The Traveler (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)

Qassem is always late for school, never does his homework, slacks off to play soccer. Things get out of hand when he decides to attend a big game in Tehran (about four hours northeast of his town – thanks, google maps). He steals money from his mother, borrows a non-working camera from his friend and scams every kid at school, claiming to be taking their portraits, then sells his soccer gear and hits the city.

Once there, he has to buy a ticket from scalpers, but he gets into the stadium. Realizing the game won’t start for hours, he goes walking in the city, finds a grassy spot and takes a nap. He dreams of getting caught cheating at school, of all the kids in town ganging up and beating his ass. Wakes up at dusk, having slept through the game – last shot is him running through the empty stadium.

You can almost hear the narrator from Two Solutions to One Problem asking us whether Qassem deserved to see the game. The movie puts some fun hidden commentaries on Qassem’s state of mind in his schoolwork – another kid reciting a story in class might as well be narrating Qassem’s daydreams (“Kuzat had just one thought: to escape with all his might”), and a vocabulary drill hits on “outlaw, discipline, ambition,” and on the final word he gets inspired to sell his soccer goals for the last bit of money he needs to make his trip.

Criterion calls this Kiarostami’s first feature – it’s 74 minutes, while Experience the previous year was 60 – but Senses of Cinema calls them both “short features.” Semantics! It’s funny that SoC talks of Kiarostami leading the Iranian New Wave, since I couldn’t stop thinking of The 400 Blows during this movie.

Qassem with his parents:

Also watched some early shorts…

Breaktime / In Between Class (1972)

More elliptical story than Bread and Alley or Two Solutions for One Problem. Dara kicks a ball through a window at school, gets punished. He kicks another kid’s ball out of play, escapes punishment. Then he goes for a walk to the highway. There must be something I missed. Sharply photographed, with some tricks you don’t see much in Kiarostami films: a moving crane shot and a slow-motion effect. No dialogue except for the written intro.

The Chorus (1982)

Oh my god, this one is my favorite. Opens with guy in a horse cart galloping through the alleys, but our hero is the old man with a hearing aid who slows him down. Good to see that even in Iran a favorite past time of elderly men is throwing crumbs to flocks of pigeons. Our guy goes home and removes his hearing aid due to obnoxious road work outside, then can’t hear when his granddaughter is at the door. More and more kids gather outside to help her shout to be let in, until finally he looks out the window.

Buy from Amazon:
Close-Up/The Traveler: Criterion Blu-ray

The Salvation Hunters (1925, Josef von Sternberg)

Sternberg puts poetry in his images, but he puts plenty in the intertitles too. Eight minutes in, I’d read about thirty flowery title cards – it’s like if Antonioni movies had subtitles telling you what everything meant, instead of relying on the images.

It’s not as plotless as the Criterion box’s commentaries and docs led me to believe – tells a story, just does it in an unhurried, lingering way. A cowardly young man, a bitter young woman and a helpless child live on the docks, spend their days full of ennui watching a dredge dig the same hole day in and day out, chased around by the dredge workers. One day they up and decide to leave for the city together, after seeing a cat. Take it away, intertitles: “The black cat, like an evil spirit, warned the three nobodies to leave the dredge before the thundering mud could bury their souls.”

My favorite title upon their arrival: “Man’s worst enemy is man. A city is full of enemies.” Some guy who wears lipstick lets them stay at his place for free, knowing that the boy is too stupid to find a job and planning to whore out the girl when the three get too hungry and hopeless. At least I think that’s his plan – things like that used to go unspoken in movies.

But all the makeshift family seems to do is sit on the couch and stare at the walls. Since they expend no energy, they don’t get hungry very fast, so the impatient lipstick man decides to “take her out for a ride in the country and let romance do a little work.” His idea of the country is a depressing little field next to the highway, where he tries to win her trust by beating up the little kid. The young man (“the boy” in the titles) finally asserts himself. “The man was only the victim. The boy was not beating him. He was conquering the harbor, the city, the mud – all the forces that had held him down, and most of all his own cowardly self.”

Horned Lipstick Man:

The titles beam about this moral victory! “Behold! They have fought and won a mighty battle – over themselves! It isn’t conditions, nor is it environment – our faith controls our lives!” The trio walks literally into the sunset, probably falling down and starving to death once out of camera range.

M. Gebert wrote an excellent article about early Sternberg:

Contrary to the usual Hollywood picture of the plucky poor, all must have felt like a slap from something utterly new in 1925. It certainly spawned a fair number of followers— when Lillian Gish gets a face full of wind, when James Murray’s dreams are buried in the crowd, when a Man thinks of drowning his wife for A Woman From the City, you can see how The Salvation Hunters helped shape Hollywood’s idea of what an artistic drama was

In between [Salvation Hunters and Underworld] is the famous unseen and lost film, The Sea Gull. We will presumably never know whether Chaplin suppressed it because he was jealous of how good it was, or because it was unreleasable crap. But I have my suspicions; many independent filmmakers have used their second, better-financed film to essentially remake their first film, much more self-indulgently and with a belief in their own genius inflated well beyond reality.

I thought this was quite good for ’25, it just didn’t make me leap out of my seat like Underworld did. I guess now I’ve seen all the silent Sternberg movies that are known to survive. Some of his other lost films include Exquisite Sinner (pre-Underworld, taken out of Sternberg’s hands by the studio after shooting) The Drag Net (after The Last Command) and The Case of Lena Smith (after Docks of New York). On to the talking pictures.

La Chienne (1931, Jean Renoir)

Based on the same novel and play as Lang’s superb Scarlet Street. Middle-aged man “rescues” sexy girl on the street, sets her up in an apartment as his mistress, starts stealing from his workplace in order to pay her, as she funnels all her money to her boyfriend/pimp, who gambles it away then starts selling the Middle-Aged Man’s paintings for extra cash. The Man is despised by his wife, who still worships her deceased first husband – who later turns out to be alive, showing up in search of money. Man sees his chance, reveals the dead husband, nullifying his own marriage, also kills the girl (for which her boyfriend is blamed, and executed), ends up a bum on the street in front of the art gallery that is reselling his paintings for record amounts.

In the Lang film, architecture in the frame is as important as the performers, and Edward G. Robinson is a sap, destroyed by cruel, cruel fate in a cold, cold world. In this version, everything takes a back seat to the performances, and despite his misfortune, the man leaves the movie laughing, going for a drink with his wife’s first husband, now also homeless and destitute. Renoir has always infused his films with a life-affirming energy, so it’s weird that he took on such negative stories as this one, The Lower Depths and The Little Match Girl, only to defy their negative tones with his benevolent humanity.

Simon and his scowling wife, watched over by her (ex?)-husband:

Characters speak more frankly about sex than anyone would in a movie for the next forty years. Camera movement is somewhat rough, which makes sense for a 1931 sound film. It tries, though – when the girl and her boyfriend dance at a party, the camera dances with them. You can see the Moulin Rouge windmill (see also: French Cancan) out the window of the girl’s apartment. But the Moulin Rouge sighting is nothing compared to the connection to Renoir’s final feature, Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir, which features a second husband treated coldly by his wife, always confronted with the gaze of his predecessor from a picture frame. That film also opens and closes, as does this one, with puppet-show curtains, Renoir telling us that life is theater.

Flamant and Marèse, looking briefly like they’re in a musical:

Michel Simon stars – is this only the second movie I’ve seen of his after L’Atalante? After that one, I never assumed he could play meek and sober, but he does a great job, and looks like Trotsky. Upcoming starlet Janie Marèse died in a car accident on the way to the film’s premiere. Georges Flamant survived the same crash – his final film was The 400 Blows. Roger Gaillard, the resurrected first husband, returned in Night at the Crossroads as a butcher.

Ruined, but not down:

The Last Ten Minutes vol. 8

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010, Jon Turteltaub)
Our brash teen hero is driving around anxiously. But elsewhere – Alfred Molina/Nicholas Cage wizard battle! That’s what I came here for. The CGI flies as dark sorceress Monica Bellucci unleashes ancient evils. Cage inhales her face, Mummy Returns-style, but gets possessed by dark powers. Then our teen hero discovers the power was within him all along. From the director of the National Treasure series and the first 3 Ninjas.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002, Jay Roach)
Instead of the last ten minutes, I enjoyed the Tom Cruise / Gwynyth Paltrow / Kevin Spacey / Danny Devito / Steven Spielberg open and the Britney Spears / Quincy Jones credits sequence. If I hadn’t read the reviews when this came out, I’d gladly sit through the rest of this. While Myers has kept busy voicing cartoons lately, Roach made a Ben Stiller and a Steve Carell comedy, neither of which looks good.

Mercury Rising (1998, Harold Becker)
One of those generic-looking action thrillers from the late 90’s with a forgettable nonsense title. Alec Baldin is the government baddie, and after watching four seasons of 30 Rock I cannot deal with him in a straight role anymore. I thought Bruce Willis was doing pretty well in the 90’s – what would make him agree to something like this? The two stars are fighting on a greenscreen roof until Bruce saves the autistic kid who cracked some kinda government code according to the plot description, sending Alec to a gruesome death plummet. Becker also made other action thrillers with generic names like Sea of Love, Malice, City Hall and Domestic Disturbance.

Starship Troopers 3 (2008, Edward Neumeier)
Two women are praying, and a giant beastie made of dodgy CGI is arising from a volcano, until Casper Van Dien’s dodgy-CGI power suit comes and rescues them. Looks like the worst movie ever, and practically a cartoon with all the poorly-rendered graphics. Neumeier wrote the original Starship Troopers and Robocop, so he can’t be all bad, but he also wrote all their shameful sequels, so maybe he is.

The Funhouse (1981, Tobe Hooper)
Looks like our heroine (who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus) has finally reached the breaking point into psychosis when presented with the dead body of her (husband? brother? best friend?) by a robot clown. After a long suspenseful chase sequence, a dude in a drooling latex mask catches up with her, but gets electrocuted and chewed up in some gears while she screams uselessly. Some heroine. A forgotten feature made by Tobe between Salem’s Lot and Poltergeist, from the writer of that gag 1990 Captain America movie.

Blood Creek (2009, Joel Schumacher)
The man once in charge of the Batman franchise is now making direct-to-video nazi zombie flicks? Apparently his career was destroyed not by his derided comic movies or his despicable follow-up 8MM, but by the 2004 Phantom of the Opera. Some people are running from the nazi, and some from the zombie, who has a wormie in his forehead just like Jeffrey Combs in From Beyond. Anyway, this looks no good, but at least the effects are better than the above three movies combined. From the “writer” of a whole bunch of remakes.

Stone (2010, John Curran)
Robert De Niro’s house is on fire! He rescues his wife, who gripes some religion at him. Flash forward, Rob is retiring, and is an asshole. Then he finds, and does not kill Ed Norton, who steps back into the shadows. Some stuff about redemption and god’s will, oh and here’s Milla Jehovavich finally, in a bar. The sound mixer thinks he’s all that. Was a time I wouldn’t have missed a De Niro/Norton movie, but that time was about a year before The Score came out. From director of The Painted Veil and writer of Junebug – weird combination.

War of the Worlds (2005, David Latt)
Another one of those quickie direct-to-video titles designed to confuse Blockbuster patrons looking for the Tom Cruise version. C. Thomas Howell plays substitute Tom Cruise here (he’s also sub-Jennifer Connelly in The Day The Earth Stopped and sub-Will Ferrell in The Land That Time Forgot). Some guy informs us D.C. is gone (budget filmmaker’s motto: tell, don’t show) and the rebellion is hiding out in the Blue Ridge mountains, and oh here’s Jake Busey as an authoritarian dick army man, cool. But Howell makes it to D.C. gazes at some CG backgrounds, crosses a bridge that crumbled in a totally believable way (destroyed but for a convenient walking path down the center), chats with a dying alien tripod (err, 4 or 5-pod) and is reunited with his family in the last minute. Just like the Spielberg version, except not any good. From the writer of The Da Vinci Treasure, AVH: Alien vs. Hunter and Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls.

Dura Lex / By the Law (1926, Lev Kuleshov)

The year after The Gold Rush and Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s teacher Kuleshov turned in his own gold rush masterpiece. It’s far less funny than the Chaplin feature, and far more economical than the Eisenstein – for the bulk it’s just three actors, a cabin and a storm. You don’t see a lot of Russian films set in Canada. I don’t, anyway, but then I don’t see a lot of Russian films – been meaning to correct that. The titles pronounce this as the “third work of the Kuleshov Collective,” the first two of which still mostly survive.

I don’t get the organizational structure here, but “chairman” Hans (Sergei Komarov of The End of St. Petersburg) with two “shareholders” (blonde-bearded Dutchy and black-bearded Harky) are out in the Yukon mining for gold – unsuccessfully, for the most part, along with Hans’s English wife Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova of earlier Kuleshov Collective film Mr. West) and mustachioed Irishman (proven by fact that he spends his free time playing flutes and dancing jigs) Michael Dennin (Vladimir Fogel, the hero of Chess Fever).

Based on “The Unexpected” by Jack London. London’s stories made for extremely popular film adaptations from 1908 to 1930 – and he lived to 1916, so may have seen some of them. I suppose people back then enjoyed watching lone, underprepared hikers crash through the ice then slowly freeze to death. This group, however, is well stocked for the weather, and just as they were giving up on their present location, Dennin finds a cache of gold. Unfortunately, he makes up for this by developing a dark jealous rage and deciding to kill everybody. He blows away both the shareholders before Hans takes him down.

Edith is upset:

Now the surviving couple have to bury their partners (in a raging storm) then keep guard over Dennin for a whole season until the Law arrives, because Edith insists they not take revenge into their own hands. But Dennin is insane and destructive (he sets the bed on fire during a flood), and Edith seems to fall further into a religious fervor as they all suffer from cabin fever. This is the bulk of the movie’s runtime, the three of them stewing wordlessly in the cabin. It plays very much like a horror film. Kuleshov shows off his pioneering editing techniques, but also some great camerawork, like this post-Nosferatu hand shadow reaching for the gold.

Eventually the couple appoint themselves officials of the Law, give Dennin a British-style trial, sentence him to be hanged, then carry out the execution on a nice spring day. Dennin appears dramatically in their doorway that night amidst a raging storm – a ghost, a shared delusion or something else?

The trial, watched over by a painting of the Queen:

Nice day for a hanging:

I liked the rumbly electronic score by Franz Reisecker, though it provides some weird moments – while Dennin is playing his Irish flute music, the music we hear is despairingly atonal.

Orpheus (1949, Jean Cocteau)

The narratively-straightforward centerpiece of the Orphic Trilogy. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s full of visual effects, mostly with easily identifiable techniques – reversing the film, tilting the camera, a mirror, rear projection – but so handsomely shot and elegantly presented as to seem fantastically unique. I don’t quite understand the point of the Orpheus myth, why his wife is taken away as if she’s a toy, but Cocteau redeems it with his “it was all a dream” ending, the couple back together (and expecting a child) while their now-forgotten underworld lovers are punished for meddling.

Jean Marais (Cocteau’s ex-boyfriend, returning from Beauty and the Beast) is the title poet, nationally famous, but hated by the locals. I suppose they consider him a sellout. Cocteau makes these kids out as an unthinking mob always looking for the next new thing – a response to his own audiences after he’d become famous himself? He’s married to the beautiful Eurydice (Marie Déa of Les Visiteurs du soir), but mostly ignores her, concentrating on his work. Meanwhile, the kids are swooning over young poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s current boyfriend, also lead in Les Enfants Terribles).

Orpheus and his death:

But Death comes for Cegeste – Death in the form of Princess Maria Casares (Children of Paradise), who runs him over in the middle of a crowd, then takes him away along with Orpheus. Since the townspeople have never seen her, her car or the two motorcyclists that accompany her, but they see Orpheus’s conspiratorial-seeming involvement, they come after him with weapons towards the end. But first, either the Princess or her buddy Heurtebise (Francois Perier of Stavisky and Gervaise) kills Eurydice out of jealousy, H. leads O. on a tour of the underworld, and the agents of Death fall in love with the poet and his wife, and vice versa. Cegeste, meanwhile, is happily writing messages for broadcast on Death’s private radio network, and back in the real world, Orpheus sits in Heurtebise’s Rolls all day, listening and transcribing the poetry from the airwaves – which only gets him in further trouble with the mob when they realize he’s ripping off the unpublished work of their missing hero.

Cegeste gets carried away:

Quoth IMDB: “Orphee’s obsession with deciphering hidden messages contained in random radio noise is a direct nod to the coded messages that the BBC concealed in their wartime transmissions for the French Resistance.”

And quoth Cocteau, “I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground.”

My favorite stills from this movie have been on my PC screen saver for years, so I tried to get some different ones. This is from a great subjective shot which seems simple until you realize those can’t be Marais’s hands, nor his reflection:

Cocteau again:

Among the misconceptions which have been written about Orphée, I still see Heurtebise described as an angel and the Princess as Death. In the film, there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel.

The way the French words “my death” are pronounced in this movie, in combination with seeing those words on the subtitles, “my death”, and pondering their meaning. Does everyone have his own death? And like Cocteau is saying above, the Princess isn’t “Death” in the way he appears in The Seventh Seal. She’s an employee of a system, subject to judgement, part of a bureaucracy so vast that someone mentions orders bouncing from place to place, with no identifiable origin. It’s details like this which lift the movie from a well-shot retelling of an ancient myth into something original and exciting.

Orpheus glimpses his wife in the car mirror:

Buy from Amazon:
Orpheus (Criterion Blu-ray)

Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)

Like Reichart’s last two movies, this is a bare sketch of a story. The cinematography is better, the film stock is less grainy, and there are more name actors joining Michelle Williams and Will Patton (both returning from Wendy and Lucy), including Paul “There Will Be Blood” Dano and the great Shirley Henderson from Yes.

Eventually the viewer picks up that a small wagon train (three families) is being led by a paid guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood, guy who hires Kirk in the Star Trek remake), who seems to be lost. Action is shown somewhat from the women’s point of view, so when the men converse, making big decisions that affect our trip, they don’t get to participate much, until the semi-liberated Williams starts butting in. The group’s fresh water supply is running out when they capture an Indian who’s been following them, and the men appoint him their guide instead of Meek. One family’s wagon is destroyed when traversing a hill, and the others pitch in to help, but nobody is ever shot, or even gets sick – unusual for a Western. The Indian leads them to a large tree, someone points out that water must be nearby, he wanders off unchallenged, end of movie.

It’s a weird choice, that ending, so to understand the screenwriting I turned to T. Stempel’s column “Understanding Screenwriting.”

I heard a sound from the audience I can’t recall ever having heard before. They laughed, and they seemed to be laughing at themselves for having been taken in for 100 minutes by a movie that is not even going to bother finish telling the story it started out to tell.

So he doesn’t know either, but it seems to me like a self-consciously indie thing to do, a Cache move, as if the director thinks her film will be less artistic if she gives us too much information. Anyway, Stempel also says “the picture is slow, which makes sense because journeying by covered wagon was slow,” but it’s not as slow as Old Joy. I don’t suppose I’ve fallen in love with any of her three films so far, but I always enjoy the experience enough to turn up for the next one.

The Trip (2010, Michael Winterbottom)

Steve Coogan’s possibly-ex-girlfriend is in the States, so he gets fellow TV comic Rob Brydon to join him for a would-be-romantic road trip to high-end northern England restaurants. Along the way, Steve makes anxious calls to his girl, to his agent (an American cable series is offered, with a seven-year commitment) and to his ex-wife and son. Rob’s only phone usage is for a nightly phone-sex appointment with his wife. Steve fusses over his career, wonders why he’s not the star he considers himself to be, and constantly puts down and one-ups Rob.

The fun of the six-episode series (which I watched since the movie version isn’t out yet) is in the often hilarious, somewhat bitter but always ultimately comic conversations between Steve and Rob, plus the great scenery and food. The movie aspires to more, though, and it’s more successful with its portrayal of a complicated friendship than with the time given to Steve’s personal and professional unhappiness. Each episode ends with him sighing heavily after an unpleasant phone call, looking unhappily into the distance, trying to make himself look younger in the mirror, and imitating Rob’s TV characters which he derides in public. I get the intent, to make Coogan a deep, sad character, but it comes off as repetitive and slightly self-indulgent. Brydon is given less depth, just a satisfied family man who loves doing the celebrity impressions that made his TV career. Coogan has a point that Rob gets annoying in large doses, but Rob confidently holds his own against Steve’s constant jabs.

The AV Club reviewers liked the film version in general, had some complaints I can’t disagree with. N. Murray: “While I liked the movie, there’s no reason why this couldn’t have been something I loved.” S. Tobias: “The choices [Winterbottom] makes in the editing room (and perhaps on set, too) seem off here … there are scenes that are allowed to go on too long or repeat a scene earlier in the film.”

Slant: “Its wry pricking of supercilious egos suggests a more self-aware version of Sideways.”

Buy from Amazon:
The Trip – PAL DVD

Crank/Crank 2 (2006/09, Neveldine/Taylor)

Crank
Just the combo of stupid/fun I was looking for. Asshole (Jason Statham) gets injected with Speed plot device, has to keep his heart rate up while finding out who killed him, very D.O.A. It’s ridiculous, but knows it’s ridiculous, keeps the energy high and ends up a Shoot ‘Em Up-caliber success

Crank: High Voltage
Just the movie to put a damper on the fun spirit of the first movie, Hatchet 2-style. Cartoon credits and an intro TV reporter calling the events implausible and saying “bullshit” on the air set up the self-aware, even-more-ridiculous sequel, but it devolves into sexist, racist trash that borrows too heavily from the first movie. I always forget to not watch sequels to things I like.

I had no idea that Statham’s best bud was Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. He was a highlight of both movies. I don’t think anyone else stood out (sorry, Amy Smart) besides Statham himself, who was so good that I’m actually considering renting the Transporter series. I’d originally figured that I’d follow these two movies with Gamer by the same writer/directors, despite its bad reviews, but Crank 2 cured me of that. Also, naturally, I admit that both movies would’ve been better if I hadn’t watched them alone and sober.

Buy from Amazon:
Crank / Crank 2 [Blu-ray]