The lead cops, whose casting may be holdovers from when this was first planned as a Martin Scorsese picture, get first billing, but the film belongs to Mekhi Phifer as Strike, sort of the D’Angelo Barksdale of this story. He’s a mid-level drug dude with a stern and intense boss (Delroy Lindo) whose heart (and stomach) isn’t in his work. The poor guy either executes a rival or guilts his brother into doing it, and he’s such a harmless dude that even the cops help him get away in the end. Whoever called this a trial run for 25th Hour nailed it.

Keitel and “Chucky”:

Strike tries to get himself a protegee named Tyrone, but keeps getting yelled at by Tyrone’s mom. Some Spike Lee weirdness keeps you on your toes – the climactic murder by Tyrone is foreshadowed in a VR game, and what was up with that “No More Packing” billboard with the gun in a lunchbox? Best of all is when Harvey Keitel, terrible at his job, is telling Tyrone what he should say to get off for the killing, appearing by the kid’s side in alternate-flashback versions of the events.

Showdown:

Somebody was not careful when writing character names – with only a few lead roles, why would you name four of them Ronny and Rodney, Errol and Darryl? Also funny to hear an interviewee correct the cops’ pronunciation of his name “Jesus,” with John Turturro standing right behind him.

The lost, final Maysles film appeared online for a week during the Great Quarantine, was recommended by True/False enthusiast Alissa Wilkinson, so we watched. Filmed on eastbound and westbound legs of the Empire Builder railway route, so I had that Aesop Rock song in my head (“hi-ho silver, high-pass filter, live from an empire builder”). The movie picks up stories from several regular characters, with one-off scenes of riders in between, gradually building several cross-cut/cross-country journies – a woman going home to give birth, a woman returning to her family after years away, a couple of young men fleeing North Dakota to be with their loves, an aged photographer seeing the country for the last time… somehow all these people and more opened up to a camera crew on their train ride.

Final tally:
Perkins > Bacall > Gielgud > Connery > Cassel > Balsam > Roberts > Bisset >
(good/bad frontier)
Widmark > Hiller > Quilley > York > Bergman > Finney

Richard Widmark wakes up dead on a train, after asking detective Poirot to protect him the day before. Widmark was the mastermind of a heinous kidnapping in prologue, also a huge asshole, and it turns out all of the suspects had motives, each of them affected by his crime, and conspired to kill him together.

Languorously paced, and centered around Finney’s Mike Myers-like appearance and accent, it’s a near-disaster of a movie kept sporadically afloat by a few good scenes and performances, and a touching ending. Anthony Perkins was Widmark’s assistant – nervous, of course… Bergman is a timid religious fanatic who says “little brown babies” pretty often… Vanessa Redgrave is cute and smiley, having an affair with Sean Connery… Wendy Hiller in weird makeup and weird accent plays a princess.

Lumet made a lotta movies, more than forty and this was about the midpoint. The only other of his movies I’ve written about are his very first and his very last. Obviously a weird year for the oscars – Finney was nominated, Bergman won, and the whole list looks like New Hollywood and Old Hollywood in an ugly clash, trading awards between The Godfather II and The Towering Inferno.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Opens with exciting abstractions, sunrise and shapes seen through blinds, then we catch a
train into Berlin and it chills out for a while, the depopulated city reminding me creepily of In My Room before people start to wake up and head to work (more trains), then the movie amps up again, the mass production lines looking very much like the ones I see on the Machine Pix twitter feed 100 years later. This movie probably works better as a city-story than Man with the Movie Camera does, though I love the fanciful effects and meta-scenes of the latter.

German Harold Lloyd:

In act II, telephone users and operators are compared to chattering monkeys and fighting dogs. I’d noticed a brief animal comparison in act I and shrugged it off, since a “symphony of a great city” wouldn’t do that to its people? Lunch, siesta, play – then hurry back to work, with a focus on newspapers. Motion of the day is exaggerated by strapping a camera to a rollercoaster.

Ruttmann died in WWII. He worked with Lotte Reiniger and Leni Riefenstahl, apparently knew Oskar Fischinger, and made a dream sequence in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Music by Eisenstein collaborator Edmund Meisel, cinematography by Murnau’s DP Karl Freund, conceived by Caligari writer Carl Mayer – everyone in silent cinema knew each other.

I also watched Ruttmann’s earlier Opus series…


Opus I (1921)

Ghostly motion blobs against a dirty dark background
About four different motions, mirrored, colored and repeated
A third of the way through, new shapes and variations, and more at a time
Next part adds dyed searchlights and sun pendulums and tumblecubes
The shapes never quite interacting, just almost


Opus II (1921)

The same shapes on more charcoaly textures, and with more interaction between shapes
Black and white with some soft blue and a shock of red towards the end


Opus III (1924)

Some new cube overlays and color pulsations look almost 3D
Factory-machinery rectangles then a blue field with 3D blob rotation in the center
The same Red ending as II


Opus IV (1925)

Pulsing horizontal blinds with walking verticals mixed in later – faster and faster till pale purple blobs take over, then the traditional red ending. More advanced music on this one, by Helga Pogatschar – I hadn’t noticed that each film has a different musician. Rewatching the opening of Berlin, there are the blinds and the blobs, like a mini Opus V.

I had to open LNKarno with the Claire Simon film to tie it together with True/False, where she was last year’s True Vision Award winner. Cannes Month got interrupted by vacation this year, represented only by The Salesman and Bright Star, so I didn’t give LNKarno a time limit, just picked some selections and kept watching ’em until it felt over. Simon had two related films at the fest in 2013: the train station-set drama Gare du Nord in competition, and a documentary about people they met at the station, Human Geography, in the out-of-competition Fuori Concorso. It reminded me of the In the City of Sylvia double-feature, another doc/fiction pair set in the same spaces.

Gare du Nord stars Nicole Garcia, a filmmaker in competition four times at Cannes, also a star of Mon oncle d’Amérique and Duelle. Mathilde is taking trains to get treatment for an unspecified illness, and runs across the younger Ismael (Reda Kateb of A Prophet and the most recent Wim Wenders), who talks with people in the station for his sociology thesis. “When you’re here, you’re nowhere really, but at the same time it’s like a village square.” She’s a professor and shows some interest in his project, and he shows some interest in her (she’s married but we only see the husband once).

Meanwhile, a TV host (Francois Damiens of Les Cowboys, The Brand New Testament) has a missing daughter, hangs out at the station waving her photograph around and reluctantly taking photos with fans. A fellow student gets Ismael involved in a health services protest that aims to shut down train service. A giant unstable man wreaks havoc in a lingerie shop. Joan (Monia Chokri of a couple Xavier Dolan movies, this year’s Ravenous) is a harried realtor whose job is destroying her family, runs into each of the other characters. The movie ends abruptly with Mathilde’s offscreen death after some vaguely hippie plot contrivances lead the TV host to his missing daughter. Mostly it’s realistic, but sometimes there are ghosts.

Human Geography is a straightforward doc, the music and photography pretty basic, either the film or the DVD transfer turning black faces into smudges. Claire speaks with station workers and regulars, and also employs her friend Simon as an interviewer, meeting people from Tunisia and Mali and Brittany, Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, USA, Mauritius, Iran, Congo. They talk with a couple of racist Belgians, and witness so much fare cheating at the turnstiles.

Simon, taking a breather after speaking with the Belgians:

The lingerie shop, the photomat, and at least one local (a diner worker with an economics degree who sells art online) appear in both movies. Gare du Nord didn’t come together for me, and the dialogue felt flat (maybe chalk that up to shady subtitles), and Human Geography is interesting enough – maybe if you’re a station regular who walks past the immigrant workers daily without considering their histories or inner lives it’d be extremely enlightening. Watching both movies in a row, though, is pretty great. Not to harp on the True/False connection, but the real stories in the doc suggest the sheer number of directions the feature could’ve taken – you could make a career’s worth of films in the station.

The opening scene sets up some teen school drama – girl who wants to fit in and act adult, lovestruck fool who obsesses over her, and his friends, the popular class president and their weirdo buddy Don. So it’s gonna be that kind of movie… except the lead girl (does she not have a name?) is gulping boozy drinks all at once, her throat bulging as they go down. The animation style keeps changing, and facial expressions extend off people’s heads when they get excited. It’s mentioned that the class president is famous for his cross-dressing and that Don hasn’t changed his underwear in six months. The lead dude lays out his scheme to follow the girl everywhere, bumping into her “by chance” until she thinks it’s fate that they should be together. Then she imagines she’s a train and cho-choos off into the night – this is all in the first four minutes. There’s singing and dancing, so I’m pretty sure it’s a sequel to Girl Walk: All Day.

Soon our girl is beating up a molester in another bar, meeting gamblers and gangsters and secret societies. She faces off against the droopy-eared elf leader of the criminal underworld, who she drinks under the table, the beginning of his rapid decline. There’s a nighttime book market with its own guardian spirit, a hallucinatory hot pot competition, the president using his panopticon to track down a guerrilla theater production rigged by Don Underwear to search for his missed-connection. I can’t tell if the movie believes in fate or is mocking its characters for believing in it. The night ends with everyone tired and sick, except our Girl, who delivers healing soup to everyone in town at once, Santa-like.

Don Underwear and his Apple Girl:

This feels more mainstream than Kate Plays Christine or Actress without compromising Greene’s interest in blurring the lines of performance, and while bringing up tons of new and timely issues. The photography is very good (some epic travelling shots, most notably when introducing our young star Fernando) and Greene has graduated from filming lone actresses to an entire town. I came in with high expectations and couldn’t be happier – this was the standout hit of True/False.

In July 1917, striking workers in an Arizona mining town were rounded up and herded out of the town, told they’d be killed if they returned. For the hundredth anniversary, Greene films a town-wide re-enactment of the event, as portrayed by locals with hundred-year roots, by ex-miners and their families, businessmen and government officials, and town newcomers. Few had heard of the “Deportation” before the anniversary committee got underway, but as they research their roles it leads to much discussion and some uncomfortable parallels to still-current problems – deportation and communist agitation were rearing their ugly heads again right as filming began. Two brothers whose grandfather exiled their great uncle play opposite sides, a friendly young dude plays an ambivalent miner who gets swayed to become a flag-waving striker, and a descendant of a town leader insists the deportation was right and necessary until the moment when he finds himself rallying his neighbors onto desert-bound railcars at gunpoint. Minds don’t exactly get changed, but people soften their hardline positions. The whole ensemble piece is beautifully assembled and shot in widescreen, cutting between documentary behind-the-scenes footage and staged-reenactment scenes without radically changing the visuals, breaking down the boundaries between them in true Greene-T/F style.

After lunch we went to the Journalism Institute on campus because we heard there was a Strong Island exhibit. It must have been closed on Sunday, but we came across this instead:

There’s a whole subgenre of action thrillers in which Liam Neeson’s family members get taken, with different spinoffs and variations (like Keanu Reeves’ dog getting taken), all of which I’ve been skipping. I probably would’ve skipped this too, but I was fifteen minutes late for The Square, and I’m saving The Post for Katy, and the vulgar auteurists who prompted my fruitful journey through the Resident Evil movies last summer are saying The Commuter is pure cinema, so fine. And they’re wrong, obviously, though their articles are a blast to read – it’s just a pretty good suspenseful movie where Liam kicks some ass and we forgive the ludicrous situation because we’re having a good time.

Liam is a good family man, ex-cop with a kid entering college and major money problems, especially today when he lost his wallet and his insurance job, so when he’s offered $100k to finger a witness on his daily train, he goes along at first, then discovers the people he’s working with are murderers covering for corrupt cops including his ex-partner Patrick Wilson. Various groups claim to be holding Liam’s wife Lady Grantham, but this turns out maybe not to be true – either way, Liam runs up and down the train, making enemies and alliances, eventually gathering everyone in one car and yelling at them while carrying a gun until things get sorted. This is all what I imagine the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express was like, but with funnier mustaches. The opening montage detailing Liam’s daily family routine is excellent, and a massive train derailment scene was exciting if you get past the conductor’s little Titanic-like self-sacrifice dialogue. The super-happy post-hostage-situation wrap scene was a bit of a stretch. People are dead, a train is destroyed and Liam is supposedly holding hostages. The cop sent in to negotiate is killed. Then a couple minutes after a thousand police storm the train car and grab everybody, Liam is just allowed to go free because the other passengers say he’s a hero. Call me cynical, but I’d expect him to be taken away, beaten half to death and held as a terrorist for at least a few months.

Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) is Liam’s contact, Sam Neill a cop boss, and Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth herself) a passenger. The crossover casting between this movie and Atomic Blonde (more deserving of the “pure cinema” label) is tough-looking fellow commuter Roland Møller. This is Collet-Serra’s fourth film where Liam Neeson is holding a gun on the poster, and I’m glad it’s working out for both of them – he also made The Shallows, which I’ve been meaning to watch some SHOCKtober.

Spoiler: there are zombies on the train to Busan. But there are suddenly zombies everywhere, and the train survivors aren’t sure whether it’s more dangerous in the zombie-infested train, or out in the zombie-infested world. The heart of the story, which doesn’t work nearly as well as The Host, to take another Korean family/supernatural-disaster movie as an example, is that workaholic dad Gong Yoo (The Age of Shadows) is a professional asshole and a shitty father to his daughter. During the course of the invasion, not only does he step up and learn to help people and work together, but we get a real panicky villain who needlessly kills others trying to save himself, making dad look even better in comparison.

L-R: Baseballer, Tough Guy, Hero Dad

There’s also a big tough dude and his pregnant wife, a high school baseballer and his girl Jin-Hee, the bedraggled survivor from outside, two older sisters, and one extremely dedicated train conductor. Once you get bit, the zombification escalates very quickly, so it’s all panic and chaos. The action is kinda poor, but the tension is great – especially when the group pictured above fights their way through to a car with the other survivors, then Panicky Villain Guy convinces the others that the newcomers can’t be allowed to stay.

Zombies can see better than they can hear:

The two sisters:

One train crash later, our Hero Dad finally gets zombie’d fighting off the villain, and the daughter makes it to Busan with the Tough Guy’s pregnant wife. I didn’t love the director’s animated The Fake – he bridged the two films with an animated zombie train movie called Seoul Station. He’s joined here by the cowriter of Hwayi: A Monster Boy.