Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wages Of Fear

The only way out of this hellhole of a company town is on a flatbed truck loaded with nitroglycerin!? Actually, two trucks ... just in case, you know, something happens to one of them...

Let's just leave this review in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, shall we:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Now, let us take a
suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb underneath you and it's about to explode!'

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Rooting for *anyone* to come out the other side of this story is the twist. They don't all make it, in case you were wondering...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dark Victory

A Friday-night (commercial-free!) showing courtesy of KCTS, the local PBS affiliate, and a lesser-known title from a terrific year in movies.

Not quite melodrama, nearly comedy, just about romantic, but almost a medical drama. How's that grab you? Did I mention Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart (playing the guy who doesn't get the girl - what a surprise!), and ... Ronald Freakin Reagan?

AND! Henry Travers, who a couple of years later would be immortalized as Clarence Oddbody, the misfit angel in "It's A Wonderful Life." His small speech, encouraging a colleague that his medical practice is worthwhile, rang some bells....

George Brent, as the romantic lead, oozes Clark Gable charm. But Clark Gable was busy making another movie that year. Guess that worked out for him. Actually, put Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in there together under the direction of Douglas Sirk, and it's a workable 1950's soap opera. Ahead of its time, we'll call it.

Most memorable line: "It's a rotten business, doctoring!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Darjeeling Limited

Yet another one-dollar special from the Friends of The Seattle Public Library sale.

The colors and compositions and dialogue seem to be Wes Anderson trademarks -- I haven't been fully inducted into the cult of Wes, although this and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (which I saw last year) were a good start.

What grabs me about his work is the music. For this film, there is some obscure folk-rock from an India-born Englishman who clearly spent lots of time listening to Donovan, plus theme music openly taken from the films of Satyajit Ray and Merchant/Ivory, then a couple of well-timed Kinks nuggets ... you get the idea. The guy knows how to hear music as well as make a film.

Actually, I do prefer the soundtrack to "Life Aquatic," but that's just me. Maybe I'm becoming a part of the Cult of Wes after all....

Cirque de Calder

A 19-minute short film directed by Carlos Vilardebo, documenting the work of artist/sculptor/inventor Alexander Calder, projected as a film-to-video transfer on a very large interior wall of Seattle Art Museum as part of their Calder exhibit, "A Balancing Act." I wondered whether to consider it a "theater" experience - tinny, overmatched speaker system...giant wall...dark room...endless video loop...yeah, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Calder appears to have been a very busy man. When he wasn't inventing the mobile or forging industrial-sized objects, he would handcraft small wire figures which could be mechanized simply by pulling a few strings. A weightlifter snatches a barbell, an elephant stands on its hindquarters, cowboys buck, wirewalkers glide, trapeze artists fly, chariots race. All of this would be in small shows he would put on for his friends. His wife would play records as a soundtrack while he would stammer his best carnival-barker French.

Immediately after coming home from SAM, I checked to see if this short film was available on YouTube, and it is. The following is a test to see if the embedding code works ... the low-quality, small-screen constraints make it difficult to distinguish all the details (and there seems to be an extra layer of English-language commentary), but if this works it'll be 20-plus of your minutes well-spent...

That seems to have worked OK ... if the one or two of you who see this could let me know whether it seems to work for you, I'd much appreciate it....

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Pink Panther

I remember seeing 1975's "Return Of The Pink Panther" when it was first released (not at the 101 Drive-In, but that's where I was living at the time). So it's about time I finally saw this, the debut of Inspector Clouseau.

I activated the "trivia track," which was more than just an occasional pop-up; closer to a visual running commentary/bio/"making of" storyline which nearly distracted from the action onscreen. But the DVD producers did their homework, and there's plenty of great background on Peter Sellers, David Niven, Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, et al. to keep your attention focused.

Or distract you in the right way, such as pointing out that a line of dialogue from the followup film, "A Shot In The Dark," inspired the title of R.E.M.'s album "Life's Rich Pageant." They had me at R.E.M.

This is part of an MGM/UA four-disc box -- there are three of these boxes altogether -- and I found it at Safeway for eight freaking dollars. That's some movie bang for your buck right there. I had to go to half a dozen other Safeways around town to find the other two MGM/UA boxes, but I got 'em. Twelve great movies, 24 bucks. Life's rich pageant, indeed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday

The first film I've seen in a theater this year, and the first film I've seen at SIFF Cinema since their Grand Opening Janus Films Fest a couple of years ago. Wow, been a long time.

The debut of Jacques Tati's anti-hero Monsieur Hulot, featuring dogs, boats, and firecrackers. Having already seen "Mon Oncle" and "Playtime" on DVD, I finally got to the source by seeing this one on a big screen.

Bowing, halting, succumbing, M. Hulot absorbs what happens around him but never quite adapts. He bows so frequently that he seems to perpetually tilt forward even when standing still. And he never drops the pipe.

A door opens and closes, each time making some sort of loose rubber-band twanging sound. Why? Because, that's why.

Changing a car's flat tire somehow morphs into a memorial service for ... someone, we're not sure who. Does it really matter?

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, as was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and just like that there's little dialogue to speak of. Sounds, action, adventure, yes. Script? Jacques Tati don't need no freakin' script.

I like to wait until several months into the year to start picking favorites, but this is an early favorite.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ghosts of Cité Soleil

A hip-hop gangsta-fable about too-real life.

Too real.

The ending score is Brian Eno's "An Ending (Ascent)", which we've also heard in:

For All Mankind
28 Days Later

All of which you and I have seen. Right?!

My first sweetie was half-Haitian. So I guess I cared about Haiti long before it was the cool thing to do. I just wish it hadn't come to that, but that's another thread on another blog.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saving Private Ryan

I knew that the first half-hour was as real and as intense as it gets. I wasn't expecting the last 45 minutes to be the same. Shows what I know.

Harrison put a hold on this disc through his Seattle Public Library account and waited for ... how many months? Years? I think he's been waiting to see this since approximately the last century.

There are still 46 holds on 33 copies at SPL. Now I need to return it so that everyone else who's been waiting has a chance to see it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Repeat viewing of a disc I bought for one dollar at a FOSPL sale, which Harrison wanted to see.

A pro-spirituality, anti-Religion, teenage sex comedy. What will they think of next?! I reminded Harrison that this was satire, and had to remind myself too. The school principal isn't really a bad guy ... he's just following His orders.

Shame what they did to one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, giving it a sheen of production values it didn't require. The warmth of the original vocals and instrumentation, if it were explored, would've lent a layer of subtext that the film was looking for. Still...

"Looking at her,
it's like life is too amazing
to be this random and meaningless
consequence of the universe.
There had to be a God...
or something out there.
Something inside.
You just have to feel it."

For all its unsure, halting, "I Know This But I Don't Really Know It" teenage angst, that's exactly how I feel sometimes.

God Only Knows.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey

Happy 18th(?) birthday today, HAL 9000! You were quite the troublemaker in your youth, but hopefully now that you've reached adulthood in this year of 2010, you'll settle into a nice groove of responsibility...?!?!

Like any Kubrick film, there's controversy even over HAL 9000's origins. Did HAL 9000 become operational in 1997, 1992, or 1991? Depends on if you prefer the book, the film, or the online transcriptions of the original script. I went with the film, because ... well, duh!

Here's Roger Ebert gushing and Stanley Kubrick sniping the way the pros do it regarding these matters:

Among its many accolades was an Academy Award nomination for "Best Screenplay." Not too shabby for a movie with no dialogue at all in the first 25 minutes, or the final 35 minutes.

Until a couple of years ago, I had never seen this on home video, only in theaters (one of which was the Cinerama Seattle, in 70mm, in the year 2001). The Warner Director's Series box made it worth my while to pick up the DVD. The box doesn't include Paths of Glory, Spartacus or Dr. Strangelove, but I have those anyway. Barry Lyndon, Lolita, Killer's Kiss, et al will have to wait for another FOSPL sale or maybe a library or Scarecrow Video rental.

A repeat viewing, this time with commentary by actors Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea. Each of them shared insights about the Tao of Kubrick, who really was a great guy if you just did it his way, and who sadly did not make it to the year 2001. My recollection tells me that 2001 was not exactly a banner year for the evolution of mankind, and I wonder what Kubrick would have created later had he experienced it himself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I don't think this film is a cult classic, yet. I hope it will be soon. For now, it's a story of overcoming adversity, with lots of stereotypes and language slapstick. But it has the basics to become a cult classic.

There is a recognizable mentor (Andy Griffith) as the Chorus, telling the reluctantly pregnant protagonist Jenna everything that she already knows. There are random hilarious musical cues, and there are a few quotes which, if they were in a Coen Brothers film, might become instant classics:

"You're doin' it again ... that nice guy, talky thing."

"Un-congratulations, you're definitely having a baby."
"Un-thank you."

"I want drugs. I want massive amounts of drugs. I want the maximum legal limit of drugs."

But the music, and the script, and the mawkishness by themselves are not going to give this film cult-classic status. Keri Russell's performance could take it there. Yes, the script tells her that now she must jump into the arms of her Hero, but there are plenty of closeup scenes in which her face, her eyes, her reddened cheeks, tell the story.

What might eventually push this film toward that classic status is, I am the last to report, the murder of multitalented director/writer/actress/songwriter/set decorator/what else ya need?, Adrienne Shelly, shortly after filming wrapped. Watching a feel-good movie about overcoming abusive stalkers is no charm when random violence barges into real life like that.

And when bad hubby Earl is eventually taken down by doctors in a hospital, rather than, for instance, all of Jenna's friends in a biker bar, it does seem a bit of a letdown.

I hope this film becomes a cult classic someday. Look for it at your favorite midnight-madness outlet near you. Meanwhile, a recipe:
Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie:

Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in.
Flambé, of course.

Rest in peace, Adrienne.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy Birthday Elvis Presley

I didn't watch a movie tonight. I don't have any Elvis movies (No, not even "It Happened At The World's Fair"!). And this blog is for me to keep track of movies I've seen, not Hollywood gossip. There are plenty of sites for that. I don't even need to include links for it.

But since it's Elvis' birthday and all, I have to mention that Criterion is planning a release of "Mystery Train" later this summer.

You have been warned.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Also one of the first movies I saw at the beginning of 2009, this time a repeat viewing at the request of Harrison.

Bill Maher sure is Über-snark personified, ain't he? Making fun of everyone whether they deserve it or not -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Scientologists ... OK, most of them deserve it. As a spiritual, non-religious person who celebrates both Christmas and Beltane, I know I would deserve it. But all of that overshadowed the beginning of the film, which I hardly remembered from the first viewing.

When Maher sits down with his sister and mother and goes over his own family's religious history, the humor and openness shone through again. And it reminded me that spending one's formative years in the same house with his mom and dad (a Jewish nurse married to a Catholic newsman) would've led any somewhat average smart-ass kid to become as snarky as he did. Maybe that's why he and director Larry Charles put that part at the beginning of the movie -- so you'd understand *why* he feels this way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Synecdoche New York

After a touch of English melodrama and an art-house sensation, it's nice to have a simple, down-home story, isn't it? Maybe after this movie, I'll watch something like that.

There are books that seem "unfilmable," impossible to translate from written word to moving picture. "Synecdoche New York" seems the opposite, impossible to translate from moving picture to written word. Doing so makes me think of this article from The Onion.

How about this: Theater director Caden Cotard is abandoned by the one woman he truly cares about -- his daughter Olive, of course -- and spends the rest of his days surrounded by women who want him, despite his ambivalence toward them. Is that angle different enough from anything else written about the film? Probably not. I'll watch it again sometime and I'm sure I'll see something I didn't catch the first time around.

I'll probably find it in the comedy of manners that resulted when actors hired by Cotard to portray the people around him for his mega-play, ended up doing the opposite of what the people they were portraying had actually done in the first place.

And yet it didn't work out for them, either....

Monday, January 4, 2010

Brief Encounter

Ahhhh, at last, a Janus Films presentation to set the New Year right.

David Lean has made enough great films that you should be able to read, "This is a David Lean film" and just go from there. (Perhaps you have searched out such obscure titles as "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Doctor Zhivago.") Also worth your time is his "Summertime," with Kate Hepburn as a single woman discovering Venice. Never an easy proposition there....

Plenty of wit in "Brief Encounter" -- but no sex please, they're British -- and some nifty tricks to make whistles and clouds seem like a very busy train station. The photography doesn't quite shimmer, but Criterion's restoration does everything to make the image matter.

Really, the reason I like having watched this movie is because I bought it for ONE DOLLAR at one of the occasional Friends Of The Seattle Public Library sales. No booklet was included, and library stickers are all over it inside and out, but I'm not complaining. I have a bunch of these surplus discs and perhaps I'll get a few more in 2010. If you want to find Comedic Musical Samurai New Wave Noir, the FOSPL sale is where it's at. See you there in April.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Double Life of Véronique

I thought on New Year's Day it would be appropriate to see something presented by Janus Films, the legendary film distributor named for the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, and the namesake of the first month of the Western calendar. Thinking it over during the day, then later looking over the pile of discs, what captured my attention was not a Janus release but instead "The Double Life of Véronique," the Criterion Collection edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski's dual-identity dreamscape from 1991.

Being born under the sign of Pisces and knowing a little something about going in two different directions at the same time, I knew this title would satisfy my need to look backward and forward simultaneously.

At times it doesn't even seem so much a case of dual identity, but simply of dual languages, with the spoken word serving as one of the few disguises between the two worlds easily inhabited by
Irène Jacob. No wildly varying hairstyles, jarring costume changes or extreme mannerisms are used to differentiate between her roles. Perhaps they are the same person, and we are the ones who are led to believe otherwise?

On first viewing, I tend to gloss over the Higher Meaning that might be discovered when language is used to set characters apart. I usually let the picture tell the story as much as possible, and "Double Life" shines as a visual poem. Reflections and refractions fill the screen without seeming overly sentimental, and a feeling of emotional connection and loss comes through. Clever camera angles and optical tricks are employed by Kieślowski to let us in on Véronique/Weronika's split state of mind without becoming cliché "dream sequences."

I'm speaking here of a shot through the window of a train, with a small crease in the glass magnified to the point that it literally breaks her (and our) view of the town outside into two distinct pieces. This common touch, of looking out a window and becoming mesmerized by the imperfections of the glass itself, is the sort of visual genius this film displays.

And since it's a Criterion edition, I'll have plenty of time to get schooled on the Higher Meaning, the small gestures, the words and angles and yes maybe even the hairstyles and costume changes. If the three short films, the essays, the multiple interviews and documentaries aren't enough, the audio commentary might finally teach me what I might be missing.