Movies reviewed this week: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Achoura, Le Havre, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Rat Catcher, Salem’s Lot, Let the Sunshine In, and The Brides of Dracula.
9/26/2023: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927): ***1/2
That’s the most modern feeling silent film I’ve ever seen. Then again, Hitchcock helped define the modern thriller, so that’s not entirely surprising. I was particularly interested in the dialogue cards, which broke away from the static ones I’m used to. It made me wonder what we’d have seen if sound had never come to cinema. Probably just subtitles, but man, Hitchcock was being really inventive here and it might well have gone somewhere.
Anyhow, the movie! It’s solid; if I didn’t know Hitchcock’s tropes I expect I’d have missed the twist. The set design was Impressionistic, but I didn’t think most of the performances were, with the exception of Ivor Novello. Bit of a deus ex machina ending.
I wonder if Alan Moore watched this before writing From Hell? I’m thinking of the maps which play such a critical part in this movie, and the sense of geography as critical to Jack the Ripper’s killings. The Hughes Brothers did before making the movie version, in any case.
Prompt: five films from Hitchcock (et al.)
9/27/2023: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023): ****
“Hm,” I imagine Wes Anderson saying. “But what if I could collapse my metatextual storytelling down into a single layer?”
And then he did. The narrator inhabits the same space as the characters; the characters adopt the narrative role. It’s singular. It comes close to being too precious without stepping over the line. By the end, when various people are debating the details of how to tell Henry Sugar’s story, it’s clear that the artifice serves to spotlight the narrative. At the same time, the narrative — a narrator telling the story of how a man finds a book which itself tells the story of how the book’s scribe met a man who told him a story — reinforces the artifice.
Henry Sugar can’t do good without hiding his talents. He’s got to disguise himself. We curl back on ourselves once again: storytelling is good. Storytelling requires artifice. (The neorealists dissent. Alas, this is Wes Anderson’s movie and they don’t get a say.) This did not have the emotional weight of his longer, original work but as a thesis statement I can’t imagine better.
9/27/2023: Achoura (2018): **1/2
Well, that just missed. It’s got some great ideas and the setting was cool and interesting, but the construction of the movie was not coherent. The spine — a story about generational corruption and sacrifice — was full of potential and certainly differentiates from the obvious comparison point, It. The execution failed. For example, if you’re going to postulate that an item made with a child’s love is significant, shouldn’t the obvious parallel item be significant in the same way? Instead the second MacGuffin falls by the wayside, forgotten.
Generally speaking the directing and acting and even CGI was competent if not better than competent. It wasn’t a waste of my time, it was just disappointing.
Prompt: a movie from six different countries (Morocco)
9/28/2023: Le Havre (2011): ****1/2
Kaurismäki makes movies about faces. I’m half-convinced he finds actors with the right eyes and mouths and wrinkles and builds stories around them. The climax of this movie is wordless: two people looking at each other, and emotions cascading across their faces until one of them makes a decision.
The simplicity of his shots masks the intricacy of his story. At the surface, this is a simple one about a refugee running from the law and the old man who saves him. There’s a lot of drollery around the corners. Look closer, though, and consider the way Little Bob’s missing wife echoes Marcel’s sick wife. There’s a whole series of explicit and implicit stories about lost partners here, which creates a purposeful texture.
There’s not a lot of chance in Kaurismäki‘s films. In the interview on the Curzon Blu-Ray, Jean-Pierre Darroussin says, “There is a strange and wonderful pleasure in creating a character with Aki Kaurismäki and stepping into a universe so precise that it requires… a gesture. You really have to shoot the arrow at the target.”
This sounds correct to me. It’s a fable of a movie, taking place in a timeless Le Havre, and it’s also truly emotional. I was moved to tears at a couple of points during this, mostly because of how people looked at each other. It’s a neat trick, melding fable and social realism.
9/29/2023: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974): *****
Sorry, Fassbinder was 29 when he made this?
It’s perfect, no matter how imperfect Fassbinder was. This is the first of his pure melodramas I’ve seen, and I was startled at its kindness. Fear is woven through this, visible on every single character’s face, but the title is as much a warning as it is a prediction. It might not be possible for love to overcome fear; then again, it might be. I choose to leave with hope for Ali and Emmi.
That hope sends light retroactively throughout the movie. As time wears on, Emmi’s friends and neighbors open back up to her. Or do they? As time wears on, Emmi’s friends and neighbors realize they need their day to day transactions with her. Or do they? It’s neither and both. Fassbinder didn’t settle for easy answers, so it’s not going to be as simple as “Germans are racist” or “people are all good under the skin.”
“l fail to see anything indecent, hard as l might try. Goodbye!”
Gruber has nothing to gain there; it’s just as easy for him to agree that the relationship is indecent and move on. But he says what he says. There’s light in this darkness.
Later, in her conversations about the new housekeeper and her objectification of Ali, Emmi shows her own racism. (It’s interesting that Brigitte Mira, who plays Emmi, is half-Jewish and that she acted for the Nazis during World War 2.) Fassbinder is fine leaving us with hope as long as he also leaves us with realism. Even cynicism.
All this about the subtext and theme must not detract from how masterful Fassbinder was as a director, or how good the acting is in this. I wasn’t expecting a ton from El Hedi ben Salem, given how terrible some of Fassbinder’s other lovers have been in other movies. Man, no, both ben Salem and Mira were very good. Like Kaurismäki, Fassbinder knows what to do with faces.
The camerawork, too. Late in the movie there’s a scene where Ali is walking down a city street, filmed from far away. Fassbinder has used that technique all through the movie to signify solitude and loneliness. This time, the grey stone of the buildings loom above Ali, making Germany’s rejection of immigrants explicit. It’s delicate and completely on point and the 29 year old made the whole damn movie in two weeks.
Boofest 2023: connected to Panic in the Streets by anti-immigrant bigotry.
9/30/2023: The Rat Catcher (2023): ****
Another lovely Dahl adaptation! I can’t imagine I won’t enjoy all of these. This has a somewhat different slant than Henry Sugar, which was an intricate set of layered stories. The Rat Catcher is an exercise in minimalism. Although it’s Wes Anderson, so there’s a barely visible frame story anyhow.
One set for this. Maybe two if you think the hayrick was built on a different set, which is possible. Pointed use of invisible props; Fiennes does some marvelous heavy lifting giving presence to a tin and a couple of animals. It’s as stripped down as Anderson can manage.
The third act opens the fictional world up with lighting effects and Rupert Friend’s excellent animal imitations. The contrast is quite effective.
9/30/2023: Salem’s Lot (1979): ***
That’s probably really enjoyable at a 2 hour runtime. As is it’s aggressively okay. James Mason and Bonnie Bedelia are enough to make up for the low charisma void that is David Soul, and Tobe Hooper is good at his craft. I’ll also admit that the miniseries format gave him room to dig into the rhythms of the town, which is important for a King adaptation.
Speaking of which, Paul Monash’s screenplay captures the flavor of King’s dialogue as well as I can imagine. If you transcribe it straight, you get something that sounds really weirdly artificial. Monash preserves King’s rhythms and some of his specific quirks without that artificiality. I liked it.
Prompt: there must ALWAYS be a Hooper film
10/1/2023: Let the Sunshine In (2017): ****
At first Gerard Depardieu reads as some sort of therapist. It’s so good that Juliette Binoche is talking to a professional! Her love life is such a mess! Then he resolves into a psychic and convinces her to make a bad decision. Then the movie ends. Denis has called that last scene the most touching one in the movie.
At her most interesting, Claire Denis is concerned with the intersection of colonialism and desire, with neither taking precedence. Sometimes she leans into one or the other; those are still great movies. This one is about desire in the autumn of middle age. (Also gender, of course.)
Binoche’s completely vulnerable acting is a good match for Denis’ elliptical filmmaking. There’s not a ton of narrative here; there are events that happen and the way Binoche reacts to them. These events and reactions layer over one another to create a set of truths. We see these truths clearly even when Binoche’s Isabelle does not thanks to the clarity of her acting. Her character lies to herself while Binoche’s face hides nothing.
10/1/2023: The Brides of Dracula (1960): ***1/2
This is a delightfully lurid chunk of cinema. As the second of Hammer’s Dracula movies, I feel like they were free to tell a story without the burden of having to do the origin yet again. They didn’t even bother to use Dracula. It’s kind of lighthearted. I loved it. It’s unabashedly Gothic and technicolor, Yvonne Monlaur is a completely hapless heroine, and Cushing is humbly competent at all moments.
Trivia: screenwriter Jimmy Sangster — Sangster? Sanguine? Hmm — anyhow, he wrote some dreadfully trashy looking novels about a “carefree, red-headed airline stewardess who is actually a top British spy.” They’re on Kindle Unlimited. Search for Touchfeather.
Prompt: 2 Peter Cushing films