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.