Saturday, September 25, 2010

Almost the end of September.

Like so many classics, my viewing of His Girl Friday was long overdue.  Like so many classics, I appreciated the film but felt underwhelmed.  I recognize the brilliance of its breakneck pacing and snappier than snappy dialogue.  I'm not going to argue over any of it, but I think I like my screwballs a little screwier.  His Girl Friday still runs circles around Date Night.

If I was a bit underwhelmed by His Girl Friday, that's okay because Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings surpassed every wild expectation that I had.  The plane scenes are tense and the buddy stuff feels genuine even when the romance stuff feels just a little like a screenwriter's fantasy.  I really loved this movie and am excited to watch Rio Bravo soon.

The Fallen Idol.  The butler/child interactions are good even when the rest gets tedious.  The way that the child is all wrapped up in lies at the end is effective, if not explored as fully as I would have liked.  This Reed/Greene collaboration is pretty solid even if it's not The Third Man.  I can't remember who the cinematographer was, but Reed really knew how to pick 'em.

I already wrote about Tall in the Saddle.  I watched it with the girls - their first John Wayne Western! The girls really like cowboy movies.  I don't know why I'm not watching more with them.

Abigail and I have been watching Smallville Season 1 on DVD (the Broome library downtown has a small and only okay feature film collection, but it's got a great TV on DVD selection - I'm hoping to slowly get through Smallville and then Mad Men).  We're six episodes in right now.

The first episode of Smallville aired on October 16th, 2001, ten days after our wedding.  We watched it back then and watched most of Season 1, but gave up on the show because of the lame villains of the week and also because I couldn't get past the fact that Tom Welling looked older than me and was playing a high school freshman.  Re-watching the series now, I'm able to forgive these elements.  The pilot especially, but also some elements of later episodes, contains some really great visual storytelling.  With a little bit of tinkering, Smallville could work as a silent serial.  Seriously.  

The lame villains are still lame.  The characters all still look too old, but it's easier for me to suspend my disbelief now that I can look at the characters and they at least look younger than me.  Finally, surprisingly, the soap opera elements of the story are what work best and the show really shines in these character moments.

Speaking of TV, The Office season 7 premiere was a lot of fun.

I almost forgot: I got paid to see Salt.  "I almost forgot" about it pretty much sums up my opinion of the film.

The watching of these movies and some good TV was a refreshing change from the past month or two of mostly so-so Redbox/Blockbuster Express 2010 rentals.

Which brings me to my confession.

I restarted my Netflix account.  

I haven't watched all of my DVDs or met any other goals, but I did get rid of enough DVDs at Cocoanuts to make $72 and change.  Being proud of this and tired of terrible Redbox rentals, I signed back up for Netflix, but to compromise and prompt myself to keep working on getting rid of DVDs, I signed up for the terribly not good enough 2 a month $5 plan.  

I intend to watch at least one owned DVD and at least one borrowed DVD each week for the rest of the year.  Pete, that Decalogue set is getting watched before the year is over!  As I get rid of more DVDs, I'll feel better about signing up for a real Netflix plan.

My first Netflix rental was La France, now available on Region 1 DVD for the first time, three years after its French theatrical release and two years after its extremely limited run in the States.  

I saw La France at Cornell in mid-2008 and reluctantly fell in love with it then.  Not at first.  Only slowly.  Slowly, after being away from the film for a while, I realized that I couldn't shake the music out of my head.  Joined to the music were images of a world weary of war.  Of lost men struggling toward a half-remembered idea of home that may not exist any longer; to Atlantis.  Homesick for heaven.  The juxtaposition of 60's style pop music with WWI wartime creates a jarring mash-up of unlikely bedfellows.  The title is also important.  In some sense, this film is a portrait of France.  But I don't understand much about this film.  Je ne pas parle francais.

At home now is Sweetgrass.

Next in the queue?  Gentleman Broncos.

Since writing the above, I made $25 today selling DVDs. I cheated a little and bought two $5 Westerns at Wal-mart, but I've been good nevertheless.

Unrelated, Peter Bogdanovich just started posting lists of his favorite films from 1929 to 1962.  The 1929 list is up:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I am an impure critic

I'm really behind on the conversation now.  Here's an effort at catching up.

Tall in the Saddle is an enjoyable b-western.  The story gets a little convoluted, but basically John Wayne plays a hired ranch hand who, after traveling west to get to the ranch, discovers that the ranch owner has been murdered.  A young woman and her aunt have come to take over the ranch.  A neighboring ranch is the property of a feisty young cowgirl interested in this new arrival.  Through it all, John Wayne is tall in the saddle.

My saying that there is "nothing comparable" today to Tall in the Saddle is simply a statement of fact.  B-westerns like this one, with endless variations, some better, some worse, some much worse, were commonplace in the 40s.  They don't exist today.  I enjoy the tropes and themes and even the repetition of these films.  I appreciate that I can feel comfortable watching many of these films with my whole family (and I did watch Tall in the Saddle with my girls).  Appaloosa, a recent film, is a great Western and one of my favorite films of the last decade.  It is, in my opinion, a much better film than Tall in the Saddle.  But Tall in the Saddle provides a specific type of edification and entertainment that I don't see often in today's film (or television) landscape.  There's a sort of innocence that has been lost.

Brandon has already written well about older movies vs. newer ones.  I envy Brandon's childhood film education, a natural nurturing transmission of taste from father to son.

My own experience with older film really started at Houghton.  I always loved movies, but I was really ignorant and had a limited perspective and lack of interest in the past; what C. S. Lewis has called "chronological snobbery."  Having access to the films in the library and taking an Art & History of Film survey class with Murph were both absolutely wonderful.

I don't want to get stuck in an either/or mentality.  There's lot of gold to dig up from the past, but I'm absolutely happy to be in the present and I'm excited about the future.  I don't prefer the past to the present or vice versa.  I think that I've proven over the past couple of years writing here that I very much love as many contemporary films as I do films from the past.  It is easier to find great films from the past because most of the wheat has already been separated from the chaff.  The good stuff has been proven over time.  

Still, I really enjoy the privilege of wading through the cruddy cinematic waters of 2010, being a part of that murky critical process of evaluation and canon forming, comparing my own personal favorites to Indiewire and Film Comment critic's polls and, yes, even taking into consideration box office results and strange cultural phenomenon.

I've already seen 27 feature films from 2010 (that's not counting 2009 releases that lots of others count toward 2010, but only those listed on IMDB as 2010 releases).  And I expect to see more than double that by the time all of the fall festival films make it out on DVD over the course of next year.  I don't know an exact count, but I've probably seen less than 10 films from 1944 in my whole life.  I'm sure there were a lot of bad movies released that year, worse than the most mediocre films that I've seen this year.  I'm glad I don't have to sit through them.  But part of the fun of engaging with the present is exactly that, always hoping for something astonishing, but often sitting through movies that disappoint instead.

Jason wrote: "The reason I cited my use of the Tomatometer was to say that sometimes I will weigh more heavily the audience percentage than the critic percentage because I believe these people are going into a film with fewer preconceived notions and prejudices. These are folks who either like something or they don't- film watching is a much more visceral experience for them, more honest sometimes."

I'm not sure if you really believe this or not, but it's complete bullshit.

(how's that for a friendly response? -we've gotten all of the disclaimers about loving and respecting each other out of the way, I'm ready to rumble)

The "audience" is not going into a film with "fewer preconceived notions and prejudices" than the critic is.  They are simply going in with DIFFERENT preconceived notions and prejudices, not fewer.  These audiences have very clear expectations about what a movie is and what it should do for them.  Put a generic movie fan, the kind who loves Transformers and Grown Ups, in front of a screen playing The Limits of Control (one of my favorites from last year) and you'll most likely find an angry audience.  You use the term visceral.  I'll stick with the admittedly hyperbolic term "mindless."  These audiences have a ton of preconceived notions and prejudices regarding movies, most of them being a lot less well thought out than the critic's notions and prejudices (assuming he's honest enough to admit them).  You seem to want to privilege uninformed opinions (all too often truly "informed" by expensive advertising campaigns and appeals to contemporary relevance).  I just can't do that.

That said, Brandon and I did talk about the benefit of non-cinephile opinions, including "uninformed" opinions.  I get a lot out of talking film with friends of mine who aren't movie addicts.  The thing is that I trust their opinions and views in lots of other matters, from systematic theology to animal husbandry.  I'm talking about people that I already know and trust.  I really want to know their opinions, regardless of whether or not they know James Whale from James Franco.  I'm not at all interested in getting the movie opinions of the thousand teenage girls that showed up for the last Justin Bieber concert or the countless dudes playing beer pong every night in their basement.

Enough about that.

Lady in the Water might be my favorite Shyamalan film.  Bordwell has written a good defense of the film - try to find it on his website.

What have I been watching?  I'll have a new post up soon.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


David Bordwell is the master at writing at an academic level in a popular style.

His most recent post (about two films I haven't seen and have little interest in) is a wonderful example of the sort of best kind of film criticism available.  If you don't like Bordwell, then you and I may have to get into a fistfight.

Read this:

Related to my previous post, I want to make clear that there are a lot of bad critics out there, both in academic circles and especially in the journalism/reviewer end of the spectrum.  Maybe you've just been exposed to all the wrong people.

It's funny that you mention seminary.  I had written a theology analogy to explain my position on film criticism, but scrapped it.  Maybe I'll rewrite it and post it.

Riddle me this, Brando

Your midnight text was nothing in comparison to the handful of random texts I accidentally sent to your better half, insisting that I couldn't understand a joke and demanding answers.

I was trying out a new texting app that I'd gotten for my iPod touch and started sending you messages, not realizing that the phone number I had for you in my iPod address book was the number you'd given me way back before you got your own phone.  I couldn't understand "your" strange replies and was getting frustrated that you wouldn't just explain the joke to me already when Tara revealed herself.  Oops.  All apologies.

So.  What was the joke that "whiskey" is the punchline of?  That Reese killed herself?  Why don't I understand this?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Piranhas in the Poole - a Rambling Response to Jason

Jason, thanks for humoring me with the Flixster capsules.  Every once in a while, I'll try to be active on Facebook, but I really can't do it.  I don't like Facebook.

I appreciate your appreciation of Gentleman Broncos.  It was a film that was high on my radar last year, but it never played around here and it was far off my radar by the time it got a DVD release.  I'll definitely check it out.

Also, I share your opinion of Julie & Julia, a really pleasant surprise from last year.

I haven't seen Legion, but I do enjoy the work of Doug Jones (who is one of the creatures/angels(?) in Legion.  There's a great interview with Jones on an episode of the podcast More Than One Lesson from earlier this year.  Jones talks explicitly about being a Christian acting in a film (Legion) with really wonky theology.

Now, responding directly to your post directed at me:

1) I'm interested in your reaction to Greenberg.  I'm really hard on the film, but only because I feel like it's one of a small handful of films released so far this year that is absolutely worth talking about.  I mean, really, who's going to argue with me about the flying tank in A-Team?  Greenberg it is then.

2) Brandon never responded to my invitation of the 18th anyhow, so no plans were made.  Don't worry about us showing up while you're not available.

3) See my Flixster comment above.  I'm probably going to wait to see Scott Pilgrim on DVD.  I never liked the comics and am wary of the film, but I've heard mostly good opinions of it.

4) The Killer Inside Me is easily one of the "best" films of the year so far in terms of craft and creeps (though I think I've at least hinted at a few reasons for strongly disliking the film despite the clear artistry on display).   I'm interested to know why you're not interested.  Why would Winterbottom's disgusting horror comedy be unappealing to a Rob Zombie devotee?  I do unreservedly recommend both Edge of Darkness and The Last Exorcism.  Both will be at least honorable mentions in my personal list at the end of the year.  Don't see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Defy the world!

5) Date Night.  I don't know.  We obviously have different sensibilities and senses of humor (not to deny that there is also plenty of overlap in taste).  I honestly felt that 95% of the jokes in the film fell completely flat.  You honestly laughed yourself silly.  

Which brings me to the part of your post that I'm challenged to respond to.

"You and Brandon often have very clear-cut opinions on whether or not you've liked a film and it's a curious thing to me."

As Brandon has already pointed out, our opinions really aren't usually as clear-cut as they may seem and often in the past have been fleshed out by face-to-face communication, but I do stand by the (sometimes incomplete) judgments that I express here.  I'm open to discussion and correction, but my tastes and prejudices are indiscreetly flung out there in the open each time I put thumbs to iPod to post here.  My posts are mostly "from the gut" reactions, but that's not to say that they're not informed by all of the films that I've seen in the past or not in conversation with all of the film writing that I've read over the years.   Few and far between are any posts in which I've actually labored hard in examining a film, but that's a limitation of doing this for fun in spare moments.

Always, though, I try to honestly wrestle, sometimes more, sometimes less, with the film in front of me.

And like you guys, I'm just happy watching movies.  They don't all need to be the best ever.

"You both certainly have done your research- I tend not to read film criticism. I think it often over-analyzes particulars of a film to the detriment of a bigger picture- the bigger picture of why anyone goes out to watch a film in the first place. I don't always get film criticism, honestly."

This IS a major difference in our approach to watching movies.  Film criticism and film history are important to me.  Reading others writing about film helps me think more sharply about film and also places me in a tradition and community of other cinephiles, as far to the margins of that culture as I may be.  Simple as that.  

Someone like David Bordwell, who "over-analyzes particulars of a film" (to use your phrase), helps us to see the whole of a film more clearly, not less clearly.  Being knowledgable about structure and composition and the history of the art form can only deepen one's appreciation of a film, not detract from it.  If, upon careful examination, a film doesn't hold up so well, that's not a failing of the critic.  It's a failing of the film.  

I don't pretend to be in anywhere near the same league as some of my favorite film critics, past and present, but I do know that my own thoughts about film have been enriched by theirs.  I can only hope to bring even a tiny fraction of their knowledge and enthusiasm to my own writing.  My favorite type of film writing, though, is the really technical shot-by-shot or frame-by-frame analysis and I do little to none of that here.

I'm interested to know what you think "the bigger picture of why anyone goes out to watch a film in the first place" is.  I don't really identify with the mindless hordes who hop from Hollywood film to Hollywood film, their judgment swayed only by the budget of the advertising campaign.  The American opened at #1 its first weekend a couple of weeks ago.  Exit polls showed that most audiences strongly disliked the film.  Why did audiences go see this film?  Because they were expecting a slow-paced thoughtful, beautifully photographed film from the director of that Joy Division biopic no one saw?  Or because the studio decided to spend a lot of money on TV advertising, giving us commercial spots of shirtless George Clooney being an action star?

Maybe I'm missing the point here.  You seem to be arguing for the "check your brain at the door" position.  Yes?  No?

It may seem condescending for me to say that I'm probably interested in film for different reasons than the "anyone" you refer to, but I'm saying it.

I'm looking for expressions of beauty and truth in the frame, which is different than (but not mutually exclusive of) big explosions and potty humor.  The sort of film I enjoy and benefit from is most often the work of an "auteur" expressing a personal vision.  But I also love so many of the unsung grunt directors of the Hollywood "Golden Age."

A few days ago, I watched a modest little Western called Tall In the Saddle, directed by the relatively unknown Edwin Marin, starring John Wayne.

Gabby Hayes knocking back a slug of whiskey was more than enough for me.  That's what I'm talking about.  The heights of transcendence that a Tarkovsky or Bresson have revealed are rivaled by that toothless grin.  

Pleasant films like Tall In the Saddle weren't too unusual 65 years ago.  There's nothing comparable being made today.  But I won't stop looking and hoping.

"But I have watched a lot of movies on a lot of different topics and lot of different genres. So I do think that I have a leg to stand on. But what is the nature precisely of the leg I'm standing on?"

It's your own leg.  You don't have any larger community to evaluate your ideas through.  You can see just fine standing up on your own leg.  But if you embrace film culture, film writing and film history, well, then...  You wouldn't have to rely on your own leg anymore.  You could ride piggyback on Roger Ebert or stand on the shoulders of Manny Farber.  Supported by those who have gone before, you can see higher and farther.  You'd still be seeing out of your own eyes with all of your own tastes and prejudices, but you'd be able to see things that you may have been blind to without these guides.  Different angles and aspects.  

Not that you would even necessarily change your opinion on a film.  I've loved Julien Donkey-Boy for ten years despite poor critical reception and the ridicule of many friends.  I've benefitted from everyone I've read or talked to that has torn the movie apart.  I think that I can make a pretty good critical case for Julien Donkey-Boy, but sometimes the going is rough.  

So, attention to critical opinions does not mean you have to give up your love of The Phantom Menace.  You just better be prepared to defend your position with "over-analysis of particulars" in reacting to negative condemnations of the whole picture.

I know I've taken a bit of an offensive posture throughout in responding to you.  I'm just trying to make a case for a film lover like yourself paying attention to film criticism.  I invited you here to CR5 film club because I saw that you were engaging with film frequently over on Facebook/Flixster and because I value your perspective.  I'm not trying to argue here that your opinions are stupid or ill-informed.  I also hope that I don't sound like too much of a snob or critic's pet.  Sometimes it's hard to tell how the tone of a blog post will come across once it's thrown out there.  I hope this one sounds friendly.  This whole conversation would sound different over a few beers after just having seen Trash Humpers.  Alas.

I also don't pretend to speak for Brandon.  I know that there is a lot of overlap in how we think about and interact with films and film culture, but there are differences, too.  

I think, though, that I can safely say that CR5 movie club has existed from the beginning as a manifestation of our internal desire to avoid both brainless mass consumption AND bullshit cinephile posturing and pretending.  We like what we like and won't apologize for it.  

In general, we just love movies.  Except not always the same movies in the same ways.  This means that I have to put up with Brandon's so-so response to Terror in a Texas Town, an all-time favorite of mine that I expected him to go gaga over.  Brandon has to put up with me taking a dump on Jim Sheridan's music choices in In America.  

I know that I tend to fall more often into the art film snob persona while Brandon falls into the killer piranha waters.  On a certain level, we acknowledge and accept these differences in taste and personality.  But I think we still always expect the other person to put up a good fight in defense of our positions, even if we eventually have to fall back on subjective emotion.  "Yeah, but it's so damn cool when he comes to the gunfight with the whaling harpoon!" or "that piranha just ate that dude's penis and I love it!"

Hopefully Brandon will chime in soon.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lowest common denominator

I watched The Killer Inside Me for a few reasons.
1) It was being described as a "neo-noir" film
2) The stills all looked gorgeous and the cast was intriguing
3) Emerson had stepped up to defend it and declare his appreciation.

I don't have that Emerson review in front of me now, but I do remember that he compares the violence in Killer favorably to what he considered the more obscene violence of Kevin James smashing into a tree in the Grown Ups trailer.  What's interesting to me about this right now isn't whether or not Emerson is right (he is not), but the fact that he chose Grown Ups to compare Killer to.

Because Killer and Grown Ups are both fundamentally bad comedies.  Yes, I insist that Killer is a comedy, from the first happy spanking to the fiery finale, the tone of the film is comic and everything is played for laughs.  

The disastrous timing that plagues noir protagonists is brought to almost absurd levels here as each new action brings unforeseen problems that pile on top of each other, culminating in a ridiculous moment when Ford is trying to frame and kill a bum and slips in his freshly murdered lover's urine.  Then, as the man runs away down the town streets, madcap chase music plays.  This is the most obvious example of the sort of dark humor that runs throughout Killer, but it's so omnipresent and obvious that Killer demands to be shelved in the comedy section.

So, what's the problem?  Like Grown Ups, Killer just isn't funny.  And it certainly doesn't shed any light on the twin subjects of sex and violence (especially against women) that it so easily and readily exploits any more than Grown Ups will get media-soaked families to spend any time with each other.  There's no justification for the images on display here except that it tickled the director's funny bone.  Shits and giggles.  Grown Ups and The Killer Inside Me.

In some ways I do admire the tone of Killer because it is so brazenly defiant of expectations, creating a sleazier queasiness that is a bit more subtle and suitable than the easy creeps that it could have gone for.  I like how Ford is never really relatable even as his criminal activity is filmed with such visual delight.  There are a lot of tensions here that are admirably held together.

Still, The Killer Inside Me is a wickedly unnecessary film.  The violence on display is not completely glamorized, but in order to like this film you almost have to start thinking of those scenes as so much more fun.  Like that chubby comedian swinging into a tree.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Demons still on my mind

The Last Exorcism made me nauseous.  To be fair, I was already feeling more than a little "off" before I made it to the cinema, but seriously, this shaky cam faux-doc style really needs to stop.  The real horror of this film involves the cinematography choices.

Exorcism is a smart film and the documentary conceit is used much better here than most everywhere else.  I still feel strongly that it's a completely unnecessary gimmick that adds little to the film.  You can keep the basic story idea that this is a documentary situation without pretending that this is the doc footage.  

Anyhow, that is just a pet peeve of mine.  Like flashbacks that refer to images earlier in the same film.  Gag me with a hand grenade.

The questions of faith explored in this film are really what make the film interesting and definitely worth watching.  As a homeschooling Christian father who lives out in the country (but I don't own a gun!  Yet!), I am of course keenly interested in a film that portrays a homeschooling Christian father and his possibly demonically possessed 16-year-old daughter.  And more than that, the film is primarily about a Pastor who has lost his faith.  This isn't Bergman's Silence trilogy by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not too far removed thematically from those films either.

I can't discuss any of this any further without major spoilers.  So, that's the end of this post!

If you do see the movie soon, check out the discussion on the BGG guild (  I mostly agree with Kevin's reaction, but also enjoyed those final moments much more than he did and feel that they may possibly strengthen everything that comes before rather than cheapen it as he argues.  But, again, I'm entering major spoiler territory.

Besides Exorcism, I've seen Grown Ups (mercifully, I was paid to see this) and Repo Men.  I can't fault Sandler for taking his friends on vacation at a beautiful lakeside area and churning out a serviceable crowd-pleaser like this to pay the bills.  I was cringing throughout almost the entire film, but the audience around me laughed a lot.  I'd rather sit through Jonah Hex a few more times than think about this painfully unfunny film and what it means about our culture that so many people found this film so funny.  I shake my head at it all.

Repo Men is a disappointment if only because the premise is so great and because a couple of talented actors are wasted on this material.  It's not bad at all, though, and the final reveal made me smile big instead of groan.  The whole romantic relationship plot is silly at best and it culminates in a scene which is absolutely ridiculous.  I was on the brink of hating the film until the following scene.  Then, a stupid smile on my face.  Repo Men is not at all great, but it's better than most other average (and brainless) SF films that get released each year.

I forgot to mention above that your Hostel post was published in the morning while I was at the cinema. What's the connection? Roth is one of the producers of Last Exorcism. Gee golly.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Saturday September 18th 8pm

Do you have any plans that would prevent a trip to Rochester?

I saw The Last Exorcism yesterday. I'll have a post up tomorrow or the next day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Blank generation

The best part of the Clash of the Titans "remake" is found near the end of the film, but had already been spoiled by the trailer.  The film's impact as a joke-mine is more significant than the totality of the film.  All of the Kraken jokes that have pervaded the cultural landscape since its release have provided more entertainment value than the creators of this film could have ever foreseen.  The film itself is more enjoyable than I had anticipated, but still pretty lame.

Date Night is almost painful to watch as joke after joke falls flat.  Too bad.  I'm at a loss to think of any recent comedies that I've loved.  A Serious Man?  Adventureland?  Drag Me to Hell?  Do any of these count as comedies?  Would they make it on an AFI Laughs list?  I guess I don't care.

Good Night and Good Luck is a solid message movie.  Whenever Strathairn is onscreen, the story is riveting.  Other times, not so much.  The side plots involving office romance and a suicidal news anchor fail to be as satisfying.

Kids are back to BU and WHRW is back to a full broadcast schedule.  I only mention this because I finally heard the song that you mentioned months ago: I was a teenage anarchist.  It's alright, but Richard Hell's older anthem "blank generation" is a better description of my teen feelings.  I didn't want to change the world.  I could take it or leave it each day.