Saturday, August 24, 2013

It Just Slams Into You from Out of Nowhere...

It doesn’t happen very often, especially, I find, as I get older: you watch a movie and recognize that something in a scene is about to develop, something that touches not so much on your emotions, but on your experiences, a perfect mixture of things that have deep meaning to you that you’d never thought capable of converging before, but once they do, they not only make perfect sense, but you wonder how they never came together before now. You also recognize that there’s a director out there that’s experienced - maybe not in the same way as you - something similar. 

It’s what keeps me going to the movies.

I experienced one of those rare moments last night watching Garden State (2004), a movie I had somehow always missed. This isn’t going to be a review of that film (which I liked, but didn’t love), but a celebration of one of those “moments” in film that seem to have been made only for you. 

The scene in question occurs during the second half of the film. Briefly, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) has just come home to New Jersey to his mother’s funeral. He’s trying to work out several issues, but at one point, Andrew’s high school friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) persuades Andrew and his new friend Sam (Natalie Portman) to follow him to pick up something from a man living near a quarry in Newark. Something happens in this encounter that just slammed into me. Part of it is the music (Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” one of my favorite songs), part of it is the scenery, part of it is the staging, part of it is the revelation gained by Andrew and part of it is something I can’t quite describe. But in that moment, something came together for me, several points converging all at once to deliver something immensely personal and satisfying. 

Now I don’t know this film well enough to know whether this is the movie’s most memorable scene, one that’s so famous it’s now become imitated to the point of cliché, or not. All I know is that it hit me like a hammer and I’ll never forget it. It might be great to revisit the scene (or maybe the whole movie) again, but it will never have quite that same impact.  

But there it is. I think this is one of the reasons - maybe the most important reason - why we go to the movies. 

How often does that happen to you in the movies? I’d love to hear your stories. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Werner Herzog Collection Coming Soon

According to The Playlist via Indiewire, Shout Factory is currently working on remastering and reissuing 16 films by Werner Herzog in both physical and digital formats. 

I must confess, I have only seen one Herzog film, but it's one I've never forgotten, the brilliant Aguirre: The Wrath of God, about a 16th century quest by Spanish conquistadors to find El Dorado, the mystical city of gold. I'll never forget the final shot of that movie, never, or Klaus Kinski's amazing performance. 

Although I've never seen Herzog's most lauded work, Fitzcarraldo, a film chronicling one man's dream to build an opera house in the Peruvian rain forest, I need to make this a goal of some urgency. (There's a library patron who comes in a couple of times a month, asking each time, "Have you seen Fitzcarraldo yet?") This film also stars Kinski, who collaborated with Herzog in five films.

Hats off to Shout Factory for making this happen. Stay tuned as to the release date and price...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Les Misérables (2012) Tom Hooper

Les Misérables (2012) Tom Hooper [2:37]

You should know a few things from the outset:

1 - I do not like musicals. I loathe musicals. I played trumpet in pit orchestras for several musicals in college (out of obligation) and for the first few years I taught (to make extra money). To this day, there are only two musicals I can stand to listen to or watch: West Side Story and Evita. You may take from that what you will.

2 - I promised Cindy and a couple of our friends that I would watch Les Misérables and that I would watch it with an open mind.

So Cindy (for the second time) and I watched the film Friday night.

I’m going to assume you know the basic story of Les Misérables, so I won’t go into it here. What I will go into is a brief discussion of how different genres and aspects of the arts work in and out of translation:

Anytime you “translate” a work from its original form to another medium, the change of format automatically changes the original story, even if you’re as faithful as possible to the original material. I’m not talking so much about translating Victor Hugo’s novel to a musical - although that certainly will involve monumental changes due to the nature of the materials used/abandoned - but from one similar medium to another.

Let’s say that you go see a play in a theater. Maybe it’s just a simple play with two characters. You’re in the audience and you experience the play. Fine.

Now let’s say that someone (legally or illegally) filmed the play that you just saw and showed it to your spouse or friend. That spouse or friend is going to have a completely different experience from the one you had. The play is the same, but the format changes everything: the lighting, the sound, the visuals. It changes everything even if the camera recording the play is immobile. It has become a different format. 

Now imagine that you’ve seen the Broadway musical Les Misérables live. In order to translate that to the medium of film, many decisions have to be made. The camera can go anywhere the director wants it to go. Your eyes are being manipulated in a way they aren’t in the theatre. Choices in set design, costumes, actors, music, instrumentation, lighting, special effects, make-up... all of these things have now changed because you’re in a different format. Regardless of whether the film version frees the director to expand on the original material or to make it more or less focused in certain areas, decisions have to be made. 

Next, let’s talk about film genres and how they work. We expect certain genres to do certain things. They have certain unspoken rules about what can and can’t happen and when you violate those rules, unfortunate things tend to happen. 

In musicals, it’s not uncommon (heck, it’s practically obligatory) for characters to break out into song. It is a musical, after all. Those moments normally allow the characters to sing about something going on internally in their lives. It might be a solo about what’s on that character’s heart or it might be a two people expressing something in sort of a “mind meld” that they don’t want the rest of the cast at that moment to know about. Time stops, they sing. 

That’s fine. But such songs usually do not exist solely to summarize who the character is and what he/she has done. Most of the early songs of Les Misérables do just that. We don’t get to see what Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is like because he keeps telling us in song. The same thing with the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Showing is always better than telling, even in musicals.

Maybe the Broadway music does the same thing, but director Tom Hooper thrusts these characters onto the screen and moves them around so quickly that they don’t have time to show us what their characters are like. One of Valjean’s factory workers Fantine (Anne Hathaway) gets ridiculed, loses her job, becomes a prostitute and dies, all in a matter of a few minutes. These characters have no depth because we’ve spent so little time developing them. They become one-dimensional characters with their songs serving as their resumés.   

It’s been awhile, but I don’t think musicals typically do this. 

The best scene in the whole film, the one that does act like a musical, is the  “Master of the House” scene in which we meet Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as two thieves. The scene (and the song) shows you who these characters are while they are singing about what drives them. This is not a recitation of a resumé, but an exploration of character. By the end of the song, there’s no mistaking who these people are because we’ve seen it for ourselves and have the lyrics that support and enhance these characters. That’s what good musical numbers do. 

In film you can also do close-ups that you can’t do onstage, so Hooper thinks he should take full advantage of that. Let’s completely block out everything else going on during these songs, especially the ravages of the French Revolution, the pain and suffering, the devastation, the starvation, the complete collapse of everything and zoom in closer so we can see every glistening tear on Anne Hathaway’s face, every sweat-filled pore on Hugh Jackman’s face. The close-up is a great invention, but a little goes a long way.

Some of this, no doubt, is to accentuate the much-publicized fact that the actors are doing their own singing as the cameras are rolling. To me this is no great attraction. I’d rather see the actors singing in reaction to and in horror of the grand scale of their surroundings. 

And speaking of the grand scale of the French Revolution, we sure don’t see much of it. I was expecting much more visually, a panoramic view of the scale and scope of the revolution, but we get very little of that, mostly at the beginning and the end of the film. Even the battle scenes seem truncated and clipped. 

In short, it’s very non-cinematic. 

I kept thinking that I would probably like this film if the music were taken out and we just had the basic story. (I know, it’s been done before, but so has just about everything else.)  

Also if I ever did want to see a musical, I’d like to see and hear one in which the principals can actually sing. Some of them can; Jackman does pretty well. Hathaway is passable; with all the emotional turmoil going on in all of her songs, I’ll cut her some slack. Russell Crowe? You’ve got to be kidding. If Javert is going to be a major character with several important songs, you’ve got to have a singer, not a movie star. 

Did I think I was going to enjoy Les Misérables? No. Did I make up my mind to dislike it before I saw it? I don’t think so. I watched it with an open mind and in fact wanted it to be better than I thought it would be. It turned out to be worse, much worse. I don’t know if Les Misérables is a bad musical, but it’s a pretty bad movie. 


Friday, August 16, 2013

Criterion Titles for November

We have some great titles to look forward to in November, but the biggest news for me is Criterion’s decision to release all future films in the dual Blu-ray/DVD format without a price increase. (All releases below are priced at $39.95 except for the box set.) This is very exciting for me, since I like to lend films to friends, some of whom do not own a Blu-ray player. Great move, Criterion - many thanks! 

Frances Ha (2013) Noah Baumbach [1:26]
New to the collection
Spine #681
November 12, 2013

I know little about this very recent film other than its appearance on many critics’ Best of the Year lists. In black & white with most supplements in the form of conversations between filmmakers and other production personnel. 

City Lights (1931) Charlie Chaplin [1:27]
New to the collection
Spine #680
November 12, 2013
(Currently streaming on Hulu Plus)

Perhaps Chaplin’s most beloved film, finally coming to Criterion with many supplemental features. 

Tokyo Story (1953) Yasujiro Ozu [2:16]
Blu-ray upgrade
Spine #217
November 19, 2013
(Currently streaming on Hulu Plus)

A must-see (and probably must-own) classic from Ozu with a 2-hour documentary and a 40-minute tribute to Ozu. 

New to the collection
Spine #679
November 26, 2013
(Some films currently streaming on Hulu Plus)
27 discs, $224.95

Wow.... I’m going to show my ignorance by stating that I have never seen any of the Zatoichi films, “the longest-running series in Japanese history,” says the Criterion page about this set chronicling the saga of the blind Japanese swordsman and his adventures in delivering justice on his travels. 

I’m astounded that at $125 for 27 films (cheaper even than the now out-of-print Kurosawa box set of 25 films), this set is even available for both Blu-ray and DVD formats in the same box. That only comes to a little over $8 per movie. 

That’s it for November. We’re almost certain to get Eraserhead in December (Isn't it everyone's favorite holiday movie?), so cross your fingers....

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Devil's Backbone (2001) Guillermo del Toro

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Guillermo del Toro [1:48]
Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Spine #666

“And I really think that the most creative, most fragile part of the child that lives within me is a child that was literally transformed by monsters. Be they on the screen or in myth or in my own imagination.”

This quote from Guillermo del Toro speaks volumes as to his films and worldview, and nowhere do we see that evidenced more than in The Devil’s Backbone. From the point of view of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy left to live in a remote orphanage after the death of his father, we see a home run by a sadistic caretaker named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), filled with bullies, and has an unexploded bomb in its courtyard from the Spanish Civil War (which is in its final days). To top it all off, Carlos is given the bed of Santi, a boy who recently died and whose ghost is rumored to haunt the orphanage.

Yet The Devil’s Backbone is far from a conventional ghost story. The Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of the film contains a booklet featuring an essay by Mark Kermode, who quotes Roger Ebert’s description of the film as “a mournful and beautiful ghost story [that] understands that most ghosts are sad, and are attempting not to frighten us but to urgently communicate something that must be known so that they can rest.”

Del Toro has a way of taking that childhood innocence, placing it in dangerous situations (usually in the midst of political turmoil), and creeping it into jeopardy. It’s not simply a matter of Carlos having to grow up (and toughen up) quickly to live in a harsh reality, it’s doing so by keeping one foot firmly in the fantasy world while the other is moving into an inescapably ugly world that the adults have totally ruined, mostly by their inability to stand up for what’s right. 

No other director I can think of working today can match del Toro’s visual landscape. His outdoor scenes, though few, are vast and endless, making you think you’re a tiny speck in a never-ending desert. The interiors go way beyond a description as simplistic as “atmospheric,” a word that doesn’t even begin to do justice to del Toro’s masterful blend of ruin, decay and the accumulation of years of hidden secrets and lies. The use of light and shadow conveys the aching hope that lives in shallow breaths of light, longing to expand outward. 

The Criterion Blu-ray is loaded with extras that I’ve only begun to explore. If you love intelligent horror films and especially del Toro’s style, don’t hesitate to pick this one up. 


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju

Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju [1:30]

Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face may be a half-century old black-and-white horror film in danger of getting buried among more current scares, but it still knows how to deliver top-notch suspense and some disturbing chills. 

Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a brilliant but arrogant plastic surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face, mutilated after an auto accident. Genessier, with the help of an assistant (Alida Valli), kidnaps beautiful young women and surgically removes their faces, hoping to replace Christiane’s face with one of theirs. 

Comparisons to Frankenstein are, of course, inevitable; the idea is so familiar that you might be tempted to skip this one and move on to something more modern. But how many new ideas do we really see in contemporary horror films? Aren’t so many of them variations on a theme? 

What separates Eyes Without a Face is Franju’s atmospheric, gothic cinematography, a consideration of both the beauty and horror of things hidden. The film contains only one scene that’s truly disturbing in both 1960 and 2013, but the power of the story lies in its sustained, almost unbearable tension.  

Eyes Without a Face arrives as a Criterion DVD and Blu-ray upgrade on October 15, 2013, just in time for Halloween. This rerelease contains several extras including:

Blood of the Beasts, Franju’s 1949 documentary about Paris slaughterhouses

Archival interviews with Franju on the making of the documentary, the horror genre and cinema in general

A new interview with Edith Scob (Blu-ray only)

Excerpts from a 1985 documentary about Eyes Without a Face called Les grands-pères du crime 

A booklet with essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat


Thursday, August 08, 2013

Coming Soon to Blu-ray...

I'm looking forward to several re-issues and films coming to Blu-ray for the first time. One of my favorite neglected films from the 70s is the 1978 Walter Hill film The Driver, a very neo-noir-ish movie that provides Ryan O'Neal with his coolest role ever. This edition is limited to 3000 copies, but I'd love to snag one. 

All the President's Men is getting a two-disc treatment on November 12, what I hope to be a step up from the DigiBook (Man, I hate those things...) edition.

Just around the corner are two must-buy films. Shane is going on sale August 13 and no matter how many times you've seen it, I can't imagine it looking better than it will on this Blu-ray. Just look at these screenshots. Man....

Also the superb To Be or Not To Be will be released by Criterion on August 27. I loved this movie when I saw it streaming on Hulu Plus a few months back and can't wait to revisit it.

I have my suspicions that Marathon Man may be an iffy transfer (Even the cover looks bad...), based on the reviews of the British Blu-ray, but we'll just have to wait until September 10 and ask, "Is it safe?" (Sorry.... If you've seen the movie, you'll understand.)

Finally, one I've been waiting for a long time, Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, which is also getting a two-disc treatment. From the Amazon product page, however, it looks like the second disc is just a DVD copy. Even though this is going to be released in the loathsome DigiBook format, I'll still probably pick it up. Available November 5. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Ministry of Fear (1944) Fritz Lang

Ministry of Fear (1944) Fritz Lang [1:27]
Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Spine #649

The opening shot of Ministry of Fear tells us exactly what we’re getting ourselves into. A clock ticks in a darkened room. A man sits in the shadows, watching nervously, awaiting.... something. Or someone. 

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is waiting to be released from a British mental institution where he’s spent the past two years. As he departs and says his goodbyes, we’re not quite sure why he was institutionalized in the first place. He certainly seems sane, even if the outside world isn’t. It’s World War II London, after all, and Neale knows that the city could be bombed at any moment. 

Such thoughts of fear and dread vanish for a few moments as Neale finds himself walking by a local village fair. He enters, buys a ticket to guess the weight of a cake, and has his fortune read by a fortuneteller. Before he knows what’s happening, Neale finds himself on the run, possibly from the Nazis, spies or both.  

Glenn Kenny, in his essay in the Criterion Blu-ray edition of Ministry of Fear, is correct in stating that the film is neither a propaganda film nor a puzzle film; it’s a nightmare film and Milland is up to the task of portraying Neale, a man who may not be 100% mentally steady to begin with. We don’t know much about Neale at the outset of the film, so we’re not really sure whether or not we should root for him. 

Slowly, Neale’s character is revealed, but what about all the other characters he meets while trying to figure out who’s after him? Can he really trust the police? A private detective? The Austrian woman who runs a local charity? The beautiful medium who may have the answers he’s seeking? 

The unpredictable plot is both the great strength and weakness of the film. If Ministry of Fear has a weakness, it is it’s unpredictability combined with the vagueness in its players. Characters often seem to exist only to advance the plot from one point to the next without any revelations to their motivations or a resolution to their fates. 

Perhaps this is largely due to the script by Seton Miller. Because of a technical oversight in his contract, Lang was unable to make any changes to Miller’s script. Lang was, of course, disappointed in not having total control, but author Graham Greene (whose novel the film was based on) was very vocal in his criticism of the film. Esteemed critic Pauline Kael called the film unmemorable. 

So why is Ministry of Fear worth watching? 

First, even with the limitations of a less-than-perfect script, Lang uses noir elements of light and shadow (as well as a war-torn city) to capture the perfect atmosphere of paranoia and distrust. The blacks and grays, the contrasts of light and shadow look wonderful in this new 2K digital restoration. 

Second, what seems a weakness on the surface - the lack of character detail - actually becomes a strength: Neale only knows as much about these characters as we do, heightening his sense of suspicion and paranoia. As the characters pile up, we (and Neale) are never quite sure who to trust. 

And finally, this is Fritz Lang, one of cinema’s great directors. Statements like “Even a minor work from Fritz Lang is better than major works from most directors” sound pretentious, but in this case, the statement fits. Ministry of Fear is not a great film, but it is a good one, the product of an exceptional director who knows how to make the best of the limitations imposed on him. Ministry of Fear may not be a classic, but it is great entertainment. And after all, what else do we expect from the movies?  


Saturday, August 03, 2013

July 2013 Movies

The films (and TV) I saw in July:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Steven Spielberg  [1:58] (4x?) 

The opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom continues to fascinates me nearly 30 years later and I hope it always will. I know everything that’s going to happen, but still marvel at the way Spielberg choreographs the action and makes a more-than-worthy nod to classic Hollywood song and dance numbers along the way. I also know that Spielberg borrowed much from Buster Keaton’s The General for the mining car chase, but I still love it. I’m currently working my way through the Indiana Jones Blu-ray box set and so far, the films look spectacular.   


Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) Colin Trevorrow  [1:27]

There’s a point in Safety Not Guaranteed where I just stopped picking it apart and simply started enjoying it. I recommend the same advice to you. Three workers for a Seattle magazine discover a newspaper ad from a person looking for someone to accompany him on a time travel adventure. “Safety not guaranteed,” the ad states. Suspecting little more than the discovery of a kook, the trio plan to uncover what and who is behind the ad. Darius (Aubrey Plaza), the newest and most cynical member of the team, is just along for the ride until she gets asked to get a little closer to the story. 

Some of the subplots don’t work and at least one of the characters is, for all practical purposes, unrealized at best and unnecessary at worst. Yet Safety Not Guaranteed, if you’re willing to overlook a few potholes, is a charming little movie worth your time. 


Upstream Color (2013) Shane Carruth  [1:36]


Monsters, Inc. (2001) Pete Docter, David Silverman  [1:32] (2x)

I hadn’t seen Monsters, Inc. since its initial release, and I’d never seen it with children until I watched it with a nephew and three nieces during family vacation. I admire all the Pixar films I’ve seen (even the ones I don’t particularly like), but was impressed with how well this one has held up and how it works for audiences of just about any age. While I don’t know if I’ll see Monsters University in the theaters, I’d certainly watch this one again, with or without nieces and nephews. 


Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season (TV 2012)


Prefontaine (1997) Steve James  [1:46] (2x)

I got this from Netflix, thinking that neither Cindy nor I (both runners) had seen it, but actually we both had. Jared Leto gives a pretty good performance of 1970s Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, but the limitations and traps of the biopic occur early and often. Director Steve James jumps abruptly from one event from the next and makes character relationships so formulaic they might as well not even exist. Other than the racing scenes (which are fairly well done), the best moments of the film happen when Prefontaine butts heads with fellow University of Oregon shot put athlete Mac Wilkins (Brian McGovern). Recommended for running enthusiasts only. 


Galaxy Quest (1999) Dean Parisot (2x)

It’s hard not to have a good time watching Galaxy Quest, a fun romp that’s also a critique of sorts of the whole science fiction industry, especially fandom and the con atmosphere. If you’re not a sf fan, the premise of Galaxy Quest is actually pretty fun: the actors on a popular sf TV show are mistaken for the real thing by a group of benign aliens whose planet is under attack from a hostile alien race.  

Galaxy Quest is still fun, just not as fun as I’d hoped it would be on a second viewing.