Why You Were Probably Wrong about The Lone Ranger

The-Lone-Ranger-Wallpaper

Various critics have talked about why last year’s The Lone Ranger deserved to do better, box-office-wise, than it did, about its interest in how events are turned into history and its visual delights, which are, I should think, inarguable. Thus far, I haven’t come across anyone talking about another major interest of the film, one that gives it depth, and works to tie a careering plot together: identity. Maybe “character” would be a better way to put it, because I don’t mean “identity” in the sense of stock Western characters. In his November 2013 essay, “Out of Balance: Gore Verbinski and the Lone Ranger” (published on MUBI’s Notebook), Ryland Walker Knight sets up The Lone Ranger next to Tarantino’s Django Unchained. They are both Westerns interested in what stories get told about history, and “both films” he argues, “are meticulously aesthetic and political visions, employing a variety of forms/tropes (of artifice) to critique the myth of America.” But another similarity between the two is the question of character—a theme explicitly raised at the end of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, when The Wolf points out, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” In fact, character is a theme that runs through both directors’ oeuvres. Knight argues for The Lone Ranger as a more protean, flexible film than Django Unchained, and I think this is also true of the way each director approaches the question of character more generally. Yet, because Verbinski’s films are so big and the action sequences are so beautifully presented, most interested folks don’t spend much time talking about what else his films might have in common.

Verbinski’s characters—his worlds—are loopy and sometimes it seems as though the stuffing is coming out at the seams, whereas Tarantino’s are much more structured, an aesthetic as much as a philosophical difference.

Seriously, WTF?

Seriously, WTF?

Verbinski’s characters teeter on the edge of our world, sometimes falling off into bizarre other-worlds where there exist things like the fanged feral rabbits in The Lone Ranger, or, really, whole swathes of the fourth Pirates film. The first Pirates is also very much about character—Johnny Depp’s splendid Captain Jack Sparrow spends half the film announcing and reminding folks that he is “Captain Jack Sparrow”—and some of the movie’s suspense is meant to come from the question of whether Jack Sparrow is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s a popular subject of conversation among his companions throughout the series.

Jack_Hallucinates2

I never thought I’d say this, but that’s just too much Johnny Depp. *Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End*

There are more obvious similarities between The Lone Ranger and Verbinski’s animated film, Rango (2011)—both are self-conscious Westerns starring (in one way or another) Johnny Depp. But a look at the opening scenes in each reveals a much deeper connection. In The Lone Ranger, a boy dressed as the Ranger (Mason Cook) walks into a fair exhibit called “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” a darkish hall of dioramas like the ones natural history museums used to have. (Do they still have those? It’s been awhile since I was in a natural history museum.) As lots of folks have noted, this opening raises all sorts of questions about history as a story we construct. sbP5jwwThe boy stops in front of an aged Tonto (Depp), who is an exhibit titled (what else?) “The Noble Savage.” When Tonto sees the boy’s costume, he suddenly speaks, apparently taking the boy for the Lone Ranger himself. During this first exchange, the boy asks Tonto, “Who did you think I was, anyways?”—a question that hovers over the characters of both John Reid/the Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto for most of the film. Moving to question to the audience (who does the teller of the tale think the audience is?) is a fascinating reversal.tonto

Tonto is a character introduced to us in an artificial box, the diorama, in which he’s been put by the creators of the exhibit, and this is the film’s frame story, literally framed. Tonto tells the boy a story about how John Reid became the Lone Ranger—the main narrative. The boy interrupts occasionally with objections and questions, at one point asking, “How’d you get out of jail anyway?” The shot is no longer a head-on shot of the boy or of Tonto. It is a long shot from down the hall of the boy standing in front of the exhibit. As if in response to the boy’s question, Tonto’s head peeks around the edge of the exhibit and peers down the hall towards the camera—as though peering out from the prison cell of the wrong narrative.

Now take a look at the opening of Rango. There isn’t exactly a frame narrative but there is a frame, provided by a chorus of mariachi-playing owls, who introduce “a hero who has yet to enter his own story.” Indeed, the chameleon Rango is busy in another story (the wrong story?). Rango is putting on a play about a suicidal princess (whom he is, of course, going to rescue) inside his terrarium…which looks an awful lot like a much brighter and more colorful natural history diorama. Rango is having an argument with one of his inanimate co-stars, Victor, a fake miniature palm tree.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzyhR-Towxo&w=420&h=315]

“What’s that, Victor? My character is ‘undefined’? That’s absurd! I know who I am. I’m…the guy, the protagonist, the hero!” Rango and his friends, who also include a headless Barbie and a wind-up goldfish, are traveling in the back seat of a station wagon, the pet of a family in the midst of a move. “That’s it! Conflict! Victor, you were right. I have been undefined. People! I’ve had an epiphany! The hero cannot exist in a vacuum. What our story needs is an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict!” And of course there is immediately a car accident that propels the terrarium out of the car, breaking its glass on the pavement. Rango is a character who is more consciously in search of an identity than either Tonto or John Reid, but the set-ups are remarkably similar

In an interview with IndieWire, Verbinski listed the top ten films that influenced Rango. “Identity narratives” was what was important about two of his choices, “Flowers for Algernon” and Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” but it’s certainly an important theme in other films on his list, like Being There. Elaborating, he said, “’The Passenger’ has a little more of pretending and the puppet that can’t escape the strings. People create avatars but there’s blowback; you aren’t completely liberated by assuming that alternate identity.” This is true not only of Rango, who in assuming an alternate identity also takes on responsibility for the town’s survival, but of John Reid, who in creating (somewhat by accident) the character of the Lone Ranger, can no longer be himself and can’t stay with the woman he loves. Neither can Reid continue to assume, when he happens upon an Indian and a white man in chains on their way to jail, that both men are in fact guilty of a crime. The Lone Ranger will never say, as Reid does before his transformation, “Finally, someone who will listen to reason!” and be referring to the United States Army. Taking on these new identities changes who the characters “actually” are.

As much as there is uncertainty in The Lone Ranger about who Tonto is—both in the frame story and in the Ranger narrative—and whether or not he’s actually bonkers, there is uncertainty about whether or not Reid is aArmie-Hammer-and-Johnny-Depp-in-The-Lone-Ranger-2013-Movie-Image warrior, whether or not he has the makings of a hero. Is Reid a “hero who has not yet entered his own story”? Tonto has a hard time believing in this version of Reid, even when the Spirit Horse indicates Reid as the person who will help Tonto have his revenge. He tells Reid that “Kemosabe” means “wrong brother,” as he was hoping for John’s more competent brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to come back from the spirit world and fight.

Among the film’s abundant visual pleasures are the many nods to other films, some of them other Depp and/or Verbinski movies. Here are a few of less-oft mentioned of them: Towards the beginning of The Lone Ranger, we see Cole trying to make nice with Rebecca Reid (the shamefully underused Ruth Wilson), wife of current sheriff Dan, and their son. Cole gives the boy an optical illusion toy, a thaumatrope with the picture of a bird on one side and a cage on the other. By quickly rolling the handle back and forth between one’s hands, it looks like the bird is

Ichabod Crane's thaumatrope in *Sleepy Hollow*.

Ichabod Crane’s thaumatrope in *Sleepy Hollow*.

actually in the cage. The toy is borrowed from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), starring Depp—his character, Ichabod Crane, is the one who plays with it. The scene of Dan Reid and his deputies wait for Cavendish to arrive at the train station is reminiscent of the (much longer) opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West (as is the scene of the raid on the Reid homestead). There are a variety of allusions to Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Western, Dead Man, also starring you-know-who. There is a charming and affectionate nod to early filmmaking genius Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938) in the bordello, on the stage of which a group of young women with enormous butterfly wings dance a ballet. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTYmydDXln8&w=420&h=315]And in the masterfully staged train chase, Tonto adapts a trick from Pirates of the Caribbean’s Barbossa, itself adapted from a couple of Buster Keaton gags, using a ladder to move between trains running on parallel tracks. There’s also a cross-dressing outlaw whose fashion sense resembles that of Pirates’ cross-dressing pirate.

All of which is to say, if you didn’t see The Lone Ranger when it came out, or you saw it and thought, “Piffle,” give it (another) look.

Below are some thoughtful reviews from the film’s release.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s review at Roger Ebert’s site.

Salon: “The Lone Ranger”: Rip-roaring Adventure Meets Dark Political Parable

Twitch Film: “The Lone Ranger” Rides Hard Against History

The Voracious Film Goer: Off the rails: “The Lone Ranger”

San Francisco Bay Guardian, Counterpoint: an Appreciation of “The Lone Ranger”

Tuesday’s Sunday Random Roundup, October 1, 2013

The zombies made me miss the Roundup last week. But now we have an actual developing story…perhaps even a scandal of sorts. So there’s no actual Roundup here, unless you think of it as a Roundup of one thing. I should make it clear that I have not yet read either Doherty’s or Urwand’s books…though after reading so much about them, I hope to find the time to do so.

In my very first Roundup, I mentioned the recently published and controversial The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand. The Hollywood Reporter published an excerpt, along with a response by film scholar Thomas Doherty, who published a book on the same subject earlier this year, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933 – 1939. Now, the Self-Styled Siren has weighed in, agreeing with Doherty (and a passel of other reliable sources) that Urwand is, based on the available evidence, wildly overstating Hollywood’s “collaboration” with Nazis.

It would seem that a lot of the problem is that there simply isn’t the evidence Urwand wants there to be. The Siren quotes from the text, demonstrating Urwand’s slippery rhetoric:

With regard to “It Can’t Happen Here,” a proposed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fictitious American dictator, it can’t be corroborated that Gyssling [Georg Gyssling, the German consul] even contacted [Production Code Administration “censor-in-chief”*] Joe Breen about it. Urwand is undeterred: “His presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected MGM’s decision” to scuttle the film.

“Undoubtedly.”

David Denby, in his review of both Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler and Urwand’s book, makes a similar criticism about the dropped Lewis adaptation: Urwand “says that a threatening Gyssling letter to Warners [about the adaptation] has been lost, but he then reconstructs what the letter ‘would’ have said, based on the single letter he cites (without ever quoting it). It’s hard to imagine how authoritative scholarship and furious accusations can be based on missing documents, the conditional mood, and conjecture.” Denby has since published a follow-up on the New Yorker‘s blog, on which more below (including a link).

Ermph. Furthermore, as the Siren reveals, Urwand is either unfamiliar with pre-Code films or so invested in his argument that he can’t see the trees for the forest. Not only did “Hollywood” collaborate with the Nazis, but, Urwand insists, “Hollywood had avoided making movies that drew attention to the economic depression and the horrendous conditions under which people were living” (quoted by the Siren).

As the Siren clarifies:

This strikes me, and anyone who’s ever spent a hot summer day at a Film Forum Pre-Code triple feature, as spectacularly wrong. Thomas Doherty points out in his Pre-Code Hollywood that in an 18-month period from 1931 to 1933, one director—Roy Del Ruth—made ten films that bring up those subjects. Not to mention Mervyn LeRoy’s “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Little Caesar,” Frank Capra’s “American Madness,” or even “Scarface,” which Urwand must have seen, because he says the Nazis found that one unacceptable —I mean, how many does it take?

Indeed. One of the great glories of pre-code film is precisely how much apparently unfiltered content made to the screen–sex, politics, class, crime, misery, you name it–before the Hays office and Joseph Breen, a documented anti-Semite, started tidying up.

Here are two of Roy Del Ruth’s films, the trailer for Employees’ Entrance (1933) and James Cagney helping out the Irish cop with a little Yiddish in Taxi! (1932) (which also stars the delightful Loretta Young). Both are films about labor relations (and romance, of course).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlMFUuniuGw&w=420&h=315]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynpOEcPdjdk&w=420&h=315]

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a particularly good clip for Del Ruth’s 1933 Captured!, starring Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and which takes place in a German POW camp.

And then there’s the title of Urwand’s book, The Collaboration. No one who reads that title will think it is merely a term describing what moguls and German officials were doing, a word like, say “conference” or even “agreement.” The word “collaboration” in regards to fascism has come to mean something very specific, and the Siren quotes Doherty from his HR rebuttal: “To call a Hollywood mogul a collaborator is to assert that he worked consciously and purposefully, out of cowardice or greed, under the guidance of Nazi overlords.” At least one Holocaust scholar has also pointed out that Urwand’s use of the term is inaccurate. Urwand’s rush to label Jewish studio heads collaborators smacks of the contemporary vogue of likening anyone we disagree with to Hitler–a practice that simply trivializes the atrocities for which Hitler was actually responsible.

The Siren also has trouble with Urwand’s inclusion of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) as evidence of “Hollywood’s” collaboration, despite the fact that Vidor mortgaged his house to finance the film. “Put aside, if possible, the infuriating slant on Vidor’s motives and his film,” the Siren argues. “What is this movie doing in this book? It illustrates nothing about the studios because it was made outside them.” Ah, details, details.

This is a longish scene from Our Daily Bread, accused of being “pinko” on its release:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaW_uuwIO3o&w=420&h=315]

Perhaps the most damning criticism I’ve come across, for a historian, is Denby’s, in his description of the way in which Urwand discusses actual films themselves: “In his own way, Urwand thinks like an ideologue—or a censor.” According to the book’s critics, Urwand considers a movie’s plot and whether or not the Nazis gave it a thumbs up; nothing else about the film appears to be relevant. Any academic worth his (or her) salt knows that reception does not prove intent.

It is certainly true that Hollywood, taken to mean the studios, did not do all we might in hindsight have wished when the specter of Nazism materialized. (Hardly anyone in a position of influence in this country did.) Some of this failure is due to perfectly predictable, if not laudable, business concerns. Some of it is similarly due to the largely Jewish industry worrying that being seen as openly hostile to Hitler and/or Germany would hurt their profits and/or reputation…but also, intriguingly, to what now seem counter-intuitive circumstances like the Anti-Defamation League’s concern that such open hostility, or even positive representations of Jewish characters would make things worse for Jews in America.

Warner Brothers’ 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola is a fascinating case in point. Directed by the emigré William (Wilhelm) Dieterle and starring Paul Muni, neé Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in Austria-Hungary, Zola focuses on the writer’s involvement in the case surrounding the false accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French artillery. Denby reports that the film’s central subject is something its producer, Henry Blanke, told a concerned Gyssling would “play only a small role” in the film (Denby’s words). And yet the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film (though it is visible on a document for about a second and a half). How could this have happened? Well, in 1937, a number of studios agreed “to avoid using the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews’ in order to prevent a domestic anti-Semitic backlash to their films,” according to film historian and journalist Mike Greco, in his review of Urwand’s book published on the American Film Institute’s web site.

Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, among other awards, and anyone who knew anything about world politics could see the analogy with contemporary Germany. (The Dreyfus case is referred to as “infamous” in one of the original trailers for the film, below.) Turner Classic Movies’ entry on the film notes that The Life of Emile Zola “was not shown in France until the fiftieth anniversary of Zola’s death in 1952 and even then it required the consent of four French ministries before it could be shown.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcSWl5DaL4s&w=420&h=315]

The Jewish Chronicle web site notes that the 1940 film The Mortal Storm, another anti-Nazi effort, also “never used the word ‘Jew’. And the same is true for more recent films like Dirty Dancing, in 1987, and Avalon, in 1990, despite their respective Jewish milieus.”

The oddly coy trailer for Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP0LmTA2fXM&w=420&h=315]

At any rate, the fact of studios cutting films to appease foreign markets, including Germany, is not news. As film historian Jeanine Basinger points out in her review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, “In other words, there’s no news here. Mr. Urwand’s outrage seems to be a bit like that of Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca,’ when he is ‘shocked, shocked’ to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café Americain.” Basinger offers a series of examples of studios altering films for both foreign and domestic audiences: “In 1915, the villain of ‘The Cheat’ (played by the Japanese Sessue Hayakawa) was ‘a rich Oriental.’ In the 1923 remake, he had become ‘a fake Hindu prince.’ By the 1931 version, he was ‘a man who had just returned from the Orient.’ In the 1940s and ’50s, Lena Horne’s musical numbers were cut from films released in the South, and Frank Capra was warned that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ should delete the use of the Lord’s Prayer. (‘Obtain a suitable prayer or it will be necessary to shoot an alternate scene for Great Britain.’)” This doesn’t fill me with pride, particularly that bit about Lena Horne, but none of Urwand’s supportable claims appear to offer any new discoveries.

All of this raises the question…what prompted Harvard University Press to publish the book? Or at least, to publish it without significant revisions, a question Denby himself ponders in a September 23 New Yorker blog post. He also revisits his original review, in which he had granted one of Urwand’s claims about studios distributing Nazi propaganda in non-US markets. Denby points to Urwand’s September 6 “On the Media” interview, aired on NPR, in which he explains that the “propaganda” shot in Germany was re-edited and made, in Urwand’s own words, “neutral in tone,” rather undermining his own case. Denby approvingly quotes the Siren’s “powerful attack” on the book and ends with the following:

Something broke down here in the vetting process, and that likely includes the expert academic reader reports that Harvard University Press surely commissioned, which are meant to protect the author, the press, and the facts.

Denby goes on to quote Lionel Trilling: “‘Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect,’ Trilling wrote in 1945, a good year for blaming.” Trilling’s point is well-taken, and not just in reference to 1945.

In a New York Times blog post on September 26, Urwand responds to the criticism: “There’s not a single statement in either piece by Denby that makes me question any of my findings.”

Harvard University Press has also issued a statement, defending its review process, which concludes, “Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published,” which is no longer true, of course.

Kudos to the Siren for her as-always delightful and instructive post, and extra points for referring to Breen as “the beady-eyed enforcer” of the Hays office and its Production Code. The “censor-in-chief” epithet is Denby’s.

Interested in reading more?

Here is the first report on the book, in June, at the New York Times.

Here is recent coverage of the dispute on The Atlantic Wire by Allie Jones.

Here is David Denby’s original review of both Doherty’s and Urwand’s books in the New Yorker.

And here is Dave Kehr’s review of Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler in the New York Times.

Jeanine Basinger, chair of the Film Studies department at Wesleyan, has two articles at the Wall Street Journal, available only through subscription, or other paid databases. But that’s the WSJ for you.

And here is Christopher Brey’s article at The Daily Beast.

Published with Brey’s article is also a collection of clips of movies banned or altered in their German release by the Nazis. Brey is of the same mind as the Siren and Denby about Urwand’s modus operandi: “’Uncertain,’ ‘inconclusive,’ ‘probably’—one would be alarmed to read such nervous gossip in a hack showbiz biog. But to read them in a work by a historian who is a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University is shocking and shameful.” He also points out that the contemporary film industry often edits films for foreign release, particularly in China–the recent Skyfall being a case in point.

And here is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article on the controversy, published in July.

The article disappointingly repeats rather than merely reports many of Urwand’s claims, including “The few obliquely anti-Nazi pictures that were produced in the 1930s were troubling in other ways.” It does, however, give both Urwand and Doherty air-time.

In a phone interview, Doherty is reluctant to hammer The Collaboration. He wryly refers to Fred MacMurray’s line from “Double Indemnity”: “I never knock the other fellow’s merchandise.” He praises Urwand’s archival finds but says he’s shocked that Urwand is shocked by what he found. (Insert your own impersonation of “Casablanca”‘s Captain Renault here.)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMIyDf3gBoY&w=420&h=315]

Also disappointing is Urwand’s apparent lack of respect for a fellow academic—”(Asked about Doherty’s interpretation [of The House of Rothschild], Urwand all but smacks his forehead in disbelief.)”—particularly given Doherty’s graciousness.

The Chronicle article mentions continuing research in the field, specifically academics and a documentary filmmaker uncovering a “highly effective spy ring funded by Jewish movie moguls,” a story the reporter, Alexander C. Kafka, says is “crying out for treatment as a cable-tv series.” The academic working on that story, Steven J. Ross of USC, wrote in to the New Yorker mentioning that story, and his brief letter taking issue with Urwand’s claims is printed in the October 7 issue of the magazine.

The AFI’s magazine, American Film, published a reader review of Urwand’s book in August, comparing it (unfavorably) with the satire The Producers (1967).

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, criticized Urwand’s prose in his review in the Washington Post.

But if Urwand labors to turn a scholarly molehill into a mountain, he does the opposite in narrative moments throughout “The Collaboration.” One such instance occurs on the first page of the prologue, a description of a private viewing of “King Kong.” “They saw an enormous gorilla . . . fall off the Empire State Building,” Urwand writes. “One of the characters muttered something about beauty and the beast.” One of the characters? Muttered? Something? In fact, the speaker is Carl Denham (not so incidentally a movie director, who sets the entire plot in motion), and he clearly declares, “It was beauty killed the beast.” One of the most famous lines in movie history, this is hardly a random aside; it’s the take-away. Not to belabor a single sentence, but Urwand misrepresents the speaker, the statement and the tone. On the one hand, he seeks shock value in the vision of a flesh-and-blood monster watching a celluloid monster; on the other, he turns a potentially vivid scene into a dry sidelight.

Also a good read are the comments on the Siren’s blog post, including one from historian Benjamin Alpers, comments which are not only more interesting but more edifying than the comments on the Chronicle’s article. *Sigh* It will be very interesting to see what the reviews of Urwand’s (and Doherty’s) book in academic journals look like.

As Professor Eric A. Goldman, author of the recently published The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, noted in a recent article in The Israel Times, “One thing is certain,” Goldman agrees, concerning the worldwide coverage of the upcoming expose. “[Urwand’s] got one hell of a publicist!”

Films Mentioned in this Post

The title is linked to a trailer, if available (and not embedded above).

The House of Rothschild is available on YouTube.

The Life of Emile Zola is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime.

Employee’s Entrance is available for purchase on DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 7.

Taxi! is available for purchase on DVD.

Captured! appears to be unavailable.

Our Daily Bread is available for rental from Amazon Prime and viewing on YouTube.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, also starring Paul Muni, is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime.

Little Caesar is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime and YouTube.

American Madness is available for purchase from Amazon Prime and there is an entry on it, with clips, at TCM.

Scarface (1932), also starring Paul Muni, is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime

The Mortal Storm appears to be unavailable except for purchase on DVD.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first openly anti-Nazi film, produced by Warner Bros.,is available for purchase on YouTube and on DVD.

The Cheat (1915) is available on DVD from Netflix, for rental on Amazon Prime, and free on YouTube. The 1931 version is available from Netflix on DVD.

Sunday Random Roundup, September 15, 2013

Not really. It turns out this post is all about Hong Kong cinema.

Other interesting tidbits will appear later this week.

Well, now it’s been *two* weeks since the last post. Apologies. Since I’ve actually got a day job now, I have to learn how to manage my time. And I was experiencing technical difficulties. I discovered that my ability to use Microsoft Office did not extend to my shiny new MacBook. I had to buy the software all over again. So, a few days went by while I grumbled loudly to myself about having to shell out $120 for the software or $80 for a *four-year* (university) license for the software. Apparently now you don’t get the option of hanging on to your outdated software unless you’re willing to spend more money. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Hong Kong Cinema San Francisco Film SocietyAnyhoo. First (and last, as it turns out), I’m very excited about the San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema program, screening October 4 – 6 at the Vogue Theatre. If I make it up there, I’ll be especially looking forward to director Johnnie To’s new film, Blind Detective (2013), starring the fine Andy Lau (who is also a hugely famous pop star). Lau has starred in a number of excellent Hong Kong films, including Infernal Affairs (remember, I mentioned it last time–the movie The Departed is based on?) and Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990). He’s also been in some classic oddball Hong Kong films, including God of Gamblers (Wong Jing, 1989) with Chow Yun Fat and Running on Karma (2003), a Johnnie To/Ka-Fai Wai film, in which Lau plays a monk turned bodybuilder who can “see into people’s lives.” (Spoiler alert: There are several shots of Andy Lau’s naked rear end–or is that part of the body suit?)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sd8pJVjIBQ8&w=560&h=315]

Blind Detective appears to be unrelated to To’s other disabled policeman officer from 2007’s Mad Detectivewhich is AH-mazing on all fronts: great direction; Ching Wan Lau as the eponymous detective; and a plot that involves multiple personalities, live burial, and a lot of shark fin soup.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhhegFpPdLw&w=420&h=315]

To is also responsible for a slew of other stylish police procedurals and thrillers: The Mission (1999), PTU (2003, stands for Police Tactical Unit), Triangle (2007), and Exiled (2006). Many of these films star some combination of Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, and Lam Suet, all Hong Kong greats. Most of To’s films are available via Netflix; Exiled and The Heroic Trio (1993)—for some lady bad-assery with HK stars Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung—are streaming. Election is available on Hulu.

Here’s one of three trailers for Blind Detective on YouTube–you’ll know a lot more about the plot (and the goofy HK sense of humor) if you watch the others.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQyQrjZ3fPI&w=560&h=315]

If you’re unfamiliar with HK film, you can be forgiven for thinking where’s the funny in that story? One of the many (many) delights of discovering HK film is discovering the bizarre–to American audiences–combination of tones in one film. Scenes will often careen from one mood to another mood that seems mutually exclusive in ways that sometimes appear (or are) nonsensical. In fact, HK filmmakers used to color-code the reels by genre, and, according to David Bordwell, at least one film production company, Cinema City, used to “demand that each reel contain at least one comic scene, one chase, and one fight.” Something for everyone in the audience! Bordwell points out that this strategy “influenced most directors who emerged in the 1980s, even the elusive Wong Kar-wai. His wispy plots look more structured when you realize that they’re built up reel by reel in postproduction” (The Poetics of Cinema 104). This is especially helpful to keep in mind when watching Wong Kar-wai’s haunting 2046 (2004), for example.

Oh dear. I don’t seem to have gotten very far.

Another treat at the HK Cinema screenings is the chance to see The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) on a big screen. Starring the awesome Gordon Liu (Chia-Hui Liu), who more recently played the Bride’s exacting kung fu master, Pai Mei, in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). The SFFS describes 36th Chamber as an “essential kung-fu film.” The screening is a tribute to its director, Lau Kar-leung (aka Liu Chia-liang), who died in June, a martial arts master, and Gordon Liu’s teacher. Also screening is Lau Kar-leung’s Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), also starring Gordon Liu.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JuWNCl8c1U&w=420&h=315]

There are, of course, some other, more sedate films, which also look wonderful. Two intimate dramas, one about a woman who agrees to be a surrogate mother in order to pay for her brother’s surgery (A Complicated Story), are also screening. And for the obligatory historical epic, there’s The Last Tycoon, directed by the aforementioned Wong Jing and featuring the delectable God of Gamblers star Chow Yun Fat.

Last but not least is a mystery/thriller directed by Oxide Pang, Conspirators. Oxide is the twin brother of Danny Pang. The brothers have collaborated on many films, including the genuinely creepy The Eye (2002), which received the backhanded American compliment of being remade (in 2008, with Jessica Alba), and both versions of Bangkok Dangerous (2008, 1999), which are surprisingly different films despite the same basic plot. Oxide is on his own with Conspirators, which looks fun, but maybe not as visually exciting as some of the Pang brothers’ other films.

You can see the rest of SFFS’s Fall Season here.

This roundup has gone off the rails, if I may mix my metaphors. I do have some other tidbits, including interesting items from the recent Toronto International Film Festival. First up, however, will be a long overdue post on World War Z. Stay tuned.

Will the real Blind Detective please stand up?

Is it this movie?

blind-detective-poster-1-610x858Or this movie?220px-BlindDetective

 

Blind-Detective-Main-thumb-300xauto-39025

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or perhaps this one?

Sunday Random Roundup for September 1, 2013

Greetings and salutations, dear readers. It’s been another week, somehow. First, a little blog-related news. I have plans for some posts about specific films that I hope to have ready sometime this week. Second, great news about the Alice Guy-Blaché Kickstarter project I mentioned last week: It’s been funded! Hooray! If you had anything to do with it, THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU! If you haven’t had a chance to check out the documentary project or want to project updates, take a look at the directors’ Kickstarter page and watch the trailer (linked below) for Be Natural. Yippee!

photo-main

Onward. So, it’s hot and kind of miserable, even though it’s a beautiful day.  Summer’s waning, tomorrow’s Monday. This Sunday, I thought we’d take a look at some films opening soon, so we’ve got something to look forward to, especially now that you’ve already gone and seen The World’s End. (I have, in fact, and I’m mulling over post-worthy comments…)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk&w=560&h=315]

[Pssst: If you somehow haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Hot Fuzz (2007), you are truly, truly missing out on some of the great comedy of the last ten years. Plus, all three films are positively littered with great British actors: Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Billie Whitelaw, Karl Johnson and Olivia Colman (two of the actors in the current BBC America show “Broadchurch”), and no less than two James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton (who absolutely deserved at least a nod for Best Supporting Actor in 2007. I mean, really.). And you really should be watching “Broadchurch.”]

So here we go.

First up, one of my favorite American directors has a new film coming out (near me? fingers crossed!) October 10: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a weird departure for him…sort of. From the guy who brought you the genius Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, Dead Man, Mystery Train, and on and on, we now have…a vampire movie. Well, it’s still a Jarmusch film; it’s got the divine Tilda Swinton and The Avenger‘s delicious villain, Tom Hiddleston, as “two vampires who have been in love for centuries.” The first sneak peek doesn’t give much away, but it does have Swinton’s radiant face. (Maybe she is a vampire. That would explain how she still looks so young.) One of my favorite performances of hers is actually her angel Gabriel in the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine (which is a better movie than you’d think).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi1r8B5INfU&w=560&h=315]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGz8KB_b4Zk&w=560&h=315]

And while I’m at it, my other favorite part of Constantine, Peter Stormare’s Lucifer. (You probably saw him first in Fargo [1996].) The clip annoyingly cuts off just as Lucifer is saying, “There’s no accounting for taste.” The scene runs another minute or so. It’s worth seeing in its entirety.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rVFse1LLQs&w=560&h=315]

If I’ve somehow accidentally convinced you to watch Constantine, it’s streaming (not for free, unfortunately) on Amazon Prime. It comes on television fairly regularly, too.

Anyway…

Only Lovers Left Alive also stars Anton Yelchin, who was in a very different and quite entertaining vampire film, the recent Fright Night (2011) remake with Colin Farrell. (Farrell makes a fantastic villain; he’s a kick to watch.) And you also get the wonderful Jeffrey Wright. I cannot understand why Wright isn’t in a ton of movies, or why he isn’t a Hollywood leading man. You might remember Wright as a particularly fine incarnation of James Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter in a long line of Felix Leiters in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). Or as the kinda-sorta evil doctor in Source Code (2011). Or Winston in Broken Flowers (2005), if you’re a Jarmusch fan. He’s also been in Cadillac Records (2008), W. (2008, as Colin Powell), and Syriana (2005). You’ve seen him; you just haven’t seen enough of him.

In addition to getting great performances out of great but mostly not super-famous actors, one of the things Jarmusch does best is rhythm. It’s not always musical rhythm. It’s often dialogue or cuts.

Dead Man (1995)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LaDA2IPr_sE&w=560&h=315]

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAlBlavGaB8&w=560&h=315]

And now for something completely different:

To no one’s surprise, Matthew McConaughey’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, looks fantastic, due out November 1. In 1986, Ron Woodruff was diagnosed with HIV. You may remember that was a particularly bad time to get that diagnosis, since no one wanted to fund research or treatment for the “gay disease.” Woodruff, a real dude, discovered that he could get better HIV drugs south of the border than he could in the USA. They weren’t illegal, as he points out in the trailer, “they’re just unapproved.”

McConaughey has made a great career out of playing some oddballs and unlikely protagonists. Sometimes they just seem unlikely because it’s Matthew McConaughey playing them. All of his memorable characters that come to mind do have that McConaughey swagger, but they’re still very much characters (and not just Matthew McConaughey playing that character), and he’s always a pleasure to watch. Catch his cameo in Tropic Thunder (2008), or way back when in Lone Star (1996), or way, way, back in 1993, in Dazed and Confused. Classy.

dallas-buyers-clubdallas-buyers-club-poster

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wknywxfcE5M&w=560&h=315]

And finally…

Spike Lee has gone and remade Chan-wook Park’s brutal Oldboy (2003), which I think I first saw at a Wisconsin Film Festival screening. It’s being released on November 27. I’m not sure a straight remake can stand up to the original, but Lee’s version looks like it will certainly be worth watching. I do hope it’s more of a Spike Lee Joint and less of a remake. It stars Josh Brolin, whom I always like to watch, Sam Jackson (who comes to a bad end, if the trailer is anything to go by), Sharlto Copley (District 9 [2009]) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]).

new oldboy

The new “Oldboy”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrLcnrnEqyI&w=560&h=315]

The original Oldboy is the middle installment of Park’s revenge trilogy, in between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), and it stars Min-sik Choi, who is a-mazing. (He’s also in Lady Vengeance.) I last saw him in the slightly-less-brutal I Saw the Devil (2010), directed by Kim Jee-Woon, and also starring the more well-known Byung-hun Lee. Lee has been in the two recent G. I. Joe movies and Jee-Woon’s wacko The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008). Below is the famous (if you’re into that sort of thing) fight scene from the O.G. Oldboy. It is stunningly brutal. Brutal and goofy and somehow sublime all at once.

The old Oldboy:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IspheJGJiYI&w=420&h=315]

(I am curious to know what “dickshit” is a translation of.)

Available streaming…

on Netflix: The gorgeous Dead Man, Broken Flowers, and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

Broken-Flowers-poster

broken-flowers

byun-hun lee

the-good-the-bad-the-weird

Sunday Random Roundup, August 25, 2013

Welcome back, dear readers, to another edition of the Random Roundup. I’m super-duper excited about the first item up, so without further ado…

“Be Natural”

The shamefully loooong-overdue documentary about

Alice Guy Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché in Gaumont's "Madame a des envies"

Alice Guy-Blaché in a film she probably directed while at Gaumont “Madame a des envies” (1907)

If you’re interested in silent film, there’s a chance you’ve heard of Alice Guy Blaché. Otherwise, you almost certainly haven’t…even though she is, as far as anyone knows, the FIRST woman filmmaker and one of the first people anywhere to have made a narrative film, “Le Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”), in 1896.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMSbpeb2d6Y&w=420&h=315]

Most films in 1896 were “actualities”–films like the Lumière brothers’ “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“A train arrives at the La Ciotat station”), the Edison-produced “The Kiss,” a 47-second long film of two actors reenacting a kiss from the end of a stage play, and “The Boxing Kangaroo.” (Yes, it’s a kangaroo, boxing.) Georges Méliès–whom you may remember as a character from Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, in which he is played by Sir Ben Kingsley–was the only other major filmmaker creating narratives this early on. And the only Méliès narrative extant from this early is his “Le manoir du diable.” (The only other narrative from 1896 that we know about is a series of pantomimes of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. These were shot in 1896 and put together into a film by Edison’s colleague William K. Dickson in 1903.) Various sources claim that Guy’s “Le Fée aux Choux” was made months before Méliès’ first fiction film. It is also sixty seconds long, making it perhaps the first film with a running time of at least a minute.

Whether Guy or Méliès got there first doesn’t matter much to me, but that she was there, making some of the earliest fiction films at all, seems pretty fucking important. Not only that, she opened a production company, Solax, in the US with her husband; it was the largest pre-Hollywood studio, and Guy was in charge.

Finally, two Los Angeles-based filmmakers, Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs, bless them, are working on a documentary about Guy and hoping to put her back into history. They are trying to raise $200K on Kickstarter by Alice-GuyTuesday, August 27, 2:59AM EDT. If they don’t, all the donations are returned and the world won’t get to hear Alice Guy’s story until who-knows-when.

Please visit the filmmakers’ Kickstarter page, which includes a neat video about their project and a trailer for the film. It’s entitled “Be Natural,” after Guy’s advice to her actors, which was posted on a sign at Solax.

There’s a very brief interview here with three contemporary women filmmakers, none of whom had ever heard of Alice until Pamela Green got in touch to interview them. Netflix has three collections of Alice Guy’s films available on DVD, but there are plenty available at YouTube.

Gilbert Taylor

The British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor died Friday at the admirable age of 99. Taylor was famous in particular for his work on Star Wars (1977), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

What sort of movie is it? An expensive one.

From the Locarno Film Festival: At a Q & A directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Tokyo Sonata) and Shinji Aoyama (The Backwater) are bemused when asked if they make independent or commercial films. The situation is so different in Japan in part because the market is smaller and because, as Aoyama points out, “The budget of a commercial film in Japan is the budget of an independent film in Hollywood.” Hollywood spends so much money on the budget and the PR for its “tentpole” films (big summer blockbusters, for example) that those films have to rake in money hand over fist just to break even–a huge gamble that doesn’t always pay off and, because it must appeal to the greatest number of likely moviegoers, including international audiences, it certainly doesn’t encourage quality filmmaking. This has become business-as-usual to the extent that the industry can’t get its collective head around the idea of a smaller film that wouldn’t need to be so aggressively marketed because it didn’t cost that much to begin with.

One of the benefits of the old studio system, whose golden age was in the 1930s and 40s, was that more movies were churned out and not all of them were meant to be “A-list” gold mines. A tentpole film is like an A-list on steroids. Both have big-name actors and/or directors and big budgets, but whereas an A-list production might be an adaptation of classic literature or recreate a historical event or person (A-listers were sometimes known as “prestige” pictures), a tentpole production can’t stop to think–it’s moving too fast and there are too many explosions to keep track of. Obviously, not all movies have to be filled with gravitas to be worthwhile (and, heaven knows, plenty of films with “gravitas” are not), and there are tentpole films that are smart and fun and full of explosions–The Avengers, for example. But the situation is such that when an interesting or subversive tentpole comes along–say, The Long Ranger–no one knows what to do with it. Audiences went in expecting the Lone Ranger to be Superman and the film to be the cowboy equivalent of Batman (or worse, Transformers). But The Lone Ranger wasn’t that movie. It was a much more interesting and thoughtful–and fun–movie. Is it that the bulk of audiences who go to action movies (males in their teens and 20s, apparently) just don’t get irony? Is this the result of the appalling education system in this country? I ask only half in jest.

If a studio’s B-list movie made a lot of money, great. Lots of Hollywood careers took off that way. Without B-pictures, which screened as the bottom half of a double bill, and “programmers,” a sort of B+/A-, intermediate picture there would likely be no film noir or many of the great early horror films, for example. But if a B-list picture didn’t go on to become a hit, nobody was upset because neither the studio heads nor the filmmakers had bet their careers on it. In fact, while B-list pictures were not expected to be “hits,” they were guaranteed to do better than lots of independent movies now, because the studios had a monopoly in the distribution system. The cheaper films were simply guaranteed a wider distribution than almost all independent films nowadays can hope for, because the studios owned or were able to strong-arm theaters into screening whatever the studios offered them. (This was called block-booking–in order to get the “good” picture that theaters knew audiences wanted to see, they had to agree, often without having seen it, to show the B picture being offered as well.)

Another benefit of this system was that these films were not just in more theaters, they were in theaters for longer stretches, so that the pictures could benefit from good word-of-mouth. These days, if you’re not on top of new independent releases, by the time you’ve heard about a new indie film from a friend or read a review, it’s no longer in a theater…or it was never coming to the multiplex in your town anyway (like A Hijacking, for instance). And of course studios didn’t spend a lot on B-pictures in the first place. They didn’t usually have stars, they weren’t directed by big names, the production values–the money they spent on how the movie looked–were lower, and the films were shot faster and ran shorter than A-listers. I’m not suggesting we should attempt to recreate the old studio system or that what the world needs is another monopoly, but it did undeniably have some advantages in terms of the quality–and quantity–of the pictures that got made, and how many moviegoers got to see them.

And, so we don’t end on a sour note…

The awesomeness that is Wong Kar Wai

grandmaster posterRejoice! The new Wong Kar Wai film, The Grandmaster, starring the amazing and delicious Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, opened in the US this weekend. I will write more about Wong Kar Wai–he’s one of my favorite directors–but in case you’ve somehow not heard of him, he directed In the Mood for Love (2000), which might be the most beautiful movie ever made. The wonderful Chungking Express (1994), starring Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung, was his breakthrough film. The Grandmaster is about Ip Man, a 20th-century kung fu master who, among other things, trained Bruce Lee. And as if Wong Kar Wai and Tony Leung weren’t enough, legendary action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping has directed the kung fu. Truly, an embarrassment of riches. Unsurprisingly, Ip Man is a popular subject in Chinese and Hong Kong films. Action star Donnie Yen has starred in two fine Ip Man films (dir. Wilson Yip, 2008 and 2010) and Hong Kong great Anthony Wong (Exiled, Infernal Affairs–which Scorsese remade as The Departed) is in this year’s Ip Man: The Final Fight (dir. Herman Yau), which I would dearly love to see.

Smoldering and yummy: Tony Leung in "Hero" (2002).

Smoldering and yummy: Tony Leung in “Hero” (2002).

The Hollywood Reporter has a featurette about Ip Man and Manohla Dargis has a nice review of the film in the New York Times. Go forth, find a theater showing The Grandmaster, and enjoy!grandmaster still

Sunday Random Roundup for August 18, 2013

Welcome back, dear readers, for this week’s edition of the Sunday Random Roundup.

Big Films in Other Places

Remember last week’s rant about the state of film distribution in the U.S.? Well, here’s some potentially good news: Local films seem to be outdoing Hollywood “blockbusters” elsewhere in the world. The Hollywood Reporter has a nifty little slideshow with seven examples, from India (not surprising) to South Korea to Mexico.

Maybe Argentina's "Foosball" and South Korea's "Cold Eyes" will come play in your town—especially if that town is Los Angeles or New York.Cold_Eyes_South_Korea_a_l

Maybe Argentina’s “Foosball” and South Korea’s “Cold Eyes” will come play in your town—especially if that town is Los Angeles or New York.

A Light on Film History 

For the film history nerds among us, there is tbdovehe spectacular news that my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has made over 8,000 pages of film, broadcasting, and sound history publicly available at the Lantern web site. This co-production of the Media History Digital Library and UW’s Department of Communication Arts means you can browse through issues of Photoplay (1914 – 1945), the atmospherically-named Shadowland (1919 – 1923), or Picturegoer (1915 – 1925) magazines. Even if you’re not interested in the old news, the photographs, illustrations, and advertisements are a kick in the pants.

Professor emeritus David Bordwell has a nice, short post on what you might find once you start looking.

 

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images< Yep, that was a film magazine.

Garbo Photoplay


Say What?

David Lynch is now selling coffee at Whole Foods. Will it make “a damn fine cup of coffee”? Will there be pie fixins’ next to the display? Will drinking it be like taking a hit of LSD?

Locarno

The 2013 Locarno Film Festival is wrapping up. Its top prize, the Golden Leopard, went to a Catalan-language film, Alberto Serra’s “Historia de la Meva Mort (Story of My Death),” an “eerie” and off-kilter imagining of Giacomo Casanova, according the Hollywood Reporter. HR gave it kind of a stinky review, but it is the first Spanish film ever to win Locarno’s top prize. And apparently Dracula has a cameo. IndieWire were more kindly disposed to the “bizarrely fascinating” film and described it as an “irreverent revenge story.”

The Reporter was much kinder to an adaptation of the Scandinavian crime novel “The Keeper of Lost Causes,” by Jussi Adler Olsen. The world seems much in the mood for Scandinavian crime–a much better judgment call than most things that become as wildly popular as Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. You can tell the film is a Scandinavian crime story from the title alone. It evokes what seems to be a culturally-specific resignation to the seemingly endless violence and cruelty of human beings that is simultaneously angry and wistful. This is a world where the lines “My wife left me. My colleague’s dead, and my best friend’s a cripple” do not sum up the plot but are rather casual workplace chitchat. In any case, “Keeper of Lost Causes” is, for better or worse, far more likely to get some kind of distribution than a dreamy and plodding psycho-sexual 18th-century reverie.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mBi0cRnaVM&w=560&h=315]

Speaking of Scandinavian crime stories, last night I watched the first film helmed by Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, “Flickering Lights” (2000). My husband and I were hooked after our first ATJ film, “Adam’s Apples” (2005) which we saw at the 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival in the beautiful Orpheum theater on State Street. “Flickering Lights” is a slightly less-nuanced version of “Adam’s Apples,” less nuanced only in the sense that it seems like an earlier version of “Adam’s Apples'” themes and its dark sense of humor that is somehow steeped in a desire for kindness and joy. The title apparently comes from an Emily (“Mily”) Dickinson poem, the title of which is translated as “Flickering Lanterns.” (I couldn’t find the poem working backwards from the translation, and my Emily Dickinson is, like most of my books, currently in storage.) “Flickering Lights” includes several of ATJ’s usual suspects, including Mads Mikkelsen (Arne), who is riveting, as usual. Ulrich Thomsen (Peter) is another regular and a wonderful actor, as is Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Stefan)…who stars in “The Keeper of Lost Causes,” along with “Flickering Lights’s” protagonist, Søren Pilmark (Torkild). “Flickering Lights” is available streaming on Amazon Prime for free and well worth watching, and the brilliant “Adam’s Apples” is streaming on Netflix.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bbzxy0y_iM&w=560&h=315]

A little bonus

An essay by Martin Scorsese at the New York Review of Books’ site

Sunday Random Weekly Roundup

Welcome back, dear readers–all five or so of you. 😉

I’ve got another three items for you this Sunday, so maybe that will be the gold standard. We’ll see. First up is the news from The Hollywood Reporter that folks who crowdfund films will soon (Sept. 23) be able to have a stake–beyond a psychological one–in the films they help fund. This is great news for filmmakers from Spike Lee to, as someone put it, “the little guy” (or girl) because it will provide filmmakers with access to more money, and encourage investing.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/forget-kickstarter-how-obamas-new-600233?goback=.gde_4185270_member_264611260

More filmmakers making more films is great. My question is…will anybody get to see them? The biggest problem with the film industry right now is the distribution system. There are already tons of movies that 99% of the people who go to movies not only can’t see, they don’t even know they exist. According to Film Journal, there were 1,299 films made in the EU in 2012. (And this includes projects like Taken 2, which isn’t exactly showing audiences something they haven’t seen before.) How many of those films made it to any screen in the U.S.? (I actually couldn’t find an answer to that question–if anyone knows where to look, please let me know!)

The Intouchables, the highest-grossing movie in a language other than English, with $281 million worldwide (at least in 2012), had a total release of 194 screens. There were NINE films that played on 4K+ screens. Nine. Those nine were produced by five companies playing it safe and drowning the public in marketing for those films. Of those nine films there was only one–Pixar’s Brave–that was not part of a series. (And, honestly, a Pixar movie is something of a series, given that there’s a built-in audience for pretty much anything they do. While we’re on the subject–Planes, really?) Of the remaining eight, The Hunger Games was the only one that was not a sequel. *sigh* This is not to bash on sequels or series. I loved The Avengers and I loved Skyfall, and I’m glad I got to see them in movie theaters. But surely there’s a way to get more films to more theaters.

Roughly 19% of the films released in the US were on 2k+ screens; roughly 68% were on fewer than 500, and most of those were on under 100. Presumably, if the big production companies stopped sinking so much of their money into so few films (and their military campaign-like publicity), things might improve. The reason Spike Lee is crowdfunding his new film is at least as much the result of his films not being distributed widely enough to make enough money to make a studio invest in his next project, as it is with the quality or (potential) popularity of the film itself.

Director Steven Soderbergh gave a wonderful(ly depressing) “State of Cinema” talk at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival that addresses just this issue, which you can read at the above link.

Okay. Rant over.

Moving on…

Something I’m excited about in a good way is George Clooney’s Monuments Men, scheduled for release in December.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs&w=560&h=315]

The film is an adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. (The title makes it sound like Edsel–or his publishers–knew it would make a great film. “In a world…”) Clooney co-adapted the screenplay, and the trailer looks sort of like Ocean’s Eleven have parachuted in to rescue Europe’s great works of art. Which is obviously a fantastic idea for a film. You can barely see that Bill Murray’s in the trailer, but you can’t miss the mercurial Cate Blanchett, whom I could watch reading a phone book–silently, to herself. And, chouette! Jean Dujardin is in there somewhere as well.

This also gives me the opportunity to mention a similar, but much less fun film released in 2006: the documentary The Rape of Europa, based on the eponymous book by Lynn Nicholas. It covers the same topic, the Nazi looting of Europe’s art, more broadly than Monuments Men, including some discussion of the Führer’s taste (or lack thereof) in art. The film quite riveting, actually–see, the Toronto Star says so right there–and it’s streaming on Netflix. (And apparently on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRYBdw3GdVw )

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0iL7k_R0LM&w=560&h=315]

I saw The Rape of Europa at the 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival. According to IMDb.com, the film played a number of festivals (a few others are listed on the film’s site), and it had a theatrical release in New York. And that was it. My sense is that right now–and for the last decade or so–film festivals are the only places to see a real variety of films, domestic or international. Fortunately, there are now more film festivals than ever. (There are a few listed to the right, under the Blogroll.)

And finally…

I’m going to make this short…in fact, I’m only going to mention it, since this post is already longer than usual. It deserves its own post, in any case. That is actually the issue–whether Wonder Woman can have her own superhero movie. Browsing the internet instead of doing something productive, I came across this:

10 Superheroes Who Really Don’t Need Their Own Movie

Naturally, I clicked on it. Wonder Woman is number three. The title of the slide show, it turns out, is misleading. The writers make the argument that Warner’s is incapable of doing a good job, and the implication is that that’s because they can’t get it together to deal with a female superhero. Here’s what the writers of the article (two guys and one person with a gender-ambiguous name, in case you’re wondering) conclude:

“We don’t think it’s impossible to make a good Wonder Woman movie, but if Warner is uncomfortable with everything that defines who she is and where she came from, then it’s better they not make one at all than make one that redefines her so completely that she’s no longer really Wonder Woman.”

So we don’t get a Wonder Woman movie because it’s too difficult to get it right…instead we get the regular summer shower of shitty superhero movies: Green Lantern (2011), Cat Woman (2004), Fantastic Four (2005) and its mind-numbingly awful 2007 sequel, Superman Returns (2006), which managed to screw up even with Parker Posey and Kevin Spacey, and the Green Hornet (2011), which couldn’t get it together with Michel Gondry directing and Christoph Waltz as the villain. It’s certainly true that modern Hollywood does not have a great track record with female superheroes…or women generally (or minorities, of course). To wit: the aforementioned Cat Woman, Supergirl (1984) and Elecktra (2005). But the argument that a major studio is too sexist or stupid (or both) to get it right doesn’t seem like one you really want to get behind.

Turns out there’s been a slew of articles about the elusive WW film, so more on that soon. In the meantime, here’s the opening to the TV show, which ran for five seasons, and makes the point in the first lines of the theme song: All the world is waiting for you. Of course, that’s followed up by: In your satin tights/fighting for your rights. (But those boots are undeniably awesome.)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DDdxmoxduQ&w=420&h=315]

New series – A Random Weekly Roundup

I’m going to try a regular Sunday series: a weekly roundup of interesting movie tidbits–essays, posts, news, etcetera. I’ll keep it short this week, with three items.

First up, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, second time around.

Here’s the trailer for Ben Stiller’s new film, an adaptation of Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It’s a beautiful-looking trailer, a bit Coen-esque.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGWO2w0H2V8&w=560&h=315]

And here’s a link to the classic short short story–well worth a read. Or a re-read.

http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi?action=show_story&story_id=100

Just for kicks, here’s the original 1947 trailer for the Danny Kaye version of Mitty.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntATWJl6Yl0&w=420&h=315]

 

Next, a much less-fun but fascinating read about the Nazi party’s influence in Hollywood: The Hollywood Reporter’s excerpt from the new book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press, on sale Sept. 9) by Ben Urwand. 27cover_lores

It’s worth noting that film scholar Thomas Doherty has published two books on the subject, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1999) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933 – 1939, published earlier this year. And that Doherty isn’t a fan of Urwand’s take: to wit, his responding essay in The Hollywood Reporter: “Does ‘The Collaboration Overstate Hollywood’s Cooperation with Hitler?” (Spoiler alert: Yes, it does.)

Be sure to check out the slide show accompanying Urwand’s excerpt, which includes links to relevant film clips, including one from 1942’s Once Upon a Honeymoon, starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers and directed by Leo McCarey. Why had I never heard of this?

 

Finally, a great entry in the conversation about women in film (in front of and behind the camera), a dispatch from the San Diego Comic Con:

http://m.xojane.com/entertainment/michelle-rodriguez-women-who-rock-panel-comic-con

Looking for FREE streaming films?

Check out Open Culture’s huge listings!

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http://www.openculture.com/freemoviesonline

Here are some of the treats* awaiting you (chosen at Random, of course):

Spider Baby –  A black comedy horror film, written and directed by Jack Hill. Stars Lon Chaney Jr. (1968)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – Directed by Fritz Lang, this was the sequel to Lang’s nearly four-hour silent film Dr. Mabuse shot in 1922.  (1933)

Dry Summer – Turkish film restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. (1974)

Chimes at Midnight – Directed by Orson Welles, the film focuses on Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff and his relationship with another character Prince Hal. (1966)

Angel on My Shoulder – A gangster comedy starring Claude Rains and Paul Muni. (1946)

Becky Sharp – The first feature film to use three-strip Technicolor film, or, put differently, the first real color film. (1935).

M – Classic film directed by Fritz Lang, with Peter Lorre. About the search for a child murderer in Berlin, (1931)

Goodies from…

Plan 9 from Outer Space  – An Ed Wood classic. Considered one of the worst films ever made. (1959) [I had to remove the snarky quotation marks from classic.]

to…

Solaris – Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative psychodrama occurring mostly aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. (1972) Parts 1 & 2.

…even some classic kung fu

The Chinese Connection (aka Fists of Fury) – Bruce Lee stars in his second, influential Hong Kong Martial arts film. (1972)

And those are just plucked from the first section. There are separate listings for Noir, Thriller, Horror and Hitchcock; Westerns & John Wayne; Silent Films; Documentaries; and Animation.

*Descriptions are all from Open Culture.