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what i watched last week

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932). One of the regular sketches on the SCTV television series was a parody of the old monster-movie shows that ran on stations across the country and Canada, hosted by some member of the station’s on-air talent, often in disguise. In the case of SCTV, the character was Floyd Robertson, co-anchor of the station’s news (and played by Joe Flaherty). The monster show was called Monster Chiller Horror Theater, and featured Robertson dressed like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, calling himself “Count Floyd”. Count Floyd would introduce the movies, assuming his audience was made up of kids … the movies were on the level of Dr. Tongue's 3D House of Stewardesses (no, there is no such movie in real life, sorry). On my favorite Count Floyd of all time, he told us that he had a really scary one for us, one that he hadn’t seen, so he’d be watching it along with us. It was called Whispers of the Wolf, which he assured us would scare us “right out of your pants. Or dresses. Or whatever you wear!” The B&W opening credits begin: “Leave Ullman … Harriett Andersom … in Ingmar Burgman’s … Whispers of the Wolf”. What follows is a spot-on recreation of a mid-60s Bergman film, with Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin as sisters who speak faux-Swedish. Nothing happens, of course, but it’s all presented in a Bergman-esque manner. Finally, it cuts back to Count Floyd, who is still trying to convince the kids in the audience that the movie was scary. He then admits, “Oh well, it wasn’t scary, but they got depressed at the end, didn’t they, kids?. You think it’s not scary to be depressed?” I kept thinking back to that skit as I watched Vampyr. I don’t suppose too many people would assume this was going to be a “very scary” movie, even in 1932 … Dreyer is one of cinema’s most notable figures, and the movie Dreyer made just before Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is one of the handful of greatest films of all time. Still, whether in 1932 or 2014, we might be forgiven for thinking we would see something that was artful, but also at least a bit scary. In retrospect, it’s obvious that such expectations were silly. Vampyr is just another Dreyer film, not his best (although its reputation has grown over the years), but I don’t know that it was possible to follow The Passion of Joan of Arc, no matter how good the follow-up might be. The movie looks atmospheric … as with Brazil, about which I wrote recently, I can imagine viewers with certain taste preferences would like Vampyr very much indeed. I am not one of those viewers. #170 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10. For a companion piece, maybe the 1931 Dracula. Or you could go with movies based on similar material by Sheridan Le Fanu, such as Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses, or the Hammer classic, The Vampire Lovers.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013). After the first episode, I admitted that I wanted more socio-cultural stuff, and for the first part of Catching Fire, I got my wish. We learned more about the society of the film’s world, saw how power was consolidated, saw how the masses were mistreated. It was interesting, and the cast was once again good, although as with the first movie, everything lives or dies on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence. It was inevitable, of course, that eventually we’d get another Hunger Games. I was reminded of A Better Tomorrow 2. Chow Yun-Fat stole the first movie … although he was already 30, he became a breakout star in A Better Tomorrow. Problem is, his character died in that movie. For the sequel, we learned that Chow’s character had a twin brother. Voila! Problem solved. It was such an obvious, unbelievable, corny move,  yet the first time I saw it in a theater, the audience burst into applause when the twin made his first appearance, for all we really wanted was for Chow to turn up again. Similarly, I understand that it would be hard to have a Hunger Games movie without a Hunger Games, so I wasn’t exactly shocked when the Games returned. (If it isn’t obvious, I don’t know the books.) But I was a bit disappointed. What I had been enjoying up until that point seemed, once the Games took over, to be a mere prelude, something to keep our attention until the real movie began, and I felt somewhat cheated. And the Games in Catching Fire didn’t grab me the way the first film’s did. Once the movie was over, and much of what we’ve seen was “explained” as a setup for the next film in the series, what I’d seen made “sense”. But when the Head Gamemaker changed the Games world at will, I started losing interest. If you show someone fighting towards a target, you get invested in the attempt. If the target is constantly being changed, the investment isn’t as strong. It became less “can Katniss win the Games” and more “what will they do to Katniss now?” I felt like I was watching the great missing episode of Lost. And if the ending explained some of this, that wasn’t enough for me. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the sequel as much as I did the original, albeit for different reasons. Well, there’s also Jennifer Lawrence, who is great in both movies. I don’t have any teenaged girls around to help me with this, so I’m just hypothesizing. But I think if I were a 14-year-old girl, I wouldn’t spend much time in the Hunger Games world wondering if Katniss would end up with Peeta or Gale. Katniss is so much more interesting than they are, I’d just want to be like her. This might be one reason the franchise is so popular (although I’m speaking without any expertise): it’s not about the boyfriends. 7/10.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, 2010). I spend a lot of time thinking about taste preferences and how they affect not only how we evaluate works of art, but also how we decide which works to take in. You check out a list of available movies … the one you pick will be informed by your taste preferences, or, if there is more than one of you, the preferences of the group. One reason I take requests and use lists of movies to help me choose what to watch is to get out of the comfort zone of my own preferences. Which is to say, it is highly unlikely I would have come to Mysteries of Lisbon without some kind of outside help. Luckily, this is one of those times where the process is triumphant, for Mysteries of Lisbon is a terrific movie. If I tried to describe it, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking “he wouldn’t like that”. It’s a 4 1/2 hour costume drama (edited down from a six-hour television mini-series) in Portuguese, with some French and a smattering of English thrown in. Its surface is glorious … it looks very good throughout its running time … that usually leads me to jabber about style over content, and I confess, the movie I was most reminded of was Barry Lyndon, which I did not like. A mere description makes the movie sound like a mishmash: 19th-century Europe, royalty and codes of honor, acting that brought telenovelas to the mind of more than one critic, and a “plot” that is more accurately called a “narrative”, since we are constantly hearing this or that character tell us about something that happened once … it’s a film equivalent of an epistolary novel. It might sound confusing … actually, it is confusing, a lot of the time. What starts as the narrative of one character becomes the narrative of another character which becomes the narrative of another character, until we lose track of where we are. (The cliché of “it was all a dream” is actually useful, if perhaps incorrect, here.) But the revelations we discover over the course of the movie are generally revealed just a second before we figure them out for ourselves. If this sounds like a grandiloquent soap opera, well, don’t let your taste preferences get in the way. Mysteries of Lisbon is excellent. I’d sit through the six-hour version. #202 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

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