Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #100-104


Little Odessa
#100. Little Odessa (1994, Gray) (US)

Finally getting around to watching James Gray’s films as a mini side-project while trekking through 1992. Strong performances, or rather a ‘strong group of inherently engaging actors’, and an astonishing sense of place carries Gray’s debut. Quietly stimulating start gradually fizzles into worn-out yet oblique territory, the genre focus being just enough to falter what is otherwise ostensibly a character piece. But the depiction of Little Odessa itself, the snowy streets and the all-too-real abodes, is incredibly cogent. Gray is always very conscious of how the characters exist within this environment, favoring longer takes, often from a distance, closing in to utilize actorly punctuation. Moira Kelly plays the most useless ‘obligatory woman’ character I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. The obliqueness of the story makes her next-level pointless. She’s barely there for cliche’s sake. She’s just sort of there. Decent enough film, certainly a notable debut if only because it makes me want to see what Gray does (or did rather) next.

Full Contact
#101. Full Contact (1992, Lam)
(Hong Kong)
“Masturbate in hell!!!!!” might just be the greatest movie line of all time. I think we can all agree on that.

Same year as Hard Boiled. But this is Ringo Lam; grittier, scaled down. Chow Yun-Fat, love the man though I do, is difficult to accept with a straight face as a biker punk. But of course we go with it because we love the man. Full Contact doesn’t fully kick into gear until Chow comes back for revenge after a botched deal. Anthony Wong is so damn good at playing the cowering-to-competent thief. Lots of early 90’s club action! Bullet time! There’s a glorious montage featuring Chow, a dog, workout training, swimming, and shooting bottles. There’s also a horribly shrill female character whose part consists of cackling and making sex noises. Homophobia comes through with the (admittedly fun) depiction of an effeminate gangster…who is also kind of a magician? Chow, with the rain tinkle-tinkling on his phallic knife, rides through the streets to reek havoc as if a ghostly entity.

Bad Lieutenant
#102. Bad Lieutenant (1992, Ferrara)

Harvey Keitel’s dying animal wails are the kind of sounds that stay with you. The lower depths of humanity are plumbed and then some, strung along by the traipsing sounds of unintelligible and unformed pleas. We rarely see the unnamed Lieutenant’s family. The power of the contrast between his family life and personal life is that there is no contrast. We’re past contrast, arriving at the absence of. Depravity and religion provide the Lieutenant’s indirectly motivated (much more powerful in its ‘just because’ presence) unstoppable descent into hell, the sensationalistic central crime of a nun’s rape bridging the two. More specifically, the nun’s subsequent forgiveness to the unknown perpetrators is the catalyst for a concurrent spiritual tailspin. He cannot comprehend the forgiveness of sin, and it builds to a protracted and somewhat deformed act of salvation akin to watching teeth pulled.

There are so many shots in Bad Lieutenant I love. Abel Ferrara and Ken Kelsch’s poised camerawork rests against the lack of humanity on display. The long takes let the images burn. How does the Lieutenant relate, and not relate, to those within the frame at all times? Someone somewhere suggested you need a connection to the religiosity of the material to connect to it. Well, I don’t have an ounce of that in me, but nevertheless found this a fascinating study of faith and spirituality within the morally bankrupt. A man who has lost touch with himself as human is confronted with the possibility of being judged by a higher being; blank slate, wiped clean, lifted up and out. He had made peace with hell. Salvation throws everything off. It’s not hard to see why Scorsese is nuts for this film. The drudgery and agonized Catholicism against urban decay. And with Harvey Keitel!

Speaking of Harvey Keitel, this has got to be the closest thing to an actual purging of the soul I’m ever likely to see…right? Isabelle Adjani in Possession comes to mind as a companion performance. I hereby proclaim 1992 the Year of Keitel! Naked, limp, feral, begging, provoking, whacking off, high, and making truly outrageous bets. There are no other characters (in the traditional sense) in Bad Lieutenant. They are enablers, examples, catalysts, set dressing. They aren’t taken into consideration beyond their visual necessities (even the nun, who serves as pure symbolic purpose). This is a one-man implosion. There’s baring the self, and there’s baring the self. This is like watching someone flayed open, and it’s all nasty bits and some excruciating levels of sadness existing free of audience empathy (pity though? yes).

It’s the Little Things:
– As horrifying as that drawn-out scene with the two young girls is, I could not look away from it; just 100% glued.
– My first Abel Ferrara film! I’ve had Ms. 45, The Addiction, King of New York, and The Funeral high high high on my watchlist for a long time. I have to get to these at some point.

Naked-killer-04
#103. Naked Killer (1992, Fok)
(Hong Kong)
Closing out my Crime Films of 1992 Spree and crudely segueing into the LGBT Films of 1992 section of my watchlist is this Category III film (one of the tamer ones, as this reads like safe Cinemax soft porn) from Hong Kong. Male fantasy extravaganza with lipstick lesbian assassins and the characteristic on-a-whim non-plotting but without a sustainable sleazy pull. Many Hong Kong films, from what I can observe, emphasize manic energy over all, developing as they please and throwing out, nay, demolishing, the rulebook. It’s what makes the boom years of Hong Kong film a completely unique collective entity. ADHD Cinema. But while Naked Killer is delightfully weird, and boasts fabulously retro use of color in its art direction and costumes, the relentless narrative and formal anarchy in this knowingly trashy piece gets strained pretty quickly. And there’s the uncomfortably frivolous threat of rape everywhere. But Naked Killer is the perfect example of something I’d love to see again in a theater setting one day with other cult film lovers.

It’s the Little Things:
– Seriously though, those costumes, and that purple room.
– Overhead shot of Kitty and Sister Cindy on couch
– Guy mistaking a severed penis for a sausage
– Poor impotent Pinam

Swoon
#104. Swoon (1992, Kalin)
(US)
Heavily influenced by the avant-garde strands of silent cinema (there’s a renegade spirit to the editing and an ever-present clarinet), and Carl Dreyer, master of the close-up visage against blankness. Brings together the separate entities of history (through stock footage) and the murderers Leopold and Loeb, at first wholly removed and then inextricable from each other. Swoon is about how history dictates those remembered within it, in that their crimes are only considered within the context of their homosexuality (mostly referred to as perversity’ during the trial). It’s a well-made and worthwhile point, but in a trying thesis kind of way. There’s also zero access point to any sort of potential psychological study. It doesn’t justify a full-length film or attempt to build one off its central idea, which is unfortunate because there’s real beauty to these images.

There’s a radiating glow to the stark and grainy black-and-white expressionism. The diary voice-over gives a stream-of-consciousness quality; close-up images rush to keep up with words, thoughts, and actions. But Swoon manages to manufacture swiftness while remaining entirely stolid.

Films of the New Queer Cinema have the territorial feel of the unbreached regardless of how, when, or if the content has been previously depicted. It’s something in the air that can’t be replicated or manufactured. I admire Swoon as a time capsule piece and for its formal daring, but sticking with it, even on a basic level, proved a surprising (and disappointing) struggle.

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #95-99


 

all-cheerleaders-die-international-sales-trailer
#95. All Cheerleaders Die (2014, McKee/Siverton)

Lucky McKee and Chris Siverton’s remake of their 2001 low-budget film of the same name. A shredded mess, but that still puts it several notches above McKee’s previous film The Woman (will he ever again make something approaching the ballpark quality of May?). A concoction of everything in late 90’s high school-set genre tomfoolery, with a direct-to-video feel that reflects what a mid-tier theatrical release of the time might have looked like. To say there’s a lot going on plot-wise is a giant understatement. None of it’s particularly good, some of it is downright awful, yet all of it frustratingly contains potential. The film we see at the beginning transmutes into something different every half hour. I love a lot of what’s here…on paper that is; feminist-streaked witchcraft, ladies wreaking revenge, glowing crystals and even simultaneous orgasms! Is it a snark-fest comedy or an upbeat diatribe on violence against women or a lesbian love story or a horror film about literal solidarity between women?

Perhaps the biggest problem, besides a tonal disconnect that moves forward, seemingly on a lark, is that none of the motivations of or connections between the girls harbor consistency. Take Maddy’s (Caitlin Stasey) initial undercover cheerleader revenge plan. It’s prompted by the loss of her friend Lex, who we only see in the first five minutes through video footage shot by Madd. Lex is shown as particularly annoying, and the montage fails to contextualize the friendship in any basic way. Since Maddy is behind the camera, the impetus for the story has no standing with the audience. That failure to establish connections where we’re meant to see them continues throughout. Adversary Terry (Tom Williamson) has a very throwaway episode-of-the-week baddie vibe to him.

bob_roberts-withdylansign
#96. Bob Roberts (1992, Robbins)

Political satire as horror film.  Certain satires, such as NetworkTo Die For or The Stepford Wives, are distinctly eerie in tone. And now that I’ve seen Bob Roberts, a skewering of Bush-era conservatives on the campaign trail, it can mosey on up and nuzzle itself in with that lot. Much of the said creepiness comes from Tim Robbins’s performance as the titular ‘rebel conservative’ character (although there really are no characters in Bob Roberts, just well-drawn ‘types’), an inverter and perverter of 1960’s counter-culture. He’s an empty enigma. The few times we are granted unfiltered covert access to him, what we see is curdled and rotten, Robbins with a glassy look in his eyes. Like a adult psychotic Kevin McAllister.

The ‘mockumentary’ format, usually used for broader comedy (especially up to 1992), makes up the other shuddersome airs. We are kept at a conspiratorial distance from Bob and his corrupt team (who includes Ray Wise and Alan Rickman), his folksy political persona seen from the public’s perspective. The deceitful vérité gradually shifts to doubt and investigative journalism. The cracks in the veneer start to show. There are fellow glassy eyed folk in the surrounding fanatical devotion (including Jack Black in an early role). The ‘is the camera off’ scene is alarming. A rare look into the belly of the corrupt beast, made impactful for how inaccessible said corruption is made to the audience, and thus the general public, up to that point.

Bob Roberts is largely about how the media is used and misused through politics and campaigning. Gore Vidal, playing Bob’s running opponent, basically plays himself, riffing on and mourning the general state of things (and though Vidal is engaging to watch, his running monologues directly oppose the more immediately catchy folk songs and persona of Roberts) within the loose context of the ‘documentary’. The last act, from the sketch show on, is a bit of a wash, at least compared to the rest. A mite over-prodded to its predictably hopeless conclusion. Sound is consistently used as a weapon of assault on the audience, with Robbins and the sound designers purposely blanket the film in overlapping aural layers of bullshit.

It’s the Little Things:
Shot of Giancarlo Esposito’s luckless crackpot journalist reflected in the TV, his voice and image never making it to air despite speaking the truth.

deepcover_photos_1637
#97. Deep Cover (1992, Duke)

Um, so I absolutely loved this. Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questioning where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. He’s fighting for power and money yes, but most importantly for respect amongst the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and where is the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover’s nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking cliches we’re used to seeing.

It’s the Little Things:
“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp motherfuckerrrrrr!!!” – Guess who

light-sleeper-sarandon-dafoe
#98. Light Sleeper (1992, Schrader)

A introspective man isolated within his own cityscape environment, contending with change and battling his own sense of self and place within the mess of the world. We’re used to this kind of thing from Paul Schrader, but what completely caught me off-guard here is the noted lack of nihilism. Willem Dafoe isn’t serving typical on-the-brink brood. He may have an obsessive streak and a addictive past, but he’s pleasant, well-meaning, and even keen to listen to psychics! I don’t think, in fact I know, that I’ve never seen Willem Dafoe smile this much! There’s such a natural familiarity between him and longtime associate, employer, and friend Ann (Susan Sarandon). He is alternately haunted and comforted by the past in his daily interactions, and very nervous about the future. Will Ann really leave the business this time? Where does that leave him?

Dana Delaney’s character seems comfortably past her demons, then desperately trying to hold on to her hard-earned stability. Dafoe is earnest but selfish in his persistence with her. By casting Dafoe, Schrader brings in a certain set of expectations and then sets on defying every one of them. This is a hopeful character piece in the guise of a thriller. We mainly follow the ins-and-outs of a drug dealer surrounded by and aiding the lonely and desperate folks in their crummy abodes. That last scene is very reminiscent of another 1992 crime drama, The Crying Game, and is similarly optimistic, celebrating the power of deep connections between two people.

One False Move

#99. One False Move (1992, Franklin)
Another 1992 crime drama that focuses on racial tensions, this one not as initially explicit as Deep Cover. Where Deep Cover focuses on the War on Drugs, One False Move is about latent racial hierarchies, specifically in the South, and two interracial groups on opposite sides of the law, each dealing with their own dysfunctions as they gradually move towards a bloody collision. In L.A, a trio of criminals have just slaughtered six for money and drugs; conflicted and drugged out Fantasia (Lynda Williams), horseradish hick Ray (Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the screenplay), and intelligent bespectacled sociopath Pluto (Michael Beach). Over in a small town in Arkansas the enforcers await the criminals eventual suspected arrival, which includes two L.A top brass (Earl Billings and Jim Metzler) and overcompensating gosh-darn-it rube Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton).

Starts with heavily felt and resonant murders (in an incredibly disturbing scene that manages to actually show little violence), carrying into a maintained constant tension over the threat of violence, and the when-and-how these two groups will meet (even when it becomes clear that they will spend most of the film merely in orbit of each other). Geographic markers make us aware of the increasingly narrow spatial relationships.

Once you think you’ve got a clear read on Bill Paxton’s huckster and his arc, a hidden connection recontextualizes how we see him, bringing the racial tensions to the forefront. Michael Beach is frighteningly centered, and Carl Franklin and James L. Carter frame him as such. The poignant ending, in the immediate aftermath of quick and sweeping violence marks the possible beginning of another long overdue interracial relationship, one that notably took a lot of unnecessary death to bring about.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #246-257


Here you are; my last batch of capsule reviews for films seen in 2013. My 2013 film lists will be posted within the next month. Usually I do a slew of posts including favorite and worst posters, song usages, worst films, performances, a myriad of top fives, and finally top 30 films split into 2 posts. This year I’m going to whittle down the favorite posters, worst films, and song usage into the top fives post. I’ll also continue what I started last year with a Personal Sampling of takeaways from the year in film.

new world

#246. New World (2013, Park) (South Korea)
Mob movies have to work a little extra to earn my commitment. I’m not adverse to them, and there’s actually quite a few I like or love. But it’s not a genre I automatically care about. New World, written and directed by I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-Jung more than earns my commitment. It pulls you in from the word go. It’s more about the characters and how their long-standing relationships go hand-in-hand with the choices that are made than strictly adhering to mob tropes. There is an unforeseen ripple effect that the characters can’t quite define, but they all know it’s there. The parking garage fight scene is a kinetic stunner, right up there with the final minutes of Drug War and The Grandmaster fight sequences for year-best. I seriously cannot stress that enough. All of the performances are incredibly strong, none more so than Hwang Jung-min, his doofy swagger acting as a posturing veneer. This is swift, smart, and impressive all-around. It felt like a kind of unspoken love story between two ‘brothers’; the curious coda falls in line with this reading.

Blackfish
#247. Blackfish (2013, Cowperthwaite) (USA)
Serviceable documentary that barely has to work to earn empathy, which ends up being an eventual disservice to the film’s quality. It does what it needs to do, it gets this story told. But there is an art to documentary filmmaking; they are not simply an information delivery service. And there are many conventional documentaries that succeed with flying colors. But Blackfish is very narrow, very blunt and lacking in nuance. Yes, it is gut-wrenching and very emotional stuff. Yes, it is effective. Yes, it is important for people to see. But delivering that information efficiently is not all it takes to make a great documentary; just a decent one. For instance, showing the Sea World ads is an easy potshot. Sure, show them once. But several times? Enough now; that’s lazy. What I did find the most interesting, this being an example of the film going beyond info-delivery service, had to do with the former trainers who were caught between being kept out of the loop (but sensing or knowing something was amiss), but staying on out of loyalty to the animals and the apparent relationship between them; a relationship that we come to see is part genuine and part one-way street. That is an aspect that comes through as we see the interviews, and it’s a collective experience happening below the surface of the text. It’s called layering.

I’m also intrigued by the way it uses the orcas’ intelligence as a way to gather further empathy, but not addressing the idea that all animals, mostly of lesser intelligence, kept in zoos and the like is kind of on a similar scale? It’s not a knock on the film, and yes I’m talking about going from the specific to the very broad. But as I watched it, many of the basic actions taken against these animals in their separation and captivity can all apply to any zoo or park. In one way it feels like a way to pat ourselves on the back for caring without us having to address the larger scale ethical issues at hand. It’s a rough sketch of a thought I had.

Blackfish does a nice job summing up its subject matter, but I’d have liked if it relied less on how easy it is to get its audience to be horrified by what we see as a substitute for craft.

Those Magnificent

#248. Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965, Annakin) (UK)
In theory I love the epic race films of the mid-1960’s. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a favorite of mine; a farce to end all farce. But that is the only one I like! The Great Race has its moments but is too high-pitched as a whole and this one goes absolutely nowhere. It is steeped in slapstick with machine-driven repetition and it doesn’t know how to create and/or build comic situations. It’s stuck in first gear from all angles and is too attached to the aviation accuracy (which, yes, is pretty cool and Annakin’s knowledge is palpable and evident) to craft a story around the machines. All Western nationalities are brought down to the same level of buffoonery. Well, sort of. The reveal of the Japanese pilot speaking in a perfect British accent is legitimately hilarious. Most other crass jokes fall flat. The American cowboy protagonist is a total buzzkill. But as for the good things, there’s the whimsically animated title sequence, a spunky Sarah Miles, a young (and thus very much a looker) James Fox and…yeah that’s about it.

Cutie and the Boxer
#249. Cutie and the Boxer (2013, Heinzerling) (USA)
An engaging portrait of two NY-based Japanese artists and how art and marriage intertwine and repel. I found myself very attached to Noriko, whose marriage to Ushio feels like a sad and settled kind of familiar loyalty. She’s been through so much with this man and struggles for the kind of respect she deserves as both a woman and an artist. The feeling it has of biding its time both helps and hurts the film.

Hannah Arendt
#250. Hannah Arendt (2013, von Trotta) (Germany/Luxembourg/France)
I could have done without characters stating that Hannah Arendt has no feeling about a dozen times. Hannah Arendt is consistent in its moderate interest, but it isn’t until the response to the New Yorker article finally kicks in that the film really takes off in ways philosophically transfixing. Sukowa is stern, likable, and has more conviction than the rest of us as Arendt. I particularly responded to the refreshing depiction of a healthy relationship in her marriage to Herr Blücher, and an equally healthy friendship between women with Arendt and Janet McTeer (who is awesome here) as author Mary McCarthy.

The Nanny
#251. The Nanny (1965, Holt) (UK)
Surprisingly astute ‘psycho-biddy’ film dominated by excellent camerawork by Harry Waxman and future Kubrick camera operator Kelvin Pike. It’s slightly less straightforward than I expected, which I liked, and it maintains an inescapable atmosphere throughout.

Prisoners

#252. Prisoners (2013, Villeneuve) (USA)
Presents moral dilemmas without really taking them anywhere. Feels like a season of procedural crime drama crammed into 2+ hours. On a basic level, it’s thoroughly watchable, but only intermittently engaging. Anything and everything going on with all four parents was more than a little rote, and while Hugh Jackman really gives his all, it’s a burly performance that lacks form. Jake Gyllenhaal on the other hand is compelling and magnetic in a way I’ve never quite felt from him. We know next to nothing to nothing about Loki (except tattoos and twitching!) but every moment with him feels informed in a fully-realized way. He’s tired and going through the motions but he’s still all in. The way he handles the scenes with Jackman, trying to calm him down, is mechanical, and says a lot about him without really saying anything. Melissa Leo reminds me of a Hollywood-version of a patron from my library. Which is freaky. Roger Deakins partially saves the day, making Pennsylvania a foreboding and chillingly stark place where hope seems to have evaporated and everything cuts just a little but more. A late sequence that functions as one of the film’s climaxes, features cinematography as the star. A blue-streaked and bloody race to the hospital becomes a year highlight.

Rapture

#253. Rapture (1965, Guillerman) (France/USA) 
The definition of an undiscovered jewel. Patricia Gozzi, looking like a gamine teenage Juliette Binoche, is uncut, honest, and raw as the troubled Agnes. Everything feels like a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. It’s keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The isolation and family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable and unconventional but visible all the same. Dean Stockwell is sort of impossibly good-looking in the 60’s, something I wasn’t aware of until now. Seek this out when you can. It’s sumptuous, troubling, and off-kilter in equal measure.

Dark Knight Rises
#254. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Coen Brothers)
 (USA) 
Inside Llewyn Davis uses the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), and one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart; but there’s a softness, an emotional center to this film that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.

It attaches itself to cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear the guy has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. The film has a spiritual and structural connection to both Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Oscar Isaac is a revelation. There are a lot of showier performances this year (not a knock), but Isaac might be the one that ends up sticking with me most. He’s resigned and has a chronic tendency to burn his bridges. But he’s got this stuff in his blood, and Isaac is this guy here, always suggesting a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often. If I have one complaint, it’s that Carey Mulligan’s Jean stands out as even more shrill and cartoonish than most Coen Brothers supporting characters. It’s written and played to the hilt in a way I didn’t find satisfying or successful.

Anchorman 2
#255. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013, McKay) (USA)
I liked this quite a bit overall. McKay and team have a throw-everything-at-the-audience and see what sticks kind of mantra, which lends a hit-and-miss quality to their work. This is evident in most broad comedy I like (I’m also very picky with my broad comedy and Anchorman happens to be an instance when it works for me big time). I’m not sure the sequel ever feels like a full film as it’s more concentrated on the parts, but a lot of those parts are hilarious so it’s hard to complain. It’s also worth noting that this is the kind of film that works least on a first viewing. It’s built for re-watches, the kind where you latch onto your favorite things and sort of ignore the duds.

But basically I just love seeing these guys work as these characters. Ron Burgundy feels like the role of Will Ferrell’s career; he slips into it so naturally. They all have an innate sense of timing and rapport with each other that just becomes a pleasure to watch. Carell’s role as Brick is obviously much expanded. It can become a bit much but many of its finest moments come from him. A scene where Brick shows up to his own funeral and the guys have to convince him he’s still alive might have been my favorite part. I wish a lot more had been done with the satirical elements it introduces involving the advent of the 24-hour news network. Idea kernels are there but undeveloped. And all of the racial humor fell flat for me; I’m not really sure what they were trying to do with this but it was one-note and mostly uncomfortable as opposed to funny uncomfortable. I’m also disappointed that Christina Applegate is given next-to-nothing to do. But for every failed subplot or flatlining punchline, there’s a scene that starts with Brick, Brian, and Champ laughing their asses off at Garfield comics or a delightfully random section involving sharks and a lighthouse. Such is the way of comedy, and for all its weaknesses, these happen to be man-child characters I enjoy watching, and so the performances ultimately hold this thing together.

The Wolf of Wall Street
#256. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Scorsese) (USA)
Review coming soon

YOUAINT-articleLarge
#257. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013, Resnais) (France) 
Alain Resnais’ late-career film proves he is still challenging and pushing the medium of cinema up until the last. That’s a vibrancy and inventiveness I on’t take for granted. However, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet feels limp. It calls back and forth to itself, hides and peeks out from within, but in effort of what I’m not sure and ultimately can’t seem to care. The parallel stories that come to life by a group of actors playing themselves is never involving, and the tricks on display only furthered my awareness of this.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #225-234


Playing a bit of catch-up as I’ve fallen behind in transferring these from tumblr to this site but I should be caught up in a couple of days, which means lots of capsule reviews coming your way.

AP FILM REVIEW THE WAY WAY BACK A ENT
225. The Way Way Back (2013, Rash, Faxon)
The Way Way Back gets the awkwardness of teenage male introversion, the kind where simple sentences and basic social interaction is debilitating and near impossible. It’s that time in their lives where some kids struggle to have a personality. BUT! That ends up being the problem, because turns out that our protagonist Duncan is a total blank slate. There is nothing to this character. He has yet to start having any kind of identity and the film tracks the beginning of that change. And so kudos for trying to go past the more put-upon attempts of awkward adolescent characterization. But what makes it all so much worse is the weak script, which is packed from start to finish with cliches that are not supported by much quality or strength. We’ve got the shitty stepdad, the angsty-but-beautiful romantic interest, the carefree male mentor, the summertime job, the kooky side characters, the caring but equally stuck mother, etc. If the film had a stronger script which worked with archetypes instead of lazily playing into them, this could have been a much better film. There is a scene where Duncan has to ask some hip-hop dancers to disburse and the only way they’ll comply is if he dances in front of all the waterpark patrons. It’s a scene that of course ends in applause and a nickname. It is without a doubt one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a film from any year. The first and last scenes are strong and Carell and particularly Rockwell get a lot of mileage from their characters but this mostly annoyed and grated on me.

The Iceman
#226. The Iceman (2013, Vroman)
So much potential here. A hitman who kills because he likes it, who finds himself having a human connection for the family he helped create. Two ruthless hitmen (the other being Chris Evans) who start out  as competitors and end up a freelance team. There’s a lot to like and Shannon makes the film largely compelling. But it’s too by-the-book, too focused on story when it purports to be a character study, losing sight of itself in the process. The one-scene Franco casting is incredibly useless and distracting. Winona Ryder is unforgivably wasted as ‘the wife’ though she is able to slip in some ambiguity as to what her character may know when she got the chance. It all comes back to what Kuklinski’s family meant to him and how they fit into his life yet they are too often shoved into the background in favor of the more immediately ‘crowd-pleasing’ antics of violent mob politics.

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#227. The Hunt (2013, Vinterberg)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. I had been waiting to see this for quite some time and it did not disappoint. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It reminded me of Beyond the Hills in that way. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming.

Mikkelsen is really who brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, his respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way. That church scene is UNREAL. Some of the best work I’ve seen from him, some of the best work I’ve seen from anyone in a long time. Vinterberg directs assuredly, constantly getting behind the eyes of characters, always tracking those gears. A highlight that comes to mind is the way with absolute clarity we come to understand how Klara comes to her made-up confession. This reminded me that I need to seriously re-watch Festen, a favorite of mine, and also see his supposedly failed English-language efforts which definitely have pockets of appreciators. Its ending is a far more interesting a place to leave off than where the depressing descent of the Danes would leave you to believe we’d land. Also giving really memorable work are Thomas Bo Larsen and young Anika Wedderkopp.

Computer Chess
#228. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
This is actually the only film I’ve seen from ‘mumblecore’ helmer Andrew Bujalski, and it’s an ambitious undertaking. In the simplest of terms it’s a lo-fi analog comedy (but it’s a lot of things, a muted philosophical curio) that sets itself up only to purposely deconstruct at every single turn. It strides off to little side streets, to seek out late-night wanderings. It goes full-on in its public access period piece look, using an old 60’s Sony video camera to catch a flat and fuzzy landscape, ugly and kind of eerie. Bujalski keeps this going with hiccups and a form that defies normal rhythms and expected framing. This is a film that could easily be of one-note existence but Bujalski has so many heady things on his mind and wants to touch on them. Looking back at the pioneers of late 70’s/early 80’s technology who are looking ahead, and not in a nudge-nudge way either. The oddness of the act of computer chess. Possible sentience. Conversations with creations. Cultural movements crossing paths. Getting stuck in filmic loops. Everything is slightly off and it’s hard to put your finger on its brand of off-kilter ‘reality’. It sifts through the steady monotony and looks for real meaning in a gently comedic and deadpan way. It’s sneaky and unexpected, a film that I liked quite a bit even if I don’t have the adoration for it that many do. Wiley Wiggins is just the most.

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#229. No (2013, Larrain)
A wonderful and consistently engaging film on many levels. Fuses form with the visual language at hand. Embraces the absurd humor inherent in the concept of selling democracy to people through advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. Hot diggity all that archival footage is gold. Tells story through assumedly fictional central figure Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. The film’s very focus further supports this idea as does its aesthetic low-def 80’s form. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. So yeah, I really loved this. Brings back vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

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#230. Would You Rather (2013, Levy)
I hope someone remakes this someday because it has a deliciously gruesome concept that is just jackhammered into the ground by a redundantly unimaginative script and some of the worst and clunkiest direction I’ve seen in some time. Levy is at a loss with even simple camera blocking and there’s a jammed wheel-turning to the editing and framing that feels rudimentary. There are also desperate editing techniques that splice in earlier conversations with the present happenings that are meant to keep flow. Still, you’ve got Jeffrey Combs chewing scenery as if his life depended on it and it’s reliably enjoyable to watch him try to single-handedly make up for the entire cast. Oh Sasha Grey. I want to like you but you have maybe six lines and manage to give the worst performance ever with that little. You can tell she had a bigger part but that she’s been edited to shreds in hope to salvage something kind of convincing. But no. I did kind of enjoy Brittany Snow though. But yeah no, this is a big skip.

A Band Called Death
#231. A Band Called Death (2013, Covino and Howlett)
Another doc case of love the subject matter, not the delivery. It’s a more-than-worthy story blandly told. More concerned with surface-level narrative than actually going deep into anything. Which is a shame because deceased brother David seems a tricky figure worth further exploration. Then it spends far too much time on recollections of rediscovery. I don’t need countless people detailing their reaction to hearing this music to know it’s good. The last section is dedicated to that rediscovery and yes, it’s definitely fascinating to see how the internet brings people together and bridges these threads until it gets all the way to Drag City. But full circle with the next-of-kin is a point to hit, not to dwell on to the degree this does. Fabulous and vital music though.

A nos amours
232. À nos amours (1983, Pialat)
The first film by Maurice Pialat I’ve seen. This resonated with me a lot. The way time is handled and depicted reminded me a lot of another recent viewing, Blue is the Warmest Color; in both, time moves at an unacknowledged but somewhat speedy rate. Like a steady speed train through late adolescence filled with exploratory sex and a severe and almost perverse family dysfunction. The whole thing is held in by Bonnaire; resilient, removed, testing the waters, always looking for a way out of whatever the current situation. She is impossibly young here with a wholly distinctive set of features.

The last act and that show-stopper of a dinner scene is the highlight. What rises this above other coming-of-age sex dramas (complete with baby ingenue-of-the-moment) is how Suzanne grappling with who she is and what she wants is equally tied into a domestic situation where surreal hysterics, and other complex forms of familial desire and function, are brought together under one roof. She becomes a scapegoat of blame but is also trying to fill in an emptiness, to prove herself wrong. The brother character is one of the most awful lecherous creatures ever. The scenes between Bonnaire and father (played by the director himself) are particular highlights.

Christmas in July
#233. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
Capable of igniting a ‘why don’t they make films like this anymore’ inner monologue. I tend to grapple with Preston Sturges quite a bit but this hit every checkbox of ‘things I enjoy’. Fuck ‘minor’; firing on all cylinders, this breezes by at 67 minutes as ambitious do-gooder Dick Powell is catapulted to false success by a simple prank that inspires reverence in all, simply because an advertising contest supposedly verifies a person’s importance and abilities. There’s quite a bit here about what success is predicated on and how it ties into capitalism and the American Dream. And there’s something striking about the image of a bunch of tired, smoking, arguing white guys pent-up in a meeting room sifting through shitty slogans while 2,947,582 hopefuls wait to hear their fate.

Powell’s slogan is something awful but he’s hedged all his bets on it and we are never allowed to forget it. It’s a zippy, biting riot of a film from start to finish. Powell is excellent but Raymond Walburn is the standout here. His initial conversation with Powell is a HOOT. “I can hardly wait to give you all my money” goes in the Line Deliveries Hall of Fame.

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#234. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
Proto-Before Sunrise (to be seriously reductive) as made through the studio system. Romance set in an urban landscape where an idealistic but heartfelt depiction of NYC reigns supreme. A city defined by and littered with chance encounters of whirlwind romance and milk runs. Robert Walker and Judy Garland sparkle through their (offscreen) mutually assured destruction. Minnelli’s camera glides through the masses to settle on the meant-to-be pair, further emphasizing how important setting is despite none of the film being shot in NYC.

A couple of the chance encounters fall flat such as Kenneth Wynn’s sloppy drunk and just how honeydew and on-the-nose the milkman and his wife are. And The Clock really loses something when it becomes all about the rush to get married. But it comes back around for a coy morning after sequence that is sexy, sweet, and dialogue-free. The wedding ceremony is an almost comically ugly affair and while my modern eyes wish that Garland’s tears had been about the aftermath of absurd decision-making instead of the makeshift ceremony, that’s nowhere near the kind of film this is, and The Clock remains an infectiously fated romance-drama all the same.

Top Ten by Year: 1935


About a month ago I asked followers on Tumblr to submit years in film they’d like to see me make a top ten from. The result was a somewhat addicting process where groups of ten films were semi-haphazardly gathered and posted, mostly for my own amusement/indulgence. It helps that I have a chronological list of every film I’ve seen to conveniently work off of. Then I realized that this would be the perfect project for Cinema Enthusiast! Because as much as I loved posting the top tens on Tumblr, I generally dislike posting lists without taking a relative plunge both in research and posting. Because isn’t that the point? There’s been a lot of discussion about lists within the film-going community over the years questioning their purpose, reductivism, and superficiality. All of those drawbacks are present to be sure. But I’ve been a list-maker my whole life and I view mine as a space for discussion and for personal record; there’s no playing ‘best of’ here. I see lists as a really fun way of representing personal taste as well as charting how that taste changes over time.

The rapid fire boom-boom-boom of the tumblr year posts were satisfying but ultimately brushed off. They were lists as shot-out bursts, circumventing a lot of what I get out of making lists in the first place. First off, a lot of list-making is an excuse to see more films. An opportunity to fine-tune. I don’t like posting lists on this blog without accompanying write-ups because A. that’s half the purpose and B. without them lists arguably maintain their purported problematic nature. All of this is to say that this is a new ongoing project of mine. Preferably, I hope to complete roughly a year per month or so during which I will dive into some first-time viewings, blind spots and re-watches to prep for the year at hand. I plan on concentrating on years that are particularly weak for me as my motivating factor is the excuse to, as I said before, see more films.

So that brings me to my first year; 1935. Out of all the years in the 1930’s, 1935 was my weakest number-wise. Before I started this project I had seen 13 films; now I’ve seen 25. I watched 12 new-to-me films and re-watched 7 of the original 13 I had seen. I never got around to checking out most of the international films I wanted to, so you’ll notice almost everything in this group is from Hollywood.

For each year I’ll have a list of Blind Spots; films from said year that I haven’t seen which I feel are worth mentioning. At the bottom of the post is a list of all the 1935 films I’ve seen so readers will know everything that was considered. Because yeah, there are some biggies that did not make my cut.

BLIND SPOTS: 
Toni (Renoir), An Inn in Tokyo (Yasujiro Ozu), Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Hathaway), David Copperfield (Cukor), Carnival in Flanders (Feyder), Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg), A Tale of Two Cities (Conway), Les Miserables (Boleslawski), The Million Ryo Pot (Sadao Yamanaka), Hands Across the Table (Leisen), Dangerous (Green)

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10. The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, USA)
This, not The Informer, is my 1935 John Ford film of choice. It’s an unsung slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”

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9. ‘G’ Men (William Keighley, USA)
‘G’ Men holds a fond place in my heart. It was one of the first films I watched on TCM as a teenager. It was probably the first classic film I watched that wasn’t largely hoisted up as a ‘canon’ work. And it was the film that made me fall for James Cagney. That boundless energy, nimble physicality, those ever-darting eyes. I immediately became smitten and fully engaged with him as a performer. There’s nothing much about ‘G’ Men that stands out as a film, as it lives and dies on Cagney’s presence, but it’s surprisingly fun, easily re-watchable and a perfect vehicle for the star. It takes him away from the hard-edged gangsters of Pre-Code crime and sticks him on the other side while wisely keeping his trademark spunk.  I can’t talk about ‘G’ Men without mentioning an all-time favorite classic actress of mine, a woman who doesn’t get her due today; Ann Dvorak. It’s a supporting part but seeing her and Cagney onscreen together feels oh-so natural and right.

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8. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA)
Bookended with unforgettable appearances by Elsa Lanchester, first as Mary Shelley and last as the eponymous ‘Bride’, her presence locks in the near-episodic structure and progressive genre-play of The Bride of Frankenstein into place. Because ‘Bride’ is completely mental, let me make that clear. It toys with emphasizing an anything-goes feel, taking everything from the 1931 original and sprinting off with it in another direction. Ernest Thesinger’s delectable performance as Dr. Pretorious makes Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein look like a fairly well-adjusted fellow. This film takes chances. That opening scene. The combination of camp and tragedy. All that Christian imagery. It even dares to use the original as a jumping-off point for humor! ‘Bride’ still never quite comes together for me as a masterpiece the way it has for many, but I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s the individual parts, rather than the sum of said parts, that interest me most. While Thesinger is beyond entertaining as the gleefully psychotic doctor, the aligning camp performance of Una O’Connor plays too much with my wearying tolerance for shrieking meddlesome creatures. I also cannot decide whether or not Karloff gets to speak too much. It’s a loaded and welcome next-level step for the character, but sometimes it feels like an overused addition. Somehow through it all, The Bride of Frankenstein continues to ripen with age as a has-it-all horror film. I mean my God, the sheer insanity of those final ten minutes alone.

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7. The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg, USA)
Speaking of throwing caution to the wind and going full throttle, the final collaboration between Josef von Sternbrg and Marlene Dietrich is a logical endpoint for what was a brilliant pairing of unmatched mutual self-indulgence. I saw this for the first time last year and liked it, though I found its static repetition a mite exhausting. Lionel Atwill falls for Dietrich’s Concha Perez. She fucks him over. Wash, rinse, repeat. But what I was able to have a lot more fun with, and appreciation for, this time around is the way von Sternberg/Dietrich knowingly play with said structure, pushing it to such a well-calculated extreme that it occupies its own wink-wink space amongst other films of its kind. You ask yourself ‘how can Atwill not see that she is using him, that she feels nothing for him?’ That’s precisely the point; Atwill, and the other men that get sucked into Dietrich’s path, are fully exposed as fools. Other films with scheming females contain performances that straddle ambiguity, or at least have women who convince the audience as well as the male characters. At the very least, we can usually fathom how the men get wrapped into doing anything by these screen goddesses. And Dietrich is certainly a goddess, but her performance is so knowingly transparent, her Concha so hilariously uncaring and uncommitted (her eyes are incapable of resting on anything for a second), that the film becomes an experiment in exposing the artificiality of all players involved in plots of obsession and desire.

The Devil is a Woman also has a pretty uncommon-for-its-time flashback structure where straight cuts are used to travel between past and present. There’s also lot of room for interpretation within the transparency; for me, Dietrich feels more authentically involved in the Cesar Romero character, but then there’s her decision in the final scene. And Atwill’s Don Pasqual sure does feel like the most blatant Von Sternberg surrogate of them all. There’s lots to think about. The director also gets to indulge in the kinds of celebratory chaotic carnival settings that so fascinate him, where every frame revels in the clutter and the overcrowded. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich are one of my favorite director/actor collaborations, and this last film of theirs is a caustic and cold film, a logical collaborative conclusion of absurdity and all-in creative stakes.

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6. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, USA)
Certain films carry with them 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 more often than not.

This is a fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman. 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 it’s 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 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. Its drawbacks, mainly an unreachable aloofness and Sullavan’s do-gooder sainthood, cannot stamp out the immediate connection and 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.

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5. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, USA) 
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling those kinds of sentimental ideas on film. Or really anywhere for that matter. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so distinct within its era in Hollywood filmmaking that it had me swooning from the first. I felt a rare level of investment in the couple in question played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, largely in thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is a vastly underrated film that I implore you to see if you ever get the 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? Heavenly shafts of light are often used to connect our characters through the magic of film.

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4. A Night at the Opera (Wood, USA)
The Marx Brothers at MGM was a prospect that could have potentially washed out and overwhelmed the defining anarchic sensibilities of their well-established schtick. At first glance their zippy whiplash doesn’t match up with the glossy spectacle of the studio, and there are certainly times during A Night at the Opera where those concerns are in danger of becoming realities. But the Marx Brothers stay loyal to themselves in an upscale setting, justifying A Night at the Opera as the classic it is. This was the most rewarding re-watch of the bunch for me. I first saw it a good ten years ago and was admittedly disappointed by it. Apparently I thought the Marx Brothers material was hilarious, but was troubled by the way they revolved around a plot about bland opera singers. This time around, the opera singers aren’t nearly as disruptive as I remember. I also understand enough to now know that these kinds of subplots are par for the course. That intermission-like musical set-piece outstays its welcome (I could have done without the musical number before heading into Harpo and Chico’s respective joyful solo bits) and the big-scale of the end does indeed threaten to swallow them whole. A Night at the Opera is endlessly watchable and contains some of their best bits, including a musical beds sequence that deserves to be on the same level of fame as the iconic Stateroom scene.

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3. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA)
A beautifully wry, moving, and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneak up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. It is about the realization of opportunity and potential within oneself. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. One of my favorite performers, he was an actor known for playing in extremes. This is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its very subtlety. And this in the same year he played Captain Bligh! It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting his tics are considerable. This is also an uproariously funny film. Ruggles has everything, including a divine everyone-stops-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. This is a new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a household title, as well known as the most iconic of films from the 1930’s.

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2. Mad Love (Freund, USA)
Fantastic as The Bride of Frankenstein is, this truly perverse gem is my 1935 horror of choice. There are few actors I love more than Peter Lorre (Laughton may be one of those few; yeah I’ve got a thing for the weird ones). And there are few film folk more underrated than the great cinematographer/director Karl Freund. Put the two together for an adaptation of “The Hands of Orlac” and you have not just one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films period. Also notable as Peter Lorre’s Hollywood debut, Mad Love is one of the most elegantly demented films ever made, mounting its warped sadism in explicitly frank terms. We start out at the “Théâtre des Horreurs” in Paris where we quickly learn that accomplished surgeon Dr. Gogol (Lorre) never misses seeing (or an opportunity to creepily send lots of flowers) actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), whose nightly performance seems to consist of being violently tortured. And it just gets more nightmarish and operatic from there.

Peter Lorre is priceless as Dr. Gogol, unmatched in his level of bulgy-eyed egghead menace. His work here is unsettling, exposed, and profoundly skeevy. An early scene where he involuntarily finagles a kiss out of Drake is deeply uncomfortable, a comparably chaste scene by today’s standards that manages to feel like a much larger transgression. Freund, and fellow legend of cinematography Gregg Toland, litter this film with stylistic flourish, where every torrid emotion of Gogol’s feels almost too up-close-and-personal within its over-the-top construction.

Mad Love contains indelible images in horror cinema, most prominently that unforgettable disguise Lorre uses to mess with Colin Clive. I cannot stress enough Lorre’s disguise is one of the most frightening things you will ever see. Scariest of all is the moment when Drake, hiding in Gogol’s home, sees him bounding up the stairs in his disguise with unchecked mania and a harnessing get-up that makes his relentless cackle all the more spine-chilling. I’ve seen Mad Love on multiple occasions and that moment, that realization that Gogol has returned home with her still in the house, gets me Every. Single. Time.

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1. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK)
I can never seem to settle on a favorite Hitchcock film, but there are days when I’d give that distinction to The 39 Steps, in many ways the quintessential film from the Master of Suspense. ‘Steps’ has it all; mistaken identity, dapper leading man, icy blonde, chase sequences, MacGuffin, and sexual innuendo and interplay through latent kinkiness and suggestive visuals. Perhaps what I love most about this film is how episodic it is with its precise structure. The segment with the farmer couple is a particular stand-out (a scene that is sort of a blueprint for using basic editing skills to maximum effect) . As is Donat’s impromptu speech. Or anything with Donat/Carroll. And so it goes. That apex-to-apex consistency is a rarity. Robert Donat is defiantly attractive here; flippant, amused, perfect. The dynamic between Donat and Carroll (though not one of my favorite Hitch women) may be my favorite Hitchcock romance; its remarkably sexy stuff.

It has been stated that Hitchcock films exist on the ‘borders of the possible’ and this film pushes that to its escapist limits as well as maintaining a light-heartedness. Its Scotland setting is an artificial space of pastoral fog, lots of sheep, grassy hills, and waterfalls, evoking a memorably fantastical sense of place. Starting and ending with the mysterious and fateful Mr. Memory, Hitchcock uses this adaptation to set up a world where plot is just a means to an end, an excuse for intrigue and adventure to rule the day.

Full List of 1935 Films Seen:
The 39 Steps, Alice Adams, Anna Karenina, The Black Room, Bride of Frankenstein, Captain Blood, The Devil is a Woman, ‘G’ Men, The Ghost Goes West, The Gold Diggers of 1935, The Good Fairy, The Informer, Mad Love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Peter Ibbetson, The Raven, Roberta, Ruggles of Red Gap, She, Symphony in Black, Top Hat, Triumph of the Will, The Whole Town’s Talking 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #125-130


Friends of Eddie Coyle
#125. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Yates)

Relentlessly melancholic film where chess pieces are moved through quiet back-dealings and dialogue exchanges infused with ever-maneuvering fatalism. Peter Yates’ camera gets deep into the grubby everydayness parts of Boston and its surrounding towns. Having lived in Boston during graduate school, seeing and recognizing the location work here was a high point. The camera acts as eavesdropper, always cautiously close to the proceedings. We see all relevant players and how they connect to each other and we’re never given a true access point. Because of this the film took a while to get into. But as it progressed, I found myself engaged. Robert Mitchum does some of his best work but my personal favorite was Steven Keats as gunrunner Jackie Brown (obviously Tarantino is a fan), with his neon green ride and considerable street instinct.

The Driver
#126. The Driver (1978, Hill)

Walter Hill takes the stripped-down moral code, business-only characters and sparse dialogue of Jean-Pierre Melville and marries it into American crime films. Here is an instance of ‘using Melville as a prototype of cool to build off of’ which I mentioned in my thoughts on Le Cercle Rouge. The characters don’t have names; they are defined by their predominant role within the narrative; ‘The Driver’, ‘The Detective’, ‘The Player’. Dialogue is minimal, especially on Ryan O’Neal’s end, who speaks only when it’s essential and even then in as few words as possible. These characters seem to exist only within this scenario; Adjani’s character is the only one who talks about her past, or anything personality-driven, albeit briefly. These people are fused into a world where the rules are laid out. We respect The Driver because he never breaks his code within the lawless criminal world. We don’t respect The Detective because he does break his code, that being the law that he works for.

O’Neal basically replicates that Melville idea of ideal cool, which would then be replicated and slightly modified by, to name an obvious example, Ryan Gosling in Drive (as well as much of the film). Someone who is stoic, who never sweats, knows the score, and is always in control even when he’s not. It’s a type of masculine fantasy that always has a level of masturbatory wish fulfillment to it, yes with Melville too. But! it’s a preferred mode of idealized masculine cool over other oppositional hothead macho types. Though Hill tries to push Isabelle Adjani into the uncomfortable femme fatale role, I found myself saying ‘good on her’, as I tend to do when the women we’re supposed to see as bottom of the barrel for daring to betray men go on and do just that.

The Driver’s makeup is a bit less interesting than its whole. Far and away my favorite parts are the car chase scenes, full of skidding and squealing tire with front-view and rear-view shots from the cars involved. The street lights look like floating orbs and the gleam of the road give the visuals a finishing shine. Few things satisfy me more than a great cinematic car chase. The Driver has a couple of them.

Thief
127. Thief (1981, Mann)

1980’s American filmmaking gets an early peak with one of the most electrifying debuts ever made. Where The Driver and Le Cercle Rouge are atmosphere-driven studies in the controlled ‘cool’ of masculinity within criminal activity, Thief comes striking out from the opposite direction. It is the character study of Frank, ex-convict hothead and maker of his own destiny. His dream life exists in crumply collage form. In prison he was forced to attain a state of mind where time didn’t exist, where investment in one’s own life disappears. Now he wants a wife, children, a wealthy lifestyle. When he’s got those he’ll retire. But he’s spent enough time in prison and has to make up for lost time. He’s going to hightail his success through sped-up propositions and heisting skills learned in the cooler thanks to surrogate papa Willie Nelson. Its all over for Frank the minute he compromises his code, his independence.

There are so many things to talk about with Thief. Like the title supports, Thief defines and introduces Frank by his criminal occupation. The brand of heist work depicted in the film strives above all for authenticity and the hard-edged industrial machinery that parallels Frank’s rough-and-tough masculine nature.

I can quickly get bored/unnerved of studies in hotheadedness, mainly because there are countless films that explore this type of man and at a certain point it just gets tiresome. For a girl like me, dick measuring gets extremely uncool and boring immediately if there’s nothing to support it. And to be sure I wasn’t exactly a fan of Frank. But the minute understanding of his psychology and the fact that this is without a doubt James Caan’s best performance makes it work.

Michael Mann streaks the canvas with nightlights establishing his now well-known aesthetic right off the bat. He takes the glowing orbs and gleaming streets of Walter Hill’s nighttime and pushes it into an abstract realm where streetlights become fuzzy blurs and streets are always wet so light and color bounces off of the frame creating endless mixing pools. There is so much going on in his nighttime compositions and I spent a lot of time simply looking at the textures Mann was able to create.

The use of daytime and nighttime are used as a battleground for Frank’s hopes and realities. We begin with a lot of nighttime scenes but once Frank starts to fill in those missing domestic pieces, getting closer to what he wants his life to be, the film shifts to mostly daytime. By the end when it all (as it must go) slips through his fingers, he is dragged back into the alleys, the seedy dark. We end in the middle at ground zero. At night in a domestic setting; Leo’s house. With the only way men like this know how to settle scores; with firearms and bloodshed.

So with a neo-noir film about a guy like Frank made by Michael Mann of course the woman is a mere appendage. Something to acquire. Luckily, though this is her role, that objectifying is used to make a point about Frank’s psychology, by acknowledging the quickened and put-upon circumstances, which is at least better than this being the case without it serving any other means. And Tuesday Weld’s Jessie does get to participate in arguably the film’s highlight. That remarkable mammoth of a diner scene.

The Tangerine Dream score (one of about a billion things Drive lifts from this film but that’s not news to anybody) gives everything a hypnotic New Wave underscored hum. In a scene like the final heist, where close-ups of molten bliss combine with the electronic score and a hyper-attention to the process of thievery, Thief enters a separate standalone realm outside of its own story.

Body Heat
#128. Body Heat (1981, Kasdan)

The quintessential postmodern noir in its direct inspiration from certified classic Double Indemnity and taking sexual foreplay through wordplay into the bedroom for some longtime coming release. The best femme fatale populated noirs where sexual tension provided energetic fuel still surpass the steaminess we see in Body Heat. But Body Heat is still damn steamy (those wind chimes! Hurt breaking through the door! Turner just standing there!) and writer/director Lawrence Kasdan even gives the sex a backdrop of Florida heat wave. There’s a washed out glow to the visuals whether drenched in sun, fog, or sweat.

It would just be a well-executed salacious throwback if not for William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Hurt is the perfect womanizing stooge. You even feel kind of bad for him…actually, no you don’t. Kathleen Turner, in her film debut (!), husks it up. You get it. You just get it. She sells Matty’s supposed sincerity, her one-of-a-kind lure. The ambiguous ending is a highlight and it was nice to see a to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils end to the femme fatale for once. I’m still waiting to see a film told from the woman’s point-of-view that actually commends or at least complexifies their decision to dupe and manipulate sad sacks as opposed to simply representing the ultimate threat for men. But this was still a nice update. Matty is fabulous.

Body Heat is solid all-around. I added it to the end of my neo-noir set once I realized none of my choices took on femme fatale-driven noir. Plus, seeing Body Heat had been a long time coming anyhow.

the-love-goddesses
#128. The Love Goddesses (1965, Turell)

A really basic introduction to the types of women in American film’s various phases up through 1965. Lots of generalizations and clips that go on for far too long, this was interesting but flat.

Frances Ha
#130. Frances Ha (2013, Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach revisits the comical sharpness of his roots and the result is a youthful and delectable collaboration with new squeeze Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an all-time favorite director of mine, and though I’m a massive fan of his more polarizing works, it’s nice to see that Gerwig’s involvement brings him around full circle to the Kicking and Screaming quarterlife crisis territory. More specifically, this one is about the intricacies and intimacies of female friendship and the slow emergence of self-aware maturity. And it ties the two together beautifully.

There are very few films, in the grand scheme of things, that are actually about the complex nature of intimate female friendship. All of us women have these friends in our lives; it’s a singular thing full of competitiveness, comfort, self-comparison, support, undying love and memories. Frances’ world basically starts to fall apart once her best friend moves out and the splinter effect takes hold. She’s too busy talking about getting her life together, judging her own life solely through the context of Sophie’s and unwilling to compromise herself in her own deluded fashion. It’s a tough thing to make a living as an artist, yes even if you come from a white middle-class place of privilege. As one character astutely and accurately points out, pursuing the arts in NYC to begin with is only an option for the rich (the reveal that Benji is writing a spec script for Gremlins 3 had me in near-tears). Frances has to realize that you do what you can when you can do it and that it takes time. Everyone else around you who says they have their shit together are putting on a show.

Frances Ha has a makeshift flighty structure completely coated in French New Wave sensibilities. It’s comprised of equal parts full scenes and montage where exchanges and moments are pared down to their minimum for maximum effect. It paints a fairy tale-like picture where the underlying sadness of it all can be overcome because let’s face it, the only thing holding her back from putting her best foot forward is herself. She makes some poor decisions along the way in order to live in the past and retain a sense of control but they are ill-advised. Has there been a more pitiful Paris excursion in film?

Greta Gerwig is the fuel, driving it forward in facial tics, dopey interactions, awkward overcompensation and a sunny infectious energy. If you aren’t a fan, boy oh boy are you out of luck. She is this film. The reliably static camera keeps on her as we watch Frances try and commit to moments.

Frances Ha is a reminder of how just purely satisfying Baumbach can be with his collaborative skills, relentless ear for dialogue and master of the art of modern social exchange. This would make an excellent double feature with Walking and Talking.

Two final notes: – Dean and Britta (!) show up again here and this time they have lines! I have to admit this was extremely distracting for me and I think I missed a lot of that long dinner scene because I was too busy gaping happily at the two of them. – I know we’re all justifiably fawning over the usage of “Modern Love” (though knowing there’s another usage featuring Denis Lavant out there makes me salivating for the latter), but can we stop for a second and appreciate the multiple usage of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”?

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #118-124


Pirate Radio
#118. The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio) (2009, Curtis)

I watched the UK version of this film which added an extra twenty minutes. I don’t have one good thing to say about this film. Not a-one. OK, one. The soundtrack is impressively extensive, so much so that though there are the cliched cues it is also chockful of excellent tracks.

Everything else about this incomprehensible clusterfuck is a major miss. Here’s a hypothetical; say BBC wanted to make a show using the days of pirate radio as a backdrop. The writers comes up with a fun wacky boys club of a radio crew. They shoot an entire season. But the show never ends up airing. They decide to use the footage and make a film. But which footage to choose? The film is eventually constructed by picking scenes out of a hat and randomly splicing them together. The original material wasn’t funny or entertaining to begin with. Now, chopped to all hell, it’s damn near intolerable.

This isn’t the story behind what happened with The Boat That Rocked, but it sure feels like it in a nutshell. It has zero interest in actually portraying the days of pirate radio. Kenneth Branagh as a stuffy Brit who hates rock n’ roll fiends is pure caricature. OK fine. So history not a priority. That’s fine. Maybe our raunchy radio crew made up of great actors, and let’s not forget that lesbian punch-line of a character, can at least provide some semblance of joy? Nope. No go. I love a lot of these actors, but they’ve got nothing to work with. They can’t even stumble onto something funny. There’s no saving grace.

The portrayal of women is despicable. No attempt is made to make any of them into anything other than harpy objects, two-timers and screeching backstabbers. It is truly horrifying; the kind of blatant mean-spiritedness that irks me more than any other kind of onscreen sexism. Richard Curtis decides to employ a slightly shaky camera to illustrate that they are on a boat!!! The Boat That Rocked might be the most haphazard production I’ve seen in years. I can’t even construct an articulate review about it. All flames on the side of my face.

Behind the Candelabra
#119. Behind the Candelabra (2013, Soderbergh)

Undoubtedly my favorite Steven Soderbergh film in a very long time (since Traffic?). Behind the Candelabra is biographical, campy, comedic, showbizzy, heartwrenching, bizarre and poignant all at once. You could watch it once and latch onto one of its parallel modes of design. Watch it another time and give yourself over to a different thread. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon have seriously never been better. And Rob Lowe is going to haunt your nightmares.

The film takes the conventional rise-and-fall relationship trajectory and uses that structure to examine toxicity and devotion. These relationships that Liberace embarked on were genuine for him, yet completely artificial in their almost unconscious ritual cycle. Douglas lets us see a little slime underneath the bedazzle, just enough to really grey things up. Scott on the other hand is supposed to be extremely young. As in, 19. As in, they obviously took liberties with the casting. But I’m completely okay with this because it’s Matt Damon! This relationship is new for Scott.  Also genuine on one level, but subtly duplicitous in the perks of living the life and the downward spiral he allows himself to go on.

The glitz, cosmetic surgery, PR work and pills make up this fragile veneer where everyone is going big or going home in a constant effort to keep up a transparent lie in more ways than one. Oh, and kudos for Cheyenne Jackson who kills every second of his tiny role. On a final note, the Matt Damon eye candy on at ridiculously high levels. So get on that people.

Point Break
#120. Point Break (1990, Bigelow)

One reason why Point Break resonates through the years, besides the justified Hurt Locker-inspired tidal wave of Kathryn Bigelow love resulting in another filmography assessment, is the unparalleled way it brings together blasts of cheese with jolts of visceral power. That kind of fusion is also in the story which brings together surfing, spirituality, bank robberies, undercover cops, skydiving and male bonding in a way all its own.

That committed spirituality gives Point Break a complex perspective because of the way a search for serenity is linked to Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi. The central friendship is deftly explored and while Reeves walks around with his pink surfboard and gives some pretty golden line readings, Patrick Swayze walks away with the film. His Bodhi is well-meaning but convoluted and desperate. He was written and performed with care, ambiguity and empathy. In other casting notes, Bigelow apparently pushed for Lori Petty. The writers were initially envisioning a thin blonde surfer chick. Instead Petty breaks out onto the scene, future cult icon stamping her presence with her brand of punk-rasp.

Back to the story, there is something really purely entertaining about Point Break but also arresting (like the on-foot chase scene) and often stunning (the surfing and skydiving scenes are breathtakingly shot and even oddly moving). It’s a preposterous film that goes beneath its potentially gimmicky plot to look at soft and hard masculinity and the search for peace through adrenaline while never being anything less than a complete scream.

Blood
#121. Blood (2013, Murphy)
Full Review on Cine Outsider: http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/films/b/blood.html
I chose not to post this review on my site because although I’m very happy with the end result, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s mine because much external editing went into it. But of course I urge anyone to read it!

PointBlank3
#122. Point Blank (1967, Boorman)

Lee Marvin, single-minded zombie in purgatory, is on a mission. He’s been double-crossed and he wants his $92,000. Point Blank is a  time-old tale of betrayal told with a sparse dream-fevered futile air. Walker isn’t a character but a blank slate. It’s not about the mission but its emptiness. Within the rabbit-hole grip of corporate crime, nobody ever sees money in the unbreakable daylight streaks of L.A.

Tangibles like the monochromatic color schemes and Walker’s single-mindedness collide with bursts of kaleidoscopic rainbows and a sustained feeling of Alain Resnais-lite deja vu. No wonder John Boorman’s French New Wave-cum-Antonioni inspired sensibilities didn’t come off with audiences in 1967. Characters rarely face each other, most often talking into the vast open space before them.

Boorman predates a ton of formal techniques later to be defined within the American New Wave; precision-like zoom, asynchronous sound, fully utilized lenses, playing with time through editing and acutely thoughtful and highly stylized composition. The opening credits alone are a series of Lee Marvin poses, memorable in silhouette  and hulking mass. Boorman was ahead of his time within American cinema with Point Blank and it still comes off with a burst of fresh experimental energy almost half a century later. I found engaged to the hilt by this film. Another new favorite (I have a lot of those). As it moves back and forth through time and as memory, ennui, and listless violence bleed into each other, the elliptical Point Blank captures you in its suspended atmosphere of free association. Neo-noir as innovative existential tone poem.

A New Leaf
#123. A New Leaf (1971, May)

A riotously dark screwball comedy that marked the beginning of Elaine May’s contentious relationship with studios due to perfectionism and an apparent inability to ever finish her work at any stage. This aside, A New Leaf is one of the funniest films I’ve seen, finding its humor through an unabashed commitment to perspective of Walter Matthau’s potential fall from wealth. It’s my favorite performance from Matthau, a perverted distillation of long extinct class customs. The joke is that he hasn’t built a life around his wealth; his wealth is his life.

When Elaine May enters as bespectacled oblivious waif Henrietta the joy comes from seeing these two characters clash. Their repartee is different from the banter game-play of various screwball twosomes.  First of all, May isn’t aware of said clash; from her perspective she is simply stumbling into a perfect match. The clash exists, oh does it exist for Matthau, but he has to do everything in his power to hide this conflict of interest towards her. Where she sees Prince Charming, we see a man seething from within, pulsating with repulsion, just waiting until he can off her. A New Leaf does its best to veer away from sincerity which could threaten to undo the somehow lovably nasty streak Matthau leads with throughout. May writes her dialogue with such a matter-of-fact drollness that on first glance belies its instant quotability and staying power. But there’s just enough redemption at hand for it to earn its conclusion without the film betraying itself.

– The ‘I’m poor’ montage took me completely by surprise and had me crying and howling with laughter more than anything I’ve seen in years. ‘Goodbye’

le-cercle-rouge
#124. Le Cercle Rouge (1970, Melville)

Jean-Pierre Melville is someone whose films I’ll always look at with the detached appreciation of a lover of film; not necessarily with a comes-from-within feeling of vitality. Although who the hell knows. I remember really being very fond of Bob Le Flambeur when I saw it long ago. As for Le Samourai; I need to see it again. I don’t trust my opinions on anything when I was 17.

So that detached appreciation comes in many forms and Le Cercle Rouge kept my interest throughout. It has Melville’s reliable stark sleekness, that essence of Parisian cool where its down-to-business at all times. Careful visuals and the use of cinematic space phase out the need for words. Alain Delon remains a physical representation up against those cool blue surroundings (with touches of forest greens) at every turn. Melville uses him as a statuesque icon, transferring his indelible persona to a state of poker-faced steadiness. Le Cercle Rouge in particular is stripped down to a skeletal story, uncluttered by character development or plot detours. It’s a prototype of cool that countless filmmakers would alter build off of. Characters slowly but surely make their way towards that fictional red circle, collaborating through an innate unspoken pull to each other and their heist.