Monday, April 15, 2019

Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

The Player (dir. Robert Altman, 1992). A studio executive (Tim Robbins) is receiving death threats from — whom? And an appropriately noirish plot develops. A brilliant movie about movies, with an extended opening shot that promises many meta pleasures to follow, including cameo after cameo. It’s something like the feeling of walking around Los Angeles — at any moment you might see a star. ★★★★


Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins 2018). Paul Giamatti and Kathyrn Hahn play an E. 6th Street couple in their forties, desparately trying to have a baby. Strong performances all around, especially from Kayli Carter as an artsy niece, but the movie feels at times interminable, with too many odds and ends tossed in. Most moving scene: silent contemplation of a wall of baby photos. Jumps the shark near the end on an utterly implausible trip to Yaddo — Yaddo, sheesh, why? ★★★


Let There Be Light (dir. John Huston, 1946). A short documentary, suppressed for decades, about veterans of World War II suffering from “psychoneurosis,” or what we would call post-traumatic stress, with extended scenes of hospitalized veterans speaking with psychiatrists about wartime experiences and hopes for the future. I was struck by the many moments that recalled accounts of combat trauma in Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam. Troy, WWII, Vietnam: all wars are one in the damage they do to the participants. The most painful and poignant element of Let There Be Light is the notion that post-traumatic stress can be solved with eight to ten weeks of treatment: even as veterans prepare to go home, their faces say otherwise. ★★★★


The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (dir. Kelly Duane, 2019). This documentary offers less and much more than the title promises. Though the circumstances of Sam Cooke’s death belie the official account, the film quickly dismisses the hints of a corporate or political murder scheme that the film’s own trailer suggests. What the documentary does offer is a detailed, interview-rich portrait of an immensely talented, charismatic, politically aware, and forward-looking entertainer. Did you know that Cooke refused to perform for segregated audiences, and that he was a pioneer in the movement away from processed hair? ★★★★


Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham, 2018). Elsie Fisher gives a great performance as Kayla Day, a girl in the last days of eighth grade. Kayla makes YouTube videos with tips on being yourself even as she tries desperately to fit in and be liked. I was especially moved by the scene of this resilient outsider watching her pre-middle-school video message to her future self. Only young adults will really know whether this film’s depiction of the phone-driven life is exaggerated, but from everything I’ve heard and read, I think it’s not. ★★★★


The Cakemaker (dir. Ofir Raul Graizer, 2017). An odd segue: here’s a film about being and not being yourself. A German baker travels to Israel, finds his dead lover’s wife, and begins to work his way (literally) into her life. Will she come to learn who he is? A character-driven story with strong echoes of Vertigo and, more recently, of François Ozon’s Frantz. ★★★★


Mr. Symbol Man (dir. Bob KIngsbury and Bruce Moir, 1974). A short documentary about Charles Bliss, originally Blitz, an engineer who survived Buchenwald and went on to create Blissymbolics, an ideographic writing system meant for universal use. Bliss, as the camera presents him, is indefatigably joyful, or joyfully indefatigable. “Never give in!” is his watchword. The most remarkable scenes in the film are those of children with cerebral palsy using Blissymbolics to communicate — an unanticipated boon of Bliss’s work. ★★★


The Small Back Room (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949). Britain, the Second War: Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is an expert in bomb defusal who suffers chronic pain from a prosthetic foot. Only alcohol helps — until it doesn’t, as Sammy alienates his girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) with his self-pitying and self-destructive behavior. The film is a bit scattered, but becomes its best self when Sammy is brought into the work of defusing German explosive devices, in an utterly harrowing, nearly silent scene. Keep an eye open for the Gregg Toland influence in Christopher Challis’s filming of interiors. ★★★


Stan & Ollie (dir. Jon S. Baird, 2018). Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are uncannily convincing as Messrs. Laurel and Hardy, found here at the end of their performing partnership, playing to sparse audiences in provincial theaters on a tour patched together by a distracted promoter. A lovely portrait of friendship and genius and determination, Stan ever at the typewriter working up new material, Ollie getting on stage despite rising health troubles. The arrival near the tour’s end of “the wives,” Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson), adds another element of comedy and humanity. A beautiful, sentimental film, and if you can’t be sentimental about Laurel and Hardy, well, it’s your loss. ★★★★


Hello, Criterion Channel

My Name Is Julia Ross (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1945). A cross between Gothic fiction and film noir. A young Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, who takes a job as a personal secretary and wakes up in a grand cliffside house where everyone calls her by another name. Fine turns by Dame May Whitty and an ultra-creepy George Macready. Excellent cinematography by Burnett Guffey. ★★★★


So Dark the Night (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1946). A mild-mannered Parisian detective (Steven Geray) leaves the city for a much-needed vacation at a country inn — and murders beginning piling up. I cannot decide if the twist in this story is an improbable possibility or a probable impossibility. Either way, I accept it, sort of. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is especially imaginative here: watch the windows. ★★★


Human Desire (dir. Fritz Lang, 1954). Burnett Guffey is on the job again in this highly sanitized version of Zola’s La Bête humaine (which was also adapted by Jean Renoir). Jeff (Glenn Ford), Korean War veteran and train engineer, returns to the States, takes up his old job, and becomes involved with Vicki (Gloria Grahame), who’s already involved in a triangle of her own with her husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) and yet another man — and yes, this is a sanitized version. Grahame and Crawford are the reasons to watch this movie: with Vicki and Carl, as with Cora and Nick in The Postman Always Rings Twice, you have to wonder what they were thinking when they married. You have to wonder about Jeff too, who seems to take everything in this film a little too much in stride. ★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 5

Chris said...

We enjoyed Stan & Ollie too. I gather it took a number of liberties, but none of that seemed to matter. The performances were great fun — Reilly's was downright uncanny.

Sean Crawford said...

Speaking of Achillles in Vietnam, I just received my copy today and it is super-informative. I will keep it all my life. Thank you for recommending it to me. Homer must have been a Geat Artist to have such ability to see what the rest of us did not know.

H.G. Wells was also gifted, the last page of War of the Worlds has the narrator hallucinating with flashbacks in broad daylight, years after the Martians are gone.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Chris and Sean, for your comments.

Slywy said...

I saw My Name is Julia Ross was leaving 6/30, so watched it yesterday. Struck me as A all the way.

I'd seen Nina Foch only in a Bonanza episode, in which she plays an annoying, cast-off older female relative. Her voice changed dramatically. The lift of her eyebrows did not.

This strikes me as an ideal Mother's Day film, along with such fare as Psycho. The mother is as much a piece of work as the son.

My only really minor quibble is I thought the maid would have a greater role. I never quite figured out how much she knew.

Michael Leddy said...

Nina Foch has a great role in Executive Suite — not at the Criterion Channel, “availability unknown” at Netflix, but available (at a price) from YouTube.

I don’t remember the maid, but the servants often know everything, no?