April ends with what you see here
A fun little month of film. I should say that I watched more quality short films than usual, from Cops (and a bunch more Buster Keaton) to Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe to A Date in 2025 to more more more. But they don't get counted! No matter how many there are!
So on to the big ones.
Easter Parade (1948)
So this is the number-one boxoffice smash of 1948. Which is wild to me. The story is barebones and the romance is dumb. I guess people just liked singing and dancing and accepted the big stars because they are stars and these are their roles? I dunno.
Don't get me wrong. The songs are Irving Berlin in the best way. I'll humming at least the title track for a while (and it wasn't even my favorite). But
Can we talk about the romance? Or romances, rather? Because they're dumb. I know that stars fall for each other in movies, but Fred Astaire's both a little weird looking and almost a quarter century older than Judy Garland. It doesn't make sense! Especially not when there's a really nice guy who is age- and face-appropriate who's also really rich right there pining for her. Why does that guy exist? It's not so he can marry Fred's former flame. He doesn't want that and we don't want it for him. It's like the movie was following some playbook and forgot how many plays they'd booked. So many complications are put into place and then the final couple scenes conveniently forget all about them. Love conquers all, I guess. Even love that makes no sense.
(This was, of course, the MGM way. Using playbooks, that is. Piles of writers all trying to do salary work on the same movie.)
I'm no musical expert, but I do wonder if this movie is either typical of the time (I suspect this is true) or extra-huge (I suspect this is also true), but sometimes it seems to be the direct target of Singin' in the Rain's satire. I wonder.
Gates of Heaven (1978)
I largely know about this film and have wanted to see it because of Roger Ebert's enthusiasm for it. It's a fascinating time capsule, but that also makes it a bit more distant. I'm not sure I can experience or appreciate it as, say, Roger Ebert or Werner Herzog did in 1978. By which I mean it feels less about us and more about them. But maybe that's also an aspect of watching it alone, not sharing it with an audience.
The film has no narration and I find this a compelling technique. Every one just speaks for themselves. No one is between us and the subjects but the editor.
I'd like to attempt a film like this. Even before he mastered his technique (getting people to stare into the camera, for instance, see Fog of War), he knew how to let people talk and just share.
In other words: I will watch more.
Interesting to watch this one right after Gates of Heaven. The opening is all about the filmmakers and what they want. Part two is them interviewing women from Copenhagen about sex and sexuality, and the filmmakers are still doing a lot of talking. Finally we edge into more Errol Morris-y filmmaking with the women just talking with very little interjection from the filmmakers. Then the final portion is portraits of the women as nude as they are willing to get. This is silent. Like the marble nude in the opening shot. Which is a way to bookend, I guess.
Although this film was made by women, with and for women, and did foreground women's stories and left me, as audience, feeling like I had genuinely heard women, it also felt like a crass calculation: sex sells.
Also, may I say, Copenhagen is most certainly another country.
Century Hilltop 16
I know Rotten Tomatoes is cold on it but if you liked the trailer, I say go for it. I liked the trailer; I liked the movie.
I'll agree that it's not one of the greatest movies in the tradition of the Hesses or Waititi, but it's a solid piece of work. It understands that no matter how your characters fail, you still have to love them and respect them. That's the secret of this kind of comedy. And so while there are a few stumbles, the care of the writer/director and the skill of the actors holds it together.
I wager the details about PBS are wrong to the point of silly and the throwback vibe likely creates a more absurd Vermont than Napoleon did Idaho, but seriously: if you love this kind of comedy, it works.
I also loved the old-school soundtrack (since I was utterly 100% alone in the theater*, I could sing along with Don Williams over the credits) and, yes, I was burned (delightfully and deservedly) by the bread-bowl joke. You see, we went to the Musée Mécanique today and, while we usually avoid such touristy things, before we walked back to the ferry, I got myself some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. And it was delicious. Doesn't make Paint's burn any less worthy, but hey—well played.
* Watching a movie in a theater alone is kind of awesome! Especially since I could laugh at jokes that maybe no one else would find funny. And perhaps also especially since people on average are apparently not loving the film.
The Mermaid (2016)
Stephen Chow never fails to amaze. No matter how bonkers he's been, he'll find a way to surpass your expectations. And although there is plenty of visual madness in this film, the funniest bit must be a series of simple drawings. You have to love it.
That said, I'm astonished this film was such an enormous hit. Americans aren't interested in such broad farce, even if they are also special effects extravaganzas. The film, in short, is utter nonsense with a series moral message delivered with gruesome, over-the-top clarity. I mean—we see people kiling mermaids with Taiji-like efficiency. That's not typical comedy fare, to my mind.
The movie is intensely entertaining, but it's mix of comic styles and interjections of brutally serious point-making turn it into something I'm just amazed did big box office.
Sad it took so long for it to become widely available, but now it is! Make your own judgments.
Mike Nichols put this on Broadway so you might be surprised he didn't direct this as well. But I guess when John Huston is available, you go with John Huston? Did he do any other musicals?
The movie didn't do great critically in 1982, but it was on tv every year so I saw it plenty of times so maybe it, as much as Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz, just forms my prototype and what I expect. Because I still enjoyed it.
It is true that Daddy Warbucks's bodyguards are a pair of racial stereotypes and that the choreography provides lots of glimpes of lady's underpants and Bernadette Peters's cleavage, but the movie's charming. There are enough good songs and Aileen Quinn's shall-we-say thorough performance (which is exactly right for the character) and strong supporting performances and just the right amount and variety of thrills for a kiddie-based audience come together for a fun musical ride.
I'm not embarrassed to discover I still like it.
Last Days in the Desert (2015)
Somehow I completely missed this movie when it came out. Either that or the impression it made was washed away by the very next wave. So I only finally heard about it through a friend's top-100 list. I picked it up from the library last summer, but we never got around to watching it. So I put it on hold again, asking for it in time for Easter. And here it is, Holy Saturday, that this is what we are doing.
I guess I had expected an arty and drawn-out but ultimately literal take on those few verses of temptation at the end of Jesus's fasting in the wilderness. All I had picked up from my brief reading was that Ewan McGregor was playing both Jesus and Satan, so a one-hander. Or a two-hander starring one actor? Something. But no. It's doing something else.
I could string together an explanation of how this is the "actual" story that those verses are metaphor for (in fact, I have done so), but I think that's giving the ambition of the film short shrift. I'm not sure exactly what it IS trying to do, but the ambiguity doesn't feel like lazy substitution. The filmmakers are definitely up to something. I think it's supposed to be, sort of, a more intimate Tree of Life starring Jesus, but it's really a film that'll need to settle in my body for some time before I'm really sure what I think about it.
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Actually, I watched this twice, back to back. First alone with the commentary, then with my family and the proper audio track.
As the commentary began and Michael McKean and Christopher Guest introduced themselves while mentioning what was happening on the screen, I worried we were in for another pointless commentary. But not so! Noah Baumbauch and Preston Sturges expert Kenneth Bowser joined in. Bowser seemed to be the ringmaster, but it was choreographed well enough he either had little to do to keep things on the rails (even with Guest's improvised nonsense) or the four of them were just great at passing the mic. Regardless, lots of interesting observations and history. And also some utter nonsense whenever Christopher Guest opened his mouth.
The movie only gets better each time I see it. (The previous time.) And I'm left flabbergasted to realize I've still seen a mere three Sturges films.
Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990)
Wonderful documentary catches several of Sturges's closest associates in their final years of life. It's a fine biography with solid insider insights and some good criticism. It's patient enough to include some longer samples of his work and the late-80s grain of the interviews really brings those old people to life.
It's just over an hour and a great introduction.
I knew for certain I was going to love this film when the info dump put Nic Cage and Nicholas Hoult into what appeared to be the actual film that brought us Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Such a good choice. And they pulled it off so well. Everything else was about what I expected from the trailer only a couple degrees finer and some nice social commentary and so so so much creative gore. In short, with the right audience, absolutely brilliant experience.
And while the cast is great, names on the other side of the camera that I already respect and clearly deserve credit are director Chris McKay and story-by-guy Robert Kirkham (and the writer proper whom I did not know but has a solid resume) and the whole team. Makeup, costumes, editing, sound, you name it. Just a terrific piece of entertainment.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
I have a suspician Stephen Root's O Brother accent was in part inspired by the turkey hunter.
It's hard to know what to think of the various dollar amounts you hear. A house for $2200? A possum for $1500? A van for $5000? Is that a real economy?
I tell you though, I can't watch these Errol Morris docs without fantacizing about making my own. What kind of mics do I need to do open-air interviews with my wife's iPhone, I wonder?
I read the liner notes about a month ago and so I was expecting at least a hint of the amputation brouhaha, but nope. It's a quieter movie than that. It doesn't need scandal. And it certainly doesn't need to tell you what to think. I imagine the movie plays like a rorschach test.
I've been wanting to bounce this off a class for a long time and now that I've finally done it . . . I'm not sure it was worth it.
It's been a long time since I saw it and if I had remembered the nipples I never would have shown it. I mean—they're not a bit part of the movie and this is a cartoon, but still. But the bigger problem is that for kids with a lot of anime knowledge—most of it post-Satoshi Kon—the film just isn't as strange or remarkable as it was for me.
Even for me, while I still like it, I'm not certain it's as excellent as a first impression made it seem. That said, who knows what a sixth viewing might reveal. Regardless, it is still a wild and generous movie.
my bootleg dvd
V for Vendetta (2005)
Weird how a movie can be a box-office disappointment yet have major cultural impact. It's now long enough since a bunch of internet was wearing Guy Fawkes masks that today's high-school student isn't touched by that, but the movie still works and it a solid piece of both entertainment and intellectual fodder.
And maybe it's just because I saw Renfield earlier this month, but it doesn't seem nearly as acrobatic or bloody as I remembered. Huh. #exposuretheory