Capsule digest #9
As autumn sets in I finally put the brakes on catching up with modern-ish films for a while; they were just getting on my nerves and I stopped being able to judge them fairly around the time I sat through The Great Beauty and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the same week. The post, after the usual housekeeping segments, covers everything I watched from July 12th to September 24th of this year. I’ve hit a bit of a rash of classics on the ’50s list that don’t much resonate with me, but that’s all right; that project also further reinforced how Ozu has rapidly become one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.
Full reviews this cycle: It was a pleasure to write four long reviews this summer, including one for the ’50s project and two Best Picture nominees. Once upon a time I posted three every week, but not only were these often revisions of my old writings, when looking back now (I’m still in the midst of reformatting all of the old posts here) I often find that they are not up to the standards of the work I try to produce now, I guess because I’ve continued to evolve since 2012 or so which is probably a good thing. (It’s also alarming, especially in the cases when I was “improving” older work I then considered unsatisfactory.) Among these fully new pieces was the first-ever “second” essay about a film here, dedicated to my onetime all-time favorite and still perhaps the film I find most fascinating on the largest number of different planes, Mike Nichols’ immortal The Graduate (lboxd / tenth (?) viewing). Years back when I still held out some real ambitions of writing actual legitimately published “books” someday, I used to fantasize about a whole monograph dedicated to The Graduate and I certainly knew I’d have enough material. That was in my late teens and early twenties; now, of course, the film looks very different to me and so I have even more material. This turned out to be one of the most satisfying pieces I’ve written for this blog. The more you examine the picture, the more it seems to reveal; and you learn about it even when you don’t intend to, such as this month when I saw a later Nichols film, Working Girl, and realized how much the philosophical differences between the two were saying about the respective films and the worlds they were born into.
Two of the other long reviews I posted — for Quiz Show (lboxd / third viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2010) and Rififi (lboxd / second viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2008) were quite expected from the moment their titles appeared in the lists I was working on. I wrote about Quiz Show way back when I first saw it (2005) but, naturally, that piece was unusable. Rififi I had only ever talked about at one-paragraph length; both are wonderful and I had fun writing about them. But the wildcard was JFK (lboxd / second viewing, last seen 2000); I went back and forth on whether the movie I once called the worst ever made really needed multiple paragraphs explaining why I deemed it such, but on reflection I realized that saying my piece about it now should stave off any future need to see it a third time, which I rather hope I won’t. This too turned out to be, I think, one of the better pieces of writing I’ve offered here, and considering the manic hatred I feel for the film, it also strikes me as clearer-headed than I would’ve feared.
The guidelines for what receives a “full review” have changed over the years, as you’re probably aware, but it bears mentioning that I do have a certain baseline in mind that tells me when something is canonical and noteworthy enough to need that level of attention. Any film I love deserves a full review, which is why the lion’s share I write now are “positive” — I hesitate to use that terminology since, as things have scoped outward, they’re not so much reviews as essays — but also any film with a certain degree of notoriety that seems “major” in any sense, as long as it’s not superhero shit, will probably eventually be tackled, at least in theory. So maybe you’ll see more long takedowns like the one for JFK, though they take an awful lot of energy so also maybe not.
Other films seen (with Lboxd links):
– For the continuing 2010s rewatch project, I revisited: The Meyerowitz Stories; The Lobster; and mother!; all second viewings, all with Amber.
– I also showed Amber Gun Crazy (second viewing, on Warner Archive’s blu) and, in memory of Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (my third viewing, I’m not writing about it yet but I will someday — actually I think there’s a review somewhere at the old blog, but I was just returning to it for fun this time, don’t make me write or edit anything plz).
– I saw Walk the Line for the third time, which I’d been meaning to do ever since reading Johnny Cash’s memoir Cash. I was also hoping to be re-persuaded that Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor after Joker. Mixed results, but I do really love Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– New Hitchcock things don’t come across the desk very often, so there’s some reason to cheer for this recently discovered tidbit of him fake-directing William Shatner for a primetime special about cancer.
– My lingering obsession with quack medical cures and the like prompted me to follow a coworker’s recommendation over to the Essential Oils episode of Netflix’s Unwell, which wasn’t any great shakes but gave us lots of weird shit to laugh at… a nice reminder of media as a communal force!
– Several years ago I received, as a gift, the complete Looney Tunes Golden Collection set; that’s “complete” insofar as it contains all of the Looney Tunes that were released on DVD from 2003 to 2008, not complete in terms of housing all 1,000 cartoons in the series, which Warner Bros. has done a poor job at getting out into the marketplace in full. At any rate, I intended to savor this and I’m just now on the last two discs. The penultimate one was comprised strictly of black & white cartoons, most of them made by directors who left the studio before its height (Harman and Ising, notably); infamously the early cartoons made by the Schlesinger studio weren’t much beyond second-rate Disney imitations, largely uninspired, but they’re still interesting to see, and it’s always fun to catch some really bizarre moments of stretch-and-squash animation. The disc also contains a deeply weird live-action short Schlesinger produced called Cryin’ for the Carolines, which I might as well admit I now remember more vividly than any of the cartoons I fucking just watched.
– Haven’t had much MST3K time lately but I did revisit Cave Dwellers and Pod People and it’s pretty wonderful when something you knew by heart in eighth grade can still make you laugh.
– My wife and I are starting to venture slightly into the world with carefully socially distanced and masked-up dates with friends here and there (the library’s back open so it’s not like I can totally avoid humans anymore even if I wanted to), but overall we continue to try to make our own fun, which has occasioned more frequent drinking and loud music at our house than is even the norm. It’s getting pretty crazy here, folks. Anyway one tradition is to throw in a DVD with weird things on it while this is going on. You like weird stuff, right? My go-to has long been Image’s now decades-old compilation Landmarks of Early Film, but I recently returned to the first couple of discs of the classic box Treasures from American Film Archives. Some particularly well-suited selections from this set are Tony Sarg’s silhouette animation The Original Movie (1922), Scott Bartlett’s masterful abstract video creation OffOn (1972), and Richard Protovin & Franklin Backus’ inexpressibly beautiful Battery Film (1985). All are viewable on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website; and better academic libraries should still have the DVD set, which is fascinating and sadly out of print.
– Do not ask me to explain why this is so engrossing but I have sat and watched this long commercial break from my local NBC affiliate in the 1980s twice now; and Amber and I are particularly obsessed with the anger directed toward peas in the commercial at the 13-minute mark.
– Some music videos that really need your attention for reasons that aren’t strictly tied to the music in them, all shot on video in the early 1980s: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” (can’t find a director credit, does anyone know!?); Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” (directed by Toni Basil, included on the Heads’ VHS/DVD collection Storytelling Giant but without the opening shot and closing credits seen in this version); and M’s “Pop Muzik” (directed by Brian Grant). These are so hard-hitting and/or stylish and exciting to watch!
– As part of my research for my essay about Quiz Show I watched the American Experience documentary about the Twenty-One scandal. It’s very interesting, although sadly the rip that’s uploaded is in very poor quality. (PBS seems to have offered a stream at some point but it’s currently offline.)
– A long-standing and indefensible fascination of mine is corporate training videos, an interest I’ve recently had somewhat validated by Street Fight Radio who regularly riff on them. One of the most incredible ones I’ve ever encountered is this 1988 morsel from Pizza Hut, in which a very enthusiastic young woman is taught by a slightly older woman, unmistakably a bit of a Mrs. Danvers figure, how to follow the Pizza Hut protocol for keeping the customers happy. As the video unfolds an increasingly complex relationship becomes evident. Not teacher and pupil exactly, not exactly a friendship, but a mutual trust and eagerness to please that suggests something deeper, something almost haunting in its subtle and mysterious dynamic. What happened after the pizzas were made? We can but speculate.
– I’m in the middle of Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland which has inevitably sent me down a series of video rabbit holes. Have you ever seen Anita Bryant take a pie to the face? And what about this astoundingly apathetic campaign ad Pearl Bailey made for Gerald Ford? Finally, I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing (zzzz) but there’s an incredible sequence in the first Ford v. Carter debate when the audio drops out for nearly half an hour and absolutely no one knows what to do, and both candidates stand there with an awkwardness that could make you cringe out of your skin even now, unwilling to sit down so as not to appear weak, as stiff as plastic dolls. Amazing.
– The regular lists projects at the Criterion Forum are, as you may know, the source of my “canon” projects here; and since 2012 I’ve tried to participate in most of them. We’ve actually cycled around to the ’50s again; the last goround was the first of these for which I submitted a ballot, and by coincidence I’m also in the middle of the ’50s currently for my own blog pursuits. My new ballot is quite different from the first one I sent, in part because of everything I’ve seen since then and in part because I realized shorts could be included. So in order to double-check my convictions on my new list I revisited the following shorts, all of which I would give the highest of recommendations and the first few of which are masterpieces: Tout la memoire du monde (Resnais 1956); The Tell-Tale Heart (Parmelee 1953); Night and Fog (Resnais 1956, more on this coming soon); Rooty Toot Toot (Hubley 1951); The Red Balloon (Lamoirisse 1956); Duck Amuck (Jones 1953, more on this coming soon as well); One Froggy Evening (Jones 1955); The Three Little Bops (Freleng 1957); and What’s Opera, Doc? (Jones 1957). I’ll post my full ballots on Twitter after the project is done. (The list you can see by clicking “top 50s” at the top of this page only includes features.)
– But most importantly we have the only unambiguously good thing that ever happens on local news: a bird invasion of a weather report. Forget the header, This Is Cinema.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Maya Deren Collection (Kino): Almost by default one of my favorite Blu-ray discs I’ve purchased so far, helpfully gathering all of the films by America’s premier avant garde director, contextualizing them and documenting their (often slow-rolling) impacts. As with most Kino releases, there are shortcomings: the prints are often not in great shape, or suffer from flawed digital restorations; every film, no matter how short, is preceded by the same irritating sequence of logos; and the liner notes are largely just straightforward descriptions of the films. But as a cohesive viewing experience it’s hard to quarrel with the program as presented. The set begins, of course, with Meshes of the Afternoon, one of the best short films ever made (previously addressed in our 1940s canon writeup). I had never previously seen her follow-up films At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time and found both just as provocative, sensual and masterful as her debut. The last one in particular is a shattering survey of the confusion of modern life that is completely undiminished by its sixty-four years. There is also the charming The Private Life of a Cat, though Deren only contributes its narration (her Meshes collaborator and onetime husband, Alexander Hammid, is credited as director).
After that, Deren’s filmography takes a major turn toward so-called “ethnographic” documentary, occasioned by her consumption with Haitian culture (and voodoo). These films aren’t as striking as her earliest works; Meditation on Violence, for instance, feels more like an art installation than a film, comprised of Chao-Li Chi performing martial arts and sort of dancing with the camera, more engrossing in theory than in practice; it draws on Deren’s earlier Study in Choreography for Camera, but that film was only three minutes rather than fifteen and thus seemed less repetitive. Deren’s only credited feature, Divine Horsemen (completed and released decades after her death), is a documentary that directly studies Haitian ritual. It’s reviewed below, as is the included documentary Invocation, Lastly, The Very Eye of Night is a charming, slightly corny experiment that has students from the Metropolitan Ballet performing, overlaid over footage of the stars.
The extras are mostly very informative, especially to the new scholar of Deren’s work. Thomas Beard provides good commentaries for three of the films; Moira Jean Sullivan does the same for the other three Deren-directed projects. (There is no commentary for The Private Life of a Cat.) I preferred Beard’s earnest engagement to Sullivan’s collegiate lecturing, though both have their moments; I was surprised to learn that John Cage and Anaïs Nin both apppear in films of Deren’s (which ones? buy the set to find out!). This collection, regardless of supplemental material, is a cornerstone to any serious student of experimental and wholly independent filmmaking. Deren’s work is electric: kinetic, restless and vivid in its intelligence, boundless curiosity and irresistible beauty. Her films’ purity as art is far beyond what critical analysis can try and lay out — it’s too visceral to be reduced to any other medium, certainly including words.
– Sergio Leone Westerns (Kino Lorber): I have a pile-up of new Blu-rays to go through but this one ended up dominating my summer because it has so much material. I picked up this five-disc set chiefly because I love two of Leone’s films, both included here (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) and have some lingering childhood affection, especially stylistic, for the other two movies he made with Clint Eastwood, which were the only westerns that resonated with me at all when my dad showed them to me thanks to their humor and keenly visualized action. Having seen all these movies again for the blog over the years, I found that Ugly gained a lot in my estimation, that the other two Dollars films now seemed all too emotionally limited in comparison to their influences, and that Once Upon a Time in the West towered above the rest of them with its lyricism, scope, its gleeful taunting of Hollywood traditionalism, and the sweep of history it embodied.
Problems with Leone’s films that may be tolerated by many viewers who watch a greater number of “macho” films than I do are very hard for me to deal with, namely their staggering misogyny, which is most egregious in his last film, the non-western Once Upon a Time in America which isn’t included here, but is certainly evident throughout his filmography in its treatment of female characters and non-characters. Once Upon a Time in the West overcomes this somewhat (women are largely absent in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) because its protagonist is played by Claudia Cardinale, but even she comes in for some rather brash treatment — one of the film’s big emotional crescendos revolves around how it’s necessary for her to tolerate being groped by male workers because it’s no big deal. I’m sure someone can launch back at me with a litany of movies I’ve highly praised that are horribly regressive or were made by dreadful men, but all I can tell you is, Leone’s treatment of women generates a recoiling that I can’t ignore, and I’m not alone; this is addressed many times in the thoughtful extra features all across this set, including by leading Leone acolyte Sir Christopher Frayling. The biggest mystery is that Leone’s key influences, like Nicholas Ray and John Ford and Howard Hawks, don’t display this contempt (in their films) at all; something like Johnny Guitar is practically a feminist screed by comparison.
Nonetheless, few moments in cinema have the impact of Cardinale’s walk out onto the railroad in that last scene and the crane shot that follows; “breathtaking” doesn’t seem like enough. Leone was a poet, no doubt, and might well have been a master if his choice of material (and, possibly, his ideology) didn’t limit his range. And on the other hand, he’s smarter about violence — how to portray and process it, and how to balance its excitement and humor with the moral reckoning it portends — than perhaps any other major director, certainly more than the likes of Martin Scorsese or Sam Peckinpah.
The Kino box repackages four of their own releases and one of Paramount’s, but being a Blu-ray latecomer I’d never seen any of these movies on Blu; I like the boxed set because, individually, it’s unlikely I’d have purchased the first two Dollars films or A Fistful of Dynamite (which I’d never seen at all until now; it’s reviewed below), and it’s nice to have them all on the shelf. The transfers are fine, apart from A Fistful of Dollars having a strange yellow sheen that inexplicably renders the sky a pale green color. The other films look magnificent, especially For a Few Dollars More, which is hard to recognize from Dad’s old pan & scan VHS tape. These movies, on top of being post-dubbed like nearly all Italian features, were shot in Techniscope, a weird process that uses half the celluloid frame to make a faux-Cinemascope picture and apparently makes restoration a headache. They’ve also all been cut, restored and recut numerous times in their various exports over the years, which has led to endless mindnumbing arguments among fans about the definitive versions of each film, and Kino evidently displeased some by using the theatrical cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here (their stand-alone release has a second disc that’s missing here and features the other cut), but this is what my ancient MGM DVD has anyway and I can watch the missing scenes on that disc, where they’re included as bonus features, if I want to.
A Fistful of Dollars sets the stage extras-wise; there’s a wealth of material, a lot of it inherited from MGM’s older DVD releases and really so much that it’s the most overwhelmed I remember being by a package of supplements in years. But they were so interesting that I kept watching, even though I initially planned to skipped straight to the two movies I really cared about. The most interesting offerings here include a censorship-motivated prologue shot for the film’s TV premiere in the 1970s by Monte Hellman (!) featuring an extra portraying Clint Eastwood from the back; it’s just as fun to learn that the film itself is lost and had to be sourced form a private collector who happened to be taping that broadcast. Eastwood himself is interviewed (in 2003) for both this and For a Few Dollars More and is more coherent and insightful than you’d probably expect from his modern-day persona. There’s a more recent, and amazing, interview with Marianne Koch, who went on to become a doctor and a TV personality and is engagingly critical of the film’s violence. Christopher Frayling, Leone’s biographer who’s omnipresent on this collection, shows up with his reams of memorabilia for the film — really amusing to learn that Leone and his crew removed their names from the original release, replacing them with generic American-sounding names, so people wouldn’t realize it was an Italian movie. There are also nice image galleries and a pretty good Tim Lucas commentary (which is actually new to Kino’s release). It made me a bit melancholy to flash back to when DVD extras were a big enough deal to be a selling point for random normals purchasing movies at Best Buy — big enough for a studio to get Eastwood to sit down for them. I never thought I’d be so nostalgic for the 2003-04 DVD zeitgeist.
For a Few Dollars More offers more of the same, adding Alex Cox — another constant contributor to this set — running around showing what the various locations look like today, tying it to the punk years somehow. You learn a lot about how these films were shot but even more about how they were marketed. This one’s got two commentaries, good for different reasons: Tim Lucas is more analytical, Frayling gets into the technical weeds and the mythos. I was entertained and I don’t even like this movie that much. Lucas does all right again on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his commentary the only major supplement for that film since the bonus disc isn’t included. Then we have a Paramount interlude, porting over the contents of their old two-DVD set for Once Upon a Time in the West which I owned but never delved into; it’s a much more superficial collection of material rather typical of studio fluff from the time, although unlike Kino/MGM, Paramount actually shows Leone himself being interviewed (briefly), to say nothing of Henry Fonda (vintage) and Claudia Cardinale (modern as of ’03)! But whereas Kino would likely have opted to include these interviews at full length, Paramount prefers to edit bits of them into a hacky documentary that’s dominated by modern interviews with famous people who like the film, my absolute least favorite type of supplemental material; you get John Milius (jesus, no wonder John Goodman was cast in that role in The Big Lebowski), John Carpenter, Cox again (interviewed in a bar with a camera apparently mounted on the ceiling?), and Bernardo Bertolucci (who did work on the script, so that’s a bit different). The commentary is similar, with the various filmmakers mostly just narrating the proceedings apart from a really patronizing sexist remark from Milius, and scholar Frayling who quite engagingly walks us through the beginning and end of the picture; it’s really disappointing when the track wanders away from him. Carpenter is the worst since all he does is speculate on what’s location and what’s a set; Frayling actually knows what’s what (several scenes gain even more poignance knowing they were shot in Monument Valley) so why not just let him talk through the film?
Somehow the most interesting disc of all may be the one for A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker!, Leone’s preferred title but one most people hate — I kind of like it actually), the one film here I had never seen. It has two commentaries, another terrific one by Frayling who seems to have devoted his whole life to documenting Leone’s career and one from Alex Cox, who’s charming but mostly sounds like, I dunno, me talking over a movie without any preparation, which he does from his “cabin in Oregon” (and this before COVID!). The featurettes on this disc are also particularly good: a rundown by Frayling on the movie’s very interesting history, its revolving door of directors (one of whom will come as a big surprise to anybody who didn’t listen to the exquisite recent season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This about Polly Platt) and its atypically high budget; and a fascinating look at the restoration process (pre-Blu) plus a tantalizing feature on an extensive exhibit about Leone that stood at the Autry Museum of the American West for a few years, opening in 2005 and of course long gone by now, but I’m very glad Kino chose to include the feature which unexpectedly offers an interesting perspective on how museum exhibitions are put together. (The exhibition was curated by Estella Chung, who’s interviewed at some length here — I won’t lie, it’s rather reassuring to see a woman’s input somewhere on this set.) After going through all this, I’m officially Leoned out for a good while but there really is great stuff here, and the set is a true bargain.
– Quai Des Orfevres (Kino Lorber): One great mystery here is what makes something a “Kino Lorber Studio Classic” versus just a regular Kino release. Neither this nor most of the Leone films were American studio films, but I digress. I broke up the creation of this post on a busy Sunday watching the extras here. You get amazing vintage TV interviews with Henri-Georges Clouzot and the cast on this disc, wherein he openly admits to physically bullying his actors, who also cheerfully confirm that he was pretty liberal with the on-set slaps. A truly scary human being! Nick Pinkerton offers a superb commentary that addresses all this and more; he’s so much more colorful than most people who do these things nowadays, and his closing summation of the film’s appeal is all-time shit. Also the movie looks flawless here.
I’ve got some time off coming up so, on top of #living #live, I will probably stay up late a few nights and bask in some of the other new discs I’ve gotten recently, some of which I’m really excited to watch and write about.
Thirty-one new capsules follow. Housekeeping note re alternate titles: three films below are labeled differently on their current home media releases than the way they’ve traditionally been known in English-speaking territories. I will add separate listings for two of these (A Story from Chikamatsu née The Crucified Lovers; A Fistful of Dynamite née Duck, You Sucker!) directing readers to the proper location of the capsule reviews, even though in both cases I prefer the “old” titles. As for Europa ’51, I just stuck with the Italian name since anyone looking will find it anyway and it really doesn’t sound right to me to call it Europe ’51, even though Criterion disagrees! Meanwhile I don’t consider Il Postino a controversy, since no one ever calls it The Postman if they remember the film at all, which they don’t.
The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Haunting illustration of the short, tragic life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar is harder hitting than a conventional documentary; it fuses archival footage with on-location performances of her best-known work and actors very capably miming interviews with Dunbar’s family and intimates. It’s rare that the medium gives us so direct an opportunity to explore the effect of words and actions upon others across years and even decades, to say nothing of its troubling implications about motherhood, the responsibility of adults to children and the repetition of cycles of abuse and neglect.
Elena (2011, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
[2010s catchup project.] Zvyagintsev shows a real flair for composition and for directing actors in this domestic chronicle of a middle-aged woman’s dispute with her rich husband over finances, but it’s ponderous and prolonged enough that even when something ultimately does actually happen it feels strangely inconsequential, as if the mere suggestion of possible events constituted drama.
Street of Shame (1956, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Mizoguchi’s last film, about a group of prostitutes coping with the fickleness of day-to-day life amid the looming possibility of a ban on sex work that could leave them destitute, an issue it tackles without demonizing or glorifying anyone. As usual for the director, one of cinema’s greatest and most sensitive, it’s incredibly prescient, and beautifully acted and observed. Maybe not as hard-hitting as Women of the Night and Sisters of the Gion, which deal with similar situations and themes, but equally lyrical and haunting — especially that final shot. Exquisite score by Toshiro Mayuzumi.
Here Comes the Navy (1934, Lloyd Bacon) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Uneven peacetime Warner Bros. war movie, with lots of drop-of-a-hat fistfights, whose tone is hard to figure; it’s too wacky to be a drama and too infatuated with its characters’ machismo to be a comedy. James Cagney is a diminutive local tough who joins the Navy explicitly to get revenge on a random guy who slighted him once, in what may be the pettiest scheme ever recorded in a Hollywood picture. The film’s engaging enough due to Cagney but it’s just too silly to carry much weight and its Best Picture nomination is hard to swallow.
Fire at Sea (2016, Gianfranco Rosi)
[2010s catchup project.] This illustration of the mid-2010s migrant crisis, shot around Sicily, is stunningly intimate — so much so that it often feels more like a narrative fiction film than a documentary — but it’s constantly interrupted by a slingshot-building kid who seems to be practicing for a future gig as a talk show host. The apparent point, that people’s problems are on vastly different scales, strikes me as trite.
Graduation (2016, Cristian Mungiu)
[2010s catchup project.] Claustrophobic drama, about a middle-aged shlub bumbling around trying to juggle various problems that spring up when his daughter is sexually assaulted, is well-acted and not without dramatic gravitas but simply feels too much like a hundred other acclaimed arthouse films of its era; Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills was much better because its characters were so much less predictable.
Senso (1954, Luchino Visconti) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Visconti’s distractingly gorgeous Technicolor effort at a Madame de…-like story of the fractured heart of a noblewoman stands out from his earlier work with its concerns of sexual liberation and self-torture. Alida Valli leans fully into the unpolished melodrama of her role as an Italian countess with Nationalist sympathies (and a cousin in the rebellion) who falls in love with a cad among the occupying Austraian army, a rather miscast and surprisingly unrecognizable Farley Granger. With better casting, this might well have been truly extraordinary (Visctonti wanted Brando and Bergman).
Flirtation Walk (1934, Frank Borzage)
[Best Picture nominees project.] A disjointed mess of a military comedy-musical in which Dick Powell, in over his head, stars as a hotheaded Army private who revels in a rebellious give-and-take with his button-down commanding officer and derails his career after a coitus interruptus episode involving a higher-up’s daughter (Ruby Keeler, game but ineffectual); his response to an offhanded insult is to go to West Point to prove his mettle, where he transforms into a stoic asshole. The film then inexplicably turns into a big “put on a show” routine that has Powell and Keeler singing some insipid numbers. The best you can say about the whole enterprise is that it’s well-photographed.
The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] Loud, screaming, flashy and unflaggingly obnoxious modern homage to La Dolce Vita has a journalist and onetime novelist played by Toni Servillo wrestling with the moral quandary of being surrounded by decadence among the Roman jet set, the weight of the city’s history and the meaninglessness of this and that within his personal life as well as on a higher level. All the worst tendencies of lifestyle-porn arthouse, geared toward the sort of people who go to the movies to find out where to book their next Hilton excursion.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] All the trash kids rented at Blockbuster in the ’90s except unbearably smug, courtesy of one of the most shamelessly self-regarding charlatans working in the movies today.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Brilliantly executed and creepily effective horror/sci-fi about a small-town doctor stumbling upon a phenomenon that, initially, can’t even be quantified enough to seem improbable but is unmistakable to those who witness it. Like Cat People, this is genre fiction that uses the wildest of fantastic ideas to explore vividly human, deeply uncomfortable emotional issues. Siegel studiously avoids either dull exposition or making things too explicit, though there’s plenty of delightful visual audacity to balance what is ultimately a rather serious parable.
Fanny (1961, Joshua Logan) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier get the band back together like some Hollywood Francophile precursor to The Irishman in this picturesque (shot beautifully by Jack Cardiff) romance inspired by Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays and films about a love triangle of sorts in ’20s Marseille. It’s called “Fanny” (Leslie Caron) but it’s really about the men around her — discussing her, sizing her up, planning her destiny. Logan proves adept enough at the sometimes thorny emotions within the situation depicted that the rather forced slapstick and moments of wacky levity seem like wasteful distractions.
In Jackson Heights (2015, Frederick Wiseman) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] In this mosaic of processes and exchanges from a year or so in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, everything we see is a furthering of the stark reality of the entirety of the human race essentially being abandoned by capitalism; some still survive within it or sit in denial of its failure, but for how long? The compassion and understanding of Wiseman’s camera is a given, but it never asserts itself; the only thing that does is his unflagging interest in nearly every aspect of day-to-day life. When splendor and grace do enter, it’s through the perseverance of the humanity and zeal for life, even if muted, common to every face he captures.
Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
[2010s catchup project.] Frustratingly silly, overlong and sloppily written horror film has Florence Pugh, her useless boyfriend and his bros — including a convenient anthropology student — following a friend to Sweden where he exposes them to the sinister behaviors and practices of the cult in which he grew up. Production designer Henrik Svensson does much of the work here to make this visually interesting; the story and script are truly dreadful, with boring characterizations and every movement telegraphed from the first moment each theme is unveiled.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985, Maya Deren) [r]
The only feature film credited to the pioneering avant garde director Deren, most famous for Meshes of the Afternoon although she made several other films that were equally brilliant, was shot in the late 1940s and assembled posthumously by her husband Teiji Ito. It’s a documentary in which Deren takes an experimental approach to filming a series of dances, ceremonies and practices of Haitian Vodou; the trust she earned in this process is evidenced in just how intimate much of the footage is, though it doesn’t entirely escape the “othering” that is so common to midcentury explorations of non-Western cultures.
Invocation: Maya Deren (1986, Jo Ann Kaplan) [r]
Overly rushed and slightly credulous but often remarkable overview of the life and career of one of the greatest American filmmakers to work completely outside of standard narrative cinema, with many surprising primary-source inclusions plus interviews with her collaborators. There is a haunting sense of loss hanging over the film and its incidental capturing of NYC Bohemian culture of the war and postwar periods; Deren’s presence in every sense, including her physical stature, looms engagingly over every moment.
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)
[1950s canon project.] Rossellini’s illustration of vignettes from the life of Francis of Assisi relies on a sympathy if not outright subscription to Christianity and maybe even specifically Catholicism in order not to seem silly, flippant and unnecessary — although it is lovely to look at.
Lola Montès (1955, Max Ophüls) [r]
[1950s canon project.] The balletic “ringmaster” scenes of this very Ophüls reenactment of the Montès legend are magnificent. The narrative material falls short, although Martine Carol is wonderful throughout.
Across the Universe (2007, Julie Taymor) [c]
[Beatles film project for music blog.] Another musical fashioned in perfunctorily strung-together Beatles tunes along the lines of the Bee Gees version of Sgt. Pepper, filtered here through much greater self-importance and idealized ’60s nostalgia. Taymor senses grace notes in the Beatles’ work and treats it as hallowed ground, but the threadbare story she and her cowriters concocted here provides no context with any real depth or meaning unless you think conflating the Beatles with Vietnam is a profound idea. The song performances are mostly as rote and uninspired as their placement in the “narrative,” and in the cases of Bono and Eddie Izzard’s cameos, downright humiliating.
First Cow (2019, Kelly Reichardt) [hr]
A film boundless in both its knowing cynicism about capitalism and generosity toward humans (and animals!), about early American settlers finding success through their enterprising use of a nearby cow; a beautiful chronicle of a deep friendship, sensitive and well-performed with the same touch of melancholy that marks all of Reichardt’s best work, and subtly hilarious in the most invitingly dorky manner to boot.
Il Postino (1994, Michael Radford)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Harmless semi-romcom from Italy about a layabout who takes a job delivering mail to renowned poet Pablo Neruda (in exile from the political situation in Chile) and ends up harnessing him as a sort of Cyrano figure as he attempts to seduce a dreadfully underwritten bartender. Pleasant-looking and completely unmemorable, this won a lot of acclaim in its day up to and including a Best Picture nomination courtesy of the Weinstein machine and some understandable sentimentality toward its deceased star Massimo Troisi; it’s all sweet-natured but fatally banal.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] An even more profound and achingly sad portrait of an emotionally distant marriage than Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, with the same harrowingly direct portrayal of awkward interactions and fatal miscommunications. Along the way there is also the gentle prodding of the generation gap and the lingering feudal tradition of arranged marriage. Of course our director’s eye is unfailing, and the performances are shattering.
Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Romantic comedy concerning corporate ladder-climbing on the part of an ambitious secretary charmingly played by Melanie Griffith is a pure morsel of late ’80s nostalgia; she’s oddly third-billed under perfunctory hapless-foil and screeching villain roles by Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver respectively. Writer Kevin Wade has the usual infatuation with “structure” that makes so many big comedies of this era feel so schematic, but for sheer entertainment value this certainly delivers from beginning to end. (Half the reason you’ll want to see it, though, is its time-capsule view of ’88 New York.)
Monte Carlo (1930, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
The second entry in Lubitsch’s cycle of Paramount musical comedies from the very early talkie period is just as winning and exuberant as The Love Parade but there’s a large Maurice Chevalier-sized hole in it and the far less charismatic Jack Buchanan is only a passable stand-in. Jeanette MacDonald easily makes up for his inefficiencies in her deliciously sensual lead role as an impoverished countess who falls hard, in a reverse-Love Me Tonight scenario, for a nobleman passing himself off as a hairdresser. Claud Allister steals the film in a wrenchingly hilarious role as her useless fiancé, and the whole affair is bubbly and delightful.
Passing Fancy (1933, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Lovely slice of life from Ozu’s late-lingering silent period is just as compelling as his more beloved later works, with every shot beautifully composed, every character lovingly defined. Takeshi Sakamoto stars as the widower and single father Kihachi, who’s only sporadically attentive to his son (Tokkan Kozou) in between flirting with women who are much too young for him and drinking too much; complications arise when Kihachi attempts to take a destitute girl under his wing only for her to be drawn to a cynical coworker of his. This feels like it’s scarcely aged a day and is particularly astute about the strain that comes out of “parentizing” a young child.
The Crucified Lovers (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi): see A Story from Chikamatsu
A Story from Chikamatsu [The Crucified Lovers] (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Absorbing and rapidly paced Romeo and Juliet-like narrative, set within feudal Japan and adapted from an eighteenth century play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, juggles the same themes as all of Mizoguchi’s major works — traditional society’s inhumanity to women and celebration of capital, all in all — but is set apart from them in its fast-moving energy and wonderfully sharp sense of irony, and like all of his work it’s immaculately shot and composed.
One Night of Love (1934, Victor Schertzinger)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Innocuous opera-comedy about an up-and-coming singer played by the sadly ill-fated Grace Moore, wringing her through the usual beats about her sparring with a controlling lover-manager (Tullio Carminati). Cheap-looking and weakly directed, this just barely passes muster thanks to several unexpectedly witty jokes, surely the result of some rogue dialogue insertions on the part of somebody among the five credited screenwriters; the leads do OK but can’t really conquer their inconsistent and quite persistently unlikable characterizations. The performance numbers, mostly just straight lifts from M. Butterfly and Carmen, are thoroughly forgettable.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020, Charlie Kaufman) [r]
A Charlie Kaufman road movie that goes about the way you’d expect: lonely claustrophobia, some moments of awe-inspiring ingenuity, and a really sharp comic sensibility that unfortunately, by the end, haven’t really found a cohesive groove and just come to feel loose and random in their execution, especially when the pop culture references take over. Still a singular experience, with a stunning lead performance from Jessie Buckley, plus one scene set at an ice cream store that could be one of the most inspired moments in modern cinema.
Duck, You Sucker! (1971, Sergio Leone): see A Fistful of Dynamite
A Fistful of Dynamite [Duck, You Sucker!] (1971, Sergio Leone) [r]
Leone brings considerable humor and excitement to what might well have been a relatively pedestrian story about a Mexican bandito (improbably portrayed by Rod Steiger) joining forces with an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn, shiny-toothed and ridiculous) to rob a bank only to accidentally become a political hero. Not nearly enough plot here to justify the exorbitant length and it really amounts to a padded-out and regurgitated version of themes and ideas Leone had already explored quite extensively, but he was a true poet of the camera and this is still great fun to watch.
Europa ’51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Achingly tragic scenario of Ingrid Bergman as a self-involved woman trying to come to terms with her aloofness as a mother when her young son commits suicide, with rich performances and often stunning visual flourishes and settings, collapses into a religious parable about saintliness that just feels all too well-trodden and obvious. Rossellini’s moral uncertainty rescues it from total banality but, as with The Flowers of St. Francis, for a nonbeliever it all just seems like a gross misappropriation of beauty.
Via Villa! (1934, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Very pre-Code, very handsome MGM biopic of Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery, in a slurring and goofy performance) openly admits to being largely fabricated and wears its catchphrase-driven proto-sitcom sensibility proudly. Biggest debit is Stuart Erwin as a boring white journalist who follows Villa around and manages to witness every major event in his life; he saps the film’s energy and keeps it from being a full-on Mexican Revolution Scarlet Empress. As the movie stands, it’s a bit politically suspect but also fun (and wildly violent, even amoral), and it certainly looks spectacular, especially the early sequences.