Movie Roundup: Finished Ulysses Edition

Claire’s Knee – The fifth of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, it’s a kind of mellow version of Dangerous Liaisons. Jean-Claude Brialy (from A Woman Is A Woman, though now with an awesome beard) is on vacation at Lake Annecy (which is, like the beach house in La Collectionneuse, a stunning location and definitely a place I’d rather be). He’s about to move to Sweden to get married, when he meets an old friend who eggs him into a flirtatious relationship with a local teenaged girl. He than falls more seriously for the girl’s older sister, or more specifically, certain parts of her. Like the protagonists of most of the Moral Tales, Brialy isn’t a particularly admirable character, but he nonetheless remains both likable and sympathetic. This seems to be something special Rohmer brings to the films, maybe it’s in the leisurely pace, the dialogue and narration-heavy scripts, the visual relations between the characters and their environments, or just something basically decent and humanistic about the way he sees the world. He’s ever curious about behavior, and the lengths people go to to justify that behavior, but he never condemns and encourages that magnanimity in his audience. I can’t ever imagine feeling bad after watching a Rohmer movie. The #2 film of 1970.

It’s really hard not to compare this to An Education, a film with a similar subject, albeit with a different point of view: that of the young girl in a relationship with an older man. Despite that shift, though, the two girls in Claire’s Knee are much more interesting and real than the girl in the newer film, and where Claire’s Knee overflows with generosity and warmth, An Education is bitterness and cynicism, its characters existing, for the most part as cheap jokes or object lessons.

Fixed Bayonets! – Samuel Fuller’s second Korean War film from 1951, it’s not nearly as good as the first, The Steel Helmet. Still, it’s a rock solid movie, a kind of version of the Battle of Thermopylae with a single platoon of 48 men left to hold a mountain pass against the Chinese while the rest of their division retreats. The heart of the movie rests with a corporal played by Richard Basehart who doesn’t want to be a leader because he fears sending men to their death. The film is structured around the deaths of the four men who outrank him, leaving him at the climax to face his fears and lead his remaining men to complete their mission. As always, Fuller is grittier than the mainstream, but the whole thing feels a bit too schematic and doesn’t ever reach the poetic heights of his best films. The #17 film of 1951.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action – Way better than you think it would be. Brendan Fraser stars as a stuntman who gets mixed up with the recently fired Daffy Duck. The two of them take off on an adventure after Fraser’s father (Timothy Dalton) an actor who stars in James Bondish spy movies as a cover for his secret life as a spy. Dalton’s been kidnapped by the head of the Acme Corporation (Steve Martin, in possibly his worst ever performance) for something to do with some kind of jewel that turns people into monkeys. As Fraser and Daffy try to rescue him, their joined by Bugs Bunny and Jenna Elfman (also pretty terrible as the executive who fired Daffy, sent to rehire him). Director Joe Dante’s achievement here is that he truly captures the anarchic spirit of the Looney Tunes cartoons. There are jokes aplenty (visual, verbal, Hollywood satirical) some of them not funny at all, like Steve Martin’s whole performance, but the rapid-fire pace never slows down. The #18 film of 2003.

Mission To Moscow – Part of the series TCM’s been running this month on depictions of Russia in American film, this one is truly weird. At the height of World War II, the Roosevelt government encouraged Warner Brothers to make this adaptation of the memoir of the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, Joseph Davies. Michael Curtiz directs (it was his follow-up to Casablanca) and the film seems oddly split. On the one hand, it does a yeoman’s job of whitewashing the real concerns Americans had about Stalin’s government (the show trials, the lack of industrial progress, the failures of the 5 Year Plans), but on the other, the film seems to covertly acknowledge that those fears are real. More striking is a show trial sequence, when a number of Soviet officials (all of whom we’d met in the first half of the movie) are put on trial for plotting a Trotskyite coup against Stalin. The trials consist almost exclusively of confessions (which with historical hindsight we can assume were forced), and Davies is there to assuage any doubts as to their veracity. Someone even asks him “How can we be sure these confessions are real?” To which he responds “I’ve been a trial lawyer for 30 years: they’re real.” Now, either he’s the worst lawyer ever, or he’s lying for the sake of propaganda. I think he’s lying and I think Curtiz knows it. It shows in the way he directs the performances of the people on trial. I think. Maybe it just looks that way 60 years into the future. I’d love to know what audiences thought of this film when it was released. The #16 film of 1943.

Movie Roundup: MLK Day Edition

Suzanne’s Career – The second of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, and much darker in tone than The Bakery Girl of Monceau. It feels kind of like what would happen if the guys from Metropolitan tried to act like the jerks from In the Company of Men. A caddy young man dates a girl he doesn’t really like. His friend (who seems to be a bit in love with the guy) really doesn’t like the girl either, but considers dating her as well. The girl, seen exclusively from the boys’ perspective, is a bit of a cipher. In the end, though, we see that Rohmer was totally on her side all along. The black and white cinematography has a really cool shadowyness to it during the many party sequences. The #15 film of 1963.

My Night at Maud’sMoral Tales, Part III, this time feature length with some great acting from Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colors: Red) and cinematography by Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven). Trinignant plays an engineer in his early 30s (this is the first of the Moral Tales not about students) who’s trying to be Catholic and has some issues with Pascal. He’s in love with (but has never talked to) a pretty blonde he’s seen at Mass. He meets an old school buddy who drags him along to meet his girlfriend, the titular Maud, who interrogates him about his life and philosophy and kind of flirts with him. The bulk of the film is their conversation. All the Moral Tales have essentially the same plot, but differ in the kinds of characters they present the dilemma of fidelity to. The is the first one wherein every character is truly lovable (the guys in the first two are pretty much jerks, Trintignant here isn’t perfect (he’s actually kind clueless) but adorably so). The #2 film of 1969.

La CollectionneuseMoral Tales, Part IV and a step backward in the likability department. The Almendros photography is in color this time, and he really captures the beauty of the film’s Riviera location. Two guys stay at their friend’s vacation house for a month, along with a girl neither of them knows but who seems kind of slutty. They make a kind of game out of competing for her without acknowledging they actually like her. Their behavior is, for the most part, detestable, but at least seems to know that and enjoys playing along for her own entertainment. The ending, which is pretty much perfect, makes me love the film a lot more than I did while watching it. I too want to spend my time at an awesome house on the ocean trying my best to do absolutely nothing. The #15 film of 1967.

In the Loop – Pretty much as advertised: hilarious, with some great performances, especially by Peter Capaldi. It’s a screwball farce about the lead up to war in Britain and the US, kind of The West Wing meets Arrested Development, with, yes, a little Mamet thrown in. Based on a TV series, and I can see it working a lot better in that format, as none of the characters are really developed. In the end, the fact that the film follows so closely what actually happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War moves it from good fun to horribly depressing. Up until then, it’s the funniest movie of the year.

The Hurt Locker – Another highly acclaimed 2009 movie that succeeded in meeting my lofty expectations. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s action sequences are as well-constructed and filmed as their reputed to be: they show a palpable sense of geography and a really patience with the building of suspense. Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie are terrific as bomb squad soldiers in Baghdad, though the film kind of falls apart whenever it’s attempting to build them into characters, especially with Renner’s character. The film seems to want him to be a crazy adrenaline junkie to is wild, takes risks and can’t handle life on the outside. But Renner plays him more subtly, more as a man who doesn’t love war, but instead has found it’s the only place he feels at home. He doesn’t need a rush, he needs to be a hero. Regardless, the action sequences alone are enough to make it a great film. The #10 film of 2008.

Movie Roundup: Eating with Relish the Inner Organs Edition

An Education– I’d expect that a film about a young girl in 1962 who’s so infatuated with the life of the Parisian intellectual (jazz, cigarettes, New Wave movies) that she dates an older man to have at least a sense of why that Parisian lifestyle is so interesting. Or a sense that the guy she’s dating as cool or exciting or smart or dangerous or something. But everything in this movie is tame: the affair is about as passionless as it can get, even for the English; the guy is pretty boring – more traveling salesman than transgressive cad; and the film itself is written and shot so tastefully as to be pretty much inert. The actors are good though: Carey Mulligan doing that clever waif thing that’s worked for actresses from Audrey Hepburn to Natalie Portman, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson as teachers who for some reason can’t explain why they like teaching (it’d be inconvenient for the plot or something, I guess), and Alfred Molina as the father. He gets the best scene in the film: his little speech near the end. It’s the only really moving thing in the whole film.

College – Possibly my least favorite Buster Keaton feature. I’m actually liking The Freshman more in comparison. Keaton plays a geek who goes to college and decides the girl he loves want him to be an athlete. The film then plays as Keaton tries (and fails) to play various sports: baseball (with one of my favorite players, HOFer Wahoo Sam Crawford in his only film role), track and field, rowing. It’s much funnier than the Lloyd film, of course, as Keaton’s just a better physical comedian. But it has none of the emotional depth that Lloyd, despite the fact that I was so bored with most of his film, managed to create. The #7 film of 1927.

Dragon Inn – The third King Hu kung fu film I’ve seen, and it’s somewhere in-between the other two ambition-wise. Come Drink With Me, while pretty great for the first two-thirds, was marred by an imposed ending from the Shaw Brothers, with cheap and rather silly special effects. A Touch of Zen, on the other hand, is a vast epic, something that’s aspiring to be the Seven Samurai of the kung fu genre (and comes very close to succeeding). This one isn’t quite that ambitious, and more successfully maintains its tone through the entire film. The plot is an archetypal one: good guys and bad guys converge at a remote location, beat each other up. The action is pretty much perfect, a difficult task without any performers as virtuosic as Gordon Liu or Jackie Chan, but one Hu manages through framing and perfectly-timed editing. The #5 film of 1967.

The Scarlet Empress – The fifth collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich I’ve seen, and it might be the craziest and the most fun. Dietrich plays the young Catherine the Great, in her rise to Tsarinadom. The early plot, in fact, is suspiciously like that of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Dietrich plays a young German girl brought to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, who is, of course, a lunatic. She freaks out, learns to scheme and manipulate and eventually stages a coup that puts her in power (with the help of the army, large parts of the command of which she appears to have slept with). Dietrich’s pretty funny working against type as the innocent waif in the beginning, and of course she owns the double entendres at the end. The best thing about the film though is the set design: the Kremlin as a kind of Gothic horror show with oversized statues of demons and agonized saints everywhere: walls, bannisters, tabletops, as chairs, etc. The #5 film of 1934.

Madame Bovary – Vincente Minnelli’s version of of the Flaubert classic is told with a weird framing device. Flaubert is on trial for writing the book (corruption of public morals, in that it expects us to sympathize with the greedy adulterous title character) and as a defense tells the story of the novel. Thus we have the author (in the form of James Mason, of all people) narrating the action as if it were a kind of argument: the story exists to make us feel sympathy for Emma Bovary. It reduces the novel from one of romance and melodrama to one of social argument, which is far less interesting. Anyway, jennifer Jones plays Emma and is pretty good (she looks like a softer, rounder Vivien Leigh). The standout sequence, one of the very best of Minnelli’s career is the ball sequence. I’ve never seen a 19th century dance filmed with such speed, both with the dancers and the camera (when it follows the spinning waltzers). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and when the windows are smashed open to let in some air, you’re glad for it as well. The #13 film of 1949.

A Serious Man – I finally managed to see this, the new Coen Brothers film. It’s very much of a piece with their Barton Fink, both revolving around protagonists that don’t understand what’s happening around them mostly because they just don’t listen. Michael Stuhlbarg is quite good as Larry Gopnick, a physics professor (Schrödinger’s cat & the Uncertainly Principle, of course) who learns his wife wants a divorce, he might not get tenure, he’s being sued for accusing a student of trying to bribe him. And that’s just the first act. More disasters await Larry as he desperately tries to find answers to why all these things are happening to him. He makes several trips to several rabbis, all of whom give him the same, essential existential answer: we don’t know, try to enjoy life and be a nice person. That’s not enough for Larry, he needs to know: what is God’s plan, do actions have consequences? The film exists in an in-between state in whether we’re supposed to believe the actions we see are random or determined by God; like Schrödinger’s cat, both possibilities are true for the duration of the film. Until, that is, Larry makes a choice. Then all the possibilities collapse into one, and it doesn’t appear to be a happy one.

Party Girl – A really solid gangster melodrama from director Nicholas Ray. Cyd Charisse plays a titular showgirl who falls for Robert Taylor’s crippled mob lawyer (he makes his living defending Prohibition Era hoods in the employ of Lee J. Cobb in 1920s Chicago). They help each other become better people, which inevitably puts them in conflict with the gangsters. Shootouts and nobility ensue (including a montage of whackings that must have inspired Coppola’s [i]The Godfather[/i] in some way). This being a 50s melodrama, there’s even the obligatory miracle surgery. Charisse gets a couple of great musical numbers (just dancing), though they’re marred by some terrible outfits, by the end, she completely wins you over (and not just with her legs, despite Ray’s impressive singularity of focus on them). Above all, the film is notable as yet another Ray film with deeply drawn, very damaged characters struggling against life, despite all the generic clutter than threatens to take over: that powerful emotional undercurrent keeps things (like Lee J. Cobb) from degenerating into farce). The #10 film of 1958.

24 City – The latest (available) feature from Jia Zhangke is the story of a factory closing in the industrial town of Chengdu. It’s told through a series of nine interviews, five of which are actual people telling their story, four are actors telling composite stories compiled from among the 130+ people Jia interviewed for the project. The conceit is made clear from the opening credits, which cite famous actresses Joan Chen and Zhao Tao. Far from feeling dishonest, however, the act is consistent with the way Jia’s latest films have mixed reality and unreality (The World‘s animated interludes and surreal setting; Still Life‘s alien artifacts imbuing a desolate, dismantled town with enough humor and romance to keep things from getting to boring or depressing). The film is shot digitally, with lovely slow pans over the factory (the last workers at work, things been torn down and taken apart, workers leaving the factory in what is probably a Lumière homage). The version I saw on the Instant Netflix and a weird ripple in the image every time the camera panned. I don’t think that was intentional. The #4 film of 2008.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau – The first of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is a short film about a law student (future director Barbet Schroeder, with voiceover narration by future director Bertrand Tavernier) who sees a pretty woman walk by every day, over-thinks a plan to ask her out, and ends up buying cookies every day waiting to run into the girl again. He flirts with the bakery girl (for various potential reasons) and drops her when the first girl returns. It definitely feels like there’s more of a movie in this story, something that could have run for 90 instead of 23 minutes. On the other hand, it’s pretty much perfect as it is. Schroeder’s attention to habit, his circular, obsessive logic and ultimate callousness feels very true to life. The #11 film of 1963.

Movie Roundup: Meh, Casey Kotchman Edition

It’s a Gift – WC Fields as a henpecked grocer who decides to buy an orange grove and move his family to California. As a movie, it’s not much, mostly just an excuse for elaborate Fields set pieces (a baby loose in his store while an irate man demands cumquats, Fields trying to get to get back to sleep on his porch, the family having a picnic). It’s often hilarious, but more built around physical comedy than the later Fields I’ve seen, The Bank Dick (which I liked better) and My Little Chickadee (which I did not). He’s a funny man. The #10 film of 1934.

The Freshman – Harold Lloyd, though, I just am not impressed by. I liked this more than the other film of his I’ve seen (Speedy), but not because it’s funnier (both have some good moments, but fewer than I’d like), rather because it seems more heartfelt. Despite the corniness of Lloyd’s geek character’s patheticness, by the end of the film, I couldn’t help but feel for him. It helps that the last half hour of the film is by far the best (the end of a party sequence and the climactic football game, which at times almost reaches hilarity). It’s not fair to compare him to Chaplin and Keaton (or the Marxes and Fields) (it’s not fair to compare anyone to those guys) but I can’t help but look at a scene in a Lloyd film and think they would have had ten jokes where Lloyd has one. The #4 film of 1925.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum – A really wonderful musical from 1933 directed by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, Ocean’s Eleven) and starring Al Jolson. This is the first time I’ve seen Jolson in anything, and he’s pretty great here, charming and funny, he reminded me of Gene Kelly more than anything else (without the dancing, of course). He plays the “Mayor of Central Park”, the leader of a pack of bums that happens to be friends with New York’s actual mayor, Frank Morgan (yet another wonderful performance by one of my favorite supporting actors). Morgan has a fight with his showgirl girlfriend, who tries to kill herself, only to be rescued by Jolson, suffer amnesia and fall in love (in that order). Will Jolson give up his commitment to homeless life and get a real job? Will the regretful Morgan find his girl? Will she recover her memory, and if so, which Mayor will she choose? There’s much hilarity from the supporting cast, including Edgar Connor as Jolson’s “valet”, and silent film stars Chester Conklin and Harry Langdon, who particularly stands out as a Bolshevik trash collector endlessly haranguing the homeless for not being workers and instead getting fat off the leftovers of the corrupt capitalist system. The songs are pretty good too: not the best stuff by Rodgers and Hart, but not bad at all. The #3 film of 1933.

Summer Hours – Hmmm . . . needs more Binoche. This seems miles away from the last Olvier Assayas film I saw (the Asia Argento techno-thriller Boarding Gate, which was great), being instead a leisurely, episodic story of the last days of a familial home. It’s not nearly as apocalyptic as it might have been in lesser hands (think a heavy-handed metaphor about the decline of civilization from the likes of Michael Haneke), instead it’s elegiac: we drift through the scenes not with an urgent foreboding, but rather the calm realization that all things (and families) come to an end and that this is as it should be. This is conveyed most effectively by Assayas’s visual style, all long, wandering hand-held shots, the best of which is the film’s magnificent final scene, a wandering trip through the house as a group of kids enjoy its many charms for their (but not the house’s, surely) last time. As for the objects that are at the heart of the film’s story, the things the family must to decide how to deal with, they have value, but what kind and how much depends on the valuer, I suppose. Objects are just objects, its people that give them meaning. A museum values a vase because it’s unique and exquisitely crafted by a master artist, an old woman because it holds flowers and memories of her friend. In the end, the film is on the side of the old woman, and so am I. The #4 film of 2008.

Top Films of All-Time Index

This is an index of my Top Films of All-Time lists. Every year around Labor Day I make a new one.

My Top 150 Films – 2008
My Top 250 Films – 2009
My Top 600 Films – 2010
My Top 1000 Films – 2011
A Top 100 Films – 2012
A Top 100 Films – 2013
A Top 100 Films – 2014
A Top 100 Films – 2015
A Top 100 Films – 2016
A Top 100 Films – 2017
A Top 100 Films – 2018
A Top 100 Films – 2019
A Top 100 Films – 2020
A Top 100 Films – 2021
A Top 100 Films – 2022