For September 2018 I've been persuaded by happenstance to revisit the Friday the 13th film franchise. One of my favorite podcasters, Matt Gourley, along with Paul Rust (co-creator and star of the Netflix series Love), recently launched a new podcast covering the popular horror series, In Voorhees We Trust With Gourley And Rust. I hadn't planned to do a re-watch along with them, as I have watched all 12 films within the last decade, but after listening to the first two episodes, I relented. My goal for this fresh look at the Jason Voorhees saga will be to untangle my difficulty with appraising 1980s slasher movies, which, as I've said many times, are like a comfort-food for me. I've never been satisfied with how I balance the actual quality of these films with my nostalgia, or how I feel that my authentic appreciation for them is sometimes too easily poisoned by a conventional wisdom that considers them somehow undeserving of serious consideration or legitimate affection.
Otherwise, September brings a new round of movies from a couple of movie exchanges in which I participate. My recommendations from these will start with the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams' play CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and Marcel Ophuls' revered The Earrings of Madame de... I will also continue to address Ron Howard's unwelcome presence on my "Most Watched Directors" statistics at Letterboxd, where the 18 movies of his that I've seen desecrate my Top 10. I need one more film from Francis Ford Coppola's filmography (currently tied with Howard at 18 movies), and my other top target at the moment is Ingmar Bergman (currently at 14 movies) who should soon leapfrog 10 other directors into my Top 10.
As usual, these informal projects will be supplemented by potentially interesting movies that crop up on various podcasts, in theaters (if I can get my Moviepass to cooperate), and whatever other whims strike me.
This month introduces to the site my custom movie search engine, Videopolis, which will help find links, media and discussions for the movies I review.
Dir.: Sean S. Cunningham
Whenever Friday the 13th comes up on my Flickchart, I wrestle. Is it a good movie? Do I like it for valid reasons? Is it garbage — both in form and substance — disguised by nostalgia? Should it rank higher than better-made and more "worthy" movies which I enjoy less? I can't completely look at this movie with fresh eyes, as I've seen it possibly 10 times or more since I was a tween with unfettered access to our local video store's horror shelf and, later, cable movie channels. This movie and its first five sequels loomed large during my adolescence; while they weren't the best of the multitudes of slasher movies that I prioritized during that period, they were influential and omnipresent. However, fully aware of this purely subjective part of my affection for them, I often doubt their genuine qualities when given space to forget the immediate experience of watching them, and am usually surprised by how they don't match up, in reality, with how I remember them. In the case of this revisiting of the original 1980 Friday the 13th, the haze of dissonance works in its favor.
Even though Sean S. Cunningham's low budget Halloween rip-off was partially formative for me in defining what I want from this kind of horror movie, I'm surprised at how well he does it here. Friday the 13th is unhurried, unafraid of being quiet, knows when to be still and the power of letting some shots linger on past expectations. Cunningham deals in a very specific old-school style of suspense, making this stylistically very much a movie of the 1970s rather than the 1980s. Although it was the success of Halloween that inspired Cunningham, it was Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho that he emulated, and it's not hard to see this first Friday as a deft melding of those two movies plus the gritty Cunningham-produced Last House on the Left.
While the performances are not great, they are never bad in a big way, but settle in between low-budget unpolished awkwardness and the non-performative flatness of real life. One of the neat and rare things about Friday the 13th is the simplicity of its characterizations. Rather than pulling one forced conflict after another out of a screenwriting manual, indulging in lazy comic archetypes, or casting finely polished TV actors, the young counselors at Camp Crystal Lake seem like normal-looking, fairly nice kids who mostly get along. There's, thankfully, no half-hearted melodrama to compete with the impending doom that stalks them from the dark woods. Lead actress Adrienne King struggles with some of the more emotive scenes, but evinces an affecting ordinariness that plays very well during the climax. The scenes during which she scrambles to fortify a room, or hide, or defend herself, have an organic clumsiness and endearing hopelessness to them, increasing the sense of dread, and I can't recall anything quite as naturally desperate in any other horror movie.
Friday the 13th is, overall, surprisingly technically solid and even impressive. Maybe it was a product of watching it for the first time in HD, but I was consistently amazed at how good this movie looks. While never artistic, it is also never cheap-looking (on a budget of $500k) and there's a lot of craft in its production, with every scene shot well, a strong energy to the movement and editing, and atmospheric sound design with Harry Manfredini's iconic music used sparingly and powerfully.
The famous ending of Friday the 13th may be nonsense — and a rip-off of Brian De Palma's Carrie — but it's effective if you've already surrendered to the quality slow burn of what is essentially first-class low budget exploitation. And even as exploitation it's pretty tame by its sequels' standards, defying many of the condescending stereotypes frequently used to condemn its genre. Aside from Tom Savini's top-notch gore effects, of which there are few, Cunningham does his best to focus on atmosphere and find tension in silence rather than in sensationalism.
Flickcharted: #853 (79.70%); up from #1034 (75.39%)
Dir.: Christopher McQuarrie
I've been hearing for years that The Way of the Gun is one of the better post-Tarantino crime thrillers, with script and direction from Christopher McQuarry (then the celebrated writer of The Usual Suspects; now the celebrated director of Mission: Impossible - Fallout), and a much-talked-about opening scene featuring Sarah Silverman in full foul-mouthed glory. I suppose that opening scene is indicative of how I felt about The Way of the Gun as a whole: Is that all there is? Sure, Silverman gets off some amusingly caustic insults in the space of a few seconds, but in the service of a scene that promises more than it delivers, goes nowhere, means nothing, and isn't really anything that unique to begin with.
Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe star as chatty, pseudo-philosophical hoods from a neighborhood close to but not quite of the same class as Tarantino and Elmore Leonard. They conjure up a plan to kidnap a pregnant surrogate (Juliette Lewis) and collect ransom from the wealthy couple whose baby she is carrying; but the one thing they never counted on was the powerful motivating force of the emotional connections which they profess to have so carefully excised from their own lives.
McQuarry seems to be interested in exploring the idea that love and family are guaranteed to ruin (and maybe even nullify) any perfect plan, but instead of drilling down on that idea in an interesting manner, he tosses out there and lets it bounce off a series of dull and only mildly appealing characters. At first there's an off-kilter sense of mischief to The Way of the Gun, but it drowns in a rut of uninspired tropes — inexplicable shootout logistics, weary criminals, narcissistic beauties, card game metaphors, and double-crossing henchmen.
Lewis is a strong presence in this type of role, and James Caan brings some character, but Del Toro and Phillippe are so sleepy that the movie is missing a much needed spine, resulting in a final gunfight that is paradoxically both lively and tedious. McQuarry's too-cute thematic button as the credits roll only underscores the futility of it all. Sure, that futility is McQuarry's entire point, but he never successfully maneuvers around the conundrum that a movie about futility may well end up feeling like a waste of time itself.
Flickcharted: #3236 (22.99%)
Dir.: Steve Miner
For a couple of decades, at least, I've considered Friday the 13th, Part 2 one of the best in the series, primarily on the strength of its final act, which presents the incomprehensibly alive and adult-sized and handicapable Jason Voorhees as a shanty-dwelling baghead who has enshrined his mother's severed head. That's the kind of myth-building that sticks with 12-year-olds. However, on this viewing, I didn't feel as warmly toward this sequel as a whole.
Directed by Steve Miner, who was on the production team of the original, Friday the 13th, Part 2 betrays its makeshift origins time and again with a disorganized script full of labored "moments," absent-minded plotting, incongruent editing, and inexplicable leaps that can only be explained by the retroactive assignment of supernatural properties. Almost all of the qualities that I admired in the original Friday the 13th are absent. Miner's shot selection is prosaic, including some oddly inexpressive closeups of Crazy Ralph, as well as several shots that are sloppily out-of-focus.
While the acting is a bit more polished this time around, and most of the cast and their characters are low-key appealing, you can see the creep of reductive formula beginning to spoil the naturalism which worked so well in the first film, and some of the actors were clearly cast for their faces (or other body parts; Miner has a tendency to leer).
However, what it lacks in texture, Friday the 13th, Part 2 makes up in pace. Maybe because of its lack of atmosphere, this sequel blazes through its tropes and slips into its memorable climax before you know it. Amy Steel, whose Ginny is often considered one of the best "final girls" in the series, is a mostly a non-factor prior to the fierce final 20 minutes, where she earns her rep (Steel is even better, however, in the solid Joseph Zito/Tom Savini project The Prowler).
Once again, there's a surplus of nonsense as Friday the 13th, Part 2 tries to pull off another "shock" ending — here's where these movies become most difficult to assess: as a dumb slasher, it works, with imaginative death scenes and some impactful scares, like its final jolt; just try not to think about it. If you can ignore the confused state of the narrative, and the nonplussed attention to detail, and the uninspired production design, Friday the 13th, Part 2 succeeds well enough, and provides an important (if inexplicable) cog in the Tinkertoy structure of Friday the 13th mythology. I suppose this is how film noir fans feel about The Big Sleep: who cares if every beat makes sense, or if the film as a whole is comprehensible? It has a mongoloid lurker hacking up teens, including two of the series' most notable death scenes. While I prefer the subtle naturalism of the original, Friday the 13th, Part 2 more than comfortably satiates the soft bigotry of low slasher movie expectations, which is all it ever really wanted.
Flickcharted: #1587 (62.23%); down from #989 (76.46%)
Dir.: Steve Miner
While I struggle at times with my fond feelings for a few of the movies in the Friday the 13th franchise, I experience no such dissonance with the third movie in the series: it is crap.
The one mitigating factor in Friday the 13th Part III's overall awfulness is that, somehow, this otherwise shoddy endeavor is responsible for introducing what is possibly the most potent and popular piece of horror iconography since the era of the Universal monsters: Jason Voorhees' hockey mask.
Director Steve Miner, in charge for his second consecutive installment of this slasher juggernaut, takes whatever wisps of promise could be justified from his middling first attempt and disposes of them (nearly) completely. Friday the 13th Part III is a garishly ugly movie full of cartoonishly off-putting characters and some of the worst special effects of any major horror movie of its era.
The most novel facet of Friday the 13th Part III is its attempts to deliver its dubious thrills in 3D — but, in most cases, the 3D effects take the form of gratuitously-framed non-thrills, like the passing of a joint toward the camera lens, or a wallet, or a yo-yo, or a bale of hay, or popcorn, or other similarly mundane sights. When Miner attempts to augment a scary scene with 3D, the effect is often soured by the substandard special effects, with the wires and springs of half-assed "movie magic" in plain sight nearly every time. The only scene from this movie that has stuck with me since my childhood is the lens-ward popping of an eyeball from the fakest looking dummy head ever created by a professional effects crew (Matt Gourley accurately described this failed model as 'a candle of a human head'). For a series that began with the great Tom Savini in charge of effects, to fall this far this quickly is stunning.
Friday the 13th, Part III is such a labor of laziness that several scenes were obviously shot with a dirty camera lens; Miner only distinguishes himself in his sophomore film as a primo purveyor of lecherous ass-shots, a motif he carried over from Part 2.
Dana Kimmell leads a cast featuring a few appealing actresses alongside some extremely goony men. Paul Kratka, as Rick, is far ahead in the running for worst actor in the entire franchise; with his lumbering, affectless presence, that he stands out so clearly even in this subpar cast is saying something. Like Amy Steel before her, Kimmell shows real grit in her face-off with Jason — despite my disdain for nearly this entire installment, it's a thrill watching Kimmell take the fight to Jason — if only some of this spirit were on display earlier.
Before he dons his iconic new costume, even Jason seems bored — that is, until the final 20 minutes, when, once again, the filmmaking comes to life... before it, once again, tries to out-confuse the previous films with another incomprehensible "shock" ending, during which one character dreams (or does she?) about a character unbeknownst to her. A new disco version of Harry Manfredini's echoic score (hat-tip to Paul Rust!) is neat, but its association with this piece of tripe makes it tough to enjoy in context. Friday the 13th Part III is the first of a few significant low points in the Friday the 13th franchise.
Flickcharted: #3156 (24.89%); up from #3306 (21.32%)
Dir.: Joseph Zito
My only hesitation in calling Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter the masterpiece of the F13 brand is that I’m still one installment removed from what used to be my favorite in the series. But, after the severe dip in professionalism that took over the franchise during the Steve Miner era, it rebounds here with its strongest treatment to this point, and arguably its most solid outing in nearly every regard normally considered important for real movies. Director Joseph Zito's choice to take Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter seriously as both horror and as narrative film is so powerfully effective, it's responsible for turning what was meant to be the last bloom of its withering species into a seed that would continue to grow indefinitely.
Everything anyone thinks about or expects from silent killer Jason Voorhees is evidenced and improved in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter: he’s more intimidating, more powerful, more ruthless, more instinctual, more primal; he’s bigger and badder in just about every way, with Zito cementing the Friday the 13th iconography as we still know it today.
You can tell that Zito means business right from the beginning, when, instead of meagerly slapping on the last five minutes of the previous film as a prologue, as Miner did twice, he creates a dynamic "previously on" recap that is swift and fierce. Zito isn't content to tread in tired water. Fresh off the mean and effective slasher The Prowler, where he teamed up with Tom Savino to brutal effect, Zito smartly focuses on the entire horror package. All of the cheap stupidity from Part 3 is absent; even though it deals in tropes — the jaded coroner, sexually frustrated teen boys, sexually free girls, hot twins — it doesn't treat them like crass jokes. Instead, the script focuses on credible and mostly appealing teens who, while not as natural as Sean Cunningham’s original cast, are also not one-dimensional slaves to gimmickry. The situations and performances are heightened, but not abrasive The cast is, as these movies go, practically star-studded, with future notables Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover just the most recognizable of a personable ensemble full of familiar 1980s teen faces. At age 12, this may be Feldman's second best performance of his career, after Stand By Me.
Having actors of this quality makes an enormous difference, resulting in some nice, small genuine moments and some real fear. While some of the performers are better than others, strong direction and fewer obstacles in the script make it easy on everyone. Only Judie Aronson, who would later been seen in Weird Science and is otherwise fine here, makes a hash of her death scene with awkward comical mugging. Most of the small or questionable parts are played with full commitment, like Lisa Freeman, as a nurse in an early scene, who launches into an almost dead-on Terri Garr impression just before running into Jason in a supply closet. And Erich Anderson, in a complete reversal from the utterly blank stock character hunk played by zero-charisma Paul Kratka in Friday the 13th Part III, somehow manages to make the series' most ridiculous dying words seem outright haunting.
While Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter doesn't shy away from the trend of sequels becoming increasingly comedic, Zito balances the light moments — young Feldman sulking in an alien mask; Glover enthusiastically post-modernizing dance — with harsh horror, using bits as purposeful juxtaposition rather than narrative laziness. There are other problems that seem to be unavoidable in the series and the slasher genre at large, especially as the killers edge closer and closer to supernatural dexterity and endurance, but as trademarks of this kind of movie, Zito leverages them with gusto. Unlike the previous movies, which degraded their thrilling climaxes with nonsensical shocks that indecipherably muddied their narratives, Zito goes for gory finality and intense emotion, wrapping up with the most powerful sequence of any film in the series.
Flickcharted: #725 (82.75%); up from #982 (76.63%)
Dir.: Hal Needham
Briefly, during the 1970s, Hollywood discovered that making modest fun movies with rural anti-heroes who loved country life and had absolutely no interest in the trappings of "sophisticated" coastal cities could make them a ton of money, resulting in a handful of quirky box office hits that seem completely foreign by today's standards. Unfortunately, at the exact same time, Hollywood was learning that big budget special effects fantasies could make them even more money, and they continued to pursue the latter while relegating rural characters to pitiable "white trash," toothless villains, or deceptively wise simpletons whose primary function is to teach cynical city folk sweet-hearted life lessons. The peak of Hollywood's too-brief love affair with down-home Americana came in 1977-1978, as Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose combined for nearly $250,000,000 and turned Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood into the two biggest stars at the American box office into the mid-1980s.
Smokey and the Bandit is surely the kind of pop culture relic that today's humorless moral arbiters would describe as "problematic," as it requires a major paradigmatic shift to understand and appreciate. Reynolds stars as "Bandit," an easygoing good ol' boy with a legendary reputation as a driver. Het gets hired by the ridiculous Burdette brothers (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) to run interference for a bootlegging operation, distracting the police from a big rig illegally carrying Coors beer across state lines. This a world of car chases and bar fights — not as high-stakes action or drama, but as amusing past-times, and even as important threads in the fabric of a carefree, laid-back way of life.
Reynolds is as charming as ever as a mix of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner, a kind of un-bestable smartass, a professional outlaw with the guile of a bully but nary a hint of meanness in him. Sally Field co-stars as "Frog," a runaway bride who hitchhikes herself into Bandit's Trans Am; Field's casting is an inspired choice, as the presence of a more conventionally sexy female lead might have made some of the film's casually macho leering feel too salacious. Field, who was not only endearingly cute and spirited but also a recent Emmy-winner as Sybil (and would win an Oscar a year later for Norma Rae), matches Reynolds' strength of personality at every moment, creating a rounded character who is no mere romantic pushover but a willful and self-possessed motor-mouth with full agency in the chaos of her situation. There's a throwaway moment after Field meets Bandit's partner, "Ghost" (Jerry Reed), when, as she walks away, he comments out loud, "Nice ass." In spite of the paroxysms of outrage that this scene will no doubt provoke among post-sex progressives, Field flashes an empowering smile and takes it as a genuine compliment, virtually disarming any retroactive criticism.
The other significant pillar of Smokey and the Bandit is the towering comic performance of Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, an absurdly broad caricature of the self-importantly corrupt southern law enforcement office, who chases Bandit well beyond his own jurisdiction as if some greater principle than his own pride was at stake. Gleason's relentless pillorying of his daft son Junior (Mike Henry) provides many of the film's comic highlights, while also bringing into relief the special quality of Smokey and the Bandit that transforms honestly mediocre material into something greater than it should be. Director Hal Needham, a former stuntman, gave the cast free rein to improvise, and there's both a lived-in sense of southern car-and-truck culture and an innocent celebration of mild mischief as a key part of the eternal tug-of-war between order and liberty.
Flickcharted: #812 (80.68%); up from #1065 (74.65%)
Dir.: Spike Lee
There was a fleeting period during the early 1990s when a new Spike Lee joint was, for me, an opening night-worthy event. My interest waned by the end of the decade, following dour disappointments like Crooklyn and He Got Game, and the boldly disheveled nightmare of Bamboozled, and even though I continued to see and even like some of Lee's movies over the next two decades, whatever special personality and energy he had been calling on at the explosive start to his career had dissipated. BlacKkKlansman is probably Lee's most prominent new release since 1992's Malcolm X, at least in terms of stoking cultural interest, aligning as it does with the contemporary political fixation on white supremacist hate groups.
Fictionalizing the true story of Colorado policeman Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated a local KKK chapter during the 1970s despite being black, Lee seems to have mustered a bit of his old spirit, but also seems fundamentally disinterested in the majority of the movie he's making. As Stallworth (John David Washington) and his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) tag-team their Klan subversion, Lee brings a nice sense of retro style to his filmmaking, but never effectively deals with the anticlimactic paradoxes of his narrative. While Stallworth's investigation sounds sensational, the actual productivity of this undercover feat was arguably negligible, resulting in no arrests, the thwarting of a few cross-burnings, and, at best, some light mockery of dumb racists, culminating in Stallworth posing for a photo with Klan honcho David Duke. Even though Lee and his three co-writers attempt to juice up Stallworth's story with renegade Klan ne'er-do-wells attempting a fictional terrorist attack, all it does is further undermine Lee's argument about the horrible legacy of American racist violence as a persistent social problem: just like in real life, the Klansmen in Lee's movie are incompetent, small-minded idiots whose crazy notions have no wide appeal and amount to virtually nothing. The strongest moments in BlacKkKlansman are peripheral to the core of its story: Lee's surreal capturing of entranced and ennobled faces at a Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael speech; Harry Belafonte's sombre recounting of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington; and footage from the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. The resulting chills from these emotional moments are profound and lingering, but also disconnected enough from Stallworth's story as to seem like non sequiturs, or, at least, suggest that Lee is trying to force an overarching social narrative that doesn't fit as well as he thinks it does. In either event, the majority of BlacKkKlansman is ultimately bland, and only made to feel important by its proximity to a few moments of Lee working at full strength.
Flickcharted: #1782 (57.60%)
Dir.: Danny Steinmann
While the Friday the 13th series had already hit some notable low points during its first four movies, not even the eye-rolling stupidity of Part 3 prepared fans for the abject cynicism of its resurrection. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is so bad as to be almost not even worth mentioning, save for its decent opening sequence featuring the cameo return of Corey Feldman as young Tommy Jarvis. Sadly, nothing that occurs in the saga of older Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard) can live up to those early moments. Now a teenager, but still traumatized by the events of The Final Chapter, Jarvis is moved to a halfway house where mentally troubled teens seem be tasked with the non-stop hanging of laundry on clotheslines. Sure enough, before long the quirky kids are being killed one-by-one by... well, suffice to say that Crystal Lake is not the only totem of the Friday the 13th series to be absent from this disaster.
Like the worst of Part 3, the writing and performances are grotesquely broad, but that movie at least introduced some enduring elements of the series. Everything here is not only disposable, but close to toxic waste. There are times when Friday the 13th: A New Beginning enters into a kind of WTF-zaniness that, at least, provokes bewildered laughs. Every minor character appears to have been granted up to two random inconsequential comedic bits prior to their demise, so the time between kills in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is filled with such sights as a leather punk who scats like a 1940s beatnik and a woman serenading her lover while he defecates in an outhouse.
Director Danny Steinmann tries to compensate for the lack of purpose permeating every pore of this sequel by making it also seem like the goriest and overall most exploitive, but even that's a bit of a cheat as most of the gore effects are static evidence of murders that took place off-screen, and the increased nudity is so transparently gratuitous that it doesn't even seem real. While most of the performances might not seem out of place in a Bowery stage melodrama, top-billed actress Melanie Kinnaman appears medically sedated throughout the lethargic climax.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is not only misguided from a conceptual standpoint — I guess it can be given some credit for trying to do something different; something else different would have been preferable — it's executed with a minimum of vision, craft or competence.
Flickcharted: #3747 (10.83%); down from #3484 (17.09%)
Dir.: Ben Stiller
I watched this movie for the first time accompanied by a commentary track. Not by the cast and crew, but by my 14-year-old daughter. It added little to the experience.
Several years ago I watched the original movie adaption of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye. I find Kaye nearly insufferable, and checked out early on that one. Even though I've been a big fan of Ben Stiller since his sketch series on Fox, the combination of my dislike for the original and the addition of what, from the trailer, appeared to be oppressive sentimentality, kept me away from Stiller's version, despite positive reviews. It's much better than I feared it would be, while still leaning a little too heavily on stock "self-actuality" tropes and maudlin epiphanies.
Stiller, who directed as well as stars, plays an unassertive sad-sack (who nevertheless works an important job at a glamorous company) who gets lost in fantasies of himself as a consequential man of action. When circumstances at work push him into an unexpected adventure, he predictably rises to the challenge and comes out the other side a better, more fulfilled and vital person than he had been previously. It's all right in line with screenwriter Steve Conrad's previous work, which reads like a catalogue of mid-level honey-colored seriocomic inspirational standards like Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, and last year's Wonder. However, with Stiller involved on both sides of the camera, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is truly funny when it's not overcome by its seriousness of purpose, including an awkwardly fitted parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which might be one of the funniest scenes in any of Stiller's movies. He's also supported by a few top comic talents who shine just as brightly when they play things straight, like Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, and Patton Oswalt. Sean Penn also appears as the instigator of Mitty's transformation, which is convoluted enough that it's kind of fun to imagine that Penn is reprising his character from David Fincher's The Game.
New Zealand cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (who is best known for shooting Jane Campion's The Piano) does a lot to distinguish The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which always looks carefully shot, but, like the rest of movie, Dryburgh's contribution walks an uneasy balance beam between inspired artistry and the aesthetics of a luxury car commercial. Scenes shot in Iceland, Greenland and The Himalayas are gorgeous, but almost too slick to the point of becoming impersonal. In its early scenes, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like a movie for people who have always wished that indie-minded mid-life crisis dramas were more like Marvel superhero movies; as this type of material gives way to Mitty's genuine experiences, the movie adopts a strange mix of influences, as if it had been tag-team directed by Swedish auteur Roy Andersson and Garry Marshall. Fans of Will Ferrell's indie magical realism comedy-drama Stranger than Fiction might appreciate that film's similar quirky tone blown up here onto a larger canvas, even if it feels slightly less authentic.
I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as part of a Flickchart-related movie challenge in which I am assigned to watch the top ranked movies I haven't seen from someone else's chart. This month I was assigned the chart of user MaritimeAviator who ranks The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at #6 on her chart of 1419 movies.
Flickcharted: #1694 (59.70%)
Dir.: Richard Brooks
"Sometimes I wish I had a pill to make people disappear."
I've watched this movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams' famous play before, decades ago in high school. I was actively involved in a theatre department where Williams and Edward Albee and other prominent voices from that Broadway era were held in high regard. Through that experience, I developed a distaste for Williams' style which continues to this day. So much strident speechifying. So much smug derision. I always got the sense that Williams loathed his characters as much as they loathed themselves, and that his depiction of their struggles was the only thing that made him feel better about himself. That said, I probably enjoyed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as much as possible, under those circumstances.
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are fine actors who may also be the two most attractive people ever to appear on screen — and they don't even overshadow the fantastic Burl Ives who I only otherwise knew as the singing snowman from the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the singer of "Skip to My Lou" on a record album I had as a child. He's absolutely terrific in this film.
Richard Brooks' direction keeps it moving pretty swiftly, with all of the secondary roles memorably cast and played. I can't really muster any interest in the unpleasantly histrionic expressions of self-imposed strife — blah blah blah football blah blah Skipper blah blah liquor blah blah sex blah blah blah money — but it's all very well done, and I really need to watch more of Taylor in her prime.
I watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as part of a Flickchart-related movie challenge in which I am assigned to watch the top ranked movies I haven't seen from someone else's chart. This month I was assigned the chart of user MaritimeAviator who ranks Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at #3 on her chart of 1419 movies.
Flickcharted: #1969 (53.16%)
Dir.: Mark L. Lester
"If I do something bad, will you still love me?"
Firestarter is one of several subpar Stephen King adaptations that, despite its many flaws, survives in the collective memory solely on the strength of a few iconic shots and moments. Director Mark L. Lester’s pedestrian TV-quality treatment of everything else in Firestarter is so insipidly flavorless that when Drew Barrymore, as a pyrokinetic 6-year-old on the run from government goons, turns on the flames it’s like a guest director tag-teamed in to deliver an isolated wallop. Barrymore, in her first role since becoming a sensation in E.T., struggles overall with the lack of direction, but sells the marquee moments with conviction and power. Those shots of Barrymore — an industrial fan blowing her hair and sweat sponged onto her brow and lip — work so well that it’s easy to forget just how weakly conceived is the rest of Firestarter. Well, except for George C. Scott, who turns in a professionally menacing performance as one of King’s ickiest creeps — but he’s so good that it hurts when the movie consistently fails to meet his standard. Everything else is phoned-in, from the clumsy flashback structure during the first act, a surprisingly ho-hum score from Tangerine Dream, tepid supporting roles for Art Carney and Louise Fletcher, and some of the worst looped-in expository dialog I can recall. The Stranger Things-generation should get a kick out of Firestarter's obviously strong influence on the popular Netflix series, but outside of its fiery finale it's little more than a low-effort cash-in on King's reputation.
Flickcharted: #3090 (26.50%); down from #3016 (28.26%)
Dir.: Tom McLoughlin
Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part VI was, upon its release in 1986, my favorite movie in the indefatigable slasher series. Although the lamest moments in the series up to that point had also been its cartooniest, I thought at the time that this self-aware semi-parody was a high-larious rescue of a franchise scrambling back from its lowest point yet. While it’s no longer my favorite of the first six Friday the 13th films, it still hits a semi-sharp balance between the tropey expectations of slasher fans and a fresh, bold comic book style that delivers an array of pleasing gags alongside a heightened sense of horror as inescapable camp.
Directed by Tom McLoughlin (whose debut One Dark Night, I reviewed last month), Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part VI is the most confidently stylish of any film in the series, wearing its cheekiness on its sleeve and yet rarely making the mistake of overplaying its broad attitude. Tonally, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part VI feels like an extended chapter of Creepshow, in which the titular homicidal maniac finally crosses over into 100%-supernatural territory.
As with most movies in this series, it has problems: Thom Mathews, as the third actor to play recurring character Tommy Jarvis in as many films, has a genuine but airheaded quality, coming off as a cut-rate Michael Dudikoff. There are also problematic physics at play at key moments; the climax hinges on inane speculative certainty about how to stop Jason; and one sequence dives too far into silly caricature, recalling the crassly unfunny failures of Friday the 13th, Part III and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.
However, some of the clever visual gags are still delightful, and, despite its knack for comedy, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part VI cuts no corners when it comes to Jason's murderous activities: they are sensationally grim. McLoughlin also makes the smart and effective choice to include, for the first time in the franchise, children campers at Camp Crystal Lake, ratcheting up the now-too-familiar senses of danger and fear. Jason Lives: Friday the 13th part VI is, at its best, fun and surprising, which is a pretty big feat for a floundering franchise with such a spotty record of reinventing itself; and it feels just a little bit like a labor of love made by a true fan of the series.
Flickcharted: #986 (76.55%); down from #953 (77.33%)
Dir.: Max Ophüls
"I’ve gotten a bit lost in your stories."
This month, as part of a Secret Movie Exchange, in which a mystery person assigns me a movie that I haven't seen before, I was told to watch Max Ophüls' 1953 drama The Earrings of Madame de..., a movie which has earned raves across the board. It has an 8/10 rating on IMDb and a 4.1/5 on Letterboxd. It's on countless lists of "great movies," and, superficially, it's easy to see why: it's got a lush production design and fantastic photography with careful, meaningful framing of shots. It's also got a novel narrative — the spoiled wife of a French general sells a pair of diamond earrings, only to have them return to her again and again, each time carrying new significance — with fine actors in every role.
Yet, following its bright start, I lost interest. Maybe all the dancing, the dancing the lasted forever, was when I checked out. I never placed any importance on the relationship that developed during all that dancing, because I had already decided that the characters involved had little integrity. Danielle Darrieux, who stars as the capricious Louise, is certainly appealing, but her character is a careless fool — she even refers to herself as "a frivolous liar,” which is half-right, it turns out — and I had difficulty taking her romantic adventures seriously enough for my eventual disregard to translate into empathy when it was finally needed.
Really, all the characters in The Earrings of Madame de... are tough to like, and their flaws aren't balanced with any mitigating qualities. Maybe it's supposed to be a scathing indictment of the nonchalant self-absorption of aristocrats, but it's too gently made to be scathing, and its indictment is a little facile. I'm sorry to say, because this seems like something I should've appreciated more, that I feel like I got little out of The Earrings of Madame de.... At best, it reminded me at times of the wonderful 1960 Russian infidelity drama The Lady with the Dog, which depicted a similar relationship about which I came to care deeply in less than 90 minutes. Aside from visuals which must be among the best of its era, The Earrings of Madame de... meant as little to me as a pair of exquisite earrings with no sentimental value.
The Earrings of Madame de... was assigned to me as part of a Secret Movie Exchange. My benefactor was revealed as Flickcharter DrWade42. He ranks it on his chart at #326 / 3280 (90%).
Flickcharted: #1907 (54.64%)
Dir.: John Carl Buechler
You have to give the producers of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood some credit: they tried something different. Well, sort of. Rather than having Jason Voorhees carve his way through yet another ensemble of randy young people, in this installment they pitted him up against a semi-tired trope from another subgenre of horror, a telekinetic young woman. Whether bold or desparate, the sad fact is that director John Carl Buechler (of Troll fame) doesn't do much with it until the final 20 minutes, which are zany, if nothing else.
There a number of little oddball touches that keep Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood interesting despite one of the series' soggiest casts and very little in the way of narrative or cinematic energy. Even the usually dependable score takes a hit, with Fred Mollin churning out a dreary replica of Henry Manfredini's memorable themes. Lar Park Lincoln is likeable enough as Tina, who returns to Crystal Lake to deal with the traumatic loss of her father a decade earlier as a result of her runaway powers, but her charming openness doesn't fully compensate for her limits as an actress or the utterly dull plot points which take up too much of the film.
Jason gets some highlights, including a notoriously grim scene featuring a sleeping bag, but Kane Hodder's interpretation of the character is one the least interesting — which seems to odd to say about a masked, silent killer — devoid of personality tics, and the decision to show a lot of Jason's face during the final battle is a wash: the effects are quite good, but the design is a tad goofy and looks less like Jason than it does a creature from an Italian zombie movie.
There are enough fun moments to keep Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood above the dregs of the series — although its "surprise" ending is the stupidest yet — but, like all of the movies in the 7-10 stretch, it's more of a curiosity within an increasingly desperate franchise than it is a movie with any merits of its own.
Flickcharted: #3139 (25.33%); up from #3868 (7.99%)
Dir.: Satyajit Ray
If great filmmakers didn't throw a curve every now and then, they wouldn't be so great, would they? I went into Satyajit Ray's highly rated The Music Room expecting something quite different than what it is. It's a rather dark film, as evidenced by its opening credits, which feature an unlit chandelier hovering, ghost-like, against a pitch-black background, set to music that sounds like muffled screams. I guess it's a horror movie, of sorts: the horror of a life wasted and a legacy squandered on indulgence.
Chhabi Biswas stars in this fable-like tale of a nobleman whose love of hosting musicians in the ornate music room of his palace takes precedence over attending to his family and stewarding the land his family has ruled for ages. In stark contrast to Ray's deeply moving humanist dramas like The Apu Trilogy and Devi, which focus on characters thrust into daunting situations over which they have little control, The Music Room is about a man of weak character who fritters everything away, because he can. Biswas does a fine job eking out just a bit of empathy for a character who may not deserve it; there's a twinge of wistfulness as the old ways seem to be aggressively swallowed up by the new, but he still falls far short of the ancestors he so reveres, none of whom, even at their worst, were dead-ends.
As a fable, The Music Room is maybe too direct to be effective as a dramatic film narrative: while it avoids the predictable ups-and-downs of melodrama, it goes where it's headed with too little dynamism. Near the end, there's a thudding obviousness to the events and metaphors, even when they seem to go out of their way to prolong the inevitable conclusion. Scenes that should pack an emotional wallop feel simply obligatory. Ray has a special way with framing, movement and light, so The Music Room is always pleasing to watch, and the musical performances are also captivating. It's a memorable film, but one that's hard to love. If Ray intended it as a dirge for a type of antiquated aristocrat, a comment on a decadent ruling class, it works, albeit one-dimensionally.
I watched The Music Room because I've been listening to old episodes of the Filmspotting podcast, and a few years ago they watched it as a part of a Ray marathon. They compared The Music Room to Citizen Kane, and it's apt, but more so as an illustration of what Orson Welles got so right with Kane, another wealthy man withering away within his decaying palace. For all of Kane's many character flaws, and his self-inflicted wounds, Welles can't hide a deep love and sly admiration for that difficult character, which runs through the film as an activating current. Ray doesn't seem bothered by such affection and introduces no such points of engagement. There may be a fair share of pity in The Music Room, but even that feels distant, leaving this ornately appointed production somewhat dark and empty at the end.
Flickcharted: #1472 (64.98%)
Dir.: Luis Buñuel
Belle de Jour must have been dynamite in 1967: the story of a doctor's wife who can't be intimate with her husband due to childhood sexual abuse, but finds release turning tricks during the afternoons in an exclusive brothel. Luis Buñuel tackles bourgeois ennui, marital dysfunction, and sexual disassociation with a feint at lush melodrama and a helping of his trademark surrealism, with the classy Catherine Deneuve at her most dead-inside. But why does it feel so... empty? Is it partially because every movie and TV drama these days wants to take a stab at sexual politics and the discord between men's physical lusts and women's emotional desires? Maybe.
There is a sense that in breaking new ground 50 years ago, Bunuel's foray into the subject is fairly superficial by today's standards, putting too much stock in the shock concept of a privileged beauty servicing low-class slobs just because. But is it actually new ground? Deneuve already played out the role of traumatized abuse-survivor in Roman Polanski's gripping 1965 REPULSION, and, though the theme is different, Jean Luc-Godard's lyrical, cynical Vivre sa vie : film en douze tableaux put Anna Karina through the "Why not be a prostitute?" paces in 1962.
The key to Bunuel's version of this scenario seems to be how little agency Séverine (Deneuve) seems to have in dealing with her stunted sexual feelings, at least at first. But where is she at the end? Has she developed a sense of herself, and of men, as she claims? Or has she carelessly conflated impersonal groping with her husband's real yearning, and just learned how to fake showing an interest? Or is she simply incapable of confronting sex outside a framework of degradation?
Intentionally, I think, Belle de Jour doesn't work as a conventional drama — Séverine is too cool, too placid, and too quick to shift from one extreme to another — but that doesn't stop Bunuel from indulging in a wasteful and unnecessary subplot the only purpose of which seems to be to fill out the running time. As a series of compelling images, Belle de Jour succeeds, and it's provocative enough, but it feels short on deeply considered ideas; half of its intrigue is in questioning whether or not there's more to it than its simplistic surface notions of the frigid wife with a taste for self-loathing.
Belle de Jour was assigned to me as part of a Secret Movie Exchange, as an alternative to the primary pick The Earrings of Madame de..., which I watched earlier this month. My benefactor was revealed as Flickcharter DrWade42. He ranks it on his chart at #222 / 3280 (93%).
Flickcharted: #1330 (68.36%)
Dir.: Alain Resnais
“Again I had the feeling that no one understood your words.”
I'm pretty sure I watched Last Year at Marienbad about 25 years ago, close enough to seeing another Alain Resnais film, Hiroshima mon amour, that I've mixed them up in my mind. The one thing that I can quite clearly remember is how annoying I found both of them. As I learned a year ago while trying to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror, I haven't developed a taste for sombre non-linear art films narrated with precious poetry delivered in a hushed drone.
Five minutes into this revisiting of Last Year at Marienbad I already felt like I had my fill of it; but then I stopped feeling that way, partially. As a nameless man (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince an resistant woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they not only met last year, they felt something profound for each other, but with neither able to determine, in their circular dialog, when or where or what exactly happened, I wouldn't say I started to enjoy Resnais for the first time, but I no longer wanted to turn it off and find an excuse to forget to finish it.
Maybe it was the increasingly beguiling imagery — starting with the mesmerizing long take of the woman walking, one shoe on, through a windy palace garden; and the striking silent-film style grandeur during the climax — that overrode my natural aversion to movies that act as if something of the utmost value is happening while all of the content is incoherent gibberish.
I think that experimental narratives like Last Year at Marienbad work best when infused with the cheekily pointed mischief of a Luis Bunuel or the droll wit of Jean-Luc Godard, and Resnais takes himself far too seriously (so does Terrence Malick, who has recently turned into the new Resnais). Still, there's either a bit of humor in Last Year at Marienbad, or, I desperately read some into it, particularly in the hapless games of chance, and the woman's Lurch-like husband-type figure (Sacha Pitoëff), and the oppressively dirge-like organ-moaning score, and moments where the movement of the stone-faced people is so deliberately unnatural, it's reasonable to speculate that Last Year at Marienbad might have been a key influence on George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Although the intentionally disconnected images and sounds, and out of sync thoughts and memories, and seemingly endless repetition of the same phrases over and over and over and over are taxing, at first, when they finally, if briefly, align or manifest, it's somehow satisfying enough to tolerate the tedious set-up. Still, in a film that is almost nothing but haunting questions with no answers, and a circular journey down the same corridors of the mind again and again and again, the question that most haunts me is: Does Last Year at Marienbad try, in its elusive way, to get to the heart of anything? Or is it just a false scenario, presented in a false style, with false dialog, meaning nothing of consequence? I suspect that it is; but, at least this time, I didn't hate the experience of it like I did the first time, and I might have even liked parts of it.
Last Year at Marienbad was assigned to me as part of a Secret Movie Exchange, as an alternative to the primary pick The Earrings of Madame de..., which I watched earlier this month. My benefactor was revealed as Flickcharter DrWade42. He ranks it on his chart at #3 / 3280 (100%).
Flickcharted: #1930 (54.10%)
Dir.: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Having a 12-year-old son means having to watch all of the National Lampoon's Vacation movies within the space of a few months. It's not a must-see series, with even the original movie — which came out when was 11 — propelled mostly by fumes of nostalgia. I never bothered watching Vegas Vacation or Christmas Vacation until I was much older, as they exuded the stink of unnecessary sequels, and I haven't revised my opinion following these recent re-watches.
The original National Lampoon's Vacation, while not nearly as funny as its reputation suggests, is still trying to do something honest: take a semi-universal subject, the family vacation, and exaggerate its hazards for comedy. The Griswolds — Clark (Chevy Chase), Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), Audrey (various actresses) and Russ (various actors) — are believable as a distinct but not unusual family, which makes watching them struggle through the (sometimes absurd) conflicts of family time enjoyable and involving. However, in this beloved holiday edition, their relatable problems take a back seat to a bizarre preoccupation with electricity, fire and combustion as the punchlines of improbable and barely amusing gags.
The best moments in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation are when it pulls back from its high concept gags and refocuses on the smaller family interactions, but even in those fertile spots it runs into trouble. The main problem is that Chase seems to be on autopilot, either mugging through endlessly dull slapstick or churning out indecipherably lazy improvs. His flirty, frazzled conversation with an alluring lingerie saleswoman is the kind of soft serve Chase has aced multiple times throughout his career, but this instance is pure gibberish, anchored to nothing. While the other Vacation movies have gotten a lot of material out of the Griswold children, neither Russ (Johnny Galecki) nor Audrey (Juliette Lewis) are given anything of note, and Lewis in particular stands out as too interesting an actress for this material. Chase gets off a few energetic rants during the climax, but otherwise National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is purely low-effort franchise milking.
I do find it bewildering how many people consider National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation a holiday classic, but I also didn't grow up with it as an annual pastime. I also seem to have an aversion to second-stage John Hughes material (his solid first stage ended with Some Kind of Wonderful in early 1987), especially those set around Christmas, such as execrable Home Alone or the inspidly maudlin Planes, Trains and Automobiles. These movies strike an important chord for many people, but I'm tone deaf to whatever it is.
Here's my ranking of the Vacation series:
Flickcharted: #3387 (19.47%); down from #3379 (19.66%)
Dir.: Satyajit Ray
After being thrown by the unexpectedly dark commentary in The Music Room, the humanist drama of The Big City feels like a return to what I thought I knew about filmmaker Satyajit Ray. In the same way that he so poignantly and vividly depicted a family surviving the poverty of rural India during the 1920s in Pather Panchali, Ray examines a contemporary family facing the new challenges and opportunities of living in a modern city. As a young married couple struggles to support themselves and their young son — as well as the husband's teenage sister and aging parents — they compromise traditional family roles, and the adjustments to their domestic dynamic creates new insecurities and resentments, while both wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), and husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), deal with the hazards, prejudices and politics of the working world.
For the most part, The Big City is carefully and sensitively realized, with lead actors Mukherjee and Chatterjee instantly creating empathetic characters who embody archetypes as fully fleshed-out individuals with relatable foibles, desires and fears. Watching these two navigate their new arrangement is alternately thrilling (albeit in this movie's modest manner) and painful. These two performances are sublime, and they deserved a better final act than the one Ray devised for them. The delicacy with which Ray presents the first three-quarters of this fairly long film makes an unfortunate and jarring surrender to broad melodrama near the end, with Arati behaving, in one overall odd scene, wildly and unnecessarily out-of-character. After its steep and misjudged dive into simplistic bold strokes, The Big City tries to wrap up too-neatly, with conciliatory teary-eyed speeches that would seem to belong to a far less interesting movie than what was suggested during its first two acts.
As a filmmaker, Ray seems to lose his own way in The Big City. His visual style is neat-but-plain, letting his actors dominate the frame with their appealing, emotive faces; but where the narrative takes them is not nearly as organic. The Big City full of ideas, but Ray isn't sure what he wants to say about them, so he falls back on platitudes, which, although they don't invalidate the film as a whole, rob it of significant value.
Flickcharted: #1346 (68.01%)
A.K.A.The Lonely Wife
Dir.: Satyajit Ray
The final film in the marathon was his 1964 marriage drama Charulata (a.k.a. The Lonely Wife, which brings back in the title role the terrific Madhabi Mukherjee from The Big City, this time as the bored wife of a workaholic newspaper publisher, who develops a troubling bond with her husband’s free-spirited cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee).
The most exciting element of Charulata is Ray’s dip into Bollywood musical, with a couple of charmingly staged numbers. Both Mukherjee and Chatterjee are delightful in these sequences and throughout the film, and Shailen Mukherjee makes a strong impression as Bhupati, Charluata's aloof and unpoetic but not-uncaring husband. Bhupati is actually like a soft revision of Chhabi Biswas' profligate nobleman in The Music Room: both are wealthy men who discover first-hand the perils of neglecting, or trusting to others, the maintenance of what they value most. Ray is markedly less cynical about this subject this time around.
The issues I had with Charulata are similar to my reservations about The Music Room and The Big City (and also Apu Sansar, to an extent): Ray's uneven storytelling is not up to the extremely high standard of the rest of his craft. He brings no new perspective to this routine storyline, and his parallel subplots are inelegantly incorporated, with each thread fighting over the diminishing narrative energy of foregone conclusions rather than propelling each other toward an original or insightful conclusion. Much weight is placed on Charulata’s talent as writer but the payoff for that is forgotten almost as quickly as it's introduced. The tenderness of the final scene is affecting, but quickly marred by an odd style choice that was either clumsily implemented by Ray himself or has been poorly preserved and transferred to home video.
I suppose that I have come to see Ray, this month, as an acute observer of human wants and weaknesses, but maybe without anything profound to say about it. Given how moving I found Mukherjee in The Big City, maybe my hopes were too high for Charulata, and it couldn’t help but disappoint. Like all three of the Ray movies I watched during September, its individual highlights are very special but not served by an equally compelling whole.
Here’s my current ranking of the movies of Satyajit Ray:
Flickcharted: #1777 (57.77%)