film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vertigo (1958)

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So my reaction to Hitchcock’s Vertigo followed three rather unique and distinct phases, namely:

  1. Wow, I….suddenly miss seeing films on a big screen.
  2. What the hell.
  3. No, seriously, what the hell.

Allow me to explain.

I miss seeing films on a big screen.

For as long as I can remember, I have been largely indifferent to the visual element of the films I’ve seen. Not completely so – if there’s a shot that is set up especially well, I’d notice that (there are shots in the Tom Hanks film Road To Perdition or the sci-fi film The Cell I’m thinking of in particular), but not to the point where I’d feel deprived if I saw them on home video. “So I see a pretty picture or a good shot in a smaller size,” was my attitude. “So what, it’s still the same image.”

So I was very surprised to find myself watching Saul Bass’ title credits and viscerally wishing I was seeing them on a big screen. I imagined what it would be like to have those dizzying, Spirograph-like patterns completely overwhelming my field of vision, wrapping around even into the peripheral, and for the first time, I felt deprived not having that experience. I can’t say for sure whether that is because of my becoming more immersed in film as a whole, or whether I just miss being in movie theaters; but it was a reaction I wasn’t expecting.

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And there are certainly shots during the film where I knew a big screen would have enhanced things as well. The “vertigo” of the title is the bane of detective John “Scottie” Ferguson’s existence (Ferguson is played by Jimmy Stewart); a debilitating fear of heights that hinders him during a rooftop chase. When he slips during the chase and another officer falls to his own death, Ferguson throws in the towel altogether, settling in to a bit of a life sabbatical spent idling around San Francisco and bugging his ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). But an old college friend turned shipping magnate (Tom Helmore) persuades him to take on one last it of detective work as a favor.

All Ferguson’s buddy Gavin wants him to do is follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and protect her….from herself. Sort of. Madeleine has been slipping into weird fugue states, Gavin claims, temporary trances where she loses all sense of where she is and seems unaware of what she’s doing; she has no memory of them when she snaps out of it, either. Gavin even offers a far-fetched theory that Madeleine is being temporarily possessed. But Ferguson of course finds this ridiculous, and agrees to follow Madeleine around and at least get more info on her actions.

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While possession doesn’t seem likely, Madeleine does seem strangely obsessed with a specific dead person. On his first day, Ferguson tails her first to a florist’s, where she selects a very specific bouquet. She visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, lingering there for several minutes. Then she visits an art museum, staring at a portrait of that same Carlotta Valdes – who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine and holds a similar bouquet. Finally, she wanders into the McKittrick Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast run out of an old Victorian mansion, and takes a seat by the window of a top floor room. Ferguson slips in, asking the clerk to escort him up to Madeleine’s room – but when they get there, she’s vanished. Hmm.

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Midge and Gavin help Ferguson fill in some holes. Midge is a local history buff and digs up Carlotta Valdes’ story; she’d been the mistress of a wealthy man during Gold Rush San Francisco, but when she had a child, her lover had kept the child as his own and dumped Carlotta, who spent the rest of her days as a recluse in the house now operating as the McKittrick. Gavin adds the detail that Carlotta was Madeleine’s great-grandmother – but that Madeleine didn’t know any of this. Intrigued by the story – and by the beautiful Madeleine – Ferguson rededicates himself to his duties, so he is fortunately on hand the next day when instead of ending up at the McKittrick, Madeleine drives to Fort Point on San Francisco Bay and throws herself in. Ferguson heroically leaps to her rescue, bringing her back to his place to dry off and warm up and snap out of it.

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A grateful Madeleine offers to hang out with Ferguson the next day as a companion instead of having him follow her. Over the course of the day she tells Ferguson about the weird dreams she has sometimes, disjointed images from Carlotta’s life – the McKittrick, an open grave, a convent at a Spanish mission – and both of them realize they’re strongly attracted to each other. Ferguson takes her to a mission which could be from her dreams, and Madeleine says she recognizes it – so much so that she is suddenly seized with a compulsion to run up into the bell tower. Ferguson chases after her, but his vertigo slows him down – so all he can do is watch helplessly as she disappears up the stairs ahead of him, and then moments later, her body plummets past him to the ground below.

What The Hell.

Now, that felt like it could have been one heck of an ending right there. But there was another good bit of the story after this – after a seriously depressed Ferguson, consumed by guilt, checks himself into an asylum for nearly a year. When he gets out, he revisits some of the same spots from his brief relationship with Madeleine – the restaurant where he first saw her with Gavin, the museum with Carlotta’s portrait, the florist’s shop where she bought the bouquet. Occasionally he’s started when he sees another woman with a similar blond updo or a similar gray suit, but each time, when he looks closer, it’s not Madeleine. How could it be.

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So it’s odd when he sees another woman – brunette instead of blond, saucy instead of refined – who reminds him of Madeleine. He follows her to the boarding house where she lives and confronts her in her room, which understandably alarms her and forces her to prove that she’s not Madeleine – her name is Judy Barton, a secretary from Kansas who’s been living there in that boarding house for three years now. An apologetic Ferguson offers to take her to dinner for her trouble; and on this rather odd foundation, the two begin dating. Except as time goes on, Ferguson gradually encourages her to wear different jewelry. Then he buys her a suit to match Madeleine’s. Then he persuades her to tone down her makeup, like Madeleine did. Then he persuades her to dye her hair blond, and wear it in an updo…

So, yeah. This was the part where I started thinking “what the hell.”

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Mind you, shortly after we meet Judy there is a revelation about her which makes Ferguson’s obsession make a sort of sense in context. But it’s still really, really creepy watching Ferguson fall into the same depths of obsession with a dead woman that Madeleine had – and watching how he’s manifesting it by turning a different woman into Madeleine. There’s a famous scene where Judy has finally fully transformed herself into “Madeleine” – the same suit, the same hair, the same makeup – and as she and Ferguson study each other, she looks profoundly disturbed, while he looks elated and lustful. Other reviewers have spoken about how poignant this scene is, how it plays up how trapped Judy is – but they’re reading Judy’s discomfort as heartbreak, while what I see is fear.

No, Seriously, What The Hell.

I started watching this alone, and Roommate Russ came home at this point. He’d already seen it; so when I paused the film to give him my initial “what the hell” quip, he simply smiled and said “you’ve got another ten minutes to go, right? ….there’s more. Buckle up.” He refused to elaborate further, saying that if he did so it would be “a crime against cinema.”

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He was right. There is more. And it would indeed be a crime against cinema for me to elaborate. But it was enough for me to renew my “What the hell” reaction, this time for an entirely different reason, and enough to start me wondering just how many psychological studies may have been done about Hitchcock over the years. Because – based on that ending, and given some of his other works, dude had some issues, y’all.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cairo Station (1958)

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This 1958 Egyptian work has an impressive reputation; some reviews I’m reading compare it to Hitchcock’s work, and others compare it to the Italian neo-realists. I can see cases for both – and I can also see a uniquely 21st-century resonance, as the main character is basically an incel before there was a word for such a thing.

That main character is Qinawi (Youssef Chahine), a lame drifter who ends up at Cairo’s main train station. The kindly newsstand owner Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi) takes him in and gives him a job selling newspapers on the platforms, and also finds a shed somewhere in the trainyard for the homeless Qinawi to live in. However, that’s all backstory for the main event, dispatched in a quick montage with Madbouli narrating things for us; the montage ends with Madbouli stopping by the shed to find that Qinawi has practically wallpapered it with pin-ups of half-naked lingerie models, and warns us in the narration that “I probably should have forseen where Qinawi would end up.”

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Madbouli pretty much drops out of the main narrative after this, leaving the story to Qinawi, and his desperate and unrequited obsession with Hannuma (Hind Rostrum), one of a group of women who peddle bottles of soda to train passengers. Hannuma and the others aren’t exactly allowed to do this, mind you, so they’re also trying to always stay one step ahead of the police and the station’s manager. But Hannuma’s hunky fiancé Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) is one of the station’s porters, and is also trying to start a union that will bring equal opportunity to all who work at the station – legalizing the soda girls, getting equal pay for the porters, and generally improving work conditions overall. On the day of our story, Siri and Hannuma are both on their last day at work before they hop a train themselves, heading to Hannuma’s home town to get married.

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Even so, Qinawi goes for broke and proposes to Hannuma, formally presenting her with a gold necklace of his mother’s and promising her a fine house by the sea in his own home village, lots of children and a whole herd of cattle. The saucy Hannuma teases him as she shoots him down – she’s already marrying Siri, she laughingly tells him, and besides how could he give her all that when he’s flat broke with a bad leg? As she flounces off, the heartbroken Qinawi glances at the papers he’s been selling – especially at the cover story, a lurid article about a woman’s headless torso that was discovered in a crate at another train station. She must have been murdered elsewhere and then shoved into the freight compartment, the article states, but it’s not clear where, and police are stumped and the killer may get away with it. This inspires Qinawi – he will give Hannuma one more chance, and if she still turns him down, then she’ll be sorry…

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Another couple subplots turn up now and again, like Siri’s unionizing efforts and another low-key tale of a young woman trying to secretly meet her boyfriend at the station before he leaves for a job across the country. There are also other little slice-of-life moments with the various passengers and travelers passing through – customers squabbling at ticket counters, women scolding kids, men asking for directions. There’s a whole sequence where Hannuma jumps aboard one train to sell her soda and finds a rock band rehearsing in there, complete with band members’ girlfriends throwing a dance party, and she joins in with the dancing until she sees Qinawi leering at her through a window and books it. But Qinawi’s obsession with Hannuma was the real story for me – even Siri’s unionizing took a back seat, as it ultimately just involved him making a couple of impassioned speeches and the station manager making a couple of straw-man arguments against him. Siri even seems to get bored with the unionizing at one point and slips off to canoodle with Hannuma mid-day (although, that sequence did start with him scolding her for taking too many risks, and it’s implied he slaps her a couple times – which wasn’t that great a look).

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But all the other stuff serves to anchor Qinawi’s story in a place – the weird and bustling underworld occupied by the staff at Cairo’s station. So when the film moves into its dramatic final act, and suddenly all the station’s workers are caught up in figuring out where Hannuma is and whether Qinawi’s done anything to her, you get that this isn’t just a bunch of strangers getting swept up in the story, this really is a bunch of co-workers coming to the rescue of one of their own – and at the same time, they’re also sympathetic to Qinawi’s backstory and want things resolved as painlessly for him as possible. Because he’s not a random stranger, he’s Qinawi, and he also needs help.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2021 Oscars – LiveBlog

Hello folks! I’ve tried liveblogging Oscar ceremonies in the past with limited success – I’ve had batteries die and an entire entry just erase itself spontaneously. But this year I’m at home on a much more reliable computer, and I am PLUGGED IN, so let’s see how this goes.

I’ll start with one nod to the red carpet – it is now 7:48 pm, Eastern time, and right now one of the biggest stories about Red Carpet Looks is Colman Domingo – who was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and is someone I worked with once upon a time – rolling up in a neon-hot-pink Versace suit. Colman is a delightful person and he is basically living his best life.

Colman Domingo in Atelier Versace | 2021 Oscars – The Fashion Court

Right – time to wait for the show proper.

8 pm

And we’re off – in a train station. But Questlove is doing the music for this! Interesting.

8:05 pm

Aw, I love this little “meet the nominees” thing they are doing with the screenplay nominees.

8:07 pm

And the Best Original Screenplay – Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman! ….Okay, I’ll take it.

8:11 pm

Best Adapted Screenplay – The Father! Yeah, I’ll take that too – it was a unique approach.

8:22 pm

Me to Roommate Russ: “Do we think that Another Round is the one that won Best International Feature because people know who Mads Mikkelson is?”

Roommate Russ: “Yeah, probably.”

8:27 pm

For the record: both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya should have been Best Actor nominees, not Best Supporting Actor, in my opinion.

8:30 pm

Daniel Kaluuya, damn straight. But this was a tight one.

8:33 pm

There should be way more applause at Daniel Kaluuya’s speech….

8:41 pm

Boy, Viola Davis was really excited about the Makeup team from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom winning their Oscar.

8:56 pm

Oh, I am so glad that Bong Joon Ho is appearing with his by-now-ubiquitous translator Sharon Choi for his appearance instead of just having him subtitled.

9:08 pm

So yeah, Sound of Metal winning for the Sound Design makes absolute sense.

9:26 pm

I have to admit it does not surprise me at all that Soul won for best Animated Feature – it was the Disney film, after all.

9:50 pm

That personal recollection from Steven Yeun watching Terminator 2 was kind of adorable.

9:54 pm

Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress – and she is JUST as fun as I hoped she would be.

10:05 pm

Okay, I can accept Mank for art design. But that music choice Questlove had for when they were taking the stage was….odd.

10:16 pm

Harrison Ford kicked off the intro to Best Film Editing by reading some editing notes made for Blade Runner; he is such a delightful snarker that now I want to see him do a buddy comedy with Yuh-Jung Youn.

10:33 pm

So I was in my 20s when Nine Inch Nails was big, and seeing Trent Reznor winning for the Best Score for a Disney film is surreal.

10:44 pm

I really really want to know what Andrea Day said that got blocked out for that game Questlove was playing. Or Glenn Close.

10:46 pm

Me: “So…I want to make sure I really did just see Glenn Close doing Da Butt at the Oscars. Did you see that too?”

Roommate Russ: “I mean….I did put a lot of gin in this drink, but I’m pretty sure I saw that too.”

11:00 pm

….Why is Rita Moreno covering the Best Picture before we’ve given out the acting nominations?

11:06 pm

I’m not mad at Nomadland winning for Best Picture. But – I would very much like to know why the Acting awards aren’t given out yet?

11:11 pm

Yeah, this shakeup of the traditional order is almost an unofficial confirmation that Chadwick Boseman will take it for Best Actor.

…And let’s see what Frances McDormand does for her speech this year.

11:14 pm

Best Actor goes to – whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

Okay, we have switched off the Oscars here, and that ending honestly felt super-weird – Anthony Hopkins winning but not being there to make a speech, and so the ceremony felt super-rushed at the end there.

Extra Credit, film, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 4

It seems that my final two films also have a theme – they both deal with the 1960s counterculture, and the events referenced briefly in one are the entire content of the other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7' is as timely as ever | The Stanford Daily

The Trial Of The Chicago 7

In any of my reviews, I try to own up if I have a particular background or perspective which I suspect might influence my opinion of a film. Now, you wouldn’t think this film – an Aaron Sorkin legal drama about the trial of the seven men accused of conspiring to promote a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention would have any particular resonance with me.

However.

In early 1968, just where the film begins, my parents were newlyweds. The film opens with a montage of the government amping up the draft and young men receiving their draft notices; my father worked at a shipyard in Connecticut designing subs for the military, which exempted him from the draft. Midway through this montage there is a clip of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign; my father worked for the Kennedy campaign, and RFK’s assassination soured my father on political activism for years afterward. Shortly after Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, right about the time when John Mitchell charges his lawyers with prosecuting the Chicago 7 on the film, the draft laws changed and my father was no longer exempt and was entered into the draft pool. He actually had his number called up a few months later and even received an appointment for his physical – but then my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, and my father was released from the draft. This film ends on February 20th, 1970, on the date when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) made a statement at the Chicago 7’s sentencing hearing; five days after that, I was born.

So for the entire action of this film, I kept thinking about how just off camera, while all this was going on, my parents were going to doctors’ visits, preparing a nursery, having a baby shower, and bracing themselves for parenthood, and I was waiting to make my entrance into the world. Hayden’s statement during their sentencing was simply to read a list of all of the servicemen who had died in Vietnam during the course of this trial, and all I could think was that these names stood for 5,000 couples who were never going to get the chance to do what my parents were doing, and 5,000 children who were never going to be born.

…And then, the film ended. And….I snapped out of it.

Roommate Russ has his own quip akin to my “Oskar Flatpack” one: “Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin.” Aaron Sorkin has by now cornered the market on idealistic depictions of government, and of quixotic courtroom dramas; they’ve often got enjoyably quippy dialogue and attention-getting dramatic moments, but they can also be very polemic. There are several scenes where Abbie Hoffman (remarkably well played by Sacha Baron Cohen) locks horns with co-defendant Tom Hayden; they’re from two very different progressive organizations and have two very different approaches to activism, with each frequently accusing the other of endangering the cause. So of course Sorkin includes a scene towards the end where they make peace, and Hoffman admits to admiration of Hayden’s passion and dedication. And of course there’s a scene where the buttoned-up prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) starts to feel some compassion for the defendants, even as he is prosecuting them.

It’s good that the events of this film be told. It’s a story of a definite moment of overreach on the part of our government. However, I question whether Aaron Sorkin should have been the one to tell it.

Poster For Judas And The Black Messiah — BlackFilmandTV.com

Judas And The Black Messiah

Judas And the Black Messiah, ironically, offers a very good argument in favor of who could have told the story of the Chicago 7 Trial instead. However, it’s better that they told this story instead; the story of the government’s assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton appears very briefly as a character in Trial of the Chicago 7, in fact, and his assassination is addressed; but with none of the weight and sensitivity this film brings to the events.

Ironically, the plot sounds almost trite itself. Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who makes his scores by posing as an FBI agent and “confiscating” his targets’ cars; when he’s caught, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) points out the FBI-impersonation business carries a much harsher penalty than theft alone. But he can drop those charges if O’Neill does something for him – infiltrate the Black Panthers and turn FBI informant, reporting on the actions of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neill starts out indifferent to the Panthers’ cause, but over time comes to admire Hampton – and becomes profoundly conflicted about his assignment.

Kaluuya and Stanield are just as good – if not better – than the cast of Chicago 7. And for certain, the script is much better – there’s more nuance, more intimacy. There’s a heartbreaking sub-plot involving Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a poet turned activist; in one scene, when she is pregnant with the couple’s child she shares a poem with Hampton when he asks her whether her pregnancy gives her concerns about his activism. She manages to convey both support for the cause while simultaneously arguing against dying for it.

For the Black Panthers were not just the terrorist organization the government made them out to be. Most of Hampton’s activism in the film involves free meals for schoolkids, a free medical clinic for people of color, and outreach towards other groups of disenfranchised people – including one eye-popping scene where they visit a group of poor white activists in a room bedecked with a Confederate flag, and actually win them over. Hampton is O’Neill’s best hope for a life of dignity – and O’Neill has been sent to betray him.

I won’t divulge the information – but the title cards at the end, detailing how everyone else in the story fared after Hampton’s assassination, were heartbreaking.

And that’s our Best Picture roundup for 2021! We’ll be watching the ceremony tonight, and I may try liveblogging it – I may have better technical equipment on hand than I did last year. Fingers crossed.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mon Oncle (1958)

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This is Jacques Tati’s second film to feature Monsieur Hulot, casting himself as the gently rumpled character we first saw in M. Hulot’s Holiday. Here we get to see a little bit about Hulot’s home life, but more so that of his nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt).

M. Hulot lives in the top floor apartment in a crumbling building in Paris, one he has to navigate a bizarre maze of hallways and stairs to reach. He has no phone; people must call the payphone at the cafe next door and ask whoever answers to go fetch him. He has no family of his own, but he’s got a lot of neighbors who know him, and the daughter of his landlady has a crush on him, one he indulges while maintaining decorum. He has no job, but still manages to bumble along okay – and this makes him the perfect after-school sitter for Gérard, collecting the boy from school every day and keeping an eye on him for a couple hours before seeing him back to his parents’ ultra-modern house in a new suburb just outside the city. Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) tolerates her brother’s quirks, but her husband M. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), a high-placed executive at a rubber hose factory, thinks Hulot needs way more order and structure in his life (and is also secretly a little jealous of how Gérard seems way more attached to his uncle that to his father); the Arpels come up with a couple plans to try to get Hulot either employed or married off.

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As with M. Hulot’s Holiday, a lot of the action is just….stuff happening. This is still gentle observational comedy poking fun at quirky situations and little absurdities, only this time Tati also lampoons the ostentation of the materialist Arpels, who’ve over-designed their house to the point that it looks like a sterile modern art gallery. The kitchen appliances all work via push button – but there are so many of them Mme. Arpel needs to remind herself each time how to work everything; there’s no dining room so the family has to set up a table in the garden for every meal; and when M. Hulot babysits Gérard one evening, he can’t figure out how to sleep on the oddly-shaped sofa and ends up turning it on one side and treating it as a hammock. The Arpels themselves are also overly focused on the house – Mme. Arpel especially, who spends every morning meticulously dusting everything, including M. Arpel’s car as he is driving off to work, and who greets every guest by starting up a ridiculous fish-shaped fountain in the front lawn.

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Tati is a little more sympathetic to Hulot’s way of life, but even so we don’t really get as much of a sense of Hulot himself. It’s pretty understandable Gérard thinks hanging with his uncle is way more fun – he gets to ride around on the back of his little bike and raise Cain with the kids in Hulot’s block and gorge himself on cheap street food and romp in an old brickyard – but we don’t see Gérard actually playing with Hulot that much. Moreover, we don’t see Hulot that much, nor do we see the inside of his apartment; we only catch glimpses of him passing by the various windows and doors as he navigates his way up to his house, and we see him leaning out his front window a couple times, and that’s it. We don’t even see the inside of the cafe where Hulot ostensibly spends much of his time. Hulot does have to cope with a couple of scrapes – calming a malfunctioning machine at the hose factory, accidentally breaking a branch off one of his sister’s trees, a leak in the fish fountain – but he just…does stuff, wordlessly, to try to fix things and that’s it. We spend just as much time on running gags involving the street sweeper in Hulot’s neighborhood or M. Arpel’s secretary or a roving pack of stray dogs.

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So while I enjoyed what I was watching, and appreciated the cleverness, towards the end things started feeling a little one-note, and Hulot’s neighborhood started feeling a little twee and romanticized. I still don’t know all that much about M. Hulot himself, other than the fact that he has a nephew and a sister and that he’s a little bit of a klutz. But we knew most of that from his previous film, so this ultimately was kind of….more of the same. Fortunately “more of the same” includes some fantastic physical comedy and visual gags, including one that made me laugh out loud, where the Arpels peer out of a pair of porthole-shaped windows in their house and their silhouetted heads turn the windows into a pair of googly eyes.

Extra Credit, film, movies

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 3

Two more down for this year’s roster of Best Picture nominees – one of which was, for me, an “also-ran.”

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Mank

The term “Oscar-bait” gets applied dismissively to some films; the accusation is that the subject matter or the casting or some other aspect of the film is catering expressly to stack the odds of the film receiving a nomination of some kind. I don’t use that term, however, because often the artistic choices people see as opportunistic still work for me. But I know what they mean, and have started using my own term – “Ikea OSKAR flatpack movie” – to describe the impression I sometimes get that a given film is not made so much as assembled, as if the creators weren’t actually making anything fresh but were rather following a well-established formula designed to Produce An Oscar Nominated Film. There are no hard-and-fast rules I can point to, like “it’s always about history” or “there’s always a duck in it” or whatever – it’s more of a feel, a sense that I can predict exactly what kind of tone a given scene is going to take or what kind of a pace the film’s going to have or what kind of relationship the two main characters have or that “yeah, right on time, this is about where the hero has the crisis of conscience and they get a pep talk”. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily bad – often it is well done, and everyone involved does their jobs quite well. I’m just not surprised by any of it.

Mank was my flatpack movie this year. Ostensibly it is about how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz developed the first draft of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s also about how Mankiewicz went from being a mercenary party animal to actually giving a damn about things, at a time when it was almost too late for him to do something about it. The film uses a similar time-jump framework as did Kane – skipping frequently between the seedy hotel room in 1941 where Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is holed up and writing, assisted (or babysat) by a pert British secretary (Lily Collins), and to various moments throughout the 1930s, starting when Mankiewicz first meets William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marian Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and is charmed by Marian’s wit and bemused by Hearst’s bombast. He’s equally bemused by his own boss, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), but keeps his opinions to himself for the sake of continuing to get a paycheck. But the political scene of the 1930s causes Mankiewicz to question his principles, especially when he starts suspecting that Mayer and Hearst are conspiring to manipulate the voters against the Democratic candidate.

Again, everyone is fine – the black-and-white design of the film mirrors Old Hollywood nicely, and the actors are all doing perfectly fine. (I was particularly pleased with Seyfried as Marian Davies.) But it just felt like…well, of course they’d shoot in black and white, right? And of course there’d be a couple of Kane shout-outs and of course Mankiewicz’s brother would have a hard talk with him in the third act and of course Mankiewicz would turn up blind drunk at a party and embarrass himself, and…the various plot beats just felt kind of inevitable. Even the bare-bones plot arc the film sees fit to give Lily Collins’ character is predictable – when she gets a telegram early on stating that the ship her naval officer husband is on has sunk, and he is “missing and presumed dead”, you know that by the end of the film she’s going to get another telegram saying that he’s been found alive.

Roommate Russ cynically observed that movies which are Love Letters To Old Hollywood tend to do well come Oscar season. I suppose I’d be happier if this were like a Love Letter to Sundance or something.

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Minari

In a sense, Minari was also kind of formulaic in its tale – we have seen a lot of stories of Immigrant Families Trying To Assimilate And Make Good. But the telling of this story had some surprises in it that kept it out of flatpack territory for me.

Set in the early 1980s, the film follows the Korean Yi family – Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), and their two kids Anne (Noelle Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). They’ve just moved to rural Arkansas, following Jacob’s ambition to start a farm specializing in Korean vegetables for the surrounding cities’ burgeoning immigrant populations. And yes, there are plenty of “fish out of water” moments for the family – other local kids asking David and Anne rude questions, Monica feeling isolated as the only Korean woman in town, and a running gag with the Yi’s constantly guzzling Mountain Dew soda because Jacob assumes the name means it’s a health drink. There are also a few “comic misunderstanding” moments after Monica asks her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking card shark, to emigrate from Seoul and move in to look after the kids.

But these elements are all secondary to the film. The bulk of the story is about the nearly insurmountable strain that Jacob’s gamble is putting on his marriage to Monica, and about the blossoming relationship between David and his weird grandma Soonja. It’s implied that David was born in the United States, and so Soonja is a near alien presence to him – she doesn’t make cookies, she swears when she plays cards, she smells funny. But she also sees potential in him the rest of the family can’t see yet, and he gradually comes to rely on that when the tension between his parents starts growing.

And the film handles that tension between Jacob and Monica very well. Other such “immigrant stories” where it is a couple trying to adapt condense their characters’ conflicts into one or two dramatic arguments, where one or the other finally snaps under their tension and lashes out. But here, you have the sense that Jacob and Monica have been having ongoing debates, and raising their voices doesn’t really help because it’s never solved anything before. You have the sense of a much longer history between the two – the ongoing negotiations, debates, and pet peeves, some of which weren’t even about the farm or their move to the United States but are more the particular issues all couples face, when two unique individuals try to coordinate the merging of two separate life paths into one. That kind of negotiation is a lifelong journey – there is no final end point when all the differences have been hashed out and everything’s fine ever after, it’s a continual process as life and fate throw curve balls at you. And the film’s ending is equally open-ended, with some curve balls not quite yet resolved and some obstacles still to dodge, but you are left with a sense of how the family is going to attempt to face things.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Defiant Ones (1958)

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I knew what this film was about going in. I did not expect it to be funny. Not the whole thing, mind you – but there were definitely running gags and moments that made me laugh out loud.

The main plot is actually a little laughable for other reasons. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis star as “Noah Cullen” and “John Jackson” respectively, a pair of prisoners on a Southern chain gang who have been shackled together one day on a work detail “because the warden has a sense of humor”. But as their crew is returning from a job, their truck gets into an accident – and Cullen and Jackson escape in the confusion. With the police almost certainly on their tale, the only way that these two can make good on their escape is by learning how to work together.

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So, yeah, it’s your standard “black person and white person thrown together by circumstance, they challenge each other’s prejudices, lessons are learned” kind of plot. This might have felt groundbreaking in the 1950s, but is pretty simplistic – I’ve always come away from such films with the notion that the white character hasn’t had their prejudices changed overall, but rather that they’ve learned to make an exception for this one guy. Poitier does have some good monologues about how he resents the expectation that he always has to be “nice” and “not cause trouble” just because of his race, and it is likely that resentment which lead to him ending up in prison (he tells Curtis his story at one point, how he assaulted another man during a struggle in a way that sounds very much like self-defense). It’s exactly the same complaint we’d hear today. But Curtis responds with some nonsense about how “well, that’s just the way things are and you can’t change that”; he hasn’t learned a thing. Both characters end up with a good amount of respect and loyalty for each other over the course of the story – but does that extend to each other’s race as a whole? I’m not so sure. I didn’t buy this kind of thing with Driving Miss Daisy, I didn’t buy it in Green Book, I don’t buy it here.

But that’s all a separate issue from whether it’s fun to watch these two specific men hash things out and come to trust each other – and you know, it is. Each man gets his turn to outsmart the other, each man gets his chance to tease the other. There is some early squabbling and disagreement about what their plan should be, but there is way less of it than I was thinking – and remarkably little of it seems race-based (Curtis initially proposes heading south to a relative who can cut their shackles, and Poitier has to remind him that “being down South would suck for me even after we’re free, dude”). It might have been tedious to see them repeatedly squabbling about who was “in charge”, but fortunately they don’t – they seem to actually get that working together and listening to each other will help them both. There is one uneasy scene where they are facing a lynch mob, and Curtis does appeal to the mob to spare him because he’s white – but the very next scene, he genuinely seems to realize that he was using his whiteness as privilege and seems to regret that. Even better, he seems to figure out how to use that privilege to both of their advantages later on.

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And that’s just the main plot. The ongoing police hunt for the pair of fugitives is just as rich a story – and even funnier. The hunt is overseen by local Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who has a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards the search; he regularly overrules the much more aggressive Captain Gibbons (Charles McGraw) who wants to call in additional officers and set up road blocks and escalate the manhunt to a 24/7 fully-militarized operation. I’m sure the intent was to present Muller as fair and open-minded – he has a conversation with a buddy from the local paper in which we learn Muller was once a lawyer – but really, as I told Roommate Russ after the film, it comes across more like if Tommy Lee Jones’ character from The Fugitive was about 3 weeks away from retirement and just didn’t care any more. The rest of the search party is surprisingly quirky; there’s a running gag with the dog handler treating the bloodhounds like pampered poodles, insisting that they get the best food and that they have rest breaks every couple hours. The reporter following the case regularly teases Sheriff Muller about how the search is going.

But my favorite is one guy named “Angus” who has no lines whatsoever, but carries a transistor radio permanently turned on and tuned to a jazz station to the great frustration of Captain Gibbons. There’s a running gag where every other scene or so, as Gibbons and Muller are in the middle of a debate about how to conduct the search, Gibbons eventually interrupts himself to turn to Angus and snap “will you turn that thing off?” And Angus complies. Finally, about mid-film when the search party is on a break, there’s another Gibbons/Muller debate, and this time Gibbons just turns to glare off camera. The next thing we see is the radio propped up against a rock – and after a beat, Angus’ hand timidly reaches down and turns it off. …Best of all – I have learned that Angus was played by former child actor Carl Switzer, best known for playing “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies.

Extra Credit, film, movies

Best Picture 2021 Extra Credit – Part 2

Alright! This brings us halfway through this years’ list of Best Picture nominees. And I think this pair of films has another common theme – “don’t trust the trailer”.

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Sound Of Metal

So, I knew what this was “about”, I thought. Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a drummer for the thrash-metal band he’s in with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) who is suddenly forced to contend with sudden-onset and near-total hearing loss. Now – you kind of think you know what you’re going to get with a descriptor like that, yeah? Lots of music, lots of performance scenes, some melodramatic “omigod I can’t hear you!” conversations, a montage of “adapting to being deaf”, maybe a miraculous recovery or some other triumphant ending.

Yeah, almost none of that is in here.

Instead, it’s a surprisingly poignant story about love, different kinds of loss, and making peace with one’s fate. Ruben and Lou aren’t just a couple and they aren’t just a rock band – Ruben is a recovering addict and Lou has been his sponsor, and that “adapting to being deaf” montage is at a halfway house for deaf addicts she finds him. Joe, the head of the facility, quickly senses that Ruben’s been living on high speed up to this point and is likely struggling to cope with way more than just deafness, and gently leads him to not only accept his hearing loss, but also to find a way to serve society – and also to simply calm down a little.

The film’s sound design also got a nomination, and for good reason. A lot of the sound is from Ruben’s own perspective – the muffled early stages, the weird echoey silence he sits in his first night at the halfway house and watches everyone else talking in ASL, the distorted cacophony as he tries a couple of mechanical solutions that don’t quite work as well as he hopes. Most poignant of all is the first exam from an audiologist, who reads him a list of words and asks him to repeat them; we hear things from Ruben’s side first, feeling confident when he hears anything and repeats the word back. But then we switch to the audiologist’s perspective and realize Ruben’s missing a lot of words. This was a surprisingly quiet film – in the emotional sense.

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Promising Young Woman

Another film, another twist from what the trailer lead me to believe. Carey Mulligan is Cassie, a med school dropout who still lives with her parents – and spending her nights dressing to the nines, going out to clubs and pretending to be drunk, luring ill-intentioned guys to bringing her home and attempting to have sex with her – only for her to spring the trap by revealing her sobriety and lecturing them, leaving them embarrassed and in fear of later retaliation. We pick up fairly early on that something like this probably happened either to her or to a good friend in med school, and was the cause of her dropping out.

But the trailer implies that’s pretty much all there is to her story – a dark-comedy revenge fantasy where she exposes a series of creeps and maybe ultimately brings down the Dean of the school she went to. Something like that. But the plot gets much more personal; Cassie does continue her campaign of revenge, but a chance meeting with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) inspires her to redirect her campaign against the specific people involved in her friend Nina’s assault case – the dean who brushed the complaint aside, the defense lawyer who got the assailant off, the girl who gossiped about how her friend was a “slut” who was “asking for it”. At the same time, though, Ryan also inspires her to move on from the revenge game, when they start falling for each other; he’s a sweet doofus who shares Cassie’s acerbic sense of humor, and their flirting is so fun it even made ol’ cynical me grin. And yet, Ryan was friends with Nina’s attacker, and may know more about things than he’s letting on.

On the whole, this is a much more complex and nuanced story than the trailer would lead you to believe.

I also got a kick out of the film’s shout-outs to Night Of The Hunter – there’s a moment where Cassie’s parents are watching it online, and we’re treated to a quick clip of Robert Mitchum talking about women as temptresses, and later, when Cassie has received a severe shock, the soundtrack borrows the eerie song “The Pretty Fly“. Both clips work perfectly.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes And Diamonds (1958) -- Who's This Guy Again? - Turner Classic Movies

I typically do not do any background reading before I check out any film – I prefer to go into them blind. I figure that a really good story, told well enough, will still resonate with me even if I don’t have any background. The only downside to this approach is that sometimes a story is indeed well-told, but I’m just far-enough removed from the context that I feel like I’m missing some things.

There were parts of this Polish work which had me feeling this way. Set immediately after the Second World War (and I do mean immediately – one of the first scenes features a crowd listening to a news report about German leaders signing the peace treaty on VE Day), this story is about the confusing power struggle that took place in post-War Poland, between Poland’s Communist “Workers’ Party” leaders and the more nationalist Polish resistance movement, the Home Army. Ultimately the Communist Party won out, but the Home Army apparently gave them a run for their money for a while.

Ashes and Diamonds Blu-ray - Andrzej Wajda

Or at least they tried. In our opening scene, we see three Home Army soldiers – Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) – staked outside a small rural chapel, lying in wait to assassinate Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński) the local Secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party. Maciek and Andrzej are joking around a little too much and nearly miss their shot when Drewnowski warns them a car’s coming – but Maciek gets his gun together in time, shooting both passengers in the car and fleeing with the others for the nearby city of Ostrowiec to check in with their own leader. ….Which is how they learn that Szczuka wasn’t in that car – he was in the one after. So they still need to finish the job.

Fortunately Szczuka is also bound for Ostrowiec, to attend a banquet hosted by the mayor – who’s also Drewnowski’s boss – where he will surprise the mayor with a promotion. Maciek spots Szczuka checking into a local hotel, and cons his way into getting the room next door – he’ll take care of Szczuka overnight, he tells Andrzej. In the meantime, they can maybe let their hair down a little – there’s a cute girl tending bar in the hotel, maybe they can hang out with her.

Maciek does end up getting quite friendly with bartender Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), and their whirlwind connection – leading to Maciek questioning whether his job is worth it – is the bulk of the remaining plot. But there are about three other subplots and a couple of character studies thrown in as well, and there were a couple points I was confused how a given scene fit into the story. Some were enjoyable enough on their own merits – like when Drewnowski hears about his boss’s promotion before it’s announced, has a few “celebratory” drinks and turns up at the banquet completely plastered, dancing on the table and hosing everyone down with a fire extinguisher. There’s also a surprisingly poignant moment when an aristocrat character – who only wants to retreat back into his genteel pre-War life – convinces a night club band to play a polonaise for the last handful of guests, encouraging the exhausted guests to join him in that one last dance.

Ashes and Diamonds in Kyiv - tickets to 07 October 2018, 16:00 | Concert.UA

But Maciek’s crisis of conscience over Szczuka’s killing is the main story. He falls hard for Krystyna – harder than either planned – and both sense that they might each find a better life with each other than they currently have. But severing their respective ties – especially in post-war Poland, where the Workers’ Party is getting stronger by the minute – will prove especially difficult.

It’s also shot beautifully with some eye-catching moments. The hell of it is that I can’t really talk about any of them, as it would spoil the story – but there’s a moment with Maciek backlit by fireworks that was particularly well-done, and another moment with Maciek at a garbage dump towards the end (again, can’t clarify). The polonaise dance scene is also eye-catching – the club is lit only by the rising sun coming through the windows, and the camera is focusing on the exhaustion on the dancer’s faces as they half-ass their way through the traditional dance, the aristocrat too caught up in his reverie to notice.

Rick's Cafe Texan: Ashes and Diamonds: A Review

I may have been confused on occasion, but it’s the kind of confusion that is prompting me to speak to a Polish colleague about if he’s ever heard of this film and find out what he thought.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Man Of The West (1958)

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I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about this Western at first – until it suddenly took a hard right out of the tropes of that genre and became a gritty noir.

I think I can be forgiven my initial misgivings, though. The opening credits smack of the usual Western-As-Hero-Narrative, with Gary Cooper as our hero, “Link Jones”, riding a horse just into frame and then inexplicably stopping it short and sitting there long enough for the opening titles to conveniently unspool in front of him. And when he does move on, he ends up in a town where all the businesses have bland generic names, like “Saloon” or “Inn” or “Dry Goods”.

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Jones doesn’t stop in any of these spots, though – he’s just passing through, catching a train to El Paso. A couple locals eye him warily when he’s boarding his horse and pays out of what looks like a huge sack of cash; the sheriff quizzes him briefly about that, asking if he’s heard of an outlaw named Doc Tobin. “No, I haven’t,” our hero says – looking a bit uneasy. But the sheriff is appeased and lets him go.

Truth be told, Doc Tobin is our hero’s uncle. For years, Jones was part of Tobin’s outlaw gang, committing a series of robberies and murders across most of the Texas frontier. But that was some time ago – Jones eventually bailed out of that life and fled to the far West, settling in a small town called Good Hope and trying to go straight. The only reason he’s even back east is because the people of Good Hope want to open a schoolhouse, and have sent Jones to El Paso with their pooled savings to try to recruit a teacher.

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However, the train he’s on ends up getting held up by Tobin’s current gang when the passengers are all at a rest stop. One of the outlaws also grabs Jones’ bag away from him, and the Tobin gang takes the whole train as well, leaving Jones stuck by the tracks in the middle of nowhere along with Billie Ellis (Julie London), a saloon singer en route to a new gig, and Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell), a card-playing con man. Sam and Billie lament their fate, but Jones takes over – he knows where they can find shelter, he tells them. ….Because he recognizes they’re close to the Tobin’s old hideout. Jones turns up at the Tobin’s squat that evening, his new friends in tow, where Jones says he’s come back to rejoin the gang (which he is, but only long enough to find his stolen cash). And Billie is his girlfriend, he quickly adds, when he sees the other men eyeing her. Doc is overjoyed – he’s been planning on one last bank robbery in a sleepy town called Lassoo, and with Jones back, the heist is sure to succeed. So he eagerly starts planning the holdup as Jones secretly figures out whether he can sabotage things.

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The story goes some pretty interesting places, and there were some surprisingly shocking moments. One uneasy scene sees Tobin’s men threaten Billie to do a strip tease for them, with Jones’ cousin “Coaley” (Jack Lord) holding Jones at bay with a knife so he can’t rescue her. The scene actually gets as far as Billie removing shoes, socks, and her shirt before Doc calls a halt to things. Even though Billie stays clothed “enough” during the scene, it still goes on long enough to be pretty damn uncomfortable – and sets up a fantastic moment later where Jones has his revenge on Coaley by methodically divesting him of the very same pieces of his clothes as they fight. Another scene with an attempted bank robbery has a moment where a woman is killed during the crossfire of a gun battle – and towards the end of the scene, after the dust has settled, her husband innocently wanders in asking what happened. Jones is too mortified to explain, and simply blurts out an apology before fleeing – leaving the man to discover his dead wife on his own. The scene ends with him keening for her. It was poignant, and impressed the hell out of me – a lot of the “innocent bystander victims” in most action movies don’t get that moment of someone mourning for them.

The one and only bit of the plot that I disliked was how Billie ends up infatuated with Jones. To be fair, Jones is treating her decently and there’s probably some Stockholm Syndrome going on – but after only about 24 hours, Billie is talking as if Jones is the One Big Love Of Her Life and how she will be Forever Changed By His Kindness. Jones makes it pretty apparent that he is not interested in her that way, and the whole situation is generally chaotic and messy – Jones even tells her during a private moment that he’s married with two kids, and during another private moment he rebuffs her when she comes on to him. But she still implies by the end of the whole thing that she will be quietly carrying a torch for Jones her whole life now, and I just don’t buy it.

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But that’s a side element to what is ultimately Jones’ continuing search for some kind of revenge – or redemption. It’s difficult to tell which, and maybe it’s both. Either way it was a more nuanced take than I thought the film was taking at first.