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

29 November 2020

Portrait of Jason (1967)

This documentary really is unlike anything I've ever seen. Portrait of Jason is a really difficult film in many ways, and stunning because of when it came out. But it's also frustrating. Jason Holliday, the film's subject, gets so drunk in the movie, that one isn't always sure what he's talking about or what he means, and his thoughts meander. But this portrait of a gay hustler in 1967 that played at the NYFF is an important document, either way.

28 November 2020

Zigeunerweisen (1980)

Zigeunerweisen (ツィゴイネルワイゼン) was weird, weird, weird. A kind of ghost story about the Taisho period and nostalgia for a Japan untroubled by the West. Maybe? Who knows. This was very strange and overly long.

I watched it with my unseen movie club. We did have a long discussion about what it was trying to do, but I am not sure any of us really liked it very much.

27 November 2020

Queen Bee (1955)


Damn, Joan Crawford is a bitch in this. Queen Bee, though, isn't anything other than a bitchy melodrama set in the American South, and the director and screenwriter don't even make anything interesting out of the Southern setting. Worse yet, there are no parties at all, no big sequences with even more than six actors in a room. This is a smallish film with high drama. 

I've never paid much attention to Barry Sullivan before, but I loved him in this. 

The costumes, by Jean Louis, are exquisite. Crawford's outfits look incredible in every single sequence.

24 November 2020

Olivia (1951)


Olivia
is a recently rediscovered (not really but sort of) lesbian melodrama from 1950s France and released in the U.S. in 1954. 

It's... well the whole thing is sort of hysterical, and I found it difficult to get interested in it. I think, maybe, too, it was the fact the film never gets there. We dance and dance around desire, but nothing ever arrives. I find the kind of teasing that Miss Julie, Olivia's object of affection, wields to be tiresome. 

The texts of Racine stud the film throughout, so Jacqueline Audry is clearly playing with unrealized desire as such on the thematic level (think of the unresolved, unrequited, and unconsummated loves of Bérénice and Phèdre), but I think this film was just not for me, Racine or no.

1941 (1979)

Steven Spielberg's 1941 is a broad farce about (among other things) the Zoot Suit Riots – not a funny topic. This is singularly unfunny. I laughed one single time the entire 150 minutes of this. Lots and lots of things explode in 1941, but that doesn't make this any less boring or bad. To be fair, there is a great dance sequence in act two, but this is widely understood to be Spielberg's worst film, and who am I to disagree?

23 November 2020

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a fucking outrage.

BSM aims most of its ire at Trumpworld. There is even an extended QAnon sequence. Just listening to QAnon conspiracists is surprising and funny in an awkward way. It's scary too, of course, when one realizes how many QAnon conspiracists there are, but this kind of odd, awkward humor is Sacha Baron Cohen's stock-in-trade. 

It's also easier to laugh at all of this from the post-election position, I have to say.

And I laughed a ton. It is totally out of control, and clearly aimed at males much younger than I, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Bacurau

Wow. Bacurau is a violent, 1970s-style Western but with the usual social critique of Kleber Mendonça Filho. This one is on the nose a little more than usual, perhaps, but it is so satisfying as a genre picture. It's also filled with queer characters, even thought it's not about sex at all. I loved this. Can't recommend it enough. Don't miss it.

It's streaming on the Criterion Channel.

22 November 2020

Thunderball

I suppose it's silly to call a James Bond film bloated. The stock-in-trade of a Bond film is its numerous exotic locations and its series of setpieces. But Thunderball feels bloated, and it has a large problem. Much of it takes place underwater, where everything moves more slowly, more quietly, and with less clarity. This is interesting for the first three or four long sequences where this happens – mostly because of the novelty of the underwater activity – but having an underwater battle at the end of the film makes the climax feel a bit off, timing wise. 

Also this is a very violent Bond film. I was actually quite surprised. Many many people die and there is even quite a bit of blood. But harpoon guns just, like, keep going into people's chests and arms. I cannot believe this was rated PG. Connery is great, and is looking great, but Thunderball also has quite a few more little dumb one-liners than it needs, too.

All of the James Bond films are free on Amazon Prime right now, and Connery had just passed, so I decided to watch this one – there are only a couple I haven't seen.

21 November 2020

Stray Dogs (2013)

Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs (郊遊) has lots to recommend it, including a particularly great performance by the always good Lee Kang-sheng. But I think Tsai overdoes things here. There is just a little too much inexplicable content. The usual themes are here - loneliness, abject poverty, hunger, houselessness, crumbling buildings. But Stray Dogs just didn't quite work for me, or perhaps I mean that I feel like I've already seen it because I've seen so much of Tsai's other work. As I say, there are some great moments, but this one felt a bit too self indulgent. 

The film's title is, to my mind, an obvious reference to Kurosawa's 1949 Stray Dog. The definition of the stray dog in that film – a young war veteran living in squalor who turns to crime – links the stray with the way the state has abandoned the young man at the film's center. This same theme has its echoes in Tsai's film as we see Lee sing what sounds like a nationalist song from the Classical theatre (though it is probably invented for the film??). Tsai's film is a much more hopeless film than Kurosawa's, of course, and it doesn't aim for the emotional punch of Kurosawa's ending, either, though Stray Dogs does contain a cri de coeur similar to the final, deeply moving one in Stray Dog.

I've been watching a lot of Tsai Ming-liang lately. I got into him in earnest this summer after my friend Alison recommended The Hole, but then I read a couple interviews and got sort of hooked. The most recent two that I've seen – Stray Dogs and Rebels of the Neon God – were just about to leave the Criterion Channel, so I tuned in while I still had the chance.

17 November 2020

The Quiet Family (1998)


Kim Jee-woon's The Quiet Family (조용한 가족) is a darkly comic farce. I thought this was quite funny and enjoyable. It's not scary or even very grotesque, but it is funny. Song Kang-ho is in this, too, as a young thief. Most of the actors are great, but he is definitely best in show.

10 November 2020

La Tregua (1974)


Truce
is a sweet, sad film from Sergio Renán. It's anchored by a quietly brilliant performance from Héctor Alterio. An older man is bored with his life and is working only so that he can retire. His relationship with his kids is slightly strained but this is only because they're in their twenties and need to live their own lives. What is the father with the empty nest to do? This one falls in love with a young woman, and the whole thing is just charming as hell. This is quite enjoyable.

I will say that this is one of a number of pictures from this period nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar where we watch an older man fall in love again and rediscover a youthful verve in his dotage.

La Tregua deserves special mention for its homosexual subplot. The main character's younger son is a gay man who is in the closet, and part of the plot is an involved discussion of homosexuality and happiness.

08 November 2020

Once a Thief (1965)

Never. Ever. Ever. Call the cops. Ever. They teach this in schools, right? Doesn't everyone know this? (I'm thinking this because of this film's end. As soon as someone called the cops, I knew our hero was in trouble.)

Once a Thief is a very good crime film from Ralph Nelson, the director of the excellent Fate Is the Hunter. Van Heflin, Ann-Margaret, and Alain Delon are very good in this. Delon is great in everything, of course. 

Once a Thief is also a good movie about San Francisco, and one of its highlights is surely Yuki Shimoda (who was a Japanese-American) playing a Chinese undertaker, speaking perfect Italian to Jack Palance (who was a Ukranian-American playing Italian-American here), and a Chinese store-owner character speaking to a white cop who understands him perfectly and speaks back to him in perfect Mandarin.

Something that Once a Thief articulates so well is the way that police and other state institutions make criminals. If the state decides you are a criminal, then you are one. A man can go straight, work hard, stay away from thieves and murderers, have a child, try to get his life together. But the state gets in his way, hauls him in to be questioned, forces him to lose his job, till he has no way to make money but to steal it. Then the state says see I knew it all along. You've always been a thief. This a surprisingly sympathetic and intelligent film. This is probably because it was written by Zekial Marko.

Another thing to say about Once a Thief is that the film refers to lesbians several times, although no lesbians are characters in the film. In the opening sequence over the credits, we are at a mixed bar and a woman hits on another woman, and we also see a pair of women who are clearly a couple. Later in the film Delon's cellmate, we find out, runs a kind of flophouse for lesbians, some of whom are heroin users.

In another queer twist, we get this odd bit of dialogue at the very end of the film:

Cleve: It's there! The end of the rainbow. Long cars and beautiful women.

Saragatanas: I don't dig women.

07 November 2020

Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

I loved Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒). It's a lonely tale of young, disaffected urbanites. This film feels less existential than later Tsai Ming-Liang films. In Rebels of the Neon God, the characters' loneliness seems like something unique to them (and maybe their generation.) We seem to be in a real Taipei and not the later, haunted, disturbed Taipei of The Hole, The Wayward Cloud, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, and Tsai's even later films. Either way, Rebels of the Neon God is an incredible debut. I enjoyed this film a lot, and falling in love with Lee Kang-sheng is easy. I can see why Tsai did.

06 November 2020

Cupcakes (2013)


Cupcakes
(בננות) is a sweet, earnest, quirky, and queer romantic comedy about a group of friends who join a EuroVision-like contest in Israel. Cupcakes is pretty stupid, but it's hard not to like this. In Hebrew, incidentally, the title translates to bananas, although the film and the poster (as you can see) still feature cupcakes heavily.

05 November 2020

Stray Dog (1949)


Stray Dog
(野良犬) is an analysis of postwar Japan and the disaffection and poverty experienced by many veterans and their families. It is a generational analysis of urban life like the kind Mizoguchi and Ozu were making in this period. I hadn't seen this movie before, so I hadn't known Kurosawa was making movies like this too. But Stray Dog blew me away. It's all of this hidden inside a detective movie. This film is atmospheric and rich – the entire film is sweat soaked, and you can feel the heat. It's easily comparable to postwar American films noirs. But Stray Dog has so much humanity! The ending is just devastating. It absolutely broke my heart. I loved this film. 

Also... Toshiro Mifune was, like, really handsome in the late 1940s.