July Reading/Watching Recap

Click through for reactions for Pirates of the Caribbean 2, The Gold Rush, Night of the Hunter, Shopgirl, A Scanner Darkly, Transamerica, and Hitchcock’s Films, among others.

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Movies

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest
I quite enjoyed it. It’s always interesting to me to compare the reactions of critics with those of regular moviegoers, and this is a prime example of a film that quite clearly millions of moviegoers loved and most critics just as clearly hated. I can see some of the reasons the critics disliked it…it was too long, and it wasn’t a complete film in and of itself, and it was played much more obviously for easy laughs and cheap thrills than the first one. But despite all that, it was still a good time. Was it as amazingly and unexpectedly good as the first one? No. Was it plotted as tightly? No. I have my own issues with the film, largely based around the pointlessness of the opening action sequences on the cannibal island, the out-of-character-ness of Jack hitting on Elizabeth in a sincere-seeming way, and the fact that Davy Jones was almost completely devoid of any scariness. Those three things knocked it down from “a ton of fun” to “a bunch of fun with a few annoying nitpicks.” There was a lot that I liked…I liked the cheesy quality in the swordfighting-in-the-wheel scene. I liked Norrington being dashing and devious rather than just a blowhard. I liked Johnny Depp, but that’s a given. As far as it not ending, you’d think after Fellowship of the Ring people would be over that. Heck, you’d think after Empire Strikes Back, people would be…that ended with Han Solo frozen in freaking carbonite and we had to wait for three years to get him out, not just one like with PoTC. It’s not the great flick the first one was, but it certainly isn’t bad.
Average
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Les Diaboliques
Okay, so in English, it’s usually titled just Diabolique, but that makes much less sense than Les Diaboliques, so I’m sticking to the French, with the article. Anyway. In this 1950s French thriller, a wife and mistress plot together to murder the man who treats them both like crap. They plan everything out elaborately, and everything goes as plan. Until their intention to allow the body to found in such a way as to intimate accident or suicide doesn’t work out, because the body, uh, disappears. I guessed the twist at the end, but the film is still well-done and very moody. For some reason, I was thinking it was supposed to be scary, but it really isn’t…it’s just suspenseful. Perhaps it’s the other famous Henri-Georges Clouzot film I’m thinking of, The Wages of Fear. I’ll have to put that one on my list next year. Another interesting tidbit–Les Diaboliques is based on a book by the same authors as the book upon which Hitchcock’s Vertigo is based. I haven’t read either book, but apparently Clouzot stuck a lot closer to the original text than Hitchcock did, and managed to make a memorable film out of it, but nothing compared to the transcendent masterpiece that Vertigo is. (Um, I’ve been revisiting some of my thoughts on adaptation and the relationship between film and source material…can you tell?)
Above Average
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The Gold Rush
Aw. I love Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. This is one of those films that turns up on best lists all over the place, and despite the fact that I’ve seen most every other Charlie Chaplin film out there, this one kept sneaking by me. But no more! Yay! Chaplin can turn from slapstick humor to heartbreaking pathos more quickly than probably any other actor/director ever. There are so many great scenes here…the famous ones, of course: boiling and eating one of Charlie’s shoes to keep from starving, Charlie creating entertainment in the form of dancing fork-and-potato feet, the cabin threatening to fall off the cliff and take Charlie and his prospecting pal with it. But also the smaller, more heartfelt scenes–Charlie, always the outsider, looking into a saloon full of laughter and dancing, knowing that he cannot be accepted there. His making a mess with pillow feathers as he dances for joy after the girl he worships from afar flirts with him–not knowing that she and her friends are actually having a laugh at his expense. Still, it’s not as great as his later masterpieces City Lights or especially Modern Times…it’s simply not as cohesive. It’s more a series of vignettes that relate tangentially to each other. But that says more about the time in which it was made than about Chaplin himself. With The Gold Rush, he is moving, really for the first time, from short films of 15-45 minutes long into a longer format (90 minutes). He’d already made The Little Tramp into a figure alternately (and often simultaneously) amusing and poignant in earlier films like The Kid, but with The Gold Rush, he really solidified the mixture of comedy and pathos for which he’s so well known. See some Chaplin films. Eighty years later, and they’re still wonderful.
Well Above Average
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Elevator to the Gallows
I had to double-check the date on this one, because I figured it must have come out after Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, because of how New Wave it seems. But nope, one year earlier. Turns out director Louis Malle was a cohort of Truffaut’s, writing occasionally for Cahiers du Cinema, and Elevator to the Gallows is considered a close precursor to the New Wave, but not, I guess, really part of it. I need to check that out more…the WashU library closed on me before I had a chance to flip through all the books on Malle. Anyway, a young businessman murders his boss in order to run away with his boss’s wife. He’s got everything planned out so it’ll look like suicide, except he gets distracted and forgets to remove the rope he used to climb into the upper floor. When he discovers this from his car, he runs into the elevator to go up and take it down. From here on the coincidences just keep piling up. He is caught in the elevator when the night watchman turns off the power and locks the place down not knowing he’s in there. A young hoodlum and his girlfriend take his car, which he left running, for a joyride and end up in their own mess of trouble. Meanwhile, in the truly memorable, iconic portions of the film, the businessman’s lover (the wife of the man he killed) roams the city searching for him all night, not knowing if the plan to murder her husband had been carried out or not, not knowing if he chickened out, or the plan backfired, or if he ran out on her as well…all set to Miles Davis’ improvisational jazz. It’s a film that feels like it didn’t quite live up to its potential–it didn’t hit me like The 400 Blows or Pickpocket did–but it feels as though it’s on the cusp of greatness. Definitely a must-see if you’re interested in New Wave or French cinema, or in film noir, or in early uses of jazz scoring. Beyond that, it may seem a bit random and unrealized.
Above Average
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Derailed
Clive Owen. *sigh* Oh, I’m sorry? What? The film? Right. Clive (*sigh*) plays a businessman who’s overwhelmed at home between his career wife and his daughter, very ill with an extreme form of diabetes. He chances to meet a beautiful woman (Jennifer Aniston) on his commuter train one morning, and, against his better judgment, starts a fling with her. Only things go very wrong when their first tryst is interrupted by a thug who knocks Clive out and rapes Jen, then later blackmails them, threatening to tell their significant others what they were up to. It all sounds very routine, and it is. Yes, there’s a twist at the end, and yes, it’s predictable. Thrillers like this paint themselves into a corner where they have to have a twist, because they would be deadly boring without one, but then because the story is so deadly boring, you know there has to be a twist, so even the twist is boring. Really, really good writers and directors can get around this, but it’s getting more and more rare. There was not a thing here that surprised or intrigued me, and so I was reduced to staring at Clive and sighing. Which was fine with me. Except he didn’t have his British accent, which makes him every-so-slightly less sigh-worthy.
Below Average
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Night of the Hunter
I’m not sure how to write about this film. I think I could write either nothing or an entire essay. Since I want something in between here, I’m not sure how to start. It’s a very strange film, honestly. It’s far more expressionistic and overwrought than I expected…in fact, I quite think that a lot of people wouldn’t like it, just because it’s so over the top. On the other hand, there are a lot of extremely interesting things going on, both narratively and stylistically. A young boy is entrusted with a lot of money by his father, who tells him not to let anyone else, even his mother, know where it is just before he is taken to prison for theft and murder. The father shares a prison cell with a preacher who finds out about the money, and once Preacher gets out of prison, he uses his “pious” talk to insinuate himself into the boy’s family and small town to try to find out where the money is. Robert Mitchum plays Preacher in such a way that he’s overblown, and yet strangely compelling…creepy, but not really all that scary most of the time. The boy takes his sister and runs away; they’re rescued by an older woman who’s made it her mission in life to care for unwanted children. There are so many religious undertones here…the Preacher is the worst possible example of “Christianity,” a Christianity full of fire and brimstone and visions and emotionality, nothing more than a hypocritical cover for a devious criminal, while the woman (beautifully portrayed by Lillian Gish) shows the humanitarian side, a Christianity driven by care for those who cannot care for themselves. Still, it’s nothing near a religious treatise. It’s difficult to grasp precisely what it is, because the focus keeps switching…is the money the important thing? Is the money only a McGuffin, standing in for the boy’s loyalty to his father? Is there a relationship with the mother that should be saved? Is it only the boy and the sister who matter? Why do we somehow care about the Preacher too, at times? I’m definitely putting this in the category of “cult film,” because I hesitate to claim that it’s actually “good”, but there are such powerful elements and images that are still with me now, a month later, and it made me think so much and write down so many rambling unconnected thoughts that I also hesitate to denigrate it.
Above Average
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Forbidden Games
A little girl and her parents are among hundreds of people trying to escape from Paris ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940 when they’re caught in yet another air raid. This time, the five-year-old’s parents are killed as they try to shield her and her beloved dog. Wandering away from the scene, clasping her now-dead dog to her chest, she is found by a young boy, perhaps nine years old, who takes her home and convinces his family to take her in, even though they are struggling with illness and poverty themselves. The boy and girl form a close bond, and soon he is willing to do anything for her…even when she wants to build a secret cemetery for her dog, and any other dead thing they can find, to keep the dog from being lonely. Before long, he is also stealing crosses for the graves. It’s a strange story, and a bit morbid, but there’s so much going on under the surface. As with Grave of the Fireflies, the real theme here is the tragedy of war and how it affects the innocent ones when they’re forced to see and experience things they should never have to experience. The girl’s fascination with death after watching her parents die…her concurrent desire and terror when planning the cemetery. You see, I can’t even write good sentences about it, because it affected me on a level deeper than semantics–I was both put off by it and mesmerized. It’s a film of very straightforward, even simplistic plot, but the mood is extremely evocative and emotional…it’s a film of great complexity that I can’t being to really approach after only one viewing. Watching the interviews on the Criterion DVD helped a little, but even so. The little girl is astounding, and the boy matches her with every look, every gesture spot on and yet perfectly natural. There’s a freshness to the best child actors that adult actors can never hope to achieve, and director Rene Clement certainly got the best from these two.
Well Above Average
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Mon Oncle
You know the problem with writing about all these films that are on my Films to Watch in 2006 list? They’re mostly classic, highly-respected films that tons has been written about already. And while I haven’t necessarily read a lot about the films in question, there’s still a weight of scholarship that hangs on them, and it affects me more than I’d like. It means that I’m supposed to appreciate the films at a very high level. And when I like them, but don’t think “wow, that’s an amazing film,” I feel like I must’ve missed something. And I probably have. Which means I want to go read all about them before I form my opinions. But then they’re not really MY opinions at the deepest level, and whatever I write here won’t be my immediate reaction, which is what I want. It’s a conundrum I’ve been circling around for years. Mon Oncle is a delightful, fun, humorous, and enjoyable film. Jacques Tati is a sort of French Charlie Chaplin, only thirty years later. Most of the comedy is physical and mildly slapstick. Tati is an old-fashioned Frenchman who lives in a charming old section of the city; his brother-in-law, however, is a fancy businessman who lives in a state-of-the-art modern house, where everything is automated and sterile. Tati’s nephew prefers to hang out with his uncle rather than stay in the forbidding modernity of his own house. There are lots of amusing vignettes, a lot of tenderness and joy, and an ending that doesn’t quite satisfy. I enjoyed the film, and the simplicity of it is refreshing, but I don’t know that it’s a GREAT film, which is the reputation it’s gotten. It won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, for goodness’ sake, and this is so far from Oscar’s usual style that my brain can’t quite handle that fact. I dunno. Perhaps my expectations were far too high.
Above Average
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Shopgirl
I haven’t seen a film with this little substance in a long time. But what it lacks in plot it very much makes up in everything else. Claire Danes is the titular shopgirl, a girl whose life seems to be going nowhere. Then two men pop into her life…a goofy, oddball slacker played by Jason Schwarzman and a suave older gentleman played by Steve Martin. After a non-starter of a date with Schwarzman, she moves into a pretty serious relationship with Martin–serious to her, anyway. It’s difficult to describe exactly what I found so attractive about the film, because it certainly wasn’t the story, which alternates between somewhat dull, somewhat sordid and occasionally amusing. But when I got to the end, my immediate thought was, that was really good. It was just really sweet on one level, with a touch of cynicism to partially balance it out, and three of the best understated performances from the three leads that I’ve seen in a while. It didn’t try to be more than it was, and it kept the focus on these three people so perfectly. The only thing I would’ve ditched is Martin’s distracting voiceover. I wish Martin would do more films like this, rather than the endless cycle of slapstick remakes he tends toward. And Claire Danes is always good, though her project choices can be all over the map…it was good to see her do a film that really showcases her at her best.
Above Average
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A Scanner Darkly
This was my most anticipated movie of the year. I have been waiting for it since I first saw the teaser trailer nearly a year ago, and have suffered through the release date being pushed back twice! The two reasons for my anticipation were the style, which is overlaid animation (the entire movie was filmed with real actors, then animation was placed on top of every frame…the same technique director Richard Linklater used in Waking Life), and the story, which is based on a Philip K. Dick novel (he also wrote Minority Report) and involves a police agent trying to track down a drug dealer who pushes the highly addictive and destructive Substance D. And let’s just say, it’s about six times as complex as that. After about fifteen minutes, I stopped trying to figure it out and just went along with the ride. The style is as fascinating as ever; too bad Linklater claims he’ll never do another film like it again–it’s apparently extremely difficult and time-consuming. The story is trippy, and often random. It’s unfortunate that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder can’t match the acting chops of Robert Downey, Jr., whose animated avatar teams up with Woody Harrelson’s to steal the film. Overall, though, I quite enjoyed it. Now I have to pick a new most-anticipated movie…
Above Average
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Transamerica
I was looking at my trailer-watching notes the other day, and noticed that when I first saw this trailer I rated it a 4, which equates to “might see if I run out of everything else,” and my notes said “okay, it’s a transsexual man trying to become a woman, but the part is played by a woman. My suspension of disbelief just exploded.” See, when I wrote that, I failed to realize what an amazing actress Felicity Huffman is. Because Transamerica is one of the best movies released last year, regardless of subject matter. Huffman’s character Bree (formerly Stanley) is within a few weeks of the final surgery necessary to make her a woman when she discovers that she has a son from a fling some nineteen years earlier who has landed himself in jail. After some prompting from a friend, she goes and gets her son Toby out of jail, not telling him that she’s his father, and they embark on a road trip back to LA. It’s a concoction of road trip, coming of age, and personal odyssey that adds up to an amazingly good film. In reality, it’s not even about transsexuality…the fact that Bree is transgendered only highlights what is just as true of Toby as it is of her–they are both people who are extremely uncomfortable in their own skin. As the actor who plays him pointed out in an interview, Toby seems to be a different person in different scenes–he doesn’t know who he is, and is “testing” different personas. Bree knows who she is, but it doesn’t match physical reality. You’d expect this to be a film with a lot of political overtones, equal rights for transgendered persons, that sort of thing, and while there is an element of that, it is nowhere near the center of the film. At the center, it’s a film about people, and the screenplay, mood, and acting are all astonishingly good.
Well Above Average
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Books

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
It is now my new mission in life to read every literary-themed mystery/thriller ever written. Okay, not really, because a lot of them probably really suck, but I do tend to like the genre, and this was no exception. It wasn’t the absolute high of Foucault’s Pendulum or the unexpected pleasure of Shadow of the Wind, but this story of a rare book headhunter who gets embroiled in a search for a medieval occultic book as well as a mysterious plot that uncannily resembles The Three Musketeers was a lot of fun. I did really wish at times, though, that I had an e-text of the book with hyperlinks to information on all the literary and historical references, because I admit that I didn’t get them all. Definitely need to reread Three Musketeers at some point…
Above Average
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Hitchcock’s Films by Robin Wood
This is quite possibly the best piece of extended film criticism I have yet read. Even though it was originally written back in the 1960s, in the infancy of film criticism, it is still chock-full of insights about Hitchcock in general, the specific films discussed, film theory, the auteur theory, and even general literary criticism. Wood discusses largely Hitchcock’s later work: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie and Torn Curtain (in the second edition, which is the one I read…the first edition was published before Torn Curtain was released). These titles are among the best films ever produced, and Wood does right by them. He also spends briefer periods of time on the rest of Hitchcock’s films, and has a great introduction that overviews all of Hitchcock’s work. It’s a quite definitely auteurist perspective, a perspective which Wood would later modify, leading to a revised edition in the 1980s called Hitchcock’s Films Revisited in which he corrects and augments some of his viewpoints. But whether or not Wood continued to agree with himself, and whether or not I agreed with everything he said, the book is still an amazing primer in criticism, auteurism, and how to read films. In fact, I’m in the middle of James Monaco’s highly regarded How to Read a Film right now, and were I to start teaching a class on film, I would probably choose Hitchcock’s Films for the text instead, that’s how good it is. Plus, in addition to being very insightful, it’s also extremely accessible. If you’re at all interested in Hitchcock, the auteur theory, or film criticism in general, you must must must read this book. See the films first, though. Otherwise, you’ll be spoiled for Psycho, and there isn’t anything worse than that.
Superior
buy Hitchcock’s Films Revisted at amazon (the original edition is no longer in print)

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
Not really anything like I expected it to be. It’s difficult to describe, really, because the essays are so disconnected. There are a few about the accepted classics, like Austen and Bronte. Some really interesting ones about Woolf’s contemporaries Conrad and Joyce, before either of them had written their masterpieces yet. And several very odd ones, mostly odd in subject but also rather odd in style, about obscure 18th and 19th century memoirs. Those were hard for me to get through because I care very little about the entire memoir genre, yet Woolf seems utterly fascinated by it. It’s not the tour-de-force that A Room of One’s Own is, for sure. And how exactly she thinks she’s reacting to these works as a “common reader” would (especially when she’s covering works that I can’t imagine a “common reader” picking up in the first place, but perhaps that’s a difference between the common reader of the 1920s and the common reader of the 2000s), I’m not sure. But there are enough flashes of insight and two or three absolutely amazing passages–particularly one section right at the end about how contemporary fiction (contemporary as of about 1919) differs from classic fiction–to make it worthwhile.
Average
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