I'm a huge fan of Letterboxd, the social networking site for film nerds. It is a great way to track what your watching, find things to watch, and connect with other film lovers the world over. One of the many things I love about it is that it allows you to view the films you've watched through various lenses. For example, I can view data on all the films I've watched this year and sort it by the decade the films were released in. I did that earlier today and found that out of the 184 films I've viewed in 2020 I've seen a nearly even number of films for each decade back as far as the 1930s. With the exception of the 2010s (of which I've seen the least amount of films this year), I've seen about 20-25 films in each decade. I think that's pretty cool. I like to consider myself a fairly well-rounded cinephile and now I've got the data to prove it. You can do a lot more with Letterboxed but the fact that a data nerd like me can sort my films in so many different ways is one of the coolest things about it. And now here's five films I've watched this week and enjoyed.
The Flesh and the Fiends
In the early 1800s, the field of anatomy was growing steadily in Edinburgh, Scotland. But the laws regarding how one could use a corpse to further that scientific study were a great deal behind the times. This led to a great shortage in the number of dead bodies available for hospitals and universities. Many unscrupulous folks started doing a little body-snatching, stealing the recently deceased right out of their graves, and selling them to doctors willing to turn the other way. A pair of shady entrepreneurs by the name of Burke and Hare took it a step further. Instead of waiting around for poor unsuspecting bodies to die, they set about murdering them, which allowed their deliveries to be the freshest around.
The pair were eventually caught creating quite the scandal which eventually led to better laws regarding the use of corpses for science. Numerous books, plays, and movies have been adapted from their story and Kino Lorber Studio Classics is set to release this one soon. It stars Peter Cushing as Doctor Knox, an eminent teacher in the field of anatomy who is so desperate for fresh dead people he is willing to take them no questions asked. But while he is the star, it is really George Rose and Donald Pleasance who steal the show. They play the two desperate men who begin killing unsuspecting travelers for the corpse money. It runs a little long and there is an unnecessarily romantic subplot, but it is beautifully shot on some terrifically gothic sets and Rose and Pleasance are just wonderful. You can read my full review soon.
I don't remember when I first watched Blade Runner but I do remember I didn't like it. I'd been hearing for years how it was one of the great sci-fi flicks of all time, and so I knew I needed to watch it. I don't remember now what I didn't like it. It was something about the plot. I found it visually stunning and interesting, but I think I left the film feeling confused about what actually happened.
A few years later I tried it again, hoping that with age and experience I'd like it more. I didn't. I did find the filmmaking to be really cool, but once again, the story left me cold. Some old college buddies and I have been having a regular Sunday night film discussion and this week's choice was the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Before delving into that film again, I wanted to rewatch the original. This time I really liked it.
I think what always tripped me up was how morally muddled it is. It is a film without a traditional good or bad guy. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner - someone who hunts down rogue androids (called replicants). He's pulled out of retirement to hunt down four replicants who have just arrived from another planet. As the film moves forward, we realize the replicants aren't necessarily evil. They've been made so realistically that it is difficult to tell them apart from real humans and they've developed in such a way as to want to throw off the shackles of what could be considered slavery. One of the film's great themes is about what gives us our humanity. If a robot can be built so convincingly that we can't tell them apart from ourselves, then is it morally wrong to make them do our every bidding?
And that's just the beginning. It is a film full of big questions that don't provide answers. It is a dark film, both literally as most of its scenes take place in dark places, but also morally. I suspect that this moral muddiness caused me difficulties in those first two viewings. But something about it clicked with me on this watch and brought me to like it so much more. I'm still parsing through it, but Ridley Scott has created such a dense, imaginative world that I'm looking forward to revisiting it many more times.
Wait Until Dark
Audrey Hepburn stars in this thriller in which she plays a blind woman who has inadvertently got her hands on a doll filled with heroin. The bad guys (including a wonderfully evil Alan Arkin) comes up with a deliciously convoluted scheme in which to get it back. They take turns going in and out of her apartment pretending to be different people, all designed to scare her out of her wits.
Hepburn is terrific and director Terrence Young gives it just the right amount of tension to keep everyone on their toes, but not so much to keep the more squeamish viewers from bailing. It is based upon a play and the action is centered in the apartment, but the camera moves in such a way to keep it from feeling too claustrophobic (except when it needs to be). Making this one of the great thrillers from the 1960s.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee's latest joint is a long, messy, imperfect, and brilliant film. It stars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr as four Vietnam War veterans who return to the country to both find the body of their fallen leader and steal some gold. But being there brings back a lot of painful memories as well as gets them into more trouble than they can handle.
Lee makes the interesting choice to shoot several flashbacks to the war using the elderly actors playing themselves many decades younger. This was partially due to budget restrictions (in interviews Lee has said Netflix wouldn't give him the same money they gave to Martin Scorsese to de-age his actors in The Irishman) but it is also an artistic one. Letting the actors play their younger selves brings home the themes about how the war never left them. These aren't just memories or flashbacks but moments that scarred them, that stayed with them permanently.
The film is full of references to other movies including The Treasure of the Sierre Madre and Apocalypse Now with Lee blending them in subtle and not so subtle ways. It runs a bit long and is a bit sloppy in places, but it is a powerful piece of filmmaking. All the actors are excellent, but it is Delroy Lindo who steals the show.
Blade Runner 2049
Though I was previously not a huge fan of the original, I was excited to watch this sequel in the theaters when it first came out. My gut feeling was that it was better than the original, but I still had problems with the story. Mainly, that I didn't understand half of it. Watching the two films more or less back to back certainly helped me understand the plot better, but now I think I liked it even less.
I love that it expands the world of Blade Runner. The original was mostly stuck in the overcrowded, always raining streets of Los Angeles. 2049 takes to the skies giving us a bird's eye view of the city and moves to other places (including the trash heap that has apparently become of San Diego). It continues to ask some interesting questions about humanity. And it is stunningly gorgeous to look at (earning Roger Deakins his first Oscar). But at just under three hours, it runs way too long and I'm not sure it does any more to answer those questions it is still asking from the first film.
Pearl Jam - "Jeremy" (Uncensored)
I was fifteen when Pearl Jam released their debut album Ten in 1991, but I'd had my 16th birthday by the time I knew who they were. I had dug their first two singles, "Evenflow" and "Alive", but it was "Jeremy" that made me a huge fan. That song came with an award-winning video by Mark Pellington. The video shows clips of a disturbed young boy while Eddie Vedder sings about a boy whose "daddy didn't pay attention" and whose "mommy didn't care." It ends with the boy in his classroom surrounded by his classmates who are all covered in blood.
I always assumed that he was supposed to have shot all of those students (this was several years before Columbine). It wasn't until the song won an MTV Video award that I learned differently. In his speech, Eddie Vedder noted that it wasn't a school shooting but rather a suicide. Apparently, the video had been censored removing a few seconds of footage in which the boy pulled out a gun and stuck it inside his mouth.
All these years later, the band has released the full video and it makes so much more sense. I hate to make a cool thing about a boy putting a gun into his mouth, but it is a great song, a great video, and now it gives viewers a better understanding of what the song is about.