Monday, July 25, 2011

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ah, this is going to be nice. CT, HD is a movie I saw in the theatres and liked well enough to buy, but haven't seen in such a long time that there are going to be some surprises. I like movies that riff on/reference genres that I don't particularly know much about or want to watch (see: the collected works of Quentin Tarantino). With this film, Ang Lee offers an homage to Kung-fu films, shooting all the stunts using wires just like the old days. As I recall, the shots are gorgeous and the love story is a delicious why-God-why melange of longing. I also seem to remember it being quite feminista. Hooray for a respite from self-important indies and snooze-fest docs!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky?

God, I found this movie unpleasant. When I wasn't feeling bad for the fish and the fox and the walrus and the seal, I was feeling bad for the dogs. Guess who I wasn't feeling bad for? Yep, Nanook himself and his family. Either I'm a sociopath or the film doesn't do a super good job establishing any sort of connection with the subject of the documentary. It could really go either way.

I understand why this is on the list--it's the first documentary ever, perhaps. And some of the shots of the landscape are really pretty, and it was interesting to see the igloo get made. But I would have liked to hear a bit more about what Nanook and his family talked about. Does he just come home and say, "Well, killed a great polar bear in hand-to-hand combat using only my harpoon today. What did you and the kids do?"

I think it's probably a good thing that the director showed the film to his subjects, but it probably shot any sort of objectivity straight to hell. I don't really mind that some scenes were staged--the presence of a camera alone alters what is being filmed--but I don't feel like I learned that much about a) Inuit culture or b) this man and how he and his family scrape a life out of this wilderness. And shouldn't that be the point?

Oh, I did like the puppies. And I thought it was sort of ballsy to end the film with the outright suggestion that everyone is about to die of exposure, and the film crew is just letting the cameras roll.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I don't usually fall asleep during films. I have an annoying ability to become interested in anything on a TV screen even if the volume is muted and I stay awake despite physical demands of sleep.

I fell asleep 3 times during this film.


I wasn't even all that tired the second 2 times.

So, if that's not review enough for you, let's chat about Nanook. I tried to watch this with an objective eye and tried to keep in mind that it would be damned near impossible to make a film about an unknown group of Others without coming off as racist, even now. Add in that the film was released in 1922 and I'm surprised there wasn't a black-face intermission. Maybe seal-faced? ANYWAY, the film does manage to try valiantly to not be entirely "look at the strange people do strange things" in that there are a few family moments but even those are more like People's (US Magazine?) "Celebrities: They're Just Like Us!" section which is just "look at the strange people do things we do." I mean, seriously, we can't move from eating the still-warm-dead body of a seal (or walrus, or not-quite-dead fish) to Eskimo kisses and puppies and think, yes! just like us! But, could we get an honest portrayal of an Eskimo family from a white guy? I'm not sure but I lean toward an emphatic no.

The real problem with Nanook is that it lacks narrative. I'm told by the film, and Flaherty's wife in the DVD extra, that this film shows a year in the life of Nanook. Really? That seemed like a few days, one week at most, to me because not much happens. I have no way to mark time (and there are handy text cards inserted with frequency that could say "Spring!") given the seemingly year-round snow, my inability to distinguish the people from one another (and, no, that's no a "they all look alike" problem; it's a film quality problem and a "they're all covered in furs and snow" problem), and the lack of an overwhelming narrative. I understand that people's lives don't always follow a pretty narrative arc but, clearly, this film was edited down to around an hour of footage. If you're editing, make a narrative; maybe I wouldn't have fallen asleep so many times.

So what sayeth the book? Well, confusingly, the book says the film is a "series of vignettes that detail the life of Nanook and his family over a few weeks." Hmmmm. Like many "facts" about this film, this, too, seems part of the debate. Otherwise, real or staged, the book wants us to watch this one because it was so damned influential, because Flaherty is called the "father of the documentary," and because of it's stories (Flaherty setting accidental fire to his first film with cigarette ash, the fact of Nanook's death shortly after filming wrapped and the controversy of whether it was freezing temperatures or tuberculosis and whether his whole family died, too).

But, like cough syrup, I understand why it's needed but I don't like it one bit.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nanook of the North (1922)

Unless I'm mistaken, this is our first silent film! Not by a long shot our first doc (ah, seems like only yesterday, Battle of San Pietro), but one that seems remarkably topical despite nearing its centennial. This movie is considered the first feature-length documentary, but there are those who would put scare quotes around that designation. Robert J. Flaherty, who filmed the account of an Inuit family trying to survive in the Canadian arctic, apparently staged several scenes, making "Nanook" the Real World/Bachelorette/Jersey Shore of its day, and Flaherty the James Frey of his. Not sure if the movie itself will be as interesting and provocative as the controversy surrounding its filming, but I think definitely worth a view, though I suspect it's going to be pretty racist. And its the second movie in a row to have a family anecdote! When I was a little kid visiting the grandparents in Colorado during the winter, my aunt would tell me I looked like "Nanook of the North" when I was all bundled up to go outside to play. It was only recently (VERY recently) that I realized the name was the title of a film and not something she made up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sex and the City?

So, do you think Chip/Frank and Brunhilde (!) did the deed? How about "Prehistoric Man" and the professor? I must say, I didn't expect there to be even the intimation of action in this musical from the '40s, so, well played, I say.

I did like this one a good bit more than American in Paris, though they both felt the need to include a LONG ballet-like dancey sequence. Wonder when this convention got dropped. But other than that, I thought it was funny and surprising--the women (except for Miss Turnstiles) were quite aggressive, to say the least, in their pursuit of the sailors! I especially liked the anthropology prof, mainly because she had the best outfits.

I loved Frank's commitment to his itinerary! I can relate. Although he probably killed someone tossing the guidebook over the Empire State Building.

Made me want to go back to New York, in any case. What's the book's take?

The play's the thing wherein we'll rehash the whole damn plot

This one is squarely in my wheelhouse. Somehow I managed to watch a million 40s and 50s musicals in my 20s--probably thanks to the likes of AMC and TCM--and this was one of them.

I'd forgotten how reversed the gender roles are in the film. It's the girls who drag the sailors back to their places for a little afternoon delight, the girls who are in the know, the girls who grease palms to make things happen, the girls who convince the cops to not only drop the charges against them but to aid them . . . all while the men are damned clueless. And by "the girls" I mean Hilde and Claire, not Ivy. Ivy annoyed me. I wish she'd been a perky blonde with some personality rather than just an obviously more modest than every other girl in the film blonde, even if she is a "cooch dancer" and "Miss Turnstiles" is, well, a tad suggestive.

My only other slight annoyance was the ubiquitous-to-this-period-of-musical-and-Gene-Kelly-films extended dance number. We've no one's conscience's to catch, but we have to rehash everything that's happened so far. I actually considered whether I had time to clean the litter box during the number and not miss anything.

Otherwise, I like the movie a lot. It's fun and there's dancing and I think it basically holds up--it wouldn't get a shout out in Glee if it didn't, right?

And, drum-roll please . . . . the book says: "The left-wing aspect of Kelly's life and career is often overlooked. On the Town has, lurking under its surface alongside that sex drive, a political aspiration: This 'city symphony' . . .is truly an ode to the joys and woes of ordinary workers, cramming experiences into the cracks of a punishing schedule" but what the book focuses on for most of the entry is the double-entendres that bubble up through the shiny happy naive surface of the film. So, we're supposed to see this one before we die because it's fun and a little subversively raunchy  . . . and it's subversively pro-working guy/gal. Whatcha' think of that, brainmate?