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

31 July 2019

My Sister Eileen (1942)

My Sister Eileen is very funny. This film adaptation is a bit stagey for me, but the material is really rooted in a set of jokes about crowding one small apartment, so perhaps there is no helping the stageiness.

29 July 2019

Gas, Food Lodging (1992)

Gas, Food Lodging is a very interesting film about women and sex from the early 1990s. I never saw it in the '90s and I watched it as part of an unseen movie night I am doing with some friends. We all enjoyed this. It's funny and surprising, even if it is occasionally paced in strange ways and totally forgets about some of its subplots.

28 July 2019

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Theodora Goes Wild – which was directed by Richard Boleslawski, co-founder of the American Laboratory Theatre and student of Konstantin Stanislavsky – is absolutely hilarious. I laughed so much. Irene Dunne is perfect; Spring Byington is genius in a supporting part; Thomas Mitchell and Melvyn Douglas are also excellent.

A Hollywood Fairy Tale

Tarantino's new film Once upon a Time... in Hollywood was, I assumed, a fun reference to Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West and Once upon a Time in America. (In fact, the television actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Tarantino's movie does go to Italy to make pictures). But Tarantino's title does more than nod in the direction of Sergio Leone and the spaghetti western; Tarantino is also marking his film as a fairy tale, a kind of magical story or fable in a far-away place, one with heroes and villains and magical objects and a princess who needs saving.

I am going to have to spoil the film's ending as I write this response to Tarantino's movie, so be warned. It's almost impossible to talk about Once upon a Time... in Hollywood without talking about its third act, because so much of what happens in the third act justifies what Tarantino does for the first two-thirds of the movie.

Hollywood is three stories in one. It is the story of Rick Dalton, one of those actors in Hollywood who made movies in the 1950s and then destroyed their film careers by accidentally but permanently moving to television, where they could get parts more easily and money more quickly. It is the story of Rick Dalton's stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career is in the dumps, who doesn't get along with other stuntmen and so has become Rick's driver, handyman, and general factotum. And it is the story of Sharon Tate, who, unlike Dalton and Booth, is a real human being who lived in Hollywood in 1968 and 1969. She was a rising star and a talented comedienne, and she was married to Roman Polanski, the Polish film director who had only just made Rosemary's Baby in 1968.

Sharon Tate is a puzzling figure in Hollywood – mostly because she simply doesn't seem to fit in the movie. The movie is so obviously focused on Cliff and Rick, and when the film leaves the two men and follows Sharon for an afternoon as she picks up a hitchhiker and watches a movie downtown or when she goes to a party with Steve McQueen at the Playboy Mansion, Tarantino's film feels confused, even meandering. Why are we watching Sharon Tate? DiCaprio's character is so much more interesting! I will admit that these thoughts crossed my mind while I was watching – so I can imagine that for the three young men next to me at the theatre (young weightlifting-type guys), who told me after the movie was over that they hated it, these Sharon sequences must've been painful. But this movie makes no sense if you don't know who Sharon Tate is and you don't know she was murdered by members of Charles Manson's "family" fifty years ago in August of 1969. Anyone watching the movie without knowing about the Sharon Tate murders – and I wager this is quite a few people – isn't going to be able to make sense of what Tarantino is doing here; his film depends fundamentally on knowing the context.

Pitt is as cool and effortless as ever
I'll come back to Tate in a bit, but first let me just say that all of Tarantino's films are bathed in nostalgia, especially nostalgia for the movies, and Hollywood is no exception. This film – and I'm not a huge Tarantino fan, to be honest – felt aimed directly at me. So many delightful movie references: from the marquees of 1968 releases, to the Los Angeles scenery, to the extended sequence with Bruce Lee, to the constant mentions of Edward O'Brien, to the absurd re-shot sequence from The Great Escape. I was in movie-lover heaven. Tarantino's movie taste and my own don't usually sync up, and so his film references don't usually land for me, but it all worked for me this time. Hollywood is also really funny, and both Pitt and DiCaprio are doing great work as comedians in this. Even when DiCaprio is being his most emotionally vulnerable in Hollywood, he is still allowing us to laugh at him. The extended afternoon we spend with him as he films that television pilot with Timothy Olyphaunt has some great acting in it.

Which isn't to say that Hollywood isn't overly long. Tarantino doesn't make tight movies. He makes fat, slightly messy, mostly shallow movies with slick surfaces and cool simulacra. That's the brand, and the movies are always too long. Tarantino thinks too much of himself to trim with any real zeal. But again – and I don't feel this way about Hateful Eight or Django Unchained – I was never bored during Hollywood. And everything felt justified by the film's insane third act. I guess it's time to talk about that now...

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
As we moved toward the night of the murders I started to get nervous. In the first place, this Kurt Russell narration took over again once we moved to Italy, and Russell's deadpan voice – especially as we got closer to the early morning of August 9th – reminded me that we were watching something that really happened. Tarantino gives us timestamps throughout. Sharon and her friends went to this Mexican restaurant; they came home and played the piano; they smoked marijuana; it was the hottest day of the year; one of Sharon's friends was watching television while the other went to bed. It's all so true and so it's a reminder that something terrible is about to happen. But the point is that he uses the generic conventions of documentary drama here to put us into a certain mode of watching.

And because of Tarantino's well-known infamy as a filmmaker who shoots violence savagely and coolly (there has been a great deal written about this), I started to get very worried. How would he film Sharon's murder, given how affectionate his film had been with her so far? But – and here's the surprise – Hollywood never switches fully into the genre. It never becomes one of those episodes of "The F.B.I." that Cliff and Rick watch. It stays... comedic. We are laughing, even as Rick yells at the Manson family's noisy car, as the driver speeds away after having "forgotten" her knife, even as they bust into the house and stand off with Cliff, who is on a mild acid trip. The fight with the Manson family is uproariously funny and is intended to be. The violence is brutal, absurdly, insanely brutal, and Tarantino takes pleasure in destroying and mutilating these horrible people, who (it is impossible to forget) actually murdered four people and Sharon's unborn baby, stabbing each person over a dozen times.

I have written before about the shift that I see in the violence in Tarantino's movies with Django Unchained, whereby I believe that QT has become much more ethical in his presentations of violence. As I have argued before, Tarantino is careful about which violence we can enjoy and which we cannot. He invites us to enjoy the violence in this sequence and in the sequence with the hippy out at the Spahn Ranch, but that doesn't mean that Once upon a Time... in Hollywood contains gratuitous violence. It doesn't. Tarantino could easily have shown us, just for example, Cliff (accidentally?) shooting his wife with the harpoon on the boat. He doesn't. He is being judicious about the violence we see. This isn't Pulp Fiction. In any case, watching these murderers get destroyed by Brad Pitt and his dog and then by Leonardo DiCaprio and his flame-thrower is endlessly delightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Sharon Tate with Bruce Lee and Nancy Kwan
It's an ending that in many ways replays what QT did with Inglourious Basterds, a bold lie told in the face of history, a fantasy of what might have happened. It's... a fairy tale, if you will. Sharon Tate gets to live in this story. And as I thought about that while the movie ended, and even now as I write these words, I am deeply moved. It's a beautiful, generous, impossible fantasy, but one absolutely filled with hope and respect. Sharon's voice over that intercom at the end of the movie, and Jay Sebring's hopeful treble as he asks Rick questions honestly felt like gifts from Tarantino to me. He has imagined a world in which Sharon didn't die and this washed up actor's career is resuscitated because he saves Sharon's life and is neighbors with Roman Polanski (maybe in this universe Rick plays the lead in Chinatown or one of the men in Tess).

And this magical, fairy tale ending makes clear what Tarantino was doing with Sharon Tate in the first two acts of the movie. We simply spend time with her, get to glimpse her brightness and her pleasure, her sheer joy at being in the movies, her pride at having done a good job, her grace and kindness with everyone around her, her excitement about her baby. None of this is dramatic. It's simply a reminder of how lovely she was (especially compared with the hard-drinking asshole that Rick is). This respect for Tate is underlined by Tarantino's use of actual footage of Sharon Tate from the Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew. As Sharon watches the movie, we don't watch Margot Robbie as Tate: we watch Tate herself. It's a strange choice for Tarantino to have made, until it becomes clear that QT is paying tribute to Tate and her talents. The more I think about it, the more I think it's an extraordinary thing to do.

....And all this at the end of a hilarious, Coen Brothers influenced, Hollywood western.

In case you hadn't guessed it, I really liked Once upon a Time... in Hollywood. I know this movie isn't going to be for everyone, but I laughed for most of the film and was very moved by the movie's end.

* * *

Final side note. You probably knew that Tarantino has a thing for women's feet: they appear with frequency in his movies, and I've written about all of the feet in Pulp Fiction before. Well, Once upon a Time... in Hollywood is no exception. In fact, I think this obsession is even more apparent in this movie than it's ever been.
Even DiCaprio's feet make an appearance in this one. Equal opportunity.

27 July 2019

Hello Again (2017)

Tom Gustafson's Hello Again was really bad. This is a queer (or sort of queer) musical version of Schnitzler's La Ronde with music by Michael John LaChiusa. And, like all versions of La Ronde that I've seen, it has nothing holding it together. This one compounds that problem further by having each actor play a different character in his or her next sequence. So we don't even get a single character for more than one musical number. Worse yet, everyone in this piece is unhappy.

The film was also obviously made on the cheap. The whole thing is unfortunate.

I remember liking Gustafson's film Were the World Mine, which was also a cheaply made, overtly theatrical musical film about gay romance, but Hello Again is not interesting, despite its more recognizable cast.

La Vérité (1960)

La Vérité is excellent. Bardot is superb, and Charles Vanel is brilliant. The script is absolute aces, and it captures perfectly the generational gap in Paris in 1960. It seems to prefigure May '68 in many ways, even. It's a very, very good movie. Making it even better are the repeated covert nods to Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. I loved this film.

25 July 2019

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see Beneath the 12-Mile Reef in CinemaScope, as it ought to be enjoyed. This is a movie that is all about the photography – well, that and Robert Wagner's well-shaped torso – but on Amazon Prime, where you can watch it, you can only see a murky version of this film's true glory. As for anything other than this movie's images... the directing is a confounded mess, the beautiful score doesn't match the cinematography the way it should, and the plot is a nonsensical melodrama.

Still Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is interesting for its catalog of Greek-American–Conch relations in Florida, and its photography is very cool.

Altered States (1980)

Altered States is honestly a pretty great sci-fi horror movie. It's not filmed like a horror movie – it's filmed like a basic family melodrama – but the script (by Paddy Chayefsky) is solid and the plot is fairly fascinating. It goes almost completely off the rails for a bit, and even stopped working for a while, but even that sort of charmed me. Altered States is an ambitious, interesting film. Also: William Hurt is naked for a lot of this movie, John Laroquette and Drew Barrymore both have small parts in it, and Blair Brown (very strangely) plays someone about eight years younger than she is.

23 July 2019

The Great Noodle Western

Tampopo (Dandelion) is a hilarious movie. It is also endlessly charming, delightful fun. There are so many ridiculously funny sequences that one begins to lose track. It's a kind of tribute to ramen – and to food and eating in general.

I watched this film the day I got back into Tallahassee from my summer stock job. I drove into town just before dinner, so I decided to go to my favorite restaurant in town, Downtown Ramen... only to find that it was closed for business and has no plans to reopen.

I went home and watched Tampopo as an act of mourning. It cheered me up enormously.

Also, the main actor, Yamazaki Tsutomu, has this assistant who I thought was really handsome so I decided to look him up. It turned out to be none other than Ken Watanabe! Look how handsome he is in 1985. (that's him with the biceps):

21 July 2019

Charade (1963)

So... this is weird. I watched Stanley Donen's 1963 film Charade late last night, and I was delighted by the whole thing. The screenplay by Peter Stone, especially, is very, very good. It is witty and very clever, and there are a great many twists and turns. But the whole thing is played for laughs, even though it is a Hitchcockian-style thriller.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are an absolute delight, and Walter Matthau and Jacques Marin round out the hilarity.

The strange part is that I've seen this movie before. In May of 2011, to be precise. But I didn't remember having seen it last night (or I wouldn't have (re)watched it), and there were several parts that I feel certain I hadn't seen before.

Either way, my pleasure at seeing it (apparently) again was undiminished, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself once again. 

White Heat

White Heat is great. Cagney... well Cagney is Cagney, but I love Edmond O'Brien. I feel like I could watch him in anything. But he is especially excellent in crime films.

20 July 2019

David and Bathsheba (1951)

David and Bathsheba is a really interesting biblical movie. (It's boring, don't get me wrong; I am not here to say that it is a good movie.) But although this movie looks like your typical swords-and-sandals epic – it has the lush score by Alfred Newman, the beautiful Leon Shamroy cinematography, the insanely enormous cast, beautiful art direction, big stars – but what is interesting about this movie is that this movie is skeptical of a Christianity/Judaism that is invested in laws and punishment and destruction. It is also skeptical of priests who interpret the desires of gods. Henry King's film doesn't go quite so far as to say that the priests in David and Bathsheba are corrupt and self-seeking – although it certainly could have taken this tack if it wished – but this is a skeptical film, one that asks its audiences to think ethically about punishment, cruelty, desert, and judgment.

Susan Hayward as Bathsheba
David and Bathsheba conflates a series of events in Hebrew history – the affair of David and Bathsheba and the civil war of Absalom against his father – but more than anything this is a kind of character study of David himself. The film spends long minutes exploring David's face while nothing else happens. We watch David carefully as he makes decisions, as he wars with himself, as he debates the nonsense spoken by the priest of Israel.

As I say, this is a really weird film. It is in the film's third act when we flashback to Samuel's anointing of David as a shepherd boy and then to David's battle with Goliath. Of course, this means that we follow David as a young man (i.e. not Gregory Peck) at the end of the film rather than the film's star, Gregory Peck, whom we have been following for the movie's first ninety minutes.

Despite this poster's promises, Gregory Peck wears a shirt at all times.
The film justifies David and Bathsheba's affair from the beginning. They like each other, an Bathsheba's husband does not love her. He does not even care about her, and is not the least interested in what she thinks. In the end, even the film's god blesses David and Bathsheba's relationship. It is, as I say, a film made by a skeptic. The conflict in the film is that David has forgotten the ways of the god and has broken the Mosaic law. The film doesn't really believe this, but tries to make us believe this in act two by introducing a prophet none of us likes. Then in act three, David argues with Bathsheba about those laws. One of the great moments in the movie is in the third act, when David tells Bathsheba that the god he knew as a boy, in the trees and rocks is not the god of vengeance that the priests preach. (In act two the film watches a beautiful woman get stoned to death for adultery. It's a sequence that judges this kind of law very harshly, but it doesn't seem to treat those laws in an orientalist fashion. In other words, David and Bathsheba doesn't call Mosaic law backward or barbaric as such. Instead, it is asking audiences to judge these laws for themselves, and to be skeptical of unjust law in general.)

But what David does at the end of the film is in fact defy the Mosaic law and go talk to the god directly. Once he does this – once he remembers the god – the god forgives him and it rains in Israel. What the film is saying is that laws against adultery aren't important (it has said that throughout the film). Each man must make the ethical choices that accord with his own beliefs. As long as the individual remembers the god, believes in him, pays homage to him, then his behavior is immaterial – or at least mostly immaterial. Even David's murder of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba's husband, is apparently forgiven by the rain that the god sends at the film's end.

18 July 2019


Dogman was really cool. It's a vicious and darkly funny crime film from the director of Gomorrah. It also seemed to me fairly allegorical. A cowardly and fairly insipid but harmless dog-groomer is friends with a violent, terrible, drug-addicted bully. And the bad friend keeps convincing the good friend to do really bad things. And he keeps fucking doing them. It is a smart and intriguing character study.

16 July 2019

Tirez sur le Pianiste (1960)

I loved Shoot the Piano Player, and I'm not even a huge Truffaut fan. In fact, I often say that I don't really get the Nouvelle Vague, but this was really a good time. I adored Charles Aznavour in the lead role, and his character Charlie is scripted beautifully by Truffaut. The movie itself is a kind of tribute to American movies, but it's also sexy and fun and funny at times, while winding up being quite serious and sad in a typical crime–melodrama sort of way. I was really into it.

15 July 2019

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

That Uncertain Feeling is hilarious and delightful. The script is very funny, Oberon and Douglas are charming, and the direction is bright and fast. I am sort of surprised at how sexually frank this was. For 1941 that is rather a surprise.

14 July 2019

High Life

I didn't really get a lot of Claire Denis's High Life. I mean, I understand what's happening in this movie, but it didn't really work for me. I love Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, but I didn't feel like I understood any of these characters enough for me to really care much about what was going on.

13 July 2019

The Shootist (1976)

I actually didn't understand this film. The Shootist concerns an ageing gunslinger who holes up in Carson City for the last week of his life as he prepares to die. But how does he prepare to die? By killing a bunch of guys who – as far as I can tell – haven't really done anything to him or anyone else. Lauren Bacall is interesting as an old woman who starts to care for the old shootist, but I don't understand why she or anyone else should have cared. I sure didn't.

12 July 2019

Happy New Year (1987)

There are lots of strange things about Happy New Year, but the strangest thing of all is that Wendy Hughes, the main actress, kisses several men in the movie, but she never kisses Peter Falk, who is her love interest in the film. Other than that, this movie has a couple good bits, but it's mostly not interesting.