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

19 June 2022

The 1948 Musketeers


George Sidney's 1948 adaptation of The Three Musketeers is the best one I've seen. It packs the novel's whole plot (including the second half, I mean) into it's 125-minute running time while still managing to pack in lots of farcical comedy with the four musketeers. This does, of course, mean that Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury) doesn't appear in the movie very much, but it means instead that Milady de Winter (Lana Turner) becomes the real focus. And what a focus!! I think Lana Turner looks more gorgeous than anyone I've ever seen in this movie. She appears in the most expensive outfits with her hair covered in jewels. She looks absolutely exquisite. Gene Kelly is way too old to be playing D'Artagnan, but who cares, honestly. His particular style of dance makes his fight scenes even more delightful. Anyway, this is the one. It makes full use of its gorgeous Technicolor photography, has great performances (including a brilliant Van Heflin and a charming Frank Morgan), and a breathtaking Lana Turner.

16 June 2022

Tommy: the Movie

Honestly, I don't get it. This is very Ken Russell, and I like Ken Russell usually, but this annoyed me. You know... I think I'd feel differently if I liked the voices in this, but the only song that really worked for me were the Elton John number and the Tina Turner number. I like all of these actors, but I didn't like any of their voices in Tommy.

12 June 2022

The Paradine Case (1947)

I wanted Hitchcock's The Paradine Case to be an intriguing curiosity and, well, I guess it is that; it's just not very interesting. There was lots of behind-the-scenes drama with this film. Hitchcock and David O. Selznick did not get along, and Hitchcock didn't want to cast Gregory Peck or Louis Jordan or Valli. (Incidentally, only Louis Jordan really works for the movie; Peck is definitely miscast.) But the trouble is that this screenplay just isn't that good. What should be an intriguing and tense mystery film with high stakes in the present becomes a kind of melodrama about the main lawyer and his wife and their relationship. It's not even interesting, although that gets most of the screen time.

The other very strange thing about the film is its runtime, which, once upon a time was 3 hours, was apparently cut down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, and then later 2 hours and 5 minutes and finally 1 hour and 55 minutes. Now, I'm not saying the whole thing wouldn't have been better at a longer runtime, because I seriously have a lot of doubts, but, well, maybe I am. I trust Hitchcock more than I trust Selznick, but with Peck in the lead...? I think the reason I would like to watch a longer cut (which, apparently, will now be impossible because the negatives have been destroyed) is that Ethel Barrymore got the film's lone Oscar nomination in 1948 for a supporting performance that lasts all of about 3 minutes in the current cut. Apparently much of this performance has been cut (and, I would imagine, much of Charles Laughton's work as well), and it definitely feels as though it's missing from this trimmed version.

03 June 2022

Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)


Pete Kelly's Blues
 is a gangster movie musical where all the songs are diegetic and most of them are great – including numbers by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. But this movie is awfully directed, and honestly I am still not really sure I understand what the film's conflict was or how it resolved. Edmond O'Brien plays a gangster and the most wooden Jack Webb (who also directed) plays the cornet-player Pete Kelly. O'Brien is taking most of the band's money, ok... I get that. But I think somehow this is supposed to be Kelly's fault. In any case everyone seems to resent him.

In any case, whatever this was it didn't work.

26 May 2022

The Black Rose (1950)


I am not quite sure why I was so disinterested in Henry Hathaway's The Black Rose. Perhaps it is Cécile Aubry as the protagonist's love interest... she's twenty-one or so, but she looks much younger because she's very short, and so the love between her and Tyrone Power never really registers as believable. She isn't a bad actress per se, acquitting herself well in a scene where she declares her love for him, but I just never bought his attraction for her. She just looks like a little kid.

I think, too, The Black Rose suffers from not having any narratives about the sea. I am used to seeing Tyrone Power on a ship, and this adventure narrative covers an overland trip through medieval Persia to China. This has its appeal, and there are some cool scenes, but Power feels kinda trapped.

In any case, despite being a very expensive and beautifully designed epic, this is just not that great. It's narratively wonky – it should have been more like two and a half hours instead of just two – missing big chunks of important travel and information. And its nationalist politics feel really on the nose: Power plays a Saxon who hates the Normans even though it's 200 years after the Conquest. What he needs to learn is that he loves his nation, and that's more important than who runs it... or something like that? The lesson is unity: we love this land where we were born, and so Saxon and Norman can work together for its glory. (I.E. Put aside all of your complaints about what a bad job I'm doing running this country, and stop complaining about all of the injustices you've suffered under my illegitimate colonial reign, and think of the land.)

I am skeptical.

23 May 2022

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)


Yet another contemporary WWII movie, Action in the North Atlantic boast some cool sea fights. This follows a big tanker taking supplies from the U.S. to the Soviets while being chased by a fleet of submarines. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey, with a very important supporting part played by the instantly recognizable Dane Clark. It's criminal that he didn't become a huge star. I really don't know how that happened. He's wonderful.

In any case, one very strange thing Action in the North Atlantic does is have the Germans in their submarine speak only German. The film does not subtitle their speech, so we actually spend a lot of time in this film listening to German without any translation. It's a very strange move for a 1943 film.

21 May 2022

Happening

For me, L'Événement (Happening), Audrey Diwan's new film about a young woman in France in the early 1960s trying to get an abortion, feels a bit like a retread. I liked it a lot, honestly, and it's quite a thriller, actually – I was on the edge of my seat for much of it – but I guess I feel like I've seen it before. In 2020 there was Eliza Hittman's excellent US American film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which was much more of a terrifyingly tragic drama than Happening. But this movie reminded me most of Cristian Mungiu's truly wonderful 4 Luni, 3 Săptămâni şi 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) from 2007, which works a lot like Happening.

In any case, Happening works very, very well, and it was a good watch even if it didn't feel completely original. It also feels very important in the U.S., where rampantly misogynist state governments – and a truly backward federal government – are once again attempting to force women to give birth by passing anti-abortion legislation.

19 May 2022

Sunset (1988)


Late Blake Edwards is just not good. Sunset boasts a winning, delightfully comic performance by Bruce Willis but not much else. I love James Garner and Mariel Hemingway, but they both feel wooden in this. But, honestly, the entire premise is faulty. It's title is the rather somber Sunset, and it looks on the outside like it should be a neo-noir picture – a kind of Farewell, My Lovely or L.A. Confidential – but it actually wants to be Hail, Caesar!. The Coen Brothers would do this kind of silliness tinged with real issues correctly, but Edwards' version can't make the broad comedy and the mystery–melodrama make sense together.

16 May 2022

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Man oh man. I love a World War II movie made during World War II, and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! comes from an idea Lang came up with alongside Bertolt Brecht. This movie was banned for a while in the U.S. (I presume) because of Brecht's involvement and possible pro-Communist sentiments. (U.S. American fascism is fascinating, honestly. We rant and rave about the Nazis burning books and then we ban films like this.) In any case, Hangmen Also Die! is a thriller, and it's excellent. The cast is great – Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee, and Gene Lockhart especially, but really everyone.

This movie is about an assassin who has killed one of the worst men during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. But the film starts after "the Hangman" has been assassinated, and what we watch instead is his attempts to escape – to find a place to hide in the immediate aftermath and to avoid detection once the Nazis begin to crack down on finding the Hangman's executioner.

What's so great about this is the plotting of the Czech resistance to fight the Nazi occupation. I can see why the U.S. American fascists opposed this. It's a film about choosing community over the individual. It's about resisting coercion and working as a group to do what's right. This is honestly a great film, and as I said, it's a thriller. I was honestly on the edge of my seat the whole time. I'm glad we can watch it in full now – and free – on Amazon Prime.

A Certain Smile (1958)


Jean Negulesco's A Certain Smile doesn't work. It's unfortunate because it starts off pretty good. Basically it should be a kind of intriguing story where a young woman has an affair with her fiancé's hot, rich uncle and she can't quite figure out why she finds him so compelling, but she does. And A Certain Smile starts off that way. It's intriguing and sexy for a while. And then it becomes a kind of strange moral tale. The young woman behaves very badly and ruins lots of things, and then we get a speech from Joan Fontaine about marriage or something or other.

I was with this for a little bit. Rossano Brazzi is fantastic as the enigmatic, sexy uncle. And Joan Fontaine is fabulous as his wife. (Now is the time for us all to admit, finally, that Joan Fontaine was just a much better actress than her sister, Olivia de Havilland. I don't care how many Oscars de Havilland won; it's really not even up for debate. Joan chose more interesting characters to play, and she played them better.) But then there's the film's lead – Christine Carère – who doesn't seem to understand the part and whose English is not great and who is rather wooden in the entire film. It's an interesting role, actually, but Carère doesn't know what to do with it, and the film really suffers because of this.

12 May 2022

The Bolshoi Ballet


Surprisingly sublime, Paul Czinner's film The Bolshoi Ballet documents some gorgeous performances, especially Galina Ulanova's work in Giselle, which takes up the latter half of the film.

The Bolshoi Ballet is rather a strange film: it comprises only documentary footage of a ballet performance. It's a recording of an evening with the Bolshoi. But, as I say the Giselle sequence is sublime, and this is therefore a kind of treasure. The Bolshoi Ballet captures a beautiful moment in the mid-twentieth-century ballet repertoire with one of its great stars.

04 May 2022

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)


The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
 is a comic bit of fluff posing as a western. It's a kind of tongue-in-cheek fantasy version of the story of Judge Roy Bean – not that there are serious versions of the man's story. But John Huston's film reminded me of all of the most farcical sections of John Ford's movies. This is just a series of silly scenes intercut with the occasional sentimental scene.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean might, however, be notable for the fact that it came out in 1972 – the same year as Deliverance – and Bill McKinney and Ned Beatty each play one of Judge Bean's deputies.

03 May 2022

Souls at Sea (1937)


Souls at Sea
 is an intriguing 1930s film by Henry Hathaway about a man working as a kind of one-man army against the African slave trade in the 1840s. What's sort of weird about this – aside from Gary Cooper's more-than-a-little-wooden performance – is that the main import of the film is an explosion and shipwreck that have nothing at all to do with the slave trade. Cooper's character is on an anti-slavery mission, sure, but the boat that sinks is not a slave ship at all, and so the main thrust of the drama is about something else entirely. 

The film's script seems designed to avoid Black actors. We get a few images of enslaved Africans killing a slaver, but although we know that the two heroes of the film disobey orders and unlock everyone enslaved aboard the ship, Souls at Sea doesn't show us any scenes of Black freedom, preferring to jump ahead in time to the men explaining what they've done to the enforcers of maritime law. 

It's a strange movie – probably because it is produced for a segregated film industry that will distribute the film to segregated theatres during Jim Crow. 

06 April 2022

Close-Knit (2017)

Ogigami Naoko's Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは、) is a very sweet family drama about a young girl named Tomo who is abandoned by her mother and who goes to live with her uncle and becomes close to his trans girlfriend. There are many different kinds of mothers in this film, so Close-Knit also gives us a range of possible ways of mothering a child. There is also a secondary storyline about a boy who wants to be Tomo's friend and whom everyone calls gay. This little boy waits for Tomo and asks her to hang out every day, and we slowly learn more about him. Close-Knit is a movie designed, in many ways, to normalize trans folks, to show that trans folks are members of families like anyone else, that they want to love and be loved, and that the desire to be a mother can be shared, rejected, difficult, complicated, or whatever, but being a mother has nothing to do with some kind of internal impulse that women who are assigned female at birth somehow possess and trans women do not.

This whole thing is just charming and sweet. The English title, Close-Knit, refers to familial ties but also to the practice of knitting that becomes a larger theme in the film – just another of its charms, honestly. I have no idea why this wasn't released in theatres in the U.S. back in 2017. It feels like it's something that should have taken off with American audiences, particularly at that time. I don't know what happened, but this is very good.

04 April 2022

Pasolini's Canterbury Tales

Pasolini's I Racconti di Canterbury (1972) is a kind of continuation of his Decameron (1971) and prefigures his Arabian Knights (1974). I loved both of those movies, and I think part of my problem with Canterbury is that it doesn't really do anything new with the formula. Mind you, I saw Arabian Nights before I saw Canterbury Tales, and I might have felt differently about that movie if I had seen that third, but I don't think so. There's something... I don't know... disconnected about this one in comparison with the other two. We never spend enough time with any one story to really connect with the characters.

Or maybe it's the dubbing. I know this is very typical of Italian films from this period, but it's truly egregious here. Hugh Griffith and many other actors are obviously speaking English, but their voices come out speaking a decidedly disconnected Italian. Sometimes the mood of the words doesn't even match what the actors are doing on the screen. I don't know. It really bugged me.

Ninetto Davoli's appearance is a high point of the film, of course, and there are plenty of really delightful sequences, so I am not really complaining, and I liked it well enough. I just loved The Decameron and Arabian Nights so much, and this one is not as good.

The movie's final sequence, though, in which a greedy monk is led into Hell and meets the devil, who shits out other friars, is hilarious, absurd, and delightful. It's a wonderfully sacrilegious way to end the movie and a stark contrast to the beautifully sacred ending to The Decameron.