Wednesday, January 29, 2020

letterboxd backup (6)

Smart Money, Alfred E. Green, 1931

While in LITTLE CAESAR, Robinson is pure will to power, an ascetic almost without bodily needs, here he is a hedonist with a sentimental core. His true problem seems to be that he is a bit overeager in his attempts to connect to the world - thus the weird tick to rub on people and things with his fingers.

It really is a shame that he and Cagney only made one film together, given that in this one they more or less play an old married couple and seem to be comfortable doing so. Cagney's hysterical pantomime act is the kind of out of nowhere bit which only works because the film earns its audience's trust from the beginning.

The women, while being constantly objectified as so many blondes, are actually treated quite meticulously, each one evoking a separate, distinct melodrama in just a couple of scenes. Especially Evalyn Knapp: She's in the film for not much more than 15 minutes, but as soon as she appears, she becomes the clear center of attention. The scene in which she timidly offers Robinson her room key and thereby herself is a perfect example of what american cinema lost after the code and in a way never fully got back: the matter-of-fact ackowledgment of sexuality not as individualized desire (for this, there are workarounds even under the strictest of censorships), but as social reality.

The best scene comes a bit later, though: Knapp first putting incriminating evidence in Robinson's jacket, and then, immediately afterwards, tenderly touching, even clinging to its sleeve. Deceit and affection almost literally in the same gesture. But both by proxy. A true connection has, once again, not been made.

Nevada, Edward Killy, 1944

Mitchum could've had a very good career in b westerns alone. In this early try the surfaces are still smooth, but there's already a dangerous, violent, antisocial undercurrent in his performance which sets him miles apart from the likes of Gene Autry. The typically overstuffed plot moves along nicely, although judging from the much better THE FARGO KID, Killy was more comfortable with comic material.

Richard Martin is really annoying in this one.

La pere des mes enfants, Mia Hansen-Love, 2009

Dispersion of energy. In the beginning, Grégoire - juggling his professional and private life through multiple parallel phone calls while driving and smoking - tries to hold all the threads together, but soon he runs out of steam and the film takes over from there, starting to disintegrate long before the suicide. Hansen-Love, who (unlike Assayas) always seems to thoroughly identify herself with the world of her films, resists the urge to dissect the life of her protagonist, instead following up on some of the traces he left behind.

It feels transitory, but of course everything, and especially the disintegration, is perfectly controlled (sometimes, I thought while rewatching it, even a bit too much so). My favorite scene comes in the middle of grief: A short pilgrimage of Sylvia and her daughters to a chapel they visited earlier with Grégoire, a short, completely mute miniature, like an altar built from embodied memory and symmetrical shot positioning.

The Monster and the Girl, Stuart Heisler, 1941

Another programmer oddity from Heisler, not quite on par with AMONG THE LIVING, but fascinating nonetheless. A convoluted courtroom drama with a noiry flashback structure and alluring somnambulistic acting gives way, halfway through the film, to a straightforward creature feature, which moves along at an almost comically steady pace. The gorilla refuses to be rushed, and because he seems to be invisible to everybody but one small dog, he alone gets to set the pace, everyone else has to follow suit.

Two nice broadcasting bits: a radio announcer shoving aside an accordeon player before delivering a piece of important news. And one of the gangsters, after discovering his slain colleague, changing the radio station from jazz to classical in order to provide a different death tune for himself.

Dr. Ehrlich`s Magic Bullet, William Dieterle, 1940

Kind of a weird film: There's an obvious undercurrent relating to the more recent developments in Germany, starting with an acknowledgment of antisemitism - which isn't being followed up on later at all. Same with all the other allusions to concrete politics. There might even be a vague interventionist stance hidden in the plot somewhere, but in the end, the film always withdraws into the save fight against universal forms of suffering. In the end, Warner really didn't want to take a chance with this one.

So it never breaks away from the bearded guys with German accents microscoping formula, but at least in the second half there are a few wacky moments - Donald Meek shows up to provide some comic relief (relief really being the correct expression, here), the word "syphilis" triggers a burst of montage amidst an otherwise solemn mise-en-scene, and there's an interesting attempt to depict the point of view of a blind man.

Tiger Shark, Howard Hawks, 1932

I remembered the fishing scenes much better than the rest, which isn't all that strange, probably, also because they are truly surprising for the era the film was shot in. Long before the war films working with newsreel footage (and also long before LA TERRA TREMA) Hawks perfectly integrates documentary style shots into his narrative. What's more, the fishing scenes aren't just interested in texture and spectacle, but also in procedure - the short montage following the assembly line of fish processing, the close-up of a hook being beaten into shape.

The fiction itself is well done, too, and very Hawksian, especially in the scenes with all three members of the love triangle: Not only Johann, but also Robinson have more eyes for Arlen than for each other. In fact, the only small problem may be that Johann is almost too good an actress in this. Especially in her first scene with Robinson she evokes, by way of a view glances and her obstinate stature, a biographical depth and also a depth of inner life which the film isn't willing to elaborate on, later. Her home life with Robinson, which is supposed to break her, isn't represented at all. Which is, of course, also typical of Hawks who just wouldn't bother himself with petit bourgeoise domesticity.

Smart Blonde, Frank McDonald, 1937

Normally I tend to lose interest in straight whudonits like this about two thirds of the way - the world exploration phase is usually much more interesting than the final twists and turns. SMART BLONDE didn't quite escape this trap, although the plot clearly is above average with a few unexpected moves. Farrell is great (her short bursts of ironic laughter), though not quite autonomous enough. Tom Kennedy alone makes sure this is at least a three star film.

Rubber, Quentin Dupieux, 2009

Works because no matter what you thing of all the metanarrative absurdities, an autonomously rolling tire is inherently cinematographic.

Fly Away Baby, Frank McDonald, 1937
Tosses the straight whodunit concept in favor of a mixture of comedy vignettes, adventure and exoticism, which works better for the overall mood of these films. Plus, Farrell has much more room this time and she knows how to use it.

Synnöve Solbakken, John W. Brunius, 1919

Synnöve lives up the hill, on the sunny side, and she seldom ventures down. Into the shadows, where Thorbjörn lives, in love probably more with the idea of a female being from the sunny hill than with Synnöve herself.

The romance starts in church, the only acceptable place of social gathering. A symmetrical composition, exhibiting a symmetrical world: On the left, the world of women, on the right, the world of men, between both, the priest.

The film stays mostly in the shadows, with Thorbjörn, who suffers through melodramatic complications reformulated as paradoxical ethical predicaments: Only if you reject desire, Synnöve tells him, are you allowed to desire me.

The lovers have just a handful of scenes together. Synnöve does have her own desires, but she acts on them only twice, mostly she stays up in the light, sometimes joined by Thorbjörn's sister, the only person in the film who can easily move between the two worlds. Synnöve, being an idea more than a bodily entity, doesn't have to act, she just has to make an appearance once in a while, to make her presence felt, through single shots of her hovering in the sun far above the dark and brooding village. Short bursts of light inserted into the earthbound world of Thorbjörn.

Unholy Partners, Mervyn LeRoy, 1941

Starts as a probably more or less conscious throwback to the high-speed procedurals LeRoy and Robinson excelled in at Warner in the early 30s (FIVE STAR FINAL being the most obvious comparison, right down to the office romance side plot). Later, the film slows down and transforms itself into a character drama with some rather weird twists.

It's easy to see films like this as watered-down, much more bourgeois remnants of the precode tradition. But at the same time there's a density in texture and a psychological depth the earlier films did not reach or even aim for.

Even if Robinson probably did play this particular role a few times too often by 1941, LeRoy's mise-en-scene is rich and inventive throughout, especially in the parts not concerend with the main plot. The scenes with Marsha Hunt and the wonderfully awkward William T. Orr are especially touching, the camera measuring, again and again, the distance between the two not-quite lovers, with Orr constantly being drawn towards the perfectly inviting Hunt but unable to make the crucial move, to bridge the gap in any meaningful way.

Ne te retourne pas, Marina de Van, 2009

A film about the inner hysterics of cinema as private fantasy. How can I stay myself when Marceau transforms into Bellucci before my very eyes?

The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher, 1957

Not nearly as fast-moving and lurid as DRACULA one year later, but its minimalist simplicity has a charme all its own. The monster is the closest thing to a complex character in this. Everyone else is set dead on his or her (libidinous) track at the start and follows through until the bitter end.

The Cushing close-ups are a force of nature.

Ich seh ich seh, Severin Fiala / Veronika Franz, 2014

Familiar beats from austrian auteur cinema (oddly enough more of the Haneke than of the Seidl variety) reformulated as an A24 horror film. Martin Gschlacht has free rein, but luckily there's also the wonderful Susanne Wuest.

Waterloo Bridge, Mervyn LeRoy, 1940

"It seems there are no rules..."

An incredibly daring, almost experimental approach to affect and subjectivity. Vivian Leigh's face is the main laboratory. It starts out as a simple, easily malleable surface, ready to glide into love at any moment. And when additional layers are introduces, it is, at least at first, not because of romantic love, but because of her friendship with Kitty.

Later, in the film's most astonishing shot, her becoming a prostitute is depicted in a single take, with her looking at the men around her in an utterly new way. Like discovering the world a second time.
Even Robert Taylor's relative stiffness is an asset, because the whole last act is built around the juxtaposition of his naive, singleminded enthusiasm with Leigh's complex interiority.

Walk In, Herman Yau, 1997

Funny body switch comedy which never quite gets as hysterical as one could expect (except for the scenes with the wonderful Ada Choi). But on the other hand, Yau, as usual, takes his setup a little bit more serious than other directors would. The Danny Lee character especially is truly fascinating: Getting "invaded" by a frustrated, ambitious, younger guy, while also constantly being harassed by the repercussions of his older, philandering, more relaxed self - and feeling equally helpless towards both of these conflicting impulses. Layers of masculinity...

It is of course easy to connect the concept of "walk in" with the chinese takeover. Which might have, judging fromt this, also have had something to do with sexual insecurities.

Un amour de jeunesse, Mia Hansen-Love, 2011

I remember being bugged by Urzendowsky the first time I saw this. Which is strange, because he is pretty great here with his slightly inhibited body language. At least way better than Brekke, who downright oozes the sort of cultured-man-of-the-world sensibilities Hansen-Love's films sometimes are a bit too much enthralled by. The whole getting-into-architecture storyline is pretty strange, taking (expecially musical) shortcuts she usually doesn't take. I mean, Brekke takes his students to Berlin, of all places, Europe's prime hub for bad architecture. This alone should makes it clear for everyone how big a phony he is.

The first part, with Urzendowsky, is beautiful though, especially the almost wordless Ardèche trip, as is the ending, the bath in the river (Hansen-Love's films always make me miss the countryside), the short glance towards the image of happy family life Camille feels she's drifting away from.

Burger Boy`s, Lav Diaz, 1999

Not at all the slight comedy this is sometimes described at, but an ambitious, freewheeling metanarrative foreshadowing a lot of Diaz's later concerns and even some of his signature shots. Not all of it works, but at least it is a good reminder that Diaz is, at heart, not a realist but a filmmaker of the grotesque.

The Last Laugh, Greg Pritikin, 2019

Whenever a modern comedy is generally described as being lazy, tired and primarily an excuse for a few washed-up stars hanging out, I take notice. It almost always pays off.

Kid Galahad, Michael Curtiz, 1937

The way Curtiz controls the flow of the story during the final fight both in- and outside the ring, while also maintaining a sense of chaotic exhilaration - and all so effortless, without the soundstage-as-battlefield-bravado directors of later decades inevitably would fall back on when directing a film like this.

In the end, this isn't even about boxing, or about Robinson who may be the center of the script (connecting all the dots)... but the center of the film is Davis, or rather the triangle of Davis, Jane Bryan and Wayne Morris. Two women in love with a man. The courtship takes the form of handling the image of the man: one woman carefully collects newspaper clippings of his triumphs, the other nervously rips a single newspaper with his printed face in shreds while listening to his fight on the radio. Obviously her love is deeper.

A few moments: Davis and Morris riding on the back of the train, drifting into and out of a flirt. Bryan's face downright beaming next to a group of freshly hatched chicks. Robinson talking to his mother in italian for what feels like two full minutes.

Die Küken kommen, Eckhart Schmidt, 1985

An anarchistic, almost formless military comedy about young recruits breaking away from the drill in order to live it up in Munich. Chock-full of the kind of manic overacting that beats you (or at least me) into submission. The most out there of the guys (Andreas Jung) is also my favourite.

By way of a group of girls pursuing the boys, Schmidt's usual romantic extremism also comes into play. The film nevertheless is so obviously at odds with the director's instincts that it almost feels like the result of a bet he made (and lost) with himself.

I still like it though, except for the very bad background music. Never a moment's peace in this one.

The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang, 1944

Midway through, Robinson gets promoted from assistant professor directly to department head. Dream logic.

Batang West Side, Lav Diaz, 2001

A displaced struggle and the struggle of displacement constantly reinforcing each other... but also, in a way, cancelling each other out because in the end man is always alone.

(Finally gave up on waiting for a print of this screening in my vicinity and watched the rather abysmal version floating around. Of course, it immediately sucks you in nonetheless. Still, Lav Diaz filming two men fishing at the Jersey Shore on a foggy winter day on colour 35mm stock is something I really need to see under better circumstances someday.)

It`s Me, Eckhart Schmidt, 2017

Schmidt's second version of Pavese's short story "Suicidi", after the magnificent SUNSET MOTEL, this time omitting the male protagonist completely. There's just one woman on a hotel bed calling her lover on her mobile phone. And in between the frustrating calls, dreaming of a sepia-toned Venice.

We don't even hear his voice. He exists only in her reactions. The story, if there would be a story, would be a familiar if rather anachronistic one. She is ecstatically in love, he is evasive. He has his job (and probably other women), she has just him.

When she's on the phone, the camera hovers over her face, closing in on her and backing away again. The extreme close-ups do not, actually, bring us closer to her, though. Just the opposite, the more the camera closes in on her, the more she's transformed into a cypher. While the completely indifferent, neutral hotel room background stays sharp, her face melts out of focus.

For the most part, she isn't a complete body. When she's on the phone, she becomes an extension of the phone. His voice activates parts of her (once they even have phone sex) but not the whole. Only when she hangs up, the camera drifts towards other body parts, or even allows her to step back a bit, to become a full entity. The thoughts of him are allowed to flow a bit more freely through her limbs. But even then, she is never caught unaware, never seen drifting away. She becomes image only as far as she is in love.

From the Queen to the Chief Executive, Herman Yau, 2001

From the outside, it merely looks like a cynical move of the british autorities to only allow for at least some form of democratic discourse in Hong Kong to emerge when the takeover already was agreed upon (starting with political reforms in the early 80s). But Yau's film makes clear that, when experienced from the inside, the political developments of these years were a full-blown tragedy. FROM THE QUEEN TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE registers as a longing for a democratic space that never was, with a very bitter coda.

It starts out rather convoluted, and there really is too much crammed into it, but when the focus switches from Yue Ling to Leung and his more straightforward political fight, it becomes very affecting. The casting of mostly unknowns mostly works, although I have to admit that I was constantly irritated by Ah Jing's passive sweetness. Stephen Tang's softness on the other hand is wonderful, his inner breakdown in the scene with his son is heartbreaking.

Great use of music. I don't care much for the heroism of rock any more, but here it earns its place.

The Undercover Man, Joseph H. Lewis, 1949

Procedural about halfway between the still somewhat romantic de-Rochemont-Hathaway "documentary" noirs and the much colder war on crime films of the fifties. A slow, but constant forward movement, with the violence underneath it mostly staying offscreen.

The realistic low contrast lighting is somewhat at odds with Lewis's inventiveness, resulting in often extremely, claustrophobic, crammed spaces. No room for decisive movements (Barry Kelley is the only one trying, repeatedly, and his failures might be the most alluring part of the film), just lots of detailed shuffling around, until everything finally falls into place.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Roy Rowland, 1945

Some of the scenes purely focussing on Selma's experience (the one with the elephant, especially) are extremely beautiful, as is the production design, yet I mostly couldn't stand this. Trumbo seems to be undecided whether his classic Americana setting shold be transformed into a socialist utopia; or if this socialist utopia is already there, available for anyone with the correct nature metaphor at hand. In any case, his characters take turns in becoming his mouthpieces in a rather obnoxious way, transforming all lived-in details into talking points for an agenda which, in the end, doesn't dare to properly speak itself anyway. The romance of the schoolteacher and the editor, meanwhile, is like something out of the dreariest corners of socialist realism.

Random Harvest, Mervyn LeRoy, 1942

"It must come from the inside..."
Another experimental melodrama from LeRoy, once again the war experience, romantic love and peak studio era artificiality join forces in order to transform the world beyond all recognition.

Just as devestating as WATERLOO BRDIGE, and even crazier. In fact, much crazier, it should be locked into an asylum. And then it should escape, searching for Greer Garson.

The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard, 2018

I didn't care for Audiard's last two films, but at least he managed to hold up the tension, even if in extremely contrived settings. This, however, just feels like a complete cop-out: tired revisionist western tropes coupled with indiewood humour (relentlesly pounding the same note over and over again, especially in the scenes with Reilly and Phoenix) and a few hints at technical competence in the action scenes.

Strange that this isn't a netflix film, feels like one from start to finish.

Second Act, Peter Segal, 2018

The fever dreams of capitalism.

(I mean, who the hell thought: the jenny-from-the-block-goes-corporate-premise plus the bonkers lost daughter storyline aren't enough, so why not bring in Hiroshima?)

Leah Remini

Blossoms in the Dust, Mervyn LeRoy, 1941

In preparing for the dance, Greer Garson and Marsha Hunt put on identical, spectacular blue dresses. When they step down the stairs (one of those shots Technicolor was invented for), we see that their boyfriends also look alike: moustached and a bit mousy. The perfect symmetry is broken when Walter Pidgeon enters, sidetracking Garson's glance, movement, affection, and ultimately, fate.

A beautiful beginning for what turns out to be a mostly uninspired biopic, steamrolling over every hint at emotional nuance. Almost as if the film dies with Marsha - the scene leading up to her suicide, after just ten minutes, is the second standout moment. The way LeRoy manages to transform her mundane crossing of a room into a decisive movement, a cinematic gesture...

Barbara - Wild wie das Meer, Frank Wisbar, 1961

Harriet Andersson's last glance directly into the camera so much mesmerized me, I had forgotten that quite a few scenes end with her enigmatically glancing at someone or other.

Also, I always forget just how good Peter Fleischmann is in this. A petty meanness with a sadomasochistic undercurrent, amost literally sweating self-hatred, like something directly out of Fassbinder.

Malombra, Carmine Gallone, 1917

A film so much in awe of Lyda Borelli, it achieves a weird form of gestural hyperrealism, especially in the possession scenes.

Two Weeks in Another Town, Vincente Minnelli, 1963

Yes, everything is breaking down, the end of cinema is near, mostly because everyone is hopelessly set in his ways... but what makes this so great is the longing for things to be different, for one last, great synthesis.

Black Angel, Roy William Neill, 1946

Woolrich adaptation which sanitizes one of his greatest novels, but somehow manages to stay true to its spirit at least in parts. There's so much misplaced desire in Woolrich, some of it almost automatically manages to slip by. Still, as much as I love Duryea, the switch from the female to the male perspective is a shame.

Green Book, Peter Farrelly, 2018

A solid grounding in the performances of the two leads (there's a halfway decent sitcom premise in there, somewhere), but there's just nothing worth grounding here. Ok, I have to admit, I like the stuff with the love letters.

Aufbruch, Ludwig Wüst, 2018

Two people anchoring each other, in order to stay afloat, hovering above the abyss.

Thunderbolt, Josef von Sternberg, 1929

Not as perfect as DOCKS OF NEW YORK or MOROCCO - the transitions between scenes aren't particularly smooth in the first half and some of the supporting and bit actors talk as if they really only learned how to one year earlier. But it might still be my favorite Sternberg so far, for the prison sequence alone. And, of course, for George Bancroft's magnificent, extremely musical drawl.

Not that the first two big set pieces - at the night club and in the staircase, with Bancroft turning himself into a dog - aren't marvels in themselves, but only when arriving in prison, things really take off. Here, Sternberg constantly switches between a playful exploration of the possibilities of sound cinema (the warden's anger over the invisible, unbreakable prison quartett / greek chorus: no matter how often I break them up, there's always another singer coming in) and a carefully calibrated, tense suspense plot. We stay in one single cell almost the whole time, yet the cinematic space is constantly shrinking and expanding. And instead of finally letting one of these two moods take over, Sternberg pushes both to their respective limits in the last few minutes before the execution: Sternberg and Bancroft evoke, at the same time and in the same gestures, a sentimental, almost cheesy, laid-back attitude and a sense of terror which, in the end, reduces the whole world to the movements of Bancroft's hands.

"I wish there were a way of telling when a human being's out of tune."

The Adventurous Blonde, Frank McDonald, 1937

The plot is interesting in theory, but gets lost in endless, clumsy, Torchy-less exposition (after the first scene, she isn't in the film for ten whole minutes, which might not seem much on paper but feels like eternity). Even when she finally comes back, things are moving slower than usual. Tom Kennedy doesn't help much this time, either. Coasts by on Farrell's charms alone.

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