60 Nights at the Movies: The Sequel

The success of Canon Fodder's "50 Nights at the Movies -- at Home!" Requires a bigger and better sequel. Or at least, a longer one. Might want to make some popcorn before sitting down for this one.

Greetings, movie-lovers. Last year I wrote a column for Canon Fodder cataloguing my notes on DVDs I'd checked out of the library (see 50 Nights at the Movies -- at Home!). I write these capsule descriptions and random thoughts for emails to friends, and in order not to forget what I've seen, so that I'll have a kind of epistolary diary for reference. In other words, these are personal mementos rather than formal reviews. Naturally, the success of that column requires a bigger and better sequel, but we may have to settle for one that's merely longer.

1. The slice of cake that is Hitchcock begins engagingly as a fantasia on myths around the making of Psycho, especially the scenes of Ed Gein and Alfred Hitchcock sharing mental and physical space. Soon it settles into the pedestrian and would be at home on the Hallmark or Lifetime Channels. I'm glad it largely avoids the "dark" Hitch for a petulant and mischievous teddy bear (played by Anthony Hopkins) who tells Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins, "Call me Hitch. Hold the cock." It explains its points bluntly, mainly to enthrone Hitch's underrated wife Alma (Helen Mirren). Hopkins left me cold but British actor James D'Arcy, who impersonated Tony Perkins, was amazing. It was almost like they'd CGI'd Perkins into it.

I realize the movie's not being accurate, but the thing that stuck out most was when Hitch makes a reference to "a Hitchcock blonde" as if that was a real talking point in the era between North by Northwest and Psycho, and I don't think it was, certainly not until after everyone noticed how Tippi Hedren resembled Kim Novak, who'd resembled Grace Kelly. This movie is set just after Eva Marie Saint, and at this time, Hitch was at least as well known for working with Ingrid Bergman. For that matter, there are basically two options for women's hair in black and white movies. That's an example of how this movie is more hindsight than retro. Everyone speaks as though they've winkingly perused the criticism from 30 years in the future.

2. Another cozy Hallmark-ready biopic, even with the frank sexual peccadillos, is Hyde Park on Hudson, with the wheelchaired FDR (Bill Murray attempts no impression) overcompensating like gangbusters while Eleanor (Olivia Williams) lives with lesbians, wink wink. But wait, you also get the characters from The King's Speech dropping by for tea before the war. It's narrated by a 5th cousin/lover of FDR (Laura Linney) and based on her diaries, but she's not always in the scenes. It somehow manages to remain hagiography while spilling all this dirt and making a point about the "discretion" of the press. I think it isn't that the press needs to be "discreet" but that the public might be mature, although the latter possibility requires the lack of any sense that discretion is required on their behalf.

3. Thanks to Harmony Korine, now there are two weird movies named after Bobby Vinton hits. Mister Lonely is more "accessible" than Gummo or Julian Donkey-Boy and shot with more classic aesthetic balance (often beautiful), but even with straightforward plotlines in a clearly defined situation (actually two, since there's also the amazing exhilarating narrative of Werner Herzog and the nuns), you're pretty much on your own in seemingly improvised scenes of sadness and generosity.

A Depp-like South American (Diego Luna) busks in Paris as a Michael Jackson impersonator until he meets a Marilyn Monroe who invites him to a Scottish manor where many impersonators live without visible means of support. It's observed that their local "Charlie Chaplin" looks more like Hitler--appropriate for the man who made The Great Dictator, but also full of possible meaning for the story at hand. There's a cynical role for pie-eyed romantic French director Leos Carax, which along with casting Herzog as a priest, tells you many things about Korine's mischievous reinvention of idols. Remarkable, and his "nicest" film. Now check his next film:

4. Spring Breakers, at times a music video and at other times a seemingly improvised staring at metal-toothed James Franco putting his Florida gangsta moves on a four nubile teen girls, keeps avoiding the obvious in order to provide what becomes a surreal black comedy about "coming of age". It's also partly an ogling-at-babes movie. In any case, it resolutely avoids becoming a standard hypocritical morality play in which the wayward girls learn a valuable lesson, although they do. I also appreciate the use of music as counterpoint instead of underline. One of the better movies of 2013, by my reckoning.

5. The Impossible is the movie where Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts plays a woman separated from most of her family during the tsunami in Thailand, and that first act is a truly impressive piece of physical filmmaking . The plot follows details of survival and ad hoc relationships in a disaster area, focusing always on the actions and emotions of family members, including ingratiating child actors.

Simple, grueling, satisfying, with plenty of movie suspense, and all you need to tell a story as far as "conflict" is concerned, in this case against external impersonal forces, overwhelming yet far from contrived. This "true story" illustrates my notion that there's an anti-entropic quality in the universe that tends toward order out of chaos. Most people assume the opposite, which is why it's important to turn it around, since the truth is usually the opposite of what people think.

6. Speaking of the truth being the opposite of what people think, Room 237 consists of interview snippets with five fans of Stanely Kubrick's The Shining illustrated with scenes from the movie plus all Kubrick's other movies plus many other movies. The effect is to construct a self-referential universe of cinematic signs, which is delightful in its way, and it underlines the point that the speakers are using cinema as evidence of reality more than vice versa. The Shining is great for this because it's one of those movies everyone has gotten around to seeing, and because whether they liked it or not, it's one of those movies (like other Kubrick films) that burn into the memory, so that even the non-fanatic can grasp what's happening in this documentary.

The problem isn't that some of the interpreters are wacky, which is an understanding that gradually washes over us in a nice frisson, but that wacky or not, they're not nearly as articulate as they should be. It sounds like a bull session over a few beers at the frathouse instead of any coherent analysis based on notes or research, so they're, like, suddenly repeating and emphasizing something with a tone of great, like, you know, emphasis and repetition, man. You know? It's wild, right? And you know that's not just a coincidence, right, because it's all repeated and emphasized, obviously. Kubrick would have had them go over their spiels many times before using any of it.

7. Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is pretty darn magnificent. I've only seen the three-hour "director's cut", which is on the DVD of the Blu/DVD combo; the Blu-ray has the shorter theatrical version. It's about a teen girl who's indirectly responsible for a fatal accident and how this colors her behavior, and how our knolwedge of it colors our perceptions of the scenes (not unlike Hitchcock's paradigm of the bomb under the table). Every scene is volatile and explores the difficulty of communication and the emotional minefields of expressing yourself, having feelings, relationships, etc. John Cassavetes is smiling, I hope.

The only distraction is the casting of big stars in minor roles, which was undoubtedly necessary to secure funding from "real" producers (like Scott Rudin) and "real" studios (like Fox Searchlight), and our continual knowledge that a famous 30-year-old actress (Anna Paquin) is doing an excellent technical impression of a teenager. We overlook this better in the artificial gloss of classic Hollywood (e.g., Mary Pickford) than in naturalistic "realism", though Lonergan does a fair job of distancing the "realism" with the self-consciously arty moments scored by classical music (beautifully done) and a sound mix that continually de-centers the main characters by allowing us to eavesdrop on random strangers.

This is a High Culture movie (or we can just call it a Manhattan movie) about the function of art to touch, catalyze and express our emotions. This is why it's okay for the ending to steal its catharsis from Tales of Hoffmann, because this phenomenon of how humans relate to art is a valid subject for art, and even for "realism." I also like the movie for giving me a thrill of intellectual validation twice.

Just as I was wondering why the movie, about a girl named Lisa, is called Margaret, we get to the scene where English teacher Matthew Broderick (in real life is responsible for a fatal car crash--interesting casting) reads the Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall," which happens to be one of the few poems I know by heart. And when they were going to Hoffmann, I suddenly understood exactly how the movie was going to end, down to the insert of clutching hands; yes, they would exploit the famous duet (even more than it was exploited in Life Is Beautiful). It's good to end on tears or a song, and best if you can do both.

Shall we make a list of how opera has been exploited in movies? The shot of Nicole Kidman listening to Wagner in Birth, the use of La Wally in Diva, the climax of Godfather 3, the original ending (big in Japan) of Fatal Attraction channeling Madame Butterfly... Or the exploitation of classical music in general, started by Kubrick (though he usually contrasted and ironized rather than simply appropriated), then cemented in items like Elvira Madigan until it becomes part of the modernist fabric of, say, Shutter Island. And this leads to the recycling of actual film music from the past in new films, a trend way beyond Tarantino. You could see it, for example, in Tony Scott's Man on Fire. I'll stop now.

8. The Heat relies on our faith in wasting time to unspool a wretchedly conventional investigation into drug smugglers, which serves as the excuse to indulge a women's odd-couple/buddy-cop movie between uptight FBI agent Sandra Bullock (loosen up, you unhappy professional woman who makes the guys look bad!) and offensively unprofessional traffic-wreck of a local cop Melissa McCarthy, who should have been kicked out long ago.

The opening credits evoke the Starsky '70s, and we could fairly say the by-the-numbers plotting does so as well. The only funny scene involves a choking man, when the edgy humor combines the physical with the macabre. Aside from this, the humor is that everyone insults each other and people get killed casually.

9. Getting by on sheer pleasantness, Admission is not really a romantic comedy with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, although that's a minor plotline. She's an uptight Yale admissions counselor who must learn to loosen up when facing a midlife/career crisis confronted with a reminder of her past and a road not taken.

Successful women must be punished and forced to question their choices in the white-collar world, especially since she has a famous feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) who's also fronting, but in this case it's the same message that certain males must learn in similar movies, especially lawyers (e.g., Liar Liar) and agents (A Thousand Words) who must become better fathers/husbands even if it means losing their jobs. Hollywood fantasies are hell on white-collar success, which is always, always equated with the soulless grind.

10. The Uninvited Guest is an excellent Spanish thriller, which these days is redundant. So when we say "Spanish thriller", you'll know it's slick, stylish, and intelligent, with perhaps a dash of the uncanny. An uptight guy, estranged from his wife in his huge house, lets a stranger in to make a call and that stranger promptly disappears, leading our hero to think the man is hiding in the house. In a third act twist both ingenious and inevitable, the tables are turned as our hero does the hiding.

The ending is elliptical, grim, and ambiguous. One of its tricks is that the lead actress has a dual role, which must be obvious to Spanish audiences who know her but which I didn't quite get because they're so different. It's not a "twist", just a surprise decision, like having Julie Christie play two roles in Fahrenheit 451.

11. Wanderlust is about a New York yuppie couple (Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd) forced by happenstance to spend time in a Tennessee commune owned by Alan Alda (excellent) and hang out with hippie bohemians and earth mothers. Aniston is typically good in edgy comedies (e.g., The Good Girl, Office Space) although always playing the same role, and Rudd has a hilariously vulgar monologue in front of a mirror. Memorable line: "Can you go for 24 hours in this place without getting a dick in your face?" The movie makes fun of both the hippies and the uptight outsiders in easy ways but it's basically on the hippie side, and the ending's literal message is that the ideals you thought were dead (embodied by Alda's co-founders) aren't after all.

12. The Farrelly Brothers' The Three Stooges is interesting. I never liked the Stooges as a child because the few examples I saw showed unbelievable violence and childishly stupid people, and I never cared for comics who acted like dumb kids (see also Jerry Lewis, Lou Costello, and Our Gang). I've seen more in recent years and admit they have something going for them, so I can admire how the Farrellys get it exactly right without condescension, from gestures to music to saving the orphanage.

The three actors are really perfect (and so are the three boys who play them as kids), with Curly especially graceful, and you can see the grace because so much of it is shot in the old style of planting the camera squarely as the fellows go through rapid, complex, heavily rehearsed physical routines. No knitting together from a hundred set-ups, because the unbroken nature of it is part of the joke. And just like the originals, I never laughed much.

One sequence uses humor the original team could never have gotten away with. It's so gross and offensive, it can possibly only appeal to children. Also, there's an undercurrent of comparing the throwback idiocy to modern culture, via cameos by the Jersey Shore crew, a gag about the Kardashians ("Those three idiots are here!"), and the general concept of reality TV. Snookie wears a Guinness cap and Moe says "Just because its says genius on her hat doesn't mean she is one." Okay, that's amusing.

13. Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited is a pleasure to behold: gorgeous, meticulous in set design and widescreen composition and movement. In fact, it's so widescreen, the image is really wider than the screen, thanks to extensive use of wide lenses. One lovely "tracking shot" (on a train, get it?) links different locales and characters. The film feels improvised (in the sense of being loosely plotted and played off the cuff) but every detail and line must be nailed in advance, I should think. That creates an interesting tension.

Anderson doesn't want you to miss the slyly obvious symbols and metaphors, like the fact that the three brothers are literally carrying their late father's baggage, so it means something when they finally let it go in slow-mo to the Kinks. The baggage they leave behind includes their mother. One film-buff joke is for fans of Satyajit Ray: the moment when Jason Schwartzman says "Wouldn't it be neat if we heard a train whistle passing by in the distance right now?" and the other two say no, it would be kind of annoying. An upbeat, colorful film based on sadness and loss.

14. It's a Disaster is a feature-length snarkfest in which a group of friends have Seinfeldish "nothing" arguments and otherwise focus on trivial personal issues while they get the news that chemical fallout from a "dirty bomb" is on the way. True, they're told to stay in their houses, but it doesn't occur to anyone on the street to drive hell for leather--which I attribute to lack of budget. In fact, I kept wondering why we only saw one couple's car parked in front of the house, which tells you I myself was distracted by trivial issues in the midst of the larger canvas.

There's a couple that finally arrives late for a bit of cruel comedy--where's their car? They didn't walk. Whatever. This was created by a group who found fame with free Youtube skits. The point, which would be appropriate for a repetitive five-minute SNL skit, is that they're too dumb and egocentric to cope effectively with anything. Compare with the bigger-budget discomforts of This Is the End.

15. Mama is an effective scare-piece about two little feral girls who grew up in the woods with something they call Mama, and whose appearances are nicely freaky. It moves swiftly and predictably--for example, the aunt who wants to take custody from the unprepared bohemian couple must be a bitch whom we want to see die. What if she were nice, and what if it really were a better idea for her to take the kids?

Jessica Chastain is the reluctant punk-rock grrrl who becomes their quasi-adoptive mother and doesn't end up doing that much, but at least it doesn't take everyone forever to figure out what's going on. Indeed, all the characters seem refreshingly open to reading the signs instead of wasting footage in "perfectly rational explanation" denial. The biggest debit to this handsome movie, written and produced by a brother/sister team under the tutelage of Guillermo Del Toro (who saw their three-minute virtuoso short that inspired it, included as a bonus), is the shameless gotcha-goosing with loud stings. Tell me (STING!) why is this (STING! STING!) necessary? If I were doing one of those horror-parody movies, I'd have Sting (aka Gordon Sumner) abruptly stick his head in the frame whenever something like that happened, and have someone say "Get out of here!" Too subtle?

16. John Dies At the End trades subtlety for creative cleverness. Based on a cult novel in the snarky self-conscious mode of Hitchhiker's Guide and TV series Red Dwarf, with plenty of well worked-out ideas (trading in our familiarity with genre concepts) supporting the seeming seat-of-the-pants randomness of the plotline, this is a gorey vulgar gonzo lark directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame, and it fits right in.

It's mostly told in flashback to reporter Paul Giamatti, as our hero explains how he and his feckless friend got into the paranormal world-saving racket. As with the recent Disney item The Sorceror's Apprentice, it uses a supporting character to illustrate the idea that someone with real powers would be making a living as a Vegas-type magician. The trailer appropriately warns you not to give away the ending, so I won't.

17. Dead Man Down uses a straightforward style to tell a story that throws some unusual curves. It starts by establishing Colin Farrell as a gangster working for local boss Terrence Howard while tentatively starting a romance with scarred neighbor Noomi Rapace, who throws the first wrench into the set-up, and then we gradually learn more about the set-up, and before we know it, we want to know how it comes out. It comes out with a typical bout of credibility-snapping all-out action.

Movies about vengeance-driven heroes commonly have them sowing what they reap (the "moral" ending) rather than getting away with the girl, so it seems a bit subversive when the latter happens (which is the audience-pleasing ending--see also Django Unchained). Yet both are clichés by now, and it seems unavoidable that you must end one way or the other. So whadaya gonna do?

18. No such pie-eyed romance in Love Is the Devil, with Derek Jacobi as British hideous portraitist Francis Bacon and Daniel Craig as his working-class kept boy who feels emasculated by the fact that his "bottom" is more successful and supports him financially. It's mostly a study of an aggressive '60s brash yet self-hating milieu (with Tilda Swinton as queen bitch lording over bitchy queens), and how Bacon tolerates his lover's self-destructive alcoholic suicidal behavior as best he can but basically has no time to waste on it, much less being "nurturing" or "supportive" in any 12-step way.

This supposedly reveals Bacon's hardness and narcissism, which is also commitment to his work as opposed to his lover, but I can understand why, as depicted, the successful artist who uses this man as his model and shares his life with him has no wish to be dragged down by him. This uses visual tricks to convey Bacon's visual perspective (distorted reflections etc.) and is overall a serious movie and a bit of a drag. This debut got John Maybury the job of directing an American horror film, also with Daniel Craig in it, and that is:

19. The Jacket is a Millennial Unreality thriller that starts with Adrien Brody getting shot in the head in the first Gulf War, presumed dead until he opens his eyes. Then at home, he finds himself confined to a mental asylum after being accused of murder where he can't prove his story about meeting a drunken mom and her little daughter. Kris Kristofferson shoots him up with drugs and locks him in a morgue drawer for treatment, allowing him to drift forward into the future (like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five) and have an affair with the now-grown daughter (grungy Keira Knightley), which seems creepy, right?

With the help of sympathetic doc Jennifer Jason Leigh, he may or may not be able to avert his predicted death in a few days. The ambiguous ending might be happy, but for how long? The opening has set up the possibility that this could be another Jacob's Ladder--that is, another "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

Most striking here is the use of avant-garde techniques for telescoping events into shorthand by rapidly layering bits of dialogue over various images, and the closing credits evoke films of Stan Brakhage. I'm proud of myself for noticing, because the extras mention this explicitly. Surprisingly, the Leonard Maltin review makes a point of saying how "ugly" the film looks. After American Horror Story: Asylum, a masterpiece of ugly beauty (and everything else), we can say this look has been assimilated.

20. Tommy Lee Jones plays Douglas MacArthur in Emperor, but the focus is on Matthew Fox as a real-life general assigned the task of looking for evidence on whether to arrest or exonerate Japan's Emperor Hirohito for war crimes. It mixes the straightforward interviews of the general's contemporary story with equally straightforward flashbacks to his pre-war Japanese girlfriend in a standard cross-cultural romance.

It's the kind of movie we call handsome, and careful as a history lesson. It functions as an apologia for Hirohito, supposedly a ceremonial victim of circumstance (like the English monarchs of the same century?) who risked his life to surrender. An interesting counterpart to this film is the messy, astounding documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, which is simply one of the greatest docs I've ever seen. I kept thinking of it while watching this stately movie.

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