Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Chosen Review

MINOR SPOILERS

I’ve seen a number of films about religion over the years, but I haven’t seen one quite like this.  It’s a bit more analytical in its approach – it looks at the characters in a positive light for the most part, but isn’t particularly preachy.  It simply lets the viewer reflect on differences among sects of the Jewish community during a time in history that was particularly important for the Jews, making it nostalgic for some older viewers and educational for most millennials and non-Jews.  That being said, it does try very hard to put the father of the Hasidic family in a positive light, particularly with the unsurprisingly moving musical score by Elmer Bernstein (although it’s not his best work), which I just don’t buy.  I just don’t think the way this character handled raising his son was acceptable, and his defense is inadequate.  Add to that the fact that his choice to excommunicate Reuven (along with his son’s choice to obey his father’s orders to keep away from Reuven) seems entirely unjustified, and it’s essentially impossible for me to respond to the film in the way the filmmakers want me to.  Overall, it is a reasonably well-made film, but I just can’t fully get behind it because its characters’ values seem so vastly distant from mine.

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Mulholland Drive Review

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what effect the “Books Are Always Better” movement has had on cinema.  Just to be clear, I am referring to the notion that the novel is a superior medium, both intellectually and in terms of affect, to the medium of film.  While I intend to write more on the subject in the future, for now I’ll just say that cinema has spent the past several decades – perhaps its entire lifetime – trying to prove itself as a medium that can both have a certain kind of intelligence, elegance, and subtlety about it, addressing the first insult to its ego, and have a powerful, intimate, and subjective emotional effect like books do, addressing the second.  These are the two main marks of quality and refinement in cinema, and film critics have been striving for years to emphasize the films that display these qualities so that film, and in turn film critics, can have some dignity.  On a related note, in a class on literature I had at my previous college, the professor (and many of the students) had a fondness for a quality of interpretive ambiguity – the literature that was considered to be truly excellent and meaningful was the literature that gestured towards a variety of possible meanings, but ultimately left its meaning up to the subjective feelings of the reader.  This is seen as an intersection of intellectualism and a personally emotional effect because it seems to require thinking on the part of the audience and it relies on subjectivity, which is why so many filmmakers have foolishly bought into the idea that this ought to be the goal of all literature, including film.  Mulholland Drive is one of the films that has impressed people because of how well it manages to be entertaining and interesting as a film while staying at this intersection that is so highly regarded in literature.

I think it boils down to how people think about photogénie.  This is a term used in reference to the aspect of cinema that is essentially, distinctly, and uniquely cinematic, and it is usually associated with Jean Epstein’s theory that film is not meant to focus on characters and plot so much as its elements and powers that no other media have (e.g. its tendency to break the rules of time with editing techniques, or its ability to show large, complex movement).  The dominant view right now, from what I can tell, is that cinema is at its best when it focuses on its sheer power to emotionally overwhelm the spectator, not on the logic of its plot.  While I will write further on this later, I argue that the pure essence of cinema has more to do with simulating a logical sequence of events following from an understood set of premises for the spectator to analyze intellectually and/or emotionally.  Naturally, I find it hard to get behind a film that has complete disregard for everything I believe cinema ought to be, and I find it exceptionally lazy to set up a great story that has no conclusion or meaning.  It’s a huge disappointment, but at least it is somehow strangely captivating.

In the end though , I still think it’s just finely polished garbage.

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Gun Crazy Review

SPOILER WARNING

In my last review, I wrote a bit about how I’m currently fascinated with génial–nanar blends – films that are very impressive and enjoyable in some scenes, yet are so stupid, bizarre, or unimpressive that they become enjoyable in other scenes.  One of the best examples of this type of film is unsurprisingly found in the film noir genre: Gun Crazy, also known as Deadly Is the Female.  While I don’t think it’s meant to be a comedy, many scenes are so strange or absurd that they seem laughable, giving me a feeling that’s no so different from what I get when I watch Duck Soup in that it feels almost like a child’s idea of how to make a movie rather than a rational adult’s.  What I think Gun Crazy demonstrates is that this group of films, in which I would include Gun Crazy, often achieves this state by trying to be completely interesting, surprising, or unique.

First, consider the strange aspects of this film.  The protagonist is obviously a very odd choice for a romantic lead in a crime drama because of his tall, lanky, silly appearance, which is only made sillier by his awkward smile and his unexplained obsession with guns.  Towards the beginning of the film, two characters are presented as children – Clyde Boston and Dave Alastair – who are dressed as adults and look exactly the same when they grow up.  Towards the end, Annie is randomly crazy enough to steal the baby from Ruby’s house to keep herself (and Bart) from getting shot by police.  The foggy, swampy environment of the ending looks nothing like the rest of the film, and wouldn’t naturally occur in that location, breaking what little sense of realism the film had maintained.  Best of all is the line that was nominated for inclusion in AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes: “We go together, Laurie. I don’t know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.”

Now consider just how much of Gun Crazy is clever and creative.  The opening titles are presented over the background that becomes the first scene, meaning the cast and crew held on that shot for a few minutes before they started moving – nothing novel, but certainly something rare and interesting.  As far as the storytelling goes, there is great irony in the fact that the protagonist first encounters his lover when she shoots him and their relationship ends when he shoots her.  The bank robbery scene that was shot all in one take is highly impressive from a technical standpoint, not to mention how difficult it must have been for the performers to time everything properly and improvise any needed dialogue.  Even some of the weirdest things can be viewed from a perspective that makes them seem clever.  For example, one might see the representation of young Clyde and Dave as miniature adults as an indication that much of the film (or at least the opening scene that takes place in the past) is being presented from Bart’s perspective according to his memory.

Ultimately, all of these positive elements and bizarre elements seem to come from the same directorial approach: making the film as interesting as possible – striving to make things unique at all costs.  Trying things that people have never done before in cinema can lead to the greatness of Citizen Kane or the ridiculousness of a Joel Schumacher film.  In spite of its resemblance to other film noir, it clearly strives to be very much its own film, refusing to let anyone say that it is not unique.  This isn’t the greatest answer to my question of how we get génial–nanar blends, and it is not my final answer – in fact one professor of mine found it very inadequate, arguing instead that it has something more to do with affect.  Still, the desire to make something very different from what everyone’s seen before, something that’s very captivating and memorable at all costs, does seem to be at least a preliminary requirement for the génial–nanar.  I don’t think anyone else would have thought to make a film noir with a tiny touch of the western and a big load of goofiness, but the fact that this mixture was somehow able to get produced in the height of the studio system’s panicked identity crisis is enough to make it the unique novelty that audiences never knew they wanted.

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Creepers/Phenomena Review

I think I’ve written before about my love for nanar, which is the French term for a movie that’s so bad that it becomes enjoyable.  I know I’ve written before about my love for movies that are nanar in some scenes and legitimately impressive in others.  Since I am finding more and more films that seem to fit this category, I’ll call this type of film a génialnanar blend.  Usually I only note one of these kinds of films if I absolutely love it, which was the case for Masters of the Universe, but sometimes there are parts that are bad enough to be mildly enjoyable in some scenes and decent in others.  This is a bit more common and less noteworthy, so we don’t often think much of these films, but one that stands out for me is Phenomena, or as it was known in the United States, The Creepers.

Phenomena is the title I use for it because it’s the name of the original, longer version of the film, which is the version that I saw, so those who’ve seen it as Creepers may have seen a much worse film than I did.  This is an Italian film from Dario Argento, a name I didn’t recognize since I’ve never been much of a horror buff, but he seems to be a bit of a name in the field.  The star of the film, however, is not an Italian, but a young Jennifer Connelly, and seeing as how I’m obsessed with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, I had to see this movie.  She does a decent job with most scenes, but fortunately there’s some cheesy and over-the-top acting in there to make the film nice and campy.  That being said, the consequence of an American star in an Italian film is that most of the characters are dubbed, and very badly at that.  This just serves to make the film exceptionally comical, but also very odd seeing as how the moments of what seem like entirely incompetent film-making are matched with moments displaying cinematic mastery – sometimes both seem to happen at once.

I still haven’t worked out exactly how génialnanar blends come about, or how they’re even possible, but at least I now know that their home is in classic campy horror films.  There’s something about the desire to create a strong, original, and uncomfortable (yet somehow still fun) affect that is built into the old cheesy horror films, and it seems to be exactly the kind of thing that generates the génialnanar.  I guess there’s no nanar like nanar noir, and between this and Phantom of the Paradise, I’ve learned that I actually like the horror genre far more than I thought I did.  The trick seems to be to approach cinema with a sense of fun, whimsy, experimentation, and love for entertaining.  I’m still not a big fan of being afraid, but blood as fake as this film’s blood, music as fun as this film’s music, and a script as nutty and lovably stupid as this film’s script, I’m willing to put up with a few jumps and skipped heartbeats to enjoy an experience like this film’s camp.

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The Graduate Review: Upon Further Consideration…

NOTE: This is an amendment to a previous review of the same film.

I’m a little bit surprised to say that this film is better on its second viewing, but not too surprised.  I think sometimes it helps to “get used to” a film’s essence, or a film’s ending, in order to appreciate the film’s greatness.  The interesting thing about The Graduate is how well it works as both a comedy and a drama.  The tone of the film can be described as such: imagine if a filmmaker told his actors in secret that they were making a comedy film, but told the cinematographer and camera crew that he was trying to make a drama, and then tried to see how long they could make the comedy before anyone figured out it wasn’t a drama.  That’s the feeling of The Graduate, and while other dramedies have often gone for a similar effect, The Graduate is the film that pulls it off, perhaps because of its playful style.  Mike Nichols seems to become the seducer himself, baiting the viewers in with comedy, but manipulating and emasculating them all the while.  Nichols understands that people often laugh when they are vulnerable, and the brilliance of this film is its ability to use the drama to make the audience vulnerable enough for its comedy to be effective.  The drama and the comedy both play on the same discomfort – a fear of a sort of castration – which may make it a great drama for male viewers, but also establishes the film as being almost exclusively for men because of its constant focus on the American male experience.

I’d like to take the time to systematically go through the ways in which the film explores the anxieties of the young American male, but before I get to the sexual side of this issue, I’ll start with the “formal” aspects.  What I mean by “formal” in this case is the use of traditional models of the successful American man to form oneself into this ideal image.  The typical image of the young person of the late 1960s involves a very passionate, driven person who aims to change the world by screaming in the streets while holding a cardboard sign, but this film presents a later view of the essence of the college kid – a  spaced out, zoned-out, dazed haze.  The film tells us that he has been a successful undergrad student with seemingly good grades and a potential future in graduate school, and has also been a track star and was very well-liked in college, yet he has no idea what he wants to do with his life, no satisfaction from what he’s done so far, and is completely lacking in ambition.  Even for someone like me, a very ambitious person with big goals in life and concrete ideas for achievements I’d like to make in my career, this is still relatable because of how difficult it was for me to choose a college, a place to live, and so on.  Mr. Robinson tells Ben that he wishes he could be young again, buying into the idea that “these are the best years of your life” (not the character’s exact words, but similar) and that people in college have a special freedom of choice.  This film shows that notion to be faulty, instead showing how being  in one’s early twenties is a perfect example of the Kierkegaardian idea of being “lost in the infinite” – having too many choices to be able to make a good one.

What makes this matter so stressful is that he must make a choice.  The fact that he has such a bright future ahead of him forces him to live up to the image of the bright future.  The fact that he is smart means he must continue to be smart, and the fact that he is handsome means that he must marry someone beautiful, and the fact that he has studied at a good college means his next college must be better, and the fact that his parents are wealthy means that he must find a great job, and so on and so forth.  When most people think of encouragement and parental pride as something positive, this film’s thesis is that his parents’ bragging not only sets extremely high expectations for him to constantly hope he can attain, but also leaves him out of the process of forming his identity, making it no surprise that he lacks vision and drive.  Every success he has and every compliment he receives becomes another picket in the fence that’s closing the young man into his ever-shrinking pen.  This film, perhaps like The Breakfast Club, tries to recognize the paradox in that what America calls personal growth is actually an experience of personal compression – society squeezing its youth into a narrow mold.  Being the perfect kid is revealed to be both incarcerating and distancing, as one comes to look at oneself as an image formed in the minds of others that is separate from the autonomous self, but has unfortunately replaced the self as the newly formed identity.

After considering how the film has depicted the daily anxieties of the young male, one must then consider how it depicts the nightly anxieties of the young male – the Freudian nightmare.  Everything that Mrs. Robinson does serves to make her absolutely terrifying to the young male viewer.  While I know it’s generally bad form to use the word you in an essay, I must ask you to make this story as personal as possible and put yourself in Ben’s shoes: a woman who looks like your mother and has known you since you were a small child tricks you into going with her into her house, blocks the door so you cannot avoid seeing her naked body, tempts you into an ongoing secret affair with her, makes you look like an unintelligent fool, challenges your experience and ability to perform adequately in sex, ruins your relationship with your newfound love, calls the police on you, convinces everyone that you raped her, sics her husband on you, and finally marries your lover off to another man.  Ben is tricked, trapped, used, patronized, and ultimately framed.  The audience is inclined to celebrate when he still wins the day and gets the girl, but the ending shows that Ben has woken up from his nightmare only to find himself back in the anxiety of his daily life – his lack of identity and future.

The film’s only focus is on intensifying these anxieties, and the film’s strength is creating the feeling that Mrs. Robinson is holding a giant pair of scissors just under the viewer’s balls.  The film obsesses on this theme almost to a fault, as the film is happy to leave plot holes and skip important parts of the story just to get back to the scenes that showcase anxiety.  The film does not show how, why, or when Ben came to love Elaine and find her to be the only person he could talk to, as the movie even goes so far as to cut out the audio in one of their few on-screen moments of romantic conversation, as if to hold up a sign for the audience that the romance is not what the viewer is supposed to care about.  Nichols even went so far as to give the audience no indication of how Ben escapes the police who arrive at Robinsons’ house to arrest him – a scene that one would think is fairly important – and yet he sees no problem in including two musical montage sequences in a row that are nearly identical, seemingly just because they stay on point with his thesis.  His aggressive focus on the male experience can also have the effect of alienating female audiences, since the story does not play to their interests or anxieties as much, and the drama of Elaine’s life (finding out that her ex-boyfriend raped her mother and has now followed her to her college) is almost entirely overlooked.  Still, it uses its topical conservatism to its advantage by making the most of what it does explore, with a visual style that is adamant on making Ben seem as blocked and confined as possible for the majority of the film’s shots.  In a way, however, one would expect the cinematography to focus less on a claustrophobic effect and more on a dizzying effect, since the film’s thesis can be summed up with one great quote from Søren Kierkegaard: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

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JD’s Favorite Movies – November, 2016

With Thanksgiving here again, it’s another chance for me to take the time to share a list of the movies for which I am most thankful.

This year, I’m sharing my top 125 favorite films (excluding documentaries this time).  It’s fun to compare this list to my list from May of this year, or my list from last November, to see what’s moved up and down.  Enjoy – and have a happy Thanksgiving!

  1. The Muppet movie series (’79, Caper or MTI, MMW, 2011, MTM or Carol, then Space)
  2. Labyrinth
  3. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
  4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  5. The Gremlins series
  6. Mary Poppins
  7. Duck Soup (1933)
  8. Phantom of the Paradise
  9. The Back to the Future series (1, then 2 and 3)
  10. High Anxiety
  11. The Naked Gun series (1, then 2, then 3)
  12. The Wizard of Oz
  13. Play It Again, Sam
  14. The Truman Show
  15. Singin’ in the Rain
  16. The Ghostbusters series (1, then 2)
  17. Some Like It Hot
  18. The Breakfast Club
  19. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  20. Young Frankenstein
  21. Casablanca
  22. The Princess Bride
  23. Airplane
  24. Annie Hall
  25. CLUE
  26. Hot Fuzz
  27. The Graduate
  28. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
  29. The Dark Crystal
  30. The Twelve Chairs
  31. The Harry Potter series (5, 2, 1, 7 or 8, 4 or 6, then 3)
  32. Love and Death
  33. Sleeper
  34. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  35. Bowfinger
  36. Carrie (2013)
  37. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
  38. Beetlejuice
  39. Citizen Kane
  40. Blazing Saddles
  41. Spaceballs: The Movie
  42. Ever After
  43. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  44. Silver Linings Playbook
  45. The Lego Movie
  46. The Pink Panther
  47. Silent Movie
  48. Batman (1989)
  49. Magic in the Moonlight
  50. Hook
  51. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  52. Paths of Glory
  53. Batman: The Movie (1966)
  54. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  55. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
  56. The Lion King 1½ (aka The Lion King 3)
  57. Robin Hood: Men in Tights
  58. Shaun of the Dead
  59. The Hunger Games series (3 or 2, closely followed by 4, then 1)
  60. Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan
  61. Wayne’s World
  62. Alice (1990)
  63. Amelie
  64. The Little Mermaid
  65. The Sound of Music
  66. Crazy People
  67. Cinderella (1950)
  68. Follow That Bird
  69. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
  70. Inside Out
  71. The Parent Trap (1961)
  72. Twelve Angry Men
  73. The Road to El Dorado
  74. Charlotte’s Web (1973)
  75. Scoop
  76. Back to the Beach
  77. Doctor Who: The Movie
  78. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  79. Masters of the Universe
  80. A Night at Casablanca
  81. A Clockwork Orange
  82. Matinee
  83. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
  84. Persepolis
  85. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  86. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
  87. Double Indemnity
  88. This Is Spinal Tap
  89. Aladdin
  90. Beauty and the Beast
  91. Delirious (1991)
  92. Guardians of the Galaxy
  93. Blade Runner
  94. Sullivan’s Travels
  95. Flushed Away
  96. Her (2013)
  97. Ed Wood (1994)
  98. Romero
  99. Deadpool
  100. The Outrage
  101. Rashomon
  102. Modern Times
  103. Scrooged
  104. The Shining
  105. Animal House
  106. Metropolis (Giorgio Moroder version)
  107. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
  108. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  109. Haunted Honeymoon
  110. The Avengers series (Age of Ultron, then 1)
  111. Captain America: Civil War
  112. The Now You See Me series (2, then 1)
  113. Home Alone
  114. The Spy Kids series (probably 2, 1 or 4, then 3)
  115. To Be or Not to Be (1983)
  116. Romancing the Stone
  117. The Elephant Man
  118. You’ve Got Mail
  119. The Shop Around the Corner
  120. Babes in Arms
  121. Strike Up the Band
  122. Galaxy Quest
  123. The National Treasure series (1, then 2)
  124. Shutter Island
  125. Dr. Strangelove

Maybe next time I should go with a shorter list so I can add annotations. Let me know what you think of that idea in the comments below!

The Straight Story Review

Coincidences come up an awful lot in my experiences viewing movies, and one such experience happened not too long ago when I was watching a YouTube video by Doug Walker, “Can an Ending Ruin a Film?”  I started watching the video sometime before my class on “art film” on Wednesday, but for whatever reason didn’t get around to finishing it until Thursday.  Within the last five minutes or so before that class began, he decided to show The Straight Story, which is David Lynch’s Disney movie.  The professor then explained for those of us who missed it, as I think I had, that the film had been subtly telling us everything about the character’s past and motivation, setting up the ending, without ever making it clear that any of the events of the first hour and a half of the film had a point.  The ending is when the audience is supposed to put everything together.  Interestingly, when I resumed Doug Walker’s video, I found I had apparently paused it just one second before he brought up The Straight Story, making the argument that the ending to this film turns it from a painfully boring film into a brilliant film.  Some might take this as a sign of some sort, but I am not a superstitious man – I just see this as a great opportunity to explain why this film actually sucks, even with the ending.

This film is horribly, horribly boring.  None of its characters are particularly interesting or likable – most of them are really quite forgettable – and the performances from the cast were not able to redeem the script in this area.  There are a few interesting moments that seem a little bit clever, cheeky, or quirky, all in the way one would expect from David Lynch, but they are severely overpowered by the surprising amount of banality in the film.  The plot is purposely slow and uninteresting, but as deliberate as this may have been, I have yet to understand what positive effect this was meant to have on the film as a whole.  The list of moral lessons and sappy moments throughout the film is unbearably long, and the number of times that I’m supposed to tear up but don’t feel anything by annoyance is nauseatingly high.  This is probably how most viewers feel about the film until the ending, but the ending doesn’t change anything for me.

The ending doesn’t tell us anything that isn’t part of a generic, cliché family separation story, so it isn’t exactly a big shock or an exceptionally moving moment.  When the brothers are reunited, I’m waiting to see what happens – to get more specific information about what exactly makes their conflict unique – but the film ends with little time spent on the brother.  The goal of the ending is to use the audience’s knowledge of Harry Dean Stanton (the brother, Lyle) and his previous film roles to fill in the gaps about what kind of guy his character in this story is supposed to be, ideally filling in the gaps about the conflict between the Straights.  This is rather silly, because I haven’t seen any other film of his, and even if I had, that tells me nothing about who this character is supposed to be.  It’s a gimmick that I doubt would work with the likes of John Wayne or Ben Stein, and it certainly doesn’t work here.  I think the main problem is that Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight) just isn’t likable enough for me to care about the conclusion to his story, so the story entirely falls flat, and the film leaves much to be desired.

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