Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (February, 2011)

by HELEN GEIB

Free-Talking Series: Next Post

[Note: The monthly Free-Talking post is updated every five days, give or take a day every now and then.]

FEBRUARY 26, 2011- AND MY LEAST FAVORITE MONTH OF THE YEAR DRAWS TO A CLOSE

Last night I saw Memento at the IMA. I hadn’t seen it since it was new and had forgotten all but the broad outline. That’s not a memory joke, but a preface to saying how much I enjoyed being taken by surprise again by the plot twists. It was the closing film of the “Winter Nights” series, theme: noir and neo-noir, and also gave my group our best post-movie discussion of the series. We sat around for well more than an hour (until the Starbucks kicked us out) deconstructing the plot, analyzing the themes, teasing out noir tropes and influences….

Before Memento came Kurosawa’s crime drama Stray Dog– more neorealist than noir, but I wasn’t about to complain because I love that movie and was thrilled to see it, projected even, on the big screen- and Kiss Me Deadly– definitely noir, and what an ending! The series took a week off for the (third) annual silent accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. The first two years featured Keaton and Lloyd, so this year was Chaplin’s turn with The Kid. I’ve never cared much for Chaplin’s features and this was no exception, but the orchestra played wonderfully and the accompanying Chaplin two-reeler The Idle Class had some classic bits.

Precipitation-wise this was a hard month, but it doesn’t compare to Siberia, or even the mountains of Bulgaria where I believe the Siberia-set sequences of The Way Back were actually filmed. I was sorry to see the movie leave theaters so quickly, but at least I did manage to convince several people to see it first. I also sold a few tickets to Another Year. My ego needed the boost after my abject failure to convince a single person to see 127 Hours when it made its brief return engagement, or for that matter when it was in its regular run. (And I’m not talking about strangers who stumble on this site either, this is people I regularly hang out with to talk about movies.) “That’s the one where the guy cuts his own arm off, right?” Some movies not even the Academy can sell.

Incredibly (for me), I’ve only seen one wide-release movie this month, at least so far (one weekend day left to go!). The lucky winner was The Eagle, which I enjoyed quite a lot. Thank goodness the forecast and the Hollywood release schedule for March are both much improved. I’m missing my Friday nights at the revival house already.

How does your month at the movies measure up? Did I miss anything good at the multiplex?

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FEBRUARY 19, 2011- RUMINATING ON OSCAR

Oscar season is well underway with just a little over a week to go before the awards ceremony. The question is, as it is every year…

Why do I give so much time to the Oscars?!

I don’t begrudge the event’s very existence as some seem to. Why shouldn’t Hollywood throw an annual party to celebrate its accomplishments? However, since I’m not part of the industry, on the face of it there’s no reason why I should pay attention- a lot of attention- to something that is basically meaningless outside the industry.

Why “meaningless”? True, the Academy is partly guided by perceived quality and mainstream critical assessment. However, other things that play a role in the voting have rather less to do with intrinsic merit: how it will look to outsiders when the list is announced, favoritism, personal preferences (acknowledged and unacknowledged), box office receipts, not having seen a lot of the year’s releases, and political statement-making.

All those factors are at play in critics groups’ “best of” lists too, but those I can give a passing glance to and move on. Not so Oscar.

(And for those who haven’t heard me hold forth on this topic before: I don’t even believe in “bests” and top-whatever rankings when it comes to the arts.)

So, why do I give so much time to the Oscars every year, year after year? Because for better or worse, they’re what everyone’s talking about, and I want to be part of the cultural conversation.

The Oscars are in the paper, on the radio, all over the internet, the talk of movie fans everywhere. Everyone I know who knows I’m interested in movies asks me what I think of the nominations, and wants to talk about their favorites and what they thought of last year’s winner.

A little more of this and I’ll have myself convinced the Oscars are a great thing after all. The national conversation only turns to movies for two things, the other being analyzing the box office returns for the summer tent pole releases. At least the discussion around the Oscars puts artistry front and center.

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FEBRUARY 12, 2011- A FEW GOOD BLOG POSTS

David Bordwell announced the e-publication of Planet Hong Kong 2d edition in a post listing 25 essential Hong Kong films, the first of several posts celebrating the cinema

The one on “principles of HK action cinema” is required reading for action movie aficionados

Also over at Observations on film art, Kristin Thompson summarizes the case against 3D’s commercial viability (part two)

The essay “Playing with the Truth” at Getafilm considers the intersection of reality and dramatization in five recent films “based on true events”

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FEBRUARY 6, 2011- CONNECTIONS: THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

When I decided to write about The Big Lebowski and the theme of connections (series introduction post here), the question became, where to start? It belongs to that strand of the Coen brothers’ body of work that is defined- to greater or lesser degree from film to film- in relation to other works, primarily classic Hollywood movies.

Their crime movies, among which The Big Lebowski surprisingly numbers, additionally draw inspiration from American crime novels. Lebowski can be read as an extended parody of the Raymond Chandler school of detection fiction and its classic film noir adaptations, with The Dude an inverse Philip Marlowe. The point shouldn’t be pushed too far. Detective stories, literary or cinematic, are hardly the movie’s only point of reference, and as interpreted by Jeff Bridges, Dude is a beguiling original creation. Nevertheless, the connection is clear, with the voiceover narration, Dude’s entanglement with the self-possessed daughter of his rich old man client ala The Big Sleep (1946), and the direct quotation of dialogue from Murder My Sweet (1944) (“A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”) just a sampling of the many references and in-jokes.

My favorite part of the movie, after The Dude writ large that is, is Dude’s Busby Berkeleyesque drug-fueled dream starring himself, Maude Lebowski, and chorus girls in bowling pin headdresses. It must seem unutterably bizarre to people who’ve never seen a Berkeley original. It’s still bizarre even when you have, but familiarity with the source does take the edge off the strangeness. In an important respect, Lebowski‘s musical number is easier to take: it’s contextualized as a dream, where Berkeley’s fantasies were supposed to be actual stage shows.

And there’s so much more. What to make of the references to Westerns? (The narration delivered by Sam Elliott’s nameless cowboy, the intro’s tumbling tumbleweeds.) What’s up with the German nihilist fake kidnappers? Is Dude and Walter’s friendship a meditation on the post-Vietnam era? Does it all finally come down to Joel and Ethan Coen’s twisted sense of humor? I wouldn’t rule it out.

“Connection” Series Introduction
Coming Next Month: Footlight Parade (1933)

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FEBRUARY 1, 2011- DESERT ISLAND MOVIES, WINTER STORM EDITION

blizzard of 1978

As I’m writing this, Indianapolis is entering a 48-hour winter storm warning, the forecasters are predicting up to an inch of ice followed by heavy snow, and the radar weather map is tracking a huge blob of that nasty pink color that means wintry mix. There’s nothing else for it but to start thinking about what DVDs I’ll watch if/when I’m stuck at home for the next two days.

What movies would you reach for to sit out a blizzard?

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Free-Talking Series: Prior Post

29 responses to “Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (February, 2011)

  1. I won’t count movies I can stream, I’ll only count “physical” DVDs. I have The Draughtsman’s Contract courtesy of NetFlix. This is one of a couple of pre-2003 Peter Greenaway films I have not seen. The plot – In 1694, a young artist, Mr. Neville, is contracted by Mrs. Virginia Herbert to produce a series of 12 drawings of her estate as a gift for her estranged husband. We see Mr. Neville as sketches his way, using a viewfinder with a grid, around the estate in 2 hour increments dealing with quests who refuse to move out of the way and sheep who choose to rest, in frame, after grazing. As with Peter Greenaway’s other films, this one also looks as if he time-snatched a group of Renaissance artists and outfitted them with equipment to make a film. Every scene is a lush composition of landscape, eloquently executed (barbs included) dialogue, and foppish attire. I’ve only just started watching this morning, but it’s a good contrast to the elements outside.

    • Sounds like a cool movie, not to mention going for contrast is a good approach.

      I watched Centurion last night, which is set in the Scottish highlands in winter. Watching the Roman heroes trying to catch a few moments of rest on a snow field (they’re being pursued by revenge-seeking Picts as well as hounded by the elements) made me appreciate the comfort of my surroundings all the more. ^_^

      • I, too liked “Centurion”. For a movie that has no story it was fairly interesting. And I also like Neil Marshall’s other films “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent”, but I really like “Centurion” because Marshall’s third film, “Doomsday” is one of the worst movies ever made. “Centurion” is a nice apology.

        Also, I own The Draughtsman’s Contract on DVD. I find it to be as good as “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”.

        • Centurion’s going to be my review for this weekend, so I’ll wait until then to weigh in on the story. :) I’m kind of a Roman Britain junkie actually, so I probably would have enjoyed it just for the setting. It really is a coincidence that I watched it right before The Eagle comes out (another story based off the same it-might-have-happened-that-way historical event), but the timing certainly worked out nicely.

  2. Richard Winters

    Good movies to watch when snowed in I think are ones that have stories that take place in cold climates and help coorelate the snowed-in, cabin fever feeling. For instance, ‘Misery’, John Carpenter’s excellent remake of ‘The Thing’, and ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as well as Roman Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. There is also ‘Runaway Train’ with Jon Voight, ‘Cliffhanger’ with Sly Stallone and ‘For Your Eyes Only’, one of the rare Bond films that takes place in a cold climate. ‘Ice Storm’ an underrated independent feature from 1997 is a REAL good, cold-weather story.

  3. I just finished watching “Surrogates”, which was just ok. But if I’d read this beforehand, I may have been inspired watched “Ice Station Zebra”. I saw it ages ago, but a freind mentioned it recently.

    • I have never seen “Ice Station Zebra”, but I have been meaning to for several years now. I know there are some people out there that don’t like it while others do. It was reputed to be one of Richard Nixon’s most favorite films of all time.

      • “Ice Station Zebra” is awesome. I saw it years back on TV and it was good enough to remember. On a side note, “Guns of the Navarone” is one terrific action/adventure/war film starring Gregory Peck. :O)
        And to add to the wonderful cold weather: “Transsiberian” is a terrific film that utilized snow, snowy forests, and a train. :O)

        • Richard Winters

          Yes, “Guns of Navarone” is a great one! I remember David Niven gives a strong performance in that one. Another good movie with a cold setting is director Robert Altman’s under-looked gem “Quintet” starring Paul Newman about people living in a future ice age and obsessed with a weird board game. Oh well, however cold it may get in Indianapolis it will still be warmer than Toronto =)

        • Transsiberian is terrific- very suspenseful and a great performance by Emily Mortimer. Getting in on the cold climate movies thread: Himalaya is a fantastic movie made in Nepal that (thinly) dramatizes a Tibetan tribe’s annual salt caravan through the mountains.

  4. Other cold climate movies that come to mind are “The Red Tent” starring Sean Connery and Claudia Cardinale about a failed 1928 expedition to the North Pole. There is also “Survive” from 1976 and its remake “Alive” from 1993 dealing with the ill-fated 1972 Andes plane crash. Also, there is Walt Disney’s “Snowball Express”, which is engaging enough to get a chuckle or two from the kid of any age. I must also mention “March of the Penguins” and “Batman Forever”, which features the villian Mr Freeze. This is considered notoriously bad movie, but there are enough bad jokes, one-liners, and puns dealing ice and cold that it will annoy the hell out of you and make the cold weather outside seem not that bad in comparision.

    • I know a few people that enjoy “Batman Forever” for its cheese but I honestly hate the heck out of it. A bad movie is a bad movie and “Batman Forever” is a (insert expletive) terrible movie. :O)

      And now onto slightly warmer films: “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Professionals” are magnificent examples of classic films. :OD

      • Richard Winters

        A couple more cold climate movies are “Grumpy Old Men” and the classic of all time “Fargo”, which I am surprised no one else thought of. Both films were produced and set in my home state of Minnesota.

  5. I’m still cold, so I’ll stay with the snow and ice movies for a moment. I think Himalaya is a wonderful, wonderful movie and I may have to watch it again, Helen, now that you’ve mentioned it. Cliffhanger was fun, too, as was a silly but entertaining one called Extreme Ops. And it’s only one segment but I have to mention the chase through the snowy mountains in Living Daylights. I always laugh when Bond and companion slide to safety on the cello case.

    I did thaw the other night watching everyone panting and mopping their brows through the hot Tokyo summer of Kurosawa’s Stray Dogs.

    • Vertical Limit is another fun action movie in the vein of Cliffhanger and Extreme Ops. And I love that bit in Living Daylights too! The last movie in the Lone Wolf and Cub series has some must be seen to be believed samurai/ninja action on snow covered mountains.

      The Claim is a memorable drama set in snow-country. Dragging the house across the snowfield is an amazing visual sequence.

  6. The coldest cinematic moment for me, is the final scenes of Wide Sargasso Sea when Rochester takes Antoinette back to England and locks her away because he’s convinced she’s quite mad. We hear her thoughts on how cold she is in comparison to when she lived on the island. I just shudder every time I think about her locked in that cold, cold attic.

    • I like that idea of linking the literal cold to the characters’ emotions. “The Wind” immediately comes to mind as a movie that brilliantly uses the elements raging outside to illuminate the heroine’s tormented mind.

  7. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Wide Sargasso Sea but didn’t know it had been filmed. The reader can’t help but feel a premonitory shudder at Antoinette’s desire to go to England, a dream-land for her, but one which we know will be a nightmare instead. A Yorkshire winter, even if not unloved and locked in an attic, is not congenial for someone raised in the Tropics.

  8. One of the scenes that I love the most in The Big Lebowski is the obscure scene where The Dude wakes up in Jackie Treehorn’s beach house. That entire sequence is like a fever dream, what with a naked woman being launched into the air in slow motion, the strange interior noir lighting and water reflections on the walls, the song Lujon by Henry Mancini being played on the soundtrack, and, of course, the protagonist being drugged and picked up by the cops only to be harassed further.

    It is indeed a classic Coen Brothers film, a classic 1990s period piece, a classic detective film satire, and it contains terrific performances all around. I just love the way that Walter treats Donny…

  9. I’ve been surprised lately by the number of people I know who have not seen The Big Lebowski. I just assume everyone has seen it by now since I tend to run into it all over the place. You can a lead a person to a good flick, but you can’t make them watch.

  10. I think the Western references are perhaps meant to be more thematicly suggestive than explicit. The Dude is a kind of tumbling tumbleweed drifting along, and what is the original meaning of dude after all – an eager but clueless wannabe without the skills required for the job. LA is still a frontier town in some respects and the same stories keep playing out in different costumes. Perhaps it’s just another tumbleweed itself and will share the fate of other desert cities, disappearing beneath the sands. Thank goodness for the kindly Cowboy Philosopher who gives our thoughts a happier direction.

  11. I like your comments on the Dude. In noir fiction the main detective character is oddly passive. He follows the clues but the events move around him not the other way around. The Dude takes this to the next level, he’s a character that tries mightily to be uninvolved in the events of his own film.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog!

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    arts and review

    • Absolutely. I’d even take it a step further and say he tries his best to be uninvolved in the events of his own life. It’s funny when he refers to himself in the third person, but really what could be more passive than taking the “I” out of everything you do?

      Thank you for the kind words!

  12. I finally made it through all of the linked “a few good blog post pieces”; my favorites were the ones by David Bordwell. I was suprised-in-a-bad-way to see Phillip Noyce’s comments favoring the current trend of visual incoherence in action films, especially since I’ve likes several of Noyce’s films over the years (especially Dead Calm and Rabbit Proof Fence).

    But there does seem to be some good news here and there as well- I’ve heard only one review of Unknown so far (on NPR), but the review said that the director did a very good job of making the chase scenes coherent and exciting.

    • Glad you enjoyed those Mike. Bordwell’s writing on Hong Kong cinema is especially rewarding (at least to a HK cinema fan like myself). Re Unknown: That bit about the car chases definitely raises my interest level. I was thinking of seeing it anyway for Neeson in a starring role and this may have pushed me over the line.

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