Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.
Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”
Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie’s narrative engine runs cool rather than hot—in contrast to Outbreak (1995), in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action-heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.
Contagion has more in common with Michael Crichton’s TheAndromedaStrain (1971): Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie’s action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.
Similarly, Contagion‘s way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al.—but none stands out.
Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock (Psycho) by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress’s iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: how can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact—an embrace, a kiss, a sigh—is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars—potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people—deliberately do not shine.
Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense healthcare organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus, another ravaged body in a gymnasium full of anonymous dead. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plotline peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.
As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, “Now he’ll publish!” Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from Contagion‘s enervating realism.
Reprising the structure if not the tempo of Traffic, Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to foodlines on the homefront. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world’s isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government–Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What’s this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede’s played by a snaggle-toothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in RoadtoPerdition.)
Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Matt Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor’s kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there’s one act of world-saving heroism—but hey, the lady’s hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don’t pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh’s chilly laboratory of catastrophe.
Though far from a likeable movie, Contagion‘s admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What’s most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America’s current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can’t be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.
[originally published in The Weekly, March 26, 1986]
“When I wrote the script it was never as exotic. It was more a straightforward kind of movie. Which it still is. It just takes longer to get straight.”
That’s Alan Rudolph talking about his movie TroubleinMind, which he wrote “with Seattle in mind” and shot here a year ago this month. How well you take to its exoticism and how patiently you wait for the straightforwardness to assert itself will depend on your tolerance of, or enthusiasm for, Rudolph’s highly stylized brand of filmmaking. I happen to consider him one of the most dynamic, and certainly most distinctive, of modern American filmmakers, and find that his latest feature combines the haunt and vibrancy of ChooseMe with the fleetness and wit of Songwriter. That opinion may be disputed. What no one will dispute is that TroubleinMind makes more exciting use of Seattle as a movie location than any other film ever shot here.
Not that the setting is supposed to be Seattle. Rudolph calls his mythical location RainCity and, as one of the characters reads early in the film, “Above all, the city is a promise of something better—the faint perfume of tomorrow’s fortunes.” That phrase is less likely to have been written by a chamber-of-commerce flack than by a film critic with a deeply ingrained sense of what The City has meant in countless motion pictures about the loss of American innocence. RainCity is the city of film noir, a maze of rain-slicked streets all perversely aspiring to be alleys, of cafés and nightspots and timeless temporary rooms where furtive life hedges its bets and keeps an eye out for the main chance.
Rudolph himself notes that TroubleinMind‘s characters have been created “out of the movie myth more than the life myth.” The film gets under way with the hero’s release from prison. Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), a former police detective, has spent eight years inside for a vigilante killing. Back in the city, he holes up in a room over Wanda’s Café—Wanda (Geneviève Bujold) is a pal from the old days—and ponders his options. Become a sort of shadow agent for the police? Or sign on with Hilly Blue (Divine), chief mover and shaker of the RainCity underworld these days?
Then fate deals a wild card. Out of the piney woods come Coop (Keith Carradine), a brash young drifter, and Georgia (Lori Singer), the common-law wife he parks in a camper outside Wanda’s while he embarks on a new career in urban crime. Hawk takes one look at the blond waif with baby son in her arms, and our Bogartian hero’s a goner.
The elements of the story are familiar, but Rudolph weaves his own inimitable spell with them. The characters’ trajectories keep crossing, and glancing off one another, according to a cockeyed choreography that speaks to an appreciation of mood, place, and emotional imperatives over the mechanics of plotmaking. Film noir, with its penchant for the ritualized intercourse of strangers and its air of stories that pass in the night, is after all a natural stomping ground for the writer-director of ChooseMe, that mating dance of love-seekers beguiled into aesthetic and emotional synchronicity.
ChooseMe made sad, unexpectedly sweet comedy out of the elements of despair; in its more sardonic way, TroubleinMind is also a comedy. Its passages of real or potential violence tend to leap into hysterical slapstick. Thieves and fences pull guns over a Chinese dinner; the convergence of emotional itineraries in Wanda’s Café leads to a flailing punchup and giddy verbal crossfire. On a more sober level, irony and goofiness keep swapping valences: Hawk’s fixation on the bucolic airhead Georgia at once signals that he has begun to “get some heart,” as Wanda once ruefully advised him, and proves his undoing at several levels of absurdity.
In some ways, TroubleinMind represents a slight falling-off for Rudolph. Although the possibility of death runs riot in this movie, there never seems to be quite as much at stake as there was in the much less sanguinary ChooseMe. Some of the comedy is just exasperatingly silly (especially when John Considine, an old comrade from Rudolph’s apprenticeship with Robert Altman, turns up as a gangster rival of Hilly Blue’s), and Lori Singer’s wood sprite, for all her efforts to suggest a kind of animal innocence and purity, mostly comes off as a poor-man’s Daryl Hannah.
But such weaknesses are far outweighed by the film’s myriad beauties. The fiercely ambivalent relationship of Wanda and Hawk is grounded on shared history the more evocative for our never quite knowing what that history was. Joe Morton, who played the silent black extraterrestrial in John Sayles’s TheBrother fromAnotherPlanet, limns a fascinating portrait of Solo, Coop’s lethal, aphoristic tutor in crime, who speaks in quasi-Oriental arboreal metaphors and sets a death trap with sharpened bamboo. (First approached by the jitterbug Coop in Wanda’s Café, he says, “Impatient, eh?” and makes two declarative sentences out of it.) Above all, there is Rudolph’s tirelessly inventive camera eye (abetted by cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, making an auspicious debut), which stimulates and rewards the viewer’s own imagination with every adroitly selected angle and mythmaking movement of connection.
The narrative in no way insists on it, but this movie takes place in an environment entirely its own. There’s almost a science-fiction air to this world—”low-tech science fiction, emotional science fiction,” Rudolph is quick to qualify. The action appears to be taking place in the near future. There’s a militia parading in the streets; the bills we glimpse in Hilly Blue’s wallet at one point are multicolored, a visual cross between Canadian currency and Monopoly money; jurisdictions are discussed in terms of “sectors” rather than counties or states. Yet the silhouetted specters of uniformed men in a railway station, the lipstick and mannerisms of a diner waitress, the Forties cut of Hawk’s fresh-out-of-prison suit and black shirt, all lend a flavor of period piece—an acid flashback from the pre-acid past.
RainCity itself, though kissed with the bloody blush of neon, retains, like its real-life prototype, an atavistic memory that it was carved out of mountain and forest. Between criminal endeavors, Solo scribbles and murmurs a prose poem about “a dream of trees,” and after all the guns have gone off and the blood has been spilled, the film leaps exultantly to high country and cloud for a mysteriously beautiful coda.
I congratulated Rudolph on this ending, even as I noted, “I find it terribly moving, yet I really can’t say quite why.” He thanked me and confessed that he didn’t quite know why, either. Being unable to account for the beauty he’d created didn’t seem to bother him much. No reason why it should.
Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year’s films
* Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), on the roof to repair Rick’s TV antenna, leans into the California sun and the music Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is playing in the nearby house. Once upon a Time…in Hollywood… * “Now is not the time to not say.” Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), The Irishman… * Joker: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) meets gaze of clown in passing taxicab…. * Marriage Story: the Invisible Man watching a horror movie on TV… * Richard Jewell: “Why did Tom Brokaw say that about you?” Bobi Jewell (Kathy Bates) to person-of-interest son (Paul Walter Hauser)… * It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Minute of silence in Chinese restaurant; Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) looking us in the eye…
* Tigers Are Not Afraid: goldfish in the river in the floor… * The Kims all smell the same—Parasite… * Playing off profiles at cliff’s edge—Portrait of a Lady on Fire… * Jojo Rabbit: seeing his mother’s shoes… * James Stacy’s (Timothy Olyphant) discreet look away as Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) repeatedly muffs a line; his diffidence both in character for the Lancer scene underway and a gesture of sympathy for fellow actor’s distress. Once upon a Time…in Hollywood… * A Hidden Life: Tyrolean rhapsody of opening sequence… * Permanent tsunami around Death Star, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker… * Heat haze obscuring most of port, Atlantics… * The Lighthouse: flash image, Willem Dafoe as lunatic Poseidon… * The downed plane from over the hill, 1917… * Steel chrysanthemums whirling down rainswept street, Shadow… * Parasite: the curvy hill street you go up to get to the Parks house… * Pain and Glory: Sitting in front of wall-size landscape photo in waiting room, Salvador (Antonio Banderas) looks up through skylight at tree branches…. * Ordering lunch at the lawyers’, Marriage Story… * Uncut Gems: folding aluminum foil around the late-night leftovers… * Dark Waters: cold-day sound of cord wood being chucked off a pickup… * The Art of Self-Defense: family raising car windows against assaultive heavy metal music… * The Irishman: Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) tossing away a cigarette… * Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) stepping out from behind beach fire, Portrait of a Lady on Fire…
* Thready clouds moving above woman atop cliff, Midsommar… * In Little Women, light and sand drift as Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) speak of dying… * The Souvenir: the walk between the fields, with dogs… * Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) snatches Rey’s necklace long distance—Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker…. * Once upon a Time…in Hollywood: “Can’t ya do something about that heat?” “Rick, it’s a flamethrower.”… * Depraved: Accosted by monster, Asian investors go to their cellphones to video it…. * “I ain’t no hobo. I’m a repository of African American folklore.” Ron Cephas Jones as Rico, Dolemite Is My Name… * “Wallpaper’s chippin’. People are killin’ this house.” Jimmie’s face peering through frosted door, The Last Black Man in San Francisco… * Introduced to windowless workspace, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) turns on desk lamp to see if bulb is good—The Report…. * Joker: camera moving, seemingly out of curiosity, after Arthur gets into fridge… * A Hidden Life: bike messenger passing on hillside, at once everyday and portentous… * Overheads of quiet suburban intersections, the interstate, byways—The Irishman… * In Richard Jewell, the almost subliminal image of Jewell passing across or nicking the corners of crowd shots at the Olympics… * Zhao Tao moving across deep backgrounds of a changing China—Ash Is Purest White… * The urban movie outside the Kims’ window—Parasite… * Once upon a Time…in Hollywood: Cliff driving, anywhere, anytime, either car…
* Walking Le Mans track in rain the night before, Ford v Ferrari… * Midsommar: inversion of car and highway, and passage into upside-down forest… * “If we start from a position of crazy”—Marriage Story… * For Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) returns to say another “I know”…. * “Shall we?” “Yes.” High Life… * “Am I dying?” “Yes, I think you are.” 1917… * “They’re burying me. I’m cold.” Tigers Are Not Afraid… * Breath on prison windowpane—A Hidden Life… * White sand feathering edges of undersea sinkhole—Sweetheart… * Once upon a Time…in Hollywood: Sharon’s blond hair blowing as Polanski (Rafal Zawieruchka) drives through the evening to the Playboy Mansion… * “‘I don’t want any Mickey Mousin’ on these grounds.’” Quoting the dean back to him, Richard Jewell… * “Mister Rogers knows my name!” Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood… * Craig Robinson launching into an exuberant “There’s Gotta Be a Morning After”—Dolemite Is My Name…
* Comical/Horrifying shout-out to “The Interview” in The Shining? First meeting with divorce attorney Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), with daffily grinning associate (Kyle Bornheimer) as prop—Marriage Story… * The Nightingale: Arrant gunshot dusts aborigine (Baykali Ganambarr) with flour…. * Grieving woman and red windmill vanes, Domino… * Carrie Bufalino’s little gold cigarette pouch, The Irishman… * Joker: Robert De Niro’s entrance, as Murray Franklin, is compositional and sickly-TV-color match for Jerry Lewis/Jerry Langford’s in The King of Comedy….
* Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: Ben’s Harrison Ford-y gesture before taking up lightsaber against six Imperial Troopers… * Painter (Noémie Merlant) wearing green dress to study folds in mirror; exits; lower half of the lady to be painted (Adèle Haenel) steps into mirror frame. Portrait of a Lady on Fire… * Midsommar: dream image of an SUV wending through a village that might be medieval… * Pain and Glory: dream of dead friend, who looked the same, “except she was a mite transparent”… * Parasite: window a CinemaScope frame within CinemaScope frame, two families brawling and dogs run amok… * Rick’s game go at participating in the “Behind the Green Door” dance number, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood… * Jojo Rabbit: the kids’ bursting into dance at the end… * Imploring a dead man to breathe, Ad Astra… * Wounded hand plunged into rotten corpse, 1917… * Midwife’s baby touching Sophie’s face after abortion—Portrait of a Lady on Fire… * Little Women: Ecstatic, absurd, indomitable—the anarchic romp of Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in the wintry chill outside the French doors as a staid cotillon unreels within… * Greta: dancing feet and the needle… * Fingers clasped against sky, A Hidden Life… * The Irishman: glancing at the door to the murder-house kitchen, after… * Us: comic shadows of family on sand as they cross the beach; an anticipatory clue, as it turns out… * Seabird feast, The Lighthouse… * “I wouldn’t expect too much from that cat.” Alan Alda sublime in Marriage Story… * The Art of Self-Defense: dog advised “I won’t be petting you anymore.”… * Midnight sun? “Oh fuck, I don’t like that!” Will Poulter in Midsommar… * Pain and Glory: “I don’t understand why they like me in Iceland.”… * Ash Is Purest White: Bin (Fan Liao) drops his gun while dancing to “YMCA”… * Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) reassuring Frank, in The Irishman: “‘Motherfucker’ didn’t apply to you!”… * Bruce Lee (Mike Moh): “Did I say something funny?” Cliff: “Yeah, ya kinda did.” Once upon a Time…in Hollywood… * Joker: Garish color design that comes to seem normal… * Tan bamboo roof introduces the first note of color into the filmworld of Shadow…. * Little Women: autumn backdrop to Jo and Laurie breaking up…
* Claire Mathon’s night paintings of Dakar, Atlantics… * Night run by flare light through hellish ruins—1917… * The Kims running through, and eventually on, torrential rain—Parasite… * Crawl: boating into and through flooded house… * Hauling out the dory, and the door opening behind—The Lighthouse… * Woman in white at end of hall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire… * The Souvenir: when she hears about the heroin… * Closing the gate that wouldn’t close—Marriage Story… * Queen & Slim: changing cars in foggy predawn… * Argument in snowfall, Dark Waters… * Cryogenic forest in space, High Life… * Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: In re: Storm Troopers: “They fly now.” “They fly now?” “They fly now.”… * “Simmer down there, hot sauce.” Watson (Sam Rockwell) to Nadya (Nina Arianda), Richard Jewell… * Manson (Damon Herriman) leaning past Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) to see Sharon—Once upon a Time…in Hollywood… * Us: “Family” at head of drive; kids break to the sides….
* Raccoon and Hulk on back of pickup, Avengers: Endgame… * The other Whispers, The Irishman… * Enchanting, shiveringly right music cues in Once upon a Time…in Hollywood: “Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson” under the first exchange of looks between Cliff and Pussycat (Margaret Qualley); “The Circle Game” transition from Rick’s encounter with 8-year-old Trudi (Linda Butters) to Sharon happy in her car; “California Dreamin’” to set the capstone on February… * It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: closeup of “Daniel” rubbing his eyes… * Joker: Bleeding corpse and madman behind him, the midget (Leigh Gill) can’t reach the door lock…. * Clipboards for last words, A Hidden Life… * Retrieving ghost dragonfly with iPhone—Tigers Are Not Afraid… * Little Women: The second time the camera accompanies Jo downstairs to see who’s at the kitchen table…. * Uncut Gems: Actress in school play spits gold coins, eliciting an unfeigned “wow” from Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler)…. * In Fabric: clunking of pneumatic tube as fingers explore red cloth… * Face broken on rock, Midsommar… * “The pie makes it worse.”—Marriage Story… * Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) emerging from behind frosted glass after Hoffa walks away—The Irishman… * Ocean waves seen through/melding with rippled glass windows—Atlantics…
* The Souvenir: “Please tell me what I’ve done”—deception/self-deception in a mirror frame, tiny in center of suddenly large-seeming screen… * 1917: the falls… * Masterclass in filmmaking and film imagining, screenwriting and editing, performance and choreography: Spahn Ranch, Once upon a Time…in Hollywood…. * “It makes me feel like a brown belt to wear this brown belt!”—The Art of Self-Defense… * Queen & Slim: the second dance, after “I think we’re safe here”… * Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) at the window—Us… * The stillness at the core of Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco… * Bobi’s Tupperware returned—Richard Jewell… * It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Episode finished, the movement from Mister Rogers exiting the back door, passing the monitor, and sitting at the piano as the crew shuts down for the day. Then he plays that chord… * “I’m going there to see my Mother…” Soldier boys in a grove listening to a mate sing “Wayfaring Stranger,” 1917… * Adam Driver, “Being Alive,” Marriage Story…
* Address inked on Frank’s palm, The Irishman… * Sunstroke, Pain and Glory… * The last smile, Transit… * Pirandellian grace notes: the sadness of the late Bruno Ganz leaking through his A Hidden Life role as the judge who must pronounce a death sentence; in Once upon a Time…in Hollywood, Jim Stacy’s casual departure, by motorcycle, at the end of a workday; and moments earlier, Luke Perry, unexpected ghost… * At the climax of 1917, more than one charging soldier crashing crossways into Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), and vice versa… * For the last time? On Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the trapezoidal crawl preparing us to drop in medias res… * Dark Waters: Bill Camp’s utter inhabitation of a West Virginia farmer (though I knew this guy in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania)… * Midsommar: Mesmerizing tradeoff of graphic images for three-dimensional space, landscape master shots for subjective closeups, interior life for assimilation in an inscrutable epic… * Marriage Story: tying the shoelace… * “It’s what it is.” The Irishman… * One more music cue, the best for last. As benediction at the end of his Once upon a Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino summons Maurice Jarre’s theme for the John Huston-John Milius The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. That film’s epigraph: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was … it’s the way it should have been.”
Welcome 2020 with one last look back at the best releases of 2019, as seen by the Parallax View contributors and friends.
(In reverse alphabetical order by contributor)
Richard T. Jameson
1. Once upon a Time … in Hollywood
2. The Irishman
3. Marriage Story
4. Little Women
6. Richard Jewell
7. A Hidden Life
10. Pain and Glory / Parasite
A few steps behind, in alphabetical order:
1917, The Art of Self-Defense, The Dead Don’t Die, Dragged Across Concrete, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Joker, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse, The Nightingale, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it sure was a whole lot easier to put a damned bow on a franchise. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams’ return to the trilogy he kicked off with The Force Awakens, is clearly facing some monumental pressures in its quest to deliver a satisfying ending, with a litany of production woes ranging from the passing of Carrie Fisher, the dismissal of the original director, and the ire of random goons on the internet. Given all of the agita, the fact that the final movie comes off as something other than a clear victory lap is less than surprising. What’s odd, though, is how much of the narrative chaos feels self-inflicted. This is a finale that somehow registers as both flabby and rushed, expending at least as much energy in rubbing out perceived past snafus as in moving forward. I mean, it’s still better than Attack of the Clones, but the line is perilously close at times.
The history of television is full of great crime shows, from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues to Homicide: Life on the Street to The Wire and beyond, but small screen noir is a rare treasure indeed. Let’s face it, TV rarely embraced the visual style or hard-bitten, world-weary, often cynical attitude that defined noir as much as subject matter, setting, and iconography.
There are a few classic shows that embraced the sensibility, at least as much as network standards and practices allowed, and, in the past couple of decades, crime TV has allowed itself to slip into the heart of darkness of modern noir. And thanks to the voracious need for streaming content, many of these shows, past and present, are now readily available on major streaming services. ane double life” married to both Joan Fontaine and Lupino.
Amazon Prime Video
Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn (1958-1961), starring Craig Stevens as TV’s most debonair private-eye, presents a veritable digest of B-movie film noir conventions and a striking visual style on austere, often abstract sets filled with fog and smoke and lit with bold shadows cutting through a twilight haze, distilling the noir look into a stripped-down style for the low fidelity of late-1950s black-and-white broadcast TV.
Das Boot shares the same title as Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film (and is technically a sequel), but familiarity with the original is unnecessary to start the series. Also based on the novel Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim as well its sequel Die Festung, the 2019 series is set in late 1942, nine months after the film’s finale, with a new crew, a new mission, and a new vessel.
Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon), a young, inexperienced officer with a military hero father, is promoted to captain of U-162, much to the resentment of First Watch officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein) and a crew loyal to the veteran officer.
We can thank Wonder Woman for the miniseries I Am the Night. Director Patty Jenkins not only connected with her star, Chris Pine, over the project, but Pine’s interest inspired a new character in the screenplay her husband, Sam Sheridan, was writing. The result is an “inspired by a true story” six-part TV-miniseries as dark and lurid as any fictional film noir.
India Eisley stars as Pat, a mixed-race high school girl in 1965 Nevada who discovers that everything her mother Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), a single, African-American woman, told her was a lie.
Fifteen-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) is a good kid in a bad situation. His Naples neighborhood is terrorized by gangsters and his single mother is barely holding on with the onerous protection money payments. So, this smart, ambitious kid organizes his buddies into a gang, appeals to the former neighborhood Don (now an outcast for turning informant) for weapons, and takes the neighborhood back.
The Columbia Noir Collection that headlined the launch of The Criterion Channel is now gone, along with a few other choice noir classics spotlighted a few months back, but a new selection has arrived in the past couple of months.
Did you miss On Dangerous Ground (1951) on TCM’s Noir Alley last month? Criterion has a beautiful edition of the film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan. It’s part of Criterion’s “Director: Ida Lupino” spotlight (Lupino directed one scene, as Eddie Muller noted in his presentation), and starting July 24 the service will offer a new video introduction by NOIR CITY contributor Imogen Sara Smith.
When Hiroshi Shimizu released Japanese Girls at the Harbor in 1933, the veteran filmmaker had already made more than eighty-five films. When he died in 1966, he had at least 160 films to his credit in a thirty-five-year career, most of them made at Shochiku, also the home of his friend and colleague Yasujiro Ozu. In his time Shimizu was both a popular director and a respected filmmaker, but after his death he was practically forgotten, even in his home country. He was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, yet after the glorious celebration of Ozu’s centenary with a near-complete touring retrospective in Japan, Shimizu received a belated “101st Anniversary” celebration at the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival, an afterthought, showcasing a mere thirteen films.
Why? Access is certainly a factor. Only a fraction of his films survive, even fewer are available on home video, and his work is rarely revived outside of Japan. Another reason may be a reputation that stuck as a director of light entertainment after his series of children’s films that he began making in the late 1930s. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes,” wrote Alan Stanbrook after a 1988 retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre, the first to showcase the director in the West. And then there was the reductive public persona that remained long after the films receded from the public.
Kanopy is one of the best kept secrets of the streaming world. A free service available through most public and college libraries, it features a robust selection of American indies, foreign films, and educational programming. And thanks to deals with Criterion, Kino Lorber, the Cohen Film Collection, and other libraries, it has perhaps the most impressive line-up of classic and foreign cinema outside of The Criterion Channel. There is a catch, however; Kanopy restricts users to a limited number of items per month. That makes it a great supplementary service, but hardly a replacement for your subscription service(s) of choice. Given that, it is a great supplement to Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, which all favor contemporary over classic offerings. And when it comes to noir, it delivers the goods.
Let’s start with Sunset Boulevard (1950), the blackest of Hollywood’s self-portraits, starring Gloria Swanson as former silent-movie queen Norma Desmond and William Holden as a failed screenwriter with a mercenary streak. Billy Wilder makes his scabrous and acidic exposé of Hollywood’s living graveyards both ghoulish and tragic.
Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.
The great misconception of silent cinema is that it’s all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It’s the idea of “lack” they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.
That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater (“the Cathedral to Cinema,” as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations.
Sealing the Deal tends to take low priority in the movies these days, with measured resolutions and logical endpoints largely phased out in favor of open-ended tosses to various cinematic universes. Happily, though, Marvel’s gargantuan, decade-in-the-making Avengers: Endgame largely nails the dismount, blending clever callbacks and newfound cosmic hooey into a satisfyingly constructed mass of entertainment. While it improves upon the previous installment in a number of aspects—there’s much more Ant-Man, for one thing—what ultimately impresses the most is how it allows itself to wrap things up and let a number of significant curtains fall.