Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Alternate Title: All That Money Can Buy

Director: William Dieterle

Spoiler-Free Summary

In mid-19th century New England, a young farmer named Jabez Stone is down on his luck. As he hits what seems to be rock-bottom, he pronounces that he would sell his soul to the devil for the money he needs to live. Lo and behold, a demonic man calling himself Mr. Scratch arrives, and makes Jabez the very offer for which he asked. Reluctant at first, Jabez eventually succumbs to temptation, accepting untold riches in exchange for giving up his soul in a set number of years.

The years roll by and the money that Jabez accepted changes him in ways that neither he nor his dedicated wife or mother would ever have predicted. When the time nears for him to give his soul in return, he panics and calls on the only man who he thinks can save him - famed local, orator, and federal senator Daniel Webster. Webster takes up Stone's highly unusual case and attempts to defend his soul against Mr. Scratch and his devilish logic.

What Did I Think?

A really good movie, despite my misgivings during the first ten or fifteen minutes.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is, at the heart of its plot, a religious, didactic, cautionary tale not unlike those that you see on those hilariously ridiculous little cartoon pamphlets warning against the temptations of sin. This is the sort of thing that I would generally have zero interest in. And yet, this film was highly engaging.

What grabbed me was how little the movie flinched, especially for a film made in 1941. As annoyingly "gee-shucks" innocent as the Stone family is, it becomes effective when you see the changes that Jabez undergoes as the film progresses. From my experience, it's rare to find a film from that era in which such naive and innocent characters are put through such worldly and mature trials.

...and the deal is made. This is one of many scenes that
expertly used light, shadow, and fog to create the right
atmosphere for dark dealings. 
Probably the best thing about the movie is the use of supernatural elements. The eeriness with which Daniel Webster's character (based on the real person of the same name) is introduced is spellbinding - he works on a speech in the solitude of his office, with the dark shadow of a demon lurking over him, seeking to tempt him into making a deal that would make him president of the United States. Webster is fighting against hell itself, and this scene sets the stage for the rest of the film incredibly well.

One other feature of this movie warrants mentioning - the performance of Walter Huston as the mischievous Mr. Scratch. It's tough to pull off the right fusion of impishness and sleaze that Huston manages, but the character benefits greatly from it. His facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission.

I must say that the resolution of things was a bit too tidy for my liking, but this didn't kill the movie for me. It is, after all, a fable told through the lens of 1940s cinema. It's a fun, classic film that is a rather unique entry.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

X-Men Series Re-Watch

With X-Men: Days of Future's Past approaching in theaters in a short while, I've worked my way through most of the other X-Men films as a refresher. Here are my thoughts:

X-Men (2000)

Director: Bryan Singer

This one doesn't hold up as well as I had expected.

I saw this one in the theater 14 years ago, and was pretty blown away. I had been a tremendous fan of the X-Men comic books, amassing an embarrassingly large run of the original series, which I read and re-read countless times. In 2000, though, my 25-year-old cynical self went into the theater expecting the worst. One has to remember that, back then, there really hadn't been a truly successful big-screen adaptation of a superhero movie since Superman II in 1980. At least not on a scale that a mega-popular super-team franchise like the X-Men would demand. I was figuring that something would go wrong - there would be miscasting all over the place. The writers would change up a bunch of the characters, and it would become a hash-job not unlike the wretched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (don't get me started on that blasphemous piece of excrement.) Or the acting or special effects would be horrendously bad.

Well, I was wrong on all of those counts.

Right from his opening scenes, Jackman
proved himself to be a great casting
The writers were quite faithful to the spirit of the characters and the grand themes of the comic book. The casting was solid, all around, with Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman standing out as nailing the roles of arguably the two most important characters in the whole X-Men mythos - Professor X and Wolverine. The movie had a budget that allowed them to hire actors who didn't just look the parts, but could play them very naturally. And the effects were solid. Just by not being bad, the film was great in my eyes.

Flash forward 14 years. Superhero movies have evolved a bit. With the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and the Avengers Cinematic Universe, the ante has been upped to tremendous proportions. And when compared to some of the best of the genre in the past 7 or 8 years, the original X-Men has lost some of its luster. Upon closer inspection, some of the plot elements are weak, some of the dialogue isn't quite as funny, and some of the humor is simply flat or at least a little goofy.

X-Men is by no means a bad movie. It's still a nice entry into the genre, and one could argue that it did usher in the new wave of very well-done, polished superhero films that can entertain younger and older fans alike. But this recent viewing highlighted the advancements made in the sophistication of this films' successors.

X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)

Director: Bryan Singer

The second of the series makes some excellent strides and is still a very solid superhero movie.

Nearly all of the weaknesses of the initial installment are smoothed away or eliminated. The plot is tighter, the dialogue is a bit sharper, and the goofiness is almost non-existent.

The story carries on where the first movie left off quite well. Mutant paranoia is growing more rampant, thanks in no small part to the machinations of Colonel Stryker, a soldier and military scientist who frames mutants for an abduction of the president and whips the public into a frenzy of fear. He was also heavily involved in Wolverine's mysterious history. These different elements come together well, without things ever feeling like they're being rushed or simply mashed together. The slower, quieter moments are more carefully done in United, which lends them a little more power.

Magneto's escape from his stylish, plastic prison is one
of the several very cool and memorable action sequences.
The action is a great step up from the first. The first film had adequate action scenes, but they looked a little sloppy in places. In United, there are several creative and cool scenes, such as Magneto's escape from his plastic prison, Wolverine going berserk on the soldiers invading the school in New York, and several of Mystique's confrontations with various enemies. I was still plenty entertained by these scenes, these 11 years after the movie came out back in '03.

This one did threaten to commit the common sin of the "add a character" overload. This film brings in a few other mutants known from the comics, such as Proteus, Pyro, Lady Deathstrike, Colossus (in a cameo of sorts), and Nightcrawler. But the film didn't divide its attention among them in ways that resulted in a loss of the overall focus.

There aren't nearly as many attempts at humor as the first movie, and this was a good thing. The general tone of United is darker, so wisecracks would have been far out of place. When a line is dropped, it's in an appropriate place and is typically effective.

X-Men 2: X-Men United is arguably one of the best superhero flicks in the last 15 years. It may not be quite as strong as the best Avengers or Nolan Batman movies, but it's not far below them.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006)

Do I have to pick a side? Can I go "Switzerland" on this one?
Director: Brett Ratner

Until this viewing, I had only seen this movie once - in the theater back when it came out in '06. Back then, I left with the impression of a somewhat flat, paint-by-numbers, "style-over-substance" film that was a letdown after the first two solid films.

That opinion holds, for the most part.

The Last Stand is a near-textbook example of what can go wrong when you try to please an entire fanbase of comic dorks. The departure of Bryan Singer as director and co-writer of the film series is quite apparent. Instead of a giving us a handful of well-chosen team members to focus on, The Last Stand throws every mutant in the book at us. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of various mutants thrown into the mix, nearly all of whom showed up in the comic series at one point or another. To me, this is always an extremely weak approach to story writing. It reeks of an inability to write deeper, more meaningful explorations of the characters' human personalities or motivations, instead opting for quantity over quality.

Lest you think I view this film as a total bomb, it's not completely without redeeming qualities. The basic story and plot progression are decent. The story of a medical "cure" for the mutant gene is interesting enough, and it has pretty clear parallels in reality. It follows that such a concept would kick off a mutant uprising, led of course by Magneto. The result is a near-endless barrage of action sequences, mostly of the large-scale variety. Some of them are uninspired, but a few are actually well done.

In some respects, this adaptation was
probably better than the source material.
This entire uprising storyline, though, is where things go off the rails. By necessity, it requires so many mutants with various powers that they cease to even be interesting anymore. Superhero movies' most intriguing element is that the characters' powers and abilities set them apart from normal humans. But when the entire movie is populated almost exclusively with scores upon scores of them, the effect is seriously dulled.

The lead that almost gets buried in this movie is the other primary storyline- that of the "Phoenix," which is Jean Grey's immensely powerful, psychotic alter-ego. This story is, actually, far more interesting than the mutant uprising one, and it could have stood on its own and carried the entire film, truth be told. That is, however, if it had been handled deftly. But very little about The Last Stand speaks to deftness. It's an all-out, full-frontal assault on the viewer, with nary a hint of subtlety or novelty.

The final mark against the movie is that the most glaring attempts at depth were clumsy and wrought with misplaced sentimentality. There were far too many cheesy lines delivered by Wolverine, of all characters. If there's any X-Man who you absolutely can not have delivering hokey lines, it's Wolverine - an absolute icon of cynical cool.

So it's not all bad, but The Last Stand is easily the weakest of the three original X-Men movies.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Director: Gavin Hood

I saw this once, shortly after it came out. Like most, I thought it stunk out loud.

When I fired it up a few days ago, I had an amusing viewing experience. As I watched, I found myself wondering if perhaps we had all been a bit too harsh on the movie. Sure, there are some goofy moments, but there seemed to be some merit, and I was sort of enjoying the re-watch.

For about 45 minutes.

Then, about halfway through the movie, I started to remember the reasons for my initial feelings. And things only got worse as the second and third acts of the film play out. By the end, the movie had sunk right back to the abysmal place my mind had stuffed it.

Actually, some people are likely to enjoy the movie. If you're not one to nitpick over lack of character development, illogical plot devices, action sequences that openly defy every law of physics (without irony), and a fracturing of continuity with the previous X-Men films, then you might be OK with it. Not me, though.

One of the few strengths of the film rests in Liev Schreiber's
portrayal of classic Wolverine antagonist, Sabertooth. The
two tough guys deserved a better movie, really.
The sad thing is that there are some decent ingredients to start with. The goofy 19th century "kiddie Wolverine" opening sequence aside, the idea of Logan and Victor (a.k.a. Sabertooth) as half brothers becoming soldiers of fortune throughout the century is fine. And the notion of having a black ops team of superhumans made for a solid reason to bring in other well-known characters from the comics, such as the Blob, Deadpool, and others. And the sequence of their assault on a Nigerian drug compound is semi-decent. Decent enough that I was mostly willing to ignore things like how poorly everyone's powers were defined or illustrated.

Once those opening plot lines are set up and Logan walks away from the brutality of it all, though, things start to go downhill. Slowly, at first. Then begins the exponential increase in the momentum of suck. Any halfway intelligent casual viewer or self-respecting comic dork can't help but roll his or her eyes at just how silly virtually everything in the second half of the movie is. For the dedicated comic fan of the 1990s, things go from silly to blasphemous. The film completely butchers one of the coolest characters to come from the X-Men mythos in that decade - Deadpool. Being goofy is one thing. Destroying a beloved character is another.

I do have to say that there are a few redeeming qualities of the movie. Hugh Jackman does still play a damn good Wolverine, even if he is given inconsistent dialogue to work with. The standout to me, though, was the casting of Liev Schreiber as Sabertooth. In a way that far surpassed Bryan Singer's vision of Wolverine's classic nemesis in the original X-Men film, Schreiber conveys all of the cunning, brutal menace, and bloodlust that the character demands. Jackman and Schreiber had good chemistry, and each one did have a few decent lines to work with. And yet...

The movie's a dud, overall. It's standard case of a few good ideas being completely flubbed in the execution and the inability of the filmmakers to pare things down and tighten up the weaker elements. I don't ever need to watch it again.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Not quite as incredible as some reviewers would have you believe, but still a very good superhero flick, and my second favorite of the six X-Films so far.

In going back in time and adding to the backstories or Erik Lensherr/Magneto and Charles Xavier/Professor X, the writers and director did good work adding some solid depth to the iconic characters. Having Magneto's quest for revenge converge with Xavier's mission to band with humans to stop the nefarious Sebastian Shaw felt fairly organic, as these types of movies go. Seeing the groundwork laid for most of the primary elements of the X-Men is handled deftly, for the most part. Though the younger team members aren't given much time to develop as individuals, this was probably for the best. It's Xavier and Erik, their common short-term goals, and disparate long-term visions for mutants, which carry the movie throughout. Team members like Banshee, Havok, and the others mostly serve to bolster the greater themes at play, and this works well and keeps the plot moving.

The casting and acting is perhaps the best of all X-Films. Not one of the younger actors turns in a bad performance, and Kevin Bacon heads up the great crew of thoroughly evil and self-satisfied villains that make up the Hellfire Club. All of these are outdone, though, by James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik. Fassbender especially nails the enraged sense of righteous vengeance that Lensherr carries with him as he exacts retribution on the former Nazis who terrorized him in his youth.

Though the action sequences are strong, the more personal
scenes shared by Fassbender and McAvoy elevate 
Class to higher quality.
The plot isn't anything terribly creative. It's a standard "band together to stop the extermination of humanity" tale that many superhero flicks employ. In First Class, the story does have the added power of serving as the impetus for the eventual conflicting viewpoints of Professor X, Magneto, and all of those mutants who follow each of them. We don't get any psychoanalysis of the villains' hidden motivations, other than their thirst for domination. And for this movie, that's fine.

The action sequences are fairly strong, with a few that standout as highly entertaining. The key is that none of them is as ridiculous as what you get in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which offered no end of over-the-top fights that might as well have been video game sequences.

One thing that observant fans will notice is that, like Origins: Wolverine, the continuity of the X-Films gets muddled up even further in First Class. In terms of characters' ages, accents, and their interactions with each other in this and the other movies, the writers didn't exactly dot all their "i"s or cross all their "t"s. More casual fans won't notice or care, but dedicated comic book fans do notice and it's an unfortunate weakening of the suspension of disbelief. With just a touch more attention to detail, the writers could have woven this film seamlessly with the others in the canon.

The resolution of the movie is strong enough, with some very satisfying closure on some fronts. A few elements are severely glossed over, though, for the sake of convenience. A little more imagination from the screenwriters could have remedied this.

Very good movie, overall, and I'm looking forward to the imminent follow up, Days of Future Past.

The Wolverine (2013)

Director: James Mangold

Much closer to the mark than it's forgettable predecessor, but still not quite a bull's eye.

Picking up a few years after The Last Stand, The Wolverine finds the eponymous hero living as a wild hermit in the forests of Canada, struggling against nightmares about his violent past and his necessary killing of his beloved Jean Grey. He is found and convinced away from this solitude and taken to Japan. There, he becomes wrapped up in a massive intrigue involving an old Japanese acquaintance from World War II - Yashida. Yashida has become an immensely powerful industrialist who has a suspiciously intense interest in Logan and his supernatural healing and slow aging. Eventually, Logan is beset by yakuza, ninja hordes, a venomous mutant, and other assailants, not necessarily in that order.

The Wolverine gets much right that Origins got horribly wrong. Instead of leaning on a heavy dose of well-known yet watered-down characters from the more modern comic books, the writers focused things more on Logan, with only one other mutant involved in the entire story. This allowed Logan's motivations and actions to take center stage, which is always what the best Wolverine solo stories have done. Keeping Logan's purposes limited to the much more personal goals of survival and protection of Mariko was a great change from the epic-scale plots of earlier films.

The writers and director Mangold handled the location of
Japan extremely well, including many of the visual and
cultural hallmarks. It all worked as a solid setting for
Wolverine's struggles. 
And yet, there are basically two things about this movie that I think could have vaulted it from "pretty good" to "excellent." One is the romance with Mariko. I suspect that this was a Hollywood directive, as superfluous romances in movies usually are. If we take away Logan's bagging Mariko, then he actually becomes much more like the samurai that he is implied to be - one who does the noble thing for its own sake, rather than because the's trying to find a replacement for a lost lover.

The other improvement that I feel was a bit overlooked was Logan's loss of his powers of regeneration. For me, this was one of the best things about the movie. Without his sense of nigh-invulnerability, we get a true glimpse at what Logan is - one who will put himself in real harm's way to do the right thing. Having him regain his power with a good amount of the movie left diluted a bit of the drama for me. Instead of having to rely on his purpose and determination to see his goal through, Logan was able to mostly lean back on his superhuman qualities. While it's fun to see him duke it out in the end, I would have liked to see what he could have done by using his more human characteristics like cunning and resolve. Of course, I guess that would have made it less of a superhero movie.

The Wolverine wasn't a perfect movie, but it got more right than wrong. And for superhero flicks, that puts it in rarer company than you might think.

The Final Analysis

The X-Films franchise has certainly been a mixed bag. Of the six films, I find two of them - X2 and First Class - the be very good. Another two - X-Men and The Wolverine - are solid but not outstanding. And X3 and Origins: Wolverine are fraught with problems.

But there are more to come. I'm quite hopeful that the forthcoming Days of Future Past will be a very solid movie. There's also to be another solo Wolverine film, as well as at least one more team movie - Apocalypse. I don't know that those in charge of the X-Men movie franchise will ever attain the quality, consistency, and cohesion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if they can get anywhere close, we fans of superhero films will have plenty to look forward to. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Director: Lowell Sherman

Summary (With Spoilers, if that matters):

A popular and self-serving but caring cabaret singer, Lou (Mae West) in 1890s Manhattan Bowery finds herself in between various power-hungry local politicians and criminals who seek to flex their muscles and win Lou's affections. Lou breezily plays them off one another and even manages to help out the charity center next door to the cabaret, but not without the help of an undercover Federal agent known as "The Hawk" (Cary Grant). In the end, The Hawk rounds up all of the crooks, and instead of hauling Lou into prison for her self-defensive murder of another dastardly dame, he puts a ring on her finger and vows to marry her.

How sweet.

Did I Like It?

She Done Him Wrong is fun enough, but not exactly a stunning classic film that with give you much to take with you. The plot is pretty thin, sensational and visceral stuff; the primary characters, aside from Lou, are all either penny dreadful, 1-dimensional bad guys or the knight-in-shining armor; and the dialogue is comprised of mostly pulp-novel cliches and silly colloquialisms. These latter can actually be quite amusing at times, if only for their dated silliness.

No, the attraction has nothing to do with plot, character depth, stunning dialogue, or dazzling acting. It's all about Mae West. She was, truly, a wonder. With a breezy and careless sultriness, West dominates every scene. Despite playing what amounts to a prostitute with extremely loose ideas when it comes to men's affections, West is in complete control in virtually every scene. In films from the 1930s, especially the pre-Hayes Code era, the only other woman who I find as naturally strong and magnetic as West was Barbara Stanwyck.

Not unlike the characters she played in vaudeville and films,
West inspired lust, attraction, and admiration, as well as
derision and jealousy in both men and women. And she
seemed to have a hell of a good time doing it all.
This is, of course, what makes the conclusion of She Done Him Wrong a little disappointing. Having her fat inexplicably pulled out of the fire by a "white knight" like a very young and dashing Cary Grant takes some of the strength out of West's character and the appeal of the movie. But the movie is played in such a playful way, that it's hard to take it too seriously. This is unlike a film like Baby Face, which had much more gravity to it, making the happy "Hollywood" ending much more disappointing. These unsatisfying endings do, however, serve to remind that the 1930s were still very much a part of "a man's world."

She Done Him Wrong is a fun, quick look back at how bawdy and entertaining films could be in the 1930s, before the film industry got scared of the conservative majority and started to censor itself - a constricting force that wouldn't start to loosen its stranglehold for over two decades. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Original French Title: Le Voyage dans la Lune

Director: Georges Melies

Summary (With spoilers, yes, but come on - it's a 15-minute film from 1902):

A group of scientists construct a spaceship and launch themselves to the moon to study it. There, they find savage, warlike humanoid creatures that first capture them, and then pursue them after they escape. The Earth scientists reach their spacecraft successfully, and they launch themselves back to Earth.

Upon their triumphant return, they are greeted with heroes welcomes, and much dancing and celebration ensues.

What'd I Think?

If you think there's much more the story than you read in the summary, think again. This film is only about 15 minutes long, but it is considered one of the greatest of very early silent films. Some call it the very first science fiction film, while others merely laud its creativity.

Me? I think it is very impressive to see just what Melies was able to do so long ago, when no one else had really attempted to use film to tell such fantastic tales. The effects are impressive, when you take into account how long ago the film was made.

Still, if you're not into film history or tracing the origins of cinematic special effects, then this one may just bore you. Then again, it is only 15 minutes long, so you're not really losing much.

Here's the whole thing (don't worry - the film is public domain, so there's no piracy involved for you moralists out there):

*This film was one of the 1,179 movies listed as "Films to See Before You Die," a list that I'm attempting to work through within the next decade or so. This was #510. Only 669 to go.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Field in England (2013)

Director: Ben Wheatley

Spoiler-Free Summary

In the middle of a Civil War skirmish in a 17th century English countryside, a trio of deserters inadvertently band together as they flee the nearby carnage. One of the men is an apprentice for a missing alchemist, and he convinces the other two soldiers to search for his predecessor, who had gone missing in that same field some time in the past.

After ingesting some mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties, the two soldiers begin to confuse fantasy with reality, as they are led to find the former apprentice and search for a hidden cache of gold somewhere in the field. Various forms of madness and paranoia occur as the group interacts with each other and other characters, who may or may not be illusory.

Still Spoiler-Free Opinion

Did I Like It?

There are some films that leave you wondering whether you actually enjoyed them or not. A Field in England is one of those for me, even though it's now been about two weeks since I watched it.

There's no doubt that it does leave you guessing throughout, trying to piece together the varied, suspicious, and tantalizingly vague stories that the alchemist's apprentice is foisting on the soldiers. And there is the McGuffin of the buried treasure, which will leave any viewer wondering just what it is that the men are searching for.

The tale grows more twisted and confounding as
the various characters lead, follow, and manipulate
each other for reasons that are oddly frightening
for their lack of clarity.
The telling of the tale, though, can be dizzying, to say the least. Presumably by design, there is a fair amount of incoherence in the story once the mushrooms are taken. There are many jump cuts, disorienting camera angles, and general confusion about who is who and what, exactly, they are looking for and why. Every so often, the film sobers up for a moment and you feel some sense of clarity, but these moments become more fleeting as the tale progresses. Despite all of my questions, though, I mostly felt that there was something I, as a viewer, was missing, rather than something that the director had overlooked. Things are presented with a confidence and control that give the impression of internal logic, even if I couldn't completely wrap my head around all of it. This is to say nothing of the very heavy British accents and colloquial idioms, which can sometimes be a challenge to fully comprehend, even for one who rarely has trouble comprehending thick accents.

This likely sounds like a very masochistic viewing experience, but I assure you that it wasn't. The performances are outstanding, and there is actually some solid humor sprinkled into the dialogue. The levity is welcome, as most of my energy was spent on puzzling things out.

If nothing else, A Field in England leaves an impression. It's unlike any film I've ever seen, and offers hints at many darker, much more mysterious things lurking beneath its ever-shifting surface. It's these unknown components that offer me the intrigue that I enjoy in many tales, even if my curiosity is not completely satisfied by story's end. But this is exactly what is special about this movie - it leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. If you're willing to put in the mental energy these require and don't mind the ambiguity. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Odds & Ends: Superbad, Schizopolis, & F for Fake

Superbad (2007)

Director: Greg Mottola

The only other time I had watched this was way back in 2007 in the theater. At the time, it was being hailed as an instant classic and one of the funniest films in the last decade. With those expectations, I came away a little disappointed, but thinking it was still a pretty funny flick.

For those who haven't seen it, the movie focuses on three high school senior guys, Seth (Jonah Hill), Evan (Michael Cera), and Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who are nearing the end of their final year with little more than girls on the brain. When not fretting over how to get with their ladies of choice, Even and Seth try to coolly ignore the fact that they will be going to different colleges and be apart from each other for the first time.
Seth and Evan get tangled up in adult party insanity
as they try to complete their mission of getting some
alcohol to the objects of their affections (or lust).

Taking place over the course of just under a day, the tale follow the lads as they try to score some booze with a fake ID, evade cops, aggressive adult party hounds and other strange obstacles while attempting to get to a party hosted by the object of Seth's desire - Jules (Emma Stone). The three all run into various bizarre and hilarious characters and scenarios, and have their friendships tested.

The movie holds up really well. The language is, to put it mildly, rough. In fact, I remember being stricken by this the first time I watched it. I'm certainly not averse to blue language, but the torrent of pornographic filth that constantly spews out of Jonah Hill's mouth becomes almost overkill. Sure, a lot of it is really funny, but there are times when I wished it would have been ratcheted down just a tad.

What sets this movie apart from nearly all other coming-of-age high school flicks is the tone of the bromance between Seth and Evan. It actually has far more authentic tenderness than any other film of its type that I can recall, which is a hallmark of all of the Seth Rogen-and-crew movies.

I still wouldn't call it an all-time classic, but this is still a fun movie.

Schizopolis (1996)

Director: Steven Soderberg

One bizarre film. But oddly compelling, for the most part.

In what I can only describe as two parts Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and one part hybrid of the David Lynch movies Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., Steven Soderberg went far, far off of the path he often treads with films like Traffic, Out of Sight, and Ocean's 11 (and 12 and 13). The story mostly focuses on a middle-class man who writes speeches for an L. Ron Hubbard-type faux guru, and whose personal life is an unsatisfying facsimile of "normal" life. Loosely connected to his story are those of an oddball reality TV star, a philandering dentist, and various women involved with one or more of these men.

There's a lot that's perplexing about the movie. Metalanguage, inexplicable foreign-language dubbing (without subtitles), circular narrative, and other unconventional storytelling devices kept me from ever fully settling into the movie. But then, this seems to be the point. Though the oddity became a nuisance at several moments throughout the movie, for the most part I was engaged. This is in no small part due to the humor, which is fairly steady, and served extremely dry.

There's a lot going on, and some of it seems to be an overreach for novel profundity. There's a fine line between being intellectually challenged and being simply baffled. I found myself vacillating between the two and left with a few unanswered questions, which is frustrating.

An interesting film, and one that's good for someone looking for something very offbeat. While I'll probably look up some analysis of the movie, I don't know that I'll ever watch it again.

F for Fake (1973)

*This film kicks off my newly-adopted goal of watching all of the films listed in the "1,001 Films You Must See Before You Die," as published by Cassell. 

Director: Orson Welles

In his final major directorial effort, Orson Welles created what Peter Bogdanovich called a "personal essay film." The description is fitting, as the movie defies normal classification and is unlike anything else I've seen.

In a looping, non-linear style, Welles explores the themes of artistry, fakery, "experts," and illusion. The main focus is the noted art forger known as Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving. In describing these two men, it becomes clear that there is far more to explore than simply one lone "faker." There are multiple deceptions going on, and the larger question of whether authenticity even matters looms over all. Welles even includes himself in the category of "noted charlatan," citing his own legendary works in theater, radio, and film.

Elmyr de-Hory, the renowned art forger and all-around
character who sets off Welles's exploration of several larger
and intriguing topics.
Welles takes a rather playful approach to the subjects for most of the film, which keeps things from getting bogged down in pretension. This doesn't mean, though, that the grander themes are lost. Perhaps the most poignant moment is when, after exploring various fakes, the (in)famous fakers who perpetrate them and the industries built up around them, Welles turns the camera onto the grand cathedral at Chartres - a wondrous work designed by an anonymous architect. Truly, what is in a name?

Some might find Welles' demeanor a bit pompous or affected (my wife did - Orson's manner drove her out of our living room after a mere five minutes), or the tone of the movie wandering and lacking cohesion. If you can roll with it, though, it does provide a novel stimulation for the intellect.

** F for Fake marks the 509th out of the 1,179 "Movies to See Before you Die" List that I hope to work through before I start collecting social security. 670 to go. **