Category Archives: Lists

[Stop Button Lists] Just Going On: Top Picks, 1 of 4

Stop Button Tenth Anniversary Top Picks, February to April 2015

One of the things I really wanted to do with the Stop Button’s tenth anniversary schedule was get back to good movies. When I started blogging about film, I often wouldn’t even write about bad movies, much less admit to watching them. Much less hunt them down. I remember my “review” of Crash, a film I loathed, was something like “Nope.”

Over the years, I have gotten far away from trying to find good films. Widening the net has lead to some surprises, but I missed seeing great films. So “Top Picks.” Items one through 104 on my Movielen’s “Top Picks For You” list. I made it through fifty-two of the films in six months. I’ll be talking about the films in four different posts. The final post will undoubtedly explain why I stopped. The site’s not called “The Stop Button” for nothing.

Of the first thirteen films I watched, I had seen six of them before. I went into five of the films with preconceived notions–I did not on the sixth because I had forgotten seeing the film. But watching Inherit the Wind, Bullets Over Broadway, A Night at the Opera, The Battle of Algiers and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had certain expectations.

I thought Inherit the Wind would be better. I thought A Night at the Opera would be great. I was hesitant about Battle of Algiers, having seen it maybe fifteen years ago; Algiers blew me away though. I was wrong about it last time. All Quiet on the Western Front is amazing. Maybe even more as I’ve seen so many classic films since I last saw it. I knew, from scene one, Bullets Over Broadway was going to be just as bad as I remembered it. It did not disappoint.

Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE'S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.
Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE’S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.

The film I didn’t remember seeing, Where’s Marlowe?, I know I wanted to see in the theater but didn’t. I must have rented it from DJ’s Video in Ashland in college because I had definitely seen it before. Not a very good movie. Probably never thought I’d be dumb enough to see it again.

Of seven films I had not seen, I had only had interest in seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was one of those films I always thought I was supposed to see and never got around to watching for whatever reason. And I had heard of Ride the High Country–Peckinpah doing a mainstream movie–Angels with Dirty Faces–I had no idea what the film was about, I just knew there was such a film–and Diary of a Country Priest. Thanks to over twenty years of Criterion announcements, I was familiar with the film and Bresson. I had just never met anyone who told me to watch any Bresson.

The two documentaries–Capturing the Friedmans and The Galapagos Affair–I had never heard of. Galapagos never really caught on–it’s recent enough I would have heard about it at work–but Friedmans is from when I’d see movies at art house theaters. I’m surprised I don’t remember seeing a trailer for it.

The last of the seven–Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, I knew about, of course; I just had no interest. For whatever reason, even though I give Watchman one star, Movielens assumed my high regard for Man of Steel meant I would like Zach Snyder’s first film. Movielens was very, very wrong. 2004 was about the time I stopped seeing most studio releases. I do remember my friend telling me Jake Weber was good in Dawn of the Dead. We were Jake Weber fans from “American Gothic.” Anyway.

A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.
A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.

I jumped all over the place on the Movielens list of 104 films; I meant to keep a copy and maybe I’ve got it somewhere, but I don’t know where. Certainly nowhere full text indexed. So I’m not sure if Movielens estimated five stars for these films or four and a half stars. “The Stop Button” uses–basically–the Maltin guide’s rating scheme so I usually just add a star to the site’s rating when I enter the rating into Movielens.

So five stars Movielens equals four stars Stop Button, four and a half to three and a half and so on. All of the 104 films on the list, in other words, I should give at least three and a half stars.

Looking at the list of thirteen films, Movielens was wrong sixty-one percent of the time. Not as to whether I liked the movie (I’d say I liked seven of the thirteen films) but whether I thought the film was excellent. Seeing as how the Top Picks list was supposed to give me the very best films to watch (for me and, consequently, the site), I was somewhat disappointed.

Inherit the Wind, I remember, was lower on the list so it might very well have been estimated at four and a half stars, which is a “correct” estimation. But Capturing the Friedmans and Where’s Marlowe? I was expecting a lot from those films. Galapagos Affair I thought was going to be a mix of Terrence Malick and Somerset Maugham, only a true story. It’s not. It’s badly done.

Angels With Dirty Faces and Ride the High Country also stand out big time. Angels because, although it’s technically a classic, it’s almost more a classic for its place in time–Cagney teaming with young Bogart for Michael Curtiz–than its content. Ride the High Country is just an odd mix of sentiment from Peckinpah who doesn’t have the philosophy down yet to pull it off.

Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.
Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.

I went into them all expecting something brilliant. I even opened my mind when I went back and watched Bullets Over Broadway again, even though–deep down–I knew what I thought of that film. I even went into Dawn of the Dead with an open mind. Even after I saw James Gunn’s name on the opening titles–having just recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy–and knew what I was actually in for. Dawn of the Dead is one of those “forgotten affections.” It’s an unspoken regret. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it on release, even from people who knew and appreciated the original. But then it faded away, like many films of the early aughts.

Diary of a Country Priest was a weird one because I had no idea what to expect. Like I said, I’ve never talked to anyone about Bresson. I just knew of him. Country Priest is a long, tedious viewing. It’s worthwhile, but it’s long and tedious. Paired with The Decalogue, which I was watching–in parts–around the same time, I couldn’t help but think about how much films have changed in terms of religion. Catholic filmmakers have no problems questioning their faith, examining it, examining its dimensions, drawbacks, place in daily life contrasted against urban landscapes. Scorsese sort of turned Catholic exploration into the preeminent American genre in the seventies and made some great films. But today we have “faith-based” films, which require absolute belief for the film to work, whereas Scorsese’s not interested in the viewer’s baggage, just the film. Country Priest is more along those lines, but Bresson doesn’t have enough of a character in his protagonist. Narrative symbolism and character studies are a difficult proposition. Bresson tries to get out of it by not acknowledging he’s doing a character study. He tries to make the religiosity of the protagonist more important than the protagonist. It doesn’t work. Would I get something more from the film if I had a (1940s) French Catholic background? Probably. But I’m never going to have the experience of seeing it with that background so I better commit to how I do see it.

Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.
Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.

The four best films I saw in this batch are The Battle of Algiers, A Night at the Opera, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and All Quiet on the Western Front.

The best one is Western Front. The least best one is probably Opera but maybe Algiers. So the order goes Western Front, Sierra Madre or Algiers, Algiers or Opera. I want to see them all again sooner than later, with the exception of Western Front because one can only have his or her soul wretched from one’s body so often. Will I see them soon? No. But I will probably see more Huston and Bogart collaborations–I’m actually watching Key Largo for a blogathon in a couple months. So I might not watch Sierra Madre again right away, but it’s lead me to another film. Opera certainly reminded me how much I need to watch Marx Brothers movies. Algiers didn’t lead me to Gillo Pontecorvo’s filmography. It was one of the first films I watched and I was so excited for that one particular film, I didn’t think outside it.

Western Front has not led me to thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’m always thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’ve loved him since just after high school, when I first watched The Red Pony.

Alternatively, the remaining nine films do not encourage any specific viewing. Inherit the Wind comes the closest, but it’s similar to the Lewis Milestone situation. I know I want to see more Fredric March films or Gene Kelly or Spencer Tracy–or maybe even the Inherit the Wind TV remake, but I’d have wanted to see all those things, with the exception of Kelly, who I forget I like as much as I do in Wind, without having seen the film again.

Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Journal d'un curé de campagne), directed by Robert Bresson for L'Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.
Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, directed by Robert Bresson for L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.

Country Priest hasn’t got me readying any Bresson. I’m sure they’d be okay, probably good, I just need an inciting element to get me interested. The same goes for Angels With Dirty Faces; I’m no more or less interested in Cagney or Curtiz. And Ride the High Country probably affected me the least of the better films. Even though it stars Joel McCrea and I’m a Joel McCrea fan, it hasn’t got me interested to see any other late McCrea or early McCrea Westerns. It just doesn’t get a person interested.

The other films, the documentaries, Where’s Marlowe?, Broadway, the mall zombies… they mostly cause avoidance. Except Woody Allen. I’ll just go on arguing Bullets Over Broadway is one of his only bad films. I’ll avoid 300 a little bit longer. I’m shocked the film still has such a strong reputation. Such a good joke on “Party Down” about it.

At the time, of course, I didn’t think about how these films–collectively and seperately–might affect my viewing habits or interests. I had the Top Picks list, which I thought would keep me going. It didn’t, but it felt–especially at this early point–like it would.

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[Stop Button Lists] The Decalogue (1989-90, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

The Decalogue, 1989-90

  • One • 10 December 1989 • Not Recommended
  • Two • 11 May 1990 • Highly Recommended
  • Three • 18 May 1990 • Not Recommended
  • Four • 25 May 1990 • Not Recommended
  • Five • 1 June 1990 • Not Recommended
  • Six • 8 June 1990 • Not Recommended
  • Seven • 15 June 1990 • Recommended
  • Eight • 22 June 1990 • Highly Recommended
  • Nine • 29 June 1990 • Not Recommended
  • Ten • 24 June 1989 • Not Recommended

When talking about The Decalogue, three things are going to come up. Religion in film (I’m listening to The Blessed Islands to get in the mood), Mannequin (you know, “Switcher!”), and The Decalogue.

Since The Decalogue is ten modern tales of the Ten Commandments–the director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and his cowriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, mix various commandments in each episode. I’m hesitant to read too much about Kieslowski and The Decalogue because it seems like if I was so interested in his story, I would’ve read it years ago, when I first heard about the film and thought I should see it. The Decalogue is out on video–VHS, now DVD–in the United States from Facets. Facets is a Chicago film non-profit joint–and also video store–I heard at length growing up in the Chicago area.

I don’t think I ever went to the store. Maybe once. But probably not.

Facets released The Decalogue in 1999–I remember my fellow video store clerks salivating over it, but I don’t know if any of us actually watched it. I know I didn’t. Before the VHS release, I think it played at the Music Box Theatre; I knew about it enough to know the VHS release was a big deal. Roger Ebert loved The Decalogue. So, apparently, did Stanley Kubrick.

I don’t get it. I’ve seen all ten episodes. I don’t get it.

I have no idea how to talk about The Decalogue; I wrote about each individual episode separately. I rolled my eyes at the returning character throughout the films–this guy who sometimes shows up to watch the characters as they go about doing something they shouldn’t, whether committing adultery or liking their computers too much. But he’s not in every episode. So some commandment breaking is worth witnessing and some isn’t.

Aleksander Bardini and Krystyna Janda star in THE DECALOGUE: TWO.

In the second episode, the lead of the first shows up for a second. Then, later on in the series, one episode mentions the events in another. How do the new episodes characters know about it? Because everyone knows everything, it’s a “small” huge city. A lot of the episodes take place in the same housing complex, but Kieslowski doesn’t do anything with it.

So what makes The Decalogue so significant? Film critics spent the nineties blathering about Kieslowski, who’s been forgotten since Miramax can’t try to get any more Best Foreign Picture Oscars (Kieslowski passed away back in the mid-nineties). In the great information transfer from film snobbery to Internet film enthusiasm, Kieslowski and The Decalogue mostly got left behind. It’s not like Facets is Criterion, after all. They aren’t the brand of usually accessible, but still somewhat elite, films.

Criterion’s about a wide audience. Facets doesn’t seem to care. Or at least it didn’t when I was a teenager. But it doesn’t matter; The Decalogue has always been presented towards a wider audience. Ebert championed it, after all.

The Decalogue raises a significant question about film. Is being about religiousness enough for something to be “good” or “significant.” Kieslowski’s not good at it–the exploration of the Commandments and so on. The writers are sensational and often let that sensationalism get in the way of the reality of the story. The first episode has a home automation computer–running BASIC–more advanced than anything you can get now. Kieslowski just wants to crap on technology and figures his audience doesn’t include anyone knowledgable about computers, which might not have been a lot of people in 1989 Poland, but still. It’s goofy.

Janusz Gajos and Adrianna Biedrzynska star in THE DECALOGUE: FOUR (Dekalog, cztery), directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski for Warner Bros.
Janusz Gajos and Adrianna Biedrzynska star in THE DECALOGUE: FOUR.

However, I’m not religious. I haven’t seen The Ten Commandments since a Thanksgiving long ago. Is it even Thanksgiving? See? Not religious. Should me not being religious affect how I perceive The Decalogue? No. It’s about people. It’s made by people, it’s about people. It’s about dumb people, it’s about obvious people, it’s about unbelievable people.

Is it ever about real people? Kieslowski puts his actors through such narrative hoops, it rarely feels honest. The manipulation is incredible. Here’s where if I wanted to spend the time, I could look up other reviews of The Decalogue and talk about them. But this post is already on its second draft and one of the best things about The Decalogue is me being done watching it.

I picked The Decalogue for The Stop Button’s tenth anniversary short film emphasis (sharing that spotlight with Jacques Tati’s short films, the silent shorts of Buster Keaton and episodes of the British anthology show, “Journey to the Unknown”) because I’d meant to see it since 1999. I’d never even gotten around to seeing Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, even though I made a joke about it in my post on Red. The Brian Cox one. The second Brian Cox one.

Stop Button’s tenth anniversary feature emphasis involved watching a list of Movielens suggestions; on one of those preliminary suggestion lists was Kieslowski’s Red. It reminded me about The Decalogue, so when I was working out a weekly short film schedule, Decalogue made it.

Teresa Marczewska and Maria Koscialkowska star in THE DECALOGUE: EIGHT, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski for Warner Bros.
Teresa Marczewska and Maria Koscialkowska star in THE DECALOGUE: EIGHT.

For short subjects–whether it’s a short film, a cartoon, an episode of an anthology television show–I use a three “star” system–“Not Recommended,” “Recommended,” “Highly Recommended.” On the site, I recommend one episode of The Decalogue and highly recommend two others. So I don’t recommend seventy percent of The Decalogue. The Decalogue runs 572 minutes or nine and a half hours. I do almost want to marathon it just to torture myself, like as a live blogging thing but there are at least four hours in there I really never want to see again.

For a while, I thought about doing a silly trailer with clips from each episode cut together like Miramax was going to release a dubbed version. I had done similar video essays, which is what Criterion calls them–I call them “Stop Button Modells,” which no one gets–as a new feature for the tenth anniversary of the site. Then, during Eight, which is easily the best episode, I decided I wouldn’t do it without clips from all the episodes and I wouldn’t use clips from Eight because the acting is too good to put alongside the bad acting in other episodes. Eight deserves respect. Does the rest of The Decalogue deserve ridicule?

Probably not more than forty-five minutes of it. Maybe fifty. Well, fifty plus almost every moment in Ten.

Movielens has a single listing for The Decalogue. Not ten different parts, just one. One nine and a half hour movie. I did some fake math–the math is real but the reasoning behind how I do the math is baloney–and determined, with mathematic malarky, I would give The Decalogue one and a half stars. For purposes of recording on Movielens, which I actually adjust to two and a half stars (as Movielens has five possible stars and “The Stop Button” goes to four).

Still awake? Still waiting for that Mannequin reference? How I wish there was a way to code a police officer emoji chasing a dog emoji across the screen right now. 🐶 👮

Kim Cattrall and Andrew McCarthy star in MANNEQUIN, directed by Michael Gottlieb for 20th Century Fox.
Kim Cattrall and Andrew McCarthy star in MANNEQUIN, directed by Michael Gottlieb for 20th Century Fox.

Well, here’s the Mannequin reference. I give Mannequin a star and a half. I give Mad Max 4 a star and a half. I give Starship Troopers 3 a star and a half. And, if I was going to give it anything, I’d give The Decalogue a star and a half. Not really recommended, but special circumstances. When I was looking at the films I do give a star and a half, they tend to be the ones I’m most contrarian about–Oldboy, L.A. Confidential, Nightmare Alley–so The Decalogue fits right in. Even though I never intended to give it a star rating.

And The Decalogue shouldn’t have a star rating. It’s way too complex for a real one. Not because it’s about the Ten Commandments or because Kieslowski can get so pretentious while unable to compose for television aspect ratio, but because it’s too long. The Decalogue is too long, has too many actors, to be discussed traditionally.

Hence this post having a lot of Mannequin references. In emoji. 🎈🍕

After nine and a half hours, I feel like The Decalogue should have taught me something. It did make me realize film and film criticism have become lapsed Catholics (to the age of reason perhaps). But that topic’s worth real scholarship and I’m ready to be done with The Decalogue.

[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 04

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • Tron • 1997 • Steven Lisberger, Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Taylor • Disney Home Video
  • The Seventh Victim • 2005 • Steve Haberman • Warner Home Video
  • Total Recall • 2001 • Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger • Artisan Entertainment
  • Straw Dogs • 2003 • Stephen Prince • The Criterion Collection

In my more carefree youth, when I wanted to watch a movie I’d order it from Ken Crane’s LaserDisc, in widescreen (usually) and watch it two or three days later, depending on UPS. I distinctly remember wanting to watch Tron, which doesn’t hit many people, and I didn’t want to wait for Ken Crane’s. So I went and got the jumbo LaserDisc “Exclusive Archive” edition from Disney. Tron in CAV.

One thing about CAV, which was sort of uncompressed–real freeze frame, real slow motion, real reverse (stuff I still can’t do on blu-ray or a computer)–is it felt like a big deal. You had to change discs every thirty minutes or less, you saw the frame counter progress. It was cool in a way nothing on DVD has ever been, as that technology concentrates on the user experience, not the geek factor.

But I never listened to the Tron commentary on LaserDisc. I think I watched the movie and felt really bad about having bought it. And when I was going to listen to my next commentary, I went with Tron because I thought I’d have to work hard to convince myself to do it again otherwise.

What’s strange about the Tron audio commentary is it’s fine. Some of the guys are a little annoying in the way they mock the easily mockable elements, but there’s some great technical information. Director Steven Lisberger’s impetus for the film actually explains why it wasn’t more of a hit–he was making it for computer professionals in an era where there weren’t enough of them.

A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.
A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.

That said, no one talks about the film in its historical context as a punchline, which deserved some mention. Tron is infamous. Until the sequel, it was probably best known for being a “Simpsons” joke. That episode might have been done after this commentary, but then it was even less known.

Now I’m mad at myself again for buying the discs seventeen years ago.

For my next commentary, I went with one I really wanted to hear–and had to stop myself from listening to in order to get through TronThe Seventh Victim. I first read about Val Lewton when I was in college; I’d heard of Cat People and maybe even seen Curse of the Cat People, but I wasn’t familiar with him. I knew the directors–Jacques Tourneur (thanks to Gun Crazy), Robert Wise (who wouldn’t) and Mark Robson (I Want You and Home of the Brave)–but it was long before Warner released their Val Lewton box set on DVD. But there was a LaserDisc set and I got it. But I didn’t watch any of the movies then. Maybe Cat People.

Fast forward a decade or so (the Val Lewton filmography took me five years to complete–I saw Youth Runs Wild in 2008 and finished with I Walk With a Zombie in December 2013), and Victim is still my favorite Lewton. So I really wanted to hear the commentary. I had no idea there were commentaries on the DVDs; I’d been watching many of the Lewton films off R2 or TCM.

Steve Haberman does the commentary on The Seventh Victim and it’s everything I hated about film textbooks. He lectures from notes, when he does go quiet to watch a scene, he doesn’t really talk about what made him go quiet, which is annoying. He’ll just drop off and come back with more lecture in a bit. Haberman’s strength is talking about the film going from story to screenplay to finished product and the changes along the way (they’re just not interesting because he’s talking about that progression, not the film). However, when he gripes about cut scenes and how happy he is they didn’t make the film… it’s beyond annoying just because it’s not clear he’s seen the scenes. If he’s just read about them, how would he have any idea how they’d have been put into the picture.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

So Seventh Victim is another one where I love the film and never want to hear this commentary track again.

Total Recall is not the opposite situation, but sort of close. I don’t know if I want to listen to the commentary again immediately, but it might but fun to listen to again while actually watching the movie. Not because the commentary is particularly good–in fact, it’s not–but because it’s fun. It’s Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger (making ten grand for the recording–back in 2001) and Verhoeven is treating Arnold like an equal commentator. And Arnold is acting like a salesman. He’s on a publicity tour for the film and he does well with it, but it doesn’t make the Recall commentary valuable as information about filmmaking.

Okay, it’s still somewhat valuable because Verhoeven does talk about some interesting aspects of the film but he needed a better cohost. He needed Rob Bottin or the effects guy or the editor or maybe one of the writers. Even Sharon Stone would’ve been better, as Arnold and Verhoeven talk about her like idiots.

However, just listening to it did make me recognize how much of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall score follows as an Innerspace follow-up. Speaking of follow-ups, even though they talk through the end credits, Arnold and Verhoeven never actually explain the failed Total Recall 2, which somehow ended up as Minority Report much to Arnold’s chagrin.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.

One thing on Arnold, who’s the most personable person I’ve heard on a commentary track–it’s impressive to see how well he works at making himself likable. It’s strange because, until Twins, he didn’t worry about it. But when Arnold at least sold himself as wanting to be liked as a movie star by everyone, he became a lot more important as a movie icon than almost anyone else in the last thirty years. Arnold never wanted to direct, he never wanted to be respected as a filmmaker; he wanted his brand to be beloved.

He and Tom Cruise should do a movie together.

The next commentary–Straw Dogs–was another perfunctory decision. I had loaded up Basic Instinct, for another Verhoeven, and Batman, just because I didn’t even know Burton had recorded a commentary for it, but went with Criterion’s Stephen Prince commentary on Dogs, which is unlike any I’ve ever heard.

Sure, it’s a scholarly commentary and an in-depth one. Prince explains why every shot is important, how it functions for the narrative, with little bits about director Sam Peckinpah thrown in. Right off, Prince is reductive in his discussion of the film–Dustin Hoffman’s protagonist is “the villain,” Susan George is, apparently, the hero. Everything in his commentary is a defensive of the film against negative critical response, which is just more reductive. It’s a strange commentary. Prince’s defense of Peckinpah as auteur is so complete, he refuses to look at anything else. Even though it’s a great film and many of Prince’s points are accurate–unarguably accurate–his decidedly anti-feminist (while “pro”-female) reading of the film makes it constantly unpleasant.

And he uses way too many adjectives and adverbs in his prepared comments. He’s trying way to hard to make a great film “legitimate” and doing nothing to actually appreciate the film itself. I’m not sure about the history of audio commentaries–other than King Kong being the first back in the 1980s, but Prince’s 2003 scholarly commentary compares terribly to something like Leonard Maltin’s 1987 Night at the Opera commentary (also from Criterion, albeit on LaserDisc not DVD).

Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.
Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

Maybe the most striking thing about Prince’s commentary track is his inability to think about watching or experiencing the film. Everything is about Peckinpah’s intent and process. Nothing about how the film plays, not to its audience, not even to him.

Nothing worse than a film snob who doesn’t enjoy film.

As a film snob who does enjoy film, I can’t try to fit talking about Joe Dante, Mike Finnell and Chris Walas’ track for Gremlins into under a hundred words. I’m thinking four titles a post is the magic number, especially when I’m going to listen to so many annoying or lame ones.

One thing about listening to commentaries without the film. It focuses you, it makes you try to remember and it makes you think harder about the film. I don’t prefer it, but I do find it rather valuable.

[Stop Button Lists] Val Lewton at RKO, 1942-46

Val Lewton, filmography, 1942-46

One of the things I wanted to do with The Stop Button, way back when I started it (or, if not started it, when I realized I was going to keep going with it), was watch all the Val Lewton RKO movies.

I discovered Lewton in college. I can’t remember how, whether it was in a magazine or a book, but I got the LaserDisc box set used and wanted to dig into these noirish horror films, so unlike the Universal monster movies of the same period.

I didn’t. I think I watched I Walked with a Zombie and maybe Cat People. It took me years to get through all the films when watching them for the site too. Five years–Youth Runs Wild is a 2008 post, I Walked With a Zombie is a 2013. I distinctly remember wanting to watch the rarer Lewton. Of course, there are eleven films and two of them are rare. They’re the outliers for a variety of reasons.

I was also a big Mark Robson fan in college (I still am, I just don’t watch his movies enough anymore); he might have been how I came across the LaserDisc box set.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

Robson directed six of the eleven films, including the best (The Seventh Victim) and the worst (Youth Runs Wild). Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur handled the rest. Tourneur–and I’d discovered him late teens thanks to AMC–brought the most visual distinction to the films, even though he didn’t get the flashiest settings.

Tourneur directed the first three films–Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man. Each of these films has incredible terror sequences. Tourneur, Lewton and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca figure out how to make a long walk alone the scariest thing in the world. The settings are contemporary, not classical. The possibility of horror exists in the real world.

Until college, I was also a fan of the Cat People remake. I fell out with it when I discovered the original. Having fallen out with the original, I’m back to being a fan of the remake. So when I saw the original, I could see the memorable terror sequences in their (superior) original form. I’m not a big fan of most of these films–I just don’t like most of the writing. But they’re so well-made, I’ve got a soft spot for them. None of them run over eighty minutes either, which makes them a lot more welcoming.

Cat People I watched just a couple years ago. 2013 was the year I pushed myself to get the Lewton films watched. I don’t think in preparation for anything, just because I hadn’t gotten it done (I’m similarly always trying to get Die Hard 3 watched since its the only one without a post up).

It’s really xenophobic. Cat People, not Die Hard 3 (well, maybe, I don’t remember). With old movies, there’s often some discomfort in finding the line; you have to look for it and you might really like the stars or something and there’s hesitation. You’re forcing yourself to be negative on something you like. Like when you find out, in addition to being the greatest sidekick of the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Brennan was also a racist.

Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.
Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.

But Cat People’s xenophobia gets in the way of the story. It clouds the screenwriters, it modifies the film’s potential. Knee caps it. There’s a lack of empathy and it hurts. Now, I’d seen Curse of the Cat People first–and it was rarer than even Cat People back in the eighties and nineties (I’d read about them all in the Maltin guide, I’m sure). I loved Curse of the Cat People when I saw it just after high school. It got me interested in Robert Wise movies.

So when I watched Cat People in February 2013, I hadn’t seen Curse again yet. I still assumed Curse was going to be amazing. I was still hopeful. I just wish I remember where I read about the Lewton films back in 2002 or so. Maybe there was an article in “Films of the Golden Age” but I remember a lot of details about the individual projects.

I Walked With a Zombie, which is Jane Eyre on a sugar plantation with zombies (voodoo zombies), has a bunch of great stuff in it too. My wife and I definitely watched it back in college; I had a lot better memories of it than it comes across. Discovering these films in college, seeing this level of visual craftsmanship–in a low budget picture (seventies John Carpenter and RKO Val Lewton go hand in hand)–is exciting. It’s still exciting now, but now I also see the narrative problems.

I’ll want to see one of them again–The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man–just because they look so great. Leopard Man takes place in a small Southwestern town and they do a fantastic job with it. Ghost Ship’s on, well, a ship and it gets a lot of visual mileage from that setting. The Lewton pictures have particular personalities to them thanks to the visuals. Frightening, intriguing ones. The movies never get too discomforting you can’t enjoy their production values, even while they’re trying to terrify you.

Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

The last three Lewtons are period pictures–though Mademoiselle Fifi is too. I had originally planned on splitting off the period pictures from the rest but Youth Runs Wild gets in the way. It’s the only Lewton-produced picture I don’t have any interest in seeing again. It got all cut up by the studio and what remains isn’t worth talking about. Though a teen picture is a hard proposition anyway.

Boris Karloff stars in the last three pictures–The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam. They’re often creepy. Lewton goes for the jugular on the concepts–grave robbing, false imprisonment in an insane asylum, possession. I think I’d seen Bedlam before, like on AMC, and it still creeped me out. These films were about people who could identify their fears and voice them, preparing the viewer for what was to come.

I think I’d stopped being such a big Karloff fan by college and never had much interest in these final three films. Isle of the Dead is pretty darn good, however. I guess Robson made the two best Lewton films (Dead and Victim). Period pieces were a hard sell for me. They still are. Karloff also has a big onscreen personality; I was worried how the films would deal with it. It seemed gimmicky–horror star Karloff and horror producer Lewton teaming up.

When I did get to Bedlam, however, I had a lot of hope for it. Isle of the Dead had gotten me optimistic. There’s an excitement in the Robson pictures not present in the Robert Wise entries. It’s like Wise knew he was on his way into non-genre pictures but Robson didn’t mind playing in the category. But the Wise ones, even though I don’t have much nostalgia for them, are pretty good films.

Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

Except Curse of the Cat People. That one’s a real disappointment. Especially since I’d loved it so much when I first saw it; I was still in that period when I’d blather on to people about films I’d seen (which actually did stop before the site came around) and I know I talked about Curse nonstop for a day or two.

The Lewton films still have that excitement factor for me. Even I gave most of them ★★, they’re important American films. Some of the excitement might still have to do with them going so long unseen but talked about. Cat People airing on the local PBS station was a cause for videotape planning in the early nineties; people made sure someone (or two or three) was taping it so they could borrow it.

And there’s still Lewton excitement online, which is cool. There was excitement back when the DVD boxset got released in 2005 (which made that LaserDisc box set purchase in 2002 a bit of a waste). The intensity’s changed, but the films availability have made it–for the first time in the films’ seventy year history–easy to see them. Except Fifi and Youth. Those two films are still difficult to see (though PAL DVDs have been released).

Lewton’s films are problematic but it’s impossible not to be a Lewton aficionado.