Author: Catherine

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #62-73


banquete_bodas_39

62. The Catered Affair (1956, Brooks)
Bette Davis is in full-on ACTING mode with an over-enunciated Brooklyn accent. A kitchen-sink Father of the Bride in which poverty and debt are guaranteed if Debbie Reynolds’s wedding (of which Davis, not Reynolds, wants to make a big to-do) is carried out. Most importantly, the impending wedding illuminates the mother’s naturally cold relationship towards her daughter and her own marriage, built on a foundation of $300 and decades of loveless indifference and co-existing familiarity. The dialogue begins to get redundant as the characters circle back to the same conversations after so long of supposedly not addressing any of their domestic disputes. Why didn’t Davis wake Ernest Borgnine up at the end?!?!?! Aaaahhhh so stressful. Certainly recommended though; thoroughly watchable and often quite engaging.

Watch-On-The-Rhine-1943-6

#63. Watch on the Rhine (1943, Shumlin)
Adaptation of a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1941 as a call to America for united closer-to-home-than-you-think alliance against Hitler and Nazi Germany. The 1943 film, obviously made with the US involvement in the war and neutrality no longer the firm stance. Bette Davis’s role is elevated to fit her stature in a thankless but nonetheless moving part as the noble stiff upper lip wife of Paul Lukas, reprising his Broadway role. Lukas and especially Lucile Watson (who represents US obliviousness turned reality check) are excellent but the film is driven into the dugout by a stodgy air, constantly halting for speeches (some of them worthy, some of them not) and a time-wasting subplot involving Geraldine Fitzgerald. Worst of all are the three children whose intelligence and multilingual abilities apparently translates to three performance akin to unbearably vexing, to put it mildly, robots.

A Corny Concerto

#64. “A Corny Concerto” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Parody of Fantasia with Elmer Fudd in the Deems Taylor role, with two wordless segments set to Johann Strauss pieces resembling something akin to “Dance of the Hours”. The first segment is something special with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and his hunting dog performing dramatic death scenes, the dog sobbing in tune with the music and ending with Bugs wearing a two-piece, slapping a bra over his two opponents, and skipping off into the sunset. The second segment is pretty forgettable with a take on “The Ugly Duckling”.

Porky Pig's Feat

#65. “Porky Pig’s Feat” (1943, Tashlin)
My favorite of the seven I watched/re-watched within this post. It’s got much more of a throughline than most in the Looney Tunes series even as it sticks to the character-wants-something-and-is-constantly-thwarted-via-violence formula. Incredibly sophisticated and creative in its use of shots and visuals. Also contains the first of many uses of Raymond Scott’s now iconic “Powerhouse”. “EEEEEHHHH, FATSO????”

Scrap Happy Daffy

#66. “Scrap Happy Daffy” (1943, Tashlin)
Wartime short featuring a Nazi goat! Not to much to say about this except that the comic license cartoons had over the buffoonery portrayal of Nazis is on display here with their tantrum-laden insistence on immediately stomping anything outside their ideology.

Wackiki Wabbit

#67. “Wackiki Wabbit” (1943, Jones) (re-watch)
What this diverting enough toon comes down to is its fabulous abstract Hawaiian print backgrounds, largely unique to what I’ve seen in the work of Looney Tunes. Also of note is the fluctuation with which Bugs gains and loses control of the situation. Later on, Bugs will nearly always have the upper hand of a scenario and its accompanying developments and humiliations.

Falling Hare

#68. “Falling Hare” (1943, Clampett)
Speaking of Bugs being on the receiving end, here he is uncharacteristically taunted by a Gremlin while hanging out an at airbase. The final minutes are the most notable, the exhausting range of physical and emotional turmoil kicks into high gear as the plane plummets to the ground, only to run out of gas at the last second (literally).

THE CONSTANT NYMPH

#69. The Constant Nymph (1943, Goulding)
Due to legal rights, The Constant Nymph was unavailable to the general public for seventy years. I sincerely hope plenty make their way around to seeing this because it might be Joan Fontaine’s best work, and according to TCM her personal favorite as well. At age twenty-four, she is completely convincing playing a teenager. She attains the essence of a flittering girl who shuns proper lady-like demeanors with a free-spiritedness and the by turns demure and talkative impulses of her age. Fontaine’s Tessa gallops, stumbles, fawns, fidgets, insists and swoons. She runs barefoot and carelessly swings her legs around, her gawky frame believable as an innocent girl who is in love but unlikely to have (in this case) thought of herself as a sexual being. Even though Fontaine filmed this before Jane Eyre, I saw the latter before the former, so this put her back in my good graces after that shitshow of an adaptation.

The unrequited love, Joan Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music all makes The Constant Nymph in certain ways a kind of warm-up companion piece to Letter from an Unknown Woman. The obliviousness on the part of the male counterpart is present in both, the critical difference being that Tessa is always of the utmost importance to Charles Boyer’s Lewis, whereas she remains the titular ‘unknown woman’ in the latter.

Alexis Smith also impresses in a tough role of opposition. Though Florence is classist and often rude, she is a well-rounded character I spent much of my time feeling sorry for. Lewis is purposely antagonistic towards her once the two settle into marriage, and Tessa giddily installs herself into Lewis’s life as a smitten fellow kindred spirit. Far too little Peter Lorre and Dame May Whitty, I say!

Considering the sincerity of the story and the direction it takes, Tessa’s underage crush on Lewis reads somewhat creepily today. What makes it work is their mutual connection centered around music and the creative mindset. The film is rooted in Romanticism, further extended by insisting Lewis needs to drop the Modernist vibes and put heart in his music which can only be acquired through suffering.

The direction favors longer takes with the backs of characters often visible in some fashion, resulting in a more natural blocking and camera movement by turns gentle and triumphant. The use of music at the end is ahead of its time in the way it is used as a climax and to cross-cut between spatially disparate happenings.

Tortoise Wins by a Hare

#70. “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Completely deconstructs Aesop’s fable and puts it back together again with a lot of hi-jinks, mix-ups and gangsters in a very short amount of time. “The tortoise always wins” much to the frustrated confusion of Bugs who is worked up about it to say the least. The tortoise’s voice has a really amusing (“Clean living, friend”) low timber to it. Mel Blanc is tops even by his standards, especially towards the end as Bugs becomes delirious with joy and then rage, inches away from winning only to have gangsters descend upon him. “I’M THE RABBIT!!!!”

dumb hounded

#71. “Dumb-Hounded” (1943, Avery)
Droopy’s first appearance. Humor comes from contrasting the crazed globe-spanning efforts of the wolf to escape the effortless omniscience of Droopy. Favorite bit; the undertaker jumping off the building in order to take measurements as the wolf falls. Also, the wolf running off the film strip.

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#72. So Proudly We Hail! (1943, Sandrich)
Appeal here is the focus on U.S Army nurses and their experiences in Bataan and Corregidor played by the de-glammed glamour gals of the early 40′s. Does a surprisingly nice job, by Hollywood standards of the time, conveying the it’s-never-ever-ever-enough futility of the nurses efforts and the onslaught of attacks. The superficial characters shed their shallowness for the greater good. Veronica Lake, suicide bomber (!), is dispensed far too soon, though her character is a mainly a mouthpiece for vitriolic Japanese hatred. She is harshly lit, no softness to be found, and then in those final moments, preparing to die, she lets down her trademark hair. Great stuff.

The story targets and turns Claudette Colbert’s practical and clear-headed woman into a “hysterical schoolgirl” via romance with the block-headed George Reeves. She starts as a role model and ends up having the reverse trajectory of Paulette Goddard’s floozy character re: priorities. Still, an effective female-centric morale booster for the time even if it feels somewhat middling today.

The Hard Way 8

#73. The Hard Way (1943, Sherman)
This was everything I hoped it would be. I’d been dying to see it since reading a plot synopsis, couldn’t get hold of it, and thus blind-bought it (something I don’t have the money to normally do).

One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success. Like Old Acquaintance, it somewhat conflates women’s careers with the perversion and interruption of ‘natural’ gender roles. Like ‘Old’, this is offset by the individuality of characters with Helen’s (Ida Lupino) bold manipulations and Katherine’s (Joan Leslie) inherent sweetness. It could have spent more time on Katherine’s self-destructive phase, though that likely would have further implied what we can safely assume from that hectic superimposed paint-the-town-red sequence.

Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally as good, like a 40′s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.

The two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

The Hard Way plays on TCM June 12th. Don’t miss it.

 

Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)


MUPPETS MOST WANTED

They look like the Muppets. They sound like the Muppets. But these aren’t my Muppets.

This is how I’m inclined to feel about the way Disney has used Jim Henson’s creations, most critically from 2002 onwards. Disney’s well-meaning attempts to re-launch the Muppets into the mainstream have been successful on the whole. But I still can’t shake the feeling that the Muppets are presently held captive, only to be trotted out for events, appearances, and performances. I know what you’re saying; Katie, the Muppets aren’t real. Oh, but they are. They are to me. And it doesn’t feel like they have agency anymore no matter how much zany international fun, or even 2011’s nostalgia strategy, is supposedly throw my way.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m fond of the 2011 film, but not as wholly taken with it as many others. Muppets Most Wanted has its moments throughout, though in reference to its funniest joke, in the words of “South Park”, “The Simpsons” already did it. Matt Vogel’s superb voice work as  Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog, saves the picture from being an out-and-out turkey (“The lovers, the dreamers, and cheese. Nailed it”).  Bret McKenzie’s contribution is weaker this go-around but still makes up many of the highlights. A million points to Gryffindor for “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)”. But the film never comes together,  it isn’t staged particularly well, and most of it feels stale on arrival.

Why? Well, the major reason, besides the general lack of writing quality, is the deal-breaker fact that the Muppets barely interact with one another throughout. Think about it. Humans have always had significant presence in Muppet movies, but always in service of Kermit and the gang (the show is a different matter). No matter how prevalent people have been, even in less successful efforts, it never felt sacrificial.

Humans litter Muppets Most Wanted, splintering key players off with either humans or antagonist Muppet Constantine, while leaving almost every other Muppet crowd scene scraps. Constantine and Dominique (Ricky Gervais) drive the plot, and so take up immeasurable time just on their own. Muppet + Human. Look no further than how the museum break-ins are handled (hint; we see every single one) Then, Kermit is sent to a Russian gulag where he interacts with, take a guess, a bunch of humans (the pig extras don’t count). Muppet + Humans. Struggling to find purpose for Walter, the film has him watching Constantine suspiciously before the third act gives him, Fozzie and Animal a sliver more screentime. Constantine + Other Muppets. Miss Piggy mostly interacts with Constantine. Constantine + Muppet. Sam the Eagle is kindly given a subplot, but one in which his sole acting partner is, yep, another human, this time Ty Burrell. Muppet + Human. The ways in which Muppets interact with humans, and not everyday humans, but grand nefarious and caricatured characters by a cast that hopped right out of the aughts, is cripplingly dependent on mediocrity and a fundamental misunderstanding as to how Muppets should function within their own film.

Because guess what? On top of everything else, the Muppets are also collectively treated like a bunch of hive mind fucking imbeciles. As if they were all defined solely by their gullible stupidity. It becomes part of the film’s purported humor, and it’s even acknowledged at the end how ridiculous it is that nobody recognizes that Constantine isn’t Kermit. But it remains infuriating because this obliviousness is the key function of nearly every Muppet in the film. Even Kermit. Between this and a key lack of screen-time, individual personality is erased. What kind of Muppet mockery is this where Gonzo has but a handful of lines, and where Rizzo has a cameo about how all he has is a cameo, only to exit stage right with fellow reject Robin. Good call Rizzo. Good call indeed.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61


Hangmen Also Die!

#57. Hangmen Also Die! (1943, Lang)
I already have more appreciation for Hangmen Also Die! since watching it, especially in comparison to my largely indifferent gut in media res reaction. The lead actors are unable to make a connection with the audience, there are some moderately significant pacing problems and an unappealing stiltedness to its visual flow. Of Fritz Lang’s WWII quartet, the only other one I’ve seen is Man Hunt, which I felt similarly cold towards. Said quartet has been pretty uniformly overlooked in Lang’s filmography, but there have thankfully been recent surges in exploration and newfound adoration. I’m of two minds with Hangmen Also Die! because it (and Man Hunt), unsurprisingly given Lang’s (and other collaborators here) background and even his somewhat murky politics, engages with WWII in more complex ways that many other films of the time.

Its focus is on a more aggressive and far-reaching brand of anti-Fascist solidarity, going so much further than standard calls of resistance. The Czech underground movement in the film is not alone in defiance. The entire population is, without fail, as openly defiant as they are capable of being. This allows for a conspiratorial final act with such a satisfying and elaborate pay-off. The Nazi characters are portrayed with some degree of specificity; they are full-blooded bullies with subtle shadings as opposed to generically über-efficient. It’ll be hard to forget the eccentric cruelty of an elderly woman being forced to pick up part of a broken chair over and over. But it is Czaka, the traitor, who is seen as the worst offender, and that final act pay-off I mentioned is the film and characters going payback mode on his sorry ass. Hangmen Also Die! is a morale builder, like so many, but a pricklier and moodier kind. I get the sense my appreciation for it will grow as I revisit it years from now.

airforce

#58. Air Force (1943, Hawks)
Surely one of the more objectively successful combat WWII-era films with its progressively concise team-as-singular-entity function. It’s also a perfect example of what the WWII combat film is meant to do in theory; turn the vague and often withheld details of the war into a specific entertainment-based narrative for the civilian audience. It gives a sense of context, something to grasp onto, however inaccurate, in the face of uncertainty. The B-17 is depicted as a sacred weapon and carrier of dutiful familial male bonding. It’s a perfect fit for Hawks. James Wong Howe shoots interiors with multiple men almost always in frame. Instead of reading as claustrophobic, it’s made to feel like a comfortable connective space. Less guided by plot points, more pushed forward by acts of teamwork that show the supportive and determined morale of the crew.

But here’s the rub; combat films couldn’t be of less personal interest to me. It says something that with so many 1943 combat films to choose from, and reading a handful of books on WWII films, that Air Force was the only one of its kind I put on my 1943 watchlist. Air Force is important for the time for successfully offering a scenario of idealized collaborative nobility, but it doesn’t transfer to either today (it’s part of the wartime package but racism abounds), or to my own personal taste, as something I could connect with despite the nice ensemble work and genuine feeling of camaraderie.

Old Acquaintance

#59. Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)
Exactly the kind of ‘women’s picture’ I instantly flock to. Though it, of course, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its central female-driven study of lifelong friendships somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Davis’s Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; it’s voluntary loyalty bordering on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.

Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Kit stays awesome pretty much throughout, but those first thirty minutes are to die for. Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.

I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.

gainsbourg_bell_nymphomaniac

#60. Nymphomaniac Volume II (2014, von Trier)
This second volume makes way for Joe and Seligman to openly discuss the structure of her storytelling and his literalizations. This allows their dialogue to freely move into much touchier, sometimes revelatory, sometimes squicky kinds of talk about such topics as sexual reactions to pain, pedophilia, and the use of the word ‘negro’. Joe reveals herself to be uncompromisingly direct to a fault, that directness stemming from her overreaching tendency to label herself (‘calling a spade a spade’), ushering in a more extreme variant of sexuality to the forefront in content and dialogue. Von Trier’s willingness to engage in a self-dialogue of sorts is rewarding in its matter-of-factness. Joe’s comments about pedophilia in particular are pretty much word-for-word in line with my own thoughts, well, outside of that ‘bloody medal’ bit.

I wish the second half felt consistently successful, but instead it’s anchored and labored. By far what I liked most was the Jamie Bell chapter. Although I think S&M is too often depicted in film with a desperate air, the way it is handled here completely fit within the circumstances of Joe’s predicament and mined engaging thematic territory. Jamie Bell, along with Stellan Skargaard and Uma Thurman are co-MVPs within the opus. His downcast routine-operating sadist blends a peculiar mix of directness and indirectness. The last chapter, Joe’s search and upbringing of a protegee, feels of a different realm and disengagement sets in never to be reclaimed. A final reel recasting of Shia Labeouf to reflect the passing of time is the final step to said realm. Nothing onscreen at that point feels connected to what came before, especially since Gainsbourg and LaBeouf are allowed to share scenes together earlier on. Joe’s rock-bottom moment proves indecipherable and grotesquely over-the-top from all angles (P pees on her? Fucking seriously?).

The final minute is meant to be confrontational but feels like a lazy fuck-you cop-out, von Trier carelessly shooting his own film in the face. Taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is wildly inconsistent (I’d like to see the eventual 5-hour cut). Joe has high highs and low lows and so does the film; sometimes they match, sometimes not. While it isn’t one of my favorites from von Trier, I loved its structure, its enthusiasm for conversational discourse, and the ways it unsexily portrays sex as something at once explainable and inexplicable, and as relating to all things existential.

friend6

#61. The American Friend (1977, Wenders)
I really need to make sure to consider and write down thoughts on a film soon after seeing it because I tend to get backed up quickly and now it’s been over a week since seeing this and I have no insights! And that’s with me jotting down thoughts in a notebook before even typing stuff up. But anyways, this is my first Wim Wenders film, which I realize is somewhat ridiculous. I’m in love with this. It’s a Ripley adaptation really in name only. The story is presented in a deceptively straight-forward way only to gradually reveal itself as existing on a different and slightly parallel plane from A to B, between traditional narrative and something hovering just above it, reality and concreteness just barely out of reach. There’s an eventual  prioritization of atmosphere and an unspoken mystique to everything. The two main characters and their motivations seem endlessly available for mining. Bruno Ganz is stellar, internally clinging to life, unwilling and skeptical, then all at once in too deep. Ganz singing “Baby you can drive my car” to himself is a perfect thing. And this might be the most hypnotic I’ve seen Dennis Hopper; quietly indecipherable and genuinely haunting. The visual component is a thing of green-and-yellow-hued beauty. The subway and train sequences are old-fashioned suspense in the best sense. Wenders’s regular cinematographer Robby Müller creates some of the best photography to come out of the 70′s.

Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014, Maloof & Siskel)


Vivian-Maier-Self-Portrait

Originally posted on CriterionCast March 26th, 2014

In 2007, young local Chicago real estate agent and historian John Maloof purchased roughly 30,000 prints and negatives from a local auction house. Upon realizing the girth and quality of the photographs now in his possession, he eventually purchased the rest of the boxes from the same buyer. Maloof now owned over 100,000 prints, negatives and undeveloped film rolls of one Vivian Maier as well as all personal belongings kept in her storage locker. Unable to find out anything about Maier, Maloof happened upon her obituary shortly afterward, giving him a foundation on which to access, preserve, arrange, and investigate her life and body of work. Knowing he owned something substantial, the photographs did not take long to gain traction, and in a short period of time Vivian Maier’s street photography gained worldwide attention.

Part of my attraction to Finding Vivian Maier is that it intrinsically addresses archival concepts such as provenance, establishing value, and the ethics of decision-making for the deceased. Despite some red flags as to what Maier may have wanted, the film makes the moderately convincing case that her posthumous exposure is ultimately a good thing. Her work gets immediate widespread recognition, the kind that pronounces her as a major figure in photography, while the crucial loss of anonymity blissfully comes after death. Of course it is easy to come to this conclusion when looking at the work, but it is more complicated than that.The small but important proof that she had inquired about her work being published at one point goes a long way to alleviate some uneasiness that may come with her involuntary exposure. The film rightly, and also in its best interests, makes a big deal of this discovery of unrealized intent. Being a form of promotion for Maier’s work, and being co-directed by Maloof, the film resolves itself in the name of good (it kind of has to, right?)

I know next to nothing about photography, but it’s apparent that Vivian Maier’s endless body of work is revelatory, something not even the art world can deny forever, though they will likely try. Some expansion on the art world’s resistance would have been welcome, although one gets the sense (not through this film, but just in general) their collective reasoning is often exclusive and elusive. Looking at her street photography, it doesn’t take long to be singularly struck by her ability to elevate the everyday with observed dignity. The subjects often waver between caught and aware, her expert timing and camera placement allowing her this middle ground. She often catches an innate tenderness in humanity just as often as the decrepit disarray and the inconsolable loneliness of others and their environments.

As much as Finding Vivian Maier is about the work, its primary focus is her life, or rather, our lack of knowledge on the woman behind the photos. Can we even begin to know and speculate about someone who was obsessively determined to remain anonymous? The answer is a resounding no. What the swathes of acquaintances, former children and employers (including Phil Donahue!) all recollect adds up to little concerning the mystery of Vivian Maier. Obsessive. Paranoid. Hoarder. Abusive. There are some basic constructed throughlines but nothing substantial, which I took to be the point of the film, purposeful or not. We get as much insight as we can, but the life she so desperately tried to keep under wraps remains so, even as she is now exposed to the general public. She kept her work, newspapers, and her everyday transactions intact, but the substance of a personal life or identity is systematically erased, nonexistent, or vague even down to the murky French accent and shapeless wardrobe. Her work remains the most telling, and surely it is fate to have someone as compulsive as John Maloof come into possession of her belongings and take up the major task of preserving and arranging her work.

So little is known about Maier that the ‘biographical’ aspects, which are less biography and more speculative reminiscing, are addressed by topic rather than a straightforward account of her life. The quirkiness of some of the interviewees is revealed but not exploited. Ample time is spent on Maier’s photographs, and the filmmakers never let the intrigue of her life quite overshadow her body of work. The construction of the narrative is admittedly uneven at times, such as when the filmmakers overtly play up eventual dead-ends, or fail to follow through on more unpleasant discoveries of abuse on the part of Maier.

Vivian Maier is exactly the kind of enigmatic recently discovered recluse, with a game-changing talent no less, that we can’t help but want to solve. She is a quintessential rabbit-hole subject for the endless nature/nurture unknowables of what makes a person who they are. Looking like Anna Massey’s long-lost cousin, she is a dream subject for a documentary. The film gets the best of both worlds in that it fuses two documentary tropes together; the spotlight on the undiscovered artist and the probing investigative mystery. Though the ethics of Maier’s involuntary exposure may be somewhat questionable, it simply feels right that this body of work is recognized, and all without Maier ever having to deal with the likely unlivable burden of being known.

Movie Music Mix: 1983


Koyaanisqatsi

Last month I had such a blast creating my 1965 movie music mix that I thought I’d make a mix for my previous year of focus, 1983. My 1965 mix is defined by mostly short bursts of groovy pop energy. 1983 is the opposite. There are fewer songs, but the mix is quite a big longer in length. I find that it is defined by either melancholy, edge, or a melancholic edge at pretty much all times, even when the surface doesn’t reflect that at first glance. Also, interestingly, this mix happens to be completely male-dominated.

A few notes:

1. This isn’t a mix meant to definitively reflect the year in film. It’s a mix that caters to my music tastes (which in this case largely, bot not exclusively, embraces electronic, new wave, and contemporary classic)which I hope, and to a degree assume, will be enjoyed by others. For this reason, to give an example, tracks from the Local Hero, The Right Stuff, and Videodrome scores were left out because while they essential to the films themselves, do nothing for me sonically on their own.
2. I have a few self-imposed ground rules when creating these mixes. They are:

  • I only allow music that comes from, or is very close to, the chosen year in film. I’m very attached to the time capsule feel of the 1965 mix and want to retain that for other mixes. So anyone looking for tracks from, for example, the iconic soundtrack to The Big Chill, will be disappointed.
  • The track must feature in the film. It cannot solely exist on the soundtrack. I ran into this problem with “Swamp” which is on The King of Comedy soundtrack, but is not actually in the film.
  • This brings us to my next rule. I must have seen the film in order to include its music on the mix. I made one exception to this rule when I discovered that “Swamp” is used in Risky Business. I have no desire to see Risky Business, but I skimmed through the film to get sense of the Tangerine Dream score (also on the mix) and to find where “Swamp” is used, just to confirm its usage.

3. The mix is available for listening at 8tracks, which I will provide a link to here, as well as a track listing.
4. Despite having seen over 40 films from 1983, the mix only contains 11 tracks from a mere 7 films. 7 are instrumental, the rest are not.

8tracks link: http://8tracks.com/cinephile24/1983-movie-music

1983 Movie Music Track Listing:
1. “Koyaanisqatsi” – composed by Philip Glass – from Koyaanisqatsi
2. “Swamp” – Talking Heads – used in Risky Business
3. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (version from The Hunger) – Bauhaus – used in The Hunger
4.Scarface (Opening Theme)” – composed by Giorgio Moroder – from Scarface
5. “Moochie’s Death” – composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth – from Christine
6. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” – composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto – from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
7. “Love My Way” – The Psychedelic Furs – used in Valley Girl
8. “Scarface (Push It to the Limit)” – Paul Engemann – from Scarface
9. “Show Me” – composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth – from Christine
10. “Guido the Killer Pimp” – composed by Tangerine Dream – from Risky Business
11. “Pruit Igoe” – composed by Philip Glass – from Koyaanisqatsi

Review: Grand Piano (2014, Mira)


grand_piano_still_a_l

Originally posted on CriterionCast March 14th, 2014

Pressure cooker thrillers with a dash of high concept are often an exercise in narrative self-constraint which can ideally and conversely push the filmmaker(s) to think outside the box. Grand Piano falls into that category, carrying its preposterousness out with commitment and confidence while astutely making music the center of all things. Literalizing the pressures of a concert pianist to play perfectly and an untouchable tautness at seventy-five minutes keeps the film going even as it gradually deflates before our very eyes.

A grand piano once owned by the deceased mentor of genius pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) ushers us into the story as it is hauled to the venue Tom will be performing at that night. After very publicly failing to complete a notoriously difficult piece of music five years before, Tom is reluctantly set to take the stage for the first time since. Racked with stage fright and generally irritable at the prospect of performing (the comeback was his starlet wife’s idea, not his), he nevertheless takes the stage only to be presented with something far worse than the prospect of artistic failure.

At the concert’s start, Tom sees that his sheet music is noted with threats in red marker which state he and his wife’s life are in danger if he plays a single wrong note during the concert. Tom eventually acquires an earpiece and talks to the sniper assailant (John Cusack) while being forced to flawlessly perform.

The strong first act set-up combines self-aware exposition dumping and the palpable anxiety radiating from Tom by making him, and us, feel like we are playing catch-up; like everything is happening a beat too fast. That sprinting quickness comes through as his transportation plans change last minute and he hurriedly gets changed in the limo while dealing with an aggressive phone interview. That first-act professional anxiety is amped up that much more once Tom realizes the kind of trouble he’s in.

The sweeping camera amplifies the distance between Tom and his audience (and assailant) by bridging the two. An exhilarating pace structured around music and a darting and fidgety Elijah Wood keeps Grand Piano eminently watchable. The template stimulates some inventiveness in sustaining real-time tension and is bolstered by elongated framing and shout-outs to giallo in its use of red and green. A welcome supporting turn by Alex Winter adds the bulgy-eyed lurking menace that John Cusack’s gravelly voice (I actually forgot it was him until two thirds of the way in) can only aurally represent.

Then the generic contrivances through the B-movie guise start to show themselves, and not even the film’s rushed swiftness can cover them up. In order to fill out the runtime and keep the conversation between Tom and his assailant going, the sniper attempts to psychologically attack the pianist using his professional failure, his marriage and his wife’s success. But they are empty attempts with no clout, and nonsensical in the notion that the antagonist needs Tom to be focused on his playing. Speaking of Emma’s (Karry Bishe) success, she ends up sitting in a theater box the whole film, her starlet status set up and left to fizzle. Two supporting characters are awkwardly established as future fodder. Even the mostly lovely camerawork is at times distracting in its digital artificiality, and a De Palma split screen homage feels played out on sight. All of this leads to a mano-a-mano showdown we’ve seen countless times before.

Grand Piano blends the lonely arduousness artists of the musical persuasion may feel and the isolated-in-an-unsuspecting-crowd constriction experienced by protagonists in high pressure films such as this. Screenwriter Damian Chazelle has a knack for depicting, and in this case, heightening, a musician’s strife, which looks to continue with his upcoming Sundance hit Whiplash. Its conventions and inability to rewardingly fill itself out knock it down considerably, but director Eugenio Mira established a real taut flair that always remains entertaining, even at its weakest.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

DerFuehrersFace
#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940′s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

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#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

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#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

chickenlittle-ending3
#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

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#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

- Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

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#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

Nymphomaniac-Volume-1-Photo-1
#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

ErnestAndCelestine
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

Little Women_1949
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Anderson)


grand-budapest-hotel-2

Wes Anderson’s most densely plotted film by more than a considerable margin, complete with a Matryoska doll structure that heightens our awareness of storytelling and how the passage of time imprints the past through the act of looking back. The director’s detail-oriented aesthetic and centered formalism continues to turn what was once stylistic affectation into his own purified visual language. He almost exclusively speaks in push-ins, right angles, three aspect ratios, horizontal and whip pans, presentational framing, miniatures, hand-stitched props, matte backdrops, etc. And this time around, he quite literally creates his own nation, a 1930′s Eastern European pastiche, with historical parallels of the time that purposely recall the ways in which Old Hollywood often depicted the ‘foreignness’ of Europe as an unspecified blanket of antiquated charm. Outside of Hollywood influences, such as the particular brand of dizzying energy, Powell/Pressburger looms heavy over all.

Character on the peripheral level is certainly sacrificed to a degree in favor of the nest-egg plot that has hardly any time to dilly-dally with character development not addressing its focus of looking back. An example of this can be seen with Zero and Agatha and the sore spot of it being handled in an ‘oh-yeah-this-was-also-happening’ way. Thankfully, Gustave and his dynamic with the young Zero comes through loud and clear, keying into the film’s swiftness via Gustave’s fast-tracking companionship. Everyone else leaves their mark in some fashion, with varying degrees of success, mostly adding up to caricatures I wish had packed more of a kooky collective punch as opposed to the window-dressing feel of certain players.

This brings us around the ingenious Ralph Fiennes. This is an instance where an actor’s work stamps a character in such a way that the two become inseparable. What I mean is that Fiennes brings Gustave to life in a way nobody else could have, or at least his take on the role suggests as much. For all the savory technical goods, Fiennes wins the If-I-Had-To-Pick-A-Personal-Highlight award. The character as written and performed is made up of comic enthusiasm, antique proclivities and poetic rants. I know this has turned into a praise-rant, but it really is one of the most enjoyable-to-watch performances I’ve seen in years, and if asked to pick a favorite Wes Anderson character, Gustave is on the shortlist.

Clicking along at an almost exhausting pace (I don’t think I could ever conceive of watching this and The LEGO Movie back-to-back), you immediately sense several swigs of the film are in order to grasp and appreciate it story-wise. The underlying sadness provides a nice contrast to the high-energy caper on the surface. Moments of darkly comic macabre violence catch us off-guard, slyly anticipating the very real mourning of change and dire times. Scenarios are revisited with different outcomes and new losses. By the end, we realize that the madcap story is a victory lap for its Old World characters in which Gustave and Zero are given the tribute of triumph in a story being told, being told, being told.

Random Observations:
- One of my favorite touches is how long it takes Dmitri to realize that “Boy with Apple” is missing.
- I want (have) love Alexandre Desplat’s score, which adds such a consistent feel to the entire piece, that of twinkling adornments, foot-tapping snares and ominous organs.
- The fate of a certain cat (this is the second film in a row of Anderson’s which features splayed animal death)
- I love that Willem Dafoe is basically a real-life rendition of his character in Fantastic Mr. Fox
- “Take over”
- Gustave’s various outbursts
- Zero’s applied mustache

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #39-46


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#39. Grand Piano (2014, Mira)
Full review over at Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/reviews/catherine-reviews-eugenio-miras-grand-piano-theatrical-review/

From http://www.davidmullenasc.com/gangsallhere4.jpg

#40. The Gang’s All Here (1943, Berkeley)
Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. I love getting to that certain point while watching a film when you are asked to just let go and hop on for the ride. The answer may be no as often as yes but those ‘yes’ moments are ones to cherish. My answer to The Gang’s All Here was ‘yes, Yes, YES!’ Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an all-encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.

Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film, though I was obviously well aware of her before this. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940′s.

Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is a favorite.

From http://thelastdrivein.com/category/top-classic-horror-films/flesh-and-fantasy-1943/

#41. Flesh and Fantasy (1943, Duvivier) 
Julien Duvivier’s follow-up anthology film to the previous year’s Tales of Manhattan. Dead ringers for three future “Twilight Zone” episodes, the stories address beauty, fate and self-fulfilling prophecies as they are linked to the occult. The first and second shorts, with their darker twinges, were my favorite. The first suffers a bit from its lack of prelude material. That Henrietta’s experience causes the beauty within to not only materialize but to then transition to the outside is frustrating, mainly because it suggests that the two are inseparable. But I loved this for its vaguely Von Sternberg vibe, its haunted yearning, and for Betty Field with her ratchety voice and hollow-lit face. The second story; “You’re going to kill someone Mr. Tyler”. Still cannot get that oft-repeated line out of my head. Who doesn’t relish watching Edward G. Robinson lose his mind, feverishly talking down an imaginary double and his own self-fulfilling impulses? This is some creepy stuff, with a horror-noir lit sensibility. The third story, featuring Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck, is solid if less interesting. Fate is a central sentiment in many romances, and so this plays out more straight-laced than an occult-led story might have you believe. But Boyer and Stanwyck have enough chemistry together to carry it through, as well as the shimmer of Stanwyck’s lyre earrings. The entire film is beautifully photographed, with a constant tangible sense of the other-wordly just within reach.

From http://trueclassics.net/2011/08/11/play-it-on-the-g-string/

#42. Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)
Notable if only for the opportunity of seeing William Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck re-team for a B-movie at the height of her career (or was it?) based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee. Stanywyck sings (badly), does splits (!) and cartwheels (no, seriously, it’s awesome). Highlights include the antagonistic romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan and a lived-in seedy setting that the film supports and backs 100%. But this is largely dull, with endless group interrogations and no central mystery for the audience to grab, even if the killer’s motives fall in nicely with the notion of burlesque camaraderie.

From http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/mickey-rooney/

#43. The Human Comedy (1943, Brown)
Exactly the kind of film that theoretically worked like gangbusters on an American WWII audience looking for idyllic patriotism. Also a prime example of a WWII Hollywood film I find fascinating, for lack of a more original word, as a cultural artifact. It is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen, wavering from a poignant and studied slice-of-life to the pushed-to-the-hilt brand of saccharine Americana that reads as nauseating today. This was Louis B. Mayer’s baby, with heaven always in sight and lessons always one step away from being learned, all in warm deep focus. The loose vignette-like structure is slightly ahead-of-its-time for Hollywood; narrative takes a backseat to the on-goings in the microcosm homefront town of Ithaca.

Any genuine moments, and there are quite a few, are subsequently undercut by five unbearably syrupy developments or beats that undo anything that rang true mere moments ago. You know it’s rough when they make the illiterate kid’s struggles unintentionally funny by way of overbearing. A prime example of The Human Comedy’s chronic overkill habit comes at the end. The film’s loveliest moment occurs when Mickey Rooney’s Homer (in by far the best work I’ve seen from him) plays horseshoe with James Craig during his walk home; a brief respite before having to deliver some devastating news to his family. This segues into the final scene in which the loss of death is immediately substituted by an orphan character looking to weasel his way into the family before they’ve even learned the horrible news-to-come. What would normally be seen as creepy and invasive and stalker-like is welcomed and championed by the film. Hell, it’s even supported by the dead! We get it; The Human Comedy, like many WWII-era films, promotes a set of ideal and wholesome standards and values with which to strive towards in turbulent times. But by the time the kid in the library just keeps repeating “All these! All these!” over and over again, patience has long lost the battle.

Vivian-Maier-Self-Portrait

#44. Finding Vivian Maier (2014, Maloof & Siskel)
Review coming soon

From http://www.loopedblog.com/the-grand-budapest-hotel-yes-its-whimsical-and-yes-its-a-typical-wes-anderson-delight/

#45. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Anderson)
Short review coming soon

From http://prod.entertainment.telly.sky.com/image/unscaled/2012/02/03/Jane-Eyre-1943-DI-1.jpg

#46. Jane Eyre (1943, Stevenson)
At a certain point, watching the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre becomes something approaching painful. This surely has to be one of the worst adaptations of a classic novel out there in the vast world of filmic interpretation. Moves from event to event, unforgivably skipping some (see ya formative Red Room incident), botching others (we don’t even get to see Bertha? Seriously?) to grossly failing to convey or understand the material in any way that would service even a mediocre motion picture. Joan Fontaine brings her permanently pained look to Jane, where characterization fears to tread. Orson Welles seems like he is talking to himself the entire time. He acts for himself, as if unaware that maybe, just maybe, he may want to consider playing a scene with the other people in the room. So the central romance, Jane’s arc, and connecting her emerging adulthood to her childhood experiences all fails to register. Restructuring the purpose and role of Rivers makes little sense from virtually every angle. The sets and photography help us through, evoking an effectively unfamiliar Gothic sensibility.

The last scene is a tour de force of unintentional hilarity. Welles, forever stumbling through his own ruins, momentarily turns into Ron Burgundy, only to then plant the most aggressively awkward kiss of the studio era.

Films Seen in 2014: #26-38


Catching up with these, some of which had been written a month ago, some of which won’t be written and some of which were written recently. February being such an upheaval of a month for me, I could not get around to constructing thoughts on some of these films with everything in such a state of turmoil, so I’ll provide a 1-5 star rating for those, if only for some ballpark sense of my reaction to them on a positive/negative scale.

Hard Boiled

#26. Hard Boiled (1992, Woo) (Hong Kong)
Melting pot of virtually every action movie cliche there ever was. Widespread mayhem, avenging lost partners, undercover cops, hotshots, antagonistic teamwork banter. It all comes together with fluid chaos through Woo’s ‘bullet-ballet’. And all of it, I mean all of it, is kicked up to an outrageous plane. Even for Woo. Arms arsenal hidden underneath a hospital? Babies in jeopardy? Guns hidden in library books? Protagonists who are able to dodge an endless onslaught of bullets while everyone else around them gets hit? It’s all there.

Gunfights are my least favorite kind of action scene and even John Woo: Master of Ammo can’t entirely alleviate that. It makes up the entire second half which is pushed to dizzyingly destructive heights. It becomes a bit too end-all-be-all for me to stay with it for keeps. From the John Woo I’ve seen, I much prefer The Killer and Face/Off. Chow Yun-Fat and baby-faced be-still-my-heart crane-building Tony Leung are marvelous. The early tearoom and warehouse fight sequences are my favorite and Woo has a knack for instilling marvel in the viewer from the sheer chaos and stuntwork within the frames and cuts. Can’t forget that 5-minute hospital take that predates what all future first-person shooter games. It’s unfortunate that the hour-long onslaught actually flattens Woo’s cinematic language instead of purifying his brand of explosive mayhem. This is probably why the earlier standalone action sequences did more for me. But I have the utmost respect for a film that hinges its climax on a baby urinating down Chow Yun-Fat’s leg.

Pierrot le Fou

#27. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard) (France)
Pierrot le Fou is sort of invaluable from an auteurist perspective. It is uncommonly locked and loaded, marking a major turning point in Godard’s career. But it’s not a turning point before-or-after. It’s a turning point in progress, and that’s where I find most of the film’s return value. Godard goes about self-destructing his own refined patchwork formalism even as he continues to engage with it. American gangster tropes remain but he’s not invested in them, not even remotely, not even as passive pastiche.

Starting out in an ABC manner, the second half is like it was caught on camera. The story is in the spaces, the non-events, the improvised restlessness. Ferdinand and Marianne are static opposites; There’s nothing particularly investment-worthy about them and their connection never feels quite sustainable. Or rather there’s always something disingenuous about them. Marianne wants to live, be active, and if liveliness comes through in criminality so be it. Ferdinand wants to write, to philosophize about the world around him, but it’s a dead-end. He shuts himself off, doesn’t acknowledge Marianne. So it’s a stalemate. And of course it’s a stalemate that in some ways mirrors the disintegration of the Godard/Karina marriage.

Primary colors pop everywhere. The first half has a lot of stylistic wow moments, my favorite being the nighttime car scenes with accompanying UFO-circling lights. And then there’s the color-coded bourgeois boredom. Godard seems to be contemplating the words that come courtesy of Sam Fuller’s cameo.

Those oppositional personalities also come into play through the overlapping voiceover, which doesn’t necessarily have competing narrative battling, but a singular narrative being fought between two people. The sea is crucial to the film, its open, endless, hazy blue picaresque backdrop for the ‘idyllic’ couple-on-the-run story.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find Godard as rewarding. as a whole, as so many people do. The way he incorporates story within his formalism often feels incredibly cardboard or inconsequential, if impressively rigorous and risk-taking, instead of renegade pastiche cool. But I’d like to get an intellectual handle on his life’s work, all of it (not just the hip 60’s stuff, some of which I do happen to love) with whatever accompanying appreciation that eventually brings. There’s a lot of airily marvelous stuff here that is off-the-cuff in content; again, like it’s been caught. Like it’s constructing its own narrative or lack thereof as it goes. That’s a great thing to see as a viewer. I’m particularly fond of Belmondo’s Michel Simon impression and his conversation with the man with the song in his head.

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#28. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Bellocchio) (Italy)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Films that leave behind any trace of quirky dysfunction (actually forget leave behind, more like not even considered or acknowledged) in favor of the kind of fucked-up toxicity where black comedy lurks at the edges and may give way to horror which may give way to new tonal territories.

So I knew I’d love this. This was Marco Bellocchio’s first film, and it upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film seems subtle but there actually are some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare, and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, but significantly add to it as a character piece.

At the outset, it looks as if Augustus is being pitched to us as the ‘normal one’. That he is our protagonist. Turns out not only is he least useful to the story and to himself, but Bellocchio sees him as being worst offender for having thoughts and not acting on them, however bad. He feigns altruism. He never expresses rage at Ale’s suggestions, secretly hoping they are carried out. The inactive escapes to happier things bare the consequences of their misguided intentions. The end irony is that Ale is the very thing he hates. He may not be part of the ‘incurables’ like the mother and Leone, but he kind of is. He’s just as dependent. And he resorts to murder just to separate himself from those he sees as helpless an dependent.

Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.

Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.

The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. Challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. It’s all laid out on the table for us, but you soon realize all that surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it though the film’s aggression makes us think we do. It’s in that ambiguous time passage in the attic. It’s in all the unspoken background. For this, and many other things, I love it.

The Passenger

#29. The Passenger (1975, Antonioni) (Italy/Spain)
Rests comfortably below L’Avventura and Red Desert and above Blow-UpL’eclisse and La Notte. All the Antonioni trademarks are present, still feeling vitally introspective and universal to how existentialism fits into the act of living. It’s a study on alienation and loneliness of course. And certainly of depression in a way I can’t recall feeling from his other films. It’s about an unfillable void, which is why the negative space is central to compositions. The search for answers, for a new identity, is a dead end.

Thoughts on The Passenger cannot exist without addressing the bravura 7-minute take at the end. It’s a new way of showing, or not showing, death. The logistics and accomplishment of the thing is impressive enough. But the way it makes death unpunctuated, with no fanfare. As something that is as secluded as secluded gets, passing by while a child plays outside, where the sun keeps shining. The other side of the window. The Girl recognizes David. Rachel doesn’t. And how about that other take early on as the David’s blend together in past and present, the camera tracking Nicholson as he makes his decision.

Just who are we? David doesn’t want to be David anymore. But you can’t escape yourself; just the external components. Just the baggage. He is a reporter. He’s seen a lot, been many places. But he’s just a perpetual observer working within the accepted guidelines. Just look at his interview with the President of an unidentified African nation. The old life and the new life collide and squeeze him dry.

The Passenger has the markings of a thriller, but it’s incidental, used to push the character study. Jack Nicholson gives such an atypical performance for him, and it stands out in ways that need to be seen to be believed. He is vulnerable, desperately wanting to change, going about everything cautiously even in newfound freedom. Hard to reach, but ready to be open. Waxing philosophical.

I hope Criterion or some other respected video distribution company picks this up and gives it the release it deserves. Its current DVD condition is really rough stuff. Would kill to see this film looking its best.

Random Notes/Highlights:
- Seeing Barcelona, specifically Palau Guell and the roof of La Pedrera, was a special treat.
- David’s camera getting turned on him, the questions saying more about him than interviewee’s answers.
- David being approached in the church. The way Nicholson plays that entire scene, particularly his slow turn.
- “What are you running away from?” “Turn your back to the front seat”
- Love David’s green suit. That green suit and mustache look.

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#30. Red Beard (1965, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.

His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.

#31. Love is Colder than Death (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#32. Katzelmacher (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#33. Siren (2014, Peyronel) (USA): **

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#34. The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965, Kadar & Klos) (Czechoslovakia)
Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.

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#35. Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Ichikawa) (Japan)
Momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.

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#36. The Wind Rises (2014, Miyazaki) (Japan)
Hayao Miyazaki goes out on a majestic grace note, giving us something he’s never done before while remaining identifiably him; aeronautical fixations, concerns over the impact of human intent (albeit too tiptoeing here), languid pacing. There is no filmmaker I love more than Hayao Miyazaki, and so it was very emotional once this film reached its end. The realization that I’d seen all there is to see of his work for the first time hit hard. That this was it.

More than any other films, animated or live-action, I just want to step into the worlds, fantastical or reality-based, Studio Ghibli’s animation team creates. They are skies to ground corporeal within their own creation. They are complete and inspiring. This is no different. The Wind Rises might be his most visually appetizing film (then I re-watched Princess Mononoke three days later and realize that statement is more a suggestion). From the sheen of the planes to the chug-chug of the trains to the crackle and fire of the earthquakes and those inimitable color spectrum spanning skies. The wind brings all of it together, used as a common denominator.

Miyazaki takes on the standard biopic what he does replace the bullet points with poetic airs. Sure, things happen, but they aren’t used to strum forward. In fact, the film halts later on and turns into a weepie melodrama, a move I fell in love with (although Naoko abandons her current residency one too many times and is more of a prop than I’d like). Not something from Jiro’s actual life, the fatalistic romance sets up the sacrifices Jiro makes in order to innovate and create beautiful things. And I think that compromise can in a gentle way represent all of the real life compromises that make up a great deal of the film’s post-release controversy.

I will say that while I don’t think that some of the naysayers are completely off the mark here, I don’t quite see how it is Miyazaki’s responsibility to address these issues. He has a very clear and distinct focus here. The film swirls around Horikoshi’s quote “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful”. Clearly Miyazaki is a bit too forgiving of Jiro because on a basic level, he connects with him.

Miyazaki uses film to concentrate on what hope he can see in the world and what soulfulness he can find in his characters despite being a pessimist at heart. Obviously the downplaying of certain key issues isn’t in his purview, although the essay he released, and his well-known pacifist status, when the film came out in Japan speaks to where he stands politically (where he always has). So he’s catching it from all possible sides here. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to concentrate on the bigger issues, and he isn’t this wistful man who ignores them, but it’s simply not his MO here. Nor should it have to be. People who want it to be are looking for a completely different film than the one they got. I see the downplaying as speaking to a bigger problem, one that is far more evident in where Miyazaki places the Germans in relation to the Japanese within the story.

That said, it was frustrating to see Miyazaki walk up to the issue of beautiful innovations used for unspeakable atrocities at the very end without actually doing anything. I would have liked a bit more at the end, a conversation that felt thought-provoking and irreconcilable perhaps rather than tossed off the way it is.

But I really loved this. A big step up from Ponyo; a mature and understated swan song that sums up everything I love about this man whose work I’m going to miss so so so much. Thank God Studio Ghibli has two upcoming projects I’m stoked about. New Takahata!

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#37. The LEGO Movie (2014, Lord and Miller) (USA)
The most high-energy film I’ve seen since…Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Or going further down the line, Moulin Rouge! An astonishing sense of ceaseless forward momentum. I’d actually use the word ‘manic’ to describe this film. Visually kind of mindblowing with its combination of CGI and LEGOmation, resulting in a specific aesthetic none of us have seen before. The visual qualities parallel the essence of the toys at their most imaginative with constant motion and an always evolving landscape. In fact, it’s impossible to process everything you are seeing at any given point and warrants several re-watches on this quality alone. Lord and Miller bring their irreverent and slightly absurdist brand of humor from “Clone High” (hear that dolphin sound fellow fans?) into this world. The jokes are so quick that when they miss it flashes by in an instant and lands on something  uproarious. “Spaceship? Spaceship! SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP!!!”

As far as objectives, it bites off a bit more than its capable of chewing by the end. There’s a lot of ‘don’t conform!’ to ‘but rules are good! to ‘corporation=bad’ (but it’s a LEGO movie you say! Yes, we hear you) and ‘you just have to believe’ to the importance of imagination and creativity. Luckily the film has pretty interesting ways of going about each of these objectives, and I found its final act rug-pulling pretty inspired even if I’m still working through how I feel about it. Yes, it ends up being even more directly promotional to LEGOs, but I admired the way it addressed the ways in which children use toys (and specifically the nature of LEGOs) not only as an outlet from their personal lives but as an environment which fosters creativity and imagination in some essential ways. The reveal also makes glorious parody of the done-to-death stories of prophecies, chosen ones and vague dictatorial villains in that it credits these cliches into something a child would make up. And “Everything is Awesome” is addicting and really captures the film’s spirit.

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#38. Stormy Weather (1943, Stone) (USA)
About Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s life, except that it really isn’t at all. What this is is an all-out revue with minimal pretext. With an all black cast in a Hollywood picture, as a response to MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, its a one-off to say the least, especially considering that the characters, while struggling to make it in the business, are allowed the kind of frivolity afforded to many studio system productions. It surprisingly sidesteps piety and unsurprisingly sidesteps critique in favor of neutrality (hello white filmmakers) but also kind of refreshing if only in its sense of lightness. What we get is a kind of time capsule treat of legendary black performers of the era, a production so rare that a new musical number occurs every couple of minutes as if the film had to cram in and make sure to represent everything these icons had to offer in one fell swoop. Because, well, ain’t that the truth. Highlights include Horne’s “Stormy Weather”, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, dapper Cab Calloway and his droopy drawers, and The Nicholas Brothers who give the most impressive feat of a tap-dance routine ever committed to celluloid. It’s a show-stopper.