J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for September, 2008

Rope (1948)

Posted by J on September 30, 2008

Rope is the Reader’s Digest version of Crime and Punishment.  It even knows this because it mentions Dostoevsky’s famous, famously bloated novel.  You see, there are two guys who want to commit a murder just for the thrill of it.  They do incredibly stupid things–like have a dinner party ten minutes after murdering their victim, with the corpse inside a chest, which serves as the dinner table.  They even tell stories about one another.  “Hey,” one of them asks a guest, “did you know that Johnny used to strangle chickens back home on the farm?”

The point is that these two young men have been influenced by the high philosophy of the equally stupid.  Privileged men, they say, have a right to kill.  After all, “good” and “evil” are mere constructs.  This is what Jimmy Stewart’s character, Rupert Cadell, has been espousing his whole life.  He’s the teacher of these two murderers, and the intellectual catalyst for their dirty deeds.  So Rope’s simple message is, bad ideas have bad consequences. Words of wisdom, grasshopper.

Cadell gets suspicious at the dinner party pretty quickly, in fact too quickly.  He’s supposed to be an aloof professor who preaches amorality in the classroom, but when he gets to his New York dinner parties, he’s apparently on the lookout for subtle clues that point to lurking criminals.  In order to reach its resolution, Rope needs to expose the murderers.  But unlike Crime and Punishment, the murderers don’t deliberately turn themselves in.  No, there’s no conscience for these fellows.  Instead, it’s the professor who’s the hero, the one who converts in mid-movie from nihilist to moralist.  We suppose the converted Cadell is what the American general public would like its professors to be: champions of truth, freedom-fighters for free speech and inquiry of mind, devotees to ancient wisdom and morality.  Cadell’s conversion is a total fantasy–ever seen a Marxist or an atheist  recant all he’s ever espoused at a dinner party?–but the fact that our storytellers even dream up this fantasy tells us something about who and what we value.

It’s obvious that the two murderers are homosexuals.  These days, we’re all aware of the subtleties.  Back then, in 1948, surely not everybody was.  They could only make the movie with no obvious innuendo back then, which gives whiners today reason enough to complain about the days of Draconian censorship.  Of course, censorship today is worse, in its own way. They couldn’t make this movie at all in 2008.  Not unless they wanted to depict homosexuals as murdering nihilists who delight in strangling others for the pleasure of it.  Nope, then everybody’s P.C. alert button would go off, like an armored knight walking through airport security.

In our opinion, Hitchcock got a little too cute with Rope.  All the action takes place in a small apartment, and the movie’s shot so that it looks like one continuous shot.  It probably wasn’t, but since it looks like that, our Hollywood-induced ADD kicked in.  We’ve seen too many movies like Transformers and Armageddon, where there’s a cut every two seconds.  Rope has seemingly no cuts in 80 minutes.  Put a bunch of people in one room watching this movie, and you’ll have a roomful of fidgety maniacs in fifteen minutes.  So get a straight-jacket and some tranquilizer before you press “Play.”

Entertainment: 5.5

Intelligence: 4

Morality: whatever

Posted in Mystery, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 4 Comments »

Unbreakable

Posted by J on September 26, 2008

The gods have made a comeback.  We don’t know how many superhero stories we’ve been subjected to in recent years.  Tons, it seems. Evidently, people worldwide are willing to pay to watch alien superbeings or genetically modified humans execute their special powers in the name of truth and justice.  Superman and the X-men have replaced Zeus and Mars.

Unbreakable is the one quiet movie about superheroes.  It is essentially a one-act version of the superhero discovering himself as superhero, but this discovery is sugarcoated by movie magic, by style and soaring music.  Taste the substance underneath the sugarcoating and you’ll find some bitter flavors.  Example: David Dunn, our hero, has never realized that he’s been sick.  He didn’t recognize that that car he picked up years ago weighed two tons.  So, the appropriate question is, does David Dunn suffer from amnesia or stupidity?

The action starts when David survives a horrible commuter trainwreck, the only person to live to tell his tale.  This is shockingly amazing to an rich, oddball comic collector named Elijah Price.  Elijah has “osteogenesis imperfecta,” a disease caused by scriptwriters who pander to society’s lowest IQ level.  Elijah tries to convince David that David is something special, and that’s the movie.

There are cute tricks in Unbreakable that veteran viewers of M. Night Shymalayan movies are accustomed to.  There will be a revelation at the end–probably, we can guess early on, about who David and Elijah really are–but the tricks are forecasted by the framed shots, costumes, opening credits, etc.  Are we, the audience, supposed to believe initially that this isn’t a movie about superheroes?  It would seem so, except the opening credits give us needless statistics about comic book collectors.  And then every shot has a framing device–a doorway, a window, or something else that blatantly says, “Hey, notice that this movie is just like a comicbook!”  This aspect makes Unbreakable watchable only the first time.  On the second viewing, the plot development is too slow and the movie’s hidden revelations are too blatantly obvious.

But not everything is annoying.  Dunn’s relationship with his wife is one of the few moments in recent movies where a married couple actually succeeds at reconciling their relationship.  Although one of us, the female half, didn’t appreciate that Dunn failed to reveal to his wife that he might be in a comicbook movie about superheroes.  Didn’t he know that husbands are supposed to communicate family secrets to their wives?

Probably not.  Give him a break, wives of the world.  This is one hero who barely has a clue.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 7

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Reality-Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

The 39 Steps

Posted by J on September 25, 2008

The 39 Steps has dropped down the cultural memory hole, forgotten among Alfred Hitchcock’s other well-regarded movies.  But pardon us for sacrilege.  We enjoyed this one far more than North by Northwest or Vertigo.

What are the reasons?  Among others, it passed the Treadmill Test.  The Treadmill Test is one in which we determine a movie’s watchability on our expensive, electricity-sucking gerbil wheel.  If we can run on the treadmill and ignore the time and distance we’ve gone because the movie is entertaining, the movie passes.  Few do.  Once our heartrates climb, everything else slows down.  At top 5k speed, Canary in a Coalmine by the Police sounds like a ballad, and all movies start to feel like they were directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.   But 39 Steps is intriguing until a few moments into the last act, when Hitchcock pauses to titillate us with a scene in which a man and woman are handcuffed together in a hotel bedroom.  But the pause is brief.

The 39 Steps deliberately foregrounds the problem of loyalty to one’s nation-state.  Its main character, Richard Hannay, is a man caught between a murder Scotland Yard thinks he committed and an elaborate spy-ring.  Hannay sneaks around the backcountry of Scotland, trying to preserve the security of his country, in an attempt to expose the spy-ring.  But his own government inadvertently seeks to prevent him from benefiting his country.  Hannay, a patriot, is a loner.  It is worthwhile to note that, in the end, the dominant hand of Hannay is still handcuffed.

Hannay is practically the only person worried about national loyalty.  The other spies, good and bad, have discarded national identity in favor of espionage games.  Meanwhile, the rest of England masses collect in theaters to watch low-grade entertainment.  Chief among that entertainment is Mr. Memory, a man well qualified for the TV gameshow Jeopardy, having stuffed his head with useless information.

The 39 Steps showcases Hitchcock’s skill of manipulating his audience, chiefly by constantly changing Hannay’s status as an escapee, a pursuer, and a captured criminal.   The film travels through the dark, foggy nights in Scotland’s backcountry.   This is, we think, more exciting that watching Jimmy Stewart sit in an apartment and observe his neighbors.  If you want to sample Hitchcock, start here.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 7

Posted in Great, Spy Thriller | 1 Comment »

Sherlock Jr.

Posted by J on September 17, 2008

They don’t make ’em like they used to.  Sherlock Jr. utilizes mostly-dead film techniques that have to be revived eventually.  They’re too good.  Consider: Buster Keaton, chased by a gang of crooks, has no place to hide.  So his sidekick dresses up as an old woman, and in the moment when the crooks find him, Keaton jumps into the disguised sidekick.  Then the sidekick walks away.  It’s a cheap magic trick, but it’s absurdly hilarious.  A movieful of these gags today would cost $15 million and, done right, would earn ten times that much.  Some entrepreneur needs to wise up to this fact.  (Note: we won’t hold our breath until the “Christian” movie industry figures this out.)

But Sherlock Jr., unlike most films (silent or talkie), is not juvenile.  In fact we’re sure that academics have praised it in some obscure academic journal for its complex depiction of the self’s obliteration by technopoly.  Or whatever.  Since this site gets more readers in one day than an obscure academic journal gets in a lifetime, we won’t go there.

But do look closely.  Buster’s character, a down-and-out film projectionist, splits in two.  This doppleganger then jumps into a movie, or really several movies, as he is manipulated by cinematic forces he can’t control.  Then Buster imagines himself in the upscale detective thriller that he is projecting, in which he becomes the star and the detective who must bust a criminal conspiracy.  This is not insignificant: Sherlock Jr. is one of the very few movies to have a movie inside of a movie.

And yet it’s still fun. It’s hard to imagine anyone not loving the movie’s final motorcycle chase.  Sherlock Jr. is better kids’ entertainment than you’ll find at the local library.

The Kino DVD of Sherlock Jr. has a special bonus, an original score by the Club Foot Orchestra.  We know nothing about the Club Foot Orchestra, but we’d guess that this group is one of those retro-big band acts that were popular in the late 1990s.  This score is playful, absurd, avant-garde, and fun, and it often fits the action. (For example, when the criminals are conspiring against Buster, the meter becomes complex and uncountable.)  We weren’t sure if we liked it — too many John Cage-like elements for us — but it does up the artistic ante of the original movie’s opening bid.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 8

Morality: just fine

Posted in Comedy, Great | Leave a Comment »

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Posted by J on September 14, 2008

No, this is not about Saddam Hussein.  The Thief of Bagdad is an early special effects fantasy, most of it ripped from the pages of the altered Arabian Nights.  You’ll see sultans riding horses that fly and deposed kings commanding genies and surfing the sky on flying carpets.  These fanciful stories came from the Persian tales in Arabian Nights — just as with Disney’s Aladdin — which were combined with the starker Arab tales to get the 1001 Nights that Brits and educated Americans knew by the the eighteenth century.

It’s ironic, then, that this is a tale about Bagdad and Basra, when so many of its narrative elements are Persian.  We lump Iran and Iraq in the “Axis of Evil” these days, but we forget they massacred each other in a long war in the 1980s.  But a big difference to people on that side of the world is no difference to us on this side of the world, where we are free to label all those places over there “Oriental” and call it a day.

They wouldn’t make a movie like this today.  Not while we’re occupying one-third of the Axis of Evil and antagonizing and being antagonized by another third of it.  The Thief of Bagdad is way too fanciful.  Instead, they’ll be making Three Kings and sentimental humanist tearjerkers about war and loss for at least another decade.  So enjoy what The Thief of Bagdad has to offer.

What it offers, as Roger Ebert argues, is well-employed special effects.  But we disagree with Roger.   Any event can happen in this movie because no event is out of bounds.  The plot can go wherever the writers desire; it just happened that they desired it to feature a mountainous, flying genie and a deadly, Dodge-Ram-size spider.  It could’ve been a flying spider and a deadly genie, but the king still would’ve gotten his girl and his kingdom back in the end.

What The Thief of Bagdad really offers is brightly colored costumes, sets, and matte paintings.  They are everywhere, in every scene.  We’ve seen few movies that look like this.  The best word for it is eye-popping.  Not that we are violating our general movie rule, which is that style is not to trump substance.  But style is the chief reason to watch The Thief of Bagdad, the plot being pedestrian.  Though it is “imaginative,” too, whatever that means.

The DVD features a commentary from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, who wax nostalgic about Thief of Bagdad ‘s wondrous imagination.  This sentiment does nothing but date Coppola and Scorcese.  Kids today, who have consumed heavy doses of CGI-filled blockbusters, will not find some of this movie’s phony-looking effects breathtaking. That includes us.

The commentary is merely a showcase for Scorcese to tell us that he’s seen every movie ever made, which we’d call a tremendous waste of time if his job didn’t involve moviemaking.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 7 (we guess, but who knows)

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

Strangers on a Train

Posted by J on September 11, 2008

There is nothing about Strangers on a Train that is not corrupt.  There is not one good person in the movie, maybe except for the innocent witnesses.  And the entire movie is based on a twisted scheme.  Bruno Anthony, a disturbed man who wants to murder his father, suggests to star tennis player Guy Haines that each of them murder the other’s inconvenient attachment.  Haines, you see, has a wife, and the wife is in the way of Haines’ ability to marry his glamorous mistress.

Yet Strangers on a Train succeeds marvelously at exposing the immorality of its own audience, we viewers.  Throughout the movie we are caught rooting for Haines to resist Anthony’s temptations.  When Haines gets sucked into Anthony’s schemes, we desire him to get out.  And we feel sorry for Haines’ mistress, who looks like the girl next door.   What makes us feel this way is the skill of Hitchcock’s direction, which provokes us to care when we should want to remain distant.

But Haines’ adultery makes our sympathies with him a huge problem.  What kind of hero cheats on his wife and really does want to get rid of her?  Ultimately, once yoked with Anthony’s horrendous evil, there is no escape for a petty sinner like Haines.  He cannot turn to the law, and he cannot turn away from darkness.

When the movie finally ends, Haines has seemingly freed himself from Anthony.  We are supposed to feel good about the happy ending.  And yet Haines has gotten away with adultery, and has become a worse man for it.  In the final moments, he kisses his partner in adultery and shies away from the Christian minister who asks him an innocent question.

Strangers on a Train shows the dark underbelly of the 1950s, a decade portrayed in recent pop culture as an innocent time of cool cars, bobby pins, and mom-and-pop soda joints.  But innocent it surely was not.  How else could it produce the disatrous war and the rebellious counterculture of the next decade?  Something was terribly wrong then.

Most people really do love murder, just in socially acceptable ways.  Most of Hitchcock’s movies–and this is the first of his that we have recommended on this site–expose this love.   There is great evil in the hearts of men.

Entertainment:8

Intelligence: 8

Morality: see above

Posted in Great, Mystery | Leave a Comment »

10,000 B.C.

Posted by J on September 6, 2008

10,000 B.C. is special.  It possesses that unique quality found in so many great leaders and negotiators: it makes people look past their differences and, for at least a 90-minute period, unite.  Some of you, we know, think there never was a 10,000 B.C.  Some of you think there was.  Rest assured, even though you all have serious disagreements, all of you will laugh at 10,000 B.C.

This is not because 10,000 B.C. is a comedy.  It’s not really much of an unintentional comedy.  But for this movie to pass itself off as something historical is hilarious.   Consider our heroes, the mountain-based hunters of the mammoth.  These guys have a special hunting technique sure to lose the kill every time.  One of them sneaks into the middle of the mammoth pack, then stands up and howls like a banshee.  When the mammoths stampede, he tries to avoid getting trampled, while his fellow hunters raise their arms and howl like banshees.  The mammoths run away.  Without attempting to first kill the mammoths, the hunters run after them, losing ground because they are slower, but thanks to the miracle of movies they keep pace.  Finally, the hunters flush one of the mammoths into a net.  In fact, the whole point of this hunting charade is to catch a mammoth in a net, which contains the beast for no more than two minutes.

With hunters like these, it’s a wonder that humanity made it past 10,000 B.C. at all.

We follow the story of these hunters, whose tribe gets sacked by a few barbarians on horses.  A blue-eyed female is abducted from the tribe, so a young mammoth-hunter named D’Leh goes after her.  D’Leh pursues the barbarians, who have pllaged the local area like a pack of IRS agents.  Since you know what happens when a prince pursues a princess, you understand that he must go to a fortress and rescue her from a king, etc.

The curious thing about 10,000 B.C. is the multicultural angle.  Somehow, the mammoth hunters are composed of Caucasians, Maoris, Africans, and American Indians.  When D’Leh pursues his princess, he picks up a bunch of guys to help him, most of whom are Africans living in jungle-based, African-only tribes.  They all go to the Emerald City, where a priest caste of Asian Indians are building a Tower-of-Babel-like edifice.  It turns out that the bad guys are racially mixed, just like the mammoth hunters, but not like the several African tribes. We tried to look on the world map, to see where all of this action could’ve taken place, but we gave up pretty quickly.

This movie has more in common with the Disneyland ride It’s a Small World than you’d think.

It doesn’t matter whether this movie takes place in 10,000 B.C. or 10,000 A.D.  It doesn’t matter whether it takes place on this planet or another.   It just takes place.  You know what you are getting when the DVD opens with three advertisements for video games.  And no, you are not getting an accurate depiction of life in 1,000 B.C.

Unless you think man-eating ostriches recently roamed the earth.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 5

Posted in Reality-Fantasy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Posted by J on September 4, 2008

It’s a shame that Order of the Phoenix features good witches and benevolent sorcery.  Cut that part out and you’ve got an okay movie. In fact, Order of the Phoenix provides one of the most scathing critiques in recent memory of government-run schools.  Actually, it goes further than that: government-run anything, so the movie argues, is buffoonish and ineffective.  Incapable of combating external threats, it imposes tyranny on its own citizens in reaction to external threats.

The movie begins with an attack on Harry by a couple of soul-sucking skeletons.  Since these skeletons are government-workers — prison guards at the Azkaban penitentary — somebody on the inside has ordered them to attack Harry.  But Harry is blamed for this attack.  He is brought before an intimidating, secret government court and subjected to a rigged trial.  Only by a last minute intervention does he find himself vindicated.

And yet the government (called the Ministry of Magic) uses the media to attack Harry for claiming that the Dark Lord Voldemort has returned.  This government-media connection is featured throughout Order of the Phoenix, and it is not to be admired.

Meanwhile, Harry’s school is taken over by a Ministry of Magic bureaucrat named Deloris Umbridge.  Umbridge asserts that the students don’t need any practical training, and that the students will now learn solely in order to pass a government-mandated exam.  Umbridge makes Hogwarts its own little hell.  Curiously, she is the main villain in this movie, while the disturbing Voldemort plays second fiddle to Umbrage’s ultimate, government-sponsored evil.

So Harry starts his own, de facto homeschool.  Forced to teach themselves, Harry and his friends form an extracurricular group to learn the ways to defend against evil wizards.  And, of course, it pays off.

Yes, we like to look on the bright side.  This is the first Potter movie to have anything meaningful to say without resorting to some vague point about good overcoming evil.  Still, there are a few trite soundbytes uttered as profundities of wisdom.  Such as: we all have good and evil inside of us, and it’s up to us to choose.  And: friendship trumps evil.  Those came near the end, and it’s this kind of goofy, sentimental message we’ve come to expect from the visually imaginative Potter series.

This is the fifth movie in an eight-movie series.  It will be about six movies too long.  At about movie #3,  you need a map and a scorecard to keep track of the characters, and even at movie #5 it is still not clear how the invisible world of witches practically co-exists with the real world.  In fact, until movie #5, It was not even clear that there was much of an invisible world of witches beyond Hogwarts.  Of course there are always lots of spells, lots of curses, and a great witch fight as a climactic moments.  You, dear reader, know how much of this you can stomach.  If you are to view a Potter movie for style, go with Prisoner of Azkaban. If you are to view a Potter movie for content, Order of the Phoenix is probably the one to watch.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 3

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Clever but Immoral, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Posted by J on September 2, 2008

Here is where the Harry Potter series turns from fantasy to horror.  Yes, it’s a freak show, but it’s also genuinely horrible to see Harry and his friends begin to struggle with teenage hormones, to worry about who to take to the high school dance, to cry when Ron Weasley fails to ask you out.

Ah, the struggles of being a teenage witch!

In this movie you’ll experience a lot of teen angst, told from the perspective of a teenager.  You see, someone put Harry Potter’s name in the Goblet of Fire, which means he has to participate in the hazardous Triwizard Cup.  For some reason, none of the powerful wizards can keep Harry from participating, which makes no sense.  Harry is supposed to be special and has gotten in lots of serious trouble before. Shouldn’t this kid be surrounded by armored guards at all times?

Of course, all the adults act like fools and weaklings for the sake of plot development, so that Harry — that struggling teenage witch — can learn to be an adult who will one day act like a fool and weakling so that some other teenager can learn to be an adult who will one day act like a fool and weakling, etc.

So Harry faces three challenges in the Triwizard Cup.  This is a few challenges short of the number of Hercules’ trials, but it is the same amount as Jesus’ temptations in the desert, which puts Harry somewhere pretty high on the scale of the immortals (though Harry might be the highest-grossing immortal ever).  But even immortals have serious problems.  In Goblet of Fire we know that evil people are out to get Harry, as they always are, but the chief question for this and all the other Potter movies is: which high school teacher is it?  No, it couldn’t be the Defense against the Dark Arts teacher again, could it?  Not him, the rude guy with the glass eye?  If you can’t answer these questions immediately, and if you don’t have your intelligence insulted by Goblet of Fire, you haven’t watched many movies.

We wouldn’t understand the parent who allows any children to watch this movie.  You’ve got the ample stupidity mentioned above, witches struggling through high school, magic spells used to help the protagonists, people called Death Eaters walking around with skulls on their faces, bad guys amputating their own hands and drinking other people’s blood, and then in the end you’ve got to stare at Voldemort’s noseless face.  In one sense Voldemort is cheesy.  He looks like Sybok’s helper in Star Trek V , and it is sad that the big-budget Harry Potter series had to steal from such a crummy movie.  But, for most people, Voldemort is frightening.

Since this movie made 900 million dollars worldwide, we conclude that the world enjoys freakshows.  Expect more of the same from the next three Potter flicks.

Entertainment: 5

Morality: 0

Intelligence: 0

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