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.

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.

The Weekly Roundup

Unfortunately I wasn’t home last night to round it off; so a day late and ever a dollar short, I present The Weekly Roundup for October 31st through November 6th, 2017.

Point Blank (1967)
I quite like all the John Boorman movies I’ve seen (even Zardoz) and this one continues that streak, although it’s not what I was expecting. I was prepared for a gritty crime thriller featuring a stoically masculine Lee Marvin, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how icy, violent (for the time), and often experimental this film is. It drops you into an already boiling narrative in kind of a surreal whirlwind and then moves into a brutalist neo-noir with Angie Dickinson. One of the first examples of Americans finally getting on the new wave–the film came out at almost the same time as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, which I’ve repeatedly heard referred to as an academic launching point–and, if one is to believe the stories, much of the film’s innovation came from Marvin (including the hiring of Boorman and ditching of the original script), which is pretty cool.

Kedi (2016)
An excellent documentary about the street cats of Istanbul, Kedi isn’t just about looking at cute kitties, although there is a lot of that to be done here. While you’re watching the little fuzzballs scrap and scrounge, there are interviews with a handful of people who help care for them that verge into surprisingly philosophical territory with regard to the way we relate and communicate with other emotional beings, our responsibility and stewardship toward nature, and the way modernization is changing our communities across the globe. But it manages to touch on these subjects without feeling like its moralizing, and it’s full of the spirit of a really beautiful, old-world city.

Hullabaloo Over Georgie & Bonnie’s Pictures (1978)
I’m more aware of Merchant Ivory from their larger prestige pictures (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room With a View) but if this is any indication, their smaller-scale work is still pretty lavish. The story manages to ruminate on history and memory, art, gender, colonialism, capitalistic modernism, and the pursuit of happiness, all within a breezy 83 minutes. It’s a quiet, conversational film–funny in a very dry way–but still full of vivid Indian color and music as the eponymous art collection is hounded over by characters with a variety of attitudes, motivations, and emotional baggage.

Repulsion (1965)
Polanski’s second feature is psychotic break as subjective experience and in that, it’s remarkably effective. Much of this is down to Catherine Deneuve–her Carol is impenetrable but wholly consistent, able to evoke shades of sympathy while still being unquestionably disturbed. The film follows her madness with a mixture of real and hallucinated images rendered equally unsettling (a particularly vivid example: the decapitated skinless rabbit gathering flies; one wonders if Adrian Lyne had this consciously in mind). Not a movie for the easily bored or faint of heart, but an interestingly raw example of a masterful control of narrative tension more fully realized in Rosemary’s Baby.

Broadcast News (1987)
James L Brooks’s second feature as a director (after Terms of Endearment) is simultaneously a deep character study of three frustrated, semi-functional workaholics, a charming and witty romantic comedy, an incisive satire/parody of such, and a love letter to a bygone era of journalism. The whole thing oozes sophistication from the almost tongue-in-cheek opening sequence that introduces the leads as children to the gentle, wistful epilogue. And all three leads are at the top of their game here–William Hurt is charming and conniving in a way that’s hard to pin down, Albert Brooks plumbs the contradictions of his frustrated persona, and in particular Holly Hunter makes her Jane’s emotional arc the center of the film (she should’ve gotten top billing here, she’s the lynchpin of the thing). I usually like James L Brooks–to the degree that I’m willing to forgive a lot in his lesser films–but this is him doing some of his finest and most insightful work.

A Passage to India (1984)
David Lean’s last film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s last novel (aside from the posthumous Maurice), is as I understand somewhat less ambiguous in its central action around which the story pivots. Here, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee, along with Peggy Ashcroft–who won an Oscar for her role here–one of two cast members repeated from Hullabaloo Over Georgie & Bonnie’s Pictures above) as more clearly innocent of the assault on Ms. Quested (Judy Davis). Despite this (arguable) simplification, the film is still remarkably nuanced (with the notable exception of Alec Guinness as Professor Godbole). The difficult intersection of privilege and oppression, of Eastern and Western culture, of the personal and the political is rendered in Lean’s usual spacious lavishness. Stylistically the film feels almost out of time–watching it, its kind of hard to believe it came the same year as Ghostbusters and The Terminator–but the formal… archness, I suppose… only works to underscore the forces of propriety and expectation that drive the characters forward (and nearly consume them all).

9 to 5 (1980)
For the first half hour or so, this is the ’80s workplace comedy I was expecting, something like a slightly edgier predecessor to Working Girl, but firmly based in the real world. Then Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton (in her film debut) start passing the joint and embark on a series of increasingly elaborate fantasy sequences, a register change the film never looks back on. By the time it’s over, it ends up something like a bizarre thriller–a few tweaks and it could be a David Fincher film instead of a zany satire. Instead, the whole film–and especially Dabney Coleman’s piggish villain–hits a pitch somewhere between being too silly to be truly offensive or progressive and being incisive and ridiculous enough to still mostly land almost 40 years later.

Targets (1968)
Speaking of still landing… this film–Peter Bogdanovich’s debut–shares a chilling quality with Sydney Lumet’s Network, in that it has accumulated relevance beyond its time. It’s also in a category of films–like 8½ and Adaptation–that are about themselves. That’s Bogdanovich playing the director trying to convince Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, himself in all but name) to be in his new horror film. This film will do away with Victorian monsters and make a statement about a new kind of horror, the kind where All-American young men like Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) go on murderous rampages for no easily-articulable reason. When these twin plots converge, the bullets are literally coming out of the screen itself in the kind of moment made tailor-made for undergrad term papers. It’s vital filmmaking, terrifying on a startling level, and probably my favorite film on this week’s list.

The Weekly Roundup

I’ve been kind of lazy as a writer recently and I’ve been pouring a lot of the energy I can muster into developing some more feature-style pieces for this blog, so I got sort of behind on my Movie Madness Raid posts. So instead, I’m trying this style of movie-diary feature: a once-a-week roundup of what I’ve watched (whether from Movie Madness or not) and some brief thoughts on each. Because I started it last Monday, I’m aiming for making it a Monday night piece.

So without further ado, the first weekly roundup, covering October 23-30, 2017.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
I’ve met some film dudes who are really into John Carpenter; I’ve never been one, but the more I see the more I get it. I can’t think of the last horror movie I saw that was this bizarrely cerebral, which is exactly what a Lovecraft homage should be. Sam Neil calling bullshit on his own story predates Scream‘s meta-horror,  inverted, but also in a way that very cleverly makes the audience a conscious part of the film itself. The conflation (and/or confusion) of reality with fiction also feels particularly resonant in the current culture–maybe more so than it did at the time, since it seems like this was largely panned on release. Also, who doesn’t love Jürgen Prochnow being sinister?

Baskin (2015)
I remember this surreal horror outing getting some buzz when it was released here in the States last year–apparently one of very few Turkish films to get a US release. It’s pretty beautiful; there’s a lot of excellent use of soft light and vivid color, which only contributes to the hellishness once the slow-burn plot finally kicks into high gear. And damn if Mehmet Cerrahoglu’s Baba isn’t the most unsettling movie villain I’ve seen in a while, even if it’s not clear exactly what he wants (or what he even is, for that matter). There are wisps of some lofty metaphor here–the film presents us with a key at its climax, practically daring the audience to solve the puzzle–but it’s creepy and different enough to be interesting even without untangling.

Personal Shopper (2016)
Movies like this are why I can’t organize my library by genre. It’s not not a thriller, but to call it one feels like missing the point. It’s a ghost story… sort of? It’s supernatural, certainly, but it’s sort of indefinite on ghosts. It is definitely a character drama–and man, Kristen Stewart continues to surprise; she carries this whole thing and does it well–but that label doesn’t capture the chilling feel of it. My instinct is to approach this as an auteurist work–it has a very similar tone to Clouds of Sils Maria, a kind of spacious naturalism–but those are, presently, the only two Assayas movies I’ve seen. I aim to correct that, and soon.

Carlos (2010)
…like right now. I have been somewhat intimidated by the 339 minute running time but the film moves along at a pretty brisk clip throughout–it’s exhausting but it’s not boring. It helps that it’s pretty dense with a lot of context to establish. Carlos himself is held up as an epitome of leftist revolutionary failure, his personality in the film and its demons reflected in the larger geopolitical milieu in which they play out, but once again this is ultimately a pretty intimate character study. This seems to be what this filmmaker does but he does it very well, at least recently. And Edgar Ramirez is excellent under such scrutiny, transforming before the camera both physically and in sympathy. This is also an amazing film to listen to, partially for the surprisingly expressive use of music throughout, but also because I can’t think of a film where I’ve heard a more diverse palate of spoken languages.

Zero Kelvin (1995)
Although based on a novel, this Norwegian thiller has a kind of stage-like feel to it, probably because of the small cast (a bitter, raging Stellan Skarsgård, his somewhat condescending nemesis Gard B Eidsvold, and the icy Bjørn Sundquist are pretty much it) and the claustrophobic setting of a Greenland fur-trapper’s hut, circa 1925. The complex dynamic that develops between the three of the characters–Edsvold’s Larsen and Skarsgård’s Randbæk in particular–is definitely allegorical about the nature of man. Their argument, which both men seem unable to let go on a fundamental level, verges on a philosophy debate about hope, love, and desire without being too stilted about it to create a real, occasionally nail-biting narrative tension.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Alain Resnais’s arthouse classic is as fascinating and inscrutable as its considerable reputation suggests. It follows a kind of abstract, musical logic, full of repetition and divergence and with allusions to mathematics, art, and philosophy, all somehow wrapped around the story of an affair between a man (Georgio Albertazzi), a woman (Delphine Seyrig), and and the interventions of a second man who may be her husband (Sacha Pitoëff). But nothing about the film is easily pinned down, nothing can be taken for granted, which makes trying to interpret it feel a bit like chasing a will-o-the-wisp. People who enjoy that sort of thing (as I do, I confess) will find a lot to like here–a really resonant tonal control, a lot of enigmatic wit, some beautifully composed cinematography by Sacha Vierny, and a plot that constantly devours itself right as it starts to fit together–but anyone else will probably find this pretentious and/or extremely boring.

The Beyond (1981)
Got this on the reputation of gorehound director Lucio Fulci and, replete with popped eyeballs, face-eating spiders, and a lot of melted flesh, it did not disappoint in the squick factor. The story, concerning flighty young Liza (Catriona MacColl) inheriting a decrepit Louisiana hotel with a portal to hell in the basement, is more repulsive than actually scary. But the movie’s more obvious flaws–notably its oddly loping pace and stilted dialog that’s done no favors by post-synchronous sound–actually end up making the film even more surreal and bizarre than it already is. And it is; there’s something to this more than just so much viscera. It’s shot through with what MacColl calls “macabre Italian poetry” in the DVD intro.

Anguish (1987)
This feature by Spanish artist Bigas Luna was recommended to me and I went into it pretty blind. All I really knew is that I found it in the horror section, and it does follow a lot of the tropes of the genre, but to call it a horror movie doesn’t quite capture what it is. It begins as a movie about a killer (Michael Lerner), hypnotized and/or imbued with mystical power by his mother (Zelda Rubenstein), killing people and taking their eyes. Shortly, though, it opens out into a series of metacinematic reflections and becomes something altogether more abstract. What I really feel the urge to do is dive into possible interpretations–in a very term-paper-ish sort of way–so know that that’s the kind of movie this is. But also know I enjoyed watching it enough that I want to do so again so I can discuss it with someone. It’s also the perfect movie to end this post on, since it would make a fantastic double-feature with In the Mouth of Madness.