"the telephone" (mario bava, 1963)

Many years ago, I wrote about a favorite horror movie from my youth, Black Sabbath. It was a 3-part anthology, hosted by Boris Karloff, who also appeared in one of the stories. I'm going to quote myself at length here:

One of the stories, “The Telephone,” is about a bisexual call-girl, Rosy, who keeps getting phone calls from her ex-pimp Frank, who has escaped from jail. Frightened, she calls her lesbian former lover Mary … they’re estranged, but Rosy has no one else to turn to, so her ex comes to her apartment. She gives Rosy a tranquilizer to help her sleep, then sits at a desk and writes a confession. She was the one making the calls, impersonating Frank … she heard Frank had broken out of jail and thought to scare Rosy, knowing Rosy would call her and she could come to her aid, bringing them together again. While she is writing her confession, Frank sneaks in, strangles her, then tries to kill Rosy. But Rosy has a knife under her pillow, and she kills Frank instead.

If you saw Black Sabbath when you were young, you might not remember this one in quite the same way. Turns out the entire episode was reworked for the American market. The lesbianism was removed … the estrangement now comes because Mary was with Frank and Rosy took him from her. Rosy was no longer a call-girl. Mary doesn’t impersonate Frank … Frank is the one calling Rosy, which is scary, because Frank died some time before this. The letter Mary writes, her “confession,” is now an admission that she will be calling a shrink for her friend, who is clearly deluded since she thinks she’s getting phone calls from a dead man. Frank shows up, kills Mary, Rosy kills Frank … and we get one last phone call, as Frank tells Rosy she can’t kill him because he’s already dead, and he’ll be calling her every night.

I go into such detail because the changes were so huge, yet were pretty seamless, i.e. I had no idea all of these years that I was seeing a different film entirely. Since the American version was dubbed, it was easy to change the dialogue to fit the new version. What was originally a noirish tale of love and revenge became a horror story about a ghost. As luck would have it, the version I saw was on MGM HD … and guess which version they have the rights to? Yep … I still haven’t seen the original.

Well, it turns out Kanopy has the original, called I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear"). And I had recently recorded the film, and it was sitting on our DVR taking up space. So I decided to watch "The Telephone" in the original, and then again in the doctored American version. The above explanation is quite accurate. The American version also had a different soundtrack, provided by Les Baxter, that was more intrusive. Both versions had elements of suspense, but it was nice to finally see the original, with subtitles and its different plot.


le cercle rouge (jean-pierre melville, 1970)

Gradually, I am catching up to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Of course, he's been dead for almost 50 years, but better late than never. Le Cercle Rouge is my fourth Melville movie, and it's not just that I liked them all, it's that they are all very good indeed. Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï, Army of Shadows ... hard to pick a favorite amongst them. Le Samouraï in particular was a big influence on John Woo.

Le Cercle Rouge is another strong film. It was Melville's penultimate film ... he died in 1973. He wasn't well-served in the U.S. Le Samouraï, made in 1967, didn't make it to the U.S. until 1972, in a poorly-dubbed version titled The Godson (guess what hit movie had recently been released). Army of Shadows won multiple awards on its release in the USA ... almost 40 years after its initial release. Le Cercle Rouge, which runs 140 minutes, was released in America in a truncated version missing more than 40 minutes.

Le Cercle Rouge is a heist movie, and the actual heist is almost half-an-hour long and features no dialogue. (It's very tense, as you can imagine, but I also confess that at one point, what seemed to be a stationary camera focused on ... well, I don't know what. It took me about a minute to realize the Blu-ray was stuck.) I've seen a lot of Alain Delon's movies and they are all good-to-great. As I wrote about Purple Noon, "Alain Delon seems to intuitively know what makes a movie actor. It is rare that you see Delon doing anything ostentatious, and in those rare occasions, he is serving the script. For the most part, he watches others, learning how to become them in the manner of a chameleon, while his physical beauty grabs our attention no matter who or what else is on the screen."

I might start with Le Samouraï or Army of Shadows, but Le Cercle Rouge is equally worth your attention. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


revisiting the 9s: dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

[This is the tenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

When I first saw Dunkirk in 2018, I wrote:

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way.... here, I think [Christopher Nolan] uses his bag of tricks not just to show off, but to help the audience along, which turns out to be an excellent idea.

There are three basic stories in this telling of the Battle of Dunkirk, land, sea, and air. The sea is the most famous part of the story ... the civilian boats coming to rescue the troops are iconic reminders of the event. The troops waited on land ... meanwhile, aircraft provided cover for the boats. Nolan's structure for telling those stories is fascinating and effective.

A second viewing helped me realize that one of the best things about Dunkirk is the way it defines heroism. Too often, even an anti-war film gives us heroes to believe in who are essentially good at war, so we're rooting for people who go against the movie's theme. Nolan mostly bypasses this problem, perhaps because the story of Dunkirk isn't a story of victory, but a story of successful evacuation. The most memorable heroes, exemplified by Mark Rylance as Dawson, one of the civilian sailors called on to save the day, are steadfast, but their job isn't a gung-ho slaughter of the enemy, but rather to pull off a rescue operation.

The tremendous special effects (not CGI) truly bring home the horrors of war. Dunkirk is an amazing technical achievement. I don't know that I'm ready to give it the treasured 10/10, but it wouldn't bother me if someone did so.

Hans Zimmer's score is tremendous. I liked this video so much that I included it in my original post, and I'm going to include it again here.


like someone in love (abbas kiarostami, 2012)

Like Someone in Love was one of the last pictures from the noted Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend's House?, Close-Up, Certified Copy). While I have only seen a small portion of the many films from Kiarostami, I've never seen one I didn't like, and Close-Up was probably the best film of 1990. Kiarostami filmed Like Someone in Love in Japan with a Japanese cast speaking Japanese, and you'd think the result would be a bit distanced from Japanese culture. But it actually has the feel of a Japanese film ... Ozu is often mentioned in discussions of the movie.

Like Someone in Love features three primary characters: Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college student who also works as a call girl, her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryô Kase), and an elderly client (Tadashi Okuno). According to Kiarostami, Tadashi "had earned his living in film for 50 years, but had never uttered a line. He was a professional extra." It's an interesting piece of casting ... Tadashi Okuno was not an amateur, but he had a self-effacing presence that make his character feel natural in his imperfections. There is something resembling a plot, but you don't come to the movie wondering "what happens next". The forward progression of the film derives from the gradual unfolding of the characters as we learn more about them. However, it's never clear if the characters see themselves as progressing. We are on the outside, watching them, and from that we get the distancing I mentioned earlier.

There is a lot of dialogue in Like Someone in Love, and much of the film takes place indoors, in cramped environs. Nothing seems very private. We are stuck in close quarters with the characters, even as we as an audience are distanced from the people we see on the screen. In one remarkable scene (like many, it takes place inside a car), Akiko listens to a series of voicemails from her grandmother, which we hear, but Kiarostami shoots from outside the car, through the windows.

Like Someone in Love was shot entirely in digital, and the look can be distracting for those of us who still expect movies to look like film. In any event, the cinematography is impressive throughout. #403 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


the double life of véronique (krzysztof kieślowski, 1991)

I had seen Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White ,and Red), which came right after Double Life, and I didn't connect with them. I suppose I appreciated them, in that Not for Steven way, but I always felt like I was missing important context. I fear the same thing happened for me with The Double Life of Véronique, which was visually impressive but which I found confusing. Put the blame on me ... this isn't the first time I've been confused at the movies. The title refers to two women, Weronika and Véronique, both played by Irène Jacob, whose connection is never made explicit. I'm sure this is appealing for some viewers, but I wanted something more concrete. Jacob makes it all work, nonetheless (she was also good in Three Colors: Red). While I wanted more narrative clarity, Jacob is powerful in part because of a certain vague quality. Playing two characters is often an easy way to get awards attention, but if anything, Jacob underplays, never explicitly drawing attention to her acting, which is better for that underplaying. Not that you don't notice her ... she is impossibly beautiful (she was 25 when the film was made, and remains beautiful at 55). The best I can say for the Kieślowski films I have seen is that I can see why others like them so much. #403 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


geezer cinema/film fatales #144: petite maman (céline sciamma, 2021)

About Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I wrote, "Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances." I also noted cinematographer Claire Mathon's excellent contribution to that movie. Sciamma and Mathon are working together again, and the result is a charming, gently magical film that once again shows Sciamma's talent with actors. The added factor here is that the main characters are eight-year-old friends, played by real-life twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. I can find very little about these sisters, but it appears this is their first film, which is a credit both to Sciamma's ability to bring out their best and their own natural ways of getting into an audience.

A spoiler-free recap of Petite Maman is not easy, although there is a vague quality to the plot that might seem to be spoiler-free. But I think the film benefits from the gradual revealing of the story ... I am sure I would get a lot out of a second viewing, knowing what I do now (and at just 72 minutes, you could easily watch it twice in succession if you were so inclined). While the film is indeed magical in all meanings of that term, it isn't a film with a trick, like, say, The Sixth Sense, which grabs you the first time, and allows you to see how it was done on a second viewing, but after that leaves no reason to keep watching. No, Petite Maman is a lovely movie about grief and friendship and family and, most of all, childhood, beautiful to behold even if you don't connect with the magic. But you will.

There is a viral program making the rounds, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E mini), that features an "AI model drawing images from any prompt". I gave the prompt "portrait of petite maman on fire" and got this:

Portrait of petite maman on fire single frame


geezer cinema: wind river (taylor sheridan, 2017)

A bit of a cheat in the Geezer Cinema tradition. It was my wife's turn to pick, but she had hip replacement surgery, so she told me to pick for her, i.e. not what I wanted to see necessarily, but something she might have picked if she wasn't on pain meds. As it happened, I'd been intending to watch Wind River for some time, after it was recommended to us by our nephew. So it was an easy choice, and he was glad we finally got around to it ("it's about time!").

I knew nothing about this one coming in, which makes for a nice surprise when the movie is as good as Wind River. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen co-star in roles completely different from their Marvel appearances. Renner is a game tracker in Wyoming and Olsen is a young FBI agent who comes to Wyoming to help with a homicide that took place on a Native American reservation. The refreshing thing about Wind River lies in how it sidesteps clichés so common you expect them without thinking. The tracker and the agent appreciate the skills each brings, and they become closer over the course of the film, but they don't get romantic. There's none of that first they fight, then they come together routine. There is an awareness of the conflicts between the Native Americans and the whites, but it's not simple, and there is crossover respect in some cases.

I haven't seen other movies directed by Taylor Sheridan, but he is familiar to me, not least for his time on the series Sons of Anarchy. He wrote the scripts for Sicario (a good film), Hell or High Water (a better film that won him an Oscar nomination), and Without Remorse (which wasn't very good). He gets good performances from his cast in Wind River, and the whole film is a success on the level of Hell or High Water.


the worst person in the world (joachim trier, 2021)

The story goes that Renate Reinsve had decided to give up on acting to become a carpenter. She met with Joachim Trier, and he wrote her the lead part for his new movie, The Worst Person in the World. Reinsve had done some stage work and had appeared in several Norwegian television series, but she wasn't yet a name. Trier saw something, and Reinsve has now won a couple of Best Actress awards (including one at Cannes). The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Oscars, and if Reinsve is absent from the nominations list, she can take pride in being at the center of a film that is highly regarded.

Trier has said that The Worst Person in the World is a rom-com for people who hate rom-coms. Honestly, I could barely tell it was a rom-com. It is an honest look at love and relationships, how difficult they can be, and how a person can struggle in relationships when they are still finding out who they are. Needless to saw, Reinsve's character (Julie) is not the person referred to in the title, but that title does reflect how we don't always see the good things about ourselves that others recognize in us.

There is more to the film than Reinsve ... in particular, Anders Danielsen Lie is excellent. But the reason to see The Worst Person in the World is Reinsve, and the character Trier has created for her.


film fatales #134: high life (claire denis, 2018)

This is the twenty-fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 25 is called "Arthouse Sci-Fi Week":

So you take sci-fi, a genre known for its contemplation of human nature through the use of futurism, and shove it through the filter of thoughtful, less than accessible cinema, and what do you get?

A headscratcher, probably. But a good one.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Arthouse Sci-Fi film from Rob's list.

I didn't look forward to this challenge category, but looking at the Arthouse Sci-Fi list above, I found several movies I liked, including La Jetée, Children of Men, and Melancholia. And I've liked the few Claire Denis films I've seen.

My favorite bit of trivia about this film: "Claire Denis's first English language film after 13 feature films in French. She stated the reason she made it in English was that she simply couldn't imagine people speaking French in space, only either English or Russian."

The first time I read Faulkner's classic The Sound and the Fury, I was completely confused. The novel is written in parts, each of which has a different narrator. The first narrator is mentally disabled. When I began reading, I found that narrative hard to follow, and at first I didn't know about the narrator's disability, nor did I know there would be other narrators as the book progressed. The non-linear stream of consciousness left me befuddled. Once I had finished the book, once I understood the structure and had an idea of what Faulkner was up to, the novel became, if not completely clear, at least more understandable.

In High Life, Denis uses a non-linear structure, but she doesn't tell us she is doing this. We don't get the usual markers of "THREE YEARS EARLIER" or whatever that are so common today. And so I was confused at the beginning, much as I was in The Sound and the Fury. Eventually the structure becomes more clear, and if I watched the movie again, I wouldn't be thrown off by the opening. But it was unsettling, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach, it threw me off and made me wonder how I would get through the entire movie.

Denis takes her time, but once I connected with the flow of the film, I liked what I saw. The almost hallucinatory feel matched what I imagine life would be like on an endless exploration into space. The interactions of the various people on the ship are intriguing, and the open-ended conclusion is satisfactory. High Life isn't quite up to my favorite Denis movies (Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum), but it adds to the 100% list of Claire Denis movies I have seen and liked. Bonus points for casting André 3000. #379 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.