Capsule digest #10
This entry covers the period from October 1st to December 12th, 2020. Several long-term projects of mine are entering the home stretch almost simultaneously, which makes it feel like they’re going more slowly than they are. The 1950s canon is about to become my nearly exclusive focus for a couple of months; gathering up a massive number of library holds, typically my final step in this process, will be an interesting challenge during COVID. I have one unseen theatrical title left in my “Beatles cinema” undertaking, then will be revisiting their various video and television projects. I’m at last only three years behind on catalog DVDs in the unwatched pile; pathetic, yes, but at least I finally knocked out the Ozu Eclipse set and Universal’s Marlene Dietrich “Glamour Collection” box and some Criterions that must date from five or six 50% off sales ago. And of course there’s also all the 2010s rewatches I’m determined to eke out by sometime next year.
The main news to share is that after I finish the ’50s list I’m working on and offer up another hopefully illuminating post about the experience, I will be taking a temporary break from the canon projects before I move on to the 1960s. The reasons for this are rather convoluted and I don’t expect them to make much sense to anyone but me. But I feel like trying to illuminate something non-work related so let’s give it a shot. I came up with the idea for these chronological canon lists back in 2015 because I felt that my original plan for the blog was taking too long and keeping me away from the kinds of movies I was interested in for too-lengthy stretches, preventing me from broadening my horizons in terms of the classic and world cinema that most interests me. I was correct about this; as a matter of fact, the process has so completely reframed and reconfigured, even skewered, my understanding of cinema that two things have happened. I am finding the very foundations of my taste changing rapidly, and I am seriously questioning how qualified I really was in the first place to have a blog like this when each year it seems like a new world opens up and I realize how little I knew or understood. Some of this is just the emotional changes that come with growing older, some of it is a deeper understanding of how much one’s relationship with art is the essence of an enriched and enjoyable life (at least in my view). But basically I am finding that my perspective is shaking pretty radically from where it used to be thanks to the education I’m getting from these films and the dramatic way in which they’re altering my cinematic “bedrock,” if you will.
I see this as being a wonderful thing, even if it causes me to look askance a bit at many of the things I wrote and wrote about in the early years of this outlet as well as others I’ve had. Simultaneously, however, it occurs to me that if the future projects in this vein cause me to rethink things as drastically as those already completed ones have, and if my life continues to be as unpredictable and complicated as everyone’s inevitably is, my outlook is going to be changing even more. I’m going to lose touch increasingly with the movie world I inhabited as an adolescent and as a young adult. (Aging and living through epochs does something to you — it’s quite weird and fascinating and scary to me that I wrote capsules back in ’06 for films that I no longer remember existing, much less seeing as a teenager or child.) But I do regret one element of this, which is that there are things I never investigated and expressed that were important to me. It feels like I’m about to enter a period when it’s my last chance to tackle some of the films that really had an impact on me early on, at least with any kind of emotional honesty about how they affected me.
As a small gesture toward compensating for this, in 2021 I will be resurrecting one of the viewing projects I cancelled when I switched to the decade canons. The films nominated for the AFI 100 in its two iterations (1997 and 2007) totaled 400 each time, with considerable overlap. There are about 75 I’ve never seen at all, some really glaring gaps in my knowledge and some once-popular movies I never seriously planned on subjecting myself to. But there are around 60 that I’ve seen and never written about at length — and they tend to be, in some sense, “big” films (major parts of popular American film culture, for better or worse) that, were I not constantly preoccupied with this or that, probably should have been early titles in my collection of movie writeups. Quite a few of them I love but haven’t seen in years; a few I saw once, maybe when I was too young to get much out of them; a few I actively dislike but still deserve attention in this space. It’s not that I don’t think I’ll still have something to say about Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Blazing Saddles or Airplane! or Brazil or Pinocchio or Night of the Living Dead in another ten years, but I think it’s a fair bet — judging by the work I’ve done so far — that such output would have no resemblance to what I would write now or what I would have written when I first fell in love with them. And since this blog’s only real purpose is as a sort of personal journal of my progression as a film lover, I like the idea of trying to grab those things one last time before they slip away.
Also, if you detect that I’m feeling a little lost and sentimental these days, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong; I don’t think I’m alone.
Only thing that gives me pause is that this will return us to the state in which the two main lists I’m working on currently are going to be dominated all but exclusively by films from the U.S., which was an accidental situation that bugged me early on about the state of things here. I considered having three mainline projects going at once but it just feels like too much, and anyway, the movies we’ll be tackling here would have needed attention at some point regardless of the source. But worry not. Those who’ve thrilled at my first encounters with Cinema 101 arthouse titles — which I would not want to abandon, even temporarily, anyway — will be pleased to learn that in the past few months I have made the following three very important purchases…
…and that the AFI titles will be interspersed healthily with my delvings into these sets, which I’m greatly looking forward to as well. Anyway, I expect there will be lots of long reviews and I do want to actually enjoy myself, so no promises on my pace of getting through this. (I’m also considering adding a series of director-oriented posts to the repertoire here, inspired by the auteurist nature of the Blu-ray sets pictured above, but I’m not yet sure if I can schedule that without any strain.)
Full reviews this cycle: As will hopefully be the case from here on out, quite a few.
– The Hours and Times (second viewing, last seen 2008) for the Beatles project at my music blog. (LBoxd capsule)
– Good Night, and Good Luck (second viewing, last seen 2006) for the continuing but soon to be briefly sidelined Best Picture nominees project. (LBoxd capsule)
– Smiles of a Summer Night (fourth viewing I think? last seen 2009 or 2010) for the 1950s canon. My Bergman set came just in time. Wrote a long review back in the Livejournal days that was heavily revised for this. (LBoxd capsule)
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (second viewing, last seen earlier this year) on the occasion of its Criterion release (reviewed below) and also because when I initially saw the film I promised I’d actually wrack my brain and get some legit thoughts down as soon as possible. (LBoxd capsule)
– The Day the Earth Stood Still (second viewing, last seen 2007) for the 1950s canon. I had written what I remembered as a lengthy review back in ’07 but it was mostly unusable.
– By coincidence, we’re looking at a probable situation shortly in which there will be about three of these posted in rapid succession and I hope it doesn’t discourage anyone from checking them all out. I don’t know why it would but I always feel funny about oversaturation.
Other films seen (with LBoxd links):
– For the seemingly neverending 2010s rewatch project, these were all second viewings, all last seen at various points earlier in the decade: Calvary; Rabbit Hole; The Beguiled; Nightcrawler; and This Is Not a Film (slight upgrade on that last one, a more ingenious work of art than I’d remembered).
– Because of its new Criterion release, a second viewing of Noah Baumbach’s very fine Marriage Story.
– Just-for-fun watched a couple of the first Blus I bought, Out of the Past (third viewing, last seen 2018) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (god fucking knows how many times I’ve seen this, probably about twelve, but the last was at IMAX in 2018).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– What the last of the six Looney Tunes Golden Collections indicates more than anything is how significant the individual stamps of specific directors were on those cartoons. Laying a Chuck Jones against a Robert McKimson, say, there is simply no comparison — Jones’ work screams out in its singularity and vision. I don’t know why it’s hidden amongst the bonus cartoons, but his film about the tiny elephant, Punch Trunk, is an unsung masterpiece — impeccably designed and timed, hilarious and curiously modern. And his “house style” has a distinctiveness that can’t be matched even when other directors attempt a similar expressiveness, as in the serviceable but comparatively flat Bartholomew Versus the Wheel (which I adored as a child, full disclosure). The last disc gets rather weird in general; I was actually unaware that Bob Clampett had turned Horton Hatches the Egg into a Merrie Melody in 1942. He did a fine job, but it fits oddly with the generalized aesthetic of the Schlesinger studio. But nothing prepared me for the very last Looney Tune in the set, something called Norman Normal, based on a song by Peter Paul and Mary (!?) and honest to goodness one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever seen. But the more I think about it the more I believe it may actually be quite brilliant? Judge for yourself.
– Managed to complete the set of all five of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures boxed sets of DVDs, which ran from 2000 to 2011. The comical thing is I have them all but have only had time to watch the first one… until I at last cracked open the second this week. Right away I was confronted with something intimidatingly, maybe accidentally brilliant that I’d somehow never seen. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) is an experiment in synchronizing a sound cylinder with a roughly ten-second bit of footage. But said footage has such an ethereal, unexpectedly surreal quality that it beggars belief. Like so many films from the first decade of cinema it attains poignance from its sheer age but calling it “primitive” would be short sighted; it’s higher art, and more interesting, than a lot of expensive feature films made today. The two men dancing, looking uncomfortable and out of place; the giant sound apparatus that dominates the frame; the squawking, eerie violin music that survives through all the crackle; and the Edison employee who wanders in during the final frames all create a strikingly off-balance quality. I watched the thing about fifty times in a row. It completely consumes me. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. How can anything so perfect even exist, much less totally free of any kind of ambition or intention? So far nothing else on the second Treasures set even touches it.
– My favorite rock band these days is the Wave Pictures. Filmmaker Tabitha Denholm’s 2013 video for their track “Like Smoke” is inexpressibly beautiful and I can’t stop looking at it.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Grand Budapest Hotel (Criterion): The home video releases of Wes Anderson’s movies are always a treat. Criterion really made this film’s physical manifestation count, with a tremendously fun and evocative package containing an assortment of printed knick-knacks relevant to the movie and selling it as a really immersive experience. As far as actual disc content, there’s a bunch of EPK stuff that isn’t too interesting and a lot of video essays that don’t add much — David Bordwell’s is all right — but there’s a lot of very cool verité behind-the-scenes footage and a nice documentary about the intricacies of the production. The audio commentary with Anderson, Jeff Goldblum and others is all over the place — almost manic, really — but very fun. The main booklet is more fun to look at than to read; Richard Brody’s essay isn’t very good, and I couldn’t really follow the relevance of the included Mark Twain story. But who cares. Such a delight, all in all.
– The Great Escape (Criterion): A good example of the kind of movie noted in the long digression above that I fully worshiped as a teenager — watched it repeatedly over the course of a couple of years — and have never gotten around to properly delving into and appreciating in written form as a grownup. I got a huge kick out of this new release of it; it has a few neat vintage 1990s documentaries, made for cable, about the movie as well as the real story that inspired it. These are quite fun to watch, especially since they incorporate the participation of several of the real prisoners depicted in the film. There’s some repetition of anecdotes here and there, inevitably with this much content, but the only thing I felt was a bit of a waste was an interview with the critic Michael Sragow who really adds nothing and seems to be present only so that not everything on the disc is “old” material. There are two audio commentaries and surprisingly, both are reasonably engrossing, but of course I especially liked the old 1991 laserdisc track that includes the director John Sturges as well as Elmer Bernstein and various actors and such. Of course it repeats a lot of what you’ve heard elsewhere on the disc, but even the essay by Sheila O’Malley is guilty of that. I found this a really absorbing package on the whole, even though it took me quite a while to get through everything. (Two three-hour commentaries is a lot to hear.) There’s been some controversy over the compression on the film itself; it looked all right to me on the projector.
– A Midnight Clear (Shout! Factory): A much-needed rescue of an excellent movie that’s never been given a remotely respectable video release in America, where the old DVD was open matte and low-quality. Shout! goes all the way here, with a superb transfer and a brand new documentary with updated 2019 insights from Keith Gordon (as engaging as ever) plus Ethan Hawke, who seems to care particularly deeply about this movie, and Frank Whaley among others. It was strangely fun to watch Gordon get wound up talking about how poorly served the film (not to mention its predecessor The Chocolate War) has been on video. Shout! also brings over the extras from the old European DVD release circa 2000; there’s a commentary from Gordon and Hawke, recorded on opposite coasts, that’s pleasantly laid-back. (Includes amusing anecdote about Gordon as cuckold, thanks to his directing of his wife in a scene that has her making out with the entirety of the male cast.) You also get deleted scenes with commentary; these are kind of interesting, adding to the atmospheric nature of the film and potentially making it an even darker, more downbeat experience. Shout! truly killed it on this package, and it’s welcome because it’s a film that long invited such an elucidation.
– It Couldn’t Happen Here (BFI): Was very excited about this — in the VHS days I tried to track down a copy of Pet Shop Boys’ feature film when I wanted to see and hear everything they had anything to do with, and it was always out of reach… with the commercially released video apparently PAL-only and impossible to get your hands on in America anyway. Having now seen the film, of course, it’s hard not to be disappointed even when set up with low expectations, but I’m still glad the new disc release exists. I managed to get in on the ground floor with the dual format limited edition set, which has a hardbound book — handsome looking, but packed with essays of quite limited appeal, and a new Neil Tennant interview that’s depressingly short. The supplements are probably more interesting than the film; director Jack Bond proves quite engaging in a long interview and on the commentary track, in which he goes on and on about how insane you are if you don’t like the movie. An interview with choreographer Arlene Phillips is equally illuminating, but less about the film itself than her career overall. The presentation quality is terrific, as you’d expect, but honestly? A video collection would’ve probably been better and more fun. (And you do get one of the band’s videos, “Always on My Mind,” comprised of judiciously edited footage from the film.) It looks neat on the shelf anyway.
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Criterion): Oddly skimpy package for what may be the best film of the decade. Dana Stevens interviews director Céline Sciamma and does an excellent job, creating an illuminating and sometimes funny conversation that dates from immediately prior to lockdown. (Sciamma says something about “Criterion and chill” and gets amusingly defensive when she’s accused of using Ligeti in her film.) The interview with painter Hélène Delmaire is also fascinating, in terms of her own technique and the way it was integrated into the film. I was less enamored with the montage of discussions with the two lead actors; perhaps it’s the editing, but somehow it just wasn’t very interesting to me. The last of the interviews, with cinematographer Claire Mathon, probably is interesting but is so technical and involved I found it hard to follow. And that’s really it — no further elaboration beyond the booklet. At least the movie looks incredible.
– The Lady Eve (Criterion): Criterion’s technical director Lee Kline tempered expectations for this release in an interview last year, explaining that the only available elements were in such poor quality or condition that there was no way to make the film look as good as it ought to, considering its status as such a major work. So I expected a really underwhelming visual when I got the disc, but in fact it looks quite good with only sporadic evidence of subpar prints and the lack of a negative. As for supplements, perhaps the biggest of the new extras is a Zoom conference between Preston Sturges’ son and a gaggle of filmmakers and critics who are acolytes of Sturges’. This was produced during the pandemic, and the results are weird; and I’m not sure what to make of Criterion’s decision not to edit out some of the technical fuckups. The new David Cairns video essay is all right, as is a cool featurette about Edith Head. There’s a song from a proposed musical that was meant to be made of the film’s story, but why? The commentary by Marian Keane comes from the original 2001 DVD; I owned that disc — have now donated it to the library — but never listened to the commentary as I generally disliked the tracks Keane recorded on Hitchcock films. Having now heard it finally, it’s OK — heavily analytical and sometimes too much of a simple narration — but not something you need to hear more than once. I am glad I finally sat and listened to it instead of expecting I knew what it was going to embody, though. Finally there’s a nice thick booklet but half of it is an extremely boring Life Magazine profile of Sturges. This is another strangely underwhelming package — artwork’s pretty bad too; the old DVD used the poster, which was lovely — but the unexpectedly high transfer quality somewhat makes up for it.
– Marriage Story (Criterion): The inclusion of the two letters read aloud at the beginning of the film as separate inserts in the digipack is a really brilliant touch, and adds to the feeling of uniqueness for a physical package to a movie that many would argue doesn’t need one. (I would not argue this, as I don’t trust Netflix or any other company to actually keep things available in perpetuity, but many would.) As for the on-disc supplements, I liked the Baumbach interview fine (the more press kit-ish compilation of actor interviews less so) but was really taken with a below-the-line crew interview piece that felt like it went in-depth in a way unusual for such pieces. Despite not being a big Randy Newman fan (I keep trying), I also enjoyed his interview; I’ve never seen him talking about film composing at this length. But the jewel in the crown is the ninety-minute “fly on the wall” behind-the-scenes documentary, which is my favorite kind of extra — context-free footage of filmmaking in progress — and really delivers a sense of immersion and detail. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my favorite of all the recent Criterion releases in terms of its supplemental content.
– Tender Mercies (Kino Lorber): This lovely film, despite winning a couple of high-profile Oscars, has only ever had rather lackluster video releases so it’s nice to see it get some sort of a red-carpet treatment — the cover art alone feels like an incalculable upgrade from the hideous DVD. Kino’s only newly added feature, though, is one of the worst audio commentaries I’ve encountered in a while, by a critic I’m not going to name (google it yourself) who is ill-prepared and badly informed — several statements he makes are directly contradicted by other, more accurate information given elsewhere on the disc and even, in one case, in the actual closing credits of the film — and, I know this is unfair, but has an annoying voice and a fondness for cute “little jokes” that grated on my absolute last nerve. He also spends a lot of the commentary reading other critics’ reviews of the film, which I understand to an extent but comes across as time-filling after a while. I really don’t know that the film needed a commentary if its attempt at scholarship was going to be so off-the-cuff and informal. Slightly better is a vintage featurette from around 2002 (I guess it must be from the old DVD though honestly I don’t remember it being there); this has solid talking head interviews with most key figures involved with the film, including Horton Foote who’s since died, plus child actor Allan Hubbard who grew up to be a guitar instructor and even sings a song. As these cheaply produced retrospectives go, it’s a good one. But the main thing to say about this Blu-ray is that I couldn’t get over how good the film looked — the transfer is absolutely stunning, one of the best I’ve seen to date, and for such a “small” movie a real treat to feast the eyes upon.
– Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Warner Archive): No label has been more consistent in recent years in the quality of its video output than WAC so it’s no surprise that this concert film looks terrific in its latest iteration. (Apparently it’s a clone of a former retail release, which I didn’t realize.) This was a blind buy for me; I’ve been a fan of Elvis for only about 10-12 years (which may sound like a lot, but I’ve been a Beatles fan for 30) and I’m leery about most of his feature film output, but this documentary about his first Vegas residency seemed like something I should have. (Certainly if I need It Couldn’t Happen Here, I need this!) I was right — it’s great fun and quite fascinating. The film was completely reedited, reconfigured, reimagined in 2001 to become less a talking-head documentary and more of a performance film, and only the revised version is on Blu-ray… WAC does add the original theatrical film but it’s just on a DVD, which may be disappointing to some. Personally I’m fine with it; the original movie is mostly a curio, and the 2001 version looks and sounds excellent.
Depending on how long the Varda set — next up in my new-release kevyip — takes me to get through, this section may be omitted in the next update.
The usual crop of capsules follow; twenty-nine new, one revised.
Tokyo Chorus (1931, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[Part of Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies Eclipse DVD set.] An insurance salesman with a lingering thread of childhood rebellion walks out on his job in solidarity with an elderly coworker, prompting hardship on the part of his wife and three young children. Several Ozu “tropes” about children and the men who resemble them make their probable debuts here, but as usual, the movie surprises at every turn in what it doesn’t do, and in how simultaneously warm and cutting it manages to be. It’s a cliché to watch a silent film and proclaim that it lives in the memory as a talkie, but the acting in these early Ozu titles is really that bracing in its realism.
Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Hard not to be shaken by the darkness of this legendary and violent western, which feels in nearly every respect much more like noir than it does your average Ford or Hawks classic, starring Gary Cooper as a reformed killer — appearing at the outset to be a bumbling and nervous amateur hick — who gets caught in a botched robbery then wrapped back up in his disowned family’s sinister business along with two other innocents from the train that left him behind way out nowhere. Compelling and beautiful from its first frames, and continually surprising as narrative, this is possibly the ideal introductory western, free of flabbiness or cornball distraction.
Bugsy (1991, Barry Levinson)
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Basically a vanity vehicle for Warren Beatty who does about what you’d expect, up to and including making eyes with future wife Annette Bening, in a fairly generic gangster movie that’s slick enough not to feel too terribly dated; the pedestrian Ennio Morricone score actually works for it, adding a certain salient timelessness to its macho posturing.
The Golden Coach (1952, Jean Renoir)
[1950s canon.] Opulent Technicolor comings and goings of the nobility and a theater group in Peru, with titular coach serving as a symbol of transgressive action between the two classes. This plays as a very watered-down Rules of the Game; a softened Renoir, already perhaps too generous to the bourgeois in that film, serves up the asinine bickering of the subjects of his aesthetic fixations as though they were actual points of narrative interest. It’s all very pretty and nothing sticks, including the humor, and including the almost uniformly annoying performances.
Lenny (1974, Bob Fosse) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films of its era, and a fine example of a movie that transcends its static origins through sheer immersion, plunging us into a procession of muddy, jet-black clubs in which Lenny Bruce and all his famous supposed obscenities, by turns tame and dated now, regain their power from the way that they seem to burst out from empty space and float around in three dimensions. The performances, especially Dustin Hoffman’s, are engaging and powerful; and it may be one of the last New Hollywood pictures to really sink into an us-vs.-them cultural dynamic.
The Birth of the Beatles (1979, Richard Marquand) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Former Beatles drummer Pete Best served as a consultant on this dramatization of the band’s Hamburg period, but it’s lazy and superficial on an Encyclopedia Brittanica level — only less accurate, using versions of the group’s personalities that seem to be lifted more from Richard Lester’s Help! than from reality. Stephen MacKenna’s John Lennon dominates the narrative and looks much too old for the part, playing a 20 year-old at 34. Any Beatles fanatic can shoot holes through every scene, but it’s so inert and awkwardly paced you can’t imagine anyone finding it compelling without being a Beatles fanatic.
The Merry Jail (1917, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
[Included on Trouble in Paradise Criterion DVD.] Very early German-language Lubitsch farce, focused on a woman catching her husband in a sensual trap after he skirts both her and the police to attend a wild party, is witty and charming in pretty much exactly the manner of his 1930s Hollywood films, with a bit more camera mugging but overall subtle acting and astonishing technical chutzpah that calls to mind how much more advanced The Love Parade looks than other early talkies. It’s all rather slight but wears the years far better than you’d expect of a 1910s comedy of manners.
Le Notti Bianche (1957, Luchino Visconti) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Impossibly beautiful two-hander with a couple of lonely people connecting on a neon-lit street over the course of a few emotionally charged evenings. A basically peerless example of actors, camera, environment as impeccable emotional match to a story; virtually every moment is soulful and immediate beyond description, and the pain that comes through actively stings. Plus there’s rock & roll.
It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987, Jack Bond) [c]
[New Blu-ray.] Pet Shop Boys’ long-buried theatrical film — a Magical Mystery Tour-like wasteland road movie, England laid waste by Thatcherism, and lots of songs from Please and Actually — is directed by a surrealist provocateur prominent in British TV and film known for his associations with Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Jane Arden and Roald Dahl among others. Casting him as the auteur of a full-length pop video is a very 1980s stunt that sadly fails to pay off, mostly because the mixture of Bond’s sensibility with Pet Shop Boys’ actual material is so fatally jarring; quite often it’s just bewildering and/or irritating.
Beatlemania (1981, Joseph Manduke) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] A filmed version of a Broadway musical that was comprised of a Beatles lookalike-soundalike band playing bland, slavish covers of many of the group’s most well-loved records. But it gets (even) worse: the rote performances are interspersed with “psychedelic” montages that volley between non-sequitur and, you guessed it, major historical events of the ’60s. The schlocky, kitschy way it’s all executed is just so gross and does a terrible disservice to the genuine emotional resonance of the Beatles’ music.
The House That Jack Built (2018, Lars von Trier) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] This is maybe the only serial killer movie that actually captures what a mundane and insipid person one must be to choose that as their vocation. As usual Trier’s script is mordantly funny and richly revealing in all its discomfort; the film is also of course ravishing in its visual design, and he coaxes a phenomenal lead performance out of Matt Dillon. It’s one of the director’s most aggressively moral films.
It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Schults) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] A profoundly distressing horror film about a family holing up and hiding out off the grid as the result of a pandemic, forced to contend with complication when a stranger enters their ranks. Neatly plotted in the most spirit-crushing manner, with fine performances and a rich atmosphere of the unknowable and unanswerable; a movie that doesn’t flinch or compromise before pure dread but defines people as people rather than genre tropes with striking compassion and vividness — which only makes it harder when conditions begin to slip.
Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) [c]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Some carousing cock-of-the-walk asshole (Michael Caine) repeatedly refers to women as “it,” is generally belligerent and vile in a manner clearly intended to be amusing (or, more likely, an act of naughty escapism for the button-down elements of its audience), only to then have a screenwriterly come-to-Jesus prompted by a contrived and mawkish face-to-face collision with, like, humanity innit. This inexplicable cultural touchstone isn’t even good Mod-hedonistic escapism; watch The Knack if you want to see this kind of thing done well.
The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Kurosawa was such a master that an adventure premise which is now so familiar as to be almost beat-for-beat predictable (a tougher-than-she-looks princess played by Misa Uehara is escorted across dangerous grounds along with reams of hidden gold by Toshiro Mifune, all seen from the perspective of two greedy peasants who can’t stop bickering) retains nearly all of its appeal and freshness after sixty-odd years. It would probably still be a joy even if it weren’t so visually breathtaking; the director’s sense of composition and breadth are infallible, to say nothing of how vividly his characters develop.
The Letter (1940, William Wyler) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] The second of Wyler’s big Bette Davis collaborations is oft cited as an early or prototypical film noir, but it’s basically a straight melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham play, about the conniving wife of a rubber magnate in British Malaya and the aftermath of her murder of her alleged would-be rapist. Although Davis’ performance is enjoyably fraught and campy, the plot is so generally ludicrous and lacking in palpably human behavior that you start to get wound up in the more minutely implausible details. The whole affair does get enjoyably wild and surreal in the last half-hour.
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa) [r]
[1950s canon.] It’s fascinating to see Kurosawa take on this kind of material — a straightforward adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play about the variously hopeless occupants of a slum — whose relatively natural performance style and theatrical staging are so far afield of the kinds of movies we associate with him. While affecting at times, though, it’s not an exaggeration to say it feels more like a play than most plays; the single-minded proffering of dialogue and monologues and multilayered but severely contained chaos leads to a lengthy film that constantly seems to stop in its tracks and revel in sheer misery.
A Tale of Two Cities (1935, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Solid literary adaptation, surely ammo for someone’s “Dickens is foolproof” thesis, given extravagant production values by MGM and David O. Selznick — and generally quite well cast, though the plot has so much ground to cover in 125 minutes, incorporating a big Bastille-storming setpiece, that the characterizations don’t really come through apart from Ronald Colman’s cynical Carton. Conway pulls off the finale with great sensitivity; it’s genuinely moving, thanks largely to Isabel Jewell’s performance as the Seamstress.
Backbeat (1994, Iain Softley) [hr]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] (Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change.) Though it could be even stronger if it really contended with the emotional weight of its central tragedy, this film about erstwhile Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (sensitively played by Stephen Dorff) and his intense romance with photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee, luminous) is gripping and fascinating, and easily the best dramatic portrayal of the Beatles’ early career to date, capturing the grit and grime of their Hamburg days in generally well-observed detail.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Narratively the same movie as The Blue Angel — Marlene Dietrich is inscrutable, hovers her sexuality powerfully, destroys some guy’s life — except with the additional campiness Von Sternberg had absorbed and rendered into a language at Paramount, though on a much more modest scale than his best efforts at the studio. It’s amusing but it doesn’t really go beyond a trifling variation of the title; obviously you’ll eat it up if you’re a fan of the lead actor or director.
Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville) [r]
[1950s canon.] Adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s influential novel about an unnaturally close and mutually toxic relationship between a brother and sister, one fragile and the other ruthless, and how the various claustrophobic settings in which they find themselves reinforce the increasingly decrepit and codependent nature of their lives together. One of the central performances, Nicole Stéphane’s, is hugely magnetic; the other isn’t so well-defined, which is fatal. And this only flirts with the fanciful grace of Cocteau’s own cinematic work because it generally can’t graft verbal enigmas onto visual ones.
Naughty Marietta (1935, W.S. Van Dyke) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] This operetta, revolving around a fairly routine story of a princess traveling undercover to avoid an arranged marriage and instead meeting up with Nelson Eddy, is less ribald than a Jeannette MacDonald vehicle with this title should be; but it benefits from the neatly frantic plotting of director Van Dyke, MGM’s usual ridiculous production values, some significant chemistry between the leads and even some actual comedy here and there. The “Sweet Mystery of Life” climax packs a bigger wallop than you’d begin to expect a film with this premise and staid atmosphere could generate.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda) [r]
[1950s canon.] Strikingly visualized, noir-like story of divided sympathies, loyalties and human needs in the immediate aftermath of WWII in Poland. Set in the 24 hours following Germany’s surrender, the film explores the instantly emerging conflict between the newly ruling Workers’ Party and the Underground. As in so much topical cinema, there’s a disconnect here between politics and their actual purpose resulting in an ambiguity feels both salient and like something of a copout, all too malleable in its point of view.
Rachel, Rachel (1968, Paul Newman) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Newman’s obviously deeply felt directorial debut is the painful story of a repressed schoolteacher who scolds herself for masturbating and wishing she had a family beyond the narcissistic mother for whom she caretakes, and what happens after she goes on a date with a long-estranged childhood friend. Joanne Woodward strikes alternately stilted and splendidly believable notes in the central role; the film is nearly stolen by Estelle Parsons as a closeted colleague who’s significantly more interesting than the actual love interest the story offers up.
Night Moves (2018, Kelly Reichardt)
[2010s catchup.] The usual naturalistic expanses of Reichardt’s cinema, bent not-very-seamlessly into a thriller structure with an environmental conscience. In Oregon, three nervous outsiders (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) perpetrate a dam explosion then scatter but are reunited in mutual anxiety by an unforeseen bit of violence. Starts out well, atmospheric and suspenseful, but lacks a coherent way to wrap up its intriguing premise.
Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook) [c]
[2010s catchup.] Park’s Hitchcock obsession completely sinks this generically excruciating mess, his first English-language film, about the increasingly psychotic and metaphysically ambiguous events surrounding straight-A goth girl Mia Wasikowska after her dad dies and her creepy Uncle Charlie (uh-huh) visits Disney’s Haunted Mansion where she lives with her narcissistic mom Nicole Kidman. Emptily flashy horror-thriller that sledgehammers every one of its half-baked ideas into oblivion. Apart from Wasikowska and Jacki Weaver, the cast is phenomenally bad, especially Kidman.
The Flame of New Orleans (1941, René Clair)
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] A bit weird to see Marlene Dietrich in a straight comedy (Clair’s first American film), a fairly polite chronicle of romantic duplicity in New Orleans. Not without its funny moments but pretty forgettable on the whole.
Yesterday (2019, Danny Boyle) [c]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Himesh Patel does the best he can as the only person in England and the world who remembers the Beatles, who starts passing off their songs as his own and becomes world famous; from there the trajectory is obvious and terribly dull. Richard Curtis’ screenplay makes infuriatingly little sense and is desperately unfunny. A more thoughtful film with this premise is possible, but it would have needed to be more complicated and messy, which would have left less time for the supremely half-assed romcom that dominates the ludicrously extended running time.
Z (1969, Costa-Gavras) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Explosively exciting, relentless and almost assaultive political thriller is the cinema of outrage much like The Battle of Algiers, with the twist that it’s also a crackerjack, highly accessible thriller of the first order. The mystery elements only enter the fold in the second half; before that it’s a movie about the physical logistics of direct action, its risks and its consequences. Costa-Gavras makes no secret of where his sympathies lie, nor of the actual events he means to amplify, but he also tells a story of almost universal power and intrigue — and using techniques that retain their power of breathless immediacy even now.
Golden Earrings (1947, Mitchell Leisen) [NO]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Leisen’s love of deliberately uneven narratives coalesces in trainwreck fashion with a wartime comedy of manners: Marlene Dietrich is a ridiculous “Gypsy” singing and making stew in the forest, stumbled upon by escaped British POW Ray Milland, who soon plays dressup and joins her while hiding out. Alternately offensive and tedious, this is a monstrous humiliation for all involved — the two leads in particular, Milland never more transparently inadequate as a heartthrob or a comedian in a role that seems to expect both.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970, Denis Sanders) [r]
[New Blu-ray.] This concert film documenting the first week of Elvis Presley’s 1970 residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas exists in two distinct versions — a trendy, frenetic mess interspersed with often banal talking heads and ample footage of Presley fucking up and exhausting himself; and a 2001 recut that emphasizes the band and the music from rehearsal to fruition nearly without interruption. What the two films have in common is that they communicate that Presley was a peerless showman even on the cusp of his decline; he is an engaging and magnetic presence throughout.