movie log: The Strong Man (1926)

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.

movie log: Zero Hour! (1957)

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.

movie log: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

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.

movie log: Leap Year (1921)

Viewed February 27, 2009: Leap Year directed by James Cruze and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, staring Fatty Arbuckle and a host of others.

This is approximately an hour-long feature with Arbuckle playing Stanley Piper, the nephew of and heir to an irascible old coot, and thus viewed in universe of this film as a rare catch for the ladies. As the film opens, Stanley has taken a shine to his uncle’s nurse, but he has a hard time telling her this for various reasons (for one, he has a nervous stutter that keeps him from expressing his complete thoughts). Coincidentally the misogynist uncle decides he’d rather have a male nurse and fires this one. The uncle goes off to a spa in hopes of healing his gout, while Stanley takes a trip to Catalina. As the movie progresses, Stanley meets one beautiful woman after another, and tries to cozy up to each in turn in order to get advice about approaching the nurse (remember her?). Due to his nervousness and stutter, each woman thinks that he’s trying to confess his love to her and, because he’s such prime husband material, immediately accepts his alleged offer of marriage.

They all – Stanley, his uncle, the nurse, all of these other woman, each man that has an interest in each woman – end up back at the uncle’s house, where great farcical maneuvers ensue.

This really is quite a funny old movie, and it moves along at a good clip. Then again I’ve never really seen a Fatty Arbuckle movie that I didn’t enjoy.

movie log: Right America: Feeling Wronged (2009)

Viewed February 22, 2009: Right America: Feeling Wronged – Some Voices from the Campaign Trail, a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

This is one of a number of exposés of right-wing subjects by Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi, current Speaker of the House of Representatives). An earlier documentary, Friends of God…, was entertaining and illuminating to the max, and I’m looking forward to seeing her The Trials of Ted Haggard soon. In this film, she travels around some conservative areas in the US to get man-on-the-street style interviews with people who voted for McCain in the recent presidential election, in order to get their reaction to their candidate’s loss. Those she gets, or at least the ones she shows, range from idiotic to moronic, passing through outright racist.

I have mixed reactions to this film. On one side, one just sits there jaw-droppingly dumbfounded at the things people are saying to the camera. Many of the old canards are paraded out: Obama will take the oath of office on the Koran, his middle name is Hussein, he refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance, a black person (and worse words are used) should never be President, and more. Perhaps worse, many people are completely unable to produce an argument behind their position at all, and often not even a sentence. There are a few people who make reasoned statements, but the memory of them is blotted out by most of the others. On the other side, one wonders if Pelosi is simply setting up her ducks and shooting them down: I suspect (in fact, am pretty sure) you can find lots of ignorant and hateful people on any side – people who have political alignments they can’t justify and beliefs they can’t explain – and indeed get-out-the-vote drives sometimes seemed aimed at hustling them up. One thing you have to give her: she certainly plumbed the depths on the side she was going after. This may not be exactly educational, but it sure is watchable. It brings to mind that Churchill quote that’s you see behind every position these days, that “the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.” And having cited it, I too can feel all superior.

movie log: The Legend of 1900 (1998)

Viewed February 21, 2009: The Legend of 1900 directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, starring Tim Roth and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and featuring Bill Nunn and Clarence Williams III.

This is the story – a fantasy, really – told in flashback reminiscences by musician Max Tooney (Vince) about a man who was abandoned as a baby aboard a passenger liner in the year 1900. He is found by coal stoker Danny Boodmann (played by Bill Nunn) on top of a grand piano in the ship’s luxurious ballroom. As it’s the beginning of a new century (geeks, you’ll have to get past the fact that it really isn’t) Boodmann christens the boy “1900” and raises him aboard ship. Time elapses, Boodmann passes on; one day the boy 1900 wanders into the ballroom, sits down at piano, and displays an innate talent. More time goes on and 1900, now grown into a man (played by Tim Roth) wows the first-class passengers who gather nightly in the ballroom. In all this time, 1900 has never left the ship, yet his reputation has spread. His life is remembered in episodes, some dramatic, some romantic, some poignant. In one, famed musician Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, takes a trip on the ship just so he can prove his superiority to 1900. The contest between them, about midway through the film, with 1900 producing a Leo Ornstein -like performance, is not to be missed. One assumes that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the character of the real Jelly Roll Morton; you just have to treat it as poetic license. And they did use some of Morton’s music in the contest.

This is my third viewing of this movie, and it’s just a wonderful film. In my mini-review of “Angel-A” I referred to that film as a fairy tale for adults – a friend suggested that that tag might apply to this movie as well.

Other than a few sequences (such as the above-mentioned piano contest), this is a deliberately-paced (read: slow) movie, which may put off some viewers who demand action and fast cars and explosions (OK, so there are some explosions in this film). While my tastes generally run to the more deliberate movies, even I would say that the second half of this film could use some tightening. But then again: the version I’ve seen is the US release which runs 125 minutes. The original release was 35 minutes longer than that, and I suspect that any problem that I have with the editing of this film stems from the fact that so much was removed from it. I’d love to see the longer version and compare.

movie log: The King of Kong (2007)

Viewed February 19, 2009 (and then some), The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, directed by Seth Gordon, featuring Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and Walter Day, among others.

This is a documentary about the quest by Steve Wiebe, a mild-mannered science teacher living in Redmond Washington, to secure the highest score in the arcade game “Donkey Kong.” It is also about the man Billy Mitchell, who set the high score back in 1982; that score thought by many to be unbeatable. And it is also about Walter Day, a video game “referee,” and Twin Galaxies, the organization that he founded to keep track of and mediate arcade game records.

Does that sound boring? It’s anything but. The documentary clearly sets up Steve Wiebe (the newcomer and challenger) as a hero, pitted against the supposedly devious and self-centered reigning champion Billy Mitchell and the band of minions who are in his thrall. (I say Wiebe is a newcomer, but if you watch the DVD extras you learn that he performed in the game early in his life, in private, to a level that had thought to have been reached only by Billy Mitchell. But forgive me while I try not to blog down in detail.)

The game play is not the point in this documentary. It’s all about the supposed character of the main subjects (and of some of the secondary ones as well), about how each is treated by the others, about unfortunate associations and alignments, about intrigue and hypocrisy, and even about redemption. While seeing this movie once is a fascinating experience, you really just have to see it again illuminated by what you’ve learned the first time through, not to mention by the DVD extras that give extra insight and detail.

The filmmakers did not set out to make a movie about these three people. In fact they followed a number of arcade game competitors around with the idea that there would be a good film in there somewhere. They also found other documentary teams doing more or less the same thing, and ended up joining forces with at least one of those teams. Somewhere along the line the story turned into the mythic tale that they ended up protraying.

The documentary presents each of the three main subjects as very compelling multifaceted individuals, and it really makes no bones about what you’re supposed to think about them. Steve Wiebe is the gentle man of many talents, who always seems to come up short in his varied endeavors. Billy Mitchell is a manipulative narcissist who has had much success in arcade games and in his career (and he suggests that one has prepared him for the other). Walter Day, the man who is to judge them both, is a complex person of many interests, yet he seems to worship Billy Mitchell. This is the way the documentary sets them up, mind you. At one point when the film is focused on Mitchell, Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” begins to play, and well, everybody knows from that what you’re supposed to think. It’s likely that they (the filmmakers) are largely correct in their viewpoints, yet one does realize that Billy Mitchell is one talented man, that Steve Wiebe has indeed made at least one unfortunate choice in who he associated with to try to get into the competitive society, and that Walter Day does end up doing the right thing as he sees it. And as shown in the DVD extras, one close friend of Billy Mitchell, who helped to promote the documentary at its initial screenings, said something to the effect of “you do have to realize that it’s a movie.”

There are many other people in this film who are interesting in their own right. There’s Doris Self, the 83-year-old woman attempting to regain her Q-Bert title that she first acquired when she was in her 50s (I’ve run across mentions of her in the past as well, for her history in aviation). There’s Robert Mruczek, a Twin Galaxies judge who resigned in protest shortly after one of the pivotal decisions affecting the Donkey Kong score. There’s Brian Kuh, who retired from investment banking at the age of 30 so that he could move near to Funspot in NH to devote all of his time to arcade games, and who has since gone on to some remarkable accomplishments. There’s Steve Wiebe’s young daughter Jillian, who wonders if some people ruin their lives to get into the Guinness record book.

This movie is like a book that you can’t put down. I watched it once, then poured over the extra footage. A few days later I then watched it again. Immediately after that, I watched it with the first commentary track (commentary by Seth Gordon, Ed Cunningham, J. Clay Tweed, and Luis Lopez) and then again with the second commentary track (commentary by Chris Carle and Jon M. Gibson). If there had been more on the DVD, I’d probably still be watching it. Note, though, that the second commentary track was hugely annoying, consisting mostly of the two men trying to out-snide, out-snark, and out-sarcastic each other as if they were doing a bad MST3K performance, always showing off their superiority. Perhaps they did have that superiority, as they did from time to time show off some pretty deep knowledge of the subject area (especially after about the one hour mark).

I’m not really much of an arcade game player. Sure, I loved going to arcades when they were in great abundance, but I was never very good at any that I tried There are many famous games that I’ve never even seen, including Donkey Kong. But I am and have always been fascinated by the nature of skill and accomplishment vs how those things are appreciated. What makes a basketball player worth millions of dollars in this country, whereas a ping-pong player won’t even turn anyone’s heads (so to speak)? If a kalimba player invests as much time honing his skill as does a rock guitarist, why is only one of them appreciated? And does that appreciation even matter to the person with the skill? Is the skill enough?

Much, much more can be said about this film. I appreciate the NH connections; in fact during the lunch break that I took while writing this, I learned that I know someone who appeared briefly in the background. The main thing is, if you’re reading this, see it.

movie log: Chicken Little (2005)

Watched February 14, 2009: Chicken Little, a Disney animated film directed by Mark Dindal and featuring the voices of Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, and others.

Chicken Little, as we know from the childrens’ story, sounds alarms in his community about the sky falling. This movie opens with a retelling of that event, and then moves on. A year later Chicken Little has found a way to redeem himself and remove the black mark from his family’s reputation. But now it seems it might be happening all over again.

This is just a silly movie, aimed mainly at kids. I started watching it with the grandkids one day some time ago; they left the DVD and I figured I’d watch it all before I returned it, and in fact even dragged a couple of other adults into it with me. It has enough humor and enough going on in the background and around the edges that it kept us entertained. There’s also a little trivia game about the contents of the movie that the 5-1/2 year-old enjoyed.

movie log: Angel-A (2005)

Seen February 11, 2009: Angel-A directed by Luc Besson, starring Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. French language film, viewed with English subtitles.

André (Jamel Debbouze) is a small-time operator of some unspecified sort, living in Paris and owing money in all directions. Despairing of coming up with funds in time to prevent the execution of threats on his life, he decides to exit the scene by jumping off of a bridge. Before he can get underway, he sees a tall blonde woman one pillar over jumping off of the same bridge. Naturally (perhaps having seen a moment from “It’s a Wonderful Life”) he jumps off and saves her. Thus begins his adventure with the angel Angela, or Angel-A (played by Rie Rasmussen).

This is essentially a fairy tale for adults – I suppose a crossover between Besson’s adult fare and his childrens’ stories. It’s a comic film, sometimes darkly so, with a romantic overlay. While the story holds its own, it’s overshadowed by the stunning black-and-white photography of Paris scenery and structures.

Highly recommended to anyone out there.

movie log: Gas Food Lodging (1992)

Seen February 7, 2009: Gas Food Lodging directed by Allison Anders, starring Brooke Adams, Ione Sky, and Fairuza Balk, and with a bunch of supporting actors including James Brolin, Robert Knepper, Donovan Leitch (the one who is Sky’s brother, not her father), and others.

Skye and Balk play two teenage sisters, Trudi and Shade Morton, who live in a trailer with their mother Nora (Brooke Adams) in a dry, desert, go-nowhere town in the southwestern US. Shade is fascinated by an actress in a series of Mexican soap-opera-ish movies with fancy costumes and highly dramatic dialog. This diversion apparently provides her some escape from her plain reality. The three women are often at odds, with worries about money, about men and boys, and from being cooped up in close quarters, sometimes crossing boundaries in roles of mother or sister or daughter. Outside of their family circle each has to deal with other individuals from the town, from the past, from outside their immediate environment.

I wanted to see this for the main actors: in particular I’m a fan of Fairuza Balk and Ione Sky. In the end, though, that’s all I got out of it. I found it to be a rough collection of events and episodes and characters, none of which seemed to go anywhere or relate to any other element in the film. I don’t have a problem with slice-of-life films where there’s not much point other than looking at the subject characters. There are such movies that are among my favorites. There doesn’t have to be a point, but there has to be something. A theme, some cohesion, some transition. Maybe something else. Maybe something undefinable – but at any rate something that didn’t hit me in this movie. Nothing seems to click, e.g. Shade’s obsession with the Mexican films seems to have no influence on her or on the story. Everyone and every event passes by without really touching anyone except perhaps in physical ways. Nobody seems worth knowing, or helping. There’s occasional wistful voice-over dialog by Shade’s character that seems completely out of touch with the movie; its only affect was to make me wonder if maybe it was useful in the book on which this movie was based. I dunno, maybe it’s something in my genes. Judging by a brief scan over comments in the IMDB, it’s mostly women that like it, and mostly men that, like me, don’t get it. For that matter, I don’t even get the title.