Thursday, May 31, 2012

Black to the Future

My partner and I found ourselves on the wrong side of a sold out showing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on Memorial Day. We were hellbent on seeing a movie, though, so we chose, instead, to go see Men in Black 3 (2012, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld). Personally, I kind of dreaded it. The last couple of Will Smith/Barry Sonnenfeld projects were debacles of the highest order (including the last Men in Black movie), and, truthfully, I would much prefer it if Sonnenfeld would head back into Get Shorty territory rather than make his living as Tim Burton lite. But the MIB movies have made enough money to gold plate Rhode Island, so this movie was inevitable. This film isn't nearly as bad as its predecessor. If I'm completely honest, it's a better film than the first installment, but I'm not much of a fan of that film, either. There's a low cunning in how this film is built that elevates it over its predecessors. Because it's a time travel story, this has to pay closer attention to how the cogs of its plot fit together than it might otherwise, which means that it doesn't rampage off in odd directions for the sake of quirkiness. Not often, anyway.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Islands in the Stream

In my non-movie life, I just finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (soon to be a major motion picture). Cloud Atlas is a kind of mosaic novel, consisting of six stories that are nested inside each other like a Russian matryoshka doll. One of those narratives, "The Orison of Sonmi-451," got me to thinking about cinematic dystopias. The forthcoming movie will star the great Korean actress, Doo-na Bae as the title character, which guarantees that I'll see it, but I've already seen a couple of movies that are eerily similar to this story. I was reminded of The Island by my friend, Kevin Matthews, who blogs over at For It Is Man's Number and at Flickfeast. So I thought I'd reprint my review of the film from seven years ago. This has been slightly edited, but I resisted the urge to temper my Bush-era liberal paranoia. It mostly still applies.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?

Upon seeing the trailer for Tim Burton's update Dark Shadows (2012), a friend of mine complained that she had no desire to see a fish out of water comedy made from the old soap opera. I think she called the idea "Encino Vampire." I can hardly improve on that, actually, and I share her sentiment. I have a lot of affection for Dark Shadows, and lord knows, I didn't want to see it "Burton-ized" if that meant losing the elements that made the show fun. It was a Gothic in the way only early seventies horror was gothic, even if it was on a soap opera budget. I approached the movie with more apprehension than usual.

Let me tell you, I don't think I've ever seen a movie so badly misrepresented by its trailer. Ever. Johnny Depp aside, this movie is recognizably descended from the soap opera. Oh, sure, there's some comedy, but it's not appended for the sake of comedy. It's organic. Mostly, it's a Gothic, from its baroque prelude detailing the history of the Collins family to the arrival of Victoria Winters at Collinwood in high October as The Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin" plays over the soundtrack. This is the least "Burton-ish" movie Tim Burton has ever made. Even regular collaborators Helena Bonham-Carter and Danny Elfman aren't their usual selves. They've all sublimated their own personae in the service of the tradition of Dark Shadows, so what you get is a soap opera, condensed into a two hour movie. As with most soap operas, you get extremes of performance and dialogue. How many soap opera villains have hissed "I'll destroy you for this!", and never mind the horror trappings of Dark Shadows. That's just regular soaps. Basically, this is a hot house in which passions are worn on the surface rather than sublimated. Mind you, this is better than a soap, because you have a better quality of actors, MUCH better production values, and you don't have the Scheherezade effect that soaps indulge in, in which they stretch plot points out over multiple episodes or even multiple seasons to keep the viewer hooked. Dark Shadows resolves its sundry plot threads in an economical hundred and thirteen minutes.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

I always forget that The Tempest is a comedy. It's a bitter kind of comedy, but it ends with a wedding, so by the rules of Shakespearean taxonomy, it's a comedy. It's funny sometimes, too, particularly when dealing with the various misadventures of Trinculo and Stephano, the play's buffoons, but it's hard to see a comedy in the central narrative. It seems, rather, a bitter summation of the life of its conjuror, William Shakespeare, who ends the play with a lament to the end of things and a note of despair. Julie Taymor's interestingly genderqueer 2010 screen version plays Prospera's lament over the end credits as a Bjork-ish song. It's surprisingly effective.

What's that? Did I write "Prospera?" Not "Prospero?" I did indeed. That's the movie's central conceit. It changes Prospero's gender by casting Helen Mirren in the role. Are YOU going to argue that The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera is somehow a perversion of the play? A modern "reworking" that's unneccesary? Because I'm surely not going to make that argument. I can watch Mirren in anything, and giving her the role of one of literature's great magicians seems entirely meet, bookending her career as it does with Morgana Le Fey and Prospera. The adaptation works better than you might think, too. It certainly adds a certain feminist politic to Antonio's usurpation of Prospera's dukedom, and it adds a certain amount of historical resonance to her persecution as a witch. Frankly, I wish Shakespeare had thought of it himself, though if we assume that Prospero is an avatar of the author himself, I understand why he didn't. In any event, listening to Helen Mirren perform Shakespeare is a rare pleasure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If This Be the Avengers...

I thought about not writing about The Avengers (2012, directed by Joss Whedon). I mean, what's the point, eh? It's a movie that seems to be "critic proof." What I say will matter not one whit when it comes to the public's embrace of this film, this big, stupid, monstrous superhero movie. For that matter, I thought hard about not seeing it at all. I'm entirely convinced of the obscenity in Marvel/Disney's refusal to pay Jack Kirby's estate a sum commensurate with his status as one of the prime creators of The Avengers, a refusal born out of a fit of pique when it comes to asserting the corporate ownership of somebody else's dreams. Let's just get that out of the way first: The act of watching the film impinges on my conscience. I can salve it a little with the knowledge that someone else paid for me to see it. But only a little.

Anyway, those are all my issues and they're largely independent of the film itself. There's a lot of stuff about this film that's independent of the product on the screen. That's the Hollywood hype machine for you, working on all cylinders in this case. Whether the movie itself is any good is entirely beside the point for them. All that matters is separating you, dear moviegoer, from your hard-earned money. The process by which that happens, whether it's putting butts in seats, buying Blu-ray discs, getting your kids a passle of action figures for Christmas (or Hulk fists, which I suspect are left-overs of hype campaigns of seasons past), has nothing to do with whether the movie is good. It's hard to find the movie, I think, amid all of this crap. I have an anecdote about all this that I need to get off my chest:

I was wandering around in the toy department at Target a couple of weeks ago, just after The Avengers opened in the US. By chance, there was a woman with her daughter there when I turned down the aisle housing all the Avengers tie-in merchandise. They were rifling through the action figures. The girl was distraught. There was no Black Widow action figure. Not a one. Why? Because they didn't make one for the mass-market tie-in. Girls who may like The Avengers are out of luck. I mention this because it's not like Disney to miss a marketing opportunity. They had to realize that hiring Joss Whedon, whose work has a significant female audience, would draw more women to all this ephemera surrounding the movie. Marvel comics, for their part, at least put out a new Black Widow comic as a tie-in, though I don't recommend it for girls who might be interested in the character (it was originally published in Maxim, so it's more than a little fan service-y for Marvel's traditional audience). Again, this has nothing to do with the movie, but I'll come back to the Black Widow presently.

So how was the movie?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The SLIFF Quiz, Spring Edition

I'm winding down from the blogathon. I still have one more post to make on The Wrong Man, but I'm not going to be able to get to it until tomorrow at the earliest. Meanwhile, here's something I don't have to think too hard about. It's another one of Dennis Cozzalio's movie quizzes from his wonderfully titled Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. He also has another quiz right now that he co-authored with Suzie Bright concerning porn films that I'll answer next week, but for now, this is all I have the energy for. So without further ado....

1) Favorite movie featuring nuns

Ms. 45. Mostly because I've made an unseemly amount of money off it.

2) Second favorite John Frankenheimer movie


3) William Bendix or Scott Brady?

Scott Brady. Bendix tends to spoil movies for me.

4) What movie, real or imagined, would you stand in line six hours to see? Have you ever done so in real life?

The complete, Welles cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Maybe. I've never stood in line that long for a movie.

5) Favorite Mitchell Leisen movie

No Man of Her Own, hands down.

6) Ann Savage or Peggy Cummins?

Peggy Cummins. Mostly for the smarts in Night of the Demon, though Gun Crazy is sexy as hell.

7) First movie you remember seeing as a child

The Aristocats, I think.

8) What moment in a movie that is not a horror movie made you want to bolt from the theater screaming?

The baseball bat scene in Violent Cop.

9) Richard Widmark or Robert Mitchum?

Mitchum. Tommy Udo doesn't hold a candle to Rev. Harry Palmer or Max Cady.

10) Best movie Jesus

Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class.

11) Silliest straight horror film that you’re still fond of

Night of the Lepus is my default for the silliest straight horror movie. I'm quite fond of it.

12) Emily Blunt or Sally Gray?

Emily Blunt, mostly by default because I can name some of her films with out looking them up.

13) Favorite cinematic Biblical spectacular

Sodom and Gommorah, mostly because every line that includes the word "Sodomite" makes me giggle uncontrollably.

14) Favorite cinematic moment of unintentional humor

See the previous entry.

15) Michael Fassbender or David Farrar?

Fassbender, because he's Magneto.

16) Most effective faith-affirming movie

The Stars in My Crown. Hard for me to pick this, since I'm so not religious or spiritual.

17) Movie that makes the best case for agnosticism

The Grey comes to mind immediately. Or possibly Secret Sunshine.

18) Favorite song and/or dance sequence from a musical

Gene Kelly dances with himself in Cover Girl.

19) Third favorite Howard Hawks movie

Red River.

20) Clara Bow or Jean Harlow?

Jean Harlow, I think. This is kind of a wash, actually.

21) Movie most recently seen in the theater? On DVD/Blu-ray/Streaming?

In the theater? Trouble in Paradise
On DVD: The Tempest (2010)

22) Most unlikely good movie about religion

A Touch of Zen

23) Phil Silvers or Red Skelton?

Phil Silvers. I grew up watching Sgt. Bilko.

24) “Favorite” Hollywood scandal

The Bergman/Rossellini affair, because it gave birth to Isabella.

25) Best religious movie (non-Christian)

The Burmese Harp (1956).

26) The King of Cinema: King Vidor, King Hu or Henry King? (Thanks, Peter)

Definitely NOT Henry King. Reluctantly, King Vidor.

27) Name something modern movies need to relearn how to do that American or foreign classics had down pat

They need to learn to elide things. Contemporary American movies lead audiences around by the nose.

28) Least favorite Federico Fellini movie

City of Women. Almost unwatchable.

29) The Three Stooges (2012)—yes or no?


30) Mary Wickes or Patsy Kelly?

Mary Wickes, I think.

31) Best movie-related conspiracy theory

That the Stonecutters rig every Oscar night and made Steve Guttenberg a star.

32) Your candidate for most misunderstood or misinterpreted movie

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, methinks.

33) Movie that made you question your own belief system (religious or otherwise)

Night and Fog.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alfred's Centennial

My friend, Lokke Heiss is the programmer behind my local art house's classic film series (including the recently concluded Return to Forbidden Hollywood 3). After last night's final screening, I had the chance to discuss the Film Preservation Blogathon with him and he expressed an interest in participating. Unfortunately, Lokke doesn't have a blog, so I offered to host his thoughts on the Silent Hitchcock program he saw at the Pordone Silent Film Festival some years ago. So here's the first guest post in my blog's history:

In 1999, I had the opportunity while attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival to see all of Hitchcock’s surviving films in chronological order. Here is my review of the films as I saw them—from his earliest silent to his transition to sound:

Alfred Hitchcock would have been 100 in 1999 and in celebration of his centennial the Pordenone Festival screened all his available silent films in the order they were filmed.

Hitchcock made important, albeit late, contributions to silent films before crossing into the talkies with Blackmail and in this very thorough review of ‘silent Hitchcock,’ the festival also screened films such as The Blackguard (1924, directed by Graham Cutts), where Alfred emerged as a talented assistant director. The Blackguard, partly shot in Berlin, gave Hitchcock a chance to soak up German cinema technique, including an invaluable opportunity to watch Murnau shoot Die Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). When Hitchcock saw the finished film, he was impressed by both the moving camera and Murnau’s ability to tell the story with images rather than intertitles. Hitchcock quickly grasped the power of the moving image, and the manipulation of these graphic elements in the service of the story would soon become a trademark component in a Hitchcock film.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hitchcock On the Rocks

This is part of the film preservation blogathon

My first encounter with Jamaica Inn (1939) was in Harry Medved's The 50 Worst Movies of All Time and I'll admit that it colors my memory of the film. Oh, I know that Medved and his collaborators were mostly full of crap (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia? Last Year at Marienbad? The Omen? Seriously?), but the teenage me didn't know any better, and it's hard to shake first impressions. It was years before I was able to actually see the film, though. When I finally tracked it down, it was kind of a disappointment. I mean, it's NOT particularly good, but it's not transcendentally bad, either. I was kind of hoping for transcendentally bad.

Jamaica Inn was the first of three films that Alfred Hitchcock made from Daphne Du Maurier (the other two are Rebecca and The Birds). It was also the last film Hitch made in the UK before he packed up and went to work for Selznick in Hollywood. According to the director himself, it was the most unpleasant experience he ever had behind the camera. It's significant that Jamaica Inn is one of the very few Hitchcock films in which the director does not have a cameo. This last piece of information would have been nice to have when I first saw the film, because when I was originally mainlining Hitchcock films, the director's cameos were something I searched for. You will search in vain for Alfred Hitchcock in this film. My initial impression was a kind of modest delight, given that I have fond memories of the other film that Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara made in 1939.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

And the film preservation blogathon rolls on...

Alfred Hitchcock was trained as a draftsman and an engineer. His early career saw him working as a graphic designer, a skill he took with him to the movies. He began his film career in 1921 as a title designer. Over the course of the next five years, Hitch took on more and varied jobs as he moved up the pecking order at Islington Studios (subsequently Gainsbourg Pictures). He got his first chance at directing in 1922, when he was assigned Number 13, a film whose financing fell apart before Hitchcock could shoot more than a couple of scenes. Afterward, Hitchcock worked as an assistant to Director Graham Cutts, who took Hitchcock with him to Germany to make Die Prinzessin und der Geiger. While in Germany, Hitchcock observed F. W. Murnau working on The Last Laugh and probably a number of other German productions. They left an impression and Fritz Lang's influence in particular can be seen all over some of Hitchcock's early films. Cutts and Hitchcock had a falling out when Cutts refused to let Hitchcock direct The Rat (1925). As a consolation, producer Michael Balcon assigned Hitchcock to The Pleasure Garden (1925), which filmed in Munich, London, and Italy. The film had a troubled production, running afoul of customs in Italy and sitting unreleased for two years after it was finished. It wasn't released until after Hitchcock had his first great success with The Lodger. It wasn't a success.

What is to be made of Hitchcock's first film? It's hard to see the director Hitchcock would become without squinting. It's there, but it's not fully formed. The Pleasure Garden has interesting similarities to some of the director's melodramas, but there's no hint of the master of suspense.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why, She Wouldn't Even Harm a Fly

This is part of the Film Preservation Blogathon. A somewhat different version of this piece originally appeared on my old web site.

The archetypal serial killer is a man named Ed Gein, a handyman from Plainfield, Wisconsin, who was a grave robber, necrophile, and cannibal. He was also a transvestite of sorts, who, unlike his most famous screen descendant, didn’t dress in mother’s clothes, he dressed in mother herself. There have been several books and an avalanche of movies based on the Gein case, and even more movies and books that have incorporated elements of Gein’s crimes. As an archetype, Gein has eclipsed Jack the Ripper during the last part of the 20th century as the prototype for the mad killer. Part of this is because of Psycho.

The book on which Psycho was based was written before the details of the Gein case came to light. Its author, Robert Bloch, had a knack for getting inside the minds of criminals and psychopaths and during the 1950s, he wrote a series of pulp crime novels that are among the best of their types. The roots of Norman Bates and his terrible mother can be seen in novels like The Scarf (with its dynamite first paragraph: “Fetish? You name it. All I know is, I’ve had to have it with me.”), The Dead Beat, and The Firebug. Bloch built his story around the broadest details of the Gein case, knowing nothing of its particular details. The idea of a monster lurking in a mundane setting appealed to him, and it is this aspect that probably most appealed to Hitchcock. It is entirely likely that, like Jim Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and William S. Burroughs, Bloch would have been rescued from the obscurity of the pulp fiction ghetto by later literary academics who are more broadly receptive to popular fiction. The process was already in process by the time Bloch wrote Psycho. The Scarf had already been filmed, as had a number of his short stories (adapted for, among other productions, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the Lights Out radio show). This, of course, is no guarantee of a literary reputation, but it’s evidence that Bloch was already on the cultural radar screen. Psycho changed all of that. It was a shortcut to the cultural mass mind. Bloch would forever after be known as “the author of Psycho.” Ironically, when the rights to Psycho were purchased by Alfred Hitchcock, Bloch was very much of two minds about the project. On the one hand, it was a LOT of money compared to the rates Bloch was earning in the pulp market, but on the other hand, it meant that he would have to continue to live with Psycho, and this was difficult for Bloch. By the time the movie was made, the details of the Gein case had been made public, and Bloch was greatly disturbed that he had been able to so closely approximate the specific psychopathology of the man who was the most notorious monster of the day. It seemed more than coincidental, and Bloch wondered what it was in him that enabled him to imagine such a ghastly worldview.

Of course, that insight is part of the brilliance of Psycho, a brilliance that makes the book worthwhile in itself beyond its role as the progenitor of Hitchcock’s movie. There are plenty of critics who will tell you that Psycho is one of those rare movies that improves upon its source material, but I’m not one of them. There is a raw power to Bloch’s novel that the movie approximates, but does not match. But then again, the movie has pleasures all its own. Although the book and the movie are significantly different, Hitchcock never shied away from giving Bloch’s novel the share of credit it deserves. But Hitchcock elaborated on the novel in ways that were unique to his own worldview.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Under Capricorn Revisited

Under Capricorn (1949) occupies a pivotal position in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. After completing his contract with David O. Selznick, the director formed his own production company. Selznick was, famously, as much of a control freak as Hitchcock and their partnership was not a happy one. Forming his own production company gave Hitchcock the freedom to do as he liked. The first film Hitchcock produced for his new Transatlantic Pictures company was the highly experimental Rope, in which the film is constructed to appear as a single long take. It was also Hitchcock's first film in color. In spite of this, Rope is an archetypal Hitchcock film: it's a suspense film, laced with themes of guilt and psychosexual derangement. On the surface, Under Capricorn appears to be very far from Hitchcock's signature idiom. It's a costume drama, for one. It's not particularly suspenseful for another. But that's not to say that it's out of character. Under Capricorn hearkens back to Hitchcock as the maker of melodramas in the 1930s. Additionally, it borrows a number of elements from Rebecca, as if the director were making the film as a rebuke to Selznick's meddling in that film. Finally, it revisits Rope's long-take aesthetic, this time without the conceit of splicing them into a single, uninterrupted shot. Unfortunately for the director, it was the wrong project at the wrong time. Audiences, expecting a thriller from Hitchcock, didn't get one and stayed away. Additionally, this film appeared just as the scandal of star Ingrid Bergman's affair with Roberto Rossellini became public, and the actress herself became box office poison. While Rope had been merely unsuccessful at the box office, Under Capricorn was an outright fiasco. According to the director, it was such a huge bomb that its financial backers repossessed the film, which perhaps explains why it has always been among the director's least seen pictures. But maybe not only that. Although the French have always thought Under Capricorn was a legitimately great film, that opinion is not generally shared. It's a regular candidate for "worst Hitchcock movie." I've even seen it on lists of "the worst movie ever made," which is, frankly, unearned. After Under Capricorn, Hitchcock went back to making thrillers. His next two films were in black and white and refined what we think of as a Hitchcock film. And he placed a premium on the entertainment value of his films. He became a populist filmmaker. The experimental filmmaker of his Transatlantic films wouldn't resurface again for another decade.

I need to pause for a minute to mention something of my own relationship with Under Capricorn. I originally saw the film on cable when I was a teenager. I think it was on American Movie Classics during the Bob Dorian years, but I don't remember. What I do remember is being bored out of my mind by it. I haven't seen the movie again since then, but it has always been one of the movies I point to as an example of a great director making a really bad movie. But, as I've mentioned in some of my other recent writing, I no longer trust the opinions of my younger self, because that kid is SO not me anymore and in many, many things, I was an idiot. Ah, youth. Anyway, when the prospect of writing a week's worth of posts about Hitchcock as part of the blogathon presented itself, I knew that Under Capricorn was something I wanted to revisit.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Horse is a Horse

"The convention could do worse...and probably will."

--Thomas Brackett Reed, Speaker of the House (1889-91, 1895-99)

Watching The Dark Horse (1932, directed by Alfred E. Green) is bound to give anyone who follows politics a case of deja vu. The players may change, the issues may change, but the process of politics, it seems, is constant. You could remake this film point for point, not changing anything, and it would feel completely contemporary. It certainly seems prescient in the wake of decades of politicians whose only qualifications are that they seem just like average Joes: the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, as a recent American head of state was oft described. This movie has a cynical view of politics that's positively Swiftian. Like the rulers of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels, the politicians in The Dark Horse are controlled by "flappers," who decide when they will speak and what they will say because they have no brains of their own.

The story here finds the Progressive Party Convention deadlocked. Neither of the candidates for Governor can win the convention, so one campaign conceives of a spoiler, a "dark horse," to break the logjam. If their dark horse can siphon off just a smidge of the other candidate's support, their guy wins. Only the other side foxes them, and the dark horse wins the nomination. The dark horse in question is one Zachary Hicks, a simple man in more than one meaning of the word. The party muckety mucks turn to ace campaign manager Hal Samson Blake at the urging of Kay Russell, their secretary. She knows that Blake can get anyone elected, even a turnip like Hicks. And lo and behold, he's successful. He manages Hicks to play up the fact that he's just as dumb as everyone else, that the voters are choosing someone who is on their level. Meanwhile, Blake has his own problems. He wants to marry Kay, but he also has to deal with his vengeful ex-wife, Maybelle. Maybelle, herself, has been co-opted by the opposition in a scheme to disgrace Hicks, but she winds up fouling Blake's relationship with Kay instead.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock and A Life With Movies

The Film Preservation Blogathon is right around the corner. This year's model is centered on Alfred Hitchcock, and proceeds raised during the blogathon will go to restore The White Shadow, a film Hitchcock himself didn't direct, but one on which he learned his craft by doing a bunch of other things. It's been a while since I watched much Hitchcock, but he's a director who is central to my love of movies. I suspect that I'm not alone in that.

I was introduced to Hitchcock by my mother. Her favorite movie was Notorious. My mother had excellent taste, though she wasn't a film buff by any stretch of the imagination. She couldn't have named any other film director. She knew who Hitchcock was, though, both because she had seen him on television and because he put himself into the trailers for his late films. Hitch was as much a star as the actors on the screen. She even knew that Hitch had cameos in all of his films, and could usually spot him. None of that is germane to Notorious, though. She loved it because she loved Cary Grant and because she thought it was the most romantic film she had ever seen. Notorious, it turns out, was to play another role in my life, though. It's one of the first films I can remember decoding: in particular, the scene near the beginning when Devlin convinces Alicia to work for him. Before agreeing, she's in shadows. When she says yes, she moves out into the light. Mind you, this scene is famous--Hitchcock wore his technique on his sleeve, it should be noted, never disguising it--but for the 13 year old me, figuring out that there was more at work on screen than just text and dialogue was a kind of epiphany and figuring it out without benefit of a film class or a book describing what I was seeing was one of the stepping stones toward a lifelong infatuation with film.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

No Country for Young Women

Miss Bala (2011, directed by Gerardo Naranjo) was Mexico's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars last year. It didn't make the short list, but there's no shame in that. It certainly deserved to be in the conversation. It's a harrowing movie. From my perspective, it's a movie that functions as a kind of distaff answer to Cormac McCarthy's border novels. McCarthy, famously, is uncomfortable writing about women. This movie places its heroine square in the center of a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to No Country for Old Men, minus the old men. There's a withering gaze at the role of women in Mexican society too, and that has an echo in McCarthy as well, given that he once placed an idealized woman in the center of a Mexican patriarchy in All the Pretty Horses and used her as the crucible in which to test his hero. It certainly wasn't about her. Women are phantasms for McCarthy:

"The last time that he saw her before she returned to Mexico she was coming down out of the mountains riding very stately and erect out of a rainsquall building to the north and the dark clouds towering above her. She rode with her hat pulled down in the front and fastened under her chin with a drawtie and as she rode her black hair twisted and blew about her shoulders and the lightning fell silently through the black clouds behind her and she rode all seeming unaware down through the low hills while the first spits of rain blew on the wind and onto the upper pasturelands and past the pale and reedy lakes riding erect and stately until the rain caught her up and shrouded her figure away in that wild summer landscape: real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal. "

The heroine in Miss Bala suggests that this is so much bullshit. As well she should.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion, Etsy and Art Blog Edition

I haven't really publicized it before, but I have an Etsy store. And because I don't currently have another gig, I figure I better advertise the fact that I have art for sale. The above print is currently on sale in my store. It's an image that some of my more exploitation and horror-minded readers will recognize as Zoe Tamerlis at the end of Ms. 45. It's a linocut. It's a hand-printed edition of 20, so get em while they're hot, 'cause I'm probably not making more of these.

While I've posted art on this blog in the past, I've opened a blog specifically for my various art projects. There's not a lot there yet, but there will be. I'm fecund when it comes to producing art. So check it out, if you have a mind.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

A Short Con

At the end of Blonde Crazy (1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth), I started to wonder what Jim Thompson would have made of the movie. Thompson, that blackest beast of the hard boiled writers, wrote plenty of stories about con men and lowlifes, and as soon as the thought of him scripting this movie occurred to me, I realized that Thompson's version would be The Grifters, which was in the back of my head to start with. James Cagney's Bert Harris isn't that far removed from Thompson's Roy Dolly, after all, though Joan Blondell's Ann Roberts is a character type that Thompson never wrote about, the virtuous bad girl. These are the sorts of things I think about after I see movies, and it's mostly useless. Blonde Crazy is hard boiled, but it's not noir. Not really. For the first two thirds of the movie, it's a romantic comedy, and near the end, it veers into melodrama.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Grown From Man to Dragon

I wonder what it is about Shakespeare that makes actors want to be directors. Olivier and Branagh are the famous ones, but now here we have Ralph Fiennes mounting Coriolanus (2011) with himself in the lead. The play itself is one of The Bard's more stylized late plays, written after the great tragedies and so far as anyone can determine, never performed in Shakespeare's lifetime. It has one of Shakespeare's more opaque heroes, too. Caius Martius Coriolanus is not the bottomless well one finds in Hamlet. He's more a symbol than a character, as if Shakespeare, having redefined the tragic hero, decided it would be more interesting to portray the tragic hero as a calamity to those around him. This is something that Fiennes as a director "gets." I'm not entirely comfortable with the way it modernizes the play. It's still a Roman play. It doesn't change that. It rather sets itself in "a place calling itself Rome," a place that resembles the Balkans, actually. Whatever that place is, it's a multi-ethnic locale. A cosmopolis of the mind, if you will. I like that this gives Fiennes the license to cast multiple people of color in his movie, given that short of Othello or Aaron (in Titus Andronicus), there's not usually much of an excuse. I'm less enthusiastic about the action filmmaking here, which is indistinguishable from most other action filmmaking these days. But I'm becoming philosophical about this.