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Jun 7

movie log: movie bag

Posted on Sunday, June 7, 2009 in movies

Another batch.

Seen April 25, 2009: Dark Passage, a 1947 movie directed by Delmer Daves, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, and Agnes Moorehead. Here’s a story of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Bogart) who was probably wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. He’s taken in by Irene Jansen (Bacall) who is familiar with Parry’s case and had her own reasons for being drawn to him. Through some random circumstances, Parry undergoes plastic surgery to gain a new identity and escape from the law. The initial gimmick of this movie is that until this happens, the camera view is from Parry’s eye; we never see him until he turns into Bogart. This film has a good reputation and a high standing, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t ignore the far-fetchedness, implausibility, and downright impossibility of so many things in it. I’m happy to suspend disbelief to a point, but you can only go so far before you have to start laughing at it or picking it apart. The photography was great, the acting was fine, the introductory gimmick was fun. Maybe when I’m older I’ll like it better. There’s not much time for that, though.

Next was another “Dark” movie, seen May 2, 2009: Dark Star, 1974 movie directed by John Carpenter, starring Dan O’Bannon (who also co-wrote with Carpenter) among others. This movie is also preposterous and full of implausibilities and impossibilities, but that’s exactly what makes it fun. Based on a student film, this is about the crew of the Dark Star who have spent 20 years on their mission, which is to prepare star systems for colonization by destroying unstable planets. In this movie you have your hippie, you have your surfer, you have your grudges and insanity, you have your alien pet that looks like a beach ball, you have your intelligent bombs that have to be convinced with a bit of existential philosophy not to explode. You have your cheesy effects, low budget, and camp. But mostly you have a lot of fun.

Seen May 2, 2009: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 2008 movie directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel (who wrote the film), Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Russell Brand. Peter Bretter (Segel) is dumped by his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Bell) who is a famous actress. He takes a trip to Hawaii to get over her but guess who’s there? Sarah Marshall, of course, along with her new boyfriend Aldous (Brand). I had high hopes for this movie; it was well-hyped, was produced by Judd Apatow whose films and TV series I’m a big fan of, has actors that I like. Maybe I should try not to have high expectations before seeing a movie, I dunno, but this just didn’t excite me. It had some funny moments (the naked break-up scene among them), very good acting from all, including Mila Kunis, and Russell Brand can be pretty funny. But not enough grabbed me or stuck with me. I imagine I’ll see parts or all of it again at some point and maybe I’ll see what everybody else seemed to see.

May 30

movie log: The Wind (1928)

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2009 in movies

Seen April 23, 2009: The Wind, a silent movie from 1928 directed by Victor Sjöström, starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, Montague Love.

Gish plays Letty, a woman who is moving from her home in the green eastern US to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) in dry, windy, dusty Texas. On the train she meets a man Wirt Roddy (Love) who flirts with her and warns her that the wind will drive her crazy. She arrives to find cousin Beverly’s wife Cora (Cumming) most unwelcoming. Cora is perhaps a bit touched in the head, and at any rate is hostile towards and jealous of Letty. She insists that she won’t share her house or her husband, and Letty is forced into marriage with Lige (Lars Hanson), a decent man but a man that she doesn’t love.

The main character is, as the title suggests, the wind, which blows and shifts the dry sand around through the starkness of the territory and the hard-living people trying to survive it. Into this setting Roddy shows up again, his evil lust for Letty pushing him to her as she is being driven mad by the weather and her situation.

This is a wonderful movie. I’ve seen it before, but in this instance I saw it in the theater, as part of a silent movie program of monthly showings in Manchester NH and in Wilton NH. This one was at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, with (as with all in this series) live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis. The film was preceded by a short interview with Gish done some decades later (as it was the other time I saw it; probably drawn from the same source DVD). Gish talked about how the production used an array of aircraft engines and propellers to generate the wind when needed, and about how the weather was so hot that at one point she burned the skin off of a hand while opening a door. Unfortunately she also talked about the ending – this featurette should be seen after watching the movie, not before.

While some of this movie is quite over the top (especially the bits about the wind having an alter ego as a wild stallion), it is highly enjoyable, one of the best silent films I know of. To some degree you have to have some experience with and get a feeling for silent movies before you can appreciate and enjoy them, especially the longer dramatic ones. But I’ve often felt that this is one that can be enjoyed without any such background.

May 30

movie log: movie bag

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2009 in movies

Another bag o’ movies

Viewed April 8, 2009: Symbol of the Unconquered, a silent movie from 1920 directed by Oscar Micheaux. This is an odd duck of a silent film, as it (unlike most movies of its time) was directed by a black man and featured black people – it’s usually striking how one-toned most of these old silent films are, with non-whites often shown as caricatures or worse. Unfortunately some of the film (mainly a significant section towards the end) is missing and is replaced by title cards. The story concerns an African American woman who is light skinned and, posing as white, moves to an inherited plot of land somewhere in the wilderness. There’s a lot of nefarious action: land grabbing, race hatred, mother-hating, self-hating, and (in the missing section) fighting the Ku Klux Klan. With or without the missing piece, the whole thing is pretty awful, and it’s been augmented with a clangy, almost beatnik score, to boot.

Viewed April 8, 2009: N.Y., N.Y., a 1957 movie directed by Francis Thompson. TCM showed this as a companion piece to “Manhatta” which I wrote about here. In this short film, Thompson shows distorted images of NYC scenes. There’s a lot of kaleidoscopic, folded, and distorted imagery, most of which is pretty fascinating.

Next up that same night (April 8, 2009): Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton’s masterpiece from 1924 directed by Keaton, starring Keaton and an able cast. Buster plays a film projectionist who dreams of being a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He is studying a “how to be a detective” book when he himself is accused of a crime – a rival for the hand of the woman he is attempting to woo has stolen the woman’s father’s watch partly in order to make Buster’s character look bad. He (Keaton) spends some hilarious time pursuing suspects, and then while at work dozes off and imagines that the people in his case are characters in the film he’s showing, and that he himself walks into the movie to help them out. There are many great gags, wonderful pieces of cinematic trickery, and perhaps some commentary about Keaton’s involvement in his own films. I could see this many times – and in fact have.

Viewed April 18, 2009, and filling up this bag: Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film which I’ve already gushed about at length and so will just point there.

May 28

movie log: movie bag

Posted on Thursday, May 28, 2009 in movies

It’s been a while, not to mention that I don’t need to say much about most of these (whether because I’ve seen them before or some other reason), so here’s a bag ‘o movies seen.

Viewed March 23, 2009: The Blackbird, a silent film from 1926 directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon Chaney and Renée Adorée. I’m a big fan of both Browning and Chaney; this one is a prime example of why. Chaney, the master of disguises, plays a man who himself is playing two people – a crippled bishop who is highly respected in his small city community, and his alter-ego “brother,” the bishop’s evil side who is a minor thug and liver of the high life in the underworld. Conflicts with West End Bertie (nicely played by Owen Moore) over territory and over Fifi Lorraine (Adorée) come to a head. Some of this film is over the top (what, Tod Browning?) including the portrayal of the bishop’s affliction (what, Tod Browning?), but the result is still great fun.

Watched March 26, 2009: Be Kind Rewind, a 2008 movie directed by Michel Gondry, starring Jack Black, Mos Def, and a bunch of other people who probably thought this was a good sounding story (kind of like I did when I decided to watch it). A couple of ne’er-do-wells minding a video rental store accidentally, through a freak occurence, erase every tape in the store. When forced to rent a film to a local hood, they decide to remake the movie with cheap equipment, a condensed story, and themselves as stars. Soon the community, most of which is not at all fooled, clamors for these imitations. The story is wrapped inside of a pretense at a tribute to a musician, perhaps to add some kind of serious air to it, but all it does is make it a bit schizoid. This movie is pretty much a waste of time, although perhaps it might improve with a crowd and some chemical additives, which might have been the intended viewing scenario.

Viewed March 31, 2009: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events from 2004, directed by Brad Silberling, starring Jim Carrey and a full cast of well-known actors who probably were easily convinced to appear in this film based on a popular book series. The story concerns a pair of children who find themselves orphaned and who have adventures trying to avoid the clutches of an evil relative to whom they have been entrusted. It was fun and well done; I watched this with my grandchildren. Though I had not read the books, their parents had – their opinion (if I recall it correctly) was disappointment that the source material had been jumbled up, i.e. multiple books mixed together and perhaps other liberties taken. I, ignorant of the books, thought it was enjoyable on its own. And the kids liked it.

Viewed April 4, 2009 for the umpteenth time: The Terminator from 2004, directed by James Cameron, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, and Linda Hamilton. A story of a future where intelligent machines have taken over the world from mankind, a human savior who has risen to defeat them, a robotic “terminator” who has been sent back in time to prevent that man from ever being born, and the man who follows to thwart that attempt and ensure the fulfillment of his own destiny. Thoroughly and ever enjoyable.

Also on that night, April 4, 2009, for the umpty-umpeenth time: Casablanca from 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains. The classic wartime romantic triangle about love and loyalty that is simply one of the best movies ever made.

More baggage to follow.

May 22

movie log: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 21, 2009 and then again April 18, 2009: Synechdoche, New York written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring too many people in too many significant roles to list right here – notably among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest – but I’d better stop.

This movie stunned me, to the point where (kind of a silly measure, I suppose), I couldn’t even make an entry about it here until I saw it again, and then after that until I could figure out how to use words to describe it. I still haven’t arrived at that point, so I’ll just push on inadequately.

“Synecdoche” is a word that rhymes, more or less, with Schenectady, which is a city in New York where the movie opens. It (the word) is a grammatical term referring to the use of a word or phrase having a broad scope in place of one included in that scope, or vice versa; where, for example, “wheels” might refer to a car, or “Washington” to the government located in that city. And the movie is, in part, about substitution – not necessarily about that kind, but not excluding it either – and about reference and reflection and cause and effect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a referential name in itself), a theater professional who, at the outset, is involved in directing a version of “Death of a Salesman.” He’s cast a young man as the aging Willy Loman, and at one point tells the actor that this casting will add to the pathos since the audience will know that the young actor can imagine himself getting old – a concept that has to be imagined by and reflected in the minds of simultaneous participants (director, actor, audience, playwright) in order to have any meaning. This is kind of a throw-away line but it’s a hint of things to come.

Cotard begins working on a grand piece of theater. He is going to recreate elements of life – or more particularly, of his life, although here again one is a substitute for the other – by staging them inside a huge theater. One assumes that he initially intends there to be an audience, but this performance can not possibly be viewed – it can only be experienced by the participants, and indeed since this becomes part of his life, those experiences modify and affect him, which means they have to be reflected in the performance. The project becomes a model of real life – his and others. More and more, what happens inside the model affects what happens outside. The project becomes self-referential, self-modifying, and recursive, to the point where there’s no hard lines between the model and the reality.

The theater project is a large part of Cotard’s life and of this movie, but not all. As the years pass (something like 60 of them) his life changes; he meets a number of people, mainly women (one wonders how much they are parts of himself or he of them). He goes through various family and personal relationships most of which are, of course, reflected in and affected by his project. Time does not always move clearly or at a sensible rate; characters’ thoughts are affected by their surroundings, but those surroundings are perplexingly affected by their thoughts in turn. Things stand in for each other. (It may or may not be intentional that in one scene where Cotard is talking to his therapist, played by Hope Davis, that he uses the word “hope” more than once – perhaps in a minor way carrying this theme one level out beyond the movie.)

The movies that Charlie Kaufman has written – at least the ones that I’ve seen – always seem to be about interactions between the mind and reality. I admit I haven’t always liked them, but it’s also true that I’ve liked each successive one more. Either he’s getting better at it or it’s getting through to me. Here, where he’s directed his own work, I think he’s gotten it just about perfect. The depth and complexity are, shall I say it again? stunning. Bear in mind that I’ve left out a lot; I’ve only got so much disk space for this entry.

See it. See it and repeat.

Apr 4

movie log: Transamerica (2005)

Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in movies

Watched March 16, 2009: Transamerica directed by Duncan Tucker, starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.

Huffman plays Bree Osbourne – whose given name is Stanley – a man about to go through gender reassignment surgery (i.e. to become a woman). At about the last possible moment, she receives a phone call from a teenager named Toby (Zegers) who his looking for his father Stanley. It seems that Stanley had slept with a woman in college who had, unbeknownst to him, become pregnant and given birth to Toby. Bree’s counselor (played by Elizabeth Peña) will not give her required permission for the surgery until Bree resolves, or apparently at least investigates, this new conflict in her life. Bree travels from LA to New York to find that she has to bail Toby out of jail for prostitution. Through a series of minor events, both Bree and Toby end up driving an old dilapidated car across country to get to LA, with Toby having no idea that the woman he sees next to him in the car is really his father.

At this point it just becomes a road trip movie. As with any road trip movie, the characters encounter a number of odd characters, get into scrapes, have the inevitable misunderstandings, hatred, bonding, soul-searching, and truth-finding. The issues of Bree’s sexuality and her hatred of her male body versus Toby’s overactive exploitation of his do come up, but not, in general, with any deep social commentary, but most often are merely factors contributing to the road trip formula. Indeed, not overly obsessing on the social and moral issues can be seen as saying something: that these are just elements in these peoples’ lives, lives that have troubles and emotions and difficulties that we can relate to just as if they were caused by anything else. You can point, for example, to the fact that Bree’s issues of sexual identity alienate her from her parents. In another universe, or with other people, that alienation would come from other causes, and the story could play out much as it does here. Except, I think, for the acting. Felicity Huffman does a great job playing a man who is becoming a woman, and I would recommend seeing this movie just for that.

The always-enjoyable Graham Green makes an appearance as a man who helps the couple out while taking a shine to Bree; Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan do a nice job as Bree’s parents.

Apr 4

movie log: The Trials of Ted Haggard (2009)

Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 14, 2009: The Trials of Ted Haggard – a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

Ted Haggard is the founder of the New Life Church in Colorado; director Pelosi had met him while making previous documentaries and had grown to like him. After Haggard had fallen from grace (he had admitted to a homosexual encounter in which there were drug-related overtones) and had been kicked out of the church that he founded, Pelosi ran into him again. Evidently she palled around with him for a while and, being a filmmaker, pretty much always had a camera trained on him. After some time she had enough decent material to make this documentary. One story says that she used that obnoxious old “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” canard – and she may have said that, but from what I’ve read she actually showed the film to the Haggards and they OK’d it.

The film follows Haggard as he lives his life of banishment, moving himself and his family from one temporary living space to another, seeking work, trying (and evidently failing) his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesperson, going to school with hopes of becoming a counselor, all the while hoping for and looking forward to the time when he can move back to his big house in Colorado and perhaps find favor again with his church. This is the backdrop for the running reflections that he has on his life in conversation with Pelosi.

There is irony a-plenty – not just for Haggard, but for the viewer and perhaps even for Pelosi. Haggard comes across as a really likeable guy, honestly struggling to find answers in his life (some might say honestly struggling to be wrong). He’s so likeable that one looks for ways to rationalize his past hypocritical teachings against homosexuality. I think in anyone’s world there are things you can believe and do only in private- in his world you would be an outcast not to speak out against them. (Just to be clear: this is the sort of rationalization I’m referring to.) One hears him saying how much he personally gained from psychological counseling, which is why he talks of pursuing it, and yet he continues to pour over the Bible to find comfort (one sequence has him walking in the desert with his Bible – I suppose Pelosi couldn’t resist throwing that in.) When asked if he still finds meaning in the Bible, he says yes: but that the meaning is very different if you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re at the bottom.

A very watchable documentary, showing the human side of a guy that it’s easy to dislike from a distance but harder to up close. People are funny like that.

Mar 13

movie log: The Strong Man (1926)

Posted on Friday, March 13, 2009 in movies

Seen March 5, 2009: The Strong Man directed by Frank Capra, starring Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor, and Arthur Thalasso.

This was shown on the big screen at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH, with live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is one of the people behind the program of silent films shown at the Palace and at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton NH. The film was preceded by two shorts (which I’m tempted to give their own blog entries, but let’s just do this):

    1926’s Circus Today with Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde – 20 minutes of pretty funny antics at a circus with two men, a woman, and a lion – all of whom end up inside a cabin suspended by a hot air balloon.

  • 1923’s It’s a Gift with Snub Pollard – Pollard is an inventor called upon by oil executives to help them out with their oil problems. There are some good bits about Pollard’s Rube Goldberg lifestyle, and you’ve probably seen clips from this film where he travels around in his little cart pointing a magnet at passing cars to achieve locomotion.

As to the main feature (which was, by the way, Frank Capra’s directorial debut): Paul Bergot (played by Harry Langdon) is a Belgian soldier in WWI who receives love letters on the battlefield from Mary Brown (Bonner) of the US. All that Bergot knows of her is from her letters and the one picture he clings to. He’s captured by a German soldier (Thalasso) and, at war’s end, becomes the assistant of the German, a strongman who goes by the name of Zandow the Great – both ending up in the US. Most of the rest of the film concerns Bergot’s efforts to locate Mary Brown while performing with Zandow. The quest begins in the city, where Bergot is hilariously involved with a woman with criminal associations. It ends up in a frontier town that has been taken over by gangsters, to the dismay of the town’s religous community led by Pastor Brown (whom, you may have guessed, is Mary’s father). There’s a wild confrontation between all factions, with Bergot on the stage subbing for drunken Zandow, the gang of criminals in the audience, and the holy townspeople making the last of 7 days’ marches around the saloon whereafter they hope, as with Jericho, the walls will come tumbling down.

Harry Langdon was one of the bright comedy stars of the 20s, but by most accounts he didn’t understand the degree to which outside direction and help from others led to his success, and he made choices that almost instantly wiped out his career. It’s a shame, because he was one funny guy, with a style all his own, and he could have left a much fuller legacy. In this film he displays a gentleness of motion, a meek stubbornness, and comic athleticism that is extremely entertaining. There’s never a dull moment in this movie, and I’d love to see it again.

Mar 7

movie log: Zero Hour! (1957)

Posted on Saturday, March 7, 2009 in movies

Watched March 1, 2009: Zero Hour! directed by Hall Bartlett, starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden.

Zero Hour!, story by Arthur Hailey (of “Airport” fame), is the movie that was later remade as the fantastic comedy Airplane!. Ted Stryker (Andrews) was a WWII fighter pilot who had made a critical mistake that cost the lives of some of his men. Psychologically scarred, he can’t find work and his marriage is in trouble. One day he comes home to find that his wife Ellen (Darnell) has left him, taking their son Joey on a flight westward across Canada to Vancouver. Stryker summons up his courage and boards the airplane to try to convince her to stay. But trouble looms: food poisoning strikes down the pilot and co-pilot, and Stryker – the only man aboard with any flying experience – must bring the plane safely down, guided on the radio by his former commander Martin Treleaven (Hayden), who is sure that Stryker will fail.

This was not my first viewing, but I had seen Airplane! many times before having seen this film for the first time. While Airplane! also borrows from others and adds a lot to the mix, most of the basic elements are here; there’s even a sports star, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, playing the role of pilot. If you’re familiar with Airplane! (and probably anybody who sees Zero Hour! nowadays is) then watching this movie is a bit of a dissociative experience. You follow the story, you hear familiar lines said in dead-serious tones, you want to laugh – you do laugh. You hear lines that nobody says, and you laugh at those. You think Sterling Hayden does a great impression of Robert Stack. It’s an entirely different experience than was originally intended, altogether. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see this movie first; would it be memorable, or would it just be seen and vaguely remembered? Perhaps being remade as Airplane! has given this movie a longer, although different, life that it might have had. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

But if you like Airplane!, spend 80 minutes and watch this, maybe with some friends. That’s just what they’ll be expecting you to do.

Mar 6

movie log: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

Posted on Friday, March 6, 2009 in movies

Seen February 28, 2009: Definitely, Maybe directed by Adam Brooks, starring Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, and a bunch of others.

This is a light romantic movie with a contrived plot that immediately makes one think of the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.” The movie begins with Will Hayes (Reynolds) about to be divorced from his wife. His precocious daughter Maya (Breslin) is full of questions: don’t you love her? how can you get divorced? Will tells her that in order to understand, she’d have to know the story of how he met three women, one of whom was the mother. And he’ll tell her the story, but she’ll have to try to figure out which one he ended up marrying. The bulk of the movie follows this story as he tells it.

And it’s an OK story, even if one can’t believe he’s telling it to his daughter (nor in the detail that we see, although by her reactions we’re led to believe that this detail is included in his telling of it). The three women are played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher, and there are good performances by others including Adam Ferrara and Kevin Kline.

My biggest reaction to this film was that it’s great to see Ryan Reynolds get a decent role in a decent movie. Why an old geezer like me here in the wilds of NH has any interest in seeing a particular actor do well is probably a good question, but I’ve always rooted for Reynolds; let’s hope there’s more to come. The movie is very watchable, although I’m not sure I’m exactly the target audience. I didn’t really buy the premise or the specifics of the conversation between father and daughter, or other stuff between them that I won’t get into, but I just put that aside. There’s no deep meaning or lasting effect to be had here, just a couple of entertaining hours.