The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 07/26/2015

I’m kicking off a new round of watching those “great movies” that I’ve never seen.  I started this last year and saw several before getting somewhat sidetracked on other trends, including “The Worst Movies Ever Made”.  My latest push is inspired by a new list produced by the BBC of the 100 Best American Films of all time.  While this list has many of the usual suspects and also some questionable entries, it does afford me some clarity on the movies on this list that I’ve never seen.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is an odd one for me to have never seen.  I do love me some Billy Wilder (as does the BBC list — he’s on there five times for #100 Ace in the Hole (1951), #54 Sunset Boulevard (1950), #35 Double Indemnity (1944), #30 Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as this one which was his highest on the list at #24.)  I also love me some Jack Lemmon.  And this is one of those movies that seems to play nearly endlessly on TCM.  So, how I never saw it?  I dunno.

Lemmon is a cog in a big insurance firm in New York, loaning out his convenient bachelor pad to some managers to take their many trysts.  When he finally gets a promotion for his efforts, he’s spotted by the big boss, played by Fred MacMurray, who starts to ask for the same favors.  Only it turns out that his girl on the side is Fran Kubelik (the very lovely Shirley MacLaine), an elevator gal in the building for whom Lemmon has developed feelings.

While there are elements of comedy about the film, it’s no Some Like It Hot or The Seven Year Itch (1955).  Fran tries to kill herself in Lemmon’s apartment, and while he tries to get her taken care of, he’s also trying to keep everything together.

Between The Apartment and Double Indemnity, you can forget all about the fatherly My Three Sons Fred MacMurray and rather see him as one of Hollywood’s best ruthless villains.

I enjoyed the film.  Wilder’s popularity is well-earned.  I think if I had caught it at a younger age, I might have really connected with it.  I certainly would have fallen for MacLaine.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 07/26/2015

In the annals of Hollywood, there are many great films and many lost or corrupted films and the notoriety of studio tinkering versus the visionary director is legend.  That is without a doubt true of the patron saint of filmmakers, Orson Welles, and his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, of which he allegedly said:  “(the studio, RKO) destroyed ‘Ambersons,’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.”

And yet, this highly compromised version of the film, of which Welles spoke so negatively in its diminished state, still ranks highly in esteem.  It recently placed at 11 on the BBC’s list of “Greatest American Films”, and can be found on many other similar types of lists.

Adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel about the rise of the automobile and the downfall of a well-heeled American family, it stars Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter and Tim Holt.  The film is both sentimental about the time before a town or city’s streets were overrun by the horseless carriages and less sentimental about the downfall of a pompous family and its scion who lacked the vision and conscience regarding love and re-marriage.

For my money, it’s an interesting film with some fantastic shots and some glimmering depths, but winds up as a melodrama with limited effect.  It’s the long-yearned for image of Welles’ original vision, well-documented but long-lost that tempts fans and historians.  We, the film-going world of ever-after, were certainly robbed by the tinkering and the lack of foresight that allowed the studio to destroy the extra footage.  Welles is indeed the cinema’s patron saint, and sadly, he represents more “what might have been” than what still exists.

The Shining (1980)


The Shining (1980) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/25/2015

I’d last watched The Shining over a decade ago.  This viewing of the horror classic was spurred by my son’s interest in Stanley Kubrick, which began a short while back when I took him to see A Clockwork Orange (1971).  He’d since gone and watched Full Metal Jacket (1986) on his own (a film I’ve been meaning to re-watch for a while).

The Shining is a brilliant movie, no matter what Stephen King thinks.  In a lot of ways, it seems to do what movies fail to do these days: diverge successfully from the source material and create something entirely their own as well.  I’ve never read the King novel, but I’ve read a brief analysis of the film’s divergence from the original material.  I guess my response is: “Who cares?”

Brilliant as it is, it still has some quirks and flaws.  But it’s a mesmerizing, amazingly-photographed masterpiece.  The last time I wrote about it, I mentioned the oft-cited and radically innovative steadicam work, the amazing axe-swinging shots that follow the movement of the blows, and the amazing set that is the Overlook Hotel.  In the 12 years since I last wrote about it, the internet has made information more readily available.  It’s quite amazing to realize that most of the film is shot on a sound stage in London.  The amazing interiors are all sets.  While the original hotel that was used for the exteriors was shot in Estes Park, CO and is often referred to, the larger reality of the stunning locations are pure artifice.  Pure and amazing artifice.

I watched The Shining with both of my kids.  We’ve certainly been watching some material that might be considered dubious for a tween and a young teen, but when I asked my daughter what she thought about it, she was quite impressed by the film but said that it wasn’t the kind of thing that scared her or gave her nightmares.

Unlike, perhaps, a generation ago.

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

The Lazarus Effect (2015) movie poster

director David Gelb
viewed: 07/25/2015

Half-baked might be a generous way to describe this uninspired horror/thriller about university scientists attempting to revive dead animals.

I doubt we would have seen it, considering its rather poor showing critically, but Clara had been intrigued by the trailers and her interest persisted on its way to DVD.  Jump scares abound.

Minions (2015)

Minions (2015) movie poster

directors Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
viewed: 07/25/2015 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It worked for the Madagascar films.  The comic relief characters, the silly ones not voiced by anyone famous and typically stole the show eventually got their own film, Penguins of Madagascar (2014) and, you know, it was pretty good.  Now, freed from their Despicable Me franchise, the Minions get their own film.

The yellow, pill-shaped, gibberish-spouting minions are funny overall.  And they are popular.  Downright viral.  But their movie is pretty lackluster.

The filmmakers trade in big name celebrity voice acting of Steve Carrell’s Gru for Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm as Scarlett Overkill and her husband Herb, respectively.  And the story of the minions, from time immemorial surviving through the evolutionary process on Earth seeking an ultimate villainous leader winds up being a rather long and tedious, rather unfunny series of events.  It might elicit smiles but not laughs.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) movie poster

director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 07/24/2015

Back in January, Jason Ward of The Guardian wrote this intriguing essay/review about Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, asking the question “Is Kingsman the most conservative comedy this century?”  Not long after that, a friend of mine was posting similar questions on social media after he’d attended the movie with his son.  And the thought was planted for me, wondering about this movie.

I’ve watched all the Matthew Vaughn movies I’m aware of: Layer Cake (2004), Stardust (2007), Kick-Ass (2010), and X-Men: First Class (2011) and I’ve liked them all to varying degrees.  I don’t know that I’ve really analyzed the social underpinnings of any of them too deeply, with the vague exception of Kick-Ass whose thin line between cool and deplorable was crossed in the non-Matthew Vaughn sequel, Kick-Ass 2 (2013).

In film school, it’s all about analyzing movies for their underlying ideologies, so much information about patriarchy and capitalism that you tend to suck down with the narrative, hidden like a pill in sugar-coating, swallowing the whole.  But at the same time, movies do invite the brain to turn off (which I suppose is exactly the point), but it is an interesting conceit to have a film that hosts such a blatantly conservative dictum.

Kingsman is an adaptation from a comic book by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, so how much of it is baked in at the start?  I can’t say.  It is a spoof or reinvention of sorts of the spy genre, featuring a secret society of nattily-clad gentlemen heroes who keep the world safe from villainy.

One thing that Ward doesn’t really address in his article is the fact that it is a private organization.  It is thus unlike James Bond, who is essentially a government employee, or at least is on “her majesty’s secret service”.  This is privatized superhero spying.  Which says a lot too.

That the villain is a “lisping, squeamish” climate change advocate does seem significant.  Samuel L. Jackson plays this role with maybe a little too much comic flare.  The whole movie is a comedy, not utterly arch, but still comic, while indeed also being remarkably cartoon violent.  Heads do seem to explode (though it’s more the arteries of the neck) turned into a firework display perhaps to limit the amount of digitized blood that would be spurting forth from the heads of so many.  Including a pretty clear representation of Barack Obama.  Who sides with the baddies and whose heads also blows up.

The film is both entertaining and problematic.  Though maybe more the latter than the former.  The massacre in the racist church, acted out by the would-be hero of the movie, played by Colin Firth, while under a mental derangement of hyper aggression and violence is one of the film’s balletic set-piece, synchronized to a booming soundtrack, gruesome and extreme, but troubling.  Is it meant to be troubling?  Hyper-violence ruled the day in Kick-Ass, the kind of brutal justice meted out by vigilantes in comics and movies that is essentially a release of vengeance and justified blood-letting.  In Kingsman, this scene in particular, is strange.

We like Firth.  We know he’s being manipulated into this shocking set-piece of carnage.  Are we meant to be disturbed as well as somewhat gleeful in the gracefully choreographed kill-a-thon?

Overall as a film, I found Kingsman okay.  Good. Not great.  Not something I would recommend.  But I’m also kind of fascinated with its politics and its weird layered variance of its political messaging.  Someone, I don’t doubt, will pore this over and come up with a more well-constructed analysis, perhaps, than even Ward offered.

In the meantime, I’ll move on.  And apparently so will Kingsman. I understand a sequel is in the offing.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 07/22/2015

Pretty funny “mockumentary” style comedy about vampires living in New Zealand.  In part, from Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. Four vampire housemates ranging in age from 8,000 to 183 try to make a go of it as flatmates in Wellington.

Sweet and silly, I think it would be a great pairing with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) for your vampires in the modern world double feature.

I’m not writing much here but I did think this was a pretty funny movie.

Lost Soul (2014)

Lost Soul (2014) movie poster

director David Gregory
viewed: 07/22/2015

Lost Soul, or in its longer more descriptive title, Lost Soul: The Doomed Story of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, is a new entry into an interesting and growing subgenre of documentary, a film about a lost film, one that never saw the light of day.  The first that I recall of these would probably be Lost in La Mancha (2002) about Terry Gilliam’s failed Don Quixote film.  More recently, there is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009) and the more widely seen and celebrated Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014).

I doubt many would argue that the name Richard Stanley doesn’t ring as many bells as might Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Jodorowsky, or Henri-Georges Clouzot, but that is part (and parcel) of what Lost Soul delves into.  Stanley never got to make the Island of Dr. Moreau that he had in mind, but the film did get made as the 1996 debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, which was filmed and completed by the notable John Frankenheimer.

Stanely, an up and coming director with a couple of cool indie British science fiction films to his name (the very interesting Hardware (1990) and the 1992 Dust Devil, was so devastated by the experience with Hollywood on this Moreau that he quit filmmaking almost entirely.  And what Lost Soul depicts is the wild and woolly ambitious craziness that his Moreau could have been and hints at a career that also could have been, one in which his name might not be so obscure compared to Jodorowsky and Gilliam.

And while that story is interesting, Lost Soul actually gets its most hilarious and bizarre as the film is taken from Stanley, handed to Frankenheimer and totally sabotaged by Kilmer’s ego and Brando’s comedy.  Frankly, it’s hysterical.  I can’t believe now that I’ve never watched it.  I’m certainly going to have to now.

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Flight of the Navigator (1986) movie poster

director Randal Kleiser
viewed: 07/20/2015

Distributed by Disney, the 1986 kids alien abduction fun ride, Flight of the Navigator, is one of those films of its time that charmed many of those it was aimed at and has respectively landed on those lists of affection, childhood favorites, like The Goonies (1985) et al.

Like The GooniesFlight of the Navigator landed in my life at that transitional space between childhood and true teenhood when some things just seemed too kid-oriented to me to see or enjoy.  In the case of The Goonies, I saw the film at the time and kinda hated it.  Flight of the Navigator on the other hand, completely passed me by.

But a friend recently recommended it for my kids, who at this point are also potentially evolving out of the age of the target audience, even the film’s retro target audience.

The film is set initially in 1978, referenced interestingly in a couple spots by pop culture moments, including a reference to Grease (1978) which director Randal Kleiser also helmed (He’s actually had an odd, occasionally notable career).  A 12 year old boy gets lost in the woods and abducted by a drone spaceship, which is zipping around the universe collecting living specimens and occasionally returning them.  Only, due to travel at light speed, 12 years disappear for the boy who has only lost a handful of hours in his own life.  His family has had him declared dead, his younger brother is now a teenager, older than him, and the world has changed dramatically (“What is this MTV thing?”)

The spacecraft is voiced by the ultimate Pee-Wee Herman imitator, Paul Reubens himself.  There are some cutesy creatures on board.  There is a quite young Sarah Jessica Parker as an intern at a NASA base with highly dodgy security.  Maybe that’s because Herman Hesseman is the top scientist on board.  The film features some early computer animation digital effects, too.  It’s truly, truly an artifact of its time.  Very 1986.

For my adult self, dealing with the film for the first time, I found it moderately charming.  Child star Jerry Freeman does a pretty good job in a role that is almost absurd by the amount of psychological trauma that he’s supposed to deal with in this light-hearted fare.  I queried the kids and they found it okay, entertained, if not overly impressed.

Some things are transcendent.  Some things are a little more best appreciated for their representation of their place in time.

Mauvais Sang (1986)

Mauvais Sang (1986) movie poster

director Leos Carax
viewed: 07/19/2015

I don’t know why French director Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang isn’t as well known as, say Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire.  Both are gems of mid-1980’s European hipster art house cinema.  Cooler than cool.

In my life, at least, Wenders and Wings of Desire were very dominant. Maybe it was the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds element.  Maybe because Wenders was already more established.  Who knows?

I hadn’t seen a Leos Carax film before watching Holy Motors (2012) a couple years ago.  And while I liked it,  I don’t know that other titles of his films jumped out at me.  I believe I’ve had his 1999 film Pola X in my queue for some time, maybe in part because Netflix hasn’t had it available for a long while.  But after looking over his short but significant filmography, I don’t know why he is not better known.

Mauvais Sang is set in the semi-future, though it’s not in any way real science fiction.  There is a disease, STBO, that is ravishing humanity with painful, leprosy-like symptoms and death.  The disease is transmitted sexually, between those who have sex yet are not in love.

The film is a bit more like a French noir of sorts, revolving around the attempted theft of a drug that would cure STBO and some career criminals, a mysterious American, and a beautiful woman.  Like most of Carax’s films, it stars Denis Lavant, here very very young.  His look is like a teenage David Johansen, and he has a charisma utterly unique.  There is also a teenage July Delpy.  And a very young and very beautiful Juliette Binoche, the mysterious moll of the aging thief Marc (Michel Piccoli).

It’s a stylish, cool affair.  It reminded me at times of contemporary Wenders or David Lynch, though it is very much its own thing.

A very appealing film.  Should be better known than it is.