Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for May, 2017

Random Films 2016

Posted by Gerald on May 30, 2017

Here is a bunch of mini-reviews from last year that I had scattered across several draft posts and just never published.


Film #1 – You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937): This is Lang’s second film after coming to the US.  Lang is well-known for his influence on film noir, and already in this film you can see elements associated with those movies; the anti-hero, a sense of moral ambivalence, and – of course – those touches of German Expressionism that Lang played so significant a role in bringing to Hollywood.  The movie is also interesting for Henry Fonda (the male lead, but second billed after Silvia Sidney).  I always find the contrast of Fonda’s very naturalistic style with that of almost every other actor he works with in his early films to be fascinating to watch.  Finally, this movie is worth watching for the ending, which is just odd.  Either it is a rather forced attempt at being spiritually uplifting, or it is a satire of the spiritually uplifting endings of Hollywood movies, or Lang was hiding the satire into what was supposed to look like sincerity… or I’m overthinking it all…

Film #2 – War and Peace, Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This is it, the mother of all film adaptations, a four-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel.  It took six years to make and the whole thing clocks in at over seven hours.  This first part is two and a half hours long alone.  It is huge.  The sequence dealing with the Battle of Austerlitz is on a scale like the battle scenes in “Lord of the Rings” – except this was the 1960s, there was no CGI, and every one of the LITERAL cast of thousands is a real person.  I loved it, but would offer a few caveats to anyone planning to watch this.  First, this is a 1960s Soviet film re-released by Criterion; the print has some issues and the transfer is odd, to say the least.  Second, this is NOT a Hollywood epic.  The visuals are fascinating in their use of angles, multiple exposures, varied time, shading and color, and point of reference – but this doesn’t look like a Hollywood epic.  This has Eisenstein and montage theory all over it, and if you aren’t familiar then you’ll want to know who that is and what that is before you watch this.  The sound editing is also striking for its use of contrast and blending – but it won’t sound familiar unless you are really into European film.  Check this out, just be ready – and make sure you have enough time free…

Film #3 – War and Peace, Part II: Natasha Rostova (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): Grand balls, hunts, love and its pitfalls, all done with more interesting use of montage.  Ludmila Davelyeva is wonderful as the young Natasha Rostova.

Film #4 – War and Peace, Part III: The Year 1812 (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This chapter is basically the portion of the novel that deals with the Battle of Borodino.  The battle takes up an hour of the film but at no point is it anything of military history.  Instead it is an epic, grinding, but somewhat ponderous examination of war.  There is a jarring moment at the end where the viewer is forcibly reminded that this film was made in and supported by the Soviet state – and during the early transition from the Khrushchev to the Brezhnev years.  Having finished an hour of looking at the human costs of war, the film ends on a note of strident patriotism – asserting that the battle was a “moral victory” for Russia and the beginning of the Napoleon’s “inexplicable flight away from Moscow” and the beginning of the end of his empire.  Triumphant music then swells, in absolute contrast to the scenes of corpses and wounded men that had preceded it.

Film #5 – War and Peace, Part IV: Pierre Bezhukov (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967):  One last quibble, Sergei Bondarchuk should not have played Pierre Bezhukov.  He was, and looked, too old for the part.  So, the end.  Still very faithful to the novel (yes, I did read the whole thing) but within the constraints of a Soviet film.  In the latter portions of the book, Tostoy is ruminating more about his philosophy of life and death, which is bound up with his Christianity.  Removing the religious elements makes it hard to parse some of the story – such as Bezhukov’s great moment of revelation during his captivity.  Despite this, the last part retains the virtues of the whole.  For those who love big historical dramas, and enjoy a more European style of movie-making, this is very much worth the (considerable) time investment.

Fall Movie #1 – Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946): This is one of those films that film people talk about a lot and I can see why.  It is this dark fantasy whose only real flaw is the flaw of the Beauty and the Beast story – the message of the value of perceiving what is beyond the surface is undermined by the idea that the reward for doing so is surface beauty.  The film is lush and beautiful and the fantastic vision of the magical house being realized with 1940s camera work and practical effects is more impressive, to me, than the modern equivalent with CGI.  Also, one can see the debt the popular Disney version owes to Cocteau’s vision of a house full of spirits and of life.

Fall Movie #2(?) – Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): It isn’t that many directors who have two films nominated for best picture in a single year. Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” won best picture in 1941 (his only Best Picture winner) – this is the other film he had nominated for that award that year.  It is a well-paced action thriller and a wonderful piece of propaganda (a fact noted by no less a connoisseur than Joseph Goebbels).  Good performances and some brilliant production design and photography make this film stand out from similar entries in the genre.  There are two particularly impressive scenes.  The first is a sequence set around a rural field of windmills in Holland.  It combined exterior location shooting on a California beach and a matte painting for the long shots with a full reconstruction of a windmill in a studio soundstage for closer angles and then interior sets of the windmill itself.  Second there is a climactic sequence involving a passenger plane being shot down that featured a brilliant use of rear projection and practical effects.  As the plane is crashing we see the pilots against a projection of film taken by a stunt pilot diving as close to the ocean surface as he could without crashing that was displayed on a rice paper screen so that when the plane hit the water Hitchcock could trigger a flood of actual water that breaks through the screen and floods the cockpit set.  Even the opening shot is all about Hitchcock’s visual sense and carefully planned scenes.  It uses a model of a newspaper office building with a rotating globe on top, begins with the globe (which was in close-up all through the opening credits) pulls back to an establishing shot of the building and then zooms into the window of the office where the movie begins.  Great stuff.

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953):  Even as film noir goes, this thing is fairly brutal – and it works. Glenn Ford plays a cop whose drive for justice, and then revenge, manages to kill all four major female characters in the movie.  Great performances all around, especially by Lee Marvin (I even love that guy’s worst movies) as a sadistic mobster and Gloria Grahame as his girlfriend.  Grahame manages to project the idea of a “good girl” who has become a “bad girl” but wants to be a “good girl” yet is okay with being “bad” anyway.  A couple days ago I was listening to Karina Longworth’s account of Grahame’s life and career in an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast.  She is kind of fascinating for many things, including for having foreshadowed Woody Allen by a few decades and marrying a man (director Nicholas Ray) only to later divorce him and wind up marrying his son (her stepson who lived with them as a teenager) Tommy Ray.  Grahame’s story aside, this is a great film from a world-class director.  Check it out.

Strokes of Genius Film #1 – Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952): Very much not Baz Luhrmann although this film and his won the same two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design).  This is a sort of biopic/artist portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Huston seems to revel in the contrasts of seediness and grandeur in this film, echoed in the “destruction” of the Moulin Rouge through its rise to respectability.  Jose Ferrer is wonderful in his savage and witty self-destructiveness.  His physical performance – often shot walking on his knees with his legs bound behind him – is probably the most famous element of this film.  I was struck by the cinematography.  Huston and Oswald Morris used a special process with the Technicolor print to allow more control over the colors.  The result is a less saturated and vivid palette than the usual Technicolor film; a palette very similar to the artists paintings.  This is a celebration or art that also tries to evoke fin de siècle Paris and does both well.  Still don’t see the point of casting Zsa Zsa Gabor, though.

Strokes of Genius Film #2 – Lust for Life (Vincent Minnelli, 1956): Not Iggy Pop but Kirk Douglas.  Appropriately this film is more about depicting an impression of the art and the artist than a biographical account.  It is at its best when it uses lush cinematography and exact shot placement to echo Van Gogh’s painting.  Although this is one of Kirk Douglas’s most famous roles, I’m not convinced it is his best.  He is good but, perhaps, if finding his way to the consuming passion he wants to show in the character he lost his ability to restrain his own performance when it needed it.  Just one man’s opinion, though.  Anthony Quinn feels much more nuanced in his portrayal of Paul Gauguin.  The film also finds a solid center in the always dependable James Donald.

Strokes of Genius Film #3 – Rembrandt (Alexander Korda, 1936): Alexander Korda produced and directed many films, but historical biopics were pretty much the core of his work.  This is one of those.  Nothing is terribly surprising here for a 1936 film – we have the artist who is misunderstood in his time, lots of Biblical references to maintain the proper moral tone, and an ending suggestive of the poverty of the artist’s later years while also the triumph of genius that lives on.  Charles Laughton is wonderful as always in the lead role.  A young Elsa Lanchester (remembered mostly for “Bride of Frankenstein”, lots of 1960s Disney movies, and “Murder By Death”) plays Rembrandt’s second wife and brings some spark to the role.  Not the greatest film but still worth a look.

Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015): I wanted to like this film. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it either, but I just didn’t care. It has big visuals, but then what major SF film these days doesn’t? It has a sweeping orchestral score, so check off box number two on the Big Budget SF Movie Elements check-sheet. The performances were fine, but in service of a cliche-ridden story; the only twist being it is a “Girl with a Destiny” rather than a “Boy with a Destiny” (but the girl still isn’t the hero; she has to be saved by her boyfriend… repeatedly…). It couldn’t work up any tension in the big climactic scene because it never even occurred to me that our happy couple wouldn’t live or that our villain wouldn’t be vanquished. Seriously, save your time and skip this one.


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