Friday, December 31, 2010

Docs on Films Year End Review

We posted about our first film on Sept. 13. On the last day of 2010, we're 3 1/2 months and 12 films in to this little project. Here's what we've encountered so far:

By decade, the 1950s won with 4 films but the 1930s were a close second with 3. All of our films fell between 1932 and 2000 but Gladiator (2000) was an anomaly--the next newest film was in 1982.

Even though we started off with a foreign film, American films took over this set of 12. Gladiator was, again, an anomaly as it's dual listed US and UK.

Almost all of the films were nominated for major awards:

In terms of nominations, Gandhi leads the pack at 34 with Gladiator close behind with 32. The Battle of San Pietro and Trouble in Paradise were not nominated for any major awards.

If we look at wins, the picture changes just a tad:

Suddenly, Umberto D, In the Year of the Pig, The Magnificent Ambersons, and White Heat join San Pietro and Trouble. But Gandhi won 19 awards and is our award-winningest film of the year with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid taking second place and bumping Gladiator to number 3.

Another interesting tidbit: of the 8 eligible films, 6 are on the National Film Registry. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Battle of San Pietro, and Trouble in Paradise were all listed in 1991; An American in Paris was added in 1993; and Butch Cassidy and White Heat were included in 2003.

Out of the 12, Athelas and I each refused to watch 1 film (La Strada for her, Gladiator for me) and we'd each seen 3 films before starting the project (Butch Cassidy and Gladiator for both of us, La Strada for her, and Gandhi for me). Athelas was thwarted by technology and commercial mail from seeing two: The Magnificent Ambersons and White Heat.

Now, for the crux of the project: did we like the films and would we keep them on the list?

So, Athelas would keep 6 films (keeping in mid that she's working from a total of 10, not 12): In the Year of the Pig, Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, Last Year at Marienbad, and Gandhi. While I'd keep 7 out of 12: In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of San Pietro, Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, Last Year at Marienbad, Gandhi, and White Heat.

Whether we liked the film is a different story in some cases. Neither of us chose to eliminate a film from the list that we liked (no surprises there) but we did each choose to keep films on the list that we did not like. Athelas would keep La Strada and I would keep In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of San Pietro, and Last Year at Marienbad. We both enjoyed Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, and Gandhi. Athelas also liked In the Year of the Pig and Last Year at Marienbad while I also liked The Magnificent Ambersons and White Heat (which don't count for her yet so she may like them).

So, Athelas would keep 6 of the 10 while I would keep 7 of the 12. Athelas liked 5 of the 10 while I liked 5 of the 12.

So, that's our first twelve films in a few nutshells. We have some doozies coming up for 2011 but we get to start the year off right with a film that we've both seen before and we both adore: Edward Scissorhands. That is, of course, followed by a bunch of films that are, well, interesting.

Gladiator, or Rarh! I'm a FIGHTER!

I hate this movie. Really. I do. I don't want a list of reasons why it's good and shouldn't be the recipient of my scorn. I. Do. Not. Like. Gladiator. And I didn't watch it again. Nope. Got better things to do than want to beat my head against a rock for watching a movie again, thanks.

Why do I hate it?

Well, it's loud, stupid--and I don't mean that in a "boys are stupid" sort of way; I mean it in an "it's not smart" sort of way--trite, lacking in heart and courage, and plain 'ol boring.

The crux of this film is the men metaphorically (or literally) beating their chests and yelling, "Rahr! I'm a FIGHTER!" But there is no point. And there is no art. Sure there are pretty shots and good moments but those are few and far between and do not a movie make.

So, why does 1001 Movies think I should watch this? Clearly because it hates me but let's review the entry:

First, apparently the author is clearly mistaken about women: "Russell Crowe lost 40 pounds and built up his muscles to play thinking women's sex object Maximus." Sorry? Yeah, that's what it says. Really? A "thinking woman's sex object"? What about him makes him sexy to "thinking women"? I'm not saying Russell Crowe can't be sexy--he's not my cup of tea but I'll acknowledge that others may love him--but there is nothing intelligent about him in this film and I'm assuming that is what would make him sexy to a "thinking woman"?? Help me out here.

Ok, at the end of that sentence is probably why 1001 Movies wants us to watch Gladiator: "Hollywood's first true Roman epic in over three decades." Fine, yes, early Hollywood was famous for Roman epics and I have a feeling we'll be watching some of those later but just because it's a Roman epic . . . .

Apparently the author also thinks the "computer trickery" super. Um, did he see that tiger?

Athelas, do we know a girl who likes this film? I know boys who think it's just fantastic but I can't think of any girls. But I also can't just simply say "it's a movie for men" and move on because you and I both like a lot of movies that should fit that category. Is this just the ball-scratching equivalent of film? Men think it's ok to do in public and women are appalled? Is this just Scott scratching his balls in public?

Gladiator: No one told it that it was just a dick flick

Some other titles I considered for this post were: "Gladiator: As Boring As I Remember"; "Gladiator: Best Picture? Seriously?"; and "Gladiator: I Think 300 Was Better."

And I do think the movie would have been a lot better if it HAD been more like 300. The fighting wasn't bad, despite the crappy CGI, and I like the idea of a gladiator with dueling death wish and vengeance complexes. Even the "Daddy loved you better than me!" angle wasn't the worst part. The worst part were the interminable conversations about feelings and politics and the interminable shots of wheat and weather. Talk about pathetic fallacy. Emphasis on pathetic. The movie really forces these grandiose statements about democracy and the mob and violence and blah blah blah. Which seem totally out of place (and horribly written) in a movie like this, but also fatally flawed. Better directors than you, Ridley Scott, have wrestled with how to make a movie critiquing celebrations of violence as cool and entertaining that also, cinematically, make violence look really, well, cool and entertaining. But even more than that, you can't have a movie that makes the smug point that the gladiatorial games were the mark of Rome's corruption and barbarism while, AT THE SAME TIME, making those very games the vehicle for the hero's vengeance and redemption. Oops.

So what do you think, Nat? Is this on the list because it explicitly states (rather than demonstrates or explores) a facile and easy political point ala Crash? Is it the academy's love affair with epics? The acting wasn't bad--Joaquin in particular was MUCH better than his character was written--but why do people love this movie?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Gladiator (2000)

I think this might be the first movie that both of us have previously seen. And as an added bonus, we both hated it. An attempt to add soul and depth to the sword and sandals historical epic, Russell Crowe (who I don't hate) plays a brilliant Roman general who learns of the patricide committed by wanna-be emperor Joaquin Phoenix (who I also don't hate) and is thereby punished in all sorts of brutal ways both emotional and physical (still on board). So why is this movie so intolerable? Is it the heavy-handed direction? The facile script? The ridiculous CGI tiger? I'm going back in, my friends, and will report back in full. Hopefully it won't be too much like facing Tigris of Gaul in the Coliseum.

Friday, December 24, 2010

White Heat, or Everyone in 1949 had EXCELLENT Aim

Sorry for the tardiness--Christmas madness and all.

I love these sorts of movies: a bunch of bad guys, a heist, chases, shootouts, explosions, and a random literary reference. Totally in my wheelhouse if two guys are shot violently and cold-heartedly before minute 3 is up. Thanks, Dad.

These sorts of films are normally placed firmly in "boy territory." Written by boys, directed by boys, acted by boys with one or two hot dames thrown in for boy eye candy, marketed to and watched by boys. What's interesting about this film, ready for it?--it was written by a girl! And that girl, Virginia Kellogg, was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts (she lost to a boy for a James Stewart baseball movie).

Anyway, this is one of the few films we've seen so far that I actually enjoyed watching but I think it also worth watching for more than being fun. It seems to be a front-runner in the "bad guy has issues" genre rather than "bad guy is just bad because he's bad and we're going to focus on the GOOD guy anyway because he's GOOD" genre. This bad guy is bad for a reason and we see him spiral into the depths of his psychosis as his world unravels.

We also see "technology" being used for a police chase--which amused me to no end because I can sort of pick out the locations now that I live in LA and, let me tell you, you wouldn't get the places they got with that sort of speed, echo locator thingamajig or no.

I was also highly amused by the accuracy of the gun play in the film. Nine times out of ten, if a guy shot a gun, he hit his target, even if that target is moving around far away on top of a ginormous gas tank. If you watch a contemporary version of this sort of film, the hit to miss ratio is not nearly as high. The guys in White Heat could shoot the cotton tip off of a Q-tip (Steven Seagal can do it) while the guys in a contemporary film might hit the broad side of a barn once every four shots.

So, why watch this one according to our trusty guide? Apparently, Cagney's Cody is the perfect example of the "ultimate contradiction that brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility undermined by all-too-human dependencies and vulnerabilities." Out here in the real world, we might just call that hubris and be done with it. I'll agree with that but I'd offer that perhaps it's not just that he's the perfect example, it's that this is one of the films that focuses primarily on that contradiction. In other films, the hubris and fall are there but they're not the crux of the film whereas with White Heat Cody's descent into madness is the point of the film.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What kind of jerk would shoot Gandhi?

Not very deep, I realize, but this is the first cogent thought I had after watching the epic. And actually, the movie isn't that interested in what kind of jerk did shoot him. In fact, for a three-hour movie, the end felt a little rushed. I suspect the issue of partition, and the role of Gandhi's Hinduism therein, was a lot more complicated than the Mahatma wanting everyone to get along and the mistrustful Muslims refusing a sweetheart deal to govern the new nation as a minority. But that might just be my Hitchens showing.

I am also interested in the Indians that were soldiers for the British, mowing down their fellow citizens during a massacre I had never heard of. Maybe the imagery was supposed to speak for itself, but I think at least a sentence or two acknowledging that it was largely Indian soldiers doing the massacring, beating, etc., would have been well taken. Maybe it's part of how carefully and elaborately the whole movie was framed? I feel like, from the monster disclaimer that opens the film forward, that the project was very much an English look at this man, so a lot (his radicalization, his abandonment of affiliation with Western/British identity) is left opaque or elided. And I'm actually okay with that.

Because I cannot let a post go live without letting my feminista flag fly, I will register my raised eyebrows that the priest G met in South Africa was summarily dismissed because this had to be a movement run by Indians, but it was no problem for the British woman to take a highly visible role in his household, because clearly she wouldn't be contributing in any meaningful way.

And yay for baby Martin Sheen!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

White Heat (1949)

Now this has promise: a violent and unpredictable gangster with mommy issues and insanity in his family who suffers from debilitating headaches that make him berserk? Score! It appears this movie is another version of what we saw in Butch and Sundance, except rather than humanizing the bad guys through wit, brotherly love, and remarkable good looks, this landmark noir and foundational action movie makes a "black hat" human by and through psychopathology. Paging Dr. Freud!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gandhi, or My Misspent Youth

I first saw Gandhi at some point in middle school--so somewhere between August of 1991 and June of 1994 and the ages of just-turned-12 and 14.5 ish. It's one of those things where I'm always amazed when someone hasn't seen the film (cough *brainmate* cough)--I just sort of assume everyone watched the film in middle school. Sort of like most people being amazed that I didn't read Catcher in the Rye until I was 20-something.

Anyway, I'm not sure 12-14 was the age to see the film really. First, I'm fairly certain I saw ALL of the film and not an edited down version so what history teacher did I have who wanted to devote basically a whole week to watching a film? You should also know that during those years I remember watching Roots in a history course, too. And I wonder why I don't really have a head for history. Second, even though I might be fairly bright, I'm fairly certain that the ages of 12-14 are not prime years of cultural discernment. While I might have understood the idea of the film, I doubt I really "got" the film and I certainly wouldn't have questioned it in a real way. And, third, thanks to watching the film then, I now only think of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Seriously. And, vice versa. Really. I had to do a Google image search to remember what the real man looked like.

So, the verdict watching the film again some 16-19 years later? It's a damned good movie and it holds up. It doesn't look like a 1982 film. E.T., Tootsie, An Officer and a Gentleman, Porky's, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas are a few of the highest grossing films released in 1982 just to give you a mental reminder of the era. And, to add further kudos to the timelessness of the film, 1001 Movies tells me that the director, Richard Attenborough, conceived the idea in 1962.

It also doesn't feel like the three hours (with an intermission) that it is--which is a feat with me. And I love the acting--Kingsley is a favorite (probably due to this role) and everyone seems to fit seamlessly within the cast, even the bazillion extras.

So, what makes for an outstanding film? In certain cases, like this one, it's a film that makes you ask questions rather than serving all of the answers on a silver platter. What I'll leave it up to my partner in crime to discuss--or help me figure out--is whether the film is actually good for the Indian people. I'd venture a yes tentatively but it is also a film made by Brits about India which is the very tension within the film and that is always problematic.

I'm also curious about the Indians employed by the English in the film who act violently against those who are uprising--the guards at the salt mine, for example, who violently and repeatedly beat their fellow Indians--or those who seem to simply not participate at all. The only point I see this vaguely dealt with is when Gandhi takes the tea tray away from the servant in Jinnah's (right person?) home. Did this class/group/section of Indians ever join the uprising? If so, when? If not, why? And how was this class/group/section of Indians impacted by the withdrawal of the English? Was there a backlash against that group by the revolutionaries?

And, another thing I'm not clear on is the India/Pakistan divide. I don't know much about this historically as I have no memory of studying anything remotely connected to India except watching Gandhi. Can the film really work if the viewer doesn't know that context well? I may need to find someone who knows Indian history to fill me in on these things.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gandhi (1982)

Here are the things I know about Gandhi the person:
He was Indian.
He went on hunger strikes.
He believed in civil disobedience.
He once gave up sugar before he told someone else to give up sugar.
He was assassinated.

Here are the things I know about Gandhi the movie:
It was directed by the grandfather from Jurassic Park.

I'm guessing this epic film will make some arguments I need to consider about postcolonialism, Indian integration and culture, and the life and death of a twentieth-century icon. Really looking forward to this one!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is It Possible To Make a Pomo Thriller?

So my attempt to watch this movie got interrupted four times:
1. I fell asleep.
2. I watched the finale of America's Next Top Model.
3. I bought a Blu-Ray player (yay)!
4. I taught a class.
Did these interruptions matter? Not a bit, because a cohesive narrative structure that relies upon a developmental model of character, plot, motivation, etc., is not at play here. Rather than modernist, which is what I thought this movie would be from the description, this one struck me as postmodernist.

I shall defer to my brainmate, who knows pomo a lot better than I, for a definite ruling, but the fact that minutes, years, and months are all equated, characters are doubled and unnamed, and the multiple narratives are presented, none of which are privileged, struck me as a postmodernist move. No matter what we call it, I agree that these choices drained all possible suspense or menace from the movie. I went from thinking the stalker dude was a mindfucker to thinking he was a rapist to thinking the (possible) husband/gambler was abusive, to thinking the woman was a mindfucker, to thinking that that wasn't the point of the movie at all. But to sustain a thriller, I think you NEED to have a world that believes in things like history and motive and character. Do you agree, Nat? Can you think of a suspense/horror/mystery movie that abandons character and history and works? Zodiac comes to mind, but it's not nearly as formally experimental as this one.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad, or A Lot of Art is Boring

This sounds like a cool movie: a mysterious man with psycho-stalker looks and phrases tells a woman the story of how they met and had a week-long affair the year before; she doesn't believe him so he has to repeat the story over and over but, each time, the story changes a bit but still employs the familiar phrases, gets a bit more involved with details or encounters or other people, she believes him a bit more and changes the story herself . . . .; and then there is always the lingering question of whether force was involved.

I want to watch that movie.

Except I did and it sucks.

This film is a super case of how a good idea is taken and made into "art" and ruined. What I described above sounds like an awesome psychological thriller in which the woman and the audience don't and can't know the truth by the end--Has she actually ever met this man? Did the affair happen? Or has this man coerced her simply through this conversation? Even the location is fuzzy--the title of the film is Last Year at Marienbad but the narrative makes it clear that Marienbad is just one option. Add in the glamour of a fancy hotel with an apparently incessant black tie dress code and the black and white film and we should have a really engaging film.

Additionally, the screenplay is apparently the reimagined plot of the novel, The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares which Wikipedia tells me is about "A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart." (

I want to read that book. [Ok--I ordered it so maybe I'll get it and can read it before this posts and, if not, I'll update when I do--it's only 103 pages]

This movie, however, takes those ideas and makes them as slow and boring and painful as La Strada, The Russian Ark, and Umberto D rolled into one. There is no thrill. There is no suspense. And, at the end, I don't care what the truth is other than the movie is over (and it's not a long film at 90-ish minutes).

1001 Movies says that this film "marked a radical departure from movies shaped by the long-dominant 'tradition of quality'" and that "it wasn't just offbeat or eccentric [but] mounted a full-blooded assault on the ingrained assumptions of narrative film, interrogating and subverting every aspect of 'correct' moviemaking from temporal structure to photographic composition to characters development." Ok. So here is where I probably can't divorce myself from the fact that I am watching this film almost 50 years after its creation and this "full-blooded assualt" is now just normal (I've seen Inception, for example). And, while I appreciate that this was one of the first films to break standard, I don't think it does it well. Just because you're knowingly breaking the rules and are the first to do so doesn't make what you're doing worthy of praise. Just ask the first kid who colored on the wall with Sharpies.

1001 Movies continues, "With characteristic modesty, he [the director] once called Marienbad a 'crude and primitive . . . attempt' to capture 'the complexity of thought and its mechanisms. He was wrong in his choice of adjectives, but right about everything else . . . . Nowhere else in cinema have the labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory been evoked more forcefully or explored more resonantly." I don't know that I'd choose "crude" or "primitive" but the film is just that in a sense and it has to be--it was a test run for this sort of film. But, about that "nowhere else in cinema part . . . um . . . off the top of my head:

Memento (on the list)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Being John Malkovich (on the list)
Inception (too new to be on the list)
The Science of Sleep
50 First Dates
Fight Club (on the list)
The Matrix (on the list) . . .

Any films you can think of that are explorations of the "labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory"--that are either better explorations or just better movies?