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Archive for January, 2009

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket (1996)

–Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers – can you see how incredible this is going to be? – hang gliding, come on!

 

Bottle Rocket is the debut of a trio of friends: Wes Anderson, Luke and Owen Wilson. These long-time friends made this small independent film in the mid-‘90s which has recently been released on a Criterion Blu-Ray. Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson would go on to make The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Express together. My favorite Wes Anderson film, so far, has been Rushmore, and I was very interested to take a look at this early work. Bottle Rocket strikes me as almost an anti-Pulp Fiction.

The plot concerns two childhood friends: Anthony and Dignan. In the movie’s opening scenes, Anthony is being released from a hospital after checking himself in for treatment for exhaustion. Dignan seems to have missed the voluntary portion of Anthony’s stay and is enthusiastically attempting to help him escape. This leads to a very funny conversation between Anthony and his doctor who watches Anthony climb down the obligatory bed sheet rope and stays behind to pull up the rope and close the window.

Dignan has created a 75 year plan for their lives. Their first step is a practice run and then a real heist. They choose to rob a book store along with their getaway driver, Bob Mapplethorpe. After going on the lam and hiding out at a hotel, Anthony falls in love with a pretty Guatemalan maid working there. The boys are pretty clueless about real criminal activities and seem to be making things up as they go along (based on images in pop culture) and calling it planning.

This is a sweet movie populated by lovable losers. Anthony and Dignan are as the saying goes “young and dumb” and easily talked into things. Luke and Owen Wilson fully inhabit these characters and build an easy chemistry. My only qualm was the fact that they look so much alike it was hard to buy them as only friends and not relatives.

The movie ambles good-naturedly through the plot, but it’s the characters that will stay with you longer than their heists. The best thing about this movie is that we actually like Anthony, Dignan and Bob and care about what happens to them. They frequently need a swift kick in the rear, but we still don’t want to see anything terrible happen. They’re obviously having trouble making an adjustment to full adulthood and allow people with bad advice lead them astray. I liked Bottle Rocket and hope that Anthony, Dignan and Bob eventually grew up without losing all of their endearing idiosyncrasies.

 

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The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

–I felt puny and absurd, a ludicrous midget. Easy enough to talk of soul and spirit and existential worth, but not when you’re three feet tall. I loathed myself, our home, the caricature my life with Lou had become. I had to get out. I had to get away.

 

I’ve wanted to see this SF classic for years, but getting my hands on a DVD proved to be quite a challenge. It seems that it was released as a part of a collection of other classics a couple of years ago as a Best Buy exclusive. Those kinds of things really irritate me. It’s bad enough small communities usually have to wait until smaller, non-blockbuster films come out on DVD to be able to see them. When you start making the DVDs only available in one certain store, that’s really going beyond the pale. For instance, it was recently announced that Twilight would be coming to Blu-ray exclusively to Best Buy and Target for several months. While I have little interest in that particular movie, many of my students adored it. In order to pick up a copy they would have to drive two hours to Lexington or Huntington. I’m glad that The Ultimate Sci-Fi Collection Volumes 1 &2 (including The Incredible Shrinking Man) was finally given a wider release, and that Amazon had it on an after-Christmas sale.

This movie, like many other films of its decade, deals with fear of atomic energy. The protagonist, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), gets accidentally doused with pesticides and then irradiated while on a boat at sea. Subsequently, he finds himself shrinking a little bit at a time. His wife and doctor both tell him that he’s imagining things at first, but soon everyone has to acknowledge that yes, this man is slowly shrinking away.

I found Grant Williams to be rather stiff in the lead role and his voice-over to be rather monotone. Fortunately, the rest of the actors give more natural performances. Once Carey has dwindled to the point of having to live in a dollhouse, the story gains more tension. Two sequences, one with a cat and the other with a spider, are genuinely hair-raising. I don’t know that I’ll ever be scared of cats, but this movie will make the viewer a little unnerved by them if only for a while.

The movie’s subtext is fascinating. While ostensibly the primal fear here is radiation and atomic energy, the true terror here is emasculation. Carey’s self-identity is tied to being the tall, strong, protective male. When he realizes that his wife no longer has to stand on her toes to kiss him, turmoil starts welling up within him. By the time that he is smaller than her, and reliant on her for support and protection he has begun to resent her. He recognizes this, realizes how unfair he is being, but is unable to change his behavior towards her. It’s a fascinating character study.

So, be sure to watch The Incredible Shrinking Man if you ever have the chance. The premise may be a little silly, but the special effects and stunts are impressive. As an analysis of the battle between the sexes, the film provides much food for thought.

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The X Files: I Want to Believe –2008

–This isn’t my life anymore, Mulder. I’m done chasing monsters in the dark.

 

I’ve been a fan of The X-Files for a very long time. I discovered it early in the second season during my final year of graduate school. While I enjoyed the plots, the thrills and the scares, what I ultimately enjoyed more than anything else was the characters. In the beginning I longed for the next myth-arc episode, but by the end I found those maddening. I much preferred the stand-alone stories. I was very glad to find that Mulder and Scully’s most recent adventure fell into the latter category. The question on everyone’s mind was if The X-Files could remain relevant in this time.

The show’s influence is everywhere one looks. Mulder and Scully’s banter, professionalism and unrequited sexual tension has now become the hallmark of Bones. The creepy, scary, monster-of-the-week stories were the genesis of Supernatural. Paranoia and aliens who look like humans are the backbone of Battlestar Galactica. The last show also possesses parallels to The X Files’ frequent explorations of questions about faith, spirituality and politics. Does the original show have anything left to show us?

The answer is not simple: yes and no. No, there was very little new ground being trod here. The plot had holes wide enough to drive my father’s old D-9 dozer through. The case under investigation is intriguing enough for about three-quarters of the movie, but its resolution made me have flashbacks to an old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Some Assembly Acquired.” While hardly one of the best episodes of Buffy, at least it was intentionally funny.

So, what is good or interesting here? The answer is the same as before: Mulder and Scully. Their characters, separately or together, are the best thing about the tv show and the best thing about this movie. Scully has the juiciest subplot. After leaving the FBI, she has become a doctor in a church affiliated hospital. After so many years of chasing down wild theories with Mulder and after her brush with cancer (as well as its strange remission), she is more open to experimental therapies for a patient with little chance of surviving. This is what is giving her life meaning, but she doubts herself.

Many people have scoffed at Mulder’s easy acceptance that he was welcome back to the Bureau. I agree that it does seem too pat, but I still believe it. When I saw Mulder living out in the middle of nowhere and bored out of his mind, I was reminded of my father. My dad has been in misery for the last three years since an injury at work forced him into early retirement. Even after two surgeries, he remains unable to do the work he performed previously and he would give nearly anything to regain that ability. My mother and I have both tried to convince him that there are other things he could do, other jobs he could be trained for. He just gazes at us with sad eyes that tell us we’re missing the point. He could do something else, but it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be the work that he loved so much. With this personal experience in the back of my head, I find it entirely convincing that Mulder would jump at the opportunity to work on a case again. Even if the FBI had double-crossed him, it would have been more exciting than the stagnant life he’s apparently been living. The only thing that seems to have made his seclusion bearable is Scully, so it is appropriate and poignant that his choices threaten that relationship.

One thing the X-Files has always done well is examine questions of obsession, usually in the person of Mulder, but also ones of spirituality, usually with Scully. One of the most interesting and controversial elements of this movie is Billy Connolly’s character, a priest who is also a convicted pedophile. The show has never shied away from asking hard questions, and it doesn’t now either. Many people find it upsetting that this character plays such a prominent part, and I completely understand why. Yet, I remained fascinated by the questions posed by the character. If you are a believer then you also believe in the idea of redemption and penance…is forgiveness possible for such heinous crimes? Scully, like the audience, is repulsed by the man and what he did. Still, his arc shows a man tormented by guilt and self-hatred. It raises sticky theological questions that are worth pondering long after the credits have rolled.

While I had some problems with the plot of this movie, I was not disappointed by the acting or the themes explored. I would say that it is worth seeing at least once if you’re a fan of the show. Keep in mind though that there are no aliens or even monsters of the regular sort here: just the evil that people do to each other and the love and humanity that combat it every day.

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Under Capricorn (1949)

–Why weepest thou?

 

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for years. Alfred Hitchcock is, by far, my favorite director of all time and I’ve been trying to track down all of his films. This 1949 movie stars Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, Michael Wilding and Margaret Leighton. It’s a reteaming for Bergman with her Notorious director and her co-star from Gaslight. Under Capricorn is a little known picture. It was not a success when it debuted – possibly because it did not meet audience’s expectations of a thriller and possibly because it was the same year that Bergman’s scandalous affair with Roberto Rosselini became public knowledge.

Michael Wilding plays Charles Adare, a recent arrival in Australia. Since his cousin is the new governor, he is welcomed with open arms by local society. He learns that in Australia it is considered polite to ignore a man’s past since many of the most respectable citizens started their lives there as transported criminals from England. One of these former convicts is Sam Flusky played by Joseph Cotton. Flusky is especially hospitable to Adare since he hopes that Adare’s popularity will attract society ladies to his house and be company for his wife, Lady Henrietta (Bergman). Sam and Henrietta are a mismatched pair by the standards of the day. Her family was rich, titled and powerful while Sam was a groom. Adare quickly discovers that Sam was transported for shooting Henrietta’s brother.

As, fate would have it, Adare has known Henrietta for years. She was a friend of his sister. He is appalled to discover that Henrietta has become an alcoholic. She stumbles into a dinner party barefoot and tipsy. She has hallucinations and is unable to manage her household servants. Adare gently tries to awaken the lady within and restore Henrietta’s self-confidence. In doing so, he steps on the toes of the real power in the house, Milly (Leighton). Milly has run the household, managed Henrietta and secretly loved Sam for years. She uses her influence to undermine Adare and Henrietta by tapping into Sam’s weaknesses: his insecurity.

For once, a movie suffers by having Hitchcock’s name so prominently displayed. This movie is not the typical Hitchcock thriller. It is a slowly building Gothic melodrama – more of a character study. There are some exciting scenes towards the end, but those are the exception. If you watch with any expectations of seeing typical Hitchcockian setpieces, be warned that they are not present. I can understand why it was not popular in its day, and still has the reputation for being overlooked. It’s not a movie for all tastes. In fact, it made a mixed impression on me.

The acting is all top-notch and the Technicolor cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff is gorgeous. Margaret Leighton steals the show as conniving Milly, although Bergman and Cotton also shine in certain scenes. Still, the movie moves at a languorous pace one doesn’t associate with Hitchcock. I think on a second viewing I might find it more hypnotic, but on my first it only drew me in at certain scenes. So, if you are a fan of Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton or enjoy period dramas, check this movie out. Beware, though, if you are a Hitchcock fan looking for one of his typical, edge of your seat, suspenseful thrillers. This is a different experience altogether which does not mean that it’s unworthy. This is still the Master, but on this outing he was trying for something new.

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The Duchess

The Duchess — 2008

–You can’t ask me to battle nature in my own heart.

 

Those who have read my review of The Other Boleyn Girl know how many problems I had with that film’s historical inaccuracies. I love good historical fiction, but I’d prefer the dramatic fictional elements to still be at least plausible and there were a few plot twists in Boleyn Girl that had me crying foul. Elizabeth is another movie I had issues with. Although it played with historical facts, I loved it until the end when it decided to sum up a complicated woman’s life in an “artsy,” symbolic ending that grossly oversimplified Elizabeth’s life and made her into a martyr. Elizabeth Tudor was many things, but I would never describe her as a martyr. I was pleasantly surprised while watching The Duchess that it was suitably dramatic without sacrificing the facts of Georgiana’s life.

I’ve always enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performances and she seems to have been on an especially rewarding creative streak lately. From Pride and Prejudice to Atonement to The Duchess, she is growing into a very accomplished actress – a fact that is even more startling when one realizes how young she is. She’s not yet 24. While playing Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, Knightley reveals a growing confidence and maturity in her work. She’s definitely not just a pretty face. When you look into her eyes, you see intelligence and strength. I see from IMDB that she’s going to be playing Cordelia in King Lear. I look forward to it.

Ralph Fiennes, too, deserves praise here. Fiennes has given many incredible performances in the past. Here, he’s almost stepping through the looking glass. Many of his previous roles were the tortured romantic lead: swoon-worthy, Heathcliff types. His Duke of Devonshire is not that type of man. On paper, his arranged marriage to young Georgiana Spencer seems like a dream match. He’s handsome, incredibly rich, powerful and influential in politics. Reality reveals him to be bored by political speeches and interested in very little besides dogs, women and getting an heir for his fortune. Fiennes gives a subtle performance that pays off at the end. Just when I was resigned to hating the character, Fiennes shows us the inner man. He becomes three-dimensional. While I’ll never like the character, I no longer hated him.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. The production design and costumes are appropriately gorgeous. The parallels with Georgiana and her more familiar descendent, the late Princess Diana, are uncanny. Married too young to an exceedingly powerful older man with whom she had little in common…finding out her husband is unfaithful…using fashion as an outlet of expression…using her influence to promote issues dear to her heart…nope none of that that seems familiar, right? The movie is based, not on a historical novel but, on a biography. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that the movie’s plot was easily verifiable and recognizably the life of Georgiana, no embellishment required. For anyone who likes historical films this is one to be savored.

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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

–A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad.

 

Last semester I reviewed one of Michael Powell’s first films, The Edge of the World. His most famous works were in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Together they made some of Britain’s most beloved films: The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They called themselves “The Archers,” and for a time, as Martin Scorsese reminds us in the introduction to a new US DVD release of A Matter of Life and Death, they were little known in the States. Scorsese recalls seeing films like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus and bonding with other American directors of his generation over their admiration for them, but being unable to find any information about Powell or Pressburger at the time. In the years since, The Archers’ reputations have been restored and this recent transfer of one of their most famous films is resplendent. I’ve rarely seen a 1940s film looking this fabulous outside of Blu-ray.

The film stars David Niven as Peter Carter, a RAF pilot who is shot down. In his last minutes he talks to June (Kim Hunter), an American air traffic controller, and the two of them manage to connect in an intense way. Carter is forced to bail out of his plane knowing that his parachute is no longer functional. He expects to die, but wakes up on a beach near the building where June is staying. It turns out that because of the thick English fog, his “conductor” angel (Marius Goring), who should have collected him for heaven, was late finding him. Sent back to Earth to rectify his mistake, the conductor is taken aback to learn that Carter refuses to go. He and June have fallen in love and he challenges his right to stay on earth and build a life with her.

Scorsese mentions that the story, though fantastic, was inspired by a true story. There was a pilot forced to jump from his airplane without a parachute who lived. Powell and Pressburger take that fact and concoct a beautifully lush fantasy which is heavily implied is playing out in the injured man’s mind. His fight for life is quite literal, and shown metaphorically in the heavenly trial deciding his fate.

The cast are all superb. Niven and Hunter are moving in their roles while Marius Goring is a delightful Gallic imp with a twinkle in his eye. Roger Livesey plays a doctor who fights for Carter’s life on Earth as well as in heaven. Raymond Massey nearly steals the show at the end as the American prosecutor with a grudge. He was the first American to die at the hands of the British in the American Revolution and he doesn’t like the idea of this English pilot being allowed to live and make a life with a fine Boston girl.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie is very beautiful. All of the earthly scenes are shot in three-strip Technicolor that is vibrant and joyful. The heavenly scenes are shot in black and white – perhaps a bold and controversial choice until one remembers that this is not supposed to represent a “real” heaven. This is Peter’s mind at work and the black and white is another clue that this is true since we supposedly don’t see color in our dreams.

This movie is an easy recommendation and comes packed with Powell’s last film, The Age of Consent. It is a part of his post-Pressburger years and stars James Mason and Helen Mirren, in her first film. I’m looking forward to viewing it, as I’m rapidly becoming a fan of Michael Powell.

 

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I know that I’ve been away for nearly a month. At the end of last semester, I was completely exhausted and needed a break. I’m very glad that I succeeded in reaching my goal last semester of a new review every morning, but I’m not going to attempt to repeat it this semester. I’d put myself in the hospital, I’m afraid.

Instead, this semester I will be posting two new reviews of my own a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) beginning tomorrow. I will also be playing host to reviews from the students in my Introduction to Film class, so please keep an eye out for them and be gracious.

My Upcoming Schedule page has now been revised to reflect January’s schedule. I hope to see you here soon.

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