Sunday, January 25, 2009

Film Ignorance #23: The Birds

Film: The Birds
Rating: Meh.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Looked Stupid

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Disclaimer: I'm one of those weird people who thinks Hitchcock was a good director but nothing special.

The Birds is essentially a Romero zombie picture in which the zombies have been replaced by marauding birds, the social commentary has been jettisoned in favor of a traditional love at first sight romance, and the lowbrow aesthetic has been replaced by the glossy sheen of Hollywood's most polished director.

If that sounds good to you, enjoy it. I wasn't particularly interested.

Everyone knows that Hitchcock loves to torture blond women, and boy does he torture Tippi Hedren in this picture. Maybe it's fair though; when his previous fetish object, Grace Kelly, left Hollywood to get married, he was without a stunningly gorgeous blond woman to cinematically torture. Then he saw a commercial with Tippi Hedren in it. So yeah, Tippi had an entire week of having angry birds flung at her for a single scene, but she also went from model to model/actor in the twinkle of the ole H-cock's eye (not that it helped her much. In the 25 movies she made after The Birds, 18 of them are rated 2 stars or less by allmovie. But at least she got work...).

I don't have much more to say about this movie. As for all Hitchcock movies of this period, it looks fantastic - he was always better shooting in color than black and white. Some of the special effects are chilling; some of them are laughable. The same can be said for various sequences in the film: many are quite well put together; another involves a gasoline spill, followed by a certain event that any four year old or person who's seen Zoolander could predict (why did he light that damn cigar?).

All in all, this was a kind of ok movie. But killer birds? That's just stupid.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Film Ignorance #22: L'Avventura

Film: L'Avventura
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Michaelangelo Antonioni
Stars: Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari, Monica Vitt
Year: 1960
Reason for Ignorance: Didn't Like Blow-Up

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
“Why, why, why?

When Antonioni passed away, I was confronted with the fact that I'd never seen any of his films, so I watched the one I had heard the most about: Blow-Up. But Blow-Up sucks. It's a crappy movie (pretentious, draggy, pointless) which, like Ben-Hur or The Red Shoes, is built around an amazing sequence, in this case a photographer enlarging a seemingly innocent picture he took and discovering a potential murder plot. Needless to say, after feeling so contemptuous of Blow-Up, I didn't seek out anymore Antonioni.

But L'Avventura is an excellent film, maybe even the masterpiece it's cracked up to be. What's more, even though it's a 2.5 hour long plotless foreign art house film with aspirations of profundity, I actually enjoyed the experience. It's the story of Sandro and Claudia, who, along with Sandro's moody and unpredictable girlfriend Anna (who is Claudia's best friend) and a bunch of decadent elites, go for a summer boat trip. The group stops at one of a series of barren islands, Anna goes off on her own...and disappears. No one knows if its a prank, suicide, a kidnapping; she's just gone.

Film theorist David Bordwell argues that, although art cinema shares with Hollywood cinema an interest in "psychological causation," "the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals." It's no surprise that L'Avventura is one of his examples. We don't know why Anna was so rude on the trip, why she seemed dissatisfied with Sandro, and why she ran away (as everyone suspects her of doing). We don't know why Sandro looks so hard for her, why Claudio and Sandro are so attracted to each other during their search, or why they feel so guilty about their attraction to one another, in the face of Anna's probable actions. We're wandering in a field of questions without answers, and can do more than follow along with the characters, observing their thoughts and feelings, unable to comprehend them, and unable to stop trying to comprehend.

And what a field it is we're wandering through! I said I enjoyed this movie - it's because of the gorgeous black-and-white photography. The first hour transforms the sea and its rocky islands into haunting and mysterious locations; they're so crisply barren that I myself wanted to jump off a cliff. And the rest of the movie is devoted to architecture; Claudia and Sandro (a failed architect) travel from small town to small town, and Antonioni manages to make the ancient architecture they find in small-town Italy seem even more desolate and lacking in humanity than uninhabited islands. The landscapes are what make this film, and what shape its characters; the bleakness of the settings are the closest thing we get to an answer to all the "whys?" we're asking. That, of course, and the total vacuousness of the society that Sandro and Anna traveled in: a preening, image-conscious, and self-obsessed collection of artistes and elites.

Through this wasteland of people and places, Sandro and Claudia try to find something worthwhile to hold on to. They eventually seek that worthwhile thing in each other. Although I've seen the entire film, I still don't know if they succeed.

Now that's art house.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film Ignorance #21: Tom Jones

Film: Tom Jones
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
“We are all as God made us and many of us much worse.

I would love to say that Tom Jones is a charming little movie. And it is certainly charming. But its 2 hr+ runtime, its unprecedented (for a British film) production budget, its status as an important literary adaptation, and its sweeping social critique make it a big film. And if I did find it quite charming, I also found it to drag frequently.

The film, like the novel it was based on, is a picaresque, and as such is more than a little uneven. It follows the diverse adventures and sexual conquests of the foundling Tom Jones (Albert Finney) as he journeys from his country home to London. And many, many of these vignettes are very funny, starting with the first of them, which is a silent sequence, complete with title-cards, in which Squire Western (Griffith) finds a baby in his bed and decides to adopt him. As a grown man, Tom dallys with the gamekeeper's daughter and romances the neighboring squire's heiress, and eventually, through some complicated maneuvering by his evil stepbrother, is driven away from home.

This is the wrong Tom Jones

As I said before, the film is full of charming moments. 18th century novels were frequently metafictional, and this film carries on that tradition - the narrator, and Tom himself, frequently address the audience directly. One of Tom's ladyfriends has a large and obviously fake mole; it's no surprise that it ends up on different sides of her face in different scenes. And the film is also full of slapstick moments, sped-up, Chaplin style chase sequences, and tons of wordplay. And its finale, in which all of Tom's allies, enemies, and paramours are thrown together in London and reveal some (damn predictable) plot twists, wraps the film up in an appropriately cheery and cheeky manner.

But along the way, I was frequently bored. Sure Finney is great - this is by far the earliest Finney movie I've seen, and although I could never recognize the Finney of Miller's Crossing or The Bourne Ultimatum, his distinctive voice seems not to have changed over the years. But there are too many vignettes, too many encounters with the ladies, and too many plot elements swirling about. What Richardson should have done is cut the film's running time (which he did in its 1989 rerelease, which I was unable to acquire), further emphasize the meta-moments, and deliver a less weighty but considerably more fun experience. It probably wouldn't have won a whole slew of Academy Awards, but it sure would be easier to sit through.

(Note: if the ideal version Tom Jones that I sketched out appeals to you, Michael Winterbottom made it a couple of years ago. It's called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and it's roughly 10 times funnier than Tom Jones)

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Film Ignorance #20: The Red Shoes

Film: The Red Shoes
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Michael Powell (and Emil Pressburger)
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer
Year: 1948
Reason for Ignorance: Waited to watch it with the Mrs.

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Even though I rated this movie Yep, It's a Classic, The Red Shoes was a massive disappointment. It's considered by many to be the best film by The Archers, a mid-century team of Brits - director Michael Powell and writer Emil Pressburger - who are among the most acclaimed creators of all time. I'd seen only one Archers film, Black Narcissus, which was excellent, and a Powell solo film, Peeping Tom, which is like Psycho meets Rear Window, but better than either of those admittedly great films. (George Romero has said many times that another Archers film, The Tales of Hoffmann, is what inspired him to become a filmmaker.)

Which is why, by being merely a classic, The Red Shoes was disappointing. And that score is a composite, because the vast bulk of this picture is just a good movie - a standard midcentury melodrama about love and art. Two young people, Julian Craster and Victoria Page, unexpectedly gain employment with the world-renowned Lermontov Ballet company, Craster as a composer and Page as a dancer. Through a series of unexpected events, Craster becomes the composer for the new ballet, The Red Shoes, and Page is the star. Along the way, they fall in love, but eventually become involved in a tragic love triangle (the third element of the triangle being, of course, "Art").

I certainly want to lay the fault for this movie at the feet of Pressburger, the writer; the melodrama is so cliched, the characters so stereotypical, that the whole thing just seems by the numbers. But the acting is great - particularly Walbrook, as "heartless monster" Lermontov, and various supporting members of the ballet company. And Powell's direction is so good, his gorgeous Technicolor cinematography makes everything, from the outlandish costumes to Shearer's hair, glow like it's ablaze.

But that's not what makes it a classic. If Ben-Hur is a technically impressive but crappy movie built around an exciting chase scene, The Red Shoes is a technically impressive but only good movie built around the best dance sequence ever filmed. For about twenty minutes, right in the middle of the film, we watch the performance of the Red Shoes Ballet and are transported to a ballet that unites music and color unlike anything I've ever seen before. Even the best dance sequences in An American in Paris don't compare to The Red Shoes ballet. The ballet is touching and terrifying, and represents a triumph of spectacle which might still be unmatched in cinematic history.

For that reason alone, this movie is a classic. Otherwise, it's merely a pretty good story that indulges deeply in stock characters and a rather silly belief in a romanticized vision of art (ie, "Art"). I've got plenty more Archers movies on my list, so I hope the rest of them are more like Black Narcissus than The Red Shoes...

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Movies et al is back! (sort of)

Greetings out there in internet land!

If you have this blog set up in a feed reader, I hope you enjoy this post. If not, tell your friends - I haven't checked site traffic lately, but I imagine it's not good.

Anyway, the proprietor of a pretty sweet blog, The Dancing Image, just asked me via comment if I have abandoned the blogosphere. The answer is, in sooth, yes. But I do not intend to have abandoned it permanently. By mid-March, my PhD exams will be completed (unless I fail them!) and I hope, at least through the summer, to return to regular posting.

So what do you do in the meantime? I have 3 suggestions:

1. Check out the afore mentioned Dancing Image for one of the best and smartest writers of the internet if you're looking for readable, thoughtful and deep essays on topics all over the universe of film.
2. On the other hand (and this is not to say that these fellas are not readable, thoughtful, and/or deep) if you want to know what's good in the theatres and on DVD right now, you can do no better than MovieZeal. Evan, Luke, and company will keep you informed, as they collectively see far more movies than I do and, what's more, right honest to goodness reviews of them. Amazing!
3. Finally, come back here every Sunday for the forseeable future for a Film Ignorance entry! That's right, Movies et al will be back on a weekly basis, hopefully with an entry a week until such time as my exams are over and I can devote mental energy to blogging again. Enjoy!