Summer Movie #50 – The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978): Would you believe this was on TCM last night? Poe was one of the significant figures in the New York underground film scene chronicled in the documentary “Blank City” that I watched earlier this week. This is a sort of Dada noir joint featuring an unabashedly existentialist (quote: “When we dream that we dream we are beginning to wake up”) and largely improvised story about a secret agent who never understands any of the strange events around him – right up until the inevitably bleak ending. The style has Godard and Warhol all over it and looks like it was filmed for about $75 – which it probably was. If you can embrace the deliberately – hell, studiedly – unvarnished aesthetic and guerilla style, this has something to offer. If you need a more polished intro for this type of stuff, and don’t feel bad at all if you do, try Jim Jarmusch (who cites Poe and this film as influences) and work your way backwards. I did.
Summer Movie #49 – Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): Despite the ending (which evidently reversed the ending of the book it was based upon and which Hitchcock claimed, though this has been disputed, was forced on him by the studio) this is a great psychological thriller. Cary Grant is wonderful as a loveable cad who might be a murderer. Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award as his somewhat stiff wife who may be justified in being suspicious – or who may just be paranoid. Hitchcock does what he does best, building suspense and uncertainty right up until the end.
Summer Movie #48 – The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966): This is a fictionalized account of the Algerian War between the Algerian FLN and French colonial forces. It focuses on the insurgency and counter-insurgency in the city of Algiers from 1954 to 1957 (France recognized Algeria’s independence in 1962). It shows the pattern of actions and responses that escalated the conflict and also shows how the insurgency worked from the inside (organization, tactics, etc…). Several 1960s and 1970s era militant groups, including members of the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA, claim to have been influenced by this film. It is shot in a pseudo-documentary style with black-and-white photography processed to look as much like newsreel footage as possible (in reality, no newsreel footage is used – which is quite surprising when you see the finished product). Despite the cinematography, the actual camera work is where you can see this isn’t a documentary – little hand-held footage, mostly fixed angels without dolly or moving crane shots. The feel of the film is very sparse – very French New Wave. The emotional reactions you have to film come from its subject matter, not from the sound-track or the camera-work. Probably the most striking thing about the movie is how it deals with the violence by both sides. We are shown the brutality of the French colonial system through the story of the radicalization of one of the leaders of the insurgency. We then see those men committing murders of Algerian civilians and French authorities. A particularly significant portion of the film shows a revenge (for the murders of French police officers) bombing against innocent Algerians by a group of French colonists followed by three retaliatory bombings against similarly innocent French civilians. The camera spends as much time showing the rubble and the dead bodies on both sides – the film even uses the same music in showing the aftermath. This sparks the deployment of French paratroopers who, successfully, use brutality and torture to subdue the FLN. In one of the most frank statements I’ve ever seen about colonialism, there is a scene where reporters ask the commander of the paratroopers in the city about this issue. While skirting the use of the word torture, he basically responds that this is what is necessary if France is to remain in Algeria – that, in essence, colonialism cannot exist without violent coercion. Even these troops are not demonized in the film so much as they are shown to be part of the colonial machine. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about colonialism and colonial resistance.
Summer Movie #47 – Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936): This is a movie I love in spite of, and because of, its flaws. Its real claim to fame is the art direction and production design. Here you see all of the elements that became cliché in later science fiction. The other thing is the script by H.G. Wells, which depicts a world war beginning in 1940 (and lasting until 1970). This war featured a frequent element for Wells – the idea of overwhelming air power bringing down civilization. This becomes more interesting when you consider that the script was mostly written in 1934 – before Hitler began rearming or expanding, before the Spanish Civil War, even before Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The second act of the film deals with a sort of post-apocalyptic vision of what the endless war did to the world. I find it fascinating because the visual elements – people living in the ruins of the old cities, wearing rags, filthy, and dominated by warlords who combine elements of military uniform with “barbaric” furs and skins – are not that different in some ways from what George Miller did in The Road Warrior, and the look of the whole modern genre of post-apocalyptic films starts with his him. I’m not sure if there had ever been a depiction of that sort of post-apocalyptic world on film before this movie. I can’t think of one, anyway.
Still, this film has no subtlety, least of all in its acting. The pacing is often very slow – which gives you lots of time to drink in the model work or to fall asleep. It has a message that it hits you over the head with repeatedly; one celebrating a utopian vision based on technocracy and a positivistic vision of the power of science. The recovery from the war is long montage of huge machines stripping the mineral wealth of the world and turning it to “productive” ends by building vast new underground cities. We hear that mankind can only meet its true potential by “conquering” and “mastering” (lots of colonialist language) first this world, and then the universe. The white city at the end of the film is perfectly controlled and perfectly artificial. A grandfather explains to his granddaughter about how people once needed things like sunlight and fresh air, but the world is better in the artificial state where they live. Evidently people in this future don’t sneeze (he explains this). When crowds, worked up by a demagogic sculptor, try to destroy the huge “space gun” at the end, they are depicted as reactionaries with no more of a guiding philosophy than fear of change. There is so much here about the early science fiction views of the future and progress. You can draw a line from this right to Rodenberry’s vision in Star Trek – and see the critique of it in everything from Silent Running to Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. This is flawed, but still a gem.
Summer Movie #46 – Blank City (Celine Danhier, 2010): Jon Foster suggested this to me as a good companion piece to the documentary I watched yesterday, Kill Your Idols. This deals with the underground film scene in New York in the 1970s and 1980s with No Wave Cinema and the Cinema of Transgression. It is well shot and interviews filmmakers, actors, and other artists who were involved in this period. It also ties these films to what was happening in New York at the time and to parts of the wider culture such as Reaganism and the early AIDS epidemic. I’m starting to wonder if all current culture might begin with Lydia Lunch? Hmmm….
Summer Movie #45 – Kill Your Idols (Scott Crary, 2004): The reviews for this on Netflix are sharply divided, but generally negative. I’m on the positive side. This documentary starts with some footage and interviews concerning the “No Wave” scene in NYC in the 1970s – about which I knew nothing. It then shifts focus to the NYC alternative music scene of 2003 – about which I know nothing. It seems to have been at this point that most of the negative reviewers stopped watching. Having heard about each group from its own members, Crary then has them speak about each other. The result is, to my mind, an interesting discussion on originality and creativity, the relationship between the music industry, media, and “alternative” artists, and how things have changed across thirty years. Contrary to both the title and the Netflix write-up, this doesn’t end with the newer musicians attacking the older ones for not being original, but the other way around. Many of the negative reviewers wanted this to be a history of NYC alternative music – it isn’t. It is a rumination on art and originality.
Summer Movie #44 – 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002): There was a moment early in this film where I went from liking it to loving it. The movie depicts the music scene in Manchester between about 1976 and 1992 centering on Tony Wilson and Factory Records. In this scene, the Wilson’s first wife is depicted having sex with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks in a club men’s room. The camera pans to a man at the sink that we discover is the actual Howard Devoto who says “I don’t remember that happening.” At that point the actor playing Wilson (Steve Coogan), who narrates the film and shatters the fourth wall along the way, explains that it didn’t happen – and then cites the line from Fort Apache about how if the truth conflicts with the legend, you print the legend. Knowing nothing about any of this except some band names, I couldn’t tell you what was real and what wasn’t – except I doubt that Manchester was actually visited by a UFO, that God looks that much like either Steve Coogan or Tony Wilson, or that Boethius is a wino in Manchester who looks like Christopher Eccelston. The sense of unreality is heightened by great hand-held camera work that sometimes moves into vintage footage and back again. The whole thing was just artsy and fun.
Summer Movie #43 – Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947): Here is another one I’m sorry I’ve waited so long to watch. This is one of the great film noir and it has it all. Dark cinematography to tell a dark story about dark (ethically) people. Robert Mitchum is the former private eye trying to find redemption for his corrupt life with a new job in a sunny small town and a beautiful girl (Virginia Huston) who loves him even when she learns his secret past. Jane Greer is the classic femme fatale with the face of an angel and the soul of a killer. Kirk Douglas is the gangster with a score to settle with Mitchum and brings him out of his new life and back to his old one. This is film noir, so don’t look for a nice clear plot or a happy ending. This is all about the weight of the past and that you have to die before you can be redeemed. Just great.
Summer Movie #42 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger, 1943): I love this movie! I’m embarrassed that is has taken me this long to watch it. I’d heard of the film, particularly in interviews from Martin Scorsese, but it wasn’t until Jon Foster recommended it (my thanks!) that I put it in my Netflix queue. First, it features glorious Technicolor cinematography. The camera work is wonderful – especially a long crane shot out of a high window that melds into a beautiful model shot of 1902 Berlin on a snowy night and then focuses into an interior of a carriage – just beautiful. It has great performances, especially by Roger Livesey. Finally, it has this wonderful tone that looks at the British Army and the Empire and combines satire and sympathy in equal measures. It takes a character that is a bit ridiculous (hence their use of a famous character from British political cartoon – “Colonel Blimp” who was meant to display “the stupidity of colonels” by its creator David Low – in the title of the movie) and renders him as a human being. The movie tells a story about how age will make us all ridiculous to a degree as we find ourselves increasingly out of step with our times. It humanizes and forgives those who become a bit stuck, without denying that times do, in fact, change and people have to adapt. Just amazing – I’ve got to watch more of Powell’s & Pressburger’s work soon; Black Narcissus next, I think.
Summer Live Movie #7 – Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013):
MAJOR SPOILERS HERE
Okay, I loved it it was loads of fun – great action, great pacing, and it dealt with one of my biggest problems from the first movie. I always felt that giving command of the Enterprise to just-out-of-the-academy Kirk was a cheat and this movie addressed this head-on. I’m even getting a little less opposed to the Spock-Uhura romance. Okay, not that last one. Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana were all excellent. I enjoy and appreciate what Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine did in the first movie, and their Spock and Kirk performances were better in this one. Peter Weller has now played two of the better villains I’ve seen in Star Trek (his turn in the last – and best – season of Enterprise as Col. Green was one of my favorite thing in that uneven series). Benedict Cumberbatch was predictably great as Khan and by every objective measure his Khan is better than Ricardo Montalban’s.
But I’ll never really feel his Khan was better, even though I know it was. I can’t.
Finally, I don’t think this movie could have worked if Wrath of Khan weren’t already there. Most of its emotional power lays on the foundation of that movie. That is a good thing. There is no way of denying that the Star Trek movies were in decline. Abrams took what was great, and made something new and, in many ways, better. This will never be my Star Trek – but its a great Star Trek and I can’t wait for the next one.
Summer Movie #41 – Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009): I watched this earlier today before going to see the new one. I enjoy this movie for what it is – a really fun action movie that wears some of the clothes of a franchise in which I am deeply invested. Watching it again, I was struck by the thought that J.J. Abrams is going to have an absolute smash with Star Wars VII. The hectic pace, the huge action, even the big monster chasing (not)Kirk, are all reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels. The people who loved those are going to love his take. At the same time, he has some good character moments and real human depth – which is why I think his take on Star Wars will be more appealing to those who didn’t like the prequels. He is going to get big chunks of both groups – and make Disney some new boatloads of money. Including mine.
Summer Live Movie #5 – Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012): There is a scene in one of the later Buffy episodes where she talks about being cookie dough that isn’t finished baking yet. This is very much where the titular character of this movie finds herself. It is about love, friendship (I think a particularly female sort of friendship), and growing up in your twenties. Just this morning I was watching a show where a character talked about how people are supposed to be a mess in their twenties, and Frances is a mess, creating a comedic and touching character portrait. Even though this story wasn’t close to my life – even in my twenties – it touched places I could recognize and that is art. Finally, Frances is an aspiring dancer and the dance sequences reminded me of something that Jon Foster was also saying as we left the movie: I just don’t get dance. I know there is something there, but I just don’t have the right sensibility, I guess.