...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Thursday, December 24, 2009


128 min. dir. Alfred Hitchcock NR

Supposedly, Hitchcock’s rage at his beloved Grace Kelly for leaving Hollywood led him to try to remake her with a series of cool, aloof blondes, beginning with Kim Novak. She stars here as the object of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession, but the casting is, happily, a little off. Unlike the brittle Kelly, Novak fills her dress with fleshy concupiscence. You understand why Stewart goes from detective tailing her to man under the influence: His appetite has been whetted. Aside from the garish dream sequence, the images in this movie are understandably iconic: a woman falling into San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the pallid face of Carlotta Valdez staring out from a museum canvas, a habited nun un-merging from the inky night. However memorable such images are in themselves, they serve the story by imbuing what is essentially a boilerplate mystery with an aura that is deep, strange, and enchanting. The ending may seem unsatisfyingly abrupt, but give it time. Our obsessions do not resolve--they are ended, and not by us. (Sunday, at the Egyptian in Hollywood.) // CHRIS DAVIDSON

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Christmas Story

94 min. | Dir. Bob Clark | Rated PG

According to IMDB.com, this movie is up 78% in popularity this week. This is also the percentage of Americans who have seen all or part of it, as it plays in heavy rotation on cable each December. So why bother heading to the Bay in Seal Beach and plunking down your cash in order to watch it with a bunch of strangers? For one thing, it’s better than that other holiday tradition we partake in among people we don’t know—shopping—and the reason is because this movie has a quality that is hard to find this time of year: A refusal of sentimentality. Jean Shepherd’s memoir, of an Indiana Christmas in the 1940’s, cuts out religion, baking for neighbors, and singing carols on moonlit streets. Instead, all his hero, cute-as-a-bespectacled-button Ralphie, wants for Christmas is a BB gun. His dad wants his sexy-leg lamp. And his mom wants to escape embarrassment. And yet there’s an unforced love among the lot of them that gives the movie genuine warmth. Bring the family. Soon, movie theatres will be as retro as the decoder ring Ralphie sends for and is ultimately disappointed by. Why? The message he decodes is an advertisement. It’s a throwaway joke, and a haunting one. // CHRIS DAVIDSON

[Published this week in the print edition of The District.]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

100 min. dir. Mel Stuart Rated G

For the first twenty minutes, the movie based on Roald Dahl’s classic is realized with an exquisitely crafted landscape that mixes fantasy and realism, with an actor playing poor, sweet Charlie Bucket who nails, without sentimentality, the character’s innocence. You sit rapt by the story, anticipating the arrival of that mysterious man who will guide Charlie and a posse of selfish brats through his sprawling, confectionery compound. And then Johnny Depp shows up and you feel your teeth begin to rot. Let it therefore be stated: Expensive remakes of perfectly good movies, especially when directed by one Tim Burton, are bad for your health. Sure, the original (screening this week at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach), has its flaws—cheesy songs, plastic sets—but, as everyone knows, it’s also got Gene Wilder, who captures Willy Wonka’s eviscerating wit and impish delight in (near) chaos. He drives the movie toward an almost heartbreaking conclusion, when he delivers one of the best lines ever uttered on screen: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” It may not come from the novel, and here’s the lesson: If you want to enchant, you need little more than the right actor and a used copy of Shakespeare. // CHRIS DAVIDSON

[From this week's print edition of The District, though in a fairly different form. My editor--a super-cool person, by the way--made some changes based on the fact that the Gene Wilder Wonka movie had a different name than the novel and the Johnny Depp Wonka movie (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Also, she pointed out that the producers specifically said that the Depp version was not a remake of the Wilder version. I appreciate her journalistic integrity. I still stand by my ambivalence, expressed elsewhere on this blog, about Tim Burton movies. What courage! I've taken a stand about a director's work! And my stand is ambivalence! Sad. And maybe a tiny bit rad.]

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Phantom of the Opera

93 min. dir. Rupert Julian NR

This film, based on an early 20th C. novel, found in its setting the perfect metaphor for the charge an audience gets from horror. On the stage, the world is reflected back to us, as in a funhouse mirror: time is compressed, the grotesque stands alongside the beautiful, and evil is unmasked before being tidily, if uneasily, vanquished. The novelty of film (you watch in the dark on a screen that fills your vision) transforms the external image of the mirror into the internal, unshakeable dream, and this movie helped introduce and codify the visual vocabulary of such dreams: Shadows moving against a wall; white-clad women rising like angels on a staircase; a murderous monster with sad, lonely eyes. The black-and-white photography is simultaneously intense in its contrast and soft around the edges, both forbidding and inviting—again, like a dream. You begin to see why Hitchcock and David Lynch and the unscary Wes Anderson are so fond of the proscenium: Knowing it’s fake somehow gives us leave to enter another world. (Friday at 11:55pm at Art Theatre, featuring a live score performed by The Creative Artist’s Collective; more info at mondocelluloid.com.)//CHRIS DAVIDSON

[From the print edition of this week's District Weekly.]

It's a Wonderful Life

130 min. dir. Frank Capra NR

Well, is it? The annual exhumation of this movie, I mean. Is IT wonderful? The question may be pointless, like asking why people put up holiday lights in November. There’s no response to irrational rituals sanctioned by neighbors, big box stores, and—in the case of this movie—NBC, which shows it every Christmas, like clockwork. Before I’d seen it I was already sick of it. Still, each time Jimmy Stewart walks Donna Reed home from the dance and they sing and throw rocks at the old house and make wishes and she loses her shirt and he behaves like a rascal and so on, I’m hooked. Like clockwork. Watching it with a bunch of other tenderhearted souls sitting in the dark, as devoted as churchgoers, may be the nearest some people get to religion. As for the plot, here’s the band Fishbone, who remind us in their pithy, concise way just how weirdly sullen this movie gets before its rousing conclusion: “Angel made me numb/ The angel made me void / Got thrown out the bar / Then I wrecked my car / Got socked in the jaw / Cussed out by my mama / Someone stole my money / Screamed at by my honey / Things was gettin' worse…” Indeed they was. And then the angel gets his wings. (At the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach.) // CHRIS DAVIDSON

[From the print edition of this week's District Weekly.]