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. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh)
  2. Official Secrets (Gavin Hood)
  3. House of Strangers (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  4. The Searchers (John Ford)
  5. Ad Astra (James Gray)
  6. Downton Abbey (Michael Engler)
  7. The Girl from 10th Avenue (Alfred E. Green)
  8. Brother John (James Goldstone)
  9. Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson)
  10. Blood on the Devil’s Claw (Piers Haggard)

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1- I was so satisfied with Official Secrets. A good, tight script based on a true event that I had no idea about.  Just the right length, just the right amount of suspense, just the right amount of history.  Well done!

2- I am beginning to thing that All About Eve was an outlier. That is such a work of genius and perfection. Not one false note, exhilarating story telling, acid wit, beautifully drawn characters. So far, every other Mankiewicz has paled.  House of Strangers was really weak. A slightly interesting story, developed in fits and starts, with tons of lacunae. Edward G. Robinson sporting an atrocious Italian accent. Why is it always ok to portray Italian-Americans so stereotypically?

3- Downton Abbey was exactly what you would expect it to be, no more no less. You have to decide for yourself if that is enough.

4- On the plus side, Ad Astra offers a view of the near future that isn’t your cliched dystopian apocalyptic vision.  In all likelihood, the near future will be like today, except with more tech.  The image of stations on the moon seemed interesting in that that they didn’t have a Jetsons air to them.  On the negative side, this is one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in a long time. It is kind of a riff on Heart of Darkness, but without the belly laughs.  But boy, Brad Pitt is aging well.

5- Continuing my exploration of every foot of celluloid that features Bette Davis, I watched The Girl from 10th Avenue. Thank you TCM. These pre-code films just knock me out. It really shows how much more realistic depictions of relationships were in the 20s and 30s and how reality retreated behind a curtain of self-imposed morality once Mr. Hays got his grubby hands on Hollywood.

6- Brother John is always mentioned with reverence when discussing the films of Sidney Poitier.  It sure is unusual. Poitier is playing a character who may or not be an angel or a messiah-like figure heralding the impending apocalypse.  Or maybe not.  The film makers seem skittish about committing.  Is this a facet of this kind of film – don’t confirm anything….keep it all ominous but ambiguous.  I get tired of that kind of fence-sitting.  But this was quite a fun watch.

7- October had the greatest of secular holidays – Halloween.  I celebrate every year by watching as many classic and not-so classic horror films as I can.  This year I kicked off the festivities by watching a sublime one, Isle of the Deadand a not so sublime one, Blood on Satan’s Claw.  The latter dates from early 70s and is surprising for its overt sexuality and unfiltered gore.  Very much in the vein of The Wicker Man. If you like murderous, devil-worshipping adolescents in the forests of 18th Century Olde Englande, this is the film for you!  Isle of The Dead might be the jewel in the crown of the Val Lewton oeuvre.  At 70 minutes it is so taut and the script moves like clockwork.  Superstition and ignorance and bigotry are shown in a way that explains how people cling to them.  And how about a posthumous Oscar for the amazing Helene Thimig, the vorvolaka-obsessed Madame Kira.  She gives the great Boris Karloff a run for his money.

 

 


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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. Black Girl (Sembene Ousmane)
  2. Far From The Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger)
  3. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Till The Clouds Roll By (Richard Whorf)
  5. The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg)
  6. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
  8. Rasputin, The Mad Monk (Don Sharp)
  9. The Mysterious Doctor  (Benjamin Stoloff)
  10. Le Rayon Vert (Summer) (Eric Rohmer)

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1- I had seen clips from Black Girl on TCM when they did that terrific series on World Cinema.  They were so haunting. I was glad to get the chance to see the whole film.  Powerful, poetic, tragic and very beautiful.  That mask, wow!

2- In my last post, I decried turning great novels into film. Well I was a little wrong. Far From The Madding Crowd is a very commendable attempt to turn Thomas Hardy’s novel into a film.  The book, of course, is way better, but the movie hits on all of the book’s main points and really gets to the emotion behind it all.  Pretty arty camera work by Nicholas Roeg considering that this was a typical big-budget prestige project. I want to read more Hardy.

3- I am currently teaching a course on the Great American Songbook and this weekend I will be speaking about Jerome Kern.  I figured that it would be a good time to watch Till The Clouds Roll By, even though I knew that its ties with reality were very tenuous.  It turns out that they were ridiculously tenuous.  This had hardly anything to do with Kern’s life, the way that Night and Day has nothing to do with Cole Porter’s life and Rhapsody in Blue has nothing to do with George Gershwin’s life.  What this film really is, is an excuse to have MGM’s musical stars do star turns singing or dancing to Kern songs, which is fun enough.  But what a stinker of a movie.

4- The Mummy’s Ghost – it is Hallowe’en season and I must watch as many classic horror movies as I can, many of them bad.  Like this one.  How can a 61 minute movie feel like it is three hours long? At least it had that classic Universal horror-romance atmosphere.

5- Thanks to Kathleen Rooney and Martin Seay, true friends who helped be to wrestle with just what the hell Persona is. I have seen and loved this movie many times but could never articulate what I felt it was. Thanks to K & M I’m a little closer to that goal.  All three of us are pretty convinced that it is a masterpiece sui generis.

6- Mike Leigh is a giant who walks among us. I may through the word ‘masterpiece’ around too much, but his films really deserve the name.  Peterloo is an epic yet intimate depiction of one of the first labor rebellions in English history, and its terrifying suppression. I hope it gets wide release.  I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival and I hope it doesn’t disappear.

7- I get such perverse pleasure from All That Heaven Allows. I love showing it to new people, because by the end it is not what they expected.

8- Please see Le Rayon Vert and read my post about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Isle Of The Dead (Mark Robson)
  2. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  3. The Devil’s Own (The Witches) (Cyril Franklin)
  4. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
  5. Woman Of The Year (George Stevens)
  6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
  7. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
  8. Pretty Poison (Noel Black)
  9. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
  10. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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1- Hallowe’en is my favorite secular holiday.  OK, I know that it originated in All Souls Day, but just shut up. That is not what it is about anymore and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.  My greatest happiness during this holiday is watching the kind of horror films that satisfy the need for Gothic eroticism.  Thank you Val Lewton for your marvelous little miracles of haunting horror.  So good to see The Isle of the Dead featuring Boris Karloff’s greatest role. It is as multi-faceted and troubling as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

2- I used Hallowe’en as an excuse to re-watch Ugetsu Monogatari.  I mean, it is a ghost story, right? It is also breathtakingly beautiful, even in its depictions of cruelty.

3- Whimsy is a difficult thing for a movie.  It requires great skill from the filmmakers to keep it from teetering into being excruciating.  It also requires an agreement from the audience to indulge in an emotion which today is often despised: sentimentality.   When I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums years ago, I was not ready to uphold my end of this bargain.  I think that Wes Anderson and his co-creators did for the most part.  Watching something whimsical when you are not in the proper frame of mind is not fair to the whimsy.   This time around I had already seen and was enchanted by The Grand Hotel Budapest and Moonlight Kingdom.  Also, many people who I respect have told me how much they love this movie.  So, watching it again, I did a better job of being in a whimsical mood.  Ironically, now that I was ready to meet the movie on its own terms, I found that Anderson & Co. did not keep their part of the contract.  I could see where the whimsy was trying too hard, and that killed a lot of the immediate joy I was supposed to feel.  Still, I liked it a lot more that I did before.  The characters, though  undeveloped, were ingratiating, and the plot was silly enough to carry me along.  Maybe thrice is the charm?

4- You don’t need me to tell you how wicked and smart Get Out! is.  It is at once a up-to-date critique on race as well as an homage to all your favorite horror tropes.  So good.

5- Not sure what to think about Moonlight.   It is the bleakest film I’ve seen in years.  My difficulty is that it has the trappings of a ‘triumphing over adversity’ film, but the story goes another way.  The tone of the movie is not what the movie is ultimately about.  I think.

6- There were a lot of funny yet creepy films that came about as a result of the sexual revolution of the 60s.  Some are just smarmy comedies that have no other agenda that being all in your face with sexual frankness.   Then there are films like Pretty Poison.  I always wanted to catch up with it. It was one of those films that was lauded but unseen when it was made. Now it has a patina of a classic, but a really sick classic.  What a tragedy that Tuesday Weld didn’t have a greater career.  She is terrific in this.

7- I kept thinking that Daniel Aronofsky made Jackiesince it made me nervous the way his films make me nervous……………..

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb)
  2. Love Among The Ruins (Massimo Ali Mohammad)
  3. My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell)
  4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick)
  5. Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu)
  6. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nobuo Nakagawa)
  7. The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton)
  8. Carnival Of Souls (Herk Hervey)
  9. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur)
  10. The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson)

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1- Everyone told me that Jiro Dreams of Sushi was amazing. It just seemed like the typical hagiographic programs one sees about chefs. It was nice to see Tokyo scenes, though.

2- I love Tim Burton’s stuff.  On the very, very long flight to Tokyo I watched several movies and what a treat to see the delightfully creepy, slightly scary but ultimately sweet Nightmare Before Christmas. It helped me initiate this year’s round of horror film watching. I was thinking recently, that even though I am a great lover of musicals, film musicals always disappoint. Not this one!  Wonderful, weird Danny Elfman score.  Adorable trio of singing vampires.  Oogie Boogie.  What more could you want in a musical?

3- I thoroughly loved rewatching Mr. Thank You.  The glimpse into pre-WWII Japan always fascinates me.   Also, I am constantly amazed by the level of feminism in Japanese film. I will leave others to argue whether a feminist film can be made by a man.  The plight of the young girl travelling to Tokyo on Mr. Thank You’s bus, probably in order to be sold into prostitution, is heart-rending but drawn with great understatement.

4- With this year’s round of Halloween movies, I confirmed for myself that what I love more than anything in this genre is a gothic atmosphere accompanied by a romantic spookiness. Nothing delivers that better than the films of producer Val Lewton.  See my article Have You Tried Val Lewton?  

5- In a more gory, but still spooky vein, I was happy to revisit The Ghost of Yotsuya. One of the highlight’s of our trip to Japan  (and one of my main reasons for going in the first place) was a visit to the Grand Kabuki theater.  I did a lot of reading and viewing beforehand to prepare, especially watching NHK World’s Kabuki Kool every week.

So much of Japanese historical film is based on stories that first appeared as Noh and Bunraku puppet plays which then got adapted into more popular Kabuki pieces.  Considering Japan’s great tradition of ghost stories, it isn’t surprising that lots of Japanese films are based on these tales.  They can be haunting like Rashomon and Ugetsu, or scary/gruesome like The Ghost of Yotsuya. Both genres are tremendously satisfying.

 

 


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The King of the Monsters

I never really got the idea of ‘camp’. Watching something that you know is ‘bad’ in order to get pleasure out of reveling in its badness seems smug to me. The classic Japanese monster movies (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, etc.), were obviously low-quality. Surely no one was watching them for any other reason than the camp pleasure. The special effects looked cheap, even by the standards of 1950s sci-fi. But when I was younger I loved watching these movies even though I thought I knew how bad they were supposed to be. But my nascent camp posture was always circumvented by pure enjoyment. So, when TCM showed Godzilla (Gojira or ゴジラ in the original Japanese) I thought I would give it fifteen minutes of my time to see if I could relive some of that pleasure I once got. I was surprised at what I found.

Knowing more about history now than I did then, the whole thing seemed like a complicated riff on WWII, the Bomb and both Japan’s and America’s roles in the conflict.

And this is not a stretch to make this thesis fit the film. When you see Godzilla trampling through Tokyo, it is impossible not to imagine the Allied destruction of the city. The black and white photography of destruction and chaos look like WWII newsreels.

Remember, this film came out less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war in the Pacific. The traumas of that time were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of the Japanese. The economic rebound was still not in full swing. Many parts of the country were still devastated. The emotional impact of these scenes must have been profound.

Along with his expert trampling, Godzilla also destroys the city with his breath of fire. No doubt this was a traumatic memory for the original audience, most of whom had seen the city completely destroyed by fire bombing.

The attempts of the Japanese military to destroy the monster have clear echoes of the Kamikaze pilots.

The ‘oxygen destroy’ that is used to end the monster’s terrifying rampage sounds very much like splitting the atom. The process sounds like the Hail Mary pass that the Atom Bombs were in the effort to bring the war to an end.

The argument for ‘oxygen destroyer’ similar to is very similar to the rational for the Manhattan Project : pure science drives the research for and creation of the bomb, even though all the scientists must have been aware of its destructive potential. Serizawa is ultimately more noble than the Americans since he realizes that it must be used, but he destroys all the plans and himself to ensure that it will never be used again. Is this a casual (or not so casual) indictment of the U.S’s continued advancement of nuclear arms?

There are other more thoughtful Japanese films centered on the dropping of the Bombs and its aftermath. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear from 1955 depicts a businessman who slowly drives himself insane with his obsession of protecting his family from what he believes is an inevitable second nuclear attack. Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) is a harrowing depiction of the delayed effects of the bombs. Both of these films are richer and more nuanced than Gojira, but for pure visceral trauma, The King of the Monsters still has it, tacky rubber suit or no tacky rubber suit.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen)
  2. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo)
  3. Black Moon (Roy William Neill)
  4. The Life Of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  5. Hitler’s Children (Edward Dmytryk)
  6. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones)
  7. The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson)
  8. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
  9. Written On The Wind (Douglas Sirk)
  10. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

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1- I guess there are only so many things you can do with the classic ‘white woman drawn to the wicked world of Caribbean Voodoo’, but I must say that I was really struck by how much Black Moon looked and felt like my beloved I Walked With A Zombie.  A side-by-side viewing of the two would really show what makes a film of genius as opposed to a solid Hollywood B-film.  Of course, I Walked With A Zombie does have that Jane Eyre thing going for it, but it also has pacing, a great script, terrific acting and atmosphere you could cut with a knife.  Black Moon has more the feel of the second part of a Saturday afternoon double-bill from the Thirties. Fun, creepy, a little depressing, but not much more.

2- Can a man be a feminist director? I don’t know what else to call Kenji Mizoguchi.  Every one of his films that I have seen depict the plight of women, especially at the hands of self-interested men.  The Life Of Ohara is an especially bleak example of this. It is gorgeous, and the performance of Kinuyo Tanaka is amazing, but man, is it depressing.

3- Thank you Criterion for having another 50% off sale and allowing me to own the endlessly insane Written On The Wind. I would love to know what the reaction was when it first appeared in theaters.  Nymphomania, sexual performance anxiety and Lauren Bacall all wrapped up in an absolutely over the top Dallas-like story.  The image of Dorothy Malone dancing in sexual frenzy in her bedroom in her underwear, while right outside her door her father dies of a heart attack, is something I don’t think I will soon forget – nor would I want to.  This film is nowhere near the level of genius of All The Heaven Allows, but it is almost as formally dazzling. Color, costuming, mise-en-scene are all plotted out within an inch of their lives. Sirk seems to invert the famous Chekhov dictum by saying, ‘If a gun goes off in the first five minutes of a movie, you better see that gun for the rest of the film’. Malone won the Best Supporting Actress award for this frenzied portrayal, beating out another iconic performance of late 50s nuttiness: Patty McCormack as the terrifying Rhoda in The Bad Seed.  I guess the Academy didn’t dare give it to any one else for fear that Malone would come and shimmy them all to death.  And do I even need to mention her fondling of her father’s ‘oil well’ at the end of the film?

dorothy malone

 

4- Thank you, Betsy Rubin, for your gift of a collection of more obscure Hitchcock films.  Because of this I was finally able to watch his silent gem The Lodger.  I feared that it would be more ‘homework’ than ‘pleasure’ but I was wrong.  It was a wonderful watch. You certainly can tell that Hitchcock spent time in Germany and watching German films – this looks like it could have been directed by UFA-period Fritz Lang.  The expressionist shadow and paranoia have obvious roots in Babelsberg, but so much of it is full of stuff we will see over and over again in later Hitchcock: the ‘wrong man’ plot, the underwear fetish, Catholic iconography (there is a really blatant re-enactment of the deposition from the cross). The interesting thing about this ‘wrong man’ plot is that Hitchcock doesn’t fill the audience in on the details until almost the end, so we don’t have the sympathy for Ivor Norvello that we do for Cary Grant in North By Northwest.

On to The Parradine Case!