Opera 101—Bang a Gong, Get It On

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Calaf contemplates risking it all in Turandot. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giacomo Puccini, Turandot (1921–1926)
Based on: the plays Turandot by Carlo Gozzi and Turandot, Prinzessin von China by Friedrich Schiller
Notable Cultural Reference: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; Paul Potts audition for Britain’s Got Talent
Setting: Peking, Imperial China

Plot in 101 words or less: A used and abused ancestor has turned the beautiful Princess Turandot against all men. [Insert obligatory #notallmen reference here.] Any man seeking her hand must answer three riddles correctly or lose his head. Never a gender to lack confidence, plenty have rung the challenge gong and failed, but Calaf is sure he’ll succeed despite all advice to the contrary. Meanwhile, ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong wish Turandot were more “likeable” because of course. SPOILER ALERT: Calaf guesses the riddles! Unsatisfied, he manages to create a situation whereby slave girl Liù sacrifices herself because he once smiled at her. Because of course.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Nessun dorma”

Martina Serafin as Princess Turandot in Turandot. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I was a bit disappointed when I realized that opening night of the 2017–2018 San Francisco Opera season was going to be Turandot—since I had already seen this production back in 2011 and I remember hating the sets and costumes. Well, the good news is that the sets weren’t as bad as I remembered (though, after four uses they are probably ready for retirement), but the bad news is that the costumes were still mostly god-awful. I mean really…

Raymond Aceto as Timur, Toni Marie Palmertree as Liù, and Brian Jagde as Calaf in Turandot. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Musically speaking, I think this was a stronger production than in 2011 and, what’s more, I could better appreciate it this time because I’ve seen so many other operas in between. Brian Jagde, the former Adler Fellow who so impressed me in Tosca, and, more recently, Carmen, delivered an excellent “Nessun dorma” and Martina Serafin was very convincing as Turandot, particularly when she had her change of heart in Act III. While it is hard to beat Leah Crocetto’s excellent Liù, last-minute replacement Adler Fellow Toni Marie Palmertree did a respectable job, especially in her final number. Raymond Aceto made more of an impression as Timor this time around.

Ping, Pang, Pong contemplate Turandot’s bloody reign in Turandot. Photo by Cory Weaver.

That little one sure can sing!

—my neighbor upon Toni Marie Palmertree’s curtain call

As for those other costumes, I have to say, I didn’t love many of the dresses that made the Chronicle‘s opening night society wrap-up, but two beautiful items that I thought were also on point thematically are below.

Left: Yuka Uehara of Tokyo Gamine in her own creation. Right: Sara Griffith’s inspired modification of her grandmother’s jewelry box. Photos by Gabrielle Lurie for the Chronicle.

Luckily, I managed to surreptitiously snap a few pics of my own for posterity.

  

  

  

There are five more performances of Turandot at the War Memorial Opera House this month, on September 12, 15, 21, 24, and 30. Then it comes back again at the end of the season on November 18, 25, and 28 and December 3, 6, and 9. So there’s no excuse for missing this one. Tickets can be purchased here.

Riddle me this: All’s well that ends well? Photo by Cory Weaver.

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The Great Unseen 1: Matinée Idle

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Harold Lloyd idles the time away in Safety Last!

As I wrote in my original post on The Great Unseen, I decided to begin this project with the silent films on the list. As such, I have now watched Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906), Safety Last! (1923), Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925), and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). As a point of comparison, I also watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925) for the first time and rewatched two Buster Keaton films, Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). And, while browsing the library shelves for some of these classics, I realized they had a copy of the restored Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915–1916), which I’ve never seen in its entirety. So, as you can see, this project has mushroomed somewhat. (Like no one could see that coming.) Still, I wanted to report on my efforts and thoughts to date.

To begin at the beginning—literally—I first want to talk a bit about Alice Guy-Blaché (1873–1968). From my study of the French film industry at NYU, I vaguely knew of Alice Guy as an early production head at Gaumont. How lacking my education was—she was a total filmmaking trailblazer! I’m actually mad now that the film classes I took didn’t cover her as they did Auguste and Louis Lumière or Georges Méliès. Not only was she the industry’s first female director, there is an argument to be made that she is the first director of narrative cinema period, having likely filmed La Fée au choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy), a one-minute film where a young woman appears to deliver newborn babies from the heads of cabbages, in April 1896 (i.e., a month or two before Georges Méliès made his first fiction film).

Alice Guy began her career as a secretary to inventor/industrialist Léon Gaumont, but quickly turned to producing and directing after seeing an early private demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ film technology. From 1897 to 1907, when she married Herbert Blaché, she was Gaumont’s head of production and probably the world’s only female film director. In addition to being incredibly prolific, she also experimented extensively: first with special effects in films like La Fée aux choux, then with color, hand tinting films such as Les Fredaines de Pierrette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900) and Le Tango (The Tango) (1905), and, finally, sound synchronization. Additionally, after moving to the United States with her husband and founding Solax Films in New Jersey in 1910, she directed the first film to feature an all African American cast (A Fool and His Money, 1912). Seriously, this woman’s name should be tattooed on every contemporary filmmaker’s forehead. Unfortunately, she lost both her husband and film production to Hollywood and, after directing her last film in 1920, divorcing her husband, and filing for bankruptcy, she moved back to France and was unable to continue to make a living working as a filmmaker. C’est la vie I guess.

On the left is a frame from the hand-tinted two-minute film Saharet, Boléro (Saharat Performs the Bolero) (1905). On the right is a frame from the same dance series, Le Tango (The Tango) (1905).

But why was her history lost? Well, for starters, when Gaumont published the history of his company, one she had been instrumental in developing, he did not mention her. At all. Quelle surprise—men really are the worst. Over the years (she lived to age 94!), Guy-Blaché tried to correct for this absence from recorded film history, but it was a difficult task since most of her films were believed to be lost. Luckily, that was not the case, and about 350 of the over 1000 films she directed survive, including 22 feature-length films. I was able to borrow a DVD of a collection of her early films from the library and many are available on You Tube. I highly recommend checking them out. A very cool early film that experiments with movement is Danse serpentine de Mme Bob Walter (1897). If you want to see hand-tinting in action, watch Les Fredaines de Pierrette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900). Both films are under two minutes long.

And now, on to the show!

Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906) is one of Alice Guy-Blaché’s best-known early works. Only seven minutes long, the film is a satirical look at daily life in a society where the roles of men and women have been inverted: men play hard to get and take care of the children while woman smoke and drink and boss them around. My favorite part is early on, where a woman is smoking with her feet up while one man irons and another sews. Good times. Never fear though—SPOILER ALERT!—the patriarchy comes through in the end. This film would have been much better with intertitles, but still, it is rather extraordinary for 1906. You can watch it here.

Les Vampires (1915–1916) is a ten-part serial thriller about a gang of French criminals. Though not as popular upon its release as Louis Feuillade’s earlier Fantômas series, it has since become his most popular work, especially since it was restored in the late 90s and finally appeared on DVD in the United States about five years ago. I’ve been meaning to watch it for some time, especially since watching Irma Vep (1996) by Olivier Assayas a couple of years ago. However, since the complete film is almost seven hours long, so far I have only watched the first episode (“The Severed Head”). But that episode reminded me greatly of early Hitchcock and the “old dark house” movies I loved last October, so I’m looking forward to the rest. [Side note: Louis Feuillade is the person who took over as the Gaumont studio head when Alice Guy-Blaché left.]

No actual vampires were harmed in the making of this film.

Safety Last! (1923) is one of those films where everyone has probably seen at least one scene—the scene pictured above—where Harold Lloyd is hanging from the giant clock face. Despite appearances, and what I thought going into this project, this is not just simple physical comedy. In fact, Safety Last! probably has a more developed plot than most silents and the comedy set pieces work organically within the larger whole. I quite enjoyed it. A word of caution however: Although not as sexist as I feared given the basic storyline (a young man moves to the city to earn enough money to marry his true love back home), there are some cringe-inducing moments of racial and ethnic stereotyping. There are also times where my fear of heights was severely tested. Lloyd’s stunt work here is breathtaking.

Since Lloyd is often portrayed as the third wheel on a silent comedy tricycle alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I wanted to rewatch some Chaplin and Keaton movies to see what I thought of them in comparison. As Keaton was one of the directors I studied in the one film course I took in college, I’ve seen most of his best films. [Side note: The class was called “Five Directors,” although it was really just three solo directors—Buster Keaton, Robert Bresson, and Alan Rudolph—along with The Archers, aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. An odd collection, to say the least.] For this project, I decided to rewatch the two films that are on the Sight & Sound Top 250 List, namely, Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). For Chaplin, I decided to watch two films I hadn’t yet seen, his first feature, The Kid (1921), and The Gold Rush (1925), which I mistakenly thought was about the California Gold Rush but in fact depicts the Klondike Gold Rush. Still, it did feature a bear, so I can pretend it took place in my adopted home state.

No bears were harmed in the making of this film. At least I hope not.

After watching all of these movies in quick succession, I feel like it is rather unfair to compare them. They are so very different in terms of style and intent. Suffice it to say that all of these films are excellent and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. I definitely still prefer Keaton to Chaplin, along I didn’t think The General quite lived up to my memory of it. Part of that may be the fact that it is somewhat hard to relate to a Confederate hero these days (though it too had a bear, so props for that). On the other hand, Sherlock Jr. remains a masterpiece of storytelling and meta commentary on filmmaking. And, with a running time of approximately 45 minutes, you really have no excuse not to watch this one.

In Sherlock Jr., Keaton gets into the spirit of filmmaking. Literally.

Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein was the real surprise of this list. I expected to absolutely hate it; however, not only was it far better than I thought it would be, but it was far more relevant than I expected. The story told is deceptively simple—a dramatized version of an actual mutiny that took place in 1905 aboard a Russian battleship—but is really a more broad depiction of the dangers of authoritarianism and capitalist exploitation and the need for workers to unite against oppression. Word, Sergei.

Battleship Potemkin is another classic where most people have seen at least one scene, namely the baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps (famously referenced in The Untouchables); however, that was far from the most memorable image for me in that sequence. What most sticks in my mind is the repetition of the marching boots of the soldiers and the woman being shot in the face. Chilling. Other interesting visuals include the double exposure showing sailors hanging from the masts and the final confrontation of ships. [Side note: Apparently the Potemkin Stairs, as they are now generally referred to, were designed to be an optical illusion whereby a person looking down the stairs sees only the landings, and not the steps, but a person looking up sees only steps, and no landings. Cool, huh?]

No children were harmed in the making of this film. At least I hope not.

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is a film that shows up on so many “best of” lists—and rose from #9 to #5 on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 250—that it is really a wonder I hadn’t seen it yet. Of course, until this month I hadn’t seen #3 (Tokyo Story) on that list either so perhaps I haven’t really been trying. In any case, Sunrise had never really seemed particularly interesting to me, and even once it started I got bored and turned it off almost immediately. Luckily I tried again because this time I got through the first few minutes and realized that the movie takes an incredible turn and, hot damn, did I like this movie. Yes, it’s not the most female friendly, and I hate that the man suffers no real consequences for his actions, and, sure, the city sequence tangent goes on a bit too long and there are crazy tonal shifts, but I just don’t care. None of this should work but it somehow does. And with gorgeous visuals to boot. What Murnau is able to convey in terms of dramatic narrative, and with so few intertitles, is truly astonishing. And that’s before taking into account the drunken pig and brilliant O. Henry ending. Between this and Nosferatu, which I experienced for the first time last October during my horror series, I clearly need to watch more Murnau.

A pig may have been harmed in the making of this film. It depends on your definition of harm.

In summary, miracles do happen, people. I really liked all of these selections.

Tune in next time when I take on unseen classics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In the meantime, if you are undertaking my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you’ve watched so far in the comments below.

Filmography

The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906)
Safety Last! (1923)
Броненосец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Other Classic Silents
La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy) (1896)
Les Vampires (1915–1916)
The Kid (1921)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Gold Rush (1925)
The General (1927)

Opera 101—The Yeomen of the Guard Redux

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I have a song to sing, O
Sing me your song, O
It is sung to the moon by a love-lorn loon
Who fled from the mocking throng-o
It’s the song of a merry man moping mum
Whose soul was sad and his glance was glum
Who sipped no sup and who craved no crumb
As he sighed for the love of a lady
 
Hey-di, hey-di, misery me, lack-a-day-de
He sipped no sup and he craved no crumb
As he sighed for the love of a lady

 
This past weekend, to celebrate the arrival of my cousin to the Bay Area (along with her thirtieth birthday), I took in a repeat performance of The Yeomen of the Guard by the Lamplighters Music Theatre. This was one of the first Lamplighter productions I ever saw and is the only one I have seen a second time. But it likely won’t be the last, as it looks like I have caught up in the Gilbert & Sullivan cycle to where I was when I first started subscribing in 2010. Unfortunately, because I haven’t been able to subscribe the past few years, I have missed a few key works that likely won’t come back into the rotation for some time.

In any case, this piece remains a delight, even though it has probably the saddest subject matter of all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas. I was also happy to see that, with the help of supertitles, my French cousin seemed to get most of it. I guess even the tricky wordplay of Gilbert & Sullivan is nothing next to the Chinese she has been trying to follow for the past few years living in Shanghai.

While Jack Point was the ever-reliable F. Lawrence Ewing, most of the cast were new to me. Of particular note was Samuel Faustine who played Colonel Fairfax; I loved his clear tone and hope to see him again on the Yerba Buena stage very soon. His eventual partner in wedded bliss, Elsie Maynard, was played by Patricia Westley, who proved to be a serious counterpoint to Ewing on the lovely duet cited above. Rounding out the rather strong female half of the cast were Erin O’Meally as Phoebe and Sonia Gariaeff as Dame Carruthers. Another Lamplighter regular, Robby Stafford, played “man with the plan” Sergeant Meryll. Charles Martin was okay as Wilfred Shadbolt, but seemed a bit too old for the part.

Samuel Faustine as Colonel Fairfax (left) and F. Lawrence Ewing and Patricia Westley as Jack Point and Elsie Maynard (right).

Yeomen is the Lamplighters first production of the 2017-2018 season. They will continue the season next year in February with The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria) and then close it out in March with a singalong version of Iolanthe, which I normally might not attend but since it is one of the major works that I haven’t seen yet (as well as my dad’s favorite), I may just have to suffer through the whole singing along thing.

The Great Unseen

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About a month ago, I was tweeting about significant films I hadn’t seen, including such classics as Barry Lyndon (1975), Duck Soup (1933), and The French Connection (1971). I haven’t been avoiding these films for any particular reason, I just haven’t gotten around to them yet. With so many movies produced every year, it is almost inevitable that even hard-core film fans will have gaps in what they have seen, and I don’t feel any particular guilt for not having seen the films below. However, when I realized I had seen so few films last quarter and could use some additional motivation, it occurred to me that I might try to actively remedy some of these gaps. And thus was born “The Great Unseen” project.

For this project, I have selected three to five significant films (that I haven’t yet seen in their entirety) to represent each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. By “significant” I mean that they are critically acclaimed and/or often part of the cultural conversation. My goal is to watch at least twenty-five of these films before my next quarterly report. I’m starting with the four silents, but after that I will probably go on mood. Please feel to join me for any or all of these classics.

And now the list…

The Great Unseen
Les Résultats du féminisme (1906)
Safety Last! (1923)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Duck Soup (1933)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Late Spring (1949)
The African Queen (1951)
High Noon (1952)
Madame de… (1953)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Rio Bravo (1958)
(1963)
Blow-Up (1966)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Playtime (1967)
The French Connection (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Mad Max (1979)
The Thing (1982)
Body Double (1984)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Orlando (1992)
Beau Travail (1999)
The Insider (1999)

How many films on this list have you seen? Which ones do you recommend in particular?

If you haven’t seen many (or any) of the films on this list, or if there are significant films you feel you should have seen but haven’t, will you pledge to watch at least one per month before October? If so, list your three selections below. Don’t leave me alone on this!

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2017, Issue 2

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Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman

Well, folks, this has been a slow quarter for movies. Between my extended vacation, oral surgery, and other things fun and not so fun, my normal outings with the lovely @FyodorFish often got canceled, and my Twin Peaks rewatch in anticipation of Twin Peaks: The Return meant that much of my home viewing was devoted to damn fine television instead any particular film project.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it does mean that over the past three months I only saw twenty-four movies overall: seven in the theater and seventeen at home.

Luckily, “what’s there is cherce”: Even the worst movie I saw in theaters (The Fate of the Furious) managed to be hilarious to me in its awfulness. And I’m happy to report I couldn’t even come close to coming up with my usual “Top Five Films I Have Seen But Can’t Recommend” list. Finally, while a number of the 2017 movies I have seen to date fall into the “good but not great” category and will therefore likely fall off this list by the end of the year, I think my running Top Ten bodes well for the rest of the cinematic year.

2017 Top Ten (to Date)
Get Out
Bacalaureat (Graduation)
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.
The Big Sick
Their Finest
Baby Driver
The Zookeeper’s Wife
Wonder Woman
John Wick: Chapter 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Needless to say, I’m also thrilled there are currently three films by women on this list even if I’m not doing #52FilmsByWomen this year.

Best Film Seen in a Theater: Bacalaureat (Graduation). This film by Romanian director Christian Mungiu is the one everyone should see but almost no one probably will. It is one of those typical “European” films that manages to be intense and subtle about fairly mundane subject matter: In this case, what parents choose to do (or not) in order to provide their children with the best opportunities in life. Really, it’s a study in ethics. I know that doesn’t make it sound very interesting, but it is. It is quiet, and fairly bleak, but the performances and camerawork are excellent. In terms of moral weight and the consideration of social systems, it makes an extremely interesting pairing with Get Out at the top of this list.

Best Theater Experience: Wonder Woman. Was there any doubt this film would be here? Even the horrible movie-going experience I had trying out the new AMC Dine-In that took over my beloved Sundance Kabuki couldn’t ruin the delight I took in seeing this movie with a crowd. While pretty much tapped out on the superhero genre, this is one of those examples of how the unique viewpoint of female and PoC directors can help revitalize stale genres (which I initially wrote about in reference to Creed and McFarland, USA). The earnestness, humor, and joy on display in this movie were all incredibly refreshing. For that reason, I was somewhat sad when the third act went off the rails and into Transformers territory but, all in all, I thought this one lived up to the hype. It reminded me of my favorite Captain America (The First Avenger), so maybe I just need more of my superhero movies to be set in the past.

Best Film to See in a Theater Right Now: The Big Sick. This is an incredibly well-constructed romantic comedy and one of the best films in recent memory to capture the true awkwardness of the early stage of relationships (rather than just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl version of awkwardness). It is sweet and funny and also made me tear up in multiple spots (which in and of itself is not a value, but was rather unexpected). I loved Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents; they really brought those characters to life and imbued them with a complexity you rarely see from parental roles. All this to say that The Big Sick doesn’t hit you over the head with anything particularly cinematic, but it has a number of interesting layers that reward even the most casual viewer.

Best Film to Stream Right Now: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which stars his longtime collaborator and friend Macon Blair. So when I heard Blair had debuted his own film this year at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize award and was picked up by Netflix, I was extremely eager to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. While it doesn’t have the energy that I remember Blue Ruin having, it is certainly a film for our times and I probably related to it far more than I’d like to admit. The two definitely have a similar dark “how revenge can go horribly wrong” vibe, though I don’t feel…  is more comic than Blue Ruin. There is also some subtle commentary on gender dynamics at play here that I think will reward multiple viewings. As an added bonus, Melanie Lynsky (Heavenly Creatures) and Elijah Wood are both fantastic.

Most Underrated: Their Finest. This is one of those films that gets underrated because male critics (who are numerically overwhelming in any ratings system) either “don’t get it” or “can’t relate to it” (or both). Like a number of the films here, it has third act problems, but ones that pale in comparison to some others I might (and will) mention. On the surface Their Finest is merely a light confection of a motion picture but it’s actually saying quite a lot about filmmaking and the creative process, life during wartime, romance, and sexism, all from a feminist perspective. In fact, it’s a bit hard to describe: I guess the elevator pitch would be Argo (or actually Laissez-Passer [Safe Conduct] if you really know your French cinema) meets The Imitation Game, meets The Bletchley Circle. The cast is good all around, though Bill Nighy really steals the show.

Best Opening Scene: Baby Driver. While I had a number of problems with the third act of this film, and it is a little too in love with its soundtrack, it is hard to argue with the effective way it explodes onto the screen in the opening heist getaway scene. The stylized look is very modern, but the choreography of both the cars and people seems to harken back to the golden age of movie musicals. Ansel Elgort is riveting throughout. I would never have guessed that the uptight, rather bland brother from Divergent could play this character, but he makes it seem easy. His physicality especially is a joy to watch. If the rest of the movie had lived up to the promise of this opening Baby Driver would likely be at the top of the above list, but unfortunately it just ends up coming off as Tarantino-lite to me.

“Been There, Done That” award: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I had pretty much decided not to bother with this one based on the mixed reactions I was seeing on the interwebs, but when my niece came to town and wanted to go to the movies, I figured “Why not?” It was amusing enough and if you liked the first one I would imagine you would like this one, even though I don’t think the script comes close to the crackle of the original. Plus, much like The Empire Strikes Back, it really suffered from the gang being separated for much of the film. But, yes, Baby Groot is adorable.

Biggest Theater Disappointment: The Fate of the Furious. I had never seen a Fast and the Furious movie (not for any particular reason, I just hadn’t gotten around to it), and having heard so much about them I went into this one with high hopes. Alas, it was not meant to be. My spreadsheet notes for this one read “Stupid. I can’t believe these are popular.” Really, what more needs to be said?

And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter:

Best Classic Rewatch (tie): Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and L.A. Confidential (1997). How many times have I seen Escape from Alcatraz? I don’t know, but I never get tired of it. Every rewatch I appreciate new things: This time around it was the slow approach we make to the island in the beginning. Utterly gripping. L.A. Confidential was a movie I hadn’t seen since its release and I was a bit scared of what I would find. Rewatching twenty years later I’m much more attune to the shoddy treatment the women get, but otherwise it holds up quite well. Incredible script and lots of interesting camerawork.

Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential

Best New-to-Me Classic: Battle Royale (2000). I’m not really sure if something made in the year 2000 can count as classic, but this movie is excellent. I liked it way more than I thought I would considering it’s a splatterfest. I see why so many people link this story with The Hunger Games but to my mind they are trying to do very different things even if on the surface their plots are similar. One thing Battle Royale does exceedingly well is character development: We start with over forty kids and I feel like the audience gets to know each one individually. An amazing feat, especially considering that any nuance is probably lost on me since I don’t speak Japanese.

Best Math Greek Selection: Fitzcarraldo (1982). Generally the Math Greek knows better than to suggest a film by someone like Werner Herzog to me, but I think he knew that my soft spots for both Claudia Cardinale and opera might convince me otherwise. And, given that a few years back he presented me with Herzog’s journal of the making of this film (as yet unread), I finally decided to take the plunge. For those that don’t know, the story concerns a would-be rubber baron (and lover of opera) who comes up with an incredible plan to circumvent some dangerous and unpassable falls by hauling a riverboat over a mountain. To film this, Herzog decided to haul a riverboat over a mountain. Hijinks ensue.

Klaus Kinski is not usually my jam, but opera makes strange bedfellows.

The “Add Fuel to the Fire” award for Most Improved on Rewatch: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Obviously this rewatch went hand in hand with my recent review of the entire run of Twin Peaks. I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came out and I honestly don’t remember where I stood on it. I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been since I had read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer at that point, but I’m sure I probably didn’t “get it” either. Anyway, it is essential viewing if you like the series and certainly doesn’t deserve its horrible reputation.

The “When You Play with Matches Sometimes You Get Burned” award for Least Improved on Rewatch: St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). This movie came out the summer before I started at Georgetown University and believe me when I say that there are no other reasons anyone should be watching it. Vanity Fair, what were you thinking?

Everyone is young and stupid at some point in their life: Exhibit A.

Best Casting: Short Term 12 (2013). Speaking of casts that are going places, Short Term 12 is a typical indy film that warrants a mention simply because of its incredible cast. First off, you have Brie Larson in her breakthrough role. But you also have the debut of Keith Stanfield (last seen in Get Out) as Marcus, a pre-Mr. Robot Rami Malek as Nate, John Gallagher Jr. (last seen in last quarter’s 10 Cloverfield Lane), Kaitlyn Dever (who I loved as Loretta McCready in Justified), and even Stephanie Beatriz. Very good performances in an otherwise unremarkable film. (Seriously, it’s fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about).

Best Documentary: Tower (2016). I don’t watch too many documentaries as a rule, but this quarter I saw three that all merit a recommendation. The first was Fog City Mavericks, about the incredible filmmakers who have emerged from the Bay Area (and also Chris Columbus for some reason). Fog City Mavericks was a pretty standard documentary but was well structured and I certainly learned some things. The next two were more creative and both appeared on the Best Documentary shortlist for the last year’s Academy Award: Cameraperson and Tower. I’m not a huge fan of memoirs in general, so it is probably no surprise that I didn’t share the critical love for Camerperson, but it has a number of interesting bits that might work for you if you like the genre. Tower, the story of the mass shooting at the University of Texas in the 1960s, was very well done. I liked the angle they took, not focusing on the background of the shooter or those murdered but rather the experience of the survivors of that day—it’s an extremely interesting look at human nature and reactions to trauma. I resisted this one somewhat because I didn’t think I would like the fact it was mostly animated, but the style worked beautifully for the story they were telling. Check it out on Netflix if you are interested.

Most Oddly Relevant for Today: The Running Man (1987). Relevance is just one of the many reasons this 80s “classic” is painful to watch.

John Wayne award for hyper-masculinity (tie): L.A. Confidential (1997) and Excalibur (1981). While one might make the argument that these films are exploring and confronting traditional definitions of masculinity, I will not be the one to do so.

Gloria Steinem award for proto-feminism: Their Finest (2015). In addition to the film’s plot and (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) script, there was also the crew: It was so bloody refreshing to see all those women in the opening credits (including direction, screenplay, editing, score, and production design).

Most Adorable Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Best Choreography Involving a Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Winning

Worst Geography: St. Elmo’s Fire (2015). No contest. This is a film about a bunch of Georgetown grads, who are nothing like Georgetown grads, and who keep visiting the campus of University of Maryland for some reason. Psst, screenwriters, Georgetown University doesn’t have fraternities.

Worst Title: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.

Worst Title (runner-up): Baby Driver (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.

Francis Ford Coppola “Opera in Unlikely Places Award” award (tie): Fitzcarraldo (1982) and The Running Man (1987)

Best Use of Helen Mirren (tie): Excalibur (1981) and The Fate of the Furious (2017). Sadly even this Dame’s presence couldn’t save either one.

Worst Abuse of Lycra: The Running Man (1987). Let us never speak of it again.

Best Use of a Cape and Cowl (tie): Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997) and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017)

That cape you like is going to come back in style.

Pam Grier award for distribution of vigilante justice: Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood in I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)

“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award: Wonder Woman (2017)

“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award (runner-up): Excalibur (1981)

Best Use of Nunchaku (tie): Battle Royale (2000) and I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)

Best Use of the Old Poisoned-Drink Switcheroo (tie): Valentina Cortese as Viktoria/Karin in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and Taron Egerton as Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

And, finally…

Film I Forgot to Include Last Quarter but Barely Deserves a Mention Here: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). It was fun while it lasted but is utterly forgettable except for a couple of songs, which really should have been nominated for Oscars (yes, I’m serious).

What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What have I missed that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole gives notes to Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard in Their Finest

For Vol. 2017, Issue 1, click here.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2017: Baby Driver, Bacalaureat (Graduation), The Big Sick, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Their Finest, Wonder Woman

2016: Cameraperson, Miss Sloane, Tower

Released prior to 2016: Battle Royale (2000), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Excalibur (1981), Fire Walk with Me (1992), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Fog City Mavericks (2007), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Running Man (1987), Short Term 12 (2013), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Viva (2007)

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

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