#98. Witchfinder General (1968, Reeves)
Depicting violence without key trade-offs for the audience i.e titillation, a focus on the build-up to and the inevitable ‘pay-off’ was a bold and hard-to-swallow conceit in 1968 (especially by those expecting a ‘Vincent Price’ movie). Hell, it still is. Michael Reeves, who died at age 25 shortly after this film’s release, took some chances with his scummy trek through an inescapably bleak world where power yields a blank check of unimaginable suffering. It’s all doled out in matter-of-fact fashion by Vincent Price, in a chilling atypical depiction of collected subtlety. There’s really nothing inherently or traditionally enjoyable about Witchfinder General but that doesn’t take away from it being a good film. Perhaps the most admirable thing about it is that it while its depiction of 17th century England is likely not a paragon of accuracy, it feels so dirty, so lived in, so meager. It steps beyond forced recreations of time periods with its low-budget expenditure and a washed out glow of pales and whistling winds. It’s not a pretty film in either content or aesthetic and Reeves makes good by sticking to his guns in this way.
99. Hoop Dreams (1994, James, etc)
Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones where the finished product is entirely different from its original conception (ex. The Up Series, Capturing the Friedmans). Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute special, only to morph into an ambitious 4-year project, collecting 250 hours worth of footage. Examining the American Dream via two African-American teenagers in inner-city Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA, Hoop Dreams develops far beyond its subject. I don’t like basketball. Hell, I don’t really care for sports. But this isn’t about basketball. It’s about the make-it-or-break-it years for William Gates and Arthur Agee, both extremely talented players. In the world of basketball, adolscence is where the stakes are highest both professionally and personally. This is more than just a dream for Agee and Gates. In an urban enviornment such as this, surviving and graduating high school are considered not give-ins but achievements that not everyone gets to experience. Success means getting out of their ‘inherited incarceration’ and making a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on them from themselves, family members, professional mentors, coaches, etc. is incaluculable and palpable. The stakes literally become life-or-death for these kids and we as an audience get wholly caught up in their victories and their strife.
The running time and the way Steve James and company assemble the film, which follows the two boys throughout their high school career, lets everything breathe. We are so used to super-structured documentaries and reality TV, that to see Hoop Dreams both construct a narrative, and acknowledge that it’s not the narrative feels revelatory. The filmmakers always take care to remind us that we are getting a sliver of a peek into their lives. Events unfold naturally and often surprisingly, being careful never to anticipate the directions the boys lives will take. We get our information presumably when the filmmakers do.
In constant periphery are the inherent and complex social and economic problems that pervade all without it ever feeling condescending to its subjects. Hoop Dreams is on-the-level and some people could learn a lesson on how to represent African-American inner-city life almost two decades later.
Included is the life-and-money-sucking meat market of the sports world where coaches, schools, recruiting agents and the like fall over each other for a taste of these kids, promising riches and waiting to suck them dry before their lives have even started. St. Joseph’s witholding of Arthur’s scholarship is devastating as is any other number of things in Hoop Dreams. This is a rousing and at times overwhelmingly emotional and involving experience that stands at the tippity-top of the best documentaries out there.
#100. Lady for a Day (1933, Capra)
Whoever haughtily dismisses this early Frank Capra is off their rocker. Because I’ll say it outright; I prefer this to It Happened One Night. That has just as much to do with how lukewarm I am towards It Happened One Night as it represents how much I loved Lady for a Day.
It’s the earliest Capra film that oozes his trademark sentimentalist formula. It’s yanks at your insides but provides just as many belly-laughs. It’s populated with character actors, mostly from the Warner Brothers lot, giving everyone a chance to shine. It’s bookended by estranged family schmaltz and is a delicious comedy of errors at its center. Warren Willam, May Robson, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks are all memorable, even if Robson is dropped in the middle section.
Lady for a Day encapsulates what I love about Old Hollywood and the singular spell it can cast. It’s a world where a superstitious gangster won’t make any shady deals until he buys an apple from ‘Apple Annie’. The film is unabashedly sentimental, completely preposterous, and a result, summarily charming.
#101. Dead Man’s Burden (2013, Moshe)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/review-dead-mans-burden-2013-moshe/
#102. Summertime (1955, Lean)
A limply dated love story can’t stop Katherine Hepburn’s poignant portrait of a spinster daring to hope for love or David Lean’s touristy love of Venice from shining through.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot post: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/hit-me-with-your-best-shot-summertime-1955-lean/
#103. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980, Roeg)
Nicolas Roeg uses his elliptical memory-based editing to great effect here as past and present reminisce, contradict, and reveal the troubled layers beneath a turbulent relationship based on conflicting interests in desires for possession and freedom. Roeg uses Art Garfunkel’s persona to swerve expectation. We presume to encounter wordly kindness from him. Instead he’s a cold demeaning asshole. Garfunkel’s lack of acting ability damages the film in some ways, but also has its advantage in the streak of indifferent cruelty he unintentionally exudes.
Theresa Russell is fiery and damaged and a force to be reckoned with. The film works against her, invalidating her claim to independence by giving her a self-destructive weakness, and by being so invested in the way Garfunkel’s obsession with her is undone by old-time masculine arrogance. It’s also got a misogynistic streak. But I think Russell’s performance saves the film from being accusingly dismissive of her perspective on life. She gets Melina. She gets that she dares to want her own life, to not be defined or owned by a man. She presents this with a conviction shakeable only in her inability to reconcile when it gets down to brass tacks. And so I got Melina and sympathized with her plight even when Bad Timing seems to want to dismiss her as an alcoholic emotional wreck. In a sense she saves the film and I mostly loved it as a result. It’s an obsessive, delusional work of in-sync connections giving way to an unresolvable avalanche. It demands more attention, as much as Roeg’s most famous works.
#104. Three Strangers (1946, Negulesco)
I’ve been wanting to see all of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet collaborations for years now. Last month I saw that both Three Strangers and The Verdict were going to air on TCM, and so I commanded my DVR to finally trap them for me. I had heard both are overlooked films to seek out and after seeing them I have to agree.
We meet the three strangers just as they converge, without context, brought together by Geraldine Fitzgerald’s frank pretend-dalliance into prostitution. Greenstreet’s expression when he sees Lorre in the apartment is priceless. Placing a ritualistic gamble on Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, each go their seperate way and we see all three (with the partial exception to sympathetic loser Lorre) knee deep in their own criminal activity, manipulation and scheming.
Three Strangers is about fate and asks whether or not destiny already had it out for these three characters. Only Lorre realizes that fate is an excuse, that you have a choice and that this choice stems from the soul of your own person. Greenstreet and Fitzgerald never had a chance because they mistook destiny for their own greedy gait which only left one path for their ends.
The film’s middle section gets away from the main three and there are troublingly less engaging times to be had when ten minutes pass and we haven’t seen Lorre, Greenstreet or Fitzgerald. But when it concentrates on any or all of them, each gets their chance to play the hell out of their parts. The film is a study of nefarious deeds and the relentlessness that comes with unknowingly digging one’s own fateful grave. Negulesco gives the film a dreamlike connective tissue which feels like an upper hand moving the chess pieces of fate into place.
#105. The Verdict (1946, Siegel)
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara and much more in future decades, gets off to a formidable start with this fog-strewn whodunit set in London starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Its twist ending is relatively evident but that in no way takes away from The Verdict and the revelation still lands. In another film, the plot set-up would lay the cobblestones for a shot at redemption. Here, it sets up a suicide run.
Lorre, playing another man who loves to dilly-dally with alcohol, is tops as usual. Really, the whole thing is a great yarn. At this point, it’s become a grand ambition in my life to be a Lorre/Greenstreet afficianado. Films with Lorre and Greenstreet headlining are more than worth seeking out, first for their existence and second because they are wonderful fare. I fear I’ve seen the best of them, although I hear great things about The Mask of Dimitrios.
Alice (1988, Svankmajer)
First Seen in: 2009
While fairy tales and unrelated cousins, such as Lewis Carroll’s works, inaccurately get categorized as fairy tales and continue to be trendily bastardized into lazy old forms, I went back to visit what is easily my favorite adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. This is another film I’d love to write about at length someday. For now, a quick basic gathering of thoughts will suffice.
To be clear, Alice isn’t a full-on adaptation and the credits even state ‘inspired by…’. It’s amusing that the most artistically rewarding take on Carroll’s work is really a decayed skeletal recreation, nothing like the dainty fantasy of the book. For Svankmajer, there is no Wonderland; only shavings, nails, wood, bones, endless clutter, keys, pebbles and the like within a decomposing house. There’s nothing wondrous or magical here in the traditional sense. The world of Alice is constructed out of a fascination with found objects, and with Svankmajer’s bizarrely unforgettable and literally eye-popping stop-motion mastery. The sound design is as crucial to Alice as the visuals are, calling attention to itself in an out-of-step way, purposely existing on a different plane.
The magic of Alice is undoubtedly in Svankmajer’s stop-motion work,which brings sawdust-stuffed rabbits, socks, skeletons, cards, leaves and dolls to unsettling life. It makes the power of Alice what we discover through sight and sound. There’s little-to-no dialogue, which is all told in narration and purposely dubbed over in English. The story is stripped to its abstract subconscious guts and thrown at us in dreamlike image after dreamlike image.
It comes back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being inaccurately categorized as a fairy tale. Sure, a connection can be drawn to fairy tales in that there is a lesson to be learned, a parable at its fantasy-laced heart. Jan Svankmajer forgoes all of this for his first feature film, focusing instead on the dream state. Alice’s curiosity and the art of nonsense is distilled into pure uncut image and sound, and as an audience our understanding of the possible is newly awakened.