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you’re gonna see her name a lot in the next couple of weeks

Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn't apply her "approach" to a film. With her it was all personal. … She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

She's accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now.

That was her influence, and you can see it reflected all over the web, probably by some critics who have never read her. It is all first person. … In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you're getting yourself in for, but after that it's all subjective.

-- Roger Ebert on Pauline Kael


#39: singin’ in the rain (stanley donen and gene kelly, 1952)

(This is the 12th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

With Singin’ in the Rain, I officially enter the “old movies” part of the show. My first eleven choices so far were all less than 30 years old; only 7 of the upcoming 39 are that “new.” You can use this as a sign of my biases … I tend to give more weight to older movies in rankings like this.

Singin’ in the Rain is an excellent example of the distinction I make between “favorite” and “best.” I admire Gene Kelly, think this is his best picture, and believe he belongs somewhere on this list (it’s not hard, this movie really is a favorite of mine). But Singin’ in the Rain in not my favorite musical … to take one example, Gigi made it to my last cuts, and I like it more than Singin’ in the Rain, but I prefer what Singin’ in the Rain “represents” to what Gigi represents in terms of the history of movie musicals, so it makes this list while Gigi falls off.

I suppose I should talk about what it represents, or rather, what Gene Kelly represents. His dancing style (for that matter, his entire screen presence, which is tied to his dancing) is brash, muscular … it’s “American.” He and Fred Astaire really are the two masters of classic American dance-on-film, and they couldn’t be any more different. I prefer Astaire, but there is no denying Kelly. Kelly is also ambitious. He regularly tried for innovation, embraced the possibilities film offered the art of dance, and if he sometimes overreached, he gets credit for the effort.

Singin’ in the Rain is more than Gene Kelly, though, which is why it is his best movie, and why many consider it America’s finest movie musical. The setting (the beginning of the sound era in motion pictures) is perfect, and works on its own as a loving sendup of the films of that time. Kelly’s co-stars get their moments … Debbie Reynolds is consistently fine, although she doesn’t really get a number to show off, Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” remains astonishing, and Cyd Charisse defies my attempts to put her appeal into words (she has to be seen to be believed). The extended “Broadway Melody” set piece shows Kelly’s ambitions at their finest (and Cyd ain’t too shabby, herself), while “Singin’ in the Rain” is Kelly’s most iconic moment.

 

 

Comments were generally in the “yep, that’s a great movie” vein. The above was posted just before Osama bin Laden was killed, so the truth is, the comments took a right turn about halfway through.

 


music friday: “shake, rattle and roll”

I mean, what other song was I going to pick the day after Berkeley got shaken, rattled and rolled a few times?

Shindig was a favorite show of mine in the mid-60s. It was stuffed with rock and rollers performing live as often as not. You got to see the 50s stars like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis when they were still fairly young. You got to see the great live performers such as Jackie Wilson. And, week after week, you got to see Darlene Love as a member of the Blossoms. They sang backup for the guests, and once in awhile got to step out for their own number. The backup band included people like Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Delaney Bramlett, James Burton, and Glen Campbell. Teri Garr and Toni Basil were among the show’s dancers.

On May 5, 1965, Shindig offered a tribute to Elvis. The opening medley gives you an idea of what Shindig was like. It featured Joey Cooper, the Blossoms, Glen Campbell, the Wellingtons, Sonny and Cher, and the Chambers Brothers. Next, Delaney Bramlett did “That’s All Right, Mama” with James Burton playing Scotty Moore’s solo. Finally, the Wellingtons, Blossoms, and Chambers Brothers took on “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”.

Later, the Chambers worked their way through “Jailhouse Rock”. After some filler, you get Sonny and Cher with “All Shook Up”:

The highlights in this clip are Glen Campbell, looking for “Trouble", and the Blossoms justifying this Music Friday post with “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (and yes, more filler in between):

BTW, the cats would be very happy if the earthquakes would stop for awhile.


#40: the rapture (michael tolkin, 1991)

(This is the 11th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

It’s a bit hard to write about The Rapture here, because I’ve written about it before, and I don’t want to repeat myself. But I think I got it right back in the day, so I confess to a bit of cut-and-paste here.

One warning: it is impossible to discuss this movie without revealing key plot points, so there will be spoilers for this 20-year-old film.

The Rapture is a movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming 'rapture' whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever. The hook is that writer/director Michael Tolkin takes this scenario and goes for something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen. But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept. When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven.

To appreciate how groundbreaking Tolkin’s approach is, imagine how the movie would play if it were just another film in the “Left Behind” style. The rapture would reward the righteous, and the sinful would be punished. Or imagine how it might look as a standard “Hollywood godless liberal” movie. The rapture would never happen, and the believers would be seen as deluded fanatics. To instead make a film where the rapture is real, but God is bad? That’s a different kind of movie entirely.

After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave.

As Tolkin once commented on my blog, “The scandal of the film was that those who don't believe in God could tell themselves that Sharon was delusional, until the end.”

Mimi Rogers delivers in the starring role, and David Duchovny also pops up. The special effects at the end of the film, when the apocalypse occurs, are very inexpensive (I wouldn’t say they were cheap, though, and I find them quite evocative). But in this case, the low budget is probably essential to the film’s greatness, for, as Roger Ebert noted, a higher budget would have required a safer, less daring production.

 

 

Comments were generally positive about the movie, although in most cases, people couldn’t remember much about it. I guess that’s to be expected; they hadn’t obsessed about the film for 20 years like I have.

 


what i watched last week

Yes, the weekly movie post is back, after a couple of weeks off while I was in Hawaii. The only movie I watched during that time was 2/3 of Killers from Space with Peter Graves, which I watched on my cell phone during the flight home. I also watched Season One of Battlestar Galactica again. Now, the real movies return.

Incendies (Denis Villenueve, 2010). Complicated, slow-moving drama that feels a bit like Hitchcock without all the shtick. The basic plot, about twins learning about their mother’s past, propels the movie, but it’s the individual scenes, and the growing sense of discovery, that makes Incendies special. The acting by female leads Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin adds immensely to the film’s power. The ending doesn’t make a lot of sense on a logical scale, but it delivers an honest emotional punch just the same. There’s an overarching theme, something about breaking the chains of anger, that didn’t do much for me, but your mileage might vary in that regard. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year, and it’s the best of the three that I’ve seen. 8/10.

Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995). Phil Dellio had this at #45 on his Facebook list, and I finally caught up with it. A cast of well-known film stars (Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker, Ashley Judd) and semi-known television regulars (Giancarlo Esposito, Jared Harris, Harold Perrineau, Malik Yoba) fit perfectly into Wayne Wang’s low-key approach. Paul Auster seems to have done more than just his credited work as writer, and it’s not always easy to tell what is improvised and what is not. Phil hit the nail on the head when he noted that Smoke is the kind of art film that would have gotten a lot of attention if it arrived in the States with subtitles. The characters all have multiple levels, and not everyone’s secrets are bad ones. 8/10.


the walking dead, season two premiere

At the end of Season One, I wrote of The Walking Dead, “The Walking Dead is very good at what it does, and what it does seems to be popular … while we got to know the characters better over the course of the episodes, at the end, we were basically in the same place we were several episodes earlier: on the run from the zombies. It’s unclear how long this can keep our attention.” Judging by the Season Two opener, keeping our attention won’t be a problem for awhile.

I’m still not entirely convinced the characters are going to be interesting enough to make for worthwhile viewing. They aren’t awful, and the show doesn’t stop dead in its tracks when we get a little character development. But right now, the show is worth watching for the ways it plays with our expectations of the zombie genre. Tonight’s episode delivered big time on the cool zombie stuff, excruciatingly gory without showing much (thanks to great sound effects work), making the experience of watching it anxiety-inducing. That’s the thing about zombies: you never know where or when they’ll pop up, you just know when they do make an appearance, it will be bad news for someone.

The Walking Dead changed showrunners in the off-season, but you can’t tell from what’s on the screen. It’s a show that takes pride in doing its genre right, takes pride in grossing out its audience, takes pride in scaring the shit out of us. Thus far, I don’t see many signs of the larger meanings of a Dawn of the Dead, and so I won’t be surprised if The Walking Dead never rises above its limitations. But there is nothing wrong with a show that knows what it wants to do, and does it. The Walking Dead is the Joan Jett of television, which makes the B+ I gave Season One ironically appropriate (Christgau gave Jett’s albums five straight B+ grades, saying “not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea.”). Grade for Season Two premiere: B+, of course.


#41: near dark (kathryn bigelow, 1987)

(This is the 10th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

One thing is becoming clear: I have a much larger appetite for gore than either Jeff or Phil.

Near Dark is a long-time favorite of mine that has faced some challenges in the last couple of years. I’ve always considered it Kathryn Bigelow’s best film, but then along comes The Hurt Locker, which deserves consideration as well. And it has always been my favorite vampire movie, but then along comes Let the Right One In, which is vying for my fave in that category.

So I watched Near Dark again, as I have done for all of the movies on my list. The things I have always loved about Near Dark are still there, as good as ever. My appreciation for the moody atmosphere was increased; not sure why, but I noticed it more this time around. Some of the shots are gorgeous and ominous at the same time, and there is a hot tenderness in the blood-exchanging scenes between Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright that is a match for anything on True Blood.

Still, what lifts this film above its competitors can be reduced to two words: Bill Paxton. This is a list of favorites, and Bill Paxton’s Severen is my favorite vampire of all time. I can’t think of another vampire who enjoys his job as much as does Severen. Paxton inhabits the part (yes, like he’s possessed), offering up a rare combination of viciousness and glee. It’s the role of a lifetime, even if it is far less known than his work on Big Love.

Kathryn Bigelow has had a fascinating career, and I say that not as a Johnny-come-lately but as someone who has been a fan of hers since Near Dark, her first solo directing job, in 1987. Her films are often more style than substance, and I usually prefer the opposite, but when they work, you have something special. Her misses can be invigorating (Point Break, but also K-19: The Widowmaker), but her lesser films expose her weaknesses (Blue Steel, The Weight of Water). I was delighted when she became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. I suppose the Academy still has a hard time rewarding genre work, though. Otherwise she might have won an Oscar for Near Dark.

 

The comments this time consisted of Jeff, Phil and I talking about our favorite gory movies. The highlight was Jeff telling us he once interviewed Herschell Gordon Lewis.


music friday: elvis, “an american trilogy”

Since we’ve been in Hawaii, perhaps a Hawaiian artifact is called for, Aloha from Hawaii. “An American Trilogy” is Mickey Newbury’s mash-up of a Confederate song, a Union song, and an African-American spiritual. Greil Marcus did some of his greatest writing when he examined Elvis’ performance of the song:

Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform the Union.

Well, for a moment, staring at that man on the stage, you can almost believe it. For if Elvis were to bring it off -- and it easy to think that only he could -- one would leave the hall with a new feeling for the country; whatever that feeling might be, one's sense of place would be broadened, enriched.

The problem, of course, is that by 1973, if not earlier, Elvis had become a blank slate onto which we could project our fantasies. And while Elvis the artist was as great as any popular singer of the 20th century, he didn’t quite keep up his standards in his later years. Not to call too strongly on notions of authenticity, but in much of Elvis’ best music, you hear a real person reaching out to his audience. In much of his most impressive music, though, you hear a performance … a great one, but a performance nonetheless. And it’s certainly possible that we in the audience cared much more than the King did about the meaning of songs like “An American Trilogy”. As I once wrote in a review of Marcus’ book Double Trouble, which examined Elvis and Bill Clinton,

The Elvis who sang "American Trilogy" is the same Elvis who put out an entire album of himself jabbering on stage, the same Elvis who might follow up a performance of "American Trilogy" with an uninterested version of "Funny How Time Slips Away." Elvis, as a cultural figure, might have performed the Union, but even Elvis pulled back from the act itself.

Here is the King from Hawaii: