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Film90: The Introduction

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What Is Film90?

Film90 is a blog project for Digital Monkey Shines.  The overall goal of the project is straight-forward: to watch 90 years of cinema history in chronological order.  A single film from each year has been selected, and I will watch one film per day towards completion of the project.  Blog entries about the films will be posted approximately every five days.

I’m doing this because I have often struggled with a difficulty that presents itself to someone who wants to learn about movies past and present.  We simply don’t have the patience or the access to film in its original chronology.  We start with something we think we’ll like, maybe we use film lists like the AFI top 100, and the story of cinema comes to us in a chaotic system as we move through linkages formed by directors, film movements, and actors only to find cul-de-sacs created by the inconsistent availability of classic film on the retail/rental market.

In my case, I started by trying to watch all of Roger Ebert’s Great Films, having stumbled onto the first volume of the series at a bookstore.  The first title I removed from that list was All About Eve, which, released in 1950 would put it almost exactly in the middle of the Film90 time line.  Outside of the most common exceptions (Snow White, It’s a Wonderful Life), it was the oldest film I’d ever intentionally set down to watch at the time.

Since then I’ve worked my way back and forth throughout the entire history of the moving image, and occasionally I found myself having to revisit a film because I hadn’t understood it in its temporal context.  For example, I watched The Searchers before watching any other John Wayne westerns.  I’ll admit I never inherited an appreciation for Wayne in my family.  Once I’d taken a gander at Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I returned to The Searchers and felt anew the sea-change that western represented.

Watching films in chronological order is not a task to be taken lightly.  Were I to subject a neophyte to a strict diet of Edison actualities, followed by Edison shorts and then by Biograph shorts, I doubt I’d be able to convince the viewer to stay even to the advent of feature film.  Silent film is such an alien medium to the modern film viewer, that I believe appreciation requires some development.  To make matters worse, outside of the big three comics of the silent era, silent film actors are often unfamiliar to typical people.

Now that I’ve chewed through a couple thousand classic, foreign, or otherwise notable movies in the past five years, I feel sufficiently prepared to view the Film90 films and write about them.

Selection of the films was a feat of balancing dozens of competing demands, but I do want to be clear that none of these demands represent an attempt to identify a film canon.  In fact, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid overloading the selections with obvious canon-fodder.  Plenty of people have written more eloquently about films like Citizen Kane than I can hope to scribe.

Among the selection goals were:

  • To not over-represent any one director, limiting the number of films to three for any one individual
  • To include a reasonable selection of foreign language film from a diverse selection of film industries
  • To insure a sufficient number of films have never been seen by me
  • To include broad coverage of genres
  • To choose some films purely for their entertainment value

How to Enjoy the Film90 project

First, check in with the blog every five days or so.  The plan is to report on my progress after every fifth film to share my observations, reactions, and whatever else comes to mind.

If you want to try to view-along as if this were a film-club you’re welcomed to join in.  Check out the Film90 page accessed from the side-bar menu, where you can see a listing of the planned films.  Some of the selections may be exceptionally difficult to get, as I am partially drawing from my personal collection and some titles have gone out-of-print.  You are welcomed to find suitable replacements in line with your needs.

Comment and share!  I hope we have an opportunity to share our experiences.

If you’re waiting for the project to get going, take a moment to view my earlier post on Edison films for a little warm up to put you in the late-Victorian frame of mine.

Written by Bill

May 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm

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Majestic Preview: The Lincoln Lawyer

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After a week given over to the combined Joe Brogie shows and Grease Sing-Along, the Majestic Theater is offering The Lincoln Lawyer.

Summer blockbuster season started up last weekend with the release of Fast Five, so if you’re dreading another summer filled with explosions and screen-saturating CGI effects, the Lincoln Lawyer offers a smaller film experience of the sort you find in the in-between movie seasons, where characterization and nuanced stories have a better chance.  That doesn’t mean The Lincoln Lawyer skimps on the show.

The cast is deeper than the material, starting with Matthew McConaughy in the title role, Mick Hall, a cynic’s defense lawyer who know how to work all the billing angles and will take on any client.  Supporting McConaughy are several actors who would run away with the movie if they had been given more bandwidth, including William H. Macy as Hall’s investigator, Marisa Tomei as a D.A.’s office lawyer and ex-wife to Hall, John Leguizamo in a small part as a bond bailsman, and Ryan Phillipe as a dubiously earnest defendant.  Rounding out the cast are a couple of “oh-yeah” notables: Frances Fisher as an unusual helicopter mom, Josh Lucas as Hall’s adversary in the courtroom, and Trace Atkins as the front man of a motorcycle gang.

The story comes from Michael Connelly, who’s written lots of books I’ve never read but have noted in the bookstore for their prime shelf-position.  It is a story about lawyers and the movie can’t help but drift into a sort of complicated narrative that works better in prose.  Suffice it to say, I hit a point where I didn’t see how Mick Hall was going to extricate himself from his situation even though I knew he was bringing something to play.  The Lincoln almost rolled off its wheels in the last act, threatening to leave everyone unsatisfied.  Fortunately, the very lasts scenes return to a proper or, at least, completed ending.

Given a history of nothing-characters often stuck opposite the rom-com-of-the-moment starlet, it’s nice to see McConaughey get a role that suits him well.  Believe it or not, the man can actually act.  Perhaps he’s gaining the advantage of a bit of age, his presence on screen communicates a sort of harried unevenness, rather than the rock-solidity of a pretty-boy leading man.  He makes great work of portraying a character that doesn’t have the luxury of character-developing dialogue other than establishing a weird middle-ground that exists between him and his ex-wife and an obvious penchant for hard alcohol.

There is a great film to be found in this material, but The Lincoln Lawyer, while being a decent homage to the compromised heroes of film noir, misses the mark.  A longer treatment might have fleshed out more of the supporting cast and the moral ambiguities of the situation.

See Also

To build upon my comparison to characterization from film noir, I can’t help having a Samuel Fuller itch to scratch after watching The Lincoln Lawyer.  A darling of cineastes largely ignored by the general public, his stories have a kinetic realness mixed with subtle questions of justice.  From my viewing experience, I can recommend Pickup on South Street and The Crimson Kimono.

Marisa Tomei’s had a nice mid-career resurgence in the past several years, the hallmark role coming in The Wrestler.

And my left-field pick is Wallander, the six-episode series featuring Kenneth Branagh aired on Masterpiece Theater in the U.S. and now available on DVD.  Taking a longer pace, this is a good example of how a complicated leading character can be developed as well as providing plenty of plot movement.

Written by Bill

May 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Movies

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Collecting and Protecting Movie Ticket Stubs

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I remember movie ticket stubs being nothing special when I was a kid.  You got one of those colored roll tickets, which might have had the name of the theater on it, but lacked other identifying information.

Somewhere along the way, maybe when I was busy being a “business man” in the late 1990’s with no time for such foolery, movie ticket stubs got more interesting.  Most theaters now give you a ticket stub that is larger and has all sorts of interesting information, like the name of the movie you saw, the date, and the theater’s name.  A few years ago I realized that this was a great thing for someone like me who watches a lot of movies and might have some trouble remembering what exactly I’ve seen.

I’ve always been a bit of a collector.  As a youth, it was baseball cards.  It’s always been books.  And in the last several years, it has been about movies.  Most forms of collecting can look like a mild form of mental illness, from a certain point of view.  To follow a collection to its logical conclusion is to always be looking to acquire the next thing.  Some people collect as if they are managing an investment, a dubious proposition in any collector’s market primarily run by dealers, be they antiques, coins, or rare books.

In comparison, a movie ticket stub collection can represent a meaningful personal history with minimal issues related to collectible markets.  This post seeks to illustrate the ease and enjoyment one can have collecting ticket stubs from the movies.

Ticket stubs are technically epherema, which is a fancy way of saying “meant to be thrown away.”  Post cards, hand-bill advertisements, and garage sale posters are all epherema.  Lobby cards and posters are well-established and often expensive film epherema collectibles.   Given the disposable nature of stubs, your collection quickly becomes unique as time elapses.

In terms of cost, ticket stubs are easily acquired for free, assuming you frequent your local movie theaters and feel that the films are already worth the price of admission.  There is a very thin trade in movie theater ticket stubs on eBay, should you want to acquire beyond your own viewing habits, but I don’t recommend throwing good money in that direction.  If you acquire the ticket stubs from theaters directly, there isn’t any question of authenticity, while the same cannot be said about eBay sales, movie memorabilia dealers, or garage sales.

You also can’t beat the personal history that a ticket stub can represent–it’s a small piece of documentation of where you where and what you were doing.  Maybe it reminds you of people with whom you spent time.  Sometimes, it’s a chance to prove you were hip to a film before the bandwagon caught on.

Keeping Your Stub Collection

This section provides some basic advice to preserving your movie stub collection and is adapted from my training in book preservation in library school

There are many ways your ticket stubs can be damaged:  radiation (most commonly from light) will fade inks and discolor paper; moisture can create conditions where mold can grow; dust and other substances can soil the paper; and even light handling can create wear on corners and creasing.  To make matters worse, your ticket stubs may be carrying an internal threat–traces of acid in the paper or ink may slowly react over years and weaken the stub.

Keeping your collection in appropriate protective media in a dry place not in direct sun should extend the life of your stubs. Fortunately, the supplies necessary to protect a movie ticket stub collection are readily available, thanks to the widespread popularity of trading card collecting and scrapbooking.

For holding individual ticket stubs, I use 2 5/8 x 3 3/4 polypropylene sleeves designed for trading cards.  They’re too small for concert or theater tickets, but every movie ticket stub I own fits in this style of sleeve.  Sometimes these sleeve can be found in retail at places like Wal-mart, if you look at the collectible card game/sports card section.  A pack of 100 may run $1 to $5, making for a very low per-ticket price.  Also, you can buy them online from Hobby Lobby.  I’d avoid the trading card pages designed to fit in binders, since they tend to slump and bend the contents if stored upright for a long period of time.  To keep your slips organized, invest in a card box, preferably one that is acid-free.

Poly sleeves are ideal because they allow you to handle your stubs with minimal touching.  If you want something more focused on presentation, look into building a movie scrap book, taking care to use acid-free supplies (as most are, these days).  If you’re like some of the scrapbookers I know and have a backlog of projects, take care to place your stubs out of the light until you can get them placed in your books.

If I have a need to keep notes on a stub, I use a piece of buffered paper and write with an acid-free ink, as is shown in the following photo. The buffered paper from archival supplies can easily run $20 a ream, so an acid-free scrap book paper is a suitable replacement.

What’s the difference between buffered and acid-free paper?  Buffered paper has alkaline chemicals added to mitigate the effects of acid, while acid-free paper merely has a PH of 7.0 or higher.  For example, old newspaper ink was often acidic to a point that the newspaper deteriorated much faster beneath lettering than in the white space, so buffered paper is used to slow this process down.  I don’t know the innate acidity of paper in ticket stubs, so the use of buffered paper may be over-compensating.  Maybe I’ll do some chemistry over the summer and find out.

Most of the damage I’ve done to my stubs comes from the time between purchasing the ticket and returning from the movie.  To minimize this damage, I place the stub in a book (since I often carry one).  Alternatively, you could invest in a simple hard-sided business card case to temporarily hold stubs. For example, this case: Aluminum Business Card Case (Amazon)

A note on honest wear:  I don’t get upset if the stub gets torn badly by a ticket taker or has a streaked and/or muddy printing.  These are legitimate artifacts of the experience.  I’ve long felt that the condition-focus of most collectible markets detracts from the enjoyment.  Your experience may vary.

I hope this was a informative and encouraging post.  If you collect stubs I’d love to hear about how you keep them in the comments.

Written by Bill

May 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm

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Will the Real Chinese Boxer Please Stand Up?

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I am a sucker for bargain-priced DVDs.

50 orphaned musicals, several of which feature Frankie Darro, for $17?  I’m in.  A $4 used DVD of a film I might have once seen a trailer from that is also in French?  Let me check my wallet.  Two Asian movies I’ve never heard of for $2.99?  Sold!

Pamida¹, my local retailer of choice for those unable to drive out of town to a real big-box discount store, routinely tempts me with diverse offerings of movie merchandise of questionable value.  It’s possible to get all of those shoddy premise knock-off films from The Asylum (2012 Doomsday, Deathracers, etc) on Blu-ray from my Pamida.  Echo Bridge and its doppelganger Mill Creek are very well represented at Pamida, hence the reason I own the first season of Lexx².

Both “the Bridge” and “the Creek” are best known for bundling collections of films that have been thrust into the public domain by company failures where the question of rights was bungled.  There are some very good films that fall into this category, like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, so a serious collector will probably cross the path of one or both of these companies before too long.

Not long ago, I was killing time waiting for a prescription to be filled at Pamida and discovered a new batch of promo-priced titles, most of which still weren’t worth the ridiculously low asking price.  I did find one DVD that intrigued me:

The cover of Revenge of the Samurai

Revenge of the Samurai / Karate Gangsters

Needless to say, there is not a lot of foreign language film to be found at Pamida, and the price was only $2.99.

Last weekend I finally watched the first film, Revenge of the Samurai.  I quickly realized what I’d bought:  a late-seventies/early eighties martial arts film from Hong Kong.  You probably remember them if you’re old enough:  badly dubbed and filled with fighting sequences, often the sort of thing that a television station might use to fill-in its late night programming.  These films are actually quite entertaining if you can get past the cheese factor.

The movie was, to be honest, quite a good example of the genre.  I couldn’t really follow which side was supposed to be the good side and who was bad, but it didn’t really matter.  There are all sorts of silly gags, including one fatality via turnip-impalement, chain-bombs, zombies, fan-shaped multiple-barrel guns, and two buckets of pearl bran glue used to ground a Thai boxer.

I suppose, if you really, really know Hong Kong cinema, you have already detected what I’m about to say.

Per IMDB, I found no record of a movie by the name of Revenge of the Samurai.  I’ve never found such a dead-end on IMDB before.  Even after working through some of the cast listed on the box looking for an alternate title, I found no evidence that this film existed.  What a puzzle!

Eventually, I stumbled onto a resource which I’ve since added to my research toolkit, the Hong Kong Movie Database (relax, it’s in English!).  HKMDB said my film was actually Return of the Chinese Boxer.  Making this identification dubious, the cast listing on HKMDB was completely different, even if you allow for dodgy phonetic spellings of Chinese names.

So where was the error?  I ended up finding footage on YouTube to compare with my DVD version, which also appears to be missing the original title sequence.  What I had bought really was Return of the Chinese Boxer.  Here’s the trailer, which is easily confirmed to be from the same movie as the DVD:

I don’t think this was Echo Bridge’s mistake, even though they should have done some verification on the film before releasing it to DVD.  They dutifully copied the credits as show on the film.  The error probably occurred much earlier, perhaps when the print was edited for U.S. television (remember the missing intro and titles?).

At least it provided me with a nice mystery to solve.  And the movie is quite entertaining.  I haven’t watched Karate Gangsters yet, maybe there’s another jumble to unscramble?

1 For those readers who grew up in Laramie like me, Pamida now also owns Alco.
2. German-Canadian science fiction production featuring a Teutonic gal with blue hair.  Please don’t armchair psycho-analyze me.

Written by Bill

April 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm

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Majestic Preview: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Rodrick Rules

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You know I couldn’t pass it up.

In disclosure, I have not seen the first Wimpy Kid movie, although I did read the book.  I thought the book was entertaining, but didn’t see much point in reading the two (at the time) sequels.

The premise is understated and deceptively rich:  a seventh-grade Greg Heffley keeps a diary about the travails of growing up, weird parents, and the difficulty of being the middle child.  In the second installment, Greg’s parents have decided that Greg and his brother Rodrick must get along better.  Complicating issues is Greg’s motley crew of friends and the arrival of a new girl at school who catches Greg’s eye.

There is a lot to like in this Wimpy Kid film as it finds a sweet-spot between being to patronizing to children and boring adults.  The kids are all genuinely portrayed, despite the tendency of Greg’s narration to exaggerate.  Steve Zahn, playing Greg’s father, does some great face work as the silent backup to his wife’s tirades.  Best of all, when the boys break loose during the party sequence when their parents are away, it’s still sufficiently tame that parents needn’t worry about the film setting a bad example.

See Also

While animation seems to have over-run the family-movie genre, occasional mostly-live-action films like Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief make for decent, if not outstanding entertainment.

Written by Bill

April 22, 2011 at 1:11 am

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Majestic Preview: Limitless

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Another Thursday viewing this time.  Let’s talk about Limitless.

Limitless is a non-parable about self-improvement via pharmaceuticals.  Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) plays the lead reformed-schlub and provides copious voice-over narration.  He is a writer who doesn’t write, has lost his girlfriend (played by Abbie Cornish, Bright Star), and has an apartment a few 90-degree days away from becoming a Superfund site.  A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law provides the impetus to the story, in which Cooper quaffs his brain pills and normally does really smart things.  Along the way, we see a slightly-stiff Robert De Niro posing as a financial titan who has the capital Cooper needs to implement some ill-defined master plan.

This movie careens from incident from incident, sometimes with a sort of whimsical, willful transgression, and other times with plot-expedient-arbitrariness.  Director Neil Burger is a bit too enamored of tinkering with color palettes and fish-eye sequences, giving the film a techno-dance-club headiness that can be grating.  Burger has pulled the rug out from beneath the viewer before, in The Illusionist from 2006.  While I preferred The Illusionist over its premise-doppleganger from the same year (The Prestige), I’m not sure whether Burger has yet managed to establish a habit of great film execution.

As for the performances, they are adequate.  Cooper’s face, with the help of post-production, manages to span the cognitive gulf that is the dim-witted-non-pharmaceutically-enhanced slob and the wunderkind charmer.  Abbie Cornish plays a solid, mature woman, which is new territory for her, having produced a string of school-girl performances in Bright Star, Sucker Punch, and A Good Year.

Unfortunately, the story of Limitless is bound to irritate people who expect their plots to be well-constructed, sensible, and internally-consistent.  That doesn’t stop the film from being a great popcorn entertainment.  For example, the utterly ludicrous sequence in which Abbie Cornish makes creative use of figure skating to resolve a situation is a great wink to the audience.

Be warned that the following paragraph has several plot spoilers.

The trouble with a device like a smart-pill, is that it’s easy to paint the story into a corner.  Cooper’s magic drug puts him “Fifty moves ahead of everyone”, except for the screenwriter, who must compromise the internal consistency of the film to provide tension and advance the story.  At its worse point, Cooper’s supposed genius mentions that another character came out of nowhere, and yet fails to make the connection that this rival also has access to the wonder pill, while the audience should pick it up immediately.  Also unsatisfying about the story is the fact that there are a few loose ends–what really happened with the girl found dead in the hotel room?  We can only assume Cooper killed her and has escaped consequences, since it’s never established that the antagonists are responsible.  What is Cooper’s master plan, to which he refers in the prologue scene?  All  we can gather that it involves politics from the final scene, but there is no payoff.

Be warned: if you are sensitive to violence, there are a few moments which are gruesome towards the end of the film.

See Also

If you’re interested in a thriller, can tolerate a bit of science fiction, and are willing to pay attention, I recommend checking out Source Code, now in theaters.  Critics have complained about the ending, but it’s nowhere near as egregious as the sloppiness of Limitless.

The best Abbie Cornish role I’ve seen her perform is in 2009’s Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion.  If you have a taste for visually-lush costume drama, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Having a literary stylishness, featuring morally-ambiguous protagonist(s), and a nice ending plot twist, I can’t help but think Fight Club was the sort of film Limitless was trying to be.  Another Chuck Palahniuk adaptation, Choke, also features Sam Rockwell as another hideous man.

Written by Bill

April 15, 2011 at 12:55 am

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Majestic Preview: Rango

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It’s another week and another film at the Majestic.


Rango is an unusual film, in that it’s an computer animated film with plenty of kinetic energy for young audiences, but delivers its best flourishes that only a niche audience will appreciate.  It tells the story using a wide selection of small fauna, including various rodents, lizards, and the occasional amphibian.  The protagonist Rango is voiced by Johnny Depp, who leads a surprisingly deep voice cast including Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone.  In fact, there are so many different inhabitants of the town of Dirt, that it can be difficult differentiating the minor characters.

The story is as uncomplicated as one expects in a children’s film, in which Rango is deputized after killing a hawk that has plagued the town.  He must save the town by discovering what happened to the water supply.

The richness of the texture work on the character models gives a nearly photo-realistic appearance to the film, which also means there’s a lack of cuteness, outside of Rango’s asymmetrical form.  I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take me to locate a broom, should I find a Rango-critter on my porch.  Younger children may also find the bad-guy rattle snake, voiced by Nighy, to be a bit too scary.

Despite everything working in its favor, including a focus on ensemble-performance of the voice characterizations, Rango seems to have just missed the cusp of success.  Even the numerous cross-references to other films and a general send-up of the western-stranger-comes-to-town genre can’t quite deliver.  Maybe they should have gotten Clint Eastwood’s help.  Rango, fails by a small margin to a level of greatness in animation often seen in the films of Pixar, like Wall-E or Ratatouie, or the best work from other animation houses like How to Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me.

Perhaps it is worse to fail by a small margin than to fail so utterly.  Don’t get the impression that you should, under no circumstances, go to this movie.  Rango is good for its breed and an engaging hour and forty-seven minutes.  Keep a sharp eye out in the Ride of the Valkyries chase sequence, which is the best action set of the film.

See Also

To properly orient yourself to the narrowly-defined western subgenre in which a stranger comes to town, check out classics such as Shane, Bad Day at Blackrock, and Pale Rider.

As it’s referenced heavily in one particular scene, watching Rango is a great excuse to dust off Apocalypse Now for its Ride of the Valkyries sequence.

The first Toy Story is also a stranger-comes-to-town story, making it closely related to Rango in plot and animation.

Written by Bill

April 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm

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