March 2018 movie capsules

16 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 11 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,308.
– 5 revisits, including one (Suspicion) previously reviewed here (though it’s moved up a good deal in my estimation since then, to my surprise), plus a few for the 1940s project: two Preston Sturges classics (The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours) and a Cocteau film school staple (Beauty and the Beast), then a long-ago Best Picture nominee (Apollo 13).
– Only 1 new full review again, and again not an actual new piece of writing I’m afraid, for The Lady Eve. I promise I still care.
– 14 new or revised capsules, all below.
– I was sidelined a few times this month by my music blog, with beginning-of-year overload kind of taking a lot of energy and my not wanting to get stuck in another lag over there. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how close I came to keeping quota on movies, though again I’ve been writing a lot less here for some reason; a lot of the Letterboxd reviews, especially those for this year’s Oscar nominees, are quite extensive, just not as formal as the stuff I’d be willing to present here. Also later putting up the monthly post than ever before, sorry about that.


Project breakdowns:
Oscar catchup: Restored balance in the world by seeing the winners in the categories I’ve worked through already, so no one can remove my pointless boast of having seen every major Oscar recipient. In that spirit: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (actress and supporting actor), I, Tonya (supporting actress), The Shape of Water (picture and director), Call Me by Your Name (screenplay) and Darkest Hour (actor).
1940s canon: 6 films (3 new). The new titles to me were To Be or Not to Be, Cat People and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; I was disappointed in the last one but loved the others. The reruns were Unfaithfully Yours (still not a big fan), Beauty and the Beast (still enchanted, if at a slight distance) and The Lady Eve (still one of the all-time greats). Remaining: 42 films (32 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 6 films (5 new). By and large these were overlaps with Oscar catchup, but I also saw the outstanding silent ethnograph Chang and the unexpectedly brilliant In the Bedroom (that any other film nominated netted the big prize that year baffles me), and rewatched Apollo 13 finally. Remaining: 153 films (124 new).
2010s catchup: Overlaps with other things above with the exception of the Safdies’ Good Time.
New movies: ibid.

Capsules ahoy:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh) [NO]
McDonagh’s smug, condescending portrait of middle America inspires unpleasant memories of Crash, daring you to endure some of the most abysmal dialogue ever heard in a motion picture. Using a past assault and murder as a prop to justify an endless parade of aimlessly bad behavior, the film tracks a lot of fuss about the titular artifacts, three roadside adverts by the victim’s mother (Frances McDormand) shaming the town sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to make any arrests. A glorified school play so incomprehensible in its plotting, characterization and tone that it doesn’t even seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish.

To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
The political, the personal and the farcical mingling with unforced grace, with Carole Lombard luminous and Jack Benny an amusingly lopsided ham as a Polish theatrical couple, half of whom likes to step around, which gets them tangled up with the Gestapo after Hitler invades. The plotting is masterful, withholding just enough information to continually delight in its unexpected turnarounds and one-ups, never permitting an easy shortcut out of its uncomfortable, hilarious situations; at the same time the film is to be commended for making the Nazis look extremely foolish and advocating a violent, fiery resistance against fascism.

Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Because of its mostly accurate technical rundown of the titular near-disaster, Howard’s adaptation of Jim Lovell’s dry but superior book Lost Moon has its merit for space buffs. It’s all rather generic, despite competent direction and reasonably good performances by everyone in the cast, shooting for excitement but mostly telling you things are intense, with heavy use of media clips to sell the urgency, rather than finding any inventive way to make you feel it. And once it’s over, despite its lofty statements about longing for the U.S. to return to the Moon, you don’t really feel affected by any of it.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Sturges’ lyrical, extremely dark comedy about a well-to-do musical conductor (Rex Harrison) who discovers that his wife may be cheating and, during a concert, indulges in fantasies about humiliating and killing her is surprisingly sadistic; given how out of character it is for Sturges, it seems like a case of actor mismatched to material. Harrison has little feel for comedy, lumbering through a tone-deaf performance as a complete asshole, so the primary effect of the violent scenarios he concocts — ingeniously scored to classical music, implying that deep down Sturges really wanted to make a thriller — is just shifty discomfort.

Chang (1927, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack) [hr]
Disregarding its legitimacy as a documentary, the fact that this footage of Thailand farmers fighting for their home even exists is miraculous, and that its directors are able to fashion these endlessly galvanizing shots of treachery, wildlife, action, destruction into a coherent, compelling story is the kind of audacity that you can’t help admiring for all their questionable ethics. The aesthetic pleasures and wildlife “performances” found here are unmatched even now, because for anyone else to be as bold as this duo is not merely unlikely but deeply inadvisable. One of the most exciting of all silent films.

Good Time (2017, Ben & Josh Safdie) [hr]
What makes this frantic, unstoppably propulsive account of two brothers botching a bank robbery and the domino effect that results such an effective classicist thriller is that it adheres to the idea of traditional structure while constantly upending it. There’s no indication in its first ten minutes of what sort of movie it’s going to turn into, and you’re never relaxed enough to predict the next crazed move it makes — it’s a curving road with an endless series of detours. Even as its bastard of a hero (Robert Pattinson) grows ever more frustrated and stymied, your own satisfaction mounts because the tension is so exhilarating.

Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) A movie that grows more enrapturing in the mind than it could ever be on screen — looking back on it, you wonder how many of its scenes (the introductions of the castle, the flying, the particularly drunken wanderings of the characters) could really exist as tangible pieces of film; at times it’s among the most intoxicating of all narrative films, but it plays its fanciful cards sparingly. The indelible final shot is the most elegant possible rebuke to every advancement in visual effects technology made in the last seventy-odd years.

In the Bedroom (2001, Todd Field) [hr]
A story as unstructured and unpredictable as life itself, starting with a teenager whose affair with an older woman is met with mild consternation by his parents and much worse by the girlfriend’s former husband. What we’re treated with is a powerhouse showcase for actors (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, both so inspired it makes many more amply rewarded screen marriages look extremely goofy) not because it affords them any opportunity to chew scenery or to assert themselves loudly but because the script’s constantly flowing stream of real, yet unfathomably tragic, life is so rich, well-judged, built to be imparted beautifully by their subtle understatement.

I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie) [hr]
Hyperkinetic approach to the 1994 spat between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that took the nation and the sexist media by storm captures the frenetic nature of media in those and these times. Gillespie walks a tightrope in fashioning the lives of real people, victims and abusers alike, into something genuinely gripping even as you wonder if it should be. Allison Janney’s depiction of an embittered parent is frightening in its vividness; and the camera’s agility during the skating scenes, performed by Margot Robbie herself in the title role, underscores how Harding’s chosen sport is the only opportunity she has to escape into herself.

Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) [hr]
An outrageously silly story somehow molded into compelling, unnerving cinema, as though someone handed Tourneur the wackiest concept they could think of (newlyweds suffer emotional distance and a freeze in physical contact because the bride thinks she’s a cat) and dared him to turn it into a serious picture. The unexplained tension and foreboding mount breathlessly all through the story, prodded along by fine performances and cinematography; the rationale behind it all hits you afterward and you’re alarmed and thrilled at the wool pulled over your eyes, and for the opportunity given to explore a doomed young marriage in unusually blunt terms.

The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) [c]
Fish sex is the least of the problems with this handsome but insipid Oscar winner, a Cold War story with the fine Sally Hawkins as a lonely mute woman whose attachment to a large amphibian being kept top-secret on a military base becomes a big exercise in phony, cornball compassion, overly reliant on lousy, one-dimensional writing and the hokey use of a lazily evil villain played by Michael Shannon. It’s meant to be a “fairy tale” but fails to probe at such conventions in any meaningful way, and its stroke of sentimentalism is deadly. (There’s even a shot of the monster in a the movie theater, in case you wanted it to be Cinema Paradiso!)

Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino) [r]
Coming-of-age story about a passionate, lustful summer between a teenage boy and an older male student boasts strong performances by Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, compensating for somewhat underwritten roles. It’s all rather bougie, and leans too much on dialogue to explain its characters’ emotions rather than really delving into the evolution of their mutual attraction. But it does get something right about the dreamlike enormity and heaviness of a short-lived whirlwind romance, particularly in terms of the way such a sweeping event leaves a person reeling, and how the rest of the world gets cast for however long (maybe forever) in its shadow.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [r]
Decades-spanning chronicle of a gregarious but egotistical British officer (Roger Livesey), his professional experiences and romances and gradual decline, its epic sweep harnessed apparently to boost morale at home. The colors pop, and Deborah Kerr is good in all three of her roles and great in the one that casts her as a brassy army driver, but after nearly three hours, the episodic story feels insubstantial, and our “hero” may be the least interesting and most farcical character in the film, especially in comparison to Anton Walbrook as his lifelong friend, a German he injures in a duel early on whose allegiances are intriguingly mixed.

Darkest Hour (2017, Joe Wright)
Another of Wright’s bland prestige pictures for the PBS set, this Gary Oldman vehicle, caking him with makeup to play Winston Churchill in his first month as Prime Minister, isn’t terribly boring but does pretty much exactly what you expect with the material, and it feels like we’ve watched this movie hundreds of times by now, even if it looks slightly nicer than usual in Wright’s hands. And I suppose the film fancies itself a nuanced view of Churchill as icon and folk hero and “troubled” leader but his actual flaws went a hell of a long way beyond yelling at typists.


[Additional bonus Letterboxd writeups for Suspicion / The Lady Eve]


The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

When Preston Sturges’ movies are mediocre, it is invariably because they seem so steeped in the world and time period in which they were made. The Lady Eve stands as a stark contrast to this problem; it is one of the liveliest, most modern films of the classic Hollywood period that isn’t directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It is smashing, smart, dazzling, wonderful, an absolutely undeniable treat. And what makes this especially miraculous is that Sturges is essentially at sea as a visual stylist; unlike the work of, for instance, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks, and many others who’ve withstood this criticism, Sturges honestly is almost purely verbal. But he is also a staunch and gracious humanist, and it is this that lends his best work its timeless, inscrutable beauty.

As a result of his weaknesses as a director, it’s inevitable that one concentrates on the script here, and indeed, it is a stunning piece of work, a subtle, witty, poetic masterpiece of economy, irony, and completely adult wisdom. If I began quoting the best lines, we’d be here all week; let it simply be said that the dialogue, interplay, and characterization are balletic in their perfection.

Moreover, the story is quite unusual and can even make a claim to being thoroughly original, in part as a result of its bizarre structure, divided very distinctly into two halves, much like Sturges’ even more celebrated followup, Sullivan’s Travels. The tale of naive rich biologist Henry Fonda, nailing the role of a perpetual child (he is so young in this film, infinitely younger than in The Grapes of Wrath, made the preceding year, or in Young Mr. Lincoln a year before that), seduced by card shark Barbara Stanwyck, seems to be leading to a romantic crescendo when it crashes and burns and makes a completely unexpected 180-degree turnaround into scandal and deception. Anyone whose eyes aren’t glued on the screen unfailingly from that point to the end is too cynical to even bother with movies.

The film was a blockbuster in its day, but it feels shockingly ahead of its time. It does not have a feminist message (as was common for similarly ferocious comedies of the day, like His Girl Friday), but it is equally radical in the sense that it is nonchalantly feminist; the heroine is the strongest character in the picture, and when the ending comes around, she does not have to be “put in her place,” even in a satirical fashion the way Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder would do it. Stanwyck, an actress with just about the highest level of intelligence and verve seen in Tinseltown at the time, doesn’t seem to have to reach even half an inch to become Jean Harrington, delightfully narrating the other occupants in the ship’s dining room MST3K-style while observing them through her compact, or for that matter, the role Jean takes later on. Her performance is staggering, exhausting, flawless, by the standards of any era, but unprecedented for a film of 1941, a time when gender roles were even more precisely defined in films than they are now. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda, one of the best Hollywood actors of all, is nearly unrecognizable as the desexualized “gee golly” son of a wealthy ale brewer. Neither performance is ever obvious or silly, neither character is ever stereotypical. Sturges’ scenarios, people, and words don’t feel like real life, they feel like the way real life plays out in our heads after we’re finished with it for the day; but unlike the wisecracking fast-talkers populating the screwball comedies, these feel like people with inner lives, sexualities, histories, desires, and the actors sense this element in Sturges (even more visible, if anything, in his earlier Christmas in July), and fully embody it.

A movie that’s a model to follow in so many ways, particularly in its unerring eye toward the universal nature of the problems of all of its characters, even the minor ones, would almost have to make a misstep or two. Surprisingly, the problems (aside from the aforementioned aesthetic value, or lack thereof) are mostly technical fallacies in the script. Sturges misses one extra punchline: he doesn’t bring back the snake or its food for the third act. And his ending, honestly, is too abrupt. I can live with the quick fade at the conclusion, but I have trouble swallowing Fonda’s sudden acceptance of crooked Stanwyck after cursing her for months. All the same, Stanwyck’s last line and the way she delivers it almost overcompensate for any last-minute gaffes.

So much else is in the film that bears mentioning: the usual army of superb Sturges character players shines. The slapstick, confined mostly to the last half-hour, is sublime, a convenient reminder of how heavenly this style of comedy is in the hand of a master. (And where the fuck else are you ever going to see Henry Fonda, of all people, tripping over a couch!?) Sequences plundered by directors from Roberto Benigni to Woody Allen to Blake Edwards are still fresher here than they ever would be again, thanks to Sturges’ peerless writing and delivery. The Lady Eve is an innovator in other respects as well; it features a fully animated title sequence, one of the earliest examples of such a stunt being employed. And on top of the comedy, the pathos, the dialogue, the love of mankind (suffused with sly class commentary on rich folk banging their tables when they don’t get what they want, a very different but harmonious take on one of the central conflicts of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, it is one of the few Hollywood features of the ’40s that is genuinely erotic. Stanwyck’s oral fondling of a rose, her leaning and unabashedly sexual moaning on Fonda’s shoulder (with exposed midriff, no less) — it’s all enough to make you forget about mise en scene and screenplay structure for a little while. Stanwyck is actually depicted as a more sexual being in this film than in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, probably her second-best performance, a perfect contrast with the impotence of Fonda’s character.

I don’t like to make grand statements like “you don’t like cinema if you don’t like this film,” but I would be willing to wager that every review I will ever write here will be useless to you if you are not warmed and/or exhilarated by The Lady Eve. All you can do as the credits roll is take a deep breath and prepare for the return to reality.


[Originally posted in 2007, with some minor edits and additions.]

February 2018 movie capsules

15 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,297.
– 2 revisits, one (Foreign Correspondent, slight downgrade!) previously reviewed here, another (Le Corbeau) subject of the month’s only full-length post.
– 1 new full review, a straightforward reformat of an old one: Le Corbeau.
– 13 all-new capsules below.
– Slow month for movies, stressful month in general, hoping spring will spring fully equipped with ample free time.


Project breakdowns:
1940s canon: 5 films (4 new). The revisit, again, was Le Corbeau. The rest: I Know Where I’m Going!; Monsieur Verdoux (finally — one of the biggest gaps for me); Christmas in July; and Quai des Orfevres. Loved them all. Remaining: 50 (35 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 4 films (4 new), I still suck but it was a short month. Saw Smilin’ Through, Our Town, In Which We Serve and Brooklyn. Unusually for this category, I at least somewhat enjoyed all of these too. Remaining: 152 films (122 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty big month here. After the Oscar nominees were announced I decided I wanted to try to go and see two more of the current BP contenders but have thus far made it to just one of them, The Post, as well as catching Dunkirk via a library DVD. Also saw Personal Shopper (yecch), mother! (hooray!) and Brooklyn (overlap with Oscar nominees).
New movies: The Post and Dunkirk also qualify here. And thirdly, I’m not as dogged in my devotion to any given director or writer anymore, but news of a new Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaboration last year had me shook, and I eventually caught up with Beatriz at Dinner… it hasn’t nearly the slow-burn impact of Chuck & Buck or The Good Girl, but it certainly has its merits, especially if you enjoy the more recent Mike White stylings of Enlightened and such.

Sorry for such a dry rundown this month. Now capsules! Capsules are fun…


Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas) [c]
A trashy horror-thriller disguised as arthouse fare with badly performed nonsense dialogue spewing from Kristen Stewart. There’s an endless sequence devoted to her texting someone, which might evoke title cards in silent films if the dialogue were less mundane or if anything of interest was happening onscreen during the entire half-hour. The cheapness of the ghost-hunting scenes is unworthy of everyone involved, but it seems as if Assayas, like so many others, had to get some basic-cable stupidity out of his system.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [hr]
A charming, stupendously shot, partly comic romance completely unlike the films for which Powell & Pressburger are best known, but with the same oversized emotions and sheer awe at the possibilities of life and cinema. Wendy Hiller stars as a self-possessed, headstrong twentysomething determined to get a position for herself in the commercial world through a convenient marriage. While she’s stranded in the Scottish Hebrides due to bad weather, she finds cracks forming in her long-decided destiny. A valentine to Scotland sent by a film camera, idealized but deeply felt.

Smilin’ Through (1932, Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Surprisingly touching, intense and ironically titled pre-Code melodrama about a well-off widower who raises his niece, their relationship sunny and ideal until as an adult she falls in love with the son of his mortal enemy. It may be a little goofy and over-the-top, lacking the sleaze of Josef von Sternberg’s similarly wild tales, but the romance herein is potent thanks to the performances (in dual roles) of Norma Shearer and Fredric March, both brilliant and stunning. Shearer’s acting is so naturalistic it’s almost eerie; she elevates this potentially workmanlike studio concoction to some kind of art.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin) [hr]
Chaplin’s infamous “black comedy” (really more of a grim, tragic horror movie) generates discomfort because his character, a former bank teller and master of disguise turned murderer, is both palpably human and a nearly complete, violent deconstruction of the Chaplin persona that had already charmed audiences for a generation. His thorough rebuking of the optimism and sweetness of his older films can be upsetting, but it also feels necessary; you only wish the dark message here was less relevant, but somehow it seems more like a movie of our time than of Chaplin’s.

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
You can shoot cynical holes through this slick, middlebrow exploration of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post; it’s weird that the film is about the Post and not the Times, the casting of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks potentially puts it squarely in prestige picture hell, and it has the usual excessive hand-holding and syrup so common to Spielberg’s films. But what can you say? He’s the best there is when it comes to telling a cracking good story, and for someone who finds the subject interesting, this is as exciting as Marvel movies are to their audience.

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan) [r]
A sensory experiment of sorts, the Alfonso Cuarón version of a war film, with the less gifted Christopher Nolan tracking the titular battle from three angles but with the constant exposition of his other films nixed in favor of storytelling that’s both more visceral than you’d expect and less pure and elegant than he seems to think. Your mileage will vary on this depending on how much you feel like living through a futile moment of tragedy and destruction with this level of immediacy and neatness is a worthy cause, but there’s no doubt it’s an impressive piece of film.

Our Town (1940, Sam Wood) [r]
One of the strangest classic-era Hollywood films, which would be true by default of any faithful adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s extraordinary play. It’s eerie to watch studio stars and standards applied to the ghostly dread that overtakes in the third act, the surreal visualization of William Cameron Menzies and the awkward crescendos of Aaron Copland’s indescribable score permitting it to feel like radical art screaming out from a netherworld of commercialism. Sadly the finale negates much of the honesty and dismay of the play, underlining how much the work depends on the original sense of unresolved longing.

Christmas in July (1940, Preston Sturges) [hr]
Sturges’ second film is a hilarious, emotionally eclectic delight. A prank is played on a hard-working office joe trying to win the $25,000 slogan contest being sponsored by a rival corporation. It’s a breeze, but deep down it shows Sturges as a sort of verbose Frank Borzage — the dialogue crackles, the jokes are solid, the situations engagingly absurd, but the characters are far more believable and the sincerity far more obvious than in the average classic Hollywood comedy. As in all of his best scripts, Sturges is unable to hide the sheer joy he feels at jumping around in a world of his own making.

mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky) [hr]
In a sort of uncredited Repulsion remake, Jennifer Lawrence is remodeling a house and laying herself bare for her Important Artist husband who fails to consider her feelings when he opens their home up to increasingly intrusive and hostile guests. Aronofsky’s films have historically been visceral and silly, but here he finds a miraculous balance here between studio slickness and the stomach-churning discomfort of Lars von Trier or Todd Solondz; some will be perturbed enough to give up this on long before it turns the corner into hysteria; others will love being toyed with by someone who can’t be trusted.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta) [r]
Salma Hayek completely embodies (down to the awkward haircut) the title character, an alt-medicine practitioner and masseuse whose general compassion and love of animals leads to uncomfortable conversations with a Trump-like tycoon and big game hunter played by John Lithgow, a consequence of her car breaking down outside a client’s house. Misleadingly billed as a comedy itself, this in fact is vastly more serious and melancholy than the earlier Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaborations. It’s not exactly profound, and it won’t brighten your evening, but it’s got soul.

In Which We Serve (1942, Noel Coward & David Lean) [r]
Noel Coward trying to capture the camaraderie of common British soldiers feels about as awkward and stilted as you’d expect, but then again he really was a Black Book target and there’s an agreeable nonchalance to the political righteousness of this propaganda piece about a warship attacked during the 1941 Battle of Crete. There’s believable material about the war at home and at sea, delivered mostly through flashbacks; the cast is good, with Celia Johnson just as striking here as she is in Brief Encounter.

Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley) [hr]
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, of all people, this is a disarmingly sweet, touching dramedy in which Irish homebody Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), feeling malaise with her job and life, finds acceptance and love during a working holiday as a boarder in NYC in the early 1950s. Apart from its slightly probing exploration of what it means to form your own life away from family, this is light as a feather and might be totally innocuous if not for the sustained brilliance of Ronan’s performance, which is magnetic and takes this from polite literary prestige into the realm of tough, moving human reality.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [hr]
The tense, lovingly shot, sometimes morbid but strangely symmetrical tale of a murder investigation in which the prime suspects are a singer, her jealous husband and a Midge-like compassionate onlooker, this resembles Hollywood noir more than the rest of Clouzot’s classic thrillers. The script, cowritten with Jean Ferry, is notable less for its adaptation of an overly neat story than for its impressively taut, evocative dialogue, a lot of it delivered by their splendidly cranky investigator Antoine (Louis Jouvet), who cries out for a franchise revival.


[Additional Letterboxd writeups: Foreign Correspondent / Le Corbeau]

Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)


[Note: The following was originally posted at my old blog in 2008 as a review of the Criterion Collection’s now long-deleted DVD of this film. Customarily I would not use a DVD review, or such a casual writeup, for this venue; however, I liked this material so much and found that it articulated so much that my latest revisit to this wonderful film evoked (especially my discovery of it through a French teacher who proved extremely influential over my movie tastes) that I decided to revive the piece here, with just a few additions and the removal of two closing paragraphs about the supplements and price point. Please do keep its original context faintly in mind as you peruse it.]


I heard Criterion’s disc of Le Corbeau was going out of print so I made a point to grab one as soon as I possibly could. I don’t know why I hadn’t already bought it; when it came out I was really excited, because the announcement solved a long-running mystery for me. In high school, my French teacher used to show us a lot of movies toward the end of the semester, and although I wasn’t the best student and didn’t have an especially great relationship with her because I was a surly teenager, I quickly realized she had excellent taste. Through her I was introduced to Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, and the chief thrill of that was not even that I now understood the Simpsons episode that parodied them. She showed us Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with its gloriously undiluted romantic imagery, my freshman year. She showed us the TV miniseries of Les Miserables with Cyril Cusack and Anthony Perkins, which hypnotized me from beginning to end and caused me to pick the book up and actually start reading it. (I’ve since seen a few other versions across various mediums and that one is still the very best.)

Then there was Le Corbeau. It is the story of creepy anonymous “poison pen” letters (never having heard the term before, I was disheartened at the time that they weren’t literally notes written with poisonous ink) sent out into a French village that torment and agonize the occupants to the point of insanity, self-destruction, and death. It is suffocatingly atmospheric, amping up the paranoia and dread of Rod Serling’s (much later) “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” until it’s nearly intolerable. It contains one of the most hauntingly photographed sequences I can ever remember seeing, when prime suspect Rolande runs away from the mob that is accusing her of slander during a funeral procession; and later, the haunting images of a letter falling from the upper galleries of a church onto the congregation below, and of a killer slipping away mysteriously into unforgiving daylight. The ending lurched forward at a breakneck pace, as did the whole film (91 minutes; take that, rambling Hollywood assholes!), but what stayed with me was the oppressive world in which the film took place, the feeling of constant threat and fear, the inability to be at peace, which spoke very loudly to me at the time. Today I’m still enchanted by how it feels like some beach-read turned on its head, with its many characters made distinctive despite their limited impact, our suspicions of each of them ebbing and flowing throughout the narrative, and its extended dialogue sequences made gripping and breathless at times by nothing more than a device like a light bulb swinging to and fro. It would be some years before I would learn the extent of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s mastery, but this was enough to convince me of his importance.

My teacher’s copy was on a shoddy old VHS and the transfer looked distant, damaged, ancient, which made it all the more terrifying. After I learned that it was made during the Occupation my fascination increased and I was absorbed in the story like never before. Later, the whole film felt like a dream, so much so that — unsurprisingly, with my age at the time — I forgot all about it for months and even years, until some time later I found myself looking everywhere to try and determine what this masterfully scary movie about poison pen letters tearing people apart had been, and it proved impossible simply because I could not locate the title of the film in any of my notes from school. I don’t know if this story is interesting to anyone but me at all, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to find a film when you know so little about it — even your description of a specific scene might not match the exact nature of what was happening, at least if you’re me and your memory about specific incidents and characters in movies is quite bad. I knew it was black & white, French, subtitled, and made during the war. That was all I had, and somehow or another I must have passed over Le Corbeau, literally “The Raven,” in numerous lists assuming it had something to do with Poe.

Then, in 2003, Criterion announced a release of the DVD. I check their announcements every month, both because they often release films I love or have long wanted to see, and because their schedule and website frequently introduce me to something I’m not familiar with that I want to learn more about. (If they had not released Ace in the Hole this summer I still would not have seen it, and that would suck.) I was immediately attracted to the beautiful cover, which subverts the Criterion design at the time with sloppy and sinister but elegant pen lines. And when I read the summary, it jumped out at me: this is something I had long forgotten, long wondered about, and here it was. It was a moment similar to when I heard “Mr. Spaceman” by the Byrds for the first time in over a decade; I had forgotten it existed and yet I still knew every word and could not contain my excitement.

Even though I did not know its title, Le Corbeau was a very special film for me, one of the first French films I ever saw. I eventually did find my notes and discovered we were shown the film just before Thanksgiving break in 1999 — the same month as The 400 Blows, quite an introduction to world cinema; I remembered the Truffaut film more clearly down through the years, and it undoubtedly meant a greater amount to me then and continues to do so. Nevertheless, Le Corbeau too seemed to awaken something, I think more in terms of the period of its production than its country of origin, a kind of preoccupation with its time. I felt this again on rediscovering The 39 Steps — something about the films of the ’30s and ’40s, especially but not merely in Europe, is infinitely evocative to me, and the more steeped they are in that time, the better.

Because while Clouzot’s film has its universal elements, specifically the familiar human-nature-at-its-worst parable, it is very distinctly awash in the paranoid setting into which it was born. As Bertrand Tavernier says in an interview included with the DVD, the fear and dread of the French village in the midst of German occupation is constantly palpable; you can taste it. It’s one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and while the story is gripping, that I believe is why the film stayed in my mind all these years, with a constant air of mystery about it. The feeling is of being unforgivingly thrust into a cold and inhumane world, something that Clouzot would become ever more adept at in Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, but in this case there is an obvious purpose — the communication of the horror of being so isolated as the town clearly is. Clouzot took heat for working with the German propaganda machine to continue making films during the war (although the Nazis weren’t any happier with Le Corbeau than the Resistance press was), but I feel you learn far more about France during WWII from this film than you could from any book or even eyewitness account. You can feel the heaviness of the air, the bleak ambivalence everywhere. It’s a memorably sensory but deadening experience. (You never feel all that great after a Clouzot film, except about movies.)

Of course, the storytelling is also just about perfect, mostly due to Clouzot’s visual sense, which is impeccable even this early in his career. Every sequence is evocatively lit and photographed; it’s really quite a work of art, and it’s no mystery why the Nouvelle Vague took up Clouzot as a cause some years later. However, of all his films I’ve seen, this is the one that least resembles the work of the man to whom H.G. is most often compared, Alfred Hitchcock — although the movie is extremely suspenseful, it is a whodunit, it is driven by plot twists, it is only psychological in the broadest sense (it’s more of a parable and/or a “think piece” than any Hitchcock film, save perhaps The Birds, which relies equally on isolation), and it is permeated with an ominous feeling of futility throughout. Although Diabolique and Wages both end with a crushing sense of maddening misanthropy, they had a sense of cackling absurdity. Le Corbeau does not; it may end with the promise of new life, but it also ends with a couple destroyed by one another and by obsession, and totally failing to find revenge in a world swirling around them that immediately and necessarily enacts its revenge. As vivid as the characterization is — and it’s brilliant — there is no escape from the darkness to be found. The sense that everyone is guilty is probably what made both Germans and French so upset, leading Clouzot after the war to be (briefly) banned for life from directing. But this lack of hopefulness makes the film that much more fascinating, and allows one to look upon it as entirely unique: the saddest whodunit ever filmed. And the creepiest. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that as presented by Criterion, the movie no longer looks ancient or faded, as it did when I first saw it, but to its credit, it’s still just as unnerving.

January 2018 movie capsules

19 movies seen in January. Counts:
– 14 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,284.
– 5 revisits, including one (Rebecca, highly appropriate since we saw Phantom Thread later in the month) already reviewed here, plus another (L’Atalante) upgraded from a capsule to a full essay. The others were ether newly capsuled (To Have and Have Not and The Magnificent Ambersons) or given a full review (The Red Shoes).
– 2 new full reviews, for a couple of magic titles: L’Atalante and The Red Shoes.
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post.
– Didn’t finish everything I wanted to, but still, a great month of cinema.
– Oscar season is upon us but I won’t be adding the nominees to the page for the current project just yet, though I do intend to see a few more before the awards are handed out. Speaking of the projects page, I forgot to add the 1940s canon a couple of weeks ago; it should be up by the time you read this.


Project breakdowns:
Sight & Sound Top Tens: 5 films (4 new). All done; you can read about it here. Finished up with both parts of Ivan the Terrible, La Terra Trema, Pather Panchali (all of the aforementioned via Filmstruck) and a long-needed revisit to The Magnificent Ambersons, which — as expected — I badly underrated back in 2005.
1940s canon: 5 films (3 new). Got a late start unfortunately. We begin this project with 58 films to watch, 42 of them new to the database, Already tearing through the Filmstruck offerings for this one. Came back to To Have and Have Not and found that I felt almost exactly the same way about it as I did originally, which is a nice change. Showed The Red Shoes to Amber, tried and failed to capture its magic and flaws in a revision of my original review, but I don’t think I’m even capable. Got a few classics from world auteurs under the belt: Day of Wrath, The Southerner and Late Spring, all nuanced and surprising. Remaining: 53 films (39 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Finally back to work, and cheating already. The Magnificent Ambersons overlaps with both Sight & Sound and the 1940s list (though not included in the initial count for the latter), while The Red Shoes is an overlap with the latter. But aside from that: caught up with some ’30s stragglers — The Front Page, A Farewell to Arms, Lady for a Day, all interesting and in the last case, very good. Remaining: 156 films (126 new).
2010s catchup: Bolted out to see Phantom Thread, my current favorite film of 2017 (I haven’t seen many); Paul Thomas Anderson is now one of my favorite directors of all time, which is hilarious given how much I hated him through most of my young adulthood. Netflix sent me Neighboring Sounds, a big disappointment. And a streaming expiration forced me to endure We Need to Talk About Kevin, an experience I did not enjoy, but I have to admit I ended up admiring the film. (This is unusual for me; I tend to correlate enjoyment almost directly with admiration. Even with something like The Pianist, “enjoy” may not be the word, but I’m fully swept in and appreciative of its narrative, and I would watch it most anytime. I constantly wanted Kevin to end.)
New movies: Just Phantom Thread. Of the Best Picture nominees, I’ve already seen that, Get Out and Lady Bird (all exquisite!) and plan on attending an actual movie theater to actually watch Call Me by Your Name and The Post (old habits die hard, and knowing me I’ll eat it up). Dunkirk is sitting waiting for me to watch. The others I’m not in any rush to see, though the nominees project will dictate that I do so before too long, just not theatrically. (And if, heaven forbid, one of them wins Best Picture, I will almost definitely go, so don’t worry.)
Other: Of the extras in the Monterey Pop boxed set (see last month’s capsules), one counts as an actual feature: Jimi Plays Monterey. Reviewing that is an awkward line to toe for me; I am blown away by Hendrix’s talent but have never cared much for his music, at least that which he recorded in the studio. Shake! Otis at Monterey is more my speed but, alas, doesn’t count for this blog.

Here be capsules.


Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) [r]
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [hr]
The bombast and nationalistic glory of Eisenstein’s silent films are fused here with some covert rebelliousness and a bit of dry humor, with the director rapidly running through the Tsar’s coronation, marriage, illness, resurrection, abdication and popular triumph in the first half, then into decadence, scandal, camp and live-action Bosch paintings in the second. Almost every shot is inherently exciting; few black & white films capture actors’ eyes with such perverse intensity. Nikolay Cherkasov gives essentially the same performance as in Alexander Nevsky, but that’s not really a criticism since it’s clearly what both roles require.

La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Two and a half hours of unaugmented, nearly artless despair, revolving around poor fishermen in Sicily and what happens when one man tries to buck the capitalist system oppressing him and his family. Respect for the non-professional actors, solidarity with the plight of the working people, but there’s something patronizing, even exploitative, in how maudlin and one-dimensional this is, like a sincere version of Buñuel’s Land Without Bread. Aldo Graziati’s cinematography is a miracle; all of the gravity and sense of life here comes from his camera, and it’s incredible to imagine what a shock to the senses this must have been at the time.

Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [hr]
Like the Italian neorealists and some of the more humane Hollywood directors (Wyler, Borzage, Capra), Ray takes the everyday lives of people seriously, and treats them as inherently dramatic and interesting, in this genuinely beautiful, sensitive, poetic story of a poor Indian family not getting by, the young son Apu (Subir Banerjee) quietly bearing witness to tragedy and poetry, which is everywhere, but with no sense of beautification of poverty. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn; Apu is less an Antoine Doinel than an audience vessel through which the curiosities, sadnesses, fears, weird unexpected miracles of life come careening toward us.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Despite the inevitable handicaps — that this is only two thirds of what Welles filmed, and that it cannot shoulder the burden of being the follow-up to Citizen Kane — this is almost unique among Hollywood studio pictures, its bizarre union of three-dimensional believability and cartoonish unreality well matched by the clash of romantic nostalgia and extremely subtle Gothic terror recast as social comment in Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. The sprawling and sordid narrative essentially tries to form the bitter, love-starved yearning of the childhood memories in Kane into an entire feature. It nearly succeeds.

Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Lively, character-filled drama about how the occupants of a neighborhood of condominiums in Brazil react when a security team is hired for their street. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t justify its own attention to detail and constant straying and meandering; there’s simply no excuse for a film with its ultimately simple structure to be as long as it is. It’s caught halfway between having a plot and ignoring the idea of having one, so all roads lead to nowhere — it’s like an Antonioni film, only ugly.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) [r]
Jimi Hendrix is limited to one song in Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, but the rest of his performance at the festival could easily have squeezed into that feature and would likely have enhanced it. It was finally edited together and released as its own film nineteen years after the legendary weekend itself. The set includes songs from the Experience’s first album but is dominated by covers, most movingly of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Pennebaker and Hegedus bring us fuller picture here of Hendrix as a musician and human: relaxed but committed, feeding off the audience and their energy.

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
A 16th century study of the eggshells-walking that endures when living under oppression, or a subtle horror scenario about witchcraft — Dreyer gives us just enough of a compelling, haunting narrative here that it can become either story, each with the same strange sense of dread, erotic charge and often terrifying extremity. It is so gripping that you have to remind yourself to take a breath; the prologue about the execution of a “witch” portrayed by Anna Svierkier is the stuff of harrowing nightmares, yet you can also comprehend an interpretation in which this is among the most romantic films of all. It’s the cinema of empathy, of incompatible empathies.

Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson) [hr]
A chamber piece about the House of Woodcock, where a dress designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) maintains a carefully cultivated, oppressive kind of order over the two women (a sister and a lover) living there with him. Like the Hitchcock films it looks upon as inspiration, this is more complex than a morally righteous Gaslight; it’s about a duel of control between an impassioned artist with troubled-genius syndrome and a woman whose potential power over him is greater, and more enticing, than he could ever have imagined. The film looks and sounds beautifully, sumptuously old and “classic”… but it’s also kinky pornography and uproarious comedy.

The Front Page (1931, Lewis Milestone) [r]
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s wildly fast-paced newspaper comedy-drama about the 24 hours straddling an expected execution served as the source material for His Girl Friday, but first it was this unusual hybrid of proto-screwball and display of gritty pre-Code machismo. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the character relationships seem less believable than those in the larger-than-life Hawks variation, the script more tied to its time with talk about red-baiting and “the colored vote.” The most fascinating thing here is Milestone’s direction, which repeatedly employs an agility in the camera that feels like a vestige from the silent years.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay) [r]
This decades-late Problem Child sequel is almost oppressively uncomfortable and tense, following Tilda Swinton as the beleaguered mother of a boy (Ezra Miller, a terrifying blank slate) who seems to be a psychopath. It’s a miserable thing to watch, with few redemptive moments even implied — Swinton’s Eva is absolutely and fully alone, with her husband (John C. Reilly) somehow oblivious to their son’s alarming behavior — but it’s a far more persuasive portrait of violent adolescence than Gus van Sant’s Elephant.

To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Not exactly the poor man’s Casablanca — too well-written, and with an even better director — but a conscious variant on the formula whose atmosphere could sustain you for days if the hackneyed story didn’t have to take over.. Humphrey Bogart is even more apathetic here, driven by often obscure personal motives, and his relationship with Lauren Bacall is much more blatantly sexual and hedonistic. Their chemistry is astounding, as you’d expect, and completely overtakes the film, and Bacall provides most of the moments that ignite, especially her saunter toward the camera and the smile that follows in the final moments.

A Farewell to Arms (1932, Frank Borzage) [r]
Robbed of Hemingway’s mulling of the nature of war, this is purely a tearjerker about a military couple (Gary Cooper, never better, and Helen Hayes) separated determinedly by malicious outsiders then by illness during WWI; but if you’re making that movie and you want people to genuinely believe in it, the person you bring onboard is Borzage. There are some serious lapses in emotional credibility here, but when Borzage turns his camera on what he perceives as the behavior of couples, magic happens. Most literary adaptations are creaky and dull; in this one, the cracks that form and widen are where all the intriguing stuff hides.

The Southerner (1945, Jean Renoir) [r]
Renoir’s third American film is a much more successful variant on Louisiana Story, boasting that film’s undiluted glimpses of beauty and humanity with none of its aggressive corporate lobbying. It focuses on an impoverished family attempting to get a foothold in farming on an aged-out piece of property in Texas. Renoir and the cast resist melodrama, crafting a story in which small changes accumulate and attain emotional heft; the film’s realistic portrait of family life calls ahead to The River; yet the chief attraction here is Lucien Androit’s photography, helping Renoir capture this expansive world irresistibly.

Lady for a Day (1933, Frank Capra) [hr]
Capra’s at his most enchanting as he guides us through Robert Riskin’s script about an elderly apple vendor’s act of compassionate deception, keeping up a charade that she’s well-off for her daughter’s sake, with the help of some gangsters from NYC’s seamy underbelly. Despite several moving scenes, this is a robust comedy that defies the logic that everyone in a story like this must come clean, fall in love, learn a lesson. Instead it’s just a beautiful moment with constant amusing convolutions, lovingly shot by Joseph Walker. The only drawback is that the splendidly unorthodox star May Robson as Apple Annie has less screen time in the second half.

Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Ozu tells stories about small gestures that represent huge emotions; what actually happens in Late Spring could be laid out in a short sentence, but the depth and detail and complexity in every character, every scene, continue unraveling through the time between viewings. Cultural distance from the father and daughter (Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara) in postwar Japan attempting to negotiate an overdue separation neither of them truly wants is irrelevant when confronted with the nuanced realities of inner lives and familial and platonic relationships explored and felt out here. Let it take you away and let its unforced feelings chase your own.


[Additional Letterboxd notes on: L’Atalante / Rebecca / The Red Shoes]

The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, made just a year after their elegant and impeccable masterpiece Black Narcissus, reaches heights that are untouched elsewhere in cinema; as a film about art and artists, it fully justifies itself as a paean to the pure commitment and passion of artists themselves, the rest of the world be damned. Its air of the fantastic, the identification it all but forces with a well-crafted character, and the sensation we get that it’s a bodily experience of movement place us, indeed, into the shoes that send us dancing off into the unknown. In summary, it is explosive, sumptuous, magnificently absorbing entertainment. As in their other Technicolor classics, Powell & Pressburger fire passionately into their story with incredible precision, utilizing every tool at their disposal, infusing their work with an obviously virtuosic command of the form. With its intimate sets that feel somehow enormous and the eye-gouging lights and colors of Jack Cardiff’s camera, the whole production — in any context — has an identical effect to what it’s ostensibly supposed to feel like to see a movie in IMAX, except The Red Shoes needs no technical boost to achieve this. Whatever the negative aspects of their productions are, Powell & Pressburger’s greatest works are unmistakably complete and vast nights out at the movies, and nothing can be faulted about the directorial and visual choices made here.

Having said that, it should be mentioned — particularly in light of the relative seamlessness of Black Narcissus — that The Red Shoes is essentially three movies stacked together, two long character-driven sequences bisected by a stunning interlude. In the first third of the film, the elegance of a politely restrained but increasingly volatile three-way relationship between composer (Marius Goring), dancer (Moira Shearer) and impresario (Anton Walbrook) is explored with implicit tension, emphasizing how their craft and professionalism erodes (or enhances?) their individual identities. The ballet we see in progress is deceptively staged as if spontaneous or without design, and always with a sense of the camaraderie inherent to performing in a group. Early scenes gracefully provide each character’s differing interpretation of a single moment, but without any overbearing tricks of cutting or camera movement. The trickery in these early, human moments all comes from the human bodies inhabiting the film, the way everything falls together into its casual beauty, the camerawork merely contributing its small (but impressive) share to the rhythm. Certainly there is visual glory to nearly every shot, but it’s restrained and perfect, much like the characters, three disparate people brought together in the mission of bringing a ballet to fruition. The beauty of the music, the power of the dancing, all tantalizingly massive, but everything tangible and striking a balance that shuts out all layers of obvious fantasy.

And then comes the ballet sequence.

A few years later, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen interrupted the story of Singin’ in the Rain to delve into an introspective character portrait created through dance, abstractly presented, the illusion of a dream. For the duration of the scene, the directors removed all cinematic barriers between the audience and a kind of surreal but unbridled erotic joy. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger do something similar in execution to that stunning feat but actually rather closer to the powerful transportation Walt Disney was driving at in Fantasia. For twenty minutes, The Red Shoes is so cinematic that it essentially ceases to be cinema. Prior to this screen-tearing, absolutely jaw-dropping sequence, The Red Shoes instills in its audience a respect for dance and for its characters that aids immensely in selling the artful but perfectly rational (in a storytelling fashion) ballet as both a performance and as a fiery, gut-splitting examination of the mind of the central performer, played brilliantly by Shearer.

It’s ironic in a way how much the directors are able to wow the crowd with dancing in the first half, because dancing is nearly beside the point in this midsection. The triumph this time is the way the audience and the film dance along with the character into something altogether more startling than a simple exotic ballet sequence. The scene is set apart from most of its ilk easily not just because of its dreamlike seduction but because it is so subjective. The ballet as imagined here is an elucidation of what’s in the head of the character of Victoria Page, her sense of life, her dreams and perceptions of motion all coalescing magnificently; she’s told that the music is the only thing that matters, and the envisioning of her head as she delivers a star-making performance somehow approximates the abstract experiences and associations of anyone’s relationship to music. There is also, of course, concrete expression of the subtle paranoia that lingers from Vicky’s integration into the company: the puppeteering of her by two men of dueling natures; yet simultaneously, the entire sequence — in its indescribable parade of indelible images — marks the rare instance of a movie briefly touching a sensation of pure freedom. It doesn’t linger or cut to impress, it cuts specifically, to every tiny detail, to the emotion of Shearer’s character. It is that character. The effect is astounding. No matter how many times one may see it, one remains transported and awed by it; no musical or dance sequence I have ever seen has been so visceral and so awash in storytelling as served by the performers rather than a detour simply to present their virtuosity, like an extended guitar solo. Hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s difficult not to classify it as one of the most brilliant and fully realized moments of any feature film.

That’s what makes it so crushing that the movie collapses on itself — with disheartening speed — in the second half. The Red Shoes unfortunately is fatally overlong; the ballet should be something like the climax of the film, not the wedge that divides it into two distinct parts, one of them great thanks to its exciting buildup to a sublime cinematic moment, the other an incredibly harsh comedown from the prior scene. The dance scene slid in and out of fantasy, forcing the viewer to participate in a dream that blurred reality; it was dangerous, rocky, ragged, impassioned. Perversely, the character-driven heartache of the film’s last half feels hollow and fake compared to the raw emotion of that fantasy full of trickery (with almost painfully overwhelming set design and effects work). This is at least partially because the first act of The Red Shoes is so emphatically about lives driven completely by art, times three, so that when we’re expected to believe that a cordial, professional relationship between Shearer’s Vicky and Goring’s Julian has blossomed into romance offscreen, it seems at best like forced parable and at worst like lazy dramatics. (The heartbreak Anton Walbrook displays at “losing” Vicky is no less incongruous to the character we’ve come to know up to this point.) The narrative purpose in forcing Vicky to choose between her love and her inner life has obvious merit, but it doesn’t grow naturally from the prior body of the work.

After this fatal error, not only does the movie spend too much time wandering down uninteresting detours, seemingly lingering and never giving much reason for its extrapolations, it fails to effectively reestablish the characters after their abstract presentation in the ballet. The ending is swell, revealing that the movie that pretended to be about people making an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story is actually itself an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story, but getting to it is too much of a sacrifice, the story having laboriously deconstructed in a surprisingly boring and uncinematic fashion without telling us much of anything that the ballet already hadn’t: about commitment to artistry, about the manipulation of a woman by two men, about the whiff of unreality that comes from fully losing oneself in creative work. Moreover, the first act is admirable in its shunning of any shoehorning of romance between the characters; it’s as though Powell and Pressburger are so embarrassed by (what they perceive as) the narrative or commercial necessity of doing this with the people they’ve invented that they minimize the onscreen manifestations of it until the very fact of it lacks any sort of credibility to us. The marriage of Vicky and Julian feels fictitious — maybe because their biggest love scene together takes place inside the impresario Lermontov’s head, twin beds and late-night composing. everything.

The flaws in The Red Shoes — which is still an overwhelming, haunting experience — can be pinned down to the very scene that makes the movie so memorable. The reason the second half is so difficult to get through is that its slowed-down, low-key characterization is such a harsh contrast with the delirious pacing and articulate passion of the dance. After you’ve witnessed something like that, something that makes Tales of Hoffmann look like From Justin to Kelly, how can you learn to care about a conventional telling of the story of these lives, after seeing how powerful another angle could be? Powell and Pressburger had to choose between telling a story and creating one of the best scenes in film history. For the movie’s sake, they made the wrong decision; for ours, except for the discomfort in that last hour, which is merely a minor inconvenience, thank heavens for this mistake.


[Expanded and altered version of a review first posted in 2007.]

Project: Sight & Sound top ten poll

1. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
2. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
2. The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
4. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
5. Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)
5. Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
7. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
7. Le Jour se Leve (1939, Marcel Carné) [cap]
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
10. Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [cap]
10. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
10. Le Million (1931, René Clair) [cap]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
3. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
4. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
4. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
7. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1945, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
10. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [cap]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
4. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
5. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
5. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
8. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
8. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)
10. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
10. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
5. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
7. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
7. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
10. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
10. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
4. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
5. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
6. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [cap]
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
6. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
3. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
4. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
4. The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
5. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
7. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
4. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
5. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [cap]
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
10. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]

This was the first “mini-project” at Slices of Cake, a short interlude intended only to fill in a couple of blanks and to last just a few weeks. The idea was quickly to make sure we had reviews on file of all of the movies that had appeared on that most prestigious of critics’ polls, the once-per-decade Sight & Sound top ten. Sight & Sound is the regular print publication of the British Film Institute and has been published regularly since the early 1930s. The first instance, in 1952, was one of the first broad attempts to compress the entire history of cinema into such a list; it’s become an ever-growing tradition — with 846 critics participating in 2012, compared to 63 in 1952 — that has now lasted long enough that the latest iteration was announced in a series of tweets (with very silly people, myself included, waiting in suspense).

You’re under no obligation to share the taste of those polled by the BFI, a point they sort of make themselves by also collecting a directors’ poll which generally ends up with slightly more populist results. The films lean heavily European, especially on the earlier lists. It should be noted that in the 2012 list, every film that made the Top Ten is either good or great, and several of them probably are among the ten greatest films ever made. In other words, I suppose I take the list seriously because the taste exhibited on it in what constitutes the greatest, most vital works of film history does align somewhat closely with my own. The lists evolve through the years but many things stay consistent; Citizen Kane had a lock on the top space until being dramatically toppled by Vertigo on the most recent list, a development I both welcomed (because Vertigo is close to being my favorite film of all time and I champion it wholeheartedly) and lamented (because the Kane-is-overrated army is full of shit, and I don’t like them getting further ammunition).

Because of the number of repetitions on the list as I’ve formatted it above, I’ll offer a more simplified alphabetical version that shows every film that’s made the Top Ten, also identifying the years in which each of them placed.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [1952/1962/1972/1982/1992/2002]
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) [1952/1962]
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [1952]
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) [1962/1972/1982/1992/2002/2012]
City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin) [1952]
(1963, Federico Fellini) [1972/1982/2002/2012]
The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman) [1972/1982]
The Godfather [I & II] (1972/1974, Francis Ford Coppola) [2002]
The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin) [1952]
Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [1952/1962]
Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith) [1952]
Ivan the Terrible (1945/1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [1962]
L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [1962/1992]
La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [1962]
L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [1962/1972/1982]
Le Jour se Leve (1939, Marcel Carné) [1952]
Le Million (1931, René Clair) [1952]
Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [1952]
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [1972/1982]
Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [2012]
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [1952/1972/1992/2012]
Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [1992]
Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [1972]
The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir) [1952/1962/1972/1982/1992/2002/2012]
The Searchers (1956, John Ford) [1982/1992/2012]
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) [1982]
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) [1982/2002]
Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau) [2002/2012]
Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [1992/2002/2012]
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) [1992/2002/2012]
Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [1962/1972]
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) [1982/1992/2002/2012]
Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman) [1972]

A solid list of 35 movies, most of them quite beautiful; I’m no great fan of a few of them (especially Intolerance, blecch) but still understand their inclusion, especially taking into account how disproportionately available and well-studied certain national cinemas (particularly Italy and America) were during some of the polling years. There are only two complete head-scratchers for me. One is Louisiana Story; I have a hard time believing any viewer could see it and come away thinking of it as one of the ten greatest films ever made. The other I’d rather not identify, but in that case it’s me scratching my head at the whole world, not just the Sight & Sound voters.

At the start of this project, there were seven films that had made the list at some point that I’d never seen. They were the two parts of Ivan the Terrible, La Terra Trema, L’avventura, Louisiana Story, Pather Panchali and Ugetsu. In addition, two films I’d seen long ago (Brief Encounter and The Magnificent Ambersons) needed to be capsuled and reviewed here. All other films listed had been covered here at some point. So this quick runthrough opened with a revisit of Brief Encounter on December 22 and wrapped up January 12 with The Magnificent Ambersons.


Should you want to duplicate this process, a Filmstruck subscription is a godsend; nearly all of the films that have at some point made their way to the Sight & Sound list are streaming there as of this writing, and those that aren’t are generally the bigger Hollywood titles that are easy to grab elsewhere. That said, all of the films can be rented at any of the usual places (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, etc.) except the following, none of which are difficult to locate:

The General, which you shouldn’t have trouble finding on disc from your library or at Amazon; Kino’s various editions are recommended.
The Gold Rush, in print on disc from Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.
Intolerance, in print on disc from Kino and streaming at Amazon Prime.
Ivan the Terrible, parts one and two, both stream at Filmstruck and are in print as part of a Criterion boxed set with Alexander Nevsky called Eisenstein: The Sound Years. This has been out for ages and will probably be upgraded to Bluray at some point.
Le Million, in print on disc from Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.
Louisiana Story streams in abysmal quality via Amazon Prime. The Alpha Video DVD is most likely in about the same condition. It appears to be in the public domain; inevitably,’s copy looks no better.
The Passion of Joan of Arc, recently re-pressed by Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.


This post will be updated, assuming we’re all still alive, in 2022; I intend to keep up with the lists as they continue and I suspect it will be one of the easier promises I’ve made. In 2002 and 2012 Sight & Sound published longer versions of the lists, and I will investigate those eventually, and perhaps also the director polls. For now, back in 2018, I’m off to embark on the 1940s canon.

L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

In all its strangeness and irrationality, L’Atalante is one of the best movies about romantic love ever made, and one of the best examples in cinema of numerous unresolved contradictions refined into inexplicable perfection: it’s a surrealist piece that never breaks from settings and people that are basically ordinary, a drama that places deep, conflicted human emotions on their deserved pedestal that’s nonetheless funnier and more spontaneous than many comedies, and it’s unmistakably a product of youth and of another time that’s nevertheless startling in its wisdom and prescience.

By default, it seems inefficient to try to place one’s response to this film verbally, and it’s best to initially experience it without those chains attached. But in essence, it’s a lyrical romance set aboard a dodgy shipping vessel about the strikes made by circumstance, jealousy and lust against a new marriage — and love is illustrated in the language of nearly uncontrollable physical need (as opposed to the practicality, irrationality and forgiveness of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise or the verbal sparring of so many Hollywood pictures). It is pure, drunken cinema, with more stunningly beautiful shots and eerily believable moments of undiluted life than can be reasonably counted out — the death of 29 year-old director Jean Vigo prior to its completion, his permanent unawareness of the entire language that would eventually appear in the wake of this film’s rediscovery, only underlines its mysterious, inscrutable sensuality, because it’s a final statement never to be elucidated, almost a missive from the dead. The final cut was not his and the film as it exists is clearly incomplete, full of jump cuts and strange edits and continuity gaffes; but the scrappy context only makes its consistently beguiling nature and frequently jaw-dropping majesty that much more striking, as though it comes about this beauty almost incidentally.

The clearest comparison in terms of the film’s effect on the viewer is Sunrise, another film that defies verbal explanation, another fable about the staggering power of even a conflicted, troubled marriage when feelings bubble to the surface. Whereas Sunrise was a mature work about an experienced couple coping with immature actions, L’Atalante makes no apology for its naivete; its conscience, in the form of a ragged, macho but sexually ambiguous first mate called Père Jules (the dependably versatile Michel Simon, so different here than in La Chienne or Boudu Saved from Drowning), is a man who’s lived a hundred lives in one and has never surrendered to the demoralizing ravages of age, whereas the groom and captain portrayed by Jean Dasté already seems half-dead. Vigo, who didn’t even originate the film’s story (it was foisted upon him after his only other feature, Zéro de conduite, generated controversy), seems to want us to view in Jules what Murnau probably wanted us to view in the mere act, far more slickly depicted, of going into the city and having fun: the radicalism of opening one’s heart to the vastness of the world.

The “story,” such as it is, mostly whisks us through the uncomfortable adjustment of Dita Parlo’s Juliette to the less-than-ideal conditions of married life aboard the barge upon which her husband Jean serves as skipper. Jean is a stodgy bore who barely lives outside of his dull work routine and seems to expect the same of his wife, and flies into a jealous rage when she makes gestures toward living a life of their own; all their relationship really boasts is an obviously mutual level of physical need, manifested beautifully by Vigo in a gorgeous non-sex scene that has them yearning for one another while apart. It’s two people who are too young playing at the lives of the settled, while Jules dramatizes the power in a resistance to settling at all. There’s little reason to expect that the abrupt finale is the prelude to anything but further nastiness and probably an annulment, but that doesn’t make the couple’s closed-off world any less enrapturing; even the moments of disconnection and disappointment, like Juliette’s late nights wishing to be literally anywhere else, have a feeling of importance and ethereal power to them, a “you will remember this” sensation that suggests youth itself. The film senses, even if Juliette doesn’t, how much these growing pains will live strongly and palpably in her dreams and memories. My impulse is to wish that she ran off with the sprightly goofball on the bike we see peddling his wares and trying to persuade her to go to Paris with him (even a fling with the rough and unpredictable but gregarious Père Jules, whose cabin of wonders could inspire affinity in anyone, is preferable to the the uptight, abusive cad Jean), but what can you say? We all know that love puts us on slowly sinking ships and that even those disasters have their moments.

Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman find indelible images everywhere, and toss and discard them unceremoniously, but they are so numerous that repeated encounters with the film are like grabbing at the air for falling meteors. The famous shots of Juliette in her gown aboard the barge at night are only the beginning; the wedding party marching down to the water quite literally so; and on a boat overrun with cats — everywhere, even in the Victrola — the grime is as intoxicating as the beauty and sex hanging over everything. A great deal of the film’s indescribable mood comes from the presence of the cat-adoring Père Jules character, doing tricks with a cigarette in his navel, wrestling with himself, boasting about his past affairs and his dead friend’s hands kept in a jar, playing the accordion and demonstrating a general eagerness and curiosity about everything that demonstrates sensitivity and empathy, for all his drunken outrageousness at times. He’s masculine without becoming toxic or exclusionary, and one of the most memorable characters in any film. The naturalism of Simon’s performance matches well with the unique eroticism of Parlo’s, her facial expressions enough to inspire a book of essays all on their own.

L’Atalante cannot be experienced fully in one viewing, because is so much like a dream and the complete appreciation of it requires a recognition of, for instance, how the curio cabinet lives on in memory after the barge itself seems to fade. You can recognize immediately the unspoken sexuality uncovering itself when Jules and Juliette visit in his cabin, but you cannot completely surrender to your trust in him and to the pure goodness of this moment until you have seen the selfless way he behaves to help the young couple in the final act, even probably (well, definitely) knowing what a mortal fuckup their union is. This dreamlike nature is wholly unforced; everything we see seems like a true event observed closely, but when we recall it later it’s all somehow unreal in a manner separate from its being part of a movie we watched. It’s the sort of film that looks very different after it ends than while it’s in progress. Like day-to-day life, it’s an accumulation of small moments, but it never feels inconsequential, especially on reflection; so much that is unnoticed initially later becomes telling, something to carry with you. It’s billed as the first true work of French poetic realism, but it doesn’t seem to truly fit with the other pictures in the movement, too much of a living work to pin down so carefully. Certainly, however, in its feeling of individualism without forced quirk, of lyricism without pretension, of magic without magic, it achieves so much that we yearn for in movies and in life, and does it deftly, inimitably.

December 2017 movie capsules

20 movies seen in December. Counts:
– 15 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,270 (count was off by one last month, no clue why).
– 5 revisits, including two (45 Years and The Lady Vanishes) already capsuled or reviewed here. 45 Years, which moved upward even more in my estimation when seen with Amber on our projector, deserves a full review but I decided to wait until next time, and I think I will be able to do a better job now that I’ve seen Weekend and once I’ve gone through the supplements on the Criterion edition of the film.
– 2 new full reviews, one I sort of planned as a nice break after the huge ’30s essay (Bugs Bunny Superstar; someday I will write a lot more about Looney Tunes, and animation in general, as it really is a thrill) and one that I didn’t plan to write at all but a friend sort of talked me into it (The Beguiled). Unusually, I have another full review finished and ready to post but since we watched the movie after midnight last night, it seems only proper to get the monthly post going first!
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post. I hoped for more but I was excited about the prospect of finishing my year-end music blog stuff on time for a change and concentrated on that for the past week.
– That knocked out my plans to have a short mini-project all finished in time for the end of the year, but that will be coming up very soon nevertheless, and I’ve already got everything prepared for the 1940s canon to begin within the next week to ten days. A quick plead with anyone reading this: if you have access to good copies of Cluny Brown (Lubitsch), Prison (Bergman), or The Reckless Moment (Ophuls), please point me in their direction, please and thank you.


Project breakdowns:
Sight & Sound Top Tens: 4 films (3 new). Holiday stuff and music blog duties kept me from wrapping this up and it’s such a relatively small undertaking that I didn’t think y’all would care. Louisiana Story and L’Avventura both had moments but didn’t quite sing out to me; Ugetsu did, though so far I prefer Mizoguchi’s earlier work. Lastly I tried Brief Encounter again and, while I’m puzzled as to how harsh my opinion was when I first saw it, it still does less for me than for seemingly almost anyone else who writes about this era of movies. Remaining: 5 films (4 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 1 film (1 new). Still on hold till January, but Stage Door was incidentally crossed off due to its placement as the last movie I watched for the ’30s project. Excited to resume this shortly, as Prime has a number of titles I’ve wanted to catch for years. Remaining: 161 films (129 new).
1930s canon: 4 films (4 new). Finished this month, as described in this post! The final stragglers, in order from best to worst, were Blonde Venus, Morocco, Stage Door and the tremendously shitty Mad Love. I also had to last-minute a couple of shorts for this, those being the classic Looney Tune Porky in Wackyland by Bob Clampett (A+ all the way) and the fascinatingly bizarre Buñuel sort-of-documentary Land Without Bread (B+), a strange mixture of tragedy and weirdly deadpan humor in the context of a Flaherty-style ethnofiction. It really should be seen at least once.
2010s catchup: Andrew Haigh’s Weekend expired from Netflix and I should have watched it years ago. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz expired from Netflix before I could catch it so I got it through their mail service and ditto. Lore just happened to show up in the mail and it is what it is.
New movies: Relented on my no-local-cinema-screenings stance born of the shitty time we had at Moonlight earlier in 2017; at Regal we saw Lady Bird but I’m not a fan of the assigned seating at all. The recliners are nice, but because they take up more space you always end up next to someone and can’t squeeze your way to somewhere else in the room like you can at a civilized theater. Our Carmike is now an AMC, where we saw Coco, oddly because they are very hands-off (they let us sit down before the previous screening was done, like an old movie house), which might have held ominous suggestions for the projection quality but in this case everything was fine.
Other: This was really a month for putting off projects and catching up on fun stuff and the many, many DVDs I still need to make time for. Finally watched Robert Wiene’s Genuine from my Caligari DVD, a nice brief foray back into silent cinema; then, at long last, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop feature (that set, by the way, is a great chance to feel really steeped in another time, which can be helpful right now to keep you functioning the rest of the time, though books are really as good or better); Bugs Bunny Superstar, a childhood favorite, is included on the enormous Looney Tunes set I got in October and I was thrilled to revisit it; and as a Christmas gift I got the big Magical Mystery Tour set, which for all the film’s problems was really a lot of fun.

On to capsules, now.

Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund) [c]
Given the pedigree — conservative MGM when Irving Thalberg was still breathing, master cinematographer and Mummy director Karl Freund behind the camera, and the inimitable Peter Lorre in his Hollywood debut — it’s startling how spectacularly dumb this film is, a frankly incoherent horror story about Lorre’s master surgeon and his sexual obsession with a stage actress, whose husband’s hands get crushed in a train accident and replaced by the hands of a murderer and knife-thrower. The script adapts and pointlessly complicates The Hands of Orlac, constantly introduces further baffling complications and never succeeds in making any sense.

Blonde Venus (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [hr]
In this festival of shadows and dread and sexual torment, Dietrich is a cabaret singer who marries and has a child with an American suitor of hers in Germany, who then falls ill, forcing her to find a way to scrounge up some extra cash. In time Dietrich and her husband (Herbert Marshall) will be at odds, with a surprisingly sympathetic politician played by Cary Grant coming between them, and that’s only the beginning; the story wanders down so many unexpected pathways you can either see it as schlocky or just unnervingly dark and realistic.

Morocco (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Sternberg’s third sound film is crucial for two moments alone: Marlene Dietrich’s astonishing androgynous cabaret sequence early on; and the chillingly gorgeous finale, a slow, masterfully shot solo trudge into the unknown. The story itself, based on a Benno Vigny novel, is hackneyed and over-familiar — love triangulations between Dietrich, a member of the French Foreign Legion played by a lazily gum-chewing Gary Cooper, and a millionaire played by Adolphe Menjou — but Sternberg knows just how to film it to make it burst with longing and off-kilter beauty.

Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig) [hr]
Writer-director Gerwig is masterful at generating empathy for a disparate array of characters in a setting that feels truly complete and lived-in, a Catholic school in Sacramento, which allows a coming-of-age tale that could seem overly familiar to become robust and moving. Her feel for the offbeat, unbalanced rhythms of reality makes her work miraculously vivid; and it’s refreshing to see a film about a family whose economic stability isn’t at all assured from one week to the next, and to illuminate some of the class envy and embarrassment that results. Saiorse Ronan is phenomenal, feeling the title character inside out and enhancing it perfectly.

Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava) [r]
Despite layers and layers of verbal barbs, this is a believable and insightful slice-of-life about a group of actresses in a boarding house — neither comedy nor drama, just funny and straightforward — lit up by a refreshing number of realistic interactions between women who are treated as fully realized people. The only disruption comes from an interjection of plot, about a disputed role and a depressed actress who’s desperate for it. Despite some barriers of attitude and convention, the same film could essentially be made now, only presumably without the likes of Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Constance Collier.

Genuine (1920, Robert Wiene) [hr]
The copy in circulation is incomplete, but this excursion into a Wiene expressionist dream world is just as breathtaking as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and with a better, more clever framing device and the clear influence of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires to boot. It spins a bizarre tale of a temptress sold to an eccentric doctor as a slave, who then incites murder and mayhem. Bears down on the inexplicable with impressive force; the sets and costumes are among the most eye-popping of the Ufa period, which is saying a lot.

Lore (2012, Cate Shortland)
A journey across the tatters of Germany during the dying throes of World War II with a similar structure to films like Come and See and Grave of the Fireflies, only these wanderers are the children of a Nazi officer, eventually joined by an erstwhile Jewish kid who starts a strangely paternal but also volatile relationship with them. A short film full of so much dread and horror that it seems to stretch out into infinity, with the unpredictable rhythms and expanses of real life; it’s a difficult watch, and it will be tough for some audiences to see past the expectation that we empathize at least partially with these specific characters.

Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
Despite lyrical shots of the bayous in southern Louisiana, this (like all of Flaherty’s docufictions) can’t live up to its visuals or the real places and lives it tries to capture; its story is truly ludicrous, about a Cajun boy’s love affair with the Standard Oil Company, who are seeking black gold on his family’s property and are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful corporation they’ve ever met in their entire lives. It’s a Centron industrial film with accidental artistry injected; as narrative it feels both goofy and — in its drab implications about the future of both the environment and American arts and entertainment — deeply ominous.

Monterey Pop (1968, D.A. Pennebaker) [r]
Pennebaker’s gang of cameras capture the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the key moments of the Summer of Love, in the process documenting an entire culture, and some of the most astounding performance footage of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and particularly Otis Redding in existence; the other performers (the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon, the Who and Hugh Maskela) vary wildly from sublime to despicable, but the film is a vital, indispensable piece of rock & roll history regardless, especially when joined by the outtakes and supplements on Criterion’s DVD set.

Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh) [hr]
A whirlwind fling between two complex people, nothing more or less, with much that is almost imperceptibly soft or unstated altogether — and a level of knowing detail about love and sex in general, and specifically the lives of young gay men in a place like northern England, that renders it one of the best modern romance films without attempting to transform its distinctive characters into blank slates or to represent some broad generational or demographic experience. It all adds up to a work of stunning intimacy, and it’s like focusing on a specific part of a starry sky as your eyes adjust: the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley) [hr]
Michelle Williams is a married writer in a rut, coping with a mutual awkwardness in her affable, slightly chilly relationship with her incessantly cooking husband while nursing a growing erotic attraction to a neighbor; it’s not a new story, but it is a well-observed one despite some occasional tone-deaf dialogue. The script continually trips you up with scenes so that are horrendously cringey in the most admirable way, and Polley’s directorial choices throughout her documentation of the sickeningly inevitable fissure that ensues are audacious and abrasive, full of risks, without being gimmicky or overly artificial.

Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) More emotionally bracing than any of Lean’s later films and just as pretty, this documents a housewife’s unexpected tryst with a doctor she happens to meet with keen observational power, helped tremendously by Celia Johnston’s stunning performance. But the characterization of her paramour (Trevor Howard) is wafer-thin, and Noel Coward’s script suffers from his usual priggishness about class, seemingly casting the storm in his heroine’s heart as some sort of morally reprehensible thing, love as “violence” and all that, and heavily implying that the cozy boredom of her day-to-day life is the right and proper thing.

L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [r]
A group of well-off friends take a small cruise along the Mediterranean and anchor by one of the Aeolian Islands, where a mild argument between lovers escalates with potentially tragic results. For a time we’re gripped and engrossed in the aftermath, but as the film transforms into an extremely bougie and banal love story between two rather dull people, the engagement falters even if the gobsmacking beauty, all impeccable compositions and dead-perfect horizons and locations, doesn’t. “Structure” cops suck, but it’s still hard to engage with a film that goes off on such a tangent as to become an unedited ramble free of any real story at its center.

Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Ravishing, dreamlike monument from Mizoguchi about a man’s greedy abandonment of his wife and son during a time of war and his subsequent cavorting in the spirit world, sourced from fable-like stories by Ueda Akinari, has the deeply rooted, elemental feel of folklore being passed down directly to us. The film is pulled in many directions simultaneously, ironically given its schematic structure. Every part of it is sensorially arresting, however, and the feeling of redemption and grace at the finale, as bleak as the actual events depicted really are, is so persuasive in its maturity about love and death that it could save your life.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967, The Beatles)
(Revisit; no change. I kept my old capsule but wrote a whole bunch of new stuff at the link; resisted stretching to a full-length review but maybe I should.) Scary, funny sixty-minute thingamajig was a big flop (the Beatles’ first) when it premiered on British TV, eventually gained a huge following as a midnight movie in the United States. Like so many surreal hat tricks, this displays novel imagination for the first twenty minutes or so then grows stale aside from some knockout music video-style performances by the band (who wrote and directed this curio themselves). For Beatles fans and druggies, this is essential; others needn’t bother, as its ’60s kitsch is imbued with too much dread to appeal to campaholics.

Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich) [hr]
Exuberant tale of a guitar-lugging boy’s journey into the Land of the Dead is the best original Pixar film since Up easily: despite a few formulaic moments and some story threads that strain credibility, a wonderfully emotional and eye-popping experience, which makes so much of its environment and — in a major break with the studio’s earliest efforts — musicality. Despite the grab-bag liberties being taken at times with the Mexican culture depicted, it’s refreshing that a mainstream American movie is so casually willing to be this purely, unapologetically strange.


Additional Letterboxd notes on: 45 Years / The Lady Vanishes / Bugs Bunny Superstar / The Beguiled

The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)


No, genius, that’s not a still from The Beguiled up above — and it really should be, because it’s one of the most painterly and unforgettably gorgeous movies of the current century, the rare film that makes you actually glad they started making movies in color — it’s a work by surrealist Southern Gothic photographer Clarence John Laughlin, whose work is about the uncomfortable conflict between the past and present, and every terrifying thing entailed by their coexistence. Of course, his photographs are also just simply beautiful, a pleasure to see, despite being a scope into a truly ugly world, that of the Antebellum South and the ruins of its plantations, its onetime centers of tyranny. I was quite surprised to find that no one involved with the film seems to have mentioned Laughlin’s work in any interviews given during its press cycle, though it could just be that no one bothered asking, because it seems difficult for me to believe that pieces like this did not have some sort of impact on this film’s cinematography and production design. I bring this up because maybe the reason I’m so out of tune with an awful lot of people on this movie is that making a minimalist narrative of repressed sexuality with thriller elements that feels inspired by Clarence John Laughlin photographs is exactly what I think I would probably want to do with my time if I had the power to create movies; that my favorite working director is the one who decided to do this might help a bit, but all the same, it certainly seems to me that almost no creative decision being made here is anything but absolutely the correct one. I’m not going to bother laying out the basic mechanics of the story; I’ll assume you’ve seen it, and just do my best to state my case.

One Letterboxd reviewer described the setting of The Beguiled as “an ecosystem”; Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “a PhD thesis.” I find these comments to be basically accurate to how the film works, and a testament to a clarity and closed-off structure that hasn’t been seen in its director’s work in well over a decade, though they don’t really challenge the more general interpretation of Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature as beautiful but empty, a criticism that frustrates me for the same reason it frustrates me when Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is cast off for being flat and emotionless — Coppola’s filmography to date consists wholly of films that have been widely interpreted, Mars Attacks!-style, as precisely whatever it is they’re critiquing. In The Beguiled, war is an inconvenience — a suggestion of an outside world of strife, fighting, tragedy, racism, evil, and also sex, sensuality, worldliness — injecting itself into a bubble, an aberration that forces a basically privileged faction to contend with something human, wild, unpredictable, completely at odds with their own prior experiences. Coppola isn’t interested in telling the kind of story in which such a schism has immediate long-term consequences; she’s interested in the sweeping under the rug, the going on as if nothing ever happened… the disturbance in the ecosystem is to be eliminated, and then all knitting and learning seems to press on as before, with only darted glances and a corpse outside the gate suggesting otherwise. It’s a “PhD thesis” because it’s a formally strict, though sometimes humorous, examination of how the sudden chaos (Colin Farrell, a wounded Union soldier being taken care of by a group of women and girls at a desolate school in Virginia) establishes itself, encroaches, develops, explodes, and is finally destroyed.

Of course, even beyond the fact that this is a remake of a Don Siegel film that was itself an adaptation of a novel, that isn’t a new idea. (In fact it’s the second half of Barry Lyndon, more or less, which fits superficially with candlelit rooms and the 1.66 aspect ratio.) It’s not even really a new idea for this director, at least structurally. Lost in Translation ends with blissed-out romantic catharsis, even if it’s a disappointed kind, but every one of her films since then has deliberately denied us any similar relief — Marie Antoinette shows us only the prelude to its characters’ doom where MGM wrung every drop of sentimentality from it in 1938; Somewhere closes, after a long buildup, on a facial expression and small chuckle that engaged viewers spent as much time debating and arguing over as rockabilly heads might over the tail end of an Elvis laugh caught on tape; and The Bling Ring invited all sorts of ire by simply acknowledging the world it came into as ridiculous and trivial, closing with an intentional whimper. The Beguiled is more dramatic and disturbing by default because someone is dead, but conceptually Coppola’s reticence to offer meaning or heavy drama, to in fact locate the creepily mundane in wildly bizarre situations, is now essentially a theme. That’s why it doesn’t bother me that Farrell’s death scene has no real tension or buildup within it, that indeed it seems almost mechanical in its inevitability, like an especially drab ballet. To me the film’s argument is its lack of an argument; like The Bling Ring it refuses to give into obvious temptations to become didactic and judgmental, while quietly suggesting something especially dim and troubling about human nature, a kind of bland resilience in response to trauma that almost anyone else’s movie would find a reason to celebrate.

In some ways this feels like a career summation, if we look at all of Coppola’s previous films as being really about women at different stages of their lives, childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, here all gathered together at once to react to the stimulus of a man whose ambiguity of character and whose physical beauty manages to throttle each of them quite differently. The performances are all magnificent displays of careful restraint, oozing with indirect intensity like the characters in Polanski’s Knife in the Water, another film in which you keep waiting for something to happen that doesn’t, and what finally does happen is maddening and frustrating; Coppola’s treatment of these sometimes painfully stilted and consistently confused, tentative interactions is so compelling that one may be slightly disappointed when she briefly allows fear and loudness to overtake, but it’s fascinating to see her approach the mechanics of a thriller in one of her films, and this short-lived twist attains a power from the contrast. (The unseen but clearly heard raids on Versailles at the climax of Marie Antoinette had a similarly jarring, genuinely horrifying effect.)

It doesn’t seem like a negative to me that The Beguiled is completely of a piece with Coppola’s other movies; her career demonstrates how strong and probing American movies might well be if more directors had the level of freedom and immunity from critical and financial burdening that she almost exclusively enjoys, due to her family’s legacy and to the idiotic resistance to public funding for the arts in this country. Is it fair that she’s the one who benefits from a situation like this? Probably not, but it’s lucky for us; you know perfectly well she anticipated how The Beguiled would be received if she made it the way she wanted to, and she did it anyway. Not sure I’d call it gutsy since it’s so low-risk for her… but then again, isn’t that exactly what this movie is about? The ability of certain people to inflict something on the world that the rest of us never could? That she would even try to wrestle with this part of her identity says a lot about who she is, and why we’re all made richer by her being in this position.