Category Archives: Film

Posts about movies; mostly reviews from my eclectic DVD collection.

Heathers (1988)

I’ve heard Mean Girls (2004) referred to as a watered-down Heathers in the past, though I hadn’t seen the latter film until now. I can kind of understand the comparison. For example, both movies take place in the milieu of a bullying-infested high school, include a lot of made-up slang still quoted by people who’ve seen the films, and feature a school assembly that attempts to bring the pupils closer together and become more empathetic. In Mean Girls, the initiative comes from a well-meaning authority figure whose idea ultimately proves cathartic, even if the scene is played for laughs a little bit. Its counterpart in Heathers stems from a deceptive teacher out to aggrandise herself (or at least her philosophy), and it’s completely ineffective. This is symptomatic of the different approaches the two movies take.

Despite its broad comedy overall, Mean Girls is sincere in its depiction of the lead character falling in with a bad crowd and trying to redeem herself, and the titular clique is shown more as misguided and a product of their environment than as evil. The audience and maybe the characters may want the queen bee dead on occasion, but in the end she is more to be pitied than to be murdered. The 1988 version of Regina George, Heather Chandler (one of three Heathers forming a clique), is more openly malicious, less shaded… and actually dead after a few scenes, killed by protagonist Veronica (Winona Ryder) and her psychopathic boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater). Continue reading

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Topkapi (1964)

I sat down to watch Topkapi based on a confluence of two events: I had just bought the DVD in an attempt to add to my Dassin collection, but with no particular plans to immediately watch it, and the film had just been admiringly mentioned in an episode of the TV show Bones. Not that that show could be called an arbiter of good taste (not even mine for watching what is, at best, a guilty pleasure), but the coincidence amused me and got me to pop in the DVD when a two-hour window of free time opened soon after.

As told in a somewhat psychedelic introductory sequence, an apparently wealthy “cougar” (Melina Mercouri) with few sexual or criminal inhibitions and a love for emeralds has her sights set on a new object of fascination: a jewel-encrusted dagger showcased in an Istanbul museum. To acquire it, she contacts an on-again-off-again lover (Maximilian Schell) and hatches a plan. It is decided to rely on amateurs instead of professional thieves to steal the weapon, in order to escape unwanted attention by investigators.

In a different movie, another reason for that might be that the more naive and inexperienced colleagues would make it easier to betray and dispose of them afterwards; this idea is briefly implied by the movie, but not spelled out explicitly or executed, and wouldn’t fit its tone, anyway, which is far too light-hearted for such a noir-ish twist. Continue reading

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

“Through readiness and discipline,
we are masters of our fate.”

The exposition for this film (which is more prominently labelled Live. Die. Repeat. on the Blu-ray cover, the tagline from the posters, but retains the Edge of Tomorrow title in the credits), starts even before studio logos have cycled through, with tiny clips of TV coverage explaining that tentacly and clairvoyant aliens have overrun much of Europe and that only the development of new battlesuits has stopped them from crossing over to Britain (and, ultimately, the rest of the world).

Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a US military officer whose job is not to fight, but to disseminate propaganda about the war effort on television talk shows. When a general orders him to cover a large-scale invasion of France from the front, Cage reveals his cowardice and lack of compassion for regular soldiers. All his attempts to weasel out of the assignment achieve, though, is a deployment to the very tip of the charge. Without his rank or job protecting him, and because the enemy somehow knows of the surprise attack in advance, Cage promptly… dies. Horribly. Within minutes of touching down.

And then he wakes up again, a day earlier, with the memories leading up to his death intact. The reason: he came in contact with one of the aliens’ blood during his death. But nobody believes him, so on to battle he goes… to die again. And again. He knows what’s coming, to a degree, but no matter how he changes his ever-renewing present, he still always winds up dead. Continue reading

Belle (2013)

In the late 18th century, a British gentleman about to set sail in service of the king turns up at the English country estate of an older relative, the highest judge in the land, to submit unto the latter’s care the former’s illegitimate daughter. Who is the result of a union with a black slave. The young girl, soon a young woman, as well as the racism she has to endure, inspires her surrogate father to pave the way for an end to slavery in the British Empire. It sounds rather fanciful, doesn’t it? But it happens to be true. Or at least plausible, given that very little is known about the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her actual role in the Lord Justice’s ruling is unclear.

Belle wastes little time with setting up the meat of the story. There is only a short prologue showing Dido meeting her biological father and being handed off again; Mansfield, the judge, is irritated at first, but quickly grows to like the girl, as does her white cousin Elizabeth, also a ward of the childless Mansfield’s. Less than ten minutes after the film’s opening moments, a lovely match cut magically grows the two girls into young ladies, who display a naive interest in men even as the social rules for women of their position heavily restrict any contact between the two sexes.

Dido is no Rosa Parks, and Belle no Spartacus (1960). Because the film mainly sticks to the historical record, the main character can’t be a great public leader in the abolitionist movement, as maybe she would have been were she and the movie’s premise entirely fictional. The slavery question is part of the film, but more on the margins. What’s in the centre instead is a Jane-Austen-y story about good matches and courtships and engagements or almost-engagements and pining for, or being wooed by, the wrong man. The photography is lush, the costumes lovely to look at (if maybe less conservative cleavage-wise than they would have been in reality, was my initial reaction, but maybe that was wrong of me), the music (by Rachel Portman, familiar with period pieces and romances) beautiful and the language charmingly old-fashioned. The romantic portion of the film, in short, is pretty, if conventional. Continue reading

M (1931)

M announces from the get-go what the film is going to be about. Before we even see a moving image, we hear a child counting out a playmate with a gruesome rhyme about a bogeyman who will soon come grinding down those present. A woman who overhears the kids cusses them out, but that only stops them until she’s out of sight, upon which they resume their game. To them, it’s abstract entertainment with no connection to real life, a naivety that carries through the rest of the film. To her, it’s a reminder of the very real threat of a serial child murderer (played to great effect by Peter Lorre) on the loose in Berlin, then one of the largest cities in the world.

This beginning also signals the importance of sound to the internal structure of the film, one of Germany’s first using the new technology. There is no non-diegetic music, something that would have been weird for a silent movie, much less one that could finally play back the same background music in synch in every cinema showing it. In fact, there are even stretches of the film that are fully devoid of any sound: no music, no speech, no effects. Those are quite eerie, certainly for a modern viewer not used to complete silence in films, especially when briefly broken by individual sound effects. The lack of non-diegetic music also accentuates every moment in which music is being heard, mainly in the form of whistling. Most prominently and famously, Hans Beckert, the killer, whistles a portion from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1876) when in pursuit of his compulsion; while not heard in its entirety, only in broken segments, the full piece is played ever faster and more chaotic until its conclusion, a fitting melody for a man forced to kill by his inner demons. Continue reading

She’s All That (1999)

Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the most popular guy in a California high school, is dumped by Taylor, his shallower, female equivalent, shortly before graduation. Eager to prove both that he’s over her and that he still has a way with the ladies, he agrees to a bet: he is to turn a girl on the lower social rungs of school into the prom queen within a few weeks. The young lady picked is Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook), daughter of a single-dad pool cleaner, aspiring artist and standoffish loner with few friends except for a romantically non-threatening heavyset boy who would probably be depicted as gay in a modern film (cf. Mean Girls).

With a little bit of squinting, this premise is recognizable as a take on Pygmalion (both the Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, which itself formed the basis for My Fair Lady). But it’s quite remarkable that, despite the supposed march of progress since then, Shaw’s circa-turn-of-the-century Eliza Doolittle remains the most feminist of the popular Galateas (the figurative statue turned into a real woman by Pygmalion). Continue reading

Elf (2003)

According to a (relatively) recent article on the AV Club, Elf is one of the few Christmas classics of the last decade. I hadn’t seen it before, so I decided to remedy that. It says a lot about how little spare time I’ve recently had that, when I finally sat down to watch the film, winter’s last snow had long melted away, and the proper review based on my notes wasn’t written until mid-summer. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited that long. Seasonally-appropriate temperatures might have made me appreciate this rote holiday film more than I actually did.

The plot revolves around Buddy, a human who grows up with elves at the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s bag as a baby. When it is, at some point, no longer deniable that he’s not actually an uncommonly tall and clumsy elf, he travels to Earth to find his biological father. That man, played by James Caan (who for some reason is tied to Buddy’s adoptive elf father, played by Bob Newhart with a completely different temperament, by a similar vocal affectation), works at children’s book publisher, but seems unsuited for the job. He comes across as profit-obsessed to the point of cutting corners because children wouldn’t notice anyway. He’s also a workaholic, though with nothing to show for it, leading to tensions both at home and at work. Initially, he doesn’t want anything to do with Buddy, whom he disbelieves and whom he has removed from his office by security. The audience is clearly meant to root against him here, but really, that’s a reasonable reaction to a crazy story by an apparent crazy person. Continue reading