A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005)

August 21, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (2005)

From the Chronicles of Riddick to the Chronicles of Narnia. We had been postponing watching the Narnia films for two reasons. One was that we didn’t yet own all of the old BBC adaptations from the Eighties. We wanted to do Narnia as another of our week-long projects but we didn’t own them all yet. Well We finally got the last films we needed to complete our collection but then there was another slight glitch. We had to figure out the timing because the BBC versions – being television miniseries – are all quite long and we couldn’t possibly review them on a Thursday or Tuesday. We’ve resolved that by deciding to watch a couple un-related films between the modern theatrical adaptations and the BBC made-for-TV ones, so now we’re off to spend some time in the mythical and magical land of Narnia.

This was another series that my father read to me and my sister when we were children. It’s perfect reading for a child like myself who was obsessed with fantasy realms. I loved any tales of people able to go into other worlds. For years afterwards I would try to walk through mirrors or wardrobes, and I was always disappointed when i found no Narnia or Oz or other lands beyond them. Of course as a child I didn’t understand anything about allegory and thank goodness for that because having my fantasy worlds polluted by Christian propaganda frankly sickens me.

Still – this movie and its brethren are probably the closest I’ll ever come to being a King of Narnia. The land is in good hands, though. Weta effects, the people behind the spectacular special effects and props for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings have been tasked with making Narnia real on the big screen and they do not disappoint.

Do I really have to go over the plot of the first Chronicles of Narnia story? This book was so much a part of my childhood that i can’t quite imagine not knowing how it goes. Durin World War Two children were sent out of London to estates in the country to get them away from the German blitzes. The children at the heart of this story are one such family. Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy find themselves in a huge country home belonging to a reclusive and somewhat peculiar professor. For the most part they are left to their own devices but the house is huge and old and filled with historical artifacts they are not allowed to touch.

Things seem pretty dull for them until, during a hide-and-seek game, Lucy hides in a wardrobe and discovers a magical land inside it. She walks through the wardrobe and into a land filled with snow that has been cursed by an evil witch so that it is always winter and never Christmas. She befriends a timid fawn named Tumnus, who is under orders from the White Witch to turn any humans he encounters over to her secret police but instead he decides to let Lucy go.

Lucy’s siblings don’t believe her wild tale of a magical realm inside a wardrobe, of course, and she is crestfallen to discover that it isn’t there for her to show to them. Soon she’s able to return to Narnia though, and Edmond follows her in. Edmond meets the White Witch and she charms him with promises of Turkish Delight and the possibility of being a prince and her heir if he will bring his siblings to her.

When at last all four children find themselves in Narnia they find themselves on an epic adventure. There is a prophesy that four human children, two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, will defeat the White Witch and break the curse on the land. They find themselves on the run with a couple of talking beavers from the queen’s secret police, rushing to reach the Stone Table where they will meet the rightful ruler of Narnia – the not-at-all tame lion Aslan. Except that Edmond, ever the selfish third child, skulks off to the witche’s side in an attempt to curry her favor. So Aslan and the Narnian army raised in secret don’t have all four of the human children required to fulfil the prophesy. The witch, seeing her power fading in the face of that of Aslan, makes a desperate deal for Edmond’s life. She will release him if Aslan will sacrifice himself.

Of course this is the Christ allegory that C.S. Lewis made no attempt to disguise. Aslan’s whole death, rebirth and promise of emancipation for his kingdom and those faithful to him makes for a grand fairy tale and gives the story a grand and epic scale, but Lewis intended it as a way to introduce children to his faith and beliefs. That kind of indoctrination sits very badly with me, but I enjoy this tale nonetheless. If I hated a Christ allegory after all I couldn’t enjoy movies like The Matrix or Dark City. I like the power of the story, but even so that wasn’t what I was watching this movie for. I was watching it as a visit to Narnia, and on that level it is absolutely perfect.

The countryside is gorgeous. The large cast of digital talking animals look fantastic. The fawns and centaurs, being a blend of real human actors with digital legs, work perfectly. And what a stellar cast! The child actors they found to portray the Pevanzies embody the characters so well that I can’t imagine Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy being played by anybody else.

There’s a melancholy to this movie. At the end, when the children have to go back to Britain and leave Narnia behind after being kings and queens for years it breaks my heart. Those poor kids are me at the end of the movie – an adult who grew up believing in wonderful fantasy worlds rudly expelled back into an uncaring world. At least now that I own this on DVD I can go back to visit Narnia any time I want.

August 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inglourious Basterds

July 23, 2011

Inglourious Basterds

After watching the new Captain America movie Amanda and I decided we’d like to continue the theme of fantasy films involving Americans defeating Nazis. This movie came to mind because that is exactly what this film is all about. It may appear to be more of a historical action/drama and less of a superhero film than Captain America, but the truth is that Basterds is every bit as fantastic as any comic book movie. It just hides it better. I recall when we watched Quentin’s half of the Grindhous movie – Deathproof – that I described it as a movie that spent a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to women, which made both myself and my wife very uncomfortable. This movie, on the other hand, spends a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to Nazis, which is something it’s much easier to get behind.

Amanda and I discussed this movie a little before we began our reviews and we agreed that it is somewhat strangely divided within itself. There are actually two main plot lines here that somewhat intersect in the conclusion but which have little do do with each other. One plot is about Shosanna, the last survivor of a Jewish family that has been wiped out by Nazis in occupied France and her plan for vengeance. The other plot is about a group of Jewish American terrorists behind enemy lines bent on causing fear and confusion in the German ranks. In the end, as the climax approaches, it becomes more and more apparent that the little terrorist squad, the Basterds, are the biggest impediment in Shosanna’s competent and well laid plans.

In every way this is clearly a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is full of long scenes that are simply people talking to each-other. Scenes filled with menace and tension where people attempt to appear as though they are civil and friendly. It also is filled with tonal references to the kinds of movie Tarantino enjoys, especially spaghetti westerns. There are several familiar bits of Ennio Morricone music (some of which Tarantino used in Kill Bill as well) in the sound track for example. Indeed the whole film has a sort of reverence for cinema and films, another Tarantino hallmark.

The movie has a very episodic nature to itself, being divided into distinct chapters. I think that contributes to the feeling that this is two different movies doing war with each other. We get powerful, intense scenes such as the prologue (which is fully twenty minutes long) which introduces us to the devilishly intelligent and ever so pleasant “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa. He has been tasked with finding and eliminating any Jews who are hiding in France after the start of the German occupation, and he does so with a completely ruthless efficiency. I’m glad the movie starts out with him because he is the only character in common between the two halves of the film, and because the absolutely stunning performance delivered by Christoph Waltz is the best thing in the whole movie.

After this scene we are introduced to the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt with a heavy southern drawl, and they are a kind of gruesome comic relief and release valve for all the tension created by the scenes with Landa in them. This movie works in kind of waves – building up a great head of tension, showing us Nazis being heartless and cruel – then releasing that tension by having the Bastards kill some Nazis in the most brutal ways possible. It’s an odd sort of rhythm.

Meanwhile, in the Shosanna plot, she has escaped from Landa and hidden herself in Paris, where she now manages a cinema. A young Nazi sniper, who has just starred in a movie based on his exploits, falls for her and thinks he can win her with their shared love for movies. He convinces Joseph Gobbels, the director of the movie based on him and real life historical figure and Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich, to premier the new film at Shosanna’s theater.

Here Melanie Laurent displays some amazing acting of her own as the hunted and desperate Shosanna. She encounters the heartless bastard who gunned down her family (he offers her strudel) and meets Gobbels. Ultimately she concocts a plan: she will burn down her theater on the night of the premier, killing every high ranking Nazi officer in attendance. Unfortunately for her, the allies have come up with the same plan, and the team they choose to carry it out are the Basterds. Now the Basterds may be great at killing Nazis and sewing fear, but they are not very good undercover operatives. They are, ultimately, the unknown factor that could spoil everything.

Another noteworthy thing about the movie is its multi-lingual nature. It involves dialog in French, German, English and Italian (all of which languages apparently the character of Hans Landa is fluent in.) It’s not often that you see a movie, even a World War II drama, that shows so many people speaking in their native tongue. Especially in a Hollywood picture.

In spite of its uneven pacing and conflicting plots I find that I really do enjoy this movie. Because it has some amazing performances in it. Because it does a great job of building up tension and then using that tension to drive the bloody vengeance that is the key to the film. And because it is every bit as much an escapist fantasy film as Captain America – not terribly concerned with historical accuracy but delivering a thrill that a strictly accurate portrayal couldn’t serve up.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Captain America (1990)

July 21, 2011

Captain America (1990)

It’s probably pretty sick of me to admit that I’ve been looking forward to watching this movie for a couple months. We bought it as a kind of gag – something to watch when the new Captain America movie came out in theaters. I hadn’t ever actually seen this movie all the way through though, so the joke is somewhat on me. I had not anticipated quite how impressively bland and mediocre this movie really is.

I’ve been in the room while this was playing. It was (for some inexplicable reason) favoured by one of our co-workers at TLA for a while, so he was in the habit of putting it in the VCR there while we worked but I never paid it much mind. So I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie, out of sequence, but I had no concept of the whole. It was probably a better way to see the film – the movie that I constructed in my imagination from the bits and pieces I saw was preferable to this jumbled mess.

I have to think that this movie was somehow influenced by the success in 1989 of Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Somebody figured they needed to act quickly to make a Marvel-based super hero movie to cash in on this huge audience for gritty dark comic book films. But make it cheap just in case the formula isn’t such a sure-fire thing. And have some comic book humor. And have some attractive women. The end result is a movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

It starts out cool and gritty and dark. The Nazis in Italy in the 1930s (were there Nazis in Italy that early?) are working to perfect a formula that will make soldiers bigger, stronger and smarter. It’s not quite right yet, however, and has some unpleasant side effects. They decide to go to human trials anyhow and for their first human subject they choose a brilliant young prodigy. They recruit him to the cause by the simple method of forcing him to watch as they slaughter his family. Sure, who wouldn’t want to join them after that? So distraught is the project leader by this behavior that she defects to America.

Three years later we learn from a bit of ADR that the process has been mastered and that the Americans are ready to start human trials of their own. They have chosen for the honor a simple fellow with a slight limp (because the formula is supposed to cure ailments like polio and such) and an aw-shucks kind of wide-eyed naivete named Steve Rogers. So Steve kisses his steady girl goodbye and goes off to become a human guinea pig. Unfortunately a Nazi spy has infiltrated the secret lab (hidden under a diner) and during the experiment he shoots the scientist who had developed the super soldier serum, meaning that Steve is the only super soldier on the US payroll.

Almost immediately Steve, now dubbed Captain America is airlifted off to Nazi Germany to infiltrate a top secret missile base there. And just as quickly he proves that he’s not much of a super soldier as he gets his ass soundly kicked by his Italian counterpart – the super soldier prototype now known as the Red Skull (due to those side effects I mentioned.) The Red Skull straps Cap to a rocket aimed at the White House and is launched away. At the last possible moment Cap is able to bend the tail fin of the rocket enough to divert it so it crashes harmlessly in the frozen north somewhere, and Captain America is frozen alive.

All this is just the pre-amble to the movie though. The real film is about Captain America being defrosted in 1993 and having to cope with the much altered world he finds there. Now that sounds like it could have been a kind of groovy movie. If it had been Austin Powers. But instead the effect is that the climactic battle between good and evil happens about twenty minutes into the movie, evil resoundingly wins, and the whole rest of the film feels like an afterwards.

The only witness to the missile that almost hit the White House was a young boy who never forgot that strange man strapped to a rocket. That boy, through a montage of spinning newspapers, grows up to be Dick Jones, the slimy head of the OCP team that developed the ED-209 President of the United States. His best pal grows up to be a newspaper reporter obsessed with a conspiracy theory regarding a mysterious crime lord called the Red Skull who has been behind every major assassination in the last thirty years.

Here’s where things get a little confusing. The president is attending an environmental summit in Italy, and for some reason the Red Skull (who no longer appears red for some reason, but just looks kind of craggy) and his cabal of evil doers feel threatened by this summit, so they decide to kidnap the President and implant a brain control device of some sort so that they can rule the world. Muhahaha! Meanwhile, Red Skull sicks his psychopathic daughter and her empty eyed companions to kill the recently defrosted Captain America.

Cap is experiencing some culture shock trying to figure out the modern world. His steadfast girlfriend from the forties has moved on somewhat, getting married and having a daughter even though she still carries a torch for Steve. In a somewhat creepy move Steve promptly shacks up with his ex girlfriend’s daughter (which is somewhat okay I guess since the daughter is played by the same actress as the ex girlfriend? I don’t know.) Steve and his ex-girlfriend’s daughter promptly fly off to Italy to rescue the president (which caused Amanda to wonder where Steve got a passport on such short notice.) And over the course of another twenty minutes of faffing about the movie limps to its eventual end.

Clearly part of the problem is the conflicted nature of the movie. How can the same film have the brutal slaying of the Red Skull’s family, and the torture and murder of Steve’s old flame but at the same time contain cheesy attempts at humor like Steve’s repeated attempts to steal cars by feigning nausea. (How I wish I were kidding!) There are all these scenes in Italian with subtitles, which seems to indicate that they were attempting for a more mature audience, but then there’s the rubber American Flag outfit Cap wears that looks simply ludicrous. It’s like watching a battle of wills between studio executives who refused to relinquish power. Not good for a film.

Even worse, the title character is a pretty lame hero. This comes down partially to Matt Salinger’s portrayal. His Steve Rogers is such a big, gullible, lump of a guy that he barely seems capable of thought, much less heroism. He’s supposed to be this big super soldier but he spends the whole film lumbering around getting his ass kicked by flunkies. He doesn’t stop the missile launch. He doesn’t save his ex-girlfriend. He doesn’t even save President Kimball (the President saves himself thank you very much.) He gets shot at a lot and he throws his magic shield around, but as a super hero he leaves much to be desired.

I knew going into this movie that it wouldn’t be particularly good. That was kind of the whole point. And it’s far from the worst movie in our collection. It’s a big ugly mess though, and I found it kind of sad because there was some cool potential hidden in here. Hopefully we’ll go see the new Captain America movie in the theater on Saturday and that will help wash the memory of this one from my mind.

July 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

June 10, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

This was one of the first movies my family owned on VHS. When we got our first VCR – an enormous boxy thing – we had a couple tapes my uncles had provided so we’d have something to watch. What a grand and magical Christmas that was. For some reason I had not seen this movie when it was in the theaters. I was a sensitive young boy and maybe my parents figured that it would be too much for me. My classmates raved about it though. Everybody seemed obsessed with the adventures of the dashing Indiana Jones. I distinctly remember them talking about the giant rolling boulder during Indie’s escape at the start of the film. We were nine years old at the time and this was just the kind of adventure tale that would capture our second-grade imaginations.

It probably wasn’t until about two years later that I finally got to see this movie myself. I’m ashamed to say that it was a bootleg copy – probably recorded off of HBO or STARS back in the early days of pay cable. I watched that tape over and over again. Eventually I had it memorised. I had a lot of fun riffing the movie with my friend Mike, not because it was bad and deserved to be made fun of but because it was so familiar. (Yes, I riffed movies more than a decade before I discovered MST3K – it’s just a natural reaction to a movie for me.)

What Spielberg and Lucas have crafted here is the ultimate adventure film. Often imitated but never replicated this homage to the adventure serials of the forties is full of great escapes, chases, humor, fight scenes, and most of all pure cool. There is no iconic symbol that better captures swashbuckling adventure than Harrison Ford with a manly stubble on his chin, a fedora on his head and a whip on his hip.

There’s not much point in covering the plot of the movie, really, since probably everybody has seen it already. Indiana Jones is a professor of archeology who spends his sabbatical time raiding tombs in search of rare artifacts for his friend’s museum. In his world archeology is not a dusty or scholarly activity, it is all about defeating diabolical traps and outwitting other treasure hunters like the nasty French Rene Belloq. Jones is approached by a pair of US government intelligence types who explain to him that Hitler is looking for some mysterious object in the desert outside Cairo – the Ark of the Covenant. It just so happens that Indie’s old mentor and father figure was an expert on the resting place of the lost Ark, so off he goes to Nepal to seek out an artifact that will lead to the ultimate treasure (and perhaps to victory in the war.) Unfortunately Indie’s old mentor is dead, but his feisty daughter Marion is still there, although she’s not too happy to see Dr. Jones waltzing back into her life. From there it’s a rip-roaring adventure tale filled with cliffhangers, peril and snakes.

What can I say? It was a joy to watch this movie again tonight. I still remember every line, every shot and every moment of the movie, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch again. Indiana Jones, as the advertisements for the sequels were fond of reminding us, IS adventure. Karen Allen as Marion is the perfect foil for him and although she often finds herself being a damsel in distress she’s also perfectly capable of clobbering a guy over the head, operating a machine gun or drinking anybody under the table. I love a capable and not easily dominated heroine. Harrison Ford makes Indie human – he’s not a superman. Indie gets hurt, loses fights, is almost always outmatched, but never lets that stop him, which is part of the charm. And charm is the key to the role. The old smoothie.

It’s only unfortunate that none of the sequels quite lived up to the high standards set by the original. Then again, how could they possibly?

June 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Maltese Falcon

June 8, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It’s shameful admission time. Tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen this movie. It’s one of those classic movies that everybody has heard of and if you’re a movie fan people kind of assume that you’ve seen this sometime. It’s got the WB stable of forties actors. Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre would all be back in one year to make Casablanca, which I have seen many a time. My sister went through a Humphrey Bogart phase at one point in our youth and rented every one of his films, but I must have not been home when she watched this one.

Having finally seen this I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie, and it has some fun performances, but it’s not really all that. Maybe the problem is that the movie is so commonly praised – my expectations were set too high.

I did really enjoy Bogart’s Sam Spade. It’s not as though Bogart is a stranger to the role of a hard-boiled detective, but this was not quite what I was expecting. I’m much more familiar with his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and I was pleasantly surprised that this character is so different and distinctive. It’s the sly kind of humor he brings to the part that I find so enjoyable. As a character Sam Spade is what Amanda would call Methosian – he’s a survivor and although the other characters in the movie seem to have a lot of trouble figuring out whose side he’s on it’s pretty clear from the very beginning that Sam Spade is on Sam Spade’s side.

He finds himself embroiled in a situation filled with danger, double crosses and avarice. When a woman hires Sam and his partner to tail a man that she claims her sister has run away with everything very quickly gets bad. Sam’s partner ends up dead, as does the man he was tailing. The police figure that Sam himself is the prime suspect in at least one of those murders. Sam’s a canny man though, he figures that he’s being played by the mysterious woman who has lied to him about everything from why she wanted a man tailed to what her name is.

Part of the problem with this movie for me is that I never for a moment saw any hint of romance between Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy Mary is convincing and manipulative. She’s a woman who never once seems to tell the whole truth, and the Sam is well aware of this. And yet there’s supposed to be some attraction between the two of them. The climactic moment at the finale of the movie relies on there being a connection between the two of them which forces Sam to make a choice between self preservation and love for Brigid. I don’t sense that necessary conflict, and it robs the movie of its power.

The other bad guys, however, are plenty of fun. Peter Lorre with his distinctive look and accent is fantastic as the weaselly and somewhat effete Joel Cairo. Then there’s Sydney Greenstreet as the corpulent Kasper Gutman, who seems honestly to enjoy Sam’s antics almost as much as the audience does. Perhaps even more so. I enjoyed watching both of them throughout the film.

This movie has everything you’d expect from your hard boiled detective drama. Double crossings. Mickey finns. Irish police officers. Murders. Tails. Guns. Even a kickass loyal dame who helps Sam out at every turn (and I really wish that the character of Effie were featured more prominently.) But I couldn’t help feeling at every turn that I had seen these cliches used better – even in some cases by the same actors we see here. I do wonder, though, if maybe they weren’t so cliched at the time. Perhaps the movie would have been more powerful to me if I had not been raised on so many stories that clearly used this movie as their inspiration. When you’ve seen Captain Picard playing on the holodeck as Terrance Dicks so many times in clear spoofs of precisely this kind of movie it tends to lessen the impact of the source material.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 399 – A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own – April 3rd, 2011

When I was in high school I hated gym class. If you played a sport after school you didn’t have to take gym, but I was a drama/tech geek and I suck at sports, so gym class it was. It was usually small and of course made up of the unathletic types, like myself. I’m sure we were hugely frustrating for the gym teachers, who were really very cool ladies. I only realize how cool they were now that I’m this far away from it. At the time I resented their insistence that I learn how to stretch properly. But I do recall one awesome time in high school gym when one of the two women who had to deal with us brought in a woman who’d actually played pro baseball.

This movie had come out maybe a year and a half before. Everyone knew it. It was one of the few movies my whole family had agreed to rent with no argument from either myself or my brother. So when we skipped our usual jog around the gym and stretching followed by a half-assed game of badminton so we could sit down and hear about the real story of the AAGPBL. Somewhere I have a signed baseball card from her and for the life of me I cannot find it tonight and cannot remember her name off the top of my head. I’ll kick myself later when I find it somewhere obvious.

My point is that while this movie has some heavy handed moments and relies on some historical inaccuracy in order to make the story more engrossing, I’ve got a minute personal connection to it. And even though I never wanted to play baseball or any other pro sport, I feel like it tells a story that’s important to me. Last night I was struck by how few women were in the movie, and how limited their roles were. That’s not at all an issue here. Showing a group of women from all walks of life, a variety of characters who happen to also be women? That’s part of the whole point of this movie. And I like that while it’s about the two/three main characters it’s also about the team and about the league itself.

The story follows two sisters, Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, who make it into the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The whole reason they have the opportunity at all is because it’s the middle of World War II and players from the major leagues were being drafted and going off to war. So some enterprising folks created a league for women, hoping to fill the bleachers with people who just wanted to see a live ball game. Dottie and Kit end up on the same team, the Rockford Peaches. And so the movie goes, showing us Dottie and Kit’s rivalry (Kit’s always felt like she plays second fiddle to Dottie, regardless of Dottie’s intentions) set against the development of the team and the league in general.

There’s a lot of baseball in this movie, which is as it should be. Sure, there’s plenty of scenes showing the ladies on the team during their down time, but there’s also a lot of playing on the field. There are montages of women throwing, batting, catching, fielding, running, etc. Women who know what they’re doing and are getting to do it on a bigger stage than ever before. It struck me while watching that while last night’s movie is certainly about baseball, this movie shows a whole lot more actual playing. Because it’s not just Dottie and Kit on the field. You meet all their teammates, from Mae and Doris, two outspoken New Yorkers, to the rest like Shirley and Marla and Helen and Evelyn and Ellen Sue. Shirley learns to read through the course of the film. Marla’s never left home before and ends up leaving the team when she gets married. Evelyn’s son accompanies the team when his father doesn’t want to take care of him while his mother’s on the road. There’s a beauty queen and a dance hall bouncer. Sure, it’s clear that the cross-section of personalities and backgrounds is intentional, but I appreciate seeing them all come together through etiquette lessons and illicit nights out dancing and the interminable bus rides between games.

And then there’s Jimmy Dugan, their coach and manager. A drunk who wasted the last few years of his own baseball career, Jimmy takes the job just for the money, figuring he won’t have to actually do anything. When it’s clear he won’t be any help, Dottie steps in to run the team, keeping them going until Jimmy realizes that he actually has a team of honest to goodness ball players out there. Ball players who can win. And of course the two butt heads (okay, Jimmy butts heads with everyone – that’s his role) but in the end they’ve earned each other’s respect. In this, the movie is as predictable as last night’s was. The movie sets up a couple of conflicts and then lets them play out precisely the way you expect them to, with the ups and downs and eventual reconciliations you knew were coming. It’s a comfortable movie in that way, bolstered by several excellent performances. I truly enjoy Geena Davis as Dottie and Tom Hanks as Jimmy, though it’s Lori Petty as Kit who steals my heart. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are great in the supporting roles of Mae and Doris and I love seeing David Strathairn as the mind behind the league, Ira. There are some great fun moments and some great sentimental moments and the pace is kept up by the pace of the games we’re shown, so I can excuse the predictability here.

What does get me about this movie, unfortunately, is the attempt to make it cover everything. It’s got the conflict between Kit and Dottie. It’s got the conflict between Jimmy and Dottie. It’s got the beginning of the league and its possible end. It’s got the backdrop of the war and the possibility that some of the players’ husbands won’t be coming home. It has a set of bookend scenes set in the present day with a reunion of the players as older women. It’s got all the ball playing. It covers sexism and women as objects and it even tries to touch on segregation. And I understand why it has all of that. I get the intention behind every single one of those things. Unfortunately, it’s a two hour movie. So all of those things get mixed in together and some of them just don’t get the time they deserve and that’s a pity.

Still, I do enjoy this movie. There’s something about it that hits me even though I am as unathletic as they come. It’s a fun movie that shows women getting to use skills they’d been told they shouldn’t even have, let alone expect to show off. It’s got some immensely memorable lines and performances and I admit, I can’t hate on the overly sentimental ending because it makes me tear up every time. Maybe I’m biased. Or maybe it just manages to pull together and be a fun movie about baseball and history and women in just the right way to make me smile.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A League of Their Own

March 3, 2011

A League of Their Own

The second day of our baseball quadruple play is a fantastic contrast to the first. Where The Natural is an mythic tale of epic larger-than-life forces clashing through the game of baseball this movie is an intimate and light hearted film set during a historic time for the sport. This fictionalized re-telling of the creation of the girl’s baseball league could have been heavy handed. It could have been a movie about prejudice and breaking barriers. The characters in the film do have to deal with these issues, but they’re not really what the movie is about, I think, and that makes it a lot easier to watch than it could have been.

The story starts here during World War II when the players in major league all go overseas to fight int he war. Back home the owners decide to put together an all female league to provide baseball while their players are away. This movie follows a few of the members of one of the teams, the Rockford Peaches. Primarily it is the story of two sisters from Oregon, the tall, gorgeous and mature Dottie and her passionate younger sister Kit. Dottie is a born baseball player with unbelievable natural talent but it is her sister Kit who has a true passion for the game. The two of them find themselves recruited to the new all female league where they meet the colorful cast of team-mates with whom they will be playing. There’s the loudmouthed Doris, the sexpot Mae, the less than feminine but strong hitter Marla, and others. The man hired to coach the team is a drunken has-been named Jimmy Dugan, but he can’t be bothered to crawl out of the bottle so the level headed Dottie ends up coaching as well as catching.

The central conflict of the movie is between the two sisters. Kit resents Dottie’s effortless skill and it causes friction between them. Meanwhile the very existence of their league is in peril because the major league owners don’t see the need for these girl players once the boys come home from war. Pretty much the whole rest of the movie is a series of little anecdotes that tell the story of the Peaches, and by extension of the tenuous start of all female major league baseball.

The fun thing about this movie is that it is almost all played for laughs. Penny Marshall has packed the cast with fantastic comedians and there are a lot of moments here that still make me laugh out loud after multiple viewings. In particular Rosie O’Donnell as Doris and Jon Lovitz as the scout Ernie are hilarious. You get the impression that they were given leeway to improvise a lot of their performances, and they bring the movie to life. All of the cast does. Marshall uses a lot of looped and extra dialog to pack extra jokes and punchlines into every scene.

I’m a huge fan of Geena Davis, and this is probably one of her best roles. Dottie is such an effortlessly competent character, so wonderfully in command that it’s simply fun to see her at work. Lori Petty as Kit is all crazy energy, a perfect portrayal of the young woman who is always in her sister’s shadow. David Strathairn portrays what appears to be the only man who believes in the female league, and does so with heart and panache. Of course Tom Hanks is brilliant. This is a less favorable role at first than most he has taken, and it’s interesting to see him play somebody who has so clearly given up on himself. Oh, and yeah, there’s Madona spoofing her own public persona as Mae. Every single role is a home run.

Then there are the bookends to the film which show an aged Dottie in the nineties going to the baseball hall of fame exhibit that features all these girls from the league fifty years later. They lend a bittersweet air of nostalgia to the whole thing. It’s not really specifically about women’s baseball at this point, it’s more a look at how for all of us life moves on. It could be any fiftieth reunion and it would have the same feel – wonder at seeing people you hardly recognise any more and sadness knowing that there are those who you’ll never see again.

This movie does a wonderful job of combining comedy with drama. It takes a deft touch to tell a simple human story about people unexpectedly given a chance to do something they have a passion for but have been prevented from doing professionally and at the same time make it laugh out loud funny and deeply emotional. It looks deceptively simple when you see it on the screen, but this movie is a layered and clever gem that tugs on the heart strings in just the right way.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kung Fu Hustle

March 30, 2011

Kung Fu Hustle

Early on in this movie – when there was a montage of men with axes dancing that showed the rise of the “Axe Gang” as their empire of sin engulfed Shanghai – Amanda asked me “Why don’t we own more movies like this?” To which I replied “Because there aren’t any other movies like this.” There really aren’t. It’s a big-budget effects laden kung-fu comedy as only Stephen Chow can do it.

Stephen Chow has such a unique sensibility. As with the brilliant Shaolin Soccer his movie blends cartoonish comedy with ultra-cool kung-fu action for something strange and magical. Something utterly and indescribably weird, but also something you can’t easily look away from.

Humor in kung-fu movies is nothing new. I remember when I was just getting into watching kung-fu movies and had it in my head that they were the epitome of cool action adventures how puzzled I was by things like Jackie Chan’s Half a Loaf of Kung-Fu. The notion that something so cool could also be so goofy struck me then as very odd. This movie takes that core concept of parody and comedy and brings it to the extremes that can only be reached by the modern age of digital effects.

Stephen portrays Sing, a no good vagrant and wastrel who has given up on being good and dedicated himself to his ambition of becoming a gangster. When he tries to use his wannabe gangster moves on the downtrodden people of Pig Sty Alley he inadvertently draws the attention of the dominant local gang – the Axe Gang. These thugs descend on Pig Sty Alley in force, only to be driven off by a trio of kung-fu masters who have been living a simple life of anonymity amongst the other slum dwellers.

From there it’s a plot of escalation. The Axe Gang hire a pair of creepy killers to assassinate the three kung-fu masters. The assassins are in turn stopped by another pair of unlikely masters who also dwell in Pig Sty Alley. The Axe Gang then release from a mental ward a cold blooded killer known as “The Beast” who cares about nothing but finding a worthy opponent. All the while Sing is proving himself to be a very ineffectual gangster, until he ultimately discovers his true potential.

Part of what makes this movie so much fun is the great collection of colorful characters. Every single performance is crazy, over the top and utterly bizarre. A mincing, wailing, flaming gay tailor who happens to also be a master of the kung-fu arts? Yeah. A round-faced clown of a character who spends the whole movie with his ass hanging out of his pants and shampoo on his hair because the landlady has cut off the local water supply? Weird. Sing himself with his ineffectual attempts to be a mean gangster which more often than not result in him being hurt instead is a strange character. (Luckily he has a preternatural healing ability or he’d be dead halfway through the movie.)

When I say that the action in this movie is cartoonish I mean that the movie often appears to be a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon. It might just as well have been directed by Tex Avery. There’s a road-runner style chase scene. There’s constant warping and deformation of people as they’re punched and kicked. There are bodies flung about, flying and falling every which way and smashing through windows and walls alike.

Most bizarrely of all there’s a kind of spirituality to this film. Sing’s ultimate redemption and awakening, even couched in the ridiculous cartoon violence of this movie, has a sort of power to it. This is also clearly a movie aimed at the child inside all of us – a point driven home by the last few minutes of the movie. The irony being that a movie aimed at bringing out a child-like wonder in its audience was given an R rating for its release here in the States due to the violence (I’m guessing because of some of the axe fighting early in the film.) It’s just one more strange contradiction in a movie full of them. Then again – if the Road Runner and Wylie Coyote were live action they might receive an R rating as well.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Good The Bad The Weird

March 21, 2011

The Good The Bad The Weird

Yoon Tae-goo just chose the wrong train to hold up. He’s a small time Korean thief with a past in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately for him the train he is robbing has on board a Japanese envoy who has in his possession a certain map. A map that everybody seems to want. A Korean businessman has hired a notorious and heartless killer to get the map back. The entire Japanese army is after it. A group of Manchurian marauders are after it. A gang of thieves call the Ghost Market Gang want it as well. On top of it all there’s a bounty hunter who doesn’t care about the map but is after Tae-goo and the assassin Park Chang-yi.

Back before Pax East started we had a friend over to spend the night and we got to talking about our project. She recommended a few movies we didn’t have in our collection and this was one of them. It has been described (by its director) as a “kimchee western” (as opposed to a spaghetti western.) If Sergio Leone had filmed an Indiana Jones movie set in Manchuria this might have been what would have resulted. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Well it is!! There’s a quirkiness to the Korean films we have in our collection that sets them apart. Volcano High, this movie, even the monster/horror movie The Host all have a strong comedic thread that runs through them. Tae-goo could have been a serious adventurer. He has a mysterious past with Chang-yi and a preternatural ability to survive the unsurvivable. Kang-ho Song, who plays Tae-goo, absolutely steals the movie though with his inescapable charm. Woo-Sung Jung, as the steadfast bounty hunter Park Do-won gets all the coolest stunts and gunfighting. Byung-hun Lee is wonderfully sinister and badass as Park Chang-yi. At one point early in the film I commented to Amanda that he was the Korean Johnny Depp. He has an effortless smoothness that completely sells the character.

So you have these three great actors and these three great roles, and the rest of the movie is them just playing. There’s battles on a moving train. There’s daring shootouts in a marketplace. There’s an absolute whopper of a chase scene with jeeps, horses and motorcycles as all the various parties come together in a race to reach the mysterious destination the map leads to. The action is simply unbelievable, even more so if you watch the making of features on the DVD and see just how many of the stunts were simply superhuman feats of daring-do. Particularly the astonishing Woo-Sung, who absolutely floored both me and Amanda with his ability to cock a lever action rifle on a horse at full gallop. Holy shit. Furthermore, it seems that the cameramen themselves were stuntmen of a kind with some of the amazing rigs that they had to work in.

This movie is everything a thrilling western should be. It’s got operatic meditations of good and evil. It’s got men in dusters with rifles. It’s got horses, dynamite, shootouts, trains… and it infuses the whole thing with a distinctly Korean vibe that makes it even more fun. Now if you’ll excuse me I want to watch that climactic chase scene again. Wow.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments