The Weekly Roundup

Several very long films appear on the list this time, as well as the beginnings of a renewed interest in French cinema in particular. These are the films from November 14-21, 2017.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)
This movie ends with Tom Waits strolling into the Los Angeles night carrying a live rabbit and a giant knife. That description gives nothing about it away, particularly, but it’s an excellent example of the tongue-in-cheek tone of Martin McDonagh’s reflexive second feature. In kinship with Adaptation and 8½, Colin Farrell is a pacifistic, alcoholic screenwriter named Martin writing a film called Seven Psychopaths. Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as Marty’s prodding friend Billy, Christopher Walken is both terrifying and the emotional center of the film, and Woody Harrelson just wants his dog back, man. There’s a good bit of meta-commentary about the artist’s relationship with his audience, about Hollywood tropes (“You can’t let the animals die in the movie; only the women”), about the psychology of the creative process, even about the role of narrative in life, but it’s also very funny and it does have a final shootout… sort of.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Another film that plays games with the idea of storytelling, this one is a three-and-a-quarter hour mystery/fantasy/comedy from Jacques Rivette, one of the more experimental participants in the French New Wave. A summary would go something like: a librarian (Dominique Labourier) and a stage magician (Juliet Berto) attempt to solve and prevent the murder of a young girl that continuously reoccurs as a gothic chamber drama inside a phantasmal house. Obviously, summarizing cannot do it justice. This is a film chock full of allusions (Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Lewis Carroll chief among them), puns, singsong rhymes, and other language games that I’m not certain always translate completely (eg: the idiomatic joke of a title, realized at the end of the film), but are delightful nonetheless. It ends up as kind of a weird ode to the friendship of the title characters amidst a Mobius-strip of identity and reality. Things start very slowly, but it’s worth the patience it takes.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
It occurred to me after seeing the unexpected homage in Real Life that I’ve never actually sat down and watched this movie in its considerable entirety and now seemed as good a time as any to correct that. It’s strange to watch it, first because its so deeply enmeshed in the culture at large that so much of it was familiar without context, and second because seeing it on DVD, tiny and with the ability to pause, clearly is not what it was meant for. It’s a huge movie–not just the four hour running time, but in its lavish, painterly tableaux and the grand, consuming emotions of its melodrama. Said melodrama is surprisingly effective given the time to build, especially in regard to the way Scarlett and Rhett ride back and forth across the line of sympathy throughout. Vivian Leigh is fantastic, a fuming cauldron of  icy narcissism, brilliant capability, and childish fragility; Clark Gable is by turns cruel and charming under his easygoing mask. It’s a movie that asks a lot (including glossing over a lot of complicated history and social politics) and is kind of all consuming, but it moves surprisingly quickly considering (“Maybe you’ll have an accident.”) And there’s an earnestness in its showmanship that reminds me of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard lamenting “it’s the pictures that got small.”

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
Two men on opposing sides of an unspecified war in Spain stumble across a book in a ruined building. Captivated by its mysterious imagery, the Spaniard realizes the book is about his grandfather, Alfonse van Worden, and from this framework the film–based on an 1815 French novel–spirals inward into a series of stories within stories within stories involving Tunisian princesses, cabalists, spirits, gypsies, exorcists, elaborate conspiracies, and star-crossed lovers. At one point even Alfonse himself admits he can’t tell where the stories end and reality begins. The first half of this three hour film–restored to its original length in the US by admirers including Martin Scorsese and Jerry Garcia–is more overtly psychedelic, a kind of parodic gothic horror; in its second half, it becomes a narrative hall of mirrors surrounding an interlocking web of romantic trysts that I’m almost positive will take at least a second viewing to unravel. This movie is clearly very allegorical/allusive in some way, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, to be honest. But that in-and-of itself was enough to keep me interested and the weird sense of humor and beautiful eye for black and white composition, along with the ever twisting knot of stories was definitely entertaining.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Truffaut chose to respond to the acclaim heaped on The 400 Blows by making as different a film as possible. A zany, loose adaptation of a pulp-noir novel by David Goodis, this film is full of nouvelle vague digressions, improvisations, and dry jokes (including an early example of a cutaway gag) and draws influence from, among other things, American crime films, the Marx brothers, screwball comedy, and Alfred Hitchcock (of whom the director was a noted admirer). Notable also for the downtrodden starring performance of Charles Aznavour–a major French entertainer–the story follows Charlie, a former concert pianist who fled his old life to become piano player in a seedy Parisian bar. His brothers Chico and Richard (Albert Rémy and Jean-Jacques Aslanian, respectively) get him caught up in a stickup gone wrong, pursued by a pair of thugs, Ernest and Momo (Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard). Despite the premise, film is more about male/female relationships than it is about art or crime; there’s a deep sense of loneliness lurking underneath the lighthearted style, most evident in the quiet tragedy of the conclusion. But don’t let that scare you off from what is still a very fun movie.

J Edgar (2011)
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s version of Hoover is that of a man deeply driven by a conflicting sense of moral repression and an idealized, aggrandized self-image and in that, at least, it is interesting. That interest would be better sustained if the material were less weirdly paced. As it is, the film never really builds up the momentum it needs, never seems entirely sure what to make of its subject. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a suitably churning, fussy performance–nothing out of the ordinary or particularly risk-taking for him aside from the old-age makeup in the 1960s scenes (a risk that pays off better for him than for Armie Hammer), but the rest of the cast is ruefully underused. That’s a shame because some interesting faces pop up, including Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, and Adam Driver, either in one-note or all-too-brief roles. There’s enough to get by if there were some stylistic element that made a bold choice, but there isn’t–it’s rotely shot, dark and monochrome, and even the autobiographical framing device isn’t used to full potential. All of which isn’t to say it’s terrible–there are some good scenes throughout–it just doesn’t really hang together.

The Cool World (1963)
I watched this on a low-quality bootleg VHS; to my knowledge it’s not available on DVD. I was also not familiar with the work of Shirley Clarke before, which I now consider a  lacuna in my film knowledge. The film, based on a novel by Warren Miller and a play thereof, follows the story of Duke (Hampton Clanton) a fifteen year old Harlem kid trying to score a gun. Seeing the weapon as a path to respect, success, and a masculine ideal, Duke plans to use it to stage a coup of the Royal Pythons, the crew he runs with, and lead them in an attack against the rival Wolves. Gritty even by modern standards, the film is a semi-documentary, using real locations and actual Harlem street kids along with professional actors (including early appearances by Gloria Foster and Clarence Williams III). It’s hard to judge the visual aesthetic because of the quality of print I saw, but even in that the rough-edged prettiness of the cinematography stood out (eg: the last shot of the police car riding up the street in the half light). Also boasts a hip, fascinating patois and a soundtrack by the Dizzy Gillespie quintet that keeps the energy flowing. Hard to find, but captivating.

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