My inaugural Film Friday post didn’t draw a lot of comment, but that hasn’t discouraged me from watching lots of movies during my Canadian exile. To be honest, movies are kind of saving my life right now.
Here’s what was screened in August at my Secret Worldwide Headquarters. Comments welcome!
(And if you are looking for comic books — go here for that)
The Glass Key (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Maltese Falcon (1941): Treated myself to a day in the dark at the Vancouver Cinematheque over a B.C. holiday weekend. Femme Fatales and hard boiled dicks. I’d seen all three films before, but not for awhile. Thoroughly enjoyed them all, but The Maltese Falcon still leaps off the screen. Stunning to realize this was John Huston’s directorial debut. Fun to watch The Glass Key, as it was the blueprint for my favorite Coen Brother Film (Miller’s Crossing).
The Candidate (1972): Robert Redford, at the peak of his stardom, as a literal California Golden Boy campaigning for Senate. Sharp writing. Kind of depressing, to see that today’s campaigns use the same platitudes and deceptions as forty-five years ago. Redford is good, and Peter Boyle is great as the campaign manager. But Peter Boyle is always great. This movie is ripe for a remake, or better yet, a sequel, with Redford playing a six-term incumbent Senator entirely untethered from his youthful ideals. Has one of the better “70s Endings” of the 70s.
Foxcatcher (2014): True (weird) crime story about a couple of U.S. Olympic wrestlers. Little to recommend in this one, save the performances. Steve Carell disappears into his role but the movie takes us nowhere. We come into the movie knowing the main character is a creepy rich dude, and leave with little more insight than that. Plenty of wrestling along the way.
Bridge of Spies (2015): Sure, it’s a total “Dad Film,” but I’m a dad, and it scored with me. Pushed my buttons — nostalgia, spy stuff, cold war, Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks and making idealistic speeches about what makes Americans into Americans (spoiler: it’s The Constitution). Plus I was just in Berlin last year, and spent a cold afternoon tracing the ghostly remains of that damnable wall. Swept me away.
Elle (2016): Sexual assault and its aftermath, played for maximum outrage. A pretzel of a movie, in terms of its message, morality, and plot. It’s vile; it’s also entertaining. Paul Verhooven has lost none of his contempt for people. Isabel Huppert is fantastic. Glad I saw it and I might even recommend it but no desire to see it again.
Arrival (2016): The aliens are here, but they don’t know how to use Google Translate. Frankly a disappointment. Very much looked forward to this after seeing director Denis Villenueve’s Sicaro, but now I wonder if most of what I liked about that film owed to Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay. Mostly I found this picture empty — some austere imagery, but little else. Could have used more linguistics! (You never want to see that in a review). I gather some jumped off this picture at the third act twist — that’s actually when I got on, but it was too little and too late.
American Hustle (2013): The best Martin Scorsese movie that Marty never made. Period piece where con men are forced to pull a con for the FBI. Christian Bale’s performance kept reminding me of someone, and I couldn’t put my finger on it … until Robert De Niro showed up, and then — oh, sure, he’s doing De Niro! Entertaining Scorsese homage but in the end it is like the paintings Bale’s character sells — an artful fake. Performances are uniformly great except for Jennifer Lawrence, who is perfect.
La Tête d’un Homme (1933): French detective tale filled with great faces and inventive camerawork. Drifts in and out of melodrama but memorable for an uncommonly detailed characterization of the bad guy. In the end, maybe as much about social class as crime.
Putney Swope (1969) and Chaffed Elbows (1966): A couple of independent, farcical, anti-establishment Absurdist films from Robert Downey (not that one). The first was nominally about the advertising industry, and the point of the second pretty much eluded me entirely. Many (but not all!) of the causes they lampooned have faded with time, and the films haven’t always aged well, but both stood as a reminder that movies needn’t be “good” or “relevant” in a contemporary sense to have worth. Both made me think a bit, and investigate an era of New York cultural life that I didn’t know much about. Was also fun stumbling on an odd inspiration for Boogie Nights in Putney Swope.
Jules and Jim (1962): Three friends, multiple romances, some weirdly pragmatic choices — unconventional, messy, authentic even when it is absurd. Honest. Watched this because it was on my list of unwatched classics; because I liked 400 Blows; and because it was a way to mark and honor the passing of Jeanne Moreau. And … I like Jeanne Moreau as much as the next guy, but I’m not letter her drive me off a bridge, KnowWhatI’mSayin’?
Elevator To The Gallows (1957): I wanted more Jeanne Moreau, so I gave this Parisian noir a chance, and it was much more to my liking. The murder plot and the young-lovers-on-the-run (pre-figuring Goddard’s Breathless) were just OK. Mostly it was Moreau wandering around Paris while Miles Davis improvised a musical score … but that was fine.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Grim and low-key crime story “staring” Robert Mitchum, though it seems Mitchum is scarcely in it. Damn, but that man had presence — a genuine movie star. Mitchum’s character complains that he is nearly 51 in this picture (Mitchum was 56 when he shot it) and I think … hmm, I’m half a lap past that one. Uh oh. Another strong performance by Peter Boyle as the standup guy bartender who is really the rat that no one notices.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953): Gentle slapstick as a pleasant everyman goes on vacation. An effervescent champagne bubble of light physical comedy. Just the tonic for distracting myself from the looming threat of thermonuclear war. Followed up with Playtime (1967), where creator Jacque Tati reached for something beyond comedy, and came up with an opulent visual ballet of people caught up in the sterility of modern life, before they knock the corners off their world and recover their innate Parisian joie de vivre. Tati spent years on this film, built a little city to make it work, and lost his fortune when it failed … but it is beautiful, in all its plotless, affectionate, optimistic glory. Might have been my favorite film of the month.
The Party (1968): A studio “wild party” movie from the sixties, pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Here’s the thing. I love Peter Sellers, but don’t think much of his frequent partner Blake Edwards. So I tune in for Sellers and hope for the best. In this case it also means looking past Sellers playing an Indian caricature in “black face.” But Sellers’ character is such a harmless fool that it is hard to resent him. If it wasn’t so silly it would have been the worst movie I saw all month. (Still was).
Bigger Than Life (1956): Sumptuous melodrama where James Mason gets hooked on cortisone, chews out the mailman, bounces a check at the dress shop, and gets in a fight with Walter Matheau. Oh, yeah, he also goes Bible Crazy and tries to kill his kid. Phew! Mason was Executive Producer on this picture so it must really have been a story he wanted to tell. Bad James Mason would have made a Good Doctor Doom!
Sunrise (1927): Beautifully-composed, audience-pleasing melodrama. Just an everyday story about realizing how much you love your wife after you fail to murder her. The misty lens of time makes every setting look so careworn that it is easy to overlook this is supposed to be about the stark conflict between the wicked city and rustic country virtues. Emotional. And sure, the sun rises at the end … but that dude still planned to kill his wife.
In A Lonely Place (1950) and Straight Time (1978): Unrelated films that I group together because they feature appealing leads (Humphrey Bogart and Dustin Hoffman) playing shitty human beings. Star power and charisma makes us buy in with both leads, taking us on a journey of abuse with the lesser cast around them. Bogie is an abusive screenwriter while Hoffman is a guy who pretty clearly needed to remain behind bars. Both end up ruining the lives of everyone they touch. Neither film lets their star off the hook, either.
White Material (2009): Wanted more Isabel Huppert after seeing Elle, so I tried this film about a woman trying to hold her family and business together during an African civil war. At first I thought Huppert was fulfilling the headstrong-woman-with-indomitable-will trope; later I saw that her willpower was closer to delusion, and began to dread the price it would make her pay. Watching characters you like willfully ignore danger is tense.
The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974): Beloved swashbucklers of my youth. I still love them, though I have long since memorized every line in these films. Even as a young man I most identified with Athos. Now I see Oliver Reed’s blarney for what it was. (But I still identify with him). Very good screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, which I doubly appreciate having struggled to adopt Dumas myself.
Germany Year Zero (1947): Italian neorealism goes German. Shot in Berlin right after the war, and filmed kind of as they went along with many who were not actors at all. Can’t imagine how this story of civilians scrambling to survive the ruins of war could be more authentic. Goes to the darkest place.
Stagecoach (1939): Peak Western from John Ford and John Wayne (in the movie that made him a star). An accompanying interview with Peter Bogdanovich helped isolate what made this movie so remarkable, beyond its entertainment factor. Bogdanovich pointed out how the script used stock characters to subvert genre norms — how the disgraced drunken doctor and woman of ill repute are the heroes of the piece, while the upstanding banker is the bad guy. Native American stereotypes aren’t so deftly handled but hey, it’s 1939. Bogdanovich also repeated the tale of Orson Welles watching this movie around-the-clock while working on Citizen Kane.
Insomnia (1997): Stellan Skarsgård is a half-bent cop trying to solve a murder above the arctic circle, where the sun never sets. The crime is solved easily, but Stellan messes it up, and soon he’s planting evidence and getting blackmailed. Didn’t really get on board with this one, sadly; Stellan seemed to go off the rails too far and too fast, insomnia or no. Didn’t expect this of someone who so easily accepted the existence of the Mighty Thor.
Sudden Fear (1952) and Daisy Kenyon (1947): Someday I will look back on this era in my life as the time I had so little going that I binge-watched Joan Crawford movies. I don’t much like Joan Crawford, and Sudden Fear was in line with expectations.When Joan discovers her husband is plotting to kill her, instead of … I dunno … going to the police or running away, she instead concocts an impossibly-complicated plan of pre-emptive revenge (the least bizarre component of which involved throwing herself down the stairs). There was some noir-ish punch to the chase scene at the end, but I had long since checked out. But Daisy Kenyon was an unexpected pleasure. It was every inch the romance melodrama as Sudden Fear, but here the Joan Crawford/Dana Andrews/Henry Fonda love triangle is propped up by a twisty, messy plot, with some biting dialogue from flawed and damaged characters. It was good enough to make me look at Joan Crawford a whole different way, and to read up on her a bit. Still not a fan, but for the first time I understand why some people are.
Battles Without Honor And Humanity (1973): Brutal Yakuza exploitation picture. Based on true events, but the names and faces fly past so fast that I had to give up on following the plot and just enjoy all the angry Japanese dudes flying into a rage and killing each other. There are four more movies in this series, but I kind of feel like I’ve already seen them all.
Plus Some TV
GLOW, true binge snackfood, already forgotten much of it but fun while it lasted; Defenders, slow and predictable with trite dialogue, I prefer these guys; The Tick didn’t impress me much with the pilot, but I’ve read good reviews and will give it another go. Maybe.
Share comments below, please — happy to discuss any or all of these.
More next month, I expect!