Wednesday, March 04, 2020

letterboxd backup (20)

Green Light, Frank Borzage, 1937

"We're not scientists anymore, we're emotional kids playing with dangerous toys."
Borzage at his most abstract. The wonderfully effusive plot no longer pits only two lovers against the world, but, like in STRANGE CARGO, establishes a zone of elevated madness to which all main characters have access to and inside of which connections are only valid and enforced when connected to a spiritual task.

A lot of dog close-ups.

Hearts Divided, Frank Borzage, 1936

Should have been ideal for Borzage: a love story transcending continents, common sense and, in the end, historical truth. The casting is just too bizarre, though. A youthful naive crooner Dick Powell (if no longer as round-facedly innocent as in his first roles) serenading a capricious, almost cocottish Marion Davies just doesn't make sense in this setting at all. Claude Rains provides some fun, but otherwise Borzage doesn't seem to have put in much effort here.

A Life for a Kiss, Allan Dwan, 1912

I'm always amazed by the use of deep focus in these early westerns. Here, there's a shot lasting probably around 30 seconds of two men riding diagonally towards the camera while constantly shooting at each other. That specific way of capturing action seems to have completely vanished from cinema around 1915.

A Farewell to Arms, Frank Borzage, 1932

Make love not war. But of course, it's not even a choice, here. War immediately loses its grip on Cooper and Hayes (how small she is, next to him, on his arm) when they sleep together in a churchyard under the hoofs of an equestrian statue. Their sex is not so much a premature wedding night but rather another kind of marriage ceremony. In fact, their whole relationship is a permanent wedding, every bed is a nuptial bed, every encounter a renewal of vows.

Cooper in the rain to a stray looking for food inside a can: "There's nothing there, dog"

Disputed Passage, Frank Borzage, 1939

A bizarre plot even for Borzage standards, but the first half at the university is actually very strong, thanks mainly to John Howard's excellent performance evoking a subtle hardening of spirit. Dorothy Lamour's character is just too out there to go anywhere sensible (a "true" yellowface performance might even have been less obscene...); at least she's given a few nice fetish shots.

Jet Generation, Eckhart Schmidt, 1968

The mystery that is Dginn Moeller deepens with every viewing.

His Butler´s Sister, Frank Borzage, 1943

The plot isn't all that smooth, but with a cast like this there's not a lot that can go wrong. Everyone seems to have a good time, and Borzage adds an extra touch of sensuality. That long, endless tracking shot of Durbin and Tone strolling the soundstage...

The Durbin close-ups during her fabulous russian medley are the most beautiful thing I've seen in a while.

History Is Made at Night, Frank Borzage, 1937

Although they do not share all that much screentime, Boyer and Arthur might be the best of all Borzage couples. Arthur's plain american screwball pragmatism plays perfectly against Boyer's charm. Boyer himself is smooth as ever, but at the same time surprisingly insecure and fragile. (The Boyer trilogy of romantic extremism, 1937-39: HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, LOVE AFFAIR, WHEN TOMORROW COMES.)

Watching his films I'm amazed how, with Borzage, the affective, primal power of love is always inseperable from artificiality and playacting. His lovers never just live together, they always "play house". Here, they even play a bored married couple, just for fun, while their most flirtatious scenes are acted out by dolls painted on their hands. The only real difference between Boyer and Colin Clive (for once, there's a really interesting antagonist...) might be that Boyer's doll-hand can talk while the portrait over Clive's desk can't. Otherwise they are pretty much the same: Both of them build elaborate fictions around their love and, when in doubt, almost always act in bad faith.

Besides all that the film is just bat-shit crazy, from beginning to end, and it's just the kind of elevated craziness I cannot help but to completely succumb to. In the end it comes down to a bet: Just how many transatlantic absurdities can you balance against one single night of dancing with a barefooted Jean Arthur?

Sugartown - For a Fistful of Votes, Kimon Tsakiris, 2019

Democracy as business... but not business like international conglomerate but business like a small-town mom-and-pop shop. Business as usual, filmed in close-ups, from the passenger's seat.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged, Johannes Roberts, 2019

The setup scenes in the beginning look pretty cheap, and sulky Sophie Nelisse really is the only member of the cast to make any impression. The underwater aesthetics are pretty good, though, especially the use of colors. Sometimes the film tries a bit hard to retranslate the dark strangeness of the setting into a legible action-film parkour, but generally, this had a tight grip on me. Plus, the last 15 minutes take everything to another level: this really is exploitation gold of the kind I do not find often in wide releases these days. Here, even the character work suddenly clicks: the silent glance between Nelisse and her bully is worth more than all the routine dramatic beats preceding it.

Akahige, Akira Kurosawa, 1965

An underfunded provincial hospital as a last fortress against the total doom of existential despair.

This could easily have turned out a bit oppressive given the moral burdens each and every character has to shoulder during its three hours... if not for Kurosawa`s wonderfully nuanced direction, lending each segment a distinct mood and rhythm, switching, sometimes from scene to scene, from almost abstract minimalism to expressionistic fervor to joyful submersion into the textures of the film`s world.

Among many other things, this also is a treatice on the cinematic value of faces. Yasumoto`s trajectory from arrogance to humble enlightenment might have less to do with Redbeard`s teaching than with a series of encounters with women`s faces as embodiments of the aesthetic spectacular: the pulsing veins on "the mantis"`s forehead while making love to him in murderous rage; the paleness of Onaka`s face flaming up next to the moon (with her becoming, essentially, another celestial body); and, of course, the dark, animal-like glow of poor, feverish Otoyo. Only when Kayama`s transformation is complete, his own face, too, is allowed to become an object of aesthetic adoration: when he is sick and being cared for by Otoyo, his features are being sculpted, in long, loving close-ups, into a statuesque, soft, open-hearted beauty previously hidden behind his brooding demeanor. The whole scene, long and almost completely silent, is a marvel, altenately pitting both Otoyo`s and Yasumoto`s face against different kinds of grained textures.


Great to finally revisit this. Probably my favorite Kurosawa, together with DONZOKU and DODESUKADEN.

Where´d You Go, Bernadette, Richard Linklater, 2019

Never wants to be more than the unobtrusive, low-key quirky feelgood depression comedy it indeed is. The feel-good part depends on a few strained plot machinations too many (in lesser hands, this could've turned into something like A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, easily) and doesn't really work, until suddenly it does. There's a Old Hollywood feel to the way the resolution defies common sense... in a way the very fact that it defies common sense (without crossing over into pure wish-fullfillment) is what makes it not only affecting, but feel earned, because common sense is something to overcome, too. Might be that critics fed on mumblecore aren't willing to appreciate something like this.

Blanchett is great (and reminded me so much of Allison Janney, it's almost eerie), but the cast generally is very good: Kristen Wiig as psycho mom, Troian Bellisario in a kayak, what more can one want. Nelson and Cruddup have to bear the weight of most of the weaker parts of the script, but they have their moments, too, like in the scene when the daughter, after an all out fight with her father, scolds him for always overheating the toaster.

Till We Meet Again, Frank Borzage, 1944

In their first meeting, Milland and Britton appear as apparitions to each other, and in a way, they never move beyond that. The double inhibition of his being married and her celibacy separating them makes the problem of how to open up to another person all the more urgent. Every gesture, every contact counts, especially for Britton.

The thriller scenes are handled carefully and mostly without melodramatic overreach, but when the long scenes of Milland and Britton come along, the film shifts into another register completely and the whole world is reduced to just two peole discovering each other. Somehow, the love story and the spy plot are displacing, unrooting each other. This might make an interesting companion piece to THE MORTAL STORM, because here, romance really is an escape from history.

Goya´s Ghosts, Milos Forman, 2006

Interesting in theory because of Forman`s decision to not turn it into the cynical soap opera the plotline would suggest. Instead, it mostly plays out like an attempt to make a slow, earnest quality period piece with all sense of conventional morality sucked out of it. Bardem`s over the top character is a constant distraction, though, and the whole production design feels rather lifeless.

The Symbol of the Unconquered, Oscar Micheaux, 1920

Seems like all the storylines of Hollywood antiracism from IMITATION OF LIFE to BLACKKKLANSMAN were already there, decades earlier, in Micheaux`s work. Here, unfortunately, the narrative setup drags along a bit too much, and tends to suppress some interesting moments (like Van Allen`s reaction when he finds out Eve Mason is black).

The Fortune Cookie, Billy Wilder, 1966

Some of the scenes of Jack Lemmon prancing around his appartment in a wheelchair, expecting the renewal of marital bliss, have an almost benign air of dementedness to them. Aside from that, it's just Billy Wilder cynicism of the most rote, flat and (in the scenes with Judi West) ugly kind. Not for me.

Within Our Gates, Oscar Michaeux, 1920

Everything coming stronger into focus on second viewing, most of all probably the strangeness of some of the performances.

The River, Frank Borzage, 1929

Two bodies and a strange-eyed bird stranded on a strip of celluloid, cut off not only from the rest of the world, but from the idea of a world, and even from a basic melodrama, that keeps intruding on them, though, through bursts of still images. Once in a while a train rushes by. We have nothing to cling to, not even a stable sense of self, so we keep drifting apart, always in danger of falling into the river, into the spiraling abyss. Maybe body heat will save us.

Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder, 1951

The spatial and narrative setup is, of course, gripping, and Kirk Douglas was an impressively physical actor in this period... Unlike with THE FORTUNE COOKIE, I mostly see why people might like this, but I, unfortunately, hated it even more, sometimes to the point of wanting to flee the theater. It's just all so terribly smug and condescending and the treatment of Jan Sterling is even worse than the treatment of Judi West in THE FORTUNE COOKIE.

Guaicurus Street, Joao Borges, 2019

I kind of understand why someone would want to add scripted scenes to a documentary about a red-light district, especially one in a poor part of Belo Horizonte. The film indeed does manage to avoid some of the expected miserabilist images, but in the end, it's never quite clear what the status of fiction really is, here. Or, to put it another way: what kind of fiction is this film selling?

L´adieu a la nuit, Andre Techine, 2019

Horses and cherry trees and dreams of jihad and helplessness. A series of swift movements that amount to a total eclipse of reason. You cannot help, but you cannot not look, even if it will burn out your eyes.

Buffalo ´66, Vincent Gallo, 1998

Gallo and Ricci in a photo booth, cramming themselves into the narrow, upright picture window, trying to come up with images that signify "spanning time" - instead of just spending it, wasting it.

The film constantly rebels against its own shape, aspires toward a smaller frame, toward a deviation from the unrelenting widescreen image. While some of the new, narrower frames that pop up once in a while turn out to be claustrophobic prisons (the flashbacks during the family dinner), others do provide relief.

Aside from the scene in the photo booth my favorite among these reframing devices is rather subtle: The overhead shot of Gallo and Ricci lying next to each other on the hotel bed, their bodies being turned into sign-like objects, almost a bit similar to kanji. Gallo`s awkward poses are especially articulate, alternatingly giving form to the twin impulses of romance and regression this beautiful film was born from.

No matter what happens with the rest of his life, Gallo will always be saved, if only for Ricci`s bowling alley tapdance routine.

Liliom, Frank Borzage, 1930

The fluent, expressionistic, dynamic imagery of Borzage`s late silents petrified into cutboard set design and christmas-tree-on-a-public-square style lightning effects. The petrification is not without its own allure, though: the radical sense of hermetic artificiality the sets exude responds to a sense of closed-offness always present in Borzage. A short circuiting of mind and world. Even the afterlife is just another rollercoaster.

Farrell, on the other hand, really has lost his poise now that he has aquired the curse of sound. Like a disenchanted fairytale prince he rumbles through the set, no longer an ethereal but a force of too much nature. Also, I have to admit that I miss Gaynor, although Rose Hobart has an interesting jawline.

The Mortal Storm, Frank Borzage, 1940

One of the things that especially got to me the second time around: Bonita Granville`s peformance as Elsa, all teenage fragility, hopelessly in love with James Stewart, constantly overwhelmed by her own emotions. That he manages to seemlessly insert a character like this in a dense, desperate political film, is yet another proof of Borzage`s mastery.

Buddy Buddy, Billy Wilder, 1981

The kind of Wilder film I can come on board with. The cynicism is being offset by a laid-back attitude, Lemmon`s soft-boiled despair is truly touching and Wilder even cautiously comes around to the idea that women sometimes do want to enjoy sex.

The best part is the coda, though, the tropical island farce complete with bare-breasted native woman and prime Walter Matthau mugging. Any director who ends his carreer, maybe even consciously so, on such a sublimely silly note, must have done something right.

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, William Asher, 1982

Fascinating. Even the supposedly normal characters pitted against the completely crazy ones (the cop who opposes Carlson and the blond neighbour) are pretty bizarre. Asher is unusually committed to the narrative setup, but at the same time this is not much of a horror film until the last 15 minutes... which do not provide closure, but rather act as a release mechanism.

Once again, what really sets a film like this apart from recent horror is the casting, and the tolerance for really strange (non-)acting.

Open Hearts, Susanne Bier, 2002

A rather early example of the ugly handheld close-up style that was done to death a few years later (I don`t remember the earlier Dogma films looking that bad, but maybe they do). For the first 10 minutes I thought I still might end up somewhat liking it, because of the perversity of the shamelessly manipulative soap opera plot. But when the infidelity stuff start, it quickly descends into bourgeois infra-fiction of the flattest kind. Sonja Richter is quite good, though, and in theory I appreciate the idea to define her character as someone who believes in the lyrics of pop songs. If only the songs weren`t quite as bad.

They Had to See Paris, Frank Borzage, 1929

The stationary early talkies style might just be the perfect vessel for Rogers - the patient visuals aligning smoothly with his drawl. Unfortunately, Fifi D`Orsay hasn`t nearly as much screentime as in YOUNG AS YOU FEEL, but Irene Rich is very good, too. In most other similar film she would just have been the nagging wife, but here she holds her own opposite Rogers.

Die Siebtelbauern, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 1998

So much misguided ambition... While watching this, I was sure it must be a literary adaptation, but the director wrote the thing himself, his own faux-Brechtian rural epic about servants taking over the farm after the death of the master, translated into slow-moving but high-pitched wide-angle hysteria. Toward the end he stumbles over some effective pulp imagery that made me think of trashy German 19th century painters, and at least unhinged Sophie Rois probably had fun shooting this.

Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Gordon Douglas, 1950

The birth of the rule of law as a result of a few methodical movements of a handfull of tax rebel outlaws. Drags in the plot-heavy second half, but the action scenes are pleasant and playful.

Midsommar, Ari Aster, 2019

More ambitious than most elevated horror, but also more strained. In a way it might even be better than the sum of its parts but that doesn`t help much, because, except for Pugh`s performance, I couldn`t relate to any of the parts. For a while, there are some interesting tensions present, like Will Poulter`s character who seems to have stumbled straight out of a frathouse comedy into this. The film doesn`t even try to hide its frictions, but it elliminates them one by one until there`s nothing left but colorful digital boredom.

La cienaga, Lucrecia Martel, 2001

From the red wine in the first shot, sloshing and spilling in and over the glas, there`s a constant restlessness in the frame. A film about bodies cut off not only from production, but from any notion of productiveness... for example, you can`t really see them pulling themselves together enough to really have sex, instead of just groping each other, pulling on each other`s limbs once in a while. The absence of work doesn`t free the body, not even on the level of gesture, it just leads to an unbreakable net of co-dependencies, an investment in social relationships not based on affection but on habit. The material world, meanwhile, is rusty, sticky, untidy, the pool muddy, potentially poisonous, almost every framing is crowded. Narration is strictly secondary to accumulation, to a purely additive sampling of bodies, textures, movements, touches.

The bourgeois families constantly need to voice their contempt for the dark-skinned domestic workers precicely because they feel that on the level of material reality and that means here: on the level of mise en scene, they cannot possibly break away from them, not even for a short weekend trip to Colombia.

Lucky Star, Frank Borzage, 1929

After their first meeting, her behind hurts, and so does his thigh. Later, she smashes his window, but he can't and won't no longer reciprocate, because he has experienced another kind of violence. A romance of violence turns into a romance of healing. He's no longer up in the air as in the beginning, but house-bound, approaching him means approaching domesticity (in some of those deep focus long shots, he is transformed into the eyes of the house), although it is, once again, the kind of faux domesticity Borzage's lovers again and again build for themselves. This time, the approach is slow, the barriers between them are high, because they are mainly internal. Only after having completely made each other over, the external problem, the melodrama arises. The snowy, melodramatic finale, majestic as it is, almost feels like an afterthought.

Soleil rouge, Terence Young, 1971

Euro-pudding allstar western. The Mifune-Bronson banter is nice, and some of the later, more violent action scenes play quite well, but Andress is completely wasted and the whole thing feels lazy, just a random italo-style plot with a Samurai thrown in, there's a basic level of competence, but no effort at all to turn it into a compelling whole.

Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder, 1959

For all my Wilder scepticism, this really has a magnificent script and how could I ever not be won over by a Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown (who, marvellously, has the last word in the film) tango.

Bad Girl, Frank Borzage, 1931

The staircase romance surrounded by drunkards and shady women in the beginning is so beautiful (one especially touching moment: her climbing the first step of the stair in order to gain better access to his face, and Borzage immediately responding with a cut to an intimate close-up), it's a shame that, taken as a whole, this isn't up there with the really great Borzage's. There are a few other nice scenes, especially in the maternity ward segment, but it's obvious that realistic domestic marital drama doesn't suit Borzage very well. The open artificiality of his plotting only works when pitted against an inexhaustible reservoir of romantic fervour, but when inserted into the context of "everyday life" all these misunderstandings and exaggerations just feel clumsy.

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