The Weekly Roundup

Maybe this feature should just be a Tuesday thing. That’s when I seem to be able to get to it. But alright, regardless: may I present reflections on films watched between November 7th and 13th, 2017.

It’s remarkable that, even removed by 50 years and thousands of miles, everything in this movie feels so modern and relevant. Costa-Gavras’s film (in French, set in Greece) covers the assassination and surrounding conspiracy of a leftist politician and is constantly moving through a bubbling pool of characters, each with individual motivations and agendas beyond the nationalist/communist divide at the film’s center. It’s this plethora of emotion and ideology, coincidence and desire, that makes the film both exciting to watch and insightful to think about, especially in light of a current political climate with more than a few similarities to the one depicted here.

Mother India (1957)
Mehboob Khan’s 1957 epic of village life has been called the Gone With the Wind of Hindi cinema, is one of the highest grossing films in India’s history, and has a notable place in the canon of world cinema, so it’s been on my to-watch list for some time. It’s a huge film (174-ish minutes) covering in colorful, melodramatic strokes the struggle of a woman (Nargis) and her two sons (Sunil Dutt and Rajenda Kumar) to survive 20 or so years of poverty imposed by a cruel moneylender (Kanhaiyalal). The film is conscious of its status, created as a riposte to the colonialist/racialist 1927 novel of the same name and with a myth-making tone full of giant landscapes, grand montages, and, of course, elaborate musical numbers. Even across a cultural divide it feels a little dated in its stylization, but its undeniably powerful.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Though it adapts some of the trappings of gothic horror, this is still fundamentally a Bergman film before it’s anything else, which is to say it’s a chilly and uncompromising psycho-aesthetic puzzle. The art of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and the cruelty of the phantasmal patrons that interrogate and appropriate it becomes a reflection of his emotional state and relationship with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann) and former lover (Ingrid Thulin). The emotional climax doesn’t land quite as hard as some of the director’s other works (I’m thinking in particular of Through a Glass Darkly [1961] at the moment cos it’s one of my favorites), but this is at least partially offset by the creepiness of the atmosphere as an individualistic auteur dips a toe into genre.

The Lobster (2015)
Speaking of which… I’ve been meaning to watch this anyway, but decided to do it now after seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which piqued my curiosity about Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is a lot more playful than the other one–more identifiable as a comedy amidst its absurdity (the camel wandering through the woods did me in). In that, it’s interesting seeing them together–the same style (the slow, stilted speech in particular) employed to very different ends (romantic comedy vs. psychological thriller). This one felt a little more realized; it has a clearer payoff and deadpan is a tone that suits this director’s voice very well. Not for the squeamish, though. Yeesh.

The Stranger (1946)
Orson Welles is at his best when he’s being villainous–Touch of EvilThe Third Man, and herein, where he’s the worst of the lot: a genocidal Nazi fleeing prosecution in a sleepy Connecticut town. Welles’s third film was an attempt to prove he could make a commercial success on time and under-budget (which he did) and is arguably most interesting in the context of that pedigree. But it’s still an engaging noir thriller in the vein of Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious in particular), packed full of unusually understated versions of Welles’s signature long takes, peculiar setups, and deep shadows.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
I’ve seen the 2001 Soderbergh remake a few times so it’s difficult for me not to make comparisons (arguably in the wrong direction), but I can’t help but be struck by how much darker this film feels than its more modern counterpart. The comedy is still there, along with the raw, nervy Rat Pack cool, but underneath are postwar allusions to social commentary and the entire post-heist second half of this film feels more cynically satirical than anything Clooney and Pitt get up to. This is kind of in step with the change in Las Vegas itself; here it’s more of a blue-tinged twilight oasis instead of a flashing, 21st century circus. Also something I didn’t realize: this film was directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone–one of his last, actually.

Real Life (1979)
Albert Brooks’s debut feature (as a writer/director; as an actor he appeared, somewhat unexpectedly, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in ’76) takes on the then-nascent oxymoron of reality entertainment in a sendup of the landmark 1973 series An American Family. The film is fiction disguised as documentary (on multiple levels), Brooks playing an aggressively Hollywood version of himself as he inserts himself into and manipulates the Yeager family (Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat) ostensibly to make a film about their “real” life. The disrupting influence of the camera is the low hanging fruit here, but arguably more interesting is the variation on Brooks’s neurotic nebbish–a man whose insecurity finds shelter in manipulating his own life to conform to a narrative ideal. It’s also very funny.

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