Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #246-257


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

new world

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

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

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

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

Those Magnificent

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

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

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

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

Prisoners

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

Rapture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten by Year: 1935


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, USA)
Certain films carry with them a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling more often than not.

This is a fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story, and it’s one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in. The screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview. Its drawbacks, mainly an unreachable aloofness and Sullavan’s do-gooder sainthood, cannot stamp out the immediate connection and unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.

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5. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, USA) 
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling those kinds of sentimental ideas on film. Or really anywhere for that matter. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so distinct within its era in Hollywood filmmaking that it had me swooning from the first. I felt a rare level of investment in the couple in question played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, largely in thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is a vastly underrated film that I implore you to see if you ever get the chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous? Heavenly shafts of light are often used to connect our characters through the magic of film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Before Midnight (2013, Linklater)


before-midnight-ethan-hawke-julie-delpy

Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors and the fact that it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.

Before Midnight is bittersweet to its core. The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about a relationship riddled with past baggage. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. That crevice can fill up with negative unspoken dissonance. And at some point you come to blows, and the incomparable intimacy you share with a person is used by each to target the other’s weaknesses, faults, failures. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.

Before Midnight takes the unstructured conversational elements we love so much about the first two and adds the specificity of what a relationship between the two actually turned out to be. Each major scene contributes something essential; in this way, as well as the way those pieces are used to build to something, it feels more like a story than the first two. That master-shot in the car at the film’s start is something to behold and it just gets better from there. Linklater is always unobtrusive; he knows exactly when to have blocking, when to keep his distance and when to cut close. His unobtrusiveness helps the audience conversely feel obtrusive as things get ugly. We get to see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where both are coming from, why both are fed up with the other but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.

The final minutes are edge-of-your-seat stuff. You deeply feel what’s been said. You feel and are desperately moved by that last ditch effort. Everything’s riding on it. In that moment the stakes become higher than anything I’m likely to see in a film this year. And it exists just between two people. But not just two people; between Jesse and Celine. Before Midnight is a thing of bittersweet majesty. It may double back on most of the romanticism of Sunrise and Sunset, but goodness me the disillusionment with a silver lining is worth it.

Review: Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)


Iron Man 2 (2010, Favreau)
5.7/10

Note: This review was originally written on May 8th, 2010

Iron Man 2 is all in all a pretty entertaining sequel that manages to flounder as often as it succeeds. Iron Man was a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways. It offered a lighter but no less entertaining alternative to 2008’s The Dark Knight. The film is very problematic but ultimately a worthwhile experience.

In the sequel, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is now dealing with the consequences of revealing his identity. He is given a subpoena for being a weapon which is considered dangerous by the government. He is dealing with Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who is desperate to show Tony Stark up with his own Hammer Tech. There is also primarily the matter of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with a vengeance for the supposed wrongdoing of his father from Tony’s father Howard Stark (John Slattery). Let us not forget that Tony is slowly dying from the palladium which is simultaneously keeping him alive and is nearing hopelessness at the film’s start for a harmless replacement. There is also a matter of the new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) who Tony has a hard time getting a read on. Basically there is a lot going on in Iron Man 2; too much. Instead of a faster and busier pace, it makes for a somehow slower pace that is weighted down in set-up while failing to provide much pay off.

To start with, an intrinsically problematic aspect of the Iron Man franchise is the fact that all of the action scenes take place between CGI machinery which is ultimately not very interesting to watch. It is more entertaining to watch actual people fighting each other than to see two machines go head to head with occasional shots of Downey Jr. in his helmet. It is not something that cannot really be fixed since the machinery is such an essential element to the story. Favreau and Theroux know that the situations the characters find themselves in are what make or break an action scene and they do find little ways to tweak the circumstances. Each action set piece does satisfy in one way or another. The racetrack scene in Monaco is probably the most memorable, the party scene between Stark and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) escalates in a surprising way and is the most character driven fight sequence, a spin on War Machine’s wiring makes for a unique dynamic near the climax and yet another scene following that comes to an amusingly quick end making for a dash of unpredictability. These examples, without delving into specifics, all contribute to action scenes that are essentially more interesting than they should be. However, when you put all the scenes together and think about the time spent on them, it does not add up to anything truly interesting. The best fight scene in the film is the one involving Johansson because it is the only scene featuring actual people fighting each other.

The final face-off with Vanko is completely underwhelming. The scene does not last long and there is nothing and the situation within it is uninteresting at this point. This leads to another issue with the film which is the misuse of Vanko’s screen time. Vanko and Stark barely have any screen time or dialogue together. When the hero and villain spend most of the film apart there should be a lot of anticipation going into the final battle or some sort of past. Unfortunately there isn’t. In terms of action, their best scene together comes at the racetrack and they only have one actual scene of dialogue between each other and it comes at about the half way point and is quite short. Vanko spends most of the rest of the film interacting with Justin Hammer in what is essentially the same scene about four times. These scenes involve Vanko working for Hammer, pretending to have a language barrier and Hammer being frustrated as Vanko seemingly screws up the job he has been hired to do. Oh and also; Vanko wants he damn bird. It does not take a genius to figure out that Vanko has some tricks up his sleeve. The problem here is too much set-up with Vanko spending so much of the film working on machines and very little pay off in comparison with how little time he spends actually interacting with the main characters and taking part in the action.

A refreshing aspect of Iron Man was the banter between Tony and Pepper which actually made the love interest subplot to lend itself to the original as opposed to dragging it down. The sequel ups the banter ten-fold but does so in an misguided way. Downey Jr. and Paltrow spend all of their time literally overlapping each other with dialogue as if this were Iron Man as staged by Robert Altman. However, this is not where the problem lies; in fact the overlapping makes the scenes a lot faster and interesting. The problem lies in the content. The banter involves Pepper complaining or nagging about something and Tony brushing said problems off like no big deal. This does two things; first it makes the scenes all one-note and eventually tiresome. Second, it turns Pepper Potts, who was once a concerned but ultimately fun character into a nagging non-character who becomes a burden every time she appears on screen. Once refreshing, Paltrow’s presence cannot help but instigate the thought “here we go again”.

These complaints are all significant and problematic, however, the film is ultimately a pretty worthy sequel with many decent qualities. Overall it is more consistent than the first. While Iron Man is better, the best scene in the first was the opening scene and overall the first half was a lot stronger than the second. The sequel has equally interesting halves even if both have their own specific significant deficiencies. All of the actors perform and contribute well. Downey Jr. is as snarky as ever and while the film depends on the overwhelming personality of both the actor and character too much, it is impossible for Robert Downey Jr. not to be entertaining. Don Cheadle makes far more of a presence than Terence Howard did, giving Rhodes a better sense of character and also a more palpable feel of friendship and history between him and Stark. Johansson makes for a welcome presence especially in comparison to Paltrow’s pestering Potts. However, Johansson has never been good when she is not working with much. Seeing her on Broadway has confirmed for me that she is a great actress and someone who is truly talented. However, some people can make good, underwhelming or bad material work; she can’t. When she’s got a great character she owns it, but when she is given a thankless supporting role she sort of flounders. She looks better than she ever has here and she does a serviceable job but nothing more. Mickey Rourke does a really nice job with Vanko, making him a spectacle but never going over the top with him. Garry Shandling is fantastic in a very small role as well.

However, Sam Rockwell gives the most interesting, and I would argue strongest performance. As Justin Hammer, playing a character much younger than he should be and with a significant amount of screen time, he plays a villain only intimidating in his severe efforts to overcompensate for his own ineptitude. It’s a tough role because it is not a showy character as written and he is also not the big bad. What Rockwell does is go full force with Hammer’s levels of obnoxiousness, misplaced arrogance and awkward repetitive and impatient delivery. Every scene with him goes from being potentially tiresome to quite fascinating as he portrays a man who is in over his head but is so dead set on gaining respect from everyone that he never acknowledges it and continues to be as smarmy and aggravating as possible. It is a give in at this point that Rockwell steals any film in which he has a supporting role. Without him the film would have been too black and white.

Stark’s relationship with his father Howard, who died 20 years ago makes for an interesting aspect of the film. While it did feel like it was self-consciously acting as the film’s “deep” moments, its execution is handled so well that it ends up being one of the most successful things about the film. John Slattery’s presence does not exactly hurt either. The dialogue as written by Tropic Thunder screenwriter and actor from Mullholland Drive, The Baxter and other films, is filled with wit and energy. There are many stand out one liners that come out of nowhere and are really amusing, in particular a line with a “Supernanny” reference and another line about “two seals fighting over a grape” among others. As director, Jon Favreau smartly prioritizes by concentrating on giving each scene an energy which definitely helps the films pace which is simultaneously very weighted down in set-up. Still, Favreau’s direction is a high point and it keeps everything light and fun amidst the heaviness. Also, Vanko and Hammer make for much more interesting villains than Bridges’ Obadiah Stone who was a considerably underwhelming aspect of the first film.

Iron Man 2 is certainly laden with significant problems. However, through it all Favreau and his team somehow made a pretty entertaining and surprisingly satisfying sequel. All of the elements of the first are present and are expanded upon for better and worse. It is mostly consistent as well which made for a more even experience than the first. Also, it seems like a film to satisfy fans of the comics as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is given a couple of key scenes and the film overall succeeds in most of the elements that make an entertaining film. It is certainly not anything I would call great or even truly good, and its deficiencies are significant but considering that it was better than I expected, it is easy to simply sit back and be entertained by it. While I cannot overlook the negative traits of the film and it does feel self-indulgent in its premature celebration of itself, I can appreciate that it has succeeded in what it set out to do which is to entertain. That alone might not make it great, but it certainly counts for something.