Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Random Movie Wisdom

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

From Roger Ebert’s Great Movies entry for 1969′s Easy Rider:

One of the reasons we have so many buddy pictures is that Hollywood doesn’t understand female characters (there are so many hookers in the movies because, as characters, they share the convenience of their real-life counterparts: They’re easy to find and easy to get rid of.)

Knife in the Water (1962)

Saturday, June 19th, 2010


Criterion Collection #215

The story of Knife in the Water is, on its surface, very straightforward: a well-to-do couple takes a 19-year-old hitch-hiker along for a weekend jaunt on their sailboat. Criterion describes it as a “psychological thriller”, which led me to expect something more sinister (I have seen Rosemary’s Baby, after all), but the emphasis should be firmly placed on “psychological”. Which is not to say the movie does not have its intense moments (it does), but it’s well, different. Anyway, the aforementioned couple is comprised of a middle-aged journalist and his younger, hotter wife. They don’t seem particularly excited by each other’s company, but are used to it. Both the men in the movie, the husband and the hitch-hiker, are kind of jerks and less intelligent than they suppose themselves to be. The husband nearly runs the hitch-hiker over showing off his driving skills, the hitch-hiker daringly (i.e., stupidly) hitches by standing, unyielding, right in the middle of the road.

What ensues is a petty, macho battle between the two men; one would guess for the wife’s attention, but she is barely spoken to. She is a trophy wife (did they have that term in 1962?), a sex object only in the sense that she’s attractive to other men; the husband couldn’t seem less interested in her personally. All the male posturing, hyper-competitiveness, and one-upmanship is less a way to attract mates, as it is popularly supposed, than it is a way to impress one another, and might even be slightly gay. Women, in much the same way, seem to obsess over their bodies and wardrobes and generally make themselves miserable more for the approval of other women than anything.

To speak too much more of the plot will spoil a lot. There are only three characters in the entire movie, most of which takes place in the confines of the sailboat. That this was filmed mostly on water by a first-time feature director by a small crew on a small budget is, needless to say, impressive. There are a couple spectacular shots–the boat beached in a rainstorm, the boat sitting motionless in the reeds in the early morning–that, as far as I could discern, involved no special effects. They just went out there and filmed it. I like that.


I could mention how this was Roman Polanski’s first feature length film, and open up the whole Polanski can o’ worms, but I’ve really got nothing to add to that debate. But speaking of Poland, my one big concern is regarding the subtitles. It is obvious to even the non-Polish speaker that entire lines of dialogue go routinely un-translated. I can’t say for sure how this affects the movie (though everything that happened seemed pretty clear) but it is distracting in any case. I viewed Knife in the Water on Netflix’s Watch Instantly, which shows the Criterion cover on their site. Criterion’s page says the subtitles are a new translation by Polanski himself. So either (a) the Netflix feed was not Criterion’s version or (b) the director thought a lot of the dialogue was unimportant. You decide.

The final shot at first made me a little angry that yet another film was indulging in gratuitous ambiguity, but I soon realized that what happens next doesn’t matter: the central contest in the movie has already been decided. The rest is another story.

I couldn’t help but imagine what this movie would be like if Hollywood made it today (and since they are officially bereft of ideas, they are liable to remake just about anything). The sailboat would become a yacht, the series of Polish lakes Miami or Honolulu, the trophy wife a bevy of bootylicious hip-hop video extras; Flava Flav would be the ship’s captain; a CGI dolphin would be involved; the titular knife would be the murder weapon of countless skinny-dippers; Shia LaBeouf would be the hitch-hiker; and at some point a speedboat would be forced to make a daring jump over the yacht. Finally, Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice would wrap up all the loose ends. But I digress.

Che (2008)

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010


Criterion Collection #496

Regardless of your political stripe (and I’m decidedly anti-Communist), Ernesto “Che” Guevara has a certain mystique, or at least he did until dipshits started wearing his visage on t-shirts. But he is, in any case, a figure worthy of study. Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which is based upon Che’s own journals, is a not-quite-biopic, not-quite-epic, not-quite-political account of Che’s revolutionary campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia.

I should mention that I’m a fan of Soderbergh’s indie work, and I think aspiring filmmakers would do well to watch Bubble, which changed everything I thought I knew about acting, and The Girlfriend Experience, which was shot in just two weeks using only available light for nearly every scene. I ended up less enthusiastic about Che, however. (Also of note is that Che was filmed with the RED system of modular digital cameras, which have gained a lot of popularity with the indie set.)

The film is split into two parts, each over two hours in length, the first dealing with Che’s exploits in Cuba, the second with Che’s ill-fated exploits in Bolivia (thus skipping Che’s abandoned campaign in Congo in between). The narrative, or what little of it exists, starts with Che as a rebel hiding out in the mountains, and avoids much discussion about political motivations and deals mostly with immediate concerns, which becomes at times a pretty mundane picture of haggling for supplies, meeting new recruits, and schlepping through the wilds, occasionally punctuated by skirmishes with the Cuban army. If this is indeed representative of Che’s journals, it’s no wonder the film is entitled “Che” and not “The Cuban Revolution”.


What Che is, film-wise, is hard to say, and in a short interview on Criterion’s site, Soderbergh says he deliberately avoided a lot of the trappings of conventional films. The result is at times affecting, but mostly distant, both from Che and from the other people involved. I am left to wonder if this is Soderbergh’s interpretation of Che’s outlook on the situation and life in general, i.e., while Che was consumed with the plight of the “people”, he had little attachment to any single person–you could regard him as the perfect Communist! If this feeling was intentional, the film succeeds magnificently, if not, then the film has failed utterly. The audience (by which I mean, Che) is introduced to dozens of sympathizers and recruits throughout the movie, who quickly become mere assets of the revolution, and we never see them at any deeper level. Again, I’m not sure if this human distance was on purpose (I might just assume it was so I like the flick better). But if it was, the movie is not as pro-Che as some reactionaries might claim. But the man’s extraordinary military successes in Cuba and singular revolutionary intensity cannot be ignored.

As the anti-Batista revolution gains traction with the Cuban people, Castro and Che’s rebels are beset with more volunteers than they can possibly use, and end up turning away many of them, particularly those without weapons. As the movement builds momentum, government police and soldiers surrender or desert en masse. By the time they reach Santa Clara, the site of the last major battle before Batista fled the country, the revolution seems all but inevitable (and really made we want to re-watch the amazing Cuba scenes from The Godfather: Part II). To this point even I sympathize with the revolution, for what were they fighting but a foreign-backed, murderous puppet regime? Beyond that, well, Che and I part ways. As far as the less savory aspects of Che’s legacy, such as his role in executions of purported informers and traitors, we are privy to nothing besides the execution of two deserters-turned-bandits. Is this because the filmmakers were trying to avoid this messy controversy, were trying to paint Che in a better light, or was this simply absent from Che’s journals to begin with? I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt in guessing the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not inclined to read Che’s journals in order to find out if they are as long and grueling as this movie.

In Bolivia, the life of the revolutionary is even less glamorous, as Che and his men face illness, lack of supplies, and uncooperative locals, all while being pursued by US-trained commandos. While Soderbergh amply portrays the hardships of the rebels, we are left to wonder what Che has thought about nearly everything he’s done. Finally, near the end, he says only of Castro’s Cuba that it is “progressing”, and laments not better explaining their position to the Bolivian people.

My favorite scene is a cutaway to a post-revolution trip to the UN headquarters in New York, where Che thanks Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Bay of Pigs, saying there is nothing like a US-backed invasion to solidify popular support. Who knows, if Americans didn’t think they owned the world, the Communist regime in Cuba might have disintegrated before it really got started, and without Batista to rally against, may never have existed at all. Americans, however, are far too proud to learn anything from history. But we’ve got these groovy Che t-shirts.

(It was only happenstance that I began this project with two ambiguous Communist-related films; I should review Fireman’s Ball sooner than later, as I know it has a brilliant take on the subject.)

(Also, I availed myself of Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature to see Che, thus didn’t have access to the supplemental materials.)

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Criterion Collection #389

I was drawn to this film because I saw director Dušan Makavejev’s short film Man is Not a Bird years ago and recall appreciating it, I know a little Serbo-Croatian (spoken in the director’s homeland, Yugoslavia), and I’m someone who wishes we lived in some sort of free love utopia, though it seems love is a little too complicated for all that. So when I heard a Makavejev film about sexual liberation was making it to the Criterion Collection, one so provocative that it was banned in and got him exiled from Yugoslavia, I was on board. But I’m still wondering what the hell I watched.

The movie starts off with an introduction to the real-life figure Dr. Wilhelm Reich (the “WR” of the title), a colleague of Freud who went on his own and eventually claimed he had discovered a primordial power pulsing through the cosmos (called “orgone energy”) that was the source of the human orgasm, or . . . something. I’d actually heard of Reich and his work before, but it never made a lick of sense to me. And while the charges of pseudo-science and false medical claims leveled by the FDA (once Reich fled Europe for America) were probably well-founded, the lengths the supposed regulatory agency went to suppress the man were extreme–even going so far as to incinerate much of his literature. Even if Reich was dead wrong, which I suspect he was, burning books has no place in THE FREE-EST COUNTRY ON EARTH™. While Reich was persecuted in Europe, let us not forget that it was America that destroyed his work and threw him in prison (where he later died). In the film, Reich’s widow says without hesitation, “The American dream is dead.” Right on, sister.


Looking for orgones. No, really.

Anyway, then the movie goes on to something completely different, and it’s unclear whether Makavejev really believes in orgones and whatnot or just likes the message of sexual exploration. Probably the latter. In an interview on the DVD, Makavejev says something to the effect that he just wanted the audience to be aware of the subject and hopefully they would research it later. I hate it when movies do that.

The rest of the film jumps back and forth between a fictional scenario in Yugoslavia and documentary-style footage from New York, none of which really relates to other parts of the film, or to much of anything. The scenes in Yugoslavia portray a Party woman who makes grand speeches from the balcony of her flat, trying (I think) to persuade her comrades that only sexual liberalization can ultimately fulfill communism’s promise, and between these pronouncements rejects the clumsy advances of a drunken workingman while pursuing a repressed figure skater in Socialism On Ice. The ending to this mini-story is too bizarre to even attempt to explain. The booklet included with the DVD contains an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum which says of this and similar films, “The fact that they came from Communist countries made them much harder for Westerners to place, process, and understand; in most cases, an adequate sense of context was lacking.” Leave it to Criterion for the massive understatement. I’m sorry, but for this dumb Yank, the obscure philosophical schisms that once divided communists are as foreign as anything from ancient history. In the post-Soviet, post-Yugoslavia, corporatist China world, all the communist movements seem like the same dead or dying monster. To even begin to divine a psycho-sexual theory of communism is, to me, like trying to formulate a musical theory about trees.

If you say so.

If you say so.

But I think there was surprise among leftist activists of the 60′s how sexually repressive the communist countries actually were. It didn’t make sense to them, but in my mind, personal and economic freedom are two sides of the same coin, and once a government has authority over one, it inevitably intrudes on the other, since personal and economic freedom are, it turns out, inseparable. Indeed, the Yugoslav authorities thought Makavejev’s free-love inclinations somehow threatened the communist order, and he was forced to flee.

The DVD includes a commentary that at times almost sounds like it’s making a salient point, then devolves into a lot of -isms; I mean, who would have guessed that the scene of a plaster mold being made of a man’s erect penis evokes the post-populist syndicalist-anarchism of the neo-retro-proto-socialists–or whatever, I don’t remember at all. This commentary goes to great lengths to provide a philosophical justification for almost every scene in the film (although even it asks more questions than it answers), but I honestly don’t believe that Makavejev had any sort of plan for most of the American scenes. It just seems like he filmed whatever sort of interesting signs of sexual liberation he could find. Oh, and then filmed a guy in weird soldier’s attire wandering around NYC, for . . . some reason. Vietnam? Sure, why not.

I don't know.

I don't know.

I don’t think every film has to wear everything on its sleeve, and there is occasionally room for obscurity and broad audience interpretation of the material (I am a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all), but whatever message or feeling Makavejev was going for is totally lost here, that is, if the whole thing wasn’t simply done for shock value, which seems just as plausible. As a sociopolitical statement in the early 70′s, I’m sure the film carried weight for many (hence its inclusion in the Collection), but as a film standing on its own nearly 40 years later, it leaves a lot to be desired.

It sort of reminds me of Deep Throat: ground-breaking at the time, but now in all honesty is neither a good film nor a good porno (or so I’m told, ahem). Not that WR is attempting to be pornography by any stretch of the imagination, but it performed similar feats by challenging what the artform could be, what could be shown on the screen, and daring the authorities to make a much bigger deal over it than they should (and did).

This is what I assume all Lifetime movies are like.

This is what I assume all Lifetime movies are like.

To make matters worse, the movie is not particularly good-looking. The Yugoslavian scenes are obviously filmed on better stock and have rich colors, which Criterion has done their usual stellar job to clear up, but with few exceptions the shots are pretty unmemorable (quite the opposite from what I recall of Makavejev’s earlier film, Man is Not a Bird). The rest of the movie is grainy documentary-style film, along with even older stock footage.

It’s hard to recommend unless you’re deeply interested in the subject or a foolhardy Criterion completist.

WR is on Roger Ebert’s series Great Movies, though he admits its inclusion may cause some outrage.

70-Minute Review of The Phantom Menace

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

The longest I’ve ever watched anything on YouTube, so needless to say it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Enjoy! (some NSFW-ishness)