Friday, May 13, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: Wrap Up Edition

Over the course of this past Metro Classics series, I watched a bunch of movies tangentially related to the films we were playing, with the idea of writing a little about them here the week the film's played.  Sometimes, I actually got those posts written.  These were the films I didn't get to.  A trio of Billy Wilder films for Double Indemnity, a Powell & Pressburger movie for A Matter of Life and Death, and a samurai movie for Seven Samurai.

Kiss Me, Stupid - Possibly the strangest Billy Wilder film I've ever seen.  Ray Walston stars in an initially annoying performance (like always with comedies from this era, I kept thinking Jack Lemmon would have played the role better) as a small town piano teacher and aspiring songwriter.  When Dean Martin, in a vicious self-parody as popular womanizing drunk singer "Deano" rolls into town, Walston's writing partner, the local gas station attendant, schemes to get Deano to stay in town for the night, wherein Walston will convince him to listen to one of their songs and eventually make them big stars.  As Deano bait, they hire local cocktail waitress/prostitute Kim Novak to pose as Walston's wife and sleep with Deano, leaving Walston's actual wife, the adorable Felicia Farr none the wiser.  The first half of the film suffers through all this plot, and Walston's manic overplaying doesn't help at all.  But as the night grows late, the film shifts point of view from Walston's pathetic ambition and Deano's single-minded selfishness to Novak's melancholy resignation and Farr's dawning understanding of just what her husband has been up to.  It leads to an ending that's as close as the generally cynical and misanthropic Wilder ever got to transcendence.  

Five Graves to Cairo - On the other end of Wilder's career is this fine World War II drama starring Franchot Tone as a British officer in North Africa.  After barely surviving a German attack, he crawls to a bombed out hotel just before the German Army arrives and sets up a command post.  The hotel's owner (Touch of Evil's Akim Tamiroff) disguises him as the hotel's dead waiter, not knowing that the waiter was actually a German spy.  Tone poses as the spy in order to learn Rommel's plans for the invasion of Egypt.  With Anne Baxter (All About Eve) as the hotel maid who hates and then loves Tone and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel.  It's a great example of the war movie genre, with excellent performances, efficient story-telling and the same toughness Wilder would later bring to his noirs.  Franchot Tone is an actor I'm starting to really like, he's got a great voice and he always looks angry. 

Avanti! - One of Wilder's last films stars Jack Lemmon as a wealthy businessman who travels to Italy to pick up his father's dead body.  While there, he discovers his father had been having a decades-long affair with an English woman when he meets her flighty daughter (Juliet Mills), in town to pick up her mother's body.  He might be Lemmon's most unpleasant character, kind of like his award-winning performance a year later in Save the Tiger, but with less self-pity, and the film is essentially a manic-pixie narrative, with Mills and Italy conspiring to turn Lemmon into a decent human being.  I don't think it really earns Lemmon's redemption, but it might be Wilder's most beautiful film.  Italy seems to have softened Wilder a bit, as we get great shots of the countryside and the ocean and a beautiful sequence in a mortuary, golden sunlight streaming through a lone window into a room empty but for the coffins and a bureaucrat's table. 

The Battle of the River Plate - One of the last collaborations between Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger is a bit of an oddity.  It's an apparently real account of a true story, where in the early days of World War 2, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, after harassing Allied shipping off South America for months, is cornered at the mouth of the River Plate, off the coast of Montevideo, Ecuador.  The bulk of the film is taken up with the question of what will happen next: the Germans requesting permission to conduct repairs in the hope that reinforcements will arrive, the Allies trying to lure her out and sink her before that can happen.  The story is mostly told from the perspective of the Allied officers captured by the Graf Spee and what they can piece together from inside the ship, and later from a radio news broadcaster, sending out updates worldwide from a seafront bar.  For a war movie, there's hardly any action, and the scope of the film limits the kind of character examinations Powell & Pressburger were so good at.  Most notably absent, though, is the kind of uncanny spirituality that seems to emanate from the earth itself in their greatest films, where the characters are taken over by their environments and radically transformed.  Maybe because so much of it takes place at sea?  

Onibaba - A medieval horror film from director Kaneto Shindo about a woman and her daughter-in-law during war-torn 1300s Japan.  In order to survive, the two hunt down wounded and dying samurai fleeing the local battles, murder them and trade their weapons and armor for meager amounts of millet and rice.  When a neighbor returns home, after fleeing the fighting himself, he begins a clandestine affair with the daughter-in-law (her husband, he claims, is dead).  The old woman contrives a plan to keep them apart using a terrifying mask she's taken from a murdered samurai, which of course only makes things much, much worse.  A harrowing look at medieval life, unusual in its focus on women and the poor for a samurai film, the film makes excellent use of its location on a sluggish riverside in a field of giant grass, and Shindo uses every trick in the expressionist playbook to make a very scary film out of a samurai film-critiquing Buddhist parable about interfering in young people's love lives.  It's reminiscent of another film released the same year, Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Woman of the Dunes, but where that film is all mysterious, dreamy romanticism, this one is shock effects and misery. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Critics Agree Part VII: The Hollow Death

Pundits periodically pontificate on the perennial prospect of film criticism perishing.  These high-falutin' fools certainly have not scoured the pages of Netflix where intellectual rigor and thoughtful analysis lay there for the taking.


"My apple was set at the loudest volume setting but I could barely hear. Therefore I stopped watching" --1 star

F for Fake-

"I want to punch all the people who made glowing reviews about this garbage. I rented it because I thought it was a documentary. Pay zero attention to what the description says because it's a complete lie. What you get is some artsy crappy film where Orson is just talking. He talks over every thing. It's all about Orson sitting with a drink and blabbering on. There's zero movie in this. The footage is naturally very old but it's all shaky and terrible looking. My breaking point came when Orson was reading poetry for no reason while crazy music played and things were on fire. Absolutely the most horrible film of any kind that I've ever seen." --1 star

All About Eve-

"Frankly, the starting scene of this movie was so boring and uninteresting that it moved me to turn the whole CD off. I like theater plays, but I couldn't care less about theater performers' problems. Maybe I should have been more patient." --2 stars

"Very boring! The story was vague and the characters uninteresting. Nothing really happens. A scene in which Marilyn Monroe is sitting on the stairs chatting with a group of people at a cocktail party was the only worthwhile part. We quit watching halfway through. Don't waste your time on this one." --1 star

The Adventures of Robin Hood-

"Our family just loved this movie! Lots of excitement, adventure and laughs. Would recommend highly." --2 stars

The Sting-

"I am not a fan of ragtime mnusic nor of films involving gambling. Therefore I did not watch this movie, only the first 20 minutes or so. Did not appeal to me." --2 stars

"Ok, so I watched the Sting. Part of me wanted to turn it off so I did. A few days later I finished it. If you need to fall asleep, put this movie on. So overrated-" --1 star

The Wild Bunch-

"I watched 28 minutes of it and got bored to death. Acting was terrible and the violence just a 1960,s spaghetti western yawn. Dont waste your time. Whoever compared this to even the worst Clint Eastwood flick must be on drugs." --1 star

"It would be nice to see a preview of a movie that you are interested in.But for months now I been writing in regard to this and no one replys. Does anyone get to watch a preview before they rent a movie? Please let me know.Thank you" --5 stars


"What adventure? Our Greater Swiss Mountain dog, Oscar, has more adventures sniffing out deer and chasing squirrels." --2 stars

"Sorry. After the island scenes, this movie was so profoundly boring it almost had me wishing for Transformers." --1 star

"why did this film win so many awards?? i have no idea.. it was slow-moving and boring. Theyre supose to be looking for their missing friend and they just kind of forget about her and hook-up with each other instead... hos." --1 star

Unfaithfully Yours-

"If only the main character wasn't a total jerk, or maybe if the plot wasn't telegraphed from the start, or maybe if the comedy was funny instead of slow-motion slapstick... Maybe I should have liked this movie. It had period charm and black & white drama. But ultimately it was boring." --2 stars

Crimes and Misdemeanors-

"Disc arrived cracked, never received a replacement ( 5 days of mem=bership wasted )" --5 stars