Monday, January 25, 2016

Twelve more films

Nine of which I recommend with great enthusiasm. In the order of viewing:

Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Andersen, 2003). The city in film and television, as background, as character, as subject. A great demonstration of the principle of fair use, and a great way to learn about films. Here’s a (complete?) list of the films and television shows excerpted in this documentary.

*

The Crimson Kimono (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1959). Its lurid, arresting opening scenes begin Los Angeles Plays Itself. A stripper is murdered, and two detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) set out to solve the crime, with help from an college student and painter (Victoria Shaw). A forward-thinking film with an “interracial” romance.

*

Grandma (dir. Paul Weitz, 2015). Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid, a misanthropic, grief-filled lesbian poet, recently widowed, no longer publishing. (In appearance, at least, she suggests Eileen Myles, whose work give the film an epigraph: “Time passes. That’s for sure.”) Julia Garner plays Elle’s teenaged granddaughter Sage, who shows up at Elle’s door, needing to get together, by the end of the day, $600 for an abortion. The quest is on. Overtones of Thelma and Louise and Sideways and Nebraska , though this film might better be described as utterly original.

*

The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015). Matt Damon as an astronaut left for dead on Mars. How the heck can he get back to earth? I like this film’s celebration of interplanetary hard work and geeky ingenuity.

*

Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks, 1938). Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and a leopard named Baby. Good clean American insanity. The best line comes from Cary Grant, wearing a négligée: “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” What?

*

Die Mörder sind unter uns [The murderers are among us] (dir. Wolfgang Staudte, 1946). Two strangers, a military doctor and a death-camp survivor, share an apartment in what’s left of Berlin. One of the first post-war German films. The only reason this film follows the previous one is that we had both out from the library. Our movie-watching is promiscuous and follows no train of thought.

*

Angel Face (dir. Otto Preminger, 1952). Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup, a former race-car driver, now ambulance driver (ha), saving up to open a garage. Jean Simmons as Diane Tremayne, the world’s most beautiful psychopath. As in Vertigo, in which Scottie Ferguson leaves the world of daylight (good old Midge) for the attractions of Madeleine Elster, our sap-protagonist is torn between daylight Mary (Mona Freeman) and seductive Diane. Even when you know it’s coming, the ending is a shock. My favorite line, Frank commenting on Diane’s family: “It’s a weird outfit. Not for me.”

*

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014). As the film’s brutal music teacher would say, “Not my tempo.” The worst film about music I’ve seen. Whiplash presents jazz practice and performance as a joyless blood sport. (Literally.) And the frame of musical reference is so limited: “jazz” appears here in the form of a conservatory studio band playing hack arrangements of unmemorable “originals.” Why care about some tune called “Whiplash”? Or about a young musician (Miles Teller, played by Andrew Neiman) whose chief inspiration is Buddy Rich? (Not Max Roach? Art Blakey? Elvin Jones? Tony Williams? Jack DeJohnette? Hamid Drake?) Or about an music teacher (J. K. Simmons, played by Terence Fletcher) who trots out a distorted version of the famous story in which Jo Jones tossed a cymbal at the feet of a young, fumbling Charlie Parker. In Simmons’s telling, the cymbal is aimed at Parker’s head. Elaine and I hated this film.

*

Irrational Man (dir. Woody Allen, 2015). And this one. Allen’s picture of academic life in the early twenty-first century is laughable, with a visiting star professor (Joaquin Phoenix as Abe) arriving to teach what seems to be an undergraduate survey course, with Kant’s categorical imperative and Kierkegaard’s dread. Abe drinks from an ever-present flask, but he evidently grade papers now and then, because he compliments Jill (Emma Stone) on her paper’s “originality,” especially the parts where she disagreed with “his ideas.” Abe and Jill are soon taking long walks together, and, of course, she falls for him. (Can you tell that it’s an Allen film?) The title is a nod to William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958). I used to joke that everyone who went to college had a copy. Woody Allen went to college: he, too, must have a copy. One redeeming element: Parker Posey as a philandering spouse.

*

The Fallen Idol (dir. Carol Reed, 1948). From a story by Graham Greene. A boy, a butler, the butler’s wife, and the butler’s girlfriend. A world of lies and secrets, small and large. With Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dressel as Mr. and Mrs. Baines, Michèle Morgan as Julie, and Bobby Henrey as Philippe.

*

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (dir. Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker, 2014). Caroll Spinney found his way to puppeteering early in life and paid a price for being a boy who played with “dolls.” That revelation is one of the very few troubling moments in a relentlessly calm and kind documentary. Uplifting music plays behind every person speaking, or so it seems. The best scene is one in which no one speaks: when Big Bird sings at Jim Henson’s memorial. Spinney is now eighty-two and still performs as Big Bird and Oscar.

*

Youth (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). We had high hopes for this one and were hugely disappointed. (The trailer is rather misleading.) Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor, now said to be “apathetic.” Harvey Keitel plays Mick Boyle, a film director and Fred’s best friend. They and various other people (including a levitating Buddhist monk) are sojourning at a Swiss hotel/spa/resort whose decor features chessboard motifs (a veiled reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s years at the Montreux Palace Hotel?). There are touches of Wes Anderson and Federico Fellini and Terrence Malick in this beautiful-looking movie. But the bits and pieces of atmosphere and mystery and gratuitous nudity add up to very little. And the dialogue is often leaden. Messrs. Caine and Keitel, how could you bring yourselves to speak some of those lines? Jane Fonda’s cameo is an embarrassment: Sorrentino seems to think that the more often you put the words fuck , shit , and balls into dialogue, the more you increase its emotional content.

Elaine and I laughed (silently) and cringed through the big musical finale, in which we finally are given more than a phrase or two of Ballinger’s Simple Songs. As I wrote in a letter to a friend, this piece (by David Lang) makes The American Symphony from Mr. Holland’s Opus sound profound. The lyrics begin: “I feel complete. I lose all control. I lose all control. I respond.” We didn’t. Here, make up your own mind.

Elaine has also offered a warning against Youth .

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Thirteen recommendations
Fourteen more recommendations

comments: 7

Fresca said...

Oh, no! You are way ahead of me in movie blogging!
I must catch up.

How long does it take you to write such a list?
It takes me *forever*---looking up dates, pondering what I really thought of it, and why...

I love that you include movies you hated.
Years ago I did a little blog series on movies I've walked out of. They're as fun to read about as the good movies.

Michael Leddy said...

It takes a while. We watched Los Angeles Plays Itself before Christmas. I write the titles (and sometimes lines of dialogue) on an index card. By the time I write a post, I’ve figured out in my head some things to say (without spoilers). I think of more when I’m writing. I use the IMDb for dates and names. I would guess that this post took three or four hours.

Fresca said...

A-ha! You have a system--very wise.
Thanks for saying.
I spent a couple hours just now writing up three movies. I love doing it, I just have to do it.

I decided to write without spoilers too, this time. In a way, that makes it easier--saves me from going on about certain plot points.
Also, all the movies I blogged about are current and people might not have seen them yet. (Though that's true of old movies too.)

sean said...

Could not agree more about Whiplash.

Michael Leddy said...

I’d love to hear more about what you thought of it.

Barnaby Capel-Dunn said...

I have only seen one of the movies you mention, Michael, but I enjoyed your comments. I certainly have no intention of seeing "Youth" but I suspect you are right on the money here.One can sometimes smell what the French call a "navet" at a great distance!

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for that bit of slang, Barnaby. I’m going to share it as appropriate.