Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Now I've Done It....

I finally broke down and bought a subscription to Hulu Plus, primarily to have access to many of the Criterion Collection titles I've yet to see, but I'm discovering the channel has much more to offer. (Thanks, Orangerful, for a free 3 month subscription as a birthday present!) This channel will keep me quite busy, much to the displeasure of my online instructors this quarter. 

If you need a little Hulu Plus incentive, Paste has posted a list of the 50 best films streaming on Hulu Plus. Enjoy!  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden's London Underground and the Eclipse Sets in General

Eclipse Series 25
Retail $59.95
Amazon $49.99

For those who may not know, Criterion came out with an Eclipse line of films in 2007, a series of boxed sets of affordable DVD editions featuring hard-to-find, forgotten, or somewhat obscure films. These films do not include either the extras (other than some liner notes) or the level of remastering film lovers have come to expect from the regular Criterion Collection titles, although the transfers are quite good. (On a purely practical level, the films come in individual slim cases in a box that’s open at both the top and bottom, so be careful in handling these sets.)

Each set usually focuses on a theme, a style, or a director. Two or more films (usually three or four) are included in each set and sets are priced accordingly. You can find a complete list of the Eclipse series here.   

I found this Series 25 set at a Borders that was going out of business a few years back and decided to take a chance on it (since all the DVDs and sets at that point were 60% off). It turned out to be a risk worth taking. 

Basil Dearden (1911-1971) directed films at West London’s Ealing Studios during the 1940s and 50s before deciding to tackle more controversial subjects on his own, subjects he knew the studio would never touch. The four films in this Eclipse set are enclosed in an atmosphere of post-WWII complacency while looking ahead to the cultural changes that would explode in the 60s. While these particular tones are present in all of these films, each title focuses on a particular point of controversy, in most cases, well before their intended audiences were ready for them. 

Sapphire (1959) 92 min. 
The body of a beautiful young woman named is found dead at the opening of the film, leading police on a winding path for her killer. Sounds pretty routine, but Sapphire (the only color film in the set) is a police procedural focusing not only on a murder, but also post-war racial conflict. The film contains many good scenes, but as a police procedural, it’s a bit stiff and heavy-handed. Yet the cinematography and performances are quite good. Remember that Dearden is trying to make his 1959 audience see something they either hadn’t or didn’t want to see.  

The League of Gentlemen (1960) 116 min. 
The lightest in tone of the four films, The League of Gentlemen is a wonderful heist movie and contains the least amount of social commentary. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s without social commentary. Former Army Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) secretly assembles a group of ex-army officers (a la And Then There Were None Style), each being enticed to attend a meeting via an envelope containing an American paperback entitled The Golden Fleece, half a 5£ note, and an invitation from an organization called “Co-operative Removals Limited.” 

This odd “band of brothers” - all of them bored, disenfranchised veterans with checkered pasts - makes this sort of a pre- Oceans-11 (which also came out in 1960) type of film. It’s a lot of fun. Any time you can see Hawkins (one of my favorite British actors), do so.

Victim (1961) 100 min.
Victim has the distinction of being the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual.” As such, the film was considered highly controversial in England and banned for a brief time in the U.S. You have to remember that homosexuality was actually a crime in England until 1967. That knowledge gives Victim a lot of power and displays Dearden’s courage in making it. 

Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a respected barrister with a secret life that’s about to be exposed by a blackmailer. The film would stand on its own as a good mystery drama even without the then controversial element. Again, seen in 2013 it might be hard to understand what the fuss was all about, but put yourself in that era, and the film becomes frank, honest and gutsy.  

All Night Long (1962) 91 min.
All Night Long takes place during a single rainy night of nearly non-stop jazz as well as non-stop jealousy and back-stabbing. A rich London music promoter decides to throw a party for jazz musician Aurelius Rex and his new bride Delia, a retired jazz singer. Although Delia is content to retire from the spotlight and spend time with her new husband, an ambitious drummer named Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan from the TV show The Prisoner) wants her to headline his new band. The film is something of a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello in the jazz world, and is also played out in a house that acts somewhat like a stage: enclosed, often claustrophobic and tense. All Night Long offers some very good scenes and some nice jazz, featuring cameos by jazz legends Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus.

While I greatly enjoyed this set, and look forward to watching all these films again in the coming years, I’d be very hesitant to take a chance on buying another Eclipse set. The guys on the Criterion Cast podcast (You can find them on iTunes.) sometimes report that some of the Eclipse films air on the Hulu Plus channel, which gives you an opportunity to watch before you buy. Or your public library may have some of these sets. (Our system currently owns four sets: Lubitsch Musicals, Rossellini’s History Films, Alexander Korda’s Private Lives and the First Films of Akira Kurosawa.) If Criterion’s purpose in producing these sets (after making a profit, of course) is to bring an awareness of these films to film lovers (or even the curious), the retail prices are still pretty high. 

I don’t know how well these sets are selling, but for several months, Criterion produced no new Eclipse titles. Finally, a few days ago, Criterion announced the April 2013 release of Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System (four discs priced at $59.95 retail). (For more information on both the Eclipse sets and all Criterion releases, I highly recommend the Criterion Cast.)

I would never buy any of these sets at full price sight unseen, but I know there are probably people who do. If I saw two out of four films of a set on Hulu Plus (or somewhere else) and liked them, I might buy the set. But if the sets were more reasonably priced and I’d only seen (and enjoyed) one of the films, I’d be more likely to buy the set. (As far as I know, the movies in the Eclipse sets are not available individually.)

Or maybe I’d be more enticed to buy more sets if Criterion had some type of club or incentive in place. Maybe for every regular DVD or Blu-ray purchase, Criterion could give a coupon for a certain percentage off the price of an Eclipse set. I hope the Eclipse line isn’t going away, but I also hope accessing them gets easier and/or more affordable. If they do, you’ll see more of them reviewed here. Based on the Basil Dearden set, I’m definitely interested in more Eclipse sets.   

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Revisiting Being John Malkovich 12+ Years Later

It’s always a bit dangerous to revisit a movie you saw and enjoyed 12+ years ago. Until you’ve done it, you’ll never know whether the film, the times, or you (or all three) have changed in ways that make the film no longer enjoyable. 

I first saw Being John Malkovich in the basement of an apartment building in downtown Baltimore in 2000. My sister-in-law was living there at the time and told me they had “sort of a “movie theater” in the basement, so I went. Neither the print nor the sound were very good, but I watched the film and enjoyed its inventiveness, weirdness and craziness. I’d never seen another film quite like it. 

Having had such good memories of the film, I bought the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release a few months ago (at a Barnes & Noble half-price sale) and kept it on the shelf, waiting for just the right time to revisit it. Cindy and I watched it a couple of nights ago (she for the first time) and I realized that while the film hadn’t changed, both the times and myself had. 


I won’t go into the plot of the film. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already seen the movie and don’t need it summarized for you. I will talk about a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, read no further. 

Times have changed. While maybe we can’t really get inside someone’s head - at least not in the way the characters in the film do - we can pretend we’re someone else for 15 minutes or longer. (We may not necessarily end up beside the New Jersey Turnpike afterwards, but it might feel like it.) Millions of people via various Internet, gaming and other tech methods can easily pretend they’re someone else, living out parts of their lives with a new identity. For limited periods of time, that can be fun. We basically do that when we’re watching a movie, playing a video game, etc. Then we go on with life. 

Puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), however, isn’t content with just a few minutes. Craig wants to manipulate/enter the body of John Malkovich for his own selfish purposes. In fact, Craig’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and would-be girlfriend Maxine (Catherine Keener) are also in this venture for selfish reasons. That would be bad enough, but then there’s the whole houseful of senior citizens led by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) who also want to inhabit the body of Malkovich. 

Don’t get me wrong: I greatly admire the enormous talents of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman for making all of this work and the film’s utter brilliance. We could talk for hours about the significance of Craig’s career as a puppeteer, issues of control (over puppets and people), connecting with other people in relationships, searches for love and understanding leading to erratic behavior, the significance of Floor 7 1/2, and much more. Yet, for all its humor and insane creativity, I’m left with a feeling of incredible sadness. 

By the end of the film, Lotte and Maxine have manipulated people for selfish reasons and (seemingly) suffer no consequences for it. Craig certainly deserves consequences for his selfishness and receives them. The person you feel the most sorry for is Malkovich (the character), the ultimate victim who has been violated beyond belief, but since it’s Malkovich (the actual person), a fine actor we’ve come to laugh at as much as admire, we tend to overlook his victimhood.  

Maybe that’s Jonze’s point. Maybe Jonze and Kaufman are telling us that this is a world without justice, at least at this point, that people do “get away” with selfish behavior while the victim(s) get no justice. Maybe the times we’re in now, with our inability to be ourselves without adopting (or obsessing over) the identity of someone else, damn the consequences, are the logical conclusion of this film. If so, we’ve reached a sad, sad point. 

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not against video games, the Internet, fiction, or imagination. But I see in many of the characters in Being John Malkovich a sense of pride, entitlement and utter selfishness, all without conscience, all without consequences, and that makes me incredibly sad. Sure, I laughed in many places while watching this film, just like I did 12+ years ago, but as the credits rolled, I was left with a feeling of emptiness, a sense that our fallenness has reached a new place. 

Being John Malkovich is a brilliant film, but it's not one I plan on watching again.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Golden Globe Results, or, Affleck's Revenge

I never watch 'em, but the Golden Globe awards were handed out last night. Here's the list of winners only, and the list of winners and nominees. Ben Affleck may have been slighted in the Best Director category for the Oscars, but he snagged Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Drama for Argo

A few things I learned from the Golden Globe results:

It would seem I really need to check out the TV show Homeland, which picked up a few trophies. 

Regardless of the number of awards it wins, I will not be seeing Les Miserables

Oh, and by the way, don't mess with Maggie Smith.

The Oscars will be presented on Sunday, February 24, giving me plenty of time (I hope) to see the nominees I haven't yet seen. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Brick (2005) Rian Johnson

Brick (2005) 
Directed by Rian Johnson
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Lukas Haas
Rated R, 110 minutes

Brick is one of those films that probably should never have happened. But I’m so glad it did.

Brendan Fry (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Southern California high school student who discovers his ex-girlfriend Emily lying dead at the edge of a sewage tunnel. Although their relationship didn’t end well, Brendan makes it his mission to find out who killed Emily. Doing so will take him on a quest through various social groups in his school, an unrelenting vice principal (played by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft), a gauntlet of tough guys, and ultimately landing him face-to-face with the local drug lord referred to as “The Pin.”  

The film owes a lot everything to film noir, a genre that was already dead before any of these actors were even born. Noir has its own rules and most of them revolve around character and style. The makers of Brick have obviously spent a lot of time and effort getting those elements right, although the film’s scenes take place mostly in high school hallways and parking lots rather than smoke-filled bars and jazz joints. 

Like lots of films noir, Brick is filled with fights, but fights adorned with clever noir dialog. Just before one fight with the school’s top football player, Brendan taunts the jock, who always responds with, “Yeah?” Brendan finally has enough: “There’s a thesaurus in the library. Yeah is under ‘Y.’ Go ahead, I’ll wait.” And just before another fight with a stoner: “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, so that puts me six up on the lot of you.”

Since noir is more concerned with character and style than it is with plot and nice, neat resolutions, the average viewer might walk away disappointed or confused. Brick certainly has a plot and a resolution, but I don’t think those are director Rian Johnson’s primary concerns. Classic noir (generally from the post-WWII 1940s to roughly 1958) was full of character and style and sometimes contained well-structured plots and resolutions, but not always. (See The Big Sleep from 1946 and tell me what sense you can make of that.) Films that are more neo-noir (Chinatown, Body Heat, even more current sf-noirs like Dark City and Donnie Darko) have an even darker, often postmodern tone, rarely giving audiences full resolution or hope. Brick is a perfect marriage of the style, speech, mannerisms and motivations of classic noir in a neo-noir setting. Again, this shouldn’t work, but it does, largely because everyone involved in the film takes it seriously. There’s irony here, but little other humor, no tongue-in-cheek, no spoofing and no gags. To state it simply, the plot and resolution of a noir film doesn’t have to be believable to the audience, but it’s essential that the characters believe it. In Brick, they do, even if the audience doesn’t. The level of courage and faith required to make such a film in 2005 is tremendous. If you buy into it, the film works. If not, I wouldn’t worry too much about it; there are (unfortunately) few films out there like Brick

Brick was made for about half a million dollars and grossed over $2 million at the box office. Not bad. Not great, but not bad. I don’t know the DVD sales figures, but either from a monetary or an artistic viewpoint (or maybe both), Johnson went on to make 2008’s The Brothers Bloom and the recent hit Looper. If Brick is any indication of Johnson’s talent and vision, I’ll be glad to follow him for the long haul. Brick is definitely worth two hours of your time and is currently streaming on Netflix. 


Friday, January 04, 2013

Terry Gross and Quentin Tarantino Get Violent

Terry Gross recently interviewed Quentin Tarantino on NPR's Fresh Air, where they talked about Tarantino's new film (which I have not seen) Django Unchained. You can listen to the interview (about 35 minutes) here or download it from iTunes. 

Things get a little uncomfortable in the interview; not out of control, but clearly uncomfortable for both Tarantino and Gross. I'll let you decide for yourself and I certainly want to listen to the interview again, but I believe Gross - normally a rock-solid interviewer who does her homework - drops the ball by not preparing for this exchange as well as she could have (and normally does). 

Regardless, the interview can and should spark a good discussion of the differences between film violence and real violence. Definitely worth a listen and a future blog post (when I have more time!). 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Malick's New Film, Edelstein Slams Les Mis and a Few Personal Film Stats

First, from my less-than-accurate statistics, I believe I watched 90 films in 2012 (which is really not very many), 68 of them for the first time. The film I saw this year that I’ve seen the most is It’s a Wonderful Life, (which I’ve seen at least 25 times), followed by Alien, which I estimate to have seen eight times. 

For Criterion Collection fans, Criterion titles accounted for 16 of those films.

And something I don’t think has ever happened before, and didn’t plan this time: the first film I watched in 2012 was also the last film I watched in 2012: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I received the boxed set of extended Blu-rays last Christmas and started the new year with the first film. After seeing The Hobbit, Cindy and I wanted to revisit the trilogy, so I saw The Fellowship again to close out the year. 

I haven’t seen Les Miserables and do not plan to. My suspicions were confirmed by David Edelstein, on NPR’s Fresh Air, who said, 

“What I saw onscreen was a transcendentally tasteless bombardment, an absolute horror show that, in a just world, would send people screaming from the theater. It is ghastly from first frame to last.”

Instead, I’m waiting for this new film from Terrence Malick, To the Wonder. Watch the trailer here