The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
  2. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
  3. The Devil’s Backbone (Benicio del Toro)
  4. All About Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  5. Black Peter (Miloš Forman)
  6. Local Hero (Bill Forsythe)
  7. Mank (David Fincher)
  8. Housekeeping (Bill Forsythe)
  9. The Christmas Setup (Pat Mills)
  10. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)

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1- Mother is the third Bong Joon-Ho film I have seen, along with The Host and Parasite. The wicked humor of the other two is missing from Mother, but that might be what makes the horror so unsettling.  The creature in The Host and the shenanigans happening in the rich people’s house in Parasite are so grotestesque as to become intentionally funny. No laughing here.  The mother’s unswerving devotion to her son makes us all complicit in the ending.

2- I remembered when Videodrome came out,  it seemed prescient about where the world of video ‘entertainment’ was heading.   If you want prescient, I suggest another look at Network instead. That film is astounding in its accuracy in pointing to where the world of ‘entertainment’ was headed.  What seemed deep and profound and scary in Videodrome now seems, to me at least, very silly.  Also, the fact that the terror comes from VHS tapes, a format that is now two generations away from the streaming we mostly use now, gives an unfortunate datedness to the film.  That is not the films fault, of course, but it makes it even harder to be frightened of it the way one was back in 1983.

3- But The Devil’s Backbone is scarier and more profound than when first experienced.  I have not liked the films of Guillermo del Toro very much. I find them dull and cluttered.  But not this masterpiece. The setting of a remote orphanage at the end of the Spanish Civil War, located at what seems the edge of the world, is so potent.  The fear is palpable throughout the whole film, but it is also beautiful.  I am not sure if the gorgeous but horribly evil groundskeeper played by Eduardo Noriega is a metaphor for the utter nihilism and vicious repression that the end of the Civil War brought to Spain.  I would like to discuss this with more familiar with the subject. But I will say that Noriega joins Alain Delon and Anthony Perkins in the roll call of impossibly beautiful men who play overwhelmingly evil characters.

4- The charms of the Czech New Wave are too elusive for me.  I feel like the movies are playing in front of me, but just out of my grasp to engage them.  They are certainly not ‘difficult’ films.  The tone just confuses me.  Are they whimsical as well as tragic? Scathing political satire as well as gentle loving portrayals of ‘everyman’? I am not sure, but I usually come away from them still feeling hungry. Black Peter was no exception. Glad I saw it though.

5- Local Hero and Housekeeping are the two other films by Bill Forsythe which I loved at their respective premieres.  For me, they  both were another chance to live in worlds created by the master who gave us Gregory’s Girl. Gregory’s Girl is the lightest of the three, but it is a work of genius and today outshines the other two.  I remember at the time I couldn’t convince people that Gregory’s Girl was greater.   It doesn’t really matter what I think (but Gregory’s Girl is greater)

6- I tricked myself into giving Gay Rom-Coms another chance and watched The Christmas Set-up.  I should have remembered what I wrote here .

7- Unforgiven is too mammoth an enterprise to be dealt with in one of these ‘Last Ten….” posts.  I hope I get the nerve up to write a post that does it justice.


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Wonderful insight into “It’s a Wonderful Life “

When I first started this blog I hoped that it would give rise to interesting discussion. For the most part, though, it’s just been me yapping. That is why I’m so happy to post the following response to my post on It’s a Wonderful Life, from my good friend DeDe… reprinted with her permission:

I’d like to put in a defense of the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I’d argue that it is a happy ending, but it’s not a fairy-tale ending. George has had to learn to put away childish things.   
George has been haunted his entire life by his failure to achieve his “dreams.”  But who’s to say that his dreams, actualized, would have satisfied him?  It’s easier for George to live in his head than to live in the real world.  
In fact, while fixating on his dreams, George sees everything in his life—the family business, his marriage, his children, the town—as an albatross around his neck.  In a way, he’s a loner who wants nothing of attachments—so much so that he failed to appreciate what he actually had:  an adoring wife, a beautiful family, good friends, and a life well lived.  
So does the film advocate subordinating the needs of the individual to those of the community?  I suppose an argument can be made for that. But I think that the film argues that there is no such opposition:  the individual supports the community, and the community supports the individual. In the words of the recently promoted Clarence:  “No man is a failure who has friends.”
And for what it’s worth, I do see George traveling the world eventually—perhaps with the entire family in tow, perhaps with Mary only, post-retirement.  But he will be happy. 


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Gods & Goddesses of the Criterion Universe – Part Two

1- Raimu (born Jules Auguste Muraire 1883-1946)

No less a person than Orson Welles called him ‘The greatest actor who ever lived.”  Best known for the films of his fellow genius of the Midi, Marcel Pagnol, Raimu created some of the most unforgettable comic and touching characters in all of film history.  His Cesar in the Marseille Trilogy is a titanically hilarious, life-affirming creation. Just watch any of the wonderful card game scenes and you will understand what I mean.  Other brilliant performances include The Baker’s Wife and  Angele, both by Pagnol, as well as Un Carnet de Bal by Julien Duvier.

2- Takashi Shimura (1905 – 1982)

While Toshiro Mifune is the most recognized of actor in the films of Akira Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura has appeared in every major Kurosawa film from 1944 until his death. And what a range of characters he plays!  The old man who has received a fatal diagnosis and tries to find one thing to make his life worth remembering in Ikiru. The Woodcutter, the most reliable eyewitness (?), in Rashomon. Perhaps most famously he played the leader of the Seven Samurai.  Watch any Kurosawa film, and you will find him as the center of gravity.  He also does a memorable turn in Kobayashi’s wonderful collection of ghost stories Kwaidan, in which he plays the head priest of the temple where Hoichi the Earless has his strange encounter with ghosts of the past.

3- Bibi Andersson (1935 – 2019)

One of the incredible performers in Ingmar Bergman’s close-knit troupe of actors, Bibi Andersson radiates a clean-scrubbed innocence but also a powerful sexuality in the characters she played. Perhaps her best work is her tour-de-force performance in Wild Strawberries as Sara the protagonist’s lost love from his turn-of-century youth as well as Sara the hip teenager of ‘today’ hitchhiking with two boys to Italy to whom the now-aged protagonist and his daughter-in-law give a lift during their eventful trip from Uppsala to Lund.  Memorable also in Persona and The Seven Seal, she also made a late-career appearance in Babette’s Feast.

4- Nikolai Cherkasov (1903 – 1966)

The star of Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic sound films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan The Terrible.  Wikipedia tells us that he was Stalin’s favorite actor. Not hard to believe when as Alexander Nevsky he plays a medieval Cincinnatus-like prince summoned to save Russia from the incursion of the Teutonic knights (read: Nazis). This is a heroic larger-than-life performance. Cherkasov gets a greater chance to show his acting chops in Ivan The Terrible, in which he goes from the handsome, virile first Tsar of Russian in the first part, to the paranoid, decrepit shell of that Tsar in the second.  See the range in the two pictures above.

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Three Colors : Blue (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  2. Three Colors : White (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  3. Three Colors : Red (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  4. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock)
  5. La Haine (Mathieu Kassowitz)
  6. 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
  7. Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
  8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe)
  9. King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh)
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)

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1- What a joy to watch the entire Three Colors trilogy again! I even revised my original assessment to be even more enthusiastic, especially about White. See my original review with additional comments here.

2- Marnie. Yikes. See my thoughts here.

3- La Haine had been on my radar for a while. 25 years to be precise. I finally caught up with it, and I wonder if time hasn’t dealt unkindly with it. It has a very restless 90s camera style that indicates grittiness but now looks a bit dated.  The story is quite aimless, but I am sure that was intentional to underline the aimlessness of these unemployed young men living in a banlieue just outside of Paris. The choice of having a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian as the friends/protagonists seems very 2020, but must have been unusual in 1995.  The gang members are as intimidating as The Sharks and The Jets. Who would have thought that the cutie-pie who starred in Amelie would have turned out such a gritty film for his directorial debut?

4- One of the joys of the Criterion Channel is that I have been able to get to know the works of the great Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. For someone like me who loves to analyze structure and who appreciates a good metafictional turn, these films have been fantastic. 3 Faces is one of the many films Panahi has made since he was officially silenced by the Iranian government and given a ban of 20 years before he could start filming again.  Not sure how he does it, but this ‘illegal’ film was shown at Cannes.  Maybe it is just a feint on the part of the Iranian government, or maybe Panahi has just too great a stature on the international film circuit, that it would be counterproductive for the government to do anything more to enforce the ban. Thank god they don’t because this film as well as This Is Not A Filmboth made under the ban, are two of the most satisfying films I have seen all year.

5- Beau Travail. Well, it is a riff on Billy Budd with the homoerotic element brought to the fore, or maybe not.  I had seen it when it came out and didn’t care for it very much, despite the male pulchritude on display.  It is more of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad in the desert than anything else.   It seems to be brave about the male on male gaze, but to what point? I don’t know.  I found it hard to sit through a second time.

6- I saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  when it premiered on Broadway in the 80s and it had no effect on me.  Since then, August Wilson has become a sacred cow, so I need to tread carefully when I say that I think that the play is pretty poorly constructed.  The linking, random, jokey conversations that the musicians have to pass the time are really enjoyable but when the big arias about “RACE” come up, they jarringly intrude on the proceedings. Everyone is saying that this film version is just a filmed play to which I say a) “It isn’t and b) “Why is that a negative?”  This is Chadwick Boseman’s last performance and I found it over the top. I fear that he will be lionized the way James Dean was lionized, both dying beautiful and young.

7- Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who I feel is making movies just for me. They hit me exactly in the right way.  I ‘get’ them perfectly.  I loved Contagion and Side Effects and I really loved King of the Hill.   I had seen it when it came out and loved it.  It holds up beautifully.  Jesse Bradford gives one of the best child actor performances I know of.  The period evocation is wonderful. It feels as if you have a window into that time and not that you are watching a studio reconstruction of 1933 St. Louis.  Please watch this. It is a beautiful, beautiful movie.  The closest thing I can compare it to is To Kill A Mockingbird, although King of the Hill is less epic.

8- In deference to the great Fern, I voluntarily watched It’s A Wonderful Life again this Christmas Eve. It was on network TV complete with a million commercial interruptions.  This was the way I first saw it in 1979 and the only alternative was to watch it on Amazon Prime in a colorized version. Anathema.

When I first saw this movie it was before it was elevated to its current unshakeable status as ‘The Greatest Christmas Movie of All Times.”  It was just another movie from the 40s and I was enchanted by it.  On second and third viewing I became aware that the film profoundly depressed me.  There is a weird dichotomy at the end of the movie.  In a rush of overwhelming love and friendship, the good citizens of Bedford Falls perform a Christmas miracle of sorts and collect the $8,000 dollars which will prevent our hero from going bust and to jail, and worse, being in thrall to the ludicrously evil Mr. Potter.

I know that this is supposed to be the quintessential ‘happy end’ but at that point in the movie, I still have an awful taste in my mouth from the fantasy scene that preceded it. In essence, the town of Bedford Falls would have become a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah if George Bailey had never lived.  And yet…. and yet… when he lives it only is saved from that fate by having every single one of George’s dreams crushed and everyone else he knows, go on to wonderful things.

I think that people love it because of what they think it is saying, but if you actually look at what it says, YIKES.

 


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Marnie….Oy vey iz mir

!!! WARNING: ATYPICAL INVECTIVE TO FOLLOW !!!

I have always felt that The Birds was the last masterpiece of Alfred Hitchcock. From that point on, the quality of his work decreased and the tedium increased. However, I was discussing Marnie recently and the conversation made me think that I was too harsh in my assessment, even though I had seen it several times and never came away amazed by anything in it.

I had the opportunity to watch it again and now I can say with perfect confidence that it is a bad, bad film.  Perhaps future viewings will change my mind, but I doubt it.  In fact, I doubt there will be future viewings.

What is wrong with it?

Where do I start?

1- Technical Problems:

a- The set gimmicks of Hitchcock always stand out as poorly executed and distracting from the rest of the movie.  I am thinking of the ‘vertiginous’ zoom in/out of the stair case in Vertigo, for example.  In Marnie, the red filter that tells us that Marnie is having one of her sexual hysteria panic attacks triggered by that color are laughable and laid on with a sledgehammer.  I know that Hitchcock is lauded, and rightly so, for his use of ‘pure cinema’, i.e., emotion and information transmitted by purely visual means, but this is so clumsy. And I don’t think it is just a matter of less sophisticated special effects in 1964.

b- The process shots are extremely hokey.  Is this be because they don’t work as well in color as in black & white?  Maybe. The process shots of the riders during the hunt are phony looking and I do not think it is because we are now used to CGI ‘realism’ in special effects.  It is hard to imagine why a perfectionist like Hitchcock okayed them. ‘Tippi’ Hedren looks like she is on a carousel and not on a fox hunt. The action is out of sync with the process shot background and ruins the illusion of horseback riding rather than creating it.  This b&w shot looks somewhat better than the color image in the film, but you can see what I mean.


c- So many scenes end awkwardly.  Often a character finishes speaking, but instead of a fade out, the camera just hangs on the character, and you think, “Nu? Is there more to this scene?”, and then the fade comes and the next scene begins.  I don’t get it.  What was the editor thinking? What is supposed to be the effect? Or is it, as I fear, more sloppiness and proof positive that Hitchcock lost interest in the project midway through and was not concerned any longer with turning out a typically perfect product?

 

2- Acting

a- Perhaps the greatest liability in the film is ‘Tippi’ Hedren.  She already seemed out of her league in The Birds. I am sure we could think of any number of actresses of the time who would have been a better Melanie Daniels, especially when she is in confrontation with the juggernaut of Jessica Tandy as Mitch Brenner’s needy mom. But somehow, in The Birds her weaknesses are not detrimental to the whole enterprise.  Her iciness and model-like behavior seems in keeping with a the portrayal of a troubled rich girl.

In Marnieher inexperience sinks the whole enterprise.  An actor’s greatest asset, even more than his or her physical presence,  is a powerful and communicative voice. This is what can rivet an audience and what can direct them to feel the way he or she feels.
Hedren just does not have that voice.  Hers is highly pitched and when she forces it into dramatic expression, it sounds like Minnie Mouse.  I blame Hitchcock. She should never have been cast in a role that needs so much dramatic nuance. Diane Baker, who plays the devious Lil in the film, would have been so much more effective in the role. It is like watching Guys and Dolls listening to Brando sing Luck be a Lady, knowing all too well that Sinatra is on the set NOT singing Luck be a Lady.

Sean Connery also brings his share of problems to the film.  Yes, he is gorgeous.  I heard that Hedren complained to Hitchcock that it would be hard to play frigid opposite such a hunk.   But for all that, there is very little chemistry between them.  This time around I was really distracted by Connery’s Scottish accent.  The way he goes in and out of the accent is another indication of lack of supervision at the top.

 

3- Psychology

At the end of Psychothe psychologist, played by Simon Oakland, gives a tidy explanation of what happened in poor, murderous Norman Bates’ mind to give rise to so many horrors.  While the explanation is plausible, I always felt that it was filmed and played with a laugh up its sleeve.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I always find the end of Psycho kind of humorous.  The comic relief, icky though it is, that we needed after such unrelieved tension.

The amateur analyzing of Marnie by Sean Connery’s character is even ickier.  He claims to have had an interest in zoology and the way he traps and experiments on Marnie seem very zoological and not very medicinal. It certainly goes way beyond the medical dictum of ‘Do No Harm’.

Much psychologizing in films of the 60s and earlier seem to imply that if we could just find the one thing that made this character go nuts, we could cure him or her.  Once the memory of having to kiss her dead grandmother at the wake in The Three Faces of Eve is recovered, all the multiple personalities magically disappear. When Gregory Peck in Spellbound finally recalls how he accidentally caused his little brother’s death, he is cured.

And so in Marnie, a visit to her awful mom’s dockside house revives once and for all a nightmarish memory that turned the young Marnie into a frigid, thieving, duplicitous woman, we assume that she is cured.  It’s just too neat.

The bottom line here is  that if you think you would like to watch Marniedo yourself a favor and watch The Birds again.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
  2. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
  3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. Lenny (Bob Fosse)
  5. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
  6. The Traveler (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. The Coward (Satyajit Ray)
  8. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
  9. Dos Monjes (Juan Bustillo Oro)
  10. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)

1- If there is such a thing as a Thanksgiving movie, Broadway Danny Rose is it.  I think it might be Woody Allen’s most successful comedy, and that is because it is mostly kind.  Danny Rose is almost a holy fool. His goodness radiates out, and even though he is mistreated worst by those who owe him the most, eventually his kindness makes a difference in the world. There is none of the smarminess that we find in later Allen films, although the scene where he and Mia Farrow are tied up together seems pretty icky.   There are still the Italian caricatures that he is so fond of, but in all fairness he has a lot of Jewish caricatures as well. The jokes are wonderful.  The world of seedy New York is lovingly drawn.  Is it the 60s? The 70s? The 80s? I can’t tell.  The Greek Chorus of old Jewish Standup comics in the Deli that are narrating and commenting on ‘the best Danny Rose story’ are the heart of this movie.  The way they describe how hard it is to get a gig now is heartbreaking but they take it with a joke.  There is only one comic line that falls flat.  Let me know if you know which line I mean.

2- I am done with Jean Vigo.  I watched all his works again on the Criterion Channel. It only amounts to about 200 minutes, since he died so young, but they all bore the life out of me.  I find them tedious and pretentious.  Much noise is made about how revolutionary L’atalante is. I don’t see it.  It bores me. It may be my fault, but I have watched it four times, so the blame can’t entirely lie with me.  I think it is a bit of the James Dean syndrome.  Vigo died at the age of 29, with only one feature and a few shorts to his name.  Like James Dean, perhaps his talent has been overappreciated because there is so little of it available and what exists is flashy. Please tell me why you think I may be wrong.

3- My one great truth about Hitchcock is that his movies are not about what you think they are about.  The Birds is not about a series of unexplained bird attacks.  It is about the unresolved tension in the relationships between Melanie Daniels, Mitch Brenner and his mother, Lydia Brenner, with his sister Cathy thrown in the mix for fun.  Vertigo is not about Madeline Elster’s real identity. It is about the power of erotic self-destruction.  Rear Window is not about what happened to Mrs. Thorvald. It is about the struggle for the upper hand in the relationship between Jeff and Lisa (spoiler alert: it ends in a temporary draw).  And so, Psycho is not about the shower scene and what leads up to it. I am not really sure what it is about, but I have a feeling it is, in a perverse way, about the empowerment of women.  Marion steals the money to fix a situation that her lover seems incapable of fixing.  Lila ‘solves’ the mystery when all the men around her bungle it.  Even Mrs. Bates wins out at the end.   There is an extraordinary amount to male objectivizing for a movie of this time.   When we first see John Gavin in the hotel room, he is present as a sex object, even more  than Marion is.  Anthony Perkins is stunningly beautiful and so endearing as Norman Bates, that the end should always come as a shock even though, sixty years later, we know what it is.  The cliché is that Hitchcock was awful for women.  I think Psycho should make us reassess that thinking.

4- I missed seeing Lenny when it first came out and I was glad to watch it now.  I don’t know if Fosse was being more objective than the normal assessment vis-a-vis Lenny Bruce, but the comic comes off more as a dangerous and self-destructive figure than the shining exemplar of First Amendment rights. It is hard to pity his downward spiral, because as brilliant as he is, he is just MEAN. Dustin Hoffman is spectacular, yes, but Valerie Perrine. Wow.

5- Man, I LOVED The Tenant when it first came out.  I dragged all my friends to see it. I don’t think it has aged as well as the film it seems most closely linked to: Rosemary’s Baby. Apparently these two films plus Repulsion are a loose trilogy.  Rosemary’s Baby wins hands down.

6- The Traveler is Abbas Kiarostami’s first full-length feature, and as such it is solid.  I love movies that show kids to be rotten and not living in some kind of Edenic childhood paradise.  This boy is absolutely amoral and selfish.  Nowhere close to Kiarostami’s later works of genius, but worth a watch for sure.

7- I watched The Coward the day after the great Soumitra Chatterjee died.  He starred in a ton of Satyajit Ray, most famously making his film debut as Apu in the last film of the trilogy.  The Coward is a small film, but like every other Ray film I have seen, it is deeply satisfying. 

8- I am not sure what drew the great Terence Davies to Sunset Song. It is gorgeous to look at and involving, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming emotional impact of his masterpieces. The next film he made, A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson, has all the hallmarks of a Davies masterpiece.

9- If The Cabinet of Doctor Calegari and Rashomon got married, moved to 1930s Mexico and had a baby, it would be Dos Monjes. Expressionism and Mexican Romanticism.  The scenes in the monastery remind me of Ivan The Terrible weirdness.  And the multivalent story telling must have seems so fresh coming some 20 years before  Rashomon.  It thrills me that such sui-generis films exist that I never heard of. What else is out there to discover?

10- After watching a ton of Kiarostami films, I went back to The Taste of Cherry, often cited as his masterpiece. I didn’t get it when I saw it 15 years ago.  Having much more context now, I get it but I still don’t love it the way I love The Koker Trilogy and Close-up. It’s probably more my fault that Kiarostami’s.  This time around, I totally got the pacing and the extreme long takes, things which bored me before.  

 

 


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Sleepy Hollow – a neglected masterpiece

I love the films of Tim Burton. He is enough of an auteur to warm the heart of the least caheriste among us.  If those mid-century film-critics, many of whom went on to be directors in their own right, revered films by directors whose personal style was immediately evident, they would have to look no further than Burton. There is no mistaking whose vision is behind masterpieces like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride and such noble failures as Alice In Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows. I haven’t seen his Batman films nor his Planet of the Apes, so I can’t categorize them, but I will be happy to watch them someday.

Sleepy Hollow is one of his best and most typically Burtonesque.  I fear it is somewhat forgotten now, so this post is sleeve-tug to remind you about it.

Earlier in the year, I made a mental note to revisit Sleepy Hollow as part of my personal Hallowe’en horrorfest. I had seen it when it came out. I remembered really liking it, but didn’t remember much about it outside of the fantastic Burton atmospherics.  When I mentioned to a few people that I was going to rewatch this, the reaction was always the same: “Oh (pregnant, thoughtful pause) that was really good.”

And it was.

Like many Burton adaptations, the plot of the film has next to nothing to do with the original Washington Irving story. Character names and location are about all that survive.   What does survive is the gothic creepiness.

The atmosphere of 17th Century Dutch upstate New York is gorgeous.  The settings and costumes in this film are more subdued than in other Burton features, where they tend to be more Rococo.

The quirkiest element of the film is figure of Ichabod Crane, played by Burton stalwart, Johnny Depp.  Crane is no longer the awkward gangly schoolteacher of the Washington Irving story.  Here he is an expert detective coming to the town of Sleepy Hollow from New York City, determined to prove that his new ‘scientific’ methods will be able to solve a series of ghastly murders (read: beheadings) that have plagued the town.  His superiors in New York are only to happy to get this pest off their hands and to send him to the Boondocks, which he is equally unwanted.

Gradually, his quirkiness and unorthodox methods yield results.

Adding to the atmospherics and ghastly fun is (who else?) Christopher Walken as the murderous Headless Horseman.

But wait!  There’s more!   The great Miranda Richardson is on hand as the embodiment of (*spoiler alert*) cold-blooded revenge.

 

Please watch this if you haven’t seen it, or if you haven’t seen it in a while.  It is so satisfying and Johnny Depp is so quirky and so pretty and a damn fine actor.

While you are it, have a look at a completely different Tim Burton masterpiece, Big Eyes.  

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Host (Bong Joon Ho)
  2. Nosferatu (Werner Herzog)
  3. La Promesse (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  4. The Mirror (Jafar Panahi)
  5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
  6. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
  7. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  8. Foreign Letters (Ela Thier)
  9. Un Carnet du Bal (Julien Duvivier)
  10. Hotel du Nord (Marcel Carné)

1- Ever since I saw Parasite, I have been thinking about going back to rewatch the only other film of his I had seen, The Host.  I wondered if the naming of the later film was a sly reference to his other huge international hit.  Not sure.  I must say that The Host was as good as I remembered it. It isn’t as rich as Parasite.  There is the same raucous action, but the political edge is not as keen. I think that Parasite was conceived more politically than The Host. The only discernible political thread in the latter is the not-so-subtle suggestion of how America is destroying Korean culture and environment.  I guess that is pretty political after all!

2- I loved the films of Werner Herzog and saw them all when they premiered in the US.  I remember particularly loving Nosferatu. It really holds up well.  It is a very respectful and knowledgeable remake of the famous Murnau silent from the 20s.  Everything works in this updating.  The tone of silent films, from the mise-en-scene to the acting is a beautiful homage to the earlier style.  I had feared that I would now find Klaus Kinski’s acting of the title role too over-the-top.  It isn’t. It is just gorgeous.  Kudos to Isabelle Adjani at the beginning of her film career for channeling every heroine of every Expressionist horror film. 

3- La Promesse  is my third film by the Dardenne brothers.  Another stunning experience.  Much is made of Bresson’s moral constructs in his films.  They are also wonderful but the morality of these Dardenne films is at a much more visceral level.  I found La Promesse  powerful in the way that it makes the viewer complicit in the ethical dilemma, a teenage boy who is helping his unscrupulous father in his shady operation to exploit illegal immigrants in their Belgian town.  Just like the end of Young Ahmed, the resolution of La Promesse comes out of nowhere, but is inevitable and powerful.

4- My excitement of discovering Iranian films is comparable to the excitement I felt when I first discovered the range and depth of Japanese film. So far I have only watched films by Kiarostami and Panahi. I am sure other wonders await me.  The Mirror is another tour-de-force of meta-cinema. I will not divulge the plot nor the meta-ness of the film.  Suffice it to say that I watched the entire movie shaking my head saying to myself ‘It can’t be this brilliant”. I was wrong. It was that brilliant. 

5- The Criterion Channel curates films by theme and one of the themes this month was Women Directors. They suggested many films that I had never heard of. One of them was Bluebeard by Catherine Breillat. I suppose you could label it as a feminist retelling of the Perrault fairy tale, but I would hope that Breillat wouldn’t want her work pigeon-holed like that. It is a very odd film and the fairy-taleness of it is also quite odd and upsetting. I must say I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I am up for her version of Sleeping Beauty just yet.

6- Coincidentally, that other source of my cinema addiction, Turner Classic Movies, is showing a series called Women Make Film, shown in conjunction with Mark Cousin’s 14-part documentary of the same name. The documentary borders on annoying but TCM they are showing many of the films that are discussed in the documentary, and that is where the gold is. The films are from all over the world and from all eras. Some are great. Then there is Foreign Letters. Yes, it was made by a woman, an Israeli émigré to the US. The problem with it is that is seems like a student project and is not very interesting. It is very YA and I never liked YA stuff, even when I was YA. Who knows? It might be great. Just not my cup of falafel.

7- I had always thought of Julien Duvivier as typical of the classic French directors that the Cahier du Cinema brats were rebelling against. Well, of course we can have both the French New Wave and what came before it. We realize that now (at least I realize that now). But, I can honestly say that Un Carnet du Bal ages better than just about any of the nouvelle vague creations I can think of. But why choose? Un Carnet du Bal is the French equivalent of an MGM ‘tradition of quality’ production. A sprawling story, beautifully appointed and featuring many of the great French stars of the day. Think a Gallic Grand Hotel. Not only do you have the legendary Harry Baur, but you get Fernandel as well as my holy Raimu.

8- How fortuitous to watch Hotel du Nord right after seeing Un Carnet Du Bal. Both date from about the same time, and both feature the same richness of plot and character. Hotel du Nord is by Marcel Carné, famous for the epic Children of Paradise. This film is on a smaller scale, but is as lush with a wide variety of characters and subplots. It is linked to Un Carnet Du Bal by the presence of the the enigmatic Louis Jouvet. Carné’s style is often called ‘poetic realism’. I am not sure what that means, but there is a combination of the gritty quotidian daytime world and the dreamlike night world. Arletty is on hand to lend the proceedings earthy humor a few years before her legendary appearance as Garance in Children of Paradise

8- How fortuitous to watch Hotel du Nord right after seeing Un Carnet Du Bal. Both date from about the same time, and both feature the same richness of plot and character. Hotel du Nord is by Marcel Carné, famous for the epic Children of Paradise. This film is on a smaller scale, but is lush with a wide variety of characters and subplots. It is linked to Un Carnet Du Bal by the presence of the the enigmatic Louis Jouvet. Carné’s style is often called ‘poetic realism’. I am not sure what that means, but there is a combination of the gritty quotidian daytime world and the dreamlike night world. Arletty is on hand to lend the proceedings earthy humor a few years before her legendary appearance as Garance in Children of Paradise. Her pronouncing the word ‘Atmosphere’ in her rebuke of Louis Jouvet is worth the price of admission.

On a personal note, when I was in Paris in 2018, my dear friend Lil took me to the Canal St. Martin and sure enough, the Hotel du Nord is there on the banks of this impressive canal!


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I Love Musicals But I Hate Musicals

In the wonderful meta-musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a man simply called ‘Man In Chair’ is playing one of his favorite LPs for the audience, the original cast album of the (fictitious) 1927 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. As he narrates the action, the musical comes to life in his dreary New York apartment with characters making all kinds of surprising entrances, like from his refrigerator or up through the floor.

After the intermission, he informs us that he has to go to the bathroom. He puts on the second side of the LP, which begins with the entr’acte,  and leaves. The stage fills with characters that look like a nutty cross between The King and I and the opera Turandot. While the audience is trying to figure out just what is going on, the Man in Chair rushes back onstage in a panic.  Apparently his cleaning lady mixed up his LPs and instead of the second act of The Drowsy Chaperone, we are hearing/watching a number from a musical of the same era called A Message from a Nightingale.  Man in Chair gives us a mocking precis of its plot which hits every White Man’s Burden cliché, with an American Lady coming to China to civilize the emperor and eventually help him build The Great Wall.  Man in Chair groans and rolls his eyes.  But then, he flips over the LP, scans the song list and then says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”

This perfectly encapsulates my feeling about most musicals.  When I was a kid, I listened incessantly to Original Cast Albums of classics like Oklahoma and Carousel, as well contemporary (at the time) shows like Pippin and Company.  I loved musicals, even though I had seen very few live.  I had seen a lot of movie musicals, but they were on TV, riddled with commercials and I was just waiting for the next song.  But I loved those LPs.

As I got older and saw many musicals live, I got the sinking feeling that there was something wrong.  The experience in the theater was never as great as listening to the LP at home. I blamed myself for not concentrating enough on the show while in the theater.  When I would go home and listen the albums again, I was back in heaven.

This was especially true of the Sondheim musicals.

What was the problem? It was not that people suddenly burst into song.  I liked the artificiality of that, and it is part of the deal.

It came down to one thing: the book.

Most of the time the book weighed down what was so transcendent in the score.  This was particularly true of the ‘serious’ musicals, like West Side StorySouth Pacific and the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.

What did seem to work were the ‘musical comedies’, the shows with the farcical plots.  Guys and Dolls is perfection, and you can tell it is because you love the linking dialogue as much as when the numbers are performed.  Other examples of this are She Loves Me, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady (mostly thanks to GBS), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Bye Bye Birdie.

I think any of these shows would work pretty well if they were just mounted with the dialogue and none of the music.  It is because the books are light and fast-moving, and most importantly, they don’t take themselves so seriously.

But imagine having to sit through South Pacific without “Some Enchanted Evening”.  Yikes.

Since the majority of musical lovers only know the objects of their love through Original Cast Albums, they have a skewed view of the enterprise in question.

I worship the scores of Stephen Sondheim.  I play them all the time. But sitting through them in the theater is often a nihilistic experience.  There is so much bile being spilled, even in the comedies, that the songs become earthbound.

Unfortunately, movie musicals highlight this problem.  The ones made by MGM in the 1950s that everyone lauds are so elephantine that every element of joy is crushed.  Compare the ghastly On The Town film to the OCR. Show Boat is so overinflated that it sinks.

Just as on stage, the musical comedies are what seem to fare best on the screen. Kiss Me Kate is mostly a joy (thank you Ann Miller). Also, it seems that musicals created for the screen work much better than those lugubrious adaptations of original stage hits.  Singin’ in the Rain is always a pleasure.  Meet Me In St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, the Astaire/Rodgers musicals are all original and all delightful.

So, you’re off the hook next time a friend asks if you want to go to see A Little Night Music, but you must listen to the cast recording as much as you can. As the man says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Original Cast Album: “Company” (D.A. Pennebaker)
  2. The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford)
  3. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  5. The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
  6. Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
  7. The Mummy (Karl Freund)
  8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
  9. Carnival of Souls (Herk Hervey)
  10. Horror Hotel (John Moxey)

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1- Company was a seminal show for me growing up.  I played my LP within an inch of its life.  I remembered seeing the Pennebaker documentary and was amazed to see these (in my mind) legendary performances actually happening in the recording studio. Watching it now the nostalgia is intense but the whole enterprise seems so much in the past.  To see the singers and musicians all smoking during the recording makes it as remote as Victorian England.

2-The Getting of Wisdom was another film in Criterion’s Australian New Wave. It really suffers from having a very unappealing heroine as its center.  Compared to its contemporary The Devil’s Playground, another story of young people in a repressive school situation, The Getting of Wisdom is so flat.

3- I am glad to have finally seen a Dardenne brothers film. Young Ahmed tells what could have been a sensational story: the radicalization of a young Belgian-Moslem boy.  Because of the objective stance it takes, you are more involved than if had been filmed as a polemic.  The end is unexpected and thrillingly satisfying.

4-  I pride myself on my memory for details of movies, so imagine my surprise when absolutely nothing of The Curse of Frankenstein was familiar to me at all.  It certain isn’t deathless cinema, but it has all the hallmarks that make Hammer horror films so delicious especially around Halloween: intelligent and involving stories, beautiful production values, reliably controlled hamminess of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the obligatory gore.   Hammer always satisfies

5- A separate post on Sleepy Hollow is coming

6- I had heard a lot about The Witch.  It quite bowled me over. First of all, it is stunning looking and the atmospherics of the wilderness in early Colonial America.  Isolation is always a successful trope in horror films, but this combines the isolation with a smug and crippling religiosity and this makes for fantastic horror.  The end is one of the most discussion-worthy conclusions to a film I have seen in years.   I think it is brilliant, many commentators say it is a cop-out.  They’re wrong.  Let’s discuss.

7- It wouldn’t be Halloween without watching Carnival of Souls and Horror Hotel. I look forward to them each year the way other less fortunate people look forward to It’s A Wonderful Life.