Author: Victoria Large

September 12, 2008 / / Film Notes

Psycho – 1960 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, easily one the director’s best-known and most influential films, and certainly one of my favorites. It remains a study in the successful undermining of audience expectations (cannily using what we know about genre and even film stardom against us), and on a personal level, it was one of the first films to get me thinking about the structures and strategies that filmmakers use (it also may well have taught me the meanings of the words “inordinately” and “aspic.”) Yet while it has a well-earned reputation as an exemplary thriller and an indispensable horror film, the sly humor of Psycho is occasionally overlooked.

August 15, 2008 / / Film Notes

You know it, and there’s a good chance that you love it: a beaming Gene Kelly on a rain-drenched nighttime street in Hollywood, executing a spellbinding, seemingly effortless dance routine that climaxes in with him stomping and splashing in a puddle, childlike and carefree. It is unquestionably one of our most indelible movie scenes, and probably one of our most joyful; it seems now to be less of an MGM musical setpiece than a mission statement for a particularly optimistic way of living. When Jack Haley Jr. compiled the first of his three That’s Entertainment! compilation films, he paid lip service to the American in Paris ballet’s standing as MGM’s most impressive musical number, but it was Singin’ in the Rain that appeared in the truncation-happy clipfest uncut: a bit of obvious, if unspoken, reverence. And in Belgian director Alain Berliner’s recent film Gone for a Dance, a film about three generations of family men who abandon their families for their Broadway dreams, it is Singin’ in the Rain, specifically that serves as a cinematic siren song for a life of dance. The number is pure magic.

May 27, 2008 / / Film Notes

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg dir Jacques Demy – 1964 – Trailer

Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t quite like anything else you’ll ever see (and that includes Demy’s loopier, messier musical follow-up The Young Girls of Rochefort). The first things that viewers notice about the film, and the last things that they would ever be likely to forget, are that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg unfolds in a rainbow of candy colors, and that every single line of dialogue is sung. It feels like a tribute to the glorious movie-ness of the movie musical, the heightened reality of all those sweet confections that the studios used to release so often, and viewers used to gobble up so eagerly. (At the top of the film, one gentleman ironically sings that he prefers movies to stage shows because all of the singing gives him a pain: a nod to Demy’s self-aware desire to make the movies sing again.) Yet while Umbrellas displays a reverence for Old Hollywood’s lavish musicals – which were the farthest thing from fashionable in 1964 – it uses their frothy look and feel to tell a story with a surprising level of grown up melancholy. As Roger Ebert puts it, “This style would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but Umbrellas is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all.” Unlike so many of our favorite movie musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg understands that a passionate kiss and a glorious swell of music does not necessarily guarantee happily ever after.

May 15, 2008 / / Film Notes

The Big Lebowski – dir. Joel and Ethan Coen – 1998 – Original Theatrical Trailer

It’s a little ironic that The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ slacker character in the Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, is introduced as “the man for his time and place” (in this case, that time and place is early nineties Los Angeles). I say this partly because critics and audiences routinely peg The Dude as a sixties throwback, a longhaired stoner comfortably out of his time; and partly because The Big Lebowski itself feels like a film out of its time, and even ahead of it. While it’s true that Lebowski harks back to the cinema and pop culture of other eras – from its drawling cowboy narrator out of an old western to its messy Big Sleep-inspired noir plot – and to the Coens’ prior body of work (traces of Raising Arizona abound), it feels like a weirdly prescient piece of filmmaking today.

March 31, 2008 / / Film Notes

Is there a film more famous than The Wizard of Oz? There are films with loftier reputations, yes: as impressive an achievement as it truly is, The Wizard of Oz is still written off as kids’ stuff on occasion. But what other film has embedded itself so firmly in our culture? It’s a reference that most everyone picks up and the one Old Hollywood classic that nearly everyone has seen (and, until recently, one of the few being broadcast on network television in primetime). It’s been remade and spun-off in all manner of ways, 0from a television version populated by the Muppets to the misbegotten disco epic The Wiz, to surprisingly bleak incarnations like the eighties semi-sequel Return to Oz and the Sci-Fi Channel’s recent Tin Man miniseries. It crops up even in unexpected places: as a key reference point in anxiety-ridden fair like After Hours and Blue Velvet, and a throwaway line in Reservoir Dogs’ infamous torture scene (“How’s about a little fire, Scarecrow?”). Heck, Richard O’ Brien originally wanted The Rocky Horror Picture Show to imitate The Wizard of Oz’s iconic – and still breathtaking – leap from black-and-white to color. The film is also a merchandizing perennial, the inspiration for a booming cottage industry of hand-numbered music boxes and collector’s plates.

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes


In trying to pinpoint the appeal of the 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz, critics and fans are likely to come up with the phrase “British humor” to encapsulate it, but that catch-all term (like “alternative rock” or “ethnic food”) is so broad as to have hardly any meaning at all. When “British humor” can stretch to accommodate everything from feel-good exports like The Full Monty and Saving Grace to subversive comic firecrackers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the terrifying, short-lived TV sketch show Jam, something is probably amiss. So if we can’t cite “British humor” as an endorsement of Hot Fuzz, how can we describe its appeal? 

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes


2004’s Shaun of the Dead, the superior British horror-comedy that broke stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in America, is clearly proud to take its cues from George Romero’s hugely influential zombie films. (Its title is an obvious pun on Romero’s 1978 horror touchstone Dawn of the Dead.) Zombies are fast-moving and ferocious in several recent movies, but Wright and Pegg (who also co-wrote Shaun‘s screenplay) choose to mine Romero’s traditionally slow-moving, moaning flesh-eaters for scares and laughs. More importantly, they know that what makes Romero’s zombies timeless is that they are never just zombies; Romero uses his monsters as vehicles for social critique, whether covertly satirizing mindless consumerism (in the original Dawn of the Dead) or class injustice (in the recent Land of the Dead). The same may be said of the shambling undead who populate Shaun, though the concerns of its filmmakers are more intimate than they are sweeping. Pegg has described Shaun as a film about turning thirty; it offers a particularly apocalyptic vision of the end of a prolonged adolescence. 

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes

The basic premise behind Grindhouse, the B-movie double feature from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, isn’t really all that novel. Director Stanley Donen’s 1978 effort Movie Movie is a strikingly similar package to Grindhouse, albeit Donen flew solo. That package is this: a pair of separate movies sharing some of the same cast members and glued together by nostalgia and fake trailers (Grindhouse‘s fake trailers are a major drawing card, featuring cameo directorial appearances by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth). But while Movie Movie affectionately spoofed the candy-sweetness of Old Hollywood in the midst of the grittier 1970s, Grindhouse longingly harks back to exploitative ’70s cheapies in an era when Hollywood product has grown dishearteningly slick and safe. By marking up their movies with scratches, pops, and intentionally missing reels, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s modus operandi is to transform sanitary suburban multiplexes into grindhouse cinemas that, while undeniably rattier, at least had a kind of dingy individualism intact. The entire enterprise is more about the act of going to see a film than anything else. See it on DVD and you’ve already skipped half the joke.

June 11, 2007 / / Film Notes

Director Gus Van Sant’s 1989 feature Drugstore Cowboy is surprising in that it manages to tackle heavy subject matter while remaining remarkably light on its feet. It moves at a steady but unhurried pace and gives humor and heartbreak equal time. The story concerns a crew of junkies in the Pacific Northwest who rob drugstores to maintain their high, and Van Sant achieves the nigh-impossible by treating the issue with an understanding of both the allure of addiction and the horrors that it can lead to. Charges that it glamorizes drug use carry a shard of truth: early scenes of the gang shooting up are rendered as dreamily blissful, and Matt Dillon is casually seductive as Bob Hughes, the slim, clever, and undeniably cool leader of the crew. But one doesn’t easily shake the image of the bluing corpse that causes Bob to try to kick his habit later on, nor forget the lingering, melancholy uncertainty of Drugstore Cowboy’s final frames.

April 6, 2007 / / Film Notes

Even today Mae West would be breaking all the rules. There she is in all her glory in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong: defiant, smart, curvy, and past forty, declaring herself “the finest woman ever to walk the streets” and suggestively yowling her appreciation for “A Guy What Takes His Time” (“I’m a fast moving girl that likes ‘em slow,” she sings with cheerful vulgarity). I came to Mae West already knowing the persona – having already gleaned the distinctive voice and the mannerisms, the outrageous diamond jewelry, and the immortal “Come up and see me sometime” from clips and impersonations – but I still found her brassy presence galvanizing the first time I saw one of her films. In her own time West made a splash with her risqué humor, but even now her brazen onscreen persona and off-screen chutzpah carry more weight than simply that. She’s the anti-ingénue, tough and worldly and unapologetic. She made a career of playing women who took care of themselves, and was one of very few classic era actresses to wield a great deal of control over her own image.