Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Town (1949)

Feels like this musical starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelley should have an exclamation point after the title. The plot, adapted from a Broadway play, sounds absolutely fabulous, both for what it includes (three sailors on twenty-four-hour shore leave explore New York and fall in love) and what it doesn't (what three sailors on twenty-four-hour shore leave would spend most of their time doing in New York). Sinatra's acting ability always pleasantly surprises me, and a few of the songs ("New York, New York"; "You Can Count on Me") are classics. The film was ranked nineteen on AFI's list of American musicals, which bodes well. Also, the prospect of watching this movie makes me happy because of a favorite family story: When my grandfather was a sailor on twenty-four-hour shore leave in New York, he saw Frank Sinatra in a bar (one example of what sailors actually did). My grandfather being my grandfather, shouted out "Hey, Frank!" They talked and he got his autograph . . . on his leave papers that he had to turn in to get back on the ship. But I've had a soft spot for Frank ever since. This one should be fun.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jim Jarmusch like-a the Bob Frost!

Well, this is probably my favorite of the Jarmuschs I've seen, but that's sort of like undergoing my favorite dental procedure. I just don't dig the dude's aesthetic. The filmmaking itself was beautiful, and Tom Waits was actually great. And of course the Rain Dogs songs were fabulous. But everything felt drained of emotion for me. As has happened before with Jarmusch movies, when I hear the premise I think it sounds great, but then the execution leaves me cold. I'd love to see almost any other director tackle this plot (three guys in jail, one guilty the other two "innocent," escape through the Louisiana swamp). For the most part, there's nothing bad about this movie; I just don't care for it.

I did say for the most part. The "Road Not Taken" thread was heavy-handed, pseudo-philosophical, and ultimately frivolous. I've always read Frost's most misread poem as a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. The roads aren't all that different after all, and the traveler imagines himself giving meaning to the arbitrary choice later. Since Walt Whitman also gets a shout-out, I think the movie is probably trying to say something about human freedom. These characters are placed in a situation in which they have no control, they "escape" from a series of prisons and ultimately go on to make their own lives, and choose their own paths (which isn't what I think the Frost poem is about, but whatever). Maybe that would have worked better for me if there was more of the characters' internal lives to hold on to.

All in all, it was relatively painless, but left me saying "meh." Why does the book have a crush on it, Nat? And were you wishing for more Ellen Barkin as well?

More Interesting Movies about Jail Time

That's what this post was going to be about until I couldn't think of one movie involving jail time that is less interesting than Down by Law.

This is the first film by Jarmusch I've seen; sort of. I thought five to ten minutes of Dead Man didn't count but now I think I'm going to count it because any five to ten minute segment of Down by Law was more interesting than the whole and at least with only five to ten minutes I can pretend the rest is super interesting.

Methinks Jarmusch wants to be Tennessee Williams but fails miserably (what with the South, questionable characters, steamy b&w). And Jarmusch might have created the most boring film ever made to contain a DJ, a pimp, and a non-English speaking Italian murderer. How do you even do that? Seriously, I think these three could have been a bunch of monks who have taken a vow of silence locked up together and I would have been more interested.

The book perhaps states it best, describing the film as having "little embellishment" (although the book means that as a trait to praise). The problem is that no one's life has THAT little embellishment. No pimp or DJ is that damned boring a person. I found myself having a lot of time to figure out if John Lurie was making a face and puckering his lips the whole time or if his face just did that and trying to count the number of days Waits was marking on the wall and what exactly Waits' tattoos were. I shouldn't feel like I've gone to the Orleans Parish Prison for the Most Boring People to ever Commit Crimes. The guys in the cells next door sounded like they were having fun; I'd rather hang out with them.

Besides being one of the most boring movies to ever grace our TV (and I have actually watched a film about monks who have taken a vow of silence), it's highly problematic.
1. Within the first 13 minutes, not one but two women asked to be hit by the men they're talking to.
2. No one cares that Lurie and Waits were set up. Because, they're "bad" guys to begin with. Lurie is a pimp who obviously encounters/causes violence what with the gun. And Waits is obviously not new to crime because who the hell else but a criminal pays you a grand to drive a car across town (during which drive you consume a bottle of liquor)?
3. How exactly did they escape?

The good part is that I like Tom Waits' music (but already own Rain Dogs so who cares) and I would have paid to hear him sing more of Roy Orbison (or am I remembering the song he sang in the car wrong? The mail lady has already absconded with my copy so I can't check).

What says the book? My guess: LOVE Jarmusch because he's INDIE!!

So, yeah: "For Jarmusch fans it's a must see [I bet Jarmusch fans would have seen this already but whatever]. Even for his opponents it affirms the value of small-scale American film productions in opposition to the usual Hollywood fare." Ummmmmm. Nope. While I'm ALL FOR anything that is contra to the "usual Hollywood fare" of, say, Michael Bay, a damned boring Indie film does more to harm the Indie film industry than help it. Jarmusch, with this film, affirms movie fans that "indie" = "capital A art" = "boring as all get out." Just because nothing happens and nothing blows up does not make it a good movie and certainly does not make it a good movie for the cause. Frankly, the new Transformers (speaking of Bay) to be released this Friday makes a better case for indie films than this INDIE!!!! film does.

The book also notes, "Down by Law avoids cliche-ridden expressions and the usual restrictions of space and place." I actually thought that most, if not all, of the supporting cast was incredibly cliche-ridden. A criminal in a Zoot suit?

Luckily, we'll only be bored to death by two more of the Indie-King's films: Stranger than Paradise and Dead Man.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Down by Law (1986)

Pro: Stars Tom Waits as a Nola DJ imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and the soundtrack features songs from Rain Dogs.
Con: It's directed by Jim Jarmusch.
Pro: A B&W Indie, the plot sounds like a fascinating character study that investigates relationships between men in a way not bromance-y.
Con: It's directed by Jim Jarmusch.
Pro: Made quite a splash on the indie film circuit when it premiered, being nominated for a handful of Independent Spirit Awards and the Palme d'Or.
Con: Jarmusch, Jarmusch, Jarmusch.

So I'm not a fan of Jim Jarmusch. I've seen a handful of his films, and usually find them oblique, self-indulgent, and impenetrable. But this one *sounds* good. . . so I'm willing (and hoping) to be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's a Girl Monster

We seem to have a little trend running of titular characters not actually being the crux of the film. We just had Fanny and ALEXANDER and now we have (Bride of) Frankenstein.

The actual bride of Frankenstein is Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein's new wife, of whom we see a bit but not enough to name a movie after her.

But, the "woman" we think of as the bride of Frankenstein (actually the bride of Frankenstein's monster), is only "alive" for four minutes of the seventy-five minute film (from the moment she twitches her finger until the fiery end), is not named in the film, and is not credited in the credits (a "?" stands in for the actress' name). IMDb tells us that the Monster's Bride is actually Elsa Lanchester who also plays Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and who gets more substantive screen time than the other two female main characters. But, while a reanimated woman is the goal of Doctor Pretorius, a bride for Frankenstein's monster is not the original plan. Frankenstein's monster is only brought in as a last ditch effort to blackmail Dr. Frankenstein to help since Pretorius doesn't so much know what the hell he's doing and can only create creepy miniature people.

There is an argument to be made for Mary Shelly being the bride of Frankenstein in many ways and I'm down with that but I think the film also needs a more superficial, obvious narrative that revolves around the actual bride of Frankenstein's monster--the lady with the hair needed to be created much earlier. This film is just Frankenstein part two which is fine but not what I was expecting.

Horror is, in general, not my thing. I'm a huge chicken when it comes to actually scary things and I have little tolerance for things that try to be scary but aren't. Bride attempts horror but never makes it there for me. I'm not scared of Frankenstein's monster (essentially because people jump in bodies of water out of fright rather than actual menace from the monster who really just wants to be friends); I'm not scared of Pretorius or his evil plot (the miniature people do much to undermine him for me); and I'm not scared of the reanimated woman and her hissing. Despite my lack of fright, the book tells us that the "plot relies heavily on sharp contrasts that make the spectator jump from terror to pathos or comedy." Having seen Young Frankenstein, this one is not as funny to me but I'd definitely list is as a comedy rather than a horror film.

The book also lists the movie's "portrayal of sexual relations, a portrayal that is considered by man to be at least potentially transgressive" by which it means "Shelly's myth: (pro-)creation as something achieved by men alone." Ok. Sure. But, that was Frankenstein, too (and every other portrayal of a mad (or otherwise actually) scientist). So, why a sequel?

I'm torn on this one. It's OK and as the source of one of the most iconic hairstyles to date, it's worth a watch but it didn't excite me at all.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Meet the Frankensteins

So I really liked BoF, though it wasn't at all what I expected. I had a feeling I wouldn't be *scared* by this "horror" movie (though there were some moments of delicious creepiness: the wife expecting to pull her husband out of the wreckage and the monster emerging instead; Dr. PraeTORious's kiddie-sized coffin filled with bell-jarred pygmy creations), but I didn't know how much I'd be laughing. The Monster seems to have a knack for slapstick awkwardness prescient of Ben Stiller's Gaylord Focker (hence my post title). He WANTS to do the right thing, but always ends up knocking the shepherdess off the waterfall anyway. I also loved the cop (I guess?) bragging about confining the Creature, as he breaks out after 30 seconds and busts up the proto-press conference. And Minnie freaking cracked me up. She was always screaming!

I thought the frame narrative of the Shelleys and Byron hanging out by the fire was both too short and too off. They left out all the drugs and illicit sex! But I think casting Mary Shelley and the Bride with the same actress was a bit brilliant. It made me think of the feminist implications of being "created" just to marry someone. I might be giving the film more feminista credit than it's due; what do you think, Nat?

As far as the gay subtext goes, I think it's a stretch. Knowing that Whale was a homosexual, it's hard not to read the Monster's loneliness, alienation, and desire for companionship as a metaphor for homophobia, but I think it's a bit of a stretch. However, the film's overall campiness (especially from the good doctor and the few moments we get of the Bride and her fabulous hair/outfit), might be the path to a queer reading. (Again, what do you think, Nat?)

Oh, and I get that the scene with the hermit was probably the movie's greatest empathic moment, but it's been totally ruined for me by this.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Hang on to your hats, kids, we've got our first classic horror flick! Riffing on a subplot in Mary Shelley's foundational, feminist, radical (I'm a fan) novel, this film imagines what would have happened if Dr. Frankenstein had followed through on his promise to create a mate for the Creature. We've got Boris Karloff. We've got Elsa Lanchester. We've got a frame narrative that imagines the stormy night where Byron and Shelley (also played by Lanchester! Meta!) created the foundation of modern horror and sci-fi. And, we've got that hair. Pretty giddy about this one, even though I've never seen director James Whale's Frankenstein. Eager to discuss the disputed presence of a gay sensibility!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


(and, fanny)

Yep, I'm running just a *tad* late with this one--sorry!

Clearly Fanny needed her own film. Or maybe the long version gives her more time? Apparently the long version is five hours and 12 minutes.

The small negatives: 1. It did feel like 3 hours and 9 minutes to me (well, ok 6 minutes since I didn't watch the 3 minutes of credits). But now I'm sort of insanely curious about what's in that other 2 hours and 3 minutes. 2. It did somehow feel vaguely like a Woody Allen film but not in a way I can identify (so, the negative is not only that I'm not a fan of Allen but my inability to identify the similarity). Perhaps the pacing is part of it. I frequently feel like Allen films are super loooooooooooooooooooong.

But, overall, I liked the film quite a bit. I've not seen any other Bergman films but the book will have us watch ten, Franny and Alexander being the most recent; Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, and Cries and Whispers are the other nine.

Perhaps what I liked best about the film is that it reminded me of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits which is a favorite book (the movie not at all). The large family with secrets, magic that pops up when needed, ghosts . . . ok, so that's all of magical realism really. Maybe it was the matriarch that called House to mind.

I'm curious about two things: what actress does Emilie remind me of (looks-wise)? And what happened to Carl?

So, consulting the oracle:
It seems that the authors are madly deeply darkly in love with Bergman. Not only do we have a whopping ten films (which is more than a fourth of his eligible oeuvre) but the first line of the entry says, "Bergman's large body of work is so distinctive that it is frequently spoofed by comedians as well as imitated and cited by lesser filmmakers" . . . so NO one is on par with Bergman according to 1001, it seems (even though Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock both have more films on the list).

The authors contend, "Bergman's dreamy, allegorical films present life as it is rather than how we wish it would be." So, I can make people burst into flames? And live in a ginormous fancy house and have loads of parties. Good to know. Later, however, the authors say the film is "part mystical fairy tale" and that it has "a dreamy sense of the unreal" so perhaps I can't make people burst into flames and live in a ginormous fancy party house. Damn.

And, then. Oh, dear. Apparently Fanny and Alexander is "his most accessible movie." *Sigh* Why does "must see" often translate to "not accessible"?

So, more or less, we should watch the film because it's Bergman and it's magical realist. Because I liked this one, I'll go along with that. Seem fair, cohort?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with a Naive Mother

This is not at all what I expected. Having half-watched, half-slept-through the only other Bergman to which I've ever been exposed (Persona; I'm sure we're in for it), I was bracing myself for a stark, oblique, subdued movie that was PHILOSOPHICAL. What I got was a soap opera, fairy tale, Alice in Wonderland mash-up that equal parts entertained and frustrated me. The frustration was on two levels: structural and character. I thought the transition between the different moods and locations was a bit abrupt, and I was FURIOUS at Emilie for marrying a guy who even looks like a Disney villain. I wonder if the long version more seamlessly integrates these different moods and/or better accounts for Emilie's decision to marry Bishop von Sadist. Not that I'm volunteering to watch it.

I don't recall wikipedia mentioning it, but Netflix calls this film "autobiographical," and it totally felt to me like a movie about a kid learning how to be an artist (i.e., lying) and how to worship the matriarchy. Not knowing much about Bergman's oeuvre (see above), I'm not sure how Alexander's way of seeing the world jibes with his aesthetic as a whole, but I liked how the Bishop's death was projected on his mind like a movie. Though what was up with Ismael? And Uncle Jakob (who I loved) and his house of bizarreness? Are we thinking this was good for Jews? Considering when it took place, seems like something to think about.

As far as influencing Allen, I could see it in the scenes with the rich family. He's also committed to beautiful interiors, family dynamics, and an insistence that being super rich is not only better, but normal. I also could see the line of descent to Wes Anderson (the theatre stuff, Alexander even looks like a younger Max Fischer), and the worship of powerful and/or suffering women coupled with a fantastical sensibility that I hesitantly call magical realism screamed Pedro Almodovar to me.

I watched the whole thing in one go, and was definitely invested in the characters. Though it seems Fanny had about two lines and I didn't even know who she was until an hour in.

What sayeth the book?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) (1982)

DAMN. I really thought this one was going to be in English. As it turns out, we're going to find out whether leg warmers, Pop Rocks, and Atari were hot in Sweden in the 80s.

Or not. Fanny and Alexander takes a retrospective look at a Swedish family in the early twentieth century. There appears to be widows, cruel stepfathers, and miserable children. Sounds like a fairy tale, and with legendary writer-director Ingmar Bergman at the helm, it's probably fair to say that this one is going to focus on death, family, female sexuality, and existential loneliness. Fingers crossed we get the "short version," as the original clocks in at a butt-numbing 312 minutes.

In good news for me and bad news for Nat, Woody Allen consistently cites Bergman as the greatest director of all time and his primary influence. Should be an adventure!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

There Seems to Be a Boat

So, we couldn't watch Celine and Julie Go Boating as explained a bit earlier so what says 1001 Books?

First: "English-speaking viewers will never taste the real flavor of this film." Hooray! We MUST watch it but we won't get it. Sounds fun. Maybe there should be subsections: "You Must Watch this Film if you Speak X as a First Language."

The book continues, "It starts with the title, which means nothing but, in its original version and for French-speaking people, opens wide the doors toward tales, jokes, and children's stories." Super. So, why exactly does this "You" whom I imagine, again, is largely English speaking, need to watch a film full of inside jokes from the 21st most populous country in the world (thanks CIA World Factbook)? I'm not saying we shouldn't watch foreign films in foreign languages. Far from it. But, if the film doesn't translate to another audience, it's not effective to that unintended audience and as a part of that unintended audience I think I may safely die without having seen it.

Ok. So English speakers won't get it and it's full of inside jokes. Further, "Celine and Julie Go Boating is a password into a realm where sinuous roads travel the fringe between the exterior world and intimate dreams, between present and past, between reality and fiction." And then there is an Alice in Wonderland parallel made and blah blah blah "magic."

So, more or less, the French people on the panel (or more likely those on the panel who like to think themselves French savvy) added this one to the list.

I did find a video titled "Celine and Julie Go Boating, In 15 Minutes" that does at least answer the boating question but I get the idea that we may be lucky to have skipped this one because I'm betting the 178 other minutes don't so much explain anything. 

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) (1974): Or Why We've Been Talking about Jesusa

So if you consult the DoF bylaws, you'll see that if, for any reason, we cannot watch a film the random number generator thingie (aka, the God of Us) selects, we'll move onto a new selection, but give the dud its due. As it turns out, Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) was unavailable via Netflix or either of the libraries to which your loyal bloggers have access. Which is a bit of a surprise and a bummer, as it sounds pretty trippy.

According to imdb (aka, the Demigod of Us), this French flick includes young women, a "boudoir melodrama," and a "hallucinatory parallel reality." Sounds sort of like Performance except not WRETCHED. Wikipedia gives a bit more detail, hinting that the plot involves a ginger, a dropped scarf, and identity swapping. Methinks David Lynch saw this one before filming Mulholland Drive. Is there actual boating? A question that must remain unanswered.

My brainmate will have to fill us in on why the editors of 1001 (aka, the Cruel Slavemasters of Us) deemed this one worth watching, but for the life of me I can't comprehend why The Cow makes the cut and Celine and Julie are maddeningly elusive.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ordet, or OMG that didn't just happen

So, we've taken a bit of a break while I was traveling and then sick and my partner in crime was packing and then moving. BUT! We're settled now and ready to get going again! I basically banned any peeks into the book for my brainmate once I saw the film because it totally gives away the end and, well, the end is what we might call a thing. So, we're also missing an introduction to this film. We'll be back on track completely asap--pinky swear.

Before we get to the end, we have to talk about the beginning and middle. So, I'll try to list what I kind of liked first. It's a simple, easy cinematography that is super appropriate to content and character. No one's trying to be flashy and in my face. I thought the movie felt a bit like a play in that way and, sure enough, the film is based on a play by Kaj Munk. I liked the characters well enough as people.

But there are quite a few problems. First, can we get a movie that's worse for women? Inger is really only in the film to advance the plot. She actually works to move the plot forward--telling Anders to talk to Peter; trying to convince Morten; making the house run; supposedly carrying a male heir who will continue the family; etc. Her death is the punishment for both Morten and Mikkel (as well as Peter, actually) for being the not right sort of religious . . . .and, the end. And poor Anne barely gets a line at all and her mother doesn't get much more. And, the girl child could have just as easily been a boy in terms of character (besides the obvious has to be a girl because the dead child would have been the first male heir).

And, what's up with the delusional people in foreign movies lately? Last round the guy thought he was a cow. This round we have Jesus. And I'm not sure either is actually effective as commentary. Focusing on Ordet, why does Johannes have to think he's Christ? No reason I can determine other than being holier than thou which other characters also think themselves holier than Christ (the actual historical and sacred Christ as well as Johannes psycho Christ) so . . . . Oh, right and the end.

So, the end. It's not a secret that I frequently have HUGE problems with the ends of both movies and books. Hell, toss in TV shows, too. But, this one? Jesus. Except, no. Johannes no longer thinks he's Jesus. As soon as Inger became ill I knew she would die and I basically started chanting, there's no way she's coming back to life there's no way she's coming back to life there's no way she's coming back to life . . . Then Johannes returns to his family "normal" and I thought "super! that's the twist." It's all about being holy and religious in your own way. Except, no, Inger freaking comes back to life. Seriously? I just watched this whole movie that took pains to be meticulously realistic and I get slammed in the face with this bullshit? And here I thought I was watching a serious meditation on religion and its effects on community. I was apparently wrong.

I *suppose* if one were religious, this film might have a different message BUT this is the book of 1001 movies "YOU" should watch before you die NOT the list of 1001 movies that people who were disappointed that the rapture didn't really happen last weekend should watch before being vacuumed to heaven. That last scene totally yanks the rug out of the rest of the movie--and the rest of the movie was decent.

So, why, Master Book must we watch this before we die? Apparently, this film "manages to persuade the viewer that a miracle can happen." Nope. Apparently the film also "leaves it to the spectator to decide whether [Inger's] revivial is a matter of mere scientific inability to understand the improbably or strength of faith." Really? Were you confused? I wasn't just because there isn't really a scientific explanation--in that there is no biological reason that woman sat up after being dead for that long. But "Wherein lies Ordet's greatness: by the time the 'miracle' occurs, the film has earned our respect for its integrity--we understand the people on screen, because their actions, emotions, thoughts, and doubts are like our own." But, no, like the politician who rallies for goodness and sense earns my respect and then plummets into the depths of my disrescpect when child porn is found on his hard drive, so goes this film when its common sense and realism steps aside to reveal not only a "miracle" but a damned absurd miracle.

First a Cow and Now Christ?

So we've gotten two B&W foreign flicks in a row in which a character become so unhinged from reality, he believes himself to be something ontologically other than human. In Gaav Hasaan believes he's a cow, and in Ordet, Johannes believes he's Christ. Both movies seem interested in exploring conflict in small communities, love, madness, death, and pregnant mammals. The latter is a lot more successful for me, mainly because it's a more accomplished film, just technically. It feels a lot like a play, actually, with limited locations and blackouts between scenes. Though I didn't care as much about the characters as I perhaps should have, considering what they're going through (baby death, wife death, madness, thwarted love, etc.), some of the shots were quite gorgeous, and I'll admit the suspense was fairly heightened for me towards the end.

This seems to me like a movie with an agenda. It's very pro-religious faith, but anti-faction. The doctrinal squabbles are erased in the face of true devotion. The child shall lead them, and all that. It's sort of like Signs, except better, because less pat. Not to give anything away, but I like the way the supernatural is absorbed into an otherwise hyper-realist movie. Still not sure I needed to see it before I died, but I didn't hate it, despite its rather problematic and thoughtles positioning of women as alternately angels, chattel, and non-entities ("You can do anything . . . except have sons") .

My only question for you, Nat, is what was up with Mikkel? WAY too old for Inger. He looked like the sixty-five-year-old love child of Lyle Lovett and Tim Gunn.