Monthly Archives: December 2016

Silver Streak Review

This is an odd film.

It marks the first pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, although Pryor is absent for about the first two thirds of the movie.  Its plot is very strange, starting on a moving train, then moving to a rural setting, and then somehow moving back to the train, then back off, then on again, all while the train is making one trip across the country, which seems structurally bizarre to me.  The genre of the film is kind of a mix, with plenty of comedy (particularly buddy comedy), a fair amount of romance, and a lot of elements of gangster and espionage movies.  The characters and their dynamics seem kind of strange too, but each performer works well for the role he/she is given.  It has its moments that feel kind of forced, and others that feel uncomfortable (if only politically), but overall, I understand why it made its way onto AFI’s “Funniest Movies” list.  There were times when I hoped the plot would go in a particular direction I’d imagined only to be disappointed as the film went a more boring route, but this is a fun film that balances a thriller plot with killer comedy very well, making for an enjoyable experience.  It’s nothing brilliant – I’m actually struggling to write this review because I’ve forgotten so many of the details of the film – but it’s good.

Oh, and it gets bonus points for a solid score by Henry Mancini and nice contributions from Richard Kiel (James Bond’s “Jaws”) and Scatman Crothers.

Network Review

The first part of this film I ever saw was the famous scene with everyone shouting from their windows.  It was in a film history course I took a few years ago, and ever since I saw the clip, I’d been really wanting to see the whole film.  That scene really moved me when I first saw it – it spoke to me in a way that the most touching and emotional of scenes from other classic movies don’t – but I had to wait to watch it until I was in the right mood.  Since that course was back in early 2014, it seemed like late 2016 was a good time, ensuring that the scene wouldn’t be so fresh in my memory that it would be spoiled.  For this most recent viewing, once I could tell the scene was coming, I turned off the lights, sat up close to the screen, and let it overpower me.  Because the scene is so greatly enhanced by its context in the plot, I found myself quivering as tears fell down my face, and all I could do was remark at the beauty of what I was experiencing.  I’ve found myself tearing up while writing this review just at the thought of it, and this is a very unusual sort of experience for me.  This is exactly what cinema should be doing, and in a time when artsy drivel like 2001 is seen as the kind of thing the elite film critics want from Hollywood, it’s nice to know that a film with true meaning and power is still regarded as a great cinematic achievement.

As for the rest of the film, it’s not bad.  It can be a little boring at times, but most of it is pretty satisfying in its comedy, its irony, or at the very least its brutal honesty.  The film shows us exactly what we would like to think the evil overlords behind our television programming would be saying and doing behind closed doors.  The balance between comedy and drama is pretty good, particularly with the way the lines between the two are blurred.  I will say that I found it somewhat difficult to keep track of names and faces, but the story kept me interested.  The writing is smart, the characters are what they ought to be, and the ending is just perfect (and it merits comparison to the ending of another of my favorite ’70s movies, Phantom of the Paradise, to gain an appreciation of the cinema of the Vietnam-era and the years that followed).  What’s most impressive about the story is that it manages to be very dramatic, very absurd, and very believable all at the same time, such that the ridiculous solution proposed at the end of the film leaves the viewer gaping and thinking, “By gosh, at this point that actually seems plausible!”

Essentially, the movie is an interesting analysis of the normalization of madness, and it raises the question of just how sane a species we truly are.

It’s a Wonderful Life Review

This movie is not supposed to be a classic – it happened by accident.  It was a flop at the box office (far more so than The Wizard of Oz) and only got played on TV because the studio let its copyright on the film lapse in the 1970s.  Because so many people watched it as children with how often it was on television, it became a tradition to watch the movie every Christmas, but that doesn’t mean it’s that great.  It’s one of those movies that we remember as being great from our childhood, so we can still enjoy it, much like with the Rankin-Bass specials.  The difference is that It’s a Wonderful Life feels more original with the classic, memorable, charming moral of its fable, more high-quality with its top-notch director, long run-time, and great cast, and more like it fits in stylistically with the family of Wizard of OzCasablancaGone with the WindCitizen Kane, and other films that just feel emblematic of Classical Hollywood.  At the end, however, it feels like a pretty average Classical Hollywood film to me: sometimes boring, sometimes charming, sometimes impressive, and sometimes absurdly (and dare I say stupidly) weird.

First of all, its structure is about as bizarre as that of a film noir.  While Out of the Past has its interesting part in the first act and what feels like a boring afterthought for its second, this film spends the first two acts on generally humdrum exposition, leaving its iconic fantasy story for the ending.  Consequently, the whole film seems long and drawn-out, and while I can appreciate how interesting it must have seemed when it first came out because its high concept was completely new to cinema at the time, I couldn’t really stay all that interested seeing as how I knew exactly how the story ends.  I will say that the character of Mary Hatch/Bailey (Donna Reed) kept me interested in the story for a while, but the way that George Bailey (Stewart) treats her in most scenes, and the way he behaves in general, struck me as entirely unappealing and unrelatable.  I have a very difficult time caring about what happens to Bailey in general, but I will say that the film’s ending oddly warmed my heart far more than any movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.  The strength of the ending, however, is counterbalanced with the weirdness of the scenes at the beginning with the blinking stars, which were nearly a face-palm moment for me.  This film is a mix of a great many distinct and interesting things, some positive and some negative, and while I can’t say that I like it, I do think its concept is one worth consideration, and I can appreciate the original ideas it has brought to the art of the moving image.

Let’s Talk Whatever – Put on a Santa Suit, Ken!

This episode: LET’S TALK CHRISTMAS!

This is basically just the after-show for the Muppetational holiday conversation Steve and I had on the last episode of The MuppetCast/Eleven Point Collar.  Enjoy!

Ghostbusters (2016) Review

It’s not often safe to judge a screenplay by its movie – particularly if it’s a big studio film that was surely shaped by piles of notes from lofty executives – but if we grant that the director stayed fairly true to the screenplay he co-wrote then I must say that this is surely one of the worst-written films I’ve seen in years.  At a certain point, I  was getting upset when something in the film was really impressive or enjoyable, because I knew it was giving me false hope that was about to be crushed.  Most of the jokes were either too predictable or too stupid to be predicted, with many of the biggest laughs oddly coming from the film’s laziest running gag: Chris Hemsworth.  (The Hemsworth running gag is strange because it was received by some as being rather progressive, switching out the brainless female eye-candy of some male-oriented films with brainless eye-candy for women, but this actually just fits into two old stereotypes: the idea that women are completely hypnotized by brainless hunks, and the standard trope of sitcoms that men are myopic buffoons who would be helpless without women.)  Very little of value is added to the original story, and the way the screenplay tries to present the lead character (Wiig) as someone who follows the scientific method and relies on good evidence while portraying the skeptic as narrow-minded – even though thinking skeptically and thinking scientifically are the exact same thing – is not only ignorant, but irresponsible in an age of science denial.  Maybe if the four leading women had been given more room to show off their ad-lib skills there could have been much better humor, and I know I’ve seen at least three of them display great comedic prowess in the past, but the film usually sticks to material that does not work well for the Ghostbusters franchise, and that doesn’t work well as comedy.

What’s unfortunate is that I’m not convinced that it had to be a bad film – it certainly had a lot going for it (at least with its cast) – so here’s my laundry list of random things that could have been better.  I suspect that the film could have been much better had it been a sequel; that way there could be a stronger sense of the passing of the baton to a new generation, and the mayor and his assistant could have been handled very differently, making for a more-believable and generally less-stupid story (in which I don’t think all of the characters are total morons).  The fact that they got Bill Murray to come back for the film amazes me, although most of the cameos from original cast members were wasted on needless and unfunny parts.  I do, however, find Neil Casey’s villain to be an intriguing and well-played character whose story offers the most irony and originality to the film.  It’s fairly obvious that the musical number that plays behind the credits was meant to to go into the movie itself, and while I understand why it was cut, the movie appears to have a hole in it, which left me rather confused when the set-up for the number was awkwardly left in the middle of the scene without explanation.  I admire the attempt, however, as it was one of the main ways that the director tried to have fun with the project, which he also did with the visual style to some extent (particularly with the wonderfully Burton-esque parade).  I can very much appreciate the fact that the film has a lot of color, which has been frustratingly rare since shortly after I was born, but the fact that everything on screen either has the look of something that’s been recorded digitally or something made with CGI means the colors have less of a feeling of Technicolor and more of a resemblance to Raja Gosnell’s Scooby-Doo films from the early 2000s.

I don’t know if I can really say I was disappointed seeing as how I didn’t expect much to begin with, but I really wanted the film to be better than I expected.  My hope is that we will soon reach a time when good, funny comedy centered around women is at least as common on the big screen as it is on television, but I don’t see how we’re going to get there if we give Hollywood the message that we’ll settle for this kind of mediocrity.  I know that these performers can be funny, so let’s give them better opportunities to show off their skills.  In the meantime, skip this movie and re-watch the original – it’s a much less frustrating experience.

Touch of Evil Review

Very often for these reviews, I like to take the general critical consensus of a film’s worth into account for the star rating.  I usually don’t let what the professional critics have to say influence the body of my review very much, but for the number of stars, it’s nearly always a factor.  This is because I want the star rating to serve as at least one of the following: an objective, logical analysis that reduces the influence of the specific emotional context of my viewing of the film and just focuses on quality; the extent to which I recommend the film to others; a “protest vote” to counter the views of the other reviewers; a bold statement to bait its viewers to read the article that goes with it.  Sometimes I go for somewhere in the middle of all four, but I usually use the reviews of the other critics to help my more objective ratings by rounding them up to a higher number of stars when I’m stuck in a dilemma.  For this film, I’m definitely rounding up due to critical consensus – I just can’t figure out what my own feelings are about the film, but I can’t think of anything wrong with it either.

I have no issue with the protagonist, apart from the fact that the casting is comically bizarre, and most of the other characters are fine by me as well.  Welles’ character in the film is obviously a delight, and his handiwork as a director is as much of a big, eye-catching performance as his acting is.  The lighting is wonderful, making for excellent “noir” visuals, and the way that some of these scenes are shot is exceptionally impressive.  The choice for the music is particularly interesting because its very fun for a drama from this time period, including a lot of classic (then-contemporary) rock ‘n’ roll, making for some unique juxtaposition.  The film has a few truly great scenes throughout, and the climax is just perfect.  As much as I like the story of Welles’ character, it really feels like there isn’t a whole lot of story in the film – at least not for the first half.  It can feel kind of slow and boring at times, leaving me wondering why I’m supposed to be interested, but these moments are balanced out with moments that are shocking, dazzling, or otherwise intriguing, making for a very fascinating piece of work in the end.  If Touch of Evil is the last film noir, as many historians say it is, it’s nice to see the genre went out with a bang.

Watermelon Man Review

There are three things that interest me about this film.

First, I don’t know how to categorize it.  Is it a blaxploitation film?  A dramedy?  Maybe just a comedy?  An art film?  Fantasy?  It certainly seems to be a cult film, and an unconventional comedy of some sort, but comedy’s usually aren’t as enthused with stress and anger as this seems to be.  It’s definitely a satire of some sort, but not of a usual sort, instead preferring to be its own unique work of art.

The second thing that fascinates me is that it manages to be the most intense film I’ve ever seen, and yet I’d never heard of it until I was watching it.  I’d heard of the song, which I was a little disappointed to learn was not in the film, but not the film.  While the director is recognized as a very significant and influential one, this film isn’t regarded as highly significant, in spite of its immense power.  I came out of that film more exhausted than I would have been if I’d been watching any other film while doing push-ups.  It confronts the audience with racial stereotypes and societal problems in a way that’s jarringly blunt, and it left me wanting to take a nap afterward, but that’s not a bad thing.  It never allows the spectator to be comfortable for more than a second.  It makes the viewer think, and it has shaped my view of the 1970s, and even today, more than anything else I’ve seen in a long time.  The beautiful thing about it is that it shows how intense and powerful a film can be in a meaningful way, as opposed to meaningless displays of power that are usually praised.

What’s especially fascinating about the film is that, although it’s a very engaging film, it actually puts being a film on the back-burner.  In a sense, it’s more of a cinematic essay, or maybe a cultural scrapbook.  The plot does not care to explain itself in the slightest – it knows it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t care.  It doesn’t quite feel real, but that adds to the unease.  It doesn’t resolve itself well, at least not in any conventional sense, and that’s very deliberate.  The movie doesn’t exist to satisfy an audience, but to challenge its audience, refusing to focus on anything other than its argument.  While it’s by no means a perfect film, and it’s not really my style for the most part, it’s an excellent example of how a message movie can be done in a way that’s more convincing than it is preachy.  I still don’t know just what to call it, but whatever it is, it’s something kind of special.

Oh, and it gets bonus points for the Paul Williams cameo – the best part of ’70s cinema.