Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Mirror Crack'd (1963)

A very good Miss Marple mystery, written fairly late in Agatha Christie's career. I'm not positive but I might now have read all of the Marple books. I like her so much more than Poirot, and I especially like the books that take place in St. Mary Mead. One of the nice things about this book is how it deals with the modernization of the village, in particular the addition of a development of new semi-detached houses. Miss Marple walks through and concludes, as she always does, that the new modern couples living in the development, are no different than couple anywhere or at any point in time. She means, of course, that they are as capable of murder as anyone.

Friday, February 26, 2010

In the Loop (2009)

A frenetic, foul-mouthed political satire. It's genuinely funny at times, and the acting is great. My favorites: Tom Hollander as a clueless MP, Peter Capaldi as a vitriolic communications minister, Mimi Kennedy as an American cabinet member, and Anna Chlumsky (yes, My Girl) as one of her aides. The film starts in one tone and never changes. It's a problem with the genre more than this particular film. I enjoyed it but about halfway through I was ready for it to end.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Number 17 (1932)

A pretty odd film. It starts great, with a man wandering into an abandoned house (17 is the street number) to find a corpse, a hobo, and a young woman creeping across the roof. Soon after, more people show up, none of them really explained, and it's like a surreal experiment. Unfortunately, it's not really surrealism, it's just plain incomprehensibility. Things straighten out by the end, and there's a big action finish, involving a train, a bus, and a ferry. It's great, if you don't mind some pretty obvious model work. Except for the very beginning, however, and the very end, it's pretty much a mess. Only for those devoted to seeing every film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Topper (1937)

A mediocre ghost comedy, made sporadically funny by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as newly-minted ghosts. The special effects, which are good for the day, are overplayed and get to be tiresome. This was hugely popular. Cary Grant got a percentage deal on this film and made a ton of money, which is maybe why he opted out of the sequels.

Quick note on ghost movies. They only work (at least for me) when the rules work. In this movie, the ghosts are just not ghostly enough. They can eat and drink, and when they feel like it, people can see them. I had the same problem in Truly, Madly, Deeply: Alan Rickman just wasn't enough of a ghost. Why was Juliet Stevenson so sad when she still had her husband around the house? Ghost is pretty good, until the very end, when Patrick Swayze can suddenly have a fistfight with Tony Goldwyn. The best ghost comedy of recent years is Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais, a nearly perfect little comedy, and the rules of the ghosts are rigidly followed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Poetry Monday

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
by Craig Raine

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
Sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. In particular I enjoyed how Scorsese played around with the artifice of cinema and how that worked in the context of the film. The production design and sound design are, not unexpectedly, incredible. Scorsese does not hold back with either the Gothic trappings or the gruesome details of the book. It's a genuinely creepy film experience.

Charlene thought that Mark Rufalo should have played the Leonardo Dicaprio role and I kind of agree. Sometimes I like Dicaprio (he's good at the end of this film) but I always feel like I can see the acting.

The music, a lot of it avant garde classical, was selected by Robbie Robertson and it really worked for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Doctor Who - The Steven Moffat Episodes

So I don't really watch Doctor Who. I've caught an episode here and there of course and I usually like what I see but that's about it. However, back when Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg's film version of Tintin was announced I looked up Tintin screenwriter Steven Moffat and found that he had recently written what were generally considered to be the best of the recent Doctor Who episodes. So I started checking them out--he's only written six episodes so far for a total of four storylines. Each one was excellent and I am now officially very excited for the Tintin movies (not that I wasn't before).

Here are the Moffat episodes, in chronological order. I recommend all of them.

"The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (2005)
You know what's creepier than a creepy kid? One with a gasmask for a face. One of the great things about Steven Moffat episodes is that in each one he goes for the jugular, trying to come up with the scariest creatures, ones that will guarantee no sleep for kids. This great two-parter is set during the Blitz.

"The Girl in the Fireplace" (2006)
This is a time-travel episode in which real historical French figure Madame De Pompadour (played by Sophia Myles, reason enough to watch this episode) is hunted by clockwork androids. Creepy and romantic.

"Blink" (2007)
My favorite of the Moffat episodes, by far. There is very little Doctor in this at all. It focuses on Sally Sparrow (played by pre-Oscar nomination Carey Mulligan) as a young woman investigating some terrifying statues, the Weeping Angels. It's a great premise and the character of Sally is completely charming.

"Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" (2008)
Really good but a little melodramatic. Not to give too much away but there are several drawn-out death scenes in these two episodes, but that's my only complaint. It's another brilliant idea, another terrifying villain (The Vashta Nerada, carnivorous creatures that disguise themselves as shadows and usually live in forests), and the secondary characters, as in all these episodes, are completely compelling.

Having watched all of these I feel like I might have spoiled myself for the rest of Doctor Who, which can't be as good as these. I'll probably quit now, while I'm ahead.

Three Junes (2003)

My mother lent me this book about a year ago. I kind of hate when people lend me books because I feel like I have a very good sense of what I like to read, with a large stack of unread books in my office, so I don't always welcome suggestions. Besides, I haven't read all of John D. MacDonald yet so why would I be wasting time with the latest sensitive contemporary novel. That said, I just finished Three Junes and mum was right, it was very, very good. It's a book that spans ten years and focuses on one family. Each section (the middle section is long and the first and third sections are pretty short--like a triptych) takes place in June, hence the title, and each explores the family relationships around Fenno McLeod, a gay bookstore owner in Brooklyn who hails from Scotland. It's extremely well-written, and moving, and I love the shifts in perspective that happen when a new section focuses on a new character. It's jarring but I think it works.

Next book:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Lost Art of Inglourious Basterds

The Upper Playground art gallery in Los Angeles is doing a benefit for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Several artists have created imaginary posters for Inglourious Basterds, the lithographs are being signed by Quentin Tarantino, and then sold at a benefit. Details here.

Here are some examples:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Torn Curtain (1965)

I'd never seen this before because I'd always heard that it wasn't very good, which is true. It is, however, a Hitchcock film, which means that it not only has many masterful shots, but a couple first-rate sequences, including a grisly murder at a farmhouse, and a beautifully-shot sequence at the ballet. That said, it's basically pretty dull, a thriller without a lot of thrills. Paul Newman plods through, trying to method-act in a Hitchcock movie, and Julie Andrews seems lost--her and Newman have no chemistry. Only for completists.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Surveillance (2008)

A very disturbing thriller from Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David. A pair of FBI agents zero in on a killing spree by interviewing the survivors. I didn't love it, but it was well-made, genuinely twisted, and contained a great performance by Julia Ormond as one of the FBI agents. What hurt this film for me is that Lynch makes every character a pretty nasty piece of work; she doesn't really want you to identify with anyone, except for maybe the little girl, and that's fine--I don't believe that movies need identifiable heroes--but this one went a little too far. I didn't wind up really caring too much about the outcome of the film.


If pressed, I would probably say that my all-time favorite genre, in books and movies, is the gothic thriller, especially ones that are set near the sea.

So how is it that this Friday not one but two gothic thrillers, each taking place on islands off of Massachusetts, are opening up nationwide. Not only that but they are directed by Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.

They both look great. I've read the source material for each, and I think that Shutter Island will probably make a better film than The Ghost Writer (the book it's based on is simply called The Ghost. It's by Robert Harris).

For all I know, both these movies are terrible, but right now, it's looking like a very happy weekend for me. Gray weather, terrible secrets, grisly murders. Bring it on.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Ludicrous but highly entertaining. Lots of gritty action and strange comedy. Peter Lorre, in his first English role, plays a giggling, skunk-haired leader of a group of assassins who kidnap a teenage girl to keep her parents, who have stumbled onto vital information, quiet. Remade in the fifties with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. The remake substituted middle-class angst for the stiff upper lips of the original. I'll take the stiff upper lips, especially if it means no one sings que sera sera. Nova Pilbeam is great as the quivering, saucer-eyed kidnapped girl.

Poetry Monday

by R. S. Thomas

Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.

Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse,
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.

What’s living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me

Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept his tall frame lithe.

What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fort Apache (1948)

The first of John Ford's Cavalry trilogy and a great film. Big-hearted, funny, and ultimately bleak. John Wayne is very good as Captain York, taking a back-seat to Henry Fonda's portrayal of Colonel Thursday, the bigoted, dangerous leader of a regiment in Apache territory. A dark-haired teenage Shirley Temple plays Fonda's flirty, determined daughter. Like most of John Ford's films, I am most taken with the supporting cast, the colorful, eccentric characters with which Ford fills out his Western civilizations. In this film, Victor McLaglen steals the movie as a mischievous drunken soldier.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hitchcock's Ten Best Scenes

This list could obviously be much, much longer. But for the sake of argument here are my top ten scenes from Hitch.

10. The final scene from The Birds (1963) Pure silence as the few survivors skedaddle out of town. What remains are birds, the triumph of nature over civilization.

9. The opening scene in Strangers on a Train (1951)Since I picked an ending scene, here's an opening one. Hitchcock cuts between two pairs of feet running for a train, then edits in the intersecting tracks to create the perfect visual metaphor for the film to come.

8. The windmill sequence in Foreign Correspondent (1940)A windmill in Holland that turns the wrong way. Joel McCrea, playing intrepid reporter, John Jones, enters this seemingly innocuous space and discovers a spy ring. My favorite example of something ordinary in a Hitchcock film hiding something sinister.

7. The auction scene in North by Northwest (1959)I like this scene so much more than the crop-duster scene. In it Roger Thornhill gets himself arrested in order to escape the clutches of Vandamn. It's the most remarkable combination of humor (Cary Grant is hysterical), suspense, and romance (there's great electricity between Grant and Eva Marie Saint).

6. Mrs. Danvers burns down Manderley in Rebecca (1940)
Hauntingly beautiful. The glow of Manderley in the distance, then the shots of Mrs. Danvers running through the burning building. Iconic images.

5. The first appearance of Madeleine in Vertigo (1958)
Jimmy Stewart sits at the bar in Ernie's Restaurant and watches as Kim Novak, lit almost as though she were already a ghost, emerges from the shocking red wallpaper.

4. Lars Thorwald peers back in Rear Window (1954)
Grace Kelly has just been caught in the murderer's apartment across the way and Jimmy Stewart can only watch helplessly. When the cops arrive she signals that she's wearing the dead wive's wedding ring. Pan to Raymond Burr, who looks from the ring directly across the way at Stewart, and the audience. Brilliance.

3. The shower scene in Psycho (1960)
Not so much for the scene itself, although it is of course one of the best shot and edited murder sequences ever put on film, but for Hitchcock's willingness to kill off the heroine of the film before the halfway mark. A total shock that changed cinema forever.

2. The crofter and his wife in The 39 Steps (1935)
Richard Hannay is on the run in the Scottish Highlands when he spends a night at the house of a miserable, money-hungry crofter and his sad wife, played beautifully by Peggy Ashcroft. It's a quintessential Hitchcock scene, in which the audience knows the many layers of what each character is feeling, and the suspense and drama emerges from that knowledge. It's complex, frightening, and most importantly, an emotional moment, in which we are given a brief glimpse into a tragic life.

1. The kiss outside the wine cellar in Notorious (1946) Much like the sequence in The 39 Steps, this mini-masterpiece in Notorious, in which spies Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman search through the winecellar for proof of plutonium and then kiss when they are caught by Bergman's husband, played by Claude Rains, is set up by its multiple layers. The kiss is both a ploy, and completely real. Claude Rains' shame on watching the act, exacerbated by the presence of his servant, makes you wonder which is worse, the sexual betrayal or the political one. It all comes together in this one scene, where the physical manifestation of love suddenly trumps politics, danger, and identity.