Thursday, June 25, 2015

Animal House, 1978

Directed by John Landis
Writing by Harold Ramis, Dougs Kenney, and Chris Miller
Starring , , and

"Thank you, God!"
"Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life."
"You fucked up. You trusted us."
"What the hell we supposed to do, ya moron?"
"See if you can guess what I am now."
"There were blanks in that gun!"
"Germans?" "Forget it, he's rolling."

Disclaimer: This movie features a lot of really inappropriate behavior and a fair number of topics and jokes that have not aged well.

Other important point: It is really funny. John Belushi, had he done nothing other than play John "Bluto" Blutarsky in this movie, would be a comedy a legend. This movie launched Harold Ramis into the comedy realm that allowed him to give us the modern underdog vs. elitist comedy genre (also in Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and a million other things he inspired). It's also one of the few movies in which Doug Kenney had a major hand. 

Yes, it's in the Pantheon.

"Can I have ten-thousand marbles, please?"

"It's got to work better than the truth."
"Still want to show me your cucumber?"
"Don't be afraid to help yourself to punch and cookies."
"Well, as of this moment, they're on double-secret probation."
"She was going to make a pot for me."



Mr. Blutarsky























 


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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fish Called Wanda, 1988

Directed by Charles Crichton
Written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton
Starring John Cleese, , and

This is one of the great ones. 

Kevin Kline's performance completely merits the Oscar that he won for it. In fact, his stream of curses at John Cleese may alone merit it, or maybe the scene where he and Jamie Lee Curtis have sex, or the scene near the end with him, Michael Palin, and the fish and chips, or probably any individual scene, actually. His performance is like a series of comedy arias.

But this movie is John Cleese's. It's the Ealing Comedies for its own time; it's Python in the regular -- non-surreal, non-Terry-Gilliam-infused -- world; it's everything hilariously frantic about Fawlty Towers. Cleese brings together everything he does well as an actor, puts it into the tight story that he wrote, and even gives us some emotional reality to ground all the farce. He's why this movie is what it is.

Not to take away anything -- anything -- from Jamie Lee Curtis or Michael Palin. She is over the top in her scheming, her utter willingness to use anything or anyone to accomplish her ends (one example: the moment when she meets John Cleese and says, perkily, "I'm American"). And yet we still, somehow, keep rooting for her. 

And Michael Palin? The first time (of the many times) that I saw this movie, I found his character grating. As I've watched it over and over, I find his performance funnier and funnier. Not only is his Ken a completely formed person, but his task in the story almost threatens to become a Sisyphean tragedy. But, to quote Otto (Kevin Kline's character), "Almost."

It's so good. All the other characters are wonderful. The movie isn't calling attention to itself as a movie -- it's invisible in just the right way. 

Of course it's in the Pantheon. Along with the other brilliant 1988 British vs. Americans comedy caper classic, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it practically created the Pantheon. (By the way, for theaters such as the Brattle in Cambridge, MA, A Fish Called Wanda and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels would be a fantastic double bill.)


Archie and Wendy Leach (John Cleese and Maria Aitken)
hear Otto (Kevin Kline) tell "terrible lies"




















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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Repo Man, 1984

Written and directed by Alex Cox 
Starring , and

This is the kind of movie that made me start this blog in the first place: it came out a while back; it has its flaws, but it's completely delightful in its own goofy way; it's not the kind of movie that most people think of when they think of a movie from its time; and yet it has its own special place in movie history. (Also, Mike Nesmith of the Monkees produced it, and the first entry here is Head.)

Yes, it's got a pretty flimsy plot. Yes, there is some not-top-shelf acting. Yes, it's decidedly low budget. Still, Tracey Walter's speech about time travel and space aliens is like nothing else (except, perhaps, Bill Murray's Dalai Lama speech from Caddyshack). Harry Dean Stanton's performance alone is worth the price of admission. The music completely captures something of that time. And the scene with the gift-wrapped money on the highway has a certain something that is both completely, frustratingly entertaining, and also exactly exemplifies what is such a pleasure about this movie. Also, the generic everything.

"Couldn't enjoy it any more, Mom. This is swell."



















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Friday, May 22, 2015

The Public Enemy, 1931

Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, and Harvey F. Thew
Starring ,

Not just the movie that made Cagney, but a gangster classic. It's a little stagey, which isn't surprising given its vintage, but it takes a little getting used to. The framing has a disingenuous feel to it ("For your own good, you need to see these bad people doing bad things."), but maybe that let them be a little less sentimental (but it has a dose of that already). It looks great, most of the performances are right on. Plus, when you next see the image of the grapefruit, it won't just look iconic -- you'll see what a jerk Cagney's character is being.

Just a little malevolent.




















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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin
Starring the same

This is a movie that I cannot think of without smiling. From the first of bit of overly serious music under the Swedish-themed credits to the intentionally and unbelievably successfully irritating ending, it is relentless. This is the kind of movie for which it is hard to pick only a few things to praise. Given that, here are more than a few:
  • Guido Le Whopper and "I told him we've already got one"
  • Sir Robin's minstrels' song about what he does not fear
  • "Huge tracts of land" and "What, the curtains?"
  • "That's easy!"
  • "You're foolin' yourself. We're living in a dictatorship."

and of course the utter absurdity and aggressive iconoclasm of King Arthur repeatedly crying "Jesus Christ!" in moments of panic.

Yes, we've all heard "I'm not dead yet," "Tis but a scratch," "She turned me into a newt," "Ni!," and "The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow" over and over, but they're still really funny.

Of course it's in The Pantheon. And there's also this.

Oh, those credits.


















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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and

I saved this for last in my Kubrick retrospective. It was not an entirely satisfying conclusion. I'll just assume that anyone reading this has already seen the movie, or at least knows its story, so be prepared for spoilers.

The part of this movie about the Jupiter mission (culminating with Dave shutting down Hal's higher functions) is a fantastic short science fiction film. I thought that everything with Dave, Hal, and Frank is great. The section on the moon, just before that, is also quite compelling, though it builds to something that was ultimately, for me, unanswered and unsatisfying. The opening section, at the "Dawn of Man," makes for an interesting faux documentary, but I can't say much about it as a piece of narrative film, except that Kubrick presented what I think is a one-dimensional and rather stark view of aboriginal human nature; to me, that seems limited. I found the ending incomprehensible. Unfortunately, that it makes hard to piece the whole film together.

I could say that, like the dark, blank screen at the beginning and end of a film, Kubrick's obelisk throws us back upon ourselves. It is our task to piece together the meaning of humanity and our own lives from our inception to our ultimate destination, and the obelisk represents that demand, which is different from, but related to, the void of space. This is the purpose of the obelisk, and it is also the purpose of film, and all art. Yes, I could say that, and it might even be true. As I consider it, there may be something to it. I just wish his point of view were more explicit and less oblique. I'm not looking for cowboys in white hats killing cowboys in black hats, but something that had a little more in common with Paths of Glory or even Barry Lyndon or The Killing would be more approachable.


Who would have thought that a light could be so frightening?
















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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Clockwork Orange, 1971

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Anthony Burgess
Starring Malcolm McDowell


I watched this again as part of my Kubrick retrospective, and it's been one of the hardest to sit through -- and not always for the intended reasons. The violence is so sadistic that it's almost unbearable. I actually stopped watching it during the "Singin' in the Rain" scene, and then made myself get through that so that because I knew that the worst was almost over. Another difficult thing about this movie is that parts of it are intended as comedy. For example, the principal guard in the prison, played by Michael Bates, is a character who exists often for comic purposes, but there's something incongruous and forced about having this kind of a caricature in the midst of such scathing commentary.

At the same time, the social commentary is astonishing. As a small example, in the scene where we see the demonstration of how Alex has been allegedly cured, the applause for the actor and model who demonstrate the cure -- and their bowing to take credit -- are chillingly perfect.

From another perspective, Malcolm McDowell's Alex is a kind of modern, unrepentant Richard III. Kubrick wants us to share in his delights and miseries with great sympathy, and that's perhaps the most successful and intentionally disturbing aspect of this movie. Like Richard III, we're fascinated and drawn in by the protagonist, but his immoral nature never fades from view. Alex is smart, charismatic, and occasionally sympathetic (primarily when he is the evident victim of his so-called treatment), but, in the end, I found a gap that Shakespeare manages to bridge with Richard or Iago. It's not that Shakespeare makes us like these monsters, but Shakespeare is psychologically revelatory in a way that Kubrick is not. It makes me want to see Malcolm McDowell play one of those parts; if he could bring to it what he brought to this, under the direction of someone such as David Cromer, it would be phenomenal.

In the end, I found this movie somewhat unsatisfying -- or perhaps I could say I had qualms about it. While it is -- as usual -- visually spectacular, I have doubts about the end it's serving. Similarly, for what it intends, the music (primarily by Wendy Carlos) is perfect; and, again, I'm have concerns about what's intended.


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Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Shining, 1980

Directed by
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson 
Starring , , and

This movie is amazingly well put together, though that doesn't necessarily mean it's pleasant. As someone who is not a big horror movie fan, I really only wanted to see this (again) because it's Kubrick. That being said, it's pretty astonishing to watch. From literally the first short, it has a disorienting effect and disturbing effect. Kubrick's kind of going wild with the shots -- not that he doesn't always -- but those famous tracking shots following Danny (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall's son) as he rides his speedy little tricycle around the hall are famous for a reason.

As for the acting, there is a reason why this is one of Jack Nicholson's iconic roles. First, he does all those things that have almost become caricatures of him, except this is one of the movies where he set the pattern, not where it became a gag; take a look at his "It's okay. He saw it on the television." moment for an example. There's also a moment when the camera simply holds on him staring off into space, and it's completely chilling. While we often think of him as a celebrity or an image, the man can act.(Shelley Duvall is good, though I was wondering what it's like to have your role primarily to be terrified and scream a lot -- it's not as much as Fay Wray in King Kong, but it's a lot.)

Also, I don't usually go for listicles, but I enjoyed this one. I was reassured to know that Danny Lloyd (the boy playing Danny) didn't know that he was in a horror movie. Also, there a pointer to The Timberline Lodge in Oregon, which Kubrick used for some shots of the hotel itself; for establishing shots (such as the disorienting one that opens the movie), he used Glacier National Park in Montana.

There's something so Kubrick about having
the incongruous dropped ceiling in that scene.































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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bringing Up Baby, 1938

Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde
Starring and


This is such a fun movie. It's really loopy -- it's starts silly, and stays silly all the way to the end.

Hawks is clearly having a ball, Katherine Hepburn gets to break all the rules about her persona, and Cary Grant -- who I think is underrated as a physical comedian -- gets to do all kinds of schtick. Basically every character in the movie is out there, which adds to the fun.

There's also a reference to The Awful Truth: when Katherine Hepburn is explaining that they're in the Leopard Gang, she says that Cary Grant's nickname in the gang is "Jerry the Nipper"; he exclaims that this is from a motion picture that she saw. And it's The Awful Truth, in which Irene Dunne claims that Cary Grant's nickname is Jerry the Nipper. (I've never heard a quote about this, but I am sure that Hawks loved The Awful Truth, both from this reference and from his casting of Ralph Bellamy as the odd man out in His Girl Friday.)

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Jerry the Nipper and Swinging Door Susie












 

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The Killer's Kiss, 1955

Directed by
Written by
Starring  , , and

(Part of the ongoing Kubrick series)

This is Kubrick's second picture, and it's definitely an improvement on the first, Fear and Desire, but it's still what one would call "an early work." It's a decent story and one can see how he could go from this to The Killing. There are a few things that make this movie stand out.

First, the fight at the end is great: it has the feeling of a real fight, not a Hollywood fight. It's set in a mannequin warehouse, which makes for both some incredible images and also for a wild card quality to the fight. There's a sense that, not only could it go either way, but that anything could happen.

Second, the boxing match is also quite something; on the one hand, it looks like so many boxing matches in so many movies, but I think it's because Kubrick created that form in this movie (and I'll bet Scorsese used this match as the basis for so many of the pieces in Raging Bull). Third, as you'd expect, it looks great -- and in the way that a young director, working on the cheap, has figured out -- not with everything that he could bring to bear for Barry Lyndon or 2001.

A couple of interesting side notes: 

According to the Wikipedia entry, United Artists forced Kubrick to recut the movie with a happy ending. This isn't surprising to me -- as, frankly, I was surprised that the movie had the happy ending that it did.

Even though these are the first shots of New York in one of his features, this New York and the New York of Eyes Wide Shut (which, apparently, was mostly a reconstruction on a Pinewood studios set) have a similar feeling to them. Plus ├ža change...


One of the many amazing shots
in the mannequin warehouse










 

 

 

 

 

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tropic Thunder, 2008

Directed by
Written by Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen

Starring , , and

This movie is so over the top that, even after having seen it quite a few times, I find myself flabbergasted at the places to which it is willing to go -- and I mean that as a compliment. It is assuredly offensive in quite a few ways, but its willingness to, as they say, "go there" is quite something.  

The acting is actually quite good, though it's easy not to notice that because it's such broad comedy. It's easy to miss that because of Robert Downey, Jr.'s and Tom Cruise's performances (and I've known a number of people who didn't realize it was Tom Cruise for part or all of the movie). 

Particularly for anyone who has an interest in movie "culture," theater, actors, or other such topics, there is a steady stream of ridiculous moments and lines. My personal favorite is "I don't read the script -- the script reads me."

Also, the youngest member of the The Pantheon.



Don't miss the begninng --
it features Tobey Maguire in his brief, hilarious cameo


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Killing, 1956

Directed by
Written by and Jim Thompson
Starring , , and

(The second in a series of posts on Stanley Kubrick's movies.)

This is Kubrick's third feature, and it's a great watch. It's clearly indebted to The Asphalt Jungle, and is also its own picture. Sterling Hayden shines in this movie, and it's easy to understand why Kubrick would later cast him so memorably in Dr. Strangelove. Elisha Cook, Jr. stands out in a fine cast, with the doomed sense of his marriage (with as his wife) driving much of the story. 

As for the narrative, it's not linear, which is particularly striking in a film from the '50's. While The Killer's Kiss and Fear and Desire (his first two features) both have some stunning moments, this is the first movie where there's the feeling of watching something special. 

Surely the most iconic image in the whole picture


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Barry Lyndon, 1975

Directed by
Written by (from the Thackeray novel)
Starring  and

This is the first in a series of posts about Stanley Kubrick's movies, as I've been conducting an informal retrospective of his works over the past number of months. I'm writing about this movie first, because it has made the strongest impression on me so far, along with The Killing. I'm not finished yet, so we'll see what else strikes me.

Simply put, I was floored by this movie.While the acting is fine, but not stunning, everything else is outrageously good. And to say that the acting is not as good as everything else is paramount to saying that it was the worst part of one of the best movies I've ever seen, so it was still far better than the acting in most movies. I don't think of Ryan O'Neal or Marisa Berenson as fantastic actors, but they do very good work. Kubrick holds the camera on them -- and everyone else -- for extended shots, so that we can see every flicker of an emotion that passes across their faces for a long time. They're able to sustain their presence through those extended periods.

And that brings us to the cinematography. This is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. Kubrick used NASA lenses so that he could shoot in natural light and create a naturalistic eighteenth century feeling -- and the results are amazing.

Because of the clarity and beauty of the shots, Kubrick is able to sustain the static or languid camera use. When he shows us a field in summer, we can practically feel the moisture in the air. It's really stunning.

The story, while not original and somewhat episodic, is captivating. Barry is not sympathetic, but he is fascinating. The narration and title cards make clear where the story is going, so there is a sense of fatalism that pervades the story. In that sense, this almost feels as it were a cautionary tale, but Kubrick never says that and is never heavy-handed about it.

The music is also phenomenal.

Reverend Runt,
one of the most authentic-lookning characters,
in one of the many perfect shots


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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