Monday, November 04, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Baby Face (1933)—The Netflix disc had two versions, a "prerelease" cut as well as the original theatrical release. Either way, it's a remarkable (and, yes, remarkably frank) tale of a Depression-era young woman bartering sexual favors to make her way to the top. The differences between the two versions are mostly matters of degree but the movie is worth looking at two times in a row. I would have to call it mild by today's standards, but surprisingly raw when it has a mind. Barbara Stanwyck (at 26) is terrific, no surprise, and John Wayne has a small role as a city slicker. Must-see for any number of reasons.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)—Werner Herzog's gleeful take on Abel Ferrara's original from 1992 is pretty much up to the task, as tall an order as that is. I must say Harvey Keitel was better in the title role, and that Ferrara also had the better frame in the ongoing NLCS. But post-Katrina New Orleans will do, and though Nicolas Cage is not normally to my taste, he is nearly flawless here, inventing whole new twists on the foundations of the original. For example, when he attempts to be convivial and share a laugh with colleagues. It's intense, outrageous, nail-bite gripping, and perfectly wonderful, right down to the last scene. I love it.
Bitter Moon (1992)—This is much better in many small ways than I remembered. It revels so shamelessly in its own depravity it's like a geek show when all else fails. You never want to look away. But the misanthropy, no matter how perfectly and even exquisitely realized, is still pitched at toxic levels and too easily confused with narcissistic preening. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is narcissistic preening.
Black Swan (2010)—Bone-crunching aesthete Darren Aronofsky takes it to the ballet. The result is amazing, and gets better every time I see it.
The Body Snatcher (1945)—Lugosi is wasted in this Val Lewton production directed by Robert Wise, but Boris Karloff is remarkable as a thoroughly unlikable 19th-century Edinburgh lowlife. It's a solid creep show. Halliwell's calls this the best Val Lewton horror. I'm not sure about that but it was my Halloween selection this year (with one candidate for a better Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie, below).

The Damned (1969)—Netflix did not believe I would want to give even three stars (of their five) to this long meditation on Nazis and Europe and corruption, and in many ways that makes sense, as I generally tend toward impatience with high-flown flights of operatic fare (Ken Russell, for one). But I thought The Damned works pretty well. I'm not sure its mad lighting schemes (often red-tinted, of course) and the jiggering, vortiginous camera motion entirely add up, but I'm a sucker for anything that depicts Nazis as soulless corruptions of nature. And I like the way director Luchino Visconti deals in the rot. There's some pretty sick stuff here, so of course I'm going to say definitely worth seeing.
Death and the Maiden (1994)—I always expect to be a little disappointed with this and it wins me round again every time. Its realities are just murky enough to make it feel truly dangerous, but I also think it tips its hand in favor of our heroine Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver, who is typically excellent and alone worth seeing for). Morality on a knife's edge, with all too real potential for viscera. Excellent.
Doubt (2008)—Showcase Oscar-bait for the redoubtable Meryl Streep and for Philip Seymour Hoffman too. They get it done, strutting and fretting their hours, etc., but ultimately to little effect, in a picture altogether too enamored of its own tricksiness. Always nice to see Amy Adams anyway.
Duel (1971)—Steven Spielberg's first feature, a TV movie—very nice. Totally senseless but that works in its favor. It's scary too, effectively turning a semi-truck into a monster.
Enter the Void (2009)—For some reason I was a little afraid to see this again, though I wanted to. After the first 30 or 40 minutes I let it play but left the living room and wandered around my apartment fooling with this or that. I noticed it's mostly a very quiet movie, but has three or four explosively loud scattered minutes, and many beautiful musical passages. Every time I stopped to look for a few minutes the sadness of it was overwhelming.
Fearless (1993)—Masterpiece.
Fireworks (1997)—I was a little disappointed with a revisit to this one by director and writer "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, which I remember enjoying when it was new. More recently I had liked both A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Sonatine (1993) by him—in fact, I like them both more. Fireworks is certainly the most downbeat of them, or perhaps it's just that he excluded the zany humorous passages. More than that, it feels self-consciously post-Tarantino, which is unfortunate.
Frantic (1988)—I really don't know how this '80s thriller by director and co-writer Roman Polanski entirely got away from me. I don't even remember hearing about it. Memory, how the ruck does it work. Probably it was Harrison Ford, and probably bad reviews, that kept me away, because, yeah, it's a whole lot of lackluster, maybe Polanski's weakest. Harrison Ford is a big part of the problem (as he is not in Blade Runner) but in the '80s what the box office wanted the box office got. Right here. For diehards only.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)—Oh lord, I loved this, it had me from the DVD menu screen. I was amazed when I looked up the date, I thought it was more in the neighborhood of 2009. Seems to me it's Kal Penn's show mostly, though John Cho is a fine foil. But Penn just inhabits Kumar, the brilliant mad man who attracts endless oddballs somehow into his bemused orbit, while all he wants is reefer and munchies. He plays it just right and some scenes—the guy who stands next to Kumar to take a leak while he is standing at a bush taking a leak—crack me up still remembering them.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)—Pay no attention to the credits. Darby Jones as Carrefour is the star of this Val Lewton production directed by Jacques Tourneur, the image you come away with for the rest of your life. Must-see for that alone. My Halloween selection this year (with The Body Snatcher, above).
Kes (1969)—Very beautifully photographed crypto-D.H. Lawrence tale that ducks away too often into insulated coal mining regionalities for my taste. But the performance by the kid, David Bradley at 15, is amazing, and the story has ways of tugging as well. Worth seeing.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)—Some very nice bits here: Steve Carell and the Proust thing, Toni Collette's sad beautiful face, Greg Kinnear's distracted inspirational speaker shtick, his upbeat veneer rapidly wearing thin under stress. Some very nice bits but it also feels familiar and a little tired. They've been making movies about desperate upstarts like this for a long time now. Still, that said, may as well see this one too. It's got some very nice bits.
Looney Tunes—"Acrobatty Bunny" (1946), "Bye, Bye Bluebeard" (1949), "Claws for Alarm" (1954), "The CooCoo Nut Grove" (1936, some of these pre-WWII oldies are really charming, and yes, there are obnoxious stereotypes surfacing … they just look strange, e.g., bug-eyed barefoot grass-skirted African cannibals), "Daffy Duck and Egghead" (1938), "Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur" (1939), "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" (1938), "Daffy Duck Slept Here" (1948), "Duck! Rabbit, Duck!" (1953, third leg of the so-called "hunting trilogy" arriving late in this box), "An Egg Scramble" (1950), "The Film Fan" (1939), "Goofy Groceries" (1941), "Hare Do" (1949), "Hillbilly Hare" (1950), "Hollywood Capers" (1935), "The Honey-Mousers" (1956, strained parody of Jackie Gleason & crew), "I Haven't Got a Hat" (1935), "The Last Hungry Cat" (1961), "The Mouse That Jack Built" (1959, with Jack Benny & crew, and works pretty well this time), "Pigs in a Polka" (1943), "Pigs Is Pigs" (1954), "Porky and Teabiscuit" (1939), "Porky in Egypt" (1938), "Porky Pig's Feat" (1943), "Porky's Party" (1938), "Porky's Road Race" (1937), "Porky's Romance" (1937), "Rebel Rabbit" (1949), "Robin Hood Daffy" (1958), "Rocket Squad" (1956), "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter" (1937), "Speaking of the Weather" (1937), "Super-Rabbit" (1943), "Swooner Crooner" (1944), "Thugs With Dirty Mugs" (1939), "Waikiki Wabbit" (1943), "Wideo Wabbit" (1956), "The Windblown Hare" (1949), "The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos" (1937)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)—Packed with character actors and charming. Love this one a lot.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)—Swoon.
Nashville (1975)—At this point it's a lot like hanging out with old pals.
The New World (2005)—Extended version stultifying. The endlessly tentative brushstroke editing strikes me as simply bad, a type of dithering, but I suppose it's all part of the tedious exalting air.
The Pianist (2002)—I think in many ways this might arguably be Roman Polanski's most autobiographical film because he lived through things very much like it in Poland as a young boy. It is icy cold etching the systematic brutalities of the occupying Nazi regime. It stands with Schindler's List as a great latter-day film about the Third Reich—and also with Tess (below) as one of the director's most epic works, with towering sweeps of vision. Yet as with Tess I like and am moved by The Pianist but remain somehow suspicious. Haven't put my finger on the problem(s) yet. But something feels similarly off in both.
Revolutionary Road (2008)—Well, bully for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for pulling it off, 10 long years later. But when I say this comes with "the Sam Mendes touch" I don't mean that as a good thing.
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)—Typically cold and chiseled exercise by director and writer Michael Haneke overlaying incoherent quivering hysteria about the alienations of modern life. TV newscasts are a recurring motif, etc. It probably actually does have 71 scenes and they probably are arranged intricately into some semblance of satisfying coherence. But you will have to work harder at it than I did and I think you may be taking your chances anyway.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)—A lot of wonderful texture here with an overly intrusive device (the TV game show frame) and a weird taste for a kind of sentimentalized brutality. I was hoping for more but expecting less, so all good, I guess. You've probably seen it anyway. If not, go ahead and keep skipping.
Tess (1979)—I was surprised how well this adaptation of a 19th-century British novel held up, how good the story is, how faithful the picture is to letting its story unwind organically, how beautiful it is, and of course the great performance of Nastassja Kinski. It's a remarkably quick near-three hours. Must-see. And yet, as with The Pianist (above), I also have reservations. Something there is about it feels a little hollow somehow.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)—Oh it was great to see this one again. I think I saw it at a bleary drive-in the first and only other time. Jane Fonda is miscast—generally the whole thing is miscast, after Gig Young and Red Buttons. But it's so good at elaborating that American strain of bootstrapping, i.e., taken in by the wealthy for the sake of "freedom" and hopes of a sponsorship and maybe you'll get lucky, they'll make a movie or write a book about you too. The good old American way. Never more relevant than now in this present-day rising tide of McJobs and non-careers except by grotesque happenstance, etc. It touched a nerve. Seems more relevant than ever, and well done too.
Twilight Zone (s1, 1959-1960)—Jesus Christ, 36 episodes, count 'em, Oct. 2, 1959, to July 1, 1960. Now that's a TV season. A lot of dead spots, ideas that never get off the ground, or only sputter, and sort of a churchy air of self-congratulation not always merited. But it's the Twilight Zone, Jake, plenty of interesting ideas, some surprising performances, staging, production, and you just have to respect the work ethic. Some episodes, such as the manikins who come alive after hours, scared me silly once and are fun to revisit. Really, it's no wonder cable-TV makes marathons of it.
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
The Wire (s3, 2004)—All right then, starting to see how this is appreciated for a nicely conceived and executed narrative arc. I hear next season is even better, but that faceoff of destiny between Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell was legendary without even straining, dependent on foundations neatly established in the first two seasons. The "Hamsterdam" experiment, results, and debate in-show were fascinating too. LOTS of good stuff here.
The Wrestler (2008)—Arch wizard of bone-cracking Darren Aronofsky in his element, so not bad at all. Peachy role for Mickey Rourke too at this point.
Z (1969)—Handsomely mounted study of propped-up right-wing regime falling apart in Greece. I remember it as having much better music.
Zodiac (2007)—Excellent.


  1. Seeing all of your month's movies in one place is always fun. Not sure if S3 or S4 of The Wire is the best ... really, all anyone can agree on is that S5 isn't as good as the others. I haven't seen Fearless in a very long time, but I really liked it back in the day, and was pleased to see it turn up here.

  2. Fearless is coming out in blu-ray soon -- another one for your shelf!