Jimmy Stewart throws away his dreams to run his dad’s bank while his brother Harry is off being a war hero. Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell of every great movie in 1939) loses a bunch of money, putting the bank at risk of takeover from evil rival Potter (Mark of the Vampire star Lionel Barrymore). Jimmy tries to kill himself but angel Clarence (The Invisible Man scientist Henry Travers) saves him, shows him that Harry and Billy and his wife Mary (Donna Reed of Scandal Sheet) and the guy at the drugstore (HB Warner, DeMille’s Jesus) would’ve all been ruined without him (Potter would be fine). The townspeople contribute to pay Jimmy’s bank’s debts and he’s newly happy to be alive. Good movie while watching, the moment it’s over I always get annoyed by it again.

Coincidentally right after we entered Wiseman Mode a website put this online for free, so we enjoyed the current fake-HD (with interlacing) digital version. Whether a bunch of guys in giant 1980s glasses can sell a sable coat this holiday season is less interesting than how the public library will meet its annual education and inclusivity goals under budget, but we get some good overhead shots of elevators. Neiman Marcus is in the business of sales, we’re told – not a controversial statement – and everything revolves around sales. The department heads telephone their best customers to lure them back, trying to prevent them from spending money anywhere else. After witnessing the entire library system full of thoughtful workers, the sudden switch to top-down capitalism is enlightening – the only person who says anything of substance here is fearless leader Stanley Marcus. No matter how well the company protects its high-class image, it can’t prevent Wiseman from capturing an employee laughing hysterically at her birthday gift of a stripper chicken.

Part of Shadowplay‘s Project Fear. The Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, and has no immediate plans to leave (or “czexit”). I’m seeing no Britain connection, though Å koda Motorsports’s website says one of their cars won a British rally the year this was filmed, so it’s probable that some British racers were present at the 8th International Å koda Rally, where this film’s climax was shot. Also, our hero Jirí Menzel would later shoot an award-winning adaptation of I Served the King of England.

The titles appear in a black void revealed behind a canvas being pulled away by hooks – then illustrations of a car getting progressively evil via crossfades, sparking brief hope that the design of this movie would live up to the high standards of Polish film posters. No such luck, it’s mostly guys in drab clothes having conversations… though a sinister low-angle camera and atonal doom music introduce the Vampire: a prototype Å koda Super Sport which runs on blood drawn from the driver’s pedal foot. “With today’s energy crisis, blood is the cheapest fuel I know.”

Mouseover to see the car become More Evil:
image

Two flirty ambulance drivers chase down the Vampire after it causes an apple-truck accident, and they chat briefly with Luisa, Ferat’s hired racer who complains of foot pains then drives off and dies immediately. Ambulance medic Merak follows up, an amiable morgue attendant telling him it looks like someone bit the racer’s foot off.

“She wants to be bitten again. It’s like a drug.” Professional conspiracy theorist Kaplan pins down Merak and explains the vampire car principle by showing scenes from Nosferatu (source of the Ferat name), but a fake version of that film starring our director Herz(e) in the title role. Meanwhile, Merak’s ambulance-driving sweetie Mima is applying for the vacant position of Ferat racecar driver. Kaplan: “It might be circling around Prague now, and during every push on the accelerator pedal your loved one’s blood is travelling through its internals.” The movie is still mostly drab-looking dialogue scenes, but Herz is trying to keep things visually engaging – his mobile camera runs up and down hallways, and he opens one scene with Mima blasting the camera with a hose.

conspiracy theorist:

“I haven’t been myself lately” says Luisa’s identical-twin sister Klara, right after blaming Team Ferat boss Cross for the auto death, and right before seducing Merak. They discover bottles of blood at the sister’s place, and Merak dreams of the car as a Cronenbergian flesh machine. I can’t tell whether the repeated images of Merak being chased by cars are part of the dreams, or if he keeps running into traffic like an idiot. After a major rally race, Mima is rushed to the hospital for blood loss

“We’ll start from where the truck opens. Play it again from there.” It’s increasingly clear that doctor Merak is being played, and Madame Ferat has been encouraging his investigation and filming events – the phantom director of the very film we’re watching – cutting them into promotional materials for the commercial release of the car, driving huge pre-sales. I thought the “vampire car possessing its drivers” concept might be a metaphor for how perfectly nice people like Mima become huge assholes when they get behind the wheel of a car, but the movie ends on a more cynically anti-capitalist message: “Hundreds of people can’t wait to feel the thrill of dying in a Ferat.”

Herz was a prolific director, working almost up until his death last year. Ferat Vampire came a decade after his Cremator and a few years after his acclaimed Beauty and the Beast. Story by Josef Nesvadba, writer of both my favorite 1970’s Czech time-travel comedies, Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea and I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen.

Lead medic Merak is played by Closely Watched Trains director Jirí Menzel. Ambulance-turned-racecar driver Mima is Dagmar Havlová of time-traveling sci-fi miniseries The Visitors, VÄ›ra Chytilová’s The Inheritance, and at least a couple movies with exceptional posters – also, she would later marry the President. Luisa/Klara is Jana Brezková of Chytilová’s Panelstory, and conspiracy theorist/participant Kaplan is Jan Schmid of Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise.

As far as vampire/zombie/possession movies go, this falls chronologically between 1981’s semi-comic zombie-town Dead & Buried and 1983’s possessed-car movie Christine. Thematically, it’s got the auto-executive intrigue of Black Test Car mixed with the car-crash penetration-fetish of Ballard & Cronenberg’s Crash mixed with… I dunno, Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Something where our investigative lead finds out the horrible truth at the end, but nobody cares and capitalism triumphs. The fact that the car was German seems significant, since most of the Czech movies I came across while researching actors were WWII-related – and this movie had a cool German title (Der Autovampir). Maybe the time is right for Tarantino to film a remake – a fast car that sucks on women’s feet seems right up his alley.

Tao catches up with his old buddy Dong, a former photographer who’s figuring out what to do next while being needled by his family, wishing he could just stay drunk and hang out with his friends and listen to punk rock, dreaming of returning to his pastoral home town far to the north. Dong’s mom works with fabric, dad sells flutes, and Dong is coerced into starting a jade business. This doesn’t work out – Tao films Dong listening to a jade dealer explain what kinds of stones to buy and how to convince customers into spending more than a piece is worth, then venting into the camera later about this business being an elaborate scam, and that’s the end of the jade story. Dong has lived his whole life in Post-Mao China but still can’t adjust to capitalism.

I’m not always clear on chronology or location. We’re in Kunming in 2011 on Dong’s 30th birthday talking about taking a trip to Hailar, then “Spring arrived in 2013,” and Dong is on a train, pointing to cities on the schedule, talking about his parents and his childhood in Hailar. So, we assumed it’s 2013 and the trip has begun, before realizing a few scenes later that it’s still Dong’s 30th birthday and they’ve gone nowhere, will go nowhere (except for the jade expo) until the final minutes of the movie.

Watched because of a specific interest in China this year, to be further explored soon. Kunming is in the far (central) south of the country, and Guangdong (the jade expo, and the beach where the promo stills were shot) is far to the east, on the south side near Hong Kong. Beijing is in the northeast of the country, but Hailar is even further northeast, around the eastern tip of Mongolia, a stone’s throw from Russia. According to the description of his previous film, post-earthquake survival semi-doc On the Way to the Sea, Tao Gu and his family are from Wenchuan, just northwest of Chengdu and not near any of his Taming the Horse locations. I haven’t figured out the part where drunk, crying Dong says he wants to kill himself in Yanjiang where he first saw the sea, since Yanjiang appears to be just on the other side of Chengdu from Gu’s hometown, 15 hours from the nearest ocean.

Punk Rock tells the Truth:

A good pick to follow up Beale Street and Leave No Trace – another movie full of loveliness. Of the three, this will be the endlessly rewatchable one – extremely sharp dialogue, editing and performances – especially from Regina Hall as a restaurant manager having a complicated day. I love this movie so much, but don’t want to write about it now, will instead link to Mike D’Angelo in AV Club.

Having a hard time figuring how the same filmmaker made the unwatchably mumblecore Mutual Appreciation, the playfully bizarre Computer Chess, and this much slicker, almost mainstream comedy.

Slimeball Donnie Darko is introduced stealing wire and chainlink fence then beating up a security guard, but he’s not your ordinary lowlife – he wants to be an entrepreneur, learns everything he knows from online courses and speeches and always speaks formally to others, like a corporate simulacrum of a person. Good movie about ruthless capitalism, with amoral, manipulative Donnie destroying some lives and ending up on top.

Donnie watches a comedy on TV:

Donnie watches his coworker dying on TV:

“Our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs.” After running into freelance videographer Bill Paxton at an auto accident, Donnie cuddles up to news anchor Rene Russo, hires flunky Riz Ahmed, and gets rich partly through calculated plotting and partly by being at the right crime scenes at the right time.

Stupid Matt Damon has money problems (you can tell because he stays up late at a cluttered desk frowning at an adding machine) so he decides to get small. His wife Kristen Wiig decides against the idea at the last minute, then he loses his palacial house in the divorce, moves into an apartment below hard-partying Christoph Waltz whose housecleaner is Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau of Treme, Inherent Vice). These three hitch a ride with Udo Kier to the original small colony led by Dr. Rolf LassgÃ¥rd (A Man Called Ove), which is retreating into a mountain to wait out the impending human-caused global catastrophes. Stupid Matt Damon decides to go with them, then decides not to, then convinces Ngoc Lan he’s in love with her.

Katy says it’s like they asked each actor what they’d like to play (“a sea captain!” “a hard-partying smuggler” “a one-legged humanitarian”) then wrote a script around it. It tries to be a bunch of things at once, not so successfully, and there are awkward and obvious bits, but I appreciate the ambition, and Christoph Waltz looks like he’s having the best time. Second movie we watched theatrically in a row to feature Laura Dern.

Woman who lost her son receives cash from local corrupt politician, goes to the city where she is mistreated and eventually locked up for suspected forgery. Maybe it’s a subtitle thing, but they keep mentioning the “rupee note” when she actually got four. Anyway, she and her neighbor are finally released, and she throws away the cursed money. Slick-looking movie, which I had the extreme bad fortune to watch right after L’Argent.

A process movie, which shows you what is happening, letting you guess about the why. Extremely precise in framing and editing, focusing as much on objects as people. I’m generally sympathetic to Bresson films, having loved A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and have been underwhelmed or confused by some of his others, so wasn’t sure how this one would hit me… and it’s a masterpiece.

Schoolboy Norbert owes money, so his buddy Martial pulls out some counterfeit cash, which they change at a picture frame store. Later, the frame shop owners get pissed at their employee Lucien for accepting the phony bill, and conspire to pass it off to a workman Yvon Targe (Christian Patey, later of Adieu Bonaparte).

Yvon is caught passing the fake bill at a restaurant, unaware, starts a fight and gets in trouble. The frame shop owners pay off Lucien to lie in court, and Yvon loses his job. Lucien loses his job as well when he’s discovered to be pocketing money, then robs the shop and starts stealing ATM cards, is eventually caught. Norbert is also caught, and his mom pays off the frame shop to hush the scandal.

Yvon takes a darker turn, gets hired as a getaway driver and caught during a bank robbery, his daughter dies while he’s in prison, he attempts suicide, rejects help from Lucien (who is caught trying to escape) and is eventually released. Yvon immediately steals from the hotel where he’s staying, then apparently follows a woman home, is allowed to stay with her and her father, and kills them both with an axe, then turns himself in.

Adrian Martin for Criterion:

Bresson told his stories in astoundingly matter-of-fact ellipses or leaps in time; only the most significant moments of information and sensation counted for him. He fragmented the spatial relations of each location and incident, making the world both a fiercely angular labyrinth and an abiding, disorienting mystery.

Based on a Tolstoy story. Bresson tied with Tarkovsky for best director at Cannes, the palme going to Imamura. Great Cannes interview on the disc – Bresson always gives the best answers. “The question is null and void” … “I can’t explain a film. It explains itself.”