Capsule digest #11
I’m currently very, very tired of writing so this will be a short one. The entry to follow covers films seen from December 14th, 2020 to February 28th, 2021. The essay in the last post took me most of the month to put together — — resulting in me only having time to watch seven films in February, unfortunately — which means that I’m going to delay posting this until that that entry’s been up for a week. Not that this is Writer’s Corner or anything, but after plugging away at the piece for many weeks I’m overall happy with it — the only thing I’m uncertain about is whether I consistently chose the right place in the structure to go into detail on a given film if it fit in multiple places in the “narrative,” so to speak — Mon Oncle, Bad Day at Black Rock and Sunset Blvd. are good examples of films I had no choice but to address multiple times and I don’t know if I addressed that issue well enough. But I am far, far happier with how it all turned out that I was with the ’40s canon post, which was previously one of my favorite things I’d written here, so…
Full reviews this cycle: I tended for there to be more but like I said, the ’50s piece dominated too much of my attention to get around to the third one I planned to post immediately after The Wrong Man and Munich. You’ll see another contemporary film and a bunch of old chestnuts crop up in the next few weeks. I believe Munich is the last Best Picture nominee I’ll probably be writing up at length for a while, though, with most of the remainder either new to me or unlikely to inspire an outpouring of prose. (That project, by the way, is a few months out from finally, finally, finally entering its home stretch. We’ll have to see what kind of trivial nonsense gets attention for the 2020 awards first, though.)
Other films seen: Returned to old standby The General for fun. Showed Faces Places to my wife. And to refresh myself for the ’50s essay, I revisited Touch of Evil, watching the “preview cut” (the second of the three versions included in Masters of Cinema’s wonderful Blu-ray set) for the first time.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– As addressed in my last post, I watched Bruce Conner’s A Movie and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog for the ’50s project. The second was a revisit and is of course a masterpiece. The Conner film was new to me and I had to watch it on Youtube; it was quite interesting as a media collage and as a rare skewed perspective on the tightly controlled media landscape of those times, but I can’t say I regard as a masterpiece — I would be interested in seeing more of Conner’s work, but I’m unsure of how that would sit copyright-wise. (It appears that one of Conner’s films was slated for Flicker Alley’s avant garde box but removed.) For more of my thoughts on these films, please see the longer piece here.
– Continuing my quest through two DVD/Blu boxed sets I bought a while ago, More Treasures of American Film Archives and The Complete Films of Agnes Varda, I saw several theatrical shorts recently that are joining my informal (and hopefully, someday, formalized) canon of such films, though more extensive thoughts on the Treasures sets will have to wait for my next compilation of catalog DVD reviews — I’ve traditionally posted those at my now-mostly-dormant personal blog but am considering moving them here, and if I can find an ideal format for it, also moving my archive of DVD reviews (which goes back to 2002 or so) to this realm rather than that one, since it doesn’t make much sense there. Would it distress the OCD gods to have Another Kind of Post moved to Slices of Cake?? The mind reels. Meanwhile my full-out review of the Varda box might make it to the next capsule digest. But to come to the actual point: big recommendations for the Biograph-era D.W. Griffith short The Country Doctor (1909), for Gregory La Cava’s cartoon The Breath of a Nation (1919), for Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929), which I’ve actually seen before but I forgot how lovely it was; and four of Varda’s: Elsa La Rose (1966), Uncle Yanco (1968), the completely stunning Black Panthers (1968), a masterpiece and maybe Varda’s best film period, and Le Lion Volatil (2003), which is very silly but also effortlessly charming. Even though I’m not really warming to most of her narrative features so far, the Varda set is an incalculable pleasure all in all and one of the most therapeutic purchases I’ve made in some time.
– Amber and I watched all of MTV’s vintage animated series Daria starting in October, via torrent with its original music intact. The series was very formative for me personally; I began watching it shortly after its first season ended in 1997, and a forum dedicated to the show was the first internet hangout where I actually became a recognizable fixture. I had last seen the series in (basically) its entirety around 2006, when I wasn’t really that far removed from adolescence. The show plays very differently to someone in their late thirties. It’s often wonderful and witty, quite separate from the nostalgia it engenders, and most elements of its coming-of-age parable are done well, even if there’s a certain irresolvable, almost Renoir-like conflict between taking people’s emotions seriously and viewing them through the eyes of a teenager. I’m considering writing something longer about both the show itself and the experience of coming back to it now but this won’t likely be the venue. I hate to be cryptic but if that sounds like something you would be interested in, find a way to let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
– I’m beginning to fantasize unashamedly about the currently impossible things I’m going to try to do once we’ve at least practically conquered the pandemic, and one of the less salacious long-term goals I’m going to work toward is making my way back to the West Coast for screenings of several films holed up in archives I cannot otherwise see; one is The White Parade, the only Best Picture nominee aside from The Patriot — lost altogether — that has neither a home video release nor a circulating bootleg. You can’t watch the film anywhere else, but what you can see are these remarkable home movies documenting part of its creation, courtesy of Loretta Young and made public by UCLA.
Here are thirty all-new capsules.
Young & Beautiful (2013, François Ozon) [hr]
Lyrically shot chronicle of a 17 year-old prostitute whose carefully constructed double life unravels after a bizarre sequence of events leads to her mother’s intervention. A lesser movie with this many tangents, loose ends and unresolved character arcs might feel incomplete, too full of intrigue that goes nowhere; but the way this is thoroughly built from the perspective of Isabelle (strongly played by Marine Vacth) without trying to explain or rationalize her emotions renders all these snapshots of life in progress into a tapestry of lived-in detail.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb) [c]
Barely a movie, more a commercial for Sukiyabashi Jiro, a world famous sushi restaurant in Tokyo with an 85 year-old chef, and to that end essentially a celebration of being a person with an empty life motivated strictly by work, who boasts about his shitty parenting and how more kids would succeed if other parents were equally shitty. I’m sure the food’s great but what a depressing set of philosophies to build a documentary (or a life) around, and cinematically it’s all pedestrian, slow and inconsequential with no creativity to speak of.
La Pointe-Courte (1955, Agnès Varda) [r]
Varda’s first film, rarely seen for decades, is marked by its unstoppable flood of lyrical compositions. The Faulkner-inspired screenplay cuts between near-documentary footage of the lives of commercial fishermen and their families in the village of Sète, and the plight of a couple who’ve reached an impasse in their marriage; the parallel narratives work better in theory than in practice, with the story of the couple played by Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort well-observed but stilted when compared to the naturalistic material it’s intended to contextualize.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda) [hr]
Varda’s brilliant city symphony of Paris follows an actress (Corinne Marchand) awaiting medical test results over the course of ninety minutes imparted to us in real time and tracking her emotions as well as her responses to the people she meets and sights she witnesses. A film that impeccably imparts the complicated joy and terror of being alive.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges) [hr]
Arresting, harshly powerful noir-western that finds Spencer Tracy hobbling through a small town full of hatred and buried secrets, his alienation emphasized lyrically by the CinemaScope frame.
A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor) [r]
Parts of this musical tragedy, the second of four versions of the story so far, are maniacally overdriven; parts are so emotionally powerful they can wipe you out; parts are curiously trivial; the whole effect is strangely uneven. Judy Garland and James Mason are terrific, the former delivering a bracing and disarmingly, vividly human performance. The showbiz stuff is almost uniformly hackneyed when compared to the chronicle of how addiction destroys a relationship and a life. When it’s good it’s as extraordinary as reputed, but it’s too lengthy for those moments to be spread so thin.
Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) [r]
The last fifteen minutes of Sirk’s melodrama of racial identity and overdriven careerism are an emotional powerhouse and are crucial for affording Juanita Moore’s Annie the dignity that was broadly denied to Louise Beavers’ Delilah in 1934. But Sirk doesn’t do much better than his predecessors at rendering all this actually believable. There’s obviously a lot more societal critique injected into his vision of Fannie Hurst’s book, and the performances never falter into camp as could easily have happened; but the beautifully rendered finale feels unearned because everything beforehand is so busy and larger than life.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) [hr]
From W.R. Burnett’s lyrically futile novel, the heist movie that begat all others, still nasty and riveting after more than half a century.
Bob le Flambeur (1956, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Ostensibly a heist picture revolving around a criminal-gone-straight, the Bob of the title (Roger Duchesne), who still hangs around in the scrappy demimonde of gamblers, addicts and weirdos in northern Paris. Melville exploits the deliciously hopeless gaggle of hoods in the film’s territory as they loosely scheme the inevitable “one last job” to bring Bob back into the fold of the true underworld. But in reality this film is just a wry shaggy dog tale, an algebraic word problem from a math textbook but on film — fun to think about in its upending of expectations, but hilariously frustrating to actually watch.
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [c]
Gore Vidal’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play is somehow both campy and lifeless, an inexcusable combination; Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor chew up the celluloid, and the only provided counterpoint is Montgomery Clift behaving as if he’s already had the lobotomy he’s supposed to be administering to Taylor. But hey, at least there’s cannibalism.
Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray) [r]
Surprisingly unpleasant melodrama in which James Mason brilliantly plays a boyishly charming schoolteacher whose sanity unravels after a doctor prescribes him Cortisone for his fainting spells and grows increasingly demonic as his addiction to the drug takes over his life. The film eventually gathers thriller-like tension; its florid (Technicolor and CinemaScope) yet slightly sitcom-like amiability is a strange context in which to find ourselves thrust into detailed depictions of such nightmarish abuse and psychosis. It makes you feel kind of awful, which is probably the point, but it’s also darkly comic.
All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk) [hr]
Quintessential Sirk melodrama, an absorbing narrative of a widow’s affair with a younger man from another class background sending her social and family life into disarray. Half the film is its colors, just colors like you never imagined could exist because they don’t, and of course the emotions bubbling over that make the frame itself seem to ache somehow. The other half is the ingenious casting of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, traditionally limited actors whose deft restraint fuses masterfully with the film’s florid dramatics and incisive analysis of the boxed-in reality of a mature woman’s lonely life in the film’s era.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich) [hr]
A film noir from 1955 directed by Robert Aldrich. You’ll love it. Try not to read anything else about it, not that I’m suggesting there’s any more to it than that; there’s not. That’s really all it is, just your everyday run-of-the-mill film noir. Just fun, I promise. Nothing else to it. Enjoy!
Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
It’s odd, and a sign of the times, to see a hard-boiled thriller about a pickpocket mixed up in a police-spy triangulation so rife with out-of-nowhere Cold War dialogue that feels propagandistic. Sure, we’re thieves, but we’re not “dirty rats” and such. It also scarcely matters in a story this riveting; as self-conscious as Fuller’s style is, it’s also beautifully expressive and bracingly erotic. Thelma Ritter finally gets a crucial enough role for her talents but Richard Widmark is the film’s miracle, subsuming himself gleefully in the role of the ultimate amoral sadist with a heart of, well, something. Monumental entertainment.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks) [r]
The blood-red joy, the joyous and unchecked lust in Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s big numbers respectively make you feel like you’re never going to get old. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and its army of the faceless suitors is legendary, its amoral indecency a shot of fearless wickedness. “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” with Russell surrounded by hordes of men wearing only perfunctory and barely visible swim trucks, herself in a black dress her orgasmic fervor cancels out, is pornographic in the very best way. The story offers almost nothing of note or substance; does it matter?
Los Olvidados (1950, Luis Buñuel) [hr]
Kind of unusual to see a film this bleak — about impoverished, largely abandoned kids falling into crime of both petty and serious varieties in the slums of Mexico City — that nevertheless contains so much warmth and playfulness. The latter is obvious, intrinsic to the way Buñuel surveys the world in all of his films, regardless of how transgressive or cynical they are; the wicked humor of his collaborations with Dali and of Land Without Bread is still in supply here despite its nasty streak, as is the morbid, grotesque strangeness of the way the camera remains unflinching before the most horrific sights it captures.
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955, Luis Buñuel) [r]
Buñuel proves himself unable to land an attempt at a Kind Hearts and Coronets–Monsieur Verdoux styled black comedy about a playboy whose lifelong sexual obsession with murder leads to constant stymied attempts at becoming a serial killer. The best parts by far are those that hew closer to the typical Buñuelian perversity — dream sequences, odd images, strange camera tricks, shockingly open sexuality and moments of stark disorientation — and the rest is endless talk that doesn’t really seem to excite his creativity.
Él (1953, Luis Buñuel) [hr]
When Buñuel cunningly turns melodramatic convention on its head, poking fun at its excesses and extrapolating his disdain to the real-world counterparts of the toxic behaviors therein, he ends up not only with a more keenly observant film about an abusive relationship than almost any other of the 1950s but also gives a home to a brilliantly rendered, terrifying performance by Arturo de Córdova, who makes Charles Boyer in Gaslight look like a sitcom character. Buñuel’s perversity thrillingly slaughters every attempt at a grace note.
Daguerréotypes (1976, Agnès Varda) [hr]
Varda’s documentary about the merchants on the street she lived and worked on for decades functioned at the time as a character study of a neighborhood; decades hence, as an illustration of memory; and finally, with Varda herself gone, an evocation of a bygone era. The contrast of the permanence of a piece of art with the ephemeral nature of life itself is profoundly well-expressed here.
Le Bonheur (1965, Agnès Varda)
Conceptually this is a rather interesting film — basically positing a narcissist’s callous ruination of his own life as being a consequence-free action in a world that automatically bends itself to the impulses of such narcissists so long as they’re men — but it’s irritating to watch, chiefly because the characters are so flat and lifeless. Varda lays the irony on very thickly in her depiction of the idyllic lives of the central couple, but it all seems so cozy that the actions of François (Jean-Claude Drouot) frankly lack dramatic credibility. And the climax, despite its well-earned cynicism and despair, feels curiously melodramatic in context.
The Invaders (1912, Francis Ford & Thomas H. Ince) [r]
One of the first westerns to utilize Native American actors (though they’re not given a whole lot to do), this strings along a threadbare plot about a treaty being broken by railroad surveyors plus various forbidden love affairs before it spends two thirds of its 41-minute runtime on all hell breaking loose in a well-photographed battle scene, which starts with a destroyed telegraph pole approximating a burning cross (title card: “TOO LATE!”) and ends with a man coaxing his daughter to commit suicide to avoid her debasement at the hands of the enemy. The politics are incoherent, but they certainly knew how to get to the point in those days.
Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916, Chester & Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Charming, exciting silent thriller features a wonderful performance by Dorothy Gish as a Dutch immigrant joining her father in New York, where a nefarious crook wraps them both up in a counterfeiting scheme. Excellent compositions and some interesting, unusual creative choices with staging throughout the film make this feel more ambitious than the average early caper, but the pure fun of the chase and suspense are undeniable.
Forty Guns (1957, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
A despairing drama of violence and conflicted loyalties drives this beautifully shot black & white CinemaScope western, featuring a dynamite central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, three decades into her career, as a powerful landowner who leads the eponymous forty gunfighters around Tombstone, AZ asserting her dominance. Three brothers arrive to serve a warrant from the U.S. Attorney General but quickly and expectedly get mixed up in violent local politics. Fuller views every unexpected twist less as a focus of excitement than as further validation for the characters’ near-universal sadness and sense of constantly encroaching doom.
Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) see: Horror of Dracula
Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) [r]
Colorful Hammer Horror version of Bram Stoker’s immortal tale is entertaining, especially the first act, but also a bit rudimentary in light of two already-existing iconic film versions of the story that are so powerfully imagined even if less technically accomplished that this almost can’t help feeling like a carefully choreographed retread. The perioidic lapses into farce feel strained, and though Christopher Lee (as Dracula) and Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing) are both generally fun to watch, Michael Gough’s Arthur is badly pitched and played too much to the wings.
Forbidden Games (1952, René Clément) [hr]
Clément follows two young children, one of them an orphan, through war-torn rural France where their own fantasy life is no less a coping mechanism than the petty disputes among the adults orbiting around them — and is much richer as an expression of real emotional grace and affection. Alternately grim, adorable and funny but never manipulative despite its unflinching portrait of the ravages, violence and despair of its keenly observed place and time, this thanks to its accumulation of detail, insight and incidental mischief reaches a crescendo of such improbable sweetness as to easily forgive the often lurching and unpredictable tone.
Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta)
Rosalind Russell puts in double time creating the majority of the appeal of this extremely overlong stage adaptation (based on Patrick Dennis’s celebrated book) playing the ultimate cool aunt, who has jet set parties and drinks a lot. This inherits a vignette-based structure from the play which stymies any attempt at coherent character development. While DaCosta packs the Technirama frame with characters and business, it just makes it all feel even stagier, sans any sense of spontaneity.
The Tarnished Angels (1957, Douglas Sirk) [r]
Sirk’s film of Faulkner’s Pylon bears all the usual hallmarks of a cerebral novel being shifted to Hollywood melodrama format with stilted and uneven results. Rock Hudson’s central reporter character, becoming a nuisance within the layered psychodramas of a team of flying acrobats led by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, feels too much like an idea rather than a person; you can’t escape the notion that their story would be more compelling and complete without his “perspective.” The flying scenes, capturing all the glorious and dangerous sleaze of small-time showbiz, are an absolute thrill.
Good Ol’ Freda (2013, Ryan White) [hr]
Thoughtful documentary follows Beatles fan club president Freda Kelly, an early Cavern-era fan who took a job working for Brian Epstein and remained a part of the band’s inner circle until several years after their breakup. This is not the superficial exercise in fawning one would naturally expect; Kelly is a terrific interview subject with lots of integrity. Not only are her firsthand observations of and relationships with the Beatles, their families and the rest of their major associates quite fascinating, her life itself and her evolving emotional interpretation of her brush with immortality in the ’60s is just as enveloping.
Les Creatures (1966, Agnès Varda) [r]
Truly bizarre sci-fi nightmare about an author’s encounter with metaphysical wizardry jumbles up lots of themes almost incoherently but is so brazenly original — a forerunner to The Prisoner and even Aronofsky’s mother! — it’s hard not to kind of admire it, even if Varda herself was dissatisfied. Beautifully weird, electronically generated music score by Pierre Barbaud.
Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969, Agnès Varda) [r]
Varda spins her wheels in Los Angeles, capturing a cross section of the affluent hippie universe in June 1968 then stopping dead to try and convey the shock of RFK’s assassination; her ostensible focus is on Warhol superstar Viva! and the two male writers of Hair, who perform in a sort of chaste menage a trois, but she gets distracted with the entrance of Shirley Clarke essentially playing herself, trying to get a deal with a Hollywood studio. As usual in Varda’s work, the attempt to meld fiction and reality doesn’t really gel and just seems haphazard and strange, but individual moments are wonderful, especially if the place and period are of interest.