Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #74-84


Will be introducing a new add-on to my capsule reviews called It’s the Little Things. It’ll just be random standout moments/quotes/design elements/etc. that don’t fit into the fabric of the capsule, but that I find notable and worth remembering.

The Man in Grey

#74. The Man in Grey (1943, Arliss) (UK)
A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Trussed up trash if you will, a thing of glorious sinful abandon. Critically mauled and seen as cheap at the time of release, today the Gainsborough melodramas read as audaciousness in their censorship dodging escapades and wildly entertaining with their decorative cruelty. Let me be clear; a lot of the material here is far more than a Hollywood studio production could think of getting away with in 1943.

The Man in Grey made me realize something that I never fully articulated to myself, which is that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse, and am generally less attracted to the strictly romantic kind where mostly decent people succumb to love and unlucky circumstance.

Period garb and the facade of distinction reveal an openly tawdry story of Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) and Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) nestled comfortably in the Madonna/Whore binary, locked in destiny.  The past and the present are linked by a framing device of second chances and seemingly meaningless trinkets. Good and bad and fate intertwined. It’s a special kind of joy seeing James Mason and Margaret Lockwood get their devilish on. The film put Mason on the map as the titular man in grey who nails the roguish and despondent aristocrat. Margaret Lockwood is in her element as Hesther, the soiled bad girl from the bottom of the social ladder. What’s striking about Hesther is her evil deeds coming from an apparent acceptance as schemer. She knows who she is, and it’s a self-honesty she twists into kismet, additionally manifesting in moments she tries to protect others from herself, hence her warnings to Clarissa. Hesther’s intentions are clear to everyone but Clarissa, and just as Hesther’s conniving does her in, Clarissa’s unyielding trust and inherent goodness do her in. The Man in Grey is an intermingling of good/bad and shared destinies.

The film was cut down to 93 minutes for US censors, and it’s easy to see why. It’s sexually open, with lust permeating everything. Clarissa’s nobility is no match for Hesther and Lord Rohan’s transgressions; their lifestyle drives the tone. The final reel features a couple of shocking demises (in fashion and action, not in their happening), by turns cruel and brutal, yet opposite in their mode of swiftness.

**Be warned, a major character, a child named Toby, is played in blackface. Even for the time’s standards of racism it stands out as particularly excruciating.

It’s the Little Things: 
Stewart Granger’s introduction, as supposed road bandit, whose forthcoming nature ends in a kiss, is sexy times.

#75. “The Wise Quacking Duck” (1943, Clampett): ***/*****
#76. “The Aristo-Cat” (1943, Jones): ***1/2/*****
#77. “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk” (1943, Freleng): */*****
#78. “Red Hot Riding Hood” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#79. “Who Killed Who?” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#80. “Pigs in a Polka” (1943, Freleng): ***1/2/*****

Cabin in the Sky

#81. Cabin in the Sky (1943, Minnelli) (USA)
Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut reveals his theater background, and is unable to fully break free from the material’s stilted trappings, further inhibited by the musical’s focus on singing over dancing (but oh how quickly he would shake this). A moralistic religious fable, so naturally there’s only so much for me to takeaway. It’s no coincidence that the two 1943 productions with African American casts puts everyone in the then-more-accessible context of musical performer. Some of the character portrayals can be seen as reductive today, but the fact that much of the cast is treated as actual people (gasp!) with inner lives and struggles of their own is leaps and bounds over the uniformly grotesque stereotypes of the time (see above).

The first hour plays around with the living and spiritual realms sharing the same space. It’s pretty tedious stuff (but isn’t Edith Waters just the most comforting presence?), with dull songs and zero momentum keeping everything on an evenly low keel. But lo and behold, the sinful jubilee of the last half hour picks up proceedings considerably with dance and merriment, Edith Waters slinking it up and generally just being awesome, and Lena Horne stunning the pants of everybody.

It’s the Little Things:
The early shot in which the camera follows gossip and song as they simultaneously move backwards through the pews

Lumiere d'ete

#82. Lumière d’été  (1943, Grémillon) (France)
We begin in a glass covered hotel, make our way to an outmoded castle, and end down in the mines with those who inhabit them. My knowledge of French cinema during the Occupation is limited, but Lumière d’eté demonstrates the common practice of secluded or rural settings in films from Vichy France. What wasn’t common practice, and what assumedly got the film banned, is its biting and considerably direct class critique. The romantic entanglements are all predicated on the loaded past or disappointment. The aristocratic characters are almost delusional and stuck in a toxic pattern. Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), the object of everyone’s affection, is a pleasant bore, someone who has ideals and desires projected onto her. That lack of interest in the central figure from which everything pivots is somewhat crucial, but the clinging broken souls, mature lyricism, and trajectory of descent are what make Lumière d’été

It’s the Little Things:
– The drunken car trek through mountainous winding roads is one of the most effective of its kind; uncommonly ominous and doomed. Like a hearse unaware.
– That early mistaken kiss between Michèle and Julien.

Eternal Return

#83. L’Éternel retour (The Eternal Return) (1943, Delannoy)
Directed by Jean Delannoy, but every inch the Cocteau (he wrote it). A romantic fantasy set largely in a secluded castle, a cavernous place where privacy is elusive thanks to meddlesome moocher relatives and their sadistic dwarf son. Starts out strong but once the love potion makes its entrance, the consequences never fully form. Despite a few nice moments, the couple (played by Jean Marais and Madeleine Sologne) feels more individualized before they drink. Afterwards there’s a fuzzy vagueness that never justifies us caring for a love borne out of a bottle. But perhaps that’s the point; that they almost become one entity and don’t need to justify themselves to each other or us. They just sort of are. It’s a beautiful film, dreamlike and hazy, taking on mythic everything-that-has-happened-before-will-happen-again tragedy. Everything feels slightly outlandish or out of reach. The third act love triangle doesn’t stand up with what came before, and the separation of Nathalie and Patrice isn’t impactful enough to get that pull from the viewer.

It’s the Little Things:
The Aryan quality of Marais and Sologne has been noted, and it’s impossible to shake once it’s been pointed out.
That adorable dog MouLou!
The moment/shot when Nathalie follows behind Patrice as he is carried out of the bar (screenshot above). 

LaMainDuDiable7

#84. La Main du Diable (aka Carnival of Sinners) (1943, Tourneur)
Papa Maurice tells a Faustian story framed by yet another isolated setting (a hotel with many nosy patrons this time) in a Vichy France film. Our protagonist painter gets fame, respect, talent and Irène (Josseline Gaël). Irène, with her below-the-belt put-downs, is crassly caricatured. I liked the way the past is tied into the present by the hand and its owner. A linear barrage of stories and misfortunes passed down through the ages. History repeating itself. But before those last act goodies, this is a standard be-careful-what-you-wish for-story, too unformed on the whole to convey the irreparable price paid for selling one’s soul. 

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #62-73


banquete_bodas_39

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

Watch-On-The-Rhine-1943-6

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

A Corny Concerto

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

Porky Pig's Feat

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

Scrap Happy Daffy

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

Wackiki Wabbit

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

Falling Hare

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

THE CONSTANT NYMPH

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

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

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

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

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

Tortoise Wins by a Hare

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

dumb hounded

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

so-proudly-we-hail

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

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

The Hard Way 8

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)


MUPPETS MOST WANTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61


Hangmen Also Die!

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

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

airforce

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

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

Old Acquaintance

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

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

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

gainsbourg_bell_nymphomaniac

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

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

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

friend6

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

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


Vivian-Maier-Self-Portrait

Originally posted on CriterionCast March 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Music Mix: 1983


Koyaanisqatsi

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

A few notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Grand Piano (2014, Mira)


grand_piano_still_a_l

Originally posted on CriterionCast March 14th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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