Meek’s Cutoff – A group of settlers making their way through the Oregon Territory break off from their main group to follow a mountain man named Meek’s shortcut. When we join them, they appear to be most definitely lost, though Meek, in a well-mumbled performance by Bruce Greenwood, insists he knows exactly where they are and where they are going. As the settler’s distrust of Meek grows, and their water supply dwindles, they come across a lone, silent Indian. Led by Michelle Williams, they slowly take their faith away from Meek and place it onto the Indian, who claims (wordlessly) to be able to lead them to safety but may very well be leading them to their doom. A major step up from director Kelly Reichardt’s last film, Wendy and Lucy which, despite an excellent performance from Williams I thought was a little lacking in the plot motivation department. Reichardt films in 1.33, an aspect ratio that not only recalls the classical Western, of which this is in many ways a subversion (there’s an interesting compare and contrast to be made here to Ford’s Wagon Master) but also mimics the POV of the women in the group, their heads bound by 19th Century bonnets, their blinder-vision making palpable both the claustrophobia of their place in society and the group’s limited knowledge of where they are going and the world around them. It’s a movie about faith and feminism, about a group of women learning to reject the authority of their alpha male and place their trust in a despised and mysterious other, with no assurances that their new guide will be any better. One of those movies whose resonances grow the more I think about it. The #4 film of 2010.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams – The consensus line on this Werner Herzog documentary about cave paintings is that it’s the best argument to date for 3D cinema and I’m not going to disagree with that. The paintings, found in pristine condition in Southern France, are the earliest yet discovered and Herzog examines them in exhaustive detail. His narration, as always, is a blend of sardonic rationality and breathless cheesiness, but it’s the images that are unforgettable. Because the cave walls and ceilings are contoured and uneven, and because the paintings were made with these surfaces in mind, the 3D camera brings them to life in a way that would be impossible with a conventional film. We can see the ripples of the limestone and the way the uneven surface serves to almost animate the images on the walls, especially when combined with the flickering shadows that must have accompanied their ceremonial use as religious totems. Herzog, as usual, doesn’t so much have an idea about the paintings as he has a dozen questions to which he poses possible answers. Who made the paintings and why and what does that say about us, about the urge to create? His speculations lead him, again as usual, to some strange places, but any film that starts with 30,000 year old cave paintings and ends with albino alligators has to be doing something right. The #14 film of 2010.
The Tale of Zatoichi – The first of a massive series of films about a blind samurai (charmingly played by Shintaru Katsu) who solves crimes (or something, this is the only one I’ve seen), its debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is obvious. Like in that film, a wandering ronin comes to a town and is hired by one side of a local gang war. The ronin here is blind, a masseur (a common profession for the blind in Japan, in the movies if not in reality) who is both jovial and cunning (he repeatedly plays on other people’s underestimation of him due to his blindness, not only in swordplay but in everyday tasks like gambling as well). Unlike in Yojimbo (itself indebted to Dashiell Hammett), the ronin does not play both sides of the war against each other, instead he bonds with the ronin the rival gang has hired (who is dying of tuberculosis) and the two stand apart from the petty criminals who employ them by their samurai codes of honor and dignity. That doesn’t prevent them from fighting, of course. Zatoichi very much lives in the same world as Yojimbo‘s Sanjuro, but he’s a bit more amoral and a little bit more sentimental. But the major difference between the two films is in the visual style, where Kurosawa’s meticulous genius imbues every shot with meaning and purpose and Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi performs a competent job filming his actors in a noiry, occasionally flashy black and white. The #16 film of 1962.
The Pajama Game – Doris Day becomes a union leader at a pajama factory and attracts the eye of the company’s superintendent John Raitt (looking like Rene Auberjonois as a Lifetime movie villain). Their romance complicates union negotiations, as the uppity Miss Day won’t know her place as a proper 1950s housewife. Until she does when Raitt proves the company had been ripping off the workers even more than was previously thought. The workers get their little raise, Day goes home to raise Raitt’s kids and everyone lives happily ever after. The plot manages to combine the glories of capitalist patriarchy with all the excitement of union negotiations. Ah, but there’s music. A couple of pretty great numbers, choreographed by the man who can do no wrong, Bob Fosse. The standout is Broadway actress Carol Haney (she danced with Fosse in the memorable number in Kiss Me Kate) and her two big numbers here, “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway”, which ends up somewhere between the finale from The Gang’s All Here and the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video, are exceptional. In general though, this was a big disappointment coming from director Stanley Donen. I’m going to blame his co-director George Abbott. The #26 film of 1957.
Wait Until Dark – An effective thriller with a somewhat perplexingly out-sized reputation. Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who’s apartment accidentally contains a MacGuffin wanted by a gang of criminals led by Alan Arkin. The crooks play on her blindness in an attempt to either find the object or get her to give it to them, and there are plenty of solid suspense sequences built by director Terrence Young, the man behind two of the better James Bond films (From Russia with Love and Thunderball). But other than that, there’s not a whole lot to appreciate here. The plot rests on a card house of contrivances, which wouldn’t be too bad if there was more going on underneath. This is the fundamental difference between Hitchcock and his imitators: with Hitch, the suspense was never enough, there was always another layer, a set of meanings beyond the visceral experiences technique and construction can provide. Neither of Hepburn’s Hitchcockian films (this and Charade, which is much more fun, one of the most charming movies ever made) have the depth of even a middling Hitchcock. Without that, there’s nothing to see here but a very frightened woman. The #16 film of 1967.