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What I'm Watching

Saturday, December 26, 2015

What I'm Watching: The Battle of San Pietro

Posted By on Sat, Dec 26, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Death and chaos in The Battle of San Pietro - U.S. WAR DEPARTMENT
  • U.S. War Department
  • Death and chaos in The Battle of San Pietro
In a documentary history class that I took in graduate school, my professor informed us that World War II, inasmuch as it can be considered a single historical entity, is the most-filmed event in world history. He asked us for our guesses for No. 2, and I recall that I got the answer correct: the National Football League, the footage of whose games must surely, by now, be more voluminous than that of WWII. After all, WWII is over, but the NFL marches ever onward.

Regardless of the answers to such trivia questions as this one, filmmakers employed by both the Axis and the Allies shot and developed an incredible amount of footage of the Second World War. Many Western viewers have a general familiarity with such Allies-produced propaganda films as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, and many have seen the flag-waving trailers that encouraged viewers to buy war bonds. (One of the better-known such shorts — as well as one of the most controversial; watch it after the jump and you’ll see why — features a crooning, patriotic Bugs Bunny.)

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

What I'm Watching: 'Futurama'

Posted By on Sat, Dec 19, 2015 at 9:00 AM

The Flip the Frog cartoon "The Soup Song" (1931), excerpted in "Futurama" - 20TH CENTURY FOX
  • 20th Century Fox
  • The Flip the Frog cartoon "The Soup Song" (1931), excerpted in "Futurama"
As I sometimes do when I’m too tired to invest in a feature-length movie but still want to watch something before I go to sleep, I have recently returned to one of my favorite shows: “Futurama.” I’ve watched the whole run of the show several times now, so I’m amazed that, on my fourth or fifth pass, each episode still makes me laugh out loud. The writing and the visual gags are so intensely intelligent and witty, and the satire still so trenchant that, for me, the show hasn’t aged a bit. I find it funnier, on the whole, than creator Matt Groening’s better-known cultural touchstone, “The Simpsons.”

“Futurama” is a show that rewards diehard fans with all sorts of Easter eggs: little semi-hidden gags or references that only make sense if you know the show’s “universe” particularly well. (That's another reason why this show is still rewarding for me — I know it well enough by now that I understand some of the gags that were previously obscure to me.) Here’s a primer for the uninitiated, but I recommend just watching the show.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

What I'm Watching: "Reason and Emotion"

Posted By on Sat, Dec 12, 2015 at 9:00 AM

"Emotion" steers in the direction of an attractive woman. - WALT DISNEY PICTURES
  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • "Emotion" steers in the direction of an attractive woman.
The 1943 Disney cartoon “Reason and Emotion” reestablished itself in popular consciousness this year, when various media outlets noted that its premise was revived by Pixar’s summer release, Inside Out. When I saw Inside Out (at the glorious Sunset Drive-In in Colchester), “Reason and Emotion” was the first thing that came to my mind, too.

The connections between the two films are strong and obvious. The conceit of both movies is the personification of human feelings and thoughts with little characters who live in our heads and govern our actions.

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Saturday, December 5, 2015

What I'm Watching: Push

Posted By on Sat, Dec 5, 2015 at 10:25 AM

Dakota Fanning in a great wide-angle shot in Push. - SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT
  • Summit Entertainment
  • Dakota Fanning in a great wide-angle shot in Push.
Last weekend, Paul McGuigan’s film Victor Frankenstein opened to rather pitiful box office. Its opening-weekend $2.4 million gross was good enough for a meager 12th-place finish, well behind several films that had already been in release for one or more weeks.

Critics haven’t been any kinder to McGuigan’s latest; Victor Frankenstein currently rates only 26 percent on review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed, the seven feature films of Paul McGuigan have not, on the whole, been particularly successful at the box office or in the critical eye.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

What I'm Watching: The Seventh Victim

Posted By on Sat, Nov 28, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim - RKO RADIO PICTURES
  • RKO Radio Pictures
  • Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim
Digging into the DVD vaults the other day, I pulled out Mark Robson’s mid-budget 1943 thriller The Seventh Victim, mostly because it was one of the few films produced by Val Lewton that I had never seen. The fact that the film is more strongly identified with its producer than, as is customary, with its director, has turned out to be, for me, the most interesting thing about it.

Mark Robson’s name is not particularly well remembered these days, though he directed many films whose titles retain some degree of cultural currency: The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Peyton Place (1957), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and even his penultimate film, the cornball, all-star disaster movie Earthquake (1974).

These are the kinds of films that, while not necessarily beloved, show up as answers to questions on “Jeopardy!” But Alex Trebek would be highly unlikely to ask contestants to name their director, because Robson’s name just isn’t well known. (It could be a good “Final Jeopardy” stumper, in fact. Alex, you can send my royalty check courtesy of Seven Days.)

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

What I'm Watching: Pete Shelley's "Homosapien" video

Posted By on Sat, Nov 21, 2015 at 8:58 AM

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Some 12 years ago, when I was living in Madison, Wisc., I spent a lot of time going to rock shows. My musical education was broadened tremendously by attending concerts by the likes of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Residents, Melt Banana (twice!), John Doe and a pre-fame White Stripes, who were opening for Sleater-Kinney. I probably spent most of my meager income on concert tickets and records. And movie tickets, of course.

One of the most memorable all of the shows I saw back then was a free, outdoor concert given by the recently reformed Buzzcocks, the best pop-punk band of them all. The concert took place late in the summer at the University of Wisconsin’s primo summertime hangout spot, Memorial Union Terrace, and it nearly didn’t occur at all for a nasty rainstorm.

But the promise of a free Buzzcocks show was enough for me — and a crowd of the faithful that diminished in size as the evening went on — to wait it out. I recall the members of the band saying, basically, screw it, we came all this way, and we’re going to play whether it’s raining or not.

The Buzzcocks did not disappoint, playing an incredibly energetic show of their songs new and old. For me, it was well worth getting soaked — not just because I enjoyed the music, but because attending the show closed a sort of musical-visual loop for me.

By the time of that concert, Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley was older and thicker of body than he’d been in the band’s late-1970s/early-’80s prime, but he (and the rest of the band) could still bring the noise. I’d been listening to Shelley’s music since I was a kid, and my introduction to it was his first solo single, “Homosapien.”

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

What I'm Watching: The Book of Eli

Posted By on Sat, Nov 14, 2015 at 9:01 AM

Denzel Washington as a postapocalyptic badass in The Book of Eli - ALCON ENTERTAINMENT / SILVER PICTURES
  • Alcon Entertainment / Silver Pictures
  • Denzel Washington as a postapocalyptic badass in The Book of Eli
Heads-up: This column contains spoilers for a film that is sufficiently recent to warrant them.

When I saw The Book of Eli on its release in 2010, I was impressed with its visuals, in particular with a virtuoso gunfight scene that appears to play out in a single long take. I’m always drawn to long-take films, in large part because they offer such a valuable alternative to an increasingly edit-happy modern cinema.

In reality, the gunfight scene was not pulled off in a single take: As the camera zips between the combatants inside an isolated farmhouse and those mounting the assault outside, the transitions between these two spaces are digitally smoothed over. The result is that a multi-shot scene has the urgency and breathless pacing of a single-shot scene. To me, the capacity to create such a scene is one of the most important changes to film style that the digital age has produced.

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

What I'm Watching: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Posted By on Sat, Nov 7, 2015 at 9:00 AM

One of the many, many close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc - PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Public Domain
  • One of the many, many close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc
I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, but that figure is probably around two dozen. My most recent viewing took place during the film history class that I’m teaching, and, though the classroom is cramped and the video projector could probably use an upgrade, the film is so stark and strange that its power was not compromised. I’ve always found that the adjective that best describes this film is “intense.”

I’m not talking about the “pulse-pounding intensity” referred to by the cliché-addicted “critics” who make their living blurbing the latest action films. The intensity of The Passion of Joan of Arc is that of an artistically groundbreaking film about a woman undergoing one of the most severe crises of faith in human history. In exploring Joan’s fragmented, fraught subjectivity, Dreyer employed a style that is, remarkably, as comprehensible as it is radical. Indeed, as I suggested to my students, the film’s pre-eminent achievement is that it exists on two seemingly contradictory levels. Its story is entirely comprehensible, yet its style is extremely odd and arresting. The real miracle here is not the conversation with the divine that Joan claimed to have, but the clarity with which Dreyer conveys his ideas using such a strong, strange style.

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Saturday, October 31, 2015

What I'm Watching: Anemic Cinema

Posted By on Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 9:00 AM

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The film history class that I’m teaching at a local college is arranged, roughly, chronologically, so we started back in late August with the works of W.K.L. Dickson and the Lumière Brothers. By this point in the semester, we’ve reached the mid-1920s, quite possibly the single most exciting era in film history. The half-decade before the advent of sound saw an incredible explosion of narrative and stylistic innovation; as I teach the class, those achievements are represented by works such as F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, all of which still have the power to astonish me, and I’ve seen ‘em all a dozen times.

But it was last week’s films that separate the true cinephiles from the film enthusiasts from the not-yet-ready-for-prime-timers. We just completed “Avant Garde Week,” and I showed my students films that, despite having been made nearly 90 years ago, haven’t lost any of their power to induce strong reactions.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

What I'm Watching: UHF

Posted By on Sat, Oct 24, 2015 at 9:03 AM

A pre-fame Michael Richards as Stanley Spadowski in UHF. - ORION PICTURES / MGM
  • Orion Pictures / MGM
  • A pre-fame Michael Richards as Stanley Spadowski in UHF.
“Weird Al” Yankovic has created and maintained his star image with unusual savvy, cultivating the persona of a clever, good-natured goofball who never has an unkind word to say about anyone. Since 1983, he’s released 14 studio albums (and plenty of other musical ephemera); made 50-odd music videos, including some classics of the form; and appeared in an array of productions that includes “The Drew Carey Show,” Rob Zombie’s horror remake Halloween II and even “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” Yet he’s only starred in one film: 1989’s comedy UHF.

UHF was a key feature of “The Rotation,” a group of a few dozen films that my high school friends and I would watch again and again. (Most of the others on that list were similarly goofy comedies such as Fletch, the various Monty Python films and the Naked Gun films [in all three of which Al plays a small part]. What can I say? We were nerdy.) UHF is highly quotable (“I’m thinking of something orange. Something ORANGE!”) and contains exactly the right amount of silliness to stand up to multiple viewings — whether the person doing the viewing is 16 or 42.

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