Tag Archives: John Ford

Much Ado About Nothing

Scorecard: June-September 2013

This has been a long time in the works. Even after I decided to just go with picture instead of blurbs and the whole bit, it still took me like two weeks to put together. Lots of interruptions lately. The baby is crawling, and she has the best cord-finding radar I’ve ever seen. Anyway. Not a lot of films watched the past few months, but a good variety, I think. Unsurprisingly Joss Whedon comes out on top.

What I Loved

Much Ado About Nothing

Ed Wood

The World’s End

Fort Apache

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Quick Thoughts: Fort Apache

It took me several years to get around to the first part of John Ford’s informal Cavalry Trilogy, and I’m not sure why, unless it’s simply that both of the other entries (1949′s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 1950′s Rio Grande) both fell into the “liked okay” territory for me, so I wasn’t hugely excited about tracking down Fort Apache despite the added bonus of Henry Fonda and the added curiosity of a teenage Shirley Temple.

I definitely should’ve sought it out sooner, though. This is easily the strongest of the three films, and continues the excellent streak of westerns I’ve been watching lately. Fonda plays a by-the-book cavalry officer sent to oversee a fort on the western frontier who comes into conflict with the men already stationed there over dress code, etiquette, and Indian fighting techniques – oh, and the little matter of one of the young soldiers wanting to date his daughter.

In a way, it’s kind of like the WWI stories I enjoy so much, which basically show the demise of an old way of fighting in the face of a new one. Here, Fonda’s straight-laced sense of military honor is simply not matched to the Indian’s guerilla tactics or the rough exterior required to survive on the frontier. He’s contrasted with his second-in-command John Wayne, who is a seasoned frontier soldier and both knows and respects the Indians. Throughout most of the film, it’s really frustrating to watch Fonda, because he’s pretty pig-headed in the face of advice from Wayne and the other men. He makes some pretty terrible decisions, especially a major one toward the end that flouts the goodwill Wayne had worked to build with an exiled Indian chief.

I should’ve expected this from a Ford film, but both the plotting and character work here is really great, and as easy as it is to be against Fonda, his final scenes are tragic – the tragedy of a man who simply couldn’t break free of his preconceptions and wasn’t ready for the new world of the frontier. Back to my WWI comparison, it’s not unlike the sense of tragedy we feel for Erich von Stroheim and his class in Grand Illusion, despite that character supervising a German POW camp. It’s a false nobility these characters have, to be sure, yet there is still nobility there as they watch the world they knew disintegrate before their eyes.

Fort Apache of course works as an adventure film as well, with Monument Valley shown in all its glory, and a dangerous illicit trip to Mexico as a nice little stealth centerpiece before the all-out battle of the end. I’m not a huge fan of Shirley Temple as a “grown-up” (she’s about 16 or 17 here); she can’t quite shed the cutesy little girl persona. But the fort home life scenes here do their job nicely, providing a contrast to the military action of the main plot and a very immediate sense of what the men are risking. The military setting gives the film a different feel than a lot of westerns, which I didn’t care for as much in Ford’s other two cavalry films, but it works quite well here.

roundup

The Roundup: March 16, 2012

This post was mostly ready last week, but life (and hackers) intervened and delayed me. I spruced it up with some links from this week, but I also had to do a lot of skim reading this week and utilize the dreaded “mark as read” function in GReader, so I’m sure I missed some great posts from people I was following. I’m sorry, I’m really trying to do better. The more I do this, the more I get invested in reading people’s blogs – which is great, but time-consuming. In any case, all these links are well worth your time, even if they are a week or two old at this point.

Featured Links

Past/Not Past: A Tale of Two Cinemas by Adam Cook at The Auteur’s Notebook

It’s difficulty to avoid comparing the two 2011 films that owe a great debt to silent cinema (and cleaned up at the Oscars), but they actually take very different approaches. Hugo is a film ABOUT silent cinema, but set after the silent era, as two kids become acquainted with one of the first motion picture giants, Georges Méliès, and his films. The Artist imitates silent cinema, setting its story in Hollywood in the late 1920s and depicting the transition into sound. I liked both films, but probably enjoyed The Artist a little more – that said, Adam Cook makes a REALLY strong case for why Hugo is actually much more celebratory of silent cinema than The Artist, which subtly undercuts its own nostalgia (probably unintentionally). Really good and thought-provoking piece that made me want to rewatch and re-evaluate both films soon. See also Glenn Kenny discussing Singin’ in the Rain‘s attitude toward silent cinema, in light of the frequent comparisons between it and The Artist.

An Introduction to the Flickchart World of Ranking Films by Emil at A Swede Talks Movies

The movie-ranking website Flickchart has been around for a while, and yet it still seems to fall under the radar a lot of the time. I know a lot of passionate users (disclaimer: I know the founder and a lot of the contributors and once in a while contribute to the Flickchart blog), but I know just as many people who either haven’t heard of it or just checked it out a couple of years ago when it launched and then forgot about it. But they’ve continued innovating, and as of now, I’d say it’s ones of the most useful movie websites I frequent. Fellow Flickcharter Emil has written up a wonderful introduction to it, and though I intend to do a write-up over at Row Three soon (there are a ton of new features since the last time I wrote about the site), I have to defer to Emil for one of the best posts I’ve seen explaining how the site works and what value it has.

John Ford and the Citizen Kane Assumption by Kristen Thompson at Observations on Film Art

Interestingly enough, I just got finished defending How Green Was My Valley‘s Oscar win a week or so ago in my Oscars Rank ‘Em post, and here’s Kristen Thompson doing the same thing, only far more eloquently and in greater detail. She suggests, and I think it’s true, that the film is usually denigrated SOLELY because it beat the apparently untouchable Citizen Kane out for the Oscar. Not only does she point out how unfair that is, but she goes on to discuss exactly why How Green deserved to win the Oscar, and delves a bit into why Citizen Kane gets all the praise and study instead. It’s a really great article on a lot of fronts.

Gone Too Soon Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood

Comet Over Hollywood hosted a blogathon last weekend devoted to remembering the many classic Hollywood celebrities who passed away far too young. Obvious names like Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe came up of course, but there are literally dozens of people memoired here, from huge stars to starlets who barely got the chance to make an impression. I haven’t had time to read them all yet, but the ones I have are great. I’d especially point out True Classic’s post on the tragic short adulthood of child star Bobby Driscoll and a two-part piece on Thelma Todd, whose death remains mysterious, from My Love of Old Hollywood.

Travelling Through the Movies by Jessica at The Velvet Cafe

All of Jessica’s posts are simply delightful; basically, if you love film and delightful people and you’re NOT following The Velvet Cafe, you’re doing it wrong. I actually had another one of her posts set for up here (the one on Swedish cinema which is now linked below under “more links”), but this one hit one of my favorite things of all time – traveling. And rather than just do a list of films where people take trips, which would still have come up with a good lot of excellent films, Jessica bases her list around films that explore different aspects of traveling. Everything from road trips to journeys of self to being stuck in airports to feeling lost in an unknown country. It’s a great set of films, and a unique way of looking at them.

Unforgettable Scenes: It’s Still Not Over by Tyler at Southern Vision

I’ve only recently discovered this blog, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorites. Here Tyler takes a scene from Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (which is probably his most accessible film, from what I can gather – it’s the one everyone told me to try when I failed to make it through his 7.5-hour Satantango) and describes his love for it with great eloquence. Like him, I’m not entirely sure I could say why I found Werckmeister Harmonies magical, but I did, and this scene is definitely the part of it that I found the most memorable.

The Woman in the Window by the Self-Styled Siren

Almost every time I’ve mentioned Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window since I saw it last year, I’ve said some combination of “it’s a wonderful little film noir, but the ending is a total cop out.” I’m not alone in thinking that, but the Self-Styled Siren disagrees. She defends the ending as intentional, fitting, and more subversive than it seems on first viewing. I’m not sure I’m totally convinced, but she’s definitely given me second thoughts, and I’ll definitely have her thoughts in the back of my head next time I watch the film.

How John Carter Succeeds Where the Star Wars Prequels Failed by Jack Giroux at Film School Rejects

See, see, I’m not only featuring articles about classic films! This one’s only been out, like, ONE WEEK. I haven’t seen it myself, to be honest, though I am curious based on the source novel, Andrew Stanton’s involvement, and the fact that I like big adventure films. But Film School Rejects is going one step farther and acclaiming the film quite highly (most critics are reservedly favorable at best, from what I’ve read). I found this particular article especially interesting, as Giroux runs down what John Carter does right that George Lucas did wrong with the prequels – that’s not necessarily a high bar for praise, but it’s a really solid article. See also Neil Miller’s 7 Reasons to Go See John Carter.

More Links!

Trailers of Interest (or Not)

Headhunters Trailer – this movie is AWESOME
ParaNorman Trailer – one of the more intriguing animated films of the year
Dark Shadows Trailer – the comedy tone threw me a bit; back to Beetlejuice for Burton?
On the Road Trailer – curious to see what Walter Salles does with this material
Ice Age 3: Continental Drift Trailer – pretty sure these are supposed to make me laugh; didn’t work
Men in Black 3 Trailer 2 – this looks ridiculous; of course, I thought that about the first one

Cool Videos

Short film: The Love Connection – very adorable, plus has music by The Pauses, one of whom is a friend
The History of Television – a few omissions, but by and large, this is AWESOME
Creepy, weird, and kind of awesome video for Florence and the Machine’s “Never Let Me Go”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah splatter paint all over the place in this video for “Hysterical”

Noteworthy News

2011-in-Review-film

My 2011 in Film: Favorite Non-2011 Films

My Favorite Films of 2011 are posted here, but like any good film buff, I also watched a whole lot of non-2011 films. Here are some of my favorites of those first-time watches in loosely descending order (more favorites at the top). I didn’t limit this to a specific number. If I feel like it’s worth mentioning and I want to write a few words about it, it’s on here.

Le cercle rouge (1967)

I had a feeling I was going to like this film, just based on how much I’ve liked Jean-Pierre Melville’s other films, especially Le samourai, which, if I recall correctly, topped my favorites list in 2010. I had no idea I’d like it as much as I did. Melville weaves several plotlines together, involving a criminal just out of prison, the mob he steals money from, a detective chasing a different escaped con, a former sharpshooter cop who’s now an alcoholic, and more. Each of them has their own narrative rise and fall, and each character has their own arc, but they all interplay in an incredibly intricate way, as different ones join up on a heist (one of the best heist sequences in cinema) and others try to track them down for their own reasons. It’s hard to explain, but very easy and clear to watch. Brilliant work on all levels.

Blue Valentine (2010)

This film just missed my 2010 best of list (I saw it mere days after last year’s posts were made), but it would’ve ended up about #4 on that list. It might be even higher now. The film parallels the beginning and end of a single romance, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (both in career-best performances), juxtaposing the courtship and the break-up of this couple to incredible emotional effect. Despite the temporal contrivance, the film is incredibly raw and realistic, with no easy answers for what causes a couple who seem so perfect for each other to hit the skids so badly. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Why in the world did it take me this long to watch this movie? That phrase actually applies to the next two as well, but the prestige of those two be darned, this is the one that I can’t get out of my head. The tales surrounding it are as legendary as the film itself, playing on the long-standing bitter rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who here play two aging showbiz sisters who have a long-standing bitter rivalry. It may be high camp, but this is quite possibly Bette Davis’s best performance – it’s mean and grotesque and pitiful and naive. And the movie itself is quite possibly the best example of Hollywood gothic, yes, even giving Sunset Boulevard a run for its money.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

There is a reason I’d been avoiding watching this classic must-see. I’m not a big Brando fan. I’d seen On the Waterfront, Sayonara, The Godfather, and more, and I just didn’t really get the whole Brando thing. But I finally sat down with this one and suddenly GOT IT. He’s utterly magnetic here, and the film is far more stylistically interesting than I’d expected. It wears its stage origins on its sleeve, but in a heightened way that works, and the clash of Leigh’s old-school Hollywood acting with Brando’s muttering animalism is palpable. Now I want to go rewatch all those other Brando films – I bet I’ll like them more.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

And the reason I’d been avoiding this one was simply that I figured it’d be depressing and Important Movie-esque. (Also I dislike Steinbeck based on “The Red Pony” traumatizing me as a child.) Wrong on both counts. It’s certainly not a happy peppy movie, and a ton of bad things happen to this Dust Bowl family, but I wasn’t prepared for how gorgeously this is shot (Gregg Toland, should’ve known) and how intense it can be, sharing in this family’s troubles and little joys, as well as dealing with the subplot of Tom Joad’s fugitive status. His final speech is justly praised, but the whole thing is pretty great.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Often cited as one of the prime examples of the haunted house mystery comedy, a genre that was apparently prominent in the silent era, and rightly so. Simply a ton of fun from start to finish, as a group of people gather in a long-deserted mansion to read the will of their crotchety old relative. There are threats of insanity, a murderer running rampant, an asylum escapee on the loose, plus various positive and negative interpersonal interactions among the varied potential heirs. Moody cinematography counterbalances the humor in the plot.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

I watched the Man with No Name trilogy all out of order (I’d already seen the other two…yeah, backwards), but Jonathan wasn’t about to let me get away with not having seen this one, which is his favorite. I still like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly more, but there’s a lot I did like about this one, especially the way the story really follows Lee Van Cleef instead of Clint Eastwood – that was an interesting touch. Also, the bank robbery segment is just awesome. Next up – watching all three of these actually in order. :)

The Godless Girl (1929)

I always enjoy Cinefamily’s Silent Treatment nights because I get to see films that are rarely if ever screened and aren’t on DVD, plus learn a bunch about silent cinema and 1920s Hollywood and chat with film archivists. I’m always appreciative of the films I see, but to be honest, a lot of times, they’re mostly of historical significance. This is an exception, because this film is gangbusters fun. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it’s the story of a clashing set of teenagers – one the leader of a group of young Christians, the other the leader of a group of Atheists. After the groups get in a riotous fight, they’re carted off to reform school, where they get to know each other. Frankly, there are like five or six sections of story (and tones!). But they’re all crazy and fun, and it ends with a massive escape/chase sequence followed by a climactic fire.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Seems like every year a film I’ve never heard of wins Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, upsetting one I either wanted to win or thought was a shoo-in. And then every year when I get around to seeing the actual winner, I’m blown away. This is an extremely solid mystery/character study of a detective flashing back to that one case, you know that one he never quite managed to solve. It’s tough to find the balance between mystery and character in films, but this one does it wonderfully, and with a lot of style to boot – just wait for the seemingly one-take stadium shot. It’s incredible.

The Naked Island (1960)

I happened to be volunteering on a night when Cinefamily screened this film, which I’d never heard of and knew nothing about – I hadn’t even read the blurb on the Cinefamily schedule. I stuck around to watch it anyway, and I’m certainly glad I did. An almost silent picture, depicting the day-to-day lives of a family struggling to maintain their farm on an unwelcoming island. Much of the film is just watching them cart water from the mainland, carry it up a treacherous hill, and water their crops one at a time. Sounds boring, but it isn’t, and when larger events do happen, they hit you like a ton of bricks.

The Illusionist (2010)

A sweet and simple ode to the entertainments of the past, the pleasures that progress has robbed us of in search of bigger, faster, louder thrills. The main character, once a popular vaudeville magician, finds himself less and less wanted as rock bands and television replace his craft – all except for one little girl, entranced by his magic. Like Sylvain Chomet’s previous film The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is almost silent – as befits its origin as an unproduced script from Jacques Tati. Charming, simple, warm, and wistful.

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Also known as Chloe in the Afternoon, this is one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales films, and so far, I think it’s my favorite. Each of these films presents some sort of moral dilemma, but not in a didactic way – in this case a happily married man daydreams about other women, with no intention of taking action – until his friend Chloe decides to seduce him. Like most French New Wave films, it’s emotionally aloof in such a way that you actually end up supplying the emotions yourself, and this one presents its characters without judgement, but with a great deal of fairness and empathy. I love New Wave noncommital-ness, and this is right in my ballpark.

Night Train to Munich (1940)

I already knew director Carol Reed was more than just The Third Man, from having seen The Fallen Idol, but this would’ve clenched it – Night Train to Munich is a WWII spy story with double agents, concentration camps, undercover espionage, and daring mountaintop chases, all of which it does with a wit and panache that set it apart from most other spy films. It’s classy and silly and genuinely thrilling. Also, and this is not unimportant, it knows when to stop and doesn’t clutter everything up with needless denoument and codas.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra may have already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity two years earlier, but with this film he really cemented his standing as an actor. Pushing the envelope of the Production Code, the film tells of Frankie Machine, a card dealer and drug addict who just wants to get clean and play the drums, but he can’t get out of the gambling game – tied in by debts and drugs and a shrew of a wife. It’s not always easy to watch, and it does have an old-school realist melodrama angle, but when it’s on, boy is it on. The withdrawal scene gave ME the DTs.

The Descent (2005)

Director Neil Marshall continually impresses me with his genre films, and this one was no different – a group of girlfriends tries to reconnect after one of them experiences tragedy by going spelunking. But in an unknown cave, anything can happen, and everything does. This film is great on every level, with the dangers of the cave itself creating enough intensity, but the film is hardly content to stop with that. The pacing, the use of sound design, and the thematic content all raise this film above your standard horror thriller.

My Winnipeg (2007)

Easily the most accessible Guy Maddin film I’ve seen so far, and thus my favorite, at least until I get more accustomed to his extremely unique style of filmmaking – this time he takes us on an idiosyncratic tour of his hometown of Winnipeg, a surreal blending of his childhood, his attempts at recreating his childhood to deal with past trauma, and legends and stories of the town itself. It’s associative, bizarre, dreamlike, and definitely an experience.

Wayne’s World (1992)

I totally did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did – I had it mentally lumped in with a bunch of other early ’90s comedies that just struck me as stupid and juvenile, but Jonathan convinced me to watch it, and yeah. This one is much smarter than it seems on the surface, with a lot of clever writing and meta humor that worked like gangbusters for me. Jonathan already quoted this one a bunch (leaving me shrugging my shoulders in ignorance), but now we’re quoting it together ALL THE TIME. See our “He Says, She Says” post.

Changing Husbands (1924)

Another hit from the Silent Treatment folks at Cinefamily, this one has Leatrice Joy (no, I’d never heard of her) in a double role as a bored rich housewife who wants to be an actress and a poor browbeated actress who just wants some peace and rest. Yep, you guessed it, they run into each other and decide to switch places for a bit, since the rich woman’s husband is out of town anyway. Surprise, he comes back and wants to take his “wife” on holiday. More mix-ups ensue, with a lot of sly innuendo and some great comic timing from all involved. It’s frothy, but great fun, and one of my favorite new-to-me silents of the year.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

I hesitate to put this movie (a big-screen film to go along with the campy ’60s TV show) into the “so bad it’s good” category, because I think the people who made it knew exactly what they were making, and did it all – the cheesy line readings, the over-abundance of villains, the ridiculous plot elements – totally on purpose. There’s no way they didn’t, there are too many self-referential jokes (“some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”). If you go into this with the same kind of pure enjoyment of ridiculousity that they did, you’ll have fun. I sure did.

Woman in the Window (1944) / Scarlet Street (1945)

I’m lumping these two together because it’s hard not to. In 1944, Fritz Lang got together with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and made a quiet little noir film about a middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman and gets drawn into a crime because of her. It worked out so well. They all got together and did the same thing the next year. The details of the plot are different of course, but that trajectory is the same. Both films are solid noirs; it’s hard to rank them against each other, though, because WotW has a better and more interesting plot overall, but has a serious cop-out ending, while SS follows through on the ending beautifully, but has a less interesting/believable plot throughout. Both worthwhile, though, especially for noir fans.

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Cinefamily did a series on the Czech New Wave a couple of years ago, but either they didn’t play this Milos Forman entry, or I missed that night. But seeing a few of those definitely gave me a taste for them, and I went into Loves of a Blonde with high hopes – which were not misplaced. With definite French New Wave influences, the film basically follows a young girl in a rural factory town in Czechoslovakia, who eschews the middle-aged men who remain in the town after most young men have been conscripted in favor of a pianist from Prague. But the story is less important than the individual scenes, vignettes like three leches macking on girls at a factory-sponsored dance, the girl getting lectured on propriety back at her hostel, and the encounter with the boy’s parents when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep. Take the focus on the youthtful and mundane from the Nouvelle Vague and add in a specifically Czech-under-communism austerity, and that’s this film.

49 Up (2005)

This can kind of stand in for the entire Up series of documentaries – it’s difficult to judge them separately, and this is the most recent one (though if they stay on schedule, 56 Up would be out this year). The premise of the series is that in 1964, a TV production team got a group of fourteen British 7-year-olds from different regions and class backgrounds and interviewed them on various topics. Every seven years they’ve gone back and interviewed the same people (though not all of them have agreed to be in every episode). It’s fascinating, both in the ways it upholds the original premise that a child’s future is set by the age of seven, in terms of societal status, and the ways it subverts those expectations – not to mention how it delves into the nature of documentary filmmaking itself. I don’t like documentaries that much, and this one is largely talking heads, but it is absolutely entrancing.

Vagabond (1985)

After being a huge fan of Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 last year, I wanted more Varda, but I put off seeing this one for a good while, largely because it just looked freaking depressing. And yeah, it kind of is. It’s about a twenty-something girl who roams the roads, hitchhiking, sleeping wherever she can, working for a while or living with people as she’s able. But the film opens with her dead in a ditch, then backtracks to how she got there, so you know it isn’t going to romanticize the life of the open road. Even though this was made long after the New Wave’s heyday, it does have that same kind of non-committal sympathy that works so well for me – Varda isn’t going to manipulate you into feeling sorry for the girl, she’s just going to show you want happened and allow your feelings to grow naturally. She’s not always an attractive character – often being rude or dismissive to those who would help her, until it’s too late – yet Varda’s technique works. It’s a really powerful, often hard to watch, but very rewarding film.

Robin Hood (1922)

I couldn’t pass up a chance to see a bunch of Douglas Fairbanks silents at Cinefamily earlier this year, and I think this was my favorite of the lot – it tells a good bit of the backstory to Robin Hood, depicting Robin of Locksley’s friendship with King Richard and his falling for Maid Marion before Richard ever went off to the Crusades, allowing Prince John to oppress the people and create the need for Robin Hood. Some of that gets a little long, but it’s a nice setup that most versions of Robin Hood skip over. After that, it’s really pretty similar to the Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Fairbanks is even more athletic and exuberant than Flynn.

Zazie dans le metro (1960)

I still don’t quite know what to make of this early Louis Malle film, but I know I enjoyed watching it, and will likely enjoy it even more on future rewatches. Taken from a Raymond Queneau book (he was a prominent literary experimenter), the film is delightfully absurd, with basically no plot stringing along its series of nonsensical vignettes. It’s definitely got that New Wave sensibility that appeals to me so much, but I’m sure there are also satirical elements that slipped by me entirely. Even so, it was a whole lot of fun.

Carrie (1976)

Finally got around to this horror classic this October, after meaning to for the past two Octobers and failing. Despite knowing all about the bullying and the prom scene already, this film was a LOT different than I was expecting. The crazy mother, for one thing, and then the whole ending that went on much past the prom scene and complicates it a lot. In some ways, I didn’t like where the ending went, but I am highly intrigued by it and wish people would talk about it more, rather than just accepting the film as a pro-feminist revenge-on-bullies story. In any case, the film is really effective at putting us on Carrie’s side through Spacek’s wide-eyed performance and the agonizing yet lovely leadup to the climax at the prom, even if DePalma does overdo the visual flamboyance when he doesn’t really need to.

A Man Escaped (1956)

I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Bresson. I love Pickpocket, but really dislike Lancelot du Lac and felt pretty ambivalent towards Diary of a Country Priest. This one seemed more on the Pickpocket wavelength, and sure enough, it joins the “love” side of Bresson’s filmography for me. The film takes its time, as the main character is member of the French resistance imprisoned by Nazi forces, who works carefully and patiently to plan and execute an escape. Despite the slow pace, though (something Bresson is known for generally), this film maintains tension perfectly, and doesn’t get dull at all.

Back to the Future II (1989)

When Jonathan found out I had only seen the first Back to the Future film and that I hardly remembered any of that, he sat me down with the whole trilogy almost immediately. Not only did I enjoy the first one a lot more than I initially had, but Part II instantly joined the ranks of sequels that are better than the originals. The way that II coils back on I with amazing intricacy is great, but I was also really taken by the future world (which is NOW, by the way, if you work the dates out…I’d say we failed to progress in certain areas quite as much as expected, but maybe we’re better off in other ways). Of course, being the history nut that I am, I also really enjoyed Part III, but not quite enough for it to make this list. It’s hovering right below it.

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Long before David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Sam Mendes (American Beauty) satirized the underbelly of American suburbia, Nicholas Ray brought this scathing attack against suburban values – or the veneer that suburbia tries to uphold to hide the darker things lying beneath. Here James Mason secretly works two jobs to support his family, but a malicious disease takes its toll on him, the only thing that helps being large doses of painkillers – which he becomes addicted to. He eventually devolves into madness, and yes, there’s quite a bit of melodrama in the film, but if you go along with its excesses, you’ll find one of the darkest films about the ’50s ever made.

Born to Kill (1947)

I’d never heard of this noir film until a friend lent it to me, but hey, Robert Wise usually makes good pictures, right? Right. The always-impressive Claire Trevor leaves town after she finds a friend murdered, not wanting to get involved, but unbeknownst to her, the murderer (her friend’s jealous boyfriend) is insinuating himself into her life, ALSO not knowing that she knew the victim. It’s a crazy mess of fate, mutual attraction and repulsion, double-crosses, and both a femme fatale AND an homme fatale. Plus, Elisha Cook Jr. in a meaty supporting role. A lesser-known noir this may be, but that’s a mistake – it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen.

Taking Off (1971)

After making a splash with the Czech New Wave (see Loves of a Blonde, above), Milos Forman made his way to Hollywood success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. But first he did this little-known film, his first in the United States, about a teenage girl who runs away to be part of a group of hippies, and her parents trying to find her. It’s got its ridiculous parts (which have a strange tendency to turn sublime, like the scene where all the parents learn how to smoke a joint to try to understand their children better), but it’s ultimately a quite moving and wistful portrait of two generations, and the longing of both to find meaning and connection.

The Constant Nymph (1943)

Long kept out of circulation due to rights issues, TCM finally got it worked out to show this Oscar-nominated Joan Fontaine film at the TCM Film Festival this year, and it was pretty great to see it with a whole crowd of people who’ve been waiting for it for a very long time. It’s a bit of an unusual film, though, with Fontaine a spright of a girl who breathlessly falls in love with a family friend who still thinks of her as a child. It’s chockfull of melodrama, but Fontaine plays it all with such eager naivete that it’s impossible not to like her, despite the underlying ick factor their ages make kind of hard to ignore.

This is the Night (1932)

Hyped up at the TCM Festival for being Cary Grant’s debut feature, there’s a lot more than that here to like. Basically playing second lead to Roland Young’s hapless gentleman, Grant is an athlete whose wife Thelma Todd is stepping out with Young (no, it’s not believable, just go with it), but in order to keep Grant from finding out, Young hires an actress to pretend to be his wife. It’s convoluted, but thanks to a stellar lead and supporting cast and a solid script, it’s as witty and charming as any 1930s movie – it’s unfortunate that it’s so little known. Definitely deserves a look.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Silly and nonsensical story? Check. Ridiculous line readings? Check. Cheesy stop-motion effects? Check. Actually, the special effects are kind of awesome, I love watching stop-motion animation. It’s not believable, but it has a tactile charm that CGI loses along the way. The story here is basic fantasy adventure stuff with sorcerers and princesses and giant monsters, but it’s all in good fun, and I had a great time watching it.

Good Morning (1959)

I’ve tried to watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (generally touted as his best/most important film) at least two or three times and always failed, getting bogged down in my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture and the film’s deliberate pacing. A friend suggested I start with Good Morning instead to get into Ozu, and that was an excellent suggestion. This is a sunny, funny film, the loose plot centered on a pair of kids who want a television more than anything, but with plenty of time given to other vignettes around their apartment area. Charming and breezy.

Gremlins (1984)

I mostly snuck this one in here just because I was shocked at how much fun this film is – I thought it was just gonna be a horror film (and I knew the basic “don’t feed them after midnight” premise), but it’s REALLY goofy, and that’s what I liked about it. I loved all the inventions, I loved the gremlins having fun at the movies, I thought all that stuff was great – even more so because I had no idea it existed.

Attack the Block

Scorecard: August 2011

A long time ago I used to do a monthly round-up of films I saw during the month. I stopped doing it when I started writing for Row Three, but I don’t really have time to write up full reviews for everything over there. Some capsules go into our joint Movies We Watched series, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to do a quick little overview of everything I watched over here as well, if only because so many films seem to be getting by without me voicing my opinion on them at all, and I don’t like that. Note that if I DID write a capsule in Movies We Watched, I’ll likely copy it over here with only slight modifications.

So here’s everything I saw in August – not a very long list; I’ve been missing my 15-movies-a-month goal lately, but film festival months (in which I often watch 25 or more) make up for it. You can always see the latest films I’ve watched listed on my Watching page, and my running Best list on my Best of This Year page.

What I Loved

Attack the Block

After hearing about this film from all the geek and fanboy blogs for months, I went into it interested, but wary; these things get overhyped easily. But all the praise for Attack the Block is fully warranted. In a summer of costumed superheroes, this movie has hoodie thugs from South London. In a summer of flashy CGI, this movie has barely-seen yet terrifying alien creatures. In a summer of fun but relatively shallow action films, this movie has a raft of fully-developed characters, each with their own arc. It manages to successfully blend high-octane thrills with social commentary, the way good sci-fi/horror should, without ever condescending. I had a great time with this film, and it’ll stick with me for a while.
2011 UK. Director: Joe Cornish. Starring: John Bogeya, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Nick Frost.
Seen August 13 at an AMC multiplex.

The Grapes of Wrath

This is one that has been on my List of Shame (great films that I SHOULD’VE seen by now) for ten or fifteen years now. Literally. I’m not sure why I’ve put it off so long, other than it rather seemed like a film that would be more message-y and depressing than I prefer. I should’ve known better. Photographed by Gregg Toland, the low light, high-contrast look of the film makes it almost a proto-noir. That Expressionist surrealism lends an unearthly quality to the otherwise very earthy and mundane story of Oklahoma farmers pushed off their land in the Dust Bowl. The journey is at times excruciating, but in grand Old Hollywood style, it never fails to be gripping, and the suspense surrounding Fonda’s fugitive status was a welcome surprise for me. That said, it’s definitely Darwell who steals the show, getting the most poignant moments of all as Fonda’s long-suffering mother.
1940 USA. Director: John Ford. Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine.
Seen August 6 on Netflix Instant Watch.

Batman: The Movie

From The Grapes of Wrath to Batman, eh? That’s how I roll. Look, this movie is ridiculous. It has a ridiculous script, filled with preposterous circumstances, idiotic line readings, he most inscrutable riddles ever, and not just one, but THREE villains after Batman and Robin. Oh, and an exploding shark. It’s at least five times campier even than the Adam West TV show. And I loved every second of it.
1966 USA. Director: Leslie H. Martinson. Starring: Adam West, Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero.
Seen August 29 on Netflix Instant Watch.

What I Liked

For a Few Dollars More

I finally finished Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy this month, having watched them all out of order. Thankfully, it’s only a loose trilogy, so it doesn’t much matter what order you see them in. This middle chapter takes a robbery/revenge plot involving Lee van Cleef, a bounty hunter who competes with laconic Clint Eastwood for a bounty on a notorious outlaw in the midst of a plan to rob a bank. The central robbery itself is pretty cool to watch in planning and execution, and it’s interesting for a western to spend so much time with both the “good guys” and “bad guys”. The audacity of the daylight robbery fits right in with the visual flair of the film in general and the (as always) epic score from Ennio Morricone. Perhaps most interesting is how much of a side seat Eastwood takes to the main drive of the plot, even standing aside while van Cleef stands off with his lifelong nemesis.
1965 Italy. Director: Sergio Leone. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonté.
Seen August 20 on Blu-ray.

Aliens

And another from my List of Shame, one that many many people have been nagging me to watch for a very long time. I had put it off after being less than enthused with the first film when I saw it ages ago (but I do want to rewatch it now), but I ended up quite enjoying it. It’s a great example of how to build a good and suspenseful action story; it stays full throttle for most of the time, but it never loses sight of Ripley, and it allows her to gradually build into the action heroine she is at the end by using traits and skills established early on. The emotional throughline involving Newt is predictable, but effective. My one complaint with the film is the over-determined machismo of the marines – I got the point, but some of those early boasting scenes went on far too long. Overall, though, a more than solid film that more sci-fi actioners should learn from.
1986 USA. Director: James Cameron. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Resier, Bill Paxton.
Seen August 27 on DVD.

Taking Off

I went into this not knowing anything about it other than it was directed by Milos Forman. Turns out it was his first film in the United States, the story of a teenager “taking off” to live with her hippie friends and leaving her parents to search for her plays out in a combination of wistful musical numbers (by such up and comers as Carly Simon and Kathy Bates; Ike and Tina Turner show up for a more rousing tune) and dryly absurd scenarios involving the parents. In fact, we spend most of our time with the parents as they stumble around trying to figure out what to do and how to make sense of the changing world – a scene where they go to a meeting of parents of runaway children and learn to smoke marijuana is priceless. But infused in all the hilarity and absurdity is a very real sense of yearning, a need to connect both across generations and within your own. It’s a fascinating film – often ridiculous, but just as often genuinely moving.
1971 USA. Director: Milos Forman. Starring: Buck Henry, Lynn Carlin, Linnea Hitchcock, Georgia Engel.
Seen August 24 at Cinefamily.

Scarlet Street

I watched The Woman in the Window a few weeks ago liked it enough to want to check out this film, made the year later with the same director and lead cast. It begins with a similar setup, with Robinson as a mild-mannered middle-aged man who bonds with some peers while wondering whether he could ever be attractive to a young woman. When he saves damsel in distress Joan Bennett from an apparent attacker, it seems the answer might be yes, but Bennett somehow gathers from his discussion of the amateur art he does that he makes a lot of money from it and she and her boyfriend set out to swindle him out of it, playing on his gullible infatuation with her. The plotting in The Woman in the Window is a bit stronger overall, but this one has the advantage of not copping out the ending.
1945 USA. Director: Fritz Lang. Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea.
Seen August 15 on Netflix Instant Watch.

Zazie dans le metro

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for YEARS, ever since I first heard of it and learned that it wasn’t available in the US basically at all. The combination of New Wave era Louis Malle and playfully postmodern writer Raymond Queneau attracted me greatly, so when Criterion announced the disc, I knew it’d be a blind buy. And now that I’ve seen it, I’m not entirely sure what I make of it. I enjoyed watching it, but it is much more non-linear and absurdist than I expected, with Zazie’s trip to Paris to stay with her uncle pretty much going every which way. There are probably satirical themes under the surface that I simply didn’t get on a single viewing (or may not at all, with my almost wholly-cinematically based knowledge of the era). Yet, even superficially it’s an awfully fun ride, akin to Tati’s Playtime, but with more obscure themes.
1960 France. Director: Louis Malle. Starring: Philippe Noiret, Catherine Demongeot, Hubert Deschamps, Carla Marlier.
Seen August 13 on Blu-ray.

What I Thought Was Okay

The Barker

I didn’t realize until I saw the list of characters in the credits that this is the same story as Hoop-la, Clara Bow’s final film (1933) which I saw at the TCM Festival this year. There are some notable differences, especially that this film stays focused on the older title character, a carnival barker. The Bow film is slightly rewritten (more than slightly toward the end) to focus on her character, who is decidedly secondary here. Unfortunately, this film is pretty rote without the luminous presence of Bow, and it’s difficult to refrain from comparing them. The one major interesting thing about The Barker is that it’s right on the cusp of the sound revolution, and has several sequences in full synchronized sound, while others remain fully silent, with title cards and everything. For that bit of historical curiosity alone it’s worth checking out.
1928 USA. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Starring: Milton Sills, Dorothy Mackaill, Betty Compson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Seen August 3 at Cinefamily.

Bonnie’s Kids

It’s hard to know where to put movies like this, a soft-core exploitation film from the 1970s. I tend to find these films laughably fun, and that’s pretty much where Bonnie’s Kids fell, but it’s by no means an actual good film. Tiffany Bolling and Robin Mattson are the two kids, but Bonnie has already died before the picture starts, leaving her young daughters (one in her early 20s, the other about 15) with a potentially abusive stepfather in a town of apparent statutory rapists in waiting. They skedaddle to Hollywood where their uncle lives, and get embroiled in some sort of thievery plot he’s got going on. Part crime, part T&A, not particularly memorable nor absurd enough to be up there with Batman, but a fun bad movie to watch.
1973 USA. Director: Arthur Marks. Starring: Tiffany Bolling, Steve Sandor, Robin Mattson.
Seen August 13 on DVD.

Totals:
Films seen in August: 10
Films seen in theatres in August: 3
List of Shame films seen in August: 3
2011 films seen in August: 1
1980s films seen in August: 1
1970s films seen in August: 2
1960s films seen in August: 3
1940s films seen in August: 2
1920s films seen in August: 1
American films seen in August: 7
French films seen in August: 1
British films seen in August: 1
Italian films seen in August: 1