual stories (Emma Frost being with Sebastian Shaw as part of the Hellfire Club is a wonderful little callback to the comics and Emma herself has switched sides numerous times) when put together as a whole they paint a picture full of unfortunate implications. And when you’re going to change the origin story for the team, adding in characters who weren’t there in the comics and using canon characters for new roles, you’ve really got a shitload to choose from. This particular team, with these particular issues, did not happen by accident. And it could well have been done differently.

I don’t mean to harp too much on my issues with the movie, but I feel they warrant saying. They certainly didn’t make the movie unpleasant for me to watch and I’ll gladly watch it again. And as I said, each individual choice and action makes sense on its own. They just add up to something that makes me heave a heavy sigh. But I can focus on the good and hope that future installments (or any future X-Men based movies) will handle things better. Certainly, I think this movie handled the universe better than, say, Wolverine or X3 did. I enjoy the character arcs and I like the decision to go back to the beginning and reboot the whole thing, starting a new continuity. I just wish I didn’t have anything negative to say. I wish I could applaud everything. I’ll just have to be content, for now, with applauding the majority of it.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 553 – James Bond: Goldfinger

James Bond: Goldfinger – September 4th, 2011

When discussing what Bond movies to get to fill in my Bond education a bit, we decided on an earlier one and a later one. And let’s face it: Sean Connery is very much the classic James Bond. I know everyone has their personal favorite but without having seen much Bond, Connery is the one I think of when I think of the name. So! I figured a Connery Bond movie was probably a requirement. Faced with which one to get, Andy went with this one. And I understand why. It’s iconic, really. The gold-covered woman, the death-by-slow-moving-laser bit, it’s all been done and done again and done to death by everyone who wants to refer to a Bond trope. And now I’ve seen the source for all of that.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it that much. Oh, I enjoyed parts of it, and I enjoyed the very young Sean Connery as Bond. Until he forced himself on Pussy Galore and the movie treated it like romance. Ick. Ick ick, a million times ick. For future reference, if a woman says no, and then says no again, continuing to kiss her will not make her actually want it. Acquiescing is not romantic. And it’s not consenting. I was aware that Bond’s a total player. I had not quite realized the womanizing went to this point. And to be honest? It ruined the movie for me. No matter what else I think when I look back on it, I cannot get that scene out of my head. As it happened I watched with a sort of dawning realization that it was not going to get better. She wasn’t playing at saying no to tease him. He wasn’t going to leave off and let her go. And then apparently he has a magic penis that makes it all okay. It’s presented as seduction, but it sure didn’t look that way to me.

I will try to put that scene aside for the moment and review the rest of the movie without its incredibly squickful effects in my head. Because without that scene? Or if it had been handled a little differently? I would have enjoyed the movie a hell of a lot more. It still wouldn’t be my favorite of the ones I’ve seen, but it wouldn’t be below the others and every single other Bond movie that I haven’t seen. Because it’s got a ridiculous over-the-top villain! And it’s full of ridiculous plots and Bond being suave and there are gadgets! Yay gadgets! And I like Pussy Galore and her eminently capable character. Honor Blackman is one of two Bond girls who was also in The Avengers with Patrick Macnee, making three Avengers main cast who’ve also been in Bond movies. And I’m totally up for that. Maybe it’s because I grew watching that show. Maybe it’s because I’m looking for touchstones here. And I will note that this movie is referred to in The Avengers episode Too Many Christmas trees, when Steed gets a Christmas card from Cathy Gale and wonders aloud about what she’s up to at Fort Knox.

It was an interesting experience, watching this for the first time through the past experiences of everything I’ve seen that’s referred to it, from Austin Powers to MST3K movies to Mythbusters. It was almost like overhearing a story, then seeing it play out in front of you later. I felt like I could predict the plot and its basic points regardless of not having seen the actual movie. What I didn’t predict was that Bond’s kind of a dick. And I don’t just mean the scene I mentioned above. As Andy noted later on, Bond spends a lot of his time just prodding Auric Goldfinger because he can. Goldfinger is the villain here. He’s a bombastic sort of guy, but not in the cheerful Brian Blessed way. He’s got a big temper and a big love of gold and he’s willing to kill a heck of a lot of people in order to get more and make it more valuable. The plot follows Bond as he taunts Goldfinger, tails Goldfinger, gets captured by Goldfinger, conspires against Goldfinger, thwarts Goldfinger, saves the day, then is kidnapped by Goldfinger again before Chekhov’s Handy Plot Point sends Goldfinger out the window of a plane.

Goldfinger’s plan is a novel one, or it was at the time I suppose. Really though, I kind of like how ostentatious it is: He plans on gaining manpower from a variety of different criminal organizations from all over the world by promising them money, convinces them to help him rob Fort Knox, then kills them off and keeps their dudes because his real plan is to detonate an atomic bomb in Fort Knox, making the gold untouchable until the radioactive cobalt and iodine aren’t radioactive anymore. Now, I’m not a nuclear physicist, but I suspect that the science here is a little wonky and about as reliable as the movie’s other scientific assertions. Unfortunately, while the Mythbusters have proven that covering oneself with gold paint won’t cause “skin suffocation” and that shooting a hole in the side of an airplane won’t cause a person to be immediately sucked out, I doubt they’ll be testing to see how long a cobalt and iodine bomb cause gold to be too radioactive to go near. It’s the idea of it that I like. It’s a nice twist on both a “let’s steal lots of money” plot and use of nuclear weapons as a threat.

I really do wish I could have enjoyed this movie more. It had some really fun moments and while it wasn’t gunning for my top spy movie, it was certainly holding its own in the middle range up until the so-called seduction. It was good to finally see a lot of the sources for things that show up all over the cultural landscape now, and I’m glad I’ve seen it in that it was definitely a hole in my pop-culture knowledge. It had a lot of positives. I just can’t forgive that one huge negative. And what makes it worse is that I can think of a few minor adjustments that would have changed the tone of the scene enough to make it less creeptastic. But alas, it was not to be. I probably won’t be running out to go buy more classic Bond, but perhaps it will be telling that when the next Daniel Craig Bond movie comes out I’m looking forward to it.

September 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 464 – The Producers (1968)

The Producers (1968) – June 7th, 2011

Some time back we watched the newer version of this. The movie based on the musical based on this movie, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. At the time, for some inexplicable reason, we didn’t own this one. The original. How could that have happened? But after we watched the musical version we went out and bought the original, just like I said we would. And it had been ages since I’d seen it. I remembered it quite clearly, but I had seen the musical many more times and far more recently, so it was a ton of fun seeing where it all came from.

We did just watch another Gene Wilder movie very recently, which was unintentional. I just needed something familiar and fun tonight and this was the right length. But it is so good to see Gene Wilder here, a little more unrestrained than he was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That potential for wildness is realized here, with Wilder as Leo Bloom going from meek and terrified to hysterical and screaming in a heartbeat. And I admit, after the movie was over, we put in the musical and it’s impressive to see how well Matthew Broderick captured Gene Wilder’s performance while making it his own, because Wilder’s performance is fantastic. And there’s no way it could be the same performance, since the original movie is quite different, but it’s a great example of maintaining the essence of a role while altering it in all the right ways for a slightly different medium.

To be honest, in many ways I prefer the musical, but there’s no denying that the original movie is a thing of beauty and genius. The sheer unmitigated gall of making a movie that features a musical called Springtime For Hitler is unparalleled in my viewing experience. I mean, they made the musical version of this movie later, but there wouldn’t have been one at all without the movie itself and I honesty can’t believe it got made. Of course, it almost didn’t, and needed its title changed and some high placed help, but it did get made. Somehow this movie, a movie about a couple of guys producing a guaranteed flop that’s a musical about Hitler, got made. It’s a comedy! It’s a farce! It’s Mel Brooks.

This was Brooks’ directorial debut, though he’d done writing before this. Still, you’ve got to give the man credit – he started with a bang. That said, while he’s certainly had successes since, this has got to be one of his best known and most lauded works. It’s the outrageousness of it. That anyone would come up with this idea and make it. As soon as you hear the words “Springtime for Hitler” you have the same reaction everyone else in the movie has except for, perhaps, Max Bialystock. Max’s reaction is glee, since he’s looking for a horrible script. Everyone else reacts in disbelief and shock, which is understandable!

I realize I’m doing a lot of babbling about this movie and seemingly expecting that everyone will just know what I’m talking about and really, I do. This is such a classic, I assume people know it. But really, if you know the musical better, you know a much expanded version of the story. The original is really fairly straightforward. Max Bialystock, failed Broadway producer who’s living off of money he bilks out of little old ladies in return for ‘playing’ with them, is visited by accountant Leo Bloom. Bloom comments about a means to make a fortune on a Broadway flop by overselling shares in its profits. If it makes no profits then there’s no money to pay back and they’d get to keep the excess capital. Of course, if they play succeeds, they’d go to jail for fraud. And that right there is the basis. The musical has a whole plot giving Bloom a background and dreams but the original didn’t really care much. Bialystock talks Bloom into it and soon they’re looking for the worst script, the worst director, the worst actors, and in the process they somehow manage to make a hit.

In the original it really does seem to be a case of them unintentionally but at the same time intentionally making a satire. After all, they don’t set out to make one, but they do intentionally put in place all the right parts. The director they pick is delusional. The script is, obviously, one of the most potentially offensive pieces of writing ever. And then they cast a spacey cross between a beatnik and a hippie as Hitler. The combination is enough to make the entire thing cross over from horrible into hilarious. Not that the movie itself isn’t hilarious to begin with, but the movie depends on the most horrible musical ever made turning into the funniest musical ever made and it happens. It happens and it’s all Bialystock and Bloom’s own faults. They do it all to themselves. They are the architects of their own doom. It’s fantastic and simple and you can see it coming even if they can’t.

There are some truly fantastic performances in this movie, but there’s a reason the roles everyone knows are Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Bloom. Not only do they give fantastic solo performances but they also play off each other wonderfully. And that chemistry really makes the movie work, since most of the movie involves the two of them. The actual performance of Springtime for Hitler is almost an afterthought. We all know how bad it’s going to be, and how doomed Bialystock and Bloom’s plans are, so is it really important to see the musical on stage?

Oh, oh yes, it is important. If only for the title number. While the acting of the two leads is really important for making the whole movie work, the title number makes the whole movie amazing. Unfortunately, I am working first thing in the morning and I am going to have Springtime for Hitler stuck in my head. It’s inevitable after watching this movie. You can’t escape it. It’s an incredibly catchy tune and it’s a horribly clever song. A horribly clever and horribly offensive song. The overhead of the dancers, the ridiculous costumes and that song. It showcases just how fine a line the musical is treading between offense and satire, and that’s important here. Because the movie could just be silly, but if you’re going to go proposing an idea like this you should go all out to make sure it’s clear that it is satire.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most brilliant bits of farcical satire I’ve ever seen. And it’s clearly aged well. Even the original version holds up fairly well, aside from the price of the hotdogs. It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s a ridiculous movie with a fantastic cast who give amazing performances. It’s a ridiculous movie with amazingly sharp writing and a tight little plot that’s just simple enough to carry the sort of humor and edge that it’s aiming for. I sort of feel bad for Mel Brooks, starting off with this. It’s always going to be amazing and pointed and it’s spawned a musical and a remake and I suppose you just have to bask in that sort of glow and be glad it exists.

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

Movie 458 – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962) – June 1st, 2011

It’s been an interesting evening here. We live in an area that’s more known for hurricanes than tornadoes. There’ve been some bitty ones here and there, not big enough to cause any serious harm, but nothing big enough to cause real damage in decades. Until today, when one touched down a little ways away from us and then continued to make appearances as it made its way in our direction. So! We had a tornado warning all evening and some nasty thunderstorms coming through and we were a little worried about power outages and, you know, having to hide in our basement. Therefore we picked something short that we’d seen before so we could pause if we needed to and hopefully finish it before the storms hit us too hard.

We did end up having to pause a few times to check the weather and we did take a break when the thunder and lightning got so intense that we wanted to know what was going on, but this isn’t a tough movie to follow. It’s got a fairly simple plot and a small cast and it’s not going to throw you for too wide a loop here. That’s not to say it’s a bad story. It’s just simple and simply told. We begin the movie seeing a drag race and a car with three young women going off the side of a bridge into a river. Over two hours later one of the women emerges from the river, seemingly unharmed. Young Mary Henry dries off and apparently goes on with her life, moving out of town to take a job as a church organist in another town. But something is amiss. Mary has periods where the world recedes from her. Sounds are muted and no one around her acknowledges her presence. And then there’s the ghoulish figure she sees every so often. A man with sunken eyes and a pale complexion. Someone no one else sees. Clearly something is very wrong.

In her new town Mary takes a room in a boarding house with only one other lodger, a somewhat overbearing man named John Linden. But the landlady seems nice enough and Mary makes a decent first impression on her new boss at the church. Then again, she’s also fascinated by an old concert pavilion out by a local lake. It’s been abandoned for ages and has fallen into disrepair and something about it beckons to Mary. I think you can probably figure out where this movie is going at this point. It’s not subtle and while maybe at the time it was made it wasn’t obvious what was going on, now? It’s pretty clear. I don’t know if it was even that much of a twist in 1962, but the thing is, it doesn’t need to be a twist. The point of the movie isn’t so much the twist. It’s seeing Mary’s growing detachment from the real world and her realization of what’s happened and happening to her.

Much of this movie depends upon star Candace Hilligoss as Mary. Her character is set forth as somewhat cold and unfriendly, but not unpleasant. She simply doesn’t have any need for boyfriends or socializing or really any of the things most people seem to thrive on. And the movie doesn’t make it very clear whether this is because of the accident or if it’s just how she’s always been. We don’t get to know Mary at all before the accident since the accident is the beginning of the movie. I go back and forth on this. She states outright that she’s never been interested in having a boyfriend and she goes back and forth when talking to Linden. He’s obviously interested, but she’s not. Not romantically, anyhow. But she’s also somewhat disdainful of company and sociability, which I’d be fine with as a long-term personality trait since I’m largely an introvert myself. Then again, she does crave company when things start getting too strange for her. She doesn’t want to be alone so much when she’s seen the strange man who keeps appearing, or had the whole world ignore her for a while. So it could well be just how she’s always been.

Then again, part of the movie’s story revolves around how Mary realizs she doesn’t quite belong in the real world anymore. So it would also follow that after the accident she might well have started to pull away from the world even as it pulled away from her. And if that was the intent, I really quite like it. I just wish it was a little clearer either way. Because either way would work for me, but there’s not much development to it. It just is how she is. That being said, I still like the character. She’s interesting and I like Hilligoss’ portrayal of her, which may not be the strongest performance I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly enough to carry this movie. There’s not much more to be said about most of the people around her. Linden’s a bit of a lech, the minister’s a one-note character, the landlady’s sweet and concerned about Mary but that’s about it. Mary sees a psychiatrist, but he’s just convinced that her problems are trauma-related from the accident and that’s all there is there. So it’s up to Mary.

Now, it should be said that this is a low budget movie. It’s pretty obvious, given a lot of the techniques used to work around what the budget couldn’t pay for. What dialogue is present is clearly ADR and there are vast stretches of the movie where there isn’t any sound or what sound is there is muffled or just birdsong or the like. Now, I don’t know if the muted sound came first and was then written in as part of the plot or if it was intentional and had the bonus of being a money saver, but it’s a well done trick regardless because it does suit the plot quite well. Having the story mostly be a character piece focused on Mary and what she’s going through means that there wasn’t a need for a huge cast of people with lots of lines. Both saving in sound editing and in paying actors. And really, I think it all works. I can see how it could have been improved in places, but it all comes together quite nicely even with the budget it had. And given how many horrible low budget films we’ve seen, that’s saying something. Take The Creeping Terror, for example. That movie’s actually missing half its dialogue and it doesn’t compensate nearly as well. It’s also got some piss-poor acting. So this movie’s got a big leg up on that.

It’s not a big flashy movie with lots of special effects. By today’s standards it’s rather quaint. But it does manage to have an eerie quality to it that enhances the story. Filming at the dilapidated Saltair pavilion was a fantastic idea and using the soundtrack to add to the disconnect from reality that Mary experiences is a fantastic touch. It’s never going to be a great movie and I did enjoy Mike Nelson’s commentary on it (which is why we own this – special edition signed by Mike and everything), but it’s something a lot more special than your typical low budget horror/thriller from the early 1960s.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 454 – Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark – May 28th, 2011

Before tonight I had only seen this movie once and it was enough to make a lasting impression on me that stuck enough that I insisted that we add this to the collection when we started the project. Andy hadn’t seen it and I was absolutely thunderstruck when he said so. He hadn’t seen this? With Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin? Really? There are some bizarre spots in our collection where I’ve seen classics he hasn’t and he’s seen classics I haven’t. Between the two of us we’re very well-watched (and by the time we’re done with the project we’ll both be considerably more so). The thing is, the collection was largely bought by Andy, so it’s weighted in his favor in terms of things one or the other of us has seen. This was an exception to the rule.

I have to say that I’ve been very lucky in my education. I had some teachers who managed to ruin subjects for me (I will never forgive my Philosophy professor from college for being so tied to her own opinions that she made discussion impossible) but I also had some amazing teachers who introduced me to fantastic ideas and media. I was an English major and I did my best to take film-related classes whenever I could count them towards my major. But I watched this movie for the first time when I was in seventh grade. My school separated boys and girls for seventh grade English for some reason. It was the only academic class I can think of where that was done. My class bonded pretty tightly over the course of the year, thanks, I think, to the teacher we had. So Dale DeLetis, if you ever read this, please know that you had a profound effect on me as a student and a reader and a viewer.

We watched this movie in a theater. Not a full sized screen, but fairly close to it. Big enough that it gave the feeling of being in a real theater. There were maybe fifteen of us, probably fewer. We had small classes. And the lights were turned all the way down aside from the emergency exit signs. And none of us had any idea what we were going to be seeing. There’s a moment in this movie – a crucial moment – that made every single one of us jump out of our seats. Which was precisely what Mr. DeLetis was intending and apparently it’s a common reaction to the movie. I have never experienced a phenomenon quite like it. Tonight, even knowing it was coming, I jumped. That is the sort of movie this is. It is a movie that is so well built and so well acted and so well filmed and so well directed that it can cause that sort of reaction even in someone who’s expecting it.

No question about it, this is a thriller. And it’s a very tightly focused one at that. There’s really only one location for this movie: The basement apartment where Susy Hendrix and her husband Sam live. Sam is a photographer and Susy doesn’t seem to have a job really, but that’s apparently because she’s fairly recently become blind through an unspecified accident and has been going to school to learn the new skills she needs to be independent. Susy is the heart of the movie and Audrey Hepburn plays her wonderfully. She’s so determined, but at the same time aware that she’s new to being blind and she doesn’t yet have the confidence and experience she wants. She’s frustrated by not being able to do the things that she feels should be simple and hates depending on others, but knows that for some things (like seeing if there’s a car parked outside without actually going out to check) she must. The character is sympathetic, likable and strong, which makes her a wonderful lead for the movie.

On the other end of the spectrum we have our villain, Roat, played by a very young Alan Arkin. And he is evil. He radiates malice in a way I would never have guessed Alan Arkin could. But he does. From the moment you meet him you know that this is a man who knows how to do terrible things and would feel no remorse for doing them. And he proceeds to do terrible things throughout the movie, not the least of which is manipulating the entire plot in such a way that Susy is thoroughly terrorized by the end. And he’s experienced in these things. That’s what makes his character so much worse. He is the sort of man who buys plastic gloves by the roll for use in unsavory dealings where fingerprints would be unwanted.

The plot revolves around a doll filled with heroin. A woman smuggling it into the country passed it to the innocent Sam, intending to retrieve it later. Unfortunately for her, Roat and two other men intend to get it themselves. And unfortunately for Susy the doll is missing. Roat and his new compatriots devise a scheme to get Susy to give them the doll, assuming she knows where it is. The terrible thing is that Susy doesn’t know. And Sam’s been sent off on a wild goose chase, leaving Susy to cope with these three men she can’t see who are bent on tricking her. They disguise themselves, claim visual cues that aren’t there that she can’t refute and play out an elaborate charade designed to break her down. It really is far more complicated than it needs to be – a sort of good cop/bad cop/loose cannon cop deal. But I don’t mind the complexity, largely because I think it adds to the character of Roat.

As I mentioned, Roat is experienced. For me it’s that experience that makes the character, because while the plot itself is incredibly complicated, I can’t help but think that it was set up to be so not because it was necessary but because Roat was amused by it. He could have gone in and just plain tortured it out of Susy if he’d wanted to do it the fast way. He doesn’t seem to have any objections to hurting her and it’s implied near the end that even when he gets what he wants he’ll still hurt her. So why the play acting with the other two, Mike Talman and “Officer” Carlino? And aside from the dry answer of dramatic tension, I think the answer is that Roat prefers it this way. It’s more fun for him. And that makes him a very scary villain indeed.

Fortunately for Susy, she has an unlikely ally in the moody and temperamental teenage girl, Gloria, who lives in an apartment upstairs and sometimes helps Susy out with grocery shopping and the like. They don’t get along too well at first, but eventually they have to work together as the three men get more and more desperate to find the doll. I like that Gloria gets some key moments in saving the day. But I like it better that while Gloria does help quite a lot, it’s Susy who comes up with how Gloria can help, and Susy who ultimately saves herself. It’s a fantastic role for Hepburn and she plays it magnificently. She and Arkin really steal the movie between the two of them, which is a bit of a shame for Richard Crenna, in my opinion. He plays Mike Talman, who spends most of the movie trying to get in good with Susy, convincing her that he’s an old friend of her husband’s. He gets a ton of screen time and he does an excellent job with the role. He’s a bad guy, no doubt, but it’s clear by the end that he’s got some sympathy for Susy, which, of course, is why he’s not the ultimate villain.

I love every moment of this movie. It’s just all done so brilliantly. I love Hepburn and Arkin. I love the growing bond between Susy and Gloria in this terrible situation. I love when Susy figures out what’s going on and moves from panicked despair to determined action. I love when she realizes what she needs to do to even the playing field. I love that this movie has a clever heroine who can take care of herself even if she needs to adjust to the tools she has to do that with. I love that it’s a movie about a woman with a disability and said disability doesn’t make her weak. It means she needs help for some things, but it doesn’t mean she’s helpless. It’s a major plot element both in how she’s tricked and in how she eventually faces off with Roat. As I said, I love everything about this movie. I love the script, the cinematography, the directing and most certainly the acting. And I love that even after all these years and knowing what to expect, it still worked on me just the way it’s supposed to.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments