Saturday, January 30, 2010

Apache, Aldrich and Webb

I just finished watching Robert Aldrich's Apache. I was interested in it after seeing Vera Cruz, which was directed by Aldrich and written by James Webb, who was also a writer on Apache. I haven't seen a ton of westerns from their heyday in the fifties and sixties, but Vera Cruz is definitely one of the best I've seen so far. The plot was a lot of fun, with plenty of twists and turns; but it's the witty banter between Cooper and Lancaster that puts the film on the top shelf. I was hoping for something similar in Apache, despite the marked difference in subject matter.
As far as those expectations were concerned, it was disappointing. Though it might be less about subject matter differences and more about poor casting choices. Any time you try to use white folks to play Indians-- much less, try to write Indian-sounding dialogue for them-- you are damning your film not only to be significantly watered down by inauthenticity, but also subject to harsher historical criticism because of it. This alone made it extremely difficult to get into the film. There is no doubt that the blue-eyed Lancaster is a fine actor, but he is no Native American, and try as I might I could not see him as one. Jean Peters as the squaw comes off even less Indian than Lancaster. It is a compelling story, nonetheless (except for the ending, but I'll get to that); and while I'm not much for remakes, I'd love to see the film remade using actual Native Americans for the leads. I think it could be really powerful and thought-provoking.

As far as the plot goes, it's pretty consistently good until the love story gets in the way. I find it tough to believe that a hardened warrior like Massai would soften as quickly as he did, and even harder to believe he could be so easily domesticated-- at least the way it was portrayed. There also seems to be some kind of message in this (intentional or otherwise)-- that the Indians' best option was to settle down and grow crops like the whites. It worked pretty well for the Cherokees, right? And the ending, well, ugh. I was sure Massai was going to go down in a blaze of glory (apparently Aldrich filmed a different ending which I'm willing to bet was some variation of that theme, but was asked to shoot a friendlier version which was ultimately used for the theatrical release, much to his disappointment). However, even if Massai were to survive, there's no way you can get me to believe that the cavalry would just let him walk out of the cornfield like that without mowing him down right away.

I have yet to see more of Webb's writing and Aldrich's directing (I haven't seen Dirty Dozen yet, but it's high on my list), so I'm not giving up the hope that I'll see more great Vera Cruz-like dialogue; until then, I consider it a shame that Webb and Aldrich didn't work together more, or at least produce more great films like Vera Cruz.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Conversations 2010, part 1

John- the reason you are quitting Netflix is the reason I've been putting off signing up. I desperately need to cull my own DVD collection, but there are so many I have not yet watched. And that's not counting the tote full of pre-atomic and atomic era VHS tapes I snagged from the donation sale at the library. And that's also not counting the handful of discs I've got checked out from the library waiting to be watched at any given moment. Sigh.

Brandon- I bought at Wal-Mart some time ago a multi-disc collection of about 50 Hitchcock films, a lot of them what I assume to be minor works. You're making me more and more eager to check out at least a few. I have seen too few Hitchcock movies, but have really enjoyed what I've seen and would like to broaden my exposure to his genius.

Adrienne- I honestly just didn't know any better. I didn't have too much exposure to good film until late in my college career, so plenty of cine-ignorance was allowed to fester in my brain. That's why I'm trying to give my son LIKE IT OR NOT the film history education I never had.

Malissa- the Dryden shows films that are appropriate for kids as well. You should check the schedule. The theater is really one of Rochester's treasures. As to your comment about the variety of films I've watched, that's a part of my lack of discernment. I really will watch just about anything, good or bad.

In other news, I saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last night. I don't have a whole lot to say about it that hasn't been said by others except that, due to some observations I was making to an acquaintance about Tideland, I found myself wondering about Gilliam's work in light of a less obvious theme (at least to me to this point) than the power of imagination. There are some questions raised in at least few of Gilliam's films about the safety of children, and the responsibility that adults have to keep children safe. I certainly welcome any observations anyone has about this, as I have only just noticed it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mark of Douglas Fairbanks

I had the pleasure of watching the silent film The Mark of Zorro at the Dryden Theater last night. I have not seen many silent films, and never any feature-length ones accompanied by live piano. What a treat! I will admit that, having been coddled by modern filmmaking, I had developed a bias against anything made pre-1960's-- an unfortunate misconception that I am working to overcome. I made exceptions for Bergman and a few others, but didn't spend a lot of time watching anything in black and white, really.

So one can imagine how much more biased I might be against films without SOUND! Imagine how limiting that must have been! Well, I have to admit, and not even reluctantly, that The Mark of Zorro holds up reMARKably well almost a hundred years later. It is funny and action-packed and plot-driven to boot. And, dang it, when I found out Fairbanks did almost all of his own stunts, I was flabbergasted. He is, after all, what makes the film what it is-- almost exclusively. Noah Beery as Sgt. Gonzalez definitely steals the scenes he is in, and De La Motte (as Lolita Pulido) plays capably the intelligent and (mostly) discerning heroine; but almost all the rest of the film is a showcase for Fairbanks's talents. And rather than being limiting, the silent format makes the visuals so much more powerful, an incredible testimony to what makes film so unique as a storytelling medium (a testimony I'm sure many other silent films corroborate). Watching it made me wish I could travel back in time to the days when 5,000 people would flock to see a film on opening night, all dressed in their formal best.
I was amused at my reaction as the film was ending and Don Diego was revealed to be Zorro and all the loose ends were neatly tied up. I thought almost immediately- Why did they do that? Now how will they be able to make a sequel? But, of course, things back then were not as they were today, when in so many cases a picture's financial viability depends on its potential for a sequel. It was refreshing to think that there was a time when a film was made as an end to itself and not a means to something else. I'm sure I'm simplifying it too much-- certainly by the 1920's film's moneymaking potential was well known-- but there is a cynicism and lack of respect for the audience in today's mainstream movies that was clearly not present when The Mark of Zorro made its debut.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Lament for Gwangi

I watched The Valley of Gwangi with my family the other night. Despite Harryhausen's name in the credits, I was fully expecting a cheesy romp over the range- I mean, cowboys and dinosaurs? It doesn't get any better than that! While there were certainly elements of cheese- despite my protestations to the contrary, my son was not impressed with the special effects- I was surprised at the depths of emotion into which I plunged by the end of the film. And I do talk about the end of the film, so consider yourself spoiler-alerted if these things are important to you.

[I will here briefly paraphrase a side conversation I had with my son vis a vis groundbreaking SFX and the generation gap. My son: "These special effects are terrible!" Me: "Yes, son, but consider the time this was made- it was pretty impressive in its day. You know, Ray Harryhausen is considered by some to be the father of modern special effects." My son: "Yeah, well he should have been the grandfather of special effects."]

A brief plot summary: a group of cowboys go into a forbidden valley to try to capture an eohippus (yes, you read that correctly) for a circus-like show and find the king of the valley, an allosaur known as Gwangi, and capture him for the show instead. Godzilla-like events ensue (including people being eaten alive in this family-friendly G-rated extravaganza) except that Gwangi meets his end, after a valiant effort from our hero, by burning to death in a church. There is a romantic sub-plot and an English paleontologist who provides- to some extent- comic relief, but these details are mostly filler.

It was the last part of the film that really got me. I haven't seen enough sci-fi films from the fifties and sixties (Gwangi came out in '69) to make a good analysis, but it seems like the theme of man's interference in the natural world and the tragic consequences it causes pops up more than a few times during this period. As the film ended, I thought immediately of Revenge of the Creature and how my heart ached to see the titular creature struggling to get out of its man-made confines and the destruction it caused simply trying to be free. Similarly- perhaps even more so- watching the great Gwangi screaming until he collapsed as the flames consumed him and the cathedral crumbled around him (even recalling the scene now causes my heart to beat faster), produced such a frustration and anger at the human race that it pretty much destroyed the light, adventurous mood the film had sustained to the point of Gwangi's capture. If only we could leave well enough alone- if only we could not be so shortsighted and vain!

One thing that puzzled me was trying to figure out how Gwangi was supposed to be perceived. A handful of times the old gypsy woman referred to him as "evil," but the only "evil" thing Gwangi did during the film was to eat and try to defend himself. It wasn't clear whether Gwangi was being prepped/reinforced as a villain or if (bravo if this was the case) the old woman's attitude was written as a more sardonic attempt to point a finger at the melodramatic reaction of humanity in the face of the unknown and/or terrifying. Gwangi, from start to finish, seemed to me to be more victim than villain, ultimately helpless as the humans around him either used him for personal gain or revenge.

And, my son's opinion to the contrary, the SFX were pretty impressive. The first scene in which Harryhausen's work manifests itself is when T.J reveals the Eohippus that Carlos brought back from the forbidden valley to Tuck, her former lover. The little prehistoric horse is going to transform her show and make her a star. It comes out of its house, hesitantly and slowly. It is clear to modern audiences that this is stop-motion animation due to its trembling jerkiness. Yet the horse's movements themselves are beautiful- the sway of the its tail, the turn of its head...These and other details are surprisingly realistic and blended almost seamlessly with the horse's live action environment. The scenes in the forbidden valley are no less noteworthy. In one scene the cowboys lasso Gwangi and it looks like they are actually lassoing a giant, stop-motion animated dinosaur.

Okay, so it's still a little cheesy. Raised as I was by such celluloid marvels as Land of the Lost (the original, of course) and Clash of the Titans, I still live in the modern world of CGI, and the relatively primitive effects of films like these can sometimes take me out of the story. And while I can recognize the amount of skill and time and effort that goes into making a film like The Valley of Gwangi, I can't help but chuckle a little myself.

Just don't tell my son.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I recently watched two Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films with my family- Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill. They were on a two-fer DVD that I randomly grabbed off the library shelf, primarily based on John's recommendation. We actually enjoyed them quite a lot.

The pop culture stereotypes of Holmes and Watson get explained fairly early on in either film- Holmes's cold calculations contrast often humorously with Watson's amicable intuition-based reasoning. Watson's not a dolt, as he is sometimes portrayed, and if Dresssed to Kill is any indication, his unfocused ramblings often provide Holmes with the key to unravelling a particular puzzle, which makes in indispensible to Holmes in a way. I found myself wondering what such different personalities would find attractive about the other- though it's easier to see why the withdrawn, antisocial Holmes might cling in his own way to Watson's open acceptance, than it is to understand what Watson gets out of the friendship.

Nevertheless, it was far more entertaining to watch the two of them interact in either film than trying to understand the particulars of the plot, in the case of Terror by Night in particular. Its shorter length (60 minutes) hurts it, I think. Dressed to Kill was rather enjoyable, actually, even if you leave out, as was aptly commended in John's blog, Watson's fine duck impersonation. It was fun to see Holmes left for dead, Bond-style, and come back to thwart the bad guys. All of the classic elements were there, whereas Terror by Night takes place almost exclusively on a train. This plot device in itself does not necessarily mean a bad movie (Snakes on a Plane notwithstanding), but there was too much sitting around and talking about clues, and not enough of Holmes hanging onto the outside of the train for dear life. Still, all three of us are interested in seeing more of these films, and if IMDB is any indication, there are plenty left for us to choose from.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

December 2009

I watched an astonishing number of films in December. Here is, I believe, a mostly complete list (in no particular order) with asterisks next to ones that stood out:

The Uninvited
Eagle Eye
Watchmen: Tales of the Black Frieghter
Texas Chainsaw Massacre* (first time)
Rear Window* (first time)
I Love You, Beth Cooper
Trip With the Teacher
Prime Evil
Satan's Slave
Clerks 2
House Bunny
Hot Rod* (one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time- short on plot, long on humor)
Brothers* (it's about time these two played relations- I've always thought they looked alike)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
Disney's a Christmas Carol (disappointing)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid* (Redford/Newman)
Disaster Movie
2012 (unsettling, better after the first 40 minutes or so)
Wonder Woman (animated)
Sherlock Holmes* (RDJr.)

As one can easily see, I am a completely undiscriminating viewer. However, I do know good film when I see it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sex in Film

I'm currently watching the film Shortbus by John Cameron Mitchell. I saw the trailer a few times and it looked intriguing- a story about a NYC subculture, a topic which has always been alluring to me in some fashion. I've always loved NYC and people who live there have some kind of ownership of it that is hard to really understand from the outside- and makes me a little envious, if I'm honest.

According to the trailer, Shortbus is about a sex counselor of sorts on a quest for her first orgasm. In her quest, she connects with assorted societal misfits who gather at a place called Shortbus, this in reference to the preferred means of transporting "the gifted and challenged." The trailer promised interesting characters, and, so far, that has been the case. The characters are not just interesting, but likeable and quirky and human. But it also promised sex, and there is a LOT of it in the film. Some would say such a forthright portrayal of sex "honest" and maybe "daring" or even "vulnerable." Others might prefer terms like "exhibitionist" or "shocking" or "pornographic." I haven't finished watching it yet, but I'm kind of leaning towards Shortbus being appropriate in this case to the story the film sets out to tell. But I'm not sure, and I have a number of friends who would probably question my morality because of it. Now whether or not it is necessary to make a blatant film about sex is another question entirely. But I do think that there is an audience for almost every film, and I don't think that everyone has to be comfortable with every film that's out there. I mean, I'm not comfortable with Shortbus, but I'm trying to be as objective about it as I can be. It's clearly not meant for mass consumption, and I think that means that it can be interpreted differently than if it were a mainstream studio picture.

I am going somewhere with this, and I will express that in the form of some questions this movie has me asking:
Is it ever appropriate at all to portray explicit sex acts (ESA) in film? Does having well-developed characters and a well-thought-out plot soften the inclusion of ESA in a film? Does it matter whether or not said acts are inside or outside of a committed relationship? Can ESA actually be used creatively and naturally to move a story along?
American culture is notorious for being uptight about sex. But you have to draw a line somewhere, don't you?
Don't you?

You Win, John

I couldn't figure out how to link Flixster to my Facebook account. I tried and tried. And my longing for good film discussion won out over my stubbornness about not having a blog. It's ok, though, because probably you and my friend Adrienne will be the only ones to read this, so maybe I can still pretend I'm holding out. Sigh.