Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A baker’s dozen, plus one

Fourteen films I recommend with great enthusiasm, more or less in the order in which we watched them:

House of Games (dir. David Mamet, 1987). A psychiatrist enters the world of con artistry. A fiendishly tricky story, with each false bottom opening onto another. Bonus points for Ricky Jay’s appearance.

*

Le Havre (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2011). In the French port city of Le Havre, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), shoeshine man and one-time writer, befriends and hides Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young boy smuggled out of Gabon. He hopes to get to London. With Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen as Marcel’s ailing wife Arletty. The sweetest Aki Kaurismäki movie we’ve seen.

*

Moro No Brasil (dir. Mika Kaurismäki, 2002). A documentary by Aki’s brother, about the music of his adopted country Brazil. No bossa nova here. The film is in the spirit of a field recording, documenting music as the everyday joy of a people. How much music may be found in a tambourine? This film has the answer.

*


[“So happy together.”]

Total Balalaika Show (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 1994). The Leningard Cowboys, a faux-Russian Finnish rock group, perform with the Alexandrov Red Army Choir and Ballet. My favorite moments: “Let’s Work Together” and “Happy Together.” Elaine and I have now exhausted the Aki Kaurismäki reserves of Netflix and our university library. But I still cannot spell Kaurismäki without double-checking.

*

Hangmen Also Die (dir. Fritz Lang, 1943). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Nazi-occupied Prague, and its repercussions. A good performance from Brian Donlevy. “Bert Brecht,” as he’s listed in the title sequence, is one of the film’s writers. The cinematographer is James Wong Howe.

*

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (dir. Brian Knappenberger, 2014). The life and death of Aaron Swartz, a beautiful and generous mind who exemplified all that is bright and human in digital culture. A Boston prosecutor’s effort to make an example of Swartz (who had illegally downloaded JSTOR articles) had tragic consequences: facing the possibility of thirty years in prison and a million-dollar fine, Swartz took his life before going to trial. For contrast: the three men guilty of lying to investigators or obstructing justice in the Boston Marathon bombing recently received sentences of three years, three and a half years, and six years.

The Internet’s Own Boy is available for online viewing at archive.org.

*


[Carol Kaye.]

The Wrecking Crew (dir. Denny Tedesco, 2008). Finally on DVD after a long fight to clear the music permissions. This documentary is a labor of love by the son of the guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The Wrecking Crew, a loose congregation of Los Angeles studio musicians, played on countless American pop and rock recordings in the 1960s and ’70s, from the Beach Boys to the Monkees to the Tijuana Brass to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound productions. The focus is on Hal Blaine, Plas Johnson, Carol Kaye, and Tedesco, with briefer appearances by other musicians, and a great many perspectives on the anonymity of studio work. Many, many DVD extras, including a sampling of musician jokes. This film would make an excellent at-home double-bill with Standing in the Shadows of Motown (dir. Paul Justman, 2002) or 20 Feet from Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville, 2013).

A Hal Blaine joke: What do you call a musician in a three-piece suit? The defendant.

*

Searching for Sugarman (dir. Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). A singer-songwriter from Detroit records two albums that go nowhere — except in South Africa, where unbeknownst to him, he becomes a major figure in music. (Estimated South African sales: half a million copies.) The film documents the search for Rodriguez, Sixto Rodriguez, and his later-in-life return to performing. (He’s now opening for Brian Wilson.) You don’t have to take to the music (which sounds to me like a cross between Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond) to find the story wonderful.

*


[Francine Bergé, holding on, for now.]

Judex (dir. Georges Franju, 1963). Homage to a 1916 silent serial (alas, not included in the two-disc Criterion release). A character helpfully explains the title: “It's a Latin word meaning ‘judge’ or ‘upholder of the law.’” A gleefully bizarre story of revenge and love, with silent-film and Hitchcock touches.

*

Magnificent Obsession (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1954). Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in what might be called a philosophical melodrama, one that treats the question of How to Live. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable. The Criterion release includes the 1935 original with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor (dir. John M. Stahl). Elaine preferred the original for its greater plausibility. I preferred the remake for its greater implausibility.

*


[Cary reads the Bible.]

All That Heaven Allows (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1955). Wyman and Hudson again. Cary Scott is a well-off widow; Ron Kirby, a gardener and tree-nursery owner, and mentor to aspiring non-conformists. Will Cary accede to social pressure and walk away from this younger man, or will she gain the courage to march to the beat of a different drummer? My favorite scene: the lobster dinner, a gathering of the local eccentrics, including Manuel the lobster man, Grandpa Adams, beekeeper and artist (“Strictly primitive!”), and Miss Pidway, “head of the Audubon Society, and an outstanding bird-watcher.” Next-favorite scene: the gift of a television. This film gives melodrama a good name.

*

The Rape of Europa (dir. Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham, 2006). A documentary about the Nazis’ systematic effort to steal or destroy art, and the Allied effort to recover what was taken. Includes interviews with real Monument Men. Many of us will know the gist of the story from a single painting and legal battles over its ownership. But the extent of Nazi theft and destruction may come as a shock. There are strange overtones of ISIS here, now destroying and selling the treasures of Middle-Eastern antiquity. But the Nazis wanted art for themselves. I learned about this film (and Aki Kaurismäki generally) from Fresca.

*

The Band Wagon (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1953). I asked my dad this past Saturday, “Dad, do you know The Band Wagon?” “Do I know The Band Wagon !” said he. Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant, and Jack Buchanan put on a show. Songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. As one of those songs says, that’s entertainment. The injection of high culture in the form of Oedipus and Faust (via Buchanan’s character) makes for a special kind of hilarity. Trying to imagine a plot that could account for the songs of the final show makes for another kind of hilarity.

Reader, what have you found that’s worth watching?

comments: 12

Fresca said...

Ooooh, a movie challenge:
I must make my own list!

I love Douglas Sirk's stuff.

Have you seen Rainer Fassbinder's version of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul? I recommend it, if not.

http://www.criterion.com/films/152-ali-fear-eats-the-soul

Fresca said...

But first on my list, speaking of 1950s repression (painful! yet weirdly hilarious), is the makes-me-squirm-but-can't-look-away Picnic, 1955, staring William Holden and Kim Novak.

Friends disagree, but I think the scene where they slow-dance to "Moonglow" is genuinely sexy.... and yet sort of horrible, cringe-making too (the repression is as uncomfortably tight and revealing as Novak's dress).

Michael Leddy said...

I know about the Fassbinder but have yet to watch it. I haven’t seen Picnic in ages. Thanks.

Chris said...

House of Games is the only movie on Michael's list that I've seen, and I missed the beginning of that; the rest sound great. Five movies I'd watch anytime? Dreyer's silent The Passion of Joan of Arc; Bergman's Fanny and Alexander; Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke; Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida; and the Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles.

Okay, six: Billy Wilder's The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

Zhoen said...

The Search for General Tso, documentary about Chinese food in America, with side trips.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_search_for_general_tso/

Michael Leddy said...

@Chris: I, too, love Dreyer. I saw Fanny and Alexander a long time ago. The others are new to me.

@Zhoen: I would like to see that documentary, as long as it doesn’t come with an order of General Tso.

I thought I left a reply to your comments days ago. I’m not sure what became of it.

Barnaby Capel-Dunn said...

A fascinating post, Michael. Must get that Wrecking Crew DVD.

Michael Leddy said...

I think you’ll enjoy it.

brownstudy said...

You inspired me to rattle off my own list of stuff we've seen recently. Not as classy as your list though: http://www.brownstudy.info/2015/07/21/what-weve-been-watching-and-reading/

Michael Leddy said...

Seems pretty classy to me. :) Thanks for them all, Mike. I’m having an long debate with myself about whether I really want to see Love and Mercy. Same with The End of the Tour. I’m sure I’ll end up seeing them both.

Chris said...

I should have thought to mention Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which I saw for maybe the third or fourth time the other night.

Michael Leddy said...

I just added that to the queue — still need to see the restored footage.