Friday, August 8, 2014

2014 at the Trylon Microcinema - Half Year Review!

Guest post by Ian Lueck, a good friend of Movie Matrimony and a regular patron of the Trylon Microcinema, the best little theater that could in the Twin Cities.

Hi, Ian Lueck again!  Dave and Chelsea have graciously allowed me to use this lonely blog space once again for another review round-up of movies I’ve watched at The Trylon and The Heights theaters.  This post will consist of roughly the first half of 2014.  There was a period when I wasn’t going to either theater very much, but lately I’ve been making up for that (“Just when I think I’m out, they PULL ME BACK IN!”).  There was a lot of great programming and interesting viewing to be had, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on what I’ve watched so far:

A stronger, non-singing musical moment.
Animal Crackers (1930):  A hilarious Marx Brothers movie, ostensibly about a stolen painting at an estate party, is really about letting the Marx Bros. work their comedy magic in a series of sketches and one-liners.  Definitely funny, even if the plot is weak.  One minor nitpick?  The lyrics in the various songs are hard to decipher, due to this being from 1930 when the sound quality wasn’t as good.  Luckily, the songs are a small part of the movie.

Baby Face (1933):  A genius gimmick that Take-Up Productions
devised during February and March 2014 was showing pre-code films at The Heights.  For those that don’t know, this is referring to the Hays Code, a pre-cursor to the MPAA, which prevented films from getting TOO racy or violent.  So this run of films was meant to show what Hollywood films were like before its widespread adoption in 1934.  Of course, it goes without saying that the execution of the subject matter in these films is positively tame compared to today, but if you watch these movies in the context of when they were made, it’s fascinating what the Hays Code cracked down on.  For instance, the topic of sex outside of marriage was frowned upon, which is pretty much the entire plot point to “Baby Face”.  A young woman, Lily, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is stuck in a dead-end job for her father until he’s killed in an explosion.  She decides to use this opportunity to move to the city and make a name for herself, and she finds that the easiest way to climb the corporate ladder is to, um, be easy.  It’s difficult to make this subject matter funny, but somehow they found a way.  Speaking of funny:  When I saw this in theater, a few in the audience cheered when Stanwyck’s name first appeared in the opening credits, and hissed when one of the antagonist’s names appeared.  It felt like what I assume seeing a movie in the ‘30s was, when hissing was more common.

Eraserhead (1977):  In an unnamed, sparsely populated city, a tall-haired, stoic man learns that his distraught girlfriend is pregnant; the resulting baby is incredibly premature and doesn’t even look human.  What follows is the man slowly being driven insane by the crying freak of nature.

I’ll admit: When I first finished this movie, I hated it. Thought it was unpleasant garbage. My philosophy was, a movie should entertain me, and this didn’t; it felt more like something to be endured, not enjoyed. Part of that was due to the gross deformed baby, but also the musique concrete (that is, environmental noises) which took the place of a traditional soundtrack and got overbearing (read: LOUD) at times.

Also features an all-time movie hairdo.
Upon further reflection, though, I can see its merits. The lighting is excellent throughout. David Lynch really knew how to create mood and atmosphere, even in this early part of his career. There were also small bits of comedy in here which I appreciated; anyone who’s seen a Lynch film will know he creates quirky characters, and nowhere is this more true than the dinner scene towards the beginning, where the main character has an uncomfortable meal with the eccentric, unhinged family of the woman he’s dating.

But perhaps the biggest appreciation came from its meaning. This is one of those films where it can be interpreted numerous ways. The same can be said for art. Doesn’t that, by definition, make this movie art? And shouldn’t it be recognized for that, even if one doesn’t particularly enjoy it? I think so. Some have theorized that the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, possibly one ravaged by a nuclear war: Hence the decrepit buildings, the lack of many people, the unstable characters, and the mutated offspring. However, I think to me, the movie makes most sense as a nightmare being had by the main character. Not only does the movie have the “feel” of a dream in its shortage of dialog, unorthodox pacing, surreal mood swings of most every character, abrupt cutting, and the main character seemingly dying and coming back to life in the next scene, but the themes in the movie are pretty obvious adult fears. I think most every parent-to-be has worries that their child will be born disfigured (as was certainly the case here), or that their spouse will abandon them to take care of the child alone, or that someone will seduce them into being unfaithful to their spouse (as was the case with the neighbor across the hall), or that they will be driven so mad as to commit infanticide. And that’s not even mentioning the unrealistically small living quarters where a parent couldn’t even go to another room to escape their child’s incessant crying. Heck, there are even little observations about married life that people new to the experience get frustrated with, like hogging the covers. And the movie fades to white at the end, perhaps symbolizing the person waking up.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie still isn’t really for me, and I have no desire to re-watch it anytime soon. But sometimes you just have to step back and think about it some more instead of going for a gut reaction, and that was the case with Eraserhead.

French Connection, The (1971):  This classic crime drama/action movie put Gene Hackman on the map, and it’s no wonder:  He gives a typically intense performance in his role as no-nonsense detective Popeye Doyle, trying to crack a French drug smuggling ring in New York.  Of course, the highlights that everyone always brings up are a couple chase sequences, one in the subway (which is surprisingly funny in all the “hopping on and off the train before the doors close” psych-outs that the pursuer and criminal perform) and another involving Doyle chasing a light rail in a car from below, that prove you don’t need special effects to make an engaging action scene.  If anything, I can appreciate it more, because you know the actors were actually driving on a real street with non-actors, not transplanted in front of a green screen.

But enough of that; let’s talk about the ending.  (spoilers ahead!)  The night I saw the movie, a lot of
audience members were audibly surprised how abrupt the ending was, and one was even dissatisfied.  For those who haven’t seen it:  The movie ends right in the middle of Popeye searching for a drug dealer in an abandoned building, a gunshot goes off, and suddenly we get “where are they now?” info on the criminals, most of whom got off scot-free or had their sentences reduced.  Now I’d be lying if I said the ending wasn’t unsatisfying from the perspective of “the good guy catches the crooks”.  But I think a nice neat little ending where Popeye succeeds would undermine the gritty realism that the movie presents.  In real life, criminals DO get away with things (sad, but true), whether it be legal loopholes or plea bargains or insufficient evidence or easily-swayed juries.  It’s a downer, but it’s honest.

French Connection II, The (1975):  ...And then we come to the sequel, which has good intentions but mostly falls flat.  This movie relocates Popeye to France, where he’s determined to find one of the criminals that got away in the first movie.  I don’t have a problem with the change of locale; that’s actually something I approve of, since it would’ve been very easy to do a rehash of the first movie, and it’s neat to see Popeye be a fish-out-of-water where it’s even less likely he can find his man in this alien landscape.  My problem is, the movie doesn’t even come close to providing the fast-paced thrills of the first movie.  We get a very brief foot chase towards the beginning, a shootout at the docks which ends in a flood, and a final foot chase where Popeye chases the villain, who’s on a cable car (and later, a boat).  That’s it.  It’s quite a letdown.  But worse yet, there’s an incredibly lengthy sequence in the middle of the movie where a kidnapped Popeye is forced by the villains in becoming addicted to heroin, and goes cold turkey with the help of his French cop partner.  It showcases withdrawal symptoms quite well (though it’s not exactly entertaining), but the problem is, the story grinds to a halt throughout all this.  By the time he finally has overcome his cravings (which takes a good half hour!), I didn’t care anymore and just wanted the movie to be over.  And oddly, when it finally does, it’s incredibly abrupt, unsatisfying, and confusing (how in the world did Popeye catch up to the villain?  They never really explain it!).

The movie has some good moments, mostly Popeye butting heads with his French partner and just trying to understand people, but overall this was a disappointing sequel.

I’m No Angel (1933):  This pre-code Mae West film gets off to a slightly slow start, but soon I was smiling widely at her infinite amount of sultry one-liners.  I find it interesting that The Heights showed two movies in a row where the focus was on a woman sleeping her way to the top.  Or at least, that was the suggestion; there’s an amusing trial sequence towards the end of “I’m No Angel” where West’s character refutes how much of a female stud she is.  But unlike “Baby Face”, this one doesn’t veer into dramatic territory in the last act, and it looks more consistent because of it.  (and yes, this is the film where West says her infamous “Come up and see me” line)

Jerk, The (1979):  Comedian Steve Martin plays the titular character named Navin, a white guy brought up by a black family in the poor, backwater south, who one day decides to pursue the American Dream and leaves home, hopping from one job to another (gas station attendant, carny).  Along the way, he falls in love and even manages to strike it rich with an invention he inadvertently created, but then blows it all.  I guess my biggest problem with the movie is that the title is a misnomer; “jerk” would imply that Navin is a rude, mean, pompous, arrogant individual, but in reality he’s just a clueless hillbilly who stumbles through adult life with a na├»ve optimism, even when things are going incredibly badly for him.  How is that a jerk again?  I suppose you could argue he becomes a jerk when he gets wealthy, but even that’s debatable.  Really, the guy just doesn’t know how to act, and that’s the whole joke of the movie.  Sometimes the joke works, sometimes it doesn’t.  I did laugh heartily quite a few times during “The Jerk”, but part of me felt the movie could’ve been stronger, and I suspect it’s because Steve Martin plays the character more as an over-the-top caricature, someone who’s virtually impossible to identify with.  As a result, I always felt at arm’s length with the material.  Still, I laughed enough that I felt it was worth my time to see.  Best part of the movie?  The ending, where the family that adopted Navin also strike it rich, and say they’re going to buy a bigger house.  Cut to a slightly less crappy looking, only marginally bigger shack.

Alec Guiness, in all eight of his roles.  Respect.
Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949):  The last of the “Alec Guinness series" at the Trylon, this is a dark comedy about a Duke, Louis Mazzini, who wants to murder a whole line of people (all played by Guinness, years before Eddie Murphy would do the same in The Nutty Professor) in order to attain the throne and its riches.  The highlight in this one is the narration, where Mazzini calmly and wittily describes his process, in a rare instance of “rooting” for a bad guy while still disapproving of what he’s doing.  And the wide variety of roles Guinness plays, combined with the wide variety of methods in which Mazzini kills them, gives the movie a lot of variety.  However, any suspense of whether Mazzini got away with or not is diminished by the story being told in flashback when he's in prison and about to be executed (to be fair, there's a twist after the flashbacks wrap up, but the movie doesn't end any differently than if that twist hadn't been there).  Also, there are few BIG laughs in the movie, more chuckles than anything.  Dave loves the movie, and considers it one of his favorite comedies, despite agreeing that it isn’t wall-to-wall laughs.  This raises a question:  Is a “best comedy” measured in quantity of laughs, or in its overall tone and ideas it raises?  For instance, I like “Dr. Strangelove” for its satire, but in terms of jokes, it’s definitely not my favorite comedy by any means.  Same here; it was worth seeing but I didn’t like it quite as much as Dave.

Ladykillers, The (1955):  A gang of five thieves (including Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, and Peter Sellers) con their way into renting an old lady’s room, then pull off a heist.  However, they’re caught red handed by the old lady, and they try to decide what to do about the woman who knows too much.

Reviewing the original Ladykillers objectively is difficult because inevitably, comparisons will be made with its 2004 remake by the Coen Brothers.  Both versions have their merits, but if I had to pick a favorite (and I know I’m in the minority on this), I have to pick the remake.  I just found the characters more distinct and funny, the southern music was better, the heist was more ingenious, and there are certain elements which the original lacked (such as the old woman being influenced by her deceased husband’s stern portrait).  However, the original has some things that the 2004 movie lacks, too, such as the cramped England house, which is a more distinct setting than the typical southern house in the remake.  The “I’ve called the cops and they’ll be here any minute” line gives the movie a more urgent feel, and I like how the crooks tried to get the old lady to feel like she was an accomplice so she wouldn’t turn them in.  Talk about temptation!

My verdict?  See both movies and decide for yourself.  As both movies take different executions on the same basic story, you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time by watching the same thing twice (hello, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho!).

Lavender Hill Mob (1951):  A heist movie starring Alec Guinness.  As with a lot of heist movies, things get off to a slow start but pick up really quickly once the scheme starts.  And like any good heist movie, things go wrong with the well-laid plan and that makes things interesting.  My favorite part during said sequence is when two of the crooks are tailing a group of grade-school girls, who have unknowingly purchased Eiffel Tower miniatures that are, in reality, made of gold that the crooks are trying to smuggle.  At one point, the girls get on a cruise ship, and two of the crooks have tons of difficulty getting on the ship, as they have to purchase a ticket, then get their passports stamped, then go through baggage inspection, then go through customs, all while trying to do it as fast as possible.  That’s great farce.  I also enjoyed the ending, a great "reversal of expectations" gag.

Pretty much sums up the movie.
Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996):  Yes, I’m aware this movie is bad.  Yes, I’m aware that there are probably much better movies I could be watching instead of this.  But you know what?  I had a jolly good time at this “horror” comedy.  I say horror in quotes because there is literally nothing in this movie that comes across as scary.  I mean come on, our villain is a short, green-suited leprechaun who speaks in Irish jargon and pines for his “pot o’ gold”.  How can you not love the little guy, even when he’s picking off the spaceship crewmates one-by-one, a la Alien?  Besides him, my other favorite character in here is the leader of the group of space marines, a guy in a robotic Zamboni suit who arbitrarily speaks with a German accent (and thus, combined with his short temper when barking commands, is vaguely Nazi-ish).  Like “Jack Frost”, this was quite the guilty pleasure.  Heck, even the creator of Trash Film Debauchery was surprised how many people showed up for this movie.

Our Man in Havana (1959):  James Wormold, a mild-mannered British vacuum salesman living in Cuba (played by Alec Guinness) is brought into the British secret service, and is told to recruit more agents.  However, he send them fictitious info, including passing off an ordinary vacuum cleaner as a secret weapon, one of the movie’s funniest moments.  This fibbing gets Wormold in hot water when some enemies are intent on killing him, despite that he obviously poses no threat.  There's a classic banquet scene where they play the old "switcheroo" with drinks and food, tense and funny at the same time.  A good movie with well-done Cuban atmosphere and a plot which subverts certain expectations of the genre.

So much running.
Run Lola Run (1998):  An exciting, fast-paced vehicle where the titular character desperately tries to get enough money for her boyfriend to pay back his boss, in less than half an hour.  Talk about pressure.  What separates this movie from a standard “race against time” plot is how the movie “resets” twice, to show how differently the same scenario went if Lola made other choices.  We even see how inconsequential background characters’ lives are altered by the slightest changes in execution of this twenty minutes, shown in rapid-fire, “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion.  So which “version” is the real one?  More importantly, does it really matter?  If you’re going into this expecting to see one true ending, you’re missing the point.  This isn’t really a movie in the traditional sense, but a narrative experiment to show how slight variances can produce vastly different results.  Some have even likened the movie to a video game, since Lola has three lives and each scenario gets a little better as the player learns more each time, and I can definitely agree with that.

Tunes of Glory (1960):  Saw this one with my parents, their first time at the Trylon.  It was somewhat misleading advertising to put this in with the other Alec Guinness comedy films, because this isn't really a comedy at all.  It's more of a “power struggle” movie at a Scottish boot camp during World War II.  That is, two opposing commanders, one played by Alec Guinness as more of a light-hearted “one of the boys”, and another who is taking over his unit and is more of a by-the-book hard-ass, butting heads over how best to run the troop.  Things get more interesting when Guinness slugs a man who happens to be an officer, and the new commander becomes unpopular for going forward with a court martial.  Despite being an outlier in that film series, Tunes of Glory is engaging because you have sympathy for both Guinness (who's losing the group that he's grown with) and the new leader who doesn't quite fit in.  And without spoiling anything, the ending is genuinely moving.

Wizard of Oz, The (1939):  The Heights gave a 75th anniversary screening of the movie (with a good quality print at that), which packed the house.  Literally, I didn’t see any empty seats.  That always warms my heart to see old movies can still draw crowds, even though this one has the upper hand of being really famous.  Interestingly, while I had seen The Wizard of Oz as a child, it was never a movie I watched over and over.  So seeing it as an adult was, for all means and purposes, my “first time”.  Luckily, it was a good movie, tightly told and full of memorable musical numbers and characters.  I would estimate that at least 2/3 of the moments in the film have been parodied or referenced in some fashion, meaning that if you watch it today, it’s one meme after another (and that’s a good thing in this case).  Only one nagging problem:  They never did resolve the subplot where Miss Gulch wanted to put down Toto.  So when Dorothy wakes up from the dream, isn’t Toto still destined to be taken away from her again?  Is this really a downer ending in disguise?  Other than that, it was a good movie but the experience of seeing such an old movie with a large crowd was the real highlight.
Now, grab some friends and head over to the Trylon!