Monthly Archives: August 2012

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Melodrama Done Right in ‘All About My Mother’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Earnestness has been a difficult element to use in film in recent decades.  When utilized too much, it leaves an unforgivable pit of sentimental tripe.  To modern audiences and the people making the movies, it implies a lack of depth.  If we know exactly how each character will react to something — often with hackneyed emotion in stereotypical melodramas — then the story has been mapped for us.  If there’s no chance for surprise, then how are we supposed to invest in what happens?  Enter the ironic detachment of filmmakers like brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who brought a sly, playful approach to the movies that placed a greater emphasis on acknowledging artifice and ideas rather than emotion.  The Coens are perhaps the best directors of the last 30 years, but the filmmakers who have followed in their wake have, when faced with the possibility of real emotion in their work, gone so far in the opposite direction it makes one wonder if they don’t know how to deal with emotion or if they don’t want to.  Thankfully, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar does not shy away from melodrama.  In fact, he relishes it and its effects on the audience.  All About My Mother, his 1999 film about grieving mothers, AIDS, gender confusion, prostitution, and despair, somehow balances those deeply felt, melodramatic moments with an affection that makes everything palatable.

Taken at face value, All About My Mother should leave the audience in a depressive stupor.  There is one truly good thing that happens to these characters in the movie.  The rest is about enduring through the hardest parts of one’s life.  In another filmmaker’s hands, a detached approach would have made the film unbearable.  Almodóvar, though, depicts people grinning and bearing the awful things they come across in life.  The joy he finds in these characters is mostly past tense, but it existed at one point, and the reminiscing done by Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and Agrado (Antonia San Juan) indicates a time when these characters were much happier.  Manuela’s caring for an erstwhile nun (Penelope Cruz) through her AIDS diagnosis and ensuing pregnancy — bleak, heartbreaking things, each — shows the power of friendship in the hardest times of one’s life.

It is Cruz’s story that could threaten to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  After a series of miseries befall Manuela — her son dies after getting hit by a car, she escapes to her old life only to find one friend left, the transvestite prostitute Agrado, left, and her attempts to find her son’s father have been for naught — Almodóvar doubles down and reveals that Cruz’s Rosa, a nun serving the poor, had not only met the father of Manuela’s son, but had broken her Catholic vows and slept with him.  In doing so, she contracts AIDS and becomes pregnant.  One might expect Manuela to be furious at this development, but the twist — and a fascinating one, at that — reveals her, in her grief-stricken state, to latch onto this confused former woman of God.  By caring for Rosa, Manuela is able to regain her lost motherhood and earn a sister she never had.  Logic does not enter her mind in this moment.  She is broken.  She needs distractions from the hole left by her son’s death, and she throws herself into the middle of the lives of others, and broken people are all she knows.

One of those people is Agrado.  Her character, while also being a rounded, funny, kind person, works as an symbol of what happens when one is unsure about life and one’s identity.  She, like Almodóvar as a director and creator, wants to construct a narrative and project what she feels is her best self.  She does this in an off-the-beaten-path way of plastic surgery to further her transformation into a woman, while neglecting to remove that key feature that will keep her biologically a man.  She mentions that this reluctance is in order to appease her customers — she is a prostitute catering to men — something appears amiss.  Her biological uniqueness is a part of her; a part she may at times struggle to appreciate, but one she feels keeps her special.

Those bombastic “This is who I am” statements, while perhaps not especially realistic, evince genuine emotion worth exploring.  They also help mask the film’s more overtly “constructed” moments.  Coming to understand the mental and emotional states of characters like Manuela, Rosa, and Agrado takes up much of the audience’s time, and they are unable to see the seams of the movie’s plot.  When she first reconnects with Agrado, Manuela tells her about her desire to find her son’s father, who also lives life as a transvestite in the prostitution world, going by the name of Lola.  Agrado has heard rumors of where Lola had been recently, which leads to the halfway house where Rosa works.  As a matter of course, Rosa just happens to have been the person to last see Lola, and moves the plot along with her revelation of their sexual encounter.  Later, when on the way to the hospital to give birth to her baby and subsequently die, Rosa and Manuela have a plot-friendly encounter with Rosa’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father in order to give another emotional beat to the story; it may be one of finality, but it still feels rather convenient they could do this.

These opportune, melodramatic overtures aside, the film’s exploration of faith, particularly in Rosa’s case, helps soften the blow of these seemingly too-easy moments.  That is because, while he ignores some of the more detached elements of our current postmodern filmscape, Almodóvar borrows its celebration of artificiality.  Manuela’s son, Esteban, begins the film wanting to be a writer; to create drama, much like Almodóvar before him.  A subplot involving two lesbian actresses invokes the needs of artists to construct stories; they get a subversive thrill out of torturing each other through drug abuse and co-dependency.  The theatrical implications of Agrado’s late-film monologue about her explorations in plastic surgery becomes literal as she delivers it to an audience who had expected to see a play.  That theatricality, that contrivance, should feel like a ploy, like Almodóvar is pulling one over on the audience.  Instead, by weaving it through classic, overwrought melodrama, it becomes an engrossing, essential piece of cinema.


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Can’t Wait: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

“Ben Affleck wants to direct?  How cute,” seemingly everyone scoffed in 2007.  After all, Affleck had spent the preceding decade squandering his promise as an actor in toxic works like Daredevil and The Sum of All Fears.  Then he sat behind the camera for Gone Baby Gone and made a vibrant, violent, engrossing, and downright great thriller.  “Okay, but we’ll see how he follows up on that,” came the skeptical response.  Affleck then made The Town, this time starring in addition to his directing duties, and created a crowd-pleasing heist film without sacrificing artistry.  This time, his Argo is not eliciting the same skepticism.

The “based on a true story” hook is captivating in itself, given the high concept idea of faking a Canadian science fiction film as a front for sneaking American hostages out of Iran.  But the cast of iconic character actors — John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Philip Baker Hall, Victor Garber, Titus Welliver, and Alan Arkin among them — is a cineaste dream.  How these people interact in close quarters, ready to snap at each other and the circumstances surrounding them, is potboiler gold and worth seeing even if Affleck’s direction didn’t look so slick; Argo appears to continue his “artsy popcorn entertainment” aesthetic started in The Town.  Seeing Affleck direct increasingly elaborate films is a good sign for Hollywood, and any Oscar buzz surrounding Argo gives him and other like-minded filmmakers the cache to do special, interesting work.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: On ‘Kagemusha”s Dream Sequence

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Akira Kurosawa was a filmmaker with an eye toward humanism.  It may have been on an epic scale in most films — Seven Samurai and Ran being the chief examples — but it was for the most part grounded in human interaction.  He leaned on realism not as a crutch but as an extension of a matter-of-fact worldview that included strong, dignified opinions about justice, morality, and how and to whom to assign blame for any number of indiscretions.  With few exceptions — Throne of Blood‘s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth would be difficult to do without using a form of that play’s paranormal elements — Kurosawa rarely delved into the realm of the abstract.  For most of 1980’s Kagemusha, that remains true, but for one resplendent sequence, he tosses aside the realism and embraces dream logic and imagery to masterful effect.

The character Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a “shadow warrior,” a common man who bears a twin-like resemblance to warlord Shingen Takeda (also played by Nakadai).  For that reason, Shingen’s underlings choose Kagemusha to serve as a double to the lord.  After being mortally wounded in battle, Shingen instructs his men that their enemies should not know of his demise for three years — the time it will take for his grandson to come of age and assume his designated seat on the throne — and Kagemusha must pass for Shingen in that time.  This is a role Kagemusha does not want.  A criminal sentenced to death for a petty theft, he is saved by his lookalike “talent,” but that places him under control of Lord Shingen’s men.  He has no choice in the matter; he will be the stand-in or be crucified.  It is with these stresses that Kurosawa painstakingly creates a nightmare for Kagemusha to endure.

Sleeping fitfully in his chambers, the camera inches toward Kagemusha.  While beautifully shot, the film to this point gives no indication this will be more than a moment hinting at his reservations about his role.  We expect a quick moment showing the trials Kagemusha must endure; his inability to sleep well would be something shown from an outsider’s perspective and easily glossed over in a lesser work.  But a cut to inside Kagemusha’s head brings the audience an experience vastly different from the rest of this film and most films in general.

A large painted jar sits atop what appear to be miniature mountains in an impressionist landscape.  Is this Kagemusha’s fraudulent kingdom?  Japan as a whole?  Kurosawa is not interested in the answers to these questions; rather, he concerns himself, and the scene, with guilt filtered through dream logic.  Intense lighting highlights already bright reds, blues, and yellows.  It’s a harsh beauty; fascinating but ultimately uninviting.  The jar moves.  It jostles and breaks.  From it emerges a fully-armored samurai; it is Shingen.  Kagemusha, dressed in rags, stares in terror as Shingen approaches him with menace and hatred in his eyes.  As the dead man draws closer, his replacement runs in terror.

Why does Shingen chase Kagemusha?  After all, the lord was pleased to have such a capable double.  Surely he cannot be upset, even after having his identity assumed by a less qualified man.  Logically, this makes sense.  To stressed, in-over-his-head Kagemusha, though, Shingen’s spirit must hate him.  He has spent months, years even, being told, despite their obvious similarities, how different he is from the fallen leader.  He and his keepers have had to think on their feet to explain Kagemusha’s different voice — he was “wounded in battle” — and he’s had to steer clear of Shingen’s stable of mistresses so as to not reveal his lack of distinct battle scars.  Shingen’s own young grandson can see through the ruse without being able to articulate it.  “He’s not scary anymore,” the boy says to the nervous laughter of the men in on the deception.

The boy’s remark indicates much of the guilt plaguing the Kagemusha of the dream.  Shingen’s belief in the small person led him to choose the boy as his successor, rather than Shingen’s own son.  With the lord now dead and Kagemusha installed as dignitary, he needs to uphold the image of his role: a wise leader and loving grandfather.  Ironically, he’s better at the latter than Shingen himself; it’s the only thing he does better than the original man.  The boy grows a genuine affection for Kagemusha, who returns it in kind.  This developing love gnaws at Kagemusha.  He’s lying to a person — an impressionable, innocent one at that — about his identity, and how can he convince himself their interactions are anything other than lies?  Furthermore, he’s living Shingen’s life; not the one he had as leader, but rather the one he appeared to cherish, that of caring for his grandson.  To Kagemusha’s mind, Shingen must be jealous of him, which leads Shingen’s furious spirit to chase him relentlessly in the dream world.

The dream convinces Kagemusha, and the audience, of the plan’s inevitable failure.  He may look like Shingen, but he cannot replace the man.  He and Shingen’s men cannot possibly think of every minute detail that shaped the former leader’s personality, his essence, his individuality.  Due to this, Kagemusha’s battle tactics consist of believing questionable parables about Shingen’s ethos; to paraphrase, he was an immovable mountain on the battlefield, willing to wait for the enemy’s mistake rather than attack.  Kagemusha may get lucky with that and other decisions, but he lacks the mind for the position; he’s bound to be exposed in time.  Uninterested in those responsibilities, he’d rather play with his “grandson.”  For all his effort, he cannot be Shingen.  He may be a kinder, more compassionate, more approachable person, but he’s not an exceptional person.  The boy may love him, but that is not enough, because it’s a misplaced love.  In that, he’s failed at his task in the most basic way.  Kagemusha is convinced Shingen’s spirit hates him for this failure.  His guilt over that inadequacy follows him in his everyday relationships.  He’s not what everyone else desperately needs him to be, and therefore not what he wants to be.  In that way, Kurosawa’s humanism shines.  In both his waking and dreaming lives, the chase doesn’t end.  Kagemusha will remain on the run from his own infallibility.

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Can’t Wait: Martin McDonagh’s ‘Seven Psychopaths’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Colin Farrell has been unfairly regarded in recent years as a Hollywood failure.  His public persona — drunken, foul-mouthed Irish dock worker — and stream of big budget flops (this summer’s Total Recall, which I haven’t seen yet, is the latest) only serve to enhance that perception.  But that understanding is a shallow view of talent; essentially it equates box office dollars to a filmmaker or actor’s artistic capabilities.  In reality, though, Farrell is a very good, and sometimes great, actor.  When paired with solid material and, in the case of 2004’s The New World, world-class filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Farrell can knock a role out of the park.  His finest, and also his most entertaining, role was in 2008’s In Bruges, a comedic thriller written and directed by Englishman Martin McDonagh.  The two are reteaming for the upcoming Seven Psychopaths, an irreverent caper involving dognapping.

Farrell’s not the only actor of note in Psychopaths, either.  It’s overflowing with talented, captivating actors like Sam Rockwell (Moon, Galaxy Quest), Christopher Walken (The Deer HunterCatch Me If You Can), Woody Harrelson (No Country For Old Men, Zombieland), and a rare acting appearance by musician Tom Waits (Short Cuts, Down By Law).  Everything about the trailer suggests a grimier Ocean’s 11 tone; these are lower rent criminals — note Harrelson’s neck tattoo — but the lighthearted, jokey bent remains.  The film makes its North American debut at next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, and will hopefully earn a wide release in the months following.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes a Good Western?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

While its popularity has waned in recent years — replaced first by the musclebound action schlock of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and now by films based on comic book properties — the Western has long served as one of America’s great myths.  Its touchstones are attractive in that uniquely American way: loners, the open air, disregard for authority, sympathy for the underdog, opportunity for wealth redistribution, and violence’s ability to solve problems; watching a Western speaks to our visceral side rather than our need to intellectually analyze.  Its reliance on archetypes instead of well-rounded characters has given us some of our most recognizable and revered film heroes; these generalizations lead us to believe anyone can be the hero rather than shutting us out with a specific, singularly flawed protagonist.  But what elements combine to make a good Western?  What about a great one?  Is it an anti-authoritarian story paired with one of those shallow, archetypal men?  Is it something more?  It was with these questions in mind that caused me to watch three Westerns in recent days.  Two of them, The Searchers and Red River, are lauded classics.  To more fully understand and appreciate what makes those great, though, I watched a comic miscalculation of casting, story, and timing, Texas Rangers.

For the sake of my viewing chronology, I’ll start with The Searchers, John Ford’s classic end of an era film.  Ford’s most frequent protagonist, John Wayne, plays a deeper, more nuanced character than usual, but he remains an archetype: the reluctant hero.  What’s most interesting about this role, though, is Ford keeps the “hero” part in question until the very end.  Throughout the film, which spans several years, Ford leaves the audience wondering whether Wayne’s Ethan Edwards will choose the moral high ground or succumb to his demons.

While those demons — Ethan’s racist, war-scarred psyche — would normally be difficult to overlook from a modern viewpoint, his opinions are not unfounded.  These views have been shaped over years of experience.  Ethan may not appreciate the socio-political things that led to the violence, but he’s been witness to the antagonistic Comanches’ atrocities against white people, including his only family at the movie’s outset.  Wayne does his best work in this.  When he’s angry, which is a large portion of the time, you feel it; there is little of his usual hands-at-his-sides, cue-card-reading rigidity.  His moments of levity and acceptance, such as when he intends to bequeath his entire will to Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), feel natural and earned, given all the time they’ve spent searching for Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adoptive sister, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who had been kidnapped by the Comanches years earlier after they slaughtered her family.

If Ford had left the story at that, The Searchers would be a perfect film; as it stands, it’s near perfect, so the drop-off is not extremely disappointing, but it exists.  The problems lie in the subplot involving Martin’s lifelong romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and on-again, off-again betrothal.  Their light romantic comedy throws an unwelcome wrench in the overall tone, and its attempt to add comic relief takes far too much time away from the riveting search for Debbie.  Likely the studio didn’t want such a bleak film and Ford was left with no choice but to toss less intriguing elements into the pot.

That said, The Searchers‘ problems are nothing compared to its heights.  Ford’s ability to frame a shot reaches its apex in this.  His outdoor vistas, combined with Technicolor’s heightened reality heyday, are worthy of awe.  His pacing and action scenes are impressive for any time, but especially 1956.  His ability to guide the stiff Wayne through a subtlely shifting performance is magnificent.  Its uncompromising look at brutality — Wayne shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche so he cannot reach the underworld of his faith, his planning to kill his niece for taking up with the Indians, etc. — paints a picture of social unrest far more intriguing than a Robin Hood tale of protecting the little guy.  But most of all, the film’s greatness is on display whenever Ford can capture Wayne in his element: under an open sky, single-mindedly chasing his goal.

By 2001, the greatness exhibited by Westerns like The Searchers had all but dried up.  It was no longer a popular genre, but instead a collection of half-remembered stereotypes about white and black hats and “circling the wagons.”  Steve Miner, veteran television director, took those stereotypes, tacked on some ’90s teen heartthrobs and white guilt, and made Texas Rangers, a movie memorable only for its laughable overreaching.

There is nothing inherently “cinematic” about Texas Rangers beyond its aspect ratio.  Of its stars, only Rachael Leigh Cook had a reputation as a movie actress.  Everyone else was either the star of a hit teen-skewing TV show (James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek and Ashton Kutcher on That ’70s Show), veteran character actors who hadn’t had much success in then-recent years (Alfred Molina and Tom Skerritt), an “elder statesman” TV star (Dylan McDermott of The Practice), or a non-actor altogether (Usher).  Everything about it reinforces the old — especially now in our post-Sopranos TV golden age — ideas about TV being inferior to film.  Everything is over obvious and overwrought.  Kutcher is Michael Kelso in a cowboy hat; yelling through a goofy grin is his entire range.  Westerns don’t require terrific acting — the best-known actors to don a hat are Wayne and Clint Eastwood, neither of whose “technique” (unrelenting stoicism) would be taught in most acting classes — but being able to hit the simplest of marks would be nice.  Kutcher doesn’t seem to understand that Texas Rangers is nominally a drama.  Van Der Beek fairs slightly better, inasmuch as he can at least look sad when his family is murdered by Molina’s mustache-twirling villain.

The quality of the filmmaking is hardly any better.  The sets and costume design don’t look dirty or lived in like the should for Western towns exposed to the elements, and the cheap lenses and film stock used make everything look an unbearably long episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  In one hilarious chase scene, which is supposed to take place at night, what I can only assume to be a lack of funds caused Miner to shoot it on an overcast day and utilize an optical effect that looks like he clicked the spray can in Microsoft Paint to draw black around the racing wagons.

Predictably, the storytelling is equally bad.  Particularly egregious is the subplot featuring Usher trying to earn the respect of his fellow Rangers by proving that black people are humans, too.  It is so heavy-handed that the message, which is obviously a good thing, becomes worse than preachy and instead shines a spotlight on an inexperienced actor out of his element, which, when combined with the equality story line, negates the message.  It shows Usher — a career musician who should stay in that realm where he has real talent — is not up to par with even these second-rate players, which places a bad light on serious black actors and makes them look less qualified than white actors.

While categorically bad, a movie like Texas Rangers highlights what it is about its genre that resonates.  It does this by taking elements that typically work and showing what happens when not done properly.  It features familiar elements: the aging gunman on his way out; the young sidekick eager to take on a larger role; a larger-than-life, scenery chewer of a villain.  Instead of imbuing these characters with personality or twisting them in a new way, the people involved choose to give a warmed-over, “Remember when X happened in Westerns?”  Simply acknowledging that something exists is not a clever use of that thing; Texas Rangers never learns that lesson.  Everything is a twelfth generation VHS copy of things that had been done to perfection decades before by more talented people.

Texas Rangers‘s toxicity only helped emphasize the greatness of Howard Hawks’s 1948 exemplary Western, Red River, starring Wayne and Montgomery Clift in a surrogate father-son relationship.  Much like The Searchers, this opens with an act of aggression from Comanches toward one of Wayne’s loved ones, as they burn every wagon on a train Wayne had moments before left to strike out on his own as a cattle rancher in Texas.  Wayne gets cheap revenge in a wonderful sequence in a river where he stabs a Comanche beneath the water; there’s a hint of extreme violence without explicitly depicting the grisly nature of murder.  This moment sets Wayne on a dark path that turns him into a revenge-seeking monster.

Again, Wayne’s shortcomings as an actor aren’t particularly bothersome, but they do exist.  Early in the film, he can barely be bothered to recite his lines; he is listless, seemingly bored with the material.  Probably unsurprisingly, once his character grows villainous, he engages.  He cares, and the film picks up steam until its thrilling climax.  The film’s midstream change of focus from Wayne’s tenuous, violent grasp on leadership to Clift’s taking the reigns is an act of structural genius; as a commercially minded film, Red River needs the audience to relate to its protagonist, and as Wayne grows less human, Clift replaces him.  It is Clift who takes the archetypal role here: that of the aforementioned young man looking for more responsibility.  But instead of doing what Texas Rangers would do decades later, Red River provides an interesting — and, for 1948, entirely subversive — take on the character, with several scenes brimming with homosexual flirtation and phallic gunplay.  When the film introduces Joanne Dru’s Tess halfway through as a love interest for Clift, it feels tacked on, and you don’t buy the romance as fully as you do the flirtation he has with another ranch hand earlier.  Clift himself doesn’t appear desperate to have her; he abandons her first, and when she catches up to him at the end, he says he “guess[es]” he should marry her.  Not the strongest love story, but an intelligent, engrossing one that rewards close reading.

The only time the film falters is at the very end.  This is disappointing, as it is, until that point, probably in the top three of “proper” Westerns (not counting the spaghetti variety popularized by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s), behind only the first film in this column and Fred Zinnemann’s impeccable High Noon; perhaps it still is, but it’s a step or more below those two.  But after the film spends more than an hour building Wayne as a fearsome, power-mad egoist hellbent on murdering Clift for stealing his cattle, they have a standoff that results in them…  agreeing to reform their cattle raising partnership because they love each other?  The ending is too pat, too convenient, too eager to provide a happy ending that it sucks the importance out of the tension the film had built to that point.  But still, its high points bury the low much like The Searchers would the next decade.

As shown by these films, the American Western relies on archetypes to survive.  What it does with them, though, is key.  They cannot merely exist, as in Texas Rangers.  Something must be done to reshape the meaning of those archetypes.  If they don’t fit the story you want to tell, hammer at them until they are; make them malleable.  The Searchers has as its hero a murderous racist who barely chooses the right thing — family — in the end.  Clift’s homoerotic dealings with his peers in Red River indicate a deeper sense of identity than what entertainment-seeking audiences may realize.  Both these classics infuse their storytelling with dynamism, a singular personality.  Texas Rangers is an exercise in blandness and wannabe filmmaking that does not understand the importance of a leaving a creative stamp on a genre.  In that way, the Western is like any other branch of storytelling: telling a personal tale, when done with proper technique, will reach transcendence.

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Can’t Wait: Judd Apatow’s ‘This Is 40’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Judd Apatow is currently our preeminent family filmmaker.  If you complain because his movies feature swearing, sex, and drug use, and believe those elements to be signs of immoral storytelling or social decay, you’re a fool.  Those just serve as the comedic set dressing for the stories he tells.  Apatow’s films are about heart, humility, and learning how to better deal with those closest to you.  Perhaps The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a bit of a stretch, conceptually speaking, but its depiction of blossoming friendship and finding “the one” is much sweeter than most of its fans are willing to admit.  Knocked Up‘s central conceit can and does happen to people every day.  All kinds of people, even celebrities, get cancer, and they deal with it nobly and poorly in equal measure; Funny People, while not wholly successful, goes to great lengths to show that range.  Now, in Apatow’s latest directorial effort, This Is 40, he seems to tackle aging, boredom, and attempting to maintain one’s identity while doing what’s best for one’s family.

This Is 40 looks funny, but Apatow seems to have more on his mind than humor.  Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s married characters from Knocked Up must, like everyone, deal with aging, children, and career uncertainty.  At times, they can’t stand each other and want to be anywhere but near one another.  How they rectify those feelings is what I want to see.  New addition Albert Brooks, playing Rudd’s father, is always a joy to watch, whether he’s staging comedic reality shows in Real Life or coldly murdering people as a mobster in Drive.  Hopefully his appearance in this leads to him writing and directing a new film of his own.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School; Or, How I Spent My Girlfriend’s Summer Vacation

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

For three weeks in July, I was pretty bored and had plenty of free time.  My girlfriend, Emily, had left for the trip of a lifetime.  She went to Europe with her mom and sister, took a cruise, and saw all kinds of incredible places, including Copenhagen (she hasn’t even seen the Pusher trilogy!  How can she possibly appreciate it?) and St. Petersburg, Russia. I, on the other hand, had finished my summer class — I got an A, in SPANISH, so be proud, mom and dad — and only had my part-time job and overweight cat to worry about.  I decided this would be a perfect time to fill in some of my more glaring cinematic blind spots.  Three weeks and 30 movies later, I now have a deeper appreciation for foreign masters (Truffaut, Kurosawa), the silent pictures of Keaton and Chaplin, and some geek classics I should have seen years ago. I thought this would be a fun way to change up the usual Wednesday I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School post.  So, depending on your level of cinema snobbery, be awed by my pretentiousness or scoff at my pathetic inefficiencies with this list (in order!) of my filmic travels while Emily really saw the world.

1. Paper Moon– dir. Peter Bogdanovich

A wonderful little con artist tale.  You can read my thoughts on it here.

2. Eraserhead – dir. David Lynch A movie I’m still struggling to understand and/or enjoy.  Also one I wrote on for this site.

3. The Great Train Robbery – dir. Edwin S. Porter An important early short which popularized the Western genre in the movies.  It may be crude, but it features a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and it does some dynamic things with the camera aboard a moving train.  Besides, it’s not like you’ll have trouble finding a copy.  It’s in the public domain, so it’s free on YouTube, and it’s only 12 minutes, so watch it.

4. Sherlock Jr. – dir. Buster Keaton This is pure joy.  The stunts are phenomenal.  I didn’t strain to find the humor; I laughed the whole way through.  But most importantly, Keaton’s mastery of movie magic is on full display; his dream sequence involving Keaton’s entering a film in progress and interacting with the characters challenges the concept of reality on screen.  Is Keaton really just a down-on-his-luck janitor or does he have wacky adventures solving mysteries?  Being a realist, I knew where I stood throughout it, but that’s the fun of something like this; the audience gets to make up their minds until the end. It’s also fun to see one of the direct influences on Woody Allen’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo.

5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari– dir. Robert Wiene

Short, silent, and frightening.  It features an early twist ending; and a good one at that.  I’d also venture to guess that Batman villain the Joker’s look is partly inspired by this film’s somnambulist, along with The Man Who Laughs.  If not, then this film certainly inspired the entire career of Batman and Batman Returns director Tim Burton.  Everything about its mise en scene serves as a preview of Burton’s work.  There are twisting spires, off-kilter houses, strange colors, and all manner of atypical camera angles at play.

6. Beat the Devil – dir. John Huston While it’s not quite on the level of their previous collaboration, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — my favorite film from Hollywood’s Golden Age — this Huston-Bogart picture is witty in its subversion of the Hitchcockian brand of international intrigue thrillers.  Instead of his usual world weariness, Bogart grins and philanders his way through the story, a dark comedy I’m amazed made it through the Hollywood system of the time.

7. The 400 Blows– dir. Francois Truffaut

This is one of those films that leaves you dumbfounded.  After sampling a couple Godard pictures — Breathless, which I enjoyed but didn’t understand the devotion surrounding it, and the minor work A Woman Is a Woman — I wasn’t especially into the French New Wave.  Little did I know how much more of a humanist Truffaut was compared to his critic-turned-filmmaker compatriot, Godard.  Godard seems more interested in taking film conventions and spinning them, whereas Truffaut wants to know what makes people tick; and especially in this film, what makes himsef tick.  Taking that psychological, self-analytical approach, The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s early life diary on screen, an act of bravery not too common in filmmaking of any kind.  I don’t mean to keep harping on a movie I don’t even think is bad (see a few movies down on this list), but I can’t believe the British Film Institute didn’t rank this above La Regle du jeu on last week’s “greatest films of all time” list; The 400 Blows is in every way a more affecting movie.

8. Blue Velvet– dir. David Lynch

This is “conventional” Lynch.  It’s still plenty strange, what with dead bodies standing up and Dennis Hopper, but it’s as accessible — and great — as anything he would ever do.  Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern turn into stars here, and the twisty, trippy plot doesn’t let you turn off your brain in order to just enjoy the ride.  You need to engage it, and even then you probably won’t fully understand everything.  I need to own this in order to revisit it and unpack it further.  That devotion is exciting to me.  That’s the type of interaction I look for in a movie.

9. Carrie – dir. Brian De Palma While it’s a heavy-handed indictment of religious fanaticism and teen cruelty, De Palma’s indebtedness to Hitchcock manifests itself in the bravura climactic sequence at the prom, where the camera voyeuristically follows every station of the elaborate prank set by Carrie’s tormentors.  The way he plays with time — slow motion is key in this segment — and his use of split screen shows a director with more on his mind than adapting a cheap paperback horror novel.  Seeing how Sissy Spacek uses her eyes in this sequence is reason enough to see the film.

10. The Magnificent Ambersons – dir. Orson Welles No amount of studio interference could completely destroy Welles’ tale of a bitter heir (Tim Holt) who squanders his family’s fortune.  It lasts a truncated 88 minutes, and the pacing often suffers from its studio-mandated expeditiousness — including a laughable sequence involving what’s supposed to be an extended, years long trip (built up as a wrenching, there’s-no-going-back moment) that turns it into a two-minute jaunt, no more excruciating than a trip to the grocery store — but Welles’ visual flair and character work shine, perhaps more than his other masterpieces, Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

11. Poltergeist– dir. Tobe Hooper (but everyone knows it’s really Steven Spielberg)

Now here’s one I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen in its entirety.  I remember one time watching it on TV when my older sister, Kelly, told me it wasn’t very good — I assume this is because I was about seven at the time and it wasn’t appropriate for my age group — and changed the channel.  I never bothered trying it again until a couple weeks ago.  Spielberg, always the master technician, digs deep and finds some genuine scares using his typical stock characters, the suburban American family.  Made at the same time as E.T., it takes the opposite of the same coin; instead of Elliot’s family breaking up, Poltergeist explores the horrors of keeping a family together, even if they do manage to get through the (supernaturally heightened) adversity.

12. Delhi Belly – dir. Akshat Verma My friend Yabrell graduated in May as the first Truman State University student with a film studies minor (next May, I will be one of the first few, as well, not to toot my own horn).  His last film class was a course on Bollywood.  While visiting recently, he suggested we watch Delhi Belly, which he described as Bollywood’s answer to the vulgarity-laced American comedies like The Hangover; it’s a huge departure from the hyper conservative storytelling (according to him, actors were not allowed to be shown kissing until the last decade) and musical numbers of traditional Indian films.  In that, it’s important.  However, the movie’s a bit of a mess.  It’s entirely in English, which is a huge detriment for comedic timing for these non-native speakers.  Its caper plot comes off as aping nineties Tarantino.  I had some fun with it, though, and I saw my friend, so it’s not an entire waste.

13. The Grey– dir. Joe Carnahan

Here’s a movie I had avoided while it was in theaters earlier this year.  I’d heard plenty of raves that couldn’t stop using the words “awesome” and “bad ass,” so in my contrarian way, I rolled my eyes and put it out of mind.  What a mistake.  After renting The Grey with my buddy Justin, we got pizza and basked in the glow of Carnahan’s survivalist tale.  Liam Neeson furthers his late-career surge into Charles Bronson territory, playing a character who can’t give up no matter how much he wants to; his stubbornness and fate intervene every time.  The film’s uncompromising look at the survival instincts of society’s downtrodden, brutal tundra setting, and top-notch acting raise it head and shoulders above most early-year fare — and maybe a lot of year-end fare, too — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on my 2012 top ten list.

14. The Graduate– dir. Mike Nichols

The Graduate is two-thirds of a great movie.  Everything involving the affair between Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is wonderfully acted, and it’s an interesting concept.  When Katharine Ross’ Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, enters the picture, it feels like a cowardly way to soften the story for a mass audience believed to be easily scandalized.  “Why, of course Ben would fall for her!” the filmmakers must have said to themselves.  But the only way they show this is, at a strip club on their first date — Ben had promised Mrs. Robinson that he’d make sure Elaine would never want to see him again — he feels guilty and confesses he’s not the type of person to bring a date to a nudie bar.  Then he kisses her.  The entire reason he falls in love with her is because he felt a pang of guilt for a dumb hoax; she, herself, never does anything to prove her worth to him.  It’s a stupid idea that creates unearned drama and an unnecessary climax, which should have focused on the film’s most compelling elements, Ben and Mrs. Robinson.

15. The Battleship Potemkin – dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Of course it’s bombastic propaganda.  In fact, it’s propaganda for a revolution that put its country in far worse shape than it was before the fighting started.  However, historical relevancy aside, Eisenstein’s briskly paced film leads the way toward the style of editing we see today.  I don’t mean that it’s a rough precursor to what we have now; its editing looks like most current movies.  Everyone talks about the Odessa steps sequence but that’s only a well-done part of a whole that utilizes a revolutionary form of quick cutting at every juncture.  Camera shots are only about three or four seconds long, which must have been as intensely foreign to its original audiences as Citizen Kane was 16 years later.  Actually, its editing is even more modern than that of Kane and the majority of American films until the late 1970s.

16. The Gold Rush– dir. Charlie Chaplin

After seeing Keaton’s masterpiece, I knew I had to see my first Chaplin movie since I was a small child (I don’t even remember which one I’d seen then).  This is a bit of a letdown after Sherlock Jr., but then again, so are most movies.  That’s not to take away from this film’s charm.  Chaplin’s Tramp character this time is known as The Lone Prospector, and his whimsical work is impossible to ignore.  He’s nervously charming around women and his bumbling encounters with the villainous Black Larsen provide laughs and more than enough peril to invest us in the Tramp’s fate.  I’m eager to see more of Chaplin’s work in order to appreciate it better as a grown-up.

17. Nosferatu– dir. F.W. Murnau

Besides Metropolis and — a couple days before this one — Potemkin, I don’t think I had ever seen any silent dramas.  That is probably because I’ve long been prejudiced against old movies like most people from my generation, and/or I always found something else to watch that interested me more at the time.  Technology in the silent era had kept the camera from being as mobile as I prefer, and I always thought the acting is always so over the top so as to go against the naturalism of the actors I prefer today.  Of course, then I saw Nosferatu and my hesitancy now looks silly.  This is a terrifying movie.  Max Schreck is not the pretty kind of vampire we laugh at today.  His bulging eyes, dagger-like fingernails, and fangs strike an imposing image.  His looks aren’t the scariest thing about Nosferatu, though.  His gait, agonizingly slow, suggests a calm, confident monster.  He doesn’t have to rush; he’ll get you when he deems it necessary.  For someone who’s always in a hurry to get places, the patience he displays is really what unnerves me.

18. Shoot the Piano Player – dir. Francois Truffaut

Of the three Truffaut movies I watched in this span, this is the least important.  Yet again, though, I’ve been shown that cinematic and cultural importance is not always the key to enjoying a movie.  Shoot the Piano Player has its artistic flourishes, but it’s mostly a pure and simple pulp story.  And Truffaut enjoys himself telling a story about a slumming concert pianist who wants a different life for himself.  He wants love, and he seems to find it, but his small-time criminal brother and some inadvertent murder get in the way.  It’s a quickly paced thriller with heart and some surprises, and it’s one of many from this experiment I can’t wait to own.

19. Stranger Than Paradise– dir. Jim Jarmusch

I wrote about this for last week’s I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, so you can read it here.  If you’re noticing a trend, that’s because a lot of these movies will probably be showing up here in expanded reviews in the coming weeks and months.

20. Jules and Jim– dir. Francois Truffaut

This is a story about how messy human relationships can be.  These three characters love each other deeply, but they can’t stop stepping on each other’s toes to get what they want.  The problem, though, is that when one gets what he or she wants, one or both of the others suffers.  Throw obvious mental illness into the mix — Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine is a force of uncertainty and instability — and the complications grow exponentially.  While it’s not perfect (there are two or three too many changes of heart for who wins Catherine’s love), my interest never waned.  The third Truffaut film I’d seen in a week solidifies him as a new favorite of mine, especially after he helps his own cause by narrating the work in a calm, detached voice that prepares you perfectly for the story you see.

21. Rio Bravo – dir. Howard Hawks

I don’t care for John Wayne.  Never have, and I probably never will.  He sleepwalks through every role with a dead stare and a voice nobody on the face of the planet uses, yet everyone — but confused ol’ me — loves him for it.  The best Wayne movies are the ones where he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the story.  Full disclosure, I’ve never seen The Searchers, so maybe his lead performance is great in that.  In Rio Bravo, though, despite being the nominal lead, Wayne isn’t the thing that makes the film work.  That would be Dean Martin.  His drunk former deputy is the only character with a true arc — Wayne and Ricky Nelson’s characters have moments, but no real through-line — and his charming and cocky Dude is someone interesting to latch onto.  He has that vaunted magnetic screen presence that can’t be taught; plus, he looks awesome with that tired five-day scruff.  Hawks and company take the structure of High Noon — gang members lay siege to a town to bust their leader out of jail — and ratchet up the tension and suspense until you’re not sure if everyone will make it out all right; something that’s hard to make me think in the studio system films.

22. Asphalt Jungle– dir. John Huston

Sterling Hayden is the coolest.  Usually.  His turns in Kubrick classics like The Killing and Dr. Strangelove and especially in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye are great man’s man roles.  And for most of The Asphalt Jungle, he’s incredible, too.  However, there are moments — mostly in the early portions — in the movie when he stands awkwardly and stares dumbly at the camera while using a weird accent that sounds nothing like middle America, which is where he’s supposedly from.  It’s distracting and contrary to the calm, slightly menacing thug he plays in the rest of the movie.  Weird acting choices aside, the caper picture helps cement John Huston as one of my favorite filmmakers.  The heist story is plenty of fun, but it’s the strange, darker elements Huston incorporates that make it great.  Emmerich’s (Louis Calhern) insistence that his much younger mistress (an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe) call him “Uncle Lon” reeks of an incest fetish, and that’s followed up by Doc Riedenschneider’s lasciviously watching a young girl dance in a bar to songs paid for by him.  These were hard things to sneak into the movies in 1950, and they make for a more mature, rounded film.

23. The Dark Knight Rises– dir. Christopher Nolan

Another one about which I wrote for this site.  It’s a very flawed movie, the most of Nolan’s trilogy (perhaps his career), but I couldn’t help getting swept up in the spectacle.

24. La Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – dir. Jean Renoir

I mentioned this last week when talking about the British Film Institute’s newest best films of all time list, and I probably came off as a contrarian jerk.  I don’t think it’s the fourth best movie ever, but I recognize its immense value as a work of art.  A lot is said about Renoir’s use of deep focus, and that’s put to really neat use in the movie.  There are a bunch of characters doing subtly comic things in the background of many scenes, and I’m sure that rewards multiple viewings.  What doesn’t make me want to see it a bunch of times is the story.  It’s about a group of upper-class French people just before the start of World War II gathering in a large house for a weekend party.  Everyone’s having affairs with everyone, they think too much of themselves and too little of each other, and their selfishness explodes in violence at the end.  That’s a wonderful artistic statement, but I guess I should feel like a moron for that not being enough for me as a viewer.  But the fact remains that it’s not.  The thought that kept returning to me throughout the movie was, “This feels like the less interesting precursor to Altman’s Gosford Park.”  I say less interesting because there’s not much plot thrust to it.  It meanders through the house guests’ pointless affairs and everyone is just mopey and closed off until the admittedly great finale.  Usually, I couldn’t care less about finding a connection with a character, but this is a film about romantic entanglements.  Those usually require some connection to characters, and that’s hard to get when everyone is a selfish idiot.  At least in Gosford Park there’s the murder mystery angle to add a level of intrigue to the characters who are essentially the same people as in La Regle.  I’m sure one day once I’m sufficiently mature as a critical-thinking film viewer, I’ll look back at this list and laugh at how dumb I was for writing this, but currently this stands as a good, not great movie in my book.

25. Dracula– dir. Tod Browning and Karl Freund

While it’s not as scary as the other Bram Stoker-inspired movie on this list, Dracula is certainly the more iconographic.  Obviously I knew about Bela Lugosi’s voice and look from hundreds of Halloween Draculas over the years, but seeing the original in action is breathtaking.  Lugosi’s Dracula is the guy whose icy stare makes you willing to give him everything he wants if only to get away from him as soon as possible.  The problem for John Harker (David Manners) is that what Dracula wants is for him and his lover, Mina (Helen Chandler), to stay close.  The production design and music work wonders for the tone, but a rushed pace and glossing over of Dracula’s seafaring journey make it a flawed but imminently watchable film.

26. Ran – dir. Akira Kurosawa

Ran is the definition of masterpiece.  It is the greatest film I watched during the making of this list, and I now rank it among my favorites.  Kurosawa’s update on Shakespeare’s King LearRan is a feudal power struggle that follows an aging warlord who abdicates his throne.  The warlord’s three sons begin a beautifully rendered (with some of the best use of color I’ve ever seen) full-scale war to determine who will reign over the kingdom, while their forgotten father wanders the land searching his soul after a life of murder and deceit.  In doing so, Kurosawa turns the warlord into a grotesque husk of a human; the makeup is horrific in the best sense.  For a film with such a large scope, it feels oddly personal.  By 1985, when he made Ran, Kurosawa was going blind and had spent years painting storyboards to what would be his final films because he wasn’t sure he would be able to secure funds to make them.  The decaying warlord’s passing of the torch to his ill-equipped sons must have meant a lot to the director, as he had seen his work shape that of lesser filmmakers like George Lucas, who would make mountains of cash with weaker — don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, but it’s not as technically or thematically strong as anything Kurosawa made — material.

27. High Sierra– dir. Raoul Walsh

High Sierra takes the romantic Bogart and makes him ineffectual.  He can’t get the girl he wants, and unlike in Casablanca, he’s outwardly upset about it.  When he gives something in this, he expects something in return.  He’s a crook who wants to do right, but his flaws don’t allow him; he can’t help what he wants and he’s not willing to sacrifice anything if it doesn’t benefit him.  When he gets what he needs, a woman, Ida Lupino’s Marie, who not only knows about his criminal lifestyle but approves and wants to join it, he can’t even enjoy it.  So goes the life of Bogart the doomed romantic.

28. High and Low – dir. Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa’s known for his samurai epics, but this two-tiered film noir puts on full display his talents as a master of suspense.  Toshiro Mifune is very Mifune in it, that is to say “Mifune” has replaced the word “great.”  His businessman faces a unique moral dilemma — should he pay a financially crippling ransom for the mistakenly kidnapped son of his driver? — I’d never seen before, and the first half takes place entirely in Mifune’s under-surveillance house.  Every telephone ring hits you like a shovel to the face.  Is the boy alive?  Will Mifune ruin his livelihood for someone he doesn’t have any real connection to?  Are the kidnappers paid by his business enemies?  These questions are answered in surprising fashion during the film’s second-half shift into police procedural, which both explains Kurosawa’s popularity in America and foreshadows future American television.  That second half is very good, but it’s a small downgrade from the heights reached by the first’s perfect (I don’t throw that word around lightly) execution.

29. An American Werewolf in London – dir. John Landis

This one’s probably the greatest disappointment of everything I watched in this span.  I’d long heard of the fun thrills this provides, but the entire thing is hollow.  Sure, Rick Baker’s lauded makeup work is phenomenal, but that’s about it.  The acting is strained, and the horror-comedy tone is never solidified.  Its greatest strength, though, is in its gleefully destructive finale and denouement-free ending.  I like the immediacy of the way Landis ends it, and that saves it from being a bland genre exercise.

30. The Godfather – dir. Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather is the only film on the list I had seen before.  The only problem was that I watched it on a crummy Blockbuster-worn VHS copy when I was 12.  How the hell was I supposed to understand the storytelling depth Coppola used?  The subtle family bonds that lead to not-so-subtle acts of violence?  To 12-year-old me, there was just the violence, which took too long to happen.  Now, though, I can appreciate its greatness.  Gordon Willis’s dark cinematography turning everyone into near silhouettes.  Coppola’s unfussy direction letting the story happen naturally.  Pacino restraining himself.  Brando’s criminal with a code (he’s not wrong: heroin is pretty awful).  It’s magnificent. Oh, and I realized that John Cazale’s inadequate black sheep, Fredo Corleone, is essentially a proto-Buster Bluth.

Whew!  I’m winded.  If you made it through all 4,400+ words, I applaud you and thank you.  The writing’s probably atrocious, but I guess that’s what happens when you work as your own copyeditor.  Anyway, I’m glad to have been able to see these (mostly) great films, and think I should go on more binges like this — as if my regular three-or-four-movies-a-week clip wasn’t enough already.  With my final (!) school year about to start, I may have to resort to more capsule-style reviews, so this may be a preview of the I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School columns of the near future.

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Can’t Wait: Andrew Dominik’s ‘Killing Them Softly’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

After watching The Godfather for the first time as an adult — I had only seen it at the age of 12 — and The Godfather Part II for the first time, period, in the past week, you could say I’m on a mafia movie kick.  While Coppola’s films rank among the greats, their high-minded take on the upper echelons of mob life is not my favorite of the genre.  As I wrote last week, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas ranks in my 10 favorite films, and I think that’s because of its focus on the smaller aspects of the life; the two-bits, the less successful ones.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) appears to share Scorsese’s mindset in that regard, as evidenced by the new trailer for his upcoming Killing Them Softly.

Now, doesn’t that feel like one of Elmore Leonard’s lost gems?  Brad Pitt’s scuzzy-goateed, aviator-clad heavy looks to continue his winning streak of distinct, interesting characters (after Inglourious Basterds, The Tree of Life, and his Oscar-nominated turn as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball), and he deservedly earns top billing.  Pitt’s not the main reason I’m eager to see this, though.  Richard Jenkins is.

Jenkins is a wonderful character actor whose profile has risen the last few years, to the point where he’s nearly reached the Gene Hackman/Robert Duvall level.  The first time I noticed him was as the lovesick buffoon in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, and I haven’t stopped paying attention to him since.  From his tragically doomed Father in Let Me In (a movie that probably had no right to be good, yet still pulled it off), to being the best part of The Rum Diary as Johnny Depp’s cranky newspaperman boss, to his place as the secret weapon (with Bradley Whitford) of 2012’s best film to date, The Cabin in the Woods, Jenkins has earned every ounce of respect heaped on him.  I’m excited to see what he can do in the criminals-bullshitting-each-other milieu.

Oh, and how can you not be excited for that single-take working over of Ray Liotta?  It’s the best form of low-budget filmmaking.

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BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time 2012 List Revealed; I Feel Like a Know-Nothing

If you consider yourself a movie buff like I do, you probably make an effort to see the films noted by critics and filmmakers as the best.  In the last few years, I’ve made great strides in expanding my horizons in that regard.  As of my most recent count, I’ve seen 248 of the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (albeit the now slightly outdated 2005 edition), and I feel like I’m relatively educated on the subject of cinema.

That is, of course, until I saw the British Film Institute released their once-a-decade Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list yesterday.  Looking at the top 10, I felt I’d done pretty well.  I’ve seen Vertigo, Citizen Kane, La Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 8 1/2.  Quibbles about the worth of La Regle aside (Maybe I’m a dumb American for not appreciating it, but I think Robert Altman did a far more interesting version of the rich-people-and-their-servants-stuck-together-in-a-big-house story with Gosford Park — “BLASPHEMY!” I can hear you all yelling at me), I felt pretty good about myself.  Then I read choices 11 through 50.  In total, I’ve seen a meager 16 films on the list, and haven’t even heard of a large portion of the entries.  Once again, I’m humbled, and for the umpteenth time in my life, I feel this is appropriate.

What should you take away from this?  I guess it would be the un-profound, “Don’t be a know-it-all, because you don’t.”

And now, I’m left wondering what my own top 10 would be.  I’m too indecisive to rank them by worth, so it will have to be of the “in no particular order” variety.  This is something that could change by the hour, and some of these don’t necessarily reflect my feelings on the “best” cinema has to offer; rather, they are the ones I most enjoy and can watch multiple times.  Entertainment value plays a huge role.  So, here is my list of favorite movies (Thank you, Josh, for the formatting idea).

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – dir. Stanley Kubrick.  I could really go with 2001, The Killing, Paths of Glory, or The Shining here, but this one is the funniest, so it makes the cut today.

Boogie Nights – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson.  This is the movie that made me say, “I want to make those.”

Ghostbusters – dir. Ivan Reitman.  It’s both sentimental — when I was a toddler, it served as my babysitter while my mom took care of my little sister — and still really funny.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – dir. Steven Spielberg.  This week, it edges Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Ask me again next week and it’ll probably be the opposite.

Ran – dir. Akira Kurosawa.  This is the newest addition, as I only saw it a week and a half ago; see what I mean by the evolving nature of this list?

Goodfellas – dir. Martin Scorsese.  Like Kubrick and Spielberg, this could be any number of Scorsese’s films, particularly Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – dir. John Huston.  Bogart goes unhinged and gets desperate while Huston explores the depths of human greed without neglecting entertainment.

Bronson – dir. Nicolas Winding Refn.  This is my generation’s (improvement on (here come the “BLASPHEMY!” charges again)) A Clockwork Orange and features Tom Hardy’s portrayal of an earthquake of a character.  Perhaps the finest film of the last five years.

Chinatown – dir. Roman Polanski.  A movie without fault.  Its story, characters, and themes create one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid.

Fargo – dir. Joel and Ethan Coen.  In this, the Coens show a rare affinity for a character — Marge — and play with noir conventions in an Elmore Leonard way.  I watch it every six months or so, which is what helps place it above Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink on my list.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

The life of a twentysomething — a group to which I belong — is not always a good vibe wonderland.  It’s a time filled with crippling indecision (after swearing off college last May in a fit of frustration, I’m heading into my final year and will earn my four-year degree at the ripe age of 24) and uncertainty.  Oh, and more sitting around doing nothing than any of us would care to admit.  Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch understands this.  He lived it.  Proving the “write what you know” axiom, he made a movie about it with 1984’s Stranger than Paradise.

That’s the funny thing about the movie.  For all the nothing that happens, you stay engaged for the majority of its runtime.  In the film’s opening chapter, these characters, Willie (John Lurie), Eva (Eszter Balint), and Eddie (Richard Edson) don’t know what they want in life, so they don’t do anything.  In that, they reach for some sort of identity, with Willie and Eddie even sharing a uniform dress sense — they look like ska bandleaders trying to be tough guys — and a “profession” in ripping off older men in medium-stakes poker games.  Unsure of how to relate to women, the guys leave Eva, Willie’s visiting cousin from Hungary, alone in Willie’s apartment to her own devices; unsurprisingly, she watches a lot of bad TV.  Eventually fed up with the routine of being left alone, Eva needs to do something and asks to clean Willie’s filthy apartment.  Surprised but not about to pass up a free cleaning service, Willie lets her, and their relationship starts to morph into something less cold; they begin to seem a little more like family.  Before she leaves for her next stop on her American trip, their aunt Lotte’s (Cecilla Stark) house in Cleveland,  Willie even offers a nice, if misguided, gesture to Eva by buying her a hideous dress she discards immediately after she leaves.

The whole movie is filled with small moments like that.  Even the big plan at its center, Willie and Eddie’s “vacation” to visit Eva in Cleveland — and later their trip to Florida — is strung together so episodically you’re left wondering if it will come together.  It doesn’t fully, but that’s the point.  In a life where nothing of note happens, you’re forced to do something, anything to break up the monotony.  If that means going on misguided quests to seedy Florida motels, do it.  Willie, Eddie, and Eva see they need to work to achieve happiness, and although they don’t quite attain it, they give it a shot.  That’s better than sitting around cheap New York apartments being unable to afford anything.

While they may be unhealthy for the characters, those living spaces hold something intriguing for an audience.  It’s in the way Jarmusch presents New York.  His idea of the city isn’t that of other filmmakers.  Nothing happens, there’s no bustle.  Traffic seems nonexistent.  People are scarce, too.  Jarmusch’s New York is a lonely place; it’s not the bursting-at-the-seams metropolis of Sidney Lumet; the neurotic, intellectual stronghold of Woody Allen; or the insular, semi-malicious neighborhood of Martin Scorsese.  Stranger Than Paradise accomplishes this with techniques that would become Jarmusch signatures in films like Down By Law and Mystery Train.  It features the French New Wave-inspired black and white cinematography, point-and-shoot compositions, and side-scrolling tracking shots straight from a Super Mario Bros. game.

The film also begins another Jarmusch obsession, that of the chronically melancholy protagonist.  Sure, Willie is bored and uncertain of what to do with his life, but a lot of that boredom stems from the fact that he cannot reconcile with himself just how boring he is.  He’s an unremarkable person and he can’t deal with it.  When he and Eddie drive to Cleveland, they don’t listen to music.  In fact, they barely speak.  Neither has anything to say, but Eddie makes an effort on occasion.  Willie, though, stays within himself, unable or, more likely, unwilling to engage.  When pushed to experience something new, Eva’s tape of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, Willie shuts it out, putting down Eva’s taste in music, without taking any time to give it a real assessment; we just know he “doesn’t like that music.”  Even his final effort in the film to make his life more meaningful is done under mistaken pretenses.  He isn’t flying to Hungary because he truly thinks it will make things better, he’s doing it because he went to stop Eva from making the same flight; he doesn’t realize she never boarded the plane, and it disembarked before he could get off it.

Willie’s deficiencies as a person reflect those of Lurie’s acting abilities.  He’s not a very good actor, but in this case, he makes his shortcomings work for the material.  He can’t elevate a scene or carry a picture by himself, but Jarmusch does not ask him to do so.  He’s allowed to sit back, smirk, and make snide comments about the things that happen around him; he gets to be a slacker.  If he were the film’s sole focus, it would grow tiresome quickly.

Like Lurie, Balint could probably stand to take some acting classes.  She’s not without her charms, and gives Eva a nice matter-of-factness.  But she zags when she should zig.  In moments where she should be more confused, like when Willie tells her vacuuming the floor is called “choking your alligator,” she just accepts it with a vacant stare and perhaps a hint of suspicion.  I understand blankness is the point of these characters’ existence, but that doesn’t mean everything that happens to them should be greeted with less than a shrug, and that’s how Eva reacts to everything.  She’s rarely curious, and when she is — her late-night TV viewing with Willie is a prime example — she gives up her inquiry when Willie answers with one or two words.  She doesn’t attempt to get him to open up, and makes her character blander in the process.  This is a failing of the writing, as well, but Balint could add more to her character.

Luckily, Edson — who would do great work in Do the Right Thing and, to a lesser extent, Eight Men Out — is there to add levity.  His Eddie is someone who doesn’t mind his station in life the same way Willie does; contentment is easier for him to reach.  He has an easy smile and accommodating nature; he’s the one who suggests Willie listen to the Hawkins song and bring Eva along when they leave the apartment.  He’s appreciative of Aunt Lotte’s willingness to let them stay at her house.  Edson takes a nobody but imbues him with an acceptance that becomes a sort of grace.

Stranger Than Paradise is a meandering film that indicates more potential than achievement for Jarmusch.  He builds on the themes and techniques he uses here to realize that potential in his later films, with my favorites being the aforementioned Down By Law and Broken Flowers.  It has its moments, and its theme of searching for happiness rather than awaiting it is strong, if under-explored.


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