Tag Archives: films

What’s On Your DVD Shelf?

Media formats, much like M*A*S*H’s Col. Flagg, come and go like the wind. From nitrate film to laser disc to video tape, Betamax to VHS, DVD to Blu-Ray to an iTunes purchase floating in the cloud of bits and bytes to … a chip implanted under the skin of your neck on the day of your birth, or whatever’s next. And with each change, cinema wonks have had to search their souls and decide: are any of the films I liked enough to purchase in a now-outdated format worth buying all over again in a new format?

mod dvd spinesThe DVD format still has many charms for me. Since my movie memories include the age of VHS, DVDs combine the best of that experience (the joy of being able to to watch your chosen flick whenever you like) minus the hassles (no room for much except one feature film, plus the likelihood of your player going haywire and chewing up your media). And as hopelessly hooked as I am on Netflix on-demand, they’re stingy with the “making-of”s and other extras that can add so much to the pleasure of a film that intrigues you.

So here are the contents of my DVD shelf, and what the future holds for each of them, in three categories:

Must-haves: I want to have a copy of these in all future formats, or guaranteed access to these on-demand, in perpetuity, world without end:

  • All three Austin Powers movies: for Dr. Evil’s “meat helmet” soliloquy alone
  • Be Kind Rewind: a love letter to movies, and the renting thereof
  • Best in Show: for Fred Willard’s loopy commentary
  • The Big Lebowski: So many reasons. Partly because  Walter’s eulogy for Donnie includes the word “Pismo”. Like that rug that sets its plot in motion, it ties so many #@!!* things together.
  • Chicago: for the black humor (“Pop, six, squish … Lipschitz”) leavened with just enough real emotion (“Mr. Cellophane”)
  • Chicken Run: for the chickens drawing complex diagrams, a genuinely scary female villain, and the Great Escape references
  • Chinatown: for that great closing line. Also, because Jack Nicholson spends so much of the film bandaged up after being too nosy, and deflecting others’ expressions of either sympathy or contempt for his injury.
  • Dr. Strangelove: again, if you have to ask why, you need to see it again. (Preferably at the age of nineteen, in a midnight showing at a college student union.) See my earlier entry.
  • Election: for of the look on Matthew Broderick’s face when his character says in a voiceover, “And that’s when I knew – it was time to leave Omaha.” See my earlier entry.
  • Fargo: because once when the A/C broke at our house in July, this movie, with its endless expanses of snow, and cold-blooded murders, was the only thing that took the edge off the heat and irritation of waiting for the repairman to come.
  • Flushed Away: for those singing slugs, and for Aardman’s always-terrific way with telling a story through animation: cute and clever, but light on sentimentality.
  • Human Nature: because of Rhys Ifans’ inspired portrayal of Puff, the man raised as an ape. This movie starts with pseudo-scientific pomposity, then tears off its metaphorical clothes and bolts, gibbering, into the jungle of loopy fantasy.
  • Life of Brian: Because this movie says more about the subject of religion than you’ll hear from more serious and long-winded sources.
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: For the quirky animations that pop up unexpectedly. For Anjelica Huston and Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett and the gorgeous scenery. Because the first couple of times I watched it, it made me laugh really hard. And because the last couple of times I watched it, it was more like a meditation on how hard it is to pursue your passion, and make enough money, and treat other people like you should, all while getting older and trying to hunt down that shark that ate your best friend.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Because the first time I saw it, when I was not quite eighteen, at midnight in the Student Union at the University of Kansas, I looked around at the auditorium filled with people I had just met a few weeks ago: friends and fellow dorm-dwellers and classmates, and listened to them guffawing and shrieking along with The Knights Who Say “Ni!”, and thought, “These … these are my people.”
  • Moulin Rouge: Because I was already fascinated with the turn-of-the-century art world, and especially with Toulouse-Lautrec‘s work. Because I never thought of adding “Nature Boy” and “Material Girl” to that world, but combine those with a gigantic hollow elephant, and it all works.
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? Because on the same day the husband and I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the theater, we also went to see this. One is a visually inventive story from a long-ago time, set in an exotic and unfamiliar place. And the other includes a scene in which three hoboes escape from a burning barn in the company of a pig, riding in a car driven by a child with a penchant for shooting at census-takers. And now you know which of these two films I saw fit to add to my collection.
  • Raising Arizona: On second thought, maybe I don’t actually need a copy of this one, because most of it seems to have lodged permanently in my brain. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse … Unpainted Huffheines… it’s all part of a spree to cover the entire Southwest proper.
  • Young Frankenstein: Because Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder obviously saw the same Universal black-and-white monster movies that KTUL’s early-morning and Saturday-night programming introduced me to, but they ran it through their own cuckoo blender. Because you need something to watch on Halloween if you’re staying home to give out candy to trick-or-treaters. Blücher!

Special category:
Some DVDs will stay in my collection because they’re gifts from important people in my life. My oldest friend gave me Sixteen Candles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High for my 40th birthday. Only another Gen-Xer could understand fully why I dissolved into delighted hysterics when I opened the package. And my dear husband gave me Ghost World (the “tampon-in-a-teacup” scene could have come straight from my freshman Design I class in the fall of 1984 at KU.) And Strictly Background, the small gem directed by Jason Connell, a fellow Okie with an eye for quirk.

Not indispensable:

  •  Elf: I seem to require a new crop of Christmas movies every few years. This one’s a charmer, but I might take it out of the rotation for a couple of years.
  • Hell’s Angels: worth seeing once for the sequences aboard the zeppelin. But everything that takes place on the ground is boring. (Kudos to my dear husband for finding this one in a bargain bin. We saw The Aviator and it piqued our interest in Howard Hughes. This was years before Netflix made it easier to view less-well-known older flicks.)
  • Lilo and Stitch: Stitch’s freaky way with an LP cracked me up every time I saw a “coming attractions” that included this clip. Every cotton-pickin’ time. Still does. Otherwise, too much Disney sentiment.
  • Pink Panther: Like Raising Arizona, this one’s burned into my brain. I was fortunate enough to grow up with a devoted Inspector Clouseau fan (my dad). So I learned very young that it’s hilarious to speak mangled English with a French accent. I don’t really require this DVD to remind me.
  • Polar Express: Maybe I just need to take this one out of the holiday-movie rotation for a few years. The sweeping vistas and action sequences are still terrific. But some of the human figures look a little creepy: a little too realistic, but not quite lifelike enough.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: The Art Deco cityscapes and robots are nifty, but the plot and dialogue are warmed-over pulp, and Gwyneth Paltrow is unappealing and seems uncomfortable as the leading lady.
  • Sweeney Todd: Tim Burton directing a musical about cannibalism? Sounded like a dream team to me. But it loses the dark charm of the original stage version with its focus on sheer gore.
  • Waiting for Guffman: The fictional town of Blaine, Missouri is worth an occasional visit, but not so vital that I have to hang onto this disk.

So, fellow wonks, what formats are you favoring these days? Which of your favorite flicks are worth buying in newer formats, and which are staying in the dustbin of cinematic history? Feel free to send me your lists, or a photo.

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No Blood on that Popcorn, Please

Despite having grown up during the heyday of slasher movies, I prefer my flicks to be free of gore, or at the very least to use blood and guts sparingly. So when I get a yen for a movie with a supernatural tone, I look for one that’s essentially a ghost story, rather than a horror movie.

Ghost movies enjoyed a brief rise in popularity following “The Sixth Sense”. I enjoyed that one, but here’s another that I prefer, and urge you to check out: “Stir of Echoes”:

It seems that “Stir …” never became as popular as “Sixth Sense”. Not sure why – “Stir…” is more genuinely creepy and less sentimental, it moves at a faster pace, and it uses the familiar elements of the ghost story in a contemporary setting to make a memorable observation about how humans treat (and mistreat) others they perceive as outsiders, or otherwise less-than-normal.

(Apparently there’s also a later movie called “Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming”. I haven’t seen that one and can’t vouch for it.)

Any ectoplasmic flicks you recommend, fellow wonks?

Happy Halloween.

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Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron Menzies

Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron MenziesIt took a Martian invasion to make me aware of William Cameron Menzies. I watched “Invaders from Mars”, and the look of that movie kept reminding me of German Expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.

Menzies was both director and production designer on “Invaders…” Starkly chiaroscuro lighting, abrupt camera angles that deliberately unsettle the viewer, and actors filmed from below so that they loom up into the frame are all hallmarks of his style.

If you’ve seen “Gone with the Wind”, you’ve seen Menzies’ work. The title of “production designer”* was created by David O. Selznick to describe Menzies’ contribution to that epic film. His Expressionist leanings are toned down for “Gone…”, but you can see traces of them, especially in the scenes of Atlanta burning.

Menzies’ style seems to work best in genres like science-fiction (Things to Come) and thrillers (The Maze). These types of movies needed stark visual drama, and often highly-stylized costumes and sets, to put an audience in the right mood. A more lighthearted example is The Thief of Bagdad. Everything in this movie is more curvilinear and organic, and almost every surface is covered with a riot of fanciful, Middle-Eastern-inspired decoration.

Menzies sometimes let his stylings overpower the living, speaking, moving actors who had to inhabit the worlds he created. For example, “Things to Come” is a delight for fans of sci-fi and modernist style. But the heavy emphasis on visuals reduces the actors to stiff figures required to deliver their lines while locked inside the sets, costumes and camera angles that are really the stars of the film.

Once you’re familiar with Menzies’ style, you’ll start seeing his influence in lots of classic 20th-century films. And don’t miss David Bordwell’s entertaining and thoroughly-researched essay on Menzies. Professor Bordwell wonders, “Why has nobody written a book about him?” Good question. Until that book comes along, this essay is a terrific place to start.

* A production designer works with a film’s cinematographer and director to determine how that film will look. He or she determines the visual style that will create the right mood for the film, supporting the plot and ideas the film needs to convey. Typically this includes providing visual references (like photos and scale models) to the rest of the production team, and then translating those references into reality, once his or her concepts for the look of the film are approved.

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Wish I Had Those Two Hours of My Life Back

All films are thieves of time*. The good ones filch roughly two irreplaceable hours of your finite time on this earth, and do it like the archetypical charming jewel thief – in a way that leaves you grateful. And the lousy ones are more like carnival barkers or pickpockets that leave you feeling cheated, disgusted, bored, or nothing at all.

Sure, if you decide partway through a film that you don’t like it, you’re always free to leave the theater, click the “Stop” button on Netflix, or take the DVD out of the player, break it over your knee, and fling the shards across the room. But once I start a movie, I’m obliged to watch it all the way through. Who knows, maybe the plot or the quality of the acting will REALLY come together in those last five minutes! If viewers won’t give a movie a fair chance by at least watching all of it, I don’t believe they have the right to gripe about it later. And griping about crummy works of art is a pleasure unto itself. (Check out some of Dorothy Parker’s scintillating reviews of subpar books and plays, if you doubt this.)

So what movies do you wish you could un-see? Below are three of mine. Hollywood, I’m sending you the bill for these six hours of my life:

  • Quantum of Solace: A bloated, joyless slog, starting with that inscrutable title. (Brings back thoughts of every concept in math and science classes that either bored me witless or made absolutely zero sense.) Maybe there’s no going back to the free-loving fun of Bonds like Sean Connery and Roger Moore. But this one isn’t even leavened with the dry, dark humor that the British excel at.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Great cast and sumptuous locations wasted on a talky script and Woody Allen’s very, very tired notions. The feeblest of these is his idea that any interaction between men and women who are potential romantic partners is automatically hilarious, no actual cleverness or originality required. Cripes, I wish Penelope Cruz’s character had shown up much earlier with that gun of hers and shot several more people, and saved us all some tedium. Fellow wonks, have you ever read wildly positive reviews of a film that left you cold, and wondered if everyone else had somehow seen a different movie with the same title? That was my experience with this film.
  • Ghost: When people gush over this one, I struggle to recall anything except way too many close-ups of Demi Moore crying with her mouth partly open. It required a visit to Rotten Tomatoes to remind me that it also included Whoopi Goldberg’s “magical Negro” character.

* with apologies to Tony Hillerman

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Father of the Wonk

Father of the WonkDads. They ask for so little for themselves, even on the day that’s dedicated to them. (Click here for gift ideas.)

My own dad is not quite the cinema buff that my mom was. So my fond memories of growing up with him include more things like a Saturday morning spent learning how to cross my eyes, and watching many drawings of horses – usually dressed in hats, collars and big wide neckties – emerge from his mechanical pencil. But here are a few movie-related experiences with my dad that helped shape the wonk I am today:

True Grit” (original and remake): As a teenager I came close to being nocturnal (thanks partly to my job at the local movie theatre). Coming home late one night, I found Dad still up and watching “True Grit”. “You gotta listen to this dialogue,” Dad said, and turned up the volume just in time for me to hear Glen Campbell say to Kim Darby, “A little earlier I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss from you, although you are very young… and you’re unattractive to boot. But now I’m of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” That was all the reason I needed to stay up and keep watching with Dad. Growing up in Oklahoma, I had seen plenty of Westerns – both the TV and film varieties. And my mother’s interest in classic Hollywood movies had already introduced me to the idea that good dialogue was important to a film. But this kind of pleasingly quirky talk was not something I expected from horse operas. When Dad accompanied my husband and me to see the remake of “True Grit” in 2011, that scrumptious bit of verbage was one of the ones I was hoping that the Coen brothers would see fit to keep in, along with “A clumsier child you’ll never see than Horace; I bet he broke 40 cup” and “Son, your partner’s kilt you and I’ve done for him.”

“Cat Ballou”: This was the first movie I recall watching on the first VCR that my parents bought, around the time I started college. My sister and I had never heard of this film. But Dad had seen it when it first came out, and recalled a scene in which Lee Marvin, drunk, is mounted on his horse, also drunk, which has its front legs crossed and is leaning against a building while they both try to look nonchalant. So when I was home on Thanksgiving break, we gave it a look. It’s a hoot: Lee Marvin playing twin brothers, one of whom sports a prosthetic silver nose, Greek-chorus-style musical commentary by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, and … oh, go check this one out, or watch it again.

“Raising Arizona”: Another offbeat gem set in the American West. This was the last movie we went to see all together as a family before I left for college. Come to think of it, this was probably my first Coen brothers movie. We arrived at the showing a little late (very unusual for my punctual family), but took our seats, had a heck of a good time guffawing at lines like “Son, you got a panty on your head”, stayed just long enough into the next showing to see what we’d missed, then trooped out just as quietly as we had come.

“To Please a Lady”: Finding out that both my dad and I had seen this movie was a complete surprise. I plucked it off the DVD shelf at the public library, figuring that any movie with both Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck had to be just odd enough to warrant a look. The title made me think it would be geared for a female audience, but there’s a lot of auto racing in it. Clark Gable plays a midget car racer who performs in a “Thrill Show” owned by Joie Chitwood. I only recognized Chitwood’s name because it had come up not long before in conversation with my dad (a lifelong car enthusiast). An email to Dad revealed that he’d seen “To Please a Lady” when it first came out. Same movie, viewed 60 years apart, for different reasons.

… and a few flicks Dad wasn’t too crazy about: Most conscientious parents end up sitting through films they don’t much care for, just to please their kids. Mom and Dad both endured their share of Disney’s kid-focused extravaganzas. (Although my dad has expressed a fondness for “The Jungle Book”.) And during my especially awkward early-teen years, when I was old enough to be obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, but too young to drive myself anywhere, who gave up irreplaceable weekend time to take me to the entire original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Flash Gordon”, and Ralph Bakshi’s version of “Lord of the Rings”? My dad.

If your pop is a cinema buff, treat him to an afternoon at the movies on Father’s Day. If he’d rather be doing something else, give your movie obsession a break and join him in that activity. Because whether you spell it “paterfamilias” or “far-ger”, you’ve only got one dad.

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Alias “The Escapist”

Alias "The Escapist" What’s your “movie-watching personality” ? Can you sum up what guides you when you’re deciding which movies to watch? Or when you’re revising your list of favorite films? (If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you have at least one of these lists, and that you find yourself having to revise it pretty often.)

I’d describe myself as an Escapist*. I seem to prefer my films at least one step removed from contemporary reality. For example, if I have to choose between a movie that takes place in the present day, and one set in the past or future, I lean toward the second one. (And if the setting is Victorian or Edwardian England, I’m a complete goner.) Usually I pick comedies over dramas. Sci-fi over regular-fi, especially if robots or monsters are involved. Musicals over stories that don’t include people bursting into song or dance. As much as I’d like to seem smart, and as often as I try to stretch my mind by watching films that are outside of the categories I’ve listed above, the truth is I watch movies to be entertained and get some relief from reality.

So, does your movie-watching personality fit into any of these categories?
Or would you describe yourself in a completely different way?

  • Intellectual: The films you seek out are the ones that, for most other people, are the cinematic equivalent of being forced to eat your Brussels sprouts first. If a movie promises an unblinking look at oppression or inequality, especially in a country other than the U.S., you’re in. If there are subtitles involved, so much the better. If it’s too entertaining, you can’t trust it. (And please, it’s “FILMS”  or “CINEMA”, not “MOVIES”.)
  • Keeping Up with the Joneses (or preferably, Outrunning the Joneses): You want to see movies as soon as they are released. Two weeks after they start in theaters, max. When recently-released movies come up in casual conversation, it’s important to you to be able to offer your opinion on the plots, characters and special effects, whether you actually liked the movie or not. Older movies don’t interest you that much.
  • Middle of the Road: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Disney are your benchmarks for quality. If you still get DVDs from Netflix, often they’re scratched because the movies you want to watch are the same ones a bunch of other folks want to watch. You often find yourself in the same line at the movie theater as the Joneses crowd that I mentioned above. But it’s less important to you to see a movie right away than to feel pretty sure that you’re going to enjoy what you’re about to watch. You really don’t want to feel cheated out of your admission fee or two hours of your life.

* Partly because Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my favorite books. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, it includes a superhero named The Escapist.)

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