Top Ten By Year: 1930


Anna-Christie-Scan-4-500x400
From In the Picture: Production Stills from the TCM Archives

Previous Top Ten By Year Entries: 
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 2005

1930 Coverage:
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

Sources:
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film – Richard Barrios
The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution: 1926-1930 – Scott Eyman
From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies – Molly Haskell

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’.

Reel talk: 1930, seminal touchstones notwithstanding, is seen as one of the weaker years in cinema. At the very least nobody really talks about it. I like to get feedback on what my followers are interested in seeing, so while debating my next year for this project I presented Twitter with a choice between 1930 and 1934. Only a handful chose 1930. The further 1934 pulled away with the win, the less interested I was in choosing it. And there are no regrets; I’ve learned more about film from 1930 than any other year within the Top Ten By Year Project.

Before settling into what turned out to be six months of 1930 film hibernation, I’d never truly grasped why the resistance to talkies at the time was so staunchly uniform, seen and experienced by the industry as a cultural apocalypse. I’d never fully grasped why so many couldn’t see the possibilities of a revolutionary technology in its infancy. Well, of course the transition would be rough, with many new adjustments, restrictions, and considerations in the mix. But didn’t they see it’d be worth it? Didn’t they see it was the obvious next step in the evolution of cinema?

Richard Barrios writes in his book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film that “the face of hindsight can, quite often, wear an unpleasant sneer”(59). As I sank deeper into hibernation, the patronizing remnants afforded by that cocky over-the-shoulder perspective from the future slipped away. Now I’m quite amazed anyone had the foresight (I’m looking at you Sam Warner) to see sound’s potential and the positive ways it could and would transform product and industry.

This foresight/hindsight angle relates to books that I read about the dawn of sound period (1926-1930), legitimately rocky years that qualify as “one of the most chaotic times in American culture…a time of immense upheaval, enormous change, and a quite singular mix of uncertainty and confidence”(Eyman, 4). Uncertainty because the studios didn’t really consider what sound meant for artistic parameters regarding the technology’s initial suffocating limitations. After Warner Brothers opened the gates to a new frontier, everything was turned upside down as studios rat raced through a “brutal crude transplantation”(Eyman). The process of filmmaking was now made up of “physical claustrophobia, narrative obfuscation, and an unimaginably confusing technical nightmare of crossed cables and purposes”(Eyman). The name of the game became Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue. It doesn’t matter what they say, just make the stars say it!

While sound men enjoyed their short reign as set Kings, actors braced themselves for make-it-or-break-it performance reviews in the form of sound tests. It didn’t matter who you were, veteran star or bit player; your entire career was uncertain until pass/fail tested for sound by your studio. Suffice it to say, fear ran rampant. William Haines described this period as “the night of the Titanic all over again” (Barrios, 75). And this from an MGM star! MGM was the most apprehensive studio when it came to sound, and that extra time presumably provided them with a slightly less chaotic stretch than most. Star personas had to be reconfigured and reestablished. Many couldn’t successfully make the leap, most famously John Gilbert, whose catastrophic fall from grace came from being unceremoniously hung out to dry by hackneyed dialogue and poor direction (I’m looking at you Lionel Barrymore). The ever-savvy MGM may have botched Gilbert, but they also made genius publicity out of the ‘what do the stars sound like’ craze, making “Garbo Talks!” the movie event of 1930. While the star machine had a great fall, and tried to put itself back together again, countless young Broadway performers were flown out and audience tested via shorts and features, largely primed for failed movie stardom.

The Movie Musical, the only genre made entirely possible by sound technology, is the industry’s key microcosm from this time. Skipping ahead to 1929, the success of The Broadway Melody spawned a riot (we’re talking endless, folks) of imitators, with little to no creative expansion, quality control, or narrative variety. Stage musicals were adapted left and right with most of the hit songs inexplicably dumped and replaced with forgettable warblings. Song and/or dance scenes remained stuffy and square. There was no frame of reference for putting song and dance on film. Within twelve months, save for a few smash successes like The Love Parade and Rio Rita, musicals went from being the genre du jour to enough already! Now, this sort of thing happens all the time. The rush for product and for more of the successful same. But with a new technology, with musicals that were “obviously conceived in panic and manufactured in ignorance”, this cash sprint re: musicals can be more broadly applied to this brief unsure era (Barrios).

All of this context is to say that 1930 is the year Hollywood shook itself off and regained its footing. By this time, film rhythm and consistency was illustrating that, for all their troubles, Hollywood was on the other side of the sound barrier. The year saw a record film attendance of 110 million (compare that to 65 million in 1928 and 60 million in 1932) (Barrios). Blimps had been developed that allowed cameras to be more mobile, free of their initial soundproof booths. The studios were well on their way towards working with sound-on-film technology as opposed to the cumbersome sync-sound. New film stocks made the monochrome spectrum wider. Formal freedom was still coming around but there was a wild sense of trial-and-error experimentation. In 1930, nearly every musical incorporated Two-color Technicolor to some degree. Some studios were trying out inventions that would live and die within 1930, such as 65-70 mm formats like Magnafilm and Grandeur. Sound films began to step out on the streets and into the wilderness. Genre was like a stacked buffet plate, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Sci-fi, horror, mystery, and gangster films (The Doorway to Hell really established this one, though the films of 1931 get the credit) were just around the corner, but they crop up in the unlikeliest of places in 1930. Pre-Code hit the salacious stride it continued until the Code’s enforcement four years later. Directors in the US and overseas, such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Grémillon were already experimenting with sound in ways covert and overt. International film industries were catching up, beginning to make their transitions from silent to sound.

Sure, some films from 1930 come across as quaint and static in their awkwardness, but far less than you’d think. Editing rhythms and camera set-ups had loosened up considerably by this time, and it’s easy to see sound film finding its own groove thanks to filmmakers committed to making improvements and trying things out. I’ve learned that stilted is the misguided adjective of choice when it comes to present-day reviews of 1930 films. When films like The Bat Whispers and The Divorcee are described as such, it’s unfortunate and downright perplexing, not just for its falsehood, but because there’s a world of difference between what ‘stilted’ means to modern day cinephiles and what it actually means within the scope of 1930 releases. Watch Let Us Be Gay and then get back to me (whether you’re a fan of this one or not, it’s an excellent encapsulation of what 1930 ‘stilted’ actually looks and feels like).

Time and time again I was beside myself by visual flourishes and caution-to-the-wind spiritedness. Cinematographers were finding ways to navigate and convey exterior worlds. Directors were finding ways to communicate interior worlds. Screenwriters were figuring out how to inject nuance and quality over quantity. Actors were adjusting to the modern and getting at core truths. On their own, many of these films stand tall and proud, but collectively, they lift each other up.

With the advent of sound, many thought something had been irretrievably lost. Perhaps rightly so. Sensuality, fantasy, and the translucent magic of silent cinema needed to be redefined from the ground up. And the films of 1930 begin to show what that would look and sound like for the decades to come.

Nitrate Diva wrote a great piece on 1930, which, I’m honored to say, was inspired by this project! She also includes her 10 picks! It’s a beautifully written portrait of the undiscovered riches of the year. Her prose capabilities are far beyond mine, so please do yourself a favor and check it out!

Biggest Disappointments:
Anybody’s Woman
Her Man
Just Imagine
A Notorious Affair
Not So Dumb
Paid

The Five Worst 1930 Films I Watched:
1. Golden Dawn
2. Feet First
3. Romance
4. Free and Easy
5. A Notorious Affair

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1930
(bold = first-time viewing, italic =  re-watch)
10 Minuten Mozart (short) Aimless Walk (short),
All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, A Notorious Affair, Anybody’s Woman, Au bonheur des dames, The Bat Whispers, The Big House, The Big Trail, Blood of a Poet, The Blue Angel, Borderline, City Girl, Dance of Her Hands (short), The Dawn Patrol, The Divorcee, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Doorway to Hell, Fast and Loose, Feet First, Follow Thru, For the Defense, Free and Easy, Golden Dawn, Hell’s Angels, Her Man, Just Imagine, King of Jazz, L’age d’Or, Ladies of Leisure, Laughter, Let Us Be Gay, Light Rhythms (short), Liliom, Madam Satan, Mechanical Principles (short), Min and Bill, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Murder!, Mysterious Mose (short), Not So Dumb, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound, Paid, La petite Lise, People on Sunday, Prix de beaute, Romance, Street of Chance, Swing You Sinners! (short), The Tale of the Fox, Tomatoes Another Day (short), Under the Roofs of Paris, Way for a Sailor

Honorable Mentions: The Big House, Blood of a Poet, Animal Crackers, Monte Carlo, The Divorcee, Follow Thru, The Dawn Patrol, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides (I have such a fondness for each of these films, it must be said)

KEY:
RW = Rewatch
FTV = First-time Viewing

au bonheur 444

10. Au bonheur des dames (France/Le Film d’Art/Duvivier) (FTV)
With its go-for-broke commitment to evoking the rhythms of modern Paris, watching Au bonheur des dames feels a little like skydiving without a parachute. Silent film is nearly extinct, the bottom has dropped out, and Julien Duvivier is using everything in his arsenal to send it off in style. I watched this after consuming nearly three dozen 1930 talkies. Though sound films of the year are far less collectively creaky than history gives them credit for, it was still a considerable jolt to be unclipped from the technological constraints of fuzzy sounds and rational worlds.

A minute into ‘Au bonheur’, Denise (Dita Parlo), an orphan arriving in Paris to work for her uncle, is immediately swallowed up by Capital-C Capitalism. A train rushes into the station while feet scurry in all directions, a symphony of urban life’s hurried routine. Denise’s eyes dart everywhere, trying to take it all in as she’s shuffled to and fro, smothered by the crowd of people and superimposed images. The second she exits the station, she notices a plane flying overhead. Flyers are dropped like confetti. She grabs one out of the sky, reads it, and smiles as if she’s just found one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets. It says “Everything You Want at ‘Au bonheur des dames'”. It’s an advertisement for the behemoth department store across the street from her uncle’s failing dilapidated shop. Capitalism is relentless, and giving in makes you feel good.

Lively Soviet montage and overt expressionism coincide with blinking electric lights and aggressive razzmatazz to show “progress” as pervasive. Duvivier utilizes the accumulation of silent cinema stylings for an inadvertent send-off to the now obsolete era. ‘Au bonheur’ is alive and immediate, building to an impossible-to-shake feverish crescendo that thankfully obscures the cop-out ending to follow.

liliom 2

9. Liliom (US/Fox/Borzage) (FTV)
Available on youtube

There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. This is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself.

Full review here

Laughter 17
8. Laughter (US/Paramount/d’Arrast) (FTV)
Very poor quality version available on youtube

Halfway through Laughter, pals Paul (Fredric March) and Peggy (Nancy Carroll) (the newly married ‘one-that-got-away’) are out and about on a daytime drive (in this scene, Paul impulsively kisses the back of Peggy’s neck while driving and it’s one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film). Their car suddenly breaks down and, of course, an impromptu rainstorm follows. They seek shelter by breaking and entering, where they promptly begin to roleplay marriage as the ‘Smiths’ (Why? Because why not?). They trade traditional gender roles, with ‘Mr. Smith’ dutifully offering ‘Mrs. Smith’ her slippers and pipe, adding that he baked a strawberry pie for dinner. The pair is oh-so-pleased with their flirtation-as-evasion repartee, but somehow it’s not cloying. Instead, it’s goddamn charming. Eventually, the sequence takes a turn for the weird as Peggy puts on a black bearskin rug from the living room floor (Why? Because why not?), crawling and growling around in circles. Paul, highly amused, quickly joins in by putting on the other bearskin rug (this one white) across the room. Our romantic leads have gone from one kind of pretend to another. This is all part of what is perhaps Laughter‘s most memorable sequence, and it’s indicative of how the film operates as a whole.

Laughter is made up of characters vibing off each other, transforming and controlling (or failing to control) the interior spaces around them. The sequence described above illustrates this. Paul and Peggy take over a foreign space and use it for their make-believes, becoming spouses and wild animals. They drape their wet clothes all over the furniture, and drink coffee in the kitchen while they lounge in their bearskins.

Long-shot dependence tends to indicate stagnancy by 1930 film standards, but in Laughter they are critical, used to establish the importance of spaces in relation to character. Towering Art Deco rooms threaten to isolate characters with lonely wonder until Paul comes in and livens up the joint. Sterile business offices echo with the dependable sound of typewriters. A spacious apartment above a club is overrun with clutter, accompanied by the far-off boozy drawl of horn instruments.

There is an uncommonly natural touch to everything in Laughter. Plot shows its face when summoned, but the characters refuse to be tethered to it. They lead the way, sometimes with spunk, sometimes with somber resignation.

CGVcJHAWgAAQ9Vp

7. Prix de Beauté (France/Sofar-Film/Genina) (RW)
I simply cannot deny Louise. Prix de Beauté is the last European hurrah for my all-time favorite screen presence. After this she’d return to Hollywood, land of bit parts and bankruptcy. She led a long life post-Prix de Beauté, but this is the film that siphons off her celluloid legend. If Louise fills the frame, if the film knows how to showcase her effortless and unaffected mythic energy, down-to-earth and beyond us all with that irrepressible glow, does the film itself matter?

I happen to enjoy the by-turns awkward and arresting Prix de Beauté very much. One of the first sound films made in France (it also has a 1929 silent version), it resembles a rough cut in that, though there’s vision in its organic images, nothing, except Brooks, is completely locked into place. It’s a talkie with an entirely silent sensibility, made possible by the fact that the sound, including dialogue, took place during post-production. This frees up the camera for rambunctious mobility at every turn, and it’s supported by the zeal that drives Lucienne toward her dreams. She wants to participate in a beauty contest, but her boyfriend won’t allow it. With a choice of being owned by her beau or worshiped by the public, she deserves more than both but achieves neither. The famous final sequence, dizzying in its flickering destruction, strikes Lucienne down just as her (screen) life begins. As sound ushers in, Louise Brooks is ushered out, her physical body left behind for something incorporeal, an eerily fitting finale to her immortal image.

Ladies of Leisure 4

6. Ladies of Leisure (US/Columbia/Capra) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Ladies of Leisure features Barbara Stanwyck in her star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra. It also happens to be some of her best work and in one of her best films. I’m not used to seeing her this vulnerable, yet this is how the country at large became acquainted with her. Barbara Stanwyck is down-to-earth glamour. Relatable glamour. Even at this very early stage it’s impossible to miss that she is in stark contrast with other actors from her time. This is a woman performing in the ‘now’. Her body language isn’t practiced. She breaks through the conventional with seeming spontaneity. She’s the perfect person for Frank Capra to direct, because in Ladies of Leisure he not only gives her plenty of backlit close-ups defying audiences not to fall in love with her, but devotes an uncommon (for 1930) length of time lingering on confidential and intimate moments that map out Kay’s internal longing.

Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing. Bypassing sluggishness, even as the film nosedives into the saccharine, there is a clarity and distinct visual perspective supporting Kay’s story.

Take the erotically charged rainy night sleepover that comes mid-film. It’s erotically charged in the silences, in what isn’t happening, in what Kay wants to happen, in what could happen. The pace of this sequence is different than the rest. The situation slowly develops, as Kay gradually allows herself to believe in the possible. It builds to a simple act of kindness that produces the film’s most telling and heartfelt moment. A lone doorknob turns. Footsteps reveal that Jerry the painter (Ralph Graves) has left his room in the middle of the night. He slowly approaches Kay’s bed. In another film the scene would be eerie, bad intentions assumed. Kay is sleeping. Jerry lays a blanket over her and heads back to bed. Close-up on Kay. She wasn’t asleep at all. The camera lingers on her face and closes in further, tears glistening. She pulls the blanket to her mouth. Everything we need to know about Kay occurs in this moment. This simple act of kindness means the world to her, and it has left her shaking and crying with joy.

Critically, Capra foregrounds Kay’s (Stanwyck) love as a character-driven arc rooted in class, lifelong struggle, and hope. You don’t have to buy into Kay and Jerry (and you won’t) to buy into the film. Forget the lame egg basket in whom Kay places said hopes and dreams. Just focus on witnessing a downtrodden woman who, for the first time in her life, experiences what happiness is, what it can mean, and its potential in her own life. The fortuitous union of Barbara Stanwyck’s startling modernism (I still can’t imagine how jarring her vivid physicality must have played for 1930 audiences) and Frank Capra’s intuitive prioritization of the inner life.

citygirl

5. City Girl (US/Fox/Murnau) (FTV)
Available on youtube 

I’m going to let a couple of paragraphs from Daniel Kasman’s MUBI piece speak for my love of City Girl. Suffice it to say that it is every bit as great as Sunrise, and may just be my personal preference:

“Murnau is realism + poetry, and slimming down his materials to such a leanness as inCity Girl lets his hand water, flower, and blossom every element at his disposal.  You have never seen a city diner in American film, felt its heat, its hubbub, its routine, its turnover, its charm, its tedium and its spunk until you have seen City Girl and you see how Farrel casually meets and unconsciously courts Duncan at the diner counter.  You have never seen the loneliness of life in the city until you see the light of a passing elevated train sputter across Duncan’s face and her tiny potted plant in her cramped apartment. The enchantment of a farm has never been put on film—and perhaps has never been found again—until Ernest Palmer’s camera follows with expressionist joy the gleeful run of the young married couple across the family’s wheatfield upon their arrival.”

king of jazz 84. King of Jazz (US/Universal/Anderson) (FTV)
Since seeing King of Jazz four months ago, it has been restored and has screened at MOMA for their series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries: 1928-1937. There even a book coming out!

King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor).

tilly losch

3. Dance of Her Hands (short) (US/Nutshell Pictures/Bel Geddes) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Dance of Her Hands features dancer/choreographer/actress Tilly Losch at the height of her lithe powers. This short stages “The Hand Dance”, a collaborative conception between Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr. At the start, Tilly’s head is behind netting while the titular hands take center frame. Her hands lilt and quiver, they scurry and contort. But most of all there’s a palpable yearning to her movements. We soon meet the rest of her, a witchy puppetmaster that casts spells with her digits. Her performance is further abstracted by the pitch black negative space, a presentation that emphasizes the sensual and dislodges Losch from any kind of concrete reality. The hands lead and her body follows. Self-expression manifests as a delicate ache that can only be resolved through movement.

People on Sunday 9

2. Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Germany/FilmStudio Berlin/Siodmak, Siodmak, Ulmer, Zinneman) (RW)
Available on youtube 

Menschen am Sonntag looks far ahead to the French New Wave and Italian neorealism. It also looks ahead to the substantial careers of Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, and Fred Zinneman. It incorporates a humanistic and carefree take on the city symphony film while keeping with the signatures of New Objectivity. Menschen am Sonntag is notable for near-countless reasons. These distinctions matter, enormously so, but while watching it, you’re too busy basking in the impermanence of its direct sunlight to intellectualize its images.

There’s a special twinkle to films that capture an immaculate specificity of time and place. In Menschen am Sonntag, 1930 Berlin radiates loud and clear, from roaming streetcars and chaotic intersections to now-immortalized store window displays and sparse graffiti. Individual Berliners get snapshots taken, a moment from their random Sunday saved for posterity as they self-consciously stare into the camera. Berlin hustles and bustles with an energy that carries over into the scenic Nikolassee, suggesting that weekend reprieves must be seized upon with a joie de vivre that suggests not a recreational moment should be wasted. The forcefulness of the sunlight matches the youthful characters scene for scene.

There’s a shrewd perceptiveness to how Menschen am Sonntag hones in on the unspoken that goes on between young men and women. The participants may or may not be aware, but a game made of almost imperceptible moments is always in motion. Anything seems possible. These connections are both monumental and fleeting, a coexistence only possible in youth. Glances are had, love is made, betrayal is imminent. All in the same day, all under the surface. Both extraordinary and just another Sunday.

Every once in a while we check back in with Berlin. Annie sleeps all day, surrounded by pictures of movie stars. People sit on benches and look out their windows. Life being lived, or not, all at the same time. Films didn’t convey this in 1930. They don’t even convey it now, though a handful sure as hell try. Recent attempts to examine the scope of everyday life can be found in the ham-fistedness of the hyperlink film. When these work it’s through the scope. The ‘everyday’ part is substituted with melodrama or a deliberate larger-than-life feel. That doesn’t take away from those films; they just have a different prerogative. Conversely, plenty of films capture the everyday of transitory youth but aren’t aiming for that scope. This rare combination demands flexibility in the nonexistence of story, and by floating back and forth from our frolicking quartet in order to incorporate the character of Berlin, Menschen am Sonntag creates magic in reality.

madam satan 222

1. Madam Satan (US/MGM/DeMille) (RW)
As often happens, I’m at a loss when the time comes to describe my love for #1. The following write-up will probably operate as groundwork for something I wish to eventually expand on.

Cecil B. DeMille also had a film on Top Ten By Year: 1925, the outrageously fun time-travel romance The Road to Yesterday. When DeMille isn’t overtaken by his preachy paradoxes, when he finds his brand of balance within the at-times absurd imbalance of his films, you get something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In 1928, DeMille signed a three-picture deal with MGM. Madam Satan was the second of these films, with Dynamite and The Squaw Man coming before and after respectively. Unsurprisingly, Madam Satan was a major flop, with MGM posting a 390,000 loss. Even then, audiences had no idea what to make of this thing. What was it? What is it? It’s everything, but is it anything?

Madam Satan tends to be regarded as a cuckoo collectible. Oddity, trainwreck, loony, bonkers, bizarre; you get the gist of attributed adjectives. And, yeah, it’s all of those things. My love for this film often defies logic. Hell, outside of “Low Down” the songs aren’t even good (!), and they certainly aren’t helped by the poor sound quality of the era which renders sopranos incomprehensibly shrill. At times it seems like the film is about to indulge itself into oblivion, so caught up it is in exhausting every aesthetic or tonal thread.

(Sidenote: even fans of Madam Satan tend to universally disregard the supposedly “lethal first hour”, a bedroom farce involving the central four characters. I will never understand this (Barrios)! It’s a zany concoction of shade throwing, false niceties, and lots of physical scrambling. It’s actually my favorite section of the film. It also stands as a perfect example of DeMille’s whim for hitting the reset button halfway through one of his pictures.)

Madam Satan could only exist in 1930;  “in its very derangement, it embodies a distinctive trait of original musicals: they tended to treat the medium as a collage of found objects, jamming the most ordinary conventions alongside some truly lunatic notions” (Barrios, 252). This first wave of movie musicals would soon be extinct. The second wave, which came a couple of years later, emerged with already clear-cut delineations between the real (backstage romance) and the unreal (the insular world of a Berkeley number).

A boudoir sex comedy, a disaster film, a remarriage romance, a momentary tribute to electricity, an Art Deco orgy, a misshapen musical. Madam Satan is all of these (like I said, it’s everything, but is it anything? I say yes). Some of these designations will suddenly disappear, the aforementioned boudoir sex comedy for example, but DeMille goes all-in on each one for the duration of its stay. Madam Satan is a case against cohesion. If DeMille wants the zeppelin to crash, doggone it, that zeppelin is going to crash. If he wants to spend twenty minutes on the grand entrances of Adrian-draped costume-ball attendees with names like “Fish Girl” and “Spider Girl”, he’ll do it. The story will catch up when, or if, there’s a moment to breathe. .

The Art Deco sets and costumes, by Cedric Gibbons and Adrian respectively, are used to unite fantasy and glamour. The iconic look created for Kay Johnson’s alter-ego is a sequined nude-illusion for the gods. As archaic as a lot of Madam Satan‘s sexual politics are, this is the image people remember, this presentation of defiant transformation and reclamation. That entrance, with its unintelligible trilling and costume-reveal-as-magic-act, drips with a hard-earned heroic self-regard. It’s easy to forget that Angela has turned herself into a sex goddess superhero to seduce her philandering and entirely unworthy husband back into the fold. But DeMille, in a radical act for the time, strove to make marriage sexy by “daring to suggest that the married woman was as desirable and exciting as the pubescent party girl” (Haskell, 76). So Madam Satan can also add “domestic fantasy” to its resume.

Madam Satan also stars Lillian Roth, one of my silver screen obsessions. A gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose, dimples for days, and a practiced yet untouched vivacity, her Trixie is a pure delight. Weaponed with a “fleshy impertinence”, she brings a humanity to the “other girl”, but not by hiding her vindictiveness (Barrios). Her unapologetic immaturity becomes attributable to age. She’s as spunky as Angela is supposedly dowdy; in fact, it’s hard not to root for her. The rest of the cast is legitimately great. Kay Johnson conveys her piety with sophistication. Reginald Denny is, against all odds, lovable as a womanizing cad. And Roland Young is an idealized Charles Ruggles; a stammering spacey drunk that doesn’t over-chew the scenery or outstay his welcome, and lands genuine laughs to boot.

Madam Satan is one of the first ‘sincere trash’ movies. I wrote about this a little, and hope to expand on it, in regards to my undying love of Valley of the Dolls. There’s an awful misconception that everything has to work in a movie you love, and if it doesn’t, your love derives from the compartmentalization of what works from what doesn’t. That, if you profess your love of something, you have to answer for all the reasons it may or may not fall short (whether that comes from others, yourself, or both). Statements like “the plot’s ridiculous and the ending is shite, but I don’t care, I love it!” or people asking “well how do you account for this?” in response to hearing that you love something.

Sure, OK, sometimes this is how it works. But just as often, it doesn’t. “I don’t care, I love it”? But I do care! I care about all of it! Madam Satan‘s very identity is dependent on its messiness, good or bad, strong or weak, entertaining or dull. Its very existence excites me, lights me up inside. Its camp qualities and, to quote the great Latrice Royale, its romper-room fuckery, is singular, and I crave films that are singular. But make no mistake. Singular alone doesn’t make for the more interesting products of greatness. Just Imagine, also from this year, is singular, and it also sucks. But this, this is an excessive extravaganza of the best kind; an unironically pleasurable proto-spectacle rendering of Kate Bush’s “Babooshka”. Madam Satan is one of the key ways in which the oft-spoken-of magic-of-the-movies registers for me.

This only scratches the surface of why Madam Satan has become one of my favorite films. These scattered thoughts are meant to work through the basics, so I left the details of its lunacy out, for now. I’ll leave the last words to Richard Barrios, who says that “in one clean sweep, it seems to embody the end of the Jazz Age, the collapse of American prosperity, the death throes of early musicals, and, most literally, the flop of this last baroque grasp of twenties frivolity.”(252). Mic drop.

Advertisements

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #13-16)


Previous 1930 posts:
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4): Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Anybody’s Woman
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-8): Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, Paid
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12): Follow Thru, Fast and Loose, Romance, The Big Trail 
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 

Monte Carlo 4

Monte Carlo (US / Paramount / Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch is accurately credited as a pioneer of what we’ve come to recognize as the movie musical. 1929’s The Love Parade is often credited as the first narrative musical, and his follow-up, Monte Carlo, continues building on the accomplishments of the former. The first Hollywood musicals were an infamously rushed and immediate fad within the larger game-changing development of sound. For each Sunny Side Up or Rio Rita, there were countless embarrassingly slipshod spawns that quickly grew tedious, not to mention laughable, to the average filmgoer. The motto was More More More of the Same, and Quickly Too, which meant song as performance or non-sequitur, film as empty imitator or lazily transparent retread. The Love Parade and Monte Carlo were anomalous and groundbreaking for helping to establish what we take for granted as vital traits of the musical film; weaving narrative and music together, establishing character and story through song, seamless transitions, creative musical interplay, and sound as omnipresent asset.

Monte Carlo is a fabulous film–if only star Jack Buchanan could be erased from it. The necessity of coping with the early 1930’s Dull-As-Fuck Leading Man give-in is something I’ve rambled about a few times during the 1930 watchlist write-ups thus far. So this might look like a cue-my-hypocrisy moment, but I beg to differ. The DAFLM syndrome applies mainly to films about women, films where the boor is the male romantic lead, but not seen as, critically, a co-lead (examples: Romance, The Divorcee, etc). Thus, these snafus are easy to overlook. But Jack Buchanan is playing what would normally be the Maurice Chevalier part, a part that deems much of the story to him. You expect Chevalier’s sly visage, somehow fumbling and smooth, to be the one masquerading as Jeanette MacDonald’s hairdresser. Instead we get Buchanan, whose presence is one of reedy anti-charm. A light touch is needed for this part, and unfortunately his skeevy lingering suggests that he is, in fact, a serial trench coat flasher in his spare time.

I ran cold on Jeanette MacDonald for years. Her soprano, which isn’t exactly aided by the technology of the time, had long been my initial association with her. But over the past couple of years I’ve come around, big time (at least her Pre-Code work; the latter part of the 30’s seems to wash out her more tangible traits). She has such a glow, such a natural sensuality that you don’t expect (I’m also obsessed with her hair). It’s also impossible to ignore that Lubitsch seems intent on making sure the audience sees and knows her body. I’d thought her inaccessible to audiences, and to me. She frequently plays royalty, and her characters lean towards the unapologetically spoiled. I associate her Pre-Code work with being surrounded by servants doing every conceivable thing for her. Her characters live in an unreality even within the unreality of the movies. Yet somehow actresses like MacDonald and Miriam Hopkins get away with playing the kinds of shallow characters they so often did. Their careers took off during a precise moment in film history that relished the bratty princess type, and the Lubitsch touch provides the perfect frivolous environment for a MacDonald heroine to thrive. Selfishness has no weight or recourse here; it just adds to the fun.

Monte Carlo is cheeky right from the get-go. We see a wedding. Everyone sings of happiness and sunshine, but the reality is miserable rain and a missing bride. An early song’s lyrics lampoon its singer without him even realizing. Music is put to gestures. Another song, “Trimmin’ the Women” is so sketchy, but so delightful. I’ve only heard it once but it’s in my head as I type this. The songs are short and spiffy, mirroring the film’s overall snappy pacing. Then there’s the meta-finale where Buchanan and MacDonald watch, in suspense, as an uncannily familiar opera unfolds below them. They await their cues, anxious to learn how their own melodrama will conclude. “It’s a silly story, only possible with music”; art wittily interacting with art. Monte Carlo is packed with what we expect of Lubitsch; sophistication, loaded innuendos, Jeanette MacDonald in lingerie, and the temperament of the most divine cream puff ever baked.

“Beyond the Blue Horizon” number showcases innovation (not to mention that the song itself was a huge hit). There’s an introductory segue; shots of trains, blowing whistles, chug chug chug. The sights and sounds of trains are incorporated into the song’s identity. Then we see Jeanette MacDonald’s Countess Helene on the train; singing, daydreaming, and looking out into her unknown future, when suddenly the song expands its reach. The camera looks out into the fields where dots of village people take part in a unison chorus. In Monte Carlo, music reaches farther than a stage and a room. Music goes beyond performance and its immediate characters. This is a new and boundless filmic world, where anyone can be brought into its musicality.

three good friends 13

Die drei von der Tankstelle (aka The Three from the Filling Station or Three Good Friends (Germany / UFA / Thiele)
Though I liked it considerably less (the three men really grated on me), Die drei von der Tankstelle, even more than Monte Carlo, is the truly innovative musical of 1930 (this puts aside the groundbreaking Under the Roofs of Paris, which I’m not re-watching for this project). This film was huge in Germany. The biggest film of the year. Bigger than The Blue Angel even, Germany’s first talking picture. It was also banned by the Nazis in 1937. The self-assured expertise shown by director William Thiele is startling. Rhythms and songs repeat throughout in cyclical fashion. The first minute features montage editing, a declaration that this will not fall in line with the often static storytelling of its time. Another song links two separate spaces together, a feat that 1932’s sublime Love Me Tonight is often credited with. Lilian Harvey’s character has a signature sound, her car horn, announcing her entrances and exits. And at the end it even breaks the fourth wall, with a “Why are they still here?” (the audience) inquiry prompting a last-minute finale.

I’ll focus on the Bailiff’s song to close out this write-up. The film starts with the introduction of the three happy-go-lucky friends (Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, Oskar Karlweis) returning home after a trip abroad. Immediately upon their return, the Bailiff (Felix Bressart) arrives with some movers to inform the friends of their bankruptcy and to confiscate their belongings. The song takes place in the midst of this. The Bailiff sings, the friends react, the movers take their stuff away; all through music. As I’ve said in other capsule reviews for 1930, this all sounds simple, but for the state of musicals in 1930, this is insightful and forward-thinking stuff. Its got a rare multi-dimensional quality. During the song, the camera is not presentational, but at an angle that focuses inward, not outward. The song is not shot like a performance; it doesn’t feel projected out into the audience, existing for our benefit. How can I explain it? During the song, everybody and everything is interacting with someone or something else onscreen. There’s even miniature flying furniture!

ooooStreet of Chance and For the Defense (US / Paramount / Cromwell)
William Powell and Kay Francis appeared onscreen together six times (I’m not counting Paramount on Parade, since they don’t appear in it together) from 1930-1932. Films #3 & 4, Street of Chance and For the Defense, establish their first complete iteration as co-stars. What I mean is that these are two William Powell films with Kay Francis in important supporting parts (she plays a long-suffering wife and a long-hopeful girlfriend). Their last two films together, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage, reflect Francis’s 1932 stardom by putting Powell and Francis on equal footing. 1930 was a huge year for Kay Francis. Starting in film just the year before, she was all over screens in 1930, appearing in ten films total. Within these films she moved from second fiddle vamp to flexible female lead. New Movie Magazine’s “1930 Screen Review” singled out Francis as one of the two “Most Promising Feminine Personalities”.

I’m reviewing these together because they are two of a kind, 65-minute films directed by John Cromwell. Both take a while to get going. First, the films environment is too-thoroughly established. Then we’re introduced to Powell’s seemingly all-powerful place within said environment. In Street of Chance he’s a gambler on top. Everyone respects him, trusts him; what he says goes. Without question. His Achilles heel? He desperately wants to keep his brother (Regis Toomey) from falling into the gambling racket. In For the Defense he’s a defense lawyer on top. Not respected by his peers, he uses outlandish means to win cases in the courtroom. His Achilles heel? Kay Francis. In both films, he does something bad to do something good. He makes a sacrifice that leads to his downfall. One ends in death, the other in jail.

These films helped confirm William Powell’s newfound fame in the era of talkies. His delicious quick-rhythmed baritone is exactly the kind of voice that succeeded during sound’s key early days. While many actors fell from grace during 1929-1932, William Powell’s career reached maturation. His voice exudes confidence and ultra-competence. His roles moved from dastardly villainy to men who are a step ahead. Men whose occupations require keen smarts and persuasion. Men who, whether detective, attorney, or gambler, are unmistakably great at what they do. It’s a voice that pulls off the tough combination of seedy altruism needed for both these films.

Of the two I prefer Street of Chance. For one thing it features a young Jean Arthur. It also pulls no punches by the end. The stacking of cards against Powell is delicate and filled with a far more palpable and investing doom. And there’s an unseen level of implied violence that looks ahead to the ending of a much more famous film that would be released just a year later; The Public Enemy.

 

Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results


Previous Top Ten By Year Polls: 1925, 1958, 1978, 1992

Poll Rule Reminders: Participants could vote for up to 10 films; no more, but certainly less. Order was not required since it had no bearing on the results.)

I’m doing the Poll a bit earlier than I normally do. This is because I’m trying to spread out the Top Ten By Year posts a bit – and the only ones I can do that with without having seen all the films on my watchlist are Poster Highlights and the Poll. Plus, seeing everyone’s votes is also an opportunity for me to make any final additions to my watchlist (I made two based on people’s votes; Outward Bound and Raffles).

First off, thank you so much to everyone who voted! 1930 is such an absorbing year in cinema, and such an overlooked one to boot, so I wasn’t sure how many people would participate. Many of you gave a full top ten, and many others were kind enough to contribute a handful of passionate picks. All in all, 69 people voted for 79 different films!

Taking into account the Internet oversaturation of lists/listicles, I hope it’s clear that this project is anything but tossed off. The Top Ten By Year Project is an effort to reclaim what I love about lists in the first place. Seeing what makes the collective top ten is a lot of fun, but may I direct your attention to the full breakdown of votes and the individual ballots? My hope with these polls is that, in addition to planting seeds of anticipation for the related posts to come (What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter, Favorite Shots, and the Top Ten. Poster Highlights for 1930 can be found here), they mainly serve as a resource for anyone looking for new films to watch whether it’s from seeing:

a. what ‘Film Twitter’ collectively loves
b. more importantly, the films towards the bottom of the list, the ones you’ve never heard of that are begging for (re)discovery.
c. the individual ballots from people whose taste and knowledge you value (“I don’t know what this is, but if Labuza likes it, surely it’s worth a look!”)

So exciting to have first-time voters I’ve long admired such as Farran Nehme, The Nitrate Diva, and author Megan Abbott. Even filmmaker Anna Biller voted! Was also honored to have Miriam Bale, Richard Brody, and so many others whose contributions and tastes are so valued. Actually, all of you who voted!

Surprises? Disappointments? General thoughts? Leave your thoughts on the poll in the comments section!

vlcsnap-14288222

POLL RESULTS – Top Ten By Year: 1930
1.
L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age) (France / Buñuel) – 37 votes
2.
Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (Germany / UFA / von Sternberg) – 36 votes
3.
All Quiet on the Western Front (US / Universal / Milestone) – 31 votes
4. Morocco
(US / Paramount / von Sternberg) – 27 votes
5
. Animal Crackers (US / Paramount / Heerman) – 25 votes
6. City Girl
(US / Fox / Murnau) – 24 votes
7. Zemlya (Earth) (Soviet Union / VUFKU / Dovzhenko) – 21 votes
8. Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Germany / Filmstudio Berlin / Siodmak, Siodmak, Ulmer, Zinneman & Gleise) – 18 votes
(8.) Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (France / Films Sonores Tobis / Clair) – 18 votes
10. Monte Carlo
(US / Paramount / Lubitsch) 13 votes

The Rest:
12 votes:
Le Sang d’un Poète (Blood of a Poet), The Dawn Patrol
11 votes: The Divorcee, The Big Trail
9 votes: Murder!, À propos de Nice (short)
8 votes: Borderline
7 votes: Madam Satan, Anna Christie (Brown version)
6 votes: Abraham Lincoln, Hell’s Angels, Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife)
5 votes: Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe), Ladies of Leisure, Our Blushing Brides, Laughter, The Big House 
4 votes: Westfront 1918, The Doorway to Hell
3 votes: Min & Bill, Liliom, Swing You Sinners! (short), Die drei von der Tankstelle (The Three from the Filling Station), Salt for Svanetia, The Bat Whispers, Outward Bound, The Unholy Three, Follow Thru
2 votes: Anna Christie (Feyder version), The Gorilla Mystery (short), Journey’s End, Paid, La Petite Lise (Little Lise), Fujiwara Yoshie no furusato (Home Town), The Golf Specialist (short), Let’s Go Native
1 vote: Das Lied ist aus (The Song is Over), Up the River, Whoopee!, Aimless Walk (short), The Sea of Ravens (short), Ein Lichtspiel schwarz weiss grau (Lightplay: Black/White/Gray) (short), Romance sentimentale (Sentimental Romance) (short), War Nurse, Studie Nr. 6 (short)
Barnacle Bill (short), The Royal Family of Broadway , Rakudai wa shitakeredo (I Flunked, But…), The Fire Fighters (short), Billy the Kid, Free and Easy , Au Bonheur des dames, Not So Dumb, Sins of the Children, The Flirting Widow, Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk Cheerfully), Another Fine Mess (short), The Devil’s Cabaret (short), Hell’s Heroes, Montana Moon, Fast and Loose, The Office Wife, Raffles, Her Man , Loose Ankles , King of Jazz, Sunny Skies , Let Us Be Gay , The Devil to Pay!

THE BALLOTS:

@fantasmascope (Emily of Femina Ridens):
Madam Satan, City Girl, Prix de Beauté, Borderline, People on Sunday, Das Lied ist aus, Girl with a Hatbox (I keep seeing this last one as 1927 so I won’t be counting it)

@alexkittle (Alex Kittle of alexkittle.com and 366 Weird Movies):
Min & Bill, Madame Satan, Anna Christie, The Blue Angel, The Divorcee

@tnyfrontrow (Richard Brody of The New Yorker):
The Dawn Patrol, People on Sunday, City Girl, Abraham Lincoln, The Big Trail, The Blue Angel, Whoopee, Morocco, Under the Roofs of Paris

@EricNBarroso:
L’Age d’Or, The Blue Angel, Blood of a Poet

@PaulBoyne: (Paul Boyne of Infinite Crescendo):
1. The Blood of a Poet 2. Animal Crackers 3. All Quiet on the Western Front 4. L’Age d’Or 5. City Girl

@MrDude_o_o:
Der Blaue Angel, People On Sunday, Zemlya (Earth)

@ateliertovar:
Prix de Beauté, Madam Satan, City Girl, Liliom, Ladies of Leisure, L’Age d’Or

@Cinedaze (Paul Anthony Johnson of Film-Philosophy, Popmatters):
The Blue Angel, Morocco, Animal Crackers, Swing You Sinners, L’age D’or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Earth

@fishingwithnate (Nate Fisher):
Morocco

@redroomrantings (Justine A. Smith of Vague Visages, Vice Canada, and Globe Arts):
1. City Girl 2. Morocco 3. Swing You Sinners! 4. All Quiet on the Western Front 5.Animal Crackers 6. The Divorcee 7. Anna Christie 8. The Blue Angel 9. Monte Carlo 10. Madam Satan

@railoftomorrow (Scott Nye, writer and podcast co-host at CriterionCast, etc.):
Blue Angel, Morocco, Blood of a Poet, Three From the Filling Station, City Girl, People on Sunday, Hell’s Angels, L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front

@dsl89 (Daniel S Levine of Movie Mania Madness):
Animal Crackers, City Girl, The Dawn Patrol, Anna Christie (German!), Westfront 1918, The Big Trail, All Quiet on the Western Front

@TheEndofCinema (Sean Gilman of The End of Cinema; The George Sanders Show, and They Shot Pictures podcasts):
1. Morocco 2. The Dawn Patrol 3. People on Sunday 4. City Girl 5. Under the Roofs of Paris 6. The Blue Angel 7. Earth 8. All Quiet on the Western Front 9. The Big Trail 10. Animal Crackers

@48ONIRAM (Brian!):
L’Age D’or, Animal Crackers, The Blue Angel

@bmrow (Brent Morrow):
1. City Girl 2. Morocco 3. The Big Trail 4. Laughter 5. Murder! 6. L’âge d’or 7. Monte Carlo 8. The Dawn Patrol 9. Under the Roofs of Paris 10. Earth

@eyeshakingking (Keefe Murphy):
1. Earth 2. People on Sunday 3. L’Age d’Or 4. Borderline 5. Salt for Svanetia 6. Aimless Walk 7. À propos de Nice 8. City Girl 9. The Sea of Ravens 10. A Light Play Black White Gray

@Huntress62:
Min & Bill, Hell’s Angels

@glazomaniac (Sally Jane Black):
Romance sentimentale

@womensrites:
People on Sunday, The Divorcee, L’Age d’Or

@willow_catelyn (of Curtsies and Hand Grenades):
Blood of a Poet, Monte Carlo, L’Age d’Or

@cinebeats (Kimberly Lindbergs of TCM and Cinebeats):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Anna Christie, The Bat Whispers, The Blue Angel, The Gorilla Mystery, L’Age d’Or, Madam Satan, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound, The Unholy Three

@marshlands:
All Quiet, L’Age d’Or, Borderline, Dawn Patrol, Earth, Morocco, Blue Angel, Westfront 1918, Blood of a Poet, Murder!

@jasondashbailey (Jason Bailey of Flavorwire):
Animal Crackers ten times (note: I did not count Animal Crackers ten times)

@jodamico1:
Dawn Patrol, All Quiet on the Western Front, People on Sunday, City Girl, Blood of a Poet, Borderline, Earth, Journey’s End, Mickey Mouse’s Gorilla Mystery, aaaaannnd probaaaably Westfront 1918

@HellOnFriscoBay (Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay):
Morocco, That Night’s Wife, City Girl, Big Trail, Blue Angel, Salt For Svanetia, Swing You Sinners, Studie n. 6, Earth, Liliom

@astoehr (Alice Stoehr of Pussy Goes Grrr, Movie Mezzanine, etc.):
L’Age d’Or, Barnacle Bill, Borderline, The Divorcee, Morocco

@FCardamenis (Forrest Cardamenis of Spectrum Culture, The Film Stage & Movie Mezzanine):
The Blue Angel, Morocco, That Night’s Wife, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Earth, and Salt for Svanetia

@jchristley (Jamie N. Christley):
1. L’Age d’Or 2. City Girl 3. Under the Roofs of Paris 4. The Royal Family of Broadway 5. I Flunked, But… 6. Morocco 7. Abraham Lincoln 8. Liliom 9. The Fire Fighters 10. That Night’s Wife

@afterglow2046:
City Girl, Blood of a Poet, Age d’Or, Murder! Under the roofs of Paris, Billy the Kid, Morocco, Earth, Divorcée, Miss Europe (Prix de beaute)

@derek_g (Derek Godin):
Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or

@rgodfrey (Ryan Godfrey):
The Blue Angel, Animal Crackers, Under the Roofs of Paris, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Free and Easy

@SchmanthonyP (Brian Schmid):
All Quiet on the Western Front, People on Sunday, Earth, L’Age d’Or, City Girl, Under the Roofs of Paris, The Blue Angel

@dvanhouw (Dave Van Houwelingen):
All Quiet on the Western Front, The Blue Angel, L’Age d’Or, Animal Crackers, Blood of a Poet, Under the Roofs of Paris

@oldfilmsflicker (Marya E. Gates of #AYearwithWomen, #Noirvember, Cinema Fanatic, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.):
À propos de Nice, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big House, Der blaue Engel, The Divorcee, The Doorway to Hell, Hell’s Angels, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides, Paid

@CineFile:
Animal Crackers, All Quiet on the Western Front

@DavidBlakslee (David Blakslee of Criterion Reflections, Criterion Cast) :
L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Blood of a Poet, The Blue Angel, Borderline, Monte Carlo, Under the Roofs of Paris, People on Sunday

@labuzamovies (Peter Labuza, Author of Approaching the End, host of The Cinephiliacs. Critic for Variety, The AV Club, Little White Lies, etc):
La Petite Lise, The Dawn Patrol, Version, Walk Cheerfully, Home Town, A propos de nice, The Golf Specialist, Abraham Lincoln, Another Fine Case, Dizzy Dishes, The Devil’s Cabaret

@juvie_cinephile:
L’Age d’Or, The Big Trail, The Blue Angel, Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front, Monte Carlo, Under the Roofs of Paris

@bybowes (Danny Bowes of Salt Lake City Weekly, RogerEbert.com and Indiewire):
All Quiet of the Western Front, Anna Christie, The Blue Angel, City Girl, The Divorcee, Earth, Hell’s Heroes, L’Age d’Or, Let’s Go Native, Madam Satan, Prix de beaute

@leggoet (Marvel Presents Salo):
1. L’Age d’Or 2. The Blue Angel 3. People on Sunday 4. A propos de nice 5. City Girl 6. Animal Crackers 7. The Big Trail 8. Under the Roofs of Paris 9. All Quiet on the Western Front 10. Borderline

@sarahnwondrland (my Aunt!):
1. The Divorcee 2. The Blue Angel 3. Animal Crackers 4. Morocco 5. Anna Christie

@mimbale (Miriam Bale, programmer and contributor to various publications including Film Comment and the New York Times):
Let’s Go Native, Outward Bound, The Dawn Patrol, The Blue Angel, Montana Moon, People on Sunday, Our Blushing Brides, Paid, Fast & Loose, Morocco

@missannabiller (Anna Biller, filmmaker; The Love Witch, Viva):
The Blue Angel, Murder!, Madam Satan, Under the Roofs of Paris, Monte Carlo, Follow Thru, The Unholy Three, Raffles, Our Blushing Brides, Morocco

Janiejoness (tumblr):
L’Age d’Or, Blood of a Poet, Under the Roofs of Paris, Murder!

@FernandoFCroce (Fernando F. Croce of CinePassion):
Earth, L’Age d’Or, Abraham Lincoln, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Dawn Patrol, Murder, City Girl, Big Trail, Up the River

@faithx5 (Jandy of The Frame):
1. All Quiet on the Western Front, 2. The Big Trail, 3. Animal Crackers, 4. People on Sunday, 5. The Blue Angel, 6. The Office Wife

@tenkmovies (of TenKMovies):
1) Blood of a Poet 2) All Quiet on the Western Front 3) Animal Crackers 4) Morocco 5) The Big House 6) The Divorcee 7) Anna Christie 8) Laughter 9) L’age d’Or 10) Abraham Lincoln

@meganeabbott (Megan Abbott, only my favorite current author! Author of Dare Me, The Fever, etc.):
The Blue Angel

@selfstyledsiren (Farran Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren of Film Comment, NY Post, author of Missing Reels):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Her Man, La Petite Lise, City Girl, Min and Bill, The Big House, Morocco, Animal Crackers, Dawn Patrol, The Doorway to Hell

@inessentials
Ladies of Leisure, Monte Carlo, Animal Crackers, The Blue Angel, Sunny Skies

@r_emmet (R. Emmet Sweeney of Movie Morlocks):
Abraham Lincoln, L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Trail, The Dawn Patrol, Follow Thru, Home Town, Morocco, People on Sunday, The Three from the Filling Station

@HouseOfSparrows (David Robson of House of Sparrows):
The Bat Whispers, A Propos de Nice, Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or, That Night’s Wife, The Dawn Patrol

@opalfilms:
Blood of a Poet, Blue Angel, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Earth, Animal Crackers, Golf Specialist

@UUUUAHHH:
L’Age d’Or, The Blue Angel, Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front, City Girl, Borderline (need to see more)

@bunnifluezl:
People on Sunday, The Big Trail, A propos de Nice

@BBandmoviegal:
MURDER! (Because Herbert Marshall & Hitchcock), CITY GIRL, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, HELLS ANGELS, ANIMAL CRACKERS

@NitrateDiva (The Nitrate Diva):
The Devil to Pay!, The Doorway to Hell, Follow Thru, Journey’s End, Ladies of Leisure, Laughter, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound

@Onceatenor:
The Blue Angel, Animal Crackers, King of Jazz, All Quiet on the Western Front

@PreCodeDotCom (Pre-Code.com):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, The Big House, The Divorcee, L’Age d’Or, Let Us Be Gay, Loose Ankles, Monte Carlo, The Unholy Three, War Nurse

@SeithTristan (Tristan Seith):
The Three from the Filling Station, The Blue Angel, People on Sunday, Earth, Westfront 1918, Under the Roofs of Paris, The Big House, L’Age d’Or, Murder!, Doorway to Hell

Amanda (BFF):
Morocco, Anna Christie

Adam K. (friend):
Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front

WordPress and/or Facebook replies:


Duane Porter:
The Blue Angel, Morocco, Monte Carlo, Prix de beauté, L’Âge d’Or, People on Sunday, Under the Roofs of Paris, Laughter, Earth, Au bonheur des dames

Randommyriad:

Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or

FleurRinna Guta:
1.All Quiet on the Western Front 2. The Blue Angel 3.City Girl 4.Under the Roofs of Paris 5. People on Sunday 6.Anna Christie (German) 7.Monte Carlo 8.That Night’s Wife 9.The Divorcee 10.Not So Dumb

Jerry Bryant Jr.:
Laughter, The Blue Angel, Morocco, City Girl, All Quiet on the Western Front, Ladies of Leisure, À propos de Nice, The Bat Whispers, Sins of the Children, The Flirting Widow

EV:
L’âge d’or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, Der blaue Engel
Hell’s Angels, Morocco, À propos de Nice, Sous les toits de Paris, Zemlya (Earth)

Steve Elworth:
1. The Blue Angel, 2. That Night’s Wife, 3. Morocco 4. Earth 5. Murder! 6. Under the Roofs of Paris 7. City Girl 8. l’Age D’Or 9. A propos De Nice 10. Monte Carlo 

Steve Ruskin:
Animal Crackers

 

 

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #125-129


sleeping_lottie_enchanted_april
#125. Enchanted April (1992, Newell)

Bitter Moon was the final film in the ‘Relationships’ section of my 1992 watchlist with Enchanted April segueing into ‘Women!’. Four women, in varying degrees of desperation, seek rejuvenation away from their husbands and the rainy cobbledom of 1920’s London in an idyllic Italian castle for one month (guess which). Contemplative solitude and reflection against the tabula rasa pastoral gardens provides a backdrop for magical realism. Set-up conflicts, all involving marital strife, fade away in favor of reconciliation. I wanted to feel the hope and power of sojourn spirituality at work in Enchanted April…but it proves impossible.

Based on a novel of the same name written by Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, its approach to marriage certainly reflects the era of the story’s inception. It dares to present marriage as this broken down union lacking in communication, respect, and understanding, only to gloss over everything for an unearned whole; a much less forgiving resolution for a film made in 1992. Sure, the magical realism suggests the potential for reset reality once everyone returns to London, but “that’s another story”. Give me that then, not this. This is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with unhappy spouses instead of young love. No thanks.

These marriages seem to be dead ends all-around, so there’s nothing to root for besides the women finding inner peace with themselves for themselves. At first that’s the focus, and then one by one the men come clomping, or humming, back in. The women’s aim for identity, agency, and hell, even just mutually respected companionship is invalidated, and all in the name of putting all your eggs in the escape-to-the-countryside basket.

A paragraph of questions:
So what, Frederick (Jim Broadbent) now loves Rose because she throws herself at him? It was her prudishness that needed to change? Not Frederick’s philandering or inattentiveness or endless humming? Rose is just so bowled over by Frederick’s arrival that all her feelings and doubts are reconciled? Even though he didn’t even go there for her in the first place? And George (Michael Kitchen) was taken in by Rose (Miranda Richardson) and not Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), all because he’s got shitty eyesight? Even though he comments not once, but twice, on how much Rose looks like the the Madonna? Give me a break. Give me lots of breaks. In fact, just give me all the breaks.

The blossoming connection between Rose (Miranda Richardson) and George is sapped in an instant by the film and Rose, as if it had been nothing of consequence. Our clairvoyant guide into these blissful surroundings is the skittishly exhausting and intrusive Lotte (Josie Lawrence). Enchanted April feels as if it were made by Lotte, like it takes place in her deluded head or something. We wait for the other shoe to drop in her desperation but it never does. Because it turns out that for her there will be no rude awakening. Everything she says about her fellow tenants and the power of the castle turn out to be correct. It doesn’t matter that she’s inconsiderate and oversteps her bounds by trying to solve everyone’s problems.

I’ll admit that part of my dislike of Enchanted April comes from a rare break on my ‘expectations’ rule. Basically, and I say this with an asterisk to risk generalizing, it’s a big pet peeve of mine to mark against a film by saying ‘it’s not what I expected’. That puts all its supposed value onto the individual’s preconceived notions, either from marketing, reputation, or picked up assumptions. The weight of preconceived notions on a film’s value gives the advantage to said preconceived notions, not the actual content. I take issue with that. These are natural feelings to have of course; however, there are constructive ways to frame them, meaning engaging with what the content is opposed to what the content isn’t.

This rant is to say that, yes, in this case, for some reason I thought Enchanted April was going to be about female bonding surrounded by lots of pretty flowers, and not about reconciliation with husbands, so that certainly didn’t soften the blow. Nevertheless, I’m all for buying into romanticized fairy-tale hope (as in A Tale of Winter), as long as the material earns it. And Enchanted April does not earn it.

The relaxed pace interspersed with low-key moments of characters soaking in their new temporary milieu with hard-earned basking is appropriately sweeping. My favorite moment comes when a small lizard makes its way up Miranda Richardson’s hair, and so despondent in this moment she allows it. Speaking of Richardson, she is able to use her naturally cold demeanor for exacting enigmatic ends and unexpected subtle reactive strokes of comic timing.

ARE1952002W00003-10
#126. Marlene (1984, Schell)

Maximilian Schell makes a mistake trying to engage with Marlene Dietrich near end of her life, and knowing each other going back to Judgement at Nuremberg twenty years earlier doesn’t help smooth things over. In fact, nothing does. Schell works under very strict stipulations, the most obvious being her refusal to be seen on camera at age 83. So we hear her barbs with director, interviewer and friend as archival footage plays in the background, usually undermining in some way what she is saying. Dietrich is aggressively staunch, constantly dismissive of her own legend and work, or downright confrontational. Everything is ‘kitsch’ or ‘rubbish’.

We hear someone seemingly uninterested in their own legend, yet defiantly unwilling to risk tarnishing it by showing herself. Although I can’t fault one’s understandable vulnerability about being seen at age 83. But still, she attempts to preserve in her own way. She also inadvertently tries to support her legend by insisting on their being ZERO craft in her work. As she puts it, she just did as she was told. Nothing is really revealed about her if you solely hear her words. Marlene is about the discrepancy between public legend and self-representation; between sad shielding and what’s beneath. How they create a tear within a person. Dietrich wants nothing to do with this documentary, yet she takes part. Is it just because Schell is her friend? She repeatedly references her autobiography. This is someone who wants to (understandably if misguidedly) control her own narrative after the fact, even as she wants to disassociate from it.

Early on, she claims not to have seen any of her work. It’s a transparent statement from the start, and later she is proven wrong (though not thankfully called out on it). When being shown a copy of The Scarlet Empress she claims it must be a different version because the edits are wrong. She dismisses sentiment, only to be moved to tears by a sentimental song at the end.

That’s all there is to Marlene. Yes, it ends up being an anomaly of a project, in some enticing ways, but overall its few revelations build up to a wholly frustrating experience that not even Schell’s sly undercutting of words with images can erase.

It’s the Little Things: 
– According to Dietrich, women’s lib was all about “penis envy”.

weownthenight-brothers
#127. We Own the Night (2007, Gray)

It’s become clear to me at this point (with only Two Lovers left to watch), that James Gray gives Joaquin Phoenix grand character arcs that run record long distances in a short period of time. In The Yards he’s fun-loving and supportive, then cowardly and jealous to all kinds of too-far-gone mixed up. In The Immigrant he’s a charlatan to a possibly dangerous stray dog in love to sacrificial raw meat. And then there’s We Own the Night, which could also lovingly be called The Joaquin Phoenix Show. Full of dismissive defense mechanisms towards his family (getting high and feigning boredom) and underground success and love but by the end, it’s a 180; something lost and something gained. What is lost is Eva Mendes and the self-chosen club environment and (dependent) success he naturally drifted towards. What he’s gained is a position society can be proud of, and the love of his family, most importantly his brother. One love traded for another very different kind of love. It’s an incredibly bittersweet trade-off, and not just because the bridge between the two is the loss and subsequent vengeful recompense of their father.

Phoenix spends most of the film, even when he’s sticking his neck out for them, an outsider looking in on his own family, a tolerated third wheel.

Once again with James Gray; Choices, Family, New York. Gray and the cinematographers he works with have an uncommon ability to constantly and observantly capture actors; nothing seems preordained in these performances. The writer/director works with familiar stories and genre conventions while having a knack for spending all that narrative time oh-so-carefully mapping out characters and their multi-faceted relations. In this case it’s all about Bobby (Phoenix), so much so that pretty much everyone else ends up being a bit underwritten as a result. Where Bobby stands with those in his life is constantly charted. Everything flip-flops for him. What would normally be a fraught and traumatic, but ultimately uphill, battle ends up being an complex aforementioned trade-off. Conventions come through characters and their choices, as opposed to characters and their choices coming through conventions.

Well, it’s certainly safe to say that the man knows how to end a film. There is something indefinably powerful about that final image. What is it? The simplicity of it? The words being spoken out and not towards? That slight zoom or how head-on it is?

It’s the Little Things:
A black-and-white montage of New York police photos transitioning to Joaquin Phoenix in red walking towards reclining Mendes while “Heart of Glass” plays; sexiest thing in a film I’ve seen since re-watching The More the Merrier

vampire-academy-zoey-deutch-lucy-fry-sarah-hyland-600x400
#128. Vampire Academy (2014, Waters)

Every so often you run into a film that you recognize as being a scattershot botch job, seemingly beyond repair, but you still like it, a lot, despite everything. Vampire Academy is one of those films. Now that suggests all the pieces are somehow lacking, which isn’t the case. There’s a lot that works about Vampire Academy, and despite its box-office flop status and universal pans, I believe the film will slowly but surely find some kind of audience.

The main detractor is that it suffers from the kind of Adaptation Inflammation that tends to plague adaptations of world-building heavy YA films. This one even has the nerve to throw terminology as onscreen text, like a trippy test review session. The harder the  world-building efforts (also taking into account its low budget), the more everything feels inconsequential as opposed to realized. So there’s an unfortunate dwarfing effect from the get-go. As if the exposition weren’t enough, Vampire Academy makes the mistake of acting like the start of a movie franchise so are endless extraneous elements and characters that have no bearing on the story at hand, and are there to assuredly set up  future installments that will only exist in the books. So there is no shortage of dead, and undead, weight.

World-building skeletons with a side helping of complicated etymology exists in all self-serious YA franchises. But Vampire Academy blends (to inconsistent results) that skeleton with the playfully bitchy high school lampoon act its makers (Mark Waters of Mean Girls and Daniel Waters of Heathers) are known for. But instead of the latter subverting the former, they end up feeding off each other til there’s not much left.

But on second thought, I’d say there’s quite a bit left. Yes it’s a mess, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and sardonic mess. Zoey Deutch alone is a real find, heavily recalling both Ellen Page and a young Lauren Graham, with constantly varying and left-field comic sensibility. She can be annoying and a bit much, but I found her Rose Hathaway badass and lovable, an antidote to the furrowed brows and self-sacrificing heroines of dystopian and supernatural worlds. It would be a travesty, yes a travesty, if we don’t see a lot more of her in the future. Lucy Fry as Lissa is quite memorable too, regal and fluttery; good enough to make us forgive weak screenwriting that flat-out says NO to the transition and logic of character motivation.

For all the bland-boy romance (and let’s be honest, so many female-led films suffer from Bland Boy Syndrome), the friendship between Rose and Lissa (Fry) comes first. It is never lost for a second that they have the most important bond, in sync and connected forever. They are soulmates. Lissa even gives a speech at the end where she’s all ‘I wish you all could have your own Rose Hathaway, I’m the luckiest gal in town’. And Lissa, and the film, even make room for welcome and timely commentary on slut-shaming.

All in all, I wanted to stay in this world. I even want to pick up the second book and give it a try. Mark Waters and Daniel Waters drown a bit in the fold of YA, but with the help of Zoey Deutch they are able to come up for air quite often. The results allow teenage girls to have all kinds of non-judgmental sexual yearnings in a PG-13 world, with snarky growing pains winning out over the arduous and usually meaningless weight others of the same cloth so often bore us to tears with.

passion fish
#129. Passion Fish (1992, Sayles)

Literary and laid back in ways May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) can only strive towards. John Sayles (this is admittedly the first film I’ve seen of his) attains the restfulness and ease both seek. The characters catch up to the film. They are restricted to backwoods Louisiana for different but not dissimilar reasons. Rennie (David Straitharn) and Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recur as potential male companions, but everyone else visits once and only once. People pass through while the two remain stationary.

Fade-to-blacks are usually used as prelude to a passage of time, but Sayles consistently and overtly uses them to emphasize a lack of movement or change. That progress is at a standstill for May-Alice because of her self-absorbed obstinance. Stasis, and the gradual movement away from it, and the acceptance that erases it, is at the center of Passion Fish. From May-Alice’s attitude towards her paralysis to Chantelle’s inner demons and dependency on her job as caretaker. When Rennie takes the two out for a late-film boat sojourn it critically signals movement within stasis, an openness to their surroundings and to each other.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard give two beautifully realized performances as equally willful women with a push-pull dependency built on hesitance. The former spouts and drinks, swears and lashes out. The latter desperately bottles everything to keep control of herself, her guardedness hiding immense vulnerability. Chantelle is at once sheepish and direct. Their friendship, though both would hesitate to call it that for most of the runtime, is constantly shifting and developing, the two actresses always able to pinpoint where their characters are (even if the audience isn’t made privy) at any given moment. May-Alice comes to realize she needs Chantelle (both for support and as someone willing to stand up to her) long before Chantelle admits this, or accepts this as mutually beneficial beyond survival.

Sayles does right by the Louisiana milieu outside of some random bouts of broadness (Precious anyone?), recognizing that there was a reason May-Alice left Louisiana as soon as she was old enough, without dipping into pandering. Passion Fish could so easily smack of a been-there-done-that TV movie (or shitty movie) territory or worse, of a black character entering the scene to help stabilize a white character. And though Chantelle is introduced into May-Alice’s story, it very quickly becomes a co-lead film, where each are paid equal mind, mutually dependent, not one an appendage of the other. In fact, as great as McDonnell is, Woodard as Chantelle emerges as the character and performance that resonates more deeply. Have I mentioned how amazing she is in this? Because I’d say from all my 1992 watches and re-watches so far, it’s this lead female performance that has knocked my socks off. Interracial friendships and bonding depiction in film can also easily end up being a catalyst allowing white people to feel good about themselves (for a most egregious example, see; The Help), placement and purpose renders them props no matter how well-written or performed the individual character(s) is(are). Passion Fish sidesteps all this for a deft and carefully observed study of two fully realized women whose fates are intertwined for better and worse.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61


Hangmen Also Die!

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

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

airforce

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

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

Old Acquaintance

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

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

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

gainsbourg_bell_nymphomaniac

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

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

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

friend6

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

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

DerFuehrersFace
#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

education-for-death
#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

Reason_and_emotion_10large
#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

chickenlittle-ending3
#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

fox-and-his-friends-1
#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

veronica-mars-movie-sneak-peek_large_verge_medium_landscape
#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

Nymphomaniac-Volume-1-Photo-1
#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

ErnestAndCelestine
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

Little Women_1949
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

Films Seen in 2014: #26-38


Catching up with these, some of which had been written a month ago, some of which won’t be written and some of which were written recently. February being such an upheaval of a month for me, I could not get around to constructing thoughts on some of these films with everything in such a state of turmoil, so I’ll provide a 1-5 star rating for those, if only for some ballpark sense of my reaction to them on a positive/negative scale.

Hard Boiled

#26. Hard Boiled (1992, Woo) (Hong Kong)
Melting pot of virtually every action movie cliche there ever was. Widespread mayhem, avenging lost partners, undercover cops, hotshots, antagonistic teamwork banter. It all comes together with fluid chaos through Woo’s ‘bullet-ballet’. And all of it, I mean all of it, is kicked up to an outrageous plane. Even for Woo. Arms arsenal hidden underneath a hospital? Babies in jeopardy? Guns hidden in library books? Protagonists who are able to dodge an endless onslaught of bullets while everyone else around them gets hit? It’s all there.

Gunfights are my least favorite kind of action scene and even John Woo: Master of Ammo can’t entirely alleviate that. It makes up the entire second half which is pushed to dizzyingly destructive heights. It becomes a bit too end-all-be-all for me to stay with it for keeps. From the John Woo I’ve seen, I much prefer The Killer and Face/Off. Chow Yun-Fat and baby-faced be-still-my-heart crane-building Tony Leung are marvelous. The early tearoom and warehouse fight sequences are my favorite and Woo has a knack for instilling marvel in the viewer from the sheer chaos and stuntwork within the frames and cuts. Can’t forget that 5-minute hospital take that predates what all future first-person shooter games. It’s unfortunate that the hour-long onslaught actually flattens Woo’s cinematic language instead of purifying his brand of explosive mayhem. This is probably why the earlier standalone action sequences did more for me. But I have the utmost respect for a film that hinges its climax on a baby urinating down Chow Yun-Fat’s leg.

Pierrot le Fou

#27. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard) (France)
Pierrot le Fou is sort of invaluable from an auteurist perspective. It is uncommonly locked and loaded, marking a major turning point in Godard’s career. But it’s not a turning point before-or-after. It’s a turning point in progress, and that’s where I find most of the film’s return value. Godard goes about self-destructing his own refined patchwork formalism even as he continues to engage with it. American gangster tropes remain but he’s not invested in them, not even remotely, not even as passive pastiche.

Starting out in an ABC manner, the second half is like it was caught on camera. The story is in the spaces, the non-events, the improvised restlessness. Ferdinand and Marianne are static opposites; There’s nothing particularly investment-worthy about them and their connection never feels quite sustainable. Or rather there’s always something disingenuous about them. Marianne wants to live, be active, and if liveliness comes through in criminality so be it. Ferdinand wants to write, to philosophize about the world around him, but it’s a dead-end. He shuts himself off, doesn’t acknowledge Marianne. So it’s a stalemate. And of course it’s a stalemate that in some ways mirrors the disintegration of the Godard/Karina marriage.

Primary colors pop everywhere. The first half has a lot of stylistic wow moments, my favorite being the nighttime car scenes with accompanying UFO-circling lights. And then there’s the color-coded bourgeois boredom. Godard seems to be contemplating the words that come courtesy of Sam Fuller’s cameo.

Those oppositional personalities also come into play through the overlapping voiceover, which doesn’t necessarily have competing narrative battling, but a singular narrative being fought between two people. The sea is crucial to the film, its open, endless, hazy blue picaresque backdrop for the ‘idyllic’ couple-on-the-run story.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find Godard as rewarding. as a whole, as so many people do. The way he incorporates story within his formalism often feels incredibly cardboard or inconsequential, if impressively rigorous and risk-taking, instead of renegade pastiche cool. But I’d like to get an intellectual handle on his life’s work, all of it (not just the hip 60’s stuff, some of which I do happen to love) with whatever accompanying appreciation that eventually brings. There’s a lot of airily marvelous stuff here that is off-the-cuff in content; again, like it’s been caught. Like it’s constructing its own narrative or lack thereof as it goes. That’s a great thing to see as a viewer. I’m particularly fond of Belmondo’s Michel Simon impression and his conversation with the man with the song in his head.

tumblr_n0cpm4Q65T1qfrnyao1_500

#28. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Bellocchio) (Italy)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Films that leave behind any trace of quirky dysfunction (actually forget leave behind, more like not even considered or acknowledged) in favor of the kind of fucked-up toxicity where black comedy lurks at the edges and may give way to horror which may give way to new tonal territories.

So I knew I’d love this. This was Marco Bellocchio’s first film, and it upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film seems subtle but there actually are some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare, and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, but significantly add to it as a character piece.

At the outset, it looks as if Augustus is being pitched to us as the ‘normal one’. That he is our protagonist. Turns out not only is he least useful to the story and to himself, but Bellocchio sees him as being worst offender for having thoughts and not acting on them, however bad. He feigns altruism. He never expresses rage at Ale’s suggestions, secretly hoping they are carried out. The inactive escapes to happier things bare the consequences of their misguided intentions. The end irony is that Ale is the very thing he hates. He may not be part of the ‘incurables’ like the mother and Leone, but he kind of is. He’s just as dependent. And he resorts to murder just to separate himself from those he sees as helpless an dependent.

Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.

Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.

The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. Challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. It’s all laid out on the table for us, but you soon realize all that surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it though the film’s aggression makes us think we do. It’s in that ambiguous time passage in the attic. It’s in all the unspoken background. For this, and many other things, I love it.

The Passenger

#29. The Passenger (1975, Antonioni) (Italy/Spain)
Rests comfortably below L’Avventura and Red Desert and above Blow-UpL’eclisse and La Notte. All the Antonioni trademarks are present, still feeling vitally introspective and universal to how existentialism fits into the act of living. It’s a study on alienation and loneliness of course. And certainly of depression in a way I can’t recall feeling from his other films. It’s about an unfillable void, which is why the negative space is central to compositions. The search for answers, for a new identity, is a dead end.

Thoughts on The Passenger cannot exist without addressing the bravura 7-minute take at the end. It’s a new way of showing, or not showing, death. The logistics and accomplishment of the thing is impressive enough. But the way it makes death unpunctuated, with no fanfare. As something that is as secluded as secluded gets, passing by while a child plays outside, where the sun keeps shining. The other side of the window. The Girl recognizes David. Rachel doesn’t. And how about that other take early on as the David’s blend together in past and present, the camera tracking Nicholson as he makes his decision.

Just who are we? David doesn’t want to be David anymore. But you can’t escape yourself; just the external components. Just the baggage. He is a reporter. He’s seen a lot, been many places. But he’s just a perpetual observer working within the accepted guidelines. Just look at his interview with the President of an unidentified African nation. The old life and the new life collide and squeeze him dry.

The Passenger has the markings of a thriller, but it’s incidental, used to push the character study. Jack Nicholson gives such an atypical performance for him, and it stands out in ways that need to be seen to be believed. He is vulnerable, desperately wanting to change, going about everything cautiously even in newfound freedom. Hard to reach, but ready to be open. Waxing philosophical.

I hope Criterion or some other respected video distribution company picks this up and gives it the release it deserves. Its current DVD condition is really rough stuff. Would kill to see this film looking its best.

Random Notes/Highlights:
– Seeing Barcelona, specifically Palau Guell and the roof of La Pedrera, was a special treat.
– David’s camera getting turned on him, the questions saying more about him than interviewee’s answers.
– David being approached in the church. The way Nicholson plays that entire scene, particularly his slow turn.
– “What are you running away from?” “Turn your back to the front seat”
– Love David’s green suit. That green suit and mustache look.

AkiraKurosawa-RedBeard10-31-40

#30. Red Beard (1965, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.

His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.

#31. Love is Colder than Death (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#32. Katzelmacher (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#33. Siren (2014, Peyronel) (USA): **

Obchod na korze.avi_snapshot_00.54.32_[2011.12.17_02.05.05]
#34. The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965, Kadar & Klos) (Czechoslovakia)
Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.

tokyo-olympiad

#35. Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Ichikawa) (Japan)
Momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.

the-wind-rises-image01

#36. The Wind Rises (2014, Miyazaki) (Japan)
Hayao Miyazaki goes out on a majestic grace note, giving us something he’s never done before while remaining identifiably him; aeronautical fixations, concerns over the impact of human intent (albeit too tiptoeing here), languid pacing. There is no filmmaker I love more than Hayao Miyazaki, and so it was very emotional once this film reached its end. The realization that I’d seen all there is to see of his work for the first time hit hard. That this was it.

More than any other films, animated or live-action, I just want to step into the worlds, fantastical or reality-based, Studio Ghibli’s animation team creates. They are skies to ground corporeal within their own creation. They are complete and inspiring. This is no different. The Wind Rises might be his most visually appetizing film (then I re-watched Princess Mononoke three days later and realize that statement is more a suggestion). From the sheen of the planes to the chug-chug of the trains to the crackle and fire of the earthquakes and those inimitable color spectrum spanning skies. The wind brings all of it together, used as a common denominator.

Miyazaki takes on the standard biopic, replacing the bullet points with poetic airs. Sure, things happen, but they aren’t used to strum forward. In fact, the film halts later on and turns into a weepie melodrama, a move I fell in love with (although Naoko abandons her current residency one too many times and is more of a prop than I’d like). Not something from Jiro’s actual life, the fatalistic romance sets up the sacrifices Jiro makes in order to innovate and create beautiful things. And I think that compromise can in a gentle way represent all of the real life compromises that make up a great deal of the film’s post-release controversy.

I will say that while I don’t think that some of the naysayers are completely off the mark here, I don’t quite see how it is Miyazaki’s responsibility to address these issues. He has a very clear and distinct focus here. The film swirls around Horikoshi’s quote “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful”. Miyazaki is a bit too forgiving of Jiro because on a basic level, he connects with him.

Miyazaki uses film to concentrate on what hope he can see in the world and what soulfulness he can find in his characters despite being a pessimist at heart. Obviously the downplaying of certain key issues isn’t in his purview, although the essay he released, and his well-known pacifist status, when the film came out in Japan speaks to where he stands politically (where he always has). So he’s catching it from all possible sides here. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to concentrate on the bigger issues, and he isn’t this wistful man who ignores them, but it’s simply not his MO here. Nor should it have to be. People who want it to be are looking for a completely different film than the one they got. I see the downplaying as speaking to a bigger problem, one that is far more evident in where Miyazaki places the Germans in relation to the Japanese within the story.

That said, it was frustrating to see Miyazaki walk up to the issue of beautiful innovations used for unspeakable atrocities at the very end without actually doing anything. I would have liked a bit more at the end, a conversation that felt thought-provoking and irreconcilable perhaps rather than tossed off the way it is.

But I really loved this. A big step up from Ponyo; a mature and understated swan song that sums up everything I love about this man whose work I’m going to miss so so so much. Thank God Studio Ghibli has two upcoming projects I’m stoked about. New Takahata!

lego-movie

#37. The LEGO Movie (2014, Lord and Miller) (USA)
The most high-energy film I’ve seen since…Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Or going further down the line, Moulin Rouge! An astonishing sense of ceaseless forward momentum. I’d actually use the word ‘manic’ as a descriptor. Visually kind of mindblowing with its combination of CGI and LEGOmation, resulting in a specific aesthetic none of us have seen before. The visual qualities parallel the essence of the toys at their most imaginative with constant motion and an always evolving landscape. In fact, it’s impossible to process everything you are seeing at any given point and warrants several re-watches on this quality alone. Lord and Miller bring their irreverent and slightly absurdist brand of humor from “Clone High” (hear that dolphin sound fellow fans?) into this world. The jokes are so quick that when they miss it flashes by in an instant and lands on something  uproarious. “Spaceship? Spaceship! SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP!!!”

As far as objectives, it bites off a bit more than its capable of chewing by the end. There’s a lot of ‘don’t conform!’ to ‘but rules are good! to ‘corporation=bad’ (but it’s a LEGO movie you say! Yes, we hear you) and ‘you just have to believe’ to the importance of imagination and creativity. Luckily the film has pretty interesting ways of going about each of these objectives, and I found its final act rug-pulling pretty inspired even if I’m still working through how I feel about it. Yes, it ends up being even more directly promotional to LEGOs, but I admired the way it addressed the ways in which children use toys (and specifically the nature of LEGOs) not only as an outlet from their personal lives but as an environment which fosters creativity and imagination in some essential ways. The reveal also makes glorious parody of the done-to-death stories of prophecies, chosen ones and vague dictatorial villains in that it credits these cliches into something a child would make up. And “Everything is Awesome” is addicting and really captures the film’s spirit.

Horne-Robinson-Stormy-Weather-1943

#38. Stormy Weather (1943, Stone) (USA)
About Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s life, except that it really isn’t at all. What this is is an all-out revue with minimal pretext. With an all black cast in a Hollywood picture, as a response to MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, its a one-off to say the least, especially considering that the characters, while struggling to make it in the business, are allowed the kind of frivolity afforded to many studio system productions. It surprisingly sidesteps piety and unsurprisingly sidesteps critique in favor of neutrality (hello white filmmakers) but also kind of refreshing if only in its sense of lightness. What we get is a kind of time capsule treat of legendary black performers of the era, a production so rare that a new musical number occurs every couple of minutes as if the film had to cram in and make sure to represent everything these icons had to offer in one fell swoop. Because, well, ain’t that the truth. Highlights include Horne’s “Stormy Weather”, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, dapper Cab Calloway and his droopy drawers, and The Nicholas Brothers who give the most impressive feat of a tap-dance routine ever committed to celluloid. It’s a show-stopper.