Broken Embraces – This latest, and as far as I’ve seen, which isn’t much, the least of Pedro Almodovar’s films is a noirish story about a blind director and the Penelope Cruz he once loved. It’s told mostly in flashback, as the director, back when he can see, casts Cruz in his movie as she happens to be the girlfriend of the film’s financier. They fall in love with disastrous results. As you’d expect, the film is ravishingly beautiful (and I don’t just mean Cruz). But that isn’t quite enough to transcend the bland characters and pedestrian melodrama of their situation. What is cool is that the movie they’re making is like a funhouse version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, though it also serves to remind us what a really great Almodovar movie is like. The #33 film of 2009.
The Blue Angel – The legendary first teaming of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg is nearly stolen by Emil Jannings, a major star of the 20s who I’d nonetheless never warmed to (despite the obvious awesomeness of The Last Laugh and his performance therein). Dietrich is wonderful of course, finding a nuance in her character that most actresses (and directors) would not even attempt. She plays a showgirl (“Lola”, naturally) who tantalizes and ensnares a stuffy English professor. Her effect on him is narcotic and soon he’s abandoned his own life to marry her and join her show as a pathetic clown. Jannings excels in this fall into grateful debasement: nothing is too humiliating as long as he’s got her. He’s less theatrical than I’ve seen before, more grounded and more believably human. Her feelings are much more complex: she seems genuinely fond of the professor, simultaneously protective, indulgent adoring and disgusted. A lesser actress and director would make Lola an cold, calculating and unfeeling monster. But that’s why Von Sternberg and Dietrich were geniuses. The #4 film of 1930.
The Story of a Cheat – The first film from Criterion’s new Sacha Guitry set is also the first of his films that I’ve seen, though I’ve been curious about him since the mid-90s, when I read my first real film book, François Truffaut’s The Films in My Life, wherein he recalled Guitry fondly enough for me to wish his films were somehow available in the suburban backwater I called home. It’s easy to see why on the basis of this film, which Guitry directed, stars in and wrote, adapting his own novel: it has the kind of light, world-weary and scandalous charm that Truffaut would occasionally reach for, but which more properly belonged to Ernst Lubitsch. Guitry’s character here, a roguish raconteur narrating his memoirs in flashbacks (and I do mean narrating, most of the movie is literally in Guitry’s voice), recalls the types of characters Maurice Chevalier played for Lubitsch in the early 30s, only not as cloyingly smarmy as Chevalier often was, and with none of the singing. It’s often quite funny, but more than that, it’s the kind of movie that makes you smile for 90 minutes. The #3 film of 1936.
Orphans of the Storm – Grand scale melodrama with a historical backdrop from DW Griffith, who may as well have patented the genre. Coming in 1921, the rest of the cinematic world was rapidly leaving him behind, but nonetheless Griffith is in peak form here, deftly weaving the separation of two sisters into the chaos of the French Revolution. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play the sisters, one of whom is blind (naturally enough). The help out Danton and cross Robespierre and there’s a last minute rescue from a guillotine. It’s isn’t as ambitious as Intolerance, nor as ahistorical as Birth of a Nation. But neither is it as deeply characterized and emotionally resonant as True Heart Susie. And while it’s very well put together, directors like Murnau and Chaplin were already hard at work turning Griffith into a dinosaur barely a decade after he pretty near invented cinema as we know it. The #1 film of 1921.
Return to the 36th Chamber – A pretty much unnecessary sequel to one of the greatest martial arts films of all-time, this film reunites the star (Gordon Liu) and director (Lau Kar-leung) of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Less a sequel than a remake, though one taking place after the first film and played mostly for laughs. Liu plays a conman who poses as the character he played in the first movie (the founder of the 36th Chamber), gets beat up, and tries to enter the chamber and learn kung fu for real, all to protect his friends and family who work in the local textile-dying plant, lately run by a bunch of Manchurian tough guys who enact pay cuts across the board. Less an examination of the art and spirituality of kung fu than the first one, more a joke about how martial arts can be an effective substitute for unionization. The #12 film of 1980.
Toy Story 3 – The latest in Pixar’s relentless assault on our collective tear ducts reunites the gang from Andy’s Room as their owner is about to head off to college. Through a series of comical mishaps, most of the toys end up in a nightmarish day care center, imprisoned by a giant bear and his henchman Ken. The bulk of the film is highly enjoyable light comedy, building to dual climaxes, one horrifying and as moving as anything in film over the last few years (at least since the last Pixar film), one shamelessly playing us for saps. Of course, I didn’t fall for it. However, there appears to be a serious dust problem in our multiplexes these days. Someone should do something about that. By the way, I saw it in 2D. Looked great, can’t imagine 3D making it better.
The Green Ray – After earlier this year watching Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, I picked up another DVD set that had all of the next series he made, Comedies and Proverbs. This is the first one of those that I’ve watched, though it was the fifth of the six films in the series (it was so highly praised that I decided to disregard chronological order). It’s about a pretty, well-meaning, but slightly annoying woman who can’t decide what to do on vacation. Seems the friend she was going to Greece with ditched her at the last minute. She spends some time in the country with another friend’s family (freaking them out with her freaky vegetarianism) goes back to Paris and mopes, heads off to the mountains and immediately leaves, and ends up on the coast watching the sunset. It’s less verbal than the Moral Tales, which all feature male protagonists who non-stop talk themselves into and out of infidelities. Instead, we get a female protagonist, one who occasionally communicates in conversations, but just as often overhears other conversations, or simply walks alone through the various environments she finds herself in. Nature is more vital here than any of the other Rohmer’s I’ve seen, as it should be given its title, a peculiar and potentially life-changing atmospheric phenomenon. Rohmer is great at endings, and the one here is as beautiful and epiphanic as any in cinema. The #2 film of 1986.
Scarlet Street – It’s as if Fritz Lang realized what a copout the ending of The Woman in the Window really was and reassembled his cast (Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea) to make a really nasty film noir. It’s an adaptation of La Chienne, a French novel that had previously been filmed by Jean Renoir (and which I haven’t seen yet). Robinson (in one of his best performances) plays a bank clerk who paints in his spare time and allows himself to be bullied by his nightmarish wife (his apron-wearing while doing the dishes is one of the iconic images of noir). He meets Bennett on the street, getting beat up by her boyfriend Duryea. She thinks he’s rich and pretends to like him in order to siphon money off him. She and Duryea play him for a sap, going so far as to take credit for his paintings, which turn out to be quite good. He finds out, people die but Robinson gets away with it. Or does he? The film’s final sequences are haunting, the first instance I can think of in noir wherein the hero commits the crime, escapes the law but is punished far more harshly than he would have been by the legal system. It has all the trap-closing inevitability of the best of Fritz Lang. The #3 film of 1945.
Les Vampires – I actually watched the first eight parts of this ten part serial by French director Louis Feuillade a year ago, but only recently finished it. We were going to run it as part of last fall’s Metro Classics series, but the money didn’t work out. It’s about a fabulous criminal gang terrorizing Paris, and the crusading journalist who, at first, is the only one who believes they exist, and in the end, is famous for capturing or killing their many leaders. The star of the series, though, is Musidora as the top ranking woman in the group, Irma Vep, one of the most iconic figures of pre-1920 cinema, not quite The Little Tramp, but up there. The serials basically follow the same pattern: the Vampires come up with a complicated evil scheme, a theft or assassination or scheme to kill the journalist (poisoned rings, hypnotism, false closets etc); they enact their scheme but through bad luck the journalist and his comic relief crony somehow manage to foil them. It’s not quite the kind of Worst Detective In The World thing we got in Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, but they’re pretty bad. What makes it so great, and so watchable almost 100 years after it was made, are the small moments of hallucinatory imagery that are still hauntingly magical. Black-clad Irma Vep climbing the walls of Paris or crawling out of a painting while a woman is sleeping below, a cannon being assembled piece by piece in a hotel room to fire across town, a villain crawling out of a cabinet while everyone looks the other way, a bourgeois party knocked unconscious by gas attack and more. These strange and wonderful films should be seen alongside the films DW Griffith was making at the same time, their approaches forming one of the earliest strains in the not really real but fun to think about nonetheless prose vs. poetry opposition in cinema. The #1 film of 1915.