Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Squalor


Long before American television was so good and better than movies, in the UK it was possible for a filmmaker to begin a career in TV before transitioning to theatrical features with the primary difference, as far as the audience could tell anyway, being the screen on which the new films were seen. Take Mike Leigh, who recently (by which I mean, off and on since 1999) has expanded his cinematic scope by making ambitious, and outstanding, period films such as Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner, and the upcoming Peterloo (which I’m assuming will be both ambitious and outstanding), but who before that saw his incisive, bleakly funny feature-length TV films about lower- and middle-class everyday Britons transition seamlessly onto the big screen. So seamless that his 1984 TV film Meantime has just been released on home video by Criterion, and you could set it aside their earlier release of Leigh’s Life is Sweet from 1990 without ever guessing the former film’s origins.
No doubt this has a lot to do with Leigh’s sheer talent, as well as the stories he is naturally drawn to tell. Meantime, one of his more uncomfortable pictures that I’ve seen, is about a family of chronically unemployed men – father Frank (Jeff Robert), eldest son Mark (Phil Daniels), and youngest son Colin (Tim Roth), who may be mentally handicapped, or suffer from a learning disorder – and a modestly employed mother, Mavis (Pam Ferris). Grinded down by the shame of having nothing, they spend much of their time snapping at each other or watching TV. Frank is constantly reminded that he has, in his eyes and the eyes of others, utterly failed as a husband and parent, so he just smokes cigarettes. Mark, furious that he was born into this, has no problem insulting Frank to his face, or constantly teasing and bullying Colin, who may be drifting under the wing of Mark’s friend Coxy (Gary Oldman), a manic, unpredictable skinhead.
This is pretty much the film. Never a filmmaker preoccupied with plot, Leigh moves his characters through one scene of weariness, embarrassment, and bitterness after another. I may not be selling Meantime very well, but this is, of course, Leigh’s whole idea, or was in the 80s and 90s. When Mavis’s sister (Marion Bailey) makes an off-hand remark about how she, Barbara, doesn’t live in squalor, Ferris as Mavis reacts as though she’s trying to ignore a fresh stab wound. And succeeding, which is what allows Barbara to say such things. That’s the daily life: pretending you’re not as miserable as you are when around those who you at least perceive as having already beaten you.
The most dangerous performances in the film are given by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. In regards to Oldman, I don’t mean “dangerous” in that his Coxy is a frightening, almost certainly violent psycho, but rather that Oldman, in one of his earliest roles, goes so wild on-screen here, as only the young Oldman could, that he’s in danger of bringing the whole thing down around his ears. Yet somehow, Coxy’s mania comes off as naturalistic. Watching Oldman, it’s possible, whether or not you’ve ever met someone like Coxy before, to believe he’s out there. His constant jokes, his constant movement and apparent belief that he must always be on, is enough to convey to the viewer the kind of man you might see in a bar and make every effort then to avoid. That he’s also a skinhead is just icing.
Roth’s job is even tougher. The possibility that he’s mentally handicapped is floated early in the film, with a notable lack of sympathy, by Barbara’s husband John (Alfred Molina), and at that point it’s hard to not simply wait for Roth to unpack all the tics and morbid sentimentality we’ve come to expect from actors in these situations. And though people don’t tend to think of Tim Roth as an especially “big” actor, he is. He’s sort of like a more disciplined, less savant-like Gary Oldman. Oldman can lose his mind on screen and make it work. Roth maybe understands that he can’t, not quite, though he wants to. Whatever the case, I would never want Oldman and Roth to swap roles here, because Roth is brilliant. There are no tics, no shortcuts, no evidence that Roth ever believed he had to do something or nobody would realize he was acting. As Colin, Roth gives one of the great performances of the kind of character that lead worse, less empathic actors to be accused, fairly, of Oscar-grubbing. Roth is all withdrawn blankness, but it’s that very hang of his always-hanging jaw that makes it possible to imagine the torment Roth is specifically not playing. While everyone else snaps and bites around him, Roth’s Colin sits on the couch and watches TV and hopes that the worst thing that happens is that he’ll be left alone.
Later in the film, an opportunity arises for Colin, or what Colin and his parents regard as an opportunity. It goes how it goes, and offers about as much catharsis and closure as you’d expect from Mike Leigh. But it does offer, for at least a couple of characters, a sliver of dignity. Leigh is too smart, and too sad, to make more of this than he should, and many other directors would. In its honesty, Leigh finds emotion. Which, throughout his career, is what he’s always done.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 5: O - Z


All right, well, look: I’m just going to put an end to this shit. I’ve been delaying for far too long, due partly to laziness, but due also to me being furious with myself for constantly forgetting titles I should have included, and should never have forgotten to include. How can somebody be so bad at making a list of their own favorite things? Whatever it is? Movies, in this case. I’ll tell you, I’ve tried to be philosophical about this, but I’ve failed spectacularly. I mean, what is even the point. What I think has been happening is that, as honest and lacking in neuroses as I’ve tried to make this process, I get so wound up thinking that I’d better let you guys know how much I love 10 Rillington Place (which I do) that I forget that I also like other movies such as for example  The Godfather.


Anyway, I fucked up really bad last time, which means it’s time for our final installment of…
Fuck-ups, Shits, and Fuck-ups
Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean) – Remember the bit with the sun? That was pretty good.

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) – Late in this film, Anton Walbrook gives a speech that I think some viewers sort of forget about.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (d. Wes Anderson) – Still considered Anderson’s worst film, from what I can tell, because he was evidently repeating himself by this point. Which means that many people saw this incredible fusion of fantasy, comedy, tragedy, special effects, literary allusion, music, and action (of a sort) and thought “Ugh, not this again.” Okay, guys.

The Little Fugitive (d. Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin) – A beautiful, one-of-a-kind glimpse into a world long gone – 1950s Coney Island – and how a little boy with great seriousness reacts to it, and works his way through it.

A Mighty Wind (d. Christopher Guest) – “I can’t do my work!”
Mystery of Kasper Hauser (d. Werner Herzog) – A key film in helping me understand that some mysteries are more powerful when left unsolved.
The Night of the Hunter (d. Charles Laughton) – I think this one is chiefly known for being surprisingly influential on 1980s independent films.
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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – How is it possible that on top of everything else, this film manages to also be moving? One of the Coens most surprising feats of alchemy.
Odd Man Out (d. Carol Reed) – Wrote about it here.
Of Mice and Men (d. Gary Sinise) – Not actually much different in its approach or particulars from Lewis Milestone’s 1939 adaptation, but there’s just something a bit more beautiful about what Sinise does here.
Of Time and the City (d. Terence Davies) – There’s a little boy being helped into the loop of a rope that’s been tied into a very wide noose. He sits in the loop, because it’s their swing. They don’t know that they live in a place that can’t afford a swing.
Oleanna (d. David Mamet) – Not a much beloved film these days, I wouldn’t imagine, but I think it still hits home in a number of different ways. Also I love Mamet’s language and rhythms so much that I watch this movie to relax.
On the Waterfront (d. Elia Kazan) – Wrote about it here.
Once Upon a Time in the West (d. Sergio Leone) – My favorite Leone, his richest and strangest epic.
One False Move (d. Carl Franklin) – If more 90s crime films had been this deceptively modest and powerful, the world would be a better place now.
One From the Heart (d. Francis Ford Coppola) – It may not be as good, but One From the Heart is a truer representation of the Coppola aesthetic than The Godfather ever was.
One-Eyed Jacks (d. Marlon Brando) – Wrote about it here.
Only Angels Have Wings (d. Howard Hawks) – Wrote about it here.
Out of the Past (d. Jacques Tourneur) – “I don’t want to die.” “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.” I mean, come on.
Panic in the Streets (d. Elia Kazan) – Wrote about it here.
Paterson (d. Jim Jarmusch) – Possibly Jarmusch’s masterpiece, a sincere celebration of the joys of “ordinary” life, and the satisfaction of quiet, private creativity. Inspiring in a way that “inspiring” films usually aren’t.

Personal Shopper (d. Olivier Assayas) - May be the best ghost story of the 21st century.


Phase IV (d. Saul Bass) – A marvel of a film. Mysterious, frightening, and makes the audience wonder how it was made.
Phenomena (d. Dario Argento) – Argento at his most gloriously unhinged, this fairy tale of murder and insects and girls’ schools and psychic powers could have gone on and on and on. Also satisfies the requirements of Chekov’s Chimpanzee.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (d. Peter Weir) – This is the kind of horror that I wish contemporary genre filmmakers felt nostalgic about, and wanted to bring back.
Planet of the Apes (d. Franklin J. Schaffner) – Wrote about it here.
Pleasure Party (d. Claude Chabrol) – One of the great films about murder, and about how real murderers look and act. Chilling.
Pollock (d. Ed Harris) – Another of the great traditional biopics, of which there are vanishingly few. Somewhat big when it was released, it’s now almost forgotten. It shouldn’t be.
Possession (d. Andrzej Zulawski) – One of the few movies that, when a certain thing occurs, managed to make me stop what I was doing, cold in my tracks (I was eating cereal at the time, if you must know).
A Prairie Home Companion (d. Robert Altman) – Beautiful, almost perfect. I could watch it every day.
The Prestige (d. Christopher Nolan) – Probably still Nolan’s best movie, and seemingly made specifically for me. Which is a nice thing to do, and I appreciate it.
Prince of Darkness (d. John Carpenter) – Wrote about it here.
Prometheus (d. Ridley Scott) – Wrote about it here.


The Prowler (d. Joseph Losey) – One of the great, truly existential noirs. A nasty film. Arguably a career best performance from Van Heflin, which is saying something.
Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – A not insignificant film in my development.

Pulse (d. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - Wrote about it here.
Punch-Drunk Love (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – The bridge between the great 90s Anderson films and the incredible timeless Anderson films we’re getting now. Adam Sandler’s performance could not be better.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (d. Woody Allen) – Possibly the first of Allen’s great mixes of comedy and melancholy. Pairs beautifully with Radio Days.
Q – The Winged Serpent (d. Larry Cohen) – For the scene where Michael Moriarty tries to get a job as the pianist in a run-down piano bar alone! For even putting a scene like that in a monster movie in the first place!
Quick Change (d. Bill Murray and Howard Franklin) – “Sometimes, their noses are horns.”

A Quiet Passion (d. Terence Davies) - Rarely has a film based on fact felt so personally and inextricably tied to the filmmaker.
Quiz Show (d. Robert Redford) – I can attest that this holds up beautifully. Everything fell together on this one, from the subject matter to the ridiculously stacked cast. One of the great studio films of the modern era.
Radio Days (d. Woody Allen). See The Purple Rose of Cairo. Like that film, but in a very different way, this represents Allen at his most inventive. Wonderful, one of his finest achievements.
Rambo (d. Sylvester Stallone) – Speaking of wonderful achievements…
The Rapture (d. Michael Tolkin) – A brilliant, tricky, complex, and unsettling take on cults, religion, and the afterlife. Unlike anything else I know.


Real Life (d. Albert Brooks) – “I’m an entertainer, but quite frankly if I’d studied harder, or been graded more fairly, I would have been a doctor or a scientist.”
Rear Window (d. Alfred Hitchcock) - A not insignificant film in my development.
Repulsion (d. Roman Polanski) – As elegantly frightening, and ultimately kind of repulsive actually, as it’s possible to be.
The Right Stuff (d. Philip Kaufman) – The Great American Epic of the 1980s. Nothing else comes close.
Rio Bravo (d. Howard Hawks) – It’s startling how casually brought off greatness can sometimes seem.
Rituals (d. Peter Carter) – Sort of like Deliverance, minus some things and plus some others, and starring Hal Holbrook as one of the desperate-to-survive heroes. A bunch of middle-aged doctors in the wilderness trying not to die. It works like gangbusters.
The Road Warrior (d. George Miller) – Probably actually the best one, if you think about it, guys.
Rob Roy (d. Michael Caton-Jones) – It out-Bravehearts Braveheart!
Role Models (d. David Wain) – Very quietly one of the funniest comedies of the past decade.
Rosemary’s Baby (d. Roman Polanski) – Wrote about it, briefly, here (scroll to the bottom).
The Royal Tenenbaums (d. Wes Anderson) – I don’t understand how anyone could fail to be swept up by this beautiful, colorful, hilarious, and deeply sad film.



La Rupture (d. Claude Chabrol) – The most bugshit Chabrol film I’ve seen.

Rushmore (d. Wes Anderson) - To be honest, this still might be his best.
Salesman (d. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin) – Among many other things, this is the closest any of us will ever get to time travel.
Sansho the Bailiff (d. Kenji Mizoguchi) – If one wanted to make the argument that Mizoguchi was the best there has ever been, one could base that argument on this film alone.
Scrooged (d. Richard Donner) – It’s true that Murray was directed to shout his lines maybe a little too often. That aside, this should be an acknowledged and beloved Christmas classic.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon (d. Bryan Forbes) – Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough give two of the all-time greatest screen performances in this film, yet Forbes’s masterpiece is pretty much forgotten. That seems fair.
Seconds (d. John Frankenheimer) – Wrote about it, kind of, here.
The Second Skin (d. Francois Truffaut) – Wrote about it here.
A Serious Man (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – Wrote about it here, but in that brief review I do not stress enough that this is one of the great American films, full stop.
The Serpent’s Egg (d. Ingmar Bergman) – Wrote about it here.
Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa) – I like it! Sue me!
The Seventh Continent (d. Michael Haneke) – Haneke’s debut film is, for me, still his most unsettling. A terrible, clear-eyed march towards doom.
Sexy Beast (d. Jonathan Glazer) – “I am going to have to turn this opportunity down.” “No, you are going to have to turn this opportunity yes!” I’d kill to have written that.
Shattered Glass (d. Billy Ray) – Pretty goddamned gripping, and satisfying. Peter Sarsgaard’s outrage by the end is cathartic.
Shaun of the Dead (d. Edgar Wright) – One Friday night, years ago, I rented this, not expecting much, bought some beer, and watched it by myself. I had the best time.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (d. John Ford) – Truly exquisite. John Wayne’s final scenes are what he, and Ford, were all about.

The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick) - I'm pretty sure Stephen King thinks this isn't as good as The Dark Tower.
Shoah (d. Claude Lanzmann) – The greatest documentary ever made.
The Shooting (d. Monte Hellman) – Wrote about it here.
The Shop Around the Corner (d. Ernst Lubitsch) – Graceful, funny, sad, actually original. Not a single misstep.
Short Cuts (d. Robert Altman) – If this film truly is misanthropic, as its critics say, and I think that’s arguable, but if it’s true, my question is “So what?”
Shutter Island (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here.
Sideways (d. Alexander Payne) – This didn’t strike a nerve with me at all.
Silence (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here. But also, one day we’ll realize how extraordinary this film is.
Slither (d. James Gunn) – I often hear people – critics, filmmakers – insist that horror movies should be fun, or have lost their sense of fun. I obviously think horror should aspire to more than that. However, if more horror films were this fun, I would be less upset all the time.
The Sniper (d. Edward Dmytryk) – The violence in this film is shockingly blunt. One of the darkest noirs.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (d. David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen) – The first movie I ever saw. It’s still good.
Snowpiercer (d. Bong Joon-ho) – The best remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory I’ve ever seen!
Some Came Running (d. Vincente Minelli) – Goddamn, what an ending.
Sorcerer (d. William Friedkin) – What they call these days “pure cinema.”
The Sorcerers (d. Michael Reeves) – Wrote about it here.
Spartan (d. David Mamet) – “You need to set your motherfucker to receive.” I keep telling you guys that!
Spider (d. David Cronenberg) – Wrote about it here.
The Squid and the Whale (d. Noah Baumbach) – “Street Hassle” was a good choice.
Stand By Me (d. Rob Reiner) – Maybe the most nostalgic pick on this list, but I watched it again not too long ago. It’s really good.
Star 80 (d. Bob Fosse) – What I said about Pleasure Party, but possibly doubled.
A Star is Born (d. William Wellman) – That one of the best and most incisive movies about movies was made in 1937 is probably indicative of something or other.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer) – Okay, maybe this is the most nostalgic pick on the list, but come on…I’m not a monster. The only thing wrong with Star Trek II is that they made Star Trek III.
The Steel Helmet (d. Samuel Fuller) – A really powerful eye-opener when I first saw it. I didn’t know they made war movies like this.
Step Brothers (d. Adam McKay) – Since this film was released, Adam McKay has gone on to be one of the worst things in the world. Step Brothers, thankfully, remains unchanged.


The Story of Adele H. (d. Francois Truffaut) – Truffaut took a footnote in literary history and turned it into a story whose power is immediate and heartbreaking. Isabelle Adjani is stunning.
Straw Dogs (d. Sam Peckinpah) – Peckinpah’s best. Wrote about it here.
Super (d. James Gunn) – The best superhero movie ever.
Suspiria (d. Dario Argento) – Not quite as gleefully nonsensical as Phenomena, but close. Pure, glorious style.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (d. Tim Burton) – Arguably Tim Burton’s best. By which I mean, I’m arguing that.
The Sweet Hereafter (d. Atom Egoyan) – Ian Fucking Holm.
Sweet Smell of Success (d. AlexIander Mackendrick) – I like the way Tony Curtis lights a match for Burt Lancaster as Lancaster is insulting him.
Synecdoche, New York (d. Charlie Kaufman) – Wrote about it here, eventually.
Tabu: A Tale of the South Seas (d. F.W. Murnau) – Wrote about it here.
The Tall T (d. Budd Boetticher) – The kind of Western that people might refer to as “crackerjack.” Henry Silva and Richard Boone are top-shelf villains.
Targets (d. Peter Bogdanovich) – I consider myself a Bogdanovich fan, but I don’t think he’s ever topped this. If I narrowed this list way, way down, pared it to the bare essentials, Targets would still be on it.


Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese) – I don’t like reading analyses of this movie. Taxi Driver is too good for that shit.
Team America: World Police (d. Trey Parker) – An American masterpiece.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (d. Fritz Lang) – Such glorious suspense and dark entertainment.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (d. Tobe Hooper) – In the pantheon of Greatest Final Shots.
That Cold Day in the Park (d. Robert Altman) – Sandy Dennis was not fucking around here.
There Will Be Blood (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – It still seems enormously unlikely to me that a film like this could ever be financed, and so I’m therefore not sure it exists.
They Came Together (d. David Wain) – “Wow, a cheeseburger, Mommy!”
They Live by Night (d. Nicholas Ray) – It must be nice for a director to begin his career with a masterpiece.
Thief (d. Michael Mann) – Wrote about it here.
The Thin Red Line (d. Terence Malick) – A film I was dubious about in 1999, which has grown in my mind with every passing year.


The Thing (d. John Carpenter) – I doubt there’s anything I can say about this film that hasn’t already been said, certainly not in the space I’ve allotted myself here. That every time I watch it, I’m grateful it exists, will have to suffice.
The Third Man (d. Carol Reed) – Again, what can I say? See The Thing, which is probably the only time these two films have been linked in any way. Has my favorite last shot of any film.
This is Spinal Tap (d. Rob Reiner) – The greatest comedy ever made.
Three Amigos (d. John Landis) – Would make the list just for the scene where Martin Shorts tells a group of Mexican children his self-aggrandizing Lillian Gish story.
Throne of Blood (d. Akira Kurosawa) – Macbeth, as thunderous as it should be.
Time Bandits (d. Terry Gilliam) – The weirdest kids’ film ever released in America by a major studio. For me was once, and still is, a Pretty Big Deal.
To Have and Have Not (d. Howard Hawks) – Ripped off Casablanca, did it better.
Topsy Turvy (d. Mike Leigh) – A really amazing thing. I don’t know how they did it. Jim Broadbent instantly became one of my favorite actors. “It doesn’t amuse me, Grossmith, nor does it scan.”
Touch of Evil (d. Orson Welles) – Pretty good effort.
The Tree of Life (d. Terence Malick) – I’ve still only seen this once, but I seem to think about it constantly.
Trees Lounge (d. Steve Buscemi) – A wonderful debut from Buscemi as writer/director. I hope we get more of this from his some day.


Trouble Every Day (d. Claire Denis) – Made me say, out loud, by myself, to a character on screen, “Stop doing that…”
True Grit (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – Wrote about it here.
The Turin Horse (d. Bela Tarr) – Like Paterson, but for misery.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (d. David Lynch) – The saddest horror film ever made.
Two-Lane Blacktop (d. Monte Hellman) – Dreamlike and realistic, a film about cars and the night.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (d. Jacques Demy) – Wrote about it here.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (d. Philip Kaufman) - I can't seem to shut up about last shots today. Well here's another all-timer. It sort of washes back over the film that precedes it.

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (d. Masahiro Shinoda) – A classic of Japanese arthouse horror, that apparently nobody has seen.
Under the Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer) – What science fiction cinema should be. Also what horror cinema should be.
Under the Sun of Satan (d. Maurice Pialat) – The kind of grand religious, moral nightmare that could only come from a troubled, possibly quite unlikable, French genius.
Underworld USA (d. Samuel Fuller) – A brilliant Cliff Robertson performance, in possibly Fuller’s greatest crime film.
United 93 (d. Paul Greengrass) – I get the sense people are still sort of angry that this film was made. Well, I’ve never been as emotionally affected – it was almost physical – by any other film.
The Verdict (d. Sidney Lumet) – Paul Newman, at his smallest and most pathetic, towers over everyone else.
Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – Sight & Sound might be on to something here.
Videodrome (d. David Cronenberg) – Wrote about it here.


Violent Saturday (d. Richard Fleischer) – Hollywood small town melodrama, capped off by some truly brutal violence. “Technicolor noir” is something I could’ve gotten behind.
War of the Worlds (d. Steven Spielberg) – Contains some of Spielberg’s most indelible, and frightening, images.
Watership Down (d. Martin Rosen) – Wrote about it here.
We Won’t Grow Old Together (d. Maurice Pialat) – Wrote about it here.
Went the Day Well? (d. Alberto Cavalcanti) – About English civilians fighting Nazi forces trying to take over their town. Extremely violent for its day. No quarter asked nor given. On my shortlist of favorite war movies.
Wet Hot American Summer (d. David Wain) – I literally did like this before it was cool, guys.
Where is My Friend’s House? (d. Abbas Kiorstami) – A beautiful, weirdly suspenseful story about a little boy trying to help his friend. Wonderful last shot.
Whirlpool (d. Otto Preminger) – Wrote about it here, almost certainly not well, though. Jose Ferrer’s best performance.


White Dog (d. Samuel Fuller) – Contains one of my favorite camera moves, when Paul Winfield is introduced.
White Heat (d. Raoul Walsh) – I still can’t believe Kubrick had to convince Spielberg, and Welles had to convince Bogdanovich, that Cagney was a great actor. Come on, you couple of idiots!
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (d. Robert Zemeckis) – Or maybe this is the most nostalgic pick on the list. But movies don’t get much more fun than this.
Why Did Herr R. Run Amok? (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler) – See Pleasure Party and Star 80. Possibly triple that.
The Witch (d. Robert Eggers) – Wrote about it here.
Witchfinder General (d. Michael Reeves) – Vincent Price at his best, all camp removed, all that’s left is a great horror icon being terrifying. A brilliant movie.
The Wolf Man (d. George Waggner) – This movie is endlessly sad to me because Lawrence Talbot is just some guy who probably likes baseball and beer and dating girls, and then this happens to him, and he’s scared and confused, and he doesn’t know what to do, and then he dies.
The Wolf of Wall Street (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here.
The Woman Next Door (d. Francois Truffaut) – My favorite Truffaut film. A real punch in the head, this one.
The World’s End (d. Edgar Wright) – The best thing Wright has done. I’ll not listen to opposing viewpoints.
X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes (d. Roger Corman) – Manages to make the trip from kind of goofy to apocalyptic pretty smoothly.

The Yakuza (d. Sydney Pollack) – Outside of Sydney Pollack the Actor, 70s Genre Director Sydney Pollack is my favorite Sydney Pollack.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (d. Xan Cassavetes) – A truly idiosyncratic documentary about movies and tragedy. I have seen this, er, many times…
Zodiac (d. David Fincher) – “He claims he killed thirteen people, but which ones can we actually confirm? There’s three in Vallejo, one in Berryessa, the cabbie. That’s it...Bobby, you almost look disappointed.”
Zulu (d. Cy Endfield) – A brilliant combat film. This is not the kind of film some ignorant folks believe it is. Zulu is all about taking roll call, and the pause when someone doesn’t answer. So Tom and Matt, now you know.
 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Capsule Reviews: Capitalist Pig-Dog Edition

What’s that you ask? Have I seen two movies? Have I written a few paragraphs about each??? Well actually yes I have!!
Stormy Monday (d. Mike Figgis) – Like Don Siegel’s The Killers and George Romero’s Creepshow, this film, just out from Arrow Video, features one of those casts the true looniness of which can only really be appreciated in retrospect. In this case, Mike Figgis’s debut feature (which is about gangsters and nightclubs and jazz and whatnot) we get a main cast comprised of Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sting. For a moody 80s crime film, that bodes well, right? Or at least it bodes interesting. Right?
The guts of the plot are typical: Sting plays Finney, the strong-willed owner of a jazz club who, as the wearily satirical “America Week” gears up to begin in the English city of Newcastle, is soon being threatened and otherwise pressured to sell his business because of some criminal real estate something-or-other. Finney is tipped off that this is going to happen by Brendan (Bean), who overhears two guys talking about it while he’s out on a date with Kate (Griffith). She’s a waitress at another club, but also reluctantly uses her feminine wiles for mercenary purposes, at the behest of Cosmo(!), an American businessman who is really a gangster when you think about it, played by Jones. Finney fights back against physical threats, Brendan falls in love with Kate and finds himself caught in the middle of all this, Kate wants her freedom from Cosmo, and Cosmo wants to destroy all that is good in the name of America or whatever. Together, they rush towards a breathful anticlimax.
The film looks good. Roger Deakins shot it. All the performances are, you know, fine. Jones is full of the blank-faced tics that made so much of his early work hard for me to get behind, and Melanie Griffith still hadn’t quite learned how human beings speak. But Sting and Bean are good. The main problem for me, in addition to the fact that as a  crime thriller, which Stormy Monday seems to think it is, I was never once compelled by anything that happened on screen or by the people doing them, which admittedly is hardly a frivolous complaint, is Figgis’s lame, limp-dick satire of America and capitalism. I’ve said before that I have many, many problems with satire as a comedic form, at least as its been practiced in my lifetime, because in satire all you have to do is plant a giant Pepsi bottle somewhere it doesn’t belong and suddenly you’ve make a “joke” which is not only “funny” but which also “says something.” Satire is revered, satirists are holy figures, yet somehow it takes no effort at all to make it or be one. No one expects more out of satire than a giant Pepsi bottle.
Terror in a Texas Town (d. Joseph H. Lewis) – This 1958 Western, also just released by Arrow Video, has a few things in common with Stormy Monday. Here, a crooked businessman and extortionist named McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) pressures a Swedish immigrant (Ted Stanhope) to sell his farm, because McNeil knows there’s oil bubbling underneath the land. When the farmer refuses, McNeil’s hired gun Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) murders him. Before McNeil can swoop in and buy up the rights, though, the farmer’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town, learns his father has been murdered, and begins a quest to find out why he was killed and who is responsible. His mission is somewhat hampered by the fact that the other farmers in town are frightened of McNeil, and so at times it seems as though, with the exception of Mirada (Victor Millan), his dad’s loyal friend, George is going it alone.
This obviously also calls to mind High Noon, which came out six years earlier and bore the same political subtext. Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted and using the credited Ben Perry as his front, and so capitalism is condemned, and immigrants working the land are the victims as well as the heroes (here it parts ways with Stormy Monday, since in that film the foreigners (the Americans), are the whole problem). In other words, the politics are as up front here as they are in Stormy Monday. The difference is that the writing here is good, the draw of the story is primal, and his while Figgis wanted his individual shots to look good and hired the right guy to give him that, Joseph H. Lewis and his cinematographer Russell Harlan are concerned with their film looking good as shots and scenes move and flow into each other.
Even better, Lewis and Trumbo weren’t interested in stock heroes and villains. Or least, not exclusively. George and Mirada don’t have a lot of guilt to work through, apparently, and McNeil isn’t about to see the error of his ways. Johnny Crale, though, is another matter. Nedrick Young’s performance is top-notch, the best in a very well-acted film, and he has the most to work with. Early in the film, Young subtly lets on that his Crale, a prolific killer, has something going on inside him, related to how he’s chosen to earn his living. And it’s always there, manifesting in different ways. The moral and existential crisis that is roiling around inside Crale’s head and guts might bring out in him a sense of pity one day, and fuel his brutality the next. If he’s the Angel of Death, and his black clothes suggest that he might be, then he’s one who, if he’s not stopped, will soon suffer a complete psychotic breakdown, and bring everything and everyone down on his head.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Universal Happiness


In a 1983 interview for Positif, which can be found in the booklet accompanying the new Criterion release of L’Argent, Michel Ciment mentions to Robert Bresson that “According to you, an image should not be matched with a powerful sound. Bresson’s answer is as complicated as you might expect, and eventually deviates somewhat from the main point, eventually stating that as a cinematic artist what he’s seeking is “impression.” He goes on:
Let me give you an example from L’Argent. When I’m on the major boulevards of Paris, I immediately ask myself: What impression do they make on me? Well, the impression is of a mishmash of legs making a sharp sound on the sidewalk. I tried to convey this impression through sound and image. So then I’m criticized for framing the bottoms of people’s pants. How intelligent! I received similar criticisms regarding the horses’ legs in Lancelot du lac. I showed the horses’ legs without showing their riders, in order to draw attention to the muscular power of their hindquarters when they brace themselves to launch into the tournament. I’m not going to show the rider, because then everything would be scrambled, something entirely different would come into play, people would look at him, they would wonder what he was going to do.
Beyond making me wonder about the kind of film critic who would, or indeed could, be so put off by the way pant legs are photographed – a matter I wish this interview could have found the time to explore further – beyond that, as I say, what Bresson’s answer brings to mind is not the shot of pant legs described, but rather another one later in L’Argent, near the end. The main character, Yvon (Christian Patey) has just been released from prison, and has after some time made his way into the countryside where he’s taken in by an old woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), who lives on a farm with her father (Michel Brigue). She has done this secretly, but is discovered by her father. One morning, the old woman pours coffee into a bowl, to take it to Yvon who is staying in the barn. As she leaves the house and is walking through the grass to the barn, her father confronts her. He reaches out to slap her, and just as his hand strikes her face, Bresson cuts to her hands, holding the bowl of coffee. The impact jars her, and jostles the bowl, which sloshes coffee onto her hands. Then the encounter ends, and she continues on to the barn.
This cut to her hands effectively shows the violence of the slap – it conveys the impression of violence through the motion of an inanimate object. It even conveys the pain of the slap, because that coffee that splashes her hands is hot. As with the decision to show horses rather than the knights in Lancelot du lac, the viewer is not robbed of any knowledge or appreciation of what he or she might deem more relevant at the moment by not showing that thing; they are told about that thing by showing what Bresson calls “fragments of reality” which combine to depict an event, and eventually a progression of events.
Up to that point, the hot coffee splashing bare skin is the most violent image in L’Argent, a film that has previously included a bank robbery and a car accident. The bank robbery and its aftermath aren’t shown, but we do hear a long volley of gunfire – a powerful sound that Bresson does not match with a notable image: it rumbles over a simple image of Yvon, the would-be getaway driver, behind the wheel of a car he’s about to crash. (We do see the crash, but that’s just the violence of metal on metal. There’s nothing about wounded flesh, either shown or implied.) All this in a film, were it not for the occasional spurting blood of Lancelot du lac, that would easily be Bresson’s most physically savage.

Yvon is not a born criminal. An oil deliveryman, he one, while cashing an invoice at a camera shop, finds himself set on a path to destruction when the shop owner (Didier Baussy), to avoid taking the hit himself, purposely passes off three counterfeit bills that he’d recently been saddled with (and was able to pick out on his own after the fact, so no official is aware he has them) to Yvon, who is caught later when he innocently tries to spend them. He’s caught in a restaurant, in a scene that sets up much that is to come. The restaurant employee who notices the counterfeit bills and confronts Yvon is not willing to give Yvon much leeway. Frustrated and angry, Yvon assaults the man, but what we see is a close-up of Yvon’s hand grabbing the man’s jacket and pushing, then quickly letting go, so that the frame is filled with Yvon’s wide open hand while we hear what sounds like the man falling into a table or cart of dishes and falling to the ground. Another hand giving the impression of violence, which is heard off-camera, and a propensity for violence is established, though with that shot of Yvon’s hand Bresson somehow conveys that the character’s inclination in this direction is something he’s trying to curb. In any event, Yvon is doomed starting at that very moment – you might as well stop watching now. Or more likely he was doomed when he accepted into that same hand the money that was owed to him.

L’Argent ends in a slaughter, none of which we see straight-on. But after losing his job because of the counterfeiting charge, Yvon’s life falls apart. When he’s in prison for taking part in the bank robbery, his family, his wife and daughter, evaporates, for reasons understandable and tragic. There is nothing, so that when he’s released he’s willing to let the violence inside come out as he cruelly seeks money where his blood-stained hands can grab it. Which sounds very dramatic, and which is not even wrong. Yet L’Argent proceeds in small moments. Even the murders are shown in small moments, and of course the people playing the characters – I do not say “actors” and I probably shouldn’t have said “playing” – engage in none of what Bresson called the “voice modulation” or “useless gestures” or traditional film actors. His “models,” as he called them, indeed were not actors. With few exceptions (most notably Dominique Sanda, who started with Bresson), the screen credits of the stars of Bresson’s films begin and end with whatever Bresson film they appeared in. And indeed, as Bresson himself admitted, they’re not acting. They are part of the many visual and an audio components that comprise his shots, scenes, sequences, films. This sounds almost mercenary, but isn’t. As Bresson says in the Ciment interview, it’s all part of his precision, which I’d also call his sort of streamlined otherworldliness (Bresson often claimed to be depicting reality; how exactly he was defining “reality” gave him a lot of room to move, but sometimes he seemed to think he was achieving something close to a kitchen-sink reality; with L’Argent he certainly wasn’t doing that, which is something I do not care about). His very complex films, and they don’t come much more complex in Bresson’s filmography than L’Argent, are simplified by these non-performances – they’re not even lean, they’re not even stripped down – in that none of the fat of film acting is there to be dealt with, but it also deepens the strange intricacies of Bresson’s aesthetic. It’s strange and intricate, of course, because we’ve been trained to see films and film acting in a way that is anathema to Bresson, but Bresson is virtually alone in the history of more-or-less traditional narrative filmmaking to whom it is anathema. And this is all at its most interesting and absorbing in L’Argent for a variety of reasons, chief among them the presence of a little girl and a dog. Neither of them are actors, but neither of them are Bresson’s models, either. The little girl, who is maybe four years old, plays Yvon’s daughter. She’s not in it much, only two scenes I think, but in both she greets the stone-faced Christian Patey with a wide-open grin, that is utterly, unfakeably sincere. She is the only human being who gives the audience a shot of real movie emotion, but it’s not performative. She’s not a child actor. Bresson instructed his models not to act; I imagine he didn’t even bother telling the little girl.
And not to sound glib, but the same goes for the dog. It’s one of the wildest images I’ve seen in a Bresson film: during Yvon’s violent climactic rampage (during which I feel, I remember, only seeing two human faces, though I don’t know if I’m right about this), the dog that belongs to Yvon’s victims is running madly through the house where it’s all taking place, whining and crying and in a complete panic. It’s chilling and heartbreaking, and it stops your breath. That this dog is not attacking Yvon is surely lost on him – even the dog doesn’t have Yvon’s kind of violence in it. Then again, the dog is about to find itself cast out of its comfort, as Yvon was, and then what’ll it do? The poor thing won’t even know that it doesn’t have any money.
Robert Bresson must be among the most perplexing directors in history. There is certainly no one else like him (though some, like Steven Soderbergh with Bubble, have tried to get at what Bresson got at), and to walk into one of his films from, say, the 1950s, and increasingly so as he went along, ending with L’Argent, his last film, without any sort of guide is to more than likely find yourself lost. Narratively, he’s not particularly hard to handle, but in pretty much every other respect the question the uninitiated must ask is “What is he doing, and why is he doing it like this?” Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematograph, is a series of aphoristic statements the ultimate goal of which is to create a guide to filmmaking (this is, admittedly, merely one way of putting it). What it achieves instead is an explanation of Bresson. A complicated and enigmatic explanation, but nonetheless a solid one, one that can be held in our hands.
 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Welcome to the Internet


Every so often, a cinematic or literary genre or subgenre that usually consists in the realms of cult appreciation will find itself, usually after a particular entry into their ranks hits it big, enjoying what we call a “boom.” Audiences and publishers and studios are suddenly hungry beyond reason for more of this stuff that six minutes ago they barely even knew existed. As you might expect, this consequence has its ups and downs. The worst of the downs is that the world is suddenly awash in, say, ironic heist and hitman movies following the release of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, or teenage angst horror after Stephen King’s Carrie was published in 1974. Which would obviously be fine if all of this stuff was good, but of course it never is. So eventually it all crashes down and people get sick of heist films. On the plus side, while the boom is in full swing, really good, interesting stuff that couldn’t get a look in yesterday suddenly finds a gap in the fence and slips through. Would we have One False Move without Pulp Fiction? It’s possible we wouldn’t. And I feel certain that without Stephen King and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and The Other, there’s no way writers like T.E.D. Klein and Karl Edward Wagner would have received the kind of mass market publication they did. It’s a fair trade, in my view.
Back in the early 2000s, one of these booms occurred in the film world when – and as near as I can tell this was the locus, but it’s possible I wasn’t paying attention to other factors – The Ring, Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998 became a huge success. And so now, everybody wanted to see more Asian horror, specifically Japanese horror, so much so that amongst nerds it was even given the stupid nickname “J-horror.” In America, this wave of Asian horror more often than not, it seems to me, took the form of Hollywood remakes, because, hell, that’s what got us here in the first place. Hence your Dark Waters starring your Jennifers Connelly and your The Grudges starring your Sarahs Michelle Gellar and whatnot. It did also create a market in the US for the real thing, however, and whatever expected downside that went along with it, there were also some really terrific movies that were suddenly readily available. Including that which has brought us here today, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, from 2001, one of the great horror films of the new century. I’m sure Pulse would exist with or without The Ring. I’m just not sure when we would have been able to see it.
Pulse, which has just been released in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from Arrow Films, has a structure that is not unheard of in traditional narrative filmmaking, but is definitely unusual in the horror genre: two sets of characters, unknown to each other, have similar strange, terrifying experiences and one or more members of each group try to find out what’s going on, until their investigations bring them into contact with each other. Whether or not, ultimately, this contact does anybody any good.
In one group, three employees at a greenhouse/nursery notice that another co-worker, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) hasn’t been seen in a while, nor has he contacted them about an important project he’s working on. One co-worker, Michi (Kumiko Aso), goes to Taguchi’s apartment. He’s there, but during Michi’s visit he commits suicide. The computer disk containing the project he’d been working on is pored over by Michi and her friends Junko (Kurume Arisaka) and Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo). On the disc, they find ghostly images in photographs of Taguchi’s apartment, and when Michi returns their she finds a weird black stain on the wall against which Taguchi hanged himself.
Meanwhile, a young man named Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) takes his first tentative steps towards exploring the then-new Internet. After signing up with a provider, a website opens automatically, on its own. The site shows various people, their faces obscured, in dark rooms. The people are unmoving, or they move with eerie repetitiousness. Unnerved, Ryosuke seeks help at a computer lab at the university he attends. A computer science graduate student named Haure (Koyuki) takes interest in his problem and agrees to help. As the film progresses, characters will find a slip of paper on which is written “The Forbidden Room,” they will encounter ghosts in rooms whose doors are bordered by red tape, and they will hear, and entertain, theories about ghosts pushing their way into the physical world. And these characters will become depressed, and they will begin to feel hopeless. Michi will witness another suicide.


Kurosawa’s ghosts are hazy, slow, terrifying entities. Some are seen more clearly than others, and some perhaps can’t be seen more clearly – one is a walking shadow whose limbs move in loping arcs, another is a black outline seen from a distance in a library, who flees, or disappears, when Ryosuke approaches. This is quite a scene, not just for the imagery, but because it leads Ryosuke to meet a university student who explains his theory that spirits are using technology (specifically the internet, it should be clear by now) to enter the world of the living. The scene isn’t fascinating because of the theory, necessarily, but because the student is moved to tell it when he notices that Ryosuke has seen the ghost. He, the student, has been seeing them around campus, which led him to the theory. But it’s the matter-of-fact way the topic is broached, both visually and through dialogue, that makes it obvious, if it wasn’t already, that Pulse is a ghost story like no other. The ghost Ryosuke is simply among the stacks in the library. It’s notable as a presence not because of what it’s doing, but because a pitch-black thing in the shape of a human shouldn’t be there.
The table has been set for this kind of off-hand way (and all the more chilling because of that) Kurosawa introduces his supernatural elements by showing Michi, Yabe, and Junko react to Taguchi’s suicide as something that not only should be put behind them instantly, but can be. Michi has to work harder to shake off what she saw, and what, when you get right down to it, must be a loss to her personally (the implication is that she was friends with Taguchi, that they all were) than Junko does, and maybe, finally she doesn’t. Maybe she only acts like she does. If that’s the case, the path she walks, as opposed to those down which Junko and Yabe go, is different for a reason. She’s more aware. She’s more awake as a human being.
This is perhaps what plagues everyone in Pulse: that they are human beings. I’ve seen the argument made, and made recently, that Kurosawa really blows the lid off the internet with this film, that he had its dangers pinned down while the rest of us were still marveling at its limitless newness, but not only am I not convinced that he makes his case, I’m not convinced his primary concern was to make one in the first place. The danger of Pulse, the weapon that is used against us, is loneliness, that most human and effortlessly acquired of diseases. This is not the worst thing that the internet has afflicted on the world by any means, at least as I see it in 2017. What the internet achieves as a device in Pulse is a representation of and a portal into the unknown (and a portal out of the unknown). As one character after another faces the unknown directly – not death exactly, or not merely death, but whatever death is prologue to – the realization of their aloneness begins to metastasize. Not so glib about death now, are you, Junko? So the internet isn’t the internet: the internet is death. Which, okay Kiyoshi Kurosawa, that’s a fair point.
Gradually, Pulse turns apocalyptic. It seems to be, at once literally and metaphorically, an apocalypse of suicides. As the film moves along towards its end, it begins to depopulate. By which I don’t mean that the characters we know begin to die off, though that happens as well. Rather, even in a film that has never been teeming with background extras, the spaces through which Kurosawa’s people and camera move become undeniably emptier. And then any doubt about this is removed, but it’s remarkable how Kurosawa gets this across before being blatant about it. Pulse is a movie whose narrative momentum is built around a process of slow removal. Unavoidably, the film gets lonelier and lonelier. 

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