Category Archives: Odds and Ends

Odds and Ends: Frances Ha and Evil Dead

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2012) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.5


The title character of Frances Ha is a 27-year-old “aspiring” dancer and California-to-New York transplant played with warmth and great humor by Greta Gerwig. The film details Frances’ co-dependent relationship with her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), which supersedes any relationships she might have with numerous would-be male suitors. So it’s a film centered on female friendship, which is rare enough these days, but one that is also memorably shot through with the same genuine feeling for the kind of awkward, embarrassing or just plain painful social situations that have always been the acidic stock-in-trade of co-writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Frances is an endearing fuck-up, which is nowhere better typified than in the scenes depicting her spontaneous — and disastrous — weekend jaunt to Paris (“When did Puss in Boots start?”). This is fitting because, stylistically, the film is a valentine to French cinema (the freewheeling black-and-white cinematography, snappy montages, Brechtian chapter headings and hijacked Georges Delerue musical excerpts are all straight out of the 1960s Nouvelle Vague) as well as to its charming star; Gerwig is Baumbach’s leading lady in real life and his camera consequently frames her in loving close-up — but she is also, crucially, the co-author of the screenplay and thus never comes across as an objectified presence. In a similar vein, one gets the sense that the film’s wise moral about the importance of readjusting one’s dreams may not be one that either Baumbach or Gerwig would have arrived at independently of each other; most likely it sprang, serendipitously, from the creative symbiosis between them. Regardless of how their collaboration works, it is certainly refreshing to see a new movie that doesn’t bow to genre conventions — even typical “indie movie” formulae — but instead shows with great accuracy and sympathy the kind of big disappointments and small victories that most twenty-something Americans experience on this crazy merry-go-round called life. Frances Ha is ultimately about real people, real relationships, real emotions. And it’s hilarious.

Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, USA, 2013) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 4.4




Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty and Gender Politics

A big thanks to Jillian McKeown and Stacy Sandow for being such swell movie-going pals and conversationalists. This post was largely inspired by a post-screening discussion with them.


One of the most disheartening aspects of the “torture controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that, while the torture scenes obviously do play an important role in the movie, they are also only one small part of an ambitious film that ends up saying and doing a lot of other very interesting things. The torture-talk has unfortunately been so dominant in the media discourse surrounding the movie (including, I’m sorry to say, on this blog) that it has ended up overshadowing a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s other considerable achievements. Fortunately, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has perceptively analyzed the film as a fascinating portrait of 21st century warfare as an “elaborate technocracy” – where strategic moves are made only after data has been analyzed and probability calculated. But I would argue it isn’t just the content that makes Zero Dark Thirty a distinctly 21st-century work of art, it’s also the form: does this mark the first instance of the aesthetics of “Google Earth” being incorporated into a film’s visual design?

Even more surprisingly absent has been any discussion of the movie’s gender politics. What seems increasingly obvious with repeated viewings is the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty must have been highly personal for its female director, and it is tempting to read it as something like a personal testament. Jessica Chastain’s tenacious Maya (“Washington says she’s a killer”) and her position within the “boys’ club” of the CIA can be seen as analogous to Bigelow and her position within male-dominated Hollywood. There is a great moment early on, so subtle I didn’t catch it on first viewing, when “enhanced interrogation”-expert Dan (Jason Clark), a character whose fratboy mannerisms I described in an earlier post, first introduces Maya to their superior, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). Maya is visible to both men through a large glass window but remains out of earshot. Dan nudges Joseph and says, “Was I lyin’ or what?” Maya then emerges from the room and greets both men before Joseph can answer the question or Dan can elaborate on what exactly he means. We can only surmise that Dan means he wasn’t lying about Maya being, you know, hot. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a similar phrase must have been uttered either just before or after – or, heaven forbid, during – a meeting between Bigelow and Hollywood studio executives.

Joseph, with his Donald Trump-hair and steely demeanor, is in many ways the real “villain” of Zero Dark Thirty because he is such a concrete obstacle in Maya’s path – unlike the Al Qaeda terrorists who remain an abstract, largely faceless blob and thus come across more like some mythological force. If, next month, Jessica Chastain wins the Best Actress Oscar that she so richly deserves, it will likely be because of the hallway screaming match scene between Maya and Joseph – the most dramatic moment in the film. The relationship between Dan and Joseph is also intriguing; there’s a sense that, as archetypal characters, Joseph-the-successful-suit is who Dan-the-fratboy is destined to become – and this is even before we see Dan’s physical transformation from tattooed, wavy-haired beardo to clean-shaven executive-type. We are left to wonder if Maya will ever rise to a comparably lofty position in the CIA or if there’s a glass ceiling in her way. The fact that this thirty-something woman is referred to as “the girl,” even as the agency expert who identifies Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the end, and the manner in which she’s banished from the main table during a meeting with James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta (who, to carry my Hollywood analogy to its logical conclusion, can be seen as representing a studio mogul), suggests the latter.

But perhaps a silver lining can be found in the dialogue scene between Maya and Debbie, an even younger female agent who makes the crucial discovery that the courier they’ve been looking for was in their files under a different name all along. (This scene, plus several more between Maya and a character played by Jennifer Ehle, make Zero Dark Thirty one of the few American films in recent years to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Debbie clearly looks up to Maya as a role model just as surely as up-and-coming female filmmakers look up to Kathryn Bigelow, who may be unfairly shut out of this year’s Best Director race at the Oscars but who will forever be known as the motherfucker who directed this masterpiece. Sir.

Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty (Again) and Amour


I’ve now seen Zero Dark Thirty three times and not only has it grown in power and resonance with each viewing, I have also become increasingly incensed by the ridiculous controversy surrounding the movie’s depiction of torture (which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, its detractors claim it endorses). Actor David Clennon (thirtysomething), a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently announced he would not be voting for it in any category at the upcoming Oscars because the film “never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal.” Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, among others, have also publicly joined Clennon in this boycott. Well, I suppose they’re right about Zero Dark Thirty to the extent that it features no lines of dialogue in which a character acknowledges the immorality or criminality of the torture being practiced. But, I would argue that Bigelow, being a true visual artist, also understands the crucial importance of showing instead of telling. How do I know ZDT isn’t pro-torture? First, let’s acknowledge that Reda Kateb, the great Arabic actor who plays Ammar, the man being tortured, lends the character dignity (which is more than the actors playing the one-dimensional baddies in the non-controversial Argo are allowed to do), and this is equally true of Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry) who plays another detainee. More importantly, even if the movie showed that “torture worked,” which it doesn’t, even if Ammar had blurted out bin Laden’s address while being waterboarded, ZDT would still not be pro-torture because the overall tone of the torture scene is pathetic. Kathryn Bigelow has said that she wishes torture was “not part of that history” and her attitude is reflected in many subtle decisions she makes in terms of composition and editing: in the torture scene, notice the reaction shots of Jessica Chastain’s Maya recoiling in disgust, or the way a tear involuntarily falls down Ammar’s face as soon as he starts drinking from a juice bottle, or the quick close-up of Ammar clutching the bottle tight against his chest as if he’s afraid that Dan, his CIA “interrogator,” is going to take it away from him. If anything, viewers are asked to identify with Ammar over the unlikable Dan, whom Ammar calls “an animal” and whom the filmmakers have pointedly tricked out with frat-boy mannerisms (he calls people “bro” and references kung-fu movies and Bob Marley). There’s an irony, I suppose, in the way Clennon and his ilk imply they could’ve conceivably enjoyed the very same movie if only the filmmakers had bothered to have a CIA character say something as simple as “This torture business is terrible. We were wrong to do it!” Fortunately for the rest of us, Bigelow doesn’t believe in making movies for the dumbest members of her audience.


Speaking of torture, the execrable phrase “torture porn,” which has entered the unofficial critical lexicon to describe a relatively recent subgenre of the horror film, did run through my mind while watching Michael Haneke’s Amour. This movie’s primary reason for being is apparently to make the audience suffer as much as possible by not only showing the inexorable physical and mental decay of a stroke-addled old woman but stretching it out for a near-pornographic eternity. In a way, it’s a shame I can’t recommend it; the lead actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) aren’t just great performers, they’re iconic symbols of a heroic era in French film history. I mean, a love story about an octogenarian married couple where the man is played by the lead from My Night at Maud’s and the woman is played by the lead from Hiroshima Mon Amour? Who could screw that up? Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, that’s who. The only Haneke films I had previously seen were the original version of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, both of which turned me off because of what I perceived as their hypocritical mixture of titillation and moralizing. Amour has been regarded in some quarters as a more “mature” version of Haneke but it seems to me he’s really only substituted euthanasia here for the violence in Funny Games and the sex in The Piano Teacher. This wouldn’t be so offensive if Haneke were more upfront about what he was doing. But never in cinema’s history has a filmmaker tried so hard to hit the viewer with a sledgehammer while simultaneously trying so hard to pretend that’s not what he was doing. Haneke is like a more dishonest version of Lars Von Trier (who at least acknowledges his role in rubbing your face in unpleasantness) in that he’s much more careful about stacking the deck when it comes to punishing the audience – notice how Trintignant’s Georges isn’t just a good husband, faithfully devoted to his wife, but impossibly good, flawless, and practically saintlike? Contrast this with the way a truly great director like Leo McCarey presents a more complex, human and heartbreaking dynamic in his similarly-themed masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow by having his elderly protagonists occasionally behave in ways that are kind of annoying. Pauline Kael once derisively used the phrase “a clean pornographer” to describe Stanley Kubrick but that’s a description that I think better suits the morally and intellectually bankrupt Haneke, a master of exploitation who always hides his visions of human nastiness beneath the alluring veneer of high culture. I hated, hated, hated Amour.

Amour Rating: 4.9


(While I can’t endorse Amour, I can highly recommend this parody twitter account for Haneke. This is the funniest thing on the internet:

Odds and Ends

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Rating: 5.7) vs. Lincoln (Rating: 5.6) – DVD and theatrical viewing.

Benjamin Walker as Abe Lincoln fights with Erin Wasson (Vadoma)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter received nearly unanimous critical pans when it was released in theaters last summer. Perhaps a lot of those critics tuned out as soon as they heard the movie’s admittedly ridiculous title, with some of them already even thinking about the more reverential Spielberg/Day-Lewis treatment they knew was waiting in the wings. Among the few positive notices: Suzi Doll praised the film’s “rich subtext” in a post at TCM’s Movie Morlocks site, and a capsule DVD review in the most recent issue of Film Comment makes it their “CGI Spectacle Pick,” calling it a “good bad movie.” AL:VH begins with a solemn voice-over, by the fine lead actor Benjamin Walker, intoning that “History prefers myths to men . . .,” a sly acknowledgment of the myth-making involved in all Presidential biopics. It isn’t long, however, before the film’s tone quickly and gleefully switches to one of cartoonish mayhem. While AL: VH is obviously, to put it mildly, a “low-brow” entertainment, there’s also no denying that it was directed in high-style. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s deft use of expressionist lighting and blue-tinting conjures up a consistently fun Gothic atmosphere, and his action/horror set-pieces recall the best traditions of American action filmmaking: a fist-fight on top of a train occurs while the train travels over a bridge that’s in the process of collapsing, a scene that merges iconic action movie moments that were first depicted in the silent era (The Great Train Robbery and The General, respectively).


There’s nothing nearly as fun nor as cinematic to be found in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which boasts a typically excellent Method performance from Daniel Day-Lewis but one that curiously feels as if it has been plunked down in the middle of a filmed stage play about Thaddeus Stevens. Remember what your high-school English teacher said about looking at how characters change in order to know what a story is about? Well, Stevens is the only character who changes. In fact, he’s the only character who comes across as coherent. For all of DDL’s impressive immersion tactics, he finally can’t transcend the way Tony Kushner’s script presents the Great Emancipator as little more than a collection of sometimes-contradictory traits (notice how Lincoln always has just enough time to finish a joke – “he was human too, you see!” – before another character bursts into the room to announce a dramatic new plot development). Lovers of good acting will want to see Lincoln for the strong ensemble cast but it’s also typical Spielberg all the way: overly sentimental, earnest, dull and stodgy. It’s full of the most transparent manipulation tactics: big John Williams music cues and shots where the camera dramatically dollies into close-ups of characters’ faces. Unfortunately, unlike Bekmambetov (not to mention John Ford), Spielberg just isn’t smart enough to acknowledge that he’s also “printing the legend.” If AL:VH is a “good bad movie” then I say Lincoln is a “bad good movie,” and I will always prefer the former to the latter.

Odds and Ends

Matthew McConnaughey in Bernie – DVD.


I was happy to that see the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Matthew McConaughey their Best Supporting Actor award of 2012 not just for Steven Soderbergh’s surprise hit Magic Mike but also for Richard Linklater’s less commercially successful — and criminally underrated — Bernie. Ever since I saw it (and capsule reviewed it) last summer, Bernie has only grown in my esteem; it’s the American film I’ve thought about the most this year and it will be the highest rated American movie on my forthcoming Top Ten Films of 2012 list. It wasn’t until I recently revisited Bernie on DVD, however, that I came to truly appreciate the slyness and subtlety of McConaughey’s crucial supporting turn. When viewers are first introduced to McConaughey’s character, small town District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, it seems as though McConaughey is hamming it up unmercifully with his use of “air quotations” and his whispering of the phrase “closet homosexuals.” As the film progresses though, we start to see that it is Danny Buck (whose modus operandi includes outrageous P.R. stunts in order to capture wanted criminals) who is the ham. Notice the difference between Danny Buck’s demeanor in the faux-documentary scenes where he is directly addressing the camera versus the more objective scenes where he is interacting with the citizens of Carthage, Texas, to see how carefully modulated McConaughey’s performance is. The real highpoint of the performance comes later though; once the film shifts from a black comedy about a small town murder into an electrifying courtroom drama, McConaughey, like Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, suggests that his character’s folksy persona is something of a put-on in order to successfully manipulate the jury. Danny Buck intentionally mispronounces “Les Miserables” and then goads Jack Black’s title murderer into acknowledging that white wine pairs well with fish. Bernie ends up coming off as a pretentious aesthete in front of a jury of hicks and we, the audience, realize that this yokel D.A. is, well, really kind of brilliant, after all. Just like the movie.

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA) – On Demand / Rating: 8.0

This character-driven road trip/comedy, about a pair of constantly bickering siblings, has more genuine laughs than any American indie I’ve seen in years. J.R. (Carlen Altman) is an aspiring television news anchor who convinces her estranged younger brother Colin (director Alex Ross Perry) to accompany her on a short road trip to help her retrieve some belongings after she is dumped by her college professor/boyfriend. The humor in the witty and verbose script (co-written by Altman and Perry) consistently hinges on social awkwardness and embarrassment, featuring behavior that ranges from the unpleasant to the downright nasty. The chemistry between the leads is consistently amusing — think golden age of Hollywood screwball comedy by way of Perry’s acknowledged hero Phillip Roth — even as the tone radically shifts from the broadly farcical to the more subtle and naturalistic. In a lean 83 minutes, Perry proves to not only be a smart filmmaker but also one of uncommon ambition; this was shot on good old-fashioned, grainy, black-and-white 16mm film stock and the nearly 10-minute long-take climax struck me as both unexpectedly devastating and, in its emotional violence, worthy of John Cassavetes. I cracked up throughout the film and then the end somehow made me feel like crying. My hat is off to you, Mr. Perry and Ms. Altman. If there were any justice, The Color Wheel would be nominated not just for Independent Spirit Awards but Oscars. But there isn’t and so it won’t be.

Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts on the three different movies I’ve seen in the past three days at the same Evanston multiplex.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.9

Although I still haven’t caught up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom is easily my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. While Anderson’s singular gifts as both writer and director are undeniable, there is something about the progression of his career, a tendency towards increasingly arch stylization, that has rubbed me the wrong way. Candy-box color cinematography and ostentatious set design may have always been important ingredients in the Anderson universe but it’s been a while since his impeccable sense of style has been balanced by anything as emotionally raw as Olivia Williams asking “How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me?” Instead, we’ve gotten an overuse of Bill Murray at his smuggest, a grating sense of whimsy, a distasteful sense of class privilege, an egregious showing off of a bitchin’ record collection, and an approach to both composition and the direction of actors that occasionally resembles those science fair exhibits where butterflies are pinned to a styrofoam board. While Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t correct all of these problems for this Anderson agnostic, I’m happy to report that it does have a genuinely poetic feeling for the emotions of childhood, including an appealingly pervasive and piercing sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the picture postcard exteriors. And while I could’ve done without some of the film’s more over the top elements (the flood, the lightning strike, the threat of lobotomy, etc.) there’s no denying that the lead child actors are amazing and that their odyssey at its most stirring takes on some of the hypnotic quality of The Night of the Hunter. Also admirable is how Anderson has created a scenario where his too-hip, classic rock “deep cuts” would finally sound appropriate, and yet he goes and loads up the soundtrack with Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams Sr. instead.

The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – Theatrical viewing

Hmmmm. The Searchers or Madagascar 3? Decisions, decisions!

Teaching John Wayne is a funny thing. Two days ago I took a class to see a one day only screening of a new digital restoration of The Searchers at the Century 12 theatre in Evanston, easily the single best viewing of the movie I’ve ever had. While discussing it with my students afterwards, I was reminded yet again how, in spite of the fact that it is considered by cinephiles to be the quintessential Wayne performance, the quintessential John Ford film, the quintessential western, it just doesn’t play as well to the uninitiated. It is indeed the Wayne-starring movie that has consistently ranked the lowest when I ask my students to rate the films we’ve watched in class at the end of each semester on a scale from 1 – 10. (The Searchers is currently rated 6.8 on my “student tomato-meter,” followed by, in ascending order, Stagecoach with a 7.2, Fort Apache with a 7.5, Rio Bravo with an 8.0 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an 8.3)

What I’ve come to realize from this is that everyone who’s never seen a John Wayne performance has preconceptions about who Wayne is. The Duke vehicles that play the best are therefore the ones that run counter to their expectations. Students expect Wayne to be a stern, moralistic, patriarchal authority figure – someone who is essentially like their fathers or grandfathers, but probably more of an asshole. When they encounter the Wayne of Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo, what they find is someone graceful, super-relaxed and easily likable (Manny Farber’s great line about Wayne’s “hipster sense of how to sit in a chair” is apropos here). This of course is the true Wayne persona, the way he comes across in most films. When my students see The Searchers, which ironically is a very different type of performance for Wayne, it somehow conforms more closely to their negative preconceptions; they are offended by the racist, borderline-crazy Ethan Edwards, with his barely concealed rage towards Native Americans, because they cannot imagine a difference between Wayne and Edwards, nor, for that matter, between John Ford and Edwards. The idea that Ford is viewing Edwards from a critical distance, that the character is meant to be something other than a pure “hero” is difficult for many first time viewers to fathom.

Nonetheless, I relished this particular screening, which made visible many details that had always previously eluded me (even after dozens of viewings that include watching the superb Warner Bros. blu-ray on my 42 inch home television screen), such as the initials “C.S.A.” on Ethan’s belt buckle. That Ethan would be wearing this article of clothing, advertising the “Confederate States of America” three years after the Civil War ended, is a fascinating detail that speaks volumes about his character.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.2

Woody Allen follows up the great Midnight in Paris with another winning, though lighter and frothier, tourist’s-eye-view-of-Europe concoction. The omnibus nature of this Roman holiday deliberately recalls the European anthology films that were popular in American arthouses during Allen’s formative years (including such quintessentially Italian movies as Vittorio de Sica’s Gold of Naples). And while the format is somewhat limiting when combined with Allen’s inherent weaknesses as a writer/director (some of the one-dimensional characterizations found in Paris that seemed excusable by that film’s deft sense of expedient storytelling are actually harder to take in the more bite-sized episodes on display here), Rome‘s frequently hilarious one-liners and general sense of good-spirited fun make this nothing less than a nice, refreshing summer entertainment. The best of the four stories, by far, involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who revisits, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, his younger self in the person of Jesse Eisenberg. Among the rest of the cast, Roberto Benigni is, as usual, about as welcome as a fart in church, which is fortunately more than compensated for by Penelope Cruz as a voluptuous hooker in a skin-tight red dress. Watching the Spanish Cruz playing a hot-blooded Italian is not only delightful but also fitting: no contemporary Italian actresses come as close as she does to inheriting the throne of Sophia Loren.

Odds and Ends

This is the second installment of “Odds and Ends,” wherein I make brief observations about a bunch of different movie related things:

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater has described his latest movie as his version of Fargo, an intriguing analogy that makes sense when you consider what they have in common. Both are black comedies based on “true crime” stories whose central purpose is to portray a tightly-knit small-town community whose unique regional flavors have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood — rural Minnesota in the Coens’ case, behind the “pine curtain” of northeast Texas in Linklater’s. The most crucial difference is that Linklater has taken the warmth that the Coens only showed to Francis McDormand’s police chief character and courageously extended it to his entire cast of local yokels (many of whom are playing themselves). The result is a deceptively light film that poses complex moral questions about the interrelationships between individuals, the society in which they live and criminal justice. Is Bernie a diabolical manipulator or an essentially decent person who was pushed too far by his victim? To what degree should the answer to that question have influenced his sentencing? Should public sentiment ever be allowed to play a role in a criminal trial? Rare among contemporary American directors, Richard Linklater respects the audience enough to allow viewers to make up their own minds. Yet another way to describe Bernie via a movie analogy would be as an alternate universe version of Sunset Boulevard where William Holden kills Gloria Swanson instead of the other way around. Did I mention this is a Jack Black vehicle?

David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – Streaming / Rating: 5.0

Making a very quiet local premiere this past Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center was David Wants to Fly, a feature debut doc by young German director David Sieveking that fascinates and irritates in equal measure. This begins with unemployed film school grad Sieveking on a quest to meet his idol, the great, eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, at a Transcendental Meditation conference in Fairfield, Iowa, but then transforms into an exposé and denunciation of the entire “TM movement.” The film is given a degree of credibility by the fact that Sieveking started out as a true believer who only gradually became disillusioned with the cult-like movement during the three years he was in production. But Sieveking’s arty persona (he wears fedoras and occasionally plays the harmonica in public) can be annoying and, speaking as someone who also attended the 2006 Fairfield conference, I long ago came to the same conclusion he did about TM after only a few minutes of Googling. Still, David Lynch fans will want to seek this out, especially those who haven’t yet learned to separate the artist from the art. Anyone who missed the screening can stream the film for free for a short time here:

The More the Merrier (George Stevens, USA, 1943) – DVD rental

This superior example of the “genius of the Hollywood studio system” may not be as well known as screwball comedy classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH, BRINGING UP BABY or THE LADY EVE but is every bit their equal as a battle-of-the-sexes masterpiece. Connie Milligan (the glorious Jean Arthur) is a single, working woman living in Washington D.C. who ends up with two male roommates due to a World War II housing shortage. She finds herself bickering relentlessly with Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), the younger of the men, which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man, the much older Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes THE MORE THE MERRIER stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. A scene where Carter walks Milligan home late at night, temporarily forgetting that he’s also going to his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, more importantly, interact physically; while sitting next to one another on a stoop, McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, creatively paws at Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly feigns disinterest. THE MORE THE MERRIER was very well received in its time but is probably less known today only because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it. 

Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director – Nonfiction book by Marilyn Ann Moss

To accompany the Raoul Walsh retrospective that’s still ongoing in my apartment, I recently read with relish Marilyn Ann Moss’ superb 2011 biography of the very colorful and self-mythologizing man who directed, among many other classic titles, The Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and White Heat. The fact that this is the first such book written about this old Hollywood master, whose life was as interesting as his movies, is just one indication of how sadly undervalued his massively important and influential body of work continues to be. Although I could have done without the dollar-book Freud of the opening chapter, which imagines Walsh’s grief over his mother’s death as the catalyst for his adventurous brand of filmmaking, this is still an impressive work of scholarship and analysis (I particularly enjoyed her observations about Walsh’s female characters) and an essential read for anyone who loves classic Hollywood movies. I will have two lengthy posts concerning Walsh in the coming weeks.

Odds and Ends

A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:

Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3

After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.

Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental

Wallace Beery, living up to his name.

Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”

Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.

Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase

I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.

Dylan/Scorsese – Live television

The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.

Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.

Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:

– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.

– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”

– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.

– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.

You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here:

Scorsese tribute

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