The Friday 12/31/2021

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

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

Top Ten of 2021. It’s provisional, given the weird year and the fact that I still haven’t seen a bunch of things. Here it is in list form, for the record:

  1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksander Koberidze)
  2. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  4. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  5. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
  6. Herr Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth)
  7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
  8. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)
  9. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

I include also-rans in the article.

I’ve got two new radio episodes of “The Music and the Movies” to catch up with. The current go is movie music related to New Year’s Eve.

And you’ve got a few days left to hear “West Side Stories,” in which I listen to the two film versions, and related music.

Last postings for 2021 at my other blog, What a Feeling!: reviews of Christopher Frank’s Year of the Jellyfish, a French film with Valerie Kaprisky doing a Bardot thing; and John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which maybe needs no introduction.

2021? So long.

Movie Diary 12/28/2021

Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kuosmanen, 2021). Strangers on a train, in the form of a Finnish archaeology student (Seidi Haarla) on her way from Moscow to Murmansk, and a boorish young Russian man (Yuriy Borisov) who shares her sleeping compartment. The film is distinctive and thoughtful, with a nice sense of how to sidestep audience expectations. The two actors are terrific, creating people who have little in common beyond being outsiders in some basic way.

Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950). Weird noir concept with a seductress (Faith Domergue) and the chump doctor (Robert Mitchum) who falls for her, on the run after a murder – the weirdness coming from the fact that Mitchum gets donked on the melon during the fracas and spends the last half of the picture with a concussion. Maybe it sounded good on paper? Leo Rosten (who wrote the novel Captain Newman, M.D.) supplied the story, Charles Bennett (whose name is on many key early Hitchcocks) did the screenplay, which has some decent one-liners. The photography by Nick Musuraca is dandy. Before he meets Domergue, Dr. Mitchum is betrothed to virginal nurse Maureen O’Sullivan, and there is something screwy about a director who casts his wife as the dowdy, frumpy “good girl” in this scenario (she plays a couple of scenes with a mask over her face). One interesting thing at play here is the vision of the America that exists when people drop out: teeming with braying used-car salesmen and corrupt officials and chiseling pawnbrokers.

Movie Diary 12/27/2021

Lamb (Valdimar Johannsson, 2021). Little folk tale set way out in an Icelandic faraway, where a farming couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudmason) welcome a new arrival. That’s all you need to know before you watch this, and you should watch this.

The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi, 2019). This adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel was about to open in March 2020 when everything fell away, so it felt like unfinished business to me. The plot is very peculiar: An art critic (Claes Bang, from The Square) picks up a companion (Elizabeth Debicki) at one of his lectures, then takes her on a visit to the Lake Como estate of a rich collector (Mick Jagger), who has a plan to get a canvas from the world’s most secretive artist (Donald Sutherland). This quartet of actors is very enjoyable to watch, and the banter is lively. I’m not sure it adds up to more than a neo-noir exercise, but that’s all right. Jagger should do more of this kind of thing.

Movie Diary 12/26/2021

Got a subscription to the Criterion Channel as a Christmas present. This will affect things.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947). I stand by my comments in my review of the new Nightmare Alley, although you could say that this version seems to move along faster by comparison to the statelier rhythm of the del Toro version. Good to see it again in the light of the new one, although I don’t feel compelled to re-visit any time soon.

Obsession (Edward Dmytryk, 1949). Robert Newton as a nutso physician who takes his wife’s lover (Phil Brown) hostage, slowly preparing him for death. The reasons for the delay are contrived enough to be maddening, but the extra time means a detective (Naunton Wayne, the delightful partner to Basil Radford in The Lady Vanishes etc.) arrives to fumble around and gradually get wind of the plan. This character might’ve been seen at an early age by William Link and Richard Levinson, because he comes across as a Columbo inspiration. Heckuva role for Newton, despite the utter strangeness of the whole deal. Also known as The Hidden Room.

I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941). Hadn’t seen this in a while, either. The grabby photography and Laird Cregar’s presence help distinguish it from the average pre-noir thriller, and the film’s vision of a world full of devouring men is certainly unpleasant, however intended it may be. Betty Grable’s lead performance is a reminder that there were times when audiences favored people whose appeal has not just waned, but become utterly mysterious over the ensuing decades – what were they thinking?

Movie Diary 12/21/2021

Spencer (Pablo Larrain, 2021). A weekend in the life of Diana (Kristen Stewart), imagined by screenwriter Steven Knight, intriguingly shaped by Larrain’s unsparing hand. Better in moments than overall. Thanks to Stewart’s performance, Claire Mathon’s cinematography, and Jonny Greenwood’s music, a little world is created, a world dedicated to suffocating our heroine. The ending is an issue, though.

Movie Diary 12/20/2021

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021). Good clean wholesome irreverence, with a fair share of satire but also, oddly, empathy. It is set in a 17th-century Italian nunnery. Whatever you think it is, it is never merely that.

Pig (Michael Sarnoski, 2021). A truffle-hunter (Nicolas Cage, splendid) who lives in the woods outside Portland has his pig stolen, and devotes himself to finding the animal, even though it seems the pig has little to do with finding truffles. A good film to see without knowing any more than that, because there are some lovely revelations. Alex Wolff is excellent in support, and if anybody is giving out one-scene Oscars, please notice the performance of David Knell, as a chef in a pretentious restaurant.

Movie Diary 12/19/2021

Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021). There are some easy shots, some solid hits, and a whole bunch of fun actors doing fun things. (And yet Mark Rylance still stands out.) It moves so manically that a number of scenes end in mid-sentence – a useful comic tool, actually – but the film is long, which somehow it should be, given its End of Times subject. Given the times we live in & etc., I can’t complain.

The Friday 12/17/2021

Bradley Cooper: Nightmare Alley (Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

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

Nightmare Alley. “Nightmare Alley becomes a movie about movies. In some cases this might be empty style, or just showing off—by comparison, I thought del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a collection of snazzy effects—but here the gorgeous design of each shot is its own justification.”

No new episode of my radio show, “The Music and the Movies,” this week, but we re-ran the “Coen Brothers Jukebox” episode, and it’s fun.

Also still on the Voice of Vashon website: last week’s number on Max Steiner.

We have two vintage reviews of 1980s films at my other website, What a Feeling!: Michael Hoffman’s Promised Land, a troubled-youth picture with Kiefer Sutherland and Meg Ryan; and Ken Annakin’s The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, a zero-charisma stab at reviving the kiddie-book character.

Movie Diary 12/15/2021

Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, 2021). This remake fairly swoons with movie-movie attractions, and an attention to detail that would make Polanski look lazy. It was suggested that this version would hew closer to William Lindsay Gresham’s harrowing source novel, although some of the deviations from the book this time are a little puzzling, especially in regard to the motivations of Cate Blanchett’s psychologist. The movie’s a dish, though, and Bradley Cooper brings his A-game. (full review 12/17)

Movie Diary 12/14/2021

A Trap for Santa (D.W. Griffith, 1909). A destitute, alcoholic father (Henry B. Walthall) leaves his family to spare them his downfall; after an inheritance improves the family’s lot, he unwittingly breaks into the home on Christmas Eve. As usual, Griffith’s way of seeing the corners of rooms and diagonals of exteriors is eagle-eyed and sensitive to the emotional pitch of the scene. Plus, you really know where things are – literally, you know how this room connects to that room, no small thing when the plot depends on it.

Santa Claus vs. Cupid (Will Louis, 1915). From Edison, a convoluted story (written by future Jazz Singer director Alan Crosland) about romantic rivals and a Santa party. Light amusement plus some heart-tugging. Slapdash around the edges, but with some zingers at the end.

The Night Before Christmas (Edwin S. Porter, 1905). The poem, illustrated with moving pictures. It has one great shot, a miniature diorama of Santa’s sleigh cruising along the polar mountains and then taking flight. Santa appears in a medium shot at the very end of the film, a touch reminiscent of the cowpoke aiming his gun at the camera at the end of The Great Train Robbery.

Santa Claus (Frank E. Kleinschmidt, 1925). Half-hour film about Santa’s world at the North Pole, with location shooting in Alaska and some Inuit extras and polar bears. Some remarkable shots, plus the concept of Santa sitting at the Pole with a high-powered telescope and watching slum kids in America being unkind to others – you better watch out. These films were shown at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle as part of a Silent Movie Mondays event, which I got to introduce.