Reintroduction #30: Oldboy (2003, Park)


#30. Oldboy (2003, Park)
First Seen in: 2006

I didn’t realize it had been so long since I had seen Oldboy, but that’s because the film sticks with you. I believe this was the first Korean film I had seen; actually I’m sure of it. Oldboy is a film where the mark of the overused violent revenge thriller pays off in new and exciting ways, even ten years later. It’s a film filled with delirious mania but it’s strangely funny and morbidly poetic at the same time.

Choi Min-sik, one of my favorite actors, is remarkable here. It’s a performance that moves across extremes. In one scene he can be stoic and hollow and in the next feral and feverishly physical. The scene where he begs is disturbing enough to begin with in context, but his performance pushes it to another level. I’ve never seen a character more desperate.

And that fight scene, my God that fight scene. I’ve revisited that particular scene many times but it’s just….it’s not just the ‘cool’ factor associated with pulling off a long take. It’s not just that it’s a fight scene. The one take here is doing something new. The distance and trajectory of it is like a performance art piece that showcases how far someone can push their body. This is perseverance, exhaustion, rage and bodily damage encapsulated, distilled. You feel the heaving, the sweat, and agony. It’s like a manga panel brought to bloody life. Ka-Pow.

Something I’ve noticed about Park Chan-wook is how obsessive he is with characters within frames, capturing them in poses, and using framing to further articulate characters in relation to the camera and each other. It can be used for humor, to accent a moment into our memory or to emphasize character. An example of this is the how Oh Dae-su adopts the face and motto of the painting in his prison room. When he smiles in pain several crucial times throughout the film, is becomes cemented for us and is also used to enhance character.

Park also has a tendency to expand time in the interest of moments but also condenses time through editing to create a slightly dreamlike sped-up linearity at all times. It’s not naturalistic; as Park says, he likes you to feel the ‘space between shots’. This de-emphaszies plot, putting a focus on the audience simply living in the film. I think it is this that allows the audience to easily go along with its more outlandish plot elements like the hypnotist.

Park and Chung Chung-hoon drown Oldboy in a sea of rusty grainy green, a world of grimy fluorescence with carefully placed splotches of red. It exists in nearly every shot, and Chung used bleach bypass to help get the seedy underground effect. It’s a very dark-looking film, and combined with the use of wide-angle lenses help make this a warped experience.

That final scene is just devastating, one of my favorite endings from any film. The ambiguous ending has become pretty overdone in recent years, often feeling like a cop-out. But this works because it’s a no-win and as an audience member you have to ask yourself which interpretation you prefer and it’s a tough one to answer. Like choosing between horrific and horrific.

One final thought; I forgot how much I love the score to Oldboy. It thumps and lulls and sways. It supports the ‘operatic’ quality of Park. “The Last Waltz” is a track I could listen to all day long. And have been.

Review: The Crowd Roars (1932, Hawks)


Seemingly a pedestrian throwaway Warner Bros. production, but in fact a severely overlooked film within Howard Hawks’ filmography. He puts his own personal stamp on this racing film, making Joe a character always out of our reach with his near-psychotic obsession with ‘the lure of responsibility’ as Robin Wood calls it, and protecting his brother from ‘booze and women’. As a result, the film is extremely ostracizing to its women, played by Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell. Dvorak is, once again, a self-sacrificing martyr, treated at worst like muck and at best indifferently. She’s a doleful ball of tears, following Joe to the ends of the earth; it’s shameful to witness. Joan Blondell starts as her wise-cracking hip-to-the-game self, only for the film to throw that back in her face once she falls hard for Joe’s brother. It seems like The Crowd Roars is going to give them a sympathetic perspective, as they have scenes between themselves, girls consoling and giving each other a dose of the hard facts. But no. Dvorak and Blondell, two of the best there ever was, are undermined at every turn. ‘Hawksian’ women these are not, at least not in the positive sense.

But Hawks was always like this. There’s room for some awesome women in his films, but when it comes between male bonding and the thrill of occupational hazard, women are seen as sniffling encroaching clumps of threat. Disrupting the purity of maleness and subsequently blamed so that the men don’t actually have to reflect on their own self-doubt. Joe has given himself to racing wholeheartedly. And to booze and women, but that doesn’t mean he’ll let his brother Eddie do the same. Joe is a fascinating character, mainly because he’s so unreachable and self-loathing, extending his misogynistic bile onto Lee and Anne and his projecting his own self-doubt onto Eddie. Hawks infuses a lot of complex and contradictory emotions into a standard racing pic.

Speaking of racing, Hawks also embeds his love and practice of racing into the film, making sure a concentrated authenticity enters the lengthy racing scenes. It pays off. We get actual racing footage, real racers cameo in the film, and an emphasis on the dirt, the tangibility of life and the dusty closeness of death. The singular depiction of Spud’s burning flesh, the racers horrified reaction to the smell as they drive through it. You feel it. Hawks makes you feel it.

I may have major issues with it, but I also have to love The Crowd Roars at least within the Hawks oeuvre and for the fact that it’s a Warner Bros. pre-code with James Cagney (fabulous as always), Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. It can’t get much better than that no matter the circumstances.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #67-73

i'm a cyborg

#67. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006, Park)
A major departure for Park in subject matter, but his form and execution remain astutely his. Favoring the subjective, Park Chan-wook’s romantic asylum film works because he stays loyal to his deluded characters. One of the quirkiest films I’ve ever seen, it sometimes becomes overloaded with eccentricities and whimsy, but always bounces back to remind us that cutesy is not the name of the game. Each patient lives in their own universe, and Park unites them under his roof of his and Chung Chung-hoon’s camera, delighting in what makes them unique.

I love when the film goes off on tangents with the various residents, seamlessly moving between different perspectives, bringing their delusions to life. The central pair (one of whom is adorably played by Rain), are connected through their troubles, but the romance thankfully never tips into the straight-forward. Not even once. Park’s camera glides around, attentive as ever, always impeccably placing people within the frame, playing around with distance and relation. His hospital is filled with pop colors, a vibrant playground for the troubled where even the nurses and doctors barely register. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK lets the characters keep their elaborate inner worlds, using reality only add the necessary dose of underlying sadness.


#68. Samaritan Girl (2004, Kim)
Samaritan Girl reminds me that I need to see all of Kim Ki-duk’s films even though this is probably my least favorite of the three I’ve seen. A triptych telling of a story, Kim, himself a Buddhist, weighs this film down in Catholic imagery and symbolism. It starts out about one character, shifts to another and then beings the two together for the final third which shows a breakdown in communication. A father and daughter who have dealt with grief and betrayal in equally misguided ways and can’t even come together to console each other. Kim retains the innocence of the girls involved in prostitution. He allows them to be schoolgirls, one possibly in love with the other. He veers into male fantasy territory in the way he retains this innocence and the at times oversimplification of the two girls. A lot of this is made up for by the fact that the oversimplification is part of the girls varying coping mechanisms.

Kim is a divisive provocateur, known for his challenging material and the way he marries peaceful stoic imagery with extremes in content. Samaritan Girl continues this fascination. Stunning lead performance by Kwak Ji-min.


#69. Victim (1961, Dearden)
An important film that addresses the Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales, which lasted through to 1967, making homosexuality illegal. Humanizing homosexuality, being the first film where the word is spoken, and being told from the perspective of homosexual characters being tormented with blackmail and driven to suicide…all of this is pretty groundbreaking stuff. Yes, it often treats homosexuality as an it-can’t-be-helped-abnormality but it’s a product of the time, and there’s a ton of progressive rationalization going on in support of all the horrible LGBT social injustices still running rampant today.

But despite being a well-shot social problem film with a simmering lead performance by Dirk Bogarde, I wasn’t grabbed by the story or the characters. It interested me more for what it stood for but sadly it didn’t engage me.

cat and the canary 2

#70. The Cat and the Canary (1927, Leni)
You guys, Paul Leni is seriously underrated. I don’t think cinephiles give him his imagine-what-he-could-have-done due. The man died at 29 but was one of the key figures in German Expressionist filmmaking of the silent era. He brought his experimental distorted spook-fest techniques to Hollywood where he made a handful of films before dying in 1929 via blood poisoning. He also made one of my favorite films of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs. If you haven’t seen it, DO SO.

The Cat and the Canary doesn’t quite live up to the high standard of The Man Who Laughs, entirely because the film focuses too much on comedy instead of being pure haunted house horror, which I would have preferred. It being adapted from a horror-comedy play, it looks like Leni was kind of trapped as a result (whether he liked the material or not), mostly in the latter half. But Paul Leni’s magic bag of visual bedazzle is more than up to par. He does everything you can imagine, fooling and tinkering with the possibilities of the moving image to unsettle and splay the unconscious. Experimenting with point-of-view, distorted imagery, superimposed images, angles and set design, intertitles, tracking shots, etc; all of it and more. The result is that you feel the characters are caught in a haunted house illustration. The first half juggles comedy and horror really well, but the second half peters out in favor of comedy. Sad sack Paul Jones is our ‘hero; but he’s such a low-down dweeb that I was unrealistically hoping the film would pull a twist and make him the ‘Cat’. No such luck. And our ‘heroine’, Annabelle West literally has nothing to do. The entire duration has her insisting upon her sanity whilst becoming increasingly unstable. Surprise, surprise. She’s inactive from start to finish. And I lost track at just how many envelopes come into play at a certain point. So many envelopes.

But this is still enjoyably kooky and worth watching multiple times for Paul Leni’s unnerving expressionist playground.


#71. The Crowd Roars (1932, Hawks)


#72. You Can Count On Me (2000, Lonergan)
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s film debut takes a middle-of-the-road indie set-up and propels it to restrained insightful heights. I love sibling films, particularly films that explore brother/sister or sister/sister dynamics. There aren’t as many of them as there should be and they often fall through the cracks of mediocrity. But this one is deftly handled, looking at a brother and sister who lead disparate lives, depending on each other in a multitude of ways even as they push back. Their infinite grief over their parents death when they were children forever-defines and binds them as they navigate through what they may or may not want in life.

Laura Linney is prime cut for her role and Matthew “I like paperwork” Broderick is perfect casting but its Mark Ruffalo who really knocked my socks off. He’s played the irresponsible drifter before, but this is his bursting-on-the-scene role, and he plays on his ability to emit the kind of sympathy you’d have for a child. He makes you understand why Linney, besides the familial bond, constantly babies him and gives him chances. Almost as dramatically rewarding as the Linney/Ruffalo interactions are those between Mark Ruffalo and Rory Culkin. Longegan very smartly has Culkin underplay, so he’s never pulling at heartstrings and always quiet and observant, trusting the audience to understand the impact this is all having on him.

Lonergan mixes the humorous and the reflective together with well-timed perception. The scene between Ruffalo, Linney and Lonergan himself as a useless priest perfectly toes the line. Another stand-out scene, more on the serious side, is when Ruffalo and Linney meet up in the café. It’s their first scene together. She is ecstatic to see him, gleaming, and he’s happy to see her. It’s been two years. What starts as hesitant how-do-ya-dos quickly gives way to the ‘I’ve been in some trouble’ speech on guess-who’s part. A confession we see coming and even worse, deep down so does she. We realize this is a sort of cyclical conversation, raised from the grave every so often, rehashed but never resolved. Her giddiness to see him was authentic but also a front of self-denial. Maybe this time it will be different.

Also; yep, I cried during this one. Didn’t expect to, but the bench scene got me going.

Lovers on the Bridge Lavant

#73. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Lovers on the Bridge) (1991, Carax)
An exuberant burst of swirly fuzzy lights, as if we are seeing life through the eyes of Binoche’s going-blind street artist, taking life in in one last hurrah. Leos Carax makes a preposterously expensive (it’s well-known for its notorious production history as anything) ambitious love letter to Paris, that shouldn’t be oversimplified at least in his at-first glance adoration with the city. As far as content goes, this is a simple tale, one where a plot synopsis makes it sound limp and trite. But its simplicity, which favors broad and often startling poeticism, sends Carax careening with the kind of cinematic indulgence that sends me off to the stars. Starting in a pit of real-life gutter-poverty and slowly rising until the worlds of Alex and Michele feel strangely comfortable to us, misery and self-destructive tendencies included. Jean-Yves Escoffier’s camerawork is something majestic, always getting the grime and fantasy to mesh together in the same shot. He keeps up with the physical bursts of movement from Binoche and Denis Lavant, including their stunt work (Binoche’s waterskiing looked seriously life-threatening). Lights streak into each other, a semi-blind haze.

The freedom afforded by any rigid structure and the way Carax matter-of-factly handles events with no build-up, means we can never quite tell where the film is going, making it all the more engrossing. The tone is constantly shifting in subtleties and the relative enigma of the characters positions them in their own lore. The film even somehow rises above the problematic actions on Alex’s part, which in another film would destroy any semblance of attachment we have to the idea of them as ‘lovers’. What I love is that for most of the film is appears resolutely one-sided, more a dependent convenience for her than anything else. I can never take my eyes off Lavant, his acrobatic chimera grotesquery is something elemental. I could willfully digest any number of scenes again and again, and the famous fireworks sequence is bananas, the height of extravagance. I know I’m far from the first to point this out, but there are a lot of parallels to L’Atalante. It’s a force of questionably romantic, squalid, indulgent, joyous, raucous, unapologetic nature.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown 10

This is my third time revisiting Jackie Brown within the past year and up until then I had only seen it once. When I saw that Jackie Brown was being showcased on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, I already knew which shot I would choose, and it’s one I expect to pop up on several posts. But before that, a few words on Quentin Tarantino’s third feature film, on his 50th birthday. His follow-up to the game-changing Pulp Fiction commonly gets the ‘overlooked’ label, so much so that it seems to be shedding some of its underrated skin. But then I look at the free-for-all praise heaped upon last year’s Django Unchained and I think to myself, Jackie Brown may be commonly considered a great film, but compared to the hyperbole generously thrown about in regards to his latest, I’d say ‘Jackie’ still goes wildly underappreciated, at least comparatively speaking. It’s the kind of filmmaking I’d like to see him get back to at some point. It’s the last time he’s made a non-revenge centric film. Think about that. But I digress.

Jackie Brown is wound-down intimate Tarantino through and through, a rare beast indeed compared to his now par-for-the-course hyper-kinetic ultra-violent pastiche. His patient table-setting, frequently attempting to break records for sustained tension, exists in its infancy here. Sure, there’s tension, but it’s all about the relaxed feel, a stealth mellowness that digs itself into his top-notch rhythms of character and beats of dialogue. He lets the whole film breathe, even casually repeating music cues with an uncommon ease. It’s filled with two-person scenes that juggle forward-motion and exploring developing idiosyncratic dynamics, vying for our favoritism. I can’t figure out whose scenes I look forward to more; Jackie and Max, Louis and Melanie, Ordell and Louis? The list goes on. The film stands out within his filmography. It’s one-of-a-kind, dealing in weathered average folks beaten down by life or dealing in low-level comparatively low-stakes crime. And it handles violence and romance with care and surprising maturity. There’s also a healthy dose of dark humor; the scene where Louis tells Ordell he shot Melanie might be the funniest scene he’s ever done. That scene momentarily turns the film into a fucked-up screwball comedy. Basically, there’s a lot to love in Jackie Brown and it’s one of my favorites from QT.

Chosen shot:

Jackie Brown 1 Jackie Brown 2 Jackie Brown 3

Of course, of course, I’m picking the opening moving walkway shot. At first, knowing others would write about it, and surely more observantly, I sought to find another shot. There are plenty of other choices, and I looked at shots that illustrated the way violence is handled, or that showcase my favorite performance in the film, Robert De Niro as clueless schlub Louis. But I just keep coming back to that opening dazzler. And I just can’t resist choosing it.

It’s almost as if Pam Grier is bringing those LAX walls to colorful life. As Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” glides and struts into our ears, a sort of anthem for Jackie, enter Pam Grier. Jackie Brown is in essence a tribute to Grier, that female vigilante icon of Blaxploitation, and right off the bat we’re given an opportunity to bask in her presence. Profile shot, bold blue stewardess garb as iconic identifier, fixed expression, unmoving statuesque body language. Take a good look because we won’t see her again for another thirty minutes. In another minute, towards the end of the sequence, she’ll be running and rushing in a hurry to get to work on time. But in this moment, this shot, she is a noble representation of the everywoman just trying to get by.

Speaking of Blaxploitation, Tarantino uses this opening shot to establish his total reworking of the genre with his film. Tarantino does Blaxploitation?! Oh, the possibilities! Well, I’ve never seen this as his take on Blaxploitation, but rather a reworked homage, fusing the former, via exalting its reigning female icon, with a grubby crime noir tale. Take the opening of Foxy Brown as a direct contrast to the opening of Jackie Brown.

Foxy Brown 1 Foxy Brown 2 Foxy Brown 3 Foxy Brown 4

In the Foxy Brown intro, we focus on lips, eyes, breasts and silhouette, frozen and unfrozen in time, in space, in various contrasting colors. She faces the camera, winks at us and dances for us. She even multiplies! Like Roger Vadim objectifying Jane Fonda for Barbarella, the” Hit Me With Your Best Shot” pick from two weeks ago, so Jack Hill does for Pam Grier. With Jackie Brown, there’s an immediate subversion of expectations, a subdued but different minded celebration of Grier. Where the Foxy Brown opening was all about movement and close-ups, kaleidoscopic images upon kaleidoscopic images that repeat and enlarge and switch up every second, Jackie Brown’s credits are only a handful of shots, all of her going somewhere. She doesn’t have time to boogie down for us; she’s got to earn a living. Also, notice the yellow font Tarantino lifted.

But Jackie does have time to stand frozen on the moving sidewalk for us, if only momentarily, resembling that famous opening image from The Graduate. In each, the direction the characters face is not what we’re used to; right to left instead of left to right. It’s as if they’re drifting backwards while facing forward.

Where Foxy Brown celebrates Grier’s body, youth and spunk, Tarantino celebrates Grier as a rediscovered remnant, somehow more beautiful with age. I mean remnant only in the sense that she’s lived life and has some years under her belt. Isn’t it nice to see a  middle-aged black woman getting the lead in a major motion picture? It’s sad that in 2013, the 1997 Jackie Brown sticks out as a rare showcase for this, but it’s the sad truth. In its first moment, we see an African-American woman in full possession of herself appreciated and worshiped by the camera in this shot and throughout the film. No objectification here; it’s been replaced with the blind reverence of a deity. In case blind reverence also sounds like problematic gender-biased oversimplification, rest assured. Tarantino’s worship comes mainly in the form of a gift to Grier; the gift of a fully realized character like Jackie.

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For a final thought, Tarantino also couples this opening shot of Jackie’s coasting complacency and juxtaposes it with this one (pictured above) later in the film. Jackie is on her way to the drop-off point, once again with the camera moving right to left with Jackie on the right side of the screen. Except this time, she’s moving. She has determinative agency and things are looking up. Even the color on the wall matches her blue stewardess outfit.

Some runners-up:

Jackie Brown 5 Jackie Brown 6 Jackie Brown 7 Jackie Brown 8 Jackie Brown 9  Jackie Brown 12 Jackie Brown 13

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #61-66

#61. Wreck-It-Ralph (2012, Moore)

Sweet and endearing film that gets all the big-picture high concept material right on the money. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are a couple of perfect odd-couple outsiders. What the film lacks in nuance it makes up for with heart, Loaded with video-game references that thoroughly went over my head, noted thanks to my boyfriend consistently guffawing at my lack of basic knowledge. There were a couple of wrenches thrown into the plot that pleasantly surprised me. There’s an undefinable feeling that some of the film’s run time could have been put to better utilized but I’m not sure how, and the score felt irritatingly ‘now’. All in all an endearing enjoyable animated feature.


#62. Stoker (2013, Park) Full Review:

Jewel Robbery 2

#63. Jewel Robbery (1932, Dieterle)
Full Review:

Seance on a Wet Afteroon

#64. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964, Forbes)

My God, what an underappreciated film. I had been wanting to see this for several years, never getting around to it, and even had seen Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s reworking of it, simply called Seance. This did not disappoint at all. The peculiar and attention-grabbing synopsis draws you in, but it’s the intertwining psychosis of the husband and wife that drive the film. Kim Stanley gives one for the ages as the wife whose conviction remains unmovable but whose stability inches closer to oblivion. We try to parse out where that conviction belongs in her world, which Stanley uses to chilling effect as her conviction disguises her stability throughout. Her adamant and soul-cutting demeanor are often targeted at her husband, the weak-willed Attenborough whose dedication and empathy for his wife and her current mental state have driven him to constant reluctant commitment to their plan. Every time he questions, she cuts him down. He can’t get around her. Living in their world of accommodated delusion is a haunting experience.

As great as Stanley is, and it’s hard to put into words just how great, Attenborough captivated me even more. His cold frightened stare, off-putting prosthetic nose and penchant for looking down or away at Stanley make his internal will-he-or-won’t-he-of-course-he-will debate compelling. The focus is often on his reluctance and not on her stability, smartly cementing the necessary balance between the couple into place.

You know this scheme will go wrong. The question is when and how. The answers aren’t quite what I expected and the film is all the better for it. The direction of the story keeps character first, suspense second and uses this prioritization right up to the end. That final scene will stay with you. So will the whole film, a psychological drama that tests the devotion of marriage to its limits.


#65. Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986, Haines & Kaufman)

So this weekend I got to appear as an extra in a music video for Troma’s upcoming Return to Nuke ‘Em High. Lloyd Kaufman appeared in the video and was on-set all day. I figured since I’ve only seen 3 Troma films, I should probably see more. So last night my boyfriend and I sat down and had ourselves a Troma double feature of 2 films I’d been meaning to see for a while. Class of Nuke ‘Em High and The Toxic Avenger.

Class of Nuke ‘Em High is a lot of fun, excelling at that Troma brand of low budget self-aware horror badness. A lot of the comedy in these films comes from the acting. A main Troma trait are reliably awful performances, but I’d actually argue the opposite in many cases. It’s a brand of acting that focuses on self-aware comedy, an art to the bad performance. So many of these actors are able to milk every line for more than their worth. So much enjoyment just comes from this. Fun b-movie schlock, that starts out a lot stronger than it finishes, but still manages to mostly live up to its cult status.


#66. The Toxic Avenger (1984, Herz & Kaufman)

The picture above is of Bozo, aka the greatest character ever. He is a prime example of a performance in which every single line delivery had me in stitches, working within the Troma brand to exaggerate every moment to its fullest potential. This was even more fun, what with the Avenger’s straight-laced superhero voice, the fitness center setting and the extreme moments of gore. Bozo forever.


Reintroductions #28-29: A Face in the Crowd & Forbidden Games

This year I’m devoting more time to revisiting films I’ve seen only once, a practice I’ve shamefully neglected. My Reintroduction posts are a place for me to jot down some thoughts and observations.


#28. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Kazan)
First Seen in: 2007

My overpowering memories from A Face in the Crowd were the beginning and the end, the major landmarks in the transformation of Lonesome Rhodes. It’s still startlingly prescient today; its indiscreetness beaming out of the screen, full-on assaulting the audience. There’s a nightmarish quality to the film, with Andy Griffith at the helm. This is an in-your-face Method-like performance, an example of the more modern style of acting to be ushered into fifties American film, with Elia Kazan’s work being a major flourish zone of the time for  actors to strut their emotive bursts. Griffith starts grating and ends grating; it’s one of the great performances, all hoarse guffaws and boundless in-your-face stamina. Griffith loads his performance with endless shadings and variations on the character’s defining traits.

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Griffith could have made the Lonesome of the beginning and end unrecognizable to each other. But Lonesome always remains Lonesome, except now he’s drunk and deluded with both megalomania and alcohol. That streak of the wandering man is erased, substituted with a quickened sense of the power of influence, of his voice. I can’t harp enough about Griffith, because his presence is what had stayed with me through the years when I thought of the film and how much I loved it. In the latter half, another Lonesome personality emerges. He has a tendency to be still in his scenes, shrewdly observant in his business suit, daggers in his eyes. The more devoted his audience becomes, the more he despises them. The performance reflects a this-could-happen-to-anyone theme. All you need is a taste.

Elia Kazan and Harry Stradling use the lighting of the opening prison-set scene to influence everything that comes after. Stradling is heavy on shadowing, highlighting the escalating monstrous presence of Lonesome and the film’s bitingly sinister edge. I had forgotten the havoc Lonesome wreaks on Patricia Neal’s (who is fantastic) mental state. So many shots are concentrated on Marcia looking at him, at first like a chanced-upon discovery, then of desire, and finally a what-have-I-created haze paired with masochistic lovelorn. The closer you are to him, the more you’ll be hurt, unless you hurt him first. A race to the finish. A Face in the Crowd is pretty unrelenting stuff. We are at the whim of mass media and ‘personalities’, choice is an illusion and we are all suckers. Both a companion piece to Network, a fellow abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter takedown of mass media, and my favorite Elia Kazan film.

Forbidden Games_best shot

#29. Forbidden Games (1952, Clement)
First Seen in: 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot post:

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Forbidden Games (1952)

Forbidden Games takes a look at how children grieve, how they learn to live in the face of death. Forbidden Games takes place during World War II, directed by René Clément with grace and delicacy.  In its opening minutes, Paulette is orphaned, her parents gunned down during the Battle of France. Her last link to the just-present is her dog Jock, but that link is dead too. She just doesn’t realize it. She wanders with her dead pet and pretty soon a cow runs up to her. The cow jump-starts her tears, but she tells farm boy Michel that cows don’t scare her. It is clear the cow is a catalyst, provoking Paulette’s emotional recognition of her newly orphaned state. In case clinging to the dead Jock didn’t make it clear, animals, death and grief now become inseparable to the child.

Grief turned into comfort. Grief poured into a child’s project. Grief as a shared way of bonding. By abstracting death into the shape of a cross, it becomes palpable and somehow reliable. Paulette and Michel don’t know exactly what they are doing or why they are doing it, but they give themselves to it whole-heartedly, stealing when necessary to help piece together their pet cemetery. They pick apart Catholic ritual and make it their own. Paulette stumbles into a farm far where the war is somewhat distant, present through newspapers, the sound of planes overhead, deserters and death from other causes. Conflict comes in neighborly squabbles. The world of the adults and children collide when their grieving indirectly escalates tensions. The forbidden games stop and Paulette and Michel are forced apart. What Michel and Paulette created together wasn’t a world of daydreams but a world where they saw themselves as blankets for the dead. Even this is snuffed out.

My chosen shot:

Forbidden Games_best shot

Michel walks up the stairs to visit Paulette who is still sleeping in her bed of white, surrounded by the greys of a modest farm life. The boy has brought her a dead chick as a present; a new addition to their cemetery. She is delighted. He knew she would be. She takes it in her hands, petting the animal. The omnipresent strum of Narciso Yepes’ score in the background as Michel looks on. ‘Are you happy?’ he asks. ‘Yes’ she replies. ‘Swear it wasn’t you who killed them?’ ‘No’. She talks about her burial plans for the animal as she continues to pet and comfort the dead thing.

Paulette is an angel in this shot. A bed of white, offerings brought to her like a deity, her hair translucent. The shallow focus makes the hay above her head look like a halo. This shot illustrates the shape Paulette’s grief has taken. This idea of grief turned into comfort. Paulette wants to be the source of that comfort for these dead animals, but really she is a source of comfort and protection for herself. In a film full of religious imagery and showing the way that symbols can take on meaning for us, René Clément makes Paulette a symbol here. She cushions her own trauma as she lies in her bed. Paulette and Michel’s way of coping with death lies at the heart of their burgeoning friendship and at the heart of the film.

Some other favorites:

Forbidden Games 3 Forbidden Games 4 Forbidden Games 5 Forbidden Games 6 Forbidden Games 7 Forbidden Games 8 Forbidden Games 9 forbidden-owl2

Review: Jewel Robbery (1932, Dieterle)

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Jewels and dalliance; that is all Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) cares about. She has an impossibly rich husband (Henry Kolker), who buys her whatever she can dream up. We first meet her in a bath, playing with bubbles, not a care in the world. That is, except for jewels and dalliance. She has what must be dozens of servants waiting on her every last need. One even carries her from the bath to her chair! Life looks like a dream from here, but of course Teri is bored. Her husband is nice but fusty and she flippantly admits that she only married him for the money. Her daily routine, in her own words; ‘in the morning a cocktail, in the afternoon a man, at night a Veronal.’ Little does she know that the dapper, potentially dangerous and therefore impossibly tempting William Powell is about to enter her life.

Powell plays an unnamed robber, a mystifying man whose smooth assuredness appeals not only to Teri, but to the female audience. You see, Jewel Robbery is basically a female seduction fantasy laid out for us in all its stimulating glory. It’s not afraid to admit the appeal-from-a-distance of endangerment or the fact that being powerless can be, surprise-surprise, a turn-on. As Powell robs the jewelry store Teri happens to be visiting, within minutes she becomes downright giddy with the whole ordeal. She beams at him, admires his panache and the way he is able to attain so much swag so quickly, and excitedly waits for his next move. Their repartee quickly becomes an elaborate foreplay where the endgame, they have both acknowledged, is sex. Forget subtext, these two are frank about what they want from each other. The film provides a safe venue for Teri’s and the audience’s fantasies to play out. One of the many suggestive lines of dialogue is Teri’s ‘nothing like a little fear to whet one’s appetite’. Her fetish for shimmering jewels, the promise of escapade and the illusion of threat come in the perfect package that is the incomparable William Powell.

Jewel Robbery feels like a film that could have only been made in 1932. It was made during that magical Pre-Code era where what women want was actually a focus, depicted without shame or denigration. Keep in mind this was during a time where the very idea that women had sexual desires was new. Today, we still have a hard time truly being able to acknowledge the infinite array of what women might want and that all forms of our desire are valid. Teri is turned on by adventure, by danger, and the purpose of the film is to play around with that desire, to eagerly fulfill it.

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Another reason the film could only have been made in 1932 is the studio system. The studio system dealt heavily in fantasy, but in a different kind of fantasy than today’s films. Today, fantasy takes the form of mystic worlds, ordinary people being pulled into unrealities beyond their wildest dreams. The studio system dealt in fantasy that fit seamlessly into a real-life setting. Fantasy rooted in glamour.

Jewel Robbery is an example of this. We are shown a world where our protagonist doesn’t have to lift a finger for herself, where jewels shine extra bright, where people appear extra soft, and where frivolity is the goal of the day. Today, we would ask ourselves, ‘why should we care about someone like Teri’. In the studio system, these characters were par for the course and we still accept them into our hearts without blinking twice. William Powell commits the most non-threatening robbery ever seen in film. Sure, he has a gun and many crooks beside him, but the atmosphere is airy as can be. His priority and pride comes from making a robbery as comfortable for the victims as possible. Robber as society guru. This kind of light comedic tone would be extremely difficult to execute in modern-day film and furthermore, it’s just not the sort of film being made today in America.

So the studio system proves the best environment for this kind of frivolity. Where else can you see William Powell put on the Blue Danube to preside over his criminal activity? And the film’s risqué content, some of the most risqué I’ve seen in a Pre-Code, could only happen in this period within the studio system.

This was the fifth of seven onscreen pairings between William Powell and Kay Francis and the first I’ve seen (I’m dying to see One Way Passage). Francis’ character skirts around the edges of vanity overkill, but her self-assuredness makes her appealing. And her delight in waiting for Powell to make his next move becomes our delight. Powell sits comfortably in this perfect bit of casting. As I said before, he is incomparable. When I started watching classic Hollywood films I remember first seeing him in the 1937 version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and it was love at first smirk. His snappy better-keep-up wit and his pug-eyed version of sophisticated mischief draw you in. Most characteristically, his mischief is always controlled, well put together, suggestive but never gaudy.

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The joy of Jewel Robbery is watching Powell and Francis and their elaborate foreplay. In their first scene together, he doesn’t know what to do with her, finally offering to take her and drop her off ‘untouched in the suburbs’. Her response? ‘Oh no, that doesn’t intrigue me at all!’ And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They go back and forth, making suggestions as to what to do with and to each other. Their foreplay becomes a dance of forthright suggestion. She wants him to do with her as he pleases. She makes it clear this is what she wants, frightened but animated, lit up by the possibilities of the unknown.

During the most promiscuous scene in the film, Teri has been brought to his apartment to make love. They have dinner first, their dynamic sparkles, reeks of the new. Then he uses a ‘shopworn’ line on her and she calls him out on it. He admits it wasn’t up to par. Teri makes sure to dismiss the old at the drop of a hat. It’s the new she’s after. Teri then says with a gleam ‘you can’t invite me to do anything. Whatever you do must be done by force’. She is giving her permission as she goads him on. He gets up, walks over, picks her up and carries her to the bedroom. She laughs and asks ‘What are you doing?’ He responds bluntly, ‘Using force’ and throws her onto the bed. She says ‘Oh please! Let’s not be in such a hurry. After all, there are so many pleasant intervening steps’.

It’s hard to stress just how refreshingly open all of these exchanges are, considering the strict limitations set into place shortly after. To put it in perspective, in 1934 onward, you couldn’t even acknowledge that a married couple might sleep in the same bed. They had to be shown sleeping in two separate beds. Here, we have two people that just met, unmarried, she’s basically been kidnapped, one bed is shown and they are frankly talking about sex whilst engaging in a kind of roleplaying scenario. Insanity.

And so Jewel Robbery, an innocuous sexual fairy-tale directed by the underrated William Dieterle, executed with an energetic liveliness and prompt at 68 minutes, enchants us as it indulges in the appeal of romantic danger. It bares resemblance from Trouble with Paradise, released the same year, but this is an under seen gem all its own. Powell makes his life as a criminal sympathetic and wholly reasonable, Francis projects her desires unashamedly and the result is a startling upfront indulgence in a kind of female fantasy. And I didn’t even touch on the marijuana use!

Review: Stoker (2013, Park)

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For a good hearty while, I had been identifying the then upcoming and now ongoing 2013 in film as the year that would see the Western debuts of three major Korean filmmakers. Right off the bat we got Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand, a comeback vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger that opened to modest reviews and little monetary reward. Later in the year we should be getting Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which may be my most anticipated film in 2013. And right up there with it was Stoker helmed by the operatic Park Chan-wook. It is bittersweet to see these directors leave their native country, flocking to the potential promise of the West, but one cannot help but be eager to see if they are further elevated, sustained or knocked down a peg by the endeavor. Stoker not only shows Park sustaining his masterful directorial credibility, but thriving and visually indulging in his trademarks to the max, bringing this twisted familial Gothic coming-of-age madhouse of a story to life.

Stoker is mainly a directorial showcase with Park taking the inherent elements within this lurid tale and heightening everything, reveling in the subjective details, the significance of objects, obsessive and self-consciously beautiful framing (thanks in no small part to regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and intricately multi-purposeful sound design. India can hear and see what other people do not, not in the supernatural sense, but in the sense that all outsiders looking in do.

Stoker is, from a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies.


Take a look at those credits. Right off the bat, he grabs us; it’s a snapshot portrait of a sequence. Moments in the life of a sullen dusky-haired loner. Nature pervades, trees are climbed, an affluent but hollow living environment firmly established. This girl hovers between carefree childhood and impending adulthood. She seems to exist out of time even as she passes said time. Her wardrobe and choice of activity make her both easy and hard to place. She is both transparent and a mystery. Each shot is beautiful and special, calling attention to its purposeful composition. Clint Mansell’s music reeks of florid romanticism, like wandering through a garden, periodically interrupted by off-key determination of the piano, but quickly quelled. The score and visuals speaks to the ripe lushness of the film to follow, and introduces the bubbling repression that will steadily erupt throughout.  You’ll know from this short sequence if Stoker is for you.

We might not know the specifics of what will motion the story forward, but the general direction is always clear. If filmed modestly, this would be an intriguing but forgettable chamber thriller. Shot by Park, it’s a lingering erotic enfoldment where sex never actually occurs, yet pervades in every single scene. India’s sexual awakening and Charlie as a sexual being are topics of particular focus and fascination. And though, conventionally speaking, there is no sex in the film, it could be easily argued that India’s imagined piano duet with Charlie more than qualifies as a sex scene. It’s treated like one, a perfect fantasy of peaks and valleys, simultaneous cohesion, release and intimate connection. Minute attention is paid to body placement, India’s mounting pleasure via the increased clenching of her crossed feet, and the passionate finger-playing of the pair’s hands. The ever-shifting Phillip Glass piece at the center mirrors all facets of this expression; sex and music are inextricably linked. It’s the most sensuous scene I’ve seen in ages, expertly constructed, focusing entirely on female pleasure, making Charlie an object of desire.

Mia Wasikowska in Park Chan-wook's Stoker

To continue with this thread, Park explores the linkage between pleasure, sex, violence and family and all combinations herein. Most emphatically explored is the link between pleasure and violence,  how it emerges in our young female protagonist and how she decides to handle this troubling realization.  The staging and use of parallel editing, the latter assumedly in the script, is used to depict key moments, keeping this linkage consistent in addition to all the other formal elements aforementioned. Just as sex isn’t featured, most of the violence is implied, an atypical tameness for Park, but it turns out the director has a flare for making us think we’re seeing more than we do.

All three major players exchange lasting looks of lust, hate, longing, sadism and suppression, fueling Stoker with the language of eyes. Pauses take on the significance of dialogue and vice versa.

Mia Wasikowska gets to shine again after falling through the cracks in both Albert Nobbs and Lawless. Her beady doe-eyes and mostly calm composure are forces to be reckoned with. Apparently the role of Uncle Charlie was written for Matthew Goode and be brings a sinister edge to his sexuality, but more importantly, he gets across Charlie’s stunted growth when it matters. He aptly balances his character’s true intentions and acts as a projection of the way India sees him. Nicole Kidman gets more mileage out of Evelyn than most would and she nails her central speech which is featured in the trailers. Still, I wish she had a little more to do and that the script put her at the level of India and Charlie. The three-tiered emphasis would have and could have been done, adding more to the central dynamics. Though “Summer Wine” certainly speaks to what drives her within the film’s timeframe.

Stoker is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.

Review: Housewife (1934, Green)


Meet Nan (Ann Dvorak). She’s ‘just a housewife’. She has a precocious turd of a son and a casually sexist husband (played by George Brent) who can’t be bothered with ‘the little things’. But of course we’re not supposed to see the husband as inconsiderate; this is the 30’s after all and open season for sexism reigns supreme. Bill works at an ad agency, but he’s stuck in a rut. Former schoolmate Patricia (Bette Davis) comes to work at the same ad agency, but in a top position; she’s really successful, but of course an independent woman must also be a homewrecker, and so it goes. She used to love Bill, but ran away to fuel her heartbreak into a wildly successful career once she heard Bill and Nan were getting married. So she’s wildly successful, but not truly happy. And did I mention she’s a homewrecker?

Bill gets rich after quitting his job and starting his own agency. The money to make that move came from Nan shopping at bargain basements for five years and happily saving, waiting until the moment Bill was ready to actually help himself. All of his success is thanks to Nan, who has all the ideas. We never deal with this; she’s just periodically referred to as a ‘clever girl’. Her ideas are completely ridiculous but they work. One of them includes getting drunk and stalking someone. OK. Fine. Anyways, with wealth comes the…desire to all of a sudden cheat on his perfect giddily self-sacrificing wife? OK. Sure. Bill starts cheating on Nan with Patricia, right out in the open for everyone including Nan to see. Does Nan do anything about it? No. Nothing. She sucks it up. Bill finally tells her he’s in love with Davis. Her response? “I’ve seen this coming”. No. Really? You’re so smart Nan. Quick as a whip. What does she do? Refuses to give him a divorce. She loves him and knows it’s just a phase.

Then Bill runs over their precocious turd of a son with his car. He’ll live but it’ll take ‘a long time for him to recover’. Now Bill wants to get back together with Nan. She says no, he’s only saying this because the precocious turd got hurt. Flash to a minute long courtroom scene. Nan is asked a question about Bill’s behavior being irrational and morose. Nan defends him. Bill owns up to being awful. They reconcile in a minute flat. The final scene; Bill gets ready for work and Nan is registering to vote in her district. Occupation? ‘Just a housewife’.

This is quite possibly the worst film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Avoid at all costs. At 69 minutes, this felt about 5 hours long. I almost stopped it several times. It’s offensive on so many levels without any redeeming qualities to balance out the dated normalcy. Oh, and there’s a blackface routine just to keep things extra awful. A most lifeless film with heavy doses of incomprehensible logic even at a basic level. No wonder Bette Davis was bitter with Warner Bros. This is what they put her on after On Human Bondage. George Brent sleepwalks through this and Ann Dvorak tries her best with a joke of a part. The things I do for you Ann. The things I do for you.