Anna-Karenina

Scorecard: November-December 2012

Usually November is a huge movie-watching month for me thanks to maxing out on AFI Fest (last year I think I saw upwards of 15-20 films at the festival), but I cut back significantly this year, skipping midnights and not planning more than two programs per day, which also included a number of shorts programs. So I only ended up with six features from the fest, which was a much more manageable number for me this year. I’ve largely used the same brief reviews I posted earlier on Row Three (some slightly condensed, but not much), but you can also read rundowns of the shorts programs over there if you’re so inclined. Then I was typically late getting all this together, and since I watched relatively few films in December as well, decided to throw those into the same post.

What I Loved

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I saw the 2D version, in 24fps, and I’m glad I did, so I wouldn’t be distracted/thinking about tech things instead of the story itself. I really enjoyed the film, at least as much if not more than the LOTR films. I was worried about the length, given the snappiness of the book, and they’re definitely giving it a more epic feeling than the novel, but it works. The added and adapted stuff from the LOTR appendices fits well, and ties the story closer to LOTR in nice ways, while still keeping some of the lighter, more humorous tone of The Hobbit. The pacing is much better than I expected, with only a bit of padding/repetitiveness toward the beginning causing me any doubts at all. (NOTE: We went back to see the 48fps version later, and I don’t want to get into here, but you can see my reaction specifically to the technical aspects on Letterboxd.)

2012 USA/New Zealand. Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Stephen Fry, Hugo Weaving.
Seen December 15 at The Rave.

Django Unchained

Any new Tarantino movie is automatically near the top of my anticipated list, and this one was no different. It didn’t disappoint. With Christoph Waltz in his meatiest role since, well, Inglourious Bastards, as a bounty hunter joining forces with freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to take down some bounty targets and eventually get Django’s wife back, it’s a Southern-style spaghetti western revenge tale that was bound to tickle my fancy. Everyone is having gleeful fun with this, right down to Leonardo diCaprio’s slimy Southern aristocrat. Tarantino doesn’t shy away from the subject either, with some brutality is sometimes quite difficult to watch (though there’s plenty of the cool kind of violence as well), and just wait until you see what role he’s got for Samuel L. Jackson. The whole cast gives it their all, whether heroes or villains, and though there’s plenty of Tarantino’s signature dialogue and scene-making, it also moves rather faster and seems less self-indulgent on the script side than often is the case. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece that Inglourious Bastards is, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and there’s no arguing that.

2012 USA. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo diCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson.
Seen December 26 at The Rave.

Wrong

I was a pretty big fan of Quentin Dupieux’s previous film Rubber, and I may have loved Wrong even more, with its full-blown absurdity bolstered by an ever-so-slightly more substantial story. Dolph Springer wakes up one morning to find his beloved dog missing, an event that sends his already spiraling life even more out of control. Other things he’s dealing with: his workplace is constantly raining (yes, inside the office), his coworkers seem very intent that he doesn’t belong there, his neighbor and seemingly only friend leaves suddenly on a driving trip to find himself or something, the girl at the pizza place seems to have developed an obsession with him, and what’s more, the palm tree in his backyard has mysteriously turned into a pine tree. “There shouldn’t be a pine tree here. It doesn’t make sense.” No, it doesn’t, and neither does anything else in the film – except, as true absurdity should, it sort of does, right down to the eventually-revealed reason for the dog’s disappearance. Everything in the film is wrong, from obvious things like it raining indoors and trees randomly changing types to the ways people interact with each other. It’s a perfect storm of the awkward and nonsensical, and thanks to the deadpan script and actors’ perfect timing throughout, it’s absolutely hilarious even as you feel bad for these people who can’t quite manage to get along in any way that even resembles normalcy. It’s definitely getting my vote for funniest film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s safe to say that Dupieux is perfectly tapped into my sense of humor.

2012 France. Director: Quentin Dupieux. Starring: Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexis Dziena, Steve Little, William Fichtner, Regan Burns, Mark Burnham.
Seen November 2 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

Anna Karenina

I went into this knowing next to nothing about the story of Anna Karenina except that it’s about a scandalous affair in 19th century Russia, and Anna’s fate. I’ve never been particularly interested in the story before, as it sounded dreary and depressing (i.e., stereotypically Russian), but I’ve loved every Joe Wright film I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them all except The Soloist. I figured it would at least be a spectacle worth seeing, and I was sure right about that. Between the sets, costumes, score, and camerawork, I was mesmerized for the entire film. I have no idea how close it is to the novel – I hear people complaining that Wright left Tolstoy behind in making the film, but you know what? I don’t care. This is a gorgeous movie that manages to get across its points about a decadent society and its focus on appearances, the contrast between selfish and selfless love, and the gender inequality of the time while never failing to be visually sumptuous. I was worried about the conceit of having everything on a single set, but it worked completely for me – the long takes sometimes taking us from one place to a completely different place without ever cutting are virtuosic and when the film DOES take a break from the stage-bound set, it’s for good thematic reasons. To me, this is possibly Wright’s best adaptation, because it doesn’t feel so stiflingly bound to the book as Atonement, but rather takes flight with Wright’s imagination, and that’s what I want to see in an adaptation – the director’s vision of what the source material could be cinematically.

2012 UK. Director: Joe Wright. Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Matthew Macfadyen, Alicia Vikander, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery.
Seen November 18 at Arclight Hollywood.

Les Miserables

I think I may be enough biased towards this story and music that it would’ve been hard for Tom Hooper to screw it up to the point where I wouldn’t like it. I mean, the version I’ve seen the most is the Royal Albert Hall concert version which isn’t even staged, and it still affects me greatly. But the good news is that Hooper didn’t actually screw it up at all. It’s easy to nitpick if you want (they cut out parts of songs and moved them around; they filmed in intense close-up and shallow focus most of the time; not all the singers are as good as the Broadway counterparts, etc etc etc.), but I’d rather not. Russell Crowe is the weak link voice-wise, and it’s noticeable on his two solos, but he’s actually quite good when interacting with the rest of the cast, even while singing. Amanda Seyfried managed to make me care more about Cosette than I ever have before. Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne ran off with the film, making the most of Hooper’s closeups to put pure raw emotion on screen. Samantha Barks brought the same humanity and expansiveness to Eponine that she did on Broadway. The shooting style is aggressively close-up, but intentionally so – it focuses in on the pain of these people, and their joys, and when a wide shot is needed, Hooper uses them. I was fully moved and taken with the story yet again, and I was quite satisfied.

2012 USA. Director: Tom Hooper. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter.
Seen December 29 at The Rave.

The Driver

I’d heard that Drive (one of my favorite films of 2011) called back to this film especially among its 1970s and 1980s influences, and that’s absolutely true. The character of The Driver is pretty similar – laconic guy who’s an amazing getaway driver but has to get his hands dirty when a job turns out to be a set-up – plus the opening sequence of Drive is clearly modeled on the opening sequence here. The Driver doesn’t have near the stylistic overload that Drive does, but that’s okay – the aesthetics of this film work for it. Most of the car chases (which are fantastic – it’s amazing to me this film isn’t always mentioned in the company of Bullitt, The French Connection, Ronin, etc., when talking about great car chase movies) are done without music, it’s got a pretty toned down visual style, and pretty straight-forward character dynamics. But yeah, it all works, does what it sets out to do, and is quite satisfying.

1978 USA. Director: Walter Hill. Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern.
Seen December 9 at home.

In Another Country

The last three AFI Fests have all included films from South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, and it’s a trend I certainly hope continues, because though he’s virtually unknown here aside from avid festival-goers, his films are consistently delightful and refreshing. In Another Country has a framing device of a young Korean girl writing three versions of a story, each involving a Frenchwoman (Isabelle Huppert) visiting the same Korean seaside town; each time she’s a slightly different character in different circumstances, but with many similar experiences. Hong’s previous film The Day He Arrives was also interested in repetition with variation, but In Another Country feels more finished and polished than that film did. It’s also more broadly funny, with Hong exploiting the language barrier for all its worth (all the characters speak English with each other, as neither French nor Korean is a shared language), but never cheaply or meanly. It’s an utterly charming film that uses character interactions and conversations to drive its ever-so-slight plot (or plots), and Hong’s mastery of conversation-driven scripting is second-to-none. Also, having Huppert on board is never a bad thing. She brings a slight melancholy to her three characters, each of whom is in Korea for a different but not necessarily happy reason, and inquiring curiosity about the folk around her. Even though we’re only with each one of her characters for about twenty minutes, it’s impossible not to be drawn right into her story each time. Meanwhile, the Korean actor who plays the lifeguard matches her in charisma, his upbeat cheerfulness and interest in her overcoming the linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Not a whole lot happens in the film beyond a lot of eating, drinking, and conversation, but it’s never less than enthralling.

2012 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-Soo. Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kwon Hye Hyo, Jung Yu Mi, So-ri Moon, Moon Sung Keun.
Seen November 4 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

Rewatches

One Week (1920; rewatched December 25) – Popped this one in to check the transfer on the Buster Keaton Blu-ray set my wonderful husband gave me for Christmas, and it looks gorgeous. Also, the film is hilarious, with Keaton and his new bride trying to set up a proto-Ikea do-it-yourself house.
Shadow of a Doubt (1942; rewatched December 31) – Of all the films in the Hitchcock Blu-ray set, this is the one I most wanted Jonathan to watch, so we did on the last night of the year. Still great, and the crisp B&W fairly pops out of the screen on Blu-ray.
A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992; rewatched December 25) – One of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, and I haven’t had the chance to watch it in a few years, so we made sure to make time for it this Christmas.

What I Liked

Holy Motors

I barely knew anything about this film going in aside from some general buzz out of Cannes and TIFF regarding its strangeness and something about it being about cinema itself. Most of the time when a film gets labeled as being “about cinema,” it’s something like Hugo or The Artist – a film that either references specific films, is set in the world of film, or uses very specific techniques tied to certain eras or movements in film history. That’s generally not the case with Holy Motors (though there are some specific references to be found), but I wouldn’t argue with the general classification. Holy Motors is about the art of the scene, the joy and sadness found in performance, and as the film itself puts it, “the beauty of the act.” Frequent Carax actor Denis Lavant plays M. Oscar, who is driven around in a limo by Edith Scob (best known from her masked role in Eyes Without a Face), keeping various “appointments.” It’s unclear who set these appointments or precisely what their purpose is, but each one requires elaborate makeup and costuming which Oscar applies himself as they drive, and involves acting out a scene – anything from a beggar woman on a street to a mo-cap alien sex scene to an intimate deathbed conversation. He shuttles from one to another, fully immersed in each, but quickly moving to the next. What is going on? Are these film scenes? Are they being recorded? Who has written the scenes or hired him to do this, and why? Who is the audience? We aren’t told, which leads to a strange and intriguing combination of fascination and irritation with the film. Its mysteries are beguiling, but unyielding. On a purely technical level, the film is a marvel, with Lavant truly transformed by makeup and performance into whatever role he takes on at any moment. And while much in the film remains opaque, the subtle emotions and desires lying under the surface are irresistible, and perhaps we ourselves are the only audience for the performances seen on-screen – perhaps Lavant and the other on-screen performers are chasing the beauty of the act merely for their benefit and for ours, nothing else. And indeed, perhaps that is the truest answer for why any cinema exists at all.

2012 France. Director: Leos Carax. Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue.
Seen November 3 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

Mission: Impossible III

Even though I was one of the three people in the world who really liked Mission: Impossible II, I somehow missed MI3 and didn’t feel too much interest in going back to catch up with it – until I saw Ghost Protocol (which was awesome) and suddenly felt like going back and filling in the gap. Took the opportunity last month, and quite enjoyed it. It’s not quite as good or exhilarating as Ghost Protocol, but it’s pretty close, with some great set-pieces, planning sequences, near-misses, and a rather chilling turn from Hoffman as the baddie. It occurred to me yet again that with III and Ghost Protocol, the Mission: Impossible is taking over the gadget/crazy set-piece/flat-out fun mantle from the James Bond series as the latter turns more serious. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, but I’m going MI for pure fun these days.

2006 USA. Director: J.J. Abrams. Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Monaghan, Laurence Fishburne, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Davies, Simon Pegg, Keri Russell.
Seen December 30 on Netflix Instant.

The Descendants

To be honest, I was never all that interested in watching this film. I was sure it was going to be good and all; every Alexander Payne film I’ve seen has been good, and the same is mostly true for George Clooney. But family dramas aren’t really my thing, and I’d be lying if I said this totally turned that around and made me outright love a family drama. But, as expected, it is really, really good, with a lot of strands tying together the idea of family, not just in the nuclear sense that you get from the trailers, as Clooney and his teenaged daughters struggle with their wife/mother being in a coma, but in the grander sense, as Clooney deals with extended family and the possibility of losing their ancestral land in Hawai’i. Plus, you’d think a film that deals with a comatose wife and a recently-discovered affair would be pretty non-stop serious and depressing, but there’s a lot of humor in here, and none of it is out of place – it grows really organically out of the situations and characters. Movies tend to forget that suffering people are still people and still sometimes act silly or have stupid fights about things that don’t matter, but this one doesn’t. Mega-points for that.

2011 USA. Director: Alexander Payne. Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer.
Seen December 21 on DVD from Netflix.

House by the River

Lesser-known noir from Fritz Lang with a notable lack of big names (even in the noir world – compare to The Big Heat, Woman in the Window, Clash by Night, etc), but still quite an entertaining film. A selfish but frustrated writer accidentally kills his family’s maid after propositioning her, an event that leads both to paranoia and to surprising commercial success, which fuels his ever-growing psychosis. It’s one of the physically darkest films I’ve seen for a while, the house rendered with almost no light at all – it’s an oppressive Victorian number that seems to be only lit by candle-light despite the film’s apparent modern-day setting. And the cinematography in the river itself will evoke The Night of the Hunter and Sunrise, though House by the River doesn’t begin to approach the artistry of either of those films. Still, it’s creepy and dark and has an undercurrent of ickiness befitting its titular driftwood-infested river. A good watch for noir fans.

1950 USA. Director: Fritz Lang. Starring: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker.
Seen November 23 via Netflix Instant.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Despite selling umpteen copies of this during holiday season when I worked in a video store a teenager, I had never actually sat down to watch it myself until this Thanksgiving. I have a spotty track record with ’80s comedies and Steve Martin, so I wasn’t sure if the comedy was going to work for me or not, but it really did. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Martin and Candy’s ill-fated attempts to get home for Thanksgiving, and the film also has a wonderfully warm heart to it (I’m sure thanks to John Hughes, who I didn’t know directed this until the credits rolled). Definitely a good addition to my holiday movie-watching repertory.

1987 USA. Director: John Hughes. Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon.
Seen November 22 via Amazon Prime.

Berberian Sound Studio

I went into this film at AFI Fest with the utmost expectations based on reviews from TIFF and other earlier festivals – a slow burn horror-esque film about a meek British sound designer unexpectedly working on an Italian giallo film, with a strong emphasis on sound design? Sign me up. And really, it is a very effective little film – for the most part. Toby Jones is always great, and he’s a perfect fit for the role of the sound designer who is possibly being driven slowly mad through working on a horror film instead of the nature films he’s used to (not to mention interpersonal difficulties with the producer/director/engineers/secretary/everyone else). I love when horror films depend on sound to provide scares rather than grisly visuals, and that’s precisely what goes on here. Pretty much all Italian films at the time (the 1970s) were post-dubbed, and that’s what we’re seeing – we see the actresses recording the dialogue and screams, and Jones doing foley to create horrific sound effects, but we never actually see any of the film itself, which somehow makes it both less and more scary at the same time. I also really enjoyed the ’70s setting, working with analog tape instead of digital files, which gives it a Conversation-type vibe at times that works quite well. But I can’t give the film my full support, because it kind of just peters out – like they had this amazing premise and then didn’t know where to go with it. In some cases, ambiguous endings are great and I love them, and I’m sure the ending works for some people (obviously it does), but it didn’t seem evocatively oblique to me, it just seemed kind of random and almost lazy. If the wrap-up had been more satisfying, this would’ve been an A+ film; as it is, I’m more conflicted about it.

2012 UK. Director: Peter Strickland. Starring: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropouolou, Cosimo Fusco, Susanna Cappellaro, Eugenia Caruso, Antonio Mancino.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

Wreck-It Ralph

I have to disclaimer both this and Skyfall a bit – we’ve gotten in the habit of seeing movies at Saturday matinees, but because we were busy moving while these two movies were coming out, we ended up seeing them Monday and Tuesday nights starting around 8pm, and even though I’m not napping/sleeping as much as I did early on in pregnancy, I’m still apparently prone to sleepiness as it gets on toward 9-9:30pm, and I zoned out a little bit in the middle of both films. So my reactions are somewhat compromised. In Wreck-It Ralph, the part I missed was largely the climactic race (for some reason when I zone in films, it tends to be climactic action sequences, I don’t know what’s up with that). Aside from that, I quite enjoyed the film, delighting in the retro arcade characters and recognizing characters and moments from gaming’s past, and the dynamic between John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman was a lot better than I feared (Silverman is only a sometimes thing with me). I would’ve liked to have seen it go a bit further on the gaming side, though – he really only jumps into two other games for any length of time, and I was hoping to see more extended bits from a lot of other kinds of games. Even more drastic, how cool would it have been if the whole thing had been in 8-bit style instead of settling back into standard rounded-type CGI animation? Very cool.

2012 USA. Director: Rich Moore. Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Dennis Haysbert.
Seen November 11 at The Rave.

Skyfall

Ditto my first couple of sentences on Wreck-It Ralph; thanks to the later-than-usual time we saw this, I had trouble staying focused for parts of it, which I know affected my reaction. I definitely intend to revisit it sometime. This time I zoned out during the Hong Kong parts, which kills me, because everyone’s talking about how gorgeous those look. I kind of got glimpses here and there, but couldn’t force myself to stay with it for longer than a few seconds at a time. Anyway, I have to entertain the possibility that this is because I missed some of the movie, but I don’t quite agree with the abject praise it’s been getting from every corner. Yes, it’s one of the better Bond films of the past 20 years or so, but let’s be honest, that’s not a very high bar. It’s a good film, and I really enjoyed seeing it hit the “Bond” notes (like the great little moment in the opening chase when he lands in the train car and takes a second to adjust his cufflinks) while still setting its own style, but it’s not better than Casino Royale or GoldenEye. It’s a little too long, a little too dour, and how exactly it’s going to fit with existing continuity I don’t know – I mean, Bond hasn’t ever been studious about continuity, but still, some of these events are pretty drastic in terms of Bond’s history. I will say that I did enjoy the last act, which most detractors have pointed to as a major reason for their dislike. It’s different than most Bond movies, sure, but I thought it worked. Overall, though, I do want to rewatch it and fill in the missing bits, but it’s somewhere in the high middle of the Bond continuum for me.

2012 UK. Director: Sam Mendes. Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace.
Seen November 12 at The Rave.

Après mai

I prefer to use the original French title Après mai (After May) for this film, even though it’s known here by its English title Something in the Air, because it’s much more fitting. The film begins near Paris in 1971, three years after the fateful demonstrations and riots of May 1968 that symbolized and foreshadowed political revolt throughout Europe in the late 1960s. The main characters are high school students in 1971, likely a few years too young to have taken part in the 1968 uprisings, but growing up in a very politically charged environment and desiring to take up the mantle of activism themselves. The first section of the film sees these youngsters fired up, printing inflammatory pamphlets, demonstrating in the streets (an action quickly squelched by baton-wielding police), graffiting their school and tossing Molotov cocktails at guards who threaten them with legal action. However, the would-be revolutionaries soon find themselves drifting apart – at first to escape the increasing scrutiny their illegal actions are attracting, then simply because they find themselves drawn to different things, whether the pursuit of art and filmmaking, or travel, or new lovers. The French title draws attention to the fact that these are kids who have missed the solidarity of a united political activism, who are muddling along trying to keep their political ideas active in a world that is already moving on, and indeed when they themselves start moving on just as a part of maturity and coming to terms with adulthood. In a way, the film is about the malaise of a post-revolutionary period, especially as it becomes clear that the apparent revolution has not actually changed that much at all – increasingly their lives merge back into the commodified culture that they originally seemed intent on either breaking down or escaping. It’s a sad film in a way, and yet the path the characters take seems inevitable, and in some ways a welcome maturation from the rebellious acts of youth. The fire dies a little, but it’s replaced with their artistic passions, a much more personal and realistic way to connect with their world and affect it in a way that is still meaningful, though a bit less intense and violent.

2012 France. Director: Olivier Assayas. Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann.
Seen November 2 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

Hitchcock

Decently enjoyable film set around the making of Psycho, but clearly aimed at the feel-good over-60 crowd. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that, but if you’re expecting a masterpiece or a searing expose on the Master of Suspense, you’ll be disappointed. The mimicry from Hopkins and especially D’Arcy (as Perkins) is outstanding, Helen Mirren elevates the whole thing a lot with a solid performance (and great interactions with Hopkins), and ScarJo and Jessica Biel do more than passably as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively. The on-set portions are fun for Psycho fans, and I enjoyed watching Hopkins and Mirren play off each other – but some of the subplots went on a bit too much, lowering the film into the realm of mundane domestic melodrama too often.

2012 USA. Director: Sacha Gervasi. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Jessica Biel.
Seen November 24 at The Landmark.

52 Pick-Up

Watched this as part of a double-feature with The Driver for the Movie Club podcast; I’d frankly never heard of it before that, but Frankenheimer is usually solid, so I was more than game. It’s pretty sleazy and pretty definitely an ’80s movie, both things that worked against it for me and probably kept me from liking it more, but it still does have its moments. Scheider is pulled into a blackmail scheme but ends up trying to turn the tables on the blackmailers (who are frankly rather inept, though not total pushovers). John Glover is a total sleazeball who runs an exotic dancer club and watching his character revel in it, and his attempts at blackmail, are pretty good trashy fun. Not really my thing or something I’d watch again, though.

1986 USA. Director: John Frankenheimer. Starring: Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, John Glover, Vanity, Robert Trebor, Clarence Williams III, Kelly Preston.
Seen December 11 at home.

Ladies of Leisure

I was really hoping to like this film – I mean, Frank Capra/Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Code? What’s not to like? Well, the story has Stanwyck as a call girl who gets picked up by a painter (Ralph Graves) to be his model. She inexplicably falls for him even though he treats her like crap, until he finally does a complete 180 and decides he loves her too and is willing to give up his society family to marry her. It’s completely unbelievable, and even worse, Stanwyck’s character basically loses any shred of self-esteem she might’ve otherwise had in subservience to this jerkwad. Part of the problem is really stiff acting on the part of Graves, but most of it is the writing. It’s pretty clear Capra wasn’t working with Riskin yet. All that said, there are still things to enjoy in the film. Even though I dislike most of the script choices for Stanwyck’s character, she sells it with all she’s got, and her couple of big emotional scenes are golden taken out of context (i.e., if you can manage to forget what a worthless guy she’s mooning over, they’re great). The best friend played by Marie Prevost is a ton of fun, too. And Capra has already figured out how to make Stanwyck shine visually in their first collaboration – the pinlights in her eyes are perfection, and there’s a backlit scene of her undressing that, well…let’s just say this is why Pre-Codes exist.

1930 USA. Director: Frank Capra. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves, Lowell Sherman, Marie Prevost.
Seen December 5 on YouTube (for TCMParty).

Rewatches

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993; rewatched December 7) – Jonathan somehow managed to make it to adulthood without ever watching this, despite being a fan of Tim Burton, stop-motion, and fantastically-designed films. So we had to fix that this year; it’s been a while since I saw it, too. I don’t love everything about it (the Oogly-Boogly part always seems out of place for one thing), but it is a fun film with some great animation, design, and songs.
The Time Machine (1960; rewatched November 28) – I’ve always been a fan of George Pal’s version of The Time Machine, especially the traveling-through-time section itself. It has a nice Victorian charm, combined with a 1960s view of past/future that I love. Plus, the stop-motion effects in that sequence are pretty awesome.

What I Thought Was Okay

The ABCs of Death

Twenty-six short horror films, one for each letter of the alphabet, are directed by twenty-six different directors. Sounds promising, especially since I generally like the anthology horror film format, and I enjoy seeing how different directors approach similar topics. Too bad this one misses the boat so incredibly often. Out of twenty-six shorts, I’d say there are maybe five that are quite good (D, F, K, Q, T), a few that are decent (A, C, U, Y), a bunch that have some fair ideas but are mostly just grisly for the sake of being grisly, and several that are downright bad. Really, 5/26 or even 9/26 is not a good ratio for this kind of thing, and the fact that Z is easily the worst one of all doesn’t help, leaving a bad taste in your mouth after the film. Add in the fact that the only attempt to connect the films is merely the letter conceit and it’s just a really uneven, unsatisfying whole that might as well just be broken up into its individual components. There’s no REASON to watch this as a whole film, in other words. Just wait until the individual shorts are inevitably on YouTube or something and only watch the good ones.

2012 USA. Directors: various. Starring: various.
Seen November 7 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.

  • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
    I’ve never read a single page of Tolkien, so I can’t pick out what is or is not from the original novel, but I did feel that there was a lot of filler content. Less in the beginning and more in the middle. Like that scene where they’re caught in the crossfire of the mountain people throwing boulders at one another – a scene, incidentally, that felt very “Michael Bay” and not at all Lord of the Rings. On the whole, though, it was a lot of fun and I liked it better than I had enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring. Not as weighty as The Return of the King, but easier to like.

    Mission: Impossible III
    I’m one of the other two people who loved M:I-2! I thought it was lots of stylish fun and a tremendous step forward from the much-too-serious first film. The third film, though, underwhelmed me. Too many set pieces were recycled from other spy/action movies of recent memory for my taste, with the cumulative effect being that the whole movie just felt like a Spy Movie Greatest Hits project. The worst section is the springing of Hoffman off the bridge (Licence to Kill and True Lies), directly followed by the protagonist stuck in traffic while his wife is abducted from the hospital where she works (Patriot Games). That was something like 15-20 minutes that didn’t feel original in the least, and I checked out of the movie after that was over.

    Skyfall
    I think the most important point to remember about the Daniel Craig era is that it’s eschewed the previous films entirely. Don’t think of it in terms of how these three films fit in with anything else because they don’t. I think storytelling-wise, they’ve moved forward quite a bit. Barbara Broccoli seems to have really re-energized things and shaken up the formula since she came into her own as co-producer of the series.

    I do feel that Skyfall is too blatantly derivative of The Dark Knight, and I have some nitpicks but I went back to see it on Christmas night and loved it even more than I had when it opened. There’s a lot of symbolism to find and appreciate, and subtle things such as Gareth Mallory’s office foreshadowing his becoming the new M.

    I still don’t buy that Bond and Moneypenny never exchanged names until the very end of the movie, though. That was just way too cute.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      The Hobbit -
      Interestingly, the mountain rock fight is directly from the book, except in the book it’s giants breaking off bits of mountain and hurling them around rather than the mountains themselves turning into giants. Major things added for the movie include: the frame story with old Bilbo and Frodo, the depiction of Smaug’s arrival at Ereborn (that obviously happened, but it isn’t dramatized in the book), the Battle of Moria, everything with Radagast including going to Dol Goldur, the council at Rivendell (they go to Rivendell and Elrond reads the moon runes, but Saruman and Galadriel don’t show up to discuss the Necromancer with Gandalf), and the recurring being-hunted-by-orcs bits. Generally, all the stuff that ties the story with the War of the Rings isn’t in the book.

      Skyfall -
      Yeah, I can see they’re trying to do a wholly separate continuity, but if they’d really wanted to do that, they should’ve just cast a new M in Casino Royale instead of holding over Judi Dench. As it is, it makes her appearance in the Brosnan Bond films totally impossible.

      • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

        The Hobbit
        Blah, blah, blah, nerd talk, blah, blah, blah. All I know is, that mountain rock fight felt entirely extraneous to watch. I was also bored by pretty much everything in the troll village.

        Skyfall
        Dench’s place in the continuity was debated ad infinitum in 2006, though I think ultimately Martin Campbell (director of GoldenEye and Casino Royale) gave the most succinct defense of keeping her as M: “Who are you going to find that’s better?”

        I think it’s a bit nitpicky to get hung up on the fact she couldn’t have been M during both the Brosnan and Craig eras when Bond himself is an entirely different person in both. Craig’s Bond was still an enlisted gopher when Brosnan’s Bond was out stopping 006. I kinda like that in the Craig era, Dench’s M was head of the Hong Kong station when in the Brosnan era, she was foolishly caught up in Elektra King’s abduction plot.

        • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

          LOL. I just found it interesting that the part you used as an example of filler actually isn’t, in terms of being from the original book or not. I listed all the other things because it seems most of the stuff that ISN’T in the book you didn’t think of as filler; an assumption on my part, though most of the additions were in the first half, and it was the second half you said you felt had more filler. I just think that speaks in some way to how well Jackson integrated the extra material into the film.

          I could buy Casino Royale as a prequel, in the same continuity as the Brosnan films, just earlier. You have to fudge on Judi Dench’s age to do that, but I could deal with that. Skyfall makes it impossible to do that. And yeah, you’re right, I guess I’m just used to the Bond actor changing so it doesn’t phase me. The other characters/actors haven’t done that in the same way. Like, I never thought that the Bernard Lee M and the Judi Dench M were the same M (are they supposed to be? I forget if they mention M changing). But now the films are asking me to believe that Judi Dench is, in fact, two different Ms.

          • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

            The funny part about you schooling me on the veracity of the film versus the source material is that earlier this very morning, I lamented how laughable it was to me that so many people hate on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes for its ending, which is taken directly from Pierre Boulle’s novel. All I can say here is that watching the film without any foreknowledge of the mythology beyond having seen the previous LOTR film trilogy, I found those passages I cited felt extraneous to me.

            Having said that, I did know that Sauraman wasn’t in the novel because when it was first announced that they were talking of including Christopher Lee, it came up that his character wasn’t in the novel. I saw The Hobbit in part because I came across a Blu-ray promotion that included movie cash to see it and partly because I’d forgotten all about Lee’s involvement but then a friend mentioned to me he was in it.

            Lee’s M was Dench’s M’s predecessor in the previous continuity. In The World Is Not Enough when they retreat to the Scotland facility, there’s a portrait of Lee on one of the walls. I always assumed Robert Brown’s M was the same character as Lee’s M, though I suppose technically he didn’t have to be.

            Even that continuity wasn’t entirely rigid. GoldenEye was something of a soft reboot, as Brosnan’s Bond is lauded by Zukovsky for “know[ing]…history” about the British betrayal of the Cossacks in World War II, when Connery’s Bond clearly would have been around for all that when it happened. (Fleming’s Bond was a WWII vet, and that’s actually how he met M, but the movies starting a decade after the novels make that part a little fuzzier.)

            As I say, though, I personally have enjoyed that the Daniel Craig era has not been beholden to the classic Bond formula or continuity. It feels less predictable to me. Even throughout Skyfall, I kept an eye on Gareth Mallory as Silva’s inside man collaborator, rather than as the new M. It wasn’t until my second viewing on Christmas night, knowing that he’s a good guy, that I was better able to catch all the foreshadowing with his office decorum, etc.

            I still miss the gun barrel at the very beginning of the movies, though.