Title: Miquette et sa mère Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Country of Origin: France Year: 1950 Screening format: Blu-ray Setting: home First viewing? yes
A film Clouzot apparently had little interest in making and greeted with equal disinterest by critics and audiences alike, though still very funny if you ask me. Two timid lovebirds (Miquette and Urbain) kept apart by a scheming uncle-Marquis who has designs of his own on Miquette as she strives to make it as an actress in order to make jealous the lover she believes has jilted her. The humor is broadly farcical, blend of irony and slapstick, not unlike Preston Sturges, though considerably more French and likely to have scandalized American audiences of the time (e.g. a particular ancestor is well regarded for having had the Sun King). The very best scenes are played between Danièle Delorme (Miquette) and Bourvil (Urbain). The latter a gifted physical comedian who plays the bumbling idiot well and the former with a gift for portraying the coquettish ingenue. Something in the way Delorme glides through the film, even in the comedic moments, the way she dodges an aspiring lover’s advances while never seeming to notice them, is almost balletic. There is an air about her performance which recalls…someone, though I can’t say for sure who. Perhaps Sidney Fox in Once In A Lifetime. Miquette et sa mère gets a bad rap for some reason, though you won’t hear it from me.
Title:Miracle In The Rain Director: Rudolph Maté Country of Origin: USA Year: 1956 Screening format: TV (TCM) Setting: home First viewing? yes
Aired following Minnelli’s The Clock. Recorded for later viewing because people on Twitter kept going on about how good it was. Miracle In The Rain begins like a standard wartime romance. A soldier (Van Johnson) in the city on a pass meets a girl (Jane Wyman) and wriggles his way into her life (sounds a lot like The Clock so far), they fall in love and promise to get married after the war. Miracle In The Rain continues to play like standard romance until midway through the picture Van Johnson is killed in action. From which point, Ruth (Wyman) becomes despondent and fixated on a statue of St. Andrew in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s different, certainly. Van Johnson is Van Johnson, but the more impressive performance is turned in by Wyman (only a few years before the oldish maiden aunt in Pollyanna) as an always demuring Ruth finally allowing herself a bit of happiness only to have it dashed away. If anything, Miracle In The Rain (novella, story and script by Ben Hecht) is proof that Hecht could make the occasional foray away from biting cynicism, though he never really seems at home in this melodrama. Or does he? Ruth’s fixation on St. Andrew eventually leads to her becoming dangerously ill. And yet, St. Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of protection against sore throats…and fever.
Title:The Devil Doll Director: Tod Browning Country of Origin: USA Year: 1936 Screening format: tV (TCM) Setting: home First viewing? yes
A wrongly convicted prison escapee takes advantage of a deceased acquaintance’s technology enabling him to shrink human beings down to doll size and control them with his mind. He sets up shop, disguised as an old woman, in Paris and uses his dolls to exact revenge on the people who framed him and to clear his name so his daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) and mother may live without shame. It sounds like a Tod Browning movie because it is, made perhaps even more Tod Browning-y by cowriter Erich von Stroheim. Somehow, the “wrongly convicted” aspect of The Devil Doll makes the idea of the ever-grandfatherly Lionel Barrymore roaming around Paris killing people moderately more palatable, though there is still the element of Barrymore in drag to contend with. Maureen O’Sullivan is charming enough in her role as Barrymore’s estranged daughter, though somehow she doesn’t make nearly the impression of her fiancé Toto (played by Frank Lawton). Interesting moral concepts arise at multiple points during the film, issues like guilt and shame and revenge. Barrymore’s Lavond frequently shows signs of guilt over his actions – in an “it took prison to turn me into a criminal” kind of way – though any sense of guilt is ultimately trumped by a sense of responsibility to his remaining family.
Title:Soak The Rich Director: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Country of Origin: USA Year: 1936 Screening format: 16mm on DVD Setting: home First viewing? yes
Produced, directed, and of course written by two of the finest screenwriters of the Studio era, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Walter Connolly plays an absurdly wealthy many (during the Depression, no less) convinced that Communists and FDR are out to get him. An irreverent look at just about every facet of American politics and higher education in the 1930s, like any good MacArthur and Hecht film, everyone is relentlessly skewered and pilloried through witty dialog and nearly absurdist irony. And everyone, from the FBI and the wealthy, to aspiring student radicals and a single rogue anarchist come across as complete fools. Soak The Rich proves that even in 1936, college students thought everyone who disagreed with them was Hitler (“We don’t wanna hear anything you have to say. Who does your father think he is? Hitler?!” is an actual line spoken in this film.) If Hecht and MacArthur could see us now…Well, for one thing, they would almost certainly make this film all over again (then they’d be run out of town because comedy is dead in Hollywood and Ben Hecht also happened to be an advocate for the Jewish State). As it stands, Soak The Rich is a film every modern politician and college student would likely consider hate speech and also gloriously funny (and would be even funnier if the lines were delivered quicker).
Title: Bugsy Malone Director: Alan Parker Country of Origin: USA / UK Year: 1976 Screening format: Streaming Setting: home First viewing? yes
A musical comedy about 1920s gangsters starring a cast of literal children. An interesting concept to say the least. Parker cleverly eschews the immensely disturbing image of children mowing each other down with Tommy guns by making the “Splurge Gun” (which fires whipped cream) the weapon of choice for these babyfaced racketeers. Performances from a very young Scott Baio and Taxi Driver era Jodie Foster are the obvious highlights of this juvenile production, though first (and last) timer Florrie Dugger handles the slang laden adult dialog admirably. While some of Paul Williams’ score plays true to the time period (namely the showgirl numbers taking place in Fat Sam’s Speakeasy – mostly), others veer more in the direction of the pop songs he was and is best known for (“Just An Old Fashioned Love Song”). Of the latter, the hypnotic softshoe rhythms of “Tomorrow” are a particular highlight. There’s a lot to love about the genuinely funny Bugsy Malone, from the remarkably mature performances from Baio and Foster, who are in a class of their own here, to the beautifully realistic looking pedal cars the characters “drive” around town. The only real complaint I have (one shared by the director) is the choice to dub the kids’ singing with adult singing voices. It’s blatantly obvious, looks beyond bizarre, and is puzzling to the point of distraction.
Title: Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari Director: Valentin Vaala Country of Origin: Finland Year: 1945 Screening format: DVD Setting: home First viewing? no
Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari is the anti-Vaala film in some ways. Vaala, who so often imbues his films with light (even the ones that take place at night, e.g. Ihmiset Suviyössä, are set in the summer when it is basically never dark), instead let’s the darkness play around a bit here.A little bit horror, a little bit romance, almost every bit gothic. What’s in a name? To the Littow family, quite a bit apparently, even though it may not even be there’s to begin with. Snooty relatives and con artists all vying for a piece of the action when it comes to the beautiful Littow girls and their even more beautiful inheritance. Regina Linnanheimo plays the perpetually heartbroken yet surprisingly understated elder sister Anna while Rauli Tuomi portrays the commoner-cum-nobleman architect. Vaala’s historical melodrama (based on a novel by Zachris Topelius) is, at times, dripping with so much “old dark house” atmosphere one half expects to find Catherine Morland reading by the fireside and yet the daytime scenes are lighthearted and playful. Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari can turn on a dime. And boy does it turn often. Every time one plot point seems to be tied up, a new one emerges. It’s the gift that keeps on giving—or the story that never ends—depending on your personal outlook on Finnish melodrama (I tend toward the former).
Title:L’Arbre, le maire, et la médiathèque Director: Eric Rohmer Country of Origin: France Year: 1993 Screening format: Blu-ray Setting: home First viewing? yes
Of the 16 Rohmer films I’ve seen so far, this is probably the closest he gets to a manifesto (Rohmer was a royalist and dedicated environmentalist who claimed to have never driven a car or ridden in a taxi). Ostensibly about a socialist small-town mayor determined to build a multidisciplinary library and cultural center encountering plenty of political snags along the way. In reality, the story is really only half of the film. About 30 minutes in the middle of the film all but abandon the plot entirely while a freelance journalist interviews villagers about farming and local economics and their entertainment habits before finally reaching local schoolteacher M. Rossignol (played by Rohmer veteran Fabrice Luchini) who gives probably the most memorable (and typically Rohmerian) speech in opposition to the proposed médiathèque of the film. Rohmer is really reaching for something beyond simple environmental conservation here. He’s looking for a conservation of “the old ways”, hence discussions of changes in farming techniques and the aesthetics of modern architecture and the ethics of erecting a new building in an old village. “Did it never occur to you to have a space that serves no purpose? That’s the problem with modern architecture, it’s too functional.
Just about every year around Easter, TCM airs Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. To me, it is essential viewing, not simply because DeMille epic grandeur (I mean, you’ve seen his Ten Commandments, right?) but for the sensitivity with which he relates the story.
I have no idea how many times they’ve tried to film the life of Christ. It’s a lot, I know that much. And while they each serve a purpose in their own way – Ray’s King of Kings (Technicolor), The Passion of the Christ (historically graphic violence), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (hysterical, heretical) – DeMille brings a poetic approach to the story that I can’t recall finding in any of the Jesus movies I’ve watched. Of course, I believe that all 155 minutes of King of Kings are worth watching, but on this particular point, the poetry of the image (DeMille’s film is silent, after all), there is one moment that perfectly captures my meaning.
The film opens with several accounts of Jesus and his miracles, people recounting to other people what the things they’ve heard about Jesus. “I have seen him heal the blind.” “’Tis said he can raise the dead.” It sounds great, but it sounds like little more than gossip and rumors. DeMille hasn’t even shown the audience what Jesus looks like. A crowd gathers outside a house. He’s in there, we’re told, but still no sight of him. Even now, Jesus is nothing but a story.
It is about ten minutes in that DeMille first introduces a young blind girl, groping her way through the crowd, desperately seeking Jesus, to no avail. Like her, we too are looking for Jesus while DeMille, obstinately, refuses to bring us to him. It is then that a formerly lame boy, Mark (yes, the Gospel writer), hears her cries, takes her hand, and promises to lead her to Jesus. Mark brings her to Mary who brings her to Jesus. And yet, we, the audience, have still never seen him. We know he’s there, but he is still hidden from view.
And the girl pleads with Jesus. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Will you open my eyes?” And the screen goes dark.
When a small shaft of light begins to break the darkness. Slowly, the light grows brighter as an image begins to emerge, at first faint, overexposed and out of focus, but growing stronger until it is revealed to be the face of Jesus.
This is a perfect illustration of what is so powerful about DeMille’s approach to the story of Christ. Our first glimpse of Jesus is not in a simple, documentarian manner. There is no “hey, that’s Jesus, by the way” moment like there is for the introduction of every other character in film. We are not introduced to Jesus as disinterested, third party observers. We see Christ first through the eyes of a blind child who had lived her entire life in darkness until she met Jesus. And the message is clear. We are that blind girl. We, too, have been living in darkness, never truly seeing until we have seen Jesus.
Title:My Dear Enemy Director: LEE Yoon-ki Country of Origin: South Korea Year: 2008 Screening Format: Blu-ray Setting: Home First viewing? Yes
IMDB classifies My Dear Enemy as a “road movie”, and it is. Sort of. My Dear Enemy is to road movies as a day spent running errands is to road trips. You spend a lot of time in the car without ever really going anywhere. The journey here is an emotional one. Hee-su (played by Korea’s Queen of Cannes JEON Do-yeon) tracks down her ex Byung-woon to collect on a debt he can’t pay. They spend the remainder of the day together, gathering a little money here and there to pay his debt. Byung-woon believes the best about people, while Hee-su has built a wall of cynicism around herself. This is masterfully translated into the look of the film. In social situations, Byung-woon gets stuck right in while Hee-su stands apart, rarely speaking. Visually, too, she is shot frequently in reflection, through glass, or partially obscured by a barrier. Throughout the day, those barriers are gradually worn down until she interacts with others of her own accord. Beautifully shot making often masterful use of the 2.35 aspect ratio while at other times intentionally refusing to use the entire frame (mirroring the editing: elegant long takes interspersed with series of quick, superfluous cuts), LEE Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy is a sensitive and subtle film worth a deeper look in the future.
Title:Monterey Pop Director: D.A. Pennebaker Country of Origin: USA Year: USA Screening format: TV (TCM) Setting: Home First viewing? Yes
It’s hard to believe I’ve gotten this far without in life without having ever seen Monterey Pop all the way through. Sure, I’ve seen Hendrix and his flaming guitar, every minute of Otis Redding, and parts of Shankar, but never the whole thing. And the experience of seeing it all at once makes a few things more evident that are harder to notice in standalone clips. For one thing, it seems to me that the look of Monterey Pop owes a lot to Bert Stern’s Jazz On a Summer’s Day (1959): the camera work, the editing, the “plot” – it’s all right out of the 1958 Newport Jazz festival (though Aram Avakian’s editing in Jazz is more impressive, I think). Of course, Jazz On A Summer’s Day is the yardstick by which I measure all concert films, so maybe a bit of confirmation bias here. Monterey Pop certainly captures a moment in history, which I suppose should be the goal of a good concert film. And what a moment it was. There’s something truly special about watching “Mama” Cass Elliot, sitting in the audience, being blown away by the talent of a still young Janis Joplin. And where else can you watch the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz rocking out to Ravi Shankar?