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Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)
Love the feminism in this one
The story is simple, but Joan Crawford is one of those empowering roles that are such a feature of the pre-Code era, and you get Clark Gable in just his 3rd film as well. The setup is that a rich family living it up in the roaring 20's go bust with the stock market crash. Not only do they lose everything but the father dies on the exchange floor, leaving behind two kids (Joan Crawford and William Bakewell) who have never held jobs or gotten an education. While the son can't fathom working and would prefer to sit around getting drunk (a nice little critique of the spoiled rich), he eventually gets involved with bootleggers. The daughter, on the other hand, is a plucky young woman who turns down a marriage proposal that would have made her rich, and goes out and becomes a newspaper reporter instead.
You can probably guess what I love about Crawford's character. She's a modern woman who looks great out on the dance floor, believes in "trying love out on approval" (a scene which clearly signals pre-marital sex), and would rather work and be independent than settle for the traditional role of wife. Her brother is incredulous, leading to this exchange:
Bonnie (Crawford): "I'm not going to do any of those stupid, silly, conventional things. You'd be surprised what a girl can earn when she sets her mind to it. I'm no dud." Rodney (Bakewell): "You've got the looks, kid. Trade on 'em. Open up a beauty parlor. ..." Bonnie: "That's your idea of me, huh? Beautiful but dumb. All right, I'll show you. I'm going out to get a man-sized job."
That second dance she does when she's working undercover in the gangster's nightclub to get a story is delightful and evokes the flapper era, but to me the feminism in the film is what makes it a solid film, despite its basic plot. Crawford is not known for her on-screen charm, but she summons it here, and does well in the various aspects of her role - society woman, flapper, newspaper reporter, and love interest (hey, the complete woman). Gable is suitably tough as the gang leader, and he and Crawford have great chemistry together. I didn't care for the contrived confrontation which occurs and how the film ends though, which was really unfortunate, and kept it from a higher rating.
Another quote, from Gable to Crawford after her dance: "You got me going, sister." "Can I depend on it?" "In a big way."
Black Narcissus (1947)
Gorgeous production value
With Powell and Pressburger it always seems to be a beautiful production, and this one is no exception. The colors, lighting, camera angles, framing ... it's all top-notch. The set design which creates the illusion that the mission is on the edge of a cliff in the Himalayas is excellent, and I loved how the walls of the building the nuns us is covered with frescoes depicting nudity and the joys of secular living, having been the residence for a harem previously. Cut off from the world, living on a cliff and in primitive conditions, the little group of five nuns is pushed physically and spiritually to the edge, and all the more so because one of them is mentally disturbed.
There are nice performances from both Deborah Kerr (the young nun put in charge) and Kathleen Byron (the troubled nun who slowly unravels). The latter has several terrific moments with a look which is truly scary; it's as if she has a devil inside her. Kerr's character looking back at her life before she became a nun, when she was being courted by a young man, is also a great touch; it humanizes her and adds so much more depth to her character as the film plays out. Less successful is David Farrar (an English expatriate living in the area who helps/taunts the nuns); I think he overplayed his big scene, and should have had a little more clothing on in general.
Similarly, the plot is uneven. The dynamic between Kerr and Byron's characters is fantastic, as is their climactic scene, which is full of tension and very well directed. The smaller subplots, including a 17-year-old orphan girl taken in (Jean Simmons in brownface, ugh) and a young man eager to learn (Sabu) feel like filler. If the film had shown us more of the interior thoughts of the five nuns as they struggled along instead it would have been better, and also ratcheted up the tension. As it is, aside from the big moment, I'm not sure I really felt that. There is a goodbye moment that is very nice though, with a glance up at the clouds slowly enveloping the building, followed by a feathery soft handshake and knowing glances, topped off by a cute short-legged pony trying to steal the scene by throwing his head back a couple of times.
Lastly, and I can't really escape commenting on this, there is an unfortunate air of superiority pervading the film. The natives are referred to as primitive people who are like children in one scene, and as all looking alike in another, and both by positive characters. The premise, a group of nuns in India there to convert people to Catholicism, is problematic in and of itself, but it's never examined or questioned. There seems to be symbolism in their leaving at a time when Britain was facing the beginning of an era of decolonization all over the world, but it's not in an introspective or reflective way, it comes across as concluding the place was simply too wild, and worse off for them leaving. It's all part of the context and beliefs of the period, but it's just not something I cared for.
Why Be Good? (1929)
Lost until the late 1990's and then only restored in 2014, this is a real gem to have found. It's a playful film that evokes the era of the roaring 20's as well as any other, and has a nice bit of feminism in it as well. The two young people (the delightful Colleen Moore and dapper Neil Hamilton) push against the boundary of what was considered acceptable, and more importantly, she sticks up for herself, first with her parents and then with him. Her character, Pert Kelly (what a perfect name) the "hot potato", asserts her freedom with this line to her father:
"Pop, listen to me! This is 1929 - not 1899 - I contribute as much money to this house as you do - and as long as I think it is harmless, I'm going to wear what I like, and do what I like! I want to go out, and dance, and have fun, as long as I can, as much as I can!"
She can take care of herself; when a sleazy guy comes on to her, she plays along but is always in control, but when a guy comes along that she does like (Hamilton), she's not afraid to kiss him first. She's confident, saying to her friends, "Sure, I'm good! I'm just naturally too hot for this old folks' home!" At the same time, we see how her having fun and dancing wildly forces her to beware of being considered a "bad girl", or to be taken advantage of by a man. She just wants to be herself and yet has to thread the needle to be acceptable to everyone around her. This leads to this fantastic line:
"You men! You insist on a girl being just what you want - and then you bawl her (out) for being it."
Unfortunately, the feminist message is a little undercut by the women ("girls") in the office who are late to work putting on pouty, little girl airs to try to seduce the boss, though I confess I found the scene amusing.
The plot is simple but it's loaded with fantastic intertitles featuring 1920's slang, and it's got some nice art deco sets to go along with all the flapper outfits and dancing. While the film is a great time capsule of that era, the scenes of the younger generation struggling against the older are timeless. The fathers of both are shown to be too old-fashioned, but her mother (Bodil Rosing, who is wonderful) is more understanding, and has some really lovely scenes with Moore. In an interview for the film, Moore pointed out the hypocrisy of the older generation by saying "Is it any worse for a girl to call kissing 'necking' and admit she does it, than it was for her mother to call it 'spooning' and deny it?" Hamilton added, "It's all in the point of view... Our parents probably scandalized our grandparents, and our kids will probably look back on us as a lot of old fogies." It seems you can repeat these lines for every generation.
This film marked the end of an era not just for America, but for Colleen Moore, who would only appear in a few sound movies afterwards. She's wonderful.
Creative story-telling, interesting mystery, and I liked the payoff at the end. I thought it took a little too long to get there and was repetitive in its overlapping bits, so I got a little less caught up in the cleverness of it all than others. Part of me felt it was too contrived, and part of me wondered why the main character didn't just take copious notes rather than scrawl single lines on photos and tattoo himself, or better yet, shoot videos of himself. How could he be functional on his own, driving, etc in this state? How does he even remember that he has a memory problem? The reverse story-telling is intricate, maybe too much so, or maybe some of it was just lost on me. I just felt it was a decent film, with an average plot, performances, and cinematography, but told in a creative way.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Ahead of its time in seeing not just the power of television, but also in the danger of a populist swaying public opinion and being corrupted by his own power. A stellar performance from Patricia Neal, who is expressive and fresh, as well as Andy Griffith, who is so marvelous that I wish he had spent more time on the big screen instead of television. I also love Walter Matthau here.
Underneath Lonesome Rhodes' homey charisma is a con man, beneath the Vitajex pills that promise male vigor is a composition of mostly sugar and inert matter, and behind a politician's surge in the polls is a folksy manipulation of the common people of the country. The satire is incredibly sharp here. Unlike the demagogues in the real world who spew hatred amidst all their lies, this one is all smiles, but it's still a smoke and mirrors show, and frankly terrifying. It's all about personal enrichment, power, and sex, while at the same time harboring a secret disdain for the yokels, and they're of course not without blame either. "There's nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind - of the ordinary man," a banner of his blares - yes, but that's not always in a positive sense.
You can see this film's reflection in American politics in a steady progression ever since it was made, from the Kennedy/Nixon debate three years later all the way though the election of Donald Trump. It's just extraordinary, and so well made by director Elia Kazan. Couldn't recommend this one more highly.
Quote: "You were taken in, just like we were all taken in. But we get wise to them, and that's our strength."
The Tree of Life (2011)
Breathtaking in its imagery, profound in its message. It's a film that aims to be everything, and comes as close as any to achieving it. There are many ways of looking at it through a religious lens - the parable of Job, the stern father (Brad Pitt) as the Old Testament and the sweet mother (Jessica Chastain) as the New, and the scene on the beach as the hereafter - but the film's message transcends religion, and is quite simply awe-inspiring. We suffer in our lives and do unkind things to one another, but the film reminds us we are very small in the grand scheme of things, which is a truism regardless of one's faith. All we have are these fleeting moments, and should see the beauty in all that's around us, including each other, and be compassionate. Chastain whispering this line is one of my all-time favorite moments in cinema: "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." And Terrence Malick's visuals are beyond extraordinary; though his lens we see miracles, poetry, and grandeur. There are some small elements to nitpick at (e.g. the compassionate dinosaur), but I love the grand vision and how he told this story. It makes me see my own life and the world around me differently, and is deserving of being called a masterpiece.
Kawaita hana (1964)
Lean, dark, and atmospheric
If you like your film noir lean and atmospheric, this is probably for you. It also has elements of yakuza, sun tribe, and existentialism, and so seems to blend genres, but at the same time, it's completely focused. The cinematography is wonderful - the scenes at night driving, the stares from across the gambling table, and narrow streets all come to mind - and the audio is too, with a great mix of loud cacophony and scenes so quiet you could hear a pin drop. A murder to the sound of an opera aria is pretty cool, and seems like it must have influenced other directors. The film also benefits from a magnetic couple of actors in the lead roles, Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga. His detached persona fits a remorseless killer perfectly, just as her enigmatic look fits her character's recklessness.
What's haunting about the film is that both characters are so bored with life that they turn dispassionately to crime and gambling. At the outset of the film he's just gotten out of jail for killing a rival gang member, and while looking at people in crowded Tokyo, says "What are they living for? Their faces are lifeless, dead. They're desperately pretending to be alive." As for the murder he committed, "slaughtering one of these dumb beasts," as he puts it, he says "It's a strange feeling. Somebody died, but nothing has changed." As for her character, named Saeko (a homonym for Psycho, surely not accidentally) she needs to raise the stakes on her obsessive gambling to feel anything, dabbles in drugs for the same reason, and says in a wonderful moment "I wish the sun would never rise. I love these wicked nights." The two are so striking and cool, and yet it's as if they're nearly dead within, empty and in need of something positive to live for. Weirdly, though the two seem attracted to each other, when they end up in bed together while hiding during a police raid, they choose to talk about the flower card game rather than make love.
There is something about these sentiments in a post-war Japan still searching for itself, and a director like Masahiro Shinoda trying to usher in the New Wave, that's powerful. It may rate even higher with a film connoisseurs for just how clean it is, but it left me wishing there had been a little more plot development. Still a very good film though, and one that may be better on a second watch.
Sabita naifu (1958)
Average yakuza/noir film
Far too wordy and expository in its script, with plot points explained by characters ad nauseum, making even its modest 90 minute run time seem long. The film goes for something pretty interesting, with crimes committed by the yakuza going unreported out of fear, and events of the past resurfacing to suck a guy who is trying to go straight back into tangling with the gang. He also wonders if he killed the wrong guy in retaliation.
Unfortunately, the execution left a lot to be desired, with questionable character actions, telegraphed plot developments, and some pretty awful fight scenes. The incredibly hammy acting during a death by poison scene should be shown to all young actors as an example of how not to do it. I loved the idea of the larger, unseen force behind organized crime, when we find the kingpin himself is taking orders from someone, but those moments are tarnished later when the mystery man reveals himself and acts in a silly way. Joe Shishido ("Joe the Ace"), who sadly just passed away at 86, appears pre-cheek augmentation surgery in a small role, and may have ended up being the highlight for me.
Idi i smotri (1985)
There's a moment in 'Come and See' when director Elem Klimov directly references Tarkovsky's classic 'Ivan's Childhood' - it's when the boy peers down into a well and sees his reflection in the water - and there are probably all sorts of other parallels as well, such as that beautiful scene when he's in the forest shaking the tall trees with the girl to make the water splash down. It really made me want to see the films back to back and compare them in their imagery, camera technique, and what they tell us about the Russian experience during the war. This film is certainly darker (much darker, my god), and a part of me thinks that Klimov was building on the great Tarkovsky's work and saying that this was Ivan's real childhood, a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.
I don't think anyone who watches the film can ever forget the horrifying images of the German army running amok over a Byelorussia village and burning its people alive. That it's accurate - and just one of 628 such atrocities - is truly mind-numbing. But Klimov also gives us indelible visuals earlier in the film, such as the when the boy and girl run down the muddy road in search of his family, and she looks back to see a pile of corpses against the house, or later when they wade through the muck of a bog that comes up to their chests and looks like it might drag them down to their deaths. The scene in the fog on the farm as they scavenge for food and steal a cow is memorable too. The German army is distant for much of the film, bombing from above in the forest scene (for which the audio effects are extraordinary), shooting from afar, and driving troop trucks by in the mist. They're distant, that is, until they're not, and then it's overwhelming.
The Soviet Union made some tremendous films about the war ('The Ascent', a film from Klimov's wife, the great Larisa Shepitko, also comes to mind), and this is certainly one of the very best; it has to be on a short list for greatest war movies of all time. There is a patriotic feeling to the film in the stern look the partisan leader gives the Germans and a pride in the perseverance of the Russian people, but mostly this is a sorrowful film about the horror of war coupled with a desire to never let what happened be forgotten. It certainly succeeds in that, because that's what this film is - unforgettable.
Quote, from Revelation 6:7-8: "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
First Reformed (2017)
Cui bono? Who profits?
The starting point of this film is certainly Ingmar Bergman's 'Winter Light' - in both films, the priest of a small church speaking to a handful of worshippers is approached by a pregnant woman whose husband is distraught over a crisis which threatens the world. In both films, the priest is a war veteran who is dealing with his own spiritual doubts and angst, and who cruelly rebuffs his former lover (or wife). In both films, the woman's husband commits suicide out of despair. The film is an update of Bergman's work and maybe at a perfect time, as the threat of nuclear annihilation has transitioned to the more imminent threat of global warming in this generation.
The early scene between the priest (the brilliant Ethan Hawke) and the troubled young man was incredible, and really shook me. The man lays out his reasons for despair, and the ethical problem of bringing a child into this world. The priest listens and responds thoughtfully, saying among other things:
"Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself."
I identified with the points both men made, and it's easily a five star scene for me. Some other bits that stuck out for me in what follows:
- The need for organized religion to be a leader on climate change and be a force in social progress as it has been in its best moments, from Jesus rejecting material wealth to the priest's church having served as a way station for the Underground Railroad.
- The role of big business and their powerful hold over the status quo, despite the environmental damage we see all around us - contributions to the priest's church, and as we know, contributions to Washington. "I mean, who benefits? Cui bono? Who profits? That's what I keep asking myself," the priest says in his interior monologue.
- That beautiful moment of touching between Hawke and Amanda Seyfried's characters. Even when we're communing so closely with another person and feeling as one with the universe, we cannot escape thoughts of what we've done to our planet, and what it means to our descendants.
- The Thomas Merton references. He was a Catholic priest who was refreshingly non-dogmatic and open-minded to other paths to spiritual enlightenment, reading and writing books on Eastern philosophies and religions.
It's in these things - the courage to stand up, and in love and tolerance for others - that we have our only chance. The film is brutally honest in its solemn despair over the reality we find ourselves in, but I kind of wish a little more of this hope had found its way into the script. Also while it's interesting to frame it from the perspective of a priest and religious faith at a time when faith is so hard to hold on to, I think the question is not "Will God forgive us?", but "Will our children forgive us?" which I find much more powerful.
High Life (2018)
A bleak view of humanity
Just wasn't for me. I kept hoping for a payoff to the slow pace, questionable premise, and disquieting sex stuff, but it just didn't happen, or at least, in any big way, which was disappointing. I think I got bogged down in the illogic of it all, when the point of the film is probably more its aesthetic, and saying things about the frailty and flaws of the human condition, set against the vast cosmos.
This is certainly no grand vision of humanity boldly going where no man has gone before. There barely seems to be a plan, and they're going pretty damn lethargically. Instead of a dashing crew of leaders and scientists, the best of humanity, it's a group of convicts, some of whom you wouldn't trust with your car. The idea brings to mind Australia or Georgia, but to do that in space, I don't know. How order is maintained and the prohibition against sex is upheld seems pretty implausible. Come to think of it, why there'd be such a prohibition and in its place a (good grief) and attempts at coerced artificial insemination seems kinda strange too. How there is any hope for success, I don't know, and neither could I tell you how life on this shabby ship is possibly sustainable for years on end. It seems like a cruel mission in its inception, pointless and doomed from the start.
So all that points to a more symbolic journey, and to show mankind as a violent species in their fragile little ship in the vastness of space, governed by a repressive pseudo-religion that does more harm than good, bound for certain oblivion. We can be kept alive like those plants in the greenhouse, like parts in a machine, but we'll never quite completely behave. When we die, we float off into blackness, solemnly returning our atoms to the universe, the scenes of which truly are chilling. The film is highly existential, and it's telling that even the communications from back on earth are just a series of random, meaningless images. Maybe this is what Claire Denis is saying it is to be human, and maybe she has a point, but extended to 110 minutes and with such utter heaviness made it tough for me. She definitely committed to this unflinching, unromanticized vision and for that I suppose she should get some credit, but I just didn't think there was enough intelligence or balance in the script.
As for the cast, it's a mixed bag, from the solid (Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche), to the intriguing (Mia Goth), and to the wooden (Jessie Ross, who is teenage Willow). I loved the visuals of the black hole, which are grand and terrifying, as well as the ambiguity of the ending, even if it does feel like a 2001 wannabe. As for the Solaris comparisons, aside from pace, I just don't see it.
O. Henry's Full House (1952)
A little uneven, but entertaining
An homage to O. Henry, featuring five of his short stories, an interesting collection of actors and directors, and narrated by John Steinbeck. It starts strong, with the first story featuring Charles Laughton in the role of an erudite tramp and a brief appearance from Marilyn Monroe, the second with a fantastic performance from Richard Widmark, and some nice visuals in the third, which was directed by Jean Negulesco. O. Henry's stories have bits of irony, humor, and little twists at the end, and are entertaining in a gentle, quaint kind of way. There is an unevenness to how well they translated to the screen, especially in the fourth story, directed by Howard Hawks, but I was entertained, and touched by O. Henry's humanism. I also loved seeing Steinbeck in his only film appearance.
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
Light fare, but it had me at the start with the credits, where we see the names placed next to various African masks that seem to capture their personalities. Early on the film is at its strongest, with some nice cinematography from James Wong Howe, and we're introduced to quite a cast. Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) is very cute here, Jimmy Stewart is great as always, Jack Lemmon puts a flourish into his supporting role, and Kim Novak made a believer out of me. She is so silky and feline that it helps close the age gap between her and Stewart (they were 25 and 49), though not entirely. The scene where she's holding her purring cat and humming while staring at Stewart, trying to enchant him into loving her, is the film's best. Another nice moment is when he flings his hat off the top of the Flatiron building and the camera follows it fluttering all the way to the ground. However, it needed a little more menace or a struggle to win Stewart over; once he is and abruptly dumps his fiancée, it starts unraveling a bit. The shift to an author who shows up who is writing a book about witches is not great. You can clearly see the influence on the TV show Bewitched as Novak's character wrestles with a relationship with a normal guy, and with actors involved, the film never completely loses its way.
Ocean's Eleven (1960)
Loaded with star power, but a weak script
There is an old school cool factor to this film and it's of course loaded with star power. What an interesting idea too, to have the real-life Rat Pack who frequented Las Vegas play characters who plan a big heist of five of its casinos. Seeing Sammy Davis, Jr. croon a tune, Dean Martin roll off his lines so effortlessly, and Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford banter over scotch carries with it a certain appeal.
Unfortunately, it's got issues throughout, and is completely underwhelming. In the first phase of the movie, the guy whose idea the heist was (Akim Tamiroff) is weak and silly (probably to make the others appear cooler, but he's completely extraneous and annoying), Sinatra is a little too dickish around women, and it takes over 50 minutes to assemble the gang. In the second phase, the crime itself isn't nearly sophisticated (or difficult) enough, character motivations are suspect, and the casino bosses and Las Vegas police are laughably weak. In the last phase, a minor character (Caesar Romero), a streetwise guy who already has it made (he plans to wed one of the gang's rich mothers) conveniently shows up and suddenly assumes a position of authority. The very ending of the film is good, but the script in general is just a mess. It needed editing down and as much effort put into making it smarter as was put into working in the wink wink nudge nudge jokes about what goes on in Las Vegas.
On top of that, you also get the old school misogyny to go along with the old school cool. Angie Dickinson plays Sinatra's estranged wife and we see her stand up to him early on, but as she carries a torch for him, later we see her "stand by her man" when one of his lovers tries to tell her of his infidelity. Don't be fooled by the movie poster, her part is laughably small in the film. Oh, and then there's these charming lines that the boys utter while standing around the pool table:
Sinatra: You know what's a good idea? Take a couple of hundred big ones, and do something for world peace, like buying out the Miss Universe contest. Get rid of the parades and all that jazz, and just sit around and talk to the girls, one by one. Find out how things are in Sweden. Or invite them for a weekend in New Orleans, Raymond's(?) gin fizzes and oysters Rockefeller... Lawford: Nah, I don't like that goodwill approach. Use your loot right. You can order them to New Orleans for the weekend. Sinatra: Like to explain that professor? Lawford: It's simple, by turning money into power. Think I'll buy me some votes and go into politics. Davis, Jr: Hey now that's a good idea, big boy, you'd make a good notary public. Sinatra: He'd make a better coroner - one of them laughing coroners. Martin: I'm the one that's going into politics. Davis, Jr: What's going to be your platform, big Sam? Martin: Repeal the 14th and the 20th Amendment, take the vote away from the women, and make slaves out of them. Davis, Jr: (sarcastically): Hey now that's something that's real constructive. Sinatra: Hey, will it cost much? Martin: Oh no, we'd have the price controlled. No inflation on slaves. Lawford: Vote for Sam Harmon, help stamp out mental health.
They're joking around of course, but good lord on the sentiment behind all this, which is beyond unpleasant. It was also hard not to think of Donald Trump, who was 14 when the film came out and soon to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars, as he would literally buy the Miss Universe competition, use his power to creepily take advantage of the young women in it, and then use his money to go into politics. His knowledge of the Constitution is similarly challenged (it was the 13th and 19th Amendments), and his platform involved diminishing women's power, in his case over their reproductive rights. I'm stretching the point but it's just not a good association.
I really wanted to like this one more, but just couldn't.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Rachmaninoff and Marilyn
Peak Marilyn. She's funny, sexy, and absolutely charming, and it's also of course got that iconic moment over the subway grate. I've also always liked Tom Ewell in this. As silly as his character is and as stagey as his monologues are, I think he's funny and satirizes married men with wandering eyes pretty well. He has ridiculous fantasies, clumsily tries to put the moves on a younger woman, and is wracked by guilt. I absolutely love the scene where he plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 to set the mood (both in fantasy and reality), and how it was incorporated into the soundtrack. Another nice little moment is when he's fixing a couple of Tom Collins for the two of them, going on about how it couldn't have been chance for them to have met, while she's talking to herself about needing to return a fan to a store. I like how spare the story is, and the various one-liners in the script. Director Billy Wilder lamented making the film under the Production Code, and it is a shame that some things were censored, but Monroe's appeal can't be denied. I like it for what it is, a product of its time for sure, and a harmless sex comedy.
Favorite line: "Miss Morris, I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast. As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours."
Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918)
Dramatic and well-paced
The stunning Lappland scenery and seeing Victor Sjöström made this one enjoyable for me, despite a little creakiness in the early going. The setup, actually told in a flashback, reminded me of Les Miserables in that a man (Sjöström) turns to theft out of poverty, but instead of the local parson forgiving him as in that work, he jails him instead. Perhaps there is commentary on the church in this, and the need to show a little kindness to the less fortunate, since everything that happens to this decent guy stems from that incident. Anyway, he breaks out of jail, finds work on a farm, and falls in love with the owner (Edith Erastoff), but his past is never far behind.
The film gets good and the drama increases when the pair flee to the mountains, where they live a rugged life and have a baby girl. There are several moments at a cliff that are quite tense, and one that seems hard to fathom (I mean, really hard to fathom). Maybe the film shows us what desperation will drive people to, aside from the theft - jealousy, turning on one another, and acts you'd never think possible. Set against the grand scenery of those timeless mountains and waterfalls though, the human struggle seems especially small, even when it is gripping.
The pace is quite good at 73 minutes - intertitles are kept to a minimum, and the story, while simple, moves along nicely. At times it feels like the psychological drama is as claustrophobic as the wilderness is wide open. The film is obviously a bit stiff to modern eyes, but it seems clear that for 1918, it was ahead of its time.
Young Mr. Jazz (1919)
A Harold Lloyd short that's worth it to see a glimpse of the beachwear of the period and the toughs in the Bowery Café, a place "so rough even the sandpaper has to sand in line." The periscope snorkeling bit under the sand was clever, the dancing, pickpocketing, and fighting in the Bowery were entertaining, and Bebe Daniels was pretty cute too. It's not the greatest thing ever but there were no lame bits and it's a good short for the period.
A Sammy in Siberia (1919)
Pretty average stuff
A Harold Lloyd short that's harmless enough but not all that sophisticated. Brr it's cold in Siberia, especially for the guy from California. Haha, look at how silly those (highly stereotypical) Bolsheviks are. Oh, be careful of that dog named Fidovitch. Maybe the best bit is when Harold lays down behind a log and kicks the Russians one by one so that they all tumble down the snowy embankment. And here I was hoping for a Samoyed doggo based on the title.
Dare mo shiranai (2004)
Four adorable kids, one horribly negligent mom, and several ridiculously absent fathers. It's difficult to contain the emotions while watching this film, but the story is told with such dignity and simplicity that it helps. We also see scenes of curiosity and play, perhaps signaling that the most pure parts of childhood can't be completely subverted, and there was somehow the glimmer of an uplifting spirit to the kids sticking together, despite the film's immense sadness.
I love how restrained the direction was from Kore-eda and the acting from the two eldest kids (Yuya Yagira and Ayu Kitaura). With earnest or downcast eyes and no soundtrack in the background, director and actors allow the viewer to fill in the outrage and pain, whereas in a lesser film we'd see overly weepy faces or hear weepy music. When a song is used late in the film, it's all the more powerful as a result, like a release.
Kore-eda also wisely refrains from judging people, even the mother (who is very well played by You), and there is such thoughtful humanism in his approach. Throughout the film we also see beautiful cinematography in everything from big city shots to small little details, like raindrops hitting the pavement. It's a beautiful world and one with amazing technology, but nobody seems to know or care about these kinds of cruelties to innocent children. It's a film that reminds you of this in the sweetest, most heart-rending way possible, and it certainly made me swallow hard.
Things to Come (1936)
Great concept, awful execution
Fascinating concepts especially given the context, with WWII just around the corner, but god-awful execution. Every time a character opens his mouth we get nothing that comes close to resembling authenticity. The film has some of the most wooden writing and acting I think you'll ever find.
It's a shame, because the first half or so is chilling, and the last half hour shows man reaching for space, which is pretty cool for 1936. The first part shows the next world war lasting for 30-40 years, involving horrible biochemical weapons, and leaving the planet in ruins. A pandemic breaks out and further devastates humanity, ushering in a new Dark Age where man has lost key bits of technical knowledge, such as flight. Imagine seeing that in the theater at the time, with nationalism rising, a global depression, and the very real threat of war hanging over the world. After civilization is resurrected by a group of superior men called "Wings Over the World" and many decades of progress later, scientists plan on sending a manned space capsule to the moon by shooting it out of a giant "space gun." They run into resistance in the form of a group led by artists who want technical progress stopped and for people to simply enjoy life.
The story line from H.G. Wells is progressively less prescient after the war, despite the space exploration bit. The idea that a group of Übermensch scientists would essentially come out of nowhere and then not fall prey to their own political problems is laughable. The idea that the biggest conflict facing the world would then be controversy over exploring the moon is too. For such grand scope of imagination of the "things to come," the film is flat and one dimensional. There are some decent enough effects showing the progress of technology in the last half hour, but the combination of a weak story and heavy-handed dialogue made it tough to enjoy by the time I got there. I wish I could round it up a bit based on the effort and context, but I have to be true to my experience, and this is one I would never want to watch again.
Solid horror film
Solid throughout and I really appreciated the fact that it was a horror film with intelligence. This family has a ton of baggage and some of the best (and most horrifying) scenes are of them just trying to work through their emotions. Tony Colette is outstanding, and Milly Shapiro as the daughter has the perfect look for the film. Somehow though it didn't quite stick the landing, which just seemed simplistic and a bit of a letdown, especially based on the film's hype. Loved some of the visual touches, e.g. the camera descending vertically beneath the ground when a casket is lowered. I just wish it all could have tied together a little differently.
Beautiful film, and Pugh is a revelation
Florence Pugh is tremendous from the very start, with that extraordinary first scene where she conveys so many emotions in her face while on the phone. It's a terrific performance and I can't wait to see more from her.
I love how well Ari Aster writes/directs scenes with deep grief and emotions in both this film and Hereditary. The actors have to deliver of course and they do, but there is such honesty in the material and the amount of time he spends on it that it adds considerable depth to the horror that follows.
This is also quite simply a gorgeous film. The colors, camera angles, ceremonies, nature scenery, those slightly off-kilter roofs on the buildings ... it's all so visually stunning. The soundtrack definitely keeps up with it too.
It may go on a teeny bit too long especially since we see the gist of what's coming, but on the other hand, it allows for this culture to be rendered so completely in every disturbing little way, and I was engaged to the end.
Quote: "I'm trying to keep an open mind though. That's cultural, you know? We stick our elders in nursing homes; I'm sure they find that disturbing. I think we really need to just at least try to acclimate."
Geomeun meori (1964)
Great cast, bad script
The best thing this film has going for it is its cast, which features Jang Dong-hee (a gangster), Moon Jeong-suk (his wife), Lee Dae-yeob (a taxi driver turned badass hero), and a bevy of dramatic looking henchmen. They all have good screen presence, and turn in solid performances as well. There is some camp appeal to this film coming out of South Korea in 1964, but unfortunately its script is weak, and it comes off very much as a generic, B noir.
There is also a fair bit of misogyny, which left me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The main story is that the wife is raped and a photo of her in a compromising position is shown to her husband, so without seeing her he has her disfigured and discards her, so she turns to prostitution - and yet somehow she's at fault for not having reported it as rape to begin with, and continues to carry a torch for him. There's also the gangster's nanny, who suckled him until he was ten (ew), and says that it's her fault he turned out the way he did, because her milk was bad (ugh). Even the good guy announces that women are blockheads at one point. Meanwhile, the men are all operating according to some rigid code, which while stupid, somehow puts the lowlife criminals on a higher moral plane.
Despite all that, there was some hope in the first half of the film, because of the desperate situation the wife finds herself in, on the street and amidst opium smokers, as well as how hardened the husband is. When his gang questions his toughness, he plunges a knife into the back of his hand and asks his lieutenant to do the same. Unfortunately it just doesn't go to an interesting place from there. One of her tricks taking on the gang, her scars being miraculously removed, and an encounter with her husband (that had zero emotional impact for me) all just weighed down the second half. I was glad when it ended, though laughed in astonishment at the surprise director Lee Man-hee throws at us.
Quote: "What's that fire?" "Suicide by fire."
A wild ride
An interesting mix of film noir, melodrama, and morality tale, which also does a good job of keeping the audience off-balance. There may also be some social commentary in here relative to class and making us wonder to what lengths someone will go to preserve their reputation and upward mobility, but I think these were in a minor key, even if the film does bring Parasite to mind. There is something mythical about how this woman manages to invert the whole order of this house, and yet it's also got moments that are intensely dramatic and real, and that was interesting. The threat always seems clear and present to us, because the housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) seems a little off, there are constant trips to the cupboard with rat poison, and the family has a couple of kids. The character actions never quite seem to make sense which worked against it for me, but that's a part of what works the audience up into a frenzy, and keeps it a wild ride.
The acting in the film is unfortunately not one of its highlights, but Lee Eun-shim certainly is striking in the shots of her glaring through the window, and sultry when she's getting intimate with her boss (Kim Jin-kyu). I liked the shot of her bare feet stepping up onto his shoes, followed by the one of his back as her arms circled around him, and in a later scene when her calf sinuously winding around his - they capture the seduction well. Less successful were the cliché, heavy-handed moments, like the lightning hitting a tree after the first infidelity (it made me think of the cliché opening to a novel, It was a dark and stormy night....). The cinematography is pretty nice, though I wish it hadn't been as confined and given a little more freedom.
At its bottom though, this is a conservative film about the importance of family and avoiding the female temptress, which is an age old and tired theme. And even if the man can't manage that, well, his wife should shoulder some blame, and in this case, she does, for having wanted a bigger house (ugh). It was for this reason and for the unevenness in the character motivations that I didn't rate the film higher, but it was certainly entertaining, and definitely had camp appeal.
Quote: "Where are you going?" "Your daddy is going to sleep with me tonight."
Such a beautiful film, with lush visuals and a magnetic cast. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are fantastic. The story told over three parts is great too, with intrigue, romance, and clever plot twists. Early on we see a wealthy man living in an opulent mansion who is corrupt in that he forges books to sell and wants to marry his niece for her inheritance, and a couple of grifters who want to swindle him in a cruel way that will leave the niece in a madhouse. There is some real darkness here, and this is just the start of it. The film is 145 minutes long but the production value is so high that the time seemed to fly by. It was almost ruined by director Park Chan-wook not exercising the slightest bit of restraint during the sex scenes; it goes from sweet seduction and lesbian empowerment to exploitative soft-core porn as he holds the camera/male gaze on the young actors for far longer than was necessary on more than one occasion. To me it was far steamier in the scenes of glances and small touches, though I know I sound hopelessly old-fashioned saying that. Still though, this was a damn good film.