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

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.