Category Archives: Projects

Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

You have to hand it to a movie in which the main characters are so unlikable, nobody wanted to play them. Such is the case with Double Indemnity, number 38 on the AFI 100 List, and the first piece of film noir we’ve encountered so far. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity is a stylish piece of work that undoubtedly stood out in the 1940s for its callous protagonists.

MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a jaded insurance salesman. On a routine call to renew an auto policy, Neff becomes interested in Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), who quickly tries to involve him in a scheme to murder her husband and collect insurance money. It is Neff himself who plans and orchestrates the entire enterprise, even though he knows that Inspector Keyes (Robinson), the claims adjuster for his company, has an uncanny knack for uncovering phony claims. As the story unfolds, Neff and Phyllis become suspicious of each other, and their relationship spirals out of control. The film opens with an injured Neff leaving a memo of his confession for Keyes, so the audience knows right away that there will be no happy endings.

This is a very intense film. Even though there is no real mystery involved (I always thought that mystery was a key component of noir), the audience is drawn into the increasingly tangled web that Neff and Phyllis have spun for themselves, and we watch with a sort of morbid anticipation for what will happen next. The script, adapted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder from the novel by James M. Cain, is lean, mean, and lightning-fast. The cinematography is fascinatingly dark, with tight shots that add dramatically to the tension. The movie feels very modern in some ways, not least of which is the coldly fascinating characterization of its leads.

Neff and Phyllis are, indeed, extremely unlikable. From the very beginning, Neff is cynical and somewhat crude, and Phyllis is obviously sly and conniving. When they first enter into a romance with one another, there is a somewhat disturbing lack of passion or interest: their relationship seems conducted merely out of boredom and intrigue. As their plans unfold, they seem to lose interest in one another, with Neff focused on getting away with the thing, and Phyllis making her own plans. Neither shows the slightest hesitation or remorse for what they are doing. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray are impressive in these roles; MacMurray’s deadpan narration truly adds to his character’s lack of spirit, and Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as a woman for whom it is too easy to use her sex to get what she wants. On the other hand, Robinson’s Inspector Keyes is a blustering, affable little chap, and it gives one pause to consider the ease with which his mind is able to understand the lengths of depravity to which others might go. Ultimately, he is the hero of the piece, but his good-guy qualities are effectively overshadowed by the disturbing nature of Neff as villain. He really is a sociopath. As much as it is Phyllis who instigates the plot, it is Neff who performs every function with no notable emotion whatsoever. This would be “normal” in other situations involving criminals, but since Neff starts out as nothing more than an insurance salesman, his calm descent is even more unnerving.

All in all, a fascinating film. From start to finish it is a taut, dramatic piece of work, with very little extraneous content. Double Indemnity is apparently held up as a prime example of film noir, and has influenced many films that followed it. Without knowing a great deal about the genre, I would say that there is a definite feel to the movie, exemplified by the dark cinematography, angular camera work, and the emotional distance of its characters. At various points throughout, I found myself questioning whether or not I thought the acting was good, or whether or not the plot had gotten confusing, but in the end, it all seemed to fall into place so neatly that one must acknowledge the the whole is greater than its parts, and that the film, unusual for its time, stands up against films of today that may go further, but do not capture so effectively the sometimes ugly nature of humanity.

Small Roles, Big Performances: Gladiator

FlixChatter has invited movie bloggers to “shine a spotlight on the ‘unsung heroes’ if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness & entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don’t get the credit they so deserve.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the title up there, and you’re thinking “Gladiator? Unsung?? This is just another excuse for you to talk about Russell Crowe, isn’t it?” I will grant you that I’m breaking a little bit with the spirit of this blogathon, but when I started thinking about “small roles, big performances,” Gladiator sprang quickly to mind. In part, perhaps, because I’ve seen it a number of times, but also because I think it is a movie full of really great moments, and those moments are created by really talented actors who, despite the movie winning Best Picture, were perhaps not noticed individually as much as they might’ve been. I want to talk about two of the actors featured in Gladiator particularly. Both gave fine performances that added greatly to the film overall, and both were actors from an older generation, here shown late in their careers. Neither was a complete unknown, but nor were they ever true household names. In my opinion, part of what makes their roles in Gladiator so important is the fact that this is a film for which they will both be remembered, and perhaps it will serve as an introduction for modern audiences to their earlier work.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius

Before he strode onscreen as Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film, Richard Harris made a big impression with new audiences as Rome’s “last good emperor,” the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. Harris fills the screen with his quiet dignity and whispered wisdom. Through his eyes, we see Crowe’s Maximus as more than just a good soldier; we see him as a loving and loyal man. Aurelius helps to shape the character of Maximus, and Harris imbues him with paternal pride, love, and the certain knowledge that those he loves are hopelessly flawed. Aurelius must make the difficult decision of either naming his son his successor, or choosing what is best for Rome, and returning her rule to a governmental body. In essence, he must choose between being an emperor and being a father, and Harris shows so clearly the heartbreak that Aurelius goes through in making that decision. Here we see him change between those two roles effortlessly; from the commanding emperor to a father at the end of his life, asking for forgiveness from the son he has disappointed.

Gladiator may have been the first film in which I saw Richard Harris, but his performance, brief yet lasting, has certainly assured that it will not be the last.

Oliver Reed as Proximo

Gladiator is, in fact, Reed’s final performance; he died before he had finished shooting all of his scenes in the movie. Special effects were used for those final appearances so that he wouldn’t be replaced. It is, in my opinion, the perfect tribute. Proximo, the slave owner who essentially kidnaps Maximus and transforms him into “The Spaniard,” is also a father figure, but one cut from an extremely different cloth than Aurelius. His business is the purchase and disposal of human beings, and most of his demeanor is accordingly blunt and disaffected. Still, in his later scenes with Maximus, we see the same paternal pride and even a measure of respect. He also conveys a great deal of intelligence and hard-fought wisdom. I like to think that this final role embodies much of what made Oliver Reed a great actor. He was rough-hewn but intelligent, full of bluster and heart. Like Harris’ Aurelius, Proximo adds layers of depth to the character of Maximus, and both Reed and Crowe portrayed their bond extremely well. Here, Proximo speaks to Maximus as an equal, showing his respect and pride.

In Maximus, Proximo finds someone to confide in; in a way, I think he also sees the younger man as someone who might succeed him. In the end, he chooses to embrace Maximus’ (and Aurelius’) dream of Rome’s restoration. Like Harris, Reed makes a transformation of sorts, from hard-bitten slave driver to a man willing to die for others’ freedom.

Gladiator was the biggest movie of the year. It won many, many awards, but neither Harris nor Reed were particularly recognized for their efforts (Reed was nominated for a BAFTA). And yet, without them, I don’t believe that Gladiator would be the film that it is. It is a testament to the abilities of all three men that we are able to see the extent to which both Aurelius and Proximo shape the character of Maximus and move him through his journey. In that way, I believe they truly exemplify the idea of “small roles, big performances.”

SYTYCR Round 5 Review (not used): Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Were you the weirdo in high school? It’s ok, you can admit it. I was. My friends were. Fortunately there were enough of us that we banded together and had quite an excellent little social circle. It’s hard to be a weirdo, especially as a teenager. Balancing that fine line between wanting to be accepted but still wanting to be yourself is what it’s all about. Don’t believe me? Ask Napoleon Dynamite.

In many ways, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is your typical teenager. He’s usually hungry, looks like he’s half-asleep at any given moment, and is mainly concerned with looking cool and finding a date for the dance. He likes: martial arts, tater tots, drawing, and Chapstick. He dislikes: his family, especially his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a sleazy salesman type who still dreams of his glory days as a high school football hero, and his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who stays home all day hitting on “babes” in chatrooms, the popular kids at school, and getting beat up. See, Napoleon marches to the beat of his own drummer. Still, he’s a pretty decent guy, so he reaches out to a couple of fellow weirdos: Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who’s recently arrived from Mexico, and Deb (Tina Majorino), who’s shy but uniquely motivated. Together, the three of them will do their best to navigate the wilds of high school and, by working to get Pedro elected class president, find a way to stick it to the popular kids at the same time.

This is an odd little movie. It’s got all the hallmarks of your standard high school comedy, but in many ways, it’s more a collection of character sketches. There’s not exactly a single over-arching plot, but rather several different threads going on at the same time. There’s a certain amount of savvy in this kind of set-up, namely the fact that the movie’s intended audience has either already been through high school or is going through high school and can undoubtedly find things in common with Napoleon Dynamite and his friends. To cite a specific example, for those of us of the right generation, the introduction of the internet as a means of social interaction strikes a resonant chord. Beyond that, the major themes of alienation and acceptance are universal. Addressing those themes is what this movie does best.

With regard to the acting or the artistic work done on the film, it’s hard to have a marked opinion. The acting, though convincing, is fairly subdued across the board, in keeping with the apathetic attitude of its main character. Even the scenery and costumes seem designed to present a certain flatness; the film is set in a rural town in Idaho, so it’s pretty, but fairly bucolic. Even when tensions flare, the overall feel of the piece is on an even keel. All of this definitely serves to make the movie distinctive and adds to the feeling of being trapped in high school hell. The characters seem to take nearly everything in stride; rejection is par for the course here. The few occasions that actually contain more of a spark are quiet but poignant moments, heightened, perhaps, by the colorlessness of what comes before and after.

Despite this subdued nature, it is the characters themselves who are fascinating. Pedro is as confused and overwhelmed as any teenager, but his troubles somehow carry a different weight given his racial background. Hints of racism appear in a few scenes; one of multiple themes that are raised briefly and discarded again. Pedro takes most of these things in stride, carrying himself with a quiet confidence that things will work out for the best. Deb is a brightly colored artist among a sea of classmates in khaki, but she fades into the background due to her demeanor. Still, she is the only character who mentions going to college, unusual in a film about high school, and Tina Majorino manages to infuse her shy exterior with obvious passion and ambition. Napoleon himself exemplifies all of the vast potential of a teenager. He’s sullen but caring, unique but seeks acceptance, confident yet easily embarrassed. Above all, he is a true and loyal friend. Jon Heder is definitely the star here; it takes a rare talent to create a character both obnoxious and sympathetic.

I wasn’t sure to expect from Napoleon Dynamite. My initial impression based on the reports of others was that it was a particularly stupid depiction of teenaged life; mainly something to laugh at. In the final tally, I do think it is more than that. Obviously, audiences continue to find it entertaining and amusing, but I would suggest that to do so is to merely accept the movie at face value. If one focuses more closely on the characters, there seems to be very little to laugh at. I didn’t think they were funny because I have known these people. They’re just trying to get through the day with a little dignity intact. To look at someone like Napoleon and only see his odd interests and his unique sense of self is to see only half the picture. It’s possible that I am assigning entirely too much depth to the film. Perhaps it was only meant to be funny. Still, I would suggest that there is a great deal of inherent realness and humanity in these characters.

I fear I have made Napoleon Dynamite sound like a film of great meaning and emotion. That was not my intention. It’s only so-so as movies go, but it addresses the stereotype of high school from a unique and interesting perspective. Things don’t magically change at the end. Napoleon doesn’t become popular. He doesn’t get the hottest girl in school. Things stay largely within the same framework throughout, and that’s really very satisfying. So, a feel-good hit, then? It’s not that, either. Overall, I think it’s a simple piece that can work in a variety of ways. If you want to watch funny characters do and say funny things, you can do that. If you want to look a little more closely and see surprisingly real people, you can do that, too. There are probably films that do both better, but Napoleon Dynamite does things its own, special way.

SYTYCR Round 4 Review: Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Sometimes, a movie combines great actors with brilliant dialogue and compelling storylines. Sometimes, great actors can elevate a lesser script and make a movie better than it ought to have been. And sometimes, well, there’s just not a damn thing they can do, except get drunk and try to muddle through.* Sadly, in the case of Super Mario Bros., it is the latter case with which we concern ourselves today.

Based on the classic Nintendo video game, Super Mario Bros. follows heroic plumbers Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) as they travel to an alternate dimension in order to rescue Luigi’s new ladylove, Daisy (Samantha Mathis). Unbeknownst to them, Daisy is actually a princess in this other world, which runs largely parallel to our own. You see, when a meteor crashed into the earth 65 million years ago, things got split into two. In our dimension, humanity evolved from mammals, and in the other, a kind of humanity evolved from reptiles (namely, the dinosaurs). Daisy’s parents hid her in our dimension to save her from the clutches of the evil Koopa (Dennis Hopper), who has taken things over. Now Koopa wants to capture the princess and use a broken-off piece of the meteor, which is in her possession, to reunite the two dimensions, “de-volve” all humanity back into apes, and rule the world. Naturally, it is up to Mario and Luigi to save the day.

This is not a good movie. It’s got some really good talent (mainly Hoskins and Hopper) and the story is straightforward enough, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired. To start with, we’ve all played Super Mario Bros. at some point, right? It’s all cute and primary-colored, and there are little mushrooms and even the bad guys are sort of round and funny-looking, right? It’s for kids. The film version? Not so much for kids. The action and language are PG enough, but the look and feel of the movie is something else entirely. It’s really dark and dystopian and weird. Most of the action takes place in the city run, by Koopa, as sort of a police state. It looks like the seedy underbelly of some major metropolis with a serious fungus infestation. Think Blade Runner, or something. Everyone is wearing their crazy, 90s version of futuristic fashions, and there are little dinosaurs running around instead of rats.

Now, the decision to make the movie a bit darker could have been a pretty good one, but for the fact that in 1993, video games were still mostly (please note I said MOSTLY) the entertainment of a younger crowd. As a result, what this movie has something of an identity crisis: it’s a kid’s movie that thinks it’s a grown-up. The dialogue and the action are pretty elementary, and while there are some scary/creepy/icky moments, they’re pretty low-key for the most part. Dennis Hopper doesn’t get to unleash the crazy nearly as much as one would hope for, and Mario and Luigi are plumbers from the Bronx who tell each other things like “Nothing is impossible,” and “I’ve got a feeling about this.” All in all, the look of the movie is its greatest asset, but it doesn’t suit the image of the source material properly.

The cast is somewhat divided as well, in that Hoskins and Hopper (along with Fiona Shaw as Koopa’s evil gal-pal, Lena) do a surprisingly good job with their characters, whereas Leguizamo and Mathis have little to no personality at all and mainly seem to be along for the ride. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson, as bumbling minions, are supposed to provide some comic relief, but only end up adding to the weirdness of the whole thing. When Koopa gets tired of their incompetence, he has them “evolved” in order to make them smarter. Basically, they’re still bumbling, but their dialogue makes a shift from inane to Shakespearean. Adult audiences may find it funny, but the whole affair would likely go over a younger person’s head, in effect adding to the disconnect.

Finally, the secondary aspects of the storyline are nearly incomprehensible. The fungus that’s taking over the city is somehow a manifestation of the previous ruler, Daisy’s father, and it occasionally holds out a helping tendril, but it’s mainly only mentioned in passing, and a scene between Hopper and a fungus-ridden throne room, clearly designed as exposition, explains nothing at all. The mushrooms that pop up from time to time may have helped to clarify things somewhat had they been utilized more, but again, they’re only mentioned briefly, as though the creators realized they ought to make a few more references to the video game. Another small reference is the appearance of Yoshi, a baby T-Rex, who’s actually quite impressive, effects-wise. Overall the effects here are used sparingly, and thus effectively, but while they add to the interesting environment of the picture, they can’t save it from being a confusing mess.

The key here is that this movie doesn’t know who it wants to be. I actually think that if the producers had gone with a more kid-friendly vibe they might’ve ended up with a better picture. In their attempt to make it more in line with the fantasy ethos of the day (the early 1990s saw the rise of Tim Burton and 1994 would give us The Crow, for example), they lost something inherent in their source material. Mainly, I think that Super Mario Bros. was designed to tap into something gaining in popularity, but it was poorly conceived and executed. It’s a shame, really, given the talent they attracted and the potential for something visually unique and enjoyable based on the Mario world. Maybe Super Mario Bros. was ahead of its time. Maybe with today’s technology Hollywood could produce a better adventure for our plumber friends. It’s just too bad that Bob Hoskins will no longer be available.

*According to John Leguizamo, this is actually how he and Mr. Hoskins got through the experience.

SYTYCR Round 3 review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

We all like to go back and rewatch old favorites. For most of us, watching a well-executed series flourish and grow is also an enjoyable experience. Combining the two practices, therefore, must also be something many of us enjoy doing, but, I would suggest that much may be lost in translation. Following a story from its beginning to its end, watching a series of events play out over a matter of years, necessarily alters our perception of the story as a whole, and in so doing, weakens our ability to go back and start all over again. I found this to be the case in going back to the very beginning and re-watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Beyond any annoying emotional feelings (“Look how tiny and wee and cute the trio is!”), I found it difficult to judge HP1 based on its own merit. It begs to be looked at from the perspective of its position within the larger narrative, so in some ways, that’s how I’ve been forced to treat it. Put another way: I tried really hard to pretend like I was seeing it for the first time, but I’m probably not going to fool anyone. SO, let’s just move on, shall we?

2001 saw the release of the film adaptation of the first book of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful series about a boy wizard and his evil nemesis. Unknown kids, roughly the same age as Harry and his friends, were cast in the starring roles, and to support them, a veritable parade of the very finest England had to offer stepped into the shoes of the Hogwarts faculty and other adults. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would serve as our introduction to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and in turn, as Harry’s introduction into a world he had no knowledge of, but was destined to be part of. Harry, you see, is a wizard, although he doesn’t know it. He’s been living uncomfortably under the roof of some awful relatives, the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling, all perfectly horrid), having been made an orphan at an early age. On his eleventh birthday, he comes to learn the truth about his life. His parents were part of a magical world in which they fought against the evil wizard Voldemort and lost. Harry himself ought to be dead, but something went awry, and in the wizarding world, Harry’s a celebrity: The Boy Who Lived. Suddenly, he finds himself on the way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes a few friends, a few enemies, and ultimately discovers that the fight against Lord Voldemort is far from over.

And we’re off! There was probably never any actual question that this first film, directed by Chris Columbus, would be a smash hit. It certainly was, and the series as a whole made history in a variety of ways. Still, this first venture couldn’t entirely have predicted all that future success, and so it is a reasonably modest affair. It’s very rudimentary in a lot of ways, but for the most part, that is acceptable. It is an introduction, after all. It sets the stage. It gives us Harry’s back-story, such as it is, and it sets up all the necessary components of the saga that is to unfold later. Taken by itself in retrospect, it’s actually quite the tidy little picture. The visual effects are totally worthy of Rowling’s vision, the acting is solid, the story entertaining, and above all, it leaves us wanting more.

There’s so much to see in Harry’s world. Even after all this time, I was struck once again by how Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the game of Quidditch, and the climactic series of challenges looked as though they’d sprung from the pages of the novel. Likewise, the score and the overall feel of the movie lend us a sense of wide-eyed wonder and joy that all this could really be possible. Alright, so maybe the troll’s a little silly-looking, and some parts of the Quidditch match look a little fake. A certain flatness, likewise, may be attributed to the fact that this was a new venture and a new world into which we were all stepping, or perhaps to the direction. Either way, it is the obvious care and respect of the world being created that makes this film look so wonderful.

That care and professionalism carry over into the performances of the cast as well. Choosing unknown children to helm a franchise is undoubtedly a risky proposition, but I think that the decision to gather together some truly superb adult actors to back the kids up was a brilliant move. With the likes of Richard Harris (Headmaster Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) on the roster, you know you’re going to get a good show. The talents of the adults, in my opinion, elevate the abilities of the children. Radcliffe, along with his counterparts Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), while obviously still newbies, hit all their marks here and very seldom lapse into the kind of preciousness that one can sometimes expect from a “kid’s movie.” If their emotional investment lacks depth, well, they’re kids. They’ve got lots of growing to do, as do their characters. Ultimately, I’m just not sure that any known actors would have done a better job, particularly in this early stage where less range was required.

Like everything else here, the story itself is rudimentary. It’s a classic “unknown hero” scenario, with a previously unremarkable character finding himself thrust into a remarkable situation. The fun is in the details (like Quidditch and Wizard’s Chess), and in figuring out which way the battle lines are drawn. There are moments where a certain lack of polish can be seen, most notably in the final scene between Harry and Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), which feels, at times, as though it were lifted from any Scooby-Doo episode ever written, but overall, the pacing is good and there seems to be an appropriate balance of humor and more serious matters. As has been previously mentioned, with this viewing in particular, I was truly grateful for the dearth of “cute” moments that could so easily have taken over a “kid’s movie about magic.”

That over-simplification is the trap that audiences could have so easily fallen into with this film. Yes, it’s a movie about kids. And magic. But mainly, it’s a movie about good and evil; about heroes and villains. Even in these early days, we can see the bravery, loyalty and courage that are being instilled in Harry and his friends. We are made to understand that Lord Voldemort is a real threat, and that there is darkness in this magical world. These themes belong neither to adults nor children; they are part and parcel of humanity, whether real or imagined, and they are the strengths of the Harry Potter series. The first film of the franchise, even with its designated duty to set things up, still provides us with some big ideas and a taste of things to come. Above all, the purpose of a first installment is to whet its audience’s appetite for what comes next, and in that, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is eminently successful.

SYTYCR Round 2 Review: The Exorcist (1973)

I apologize for what is likely a tasteless bit of humor, but I can’t get past a silly wish that the tagline for The Exorcist had been “The Devil went down to Georgetown.” It just makes me giggle. And believe you me, since there are no giggles to be had when watching the movie (except for the creepy, possessed kind), a little humor might lighten proceedings. As I’m sure everyone is aware, The Exorcist is a horror film of the first order. Released in 1973, this tale of demonic possession captivated audiences, spawned sequels and copycats galore, and was even nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, the first horror film to be so honored. Today it is still considered one of the scariest movies of all time, full of iconic scenes, images, and sounds that can immediately strike fear into the hearts of anyone brave enough to press play.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous movie star, currently filming a movie in Georgetown, DC, where she is living in a stately brownstone with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan’s a happy, reasonably well-adjusted child, but when she becomes sullen, distant, and starts telling strange stories, her concerned mother takes her to the doctor. Through diagnoses of depression and lesions on her brain, Regan’s condition continues to worsen. Meanwhile, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is struggling with questions about his faith and the death of his elderly mother. When all other answers have been exhausted, the possibility that Regan may be possessed leads Chris to Father Karras, who in turn requests permission from the Church to perform an exorcism. The Church summons Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who has experience in such matters, to perform the ritual, but at what cost will the two priests succeed in their goal to save a young girl from a horrible fate?

I think that in this day and age, audiences may have a particular notion of what makes a horror film. Generally speaking, they’re thin on acting, continuity, and plot, and heavy on gore. The Exorcist, interestingly, claims none of these characteristics. It’s an incredibly taut piece of work; dramatic, slow-burning, and punctuated by some truly impressive performances. The story, though straightforward, finds its strength in showing us the natures of the people who suffer through this ordeal, and how the experience shapes them.The normalcy surrounding the supernatural makes it that much more terrifying: the slow struggle of multiple doctor’s visits, painful tests, and baffled discussions gives the audience so much more depth than your average slasher. The normal skepticism of everyone involved, and the attempts to explain away the unexplainable keep the tension building throughout the first half of the movie; the exorcism that serves as the climax of the film comes as a relief, a deep exhale that lets us know we’re finally on the right track.

Perhaps the most surprising facet of this film is the acting. It’s all first-rate. Miller’s Karras is a tormented soul seeking answers, and Blair as Regan does an incredible job of navigating the horrors she both endures and perpetrates. Max von Sydow is somewhat underutilized, but his place within the structure of the story helps to explain that: he arrives when there are no more questions, when it is time for faith and action. He brings calm and strength to the proceedings, and in that he is superb. It is Ellen Burstyn, however, who is the star here. Her performance is awe-inspiring as she moves through the stages of Chris’s reactions to the situation: confidence to concern to full-on fear, hopelessness, and despair. Her deterioration mirrors that of her daughter, and is, in some ways, the more dramatic of the two in that she has no scary make-up or special effects to fall back on. The strength with which she convinces her audience that she is, first and foremost, a mother who will do anything to protect her child, is the emotional centerpiece of the film.

Director William Friedkin famously used all sorts of unorthodox methods (a special refrigerated set, firing guns to surprise his actors, and so on) to capture the look and feel of his film, and his attention to detail truly pays off. It is that precision that elevates The Exorcist and makes it a good movie, as opposed to merely a good horror movie. There’s very little left to be desired in the finished product: it can be a bit slow at times, although the extra exposition helps to drive the narrative and keep the tension up. Even the effects of the 1970s, often laughable in other features, are used judiciously and to success here. The major strength is, as stated, the adherence to reality in the face of the otherworldly. It makes the audience feel as though the same things could happen to them, and how would they know any better how to deal with them? How would any parent react to such a traumatic series of events surrounding their child? By keeping things simple and allowing our imaginations and emotions to run with the story, The Exorcist gets inside its audience’s head, stays with it well after the popcorn has been swept away. Even those who are not a fan of the genre will find things to admire about this particular example.

SYTYCR Round 1 Review: Eraserhead (1977)

Ahh, Eraserhead. Such a quirky little gem. A charming tale of a put-upon boy who becomes the world’s greatest superhero after it’s discovered his strange, rubbery cranium holds the key to world peace. And the songs! Every one a small slice of lyrical genius. From start to finish, I just don’t see how anyone could watch this movie without a smile on their face…

Oh. Wait.

Just kidding.

Eraserhead is actually a cult classic sci-fi/horror film, the first feature-length movie directed by David Lynch. To say that it is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen would likely be an understatement. There seems to be a small but vocal contingent of people who think it’s great, and probably more people who wish they could unsee it. It is open to a variety of interpretations, and so I’ll give you mine, although mostly I think that it defies interpretation and should just be seen as a work of art.

Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a bleak, industrial world. At all times, the hum of machinery and the hiss of steam is in his ears. This mundane existence is upended when he receives an invitation to his estranged girlfriend Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) house for dinner. The usual awkward “dinner with the family” scene gets ratcheted up a few notches when Henry learns that Mary has given birth (prematurely) to his child, which is deformed. Mary and the “baby” (truly an alien, worm-like creature) move into his apartment, but Mary soon leaves because she cannot stand the baby’s constant wailing. Life become more and more bizarre for Henry as he struggles to care for the creature.

Seriously, a brief synopsis does this movie no favors. Eraserhead is not a conventional story, with things like plot and character development. It is, perhaps literally, a nightmare: a disjointed sequence of loosely-related events that have bubbled up from some dark place in Mr. Lynch’s mind. In my opinion, attempts to understand this film in any sort of conventional way will merely lead to frustration. The “nightmare” explanation is the best I can offer you. It’s a dark and disturbing abstract; the characters are ciphers with very little personality or interest, and the events make little to no sense. Lynch has said that this is a deeply personal film, and that it deals with his anxieties about becoming a father. It’s a valid explanation, but it doesn’t cover enough ground for my taste. As someone who likes to root around for meaning, I can come up with some English major-y type psycho-babble about the banality of life and the search for something more to one’s existence, but someone else would likely have a completely different interpretation, and the truth of the matter is that we are all left confused, and I’ll tell you something: I think we’re supposed to be.

Leaving aside the confusion for a moment, though, let me say that the sound editing and cinematography of this movie are first-rate. It’s shot in black and white, naturally, and the use of shadow and light to heighten the sense of uneasiness is extremely effective. Likewise, the mechanical noises, and the cries of the “baby” are crystal clear and front and center, so that we find ourselves in the same sonic landscape as Henry, and are just as desperate to escape it. I was really impressed by how Eraserhead looked and sounded, despite the weirdness of everything else. I imagine a lot of that credit is due to Mr. Lynch, although I felt that a lot of the camera angles and close-ups steered the film a little more toward camp than serious film.

In the final tally, I can’t tell you that I enjoyed this movie, but I can’t tell you that I disliked it, either. It was a vision of something, and even if I don’t understand or agree with that vision, I can appreciate it as having come from someone’s imagination. It was actually not as disturbing as I feared it would be, and I think that for someone interested in the progression of David Lynch’s work, it’s probably pretty important and instructive. I will leave such a study to others with less conventional taste than I, though, and say that Eraserhead is not exactly a work I would recommend: it’s more of a curiosity. Hey, I’m watching this crazy nonsense so that you don’t have to! Pretty good deal, no?

So You Think You Can Review

Hello, everyone. I have a confession to make: I’ve been keeping secrets from you. About two months ago, I signed on to a crazy competition/project that was being put on through the Large Association of Movie Blogs called “So You Think You Can Review.” Starting with a bracket of 32 movie bloggers, we were paired off and assigned a movie to watch. Two people would watch the same movie, write a review, and then other LAMB members would vote on whose review they enjoyed more. We wrote under pseudonymous handles so that, theoretically, nobody knew who we were. The contest ended yesterday, and I have the pleasure to state: Yes. I DO think I can review. Yours truly, writing as Zelda’s Kid Sister, (catch the reference?) finished in third place!

It was a really interesting project. I signed on because aside from thinking that I do, in fact, write pretty decent reviews, I thought that it would force me to branch out of my comfort zone. Boy, was I right about that! In the next week or so, I will share with you the reviews that I wrote for the contest. I know I’ve been a little less prolific here lately, but that was largely because I was watching/writing these reviews that I couldn’t post because of the anonymity rule. Coming soon! Reviews of the following movies: Eraserhead (eek!), The Exorcist (EEK), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Super Mario Bros., and Napoleon Dynamite. The last review would have been for the final round, which I missed by one point.

Update: Links to the reviews!

Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Beautiful stars? Check. Beautiful scenery? Check. Cultural backdrop full of potential for high drama? Check. Yes, Doctor Zhivago qualifies on all counts as a “sweeping epic,” full of beauty and suffering. Based upon the novel by Boris Pasternak and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the film was a big hit at the time and has remained popular ever since; it checks in at number 39 on the 1998 AFI list. It follows the life of Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor and poet, who deals with personal and political struggles during one of the more tumultuous periods in Russia’s history.

Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) was orphaned as a boy and taken in by friends of his mother’s. He grows up to be a doctor and a published poet, and marries Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his benefactors. Lara Antipova (Julie Christie) is a beautiful young woman who is seduced by a friend of her mother’s, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), but escapes him in order to marry a young revolutionary named Pavel (Tom Courtenay). The paths of Zhivago and Lara cross early on, but it is later, when everyone’s fortunes have changed due to World War I and revolution in Russia, that they come to be working together in a field hospital. Lara believes her husband to be dead, and she and Zhivago develop feelings for one another, although they do not act on those feelings. Years later, they are to meet again, having both moved away from Moscow after the rise of Communism, and at this time they enter into an affair. Zhivago is abducted and conscripted into service by Communist partisans. When he is finally able to return home, he finds his wife, father-in-law, and children have emigrated to Paris, and so he stays with Lara. They are happy for a time until Komarovsky seeks them out to let them know that they are both in political jeopardy. He convinces Zhivago to let him take Lara out of the country for her own safety, and so the lovers are again parted. More time passes, and Zhivago sees Lara back in Moscow, but before he can catch up to her, he suffers a heart attack and dies.

Yeah. That’s kind of a lot of story, isn’t it? The whole thing is book-ended with narrative by Zhivago’s half-brother, Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who is searching for the lost daughter of Zhivago and Lara. Whether or not this added bit of plot was really necessary I’m not sure, but then, the film as a whole doesn’t seem terribly concerned with such a silly thing as brevity. This is a whale of a movie, and all of its good points don’t account for its length in the final tally, I’m afraid. It’s very beautifully filmed, and the actors are all good, but, well, it’s just so long. And kind of slow. I think from an historical perspective it’s fairly interesting, if a bit confusing, but it’s hard not to wish that they’d spent more time on the love story between Lara and Zhivago instead.

Let’s talk about the acting. The first thing that really must be said is that Julie Christie, in this movie, is possibly one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She also does a great job with a character who is surprisingly understated, considering all the fuss she causes. I actually like that about her, particularly when these days, the romantic heroines of movies have to be overly charming or quirky or whatever. Lara is a smart woman who does the best she can with what she’s got, and adapts to the situations around her. It doesn’t sound like high praise, but I appreciated her character a great deal, perhaps even more so because of her looks. It would have made it easier just to make her pretty, but it is her character that Zhivago loves. He, too, is interesting in quiet ways. He’s an intensely passionate person who truly lives in the moment, even while he is surrounded by the chaos of war and revolution. He seems to care very little about the consequences of his actions, but this is somehow endearing rather than merely narcissistic. He simply seems to believe that he must follow where his heart leads, and deal with whatever comes about as a result. Sharif does a great job of portraying this passion, and Zhivago’s bewilderment that everyone else doesn’t see the world the same way.

Even as enjoyable as the two lovers are, in their quiet way, Rod Steiger steals the show. Komarovsky is not a nice man. He seduces Lara when she is still a schoolgirl, torments her throughout their relationship, and rapes her after she tells him of her intent to marry Pavel. Much later, when he shows up to offer his assistance to Lara and Zhivago, he is drunken and odious. And yet, he’s easily the most interesting character in the whole film. He’s a businessman-turned-diplomat (I think?) and as such, he’s mainly a survivalist. He’s brutally honest and seems to have no real loyalties, but I think Steiger manages to give him a soul. He’s just one of those charismatic characters that swallows up every scene he’s in. It’s not really possible to like him, but he demands respect nonetheless.

If you’re into scenery and wide, panoramic cinematography, this is a movie for you. Director David Lean wanted to make sure that the changes of the seasons were documented, and so we see Russia, both city and countryside, in snow and sunshine. It really is beautiful. It won Oscars for cinematography, costume design, and score; in the first two cases, I think deservedly. In the case of the latter, I don’t remember much about the score beyond the famous “Lara’s Theme,” which is played far too many times, and which, in my opinion, sounds less romantic and more like the kind of canned music you might hear in an Italian restaurant. I think that a good score adds to and deepens a film rather than distracts from it, and here, sometimes, it was difficult to focus on anything besides them playing that theme for the millionth time. My apologies if you had it played at your wedding or something; I guess plinky balalaika just isn’t for me.

All in all, we weren’t that impressed with Doctor Zhivago. In scope I felt it was similar to 1956’s Giant, which stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, and follows a Texas rancher and his family through a couple of decades. Giant was ranked 82nd on the AFI list, but in my opinion, the two films ought to be reversed. Pieces that span extreme amounts of time need more dynamic characters and story lines to keep the interest up, and in the case of Doctor Zhivago, everything is just a little too subtle and complex. It has a lot going for it, and I hope I haven’t completely put anyone off on seeing it, but the fact remains: it’s a long haul. Maybe it was designed that way to add to the experience and depiction of revolutionary Russia? Let’s go with that.

Review: West Side Story (1961)

Seems like I’m on a musical kick these days, doesn’t it? I promise it’s no more than usual; we’re just trying to make more of a push with our AFI viewing, and West Side Story is #41 on the list. I would also add that it’s #2 on their “Greatest Movie Musicals” list, which we’re going to work our way through as well. We’ve both seen West Side Story a few times before, but as with all of the AFI films that I’m re-watching, I try to pull together my thoughts and understand the movie’s importance and influence.

West Side Story is not a favorite of mine. I first saw it when I was probably fairly young and my understanding of musicals was informed by things like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Compared to those, Jerome Robbins’ and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is quite a different animal. I was interested to see it again as an adult; I felt I could be more open-minded and see it with fresh eyes. But you know what? I still didn’t like it. I could see a lot of really important and good things happening, but as a whole, there are (in my opinion) some really big problems with this classic.

I hope I won’t be spoiling anything for anyone here; if you don’t know the plot of Romeo & Juliet by now, I’m not sure there’s any help for you. West Side Story moves the action to Manhattan in 1957. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, we have two street gangs, the white Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Our star-crossed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymer), Riff’s best friend who’s outgrown the whole gang thing, and Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s baby sister. Anita (Rita Moreno), Bernardo’s girlfriend and friend to Maria, takes the place of most of the secondary female characters in Shakespeare’s play, while Tony’s employer Doc (Ned Glass) stands in mostly for Friar Lawrence. The biggest departure from the source material is that Maria, unlike Juliet, is left alive at the end of the play, as is Chino (Jose de Vega), who is West Side Story’s Paris.

In the world of film musicals, West Side Story is obviously ground-breaking. With music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it is a true departure from the bright and shiny MGM musicals, and was surely meant to be. Both the score and the dance sequences are iconic at this point. In a way, though, it is the very contribution of these great artists that flaws the movie, which to me seems fragmented into three pieces that mesh together at points, but are more often disconnected from each other. Robbins, who conceived the Broadway play from which the movie is derived, was creating a contemporary ballet of R&J. Bernstein’s score is itself fragmented between his usual style, exemplified in songs like “Cool” and the more saccharine songs of the love story like “Maria” and “Somewhere.” And finally, there’s the meat of the piece, the dramatic story. The acting is all quite good, particularly the two leads. The problem arises (for me, at least) when you realize that neither Beymer nor Wood did their own singing. They were clearly chosen to star in a musical for reasons other than musical ability, and even though their performances are good, that fact remains and mars the overall effect. To me, it adds to the question of whether or not there were clear priorities for the film as whole.

Essentially, in watching the film, there were many times when I felt I was watching three different things: a ballet, a musical, and a play. All three of those things were well-executed, but they just didn’t seem to go together more often than not. It can certainly be argued that Romeo & Juliet is, itself, two disparate stories, one of love and one of hate, but Shakespeare’s play seems to weave those two themes together more successfully than here. Obviously, West Side Story was a huge critical and popular success, and it won countless awards, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I do think that, for its time, it was doing something truly different and outstanding; it was bringing the movie musical out of the last few centuries and into the present day, and for that it is certainly an important piece of work. But judged solely on its merits as a film, I don’t think it stands up to the values of the great musicals that preceded it.