Movie Diary 1/31/2011

Le combat dans l’île (Alain Cavalier, 1962). Made around the edges of the French New Wave, this truly bizarre movie lacks a director who can make the prevailing nouvelle vague mode into an actual way of seeing the world and not merely a mode. Hard to condense the crazed plot, but Jean-Louis Trintignant is a spoiled right-wing militia plotter whose wife (Romy Schneider) notices the childhood friend (Henri Serre, of Jules and Jim) with whom he shares a somewhat unlikely blood bond. Also, she wants to act on the stage. The black-and-white photography is handsome, but toward the end the movie begins easing toward something tricky yet simplistic.

At my other website, What a Feeling!: Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, co-starring mirrored blue sunglasses.

Hannibal (The Cornfield #17)

Anthony Hopkins is on the loose again this weekend in The Rite, and this reminds us of how his career changed when he adopted Hannibal Lecter as his avatar. This review of Hannibal, published at in 2001 (the movie opened almost exactly ten years after The Silence of the Lambs), observes the way Hopkins, and Lecter, have grown. As grotesque as the movie gets in its subject, and acknowledging the void of the Hannibal-Clarice relationship as a huge letdown, I do like aspects of this picture, mostly the idea of Lecter living his life as an exquisite Continental who could easily have wandered in from a Merchant Ivory adaptation of a Henry James novel; except for his personality quirks, he might be consulting on the preservation of medieval art, or opening his own wine shop. (If only he could refrain from making fun of the way Americans pronounce “Chianti.”)–R.H.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter looked like a sleek, streamlined predator, an eel; with his face hollow and his hair slicked back, he was all eyes and teeth. Much has changed in Hannibal. Ten years have passed, both in the fictional life of Lecter and since production of The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins looks stouter, older, but handsomer; his (that is, Lecter’s) dentist-drill intensity has changed to a more relaxed movement through the world. The prison jumpsuit is gone, replaced by Italian threads, for Lecter has been living in Florence for some time, like a puttering old gelato-nibbling esthete. In one of our first glimpses of him, he is a roundish fellow, chicly dressed with a broad-brimmed fedora, and for a moment we might be forgiven for thinking we have just seen Truman Capote visiting the continent.

In short, Hannibal (and Hannibal) has become decadent. There was a steely simplicity to The Silence of the Lambs, which arranged itself around a series of face-to-face encounters between Hopkins’ Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, fledgling FBI agent. Hannibal is more complicated, more outrageous, less controlled in every way. Jodie Foster having opted out of the sequel, Julianne Moore now plays Clarice, as though in a kind of trance. When she is set up for a fall by the Bureau, Lecter gets wind of the plan and comes, in a way, to her rescue.

But the movie takes a while to get there. The entire (quite engrossing) middle section is taken up with an Italian policeman’s efforts to land a huge reward by catching Lecter. He is played by Giancarlo Gianinni, that marvelous relic of past arthouse hits, his skin seemingly baked by Italian sun and cigarette smoke. The reward has been established by the hideously disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled), and when we use the word “hideous” in describing this movie’s effects, please take it as gospel. Billionaire Verger’s connection to Lecter is that he cut off his own face while in Dr. Lecter’s presence (and fed it to a dog—Lecter went hungry?).

The film also features a public disembowling, man-eating pigs, and a climactic “meal” that certainly qualifies as one of the most audaciously revolting sequences ever to find its way into a mainstream movie. Director Ridley Scott turns away from some of this, but he serves up many of the horrors with a kind of mirthful directness. Thanks to his facility with visual storytelling, Scott nails many moments, including the film’s opening: we watch three men speaking calmly, sitting in a great room, seen from longshot in a stately proscenium-style composition. Abruptly, in mid-conversation, Scott cuts to a huge close-up of one of the men—and it’s Verger, in all his faceless awfulness. If that doesn’t set the tone, nothing will.

Hannibal’s biggest failing is not in its grossness, nor in Scott’s slick approach. It’s in the absence of that central connection from The Silence of the Lambs, the mysterious bond between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, in which two people met in an unwholesome but profound way. Thanks to the plot of Thomas Harris’s sequel, they are kept apart, and we must take their connection on faith. Because we remember the first movie, when Lecter first purrs “Hello Clarice” into a cell phone from half a world away, it’s a truly shivery moment. But its owes its power to that earlier, greater film.

Rotten Italiano

The second volume of the Rotten trade paperback has been published in Italy, by AllaGalla. You can read a few pages by clicking the “Read More” button on their website. Does that mean this discerning reader is “Fredo” Krueger?

Another Illusionist Mechanic (Weekly Links)

Unhappy: Peter Wight, Lesley Manville

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Another Year. “Why some people are reasonably happy and why some people are unreasonably unhappy.”

The Mechanic. “Chickens out in a few definitive ways.”

The Illusionist. “Earns the bittersweet ending.”

Baaria. “Families shouting at each other across rustic dinner tables.”

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster. “A walking expression of relaxed readiness.”

Summer Wars. “Tron under the influence of hallucinogenics.”

No KUOW appearance this week; I was giving a talk in Port Hadlock, WA.

Today’s Eighties movie over at my other website, What a Feeling!, is a Mike Leigh number that bears some affinities with Another Year: High Hopes. The article also includes a bit of interview with Leigh, who clearly was not impressed with me when we met in early 1989.

Movie Diary 1/27/2011

The Eagle (Kevin Macdonald, 2011). Yet another grimy tale of Romans and Britons and Hadrian’s Wall; here, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell exchange many charged glances as centurion and barbarian. (full review 2/14)

I Am (Tom Shadyac, 2010). The director of Ace Ventura sustains a serious concussion, questions the meaning of life, and makes a movie out of it. For all the weighty issues at hand, it’s good to know Shadyac still has the slapstick jones to include a montage of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” wipe-outs. (full review 2/?)

The Eighties stuff continues at my other website, What a Feeling!: see vintage reviews of Coup de Torchon, Harlem Nights, and Death Wish 4, which share nothing but a decade. And the love of the people, of course.

Movie Diary 1/26/2011

Thanks to Meredith Wagner and the people at the Jefferson County Library in Port Hadlock, where I gave my Humanities Washington talk last night. For those in the audience who want the list of movies I discuss in the “Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Movies and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s” lecture, here’s the way it goes:

The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Invaders from Mars (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Blob (1958)

And in passing, the recent remakes of The War of the Worlds (2005), The Invasion (2007), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), but those last two are pretty bad. Also a nod to the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Movie Diary 1/24/2011

Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011). Very hard balance to hit, and 90 percent of the time, Arteta (and Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. – everybody) hits it. (full review 2/?)

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (Wilson Yip, 2010). Kooky effective martial-arts popcorn stuff, but isn’t the nationalistic chest-beating starting to get a little weird? And speaking of chest-beating, Donnie Yen and I share a birthday. (full review 1/28)

Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda, 2010). Anime, or possibly just Japanese animation, that goes inside a giant social-networky universe that has the entire world wired up. What could possibly go wrong? Trippy visuals, like even more than usual. (full review 1/2*8)

House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950). Well, I go on about that here.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000). Maybe I’ve been watching too many Fritz Lang movies lately, but doesn’t a lot of the film director’s art come down to understanding how to photograph rooms? Wong acquits himself well in that department in this movie.

Today’s Eighties review at my other blog, What a Feeling!: The Goonies. I am sorry.

House by the River (The Cornfield #16)

Made for Republic Pictures in 1950, House by the River has an appropriate feeling of cost-cutting and imposed thrift; the cheapness of the production fits the sleazy subject better than a bigger-budgeted version might have. Nobody (I guess) has ever mistaken it for one of Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements, but it has a smothering quality that is evoked with utter authority.

Dorothy Patrick, Louis Hayward

It is one of a small collection of films that exist in a very narrow sub-subgenre: movies about writers (or “being a writer”) that are ostensibly about something else. This subgenre includes Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which pretends to be about alcoholism, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which pretends to be about madness. These are films about men who desperately want to be writing, but are doing a horrible job of it, and, like many writers, invent elaborate methods of avoiding their work. Someday I will write a grand piece about this subgenre, but, you see, I am putting it off just now.

House by the River, the river of which is apparently Southern and the house of which is apparently Victorian – such details seem beside the point here – begins with writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward, perfectly cast) sitting on the back lawn of his large house, which looks out at the unnamed river. He is trying to write. He has had some sort of success before, but is receiving yet another rejection letter as we meet him. The busybody battle-ax who lives next door asks him about his writing efforts and failures, which is always the last thing a writer wants to be fucking asked about. It’s dusk, apparently, although most of the movie seems to exist in a dim-lit funk anyway; the scene looks amazing, like a visualization of depression.

In the river, a dead cow, or water buffalo or something, floats by. The battle-ax reminds us that the location’s proximity to the mouth of the river makes tidal effects pronounced, and this carcass, like other garbage the river has taken on, will pass back and forth for a period of days. What a marvelous image for Fritz Lang’s cinema, which is so often marked with guilty consciences (often with good reason) or other stains that can’t be forgotten. (1950: Jean Renoir was making The River, a beautiful film with the river as central image of the never-ending, non-judgmental flow of life; Lang’s river pushes filth back and forth.)

Yes, it might be a little obvious, but this is a stark film. Stephen and the battle-ax note the comeliness of his housemaid (Dorothy Patrick – Lang had wanted to cast a black actress), who announces she is taking a bath in an upstairs room; a few minutes later, as he approaches the house, he hears the bath water running down the drainpipe outside. Lang gives the pipe its own shot, as it gurgles. Stephen smiles, the pervert. There follows a murder, and Stephen’s lame (I mean literally, he has a bad leg) brother (Lee Bowman) getting implicated in the coverup, and Stephen’s wife (Jane Wyatt) becoming disillusioned by her husband’s oddly jubilant response to the disappearance of their maid.

Of course he’s jubilant: the case has brought him some public attention, and he gets to do a book signing. Plus, he can write again, as he prepares a new manuscript that will be based on the murder. This horrible person is a great match for Louis Hayward, whose face has the same crumbling seediness of the house, and whose voice is surely the secret of his ability to snow people. (He really looks like Orson Welles, and is just as shrewd as Welles about the voice-seduction.)

Lang’s visualization of the river is shivery, and there’s one horrifying scene where Stephen is whacking at the canvas sack in the water, trying to gaff it with a pole; he finally makes contact with it and tears the sack, whereupon the corpse’s long blond hair comes floating out, waving there in the river. Elsewhere, Lang relentlessly returns to a shot down a hallway or path, creating a funnel through which the characters are channelled. No escape, but then you knew that.

No Strings Men (Weekly Links)

No Strings Attached: find the string in this shot

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week, and more.

No Strings Attached. “Grounded by its two stars, who are effortless in taking charge of their territory.”

The Company Men. “The times we live in. Etc., etc.”

Undertow. “Having a secret lover gets very complicated, in life and in death.”

Enemies of the People. “Irrefutable evidence of the domino effect of evil.”

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance. “Piloting a giant robot in order to save mankind.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about the upcoming Oscar nominations and decry the “horse race” aspect of commentary about it, while probably adding to that aspect of commentary. Listen here; the movie bit kicks in at 16:05 into it.

Sunday afternoon I introduce a DVD screening of In the Mood for Love at the Frye Art Museum at 2 p.m.; it’s free.

Tuesday night I give my Humanities Washington “Inquiring Mind” talk, “Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Movies and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s,” at the Jefferson County Library in Port Hadlock, Washington. Info here.

Rounding off a week of Eighties obscurities at What a Feeling!, here’s an actually good one: Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a film not quite like anything else.

Movie Diary 1/20/2011

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941). A long time had passed since I last saw this film about a hunter (Walter Pidgeon) who, briefly, has Hitler in his cross hairs. And now I’m wondering why so much time had passed. Few directors feel their way through space the way Lang does (rooms look so ominous in his movies), and from the rifle-scope onward the film is a series of circles narrowing within the frame. And it was made before the U.S. was in the war, too.

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010). The animated adaptation of a script from Jacques Tati’s drawer, which, along with its gentle attractions, raises interesting issues about an artist’s legacy and who gets to futz around with it. (full review 1/28)

In a week of forgotten Eighties films at What a Feeling!, there must be room for: The Whoopee Boys.