Movies reviewed this week: Bad Day at Black Rock, Kung-Fu Master!, Ley Lines, I Died a Thousand Times, La Notte, Five Shaolin Masters, Walker, Inferno, and See for Me.
9/5/2022: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): ****
Starts perfectly with an off-kilter shot of a train rushing to a nowhere destination: it’s angled enough to make us nervous, which is the right place for us to be. Spencer Tracy isn’t edgy at all, though. He says he was later in the movie but I don’t believe him.
This movie is as direct as the merciless sunlight in those long shots of the unclouded sky. There’s just consistently great fusion of mood and setting; if your moral compass is decaying, your car probably isn’t working either.
The movie is crowded with good actors, too.
9/5/2022: Kung-Fu Master! (1988): ***1/2
Gotta start with the big one: Mary-Jane is destructive and abusive in this movie, and I think Varda was perfectly aware of that. At the same time, if you needed the movie to condemn her clearly throughout, I get that.
What I saw was a woman who’s fundamental method of interacting with the world is touch. There’s this moment when she’s looking at a fish, and to understand it properly, she touches it. There’s this other moment when she touches her daughter to comfort her, perhaps to get through to her, and it’s a mirror of the way she was just touching Julien.
The world she lives in is touchless. We see people joking about and demonstrating condoms over and over again in the age of AIDS. AIDS itself is, of course, a threat to touch. Mary-Jane is starving. Varda and Birkin set up the whys of Mary-Jane’s decision with empathic clarity, but they don’t forgive them.
It’s a fantasy that shouldn’t be realized. The whole movie is about fantasies blurring into real life; it opens with Julien fantasizing that his video game is real. More telling, there’s an entire sequence explaining Dungeons & Dragons on the island where the worst of the abuse takes place. Julien plays an assassin, which is by the rules an evil character. Even if that specific rules detail is reaching too far, I think it’s clear that Varda is telling us that the affair is ungrounded in reality, and that Mary-Jane is wrong for turning the fantasy real.
But all that said, it’s a tough movie. I cannot imagine it without Varda’s empathy. Her clarity of understanding and her ability to convey that understanding to her audience is necessary for this to even remotely work. Remarkable acting, too, particularly from the children.
9/5/2022: Ley Lines (1999): ****
It’s wild how Miike developed over the couple of years it took to make the Black Society Trilogy. They’re all good, but his impressionistic use of color here is really a step forward. Maybe he was just deciding to trust his instincts.
Ley Lines is a violent, unforgiving, sentimental movie about found family among immigrants. It ends in a pool of blood because Miike believes that’s where Japan will always leave those who don’t fit in. It’s terribly dark, despite moments of joy.
9/6/2022: I Died a Thousand Times (1955): **1/2
Both this movie and High Sierra are faithful to the original book, which means there’s only so much this one can do to stand out. When you’re competing with Bogie and Lupino, you’re going to have trouble winning on acting talent. This is fine in and of itself, it’s just not necessary.
9/8/2022: La Notte (1961): ****
From the first moment of the movie I thought it was going to be an essay about modernity, and I was right. We open with the austere lettering. It’s hand-brushed, not a typeface, but it’s a sans serif gas-pipe design that’s reminiscent of Futura Display. This sets the tone as we pan down the stark glass-walled building, looking over the rebuilt heart of Milan.
Milan was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War 2. Between 1951 and 1967, Milan’s population grew from 1.3 to 1.7 million. That opening sequence pans down the exterior of what was, at the time, the tallest skyscraper in Italy: the Pirelli Tower. It was completed in 1958, and was a symbol of the modern industrial resurgence of Italy.
Antonioni made a modernist movie, certainly. As a pal said, this movie is composed to within an inch of its life (and I’m glad of that, because I love perfect execution). I still think he’s using the tools of the aesthetic to criticize the effects, though; he certainly wouldn’t be either the first or the last filmmaker to pull that trick. (See also our recent discussion of Funny Games).
The whole hospital sequence really sets out the full thesis. There’s the shot at 7:35: Moreau and Mastroianni to the left, with Wicki slumped against his pillow on the right. Moreau crosses right, and the camera follows her, removing Mastroianni from the frame — but the camera isn’t really following her, is it? The center element of the composition is the classical building outside the hospital. Antonioni even draws our attention to it with Moreau’s glance before she starts to move.
That’s the solid, real, emotional past which our protagonists have thrown aside. That’s the love letter Mastroianni wrote and forgot. For the rest of the movie, the modernist architecture of Milan rejects any attempt at emotional connection.
The party is the central hinge of this. It’s a boring play at hedonism for the most part, with nobody able to make any real connection no matter how much they try. (Particularly the case for Mastroianni and Moreau.) The one moment that’s different is the downpour, where nature breaks through all those pristine straight lines and perfect curves. It’s the single unpredictable moment in the movie.
The party-goers can’t even handle it. There’s a bit of joy there, but for the most part everyone flees to shelter. There are two exceptions, though: one is the woman in the pool, floating very still with a flower clutched to her breast. The other is the woman who falls to her knees in front of the statue of the satyr, hugging it, mimicking the madwoman in the hospital with presumably similar intent.
Those two know what they’re missing from their lives.
So did I enjoy it? Man, I don’t know. It was a slog and it’s not trying to engage our emotions. On the other hand, that downpour sequence was like all the repressed anger and despair of the entire film exploding at once and I kind of think it was worth it. That high point wouldn’t be as meaningful if Antonioni hadn’t been building the tension so remorselessly for so long.
9/9/2022: Five Shaolin Masters (1974): ***
Once they get to the training montage and the final fight scene, this is as good as anything. The first hour is just kinda dry, though, without a ton of differentiation among the five titular Shaolin masters. David Chiang and Alexander Fu Sheng have enough charisma to give life to their senior and junior characters, respectively, but when even Ti Lung feels a bit flat you gotta think there just wasn’t a ton there to work with.
Still totally worth it for the fifteen minutes of brutality at the end.
9/10/2022: Walker (1987): ****
It’s good, but when it gets to the place where anachronisms start creeping in and Walker goes really insane and eventually all the US invasions of Nicaragua merge into one wave of colonialist violence, well, that’s where it gets great.
Ed Harris’ final speech is cynical perfection.
9/10/2022: Inferno (1953): ***1/2
It’s a nice, taut little thriller noir that embodies the Boys’ Life era it comes from. The cross-cuts are a great tension-building device, tick-ticking back and forth between the femme fatale and her patsy and Robert Ryan learning the kind of survival tricks you’d read in that venerable magazine. Here’s how to find water in the desert using this one strange trick!
9/11/2022: See for Me (2021): ***
Sleek home invasion thriller with a couple of very good twists; it makes solid use of the protagonist’s blindness without relying on the “turn out the lights so we’re on even ground” trope. I dig the use of shallow focus to set the visual impairment stage. It’s also cool and interesting seeing a blind protagonist played by a blind actor.
I wish the script had been a bit less thin. Sophie and her new pal Kelly are fully-formed, and Rico’s pretty clearly drawn, but I’m not sure anyone else in the movie had more than one personality trait.