Flipping the Tables

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The movies I watch most frequently, roughly 80%, are subtle, full of dark images, deep thoughts, and painted with smoke, mirrors, and chiaroscuro. The movies I tend to walk around, to avoid, even when given four-star reviews, are bloody, action flicks, brutal and gruesome, cruel and angry. My best friend might argue with you, that is exactly what I watch, a mixture of the usual top-ten noir films we’ve all seen with Bogart and Mitchum and their splendid ilk. But I also watch a lot of 1940’s crime films with twisted femme fatales, and a mixture of characters with seemingly no conscience and no regrets. I suppose there is a discrepancy there but we all have our limits and I never did well with brutal, unless it was painted up pretty and put in stockings and a ball gown.

Enter Raging Bull, the top daddy on many critics’ lists, including Roger Ebert’s. I have a long love affair with both De Niro and Italian culture. They feel like family, like the sort of folks I suspect are in a few generations of my lineage and my husband’s. So when I was asked what films everyone has seen that I have not, Raging Bull and The Deer hunter were the first on my mind and out of my mouth.

I sat with my ice water, Raisinets, and popcorn and hit play. I was immediately transported into a painting. The movie is magnificent, and would be even with the sound off. But the combination of the music and the visuals is nothing short of, and the choice of Scorsese to use black and white hooked me from the start.

I was at ringside, not cheering or taking pictures. I was mesmerized by Jake LaMotta in the ring, boxing the air. He was alone in a smoky haze, only the camera flashes from out of the darkness indicating that anyone else could see him fighting his adversaries, and only he knew who he was boxing.

There are 8 boxing matches featured in this film but I don’t think Raging Bull is really about boxing. He could have been a tailor or a policeman or a mail carrier. It gets to the heart of jealousy and insecurity, and how a person can tear their family  and their own life apart with their hands. In that way boxing serves as the perfect illustration of a man that punishes others for their weaknesses and for their strengths that make him feel weak. A man that can punish himself just as easily, and take it. Over and over again.

I grew up enamoured with boxing. I think I got it from my mother, who, though she didn’t watch any sports regularly, except figure skating during the Olympics, but never missed a heavy weight bout. This was during Ali’s reign in the late 70’s–as well as Holmes, Norton, Spinks, et al. I never missed a Rocky movie, and loved all of them. But this is an entirely different animal. I believe that is because it begins as truth, from LaMotta’s own autobiography. I understand there were a few changes, but not crucial ones.

If it was fiction, I would be saying, hey, drop the anger a bit and balance things out. A viewer can only take so much? Lighten a few scenes, take a break with the pressure. But this is real life and Scorsese pulled no punches. We ride the wave from beginning to end, and it never lets up. But I won’t say anything about the end, never a spoiler with me, just in case I am not the only person in the world that has not seen Raging Bull.

The main difference between this and other ‘boxing’ movies, is that clearly each scene has been edited perfectly, edited for effect, and somehow the effects come off without being pretentious or condescending. It is a truly beautiful film. Cathy Moriarty is fantastic as his second wife, and Joe Pesci is brilliant as his brother. Most underrated actor ever, but I digress.

Check this out, one of my favourite scenes, when Jake tells his brother to hit him in the face.

De Niro barely even moves his head and body when he’s hit over and over. I understand he trained with LaMotta for a year to do this film right.

The hardest scenes to watch, but the most interesting are the ones with his wives, especially those with Vikki. They clearly loved each other desperately, but when Jake was jealous, or reacting to something she said, he was an animal, ferocious and unpredictable.

 

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De Niro’s LaMotta reminds me of what Brando pulled off in On The Waterfront, especially showing how a lady can temper the beast, at least for a time, and help him to feel something other than rage. In one memorable scene, Jake is trying to abstain before a fight but Vikki pushes him close to the edge. He pours ice down his pants and she goes to him and kisses him, holding him close. She walks away with a wet spot on her gown.

Between the rage and the passion, my inner voyeur was well satisfied, and now I can cross Raging Bull off my list. I could wax long about not letting anger ruin us and stopping the rage before we tear ourselves apart, but we all know this already, so lets’ be good to each other, and see lots of good movies to keep life rich, capiche?

 

 

 

No Dog in this Fight: My first viewing of Straw Dogs.

The end of Straw Dogs has Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner driving an uncredited David Warner’s Henry Niles back to town after the climatic showdown in the Sumner house. Henry tells David, “I don’t know my way home.” To which David responds, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” This final exchange sums up the entirety of what  Straw Dogs conveys. At the end of the day, just what are we? 

There will be spoilers here.

Prior to my viewing of Straw Dogs, the only film by Sam Peckinpah I’ve seen was The Wild Bunch. I took that film as a more visceral version of a Leone western. However having only seen it once, I didn’t get the themes that are prevalent with Peckinpah’s work. This film is rife with controversy and complications and interpretations. It is not an easy watch. Things do not resolve themselves. People are not good and don’t nescesarily become better people by the end of this.

This film is certainly one that earned its controversial status. It raises questions. Even if you answer one question, you may not answer the next question the same way.  Is Straw Dogs a condemnation of violent masculinity? One may interpret it that way. Or is it a celebration of that? It may be as well. Is Peckinpah blaming women for the violence that occurs against them? It seems that way, at least to me it did. Early on David asks his wife Amy (a heartbreaking performance by Susan George) why doesn’t she wear a bra if she doesn’t want the leering eyes of her ex-boyfriend and his cohorts focused on her chest. This moment is actually one of many that show her husband is not only meek, but part of the overall problem. He disrespects his wife at times and belittles her. He blames her sexual freedom for the attention she did not ask for. By time we reach the climax, you’ll see David is no better than the brutes who invade their home. It just took him a little longer to get there.


The controversial rape of Amy is still a discussion point to this day. Becuase of how Peckinpah filmed the scene, there are indicators that Amy at first refuses but then acquiesces. Now I do not see it that way. I saw a woman trying to cope with the violation being committed against her. The scene is brutal and uncomfortable and I actually feel uncomfortable trying to discuss it. Yet this is film criticism and I’d be remiss to not mention it at all despite its notorious reputation.


This is a very complicated film, directed by a very complicated man. Did Peckinpah hate the violence within himself? Did he allow that to manifest in this film? Does he think David is a hero or antihero? So many questions. It’s fitting that this film came out in 1971, the same year as fellow controversial director Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Straw Dogs, like that film are not easily watched. Yet both films hold a mirror to the ghastly primal nature of humanity and at the very least, make you look inside and question just what are you. Straw Dogs, structurally is a time bomb, ticking away during its runtime until it explodes in the climax. 

Is it just a matter of time for any of us? Just another of the many questions it forever brings. Endless questions and endless discussion.

February on the way to Yuma…

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Year Released: 1957
Running Time: 92 Minutes

Directed by Delmer Daves and based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, “3:10 to Yuma” is the second feature for my 2015 list of Shame. This one is actually a holdover from last year but I still really wanted to watch this.

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford play Dan Evans and Ben Wade respectively. Evans is a rancher who agrees to escort outlaw Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma to get him out of town before his gang arrives to get him.

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I love movies with constrained scenarios and limited settings. While the setting here is certainly no Rear Window, the taut nature of the plot mainly involving two men as they make their way across the desert intrigued me. I loved the manner in which Wade antagonizes Evans throughout. I had seen the 2008 remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and this sort of banter I expected in a modern western, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it in a film from the 50s. This definitely is not the standard Hollywood western from that era.

I love how this movie was shot. It sort of has a feel that borders on film, yet also 1950s style television. The black and white cinematography is very sharp here. And when I say sharp I mean it as if there are edges you could cut yourself on. It’s almost as if it was something you would see on television then, but that’s not to deride it in anyway. I think that is due to the camerawork and very tight script.

Both the lead actors are fantastic in their roles. Ford plays Wade with a balanced menace to become a pure antagonist without slipping into villainy. Heflin is the dedicated family man who even though he may not say much, you can tell in his body language that he has no issue with handling Wade despite his seemingly meek nature. He is not easily intimidated by either Wade nor the situation they are in.

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One thing I was surprised by with this film is its director Delmer Daves. I initially thought after viewing that this is a guy who should have gotten more opportunities. Then I saw he was involved with other classics that I had seen such as Jubal, An Affair to Remember and Demetrius and the Gladiators. It makes me wonder why Daves isn’t talked about as much in film circles, or was he an early example of a gun for hire director? I’ll have to do some more research on him.

It’s cold here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in February so I’m glad I got to spend a 90 minutes in sunny Arizona watching a very good chase feature. Great acting, directing and writing will always make a great film. 3:10 to Yuma is a classic western that is not like some of the cookie cutter westerns of its era and one that should not be missed.

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2015 list

2015 is here and I must admit I did not complete my penance for 2014 nor did I even watch a movie a month. For 2015 however I am making all attempts to rectify that. Behold my 2015 CinemaShame with some holdovers from last year.

1. Blade Runner

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2. Do The Right Thing

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3. Yojimbo/Sanjuro

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4. 3:10 To Yuma (carryover from 2014)

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5. A Clockwork Orange

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6. Lethal Weapon (seen 2-4 but never the original)

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7. Ace in the Hole

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8. Friday The 13th. (Another 2014 carryover)

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9. Charade

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10. The Hustler

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11. Marathon Man

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12. The French Connection

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This year I’ll be 30 years old. I haven’t completed a whole lot of things but I am determined to finish this list. I wish myself luck!

Shame of The Innocents

At this point with a little more than a month left on the year, I’m trying my best to get as many movies in as possible. So most likely my original list won’t be completed but I am certainly still watching. Here is a look at the gothic horror film The Innocents which I had never seen. I previously posted this on my personal blog, I felt this had to be added to my shame because this is a brilliant film. I don’t usually engage in hyperbole so this really resonated with me.

Looking at The Innocents for the first time.

Directed by Jack Clayton

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I picked this up during the semi-annual Criterion Collection sale at Barnes and Noble. I have heard about this film’s legacy for years and had never seen it. I always like to hear of successful genre films from an older era because I feel viewers nowadays dismiss them unfairly. Here we have a nice and atmospheric gothic horror film that as you watch it is actually quite unsettling. Deborah Kerr plays a woman who becomes the governess for a wealthy man’s niece and nephew. I won’t go too much further into the plot as not to spoil anything but there is something suspicious about these kids. I know it sounds cliche, but the mystery behind this is quite intriguing.

The film opens with the 20th Century Fox logo, but no fanfare. It’s just a stark black and white image with the sound of a little girl singing. Very unnerving. I had previously thought that the opening to Alien 3 was very dark and foreboding but this takes the cake. The film oozes menace throughout which really makes it a horror film and not just some scare machine which one would think having seen its trailer. Honestly it doesn’t help sell the film at all. It makes it look like some 60s B-movie and this is far more than that.

As I watched the film, I took note of the splendid craftsmanship in the cinematography. It really reminded me of the work of Stanley Kubrick. Combine that with the tension that permeates the story which is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, this is probably why I responded so well to the picture.

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A prime example of knowing how to scare people without making them jump. I would recommend The Innocents to anyone who hasn’t seen it or to those who profess to be horror movie buffs. This is a fantastic film, with quality acting and it’s also very well crafted. It’s a shame I did not see this film sooner.

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Back in the game…with The Most Dangerous Game

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I know, I know. I’ve been out for a while. Since March I believe.

At this very moment across the country, various Barnes and Noble locations are having a sale on Criterion Collection titles. If you are unfamiliar, The Criterion Collection is a distribution group that collects classic and contemporary films and markets them to cinephiles moreso than the general public. Since Criterion releases are usually higher priced than regular films, I use this opportunity to collect as many as I can during the sale.

One gem I managed to pick up was “The Most Dangerous Game.” The film was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel and produced by Merian C. Cooper. Cooper and Schoedsack would soon move on after this film to create the landmark adventure film “King Kong.” In fact the sets of this film were used in “King Kong.” The movie stars Joel McCrea and Fay Wray as two people who are shipwrecked on an island owned by Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks. Zaroff is a man who hunts other humans for sport, hence the most dangerous game. McCrea’s character, Bob Rainsford is also a big game hunter and is selected to provide ample challenge.

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I must say for a film that’s only 67 minutes long, it certainly does not waste any time. There’s basically no exposition and I still feel I know enough about the characters we should be focused on. Also with this being a Pre-Code film, the violence feels a little more tangible.

I also did not expect to be drawn in with the level of suspense that this movie has. Once the hunt begins you feel part of the battle of with between the two hunters and how a calm head really is the greatest weapon you can possess in a situation like that. I certainly hope the short story that this film is based off of by Richard Connell is even more suspensful.

If you have the chance to watch this great adventure film, it reall is a gem and I would highly reccomend it. “The Most Dangerous Game” is currently available on Criterion Collection DVD, Hulu Plus and also on YouTube. This is a great example of classic Hollywood filmmaking.

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Due to the sale, my list may most likely have some major changes coming soon. Stay Tuned. I won’t be gone as long again,

Texas Noir: Erasing the Shame of Having Never Seen Blood Simple

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My introduction to the Coen brothers was watching Raising Arizona as a child. Even as a preschool tot it was one of my go to films. I loved the cast and the offbeat humor. The bounty hunter scared me, of course, but his imposing demeanour was softened somehow by his introduction in an ominous, foreboding dream.  It was one of the first films I saw that dealt with regular people getting in over their heads when they dabbled in crime. As I got older and watched more of the Coen’s films, I quickly caught on that this was kind of their thing – and it all started with Blood Simple.

At some point last year, I bought a nice little box of Coen Brothers blu rays. After watching Raising Arizona for the thousandth time, I finally watched Fargo (loved it) and the amazing Miller’s Crossing (thanks to an offhand tweet by @MisterGreggles). Then, I put the box back on the shelf with one unwatched film (still in shrink wrap) and promptly forgot about it – until now.

I don’t know why it took so long to get around to watching Blood Simple. It just seemed that every time I almost popped it in, I decided against it and watched something either more familiar or with way more spaceships. I mean, I knew it was a well liked film, but I just kept convincing myself that watching it would feel like homework. Boy, was I wrong.

Blood Simple is brilliant. It’s smaller than a lot of their later films, but it wears its indie film label well. As in most of their films, it’s a story about murder intersecting with greed and incompetence. Dan Hedaya plays a Texas nightclub owner whose wife (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with one of his employees. Naturally, he’s angry and hires a shady P.I. (played wonderfully by the great M. Emmet Walsh) to “take care” of his little problem.

This being a Coen brothers movie, nothing goes to plan, and the resulting confusion keeps stacking up on itself. Along the way, all the things that made the Coens great are on display.

The casting is perfect and everyone feels real in their roles. I really believed that these characters existed in Texas 30+ years ago. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but I felt like I had seen these people a million times over in my youth. Dan Hedaya was mesmerizing to me, masterfully capturing the emotions that spill out of the violent when they’re sad. I’ll admit it was a little odd seeing Frances McDormand so young after years of seeing her as a more matronly figure, but her performance is great and I can see why the Coens have returned to her so often in their later works (being Joel’s wife probably helps, too). My favorite, though, is M. Emmet Walsh as the mostly unlikable private investigator. He’s an overly confident, but bumbling, man and he reminded me, in a way, of John Goodman’s despicable one eyed Bible salesman in O, Brother.

The patented dark humor is there as well, especially from Walsh, and there were quite a few chuckles to be had in the midst of such dark happenings. This balancing act between deathly serious and oddly humorous has been a Coens staple for years, and it was good to see that they have had such a firm grasp on it from the beginning.

There are some great shots throughout the film that give a little taste of the iconic images to be found in the brothers’ later works. In particular, there’s a shot of Hedaya crawling on the road that has stuck with me ever since my viewing. While nothing quite meets the high art of Miller’s Crossing’s gorgeous photography, Barry Sonnenfeld still does very solid work as DP.

It’s hard to talk more about the film without just plain giving away a lot of the twists that the script takes, so I will wrap this up with a hearty suggestion that you see Blood Simple soon if it’s on your own personal shame list. Hell, even if you have seen it, you should probably revisit it. It’s definitely a case of hitting all the notes perfectly right out of the gate. I can only imagine coming out of an early viewing, knowing that the filmmakers you just saw at work would be coming back with more greatness in the future.

My Next CinemaShame:  Bonnie & Clyde (1967)