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Posted : 3 days, 20 hours ago on 18 August 2019 06:44 (A review of Performance (1970))

There sure is a lot swirling around in Performance, but I’m not convinced it all adds to much of anything. Performance seems more content in throwing its ideas around and not to engage with them in any meaningful way, and it all becomes a sensory overload before the end. Although, calling it the ending makes it sound like there’s a sense of finality to the story, and there’s not so much as an ellipsis upon an ellipsis like so much of the film.


Filmed in 1968, Warner Brothers shelved the film for two years before finally releasing it. They claimed the film was incoherent, which it is, before they finally released it and it seemed destined a cult film from the beginning. I suppose they thought the presence of Mick Jagger, in his screen debut, was going to be akin to Jailhouse Rock or A Hard Day’s Night but with a patina of Easy Rider on top, and boy were they wrong.


Performance begins by comparing English gangster life to the hedonism of the rock star lifestyle, then it transforms into a heady examination of the performative nature of gender, identity, and sexuality. There’s a hazy narcotic glamour, but one that’s been left to rot, and a weariness has set in. the comedown of the counter-cultural movement is written all over the sleepy eyes of Jagger’s hermitic rocker. Yet it’s his inebriated, pseudo-shamanistic charisma that proves the inferno to James Fox’s gangster-cum-moth to the flame.


One intriguing setup that gets a minor payoff is the idea that Jagger’s character has retired since he’s lost his “demon.” Enter James Fox’s gangster in hiding to his polyamorous lifestyle and regular supply of drugs. Fox disguises himself as someone else and slowly loses sight of his original identity throughout as he gets lost in the performance. He eventually subsumes Jagger and gets lost in the newly performed and drafted persona. There are layers there, but it’s the only idea that the film manages to payoff along the way.


It’s as if all of the viscera of the film, all of the frantic editing, the exploitative sex and violence, the magnetism of Jagger, wind up canceling each other out and Performance is ephemeral. It can feel more like work to get through it all, but there’s still the occasional flashes of brilliance. There’s just so much goofy, druggy 60s shit to get through to find it.

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Something Wild

Posted : 3 days, 20 hours ago on 18 August 2019 06:43 (A review of Something Wild)

John Waters described Kitten with a Whip as “a failed art film,” and I think that description can carry over to Something Wild, the obscure tale of a cinematic sexpot emoting after sexual trauma and trading one abusive relationship for another. There’s something wonderful underneath the hysteria here, and the better film emerges routinely from the questionable diversions and near madness of its choices. I mean, Something Wild opens with the proverbial “stranger in the bushes” rape scenario and continues on to the sight of Jean Stapleton getting drunk with a questionably legal boy toy before shoving Carroll Baker into an imprisonment with Ralph Meeker that softens into…love, I guess. There’s also her controlling mother (Mildred Dunnock, dialing it up way too much) that constantly cries about the dirt and ugliness of the city, symbolism about water that goes nowhere slowly, a suicide attempt that’s one of the best scenes in the film that quickly turns in on itself when you realize it’s a prelude to Meeker’s kidnapping and holding Baker captive until she agrees to marry him. Something Wild takes a serious, gripping set-up then gives one camp outburst after another before the whole thing just winds up being misshapen and weird. If anything qualifies as a failed art film, and if anything underlines how uneven an actress Baker was, it’s Something Wild, a rape melodrama-noir film that turns into a Stockholm Syndrome “love” story in the end.

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Craig's Wife

Posted : 3 days, 20 hours ago on 18 August 2019 06:43 (A review of Craig's Wife)

Thank god Dorothy Arzner made Craig’s Wife instead of a male director. It would be so easy to tip Harriet Craig into a monstrous harpy and to side with the “put upon” husband. It would only embolden the patriarchy’s vision of marriage as an imprisonment for men with women as a controlling ball and chain to endure. Arzner undercuts this routinely, and Craig’s Wife is a richer experience for it.


When we’re introduced to Harriet Craig it’s as an unknown quantity, a despotic ruler of her household with an iron fist and level of perfectionism that’s squeamish. Then we actually see her, and she gives a matter-of-fact monologue about marrying her husband as a business contract as a lack of opportunities left her with nothing else. Harriet Craig had to marry and marry well in order to make something of her life, so she deferred an interior life, friendships, or anything outside of the home and transformed herself into a beautiful possession. It’s heartbreaking to realize she’s done this, and her eventual awakening to the monster she’s made of herself through pressures from the patriarchy is the basic thrust of the film.


It helps that Rosalind Russell is Harriet Craig as her ability to play tough, nearly unsympathetic characters was one of her trademarks. Think of how she makes us love her gossipy backstabber in The Women or breaks your heart as Mama Rose in Gypsy, and now look back at Craig’s Wife for one of the earliest examples of that talent. Harriet is a woman misshapen and festering resentment imposed upon her by wider society and completely devoid of a social safety net, and it’s a tall order to ask that we slowly feel something like empathy towards her plight by the end. But we do thanks to Russell’s ability to strip away the layers of armor before our eyes as her household empties out and she’s left alone.


Arzner managed to turn a misogynistic play into, as how BFI described it, “a plea for women to become their own people rather than beautiful possessions.” She succeeds by crafting a dueling glimpse of society: one of female solidarity and friendship that is unavailable to Harriet through her own actions, and the other about how repressive and suffocating heteronormative relationships can become when men view women as mere objects to control and own. Not entirely transgressive about the subject matter, Craig’s Wife still offers a thawing ice queen a potential happy ending but crafting a friendship and sisterhood with the widow-next-door.   

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Christopher Strong

Posted : 3 days, 20 hours ago on 18 August 2019 06:42 (A review of Christopher Strong (1933))

I’m tempted to give a long, rambling preamble about the history and importance of Dorothy Arzner, pioneering queer director during the Hollywood’s studio era, and how her later reexamination by feminist and queer theorist salvaged her work from the dustbin of history. I’m refrain, but just know that Arzner’s proto-feminist leanings and lesbianism are two important foundational blocks to understanding and vibrating with her art. I find it easy to immediately tune into her films, but others may find them slightly mystifying as they engage with the female psyche and gaze and often position men as secondary objects.


It is here that we enter into Christopher Strong, a film named for Colin Clive’s English lord but is really told through the gaze of Katharine Hepburn’s aviatrix. There’s a dual story going on here: Clive’ Sir Christopher Strong is engaging in an affair with Hepburn’s daredevil, and his daughter is learning all about love’s battlefield while carrying on her own affair with a married man. If you think there’s no way this can end in anything but tragedy, then you’re absolutely correct.


Society will happily allow men a wider berth than it will ever give to women, and Hepburn’s character learns that lesson repeatedly. While Helen Chandler’s affair is allowed, not without some tut-tutting by smoothed over once a divorce happens, Clive and Hepburn’s treated as a personal afront and betrayal by everyone involved. But wasn’t Chandler hurting an innocent woman at the same time so isn’t her protestations against Hepburn somewhat hollow? I suppose it all feels different when it comes close to home.


Christopher Strong is a strange film as the “meet cute” between Clive and Hepburn is at the expanse of their presence. A party for the idle rich requires a scavenger hunt to find a woman over 21 that’s never had a love affair and a man married for five-years who has never cheated. They laugh over their mutual exploitation and humiliation and entangle their lives from there. Billie Burke’s Lady Strong can see where this is going from the start, but Hepburn’s androgynous character is a fascinating persona to Chandler, and Clive seems so innocent with her at first.


This was only Hepburn’s second film and she’s already in full bloom of her peculiarities – her tomboyish physicality, her angular masculinity, her general sense of queerness, both in her behavior and in her sexuality. It’s a stunning early performance from the neophyte film actress as she must first emerge as a daring adventuress before slowly peeling back to reveal the wounded heart underneath it all. She’s fetching in her aviator outfits and looks lovely in a moth costume for a ball scene, even if that outfit too heavily underscores her eventual fate.


Christopher Strong is a fascinating steppingstone in Hepburn’s career where she plays the “other woman” for the only time and begins her independent modern woman persona at the same time. Arzner gives her plenty of leeway to demonstrate her innate qualities and talents while populating the film with several capable supporting players. Their work together is a lovely melodrama that feels more modern than several of its contemporaries, and distinctly feminine in its outlook.

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Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 9 August 2019 09:49 (A review of Mother)

Poignant and absurd in equal measure, Albert Brooks taps into the conflicted push-and-pull at the heart of parent/child relationships. Vulnerable, pleading, and anxious in an equilibrium that’s daring to watch, Mother finds Brooks going full Oedipal complex as a man reexamining his life choices, mainly his unlucky love life, through the prism of his mother. He moves back in with her and launches “The Experiment,” essentially trying to find the source of her passive-aggressive treatment of him and how it’s wormed its way into his life by moving back in with her.


Before you assume “that sounds infantilism and a bit like a hoary sitcom,” just remember that this is Albert Brooks, so the jokes come about in circular ways and the destinations of scenes aren’t immediately obvious. Brooks often keeps his camera setups simplistic and watches as two characters in medium shots talk at each other yet never seem to grow closer together. That medium shot begins to feel like CinemaScope after a while.


It also helps that the titular mother is played by Debbie Reynolds, one of cinema’s original virginal nice girls that contained more spunk and vinegar than the sugary exterior let on. Her performance is a transcendent thing, a creation of sweet, polite aggression that almost makes you wonder if she knows what she’s doing at the time. She appears so daffy at first that you don’t realize just how keen a mind is hidden underneath it all. It’s a mesmerizing piece of work from an undervalued actress.


Think of the scene where she tries to feed him food that’s been kept in her freezer since, I don’t know, 1987? She seems so nurturing and lovable at first, a little quirky but don’t we all view our parents as being slightly quirky after a certain age, that we barely notice the deeper truth going on here. She’s trying to nurture him with frozen objects, and this is a scene that examines the larger truth about improper parenting reflecting into our adult lives in various ways. Reynolds is also sly and gifted a comedienne that we barely notice she’s tasked with helping set-up a huge symbolic microcosm of the film’s wider thesis.


That’s the great thing about Mother – there’s a certain wry knowingness to the complexity of family dynamics that springs forth from the humor. It’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, but it is funny for its precision and relatability. Sure, the ending is a little bit too neat and tidy, but that’s no reason to write it off. There are many uncomfortable truths in Mother, and just as many humorous bits.   

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Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 9 August 2019 09:49 (A review of Always (1989))

Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss have both mentioned a deep love and appreciation for 1944’s A Guy Named Joe and discussed remaking it as far back as 1975’s Jaws. A Guy Named Joe is one of those heavily romantic studio era films that easily moved into magical realism territory. You buy into silvery images of Spencer Tracy as a helpless, benevolent angel mentoring his replacement (Van Johnson) in both love (with Irene Dunne) and employment (a fighter pilot) because so many of those movies have an artifice that’s expertly weaved into their DNA.


Remaking them is a tough prospect. Spielberg has the right touch of sentimentality, sometimes too much, but he doesn’t have the right touch of magical realism. His films are often filled with wonder, like Close Encounter of the Third Kind’s mothership reveal or Jurassic Park’s first glimpses of dinosaurs, but he can’t quite get over a hump into pure fantastical imagery here. His fantasy is too grounded, too thin for its running time, and only springs to life when Audrey Hepburn graces it with her eternally sublime image.


Always replaces WWII with the Pacific Northwest and fighting forest fires. Tracy, Dunne and Johnson are replaced with Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and Brad Johnson. Brad is no Van, though, and his pretty face is about all he has going for him throwing many scenes of him acting opposite Dreyfuss, Hunter and John Goodman into uneven playing fields where they’re trying to prop up his weakness. In fact, Goodman slowly steals the movie out from everyone’s nose by getting the chance to tap into his inner S. Z. Sakall or similar character actor from the era.


So much of Always says aloud what it should show with a moment of quiet contemplation or reaction shots from its talented actors. The smartest casting choice was Hepburn as an angel, which is a brilliant piece of casting to personality. The small handful of scenes with her speak and feel more deeply than the rest precisely because she brings so much knowledge to the role by knowing when to react silently. A small, tender smile and supportive hand gesture from her reverberations in your gut more than the supposed emotional torment of watching Dreyfuss impotently view Hunter and Johnson woo each other.  


And that’s the major problem with Always – you don’t invest much into the central premise, so the conflict remains inert. The daredevilry of the fighter pilots seems foolhardy and like it’s asking for trouble given the context, and the dialog feels like it was time displaced. It’s not quite remade enough from its 40s origins, and only witnessing a cinematic legend bidding us farewell is justifiable cause to watch Always.

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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 9 August 2019 09:49 (A review of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice)

The late 60s were a confusing, unmooring time for everyone, especially those expositing the virtues of total honesty and “free love.” Enter Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a comedy not so much about wife-swapping as it is about the confusion of the era of its making. “Free love” was never truly free and requiring everyone to get over their sexual hang-ups requires intense psychological scrutiny and self-knowledge and not platitudes from a woo-woo retreat for the monied liberal set. This film comes armed with sage, crystals, and a “Don’t worry, be happy” bumper sticker.


Is it a satire? Possibly, it certainly doesn’t play everything entirely straight as much of Natalie Wood and Robert Culp’s performances seem done with invisible quotes lurking around them. They’re so earnest and eager to impart their idealized self-actualization that they don’t seem to know that spouting off blunt truths is not always the best policy. They’re more concerned with virtue signaling and twisting their close friends into their newly created images that they seem to have missed that they’re still just as confused and hung-up as they were before, but they’ve got New Age-y platitudes now!


Wood and Culp go away to one of those Southern Californian retreats that’s all about “finding the light within” or “returning to love” or some other feel good nonsense that asks us to express an aggressive vulnerability and honesty that just makes everyone else uncomfortable. You know the types; they speak of dark and light forces at play and how if we manifest love hard enough everything will suddenly untwist itself into peace and harmony. Lovely bit of fairy tale logic there, but it takes more hard work than that to get proactive change in society.    


Anyway, they return from the retreat demanding complete honesty with their best friends, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. Gould and Cannon give the best performances in the film. Gould’s shaggy personality type, always hilarious especially when harried, provides a nice counterpoint to Culp’s handsome, aging wannabe swinger. Wood’s wide eyes contain hidden depths (don’t they always?) that contradict the words she’s often speaking or highlight them depending on the mood. Cannon’s flinty, conservative character is often the voice of reason, and she’s marvelous in the role. Her best scene is not the oft-mentioned climatic bluff calling, but an early therapy session where her defensiveness and sexual hang-ups commingle.

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Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 9 August 2019 09:48 (A review of Uptight)

More fascinating as thought experiment than it is satisfying as finished film, Uptight is still a complicated, contradictory experience that’s worth the effort. How often do you come across something that’s an update of classic John Ford movie, this time substituting Irish revolutionaries for a Black Panthers-like group, co-written by Ruby Dee, starring many of the best black artists of the era, and directed by Jules Dassin, of all people, that explored the traumatized psyche of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination? Exactly, this is a once in a lifetime confluence of talents and ideas that’s fascination outweighs its demerits.


The strangeness of Uptight’s existence doesn’t stop at its assembly of talent in front and behind the camera, but at the simple fact that a major studio released something so aggressively political. Paramount financed and produced Uptight right before the onslaught of black cinema known as blacksploitation, and while Uptight has relatively little in common with many of those films, there’s still the rage of the ghetto, the wariness of oppressed, and an unapologetic blackness that draws a straight line between what this film does and what that movement was expressing.


Yet Dassin’s artistic impulses feel at odds with the story he’s trying to tell. There’s a grit and truth in the script that his impressionistic camera can’t pull off. His bold color palette and arty compositions often turn the politics into moot points as if the imagery, at times too melodramatic, is more important than the words and performances from the likes of Dee, Roscoe Lee Brown, Juanita Moore, and Julian Mayfield. This was a film that longed for more cinematic realism and less for filmic poetry.


Same goes for the disparate tones. His informer, Mayfield, is at times played for too clownish and pitiable an alcoholic figure to really register as a tragedy waiting to happen, and his revolutionaries are too cool, smart, and direct to balance out some of the more parodic scenes of the informer. However, there’s one perfect scene in which everything is working in perfect synchronicity. Mayfield wanders into the funeral gathering for the man his informing got killed, and his mixture of confusion and grief is palpable. The various attendees at the wake stare down at him as if vengeful judge and jury perplexed by his erratic behavior.


It is in these tiny moments that Uptight becomes good enough and worthy enough to seek out. I’ll let Roger Ebert have the final say about it: “There’s no backsliding toward a conciliatory moderate conclusion. The passions and beliefs of the black militants are presented head-on, with little in the way of comfort for white liberals. White racists, I guess, will be horrified beyond measure. Good for them.”

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Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 9 August 2019 09:48 (A review of Moonrise)

The cycle of violence becomes an ever-widening gyre in Frank Borzage’s Moonrise. Less a violent story than a story about violence, and there is a difference between the two, where each successive action strengths that cycle of violence and chaos. The aftereffects of a parent’s death by capital punishment lead to that child’s stunted adulthood and barely concealed urges for retribution and score settling.


Borzage builds his reality on clearly artificial sets that underscore the suffocating ties that bind this society together. Swamps and ponds aren’t merely these things but haunted places to bury secrets or to seek refuge from the world. This is after all a cinematic world that’s recognizably like our own but filled with secretive places that become near holy in their emotional power within the narrative context. An abandoned mansion becomes a love chamber, a Ferris wheel takes on the same tenor of a confessional, and a shed in the swamp becomes a place where the cycle of violence dissipates into empathy and forgiveness.


Moonrise takes the pieces of noir and does something humanistic and warmly tender with them instead of the gritty black hats versus white hats with a gray hat in the middle of it all. Here is the story of a man who lost his father to capital punishment, only to have the sins of the father (and his death) used against him by childhood bullies and polite society to ostracize him further. When he finally snaps and murders his tormentor in an act that’s complicated, it’s not quite self-defense but it’s also not premeditated or a passionate flareup, the rest of the narrative finds him committing more acts of paranoia and violence to try and cover the first one up. Cause and effect are on naked display, and Borzage’s anti-hero is seeking spiritual forgiveness and a way to move beyond his traumas.


Borzage’s heavy use of symbolism and heightened romanticism is nearly exotic as it has gone so far out of vogue with the pervading ‘realism’ or blunt-force delivery of modern cinema. The line between a trapped racoon and the anti-hero of the film blur together until you’d be forgiven for mistaking one’s fateful capture for the other. But that’s not the only place where Moonrise visually tells or reveals its sentimentality instead of spouting it, like the near baptism of a rain scene or the ways in which that rain and memory become the same storm.


Occupying some neverwhere between Borzage’s typical romanticism and film noir’s inky shadows, Moonrise is a fascinating oddity. I suppose the closest other near parable/fairy tale-like noir-esque film like it would be The Night of the Hunter, another film that spliced genres together and provides a near dream-like, highly atmospheric world in which its story unfurls. Rarely has watching a man’s moral compass lose of true north been so lyrical, haunting, beautiful, and empathetic at it is under Borzage’s sympathetic lens.  

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Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 2 August 2019 09:30 (A review of Gaslight)

Time to demonstrate my gay card as I speak positively over Gaslight’s two hours of diva in full martyrdom! George Cukor’s gothic melodrama about a naïve young wife being slowly driven insane by her gold-digging husband is a lot of fun. It’s as atmospherically cluttered and inky as a Universal Monsters film and as well-acted as any of his heralded “women’s pictures” from the era. Of course, having actors as great as Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Angela Lansbury in major roles doesn’t hurt, either.


Sure, time has dulled some of the psychological terror that comes with watching Ingrid Bergman’s Victorian wife slowly losing grip on sanity, but there’s still plenty of studio-era visual poetry and lyrical acting gestures on display. The very artifice of a film like Gaslight is its own pleasurable reward. We’re not looking into complex insight here but for a hissable villain, here embodied by a complex Boyer, and a brittle woman on the verge of hysteria with colorful supporting parts, especially Lansbury as a slutty Cockney chambermaid and Dame May Whitty as a nosy neighbor.


There isn’t much in the way of mystery as Boyer’s duplicitous nature is practically spelled out from the get-go, but there is the pleasure of watching the normally stolid Bergman begin to deteriorate mentally and emotionally as up becomes down and nothing is quite what it appears. Gaslight is a tightly wound costume drama with a dash of complex horror and a healthy dose of atmosphere to separate it from the pack. It works as its evenly paced unraveling corresponds with Bergman’s.


If anything, Gaslight’s crumbling martyr is a portrait of the danger women face both inside and outside the home. Bergman’s character sought tranquility and stability in a life that’s been marred by scandal as her aunt was killed in this very house when she was a child, and now she’s trapped in an abusive marriage. If she’s unsafe in her marriage, and by extension for the time period her entire life, then she is unsafe any and everywhere. There’s seemingly no reprieve from the ominous shadows, the flickering lights, or the isolation for this woman. How many others can say the same?    

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