Movie Diary 2/27/2023

The Letter (William Wyler, 1940). This film will launch our next semester of Scarecrow Academy, 10 weeks of free online film discussions (there’s no homework involved, except watching the movie) on the subject of “Women in Trouble: Great Melodrama in Film.” Check out the entire line-up and poster at the Scarecrow Academy page, and sign up to join us via Zoom on Saturday 3/4 at 2 pm Pacific Time. This movie’s led by one of the leading faces of Hollywood melodrama, Bette Davis, and impeccably directed – I think we’ll have some delicious things to talk about.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). Taking another look at another Davis melodrama, one of the signature titles in the genre of the “women’s picture,” the story of an ugly duckling who swans into a new existence. Warners put their production muscle behind this one, and Max Steiner is working overtime with the music. In the figure of gentle shrink Claude Rains, the movie also coincides with Hollywood’s romance with golden-era psychiatry.

The Friday 2/24/2023

Emma Mackey: Emily (Bleecker Street)

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

Emily/Wuthering Heights. “There may be loftier issues at play for our brooding heroine, but she’s also interested in a little hey-hey in the hayloft, rendered here in the heavy-breathing way you’d expect.”

We’ll be gearing up another free online “semester” of Scarecrow Academy beginning next Saturday, March 4, at 2 pm Pacific Time. Our subject this time is “Women in Trouble: Great Melodrama in Film,” a ten-week look at variations on a genre sometimes dismissively called the “women’s picture.” See the Scarecrow Academy page for more info and how to sign up to join our discussions. Check the poster below for titles and dates.

Movie Diary 2/21/2023

Monsieur Beaucaire (George Marshall, 1946). Bob Hope in full gallop – a barber to the French court who impersonates a nobleman in an arranged royal marriage, with complications. Your patience for this will depend entirely on how much you like Hope’s dithery energy, but it’s sturdy and silly in equal measures, and Paramount didn’t stint on the period sets and costumes. You wish it would be more anarchic, but that wasn’t really the program.

Movie Diary 2/20/2023

Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973). Notable for its sight gags, some skillfully executed sci-fi mannerisms, and for Allen’s early gesture toward letting someone other than himself shine (Diane Keaton’s Brando imitation, for instance). These early films really see Allen playing with the history of comedy, from the silent-movie slapstick to the verbal play of the Bob Hope-era sound comedy to the delightful screwball-comedy chemistry between Allen and Keaton in the operating room.

Love and Death (Woody Allen, 1975). Minute for minute, one of the funniest sound comedies; it plays like a last burst of silliness before Allen turned to more ambitious things. Again, there are great opportunities for Keaton to get laughs (her engagement announcement, for instance), and I think the older I get the more I cherish Allen’s regular indulgence in ancient Borscht Belt-style one-liners, including the one here about the brother who is bayoneted to death by a Polish conscientious objector.

The Friday 2/17/2023

Benoit Magimel: Pacifiction (Grasshopper Film/Gratitude Films)

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

Pacifiction/Millennium Mambo. “This may be the most beguiling critique of colonialism ever made, partly because it does so many other things, many of them mysterious.”

New episode of “The Music and the Movies” this week, listening to films NOT nominated in the Best Score Oscar category for 2022. Check that here, at the Voice of Vashon website.

Tonight I’ll present (in person!) my talk for Humanities Washington, “This Is the End: How the Movies Prepared Us for the Pandemic,” at 6:30 pm in Bremerton, WA, for the Enl!ghten Kitsap Community Forum. It’s a free event, with more info here

Movie Diary 2/15/2023

Smiley’s People (Simon Langton, 1982). The BBC miniseries, much more complicated than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Alec Guinness returning as George Smiley. In this one, the deliberate pacing almost becomes the point, as the plot is too gnarled to really understand, which means you have to float along with it in a pleasant way. Fun to watch the supporting cast shine, including Eileen Atkins, Barry Foster, and a wordless Patrick Stewart in a brief but key role. The show, and Guinness, need the casual format of television, and all those TV-suited close-ups, to work.

Movie Diary 2/14/2023

The Looking Glass War (Frank Pierson, 1970). From a John le Carre novel. MI5 recruits a Polish defector to sneak behind the Iron Curtain and look for Soviet missiles. The movie isn’t great, but at least it stays true to Cold War bleakness, and it gives you Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins as members of British intelligence. Hopkins has the key role, in certain ways, as he becomes increasingly embittered by the spy game as the movie goes along; unfortunately, the film loses him for a long section, and we’re stuck with Christopher Jones channeling James Dean. This is the movie David Lean saw before casting Jones in Ryan’s Daughter, with unhappy consequences (Lean didn’t know Jones’ voice was dubbed here, for one thing). The star of Elvira Madigan, Pia Degermark, plays “The Girl,” as she is billed. Susan George is billed as another “Girl,” and Anna Massey, as Hopkins’ wife, doesn’t seem to have a name either. Pierson went on to direct the Streisand Star Is Born and lots of TV; his direction here is almost as mannered as Jones’ performance.

Movie Diary 2/12/2023

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John Irvin, 1979). The TV miniseries version, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A nice thing to stretch out in, given how the project takes its time to unfold its espionage. It also makes you appreciate the brilliance of how the 2011 feature-length version streamlined the story. The miniseries, shot in the midst of the Cold War, is now an artifact of that time – all the drab rooms of the safe houses and the tucked-away restaurants can be savored as the atmosphere of John le Carre’s melancholy portrait of the spy game. Guinness is fascinating – what nerve it took to maintain that kind of unflappable control for the duration (although, as Guinness lets us know at certain points, Smiley is not truly unflappable).

The Friday 2/10/2023

Eden Dambine, Gustav De Waele: Close (A24)

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

Close. “What elevates Close is the almost casual way the worm of doubt can be installed in a previously happy existence—an observation devastatingly brought to life.”

I have a new episode of “The Music and the Movies” this week, devoted to the five Best Score Oscar nominees: The Banshees of Inisherin, Babylon, The Fabelmans, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Listen at the Voice of Vashon site.

Next Friday night, Feb. 17, I’ll present (in person!) my talk for Humanities Washington, “This Is the End: How the Movies Prepared Us for the Pandemic,” at 6:30 pm in Bremerton, WA, for the Enl!ghten Kitsap Community Forum. It’s a free event, with more info here

Movie Diary 2/8/2023

Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983). Two months into my 35-year+ stint as a movie reviewer at The Herald, I reviewed this film, and wrote a rather stiff, mixed take on it. I didn’t have a clue it was going to be such a smash. I’m pretty sure I never saw it again, until now (more time has passed in my life since the last time I saw it than passes in the movie itself, which is a lot). It’s a Brooks movie: playful performances, good zingers, overlit interiors in which the body language is sometimes evocative, bad catchy music. The forward motion of the movie is bumpy, nothing like the kind of inevitable flow you get in great films, and yet it works for the difficult, square-peg characters – maybe bumpy is all right, because the movie is also full of bounces, memorable ones.