Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hopelessly Insane

One of these days, I’m going to come to some sort of conclusion about the films of Dario Argento. I tend to be either thrilled by them, or completely unmoved. I suppose this uncertainty does make each film an exciting adventure, but as adventures go, they’re often frustrating. I may have done this to myself by approaching Argento’s filmography from, if you’ll pardon the expression, the ass-end; I’ve seen Mother of Tears and Dario Argento’s Dracula and The Card Player, but I haven’t seen Deep Red or Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet. We needn’t concern ourselves with the whys of any of this. If it helps my case at all, I am trying to correct this imbalance by catching up with the big titles.
Such as, just to take a random example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, his first film as a director. Released in 1970 (and just out now on a snazzy new Blu-ray from Arrow Video), it’s a pretty classic example of a gialli, in that there’s a black-gloved killer, a hunt for same, numerous stabbing deaths, and a cloud of nonsense hanging over the whole thing. It’s a proto-slasher film, or so some would and have and continue to argue, except that, as distinct from most if not all other Argento films I’ve seen, it’s not especially bloody – it’s certainly no Tenebrae, Argento’s film from 1982, made when the slasher genre was really ramping up, and a very nasty piece of work it indeed is.
The plot is simple: a blocked American writer named Sam (Tony Musante) is staying in Rome with his English girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) when, one night, Sam is walking through downtown at night when he happens to look in the window of an art gallery that is closed for the night, and sees and man and woman struggling. The man is wearing a black coat and hat, his features difficult to make out. The woman, who we eventually learn is named Monica (Eva Renzi) and is married to the gallery owner (Umberto Raho), ends up being stabbed in the abdomen. After a very striking sequence involving Sam trying to make his way past locked glass doors (one is unlocked by a mysterious black-gloved hand) to, hopefully, get to her, or anyway have his cry for help heard by a passer-by.
Eventually the cops arrive, Monica survives, and Sam is relentlessly questioned by the police, led by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). It’s not that Sam is a suspect – he very clearly didn’t do it. But this stabbing is only the latest of many that have left several women dead across the city, Sam is the only eyewitness the police have. And as the questioning continues and repeats itself and days go by, Musante does a good job of showing the weary, almost angry frustration at being asked the same questions over and over again. The trouble is, by the third scene of Morosini asking him what the man in black looked like, I myself probably could have stepped in for Musante, should he have fallen ill at any point. A simple time jump would have achieved what Argento was going for – showing it the way he does is just tedious.
In fact, while the plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage could not be simpler, Argento seems to be constantly searching for ways to drag things out. As you’d expect, Sam becomes obsessed with the case, and begins conducting his own investigation, with which the cops have no beef. At one point, Sam’s detective work takes him to a remote Italian village so that he can question the loony artist behind an absolutely bonkers painting the purchase of which from a store in Rome seems to have been connected to an earlier murder. Anyway, so Sam meets the guy, and this whole bit of the film ultimately has no bearing on anything. It exists only so that Sam can accidentally eat cat meat. Many of the various parts that make up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage have little to no bearing on the proceedings, including the title. Which is a great title, but the meaning is ultimately so arbitrary that I wish Argento had called this movie The Crazy Painting Murders and saved The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for a film that could have put it to better use.
Of course, that stuff is all part of the cloud of nonsense I referred to earlier, which is a kind of cloud I do not object to in principle, or as a general artistic or storytelling philosophy, and which, in any case, is par for the course not only with Argento, but with giallo as a whole. My favorite Argento film, 1985’s Phenomena, a film I love nearly beyond reason, is nothing but a cloud of nonsense. It is a nonsense cloud made flesh. But if a mystery film, which is what The Bird with the Crystal Plumage essentially is, is going to sacrifice, or never consider to begin with, narrative coherence, one expects certain compensations – the sort of compensations that Phenomena and Suspiria have pouring out of their noses, but which this film does not. Other than the wonderful early scene with Sam trying to get to a wounded Monica in the gallery, with its eerie silence, monstrous sculptures lurking around the living figures, as a piece of direction The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels almost indifferent. So, too, did another famous Argento film (one that is rather more divisive than this one, in fairness) called The Stendhal Syndrome, which largely bored me until, in this case, the ending, which is, I’ll just say, interesting. What those two movies have in common, it occurs to me, is that they’re non-supernatural thrillers, whereas my favorite Argento films, Suspiria and Phenomena, have darkly fantastical stories that allow Argento to unleash his imagination. Not that I think Argento is a guy who feels particularly leashed most of the time, but his greatest strengths lay with otherworldly material. This seems undeniable to me.
It’s interesting that a major aspect of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage turns up to much better effect in one of the most highly-regarded films of the 1970s, four years after Argento got there (in his own way). I’ll let those who haven’t seen the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage figure out which movie I’m referring to. Beyond that, I’d say stick with Suspiria. Or watch Phenomena forty-three times in a row.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 4: L - N

Hi! Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted a section of my List of Movies I Think are Just Terrific. But you know, sometimes things happen. And one of the things that can happen in these situations is that you realize that you made a terrible mistake the last time you put together one of these things. Such a mistake that you can get kind of depressed about it and wonder why you’re even bothering. These things happen every day, the whole world over. I guess it’s time for another edition of…
Beep-Ups, Biffs, and Oopses

Flags of Our Fathers (d. Clint Eastwood) – This one’s an honest mistake. I regret not including it in the last post, but oh well. I think it’s better than Letters from Iwo Jima.

The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - …

Joe vs. the Volcano (d. John Patrick Shanley) – Shut up and leave me alone.

L’Enfer (d. Claude Chabrol) – I guess this should have been in the Es. Well anyway. Wrote about it here.

The Last Detail (d. Hal Ashby) – The one Ashby film (all right, there’s a couple I still haven’t seen) that I completely love. As perfect an execution, in style and especially performance, of its story and ideas as anyone could have brought off. Though of course not just anyone could have done it. Otis Young is the secret weapon.

The Last Hurrah (d. John Ford) – The last half hour is devastating. Ford gives everyone their moment.

The Last of the Mohicans (d. Michael Mann) – Speaking of last half hours…

The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese) – A gloriously, idiosyncratically artful work of passion. Peter Gabriel’s score is a spectacular.

The Last Waltz (d. Martin Scorsese) – Would make the list for “Caravan” alone.

The Last Wave (d. Peter Weir) – Wrote about it here.

The Late Show (d. Robert Benton) – I liked watching Art Carney punch that guy.

Late Spring (d. Yasujiro Ozu) – It’s all building to that last quiet slump.

Le Bonheur (d. Agnes Varda) – And this is building to its final chilling shrug.

A Legend or Was It? (d. Keisuke Kinoshita) – A great, brutal reckoning with Japan’s war crimes.

The Life of Oharu (d. Kenji Mizoguchi) – Wrote about it here.

Like Someone in Love (d. Abbas Kiarostami) – Wrote about it here.

Limelight (d. Charles Chaplin) – Sentimentality is good. Wrote about it here.

Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg) – Wrote about it here.

Lips of Blood (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here. Say, this part of the list is pretty easy!

Listen to Me Marlon (d. Stevan Riley) – Brando, well beyond stardom and in the realm of Legend on Earth, trying to hypnotize himself into not eating so much apple pie is one of the most heartbreaking and humanizing things I’ve ever seen (well, heard).

Little Shop of Horrors (d. Frank Oz) – The studio edit of this would have made the list, too, but Oz’s cut that finally appeared on the Blu-ray release is pretty jaw-dropping.

Living Dead Girl (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here.

Logan (d. James Mangold) – I just saw this recently but you know what, I’m gonna go ahead and add it to the list. I enjoyed it that much.

The Loneliest Planet (d. Julia Loktev) – Before seeing this, I’d heard that the film hinged on a single moment. I didn’t know what it was, and when it happened I was all “Oh shit…”

The Long Day Closes (d. Terence Davies) – The sequence set to Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy” is almost overwhelming.

The Long Good Friday (d. John Mackenzie) – Possibly the single greatest performance Bob Hoskins ever gave. That last shot is monumental.

The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman) – Altman was one of America’s greatest genre directors. He’d probably hate that description, but oh well.

Long Weekend (d. Colin Eggleston) – A brilliant horror film, full of slow, quiet, creeping dread and mystery. Check it out.

Lost in America (d. Albert Brooks) – The Desert Inn has heart. The Desert Inn has heart.

Love and Death (d. Woody Allen) – The best of Woody Allen’s early absurd comedies. Allen arguing with a ghost about how much a watch is worth makes me laugh every time.

Mad Love (d. Karl Freund) – Wrote about it here.

Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller) – I found the action scenes to be pretty exciting.

Magnolia (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Pretty ballsy for a third film, in my opinion.

Make Way for Tomorrow (d. Leo McCarey) – Wrote about it here.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (d. Christopher Speeth) – Wrote about it here.

Malcolm X (d. Spike Lee) – In the genre of “birth to death” biopics, a subgenre of the biopic which excludes almost all the good ones, this is the great one. It’s immense.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – The 1956 one. As others have pointed out before me, one of the fascinations of this movie is the prickly nature of Stewart and Day’s marriage. They seem like real people, which therefore serves the suspense, and so on. Hitchcock knew what was up, is what I’m getting at.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (d. John Ford) – Possibly my favorite Ford movie, though it’s getting harder to pick these days. In any case, goddamn is John Wayne superb in this.

Manhunter (d. Michael Mann) – It’s just you and me now, sport.

Maniac (d. William Lustig) – Wrote about it here.

The Manson Family (d. Jim Van Bebber) – Don’t take this film’s presence on this list as a recommendation, necessarily. And Van Bebber seems like a real asshole. Wrote about it here.

Marathon Man (d. John Schlesinger) – This would be immeasurably better had they kept the original ending from William Goldman’s novel, but even so, pretty great stuff.

Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan) – An epic film set in the present day, with almost everything that happens occurring within maybe a few square miles. That’s one of the things that makes it seem so rare.

Martin (d. George A. Romero) – Wrote about it here, a little bit, sort of. Romero’s masterpiece.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (d. Peter Weir) – It’s a perfect film. There is nothing wrong with it. No mistakes were made.

The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Wrote about it here.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (d. Robert Altman) – See my entry for The Long Goodbye. And it’s interesting how a guy like Altman couple publicly disdain things like plot, even story, yet still construct one of the Western genre’s most suspenseful sequences.

Mean Streets (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here.

Melancholia (d. Lars Von Trier) – Pretty ingenious in conception, and gorgeous in execution. I apologize to Kirsten Dunst for not realizing how good she is.

Memories of Murder (d. Bong Joon-Ho) – South Korea’s Zodiac. Weirdly funny, somewhat terrifying.

Messiah of Evil (d. Ward Huyck) – Supposedly, Huyck had no interest in horror movies, but it was easy to get them funded and he wanted to make a movie. It should humble contemporary horror filmmakers to see how many chances, Huyck took.

Miami Blues (d. George Armitage) – Fred Ward was born to play Hoke Mosley.

Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – It’s not going too far to say that in 1990, cinematically speaking, this movie changed my life. And twenty-seven years later, it’s just as great.

Million Dollar Baby (d. Clint Eastwood) – I was down on this when I saw it in the theater. I rewatched it not long ago, and holy shit, I am sorry for my earlier opinions.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (d. Paul Schrader) – The most visually inventive Paul Schrader has ever been, and the most complex film he’s made. It’s unbelievable that a studio distributed this.

Modern Romance (d. Albert Brooks) – Packed with some of the greatest comic sequences in any film, almost like stand-alone sketches, but which hang together as part of the larger film. Unimpeachable. “Try the box, you’ll like it.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) – Their funniest film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones) – Their best film.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (d. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) – Still a pretty terrific film.

The Most Dangerous Game (d. Irvin Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack) – Fun as hell.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (d. Errol Morris) – My favorite Morris film. Bizarre and disturbing.

Mr. Turner (d. Mike Leigh) – Not the film I was expecting, nor the performance I was expecting from Timothy Spall. It’s wonderful to be surprised by biopics that are weird and unsettling.

Mulholland Dr. (d. David Lynch) – The film that keeps on giving.

Munich (d. Steven Spielberg) – Some of the best direction of Spielberg’s career. His eye for violence, his sense of its power, meaning, horror, and occasional necessity is unlike any other filmmaker at his level.

Naked (d. Mike Leigh) – With just a nudge, this could have turned into an arthouse horror film.

Naked Lunch (d. David Cronenberg) – Wrote about it here.
Network (d. Sidney Lumet) – Seems kind of sarcastic to me.

The Nice Guys (d. Shane Black) – “I don’t think I can die!”

Night Moves (d. Arthur Penn) – Possibly my favorite ending to any 70s thriller.

Nightmare Alley (d. Edmund Goulding) – I will admit to wishing this had ended maybe one minute earlier. The line it should have closed on is still a punch in the face, though.

Nil by Mouth (d. Gary Oldman) – Ray Winstone. Goddamn.

The Ninth Configuration (d. William Peter Blatty) – The spiritual flip of The Exorcist. But same investigation, and same conclusion.

No Country for Old Men (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – The aesthetic thrill is still there, but this film now depresses me so much that the last time I tried watching it, I couldn’t make it through. This is a compliment.

No Home Movie (d. Chantal Akerman) – I think I’ve been doomed to think about this film once a day for the rest of my life. And the guy who says this doesn’t count as a movie can fuck off.

Nosferatu (d. F. W. Murnau) – Wrote about it here (sort of).

Nosferatu – Phantom der Nacht (d. Werner Herzog) Wrote about it there (sort of).

Nostalghia (d. Andrei Tarkovsky) – Wrote about it here.

Notorious (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – Of Hitchcock’s truly great films, this seems like the most underappreciated. Watch it again, it’s stupendous.

Nymphomaniac (d. Lars Von Trier) – Yeah, you heard me.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All is Vague

On June 13, Arrow Video is releasing Ovidio Assonitis's 1981 slasher film called Madhouse (also known as There Was a Little Girl and And When She Was Bad, both of which fit the story better than Madhouse) on home video. Possibly not as well-known as Assonitis’s Tentacles and certainly less famous than Piranha II: The Spawning, which Assonitis, one of the film’s producers, took over from James Cameron, Madhouse is a genuine oddity, both in that it goes places you likely won’t expect, and is considerably better than I, at least, assumed it would be.

It’s about a woman named Julia (Trish Everly, in her only screen credit), a teacher at a school for the deaf, who is informed by her uncle James (Dennis Robertson), a priest, that her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers), who has been locked up in a mental hospital since she was a child, would like to see her. Julia’d rather not, given the abuse she suffered at Mary’s hands when they were young, but she agrees. Oh by the way, her uncle says, your sister doesn’t look like you anymore due to a very weird and disfiguring disease. Convenient. Honestly, you do have to hand it Assonitis for concocting a reason for him to not have to cast twins, or mess around with camera tricks so that Everly could exist as two people on one screen. And that’s the only reason he did it, too, because this disease Mary’s suffering from makes no further impact. At any rate, the meeting between the sisters goes poorly, and not long after people start getting murdered. One of the weapons used is a vicious attack dog, not unlike the one Mary used to have as a pet. Also, Mary escapes.

There’s actually a good deal more to it, a lot of it coming in a rush in the last half hour. There’s one major twist that I predicted about a minute before it was revealed. I’m not sure if that counts. What I definitely failed to predict was that the pool of potential victims would be so inclusive, or that Assonitis would attempt to get by at least as much on mood as on gore (this being, in essence, a slasher film). Assonitis seems at least somewhat interested in embracing the chaos inherent in this particular subgenre, not merely to inspire the bloody mayhem he’s bound by law to get across on screen, but as something almost thematic. I’m not sure he quite gets there, but I appreciate him taking a swing at it, and at least we get some striking and unnerving imagery as a result. One bit is alarmingly similar to a climactic moment in another slasher film that also came out in 1981. I’m certain it’s not possible the makers of either film could have seen the other before going into production on their own. I also can’t tell you which other 1981 slasher film I’m referring to without spoiling Madhouse somewhat. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that both scenes were doubtlessly inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Who among us can say.

You might infer from the above that when the chips are down Assonitis delivers on the viscera, as audiences for this sort of movie would both expect and demand. I think he does, but I can imagine a certain type of filmgoer disagreeing with me. One major death is off-screen completely – so off-screen, in fact, that I was forced to put two and two together. Which I didn’t mind. The last death in the film is pretty much a whole-hog kind of affair, violence-wise. I don’t know that I’ve seen the kind of damage done to a human body by the particular weapon used depicted in quite this way before. Assonitis made it seem like the kind of thing you’d want to avoid suffering from yourself, which, if that’s not the whole idea, I don’t know what is.

The cast is also intriguing. Largely made up, as these sorts of films often are, of veteran TV and movie character actors, stand-outs include Robertson and Michael MacRae as Julia’s boyfriend. I really liked MacRae’s work here – there’s a real ease and presence to him, which helps to make the more every-day scenes he’s in seem alive enough so that Madhouse seems whole, rather than a clumsily separated series of murders. Dennis Robertson as the priest has that same effect on the film, if not quite the same approach to his role. He’s a bit more dramatic about things, but then, so are most of his scenes.

Trish Everly’s the one I can’t figure out. Where’d she go? Her performance ain’t bad. She comes off a little bit untrained here and there, but I liked how she handled some of her big moments at the end. These moments involve her being almost consumed by terror. I can’t imagine this is easy to do, but she does it. So where’d she go? John Martin, who wrote the booklet essay that accompanies the Arrow Video release doesn’t know either. So I guess as far as screen acting goes, she’s the terrorized Julia, and that’s it. What a life.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nothing That Means Nothing, or Big Tuna Fish is Coming Soon

On May 30, The Criterion Collection will be releasing Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project No. 2, four years after the first volume of this series of box sets came out. I think many followers of Criterion wondered if low sales (which, speaking for myself, were assumed to be low, but as I think I've made clear by now, I don't know shit) had put a halt to this noble project. The project, simply put, is the restoration of important but largely obscure films, from countries not necessarily thought of when contemplating world cinema. The first set included films from Bangladesh, Mexico, and Senegal, and this new one features titles from Turkey, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other countries. There's very little chance I, or you, would be able to see most of these films at all, let alone on Blu-ray (both sets are dual format, by the way), were it not for Martin Scorsese, Criterion, and The Film Foundation. As for the films themselves...

Insiang (d. Lino Brocka) - Brocka, who died in 1992, is perhaps the best-known Filipino director, and this film, as Philip Lopate explains in his Criterion booklet essay, put him on the international stage when it premiered at Cannes in 1978. It's a sort of realist melodrama about Insiang (Hilda Koronel), an attractive young woman who lives in the slums of Manila with Tonya (Mona Lisa), her snapping, judgmental mother (as well as a sprawl of other relatives, at least at first, before Tonya, boots them out for not meeting her moral standards). Insiang is dating Bebot (Rez Cortez), a young dullard who is constantly trying to pressure Insiang into sex, and eventually Tonya allows her lover Dado (Ruel Vernal), a cocky, domineering slaughterhouse worker, to move in with her and Insiang.

And so. Things go pear-shaped for everyone. The filmmaker who springs to mind as a kind of easy comparison, but also as an easy way into Insiang, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Brocka, at least in Insiang, seems to have been inspired in part by classic melodramas and "woman's films." Yet in creating his own version, again like Fassbinder, Brocka surrounds his operatic events with real locations, bland colors, as much naturalism as he can without defeating his own purpose (and really quickly, I realize the previous description does not cover all of Fassbinder's work; I'm thinking of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Merchant of Four Seasons and the like). In his essay, Lopate takes note of a curious tic that Brocka employs throughout Insiang, wherein many important scenes that include a swell of music will end, and that scene will cut to the next, chopping off the music as well. Lopate isn't sure if this is a knowing choice pertaining to the genre, or form, in which Brocka is working, or a symptom of the clumsiness of a filmmaker learning as he goes. I don't know which it is either, but I agree with Lopate that it has to be one or the other, and as I watched the film my interpretation pointed, more and more heavily, to the former. Once seems like a mistake; three or four times has to be deliberate. Especially when you consider it in relation to where Brocka's film ends up, which also recalls Fassbinder, and which reveals Insiang's full shape and intent.

Mysterious Object at Noon (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - One of only two filmmakers featured in this set who is still alive, Weerasethakul has became a major figure in world cinema following his breakout, the mesmerizing Tropical Malady, the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the recent Cemetery of Splendour. This one, from 2000, is his first feature film. It begins with a young woman telling the story of her hard life to the camera. Her tears are undeniably real, and so this story must be, too. After, someone off-camera (presumably Weerasethakul) asks if she has any other stories she'd like to tell, either real or made-up. She seems to be considering the question, and then the film cuts and that's the lest we see of her.

The rest of Mysterious Object at Noon is made up of real Thai citizens adding to an exquisite corpse story that is at first about a kind teacher named Dogfahr tutoring a young disabled boy while taking care of her sick father. The story, sections of which Weerasethakul dramatizes becomes progressively more strange, as storytellers add mysterious lines to Dogfahr's skin which her doctor has difficulty explaining, the teacher seems to die, a mysterious boy appears from very unlikely circumstances, and eventually, and this is a spoiler I guess, a group of young schoolkids add their ideas to the story and predictably start killing everyone off.

Mysterious Object at Noon has a curious effect on the viewer, or it did on me. Essentially, the more nonsensical the story becomes, the freer the film seems, and the freer the experience of watching it becomes. Though there are undercurrents of sadness in the film, there is something light about it by the end, a kind of wild escape from the awfulness on the ground. One of the more prominent storytellers is an old woman, getting drunk as she adds to the story. I think she's responsible for some of the grander nonsense. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

Revenge (d. Ermek Shinarbaev) - Revenge seems to be a kind of mini-theme running through this set -- it's certainly there in Insiang, and I think there's even a bit of it in Mysterious Object at Noon's exquisite corpse story, but as you might expect, this film called Revenge really takes that bull by the horns. A product of the Kazakh New Wave, as Kent Jones explains in his essay that accompanies the set, this Russian film features an almost entirely Korean cast, as a reflection of the Korean population that had been forcibly relocated into Russia by the Soviets in the early 20th Century (as explained, again, by Jones in his essay). This also reflects the experiences of the film's writer, the Russian-Korean Anatoli Kim. All of which is a very complex foundation for a very complex story that in a film that is only about 90 minutes, still spans decades, generations.

Early in the film, a young girl is brutally murdered, for literally no reason, by her teacher (Nikolai Tacheyev). Her father (Kasim Zhakibayev) vows revenge, a vow that ultimately must be handed down to Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) to satisfy, as the hunt for Yan, the killer, turns out to be a long and arduous one.

As you might expect, Shinarbaev and Kim don't approach their subject with an air of bloodthirsty glee. Which makes their decision to portray Yan as utterly remorseless, to the extent that at one point he even taunts his victim's grieving mother, and interesting one, and proof, at least, that the filmmakers have the courage of their convictions. In any case, the power of Revenge, which is considerable, doesn't derive from any literal source; it's lyrical, poetic, imagination. And mournful: as one character, a poet, says early on, following one of the film's many acts if cruelty: "My verses serve no purpose in this world."

Limite (d. Mario Peixoto) - From a historical point of view, the most miraculous film in the set is this one, a silent film made in 1931 by a man in his early 20s, the Brazilian poet and novelist Mario Peixoto, who would never again make another film. The strange history of Limite is laid out well by Fabio Andrade in his accompanying essay, but suffice it to say the film was unavailable for so long that some prominent Brazilian critics began to question its existence, and the subsequent restoration that has made it available now was still unable to salvage one sequence, which by necessity has been replaced by an explanatory title card.

All of which makes me feel ungrateful for being largely unmoved by Limite. The film is about two women and a man who are lost at sea. Their pasts are gradually revealed in flashbacks, though this isn't what you'd call a plotty kind of movie. It is, as described elsewhere, an experimental film -- abstract and strange as you'd expect, but experimental also in the sense that Peixoto is figuring out what you can do with a movie camera in 1931. He's trying out angles just to see the results, he's seeing how much movement you can get out of those bulky old sons if bit he's  (he gets a lot). And so on. Or anyway, that's how large chunks of it played to me. Still, interesting, and undeniably significant.

Law of the Border (d. Lutfi O. Akad) - Also lucky to have been rescued by Scorsese and The Film Society is this 1966 Turkish film, a kind of social thriller about a man named Hidir (Yilmaz Guney) who, with his gang, smuggles sheep and other goods across the border between Turkey and Syria. Hidir does this because it's the best way to make money for his family, but it puts him in conflict with the government, the Turkish police, and more violent smugglers.

Text prior to the film provided by Criterion informs the viewer that what they're about to see is, restoration-wise, the best they could do, which prepared me for something much worse than I got. There's a little of dirt still visible, and some small bit of footage seems to be missing from the end. This, I'll admit, may rob the climax if some of its emotional heft, if only because its absence leaves a jarring skip behind. Otherwise the dustiness of the image suits the Sandy environment. It also, in an odd way, makes Law of the Border feel like part of the tradition of independent, fatalistic American noir. Akad ends his film with a lot more bloodshed than I was expecting, but the message was clear: crime doesn't pay, even when you have no choice.

Taipei Story (d. Edward Yang) - It's a bit surprising to me that this film would be included in a box set such as the one under review, given that Criterion has proven itself eager to be in the Edward Yang business, having previously released Yi Yi and, more recently, A Brighter Summer Day, the acquiring and restoration of which was a years-long process. So you'd think that Taipei Story, Yang's second feature would demand it's own release. Who knows why this release came about the way it did, but I'm not going to complain; it's the set's best film, the centerpiece,  and I'm grateful to have it at all.

Featuring director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who co-wrote the film with Yang and Chu Tien-wen, as Lung, a former baseball player who now owns a fabric store, and Tsai Chin as Chin, Lung's girlfriend who walks away from her job at an architecture firm due to that company's changing-for-the-worse landscape, Taipei Story, like Ozu's Tokyo Story (from which the English title of Yang's film takes its inspiration; it should probably be noted that Yang's original titles translates as Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse) is about the harm that ancient traditions adhered to blindly can inflict on both those carrying them out, and those, like Chin, who are in effect the unwilling subjects of those traditions.

Though in 1985 it's more likely that someone like Chin will push back more than she would have just thirty years prior. There's a great moment between her and her father (Wu Ping-nan) and a soup spoon, which Tsai Chin plays beautifully, and so quietly, getting across with just the line of her mouth and downcast eyes how goddamn sick she is of all this shit, quite frankly. Yet while Hou Hsiao-hsien (also superb) drifts unhappily also long, no more able to reconcile his attachment to also long tradition that is doing him no favors, he unfairly takes the brunt of Chin's frustration. Tradition and aimlessness doesn't mean he's not a decent person. Not everything is his fault. Nor is it Chin's fault that her one way out is through a kind of modernity in which Yang sees only blankness.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 3: F - K

Welcome to my blog again, you bunch of fools! I have set here before you the third part of the only Favorite List of Movies you'll ever need, to be honest. First, though, some old business...

Bleep-Ups, Boops, and Blunderings

As I said in my last post, when putting together a list like this, one, or anyway I, is, or am, bound to forget a movie or thirty that should have been included. If you're lucky you'll remember some of them later, and when that happens you, or I, can slot them in later as a kind of addendum. So here's my addendum to the last post. Thankfully, it's much shorter than before.

The Conversation (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - But no less embarrassing, because it's ridiculous that I should forget this, arguably Coppola's masterpiece, which contains arguably Gene Hackman's masterpiece.

Crash (d. David Cronenberg) - Wrote about it here.

F for Fake (d. Orson Welles) - Wrote about it here.

A Face in the Crowd (d. Elia Kazan) - I do think that way too many people watch this film and get all "Mmm, so true" about it afterward. But I don't demand that it reveal to me the truth about America, and prefer to see it as self-contained. In that sense, the film is a real humdinger, and Andy Griffith proves that one look says it all.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (d. Wes Anderson) - Incredibly beautiful, odd, funny. It successfully makes the alien world of animals both animalistic and human. 
Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen) - Basically perfect. Having seen this God knows how many times, my belief that it is as diamond-sharp and as pristinely structured and executed as any film I've ever seen. Which might imply a sort of coolness of tone, yet wintry though Fargo is, it's warmth that takes over by the end.
Fascination (d. Jean Rollin) - Wrote about it here.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (d. Errol Morris) - Maybe the best example of Morris's almost ethereal sense of poetry.
Fat City  (d.  John Huston) - Wrote about it here.

Faust (d. F.W. Murnau) - Murnau had achieved an understanding of cinema and an artistic sophistication, not to mention imagination, in 1926 that has been hard to find in the over ninety subsequent years since.
Five Came Back (d. John Farrow) - As engaging and suspenseful an example of the "how will this motley group of strangers get out of this mess?" film as I've ever seen.
Fixed Bayonets! (d. Samuel Fuller) - Fuller's ability to make each of his war films feel brand new is unmatched. Add to that some great work from Richard Baseheart and Gene Evans, as well as some killer filmmaking, and, well, I mean...
The Fly (d. David Cronenberg) - Wrote about it here and here.

Force of Evil (d. Abraham Polonsky) - I saw this film noir in college and have remembered it vividly ever since.
Fort Apache (d. John Ford) - No one was as elegant, or eloquent, on the subject of men at war with each other as Ford.
Frankenstein (d. James Whale) - Those three cuts that bring the camera closer to the monster was a stroke of genius.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (d. Terence Fisher) - And this is, to my mind, the most unexpectedly heart-wrenching take on the classic story I've seen on film.
Freaks (d. Tod Browning) - Browning wasn't much of an artist, but he sure was perverse.
Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock) - One day this will be embraced as the late-career masterpiece it's always been.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (d. Peter Yates) - That Mitchum himself is far from innocent is, I think, the secret source of this film's power.
Frightmare (d. Pete Walker) - Wrote about it here.
The Frisco Kid (d. Robert Aldrich) - It is very strange that this film exists, and perhaps stranger that it proves that Harrison Ford and Gene Wilder should have starred together in a dozen movies.

From Beyond (d. Stuart Gordon) - This movie relaxes me.
Gallipoli (d. Peter Weir) - The bookending image, which is somewhat different in a number of ways the second time you see it, is a hell of a thing.
Gates of Heaven (d. Errol Morris) - The best evidence I can think of that Errol Morris is a wizard.
Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges) - Next to this, most crime films are utterly gutless.
Gimme Shelter (d. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin) - The concert documentary that is somehow about everything in the world.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (d. Jim Jarmusch) - I have that same copy of Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa!
Glengarry Glen Ross (d. James Foley) - No one, not even David Mamet himself, has gotten the rhythms and anger and desperation of Mamet's dialogue on screen as exhileratingly as Foley did here.
God Told Me To (d. Larry Cohen) - Of Cohen's Big Three crazy, low-budget horror classics (you may have more, or less, than three), this is the one that as far as I can tell is truly sui generis. Kind of brilliant.
The Gold Rush (d. Charles Chaplin) - Wrote about it here.
Goodfellas (d. Martin Scorsese) - A good effort.

Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman) - Somewhere in the middle of the expertly constructed and performed upstairs/downstairs intrigue is a top-shelf murder scene. You can't tell with that Altman guy.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (d. Wes Anderson) - A weird movie: visually gorgeous comedy-adventure hiding a deep well of sorrow.
The Great Dictator (d. Charles Chaplin) - Wrote about it here.
The Great Escape (d. John Sturges) - The definition of "rousing". Also the definition of "Steve McQueen."
Groundhog Day (d. Harold Ramis) - Wrote about it here.
Gun Crazy (d. Joseph H. Lewis) - The classic tale of a man and a woman who fucked up big time.
Hardcore (d. Paul Schrader) - You know that scene from this that got turned into a meme to be used when someone saw something they don't like? George C. Scott is astonishing in that scene. 
Hatari! (d. Howard Hawks) - Almost avant-garde in its approach to plot.
The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino) - Exquisitely problematic. Hopeful in a disgustingly funny way. People try to make you feel guilty for liking it.
He Walked By Night (d. Alfred L. Werker) - Wrote about it here. I was wrong about its unavailability on DVD.
Heat (d. Michael Mann) - If I directed movies, I'd have killed to have made this.

Heaven Knows What (d. Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie) - I can't quite come to terms with the fact that this is a movie, and not a series of events that I personally witnessed.
Heavenly Creatures (d. Peter Jackson) - Wrote about it here
Hell is for Heroes (d. Don Siegel) - Wrote about it here
A Hen in the Wind (d. Yasujiro Ozu) - I hope there's a sequel to this somewhere that's just her being happy for two hours. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (d. John McNaughton) - The last time I thought "I think I'll throw on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and hang out with my old buds!", the contents of the film put me in such a depressed state of mind that I was unable to finish it. This is entirely to McNaughton's credit. 
High and Low (d. Akira Kurosawa) - One of the great police procedurals.
Hombre (d. Martin Ritt) - This Western has some of the best hardboiled lines of dialogue I've heard.
Homicide (d. David Mamet) - Mamet's best work as a director, a genuinely unique and bracing mystery that is also his most spiritually complex creation.

Horror of Dracula (d. Terence Fisher) - That ending...
The Hound of the Baskervilles (d. Terence Fisher) - Hammer's stab at Holmes. An utter delight. 
Hour of the Wolf (d. Ingmar Bergman) - The first time I saw this, it made me think I was seeing things on screen that weren't there. I'd count that as effective. 
House of Games (d. David Mamet) - Still works like gangbusters. 
The Hustler (d. Robert Rossen) - Wrote about it here
The Ice Harvest (d. Harold Ramis) - See the entry for Groundhog Day. 

Iguana (d. Monte Hellman) - Wrote about it here
In a Lonely Place (d. Nicholas Ray) - Wrote about it here
In Harm’s Way (d. Otto Preminger) - This film breaks my heart.
Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino) - Wrote about it here.    
Inland Empire (d. David Lynch) - I think this movie is gradually seeping into my bones.
Inside Llewyn Davis (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) - The kind of film that can only have been made by a pair of geniuses who have complete confidence in their talents. It's also quietly devastating. 
Inside Out (d. Pete Docter) - I'm glad I don't have kids because otherwise this thing might have killed me. 
Interstellar (d. Christopher Nolan) - For someone as unemotional as Nolan supposedly is, he sure crammed a load of emotions into this one.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (d. Philip Kaufman) - Perhaps the only successful use of "Amazing Grace" as an ironic counterpoint.
The Iron Rose (d. Jean Rollin) - Wrote about it here

Ivan’s Childhood (d. Andrei Tarkovsky) - Visually, as if World War II happened on the moon.
Jackie Brown (d. Quentin Tarantino) - It feels like a full novel on film.
Jaws (d. Steven Spielberg) - It's good, please just give it a chance.
Jeanne Dilman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (d. Chantal Akerman) - The kind of film that couldn't have even been imagined by anyone other than the woman who made it. 
Jules and Jim (d. Francois Truffaut) - That ending can't be shaked loose.
Killer Joe (d. William Friedkin) - The best choice for an end credits song in all of film history. 
King Kong (d. Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) - Kids in 1933 must have lost their minds.
King of Comedy (d. Martin Scorsese) - The secret MVP of this one is Shelley Hack.
Kiss Me Deadly (d. Robert Aldrich) - Wrote about it here. Anticlimax!