Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman)


1973 drama

Rating: 10/20

Plot: Jeanne invites a priest to the submarine she lives in and tells him stories of three men she seduced in order to destroy them.

Brigitte Bardot lives in a submarine. Sort of--it's referred to as a "submarine" at one point. She seduces men and "kills" one of them. She disrobes. She engages in a lesbian tryst with Jane Birkin. It's from the mind of Roger Vadim, the director of Barbarella.

And it's boring?

Yes, it's boring. Really boring. This is one of those movies that's less than 90 minutes but feels like it's around three hours long. I watched this only because Brigitte Bardot was in it and probably more specifically because she plays a character who lives in a submarine and seduces men in order to destroy them. I have no idea what Vadim's trying to say with any of this. This would be the penultimate film for Bardot, one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and she seems old, bored, and tired. A script like this could do that to anybody, I guess. You almost get the sense that Vadim wanted a chance to film Bardot naked before she was completely out of her prime, came up with this really dumb title, and then quickly wrote a screenplay to make it happen. There aren't really sex scenes, and the nude scenes are tastefully done--this is, after all, and artsy-fartsy affair--but it all still manages to feel sleazy. It's got an early-70's cloud over it which doesn't help. This movie has a little style--though nothing as exciting as Barbarella--and there are a few interesting editing tricks. But when you don't really understand the main character's motivations for any of this or care about any of the characters, none of that really matters. And here's Vadim's biggest sin. You've got Bardot in a role where she's supposed to be completely irresistible, the kind of woman who inspires men to sacrifice everything just to spend some time with, but it's never all that convincing. And it's freakin' Brigitte Bardot!

Speaking of Vadim, here's a picture of the director:


He was married five times. He was married to Bardot for five years. He married Jane Fonda. And he had a child with Catherine Deneuve. No wonder he seems so happy in that picture.

Back to this movie. No, never mind. I don't have anything else to say about this movie.

The Book of Life


2014 cartoon

Rating: 13/20 (Jen: 17/20; Emma: 10/20; Abbey: 11/20; Buster: 20/20)

Plot: Two gods make a wager over which boy will end up winning a young girl's heart. The winner gets to control the colorful Land of the Remembered while the loser gets stuck with the far-uglier Land of the Forgotten.

Every time I was nearly convinced that this movie was good, something would happen--a new irritating character, an inappropriate reference, a silly aside--that reminded me that it really wasn't. I really wanted to like it. It was obvious that a lot of effort went into the creation of this thing, that the makers had a story to tell that was important to them, and that it could help bring another culture into the homes of middle-class white kids. Unfortunately, I thought it was a real mess. There's no doubt that the film's got originality, and the look is a unique one. It reminded me more of Henry Selick's stop-motion creations than CGI stuff. The characters actually look like they're made out of wood, and I liked that texture. It took me a while to get used to the abnormal shapes and body types for the characters. I mean, the men all have absurd shoulders and chins that would make Bruce Campbell a little envious. And check out Maria's waistline. A few characters make it seem like Picasso got a hold of the storyboard and decided to throw in a few of his own Cubist creations--noses akimbo, obscenely-contorted jawlines, eyes on the same side of a person's head. I didn't think I liked it at all; it reminded me of a more fleshed-out version of something you'd see on Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network where they're not afraid to children characters in grotesque shapes. Gradually, they grew on me. And the colors? Damn, those colors! There are moments when the amount of colors just feels bewildering and chaotic, but in a good way. Several times, I almost wanted to pause the movie and move my face closer to the television to absorb those colors more. The Land of the Remembered sequences are especially beautiful although I'm not sure there's a single shot in this movie--at least prior to when they get to the more dismally-decorated Land of the Forgotten--that doesn't have at least two thousand colors on the screen. There was a part of me that wanted to be Mexican and then dead, just so I could live in a world with that much color. And luckily for me, I'd get to live in the Land of the Remembered for a very long time because I'd leave this blog behind as a legacy.

Unfortunately, there's only stock characters lackadaisically created to inhabit those grotesque bodies and not much of a story to fill this rich settings. I hated the children in the frame story, ruffians at a museum listening to a woman tell the movie's story with these figurines. And I was never really interested in any of these characters. There were characters in the background who I really felt like spending more time with, or at least I was more interested in their stories than the predictable story I was being forced to follow. Maria is as thinly-defined as she is thin. She's a character almost entirely devoid of substance, the kind of thing you'd think would offend most feminists. The burly heroes are given their one or two attributes and then taken on journeys in which those attributes become redundant. They're irritating because they're just not interesting at all. A character voiced by Ice Cube, one who Buster called Santa Claus, was just irritating because he was irritating. I think I also would have liked this more if it was more culturally consistent, but in order to hook audiences raised on Jimmy Neutron, milkshakes, and Rice Krispies, this is stuffed with Americanisms and Mexican-ish renditions of songs written by white and black people. It further muddied things, made the tone of this largely incoherent. Is it too much to ask for a movie that is about something so important to Mexican culture to be more Mexican? Is it too much to ask for a movie that is so vibrant and visually captivating to give us an interesting story and characters?

The Theory of Everything


2014 biopic

Rating: 15/20 (Jen: 18/20)

Plot: If I understood this correctly, it's about some guy named Steve who fakes a debilitating illness so that people will feel sorry for him and accept his wacky ideas about time and black holes. Then, he invents Doctor Who.

Two interesting factoids about this movie:

1) Wife Jane, whose book this is based on, gave the go-ahead to adapt it for the screen but insisted they don't show the main characters having sexual intercourse. Damn her! I can't be the only person who wanted to see that, right?

2) Stephen Hawking says that he watched some of this and actually thought that Eddie Redmayne was him in certain scenes. How good of an acting performance (or an impression) are you giving if you actually convince a real person that he's actually in the movie?

Redmayne is really good in this, but he had to grow on me a little. For the first 20 minutes or so of this movie, I couldn't stop thinking of Austin Powers and kept expecting him to say, "Oh, behave!" to David Thewlis's character. And there were times, more than likely because I'm a terrible person, where I almost laughed at inappropriate times. During the movie, I was inspired by Redmayne's performance to make an inappropriate joke--"His table manners aren't very good, are they?" and then later, while eating a bowl of soup, I may have imitated the actor imitating Stephen Hawking and then laughed and spilled a glass of tea on my pants. And even later, while on the fringe of having sexual relations with my wife (who enjoyed this movie a little more than I did), I insisted on doing it "Stephen Hawking style" which apparently both offended her and turned her off completely. I also, during a scene that I think was supposed to be kind of emotional, made a comment about how embarrassing it would be to play a game of croquet with somebody who has Lou Gehrig's Disease and be absolutely destroyed.

But seriously, Redmayne is really good here and, at least with the 2014 actor performances I've seen so far, totally deserving of that Oscar. Early on, it's all goofy grinning, body language, and clumsy chalk writing. I don't actually know if Hawking at this stage in his life was this likable and charming, but the character in this certainly is. It's amazing that anybody that intelligent can be that down to earth and easy to identify with. I wanted to sit down and have a beer and play a game of chess with the Stephen Hawking in the first part of this movie. Then, he has trouble walking normally and making his fingers work properly, and Redmayne's got to do quite a bit physically that just doesn't look comfortable. If the performance was just big grins, English charm, and physical ailments, he wouldn't have won the award. What raises Redmayne's performance is that he nails all of the emotions, and it's not in any overly-sentimental or schmaltzy way. It really is a pitch perfect performance, and you feel like you know everything you need to know about the character every step of the way, even when there aren't any words being spoken by him. I liked Felicity Jones in this, too, a character who is at least just as important as the all-star physicist. What I really like about the way this story is told is that it doesn't really shy away from the characters' flaws. Unfortunately, the movie's got its own flaws. For one, I felt that it kind of rushed through aspects of the story and left a lot of unanswered questions. There's not really enough time for much to really sink in for the audience. So while I completely bought everything Redmayne was doing as Hawking, I didn't really have a grasp on why these two fell in love, any of that black hole mumbo-jumbo, how the guy survived well past the doctor's original prognosis of two years, and what exactly happened with their relationship. Even though the acting was extraordinary, I thought the emotions were a little thin. We were asked to feel without being given much reason to feel. This was more of a sketch of the physicist's life rather than anything profound. Another problem is that this really didn't build up to much. I mean, is the point just to celebrate the life of a man who overcame extraordinary obstacles? I guess that's enough, but the movie doesn't consistently focus on that. It very safely covered the highs and lows of the Hawkings' life, a color-by-numbers Hollywood biopic, but it lacks any moments that really resonate. The score, though it's really good, is also a very safe one. I did really like the look of the film. The cinematography is terrific, and I loved the colors and splashes of light in the backgrounds. It's a good looking movie, very lush.

It's been a really long time since I fell asleep watching A Brief History of Time, a movie I watched with Lavagirl. I might have to check that out again.

Under the Volcano

1984 drama

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Sometime in the 1930's, an English ex-consul in Mexico lives in an alcoholic stupor after his wife, a woman who slept with his half-brother currently living with him, left him. She returns, and the trio run off to have an adventure.

I don't want to take anything away from Jacqueline Bissett or Anthony Andrews because their performances are fine. But this is Albert Finney's show. I haven't seen Amadeus in a really long time, so I can't compare Finney's performance to the Best Actor winner F. Murray Abraham, but he's amazing here. The character's inebriated for the duration of the movie, and that sort of thing's been played--a lot of times comically--since the earliest days of cinema. And it's hard to play something like that delicately enough and in a way where the character's humanity is still intact, a way that doesn't slide into gross caricature, a way that you can take seriously. This is a drama, but it's hard not to be amused by Geoffrey Firmin's act. He falls asleep in the middle of a street, he stumbles around his house looking for a drop of alcohol, he interrupts a neighbor's cat-related complaints with a rambling version of the story of some guy who wandered into the wilderness. But Finney is not playing this character for laughs, and the humor is all just a shell of this almost completely-defeated human being anyway. I've read some people say that Finney's performance is the best or most accurate drunk guy performance in cinematic history. It might be--I wouldn't know because I've never been drunk and haven't had much experience around drunk people either--but the beauty in this performance has more to do with the depth. I don't know how he does it exactly, but Finney somehow brings all this sadness and fatigue and despair and anger and passion to the surface, and it almost emanates from the screen. Finney also gets some great writing to work with. Like, "How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?" or the more-famous "Hell is my natural habitat." It's really a powerhouse performance. You might not remember anything else about this movie months after you've seen it, but you're going to remember how good Albert Finney was.

Check out that poster up there and compare it to this one:


Or this one!


Ok, in my head that worked a lot better. I'm leaving it though because I spent a lot of time putting that together.

There's a great little person performance in this. The "dwarf" is played by Jose Rene Ruiz, also apparently known as "Tun Tun." He's an energetic little fellow, but it's a shot where he's making an obscene gesture with this giant fantastic grin that really made his performance magical. I wish I could find a Youtube link or a gif, but I can't. Here's a screenshot of the little guy in action:


This is either one of cinema's greatest moments or I'm easily amused. Or both.

I loved the opening of this movie, too, great playful opening music over shots of skeleton marionettes and figurines. You know, because this takes place on the Day of the Dead. It puts you in the mood to follow a guy around in his own personal hell for a couple hours, a story steeped in symbolism like you'd expect from John Huston. I'm not really sure what to think about the way things end, but things like storytelling don't even matter when you've got a little person making obscene gestures and such a terrific lead performance.

The Music Room (Jalsaghar)

 1958 drama

Rating: 18/20

Plot: A very rich landowner lives in a palace with his wife and son. He's most proud of his exquisite music room, a lavishly-decorated chamber in which he can throw parties where people can smoke from hookahs and listen to hired musicians. Times are changing, however, and his obsession with music and

Warning: This movie contains graphic lethargy.

Like the dude's music room, this movie is just exquisite. And perhaps lethargy is the wrong word there because lethargy has more to do with a lack of enthusiasm or energy. This movie is just slow. Really slow. And if you don't like Indian music--sitars, tablas, sarangi, zithers, harmoniums, ankle bells--then you'll want to steer clear of this because there are extended musical numbers in that music room as well as a the score by Vilayet Khan. There are times when it feels like this is the type of music that God listened to on the 7th day. There are three (maybe four) of these concerts in the music room, but two really stand out. The first has a warbly-voiced guy and gradually builds with the stringed instruments and tablas while a storm builds outside. Shot of the band are juxtaposed with shots of the storm, a bug, and a chandelier. The final music performance contains some of the most incredible dancing you'll ever see, the sort of thing that can make a person fall in love with human beings for the first time. So musically, this thing is damn near perfect.

Akira Kurosawa once said that "to have not see the films of Ray is to live in the world without ever having seen the moon or the sun." I'm not sure why I didn't check out Satyajit Ray earlier, especially since he's considered so influential. If Wes Anderson cites him as an influence, I should probably pay attention. Something Ray really seems to understand better than most directors--maybe not Kurosawa--is that stories and characters need space to breathe. This movie gives you a ton of breathing space. The story itself could be told in about ten minutes, but unless you just don't like those lengthy musical numbers, I don't think there's a wasted second in this film. And there's almost nothing artificial about the thing. Ray forces your attention on exactly what you should be focused on--grass hanging from a character's foot, a chandelier, the main character's lips--and pretty much cuts everything else out. So in a way, this film is minimalistic. The story manages to be both tragic and strangely uplifting with a main character (Huzur Biswambhar Roy played by Chhabi Biswas) who is flawed enough to make you not really respect him but human enough for you to feel his pain and loss. The ending sequence on a beach is a delicate metaphor, the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a Bergman movie, but it's a superb scene before that--the winding-down of the man's last music party--that will stick with me. It's a scene in which we and Roy are reminded by one of his servants that "lamps do go out" right after we've watched it happened. Exquisite.

I think we might go with Satyajit Ray the Oprah Movie Club pick for April. Like anybody gives a shit!

Short Term 12


2013 drama

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Workers at a facility for children recovering from traumatic experiences or children dealing with problems try to deal with their own troubled pasts.

I kept hearing really good things about this movie and decided to watch it even though I haven't seen the first eleven movies in the franchise. I started it sometime last year, but it was very late at night and I fell asleep. Then, I was going to watch it about a month ago but saw a kung-fu movie I wanted to watch instead. It's an independent film, something I figured I'd have to be in the right mood to see. I think regardless of the mood I was in, this one would have gotten to me. There's one scene ("Everybody grab one. Come on.") that turned me into a big blubbering baby. I found it easy to emotionally connect with these characters, partially because I recognized some of them and partially because this thing is so well acted, including good child actors, and so well written. Another part about an octopus was also just so simply but powerfully written, and the final scene--which cleverly bookends with the first scene of the movie and a story about a character and fecal matter--had me going again. I don't really know who Brie Larson is but thought she was fantastic here, and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason, plays a guy who might be the most likable, nicest characters I've ever met in a movie. The human drama here feels natural and real, and you pull for these characters, struggle with them, and are inspired by them. There is a scene in this where a character decides to take some batting practice that didn't really work for me. It just didn't feel like it fit with the character or the main storyline. But for the most part, this tells stories that you can easily believe and even more easily care about. It's a great example of how you don't need a lot of fancy trimmings, a lot of back story, or anything artificially tidy to resonate with an audience. This is a really good movie that I'm guessing not enough people have gotten the chance to see, and I highly recommend it.

Dr. Jack


1922 romantic comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A greedy doctor is taking advantage of a rich family and their "sick little well girl" until Dr. Jack comes along to "heal" her.

This is a cute if slight and not-entirely-original little Harold Lloyd romantic comedy. As always, Lloyd is a likable enough everyman, easy to root even as you know you don't really need to root for him because you know exactly how this is all going to turn out anyway. The first third of the movie sets up our conflict and paints the title character as a good-hearted hero. Then, the conflict is developed before a final act, which might be a little too long, shows off Lloyd's physical comedy gifts with the character tricking everybody into thinking there's an escaped lunatic in the house. That bit's got a handful of moments that'll make fans of silent comedy chortle. I like how mental disorder is pictured in 1920's movies. Apparently, lunatics bounce off walls and practice calisthenics while wearing capes and floppy hats. It sounds about right to me. The best part of Dr. Jack, however, is the brief scene with Josephine the Monkey, one of my favorite animal actors ever. In fact, Josephine might be at the top of my list of favorite animal actors. Should I make a list of favorite animal actors?


See? Josephine the Monkey! In case you don't remember, Josephine also acted with Chaplin and had a significant role in Keaton's The Cameraman. And she was with Lloyd in The Kid Brother, too. And by "act," I mean actually act. Josephine really is amazing. Lloyd's wife, Mildred Davis, played his love interest in this. She was in a few of his movies. I'm not sure what his relationship with Josephine the Monkey was, but I'd like to imagine he hit that. Or she hit that!

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice

1972 samurai weirdness

Rating: 13/20

Plot: A well-endowed officer, tired of corruption with his peers, tries to uncover something sinister.

In case I came across as a little pompous in my Mission: Impossible write-up, I want to start this by pointing out that I really didn't have a clue what was going on in this movie. I'm not even sure if Hanzo ended up solving all of the mysteries in this narrative because I didn't really understand the mysteries at all. So there you go--I'm back to being a dumb guy who watches movies.

This stars Shintaro Katsu and is an adaptation of a graphic novel by Kazuo Koike, the guy who did the Lone Wolf and Cub series. And director Kenji Misumi, who did a lot of Zatoichi movies as well as four of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, did this one, too. I don't like it as much as those Zatoichi movies or the Lone Wolf and Cub stuff though it's just weird enough to have an appeal. It feels like samurai-sploitation, and the funky 70's score probably helps it feel that way. At times, this feels like one big penis gag. Hanzo is seen engaging in actual sword scenes a couple times, the best action sequence taking place on a bridge, but it's the sword in his pants that gets the most focus here. You actually wonder if that "sword of justice" in the title is a reference to his phallus and eventually figure that it probably is. It pops up (literally) after a scene where the character tortures himself for reasons that aren't really explains, stands up, and says to his superior officer Onishi, "It seems to erect when I'm in pain." At least that's what the subtitle said. Onishi's expression there is priceless. Soon after, there's an extended scene where Hanzo washes his shaft, "beats off," and then has sex with a bag of rice while this smooth jazz with female background vocals plays in the background. Later, we find out that it was training because the guy uses his member as an instrument of interrogation in two kinky rape scenes. It doesn't do much to make Hanzo (or the storytellers) more likable. Like Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo's an anti-hero who you enjoy watching because of this stoic toughness and cleverness. I'm wondering if some of the hidden weapon tricks in his home are explored in the other two installments of this story. There's definitely potential for a character like this to be really cool, but it doesn't quite work in this first movie of the trilogy. It's not Shintaro Katsu's fault. That guy's still cool. The style of this movie is a little sleazy. You have the aforementioned rape scenes, both during which the victims wind up enjoying it, and one of them features a woman suspended from the ceiling in a net while Hanzo's buddies raise and lower her repeatedly and Hanzo spins her around really fast. I'm going to have to see if my wife has any interest in trying out something like that. There's another stylish sex scene shot in an almost avant-garde way--weird perspectives, shots through holes in a hat--and some interesting superimposing trickery, but this still probably could have used a little more style. And I don't know what to think about that funky score. I liked the music plenty, but it didn't seem like the sort of thing that belonged anywhere near a samurai sword. Unless that samurai sword is a dick, I guess.

Nightcrawler

2014 crime movie

Rating: 15/20

Plot: This is an uplifting rags-to-riches story about a man named Louis Bloom who teaches himself a craft and then manages to make a successful living for himself practicing that craft.

Any bonus points I might have given this movie for a great shot of a pair of windsock men followed by a close-up of one of the windsock men was taken away immediately after Bill Paxton kept saying "brah" for some reason. Bill Paxton. Fuck that guy! The guy just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially when you don't expect him. You know what Bill Paxton is like? He's like a piece of chocolate you grab randomly from the box because you're too lazy to read the box to find out what you're getting and then it turns out to be molasses or some equally-awful filler and you're like, "What the fuck? Am I eating a melted tree?" That's Bill Paxton! You're grabbing delicious cinematic chocolates and enjoying them immensely, and then suddenly Bill Paxton's in your mouth and you have to run to the sink to spit him out. Watch Bill Paxton in this movie and tell me that they couldn't have gotten anybody else to play that role. Why did it have to be Bill Paxton? Why does it ever have to be Bill Paxton? Shouldn't this guy be a carpenter or something?

You know who's really good? Maggie Gyllenhaal's brother is really good. He was great in Enemy, and he might be even better in Nightcrawler. This movie works much better as a character study than it does as a narrative. And Bloom's such an oddball character that it really takes a terrific performance to keep the whole thing grounded and not make the whole thing silly. I don't know how to diagnose Bloom, where he is on the autism spectrum or anything, but it's so much fun seeing a quality actor take on a role like this and not exaggerate the nuances. Gyllenhaal doesn't blink and speaks with this unwavering and balanced rhythm, so you recognize there's some sort of mental disorder although it's quite obviously one that gives him the focus necessary to accomplish what he's able to accomplish in this story. He's smart, but it's that scary kind of smart. He's also a sociopath, a true manipulative villain who you're forced to root for because he's at the center of the whole thing. Nearly in every single shot, Gyllenhaal carries the film on his shoulders, and even though you know you shouldn't root for him because he's up to no good, it's not like anybody else is really any better here. Somebody I know made the connection with Travis Bickle, and I made that connection as well even though there's more of an overt selfishness with Bloom. But like Taxi Driver, this is so driven by the character at the heart of the thing that you really forget everything but that character when it's all over. I love character-driven movies, especially when the actor portraying the character does it so memorably. Like Deniro, Maggie Gyllenhaal's brother takes some chances. And as scene with a mirror where a little bit of that rage you know is submerged deep within this guy comes out? Wow.

As a narrative, this had some problems. I'm not sure if some of what happened here could actually happen, but all of that, combined with the greasy ante-meridiem gloom of Los Angeles gave this an almost surreal quality. And this packs a satirical punch, almost like an updated Network, that gave it a little more of an edge. I don't think it's a movie for everybody. It's dark and unapologetic, and a lot of people won't like where this character is taken even though it's the sort of thing we're likely to just accept without any fuss in our real lives.

So what did you think of this movie, Brah?

Mission: Impossible


1996 spy action movie

Rating: 13/20

Plot: A spy tries to uncover the real mole after he's suspected of being a mole.

The trailer for the upcoming Mission: Impossible movie (Number five?) made me want to see a movie that came out 19 years ago. I like a lot of what Brian De Palma's done, I don't mind Tom Cruise nearly as much as most people seem to, and I knew Danny Elfman scored this thing, so I figured I'd like it ok. And I did like it ok although a lot of my enjoyment was ruined by figuring out every single twist and turn about a mile before the big revelations. Now, I'm not trying to pretend that I'm some movie-watching genius who can usually figure out things like that because I'm not. In fact, I'm really bad at it. Usually, I can't even figure out a movie's twist even after the movie's ended. But here, everything just seemed so obvious to me. I think it's probably my fault for watching every single season of the similarly-twisty 24 with Kiefer Sutherland. I'm not sure there other actors I enjoy watching run on the screen more than Sutherland and Cruise, by the way. I don't necessarily mean that in any homoerotic way, but maybe I do. Anyway, I'm not saying anything in this was exactly spelled out, but if a guy as smart as me can figure it all out while watching it for the first time 19 years after it came out, I'm not sure the twists are very good. I enjoyed the performances for the most part. Voight's his usual dependable self. I like him because there's really nothing restrained about any of his performances although there's something about his presence that makes you think he's trying to exhibit restraint. Cruise is fine playing the sort of action character he plays. Regardless of his religious practices or off-the-field quirks, I always think he's likable on the big screen. Vanessa Redgrave is pretty good, and Jean Reno and Ving Rhames play the types of characters they're capable of playing. And how about that Emmanuelle Beart? The best scene in this is a quiet (literally quiet) heist sequence that manages to be simultaneously clever and juvenile. Things get a little goofy at the end with a big action sequence involving a train and a helicopter unfortunately, the sort of thing that's going to require you to turn off your brain. And I can't figure out why the main villain in this didn't shoot Tom Cruise when he had a chance.

Did you like how I refused to spoil the secrets of this 19-year-old movie? It would have been a shame if you read this and discovered that Jon Voight was the bad guy before watching this. You're welcome!

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


2014 Best Picture

Rating: 17/20 (Jen: fell asleep; said it was "stupid" anyway)

Plot: The former star of a superhero movie franchise tries to put on a Broadway play but has a few obstacles, some of which are in his mind.

I can't remember a score that so perfectly blended with what was happening visually or narratively. I was going to write about loose ends here, about how something structured like this really needed to be a little tighter. For example, why is there random lesbianism? But then I thought of Antonio Sanchez's Oscar-ineligible drum orgasmic score, freestyle like living. Random lesbianism became a cymbal crash or maybe an out-of-place gong. No, there wasn't a gong. No self-respecting jazz drummer is going to use a gong. The best movie scores are the ones that just couldn't be substituted for anything else. I'm listening to it now, and although I like it, it's just not the same without the visuals and the film's dialogue. And if the score was removed from the movie, that movie just wouldn't be the same. Sanchez's jazzy drumming burbles like the souls of these characters, clashes like a sonic mirror held up to Riggan's (anagram=raging) internal conflicts. You never really know where the drummer's going here--are we going to hear him get wicked?--and it's perfect because you don't really know where this story's going either. And then the drummer actually makes an appearance in the Broadway theater, and you ask yourself, "What the hell is he doing there?"

The structure of this movie isn't exactly new. Hitchcock pulled similar faux long-shot trickery in the brilliant Rope, and Alexandr Sokurov took us on an uninterrupted and beautiful trip through a museum in Russian Ark. I kind of felt like I knew what to expect going in, but Birdman surprised me with a story that did not occur over 119 minutes. Inarritu uses some clever transitions to move ahead a few hours or days while still maintaining the movie's long-take flow. This is a movie that swims, technically brilliant and so refreshing. You've really never seen anything like it, and I was in awe of how everybody involved in this made something so difficult look so damn easy. Just getting all of the timing down is a feat, and you have the same sense of "How'd they do that?" that you have when you think about the pyramids. There are certain shots or camera movements that will have you questioning how they were even accomplished, almost like parts of I Am Cuba. It's the sort of style and technical brilliance that would make subsequent viewings rewarding, especially since I know I was a little distracted by the movie making and maybe lost track of some of the pieces to what was really an intricate puzzle here. Then, you've got splashes of special effects before it all erupts into something that somebody wandering into the wrong theater could mistake for a summer blockbuster complete with explosions and CGI antagonists. They're curve balls in a movie filled with sliders and knuckleballs.

Every single performer in this had to bring his or her A-game to that theater. Otherwise, this doesn't work. And I was amazed at every single performance. I loved how the characters were developed anyway. The viewer's required to be a little patient with how some of their motivations and backgrounds are uncovered, but it's all so completely natural. Keaton, of course, is at the center of the thing since his alter-ego is in the title of the movie. Riggan's never a cliche. The character deepens and then deepens again when you get to the point where you don't think there's anything left to be revealed. Keaton's performance is just about perfect. He moves so naturally from this artificial coolness and calmness to unhinged rage. He's a character who has so obviously lost it in just about every way a person can lose it, but one who is so desperately trying to hide the fact that he's lost it from everybody, including himself. Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. They're all good. Seems like this is a really brave role for Norton who apparently is playing a slightly-exaggerated version of himself. The character's strong, not because he gets a satisfying character arc but because there are all these layers. There are times when Norton is an actor playing an actor who is not currently acting but definitely acting. There are a few moments, most notably when he's on the stage for the first time, when what he does is just magical. Watts and Stone are good, too, but all four of the leads are giving what are very obviously performances. There's something theatrical about it all which, since this is all about people putting on a play, doesn't seem entirely inappropriate. I might have been most impressed with what Zach Galifianakis was doing. He seemed the most natural here, the most capable of blending in with reality.

I'd love to see this again. The unreliable narration (weird to say about a film), the magical realistic qualities, and an ambiguous ending make you question what you really saw or really thought you saw for these two hours. I think there's a major clue to help us figure out what really happens, at least on one of its levels. Regardless, this is the kind of fascinating movie that a lot of people will love and that a lot of people will hate. But it's one that I think people will be talking about in fifty years, and they just don't make enough movies like that anymore.

Lucy

2014 sci-fi movie

Rating: 10/20

Plot: After a bag of blue drugs breaks in her abdomen, Lucy suddenly has the ability to use more of her brain than the average person. She uses it to become the main character in a pretentious movie.

Purple blobs, shots of random animals including a metaphorical mouse with a metaphorical cheesy trap, and an over-the-top villain who isn't afraid to get blood on his shirt. I was done with this within a few minutes and probably wouldn't have watched the rest of this if it wasn't for Scarlett Johansson. The whole experience might have been worth it to watch the special effects take over Johansson's body once those drugs are unleashed. She jerks around like she's in a 21st Century version of a Lionel Richie video [Note: "Dancing on the Ceiling"]. Of course, none of that makes any sense. Maybe my problem with this movie is the result of me trying to take things too seriously. There's a sort-of bloated philosophical message or two that almost feels like it's more important than the movie's story or its characters. It's not enough substance to make you forgive Luc Besson's grating ultra-modern style here or the scientifically-incoherent story. No matter how much Morgan Freeman's character tries to explain what's going on, you just don't buy it. And that's surprising because usually you can trust anything Morgan Freeman says because he's old and has that voice. And hell, he's a penguin expert! So when he tells us that dolphins are smarter than people, you have to believe him. And that style? It's hyperkinetic and often ugly. Do you like that modern zippy editing? Fast-motion, time-lapse stuff? Besson tries every trick in the modern action flick book, but it all feels cliched and boring. And there's more stock footage in this than in a 50's B-movie, but I won't complain about that because it did show a few animals doing it. During a 10% montage, things got Koyaanisqatsi-esque, but it definitely wasn't in a good way. I did enjoy yet another score by Eric Serra, however, and during that montage, he's got a little Philip Glass thing going on. As much as I've liked Scarlett Johansson in recent roles, I thought she was pretty awful here. I still enjoyed watching her, of course, but poorly-written lines combined with a dumb story that thought it was a smart story combined with a director who must have told her to act like a robot in some scenes made the performance almost laughable. There's one scene where she's acting kind of like a robot bird, and a phone conversation she has with her mother was really embarrassing. "Mom, I feel everything." Or, "I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth." Later, she says, "Can you believe that I can remember the sound of my own bones growing?" I couldn't believe that somebody that perfect would actually agree to say a line like that.

There's a scene with a monkey that I wanted to like a lot--a dual-reference to both a classic work of art involving fingers and an earlier scene in the movie. Unfortunately, I thought the monkey might have been Andy Serkis. God damn that guy. It wasn't him, by the way, but just the thought of him annoyed me.

I did find a new favorite actor name while watching the credits for this--Wolfgang Pissors. So getting to read that name and watching Scarlett Johansson writhe around a little bit. I guess it wasn't all bad.

The Suitor


1962 romantic comedy

Rating: 15/20

Plot: An astronomy enthusiast tries to find a woman to marry after his parents decide they want him to move out of the house.

More Pierre Etaix, a name I don't know how to pronounce. Etaix, it seems, isn't afraid to get a little absurd, and like his Yoyo and the great comedies of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd from the silent era, this has plenty of inventive sight gags and lots of charm. And it reminds me a lot of Jerry Lewis which might help explain why the French loved that guy so much. This is Etaix's first film, and although it's a good first film and humorous, it's not as inventive as Yoyo. Then again, few movies are as inventive as Yoyo. The Suitor isn't a silent movie, but its star is nearly silent, and the whole thing's got that feel of a silent movie. Those of you who find that kind of humor dated or obsolete won't enjoy this at all, but I'm really going to feel sorry for you. The story hardly matters here, probably like most of the world's best comedies. Instead, this is all about rooting for a character even though you will guess correctly exactly how this movie ends and chuckling at the shenanigans.

I'd write more, but I know a better use for my time--watching more Pierre Etaix movies!

Bad Movie Club: Road to Revenge


1993 action flick

Bad Movie Rating: 5/5 (Josh: 4/5; Fred: 5/5; Libby: 2/5; Kristen: did not finish)

Actual Movie Rating: 2/20

Plot: A disgraced ex-cop with a golden voice tries to stop a Satanic cult from doing really terrible things.

See that guy up there with the muscle shirt, the gun, and the mustache? The one with the tiny woman poised seductively on his shoulder? That guy's name is John De Hart. He's a man who can't write. He can't direct. He can't sing. He can't act. In Road to Revenge, he attempts to do all of those things and fails in the type of way that gives me a boner. And I know that you already need a break from this review after reading the word "boner," so here's a song you can listen to:


If you played that, you just heard a song that makes all other songs obsolete. If you didn't play that, you're making a giant mistake. John De Hart is the sort of delusional guy who I can really look up to, the type of guy who thinks he can do it all, can actually do nothing, and winds up making something that should be considered high art anyway. Ostensibly, this movie was made just so Mr. De Hart could touch naked women, something that doesn't make any sense because if I was John De Hart, I couldn't imagine having sex with anybody but myself. The acting is just so bad, De Hart trying his best to be a tough guy when he has absolutely no business being a tough guy. Of course, he doesn't stand out all that much because he's surrounded himself with an inept ensemble cast. The main villain's played by William Smith who growls all of his lines and apparently stole Burt Reynold's sunglasses. Smith seemed familiar, probably because he was modeling his villainy after somebody I've seen in a movie before, but I'm not sure which of his 273 film credits I would have seen him in. Definitely not Warriors of the Apocolypse [sic] in which he apparently plays the moon, but that's moving to the top of my list of movies I need to see. I can't recall another movie I've seen with a spelling error in the title like that. No, The Pursuit of Happyness doesn't count. Wings Hauser, a guy with a cool name, plays our hero's unhinged friend, so you should definitely check this out if you're a Wings Hauser completest. And you should be because the guy is awesome. If this isn't the worst performance of Wings Hauser's career, I want to immediately see everything else that the guy's done. Everybody in this movie is out-acted by an Indian mannequin that is in this movie, I'm guessing, because John De Hart had an Indian mannequin and thought it would be cool to have it in the movie. The mannequin does get multiple scenes, and I'd like to see a prequel or sequel to give him more of a back story. It takes a while for this movie's narrative to develop, and once it does, it doesn't really go anywhere. It does, however, have a twist at the end that's capable of making everything else that happened in the movie seem like genius. This movie's got the De Hart score that, if you loved that "Shimmy Slide" masterpiece up there, will be right up your alley; action sequences that make everybody seem about twice as old as they probably are; sex scenes that should actually be shown to children so that they'll be completely disgusted by the thought of intercourse and decide to be celibate; and some of the best one-liners you'll likely ever hear. And I'll borrow one to end this glowing review of my new favorite movie, Road to Revenge:

"Adiosi, Bela Lugosi."

Yoyo


1965 comedy

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Yoyo, the son of a circus performer and a very rich man, reunites with his father and later takes ownership of his property. And he looks for love.

(Note: This is very poorly written, and this is a movie that deserved better. It's the sort of blog post that I write and then ask myself, "Why do I even bother doing this?" Here's really all you need to know about this movie: I watched it with great joy and more than likely a giant stupid grin on my face, and if you are anything like me, you should watch this so that you have the same great joy and stupid grin.) 

You should be aware that this is the sort of thing--a French comedy that's an homage to 1920's comedies and the work of Tati--that I'm going to fall in love with a lot more easily than most people. This is really a movie in three parts. The first is nearly silent and just stuffed with sight gags and exaggerated sound effects. It follows the father character, played by director Pierre Etaix, around his life of luxury. He's pampered even more than Eddie Murphy's character in Coming to America except I'm not sure he has somebody around to wash his junk. He is rich enough to have his own band roll in (the tuning-up sequence is pretty funny, by the way) and his own flappers to come in and dance for him. If only I was rich enough to enjoy that sort of luxury. The visual humor is delightful and constantly surprising. In fact, that's the thing that really makes this whole movie magical--its constant surprises. With so many visual gags, you'd think you'd start to get the hang of things and start figuring out what to expect, but you really never do. The first part of this movie is also so beautifully shot. There's lots of symmetry in this guy's home, so much that when something isn't symmetrical, it actually feels like a continuity error. There's a really great shot of a circus leaving horizontally beside a reflecting pool that looks like it came straight from a Fellini film. The first sequence also contains title cards. The stock market crashes which throws us into the second chunk of Yoyo, the family reunited and traveling as circus performers. There's some terrific black humor with the stock market stuff, and there was just something lovely about the way this little family was filmed traveling in their wagon. Parts reminded me of a Mickey Mouse cartoon where he and Minnie are in a Winnebago. Some of my favorite movies are when directors treat real people like they're cartoon characters. The third section is all Yoyo as an adult clown. He's also played by the director. Sight gags still abound as this morphs into a romantic comedy that tips its hat at the pervading entertainment of the day--the television. That mirroring of the transformation of entertainment maybe isn't as complete as it needed to be, but anything more profound probably would have gotten in the way of the simple characters and storytelling. And that's really the reason I liked this so much. And if you have any interest in French comedies, Jacques Tati, or Keaton and Chaplin, you'll probably really like this, too. If not, I'm not even sure I want you reading this blog anyway.

Pierre Etaix. I'd never heard of him. Now I have and probably will work my way through his entire filmography more quickly than I should.

The X from Outer Space


1967 rubber monster movie

Rating: 8/20

Plot: Scientists venture toward Mars in a uranium-fueled Astro-Boat in order to solve the mystery of what's happening to astronauts who keep turning up missing. They accidentally bring home an "X" which escapes the lab and goes on a rampage.

Spoiler Alert: They end up defeating the guy in the rubber suit by covering it in jism. I thought you'd like to know that right off the bat.

Criterion released this Shochiku film, and it had to have been because they either lost a bet or wanted to see if they could piss off people who were pissed at their release of Armageddon even more. It does have a pretty kick-ass song over the title credits:


That's the kind of thing I wish somebody would play whenever I walked into a room. Of course, I doubt the lyrics are "Here comes Shane/with his fancy pants/watch him do/a little monkey dance," which would properly set people up for my room entry. The special effects are charmingly naive. The Astro-Boat looks pretty cool:


It's fueled by uranium lugged to the space center by a guy with suspicious facial hair. The cutesy moon base effects are antiquated, fun space silliness. My favorite effect might have been when our protagonists are put on trampolines behind some jagged rocks to make them weightless. Seems like movie people should have known better in 1967 since they didn't see Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong bouncing around like that. The jangly jazz during that scene also kind of clashes with the sci-fi adventure these characters are on. There's another great scene where a character announces that "small asteroids are hitting the ship" (asteroids in between the moon and earth apparently), and the sound effect--some TING sounds--are more cute than menacing. That is until one actually punctures the ship! What follows is a butt-suctioning sequence that might have been awkward comic relief. Again, the science is a little sketchy there. Seems like the poor scientist's rectum and intestines should have been sucked out of his body there. Now that would have been a classic movie moment!

Those characters are pretty stockish, including the inclusion of a space biologist bimbo who allows the screenwriters to be sexist in that quaint 1950's way. None of them seem to be taking any of this mission seriously even after being reminded that "the best people" have already died on similar missions. As expected, none of them really seem like the even know what a scientist is or does. Their most scientifically-impressive moment might be when they recognize that a pair of footprints are the same. And like a lot of these monster movies with limited budgets, we're kind of stuck with a limited amount of characters. There's definitely a lack of fleeing frightened Japanese people in this movie. The peril is far from universal.

But the monster? Oh, holy hell, the monster! The first glimpse is magical, especially if you go into this thing without seeing the poster like I did. It's some sort of chicken monster with triangular ears, protruding red eyes, wobbling antennae, and no shoulders. The suit's sagging in some of the wrong places, and whoever's in there doesn't seem very comfortable. He sort of swipes at things like he's having trouble seeing. Maybe that's why the X is so mad to begin with? In his first scene, it appears that he's burning a hillside with radioactive urine. The monster is never called "X" in this; instead, he's Guilala because that's what they decided to name the monster. The miniature work is pretty awful, and it completely took me out of the realism of the rest of the movie. Those toys just couldn't stop him! Not even a plane kamikaze-ing directly into his face can stop him! At one point, Guilala turns into a throbbing orange thing which must have been an idea the makers of this got after watching Godzilla turning into a throbbing orange thing in one of those movies. There's an enthralling jeep/monster chase sequence during the climax of this thing that is just amazing. Add the Astro-Boat battling some sort of flying danish and more space ejaculate than you'll ever find in any Godzilla or Gamera, and you've got a conclusion that will likely make any fan of sub-par rubber monster movies happy.

Shorts: 2 by Aki Kaurismaki


Rocky VI

1986 sports movie

Rating: none

Plot: A parody of Rocky IV, Kaurismaki style! Our hero, who looks slightly different, battles a Russian boxer named Igor.

This is not actually a follow-up to Rocky V although I understand why you might think it would be. The VI is actually supposed to be a IV upside-down since Kaurismaki and company are poking fun at the Cold War propaganda that is that embarrassing-but-still-sort-of-awesome fourth Rocky installment. Aki Kaurismaki said that this film is "my revenge against on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole." As satire, this is a little obvious, but it's still got your typical Kaurismaki deadpan humor that you just can't get enough of. The "Drago" character is played by a guy with comically thick eyebrows, Matti Pellonpaa makes some shadow figures on a wall, and there's an inspiring training montage featuring our Rocky, a scrawny guy wearing those ridiculously patriotic (though, if you know you're flag etiquette, not really kosher) red-white-and-blue Rocky trunks while riding a stationary bike. This is really just an extended music video for the Leningrad Cowboys (their first), a pretty great 80's techno song with yodeling and a growled "I must break you!"

The second one I watched was another Cowboys music video for a song called "Thru the Wire," something I had trouble even figuring out what language the lyrics were being sung in. It was English. This had a distressing lack of yodeling, but such a thick saxophone that you forgive it. The narrative for this one concerned a guy who looked a little like Curtis Armstrong from Revenge of the Nerds busting out of a prison somewhere between Utah and Alabama. Either that's representative of Kaurismaki's humor or the guy just doesn't know American geography very well. Of course, he goes to a "hampuris stand" for some food, so the whole thing's a continuity error anyway. This wasn't bad, but my favorite thing was the end that featured product placement for Coca Cola that was blatant enough to make me laugh out loud.




La Vie de Boheme


1992 comedy

Rating: 17/20

Plot: In Paris, a writer, a painter, and a composer form a sort-of friendship and try to survive together as starving artists.

I don't think there's any greater joy in my life than the joy I feel when watching an Aki Kaurismaki movie. I think my favorite thing about this movie is the way the floors creak. The sound is just so clear, and Kaurismaki minimalistically doesn't have much of a score here. So you hear all these sounds that somehow just help solidify the situation this trio of losers is in. I love the three leads, all Kaurismaki regulars. Andre Wilms has the perfect head for this Kaurismakian deadpan humor. Matti Pellonpaa, a guy who I've called my favorite actor in this blog, is the painter, a guy whose leather jacket clashes with this childlike naivete. He's also got a great walk in this. Kari Vaananen is the composer (his "new composition" might be the funniest moment), and he brings these great expressions to the table. The narrative sort of drifts between the three of them although the word "narrative" is used loosely here. Really, you never have much of a plot to get your teeth into here although there is the romantic relationship between Pellonpaa's character and woman named Mimi. When the three are together, they're like a deadpan Three Stooges, a Moe and Curly and Larry who haven't quite figured out that they're supposed to be funny. It's the kind of thing that can make me laugh though, even well past midnight when I'm on the couch by myself. It's the sort of thing that I feel has to be done, casting my laughter to the heavens. God, I love this guy's stuff so much! In a way, it reminds me of a quote about author Richard Brautigan. Somebody somewhere said that some day people would write "Brautigans" like they now write novels. I think the same could be said about Kaurismaki. He's in a genre all by himself. Well, maybe he's in there with Jim Jarmusch. I don't think there's been a writer/director since Charlie Chaplin who's more capable of making movies about human beings, specifically about how human beings are simultaneously really funny and really sad.

Because I'm not able to watch all of Kaurismaki's movies (thanks, Criterion, for this one!), I might have to watch all the ones that I've seen again. I honestly can't think of a better thing to do with my time.

Have I made it obvious how much I like this guy's stuff? Is there enough gushing?

Louis Malle's in this movie, but I didn't spot him.

Oh, a song I wanted to mention: "We'll do the bird dance in the broad daylight?" apparently by The Trashmen.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry


1974 crime movie

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A race car driver and his mechanic rob a supermarket and flee in a souped-up Chevy Impala. They also begrudgingly take on a passenger, an obnoxious woman named Mary. Mary's also apparently filthy, but I'm not sure how exactly. A perseverant sheriff tries to catch up with the trio.

Did you really need anything else in the early 70's than Peter Fonda driving around with his Peter Fonda sunglasses--a little like Burt Reynolds sunglasses but much different to any aficionados of either car movies or sunglasses. My favorite Fonda roles are the anti-heroic ones, and this is one of those characters with a tinge of. . .well, craziness. If I was born ten years before I was born, I would have watched this at a drive-in and probably wanted to be Peter Fonda instead of watching The Love Bug (a movie that actually came out six years earlier, but much easier for a kid to see because of the powerful Disney people) and wanting to be Dean Jones. Fonda--who else can say a misogynistic line like "I'm gonna braid your tits" or threaten to break every bone in a woman's crotch and still seem cool? The character in the other half of the title--who is called "Supercrotch" at one point in this movie--is played by cute-as-a-button Susan George, a woman with two eyes. Her performance is in no way good, but there's something naturally likable about her, especially in the way she giggles when she's referenced on the radio. And then there's Deke who should have gotten his name in the title of the movie, too, since he was just as important as the other two. They should have called him Harry and named the movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and Level-Headed Harry. I liked the Hemingwayan grace-under-pressure of that character played by Adam Roarke who was "Clint" in Frogs, a performance that was laughably bad. Then, we have the good (or bad, depending on who you ask) sheriff played by Vic Morrow, an actor who's just perfect for these kinds of roles. He gets a few great lines to chew on--"I could locate 50 blue Chevys in the time it'd take me to pick my nose," "See if you can get the word 'son of a bitch' in print," "What do you think I wanna do? Smell the seats?", "I'm gonna eat your lunch, you long-haired faggot." See, people just knew how to write better in the 1970's. Roddy McDowall gets a small part as the grocery store manager, too. But my favorite acting job is Eugene Daniels as Hank. Daniels was in another John Hough movie--Escape from Witch Mountain. Here, he drives an ultra-fast police cruiser and growls all his lines. "This is where I came fruuuum." It's pretty impressive work, but my favorite thing about it is that the character is completely unnecessary. For the car fetishist, there are plenty of shots of slick cars, and if you like car crashes, there are a few of those, too. And there's a car/helicopter chase that's pretty crazy. It's not, however, as crazy as the ending of this movie. Holy shit! I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen this, but it's either the worst ending of all time, like a kid was writing the script and didn't know how to end it, or the greatest ending of all time. I'm leaning toward the latter.

Seriously though. What makes Mary "dirty" in this?

Life Itself


2014 biographical documentary

Rating: 15/20

Plot: The life and work of renowned Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, a guy who was "born inside the movie of [his] life."

Roger Ebert changed the way I watch movies, and he changed my taste in movies. As a kid, I watched the Siskel and Ebert show and liked to see them on late night talk shows because I like to watch people bicker about anything. But then the Internet made Ebert's reviews accessible, and there was a time when I just devoured them. I didn't always agree with his opinions, but he opened my eyes to directors who were new to me and was actually the guy responsible for me having any interest at all in Buster Keaton. And I can't imagine my life without Buster Keaton. Without Ebert, I'm not sure I would have stumbled upon Roy Andersson or Werner Herzog as quickly. When Ebert died, it hit me a little harder than almost any other celebrity death, and I think it's because he had such an influence on how I love something that I love.

It's not surprising that that's a shared influence. Lots of big names credit Ebert with helping their careers. Herzog's in there talking about how Ebert is a "soldier of cinema," Man Push Cart guy Ramin Bahrani (who actually does a nifty Werner Herzog impression in this) tells a story that makes Ebert seem like the coolest guy ever, and Errol Morris even says he wouldn't have a career without him. Martin Scorsese, who also amusingly shares his ideas about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Ebert's lone screenplay), recalls a moving story as well. This isn't all just a documentary maker's attempt to drive Ebert into sainthood though. This covers less-than-heroic aspects of his life fairly as it moves along, one of those breezy sort of documentaries with loads of pictures and shambling jazz. This covers ground from gregarious Ebert's alcohol-fueled early career and his apparent obsession with boobs through those often ridiculous bickerings with television wife Siskel to some of his later decisions that one could argue weren't the greatest or fairest. This definitely doesn't hide the man's flaws. And it doesn't hide that the documentary subject is a dying man. Now, I'm a little skeptical about whether or not Hoop Dreams guy Steve James was making this documentary about Roger Ebert only to discover that he suddenly dying. My guess is that that's the story the two decided they wanted to tell. I don't even feel right about speculating about that sort of thing though. But unlike Siskel, who hid his illness from people and ended up hurting people, Ebert allows the camera to capture him during his most difficult and painful times. It's an honest look at his health problems and the emotions involved, the latter even more true with his wife Chaz. You get to see the guy slurping juice through a gastrostomy tube. Twice. I remember when Ebert lost the lower half of his jaw and then made sure everybody saw what he looked like without the lower half of his jaw. The bravery's commendable, probably even inspirational for those in the right contexts.

Of course, the parts that I and probably everybody else like most about this is the stuff with Siskel. Aired jarrings, outtakes, stories. They're described by somebody in this as "Siamese twins joined at the rear end," and their relationship is one of those happy accidents that producers frequently attempt to duplicate but that can never actually be duplicated. And when Siskel's wife read a letter from Ebert, I teared up.

If nothing else, this movie can remind a person that Leonard Cohen's music is capable of saving lives.

Lisztomania

1975 musical

Rating: 16/20

Plot: A partially (at least) fictionalized account of the life of composer and piano stud Franz Liszt, covering his fiendship with Richard Wagner (who was apparently a vampire) and his efforts to fight Nazism while flying spaceships.

I've never been a fan of Ken Russell's films, including Tommy which seems like something I should like for a variety of reasons. However, this had been on my list of films I really wanted to see for a while, probably because I'd heard there are an extraneous amount of phallic symbols. And there is a ton of phallic imagery including a scene with a Russian princess during which he sports a 10-foot erection that women straddle and form a chorus line on. Part of my issue with Ken Russell (and I realize this might seem contradictory from what I've written about other movies) is that the guy struggled to hone it in. He's got an overflowing palette of ideas, but it all just feels messy, like a sloppy joe where somebody put so much meat on the buns that you can't keep it off your pants. And you know what the best thing about Ken Russell is? It's probably the same thing. For whatever reason, I've always thought his movies were a little boring despite the originality. Lisztomania was a real phenomenon during the composer's heyday with groupie frenzy and hysterics. This movie, since it's also full of frenzy, has the perfect name then. There are really so many ideas thrown on the screen during this movie with equal parts biopic, adventure, bawdy sex rompage, comedy, musical, history, and science fiction that I'm pretty sure it's impossible to be bored. Confused, yes. But bored? I don't think so. It's all too gloriously audacious and whimsically offensive to be boring. Things start off right with a sex glittery metronome and some nipple action. The first chapter we get in the life of Liszt has him sword fighting with a cuckolded husband. And of course, that's going to involve bad visual puns, a Tarzan yell, those phallic symbols galore, cartoonish sound effects, and hoe-down music, the latter because that's just the kind of thing you have to expect when watching a movie about the life of a 19th Century composer. It's the kind of wild start where you're thinking that there's no way the director can maintain that flavor for the duration of a feature-length film. But hold on to your powdered wig because things are just getting started. There's a lengthy concert sequence where Daltry, playing Liszt as rock god, dances on top of his piano in a way that would make Jerry Lee Lewis's testicles combust. Women in green bonnets with flamboyant fans, Wagner in a sailor costume. It's really tough to imagine that things didn't go down exactly like that in early-19th Century concert halls. Things then calm down with a look at Liszt's domestic life before erupting again with that encounter with the Russian chick and that aforementioned ten-foot cock, revolution, vampirism, Superman allusions, abbot-hood, meetings with the pope (Ringo Starr, naturally), exorcism, Satanic Jews, Nazi Frankensteins, mechanical Norse mythological beings, machine-gun guitars, and spaceships. Whew. The movie's fucking insane, but it's also such a unique brand of musical biopic that you just can't ignore it. One thing Russell absolutely nails is the set design. It's the sort of thing that can only be conceived and birthed in the mid-70's, and it's a style that clashes with the essence of the stuff 1800's in an almost breathtaking way. It feels slightly otherworldly, like something extraterrestrials trying their damnedest to reinterpret human beings after flipping through history of the world pop-up books and self-help sex manuals. It's too refined to be outsider art, but it still has that feel. It's all undeniably demented, but there's enough that resembles genius here and more than enough wild ideas to make it strangely lovable. It actually makes me want to give Tommy or Altered States another spin.

Black History Month Movie Fest: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song


1971 movie rated X by an all-white jury

Rating: 15/20

Plot: A black man is on the run from the law after defending another black man beaten by police.

You could argue that this isn't technically competent, and it's not very well acted. And no, I'm not saying anything against "the black community" which stars in this or Brer Soul. And, you know, the narrative is really weak. I mean, I'm pretty lazy with plot synopses sometimes, but my one-sentence plot summary up there is probably about twice as long as it needs to be. But you don't watch a movie like this 40-some years after its release and compare it to other movies or ignore its original context. And you don't really watch a movie like this because you want to see good storytelling or good acting. You watch a movie like this with your corduroy bell bottoms and double-breasted peacoats and try to imagine what it would feel like watching this in 1971. It's tough to imagine that context now because racism has virtually disappeared from America.

Regarded--legitimately or not could be argued--as the first blaxploitation movie, this just might be the most revolutionary one as well. Everything is so blatant here, all in your face whether you want it there or not. I mean, the movie starts with a sex scene between a little kid (Peebles' son) and a middle-aged woman. It reminds me of how I lost my virginity actually. Well, the gospel music in the background did anyway. The sex scenes are very tame for a movie originally rated X. The "all-white jury" must have also been all prude. There's a wild sex show before our inciting incident sends Melvin Van Peebles running, a sex show complete with sparklers and a fake beard. Most of the sex scenes just make you wonder if Melvin Van Peebles made this only because he wanted the world to know what his ass looks like. Excuse me--his asssss. What's strange is that Peebles doesn't even seem all that good at sex. He's just kind of ends up on top of women and then doesn't move. It's the same technique that his kid has in that first shocking scene actually. It's implied that his penis is large, but you'd still think you have to, you know, move or something. Not that I'm a sex expert or anything. Anyway, for a movie that is pretty much just Peebles running around with sex scenes interrupting things, you'd think this would get pretty boring, but it's really not. It's like avant-garde sleaze, and with its jump cuts, editing, odd camera angles, hazy psychedelic glaze, 70's grime, and split screen stuff, it might actually be neighbors with El Topo or something. It at least lives in the same neighborhood. I like what Peebles said about the direction for this thing, like they just took everything out of the cupboard and mixed it together. It certainly feels that way, and it's a mess of a movie, but that somehow makes it that much more likable. It's trashy, but it's impressively trashy. If you're close enough to the screen, you almost believe you could get a little bit of Peebles' sweat on you. He wrote this thing, directed, starred, and contracted gonorrhea. He even wrote the music though he wasn't a musician. Earth, Wind, an Fire (before they were Earth, Wind, and Fire, I believe) were the musicians, but never got paid because the check bounced. It's a groovy soundtrack, and its chaos adds to the flavor of the visual chaos. All you really need to hear is that "Come on Feet" song that seems to last for thirty minutes. This movie starts with a "traditional prologue from the Dark Ages": "Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality." If this is reality, it's an exaggerated and bloated one. Sweet Sweetback's a hyperbole of an anti-hero, and his journey is redundant and dizzying. I suspect that's all intentional however as his story, sadly as relevant now as it was in 1971, is really either the same song or just another verse of the same song.

My favorite scene is a completely random one--a shot of a shoeshine guy who enthusiastically does his job before turning around and giving the guy's foot a top-of-shoe lap dance. I'm not even sure what to call that. I do realize the top of one's shoe is not called a lap. I also liked a wild preacher dude ("That's why the man's down on you!"), an Amazonian biker woman, and finding out about the healing powers of sand and urine. I'm not sure about this movie's ending though. It was really gruesome and hard to watch, and I'm not sure the victims were the right ones.

No, most people who watch this aren't going to think it's great. But it's undeniably a film that consistently challenges, assaults your senses, and sticks to your hippocampus like a used condom.

I am not going to proofread this one.

Riot in Cell Block 11


1954 social commentary

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Prisoners riot and take prison guards hostages in order to get their demands met.

Gritty isn't going to work all that well in a movie if it doesn't seem all that realistic. This movie's gritty, but it's a very PG grittiness that dates this movie and lessens any impact it might have 51 years after its release. The movie also ends up feeling very preachy. It gives it this self-importance that made it a little more difficult for me to enjoy the movie. It's the kind of thing that could have been summed up in five or ten minutes so that even at eighty minutes, this feels a little too long. I do like the realism that's added with the movie being filmed in an actual prison, and the rioting is all kinds of crazy cinematic chaos, as opposed to normal chaos which isn't crazy at all. Visually, it all seems pretty rebellious for 1954, and the social commentary, though a little clumsy because it's so explicit, makes it at least slightly revolutionary. It's not something I'm really interested in ever seeing again, but it's the kind of thing I'm glad I watched once.

Bad Movie Club: The Last Leprechaun


1998 family leprechaun movie

Bad Movie Rating: 2/5 (Libby: 1/5 ["Pure feces."]; Josh: 1/5; Kristen: 5/5; Fred: 1.5/5 [with a bonus point for a leprechaun mooning]; Jeremy: 2/5)

Actual Movie Rating: 8/20

Plot: A pair of annoying children discover that their future step-mother is a witch. They seek the help of a leprechaun--apparently the last one--in order to stop her from getting more power and engaging in unexplainable acts of evil. Seriously, I doubt anybody can even explain them.

This was not a very engaging bad movie, but I did really like the unhinged but enthusiastic performance of Veronica Hamel as the witch. Special effects in 1998 must have been in a transitional stage. Or maybe that's just an excuse that the producers of The Last Leprechaun could use. There are still those jagged colored lightning effects that were ubiquitous in movies that featured wizards or Jedi wannabes in the 80's, and then there was some really weird CGI stuff that clashed with everything real around it. It was jarring. The leprechaun effects were simple but effective enough. He zipped around quickly like he was in a Benny Hill skit sometimes, he disappeared in glittery bursts, he disappeared without glittery bursts. And in one wild climactic scene, he expanded for reasons that didn't make a lot of sense to me. Of course, I'm not exactly up on my leprechaun lore. Bad special effects in a family movie like this could be forgiven if the story was any good. Or even if it was comprehensible. This really isn't either good or comprehensible. There was a weird dynamic between the children and the villains. Most of the movie seems to be Veronica Hamel threatening the children or attempting to do terrible things to them while you know that the children are going to survive the movie unscathed. Actually, you're a little disappointed about that because the children aren't exactly likable. They're jerks even before they've got concrete evidence that their step-mom is up to no good--a couple "little shits" as one of my bad movie pals said. And the leprechaun isn't really all that likable either although I'm not sure leprechauns really are supposed to be. Maybe that's the problem with this movie. The leprechaun, even though he gets to be in the title of the movie, just isn't in the movie that much, and when he is, he really is never interesting. The closest he comes to being interesting is when he's walking up at the beginning of the movie (probably because we're not bored with him yet),  mooning people (leprechaun trash talk), or stealing a cake (just because). Oh, and there's a scene where he catapults himself a great distance, a method of transportation that I didn't know leprechauns employed. "Big Mick" (Michael Walter) plays the leprechaun although most of him is make-up. He does have an impressive and--dare I say--sexy physique. The best thing about him is his name--Finn McCool. Any enjoyment I might have gotten from seeing a little person in a leprechaun outfit or watching Vernica Hamel do her thing might have been ruined by a really irritating score.

New masturbation euphemism I learned from this movie: "Take care of business down at the logging camp"

Rififi

1955 heist movie

Rating: 19/20

Plot: Men have trouble.

Exquisitely executed, just like the nearly silent heist scene at the heart of the movie. Dassin gets great quiet performances, necessary in a movie that focuses so much on the minutia. Dassin himself plays the safecracker, and although it's the performance that threatens to get in the way the most here, it's still a cool character. And Cesar's final scene might have the most impact, partially because of how it's shot (a slowly backing camera) and partially how it reminds me of samurai fiction. The attention to detail in this is the kind of thing that excites me. I just dig that minutia. I love how this thing builds and then almost swoons to this fatalistic ending. You sort of feel that you know where this one's going, but it doesn't matter because you enjoy the trip there so much. Modern crime movies always feel a little cold. With Rififi, you really not only feel for the characters deeply but you sort of identify with them. Very nearly a flawless movie here, and although that heist scene is the one scene that everybody talks about--probably deservedly as it's almost like a little crime ballet in the middle of the movie, thuggish dance sans music--I really liked a car ride at the end, too. This movie was hugely influential. I can't imagine my career as a jewel thief being nearly as successful without this movie.

Judex


1963 crime movie

Rating: 16/20

Plot: A crooked financier gets some threatening love letters in which the mysterious Judex threatens to kill him unless he gives back money he's apparently stolen from others. There's a funky bird party where Judex shows up to perform some magic tricks and kill the host. Or does he? After his daughter decides that she doesn't want the inheritance, a criminal female gets involved and things get a little complex. Manigances! 

It's the bird heads that got me, Channing Pollock showing off sleight of hand trickery with some doves while all these bird-headed people look on. It's entirely unclear to me how the murder actually happens because I didn't see Favraux actually drink from the glass Judex handed him. But maybe there was some more sleight of hand that I missed. This Georges Franju movie is based on a French serial from the 19-teens, a masked criminal saga from Louis Feuillade who also did Fantomas. Franju pays homage respectfully. The stylistic touches are subtle ones, but this does have a flavor. Judex's story is a little hard to take seriously, but that's part of the charm. I'm not exactly sure when it's supposed to take place, but there are some science fiction touches that don't really seem to belong anywhere. Judex has mechanical secret doors and a nifty surveillance system. More of that kind of shit, and this would have been like a less-comic Batman (the television one). The title character is interesting although I wish he would have done a little more. He's a cool cat though. The first shot of him with his bird mask is amazing, a slow pan from his feet all the way to the crest. There are some other great visuals, too--a woman floating, a nun in the middle of the road, the villainous woman in her cat burglar or equally-sexy nun outfits. I don't always understand Francine Berge's character's decision-making, but I enjoyed watching her trying to execute it all. Georges Melies' son Andre is also a doctor in this movie. I also really enjoyed the music here, especially during the title sequence. It's the second great Maurice Jarre score I've heard in the past week. Anyway, really cool movie, probably more so if you have any interest in 60's homages to silent cinema or somewhat-confusing French crime capers or Georges Franju. 

Cul-De-Sac


1966 drama

Rating: 17/20 (Buster: no rating)

Plot: A pair of inept criminals limp to the beachfront castle home of a effeminate businessman and his hot French wife and abuse their telephone, eat their eggs, and kick their chickens.

There are spoilers, but they're all in the first paragraph.

Buster didn't catch the majority of this movie, but she did watch the final 20 minutes with me and said, "That's a really sad ending, but a good movie" as she watched Donald Pleasence sitting on a rock at the end. And she's right. Mostly because the entire movie kind of is like a wrestling match between this murky madcap humor and this hopeless tension, and while you sort of figure that things will work out eventually for at least one or two of the characters because movies that are comedic at all tend to work out in the end, it just doesn't. So Buster was very perceptive. She couldn't have understood all the underlying emotions these characters carried with them. Lionel Stander's carrying around this wounded pride, the loss of a friend, and likely a latent homosexuality. Pleasence seemingly carries the weight of every decision he's ever made, this powerlessness, a strange fatigue, and likely a latent homosexuality. And Francoise Dorleac has a restlessness, too much youth, and too much power.

Much of the greatness of this movie is in its gaps. And in its chickens. Lots of chickens in this, and I've always thought chickens looked better in black and white movies anyway. I loved one shot of a chicken running from a pushed car and another with a chicken poised on a window sill with another chicken walking in the background. It makes you wonder--did Polanski direct the chickens? The movie's beautifully shot with a beautiful beachside castle, a beautiful beach, and a beautiful Francoise Dorleac whose character thankfully sleeps naked. And I just love how the clouds look in this movie. The most technically-brilliant scene has to be a quietly-magical one-shot scene on a beach, an impressive display of timing and movement that might blow your mind if you're paying attention. Of course, it's been established that I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. But gunshots at a plane, Dorleac running off and returning with a skinny dip in between, and Pleasence eating sand and clouds? It's just so cool. But this is really a movie about the characters and their dynamics. The performances from the four leads are terrific even though I don't think you could call them great acting performances. I always love Pleasence, and he gets himself a character here that somehow manages to be simply drawn and complex at the same time. Dorleac has that 1960's goddess vibe, a sexy aloofness maybe, but there are subtleties to her work here, too. Lionel Stander's crook is the most explicitly comic character, but there's a gruff to the comedy, Stander growling every line like he's Fred Flintstone. And he gets some great lines, nearly-satirical gangster goofiness like "My name ain't George and I don't have horns. I could punch that pretty puss of yours like a pumpkin." And then, you've got the always-great Jack MacGowran, the kind of actor who could even be funny when he's lying there dead. He's part of a very funny visual gag featuring a car where he gets to say "Son of a bitch!" and "I've got a problem here!" It's also great so see character's rocking the Hitler mustache.

Sometimes, I wonder if Roman Polanski is my favorite director. Is he? It reminds me that I've still never seen The Pianist.