Gloria Grahame might well have been concocted in a lab experiment to create a classic Hollywood star. She had not only the looks and talent, but also the haunted arc of a screen goddess: early success, an Oscar (1952 Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful), a string of marriages, struggles with body image, scandal, and — after a certain age — a vanishing act.
Watch her movies today, and you can still be amazed at the smart, impudent, altogether new presence she conveys in the noir worlds of Crossfire and In a Lonely Place, to say nothing of her disruptive presence as the bad girl of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Your Name. (Funimation, Blu-ray, DVD) Napping Princess (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD) In This Corner of the World (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Japanese animator and filmmaker Makoto Shinkai turns his own young adult novel into Your Name. (Japan, 2016), an animated feature that brings a fresh approach to the classic comic situation of body swapping.
In this story two high school students who have never met, a boy named Taki and a girl named Mitsuha, suddenly wake up in one another’s body and try to fake their way through a day in the life. They have no memory of the experience when they return to their own lives the next day but discover that they’ve lost a day and her friends have stories about their behavior they don’t remember. When it happens again and again, without warning or discernible rhyme or reason, they start leaving messages for one another through their smartphones. Then it stops just as suddenly as it began, but it’s just the beginning of a story that mixes metaphysics and mystery in a poetic story of two people who never meet yet change one another’s lives, even if they can’t remember the connection and only learn of it from notes left behind, an entire conversation that reaches across time and space. Taki uses the paintings that Mitsuha left behind to look for her. There’s a touch of science fiction to what otherwise seems like magic as it shifts into a kind of disaster movie.
The vivid and lush films of Spain’s Julio Medem are as much about his country’s distinctive landscapes and natural wonders as they are about the restless and obsessive characters that wander through his world. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Sex and Lucia (2001) established him as a major international filmmaker, earning strong reviews and American theatrical releases, but they only confirmed what his early films had established: a gift for narrative games and visual puns, and a passionate embrace of fate, fantasy, and the illogical power of love, all woven through criss-crossing stories with recurring images and motifs that intertwine, blur, and transform through time. Now Olive Films presents his first three features, long out of print on DVD, on Blu-ray for the first time along with new DVD editions.
The cows in the title of Spanish director Julio Medem’s debut film Vacas (Spain, 1992) are the silent, implacable witnesses to the feuds and flirtations of two clans between the Carlist Wars of 1875 and the devastating Spanish Civil War in 1936.
“The paradox, of course, was that while ripping itself free from genre conventions, Night of the Living Dead inadvertently established a new genre of its own. While refusing explanations and rationales in the face of real-world horrors, it helped open the way (with the contemporaneous Rosemary’s Baby) for the curious convergence of conspiracy theories and demonism in seventies cinema. But while it marked a breakthrough for independent movies—critics would no longer be so quick to write off filmmakers who worked in the provinces, or to snub pictures that seemed destined for the drive-in—Night of the Living Dead did not immediately elevate the career of the man who was its director, cocinematographer, editor, and cowriter.” Stuart Klawans rates Romero’sNight of the Living Dead sui generis—less distilling the mood of its times that presciently feeding the anarchic years of its rise to prominence, less summation of filmic horror traditions than a strange lope through various genres that finally culminates in a glimpse of terror Klawans can only find precedent for in Goya.
“Cinema hasn’t always been responsive, but it’s left some breadcrumbs; I just need to go back to find the trail. Hence this is the first entry in a new biweekly column in which I return to the hunt, back through the annals of my movie-watching, and try to uncover the queerness in the films of years past. The plan is to delve into one film per year per column, hopscotching through the decades, and hopefully discovering or rediscovering themes, images, and emotional registers in films I may not have previously noticed or fully analyzed or come to terms with. The queer twist could be obvious, right there on the surface, in a character or a plot turn; it could be hidden, barely perceptible in a casual viewing; or it could be completely imagined—but what is cinema if not an art of the imagination?” Michael Koresky launches a new, sure-to-be classic series of inquiries into queer cinema with Fosse’s paradoxically aggressively straight (though, and this is much of Koresky’s point, far from heteronormative) All That Jazz.
In 2017, the Marvel comic book conglomerate took a wackadoodle turn that coughed up two of its most fluid, playful movies yet: the sprightly Spider-Man: Homecoming and the irreverent Thor: Ragnarok. Those films suggested how frisky space might be carved out within the crushing sameness of the superhero formula and the larger universe-building of Marvel’s mega-plotline. And they did it largely with humor. In that sense, Black Panther is something of a course correction. Burdened with establishing a superhero whose distinguishing characteristics are dignity and his royal duties to his people (whatever his problems, Hulk never had to send a balanced-budget bill to congress) and world-building an entire African civilization, Black Panther can’t spend much time on fripperies. This is serious superhero business.
That gravity is the movie’s strength and weakness.
Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).
He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.
The new issue of La Furia Umana contains an extensive dossier on Godard. There’s always the hazard of writing on Godard aping the form-breaking style of its subject without his poetry, and this collection is no exception. But there are highlights, including Rick Warner’s analysis of the director’s love of tennis and his rejection of standard narrative editing (“Tennis, as with its use in Pierrot, is a figure that evokes the apprehension of life, but life now is understood within the parameters of a full-on dialectical world outlook. Abstract and bordering on slapstick humor, these tennis scenes [in Vladimir and Rosa] mark a dialogical gap in the middle of an ongoing inquiry, a chaotic space within which new and more just thinking has a chance to arise, thinking inclined toward political action.”) and Michael Witt’s history of Godard and Miéville’s company Sonimage (“It revolved around an attempt to live out a working practice in which the divisions of labour and of the sexes were dissolved in a reflection on the implications of finding pleasure in one’s work whilst collaborating with a partner one loves (to love work, and work at love).”). There’s even visual tributes, two lovely watercolors by Stephanie Wuertz and Sasha Janerus (the second here) inspired by Godard’s films and excerpts from a witty “collage novel” treatment by Lewis Klahr (himself the subject of articles elsewhere in the issue) that recasts Contempt with Clark Kent and Metamorpho.
The most surprising inclusion among this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees was The Insult(L’insulte), a Lebanese drama. It nabbed a slot over the highly touted German film In the Fade, which earned Diane Kruger the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and edged out critical favorites from Israel (Foxtrot) and Senegal (Felicite). Still, it’s easy to see how The Insult made the list. This is an issue movie that deals very directly—at times extremely bluntly—with the subject of political discord.
Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year’s films
* Dunkirk: lapping of leaflets as they fall in quiet street of a seaside town…
* Imperceptible bleed of newsreel and movie, Detroit… * Post-first-kiss, Christine’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) milestone-marking scream in middle of suburban street, Lady Bird… * Bobby (Willem Dafoe) fires up a cigarette; lights come on all over The Florida Project….
* Super Dark Times: interior-lit plastic snowman, no snow, rain sheen on blacktop driveway… * Ben Bradlee’s (Tom Hanks’s) voice changing on the single syllable “Jack” during a recitation of Presidents who have lied—The Post… * Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) going at each other hammer and tongs. Suddenly he coughs up a spray of blood and she says, “I know, baby!”…
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) is not your usual comic superhero origin story. It turns out that the majestic Amazon princess from a mythic island of female warriors was born of a Harvard psychologist and outspoken feminist who had a polyamorous relationship with two women who inspired the character and a passion for sexual bondage play.
The strange, fascinating story of Dr. William Moulton Marston, who created of the first female comic book superhero, was told by Jill Lepore in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” Angela Robinson’s film isn’t adapted from Lepore’s book but the basic story is the same. Some of the less appealing aspects of his life smoothed over and much of the personal drama fictionalized, and as comic book buffs will point out, some of the history of the four color character is simply wrong. But the film isn’t about the creation of a feminist icon as much as it is about the lives that inspired it and the culture it challenged.
“The fragile nature of the Trucolor takes things even further, with the light subtly shifting from red to blue over single shots, creating a hallucinatory otherworldly effect that deepens every Bill Elliott plea, Bible in hand. The movie often looks more like a watercolor painting than a film, especially as characters move in and out of the moonlight or the fog.” Gina Telaroli’s preview of MoMA’s Scorsese-curated series on Republic Pictures offers short, observant introduction for some excellent B-picture work by the likes of Witney, Auer, and Dwan. But as Telaroli’s focus on each film’s color and appearance hints, the blocked images peppered throughout the article are best seen in her original context, as a trio of her exuberant, dizzying “image essays.”
“Such was the pace of Pabst’s production that although Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft were made in adjacent years, they were separated by The Threepenny Opera as well as a picture called Scandalous Eva. You could nevertheless see them as twins; if they were the only two films by Pabst you ever saw, you would have a fairly clear notion of his auteurial stamp: men in groups; societies in stress; tight, enclosed spaces; bitter, foolish, ordinary heroism. That he nevertheless doesn’t seem to have ever made another film quite like them further strengthens the idea that they are paired, one idea in two parts.” Luc Sante finds two of Pabst’s earliest explorations of sound film as arresting as any of his silents: the WWI-set Westfront 1918 (“[the film] alternates fleeting pleasure with durable horror in a rhythm that gradually abbreviates the former and extends the latter”) and the mining-accident drama Kameradschaft (“When in the morning the French town arises and heads off to work, as one, on foot and bicycle, the parade of faces puts you in mind of any number of photographs by August Sander, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. They flit by in streams, and yet each is momentarily inscribed on our field of vision; they are what we have come to see as the faces of labor: thin, dignified, guarded, resigned, the impassive playthings of massive forces beyond their ken (as if we weren’t, with our consumer individuality)”).
Directed by the insanely prolific Hong Kong action veteran Wong Jing, Chasing the Dragon (China, 2017) is the filmmaker’s crime epic, a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of two notorious gangsters who thrived in the rampant corruption enabled by Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The title is slang for heroin addiction and looking for the next high but for the two men at the center of the film, it’s about power and money and carving out the island nation’s answer to the American Dream through an insidious partnership between the police department and the underworld gangs.
Inspired by a true story, Chasing the Dragon stars Donnie Yen, the zen master of martial arts action, playing against type as Crippled Ho, the Chinese immigrant who became a drug kingpin, and Andy Lau as top cop Lui Lok / Lee Rock (a role he played in two previous films), who centralized the system of graft as he rose through the ranks. Lau provides the smooth charm as the ambitious cop who bristles under the arrogance and abuse of power by the British officials but knows better than to challenge their rule as he consolidates his control. Yen brings his usual understated warmth as Ho, underplaying the ruthlessness as he builds his power base, and he trades in the grace and majesty of his martial arts style for a scrappy, street-fighting approach.
Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
James Quandt offers an alphabet of Robert Mitchum arcana, from Auteurs to Zanuck, Darryl F., with stops along the way of course for Booze, Eyes, Laughton, and Urine. (“Mitchum pissed not only on script ideas and Kirk Douglas’ reputation, but also on David O. Selznick’s office carpet, a doorway in Paris, the eternal flame in the same city, and in a swimming pool he didn’t intend to enter at the Betty Ford Center, where he had been sent to dry out.”)
“The artistic and popular success of Soviet films during the New Economic Policy (1921-1928) had spurred hopes for a mass-market sound cinema that was also of high quality. What crushed that dream? Masha gives us the hows (the machinations of the studios and government bodies) and the whys (the underlying causes and rationales). “Not According to Plan” is a trailblazing study of what she calls “the institutional study of ideology.” It’s also a quietly witty account of the failures of managed culture. How could artists be engineers of human souls if they couldn’t engineer a movie? But go back to the quality issue. What were those Stalinist films like artistically?” Spurred on by a recent publication from his university—Maria Belodubrovskaya’s “Not According to Plan”—David Bordwell explores some of the hallmarks of Stalinist cinema, finding a lot more experimentation and cunning liftings from the past than the standard reduction of “boy-loves-tractor musicals” can encompass; though any charges of gigantism would be valid.