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Pastiche Parody – DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID

DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID is a romp through hard-boiled history.

Carl Reiner‘s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) is half-parody of, half-homage to the noir detective dramas of the 1940’s. The story follows Rigby Reardon (played by a young, dark-haired Steve Martin), an archetypal private eye on a quest to solve the suspected murder of a beautiful woman’s father. An obvious parody of the P.I. archetype, Reardon is an emotionally isolated character, but he’s no prude – the very first scene features him unabashedly groping an unconscious client (and yet somehow this film is rated PG). Rigby receives help on the case from a few seasoned vets of the noir genre, courtesy of some inventive editing and access to the Universal film library. Shot in black and white, this ludicrous 80’s detective spoof is sprinkled with clips from 18 classic detective thrillers from the 40’s, mixed in with new footage of Martin and the other actors in a way that gives the almost seamless impression that they’re interacting with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Alan Ladd, Ray Milland, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and so on. And besides being a zany vehicle for Reiner and Martin to recreate their The Jerk antics, one of the most remarkable and overlooked components of this film is the costuming – Plaid was the last film for which Edith Head designed the costumes before her death in 1981. In addition to the new suits she designed for Martin, several of the film clips include her designs from movies such as Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number, so this film serves as a wonderful tribute to her long career. For those uninitiated to the genre, it’s a great primer, while those more well versed in this style  can simply sit back and enjoy the details – like watching Steve Martin talk shit to Bogie. It’s priceless.

[admin. note: With great pleasure the gang welcomes our newest contributor, Willa, with her first review! Long may you roam these sandy shores!]

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June 2, 2011   No Comments

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #101-125

After last week’s milquetoast selection, I went ahead and searched for the availability of a good amount of Criterion films that I am scheduled to review in the future. In doing so, I think I have found indicators that, in regards to Criterion streaming on Netflix, the end is extremely fucking nigh. I don’t know if the Netflix brass just threw their hands up and said “Screw it, we need more Dolph Lundgren films, anyways” or what, but there were at least a dozen films that had been previously available, that are, at the time of this writing, scheduled to come down in the near future. On the one hand, I would like to say that I could pick up the pace and make a mad dash through the upcoming 473 films. On the other, I have somewhat mixed feelings about losing what’s left of my feeble mind. With any luck, I’ll make it across that ludicrously distant finish line before time runs out.

-101. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972) [Unavailable]

*Shakes head, sighs*
In case you haven’t been following along, not a single Criterion-released Bergman film has been streaming on Netflix so far.

-102. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

Six upper class jackasses are attempting to have dinner together, but find their efforts repeatedly stymied in Buñuel’s classic absurdist film. The plot is incredibly loose and nonsensical, yet tied together by reoccurring incidents, attitudes and dreams.  In each dinner scene, the characters display their disdain for the lower classes alongside their enduring sense of entitlement.

Buñuel seems hell bent on toying, not only with his characters, but with the audience as well. The story is constantly being twisted and set back as some events are revealed to only exist in a character’s dreams and others are so illogical and ridiculous, that they could not occur in a rational world. Therein, however, lies the genius of this film. Buñuel made his film incoherent and absurd as a way of underlining the entrenched, everyday hypocrisy he perceived as being the calling card of the French elite. With subtle (and often, not-so-subtle) visual cues and set pieces, he cuts their self-centered worldview off at the knees and serves it back to the very people he is decrying. Utterly satisfying subversive cinema.

-103. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), is a bumbling, shy heir to a beer empire. While on a cruise ship back from South America, he runs into Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn) , two con-artists looking to fleece the naive Charles. After Jean has seduced Charles, she finds herself falling for him as well, but her larcenous past keeps catching up to her and threatening to ruin it all.

An enjoyable screwball comedy from Sturges. Stanwyck and Fonda make for an enjoyable on-screen pair and the dialog is a great example of ‘40s rapid fire banter. Totally enjoyable in a mildy forgettable kind of way, if that makes any kind of sense at all.

-104. Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda, 1969) [Unavailable]

Have heard nothing but good reports about this film. I’m guessing at least two people kill themselves in it.

-105. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) [Unavailable]

I had totally forgotten that Kubrick directed this film. While this does make me want to go back and watch this sometime in the future, I’m not-so-secretly pleased that I don’t have to devote 196 minutes to doing so while I’m in the middle of writing this column.

-106. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981) [Unavailable]

Huh. I have never seen or heard of this movie. A story about a police chief turned heartless killer does sound intriguing though.

-107. Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)

Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins, why, oh why won’t you make more movies together? George (Hoskins) is a small-time crook who has just gotten out of jail and his old boss, Denny ( target=”_blank”>Michael Caine) gives him a job driving high-class escort, Simone (Cathy Tyson) from hotel to hotel. At first the two bristle at each other, before coming to an understanding that their professional identities are not necessarily reflective of their personal ones. Convinced she can trust him, Simone asks George to help her find an old friend who has disappeared, but as he delves into the sleazy underbelly of London, he starts to realize that her request will be the largest favor ever asked of him.

Who would have thought that a gangster flick (starring Bob Hoskins no less) could be so heartfelt? The chemistry between Tyson and Hoskins as two deeply vulnerable hard-asses who tentatively learn to open up to one another is both beautiful and touching. I think one of the most poignant depictions ever of a person dropping their facade comes when George is asked by Simone if he has ever needed anyone, to which he responds, stocky frame trembling, voice choked with emotion, “All the time.” A fantastic film that succeeds on every level.

-108. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996) [Unavailable]


Shit sandwich.

-109. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934) [Unavailable]

The second film in this round of movies that I am utterly unfamiliar with, although the Criterion website says that this film “escalates [von Sternburg’s] obsession with screen legend Marlene Dietrich” which, in my experience is always a wonderful thing to escalate.

-110. M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953)

The slapstick tone of this film is apparent from the moment the titular Mr. Hulot’s rickety jalopy sputters and backfires it’s way across the screen in this wry send up of summer tourists gone wild. Hulot, played by Tati himself, is a stork-legged bumbler of the highest order off on a seaside holiday, who’s continual pratfalls put him at loggerheads with both the locals and his fellow vacationers alike.

Tati keeps the finest traditions of cinema’s Silent Era comedy alive and well as he follows in the footsteps of Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers. Though the dialog is sparing, it’s absence is not missed and in fact allows the wide array of deftly comical sound effects and sight gags to claim center stage. While a lesser director would have lampooned his petit-bourgeios subject matter with a more cynical tone, Tati handles them gently, never disparagingly. As a bartender in New York, I have made it a tradition to watch this at the beginning of every tourist season, in the hope that some of it’s good natured long sufferance will rub off on me.

-111. Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

More slapstick fun from Jacques Tati in his recurring role of Monsieur Hulot, the perpetually inept man-child trapped in a suburban nightmare. This time, Tati brings his particular brand of social criticism home, specifically the home of M. Hulot’s technology-obsessed relatives. His sister and her husband live a garish, modernist trainwreck of a house where comfort is trumped by aesthetics and gadgetry at every turn. In the midst of this is their nine year old son, Gerard, who, bored with his sterile existence, latches on to his eccentric uncle at every available chance. These two kindred spirits manage to get into all manner of trouble together until Gerard’s parents come up with a scheme to pull Hulot’s head out of the clouds.

Once again, Tati eschews words where noises and clever camerawork are capable of carrying the story. Not only is this technique effective as a means of delivering the plot, but also as a way of underscoring the absolute banality of what passes for conversation in his perfectly manicured suburban hellscape. In dealing with such weighty subjects as social identity and consumerism, Mon Oncle always manages to keep the perspective of a light-hearted outsider bemusedly watching the scurryings of others who are not in on the joke. While viewed as being anti-progressive upon it’s release, I found this film to still resonate strongly in these gizmo-centric times in which we find ourselves today.

-112. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Well color me shocked. All three M. Hulot films are available for streaming with this one being the grande dame of them all. The film once again finds Hulot bumbling through a world full of inconvenient conveniences and obtuse technology. This time, Tati adds a young American tourist (Barbara Dennick), who flies into Paris and repeatedly encounters Hulot in a series of increasingly absurdist set pieces.

The same themes of the first two Hulot movies maintain through this one, so there’s not much more that I can say about it. Like Tati, I am an avid supporter of the notion that in our pursuit of the future, we must not discard or forget the past, nor should we hold our gadgets with such high regard that we merely exist as an extension of them. Ironically enough, this film was considered technologically advanced for it’s time due to the fact that Tati filmed entirely with 70mm film stock and stereoscopic sound, both of which were incredibly expensive and complex to use at that time. It turned out to be a good decision however as the heightened audio-visual quality let Tati take his trademark style of physical gags and subtle comedic sound effects to a new level.

-113. Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958) [Unavailable]

Not a big enough deal to stream on Netflix, apparently.

-114. My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

At the height of the Great Depression, Godfrey (William Powell) is a “forgotten man” who is hired on as a butler for the extremely dysfunctional Bullock family by their capricious daughter, Irene (Carole Lombard). In addition to his daily duties he has to fend off the elder sister Cornelia’s (Gail Patrick) attempts to get him fired as well as Irene’s growing infatuation with him.

When taken in the context of the time it was filmed, My Man Godfrey makes some rather pointed observations on wealth, privilege and social class. The Bullocks and all of their friends are mewling idiots with no concern for or contact with the world outside of their effete, little bubble. Godfrey comes into this as a man who was, at one point, on an equal footing with his employers but threw their morally bankrupt and pointless attitudes away when he saw the dauntless optimism of down and out bums living in a garbage dump. While the film is more screwball comedy than social commentary, the huge gulf between the classes that is it’s central motivation, makes this film all the more compelling in this day and age.

-115. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) [Unavailable]

My favorite French gangster movie of all time, second only to Le Samourai. Dassin builds more tension with his nearly soundless half-hour long heist scene than all the target=”_blank”>O Fortuna’s and exploding sports cars in the world.

[admin. note: you can find Marco’s review of this essential heist flick here]

-116. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Two enslaved peasants escape from their overseers and run into General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who is trying to smuggle Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and what is left of her family’s gold through enemy territory to the safety of the titular Hidden Fortress. Along the way the peasants constantly scheme of ways to make off with the gold while the General uses all of his savvy to try to keep the ragtag group out of harms way.

Yet another great film from the legendary duo of Kurosawa and Mifune. This film was brought to even higher acclaim when George Lucas revealed that many of the thematic elements of The Hidden Fortress, from the predominant use of frame wipes all the way down to basic character arcs, were “inspiration” for the first Star Wars film. What he meant to say was “I am a talentless hack who got famous by ripping off one of the greatest directors in history”, but he had overinflated his neck that morning and so the original statement came out a bit garbled.

-117. Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964) [Unavailable]

I’m really beginning to wish there was either more Criterion films being streamed or an “Unavailable” key on my laptop.

-118. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) [Unavailable]

One of the earlier examples of Hollywood self-criticism. What happens when you send a pampered film director out into the world as a hobo to learn about human suffering? Veronica Lake happens, that’s what.

-119. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987) [Unavailable]

One of my favorite dry, British comedies. Two drug-addled aspiring actors escape from the urban squalor of 1960’s London and end up on a holiday from hell. If ever in your life there has been a point where you’ve entertained the notion that the moldy stack of dishes in your sink has gained awareness, this is your kind of film.

-120. How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson, 1989)

Keeping with the malaise-driven spirit of Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson directed this story of Dennis Bagley (Richard Grant), a ruthlessly brilliant advertising executive who hits a creative wall when he is saddled with creating an ad campaign for a new brand of pimple cream. As his deadline looms, the stress that has been building in him manifests itself as a boil. A talking boil.

Equal parts social satire and body horror, this film feels like some long lost collaboration between Jacques Tati and David Cronenberg. The humor is black as night and dry as a bone, yet spiked through with moments of wildly manic physical comedy. No one can do bug-eyed paranoia like Richard Grant, who manages imbue his horror at what is happening to his body with a level of sly absurdity that one cannot help but laugh at. Don’t let the comedy fool you though. This is just as withering an indictment of Western consumerism as anything cooked up by Oliver Stone.

(Off-Topic Side Note: There are no Oliver Stone movies in the Criterion Collection because he is a tone-deaf purveyor of hackneyed dreck, and yet I would be OK if a couple of his movies were retconned into the spots currently occupied by Michael Bay’s cinematic leavings.)

-121. Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) [Unavailable]

Looks positively “madcap” and all that that phrase entails.

-122. Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1968) [Unavailable]

A fascinating look at the sad, little lives of door-to-door Bible salesmen. There’s really nothing that this noted trio of documentarians couldn’t make interesting.

-123. Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1976)

This is the cinematic version of spending some time with your senile grandparent and crazy cat-lady aunt, but with the highly uncomfortable exception that you are not related to them. A deeply personal documentary that delves into the lives of “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter “Little Edie”, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who live in the titular estate of Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Once rich socialites, the mother-daughter pair now dwell in a wrecked mansion in near-total isolation from the outside world and have formed a combative, yet loving codependency that somehow sustains them, even as their house, and their sanity, slowly crumble away.

It would have been easy for the Maysles’ to edit in a running commentary full of fun-poking asides and off-site commentary on their subjects. Instead, they took the high road, opting to stay out of the camera’s focus and let the two women tell their own story as they saw fit. While Big Edie spends her days reminiscing about times past, Little Edie pines for a life that never was and the camera stands silently by neither judging the actions, nor putting words in the mouths of the women, but instead instilling the viewer with an very real feeling of sympathy toward these two sad figures who, in real life, they would most likely shun.

-124. Carl Theodore Dryer Box Set [Unavailable]


“There’s no streaming in box sets!” -Tom Hanks

-125. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943) [Unavailable]

Dear Netflix,
Just because you can’t stream the box set as a box set, doesn’t mean you can’t stream the films that are contained in the box set whatsoever. Also: box set, box set, box set. Loses meaning the more you repeat it.

 

OK, so a little bit thin this week but the selection was, for the most part, rock solid. At least there were no more early David Lean films to suffer through. Baby steps, Netflix, baby steps. Oh, wait, you already blew it, didn’t you? Never you mind, then.

One last note: While I like to try and keep my writing on the professional side of things, I do like to include some humor for your increased reading pleasure, some of which come in the form of the pages I link to throughout the column. Let’s just say that objects and people that are of particular enjoyment or irritation to me will sometimes get a little bit more than the standard IMDB link. Happy Hunting.

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April 11, 2011   No Comments

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