Lost in the Movies: October 2012

Lucasfilm Lost

Which is the bigger movie news? That a Star Wars: Episode VII is in the works? Or that the Disney corporation will be making it, having bought out Lucasfilm on Tuesday? Let's begin with that first story. What will Episode VII cover? Conceived as Anakin Skywalker's rise, fall from grace, and eventual redemption, where could the Star Wars narrative possibly go once the fallen Jedi's corpse goes up in flames on the forest moon on Endor? I've long thought that the most compelling angle would be to show the Rebel Alliance, having finally and impossibly brought down the Evil Empire, becoming something of an Empire itself. Perhaps a new resistance could emerge, radical, indignant, making the former Rebels question who they have really become. Certainly such a storyline would have historical precedent - how many revolutions have turned into regimes resisting the next revolution? But it would also neatly reflect the Star Wars saga itself, by which I mean not the movies onscreen but the grand ascension of a unique, original myth into industry gamechanger, pop cultural icon...and big, billion-dollar business.

Gray's Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine

The stage is empty but for the chair and small table. The table is empty except for the glass of water and small notebook. And the chair is empty until a man shuffles onstage, a nervous late thirtysomething still youngish but verging on middle age, or a slightly older man in a tweed coat flush with first-time success, or a graying family man playing corny 90s songs on a boom box (remember those?), or an old man sad and wincing with pain, hobbling on crutches after a devastating accident, but still - for the moment - driven and curious. And as soon as these men speak they fill not only the space onstage but our imaginations - with stories, jokes, memories, maybe the occasional tall tale; worries, regrets, hopes, musings, dreams, nightmares, questions that sometimes can't be answered but must be posed anyway.

Precocious Pastiche: Recycled Culture in 80s Kids Cartoons - and Beyond

About a month ago, as several friends got drunk and prepared food for a party later that evening, the TV droned somewhere in the distance. At some point in the afternoon, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein appeared onscreen, and no one bothered to shut it off. For an hour or two the hypnotically grating high-pitched rodents serenaded us with their screams and weirdly precise vocal delivery; I caught very little of the movie as I wandered in and out of the room but what I saw (and heard) fascinated me. How bizarre that from a dark and stormy night early in 19th century Geneva, as a group of Romantic poets and intellectuals told ghost stories to keep themselves amused, we wind up with a colorful cartoon of squeaky-voiced, commercially-driven anthropomorphized animals chased around by a creature so familiar to us that it's naturally assumed even the toddlers watching will already know his name.

The Dark Crystal

The cinema, especially the fantasy cinema, dazzles us because of its reality. However artificial the construction - from in-camera trickery to indoor sets to old-school cel animation (convincing us that individual drawings represent perpetual motion) - movies are charged with a sense of the miraculous. Movies are ideas and imagination made particular and set in motion. This is the magic linking cartoons to special effects films to intimate dramas to documentaries and home movies - it is the sensation of delight which confronts us in a dark theater or an empty living room, stretching from the first black-and-white train arriving in a station to the hypercharged car chases over the course of a century, from Melies' charmingly crude moonshot to the zipping spaceships of a later generation.

Few films capture the wonder of the inanimate made animate as exuberantly as Jim Henson's lush and gruesome The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz, co-written with David Odell, and designed by Brian Froud). It extends a delight conveyed in stop-motion animation, our knowledge that what we are seeing has been meticulously prepared fused with our instinctive belief that the fluid movement is real. Called (accurately or not) the first live-action film without a single human onscreen, the puppetry of The Dark Crystal takes carefully constructed creatures and sets them not just in the illusion of movement, but in actual movement. The results are astonishing and exhilarating.

The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn

What is it about 80s fantasies, particularly animated fantasies, that fascinates me well into 21st-century adulthood? There's an aspect of nostalgia to be sure. I was born in 1983 and these movies reflect not just the era that shaped my early consciousnesses but also a form the world must take for everyone at that age: at three or four years old, reality itself seems mysterious, fantastical, dark - all that will later become familiar glows with the dangerous allure of magic. If this is nostalgia, it's an edgier, more unsettling nostalgia than is sold to us on TV commercials, a nostalgia rooted in the recognition that childhood is not merely a time of carefree happiness, but also of deep-rooted fear and disoriented confusion. At any rate, I didn't see The Secret of NIMH or The Last Unicorn, two offbeat animated films from 1982, until about a month ago - so any nostalgic chord they struck was generalized and indirect.

Le Havre and La Vie de Boheme

After watching La Vie de Boheme (1992) I thought of Aki Kaurismaki as a postmodern director, and I don't typically think of postmodernists as crafting earnest message movies. Yet that's essentially the mission of Le Havre (2011): to tell a simple story expressing concern for the plight of illegal immigrants in France. Marcel Marx (Andre Williams), a cranky old bohemian, takes in a young African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and gruffly arranges his escape from France, with the professional but not inhuman investigator Manet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) on their heels. This entertaining and humanist narrative hopes not only to tell a story, but also to activate the viewer's sympathy in a way that an abstract pamphlet could not. To call as quiet, artful, and minor-key a film as Le Havre "propaganda" would seem heavy-handed, but the film wears its values on its sleeve by making the political explicitly personal. Given my casual impression of Kaurismaki, a hipster before the term was unfashionable, this direction surprised me.

Blood Diamond and Lord of War

Commonly observed and commonly occurring, the cinematic tendency to depict black Africa through white eyes persists into the twenty-first century. Lord of War (2005) explicitly embodies the discrepancy between First World power and Third World experience, while Blood Diamond (2006) attempts to balance between three perspectives - the exploited, the middle ground exploiter/exploited, and the outside observer trying to help the exploited without having quite so much at stake.

The Amazing Grace and Amazing Grace

Taken together, these two 2006 films - with almost the exact same title and similarly themed stories - make an illuminating double feature. Amazing Grace is a big-budget historical drama, directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Apted. Crackling with atmosphere and lively performance, this biopic follows William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British MP who finally convinces Parliament to abolish the slave trade following a 15-year crusade. One of his inspirations is the ex-slave trader-turned-penitential pastor John Newton (Albert Finney), composer of the famous verse "Amazing Grace" which captured both his shame and his religious conversion.

The Amazing Grace is Nigeria's first film shot on 35mm and despite some scenic photography and quality performances, it's generally as unpolished as Amazing Grace is slick. The Nigerian film focuses on an earlier period in the life of John Newton (Nick Moran), as he captains a slave ship to West Africa, suffers a crisis of conscience, and falls in love (Pocahontas-style) with native Ansa (Mbong Ogungide). The narrative is heavily fictionalized, and one of its more absurd conceits is that Newton lifted the melody for "Amazing Grace" from a tribal song, when in fact the melody was imposed on Newton's verse in 1835, long after he died; it was derived from a very un-African tune called "New Britain."

"Halliwell's Hundred" and Hellzapoppin

Leslie Halliwell was an inveterate curmudgeon, but he certainly had a sense of humor. A great many - perhaps a majority - of the entries in his 1981 collection "Halliwell's Hundred" are comedies. The British programmer and film critic, who was quite pointed in his dismissal of virtually everything that followed the 1950s, cherished memories of afternoons spent in the local cinemas or at student theaters or even in a cozy den at home (or, for that matter, a barely-sheltering hotel room, surrounded by a hostile American city just out his window). In these spots he would reel in the dreamlike atmosphere and lighter-than-air concoctions of Hollywood or British classics.

They Were Expendable, A Canterbury Tale, & Hail the Conquering Hero

Watching three films from 1944-45 back to back to back I was struck by World War II cinema's variety of flavors. Hail the Conquering Hero, an all-American Preston Sturges comedy, takes place far from the battlefield, on the homefront where all eyes are on a war which remains somehow elusive, even imaginary. They Were Expendable, on the other hand, is mired in the muck of war; it's one of John Ford's most Hawksian films, the male camaraderie (even featuring a "one of the guys" tough gal, played by Donna Reed) mostly untouched by sentimentality or mythologizing. Meanwhile, Powell and Pressburger, that eccentrically flamboyant yet surprisingly un-escapist duo, negotiate between these two spheres. A Canterbury Tale is set on a "home front" which is also at times a battlefield, a British countryside fundamentally transformed by modern warfare, with its troop transports, blackouts, and women at work. Together, the three films convey a fascinating triptych view of how movies presented the war while it was still unfolding.

Sullivan's Travels

This review was an inadvertent entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, and was reviewed by "Squish" for the site which started this club.

There's an intriguing irony to the story with which Sullivan's Travels delivers its anti-message message. First, that story: Sullivan's Travels follows John L. Sullivan (no, not that one - this one's a director played by Joel McCrea), who wants to shoot O Brother, Where Art Thou (no not that o- never mind), a serious drama focused on war, fascism, and the Great Depression. He wants to capture the times, speak to the masses, deliver a message - but yes, he placates the worried moguls who try to deter him, "with a little sex."

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

In the film The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) stumble across a dying dog. The two middle-schoolers are stoned, returning from a visit to the drug dealer, from whom they've also purchased some animal tranquilizer, part of an elaborate plot to steal a cougar from a wildlife center. They hope to set it loose at their parochial school, an idea that seems as outlandishly cartoonish as anything in the comic books they illustrate in their spare time.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Perhaps even more fascinating than the way our world changes is how the eyes that perceive it change too. Take, for example, the teen movie. It's been exactly thirty years since Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit multiplexes. Culturally a lot has changed, even to the point of coming full circle: the 80s fashion sense (brand new but fully blown in '82) went way out-of-fashion and then rather remarkably came back, albeit cloaked in irony and nostalgia. Meanwhile, those pixelated arcade games in the Sherman Oaks Galleria (itself a fallen victim of history's merciless march) have morphed into slick computer graphics that are close to convincingly emulating the very flesh-and-blood of the bored high-schoolers who play them. Meanwhile, those original teenagers, of course, are now well into middle age with kids the same age as they were in this movie.


Rosetta is about 30 now.

When the Dardenne brothers released their second feature in 1999, their title character (Emilie Dequenne) was a teenager saddled with more responsibility and less comprehension than many of her peers - at once an adult (more so than her own mother) and a child, prone to temper tantrums and exasperated confusion as she's asked to play by rules she doesn't even understand. In the end, it appears Rosetta may not even make it to 30, and the raw immediacy of the Dardennes' style and pace (both the character and the viewpoint - trying to keep up - never stop moving, as if they're playing a sort of neorealist video game) make such questions seem irrelevant while you're watching.

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