In my ongoing quest to scribble things down before they vanish from memory and personal history, for a while now I’ve been trying to coming up with a system for jotting down notes about the movies I watch at home. I normally limit my movie writing to new theatrical releases, indies On Demand, and Best Picture nominees during Oscar season, but I’d like to engage in slightly more notetaking for the fun of it — tracking what I watch as I go and recording my impressions in brief, not in 2000-word list-bombs. Once I’ve forgotten the entire movie six months from now, I can return to my previous capsule and remind myself whether or not it was worth remembering.
What follows is the first batch of Stuff I Recently Watched after the idea finally crystallized for me. I’m not backtracking to recap everything I’ve watched this year or this lifetime, but I’ve kept enough notes over the past few weeks to stick to that fixed starting point.
* Attack the Block: I picked up a used copy of this British sci-fi flick from the Half Price Books stand at one of this year’s conventions (they’re starting to blend together) because I knew it costarred John Boyega, soon to become world-famous as one of the main cast in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII. As Moses, the leader of a pack of whatever the UK calls “gang-bangers” who have to save their neighborhood from an alien invasion, Boyega plays it cool, leading his panicky band of charming lowlifes with a low-key sort of dignity. Boyega slowly unwinds as the stakes are upped and physical melee becomes a necessity, and finds an excuse for swordplay, which might’ve helped his Star Wars auditions. Recognizable faces include Nick Frost as a barely helpful pot dealer and Jodie Whittaker (Danny Latimer’s mom from Broadchurch) as the gang’s innocent victim who ‘s forced to join forces with them for survival’s sake.
The monsters are creepy in a way I haven’t seen before. I’d wager a few of the young lads may go on to wider careers in the years ahead. I love that the South London dialect alone left me feeling ignorant and wanting to pick up more of it. (Now I get what “fam” means! I feel, like, slightly less elderly now!) Maybe someday director Joe Cornish will move past the frequent-rumor stage and officially helm a second movie of some sort. And yet, I found it amusing that, for all the driving and bicycling and running and escaping Our Heroes do, they just keep circling back around to the same apartment building over and over again. Gotta wonder if their entire neighborhood is made of roundabouts that no one can escape.
* How Green Was My Valley: A couple years ago I went on a brief buying spree at Big Lots and other local discount shacks to see if I could upgrade some of my ancient VHS items to cheap DVDs. A few of them were Best Picture winners, including this one, the only John Ford non-Western I’ve ever seen. After noticing a fellow WordPress writer live-tweet a recent TCM airing, I remembered I had it on the watch pile and finally made time for it a week or so later. I first saw it when I was much younger and retained nothing from it except some depressing coal-miner chants, but an encore viewing gave me a much better appreciation for this early Welsh version of Angela’s Ashes. The labor disputes at the heart of the story mean a lot more to me; I can appreciate Ford’s work now that I’ve seen several more of his films; and I was floored by Walter Pidgeon’s performance as the town’s good-guy minister who shames one and all with an incendiary diatribe against the ignorant, judgmental citizens who too quickly crucify their own. And as the young lad who spends half the film in bed, you can see why “Master” Roddy McDowall impressed so many at so early an age, decades before he went on to a different sort of fame as a most eloquent ape.
* The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Now I see why the Wes Anderson film with the all-time lowest Tomatometer rating reached that nadir. Bill Murray is usually fun to watch even if his coworkers are letting him down, but everyone here tries so hard to be so oddball that no one syncs up in the same plane of reality and the whole thing feels stiff and awkward, as if the cast and crew avoided talking with each other between takes. As the titular TV oceanographer, Murray has to balance soulfulness, mourning, job stress, killer fish hunting, and being Bill Murray, but no one else really clicks with him, from Owen Wilson as his alleged son (who seems to be struggling harder than anyone) to Cate Blanchett as a pregnant journalist to Anjelica Huston as the stuffy wife who doesn’t want to go with Murray, and I’m not sure if she’s acting. Jeff Goldblum seems out of sorts as a rich rival, while Willem Dafoe camps it up as a German sailor with shrunken uniforms and precious manners.
Even the acoustic covers of David Bowie’s greatest hits between scenes (in Portuguese, even!) and fish animations by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) don’t rescue this lamentable case of quirk overdose. I bought this through a Criterion Collection half-off sale at Barnes & Noble. In retrospect I’m glad I chose the older single-disc edition instead of one of the re-releases that included more discs and ten times as many extras.
* The Life of Emile Zola: Another bargain-bin upgrade of a film I’d forgotten, maybe even slept through in my 20s. No one ever falls back on the 1937 Best Picture winner as a conservation starter, but the thrust of this True Story resonates as much today as it should’ve at the time. The film barrels through the early life of the famed titular French writer, from his days as a poverty pal with the painter Paul Cezanne to his success as a novelist and cultural rabble-rouser. The heart of the film is an infamous scandal in which a loyal French officer named Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason by his own government, stripped of his rank and commendations, and sent to languish in faraway prison for years. When evidence later surfaced that the real traitor was another, much higher-ranking official, those in power conspired to squelch any and all attempts at revisiting the case, reversing the verdict, or revealing the truth to the public, because that would have meant admitting the French government was wrong about something, and that couldn’t happen. Enter Zola, who sacrificed his career, fortune, reputation, and personal safety to crusade on behalf of truth, justice, and Dreyfus.
Movies about frustrating kangaroo courts tend to fray my nerves because I loathe seeing liars and oppressors winning, but the day is saved (in Pyrrhic fashion) thanks to indelible performances from Paul Muni as the hero writer taking on Big Government, along with his hero defense attorney played by Donald Crisp, who coincidentally was also the Morgan family patriarch in How Green Was My Valley. Really, though: here’s a righteous film about little guys with the truth on their side, trying to stand up to the establishment that’s trying to squash them like grapes. You’d think this would have a much more vocal fan base in today’s sociopolitical climate. If only it had been made twenty years later and in Technicolor, I suppose.
(Unexpected afterword: Shortly before hitting the “Publish” button I switched tabs to peruse the end of the Wikipedia entry and noted some discussion of the film’s thorough, politically motivated sidestepping of the subject of Dreyfus’ Jewish faith, which was apparently key to the government’s choice of him as a patsy and would’ve made for a much different film if they’d been permitted to address it head-on. Maybe that answers my question, then.)