Skip’s Quips: Why the Heck Isn’t ‘Stolen Kisses’ Better Known?

Blog Sketch 082813There are famous movies, and then there are infamous movies.

There are also movies by famous directors that kind of slip under the radar, like François Truffaut’s terrific 1968 film Stolen Kisses. I’m not sure why this great picture, one of the most romantic I’ve seen, isn’t up there with The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim in the count of the director’s masterpieces. Once upon a time, it got criticized for not being political enough in an era when riots and protests were filling the streets, but I think with Stolen Kisses, that’s beside the point. It’s only political in its accurate, carefree depiction of relationships, which is, in my humble opinion, revolutionary. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

Everything in this glittering piece of celluloid is superb: the cinematography, the editing (catch the quick, multiple cuts in the scene where Antoine Doinel enters someone’s hotel room and discovers adultery in action), the performances, the script. This is a movie where the filmmaker is in complete control. Nothing is wasted.

I wish I could say that for the host of lackluster movies that appeared in 2014.

But I don’t think we’re going to get a flick like Stolen Kisses again. Perhaps that’s for the better; you can’t repeat such unique magnificence. I would, however, like this film to be upon critics’ lips more often. It sure deserves to be, and I’ll continue to talk about it in the hopes that my wish for it will come true. Certainly, it’s an under-seen movie. Ideally, that’ll change.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Driving Along With Spielberg’s ‘Duel’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Would you believe I’d never seen the Steven Spielberg movie Duel until last night?

A real shame, huh? Especially considering the fact that I’ve seen a host of other films helmed by the master director.

Duel, the story of an average businessman’s encounter with a homicidal, unseen truck driver on the lonely roads of California, was very tense and suspenseful. Great editing and cinematography, making the most of a tight script that was only hindered by a few bursts of internal monologues here and there … which it didn’t need.

I liked this movie a lot, and it was interesting to see such a strong picture so early in Spielberg’s career (the movie debuted in 1971). I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again; it’s not clear how the suspense and thrills will hold up. But it remains a well-crafted movie.

What film will come next for me? Only the screen has the answer.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sipping at the Cup of Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Yesterday, while at the theater to watch Nightcrawler, I saw the trailer for the Jon Stewart film Rosewater.

I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical about this production. Stewart directed the movie and wrote the script for it, and although I think he’s a funny, often insightful guy, I’m far from a devotee of his work and don’t agree with him on everything. This serious picture, which documents the imprisonment and questioning of a journalist in Iran, is hardly comic material, and comedy is Stewart’s specialty. From a cinematic standpoint, it’s a big risk.

On the other hand, the trailer suggests some interesting cinematography and intriguing dialogue, which would be a big step forward for the usually lighthearted Stewart. It’s also topical subject matter, given the tyrannical regime currently in Iran, and might call further attention to the events occurring there. So there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to seeing it.

The question is: Will it be good? It’s hard to say. I guess I have to wait and see.

I hate doing that.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: What Happened to All Those Great Opera Movies?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Remember Franco Zeffirelli’s excellent film of Verdi’s Otello? Lush production, sexy direction, terrific acting, and of course, the great Placido Domingo as the titular Moor.

Why can’t we get more movies like that today?

It seems like there isn’t as much of an impetus to develop cinematic spectaculars based on classic operas as there was three decades ago, and I think that’s a shame. Once upon a time, you had Ingmar Bergman doing Mozart’s The Magic Flute, too. But now, it appears that directors of a certain stature are more content to craft large-scale pictures out of popular contemporary musicals than operatic standards. It makes sense from a commercial standpoint, as the latter have a more limited audience. From an artistic perspective, however, it’s lamentable.

I want to see a great celluloid version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, darn it! And not the nonsense that is Tristan + Isolde, see?

Today, with New York’s Metropolitan Opera doing HD films of various productions, it’s easy to think that we’ve come to an era where the genre is made accessible to everyone. I don’t think that’s the case, though. Movies of productions aren’t the same as cinematic iterations that aren’t confined to one stage; Zeffirelli’s Otello is proof of that. It was an actual film, not a filmed opera. That’s one of the reasons why it worked so well onscreen. Editing, cinematography, music, art direction – everything combined to make a powerful whole. It became a motion picture.

I don’t think opera is a dying art, nor do I believe it should be relegated to the upper class. It’s for everyone, and the great works deserve to be viewed and listened to by all. That’s why I’d like to see more of the type of thing that Zeffirelli has done in the theaters – not just HD versions. Many of these stories are quite cinematic, with fanciful plots and engaging characters. Shouldn’t they be put onscreen where they belong?

I think so. And I hope one day, we’ll see opera once again take its rightful place in the cinema.

Skip’s Quips: ‘Bad Words’ Dials ‘O’ for ‘Obnoxious’

Blog Sketch 082813I sure wish the movie Bad Words was a lot funnier.

It wasn’t horrible. In fact, it was eminently watchable, this story of an obnoxious 40-year-old no-goodnik out to prove himself on the children’s spelling-bee circuit. But it felt like a lot of humor was either left on the cutting-room floor or forgotten. The movie tried so hard to be outrageous that it lost out on a lot of laughs.

Director and star Jason Bateman steered the flick with more assuredness than I expected, and the cinematography had an interesting washed-out quality. Still, there was something unsatisfying about this picture, as if it was attempting to be two things at once: a broad comedy and a sensitive drama delving into the protagonist’s background.

I think the film took some easy routes. It’s hard to be funny. Perhaps the thought process was that the wackiness of the plot would generate laughs on its own. It didn’t, though. So in that regard, the movie misfired.

Oh, well. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. I’m sure Bateman will try for more success with other projects. Bad Words is definitely one to learn from.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Ah, ‘Commando,’ How I Missed Ya

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Sometimes being away from a movie for a long time inspires nostalgia. Sometimes it makes you like the movie more.

I kinda felt that way about Commando, the ridiculous, absurdly high-body-count 1985 “action” film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as human tank John Matrix. This is a junky picture, with all-too-quick editing, poor cinematography and a script that can euphemistically be said to need work. Plus, it’s bloody as all hell, with a ludicrous amount of violence as Matrix kills baddies while searching for his daughter.

Yet for some reason, despite all of these faults, I dig the movie. It’s a guilty pleasure. You can watch it while using your smartphone or doing the dishes. You can go to the bathroom without stopping it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. It’s the perfect thing to put on when you’re just casually viewing.

Which I was doing last night. I didn’t feel like seeing a quality picture. I wanted something crummy. And I hadn’t seen Commando in a long time, so yesterday was a good day to watch it. I know: This is coming from someone who loves Kurosawa and all kinds of high-falutin’ pictures, so what gives? All I can say is that sometimes I have to slum a little. I don’t do it all the time. It’s reserved for special occasions.

This was one of them. So Commando, thanks for the evening. And as John Matrix might say: “Grunt.”

Skip’s Quips: Having Another Go at ‘Conan the Barbarian’

Blog Sketch 082813Why, I asked myself last night, am I watching the original 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian again?

Isn’t once enough for this film? It doesn’t have great cinematography. Much of the acting – except for stalwarts such as James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow – is atrocious. And the special effects are pretty poor by today’s or even yesteryear’s standards.

Oh, yeah: And the blood squibs are gloppy. Really gloppy.

Well, parts of it are watchable, for some reason. I’ve read one of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories, “The People of the Black Circle,” and the film stays true to the tale’s sensibilities. You know: blood, gore, lust and all that. Plus, there’s the much-lauded score by Basil Poledouris, which is somewhat bombastic but definitely works.

Then there’s the script, courtesy of director John Milius and Oliver Stone. Pretty simple stuff, but at least it’s not verbose and pretentious. I was grateful for that.

There were also a number of seemingly derivative moments that may have been “inspired” by classic films such as Kwaidan (the scene in which the wizard writes runes on Conan’s body to protect him from demons) and The Seven Samurai (the stake-adorned defense against Thulsa Doom’s cohorts). Surprisingly erudite stuff for a film such as this. I did see part of an interview a long time ago in which Milius lauded Kwaidan as being “dreamlike,” so perhaps he was mining that movie for Conan. Nevertheless, it made for strong viewing.

So all in all: kind of a sloppy film, with dull moments and some very good ones. I may end up watching it again in the future and asking myself, once more, why I’m doing so. Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer myself the same way.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: A Taste of ‘The Lunchbox’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I have to write a little about The Lunchbox before I finish it.

It’s really a fine film. I thought I was going to be frustrated with it. Boy, was I wrong.

Watched about a third last night; had to stop it because I was tired. But it was enthralling. Beautiful cinematography. Great sound. And a simple but touching story (two people in Mumbai get their lunchboxes mixed up and start writing notes to each other). I’m hoping to see the rest of it tonight.

It’s further proof that a movie doesn’t have to have a complicated plot or flashy editing to be enjoyable. It can be deliberately paced, like The Lunchbox is. The conflict can be minimal. The characters may be few. And yet, the flick can be as powerful as any one with a cast of thousands.

It only helps that this film, which is tangentially about food, made me hungry. Hopefully, I’ll have at least a bite to eat before I complete it this evening.

Skip’s Quips: Picking Up the Pace with ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Blog Sketch 082813There’s little more frustrating than a frustrating movie.

Enter Jim Jarmusch’s vampire opus Only Lovers Left Alive. Was this flick frustrating or what? It had some funny bits, some great cinematography, a look, a feel. But it didn’t have a lot of conflict … and the internal issues experienced by the characters – what seemed to be the problem of remaining alive, as a vampire, for hundreds of years and quelling the thirst for sucking someone’s blood out of his or her body without being  bored – were resolved in an all too pat fashion. Add in a very deliberate pace (glacial doesn’t come close), and you have a bit of a mess.

Jarmusch has a lot of talent. I like the fact that this film was to a horror-driven vampire movie as eggplants are to horn-rimmed glasses. But I think it might’ve been overly ambitious. It reached for things it couldn’t attain. A more straightforward flick would’ve been more entertaining.

Of course, if it was a more straightforward film, it probably would’ve been a horror movie. So perhaps the only thing it could’ve been was what it became.

Oh, well. I guess I was expecting something a little more satisfying. It was a good try, nonetheless.

Skip’s Quips: Condemning Flashy Filmmaking

Blog Sketch 082813What is it these days with cinema pyrotechnics?

I see it all the time, most recently in Darren Aronofsky’s nearly unwatchable Requiem for a Dream. Quick cuts, splashy close-ups of eyes and drug paraphernalia, sped-up photography and so on.

Couldn’t stand it. Had to turn it off.

No, I’m not going to blame this kind of filmmaking on MTV. Fast edits have been around for a long time. Rather, I think it’s a product of directors not trusting their audiences. It’s about adding flash to a recipe in the hopes of making it palatable.

I prefer a more traditional approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want to see more irises and wipes, though. Instead, I’d like to see a focus more on story, on telling a tale in a linear manner, without blatant showmanship. That just calls attention to the filmmaking process, and enjoyment of a movie should be organic. It should immerse you, not alienate you. Too many flicks today do the latter.

I like Aronofsky; I think he’s very talented. But I believe RfaD isn’t a success. Too much demonstration of cinematic prowess, not enough straightforward storytelling. Can we have a little more of that, please, in the future? Special request, from me.