All posts by JD Hansel

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Review

MINOR SPOILERS

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner isn’t quite what one might expect it to be.  At first glance, it seems to be the story of a white girl (Joanna) who wants to marry an African American, but faces resistance.  There is an element of that.  As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that the story isn’t about her.

There’s a moment in the film when a preacher jokes to Sidney Poitier’s character John, Joanna’s fiance, “So you’re the problem?”  Quite contrarily, the conflict in the story is all started by Joanna when she decides they should get married right away, but the fact that she starts the conflict does not necessarily mean that the story is about her.  At virtually every point in the story where Joanna does something significant, she pushes the other characters into conflict while remaining out of it herself.  She is a device that turns on at various points in the plot to make it more turbulent, and then leaves.

That being said, she’s more than just a device: she’s also the future.  Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s characters have spent years working towards making the world into their ideal – an ideal without any racism whatsoever – and they are presented with that ideal (and its ramifications) in the form of their daughter.  It is then up to them to see how they cope with living in the ideal future they say they’ve always wanted.

In short, the story is about the residents of the past trying to make way for a future that, in some respects, rejects them.  The scene at the ice cream shop is crucial to the film because, while not necessarily directly related to the plot, it shows us one of the key conflicts in the film that had, until then, been very difficult to see.  Tracy is lost in a world he doesn’t know anything about, constantly making a fool of himself, and upsetting people even when he means well.  The teenagers praise a young man who calls him out and takes him down a peg just because the youth of the time wanted to see the future overthrow the past – they wanted to see progress – and they couldn’t see Tracy, an old white man, as anything but a symbol of the past and regression.  Tracy’s character, in spite of all of his progressive writings, appears to the world to be the embodiment of regression, and the story shows his journey as he tries to becomes something more than this image.

But the story is about more than this.  It is also about the concerns John and his family have about this marriage.  This is where Joanna’s character becomes more of a complicated character to read than she appears to be at first.  She’s not quite the representation of the opposite of racism, or at least not the representation of the “ideal liberal” by today’s standards.  She essentially falls into the category of people who “don’t see race,” which the film subtly reveals has its own problems: by not seeing race, she lacks perspective.  There’s a lot about John’s family and their concerns that she isn’t taking into account, and her ignorance in this regard is a large part of what makes the story so messy and intense by the conclusion.

This conclusion, of course, is a powerful one.  Because the film’s ending consists of Spencer Tracy giving a long, fairly predictable speech, a lot of people found the film too preachy for their tastes, but I don’t see it that way.  This film takes it as a given that interracial marriage is perfectly fine – it has no need to preach that message – so the speech at the end is clearly about how these characters must come to terms with making a scary change.  John and Joanna are making a decision that, in the 1960s, would not come without its consequences, and that’s a lot for their parents to handle.  Watching the parents come to support their children, however, is truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on film.  It may have brought a tear to my eye.

Obviously, this movie is imperfect, and it has aged strangely.  It’s progressive on one front, while still feeling fairly old-fashioned in regards to the treatment of the gender norms.  Some critics at the time said it actually wasn’t doing enough since its cause was “old news” – the laws were already changing in favor of interracial marriage at the time when it was released, so the film showed a change that was already happening rather than effecting change.

I think that the best way to look at the film, then, is as a time capsule – it presents the ways in which many Americans were working through the social issues of the time, and it presents them excellently.  The story is excellent, the dialogue is excellent, the casting is excellent, and even the visual storytelling is excellent.  It’s brilliant craftsmanship makes it a delight for the cineaste, and its emotional appeal makes it a thrill for anyone else.  It may not be up-to-speed on the tenets of 21st-Century liberalism, but in its own way, it’s still quite beautiful, and I love it.

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.)

Fantastic Mr. Fox Review

It takes a special kind of director to get a very unconventional film with a lot of creative ideas and an original approach or style produced and distributed by Hollywood.  Fortunately, Wes Anderson has somehow – and don’t ask me how – found a way to get his bizarre art projects out there time and time again, but Hollywood still has its concerns about how audiences may be alienated by an Anderson-level of creativity.  I shared the same concerns when I put this movie up on the big screen in my family’s house and let whoever wanted to see it join me.  It was hard for me to tell how they would react – and even how I would react – since the combination of elements this film has is so bizarre.

The first thing to note is that this is, in the end, and animated children’s film, and the movie’s trailers delight in reminding the viewer of that.  Many of the jokes have the feeling of those in kids’ films, as do the messages about family and accepting one’s own differences and the collective coming together to save their way of life and such.  The film uses famous pop music, like most kids’ movies, but this one features “Heroes & Villains.”  The film has a cast of celebrities, like most kids’ movies, but this features  Meryl Streep, George Clooney, and Michael Gambon.  Oddly, the actors’ talents are almost wasted on a film with such dry performances – the tone of most of the humor is sort of awkwardly colorless (not in a bad way) which is perhaps best compared to the old “Peanuts” specials.  What’s most strange, of course, is that this lifeless tone is part of the visual style too: Anderson’s trademarked mix of warm colors with cold, mechanical form.

Interestingly, my 17-year-old brother loved it, and considers it one of his favorite movies, but I still didn’t know what a child would think.  Then my little sister walked in about halfway through, and she also loved it (particularly for the fun song about the villains, but also because she’s a Dahl fan).  Of course, what I’m most happy about is that I liked it.  I can’t get into everything about Wes Anderson’s style – he and I have different tastes in terms of desired affects – but by and large, this movie is for me.  It’s such a funny, charming, unique, and creative spin on the genre of animated children’s films that I can’t help but appreciate it.

An American Werewolf in London Review

My appreciation of great horror films is always a little bit limited by the fact that I don’t really care for being scared all that much.  There is still some horror out there that I like, but this film doesn’t have that much of it – most of this film’s horror portions are simply slow builds to jump-scares.  Sometimes fun builds, but the point is still the “startle,” which isn’t my kind of horror.  This film does, however, offer my kind of humor.

Most of the movie is really a sort of bizarre ’80s comedy about a college kid and his buddy having a strange experience abroad, and the character comedy is absolutely delightful.  John Landis knows how to make the minor characters funny as well; the casting of Frank Oz here is perfect, and sometimes finding the right character actor is all it takes for great comedy.  I think that’s what I like so much about this film: Landis brings together different elements that don’t usually get put together, but his careful combination creates a rare and beautiful emotional effect on the viewer – an effect of uneasy laughter.  It’s simply a work of really smart craftsmanship, and while not all of it is the kind of entertainment I’m used to, this film is already inching its way closer and closer to my heart.

Cool Night – Show #4

Featured this week: Aretha Franklin, Toto, and more!

I recorded this episode a while ago and meant to publish it a week or two ago.  Not sure what held me back, because I think it’s a pretty darn good episode.  I hope you enjoy it.