Friday, February 25, 2011

The Way of All Flesh

Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes) finds the Next Generation crew coming into their own. Unburdened by establishing a linkage with the previous series (and with accomodating William Shatner's ego), it has more room to breathe, establish the narratives for its characters, and generally tell an unforced narrative. It's one of the best of the Star Trek films; it's the Next Gen crew's Wrath of Khan. You cold make a case for First Contact as the best of the Star Trek movies. While the previous films have always had a level of rollicking adventure, this one tackles more existential themes. I like that it doesn't have an allegorical ax to grind, which has often been the Achilles Heel of Star Trek. Instead, it tackles science fiction qua science fiction, as a crucible for examining the human heart in conflict with itself rather than as a sociological funhouse mirror.

The story finds the Borg invading human space at last. The Enterprise had already encountered the Borg, a race of cyborgs who destroy whole races in order to absorb their technology and biology into their own collective, six years earlier. In that encounter, Captain Picard was captured by the Borg and assimilated into them. Star Fleet, understandably, doesn't trust Picard and relegates the Enterprise to patrolling the Romulan Neutral Zone while it does battle with the Borg cube ship. Picard, sensing that the battle is going badly, ignores his orders and joins the battle anyway. His knowledge of the Borg turns the tide, but they escape into a time warp. The Enterprise follows. The Borg's intent is to travel back in time to prevent the inventor of warp technology, Zefram Cochrane, from making his maiden flight, which is the lynchpin to the founding of the Federation. The Enterprise's dual task is to make sure that history is maintained, and to fight off a Borg invasion of their own ship...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Luis Buñuel

Some years ago, I showed an acquaintance of mine Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid. She didn't get it. At all. And even though she reckoned herself a film fan, she didn't see what was so special about Buñuel's style, which she regarded as flat and boring. I realized then that true love could never bloom between us. Alas.

Anyway, today is Don Luis's birthday, and to celebrate, here's a short documentary on the director from the 1964 French series, Un Cineaste De Notre Temps. Enjoy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Shuttered Rooms

This concludes my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

Let's get this out of the way first. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) is ridiculous. Now, I knew that going in. I listened to an audiobook version of Dennis Lehane's novel a couple of years ago. Others who are not so forearmed may feel a little pissed off when they get to the end of the movie.

Here's what happens in the movie: US Marshalls Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, have been summoned to Shutter Island, a psychatric compound off the coast of Massachusetts that houses the dangrously, criminally insane. One of their patients, a woman who drowned her children, has mysteriously escaped from her cell and cannot be found. Once there, they run into obstruction at every turn from the sinister administrator of the island, Dr. John Cawley. The hospital, it seems has secrets. Daniels, too, has secrets. He's a veteran of the war, in which he was present at the liberation of Dachau. It haunts his dreams, waking and otherwise. His ulterior motive for taking the case is to confront the man who set the fire that burned his wife to death. His wife haunts his dreams, too. Getting anything done is a challenge, however, as the island has been isolated from the world by a raging hurricane.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's a Bitter Little World

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

I sometimes have difficulty writing about movies that I love. Often, I don't know where to start, but other times, I don't have a firm grasp of what ineffable quality makes me love some films over others that are equally well made. I also run the risk of gushing. I can be an undiscriminating viewer when a movie tickles my pleasure centers just so. It's why I love so many movies that, objectively speaking, aren't particularly good.

Sometimes, though, I can identify exactly what makes me love a given movie. One such movie is The Scar (aka Hollow Triumph, 1948, directed by Istevan Sekely), a low, low budget dream fugue of a movie that has no acquaintance with realism. It's a film that follows the logic of nightmares, and most of the film instills a feeling of being pursued not just by the forces of law or by evil companions, though there's some of that, but by the hand of fate itself. This, in spite of the fact that the story is absurd on its face, and that some of its key set pieces have been "borrowed" from other movies. But none of that matters to me, really, because this movie hits the erogenous zones of my cinematic joy like few others.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Riding the Wave

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

Most of my favorite films noir are minor films. I mean, it's easy to love the big name movies--your Double Indemnities, your Maltese Falcons, your Sweet Smells of Success--but the little films? The throwaway b-pictures? That takes some effort. It's easy to dismiss them as cheap and tawdry. And yet, film noir is built on these movies. One of my own favorite "minor" films is Crime Wave (1954, directed by Andre de Toth). Crime Wave is a damn near perfect B-movie. It's tightly wound and starkly beautiful in spite of being cheap as hell, and it's exactly the right length at 73 minutes. There's not a single ounce of fat on this film, and yet it still provides a vivid gallery of characters and a complete dramatic arc.

The Lamentations of the Women

My first thought when I started thinking about The Trojan Women (1971, directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis) was that I would use the line "Euripides? I rippa dose" as a title. All hail Chico Marx and all, but it doesn't really fit, especially considering how utterly bleak both the play and this movie version actually are. The Greeks could ladle on the misery. I thought about writing about this as a variant of film noir--certainly many of the characters are engaged in film noir's sexual obsessions and downward spiral--but I think that more properly applies to Electra, which Kakogiannis filmed ten years prior to this film. THIS film, on the other hand, has interesting circumstances.

It was made in the late sixties/early seventies, when national cinemas of all kinds were in a state of upheaval. Nationalities were in a state of upheaval, as well, and the strong anti-war theme of The Trojan Women is very much of its time. In its formal qualities, it is the product of a decade of New Waves. The jump-cut is one of its most effective cinematic tools. It's also the work of an exile. Kakogiannis made the film in Spain; his native Greece was under an authoritarian thumb at the time. The international nature of the production gives Kakogiannis a once in a lifetime cast. All of this seeps into the warp and weave of the film.

The story is bleak, and it's the story that echoes down the millennia. Everything else is set dressing. In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, the women of Troy wait in the ruins to see how the victorious Greeks will dispose of them. It focuses on four women, mainly: Hecuba, the queen of the city state; Andromache, the widow of Hector, the great Trojan hero; Cassandra, the mad prophetess who has been raped by the Greek hero Ajax; and Helen, the woman whose face allegedly launched a thousand ships. Each gets their turn to wail their lamentations to the desolate hills around the smoking wreck of their city.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Down with the Dead Men

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

I discovered Cornell Woolrich shortly after I graduated from college. I was already edging deep into the hard boiled crime writers, having gone on a tear through Jim Thompson and Richard Stark as I was finishing my degree and afterward. But Woolrich...Woolrich rocked my world. My first acquaintance with Woolrich was in a Harlan Ellison story, oddly enough. This was during my SF New Wave phase in my late teens. The story was "Tired Old Man" in Ellison's book, No Doors, No Windows. In truth, I wasn't looking for crime stories when I bought the book. Ellison's long introduction apologized for the inevitable bait and switch involved. I gobbled it all down anyway. Ellison's fictionalized account of meeting Woolrich is impassioned and infectious. It took a while to find the books, though, because Woolrich is only a rumor these days. That's a literary estate that's in serious disarray and it's one of the great shames of publishing that Woolrich remains mostly out of print.

I knew the movies, of course. Rear Window. The Leopard Man, The Bride Wore Black (which I hated, actually), a handful of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But the books themselves? No. Not until I found a cache of the Ballantine reissues of the Black Novels at a dissolute used bookstore. The first one I read was The Phantom Lady (not technically one of the Black Novels, but Ballantine expanded the purview of the series to include all of Woolrich's major works). The second was The Bride Wore Black. From there, I was hooked.

I have a pretty good collection of Woolrich novels, including such mathoms as Strangler's Serenade and Beyond the Night. I'm still missing some major novels, but Woolrich is one of those writers like Philip K. Dick, who never seems to show up at used bookstores. People don't part with his books. The crown jewel of my Woolrich shelf is I Married A Dead Man, written under Woolrich's famous William Irish byline. Of all of Woolrich's books, it's the one that's easiest to find. It's one of the masterpieces of the roman noir. And, my, oh my, is it bleak.

There are three movie versions of I Married a Dead Man. I haven't seen the 1983 French version. I wish I could un-see Mrs. Winterbourne, which inexplicably turns the story into a comedy. I've been looking for No Man of Her Own, the 1950 version with Barbara Stanwyck, for years. When it showed up on Netflix instant a couple of months ago, my heart almost stopped. I knew the Film Noir Blogathon was coming up, so my forbearance in NOT watching until now was a serious test of will. For the most part, I'm not disappointed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Half in Shadow

This kicks off my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

So when I was gearing up to write about some of my favorite films noir this week, I was shocked to discover that I've never written about Out of the Past (1948, directed by Jacques Tourneur). I couldn't name a favorite film noir, but Out of the Past is nevertheless one of those movies that I would never, ever part with if consigned to the proverbial desert island. When I think of the archetypal film noir, chances are THIS is the film I'm thinking about. So I decided that Out of the Past would be the subject of my first post for the blogathon. Then I got sidetracked.

A couple of years ago, my partner bought us one of those DVD burning combo players, and for the first several months I had it, I spent a lot of time transferring my laserdiscs and old VHS recordings from cable, etc., to DVD. Shortly after we got the combo player, we got a new puppy, a very sweet labrador retriever named Daisy. Daisy, like most puppies, was destructive, and she ended up destroying the remote for the DVD burner, which sat for a year before I got around to replacing the remote. I finally got the new remote last week. There was also a stack of tapes next to the burner that had been waiting to be copied, and on the top of that stack of tapes was Robert Wise's Western, Blood on the Moon (1947). Blood on the Moon is sometimes classified as a Western noir, and as I was copying it to disc, I was shocked to realize that, in a LOT of ways, Blood on the Moon seems like a companion piece to Out of the Past; a dry run for Out of the Past, if you will. It certainly LOOKS like film noir, and the comparison of the two suggests the essential foolhardiness of defining what is and isn't film noir on the basis of visual idiom alone, because in spite of the similarities between the two movies, I can't decide if I think Blood on the Moon actually IS film noir, even though it play the notes. The moral quagmire is absent. The essential optimism of the Western holds sway in the end, in spite of the downright nihilistic elements that the movie brings to bear (Walter Brennan's character, for instance, is the bitterest role the actor ever played). There's no downward spiral here. Mitchum's character is too morally strong for that. There's only the visual poetry of noir.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Law is A Ass

Sometimes, I wish I could unplug my brain while I'm watching movies. I know that a lot of people have mastered this particular trick, but it's not something I've ever managed. My dad could do it. Give him a tricky plot and a sense of comeuppance at the end, and he was happy, or, failing that, tell him dirty jokes. He was, shall we say, undiscriminating. He would have seriously dug Law Abiding Citizen (2009, directed by F. Gary Gray). Hell, while I was watching it, I was grooving on it, myself. It's slick and well-mounted; it unfolds with the precision of fine clockwork. Unfortunately, I started thinking about it long before it ended. As a piece of pop cinema, it's not bad. It's exciting, intricate, and provides a sense of justice for the audience. As a moral exercise, it's horrifying.

The problem with this movie is the nature of its villain and the direction of its character arc for its hero. It's one of those movies whose political motives are pitched to appeal to a broad spectrum, without any strong conviction of its own. It lets itself be led astray by its nature as a crowd pleaser.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sounds Like a Fish!

I was conversing with a friend of mine about living a life with movies this week. He's becoming deeply involved with a film festival in his native Belgium, and I noted that it's funny how, the deeper you go into movies, the more they insinuate themselves into your life. I used as an example a short film that I made a couple of years ago with my friend, critic and filmmaker Kevin Lee, for his now-concluded Shooting Down Pictures project. My friend naturally asked where he could see it and I realized that I hadn't posted it here. So here it is.

A few months after Kevin posted this on his site, he sent me an email:

Dear Kristin, Jonathan, Girish, Nicole and Christianne,

I'm happy to share the exciting news that the video essays that I produced with each of you have all been selected for an ongoing series of "Films About Films" at the Arsenal Theater in FilmMuseum Berlin. The monthly series also includes works and talks with folks such as Harun Farocki, Alexander Horwath, Alain Bergala, Tag Gallagher and Jean Douchet. The program that features our work is focused on video criticism and internet culture. It takes place April 17. You can view the program here:

I'm incredibly pleased with the recognition of this work and your specific contributions to it. I hope we'll have the opportunity to collaborate on others. Thanks again for taking a valuable role in this work as it continues to evolve.


I wrote on another blog: "I am, to say the least, gobsmacked. "Jonathan" is critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Kristin" is film historian Kristin Thompson. In film circles, this is fairly rarefied company. Frankly, I'm shocked that they chose to screen my film from amongst all of the video essays Kevin has made. I mean, it's purely an accident that I did it at all. Be that as it may, something I made is showing in an actual theater and is being examined by a discriminating audience. This is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Anyone who is as deeply immersed in film as I am dreams of this sort of thing, and now, for me, it's real."

Kevin subsequently posted video of his Berlin experience. It's good video, though the trouble he has with pronouns when referring to me makes me cringe.

These days, I'm kind of ambivalent about the Garp video. It's had a fairly significant effect on my life. It outed me in the film communities I frequent, though that has turned out to be an enormously positive thing. It's insured that, should I ever want to, I'll never be able to live my life in stealth. I don't know that that's a bad thing, actually, because it's not something I ever intended, but there's still a certain feeling of loss. I've also had to rethink a lot of the things I say ex cathedra in that video. Queer theorist Julia Serrano doesn't much like Roberta Muldoon. In her book, Whipping Girl, she uses Roberta as an example of the "pathetic transsexual" stereotype, and further implies that she's an example of the hyperfeminine fallacy. I can't say that I disagree with her, only that I love Roberta Muldoon in spite of this. I'm also uncomfortable with the way I seem to be speaking on behalf of transsexuals as a community and how I seem to suggest that trans people have a uniformity of experience. They don't. There are as many ways to be trans as there are as there are trans people. There's also not even an inkling that there are female to male transsexuals in my commentary, which is a fault.

Still, as I say, this is something I made. It's something that I'm proud of. I've been negligent by not posting it on this blog. In some ways, it's responsible for me committing more fully to movie blogging in the first place, so this blog is built in part on this video.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Blogorama Part IV

So I've thrown my hat in the ring for The White Elephant Blogathon. This one will be fun. The premise is that the participants throw the name of a bad movie they'd like to see reviewed in a hat, and get a bad movie someone else has suggested in turn. Preferably something readily available. I'm down with this. I've been drifting too far from my roots lately and I need to get back to some crap cinema to balance all the hardtop movies I've been reviewing lately. The game's afoot.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Tongue Tied

I was chatting with a friend of mine yesterday before heading out to the movies. Our conversation partly went like this:

Me: I'm going to see The King's Speech today.

Friend: That looks good.

Me: It looks like Oscar bait to me.

Friend: Granted.

Let's get this out of the way: The King's Speech (2010, directed by Tom Hooper) is totally Oscar bait. It's the kind of movie the members of the Academy LOVE. High-minded, pedigreed, slightly irreverent, historical, "significant." It's all of these things. It's also middlebrow, cinematically conservative, and uncontroversial. Hell, it features a lead character dealing with a disability. If that's not Oscar bait, nothing is. If I had to guess, it'll take six of the twelve Oscars for which it's nominated, including Best Picture. But I don't really care. Oscar has never been a benchmark of excellence. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick.

In spite of all of this, The King's Speech is a pretty good movie. As I say, it's totally middlebrow, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it's fun to watch. John Ford once said that the most interesting thing in the world was the human face, and that's something that this movie understands implicitly. It helps that it has a sterling cast of British (and Australian) worthies and it spends its running time looking them in the eye. It's effective.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Hair Tonic

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across this tutorial on facial expression in animation and cartooning, which featured this piece of information:

Clearly, cartoonist Tracy J. Butler knows what she's talking about. According to the commentary on this piece over at The Beat, this is also known as "Dreamworks Brow" and "'Tude." Note to cartoonists: Please stop. Seriously. Just stop. Please? Because I REALLY don't have the patience for characters like this one and shots like this one anymore:

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Switch Witch

Here's the thing about contemporary bad movies. They're as likely to look FAN-tastic as good movies. Think about this for a second: when someone tells me that they like a movie because it has good special effects these days, I have to take that with a grain of salt, because almost ALL movies that make it to the multiplexes have good special effects. Ditto for production design and overall film craft. We are living in the golden age of film as a burnished ornament. We are living in the golden age of the polished turd.

I didn't really know what to expect of Season of the Witch (2011, directed by Dominic Sena). For the most part, it looked like a train wreck, an ill-advised medieval horror movie that was so bad that it had been more or less orphaned by its distributor. Director Dominic Sena was fired from the film after poor audience reactions and the film was "doctored" by studio hack Bret Ratner. Nicolas Cage, for his part, is taking anything that comes along to forestall the wolf at the door. His financial problems have been well documented in the press. This is another movie for which he is probably ill-suited. Lionsgate shelved the film in 2010, and it ended up being released by Relativity Media, the outfit that funded the film. This is their first dip into film distribution. Also, the reviews have been pretty dismal. What did I expect? A polished turd, of course. But then someone in my social networks posted the following image of Christopher Lee, and I knew that, regardless, I was going to plunk down my money to see it. In the theater.

Hell and Back

Ida Lupino once described herself as "a poor man's Don Siegel." She should know. She hired Siegel to direct Private Hell 36 (1954), the last film from her production company, The Filmmakers. It must have been an awkward set. The film was co-written by Lupino with her ex-husband, Collier Young, and Young was listed as a producer. Further, Lupino had remarried by the time this went before cameras and her new husband, Howard Duff, was her co-star in this picture. Siegel, for his part, wasn't sleeping with anyone on the set that I know of, but I think you can see a certain amount of discomfort in his direction.

The story here follows Cal Bruner and Jack Farnham, two cops investigating some money from a year-old heist that has surfaced in their bailiwick. The trail leads them to Lilli Marlowe, a nightclub singer who is the only witness to what their suspect looks like. She's reluctant to help. She doesn't like cops. Bruner, on the other hand, likes her, and dreams of buying her affections. When the trail leads them all to the money, Bruner contrives a scheme where he and Farnham can pocket the dough. Farnham, reluctantly, agrees. It's a downward spiral from there. For Bruner, it progresses to murderous thoughts. For Farnham, it's more complicated. He's a family man, and the crime weighs on his conscience for their sake. He gets to a point where he can't even look at his new baby anymore. Eventually, he resolves to come clean, but Bruner has different ideas...

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Tales from the Office of Unforeseen Atomic Events

So I was searching the net for appropriate screen grabs from Matinee (1993, directed by Joe Dante) and I came across the above still over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind. I commented on Bob's post a couple of months ago, but I neglected to comment on the still. It's the perfect summary of the kind of nostalgia at work in Matinee. In the movie, John Goodman's character, one Lawrence Woolsey, is a huckster, a small time b-movie producer along the lines of William Castle. He's got creditors after him, his girlfriend is fed up with his eternal adolescence, and he's opportunistically taking advantage of the fears generated by the Cuban Missile Crisis to prime the pump for his new movie. While the movie views him with a great deal of affection, he's not a particularly admirable character. He's a small fry in a big pond. Except, that is, when his shadow is cast on the movie screen. Then, he becomes huge. As a metaphor for how the romance of grade-z monster movies lured an entire generation of kids to the old movie palaces, it's ideal. The movies? They were crud. But in our MEMORIES of those movies, whether seen on the big screen or half seen on late-night TV, they were always bigger and better.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Brief Encounters

Sometime last week, I wrote the following: "Note to self: watch more deliriously subtle surreal romantic movies." One of my friends popped up in the comments and suggested I watch some Wong Kar Wai movies. I love my friends, and it's a good suggestion. My favorite of Wong's movies is In the Mood for Love (2000), and because it's been a few years since I've seen it, and because I don't think I've ever written about it, I decided that I needed a revisit.

The story here follows two neighbors in 1962 Hong Kong who slowly realize that their respective spouses are having an affair. This shared experience draw them together, but it also keeps them apart. Mrs. Chan is played by Maggie Cheung. She works in a travel office as an executive assistant. Mr. Chow is played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. He's a journalist who wants to write martial arts novels, an interest he shares with Mrs. Chan. During the course of the movie, they play-act the meeting of their spouses in an attempt to understand and come to terms with the affair. Later, they play act the confrontation with their spouses. This acts as a kind of long courtship, and, inevitably they fall in love. But they don't consummate it. "We're better than them," Mrs. Chow says. Eventually they part and their paths continue to almost meet again, but it's not to be. "That era has passed. Nothing that belongs to it exists anymore," the movie tells us near the end. The feeling of loss is palpable.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir)

The Film Preservation blogathon is coming up in a couple of weeks, so expect things to turn cynical and dark around here for the month. I'm probably going to blog way beyond the boundaries of the blogathon because I LOVE film noir. I thought about posting a noir film every day of February, and I may still do that. Meanwhile, here's a trailer for the event.

Your hostesses for this are The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film, two blogs you should be following anyway. The trailer I've posted here was put together by Greg Ferrara over at Cinema Styles. Oh, and this blogathon is a fundraiser. The organizers are trying to round up the scratch to restore The Sound of Fury, a noir film from 1950 starring Lloyd Bridges (I haven't seen it, unfortunately, but it's a remake of Fritz Lang's Fury, so I have an idea of what it's about). Donations to The Film Noir Foundation are tax deductible, so consider opening your pocketbook.