Thursday, March 24, 2011

List to the Right

Schindler's List: I'd like to propose that this film be read in terms of the socio-political context of the early 1990s. Namely, what we have is a text arguing that 1) death and survival/salvation and damnation are arbitrary and random; 2) that the person who can do the most to fight oppression and injustice is not the state, not the party, not the church [repeat ad nauseum through all the traditional institutions], but the individual, and 3) that this fighting of oppression can, indeed should, be fought through capitalist activity. And as such, it's part of a philisophical continuum with privatisation, deregulation, "trade not aid," and the idea that social activism need not cause one to sacrifice one's material comforts (indeed, that one might even turn a profit doing so-- and it's only at the very end of the film that Schindler ceases turning a profit and starts going bankrupt in the name of saving Jews). Not saying it's a bad film-- quite the contrary, it's well shot and the performances are superb, though it could definitely have done without the cloying "I could have done more!" speech at the end-- but that maybe it needs to be seen not as having a universal message, but as a film made at a time when the old institutions were failing, capitalism was on the ascendant, and people were looking for a philosophy.

Movie count for 2011: 43

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I said, I think I remember the film, and as I recall I think we both kind of liked it

Superman III: Better than I and IV, though frankly that's not saying much as both are beaten in quality and believability by Hollyoaks. I liked the idea of the villains being a big businessman and a computer programmer, and also found it refreshing that a) Richard Pryor's villain isn't so much a bad guy as a man driven to crime through recession conditions, and b) the character articulating the idea that lower taxes and reduced pension funds are a good idea is a bad guy. However, the film really failed to gel: the main storylines didn't have much to do with each other, and Pryor's character arc kind of got lost (it looked like they were taking him along the lines of good guy--> temptation --> bad guy --> series of epiphanies where he realises what he's doing is wrong --> good guy again, but that fizzled out round about the start of the epiphany cycle), there were several completely pointless set pieces (though I did find the Tati-esque one at the start, where Metropolis seems to be full of strange little catastrophes, quite sweet), and the fantasy-science entered the Kingdom of the Nuclear Fridge far too rapidly.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Blake Edwards on peak form, viewing like a charming and non-nihilistic version of Cabaret ("sensitive" failed writer falls in love with a charismatic but dodgy crypto-prostitute with a strange past, and through her finds himself and his creative voice). Features the best cat actor I've ever seen (and that includes the creepy Siamese in UFO). The only false note is struck by the comedy "Japanese" neighbour played by Mickey Rooney in appalling yellowface-- remember, this film was made two years after The Crimson Kimono-- for which there is no excuse at all, but steel yourself to get through those scenes and there's a lot to love.

Citizen Kane: Brilliant, magical, simultaneously realistic and surreal, thoroughly exploring Kane's character while still leaving him a mysterious figure at the end. To review it properly would take an academic career, not a capsule review, so I'll just leave it at this.

Movie count for 2011: 42 (title explanation for those who didn't get the reference here)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Two movies about cute blonde children

Poltergeist: The best horror movies are always the ones which aren't really, actually about the horror, but use it as a gateway to explore something else. Hellraiser is about marital infidelity. Hallowe'en is about teenage sex. The Wicker Man is about religious faith and temptation. The problem I had with Poltergeist is that it doesn't seem to be about anything. The spirits invade the house through the television-- is is about fear of the media? Nothing else suggests that. The victims are a Reaganite suburban family-- is it a satire on middle-class American hypocrisy? Apart from the fact that the family keep the disappearance of the youngest child hushed up, apparently not. The catalyst for action is an adorable child-- is it about paedophilia or child abuse? Seems not. There's a suggestion at one point that the mother of the family got pregnant at 16 (the eldest child is 16, the mother is 32), which perked me up thinking that the twist would be that the channel for the spirits was the teenage daughter, fraught with issues about the nature of her conception and her jealousy of her adorable younger siblings, but no, the teenager might as well not be in the movie for all the writers keep shunting her off to a friend's house. Even why this particular suburban family gets the treatment is unexplored (surely the entire subdivision was built on the abandoned graveyard, so why just them? If it's because the father of the family was the estate agent who sold the houses, how are the ghosts supposed to know that, particularly as he did so not knowing about the graveyard?). To top it off, I couldn't manage to care enough about anybody in the story to worry overly if the ghosts got them. Also contains the most product placement per minute of any film I've ever seen, particularly for Star Wars toys. I honestly can't understand why this movie was/is so popular. And remember, this is the producer who made Munich, Empire of the Sun and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Metropolis (2001): Not the Lang version, but a Japanese writer and director taking some of Lang's themes, ideas and imagery and running with them, and the result is a lot better than you might think. It's a story of startling visual and political complexity (particularly the portrayal of the two counter-cultural groups, the crypto-Maoist rebels and the crypto-fascist "Mardukes," and of the coup d'etat promulgated by the aristocrat Duke Red), and its main flaw is that it's kind of difficult to figure out precisely what the Ziggurat, the Tower of Babel-like creation in which Duke Red is investing so much of his time and energy, is supposed to do, which makes some of the characters' motivations equally cryptic. It's a good movie, but be prepared to invest a certain amount of time in trying to figure it all out.

Movie count for 2011: 39

Thursday, March 03, 2011


The Lion in Winter: A film about the internal politics of the English/Northern French Royal Family in the 12th century might sound like one for the specialists, but this is amazing stuff, taking history as a loose basis for a psychodrama about a powerful family whose members are all plotting and counter-plotting against each other with schemes of amazing complexity. That Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn are brilliant as frenemies/lovers Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane goes without saying, but watch out for Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry and Timothy Dalton in roles which are completely and totally different from the sort of thing they're respectively famous for.

Movie count for 2011: 37

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Man and Superman

Viva Zapata: There's a good message to this film, namely, that people, especially people in revolt, are better off without leaders, as Emilio Zapata discovers that, firstly, the cult of personality revolving around him does more harm than good, and, second, that when he achieves power, it corrupts him as much as it does anyone else. Unfortunately the message is buried under far too much leaden dialogue, plus some appallingly Orientalist stereotypes of Mexicans (particularly Mexican women). Marlon Brando shambles through the story as the title character, looking embarrassed by his costume and blackface and mumbling all his lines.

Sleeper: Witty and savage satire, ostensibly about a 1970s man who wakes up 200 years later to find himself in a strange future society, but actually a polemic against contemporary bourgeois American attitudes-- selfish people lulled into compliance by their gadgetry, silly intellectuals convinced that they're changing the world by writing poetry but being terrified by the thought of actual subversion, "revolutionaries" who are no different to the rulers they propose to replace. It's just gotten worse in the past 40 years. Co-stars some very beautiful modernist architecture, and Diane Keaton.

Superman: I wasn't expecting much, but this actually surprised me by how appallingly bad it was. Inconsistent in terms of plot, characters and even what decade it's supposed to be (it couldn't seem to make up its mind whether it was the 1950s or the 1970s), establishing a group of antagonists at the start and then never actually using them, shameless abuse of CSO, equally shameless waste of a great cast... the list goes on. The only good things were, 1) occasional lovely directorial touches (mainly in the scenes of Superman's boyhood in Kansas, where the principal photographer just goes nuts over the wheatfields), and 2) the initial conceit of making Lois Lane a nasty, sadistic bitch, which seems to have been nicked from the Fleischer cartoons. Though unfortunately it all falls apart as the writers don't seem capable of reconciling her being a nasty bitch with her being Superman's main love interest (I know people say the appeal of The Godfather had more to do with the films than the book, but you'd think Mario Puzo could have managed a tiny bit of character complexity). Marlon Brando drifts through the story as Superman's father Jor-El, looking embarrassed by his white pompadour wig.

Movie count for 2011: 36