throwback thursday, new blu-ray player edition

Got a new Blu-ray player yesterday. Everyone streams nowadays, so you can get Blu-ray players for cheap. To test it out, I watched a favorite of mine, Don’t Look Now. I wrote a fairly long post on this four years ... it was a request at the time. It’s worth reading, including the comments section:

By Request: Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).

I got the Blu-ray just after I’d watched it for the above post, which is why it sat unopened for four years. It looks and sounds great, no surprise since it’s a Criterion release. I still love this movie after many viewings over the years.

Even though the new player is mostly functional and lacking many bells and whistles, it has many more features than my old Panasonic that served me well for so long. Most of those bells and whistles are irrelevant to me ... you can watch Netflix and Amazon and all that stuff, but I already have a Roku box, a Chromecast dongle, and an Amazon Fire Stick, so I don’t really need that. The one improvement that I’ve already taken advantage of is Bluetooth. I listened to the movie on Bluetooth headphones. It worked fine, and I didn’t have to worry about being too loud while my wife was working down stairs.

godzilla’s revenge (ishirô honda, 1969)

The title has nothing to do with the movie, and it would probably be better to use an alternate English title, All Monsters Attack, which is at least closer to what we see on the screen.

I’m sure many people think all of those old Japanese Godzilla movies are equally bad, with perhaps a nod to the original, which is actually a fine movie. Well, even fans of the movies tend to agree that Godzilla’s Revenge is the worst Japanese-made Godzilla movie of all time. Just think of how bad some of those movies are, and then try to imagine the depths to which Godzilla’s Revenge must go to take the title of Worst Ever.

For instance:

The fight scenes among the monsters are footage from earlier Godzilla movies (and not necessarily the best ones). Godzilla does not go on a rampage in a city with a large population. He lives on something called “Monster Island”.

“Monster Island” doesn’t actually exist ... it’s a place the hero, Ichirô, dreams about when he sleeps.

Thus, none of the monsters, including Godzilla, are “real” within the context of the film’s universe.

Ichirô is a latchkey kid who lacks parental advice because they are always working, and who is regularly bullied by the other kids.

When Ichirô dreams of Monster Island, he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, who speaks, thus allowing them to have conversations where Son of Godzilla explains that his dad is trying to teach him not to be a coward.

When Ichirô is awake, he uses his dream memories to emulate Little Godzilla, finally getting the courage to fight back against the bullies.

Oh, there’s also a plot about two bank robbers that are captured thanks to Ichirô.

Seriously, this is one awful movie. And I confess, I watched it on our DVD copy. Yes, I own Godzilla’s Revenge. 2/10.

high noon (fred zinnemann, 1952)

It’s hard to talk about High Noon after all these years. It almost exists more as a symbol or representative of its time than it does as an actual movie. And I can’t help but bring some of that baggage to my watching it again.

There’s all the stuff surrounding the Hollywood blacklist. Supposedly, High Noon is an allegory about the blacklist, although I think this isn’t nearly as obvious as is assumed, unless all it takes to be an allegory is to have a situation where everyone turns their back on the hero. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was working on High Noon when he was called before HUAC. He refused to “name names”, and was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood, after which he moved to England. Stanley Kramer was the producer of the film, the same Stanley Kramer who later made a gazillion “socially relevant” movies of variable quality, the same Stanley Kramer for whom the Stanley Kramer Award of the Producers Guild of America was created after his death, dedicated to movies which “illuminate provocative social issues”. Kramer wanted Foreman kicked off of High Noon because Foreman wouldn’t name names. There are various versions of this story.

Meanwhile, other people had problems with High Noon, most notably John Wayne, a passionate believer in the blacklist, and director Howard Hawks. Together, they later made Rio Bravo, claiming it was intended as a counter to High Noon. It’s all a big mess ... what really matters is Rio Bravo is arguably the best Western ever made, while High Noon is barely even a good film.

High Noon “works” ... the setup is irresistible, with the near-real time action, the train carrying the bad guy into town, Gary Cooper forced to stand alone. On the surface, it’s worth seeing. All of the other stuff makes it more interesting as a cultural document, but the movie itself is basic, simple, easy to take in. Cooper is far too old for the part of Will Kane, but he does exude Essence of Cooper. Grace Kelly is mostly wasted, and the part where her Quaker character shoots a bad guy is confusing at best. It’s fun seeing Lee Van Cleef in his first role. I’m not trying to keep people from watching High Noon, although they’d be better of watching Rio Bravo. But its status as a classic is unearned, in my opinion. #393 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (I should add that the theme song of the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’”, which won an Oscar and was a big hit, becomes unbearable after the 3,000th time you hear it during the movie.)

the panic in needle park (jerry schatzberg, 1971)

Noteworthy for the appearances of many actors at or near the beginning of their film careers, starting with the leads, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who had worked in the theater. Both had minor roles in one film prior to The Panic in Needle Park ... they were effectively unknowns. Coppola used Pacino’s performance here to convince the studio to let him cast the actor as Michael Corleone. Richard Bright, soon to be known as Al Neri from the Godfather movies, is also here in one of his earliest movies, as are actors like Raúl Juliá, Joe Santos, and Paul Sorvino. The screenplay, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was their first. And it was only the second feature directed by Schatzberg, who was (and perhaps still is) known as a photographer who took the picture that became the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

So there’s a lot of talent from before they got famous (Winn may give the best performance ... she won Best Actress at Cannes ... but her last film was in 1978, so she never really “got famous”, she was just that person who was so good in Needle Park). And the talent shows. Pacino and Winn carry the movie. As was so often the case in the early years, Pacino reminds us of Bruce Springsteen at a similar age. Winn’s gradual descent into a junkie’s life is highly regarded to this day. All down the line, the cast feels carefully chosen to climb into the skins of their characters.

Care is also taken to make New York City look “real”. More important, care is taken to make the junkie life look “real”, with detailed sequences of fixing and shooting up, and plenty of junkies asking everyone they meet if they are carrying.

It is so careful, in fact, that it misses some of the messiness of these characters’ lives. Or rather, the messiness looks constructed. There is a distance in the filmmaking, despite the attempt to get in the audience’s faces. Pacino and Winn give convincing portrayals of junkies, but they never convinced me they weren’t performances, which goes against the realist feel of the film.

It is also a very dreary picture, which is perhaps appropriate given the subject matter, but there is none of the humor of the similar Sid and Nancy. That film had more than just junkies, which made their story more heartbreaking. But Pacino’s character is on heroin from the beginning, and Winn’s character is clearly headed down the same trail. The result is a movie that might be “good for us”, and might turn us away from drugs because there is nothing exciting about what we see, but I can’t help wanting more. I wish one of those extras playing junkies had tried to steal one of the movie cameras. It might have seemed spontaneous, and there is nothing spontaneous here.

The Panic in Needle Park is impressive. It is worth seeing for a variety of reasons. But it is far from great. 7/10.

doctor strange (scott derrickson, 2016)

I was only a casual comic book reader as a kid. When we were sick, our dad would often stop at the store on his way home from work and get us a 7-Up and a comic. But I didn’t keep up, didn’t know much about them.

In 1970-71, though, I had my first chance to be a hippie, which meant I did a lot of psychedelic drugs. I’m relying on Wikipedia here, because of my aforementioned lack of knowledge about comics (by then, I’d discovered comix, but that’s for another discussion), and because, well, who remembers what we did when we took a lot of psychedelic drugs? I don’t know how we discovered the books, but somehow we became aware of Dr. Strange. Again using Wikipedia, I can state that Dr. Strange became its own comic book in June of 1968, beginning with Issue #169 (because it was a continuation of the Strange Tales series, which had introduced the Doctor in 1963). There were 15 issues of Dr. Strange, running through November of 1969, before Marvel took a different route, leaving Strange to pop up now and then, finally settling in for a long run in 1974. All of this comes from Wikipedia ... I lost track of Dr. Strange after those months as a hippie.

We bought all 15 issues of the late-60s Dr. Strange, and read them over and over. Funny thing is, I barely remember them now. When I was watching Doctor Strange, I realized I had little idea of what was to come, which was fine. The one thing I thought I remembered was that Strange wore a cape ... turns out I was thinking of the Cloak of Levitation, which eventually turns up in the movie.

This is a bit pointless, describing things I didn’t remember as if they had something to do with my experience watching Doctor Strange. But I did come to the movie with a bit more happy anticipation than I usually do for the Marvel movies, which I am not up to date on (I do watch a few of the Marvel TV series). I was willing to give the movie a chance, which I don’t always do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (OK, I liked Ant-Man a bit.) And yes, I liked it. I don’t know how it played with the Marvel fans, but it did make a shitload of money.

Much as is currently the case with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange had a casting controversy because Tilda Swinton, who played The Ancient One, is not Asian. In the comics, he is a Tibetan man ... Derrickson has a complicated explanation for why he wanted to avoid stereotypes, with the solution being to turn the character into a Celtic mystic played by Swinton. I admit this didn’t bother me, since Swinton is always so odd, she is sui generis no matter who she is playing.

The cast was good overall, although I was pleased to find that “Mads Mikkelsen admitted that with all the computer-generated imagery he got a bit lost on how to film his scenes”. He was great, of course, but when I watch these movies, I often wonder what it’s like to try and act in them.

I didn’t care about the mystic angles, which were likely my favorite parts in my hippie days, but neither did ruin things for me. It’s just a case of accepting the world created in the film, and they’ve done well with that here. I have no idea how it all fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn’t bother me when I’m watching Jessica Jones, so it’s OK here, as well. It gets in under two hours, is a good blend of CGI spectacle and solid, human acting. It’s not a waste of time, which is to say, it’s at least as good as Ant-Man. 7/10.

film fatales #26: to walk invisible (sally wainwright, 2016)

Not sure how to tag this ... Wainwright made it for the BBC and it aired in the States on PBS, but it’s a film, not a series. She works in television, having given us the excellent series Happy Valley. As is often the case, To Walk Invisible has one person I’ve heard of (Jonathan Pryce) and a cast of excellent actors who are unknown to me (although a few of them were also in Happy Valley). One other similarity to that earlier series: To Walk Invisible takes place in Yorkshire, as did the series, and I can barely understand what people are saying (friends from South England once told me they needed subtitles to understand Happy Valley).

To Walk Invisible tells the story of the Brontë family in the late 1840s, when the sisters first published novels under male pseudonyms. (Pryce played their father.) Their tormented addict brother Branwell is also an important part of the story, although given the time constraints (it lasts two hours), he takes up perhaps too much time. In fact, To Walk Invisible might have benefitted from at least one more episode, as events feel rushed throughout.

The focus is almost entirely on the sisters’ lives. You’re left to fill in the narratives for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on your own, which may be for the best, since I imagine anyone who wants to watch a story of the sisters will have already read the novels. To some extent, the novels come out of nowhere in To Walk Invisible, at least as specific individual works. The film shows how the sisters had to fight the sentiments of the time, reflected most clearly in their use of pseudonyms to hide their gender. And we are led to believe that they are excellent writers, especially Charlotte. But while their skills are made evident, and while their struggles to be recognized are a central theme of the movie, there is little reference to the fact that these weren’t just any novels, but were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

In one respect, this is a good thing, because To Walk Invisible avoids the common fault of biographical stories that “explain” a book like Jane Eyre by showing examples of the author’s life that supposedly informed their creation, as if they lacked the imagination to come up with the work on their own. So we don’t get a scene of Charlotte seeing a woman in an attic. But it does seem odd that Charlotte could have been writing any old novel, given the lack of interest shown in the actual book she produced.

To Walk Invisible looks great, and sounds great if you can handle the accents. The acting is top-notch. There’s too much Branwell, and it’s too short overall. But as is, it’s a worthy accomplishment. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #25: the intervention (clea duvall, 2016)

A group of mid/late-30s friends and family invite two other friends for a getaway, intending to have a “marriage intervention” for those two others, whose marriage seems to falling apart. The obvious comparison is to The Big Chill. There’s even a “Meg Tilly character” who is younger than the others. And Clea DuVall has said she was trying to capture that Big Chill feeling. But The Intervention operates on a much lower key than The Big Chill. The cast of The Big Chill was full of names. Kevin Kline was coming off of Sophie’s Choice. Glenn Close had an Oscar nomination for The World According to Garp. William Hurt worked with director Lawrence Kasdan on Body Heat. DuVall, on the other hand, puts together a fine ensemble cast, but they are more indie darlings than “BIG STARS”. Melanie Lynskey is probably the best known, although I’m not sure ... many of the actors have been in popular TV series, and Natasha Lyonne is a BIG STAR at my house, at least. But the scale is lower, and I think that’s useful. If The Big Chill often crumpled under the weight of making A Statement, The Intervention feels more like a story about a group of characters.

Honestly, the film I’m most reminded of is The Anniversary Party. In that one, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming wrote a script, knowing which of their friends they would be casting and tailoring the characters to their friends, so Kevin Kline plays the husband of Phoebe Cates’ character, who has quit acting to raise their kids, who play “themselves”. I love that movie, which I can’t say for The Intervention, which has a more generic feel to it. For some reason, I didn’t feel closely attached to the characters in The Intervention. I was watching them from a distance, even though I think we were supposed to climb right into the characters.

This is not the fault of the acting, which is fine, and DuVall’s directorial debut is efficient. It gets out of the way in 90 minutes, always a plus in my book. If DuVall continues to pursue writing and directing as well as acting, she has a promising future. But The Intervention is more a good debut than it is a great picture. 6/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

by request: the happiness of the katakuris (takashi miike, 2001)

To some extent, you know what you are getting when you see the name Takaski Miike. About the first of his movies I saw, I wrote, “13 Assassins is also one of the more gory movies you’ll see, if that bothers you (you don’t always see everything, but you know it’s happening, which can be just as bad).” “I have to hand it to Miike”, I said of Ichi the Killer, “he’s committed to his art. If he decides to make a movie about sadists and masochists, then by golly he will, even if he has to stuff it into an otherwise standard yakuza movie.” (According to Wikipedia, “[D]uring its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001, the audience received "barf bags" emblazoned with the film's logo as a promotional gimmick”.) But it was Audition that I found most “inspiring”:

Miike isn’t pussyfooting around, here … he wants to dig deeply into obsession and misogyny, and he is willing to accomplish what he wants, even if it means throwing narrative coherence out the window, closely followed by “good taste”. Even fans of Audition will admit that it is almost impossible to watch the long final segment of the film, which isn’t to say that segment is gratuitous (although it often is) or unnecessary. In the context of the film, it is the best possible ending. That it is also revolting, that it has inspired plenty of walkouts in theaters over the years, that it is entirely possible that there is less than meets the eye, well, let’s just say it is a complicated movie.

The thing is, while Miike’s films can border on torture porn, that’s not all he’s up to. His ability to create startling, unexpected beauty in the midst of horror is great, and his kitchen-sink approach allows room for comedy, as well. Plus, I should note that I’ve been selective in my choice of Miike films to watch ... apparently he also makes comedies and other movies intended more for families.

But I haven’t seen those, so when The Happiness of the Katakuris was recommended in one of the comments to Ichi, I assumed “the happiness” would be meant ironically. And I came at it mostly unspoiled, as I prefer. So I didn’t notice the advertising tagline that read, “The hills are alive with the sound of screaming”.

Yes, among other things, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical. A musical with a natural setting (a bed and breakfast near Mount Fuji), to further push The Sound of Music comparisons. But it’s also reminiscent of other movies that weren’t necessarily musicals: Eating Raoul, for instance, and Moulin Rouge. Night of the Living Dead, too, while we’re at it. Meanwhile, Miike throws in a few Claymation scenes (I wasn’t kidding about the kitchen-sink).

It’s nice to see one his movies that retains the ability to surprise the audience without having to hold our hands over our eyes (not too much, anyway). 13 Assassins remains my favorite, but I haven’t yet seen a Takashi Miike movie I didn’t like. 7/10.

what i watched

Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002). Another example of my favorite made-up genre, “It Wasn’t What I Expected.” Critics have long given Adam Sandler movies poor reviews ... he received several Emmy nominations for his work on Saturday Night Live, but he also has three Razzies and countless nominations in the latter category for his films. His movies are popular, which is why Netflix finances them (contracted now for eight), and they are probably critic-proof. I’ve mentioned a few times that I hated the first Sandler movie I saw (Billy Madison) so much that I immediately gave up on him. In all the years since, I’ve only seen two I can remember: Click, and Funny People. Like Punch-Drunk Love, those movies are somewhat atypical for Sandler movies, which may be why I’ve seen them. Perhaps most important, I like some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, especially Magnolia and Boogie Nights. I didn’t like Punch-Drunk Love as much as I liked those two, but I liked it more than any other Adam Sandler movie I’ve seen. I’ve admitted before that I see decent acting chops peeking out of his work when he isn’t being an idiot, and in Punch-Drunk Love, he does very well at swinging between a man frightened of his own shadow and a man with terrible anger inside who can explode at any given moment. Emily Watson is good as the love interest, and as usual, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the most of his small part. I guess this is now my favorite Adam Sandler movie. #27 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (uh, no), and #467 on the TSPDT all-time list. 7/10.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016). I liked Cloverfield very much, but it’s been more than eight years since I saw it, so hopefully I’m forgiven when I say I couldn’t remember it. My wife actually had me beat on this ... when I asked if she wanted to watch 10 Cloverfield Lane, she went on about Godzilla, which is about right (all that came to my mind was the found footage angle). Luckily, despite there being some connection between the two Cloverfield movies, in fact this most recent film keeps its attachment to the original so obscure that it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever seen the first one. I was taken by the adrenaline rush of Cloverfield (“it brutalizes the audience by sticking us right in the middle of the horrified emotions of the characters that only a few minutes earlier seemed so mundane”). I noted that there was no suspense in Cloverfield, which is what sets 10 Cloverfield Lane apart from its predecessor, for it is mostly suspense until the final section. It’s just a different kind of movie from Cloverfield. John Goodman makes a great is-he-a-villain, and the movie is never boring. But it isn’t brutal. And it’s 20 minutes longer than the original, and there’s no reason for that. 7/10.

my neighbor totoro (hayao miyazaki, 1988)

I watched this a couple of years ago with our ten-year-old grandson, who was kinda bored ... he’s the Star Wars/Lego type. This time, it was our four-year-old grandson, going to a movie theater for the first time. His parents make sure he’s not inundated with media, and Totoro seemed like a nice first trip to the movies.

Here’s what I wrote earlier:

We watched the Disney English-language dub, which I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t really recognize any of the voices, including the stunt-casting of Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters. It was fine, in any event ... I think I only notice English dubs when they are terrible. I liked the movie as much as ever, even with the semi-negative vibes in the room. I think Princess Mononoke is my favorite Miyazaki film, but to be honest, they all kind of blend together in my mind as the years pass, so I couldn’t really explain my preference. My fondest memories are of Spirited Away, probably because I love the soot thingies. Even the lesser movies are enjoyable, though, and often quite loony. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

That earlier viewing was at home, so one of the biggest differences this time around was being in a crowd, with plenty of parents with their kids. I was reminded of the first time I watched a Studio Ghibli movie in a theater, Ponyo:

The best part about watching this in the theater ... was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping.

This time again, there were Totoro fans in the audience, and of course Totoro made a lot more appearances this time. It was impossible to watch the movie without trying to imagine what was going on inside my grandson’s head. There were a couple of times when he was scared, but he seemed to enjoy himself, and afterwards, I bought him a cushy Totoro toy:


I’m always up for watching My Neighbor Totoro, but honestly, the best part of this was the experience of going with Félix.