Catching up with the recently viewed while enjoying my brand-new Val Lewton boxset. I watched the commentaries on Cat People (#4, 1942), I Walked With A Zombie (#3, 1943), The Leopard Man (#10, 1943) and the first half of The 7th Victim (#8, 1943) this afternoon. Now I’ve got Cat People playing with its actual soundtrack.
At least that’s what I was doing three weeks ago when I started this. Might as well post it now.
The Thing From Another World – This template-setting sci-fi/horror film from 1941 has been hugely influential and it’s not hard to see why. The plot is essentially the same as any number of later films, most notably Ridley Scott’s Alien (#4, 1979). A group of scientists on a remote arctic outposts discover a crashed flying saucer and bring it back to their base. Soon their on the run from a near invincible and quite murderous alien. Produced by Howard Hawks, and perhaps to some extent directed by him as well (it’s credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’s editor on a number of classics who went on to direct a lot of television). The Hawks influence on the film is unmistakable. Professional men doing a difficult job in an extreme environment (The Dawn Patrol, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, Rio Bravo, etc) combined with snappy, overlapping dialogue (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Ball Of Fire). This distinguishes it from Scott’s virtual remake: Alien is a slasher horror film, Hawks and Nyby’s film is a screwball adventure. The #2 film of 1951.
Jour de fête – The Northwest Film Forum’s been running a five-week, five film 100th anniversary series of Jacques Tatí films that’s required me to rearrange my work so I can see these essential films. This is the first, his first feature as a director, about a French village on the day the fair comes to town. Tatí plays the bicycle-riding mailman who sees a short film about, he is told, the American post office (it’s actually a series of remarkable motorcycle stunts. Tatí tries to match the American speed and efficiency and hilarity ensues. Tatí’s style is already in place, at least visually (fairly long takes chronicling the slow buildups op the sight gags) and in terms of dialogue (there isn’t much), but the film doesn’t play with sound as much as his later Hulot films do (especially Playtime). The #5 film of 1949.
Zhou Yu’s Train – Gong Li and The Other Tony Leung star in Sun Zhou’s atmospheric, but perhaps needlessly complex romance about a ceramicist and a poet. Li takes the train every weekend to visit TOTL. One trip she meets a vet and starts taking another train to hook up with him. This rather conventional love triangle story is complicated by a jumbled narrative timeline and the fact that Li apparently plays an entirely different character from some point in the future, a fact which we never really figure out until the end of the movie. I’m not sure if I’m happy or annoyed at this complexity. A Rubik’s romance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes I’d rather films be more narratively simple. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Ozu (is such a thing possible?) The #8 film of 2002.
Born Yesterday – Corrupt capitalist hires four-eyed journalist to tutor his ditzy blonde girlfriend so she’ll be less embarrassing in high society. Blonde learns a thing or two and realizes her tycoon is a crook and outs him, while running off with the geeky writer, who turns out to be William Holden. An iconic performance from Judy Holliday is the highlight, and director George Cukor never quite allows the film to descend into the filmed-theatre genre it so desperately wants to join. A fine film, #12 of 1950.
Knocked Up – Writer-director Judd Apatow’s follow-up to The 40-Year Old Virgin (#10, 2005) has fat slacker Seth Rogan impregnate hot E! reporter Katherine Heigl. Inspiring a lefty hack critic backlash, she decides to keep the baby and try to have a relationship with the loser. Another kind of hack critic, David Denby, complains that Heigl isn’t as funny as Rogan, which misses the point entirely. Denby presents an old school feminist critique of the recent wave on romantic comedies, of which Apatow’s are two of the most successful, commercially and critically. They don’t measure up to the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s because the women aren’t as interesting, or as funny, as the men. But these films, and Apatow’s in particular, are post-feminist. They’re an example of Gen X’s reassertion of traditional family values in a post-revolutionary world. The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a celebration of abstinence and monogamy and a rejection of sex without love (a favorite activity of the preceding generation). Similarly, Knocked Up examines all the arguments against the nuclear family and rejects them, reformulating the family on a gender-equal setting. Why this should be seen as more reactionary than the Screwball genre, with its women as either flighty agents of chaos (Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey) or professionals to be put in their place (the Tracy-Hepburn films) is beyond me.
Grand Prix – John Frankenheimer’s Cinerama racing film is a fine example of overblown all-star 60s melodrama, the kind than bankrupted the studio system. James Garner, Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint and Toshiro Mifune (dubbed) star, along with Jessica Walter, the mom from Arrested Development (she’s young here, and hot too.) Some of the Formula 1 racing scenes are kind of exciting, the film film goes on forever and is rather dull. The #19 film of 1966.
A Bucket Of Blood – Roger Corman horror film that’s a whole lot of fun. A wanna-be beatnik artist accidentally kills a cat and covers it with plaster. When he takes this “sculpture” into to his bohemian café, he’s hailed as a great artist. Soon, he accidentally kills a cop and pulls the same trick. And then follows the psychotic killing spree in the name of ultra-realist art. One of the better Cormans, quite creepy at times, despite the absurdity of it all. The #14 film of 1959.
The Terror – Another Corman, this one starring a very young Jack Nicholson as a Napoleonic soldier who gets sidetracked by a ghost girl and embroiled in a decades old murder with a crazy old man (Boris Karloff) and a crazy old woman seeking revenge. The list of uncredited directors on imdb is pretty impressive: Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholson, Monte Hellman and Jack Hill. The #13 film of 1963.
Plunder Of The Sun – John Farrow directed film that’s about equal parts The Maltese Falcon, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Treasure Of the Sierra Madre. Glenn Ford, while vacationing in Mexico, gets caught up in a murderous quest for Aztec gold, or some such thing. An adventure noir, I guess you could say, though I don’t know of many other possibilities for that subgenre. The #21 film of 1953.
Le Million – Wonderful little proto-screwball musical comedy by French director René Clair. A deadbeat artist wins the lottery, but the ticket’s in his jacket, which his estranged girlfriend just happened to give away to a passing criminal. So the hunt is on throughout Paris to find the coat, the ticket, and fix his relationship. Some wonderful sequences, including an opening track of the city’s rooftops and the two lovers silently reconciling while hiding behind some scenery on an opera stage. Totally charming, the #4 film of 1931.
The Simpsons Movie –
Does whatever a Spider-pig does
Can he walk, On a web?
No he can’t ’cause he’s a pig.
Ivanhoe – Being from 1952, it’s a little early for the series of expensive Hollywood epics that epitomized the decadence of the late studio period. But this Sir Walter Scott adaptation is certainly as mediocre as any of those later films. Robert taylor plays the eponymous knight, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine play the women who love him, and George Sanders, of all people, plays the Norman knight who more or less opposes him. Directed by Richard Thorpe, who in a 45-year career managed to direct nothing else I’ve ever heard of.
The Spanish Earth – Propaganda documentary from 1937 valorizing the struggle against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Written by Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman, and Archibald Macleish, which is impressive, and narrated by Hemingway himself (he decided to do it himself rather than use the narration Orson Welles had recorded). As a film its rather heartbreaking, in the manner of all films documenting a struggle you know will be lost. The #13 film of 1937.
Wake Island – Another John Farrow film, this one a fine, if generic WW2 film about a small island outpost holding out against overwhelming odds against the Japanese in the early days of the war. Some great action and good solid genre acting from a solid genre cast of people like Brian Donlevy, Macdonald Carey, William Bendix, and Robert Preston. The #8 film of 1942.
The Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum – Matt Damon stars in these Paul Greengrss-directed action films, effectively underplaying his role as a amnesiac cypher that happens to be a CIA trained killing machine. In the Supremacy, the first sequel to Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (#20, 2002), Damon quests to avenge the death of his girlfriend while uncovering some type of treason involving Brian Cox and some Russians. The MacGuffin doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and neither does the action: all swish pans and quick cuts. The Ultimatum is a little better, the action is easier to follow and the plot is a bit more essential to the Bourne character (involving the origin of his skills and CIA corruption not unrelated to the present administration). The first film is superior to either sequel. The Supremacy has almost no interest in character: aside from a very moving coda it’s essentially one long action sequence. The Ultimatum doesn’t have any single scene that good, but there is more exploration of Bourne’s, ahem, identity. The Supremacy is the #21 film of 2004.
The Trouble With Angels – Hayley Mills is a bad influence as a teenage delinquent (she smokes cigarettes!) in this mediocre high school film. Frankly, I expect better from a fine director like Ida Lupino. The #21 film of 1966.
Mon Oncle – The third in the Northwest Film Forum’s series of Jacques Tatí films, and the second I hadn’t seen before. Also the second film in which he plays agent of chaos M. Hulot. A terrifically warm and funny film, as Hulot ceaselessly annoys his sister and her ultra-modernist husband and friends. If Jour de fête and M. Hulot’s Holiday are about the charms of the countryside, and Playtime is about the charms of the big city, then Mon Oncle is about the intersection of country and city, old world and new. It may be the most purely funny of any of Tatí’s films. The #3 film of 1958.
Cat Ballou – Revisionist/comic Western in which Jane Fonda gathers some men to help her protect her father’s farm against, among them a drunken old gunfighter played by Lee Marvin, in a fine performance for which he won an Oscar. Another one of those 60s comedies which are just too weird to be funny. Though Fonda and Marvin are always fun, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as singing minstrel narrators are too bizarre for me. The #17 film of 1965.
Becket – The story of the friendship of St. Thomas á Becket and King Henry II, complicated by Becket’s conflicting loyalties and overdeveloped sense of honor (a whole church vs. state thing). The film’s more a showcase for the great starring actors than interesting on its own terms. Richard Burton’s very good as Becket, but Peter O’Toole’s Henry is a lot more interesting when he played him again a few years later in The Lion In Winter (#1, 1968). John Gielgud also stars as the King of France. The #15 film of 1964.
Zodiac – Another tonal shift for director David Fincher, away from the ultra-noir darkness of Seven and Alien 3 and the over the top post-modernity of Fight Club, this mellow procedural about the famous Zodiac serial killer is all warm earthy colors and relatively long shots. It succeeds quite well in capturing both the look and the paranoid feel of the 1970s, with a few Hitchcockian attempts at suspense that don’t really work if you know how the story ends. These are missteps, I think, as suspense should work especially well when you know the ending. Fincher’s strengths lie elsewhere: in mood creation and shock. The cast, including Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo, however, is very good.
La Notte – The second of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early 60s alienation trilogy is the weakest of the three, though it paradoxically has the strongest cast. Marcello Mastrionni and Jeanne Moreau play a married couple who don’t much like each other anymore, which they come to realize over a very long day which sees the death of a friend and a lavish rich people party. The film picks up at the party, when Mastrionni begins a flirtation with Monica Vitti, better looking and acting here than in the other two Antonionis. The stark and rather depressing film becomes sublime in the second to last sequence, when the three leads confront each other in Vitti’s room and Antonionni’s choreography of the actors movements in space is precise, moving and dramatically beautiful. This penultimate scene makes the whole film worthwhile. The #8 film of 1961.
A Walk In The Sun – Very fine WW2 film from director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front, Oceans 11). A group of American soldiers arrives in Italy and slowly advances to a strategic farmhouse. All the key elements of a WW2 film are there, most importantly the collective hero made up of a group of distinctive characters that are more than stereotypes or thematic signifiers (unlike in, say, Saving Private Ryan). The cast includes Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Lloyd Bridges, John Ireland and Sterling Holloway. The screenplay’s by Robert Rossen, who went on to direct All The King’s Men and The Hustler. The #10 film of 1945.
Hot Blood – Director Nicholas Ray’s slumming in this gypsy musical comedy starring Jane Russell and Cornel Wilde (the great tagline: “Jane Russell shakes her tamborines and drives Cornel Wild”!). Wilde gets tricked into marrying Russell, when he’d rather be a free spirit (I’m unclear on whether or not he prefers the company of men, so to speak). But, eventually he comes around and all live gypsyly ever after. The #14 film of 1956.
While The City Sleeps – Fritz Lang pseudo-noir starring Dana Andrews as a journalist on the trail of a serial killer. The solution to the crime is set up by Vincent Price as a contest for control of his newspaper between the old school Thomas Mitchell (Andrews’s friend) and George Sanders and his newfangled newswire. Dark and cynical, it’s a fascinating exploration of the codependency of the media and crime from within the confines of a studio genre film. It works on both levels. The #11 film of 1956.
L’Eclisse – The best Michelangelo Antonioni movie I’ve seen thus far. In style it picks right up from that great next to last scene of La Notte and keeps it going for the rest of the film. Monica Vitti leaves her husband and their cozy book and painting film home to wander the modernist city. She meets a hyperactive stockbroker played by Alain Delon and fitfully begins a romance. There are a few fascinating long sequences in the Rome stock exchange, with the chaos on the trading floor being strangely comprehensible as the market collapses. Old World architecture and attitudes are constantly being replaced by modernity, and Vitti is stuck in between, with seemingly no idea where to go or what she wants. The final sequence is as hauntingly beautiful as it is inexplicable. The #4 film of 1962.
The Shootist – John Wayne’s last film is a revisionist Western in the 70s style. Wayne plays a dying gunfighter who doesn’t especially want to fight anymore but gets dragged into one last shootout with some local jerks. Set around the turn of the century, director Don Siegel pounds home the idea that Wayne’s outlived his time. The excellent supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Morgan and Ron Howard, who narrates the opening of the film, creating the eerie feeling that you’re watching an episode of Arrested Development. The #7 film of 1976.
Stardust – Amiable fantasy/romance from director Matthew Vaughn and based on a book by Neil Gaiman. Claire Danes stars as a star who falls to Earth and gets captured by a young man who intends to bring her back to Sienna Miller so she’ll marry him. Unfortunately, they get caught up in a power struggle of a family of princes who have to kill each other and find a jewel to become King while a murderous witch played by Michelle Pheiffer wants to capture Danes and eat her heart (to hold off old age). Fortunately, they meet up with a gay pirate played by Robert DeNiro who helps them out and teaches the kid some sword-fighting skills. And Ricky Gervais amd Peter O’Toole are in there somewhere, too. It doesn’t have the subversive brilliance of The Princess Bride, but that’s a high standard to hold anything to.
Closely Watched Trains – Classic of the Czech New Wave, it clearly owes a lot to François Truffaut. During World War 2, a young man begins training as a train dispatcher. He’s got a cute girlfriend, but is having trouble consummating their relationship (she’s all for it). So, he tries and fails to kill himself and is advised by his doctor to seek the company of an older, experienced woman. He finds one in the resistance and in that and the act of blowing up a train he finally “becomes a man”. A rather silly, depressing film enlivened by some genuinely funny moments, good acting all around and some very nice black and white cinematography. The #9 film of 1966.
Air Force – Pretty much the perfect World War 2 film. Director Howard Hawks’s style is perfect for the collective hero of that genre, where everyone talks at once but still manage to become distinct and interesting characters. The film follows the crew of a B-17 bomber as it leaves San Francisco for Hawaii on December 6, 1941 and arrives at Pearl Harbor just after the attack. They then have to leave immediately for Wake Island, where the Marines are under siege and from there they go straight to The Philippines. Along the way they get a tour of the early stages of the war, get shot at, and mold into a real crew, with each member playing their role in the plane’s survival. There’s plenty of comedy, but real pathos to, especially with Harry Carey as the grizzled crew chief with a son stationed in Manilla. John Garfield is also fine as a gunner who initially wants to quit but changes his mind after Pearl Harbor. The action scenes are outstanding, with what looks like a blend of original, stock and documentary footage. One dogfight in particular is a clear influence on Star Wars and is very good, though without Lucas’s hyperkinetic editing. The #3 film of 1943.