The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)

Kinda impossible to describe this movie or why it’s so great. Because of the title the viewer pays close attention to the often-seen family cat, which isn’t all that strange. The family isn’t strange either, gathering for a large meal, mostly appearing without being given names or specific relations. The movie is strange, though, with its easygoing, playful and pleasant nature, and sudden bursts of string music and unusual cutting/framing sometimes making me expect intrigue.

Dissolve calls it “a beautiful, mysterious, beguiling cinematic doodle, and an absolute master class in mise-en-scène, unfolding in odd, fragmented frames and precisely choreographed movement within those frames,” and Mike D’Angelo calls it “the rare film that offers a new way of looking at the everyday world.” Zurcher’s first film, actually his student film, begun at a workshop with Bela Tarr.

J. Kiang:

Unlike many puzzles that tease solutions but never deliver, here the film becomes more engaging as time goes on, so that by the end our attention was unexpectedly rapt. .. In this mini-universe that refers only to itself (imagine a non-creepy Dogtooth), it’s the viewer who’s the weirdo, trying to apply patterns that simply don’t fit, onto a system that abides by its own unseen logic instead.

M. Sicinski’s commentary in Cinema Scope is the best I’ve found.

A visual inventory of various key objects… goes quite a ways toward explaining Zürcher’s somewhat mysterious title. The interlude is not just a clarification, as if one were needed at this point, that objects in and of themselves are the true subjects of The Strange Little Cat (another point of contact with Tati, Bresson, and Ozu); it also represents a clearing of the decks of human dominance, so that we can witness something we might call “feline time.” The cat sees these things, but they have no meaning for her. Rather, they are both foreign (pure entities with no known use value) and absolutely familiar (part of her “turf”).

Journey to the West (2014, Tsai Ming-Liang)

A Walker sequel, now costarring Denis Lavant of Holy Motors! Fourteen shots, and four are exceptionally long, beginning with a dim opening close-up of Lavant’s face.

Red Monk climbs stone stairs, walks through immaculately composed frames, with a couple cuts back to Lavant’s immobile head in different poses.

In the longest shot of the movie, Monk slowly (do I need to say “slowly”?) descends a staircase. Most people dodge him, but one girl stops and tries to figure him out.

Finally the big moment, as the Monk walks past a crowded corner followed by Lavant, focusing hard and copying each step (though Lavant leans more, and uses his arms for balance).

Beautiful finale in a square with a mirrored ceiling, the monk arriving belatedly from the side and not able to compete visually with the man blowing giant soap bubbles in the center.

Lee Kang-sheng and Tsai Ming Liang have other recent shorts listed on IMDB, including Walking On Water and Sleepwalk, so I’m guessing there are more Walker movies out there. Bring ‘em on.

For Me and My Gal (1942, Busby Berkeley)

One of Busby Berkeley’s unexciting 1940’s flicks (see also: Take Me Out to the Ball Game). He even has a total anti-Berkeley moment, aiming the camera at Judy, singing against a plain wall, and leaving it there for ages. What happened – budget cuts? Not a bad movie though – Gene Kelly’s debut, with established young star Judy Garland (only one year after her last Andy Hardy movie, and two before Meet Me In St. Louis).

Another one of those movies starring two attractive young people who just have to end up together, because it’s a Hollywood movie, even though they shouldn’t. Gene proves again and again that he cares only about his career, playing the Palace in New York, and anybody is disposable on his way to the top. But he doesn’t get to the top, due to the (vaudeville/WWI-era) public’s new interest in war heroes and his successful attempt to draft-dodge by smashing his hand in a trunk. And due to the WWII-era public’s distaste for draft-dodging romantic heroes, the ending was hastily rewritten so a troop-entertaining Kelly tries to warn approaching ambulances that passage is unsafe and ends up singlehandedly taking out an enemy machine gun nest.

Judy doesn’t get as many plot points, but gets to sing some good 1910’s showtunes. She starts out in the show of Jimmy Metcalf (future politician George Murphy), starts a duo act with Kelly until he dumps her when his opera singer friend Eve (Martha Eggerth, 1930’s cinema star in Austria and Germany) suggests she can get him more fame, sob Judy heads to the war to sing for troops, where she’s reunited with hero-come-lately Kelly.

Bosley Crowther: “To one who takes mild exception to sentimental excess, it seems an overlong, overburdened and generally over-talked musical film.” He also calls Judy Garland “saucy.”

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Jaromil Jires)

Not gonna write much because this needs to be seen again. Sort of a surrealist fairy tale, reminding of The Color of Pomegranates and Raul Ruiz. Valerie is stalked by a vampire called Weasel, who may be hitting on Valerie or her girlfriend, and may also be Valerie’s father. She is protected by a boy called Eagle, who may be her brother. The grandmother is in love with priest Gracian, who is also hitting on Valerie. There’s more, involving a just-married neighbor, magic jewelry, self-flagellation and lots of birds.

Learned from the extras: It’s based on the novel by a 1930’s Czech surrealist poet. Director’s name is pronounced YEER-a-mel YEER-esh. Heavily influenced the movie The Company of Wolves, and I am guessing Moonrise Kingdom and maybe Eagleheart.

E. Howard:

Despite this unsettling feeling [that the movie tends to leer at Valerie], the film is a sensual phantasmagoria, exploring the strange netherworld opened up at the junction point between childhood and adulthood. Jireš marries his dazzling imagery to a continually shifting score (written by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák) that encompasses tinkling music box circularity, jaunty folk melodies, and haunting religious choral hymns. This mix of disparate musical moods and sources mirrors the film’s uneasy blend of fantasy with a child’s eye view on reality.

D. Cairns:

Some book or other on the Czech New Wave compared the storytelling to Rivette’s fantastical films: you can tell there are RULES to the magic in these films, but you DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE.

On The Town (1949, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)

Unaccountably wonderful movie… seems like the usual madcap romantic comedy business (three sailors have a day of shore leave, spend it picking up girls) but the very end, returning to the ship as three more sailors head out, and the movie’s overall sense of the city (simultaneously huge and cozy) gave me a happy glow. Although is it weird that it’s a musical and I’ve already forgotten all the songs?

Katy took a break from Fred Astaire, got us Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra this time. It’s actually the same three guys from Take Me Out to the Ball Game (“O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”) with Jules Munshin as the goofy third fellow. Gene is wide-eyed naive about the city, immediately falls for a girl pictured on subway posters (Miss Turnstiles for June). Gene acts like she’s a celebrity and insists he’s going to meet her. The other two guys know this is unlikely, but it keeps working out. Miss Turnstiles aka Ivy is Vera-Ellen (Rosemary Clooney’s sister in White Christmas), the assertive cab driver who likes Sinatra is Betty Garrett (not Frank’s girl but Gene’s in Take Me Out to the Ball Game) and the random anthropologist following Ozzie is Ann Miller, who I know best from Mulholland Dr.

TCM says it was groundbreaking for using real locations, shooting with hidden cameras on the NYC streets, and indulging Gene’s interest in modern dance (seen in full bloom in An American In Paris).

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977, Jon Jost)

This is the second obscure 1977 film on Rosenbaum’s top-1000 list that I thought I might not get to ever see until it showed up at a theater in my town with the director in attendance. The Ross sprang a whole Jon Jost retrospective on us with less than a week’s notice, and this was opening night. But after watching Last Chants, a whole week’s worth of similar movies didn’t sound like a party. Maybe if they played one per month I could summon the energy, or maybe if someone promised the others would be less bleak. It was an experience, though, and Jost was full of stories and game to tell them to the too-few attendees.

First surprise: the movie is shot in a series of very long takes, all of which Jost says were first/only takes except the finale (and only because the battery ran out). Second surprise: it’s a musical! Nobody bills it as a musical, but it’s full of original country songs (which comment on the story/themes) co-performed by Jost himself, and the narrative stops or slows down to let each song play in full. That’s pretty much my definition of a musical.

Light Industry summarizes: “Bates journeys with a young hitchhiker, then tosses him out of his pickup, argues with his wife, visits a local diner, hits a bar, has a one-night stand, and then finally encounters a roadside stranger,” whom he robs and kills. Rosenbaum calls it a “chilling portrait of an embittered, misogynistic lumpen proletarian (Tom Blair) driving through western Montana.” There’s a weird tension, because you buy lead actor Blair as Bates, but you don’t like or trust Bates, and the movie patiently follows him without really getting into his head. Definite highlight was a scene in a bar, Bates picking up some girl, another county song playing as the camera spins drunkenly around the room.

Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)

Full of great twists that I’m about to give away. Soon after Ben Affleck’s wife disappears, and he’s sad and hanging out with his sympathetic sister (Carrie Coon of HBO show The Leftovers, also about disappearing people) and doing press, and the cops are slightly suspicious that Ben might be a murderer, Ben’s secret girlfriend shows up, turning the tables on his perfect husband image. Then after things start getting worse for Ben amd his sister is mortgaging the house to pay for celebrity lawyer Tyler Perry, the movie reveals wife Rosamund Pike (The World’s End), alive and well and plotting to frame him as a murderer as revenge for the secret girlfriend. Rosamund grew up the subject of her parents’ series of children’s books (Amazing Amy) and is not gonna settle for a less-than-amazing husband. She’s also not very street-smart, and soon loses all her money to thieving motel neighbors, and instead of heating up her plan to commit suicide and have her body’s discovery be the final nail in Ben’s coffin, she hides out with super-rich ex-boyfriend Neil Patrick Harris, then decides to claim the whole thing was an abduction, murders Neil and returns covered in blood to perfect husband Ben. Somehow it managed to outdo itself in the last couple minutes with the creepiest ending possible.

Novel/screenplay by Gillian Flynn. Fincher has kept the efficient snappy editing to the rhythm of dialogue from The Social Network. Who’d have thought circa 2004 that I’d end up liking Ben Affleck so much? Was going to quote from the Fincher interview in Film Comment but it’s all too good, can’t decide which bit is best.

DCairns: “Like a 40s women’s picture, the movie evokes a pleasurable response of condemnation mixed with admiration. The woman is bad, and we should want to see her punished, but she’s also very impressive, and we find ourselves rooting for her. At a certain point in the story, we are rooting for both man and wife — maybe this is what Fincher means by calling it a perfect date movie.” I certainly wonder what Katy would’ve thought, and what conversation would’ve ensued had we watched it together. Maybe someday she’ll have a semester off and we’ll run a week marathon of long movies I wish she’d seen with me: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Margaret

Dear White People (2014, Justin Simien)

Agreeing with J. Rocchi:

Dear White People pulls off a surprising number of things with startling ability. It’s an American film that talks about race with strong feeling, common sense and good humor; it’s an indie screenwriting-directing debut as polished as it is provocative; it’s a satire that also lets its characters be people; it’s a showcase of clever craft and direction as well as whip-smart comedic writing brought to life by a dedicated, charismatic cast that also conveys real ideas and emotion.

Set at an ivy-league school (but shot at the University of Minnesota – Katy recognized the buildings). Sam (Tessa Thompson of Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls) runs the titular radio show, semi-accidentally becomes head of her residence house after giving a provocative speech, defeating her ex-boyfriend Troy (soap actor Brandon Bell).

Troy is son of college dean Dennis Haysbert (last seen in Far From Heaven), starts kissing up to president of a different house, Kurt (Kyle Gallner of Red State), who is son of the college president (Haysbert’s boss). Troy is also dating Kurt’s sister / the president’s daughter, which gives Haysbert a certain racial/sexual-power satisfaction.

Other leads: Lionel is a nerdy gay writer (Tyler James Williams, title star of Everybody Hates Chris), Coco is a fame-hungry student (Teyonah Parris of Mad Men and They Came Together) and Reggie is Sam’s hanger-on at the black student union (Marque Richardson). Climax is Troy’s all-white house throwing a race-reversal/mocking party (blackface rap-video atmosphere with watermelon, etc). Probably the whole mystery surrounding the ending was unnecessary – Coco and Troy are both desperate enough to fit in that they get involved in the party, but it turns out to have been Sam’s brainchild as an anarchist racism-exposure idea. But the twists matter less than they might have, because the movie is so sharply shot and written, and remains warmly character-based instead of leaning too hard on story. Then it shows mind-melting photos of real college race parties over the closing credits.

The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.