Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

2017 Summer Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on July 24, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #21 – Letters From Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum, 2016): This is a documentary about the life of Gertrude Bell, a prominent British Orientalist whose books helped inform British policy in the Middle East after World War I and who played a prominent role in the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq and the establishment of the antiquities museum in Baghdad.  Her story is a fascinating one.  The documentary takes an interesting approach in that it shows Bell through her letters and journals (voiced by Tilda Swinton, who was a producer on the project) and through faux “interviews” with actors playing figures from her life talking about her as if this were an Errol Morris documentary.  The comments seemed to be largely manufactured from the original sources, unlike Bell’s voice which is captured in her actual words.  I’m not sure I think that worked, at least not for me.  Another interesting choice is how the filmmakers remained absolutely focused on Bell as a person – to the extent of providing little context to the huge events she played such an important role in shaping.  Certainly worth watching – if for no other reason than the eerie prescience of some of what she was saying about Iraq in the 1920s.

2017 Summer Movie #22 – Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945): An early film noir that calls to mind “Laura” particularly in that it had the same cinematographer.  Outside of the visual style, this is most interesting as an example of how Preminger kept pushing the envelope of what was permissible in Hollywood movies.  Linda Darnell’s character – sexual and manipulative – casts a spell on all of the men in the film.  Dana Andrews is great, as always, playing a grifter who drops into the middle of this story.  Alice Faye is, frankly, a bit boring – but then she is playing the “good girl” who ultimately is there to redeem Andrews.  Worth checking out if you are interested in either Preminger or film noir.

2017 Summer Movie #23 – A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1945): Filmstruck put this into a collection of early Preminger film, but it is not really his movie.  Preminger took over directing the film after its original producer/director, Ernst Lubitsch, had a heart attack.  He did this at the request of Darryl F. Zannuck.  It is a light comedy set in the court of Catherine the Great and Preminger is not really the man for light comedy.  Despite decent performances, particularly by Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine, it just doesn’t work.  The scenes just aren’t light and quick the way they should be.  Had Lubitsch been able to direct the shooting, I think this might have been a better film.

2017 Summer Movie #24 – Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): I’ve seen and written about this before.  This is one of the great film noir and it is one of Preminger’s best known films.  On this viewing I was struck by the performance of Clifton Webb.  His depiction of seething jealousy and obsession barely masked by a veneer of upper-class arrogance is a bit beautiful.  I was also struck by the similarities between Gene Tierney’s Laura and Linda Darnell’s Stella from “Fallen Angel”.  Both are beautiful women who attract the obsessive interest of men around them, to the point of inspiring murder.  If you love classic films, you’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #25 – Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is a Technicolor costume drama about an ambitious woman in Restoration England.  We get to see Preminger demonstrating his ability to work on a large scale for the first time.  The story and performances are not very memorable.  In line with many of the films Preminger would eventually make, this one was condemned on moral ground – not so much for anything explicit as for the fact that the heroine (played by Linda Darnell) is sexually manipulative, has a child out of wedlock, etc… Preminger hated the film, as did almost everyone involved in it (this is an artifact of the studio system, where everyone from the Producer on down might only be doing the film because they were assigned to do so).  It is a competently made film with a few really nice looking scenes.  That’s about it.

2017 Summer Movie #26 – Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is one of those films that are often mentioned but that I’d never seen before.  This is an example of a “woman’s film” (Hollywood melodramas produced for a female audience, but made by men) featuring one of that genre’s usual tropes – the woman torn between two men.  Making this more interesting than many of these melodramas are the performances.  As the title character, Joan Crawford gives an unusually restrained performance and is excellent.  She is independent even as she obviously wants a relationship.  Henry Fonda plays a somewhat broken WWII vet (one of the coolest things about the film is when it deals with elements of life in post-war America) that becomes one point in the triangle.  Dana Andrews is just fantastic as the cool and manipulative married man Daisy is involved with.  Preminger is at his best making subtle films about nuanced characters.  Despite this being a formulaic melodrama in many respects, it meets those criteria.  Another feature is Leon Shamroy’s cinematography.  This is a melodrama shot loke a film noir (enough so that it is often described as film noir despite having none of the usual trappings of story or setting that make up that genre).  If the ending of this were a bit less conventional, this film could have been a feminist classic.  As it is, it is a well-crafted example of a Hollywood film.

2017 Summer Movie #27 – Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937): The second melodrama today, this one in celebration of Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, and another TCM perennial that I’ve never seen.  This film is a tearjerker about A Mother’s Love – but with some completely unexamined class overtones.  The way Stanwyck’s Stella shows her Ultimate Maternal Love for her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) is by stepping out of her daughter’s life so Laurel can fully embrace the world of her upper-class father (John Boles) without the taint of her mother’s common manners and lack of fashion-sense.  In other words, we needn’t criticize the class structures that create this social divide, we should just feel moved by the main character giving up her only real relationship in acceptance of them.  One could also ask how coarse and common Stella raised the refined Laurel, but that just must be the genetic superiority of her father expressing itself.  Instead everyone just sniffles as the music swells and Stanwyck walks away in the rain from having secretly observed her daughter’s marriage to an upper-class drone.  Stanwyck was actually quite good in this.  There is a natural quality to her on-screen that one rarely sees in 1930s Hollywood films and she was nominated for Best Actress for this role.  This is something that I can appreciate without really liking it, and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

2017 Summer Movie #28 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1974): This is the first of a five-film series by Fukasaku that redefined the Yakuza film genre in Japan. Earlier films were set before WWII and were called “chivalry films” that depicted the yakuza as men living by rigid codes of honor – sort of latter-day samurai.  Fukasaku’s films were based on articles and an account by an actual yakuza and began a new type called “actual event” films.  These show the yakuza as brutal criminals who mouth platitudes about honor, but break their oaths when convenient.  This first one begins in Hiroshima province right after WWII as the local crime syndicate is growing out of the refugee camps.  Some of the most interesting parts are the glimpses of life during the occupation of Japan.  The style is frenetic and violent – very suggestive of later Hong Kong action films centering on the Chinese Triads.  Finally, it is impossible to watch this bloody depiction of organized crime in the post-war era without thinking about The Godfather, which Coppola released in 1972 – just before production began on these films.  I’ll be watching the rest.

2017 Summer Movie #29 – The Agony and the Ecstasy (Carol Reed, 1965): This is a big and beautiful spectacle, it just isn’t a very good movie.  Carol Reed was past his prime at this point (yes, Oliver! was yet to come, but really that isn’t a great movie, either).  Most of this film scans like the actual art history lecture that makes up the opening ten minutes.  Rex Harrison is his usual great self as Pope Julius, but Heston is awful as Michelangelo.  The parts as written are a bit too invested in eulogizing the subjects rather than finding some truth about them.  Another problem comes with the work of several Italian actors whose voices were then overdubbed by English-speakers, which just rings false.  Still, it has some visually beautiful scenes and is really nice as a depiction of what went into the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and so was perfect for my purposes in preparing for next year’s trip.

2017 Summer Movie #30 – The Shoes of the Fisherman (Michael Anderson, 1968): This is another movie I re-watched as prep for my upcoming trip to Rome.  On one level this movie is trying to say something about struggles of faith, but on another level it is pure “Vatican porn” – and the latter part works better.  This film is in love with the pomp and spectacle surrounding the Papal Monarchy, with the art and architecture of the Vatican, and with the city of Rome.  I think this is a nice example of where the major studios were by the late 60s – they weren’t sure what movie to make.  There are wonderful scenes of Oskar Werner playing a priest whose teachings are in conflict with orthodoxy discussing what faith means in the 20th century.  There is a major plot element about growing international tensions that the studio (MGM) seems to have latched onto as a way to market the film as a thriller.  Still, the most memorable parts of the film are the depictions of pomp and ceremony – the sort of grand visuals that Hollywood studios kept hoping would save them in the face of television and French New Wave.  Still, this movie has some interesting resonance with the stories of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.  Much like “The Agony and the Ecstasy” I recommend this mostly for the visuals, although both Werner and the redoubtable Anthony Quinn turn in good performances.

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