Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review - Malta Story

February 16, 2017

Malta Story – UK, 1953

There’s a scene in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Malta Story that struck me as particularly peculiar as I watched it. In the scene, we get a view of downtown Malta, an area filled with bombed out buildings and sprinkled with the occasional café and business. There’s even a class being conducted outside. Suddenly, the serenity is interrupted by an alarm and immediately people scatter. Some head in buildings; most head to a shelter. Within no time, a plane appears and begins dropping bombs all around. In less than a minute, the siege ends and another alarm sounds. Out come the crowds and the students that previously meandered there, and life continues as if nothing of significance had just occurred. The scene is a testament to the madness that war breeds, for it seems to suggest that bombings have become just another part of the day, as routine as having breakfast and leaving for work.

As stunning as the scene is, it is also part of what makes Malta Story a frustrating film to watch, for while it is believable that long-term residents and soldiers may become somewhat numb to daily assaults from the air, it is not realistic that a character like RAF reconnaissance photographer Peter Ross would.  Ross, played by the legendary Alec Guinness, is a man with a rather soft soul. More interested in trains than planes and in history than war, he is less a soldier than a documentarian, and his stay on Malta is wholly unintended. However, not even he comments on the insanity that he sees around him, and since no one gives voice to it, it doesn’t register the way it should. We should feel the residents’ anxiety; instead, we just watch passively and wait for the plot to move forward.

Malta Story has two main story lines. The first one details the state of Malta as a whole, under siege, unprotected, and situated perilously between Axis forces. Much of its vulnerability is conveyed by the military hierarchy on Malta, and these men, as well as the women who work with them, are some of the only characters who understand the gravity of their situation. However, while this story line has the potential to be very engaging, all too often the film leaps from situation to situation without giving the audience enough pause to be able to register the danger that anyone is in. For example, in at one point, the British forces are short of planes and under siege. Then they are elated because planes finally arrive, and then just as quickly we see them celebrating military victories. None of it registers emotionally. Only when the film slows down, which it doesn’t do nearly enough, do viewers get a chance to see the residents’ level of desperation and vulnerability.

The second story line involves a romance between Ross and a young local woman named Maria Gonzar (Muriel Pavlow). This is a standard element of this kind of movie, and its success largely depends of whether the film devotes enough time to establishing a connection between the pair or whether it conveys the desperation that causes two people to get together when they might not otherwise. Malta Story takes a different path. It’s the kind more often seen in standard romance films. Two people meet, take a liking to each other, and soon begin dating. The war is practically an afterthought. Only Maria’s mother (Flora Robson) reacts the way someone might be expected to. This is especially true when she learns that food rations have been cut yet again. Robson gives a great performance, and I would likely have enjoyed the film a great deal more had she been its focal point.

At the time of its release, one of the film’s selling points was its reenactments of combat and its persistent use of archival war footage. However, the film doesn’t know how to use these images. At times, characters shout out that they are under attack only for it to cut to footage of a formation of Axis planes that look as if they’re flying at a snail’s pace. When they do attack, the action often takes place in the background and thus seems far away from both the characters and the audience. The result of this is that we are never truly drawn into the moment because what we see seems so disconnected to the characters’ reality. This is a cardinal sin, for a movie like this one needs to make us feel; I just felt impatience.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t individual scenes that work quite well. The film is actually quite moving whenever Robson is on screen, and there are individual moments when we see fleeting images that inspire varying degrees of hope and desperation. Also, the scenes in the command room are well shot, giving the viewer an intriguing look at old-time technology and military strategizing. However, the film lacks the focus needed to succeed completely. In a way, it reminded me of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, a film that underwent numerous rewrites in order for it to better reflect the most recent events of the war. As a result, the film feels disjointed, and its pieces never truly come together. The same can be said of Malta Story. Its varied plot points simply never form a cohesive narrative. The film is dull when it should be exciting and fast-paced when it should take its time. This left me cold and unattached to the events transpiring on the screen, and not even the presence of a legend could change this. It’s a shame really. They had the right actors and the right setting; they just didn’t have the right script. Malta deserved better. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review - Reality Bites

February 9, 2017

Reality Bites – US, 1994

I was 21 when Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites hit theaters, and the buzz about the film was that it was my generation’s The Graduate. Having not seen that film at that time, I had no idea what that meant, yet when I finally saw it, I had no inclination to give Stiller’s film a try. To me, The Graduate was a moderately successful film about a slacker who wasn’t entirely likeable who begins an affair with an older woman who is also not that likeable. I gave it three stars, and since then haven’t really given it much thought. That is, until I finally watched Reality Bites.

Like The Graduate, Reality Bites is also about a slacker, four of them actually. The lead character is Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), college valedictorian and aspiring filmmaker, and if that makes slacker an odd description for her, consider this: While reading her graduation speech on flash cards, she suddenly realizes she has misplaced the final card, and wouldn’t you know it, that card had her vision for what her entire generation can do with the world they inherit. Now something that potentially earth-shattering would normally be etched in someone’s mind, but Lelaina gets tongue tied, fumbles through her notes, and then says that the answer to what they can do is…”I don’t know.” She is cheered for the remark.

Making up the rest of her group are Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), a man who practically boasts of having lost twelve jobs in just a few years; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), a woman who keeps a record of every person she has slept with and their names – when she knows them, at least; and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), a young gay man who is in so little of the film that I honestly can’t remember much about him other than an unresolved story line involving him coming out to his mother. In Lelaina’s eyes, the four of them are part of a generation that has no role models and no heroes, one that is desperately trying to find itself.

There is indeed a story to be told about this generation, about a generation of children with divorced parents and massive college debt. This generation grew up during the end of the Cold War, watched both the Challenger explode and nuclear bombs fall in The Day After, and look on as the first Gulf War started just as they were of age to be sent to fight if the draft were reinstated. They were young when Michael Jackson’s Thriller took the world by storm, and they were also around when it turned to grunge and the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. They were around for Tom Cruise’s and Julia Roberts’s meteoric ascent, as well as for the shock that was the arrival of the independent film movement. They, like every generation before them, thought they could change the world.

There’s is certainly a story worth telling. Reality Bites just isn’t the film to tell it. Too much of that generation seems like an afterthought. For example, AIDS, like homosexuality, is brought up briefly and dropped without anything resembling a resolution. Instead, the film elects to focus on a love triangle and to try to say something important through that. To do this, it pits a yuppie (upper class, working, somewhat dismissive of those that are still trying to figure it all out, but overall nice guy) against a slacker (middle class, musician, too cool for school, and  jerk) in a duel for the love of Lelaina, because what all generational conflicts come down to in the end is a contest for the love of a woman straddling both sides of a struggle – sarcasm intended. In this story line, Ben Stiller, playing a TV executive named Michael Grates, is Ethan Hawke’s foil. One guess who the audience is suppose to see as the better alternative.   

Reality Bites plods along rather uneventfully. There are the occasional bursts of energy, such as a spontaneous dance number inside a convenience store that may be what the film is best known for and some heartfelt and telling moments that Lelaina captures on film, my favorite of which explained why many people I knew growing up at least initially rejected the idea of getting married. However, these moments are few and far between, and they are merely the backdrop for a story that becomes increasingly less interesting and more predictable as the film progresses. By the end, I simply didn’t care. How could I when the film’s last moments include a message in which Lelaina’s father is heard on an answering machine asking why there’s a $900 gas bill on the card he gave Lelaina and pays every month. I suppose we’re supposed to laugh. He doesn’t know he’s financing her new apartment, the poor sap. That’ll get him back for being such a bad father. On their side yet? I wasn’t. Good soundtrack, though. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review - The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

February 2, 2017

Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog – UK, 1927

After his debut film, The Pleasure Garden, Alfred Hitchcock turned his attention to the kind of story he would become most known for – that of murder, women in peril, and the budding of love under highly stressful situations. Viewers familiar with his later films will also recognize many of those signature Hitchcock touches – the use of flashbacks to explain key details, quick cuts between the feared and the fearful, transparent views of someone walking on the floor above. There is also the masterful use of light to show innocence and joy and shadows to show danger and confusion. The film builds in intensity and culminates with a series of scenes that are both brutal and sweet. In fact, the film is so cinematically impressive that I actually feel guilty for not liking it more.     

The Lodger takes place at a time of immense fear. A serial killer is stalking London and preying on women with golden hair. The very first image of the film is the hauntingly terrified face of one of the killer’s victims, as she realizes what is about to happen to her. Hitchcock then takes us on a tour of regular people, and we see their varied reactions. Many make jokes as a way of coping with something beyond their control; a newspaper seller rejoices, as he sells more newspapers when there is a murder. At a department store, women who work as models disguise themselves as brunettes and hope they make it home safely. The film soon centers on one of these models, Daisy Bunting, played by June Tripp. Daisy is dating Joe Chandler (Malcolm Ken), a police officer who is keen to be assigned to catch the killer. On the night of the seventh murder, a mysterious man (Ivor Novello) arrives at Daisy’s home and requests to rent a room. He is dressed in dark clothes, and the lower half of his face is concealed – just like the killer.

And therein lies the problem. The attire of the stranger is meant to create suspicion, and his subsequent behavior, which is anything but normal, is calculated to multiply these misgivings. He is less a fully constructed character than a caricature of the kind of person that too many movies employ as audience bait. We are meant to be wary of him. This inevitably leads to one of two conclusions: Either he is the killer and all of his quirks and eccentricities make sense, or he isn’t, and none of them do. The former possibility is rather anti-climactic, the latter strains credibility, and neither possibility truly engaged me.

What works better is the character of Daisy’s mother. While most of the characters in the film seem blithely unaware of the stranger’s suspicious behavior, she begins to suspect that something is amiss, and the thought that her daughter could be in danger truly horrifies her. Eventually, she’s sneaking into the stranger’s room and looking for something, anything to either confirm or refute her growing suspicions. These moments call for an actress who can register mental realizations and convey the dread that is building inside her, and for the role, Hitchcock cast Marie Ault. In doing so, he struck gold.

The film is less successful when it tries to establish a connection between the stranger and Daisy. To fall in love with someone like the stranger, one would need to understand what has made as abnormal as he is, and while such a scene is in the film, it comes too late, giving he and Daisy yet another reason to fall into each other’s arms, but not being part of what initially brings them together. I simply never saw their connection. After all, why would a young woman be enamored by someone who sniffs her hair and seems to be emotionally undone by pictures of women? Usually that’s a sign to stay away, not get closer. In fact, the only thing that he does that makes her happy is buy her an expensive dress, and that’s not really a reason to give a creep a date. Still, the film is impressively shot, and I genuinely cared for both Daisy and her mother. Plus, the film ends exceptionally well, so well in fact that it almost makes up for the manipulation that preceded it. Almost. (on DVD)

3 stars

*According to IMDB, Marie Ault appeared in 79 films from 1916 to 1951. I look forward to seeing more of them. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review - The Damned (1947)

January 26, 2017

Damned, The - France, 1947

There have been many movies dealing post-World War II Europe. Some of these have been court room dramas, ones in which one or a number of individuals from the Axis Powers are put on trial for their suspected activities during the war; others look at the world that greeted the survivors of the war, one replete with shattered, bombed out buildings, displaced families, and scarred psyches. Rene Clement’s The Damned has elements of both of these types, for it includes people on the run from justice and has as its lead character a man who returns home after the war and attempts to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. It is also the first of these films that I would describe as a thriller.

The film’s central character is a young French doctor named Guilbert (Henri Vidal), and in the film’s opening credits, it is his hands we see writing madly in a journal at a candlelit desk that sits just below an image of the swastika. Soon the film flashes forward, and we see Guilbert returning to his home in Royan, France, one person a line of evacuees that stretches far and wide. In a touching moment, we watch as he finds his old harmonica, and we realize that in times like these the memories that come back to us when we are reunited with cherished possessions can be bittersweet. I though the film would settle here for a bit. Instead it flashes back and transports viewers to a very different place. There we watch as a submarine slowly fills up with passengers, some of them Nazi sympathizers from France, some Italians, a few higher ranking German officers, and their henchmen, as well as civilians whom we assume must have some kind of connection to the Third Reich. Soon they set sail for South America. What exactly they plan to do there is anyone’s guess.

As with many submarines during wartime, there is soon a skirmish, and a blast causes one of the women on board to fall into a coma as a result of head trauma. She needs a doctor. As fate would have it, they are sailing near enough to Royan to make an emergency stop. The plan: to kidnap a doctor. One guess which doctor that turns out to be. From there, it’s a fight to say alive, with Guilbert trying to stay one step ahead of a German officer named Forster (Jo Dest) who intends to kill him when his services are no longer required. Guilbert’s only hope then is to extend his usefulness until an opportunity to escape presents itself.

Given this set up, I was sure that the film would focus almost exclusively on Guilbert, yet I was pleasantly surprised when it began focusing on other characters and fully fleshing them out. For example, a German general named Andreas Von Halbetatadt could easily have been a one-dimensional character, one rotten to the core with no redeeming values. However, here he is presented as a military man whose devotion to the Nazi cause - and to the married woman he is having a fling with – may not be as strong as it seems at first. In this way, he is the opposite of Forster. His loyalty never wavers, and as the film progresses, it leads him down an increasingly violent and murderous path. His actions are truly frightening, and it reminded me of the maddening fact that many German commanders continued fighting even after defeat was inevitable.

Behind the camera, Clement works hard to create a claustrophobic feel. In one amazing scene, he appears to pick up his camera and walks backward as Guilbert is entering the sub for the first time, and as he walks both he and viewers are made aware of just how perilous his situation is. There’s no place to hide and no place to run. If someone wants him dead, it won’t be hard to make it happen. I also admired the way the film defies convention. In a more standard film, Guilbert would morph into a man of action and play people against each other before ultimately having them right where he wants them. For the most part, Clement avoids this trap. Guilbert doesn’t become one of those action movie types. In fact, the strategies he employs practically ensures that he is much more likely to stay out of fisticuffs than he is to engage in Bond-like maneuvers and direct confrontations.

It should be apparent by now that I enjoyed The Damned quite a lot. The film is tense and suspenseful and includes a number of twists and turns that I honestly did not see coming. I also admired the way what transpires onscreen is so deeply connected to 1945 and its many explosive changes. In a scene toward the middle of the film, word gets out that Hitler is dead, and it is utterly fascinating to observe the impact this news has on the occupants of the submarine. Just what must it have been like to learn that everything they believed in was crumbling?

As much as I enjoyed the film, it would have worked much more had one key change been made. At various points in the film, the film is narrated by Guilbert, and much of what he tells us is either unnecessary or distracting. Even worse, it is unclear what the narration actually is. At times it seems as if he is relating his story from the heavens as he watches a reenactment of it; at other times, he talks about events that seem utterly fascinating, but far too many of these are presented simply as thoughts in Guilbert’s head. We do not see them occur, and as such, they don’t resonate very much. Even more egregious is the inconsistency with which the narration is used. For long stretches of the film, the narrator simply disappears. In a way, this seems logical, as Guilbert is far from the events depicted in some scenes, but this just begs the question: How can we see it if the narrator of the film is not present and there is no scene in which the event is related within earshot of him? And while we’re on the subject, just how does he know, which he claims to do, what characters are thinking?

Despite this quibble, The Damned remains a powerful, thrilling film that is much more original than many of the more well-known films in its genre. It is also one of those rare examples of a film that grows in quality and intrigue as it goes along. I was captivated by these characters, shocked by some of their actions, and enthralled by the chaos of it all. The film deserves to be discovered and appreciated as the wonder that it is. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*The Damned is in French, German, and Italian with English subtitles.       

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review - Thirteen Among a Thousand (Trece Entre Mil)

January 19, 2017

Thirteen Among a Thousand (Trece Entre Mil) – Spain, 2005

On the day I sat down to watch Inaki Arteta’s 2005 documentary Thirteen Among a Thousand, four Israelis died in a suspected terrorist attack. A day earlier, there had been a shooting at an airport in Florida which left five people dead and six injured; over the same two days, news feeds brought multiple reports of carnage in Syria, as well as suicide bombings in both Iraq and Turkey. Death, it seems, is everywhere, yet all too often the frequency of attacks and the constant focus on the number of deaths can have a numbing effect on those not directly affected by the attacks, so much so that reports on terrorism can be broken away from in the name of advertising dollars without viewers even stopping to think about the implications of a society that is able to go from a report on a deadly bomb attack to the latest automobile commercial without any difficulty whatsoever. I was partly drawn to Thirteen Among a Thousand as a way of forcing myself to combat this mental passivity, for when you recognize the fact the numbers are desensitizing you to the very things you should be irate about, it’s necessary to do something about it.

The subject of Thirteen Among a Thousand also intrigued me. ETA is an organization that I had heard about in news reports, yet the reports were almost always on tragic events that had just happened; they rarely focused about the individuals affected by those events. In a way, I understand this. The news is immediate; it is sensational. For many, a story about how someone is doing ten years after a family member was assassinated simply does not carry the same sense of urgency. Perhaps it should.

Wisely, Thirteen Among a Thousand is not a historical documentary. It does not begin by explaining the origins of ETA or try to explain the group’s politics or aims. Its stated goal is to show viewers how terrorism affects individuals and families, and it accomplishes this by focusing on thirteen families, all of whom lost someone - in some cases more than one person - in the struggle with ETA. Through their stories, I imagine, it is hoped that people will be able to put a name to a number and not forget about the people that are left behind after the media moves on to the next news item. The film asks us to linger a bit longer and to recognize that pain does not always go away.

The film give us ample evidence of this. Parents whose loved ones were needlessly taken from them at a young age. Spouses whose partners never made it home from such innocuous places as supermarkets. Children who watched a parent’s assassination. I could go on. The film shows viewers archival footage from news reports and then switches to the present, and we see that the survivors have not moved on. In two of the accounts, the families speak of the dead in the present tense. As emotional as this part is, another aspect of the film is equally horrifying. In almost all of these cases, justice remains elusive. Time and again, we hear testimony that the guilty remain free. Some are celebrated as heroes; one even works at the school of a survivor’s child. And then there are the whispers, the outrageous oft-repeated implication that the victims must have done something to deserve their fate.

To watch Thirteen Among a Thousand is to be reminded of mankind’s potential for cruelty. It is also to be reminded of the power of community. At times, the only support the survivors get is from fellow survivors, as long-time friends fade from the picture, perhaps as a result of not having any more empathy to give. There was not a moment of the film that was neither moving nor infuriating. In fact, my only complaint, other than the film’s overly optimistic ending, which took away from the film’s established tone, is that I wanted to hear more from some of the people featured in the documentary. That sentiment seems a bit selfish in retrospect, but it speaks to the power of the testimony contained in the film.

According to Wikipedia, it has now been five years since ETA’s last attack, so there is cause for guarded optimism. In circumstances like this, it is all too easy for documentaries like this to be kicked to the curb, as if they were no longer relevant. After all, focusing on past pain can sometimes be seen as impeding future progress. However, films like Thirteen Among a Thousand have a weight that transcends the specific horrors they depict. They shed a light on the experiences of so many other people around the world, of widows and orphans in Iraq, parents in Israel and Palestine, and classmates of victims of school shootings in the United States. Pain and sorrow are universal, and every now and then we need to be reminded of this. Thirteen Among a Thousand does that exceptionally well. (on DVD in Region 2)

3 and a half stars

*Thirteen Among a Thousand is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review - Wolf (2013)

January 12, 2017

Wolf – the Netherlands, 2013

Jim Taihuttu’s film Wolf is about a Moroccan immigrant named Majib who defies conventional cinematic wisdom, at least until he doesn’t. He’s a thief, a leader, and a supportive brother, as well as a best friend and protective ex-boyfriend. He strives to be more than he is, yet lacks the discipline needed to truly pursue anything in particular, and so he dabs in everything, straddling the line between heroism and villainy and stumbling back and forth between the straight and narrow and the path to personal destruction. He’s a fascinating character, yet one that is extremely difficult to fully get behind – and this is a bit of a masterstroke.

I say that because all too often movies about morally complicated characters follow a familiar pattern. The characters start out as schmucks, lowlifes with few redeeming values, and slowly they discover a reason to turn their lives around, be that reason the love of a good woman or a passion for something artistic or athletic. By the end of the most of these films, the scoundrel we see as the film opens has completely faded, having blossomed into a person who bares little resemblance to his earlier self. Here, though, the troubled youth is consistently unable to shake his worst habits, and I never completely felt sure he would find any happiness in life.

Wolf follows Majib as he juggles a day job at a flower auction – a job he despises – and a late night habit of breaking and entering. In the middle of these activities, we see him visit Hamza (Nasrdin Dchar), a brother dying of cancer, give repeated warnings to his younger brother about what happens when you don’t make an effort to do well in school, and mediate when a good friend gets himself into trouble with a local drug dealer. I marveled at the many roads this character could go down, and it seemed to me that he was consistently just as likely to become a role model as he was to head his own crime syndicate.

Early on, we get a clue of Majib’s possible salvation, kickboxing, and yet his interest in the sport seems less the fulfillment of a dream than it does an impulse he simple acts on. Majib is drawn to violence, pulled – often unwittingly – by his emotions into situations that give him the opportunity to use his fists. Most surprisingly, kickboxing does nothing to lesson his involvement in other forms of violence and crime; in fact, at times it seems that the two go hand in hand, and we watch as his criminal success rises at the same time as his kickboxing potential.

Majib is played by Marwan Kenzari, an actor I had not heard of before, and I was amazed at the range of emotions that Kenzari gives the character. Throughout most of the film, he plays Majib as a man seemingly lost. He wears a look of slowly growing discontent and detachment, as if he is in danger of completely withdrawing from humanity. However, in other scenes, many of which involve Adil (Chemseddine Amar), his partner in crime and best friend, he appears jovial and full of life. When he is with his siblings, we see his serious and caring side. The questions, I suppose, is whether one of these people is the real Majib, or if Majib is as fractured as the film suggests.

For the first two-thirds of Wolf, the film challenges and confounds us, as our empathy for Majib ebbs and flows. The film’s final act is slightly less ambiguous. We can see where Majib is heading and the obstacles being placed in his path. In this way, the film is similar to films in which a criminal mutters those familiar words, “One more and I’m out.” While Majib doesn’t says this directly, viewers familiar with films such as The Town and Blow will recognize the pattern. There are even subtle nods to Othello, Gladiator (the one with Cuba Gooding Jr., not Russell Crowe) and The Set-Up. And there’s a scene that explains the film’s title that is moving, if not a tad bit unoriginal.

In the end, I was consistently interested in Majib’s story. I was moved by the conversations he shares with Hamza and riveted by the revelatory talks he has with a rich Turk named Hakan (Cahit Olmez), a man who is both entrepreneur and crook. Just as Mathieu Kassovit’s Hate does for Muslim youth in France, Wolf shines a light on the plight of immigrants in the Netherlands and paints an interesting picture of Dutch society. Majib’s circle of friends seem to be accepted up to a point, but there seems to always be someone somewhere willing to draw attention to someone’s ethnicity and to distinguish between us and them. This includes Majib himself. Writer-director Taihuttu, who gives the film a classic look by shooting it in glorious black and white, a la Raging Bull, gets great performances all around and demonstrates an awareness of the power of close-ups, which enables viewers to clearly see the range of emotion that each of the film’s characters are experiencing. We see their exuberance, their angst, and their hope. And in the film’s final, slightly unrealistic moments, we even get a glimmer of pride. It is a poignant reminder of just how much has been squandered, and it tears at the heartstrings. It should, too. Its predictability does little to diminish its power. (on DVD)

3 stars

*Wolf is in Dutch, Arabic, French, Turkish, and English with English subtitles.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review - The Rocky Horror Picture Show

January 5, 2017

Rocky Horror Picture Show, The – US, 1975

It may be too late to truly discover Jim Sharman’s legendary film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is a film that I knew only from marquees advertising midnight screenings of cult classics; the difference was that it always came with a kind of party. The film was always advertised as an event, and classmates from my theater class who attended one of its many late night showings raved about the glory and craziness of it all. Now, there are many films that have acquired cult status. Some do this because their quality was apparent to only a few people upon their initial releases, and, let’s be frank about this, others have been given the moniker because of their less than stellar quality, the idea being that seeing a bad movie can also be an experience. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is somewhere in the middle – fun for a while, but, like in-laws during the holidays, ultimately overstaying its welcome and becoming somewhat tedious.

Here, let me add a caveat. Had I seen the film in 1975, I may have had a different reaction. At that time, parodies had yet to saturate the market, and there may have been a great more novelty in a film that poked fun at drive-in B-films and all of their excesses and stereotypes. Therefore, at that time, I imagine audiences got a real kick out of seeing the film’s intentionally over-the-top numbers and occasionally larger-than-life acting, and they likely got a thrill at being able to spot all of the references and horror-film clichés littered throughout the film. I was no different, for there is an audacity to the film that is still particularly effective, and at many times, my jaw was on the floor and a grin on my face. Here’s the thing, though – I didn’t laugh much, and I should have.

The film begins with a variation of a standard horror film set-up: A car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s no spare and it’s pouring rain. Just what is a newly engaged couple to do? Fortunately, for them, they passed a castle not too far back, and since nothing bad has ever happened to anyone who knocked on a castle door in the middle of the night, the couple opts to seek help there. There’s even the obligatory sign warning them to “Enter At Your Own Risk,” at which they laughingly only give a passing glance. Once inside, an Igor-inspired characters leads a bunch of costumed guests into doing the time warp again, a Dracula-type has them strip down for the kind of creation scene that was not possible in Mary Shelley’s time, and a Rock ‘n Roll biker crashes the scene to… actually, I have no idea what his motivation for showing up was. You get the point. This is an audacious, take-no-prisoners film, with a soundtrack that is guaranteed to get a willing audiences’ collective feet tapping and characters that will likely never completely lose their shock value.

And yet, without its live audience and staged events, without the inspired popcorn throwing and sing-along segments, without the energy of a enthusiastic crowd to embrace the utter chaos in front of them, the film lacked something. I noticed its intentional narrative shallowness, and I was bothered by this. The film didn’t seem to want to go anywhere. It seemed content to be about nothing in particular and to be a response to things that came before rather than a vision of the future and of the genre’s potential. I wondered what about the film inspired so much affection and excitement, the film itself or the event it later became. I even remember thinking to myself, This is probably better live

Having said this, I fear I may have given a more negative impression of the film than I intended to. This was not my objective, for there is much that I liked about it. Many of the film’s musical numbers are creative and well choreographed. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, asked to give a combination of acting that is both realistic for its genre and at times much exaggerated, give admirable performances, Tim Curry is a wonder as Dr. Frank N. Furter, and Nell Campbell brings an infectious energy to her musical numbers. Also worth commending is Meatloaf, who, in just a few minutes of impressive screen time, shows what makes him such a popular performer. The film is indeed fun and vibrant, and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. So it didn’t all work for me. Just enough did. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars