Movie Diary 2/23/2021

Edge of Doom (Mark Robson, 1950). Hard-luck youth Farley Granger kills an unsympathetic priest in a fit of despair; another priest (Dana Andrews) looks into the matter. Philip Yordan’s script is like a throwback to an earlier era of social-concern pictures (and a bit of Knock on Any Door, which came out the year before), full of jerky bosses and unfeeling bank managers and a society that does wrong by the poor. Robson gives it a strong, fluid noir style, with especially compelling choreography in the murder scene where Granger faces down the older, complacent priest. Andrews must have owed Samuel Goldwyn a movie on his contract, because his role is strictly by the numbers. Lots of real locations used. I thought a little about The Diary of a Country Priest, even though the two films are completely different in mode; maybe they share a bleakness about the world as it is (despite a wraparound story here that was apparently added to lend a slightly upbeat spiritual flourish to a bummer of a story).

Movie Diary 2/22/2021

My Foolish Heart (Mark Robson, 1949). A curious and memorable Samuel Goldwyn production, Oscar-nominated for the beautiful Victor Young-Ned Washington title song and Susan Hayward’s performance. Most of it is flashback, as a bitter Hayward recalls a romance with soon-to-be-soldier Dana Andrews, which left her pregnant and eventually married to dullard Kent Smith. Robson served his apprenticeships with Orson Welles and Val Lewton, and you can see both influences in the film (there’s even a Lewton “bus” – that is, a visual and aural intrusion that startles – in a group of kids loudly bursting into a shot during the heroine’s reverie in Washington Square). The script, by the Epstein brothers, has a lot of spiky lines, and an unusual amount of articulate disillusionment; it’s based on “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” by J.D. Salinger, who was annoyed enough about the changes to his story that he shunned Hollywood thereafter. Hayward is Hayward, a kind of audience projection of women from magazine stories, and Andrews plays an odd duck. In his first sequence, crashing a society dance party and rescuing the Idaho-bred Hayward from a faux pas, he comes across as a gallant nonconformist; later he’s a standard Guy on the Make, ripe to be redeemed by love. The film has a couple of moments where we see Andrews alone – outside of Hayward’s observation, that is, and yet still in her flashback, as though we’re sharing her daydream of what he must have been doing when they were separated – a curiously moving device. Robson and cinematographer Lee Garmes create a noir-laced visual scheme, almost always interesting to look at (Andrews’ bachelor pad is like a stage set: prepared for tidy Greenwich Village seduction, but revealed to be a pit of masculine disarray when the lights are turned on). The movie unfolds in repeated glimpses of small apartments, train stations, sidewalk stoops, and unhappy cocktail bars, and there’s one bench in a mansion, where Hayward first speaks to Andrews at the society party, that accrues meaning, especially when Hayward re-visits it late in the story. When we see it sitting empty at a party it’s the physical embodiment of the now-absent Andrews; when someone else sits there, it’s a violation of his memory. And yet the movie leaves behind one other possibility in its soap opera wake: that Andrews might have been a really ordinary man, made important only by his death and by Hayward’s fierce nostalgia, a nostalgia that gives her reason to be waspish and mean in the present-day part of the story.

The Friday (2/19/2021)

Mandabi (Janus Films)

My piece for the Scarecrow blog this week, and etc.

Mandabi. A 4K restoration of Ousmane Sembene’s uproarious and biting 1968 satire: “The comedy of the film becomes almost Shakespearian as it goes along.”

The second session in Scarecrow Academy’s current online semester will be Saturday, February 20, at 2 p.m. Pacific Time. Our ongoing series is “The Art in Noir: Film Noir and the Director,” and this time we’ll be discussing, via Zoom, Fritz Lang’s 1945 film Scarlet Street, an essential noir starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Check the Scarecrow Academy page for information about how to sign up, and for an introductory video from moi.

Four vintage 1980s reviews this week at my other blog, What a Feeling!, all titles beginning with the letter M, because why not. The movies are: Andrew Lane’s Mortal Passions, a heavy-breather with a young cast (this is one of those reviews where I insist that Sheila Kelley is about to be the next big thing); Elie Chouraqi’s Man on Fire, the first version of a story later made by Tony Scott and Denzel Washington (oddly, Scott was up to direct this ’87 version, too); Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, with Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl; and Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, a supernatural romance with Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis, featuring Debra Winger as God.

Movie Diary 2/17/2021

Sing Your Song (Susanne Rostock, 2011). I happen to be working on a project that includes Harry Belafonte as a subject, so thought I would catch this documentary profile, which puts the emphasis on Belafonte’s staggering activist work. (Fascinating to think of how much of his acting/singing/producing career he never made because he was so busy with politics – and there’s even more in his memoir, which is a fine read.) The film is strong and swift-moving, and its subject is so charismatic you could almost forgive the onslaught of vintage clips that are shown in the wrong aspect ratio – I hope this is just a fault of the DVD and not the original film. Some of Belafonte’s more outrageous public statements, especially during the Bush era, are carefully left out. Anyway, I watched this movie on the same day Rush Limbaugh died, and if there’s a more dramatic way of contrasting how talent could be channeled toward effecting positive change in the human population vs. how talent could be used to degrade, cheapen, and make the human population dumber, I can’t think of it offhand.

Movie Diary 2/16/2021

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945). One of the great noir films, suitable for Scarecrow Academy and our ongoing Zoom series, “The Art in Noir: Noir and the Director,” presented on Saturday afternoons. Join us February 20th at 2 p.m. Pacific Time for a discussion of this classic; sign up on the Scarecrow Academy page here. I introduce the movie below.

The Friday (2/12/2021)

Yeri Han, Steven Yeun: Minari (Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

My piece for the Scarecrow blog this week, and etc.

Minari. “Its approach seems literary more than cinematic, which may be why I’m resisting its charms a little bit.”

We’re starting up another semester of Scarecrow Academy, this time devoted to “The Art in Noir: Film Noir and the Director.” The online Zoom sessions begin Saturday, February 13th, and continue on Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. Pacific Time for 10 weeks. On 2/13 we begin with a discussion of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. See more information and register here. Below, I talk a little about this week’s movie.

We’ve got more 1980s reviews at my other website, What a Feeling! Consider these vintage reviews of Wayne Wang’s Slam Dance, an arty neo-noir with Tom Hulce and a very intriguing cast; Michael Moore’s groundbreaking documentary Roger & Me; Jovan Acin’s Hey Babu Riba, a fondly-recalled Yugoslavian memory film; Gregory Nava’s A Time of Destiny, a supremely weird melodrama with William Hurt and Timothy Hutton; Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be, an ill-advised Lubitsch remake starring Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

Movie Diary 2/10/2021

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020). A mostly charming memory film, about a 1980s Korean-American family trying their luck with an Arkansas farm. Some old-fashioned storytelling devices explain the enthusiasm for the movie’s awards chances, and the lead actors are very good; Steven Yeun is stalwart as the determined father, but the real standout is Yeri Han as the skeptical mother, bracing for disappointment at each new turn in the story. It feels a little more like a decent novella than a movie, maybe, but the decency is key.

Movie Diary 2/8/2021

Land (Robin Wright, 2020). Wright plays a grieving woman who isolates herself in a Wyoming cabin and tries to live, or die, there. Kindly local hunter-philosopher Demian Bichir pops by at times. The best that can be said about this situation is that Wright is very sincere about all of this, although that might also be the worst thing that can be said.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Timeless as ever. This is the first film up for discussion in the new “semester” of Scarecrow Academy, “The Art in Noir: Film Noir and the Director”; we’ll meet via Zoom at 2 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, February 13, for our first discussion in this series. Check out the registration page here for more information about how to join us. The sessions are free.

Movie Diary 2/7/2021

On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959). Coincidentally re-watched this one, for a project, on the day its cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, died at age 97. He worked with Fellini and Visconti, Mike Nichols and Monte Hellman, did All That Jazz and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, shot the Bible for John Huston and a comic strip (Popeye) for Robert Altman. And this movie, which definitely benefits from his photographic touch. Whatever Kramer’s tendency toward over-emphasis, this film has a mood, and more than a little resonance in this age of pandemic.

Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo, 2020). A big, broad movie, with acting to match – but Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn (and an almost-unrecognizable Molly Parker) are certainly up to the standard. The movie’s got a good ear for hurtful comments, which somehow you want to know more about.

The Friday (2/5/2021)

Treat Williams, Laura Dern: Smooth Talk

My piece for the Scarecrow blog this week, and etc.

Smooth Talk. “Beautifully realized.”

We’re reconvening Scarecrow Academy, an online discussion series via Zoom. This time it’s ten weeks of “The Art in Noir: Film Noir and the Director,” which goes on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Pacific Time, launching February 13 with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. You register online and we send you the Zoom link, and then we have a robust conversation; check out the info here. And the poster:

Five more posts for my Eighties blog, What a Feeling!: Here are vintage reviews of Glenn Jordan’s The Buddy System, a forgotten Richard Dreyfuss/Susan Sarandon romcom that I had a soft spot for; Robert Mulligan’s Clara’s Heart, a serious Whoopi Goldberg vehicle that launched Neil Patrick Harris’s career; Taylor Hackford’s Everybody’s All-American, a what-happens-after-football picture with Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange, and Timothy Hutton; Pat O’Connor’s Cal, a tale of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, starring John Lynch and Helen Mirren (a Cannes-winning performance); and David Keith’s (yes, the actor) The Curse, a Lovecraft adaptation with Wil Wheaton.