Worth Watching September 2010
Obviously I watch a lot of things that are not on the 1001 list, and that I don’t write detailed blogs on. So I thought each month I would write a quick summary at the end of each month about what I have seen. The onus here is keeping it really short and simple. I even decided against the witty names I came up with for these categories, in favour of simply telling you if its worth your time or not. And right at the end I’ll select the one you really must see, and the one I suggest you avoid at all costs. Enjoy. Also please feel free to share your thoughts about these films in the comments section of this post.
- Milk (2008), Gus Van Sant – Flawed but still exceedingly interesting biopic, carried by a trio of terrific performances by Penn, Franco & especially Brolin.
- Lessons of Darkness (1992), Werner Herzog – Beguiling ‘documentary’ by the German maestro on the first Gulf War. Like nothing you have ever seen before – slow paced with astounding visuals. Check it out.
- La Soufriere (1977), Werner Herzog – More straightforward doco effort from Herzog, still worth a look. He ventures to an almost abandoned island where a catastrophic volcano eruption is imminent. He seems disappointed when it doesn’t come about.
- Black Books Season 1 (2000) – I’m looking at implementing much of what I’ve seen here into my day job. Hilarious.
- Titus (1999), Julie Taymor – A notable failure. Not everything in this adaption of Shakespeare’s most violent play works. But worth watching for its visual style and a sequence involving cannibalism, Anthony Hopkins in a chef’s uniform and a dude getting stabbed with a candlestick holder.
- Them! (1954), Gordon M. Douglas – Fantastic classic sci-fi film which sees the American countryside threatened by giant ants. Say no more.
- Chicago Cubs Highlights on http://www.cubs.com (2010) – The cubs are winning the occasional game, always a nice change. And the MLB has excellent highlights on the club websites.
- The Human Body (1998), BBC – Typically assured doco from the BBC tracking the physical form’s journey from birth to death.
- Tomorrow When the War Began (2010), Stuart Beattie- Initially I had this film in the other section, cause its definitely flawed, especially script wise. But I really hope that the second film gets greenlit, cause Australia needs to produce a wide variety of films including big budget, slick ones featuring young Aussie actors directed by an Australian featuring a wonderful soundtrack of Aussie artists. This is also relatively enjoyable, with a solid young cast and a couple of good set-pieces. So go, see and support this film, so we can see others like it, that improve on its flaws somewhat.
Not Worth Watching:
- Winter Sleepers (1997), Tom Tykwer – I’m doing a German film course at uni this semester which has introduced me to some astounding films, but this is not one of them. Crap.
- Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), Edgar Wright – Tries way too hard to be cool and gets ultra repetitive very quickly. Even manages to make a cute girl wielding a novelty sized hammer in a fight seem bland.
- In July (2000), Fatih Akin – Turkish-German romantic comedy which is not bad, just extremely mediocre and not worth your time. Just cause a Turkish-German director makes a bad Hollywood style rom-com, doesn’t make it any good or interesting.
- NRL Finals Series (2010) – Stupid Panthers.
If you only have time to watch one Lessons of Darkness.
Avoid at all costs Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Shadow of a Doubt
After emerging from the wasteland of essay hell, I journeyed to the incomparable Electric Shadows Bookshop (www.electricshadowsbookshop.com.au) intent on renting some DVDs for a reason other than writing an essay about them. Finding myself in the Hitchcock section, I thought I would grab something not on the 1001 list so I would not feel obliged to write about it. However, with Hitch having 18 titles on the list, its not always easy to avoid one that’s on there. Attracted by the presence of Joseph Cotten in the leading role I thought Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was my film. But, lo and behold its on the list, so here are my thoughts.
Cotten is best known as running with Orson Welles’ RKO crew, and is fantastic in quite a substantial role in Citizen Kane (1941). Here he plays Uncle Charlie, a suave Philadelphia based mass-murderer who flees to suburban Santa Rosa to escape the law. He is welcomed heartily by his sister’s family, especially her teenage daughter who also goes by the name Charlie. The two Charlies share a rapport and the relationship between the two of them drives most of the film. Young Charlie hopes her elder namesake will bring some light into the mundane family life she feels so trapped in, and which she is clearly rebelling against. Early in the film she squeals “Money, how can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls.” However her uncle brings more than a spark. I’m not sure if this was intentional by Hitchcock, me misreading the film or times changing but I was seriously creeped out by an apparent sexual tension between uncle and niece for the first half of the film. Luckily this passes and the film feels much more comfortable as a result. Eventually Young Charlie begins to suspect him of being a murderer, and even manages to wrangle a confession out of him. This comes with still quite a large amount of the action to come, and the third act deals with the moral conundrum faced by Young Charlie in relation to protecting her family and ensuring justice is served. Keep an eye out for the scene involving Young Charlie’s research in the town library, it illustrates Hitchcock genius for suspense and ability to wow you with a little stylistic flourish without taking away from the narrative.
Film historian (and director) Peter Bogdanovich views this as Hitchcock’s first real ‘American’ film. However the European influences on his style can still be seen throughout this film. To showcase an early chase on foot, he shifts to a high overhead shot, just as Fritz Lang does repeatedly in M (1931). The film seems to grow more and more assured as it goes on. For example the music initially grates and feels like an over the top, cheap attempt to ratchet up suspense. Later however it is more controlled and does contribute to the tension in an excellent way. All of the performances are good. Cotton excels in a role that could have descended into a pure-evil, sneering type character. He’s understated, but still makes you dislike him terribly and believe he is capable of murder. Plus he looks rather good in a double breasted suit with a couple of cigars poking out the breast pocket. All the other performances are similarly good, notable the supporting duo of Henry Travers as Joe, Young Charlie’s father and his best mate Herb played by Hume Cronyn. These two share a couple of exceptionally well-scripted and hilarious set pieces where they discuss suspense stories, and the best manner in which to kill someone without being detected. The manner in which Hitchcock intersperses these with the rather more serious and deadly going ons provides an expert twist of humour and irony.
The major upside of this film is its central conceit – two character who share a name and a rapport despite being different genders & ages end up being part of a suspenseful cat and mouse game. It is this that carries the film through its first two thirds, but it is in the third act where Shadow of a Doubt really explodes; delivering probably the most satisfying conclusion to a film I’ve watched. Hitchcock throws a twist or two into the mix, but they do not feel cheap or showy. He maintains, and even ramps up the suspense, leaving the viewer in real doubt as to how things will end. It is also perfectly paced, there is no rushed deus ex machina, nor does it go on and on a-la Return of the King (2003) and many others, tarnishing the memories of the whole film by leaving us begging for the end. I’m loathe to go into too much more detail in case it ruins this film for you. And despite the fact that it looks like I have given a way a lot of spoilers such as the fact Cotten plays a murderer (this was actually given away on the DVD case of my version), there are still heaps of surprises for you in this film if you go and check it out. Which you most definitely should. And if you don’t trust my opinion, then you should trust Hitchcock (one of the greatest cinematic geniuses ever to live), who said this was his favourite of all the films he made.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Stop Your Rambling
If I have any positive attributes as a writer, brevity is not one of them. I tend to write very long reviews which attempt to examine every aspect of a film. So with this in mind I thought I would set myself a challenge. The aim was three films in 1000 words. So you get my thoughts on three films in the number of words I generally write about one film (if you’re lucky). Could I get my views across in a much shorter space, and get my positive or negative thoughts across. No real thought went into the film choices. They were just a few I had to watch for uni that are on the list. Here we go. Wish me luck.
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) chronicles a city’s hunt for a heinous child murderer. The police are looking for him in force and are joined by the city’s gangsters annoyed at the increased police presence being generated. We are treated to masterful intercut scenes of both the cops and the crims formulating plans, with the editing making it hard to discern who are the law-enforcers and who the law-breakers. One of many pertinent and timeless social comments made by Lang throughout the film.
M features the greatest introductory shot for a villain I have ever seen. The murderer’s shadow ominously moving over a poster a young girl is throwing her ball against. It comes early in the film, but we instinctively know it’s our murderer, and that knowledge made my blood run cold. Lang continues to reveal aspects of him bit by bit, only revealing what he wants. Indeed we view him as a cold, ruthless, calculating supervillain until the film’s final scenes. Complimenting this approach by Lang is Peter Lorre’s performance. Quite simply it belongs in the top few performances ever. Only on screen for a short time, he makes it count. His childlike face invokes in the viewer a range of emotions, most of them very uncomfortable ones. Some find a measure of sympathy for him in the film’s final sequences. I personally didn’t. But it is a testament to Lang’s genius that sympathetic and non-sympathetic readings are equally valid.
Lang is a master of evoking emotion. The paced, waiting of a mother as she waits for her daughter’s return as the fear of the inevitable rises is felt by all. And the manner in which the murder of young Elsie is shown (or not) will make your jaw drop. Lang can compose a shot as beautiful as anyone, and he proves that in this film. But his genius as a filmmaker is proven by this one exercise of restraint.
I couldn’t do this film justice in 3,000 words let alone 300. Its a serial killer flick, a police-procedural, a heist flick, a social commentary and more. In short this is a masterpiece. If you or anyone you know doubt that film is an artform the equal of any other, watch this. In fact watch it right here:
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Some Like it Hot (1959) is the grandfather (mother???) of cross-dressing comedies extending through to such classics as Tootsie (1982) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993), and not-so-classics such as White Chicks (2004).
It kicks off with two broke and down on their luck musicians, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, witnessing a shooting in prohibition era America. After dismissing their first idea of “growing beards” they go on the run with an all girl band, disguising themselves as female. Before long they both fall for the charms of Sugar played by Marilyn Monroe. Here I was expecting the film to go into familiar, two guys chasing the one girl territory. But whilst it flirts with this briefly it is too clever to go down that predictable path.
Whilst some of the jokes, like pretty much any comedy, have dated somewhat, the situational aspects of the comedy still provide oodles of hilarity for a modern audience. See Curtis trying to bluff his way around Osgood’s boat that he has commandeered for a hot date with Sugar. For all the jokes however, the real treat in this film is the three wonderful central performances. Monroe despite starting slow oozes sex-appeal and surprisingly good comic timing. Curtis is similarly excellent as the smarmy brains behind the operation. But it is Jack Lemmon for me who is truly something awe-inspiring, delivering an all time great comedy performance. Anyone in need of proof of this man’s genius needs only check out the ‘maraca’ sequence where the audience can’t help lose themselves in the moment just as Lemmon has.
Some Like it Hot proves the benefit of having a talented director such as Wilder at the helm of a comedy. Its all tied together so beautifully. The gangster back-story that you can’t help feel would work in its own right, a cracking score and slick black & white photography all provide a wonderful canvas for the three leads and a humorous script to weave their magic.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
The Blue Angel (1930) is generally considered to be an all-time great film. I struggle to see why. The film revolves around respectable college professor Immanuel Rath who falls in love with, and marries the (solely due to her profession) unrespectable cabaret artist Lola Lola. Following this he descends into destitution and a form of madness, ending up performing as a clown in Lola’s travelling company.
The issue is that the central romance the film depends wholly upon is rushed to the point of being unbelievable. Also, the wedding takes place over halfway through the film so the descent of this respectable man is barely chronicled at all. Instead director Josef Von Sternberg basically slaps a ‘Four Years Later’ sign on screen and everything has changed, without a whiff of satisfactory explanation. The formerly upstanding professor is now dishevelled whilst the once sweet Lola, who for some reason seemed to love the older man previously, now flirts overtly with others in front of him.
Marlene Dietrich who plays Lola Lola emerges from this the best. Hers is an excellent performance, and you can see why the professor falls for her character. She is also able to convey an excellent range of emotions, rising above material that provides no motivation for these shifts in character. The other performers are generally good, but not great and are clearly inhibited by the lopsided script.
Many much more insightful film commentators laud this film as a classic, so watch it for yourself and form your own opinion. But for me, despite a heart-wrenching final scene which illustrates what could have been, this was a bland and unbalanced experience.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
That was an incredibly difficult exercise. And despite some doubts I would be able to do it, I scraped in with the three reviews amounting to 987 words. After watching M I was tempted not to include it here but devote a whole article to it, such is its brilliance. But I thought that defeated the purpose of this article and hopefully you get a sense of my wonder at this film, and my feelings on the other two as well.