Reintroduction Post #5: The Divorcee (1930, Leonard)


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Reintroduction Post #5:
The Divorcee (1930, Leonard)
First Seen in: 2008

“I’ve balanced our accounts”. The Pre-Code that started it all, sanctioning women to explore their sexuality freely and defiantly. The Divorcee breaks open the double standards of infidelity, testing limits, turning tables and presenting a progressively symbolic ‘what if’ whose controversy would remain intact for the next several decades of American film. That Norma Shearer leads the audience into this journey of sexual self-discovery is undoubtedly why MGM got away with it. Her wholesome and relatable exterior and demeanor grabs sympathy from the masses of the time.

The Divorcee admittedly suffers from some of the stiltedness of early talkies, most notably the tendency to overload scenes with stagily shot repetitive and excessive dialogue. Jerry’s (Shearer) conflicting impulses in the first half of the film are related to us with conversations that go back and forth. And those early scenes between Jerry and Ted (Chester Morris) being all lovey-dovey are laid on more than a bit thick. “It doesn’t mean a thing” becomes a mantra, something to test sure, but it’s said about twenty times, no joke. My favorite moments from Shearer’s performance though, are the way she underplays those conflicting emotions. She has no grand plan. She’s lost at sea.

The Divorcee 3

Still, it doesn’t much lessen the experience, and The Divorcee remains such a satisfying treatise on issues that remain relevant today even if the shock of their existence has long since worn off, thank goodness. And her fault lies not in the infidelity but that she gave up trying to patch things up with Ted.

I love the plot threads introduced at the beginning and the way they are worked in and picked up again throughout. Chester Morris makes me laugh, even though he’s not really meant to, and is quite entertaining. His slicked back hair, blocky head and bombastic moments are alternately endearing and bullish. But The Divorcee reminded me just how much I adore Robert Montgomery, though I recently watched him in When Ladies Meet. This was his breakout role, as Ted’s best friend Don. He is so memorable, a dapper drunk whose wide-eyed line delivery and subtly quirky facial tics and mannerisms make him the one to watch whenever he’s onscreen, whether speaking or silent. Don is carefree, always looking out for himself, somewhat oblivious, slightly stumbling, with an air of feigned confusion and a put-on of gluttonous sincerity. All in maybe twenty minutes of screentime.

My favorite shot of the film
My favorite shot of the film

My favorite sequence is the wordless three-scenes that very quickly and efficiently show that Jerry has slept with Don. Covered in black and shot openly from the front (a departure for the normally shot-in-left-profile Shearer) in the otherwise bustling nightclub, as Don’s hand creeps into the frame, you know exactly what she’s contemplating. And the way Don looks at her in the club and in the taxi oozes sex. Finally, the curtain closes.

A word about which of Adrian’s costumes stuck out for me. First, the black head-wrap she wears out to the nightclub and second Jerry’s awesome one-piece pajama-suit on the night of her three-year anniversary.

The Divorcee pajama suit

The Divorcee came at a time when acknowledging the idea that women could or would desire or have a sex life was almost completely unheard of, staunchly denied or labeled heathenish. Not only is the film centered on this idea, but links it to marriage, divorce and patriarchal hypocrisy. It was and remains important, ushering in a wave of sensational films filled with sin, repent, and more sin, almost entirely committed by women.

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Reintroduction #4: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)


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Reintroduction Post #4:

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)
First Seen in: 2009

Of all the pre-code Busby Berkeley/Warren & Dubin musicals, Gold Diggers of 1933 packs the biggest socially conscious punch. Bookended with two numbers that directly address the Depression, Mervyn LeRoy makes the meat of his times-are-tough sandwich a romantic fantasy of sorts. Monetary issues plaguing Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler gradually melt away, replaced by playful deception, romantic pairings and always redeemable misunderstandings.

The first part of the bookend is “We’re in the Money” which takes an ironically humorous approach to the era, ending with its disruption by creditors. It’s probably my favorite bit of the film, with Berkeley’s trademark “parade of faces” and its brief foray into a jabberwocky dreamland. That extreme close-up of Ginger Rogers, with the camera pushing in and pushing in, losing focus before regaining it, is one-of-a-kind. With so many other memorable shots that ‘wow’ for the opposite reason, this is the shot for me.

Gold Diggers of 1933

The ‘meat’ of Gold Diggers is the backstage ‘let’s put on a show’ variety, just like all the Berkeley musicals. This also means of course that the song-and-dance numbers take place within the context of the show. No bursting out into song here. Instead, we get outlandish setpieces clearly made for film despite the stage show context, each trying to top the next. “Pettin’ in the Park” has some über-risqué content, including actual nude silhouettes. “Waltz of the Shadows” is top-notch in all its visual details from its intertwining and versatile hoop dresses to the hilly landscape stairs shot from different angles, each making you see the set design in a new light.

It has all been written about Berkeley before, but it really is impossible to emphasize how justifiably cherished his musical numbers are. He created a kind of spectacle that remains his own, unparalleled to any other kind of spectacle on film. There’s never been anything like them and there never will be. He plays with abstraction, with kaleidoscopic shapes and with ever-evolving scenarios. There’s randomness to his ideas. Neon violins? What? Billy Barty as a perverted infant? What? And there’s an appreciation for classical female beauty without it seeming vulgar, despite seriously pushing skin-bearing boundaries even by Pre-Code standards. I still can’t figure out how he accomplishes this.

Gold Diggers of 1933 forgotten man

Berkeley’s setpieces are part of the culminating stage show, which allows his work to exist solely to please the audience, giving him free rein. The film’s plot exists around these setpieces; it for them, not them for it. They don’t push the story forward. They don’t even feature characters from the film; here, those actors exist solely as performers. Berkeley also goes far beyond what would be feasible in an actual stage setting in set scale, transitions and in shot choices, meaning not even the ‘audience’ in the theater can fully appreciate what they see. His work is standalone, existing for us and only us. We are hypnotized and transported as a result.

The story itself is fun, fast-paced and quick-witted, everything you expect from Warner Brothers musicals of the time. Joan Blondell, always the sparkling firecracker, remains a highlight of pre-codes from this studio. My favorite material is when she and Warren William take over the narrative. “Cheap and vulgar. Cheap and vulgar. Cheap and vulgar.” Too good. William is so damn fantastic here as is character actor Guy Kibbee. And Aline MacMahon manages to upstage Blondell at least in the firecracker department. Her relentless schtick greatly entertains. Of course, there’s never enough Ginger Rogers who became an expert in the language of glamor-snark with these early supporting roles. I used to adore Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as a teenager. Now, I admit I’m pretty weary of them but they are a reliable source of comfort in these films, always true to their formula, even if they are consistently my least favorite element.

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At the other end of the bookend is “Forgotten Man” which is what the entire film leads up to. LeRoy and the screenwriters make sure it is built up with mentions to the number and its purpose throughout. It closes the film, though I believe it was originally meant to be the first number but Jack Warner decided to switch the two. We don’t even go back to the frivolous romantic comedy. Just as you’ve lost yourself in Berkeley’s shapes and synchronicity, Warner slams you with Blondell’s bottom dollar prostitute. Straits are so dire, it has even infiltrated purified escapist cinema; now what do you say to that? The normally fantastical world of the musical, especially in the earlier decades of film, is used here to acknowledge not just the state of things, but specific groups that were boldly political to highlight such as the plight of women and war veterans left adrift despite giving so much to their country.

I need to watch 42nd Street again (I’ve seen it twice) to see which I prefer, but Footlight Parade will always remain my favorite Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley musical because the presence of James Cagney is unbeatable by a mile as far as I’m concerned. But that shouldn’t be seen as something lacking in Gold Diggers, which is just as pleasurable now as it must have been then.

Viewings & Rewatches: February 17th-23rd, 2013


Rewatches:

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#16. Zero for Conduct (1933, Vigo)
First Seen in: 2006

Playful anarchy executed with a boisterous celebration of freedom in all its forms. I personally prefer this to L’Atalante because of the way poeticism becomes linked to unbridled youth. This is a highly personal work from Vigo harking back to his days being schlupped around boarding schools and his dead father’s anarchist ideology. There is a tight scenic structure but the content within each scene has the opposite feel, that of carefree openness. Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman extensively use high overhead shots to observe the boys as a scurrying gleefully undisciplined unit and the efforts by authority figures to rework them into rigid awkward symmetry. The overhead shots allow us to see with a pragmatic eye how unnatural the rigidity feels to us and the boys. Anarchism is displayed as a joyous arena where freedom simply entails the natural state of things reclaiming itself. Formally, Vigo reinforces this disposition where magic tricks and feats of experimentation are used as a form of communication both for the director and for the young boys. I’m fascinated by the matter-of-fact homosexuality suggested between effeminate Tabard and older Bruel.

Jean Daste, who I had a major crush on when I first saw this (more here than in L’Atalante) and still do, is an odd duck in this black and white spectrum of instigators and authority figures. He supports the boys, an adult who never really grew up and is really uncomfortable as an authority figure, rejecting it outright most of the time. He has his head in the clouds and uses his body as a playful instrument just like the boys, communicating in headstands and skips.

The pillow fight scene is justifiably the most famous and it was the only thing I remembered about it from my first viewing. It is fixes a moment in time using slow-motion with its otherwordly double inverted score by Maurice Jaubert. There are few moments in film that reach this level of majesty projecting a mythological triumph with its floating feathers and use of nudity.

Gold Diggers of 1933

#16. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)
First Seen in: 2009

Reintroduction Post #4: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/reintroduction-4-the-gold-diggers-of-1933-1933-leroy/

Film Title: A Serious Man

#18. A Serious Man (2009, Coen Brothers)
First Seen in: 2009 in theaters

I wrote a review of this when I first saw it. It’s very poorly written. This firmly holds its place as my second favorite Coen Brothers film. It ponders the impossible question of ‘what does it all mean’ through the examination of the Jewish faith. It even starts with a made-up Yiddish folktale that doesn’t exactly connect in theme, but in religion. It uses vague surrealism and repetition of conflict, images and sound to feel like Larry and us are struck in some sort of spiraling nightmare. What he’s actually going through is what most people go through at some point in their lives (there’s no real plot here), but the Coens present it as something like an existential vortex. A considerable reason for me loving this film as much as I do is Michael Stuhlbarg. It’s kind of absurd just how much of a crush I have on this man. He’s also the reason that Rothstein is my favorite character on Boardwalk Empire (along with Richard of course). He fails to gain leverage in any conversation, all of which are two-person scenes. It’s a mostly reactive performance requiring lots of confused frustration and it’s one of my favorite performances by any actor. Shout-out to Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman. And that whopper of an ending still packs a punch even by their standards.

black swan

#19. Black Swan (2010, Aronofsky) First Seen in: 2010, first day in theaters

Yeah, I still really love this. I wrote a big long review of it when it came out (which can be found on this blog) so I won’t really write much else here. It deals in repetition, the building blocks of ballet. And it mixes its over-the-top visceral subjectivity with a documentary-like realism in its cinematography and performances. Winona Ryder is absurdly underused (like Laura Dern in The Master level underused), but she does get to have a temper tantrum, get wasted, call Natalie Portman a whore and stab herself in the face with a nail file, all in what amounts to five minutes of screen time. Now that’s mileage.

New-To-Me:

la pirogue

#29. The Pirogue (2013, Toure): B+/B
Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/moussa-toures-la-pirogue-piff-2013/

walking and talking

#29. Walking and Talking (1996, Holofcener): A-

I had some thoughts jotted down but I lost them all but suffice it to say I’m so happy to have finally seen this, and it’s certainly one of my favorite indie films of the 90’s. It has everything I gravitate towards. Honestly flawed and self-involved women coping with their own problems.

Smile

#30. Smile (1975, Ritchie): A

A brutally shrewd satire that pities its characters and lambasts the endlessly contradictory social and cultural rituals that flourish in America. There are so many moments in this film where the jokes cut so damn deep. The laughs carry more than a hint of uncomfortable bite and they often surprise. Just look at that last shot for a prime example. It’s a bold gut-punch of a statement in a film that’s full of them. Satirizing beauty pageants seems like an easy target, and it is, but what Smile does to layer everything is shine its spotlight on the adults involved in the Santa Rosa ceremony. Their lives are a pit of denial, none more so than Bruce Dern in a turn that deserves all the recognition in the world. His Big Bob Freelander is sort of an adult example of someone who lives by the superficial ideals set forth in the Young Miss America pageant. Ideals that sound good on paper, except when you realize those traits don’t make a person, even less so when you want everyone to commit to the same ones.

As for the girls in the competition, they are all mixed up inside, conforming to what others want of them without really examining the end game. They are told to be individual but what the judges really want is conformity, thus perverting altruistic traits into something meaningless. In the judges conference, we see a montage of many girls saying they want to help others. The one dissenter who never brings her answers in that direction (our main contestant Robin played by Joan Prather), is then led by the judges to say she wants to help others, much to their satisfaction. It’s a brilliant moment, one of many, and these moments work so perfectly because you don’t see them coming, making you feel their impact even more.

Lastly, Michael Ritchie never focuses too much on the competition, which highlights the pointlessness of it. The climax of Smile is as you would expect, with the announcement of the winners. But despite knowing that Robin and Doria (a young Annette O’ Toole) want to win, you feel absolutely no stakes in the reveal. And that’s exactly the point. As the girls scream and cry, hiding their own disappointment with sheer fake energy, we feel the emptiness of it all. Smile is unflinching with its bleak humor, pulling back the curtain on blind optimism and contradictory values, specifically in small-town America.

After the Wedding

#31. After the Wedding (2007, Bier): A-

Bring your hankies everyone. Bring your damn hankies to this one. And go into it knowing little. What looks like a soap opera on paper is deftly handled by Bier. The seemingly melodramatic turns go beyond the jolt and into their thematically tricky motivations and what it all means for the characters. The past catches up with Mads Mikkelsen, showing him inextricably linked to two decades previous. After the Wedding welds connections and peels back intent to devastating effect. The cumulative weight of it all hits at exactly the right moments. Using money for personal gain is unconventionally addressed, looked at from a new angle. What lies behind the motivation to help others and does it remain appropriate when it entails making decisions for other people? An ever-shifting interpersonal drama, shot by Bier with ruggedly Dogme overcast, with stellar performances from all four leads.

Happy People

#32. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Herzog & Vasyukov): C+

Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/catherine-reviews-werner-herzog-and-dimitry-vasylukovs-happy-people-a-year-in-the-taiga-piff-2013-review/

the love parade

#33. The Love Parade (1929, Lubitsch): B+/B

It’s endlessly impressive how much of Lubitsch’s wit remains fresh more than 80 years later. This is probably my favorite role of Jeanette MacDonald, as the coy, indecisive and pouty Queen of Sylvania. It’s so funny that Maurice Chevalier is considered suave. Sure he is. But he’s also all twitchy smiles and fey stammering, a ladies man who exudes different qualities than you expect. Not much happens in The Love Parade, but what does happen is centered around sex. Who is in control? The Queen because she’s the Queen. But Chevalier can’t abide husband as sole occupation. Their courting is some risque role-playing as foreplay with doling out punishments and such, all the more charged because MacDonald is serving up some serious bedroom eyes. They call each other out, all is a series of tests.

Lubitsch’s fuses older methods while making some headway with talkies technology, still in its infancy at this point. A lot of the jokes are visual, beats you would see in a silent film. But so many of the jokes hinge on sound and the film as a whole is less stilted than you would assume at such an early juncture. The songs in Maurice Chevalier films never do much for me, but I must say the numbers between Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth are physical comedy heaven. I’ve always loved Roth (and I think I’ve seen most of her Pre-Code work at this point, which means I’ve seen most of her work) and she really shines here.

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#34. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962, Levin & Pal): D+

3-strip Cinerama is trippy stuff. Photographed with three lenses on a projector that produces three strips of film, it is one of only two feature-length narratives photographed using this method (the other was How the West Was Won). It was meant to draw people away from their TV sets, giving them a more encompassing experience. It was even projected on a panoramic screen with curvatures. This format is both the reason to see it, and what ruins it. Not only is the story and the fairy tales within the story uninteresting and awkwardly performed and shot, but 3-strip Cinerama means that the whole world is crammed into every frame. There are no close-ups. There are barely medium or long shots. The format is too grandiose to accommodate even the simplest of camera distances. But it’s fascinating to see, for a while. You can even see the lines separating the three cameras. Karlheinz Böhm, ridiculous but entertaining claymation and a few wtf perspective shots kept me going on this one. Each shot felt like an overambitious diorama.

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#35. A Fierce Green Fire (2013, Kitchell): B-
Review will be posted on Criterion Cast soon

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#36. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Klein): B+
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/review-who-are-you-polly-maggoo-1966-klein/

Circus of Horrors

#37. Circus of Horrors (1960, Hayers): B-Enjoyable B-movie schlock from Anglo-Amalgamated. Well-paced and entertaining from first to last mainly because of its absurd central conceit, which is by its nature not a plot I’ve seen in another film. Trying to test the envelope-pushing in horror with scantily clad women meeting their grisly ends. Anton Diffring, a waxy British Dennis Hopper is fun. Most importantly, where else are you going to see Donald Pleasence trying to drunkenly dance with a bear only to get mauled in the process? Nowhere.

Review: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Klein)


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William Klein uses his experience in the haute couture fashion world to send it up, and what better way to start than with a ludicrous carnivalesque fashion show which puts models in rigid aluminum shapes that cut into the skin. A parodic Diana Vreeland stand-in approves, exclaiming that designer Isidore Ducasse’s work “redefines woman”. Yes, of course it does! Everyone agrees whole-heartedly, applause erupts. This is only the beginning of Klein’s satirization of the fashion world. The majority is an anarchic blast, but it tends to lose its way every so often, dipping into a shapeless kind of boredom that it always regains itself from.

People project their fantasies and assumptions onto the bucktoothed freckle-faced world-famous Polly (Dorothy MacGowan, looking like a young Julianne Moore). Prince Igor (Sami Frey of Band of Outsiders), like everyone else without knowing her, casts Polly in his delusional fractured fairy tale which takes place in his smorgasbord installation piece of a room. The idea of the trend being merely projected onto the model, thus taking the person out of the equation, is still relevant today, if not quite as starkly. What I mean is that the mid-to-late sixties had such an identifiable modish style that doesn’t quite make any specific equivalent today. But most of the ideals Klein deconstructs are still highly relevant and thus really amusing to see.

I wish I could cut the fat off of Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? because Klein has a tendency to spin his wheels, making a good portion of this a scattershot byproduct of his central ideas. It’s best when you consider various cohesive but still loyally loop-de-loo segments. It’s got lots of French New Wavy flash, but is on the whole more collectively experimental. You don’t really know what you’ll see next; it doesn’t have any forward motion and that’s part of the fun and part of the problem. He likes to exaggerate, cramming lots of people into his frames or using shots that make their indelible mark. One that sticks out is the line of women all in the Twiggyesque makeup with a black-and-white striped mod dress with exact accompanying décor in the background. They simply are the trend and nothing else. Polly is among them, but you have to concentrate to pick even her out.

What struck me most was the faux-investigative TV show “Who Are You?” and that Grégoire’s (Jean Rochefort) dissenting opinions on fashion and models are just as much denigrated as anything else. Because as Polly shows herself to have some insightful thoughts about fashion and what it means, what could’ve been turned into a personality-revealing conversation (exactly what he purports to want) is immediately dismissed by his assumptions. He wants her to have an identity, to get at what’s underneath. He could if he actually listened to her for a minute, but he and “Who Are You?” are just as guilty as the fashion world of the way they use her to project what they want, to commodify and construct their own identity for someone who remains a voiceless cipher.

Here’s the thing. Fashion is an art. Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot. A business? Yes. But also an art. A lot like film. It uses pattern, fabric, shapes and endless technique to play, flaunt, subvert and experiment with shapes and silhouettes on the body. But with fashion, comes the inevitable fact that the female body becomes an abstracted object whose very job is to be a cipher. And with fashion comes the endlessly problematic industry, its inflated importance, elitism, gospel-like nature and instantaneous turnover. Once Polly is concreted by myth, pinned down with words, in this case the Cinderella fairy tale, her days of fame are numbered. It doesn’t have the gut-punch of a satire the likes of Smile, and I’m not sure how much it succeeds as a cohesive whole, but it has a lived-in WTF-punch all its own.

Viewings & Rewatches: February 10th-16th, 2013


Rewatches:

Rear Window

#10. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: pre-2005
I realize I’m jotting down thoughts about films that have been written about to death. But that’s what a lot of these rewatches are; classics in the canon. What to say about Rear Window? It’s the film above all other films I’d say that should and is taught in an Intro to Film course. It has all of the basics of filmmaking presented in such a boiled down masterful way that I’d be hardpressed to find a better example of the visual storytelling capable within cinema. It’s a two-hour master class.

Hitchcock always tells his stories through visuals, film being a visual medium. Dialogue for him was just another aspect of the sound. Nowhere is this more evident than here. He links the audience to the protagonist whose personal dilemmas are linked through the mini-stories being told outside his window. And it’s all about that favorite theme of voyeurism, something inherent in the act of watching films. We watch the movie, peeping in on Jeffries—>Jeffries watches his neighbors peeping in on them—>we watch the neighbors along with Jeffries linking us back to him. There’s so much of this going on in such intricate ways.

Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyheart, the composer, the murderer and his wife, the newlyweds. All of these neighbors, and when and how Hitchcock shows them, gives us internal information about Jeffries all through coupling what he sees/his reaction shots. The construction of this film is insane. Characters are linked such as Lisa/Miss Lonelyheart) through wardrobe, jewelry, reaction shots, dialogue, blocking, etc. Everything has double meaning. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the world according to Hitchcock. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Special shout-outs to:
– Thelma Ritter; nobody tells it to you straight like her.
– Grace Kelly’s introductory shot (it’s downright startling in its beauty) and her self-parade of “Reading from top to bottom. Lisa. Carol. Fremont.”
– Lisa’s sea-green suit with the white halter top. Tippi Hedren would also wear a suit of that color in The Birds.

Manhattan

#11. Manhattan (1979, Allen)
First Seen in: 2003 or 2004

This was a film that I merely liked when I first saw it as a teenager despite its reputation as a masterpiece. I liked it more this time around but I still don’t consider it in my top Woody Allen films. Its highlights are Gordon Willis’ iconic black and white photography which took my breath away every few minutes with alarming regularity. And the George Gershwin soundtrack is Allen’s best.

By mythologizing Manhattan, Allen makes the relationships going on within the city feel even more futile. He uses a cyclical pattern in dialogue and camera movement so there is a repetition of conversations that either leave the characters in the same place or with even less than they started with. Scenes like the fight between Issac and Yale are stationary because it’s a break from the sameness. Another example is that the camera settles down when Isaac is with Tracy, often allowing for a calm and comfortable stationary shot with both in the frame together. Most of the time, Allen engagingly tracks his camera around the room in one take, repeating character movement as well as who is in the frame at different intervals.

This repetition is impressive and says a lot about relationships but it never quite invests me. I cared about Isaac because I have a soft spot for the director’s self-protagonists. And I cared about Tracy a lot, who just wants to be taken seriously. She is wise beyond her years, possessing a delicate maturity.

As for Diane Keaton, well…I couldn’t stand her in this. Her indecision, insecurities and pseudo-intellect were all grating and I just found her insufferable. But the scene when Allen meets her and is similarly put off (she dismisses Bergman for God’s sake!) is the funniest in the film.

the apartment

#12. The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
First Seen in: 2005

What impresses me most about The Apartment is how much it does at once. It starts under the guise of a surprisingly frank satirical look at sexual mores of the time, but it effortlessly shifts in and out of romance, comedy and drama throughout. Without it ever taking over the picture, there is a very bleak undercurrent about where men and women stand in the facelessness of corporatism and sexual politics. The men rise through a brotherhood camaraderie that has nothing to do with actual work. That camaraderie leaves women used and left at the bottom of the picking order with unfulfilled empty promises, either unemployed or suicidal. Thank goodness Billy Wilder has made a film light enough to save its leading lady from where a different film might have left her.

If I have drawbacks from this undisputed classic, it’s that the first act drags a little for me. I start to love this film once we get past that first half hour. Jack Lemmon is wonderful in this and another casting choice would have made his situation unsympathetic. But I do admit that I have to be in a certain mood for Lemmon’s ceaseless enthusiasm. Shirley Maclaine is majestic and heartbreaking here. She knows what’s right for her but she has such a hard time breaking free. I have a significant crush on young Shirley Maclaine. The Trouble with Harry and The Apartment have reminded me of this fact.

Quartet 2

#13. Quartet (1948, various)First Seen in: 2009
Reintroduction Post: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/reintroduction-3-quartet-1948-various/

Bleu

#14. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993, Kieślowski)
First Seen in: 2003

When I saw this at 14, over ten years ago, I just saw it in the most basic manner. Sure, I liked it but it didn’t truly connect with me and I didn’t connect with it. My experience this time around classifies as a momentous occasion. Kieslowski juxtaposes Julie’s coldness and self-isolation with the warmth and lushness of its sensory images. It expresses the inexplicable and the forms grief takes. Scenes like the one where she ferociously eats the candy she finds in her purse or when she drags her knuckles painfully across the stone wall stand out as smaller but all-important examples of this. Can we cut ourselves off completely and what does this entail? Julie systematically purges herself of both her old life and her identity.

Juliette Binoche could have played Julie like a zombie, all but dead to the world. But she doesn’t; she instead plays it with a riveting and understated cold determination. She is shedding herself, trying to fit into an ordinary and hollow existence. The color blue absolutely represents the past, the inescapable link; that much is clear. But this film is so much more than that; the combination of the layered abstracted imagery, the symbols and framing, the use of filters and lenses, the linking of images and sound, the integral music by Zbigniew Prisener and that astounding lead performance. So much of the sensory experience that Blue offers is its ambiguous depiction of the internal; its oblique instinctual pull links us with Julie as well as the camera’s insistence on staying close to her. The first act is Julie’s purging. The second is her new empty existence. Her third is her reemergence. This is a revelatory sensory experience that impacts with its calm unflinching honesty and its lyrical precision.

aliens
#15. Aliens (1986, Cameron)
First Seen in: 2004

It’s going to be hard not to talk about Alien in my write-up to Aliens but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. Suffice it to say that I much prefer Ridley Scott’s film and its sterile maze of psychological claustrophobia using negative space. But I digress.

Aliens has injected a lot into the fabric of action/sci-fi/thriller films of its kind moving forward. I love the transformation of Ripley as action hero and her amount of constant agency is impressive. It works as a big loud and expertly mounted roller-coaster. Cameron is really into the design elements here, crowding his frames with machinery and the nuts and bolts of the future. Ripley stumbling upon the Queen Bee’s hub stands out as a highlight. There are a lot of little effects that I like, such as the use of strobe lights (and flashing lights in general) to represent the gunfire, adding to the visual dynamic of action scenes. Hmmm. What else do I like? Bishop, though Lance Henrickson is criminally underused. Ripley’s trauma from the events of Alien is well established. OH! And of course the sound design and effects work, especially the much-improved mobility of the alien(s) and the power loader. That Queen Bee marionette design is just….wow.

Everything involving Newt is painful and it isn’t helped with the young girl’s performance. The characters in Alien were largely undeveloped archetypes, but at least there was a variety. Here we get a bunch of jacked-up Marines, part of Cameron’s grand Vietnam metaphor, who are a largely uninteresting bunch. We are on the outskirts of their camaraderie as is Ripley and it keeps us from ever feeling one with them. The Paul Reiser character never represents the corporate threat he should have. It’s not his fault; it just feels like the script drops him before actually doing anything of note with him.

Listening to the commentary track was a real treat. Cameron covers so much ground and he’s got such a practical problem-solving head on his shoulders; it’s an educational listen.

New-to-Me:

The Trouble with Harry

#22. The Trouble with Harry (1955, Hitchcock): B-

Gets a lot of mileage out of the rural cast of memorable characters, especially the lead foursome who bands together. Same goes for the New England setting; the Blu-Ray transfer is indescribably gorgeous; the daytime autumnal season pops as if it were just shot this past November. The setting, Bernard Herrmann’s skip-in-its-step score (his first for Hitchcock), and the nonchalant shrug-filled manner in which the characters work through their predicament make up the way this comedy finds humor in contrasting the situation with its presentation. My issue is that there isn’t much variety in the humor; its a sustained understated tone mirroring Hitchcock’s British sensibility that at times feels minor, forgettable and samey. I can see why he was so fond of this one though, it’s very unlike anything else in his filmography. Arnie the kid was quite obnoxious. I love the scene where Sam asks everyone what they want when he sells the paintings; it was then that I realized I had grown quite fond of this group. And Sam’s “beat it creep!” to Arnie in the last scene had me cracking up.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

23. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1970, Schlesinger) : C

This is a somber look at two individuals involved in a tricky entanglement in which they share the same man. This man (Murray Head), comes and goes when he pleases with a half-involvement that always leaves the two (Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson who share one scene together) wanting. The point is for them to have their freedom, but Bob is the only one who really has it.

All of this sounds interesting but Sunday Bloody Sunday never takes off for me. A lot of it has to do with not being able to appreciate its cultural context as a story immediately after the Swinging 60’s, depicting the atmosphere of the troubled aftermath. But its examination felt distant and dry, so low-key as to not register at all. The dialogue never intrigued either. The only thing that held me was Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, both very good.

There is a shot I love towards the end. Jackson sits in the bottom of the frame in a chair that swivels and Murray Head is hanging a clock at the top of some stairs. She swivels back and forth, alternating between the chair taking up most of the frame and her appearing in it.

Le-Tableau-The-Painting-post

#24. The Painting (TBA, Laguionie): B-/C+
Review: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/jean-francois-laguionies-the-painting-piff-2013/

Kennel Murder Case

25. The Kennel Murder Case (1933, Curtiz): B/B-

Reprising his role for the last time as Philo Vance, William Powell completes his warm-up round for his forthcoming Nick Charles in this short, snappy and ferociously paced whodunit. This is 100% about the central mystery with no irrelevant fat to be found. It is in this way that it stands out. It moves along in such a clip that you are thankfully left with no time to work through the questionable logic of said mystery.

the window

#26. The Window (1949, Woolrich): B/B-

A unique film noir that places a child in the leading role in a take on the boy who cried wolf fable. Suspenseful with a palpable sense of increasing desperation. Bobby Driscoll sells his predicament so well and Ted Tetzlaff photographs him in prison-like shadows where stripes and cage-like shapes shroud him as he has nowhere to turn. The unglamorized setting of a lower-class New York City tenement also stands out. This is a Ralph Kramden-level run-down living space. It makes everything feel more foreboding with its narrow staircases, bare blotchy walls and leaky roofs. Would make a good double feature with The Fallen Idol; similarities in decade and child perspective but the wholly different purposes and stories would keep it from being redundant.

When Ladies Meet

#27. When Ladies Meet (1933, Beaumont) : B+Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/review-when-ladies-meet-1933-beaumont/

Tremors

#28. Tremors (1990, Underwood): BA really fun monster movie comedy that earns its cult status. These characters have lived in Perfection Valley forever, so the long-established love/hate relationship between everyone is well felt. You care because these are simple but likable characters with a sense of humor who work hard to earn their lives with everything the writer throws at them. The question of how-will-they-get-out-of-this is answered in some exciting ways and it switches up where the characters are throughout, constantly forcing them to come up with new plans. And the creature effects are fun to watch as well.

Reintroduction #3: Quartet (1948, various)


Reintroduction #3: Quartet (1948)
First Seen in: 2009

Slice-of-life vignettes don’t come around too often, so the decision to film four of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories offer a relatively rare opportunity that I always jump for. These are stories within stories about learning lessons, the inability to compromise and the endless divides and desires of men and women. Each story is mild in execution and extreme in calculated observance, making for an under-recognized and charming low-key British treasure. Each story has recognizable scenarios in a broad sense, but none comfortably align to a full-length film parallel, making these specific stories feel new and untried. I was so pleasantly surprised by Quartet that I ended up buying the VHS copy I rented from my old video store before it went out of business in 2009, when I first saw the film. I’ll write a little about each vignette in the order they appear. All are competently directed by different people, with the subject matter of each largely dictating tone. There is also a bevy of British character actors to feast upon, including some favorites like Dirk Bogarde, Hermione Baddeley and Linden Travers. There were two sequels released titled Trio and Encore. Both Quartet and Encore are currently on Instant Netflix.

Quartet 1

“The Facts of Life” (Dir: Ralph Smart)

Three times out of four, these are stories told by third-party characters who are introduced just a minute beforehand. This deepens our layer of involvement and extends the notion that these are stories being related after the fact. A disheartened man named Henry (Basil Radford) is concerned about his son Nicky (Jack Watling) and tells his friends the story of why. The teenage Nicky goes to Monte Carlo for a tennis tournament and is told by his father to stay away from gambling, lending people money and women. What adds some twist to this straightforward story about first experiences and naiveté is the way our expectations are toyed with. The father’s misleading disposition leads to a charming take on being had.

Quartet 2

“The Alien Corn”: (Dir: Harold French)

The darkest of the four, and incidentally my favorite, is about an aspiring pianist (a very young Dirk Bogarde) whose upper-class family makes a deal with him when they hear about his desired profession. The deal is this; he will live in Paris as he requested for two years with a small allowance to develop his skills. After that, a trained professional will listen to him play and say if she thinks he has any potential as an eventual first-class pianist. If yes, he can continue. If not, he he has to give up his aspirations and come up with a new family-approved game plan. There is a cousin named Paula (Honor Blackman) who loves him but he is so wrapped up in music that he has no time to think of having a partner of any kind. The discordance between talent and ambition is not something I see explored in film nearly enough. So to see a story in just thirty minutes shed light on this common but rarely explored dichotomy is so dramatically and thematically rewarding. Dirk Bogarde gives it the proper weight it critically needs to make full impact.

quartet 3

“The Kite” (Dir: Arthur Crabtree)

Another story within a story, this one opens with an enticing hook where we hear the answer to a question, and then get to see how said answer came to be. A young man named Herbert (George Cole) remains inseparable from his overly involved parents. But when Herbert gets married to a young girl named Betty (Susan Shaw), he becomes torn between his wife and his mother’s (Hermione Baddeley) disapproval of her. Just as importantly, Herbert’s obsession with kites comes to a standstill because Betty disapproves. The quirkiest of the bunch is the most memorable, but it destroys most of its charm with its problematic depiction of Betty. Generally these four stories don’t do much for women. They deceive, aren’t very understanding, have one-track minds or are in this case downright malicious. That a girl would take her husband’s harmless character-defining hobby as a potential deal-breaker is pretty awful and the story is at complete odds in how to depict her and how we are supposed to see her. At times we are asked to sympathize with Betty and she’s shown to be generally likable except for this one thing she can’t seem to move past. She is too cruelly written and performed to generate anything that isn’t hatred but it’s the unintended kind of hatred and it almost ruins the story.

Quartet 4

“The Colonel’s Lady” (Dir: Ken Annakin)

The fourth story connects back to the first via misleading expectations set forth by the characters. A colonel’s (Cecil Parker) unassuming wife (Nora Swinburne) has a book of poetry published which meets universal acclaim not least for its salacious passion. The colonel becomes suspicious, confused and frustrated as to where this material came from due to their detached marriage. It’s an amusing enough way to end the film and the main reason it works is because it realizes how empty-headed the husband is. But I wish it had been from the point of view of the wife, which would have been more enlightening and less slight.

 

Review: When Ladies Meet (1933, Beaumont)


When Ladies Meet

Pre-code; where women got to be sexually exploratory, express progressive opinions, let out their inner sleaze with zero apologies and often times get away with all of it. Ann Harding, largely unknown today, was one of the actresses that flourished during this period, perfecting the role of the self-sacrificing wife. Her characters express honest opinions and observations about marriage; opinions that come from having lived through it. When Ladies Meet is the first film with her that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. If Laura Linney acted during the Pre-Code era, she would have been that of the dignified Mrs. Harding, head always held high. Films like The Women, and apparently the 1941 remake of When Ladies Meet starring Joan Crawford and Greer Garson, are compromised by the conservative restrictions of Code enforcement. In Pre-Code, a wife’s forgiveness isn’t a virtue to work up to; it’s a habit to break.

When Ladies Meet is based on 1932 play written by Rachel Crothers. Mary’s (Myrna Loy) latest novel mirrors her real-life problems and the idyllic solution she hopes for. She’s involved with Mr. Woodruff (Frank Morgan), a married man who also happens to be her publisher. Long-time friend Jimmy (Robert Montgomery) consistently pines after her with acquired bluntness and no success. The idyllic solution in her novel that she hopes to repeat hinges on the idea that two women involved with the same man (the wife and the lover) can sit down like adults and intelligently discuss the future with perspective, understanding and grace. Jimmy doesn’t trust Woodruff and decides to mingle by introducing his wife Clare (Ann Harding) to Mary without either knowing who the other is. Then things get introspective and interesting.

This has got to be one of my favorite Pre-Codes, a sophisticated MGM comedy that sympathizes with both women involved, recognizing that domestic situations are not just black-and-white. Having Mary, a self-described ‘good girl’, involved in an extra-marital affair muddies up the virgin/whore dichotomy in an exciting way. Yes there is some status-quo maintained, but several conversations and ideas are legitimately thought-provoking for the era, all in the guise of a comedy. There is a captivating, relaxed centerpiece scene where Mary and Clare have a late-night philosophical talk and differing perspectives are hashed out. Other Pre-Code idiosyncrasies include many amusing double entendre jokes that walk just up to the edge of frankness.

If I have one complaint about Myrna Loy, an actress I always enjoy a lot, it’s that she doesn’t really make the role her own. But Alice Brady, in an eccentric supporting role is simultaneously exhausting, obnoxious and hilarious; a first-class ditz for the ages. Robert Montgomery (a favorite of mine; I could swoon the rest of my life away watching his 30’s work) has first billing and the catalyst for the plot. He tinkers with lives and then stands back to watch the sparks fly. His love for Mary is long-standing and serious, but he presents himself as a dapper joker who knows what’s best. And there’s a certain pleasure in seeing Frank Morgan in the part of a playboy who attracts lots of women to his extra-marital affairs. There were times I didn’t know quite which direction the story would go in and it’s always a delight when I sense that uncertainty.

On the tawdry/classy Pre-Code scale, When Ladies Meet falls resolutely on the classy side. It’s all well and good early in the running, but when Ann Harding enters, everything gets knocked up that extra special notch. Tawdry may often be what satisfies most in Pre-Code but When Ladies Meet proves classy can play ball too.