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. Greta (Neal Jordan)
  2. Isn’t it Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson)
  3. Farewell to Dream (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  4. The Little Foxes (William Wyler)
  5. To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. Us (Jordan Peele)
  7. Jezebel (William Wyler)
  8. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
  9. Dumbo (Tim Burton)
  10. Vanya on 42nd St. (Louis Malle)

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1 – I really wanted to like Greta. It is by the great Neal Jordan, of The Crying Game fame. A beautiful film maker. Not sure what happened here. I think the problem for me was that I saw the trailer for this so many times before I saw the actual film, and for a film with such an integral plot twist having that twist revealed in the trailer is an unforgivable breach of faith with the audience. It is fun to see Isabelle Huppert as a maniacal crazy woman, but I wish I didn’t know that it was coming.

2-Isn’t It Romantic is a delightful little riff on what is so terrible about RomComs. It tackles them on their own turf, with a very clever gimmick. Rebel Wilson is terrific and her presence and character really add dignity to the whole procedings. I thought it was tremendous fun, even though I tripped at the theater when I went to see it and broke my glasses. I had to watch the whole thing holding the glasses together. Even so, it was great fun.

3- If Farewell to Dream had been made by Yasujiro Ozu, the Chekhovian sense of devolution and tragedy would have been poignant. As it stands, it is more melodramatic than I am used to from Japanese films of this era.

4- I’ve been having a mini-festival of William Wyler/Bette Davis films. Jezebel is better than I remembered, mostly because of Davis. The Little Foxes is as stupendous as I remembered it. Is there anything that Bette Davis can’t do?

5- There are three tiers of Lubitsch. First tier has films like The Shop Around The Corner, Trouble in Paradise and Ninotchka. I think To Be or Not To Be falls into a second tier. It is almost sublime, but not quite. I can’t figure out what keeps this from soaring into the Lubitsch heavens, but I suspect it is Jack Benny. He was enormous at the time the film was made and so I am sure it was quite a box office coup to have him star. But Carole Lombard is so perfect, one of the greatest comedians ever and next to her, Benny is only semi-perfect. What if she had been cast opposite John Barrymore in this one? One could only imagine.

6- Us is the realized promise of Get Out. The latter is tighter. The political message is clearer. Us is more ambitious and as a result messier, but wow, is it ever accomplished. What do we get next from Jordan Peele? I know he is doing a reboot of Twilight Zone. Would love to see what he can do out of the spooky/creep genre. But hey, if he keeps turning out stuff like this, I’ll keep going.

7- I just don’t believe people when they tell me that the liked Ida. I feel the same way that Elaine on Seinfeld felt about the way everyone was rhapsodizing about The English Patient. She was horrified to find that the film she found excruciatingly boring was being fanatically praised by everyone. That is the way I felt about Ida and even moreso about Cold War. They both look great and have all the trappings of “Art House Film. But they are both skin deep and cold as ice. If you disagree, please tell me why. I want to understand this phenomenon.

8- I loved Dumbo. I love the movies of Tim Burton, even when they are not ‘good’. He is an auteur in the true Andrew Sarris sense of the word. There is no mistaking who made this movie. The look is fantastic and the new riff on the old Disney film is so imaginative.

What upset me most was all the knee jerk commenting about the fact that the ‘lamentably racist crow scene’ from the original was thankfully left out of the remake. I take huge exception to this. This is an example of when ‘sensitivity’ is taken too far. The original song, When I See an Elephant Fly, is the best number of all the classic Disney full-length cartoons. The song is jazzy and the lyrics are beyond clever. Yes, it is performed by crows who are supposed to be African American types, but does that axiomatically make the whole thing racist? If you look at the scene, you realize that these crows are hep cats of the 1940s in the manner of Cab Calloway and Louis Jourdan. Far from being stereotypes, they are the smartest characters in the film and they are just so damn cool! I thought a lot about what they could have done to include the song in the remake and I realized if they had done a hip-hop version it would have been today’s equivalent of what the Calloway/Jordan crows represented to the popular culture of the time the original Dumbo was released. Not Stepin’ Fetchit. Just great examples of what was happening in African American popular, cutting edge culture of the time.

Judge for yourself: When I See an Elephant Fly

9- Vanya on 42nd Street is probably the most successful version of (non-Russian language) Chekhov on film that I will ever see. The characters are well thought out. Some of the scenes are questionable, like the flirty intimacy of Vanya and Yelena, but it is always interesting and always valid. I think the concept of a rehearsal really gets around the problem of how to film a stage play. I don’t know that Chekhov is well-served by opening up the plays to ‘natural’ settings. The conceit of it being an ongoing rehearsal project allows the artificiality of the stage to be preserved while not making it slavishly theatrical. The Sonya is perfection.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Get Me Roger Stone (Dylan Banks &c.)
  2. That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch)
  3. They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson)
  4. Henry V (Laurence Olivier)
  5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
  6. The Third Man (Carol Reed)
  7. A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  8. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
  9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)
  10. Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

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1- I have revered Ernst Lubitsch mostly based on three movies: Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka and the perfect The Shop Around The Corner.  I find that when I stray from these three, the other Lubitsch films are not great or, more often, downright bad (I’m looking at you Cluny Brown!).  I watched That Uncertain Feeling hoping it would join the immortal 3, but, alas, it is really the bottom of the barrel.  The thing about The Shop Around The Corner that makes it so splendid is the perfect comedic timing beautifully blended with a dash of vinegar and sentiment.  I have seen the three stars of That Uncertain Feeling before but as comic actors they are flat-footed. Plus the story is just nasty. And it’s good that Burgess Meredith is already dead, because otherwise I couldn’t be responsible for my actions.

2- They Shall Not Grow Old is stunning.  It is one of the most visceral and magical films I have ever seen.  There is such an immediacy. You are in World War I.  It is no longer a remote set of images, blurred with time and primitive camera technique.  I always bristled when silent clips were shown with added sound.  It just seemed so artificial. I also felt insulted as if they were implying that modern audiences couldn’t handle a film without ambient sound.  Why do I admire this so much? It is done with such care and obvious love (Peter Jackson is a WWI fanatic).  It never feels like it is cheating the way that CGI always seems to me.  CGI is there to dazzle you, but more often winds up numbing you. What Peter Jackson does here is to completely remove the barriers of time between us and the participants of the war.  The voice dubbing is remarkable and for once 3D is an enhancement.

3- Thanks to the amazing AMC A-List deal I have been seeing a lot more movies in the theater than I ordinarily would.  And even though I think the Oscars are stooooopid, they were a good excuse to see contemporary films.  Can You Ever Forgive Me? was a great surprise, and it is a film I probably wouldn’t have gone to see.  An adult character study of a protagonist who is absolutely unsympathetic played beautifully by Melissa McCarthy.  I don’t understand the glowing reports for Richard E. Grant.  I usually love him but not here, through no fault of his.  His character was such a cliched, bitchy queen (and stupid on top of it) that there was not much sympathy from me.

4- I had the same feeling about A Letter to Three Wives as I did regarding the Lubitsch films above.  This film is an earlier product of most of the same people who gave us the masterpiece All About Eve, but this one never takes off for me. The snappy dialogue seems too self-conscious, the characters are not very appealing or funny (except, of course, for Thelma Ritter).  Plus the Macguffin of which husband has run away, turns out not to be a Macguffin at all.  When it is revealed, it is such a disappointment since you feel the movie could have been so much more.  Maybe it needed Bette Davis. Maybe every movie needs Bette Davis!

5- I was so happy to see a foreign language film in wide release.  I had high hopes for Everybody Knows. I mean, come on! Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin?  Plus a friend had told me the director is  fantastic. Well, it was good, beautiful to look at, and kept you pulling along, but the plot/mystery became so top-heavy and red-herring-laden that at the resolution I wasn’t sure what was resolved and I felt just glad that it was over. But Penelope Cruz is gorgeous and a great actress much in the same vein as Sophia Loren. And too bad Darin is not better known here.

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Million Dollar Legs (Edward Cline)
  2. The Ring (Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Rebels on Pointe (Bobbi Jo Hart)
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
  5. The Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava)
  6. Mudbound (Dee Rees)
  7. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (Ernst Lubitsch)
  9. Giant (George Stevens)
  10. Johnny Belinda (Jean Negolescu)

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1- I LOVE movies and books that portray an insane world by presenting it as normal to its own inhabitants.  Alice In Wonderland and Through The Lookingglass are my favorite books. This is the reason that I adore The Palm Beach Storytoo.  For sheer insanity but not on the epic scale of Alice or the denizens of Palm Beach, I heartily recommend Million Dollar Legs. It is so nuts and it features W.C. Fields.  What else do you need.

2- Recently re-watched High and Low.  What a masterpiece this is.  The sustained tension is masterfully handled and the moral dilemmas that the characters are put through present real ethical quandaries for the audience. The first half is complete room-bound, almost as claustrophobic as the room in RopeWhat makes this part of the film so dazzling is that even though it is all played in a very restricted space, it is shot in widescreen which creates a dizzying feeling.   The Olympian home in the first section, gives way to the Hades of the Japanese underworld. Brueghel at his best.  Mifune is masterful and the final confrontation between him and the villain, showing Mifune’s fruitless attempts to understand why the villain did what he did, are dazzling.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Bend Of The River (Anthony Mann)
  2. The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
  3. The Wizard of Lies (Barry Levinson)
  4. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
  5. David and Lisa (Frank Perry)
  6. The Marrying Kind (George Cukor)
  7. The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
  8. Record of a Tenant Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
  10. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton)

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1- I am a great devotee of the Westerns of John Ford, as every think person should be.  Lately I have discovered his runner-up.  The Western of Anthony Mann are as morally interesting as the best of Ford.   His use of James Stewart is as satisfying and varied as Ford’s use of John Wayne.

2- I remember David and Lisa from my childhood days watching The Million Dollar Movie on WOR in New York.  That show would screen the same movie every night for a week, allowing nerds like me practically to memorize films that intrigued me.  I haven’t seen this film in over 40 years, but that repeated viewing helped me to remember it well.  What I remembered most was my feeling as a kid that this was an ‘adult’ movie. Not a risque movie, but a movie for which you would need an adult sensibility to properly appreciate.  I was wondering what passes for ‘adult’ now.  I couldn’t think of many examples.

3- I guess that Pedro Almodovar is the greatest genius making films today.  Julieta is so emotionally powerful, so cinematically interesting, so engaging.  I need to read the Alice Munro stories it is based on to see how he put his own mark on the work

4- Guilty Pleasure: the films of Tim Burton.  There is a great sweetness behind the jocular creepiness that really appeals to me. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children I found delightful.  I could have done without the extended CGI battle scene at the end, but I concede that such scenes are de rigeur nowadays.

5- I had always thought of Strangers On A Train as way up there in the Hitchcock pantheon.  But this time around, I was aware of how he kind of lost his grip on the whole project towards the end.  Don’t get me wrong. It is still amazingly good. Just not The Birds

6- I had heard that Record of a Tenant Gentleman was minor Ozu.  Bosh.  It is as subtle and affecting as anything in his oeuvre.

 


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Japanese Film: How To Get Started

Nihon

I wanted to write this introduction for a long time, because very little has given me as much pleasure as getting to know Japanese film, and I want to share that pleasure.  I thought that I could approach this vast topic in one of two ways: chronologically or thematically.

Of course, I decide to do both.

A few caveats before we start:

1- This is by no means an exhaustive survey of Japanese Cinema. For something on that scale, let me once again recommend Donald Richie’s magisterial  study, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.  It’s a great book to read through and a wonderful reference book, as well.

2- Since I have abandoned any attempt to make this a ‘completist’ blog, instead making it about what it is of interest to me, you will note that many important genres will be missing. I am not very interested in anime nor in Japanese Noir (no yakuza for me, thank you).  You’ll have to find better-informed people to introduce you to these genres.

3- What we’ll look at is Japanese film of the golden era, from approximately 1940 through 1965.  I’m not well-informed about what comes before or after.  Hopefully, this post will give you an incentive to explore on your own.  If you do, please come back and post about what you’ve found.

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Chronological Assessment

Sound came to Japanese film much later than it did to Western film.  Because of this, many of the great Japanese directors honed their craft making silents. They developed distinctive visual styles in ways that many of their Western counterparts did not. According to Donald Richie, Western silents, especially those of Ernst Lubitsch, had a great influence on Japan. Interestingly, Richie points out that while Hollywood was baffled by the Expressionism and experimental films coming out of Germany such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the stylization of these films was completely consonant with the Japanese aesthetic. Because of this, you see what seem to be extraordinarily experimental early silent films coming out of Japan such as the extremely nutty A Page Of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) and Japanese Girls At The Harbor  (1933, Hiroshi Shimizu). Years later, Kinugasa directed one of the first Japanese films to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award for Gates of Hell, a completely traditional historical drama. Shimizu would direct many traditional, lovely human dramas such as Mr. Thank You and Japanese Ornamental Hairpin.

The rise of militarism in the years before World War II manifests itself in many ways.  For example, the first films of Akira Kurosawa reflect an almost hysterical sense of loyalty to the emperor and the army. In The Most Beautiful, the manager at a periscope lens grinding factory has impressed upon the workers that in order to support Emperor and country, the men must increase their output by 100% and the women by 50%.  Our heroine, a distraught young team leader, prostrates herself in front of the manager begging him not to deny the women the chance to prove their loyalty by demanding less from them than from the men.  This, of course, makes her the most beautiful.

After the war, the self-criticism is swift and merciless. The cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria is unflinchingly depicted in Masaki Kobayashi’s 9-hour The Human Condition.  Kurosawa also explores the post-war self-recriminations in No Regrets For Our Youth. The Japanese self-analysis has absolutely no parallel in German film, especially so soon after the war.

I wonder if the immediate and intense examination of guilt and shame that Japanese film went through right after the war allowed the late 40s and the 50s to be decades that would witness art created at the highest level, art that was free of polemic and apology.

The quiet family masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, the historical epics as well as the contemporary dramas of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the criminally unknown (at least in the West) films of Mikio Naruse, all appear in this period.

With the 60s, we see the rise of yakuza (gangster) films, disaffected youth films and giant-irradiated-monsters-destroying-Tokyo films.   Approach with caution.

Gozilla

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 Thematic Assessment

 Japanese films are classified as either gendai-geki (contemporary drama) or jidai-geki (historical drama). The first Japanese film to become an international sensation was the jidai-geki Rashomon of Akira Kurosawa. The stylization and the strangeness of the historical trappings came to define Japanese cinema in the West for decades. Even though Kurosawa made stunning gendai-geki such as High and Low and Ikiru, it seems that if there weren’t samurai, the West wasn’t interested.

This has changed over the years. Today, no Japanese film is held in higher regard than Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet and devastating 1953 meditation on the decay of the family, Tokyo Story. This film is emblematic of a sub-genre of the gendai-geki  called shomin-geki , or dramas of the ‘little people’, meaning the middle class.

Jidai-geki (historical drama)

 The most famous films of this genre take place in the times of civil unrest dating from about 1450 until 1600. Society was in upheaval and would not be tranquil again until the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in about 1600.  This period lasted until well into the 1860s with the rise of the Meiji emperor.

The films of this period present a world in chaos. The lives of poor simple people are tragically undone by the whirlwind of the times. Classic historical characters such as the ronin, the masterless samurai, are often the heroes of these story.  But just as often, the hero is the poor farmer who is trying to hold his life together in the middle of the turbulence. The women of these films run the gamut from the chaste princess to the good-hearted farmers wife to great seductresses who often wind up being ghosts with vengeance on their minds. No one plays the latter better than Machiko Kyo in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

The most famous (in the West at least) of the Japanese actors is Toshiro Mifune.  Though mostly known abroad for his roles in ‘samurai’ films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, he was brilliant in contemporary stories as well.

Mifune in Seven Samurai

Mifune in Seven Samurai

As an introduction to these historical films, I would suggest you start with the five following films:

A- Rashomon One of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and the film that brought Japanese film into the Western consciousness.  The title has entered our language as the exemplar of shifting narrative reliability. It is one of the great works which tackle the topic ‘How can we know what is true?’  The answer seems to be that we can’t, but we must derive comfort where we can. An endlessly fascinating movie.

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous....or are they?

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous….or are they?

B- Ugetsu Monogatari  (Tales of Rain and the Moon) – Many would argue that with this film Kenji Mizoguchi reached the pinnacle not only of Japanese film-making but film-making in general. Everything is here – the world in upheaval due to constant war, an erotic ghost-love story, the wrenching story of women destroyed by the folly of men. It contains some of the most breathtaking camera movements in all of cinema.

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

C- Kwaidan (Ghost Stories) – Masaki Kobayashi’s great collection of four wonderful ghost stories based on the collection made in the early 1900s by Lafcadio Hearne. Hearne was an Englishman who completely assimilated into and absorbed Japanese culture.  A ravishing film with exquisite use of color.

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

 D- Red Beard – Although Kurosawa sets this film in the late 19th Century, his fanatical obsession with historical accuracy makes this film one of the  great examples of jidai-geki. The story of an arrogant young medical student coming under the spell of the fascinating title hero, a seasoned country doctor played by Mifune, and thereby growing into an integrated human being, stands unashamedly next to any 19th Century Bildungsroman.  This huge film has one of the greatest hearts of any work of art I can think of.

Master and disciple in Red Beard

Master and disciple in Red Beard

E- Throne Of Blood – Like Verdi, Kurosawa loved Shakespeare. This is his Macbeth.  It would be followed by his take on Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and his final masterpiece based on King Lear (Ran). This film contains the single scariest embodiment of Lady Macbeth that I know of.

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Gendai-geki (Contemporary drama)

The costume dramas of jidai-geki signal ‘Japan’ to us by the look and stylization of the films. It is interesting to observe that the contemporary works of gendai-geki also signal ‘Japan’ to us not from their surface but what is bubbling underneath. The greatest of these are films of the small but loaded gesture.  Inference is prized over explicit expression. The powerful climaxes are quiet.

Here are five films to watch to give you an idea of the breadth and depth of Gendai-geki:

A- Osaka Elegy – Kenji Mizoguchi is perhaps best know in the west for his period dramas, but his contemporary dramas, especially those depicting the plight of contemporary women before and after World War II are astonishing. This film tells the wrenching story of a young woman slaving to support her rapacious family, only to have them reject her when they discover the compromises she has made for their sake. Very often, families are depicted as mercenary in gendai-geki, but the family in this film goes beyond what is usually depicted. The final shot of the woman walking straight into the camera, embracing her downward spiral, is devastating

osaka elegy

B- Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) – One of the loveliest films I have ever seen.  In a way it is a precursor to John Ford’s Stage Coach in that it represents a cross-section of society on a journey and the relationships that grow and die along the journey. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it is so rare to have a thoroughly good central character who does not become cloying.  The bus driver, so nicknamed by his penchant to thank pedestrians who move out of his ways, is at once saintly and a thoroughly down-to-earth man. We all deserve a trip on Mr. Thank You’s bus

Arigato gozaimasu!

Arigato gozaimasu!

C- Tokyo Story – There is really nothing like the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The characters’ reticence, the static camera, the uneventful plots seem to float along like a lazy river until the climax hits you like a tidal wave. This film is hailed not only Ozu’s greatest, but one of the greatest of all time. The depiction of the unraveling of a family is magnificent in its restraint but overwhelming in its final impact.  The last 20 minutes or so are sublime.  As New York Times critic A. O. Scott says in his lovely tribute, ‘It’s merely perfect’

A.O. Scott’s video tribute to Tokyo Story

 D- High and Low – Although Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, one of his most accomplished films is based on an Ed McBain detective story (of all things!).  The title in Japanese is more literally translated as ‘Heaven and Hell’ and that title beautifully contrasts the world of privilege which is assaulted from below. This taut thriller is quite a ride.  The use of widescreen is stunning and the end is harrowing.

 

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

 E- When a Woman Ascends The Stairs – In a time when one has access to every episode of The Brady Bunch, it is criminal that hardly any of the films of Mikio Naruse are available in the Region 1 (US) format. Once again, we are indebted to Criterion for giving us at least this one sound film of his, along with three of his silents.  His oeuvre rivals any of the other great directors.  Kurosawa said of his films were  “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.”  How true that statement is. This  film depicts a once successful mama-san, or manager of a hostess bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, coming to terms with her diminished situation.   The central character, played by Naruse’s muse, the stunning Hideko Takamine, is as richly drawn and as memorable as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

Hideko Takamine

Hideko Takamine

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The more I write this article, the more I feel I want to introduce and discuss, but since this was meant as an introduction and not as a doctoral thesis, I will stop here, but not without promising to focus more on individual Japanese films, directors and actors in the near future.

Please let me know about your adventures in the Cinema of the Rising Sun


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  2. The Immigrant (James Gray)
  3. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz)
  4. Un Cuento Chino (Sebastián Borensztein)
  5. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. The Land of Milk and Honey (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  9. The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa)
  10. Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)

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1- Having finally completed reading the entire À la recherche du temps perdu (shameless bragging freely admitted),  I have been on a quest to read and see everything that can help me relive that wonderful experience.  I wouldn’t let myself watch Raul Ruiz’ Time Regained until I finished reading the whole cycle. I  felt I would never get to see this movie because of this silly rule I imposed on myself.  I’m glad I did. This is a film only for people who have read, loved, obsessed over, shared, hated and lived in Proust’s great work. I can’t imagine who else would get it.  It is magnificent in its compression – the spirit of the work is so well captured in small and big strokes.  Even though the movie ostensibly concentrates on the last volume, there are flashes of earlier, important events and the juxtapositions between past and present would have made Proust proud.  The casting is wonderful. Although John Malkovich is not the right physical type for the wonderfully infuriating and repellant Baron du Charlus, he embodies the character’s quirky sense of self-righteousness and self-torture perfectly, especially in his final scene when he is bowing to the hitherto despised Madame de Sainte Euverte.  Marie-France Pisier is pitch-perfect as the awful Mme. Verdurin and no one else could have played the older Odette than Catherine Deneuve. When Edith Scob appears I said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what the Duchesse de Geurmantes is like’. I loved this film, but can’t really recommend it unless you’ve immersed yourself in the worlds of Swann’s and the Geurmantes’s ways.

2- Un Cuento Chino is a rare delight. A sweet film with just enough vinegar to keep it from cloying.  Endearing characters that are neurotic enough to be believable. Riccardo Darin is a huge star in Argentina who should be better known here. I loved this movie. A pure pleasure.

3- The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night were both up for Oscars and both starred Marion Cottillard. Both also embody certain aesthetics and moralities of contemporary cinema.  For the past twenty years or so, moral relativism seems to be the only lens through which certain filmmakers can address moral issues. There is a great reluctance to identify evil as evil, immorality as immorality, etc.  Clear-cut identification seems uncool.  The Immigrant seems particularly guilty of this. Two Days, One Night looks moral choices and consequences squarely in the eye and comes down on the side of doing ‘the right thing’, even though it might take a while to understand what ‘the right thing’ is. Moral relativism might seem sophisticated and adult to some, but I find it lazy and adolescent. I am not advocating that movies should be like illustrations of The Lives of the Saints, but I do think it does take a certain maturity to make a moral choice in a film and the Dardenne brothers do this admirably.  Plus, I think that The Immigrant was pretty sloppy, ugly and dull. But hey, that’s just me.  You might love it.

4- I first heard about Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle in one of Donald Richie’s marvelous books on Japanese films.  This silent classic was a sensation when it first played in Japan. The Japanese were dazzled by the economy of Lubitsch’s visual storytelling and you see this subtlety in the films of all the great masters, especially Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a magnificent comedy of manners that holds up beautifully.  I highly recommend it. The version I watched seemed to be taped in front of a live audience, which was a little weird. Any recommendations for a good commercial copy?

5- I have been working my way through the Criterion collection of the complete works of Pierre Étaix and my delight continues to grow. These films should be as well known as the works of Jacques Tati, with whom Etaix apprenticed. The Land Of Milk and Honey was his undoing in France.  This ‘documentary’ of the French bourgeoisie on vacation at a ghastly resort earned the rancor of everyone and effectively ended his career. It is a cruelly critical look at a crass society, but it is so much fun.  I think this film is his Peeping Tom, another unpleasantly wicked film that ended the career of the great Michael Powell I am still toying with the idea of a ‘Have You Tried Pierre Etaix….’ post in the near future.  He is delight.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Power of the Whistler (Lew Landers)
  2. The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
  3. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges)
  4. The Voice of the Whistler (William Castle)
  5. Army (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  6. The Fearmakers (Jacques Tourneur)
  7. Heroes For Sale (William Wellman)
  8. Remember The Night (Mitchell Leisen)
  9. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski )
  10. The Widow From Chicago (Edward F. Cline)

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1- Although I worship Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, I could never warm up to Sullivan’s Travels.  Seeing it back to back with Lubitsch’s sublime The Shop Around The Corner made me realize the problems I have with it and with much of film comedy. Slapstick is a problem for me.  I guess I am missing the slapstick gene in the same way that people can’t smell or taste certain things.  Slapstick gets me nervous.  I don’t understand how it is interpreted as funny.  Too often, Sullivan’s Travels devolves (in my opinion) into slapstick and -even worse – into sentimentality.  I find the end quite maudlin.  Really? All people need to do to forget their problems is to watch a Disney cartoon? I don’t buy it.   Perhaps Sully would have been better off making O! Brother Where Art Thou as he wanted to.  I am sure his audience would have appreciated the gesture. Compared to this, the magnificent control that Lubitsch has over his whole enterprise is dazzling.  The way the irony is spun out before for the lovers realize they are lovers is masterful.  Once the Jimmy Stewart character is in on the irony, Lubitsch stretches it to the breaking point.  His final confession to Margaret Sullavan comes at the end of a series of climaxes and releases that are worthy of Tristan und Isolde.  I guess the subtlety of language and gesture are more up my alley.  Yet…..I adore Keaton.  I guess he isn’t really slapstick.   He is more cosmic ballet.

2- Jacques Tourneur is such an interesting director to me.  Cat People and Out Of The Past are the best of their respective genres.  The Fearmakers isn’t up to that standard but is a tight little piece of 50s Anti-Communist paranoia.

3- My reaction to Ida was the same as my reaction to The English Patient all those years ago: ‘This is what everyone is saying is so magnificent? I just don’t see it.”  It left me absolutely cold.  Please let me know why you loved it, if you did.