film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was about eleven. I was still a little young and unaware of some parts of British culture, so a lot of the sketches went over my head at first; instead, my favorite bits were Terry Gilliam’s cut-out collage-style animations. They were short, looney, and often looked like they were driven by random chance – a sort of visual free-association game based on clip art from vintage catalogs and classic paintings. In truth they were planned out to serve as the transitions between one live sketch and the next, but I didn’t realize that yet – I was too busy giggling about how an image of a Tudor nobleman ran off down a road, only to have a “killer car” chase after him for a while until the car got killed by a giant cat – only for the cat to end up in a clip-art meat grinder, with the resulting ground meat leading to tendrils of Boticelli’s Venus, who did a can-can before freezing back in place in time for the next sketch. They were completely silly and went in some unexpected directions, but still felt like they had a goofy logic all their own.

The typical Gilliam animation was only a couple minutes long, and took their cues from the preceding sketch before cuing the next one. Heaven and Earth Magic uses the same kind of cut-out style – but felt like what would have happened if the rest of the Pythons told Terry – “you’ve got a whole hour and we have no cues to give you, so go nuts.”

Apparently there is a plot – animator Harry Smith stated that the film was about a woman suffering from a toothache “consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon”, and consults with a dentist prior to a sudden tour of Heaven – with the heroine’s return to Earth prompted by “being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward the Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” However, the actual images are a surrealist hodgepodge, with eggs hatching into horse skeletons or a corkscrew sprouting an eyedropper for a head. A skeleton and a dentist chair play keepaway with a baby. A small dog chases the aforementioned watermelon throughout the film. A Victorian lady with stilts for legs looks on as a spoon judges a boxing match.

I had no idea what kind of plot or overall story those images were trying to tell while I was watching – but I didn’t quite care, since it was the same kind of freewheeling, improvised mayhem Gilliam would do with the Pythons. It’s entirely likely Gilliam saw this himself and was inspired. My biggest complaint, though, was that an hour of this kind of mayhem ran a bit long – about 40 minutes in I started feeling unmoored and my attention started to flag. But there still was enough there to tempt me back into focusing.

Smith wasn’t just a filmmaker, and he didn’t stay in film for long. He was a bit of a renaissance man fascinate by folk art and ethnography, but he didn’t fit into a traditional academic path and instead started a self-devised course of study, visiting different cultural groups or communities and watching various rituals or folk dances. He felt that the worlds’ disparate cultures had a lot in common, and strove to capture evidence of his theories. He was introduced to the Beats’ counterculture via a Woody Guthrie concert in San Francisco, and lingered to explore the art scene there – and try his own hand in film. But at the time he was better known for having amassed a huge collection of folk music recordings – so much so that when he tried to sell them to the Smithsonian to make some cash, they instead hired him to produce an anthology album of his own. Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was released a few years before Heaven and Earth Magic, and the liner notes included the same kind of clip-art vintage photos used in this film. Smith only kept at film for a few years before returning to painting and music collection.

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Digression: On Avant-Garde Film

We’ve covered one or two earlier experimental and avant-garde films before this, but we’re about to get into a whole lot more. I haven’t always had the best luck with prior surrealist films – and it got me thinking about surrealist, avant-garde and experimental films as a whole – because there are some I actually kind of enjoyed.

Before the list, most of the time I encountered experimental films was in an actual art museum, which emphasized the “art” side of the equation for me. They were things freed from the usually bare-bones conventions you’d expect from film – some kind of consistent characters and some kind of consistent plot. They weren’t “movies”, they were “art pieces”, usually either Statements the artist was making or just neat things they figured out how to do with film or a camera. I’ve visited museums in New York and in other major cities, and I always poke my head into a screening room if they have one set up – however, all too often I find myself turning around and heading out again.

But sometimes I linger to watch. And it’s not always the films with a plot that catch my attention – sometimes an artist has just caught something that strikes my fancy. Once in the Whitney Museum, I saw a film that was a parody of big-budget movie trailers, one which speculated what the trailer for a 2000’s remake of Caligula might look like. It was a spot-on parody – they’d even gotten Don LaFontaine to do the narration – and boasted an impressive list of A-list actors, like Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro, Gerard Butler, and Milla Jovovich, with Courtney Love turning up to play Caligula at the very end. I kept ducking back to watch that again and again, picking up new details each time. (Fair warning that it is also very, very sexually graphic in places, so be careful with this link.)

With another film it was the music that caught my attention – the film was nothing more than a garage band in an airline hangar doing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues in four different music styles while a whole gaggle of ten-year-olds stood around them and jumped rope. I don’t know what statement, if any, that was meant to make, but I lingered there to watch, singing along under my breath (“Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine…..”). Still another film was a deep dive into a pop-culture meme – that moment from the Star Trek: Wrath of Khan film where Kirk bellows “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” The artist took that one five-second clip and just started playing – freezing on some frames, rewinding the same half-second and replaying it a few times over in a loop, reversing the film in places, and ultimately stretching that five seconds into a three-minute sequence where we watched every one of Shatner’s lip curls and eyebrow twitches over and over and drew out the suspense before the final line. With still another film, the filmmaker filmed a pacing black panther in a dimly-lit room, then turned down the light levels in the editing even further so you could just barely see anything. It was an eerie effect – you could hear the panther pacing and breathing, and every so often a soft growl, but all you could see was a vast field of black, with maybe a hint of movement here or what might be a reflection in an eye there.

I think I do well with experimental films like that, where there is either some kind of gimmick or sense of humor about the whole thing, so I can appreciate it on those angles without having to understand any kind of deeper symbolism. But if there isn’t…..well. There’s one series of films that has particularly baffled me over the years – Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, which is a five-film epic artistic statement purportedly about the “pure potentiality” of the embryonic development of the male cremaster muscle but also delves into the interconnectedness of (checks Wikipedia page) Greek mythology, Gary Gilmore, Johnny Cash, Celtic myth, Harry Houdini, the Freemasons, Goodyear blimps, and Norman Mailer. The trouble is that you’re not told that when you rock up to the video screen – you’re just somehow supposed to glean that from watching airline stewardesses huddle around tables covered in grapes and Vaseline, or a goat-human hybrid climbing up from an underground cavern to find themselves in the Chrysler building, or a dude with cloth stuffed in his mouth troweling cement over the gas caps on some old Chryslers. (Note: I have not made that up, all of those images apparently actually appear in various Cremaster Cycle films.)

Ultimately, I feel that any piece of film is supposed to communicate something to an audience. Sometimes that thing being communicated is straightforward – like “here’s a story about a little girl who gets swept up in a tornado and may or may not have been brought to a magical country called ‘Oz’.” Sometimes it’s a little opaque – “here’s a story about two lovers from different street gangs in New York City, but really it’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet.” Or, maybe that thing being communicated is “hey, trailers today all kinda look the same, don’t they?” Or maybe it’s just “hey, have you ever really looked at all the weird details in that ‘Khan’ scene?” Of course, sometimes an audience member may miss the thing they’re supposed to get from a piece of film, but may get some other message out of it, like “dang, Subterranean Homesick Blues actually works as a Bossa Nova piece.” But if your work is so opaque that the only way the audience can get any kind of message is by having a written interpretation on hand mean to explain everything, I question whether it’s the film that’s actually communicating anything in the first place.

I’ll continue to duck into those booths in museums, of course – and urge you to do the same – and I’ll also be steeling myself for the avant-garde stuff on the horizon, hoping for Khan and dreading Cremaster.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

Well, this is more like it. Like other French “New Wave” films, this does play with the conventions of filmmaking a bit, but it does so in ways that don’t bore the pants off me.

Actress Anna Karina stars as “Nana”, a very young French woman who gets bored with her marriage and leaves her husband with vague plans to become a movie star, but ultimately ends up a prostitute instead, with tragic results. A more straightforward Hollywood approach would likely have been heavy-handed with the moralizing and would have presented Nana’s downfall in lurid detail. But here, director Jean-Luc Godard tells the story through a series of twelve short vignettes – Nana’s initial breakup conversation with her husband, a dull day at the record store where Nana first gets work, Nana’s first conversation with Raoul (Sady Rebbot) who ends up as her pimp, a “typical” day in the brothel, Nana getting moved to tears watching a silent film.

Godard sets up his shots in an unusual way as well – during Nana’s entire breakup conversation with her husband, both are sitting at the counter in a bar – and with their backs to us. We only see their faces reflected in the mirror opposite them, sort of. It feels as if we’re eavesdropping on the whole thing – and much of the rest of the film is shot this way, with cameras sometimes panning away from Nana to take in the rest of the room, lingering on other people if they start doing something interesting before finding Nana again. In one sequence, what we hear is Raoul and Nana having a nuts-and-bolts talk about how her new job works – and what we see is a parade of shots of Nana with different men – buttoning up their pants, handing her money, or nervously following her into rooms as Nana closes drapes or lights cigarettes for them, or in one shot, lets them kiss her neck as she smokes herself, looking bored out of her mind. We are only shown glimpses of Nana’s life – but they’re so vivid, glimpses are all we really need.

Two vignettes towards the end hint at Nana’s gradual disillusionment with her life; one scene in a bar when she puts a record on a juke box and starts dancing to catch the eye of a potential john, but gradually starts dancing for its own sake, losing herself in a taste of fun that’s probably become all too rare for her. She also starts off the second vignette trying to lure a john – in this case an older man reading in a cafe – but ends up in a deeply introspective conversation with him about how imperfectly language handles nebulous concepts like “love” and “happiness” and understanding one’s own self. It’s a bit of a throwback to her first conversation with her husband, where Nana struggles to find the right words to explain just why she is so unhappy with him.

The ending is really abrupt – very similar to Godard’s earlier work, Breathless, in that both films end seconds after a person is shot in the street. But with Breathless I was left cold – while here, I was invested enough to blurt out a shocked “what?”

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West Side Story (1961)

Well, I suppose I ought to see this before seeing the current Oscar-nominated remake…

Dispensing with my usual plot recap here, since I would be very surprised indeed if there are those unfamiliar. But just in case: West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet set among 1950s New York street gangs – the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Anglo “Jets” – with songs by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. And overall, it’s good – the script and songs manage to avoid the kind of Musical Theater cheese I tend to dislike, the dancing is worked into the flow of things well and it even works as a Shakespearean adaptation (those usually have their own pitfalls).

So, I liked it. I liked it more than I thought I would. But I didn’t looooove it – at least, I didn’t love the whole thing. And it sounds like I’m not alone – during its original release, it got a lot of popular acclaim, but it also got a lot of lukewarm shrugs; some people loved Jerome Robbins’ dancing but didn’t by Natalie Wood as Maria, some people thought she and Richard Beymer excelled as the two leads but thought the dancing was a little much. Some thought the plot was trite but really loved the music, others thought vice-versa.

There’s one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, though – myself included. And that is that Rita Moreno is spectacular in this. I’m of the age that grew up with Moreno as a regular on the kids’ show Electric Company, and that was my biggest association with her – usually dressed as an silent-film-era director and giving a trademark holler of “HEY YOU GUYYYYYYYYYYS!” This was the first time I’d seen her in anything else – and her role as Anita (Maria’s best friend, and girlfriend to Maria’s brother Bernardo) came as something of a surprise.

Moreno was already a seasoned singer and dancer at the time West Side Story was made, with stage and screen roles under her belt – she had a small role in Singin’ In The Rain and a supporting role in the screen adaptation of The King And I, but had actually begun on Broadway at the age of 13. So while our leads sometimes seem a little challenged by their roles (Natalie Wood in particular doesn’t do much dancing, and I’ve read that that’s…on purpose), Moreno sings, dances, and acts the absolute pants off her role. She even arguably gets a juicier dramatic moment than does Maria – in one scene, Maria enlists her to take a message to Tony, but Anita is stopped by the other Jets, whose taunting and harassments come very near to descending into a gang rape.

It’s an amazing scene, and I’m convinced that this is why Rita Moreno won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Rita Moreno should have gone straight from this to so much more. She even thought that this would finally be an end to the stereotypical “Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns […] humiliating, embarrassing stuff.” But despite a performance like this she got more of the same stereotypical Latina roles, all of which she refused. She stuck to Broadway and TV for a while, and that’s how she ended up on Electric Company instead until Hollywood came to its damn senses.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 2

Is “historical drama about men with hubris” a genre? That seems to be the theme with these next two.

The Power Of The Dog

I usually don’t get into Direction here – I don’t understand the role well enough to always notice their impact as such. So it’s telling that my gut reaction right now is that Jane Campion needs to win for Best Direction for this tale. And not just because she made me like a Western – but because every performance is so subtle.

This isn’t so much a “Western” as it is a psychological drama. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are rancher brothers in 1920’s Montana, with the older brutish Phil (Cumberbatch) opting for the rougher work and the meek George (Plemons) as the paper-pusher and the pleasant public face. During a cattle drive they stay at an inn run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Phil locks onto the bookish Peter, teasing him for being a “sissy”, but George is taken by Rose, starting a whirlwind courtship which ends with George marrying Rose and bringing her back to the ranch. Phil resents the change in routine and starts tormenting Rose – but Peter isn’t quite the wimp Phil thinks he is.

I really, really like it when films don’t telegraph everything about a character – I like to discover things on the way, with little hints dropped here and there. It’s really hard to pull off – if you make a hint too subtle people will miss it (the “Ending of [movie] Explained” craze on Youtube speaks to how many films get things wrong here), but if you make a hint too big people will feel pandered to. Campion gets the balance exactly right here. We learn a good deal about Phil during a long wordless scene where all he does is take a long and lingering bath in a stream. That scene is also subtly erotic as well (eros is another tricky thing to be subtle about).

Everyone talks about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance – for good reason – but Kodi Smit-McPhee is who caught my eye. Phil dismisses Peter as effeminate, and it’d be easy for him to play Peter that way – but Peter is only effeminate by Phil’s yardstick, and Smit-McPhee gives him a more honest bookishness. Even more intriguing – at some point Peter finds a way to fight back against Phil, and only after the film did I start realizing ways Peter had been quietly playing a long game, subtly manipulating things so that Phil was set up for a fall. I asked Roommate Russ about when he’d figured out what Peter had been doing – we each figured things out at a different time, and even now I’m remembering earlier moments in the film that also suggested Peter knew what he was doing well before I did.

The Power Of The Dog is winning many critics’ “Oscar Predictions” forecasts, and I totally buy that.

Nightmare Alley

Well, subtle this isn’t. But subtlety in a film noir that starts off amongst carnival carnies would be all wrong anyway.

Bradley Cooper is “Stan Carlisle”, a man we meet at the moment he has literally run off to join the circus – taking a job as a carnie with a small side show in 1939. He falls in with “Madame Zeena” (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) who have a clairvoyant act. Pete teaches Stan the tricks of their trade (very detailed observation of the audience combined with a little bit of coded patter), and soon Stan is heading off to bigger and better things, bringing his sweetheart Molly (Rooney Mara) along. Within two years they have a successful psychic/clairvoyant night club act in Buffalo. Then one night, a woman in the audience interrupts them – Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist and skeptic. Stan manages to dodge her challenges on the fly and save the act, but is intrigued enough by Dr. Ritter to stop by her office the next day and come clean.

Ritter is also intrigued, and makes a proposition; she’s in the habit of recording all of her analysis sessions with the wealthy folk of Buffalo, the very same people taking in Stan’s act. He could start offering much more lucrative private “seances” for her clients, armed with the private detail she’s gathered during her sessions. Because this is a film noir, of course, there are double-crossings, things go wrong, and people meet their downfalls in particularly dark and dramatic ways.

I started by saying this film wasn’t subtle – but it actually is subtle for its director. Guilliermo del Toro has toned down the weird-and-fantastical angle he used in The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth, but only a bit – the side show is weird enough, and he lets that carry the weird, delving into the seedy underworld of strong men and little people and acrobats and bearded ladies all living out of tents and caravans, and reveals the horrific truth behind the spectacle. “Madame Zeena” isn’t actually clairvoyant, she’s just a long-suffering wife to a former magician now incapacitated by alcoholism. “Fee Fee the Bird Girl” isn’t a half-bird hybrid, she’s a woman with a disfigurement who couldn’t get any other work. The geek isn’t a feral missing link – he’s a drug addict who is rewarded each night with opiates if he “puts on a good show” and bites the heads off chickens.

Bradley Cooper’s performance ultimately caught my attention – but it took a little time to win me over. He doesn’t speak for a good ten minutes, and this bothered me somehow but I couldn’t tell you why. Things pick up the first time he steps in to help out Zeena and Pete, however. And at the end, when Stan is in a desperate spot and accepts a job, Cooper’s reaction to the offer is a moment that’s going to haunt me for a good while. Sadly I can’t say any more than that without spoiling things.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

So, for a while we had a run of reviews where I would list a lot of things that were wrong about the film and then say that I still liked it. I’m afraid we’re on the flip side here – where there’s a lot of things that put this film above what I usually expect of a Western, but….I still wasn’t a fan.

“Kid Rio” (Marlon Brando) and “Dad Longworth” (Karl Malden) start us off with a literal bang – we meet them robbing a bank in Sonora, Mexico in 1880. Mexican police surprise them celebrating at a cantina, and the pair barely manage to escape, both riding on a single aging horse Longworth steals on the way. When police corner them atop a high ridge, Rio realizes they’re close by another ranch and suggests one of them ride their exhausted horse over and trade it in for two better ones. Dad ends up making the trip – but balks at returning to the ridge, and instead rides further on to safety, abandoning Rio to the police and to a Mexican prison. So when Rio finally escapes after five years, he’s worked up a very healthy grudge, and is bound and determined to exact his revenge.

Another outlaw named Bob (Ben Johnson) soon seeks out Rio, offering him some intriguing information – Dad is now the sheriff of Monterey, California, which is exactly where Bob is heading for a bank robbery himself. So he suggests they team up – Bob will benefit from Rio’s expertise, and Rio would likely get the chance to kill Dad at some point. They plan to hang about Monterey a few days before making their hit – enough time for Rio to check in on Dad and give him one last chance to explain himself. Rio doesn’t by Dad’s story – however, he does get his head turned by Dad’s pretty stepdaughter Louisa (Pena Pellicer), spends most of the next few days with her and ultimately uses a town-wide fiesta (including a good deal of drunken carousing from Dad) to have a moonlit tryst with Louisa on the beach. Dad is infuriated when he discovers this, and when Rio gets into a scuffle with a local barfly Dad uses it as a pretext to whip Rio in the town square for “disturbing the peace”, finishing by breaking his fingers and exiling him from Monterey. The humiliation only makes Rio even more intent on revenge.

So I felt there was quite a bit that sets this film apart from other Westerns. The story is a little more complex – Rio doesn’t just ride into Monterey with guns blazing, he tries to give Dad the chance to redeem himself first. Dad’s story arc reminds me a bit of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, but in a good way – he’s told his wife and stepdaughter some stories about the old days, but not all, and there’s still some secrets he’d prefer stay hidden.

Speaking of Louisa – the film’s treatment of its Mexican characters was another point I appreciated. Other Westerns I’ve seen keep their Mexican characters firmly in the background or treat them like caricatures (I’m looking at you especially, Rio Bravo), but here, Louisa and her mother are a good deal more fleshed-out than usual, and I actually buy their respective relationships with Dad. Other more minor characters also get treated with respect – they’re not caricatures, they’re not just background color, they are people, who just so happen to exist in the same space as a bunch of gringos do, and that’s just that.

But this film still didn’t really grab me completely. Part of it might be my own grudge against Westerns – but part of it may be because of the sheer weirdness of having a Method actor playing the lead in a melodramatic genre. This was the same issue I’d had with Brando in Guys and DollsBrando’s giving a good performance, but it’s a mismatch between his performance style and the genre he’s in, to the point that it got distracting. By the film’s final scenes, I was actually able to accept the other actors’ work more so than Brando’s – they were a little melodramatic, but melodrama is what the genre calls for, and Brando’s work started to look wooden by comparison.

Ultimately not a favorite, but I do acknowledge the good work all around.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Last Year At Marienbad (1961)

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When I was in high school, several of my classmates got through their various English classes using Cliffs’ Notes, those yellow-and-black pamphlets which give a summary of a given book, and suggest various “themes” and “meanings” addressed therein. I never did, however – I was a fast and avid reader, and even enjoyed lots of the things we’d been assigned in class, so I always looked down on the Cliffs’ Notes users.

Until now. Because I needed that kind of hand-holding with this film.

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So, the Cliffs’ Notes version of Last Year at Marienbad is: a man and a woman meet up at an exclusive European resort. He keeps insisting that they’d met one year previously and had an affair, but she’d asked him to wait a year and then they’d run off together. She, however, keeps insisting that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

It’s pretty difficult to glean that from the film itself, though. There is a point about halfway through the film where the man (Giorgio Albertazzi) finally says those words, and also says them directly to the woman (Delphine Seyrig); up until that point, he’d been speaking, and so had she, but maybe not of that and maybe not to each other. We hear him in voiceover talking about their meeting, but watched another woman doing something else. We see the man and woman staring intently at each other as another group of people discuss something entirely different. We see our couple talking, but they discuss something entirely different – repeating, verbatim, another conversation entirely different people had been having earlier. We also occasionally see a second man (Sacha Pitoëff) lurking about the couple; he might be the woman’s husband, or a lover, or a chaperone. But he actually spends most of his time in the game room challenging people to games of Nim.

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There’s a lot of loops and endless labyrinthine hallways throughout; both in conversations and monologues, with characters declaiming lengthy speeches which repeat themselves through twice, or in the visuals, with characters wandering aimlessly around an opulent mansion – there are few windows, but there are many doors and hallways, with a crowd of well-dressed people wandering about looking for either the game room or the ballroom or the chamber concert or the dining room, huddling around columns and discussing other guests. Even on the rare occasions when the man and woman meet outside, it’s in a hyper-manicured garden with statues and precisely-trimmed shrubs and endless paths leading back to the front of the hotel. And while you do sort of gather what the blue hell what has been happening by the end of the film, things are certainly not tied up in a neat bow.

I first tried watching this after work on a weeknight, which was a huge mistake; this is a film you need to approach with full brain power just to keep up, and my second attempt (afternoon on a Saturday, with no one else at home) fared much better. At least, I was able to keep up with the film and gathered something of a narrative out of it.

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I’m reluctant to figure out if my interpretation of the film was “right”, since I get the sense that that’s not even the point. The whole film seems to take place in some kind of stylized nowhere, where the normal rules of reality just don’t apply; time bends and loops back on itself, hallways double and twist and dump you somewhere you didn’t expect, conversations loop back around on themselves endlessly and people are stuck saying the same things again and again. The notion of this film being some kind of dream or afterlife isn’t all that new – one of the lines the man has suggests that this is what’s happening – but it’s at least an answer, and it’s one I came away with.

But now I wonder if I’m meant to come up with any interpretation at all. In an earlier review I mentioned attending the “immersive theater” show Sleep No More, which similarly has enough of a “Plot” for you to follow if that’s what you really want; ostensibly it’s based on the plot of MacBeth. But the appeal for audiences is the chance to explore the environment itself – poking around the various rooms, opening cupboards, flipping through papers. Following interesting-looking people who seemed to be deeply invested in a conversation you only joined halfway through. The one time I went, I spent most of the time exploring the various different rooms, sampling the contents of a “candy store”, and trying to remember how to play a Genesis song on a piano tucked into a corner behind a blanket fort, and only caught the “main action” in fleeting glimpses.

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And honestly, that’s what the other patrons at the hotel would know about the drama playing out with our main characters – whatever they might happen to accidentally overhear or see out of the corner of their eyes as they were themselves looking for the game room or heading to dinner, or following their own scripts from their own narratives. They wouldn’t have known the whole story either, and maybe that’s why we don’t.

At least that’s what I’ve decided today.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 1

Happily, I’ve already seen a couple of the Best Picture nominees; before I dive into the rest, let’s get those hot takes out of the way.


He may speak in all his interviews with a somewhat plummy English accent, but director Kenneth Branagh is actually from Belfast, and as a child saw the beginning of The Troubles that roiled that part of the world for decades. His father was already a freelance construction worker in England and brought the rest of the family to join him there. No doubt he’s watched the subsequent films about “Northern Ireland” that have come out over the years, ones that emphasize the violence and chaos – and it’d be understandable that he’d want to present a film showing his own memories, to prove that it wasn’t all like that.

And….well, he does succeed in proving that it wasn’t a warzone 24/7. However, I am afraid I didn’t get all that much of a sense of what it was like. To be fair, we’re looking at things from a child’s perspective, with young Jude Hill playing the 9-year-old Branagh stand-in (here named “Buddy”); he may occasionally notice moments of tension amongst his parents or grandparents, and there’s a weird barrier at the end of the street that’s been up since the day when this scary riot thing happened, but he’s still able to play basketball and he still gets to hang out with his cousins and he still has a crush on the pretty girl in his history class and he still loves when granny takes him to movies and…this is the stuff of the film, but it’s stuff that could have happened anywhere, so when Buddy and his family finally move to England at the film’s end, I’d almost forgotten why they moved until Branagh added a small title dedicating the film to “those who left, those who stayed, and those who were lost.”

This isn’t to say this was a bad film, though; the cast is all excellent, and it’s a damn crime that Catriona Balfe wasn’t nominated for her role as Buddy’s Ma. There’s also a chillingly effective moment from one of the few instances when The Troubles bleed in – earlier in the film, Buddy watches High Noon on television, so during a scene when Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s Pa has to stand off against a more militant neighbor, Branagh scores the scene with that film’s plaintive theme. Nevertheless, the bits of this film that lingered with me longest was its use of classic Van Morrison songs more so than the story itself.

Dune (2021) - IMDb


Well….it’s way better than David Lynch’s adaptation from 1984, for starters. Lynch tried to fit Frank Herbert’s entire sprawling epic into a single film, and he was also working in the early 1980s when computers weren’t used for visual effects production – so all the special effects were either models or practical sets or animation, and things took an impossibly long time. So Lynch ended up with a super-confusing mess, where the only thing most people remember is a shot of a bare-chested Sting wearing a bikini with tailfins. (At least….that was the biggest takeaway I had when I saw it at age 13.)

Although, speaking of the visual effects – considering the times, Lynch didn’t do all that bad. I’ve recently discovered a series of Youtube videos in which visual effects artists react to and deconstruct various special effects scenes from films, discussing how they were made, discussing how they may have been done better or – more frequently – how the technology which could have made them better wasn’t around yet. Their video about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune compares each scene to the corresponding scene in Lynch’s Dune, and actually does much to redeem that film’s visual effects as being “as good as they could have done back then.”

However, it wasn’t just the visual effects that saved things here. Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters John Spaints and Eric Roth had a much more judicious hand with the scissors, cutting out and simplifying the more baroque parts of Herbert’s book. They also took a huge gamble and focused only on the first half of the book, trusting that there would be enough demand for a sequel that they could deal with the second half then.

So this is a much more straightforward space opera, with Timothée Chalamet in the lead as “Paul Atredies”, the only son in a royal family. Paul’s mother (Rebecca Ferguson) is a priestess in a quasi-psychic mind-control religion who’s been training Paul in its secrets (even though she shouldn’t be), and his father (Oscar Isaac) is assigned to govern over a desert planet named Arrakis – the only source of a valuable resource called “Spice”, which is worm guano that has psychotropic qualities. But the previous family in charge attacks to take back control, and Paul is forced to escape to the desert and hide amongst the nomadic Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people.

….That is an extremely broad summary, and is only the first half of the book. There are entire major characters I’ve not yet mentioned – like “Duncan Idaho” (Jason Momoa) and “Gurney Halleck” (Josh Brolin), two members of the Atredies court, and “Chani” (Zendaya), a Fremen woman whom Paul eventually falls in love with. All three characters fare a lot better in this adaptation – as does everyone, honestly. Character’s motives are clearer, relationships are more solid – and the simplified script also means the actors have much more room to breathe, and aren’t saddled down by having to spout off complicated gobbledygook by way of exposition. The characters even get to have in-jokes in this adaptation.

Whether this is a Best Picture film, though, I’m not sure. Everyone does great with it – but it’s still kind of a space opera, and things are a bit unfinished. Paul in particular feels unfinished – but that’s because he is at this point. Villeneuve tries to hint at the heavier stuff in the second half by giving Paul a series of “visions”, but that’s not quite the same as Paul actually experiencing them. It will be very interesting to see what Chalamet does with Paul in the second part. But this first part – while fine, and definitely an improvement on the 1984 film – is not something I expect to take a statuette.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit: Syllabus

Oscars 2022 Nominations Have Been Announced!

Hooray it’s Oscar season!

As with years past, I will be occasionally posting shorter reviews and reactions to the Best Picture Nominees for this years’ Academy Awards. And this year, that list is:

  • Belfast
  • Coda
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • Nightmare Alley
  • The Power Of The Dog
  • West Side Story

Conveniently, I will be watching the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story very soon, so that could make for an interesting double-feature.

Roommate Russ and I discussed this list, and…honestly, we’re both a bit disappointed. We each had a favorite film we were hoping would get nods in at least a couple categories; Roommate Russ was particularly taken with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, while I wanted to see The Green Knight get acknowledged for something. But both were well and truly snubbed. And, honestly, there are a couple films on this list that I wouldn’t have been seeing otherwise.

Fortunately, there are also a couple I was already planning on seeing – and a couple I’ve even already seen. I was also planning on streaming The Power Of The Dog for convenience’s sake, but Roommate Russ talked me out of that, pointing out that the setting would really show up well on the big screen. His only concern was that as of yesterday, there was only one theater screening it, and it was slated to leave on Thursday evening. I told him that the Oscar nomination would likely change that – and sure enough, by day’s end yesterday they had added 14 more screenings to their calendar; I’m reserving my ticket as we speak.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

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Well, this is breaking the streak of “here’s what’s wrong, but I liked it” reviews.

This Ingmar Bergman film is a quiet, simple piece, taking place in only a day or so during a family’s vacation on a small Swedish island. We meet them frolicking in the surf first – Karin (Harriet Andersson), her devoted husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her teenage brother Minus (Lars Passgård) and novelist father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). There’s some playful arguing as they come ashore and negotiate the chores for that evening’s dinner – finally settling on Karin and Minus heading to fetch milk while David and Martin round up fish. Minus seems put out to have to tag along with his big sister, but she playfully changes his mind, and is laughing along with her as they go.

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So the conversation Martin and David have alone comes as something of a shock – for we learn that Karin suffers from schizophrenia, and is fresh from the asylum after a recent psychotic break. Martin is determined to stay with his wife until the bitter end, helping her and protecting her as best he can – while David has been avoiding her, save for making notes on her illness’s progression in case he wants to write about it later. In fact, David has only joined the others on vacation at Martin and Minus’ urging as they want to keep things as happy and normal as possible for Karin.

But Karin is simply too far gone. She sneaks out of Martin’s arms in the middle of the night to lurk in an abandoned attic room, because she’s convinced there are people in the walls talking to her. A voice in her head urges her to snoop in her father’s things, and she finds his diary and reads the cold and clinical notes he’s been making on her symptoms. She flees the house during a moment of tension and, when Minus finds her, she hallucinates he’s a stranger and….let’s say she gets a bit more familiar than a sister should.

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One thing that struck me is the very ordinariness of the film. There are few clichéd “mad scene” moments for Karin – she mostly just seems a little impulsive. Maybe she says something strange now and then, but soon just waves it off; it was the illness talking, she’s fine now. It lulls you into the same kind of hope the family is clinging to that maybe Karin is actually okay – until a scene towards the very end, when they come upon her having a one-sided conversation with invisible people and then reacts to a horrifying vision. We never see that vision, though; nor do we hear all the voices that Karin hears, save for some soft sounds in the attic that might be whispers and might just be wind.

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The film is also sparse – there’s no soundtrack, there’s no other people in the cast. Martin and David have only two brief conversations about “What Do We Do About Karin”, and Passgård manages to somehow establish a subplot for himself as the Overlooked Younger Brother without saying much at all.

The film is instead stripped down to its essence – it’s a quiet, sparse tragedy about the family of someone with a mental illness trying to save her despite the odds.