J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for November, 2008

Bad Day at Black Rock

Posted by J on November 13, 2008

Bad Day at Black Rock will strike you in different ways, depending on how you watch it.  On the one hand, in200px-bad_day_at_black_rock a formal sense it is a “supreme work of craftsmanship,” as Pauline Kael says about it.  John Sturges, the director, uses the whole screen to set the mood well.  We’re in a Western (circa 1945 mind you) and the town of Black Rock is a haunted, isolated place.

On the other hand, the movie’s plot wants something more.  Essentially Bad Day at Black Rock plays with the contract between author and reader/viewer.  In almost all plots, there is a known problem or set of problems.  The author makes an unstated contract with a reader/viewer to solve that problem by the end of the work.  With this movie, the plot problem is that we don’t know what the problem is.  We know there’s a problem, but the movie asks us to wait through two-thirds of the movie to find it out.  This kind of plot setup doesn’t have many variations, so there can’t be too many stories with its premises.

The story is that a man (Spencer Tracy) shows up in the tiny town of Black Rock on a hot summer’s day.  Immediately we realize that, as a stranger, Black Rock’s citizens don’t like him too much.  They’re all standing outside the train station, astonished that anyone actually showed up in town.  What’s he here for anyway?  Well, that’s the plot problem we don’t know about, and neither do we know why Black Rock’s citizens do not want strangers to pass through.

The movie is essentially a Western, (SPOILER ALERT) with a lone hero matching muscles and wits against a band of thugs who plot to kill him.  Heck, when Walter Brennan shows up, you know we’re in a Western.  Once we learn exactly why the hero’s in town, the movie sort of deflates.  It hits its climax and only needs to resolve from that point.

We might ask key questions that explode the premise — like why do Black Rock’s citizens sit around all day waiting to exterminate anybody who passes through?  Don’t they have jobs?  Why keep worrying about retribution for a four-year-old event?  More importantly, though, the movie addresses and seeks to amend historical guilt over the United States’ internment of the Japanese in World War II.  This is a fine subject to bring up, though notice that once again Hollywood turns rural backwater places into seedbeds of hidden evil.  Hicks are always easy targets.  It’s not like urban Americans and Hollywood liberals weren’t complacent in the internment of the Japanese either, though the movie gives them a free pass.

Personally, we’re not into historical guilt trips that don’t involve breaking covenant with God.  We feel badly for Japanese Americans circa 1942. But there is no such thing as national sin against the Declaration of Independence, or sin against abstract notions of the rights of man.  It’s arguable whether the movie engages in such guilt trips, but given today’s P.C. environment, it’s easy to interpret the movie that way now.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 6


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

Rio Grande (1950)

Posted by J on November 8, 2008

The third movie in John Ford’s loosely connected Cavalry Trilogy, Rio Grande is the worst of the lot.  It’s 200px-riograndeprobably best reserved for movie historians and John Wayne lovers, so casual moviegoers can skip right by it.

This time, Wayne’s cavalry troop have to stop the Apache.  But that’s the second half of the movie.  The first half is mostly family melodrama, in which Wayne’s estranged son joins the cavalry and Wayne’s ex-wife shows up on his son’s heels.  In Rio Grande, you can see why rugged individualism seems to work better for Americans.  The movie drags along because of Wayne’s family difficulties, whereas in the other two cavalry movies (Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) Wayne’s character has no family associations and thus can be even more heroic.

There’s lots of singing in this movie, and singing is even used as a weapon.  Wayne’s troop is filled with crooners who have perfect pitch.  So they serenade Wayne and his lost love, they sing cowboy songs at night, and marching songs on the march.  Then the movie cuts immediately to the next scene, and we watch and hear Apache tribal songs.  These — all the characters agree — are harsh and unmusical, so the United States cavalry forces the Apaches to shut up.  This seems to be the cause of the Apaches’ beef, and so they start attacking anybody and everybody.

The climax of the movie has the cavalry troop defending a small town in an old Spanish parish.  The U.S. soldiers are literally shooting at the Apache through a cross in the parish door.   So much for the separation of church and state.

Nothing unexpected happens in the movie, except for the cavalry troop’s cordial relationship with the Mexican army (for uncordiality, to say the least, see Red River).    There are some amazing horse stunts by men whose shoelaces we are not worthy to tie.  However, the other two cavalry movies have these horse stunts too.  Fort Apache uses black-and-white film magnificently, while She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was filmed in a vibrant technicolor.  Rio Grande returns to black-and-white but doesn’t use it effectively, so again, it’s the worst of the three.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 5

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

Groundhog Day

Posted by J on November 7, 2008

Groundhog Day is now nearly universally hailed as a masterpiece that exhibits exemplary spirituality and 200px-189656groundhog-day-postersethics.  Let’s unpack this claim a bit.

First, the ultimate goal for Bill Murray’s character is not explicit.  Murray is stuck in the same day, living it over and over again.  It is never clear why Murray is stuck in Groundhog Day, nor is it clear what he must do to get out of the day.  Unlike Clarence the angel and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Murray is never told what he must do.  The repeating day is an inscrutable mystery, and no higher power intervenes to reveal anything to Murray.  Heck, the movie contains no religious imagery.  Not a church, not a cross, not a Buddha statue. In that sense, we could call it functionally secular.

With no higher revelation available within the movie, we must infer what Murray’s goal is from the way he finally ends the repeating day.  Murray, it seems, must win the nice-looking (to him), intellectual woman who he otherwise cannot easily conquer.  To win this woman, he must avoid directly wooing her and instead must indirectly woo her by performing acts of kindness to strangers in Puxtatawney, Pennsylvania.  Murray’s acts of kindness win over many of the townsfolk, who boast about Murray’s character to the intellectual female, who eventually sleeps with Murray to end Groundhog Day.  Murray thus attains his goal by earning a sleepover without sex.  Here, we see what movie genre we are in.  The sleepover is the goal of most modern Hollywood date movies – of for example romantic comedies as different as Roxanne and Say Anything.  To Murray, Hollywood is saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Murray’s relative indifference, a state of being he attains by living through years of a repeating day, is Zen-like.  The inscrutable, repeating day is basically a koan that Murray has to live through.  He can’t figure out why Groundhog Day keeps repeating, it’s completely perplexing, and so he adopts a “why care?” attitude typical of the spiritual emptying that Zen Buddhists are supposed to achieve to attain enlightenment.  And that’s what Murray achieves in the end: enlightenment.

But Groundhog Day is more complicated than this.  Murray does achieve certain goals, such as piano-playing and ice sculpting.  One of the points of the repeating day is to show Murray what he can accomplish, given time, effort, and discipline.  Just look at the structure of Murray’s journey through the repeating day:

1) Relishes in hedonistic pleasures (e.g., junk food and loose women).

2) Despairs of his existence and tries to kill himself.

3) Attempts to directly woo his female and fails.

4) Actively seeks to be charitable, partly succeeding and partly failing.

5) Learns a kind of indifferent selflessness, woos the female, and ends the day.

From #1-5, we can easily see the hierarchy of most ethical systems.  Murray progresses from materialism, to can-do individualism, to selflessness.  Or, another way to view it, he goes through Kierkegaard’s three stages of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.  Murray’s progression is general enough to be taken a number of ways, but specific enough to be appreciated by anyone who values selflessness over selfishness.  No wonder all the mushy religionists of the day love this movie.  And no wonder we can all get something out of the movie, even if we disagree with its positive portrayal of shack-ups.

One technicality we enjoy about this movie is its interesting use of closure.  Closure is the word for the way we movie viewers connect one shot with another.  If a movie jumps from an outside shot of a spaceship to an inside shot of a spaceship (like the opening to Star Wars), we viewers mentally make the assumption that the second shot is of the spaceship we just saw from the outside and not another spaceship at another point in space or time.  In Groundhog Day, there are a number of second takes that exemplify closure.  Murray walks into a bar, talks to a female, and then we see him walking into the bar again.   This second bar scene we all automatically assume is another day that Murray is living through.  There is no announcement that that’s what is happening, but we don’t need such an announcement.  The movie does a great job of establishing its own world and the premises of that world, which is why it’s worth studying for you future filmmakers out there.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 5

Posted in Comedy, Great | 2 Comments »


Posted by J on November 4, 2008

Our hunt for decent romantic comedies continues. Roxanne was as vulgar as it was stupid, and it was hard 200px-roxanne1987to know whether the vulgarity was outpacing the stupidity, or vice versa, until they both crossed the finish line at the same time.  In record pace, too.  It’s hard to know what exactly Siskel and Ebert were drinking before declaring this movie to be a “comic masterpiece,” but their gushing praise is proof that they occasionally had no clue.

The movie serves as a warning to anyone who thinks “PG” means “okay.”  The ratings system has always stunk, but a movie like this today would earn a PG-13 and you could look up everything about it online.  Back in the ’80s, just about anything could PG, even a flick like this wherein every character — when they aren’t asking their god to damn something — has sex on the brain.

The story is based loosely on the Cyrano de Bergerac tale, and so the movie adopts a light-hearted, almost cartoonish tone at times.  The fact is Roxanne discordantly combines stage comedy with the cheesy sentiments of late 20th century film romances.  For example, the movie opens with Steve Martin’s character dueling two dopey rich guys with a tennis racket, but later Martin tries to romantically woo a blonde.  As viewers, we’re supposed to respond to the cool FM jazz playing in the background and forget the cartoonish tennis racket duel.

Forget about the fact that Daryl Hannah plays a rocket scientist who will have sex with any poetically inclined male.  The subplot involving the town’s fire station has little to do with anything else in the movie, offers no laughs, and now looks incredibly cheesy.  We hated it. A “comic masterpiece” indeed.

Entertainment: 1

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in Romantic Comedy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Posted by J on November 1, 2008

Just sixty years old, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks ridiculously old-fashioned now.  The entire movie is about a U.S. Cavalry troop escorting one female across dangerous territory so that she can make the stagecoach.  That’s right, a hundred soldiers on horseback for one female.  These days, they’d just give her a gun and tell her to join the army instead.  Be all that you can be.  Forget Deuteronomy 20, Numbers 1, et cetera.

But there is a bit of historical foreshadowing.  This female, the one who wears the yellow ribbon, does dress up in military garb and is officially addressed by the troop’s commanding officer, Mr. John Wayne.  So that’s progressive.  Of course, she has two different soldiers after her — not for gambling debts or anything like that, but purely for procreative purposes.  Boys will be boys.  But this is the 1950s and we’re in the movies, so honor and heroism is the order of the day.  Expect all of the soldiers — even the two going after the lady — to act like gentlemen, mostly.

This is Wayne’s movie.  He is everywhere, in charge of everyone, on top of everything.  If you’re a global superpower, you want a guy like this as hero exemplar.  It helps Wayne’s persona that he’s in the foreground of many shots that have a spectacular background.  He dominates the wonders of the West as much as he dominates the U.S. cavalry troop he commands.

As the second movie in John Ford’s so-called “Cavalry trilogy”, though it’s a loose trilogy since what holds them together is only the fact that they are all about the U.S. Cavalry, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is markedly different from its predecessor, Fort Apache.  There is tension through most of this movie, whereas there was no tension in Fort Apache for the first hour-and-a-half.  The Indians in Yellow Ribbon aren’t treated as nicely either.  Here the aggressive Cheyenne, Apache, and other tribes form a pan-Indian union which prepares to attack, attack, attack!  Aware of this fact late in the movie, Wayne prepares a clever pre-emptive strike that seeks to avoid war but averts the great threat of this Indian union.

If Indians equal Communists, then Yellow Ribbon (1949) is optimistically cautious about a defensive military posture.  We can contain the commies without having to go to war with them.  Of course, the Indians are Indians too, so Yellow Ribbon‘s revisionist account has one incoherent old Indian screaming “Hallelujah!” madly while all of his brothers are purely bloodthirsty.  Not exactly a flattering portrayal.  This just goes to show that the losers don’t write the history books, nor do they make movies, so — moral of the story is — don’t be a loser.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 7

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