Saturday, March 13, 2010

Yeah, I've really dropped the ball here. The big problem for me is the writing. I've watched a few (though not very many) more films since my last post, but I just can't muster up the mental energy to write. Hopefully I'll be back on my feet soon.

Friday, February 5, 2010

#381: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Directors: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle ...

King Arthur is traveling across England with his squire Patsy to find the bravest of the brave to become the Knights of the Round Table, and to seek the Holy Grail at the behest of God Himself. They encounter many obstacles, including the Knights who say Ni, the enchanter named Tim, and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. Along the way, they also kill a historian who was chronicling the tale of King Arthur, prompting an investigation by the British police to stop these madmen in a troupe called "Monty Python" who are acting as Arthurian figures.

You may have all been wondering why there was such a huge gap since my last post. It was because of this movie. How do you write about this film!? It's damn near impossible. I actually watched it well before it was "due" if I stuck with the daily movie. I suppose I'll just have to do my best and get on with the list.

One of the most effective gags in the film that makes it stand out in comparison to a majority of comedies to this day is its excessive use of "breaking the fourth wall", which is to say that the actors break the imaginary barrier between the show and the audience. For example, while all the knights stand in awe of the sight of Camelot, Patsy remarks that "it's only a model."

The evident low budget of the film could have been a huge setback to the film, but in the end enhanced it thanks to the production team's decision to poke fun at their own work. Rather than being taken seriously whatsoever, the team clearly had a fantastic time acting absolutely ridiculous.

And, a bit o' trivia before the actual trivia section. It seems that their is quite the rift in demographic appeal when comparing the United Kingdom to the United States in terms of Monty Python fandom. While the United Kingdom widely prefers the later Life of Brian, the United States has always ranked Holy Grail as the better of the two feature-length Monty Python films. I have to admit that I can be classified as an ignorant American, having never seen The Life of Brian. No worries - that'll be rectified within the next 200 films I see.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
  • Scenes such as Arthur approaching the first castle and Lancelot's running dash to Swamp Castle were filmed on Hampstead Heath, a London park beside one of the city's busiest road junctions.
  • Some major scenes scripted, but never filmed: - additional "Knights who say Ni!" scene, they intend to call themselves "the Knights of Nicky-Nicky" - additional police detective scenes - several scenes where Arthur and the knights meet "King Brian, the Wild". - After the Bridgekeeper, they come upon the Boatkeeper. "He who would cross the Sea of Fate Must answer me these questions twenty-eight!" - Arthur and his knights end up finding the Holy Grail at Harrods' department store
  • Funds earned by Pink Floyd's album "The Dark Side of the Moon" went towards funding The Holy Grail. The band were such fans of the show they would halt recording sessions just to watch "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (1969).
  • "God" is in fact a photograph of the famous 19th-century English cricketer W.G. Grace.
  • The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles per hour, beating its wings 7-9 times per second rather than 43. And a 5 ounce bird cannot carry a one pound coconut.

Monday, January 25, 2010

#382: Caché (2005)

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Daniel Auteuil & Juliette Binoche

Georges, a public television personality and his wife Anne are being terrorized by an unseen observer. They receive video tapes of their own front door, taken from a distance. The tapes are wrapped in sheets of paper with disturbing, childlike drawings, each with a streak of red across the subject of the image. The couple tries to continue lives as normal, but paranoia begins to eke its way into their personalities.

It's hard to imagine that Alfred Hitchcock didn't have a roll in the making of this film. It's so up his alley that it almost seems like it's 50 years too late in the making, though at the same time has a modern feel to it. I suppose the fear of the unknown is timeless.

Now, some spoilers.

The end of the film at first seemed like one of the most lame ways to go that I could imagine - you don't find out a single thing. You don't know who was watching them, you don't even know the full intention of why a man had killed himself. Majid, whose parents worked for Georges' parents when they were kids, may have killed himself out of guilt or out of pure anger for the way Georges treated him in his childhood. Basically, everything was left open, and you realize there may have been no threat whatsoever to Georges and Anne besides the threat posed by their own fears.

But then! What a surprise I got when I found out that there was a subtle inclusion at the very end of the film that tells us that we haven't half of the story. Majid's son, who played a very minor role in the film, is seen with Georges' and Anne's son amidst a crowd of students waiting to be picked up from school. These two characters have no reason of knowing each other, and who knows what they could be discussing, or what plots are possibly being made by Majid's son.

There are no cheap tricks with this film, and coming out of it is initially disappointing, but this one has stuck with me for days now. While I might not recommend it to everyone off the bat, it's worth a shot.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
In the scene right after the main character leaves Hajid's apartment and hides in a movie theater we can see posters of several European successful films. One of them is "La mala educación" by Pedro Almodóvar, another one is "Les choristes" (2004) directed by Christophe Barratier.
Voted "Best Film of the Noughties" by UK newspaper The Times.

Friday, January 22, 2010

#383: Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin & Chiwetel Ejiofor

The crew continues their adventures on the outer rim of Joss Whedon’s visions of the future, where China and the United States merged to become the powerful Alliance. The mentally unstable and psychic River Tam is being hunted down by The Alliance because she might have obtained top-secret information from while she was being studied in the government’s laboratories. Luckily, River has been under the protection of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew, who have evaded both The Alliance and the mysterious, murderous monsters known as Reavers. The ship directs its ways through the ‘verse to discover what dark secret is being hidden by the authorities.

Whedon’s imagination of the future is so colorful, it’s got so much to take in. Aside from the fusion of Western cultures with Chinese, the lingo used is witty and smart with a great dose of comedy. No character overlooked – each has a highly distinct style in appearance, speech and attitude.

Whedon’s style is very distinct, using a very high level of contrast in color. For example, the characters will be plunged into shadows until a brilliant white light is shot directly on to them. Not only was there contrasts in the color used on set, but it’s clear that they raised the contrast during the editing process as well, making the characters appear in a comic books style.


As far as plot, there is not much that I can complain about as far as the film goes. However, there were some disheartening choices when seen in the context of the entire franchise. The Firefly series hinted at a very colorful history to Shephard Book, but not only did he have an extremely small role in the film, but he was killed off while there is so much more to answer. Another major character, Wash, was killed off almost unnecessarily at the end of the film as well. It makes me think that Whedon was running out of time, had too many ideas, and tried to squeeze it all together.

A must see for all Firefly fans, nonetheless, and probably one of the best films to be made based on a television series.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • There is an inside joke printed on some of the crates in the cargo bay. Some of the crates have the message "Reusable Container: Do Not Destroy" printed on them (they are visible behind River after the Reaver has been shot). The original set for the ship, from the show "Firefly" (2002) was destroyed (even though creator Joss Whedon swore he'd make use of it again), and therefore could not be reused for the movie (the set had to be rebuilt from scratch).
  • This is the first film to be released by Universal on HD-DVD (High Definition DVD).
  • Among the buildings shown in the opening sequence (where voice-over narration describes the "terraforming" process) are the Emirates Towers, key features of the skyline of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. A skyscraper in the foreground of the same shot is based on designs by Sir Norman Foster (Lord Foster), including the Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt and the HSBC building in Hong Kong.
  • The key phrase, that Dr. Simon Tam uttered to put River to sleep, "Eta Kooram Nah Smech!" in Russian means literally "this is for hens to laugh", meaning "this is very ridiculous".(presumably also as it is so random a sentence as to never be spoken by accident)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#384: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: James Stewart & Margaret Sullavan

Alfred Kralik, the assistant to the manager of a gift shop right around the corner from the main boulevard in Budapest, is hesitant to hire the young and talented Klara Novak from the start. Throughout her time at the store, the two can’t stand to be near each other. What they don’t realize is that they have each fallen in love with each other through their anonymous pen pal letters to each other.

Does this premise ring a bell? Of course it does. The film (based on a play by Miklós László) was the inspiration for Nora Ephron’s
You’ve Got Mail (1998). Due to this fact, this post will be more of a comparative study (although, let’s face it, not much of a study) rather than my usual standard review.

There are two vast improvements made by
You’ve Got Mail. First off, the location. I understand that the play was written and took place in Hungary. However, this doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to set it there. Normally I’m all for keeping the original locale, but it has nothing to do with the story. If they at least decided to have non-American accents used, it would be a step up. But when the main characters are clearly American in a set that doesn’t look particularly Hungarian, you might as well set it in the States.

Next, the female lead and her relationship with Kralik. Klara is often rude to Kralik for his insincere reception. Klara comes across as bitter, but at first I let it slide; he was rude to her as well. But once Kralik discovers that she is his pen pal, he is very kind to her – even romantic. However, she continues her streak of insults without apology. Nora Ephron brilliantly fixed this up in two ways. First, she made Klara’s character (renamed Kathleen Kelly) extremely likable, and when she blurts out an insult, Kathleen immediately feels horrible about it. Second, the female lead’s position in society is brought up to date. Kathleen Kelly is not just a salesgirl; she’s the owner of a small store that is fighting against the large corporation that’s taking her business, which is owned by her e-mail pal Joe Fox. Kathleen Kelly has a much more meaningful reason to detest Joe Fox than Klara Novak’s hatred of Alfred Kralik. The relationship didn’t resonate nearly as brilliantly as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Tom Hanks, I was amazed at how similar he is to James Stewart in both performance and appearance. I think I can go as far as saying that I believe Tom Hanks to be the James Stewart of our age.

I don’t mean to bash this film; it absolutely has a charm to it, and though it was outdated, it certainly had a je-ne-sais-quoi that led Ephron to bring it to this day and age. James Stewart was clearly the backbone of the film, and his wit and charm certainly influenced Tom Hanks’ role of Joe Fox. Some scenes in
You’ve Got Mail were taken almost directly from The Shop Around the Corner, most notably the scene when the male lead discovers that he has been writing to his business foe. If I had to guess, the similarities between these two scenes were intended to support the humorous side of the male lead and his good nature, which was pulled off flawlessly on both accounts.

Outdated, but a lovely lighthearted film.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • According to Bright Lights Film Journal website, when Kralik mentions "You read Zola's Madame Bovary," Klara immediately corrects him: "Madame Bovary is not by Zola," she snipes. The joke here is that though Klara knows who wrote Madame Bovary, she doesn't understand that she herself is living exclusively in Emma Bovary's world of impossible ideals.
  • The play, "Perfumerie" (also known as "Illatszertár"), was copyrighted 10 November 1936.
  • To make sure his film was stripped of the glamor usually associated with him, Lubitsch went to such lengths as ordering that a dress Sullavan had purchased off the rack for $1.98 be left in the sun to bleach and altered to fit poorly.
  • According to the Book "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise", ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is the most meaningful tribute possible to the owner and employees of the long vanished Berlin clothing firm of S. Lubitsch.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

#385: Ace in the Hole (1951)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling & Richard Benedict

Journalist Chuck Tatum, who was fired from his previous big-city gigs, has landed a new job in Albuquerque. Not used to being in the small town, Tatum detests the stories he covers, nothing being as juicy as he’d like. He finally gets his big story when a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial ground traps Leo Minosa, a worker at a rest stop. Tatum learns that he could be saved within only 12 hours, but instead convinces the sheriff to dig through the rock from the top, giving time for the story to develop. While Mr. Minosa waits, trapped under the rock, a throng swarms to the site to witness the action firsthand.

Not much stuck out in this film for me. It was a film that just had to be made in the 1950’s – the film industry probably wouldn’t be complete without a criticism of the extraordinary measures journalists may take. But it wasn’t really a great film. The only performance that is worthy to be mentioned is Kirk Douglas, who makes a great sleaze.

The movie was a failure in its time, as you can see by the all-negative Fun Trivia section to follow. It seemed to have had a second wave in the past 15 years or so, having critics praise the film for having a real ‘bite’. Yes, it’s scathing… but I also found the whole thing a point that’s been made too often, and it’s lost its importance. People know not to trust the media at this point. An hour-and-a-half film just wasn’t necessary to tell me that in gross exaggeration.

I give it a C.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • When the film was released, it got bad reviews and lost money. The studio, without Billy Wilder's permission, changed the title to "The Big Carnival" to increase the box office take of the film. It didn't work. On top of that, Billy Wilder's next picture Stalag 17 (1953) was a hit and Billy Wilder expected a share of the Stalag 17 (1953)'s profits. Paramount accountants told him that since this picture lost money, the money it lost would be subtracted from the profits of Stalag 17 (1953).
  • Actor Victor Desny brought a lawsuit against this film while the script was being written. He claimed the film was an unauthorized version of the Floyd Collins story. Collins was actually stuck in a cave years earlier, as mentioned in the film. Since Desny owned the rights to the Collins story, he claimed copyright infringement. Desny prevailed, although Wilder appealed. The California Supreme Court ruled in Desny's favor. (Desny v. Wilder, 46 Cal. 2d 715, 299 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 1956).)
  • The studio constructed a replica cliff dwelling at a cost of $30,000. The set was located behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on U.S. Route 66, west of Gallup, New Mexico. After filming was completed, the set was left intact and the owner of the trading post used it to draw tourists to his store.
  • Residents of Gallup, New Mexico were hired as extras. They were paid 75 cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Extras earned an additional three dollars if they could bring an automobile to the set.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#386: The Great Silence (1968)

Director: Sergio Corbucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski & Vonetta McGee

The small village of Snowhill, Utah is in an upheaval through the winter of 1898. The winter has been so brutal that the poorer citizens have to steal in order to survive. Living in the mountains, they become branded as outlaws by the sheriff. With a reward for their capture – dead or alive – bounty hunters are enjoying the luxurious life. That is, until the deadly assassin Silence is hired by the African-American resident named Pauline, who wants revenge for the death of her husband at the hands of the head bounty hunter, Loco. Silence got his name because wherever he goes the silence of death follows. However, Loco learns of Silence’s one weakness. Silence will only shoot his victims once they have already drawn their gun, allowing him amnesty from the law due to the right to defend oneself. Meanwhile, a new sheriff arrives in town, sent by the governor to restore order to Snowhill.

I’ll start off with the most obvious changes in Corbucci’s classic from the standard western. The landscape is covered in snow, which is highly unusual for the genre. Ennio Morricone captures the silence of the snowy mountains flawlessly with his extensive use of glockenspiel and harp, but maintains his rugged western feel.

The film has a great political message throughout. Rather than depicting the characters as malevolent outlaws, they are all working within the law. It is the government that has failed in this film. The bad guys are the outlaws who are essentially hired by the government to kill off outlaws. The outlaws themselves in this case are only trying to survive, and were put in this position by the government’s irresponsibility. Even the good guy is on an equal footing as the bounty hunters, killing under the protection of the government. In this way, The Great Silence is a step ahead of all other westerns of its time by giving each character an incredibly strong personal history created by the corrupt government.

One quick addition that I must include to the idea of a greater background to the characters is the fact that Silence is actually a mute. While nearly all heroes of the Western genre are the silent types, none of them have any particular reason to be. This film actually includes a sequence as to why he doesn’t talk, and how that came to be.

Corbucci is also ahead of his time for his casting of a woman of African descent as the lead female, and as the love interest of a white man. This was highly unusual, considering it was filmed not after but during the Civil Rights Movement, and during the same year as interracial marriage became legal in the United States.


The film is notorious for having a very bleak ending. First off, it’s essential to note that this is only one of two endings filmed, though it’s also the only one people have much access to. Even so, the murder of Silence at the end was clearly the finale that Corbucci wanted, as many have analyzed Silence as a representation of Christ. In the end, Silence does not defend everyone in life from the corrupt, just as Christ in human form was unable. A link has also been made between Silence and Che Guevarra who had fought unsuccessfully to defend his people. One of the main analyses that indicate these two links is the fact that just before he is killed, his hands are destroyed. This of course could refer to the crucifixion, but can also relate to Che Guevarra, whose hands were chopped off and sent to Fidel Castro after his death.

This is by far my favorite Western I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the genre is severely limited. Still, I would recommend this to fans and newcomers to the genre alike. Bravo, Corbucci!

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • Jean-Louis Trintignant had agreed to do the film in order to help out the producer, who was a friend of his.
  • The snow in the town of Snow Hill was created by gallons of shaving cream.
  • Jean-Louis Trintignant agreed to play in a spaghetti western under the condition that he did not have to learn any lines for the role. That's why the main character conveniently became a mute in the story.