Saturday, May 24, 2014

Criterion #33: Nanook of the North

directed by Robert J. Flaherty
English inter-titles
79 minutes

The second earliest film in the Criterion Collection is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It dates from a time when motion pictures had hardly drawn clear lines about what documentary filmmaking was. In the early days, every film was a document and then storytellers got involved. Certainly the Eskimo Nanook and his family are real people who lived in Canada on Hudson Bay, and it was understood at the time that Flaherty had captured actual moments from their life (although we know now that some scenes were staged). In that respect, Nanook of the North is widely viewed as birthing the documentary genre, setting the groundwork for other filmmakers who wished to tell the stories of actual people.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Silent Classic Movie Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks was the original big screen cinematic swashbuckler. By the time he starred in and co-wrote The Thief of Bagdad – which is perhaps his greatest achievement – he had already played Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, and Zorro. To play a title character in a story from the 1,001 Arabian Nights was just icing on the cake. Two years ago I enjoyed Fairbanks in Robin Hood along with live musical accompaniment. At the time, I thought that movie was an impressive feat of sets, action, and stunts, but then The Thief of Bagdad, quite frankly, dwarfs it in scope.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Like Water for Chocolate Movie Review

Movies that age badly are fascinating to me. What to make of a movie that was well-regarded more than two decades ago upon its release, part of the Weinsteins’ Miramax success blitz in the 90s, and even garnered some middling awards attention, but left me scratching my head in wonderment at how anyone in their right mind ever thought this was a good movie. There are movies I don’t like that get lots of good critical attention where I can at least understand what people have fallen for. In the case of Como agua para chocolate – or Like Water for Chocolate in English – it struck me as more than just failing to appeal to my taste, but flat out bad filmmaking on a nearly objectively technical level.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

From My Collection: Brokeback Mountain Movie Review

I read “The New Yorker” magazine with some regularity. Each issue has a short story included that I usually start, but don’t finish. They rarely grab hold of me. But I went back and took a look at E. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” which first appeared in October 1997. It is an absolutely brilliant example of economy of story and character development. She squeezes more information into a single line of dialogue than other writers can get onto a page and fifty times the words. She won an O. Henry award for the story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classic Movie Review: Duck Soup

The best comedy is anarchic. It defies rules and conventions. If it’s truly superb, it creates new ones. The Marx Brothers were just such a comedy team. Their best films date from the early years of sound. Their act depended on, in addition to great sight gags, spoken dialogue and quips. Groucho, whose visage of a thick painted-on mustache and eyebrows and those signature glasses is one of the most famous in the history of movies, rivaling only Chaplin’s Tramp, provides the great zingers. His performance depends on his flawless delivery of double entendres and bawdy comments. Chico had the persona of an Italian immigrant, speaking quickly in a thick accent. Harpo was, of course, silent, except when he played the harp in some films. They started as a vaudeville troupe, performing music, dance, and comedy numbers on stages across America. The advent of synchronized sound in motion pictures brought them the lucrative contract with Paramount to make movies as well as the chance to reach an even wider audience.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classic Movie Review from My Collection: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

A strange alien ship sits in a forest clearing. Small brown creatures rustle around in the brush. In 1982, anyone who’d seen a commercial or trailer for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial knew the story. But keeping in mind that when movies are written, filmed, and edited there is usually no concept of the marketing campaign to come, one might have surmised through this opening that it was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We all know the story now and it’s far from it. The two films are hardly even kindred spirits, so different are they in tone and execution.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Review

Make no mistake about it, when Jim Jarmusch makes a vampire movie, he’s not jumping on the popularity bandwagon behind “True Blood” and the Twilight series. Those pieces of pop culture are so far outside the realm of what Jarmusch is known for that if he even gave them a second thought while he was writing and developing Only Lovers Left Alive, it was to check in on the ways his movie would be a hipper, cooler, and more loath response to soap opera lust.

Jarmusch is, if nothing else, eternally cool and hip. This is true even though his greatest audience, the film buffs who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, have now reached middle age and probably don’t have much time for indie cinema anymore. Because to watch a vampire movie made by this craftsman whose signature style is contemplation, reservation, and quietude followed by the inevitably dry offhand remark is to see the coolest damn vampires the movies have ever given us.

Senna Movie Review

If you go into the documentary Senna, about the late Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey, with a blank slate as I did, you are likely to come away knowing more about this energetic and emotional young man than you could ever have learned from a book or series of articles about him.

The only thing I knew about Senna before was that he was from Brazil and that he died in the race car. I had no idea how old he was, how long he’d been racing before the accident, how many championships he’d won, or who his rivals were. Kapadia apparently did mountains of work combing through news and stock footage to be able to complete a total portrait of Senna’s Formula One career. He fills an hour and forty-five minutes of screen time without ever cutting away to a talking head. Every interviewed friend, family member, or colleague is presented in voiceover while we are treated to racing or practice footage, or those telltale ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments that reveal Senna’s emotions pre- or  post-race.

Friday, May 2, 2014

25 Years Ago This Month: May 1989

Even though they were made during my lifetime, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom felt to me like they were from another time. Of course that's primarily because I was not cognizant of them when they were released and promoted and swept up huge sums of box office dollars. So when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released, it felt like it was made for me. I had no inkling that it was made for me AND an older generation (not even all that far removed from my own really) who were looking to recapture the spirit of the first two films. For me, it was an amazing opportunity to see Dr. Jones on the big screen. The fact that he was up against Nazis again made it seem all the more like the repeat of Raiders that eleven-year old me was looking for. To watch it again now would probably diminish the film in my mind, though not as badly as the second film, I guess. Last Crusade went on to be the highest-grossing film of the year worldwide.