Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits (Videodrome). Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm (Naked Lunch).
First Viewings

Synopsis: In Videodrome, a TV producer finds himself the victim of strange hallucinations after watching a mysterious, pirated video signal called Videodrome. In Naked Lunch, a writer finds himself losing his grip on reality in a drug-fueled haze after he accidentally kills his wife.

I recently saw both of these films, and I figured it was probably appropriate enough to lump them both into one post. Why? The same thing that motivates pretty much everything I do: laziness.

Actually, aside from the obvious (they are both directed by master Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg), the films are fairly similar, and so I don’t think it’s an entirely bizarre notion to talk about them together.

Both movies center around men who begin to hallucinate and perceive the world in increasingly strange ways. I found that this worked very well in Videodrome, and not-so-well in Naked Lunch. Videodrome, for all its weirdness, always maintains some semblance of reality amidst the chaos; there is an intriguing element of trying to discern between what is real and what is imagined. Naked Lunch, on the other hand, almost immediately disposes of reality altogether, plunging head-first into a bizarre, dream-like (or nightmare-like) world in which pretty much anything goes (such as the famous image of a typewriter turning into a giant cockroach). Because of this complete disconnect from reality, I found it hard to ever get particularly involved in the film (beyond, at least, marveling at the ingenuity of Cronenberg’s visuals). The movie feels more like a series of loosely connected set-pieces than a cohesive story.

Videodrome, on the other hand, always manages to strike a good balance between the off-the-wall stuff and the real world. There’s also an interesting undercurrent of mystery (what is Videodrome? Who’s behind it?) that helps to keep the viewer interested. There’s no such through-line in Naked Lunch, which basically feels like an excuse for Cronenberg to indulge his penchant for the bizarre, without much pulling it together in any meaningful way. I also thought that James Woods gave a pretty fantastic performance in Videodrome, which is definitely a reason why the movie works as well as it does (Peter Weller is fine in Naked Lunch, but he just doesn’t have all that much to work with).

Basically: Thumbs up for Videodrome, thumbs down for Naked Lunch.

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Wednesday January 12, 2011 22:11

Movie #0037 – Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin
Picture credit: DVD Beaver
First Viewing

Synopsis: An aging German woman finds herself a pariah after she starts dating an immigrant worker.

This film owes a great debt to All That Heaven Allows. In fact, in many ways it plays like a loose remake of that film; both films have roughly the same plot, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder was certainly never shy about his admiration for Douglas Sirk.

It’s not a bad film. I’m not entirely sure it deserves a spot on the list, but Fassbinder was obviously an important director, and this is one of his most accessible films. It’s well directed and (for the most part) well acted.

My biggest problem with this movie is that there just isn’t all that much chemistry between the older woman and her young lover. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) Brigitte Mira is just too old — she was 64 when the movie was made, and she looks more like 74. In contrast, Jane Wyman was 38 when she made All That Heaven Allows, and I had no problem believing that Rock Hudson could be sexually attracted to her. That definitely wasn’t the case here.

2) El Hedi ben Salem gives an exceptionally wooden performance, and lacks anything even remotely resembling charisma. This meant that not only was I having a hard time believing that he could be attracted to her; I was having a hard time believing that she could be attracted to him, with his robot-like personality. Apparently Salem was one of Fassbinder’s lovers, which does explain things somewhat. There’s clearly a reason why the man never acted in any films that weren’t directed by Fassbinder himself.

All in all, they’re not a particularly compelling or believable couple, which is kind of an issue when the film is essentially a love story. I can see why the movie is on the list, I guess — it’s definitely well made, and it’s entertaining throughout. If you can buy into the romance, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. Oh well.

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Sunday January 2, 2011 20:40

Movie #0036 – The Tin Drum (1979)

Directed by: Volker Schlöndorff
Starring: David Bennent, Katharina Thalbach, Daniel Olbrychski
Picture credit: DVD Beaver
Second Viewing

Synopsis: About the exploits of a strange young boy in World War II-era Germany who decides to stop aging.

Off-putting and kind of unpleasant, I didn’t much care for this the first time I watched it, and watching it again, I still don’t particularly care for it. I don’t hate this film; it’s decently made, the performances are fine, and it’s reasonably well acted. But its status as a classic does somewhat confuse me, as I just don’t find it to be particularly compelling.

As with some of the other films on the list whose appeal goes right over my head, I decided to check the book to see what’s (supposedly) so great about this movie. Even the book can’t really explain it, as the entry for this film simply summarizes the plot and states that the film “shocks and confuses.” And that’s a good thing… how? Yes, the film is different, I will give it that, but I’m not sure if that alone should automatically make it a must-see. I think that the authors of the book realized that they had to include this film (like it or not, it is a classic), but they didn’t necessarily like it themselves (and thus seem to be unable to really explain its appeal).

The film is, in parts, somewhat Fellini-esque, so perhaps the appeal of this movie is just going over my head the way that Fellini seems to go over my head. Who knows. I will say this: if you’re going to watch this movie, I wouldn’t plan on eating any sardines for at least a few days afterward. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that a can of sardines get eaten in the most off-putting way imaginable. You’ve been warned.

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Sunday December 26, 2010 11:25

Movie #0035 – The Lives of Others (2006)

Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck
Second Viewing

Synopsis: An agent for the secret police in communist-era East Berlin finds himself drawn to the latest target of his surveillance.

I originally watched this around when it was first released, and I remember liking it quite a lot, but finding it to be a bit more slow-paced than I’d like. This time the pacing seemed just right. It’s not a fast-paced film by any stretch of the imagination, but the pacing does a really great job of setting a certain tone and giving us time to really care about the characters.

I think there are a couple of things that elevate this film from a good one to a great one. There’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s stellar direction, featuring beautiful, meticulously composed widescreen cinematography. The film is really tense when it needs to be, and Donnersmarck does a great job of keeping things intriguing throughout. The performances, too, go a long way towards cementing this film’s status as a classic. Though all the performances are above average, special notice must go to Ulrich Mühe (who sadly passed away shortly after the film’s release) — he gives a really astonishing performance, and is able to say more with the subtle expressiveness of his face than most actors could say with an entire soliloquy.

The film is at times electrifying, at times moving, and always entertaining. It’s well over two hours long but it never outstays its welcome. It definitely takes its time, but it’s all the richer because of it.

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Sunday December 19, 2010 16:59

Movie #034 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directed by: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Fourth Viewing

Synopsis: In Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era, a director and his cast realize that the only way to save their disappointing film is to turn it into a musical.

I’m skipping pretty far ahead in the list, but I recently had the chance to watch this on the big screen (thanks to the TIFF Group’s “Essential Cinema” series at their brand spanking new movie theatre, the Lightbox) and I figured that I may as well write about it now (rather than when I make my way to the S films, which will be — what… ten years?).

I don’t think it’s particularly bold or unexpected for me to say that I love this film; there’s a reason that it’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time. It’s delightful. If you don’t love — or at least like — this film, and if musical numbers like Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses Supposes and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain (among many others), don’t put a smile on your face, then I think you need to do some serious soul-searching and realize that you may just be dead inside.

This is such a great film; it’s cram-packed with delightful, memorable musical numbers, and it’s surprisingly funny — the audience I saw it with laughed throughout. Every role is cast to perfection; aside from the perfectly matched Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, the supporting players (such as Donald O’Connor and the hilariously oafish Jean Hagen) are just as good. The amazingly choreographed dance numbers are perfectly directed by Donen and Kelly, who wisely just pull the camera back and let the dancing unfold in mesmerizing long takes. The film has aged remarkably well, and even for a contemporary audience, it is enthralling throughout.

I know I’m being ridiculously superlative here, but this film is just such a joy to behold. I’m not even a particularly big fan of musicals (I mean, I like them just fine, but I tend not to seek them out), but this movie is just so perfect, and so enjoyable, it’s hard not to love it.

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Wednesday November 3, 2010 21:53

Movie #0033 – Fatal Attraction (1987)

Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Starring: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer
Picture credit: Blu-ray Definition
First Viewing

Synopsis: After a one-weekend affair, a man finds himself at the mercy of an increasingly obsessed woman.

This is a film that has inspired quite a few movies in the years since its release — the most recent one I can think of is the almost comically bad Obsessed — and it’s fairly clear, watching it now for the first time, that this is still probably the best entry in the “(blank) from hell” subgenre. And in fact, Box Office Mojo has a ranking of these films, and Fatal Attraction is still on top, and by a fairly wide margin. Often imitated, never duplicated.

So why does this movie work as well as it does? For one thing, there is Adrian Lyne’s assured direction, which is stylish without being overly ostentatious, and which keeps things moving at a pretty good pace. The film takes its time setting everything up, and the slow reveal of the frightening extent of Glenn Close’s insanity is pretty much perfect. Of course, Close was nominated for an Oscar for her work here, which is definitely well deserved; it’s a chilling performance, and certainly, quite memorable. Anne Archer was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as well — she probably deserved the nom if only for the powerful scene in which Douglas tells her of his affair, but the rest of her performance was just as good. Douglas himself has a slightly more thankless role than the two women (and he went nomination-free), but he’s easily at their level.

There are a lot of great moments here, but the one that easily stood out for me is the final confrontation between Archer and Close. It’s set in a bathroom, and I’m fairly certain it’s meant to recall the famous shower scene from Psycho (but with a bath filling in for a shower), and it was pretty jaw-dropping. Certainly, Hitchcock would be proud. The direction, editing and score are all pitch-perfect, and the scene is electrifying. Of course, that whole sequence was famously a reshoot (much to Ms. Close’s chagrin); while the original ending may have been more thematically appropriate (I haven’t seen it, but I think that was Close’s objection), cinematically speaking, this one was pretty perfect.

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Thursday October 28, 2010 22:55

Movie #0032 – The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Second Viewing

Synopsis: Tracing a couple of years in the Algerian resistance of the 1950s.

I’ll admit that I was really not looking forward to revisiting this film; my memory of it was that it was dull and completely overrated. Well, I didn’t exactly love it this time around, but at least I can say that I’m no longer baffled by the film’s enduring popularity. It just goes to show you that it’s sometimes a good idea to revisit certain films; I’m not sure why my opinion on this film changed. Maybe I was just in a weird mood the first time I watched it, or perhaps my tastes have changed over the years. It’s funny, because the opposite thing happened when I revisited Amarcord — I liked it on my first viewing, but not so much on my second.

I can see why I didn’t particularly like this film the first time around; there aren’t really any characters, or at least none that we get to know beyond their politics, and there isn’t much of a narrative to speak of. But there’s something oddly fascinating about watching the minutia of the revolution unfold. It probably helps that I watched a film called Outside the Law at this year’s TIFF, which also dealt with the Algerian resistance, and which gave this film some added context that it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I’m still not sure that this is the all-time classic that many make this out to be, but it’s definitely an interesting film. Pontecorvo’s gritty, documentary-like style suits the movie well, and there are some pretty great moments here — for instance, a tense sequence in which three Algerian women disguise themselves as Westerners in an attempt to get through a checkpoint with bombs. The ending is oddly abrupt, though the more I think about it, the more I think it works.

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Directed by: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone
Picture credit: Groucho Reviews
First Viewing

Synopsis: Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws fight back against a corrupt king.

This movie is quite possibly one of the most well-regarded action/adventure movies ever, so my expectations for it were fairly high. It didn’t disappoint. While I don’t know if I’d put this on a list of my all-time favourites, it was definitely well made and quite entertaining throughout.

Certainly, the film was leaps and bounds above the fairly anemic Robin Hood, the recent Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend. That film was kind of dull and ponderous; I can definitely see what they were going for, but it just didn’t work, for the most part. However, I can safely say that Robin Hood will never be on the list, so… moving on.

This Robin Hood featured all of the archery, swordplay and rollicking adventure that you’d expect from the character. The action was exciting and well-staged (and further proof that, contrary to what pretty much every contemporary director believes, you don’t need a million cuts a second to have an exciting action scene). Robin Hood himself came off as a bit arrogant (he was pretty smug), but he was always likable thanks to a charismatic performance from Errol Flynn.

There’s definitely a lot to like here, and I think this is the type of film that everyone could enjoy — assuming they can get past the somewhat old-fashioned filmmaking (eg. the aforementioned lack of a million cuts per second during the action). Did I mention how much better this was than the Ridley Scott version?

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Thursday July 29, 2010 21:59

Movie #0030 – Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Directed by: Andrzej Wajda
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, Waclaw Zastrzezynski
First Viewing

Synopsis: A couple of resistance fighters try to figure out what to do next after realizing that they’ve botched an assassination attempt on a communist politician.

Well, that was a pleasant surprise. Not that I was expecting this to be bad, but I was unfamiliar with director Andrzej Wajda, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As it turns out, Wajda’s impressive direction was probably the highlight of the film; stylish and filled with intricately-composed, Citizen Kane-esque low angle shots, you can definitely see the influence Wajda has had on directors over the years. I won’t go into spoilers, but there’s a moment towards the end of the film that was as memorable and as visually striking as anything I’ve seen in quite a while. You’ll know it when you see it.

Of course, this wouldn’t have added up to all that much if the film itself hadn’t been up to snuff — the protagonist’s realization, over one long night, that he can’t necessarily do his duty and live a normal life was deftly handled, and though the film wasn’t perfect (it drags slightly in parts) it was definitely quite memorable.

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Saturday July 17, 2010 21:53

Movie #0029 – The African Queen (1951)

Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn
Picture credit: DVD Beaver
First Viewing

Synopsis: A grizzled, normally-solitary steamship captain in WWII-era Africa takes on a passenger who convinces him to help the war effort.

I’ve been a fan of John Huston’s for a while now, so the African Queen has definitely been on my to-see list (I’m also a fan of Humphrey Bogart’s, but that just goes without saying. There are only two types of people in the world: Humphrey Bogart fans, and people who have never seen a Bogart movie). Up until a few months ago, thanks to some legal shenanigans involving rights issues, trying to see this movie on home video has been surprisingly difficult. But I’m glad that I never made the effort to get my hands on a dodgy import, because the recently-released Blu-ray looks pretty stunning. It’s sharp, vibrant and without a hint of age.

But what about the movie itself? While I wouldn’t quite put it up there with stuff like the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Asphalt Jungle (which I will be watching again pretty soon, as it’s on the list), this is definitely a justified classic. A movie like this, which is really just about the interactions between two characters, lives and dies by its performances. Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn… well, do I really need to finish that sentence? They’re both legendary actors, and their performances here are certainly commensurate with their stature. They also have really great chemistry together, so by the end of the film you’re definitely rooting for them to make it. You’d think that the film might be a bit stagy, but Huston manages to keep things abundantly cinematic, including a few sequences which are surprisingly tense. Good stuff.

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