Monthly Archives: September 2017

Bonnie and Clyde Review

Bonnie and Clyde is one of the most divisive films in the history of American cinema.  On the one hand, many critics praised it for being something entirely new.  Roger Ebert wrote, “It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful.”  By contrast,  it was called needlessly aggressive, violent, purposeless, and unfocused by a great many critics, but we’ve mostly forgotten that.  All that we remember is that it was shockingly different from Classical Hollywood, and so we’ve decided it was a great movie.  And maybe it was.

Now it’s not.

Now there is very little of interest here.  The main characters are uninteresting, the comedy isn’t very funny, the violence isn’t much of a spectacle, and the bold style of editing just isn’t striking anymore.  I do think there are a few likable things about this movie, but not enough for it to be considered one of the greatest films of all time.  It was different from other films, but not different in any ways that are really worth praising (compare to The Graduate or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

So why isn’t my star rating lower?  Simple: Gene Freaking Wilder.  It’s one of his best performances, and he made the whole movie well worth the watch.  To be fair, there are some other scenes I like as well – the opening credits, for example, or … well, really most of the beginning of the movie, after which it largely goes downhill – but only Gene Wilder’s part can be said to be truly great.  For the rest of the film, I’ll repeat the same old adage I’ve said time and time again: if I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about the story.  It’s possible for a film to be good even without a great story, but this film is too dependent on a story that was done better by Trouble in Paradise and Gun Crazy for that to be possible.

Taxi Driver Review

I’d like to talk about a French movie called La Haine.  Easily one of the most historically significant French films of the last 25 years, La Haine (or Hate) tells the story of young men of different ethnic backgrounds living in one of the poorest parts of France who are the victims of police brutality.  While the American tendency is to make all characters that the audience is expected to read as “victim type characters” very nice, sweet, and innocent, this film has a brutal realism to it – the characters are not the loveliest people.

They are very aggressive, rude, profane, and obsessed with drugs and guns.  The only jokes they know how to tell involve having sex somebody’s mother or sister.  They are wrapped up in maintaining an impossible self-image of pure masculinity, never showing weakness, always being ready to shoot anyone who stands in their way.  While I can’t relate to them much, I do feel for them: their attitudes, interests, and behaviors are all part of a persona they feel they must assume in order to stand up to unjust authorities – a persona thrust upon them by American pop culture.

While a variety of artists, films, and film genres clearly affected the film and/or the characters in it, the only movie I recall being cited explicitly as a source of self-image for these kids is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  The famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene (in addition to the scene pictured below) is performed by a character in this film who feels like he has no power and no future – all he has is the fantasy of pulling out a gun like Robert De Niro and shooting a cop.  I think that’s because the purpose of Taxi Driver is to resonate with people who just want to be masculine, dominant men, which is why the whole film is nothing but a showcase of what masculinity looks like without the “fun parts.”  Without the fast cars, monster trucks, explosions, wild sex, rocking out, and sports games, all that’s left to make a movie manly is precisely the contents of Taxi Driver – no more, no less.

The plot concerns a retired war veteran returning to his home city in America and trying to find a way to readjust – a clever nod not only to the contents of films noir but also to the historical phenomenon that film historians/theorists propose prompted the film noir genre.  He becomes a taxi driver and sees a variety of strange characters and concerning events, which Scorsese used to show us the darkness of New York on a level that few other directors have been able to achieve.  Then he stalks a woman, so that’s not good.  Then he and that woman attempt to have a romantic relationship, but it doesn’t go very well.  Then he buys a bunch of guns and decides to become a vigilante, hoping to rescue a very, very young prostitute from her situation.

The number of events in the story are few, although they happen over the span of a rather long, slow movie, and there aren’t many engaging twists and turns in the story, so what gives?  Why is this movie considered so great?  I already mentioned the film noir references, and I think a lot of people admire the lengths to which Scorsese goes to show how awful a place New York City can be, all without losing the sense of realism.  People also surely like Scorsese’s ability to use very subtle camerawork to create a unique style of uneasy “swaying” that makes the viewer feel continuously unsettled.  It’s all apart of the idea that great filmmakers aren’t the ones who follow the Hollywood formula really well to please a large audience.  The great director, it is believed, is one who comes up with his/her own distinct ideas for specific events, moments, vignettes, and characters he/she wants the audience to see, then carefully crafts them with clever dialogue and unconventional cinematography, then packages them together in just the right order to give the audience the experience he/she wants.

That’s not quite my idea of a great film – it’s close, but it’s not quite there.  At the end of the day, film is a communication medium, and that means I can’t only look at how well the filmmaker uses the channel of communication (the channel being video) – I have to look at the value of that which is being communicated.  I think the reason why I like the show Louie more than Taxi Driver, even though Louis C. K. meets that same definition of a great director I offered in the previous paragraph in Louie, is that Louis is expressing something that speaks to my values and showing me things I would want the whole world to see.  He shows life in the rotten parts of the city from a perspective that makes sense to me.  I can’t say that for the popular Scorsese films, which seem to approach the world from the perspective of an animal rather than a rational agent.

I really don’t know how to care very much about what happens in the movie, so it’s hard for me to care about the movie.  I don’t really connect much with the characters, and based on this film I don’t think I connect much with Scorsese either.  The only people who do connect with either of them through this film, I estimate, are people who enjoy their own manliness too much.  I can greatly appreciate the interesting character studies, the fascinating exchanges between the (very different) characters, and the craftsmanship involved here – I’m really glad that Scorsese showed me so many things that so few people have ever seen before on or off the screen – but that’s not enough.  It simply doesn’t resonate with me.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad Review

With almost 250 films reviewed now, I’m at the point where I’d really like to wrap up this project of reviewing most of the films I watch.  That being said, it seems as though there some whole genres of film that I’ve largely skipped over, so I need to fill in any important gaps.  One such gap is the mini-genre of the Ray Harryhausen “special effects movie,” but once I got twenty minutes into this film, I almost gave up on the idea.

A very large percentage of this film’s contents does not sit well with the modern-day movie-viewer.  If there’s ever been a film that screams, “THIS WAS WRITTEN BY HORNY MEN,” it’s this one.  The story invents new and innovative ways of objectifying women, and it includes a deeply unsettling belly-dance performance by a claymation snake woman, which I hope and pray I will never have to see again.  It also has a very strange way of treating the “magic slave in the lamp” character, and I’m not even going to get started on the white-washing.  Even the visual effects are hard to swallow because the awkward integration of the stop-motion is so jarring at first.

Yet somehow, as the film progresses, it somehow seems to improve.  Not in every respect, of course – some of its problems are effects of the time period in which the film was produced, and their near-inevitability is a factor worth considering – but in many ways.  The story gets more clever, creative, and intense.  The twists and turns grow more exciting, and the spectacles more believable.  Maybe I just got used to its problems, but after an hour and a half of cool monsters and a catchy score, I found myself quite entertained.  It’s not the kind of film I would watch often, but I can see how it appeals to so many of the great directors of fantasy.

Murder, My Sweet Review

There’s a lot to like about this movie – the characters, the dialogue, the visuals, and many of the scenes.  A lot of the story, from what I can tell, is good too … but I can’t tell.  And therein lies the problem.

Film noirs (or “films noir” for more proper writers than I) are known for their convoluted plots that some film scholars have noted can be almost unintelligible.  I view this as such a film.  This is a detective story, so more information is being revealed throughout the story, and while the protagonist is able to put it all together, the audience is left in the dust.  What’s frustrating is that the ending, in which everything explained, doesn’t help much.

Even though I was paying attention to the part of the movie that lays out what happened in this movie, I still don’t know what happened in this movie.  I think I know who killed whom, but I can’t figure out why the murder was committed, how the murder was committed, or how any of the several other characters factor into this.  I couldn’t explain this film’s story to anyone if my life depended on it – not even the gist of it.  This is strange and frustrating since I am often able to predict where mystery movies are going well in advance (or at least where Sherlock episodes are going) so this shouldn’t be a problem for me.

Fortunately, it’s really not that big a problem for the movie either.  The film is quite fun and engaging without the details of the murder mystery.  It’s entertaining just by being the kind of film that it is, and I can appreciate that.  Its ending is one of the best in the history of film.  But in my book, that’s just not quite enough to make it one of the greats.

Notorious (1946) Review

It took me a while to recognize the fact that this film is great.  Part of that’s a side effect from the fact that this film is one of Hitchcock’s somewhat lesser-known works – it’s hard to get a good copy of it on DVD with good sound quality, so I had a hard time hearing the dialogue.  When you have to replay scenes over and over again like I did (just to hear them), you lose a lot of what makes a Hitchcock film work.  You need to let yourself become completely and effortlessly lost in the mood of the scene – to let each scene wash over you.  Once I finally moved my DVD to a player that let me turn the subtitles on, I was finally able to stop trying to tell what was going on and just experience it.  Once I did that, it made all the difference, and I could see clearly that this film is quite brilliant.

Since some of the earlier scenes in the film are a little boring (the story takes a while to build) the first thing I noticed about Notorious that really impressed me was the cinematography.  As one would expect from a film noir by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s excellent, but not just because it’s visually pleasing – although it certainly is that.  What’s great about it is the way Hitchock shows us different kinds of shots that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, thus creating moods and feelings I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.  Hitchcock uses the camera to tell his story, carefully revealing only what he wants us to see when he wants us to see it and creating a level of subjectivity from the characters’ perspective that puts us in the shoes of the characters all the more.

That being said, the story is compelling enough without the camera’s help.  While I’ve only seen about three or four of Hitchcock’s films previously, it feels like more attention was paid to the script this time than in most of his films.  You don’t watch this movie for the scary silhouette with the knife coming at you or for the birds attacking the children.  It’s not horror.  The viewer is simply so wrapped up in the characters’ mission that he/she cannot help but be scared, purely from the suspense of knowing they may get caught.  Right up until the movie’s end, the intensity of the drama is turned up to ten, making it impossible to look away from the screen.  As if that wasn’t enough, the dialogue is exquisitely clever, and it doesn’t hurt that story is being performed by many of the greatest actors of Classical Hollywood, who present some of their finest work here.

And did I mention that I adore Ingrid Bergman?  Because I adore Ingrid Bergman.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Review

People who have an obsessive passion for and enjoyment of Terry Gilliam films – or at least his more intense and bizarre creations like Time Bandits and Brazil – scare me.   Guillermo del Toro, for example, was overjoyed to see his young daughter giggle with delight at the end of Time Bandits when (spoiler alert) the young protagonist’s parents explode.  He’s happy that she found it funny that the boy’s parents died.  It’s disgusting, but it’s all part of Gilliam – he has a sense of humor that goes for extreme intensity even if it crosses ethical lines, and some film enthusiasts really go for that.  These films are, by and large, not too violent, but it’s often the merciless infliction of wild images and editing onto the audience mixed with the heartless infliction of “comedy without relief” onto the poor characters that makes these films so difficult for some to watch.  Interestingly, upon watching Brazil again many years later for an audio commentary track, Gilliam found he wasn’t sure he liked the film very much because of how brutal its comedy and story were, but it is precisely the fact that the film is too much to handle in one sitting that draws some filmmakers to it.

Edgar Wright is one of the filmmakers who absolutely adores Brazil, and I think it really shows in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the most relentless movie ever made.  It never stops.  It just keeps blasting the viewer with more unconventional and experimental insanity that is incredibly difficult to wrap one’s mind around, all while retaining a formulaic story that’s perfectly easy to follow.  The only way I was able to survive the movie was by taking breaks – I had to get up and walk to another room, or talk about what I’d just experienced with the friend of mine who so kindly subjected me to this film.  I think I also could have used a snack break, and maybe a few naps.  Technically, the film shouldn’t even be that hard to swallow: it’s not gory, it’s not scary, it’s not intensely dramatic (this film is, first and foremost, a comedy), it’s not addressing sensitive topics, it’s not making me feel “naked” the way The Graduate does, and it’s not flashing wild lights and vivid colors at me like that one irritating Canadian film.  It’s simply difficult to process.

What makes it difficult is the unhinged creativity.  There are no clear rules in this movie.  When a man shows up with sexy demon hipsters singing a musical number as he flies around, you have to accept it, even though there is no setup for it.  Honestly, the movie is so strange that, when one character’s ability to read minds is explained by the fact that he’s a vegan, I thought, “Oh, well that makes sense.”  Relatively, that does make sense.  It’s the best explanation you’ll get for anything in the movie.  The Hollywood-trained mind isn’t ready for this.

What the film shares with Terry Gilliam is an unsettling contentment with the awkwardly terrifying conditions of its reality.  There’s something very disturbing about seeing nobody react appropriately to the death of a boy’s parents – even if they are really bad parents – and watching old men in an office giddily force their bosses to walk off a blank from a skyscraper to fall to their whimsical deaths.  When something that should alarm people is met with the wrong response, it creates an effect that just feels wrong on a moral level, and that’s all over this film.  Right from the first fight scene, the way that other characters react to the brutality of what they’re witnessing feels off – it feels inhuman – and this makes the film tough to take on its first viewing (although I think it improves over time).  However, what makes it possible for the viewer to adjust as the film progresses is the fact that the movie is largely operating on video game logic, where the impossible is often normalized in ways that would be unsettling if we thought about it, and Edgar Wright has forced us to think about it.  He’s shown us a lot of our blind-spots in regards to video games simply by adapting the aspects of video games that no one has ever thought to adapt before.

I think that’s what I respect about the film.  It tells its story in the way that it believes is the most fun, the most exciting, and the most respectful to the source, regardless of whether or not it’s what people are used to.  There’s a sense that no one on set ever said, “Hey, this is going a bit too far, let’s dial it down.”  Instead, they just followed every urge to do something fresh and exciting, and this philosophy actually paid off with a lot of really funny scenes.  In fact, by putting the viewer in such a scared and vulnerable state, a lot of the comedy is made funnier, and the story’s messages are made more powerful.  So, sure, I may have lost a significant percentage of my sanity from watching this film, but it was absolutely worth it to receive all of the joy the story brings and all of the power a filmmakers can have when he dares to be relentless.

(Still, that demon musical number is just plain stupid.  Obviously.)