Monday, November 23, 2009

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Hey guys, I wish I had a bit more time to work on this because I have about a million things buzzing around my head when it comes to this endlessly fascinating film, I don't think I even brought up half of the interesting aspects we could cover. Can't wait to see what comes of the discussion.

I do not have the most experience with Paul Schrader the director. I am of course familiar with Paul Schrader the screenwriter of such Scorsese films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I am also familiar with the basic idea of Paul Schrader, the film enthusiast who grew up strict Dutch Calivinist, whose parents did not allow him to see movies. I've seen Mishima around three or four times now, and I can certainly say that I'm going to be checking out some Schrader directed films in the near future.
One of the fatal flaws of most biopics is to attempt to portray the entire lives of their subjects. And no matter how much they stuff their bloated running times with irrelevant details they still feel rushed, more like attempts to capture period details than to make full blooded films. Especially films about artists, which more often than not wax reductionist about the impetus behind the work. Schrader must have known that telling the tale of Mishima's life, death and works in little under two hours would have been a tall order indeed. Schrader and his cinematographer, John Bailey, attempt to do this by mixing up the narrative using different styles to signify different things. Mishima's march towards his own suicide, filmed like a conspiracy thriller, flows effortlessly into luminescent black and white memories which in turn flow into the gaudy theatrical sets of Mishima's works. I think that each one is pulled off immaculately, this movie, if nothing else, is a multi-course feast for the eyes. What we have here amounts to something like an epic yet intimate psychological study of a fascinating figure. Ken Ogata gives an incredible performance bringing an amazing amount of charisma and joy to the character but also able to give the coldest stare or the maddest glance. For a film in which he appears fairly little for a biopic, he really carries much of the film on his shoulders, creating an emotional human connection in a film that sometimes may appear dry or academic. The entire twisting narrative is anchored by his voiceover (which was dubbed by Roy Schneider in the American release). In fact, he provides so many quips and drops so many strange philosophical musings that it seems at first that the films themes are simply stated right off by the main character. But while lines about beauty and death and art enfuse the film, I don't think that we're supposed to take them alone as representative of the themes of the film as a whole.
Behind every smile and laugh there is a supreme self-hatred around Mishima, throughout the movie we see him trying to transform himself from a man of words to a man of action, from a sickly draft-dodger to a living embodiment of bushido ideals and the pinnacle of masculine beauty. Although he preaches the unity of pen and sword, he seems at times frustrated with the pen altogether, perhaps best encapsulated by the phrase from the Kyoko's House sequence "stage blood is not enough" stage blood was obviously not nearly enough for Mishima, whose explicit portrayel of seppuku in his film Patriotism (analyzed excellently by Ed Howard) was only a forerunner for what was to come. Did Mishima really believe that he could start a coup? That he would be able to return the Emperor to a position of utmost power, that he could drive away all the “capitalists” from Japan? It doesn't even seem to be the point. Mishima's far-right political views seem more the result of his own psycho-sexual neuroses, and a part of his own inevitable march towards death than true conviction. It does raise the question however, how are we to take it that this film follows so sympathetically someone who, in essence, attempted to start what looks remarkably like a fascist coup? How are we to take scenes like the murder of Kurahara, scored to Glass' soaring score?

    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    Hello Again and the 20 great Ladies

    Now I know that I said I would update "Dec. 12/13" but Finals week took a lot more out of me than I could ever have suspected. But now that I'm at least somewhat rested and rerring to raring to go, I've noticed that I've been tagged by bill r. over at The Kind of Face You Hate with a meme which was started by Nathanial R. The idea is to simply list your 20 favorite actreses, which is basically impossible to do on such short notice. I have here 20 of my favorite actresses, but a full-on, scientific list of my top 2 would require weeks, nay MONTHS of research, time that I just do not have at the moment. Well, anyway, here are 20 of my favorite actresses, all in alphabetical order, so don't infer any ranking from how I, erm... rank them:

    Show all

    Oh my god, I forgot Dietrich and Garbo! How could I have ever forgotten them? Oh well...

    Sunday, December 7, 2008


    Sorry guys, but finals are creeping up on me and I should really be studying or writing for the next week or so. Expect a post on Dec. 12-13. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to brush on my Shakespeare.

    Saturday, November 29, 2008

    Workin' on It

    Just coming up for air on a little project I have going  for school right now. Can you guess what kind of essay these footnotes are for?

    edit: By the way, has anyone here read just straight Eisenstein? Was it as confusing for you as it is for me?

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    Classes and Canons

    I know the rules of the blogosphere, post or die. I've stopped reading too many blogs that stopped updating, or changed their format from meaningful commentary to links to others. I never really planned on blogging, but now that I'm here I'm here to stay. But, fearless readers, don't expect me to write any essays from now until mid-December, when I'm get off on winter break. Until then I'll be working on papers, studying for finals, and generally running around in a state of total panic.

    That being said, I do have something here besides excuses. As I mentioned in passing my last post, when I first got into movies my guide for what to watch was a lackluster book of the 501 movies that I just had to see. I've always been driven by lists like that, the aforementioned 501 Must See Movies, The A List, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and so on. I think this is because I didn't fall into cinephilia the way so many others did, which seem to be through omnipresent drive ("I watched every movie to come on the late show, watched 1000 movies before my 7th birthday, first sexual thoughts were about Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant etc. etc.) or the "revelation" types, (I was never really into movies until I watched *insert classic here* and then became enamoured with the love of cinema etc. etc.) While I have loved some movies from a very early age and I have had revelations, the thing that drove me into really watching movies was guilt. Crushing guilt. I was 15 and I hadn't seen Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Psycho and most of the really big movies without Dracula or The Marx Brothers.

    Now, I wouldn't be writing this now if guilt has been the only driving force in this. I've gone through similar phases with other mediums (I haven't listened to Sgt. Pepper's! I haven't read Oliver Twist!) but they have passed, while I became fairly obsessed with with movies early into my frantic grab to get more media into my brain. My first movies I watched off my 501 list, Dr. Strangelove, Citizen Kane, Breathless really helped me appreciate film on a different level that I had appreciated other mediums. It was both a more visceral, emotional experience and I could learn the basic mechanics behind it far faster than I could, say, music. But guilt has always remained a healthy part of my drive to watch more movies, and my recent attention has turned to the list to give me some direction on what to watch next.

    Until a few days ago the highest ranked film on the site that I hadn't seen was Ordet. That's a hard thing for any film to live up to, but Ordet is a great film, with fluid, unblinking camerawork, quietly great acting, and a willingness to discuss religion in a candid and thought-provoking manner. And usually that's around all I would think and move along. But since the Turner Classic Movies well is running dry and I don't have any net-flix service, I've been able to think about the film more then usual. I've noticed (both in retrospect and by actually going back and reviewing footage) the classical compositions, the way that Dreyer lovingly portrays the human face, especially the doomed and dead. I've had similar relationships to films before, but only the absolute greatest. I'm sure that I've underplayed the genius of a film or downright forgotten one because I was too busy thinking about my next conquest. It's slowly changing, I still think about canons, but they are becoming less and less a thing in and of themselves, and more a way to show me great movies. Which I think is certainly a positive development.

    That said, I still can't believe that I haven't seen any Bresson. How can I even deserve a blog on film if I haven't seen Bresson?!

    Friday, November 21, 2008

    Alphabet Meme

    While I was not actually tagged for this meme, in his comments Dennis Cozzalio of the great blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule gave an open invitation for lists. So I posted my list there. I've taken that list, switched a few titles around, and given a paragraph or so for each of the pictures. My primary criteria for choosing these specific films was whether I
    1. Loved Them, or at least liked them.
    2. Felt I could write about them at a satisfactory level
    This took a lot longer than I though it would, but I'm fairly satisfied with it as a first post of any importance. As always, any comments are greatly appreciated!


    I've never been a fan of Mel Gibson's acting. He's never a
    bad actor exactly, but he rarely really adds to the film either. His first major film as a director, Braveheart, didn't exactly make me eager for more. But with his past two movies, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, he has become a far more interesting and original director then anyone could have imagined. Apocalypo strips away many of the unnecessary trappings of plot development that have appeared in recent years and instead reduces it to the bare minimum, until we get an elaborate chase scene that lasts through half the movie. Gibson's characters define themselves through their physicality, through the tactile sensations of the grass beneath their feet, through their exhaustive hunting trips, and through Gibson's most obvious obsession: pain. Gibson's obvious odious personal beliefs have kept him out of sight for the last two years, and he is just now returning to his previous bred-and-butter, acting. But I hope that he doesn't stave off directing forever, for that would steal a truly talented eye from us.

    The Bigamist

    This screenshot epitomizes what The Bigamist is more than any words ever could. While a cursory glace may not reveal much, watching it reveals an atmosphere of moral dread and suffocation better then almost any other movie that I could think of. Ida Lupino gets inside the head of the titular cad with sympathy and understanding, but never absolves him. We learn about Harry Graham's loneliness on the road, his constant need for human companionship that Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino) can fill. We go through the entire relationship, how every little thing compiles until it overtakes and fundamentally cages Graham until even his noblest impulses just exacerbates the problem. It has a lot of similarities to Detour, another poverty row picture which transcends its origins through the artistry of the director and a real sense of tragic inevitability. But I think The Bigamist is even better, a real masterpiece of mood.

    The Crowd

    The Crowd was a movie that I was obsessed with even before I saw it. Ever since seeing a set still of a despairing James Murray reaching his arms into heaven among an unfeeling crowd bustling all around him, and hearing the central story of a man who tries his hardest to reach above the crowd but fails miserably, I was hooked. It already spoke so much to my own sensibilities and concerns that even after I found myself disliking the other King Vidor films I had seen, I still held immense hope for this one. I was rewarded for my patience ten fold. The Crowd is such an obvious masterpiece in how it reaches every part of human experience, the misery and the joy, and how those feelings often come right after eachother, and how it conveys these experiences with such empathy and technical mastery. I feel that The Crowd must be directly influenced by Murnau's Sunrise even though it was released only a year later, it shares the same vision that vindicates life no matter what terrible troubles are contained within. And indeed, Vidor lists Sunrise as his second favorite film of all time. Now that's a double feature that I would like to see!
    Duck Amuck

    I think that the hardest I have ever laughed is when me and my younger brother watched Duck Amuck for the first time. We're talking about can't breathe, writhing on the floor laughter. After we had seen it, we couldn't stop talking about it, reenacting it, laughing to an unhealthy point just at the memory of it for weeks on end. I didn't know what "postmodernism" was or what "breaking the fourth wall" meant, but when the cartoon Daffy shrieks when the cartoon "ends," or when he is sliding through different backdrops with no rhyme or reason, my eight year old self was overjoyed. I still get the same feelings when I watch Duck Amuck. I don't writhe on the floor anymore, but I always laugh in the right places. I'm still amazed at the audacity, but now I also love more formal things like the composition (just look at that shot!) and how Jones is able to give daffy over 2000 versions of "angry." It's just great to look at, to listen to, to laugh it. It's seven minutes of pure joy.


    One of the great things about all of Man-Ray's art is how he so fully embraces a medium and makes it his own. He made strangely great sculptures and created what are, in my mind, some of the greatest photographs of all time. Likewise, he took film and molded the very foundations of it to suit his own needs. With so many experimental films simply seeming like stranglypshot narratives, Man Ray throws out everything that makes film tradtional and comforting. Every shot seems like a new and exciting experiment, made by a man with a firm grasp of what he is trying to do. With explorations into implied movement, double exposure and detours into study between light and shadow. It's a playful, fun and endlessly innovated, like he was inventing cinema from scratch. Which from his perspective, he may well have been.


    John Woo's American career often gets fully dismissed by critics, and most of it should be. But Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Once you wrap your head around the central premise (that a cop and criminal effectively switch bodies through an experimental surgical process) and the convoluted explanation for the exact hows and whys, this is a damn good movie. With some of the best action sequences of the past fifteen years and actually something interesting to say about identity. Asking us whether you are you without any kind of recognition and how what we see in the mirror defines how we conduct ourselves, while at the same time pumping the entire thing with a hyper-kinetic style is no easy task, but I believe Woo pulls it off with ease. Cage shows his acting chops here, imbuing the character with a sense of tragedy and dignity. Such as when he takes what could have seemed like a cheap recurring feature (stroking his hand over his loved ones faces) becomes something filled with longing and unspoken emotion, something that John Travolta can't pull off. But of course, most are watching it for the action scenes, and what action scenes they are. Woo pumps the movie up with so much energy with his frantic, but never arbitrary, editing that I left the movie in a kind of daze. If you have any interest in the modern action movie at all, this is worth a look.

    Gold Diggers of 1933

    When I was first starting really getting into movies I had no idea what the cannon was besides a few obvious titles. All I had was a small, poorly edited book titled "501 Movies to See Before You Die" which included Citizen Kane yes, but also While You Were Sleeping. I would watch whatever was on that list, without knowing the relative merits of anything I hadn't seen before. I looked at the picture they had for Gold Diggers and thought that it looked like a cheesy early musical that the editor had picked because of his own unfathomable personal taste. Not to mention that at this point I was still someone who hated musicals because "people don't just burst into song right?" So while I was watching this a weird feeling overtook me, I was really enjoying this. Loving it in fact. The musical numbers were grand and insanely intricate, the songs were all catchy or even powerful (such as "Remember My Forgotten Man") and everything in between the songs was a delight. I loved following these characters as they tried to find their place in a world that had turned upside down. They were witty, strong damn good actors. When my dad came into the room after I was finished he asked me what movie I had seen and how was it, when I sheepishly said something like "Gold Diggers of 1933, it was actually pretty good..." his eyes widened and he began to tell me about how great a movie it was. It was around then that I realized that I should begin trusting my own instincts on movies (the other example is All that Heaven Allows) With all the credit that Berkley deserves for being, in my mind, the greatest film choreographer of all time by a long shot, what sets this movie head and shoulders above the other Berkley's is the strong hand of director Mervyn Leroy. His economical style squeezes charm out of scenes and actors, in this and his other films. He's never gotten enough credit.

    l'Homme a la tete en Caoutchouc
    (AKA The Man With the Rubber Head)

    When I began watching the beginnings of film more out of curiosity than anything, Melies hit me like a ton of bricks. Lumiere's films stand up as great historical artifacts with a loving simplicity, Porter had made great contributions if not always great movies, but Melies struck me as an out and out genius. He can mold his simple toolbox of tricks (dissolves, edits, double exposures) and turn them into something new and exiting and lovable. He doesn't half-ass his tricks, merely trying to give the audience a little shock. In this case you can see the care he put into making the inflating head lovable and funny even today.
    And his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. He seems so exited about his tricks that we cannot help but be exited too. He's so obviously in love with this new exciting medium that a watching of a Melies film makes films worth watching again. They reinvigorate everything you loved about movies in the first place, and banish all doubts in your mind all in the space of two to three minutes. Seriously, they are great therapy.

    The Immortal Story

    Orson Welles once said that the two things that movies should not portray are the most personal of things; sex and prayer. He also had a notorious antipathy for color. So who would have thought that a short, made-for-tv movie with both color and Welles' only sex scene would turn out into such a masterpiece? Maybe in part because Welles knew where the pratfalls were in such elements. His color is effortlessly beautiful and the love scene is tender and powerful. The movie deals with a rich merchant in Macao (played, of course, by Welles) who tells a story to his accountant of a sailor who gets propositioned by an impotent rich man to impregnate his wife. The accountant tells him the story isn't true, just a bawdy story told among sailors. The merchant replies that he will make the story true. Welles gets deep into this man who would be god and pulls out a story of loneliness and tragedy just underneath the surface. It's a beautiful film, I would advise to to look at this just to get a sense of how Welles deals with color in fiction film. Doubtlessly Welles' most underrated.

    Jules et Jim

    I've not seen nearly enough Truffaut, but Jules et Jim is certainly a masterpiece. Like Godard's Masculine it is in many ways a movie about youth, but unlike Godard Truffaut does not use his camera as an interrogation tool but fully jumps into the world that these three young men and woman have created. Using all the tricks of the trade, quick editing, freeze frames, dolly shots, and even newsreel shots, he makes the world so fresh and alive. When I first saw the film the technical brilliance of the first half dampened my appreciation of the second, but upon further viewing the second is on par with the first and may even be better. It really gets into the consequences of the earlier half in a very revealing way and its more sober style only helps bring it all home.

    The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

    Never truly getting the attention it deserved, King of Kong reaches beyond all the other "strange niche" documentaries to get to a basic narrative drive. While other movies of the year, such as the dreadful Transformers, were using shock and awe tactics to get people into the seats, King of Kong takes the tried and true underdog formula and adds to it without subverting it. Some critics seem to have found the very subject beneath the realm of film, but I think they fail to realize that nothing is not worth being filmed, especially when filmed with such skill and precision. Like every documentary to reach any kind of public scene, there have been accusations of facts obscured or subtly manipulated, in other words, that it was filmed rather than merely recorded. All of this makes the fact that director Seth Gordon's next film Four Christmases looks so terrible.

    Land of the Dead

    I'm not a big fan of didactic movies. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only terms that people talk about George A. Romero's films anymore. To be fair, Romero has been encouraging them, pushing the social signifiagance of his pictures before anything else. Although consumer culture is a major part of Dawn of the Dead, for example, many people seem to take it as the only part of the film. It contains many other nuances and formal qualities that make it the way it is. THe same is true with Land. Although there is major commentary about the gap between rich and poor in the country, it is also an addition to the grand narrative of self-awareness of the zombies, and how humans are going to have to deal with that. It contains one of Romero's most lovable characters, Big Daddy, who personifies the growing of the zombies as a identity group rather than a simple menace. Romero's camera has become more and more observatory through this entire process, it drifts in and out of a scene, taking just what it needs and then moving on.

    The Man from Laramie

    Anthony Mann was one of my first "discoveries" when I started getting into movies. Back when these names were nothing more than trivia in Maltin's Film Guide or small essays in Andrew Sarris' American Cinema I saw The Naked Spur and was amazed to find a beautiful, haunting exploration on the wild and bounty-hunting with a Jimmy Stewart I had never seen before. Hitchcock worked his magic by twisting Stewart's persona, most notably from the altruistic police captain in Vertigo to the crazed obsessive that he becomes. Mann seemed to throw out our preconceptions all together, working from the start with the damaged Stewart, driven by revenge or money rather than any sense of justice or kindness. Of course I later learned that others had taken Mann as their own, and I was more than happy to share him .The Man from Laramie seems to me to be the greatest of the Stewart cycle if only because I consider it the pinicle of Mann's exploration of his own west. While most western filmmakers follow the large footprints of John Ford, Mann discovered a west filled not just with sand but with rivers and grass. Stewart is at his best here, a barely contained rage pulsating in nearly every scene he's in. It's hard to pick a single Mann western, when you have The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, and Man of the West. But The Man From Laramie will always be up their for me. It's a transcendent picture.

    A Night at the Opera

    It's really hard to write about one of the biggest influences on my life. Since I was seven or so, The Marx Brothers have defined my sense of humor, patches of my vocabulary, and I'm beginning to suspect my very way of thought. Tradition dictates that the greatest Marx Brothers movie was Duck Soup because it had the best director of the bunch, but I believe that the Marxs transcended directors. Night of the Opera is very similar in style, tone and hilarity to Duck Soup despite a change in director and studio. It fits their own personal trajectory more than anything else. The Marxes here are, as always, a wonderful patch of insanity in a dreadfully sane world. They come in, ruffle everyone's feathers, deflate pretensions and generally strike one for the common man. But everyone and his grandma has written a b.s social examination of the Marx Brothers. What we shouldn't forget is how funny we are, listen to this: Otis P. Driftwood (OTIS P. DRIFTWOOD): You remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me about you. Except you. How am I to account for that? You don't need to define that quote as some kind of question of identity to laugh at it, all you have to do is have a good sense of humor.


    At one of Dennis Cozzalio's famous quizzes, I offered up this movie as the most pretentious ever. This was not an insult at all, its amazing, transcendent and an incredible movie all around. But boy does it know it. I find lines like "A Poet is more than a man" to be charming rather than annoying, and the portrayal of death and her followers as a woman and a motorcycle gang to be mysterious rather than frustratingly oblique and self centered, but if any of it was less well done I may well think all that and more. The point is that a film can survive self-satisfaction if it is satisfactory, that if it is truly genius I will accept all the posturing. Along with the pure mystery (the greatest of Cocteu's strengths) there is some pure visceral fun to be had in how he uses relatively simple film manipulation to create completely new effects. Who would have thought that reversing the footage of someone falling would create such an strangely perfect effect to the raising of the dead? Who could have expected that the tale of Orpheus would translate so amazingly, albeit loosely, to a modern poet? Who would have thought that such greatness could advertise itself so often?


    Papillon is a fairly weird movie. Although at the beginning it seems to tell a relatively simple story, the perennial "prison break" narrative, it has all these detours and sudden appearances of distinctive characters who then promptly dissolve into the narrative. It takes sudden twists, and has a really sudden and disconcerting ending. Honestly it felt like some kind of precursor to Lynch for me. The world has a powerful dream logic that jumps from one situation to another in a haphazard manner. Is any of this intentional? I doubt it. It speaks of someone trying to compress a novel into a single film, trying to tell at least part of each major event before moving onto the next one. Where Papillon differs from others of this type is that it is so expertly constructed and excellently acted that each strange new bit of information and disconcerting diversion feels organic in the strangest way. Franklin J. Schaffner takes firm hold onto the picture to make it seem less than a stuffy prestige picture and more like an offbeat classic.

    Quest for Fire

    I watched this once back in Chicago, so I was definitely in the single digits. It was also certainly my first R-rated film. My dad had a Sunday "movie night" to imbue us with a good taste in film and respect for things like black-and-white. Other than the Universal Horror pictures, this is the picture that stays with me the most. The violent battle between the bestial tribe and the more humanoid tribe at the beginning, the confusing lack of any kind of dialogue or subtitles and the massive amount of nudity (for a nine year old) created a pretty definite impression back then. Because it's created a mythic aura in my mind, I'll need to see it again, but in retrospect it seems damn good. Amazing makeup all around, a real attempt to show prehistoric people in something other than a fur bikini and an overall serious and innovative tone. That's all I could give you.

    La Roue

    Back when this was the daunting 273 min movie mocking my attention span from the DVR I called this "the four and a half hour movie about trains and incest." Now that I've seen it, it's "the utterly amazing four and a half hour movie about trains and incest." Serevin-Mars plays Sisif, a railwayman who rescues a infant Elsie, who he raises as his own daughter along with his actual son. Troubles ensue when both Sisif and his son fall madly in love with her. Gance knows his way around a camera and an editing room. He has an absolute mastery of technique but knows the exact right moment to let it shine. There's a moment - right before the first half ends - where Sisif has lost almost everything, and is standing alone in an industrial flatland. He stares at the camera while it slowly rotates around him. I've seen that exact same camera move in so many movies of today, where it is used as a way to desperately try to add motion to a conversation or telephone call, took on such a great and tragic tone that it invalidated all uses after it.

    The Spirit of the Beehive

    Watching Spirit of the Beehive isn't like watching any other movie. It's impossible to truly describe how the light drifts into the house, how each scene drifts so easily and purely and dreamily into the next, how every pause and silence tells us more about the human condition then all the monologues of almost any other movie ever made. Much has been made about the films political significance, looking at France Spain with a withering eye. But what first grabbed me when I saw it (besides the inconceivable beauty) was how truly it had captured what it is like to be a sibling, especially ones with that exact age difference. The relationship between Ana and Isabel is almost exactly what my relationship with my brother was like at that age. Being the oldest, I would fill his head with fanciful lies and play practical jokes that were perhaps cruel in retrospect. But there was always a central unbreakable bond between us that was almost spiritual. Watching Spirit of the Beehive brought up all these memories that I have never seen raised by any other movie to show what it is like to be a brother or sister. Most movies either simply take the "sibling rivalry" rout or show them as being the best of friends. In my experience it's a far more deep and complex relationship than that, and Spirit of the Beehive is the only film to realize it. But even if you are an only child, this is an absolute must-see movie in the truest sense of the term, there are so many layers of truth and beauty that you are depriving yourself if you don't see it. If you have not seen it, see it right now.


    What happened to Peter Bogdanovich? More importantly, what happened to Peter Bogdanovich's reputation? I've only seen his first few films, Targets, The Last Picture Show, Directed by John Ford, and What's Up Doc and they all range from "very charming" to "balls-t0-the-wall-brilliant." Targets is one of the later. Every frame of this movie is filled with a sense of loss of a world perhaps half imaginend, a fear of the violence and uncertainty of today. The film takes two stories, one of Bogdanovich himself playing a director trying to lull old horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff at the very top of his game) out of retirement. Meanwhile all-american kid Bobby Thompson goes on a shooting spree for no reason at all. From 1968, the same year of Night of the Living Dead, Bogdanovich also crafts a purely modern horror film, that taps into uncertainty about where the nation is going. Many of Bogdanovich's films serve as eulogies for the past, but Targets is unique in serving as an explicit critique of the future.

    The Unknown

    I think that Lon Chaney is one of the greatest screen actors of all time, not just of "horror" or "silent" actors. He presents a kind of serenity and projects sympathy even when he is plotting to rip a rival lover's arms from their sockets. In
    The Unknown Chaney plays a criminal who is identifiable by his two thumbs on his right hand, and so hides as a armless sword thrower at a local circus. He there falls in love with the gypsy Esmerelda (Joan Crawford!) who has a strange psycho-sexual aversion to arms. Known for his sometimes masochistic makeup, Chaney has an amazing know-how of the human body and knows how to use it to get just the right reaction. Credit also belongs to Tod Browning. Browning's camera is never as expressive as, say, Murnau's or Whales', but that's not his aim. There's an intensity in Browning's compositions, at times an unfixed gaze that scrutinizes but never judges the characters within. Browning, a former circus person himself, is investigating these characters, not exploiting them.

    Village of the Damned

    1960 seems to be a very important year for horror pictures worldwide. We have the quantum leap of Psycho and Peeping Tom which looked forward to a new era of a more psychological and violent approach to horror. House of Usher which ushered in a new wave of gothic horror, especially where Vincent Price was involved. And in Italy we have Black Sunday, which announced Mario Bava as a major figure and led to the creation of the Giallo genre. All of this spelled the death of the sci-fi infused horror that had been prevalent for the past decade or so. Village of the Damned is, to me, the last great movie of this era. Scripted and directed with finesse by the amazingly named Wolf Rilla, Village of the damned concerns the typical alien invaders here presented as invading using our children. Like many from this genre, the enemy can be easily taken as some kind of convoluted metaphor for communism, but the real strength of the movie lies in
    tapping into some basic fear of children with too much power and too calm an attitude (see also the "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone). For me a scene where so many uniform children have their eyes glow an unearthly light and compel a hard-working Englishman to put a gun up to his neck and pull the trigger.

    Written on the Wind

    Douglas Sirk commands rabid admiration from his followers. All That Heaven Allows alone has been re-imagined by both R.W Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven). I'm beginning to see his influence everywhere, from Almodovar to the great television series Mad Men (am I the only one who sees this?). But lost to many of the criticism of him has been that he was a wonderful social critic to be sure, but if you took ever drop of social criticism away you would still have some of the greatest American movies ever made. Melodrama, unlike Thrillers, Westerns or even Horror, have not truly been legitimized by the critical establishment, not allowed to exist by themselves. Written on the Wind has so much to say about about class in America, but it says it with such force of feeling and through such fantastic sequences(I'm thinking specifically about the genius editing in between Dorothy Malone's drunken dancing with the death of her father, all done to the sound of frenzied jazz). Sirk is a master of all aspects of filmmaking, from the editing to the lighting to the composition to the acting (yes Virginia, Rock Hudson can act) and uses all those elements to create such a wonderful tapestry of emotion that it would be a shame to just file it under a kind of intentional camp.


    There really aren't that many films that begin with the letter X are there? I'm not a big fan of Brian Singer's work as a whole,
    The Usual Suspects was a nice little post-Tarentino thriller, but not worth the kind of obsessive conversations that go on in some corners. X-Men was a mediocre superhero movie in retrospect, the excitement at the time more due to a big budget superhero film existing again more than anything else. X-2 was similarly over-hyped to the heavens after it was released, but it still remains the obvious better of the three films so far. Ian McKellen's and Patrick Stewart's interplay is sharp, and the addition of Brian Cox as William Stryker was a great move. The film improves on the lackluster fighting scenes of the first and tries to say something interesting about the state of prejudice in this country. Evan after all that however, this is still just a solid action movie, nothing more and nothing less.

    Young Frankenstein

    I loved both Frankenstein and Blazzing Saddles as a child, so the fact that they were combined was just about the best thing ever for me. Thankfully, Young Frankenstein holds up very well today, reminding us of that time when Mel Brooks was still a major comedic mind. He never mastered filmmaking beyond the basics (though I would argue that he's at his best here) but he keeps the jokes, sometimes corny, sometimes brilliant, often both, coming fast and furious. And of course we have classic appearances by Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman. Try as I might to intellectualize it, I can't explain why "putting on the Ritz" is so funny in the monster's voice, why Frahn-ken-SHTEEN/EYE-gor makes me laugh every single damn time, but it does. It was very surprising when I finally saw Son of Frankenstein last year how many of the elements are directly parodied, and how much better those parodies are once you realize Inspector Kemp is most definintly referring to an actual character.


    It's disconcerting how good Ben Stiller can be when he is directing his own material. After years of movies like Meet the Fockers and Night at the Museum it's hard to remember that The Ben Stiller Show was one of the best shows of the '90s. I think that Stiller has been fundamentally miscast as the flabergast straight man ever since There's Something About Mary hit the box office when in reality he is much better suited to the oblivious caricature. And Derek Zoolander is the ultimate oblivious caricature. Detractors may say that Zoolander is simply a series of vapid statements and situations, but what they fail to realize that it is a series of really funny vapid statements and situations. Stiller's not a bad directer either, the whole film is filled with bright colors and interesting compositions. I get the feeling that Stiller understands the importance of visuals in comedy like very few other mainstream comedians or directors.