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A Sofie's Life (and sometimes her ruminations, too)
So, another lesson learned tonight, but moreso for the ladies: if you ever happen to be in the company of a gentleman caller and you suddenly give in to the burning passions of ronance that have been going on between you two for some time (to the point where he has a hand near your crotch and it's not unwanted)... Then it's also probably not a good idea to have the painting that he made for you that also happens to be of a portrait of your parents - with mother's sad/disapproving profile - staring rught back at you. I don't blame Sofie, Id have bolted and moved to another state!

Sofie, a seemingly underseen film directed by the (practically) perfect actor Liv Ullmann, which got sone accolades at the time but has slipped into semi obscurity (I'm only the second review on Letterboxd), is a tale of heartache and what it means to (forgive me quoting Kramer from Seinfeld here a second) yearn for something more in one's life and it just is not there.

At the same time, the title character (as played by a tender, full-hearted and intensely expressive performer in Karen-Lyse Mynster) is not an entirely miserable person from her circumstances, those being that she falls for the painter (who, gasp, is a blond haired Goy, who initially thinks Jews are kind of as he says "strange but alluring" and that is problematic until he comes to realize "oh wait, my bad, you Jews got some soul and heart") who she cannot be with (or rather her family doesn't approve and that's all that counts in 1890 Denmark), and so she is wed to her... Cousin Jonas, they gave a kid, and she has to in all intents and purposes run the shmuck's fledgling business for him. So it goes.

She is more complex than that, and the master-stroke for Ullmann isn't the casting of Josephsson, who as a given is great as Sofie's high spirited and kind but pragmatic father (he's the one who most pushes for the cousin marriage), but of Mynster. A brilliant actress, she shows so much of what is in her heart, and Sofie having a son is what gives her life some semblance of joy and meaning, even if it is with a man she can just tolerate and has little love for.

There's little moments in particular, like when she takes a moment for herself to ruminate on her memories of that enticing painter (and she breaks from her narration in her letter writing, a device that works best when it isn't in hushed whispers, which happens from time to time), and the editing of those flashes and how she just sits and goes through a full range of feelings is exquisite acting and direction. On the opposite end, when she has a moment of (near) lust committed with a family friend, and happens to be standing stark naked in her room as Jonas comes in and tries to force himself on her (and she refuses) is the kind of volcanic acting that I assume can only come from direction of a Doctorate in the school of Ingmar Bergman.

I've hesitated to bring him up because it's the easy reference to jump to: a "period" drama flush with intense emotions and a family that, through misguided ideas of tradition and emotional constipation, and with Josephsson who has been in a dozen or more of Bergman's films (some with Ullmann), not to mention one where religion and faith casts a stark pall over the lives of the characters, even if there are glimpses of grace and joy. There is that there, and the narration can't help but also remind one of when old Ingmar did the same in his scripts (oh and by the by, when rhe painter tells Sofie he and her are "painfully connected" that is a line Ullmann said IB threw her way just before they got together romantically in real life, silver tongued devil he was).

But this is at the same time a fully realized work by an artist who has her own voice and point of view, and if anything she has much more of a tender and (dare I say) sharp empathy for Sofie and her journey of not so much self discovery but understanding what the world she's in has done to the connections shes had with others. This is also to say as a director she is not quite up to a level ot God Tier Dramaturgist that Bergman got to relatively quickly, and then again who could? What draws the film out a little too long are some less involving scenes dealing with the family's unfortunate state of finances (albeit it leads to a great auction scene that reunites the painter and Sofie), and it feels like it's about to end but goes on for ten minutes too long. I also wish they had given Sofie's mother slightly more of a character so that when daughter confronts mother finally there would be more meat on the tragic bones

Sofie is a very good movie, and one I wish was more widely available (or at least given an HD remaster somewhere, on VHS it's fine but those can only last for so long). I think fans of Ullmann as the gisnt talent she is in front of the camera would do well to see what she can do as a filmmaker bringing together a story of tender, broken hearted people and faith that gets tested in a way that isnt ever cheapened by conventional turns (Private Confessions is another).

Murder by Contract

The twisted means of "cool"
Cool doesn't always mean it is exactly what you think it does. Murder by Contract is very much about a "cool" character, but by this we should mean that he has a detachment about him. He isn't entirely the quiet type a la Jeff in Le Samourai, but he is also a total sociopath as far as how he relates to people. He is the ideal killer in the sense that he has total control of his logic center and doesnt even bother getting too... Upset isn't even the word, but just to feel anything at all.

And Vince Edwards channels this guy in such a way where what he says, which could sound pretentious by the wrong actor (the script isn't bad at all, on the contrary, but it needs the right needle to be threaded, if that makes sense), and he makes this man understandable for the audience: he has a job to do, he'll do it, he'll be no nonsense about it, and if anyone screws with him then you know you can watch out. Only Lee Marvin in Point Blank is more tightly wound (though less of a bad-ads - Lerner's approach is more clinical, and I can 1000% understand how it influenced Scorsese on so many films, not just Taxi Driver).

Couple this rich yet slim volume of a character study, like getting a taste of Jim Thompson but more like a short story instead of a full novel (I still mean that as the sincerest compliment possible) with this twangy off-brand Third Man guitar score by Botkin gets closer to like a dreamy Rockabilly and Lucien Ballard's crisp cinematography that does so much to heighten how this guy Edwards is playing looks on edge even as he does (or tries to) keep his "cool" in profile, and you got a kind of B late-Noir classic, with a few key moments of white knuckle suspense, and a climax that has this droning, repetitive rhythm music that puts one into a trance as you watch it.

An interesting thought.... At first I thought Pine was too one note here, but the more I sit on it the more I find him totally necessary for the movie. This movie works as much on character even more so than a typical story, and his personality makes up this kind of tryptich that is him, his partner and this pissed off, much more troubled loose cannon of a hit man in Claude (one can say Pine, who is most interested in this woman being offed before she can testify, is the typical angry man of the film, but the more I think about it, he is needed for the movie to fit).

Murder by Contract is a mean little number, about how the cool ones are really complex beings. It's spare and different and memorable as all hell; it would fit nicely onna double bill with Branded to Kill.

Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans

"It belongs to the people of Rochefort - a gigantic home movie"
A behind the scenes documentary/celebration, of the process of creating something new out of something tried and true like the movie musical, of the townspeople who were shaped for generations by four months of filming. It offers genuine insight into things that wouldn't be so well known otherwise, like how the English version of the film (shot at the same time) had to change some of the puns and they lost their meaning. Moreover, it is also about the way Agnes Varda captures on film the little moments of her darling late husband, as he puts on a sweater or smiles or acts so calm as he directs Gene friggin Kelly. It's more than clear how much she loved him and how pure an artist he seemed to be (it isn't said so directly but his loss as well as costar Francoise is felt through the film). It is about what the memories of happiness can do for people, for the loved and those who love, and how that makes happiness (as Varda says at the end).

Les demoiselles de Rochefort

Catchy tunes, silly puns, repartee and a high water mark for the French new wave!
You know how with some movies you are already liking quite a lot and finding so much to latch on to emotionally - and in this case just the whole experience of how much unabadhed joy and love is there from Demy and the performers? Sometimes you need that one thing to tip it over into the "ahh ok, I'm surely in love with this" and... what I'm trying to say here is that when in a movie (any movie, really, but this one most of all) a woman spills her purse and Gene Kelly is magically there with his bright smile and welcoming punim to lean down and help her pick it all up, that'll do it.

It should be said that, up front, Demy makes the comparison inevitable to Umbrellas of Cherbourg by having key characters with the same names (Deneuve and Chakiris, the former being a central figure in both), but, by and large, what's so remarkable about these two films (and just one of these for any other director would be a massive feather in a big floppy pink or yellow hat, and Demy has two) is that they do stand on their own as individual and iconoclastic takes on the movie musical.

But suffice it to say it this way (as I texted a friend halfway through who had seen it before): Cherbourg may be overall the better film as far as a more Impactful and stronger dramatic/tragic story, and Ill never forget sering it the first time in an "Art and Film" class in college... What Rochefort has though is more variety and a much more ambitious scope in exploring the revere and loneliness of the human heart and in its approach to pure homage. And frankly I can see myself returning more to Rochefort for its humor and wildly expressive color palette - not that Cherbourg didn't have that, but Rochefort feels like this artist wanted to reach further in expressing cinema style... And he succeeded.

The Young Girls of Rochefort has a wonderful cast, not just Deneuve but her sister (who, I was shocjed to discover, died shortly after filming completed), Michel Piccoli as the shop owner and who gets quite the sad song to sing at one point (and another delightful duet with Kelly), and George Chakiris (this time not in brown-face, thank goodness). What sets the mood for this so brilliantly is that one number by the sailor in the cafe, who sings of romance hopes and dreams dashed as, naturally, the rest of the cafe joins in at a point to bring the emotional point home. It's almost pretentious to say it like this, but it's a movie that is about movies about romance while also being a sumptuous love letter to romantic desires and all the pathos that goes with it.

So while its story (on first viewing) isn't particularly original, it doesn't need to be - like the brightest and freshest and most daring of the Nouvelle Vague films (and this deserves as hollowed place as the highlights of Truffaut and Godard and Chabrol and, yes, Varda), it embraces the plastic nature of cinema while finding its heart and its deeper thematic resonances. And so when it finds itself in the midst of a ... Macabre subplot (of a kind, if barely that) regarding the murder of a citizen in town who, if my translation on the Criterion disc was correct, was chopped up into pieces - and we don't see it, just the bystanders, and the cops, who, of course, sing about it - it feels for a minute of a piece with the rest of the movie. After all, how can you get too detached or brought down when everyone is singing on cue and on key and that Legrand song and Demy lyrics keep plugging away? The Young Girls of Rochefort does that miraculous task of letting us know we are watching a movie in its fantastical presentation while also feeling completely authentic in matters of the soul. That's special.

And, again, a little Gene Kelly, singing and especially dancing his perfect star tuchus off, goes a long way, and as it turns out he's a supporting player(!)


More good horror comedy times from Landon and Blumhouse
It finally crystalizes with Freaky, the latest in the kind of high concept genre cinema Hollywood used to release on the regular (with slightly higher budgets) from Christopher Landon following his two Happy Death Day movies that this filmmaker is a bit more rote when it comes to Horror than he is totally adept and a natural (or at least has a clever sensibility on the regular) as a comedy writer and director. He takes this concept we have seen so often - echoes of the obvious Freaky Friday, sure, and even for a couple of minutes Big, but I see a lot more of Face/Off once this teenage girl is embodied by a serial killer and that's as high a compliment I could think to grant - and uses his R rating for hilarious bloodshed, and then some (body parts do come apart at points) while taking the poss out of what it means to be a somewhat neglected/bullied teen girl... Or Vince Vaughn.

Vaughn hasn't been this funny in (checks calendar, holy sheet man) 15 years, which is when Wedding Crashers gave him that opening ten minutes of raucous insanity with some other moments of inspired dialog. Here he commits completely to embodying this type, but also makes her human as well. And when Catherine Newton is swapped with this "Blissfield Butcher" (and of course the town is called Blissfield), she especially goes to town, perfects the Kubrick stare and gets to have fun being the violent psychotic type (who, you know, can get knocked around a lot being a teenage girl). Where Landon falters is with the casting and writing of Millie's co-patriots, who are (Patton Oswalt voice) GAY BEST FRIEEEND and sorta woke black girl, and in those brief but notable moments when it means to be more heartfelt (a scene between Butcher/Millie and the mother in a dressing room between doors is exoected) doesn't work as well as it should, which is where Death Day has the edge.

Where it excels is as a self-conscious and knowing horror comedy, which occasionally goes for drawing out suspense and shocks and is by no means bad at it but nothing we haven't seen before (keen lighting for that, uh, haunted indoor mini-golf set, I think) and draws out giant belly laughs at the kinds of jokes and dialog and even physical comedy that logically has been done but is executed with enthusiasm and two very game performers. It'll be an ideal party movie for the teens of many stripes for a while and gives me more of what I'd want out of a Scream sequelboot than I know Ill get when the time comes.

Local Hero

Money vs Humanity with a light-but-sharp comic-dramatic touch
The greatest defense against corporate corpulence is the abundance of congeniality, culture and people just being true to themselves. It's an idealized world, but absolutely one that Forsyth makes into an oasis of empathy and clear-headedness.

I like that the town isn't gullible or too naiive - they know what is up with this "Yank" from Texas and Young Doctor Who helping him out, and act accordingly, this includes Dennis Lawson who I'm so very glad got to show what he could do in a performance that does a lot with seemingly a... Normal dude. As the "hero" of the story" Riegert plays this slow-moving transformation to understanding "oh hey there IS more than just what we were told the 1980's is all about" with subtlety and a constant sense of just slight "hmm" comic reactions. It's not even a performance or a film one often laughs very loudly with, but more of a "ah-hah" kind that is earned.

And yet there is the much more vast picture of... Space and its mysteries (I know the Houston scenes arent as effective as the rest of the film, and the comedy of Moritz messing with hid boss kind of falling flat, but I can mostly forgive it for Lancaster's ebullient and yet still very tough portrayal of this Star-Obsessed Capitalist). I feel like this will be one of those films Ill have to return to every few years or so, just to remind me that life has decency about it. It's like Scottish Hal Ashby, as far as a gentle but terrifically assured vision of humans with a satirical bite that you might miss if you're not paying attention. And those nighttime shots are just about perfect.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Should be considered on par w Dracula and Franksnstein
Tuned into this a few minutes after it started this morning on TCM, which puts me in good company with the many people who likely also walked in the theater late back in the day. Where I picked up hooked me in. when March's Jekyll is professing his love to Hobart's Muriel in the courtyard and Mamoulian cuts to these profile close ups that I have to assume a young Jonathan Demme saw and blew his mind (there are other close ups later on in this immediate style, too)

Another observation: I have to wonder if the part where Miriam Hopkins, who has attitude and screen presence to burn here, is first introduced and gets into bed and is as Pre-Code as it gets - taking off her garter belt and stockings and all but showing off her tits, not to mention her swinging leg from the bed that Rouben Mamoulian keeps tantalizingly superimposed for like another fifteen seconds of screen time (and feels like fifteen minutes) over the next scene - was all intact when shown on TV or in theaters once the code got enforced? It's quite a way to introduce a character, and the rest of the movie follows up this intro by making it all about the tension/terror with Hyde.

The filmmaking overall here is rigorous and exciting, in particular for 1931 when sound in film was still in its awkward infancy. Mamoulian and his camera operators have strong visual ideas do many creative acts with moving the frame and the editing as well in wild ways during the transformations (the first one breaking reality into a bunch of pieces that had to be influential for many genre filmmakers) and how he keeps up the tension with the many close-ups and cutaways, keeping up the anxious feelings this doctor is having with his special concoction (I have to think Disney saw this for example for influence on the Queen transformation in Snow White).

There's even a brief, nifty moment of split-screen! And the make-up, while a little dated (what a cone-head), is still effective for the purposes of this nightmarish, and precisely toxic-masculine rendering of transgormation and diabilical revelry. I don't think it's quite as iconic as the cousin films from the same year, Dracula and Frankenstein, but it is as exceptional for the successful atmosphere, thrillingly lurid sensibilities that rise to the surface multiple times, and the high quality of the melodramatic performances. I'm not sure what I can add about March that wasn't said by Pauline Kael among others, but... Holy hell did he earn that Oscar for sure.


110% a movie OF 2020 for sure - take that for what you will.
And, this turned out a lot better than I expected (at least compared to the overall rating). 1BR is a mostly genuine article of creepiness, anchored by That Guy Who Was In That Thing You Saw as the "head" of this apartment complex (an exceptional Taylor Nichols, and for me it was Boiler Room as a very different character), and it snaps into it after a first act that sets up the basics for what could have been much more rote, or an entirely different sort of horror venture. This director has a solid eye and an above average editor as far as ratcheting up tension and just drawing out dread in this way of "well, this could just be a completely bleak venture and... That's what makes this work."

It's like a less hippie hippie but no less Conformity-is-All take on the recent HBO documentary on NXVIUM (sic) called The Vow, with a sticky hot pile Body Snatchers (or more to the point, a far less pretentious and obnoxious High Rise). It's all based around the Typical Young White Lady In a Horror Movie (here Nicole Brydon Bloom) who has nowhere to go but into this "family."

For me, at first Brydon Bloom seemed bland, like as I told my wife a kind of flat-soda version of Hailie Steinfeld, but as the movie goes on and her plight becomes more dire and seemingly helpless - and, indeed, as she may be succumbing to this and doing a sort of acting-job-within-this-already-set-character (becoming this subservient host and potential broodmare) - she gains more intensity and pathos and I totally bought it. By the time she has a confrontation with her estranged father, she's come into her own completely as a real force that I want to see in other movies. It also should be mentioned the rest of the supporting cast is solid, but the stand out is the actress playing Edie.

The final act is also, without revealing too much, quite a necessary and effective release and helps to mark this just barely into an exploitation flick. The last minute is one of those that can't help but bite a bit more than it can chew (what it reminded me of the most was The Invitation oddly enough), but it isn't so offensive to take away from all the potent effects that this filmmaker gets here. This is grim, largely hopeless, and all about the degradation and subjugation of human beings and, most crucially, how willing people are to give up to all that.

Jasper Mall

The American Dream is one big claw machine.
As a hardcore liberal bordering on Socialist, I couldn't give much of a rat's butt that a mall may close down (I do have some nostalgia for a couple of the malls of my youth, but it's for malls that don't exist anymore - it's just not been the same since Suncoast and Sam Goody closed, you know, don't even got a goddamn FYE store, but anyway), yet I do feel for the people in it who get affected due to the lack of employment (albeit short term and usually crappy, for some more literal than others).

And I think what sticks out the most is that these fimmmakers are interested thoroughly in the people more than the stuff - though close ups of withering flowers in the one woman's shop and the jewelry that guy is working on stand out as neat compositions, and passages like the interracial couple at the carnival are quite touching. And of course there's the mall Santa, which is just great to see his process of combing his bead and putting on the coat and so on - and that one fleeting image of "What Christmas Smells Like." But above all else is the security guard cum mall manager who is like the actual decent version of a "Tiger King" (we learn he used to run a zoo with big cats, and there's a history there in how he moves and looks at things).

Late era Capitalism and the decline of an empire never seemed so... What it is. As Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

Luci del varietà

Fellini's debut (as co director) is sweet and sad and mostly terrific
What starts off for around the first /25 minutes seeming like it could be a, well, Neo-Realist Showgirls, with in place of a gaudy Vegas show a ragtag bunch of traveling end-of-the-line Vaudeville performers and the Elizabeth Berkley here a doe-eyed young woman named Liliana who sees a performance one night and looks to join up and do anything she can - maybe looking to usurp the Gina Gershon star of the show (here a fiery and beautiful Giulietta Masina as Melina) soon turns much more into Fellini's riff on the Blue Angel. Both of these "this reminds me of" is largely meant as sincere compliments; Variety Lights is a mostly sad, bittersweet comedy of the bad times that come when ambition and the ideals of something greater take over and poison the good-will well for a tight knit group.

But even here the comparisons stop superficially; already here, and I don't know how much or little Latuada contributed as director of if it was a total collaboration, Fellini's "I love them, despite everything, even to an extent the selfish Antonelli" attention and embrace of the Low-Rent Performer and the ideal of what the crowd does to someone in general makes for come captivating viewing. I thought at first the male lead was too one note to latch on to, that he would be only a gruff uptight dickweed, but he deepened as the story got him into more desperate straits and his world turns him into a vulnerable puddle.

There are hints of what may come some day with the more Fellini Unchained productions, like a dinner party that features about forty five absorbingly disgusting seconds of the troupe eating a big dinner with the mastication on another wild plane of existence (the only time this was done without it being obnoxious in a film was The Dark Crystal, and that was because they were Muppets, ok as good a digression ill make this week), and dancing and interactions that feel so much like what we've seen so often in Fellini's films that he knew what he wanted from the beginning as far as freewheeling party sequences. But Variety Lights is a film that is richest as a melodrama that gives a wealth of its time to showing these faces, of the performers in action, the crowd as they know what they don't want and get enthralled by cheap thrills (there goes her skirt!) It's also a kind of absurd tragedy of ego and losing oneself in more misplsced ego.

In other words, a very good start to one career, and a nice little discovery at the same time by the director of Mafioso.

The Broken Hearts Gallery

Funny and warm and has a winning lead performance
A delightful marshmallow of a movie, with Viwanathan giving her all in a star making turn; she, and a the script which is consistently light and clever but manages to not fall into being stupid ... While also still having some predictable beats and yet balancing it all with some joy and aplomb and making me for the first time in many months wish more than anything I could do karaoke with friends again, is what makes this work. She has such a warm and expressive face (those eyebrows are as crucial to her star power as like Rita Hayworth's hair), but she's a good actress too.

So the key components of this fly enough as a rom com that I can mostly (if not completely) look over two things: much of the soundtrack, with a few exceptions (ie that Billie Eilish song) are unimpressive commercial nonsense, and the performance by Dacre Montgomery didn't click for me. He might be fine in other movies, and he doesn't give an outright bad performance, but he is largely one note for like 75% of this as the "Im too cool for you" dude with it all, and more importantly I didn't buy much in the way of chemistry here with Viswanathan - if anything he comes off like a more steely-eyed and sometimes uncomfortable discount Zac Efron, though I can get why the ladies will find him attractive enough and the director casting him - and that is crippling to this, especially at the end when things have to come to a romantic head (that's not a spoiler, that's just convention).

I dont know how many will go see this in theaters, where it is right now, but come video this will be a swell and often pretty funny addition to any sensible couple's genre rotation (I had one big laugh and I won't say exactly what but it involved an ex president and that's all I will say, and how can you not smile when right after a breakup the bff-roommates swadle the main character and put a dvd of Eternal Sunshine in her arms). I hope we get more from this filmmaker.

The Vast of Night

Twilight Zonin'
In brief, this is very much (for mostly better, only a little not) a debut film made by a director who is hungry and more than ready to show us something we haven't seen before. Patterson does have a history in commercial work, so his stunning control of the wide angle frame (at least mostly in the first 20 minutes) isn't a surprise there. But what glued me in was how he had his two main actors (Horowitz and McCormick) deliver the rather lengthy and bordering on but not quite Nerd-screwball dialog, with speed and naturalism (I'm reminded of how Barry Sonnenfeld in interviews lately for his new book said he directs actors to talk faster so they're more realistic on camera and Patterson has that same impulse, but I digress).

What's marks that whole opening, leading up to when Evrett gets on the phone and on the air with that first caller who gives some... Perspective about that strange frequency or what have you that alarms Fay so much, is that the camera feels like another roaming character, but focused on these two as Everett brings Fay along and we immediately know who they are and what their connection is (or could be after some more time); he's cool, she's a bit more nerdy and inquisitive, but Patterson makes it feel like a mini-Altman film, with shots that linger a little longer than we're used to. At the same time he makes his own, unique aesthetic as he follows the two of them on their nighttime walk and talk, mostly not getting too close but so this dialog feels ethereal somehow.

That opening first act - which was one of the times in 2020 since the pandemic I really felt saddest I couldn't experience this in a theater (not to mention the expressive sound design, which is exceptional and creative and drives the idea of communication tools that is a theme of his film, on a McLuhan level) - is so good that the rest of the film cant quite live up to it. Don't get me wrong at all, the story that unfolds as these two kids with ambition and drive and a simple question of "what is going ON?" go on in this night to find out the origin of this signal, is captivating...

But it also turns a bit more into a filmed radio drama, with two (very well performed) monologues by that aren't shot with quite the same level of formal originality as before. And the ending is in a way disappointing simply because it's like the air is let out of the balloon and what we might obviously expect to happen comes to be. I also didn't care for the framing device of it being a "Paradox" theater production with a Serling voice to start it... I mean, we KNOW, dude. Dont remind us this would probably make for a better 35-40 minute Twilight Zone episode.

All the same, if you like your sci-fi with a bit less anxiety than what JJ Abrams puts out there, or want something by a director who has a real voice and knows how to turn the camera into a nearly spectral presence a times - that one shot that just glides over most of the town is incredible - one can overlook the slightly lost potential in the characters once the plot kicks in. I absolutely look forward to what this director does next (and these writers too while we're at it) as it's quite a compelling calling card.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt's film is another in a line of carefully paced studies of humanity
It may be because of how I watched this - First Cow and Reichardt's films in general call for seeing it in a cinema if at all possible, she simply has that eye and ear for the minutest details and for the time she takes with every shot and many scenes to draw out the feeling of a place as well as for the actors to settle in, that you want to sink in to this film as a sensory experience, and instead I saw it at home where (I don't know about you but) I have too many distractions, not least of which the phone on a busy weekday - but it took me about fifteen to twenty minutes or so to get into the mood of this film. I wasn't sure if it might go anywhere really, as it follows the Cookie character as he is part of this fur trapping outfit (or almost on the outside, just barely with it, but enough to be in it without, say, getting into scraps/fights like the others), and it was frankly slow-going.

But then the story, as much as it is, kicks in and it becomes this very simple tale of a friendship and what may be a fairly minor crime in the grand scheme of things - taking milk from a cow that isn't there's so they can make oily cakes, basically the 1820's rural Oregon equivalent of what I assume is Krispy Kreme - and how it gets tested and firms as they become more successful and gain the employ of the wealthiest man in the area (Toby Jones), who... also happens to own the cow that they've been milking. It's so engrossing because of its simplicity, the delicacy and yet the immediacy of the world that Reichardt has recreated for us. Like all the best period filmmakers, she and her collaborators bring this part of America/the Pacific North-west to life in almost a humble sort of way: it isn't ostentatious, it's just... what it was, and that makes it special.

Aside from the performances themselves from these two, I have to wonder if the power of this film comes from something that maybe Reichardt was conscious of or maybe she wasn't, but this story makes me think about filmmaking itself, especially of the independent kind (or art creation in general). You have to assemble the right ingredients, and it most often takes some tenacity for it to all come together like it should (and how many times have you heard of someone on an indie movie shoot "going guerilla" or "stealing a shot" from some such and such a location they didn't have a permit for, etc). It feels like a story that Reichardt has lived at some point in her life, and she gets to deepen on the themes she worked in on Old Joy, also about a male friendship that gets tested by cirumstance.

And what's fascinating is how because of the slow-burn-ness of the pacing, by the time it gets to the last half hour or final quarter, it has some real suspense as we wonder how our two great lawbreakers will get out of this as they get hunted down. It's not quite to the same level of poetic grungy-frontier depiction heights as a McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but it has that same looseness and understanding about humanity, and if anything is less pessimistic about equality between people of different backgrounds and races. What happens after the end credits start to roll? I don't know, and I don't need to is the point - they've gotten through some s***, and they're together.

La voce della luna

"It seems my whole life is just this night" - Fellini still had it till the end, even if it wasn't his best
Probably the only time in cinema where Michael Jackson ("The Way You Make Me Feel" specifically and an inspired dancr sequence) gets a transition into the Blue Danube waltz, and rhsn back again so that's certainly something!

Plotless, rambling, and has more than a few moments where Fellini and his crew place actors and light and setting and music just so to make cinematic poetry: memories as stanzas broken up by the little bits where story appears to be taking place. It sounds contradictory, but what keeps it from being among the filmmaker's best is what is still very interesting about it: Benigni is s man who (after a little time to surmise) is out from a mental hospital and is wandering from town to town, looking for a woman that he adores from his past and interacts with other characters who have their own histories and mysteries and whatnot... And that's it, that's the movie - and all the while, to the director's credit, he gets a real performance out of his star and not merely circus shtick (which is what I assumed many years ago when I first heard of this that it would be).

As with many Fellini, it may just be too much to take in in one sitting, but on the other hand Im not sure I... Care that much about this character and his search for this woman who really doesn't want to see him. And yet, there are brilliant scenes and flashes of greatness through out, wild bits like the one man who gets married and when his wife has sex with him it becomes like being on an actual train that rocks and rolls and creates panedemonium and smoke, or the Blue Danube dance and everyone at the dance breaking out in applause, or that shot where all of those figures with big black garbage cans walk in formation into town. And other times, just as impressively, Fellini slows his usual madman roll snd lets Delli Colli keep the camera more still (or occasionally, something I don't remember from him before, handheld).

At its most enlightening and satisfying, it's a melancholy but entertaining journey through memory and not even desire so much as longing, like tbe ending with Benigni looking up at the moon. It's also about twenty minutes too long (that long sequence in the town square where, uh, suddenly there's a big screen up showing people crying and begging to a fake moon - it really dragged to nothing satisfying), and I wish there was a little more time to understand what the Prefect character was all about as a lost soul. But, even with its flaws, it's still a lovely experience because it's Fellini finding ways to rediscover his passions and interests in exploring memory, regret and the desire to want to fly in the sky, figuratively and literally.

Red Penguins

And this was all before Putin got into power!
Well, you know the saying: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear comes out to skate and hand out Penguins beer.

This is wildly entertaining, sometimes as funny as any great comedy of errors and outrageousness, and yet all the same it's quite a time as an American to watch this - frankly, my dears, I'm actually pretty happy to be a US citizen after watching how completely out of control and dangerous Russia was in the 90s (hell, still now). At one point the filming of an interview is interrupted because an... Unidentified person shows up behind director Polsky(!)

But what one comes away with the most is just how absurd Capitalism in all its circus elements can make something like the Red Army hockey team - and on a much darker level what the Russian Mafia did to everything with just how scary (yet in its own way still absurd) it could get - and that the first row seats to the circus one gets when born as an American (to paraphrase George Carlin) can be so surreal when put in front of Russian audiences. And at the midpoint I wondered "hmm, why there weren't any former players from the team interviewed for the documentary"... Until I realized, if they were still alive, some of them might be worried still about being identified!

In all seriousness, The focus on the management on American and Russian sides, and some other key figures in the know, seems like a tight one and tethered to the idea of the corruptive influences of money on people with little idea of a functioning democracy (including that one "Businessman" who only served 10 months in prison for some shady things, but hey, only 10 months means he wasn't guilty!) If anything it's a little short at 79 minutes.

My Brilliant Career

"Being misunderstood is a trial we must all bear"
And the moral of today's story is: "I will have a career some day, but if you insist on being so handsome and debonair, Sam Neill, what is a young woman to do?"

But seriously, this is a gorgeously composed and shot (so many genuinely and not self-consciously like expressionist paintings from that very era), delicately yet also critically observed story of family dynamics and about being in a world of opulence and rigid expectations, about how lively and freeing it is to dance and sing to (gasp) pub songs, and Judy Davis seeming to have a ball submerging herself into this wonderful, determined and most importantly deeply intelligent and (secretly?) heartfelt person with that stunning head of hair. I just love her so much in general and this gave me another window into how brilliant she was from the start (ironically Davis didn't like the character and thought her appearance was "unflattering" kind of a shame but what can you do).

Actually, what it comes down to is... The Feminism of the turn of the 19th-20th century was the Feminism of 1979 and still is the Feminism of 2020. Who do you have in mind to be in a world where the elder women have in place a set of expectations - set upon by men - and how to break from that? But what also about knowing yourself? It makes a lot of sense that Armstrong would go on to direct Little Women 94; I imagine Sebilla in a backstory we didn't get to see as a child read that book and it opened up the possibilities, which her grandmother and the like could not understand by not being the age for it. Not to mention this is also a film that is deeply and unapologetically romantic, and it earns it because of how Armstrong shows Davis and Neill connect so strongly.

But yes, Sam Neill seen through a (so to speak) Female Gaze really is something... Nice and special.

He Walked by Night

Basehart and John Alton for the win
Though the film posits in a deliberately stripped-down and seemingly Realistic manner - or as Jack Webb would say as Joe Friday on the show that this film directly inspired, "Just the facts" - I doubt how entirely uh *competent* the LAPD would be on such a case as this (not that they wouldn't do their jobs when one of their own gets gunned down, but like I couldn't help but hear Sarah and Michael from the essential "You're Wrong About" podcast in my head going "No, no, they aren't *this* good at tracking down the criminals this fast!") I also find a good few of these actors, if indeed all are actors and, to the filmmakers' credit, some may be actual officers who got roped into the film (some of the other civilians definitely seem so as well), kind of stiff, and I can't help but make that criticism when the storyline is so streamlined to not really feature a typical cast of characters, albeit Roy is the antagonist (almost as protagonist? Hmm).

And all this said I would still posit He Walked by Night is one of the key films of its era simply because of how cinematographer John Alton practically creates an entire film school in 79 minutes on how to light, compose shots and generally photograph for Film Noir for this story. Anthony Mann directed some of this as well, and I would like to think he did most of the final 10 minutes and many of the main set pieces that involve the concentrated play on shadows and value in the frame, and he directs all of that quite brilliantly. And Basehart gives such a remarkable, stone-cold performance I can almost look past the majority of cardboard stands as human beings in the LAPD (Webb excluded as he's good at being Webb).

This is the kind of movie I might just throw on some day without the sound on, just to have those sumptuously dark and dangerous images to take in. He Walked by Night is by the book on paper, but becomes art through the process of cinema.

The Man with Two Brains

RIP Carl Reiner
You cant intellectualize something like this, you either find it funny or you dont. If you don't find it funny, what happened in your life for things to go so wrong?

When Dr. Hfurhurhrr (sic) goes over to the little girl after he hits Kathleen Turner with his car and gives that detailed list of instructions and she repeats it back verbatim, it makes the misery of everyday living a little less... Less. Or how about when David Warner opens the door in his supposed condo to reveal a doctor's wide castle laboratory? Or any time we see the good doctor screw off a skull to reveal what's inside (which isn't what you think)? Or "Im making a citizen's divorce!" Or the simple sight gag of Lone Ranger and Tonto watching the brain surgeries. Or every time someone says his name, or that prostitute's voice" and on and on etc.

It's not a perfect movie (the denouement isn't as funny as it should be), but Martin is pretty close to being so here: not a false comic note, his Dr Hfrurhhurhr (sic again) is a master's class in bringing his knowing ridiculous sensibility to a brilliant doctor's ego and sex drive and basic desire for real love and connection. And Kathleen Turner... No words for how well she plays the worst person ever. I'm only surprised with myself I didnt get on it as a kid and watch it as often as Three Amigos (this is frankly smarter in being silly and stupid than that movie as far as that goes).

Outside In

Figuring out one's place in life and love in a special package
The more I think about Lynn Shelton being gone, the more it's a punch in the gut. Outside In is yet another simply told story about people who are just fully themselves in all their vulnerable and warm and sometimes very troubled ways. This is filmmaking where you barely feel a false note, because you can feel the person behind the camera is intimately connected with her subjects. It's like Cassavetes if it was... calmer. This is a film with such compassion without ever going out of its way to go for the easy emotions. Jay Duplass quietly makes a powerhouse performance being so natural we don't see any acting. And Edie Falco is given a splendid, conflicted person who knows her heart is in one place and not the other. It's a film about what it means to have a family in the starkest sense.

Raw Deal

Arnie in fine form in a good Sunday afternoon time waster
Raw Deal (no relation far as I can tell to the Anthony Mann film of the same name, the producers slapped on this title because it gets to the point, I guess) is something that I can see playing at MoMA any time soon (then again, once current events subside, stranger things have happened), but it scratches the itch for a need for slightly sleazy and (but not too excessive, like a sprinkling of parsley on a good chicken) and plenty bloody (naturally) thriller where Arrnie gets to slick back his hair, chomp on a cigar, say "Magic? Magnets!" before flipping a table, and has some convincing supporting work from Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin and Sam Wanamaker (and some scene chewing from Robert Davi and Ed Lauter). Matter of fact, Schwarzenegger said later he thought he became a better actor over the course of shooting, and I can see it... Up to a point. And that one scene at the cemetery is pretty terrific.

Last thing, LOL the music is by "Cinemascore"?! My how times change (the score is pretty generic too).

Il bidone

To Con or Not to Con in post-war Italy....
Almost by default a "minor" Fellini film due to being made between two of his classics (and not getting a release in the US for seven years after its Venice debut), Il Bidone is a satisfying and very good story told with a deft combination (intentional or no) of tough but not brutal (till near the end) Film-Noir, with criminal low-lifes trying to eek out a living scheming people, and Neo-Realism via Fellini's use of all those locations and the nature of the people, it still being post-War Rome and provincial Italian towns, where the working class and poor were susceptible to Crawford and Basehart's Wolves-in-Priests clothing schemes.

Indeed Basehart is ideally cast, a much different kind of "fool" than the one he had just played in La Strada, and Masina for, I think the one time with her husband, is just being a quote in quote "normal" person who stands in for much of the audience to say what her husband and father of her child is doing is wrong. What hampers it somewhat (aside from, not anyone's fault, that we can't hear Crawford's full performance as it's dubbed in Italian) is that it doesnt fully gain traction until the final thirty minutes (albeit a more typical/high-energy Fellini to come can be seen in a long party sequence that takes up the middle portion), and Augusto having the estranged daughter may have worked on paper but feels flat in execution.

But there are great scenes and passages throughout, notably the whole introduction to these men when theyre in their Papal garb doing the con wit the chest of "treasure" on the farm (including the charming but sleazy Fabrizi, who was also in I Vitelloni and in a way this feels like a cousin to that film, what decisions men make in life that will form who they'll become, on a moral level), and then much later when Augusto is doing it again but only this time now face to face with a young disabled girl who wants a connection and he, already on the edge of not being at ease doing this anymore, can't fake it and it all comes as the punch in the gut the film has been leading up to. Indeed what comes after may be a touch too melodramatic and tragic (without saying what happens to Crawford, I think it would have been more interesting if it wasn't so... Final).

Overall though, Il Bidone is more than just an obscure curio, and for most other directors it would be a feather in their cap. Oddly enough for this filmmaker, a story set pretty squarely without the dreams and surrealism with its distinguishing feature some poetic/lyrical touches is the one to fall somewhat through the cracks.


the Magical, Sad-Funny Fellini Tour
Sure, the Catholic Mega-Light show Pride Fashion Show may go on a couple of minutes long, and I'm shaking my head a little in bewilderment at the very ending (not the intent behind the shots, just why there are SO many motorcycles riding around. These are just minor quibbles keeping this from being an all-timer Fellini to being merely a sumptuous, sensual, dangerous, terrifying, beautifully ugly and despairingly rapturous, garish, funny and often exhilarating trip through not a city but a mind's eye of a city.

This is a "documentary" only in the way of Fellini creating one documentary of parts of his own brain, jumping from his childhood in the 30s to the 40s when one assumes he came to Rome and to the present day and then back again. The effect that he and his collaborators accomplish for the viewer - one has to give a mention to Rotunno's evocative cinematography, more than the specific colors than how he makes spaces like the underground subway tunnels feel gloomy and eerie, and Nino Rota's sprightly and even amusing score - is to feel like you're there in these settings. So when he shows his young sorta-self at a nighttime outdoor restaurant with nearly everyone excitable and loud and full of big personalities to match the big plates of great looking food, I feel like Im immersed with thoae people. Same deal with that at points awkward and always entertaining vaudeville presentation, where the audience is rowdy and unencumbered but know to stand up to pay attention to the fascist news of the day - one nearly is ready to tell the loud fools in the crowd to shut up and let the performers do their thing.

A sequence that stood out to me is when Fellini and his crew are filming Rome traffic. It's not quite a jam so he isn't aping Godard with Weekend (or himself with 8 1/2 for that matter, even if a couple of moments remind one of the latter), as the cars are all moving... Until there's an accident seen with dead cows and an overturned truck. But through all of this, one is aware that a camera crew has to be filming the camera crew that is shooting this, and yet it never comes off as ragged or too hand-held in its presentation. It feels of a piece with all the rest of the freewheeling dreamscape Fellini and company are realizing, including a lack of music and only the sounds of the road.

So, if that sounds cool and you've seen one or two Fellini films (I wouldn't jump to this as your first or even second if you are fresh to his work), dig in and you may be surprised how loving and at the same time critical he is of the denizens of this city; the subway sequence speaks to that and the tragic beat of the 2000 year old murals being faded into existence - how true that is to reality, I can't say, but he makes it *feel* deep and sad and that's what counts. Roma is like equal parts Amarcord and travelogue, funeral march and celebration - and I do wish (minor spoiler) Fellini ended on Anna Magnangi.


"This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history"
First thought: ... Actors, man.

Next: Denis Villeneuve has shown through several of his films by now a succinct and total control over crrating intrigue and mystery in his work, and Enemy is an example of using the term "Lynchian" in a proper context (in particular David Lynch's films from the past 25 years, and notwithstanding Isabella Rossellini in a small but important role here): doubles, consistent eerie vibes and behavior, and what Id call a patience (some may call it teasing out or over teasing) to reveal the mysteries that may or may not have an explanation (oh, and a clue seen on a video). But at the same time, Villeneuve isn't Lynch, and he creates his own potent context for this foreboding tale of surrealism and what history has to teach us.

I think it isn't unimportant that one of the Jake Gyllenhaal's is a history teacher, and before he gives a lesson that feels a bit nail-on-the-head in regards to talking about history repeating itself and Marxian "first as tragedy then as farce" (which could explain the ending, and I won't even try to on a first viewing), he talks to his class about dictatorships and how that repression also repeats and goes on and on. I don't know if or how dictators fit in to this story, but I do think this is a tale about control over oneself and knowing (or precisely not knowing) who one is or one's place in the world. This by the way connects to other Villeneuve films like Blade Runner 2049, though here it is in 90 unnerving and often awkardly/darkly funny minutes.

Enemy is also about how these two characters relate (or absolutely don't) to the women in their lives. I wanted to know more about Melanie Laurent and her dissatisfaction with Adam, and it may be enough that she just likes sex (or maybe not) and that's the relationship, but it felt underwritten - at least knowing what she can do as an actress. Better is the one for Sarah Gadon, with the actor Anthony St Claire and pregnant and the first to be contacted by the double and discover him (and holy god that is one complex but visually effective scene where she sits down by him on that bench and then is on the phone with the other). She gets more to ponder and react to and it's a wonderfully restrained performance... How again it lays into that ending, Im still scratching my head (maybe Stephen King can explain it, but I digress).

And if there is a reason to watch this aside from seeing a modern master filmmaker likely having delight in creating this brooding atmosphere - from a script that knows just how to give the audience enough information to keep going, but is largely visually drawn and is all the more imaginative for it, including giving Villenueve a sort of fragmentary structure that makes the surrealism work - it's of course these *two* magnetic performances. It may also be a slightly obvious point, that one is a little more downtrodden and the other more brash and confident, but Gyllenhaal brings the truth out in everything he does - no matter how BIG it has to get dramatically (and a couple of times he has to go to a Jake LaMotta "did you f*** my wife" delivery)and this is no exception. He also I think finds a bit more humor (for the better) than Villeneuve may have intended, if only through those phone conversations. It's an essential film in his body of work, and amazing to think he could do this just around the same time as Nightcrawler.

So strap in, try to not be too distracted watching at home or wherever (currently available on Netflix), and watch out for spiders!

Bad Education

Magnificent tragicomedy; Hugh Jackman is something else here!
Bad Edcuation is one of the most incisive, sharp-as-a-new-knife and darkly funny films about politics since Election - and like that, it goes to show that focusing on the school system, from the corrupt to the innocent and everything in between, to get to the heart of all that. When it comes to power and control (and what journalism can do, always worth being reminded), this story is as potent an exploration as one could ask for right now, and it's all painfully relevant to right now.

This is just a brilliant, deft and intense script, it's an absolute career high point for Jackman (I now feel like Reitman let him even more down with that Gary Hart movie, given what a super saavy but way in over his head politician he's playing in the guise of a superintendent), not to mention Janney and Romano et al, and the direction, which is laser focused on driving the character moments and psychology of every single potential moment, is a major leap forward from the guy who brought us Thoroughbreds.

Secret MVP: Frank's black-death smoothie. Also, Viswanathan is a revelation in her unassuming way.

Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story

"Maybe if we cover the entire face with a flag..."
1) This is a joyful collection of jokes strung together by a rough mockumentary style that Woody tried just before with Take the Money and Run and would perfect with Zelig.

2) It's ambitious in some respects, in that im not sure if this was done to this length before (even if just for television) - not to mention it's politically sharp even as Allen in his memoir tried to say he didn't get political in his work, which is nonsense, and this is primarily engineered to get laughs over making a grander point about Nixon up to that time, though I think even he could tell what a bunch of crooks Agnew and Mitchell were, but I digress - and in other ways it's like something he mightve dashed off (scriptwise) in a weekend.

Louise Lasser also has a fun role being interviewed about her time being drafted into Korea, and Diane Keaton plays a cross-eyed Republican ex-wife of Harvey's who divorced him after finding out he cheated wirh a Democrat.

3) As silly as this was, it doesn't surprise me to learn that PBS yanked it before it aired. It's pretty scathing, and under PBS I get it wouldn't fly. Shame it took till YouTube for it to really see the light of day.

4) I wonder what Harvey Wallinger would make of the Trump administration?

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