Sunday, June 15, 2014

Old & New, Foreign & Domestic

Due to commitments for the upcoming Slayage conference, I've fallen a bit behind in posting about movie-watching.  Let me try to take care of that, but be warned - to keep this post from becoming as long as Kurosawa's Red Beard (but nowhere near as good as that film, I fear), I'm going to skim the surface here, which is a shame, since the first three in particular deserve deeper looks.  Look at the end of the post for the upshot of it all.

I'm working my way through my "good movies" list and have seen three since I last reported in on that. All three are flat-out amazing and well worth seeing. To start with, Akira Kurosawa's last collaboration with the incomparable Toshiro Mifune, the 1965 epic Red Beard. Here's what I think, in a nutshell. When you've had a lousy day and you feel unappreciated, overworked, pushed to the side and then you see that the news is full of terrible people doing terrible things, go watch Kurosawa's final film to be shot in black and white, Red Beard. We're worth saving. It's an amazing film and don't tell me that you don't like subtitles. You'll like this film and you'll feel better about life afterwards.

I know that I have some ridiculous holes in my cinematic repertoire, but I promised to be honest about those, so I can tell you with tremendous enthusiasm that I finally saw Hitchcock's Psycho. I wasn't expecting it to be so creepy, but I should have remembered that I'm dealing with Hitchcock. The violence is tame by today's standards, but the movie was still incredibly effective at making me double-check the locks that night. Anthony Perkins is magnificent at being all charming and gee-shucks and even though you know what's going to happen (Psycho is that much a part of the American culture), you're still surprised by it. Gus Van Sant re-made this movie in 1998 and I cannot imagine what he was thinking.

Another classic I'd never seen (in my defense, I've seen other films by Kurosawa, Hitchcock and this director, John Ford) was Stagecoach, which can be said to set the standard for the Western film. Few films are as acclaimed as this one, and few deserve to be. Honestly, this is THE movie to watch if you're looking for a primer in what makes a good Western. You've seen parts of Stagecoach before - the Monument Valley setting, the hooker with the heart of gold, the outlaw on the run who is determined to mete out justice . . . in lesser hands, it would be schlock, but in the hands of John Ford, it's golden. It was also released in 1939, which was just a magic year for movies (Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all released that same year, just to name three.)

OK - now to new movies, which I enjoyed, but just don't stack up to the three I've reported on so far, so let's keep this short.  Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise science fiction extravaganza, is actually surprisingly good. There's a certain Groundhog Day element here, but it's not played for laughs. Cruise plays against type and his William Cage is a smarmy, behind-the-front-lines media consultant with oak leaf clusters. Through a most unlikely series of events (and a little too much hand-held camera for my taste), Cage becomes the bearer of a gift that might just save humanity - if he can figure out how to do it. Heavy hints at WW1 (especially the "Angel of Verdun" reference) and WW2 (the film was released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day) are completely deliberate. The movie worked very well for me, although there's a plot stumble toward the end - an occupational hazard when working with time travel and you're not entirely sure the audience will follow you.

Last - the new DreamWorks animated feature, How to Train Your Dragon 2. As sequels go, this one is first rate. I loved the first one and I thought that it had some VERY interesting things to say about disability. (There's an entire field of scholarship called "disability studies" that I'm sure went ape over the first movie, by the way.) That's carried through in this one, but at the heart of this film is a heavier question - how do you deal with loss? How do your losses, rather than your victories, shape you? The flight sequences alone are worth the price of admission - and in one breathtaking sequence, you'd swear the dragons were butterflies. However, be warned that this film deals (and deals nicely) with some heavy themes that the  very young ones might find intense to the point of being scary. It's rated PG, which is a mushy rating, but be warned - it's not a G and there's a good reason for that.

Red Beard - if you have a heartbeat and three hours, go get this NOW! Seriously.
Psycho - I still have no idea why Gus Van Sant remade this movie. Go see the Hitchcock and marvel as the sheer creepiness of Anthony Perkins.
Stagecoach - which could also be called THE Western. Everything you ever needed to know about how a Western should work in one John Ford picture. See it now.
Edge of Tomorrow - finally, Tom Cruise does a sci-fi that's worth watching, although there's one sloppy plot hole at the end. A rental, but a fun one.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 - a fine movie, but one that deals with some heavy themes for the youngest among us. Go see this, but careful about taking the very young with you.  Probably fine for ages 10 and up without hesitation.

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