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The Vast of Night

This is a fairly low-budget sci-fi movie which as far as I know is available only on Amazon. Set in the late '50s in a small town in New Mexico, it's presented as an episode of a television show modeled on The Twilight Zone, complete with an introduction in Rod Serling's voice and prose style. I found it enchanting, so much so that I watched it a second time. It's basically a straightforward UFO story, in many ways typical: it could be an episode of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully, but it's done with such skill and atmosphere that it gives new life to what have become the conventions of UFO mythology.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Revisited

I really enjoyed it this time. (See this post from a week and a half ago for background.)

It's been over ten years since my first viewing of it. Wondering now about my mostly negative reaction then, I vaguely recall that we (my wife and I) were watching it at night and I was sleepy long before the end of its nearly three hours. Also, at the time we had an old CRT television, not especially big and of the old nearly square proportions. So the wide-screen picture, formatted for CinemaScope or whatever it was, was squeezed into a smallish rectangle in the middle of the screen. And the layout of the room was such that I was relatively far away. We finally made the switch to a flat-screen a few years ago, and although it isn't very large, my favored chair is very close to it. And I have a halfway decent sound bar setup  for the audio, and as we all know the score is an important part of this film.

So on this viewing I got something much, much closer to the visual experience of seeing it in a theater, and it did draw me in immediately in a way that it certainly did not before.

I still have some reservations--Tuco's almost comic villain laugh, for instance. And Eastwood's strong silent narrow-eyed menace is laid on too heavily. And I can certainly understand the revulsion of some contemporary critics at its violence. It's not really an improvement in our culture that we've now seen so much worse. It veers pretty close to nihilism, pulled back from that brink by the minimal but solid ethical code of Blondie ("the Good"). The treatment of the Civil War as a more or less meaningless struggle between more or less interchangeable forces is very much of its time, and of time since. I'm sure a great deal has been said by critics about the interplay of American Western and 20th century European sensibilities and culture in that vision. 

It's not among my favorite films, but I see its appeal and its strengths now. And I want to see the two Leone-Eastwood predecessors in the "Dollars" trilogy. 


I Think I'll Watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Again

No doubt avid readers of this blog will recall that eleven years ago I wrote about being disappointed in the Sergio Leone westerns ("I Have Failed to Become A Sergio Leone Fan"). The topic came up in the recent discussion about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and I started thinking I might give Leone another try. I didn't really expect that to happen anytime soon, though, as it was only available on DVD, my wife isn't interested in seeing it again, and our Netflix DVD list is very long.

So along comes this commentary on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Kyle Smith at National Review. (The review contains spoilers, by the way, though I guess that's not very important for a fifty-year-old work.) Besides being interesting, it mentions that the movie is now available for streaming on Netflix. So more or less out of curiosity, I watched the first few minutes of it last night, and was very much drawn in. I will report when I've finished it.

I must say that the very and justifiably famous opening title music is almost ruined for me by the silly-sounding "wah WAH wah," which sounds like a comedian imitating a trombone. I'm sure there are recordings of it that use some instrument there instead. 

Kyle Smith, by the way, is a critic whom I consider interesting and worth reading but not entirely trustworthy. That's because he disrespected Bergman a while back. 


Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

This is not the sort of movie that I usually go out of my way to see. As far as I can remember I don't think I've ever seen an entire Quentin Tarentino film, just parts of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, more of the former than the latter. Nothing that I've read about his work has made me think I'd like it, though I did find much of what I did see of Pulp Fiction enjoyable. What made me seek this one out was a review which said it was a great picture of Los Angeles in the late '60s.

Not that I was anywhere near Los Angeles in the late '60s. But I certainly have a weak spot for pictures of that period, and by "pictures" I mean pictures--photographs and films taken at the time. So I thought I might enjoy this movie for that reason if no other. I've been much preoccupied lately with the way the passing of people who have lived in a particular time and place means that it is truly lost to memory, and I find myself enjoying those memories. Yes, it's nostalgia, but there's also an irrational sense that by refreshing and expanding my own memories I'm somehow keeping that world real and alive.

Anyway: there are two things to note about the title of this movie. First, the allusion to the Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon A Time in the West. The protagonist, or one of them, of the Tarentino film is an aging Hollywood star who's being offered a chance to revive his career by acting in spaghetti Westerns. Second, "once upon a time" is, as everyone over a certain age knows (I fear the young do not), the way to begin a fairy tale, and this is in a sense a fairy tale.

The aging star, Rick Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, are buddies, though the relationship is also master-and-servant to some degree. They are old-time movie and TV people, most well-known for a TV series called Bounty Law. But the series has been cancelled for some years, and Dalton is more or less a has-been. 

He's still rich, though. It's 1969 and he lives on Cielo Drive. If that rings a bell, it's because it was the street on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived when the latter and several others were murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to them, and yes, that is vitally important to the plot. 

I was a little hesitant about seeing this movie, knowing that it involved the Manson murders, which have always been especially disturbing to me because of their association with the counter-culture and its favored drugs, and knowing Tarentino's reputation for depicting violence. And without giving away too much I will say that there are some five to ten minutes of pretty graphic violence, but will also direct your attention again to the title. By far most of the film's 2 hours and 40 minutes are spent on the doings of Dalton and Booth, the trials of the former trying to revive his career and the latter simply trying to get a job and to do what he can as a friend to Rick--and, importantly, to George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, which is home to the Manson family.

A good bit of time is spent on the two of them, or some other combination of people, driving around Los Angeles in Dalton's Cadillac while the radio plays various well-known and not-so-well-known songs from the time. (I would be surprised to learn that Buffy Saint-Marie's version of "The Circle Game" was on AM radio. Not in Alabama it wasn't. According to Wikipedia, it reached #109 on the Billboard charts, so maybe it got played a bit in California.)

Booth pays a memorable visit to the Manson family. And Sharon Tate goes to the movies. I think that scene is what I'm going to remember most about this movie. On a shopping errand she passes a theater which is showing a junk movie in which she appears (The Wrecking Crew: Dean Martin as Matt Helm, secret agent). Delighted to see her name and picture on the advertisements, she coaxes the theater staff into giving her free admission (as though she could not afford it), and watches the movie with effervescent childlike delight, like a little girl thrilled at seeing herself in a home movie. It's a sweet, silly, poignant moment, and I hope Sharon Tate really was something like that. 

I gather that a typical culture wars sort of argument has taken place over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Dalton and Booth are the good guys here, and they're also pretty reactionary, griping about the damn hippies. Some liberals took offense at this, some conservatives applauded it. I didn't really see it that way. I mean, it's there, but for one thing, the Manson family surely was as creepy, frightening, and disgusting as they are portrayed here. And for another, Dalton and Booth certainly look good and admirable in comparison to homicidal maniacs, but they are drunken hedonists, not exactly Knights of the West riding against the Dark Lord. 

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. I've been trying to get to it for a couple of days and may not have another chance for another couple of days. Final word: I greatly enjoyed this film; it did not seem too long at all (which I rather expected it would); I want to see it again.


3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.


The Rise of Skywalker

I probably wouldn't have gone to see it if I didn't have grandchildren who are very interested in it. I'm interested, too, but not all that interested; I would have waited till I could see it on Netflix or Amazon.

I haven't read many reviews, but I have the impression that most reaction, at least from people who care enough to review it or discuss it on the internet, has been on the negative side. And if you read the commentary of a true fan, you'll find all sorts of details and disputes about whether this or that aspect of it was good or bad. There seems to be a lot of discussion about whether this last trilogy is coherent, as the second film in it was directed by a different person from the one who did the first and last. And there's a lot of discussion about whether this trilogy completes or defaces the original.

(If you are not familiar with Star Wars: the main storyline is covered in three trilogies, episodes 1 through 9, which tell a story in chronological order. Discussion of these is sometimes confusing because that is not the order in which they were released, which was in sets of three: 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3; 7, 8, 9. Complicating the discussion are a few movies and other "product" which are not directly part of that main story.) 

I don't really care very much about all that. The Star Wars movies are not great art. I don't think they will be regarded as such a hundred years from now. And the critics who complained about all the plot devices that have been recycled from the first trilogy are right. This is at least the third time that the resolution has hinged on a desperate mission (apart from the furnishings, a reprise of World War II air combat dramas) to stop the Most Evilest People Ever from using the Most Ultimatest Weapon Ever to rule the galaxy. (If I had been one of the writers, I would have tried to sneak a muttered "Yeah, that's what you said last time" into one of those conversations.)

So are those who complain about plausibility. That's a bit like complaining about Jack and the Beanstalk because as far as we know there are no magic beans. Still, as the characters in Rise of Skywalker talked of "making the jump to lightspeed," I kept wondering if any of the writers knew what a light-year is and how many of them separate the stars from each other. If I understood the opening, most or all of the action of this movie is supposed to take place in sixteen hours. 

And the space combat sequences are tiresome. And so are the light-saber duels. And after eight movies in which the storm troopers' armor protects them from nothing, and they are able to hit nothing with their blasters, there's no reason to change now. And I really don't care about the race-'n'-gender tallying that popular art today is obliged to acknowledge.

All that said, I enjoyed it, I was even touched by it, and will probably see it again. Part of the reason for that is nostalgia. Here's what I said a few years ago, after seeing Rogue One (which is not one of the nine, but fills in the narrative immediately preceding Episode 4, i.e. the original movie):

Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.

The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all. 

And part of it is what is suggested by that last sentence: beneath all the often-silly trappings, there are profound truths at the heart of the whole saga: the power of love, renunciation, and sacrifice; the potent but self-destructive lure of hatred; the understanding that one must not do evil in the service of good. Those are the things that touched me in the movie, and if there are logical and narrative holes in the way these are worked out, I was not bothered by them. Maybe that's one advantage of not being a true fan. 

Related: also because of the grandchildren I've watched several episodes of a Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian. So far it's entertaining, but I wouldn't say much more. It was mentioned in the comments here a week or two ago, and I noted that the Mandalorian is essentially the Eastwood character from a spaghetti Western, even to the point of having Eastwood's voice. It seems I'm not the only one to notice this:

 


Antonioni's Trilogy

I mentioned the other day that I haven't really used my Criterion Channel subscription very much. I'm thinking of dropping it. But I did recently make use of it to watch Antonioni's three early '60s films that are considered a trilogy: L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse (The Adventure, The Night, The Eclipse).

I last saw them in 2007...hard to believe it's been twelve years ago. I was not as impressed as I hoped to be. I only know the year because I wrote about L'Avventura (here) and L'Eclisse (here). Of the first I said:

According to the critical commentary on the DVD, the title refers to the adventure of self-discovery, or something. Whatever. If you want to call it a nearly plotless portrait of some unappealing rich people, with unavoidable implications about The Emptiness of Modern Life and The Difficulty of Really Communicating With Another Person, that’s ok with me. It’s beautiful and evocative. The camera can’t stay away from Monica Vitti’s strikingly soulful face, and the contrast between what one sees there and the lives these people lead is unforgettable, even if I’m unconvinced that the philosophical depth claimed for the film is really there.

I'm a little sorry to say that my opinion hasn't changed very much. I did enjoy them, at least those two--La Notte is definitely my least favorite of the bunch. I remain unconvinced that they are as profound as many critics say. I don't think they compare with Bergman, for instance. When the dust settles, what I like most about them is certain purely visual moments. But I like those a lot.

To be fair, there may be something being said without words or actions that I just didn't get, not being very visually astute or even observant. I watched one relatively brief critical commentary, also on Criterion Channel, and the critic (whose name I didn't recognize and don't remember) "read" the opening scene of L'Eclisse as a series of visual statements. It seemed entirely plausible and added a good deal of subtle information to the portrait of the two people depicted.

I didn't go back and read those two blog posts until after I'd seen all three this time around. Back then I had said this about L'Eclisse:

The section from the moment Vittoria walks out of the building until the end of the film might be the most haunting ten minutes or so of cinema I've ever experienced. Late last night, about to put the disk into its envelope for return to Netflix, I wanted to see it one last time and ended up watching it three times in a row. I think I could have sat there for an hour or more watching those ten minutes over and over again.

It's just a series of shots of mostly empty urban spaces moving from daylight to darkness. There's no way I could describe it in any way that would communicate the effect, and I can't even expect that anyone else would have this reaction. 

I didn't remember that I'd said that, so I smiled when I read it, because this time I had very much the same reaction to that last ten minutes, except that this time I only watched it twice.

Leclisse-21


Un-movies, Un-music

I partly agree with what Martin Scorsese says in this NYT piece. In case the link doesn't work, here are a couple of excerpts:

I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.

The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Most movies have always been junk; after all, the movie industry is an industry. I don't agree that there's any kind of a definite line between "entertainment" and "cinema." Or for that matter between "entertainment" and art of any kind. 

But the comic-book movies do seem to be something different from others. Not drama, not comedy, not horror, not thriller. Not even action, in a sense, because the action is un-human; a sub-genre of their own, really. I've seen a couple of them, and they are entertaining. But the elevation of spectacle over everything else really does make them closer to theme parks than to memorable art. The endless tie-ins to actual theme parks and all sorts of merchandise reinforce that. 

Come to that, I've never bought into the whole idea that comics of the Marvel-DC sort are some sort of profound pop-mythological art to which we should pay serious attention. Even as a child and a young teenager, I didn't have a huge interest in them. I read and enjoyed them when they came my way, usually at a friend's house, but I don't recall ever putting my very limited spending money into the purchase of one. 

This started me thinking about a similar phenomenon, a similar sort of disjuncture, but to me a more striking and decisive one. I don't hear much of today's popular music that is actually popular, but when I do it often strikes me as not being music at all. I don't mean that it's noise; I sort of like noise. I have not just a tolerance but a liking for an adept infusion of noise into music.I like Sonic Youth. I like Low's Double Negative album. I like Fennesz.

I mean that it seems like some sort of artificial quasi-music. When I hear it, my brain doesn't register it as "music" to be liked or disliked, but only as an aural phenomenon, and a very irritating one. It's the musical equivalent of Cheez-Whiz, which is described on the package label as a "processed cheese food product" or something like that. 

Example: the other day I saw a link to a new song "dropped" by the trio of Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lana del Rey. Just out of curiosity, I played the YouTube video. I didn't get more than about 45 seconds into it. As something in the background in a public place, I guess I could have ignored it. Listened to attentively, I found it almost literally unbearable. I dislike absolutely everything about it. I especially dislike the singing style that's fashionable among a lot of these young women singers. And the pugnacious bragging lyrics, also fashionable. The typical music video sleaze is pretty much to be expected. Listen for yourself, if you like. I tried it again and this time didn't bail out till 1:45. 

It's ok if you scoff at my complaint as those of an old boomer who can't handle the kids these days. It doesn't actually have much to do with age. It has to do with whether Cheez-Whiz should be considered cheese or not.

I considered including a video by a young woman artist whom I actually like, though sometimes against my better judgment, but it's a little disturbing. Look for Myrkur on YouTube if you like (or on Spotify or whatever), but be warned that she's...challenging...in a way that these girls are not.


The Innocents

I finally watched this 1961 movie, reputed to be the best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and also a pretty dang good movie on its own terms. I agree with both opinions. It is really very good. To my mind it's an unusual sort of success: the filmmakers took a very good book (ok, novella, whatever), made a film based on it which simultaneously took a lot of liberties and remained faithful, and produced something that is as good a film as the book is a book. 

Well, almost. I don't know how hard I'd defend that last statement. I mean, maybe it's not quite up there with the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema. But then the same could be said of the book in its category. If it were all we had of Henry James, he would not be considered a major writer of fiction. Anyway, it's an exception to what seems the usual patterns: good book to bad or inadequate movie; bad or mediocre book to good movie; good book to good but not very faithful movie. And of course bad book to bad movie is a perennial. But none of that is as true as it once was; movie-making has improved in a lot of ways since 1970 or so. 

The Innocents is actually based directly not on the novel itself but on a play by the same name, adapted from the novella by William Archibald, who, along with Truman Capote, is credited as screenwriter. The play seems to be Archibald's only other claim to fame. It would be interesting to compare the movie to the play, to get an idea of how much Capote contributed. I had forgotten till this moment that I read Other Voices, Other Rooms many years ago, and the scraps of memory that have returned make me think it would be worth revisiting. 

You can find the trailer on YouTube, but it's sort of trashy, so I don't think I'll post it. I notice several comments to the same effect. 

So, for the moment, ends my fascination with The Turn of the Screw (see this and this). I'm tempted to read it again but other authors, other books have claims on me. I still count myself in the "apparitionist" camp as regards the reality of what the governess sees, but, as I mentioned in the second of those posts, I grant that the arguments for the opposing view. I'm inclined to stay with my original view: that the ambiguity arises from the fact that Henry James wrote a Henry James ghost story, arguably subtle to a fault. Apparently he never said anything to indicate that the apparitions were not real, but of course that doesn't prove anything. 

*

While I'm at it: I also watched the Breaking Bad sequel, El Camino. I saw a review somewhere that described it as "inessential," which I guess is true, but that's ok, it's a very good story, as well-done as you would expect, considering that it was made by the same people who did the series. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who likes the series.

Also: I recently watched the fourth series of the British mystery show Shetland. And maybe it's just me, but I thought it was a cut above its previous series as well as most similar dramas, close to Broadchurch territory. You need to have seen at least the preceding series, though, to fully get some of the things that are going on.