Movie Diary 8/30/2010

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955). Among the things to notice about my favorite Sirk film, aside from the director’s authoritative command of issues of composition/rhythm/color and the sharp social observation, is what a good performance the generally dismissed Rock Hudson gives. Re-visiting this one for an upcoming talk.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959). A heady mix of soap opera and German style (strongly expressive, if not Expressionist), and also an unblinking look at a diva (Lana Turner) played by a diva whose performance might or might not be self-aware.

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1931 Ten Best Movies

Movie restorations are good and admirable and the people who do them are to be commended. On the other hand, setting things right with a movie can mess with your relationship with that film. Which is my way of saying that in restored versions of Fritz Lang’s M, I greatly miss the little swatch of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that played under the opening credits, a credit sequence that I guess must have been cobbled together for some later stage of the film’s distribution (the version one saw on PBS or in 16 mm. prints for years and years), and which has been replaced in restored prints with silent, stark, and very impressive graphic images.

Well, Peter Lorre still whistles the Grieg in the movie, of course, so there’s that. And that whistling, and the thousand other details in this movie, make it a gateway film: see it at age 13, and you will have to find out more about foreign films, these movies from different places and have subtitles at the bottom of the picture. And you’ll never go back. The title alone – how cool is that? – and then the arresting story and the overwhelming atmosphere, and then just when you think you might have it sized up right, Lorre’s child murderer begins speaking at the end, and then you get this feeling maybe this is about more than a murder case, but about something larger, something dark that spills over the strict edges of the movie’s authoritative frames and seems to reach all around the world.

In short, M became one of my favorite movies in adolescence and has never lost its place. The #2 movie for the 1931 list is an all-galaxy masterpiece, too, but this had to be M. The #3 film is by Lang’s fellow German genius, F. W. Murnau (who completed the project he’d begun as a collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty), the last movie Murnau made before his early death.

And with that, the man in black will soon be here. The ten best movies of 1931:

1. M (Fritz Lang)

2. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin)

3. Tabu (F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty)

4. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)

5. Frankenstein (James Whale)

6. Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)

7. Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra)

8. À nous la liberté (René Clair)

9. Dracula (Tod Browning)

10. The Public Enemy (William Wellman)

Should find room on there for Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, an early effort but amazingly assured. Same description applies to La Chienne. Capra and Wellman apply their very American energies to the romantic comedy and the gangster picture; the Capra movie is really ahead of its time, while The Public Enemy is perfectly of it. Dracula gets a rap for being sort of stagey and static, but the opening reels are fluid and unforgettable, and there’s something mysterious and quiet about the whole movie that becomes more mesmerizing the more you see it.

Also-rans include Clair’s Le Million, Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, Hawks’s The Criminal Code, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. Some directors on the list had strong second movies, including Clair, Capra (The Miracle Woman, with a blazing Barbara Stanwyck performance), and Wellman (Other Men’s Women).  John Ford had Arrowsmith, and G.W. Pabst had two flavorful titles, Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera.

Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl and King Vidor’s Street Scene are lesser offerings from major directors, and then you’ve got Monkey Business, which is not the best Marx Brothers movie but has a few absolutely indelible sequences, many involving Groucho in a lady’s stateroom.

The Last Animal Centurion (Weekly Links)

Centurion: release the crackin'.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Centurion. “Stripped-down and disillusioned.”

The Last Exorcism. “Some life left in this lo-fi game of pretend.”

Around a Small Mountain. (Not yet posted.)

Looking for Eric. “Isn’t exactly a comedy, but isn’t kitchen-sink misery either.”

Animal Kingdom. “Family values can be a funny thing.”

Takers. “Drearily bad on so many levels.”

Mesrine: Killer Instinct. “Cassel is up to the challenge.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher and callers about the representative movies of summer 2010: listen here. The movie bit kicks in around the 14:55 mark.

Movie Diary 8/25/2010

Takers (Jon Luessenhop, 2010). This is too easy to slap. And with good actors (Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana), too. There’s also a cameo appearance by a 30-year-old Macallan single malt, which is indicative of how this movie presents a coolness of stuff we should want to attain, and without which we will probably be unhappy in our rotten lives: tailored Italian suits, apartments of chrome and glass, and big black SUVs. Aren’t SUVs cool? Don’t you need one? Buy. Buy. Buy. Etc. (full review 8/27)

Movie Diary 8/24/2010

Cult of the Cobra (Francis D. Lyon, 1955). Cheap Universal exploitation, or prescient parable about Western superpowers invading Middle Eastern nations and suffering the consequences? There is too much lovey-dovey here to qualify this as a classic “Nightmare Theatre” entry, but much of it is acceptable – someone involved had a passing acquaintance with the Val Lewton classics – and you get to watch a bunch of future 1960s TV leading men.

Island (Fiona Tan, 2008). A 12-minute offering from Tan’s exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, this “quiet” black and white study of the island where Tarkovsky shot The Sacrifice is an island itself. The quotation marks are because the soundtrack is anything but quiet, full of seething insects and birds and wind, plus a curious voice-over.

Going the Distance (Nanette Burstein, 2010). Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, at opposite ends of the continent. I don’t know what else there is to say. (full review 9/3)

Jack Goes Boating (Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010). PSH also stars in this adaptation of a stage play, an attempt at a sort of offbeat Seventies vibe that has the actor even schlubbier than usual. (full review 9/24)

1979 Ten Best Movies

Much of 1979 is clearer to me than stuff that happened last week, so sorting through the movies of the year is easier than usual. Maybe it’s the influence of having just read David Thomson’s piece on movies that time forgot (a critic I first read in 1979, for a film class), but there’s a load of splendid 1979 films that have fallen off the grid, although they seemed really vital and important at the time: Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (a warmer and more organic film than his official classics), Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (stupidly re-titled Head Over Heels but then re-discovered through some smart marketing), Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers.

Those were small movies, but even somewhat bigger titles such as John Badham’s Dracula (with Frank Langella) and Martin Brest’s Going in Style (a serious comedy about old age, despite a gimmicky-sounding premise) seem to be unmentioned now. For that matter, it’s odd to me that big hits of the year, Blake Edwards’ 10 and Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, aren’t considered classics.

For all that, it’s a nice year for movies. My #1 is Woody Allen’s best film, which meant a lot to me then and still does. But the other stuff is good, too: 10 is eminently civilized (and has Dudley Moore in his groove), The Marriage of Maria Braun is a feisty director working at full power, and Dawn of the Dead is monumental, and needs no apologies. And Life of Brian is sublime and scathing. The ten best movies of 1979:

1. Manhattan (Woody Allen)

2. 10 (Blake Edwards)

3. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

4. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)

5. Winter Kills (William Richert)

6. Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)

7. Life of Brian (Terry Jones)

8. Ways in the Night (Krzysztof Zanussi) and Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

9. The Wanderers (Philip Kaufman)

We’ll play fair and keep it to ten titles this time, with the two Poles tying. Movies I like for #10: Escape from Alcatraz, Bertolucci’s Luna, Hal Ashby’s Being There, Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Where are Apocalypse Now (Coppola) and Alien (Ridley Scott)? Right here. Redux or otherwise, Coppola’s film is still a very confused (if undeniably spectacular) proposition, with some hypnotizing aspects; for Alien, I still think my opening-night disappointment holds, but credit to Scott for creating a scene that, on an opening night, rivaled the Psycho shower sequence for sheer chair-climbing surprise: John Hurt’s torso etc.

Other worthies: Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer), one of the many of this era’s films that seemed to get rescued in a theatrical-run second chance; The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff); Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raul Ruiz); Hair (Milos Forman), a nice match of material to a basically counterculture filmmaker; Breaking Away (Peter Yates); All That Jazz (Bob Fosse), which is one of those pretentious movies that manage to be hugely entertaining; The Human Factor (Otto Preminger); Real Life (Albert Brooks); North Dallas Forty (Ted Kotcheff); Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush); Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Richard Lester), which has much more grace than a cash-in movie ought to have; and the aforementioned Chilly Scenes and Quadrophenia. And of course there was the Roger Ebert-scripted Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (Russ Meyer), a career culmination for a director with a specific vision.

Mao’s Lottery Nanny (Weekly Links)

Bow Wow in a Wow Bow: Lottery Ticket

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Nanny McPhee Returns. “Facial moles and unibrow in robust shape.”

Lottery Ticket. “Mixed message?”

Two in the Wave. “If ever the movies had their version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Truffaut and Godard were it.”

Vampires Suck. “Truly not worthy.”

Patrik, Age 1.5. “Cool with the whole gay-marriage deal – I mean it’s Sweden, right?”

Mao’s Last Dancer. “Maybe not enough about diplomacy.”

And an interview with Dancer director Bruce Beresford.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” a talk about how the idea that some movies are for women and some for men is perpetuated in the media; host Steve Scher gets the giggles when we begin speculating on the silent-film career of Guy Romps. Archived here; the film bit begins at 18:30, or around 20:30 if you want to skip the trailers for The Expendables and Eat Pray Love.