Monthly Archives: May 2009

Day 18: Rope (1948)

What a weird little snippet of the Alfred Hitchcock canon.  So Rope is about a pair of college buddies (played by two no-name graduates of the School of Overacting) who decide to commit the “perfect” murder and then invite their victim’s family and girlfriend, and their extremely savvy boarding-school headmaster (Jimmy Stewart) over for a dinner party while the corpse is cooling in the sideboard (which they eat off of OMG).  What makes it worth seeing is the fact that the entire movie is only ten shots (my friend who recommended it to me told me it was only one shot — not true!  Apparently the cameras could only hold ten minutes of film at a time, so that would’ve been impossible).  This makes for a surprisingly eerie movie-watching experience.  Not only do the cameras move from room to room as they follow the characters, but the props and set move around as well — apparently everything, including the set walls, was on casters so they could shift things around when the camera was pointed the other way.  The movie also seems to take place in real time but actually doesn’t — the dinner party only takes twenty minutes but is made to look like it spans an hour or two, and the sunset out the window is sped up.

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If you’ve seen any other Hitchcock films, you’ll notice that the plot is kinda thin and the acting (with the exceptions of Stewart and Constance Collier, who plays a hilarious old lady aunt) is spotty at best (one of the leads, John Dall, stutters ad nauseam and has a rather punchable sneer).  But the camera work alone almost makes up for it — I found myself watching intently so I didn’t miss any of the cuts.  And it’s weirdly fascinating what such long shots do to the pacing of the movie.  I used to watch movies with a film-studies major friend of mine who’d sometimes bellow, at appropriate moments, “Oh my GOD this shot is going on forever!”  So it’s interesting to me that the same technique, in more knowledgeable hands, can heighten the tension instead of dissipating it.

It’s also worth mentioning that the film’s mild homoerotic undertones, which to tell the truth I didn’t even notice, were apparently enough to make two actors whose sexuality was under popular scrutiny (Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift) turn down the parts they were offered for fear that it would amount to a public coming-out.  Coincidentally or not, the screenwriter and several of the actors who did end up in the movie were either gay or bisexual.  I know viewers were much easier to shock back then, but I still find it bizarre that playing even a sexually ambiguous character in the 40s was tantamount to a coming-out party.  Whatever happened to ACTING, people?


Day 17: Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)

Wow.  I’m searching for a stronger recommendation than “must see.”  As the title suggests, this is a documentary about a group of prison inmates  who are in a theater program that performs a Shakespeare play every year.  We get to see them choosing roles and rehearsing The Tempest, and along the way we also hear the stories of how they ended up in prison and how they feel now about their former lives.

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This movie made me question everything I thought I knew about prison and what it’s supposed to do for or to its inmates (which wasn’t much).  I know I shouldn’t be so surprised that the inmates were not only intelligent and articulate but also, by and large, extremely contrite over the crimes they’d committed; but I’ll admit I was.  Lots of them talked about how they’d committed crimes because “I had lots of anger I hadn’t dealt with” or “My family/culture repressed me,” and I wondered if those insights came from visits with the prison psychologist or from simply having a lot of time to think about it.  One young man (he couldn’t have been over 25) was serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole for killing the two men who’d just killed his stepfather.  Even without knowing all the details of his case, it’s impossible not to wonder how a court could make the determination that a guy in his early twenties is so thoroughly incorrigible that he’ll never be fit for normal society again (incidentally, this same young man has to be replaced in the play at the last minute because he breaks the prohibition against homemade tattoos and ends up in solitary confinement).  Another man is offered a job as a computer programmer while he’s still in prison but is then denied parole at his hearing a few months later.   The warden (who’s the polar opposite of the popular stereotype of the sadistic control freak prison warden) has a surprisingly progressive view of his job — he says he’s preparing the prisoners for the day they’re released, with the eventual hope that they’ll never come back and thus make his job obsolete.

To me, the most fascinating and moving aspect of this flick is the concern most of the men interviewed expressed about being redeemed and/or forgiven and the connections they drew between their own lives and the themes of the play.  I feel like you expect to hear convicts talk about wanting to get out of prison and turn their lives around (and many of them do say this); you don’t expect as many of them to wonder whether they can ever forgive themselves or say that the anniversary of their crime is not only difficult to get through but that it gets tougher every year (or at least I didn’t).  There are no easy answers — some of the men have done such heinous things that it’s not difficult to wonder if they should forgive themselves, or if anyone else should.  The program isn’t presented as a cure-all, but it’s hard to overstate the things these convicts learn about themselves and the ways they grow simply through spending time with Shakespeare.  Highly, highly recommended.


Day 16: Casino Royale (2006)

I’ve never been hugely into James Bond movies, truth be told.  I’m all for explosions and death-defying stunts and cool gadgets, but only if they’re accompanied by interesting characters or a plot that isn’t totally formulaic.  Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s maiden voyage as 007, isn’t anything revolutionary as far as action movies go, but it does satisfy my basic watchability requirements, which makes it the best Bond out there as far as I’m concerned.

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As you can see, Daniel Craig is much hotter more intimidating than the previous incarnations of 007, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it!) that he seems to have cribbed one of his two facial expressions from Derek Zoolander.  The plot itself is about what you’d expect — lots of cloak-and-dagger oh-wait-you-mean-THIS-person-is-the-bad-guy stuff, complete with neat gadgets, cool cars, and pretty women.  But within the standard-issue secret agent formula, there’s a little more nuance than you might expect.  For some reason this one got me thinking about what makes Bond the good guy and the other dudes the bad guys, other than the obvious external signals (Bond is strapping and tan; Le Chiffre is pasty, googly-eyed, and asthmatic, plus he has a professional title that starts with “the,” which is a sure sign of villainy*).  I feel like movies have a standard set of things we can live with our hero doing (killing someone in self-defense, cheating at poker, being a materialistic man-whore) and things we can’t (killing someone in cold blood, dropping even the pretense of romance from their interactions with the opposite sex), and this set of standards is often used to differentiate the hero from the villain, as if to justify your emotional investment with the hero.  I’m not saying I disagree with these standards, I’m just not sure where they came from or why filmmakers always seem to draw the lines in the same places.  Daniel Craig’s Bond does push the limits of acceptable secret agent ethics, but he compensates for it (at least in my opinion) by having a broader emotional range than we’re used to seeing.  An acceptable trade, if you ask me.

*I feel like even if you came in at the bottom of your class at supervillain school and got stuck with “The Prairie Dog” or “The Creme Brulee” as your villain name, you’re still better off than the guy who has to start out his villainous career as Ron or Sergio.  Though I haven’t tested this theory.


Day 15: Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Somehow I’d missed this little gem up until now, despite my professed love of gangster movies.  Shocking!  But I rectified the situation.

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Rocky Sullivan (played by the always-amazing James Cagney) is a notorious tough guy who gets out of prison and tracks down the business partner who still owes him money (Humphrey Bogart OMG!).  Bogey tries unsuccessfully to double-cross him and they enter into an uneasy partnership.  Meanwhile, Rocky decides to look up his childhood friend Jerry, who has become a priest in the intervening fifteen years.  Jerry’s mentoring a platoon of street urchins who idolize Rocky, and he in turn tries to leverage this influence to get the kids to listen to Father Jerry.  This works until Jerry decides to launch a citywide campaign against hoodlums like Rocky in an effort to keep the urchins from following in Rocky’s footsteps.

I loved that this movie avoids so many easy stereotypes.  Father Jerry’s never too good to hang out with Rocky, and he doesn’t lecture or look disgusted when people start behaving badly.  Rocky’s girlfriend Laury (played by the gorgeous Ann Sheridan, who’s from my hometown!) isn’t a tough-talking gun moll or a fragile weepy “little woman”; she’s just a strong, normal woman with a dark past.  Even Rocky himself, who claims to have “no heart,” is surprisingly moral.  The gang of guttersnipes (billed as “The Dead End Kids”) are a little gee-Officer-Krupke for my taste, but that’s forgivable.  And I know this isn’t news, but Jimmy Cagney is just mesmerizing.  I think he’s such a cultural icon by now that it’s easy to think you “get” him even if you’ve never seen any of his movies.  But he’s always surprising and always worth watching.

Other interesting (to me, anyway) trivia about the movie:
-directed by Michael Curtiz, who also did a little movie you may have heard of called Casablanca
spoofed in the apparently fictitious Angels with Filthy Souls, the movie Macaulay Culkin watches in Home Alone
almost (but mercifully not) remade in the 80s starring Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Reeve
-spawned an NYC pub named after Cagney’s character (if this is indicative of the goings-on in the pub, better stow your foldin’ money before you go inside)


Day 14: Corpse Bride (2005)

I actually saw this in the theater with my friend and future roommate, the extremely talented writer and illustrator Beth P. I remembered liking it a lot, but four years later I wondered if I’d just been absorbing her enthusiasm through osmosis.  Or something.

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As it turned out, Corpse Bride was well worth seeing again.  Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a shy, bumbling young man in what appears to be Victorian England,* who’s about to be married off by his nouveau riche parents to Victoria, the daughter of bankrupt aristocrats.  He meets Victoria the day of the wedding rehearsal and they hit it off, but he can’t get the vows right so he wanders off into the woods to practice them.  He finally gets them right and places the ring on a gnarled branch as a finishing touch — but horrors!  That branch is actually a skeletal hand sticking out of the ground that grabs Victor and tries to pull him underground a la Carrie; and his beautifully-recited vows have just re-animated the hand’s owner, the lovely Emily (voiced by Burton’s wifey Helena Bonham Carter) and married them at the same time!  Obviously this will never do; but when Victor finds out that Victoria’s parents have already given him up for lost and decided to marry her off to the opportunistic Lord Barkis instead, a life in the underworld (populated by singing skeletons OMG!) with Emily doesn’t seem so bad.  The only problem is that for them to be properly married, he has to be dead!

For my money, Tim Burton strikes just the right balance between creepiness and sweetness that keeps this from feeling like a kids’ movie.  The animation, which is spectacular on its own, also serves the story admirably — the colors in the “real” world are muted and deathlike compared to the vibrant  colors used to portray the underworld.  The story itself is simple without being obvious, which I appreciate.  And did I mention there are singing, dancing skeletons?

*According to Wikipedia, they’re somewhere in Europe, but the characters seem overwhelmingly English to me.


Day 13: Father Ted: Series 3, Disc 2 (1997)

This disc only has the Christmas episode (plus some extras), which turned out to be just as funny as every other episode of Father Ted (and not so Christmas-y that I felt weird watching it in the middle of May).  Highlights include Ted and Dougal getting lost in the lingerie section of a department store (below), Ted receiving the Golden Cleric award and giving an acceptance speech listing all the people he hates, and Mrs. Doyle getting up in the middle of the night to break her Christmas present from Ted, the Tea-matic.


Day 12: Bullitt (1968)

Oh HELL YES.

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OK OK, no more one-line posts.  If you know me at all, you probably know that cops-and-bad-guys movies are my Achilles heel (and if you don’t know me and you’re entertained by my half-baked opinions about movies, I salute you [scha-WING!]).  I’d seen parts of this one several times but never the whole thing, to my shame.  And it totally lived up to the hype, but not in the way I expected.  To me, what makes Bullitt unique in the cop-movie canon is Steve McQueen’s gorgeously restrained performance.  There’s no sidekick to bounce jokes off of, no eccentricities of character or mannerisms, nothing except a good story and McQueen being his usual intense and elegant self.

Well, and an effing sweet car chase.

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You all know about it (I even watched it with Brian at his insistence just a couple of months ago), so I’ll spare you the usual gushing about Steve McQueen’s stunt-driving skills.  But I WILL say that I love love love how the funk soundtrack cuts out the second it goes from two cars cruising around town and tailing each other into an actual chase scene.  Anytime there’s an awesome action sequence in a movie, I usually prefer the sounds of whatever’s actually happening (in this case, gears shifting and tires peeling out) to hyped-up music.

The one thing that made me stop dry-humping the TV screen for a minute was the lame-ass love story.  I don’t want to bitch about it too much since it only takes up maybe twelve minutes of screen time, but it didn’t serve any narrative purposes and at one point (the end, where his lady friend throws a hissy fit on the side of the road and has to be comforted) it actually detracts from the story.  Every time poor Jacqueline Bisset gets a few seconds of screen time, the dialogue disentigrates into hackneyed romance-novel baloney, like “Everything you do is a part of me.”  Ew!  But she wasn’t around enough to ruin the movie, so it still gets my seal of approval.