Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 April 2020

O Pagador de Promessas (1962)

Anselmo Duarte's fable O Pagador de Promessas – which was released in the U.S. (in 1964) as The Given Word – is a semi-comic morality tale about a simple man who tries to keep a promise to a god but who is attacked on all sides by newsmedia, police violence, prostitution, religious intolerance, and capitalist greed.

This film is a moral kind of story with a heart of gold that critiques "modern" life by favoring the "simple" values of honesty, devotion, loyalty, and truth. My scare quotes should indicate that I'm not sure this film believes in modern life as such or in the simple values it would seem to be extolling.

Duarte's film, see, can't help aligning itself with modernity because the film itself is invested in "simple values" as an exercise in nostalgia. What I mean by this is that O Pagador de Promessas is a vehicle through which its director can mourn a set of values or a way of life that Duarte himself believes already to be past – or at least passé. The director is a part of modern life and conservatively or nostalgically orients himself toward these simple values, but the entire premise of the film is from the point of view of modernity.

01 April 2020

Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is all around pretty wonderful. It's sexy and funny and the script is exquisite. It didn't hit me emotionally in all of the ways I wanted it to, but I admired this film a great deal, and Adèle Haenel is absolutely brilliant in it.

This was the last film I saw before the movie theatres shut down for the coronavirus. There were just three people in the theatre, including me. Glad I got to see it when I had the chance.

31 March 2020

Alexandria... Why? (1979)

Alexandrie Pourquoi? (إسكندرية..ليه؟) is very interesting, but it did feel a bit disjointed to me. There were rather a few more plots than I really knew what to do with, and some of them got away from me as a viewer. Extra points, though, for portraying a gay British–Egyptian romance in 1979. This is why I watched Youssef Chahine's film – he is a famous Arab filmmaker who often portrayed gay characters – and it didn't disappoint in that regard.

30 March 2020

T-Men (1947)

T-Men is a surprisingly great film from Anthony Mann. I've only seen his westerns (fine) and his terrible epics (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire), but this one is a sleek film noir that follows some upstanding law enforcement agents (improbably enough) from the Treasury department. T-Men is gorgeously shot, totally suspenseful and engrossing, and beautifully performed by Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder. There are all of these very strange sequences in Los Angeles steam rooms, and the photographer, John Alton, makes the most of his stark whites and stark blacks. This movie is filled with haunting silhouettes and shady corners. I was really into this.

28 March 2020

Mondo Cane (1962)

Mondo Cane is "the original shockumentary" – as all of the synopses call it nowadays. This movie is so very 1960s, though. It's quite silly, really, while also showing us a great deal of savagery.

Mondo Cane's style is a sort of faux-anthropological view of various activities in human societies worldwide. To my mind, this kind of thing ends up being sort of racist, even when it doesn't want to be, and the violence in it, particularly as directed toward animals, is a repeated theme in the film and is, frankly, disgusting.

I didn't hate this, though. It's well made and amusing when it's not horrifying. It has that kind of Italian humor that we can see in movies like I Mostri and I Nuovi Mostri. Mondo Cane, too, would go on to have a series of sequels.

As for the song that was nominated for an Oscar in 1964... what song?

26 March 2020

A Little Romance (1979)

I loved A Little Romance. It's a totally romantic and charming rom-com about two young teenagers in love. Diane Lane is adorable and her boyfriend, Thelonious Bernard, who only made two movies in his entire career, is just the cutest. I found the whole thing lovely. Broderick Crawford also has a delightful couple of scenes as himself – an actor making a movie in Paris; they call him "Brod" the whole time, and it's fun. George Roy Hill, who directed, has also made the main character into a movie fan who loves (why shouldn't he?) George Roy Hill movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. So nostalgic clips of these caper movies are peppered throughout for thematic purposes but also just for fun.

The only weird part of  A Little Romance is, ironically, Laurence Olivier, who is top billed and who gives an extremely strange, hammy performance that really does not jell with the rest of the picture. It really ought to have been Paul Newman or Robert Redford here, and I'm not sure why it wasn't. But, hey, it doesn't much matter. Olivier's character is not central here (top billed or no), and the rest of the movie is so cute that I'm happy to forgive.

25 March 2020

La Mujer sin Cabeza (2008)

The Headless Woman is slow and troubling and ultimately haunting. I really, really liked it.

23 March 2020

The Hole (1998)

Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole (洞) is very strange and very well made. It is an intriguing tribute to Grace Chang songs. It's also an apocalyptic vision of loneliness and contemporary Taiwan, and it has a fantastic performance by Yang Kuei-mei. I saw this with my unseen movie club right before Covid-19 shut everything down and the whole thing felt uncanny. We all really liked it. And I can't stop thinking about the fact that the main character (Yang's character) is hoarding sanitary napkins, meanwhile in California people were hoarding toilet paper like madmen.

21 March 2020

Breakthrough (2019)

Breakthrough is a god movie. Kid falls through the ice. Mom prays for him. Crisis of faith (or whatever). Kid pulls (breaks?) through. This is one of those DeVon Franklin-produced films that are designed for Christian audiences and that promote (vaguely) Christian ideas. I watched it because Diane Warren's original song ("I'm Standing with You") was nominated for an Academy award.

To be honest, in addition to Diane Warren's song, I thought all of the music from this movie was great. And, as it turns out, Breakthrough is actually pretty well made. It has some really good lines in it. I even think the movie has a strain of agnostic skepticism running through it that I found interesting. But Breakthrough is first and foremost a movie that is super-invested in the god and the power of the god. Or, maybe I should say: the power of people who believe in the god to get things done or make the god do things or speak to the god and ask him to do things. The god actually doesn't appear in the film. What we see instead is people of faith closing their eyes and praying or saying magic words and also people speaking about the power of the god. I found most of that stuff just really laughable. I have no ability to take this kind of thing seriously.

At the end of the movie, Topher Grace (he and Josh Lucas are both really great in this, and I loved Lisa Durupt too) has all of the medical personnel and rescue workers who saved this boy stand up, and I thought, Right – these are the people who actually saved this boy's life. And then he also had everyone who prayed for the kid stand. Ok. Fine. But I'm just not into this idea. Those people are not responsible for the boy's rescue in the same way as the actual people who worked hard to save this boy.

The trouble, for me, is that Breakthrough isn't actually interested in the parts of this story that I think are interesting. The main character, for example, begins to feel that it is not the god but she who is keeping the boy alive, that she has some kind of spiritual or magical power (either) over the god or over life and death. This is a fascinating moment in Breakthrough, but it's one that the film doesn't really want to explore. Instead, there is a single scene where she realizes that she's being a little nuts and then she, like, prays about it for a bit and we're done.

19 March 2020

The Big Country (1958)

The Big Country – which William Wyler directed one year before Ben-Hur – looks like a giant, epic western. It's actually more of a melodrama. It does this very well, though, and Burl Ives, who won an Oscar, is really fantastic in this film. His first scene is clearly Oscar-worthy, but actually every scene he's in is amazing.

The most interesting thing about The Big Country, though, is the nominal non-violence it appears to preach. But, much like 1957's Friendly Persuasion (starring Gregory Peck's contemporary pretty-boy Gary Cooper), the non-violent man at the film's center proves his masculinity through violence after all. I am not sure why filmmakers were doing this non-violent thing during this period, but one does wish they actually believed in the product they were selling.

Charlton Heston: hot. (Listen. To each his own. He's sexy in this movie. I don't care what you say.)

Carroll Baker: the worst.

18 March 2020

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

What an absolute delight of a film The Devil and Miss Jones is! Jean Arthur is brilliant, as usual – just perfect comic timing. Spring Byington is a joy to watch. Robert Cummings is a charming and very funny leading man. And Charles Coburn is hilarious. These are Hollywood's best comedians in a sparkling, socially relevant comedy. I loved this movie. For folks who haven't laughed since 1929!

17 March 2020

Paix sur les Champs (1970)

I started off liking Paix sur les Champs very much, but then as it went on, I think it became more and more conventional.

Jacques Boigelot's film was ok, but not great. It starts off as a portrait of a town, the young people who move around in it, and the influence of the older generation, but it sort of devolves from there as it gets overwhelmed with plot.

This film has been out of print in the United States for a long time, as far as I can tell, but I was able to see it finally here.

16 March 2020

El Amor Brujo (1967)

Not to be confused with Carlos Saura's El Amor Brujo, Rovira Beleta's film is sort of bananas, honestly, and the acting is out of control in its theatricality. But El Amor Brujo is an enjoyable curiosity, even if it doesn't have the level of amazing flamenco that Los Tarantos does. For me, the highlight of this film – in which a man fakes his death so that he can haunt his girlfriend and gaslight her into coming back to him – is when the woman's new boyfriend realizes (and is relieved) that this man is alive and not a ghost. Real men you can fight, he says, ghosts are another matter.

15 March 2020

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

I really disliked The Sunshine Boys, and if I'm honest, I'm not quite sure why I watched it. I generally like Neil Simon – I at least think his shtick is funny, but that is not true of The Sunshine Boys. Where are the jokes? This film is just grumpy old men crabbing at one another as an exasperated (but always cute) Richard Benjamin tries to wrangle them. Walter Matthau was nominated for Best Actor for this and George Burns (and this is insane) won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in this. His performance is almost nonexistent. I tell you I am baffled.

14 March 2020

Bizalom (1980)

István Szabó's Bizalom (Confidence) is excellent. How it is out of print is beyond me! What a great movie. This was my most recent selection for the unseen movie club. No one had seen it, but we all absolutely loved it.