May 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

In May I was home for a few weeks, and took advantage of the amazing St. Louis library system to knock several films off my 2007 Goal list. Then I got burned out on that and just watched some random old stuff. After the jump, reactions to Spider-Man 3, The Great Dictator, They Were Expendable, Taxi Driver, Unforgiven, The New World, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and more.

I have a Music post in the works, but I was focusing on getting this thing finished. Tomorrow.

Movies

Spider-Man 3
Spider-Man 3I was one of those rare people who preferred Spider-Man to Spider-Man 2, and, as unpopular an opinion as this might be, I almost want to say that I liked Spider-Man 3 more than Spider-Man 2. Probably that opinion mostly indicates my need to rewatch Spider-Man 2, or perhaps that I tend to like films better if I see them in theatre first rather than on DVD. In any case, yes, a good bit of Spider-Man 3 is silly, but it knew it was and played to it. Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous that Peter’s “evil” side is basically Buddy Love. The thing is, I didn’t really think about it until later. So it isn’t really a good movie, per se, but I enjoyed watching it. Kirsten Dunst wasn’t as totally annoying as she was in the first two; I liked the connections to the first film with Sandman; and the only absolute groaner shot was when Spidey landed completely randomly in front of an American flag. I don’t know what they were thinking with that.
Average
IMDb | The Frame

The Great Dictator
The Great DictatorCharlie Chaplin moved into the world of sound twelve years later than everyone else with this satirical take on Hitler. Not that there’s anything wrong with moving into the sound era twelve years late–his two sound-era silent films City Lights and Modern Times both rank among the world’s all-time greatest films and didn’t need sound in any way whatsoever (Modern Times did have some sound segments, if you want to get technical). In fact, I found it hard to imagine that anything could live up to his great silents, and this doesn’t quite, but it’s still very, very good. Charlie plays a Jewish man who served his country Tomania (read: Germany) in World War I, but was injured and got amnesia; when he is finally released from the hospital, he returns to his home, but discovers that Jews aren’t, um, well-liked in Tomania anymore, and he and fellow ghetto-dweller Paulette Goddard have to help each other out of various scrapes with the Tomanian soldiers. Charlie ALSO plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, who dreams of world domination (whimsically portrayed in his joyful dance with a floating globe). Perhaps inevitably, the two end up being mistaken for each other. It was somewhat daring to make a film satirising and ridiculing Hitler this obviously in 1940, but Chaplin pulls it off. If you’re in a make-fun-of-Hitler sort of mood, watch this and Ernst Lubitsch‘s brilliant To Be or Not To Be in a double feature. In random nobody-cares-but-me news, this was my 2000th film.
Superior
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

They Were Expendable
They Were ExpendableIn John Ford‘s great classic war film, John Wayne and Robert Montgomery are the commanders of a fleet of PT boats in the Philippines, trying constantly to convince their superior officers that PT boats are actually, like, useful in combat and constantly getting pushed into messenger and ferry service instead. Most of my war film experience is with the European theatre, so it’s always interesting to me (and sometimes confusing, because I don’t know the battles as well) to see one set in the Pacific–this one includes the retreat from Bataan, which I *did* know about. ;) But the main thing here isn’t the plot and specific battles so much as the close and varied view of the life of PT boat crews, from participating in battles to being injured and hospitalized, to forging relationships with the nurses, to being stranded who knows where until they get their boats repaired, to being recalled to train the next wave of troops. At first I was looking for a strong goal or final mission that everything was leading to, but I enjoyed it a lot more when I realized that though there is a climactic battle, the film really isn’t based around it in any way. It’s not quite a character study either, though. It’s a war film that captures very well the sense of not always knowing what the next mission will be, or how important it will be, and the joys that have to be taken moment by moment, because war can steal them away at any second.
Superior
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Taxi Driver
Taxi DriverWow. I was expecting this to be one of those films that I check off my list of “films every film buff should see because Scorsese directed it and De Niro is in it.” I did not except to be totally blown away by it. Travis Bickel (De Niro), afflicted with insomnia, takes a job driving a taxi at night to fill up the extra hours of his day. Driving around at night in New York City, he sees and is disgusted by the seedy underbelly of the city, eventually going a little crazy over it, especially after he meets the 12-year-old child prostitute played by Jodie Foster and makes it his mission to get her away from that life. The film’s brilliance is its refusal to judge whether Travis’s violent vigilante tactics are justified for a goal which is obviously worthwhile–sympathy for him careens back and forth in a way totally consistent with his apparent social disorders. De Niro and Foster are both incredible; this probably remains Foster’s best role in a career of good roles, and De Niro’s intensity simply jumps off the screen. It’s not always an easy movie to watch, but you also won’t be able to look away.
Superior
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Unforgiven
UnforgivenAfter my disappointment with the generally-acclaimed The Proposition last month, I was a little wary of Clint Eastwood‘s Oscar-winning revisionist Western, but that wariness turned out to be unfounded. Eastwood plays a former gunslinger asked to come out of retirement in order to track down a man who beat up one of the local, um, women of ill repute. There’s ethical issues of whether it’s okay to beat up a prostitute, whether she’s worth avenging, not to mention Eastwood’s personal reservations about re-entering a world of violence after he successfully left it and forged a new life for himself and his young children. His fear of his own ability to carry out only one job and not be pulled back into a love of violence is really the emotional center of the film, and Eastwood holds the other disparate elements together very well both as an actor and as a director. As a director, he has a wonderfully old-fashioned touch that makes you almost feel that you’re watching a great Golden Age film (he pulls this off with Million Dollar Baby as well), yet with a level of ethical probing that was only found in the very, very best of Golden Age westerns.
Well Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The New World
The New WorldI was not initially very excited about watching this John Smith-Pocahontas film. I’ve heard amazing things about director Terrence Malick, though he seems to be one of those directors people either love or hate. He’s made four films over the last twenty-odd years, all of them apparently fairly idiosyncratic (I haven’t seen any of the others: Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line). The trailer did nothing for me, since it looked like just another “Indians good, English settlers bad” type of leftist guilt-inducing film. And I must admit that as long as I was trying to make it work as a narrative film, I had trouble getting hold of it. Because it isn’t primarily a narrative film. It’s a visual poem. Once I realized that, and let myself go to its rhythm and beauty, I suddenly understood in a flash why people who love Terrence Malick love him. And at that moment, I fell in love with this film. The scenes with the settlers don’t work quite so well as they should, I admit. Mostly because they’re more narrative-driven and kept interfering with the poetic bits, and I just wanted them to go away. (This from someone who readily proclaims not to even like poetry. This is different, somehow.) Overall, though, the film is so beautiful in terms of cinematography, mise-en-scene, and sound design that I really didn’t care if the narrative didn’t totally work. It probably isn’t a film that everyone will like (and, heh, those who don’t will probably hate it), but it captured me completely. (I’m also noticing a trend through the last few movies of me having low expectations and then loving the film…I wonder if those things are related?)
Superior
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Green For Danger
Green for DangerRather slight but entertaining British WWII black comedy/suspenser. Alistair Sim, as perfect as ever, plays a detective brought in to solve a murder committed among a group of army doctors and nurses, a task made more difficult by the suspects’ complex romantic involvements and friendships; basically, all of them have motive and opportunity. This film has a healthy reputation among fans of post-war British cinema, and it’s well-done; there’s just not a whole lot to it beyond its quintessentially British charm. And I love black and white films, but this is a rare case in which color would’ve really helped. Or else, completely ruined it. Now that I think of it, color might actually have given the mystery away–I’m not sure if that’s a positive observation on the cinematic side of the equation, or a negative one on the script side.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Naked Kiss
The Naked KissWow. I don’t even know where to start with this one. Samuel Fuller was a B-grade director well known for his rather off-the-wall, shocking films (his most famous film is probably Shock Corridor); this is the first one of his films that I’ve seen. And it’s so incredibly strange that I loved it! It opens with a woman beating the crap out of the camera–actually, she’s whaling on a former lover, but the first person view is the first of many surprising takes on what might otherwise be an ordinary storyline. The woman is a prostitute trying to get out of the business, so she changes towns and becomes a teacher at a home for crippled children. The only person who knows about her past life is the local cop, who helps protect her from recognition; that is, until she decides to marry another man, the town’s most upstanding citizen (he may be mayor, I forget the details, because I was so focused on its idiosyncratic style that I didn’t pay close attention to the plot). There’s another twist at the end which I won’t reveal. But the thing that sets The Naked Kiss apart is, as I said, it’s sheer oddness. There’s a scene where the children are all singing a song, which one would expect to be cute and saccharine sweet, but the tune is so bizarre and the children so blank that the scene becomes surreal, even creepy (see it on YouTube). If you could count “cult film” as a genre, I think you’d have to put this up there with Carnival of Souls as the prime 1960s examples. I’m not sure I’d say it was “good”, but it was far too interesting to pass up, and even several weeks later, it keeps popping up in my head. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Well Above Average
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Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler)
Bob le flambeurThis was part of my attempt to move beyond the New Wave proper and into some of the (non-American) directors who influenced it. Jean-Pierre Melville‘s crime films are New Wavish in their appropriation of American crime/gangster genre films, but they precede the films of Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Chabrol by a half-decade or so. (Godard actually references this film in Breathless, one of the characters suggesting that “Bob le flambeur” would help if he weren’t in prison.) Bob is a former con-man whose vices are now mostly confined to gambling; however, when he’s faced with the opportunity to heist a casino, he decides to pull this one last job. The interplay between Bob’s criminal dealings and his very ethical, humanist, and moral character gives the film a depth that a lot of crime films don’t necessarily have. I didn’t love it as much as I do Godard and Truffaut (the pacing doesn’t suit me as well), but I definitely want to revisit it in a few years and see how a more mature me sees it.
Well Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Invisible
The InvisibleI didn’t have terribly high expectations going into this little pseudo-ghost thriller; I liked the trailer, and was intrigued by the concept of someone having to solve his own murder in order to have his body found before he died all the way, but knew that the actual film could be either good or terrible. Good news–it isn’t terrible. :) It didn’t attain the level of pleasant surprise that The Lookout did, but it was enjoyable. The story was enough different from what it seemed like it was going to be in the trailer to be interesting, though the ending was a little unbelievable. But what do you really expect from a high school-set movie about an almost-dead boy’s ghost trying to get his family and friends to see him (even though he’s invisible, as a ghost), and to find his body? Exactly. And the kid is really cute.
Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Wages of Fear
The Wages of FearI’m sorry, but this is supposed to be Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s best film and one of the best thrillers of all time? I think it took me three days to watch it. I don’t usually consider “thriller” and “fell asleep” as compatible terms. Four French guys stuck in South America without any money to get home take the very dangerous job of transporting live nitroglycerine to a burning oil well site. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect to the film more, honestly–there are some intense sequences, but they’re quietly intense; this all probably says more about my skewed expectations of thrillers based on more recent movies than anything else, and I hate that. Anyway. There were scenes I liked (the main driver trying to keep his injured partner awake and thus alive stands out), but mostly I couldn’t keep track of why each obstacle was such a problem for them to overcome. And the ending was completely lame. Personally, I liked Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques a lot better. Again, I think there’s a large chunk of personal preference for Les Diaboliques‘s double-crossing murder plot over The Wages of Fear‘s South American survival story. However, because this film is so well regarded, I’ll probably rewatch it in a few years to see if I can find out what I missed.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

Russian Ark
Russian ArkRussian Ark is a tour through Russian culture via the St. Petersburg museum-cum-palace The Hermitage. I really can’t tell you much about the story, though (what story there is involves the narrator and a French man he somehow meets as he travels through The Hermitage’s history and their discussion of Russian culture–the French guy is always interesting, giving an outsider’s view on the relationship between Russia and European culture), because the thing that Russian Ark will be remembered for is its virtuosic use of one single take. The camera takes the narrator’s point of view, moving through The Hermitage, sometimes through history (as they move into a new room, it will become a different time period), roving from conversation to conversation, from work of art to work of art. I’m making it sound like a documentary, which it isn’t. I apologize, but there isn’t a traditional story, either. Director Aleksandr Sukurov had exactly one day to shoot the film (the museum would only close for one day to allow his crew in), and eventually, if he hadn’t gotten the film in the take we have, he wouldn’t have been able to get it at all. It’s an incredible technical feat, just getting all the right actors in the right costumes in the right place at the right time, making sure the support crew wouldn’t be visible–my mind boggles just at the planning involved. I recommend that you do watch the making-of documentary on the DVD if you watch Russian Ark; it’s probably as interesting as the film itself. The question of whether or not the single-take is merely a gimmick, though, in terms of the film as a whole, is one I haven’t been able to answer yet. I enjoyed the technical prowess, but technical genius merely for the sake of technical genius is not always enough, and I think Sukurov is right on the line here.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Great Escape
The Great EscapeWhat fun this movie is! I knew that it was a POW escape film, but I didn’t guess it would be able to make three hours of POWs planning and attempting to execute an elaborate escape plan so engaging. Most of the POWs are British, with the exception of Steve McQueen, the sole American representative. They have all previously attempted to escape from other camps, and the camp they’re in is specifically made to be escape-proof. Interestingly, they’re pretty well-treated by their German captors (the commander, I think, has a fairly healthy respect for the hard-headedness and courage of these particular POWs)–something I’m never sure whether to believe in POW films. Anyway. Take a heist film like Rififi or Ocean’s Eleven and put it in reverse, and you’ve basically got a generally idea of The Great Escape. I fully enjoyed every bit of it. (Dad, if you haven’t seen this, I think you’d really like it.)
Superior
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Books

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
The Book of Laughter and ForgettingThis novel preceeded Kundera‘s The Unbearable Lightness of Being by five years, and I can’t say it quite lived up to the later work, but it’s still very evocative and heartbreaking on its own. Through three different but thematically connected stories, Kundera examines the place of memory and forgetfulness within personal relationships, history, and especially as they relate to totalitarian regimes such as the one in place over his home country, Czechoslovakia. Several pieces are absolutely beautiful and others very clever (I particularly liked his comparison of the history of music to a king’s court which gradually loses the stability of dominant chords). In style, it’s similar to Unbearable Lightness, with its philosophical, linguistic, and political digressions which are nonetheless always centered firmly within personal concerns (and which often involve sex, just an fyi), but it just doesn’t hang together as well.
Well Above Average
Wikipedia | The Frame | WorldCat | Amazon

  • I’m glad you enjoyed Taxi Driver, Unforgiven and The Great Escape so much.

    I greately enjoyed Spider Man 3 myself. I’d heard a lot of mixed reviews beforehand but it turned out to be more enjoyable and satisfying in terms of characters, storylines and action than a lot of the other recent blockbusters. I think the point of Peter’s evil side was that Peter can’t ever be too dark and always has some sort of moral or emotional anchor even in his darkest moments. It’s okay having a different opinion or preference to others of course and movies, books, music etc are essentially a matter of taste. I have a similarily minority opinion in greatly preferring the first X Men to the second.

  • I’m glad you enjoyed Taxi Driver, Unforgiven and The Great Escape so much.

    I greately enjoyed Spider Man 3 myself. I’d heard a lot of mixed reviews beforehand but it turned out to be more enjoyable and satisfying in terms of characters, storylines and action than a lot of the other recent blockbusters. I think the point of Peter’s evil side was that Peter can’t ever be too dark and always has some sort of moral or emotional anchor even in his darkest moments. It’s okay having a different opinion or preference to others of course and movies, books, music etc are essentially a matter of taste. I have a similarily minority opinion in greatly preferring the first X Men to the second.

  • It was interesting that even in his “darkest” moments all his energy was directed toward MJ. Also, did most people like X2 better than X-Men? I liked first one a lot more, but then, maybe people who’d read the comics got more out of the second one than I did (since I haven’t read the comics).

  • It was interesting that even in his “darkest” moments all his energy was directed toward MJ. Also, did most people like X2 better than X-Men? I liked first one a lot more, but then, maybe people who’d read the comics got more out of the second one than I did (since I haven’t read the comics).

  • It could also be said of course, that it was his accidental hitting of MJ that broke the spell that the darkside was weaving over him.

    I haven’t asked people out on the street ,but I got the general impression on the internet that many people seemed to think X Men 2 was better than the original. Myself, I thought throwing more money at the screen didn’t necessarily equal better and that the film is too busy setting up the next film to concentrate on making the last hour as good as it could have been. The first one just had more heart, character and general energy and punch to it for me. I don’t think any of the films particularly follow much of the comic book storylines anyway, other than a few of the “Phoenix” plotpoints.

  • It could also be said of course, that it was his accidental hitting of MJ that broke the spell that the darkside was weaving over him.

    I haven’t asked people out on the street ,but I got the general impression on the internet that many people seemed to think X Men 2 was better than the original. Myself, I thought throwing more money at the screen didn’t necessarily equal better and that the film is too busy setting up the next film to concentrate on making the last hour as good as it could have been. The first one just had more heart, character and general energy and punch to it for me. I don’t think any of the films particularly follow much of the comic book storylines anyway, other than a few of the “Phoenix” plotpoints.

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