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.

19 September 2017

Sarah and Son

Ruth Chatterton is a damn genius. Sarah and Son is an emotional film and a bit of a far-fetched Cinderella story, but Chatterton's performance makes it all worth it. Also, it's worth noting that Sarah and Son was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women who worked as directors in Hollywood in this period.

A Ship Comes In


Sweet, patriotic, anti-Communist nonsense.

When Ladies Meet

All my pre-code viewing has turned up something really remarkable! A women's film that is smart and fun and truly delightful. I adored this movie from start to finish, and it treats its characters frankly and humanely.

The film boasts positively brilliant performances – by Ann Harding, Myrna Loy, and Alice Brady in the first place, but also by the always great Frank Morgan and with a superb supporting turn by Martin Burton.

When Ladies Meet is frank about sex. It's honest about relationships. It possesses fascinating insights about marriage. It was, of course, based on a play written by a woman, and I don't think this could have been otherwise. Male Hollywood screenwriters from this period simply were not writing things like this. And under the PCA I can't imagine this movie existing at all. It was, apparently, remade in 1941. I haven't seen that film yet, but I can't see how something censored – as it would have to be under the PCA – could work as well as this one.

Berkeley Square

Well I wasn't expecting this! Berkeley Square (which is always pronounced Barkley Square) is a time-travel movie (!) and an exceedingly odd one at that. I was sort of impressed with this film's ambitions, even if I find Leslie Howard rather boring and found the plot itself rather bizarre. What a strange film.

The Big Pond



The Big Pond is a very slight picture, one designed to capitalize on Maurice Chevalier's success in The Love Parade, no doubt. This is hard to dislike - it's too slight for that - but it's nothing to write home about.

17 September 2017

Skip! This! Movie!

I am sure Aronofsky thinks that Mother! is some sort of meaningful, fascinating allegory. But it isn't. Jennifer Lawrence's range is, as usual, limited, to say the least. She unsurprisingly scowls through the picture, and thus is, I suppose, the perfect star for the outrageous cynicism, awkwardness, and displeasure that characterize Mother! itself.

And if the plot itself is incoherent – which it is – this incoherence is made uncomfortable, unbearable, unwatchable by the fact that one has no character with whom one can identify and no one for whom one might wish to root. Aronofsky actively dislikes his own main character, and quite possibly dislikes his antagonist even more. This is a sadistic, painful movie that is actually invested in punishing its audience and violating its protagonist.

The structure of Mother! (what is that exclamation point about?) is such that we are angry and have hit a breaking point a full sixty minutes before our protagonist hits her own breaking point. This leaves us an entire hour in which we as an audience are frustrated enough to scream, but our heroine is not. We actively wait for her to lose her shit and let everyone have it – or for her to do anything at all! (Exclamation point.) But we wait the entire movie for this to happen. It will take the full two hours.

Michelle Pfeiffer is good in this, though, in her Hebraic Eve drag. I will say that. And I am certain this is because she is really the only actor who is having any fun here. Bardem plays a sadistic asshole but doesn't seem to relish this part at all, opting instead for a baseline of sincerity with small bursts of uncontrollable rage (an odd thing for an actor who has played fiendish, pleasurable villains.) Pfeiffer, on the other hand, opts for taking pleasure in sadism, annoying our protagonist and trying to get a rise out of her in whatever way she can. It's a pleasure to watch, and one of the only pleasures Mother! can actually boast.

La Pfeiffer
Domnhall Gleeson, on the other hand, is wasted in this movie. He is great, as always, but woefully underused.

And as for Kristen Wiig, there's a problem here. She represents, in fact, a real casting error. Wiig is hilarious. And we can't take her seriously in a part – we are trained to laugh at the things she says. So when she shows up in act three and is supposed to be terrifying? All I could do was giggle.

It might not be her fault completely. To be fair to Wiig, I had already started laughing at this movie by the time we got to act two. It's too silly not to laugh at it. This is an absurdist exercise in sadism and allegory. Be smart and skip it. This is the same guy (with an utter contempt for humanity) who directed Noah, and we all skipped that one (or wish we did). Do yourself a favor and skip this one too.

Addendum: If you want to read my sincere critique of the politics of Mother!, please follow the link to my Noah discussion. As it turns out, Mother! is just Noah in a new CGI outfit. What my friend Rick and I discuss about Noah is that Aronofsky really believes that a) human beings deserve to be punished for their total depravity, that b) there is a god, and that c) that (apparently male) god is actually a terrible force of mostly petty evil. Now, I have nothing per se against a film without hope or a film with a cynical view of human beings. But Aronofsky's two most recent films posit that human beings ought to be destroyed, that human culture is without redeeming qualities, and that the god ought just to scrap the whole experiment.

I find this frustrating for numerous reasons. In the first place, there is not actually a god. In the second place, what does Aronofsky want us to do with his allegory? Ask mom how we can help? In his film, the one character (Jovan Adepo) who actually tries to help JLaw, is treated like just as much of an interloper as Aronofsky's ciphers for Cain and Abel. As far as I can see, Aronofsky has no empathy whatever for any member of humanity, so aside from finding his film boring, I find his politics bankrupt.

16 September 2017

Kong!

Kong: Skull Island is a veritable Boschian garden of delights from start to finish. The entire structure of the film is that the characters fight one giant monster after another, and although the movie is about 105 minute long, it almost never slows down at all.

There are other good things, too. Nearly every moment of exposition is delivered by John C. Reilly doing a kind of clown–crazy man thing, so that even the information that we need to know we get delivered to us in a funny way (despite the fact that really insanely disgusting monsters are threatening to eat and kill our little band of heroes).

And the CGI is pretty excellent. There are giant musk oxen, giant spiders, a giant octopus, a giant gorilla (incidentally every character who refers to Kong's species refers to him as a monkey), and then there are these evil fucking reptiles with heads like the skinless skulls of giant, dead lizards. All of this looked very real to me, and the CGI team also gives us countless explosions, waves, and helicopter crashes, as well. All of it works well, and the sound effects editing is also excellent.

But it's Kong's plot that works the best. It never bothers with sentimentality – substituting the protagonists' feelings of wonder and awe for sentiment and renewed courage and other well-worn action-movie tropes. Kong simply doesn't have time for that sort of thing. Or rather it doesn't take time for those sorts of things the way a lesser movie would. In Kong there's always another monster attacking that we need to figure out how to neutralize.

Kong killing monsters? Thank you, and more, please.
There are a group of themes, and these mostly articulate the dangers of misguided revenge fantasies and close-minded masculine military bravado. Kong is set during the Vietnam War (with a small section in World War II), and this not only puts Kong in the time period just after many of the great monster movies (Mothra, Rodan, Godzilla, The Crawling Eye), but it also links the film's fighting of monsters to larger themes of the fighting of many-headed "monsters" like, say, ISIL or terrorism in general or Al Qaeda or even the so-called war on drugs. The film is invested in communicating to its audience not only the futility of fighting Kong with grenades or helicopters or machine guns but also the insanity of fighting with Kong in the first place. The massive ape, as it turns out, is defending the island from disgusting, vicious, and remorseless subterranean terrors. So the military was aiming its firepower in the wrong direction all along.

Mr. Kebbell, when not covered by a mo-cap suit
As for acting, everyone does just fine. Thomas Mann (honestly, I can't believe that's his name, but this is the kid from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) is lovable as the soldier attached to Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larsen, and John C. Reilly is very funny as the soldier from the 1940s still stuck on the island. Best in show is Toby Kebbell, the British actor who is mostly known for mo-cap roles. He was in Warcraft and also in the new Planet of the Apes movies, where he plays Koba, the son of Caesar (Andy Serkis). Kebbell is great in the second Apes film, and he's great here – he does double duty as the loneliest of the soldiers and Kong himself (a mo-cap prince, if you will, to Serkis's king).

In any case, I recommend this. It's much better than the third Apes movie, doesn't take itself at all seriously, and never slows down for a minute. The third act, in which Kong fights beast after beast, is an absolute pleasure. The fact that Kong: Skull Island was directed by the same guy who directed The Kings of Summer is a bit shocking to me (this is only his second feature!), but it makes as much sense as anything else does in this world.

(Also, I obviously love monster movies. I don't think was clear to me before, but it is now.)

14 September 2017

The Candidate (1972)

The Candidate, as it turns out, is a satire. This should be obvious from the film's poster, but it was a surprise to me as I watched this movie, because the first two-thirds of the movie are played fairly straight.

The last third of this movie is actually laugh-out-loud funny, but the first two acts? I found the whole thing just puzzling. It's played like a serious drama, where we're watching an honest man get swallowed up by the political machine.

Now that it's over, I can see that the whole thing was supposed to be funny – at least three scenes are played in men's rooms, and there's this totally weird bit where the candidate gets accosted by a man who just wants to talk about his dog – but the filmmaking just isn't letting us know we can laugh a this until we get to the end of the picture. I think perhaps it is also hampered by Redford's portrayal, which doesn't leave any room for laughter, but even more, I think with Redford as the star, the film needs to focus on him, whereas what it should be focusing on (for laughs) is the electoral circus that it is supposed to be skewering.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe making fun of federal politics in the U.S. just isn't funny to me anymore.

08 September 2017

Bleed for This

Ben Younger's Bleed for This is an odd film. The acting is fine, but the filmmaker doesn't know how to do the things he needs to do to make his movie successful. Younger looks down on his characters, as you can clearly see from this poster above; he thinks they're amusing or curious. Worse yet, every single thing in this movie feels generic. As with the Stephen Frears' biopic of Florence Foster Jenkins, also from 2016, this film tells the story of Vinny Paz, but it never gets under the skin.

04 September 2017

Free Old Hollywood Cinema Online

I got in a mood for really old cinema last week, and I've been watching a lot of movies from the years 1927 to 1935. Many of these films are available on YouTube or somewhere else, and there are some great old films with excellent performances among this group. All of the ones I watched were nominated for Oscars, and sometimes I was baffled by the nominations (as indeed I often am now), but there were some very good movies, nonetheless.

Condemned! is a 1929 melodrama about a French thief, played by Ronald Colman, who is shipped off to a prison colony in an Africa jungle. He gets put to work as the warden's butler, however, and he and the warden's wife fall in love. So, naturally, he plans an escape. Ronald Colman is a great deal of fun in this, and he was nominated for Best Actor. This category, let me just say, from 1927 to 1935 at least was a bunch of nonsense. Not always, of course, but frequently. Some of the actors getting nominated for performances are doing fun work, but they're not really having to do much acting. Many of them aren't even carrying their films. What it looks like to me is that the studios wanted to push particular actors as important, as talented, as sexy, and so they put their weight behind particular performances.

In any case, Condemned! has its good elements. There is a pretty great swamp chase sequence and I really liked the stuff on the boat in the first five minutes of the movie. But the second act is all love and nonsense, and it doesn't focus nearly enough on the wife's terror and anguish to be actually affecting. The point of this movie, however, was to sell Colman as a leading man, and this works marvelously.

* * *
The Affairs of Cellini is, if possible, an even sillier Best Actor nomination. Not that this film isn't delightful. It is! It is a farce set in the Cinquecento in Florence. In this fun film, Fredric March plays Benevenuto Cellini, the great Florentine goldsmith, is a kind of hot-tempered Casanova who is killing men who fight with him and seducing women whenever he can. The other main characters are the Duke and Duchess of Florence (Frank Morgan and Constance Bennett), who are both hilarious and delightful. The Duke and Duchess are each attempting to have affairs with different people (the Duchess with Cellini, of course), and so they try to trick and confuse one another by playing various pranks and making ridiculous decisions. It might seem crazy for a studio to spend all the money one needs for a 16th century set, costumes, and props just to do a film version of what is obviously a stage farce, but the whole thing worked splendidly.

What is sort of crazy is that when it was over, I thought: they nominated Fredric March for Best Actor for this!? But then I checked and they hadn't nominated March; they nominated Frank Morgan! Even crazier. Morgan was an excellent actor, but almost always worked as a supporting comedian. In 1933 and 1934, however, Morgan was playing leading men, and so perhaps the studio was interested in pushing him as a romantic lead at this point in his career. This is a nomination that honestly makes no sense without studio politics, but I am glad it happened, because The Affairs of Cellini is really fun stuff. Constance Bennett is perfect in this, and I've always thought of Fredric March as a very serious actor, but he is excellent in this farce and funny as hell.

 * * *
Combining my astonishment at both Fredric March and undeserved Best Actor nominations, March's first Best Actor nomination is for a film version of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family re-titled as The Royal Family of Broadway. I saw this play many many years ago with Kate Mulgrew and the great Marian Seldes. It was a delight. There were live dogs onstage and the comedy was absurd and delightful. The part played by Fredric March is definitely a supporting part (this was before Best Supporting Actor existed as a category). March is fun, and he once again acquits himself well as a comedian in a great part, but his nomination really does surprise me.


It is even more surprising since The Royal Family of Broadway is not very funny. Ina Claire, who play's the film's lead, is far too serious in her part, and so the film feels far more sober than it is supposed to be, perhaps even tragic. This was probably what the filmmakers (George Cukor and Cyril Gardner) wanted, but it was not what I wanted from this old gem of a farce.

Fredric March is wondering why everyone else in the movie is so serious.

* * *
Alfred Werker's The House of Rothschild is a very interesting document from 1934. It stars George Arliss, whom I've really begun to love, and the film is about the rise of the Rothschild family of bankers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What is most fascinating about the movie is that it is clearly a bit of pro-Jewish propaganda designed to combat 1930s anti-Semitism. This is explicitly its subject matter. It is also about the way that the Rothschilds helped England by funding its wars in Europe. In other words, the film is a kind of The London Merchant 200 years later.


I will confess to enjoying this film rather thoroughly. The final sequence of the movie is in color, which was a wonderful surprise, and as I say George Arliss is an actor whom I have begun to love. I had thought this movie was impossible to find for many years, so watching it recently was a real treat for me.

01 September 2017

The Bad Batch

The Bad Batch could have been a good 35-minute film. Instead it was a boring 118-minute film. This is a film-school wank of a movie that loves Tarantino but doesn't have the dialogue, wit, or irony that Tarantino has. (Could the poster be any more of a Tarantino tribute?) Ana Lily Amirpour uses all of the most recently typical cannibalism tropes, so this film is about capitalism and vegetarianism. Fine. The first twenty minutes of the world-building are great, but then the film starts to think it's really smart. Oh well. There is lots of funny stuff in The Bad Batch, but that good comedy is stuck inside a long, sententious movie about exploitation and true love or something. I was bored.

19 August 2017

Once More with Too Many Feelings

For the record, I loved the first of these movies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I really really liked the second one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (I wrote an entire post about how the film thinks about justifying violence; the movie is very interesting.) This means, of course, that I am the target audience of Matt Reeves' third movie, War for the Planet of the Apes, since I already love the characters, already care about the fate of the apes, and am hoping the humans can leave them alone to live in peace. (Rupert Wyatt directed Rise; Reeves directed Dawn and War.)

Reviews of this third movie were good, so I was excited. But War falls mostly flat. It is a slow, ponderous type of thing that follows the conventions of 19th century melodrama to a tee. This means that all of the emotions in it are overdone, everything is milked for the absolute last drop of feeling that can be squeezed out of it. This is supposed to be an action movie, and it does have some good action sequences in it, but Reeves is not focused on action as much as he is focused on the feelings of everyone involved in the action. So even when we are in an action sequence, we get shots of sad chimps, looking wistfully at the camera and dreaming of better days or a world without action. All of this kind of thing slows us down, and it takes Reeves forever to do what he's trying to do.

The small, tearful, white child up on Caesar's horse stands in for all of this movie's many many feelings.

The other problem with War is that it is too intent on meaning. It takes itself extremely seriously (à la nineteenth-century melodrama). The other movies were serious too, don't get me wrong, but now that we are in a third movie, Reeves has decided that what the films are about is racism and not animals. To be sure, both topics are about the ways that we exclude people from the category of the human, but the first two movies told us a story and let us make sense of what the movies had to say. Not War. War makes explicit allegories about nationalism and Steve Bannon and the alt-right. Worse than that, the film simply tells us all what we already know about racist white supremacist without using the allegory of apes to see if there's anything new we might learn about the logic of neo-Nazism.

Still, the allegories aren't really the problem. What the allegories do is contribute even further to the slowing down of the entire pace of War. The real problem is the slow pacing of Reeves' staging and his sentimental treatment of every moment of feeling so that what could be a simple moment turns into a four-minute sequence. What could have been a good, tight, 117-minute movie became instead a 140-minute Spielberg melodrama with chimps.

14 August 2017

State Fair


I hadn't actually realized the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair was based on an original film. Anyway, this is it. And Henry King's film is charming from start to finish. And this movie also had some pretty great shots for 1933: the roller coaster rides were a highlight.

12 August 2017

The Beguiled and Baby Driver

I was into Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled. It's a mood piece, like all of Coppola's films, and, well, it is about the same mood as all of Coppola's films. Still, it's a fun, mostly sexy piece, and I was into it. I found it troubling and interesting. 

But I find that Coppola's movies make assumptions about audience identification or comprehension that aren't always quite there yet and so The Beguiled makes unjustified moves, assuming we are following, and we eventually end up playing catch up.

The other sort of odd thing about The Beguiled is that it isn't really sure whose side it's on. This is strange. Are we supposed to identify with this soldier against the women (the film seems to think so during a long sequence in the third act in which he is allowed to articulate his grievances), or are supposed to be on their side, to take pleasure in their actions? This just isn't clear, and if Coppola knows what side she wants us to be on, she hasn't made a film that helps us do that. Again, I think Coppola's filmmaking makes assumptions about audience identification that haven't actually been achieved.

This didn't bother me too much, though. I just love me some Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. And this film uses all of them very well. (I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Elle Fanning, I must say, but to each her own.)

The best thing about The Beguiled is the costumes. They're absolutely genius. I really hope that  Stacey Battat gets her first Oscar nomination for this.


* * *
Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is better than what I am about to say, but once it occurred to me that Baby Driver is La La Land for people who hated La La Land, I couldn't forget the association. To be sure, Baby Driver has guns and explosions and the best car chases I've ever seen in my life, but it is just a little more gimmicky than I could handle.

This is a fun twenty-first-century musical, and it is definitely Wright's most accomplished, finely directed film to date. But... well so much of it just seemed so overly phony. This is not helped by Kevin Spacey's absurdly over-the-top performance and the film's ridiculous romantic plot, which even has an entire La La Land fantasy sequence near its end.

Do not mistake me, though. This is a good movie. And I enjoyed it a lot. That the film does not have enough Jon Bernthal in it is, I think, indicative of why I didn't completely love this picture. Baby Driver is more interested in sentiment and fantasy than it is in crime, violence, or really scaring its audience. Instead, everything in the film takes place in a kind of Disneyland version of criminal activity, in which it is inevitable that love will save the day.

10 August 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Five

Bernhard Wicki's The Visit did not work for me. It stars Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, as well as a wonderful Valentina Cortese, but I didn't like it, and the entire conceit fell flat for me. A woman returns to her hometown and shames them because they shamed her when she was young? This kind of revenge is not interesting to me... I think because it is emotional revenge rather than a logical, murderous revenge. Killing someone, I guess I can get. Shaming him or her: no thanks. Also, I don't think I had ever read Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play (on which this film is based) and I have to say that if the play ends the way this film ends, I don't like the play either.

The Visit had fabulous costumes (that was why it got an Oscar nomination), but its camerawork was very strange, and its sentiments left me cold.

* * *
I honestly don't think I have anything to say about Edward Dmytryk's Where Love Has Gone. This was apparently based on a true story, but it is a soap opera through and through – something Jacqueline Susann might have written. It stars Susan Hayward (who I adore) and Bette Davis (who is beyond all adoration), but... this is dumb. It wishes it were a murder mystery, but it actually never builds any tension in that direction. In other words, I never cared who committed the murder in the first place. This is a melodrama through and through, a kind of poor man's Mildred Pierce, but it never really picks a side and so the final suspenseful moments have no effect.

Where Love Has Gone was nominated for Best Original Song and, if I'm honest, I don't really dislike the tune, sung by Jack Jones. It's a big, bright, brassy sort of thing with lots of violins, rather like something Frank Sinatra would normally make into a hit.

As for the movie though, don't bother.

* * *
The Chalk Garden is another boring potboiler that was probably originally a stage play.

Ok, I went and looked it up and of course it was a play – by Enid Bagnold. the film is directed by Ronald Neame, and he tries his best to make this something other than a stagey movie, but I'm afraid there's no saving it. It's a kind of David and Lisa or Miracle Worker sort of thing, where a teacher gets ahold of a precocious young woman and somehow convinces her to be less crazy and stop causing everybody to fret so much.

Edith Evans was nominated for an Oscar for this picture, and she earned her nomination. She plays a cranky old grandmother who believes she's caring for the young woman in her house but who is actually causing rather a lot of trouble because she's being so darned indulgent and not reading this child the riot act. 

It's not a bad little thing, and it's sort of your typical mid-century USAmerican realist drama, but I've never cared for mid-century USAmerican realist drama, and I haven't gotten any kinder to it in 2017.

* * *
Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater follows a woman played by Anne Bancroft who has many children. Her husband is cheating on her (cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater), and she figures this out over the course of the film. Maggie Smith appears (in 1964!) in a tiny role as the first of her husband's lovers whom we meet. Peter Finch plays the husband, and this movie is interesting, even if it is quite strange.

The thing is, The Pumpkin Eater is a brooding, slow movie, and it is more than a little odd. I appreciated it more than I liked it. But it is about depression, and watching a movie about depression is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Still, it gets kudos in my book for trying to get into the mind of the depressive in 1964 and not simply treating depression as something that needs to be somehow dealt with or cured. And I really love Jack Clayton's work as a director. I think his 1959 Room at the Top is near perfect, and this is gorgeously, assuredly made even if I didn't enjoy watching it, particularly. Clayton was really ahead of his time.

This concludes my 1964 viewing! Now to catch up on some 2017 movies.

31 July 2017

Cold Fission Blonde

I was pumped for Atomic Blonde; I'll be honest. Charlize Theron, as her typical icy heroine, kicking ass and shooting guns while walking around Berlin in heels at the end of the Cold War. That sounds like a good time to me.

And it is true. All of those elements are a good time. But, most of the film is actually not that. Atomic Blonde starts off slowly. Charlize looks beat to hell at the beginning of the movie, and we should immediately be skipping back to the beginning so we can see who beat her up so badly, but no, we can't do that. The director wants to make sure we have a whole bunch of plot points first. There's a watch with a list on it. Charlize apparently loved a British spy who has been killed by a Russian spy in Berlin. And then there are three mysterious men – higher-ups in the CIA and MI6 – who have to interview Charlize. This set up takes forever.

Atomic Blonde keeps on doing that. We get long establishing shots of Charlize in her apartment making phone calls, of Charlize walking the streets of Berlin talking to people we don't know, of Charlize looking through ransacked rooms for objects we wouldn't recognize even if we saw them. The director is here for the mood and the mood is bleak. No one is having any fun in this world. We're here for the chilly atmosphere.

The deal is this: Whenever Charlize kicked someone's ass, I enjoyed myself. And that happens five or six times in the movie. The rest of the movie has to do with a spy plot that no one needed and that didn't matter.

And I wouldn't have bothered about the spy plot in my own brain if the movie itself didn't keep returning to it, insisting this information is important. What's worse is that this entire plot is completely incoherent, as far as I can tell, and so I was baffled as to why the director kept emphasizing it. (Bad directing advice I often hear given to student directors involves the phrase "make sure you're telling the story". Sometimes the thing you're working on isn't about the story.)

The music in Atomic Blonde is cool. Charlize is cool. The costumes are cool. The lighting would be cool, but I have to admit to being tired of this trend where neon red illuminates one side of someone's face and neon blue light illuminates the other. The fight sequences are really cool. James McAvoy is cool. Spies are cool. The whole thing is cool. But it's also just boring.

Visions from 1964: Part Four

J. Lee Thompson's What a Way to Go! is a very strange fantasy film indeed. This is obviously a vehicle for Shirley MacLaine, and she is lovely and hilarious, so that makes perfect sense. It is also a star-studded extravaganza of nonsense. In it, MacLaine marries four different men all of whom are impossibly, insanely wealthy – Dick Van Dyke, then Paul Newman, then Dean Martin, then Gene Kelly. All of this is ridiculously silly, but charming enough. And the art direction and costumes are fittingly over the top and inventive. Extra points for Paul Newman, who appears shirtless for most of his scenes in the movie.

Here, Newman conducts his painting machines before being killed. You had to be there.

* * *
The Fall of the Roman Empire is pretty much garbage from start to finish. It is a disastrous, epic mess lasting three hours and forty minutes and not making a bit of sense. This is an Anthony Mann movie, but it is really a Samuel Bronston movie – the guy behind King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) – and so it is obsessed with grandeur and pageantry. In one of the opening sequences, we watch two dozen different kings from all over the Roman Empire come pay their respects to Marcus Aurelius, who isn't even in Rome but is in some Gothic outpost that is basically an overgrown hunting lodge. The idea is absurd and it goes on for like twenty minutes. This is whatshisname, King of Cappadocia, and now here is the ruler of Armenia, and oh here is the King of Nubia. Are you kidding me? Who cares? I guess if I want to look at a parade of horses and costumes this is worth something, but mostly not. The Fall of the Roman Empire actually has several sequences like this. Obviously in 220 minutes they have time to work in a lot of stuff, but the plot itself is excruciatingly boring. We alternate between absurd fight sequences, pageant sequences, and then scenes of quite, "very important" drama.

Sophia Loren is in this (she was, apparently, in three Oscar-nominated films in 1964), as is Stephen Boyd, who played Messala in Ben-Hur, and Christopher Plummer, who plays the Emperor Commodus. And while we are on Ben-Hur, this film wishes it were Ben-Hur, and wishes that so much that it has a chariot race sequence with Stephen Boyd! It is a total rip off of the legendary chariot race in William Wyler's film. I will say that the one thing for which this nonsense was nominated is its score, which is an amazingly gorgeous achievement by Dimitri Tiomkin. This has a great cast, but it is an epic mess in the tradition of giant epic sword-and-sandals messes like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Quo Vadis? Awful.

* * *
Larry Peerce's One Potato, Two Potato is not nearly as bad as The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it is also a very different movie. This is a story of a legal battle that doesn't know it's the story of a legal battle. The director apparently thought One Potato, Two Potato was something of a comedy, and its title seems to think so too. The movie is comedy length and staged like a romantic comedy for a good two thirds of its running time. But then stuff gets really serious.

The plot of One Potato, Two Potato is that a young white woman's husband abandons her and their small child. She asks for a divorce and he is, like, off in Brazil and never comes back. She, meanwhile, falls in love with a black man and they decide to marry (against the advice of his parents; hers are maybe dead? I forget). Things are going well, for the most part, and they have a kid and the original kid is doing great, loves her grandparents, etc. But then husband number 1 comes back and decides that he wants the kid back. Now, this is clearly a case where the father completely abandoned the kid, but the court actually is interested in hearing this man's case – get this – because the new father is black and so somehow the environment is not healthy for the kid. See what I mean? Very serious, actually for 1964. And the last five minutes of the movie are actually very powerful drama. But that emotional power is not earned and so it doesn't land. The film hasn't treated things seriously enough for this actually to work. It's a bit of a failure, though its heart is in the right place.

* * *
And then there's Cheyenne Autumn, which is a John Ford movie about the killing of many many Native Americans. Ford tries to take the native side in this movie, after having done precisely the opposite for the previous 25 years, but this movie is an epic, bloated, self-important mess. And then there are these other complaints that I had:
  • All of the Indians are played by Latinos and Italians. Justifiable, perhaps, in 1964, but... actually no, never mind. It isn't justifiable. It might be different if they looked at all like Native Americans, but they all just look like uncomfortable white folks in Indian drag.
  • There is this twenty minute sequence right before the intermission, in which Arthur Kennedy and Jimmy Stewart show up (even though they are not in the rest of the movie) to play a series of cartoony scenes showing how silly white people were out west when it came to Indians. This is an absurd sequence only tangentially related to the movie, and because it comes right before intermission it seems important. It isn't. But it is so typical Ford.
  • It just keeps going. This mess was 154 minutes long.
  • ...And actually it's all about the white people after all. Richard Widmark has a lot of feelings and so do Caroll Baker and Karl Malden and Patrick Wayne and Edward G. Robinson. It may be that the Indians in the film make serious decisions and struggle to make the decisions they make, but if they do, we don't really see it. It is all filtered through the white folks.
* * *
While we're being racist, there's also George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which is actually pretty hard to dislike. It's a charming little fable that I really found delightful. At the center of the film, of course, is a mysterious Chinese "doctor", played by Tony Randall in a typical yellowface costume. So there's that. But I am here to report that this movie is actually not terrible, despite the racist portrayal at its center.

Honestly, why does he need to be a mysterious Asian character in the first place? Like, since when do all mysteries need to come from the "East"? Are there no mysterious white people for Tony Randall to play? Can he not just play your typical American charlatan, coming into town to cause trouble and bring people together? The film sort of plays with this idea, I suppose. For one, Dr. Lao always pronounces his own name "Dr. Loh" (rhyming with dough), and everyone else in the movie calls him "Dr. Lao" (rhyming with cow). And then in the middle of the movie, in conversations with (the beautiful) John Ericson, Dr. Lao stops speaking with his Chinese accent and speaks in a perfect mid-Atlantic dialect like any good New York actor from the period. In other words, the film doesn't need its racist construction, so why it uses it is sort of baffling.

The rest of the film is just plain delightful. There is a silly plot about a town and having faith in the town or some such. And then Barbara Eden falls in love with John Ericson (very sensible of her, I might add). I was into it.

* * *
Are we done yet? (We're not.) Four more.