Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's Travels (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/28/08

Well, I’ve broken through on another important director whose films I had up til now never seen.  Preston Sturges is a much loved and hailed writer/director of Hollywood comedies, and it’s crazy that I’ve just now finally seen one.

Sullivan’s Travels is an excellent film, at times somewhat of the class of the rapid-fire dialogue that the Screwball Comedy came known for, but at others a far more physical style of Slapstick, too.  And beyond that, it’s also a film of social criticism, in some ways dramatic and significant like a Frank Capra film.  So, it’s a lot of things in one.  And all of it good.

Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica (What a babe!) Lake, it’s solidly helmed on every front, with top-notch talent and game cast.  McCrea plays the titular Sullivan, a successful Hollywood director of broad comedies who yearns to make a serious film about the downtrodden.  When his studio and his valets suggest that he doesn’t really know what it means to be poor and down-and-out, he decides to hit the road, disguised as a hobo.

His first few efforts are stalled out, bringing him back to Hollywood without any genuine experience, though he does manage to stumble on the gorgeous Lake in a coffee shop, who offers to buy him breakfast, even though she is a failed actress, about to return back East.  They end up striking out together and they eventually get enough of the experience to satisfy Sullivan’s exploration and return to Hollywood.  But, when Sullivan goes out with $1000 in $5 bills, handing them out to the poor and homeless, in an anonymous attempt to repay his education, he’s knocked unconscious and stuck on a train down South, where he winds up arrested and jailed in a tough labor camp.

Well, there is a lot more to the story, but the laughable and ignorant attempt to understand the “real” social issues actually allows Sturges to demonstrate the plights of the poor himself, somewhat reflexively to his character Sullivan.  The whole film has much reflexivity in it, as it begins with an action sequence atop a speeding locomotive that ends with “The End”.  Is this the end of the movie?  No, it’s just a preview screening of Sullivan’s latest film in a screening room with the producers and studio executives.

There is much name-dropping and joking about stars and directors and studios in the rapid-fire dialogue that opens the film.  It makes you wonder if Sturges really went through such a conflict, since he himself was known for comedies, and utilized this narrative and title character to play out a fantasy (and reality) of his to make a film that had a serious social aspect, portraying the plight of the poor.  It also includes a very atypically positive portrayal of African Americans in a scene in a church, though earlier on there is a cook character who seems more typical of the Stepin Fetchit category.

All in all, an excellent movie that succeeds at its many aspects of verbal and physical comedy, as well as a heartfelt drama.

Additionally, the movie that Sullivan wants to make is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which was cheekishly usurped by the Coen brothers into one of their most entertaining films.  A nice touch.

Quadrophenia

Quadrophenia (1979) movie poster

(1979) dir. Franc Roddam
viewed: 11/27/08

I first saw Quadrophenia back in 1985, as it was already a cult film.  My friends at the time knew that it was popular with the “modern” Mods, which I had no idea what that was.  I had still yet to discover The Jam.  Also, given a brief appearance by Sting from the Police, I didn’t have a lot to get into.  I was not a fan of The Who and this movie was The Who up the yin-yang.  So, I didn’t remember it fondly.

As I was moving through my 1980’s film thing, especially the influence of the music scene, I rethought this and decided to queue it up.  Not only did I understand its context more, now I get it pretty well.  And I had the benefit of an English friend to help articulate the film’s historical accuracy.

So, the film is based on a 1973 album by The Who, which was another “rock opera” with a whole complex narrative to which specific songs elaborated the emotion of.  But the story is set in 1963 Britain, with the “original” Mods, a popular style and identity that grew in the youth culture at the time.  The English class identity is something quite more pronounced than in most of America and the significance of this youth movement was more a working class rebellion against everything out of boredom and angst.

The film follows Phil Daniels as Jimmy, the “quadropheniac” kid, coming of age amidst the music, the fights, the drugs and booze, the lost generation feeling.  The thing is, he’s not particularly attractive or likeable.  Nor is most anyone in the film, though their not necessarily reprehenisble, but it has an off-putting quality that helps give the film a sense of verity or realism.

So, these Mods headed down to Brighton, an aging Victorian seaside town, to rumble (though the English don’t rumble) with the leather-clad Rockers who I guess were the old dudes who hadn’t caught up with the change in culture or music.  And they brawled and rioted.  And this is a factual setting for this narrative.

The film is actually quite good overall, I would say, with some deft characterization, some well-crafted scenes, and a strong sense of time and place.  Still, The Who.  The combination of the culminating scene with the song “Love, Reign o’er Me” was a killer.  The breadth of emotion that is sought for, strived for, and deeply overdone makes me want to retch.

The other thing about this movie is it’s scooter porn.  I’m not a big scooter guy, but even I can see these crazy machines these guys ride are wacky and cool and totally tricked-out.  So, my feelings are mostly positive, but still hung up on The Who.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Alex Gibney
viewed: 11/26/08

From director Alex Gibney, whose film about the Bush administration’s approach to torture Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) was quite profound, comes this biography of Hunter S. Thompson, with an unwieldy title and a long duration.

The film is sort of “creative” for a documentary, using some reinactments and other stuff rather than just archive footage and talking heads.  For Thompson, whose style was one of tripped out surrealism critiquing the actuality of the world, perhaps this makes sense.  Gibney has Johnny Depp reading excerpts, too.

He actually has assembled quite a cast of characters to talk about Thompson.  Including those particularly close to him, we have Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchannan, George McGovern, and of course Ralph Steadman.  What’s particularly striking, Buchannan shows genuine appreciation for the whacked-out wag and scribe.  Buchannan actually seems like a nice guy.  Kinda scary, that.

Myself, I’ve only read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of his work, and I’ve seen the Terry Gilliam film version.  I have many friends who are big into Thompson, and I think I gained some more appreciation for the man from this film.  It’s good, not as wonderful as some reviews might lead to believe.  It is kinda long, though.

Gibney does match the work that Thompson did on the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War to the Bush administration and the Iraq War, suggesting that Thompson’s work, though diminished greatly in his later years and ultimate death, still has relevence for today, the type of erudite, manic critiques of America still have value.  It’s possible.

Factotum

Factotum (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Bent Hamer
viewed: 11/24/08

I’m currently reading Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, the first of any of his books that I’ve ever read.  I did read an excerpt of one of his books before, but mostly I am familiar with him from his reputation and the film Barfly (1987).  And actually, though I had had this film in my Netflix queue for a couple of years, I was trying to watch it as a double feature with the earlier film.

Factotum is adapted from a Bukowski novel, with some other elements in it.  It’s very much autobiographical as far as I can tell.  The film stars Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego.  Dillon was once one of the best-looking guys in Hollywood.  Arguably, he still is.  He’s only 40 years old or so when this film is made, and while he tries to slum it, he’s still pretty striking.

This is one of the film’s major flaws.  The film wants to “slum it” along with Bukowski, who was a “poet of the gutter”, a reprobate, sleazy sort, whose life is part of the legend that attracts people to him.  So, when he’s bedding Lili Taylor, who is a good actress, but has this totally highly excersised body, the modern style, she doesn’t physically “read” as of the slum as her character is.  I mean, does she drink and fuck and puke and then hit the gym for a couple hours?

Marisa Tomei also shows up, looking great, too, more fitting to her character.  She’s odd.  She’s not a bad actress and actually shows up in pretty decent films a lot of the time, and she’s quite beautiful.  Still, this is the film’s flaw.  Bukowski was an acne-scarred bum, whose beauty, if he had any, was in his soul.  As much as these characters try to eke out the comedy and the sublimeness of the material, it’s all very much a pretense.

The actors all seem to be game, so I’m guessing it’s the directorial deficiencies that drag the film down.  It’s not abysmal, but it’s not good.  It’s even kind of boring, and despite a few good one-liners and so forth, it’s just not up to snuff.

It seems that Barfly isn’t yet on DVD.  I’ve still got to finish the book I’m reading.  I haven’t passed my assessment of Bukowski as yet.  This film was not particularly helpful.

White Heat

White Heat (1949) movie poster

(1949) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 11/23/08

My third gangster/noir installment for the day was White Heat with the brilliant James Cagney in one of his most notable roles, featuring another of the great lines and finales, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” as Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett stands atop a huge oil tank just before it explodes.  Hot stuff, indeed.

It’s a funny thing about finally coming around to seeing these classic films that are so filled with lines and scenes and performances that are widely recognizable from American culture all over the place.  How many people who haven’t ever seen a James Cagney movie who would at least be familiar with the aforementioned clip?  It’s strange, a familiarity mixed within the new.  Because I had never seen this film.  Much of it was brand new to me.

It’s more of an action film in some ways, more modern, in a sense, in its pacing and narrative, especially with the final caper, the police chase, and the shootout.  The complex portrayal of Cody and his mother is again so iconic, yet totally great.  There’s a lot of good stuff throughout but this takes the cake.

Again, I don’t think I’m as familiar with Cagney’s work as most people my age and older would be.  I don’t know that I’ve seen any of his major films.  Well, that will change.  I’ve got to see The Public Enemy (1931) now.  And there are quite a few others out there…I’ll have to see them too.

Little Caesar

Little Caesar (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 11/23/08

My whimsy for the day of watching a few films didn’t take off well.  Several of the primary films that I sought at the video store were not there, things that would have made a good pairing.  So, in the end, I grabbed a handful of noir and/or gangster films, all ones that I wanted to see, but sort of at random.

First, I watched The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which was one that I’d wanted to see the most.  But I also grabbed Little Caesar, which I’d had in my Netflix queue, but hadn’t had the biggest urge to see.  As you’ll soon see here, I also grabbed White Heat (1949) with James Cagney.  As it turns out, if I could have planned better, Little Caesar would have been best paired with another James Cagney film, The Public Enemy, which would have then paired up well with White Heat.  Well, that would have been the most apt triple feature of the set.

Little Caesar is excellent.  Released in 1931, part of the rich but brief era between the onset of “sound” film and the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, the Pre-Code Era (also see: Scarface (1932)), as it is now known, was full of racy stories, more sex, more violence, more character than once the Puritains stepped in and “cleaned up” Hollywood.

It stars Edward G. Robinson, and perhaps it is my own lack of familiarity with the actor that kept me from being interested in it.  I’d recently seen him in Key Largo (1946) but had mostly known of him from caricatures in old Warner Brothers cartoons.  He’s archetypical, maybe partially from his classic voice, so wont to be immitated, but also perhaps I think so because that’s how I grew up knowing him: as a cartoon.  He’s brilliant in the film.  A true star-turn.  This movie made him.

Adapted from a book by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the book as a thinly veiled story about Al Capone, so it is said, the story follows a small time, small town hood and his buddy who move up to Chicago and eventually climbs to the top of the heap, only to sink back into the gutter when his greed and ego get him and his gang shot down.

The film is considered a critique not merely of American gangsters, but of the American Dream itself, a rise to the top, through hard work and hard-nosedness, skewed through the lens of perversity of that of a psychopathic egotist and murderer.  The film, with The Public Enemy, kicked off the gangster film genre as we know it today, and sparked more interest and idealization of the gangster/mobster hero/anti-hero.  The perversity and pleasure in siding with the psychopath.  Which is the more tangible type of criticism of the film at the time that got those behind the Hays Code into action.

With its great final line: “Mother of Mercy!…Is this the end of Rico?”, the whole thing is top notch and Robinson is flat-out awesome.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) movie poster

(1946) dir. Tay Garnett
viewed: 11/23/08

John Garfield and Lana Turner.  It’s a post-WWII noir that should have been a pre-code film, but it glistens with intensity and is about as slick as it gets.

James Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, has been a favorite of mine of the hardboild period/style/genre and I have long desired to see the original film impression of the story.  It does not disappoint…other than taking longer to develop its narrative than I remember.  Cain’s novel is tight.  About as tight as I recall in a novel.  The film is less tight, but still wonderfully produced, dark, and poetic.

The cast is brilliant with Garfield and Turner leading with Cecil Kellaway, Leon Ames, and Hume Cronyn in exceptional part-roles.

The story is more of its time, the 1930’s Depression Era America than it is the post-War America, yet the human aspect of the drama is fully intact.  A top notch film, really and truly.

With a few days off, I decided to rent some “classics” that I’d never seen, but had long wanted to.  Very much so, The Postman Always Rings Twice is pure, solid cinema.  Highly recommeded.

My Best Fiend

My Best Fiend (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Werner Herzog
viewed: 11/22/08

Werner Herzog is an interesting director.  He’s attracted to interesting material anyways.  How “good” a filmmaker he is, I am willing suggest, is debateable.  But his material often elevates his films beyond their structural and editorial flaws.

His best film that I’ve seen in recent years is Grizzly Man (2005), a documentary whose biggest flaws were Herzog’s self-insertion, narration, and his own take on the material.  Still, the material was fascinating.

In My Best Fiend, that issue is besides the point.  The film is a documentary of his own relationship with his acting muse Klaus Kinski, with whom he made six feature films, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982).  I saw Aguirre: The Wrath of God when I was in high school and at some point, I think I saw his version of Nosferatu, which Kinski probably needed only the bare minimum of make-up for, such a freakish face he had.

This film starts off with Kinski ranting on a microphone at an audience, some schtick that easily demonstrates his meglomania and mad, aggro approach to life.  When Herzog was working with Kinski in Peru for the Aguirre shoot, the conditions were pretty intense: swollen rivers, confused native extras, and an ambitious concept about a doomed search for gold and the fountain of youth.  The setting is there for drama.  And drama there was.  But only one snippet was actually caught on camera.  The rest is reminisced about by Herzog.

Herzog is a sincere and deep thinker.  He sees the humanity and humor in things, but he doesn’t really evoke them in his films the way that one would hope for.  One of the highlight lines of the film is when he admits that the native tribesmen who were working as extras offered to kill Kinski for him.  It’s a simple story amidst the run of the whole, but it’s the best laugh in the whole thing.

The guy was a weirdo, Kinski.  His talents are potentially debateable.  I haven’t seen much of his work in recent years, but he seems like a head-case.  Maybe we just needed to see him ranting more, raving more.  Herzog’s relationship with Kinski was interesting, but Herzog barely uncovers enough to make it so.

Bolt

Bolt (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Byron Howard, Chris Williams
viewed: 11/22/08 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

The latest Disney animated film hit screens yesterday, Bolt.  Featuring voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, it might make a lot of money and be slick and polished in its animation, but how many cynics would go see it?  How many cynics have 4 and 7 year old children whom he loves taking out to the movies any excuse that arises?  Am I even a qualified cynic?

I have to say, the trailers looked at least promising for this film, more well-produced and energetic than a lot of the animated fare that is out and about.  But I wasn’t all that optimistic.  You can’t be if you’re a cynic.

Felix loves seeing films at the Metreon downtown, but doesn’t like going to the San Francisco Centre’s cinema for some reason.  Since this one was playing at the outlying local cinema the Balboa Theater, I took the opportunity to take them somewhere different for a change.

The bottom line from this film.  It’s got a complicated scenario if you’re a little one.  A dog, who has been raised since a puppy to “believe” that he is the super-dog that he plays on TV, with a myriad of powers, constantly battling evil with his “human” Penny at his side…uh, is suddenly released by accident into the real world, believing that Penny has been abducted by the “green-eyed man” and winds up in New York, the real New York, and has to find his way back to LA and “reality” with the sidekicks alley cat and hamster in a mobile ball.

A strange fact of many of these major films is that the side characters are more interesting than their no doubt, test screened and approved heroes are.  The true “star” of this film is Rhino the hamster, who gets the best gags and lines (even though the trailer made him look sort of re-tread himself).  The film has a large action bent, from the opening sequence that is part of the television narrative, to the big escapes and finales that wind up defining the film’s center.

There is a lot of emotionality and “heart-warming”-ness, too.  But a film like this is merited on its pure enjoyability.  Felix and Clara both really liked it.  Felix loved the hamster.  Clara, not sure how much of the story she absorbed, liked the dog.  I liked it pretty well.  I liked the hamster.

My biggest problem, like I said, was the fact that the story was quite complicated for a kid, though that was their primary audience.  It’s hard enough for a kid to distinguish between the real and the fantasy than to have them try to understand a character’s motivation which is inspired by making the discovery that one’s whole life has been a fantasy, a charade.  Not that subversive thinking or concepts are bad, if they’re understandable.

Bolt is fully comprhensible to an adult, probably to the 10 and up crowd, perhaps a couple years younger.  But he’s an animated dog who is marketed to the little ones.  Can’t they at least come up with a scenario that is readable?

And yet, a good time was had by all.

Hell’s Ground

Hell's Ground (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Omar Khan
viewed: 11/21/08

When I read the phrase “Pakistani zombie movie” in a local paper, I was intrigued, excited.  I guess that tells you something about me.  There is World Cinema and then there is world cinema.  And I like them both.  And most everything in between.

Hell’s Ground is an anomoly.  Considered to be Pakistan’s “first gore film”, it is a low budget affair, shot with local folks, but very much in the vein of American or Western gore and horror films, very much with them in mind, a truly unique thing in Pakistani culture.  The film was produced and directed by Omar Khan, who had bankrolled the affair via a chain of Pakistani ice cream stores, or so it is said.

To be true, it’s not a total zombie movie.  There are zombies, even midget zombies, but the major plot point centers around a truly Pakistani version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), perhaps the “Pakistani Mace Massacre”?  As the major masked villain wears a woman’s burka and swings a medieval mace around as his weapon of choice.

The film is low budget, as I said, derivative for sure, but true to its homage, it offers up blood and gore with the standard approach of young good-looking people in a place they shouldn’t have ventured into.  And there is even the “virginal” heroine (though there is a pronounced lack of sex anyways) and the stereotypes that represent contemporary Pakistani culture.  It truly is an artifact of its origin, and it’s merits are steeped deeply in its localization.

The cast is not bad, certainly attractive and mostly engaging.  The homage work gets a tad heavy-handed, but is notable for a nod to a Pakistani Dracula film from the early 1960’s, which is apparently also highly anomolous.  If the film was made in bumfuck USA, it would likely be a lot less interesting.  The fisheye lens, the low budget mist, the obviousness of a lot of it are certainly tired.  But for what it is, it is kind of interesting.

I would be interested to know what a regular young person in Pakistan thought of the film, or even thought of the existence of the film.  It was allowed past censors who have stimied much of what might have been “indie” cinema anywhere else.  And where Khan adheres to the religious mores in a sense, of the culture, the perspective is Islamic, though certainly on the more “modern” side…it works.  Because the religious undertones of the American splatter films are steeped in our own cultural critiques of sexuality and violence, which are not much different.

There is some ecological critique, which lends itself to the zombie manifestation, perhaps the most political angle the film takes, though that is not very acute.

Still, the film is something unusual.  Something different.  Perhaps only by degrees, but by enough of degrees to give it character and an honesty of its vision.  It’s the stuff of blood-and-guts, the “video nasties”, but it’s nice to see it deeply embedded in a world a significant distance from our own.