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.

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. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

A finely-wrought miniature of a movie, “Around a Small Mountain” is rumored to be the final effort of the French master Jacques Rivette, an important figure in the French New Wave in the 1960s.

Rivette likes working in a long form; his 1991 masterpiece “La belle noiseuse,” for instance, goes for four hours, and some of his stuff is much longer than that. This new one clocks in at 85 minutes, yet it seems to be just about exactly the right length.

It begins with a wordless meeting on the road: Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto, who acted in Rivette’s “Va Savoir”) stops to fix the engine of a car belonging to Kate (Jane Birkin, a European icon), which has broken down in the countryside. Vittorio, a wandering sort who doesn’t seem to be operating under any clock, stops in a small town where he realizes Kate is setting up with a small traveling circus. She’s actually returning to the circus for a visit after abruptly quitting some 15 years earlier.

Almost nobody comes to the shows given in the tiny tent. But that’s all right: we’re observing Vittorio’s interest in Kate, and his fascination with a particular clown act involving a stack of dinner plates, a chair, and a gun. This act has been played so many times by the clowns that it has the burnished precision of a religious ceremony. There’s a wonderful sequence later in the film, after Vittorio has followed the circus around for a few days and watched it every night, when he must go onstage as one of the clowns.

Going into the ring, he immediately breaks all the plates. Because we’ve seen pieces of the routine a few times by now, we know this means the entire precise act will now have to be improvised—a strangely exciting moment that says something about life, and about how planning and expectation must inevitably, someday, meet chaos.

Rivette’s films tend to be about this: about art, and life, and how they coincide. And about how much of life might be a sort of performance anyway. “Around a Small Mountain” gives a tiny account of this idea, and it feels like a minor work in the director’s career. Yet it has the winsome presence of Castellitto and Birkin, and a sense of breathing room about it, as though a soft breeze were blowing through the movie.

Rivette is 82 now, and maybe he has some big statement left in him. But if this is it, then it’s a very graceful way to go out.

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.

Movie Diary 8/19/2010

The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev, 2010). Among the many revelatory passages in this recounting of the military whitewash of Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan is a clip from Tillman’s memorial service in which his younger brother takes the podium, pint of Guinness in hand, to set the crowd straight on what Pat would have thought of the platitudes being spoken at the service. I won’t spoil it, but it suggests how singular the Tillman family must be. (full review 9/3)

Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). A well-wrought late noir, with Tourneur displaying his gift for both shadowy interiors and breathy outdoor locations; Aldo Ray lends his ineffable presence to the lead role.

Elvis on Tour (Pierre Adidge/Robert Abel, 1972). Elvis thanks “the guy that gives me my water and scarves and so forth” on stage.

Movie Diary 8/18/2010

Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, 2009). Probably the final film from Rivette, and a small one, but very affecting, especially in its stagings of delicate little slapstick acts (which seem closer to Beckett than Ringling) from a tiny traveling circus. Beyond that – who knows? (full review 8/27)

Two in the Wave (Emmanuel Laurent, 2009). Nice archival footage from les neiges d’antan, aka the 1960s, suggesting the testy relationship between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose Lennon-McCartney friendship finally fell apart in the early 1970s. The movie’s not quite good enough, unfortunately, but re-sorting the New Wave is not unpleasant. (full review 8/20)

Vampires Suck (Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, 2010). What the Wayans brothers were to Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, Friedberg and Seltzer are to the Wayans brothers. It’s not good, not good at all (although credit to newcomer Jenn Proske, in her film debut, doing a spot-on imitation of Kristen Stewart’s Twilight performance). (full review 8/20)

Nanny McPhee Returns (Susanna White, 2010). Not enough Emma Thompson, not enough sustained live-action-cartoon vibe from the first NMcP movie. (full review 8/20)

Movie Diary 8/16/2010

Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010). Yes sir, I think we may have something here. You would need Joe Bob Briggs to catalog the mayhem and bodily mortification on view in this film, but it certainly all hurtles along, and Michael Fassbender is convincing as another inglourious basterd. (full review 8/27)

Beach Red (Cornel Wilde, 1967) and The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, 1966). Yes, the weekend’s viewing was not lacking in blood and guts (see above). I had never seen Beach Red, but it is a truly intense experience, a weird combination of sincerity, amateurishness, passion, a real eye for detail, and vintage ’67 mannerisms. Both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line seem to owe it something. Long-ago memories of The Naked Prey are confirmed by another viewing – this may be one of the worst of all movies to see in childhood, because its astonishments really haunt. Wilde must’ve been some kind of interesting dude.

Lottery Ticket (Erik White, 2010). Bow Wow buys the winning lottery ticket, but must wait to cash it in. Some reliable players (and by that I mean actors) in the cast, in another example of producer Ice Cube’s ongoing respect-your-‘hood project. (full review 8/20)