Monday, April 9, 2018

Twelve movies

[No spoilers.]

La Bête Humaine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1938). Jean Gabin (of Grand Illusion) as Jacques Lantier, a railroad engineer whose genetic inheritance causes him to suffer moments of murderous rage. He is one figure in a tangle of relationships, murderous and otherwise, that play out against an exhilarating backdrop of trains and more trains.

*

I'll Be Seeing You (dir. William Dieterle, 1944). As my mom would say, "I never heard of it." It was in our Netflix queue because Joseph Cotten stars. A surprisingly frank movie about a guarded romance between people with secrets. Cotten is a veteran suffering from what we can recognize as PTSD; Ginger Rogers is a woman who — well, you'll have to watch. Shirley Temple provides comic relief and creates complications as Rogers’s teenaged cousin. I especially liked the scenes of the dowdy world: a soda fountain, a train-station newsstand, a kitchen with white enamel cookware. Please pass the mashed potatoes.

*

Undertow (dir. William Castle, 1949). An ex-mobster (Scott Brady) travels home to Chicago, where he’s promptly framed for murder. A detective friend (Bruce Bennett) and a plucky schoolteacher (Peggy Dow) help him to see his way clear. Surprisingly good, with some scenes shot in Chicago. At YouTube.

*

Please Murder Me (dir. Peter Godfrey, 1956). Angela Lansbury as an unhappily married woman, Raymond Burr as her lawyer, in a story that owes everything but a couple of plot twists to Double Indemnity. Crazy good to see Burr’s character with the same courtroom manner as Perry Mason. And fun to see Dick Foran (Ed Washburne of the Lassie world) in film noir. Indeed, this film puts the noir in film noir: just one scene, in a painter’s studio, has any daylight, and that light becomes a subject of conversation. Got meta? At YouTube.

*

Harry and Tonto (dir.Paul Mazursky, 1974). Art Carney’s shining hour, as Harry Coombes, a retired teacher displaced when his Manhattan apartment building is torn down to make way for a parking lot. Where to go? On a journey, with his cat Tonto. Two things strike me about the United States depicted in this film: the variety of its inhabitants, and the way a three-TV-network world provided some semblance of a shared culture. Say, did you watch Ironside last night? Harry and Tonto would pair well with De Sica’s Umberto D.

*

I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach, 2016). A widowed Newcastle carpenter (Dave Johns), still recovering from a heart attack, navigates a bureaucratic maze to attain his Employment and Support Allowance. Along the way, he befriends a young single mother (Hayley Squires) and her two children. Often funny, often infuriating, and always deeply moving. Most heartbreaking scene: the food bank. This film too would pair well with Umberto D. or Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man.

*

Wonder (dir. Stephen Chbosky, 2017). R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel (recommended to me by my daughter) is a beautiful and moving narrative for young readers — with multiple narrators, no less. The film version simplifies and sweetens and upscales the novel, which tells the story of August Pullman, a boy with facial differences who enters the fifth grade after a childhood of home schooling. I’ll quote another fifth-grader, Sol Ah, who appears in the documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans: “Even if the movies they make are good, they won’t be as good as the book.” The elementary and high-school kids in this film are impossibly, annoyingly photogenic. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson seem utterly miscast as Auggie’s parents. Read the novel instead.

*

California Typewriter (dir. Doug Nichol, 2017). A then-struggling typewriter shop in Berkeley gives this documentary its name. But the scope is wider, bringing in an artist, a streetside poet, a singer-songwriter, well-known writers, a collector of nineteenth-century machines, and a Hollywood mega-star who owns hundreds of typewriters. That would be Tom Hanks. The claims we hear some of these people make — that the typewriter is magical, that it allows the perfect emotional distance from words, that the text it produces has a permanence that other written text lacks — are, plainly, the claims of lovers who have lost all objectivity about the objects of their desire. And it’s wonderful, even if trying out your old machine leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about.

*

Batman & Bill (dir. Don Argott and Sheena N. Joyce, 2017). The life, death, and posthumous story of Bill Finger, the comics writer who devised many crucial elements of the Batman story, a story long credited to Bob Kane alone. Among Finger’s contributions: Batman’s costume, the names Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, the characters of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and more. “Bill was Batman’s secret identity,” children’s author Marc Tyler Nobleman says, and this documentary follows his efforts to get Finger’s contributions known and credited. A heroic story of creativity, business ethics, familial struggles, and the sleuthing that the Internet makes possible. Nobleman is aptly named.

*

Elevator to the Gallows (dir. Louis Malle, 1958). Malle’s first film follows the unexpected consequences of a murder plot gone awry. Julien (Maurice Ronet) spends most of the film attempting to escape from a stuck elevator. Florence (Jeanne Moreau) is a spoof existentialist, interior monologuing as she wanders through the Paris night. Louis (Georges Poujoly, from Forbidden Games) and Véronique (Yori Bertin) seem to have watched Gun Crazy one too many times. The plot is both wobbly and clever, the characters’ plights both amusing and suspenseful. A Hitchcock-like delight. Music by Miles Davis.

*

Freaks (dir. Tod Browning, 1932). Moviegoers of a certain age may recall seeing Freaks in the form of a “midnight show.” Now the movie plays on TCM. What makes the film bizarre is not the cast of sideshow performers but the scarcity of plot, which surfaces here and there between vignettes of circus life and has its violent conclusion off-screen. The most compelling scenes are those in which the so-called freaks, those at whom others stare, turn their gaze on those others — in particular the scenes in which Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) peers through a window and Johnny Eck and company watch and wait beneath a circus wagon’s steps. “One of us! One of us!”

*

Shattered Glass (dir. Billy Ray, 2003). The short unhappy career of the journalist Stephen Glass, who created fake article after fake article for The New Republic from what seem to have been considerable imaginative resources. As Glass, Hayden Christensen is a brilliant chameleon, cocky, concerned, defensive, contrite, either playing to his editors and fellow writers or playing the one group against the other. And he is quick-thinking, always, inventing fresh explanations each time one of his falsehoods is exposed. I think what explains Glass is what explains those who engage in academic misconduct: they count on getting away with it.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

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