Movies reviewed this week: Cosmos, Sissi, My Man Godfrey, Deep End, Walking a Tightrope, Sawdust and Tinsel, Crippled Avengers, Raw Deal, and They Live by Night.
2/6/2023: Cosmos (1996): ***
Refreshing but not deep. It took me a bit before I realized the stories are interwoven in strict chronological order: it’s just that the first four segments overlap in time, so the scenes are intercut.
Three of them stood out. In my favorite, Jennifer Alleyn crafts a mood out of chance meetings, late at night. It made me wistful. My second favorite was Denis Villeneuve‘s whimsical therapy session in which he works out his anxiety about the publicity required to be a successful director. My third favorite was Manon Briand‘s hang out story, which didn’t have much of a narrative but which was as gorgeous.
Everything else was at least funny. I can’t say there was a coherent mood or feel, but as an anthology it was perfectly watchable.
2/9/2023: Sissi (1955): **1/2
It’s kind of horrible because you can see the tragedy of the actual events leaking through the veneer of cheerful German historic exceptionalism. In the real world, Sissi had a miserable marriage and Franz Joseph wasn’t much happier. The Archduchess Sophie was a terrible person. And so on.
Romy Schneider is pretty magnetic, although really she hadn’t gotten to her peak yet. Otherwise, you know, people acted and the scenery was great. I enjoyed it for the historical context of Heimatfilm as much as anything else.
Boofest 2023: connected to SG̲aawaay Ḵ’uuna by the two best vacations my wife and I have ever taken together. (This is the weakest connection we’ll see all year, yes.)
2/10/2023: My Man Godfrey (1936): ****1/2
Hyper charming froth that manages to avoid descending into moralizing. Mostly because whenever William Powell gets too serious, Carole Lombard floats into view and zanies things right back up again. Which is not to say that Powell isn’t charming and frothy in his own right, it’s just that he has to carry the entire burden of character development on his back. Why, without him, one might come to believe that all the rich are incurably callous.
That’s not entirely fair, since Eugene Pallette does a fair amount of grounding the movie himself. His comic timing is also stellar. I think I could watch the scene where they meet over and over again.
And it is a clever movie. A lesser screwball comedy wouldn’t have bothered to develop distinct relationships between Powell and all four of the household members, but this one did. There’s a richness and texture that makes it stand out.
2/11/2023: Deep End (1970): ****
Swear by god, that loose handheld camera work had me tense through the entire movie. I love how the classically trained Skolimowski has a firm formalist control over the chaos of his work; his characters are all over the place but they’re just where he needs them to be. Only as often as not he needs them half out of the frame, just out of reach.
I think it was and is about toxic masculinity. Skolimowski once said that he made the film for the sake of the last five minutes and there’s nothing accidental about Mike’s actions. But the subtlety and grace with which the film frames Susan’s mistakes makes it thematically much richer.
That angry rant of Susan’s is really something.
2/11/2023: Walking a Tightrope (1991): ***1/2
The build from Michel Piccoli’s restrained obsession to the full-throated hymn to Thanatos is a bit lumpy; there’s a point midway through which in retrospect is where the film picks up speed, but you’d miss it if you weren’t paying attention. On the other hand, even taking this strictly as a film and ignoring the biographical context, it’s a worthy watch.
You start with Piccoli, who really never stopped wanting to find new challenges as an actor, huh? He’s great in this; it would have been so easy to overplay the role of the aging gay poet, but he never does. Piccoli conveys Marcel’s obsessions with his eyes and the angle of his body and it’s everything you need. If you don’t understand who he is by the way he casually commands Hélène, you’re not paying enough attention.
And even when he drifts mostly out of the movie, he’s certainly still overshadowing it. That’s explicit: But there it is…the one who torments me day and night is Marcel. When Marcel returns to close out the second act, it’s to make it very clear that he’s not just concerned with driving any young man to perfection. He’s looking for those who court death. Tightrope walking. Automobile racing.
The imagery gets better too. I should perhaps have noticed earlier, the first time Franz-Ali puts on the face paint and costume and stands on the full height rope. There’s also this lovely moment when Hélène opens a window and is framed by the sudden light. I think on the whole it never reaches greatness in terms of the visuals, but the moments plus that final sequence make up for a lot.
Thematically, I was pleased to stumble upon yet another French movie that grapples with the colonialism of the Algerian War. Franz-Ali is half German, half Algerian, just like his name indicates. He has to deal with prejudice throughout the movie. I think that along with everything else, Marcel’s a stand-in for France here. When he shapes his proteges and shows them how to be great, he’s not really supporting them as much as he’s forcing them into his version of whatever it is they really want.
(And, looping back, I noticed that they’re never all that great. A little local circus with a small audience; a rural racetrack without many spectators. It’s a portrait of a man seeking relevance, not a man achieving it.)
So there’s all that. And then there’s the biographical element. In summary, Marcel is a stand-in for Jean Genet, who was close to Papatakis in what may have been unrequited eros. Their friendship was tumultuous. The connection is clear: not only is the movie full of themes both men were passionate about (see Algeria), it’s a weird angry tribute to Papatakis’ dead friend. And that’s fascinating.
It’s quite the movie.
2/11/2023: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953): ***1/2
I felt like following up Summer with Monika with the next Harriet Andersson/Ingmar Bergman film, so I threw this on. The two movies are much more of a pair than I’d expected: Monika and Anne both spend a fair amount of time refusing to leave the wild, untamed lives they love no matter how much their partners want to return to civilization.
The destination differs, however. You can interpret that ending in a number of ways, and resignation is undoubtedly part of it, but I also see choice in the final exchange of glances. I think they know what they’re doing. (Bergman and Andersson were still together during this movie, right?)
It’s also fascinating watching a master filmmaker hone their craft. The initial flashback scene is amazing, and yes, it’s good enough so that it somewhat overshadows the rest of the movie. The scene between Frans and Anne is likewise almost perfect; Bergman’s use of mirrors to drive home the similarities between theater and circus is very good, albeit blatant.
But it’s not a subtle movie. Back to the flashback: how about those cannons, just bursting with energy? And it’s not as if Mr. Sjuberg doesn’t flat out explain the theater/circus twinning metaphor. I’m starting to feel like that’s part of Bergman’s power as a director, though; he knows how to take the metaphor and make it hyperreal.
2/11/2023: Crippled Avengers (1978): ****
This has the best fight scenes I think I’ve even seen in a Shaw Brothers movie; the whole back third is just one glorious extended mess of destruction. The bit with the rings is just as good as everyone says it is. You could argue that it’s not a realistic fight scene but come on, we accept the wire fu, right?
This is also among the bloodiest martial arts epics. Chang Cheh leans all the way into the title. The first limb severing isn’t more than five minutes into the movie and it gets more inventive from there. I could almost feel the ghostly Times Square grindhouse sleaze palace taking shape around me.
The plot is a little haphazard and half of the villains in the climatic fight scene are introduced more than an hour into the movie but man, those fight scenes. It’s worth it.
2/12/2023: Raw Deal (1948): ***
This is the story of a great setup and some excellent individual elements that do not fulfill their potential. Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton have an eye for faces, which particularly benefits Dennis O’Keefe. That man might have been cut out of a block of granite. Raymond Burr is excellent in limited screen time. And, yeah, the competition between good girl and bad girl is interesting.
But it’s never gonna get truly suspenseful in a Code movie. There’s only one place this can go. I’d forgive that if it wasn’t for the random coincidences that get us there. Not just one, either; it takes two people being in the right random place at the right random time before all the principals come together for the grand finale.
I’m still a sucker for the mythic mid-century criminal underground. Oh, sure: when you need a car swapped out you just run up to Oscar’s Tavern, because he does that kind of thing. So I wasn’t bored, just wistful for what might have been.
2/12/2023: They Live by Night (1948): ****1/2
I could watch Cathy O’Donnell watching Farley Granger all day long. In the first act, she’s watching him like he was a puzzle she badly wants to solve. In the third act, she watches him like she solved it and she liked what she found. I’m not totally sure he ever noticed either way.
This is insanely taut. Nicholas Ray charts a murky path along the criminal underworld, and it’s not the competent demimonde either. At one point Granger comes in contact with an actual professional crook, and it’s clear who’s where on the food chain. Granger and O’Donnell are just kids trying to figure out how to live hard.
That’s another thing I liked about this one. The women — O’Donnell and Helen Craig alike — have the same desperate edge as the men. The first time we meet O’Donnell she’s in the classic noir pose, face shaded by a hat, smoking. She’s got the early edge on Granger, until she falls in love. It brings out the desperation of the milieu. Everyone has to at least try and stay cold.
The sense of realism is powerful. It’s in the desperation, and it’s in the fullness of even the minor characters. Everyone’s trying to get by in their own distinct ways. The justice of the peace will broker anything for a price; the resort owner is much sweeter but he’s still constantly teaching his kid how to find an edge.
I saw this at Noir City, with Eddie Muller introducing it. He mentioned that Nicholas Ray spent some time with Allen Lomax, hunting down folk songs, which I hadn’t known. Apparently Ray drew on those backwoods Depression experiences when writing this script. It worked.