(On DVD, September 2018) There’s something strange about pathos to be found in extreme tragedy—when it’s overdone, it can flip in unintentional comedy even for people who aren’t normally sociopathic monsters. Or at least I’d like to believe so after short-circuiting on the incredibly tragic ending of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and finding it ridiculously overwrought nonsense. I was partially aware of at least a part of the film’s downer ending, but not the entire thing—when there’s a story of cross-fenced friendship between a German guard’s son and a concentration camp kid during a WW2 drama, it’s a safe bet that someone’s going to die by the end, but I wasn’t expecting the film to go beyond the strict minimum. But, surprisingly long before the end, it becomes obvious that the film is going for maximum carnage and viewers have a long time to wonder “are they really going to go there?” before it happens. It doesn’t really help that the characters crying their eyes out by the end of the film are, well, Nazis. (Nazis being Nazis, they deserve everything than can happen to them. Yes, even that.) There’s a severely twisted form of schadenfreude at the end of the film that’s as inadmissible as it’s real. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas doesn’t really try to hide its incredible audience manipulation, nor does it care if you don’t like it—it’s proudly going for the tear-jerker and I suppose that anyone who willingly sits down to watch this kind of WW2 drama knows exactly what they’re going for. My enjoyment of the film remains very limited: The actors are fine, the director knows what he’s ghoulishly doing, the film does have an effective portrayal of how children’s innocence doesn’t matter in an inhumane system, and the ending does go for an implacable “we hurt ourselves when we hurt others” moral lesson. Still, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does smack of an exploitative use of familiar high-drama tropes at a time when far more nuanced and sensitive portrayals of the horrors of Nazi extermination camps have been shown. Pushing the tragedy onto the Nazi side feels as if it’s taking something away from the very real suffering of those who were targeted and killed in those camps. I’m not proud of my “oh, come on!” reaction to the ending, but sometimes you have to resist when emotional manipulation becomes too blatant.
(Second viewing, In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) I try to see movies in their original languages (with subtitles) whenever possible, but it’s appropriate that I caught Short Circuit in French given that this is how I first saw the movie decades ago. Granted, it’s not an approach without its drawbacks: I hated the voice of the robot protagonist back then and it still grated today, and I could have done without the film reviving some irritating quotes and exclamations that I thought I had repressed over the decades. It doesn’t help that Short Circuit is a really dumb movie even by kids-movie standards. It sets up a halfway sophisticated premise about a military robot gaining sentience thanks to a freak accident, but that’s merely an excuse for the kind of stupid comedy film aimed at undiscerning younger audiences. The limitations of practical effects being what they are, the film often does not match from one shot to another, or reflect what the script is saying. The grating French dub only underscores the poor dialogue, and it’s not Steve Gutenberg (nor Fisher Stevens in brownface) who can elevate the material above the direction it ultimately went in. (Gutenberg is also all wrong for an introvert scientist role, but that’s not what ended up on-screen.) And yet, despite Short Circuit’s problems and hackneyed plotting, I still have a juvenile affection for it, obviously due to the fact that I first saw it when I was twelve or thirteen. Not a good movie, irritating dub and yet… I can’t be too mad at it.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) MGM’s extraordinary success in producing what we think of as the quintessential musical comedy films arguably began with Meet me in Saint-Louis. Not that it was the first musical—the form had been popular for fifteen years by that point. But it’s in this film that MGM put together the ingredients that ensured its continued success for the decade-and-a-half to come: Colour cinematography, distinct memorable songs, a nostalgic depiction of a slightly earlier era, limpid plotting and very charming actors all explain why the film was an immediate hit and still plays superbly well into the twenty-first century. Meet me in Saint-Louis is headlined by Judy Garland, and I have to say that despite my overall ambivalence about her later work, she is adorable as a doll here—old enough to escape being a child actor, but not yet damaged by a life of substance abuse. (It’s on this movie that she met director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she’d marry in 1945 and have Liza Minnelli in 1946.) The episodic structure of the film—adapted from a series of short stories—seems odd at first, but soon becomes a comfortable and heartwarming depiction of a year in the life of an upper-middle-class family, complete with holiday-themed episodes and a final act that sums up the year’s narrative threads. Some of the film’s songs have since become classics, especially “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Meet me in Saint-Louis remains a great film to watch, no matter the time of the year.
(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) I’m watching a lot of older movies these days, but it’s hard to predict how I’m going to react to them. I like the Old Hollywood style but I don’t like neo-realism, and I can be frustratingly inconsistent on my reactions to the French New Wave—speaking the language definitely helps, although not as much as you’d think given the Atlantic gap between French dialects. Still, I had a better time than expected watching À bout de souffle for a few reasons. The biggest one, I think is a combination between a then-experimental style and a now-familiar genre story: As our no-good anti-hero kills a cop and spends the rest of the film escaping his inevitable retribution, the film plays with editing in ways rarely seen outside Russia until the late 1960s—jump cuts shorten conversations, speed up the rhythm of the movie and introduce an element of nervousness for a protagonist on the run. (And yet, in a film renowned for its frenetic editing, the most impressive shot is an unbroken sequence in which the camera slowly rotates around a room, showing the introduction of two characters. This tends to support the assertion from some of the filmmakers that the editing was really something that came up during the post-production phase of the film.) Jean-Paul Belmondo is, inevitably, incredibly compelling as the murderous lead character, channelling Bogart cool but transforming it into charisma of his own. Writer/director Jean-Luc Godard’s abilities far outstrip his meagre budget, with the film feeling like a complete artistic vision rather than being hampered by budgetary compromises and guerilla-style filmmaking. Not all of À bout de souffle is good (some of the more philosophical or romantic interludes can feel as incredibly pretentious as some of the worst of the New Wave) but the high points are high, and there’s enough of a plot to sustain the attention of more conventionally driven viewers.
(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) The road to cinematic enlightenment is paved with the keepcases of exasperating viewing experiences, and that should give an idea of how I feel about Ladri di Biciclete. The time is post-war Italy and the mood is grim, with rampant unemployment making it a challenge to even provide food for a family. In that context, as basic a tool as a bicycle can become crucial at getting a decent job and keeping it. So when our desperate hero has his bicycle stolen, he’s off to a lengthy investigation across Rome to try to get it back before he loses his job, his son in tow. Alas, it doesn’t go well, and if you were expecting a happy ending then you have much to learn about Italian neo-realism. Fortunately, the fact that I really did not enjoy the film should not stop me from appreciating its importance in film history. Constantly cited by cinephiles, Ladri di Biciclete is one of the best known neorealist films of post-War Europe, a time during which European filmmakers were in a hurry to make movies as distinct from the Hollywood standard as it was possible to be. Hence don’t expect movie-star acting, luminous cinematography or pat happy endings—expect realism, grittiness, non-actors in lead roles and ambiguous endings reflecting how life sometimes goes. This approach was a revelation to sophisticated North-American audiences back in the 1950s-1960s, but it’s definitely not as novel today as it was back then. Modern post-post-New Hollywood fans have all seen enough realist films to last them a grim and unhappy lifetime. Still, there’s no denying that Ladri di Biciclete is an important stepping stone—it would be difficult to find someone who likes this desperate vision of Rome better than Fellini’s Dolce Roma, but Fellini’s more exuberant style was only made possible because filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica had laid down the realistic foundation for his more oneiric visions. Considering those considerations, I’m happier to have seen Ladri di Biciclete than I was while watching it—I can cross off that entry from a dozen “must-see movies” lists and never return to it again.
(On DVD, September 2018) For science fiction fans who like the genre for its take on fact-based extrapolations, anticipation of the future or explorations of the possibilities of science, it can be a bit hard to make a space in the SF tent for the unusually robust sub-gene of time-travel romance, in which the mechanics and possibilities of time-travel take a distant back seat to star-crossed romance. Rachel MacAdams has a trilogy of such films in her filmography, but the genre is considerably older than twenty-first century views can expect, and one of the references in that steam is 1980’s Somewhere in Time. The time-travel mechanism is incredibly flimsy—just wish really hard!—although to the film’s credit this becomes a climactic plot point. But the justification is not the point—the point is to allow a young playwright the opportunity to go back a few decades in time to meet and romance an actress. The wish fulfillment is baked into the plot, as is the unrepentant nostalgia presented as unabashed good by the film. It’s a specific kind of film, and I suppose that it does have its audience. Christopher Reeves is noteworthy as the romantic protagonist, ably supported by Jane Seymour with Christopher Plummer playing the heavy as only he can. Somewhere in Time pulls no stops on its way to a timeless tragic romance, so know what to expect. It’s not bad, but aspects of it will strike a few hardened cynics—I plead guilty—as irremediably silly.
(On DVD, September 2018) I really expected Time Bandits to be more fun than it is—after all, it’s a Terry Gilliam production, a visually inventive kid’s-fantasy film that seems to have stuck a whole generation of viewers. (But not me the first time around—I was slightly too young.) Alas, and this is not really the film’s fault as much as the evolving industry standard, there has been an explosion of kids-fantasy movies since then, each showing new thrills, fancier special effects and more fluid directing. For all of the considerable creative efforts made in Time Bandits’ production, it definitely looks dated today—rigid directing constrained by special-effects requirements, with obvious soundstage backdrops and overdone acting. I did like quite a bit—the Lego pieces in the climactic sequence are fun, and there are some visually arresting sequences. Plus, hey, Sean Connery. Alas, the appeal of the film stayed limited, not quite strong enough from a story perspective to transcend its production limitations. Time Bandits fans should rest easy, though—I’m writing essentially the same review for all sorts of other kids-fantasy films of the early eighties, from Time Bandits to The Neverending Story to Erik the Viking. Time moves on, and for views without an initial attachment to the film at their moment of release, it can be an uphill climb to discover them today with all of their shortcomings.
(On DVD, September 2018) For all of his famed ability at creating and sustaining suspense, Alfred Hitchcock could have a surprisingly romantic streak at times, and few of his movies manage to combine both traits as intriguingly as in Rebecca, perhaps one of the best depiction of the Gothic romance sub-sub-genre ever put on-screen, adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s still well-known novel. The mystery here is intensely personal, as the new wife of a rich man has trouble measuring up to the example set by her predecessor, the mistress of a vast estate who clearly still has her fans in the household help. Against the lonely and oppressive backdrop of a house far too big for its inhabitants, the heroine starts wondering who’s not out to murder her. It escalates into a fiery climax, but the point of the film, after a sunny romantic first act, is the heroine looking over her shoulder, discovering deeper secrets about her new husband and his house, and sparring with a standoffish housekeeper. Rebecca is noteworthy in Hitchcock’s oeuvre in a few respect: it was his first Hollywood project after emigrating from Great Britain; it was produced/dictated by the legendary producer David O. Selznick and it’s the only Hitchcock film to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Both Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are quite good as the leads, but it’s Judith Anderson who has the best role as the ever-faithful Mrs. Danvers. Otherwise, Rebecca is still good fun to watch, not quite noir but definitely Gothic enough to be visually interesting on top of Hitchcock’s usually skillful direction.
(On DVD, September 2018) The reason why Miyazaki movies have endured is that they display, even thirty years later, a vast imagination that has not often been matched. In Castle in the Sky’s case, for instance, we have flying cities, duelling airships, robots and steampunk influence, meaning that it influenced and maybe even defined steampunk. Plot-wise, we have lost princesses, fighting empires, a pirate matriarch that evolves from villain to hero throughout the story … it’s a lot and it’s a lot of fun too. The quality of the animation can be disappointing by today’s standards, but it does have its hand-drawn charms and, after a while, you barely notice the low frame rate. There wasn’t anything quite like it in the American repertoire for a long while—and, in fact, you can argue that there still isn’t despite the recent rise of computer-animated movies. Castle in the Sky doesn’t always work, but it keeps trying until the end.
(On DVD, September 2018) There are obviously some grandiose intentions at play in Once Upon a Time in America, from the sweeping title to the expansive running time to the intention of presenting a crime saga throughout the decades. The similarities to the Godfather movies are numerous, and they start with having Robert de Niro play a gangster. You can imagine writer/director Sergio Leone gleefully embarking on this project, wind in his sails from having completed the Man with No Name trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. He certainly brings a somewhat… European sensibility to the project, making his protagonist a very lusty lad (there are two rapes in the film, one of them played for laughs) in addition to the usual graphic violence. The film is famous for a decade-long development process and for being incredibly long especially with its preferred director’s cut. (Today, it would have been made as a prestige miniseries). Much of this editing shows—not all of the film is coherent, and the rhythm of the film constantly stops and go. While ambitious, Once Upon a Time in America isn’t quite as successful as it thinks—it’s long, it takes forever to start, it lacks the moment-to-moment watchability and overall control to truly succeed. Missed opportunities and all that.
(On DVD, September 2018) Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I could just stop here and that’s all you’d need to know about Notorious. If you really want to know more, consider that it’s a romantic suspense thriller in which an American agent asks the daughter of a disgraced man to offer herself as bait to enemy agents, with the complication that he himself is falling for the woman. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been re-used in many, many other movies such as Mission: Impossible II) But, of course, the plot is the least of the film’s strengths, what with Hitchcock gleefully messing with the conventions of the romantic thriller and the limitations of the Hays code to deliver a two-minutes on-screen kiss. It’s good fun, especially when you measure today’s expectations against what’s shown in the film. (Ten minutes in, and there’s a drunk-driving sequence that would be flat-out unacceptable today.) The ending is a bit abrupt but no less satisfying. Grant and Bergman are at their respective best here, even though they’re both playing darker version of their usual persona. Still, Notorious remains a worthy Hitchcock thriller from his black-and-white Hollywood phase.
(On DVD, September 2018) Released in-between One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, it’s easy to see why The Sword in the Stone doesn’t have the best reputation—not only does it pale in comparison to its better-known siblings, taking out the Arthurian legend for a juvenile comic spin is a marked step down from what could have been possible with such source material, and the execution leaves much to be desired. The comedy is aimed at kids, without much narrative substance for adults. Narratively, it doesn’t help that much of The Sword and the Stone is a series of episodes aimed at showcasing a visual gag or an animation challenge—it often looks good, but there’s no sense of build-up. Still, the film still does have its strengths. Merlin, as a magician unstuck in time and bringing back anachronisms in an Arthurian setting, is quite likable as a character. The final fight is notably inventive, and the squirrel sequence gets points for being a squirrel sequence (even if it ends with heartbreak). It’s not a whole lot to go on, but it is something. Definitely second-tier material (and maybe teetering on the lowest tier), The Sword and the Stone doesn’t have the staying power of its Disney contemporaries, but it’s worth at least a watch to see the sheer artistry of the Disney animators even in tackling substandard material.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) It seems remarkable that The Sand Pebbles’ themes and overall attitude would dovetail so neatly with the then-worsening Vietnam War—adapted from a novel written years before and produced throughout 1965–1966, The Sand Pebbles does seem like a commentary on the American adventure in southeast Asia. Taking place aboard a gunboat tasked with patrolling the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war, the beginning of the film isn’t overly dark but it does take place under a cloud of unease that’s far from the triumphant war movies of the 1960s—our protagonist (Steve MacQueen, in an unusually dramatic performance) makes few friends as he badly integrates with the crew, and many sailors are portrayed in an unusually negative way. Then the film turns into its second half, and things quickly get worse—our hero is accused of the murder of his deceased friend’s wife, with riots leading to a near-mutiny. Then, when tasked with rescuing American expatriates, the ship suffers heavy losses, all to find out that the missionaries are resisting their evacuation. Many people die on the way to the dark and fatalistic ending that suggests that Americans have no place over there. Many sequences are quite good—the near-mutiny alone is a small masterpiece of sustained tension. The Sand Pebbles may not be as exhilarating as many of the WW2 adventures of the time, but it clearly prefigures the much darker approach that war movies would take in the following decade with Vietnam being on everyone’s minds.
(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) I approached Persona with a great deal of wariness—I’m already cool on Ingmar Bergman, on European art-house, on audience-supplied-narrative, on pretty much everything that Persona is said to exemplify. That it comes preloaded with a reputation as a movie where any interpretation has been dissected and found plausible didn’t help my mindset at all. On the other hand, my lowered expectations may have helped, because I found Persona to be reasonably interesting. It only takes a few moments for the aggressive opening sequence to quasi-subliminally show an erect phallus on screen—from then on, anything can happen and it’s almost a relief not to try to make sense of it as the film multiplies its show-off moments. There’s fourth-wall breaking, images of the physical film snapping, a high-energy interlude, a scorching-hot erotic monologue, great performances by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, deliberate confusion about the identities of the characters (or even whether they’re distinct characters) and a tone that leads you to expect the worst even if nothing much happens. In short, it’s an experience more than a story, and it works much better if you just let it wash over you. I still don’t like this kind of movie and wouldn’t necessarily recommend Persona unless I was sure that this is the kind of effect the viewer was looking for, but I’m satisfied to call my viewing of the film at least a draw in terms of enjoyment, which is much better than what I was expecting. Onward to other Bergman movies, I guess…
(Hoopla streaming, September 2018) At first glance, there are many reasons why The Man from Earth shouldn’t work as a movie — In the first five minutes, we’re confronted with substandard filmmaking with the dull cinematography, pedestrian dialogue, mediocre direction and over-emoting actors that are the hallmarks of a low-budget production. (Although, to be fair, the most over-emoting actor is playing a deliberately annoying character who calms down throughout the film.) But as the film unfolds, the dialogue creates a fascinating premise—what if a prehistoric man, somehow immortal, had survived until now? Then the film has the characters wrestle with the implications of that premise and director Richard Schenkman’s The Man from Earth becomes that rarest of creations—an entirely idea-driven movie, with bare-minimum filmmaking supporting the high-end concept being explored through conversations and questions. Fans of written science fiction have known this feeling for decades, but it’s a remarkably rare choice for movies—no wonder that the film is adapted by SF writer Jerome Bixby from his moderately well-known short story. The Man from Earth does take a few storytelling risks toward the end, tying one of its characters to a historical figure and then finding an unexpected link with another character. Both of these choices stretch credibility, and I would have preferred a more qualified approach to those revelations (picking Judas as the historical figure, for one thing, and perhaps stating the deliberate nature of the two characters’ proximity) but they don’t really harm the movie. Suffice to say that The Man from Earth is a unique movie, and one that will appeal to people who aren’t always fans of the Hollywood factory approach to science-fiction films. No wonder that the film became a substantial success on file-sharing sites after a quasi-non-existent theatrical exhibition and a small-scale video release: it appeals to people most likely to be file-sharing enthusiasts. Finding it legally can be a challenge (don’t expect a TV showing: other than the expensive DVD editions, I eventually found it on a library-sponsored streaming site) but it’s worth the effort of tracking down.