Black Mirror season 2 (2013)

Finally got around to watching the rest of these episodes (though not the Jon Hamm Christmas special) in prep for the upcoming American launch.

Be Right Back

After her cellphone-addict boyfriend Ash dies in a car crash, pregnant Hayley Atwell (Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel movies/shows) signs up for a service that analyzes his voice recordings and social media posts and creates a Siri-like program she can speak with. Then she beta tests the next version, where a folded-up pseudo-flesh Ash (Domhnall Gleeson of About Time, who plays the human in the similar Ex Machina) is shipped to her house. But it turns out the way you behave at home with your spouse can’t be easily predicted by your social media posts, and even though Ash is able to learn, Hayley finds him creepy and finally banishes him to the attic. Director Owen Harris also made Holy Flying Circus.


White Bear

My favorite of the bunch, either because it’s the most horrific or because it costars Michael Smiley as a dystopian game show host. Victoria (TV’s Lenora Crichlow) wakes up confused and amnesiac, is told that most of the world has been consumed by a mysterious screen transmission, and those who haven’t are insanely murdering random citizens – so The Signal meets The Purge. Vic and a couple refugees come across Smiley in the woods, who first appears to be on their side, then is revealed to be one of the killers. After her thrilling escape, all this is revealed to be a complicated piece of theater. Nobody is dead, except the child Vic kidnapped and murdered, for which her punishment is to live in this nightmare, being constantly pursued and terrified, humiliated in front of a live audience, then her mind zapped with the MIB forgetfulness-ray for the next show. Director Carl Tibbetts has worked on Hemlock Grove, did a little-known plague thriller called Retreat with a promising-looking cast.


The Waldo Moment

Comedian Jamie (Daniel Rigby of the show Jericho) who talks through a cartoon bear called Waldo finds his attack on politicians going viral. Jamie’s more of an insult comic than a politician, but his producers smell a hit and strong-arm him into continuing, even entering Waldo into the campaign, at the expense of his sanity and his relationship with a woman in the race. This isn’t quite dark enough for Black Mirror, so at the end a guy from an unnamed U.S. agency meets them wanting to use Waldo to destabilize global elections. Based on a Nathan Barley sketch, I think. Director Bryn Higgins has a series of historical hospital dramas.

Unstable puppetmaster:

Dignified debate:

Jamón, Jamón (1992, Bigas Luna)

In a small town (interests: bullfighting, the local underwear factory), wimpy Armando del Rio gets his girlfriend Penelope Cruz pregnant, to the horror of Armando’s mother (Stefania Sandrelli of The Conformist), who hires virile Javier Bardem to seduce Penelope. Kinda weird and fun movie, with some uneven melodrama.

Quoting myself in an email: “Favorite part is how they emphasize that this is a nowhere town by showing tractor trailers blowing past in every scene.”

And again:

That scene [the battle to the death with legs of jamon] is the movie’s downfall in a nutshell. It all started out a wacky, bizarre comedy with nude bullfighting, topless Penelope Cruz, confused young lovers, bitchy feuding parents, oedipal complexes and lots of jamon… then gradually turns dark and serious, while still trying to remain focused on giant testicles. So in that final jamon-fight, one character is comically whacked in his comically huge groin area, and three seconds later another character is tragically killed and everyone is sad. We didn’t buy the tonal shift.

Marsha Kinder’s Film Quarterly review points out that we missed lots of cultural references:

In its violent climax, Jamón Jamón uses a pair of ham bones to parodically reproduce Goya’s famous painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In the process it also evokes Saura’s serious adaptation of this image in Lament for a Bandit (1963), with its overly dramatic music and its stylized movements between distancing long shots and brutal close-ups – an alternation that makes it difficult for us to miss the studied allusion. Yet Bigas Luna’s bathetic choice of weapon also brings to mind Almodóvar’s murderous ham bone in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

Luna won an award in Venice and Bardem was noticed for his acting. Nominated for all the Goya awards, but trounced by the other Penelope Cruz movie in her debut year in film, Belle Epoque. Luna figured his movie’s success was due to casting Javier Bardem as a guy with big balls, so he did that again the following year with Huevos de Oro.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Peter Yates)

A tired-looking Robert Mitchum is a crook trying to stay out of jail by making deals to give up his friends. His fellow crooks are suspicious of him, and the cops owe him no particular loyalty, so it looks increasingly (to us, if not to Mitchum) that there’s no way out. Shortly after the cops get the drop on Eddie’s bank robber friends, Eddie is unceremoniously executed by the bartender he thinks is his friend (Peter Boyle of Taxi Driver). At least they had a nice night out at a hockey game beforehand.

I especially dig the general atmosphere (and the funk guitar soundtrack). Everyone acts cool but threatening. C. Stebbins called it a “relentlessly melancholic film where chess pieces are moved through quiet back-dealings and dialogue exchanges infused with ever-maneuvering fatalism.”

Mitchum, unamused:

Kent Jones:

There’s not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and have come in its wake … Two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops.

Boyle and Jordan:

Laughs: Katy told me Peter Bogdanovich was in the TV show she’s watching, and I was seeing him everywhere in this movie – turns out most men in 1973 looked like Peter Bogdanovich. I also got chuckles from the lead cop (Richard Jordan of Logan’s Run and Interiors) being named Dave Foley, and another character called Jackie Brown.

Nothing Sacred (1937, William Wellman)

Small-town Carole Lombard (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is misdiagnosed with radium poisoning by her incompetent doctor Charles Winninger (The Sun Shines Bright). It seems most old movies have newspaper reporters as main characters, and most are big-city reporters crashing some quaint small town for a story, and this movie is no exception. Frederic March (who I absolutely cannot recognize, even though he starred in Design for Living and I Married a Witch and The Best Years of Our Lives) is that reporter, sent by chief Oliver Stone (really!, played by Walter Connolly, last seen in 5th Ave Girl).

Wellman must’ve put his energy into the oscar-winning A Star Is Born from the same year, cuz this one just spins its wheels. Lombard is cute, and it’s got not-bad color for the 1930’s.

P. Labuza:

Hecht’s best films (the Hawks comedies, though it’s also in his Hitchcock thrillers) are built on the fact that every line/action is hit on a very specific beat, a sort of rhythm that demands a not necessarily limited visual/performative delivery, but one that requires it all to be in step with those beats. Wellman instead lets the thing run with a loose rhythm more apt for his style, less editing and more long takes that give the actors breathing room – a good idea but the wrong script for a world where everyone is a cartoon.

Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1920’s and 1930’s

That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.


Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)

City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.

Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:

In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.


Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)

Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.

In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.


Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)

Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.


Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)

New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.


Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)

Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.


A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)

More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.

How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?


Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)

Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”

Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”

Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.


Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)

Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.


An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)

Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.


Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)

Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.

Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)

Right in between the fade-out of Cannes Month into my Crime & Punishment Marathon, and the kicking-off of Criterion Month, a bunch of last year’s acclaimed auteur art masterpieces became available, so I watched the new Malick, Cosmos, Francofonia and Anomalisa all in the same week. It’s a lot to take in, so I’m thinking it would be wise to watch all four of them again, but I’m probably not gonna do that right now.

Very mixed reviews from my regular critics. It’s telling that the most positive (3.5 stars) review on Letterboxd comes from David Ehrlich comparing it to the Entourage movie. Mixed reviews from me as well. Especially for the first hour, the minute-to-minute thrill of watching a Malick movie is all there, the expressive camerawork and experimental editing. But in the past we’ve had stories to hang these effects upon, and Malick is getting less narrative with every movie. I wasn’t sure that a soul-searching screenwriter played by an expressionless Christian Bale would be the greatest Malick avatar, and I was right. And I had to watch the ending a second time a week later just to make sure I’d even seen it the first time, thinking maybe I’d fallen asleep, but no, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like an end. After Bale is done talking with his father Brian Dennehy he flashes again on his lost loves Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman (even less fleshed-out than the lost loves of To The Wonder), says “begin,” then two shots of cars rushing down highways. Either you just need to be receptive enough to mood and character to properly feel the thing, or I need a long, enthusiastic, well-researched article explaining what I was supposed to get out of it.

Cate at the beach:

Natalie at the beach:

These feel more like symbols, or apparitions, than characters. But then again, so does Rick: As Bale plays him, he alternates between hedonistic abandon and forlorn wandering; we get little insight into his specific needs or worries.

B. Ebiri’s article is helpful, pointing out connections and influences but ultimately saying the surface-level dreamlike seduction of the thing is the whole point. “You don’t reason your way through a film like this.”

Premiered in Berlin over a year ago, with a bunch of interesting looking movies that never played here but are beginning to come out on video, like Queen of the Desert, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, The Club, Victoria, Endless Night and The Pearl Button.

Cosmos (2015, Andrzej Zulawski)

Two friends, spiky-haired Fuchs and moppy Witold, rent a room from Sabine Azéma (maintaining her manic energy from Wild Grass) and Jean-Francois Balmer (That Day, Chabrol’s Madame Bovary). They share the house with young couple Lena (Victória Guerra of Lines of Wellington) and Lucien (Andy Gillet, Celadon himself) and Azéma’s niece/maid Catherette. Then the boarders are invited on a trip to the country with the family. That’s all that happens – but not really, as most of the characters start out wired, talking nonstop and behaving strangely, and animals and people may or may not be dying, showing up hanging from trees. At the end I thought it was all quite astounding to watch, but wasn’t sure what it all meant.

K. Uhlich:

What does it all mean? Wrong question. And it’s probably absurd to even ask. Better, instead, to fully submit to Žuławski’s last symphony of insanity and paranoia, which ends, cheekily enough, with a gag reel (quite the meta final statement).

C. Huber in Cinema Scope has the best explanation of what is actually happening here:

Attempting to forge order from the chaos of the real world, Witold builds a private cosmos founded on arbitrary associations. Increasingly aware of facing a universe of possibilities, in which every connection can be randomly made, and thus is equally profound and silly … Witold is seized by an existential vertigo … In short, it becomes impossible to distinguish the awesome from the absurd, and Zulawski’s cinema of intensity has been zig-zagging with furious power between those two poles for nearly half a century.

Bonkers and gorgeous-looking, as I’d hope and expect from the late Zulawski (only the second of his films I’ve seen, after Possession), shot by young André Szankowski, who was in demand by the old masters (Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, Oliveira’s Em Século de Energia). Based on a book by Witold Gombrowicz (which does indeed feature a writer lead character named Witold), who has also been adapted by Skolimowski (30 Door Key).

Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998, Julio Medem)

Dreamy and free-flowing, the story spiraling into mirrors and coincidences, feeling sometimes like a less grim A Very Long Engagement. The story traces back and forth along their lives with kinetic editing and glowing camerawork – pretty much my favorite kind of movie.

Palindromic couple Ana and Otto are destined for each other, seen at different ages. The oldest Ana was 20-year-old Najwa Nimri, of Before Night Falls and Abre Los Ojos – which also featured oldest Otto Fele Martínez (also of Thesis and Bad Education). Writer/director Medem made Sex and Lucia, and last year he had a Salma Hayek movie at TIFF.

Francofonia (2015, Aleksandr Sokurov)

M. Sicinski:

With its first-person musings and associative image-track, Francofonia’s first half resembles nothing so much as a late Godard video, but the approach and mood is open and accessible even as the subject matter turns highbrow … But most of the remainder of the film is spent dramatizing the wartime cooperation between the Louvre’s Vichy-era chief, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Nazi cultural attaché Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

A complicated movie which I thought about for days afterwards, but I waited long enough before writing anything down that now it’s not fresh in my mind and I’m hesitant to write anything at all. A variety of styles, aspect ratios, color palettes, time periods and strange effects (the film’s soundtrack waveform visible alongside the picture was a new one to me). Some Russian Ark-ian museum cruising with your host Napoleon, who showed off paintings of his own exploits and earned a big laugh at our screening when he gazed at the Mona Lisa saying his usual line, “It’s me.” Even the regular historical drama scenes (Louvre chief meeting his Nazi overseer) don’t go in the directions you’d expect of a historical drama and they culminate in a wondrous bit where each character is told by the narrator how his life will end up.