A hit or miss month for my movie education. Let’s dive in.
Drums Along the Mohawk
Once again, I take a run at a John Ford film and bounce right off. When I heard the description of this film – a newlywed couple moves to update New York and is besieged by attacking natives – it at least sounded like nice, tense setup. But what I got was slow, disjointed and kind of boring. If I’m going to get Old Hollywood racism, I’d at least like it wrapped in an enjoyable film. This one really tried my patience.
Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom
Not everything in the Movie Education list is high art. Or, even art at all, I suppose. This is one of the most noted entries in the 1970′s Japanese “Pinku” genre. That basically means it’s a Japanese exploitation film, in case you don’t feel like following the link. A bunch of tough, gang girls are forced to go to a reform school run by corrupt vice principal and ruled over by a disciplinary club made up of the cruelest girls in the school. What plays out is kind of a women in prison revenge film that’s really fun if you can get into that kind of thing. Like Lady Snowblood, you can tell this was a big influence on Tarrantino, especially with Kill Bill. Worth it just for the strange dueling challenge where two women crouch and extend one hand to the side while reciting a formal greeting. But remember: it’s exploitation, so if gratuitous sex and nudity are a problem for you, this isn’t the film for you.
The Breakfast Club
No, I’d never seen it before. Let’s just assume if it’s an 80′s teen comedy, I missed it, ok? This is only the second John Hughes movie of his classic era that I’ve seen, the first being Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I have to be honest, too. I never liked Bueller that much. But I figured it was my duty to finally catch up on The Breakfast Club, since its kind of a thing with people of my generation. Like Bueller, I thought it was overrated and filled with unrealistic teen stereotypes. Unlike Bueller, there were things I liked about the film despite that. Ally Sheedy was both adorable and excellent in the role of the Weird Girl, and Anthony Michael Hall made a badly written geek part enjoyable. The Breakfast Club proved to me that I was right to assume Hughes’ teen comedy traded more in cliche than insight, but this was a good film despite that. I’ll be saying “I taped his buns together” on a daily basis.
I liked The Rules of the Game so much that I pushed the other major Renoir film I knew of to the top of my list. It’s an quiet and deliberately paced story told about the impending breakdown of Europe’s class system in the First World War. Well, it’s not really about that, but it’s the undercurrent for many of the film’s best scenes. Two French officers – one an aristocrat, the other a working class engineer – are shot down over Germany and spend the film moved from officer’s camp to officer’s camp, waiting for their chance to escape. It’s interesting that the film isn’t so much about class tensions as it is the way men of different social station relate to each other in a war that has leveled those differences. There isn’t really one thing the film is saying, but each scene paints a picture of a changing world, a change that is coming whether these men can accept it or not. It’s not quite the film that Rules of the Game is, in my mind, but it’s still fantastic.
I really wanted to like this. I’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film and everyone talks so highly about it. To his credit, Keaton is every bit the genius at staging sequences everyone says he is. Everything from the camerawork to his own stunts are top notch, and it’s worth seeing the film just to realize what a difference there is between Charlie Chaplin twirling a cane and Keaton’s ability to continue to perform while riding on the front of a train. That doesn’t make The General an enjoyable film, though. At least, it didn’t for me. The plot was incoherent and characters nonexistent. I’m also a little unsure what the make of the hero of the film being a Confederate soldier stopping a Union attack. I’m glad I saw it, but I didn’t enjoy watching it.
I remember when Michael Mann’s Heat came out and the big draw was that Al Pacino and Robert Dinero would finally have a scene together. You know, because they were in Godfather II together without sharing a scene, so that’s the big thing the moviegoing public needed from a film. Unfortunately, they only share one scene together, so there was a bit of backlash over the film that had nothing to do with whether or not it was any good. And you know what? It’s really good. It builds slowly towards a big bank heist, and when it arrives and the balls-out action begins you realize that you’ve still got a full hour of movie to go, leaving you to guess at what the last act of the movie will bring. I’ve said before how much I love that structure, where you point to a big moment as your climax, but hit it early and destroy expectations for the rest of the film, and it really works in Heat. I’m dissatisfied with the very, very ending of the film, but that aside, it’s a classic. Even if you hate the rest of the film, the mid-point bank heist is such a perfect tension build-and-release that it’s worth every single minute of film that surrounds it.