#153. The Ghost Goes West (1935, Clair)
A gentle fantastical comedy with satiric lacing in which Americans crassly gobble up cultural identity for their own amusement. Donat plays both the Scottish ghost doomed to an eternity of castle entrapment for dying a cowards death, and his down-on-his-luck descendant. This is Rene Clair’s first film outside of France, and it’s a slight but moderately enjoyable feature with some nice moments. You feel the tethered bond between the ghost and the castle, a bond set forth through Murdoch’s inability to focus on fierce Scottish clan loyalty because he’s too busy with the ladies. Speaking of ladies, Jean Parker is cute if lacking oomph as the female lead.
The film never quite comes together the way it wants to, with half-formed conflicts and a spotty focus that hinders emotional response. Donat is delightful as always.
#154. The Good Fairy (1935, Wyler)
Certain Hollywood films have a singular ability to instill a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling during large chunks of it, unreachable aloofness and do-gooder sainthood aside.
A fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman, The Good Fairy gets away with being a wistful but surprisingly lecherous romantic comedy by lifting the raunchy material to the clouds, overlaying what’s implicit with the innocent mindset of its protagonist. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story and its one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in.
The devil is in the details here and the screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview.
The Good Fairy ceases to work when it loses itself in the shuffle of redundant interplay or when it is unable to distinguish Luisa’s outlook from its own presentation. Frank Morgan, a character actor I usually love, gets to be too much when he threatens to take over the film with his reach-around stuttering through dialogue that refuses to move forward. He pulls a bit of a Charles Ruggles. The screenplay also becomes a problem in this regard. The scenes with Luisa and Konrad show two characters operating on different wavelengths. When they are onscreen together it is either magically entertaining in how far away it gets from anything resembling logic, or frustratingly static.
And as much as I love Luisa and Dr. Sporum, it is upsetting to see plain old marriage be the endpoint for a character who just left the orphanage for the first time, with a whole world out there for her to discover.
These things detract from the experience but do not stamp out the immediate connection and the unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.
#155. Mud (2013, Nichols)
#156. Passion (2013, De Palma)
When you get to the point in a prolific director’s career where he starts referencing himself, you know you are in for a good time. The reception for this film is been predictably divisive, the De Palma apologists vs. the rest. I for one enjoyed the hell out of Passion. It may be missing the titular emotion, but the way it constantly veers between satirical and fetishistic tendencies means there is always something interesting up on the screen.
It’s a remake of Love Crime, Alain Corneau’s final film, which I happen to be quite keen on. Passion is about what we see and the inherent distrust that goes along with it. De Palma says that Godard’s famous “film is truth at 24 frames a second” is nonsense and, well, frankly it is. It’s romanticized to the max. Here, he has the unreliability of the camera and the ever-watchful eye of new technologies playing ping-pong with each other, resulting in a film that feels pristine and hollow in an effective way.
Where Love Crime spends the final half meticulously deconstructing itself to the point of banality, De Palma veers into outlandish rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. De Palma generally seems to view women as otherworldly things, either to be worshiped, exposed or exploited. Here, he is fascinated with exploring what he would imagine to be the way competitive women in a heightened corporate world might power play each other. This specimen-like way of writing his characters means there is a distance with which we view everything. Isabelle and Cristine feel somewhat robotic, borne out of the playful masculine mind, and are defined very narrowly by their working relationship. That distance both hinders and helps, and it makes for a film that fetishizes them somehow un-erotically. We can see the surface of eroticism in the focus on material things, but Passion is interested the way glossy surface gives way to the unknowable world of complex mind-games between women. There’s a Louis C.K quote that of course has the kind of generalization necessary for stand-up, but it’s funny because it contains a kernel of truth: “A man will rip off your arm and throw it in the river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside your heart”. Even though he generalizes, is talking about a straight man’s relationship with other men and women, and taking into account that ‘non-violent’ is not relevant to Passion, it’s funny because there is truth there. And so Passion has a man trying to imagine this other world where two highly competitive, highly intelligent, cutthroat women go head-to-head in corporate Berlin. His imagined vision is absurd yet truthful, unreachable but highly entertaining in its mystique.
A.O Scott says in his review: “Passion is a swirl of bright color and arresting compositions, many of them involving red lipstick, high-heeled shoes, fancy lingerie, expensive Champagne and other venerable tenets of the Playboy Philosophy. Which is not to accuse the film of old-fashioned sexism, exactly. Its misogyny is the kind that can plausibly masquerade as feminism, and Passion is interesting precisely insofar as it succeeds in scrambling the distinction.” This sums up how I felt about a lot of Passion.
But most of all Passion is funny and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t on some level supposed to be. There is a satirical edge to the corporate world portrayed and I was highly entertained by the color pops, the transparent bubble of the offices, the self-satisfaction of the ad campaigns, the over-the-top tone and De Palma’s stylistic tricks of the trade which give the film a delightfully strange unreachable tone. Passion is a strange beast, wildly uneven and slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent.
For my comparative look at Passion and Love Crime: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/potential-double-feature-3-love-crime-2011-passion-2013/
#157. Anna Karenina (1935, Brown)
Greta Garbo is almost too perfectly cast as Anna, the result feeling obvious and predictable instead of iconic. Then again, I find I have a difficult time fully engaging with Garbo as a presence outside of her work in silent films. Even so, between the forever-miscast Vronsky and the fact that there is no feeling of relentless passion to take our lovers to their doom, we are left with an adaptation that stuffily if dutifully goes by the numbers. Only the first five minutes and the infamous train leap step into a place of genuinely felt storytelling. Everything else, and that particularly includes the grating Freddie Batholomew, I can live without.
#158. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Hathaway)
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling these sentimental ideas in film. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so unique within its era in filmmaking that I was swooning from the first. It helps immensely that I felt wholly invested in Gary Cooper and Ann Harding thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is vastly underrated film that I’d like to write about more someday. I implore you to see it if you ever get a chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous to look at?
#159. The East (2013, Batmanglij)
Brit Marling is rising artistically with each passing effort even though I still find her a stilted and largely ineffective presence onscreen. Like Sound of My Voice, The East puts a fresh spin on the familiarity of an undercover story, this time by setting it within an Eco-terrorist unit. This and the pared down micro-scale show Marling and Batmanglij’s preoccupation with taking genre and scaling it back while staying true to broader convention. It’s a formidable mix and it could have equally added up to a recyclable film, but there is enough going for The East to make it more than worth watching, from the writers’ eye for ritualistic detail to a problematic but intriguing loyalty the extremist characters. The structure rises and falls in quality, taking a while to thrust out an identity and then maxing out on itself in the last third. It also has a difficult time marrying thriller conventions and a preoccupation with depicting the Freegan lifestyle. All in all The East is a step in the right direction as Marling comes closer to constructing a story that succeeds in its entirety rather than nailing down the disparate parts.
Alexander Skarsgård is ridiculously convincing as a cult leader who you would follow to the ends of the Earth in a millisecond flat.
#160. The Informer (1935, Ford)
This is John Ford doing German Expressionism on a budget. It’s a simple story of Irish guilt and redemption using the visual mechanisms of silent storytelling. The fog-covered Dublin sets feeling like some kind of existential hell. It’s compelling in spots but also exhausting and not in the best way. You are essentially watching Victor McLaglen drown for ninety minutes and it is clear from the word ‘go’ that his lumbering oafish self doesn’t have a chance. Watching him self-destruct feels alternately raw and monotonous. It hasn’t aged too well but I will say that there’s nothing else like it and is unique amongst other films of its time.
#161. Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935, Berkeley)
The put-on-a-show Berkeley musicals of the 30s invariably lose something when most of the core Warner Brothers regulars are absent. When you’re left only with Dick Powell and (reliable but let’s face it, they aren’t Guy Kibbee) character actors like Hugh Herbert and Glenda Farrell there’s only so much to be done. The weak script really brings this film down. It’s understood that the story is ultimately a means to an end here but usually there’s a verve and a spice to the writing and the way it’s performed, that allows them to get away with barely justifying plot developments and romances. In Gold Diggers of 1935 there’s nothing to care about when it comes to story or character. Alice Brady is used too heavily and Gloria Stuart is not engaging as the female lead. This is Busby Berkeley’s first solo directorial effort and it’s interesting to see the way he incorporates his style from start to finish. But he also introduces the setting in a musical fashion that misleads the nature of the musical he creates. It’s jarring and doesn’t come off. The numbers are spectacular with synchronous pianos and the chaotic consequences of the bacchanal lifestyle. It’s a blessing when Wini Shaw saves the day with her sultry head in a sea of black. That incomparable first shot of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number makes it even harder to process the fact that what surrounds this number (which pushes the structure of a Berkeley number even further from stage to cinematic space to cinematic headspace to cinematic space to stage) is inescapably dull.
#162. Beau Travail (1999, Denis)
Claire Denis has a way of stripping down narrative, boiling it down to its bare essentials, to fragments of memory with almost no dialogue. Here you have the male body, repetition and ritual, repression, colonialism, the starkness of blue sky and ragged stone. The film feels ethnographic but not of the people of Djibouti; of the soldiers. It’s a film that hypnotizes, contemplating its tale in ways that are fresh and challenging. And who better to represent the primal than Denis Lavant? The coda is as good as cinema gets and it might be my favorite end to any film.
More coming soon
163. Roberta (1935, Seiter)
When you have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in your arsenal but instead decide to focus on Irene Dunne and an idiotic non-entity of a football player trying to run a fashion empire, you have taken a major misstep. And that’s what Roberta is. The Astaire/Rogers numbers are fabulous, just fabulous, but there’s only a handful of them. The rest of the film, which is the bulk, is a story so bland I almost shut the film off (something I never do). It isn’t even that Randolph Scott is boring to watch; his character is ham-fisted to the point of active annoyance. Rogers and Astaire are onscreen a lot but often as bystanders; this is criminal.
One highlight is Lucille Ball as a model during the climactic fashion show. She is an extra with no dialogue, simply modeling the gown to get her fifteen seconds of screentime. This is two years before Stage Door; she is blonde and disgustingly gorgeous.