what i watched last week

Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004). Mike Nichols’ first film as a director was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (see below), which got the audience’s attention in part by giving us Elizabeth Taylor, at the time 34 years old and one of the most beautiful women in the world, puffed up by 30 pounds, playing a much older character, drinking way too much and emasculating her husband in front of others. It was harder to shock audiences in 2004, so we get Julia Roberts saying she likes it when Jude Law’s characters comes on her character’s face. Closer isn’t quite as focused as Woolf ... while the latter features one couple battling each other in front of a second couple, with one cross-couple attempt at sex, in Closer, Dan and Alice are a couple, then Dan and Larry have cybersex without knowing who the other is, Larry and Anna become a couple and then marry, Dan and Anna become a couple on the sly, then openly, Anna sleeps with Larry one last time, Dan gets pissed, Anna goes back to Larry, Alice (remember her?) goes back with Dan, but by then she had slept with Larry, and at the end, we find that Alice’s name was really Jane. It’s enough to make one yearn for the simpler times of George and Martha. Some of the dialogue is cutting, and the actors give their all (besides Roberts, there is Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen). Roger Ebert loved it, drawing particular attention to how articulate the characters are. I found everything rather tiresome. #832 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 6/10.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966). Nichols’ debut won five Oscars, including Best Actress Elizabeth Taylor and Best Supporting Actress Sandy Dennis (Richard Burton and George Segal got nominations, as did Nichols ... there were 13 in all, Best Picture among them). The actors all seem to be trying just a bit too hard, with the possible exception of Segal, and Nichols (and Haskell Wexler, who picked up the Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography) pulls a reverse on the usual trick of “opening up” a play for the screen. Instead, Nichols fills the screen with close-up after close-up, as if seeing the pores on Liz’s face will convince us she’s really acting. Which is unfair ... everyone pulls their weight here, and no one embarrasses themselves. If it gives a bit of “much ado about nothing” after all these years, a decent fire remains. Try as they might, though, this isn’t anywhere near the level of A Streetcar Named Desire. #695 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. For a companion to either of these movies, try Wit, yet another play adaptation from Nichols, but much better than the above.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005). I’m in a hurry, and this movie doesn’t deserve much of my time, anyway. Black is very bright and is happy to show off, Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan are game for anything, and so fucking what. #739 on the TSPDT list of the top films of the 21st century. If you figure out why, keep it to yourself. 5/10.


by request: easy money (daniel espinosa, 2010)

Movies that utilize American genres in new settings can be enlightening as well as just plain good. Sergio Leone’s westerns are a prime example. You see the same old thing from a different perspective.

Easy Money is a crime thriller out of Sweden. On the surface, it is nothing special: a young man from the lower classes aspires to something more, and turns to crime to help accomplish his desires. He is a student in economics, and he pretends to more resources than he has, all the while driving a cab to support his too-lavish public lifestyle. His boss introduces him to the cocaine trade, and as things progress, his acumen in economics makes him valuable to his superiors. But the cocaine business is much dirtier than he imagined, and he is more replaceable than he thinks.

This young man, “JW”, is played by Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish-American actor who made his name here on the TV series The Killing. Easy Money is the movie that pushed him to stardom in Sweden, and it’s clear how this happened ... he has tall good looks with a hint of mystery, which also describes JW. JW is too smart for his own good, and his moral center emerges rather erratically ... he has the makings of an anti-hero, but he is never important enough to reach such a level. Easy Money shines a light on people who want more, with the title serving as an ironic reminder that “easy” is rarely an accurate descriptor.

Kinnaman is solid, and the supporting cast includes some people who are very menacing (Dragomir Mrsic, for instance, is a former bank-robber). Many of the characters, though, are in over their heads, whether they recognize it or not. Attempts are made to humanize them ... even Mrsic’s “Mrado” is driven by the need to take care of his young daughter. But these characters are not crime bosses, nor are they on their way to becoming bosses. Easy Money is not the story of Tony Montana. This lends an underlying class structure to the film, which connects specifically to JW’s posing above his class, and then going down a dark road to turn the pose into reality.

Easy Money connected with the audience in Sweden, where two sequels have been produced. There are, of course, the usual rumors of a Hollywood remake. Zac Efron is the name most-often associated with this, but nothing seems to have come of it in the five years since the original was released. Easy Money is a touch above the average crime thriller, smart and stylish, recommended to fans of Kinnaman or to those looking for a different angle on the genre. 7/10.


what i watched last week

À Nous la Liberté (René Clair, 1931). I watched this after I had written my postscript to Snowpiercer, but some of what I said there could apply in this case as well. À Nous la Liberté is an early sound film with some humorous, if obvious, comments on modern society. We see prisoners working an assembly line making toy horses. We see workers on an assembly line making phonographs. The similarities between the two far outweigh the differences: prisoners and workers perform highly regimented functions while dreaming about a freedom that is always out of reach. Clair is clever, and his approach to sound is inventive for its time. Also, his attitude towards capital (favoring the workers), combined with the afore-mentioned regimented approach to production, clearly influenced Chaplin for Modern Times. The film’s ending, with the workers owning the factory (allowing them a life of complete leisure), is both optimistic and ironic. Yet, despite the ingenious set design and staging, À Nous la Liberté isn’t nearly as good as Modern Times. The latter was funnier, and it has Paulette Goddard. À Nous la Liberté is gentler, and I appreciated it without laughing very often. #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. The obvious companion piece is Modern Times.

Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). David Thomson called it “a version of screwball as if done from lawn chairs at the end of a fine summer evening”, and I think he’s right. But he thinks the movie is a “casual masterpiece,” while I find myself not as interested in the casual screwball of lawn chairs. Monkey Business is ripe for those who find subtext more important than laughs in a comedy. Hugh Marlowe being scalped isn’t funny because Marlowe looks silly with his fake hair, it’s significant as a symbol of castration. Your enjoyment will depend in part on how much you like excavating subtext. And how much you like Marilyn Monroe, who has a supporting role and doesn’t have much to do. For me, that’s a good thing ... she doesn’t have time to overdo those facial things that always irritate me. Best moment: when Ginger Rogers does a balancing trick with a coffee cup. Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors. This is not one of my favorite films. 6/10. See Bringing Up Baby instead.

I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949). Fuller’s first film as the man in charge (he wrote and directed) is an economical 81 minutes, which ought to embarrass anyone associated with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which took twice as long and was many times more boring. Fuller’s approach can be found in the title: this isn’t a movie about Jesse James, but rather a movie about Robert Ford. Fuller is fairly sympathetic to Ford’s problems, although Ford also comes across as a bit of a dimwit. (Hat tip to John Ireland, who does a fine job as Ford.) In this telling, which is at least as unreliable as other attempts to tell the tale, Ford hates himself for what he has done to his best friend. Fuller shows that Ford became famous in the “wrong” way. At one point, Ford takes part in a play that stages the James’ shooting ... Ford walks off the stage, not being able to recreate the crime. And in another scene, a troubadour comes in and sings a song about “that dirty rotten coward” Ford, not realizing Ford is right in front of him. Ford demands the singer finish the song, taking the punishment for what he knows he shouldn’t have done. There are plenty of such interesting touches, but in truth, the film doesn’t amount to much. Interesting side note: two of the actors in the ensemble, J. Edward Bromberg and Victor Kilian, were later blacklisted, while Ireland sued producers who thought his politics were shaky. 6/10. For another Fuller film, try Shock Corridor.

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). 10/10.


mad max: fury road (george miller, 2015)

There are a few reasons why Mad Max: Fury Road feels familiar. First, it’s the fourth entry in a continuing series. Second, earlier editions were influential, such that many inferior copycats were made over the years. (There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Mad Max series legacy and influence in popular culture”.) And by now, we’ve become used to expensive summer action pictures.

So yes, it is safe to say if you liked the earlier Mad Max movies, you will like Fury Road. Even though it has been 30 years since George Miller gave us a Mad Max movie, he hasn’t lost his talent or his desire to put something great onto the screen.

And it is an excellent effort in the context of the series, at least the equal of The Road Warrior, and far better than Beyond Thunderdome. Which, for those of us who loved past entries, means we’re pretty much guaranteed a good time. (A few years ago, I listed The Road Warrior as the 51st-best movie of all time, so you know where I’m coming from.)

The most notable thing about Fury Road is that many of the things that make it a clear counterpart to the earlier films is also what sets it apart from other action movies in 2015. As noted on the IMDB, “Over 80% of the effects seen in the film are real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets.” In recent years, the stuff that amazes generally comes from the astounding things that can be done digitally. Fury Road goes back to a different time, one that seems more “human”. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is like checking out an old silent Buster Keaton feature or a Jackie Chan HK film. Real people are actually doing these things. Add to this the care with which Miller presents the action, and you have a movie that has rarely, if ever, been topped for its genre.

You could say that the film is nothing but one long car chase, and you wouldn't be too far off, although I admit I thought there would be even more action. I understand the argument that Fury Road may be near perfect, but it’s still just a near-perfect car chase movie. I think the adrenaline rush of the film squashes such complaints, but your mileage may vary.

There is one other notable point to be made regarding the most obvious difference between this film and the prior Max movies. Charlize Theron plays a female version of Max, and she is so good, and her part is so integral, that the only reason “Mad Max” appears in the title is for brand recognition. This isn't the story of Max and his sidekick, it’s the story of two people fighting (mostly) in tandem. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is actually more important to what plot there is than is Max. This led to the remarkably absurd article by Aaron Clarey, “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road’”:

This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women.

So do yourself and all men across the world a favor. Not only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible.

Clarey’s paranoid position strikes a chord with some men, I’m sure. But his screed actually falls into the hole he argues against, for I’ve read more discussion of feminism and Fury Road inspired by his broadside than I have from any other source. (An update at the website on which the original article appeared claimed, “Our Call To Boycott Mad Max Movie Spurs Avalanche Of Mainstream Media Anger”.) If he was worried that we might look at Fury Road through a feminist perspective, well, he has helped that process along.

How feminist is Fury Road? There is no one kind of feminism, and any simplistic response to the question will refuse to acknowledge the breadth of feminist thinking. Yes, Imperator Furiosa is the match of Max Rockatansky. Yes, Charlize Theron is the match of Tom Hardy. And I admit, many of my favorite female characters are ones that kick ass (Buffy, Starbuck). But that taste preference is limiting in that too often “kick ass” means “acts like a man”, which shouldn’t be the only point. Furiosa may be remembered as important a film character as those played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, and that’s a fine thing (and Theron is good enough that she deserves to be mentioned along with those others). But for the most part, Furiosa can be described as a woman who kicks ass as well as a man.

There are some plot details that change my simplification a bit ... for instance, Furiosa is trying to save sex slaves. But I would argue that plot details are more irrelevant in a movie like this than is the norm, because no plot point works as anything other than a breather between action scenes. One reason Beyond Thunderdome was a letdown was that it had too much plot.

Judged as an action movie, as part of the Mad Max franchise, which is how I prefer to judge it, Mad Max: Fury Road is at least as good as The Road Warrior. I gave that movie 10/10, so you know what I’m giving Fury Road. 10/10. Best companion piece is obviously The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2).

Postscript: we saw Fury Road on the first night (Thursday). I hadn’t done the “gotta go to the first showing” thing since On the Road two years ago. Apparently, I have a thing for movies with the word “road” in the title.


what i watched last week

Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). Has a little of everything, but surprises along the way. It’s a near-future dystopia, it’s an action adventure set on a train, it’s a caustic screed against the 1%, it has black humor and violence, and it’s the first American film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The violence will scare some people away, and others might be scared away by the trailers, which emphasize the grimy look of much of the film. It owes much to Brazil, a movie I didn’t much like. It also reminded me of Michael Radford’s film of 1984, although it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that one (as I recall, I liked it). The various compartments on the train each had its own décor, which was nicely done, and if the condemnation of the 1% was a bit simplistic, well, so what, I was glad it was there. If you are looking for an introduction to the wonders of modern Korean cinema, this isn’t the place to start ... it’s more American than Korean. But it is also more successful than the movies of many other Asian directors in the U.S. ... John Woo had his hand in more than half-a-dozen U.S. films, and only one (Face/Off) came close to the level of Snowpiercer. (Of course, Woo also made many HK and Chinese movies that are better than Face/Off or Snowpiercer.) #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10. Check out 2009’s Mother for a different side of Bong.

Since there is only one film on the list for this week, I’ll take this space to expand a bit on one aspect of Snowpiercer that it shares with some other movies. I write these short, one-paragraph reviews, knowing that in most cases, the movies in question deserve a lot more space. I try to address things that caught my attention, while also avoiding spoilers when possible, which in itself is a limiting move. [What follows includes spoilers.] In the case of movies like Snowpiercer, I don’t think it would be useful to extend what I’ve written above. It’s worthy and complicated and there are a lot of talking points. But I fear I’d just resort to a check list. The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.


what i watched last week

Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932). A couple of the names associated with this one are still familiar to us. Curtiz directed Casablanca and many others, and Fay Wray is an icon. Some consider Lee Tracy to be unfairly forgotten. The movie looks like it will be a horror film, but as it plays out we realize it's more a mystery of the "dark house" genre. It's mostly forgettable, as horror or mystery, and the comic relief from Tracy isn't much help. Still, a couple of things remain of interest. It was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which was rarely used and which gives the film an odd look to a modern eye. Also, it's pre-code, so while this is more clear in the description than in the visualization, prostitution, rape, and cannibalism are plot points. 6/10. Curtiz, Atwell, and Wray teamed up a year later for Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Le jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1939). Carné directed the classic Children of Paradise, which also starred Arletty. (Jacqueline Laurent actually has as big a part in this one as does Arletty.) The true star of the film is Jean Gabin, and his presence elevates the movie. Le jour se lève is an example of “poetic realism” (“French Poetic Realism depicts the marginalized of society through a lens of disappointment, regret, and estrangement”). I feel like I recognize this genre, even if I couldn’t exactly define it, and certainly some of my favorite movies, notably Renoir’s Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, fall into the category. But for me, the movie is very much like an early film noir, perhaps exemplified by the story that the Vichy government banned it because it was demoralizing. #668 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. You can’t go wrong pairing this with any of the other films I mention above.

Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007). Starts off like a standard historical romance, in this case, the period before and during WWII. Then things take a dark turn, and Wright manages to keep several balls in the air, flipping around with chronology and getting the best from his actors, particularly the three who play Briony Taliis at various stages in her life: Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. The three are quite believable as the same person, with Ronan given the task of making us understand why Briony acts so poorly and Garai facing the consequences. There’s a “look at me” long tracking shot at Dunkirk that is worth the hype, and Redgrave’s appearance in the coda also mostly justifies its existence. It’s at least as depressing as Le jour se lève, although this film isn’t as good. #352 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10. For more of Romola Garai, binge-watch The Hour.

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943). Things are a bit hectic right now, so this movie, which should have its own By Request post (thanks, Jeff!) ends up here. In my memories, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the Hitchcock movies I hold in the highest regard. And it is certainly a good one. But I felt more aware of the gigantic plot holes than I expected, and spent more time enjoying the Santa Rosa scenery than actually taking in the film as a whole. No apparent reason for this, and it’s not like my favorite Hitchcock, Vertigo, isn’t full of its own pile of holes. Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised when I looked online after we’d finished watching and found that I’d long ago given Shadow of a Doubt 8/10. Which is still a good rating, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t note Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright doing strong work in the leads. #519 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. For a Hitchcock night, try Notorious, another of his 1940s movies, one that I like very much indeed.


what i watched last week

Some of these are briefer than usual ... lots going on at the moment.

Night Will Fall (André Singer, 2014). It's unfair to complain that movies with footage of the concentration camps have become less effective as time passes. You can watch such footage a thousand times and still find it revolting. But at this point, filmmakers must come up with a new focus or get lost among the many similar films. For Night Will Fall, the angle is a lost film from the 40s, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, that uses footage shot by servicemen, much of which we have never seen before. We also learn about the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of the film, and how the British government decided it wouldn't do to rile up the German people in the post-war period. Singer does what he can to blend this together, but to some extent, it feels like two films, one of lost footage and another of a lost film. Hitchcock emphasizes to the filmmakers how to use creativity to convince the audience what they are seeing is real, which is an interesting point on its own. 7/10. It's probably too obvious, but a companion film would be Night and Fog.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). Well-made in a cultured British way, never too stodgy, with an interesting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch at its center. It does a decent job of making code-breaking entertaining, and if it fudges on facts, well, don't all of these movies do that? The one area where the film might be "too cultured" is in its presentation of Alan Turing's homosexuality. We hear a lot about it, but you get the feeling the filmmakers thought it would be too much to show Turing actually having sex. #908 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10. I haven't seen it, but the best matchup would be The Theory of Everything.

Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012). Tom Cruise in heroic mode. Not as much action as you might expect ... Cruise plays a kind of super detective. But I suppose there is enough action to please most folks; it grossed $218 million worldwide. Top special effect goes to Rosamund Pike's boobs ... apparently she was pregnant during the making of the film, and about halfway through the movie, her character, a lawyer, turns up in a cleavage-baring outfit which is so startling it becomes distracting. 6/10. For a better Tom Cruise action movie, try Minority Report.

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011). Yet another top-notch documentary located in Chicago from James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself). It sounds like it will be one of those movies that is good for you, but one thing that makes James' movies so strong is that he works hard to give us characters of depth about whom we care a lot. He also effectively balances the bleak with the hopeful, for the most part without seeming too much the Pollyanna. Here, he focuses on three "Violence Interrupters" who intervene in real-time street disputes, hoping (and often succeeding) to prevent murders. We also get to know a few of those street people. We care about them all. #494 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 9/10. Might as well watch Hoop Dreams again while you're at it.

The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe, 2014). Absent any particular context, this movie, Russell Crowe's directing debut in which he also stars, would be a reasonably enjoyable story of a man looking for his presumably-dead sons after World War I. Crowe the director is kind to Crowe the actor ... the actor doesn't need a lot of help, he's one of our best screen actors, but the director makes sure the actor is featured in lots of heart-warming moments. However, there is context, most fervently stated by Andrew O'Hehir, whose review is titled "What Armenian genocide? 'The Water Diviner,' Russell Crowe’s disgraceful Turkish fantasy". ("If I made a film set in Germany or France or Poland in the 1940s that made no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jewish population in those years – if I appeared unaware that there ever were Jews in Europe, let alone what had become of them – how would that look?") O'Hehir hits the spot by pointing out you could watch The Water Diviner as a plain story of family and war, without considering the Armenians, if you didn't already know about their genocide, because they are absent from the film. You get Australians and Brits and Turks (one of whom is played by Ukrainian Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko), but the Armenians aren't considered important enough to the story being told, so they are left out. (For further reading, look at "Directors Slam Russell Crowe’s ‘Water Diviner’ Over Armenian Genocide Denial (Guest Blog)".) 5/10.


what i watched last week

I'll stick these all in one post ... our cable was out for a couple of days, so we ended up watching discs that were lying around. I'd seen all of them before ... there is one Request, one Make My Wife Watch, and one Revisit.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992). As with so many requests, it's been a long time and I don't remember when this actually made the list. Tomás was the one who asked for it. I last watched it in 2008, and I don't see much reason to change my opinion now. As I noted then, the ear-slicing scene is unnecessary, but it's fun to see how many things we now recognize as Quentin-esque are there from the beginning. Actors must love to work with his dialogue, which remains the best thing about his art. The cultural riffs are excessive, but in this case, I'd argue the sheer number of references to the cinematic past makes his movies oddly unique. You can see the influences, but he throws them together with such joy that the result is Tarantino and no one else. (Others have tried to copy him, but it doesn't usually work, partly because they don't have him to write dialogue.) Reservoir Dogs is also a good example of working within a budget ... there are only a few sets, and not too many characters, and he brought the picture in at a reported $1.2 million. #316 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. I've seen seven of his movies, and never given a rating lower than 8. If you want to watch my idea of a 9/10, try Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown.

The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014). I'd seen this only six months ago, but during our no-cable weekend, I trotted it out for Robin to watch. I wrote about it when I first saw it, and don't have much to add. The first 2/3 of the movie are still too concerned with plot and character for my liking, and the last 45 minutes or so are still filled with lots of "WHOA!" moments. As the guy from Comcast was fixing things up, he saw the box for The Raid 2 and exclaimed, "I love that movie!" 8/10. Watch The Raid first, then this one, for a double-bill.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968). This is a bit of a request, as well ... back when we did our Top 50 lists, this was one of my last cuts, and a couple of people since then said they'd like to see what I had to say about those near-misses. I think if I made that list today, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would rank above this one. OUATITW is more "arty", and you could say that here, Leone went for broke and did everything he could to define his vision. And there are some truly wonderful scenes. But it's a bit long and a bit boring. I don't mind the endless scenes that are 98% buildup and 2% resolution. But not all of the scenes are interesting, and since Leone seems largely uninterested in the "plot", you could cut scenes and the movie wouldn't be any less understandable than it already is. #61 on the TSPDT list. 7/10. It would be a butt-numbing exercise, but the best double-bill matchup would be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It's just as long, but it's more fun. And if Henry Fonda is an interesting bad guy in Once Upon a Time, it's mostly because of the stunt casting ... Lee Van Cleef is just as good in The Good ..., but we expect him to be an effective bad guy. Meanwhile, Leone gets more out of Clint Eastwood than most people ... Leone helped make Eastwood a star ... Clint certainly has more screen presence than Charles Bronson, who plays a similar role in the later movie.


what i watched last week

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011). Arnold deserves credit for offering a Wuthering Heights that differs from all the others, and I'm guessing that the resulting film is pretty much exactly how Arnold wanted it. Gloom piled on gloom, with plenty of closeups of the actors, of which the main ones are neophytes with the exception of Kaya Scodelario as the grown-up Catherine. Some of Arnold's earlier work has been compared to Dogme 95, and I can see that, although that isn't necessarily a selling point for me. I guess everything is supposed to be smoldering here ... the characters' excesses of passion are rarely let out to play, but the actors' faces may be expressing inner turmoil. Mostly, they are pretty, no matter how dirty their clothes. And pretty doesn't make passion all on its own. Some find this masterful ... it's #483 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Me, I'll give it 6/10. For a double-bill, go for overkill and watch the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011). I admit I struggle with the idea of Woody Allen these days. Not sure why ... if Roman Polanski made a great film tomorrow, I would have no trouble recognizing it. Midnight in Paris is both slight and complicated, and the combination works well to get "Woody Allen" the tabloid person out of my mind for an hour and a half. It helps that Owen Wilson plays the Woody stand-in ... it's a funny impersonation, more Wilson than Allen. There are a lot of impersonations going on in this fantasy-that-is-never-explained, some better than others, and all of them more rewarding to ex-literature students. Among my faves: Corey Stoll as Hemingway, who talks like Hemingway writes (wasn't the old line always that Hemingway's dialogue was hard to translate to the screen?), and Adrien Brody as Dali. The cameos run deep ... even Djuna Barnes turns up briefly. And so the film enthusiasts aren't left out, there's a funny little scene with Wilson's character and Luis Buñuel that is a bit like when Michael J. Fox plays "Johnny B. Goode" in Back to the Future. Not everything works ... maybe Rachel McAdams is just playing her character as Allen desired, but her rich bitch is annoying and demeaning. Luckily, Marion Cotillard is around for balance. (And a tip of the cap to whoever cast Audrey Fleurot.) #482 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10. The film reminded me at times of Linklater's "Before" movies ... it's not as good as those, but they might work well as a quadruple-bill.

Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1968). In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s, I read and reread a book (I've forgotten the title) that was about film theory. A good portion, as I recall, was given over to cinéma vérité. I was fascinated by the concept, although I'm not sure I'd seen anything that qualified other than Gimme Shelter and Don't Look Back. (Wait, I saw Titicut Follies, too.) I wanted to make cinéma vérité movies myself, and my first short film was indeed a "real life" representation of one woman's life. For those brief moments, I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution. #432 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. For a companion, try anything by Frederick Wiseman.

The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). So smooth, you might not notice how well it all works. The primary reason for this is the interplay between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The plot is a hokey bit of nonsense, but it makes a perfectly fine frame for the two stars to work their way through the romance at the center of the movie. It is hard to imagine someone not liking The Shop Around the Corner, which if nothing else is finely appealing. Ten films were nominated for Best Picture Oscars; none of them was The Shop Around the Corner (the winner was Rebecca). There were 20 performers nominated in the acting categories; none of them came from The Shop Around the Corner. Is it the greatest movie ever made? No. But it ranks with the best of its kind, and it's hard to know why it didn't get any Oscar love. In fact, the film won no awards until it was added to the National Film Registry in 1999. Its reputation has increased over the years, and it is now #270 on the TSPDT list of the top films of all time. 8/10. For a double-bill, try one of the other Sullavan-Stewart films: Next Time We LoveThe Shopworn Angel, or The Mortal Storm.