Archive for April 2022


Films of 2022:Q1

Here’s my latest film dump. I’ve been seeing a few more films at the theatre, but most of these I saw at home (mostly on Criterion Channel (CC)):

Newer Films:

French Dispatch  (US)  3.7  Right now, Wes Anderson is the director I most look forward to seeing—his visual imagination is off the charts.  This film is like a bunch of New Yorker cartoons brought to life.  The frames are so packed with information that you’ll need several viewings to catch all the jokes.   The only thing that prevents me from rating it even higher is that the whole is a bit less than the sum of the parts.  The style is 4.0, the stories are more like 3.0.

I Was a Simple Man  (US)  3.5  This sort of film needs a director with the talent of someone like Tarkovsy, Carlos Reygadas or Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  But even if a bit bland at times, I still found the film to be deeply enjoyable.  Certainly more so than most other new films.

American Factory  (US)  3.5  A very interesting look at culture clash between the US and China in a glass factory in Ohio.  Yes, the film is a bit biased (to the left).  But if you pay close attention you can see past the bias to the real story.

Nightmare Alley  (US)  3.4   I saw this one day after watching the 1947 version.  In the old film the interiors seemed modern, whereas in the modern film the interiors seemed old.  Del Toro did a good job, except the film feels a bit bloated at 2 ½ hours.  He added some flashbacks of when the protagonist was young, which would have been better left out.  Toni Collette is 49 in real life and plays a middle-aged woman, while Cate Blanchett is 52 and plays a relatively young woman.  (Both actresses are Australian.) Blanchett must have made a pact with the devil; she looks fabulous. The film also features the massive Buffalo city hall, one of the great works of American architecture.

14 Peaks  (Nepal)  3.3  This documentary is more of a celebration than a hard nosed search for the truth.  So I don’t quite know how much to believe.  But the photography is stunning and some of the events are fascinating.  My favorite scene is when a young woman contemplates whether to make at attempt to climb K2, where she’s given a 50% chance of success and a 50% chance of dying.  She agonizes about her two kids at home, and then says something like, “What the heck, I’ll go for it.”  She’s nuts, but a world without people like her would be a much poorer place.

Parallel Mothers  (Spain) 3.2  Almodovar’s newest effort has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately it’s been overrated by the critics.  Although the film has an overt left wing message, Almodovar’s style has become much more conservative.  All the creativity and edginess of his early films is gone.

The Worst Person in the World  (Norway)  3.0  The sort of film that captures a bit of the zeitgeist, gets good reviews, but no one will remember in a few decades.  One of the most depressing takes on the human condition that I’ve ever seen.  Social science is not capable of producing societies much more successful than Norway.  If this is where we end up, then what exactly is the point of civilization?

Donkeyhead  (Canadian)   3.0   After you’ve seen a number of these middlebrow family dramas, the emotions start to feel a bit staged, a bit fake.  It’s not bad, but in the end I sort of feel like I wasted 2 hours of my life.

Rifkin’s Festival  (US/Spain)  3.0  Woody Allen’s films are still watchable, despite his gradual decline.  Perhaps this one is helped by the fact that it’s autobiographical enough to make the viewer cringe.  Cringing isn’t my favorite emotion, but it’s something.  The film has some mildly amusing bits, and also some very pretty pictures of Spain.  It might be interesting to watch one of these new ones in a double feature with something like Bananas.  Has Woody changed, or have we?

Older Films:

Chimes of Midnight /aka Falstaff  (1965, US/Spain, CC)  4.0  A masterpiece on every level—framing, lighting, editing, dialogue, acting.  The battle scene (probably influenced by Kurosawa) is amazing, especially considering the limited resources that Welles had to work with. This is an especially personal film for Welles, as he saw himself as Prince Hal when young and Falstaff when old. When he was a teenager his alcoholic father was behaving so badly that Welles’s friends told him to cut off any contact until his dad cleaned up his act. His father responded by drinking himself to death a few months later.  The betrayal at the film’s end was personal for Welles, and is one of the great moments in film history.

How good is Welles?  Consider that while Citizen Kane is often rated the greatest film of all time, it’s not clear that it’s even one of Welles’s three best films.  When I saw a butchered version of this back in the 1970s, parts of it went over my head.  Now it seems like Welles’s best film.  Until the next one I see.

The Magnificent Ambersons  (1942, US, CC)  (3.8/4.0)   How does one rate a movie that has been mutilated?  The studio removed 50 minutes of Welles’s masterpiece, and then added a schlocky ending (the moral equivalent of destroying a great painting by Rembrandt).  I suspect this would have been one of the all time great film masterpieces, but I don’t know precisely how good.  As it is, it’s sort of like an unusually long trailer.   I watched about 8 documentaries on the film at Criterion Channel, which were quite interesting.    

The Element of Crime (Denmark, 1984, CC)  3.8  Lars Von Trier’s debut film is an astonishing achievement.  You can see many themes and motifs of his later films, as well as his mastery of the art of filmmaking. Watching this film, I felt like his career never quite reached its potential (much like Welles, who also seemed a supreme talent in his very first film.)  The film shows many influences (Tarkovsky, Blade Runner, Touch of Evil, Apocalypse Now, etc.) but doesn’t seem derivative.

Europa  (Denmark, 1991, CC)  3.8  Like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Lynch and the Quay brothers, Von Trier is one of those visionary directors that occasionally produces scenes that take your breath away.  I don’t know if all the experiments work (I had mixed feelings about the B&W/color shifts), but overall the formal experimentation was successful.  Most interesting was the idea of film as a form of hypnosis.

Gates of Hell  (Japan, 1953, CC)  3.8  Won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  One of the great early uses of color in film, comparable to Black Narcissus, especially in the spectacular final third of the film.  Clearly influenced by Japanese woodblock art. (I probably overrated it, but I am a sucker for great visuals.) BTW, it came out the same year as Ugetsu and Tokyo Story.  Has Hollywood produced two films that good in the past decade? In the entire 21st century?

All About Eve  (US, 1950, CC)  3.8  Almost the definition of a classic Hollywood film.  Ironically, the film is about a young woman who emerges from nowhere to become a star (played by Anne Baxter), but the actual young woman emerging as a star in this film is Marilyn Monroe, who is incandescent.

Le Doulos  (France, 1962, CC)  3.8  Another great crime film from Melville, one of the masters of film noir.

Baby Doll  (US, 1956, CC)  3.8  This highly entertaining Elias Kazan film was written by Tennessee Williams.  Once Eli Wallach appears on the scene the film kicks into high gear, with his scenes with Carroll Baker being especially good.  But why is it so funny watching Karl Malden’s life fall apart?  Are black comedies a sign that we are all worse human beings than we assume?

Juliet of the Spirits  (Italy, 1965, CC)  3.8  From the opening frames you are entranced by Fellini’s inexhaustible visual invention.  He makes almost all other filmmakers seem drab by comparison.  What does it all mean?  When it looks this good, who cares?

Citizenfour  (US, 2014, CC)  3.7  There have been previous documentaries about history in the making, but never in such an intimate setting.  That makes this a one of a kind film. Mild-mannered Ed Snowden is far more heroic than those superheroes you see in CGI films.  Watching it 8 years after it came out is especially painful, as viewers today know that almost nothing was done in response to the Snowden revelations.  Americans (indeed the whole world) are giving up their freedom with hardly of peep of protest.  Just wait until all money is digital. . . .

Summer Light (Lumiere d’Ete) (France, 1943, CC)  3.7  While it is not quite as good as the much better known Rules of the Game, this film is similar in a number of ways to Renoir’s masterpiece.  The final third of this one is particularly impressive.  The director (Jean Gremillon) is not well known in America, a reflection of the amazing number of highly talented directors produced by France.  It was banned by the Nazis and released after the war.

Scattered Clouds  (Japan, 1967, CC)  Naruse’s final film is in color.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it has all the qualities we expect in a Naruse film.  As in all good romantic stories, the two leads seem to live in another world from the rest of society.

Odds Against Tomorrow  (US, 1959, CC)  3.7  Jean-Pierre Melville loved this noir, and you can see why.  It’s very much in his style.

Classe Tous Risques   (France, 1960, CC)  3.6  A very satisfying crime film, somewhat in the style of Melville.

Laura  (US, 1944, CC)  3.6  Plot twists have become a staple of Hollywood, but I imagine that the less film savvy audiences of 1944 would have been stunned by the one in the middle of this classic noir.

No Blood Relation  (Japan, 1932, CC)  3.6  Naruse’s first surviving film, and he already demonstrates a mastery of the medium.

That Uncertain Feeling  (US, 1941, CC)  3.6  A Lubitsch comedy about a women with the hiccups.  The existence of hiccups calls into question the existence of God.  Why would a God create people that were susceptible to getting the hiccups?  Why would that idea even occur to God?  Sorry, I just don’t see it.

5 Fingers  (UK, 1952, CC)  3.6  Is there anyone more amoral than a film buff?  Why do we root for a traitor trying to sell British military secrets to the Nazis during WWII?  I have no answers.  And why don’t modern films have actors like James Mason?  Again, I have no answers.  The film itself is pretty entertaining, a sort of poor man’s Hitchcock spy story.

All That Heaven Allows  (US, 1955, CC)  3.6  I found this Douglas Sirk melodrama to be a lot more likeable than Written in the Wind (see below), even though it’s not as good in an artistic sense.

My Night at Maud’s  (France, 1969, CC)  3.5   I was surprised to read that this film did well when it was released in America.  Hard to see something like that happening today.

Kagemusha  (Japan, 1980, CC)  3.5  Due to all of the look-alike characters, the film can be a bit confusing at times.  It would probably be easier to follow on second viewing, but with a 3-hour length, who wants to watch it twice?  I found the plot to be more interesting than in Ran, but the execution was a bit uneven.  Still, there are a number of very strong scenes, so I’m glad I watched it.

Good Morning  (Japan, 1959, CC)  3.5  This late film by Ozu is a sort of sitcom, but more sly and subtle than what you see on American TV.

Casque D’or  (France, 1952, CC)  3.5  Classic French film of a doomed romance.

Through a Glass Darkly  (Sweden, 1961, CC)  3.5  The film addresses many of Bergman’s obsessions, but is not as creative as his best films.

Violence at Noon  (Japan, 1966, CC)  3.5  This would have been more impressive in 1966, when the stylistic innovations would have been seen as quite radical.  Even today, however, the camerawork is pretty amazing.  I didn’t find the plot to be all that interesting; your mileage may vary.

Lost Horizon  (US, 1937, CC)  3.5  Frank Capra is not the ideal director for this film, which could use a bit more subtlety.  Nonetheless, he does know how to please the audience, and there is much to enjoy here.  A highlight is the 1937 perspective as to what constitutes utopian architecture, which is far more appealing that the overdone CGI nonsense you’d get in a modern Hollywood film.

Written on the Wind  (US, 1956, CC)  3.5  I’m not much of a fan of melodrama, which tends to focus on people that are both boring and somewhat unintelligent, showing the ugly side of human nature.  Still, one must grudgingly acknowledge the effectiveness of the best examples.

True Grit  (US, 2010)  3.5   The Coen brothers are brilliant craftsmen, but their films can be a tad cold and clinical.  The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

The Man From Laramie  (US, 1955, CC)  3.4  Jimmy Stewart is the reason to see this Anthony Mann western.

Beat Girl  (UK, 1960, CC)  3.4   I suppose this would have been viewed as porn back in 1960.  Today, it’s a hoot.  Features a very young Christopher Lee and an even younger Oliver Reed.  The teenage girl looks a bit like Bardot.  A trashy film like this has no business being so entertaining.  Probably even better if watched with your friends while high.  The 60s in London went in with a bang.

The Lodger  (UK, 1928, CC)  3.4 A must see (silent) film for Hitchcock fans, containing many of the themes and motifs he used in later films.  Not his first film, but the first real Hitchcock film.  This is where it all began.

Crimson Gold  (Iran, 2003, CC)  3.4  Not a great film, but an exceedingly interesting look at Iranian society.

A Hen in the Wind  (Japan, 1948, CC)  3.4  The film is a bit crude and there are some serious flaws.  Ozu would make much better films over the next few years.  Yet the film is well worth watching, with Ozu’s trademark style evident in a number of scenes.

Mr. Jealousy  (US, 1997, CC)  3.4  This Noah Baumbach film was surprisingly enjoyable, mostly due to an inspired plot and some fine acting.  It’s a sort of poor man’s Woody Allen (or Whit Stillman) film full of neurotic New Yorkers, but it was actually more entertaining than many of Allen’s recent films. With a better director this could have been pretty outstanding.   The title is uninspired for a film supposedly about writers.

Nightmare Alley  (US, 1947, CC)  3.4  In terms of acting and production values this film is far inferior to the 2021 version.  But it is equally entertaining, as it has more energy, and is less weighted down by excessive length and flashbacks.  Criterion had a couple good accompanying documentaries, especially the one on the history of the carnival sideshow.  I recall they still had them when I was young, but I imagine the freak show is now obsolete.   Why does that make me sad?  Am I like those southerners who in the late 1800s had nostalgia for slavery?

A Great Beauty  (Italy, 2013, CC)  3.4  A bit too long, but Rome has never looked better.

Stromboli  (Italy, 1950, CC)  3.4  The documentary-like aspects are one high point of this film.  The other is Ingrid Bergman seeking God on the top of an erupting volcano.  I wonder if this gave Antonioni the idea for “L’Avventura?

Zou Zou  (French, 1934, CC)  3.3  I frequently saw images of Josephine Baker back when I collected travel posters, but this is the first time that I ever saw the legendary dancer in an actual film.  She was amazingly charismatic.  The film also features Jean Gabin, but he’s completely overshadowed by Baker. A viewer of this film might conclude that the French were way ahead of us back in 1934—less racist and less puritanical.  (Perhaps they still are less puritanical.)

Torn Curtain  (US, 1966, CC)  3.3  Soon after this was made, the books and films of LeCarre would make this sort of film look laughably naïve.  And Paul Newman is almost unbelievably bland.  Nonetheless, even a weak Hitchcock film is better than a strong film from most other directors.  And it does have one outstanding murder scene.  Worth a look if you’ve never seen it.

Black Widow  (US, 1954, CC)  3.3  It’s odd how easy it is to date films from their visual appearance.  If you had asked me to watch the film and guess the year it came out, I would have guessed 1954, as the widescreen cinemascope image looks a lot like Rear Window. (Similarly, the two Josephine Baker films I saw were only 7 years apart, but the second had vastly superior cinematography.)  The plot is rather absurd, but it’s an entertaining (color) film noir.

For Whom the Bell Tolls   (US, 1943)  3.3  In some ways a classic Hollywood film, but with a few flaws.  Ingrid Bergman looks too pretty, and her hair should have been even shorter.   The film needed to be grittier, more Hemingway and less Hollywood.  The decision to use color photography was also a mistake   Much of the movie takes place at night, which doesn’t show up well using Technicolor. 

Stakeout  (Japan, 1958, CC)  3.3 Some viewers might be bored by the slow pace of this exercise in film voyeurism, but I was entertained.  Features the wonderful Hideko Takamine.

I’m No Angel  (US, 1933, CC)  3.3  Mae West makes the rest of humanity (including Cary Grant) seem boring. The last third of the film is the best.  (As for the portrayal of African-Americans, woke people will need therapy after watching this one.)

Crime Wave  (US, 1953, CC)  3.2  This crude but effective noir is the film equivalent of very tasty comfort food.  Featuring Sterling Hayden and a bunch of B actors.  Very efficient entertainment, coming in at under 80 minutes.

The Eternal Rainbow  (Japan, 1958, CC) 3.2  This docudrama isn’t actually very good, at least as a drama.  But I really enjoyed the documentary aspects, especially life in a Japanese steel company town that was just entering the modern era.  The new housing blocks were presented at a sort of utopia.  Modern viewers would view them as a dystopia.  The trick is to simultaneously see them as both, like the famous vase and two profiles.

The Divorce of Lady X   (UK, 1938, CC)  3.2  Merle Oberon is charming while Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson are adequate in this British screwball comedy about mistaken identities.  An early Technicolor film.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow  (Italy, 1964, CC)  3.2  The humor in this film can be tiresome at times, like a “classic” sitcom from the 1960s that no longer seems funny.  But the film is very easy on the eyes.  The short middle section with the drive from old central Milan to ultra-modern suburban Milan has a new wave feel, and of course there’s always Sophia Loren to look at.  It is sexier than Hollywood films from 1964, which perhaps explains why it was popular with mainstream American audiences. De Sica directed.

Summertime   (US, 1955, CC)  3.2  At times, Katherine Hepburn made me cringe.  I guess that’s the point, but I couldn’t help wondering what audiences would have thought back in 1955.  How many American women visited Italy as a result of seeing this film?  One of David Lean’s weaker efforts, but at least there’s Venice.

Muriel  (France, 1963, CC)  3.2  You should ignore the rating here, as I am certain I’d rate it either much higher or much lower on second viewing.  On first viewing it’s more a puzzle to be resolved than a film to be enjoyed—although it does have its moments.  Maybe it reflects laziness on my part, but I found the complexity to be a bit annoying.  Alain Resnais directed.

Four Feathers  (UK, 1939, CC)  3.1  This rousing defense of the British Empire is politically conservative, and indeed repulsive in the way it defends militarism and colonialism.  And yet it was directed by a left wing director (Korda).  It’s funny how the way we view politics can change so dramatically over time.  Live long enough, for instance, and you see impeccably liberal defenders of the principle of free speech get labeled as right wing.

Gimme Shelter  (US, 1970, CC)  3.0  Not a very good film, but an interesting document of a certain period in American history.  Even after watching the film it’s not clear how we should think of the role of the Hell’s Angels.  What would a counterfactual history of Altamont look like without their presence?  Who knows?  If you want to see the Stones at their peak, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is the one to see (recorded at roughly the same time.)

Torch Singer  (US, 1933, CC)  2.9  Relatively tame pre-code film with Claudette Colbert.

Everything Goes Wrong  (Japan, 1960, CC)  2.9  This film about troubled youths would have seemed edgy in 1960, but today it seems a bit hysterical.  The film has a few of Seijun Suzuki’s stylistic flourishes, but eventually the frenzied action becomes tiresome.  Crazed Fruit is a much better film in this genre.

A Kid for Two Farthings  (UK, 1955, CC)  2.8  Well-intentioned children’s film from a good director (Carol Reed) that falls flat.

Crime of Passion  (US, 1957, CC)  2.7  Why they cast 50-year old Barbara Stanwyck as a young bride is completely beyond my comprehension.  The plot is ridiculous.  But 2.7 stars is as a low as I can go for any film featuring Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr.  What a waste of talent.

Siren of the Tropics  (French, 1927, CC)  2.5  Josephine Baker’s first film was accompanied by a warning that the racial stereotypes were offensive.  I found the warning to be more offensive than the film itself.  BTW, there are no sirens in the film, in the tropics or elsewhere.