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Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M” has long been on my list of “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to see that” movies. Last weekend, after screening of “The Maltese Falcon,” Peter Lorre’s presence reminded me, so I put it into my Blockbuster queue and popped it to the top.

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (recently restored to its full magnificence) is on my Top Ten list. His innovation, his iconic long-shots, his metaphoric storytelling, I love it all. But somehow, I’d managed to miss seeing “M” for decades.

If I had seen this film before–even just a year ago–my reaction to it would have been different. Seeing it now, after the abominable crime perpetrated in Newtown, CT has entered our public consciousness, my reaction is very different.

Possible spoilers after the jump.

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There are some movies that have entered the common vernacular. Say “The Maltese Falcon” and people react. Even if they haven’t seen the film, people can describe the Black Bird, probably know it’s Humphrey Bogart, likely know the main character is Sam Spade, and may even know the final line (or, technically, the penultimate line) of the movie.

Well, if you haven’t seen the film, your missing one of the true classics, a movie that stands tall, even now. While today we think it synonymous “film noir,” stacked with great names like Bogie and Huston, Lorre and Greenstreet, was at the time really quite the low-budget, almost “indie” affair. (more…)

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I don’t like musicals and I don’t like Tom Cruise. Thus, it was unusual to find myself sitting down of a Friday night to watch “Rock of Ages” which, I quickly learned, incorporated both.

It’s not that I dislike all musicals–I even have a few in my DVD library–but spending my first 35 years playing several musical instruments, I sweated in the pit during every school drama production, suffered through interminable summer “Pops” concerts, and endured nearly as many “Holiday Galas.” In short, of musicals I’ve had my fill.

As for Tom Cruise, well, he’s just one of those actors who can’t seem to get out of his own way. Again, my stance is not monolithic; I’ve liked him in a few films, but never as a leading man. When Cruise plays the chiseled-chin hero, the steely eyed fighter pilot lawyer spy covert operative race car driver, I always see the actor behind the mask. In every scene–especially in those critical, top-of-the-trailer tag-line scenes–behind that gritty, squint-eyed glare I see…Tom Cruise, thinking, working hard, working as hard as he possibly can to be that chiseled-chin hero, working his ass off trying to not be Tom Cruise.

At which he fails. But not here. Not in “Rock of Ages.” You see, I have learned a true Hollywood secret: (more…)

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It’s not often that I can tie together what is arguably the grittiest crime drama on network television with a 1966 rom-com–OK, I’ve never done it, so today’s a first–and I’ll be frank with you, tieing these two objects together is going to take some doing, so have patience. I’ll get there.

Yesterday during my workout I watched “How to Steal a Million” (1966), starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It is a light-hearted bit of fluff about the daughter of an art forger and a purported art thief who need to steal something to protect a secret. It’s set in Paris, Audrey is swathed in Givenchy throughout, O’Toole sports around in an XK-E, and it has several temporal “shout-outs” to the stars’ previous hits, so I’m sure it was doubly enjoyable for folks back in ’66 who’d been following these two icons through their early careers. It’s a little less believable than most romantic comedies (which means it was totally farcical), but one doesn’t watch a rom-com for believability or with any doubts as to the outcome. We watch them for the interaction, for the play, for the fun of it, and in this respect, “How to Steal a Million” delivers, even today.

I thought it was out-dated, though, because of its treatment of Ms. Hepburn’s character. (more…)

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A few weeks ago, another blogger and I were discussing the topic of “accessibility” in fiction and film, and by way of example of the “inaccessible,” Prospero brought up the 1972 film, Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I had read the novel (by Stanislaw Lem, 1961) and had seen the Soderbergh/Clooney film (2002), but I’d never seen or even heard of this Soviet-era science-fiction film. So, tappity-tap-click-click, I went over to Blockbuster and found I could put it on my movie queue. It arrived last week, and I watched it over the weekend.

Solaris (1972) received critical acclaim on its debut, and at Cannes it won two prizes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Ingmar Bergman had nothing but praise for Tarkovsky’s work, and Salman Rushdie called Solaris “a sci-fi masterpiece.”

Now, I don’t give too much weight to awards (though if Red Sonya had been nominated for the Palme d’Or, I might have stayed for the second half), and if you’re talking about inaccessibility in film and fiction, then you can hardly find better wingmen than Bergman and Rushdie. I’ve also seen several Russian and Soviet films, albeit from previous eras (e.g., Alexander Nevsky, Battleship Potemkin, etc.), so I was prepared for the somewhat lugubrious pace that Russian directors prefer. And lastly, brought to my attention as an example of “inaccessibility,” I knew this wasn’t going to be a action-packed laugh-riot.

Thus prepared, cue the music.

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Over the New Year’s Day holiday, we screened a bunch of movies. There were a couple “meh” movies, but also several I liked (and I’m pretty hard to please), so it was a good movie-weekend for us. But of the ones I liked, two stood out and demanded specific mention for their “writerly” content.

The Words,” is one of those films that crops up every few years, where the main character is a writer. “Stranger than Fiction” (brilliant, btw), “The Ghost Writer,” and “The Wonder Boys” spring to mind as standout Writer-cum-Main-Character movies of the last dozen years, and I’ll put “The Words” right up there with them, but I’ll go even further. “The Words” is the only one I’ll buy on DVD so I can watch it again.

Why? Because this movie is more than just a movie where the main character happens to be a writer. It’s more than a movie filled with the angst-steeped maunderings of a man who can’t seem to put pen to paper. This is a movie about the ethics of writing.

Watch the trailer and you’ll see the setup: Rory is a young, struggling writer who happens across an old manuscript, reads it, loves it, and submits it as his own work. Later, the real author of the book appears, and thence comes our conflict.

Well, the good thing about this movie is that the trailer is lying to us. The conflict actually begins well before that, and rightly so. Why does Rory put forth this book he found as his own? How does that act affect him? How does it affect his world, his wife, his life? When Rory finally meets up with the real author of the book, the conflict is well underway, and things definitely do not get better.

What I liked best about this movie though, was the way it developed the characters (all of them), their history (seamlessly inserted into the narrative), and built onward to what I thought was a truly believable, adult ending and denouement. The movie is structurally complex but this structure is (in the final analysis) comprehensible and, more importantly, necessary to the fullness of the story. This is a movie that, on second and third screenings, will provide greater depth and detail.

The second movie I thought had a definite “writerly” slant was one I selected on a lark. As most of you know, I am a Browncoat, a Joss Whedon admirer, and a genuine fan of “Firefly.” So, when I learned that Joss’s production company had come out with a movie (albeit not of his direction), I looked for it.

The Cabin in the Woods” is, on first glance, another of those ultra-violent horrors filled with dumb teenagers and sadistic monsters. I am definitely not a fan of the slasher/dead-teenager movie, but I’ve seen enough of them to know the formula, and my reaction was, “Seriously, Joss?” But then I read the blurb and I was hooked.

What we have here is a beautiful deconstruction of the genre. This movie takes every complaint you’ve ever had about the genre, takes every moment of predictable stupidity that made you yell at the screen, and takes every built-in senseless implausibility these movies provide and wraps them all up in a larger, even more implausible explanation. It’s both a send-up and love letter to a genre that’s had its share of both, but this one is done with true ingenuity, wicked humor, and the sharp, semi-self-aware writing that only Joss Whedon can provide. And, as a writer, I enjoyed seeing it pick apart each and every detail of the Dead Teenager Movie formula and prop them all back up again.

In short, I loved this movie, from the opening shot to the big reveal at the end. It was respectful of its audience and hilarious to boot.

k

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In troubled emotional times, I tend to retreat to the uncomplicated, the easy, the predictable. Last weekend, I watched a romantic comedy, but not the latest cookie-cutter Hollywood rom-com. This film was from France.

Rom-coms are one of the most predictable story-types in an art form that excels in predictability. Boy meets Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy does something dramatically stupid and can’t hope to get Girl. Boy does something dramatically different and outside his comfort zone and gets Girl. Big Red Bow. The only real mystery about rom-coms these days is, will it work?

To be fair, when you’re constricted by the tropes of such an established sub-genre, it is really hard to make it work. The actors can be good but the writing can suck; the writing can be brilliant but the film is hopelessly miscast. Everything works except for the pacing, which drags on (or speeds through) crucial turning points in this oh-so-formulaic form.

But a rom-com from the Nation of Romance? I’ve screened French comedies in the past and found them to be either mindless slapstick or subtler works that are only “comedies” in the way that some of Shakespeare’s plays are “Comedies”: a few laughs, and not everyone is dead at the final curtain.

Thus, I set down to watch this movie (English title, “I Do”) with genuine interest. How would Paris, the City of Love, the City of Light, the land of the New Wave, work within the straitjacket of this genre?

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