Monday, July 24, 2017

Twelve movies

[Five sentences each. No spoilers.]

Pauline at the Beach (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1983). I remember the newspaper ads for this film, which somehow made it appear to be important. I’m not convinced. It’s a sex comedy that philosophizes about love, with teenagers who are more mature and self-aware than the sometimes predatory grown-ups around them. This film seems to me a French version of a Woody Allen film. And like some Woody Allen films (think Manhattan), it has not aged well.

*

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (dir. Maria Schrader, 2016). A beautifully filmed portrait of the writer as exile: Zweig (Josef Hader) moves through Argentina, New York, and Brazil, celebrated wherever he goes, a lost soul in a three-piece suit who does everything but write. Thinking about the horrors of fascism in Europe, he asks, “What is my work, what is anything compared to this reality?” And yet he refuses to condemn the Nazi regime, claiming that such a gesture would be nothing more than a play for attention. I’ve never seen a film that does as much to foreground matters of language in translation: Zweig speaks German, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese as translators whisper into the ears of interviewers and writers. With the great Barbara Sukowa as Friderike Zweig.

*

The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper, 2015). Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe (1882–1931), a transgender woman who began life as Einar Wegener. Einar and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) are a married couple, both painters (and much older than these actors). When Einar fills in for Gerda’s absent model by putting on stockings and women’s shoes, a dam breaks, and another life begins. Gerda: “I need my husband — can you get him?” Lili: “I can’t.”

*

’Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (dir. Raymond De Felitta, 2006). Esteemed by Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Paris (1924–2004) was a singer (and guitarist and dancer) who a spent most of his life in obscurity (working, at one point, as an elevator operator). This documentary is the work of a filmmaker and fan who was fortunate enough to spend time with Paris in the last months of the singer’s life. The story told here is a compelling one: prodigious talent, character flaws, career failure, and, finally, intergenerational sorrows. I wish that the film had been more thoughtfully constructed: music competes with talking; talking competes with music; and many interview clips suffer from poor audio. Here, via YouTube, is Paris singing his signature song, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark.”

*

Shield for Murder (dir. Howard W. Koch and Edmond O'Brien, 1954). Poor Edmond O’Brien: whenever I see him in a film, his life is once again spiraling out of control. Here he plays a police detective who kills a bookie and takes his $25,000. Complications ensue. With Elizabeth Taylor look-alike Marla English, and a great turn by Carolyn Jones as a tipsy barfly. A YouTube find.

*

The Brainwashing of My Dad (dir. Jen Senko, 2015). Frank Senko was a genial, relatively apolitical fellow until he began listening to Rush Limbaugh while commuting to work. And now his daughter, filmmaker Jen Senko, tries to figure out how what happened to her father happened. The result is mostly a superficial look at the development of right-wing radio and television outlets, with special attention to techniques of brainwashing. Many experts make brief appearances, but for me the most engaging parts of the film are the brief clips of Kickstarter contributors describing the ways in which right-wing radio and television have changed their loved ones. Especially interesting is the Limbaugh fan who’s reprogrammed by listening to NPR, whose story suggests that we are what we eat, whatever the food might be.

*

The Street with No Name (dir. William Keighley, 1945). Mark Stevens plays an FBI agent on an undercover assignment, living on Skid Row, posing as a thug, and ingratiating himself with hypochondriac big-time gangster Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark). Lloyd Nolan reprises his House on 92nd Street role as FBI higher-up Inspector Briggs. John McIntire, the film’s secret weapon, is the veteran agent who serves as Stevens’s sole contact, and does he ever look like Skid Row material. My favorite scene: Stevens and McIntire in their rooms, signaling one another across Skid Row by lighting matches. I loved this film when I first saw it in 2005 and had to watch it again in its TCM premiere.

*

I Wake Up Screaming (dir. H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941). “What’s the good of living without hope?” Ask Inspector Cornell (Laird Cregar): “It can be done.” A wonderfully dark thriller, told in flashbacks. My favorite line: “She seemed really grateful, and friendly-like.” With Alfred Newman’s ubiquitous “Street Scene” as background music.

*

Gun Crazy (dir. John H. Lewis, 1949). From a story by MacKinlay Kantor, whose verse-novel Glory for Me was turned into William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Bart Tare, a gun-obsessed youngster, grows up to be Bart Tare, a gun-obsessed man (John Dall), smitten when he sees carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) do her act. In the delirious crime spree that follows, little Laurie is fearless and ruthless; Bart, squeamish and afraid, is something like her moll. My favorite line: “We go together Laurie, I don’t know why: maybe like guns and ammunition go together.” But who’s who?

*

Woman on the Run (dir. Norman Foster, 1950). When a witness to a murder (Ross Elliott) flees from the police, his wife (Ann Sheridan) tries to track him down. Too many odd comic moments in this noir film, but also good shots of San Francisco, a nifty plot twist, and an appropriately comic (and sad) sequence in which Sheridan, as a wife long out of love with her partner, looks at his paintings and describes his work. This film’s ending must — must — have something to do with the ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, released the next year. My favorite line: “If this excitement hasn’t killed you, I’m sure I can’t.” Another YouTube find.


The Measure of a Man (dir. Stéphane Brizé, 2015). Vincent Lindon as Thierry Taugourdeau, a middle-aged man, unemployed after a factory layoff and trying to find a job. Thierry faces countless humiliations: vocational training that leads nowhere, a condescendingly cruel interview by Skype, withering evaluations of his “body language” from fellow jobseekers. And when he gets a job, there are the humiliations of work itself. Is the measure of a man his ability to do the job, or his ability to walk away? It’s easy to mistake this film for a documentary: understated acting and camerawork make The Measure of a Man feel remarkably true to life.

*

Julieta (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2016). From stories by Alice Munro. The life, loves, and losses of a classics teacher, Julieta Arcos (Adriana Ugarte, then Emma Suárez), told by means of a long letter to her daughter and flashbacks. With elements of Odyssean exploration and estrangement and Greek tragedy, unmistakably signaled, and at least a suggestion of Hitchcock, less clearly signaled. I think of this film as a twenty-first-century version of the “woman’s picture,” with new problems and greater sexual frankness. Along with Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, this is the best new (or nearly new) film I’ve seen this year.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve : Another twelve : And twelve more : Is there no end? No, there’s another twelve : Wait, there’s another twelve : And twelve more : At least eleven more

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