Author: Victoria Large

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – 2010 – dir. Edgar Wright

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, co-writer and director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s celebrated comic book series, is an engagingly oddball affair and an almost-instant cult hit: it perhaps was not the massive mainstream success that the studio had hoped for upon its initial theatrical release, but it has a cadre of dedicated fans who embrace its rapid fire pop culture references and cheeky sense of style. One of Wright’s first major projects was Spaced, a sharp-witted British sitcom that slides in and out of pop pastiches without warning (For example: in one minute Spaced’s twentysomething lead is playing Playstation’s quintessential fighting game, Tekken; in the next he is arguing with his roommate while the fight announcer from Tekken comments on the action.), and Scott Pilgrim gives Wright a chance to further demonstrate his mastery of a distinctive kind of pop-saturated, slipstream comedy.

Gremlins – 1984 – dir. Joe Dante

Sporting Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and released under the auspices of his Amblin Entertainment production company, Gremlins attempts the tricky feat of fusing the cuddly sentiment of Spielberg’s E.T. with the monster movie mayhem of Jaws. It just about succeeds on that count, offering a solid mix of gross outs and laughs, and in the wildly imitative world of 1980s horror films, that meant that there was soon a rash of similar tiny-monster flicks, from the tolerable knockoff Critters to the dire Ghoulies and the laughable Hobgoblins. But what makes Gremlins such an interesting film to revisit is not so much its (admittedly transitory) influence as it is the tensions that pervade a film formed from such contradictory impulses. Much like 1982’s iconic Poltergeist, which was produced by Spielberg but directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper, Gremlins was helmed by a horror movie veteran in Joe Dante, late of Piranha, The Howling, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. What results is a strange fusion of a big ‘80s adventure movie and something a bit spikier.

August 18, 2010 / / Main Slate Archive

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 2001 – dir. John Cameron Michael

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 2001 motion picture based on the successful off-Broadway musical of the same name, is a rare bird indeed: a stage adaptation that doesn’t fall flat, it has visual verve to spare and feels right at home on the big screen. The colors pop and the music (composed by Stephen Trask) truly rocks. Hedwig is perhaps too wild to be considered a throwback, but there are moments, such as the triumphant sing-along number “Wig in a Box,” when this film gives audiences that same giddy rush that comes from watching the best old Technicolor musicals. It’s one of only a handful of really special movie musicals to come out of the ‘00s, and one of the decade’s most unique films to boot.

The Goonies – 1985 – dir. Richard Donner

I’m a fairly serious film fan. Call me a cinephile, if you like, or go ahead and call me a film snob (I can take it.) I spout opinions and trivia like nobody’s business. I read heady, theory-based film criticism for fun. I get persnickety about aspect ratios. I can, on occasion, be a lot to take.

But before I was a cinephile, I was simply a movie lover, a kid who got high on the movies and gobbled them up voraciously, in whatever form I found them in. That often meant that they were formatted to fit my screen, and sometimes meant that they were unceremoniously censored; or interrupted by commercials; or jumpy and pixilated, subject to the dangers of broadcast television, the whims of the weather and the UHF signal. I was a child of the eighties and nineties, reared on videocassette tapes and the cinematic menus offered by local TV channels. (On WSBK 38 it was “The Movie Loft;” on WLVI 56 it was “Boston’s Big Screen.”) The effects of videocassettes and of TV broadcasts were similar: they lead to repetitive viewing patterns, and thus, fans who could quote their favorite films (and even some of their not-so-favorite films) at the drop of a hat. I grew up in a generation that didn’t just speak about movies; we actually spoke movie, exchanging remembered lines of dialogue in a kind of half-coded language. Movie lovers, like me, and like most everyone I remember growing up with, don’t just watch movies, or analyze movies, or judge them. They absorb them.

January 25, 2010 / / Main Slate Archive

Arizona Dream – 1993 – dir. Emir Kusturica

“But what’s the point of breathing if somebody already tells you the difference between an apple and a bicycle? If I bite a bicycle and ride an apple, then I’ll know the difference.” That’s one of the first of many philosophical musings from Axel Blackmar, the searching twenty-something protagonist of Emir Kusturica’s willfully strange 1993 film Arizona Dream. It’s a statement that prepares the audience for all that comes next. That is, at least well as the audience can be prepared for all that comes next.

October 26, 2009 / / Main Slate Archive

Bombshell – 1932 – dir. Victor Fleming

I first saw the 1932 screwball comedy Bombshell, which stars Jean Harlow in one of her best roles, as part of retrospective at the Brattle titled “Blondes Have More Fun!” The program had grouped Harlow with other blonde Hollywood icons of the classic era: Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, Kim Novak, and Veronica Lake. (Funnily enough, Bombshell was at one point known as Blonde Bombshell to flag it as a Jean Harlow comedy rather than a war picture.) Placing Harlow in the context of a fascinating tradition of fair-haired starlets is illuminating – she somehow bridges the worldly toughness of West and the fragility and innocence of Monroe. In the film that made her a star, Howard Hughes’ 1930 epic Hell’s Angels, Harlow famously announced that she was ready to slip into something more comfortable, sending a smoldering look over her shoulder. Starlets have been copying her moves ever since, but it’s rare for actors of either gender to nail Harlow’s distinctive blend of glamour, wit, and grit. (James Cagney, Harlow’s co-star in The Public Enemy, has a similar appeal, blending fast-talking edginess with disarming vulnerability.)

The Public Enemy – 1931 – dir. William A. Wellman

It’s one of my favorite Old Hollywood vignettes, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not. I stumbled across it in the Turner Classic Movies glossy Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, and it revolves around the famous scene in director William Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy where James Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. According to the book: “The scene made Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene and often was shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud.” I love the story because it’s silly and ridiculous and not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility: spiteful exes have been known to do worse. But the story also gets at some of the key elements of an uncommonly enduring movie scene, one so memorable that, as critic Carlos Clarens notes in his book Crime Movies: “Not one reviewer failed to mention it, and it undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.”  (Even Pauline Kael’s pithy two-sentence capsule review of The Public Enemy namechecks Clarke as “the girl who gets the grapefruit shoved in her kisser.”) The grapefruit bit remains a shocker, and was even more jarring in its day, but, as Brice certainly understood, it’s also kind of humorous in its utter nastiness. It catches many a viewer – if not Brice on his hundredth viewing – off-guard, leaving them helpless to do anything but gasp or laugh.

April 13, 2009 / / Main Slate Archive

The Red Shoes -1948 – dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

“Why do you want to dance?” asks Anton Walbrook as the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov in an early scene of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes. “Why do you want to live?” is the immortal reply from flame-haired Moira Shearer’s Victoria Page, her words pinpointing the themes that The Red Shoes holds closest to its heart. That moment, and the film as whole, has carried incredible resonance for those who make or love art of any kind, those who see little to no difference between the will to create and the will to live.

January 12, 2009 / / Film Notes

Repo Man – 1983 – dir. Alex Cox

I don’t remember how I first heard of Repo Man, only that its reputation preceded it. As a teenager I actually picked up a used cassette of the film’s famous punk rock soundtrack at my local record store long before I was able to hunt down a copy of the movie itself, which for me only heightened its grungy cult flick allure. (For you youngsters, this was back when there were audiocassette tapes. And record stores. And suburban video stores with unpredictable inventories.) When I did finally see Repo Man, it lived up to my expectations simply by defying them. “…[T]he only real response to it is the perception of brilliance or the belief that it’s an utter piece of garbage,” writes Film Threat’s Brad Laidman. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a cult classic.

December 9, 2008 / / Film Notes

Serenity: Sci-Fi on the Raggedy Edge

If you’re familiar with writer-director Joss Whedon’s much-beloved 2005 science fiction film Serenity, you’ve likely heard the tale of the picture’s convoluted path to the big screen. It begins with the 2002 premiere and subsequent, swift cancellation of Firefly, Whedon’s hour-long TV series that fell victim to an impatient network (not to mention a dreadful ad campaign that featured Smash Mouth’s then-ubiquitous tune “Walking on the Sun”). Serenity picks up where Firefly was forced to leave off, and Firefly’s vocal fans (some who watched the initial broadcasts, many who were converted by the hot-selling DVDs of the series) embraced the big screen version, only too happy to have their favorite characters back. Fans championed the film with a missionary zeal; at the time of Serenity’s release, a story circulated about a Vancouver man who bought 320 tickets to the film just to give them away to strangers. Alas, Serenity didn’t set the box office aflame during its initial run, but it has predictably had a strong DVD afterlife, and indeed more staying power than the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan (a massive hit, moneywise, in 2005) that held the number one box office spot when Serenity opened, or the Vin Diesel vehicle Doom (even that had a bigger opening weekend). Serenity’s charms are many whether you’re a newcomer or a diehard, and in the past few years it has settled comfortably into a position of rare prestige in the cinematic sci-fi canon.