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

12 October 2017

Holiday

I loved Holiday and I love Ann Harding. What a great actress! It makes me wonder why she didn't work more.

Androids Dreaming of Electric Dads

Blade Runner 2049 is a long film. That is probably the first thing you ought to know about it. It clocks in at a totally unnecessary 2 hours 45 minutes. This movie is taking its time doing what it wants to do.

The next thing – and you already know this – is that the film is visually stunning. Its production design, costume design, cinematography, and visual effects are all award-worthy, awesome achievements. It just looks so good. The photography and lighting, honestly, are even better in the movie than you can tell from the trailer. There are sequences that are absolutely visually breathtaking.

And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. –Genesis 30.22

But Blade Runner 2049 is a self-important, pretentious movie, that expects its audience to do a lot of intellectual labor. It doesn't clearly articulate the ethical questions at the center of its filmic puzzle, either, so that if the characters are thinking through questions of right and wrong, or if they're making bold decisions that contradict their programming or their caste in society, we don't really have much access to the thought processes (or perhaps software processes) that lead to those decisions. In short, the movie doesn't really let us in to the characters. Even if I loved Ryan Gosling's character K, I only rarely felt like I understood the conundrums with which he was struggling. (Robin Wright and Carla Juri's characters are notable exceptions to this.)

More than that, the film's characters are obsessed with, and long for, natural things like wood, water, air, and animal life. But Blade Runner 2049 doesn't make this clear enough, and the audience never shares the characters' wonder at the real. So things that seem wonderful or awesome to these people in 2049 are completely ordinary to the film's viewers. And how could they be anything else? Blade Runner 2049 doesn't spend enough time setting up the world for us; it avoids allowing us into how the characters feel about the slum slash police state in which they live.

The King
There is a famous robot play by Karel Čapek – the man who invented the word robot – called R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. This is also an overly long story, and it aims at questions similar to Blade Runner 2049: viz. What if robots could reproduce? What might it mean for two androids to have a child? R.U.R. is mostly a problem play, and it spends its time talking us through the various ethical and emotional questions involved in having robots working as slaves (the word robot in fact means slave). In other words, there is much to discuss and therefore much time is needed for the play to do what it wants to do. Blade Runner 2049, by contrast, squanders its time, seemingly extending every sequence by at least 45 seconds so that the camera can drink up more of the gorgeous production design. This makes for a ponderous film that is nearly emotionally empty. (A part of this is due to having Ryan Gosling as the lead. He goes for stoic and silent in these kinds of roles – an obvious heir to Harrison Ford's famous sullenness – but this film needed emotional vulnerability in order to stop itself from being one of Christopher Nolan's soulless adventures.)

But it is visually and aurally stunning, and now that I've laid out all of my problems with the movie, all of the reasons that I know the film is not great, I can't say that I cared very much about any of these objections. I really liked Blade Runner 2049. Do I wish Villeneuve had made a better movie? I do. But I was delighted, astounded, even shocked by this one. Roger Deakins' cinematography feels completely fresh in every sequence. The neon-red-on-one-side-neon-blue-on-the-other-side visual that you can see in seemingly every movie – and about which I have complained before – never happens in Blade Runner 2049 even if it is used on the poster. Instead, Deakins' use of color feels inventive, novel, even revelatory. Now, one might easily object: but in service of what, exactly? and this objection would make sense, but for me these images were actually enough. They evoked plenty of emotion for me as colors and light: It was like staring at a Mark Rothko or a James Turrell or a Doug Wheeler.

So, I guess I can't really recommend Blade Runner 2049. If I really liked it, I know that I liked it for very specific reasons. I expect that for most people, this film's self-importance and pretenses will weigh more heavily against it, and those people are – sigh – probably right.

05 October 2017

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Honestly, I hate stuff like Michael Curtiz's The Charge of the Light Brigade. This is one in something like a score of Errol Flynn–Olivia de Havilland pictures. He's handsome; she's boring. But none of that has any effect on this movie, which foregoes the usual swashbuckling version of Flynn in favor of a "noble" British officer fighting the Russians (apparently) in colonial India.

It's just impossible for me to be on the side of these British, who are hanging out in India and trying to protect Victorian interests on the subcontinent. I find it simply inconceivable that I am supposed to root for these men in mufti attempting to "tame" (or whatever other nonsense term they use) a country that isn't theirs in the first place. I don't care how many times the film refers to them as savages or shows them killing women and children. The British do not belong there.

This film's score (by Max Steiner) was nominated for an Oscar, but the music's insistent trumpets and constant use of martial pacing, as well as its reliance on quotation of "Rule Britannia" annoyed me just as much as the rest of Curtiz's movie.

Mostly, I must admit, I just didn't care about any of this. There is a love plot – two brothers love the same woman – but I couldn't be bothered one bit. The film quotes Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" repeatedly by substituting its words for actual action, but the whole time I was just bored. To me it all felt as tired as Tennyson does.

I guess it is also worth saying that this is one of those films that thinks waging war, dying in war, and fighting over pieces of land that the generals themselves acknowledge they think are not worth fighting about are noble, valiant acts. And in this way The Charge of the Light Brigade is truly full of shit. When the film ended, with literally hundreds of men being killed by cannon fire because of an arrogant, foolish decision on the part of Flynn's character, it was driven home again to me just how nonsensical the whole thing was. Hundreds of men dying for a frivolous act of revenge, done to avenge an act that would never have happened in the first place if the English had just stayed on their island.

04 October 2017

The Racket

The Racket is more about the racket itself than about any one character in the racket, and although the film is occasionally smart about the criminal justice system's collusion with organized crime, this is way less interesting and not as well acted as 1929's Alibi, and it isn't even remotely as well made as Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (also from 1929).

01 October 2017

The Dark Angel

The Dark Angel was sentimental but I found it rather touching. I love Fredric March so much. I know he was a huge movie star and that I probably should have admitted his long ago, but he's just so wonderful. I don't know why I was so resistant.

The Pied Piper

Typical sentimental war-time patriotic nonsense. I love Monty Woolley as much as the next guy, but this batch of silliness?

29 September 2017

Broadway Melody II

Usually these kinds of revues are fairly boring, but not Broadway Melody of 1936. The plot is clever, the performances are solid, the costumes are queerly interesting, and Eleanor Powell's tap dancing is spectacular. I loved it.
The Queen of Tap

To Forget Venice

To Forget Venice (Dimenticare Venezia) is lovely and a bit strange. But this is a film about memory and trying to let go, so perhaps a little strangeness makes sense.

You wouldn't know it from this Italian poster, but Dimenticare Venezia is a film about a man who is gay and his lesbian sister who are dealing with growing old and losing the generation older than them.

I really liked it. And it was nice to watch a film about queer people that wasn't about the closet or even about queerness as such.

26 September 2017

Decision before Dawn

Decision before Dawn is a surprisingly good film. It is about a German spy working for the Americans and has no real stars attached to it, so I understand why it's basically forgotten today, but this is good stuff.

Free Fire

Well this was way better than High-Rise, at least. Free Fire is quirky fun, all the gimmicks worked for me, and I thought it was really funny.

Something about Brie Larson, though... she seems so young in these recent parts (I'm thinking of this and Kong, which I saw pretty much back to back). She's not that young, I suppose; she's 27. But the idea that she is an arms dealer at that age or that she could be a decorated war photographer at that age? I am skeptical.

I know Hollywood hates women in their thirties, but it would be nice to see them take women more seriously in these roles, and something about Larson just looks so young to me.

Blood on the Land

Blood on the Land (Το Χώμα Βάφτηκε Κόκκινο) from 1965 is a very good old Greek movie about unionizing and land redistribution in early 20th century Thessaly. (Yes, I did just say a good movie about land redistribution.)

This is not quite as hard-hitting or smart as I Compagni, opting instead for a melodramatic approach. But it is a good film nonetheless, and it is a little odd that it was never released in the U.S. and doesn't exist for U.S. consumption at all.

24 September 2017

The Green Goddess

The Green Goddess is one of the weirdest old movies I think I've ever seen. I watched this for George Arliss, with whom I've really fallen in love. He was a wonderful actor and fascinating movie star in the 1920s. Arliss plays some "oriental" raja who is a self-styled Barbarian. He is quite polite and proper, but he acknowledges his own barbarism when he kidnaps and decides to kill three English citizens who have wandered into his domain. He tries to force marriage upon the one Englishwoman – in other words he tries to rape her – in exchange for the life of the two men; she refuses. Finally she and her lover are rescued by the Royal Air Force... and then Arliss's raja character literally looks at the camera and says Oh Well, she was probably more trouble than she was worth anyway.

What?

In other words, the film is... sort of on his side, or at the very least The Green Goddess is expecting us to enjoy this man's machinations. (I guess?) It is a confusing, odd moment in the film, and it confounded my entire reading of the movie as just a sort of typical orientalist film with its good, proper, Englishmen and its "orientals" with strange, mysterious, superstitious, violent ways.

I honestly still loved Arliss in this (he was in fact nominated for an Oscar for the role), and I'll continue to look for more of his movies. He's great.

Sleight of Hand

Sleight's title is a pun, and a clever one at that. It's a film about a young magician in Los Angeles who is raising his kid sister mostly by himself.

Sleight is a attempting to be a neo-noir crime picture, too. As well as – and this is what Sleight really wants to be – a 21st century sci-fi movie along the lines of Josh Trank's Chronicle.

Unfortunately, J.D. Dillard's movie doesn't always work. It's shot beautifully, and most of the acting is great – you should start seeing Jacob Latimore, who stars, and Storm Reid, who plays the kid sister, everywhere really really soon if there is any justice in this world. But the film's score doesn't turn the focus clearly enough toward the movie's science fiction elements, and so the film opts for weird and slightly spooky instead of occasionally wonderful and surprising. It's as though the composer and director can't decide whether the audience is supposed to like the science fiction elements or be scared by them. Accordingly, they made me uncomfortable instead of making me excited. I should have been thinking about how cool the whole thing was, and instead it left me worried.

The script, too, is not that great. It was written by Dillard and producer Alex Theurer, but the plot has a couple of holes, its love story is too truncated, and many of the difficulties in which the film ensnares its protagonist are a) absurd and b) way too easily resolved.

But this is only Dillard's second film, and it's directed well enough that I'll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

21 September 2017

Private Worlds

Private Worlds is absurd. This was just, like, a regular old love story, but it's gussied up as some sort of women-can-be-doctors-too, faux-feminist bit of nonsense. Joel McRea is suitably cute, Charles Boyer is smoldering and intense as usual, and Colbert makes sense in the part. But the film is no good.

Private Worlds is based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome (what is this name?!), who wrote the screenplay with Lynn Starling and Gregory La Cava (who directed), but if the novel is at all feminist, that has been bleached from this film adaptation.

If you're going to end your "feminist" film by having your female protagonist decide that nothing matters if you really have found love? Keep it to yourself.

Love with the Proper Stranger

Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen are great in this. Actually, this film is just really good. It takes the usual Hollywood moral stance against abortion, which makes me fairly angry, but the central performances and everything else in the script are really excellent. It's odd, but while I was watching this the film reminded me a lot of Bloodbrothers, the movie with Richard Gere. I think it was the focus on familial connection and the sort of melodramatic approach that Love with the Proper Stranger takes toward family bonds. After the film was over, I looked up the director and it's the same guy – Robert Mulligan. This film is much much funnier than Bloodbrothers, but a lot of the family dynamics are the same, and Mulligan feels the same way about family – you need to escape it! – in 1963 as he does in 1978.