All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) movie poster

(1930) dir. Lewis Milestone
viewed: 12/03/02

Most of the films that I have been seeing lately are very recent. In fact, the oldest film that I had seen this year only dated back to the 1960’s up til this point. I was interested in seeing Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front as I had just finished reading the book from which it was adapted.

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is absolutely stunning. I would easily rank it among the best novels that I have read. Shockingly visceral, the book is written (in translation from the German, mind you) in simple, clear, immediate language that effects poetry at times. Both the novel and the film are often described as “anti-war,” which they certainly are, as they depict “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

I had not long before read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and had been taking an interest in reading more about the first World War. I had remembered the gruesome descriptions from history class, and the significance of the horrors of the war on the world of the time. Now, having entered our new century, the second World War seems to have totally eclipsed WWI in the general consciousness (this is purely an opinion on my part — don’t ask me to prove it). Anyways, the period and history had interested me, and the novel of All Quiet on the Western Front I had known to be a “classic,” so I was interested in it.

So, after reading the book, I was curious to see the film, which was released in 1930, right as film was changing its productions from silent to sound. The film has also received great praise; it was the first sound film to win the Acadamy Award for Best Picture (while such an accolade these days seems to stand for nothing, it isn’t necessarily historically a problem).

The film is very good, but comes nowhere near the novel. The novel is more purely tragic and weighted with a heavy sadness throughout. The novel is also incredibly graphic and detailed, yet very personal and, as I mentioned before, even poetic at times. The film has many strong moments. Some of the strongest are dolly shots that pan across the approaching line of the French troops as they are gunned down or blown to bits one by one. They charge the screen and die in a continuous scrolling movement.

The film does a good job at telling the story, though it simplifies the narrative by making it chronilogical. It makes sense for the film to be this way, but it loses the less linear storytelling that gives the novel some of its qualities.

Also, I believe from what little that I have read, that the film originally began shooting as a silent film, and somewhere in the midst of production, they decided to add sound. There are many shots that linger on images longer than typically happens in sound film. Reactions are acted or mimed, with the image held for a more sustained “look” than we are used to seeing. While part of this has an antiquated quality to it, it also has an interesting effect. Silent film was a purely visual medium, and as such, relied entirely on images to tell the story. There is still a power in this.

Well, this is all I will say on this for the time being. Read the book. It is amazing.

Louis Wolheim was excellent as Katczinsky, easily the best performance in the film.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 12/23/02

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t watched a single film on VHS all year until I borrowed this video from my nephew. The moment that the movie started, I remembered why I have switched over to DVD so permanently. This video was an old one, so it suffered from quality and degradation issues, but significantly, its pan-and-scan format cheapened the look of it considerably, which I think hurts the film quite a lot. So much of this film was trimmed down (as the pan and scan principles do trim), it looked more like an old Johnny Quest episode than as if it had ever been a theatrically released film.

Also rather startlingly, I realized that I had last seen this film twenty-four years ago (Good God!), at the age of nine, upon its initial theatrical run. Certain aspects of this film had struck me at that time and had stayed with me over the years. As through my university days, I began to take a more coherent interest in the films of Ralph Bakshi, I had been tempted to see it again, but had never gotten around to it. It was only after reminiscing about it with my sister, right after having just seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theater, that she told me that they had a copy of this film on video at home.

Bakshi had made this film, which comprises the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, as the first of a planned two-film series, the latter of which was never made. At a 132 minute running-time (and actually, the video copy that I had may have been even more truncated than that), compared with Jackson’s two film interpretation of the same material that adds up to something like 360 minutes or something, the film manages to hit most of the major plot points with reasonable success. Still, it’s quite a bit more like a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

The most interesting aspects of the film are some of the differing techniques that Bakshi employs to tell the story, some of which are quite effective in some ways. Bakshi relies heavily on rotoscoping for motion and design of all of the taller characters. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it was initially developed in the Fleischer studio (home of Betty Boop, etc.). Rotoscoping traces the live action film movements of actors, animating by virtual “tracing,” but enhancing to whatever extent (a modern rotoscoping method was used for Richard Linklater’s Waking Life film).

Bakshi employs different levels of animation on top of essentially rotoscoped images for different effects. It would be good to get a sense of the actual techniques used to create these effects, but I will have to guess at them. It seems that some characters are more traditionally rotoscoped, gaining their movements from the original film footage, but being more traditionally cel animated over the top of that. At other points, some of the rotoscoping seems to show more of the footage through the “animation,” possibly to the degree of almost simply tinting the film which seems like it was shot in high contrast. The orcs and the night wraiths are extremely creepy in their rendering this way. I had remembered finding them scary as a child, and the mental image of them had stuck with me over time.

There seem to be many degrees to which Bakshi utilizes the rotoscoping technique, though it was hard for me to pick out any real rhyme or reason to it. At one scene in a tavern, the actual people’s faces show through the animation/tinting quite strikingly. The opening sequence actually seems as though it is merely shot in silhouette, not animated at all. It seems that the high contrast footage may also have been shot to create the look of old silent film footage, moving a little more jerkily and with a reduced details.

These character renderings play out against a variety of backgrounds. In much of the film, the backgrounds are fully-rendered naturalistic fantasy landscapes. But at times of high drama and also significantly when the perspective changes when Frodo puts on the ring, the backgrounds become downright abstract. Sometimes it seemed like these abstractions were derived from photographic images, but others it seemed purely non-representational.

I have to say that the effect of some of these techniques is still quite spooky. Rotoscoping retains an “echo” of sorts from the naturalistic movement recorded by the traditional filming process, but the process of animating over it mutates it. This ghost-like effect seems apparent in all rotoscoped animation to some degree. By intensifying the contrasts in many of the applications of rotoscoping that Bakshi employs and by using the images to create a dissonant sensation (these are the scary, evil creatures often), the images are disorienting and unnerving. I would easily place this as the film’s greatest strength.

The overall execution of the film suffers from other weaknesses. The “acting” in it isn’t atrocious, but the film’s overall effect is not strong. I do think that it suffered considerably from being a poor and old video copy that also may have been trimmed from its initial theatrical release. And though some of the varying rotoscoping is strong and interesting, some of the traditional cel animation looks cheaper and more poorly executed. And at some points, I wondered whether some of the variances in technique were tied to production’s financial limitations, which I know plagued the film. Were all the decisions purely aesthetic, or were they monetary?

As a student of animation, or an aficionado, or what have you, the film certainly has merit.

Live Nude Girls Unite!

Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Vicky Funari, Julia Query
viewed: 11/26/02

This documentary about the unionization of the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco interested me from the local angle. It’s a story that I had followed in the local media, and though I have never been inside the place (I have never been in a strip club ever, actually), I have heard a lot about it over the years. Actually, I had always heard that the Lusty Lady was supposed to be “lesbian-run” (which I think was meant to read potentially as “politically correct, of course”) and a place where a lot of girls would get their first strip jobs. It made it sound like a fairly decently-run establishment, and maybe compared to other strip clubs, it is. I was surprised about the working conditions that the film documented. It wasn’t like some Third World sweatshop, but it was hardly a strife-free workplace.

Another thing that I didn’t know about the film was the “personal”, “confessional” aspect of the film. Julia Query, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, is also a stripper at the club and resultantly film’s primary subject. She is a natural focal point being one of the main organizers of the union and one who has a mother who is a well-known nurse who works with other sex workers (prostitutes, in her mother’s case). Query is almost too close to the action (no pun intended) to have good editorial judgment about directing the film, perhaps.

Some moments that arise from the “personalization” of this story are interesting, such as when Query “comes out” to her mother about being a stripper (she is already out to her mother regarding her sexual orientation). There is an ironically exploitative side to this, which Query acknowledges on camera before filming her “coming out” to her mother and the resultant drama. Query is also a stand-up comedian, and she intercuts segments of her stand-up act about her work and story to comment on certain plot twists and developments. Maybe it is not inherently the personalization and autobiography of this that is the film’s weakness, but just in the execution.

Unfortunately, Query herself is not interesting enough to carry the film, though narcissistic enough to try. However, the film’s overall subject is pretty interesting. Perhaps someone with a keener mind for film-making could have eked more out of this material.

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket (1996) movie poster

(1996) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/23/02

I never caught Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket when it first came out. It was originally released in 1996 in the midst of a spate of American “independent” films, of which, for me, it was lost among the others. I meant for some time to finally see it, particularly after enjoying Rushmore (1998). So, I finally got to it.

Like many of those other 1990’s “indie” flicks, this one is a small, character-driven comedy filmed on location in the areas from which their directors hailed. In some ways, its smallness and style don’t distinguish it so much from many other films of that time. But it has a charm and character that are recognizable of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s singiature type characters and world.

I don’t have much else to say about this film, but it was enjoyable.

In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Todd Field
viewed: 11/19/02

In the Bedroom was a much more interesting film than I had imagined it would be.

Films that tend to get Oscar nominations for acting roles, though they of course feature “juicy” characters for actors to emote their way through, they often offer much less in the way of film-making or anything overly cinematic. This is a gross generalization, of course, and worse yet, most of my examples that I would suggest are films that I haven’t actually seen (I am Sam (2001), Monster’s Ball (2001), Training Day (2001), e.g.), but have only read about (so I truly am weakening my position on this).

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (even weak, potentially indefensible ones like this). I only bring this up because I thought that In the Bedroom might have fallen into this catergory for me, the type of film that lots of people go to see for the performances, but are actually really unsatisfying as films.

My supposition about this film, in this case, was wrong.

Beyond being an interesting mixture of genres (the “family melodrama” meets the “thriller”), Todd Field’s In the Bedroom offers interesting metaphors regarding space and the family unit. The first allusion to this occurs early in the film on a lobster boat, when Tom Wilkinson’s character talks about what happens when two male lobsters get caught in the same trap, showing the one that has lost a foreclaw. I wish I could quote the dialogue exactly, but it’s been a couple weeks already…this is the piece of dialogue in the film from which the title arises.

Later in the film, Nick Stahl’s character, a student of architecture, shows a little model that he has created in the style of an architect that he admires. He describes the way that the architect uses space to connect and separate people in his model house. Field goes on to shoot the film with a keen eye turned to the “real” space his characters inhabit, challenging their earlier words through the actions and events that occur in the homes. I can’t analyze it further without a second viewing, but it’s an interesting motif that plays throughout the film and seems to be a key point of criticism.

I won’t go on about this, but I think that this was an excellent film, surprising, dark, and strong.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Columbus
viewed: 11/27/02 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

The Harry Potter phenomenon. Like many such phenomena, 99% of it is media-made hype. That is hardly breaking news, but it’s still worth pointing out when approaching a film like this.

In a slightly less cynical time, not all that long ago, I still enjoyed these big Hollywood productions for what they were and came to think that the hype and commercialism could easily be viewed as all part of the film. The media frenzy is a wholly intentional and heavily “worked at” goal of the studios and the monies behind these products. With tie-in’s at fast food chains, toys in every format that one could imagine, and video games to boot, the film experience of a big Hollywood prefab “blockbuster” is inclusive of the barrage and inescapability of the film all around us,…whether we see it or not.

When I say it was a less cynical attitude, I mean that I kind of enjoyed the onslaught, the gluttony, the gimmicks and toys. I found it fascinating and amusing. Now, I just see lots of landfill.

This extraneous noise of the hype of a film, its ubiquitous advertising and its shared cultural excitement (which most of the children — and some adults I know — share in), is absolutely a significant part of the viewing of a movie like this. I think it often plays heavily into the frequent disappointment that films such as this evoke. I mean, how could they in fact live up to so much hype?

I also often wonder about the way that these films will play in years to come. They are such products of their time, often rooted heavily in the special effects of their time, and they tend to reflect the most polished and “cutting edge” technologies and ideas of a period. They become dated and passe very quickly. And years later, when the hype has petered out, they will be seen with totally different eyes and in utterly different contexts.

Again, this is always true of pretty much any film or cultural product. And I am sure, I am not saying anything new here. But this is all part of the “baggage” with which I approached this film.

I have read the first two Harry Potter books (keeping up with the kids on the street and all) and while I don’t think that they are ground-breaking classics of children’s literature, I did enjoy them and I do think that they mostly represent a better cultural phenomenon than, say…Pokemon.

So, anyway, about this film. I thought it was better than the first film, which did an amazing job at rendering the world of the books visually and a reasonable job at casting. I thought the first film’s visual design was excellent, but its rushed narrative tried to pack in the entirety of the story. It ended up being less engaging than I would have liked. This film had the same visual design (less significant in its familiarity, but still very nice) and seemed to be better overall. Of course, I found the second book to have a better sense of narrative development, too, so maybe that had something to do with it, too.

There are a lot worse cultural products and a lot worse films than this one. The film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is not bad, but one ought to be suspicious of all things that come with too much excess effluvia and hype. I am.

Eight Legged Freaks

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Ellory Elkayem
viewed: 11/06/02

Semi-fun homage to the giant insect/arachnid subgenre of horror films. What it lacks in invention it makes up for (as much as it can) in its embrace of silliness and action. The film moves along at a fair clip, telling the story deftly and succinctly (of course in a myriad of cliches), never sitting still long enough for one to dwell on its short-comings.

While it is moderate fun, particularly in its dumber qualities (a guy on a motorbike popping up in the air and kicking a leaping spider at the same time, for example), it lacks the earnest seriousness of the films to which it offers homage, but rather thrives on its lack of seriousness. While films like Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), & The Deadly Mantis (1957) have more camp value now for their earnestness, Eight Legged Freaks embraces the camp (with all eight legs) yet almost makes fun of its the silly (perfunctory – a genre staple) environmental theme (the toxic waste placed in the Arizona desert caves that leads to the growth of the giant spiders). I suppose a more clever film would manage to somehow embrace this aspect of the genre as well.

Nine Queens

 

Nine Queens (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Fabián Bielinsky
viewed: 11/02/02

Slick, clever film about two con artists who meet up and make a pact to work together for exactly 24 hours. Scheming and shysting ensue. Probably the first Agentine film that I have ever seen. I have not been able to come up with a lot to say about this film despite the fact that it was probably the best dvd film that I have watched in a month or two. I am still stymied on this point.

This movie is really very good. I recommend it to all.

The Shipping News

The Shipping News (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Lasse Hallström
viewed: 11/02/02

Lasse Hallström is a competent mainstream Hollywood director, and The Shipping News is a decent, yet uninspired literary adaptation melodrama. Miramax, who produced this film, must have decided that Hallström is a specialist in the literary adaptation, since this is only the latest of several such productions that he has helmed in recent years (others have included Chocolat (2000), The Cider House Rules (1999), and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)). My favorite of his films, 1985’s My Life as a Dog was also a literary adaptation, so maybe that just simply is his thing.

This film seems a lot less inspired in a lot of ways, though. It seems like just the sort of film that Miramax has Hallström produce almost annually to take a shot at gaining some Oscar nominations. It’s also, like many of the other or Hallström
films, is a reasonably engaging narrative lacking in anything so edgy as to keep it from being the kind of film that one might watch with one’s parents or grandparents (I watched this one with my step-mother, for instance).

I find literary adaptation in interesting issue for film, but often in a more practical way. Rarely is a book the exact right length to convert into a film. More often, films must condense or subtract from a narrative to squeeze the story into a palatable two hour duration. I think that the first part of this film really felt like it was racing to get through some major plot moments before it got a chance to settle in to its Newfoundland setting and pace.

What does that say about this film? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid.

Evil Dead Trap

Evil Dead Trap (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. Toshiharu Ikeda
viewed: 10/31/02

I had such a little burst of seeing films that I wound up with a bit of a glut of diary entries to create. Somehow, I missed out that I hadn’t written on this film. I had selected this film as my Halloween horror film treat. I had remembered seeing that it had played at the Roxie a couple of years back and that it had sounded pretty interesting. I don’t think that I had realized at the time that the film was so old (almost fifteen years now), but I thought that I would give it a run.

Interestingly, the scenario of Evil Dead Trap, like the more recent Japanese horror film Ringu (1998), includes a spooky videotape of mysterious origin. The contents of this one, however, are more like a premanatory snuff film, and act more as a catalyst for the action, rather than the story’s main device. The video is anonymously sent into a late night television program that features home-made videos, and its gruesome depictions spur a foursome of journalists to investigate its origin. They are lead to an abandoned factory/warehouse where they are killed one by one by evil forces.

Exactly what happens/happened in the ending, I am not sure. I was very tired and it was late, and as a result the ending is totally muddled in my mind. Since being really drowsy while I watched this film impaired my memory of it, I won’t try to speculate as to what this film was really about.

The film is derivative of a number of major trends in the genre, with nods to Cronenberg, Argento, and Raimi, and lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would give it any keen points of interest. Though, contextualizing it within the horror films of its period, it’s perhaps not terrible, but not overly remarkable either.