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 Film I’ve Seen

  1. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Eric Rohmer)
  2. The Color of Pomegranate (Sergei Paradjanov)
  3. Carmen Comes Home (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  4. Tampopo (Juzo Itami)
  5. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  6. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
  7. La Captive (Chantal Akerman)
  8. Toni (Jean Renoir)
  9. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  10. The Small Back Room (Powell/Pressburger)

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I continue my feast with the incredible Criterion Channel. So much cinematic catching-up!  Loving it.

1- The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a breezy (a la Nouvelle Vague) short which is the first of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Slight, kind of sexist but fun to watch. It begs the question that if the writers and director show the protagonist as awful to women does that endorse the behavior or hold it up for criticism.  I think, in this film at least, the later.

2- One of the great features of the Criterion Channel is that you often have the choice of watching the films with or without commentary.  I have seen The Color Of Pomegranates many times and have loved it each time, but I would be hard pressed to tell you what was going on.  Watching it with the commentary shed a light on all the Armenian symbolism which I would never have understood.  Also, Paradjanov’s oblique way of introducing elements from the life of the protagonist Sayat Nova is beautifully explained.  Do you need all this to enjoy the film? No, it is always stunningly beautiful and loopy.  But I feel like all these years, I have only appreciated 10% of its greatness.

3- After examining the masterpieces of Japanese movies all these years, it was fun to catch up with lighter fare.  Carmen Comes Home was always on my radar because it stars the amazing Hideko Takemine and it is the first color film made in Japan. It is also incredibly dopey. Fun enough for 80 minutes, though.  Tampopo is also lighter than the great works I have been studying all these years, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and perhaps even loved it. What appealed to me was that though this film is ostensibly about making the perfect bowl of ramen, it borrows all kinds of tropes from American Westerns and Japanese Samurai films to adorable effect. The genre bending is great fun. At the time it was referred to as a ramen Western. Very apt.

4- Tarkovsky has always been a forbidding experience for me.  I loved Andrei Rublev when I saw it in the theater years ago.  But subsequent viewings of his films have been daunting experiences.  The early Steamroller and the Violin and Ivan’s Childhood I found to be accessible and thrilling. Solaris and The Mirror shut me out completely.  But that was years ago, before I had been exposed to all kinds of demanding films. I figured, ‘It’s now or never for Tarkovsky”. Having access to the Criterion Channel gave me no excuse. So, I buckled down and watched two of his films that are supposed to be among his most ‘difficult’: Stalker and his last film The Sacrifice.  The Sacrifice affected me much more than Stalker, but I must say that I found both less daunting than I had been led to believe.  Could it be that The Sacrifice felt more comfortable to me because of the heavy Ingmar Bergman connection and I am so familiar with Bergman? Erland Josephson starred, the cinematography was by legendary Sven Nyquist, it was shot on a Swedish island and most of the dialogue was in Swedish (although it did look like some of the actors were speaking English and were post-dubbed).  I have read that Tarkovsky revered both Bergman and Bresson, but ultimately this is far from a Bergman wannabe the way that the ghastly Interiors is. Like Bresson, it wrestles with ethical and religious questions in a way that is more comforting that Bergman’s approach.

Stalker seems to be a spiritual riff on sci-fi, but I am sure it is more than that.  Just how much more I will try to figure out in a subsequent viewing.  Yes, I am over my Tarkovskyphobia. Subsequent viewings are in my future.

Something that struck me this time: I never felt bored at any point even during long portions of the film when the camera seems to be looking at nothing. ‘Seems’ is the operative word in this sentence. The camera is rarely still. In scenes when it seems to be focused on an object or a person, it is almost imperceptibly zooming in on that object at a snail’s pace. The effect is astounding.  It is almost dizzying in its slowness.  It is what keeps you engaged.   By contrast, Paradjanov’s tableaux are shot by an inert camera. You are engaged by the riot of visual detail in each frame. Here the emptiness comes alive by the imperceptible movement of the camera.

5- I don’t like the idea of a generational divide.  I think it is a lazy way of analyzing differences between people. The majority of my friends are at least a decade younger than me and the friendships are not effected.  I am prepared to concede I might be too simplistic about this after watching France Ha soon after Marriage Story.  Both films seem to be speaking in a generational voice that I don’t get.  Or better put: I might get but I find irrelevant to my life. I wonder if people in their 30s find the the characters in both of these films shallow and solipsistic the way I did.  I would love to hear opinions on this. But still: Greta Gerwig, who wrote and starred in Frances Ha is a tremendous talent at the beginning of what I hope is a great string of creativity.  I’m not so sure about Noah Baumbach.

6- Another benefit of the Criterion Channel is access to the films of Chantal Akerman.  La Captive is a very loose adaptation of the fifth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu. As such, it is not for everyone.  Even though the story is radically changed the central theme, the narrator’s bizarre imprisonment and paranoia about his ‘love’, is very much intact. In fact, I think that this film treatment presents it in a better way than a more ‘faithful’ adaptation would have. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t recommend the film at all. If you have, I would love to hear if you agree that it is a wonderful elucidation of that very strange relationship.

7- With Toni I continued my exploration of all the films of Jean Renoir.  This was shot in Provence, under the auspices of Marcel Pagnol’s film company.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a Pagnol film.  It is a fairly brutal story of international immigrants flocking to Provence in the early 30s due to the economic boom happening there.  Of course there is infidelity and murder.

8- I had never heard of The Small Back Room. This was surprising because the films of Powell and Pressburger are so well-known and I love many of them.     This one is in black and white and made shortly after the Technicolor hallucination of The Red Shoes. It felt like I was in the world of Grahame Green, with an afflicted, self-loathing hero.  For me this is a very good thing. Lots of Powell/Pressburger regulars are on hand. Particularly impressive is Kathleen Byron, so memorable as the sex-crazed Sister Ruth of  Black Narcissus, here playing the kind of heroic partner we all would want in a time of personal crisis.

 

Sister Ruth

Small Back Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of echoes of Spellbound and German Expressionism, with a terrifically nutty dream sequencing with our alcoholic hero being tortured by a demonic whiskey bottle.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Secrets of Women (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Princess from the Moon (Kon Ichikawa)
  3. Brother (Kon Ichikawa)
  4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
  5. All is True (Kenneth Branagh)
  6. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  7. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
  8. The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston)
  9. The End of the Affair (Edward Dmytryk)
  10. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

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1- Early Ingmar Bergman can be very disconcerting, but so can later Ingmar Bergman. In both cases you are waiting for the sparks of genius. In the later works you sometimes have to sift through a ton of murky symbolism to find it. In the earlier films, you have to sift through a genius finding his voice and making some cringeworthy art along the way. Secrets of Women (or Waiting Women as the Swedish title is better translated) is firmly in the early camp. It is a bunch of vignettes strung together around a flimsy story. Some of the sequences are good, especially the most famous one about jaded married couple Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjornstrand getting stuck in an elevator. There is a pretty bad sequence taking place in Paris (this is the 1950s after all) that is way too arty for its own good.

2- TCM has a weekly feature late night on Sundays called TCM Imports which showcases foreign-language films. Quite often they will have a double bill of the same director. A few weeks ago they showed two by Kon Ichikawa back to back. They showed Brother from 1960 and The Princess from the Moon from the 1980s. The former was a classic ‘story of today’ depicting the cruelty of a dysfunctional family and was good enough. The latter was just insane. Obviously Ichikawa had seen and studied Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind very closely. What starts out as a classic rendering of a fairy-tale of a mysterious girl who fell from the moon, quickly winds up in Spielbergland down to the exact kind of spaceship as seen in CE3K. This is one nutty movie and, alas, one of the last appearances of Toshiro Mifune.

3- I know I am supposed to be enraptured by the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, but they bore me to tears. Day of Wrath even has sex and I find it dull. Yes, The Passion of Joan of Arc is genius and I seem to remember being swept away by Ordet, but the others….yikes. Gertrude – yikes.

4- The Red Badge of Courage and The End of the Affair are excellent specimens of how to adapt and how not to adapt great works of literature. The Red Badge of Courage apparently has as thwarted a production history as The Magnificent Ambersons. It was originally twice as long as the current version and in its entirety it was supposed to be the greatest war film ever made. I can definitely see that. The screenplay really captures the ambiguity of the wonderful Crane novel. The acting is uniformly super.

The End of the Affair is another story. I had just finished reading the Grahame Green novel and years earlier I had seen the beautiful Neal Jordan adaptation. This version was from the 1950s and I don’t know what the screenwriters were reading but nothing of Green’s ruminations on sex, and God and sin survive. Plus Van Johnson (!) is perhaps the best example of miscasting I can think of!


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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. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
  2. Big Eyes (Tim Burton)
  3. The Smallest Show On Earth (Basil Dearden)
  4. Carol (Todd Haynes)
  5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp  (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  6. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
  7. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
  8. Homicidal (William Castle)
  9. Vacation From Marriage (Alexander Korda)
  10. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg)

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1- I found Arrival be intriguing until at the end, a whiplash revelation plunged the whole enterprise into a depressing place.  Amy Adams is so wonderful in everything she does. More of her please.

2- I have never met a Tim Burton film I haven’t loved.  They are all so quirky and so heartfelt at the same time.  I loved Big Eyes. Another great Amy Adams showcase. An old-fashioned, unashamed Hollywood happy end, too.

3- Finally, a gay-themed movie that doesn’t fall into the Celluloid Closet cliche, and also is not a fluffy silly comedy! Carol is a beautifully modulated love story of two women in the 1950s. Gay identity is a big part of the story, of course, but what makes it so satisfying is that it is not the only part.  These are multi-dimensional characters. Interesting meditations on class differences. And, amazingly, a beautifully delivered happy ending.  Cate Blanchett should get a lifetime Oscar for the look she gives in the final frame.

4- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a film I saw 40 years ago and remembered loving.  This time around I still liked it a lot, but found that the idiosyncratic elements that the Archers bring to their films, which I once found thrilling, now struck me as a little forced. I really enjoyed seeing it again and was sad to think how Deborah Kerr is almost forgotten today.

5- Seven Samurai was one of the first Japanese films I watched.  Year and hundreds of Japanese films later, I still like it, but I find that I am more partial to the modern-era films by Kurosawa.  High and Low and Ikiru satisfy me more deeply than the Samurai era films do.  But hell, was an enormous accomplishment this film is.  I want to watch it again soon with the Criterion commentary track turned on.  There is so much to see in every frame of this movie.

6- The Death of Stalin hilarious and eventually tedious but how wonderful to see Michael Palin as Molotov and Steve Buscemi as a priceless Krushchev.

7- I remembered The Scarlet Empress being a set designer’s fever dream of Expressionist insanity.  This time I grooved on the weirdness (the sets, Sam Jaffe’s loopy performance), but I found the whole thing didn’t hang together as a complete work of art.  The sum of the whole was less than the part

8- The Smallest Show On Earth is one of those tiny, delightful British comedies from right after WWII filled with quirky, lovable characters, cozy atmosphere and amusing plots.  Lest I make it seem like a slight entertainment, let me stress that I have thought about this film every day since I watched it a few months ago.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Separate Tables (Delbert Mann)
  2. Sayonara (Joshua Logan)
  3. Kim (Victor Saville)
  4. Doctor Faustus (Richard Burton/Nevill Coghill)
  5. Spring Dreams (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  6. Blue Sky (Tony Richardson)
  7. Ex Libris (Frederick Wiseman)
  8. Farewell to Spring (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  9. The Pilgrim (Charlie Chaplin)
  10. The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée)

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1- When I was growing up in New York, one of the local TV networks would show the same movie for a week at 7PM.  The show was called Million Dollar MovieIt started with a thrilling drumroll which led into a grand performance of Tara’s Theme. If it were a film that I liked, I would watch every showing of it.  A recent viewing of David and Lisa reminded me of the kind of obsessive little kid I was.  I fondly recalled Separate Tables from that time. Like David and LisaI knew this was an grown-up movie dealing with things I didn’t quite understand, but loved watching. It held up very well.  The film is based on a drama by Terrence Rattigan, he of the ‘well-made play’.  You just won’t get this kind of movie any more.  And what a cast: Burt Lancaster, David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth and goddess Wendy Hiller.  Great to see this again.

2- Sayonara is an Oscar winner that I had long chased (it won both Best Supporting Actor and Actress that year).  What a disappointment.  Very much rooted in its 1950 sense of social justice laid on with a trowel.  Brando doing an extremely annoying Southern accent.   Well, check it off my list, I guess.

3- For some reason I decided to read Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  It was excruciating.  I felt like I could not get a foothold in the book. It kept going on and I had only a slight idea of what was going on. I finally made it to the end, not a moment to soon.  I saw that the film version of it was going to be on TCM. Pretty dumb, but young Dean Stockwell was an amazing child actor…..Paul Lukas and Errol Flynn were really miscast. I got absolutely no insight into the book from the film.

4- Spring Dreams was a surprise and delight.  I had seen other films by Kinoshita including the famous 24 Eyes. This was so different.  It was like a cross between The Man Who Came to Dinner and My Man Godfrey. It is absolutely hilarious.

5- Who remembers Blue Sky? Jessica Lange won the Best Actress for it and it is completely forgotten now. Good, tight story.  Over the top characterization, the kind the Academy loves to lavish awards on.

6- Ex Libris is the first Frederick Wiseman film I have watched.  It is long (over 3 hours) and about an unpromising topic: The New York Public Library.  It was riveting.  No voice-overs, no narration.  Endless scenes of board meetings, lectures, visits to branches all over the city…and it was endlessly fascinating.  Please see it.

 


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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. 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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Have You Tried Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy?

For most great directors there is a period of great creative fertility where a series of masterpiece appear in quick succession.  Think of Hitchcock with  Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Think of Ingmar Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring.  Think of Federico Fellini with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and  8½.

There is a similar run of masterpieces in the output of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) are often referred to as the ‘Noriko trilogy’ since the lead actress of each of these films, Setsuko Hara, plays a young woman named Noriko.  The three Norikos are not related but one would have to think that there is a common thematic element that Ozu and his co-screenwriter Kogo Noda are drawing our attention to by so naming the heroines of all three films.

Noriko

 One of the traps of writing about movies, is that it is easy to impose a construct on the films and directors that might not be there, no matter how good your argument might be. The classic take on these films is to say that Ozu and Noda were examining the life of young women in post World War II Japan.  I don’t believe that was their intention. I believe they were simply doing what they always did throughout their collaboration: depicting the tensions and, often, the disintegration of the post World War Japanese family.  The fact that all three films pivot on the central ‘Noriko’ figure does give this special focus, but I don’t believe that is the intention.
The three Norikos are very different characters. The most complicated is the Noriko of Late Spring. Here she is the grown daughter of a widowed father.  They live together in cozy harmony.  Noriko is happy with the arrangement and is not very interested in starting a home life of her own. Soon, external pressures come to bear and her father is convinced that he is being selfish by keeping her home with him, even though this is what they both want.  This play out to its logical conclusion, and in true Ozu fashion, the ending is quietly devastating.
The Noriko of Early Summer is another figure entirely.  She is the member of a somewhat chaotic and somewhat self-centered family. They are held together by familial bonds but also by economic necessity. They all need to live together given the harsh economic realities of post World War II Japan.  The family is constantly pressuring Noriko to make a marriage that will be advantageous to them all.  At first she resists the notion entirely, then rejects the suitors that are selected for her. In the end, in what in the West might be viewed as an example of Feminist strength, she chooses someone whose situation forces Noriko (and her salary) to leave the family home, ultimately leading to the dispersal of the family unit.
Much has been written of the Noriko of Tokyo Story.  Setsuko Hara’s performance here is astounding.  The quiet grace tinged with tragedy, the hints of great dissatisfaction with her past and present life are powerful. She is probably the most complex and fully integrated person among the three Norikos, especially contrasted with the somewhat neurotic chastity of Late Spring and the ambivalent sense of self in Early Summer.  
Please watch all three of these films.  They are each towering masterpieces.