Insignificance (1985, Nicolas Roeg)

A theatrical, dialogue-heavy movie with occasional bursts of appalling 1980′s music. Four iconic celebrities meet up in a hotel room (I don’t think all four are ever in the room at once, though). A Cherokee elevator man (Will Sampson, memorable as the Native spiritualist in Poltergeist II) provides a guilty American grounding to it all.

The four leads are playing the popular image of their characters, not aiming for a rounded, realistic portrayal. Hence, Einstein (Michael Emil, mostly in movies by his brother Henry Jaglom) is brilliant but down-to-earth and funny, able to explain his work in everyday terms – Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell, who married Nic Roeg the following year, star of his Bad Timing and Eureka) is flirty, never stops using her breathy screen voice, intelligent and somewhat tortured – Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis) is relentlessly trying to get everyone to admit they’re a communist – and Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) is hot-headed and jealous (even of Einstein).

I didn’t find the play interesting at all – maybe I’m too young for it. The idea seems like a good one, but the only parts I enjoyed were the bits of Roegian collage – some visual explosions at the end, an insert shot which goes back in time, each character’s childhood flashback. I did also enjoy Marilyn’s explanation of the theory of relativity using balloons, flashlights and toy trains. Afterwards, the balloons anchor each shot, giving me something fun to watch instead of the actors.

Also worth mentioning: the movie ends with Albert envisioning Marilyn being killed in a nuclear blast. Kind of intense after all the dialogue scenes that precede.

J. Rosenbaum:

The film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail — sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one.

The trouble with Blu-Ray: in the full-size version you can plainly read that the wall calendar in this shot says June 1954…

But in the insert shot, it’s been changed:

In fact, it’s such an obvious mistake that maybe it was done on purpose. The close-up is shot from the perspective of DiMaggio, a man who lives so firmly in the past that he can’t even register the current date – his eyes are still processing what they saw three months ago.

Buy from Amazon:
Insignificance (Criterion Blu-ray)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Ingmar Bergman)

Watched this twice, since one of Katy’s birthday presents to me was sitting still for four hours while I showed her two of my favorite recently-watched movies: this one (success!) and Certified Copy (failure). Maybe a dumb birthday present, but it was my own idea, so I’m the dummy.

Obviously I loved this, since I watched twice before even getting to a journal entry. With its comic scenes of relationship-swapping and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it reminded me of The Magician, which I also loved.

Okay, lotta characters. Lead guy Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand, the scientist who squares off vs. The Magician) is a serious attorney with a stern beard and a grown son (conflicted theology student Henrik: Bjorn Bjelfvenstam of Wild Strawberries) by his dead wife. Egerman’s young wife of three years, Anna (Ulla Jacobsson of Zulu), is still a virgin, acts like a kid, treats her husband like a father and spends much quality time with Henrik. I think we all see where this is going.

Desiree with a foolish-looking Egerman:

Enter Egerman’s ex-mistress, the perfectly poised blonde actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck of Varda’s Les créatures, Bergman’s Dreams and Secrets of Women), then while Egerman is at her place in his pajamas one night, enter her current lover, the duel-happy Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle of Babette’s Feast, Fanny and Alexander), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist of To Joy) loves/hates/obsesses over him, the pair of them sharing a competitive spirit.

Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm:

All these counts and rich lawyers are balanced by Petra (Harriet Andersson, Monika herself), Egerman’s maid, who flirts shamelessly with Henrik, tormenting him further, and ends up rolling in the hay with Frid (Ake Fridell, even less serious here than as The Magician‘s assistant Tubal), a servant in Desiree’s mother’s house. They’re all such great characters, and Desiree’s mother (Naima Wifstrand, granny in The Magician) might actually be the best, a woman too old and rich to give a damn about what she says or who it offends.

Desiree gets all these characters invited to dinner at her mother’s house, concocts a secret plan with the Countess. I’m not sure if the plan goes off as they intended, but the end results are good. Henrik elopes with his step-mom and Desiree is back with Egerman (shamed and blackened by his wife’s disappearance and his loss at Russian Roulette to the Count with a soot-filled pistol), leaving the Count back with his wife – for now, at least. Despite the romantic-comedy genre, I wasn’t sure Katy would go for it because of the Bergmanness of it all, not to mention the two suicide attempts – if either truly counts as a suicide attempt. Henrik pathetically ties a noose to an ornamental thing on the wall, which immediately breaks, and he falls into a button on the wall, activating a clockwork device that slides young Anna from her bedroom into his own.

Apparently the film that turned Bergman’s career around after years of commercial failures. He says in his intro that he’s always been able to do whatever he wants since this came out, winning the “best poetic humor” award at Cannes, which sounds like something the jury made up just so this wouldn’t go empty-handed after The Silent World took the palm. Remade as a Stephen Sondheim musical in the 70′s with Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree.

P. Kael:

In this vanished setting, nothing lasts, there are no winners in the game of love; all victories are ultimately defeats—only the game goes on. When Eva Dahlbeck, as the actress, wins back her old lover, her plot has worked — but she really hasn’t won much. She caught him because he gave up; they both know he’s defeated. Smiles is a tragic comedy; the man who thought he “was great in guilt and in glory” falls — he’s “only a bumpkin.” This is a defeat we can all share — for have we not all been forced to face ourselves as less than we hoped to be? There is no lesson, no moral … The glorious old Mrs. Armfeldt tells us that she can teach her daughter nothing—or, as she puts it: “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That’s what makes one so tremendously weary.”

J. Simon:

Music influences … Bergman more deeply when he adopts its rhythms for the structure of his films. More kinetic scenes alternate with more stationary ones, agitation with sedateness. And there are the strategically recurrent themes. Thus the photographs of Anne that Fredrik picks up in the beginning, that he makes more of as he fingers them than he does of his trophy wife near the middle, and that get symbolically pocketed by Desirée near the end. Various clocks strike hortatorily, notably the cuckoo clock for cuckoldry in Desirée’s parlor, and the church tower clock with its circling carved figures corresponding to some of the film’s characters, a roundelay that first ends with a symbolically crowned female figure, next with the grim reaper. The dance of life, climaxing with the dominant female, can as easily become the dance of death.

Buy from Amazon:
Smiles of a Summer Night (Criterion Blu-ray)

Carlos (2010, Olivier Assayas)

Wire! The Feelies! A long three-part series/feature about a so-called terrorist who operated by a strict moral code can’t help but get compared to Soderbergh’s Che, but the strong use of quality 1970′s and 80′s music throws a Marie Antoinette comparison into the mix.

Watched in nice widescreen over netflix streaming on the TV. Despite its epic length, the movie felt small and far away. Lots of political and historical touchstones that I didn’t recognize, because I have no education or sense of history. Carlos’s motives weren’t clearly explained (something about the Palestinian Struggle), nor were his origins (“It’s no longer Ilich. It’s Carlos”). But his battles, his public terrorist acts, his relationships, hideouts and escapes are all laid out in glorious detail. I’m generally a fan of Assayas films, but didn’t connect with this one at all. I’m thinking netflix is to blame.

Edgar Ramirez can’t be blamed anyway, was magnetic, as they say, as Carlos.

The movie was so long, and petered out in such an energy-depleting way, that I can’t bring myself to write a whole lot or even to read a bunch of articles. So I took to D. Hudson’s great notebook summary and cut out three points I would’ve made if I’d given it more thought (or took better notes).

G. Andrew:

Certainly, the film doesn’t feel anything like television. It’s shot in Scope, boasts the fleet way with narrative, camera movement and cutting that are characteristic of Assayas at his best and has a sense of scale, depth and seriousness of purpose that is essentially cinematic.

M. Dargis:

He lacks substance. He doesn’t have much to say, and his rhetoric gets cruder as the years pass (as does his treatment of women). He’s a man of action, not ideas. Mr Assayas, by contrast, is a director of ideas. … Carlos isn’t Che slogging through the jungle for the cause: Carlos is a mercenary, a thug.

T. McCarthy:

One element that vividly pops out from the film’s vibrant fabric are the numerous scenes in which government officials from Arab and Eastern bloc countries directly order, sponsor or otherwise facilitate terrorism and mayhem in other nations…. I can’t recall ever seeing scenes quite like these in any movie, and they are bracing.

Buy from Amazon:
Carlos (Criterion Blu-ray)

Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)

Now that I’ve seen this twice (both times on 35mm at Emory) I’m positive it’s one of my favorite movies. Perfect actors, dialogue, camera and lighting, perfectly paced and scored. It’s such an ideal film that while walking out, I almost fell into the trap of wishing for the glory days of Hollywood because they can’t make ‘em like that anymore. Close call – I’m feeling better now.

Criminal flunky Joe (Paul Valentine of House of Strangers) tracks down Robert Mitchum (early in his career) working at a small-town gas station, says that big badman Whit (Kirk Douglas, a few years before Ace in the Hole) wants to speak with him. Mitchum drives up to Whit’s house with his cutie girlfriend, tells her his long flashback story along the way. We spend such a long time in flashback that once the action picks up again, I keep forgetting we’re back in the present.

Mitchum was originally hired by the baddies (both with prominent chins) to track down Kirk’s thieving runaway girl Jane Greer (whose IMDB page is more interesting for trivia about how Howard Hughes used to stalk her than for her film roles). He finds her in Mexico, falls for her, and they run off together, live in hiding for a couple years until discovered by his partner (Steve Brodie, a cop in Losey’s M, also in The Steel Helmet, later Frankenstein Island and The Wizard of Speed and Time). She shoots the partner and runs off, Mitchum belatedly discovering that she’d also stolen Kirk’s money for which she’d been claiming innocence.

So now Kirk wants Mitchum to steal some incriminating files for him, but plans to frame Mitchum along the way as revenge for absconding with Kirk’s girl (now back in the fold). Mitch gets the scoop from Rhonda Fleming (of The Spiral Staircase, Spellbound), and steals the files, but can’t avoid the frame-up and flees home followed by the gangsters and the law.

Mitchum gets unexpected help from his deaf-mute employee, who dispatches Joe with a fishing-rod yank off a cliff. The kid was Dickie Moore – the youngest actor in the movie, but the one who would retire first, near the end of his child-star film career. The Femme proves to be extremely fatale, shoots Kirk to death, then drives herself and Mitchum into a guns-blazing police roadblock. The “happy” ending is that Mitchum’s sweet small-town girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston – in her short film career she played Tarzan’s Jane once, and four characters named Ann) is free of his big-city corrupting influence, and can be properly courted by local cop Jim (Richard Webb, also of The Big Clock), in a world devoid of excitement or interest.

The author of the “unadaptable” novel wrote the screenplay himself, would later co-write The Big Steal and The Hitch-Hiker. Shot by the great Nicholas Musuraca, who practically invented film noir with his lighting – or lack thereof – on Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940. Nominated for nothing, in favor of timeless classics like Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, Ride the Pink Horse and Green Dolphin Street. Bah! Remade in the 80′s with Jeff Bridges, James Woods, and re-starring Jane Greer as the femme fatale’s mother.

Buy from Amazon:
Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1

Contraband (1940, Michael Powell)

I’ve seen a lot of wartime films by the Powell/Pressburger crew, but this one was the most fun.

Neutral ship captain Conrad Veidt (Casablanca and Thief of Bagdad baddie) and his passengers and crew are stuck at a British port having their ship searched for contraband, when a tough-talkin’ broad (Valerie Hobson of Bride of Frankenstein, Kind Hearts and Coronets) slips away. Conrad secretly follows her to shore, finds out she’s a spy, gets involved in hijinks, and foils some sort of nazi plot.

They’re all gonna laugh at you, Conrad:

To attract police attention to the baddies’ lair, Conrad turns on all the lights during the war blackout:

It was easy to follow at the time, but a month later the details are hazy. I remember the girl’s co-conspirator was Mr. Pigeon (Esmond Knight, the old guy who tosses an arrow into the king at the start of Robin and Marian), that the baddy is Van Dyne (Raymond Lovell, later in 49th Parallel). They recruit an excitable Danish chef, the brother of an officer on Conrad’s ship (played by the same actor since they share no scenes), who almost steals the film.

The credits boldly name this scene the “White Negro” Cabaret:

A. Ives for Senses:

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger … would later get into considerable trouble with Churchill on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when they suggested that not all Germans were bad, and that traditional British codes of honour were meaningless in fighting such a ruthless enemy as the Nazis. Britain had to fight dirty, they essentially argued. These theories are also propagated by Contraband, if in a somewhat undercooked fashion. So Veidt fights dirty as he tracks down the Nazis – beating up some British officers in his quest – while the meta-cinema of Contraband (mentioned above) clearly shows an affection for a lost Germany [references Fritz Lang, stars Conrad from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari].

Inside the nazi lair:

Our friendly spies are surely doomed:

But wait! Conrad’s in the elevator with a gun:

Shootout ensues in a bust warehouse:

Buy from Amazon:
Contraband DVD

Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)

A high-quality womany drama full of nearly-insane plot points, the kind of thing that Douglas Sirk would be making ten years later. In fact, the title might as well have been Magnificent Obsession, with all the crazed (but ultimately justified) stalking in this movie.

Ronald Colson (of Lost Horizon and Prisoner of Zenda) is in an asylum with no memory of his past. He doesn’t know how he got there, but knows he wants out – takes advantage of WWI victory celebration to escape and meets Paula (crazy-haired Greer Garson of Mrs. Miniver the same year) who helps him get out of town. They fall in love, get married, have a baby. He gets some stories published, goes into the city for a job interview, hit by a car, whammo, his pre-asylum memory returns and he forgets his life with Paula.

Why is there a long, slow zoom into this stuffed dog?

A couple years later he’s a super rich businessman, his precocious niece (Susan Peters), is trying to marry him and Paula is his secretary under a fake name, having found him after the baby died. The niece gives up, and Colman marries Paula his true love instead. But it’s a sham marriage, for social or tax reasons, I forget exactly, and he still doesn’t remember that she’s his true love. Will he overcome his amnesia by the end of the movie and realize that he loves his wife? Yes!

Colson and Greer (afflicted with Crazy Hair):

A TCM Essential, “considered the definitive treatment of amnesia in a romantic film.” Nominated for seven oscars but won none – beaten out by Mrs. Miniver and James Cagney. Katy and I liked it an awful lot.

Manuel on the Island of Wonders (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A tourist.”

I was planning to watch this anyway, but not as a memorial screening. Low-quality copy of this three-episode miniseries. You can see through the dubbed videotape murk and the MPEG blocks that much of the lighting and composition is probably wonderful (and the music score too good to be consigned to a lost TV-movie) – hope there will be an official release some day. This shows no compromise to the commercial requirements of television, just as twisty as the great City of Pirates, and similarly featuring featuring ships, pirate ghosts, islands, children, plot paradoxes and murder.

Part 1: Manoel’s Destinies

A narrator sets up the time-travel theme right away.
“I’m called ‘long ago.’ This story took place in the past, but I’m sure it will happen again soon. That’s why I chose to tell it to you in the present.”

Seven-year-old Manoel is on his way to school the morning after his family’s jewelry was stolen in the night, when he hears whispered voices, sidetracks into a courtyard and meets himself, six years older. Older Manoel says six years ago he was on his way to school, sidetracked into the courtyard and met a fisherman in a cave, went boating with him, came home and his life changed. His parents’ hopes in their son were shattered, his mother died, and he went off to work after dropping out of school. But he sidetracked into a courtyard, met the fisherman again, and boated backwards through time, retrieved his family’s jewels from the sea, and met his seven-year-old self.

So, young Manoel continues to school, follows the advice of older Manoel, becomes an extreme overachiever, and a few years later his father dies. So he visits the fisherman, goes back and yells his young self. “This time he chooses caution: he must ignore the fisherman’s call, but he mustn’t succeed at school.” At the end of the day, his parents are fine, but the townspeople find a dead boy on the beach: older Manoel.

Part 2: The Picnic of Dreams

More tense-twisting from the narrator, and Manoel’s class is on a field trip, literally to a field, where the teacher wants them to attempt to fall asleep and dream a hospital, which might become real. This doesn’t work, and Manoel walks through the dream forest and meets a large man who talks to trees.

The giant takes a coin from Manoel, and with it they swap bodies. Now Manoel in the man’s body must reclaim the coin, breaks into his own house at night and grabs it from his piggybank. A more straightforward story than the other parts.

Part 3: The Little Chess Champion

After his mother dies (guess he failed to save her through time-travel) Manoel is sent to live with his aunt, who lives with her son and two nephews in a museum. “The staff had moved out because of ghosts.”

Manoel plays violent games with the servant’s sons Pedro and Paulo, and visits the funhouse on Elephant Island with his cousins and a mysterious sea captain – but that may have been a dream. He meets seven-year-old Marylina, a genetically-engineered super-child who’s now the world chess champion and has a fiancee named Rock who has exchanged brains with a famed pianist.

There’s levitation, shadow plays, and my favorite visual effect, a bit of perspective-play with a hand coming through a keyhole. The captain takes Pedro into the shadow world, so Manoel visits the chess girl for help. But she and her fiancee have been discovering secret codes hidden in the structures of things. My favorite: “The Eiffel Tower is an iron code that translates French body odor into perfume.” The Captain comes and steals more children into his shadow world. It’s a completely insane episode.

The Captain and his demise:

“Now after all these years, when I remember my childhood, I think these things were just my imagination.”

This has played in different forms (a four-episode version, a theatrical film) in different places, including at Cannes. The acting credits are listed without character names, but someone figured out that Teresa Madruga (of Joao Monteiro’s Silvestre) plays Manoel’s mother. Fernando Heitor and Diogo Doria (an Oliveira regular, also in Love Torn in Dream) may play his father and teacher. The rest is a mystery to me.

F. Daly:

Writing or filming for children can sometimes bring a person straight to the source of their art. Having to perceptibly adapt their style confronts them with what must be included. Manoel leaves us with the essential Ruiz, the audio-visual companion to his extraordinary book Poetics of Cinema. Its dizzying narrative fold-over-fold methodology creates a labyrinthine temporal structure.

Also watched a TV episode called Exiles from 1988, which provides a nice career summary, focusing on Ruiz’s relationship with Chile and identity as an exile within his film stories.

The Great Man:

And something called Screen Pioneers (episode 3) from 1985 – an eccentric biography program, purporting to be from the future (like Time Trumpet) looking back on our present, and on this semi-unknown character named Raoul Ruiz. Written by Michael Powell expert Ian Christie – I’ve listened to some of his Criterion audio commentaries.
It’s only ten minutes long, plays like an extended intro to…

Return of a Library Lover (1983)

A first-person travel essay about Ruiz’s first return to Chile in ten years. Everything seems the same as when he left (it’s first-person narrated), except he notices a single pink book is missing from his shelf, a book he decides holds “the key to what happened on that night of Pinochet’s coup.” He interviews friends (including a “renowned library constructor”), and checks the bars. He talks to a bookseller. “I deduced that he couldn’t speak Spanish anymore and constantly had to check his own subtitles and translate them laboriously back.” What started out as a personal slideshow has turned into a full-fledged Ruiz movie. The book is discovered at the end, by contemporary Chilean poet Juan Uribe Echevarria.

My favorite line, a casual, matter-of-fact note on subjective memory: “Apart from having shrunk a little, the house was still intact.”

“From the Mayans I’ve inherited the knack of changing my childhood
just as one changes one’s native country.”

Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik)

Katy and I were surprised that the movie had a happy ending. Then again, the happy ending consists of the lead character finding her dead father and sawing off his hands. She spends the previous ninety minutes in an atmosphere of such threat and menace, surrounded by hostile neighbors and relatives, all with guns in their hands, that we’re just stunned she’s alive, and with some money to boot.

Katy picked this because lead actress Jennifer Lawrence will star in The Hunger Games (having played Mystique in the X-Men prequel along the way). I was also glad to see Sheryl “Laura Palmer” Lee, first movie I’ve watched of hers since the great Mother Night. Lawrence is a dirt-poor girl with a messed-up mom and missing dad (this is all good Hunger Games practice) in a town full of angry meth dealers, some of which are her relatives but I can’t always tell which. What’s for sure is that this is a town which values shutting-the-fuck-up above all else, and even though she has damn good reason to go asking after her father (she’ll lose her house if he skips bail), all these questions are making people nervous, so they resolve to deal with her. Fortunately she makes a sorta friend in Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes of Me and You and Everyone We Know) who helps her out, probably dooming himself.

Nominated for oscars but beaten by The King’s Speech, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale and Aaron Sorkin.

The Mark of Zorro (1920, Fred Niblo)

Douglas Fairbanks is the proto-Batman title character, a rich property owner’s dullard son by day, masked avenger of the poor locals by night. He even has a batcave beneath the mansion, but of course no batmobile because Zorro rides a horse. As “Don Diego,” he bores the lovely Lolita and shames his father, performing handkerchief tricks and playing with shadow puppets – but as Zorro he kicks the asses of oppressors who would beat the natives and over-tax the whites. I liked the swordplay and acrobatics, but I admit I also liked the shadow puppets.

The first of at least thirty Zorro movies. Fairbanks was transitioning from comic hero to action star, would somewhat reprise his role in Son of Zorro five years later. Niblo was probably best-known for directing the original Ben-Hur. Very good live organ score at the Fox.

preceded by…
Three For Breakfast (1948, Jack Hannah)
An uncensored vintage Disney cartoon complete with culturally-insensitive Asian caricatures. Donald sees his pancakes stolen by Chip ‘n Dale (chattery, but with no actual dialogue), cooks up a rubber-cement pancake to thwart them, but fails, gets brutally beaten for refusing to share his meal with home intruders.