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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The Terminus of Longing
A genuine work of art has to feel like a miracle, a magic trick you can't fathom, can't understand why it affects you as much as it does, because it seems to do more than words or brush strokes or melodies should be able. Actual "art" really only begins once this has been achieved.
A Streetcar Named Desire has this quality - every detail in it is placed there with intention, to evoke an emotion, convey a deeper meaning. Every casual sentence overheard by a passer-by adds colour and widens the world, every glance between two people has something to say about life. No moment is there just to fill up space, to get from point a to point b. Every observation breathes with thought and feeling.
I can't help but think how far we've fallen in the 21st Century, in that a remake of this film now would be so different. Instead of the animal magnetism of Stella and Stanley Kowalski being shown to burn brighter than any outside morality, he would have to be only an abuser and she would have to be only a victim - one of the solitary flaws of the movie is the clumsy ending, changed by the censors to have Stella express resolve to not go back to him, whereas in the play she is in fact comforted by Stanley himself.
That blip aside, here life is shown as it is, rather than the way some utopian political ideology would like it to be. Every character is sympathetic, all viewpoints are valid, and hence forgiven, made understandable to the audience through the artistry of all involved. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) is shown to be deluded, vain, repressed, aloof and even racist, but she is also the tenderest human heart of the piece, who we the audience most identify with and feel for. Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) is shown to be brutish, vulgar, cruel and dumb, but he's also damn, damn sexy, and far more liberated, wild and free than his hoity-toity sister-in-law.
By the end of the film, we are led to assume that Stanley has raped Blanche, but by then of course, we may have forgotten that Blanche is a (statutory) rapist herself, having seduced her underage student, the scandal of which drove her out of Mississippi and down to New Orleans and that streetcar.
In this film, no-one is wholly wrong, and no-one is wholly right: everyone's actions make sense according to how they are themselves experiencing life. And it's made clear that if you were to live any one of their lives, you would see the world their way too. This space without judgement, that only the greatest works of art open up, is what I look for most of all in the collective creative works of man. Because it's only in true art that can we see with the mind of God.
* * *
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most strongly sexual films you will ever see, but it's sexual in its implications, in the subtext of almost every interaction in almost every scene. In almost any other film of the time, the character of Stella would have been played as an innocent, virginal Doris Day type, sexless and bright-eyed and dead inside. Whereas here, in the scene of her descending the staircase to go to her lover, she almost looks as if she is being physically led by her sex, and in the scene in bed the next morning, she looks so unmistakably, and unashamedly, carnal.
Of course, Tennessee Williams was gay, and his plays can't help but be gay plays in drag. The sexuality of the women in Streetcar is the sexuality of 1940s homosexual men projected onto legal surrogates. The miracle is that it all somehow still works and lights upon something universally recognizable and of use to everyone, in the process, paradoxically, creating one of the most unforgettable female characters in all of stage and screen.
It's a film of flawless performances, but for me, one of the best in the entire film is that of the boy who calls on Blanche, going door-to-door from 'The Evening Star': he has hardly any lines at all, says nothing about himself, and is on screen for just a little over three minutes in total, and yet in those three minutes he communicates so much more innocence, nervousness, arousal, bewilderment and sadness than anyone would otherwise have thought possible. At the end of those three minutes, he is visibly older, and we see he is changed by his encounter with this crazy old lady, quite possibly forever. It's an amazing, perfect scene in an amazing, almost perfect film.
The Mudlark (1950)
The Mudlark has a fine first half hour, filled with wonderully evocative London fog and Noir-ish photography, but runs ever more out of steam as the film progresses, ending up terribly bogged down in uninteresting talk and an unconvincing ending.
O Where Shall I Find A Virtuous Woman, For Her Price Is Above Rubies
In 1930s Edinburgh, an idiosyncratic teacher both inspires and manipulates the girls in her charge.
I'm sure it's only a matter of taste, but in my opinion the film of Muriel Spark's novel improves on it in many regards, most obviously by breathing such immortal life into the title character through the casting of Maggie Smith in her most iconic role. It's impossible, while watching it, to imagine her part played by anyone else - certainly not improved upon. Perhaps the only place the book definitively wins out is in the ending, where we find out more of what happens afterwards to Brodie and the girls in her charge, while the film leaves us hanging.
The rest of the cast is very near perfect, and Gordon Jackson, in a role of very few substantial lines, expresses volumes in his looks of gullible devotion to Miss Brodie. You could almost write another novel just based on the expressions that flicker over his face throughout. Robert Stephens is probably least convincing and most out of place, but still turns in a very memorable performance. All the girls are good too, especially Pamela Franklin as Sandy, personifying a young person's growth and change over a few short years, but it's Maggie Smith's show all the way, giving us oceans of story and subtle meaning in every preening pose, triumphant flourish and wounded stagger.
The character of Miss Jean Brodie is utterly unique and unforgettable: constantly hilarious, charming and indefatigable, but also deluded, narcissistic, selfish and coldhearted. The harm of her influence and actions is the crux of the story, and yet she is never less than a sympathetic character - admirable, human and worthy of love.
It strikes me how, if the same film were made today, the film-makers would almost certainly vilify her much more, and aggressively lecture the audience on what to think about her fascist sympathies and romanticization of Mussolini. The greatness of this film is that it doesn't do that, that no human being in it is painted as a monster or an angel, wholly good or wholly bad, but all simply troublingly, relatably, human.
This depiction of greater, wider reality is one of the truest, most unique and vital purposes of art, and what marks this film out as so special.
A Brilliant Idea That Runs Out Of Steam
It's a delightful premise: cops take over a fried chicken joint to run surveillance on a drug gang and end up becoming such a huge success they have no time left for their policework. There's lots of funny moments and quirky twists throughout, though it runs out of steam halfway through and there are too many ideas either suddenly introduced or left unexplored that don't make sense or go anywhere.
It also feels a good half hour too long, and the subtitles are noticeably very poor: a lot is clearly lost in translation, weakening all dialogue-based humour for any non-Korean speaker. None of the characters behave consistently or believably, and events play out in a very cartoonish way that makes it hard to invest in or care about any of what happens.
As I've said, there's a lot of fun moments, especially earlier in the proceedings, but it's actually one of the few Korean films I've seen that I can imagine a tighter Hollywood remake (potentially) improving on.
Lord of the Flies (1963)
A Faithful Adaptation Sunk By Poor Performances
This is a very patchy affair, mostly because of the extremely amateurish acting of the cast of children: three of the characters, Ralph, Jack and Simon, are decently portrayed and have good moments, but the rest of the 30+ boys are stilted and off, with long pauses between every sentence, as if they are all struggling terribly to recall their lines. The boy playing Piggy is by far the worst of all: his inexplicable casting in such a pivotal role is such a catastrophic misfire that the film had no hope of being salvaged even if all the other pieces - such as the lifeless pacing - had turned out right.
For all that, the film has some truly unforgettable, deeply haunting moments, especially towards the end, and is extremely brave in how unflinchingly it remains true to the spirit of such a bleak book, making it seem very out of step with almost any other British film from the same era. It seems likely to have had a large influence on Coppola's Apocalypse Now, some 15 or so years later, and also Oliver Stone's Platoon.
So it is an unusual experience, being at once a remarkable, timeless achievement AND an awkward, stumbling mess, and as such is very difficult to rate.
a sci-fi film with no special effects
Last week I rewatched Francis Ford Coppola's immortal classic Apocalypse Now, one of the great jewels of our world's cinema, a work of genius which is endlessly experienceable anew. And today I at last sat down to watch Tarkovsky's final Soviet film, Stalker, made the same year: 1979.
It's hard to ignore the contrast between these two majestic accomplishments of the East and West, one being so flashy and widescreen, the other so ponderous, bookish, slow and quiet. One feels like a fire at Disneyland, the other a radio adaptation of War & Peace by Samuel Beckett. Apocalypse Now is loud and explosive, Wagnerian, lavish and decadent with no expense spared and no bomb left unblown. Whereas Stalker is a sci-fi film with no special effects at all, and only one trick shot. It is photographed beautifully, but other than that, it could probably be recreated shot for shot by a handful of film students for zero money. The last third of Stalker, especially, feels as though it could almost be a stage production, yet still somehow retains a mystical power that has transfixed several generations now. Because there is so little involved in its making, that would seem to come down entirely to the great performances and photography.
I've seen so few Soviet-era films, but feel so aware with this that I'm witnessing a hidden, alternate 20th Century timeline of cinema, shaped without the forces of consumerism and teenage pop culture, and far more steeped in classic literature and symphonic orchestral works. I wondered if the Soviet lenses, film stock and camera cranes were different, too, and if that accounted for some of unusual qualities of the film, or whether that was all Tarkovsky.
Two other thoughts: firstly, that the only other major director he seems truly comparable to is Ingmar Bergman. And secondly, it's impossible now to observe the overgrown, abandoned 'Zone' in which the film is set and not think of Chernobyl. The resemblance is not only surface: Tarkovsky and two of the three lead actors would all be dead of cancer a few years later, some say because of the chemical waste they exposed themselves to while filming Stalker.
So yes this is a classic too, and as such it stands alone and apart from the others with a look and feel all of its own. As a story, though, I have to say the film does not seem to add up to enough, to deliver enough meaning to reward our time given to it, or even justify the genre label of sci-fi. And yet the mood, musings and dreamlike images along the way are unforgettable, and I would suspect reveal further depths upon repeated viewings.
I Call First (1967)
Who's That Knocking At My Door
...was Martin Scorsese's first movie. Shot in handheld black & white, it's very rough around the edges, experimentally edited, with lo-fi sound, and hence often feels not much more than a student film.
On the other hand, even if it is, it's MARTIN SCORSESE's student film, and hence full of little identifiable touches, refined, polished up and put to better use later on: the Catholicism, the unforgiving examinations of masculinity, the loving, detailed chronicling of post-war Italian-American life, the ubiquitous Harvey Keitel, dynamic camera movements, the pioneering integral use of rock & roll - they're all here. On that last point, I was very surprised to hear 'The End' by The Doors being used in one scene - surely the first use of it in a film, since both came out in 1967 - and I would otherwise have sworn it had its big screen debut in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', a good dozen years later.
Another big surprise for me was the dialogue, which is still sharp, snappy and youthful, and especially early on reminded me of nothing so much as Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', with its long monologues filled with pop culture observations. I found myself wondering if this one was a favourite of young Quentin Tarantino.
The scene where the two New Yorkers take a reluctant hike up a mountain put me in mind of the 'Pine Barrens' episode of The Sopranos, and also of Scorsese once saying his primary memory of the Woodstock festival was losing a cufflink: these characters look just as out-of-water as can be, anywhere further out into nature than a bagel shop.
So this is clearly a film by the same guy who made Mean Streets and Goodfellas, and yet it looks and feels like a contemporary of À bout de souffle or Jules et Jim. Which is an odd mix. In some ways, it works best to see it as a sort of American take on the French Nouvelle Vague, with an easier set of references for an english-language audience to follow.
As a fully-fledged motion picture, it's a little hard to recommend simply as an entertaining story, since it does feel a little on the cheap side, and has a good few flaws. But as an early example of Scorsese's art, it's very interesting indeed, and I'm sure any student of film would find a lot to enjoy.
The Jacket (2005)
Making my way through a bunch of time travel films I took a chance on this Adrien Brody film which I remember coming out but had never checked out before.
It's frankly a bit of a mess, with one foot in an intriguing (supernatural? medical? scientific? psychological?) miracle, and the other in its own mouth, since almost nothing it starts off rolling makes a lick of sense.
A Gulf War veteran is committed to an asylum, where he is (inexplicably) strapped into a straitjacket and slid into a mortuary cabinet, only to find he can flash forward 15 years into the future, where he meets Keira Knightley, the grown up version of a little girl he met before he was committed. There then follows an awful lot of stuff that doesn't make any sense at all and then it ends.
For a time travel, fantasy, psychological sci-fi-type thriller to work, it has to establish some ground rules that the audience can understand and invest in - no matter how fantastical - and then stick to them to the end, so the story works and no-one feels cheated. The Jacket is hopelessly incompetent in this regard: at no point do we ever understand why (or how) any of what is happening is happening, what drives the story, what the hero's goals are or anything else. And no-one, not even the poor sap being flung backwards and forwards through time, ever seems to stop and try to figure it out. Perhaps because that might encourage the audience to try do the same.
For a film only 15 years old, it looks surprisingly dated: very "Domino" and "Spun", full of noisy quick-cuts, bleached-out photography and bursts of sped-up yellow flashes for no reason. Almost all the characters play no necessary part in the story whatsoever, they just appear and say some stuff a couple of times and then we never hear from them again.
For all these glaring flaws, it still manages to be a just about watchable effort, somehow, mostly because of Brody's performance, Knightley's pretty face, and the intriguing premise, ever though that never goes anywhere or pays off. The film it most closely resembles is Jacob's Ladder, though of course it's nowhere near as dark, well-made, or original. You should probably watch that one instead, really, but this one had its moments. Not many, but some.
The Room (2019)
Not a great film, but a great little idea for a story, well-shot and adequately performed
Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but still a great little idea for a story, well-shot and at least adequately performed, that keeps one watching and wondering until the end. It put me in mind of some other low-profile, low-budget films like Triangle and Timelapse, even if not quite as well-executed.
There were some hazy gaps in the storytelling that made several key scenes unclear when they didn't have to be: the ending (getting the "son" out of the house) is a little unconvincing, and the scene with Shane forcing himself on Kate is so briefly covered, some reviewers here have not realized she is distraught at the end because she is (most likely) pregnant with his child.
It's possible better acting, writing and editing could have tweaked this into a great cult classic, but it's still an intriguing and watchable movie nonetheless, and definitely worth checking out at least once.
The Women (1939)
The Ultimate Chick-Flick
I've known about The Women for a long time, but never really felt enough of a pull to sit down and watch it until just now, and it is quite a reminder of how many 'women's pictures' there were in the past, all the way back to the silent days (which is not surprising since women made up the majority of cinema audiences back then) and this one goes the extra mile, in that 100% of its very large cast is female - all males are just passing topics of conversation and problems to be solved: we don't see even one of them in the flesh. I started enjoying thinking up a new interpretation of the movie: that all the men had died in a bizarre pandemic, and the women are so traumatized that they all keep on pretending their men are still alive, even though they never see or hear from them again. There are lots of one-way conversations on empty telephone lines in the movie that back me up on this.
Well, that's my mind for you.
The first thing that strikes me about the film are the trivialities that make up the majority of the women's concerns, and how little that has changed between then and now, even though women's outer realities today are far more filled with the drudgery of work.
The Women is almost like a moving picture version of a women's magazine, chiefly concerned with gossip, food, clothes and melodramatic worries about what other people might be thinking about you. Nothing outside of family, friends and feelings seems to exist.
But the stuff concerning Norma Shearer's dealing with her husband's infidelity is interesting and insightful, and rather timeless, and I liked all the depictions of the two-faced female friends, which are funny and refreshingly frank. It's nice that the message is all about love, commitment and reconciliation rather than selfishness and greed.
It's a well-made, well-written, well-acted film, with an amazing cast, and though I have to say a lot of the mawkish subject matter leaves me cold, I realize that I'm not the ideal audience for it, and can recognize it being quite a landmark in a soap opera-ey way. If there's been an expedition that's placed its flag higher up Mount Estrogen, I've yet to see it.
The Aeronauts (2019)
A Truly Disgraceful Rewriting of History for Political Reasons
As should hopefully now be general knowledge, this new film 'The Aeronauts' is presented as a historical biography of James Glaisher, an early balloonist, as he breaks the world record for altitude in the 1860s, yet the filmmakers have completely removed his solitary flight companion, Henry Coxwell, the man who ensured the success of the mission and saved both of their lives, and instead inserted a completely fictional female character, "Amelia Rennes", who takes over the proceedings and even narrates the damn film.
At the conclusion, Glaisher stands before the Royal Society and thanks his (fictional) Indian friend and (fictional) Rennes, saying he couldn't have done it without them, even though neither of them existed, and it ends with an implied romantic relationship between him and Rennes, even though the real life Glaisher had been married for over 20 years by this point, to Cecilia Belville, an interesting woman here edited out of history altogether.
Even without this shameful and insensitive mockery of real people's lives, the film is ridiculous on just about every other level too, and for the most part is just two TV-level actors prancing about in front of a green screen for an hour and a half. The script is awful, the acting is cringe, the CGI is obvious and dull.
All the disastrous changes mentioned above were made for purely ideological reasons, to meet some 'diversity' agenda, and with the no doubt loudly stated aim of inspiring young girls to go out and... I don't know, do the vital work of ballooning or something.
I get why some spinally-challenged people might want to leap on board that virtue-signaling express and go woo-woo, but I need it explaining to me how making up history and lying to little girls is supposed to spur them on to greatness.
A shameful blot on not only aeronautical but cinematic history, this is a new low for the ideologues hell-bent on making the world in the image of their own fantasies, no matter how many untruths they have to tell to get us there.
Zouzou with a Z
Zouzou is a very much substandard French film from the thirties, with a flimsy and unengaging story, a completely unnecessary murder subplot that is introduced (presumably for suspense) and then dealt with offscreen in about 60 seconds, and ends weakly and unconvincingly, with a whimper not a bang.
But it is a landmark movie in other ways, most obviously in the treatment of race, here being depicted by black American ex-pat Josephine Baker. It's amazing to reflect that back at home she would have had to drink from a separate water fountain and sit at the back of the bus for another thirty years after this was made, whereas here in Paris she is loved and applauded and treated like an equal by every single person she meets, everywhere she goes. It's almost like an alternate celluloid history of the 1930s, and a very refreshing one at that.
Another way it differs is in the frank depictions of nudity, which go further than even the pre-code films of Hollywood at the time would have done. Both these factors ensured it never got an approved release back in the States.
Baker is entertaining throughout, if unconvincing in the emotional scenes, and the young Jean Gabin, who is always good, adds weight and character to his too-undernourished role. It culminates in a couple of big Busby Berkeley-like musical numbers with some enormously oversized sets (a bed, a birdcage, etc). The songs aren't particularly memorable, but then watching a musical with subtitles is never going to be the best way to experience it.
It's not a very good film, but it is a likeable one, and a deeper, more positive cut of history than we are used to seeing today.
A weaker Guitry affair that still offers some charm
The introduction of the Hollywood heartthrob "Carl Erickson" is an interesting novelty but he adds nothing memorable - kind of like one of those bland singing beefcakes MGM kept forcing into the later Marx Bros films that only slowed the jokes down.
Jacqueline Delubac is as beautiful as always to look at, but it's actually Gaby Morlay who shines this time around. I'd not seen her before, but her breezy, fluid performance reminded me most of Margaret Sullavan in 'The Shop Around The Corner'. Other than that it's all a little stagebound and sometimes dull.
The best stretch by far is the long, half-hour, post-infidelity showdown between Guitry and his lover Morlay halfway through: it's well-observed, funny and insightful and covers so many different emotional bases, in such an effortless and natural way. So flippant and precise, so throwaway and sincere: exactly the kind of thing Sacha Guitry does so well.
Crime & Class
An impoverished family finds ways to worm themselves into a wealthy household, until an unexpected turn of events throws their plans into disorder.
Parasite is the best Korean film I've seen for quite awhile, though it's not without its flaws. Even allowing for poor translation, a good deal of the dialogue is weak and hard to follow, several plot threads are introduced that don't go anywhere or end up being satisfactorily explained, and too many elements (the morse code, for instance) stretch credulity and feel crowbarred in because they are necessary for the story the makers want to tell, rather than making any sense *within* that story.
But for all that, Parasite reminds me of everything that is so great and different about Korean cinema: a twisted, amoral, mischevious inventiveness, interspersing thoroughly leftfield turns with out-of-nowhere snatches of shocking and perfectly choreographed violence that make you involuntarily laugh out loud in both horror and admiration (in this instance, at a kick down some stairs). I honestly never saw the twist in this one coming at all, and it's a doozy, taking the film in an entirely different direction to what I'd been expecting.
Though not as great as its accompanying hype is saying, Parasite is still one of the most original and enjoyable films this year and definitely worth a look.
The Irishman (2019)
The Only Film I've Seen All Year
This is the only film I've seen all year.
Now don't get me wrong, I've seen a whole lot of moving images with weeping actors and swelling music and pretty lighting and expensive CGI and all that. But they weren't actually FILMS, just a bunch of stage directions and cliched gibberish thrown together by lethargic boardroom committees of affirmative action-hired hacks and screentested before herds of ADD-afflicted cattle.
This, on the other hand, is a genuine work of cinema, with every scene a pleasure, culminating in the kind of thoroughly satisfying, harmonious whole that at some undisclosed point in the past decade became just a thing of the past. It's now true to say they don't make them like this anymore: there's no identity politics, no feminism, no product placement, no hiring quotas, no awkwardly-inserted fashionable causes or talking points. Just a really good, solid story, perfectly told, beautifully shot and immaculately acted by every single player in the film. EVERYONE brings their A-game. No-one coasts and grabs the money and runs. It's as if everyone knows this is almost certainly the last mob film Scorsese will ever direct, and they all want to be a part of history, which this is. It's an instant classic.
True, it may retread ground we've walked before in earlier Scorsese movies like Goodfellas, and even later TV shows inspired by those, such as The Sopranos. But we don't care, because that ground is such a rare and rewarding place to be.
Really, the only weak spot I can think of is that de Niro never once looks or sounds like an Irishman, and his blue contact lenses occasionally make his eyes look like some kind of alien lizard. Which is a little distracting. Also, the digital de-aging was possibly not needed. But that's honestly all I can complain of: it's his best performance in over 20 years, all the way back to Jackie Brown and Casino. And it's the best Pacino has been in all that time, too. Amazing to see him working with Scorsese at last.
I don't know how much of the story is true, but then in this case I don't really care all that much, I was just glad to be along for the ride. And even after 3½ hours, I didn't want that ride to end.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Last Exit to Brooklyn
I remember hearing about Motherless Brooklyn 10, 15 years ago when reading some interview with Edward Norton. This story about a private eye with Tourette's was supposed to be his next film and it sounded intriguing, so I kept an eye out for it for a long time afterwards but then it never appeared and eventually I forgot about it.
It turns out Norton never did, and many years later finally got the go-ahead to write and direct it himself. The sad news is that, having carried his pet project for so very long, the end result is stale, uninspired, rushed and reeking of last-chance desperation. It so obviously wants to be Chinatown, or maybe LA Confidential, but never even once approaches that level of excellence, and feels instead like a quickie made-for-TV movie with a surprisingly high number of famous faces in walk-on cameos. Few of the actors seem like they fully inhabit their parts, and most look like they are briefly taking time out from some other, better paying film as a favour to Norton, although Michael Kenneth Williams acquits himself pretty well.
None of the emotional or romantic scenes convince, they seem to be there simply because the story requires it, and even Norton himself seems hurried and distracted, presumably because of his needing to watch the clock as both director and star. His Tourette's tics become annoying pretty fast and never seem like something his character is continually struggling with but rather obligatory beats necessary for maintaining character that appear when conveniently scripted. Around half the lines he speaks begin with the word 'sorry', which also begins to grate.
I feel bad making such harsh criticisms, since it's a film I really wanted to like, that I fully expected was going to be a modern film noir classic. And I guess, really, this is just me trying to figure out why it didn't turn out that way.
I think, mostly, it was because of all the time that elapsed: whatever was special about the initial spark of the novel was lost or rubbed off somewhere along the way, and all the many things added and changed - the period setting, the historical and racial politics - just make it more messier and meaningless. I get the feeling this was a film that Edward Norton made in his head many times over, many years ago, and that this final product is a half-hearted cover version of that platonic ideal. There's a tired, routine mood to the proceedings, no-one seems excited or alive in their parts, everyone just going through the motions in service of nothing very memorable at all.
A great film feels like a sumptious three course meal, but unfortunately this one just tastes like reheated leftovers.
The Day of the Jackal (1973)
The Day of the Jackal
The last time I saw The Day of the Jackal I noticed more signs of aging than before, but it's still a remarkably tense, gripping, steely-eyed political thriller that stands up much better today than most comparable things of its time.
In some ways it did for the James Bond spy world of the seventies what Jason Bourne did in the 2000s: injected realism and believability, and thereby greatly increased the tension, which Day of the Jackal has oodles of. My primary memories of it are long, slow, wordless shots of the Jackal adjusting the sights on his rifle, assessing the ever-changing situation, or coldly observing, with reptilian eyes, the human beings he plans to use next.
It's a loose contemporary of both The French Connection and The Ipcress File, as well as the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, all of which feel cut from a similar cloth and are very much worth checking out if in the mood for something in the same vein.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
A Blueprint for Something Better
Solid little "Old Dark House" comedy thriller that unfortunately pales in comparison to the superlative Bob Hope/ Paulette Goddard sound remake 12 years later. It's nowhere near as funny, the characterizations are forgettable and the thrills, chills and set-pieces of the film all markedly inferior. Still worth checking out for fans of the genre, though, to see perhaps the very first of its kind.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
A Myth in a Bottle
In the time of King James II, the son of a rebel has a smile permanently carved into his face. As an adult, the star freak in a touring carnival, he comes to the attention of certain members of the royal court...
At last I got round to seeing this classic, for even though I'd been in possession of (multiple) copies of it for quite awhile, I was waiting until I found one with the original Movietone soundtrack, which makes a great deal of difference - an original score, with sound effects, cut to the scenes by the actual filmmaker. Much better than one of those awful meandering modern piano accompaniments so many silent films are now lumbered with.
It was worth the wait: like several of the other greatest silent movies, such as The Last Command, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Steamboat Bill Jr, The Man Who Laughs one was made at the absolute peak of silent cinema, in 1928, only a year before the entire artform came crashing down overnight, cut off in its prime and replaced for the most part by a lot of talking heads yapping inanities.
It's a film which periodically resurfaces into general public consciousness, usually every time a Batman movie comes out, since the title character is well-known to have been the inspiration for The Joker, and the likeness is so unmistakable that generation after generation is moved to investigate. It has a lot more going for it than that, though, and what strikes one more is its largely perfect construction, with one marvellously composed shot after another: an endless cascade of perfectly-framed silver paintings. It's so tightly constructed, zipping along, that it brings home how far the actual art of filmmaking has fallen between then and now. Yes, there are plenty of dazzling camera moves, and fantastically detailed and elaborate sets, but they are all in service to the story, there to sink you deeper into the living, breathing, myth-in-a-bottle alternate world they are set in.
Grotesque and macabre, like the older, original pre-Disney fairytales and murder ballads, The Man Who Laughs has one foot in horror, and one foot in swashbuckling adventure, with a mood of beauty and brutality that was rare even then but all but vanished from the face of the earth now. The more time passes, the more that age recedes from view, the more of curiosity and value this film becomes.
The Letter (1940)
Such a great opening to a movie: the sound of the rubber tree dripping, the plantation workers drowsing in hammocks. The shots ringing out, a man stumbling out onto the veranda of the big house, the camera panning in to a woman gunning down the man over and over again, closing in on Bette Davis' grim mask of a face. The moon hides behind a cloud, then reappears to starkly light the scene of the crime, exposing what she did. The woman coolly instructs her men to send for the police and her husband, then retires to her bedroom. The muffled sound of her sobbing through the door.
The film never really matches the taut, detailed perfection of this beginning, and there are too few twists and surprises from here on out, but it largely retains the sultry, adult and intelligent mood up until the ending, which, although apparently added by the Hayes Office for the sake of morality, reintroduces the full moon, once again witnessing - and this time covering up - a death, in a satisfying, circular way that the play's original ending would have lacked.
I was struck while watching this what a "Woman's Picture" it is, with Bette Davis in almost every scene, and her face and name the only things one sees on the film posters of the time. It seems strange to me such a fuss is being made over women-led films today when there have been countless great movies with "strong female leads" all the way back to the silent days. To believe the effluence being squeezed out of Hollywood today is any great groundbreaking leap forward for women, one would have to believe we live in a *more* sexist, segregated and oppressive era than the time of the Suffragettes a hundred years ago. Do we?
The difference between the two ages really is how back then the sexes were presented as equal but different, the men and women interacting with one other in mutual respect, and easy, familial love and affection, whereas the female-helmed films today are, almost without exception, antagonistic, confrontational and belittling in regard to men. The films back then were all about the story, and transporting the audience to another world. Now, they are but tools for political propaganda, no longer fit for purpose as either entertainment or art.
The Mandalorian (2019)
Everything Star Wars Fans Have Been Hoping (and Asking) For
So I've just finished watching the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, which I'm pleased to report are grand - everything Star Wars fans have been hoping (and repeatedly asking) for since Return Of The Jedi, really, all those years ago. It's like Jar-Jar and bratty Anakin and the midichlorians and all the current SJW Disney movie abominations never happened. So far not one bit of identity politics has been crowbarred in, it's instead been simply lots and lots of what the fans actually want: plausible action and adventure unfolding in an intriguing and respectful manner in a story that further explores and deepens the universe they love.
If there's a fault, it may actually be that it crowd-pleases too much, at the expense of originality and character development: the bounty hunter himself is at present a bit of a blank space with nothing recognisably his own to set him apart from all the other stormtroopers and Boba Fetts of the past. The lack of facial features also adds to the feel of him being simply a video game avatar, and the whole show feels very comic book-like in its simplicity, but in a very entertaining way that the movies have been missing for so long.
I don't know where it's going to go, and it could all collapse into the usual virtue-signaling garbage even before the end of the first season, but putting Jon Favreau at the helm of it has so far been an inspired move and offers up a potential approach for the future that may even wind up saving the franchise. If Disney knew what they were doing they would oust Kathleen Kennedy tomorrow and put Favreau in charge of tightly overseeing anything with the words 'Star Wars' attached.
A Savagely Funny Evisceration of Modern Womankind
I knew nothing about this going in, and could only find one review on the interwebs, which I was confused to find REALLY didn't like it, until halfway down I started reading terms like "internalized misogyny" and then realized what type of person must have written it, and that just made me want to watch it all the more.
The 'crazy cat lady' bus, right at the beginning of the show, is hysterical, and sets up the absurd leaps of imagination that mark out the journey it sets us on as something special. The whole show, really, is just a savagely funny evisceration of modern womankind - the cliques, the backstabbing, the shallow Instagram artifice and feel-good Oprah-approved fads and philosophies. It's all the funniest parts of Lena Dunham's Girls, played only for laughs in a endlessly imaginative way. I found the pilot episode delightful.
The Stick Up (1977)
A Cut-Price Comedy Bonnie & Clyde
It's always intriguing to find an old movie no-one's here's reviewed before. Sometimes they turn out to be buried treasure: this one turns out to be yet another shoddy-looking British production from the 1970s with a fish-out-of-water American lead.
David Soul was always too broad for anything but TV, but he's likeable enough here and the rest of the cast add local colour and charm. It's cheaply shot but the rural locations are quaint and atmospheric.
The Stick-Up aims to be a cut-price comedy Bonnie & Clyde - or perhaps Paper Moon - and succeeds in creating at least a few agreeable moments in a mildly Withnail-like setting.
There's No *There* There
Some great little scenes here and there (the 'Allahu Akbar' payoff was very, very funny) but for the most part this series seemed like a meandering and overlong corporate attempt to make something that *appears* challenging and fresh (and award winning), without any solid story or characters at the center.
There's no sense or meaning to Carrey's saint/psycho flashes - they just feel like jump scares in a horror film: there only to keep people watching. None of the other characters - of which too many are introduced, to pad out the story length - feel fully fleshed out and real.
Tonally all over the place, Kidding feels like it was written by committee and so impossible to discern what it means or what it is trying to say. It never hangs together enough to get a sense of recognizable identity. Nothing builds to anything truly satisfying or emotionally true, even though that is clearly what the makers felt they were achieving.
For all that, it has its moments, and there are a number of clever and witty things to enjoy along the way to nowhere.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
The Nice Little Film That Dreamed Too Big
I rewatched this again tonight for the first time since it came out, and remembered nothing at all about it going in but the premise, along with the lingering impression that it was a fairly likeable mainstream Hollywood attempt at fabricating some of that elusive Charlie Kaufman "Being John Malkovich" magic and acclaim.
And the thing is, it's such a lovely premise - a man becomes aware he is a character in a book and due to be killed off - but the film has no way of satisfactorily ending it. It aspires to have as grand a finale as Emma Thompson's character's novel within the film, but likewise chickens out and so ends up a puzzling and pointless mediocrity, which no amount of swelling music, uplifting montages and platitudes can obscure.
I enjoyed my time spent with the characters, and indeed, there's a lot to like about every one of them, and every actor playing them. But by the end one feels, unfortunately, that it has been all for nothing and that the filmmakers were floundering out of their depth almost from the start, not knowing what they wanted to say or how to say it.