The Shopworn Angel – A simple setup for a romantic comedy: naive country kid (James Stewart) stops off in the big city on his way to deployment in WWI. He passes off the photo of a showgirl (Margaret Sullavan) as his girlfriend to impress his buddies, then convinces her to play along when they all actually meet her. Naturally, the pretend romance turns real. The tone is perfectly modulated between the silliness of this setup and the desperate realities of young men on the precipice of death and a cynical woman who’s been around the block a few times, and all kinds of credit is due these two stars (as well as Walter Pidgeon as the rich cad who might actually love Sullavan as well). This is the first film I’ve seen by HC Potter, but I don’t know that he has the reputation for this kind of thing. Perhaps more credit is due screenwriter Waldo Salt? Regardless, it’s a delightful film, of not really on the level of other Stewart/Sullavan pairings like The Shop Around the Corner or The Mortal Storm. The #8 film of 1938.
Give a Girl a Break – One of three great Debbie Reynolds musicals from 1953, along with The Adventures of Dobie Gillis and I Love Melvin. Like Dobie Gillis, this one also features Bob Fosse, this time playing a much more important role (he’s actually the romantic lead) while not demonstrating as much his unique choreographic style (which was on display in Dobie Gillis and another great 1953 musical, Kiss Me Kate). Reynolds is one of three actresses auditioning for a big show on Broadway, and Fosse is the director’s assistant who falls for her and does as much as he can to get her the part (this is essentially the plot dynamic of I Love Melvin). The other two women include the director’s ex (this pair are played by Broadway star Marge and Gower Champion) and a woman the producer is smitten with, a dancer who is secretly married. The film doesn’t have the anarchic wackiness of the other Reynolds or Fosse films from 1953, director Stanley Donen instead maintains control and focuses the film on a few brilliant emotional moments (Reynolds and Fosse together are particularly charming, as are the film’s final climaxes). The #13 film of 1953.
Hound of the Baskervilles – I’m afraid that these Sherlock Holmes films just aren’t working for me. Yes, Basil Rathbone is excellent, perhaps definitive as the detective, and this is definitely an improvement over the same year’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which told an original, and largely stupid, story. But you’d think there’d be more horror and spookiness to the moor than there is in this film, at least there is in the original story (and the werewolf episode of Doctor Who, as well). And that’s probably my problem: the Holmes stories in my memory are a lot better than any cinematic versions I’ve yet seen. Still, by sticking largely to Conan Doyle’s plot and characters, director Sidney Lanfield has succeeded in making a watchable motion picture. The #27 film of 1939.
The Navigator – One of the major Buster Keaton features that I’d somehow managed to not see until now. He plays a clutzy rich kid who gets stuck alone on a massive boat with a pretty girl. The initial setup is wonderfully done, especially an iconic sequence of the two of them looking for and just missing each other when they first begin to suspect someone else is on the boat and the couple’s first night on the boat, that manages to be both hilarious and terrifying (thanks to the floating head of co-director Donald Crisp). Adrift on the open sea, the two have to learn for themselves not merely how to function on a boat, but the basics of life such as can-opening and coffee-making. Eventually, Keaton has to venture underwater to fix a propeller (like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but not really) and the two have to fight a tribe of cannibals that try to eat them. It’s got a lot of great sequences, but it isn’t quite at the level of Keaton’s greatest work. The #5 film of 1924.
The Shining Hour – Joan Crawford in a Frank Borzage melodrama with Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor? No, I wouldn’t think she’d fit in either. But of course, that’s why it works, because her character, a dancer who marries into a wealthy and uptight Wisconsin (?!) family, doesn’t fit in either. She marries Melvyn Douglas, the brother of Taylor, whose wife is Sullavan and whose sister is Fay Bainter who is really mean to poor Joan Crawford. Seems Bainter thinks Crawford’s going to disrupt the family by sleeping with Taylor, which, of course, she does, because that’s the kind of girl Joan Crawford is. The Midwestern setting is strange for this kind of thing, you’d expect New England Puritan repression or Southern gentility masking horrible crimes or something. Instead, Bainter is mean but right and Margaret Sullavan, as always, suffers nobly. Good times. The #12 film of 1938.
Close-Up – The earliest film by Abbas Kiarostami I’ve seen, it follows the case of a man who claimed to be director Mohsen Makhmalbaf allegedly in order to scam some money out of a family. But the closer we get to the case, the less sense it makes: the guy isn’t likely to get much money, and what kind of weird scheme is that anyway? Add in typical Kiarostami meta-questions like how much of what we’re being shown is real (it’s supposedly based on a real news story) and his own weird disinterest in telling a straight story when watching a reporter kick a can down a street is much more interesting, and you get a fascinating movie to think and talk about, though my first time watching it, albeit fairly late at night, it kinda dragged. There’s a lot to digest here. The #6 film of 1990.
To Live and Die in LA – A couple months ago I rewatched William Friedkin’s The French Connection, a film I’d never particularly cared for before, and absolutely loved it, only partially because the Blu-Ray transfer, which I understand is probably not at all reflective of what the film looked like in 1971, looks absolutely stunning. 1970s American films have generally always looked ugly to me, but Friedkin, amping up the grain and blurring the colors came up with a visual look just as gritty as the hardcore grunginess of his lead character. Well, 15 years later, Friedkin made a cop movie that is even nastier than that one, and it might even be better as well. The setup and structure of the plot is no different from most other cop films of the period, with a psychotic bad guy (a forger played by Willem Dafoe) being chased by a cop (William Petersen, the CSI guy) who doesn’t play by the rules (or “laws” as we call them), out to get him not merely because it’s his job, but because this time it’s personal (seems Dafoe killed Petersen’s partner, mere days before his retirement!). But whereas most cop movies of the 80s played this scenario for laughs, or at least chuckles (48 Hours, Lethal Weapon), Friedkin relentlessly exposes the ugliness in his characters and seems to revel in the kind of sickness and fascism certain critics saw in The French Connection. I don’t know where the film really stands, as a critique of the vigilante cop genre or its ultimate expression, nor do I think it really matters. Either way, it’s a great movie. The #5 film of 1985.
Dragonwyck – Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first film as a director is this adaptation of a Gothic romance in which a young farm girl (Gene Tierney) marries her rich cousin (Vincent Price) and moves to his fancy Hudson River mansion. Sure enough, things aren’t all that great when she gets there. Seems the house is haunted, Price’s family is all crazy and the local tenant farmers (led by Harry Morgan, Col. Potter himself) want the right to own land for themselves. It’s a decent enough example of its genre, but nowhere near as great as Rebecca or as twisted as The Secret Beyond the Door. The ending’s kind of weak as well. But Walter Huston, as Tierney’s religious farmer father who doesn’t approve at all of Price, mansions, cities or capitalism, is fantastic. The #14 film of 1946.
Well, we’re back home after our best film festival experience yet. 23 features in nine days is also a new record, as was the fact that there was only one day when the wife questioned why she agrees to go to these things with me. I’m sure this is going to change several times as I get some distance from the craziness of the festival environment and all these movies to settle in a separate themselves in my brain, but here’s an initial ranking of what we saw, including four of the best and most distinctive shorts.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields – A conventional but nonetheless engrossing documentary about, well, Stephin Merritt and his band, The Magnetic Fields. Merritt’s notoriously difficult to interview, so the intimacy of this film is rather impressive. Every major member of the band is interviewed, as well as Merritt’s mom herself. It’s mostly a biographical portrait, charting his life from high school until the Distortion album, hitting the high points (the near universal acclaim for 69 Love Songs, for my money one of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century) and the low (the racism accusations by New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones, which proved nothing but the already established fact that Sasha Frere-Jones is a fucking moron. Though he was decent enough to basically admit as much both in print and on camera here). Most of the film though is funny anecdotes about Merritt’s working life, with a special focus on his 25+ year friendship with Claudia Gonson, manager and band member. Particularly cool is Merritt dumping a pile of his old notebooks on the floor and flipping nostalgically through them. (Edited to add: The coolest thing was Merritt talking about his favorite artists, particularly ABBA, who he says created such perfectly worked out songs such that when you first hear them you feel like they’ve always existed, which is exactly what I’ve always thought about Merritt’s best songs, particularly much of the 69 Love Songs). Documentaries like this aren’t generally notable for their filmic qualities, and this one is no exception. But it gets about as close as one can get to an artist like Merritt, and that’s accomplishment enough. Plus the score is really great.
Merry-Go-Round – The second film co-directed by Clement Cheng at this year’s festival (Hong Sangsoo is the only other person with two features at the festival, though as Cheng pointed out during the Q & A, his two halves make one festival film). It’s totally different in visual style from the kung fu comedy Gallants, though it is thematically quite similar. Both film’s approach Hong Kong’s past with reverence, and are about the younger generation learning to respect the older. In this case, its a young woman (the gorgeous Ella Koon), dying of leukemia who goes to HK to find an internet friend who’s been ignoring her. This friend is the nephew of another woman from San Francisco who has recently returned to HK to prevent his sale of the family’s Chinese medicine shop to developers. This older woman is obsessed with her own past: she’s also bringing her grandfather’s body back home to be buried in his home town, and she has a series of flashbacks to a romance she had before leaving for America sometime after the Communist takeover of the mainland. The desire to return a body to one’s home is one of the key motifs in the film, and much of it takes place at a “Coffin Home” where bodies of diasporic Chinese are stored until their families come to claim them. The caretaker of the Coffin Home is played by Teddy Robin (who was so great in Gallants) and he hires the dying girl and he’s got issues with the past of his own to deal with. The setup of the film is needlessly complicated, and the first half hour or so is much more disorienting than it needs to be. But once everyone settles into their places in the narrative and their various histories and interconnections begin to be revealed, the film has a powerful emotional momentum. It’s about the joy and tragedy of leaving and returning. Other than the clunky beginning and an over-reliance on the indie rock score in the latter sections of the film (the use of the standard “After You’ve Gone”, however, is excellent), it really is very good. The cinematography by first-time feature DP Jason Kwan is particularly good, much smoother and more polished than Gallants, though the budget can’t have been much greater.
Carlos – One of the most exciting and daunting films of the year is Olivier Assayas’s five-plus hour epic about the life of 1970s terrorist Carlos. The film begins in 1973 when Carlos, a young Marxist with nominal experience (he did spend some time in the USSR but was expelled, later he attended a terrorist training camp) adopts his nom de guerre and becomes the director for English operations for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which I’m pretty sure is a Life of Brian reference). The film then follows his career of largely bungled operations, many women and charts in detail the whole underground of international politics for over 20 years, until the end of the Cold War radically realigned everything and left the true believers nowhere to hide. Oscar Ramirez is fantastic in the lead role, though I kept trying to figure out who he looked like, settling on a hybrid of Val Kilmer and Johnny Depp. He brings the necessary multi-lingual charm (easily topping the excellent work of Christoph Waltz in last year’s Inglourious Basterds, if only by the fact that he spends the entire film easily switiching between English, French, Spanish and German whereas Waltz only needed a few lines of Italian) and constant threat of physical violence that must have been what enabled Carlos to last for so long in such a deadly racket and Assayas uses the actor’s body to chart the ups and downs of his career in an unusually explicit way (ie, he’s naked almost as much as the women in the film are, and sometimes he’s fat). The obvious point of comparison with Carlos will be Steven Soderbergh’s Che, another massive film about a famous 20th Century revolutionary. But I can’t think of a way in which Assayas doesn’t better that film. Whereas Soderbergh seemed to be either indifferent to Che’s politics or simply didn’t understand it, Assayas goes out of his way to contextualize Carlos and his compatriots’ ideology and that of the people they are fighting with and against, to the point that he is actually giving us the story of the decline of radical leftism worldwide in the wake of its 1968 high point (and how that relates to ongoing issues in the Middle East where Carlos’s ilk we replaced by a different, and much scarier, form of terrorist) as much as he is telling the story of one man. Soderbergh’s film shies away from anything that might make the hero look less than noble, while Assayas gives us all the warts on what was essentially a hired thug and murderer, he even makes the point that Carlos wasn’t even a particularly good terrorist: he bungled his biggest job (which takes up the heart of the film, his raid on an OPEC summit in 1975 that is a perfect hour and a half suspense film in its own right), got fired from the PFLP and never managed another major task again, even his more minor hired hits usually failed to kill the main target. Soderbergh’s film is self-consciouly arty, with changes of film stock, intercuts stories, a radically different visual style in Part Two from Part One (complete with an aspect ratio change). Assayas keeps the style unobtrusive and fluid, with generally long takes, constant spatial orientation and judicious uses of hand-held cameras. Anyway, it’s a massive and great film, he kind of intelligent action epic that simply doesn’t get made anymore (outside of John Woo’s very good, but not this good Red Cliff, I can’t think of any over the last several years) and it plays great theatrically: the five hours really flies by. It’ll play on TV in the US, but I’d see it in a theatre if you could.
Certified Copy – Maybe I’ve been watching Abbas Kiarostami all wrong, because nothing in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us or Close-Up prepared me for how simply funny this film is. Or maybe those films are exceptions in the career of a world class romantic comedy filmmaker. Anyway, Juliette Binoche (who somehow looks better now than she did 20 years ago, which just isn’t fair) plays a woman who invites a writer out for the afternoon as she liked his book (though parts annoyed her) and presumably because she likes him (William Schimell, he looks almost but not exactly like David Strathairn). His book is about how copies of art objects are just as valuable as the originals, because what gives art value is our relationship to it, what we see in it, and not anything inherit in the object itself. They argue about that for awhile, and eventually start to pretend to be married when they meet other people (the film’s set in Tuscany, and Binoche acts in three languages (French, Italian and English) while Schimel speaks French and English). The arguments they have as a “married” couple achieve enough reality that the audience is invited to wonder if they really are married after all, and their earlier scenes of not knowing each other the pretense. Of course, if we accept the premise of the book, it doesn’t matter: the only thing that’s important is what we as the audience take from it, how we relate it to our own lives. For me, it was funny for most of the time, as the various arguments and rhetorical strategies were not entirely unfamiliar. But that comedy is leavened by more than a little heartbreak. It’s a weird romance, but a pretty much perfect one. If I wanted to be really succinct, I’d say it’s Before Sunset for grownups. But, really it’s even better than that.