Category Archives: Vintage

Posts about titles older than ~10 years.

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

Master of Magic (1994)

Along with point-and-click (and the occasional text) adventures and RPGs, my favourite genre of PC game in my younger years was strategy, especially long-view titles like those from the Settlers, Anno, and Heroes of Might and Magic franchises. I particularly remember spending months at a time playing turn-based “4X” games like Alpha Centauri (1999) and editions of Civilization . 4X, that means exploration of the environment, expanding one’s reach by building new settlements or conquering those of opponents, exploiting the landscape (and, sometimes, your conquered subjects) in order to gain a technological advantage, and exterminating all enemies. There may be a combat component, but it’s typically secondary to the broader, more strategic managing of one’s empire.

Master of Magic is a little older than the games I used to play, which explains why I didn’t own it back then, but follows the same basic principles despite taking place in a fantasy, rather than a quasi-historical, setting. It also adds a dash of Populous in that you play a powerful being (here a wizard) who competes with others similar to him for people and territory (which is changeable via magic and technology).

There are two win conditions. The easier one for most races is destroying all enemy wizards militarily (or rather, conquering the cities their towers are in), something that is complicated by the fact that there are not one, but two procedurally-generated worlds where opponents can lurk. Without powerful plane-shift spells, one may have to almost start from scratch if a wizard has built his empire in a different dimension with a completely different map. The two worlds also lead to interesting tactical challenges, though; for instance, the detail that one need not conquer all enemy towns, just his capital, can considerably shorten the time until victory if you have control of one of the planes, because you can plane-shift an army of elite unites to the enemy’s doorstep and conquer his tower in a surgical strike without having to engage any troops in the way. That is true for the AI as well, of course. 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

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)

A while ago, I had the opportunity to watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the very first animated feature film (or at least the first one surviving to this day). It’s not what we now call “traditionally-animated”, i.e., drawing characters on cels and photographing them in front of backgrounds, but it does follow a tradition, an even older one: that of shadow plays. The director and principal artist, German Lotte Reiniger, used models intricately cut out from cardboard and other materials, sometimes using joints to give them limited articulation akin to modern stop-motion films. They are lit from below, the only colour coming from the tinted backgrounds.

Considering the highly labour-intensive technique and its inherent limitations, the animation is astonishingly fluid and masterful and the characters are stunningly expressive. There’s never really any doubt about what happens or how the protagonists feel about it despite there being no spoken dialogue (it’s a silent film) and relatively minimal intertitles. That’s no mean feat for a film that has several antagonists and plot threads intermingling and features some plot twists.
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