Thursday, January 21, 2016

Eleven Movie Reviews

Getting to the point where I am forgetting all the movies I have to write about...

Woodstock (1970)

I had never seen whole thing before, though of course I have been seeing loads of the footage my entire life. It is probably the best rock concert movie I have seen, or been able to endure, though I haven't seen that many of them. The difference in the levels of physical exertion between various of the performers was marked, Richie Havens being the most vigorous, with the Grateful Dead, whose soporific thirty minute guitar indulgence was thankfully relegated to the bonus features, being at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Who was probably my favorite of the groups here, but it seemed like they were out of place in this scene. I was never much into the hippie music which predominates in this movie, though my wife used to listen to some of it when I first met her. I was in the womb in August of '69 when this was going on, and this is very recognizably the world I was born into, so that is interesting to me. Some of my earliest recollections, or impressions, of life involve being on a wool blanket placed on stamped down and dried out grass in the middle of what seemed to my three or four year old self a large crowd of people at some kind of festival, though I don't remember there ever being loud rock music. My father went in more for the kind of fairs where there were blacksmiths and people making saddles and dressing up like it was 1790, which must have been somewhat popular at the time. Back to Woodstock, this was when the middle class was so large and constrained within narrower extremes of education and income so as to almost constitute a world onto itself, as well as being at the end of the four decade period of very low immigration, so that pretty much everyone in the enormous crowd comes from a similar socio-economic and cultural background. This will be especially striking to anyone watching the movie today. Even if it were possible I don't know that I would want to go back to that kind of society entirely, at least in the form it had taken by the late 60s and 70s, which had induced a kind of broad despair throughout the populace, but it is remarkable how much everyone at the time, including the young me, took it for granted as the normal and hopelessly permanent state of society. I am still pretty sure I would not have wanted to be at Woodstock, unless I was part of the crowd bathing with the beautiful naked girls in the lake. But I wouldn't have been.

Party on

Stella Maris (1918)

Silent, obviously. Not tremendous, but enjoyable enough for what it is, which is an over the top melodrama featuring alcoholic first wives who beat their servants, beautiful invalids, fortunes that need to be maneuvered into the legal possession of the most likable characters, and so on. It stars Mary Pickford, the original "America's Sweetheart", and after this one movie I am a believer in the Mary Pickford legend. The bonus features included great home movies from Mary Pickford featuring a glimpse of the glories of pre-smog, pre-sprawl (and pre-income tax) Los Angeles during the teens and twenties.

42 Up (1998)

Installment of the much acclaimed British documentary series which has followed the lives of fifteen or so people every seven years since 1964 when they were seven years old. I had seen a couple of the earlier ones, I assume 21 and 28, back in the 90s, and remember liking them. 42 I found to be somewhat depressing. These people are for the most part distressingly ordinary, though there was one guy who ended up as a science professor (I don't recall which branch, physics, I think) at the University of Wisconsin who was obviously more intelligent than most of the subjects, and the one upper class bred man, at age 42 a successful and rather hard-headed barrister, who still consented to take part in the program, had a few matter of fact observations about the professional life that were interesting to me at least, though he was mostly pretty guarded with the interviewer/director (Michael Apted, who has been with the project from the beginning all the way to the most recent episode, which was 56. He himself is 73 or 74 now). The main problem for this episode from the narrative standpoint that I see is that as people get into their 40s and beyond, they don't change or develop that much anymore. Things may still happen in their lives, but they themselves pretty much are what they are, and as noted earlier, most people once they age out of the time in their lives when their personalities, education, sexual desirability can be understood in terms of potential to that when these have been effectively established, generally have nothing left that is very compelling about them. By that token I would expect the series to get worse as it goes on. However the critics seem to have thought that the two installments that have come after this have kept up the interest of the project. Doubtless they will come up on my list at some point.

The Trial (1962) 

Orson Welles take, made in Europe during his long exile-from-Hollywood period, on the seminal Kafka novel, starring Anthony Perkins (!) as the hapless K. While it has great visuals, it suffers for me from some of the same problems I observed in seeing The Magnificent Ambersons, too much long, intellectually dense and hard to follow dialogue combined with a lack of music, or at least noticeable music, that between the combination of my age and declining verbal intelligence, at least for interpreting the spoken word in large portions, made it difficult for me to concentrate/stay awake. Welles's celebrated genius clearly contains a claustrophobic/oppressive element, in this apart and beyond that suggested by the source material, that I do not find congenial. However many people think this is a masterpiece of sorts.

Office Space (1999)

Something of a cult movie, apparently. I found it diverting in a return to the late 90s way, nothing very profound. It is noticeable to me that such ennui and cultural pessimism as made its way into this--most of which is played as comedy--seem as nothing compared to the almost apocalyptic vision of society that has become predominant in the last ten years or so. It may just be me, and that I work in an unusually female-heavy environment, but I had forgotten about the atmosphere of offices full of placeholding, quietly desperate middle aged men who have no enthusiasm for the actual work they do but are terrified of losing the paycheck. The kinds of guys who lose it if they don't get their coffee breaks at the set times and all of that. I am one of those guys now, but there are not as many like me as there used to be. Most of the men I know seem to be either somewhat major professionals with purpose, authority and so on, or freelancers of one kind or another, with purpose and authority of a sort.

The Plainsman (1937)

Entertaining golden age western starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane (the two had been paired a year earlier in Mr Deeds Goes to Town as well). Buffalo Bill and George Custer feature as characters also, as does Abraham Lincoln, who opens the movie by reiterating four or five times in a cabinet meeting as the Civil War is winding down that the plains need to be made "safe" for settlement for all the restless Americans coming home from the war or otherwise released from past claims or duties or ways of life from its result. Very smooth production, with the characters presented mythologically but not in a 'serious', overly reverent manner. Enjoyable, but not distinctly memorable.

Melancholia (2011) 

This kept turning up in various of the games I play with word combinations on Google, so I decided to get it. Relentlessly dour and pessimistic movie, even before it becomes certain that the world is going to end before the summer is out. Like a lot of modern movies it is well done in a slick kind of way. The characters have everything, seemingly--great looks, brilliant intellects, vast wealth, estates, leisure, privacy--yet they are uniformly miserable and disdainful of others and nothing is good enough for them. I have no sympathy towards them whatsoever, though of course I would still like to sleep with all of the women. They would prefer anybody else, but unfortunately our civilization has produced me, or variations on me, a few million times over. And women have, seemingly, never been less satisfied with the quality of men available to them.

All That Heaven Allows (1955) 

Archetypical 50s technicolor melodrama by Douglas Sirk of the type that was dismissed at the time as pap, but has gained respect in recent years for its lush production and cinematography as well as its sly undercurrent of commentary on the moral and intellectual rot at the heart of bourgeois American society in the 1950s. I was kind of fascinated by it. Nothing in it--town, characters, houses--resembles anything real in the naturalistic sense, yet it feels like a familiar, real world--a horrible one, mostly, but nonetheless psychologically it is only too attainable.

The Emperor's Club (2002)

Probably an all right movie, but more stinking rich and privileged kids who transition mostly smoothly from prep school to the Ivy League to the heights of finance, law, politics, culture, and so on. I'm at a place in my life where the stories of people of this sort, unless they go off on some sort of completely bizarre and unpredictable tangent, are not interesting to me. The crisis in this movie concerns the charismatic but academically indifferent son of a senator who mocks/undermines his classics teacher and cheats during the Mr Julius Caesar pageant/history quiz, which is one of the social highlights of the school calendar. Because his father his so important/gives so much money to the school, no one can bring the hammer down or even effectively express anger towards the kid, who goes on to Yale and eventually becomes a CEO of some kind. Later, at a 25 year reunion of the class in which the Mr Julius Caesar contest is reprised, the CEO cheats again and announces he is running for his father's old senate seat. The classics teacher tries to call the CEO on his cheating but the guy laughs in his face and asks his old teacher where all his learning and study of virtue, etc, has gotten him, and the teacher lacks the wherewithal/confidence in his own learning and development to effectively give any kind of an answer. So it does not really give us the alternative universe vis-a-vis real life that we are looking for. There is a reason why Mr Smith Goes to Washington is a classic and this is not, after all.

Gone Girl (2014)

Silky smooth Hollywood product that investigates more of the rotting heart of the American dream. The most fascinating thing for me about modern movies like this is to see how my contemporaries live, or are supposed to live, since I have little social contact outside my immediate family, and our lives and home follow an apparently outdated rhythm, and we are as well located very far from most of the drama propelling national politics, culture, etc. The main characters is this are around my age, or slightly younger. The Gone Girl, who literally has the adjective 'Amazing' as a huge part of her identity (her parents were the authors of a once popular book series based on her life titled "Amazing Amy"), is a lifelong New Yorker who is forced by the recession, and the losses of her and her husband's media jobs, to move out of the city to her husband's hometown, which unfortunately is a cultural black hole town on the Mississippi River in Missouri (though not so dead that there aren't plenty of large-breasted twenty year old bimbos who are interested in having sex with her husband). All of this drives Amazing Amy over the brink and she disappears in an elaborate hoax to make it appear that she has been bodily as well as spiritually murdered by her fundamentally inferior husband. Perhaps she is a symbol of our whole generation, though she is not really an attractive representation of the supposed brilliance, hotness and overall awesomeness of the contemporary woman. At the end she morphs into what Hollywood seems to consider to be a current feminine ideal, a sculpted. hardened, pitiless shrew whose combination of hyperintelligence and unapproachable sexual magnetism is not to be engaged or resisted, similar to the Robin Wright character in House of Cards, which program I abandoned after about two and a half episodes because I determined my life was too short to feel that miserable, both about myself and the greater society...

Gillian Flynn, best-selling author of Gone Girl and Generation X superwoman

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

This movie came up in one of my games rather out of the blue. I have to say I thought it was kind of good, and stylistically attractive. The director is a American of Japanese descent named Gregg Araki, with whose work I was previously unfamiliar. He seems to be a big name in gay cinema. While there is certainly gayness hovering around the edges of this movie, it is mostly of a subdued kind. The main character is another girl/woman of exactly my age, but it is set from 1988-1991, so she is 17/18 to 21 in the film. Other than a kind of uniform blandness and by comparison to now somewhat less all-encompassing relation to media, there is not much specific in the film that is that evocative of 1988. There is a pretty good soundtrack (The Cocteau Twins!) of some of the affecting melancholy sensitive white kid music of the time, but it is doesn't seem to me to quite fit with the movie.

The girl who is my age in generational time has a sexual coming of age at what appears to be the right age for it--when you get your 1st kiss in your junior year of college (as a man at least) it appears that you missed the time for 'coming of age' and all of the specific later-in-life maturity related to that experience--including a lover who is a much older man, which despite having gone out of style in our time appears to be a dynamic that is usually incredibly healthy for all concerned. I am reminded, depressingly for myself, that almost all interesting and attractive women have these deep secret lives and wealth of erotic experiences that people like me have no inkling of, and therefore have can have no real relation to them and their lives and art and basically everything good and desirable in the world. So a good movie, but it did depress me because of the particularly gut-punching reminder of my ------- irrelevance.

I am caught up now, though I wish I had expanded more on some of these.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Year in Review

I only managed to get done 35 posts in 2015 on this blog (though I did put up 27 on the spinoff Vacation blog) and readership was not so hot either. Quality, though never near as high as I anticipated when I took up this pursuit, I suspect is down even from what it was formerly. So I am in a bit of a down cycle. However, maybe this past year marked the bottom in some ways and I will be able to come back somewhat.  Become calmer, more comfortable, less distracted and rushed, or at least approaching somewhat the level I formerly had. I feel like I must be close to peak distractedness or jumpiness; well, what I really feel is that it must be impossible that I will never regain my ability to think and write somewhat coherently. In any case, here were my top-viewed posts from the last year:

1. Mid-Winter Music and Videos on this blog got 174 page views, making it by far my most popular post of 2015.

2. Author List Volume VIII from the Vacation blog, a dry catalog of writers' birthplaces, burial sites, museums and other monuments, was the runner-up of all my postings this year with 73 views.

3. The Battle of the Broadcasting Erins, a consideration of the merits of Generation-X TV newscaster babes Erin Burnett and Erin Fehlau, took the bronze medal for this year with 58 page views.

4. A movie review post with the eclectic-sounding title of Luis Bunuel/John Huston/James Joyce/Andy Williams was checked out by 44 people.

5. My recount of my experiences reading An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser on the other blog attracted 39 visits.

6. Addendum to Edward Bok post (Vacation)--28

7-8. Tie between the original post on The Americanization of Edward Bok on the Vacation Blog and my account of taking my children to see the movie Tomorrowland, both with 25 views.

9. Author List Volume VII (Vacation)--24

10. Report on All's Well that Ends Well (Vacation)--23.

The least viewed post I had this year was my June reading update on the Vacation blog, which drew only 7 visitors. In general those monthly reading updates are not popular, but I started doing them to give that blog a somewhat more frequent consistent source of content, so I think I will keep it up for now. The least viewed posts for this blog were the last two I put up in December, which have both drawn 8 views. 8 seems to be about the baseline number of regular readers I have. Most of my posts get to eight views within a week and then other visitors will trickle in periodically after that.

The rather groovy early 70s video for 'Uncle Albert" on my #1 post for this year seems to have been taken down. We'll try and see if this one is any good.

Videos featuring the beautiful Mirielle from the 1980s "French in Action" TV series (one was on that prize-earning post) never stay up for long, but it is usually worthwhile to find more.

I have had a good Christmas season, of course one always has to work too much in my line of employment this time of year, but I think my children will have pleasant memories of it in their later life. Hoping my brain recovers some of its elasticity and stamina, however modest these were even at their peaks, in the New Year, and I can produce some worthy as well as more frequent posts in 2016.