Brief Encounter (1944, David Lean)

Errand-running housewife Celia Johnson (lovestruck daughter in The Holly and the Ivy) is helped out by Trevor Howard (deposed captain in Mutiny on the Bounty). They get to talking, and eventually it’s a weekly appointment, then outings to movies and the park, a gradual love affair. Both are married, and they finally break it off when he’s offered a job in Africa. After a messy parting at the train station where they first met, interrupted by a shrill acquaintance, Celia returns home to her boring life at home. Her husband: “You’ve been a long way away… thank you for coming back to me.” Katy doesn’t approve of affairs, didn’t find it too romantic.

A. Turner:

Billy Wilder found Alec’s friend, who loans the flat, so interesting that he made an entire film about just such a character: The Apartment. … Brief Encounter is also the principal link between the small-scale films of Lean’s early career with the widescreen epics of his final phase. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India each have central characters who are prone to a dreamy romanticism which borders on hysteria and hallucination. … Condemning Laura to a life of conformity and emotional suppression, Lean sets his own course towards the far horizon, where the English go out in the midday sun. Brief Encounter is not only Lean’s finest statement on the suffocating world into which he was born; it is also his train ticket out.

K. Brownlow:

But after [a flop preview], the film opened more widely, and a miracle happened. The public embraced it, people went to see it again and again, and it broke box-office records. In New York, it ran for eight months, and Johnson was not only voted best actress by the New York critics, she was nominated for an Oscar. David became the first director of a British film since Korda to be nominated, and he, Neame, and Havelock-Allan were also nominated for the screenplay.

Unstoppable (2010, Tony Scott)

Runaway train movie. Surprisingly there’s no evil plan by a criminal mastermind to steal the train for terroristic purposes, just an incredibly dumb move by Ethan “It’s Not a Schooner” Suplee that sets a train with explosive cargo at full throttle with no driver or brakes.

Suplee, typecast as an idiot:

The final of around 20 features Tony Scott made. I saw a string of his 90’s movies: The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, then tried to avoid him, but after his death Mubi cranked the level of their Scott-appreciation posts to unavoidable levels (see: my rant at the top of Death Race) so I reluctantly rented this for a memorial screening. Verdict: he’s very good at putting together a high-energy sweeping-camera-movements action scene with lots of blur-motion without sacrificing clarity – a rare and valuable skill. But it’s impossible to watch his particular brand of straightfaced action after seeing Hot Fuzz, which perfectly parodies this sort of thing. And despite the skill behind the camera and two top-notch lead actors, it’s pretty slight for a big action film: the nearly-real-time, based-on-true-events story of a veteran and a rookie train operator who manage to stop a runaway train.

Also there are lots of helicopters:

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are earnest characters who we want to succeed (yay!), watched closely (via TV news coverage) by Denzel’s daughters and Chris’s estranged wife. Their manager Rosario Dawson and a helpful inspector (Kevin Corrigan, Jerry Rubin in Steal This Movie) and a truck-drivin’ dude named Ned are risking lives or careers trying to help stop the disaster (yay!) while some corporate boss (Kevin Dunn, Shia’s shameful dad in the Transformers movies) tries to minimize financial risk to the train company (boo!) and Schooner Suplee (boo!) prays his blunder won’t kill thousands of people.

From the writer of the fourth Die Hard and the Total Recall remake.

The Charters and Caldicott Trilogy

I’ve always wanted to watch The Lady Vanishes, and since I found out that it has two recurring characters who appear in two other Criterion-released British wartime comedies, I checked out all three.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

Opens with the fakest model town since Beetlejuice. The DVD extras and interviews make much of how cheaply-made the film was, but after the first scene you never notice it. Snappy, briskly-plotted comedy-mystery with charming leads – at least as good as The 39 Steps.

Our eventually-romantic couple:

Margaret Lockwood meets annoying freewheeling musicologist Michael Redgrave in her hotel, tries to get him kicked out for making too much noise. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a new hit comic duo Charters and Caldicott – the gimmick is that they’re incredibly British, clueless about foreign customs, but always travelling.

C&C:

They’re all on the same train out of town, along with Linden Travers (title role in No Orchids for Miss Blandish), her lying secret lover Cecil Parker (Ingrid Bergman’s unmemorable brother-in-law in Indiscreet), a not-at-all-sinister surgeon with a neat mustache (Paul Lukas, oscar winner in ’44), travelling magician Doppo and a thoroughly pleasant British woman named Froy (May Whitty, wealthy flower grower in Mrs. Miniver). But then Froy vanishes and Margaret seems to be the only person who remembers her. All the Germans (they’re from Unspecified Euro-Country, but they have nazi-like tendencies and this was the pre-WWII era, so let’s call them German) lie because Froy is a spy and they’ve kidnapped her, and all the Brits lie because they don’t want to get involved. But Margaret finds an ally in the musicologist and they set off to cracking the mystery, which involves fighting the magician through secret compartments and dealing with a fake nun. Trains are diverted, and Charters and Caldicott step up (and the cheater gets killed) in a climactic shootout. It’s all too tense and fun to worry that the central premise and the secret Froy is protecting are all ridiculous – Hitchcock admits so himself in his Truffaut interview.

Lukas with giant poisoned drinks, reminiscent of The Small Back Room:

Hitch’s second-to-last British picture (Jamaica Inn was last) Writer of the original story also did The Spiral Staircase. Remade in the 70’s with Angela Lansbury as Froy. It all reminded me of Shanghai Express, though I guess train dramas were pretty common.

G. O’Brien:

The whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.

C. Barr:

While the train speeds Iris back toward her loveless marriage, her attempt to solve the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is blocked by the obstinate intransigence of her countrymen, working in unconscious collaboration with the forces of European fascism that have kidnapped her. Clearly, this gave the film an especially potent meaning for the England of 1938, a time when the ruling classes were still working to appease Hitler and a class-stratified country was patently unready to pull together effectively if war should nonetheless become unavoidable.

Night Train to Munich (1940, Carol Reed)

See if this sounds familiar: Margaret Lockwood meets and immediately dislikes a handsome musician who ends up helping her flee from nazis aboard a train. Rex Harrison (Unfaithfully Yours) seems blander than her Lady Vanishes costar at first, but ends up being the highlight of the film. The effects are even cheaper-looking than the previous picture, but the action’s all there and the stakes are higher, war with Germany having started.

Charters didn’t have many options at the German railway book store:

Lockwood is the daughter of a Czech scientist working on some super armor. They flee to England as the nazis invade, hiding out with music salesman Rex, but get easily kidnapped by rival spy Paul Henreid (more dashing here than as Bergman’s husband in Casablanca) and flown to Germany. Not taking this defeat lying down, Rex grabs a nazi uniform, forges himself a letter of introduction with unreadable signature and flies down in to kidnap them back, all ending up aboard the titular train, where Charters and Caldicott are miffed to learn that Britain has declared war on Germany that same day, and so the ever-patriotic comic duo help our heroes escape the train to safety, via a cable-car shootout.

Margaret and Rex:

Defeated Henreid:

P. Kemp:

If its view of the Third Reich now seems frivolous, not to say naive, it should be remembered that it was made, and released, during the period known as the Phony War—before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs on British cities. At that time, with the full horrors of Nazism not yet widely known, Hitler and his storm troopers were often treated as figures of fun (other British films of the period, such as Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband, adopt a similar stance). … [Henreid] plays Marsen not unsympathetically, far from the standard ranting Nazi blowhard, and the final shot of him lying wounded and defeated, watching his rival make off with everything, including the girl, even exerts a certain pathos.

Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter)

A huge step down from the previous films. It’s not necessarily the fault of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, who now play the leads, foiling an enemy spy plot and even getting the girl. They’ve got a new set of writers and a lesser director, and the whole thing feels cheap and unnecessary, and rarely funny – the silly cartoon music does it no favors.

This time the guys are touring the middle east, and Caldicott (the smaller, mustache-less one) is engaged to marry Charters’ sister Edith, whom they’re meeting in Budapest. Some setup in the Saudi desert where they meet a sheik (Charles Oliver, who had small roles in all three movies) who went to Charters’ school in England, who mentions that he’s protecting the British oil pipeline from German shit-starters. Then a ludicrous mixup with a ridiculous waiter leads them to gain possession of a gramophone record containing secret German plans to steal oil from the Saudis. Caldicott has eyes for Greta Gynt, and nobody seems to think it’s super weird that she’s the live entertainment at the next two cities they visit as well.

I didn’t know this kind of thing was allowed in the 1940’s:

Greta has an owl!

Baddie Ali (Abraham Sofaer of Bhowani Junction) is accidentally killed when Charters pushes him into the “bathroom,” which turns out to be a hole straight into the sea. Edith (Noel Hood, somebody’s aunt in The Curse of Frankenstein) shows up and gets mad that Caldicott is involved in spy-business with Greta. Ali’s partner Rossenger is a terrible spy, so his boss Cyril Gardiner gets involved, promises to kill and torture and all that, but our heroes (including Greta, a British spy all along) manage to escape.

Baddies Ali, Rossenger and double-agent Greta:

I’m aware that there’s another C&C movie, Millions Like Us, directed by Lady Vanishes and Night Train writers Launder and Gilliat. Holding off on watching it for now, since I presume the deluxe Criterion restoration is just around the corner.

Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese’s first major non-DiCaprio feature in a decade.

After the films of Georges Méliès aren’t popular anymore, he burns his props, donates his precious drawing robot to a museum and opens a trinket shop in a train station. Museum worker Jude Law takes the robot home to repair it then dies in an explosion. Museum man’s son Hugo, secretly the station’s clock-winder since his drunk uncle (Sexy Beast star Ray Winstone) has disappeared, repairs the mechanical man and, Amelie-like, presents it to Georges Méliès, rekindling his hopes, dreams and love of cinema. Help comes from Méliès wife (Helen McCrory: Tony Blair’s wife in The Queen, Malfoy’s mum in Harry Potter), an author of a book on cinema (Michael Stuhlbarg, star of A Serious Man) and Chloe Moretz, who seems to have gotten younger since her last few films.

Some side plots are loosely integrated – they must be leftovers from the novel. Inspector Cohen has a crush on lovely flower girl Emily Mortimer (of Shutter Island) but is embarrassed by his mechanical leg brace, Christopher Lee is a forbidding/kindhearted book seller, and Richard Griffiths (uncle Monty in Withnail) is doing something or other with Frances de la Tour (in charge of the Albert Finney’s Head science project in Cold Lazarus) and her dog.

Set at the Gare Montparnasse train station where the famous photograph of the train derailment was shot – Hugo must’ve seen the photo because he dreams himself causing it. Some good cinema-reference, a few lovely bits of 3D (and some 90 minutes where I barely noticed the effect), and a nice performance by Ben Kingsley, but ultimately I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s just a well-made kids movie.

The Tall Target (1951, Anthony Mann)

I don’t know much about Anthony Mann, but this and The Furies both kicked some ass. Thought it’d be a Western, since I never look up even the most basic information about movies I’m about to watch, but it’s a high-quality period piece set on a train (I love movies set on trains) about a frustrated New York cop (technically ex-cop; he turns in his badge at the start of the film) trying to uncover an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln on his way through Baltimore to inauguration on the eve of civil war.

Powell:

Dick Powell (star of Susan Slept Here, Christmas In July) is “John Kennedy” (unwittingly aiding future nerds with their Lincoln/JFK parallel theories), the ex-cop, whose intended contact on the train is murdered off-screen. So Powell hooks up with sideburned Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou, noted commie-hater who named names in 1947) to solve the mystery of his dead friend and his hunch about an assassination attempt. I lost track of the colonel for a while though, soon found out that it’s unwise to track actors in this movie by their sideburns, kinda like trying to remember someone in a 1930’s movie as the guy with the hat.

The Colonel:

Kennedy isn’t the best cop, allows an interloper (Leif Erickson) to make off with his coat and gun. This guy also has Kennedy’s ticket, and grinningly claims to be Kennedy when the ticket-taker comes around. At the next stop, Kennedy fights the man for his identity, and the colonel, seeing a struggle, shoots at them, happening to kill the faker. This was really my only problem with the movie, dude just firing wildly in the darkness when he didn’t seem to have a clear shot or any understanding of the situation, irresponsible – until it’s revealed that the colonel is the main anti-Lincoln conspirator and that this was a clue to his identity. Because the colonel wouldn’t mind shooting Erickson, who could identify him, or Kennedy, who aims to stop him.

Jenny:

Kennedy’s main suspect is outspoken pro-slavery Georgian and sniper-rifle bearer Lance (Fiend Without a Face lead Marshall Thompson), travelling with his loyal sister Jenny (Paula Raymond of Crisis) and their slave maid Rachel (Ruby Dee! of Do The Right Thing!). But Kennedy suspects the colonel enough to leave his pistol loaded with powder but no bullet, so when the colonel shoots Kennedy while he naps, he is unharmed – the second harmless pistol head-shot I’ve seen in a movie this month. But at a stop in Philly Kennedy finds himself on the run instead of boldly turning in his evidence, an arrest warrant out for his “impersonating an officer.”

Ruby:

Back on board, Ruby Dee tells him that Lance has been lying about his intentions. Jenny the sister helps, then interferes, then helps. The colonel gets off in Baltimore but sends word to Lance that the future president is on the train. Kennedy awakes, fight ensues, Lance is knocked off the train, and Kennedy gets covertly thanked by the president’s people, as Lincoln looks out at the under-construction Capitol building. A fine-looking and tightly-plotted movie.

Buy from Amazon:
The Tall Target DVD

The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.

Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.

Directed by Michael William Powell:

Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.

Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:

A. Kaes for Criterion:

Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Buy from Amazon:
Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg DVD

Water For Elephants (2011, Francis Lawrence)

Robert Patterson’s Polish immigrant parents die “at the very moment his final exam begins. His professors couldn’t have waited a mere two hours to tell him the bad news, thus allowing him to graduate? Not in a story this devoted to broad strokes and contrived barriers.” (AV Club)

So RP, looking remarkably more like a real person with normal hair than he does in those Twilight trailers, hops a train and joins the circus, meets ringmaster Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds, barely recognized him until he started talking with his bad-guy voice, and come to think of it, he should participate in a bad-guy voice-off contest with John Malkovich) with beautiful performing wife Reese Witherspoon (highlight of the movie was that my dream of having someone grab Witherspoon by her pointy chin was finally realized).

Anyway, Robert and Reese fall for each other but Waltz is crazy jealous and likes to murder his workers and hurt the poor, Polish-speaking elephant who comes along halfway through the movie and was the reason I agreed to go see it. Reese’s elephant tricks were nifty indeed, but maybe didn’t make up for all the dour, overwrought period drama surrounding them.

And look, Ken Foree of From Beyond plays one of Waltz’s enforcers – but not the one who’s so evil that he has to be killed off-camera at the end. Also, the whole movie is narrated by Hal Holbrook to Mark Brendanawicz. And it’s the second movie I’ve seen so far this year where somebody runs away from a circus after a traumatic event, only to return just as the circus is on the verge of failing. Rivette’s film had more clown acts and tightrope walking, and therefore wins. From the director of I Am Legend and Constantine, screenwriter of Fisher King and Freedom Writers and DP of 25th Hour and Brokeback Mountain.

La Prisonnière (1968, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

After watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, which documents the director’s experiments with visual effects and attempts to integrate them with his stories via dream sequences, then reading at the end that he later used all these effects in The Prisoner, what could I do but run straight out to watch The Prisoner.

And boy did he ever put those effect experiments to use. It is full of light and color and lines and boxes, reflections and refractions. Real tight framing and editing, very clockwork in a wonderful way, with outstanding music, acting that seems unexceptional at first, but gets better. I’ve liked all the Clouzot movies I’ve seen, but have heard nothing about this one, so figured it’d be a dull late-career entry (it was his final released film), but no, he went out with a bang.

Gilbert (Bernard Fresson of Z and Street of No Return) is an artist who specializes in mass-produceable objects with geometric patterns that cause optical illusions when you spin them round. Stan (Laurent Terzieff of The Milky Way) runs a gallery where Gil and other guys are putting on a show. And Josée (Elisabeth Wiener of Duelle) is Gil’s girl, who jealously spies her man Gil talking to a reporter in a hall of mirrors, and so strikes up a chat with leering Stan, going back to his place to look at photos of “handwriting”.

The only thing I remember of Josée’s day job is that she spends some hours looking at interview films on an editing table, commenting that she can’t understand submissiveness and masochism in women. Of course this is a setup, and when she’s at Stan’s place she “accidentally” spies a slide of a naked girl in chains, which fascinates and excites her. Oh of course, it’s just another thing Stan dabbles in, photographing nude bondage sessions, but Josée is now obsessed, insists on attending the next one. Maguy (Dany Carrel, returning from Inferno) poses, Stan photographs and Josée watches anxiously.

Josée soon agrees to be photographed herself, and starts a heated affair with Stan. This was one year after Belle de Jour (and given Clouzot’s pacing, he might have written this film before Buñuel even dreamed of his). Clouzot’s picture is both less and more extreme than Buñuel’s – it’s surely more passionate and less clinical, when considering two directors I would’ve expected the opposite. The photographic sessions, even Maguy’s first one with minimal nudity, are erotic as hell, the height of sexy editing. It may be ultimately more tame than Belle de Jour though, with overall less to say about societal norms and sexuality.

Husband vs. lover, splendidly shot through a half-reflecting window:

Stan has a more poetic penchant for suicide than did the desperate, more tragic Dominique in La Vérité:

Interesting to watch this in the same month as Lady of Burlesque (1943), From Here to Eternity (1953), Monika (1953 but released in the U.S. in ’56), The Apartment (1960), Knife in the Water (1962) and even The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Half were (or at least were intended to be) sexually progressive films when released, all seem very of-their-time, and only The Apartment and this one still seem capable of shocking anyone today.

I loved the camerawork – mobile, but always with a specific goal, a plan to paint a picture through time. Clouzot, 60 years old, a widower with heart trouble, doesn’t seem quite up to the task of smashing a complacent society and visual expectations to bits with his camera, but he has no trouble smashing his lead actress to bits with a train, something he attempted earlier in Inferno.

D. Cairns:

And as a final note of strangeness, the film ends with a woman in a hospital bed calling for the wrong man—the very same ending as Richard Lester’s seminal Petulia, released the very same year. No possibility of one film influencing the other. Instead, both films must be hooked into something, something out there in the ether. Cinema can do that.

Midnight Meat Train (2008, Ryûhei Kitamura)

From the director of Versus and Godzilla: Final Wars, two movies I didn’t like at all. Guess I should’ve looked that up before I rented it, but I’m a sucker for anything Clive Barker-related, so it probably wouldn’t have stopped me. Barker’s elliptical story has been handily adapted into a full-length movie by the writer/director of Insanitarium, a little-seen horror starring Peter Stormare. Add a hundred producers and the cinematographer of Soul Plane and you’ve got yourself a movie.

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Bradley Cooper (Jennifer Connelly’s cheaty husband in He’s Not All That Into You and an enthusiastic drama counselor in Wet Hot American Summer) plays a dullard photographer who wants to get deeper, go further into the depths of the city to get the most real, unflinching photographs anyone has seen, to the frustation of girlfriend Leslie Bibb (who was she in Iron Man?). They have a good-looking friend (Roger Bart of Hostel II) and they know a couple of other undeveloped characters, so much the better since a horror flick needs bodies. Oh and Bradley’s photo guru is Brooke Shields, whose name you hear a lot though she’s hardly been in anything I’ve heard of.

20 minutes in it announces itself to be slapstick horror, with a three-person train massacre filmed in the hammiest way possible with all From Dusk Till Dawn 2 POV shots. I didn’t think it would stoop to that. Then it straightens up and goes serious suspense for a while – can’t figure out what it wants. Maybe the slapstick thing would’ve worked if they’d stuck with it. Clashes with Barker’s style, but I’m sure Vinnie Jones would’ve been game.

Clearly game for anything:
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Oh, so Vinnie is “Mahogany,” butcher by day, filler of train cars with murdered naked bodies for subterranean mutants to eat by night. They pull the thing where Bradley finds out, fights Vinnie and wins, but now has to replace Vinnie as the purveyor of bodies for mutants under the guidance of he sinister magic conductor. Neither as good as I’d hoped nor as bad as I’d feared.

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