Friday, June 1, 2012

Film Journal 2012 - May

Well the merry month of May has ended with 50 degree weather and cold rain, go figure after a record hot Memorial Day, gotta love living in Chicago.  Anyways a lot has transpired this month, sort of.  The Avengers has completely dominated the box office, and on a personal note this month is a bit of a swan song for me.  I’m not going anywhere per se, but starting next Monday I’ll be taking a chemistry course that promises to consume 4 hours a day, 4 days a week for 8 total weeks.  In other words that’s 16 hours a week that could be spent watching movies that will be conducting wonderful chemistry experiments and needless to say with a condensed schedule the still remaining free time will likely be consumed with studying and what not.  Anyways consider that an early warning if my next post is skimpy, sorry in advance.

A few of the usual trends continued this month.  Pretty much every movie watched with Kate was from the A-list yet again (we did go to see Avengers which she hated mainly because she hadn’t seen any of the other films and knew nothing of the original comic books, go figure).  I did knock a few random films off of Mr. Rosenbaum’s list, which is always a plus. 

More of 2012

One of the other goals this month was to slowly get my self acquainted with 2012’s releases.  I don’t want to be making the mad dash towards 50 in December so any progress I can make on that front now, all the better.  Some of the individual films I posted about in the last blog, some of the others well maybe I just didn’t think were as interesting.   I just noticed now that I forgot to write down when I saw Kill List, and up to this moment I was still debating how to rate it.  If everything goes to plan I may just watch it again tomorrow so maybe by next month my rating will change. 

Some of the newer films I’ve seen seemed a bit formulaic for their directors.  Werner Herzog seems intent to make nothing but documentaries these days which sometimes is interesting but I lament the fact that the man who directed Aguirre the Wrath of God seems to be largely done with fiction.  Into the Abyss was ok for what it was, but a documentary about someone on death row is never exactly an uplifting subject for a film. 

Speaking of formulaic, Hong Sang-Soo’s The Day He Arrives is the latest in his never ending series of identical films.  They seem to always involve a director who uses a little bullshit to sleep with a few women and then move on.  For some people he’s a genius for others quite repetitive.  I haven’t quite figured which side of the fence I’m on.  Many directors have made reputations for making essentially the same film over and over again (Ozu, Kaurismaki for sure) and well they’re prone to masterpieces.  By that standard though The Day He Arrives is neither better or worse than any of his other films. 

Hirokazu Kore-eda who reminds me every couple of years that he is Japan’s best filmmaker working today, is also prone to make a film or two that misses the extremely high mark he set for himself over a decade ago with Maborosi and After Life.  Kiseki, or I Wish as it’s been released as in some parts of the world returns to a focus primarily on kids (as Nobody Knows did), but it seems to lose that overarching specter of doom that hovered around that previous film.  In other words there doesn’t really seem to be any drama here which makes it recall some of Ozu’s films with children.  Somehow the lack of drama made the film seem to be just “ok”.

Aleksandr Sokurov completed his Quadrilogy (if that’s the word) with Faust.  It’s an interesting adaptation that makes the Mephistopheles character a money lender who never becomes an outright devil.  Considering the enormous amount of adaptations of this fable (some dating over 100 years ago) it’s hard to add much new to the fable.  Jan Svankmajer did an admirable job by adding his trademark stop motion animation to his 1994 adaptation, but here the film seems a bit of a mess.  Sokurov seems to largely abandon his complicated long takes to employ far more in-scene editing that I’m used to seeing in his films.  It still has that same bizarre visual look that only his films seem to have (well maybe Tarkovsky) but I felt it was missing that sort of surrealistic hypnotic pace of his other films. 

Speaking of true to form, Frederick Wiseman’s recent offering Crazy Horse is well same Wiseman different subject.  One of the strengths Wiseman has always had was picking interesting subjects.  Since his style of documentary has always been as observer, fly-on-the-wall, or what the French called cinema verite you need an interesting subject on screen.  So what did he pick, a strip club in France that makes the claim to be the best exotic club in the world.  Based on the amount of preparation and agonizing over seemingly insignificant choreography choices it seems the reputation is well earned.  For those simply meandering into this to see what the director of Titicut Follies, High School, Hospital, and Public Housing is up to you’d be surprised to find that there is a whole ton of nudity in it, much as I was surprised. 

One film that will be showing up on a LOT of critic’s top ten lists by the end of the year is Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film.  Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahasebi it’s a very interesting film.  For those unfamiliar Jafar Panahi has been one of Iran’s best directors of the last twenty years or so.  Like many great Iranian directors he has a knack for offending authority in his country.  After his last film, Offside came out the Iranian government decided that he would be banned from directing movies or writing screenplays for 30 years, and possibly serve a prison sentence as well as not be allowed to leave the country.  It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in civilized society and considering how many Americans love to bitch about their freedoms being taken away this really puts it in perspective. 

Jafar Panahi attempting to create a set for the film he'll never make

This would explain the ironic title of the film.  Essentially Panahi films himself in his house on New Years and invites his director friend Mojtaba over.  He has an idea for a film that was stopped in mid-production following his ban and he wants to discuss the film.  He reads scenes from the script, tries to set up the action, but the majority of the film is simply him at home, passing the time, talking on the phone (about his upcoming trial among other things) and visibly displaying his frustration for his situation.  It’s a profound film based on the real life nature of the story, but I’m not sure it exactly makes it a great film.  Certainly an important one and well worth checking out if you ever get the chance.

The Problem With Al Jolson

You’ll also notice randomly that I watched Mammy, the fourth talking picture Al Jolson made.  This got me thinking ,and it led to a rather interesting debate on about a star’s image.  I made the point that I don’t think any star’s image has aged worse than Jolson.  This is for numerous reasons.  For starters his singing style which he was greatly known for is kind of atrocious.  Whenever we hear singers of the 20s and 30s with that nasally wine to their voice it instantly comes off as terribly hokey and sometimes just plain terrible.  This is the reason why Louis Armstrong created such a revolution by actually singing with feeling and rhythm.  The next mystery to his stardom is the fact that by the time he made it to the cinema he was kind of an ugly dude with thinning hair.  Not quite the matinee idol you would expect in your movie stars.  Although the biggest reason his films are looked at with dropped jawed awe is the fact that he is the best remembered relic of the long forgotten Minstrel Show. 

Can't resist the black face in the corner can they?

One of the great pop culture fads of the 19th and early 20th century was the Minstrel Show.  Performers (many of whom were actually black) performed in blackface, acted an ignorant fool and performed what were affectionately titled “coon songs”, seriously that was a genre of music, look it up.  The fact that Jolson was in The Jazz Singer which forever will be linked with the talking picture revolution, and the fact that he appeared in blackface in that film, and that well that was his trademark makes his legacy severely tarnished.  By all accounts a standup citizen, and The Jazz Singer was far more about being Jewish than offending black people, but like The Birth of a Nation some images just stick with you longer than others.  Mammy features Jolson in an all white minstrel show (in other words all white people in black face) and the plot bares a striking resemblance to that same year’s Rain or Shine (which if you’ll remember was named the worst film of the month for April). 

Now from most of the biographical evidence on Jolson he was a standup guy.  He was an early supporter of civil rights, and was known to go above and beyond to help black performers whenever he had the chance.  Perhaps you can call it white guilt, but he genuinely seemed to go out of his way to prove he wasn’t racist and quite the opposite.  Things like that get to be forgotten when viewing his films out of context.  Mammy was unique in regards to the fact that it featured a color sequence, which used Technicolor’s very problematic and awful looking two-strip process before they were able to make three-strip Technicolor films in 1935, but well feel free to look up the specifics of that on your own.  Warner was trying to bank on perhaps using the same star that helped launch talking pictures into launching color films, but the fad didn’t really catch on because of the enormous cost and the fact that it looked terrible.  Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp is generally regarded as the first proper color feature, and it’s not a bad film at that, but I’ve always been extremely fond of Miriam Hopkins, but that’s for another blog sometime.

A few people had some interesting rebuttals for the topic of whose image has aged worse.  Some people mentioned Mel Gibson, I heard Lindsay Lohan, I suggested Pauly Shore, someone mentioned Eddy Cantor, etc.  I didn’t really hear anyone that outright topped Jolson for the simple reason that at the end of the day, Mel Gibson might be a anti-Semite lunatic but 50 years from now Road Warrior, Lethal Weapon, Gallipoli, and Braveheart will still be pretty bad ass movies.  Plus it’s not like Gibson runs around in those movies purposely chasing down orthodox Jews (his Passion movie is another issue though).  The other “stars” well never were as popular as Jolson so by sheer magnitude of how baffling it might be that Pauly Shore was an a-list actor for several years he’ll be lucky to be remembered about as well as Franky Avalon. 

Speaking of The A-List

Well continuing my previous trend I’d like to discuss each of the films from that book that were viewed this month, starting with:

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

With the possible exception of Star Wars there is no film on this list that I’ve seen more than Bride.  As a kid it was my favorite Universal film simply because the main character was the monster, rather than Dr. Frankenstein as in the first film.  Over the years I’ve grown to love the little details of the film.  The bizarre canted angles, the over the top camp of some of the performances.  Admittedly Una O’Connor who plays Minnie used to make me want to stab my ears with rusty screwdrivers but I’ve since learned to comically chuckle at her screeching hysterics.  Ernest Thesiger is so blatantly queer that I gotta feel his performance style was a knowing wink at the audience by director James Whale (who was gay, they made a whole movie about it called Gods and Monsters check it out sometime).  Sure they changed the hell out of the novel, just like in the first film but so what, this is still the best damn monster movie there is.  Sad that following this film Universal would start to significantly limit the budgets of their horror movie franchises so in many ways this was the last real A-list horror film for decades.

Modern Times (1936)

I’m not going to lie I wanted to make an entire blog about this film.  As you can tell however life got in the way and before too long I figured this little paragraph would have to suffice.  Chaplin’s last “silent” film has been regarded over the years as one of his all time best.  It was one of the first three of his films that I saw and the one selected by the NSFC.  I hadn’t seen it for quite some time so I wondered how it would hold up.  After all I had actually seen it twice before but again since the last viewing was over a decade ago tastes do change.  I found this time around that the film I felt didn’t have enough social commentary was littered with it.  Earlier I felt his jokes went on too long and he milked all his gags longer than necessary, here I felt the pacing was perfect and the timing excellent.  A few moments I noticeably had to laugh out loud.  For instance when he goes to the docks and is looking for a wedge and proceeds to accidentally send an incomplete boat into the ocean to sink.  There is also the great scene where he becomes the oblivious leader of a communist rally, and the similar scene during the factory strike where he accidentally starts a riot by stepping on a board which launches a brick at a cop. 

Chaplin was right not to have the Tramp speak.  When it seems we may finally at last hear his voice it turns out to be a song in Italian sounding gibberish.  Everyone who speaks in the film is filtered through some electronic device, whether a monitor or a phonograph.  I didn’t notice until the third time I saw the film that the sheep in the beginning features one black sheep.  I started to think, were these all lambs being led to the slaughter, or was this pointing out that Chaplin was the one who didn’t fit into the herd, the outcast.  Were these sheep mindlessly being herded into society, as the cutaway of pedestrians pouring out of a subway terminal indicates, or is there some slightly more specific relation to the Tramp, who here is listed in the credits as A Factory Worker?  What seems at first glance like a blatantly bush league use of symbolism turns slightly ambiguous, or maybe I’m thinking too much about it.

Amongst the reviews and commentary on the film someone made the point that this is sort of a pre-quel to the film The Tramp which was the first appearance of cinema’s most recognizable character.  For the first and only time Chaplin allows himself to walk off in the sunset with someone else, the Gamine played by Paulette Goddard who many figured to be the only leading lady he ever had that was his equal.  I like looking of the film in the light of it as an origin story for the Tramp.  After all we never know how he got to be in his situation even in that first film.  Here he isn’t a tramp but the Factory Worker, and after a series of mishaps and comical failures to fit into society he hit’s the road holding his chin up with that trademark sense of optimism.  A fitting end to film’s most legendary character.

A fitting end for the tramp

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

One of the few times Steven Spielberg decided to write a screenplay resulted in this film, which was a monstrous hit, even by his standards.  Considered one of the few films to feature friendly aliens the tall thin alien figures with their odd shaped heads and huge black eyes turned out to be for many the universal standard of extra-terrestrials.  Spielberg recognizes his own limits as a writer and his extraordinary strengths as a visual storyteller by making the last half hour or so of the film almost completely wordless just focusing on visuals and sound.  It’s a spellbinding scene that does a lot to capture the wonder of the moment that goes by tremendously fast despite how much screen time it takes.  I don’t think this quite hits the mark of masterpiece like several of his other films.  Some of the scenes, particularly early on are a little on the boring side.  He gets a little personal dealing with his own broken home issues earlier.  He does a nice little homage to Howard Hawks and Robert Altman by constantly having the kids talk over everyone’s conversation much in the way kids really would interrupt everything.  I’ll give him credit, few films are so synonymous with mashed potatoes as this.

Metropolis (1927)

You knew eventually I’d finally get to see the most recent restoration.  I was amazed mainly because Kate stayed awake for the whole film, as she did with The Piano, trust me this is rare, but all kidding aside I didn’t get the feeling that the film was particularly different.  I was told that the majority of the science-fiction element was downplayed with this new cut, but it really seemed like the same old film to me.  Perhaps I don’t recall the other incarnations well enough to have noticed the specific differences.  The film is still pretty damn fantastic and although the acting still fits that laughably over the top style prevalent in so many silent films, particularly the German ones, this film does blend quite a few elements of the French school of Impressionism.  The attention to detail is incredible and there’s good reason why this is considered by many to be the most important science fiction film ever made.  The garden sequence early in the film has me wonder if this wasn’t a rather large influence on Adulous Huxley’s Brave New World, which has published about 5 years later. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Speaking of science fiction, now we’re talking.  Instantly one of my favorites and to me the high water mark of the respective alien invasion movies and the communist paranoia films that so aptly describe America’s pop culture in the Cold War.  What makes the film interesting is that in a lot of ways the aliens aren’t bad.  They simply take over their human host and everything is perfect.  Of course the element of love weakens the deal, but they make the argument that a world without emotion might be better after all.  It’s an obvious shot at communism, because of course true communists had no time for weak things like emotions (at least according to Americans in the 50s).  Don Siegel who would go on to direct Dirty Harry does a damn fine job and takes a page or two out of Robert Aldrich’s book with a wide array of disorienting tactics and plenty of interesting camera angles.  The story is rather simple but as it progresses it reveals more and more layers like the great movies usually do, easily one of my favorites ever.

The Piano (1993)

Thus we get to our last film of the month, or the last of the A-list.  Jane Campion’s film was that rare breed of art house box office success that earned several jokes on The Critic (how I miss Jay Sherman), as well as a few Oscars.  Odd to say but Anna Pacquin’s career has been all downhill ever since, because well how do you top an Oscar?  Holly Hunter impressed the shit out of people for her gimmick role and the fact that she not only did sign language but actually played piano in the film.  The film’s inclusion in the book is clearly the result of it’s director who along with Dorothy Arzner (Dance Girl Dance) is the only female filmmaker given a spot.  That said I was never a huge fan of The Piano, but after 12 years or so clearly I was due for another look.  Well I only found the film slightly better than the last time and it still seems to be a painfully self conscious attempt to beg for Academy recognition.  These are the types of films that come out every single year, sometimes they’re nauseating other times deserving, this falls somewhere in the middle.  I can make the argument that Sweetie and Angel at My Table were better films, but this was the one that really took off so I guess it’s status as an essential does more to say how mind bogglingly under-represented women are as directors. 

And there you have it, oh by the way, yes I watched a shit load of Buster Keaton shorts thanks to Kino’s newly put together 3-disc set.  As before I would have to give the edge to The Playhouse (which actually features Keaton in blackface as well as in every other role in the film) as his best short.  The Keaton-Chaplin debate however is still not entirely resolved.

Into the Abyss (2011) 7/10

The Day He Arrives (2011) 8/10
Glissements progressifs du plasir (1974) 8/10

The Visitors (1972) 6/10

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) 8/10
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) 10/10

Mammy (1930) 6/10
The Avengers (2012) 9/10

This is Not a Film (2011) 9/10
Faust (2011) 8/10

Modern Times (1936) 10/10

Routine Pleasures (1986) 7/10
Monsieur Lazhar (2011) 8/10
Kill List (2011) 9/10

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 9/10

Kiseki (2011) 8/10
Training Day (2001) 9/10
Machete (2009) 8/10

Metropolis (1927) 10/10

Two Arabian Knights (1927) 6/10

Crazy Horse (2011) 9/10

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) 10/10

The “High Sign” (1920) 8/10
One Week (1920) 8/10
Convict 13 (1920) 9/10
The Scarecrow (1920) 6/10
Neighbors (1921) 7/10
The Haunted House (1921) 8/10
Hard Luck (1921) 8/10

The Goat (1921) 8/10
The Play House (1921) 10/10
The Boat (1921) 6/10
The Paleface (1922) 8/10
Cops (1922) 9/10
My Wife’s Relations (1922) 7/10

The Blacksmith (1922) 8/10
The Frozen North (1922) 6/10
Day Dreams (1922) 8/10
The Electric House (1922) 8/10
The Balloonatic (1923) 8/10
The Love Nest (1923) 7/10
Hard to Handle (1933) 9/10

Narita:  Heta Village (1973) 8/10
The True Story of Jesse James (1957) 7/10
The Piano (1993) 8/10

Comedy of Innocence (2000) 7/10

Best Film of the Month - Bride of Frankenstein
Worst Film of the Month - None (tempted to give the nod to Mammy but it’s technical innovations are enough to let me be generous and give props to all)
Best New Discovery - Kill List
Seriously why haven't you seen Kill List yet?