before sunrise (richard linklater, 1995)

I was interested in seeing this again, because I've always thought of it as the weakest film in the trilogy. Not that it's bad ... far from it ... but I felt each movie was better than the one before, perhaps because the earlier movies added depth to the later ones. Returning to the first, I see that it is of a piece with the others, and if I still believe the third is better than the second is better than the first, my opinion about Before Sunrise is higher than when I first saw it and didn't know others were to come. (When I watched Before Sunset a few years after it came out, I found my appreciation of that film had grown, as well. Guess when I re-watch Before Midnight, I'll have to call it the best film of all time.)

The truth is, I didn't get any new insights into Before Sunrise by watching it again. There were no surprises I hadn't noticed before. I just find the groove Linklater establishes to be amenable to my own rambling thoughts. As always, I also have a crush on Julie Delpy.

This movie falls into another category that I am realizing over the years is more well-stocked than I ever knew: Movies I Love But I Bet My Wife Wouldn't Love. She isn't a fan of Linklater ... as she said about halfway through Dazed and Confused when I finally convinced her to watch it, "Is anything going to happen in this movie?" Saw Slacker and thought the same thing. I think the only movie of his she liked was A Scanner Darkly, and that came in part because we love the book and the movie was an excellent version.

Point is, I want to share my favorites with my beloved, but I'm crushed if she doesn't like them, too. I'm not talking about everyday favorites ... I don't take it personally if someone doesn't care for Gun Crazy (although Bonnie and Clyde might be a different story). But I can't bring myself to sit her down with the Before series, because I assume in advance she won't like it, and I really want her to. (The best/worst example of this is In the Mood for Love, one of my very favorite movies, which she would hate because "nothing happens".)

She often has the TV on during the evening and on the weekends. She has shows she likes, and movie genres she enjoys, but mostly she's looking for something she can half-watch while she knits. Mad Max: Fury Road turned up on some channel the other day, and that's only my favorite movie of the last few years. She liked it when we saw it, she is always ready to watch something again (since she's knitting, it helps that she already knows what's happening), and she loves action movies. I would have sat down and watched with her ... well, I would have stuck the Blu-ray in the player rather than watching the "TV version", but she never cares about that. But it seemed like a perfect movie for us to watch together. Instead, she surfed around until she found another action movie and watched that.

And I knew, once again, that we really don't have the same taste in movies anymore.

 


gun crazy (joseph h. lewis, 1950)

Nowadays, we can't help but recognize similarities to the real-life story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, but this noir doesn't actually remind me much of the later classic film. Joseph H. Lewis makes good use of his limited budget, culminating in a single-take getaway from a bank robbery that is a marvel of low-cost invention. The IMDB has some great trivia about Gun Crazy, including this:

The 17-page bank robbery sequence was scheduled for a three-to-five-day shoot with numerous camera set-ups, but Joseph H. Lewis decided he didn't want to do it the conventional way. He told the producers he could pull it off in a single day with one shot that never entered the bank. Since that would cut down on production time and eliminate the need for a bank set, the idea appealed to their budget consciousness, but he still had to prove to them it was possible. So he did a test run with extras using his own 16mm camera. 

There is nothing particularly unique about Gun Crazy, just another low-budget noir with a femme fatale and a sucker of a man. But the leads, Peggy Cummins (Curse of the Demon) and John Dall (Rope) are so good they lift the film a level or two. (There is a full 12 inches between the 5'1" Cummins and the 6'1" Dall, which somehow makes her ability to control him even more impressive.) Combined with the solid job by Lewis (aided by a script by Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted at the time), you have a movie that approaches the level of Detour. It doesn't have that film's evil meanness ... the two robbers, Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare, really do seem to care for each other. But Bart loves guns without quite knowing why, while Annie is pretty much a psycho, just as good with a gun but also with a taste for killing. And their attraction to each other goes beyond their shared love of guns. Another IMDB anecdote:

In an interview with author Danny Peary (1981), director Joseph H. Lewis described how he instructed lead actors John Dall and Peggy Cummins: "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions."

That's a pretty accurate description of how it plays on the screen. #701 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

 


what i watched

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015). I asked myself a couple of questions as I watched this movie. Would I have bothered to watch it if the subject was any actor other than Brando? (Probably not.) Would someone with no knowledge or interest in Brando find this movie worthwhile? (Definitely yes for actors, not sure for others.) It's an innovative documentary that makes use of hundreds of hours of audio tapes Brando made to allow the actor to, in effect, tell his own story. It's like an autobiography made after the fact. This is partly a trick ... Riley had the cooperation of the Brando estate, but Marlon Brando has nothing to do with the making of the film, so despite its autobiographical trappings, Riley is the one who pieces it all together. He is far more than a mere ghostwriter. It's not clear if Brando made these tapes for posterity, intended them to be public, but we have them now. He is very honest about his life, and comes pretty close to telling an unvarnished version of that life. (There are things that are left out, but what is included feels real, and he doesn't flinch from the implications of his actions.) Since Brando was the greatest screen actor of his generation, what he says about the acting process is fascinating. His comparison of the fighting style of Jersey Joe Walcott to the art of acting is a perfect description of Brando on the screen: "He'd be boxing and he'd follow some punches and boom! He'd have his fist into somebody's face. You'd think it was going to come out of the southwest and, there, it comes out of the northeast. He would never let you know where he was gonna hit you. Never let the audience know how it's going to come out. Get them on your time." So many of his finest moments as an actor came when the slightest gesture or facial expression surprised you into believing the character was real. To top the film off, Brando once had his head "digitized" ... "I made a lot of faces and smiled and, and, made a sad face. So they've got it all on digital. And actors are not going to be real. They're going to be inside a computer!" Riley occasionally syncs Brando's ramblings to a video of the digitized actor. It's creepy and marvelous at the same time.

Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1933). Featuring Brando's second wife (not at the time, he was 9 years old at the time). I watched it, I liked it, but I'm mostly just cleaning house here ... this has been sitting around for a few days while I buried myself in the World Cup, and I don't have a lot to say now. The first movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they are the sidekicks in this one. They have good chemistry, and it's fun to see them outside of the fairly narrow framework of their starring movies. Ginger is more the wiseacre that she was early in her career, and it's fun to see. It's also one of the last of the pre-Code movies, so there's see-through outfits and lots of double-entendre dialogue. And there's the impossibly beautiful Dolores del Rio. The big dance number ("The Carioca") goes on forever, and only features a little of Fred and Ginger. There's a loony number on the wings of airplanes. Nothing is taken seriously. Lacks the emotional resonance of the "real" Fred and Ginger movies, but watchable.


two by request

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018). Another entry in the "Movie That Is Praised for What It Isn't" category. Hereditary is getting great reviews, and a common thread is that it's not like Saw and its ilk. Richard Roeper: "'Hereditary' is one of those rare and treasured horror films that does not rely on 'Gotcha!' music stings, or rhythmic knocks on the door in the dead of night, or the cat jumping into frame during a tense moment." Justin Chang: "There are none of the gratuitous jump scares or pointless fakeouts that have reduced mainstream horror cinema to so much self-defeating gimmickry." Hereditary is more than just the absence of gratuitous gotchas, and there is a long, fine tradition of horror movies that affect us more by their emotional creepiness than by the standard tricks of the trade. Aster wants to be in their company, but Hereditary isn't up to the likes of Don't Look Now or Rosemary's Baby. Still, I admire his intentions, and I prefer to say the movie is reminiscent of Don't Look Now than to say the movie isn't Saw. There is much to admire in Hereditary, and Toni Collette's performance is impossible to ignore ... some people will think she's over the top, but no more than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I was reminded of Drag Me to Hell, or rather, I wished I was watching Drag Me to Hell. That movie has fun with the common tropes. There is nothing fun about Hereditary. A better comparison would be The Babadook, and if you get one thing from this review, it should be that you need to watch The Babadook if you haven't already. Hereditary turns grief and family life into a horror show, and that's a pretty good trick. But if you go in expecting Drag Me to Hell, you'll be disappointed.

Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934). Said by the ever-accurate Wikipedia to be "The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code" thanks to a nude swimming scene by Maureen O'Sullivan's body double. The scene didn't use a body double because O'Sullivan was shy ... rather, the double was Josephine McKim, like Johnny Weissmuller an Olympic Gold Medal winner in swimming, thus able to better handle the swimming "ballet". The real raciness comes not from the swim, but from the flimsy outfit O'Sullivan wears through most of the film (the closest thing I can think of to that outfit would be Jenny Agutter's in Logan's Run). There are topless "native" women early in the movie ... there is Weissmuller himself, a strapping, gorgeous athlete who wears even less than O'Sullivan ... there is the matter-of-fact way we understand that Tarzan and Jane sleep together. But what makes your jaw drop, even in 2018, is Jane's damn outfit. It certainly got someone's attention ... the next Tarzan movie, which was definitely post-Code, featured O'Sullivan in a much more modest outfit. Besides O'Sullivan, Tarzan and His Mate offers reasonable action scenes and a cringe-worthy treatment of the jungle natives. It's not as cheesy as most of the future films in the series, which is something.

Jane and her mate


by request: avengers: infinity war (anthony and joe russo, 2018)

It feels a bit picky to complain about a movie that succeeds on so many levels. It probably deserves the $1.9 billion and counting that it has collected at the box office. It ran for 2 1/2 hours without being boring ... the only break I took was when my old-man body had to pee (thanks to the great app RunPee, I knew when to go and what happened while I was gone). And some of my complaints are personal, based on taste preferences more than anything concrete. (As an example, I like non-stop action movies when they feature actual human beings ... The Raid movies, for instance ... but am not as impressed by movies where the action is largely CGI superheroes flying around and beating the crap out of each other. Or, as I said about The Last Jedi, "lightsaber fights are boring, especially when you consider what is being done in movies like The Raid films.")

Infinity War has more emotional depth than is usual for these movies. Josh Brolin as Thanos in particular is more than just another Big Bad. But at some point, enough is enough. (I realize that any movie that makes close to $2 billion clearly hasn't reached saturation for most people.) Because Infinity War is partly the culmination of previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a large number of important characters turn up. This is especially the case with the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, who meet up and instantly double the number of key characters. (Not to mention Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, and others.) There are simply too many characters in Avengers: Infinity War. Crucial characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, 5 minutes screen time) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, 4 minutes) are barely around long enough to make an impression. (If you're a fan of Hawkeye, spoiler alert: he's not even in the movie.) Then there are the actors, some of them truly great, who were in Infinity War and I didn't know it until I saw their name in the credits: Idris Elba, Benicio Del Toro, and Carrie Coon come to mind.

Having said all of this, I can safely say that if you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will like Avengers: Infinity War. You will probably see it more than once. For me, almost all of the movies in the MCU run together ... I give them all the same rating, with the exception of the Guardians movies, which I didn't like, and Black Panther, which I think is a great film. This doesn't mean I don't like the movies ... that "same rating" I give them is 7/10. But I don't care about them in the way I feel I should about a $2 billion success.

I could best express my position in all of this by noting that my 2nd-favorite part of the MCU (after Black Panther) is the TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are people with superpowers on that show, but the reason it's still around after five seasons is because it has real human characters that you get to know in depth.

 


divines, watchmen

Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
 
Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
 
The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
 
Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
 
By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
 
I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.

 (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

man on the moon (miloš forman, 1999)

I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Miloš Forman, the Czech filmmaker who died last month. I can remember seeing Taking Off a long time ago and liking it, found Amadeus to be better than I expected, and loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But that's only three movies out of an entire career, so I thought to watch another of his movies, Man on the Moon.

I came to this without any real opinion of Jim Carrey, or rather, I found him to be a fine actor at times but was not a fan of many/most/all of his comedies. I looked forward to seeing him here. As for Andy Kaufman, I experienced him the way many in the audience did, as a delightful oddball with an often-cerebral notion of what comedy could be. Also like most of us, I remembered him mainly for his Elvis impersonation and his Mighty Mouse routine, along with his rassling career. The video I've attached to this post offers an interesting comparison of Kaufman and Carrey-as-Kaufman, one that I don't think does Carrey any favors. Carrey is clearly trying to submerge himself in the character of Kaufman, and he gets credit for an energetic attempt. But watch the real Kaufman in the video ... what he is doing is often outrageous, always odd, but many times Kaufman himself is far from frantic. Carrey overdoes the bug eyes, which has the effect of making Kaufman seem a bit crazy. The real Kaufman comes across more as a thoughtful eccentric, and I don't think crazy is necessarily the best way to play him.

On the other hand, there's Courtney Love. Whenever she was on the screen, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. For all of her overstated persona as a rock star, Love can be a subtle actress, which stands out in Man on the Moon in comparison with Carrey's near-mugging. For me, she walks off with the picture.

As biopics go, Man on the Moon is OK. I'm just not a big fan of biopics. 

 


revisiting five easy pieces (bob rafelson, 1970)

My ability to evaluate Five Easy Pieces is complicated by the fact that for ten years, I worked in a factory, a job that was a bit at odds with my upbringing (and my life after the factory). I didn't grow up in an upper-class family of classical musicians, although my mother was a musician who might have aspired to a higher class of living than we had. And in 1970, I didn't know this ... I became a steelworker in 1974, and it was after that when I really identified with Bobby Dupea. And once you start identifying with a character, your reaction to a movie is suspect.

Easy Rider got everyone's attention, but it was here that Jack Nicholson announced himself as a star. It's his movie ... I'm trying to remember if there's even one scene he is not in. His charisma makes Bobby seems much more likable than he should be. We root for Bobby, we see where his inner traumas come from, we understand his frustrations with the world. The question is, do Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman offer us a dispassionate look at Bobby's world, or do they adopt his attitudes?

Bobby is better than the people he works with on the oil rig ... at least, that's how it's presented. He's better than his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). He's better than the family from which he tries to escape. The one balance to all of this is that Bobby is a rotten person, even with Nicholson's charisma, so presenting him as "better" only goes so far. It's hard to find anyone worthwhile in Five Easy Pieces ... Rayette, maybe Bobby's sister Partita (Lois Smith).

The key is the famous diner scene, when Bobby tries to get wheat toast with his breakfast. It's hilarious, it's memorable, it's iconic. And the reasons the scene sticks with us to this day are twofold: we get to see Bobby at his best/worst, and the waitress gets the abuse she so clearly deserves. Except she doesn't deserve it. She's just a poor schlub with a bad job, someone who has to take shit from customers every single work day of her life.

The scene is remembered fondly, but to give credit to Rafelson and Eastman, once you get past the delight of watching Nicholson is action, you notice ... well, as Bobby says to the hitchhiker who thinks he was fantastic in the diner, he didn't get his toast.

Maybe it's the sign of a great work that multiple possibilities present themselves. Or, more likely, I mistrust my own reaction to the movie too much. By the movie's end, if not already, Bobby is shown to be the prick he knows himself to be.

Meanwhile, there is great dialogue, the film looks wonderful, and there are several noteworthy performances, none better in my mind than Karen Black's. Her character is a stereotype, but she runs with it and turns Rayette into a living, breathing human being. And the anti-snob in me always loves the scene during the conversation among the intellectuals where she asks, "Is there a TV in the house?" Bobby's response is too on-the-mark ("Where do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class, or who the hell's got it, or what she typifies? You shouldn't even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate."). And the intellectuals are set up to be too easy of a target. But Black's reading of the line about TV cuts through all of that ... every time I've seen this movie, when she pipes up, I think I'd love to watch TV with her.

Of course, if I'm talking memorable performances, I can't forget Helena Kallianiotes as the ever-irritated hitchhiker, Palm Apodaca. You could make a Greatest Hits page of nothing but Quotations from Palm, although really you need Kallianiotes to get it right. Pretty much everything she says is hilarious.

I don't think I'll ever come to a final conclusion about Five Easy Pieces. But I'm guessing I'll always like to watch it. You keep on talking about the good life, Elton, 'cause it makes me puke.

When I feel worst about myself, I often think of this scene ... yes, I identify with it.

 


dogville (lars von trier, 2004)

Is it possible to reevaluate a film when you are seeing it for the first time?

Back in 2004, when Dogville was released, I had a few posts about it, including this one, which quoted Charles Taylor at length:

Women are von Trier's select victims. That alone doesn't make him a misogynist. What does make him a misogynist is the sadistic relish he takes in the drawn-out destruction of his female characters, which we see as if watching flies having their wings pulled off under a microscope.

At that point, I had seen two of von Trier's movies, and found myself agreeing with Taylor, enough so that I didn't see another of his pictures for more than a dozen years. The best thing I could say about the movies I'd seen is that they inspired some interesting commentary to my posts.

Then, I saw Melancholia. And I liked it. A lot.

And so I decided to give Dogville a try at long last. After I watched it, I tried to read some criticism that looked at his supposed misogyny in a different light, kinder to von Trier's possible intentions. The most convincing argument was that he didn't mean to make misogyny look good, but rather to show it for the vileness it was.

For half of Dogville's three-hour length, I was almost convinced. I didn't exactly love the movie ... certainly not like I loved Melancholia ... but it was interesting, especially the sets.

But in the second half of the movie, as the town of Dogville turned against Nicole Kidman's Grace, we saw her character raped. And then raped again. And then, while they didn't show every example, she was raped pretty much every night.

And my opinions from back in 2004 returned.

There was an ending that gave Grace the chance to choose her own future. And, during the credits, as Bowie's "Young Americans" played, we got a slideshow of photos by Jacob Holdt depicting lower-class Americans. Apparently, some people took this as anti-American ... some thought the picture itself was anti-American. I didn't understand the use of the photos in the credits, and I didn't get the supposed anti-Americanism. Mostly, I got the feeling the man who made this movie hated everyone, not just Americans.

What can I say? The arguments are old, now, and I don't feel like revisiting them. I watched Dogville, and thought it was on a par with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, which is to say I didn't much like it. There is one good thing about Dogville, though ... Jennifer Kent worked on the film. She went on to make The Babadook, which I liked much more than I liked Dogville. #381 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #15 on the 21st-century list.

 


by request: the man who knew too much (alfred hitchcock, 1934)

This one comes in the middle of Hitchcock's British period ... his next film was The 39 Steps. I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock's 1956 remake with James Stewart and Doris Day, although it's been a long time since I've seen it. This earlier version seems marginally better, and it's hard to argue with its 75-minute running time. While it's short, it still has dead spots, and the leads (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) lack charisma.

The best thing about the film is Peter Lorre, making his first English-language film (he is said to have learned his lines phonetically). Lorre is given a scar on his face, and an odd haircut, but he hardly needs it ... he's Peter Lorre, after all, only three years past M. He dominates every scene in which he appears.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is OK, but it's not great Hitchcock. As for Lorre, he's better seen in M, or in his best Hollywood films, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Here is the movie's most famous scene, an assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall that is intended to occur when the sound of cymbals will cover the sound of the gun: